Dark Places


The first Slate knew that anything was wrong was the slight popping noise he heard at his feet. It wasn't enough to concern him, but it was enough to puzzle him. He glanced at his wife Lana, strapped safely into the seat beside him. She squeezed his hand. “I'm fine”, she said. “Just because I get nervous about flying sometimes doesn't mean I'm going to panic at every strange noise I hear”.

“I know”, he reassured, and squeezed back. “And we did make the right choice. No more fighting—“

“No more gambling debts”, she answered, somewhat accusingly. Slate said nothing.

Again the popping sound. And now his ears started to hurt. He looked around, trying not to let his nervousness show. He was a big man, and could do well for himself in a fight, but this was something unknown. He got up out of his seat, hugging Lana as he passed her. “I'm just gonna go make sure everything's all right”, he told her.

He made his way to the cockpit. Hawkeye, his brother chatted amiably to the nine year old girl in the co-pilot's chair. “…Ah no, the original was way better than the remake”, Hawkeye was saying.

“The book or the movie?”, the girl replied. Smart kid, Slate thought. That was Jade, Hawkeye's daughter.

Hawkeye answered, trying to speak into the comm unit at the same time. “The movie. John, I need you the cockpit. Preferably now”. His voice remained calm, but Slate sensed an edge of concern.

“Problem?”, Slate asked.

“Ah, we're losing pressure”, Hawkeye answered.

Slate nodded. That would explain the pain in his ears. “I heard a popping noise. Came from the cargo bay. Could be we got hit by a micro-meteorite, holed the ship?”

“Unlikely”, Hawkeye answered. “The Greg Edmonson is designed to take most things space can throw at you. Most long range ships are”. He again pounded the comm, almost shouting into it this time, though he kept his voice even throughout. “John, I need you in here”.

“Is it dangerous?”, Slate asked.

Jade answered for him. “Of course not. My Dad is the best pilot in the 'verse”. He had to admire the girl's pure optimism.

Ignoring his daughter, Hawkeye answered: “I've sealed the bulkheads. We're repressurizing now. Should be back to normal in a couple of minutes”. To his daughter, he said “Honey, why don't you go and sit with Mommy?”

“I like it here”, she retorted.

“I know you do, honey, but when John gets here, he's going to want his seat back. Slate, would you take her back to the passenger deck for me? Make sure she gets there?”

“Sure thing”, Slate replied, almost without thinking. To the girl, he said, “Come on Hon. Let's find your Mommy”. He held out his hand. Reluctantly, she took it, and acquiesced as Slate walked her back to the passenger deck where he had left Lana, and presumably where he would find Alison, Hawkeye's wife. He was just about to enter the large room when something caught his eye. He saw it before he heard it — a tear appearing in the wall of the ship. At first, it looked like a flower opening up in the ship's side, but the petals were sheets of metal, and the center was the blackness of space. Then he felt it. He felt it through his bones. He felt the wind pick up, and watched as, seemingly in slow motion, cushions, chairs, and other light furnishings were blown into space. Then the ship tore in two, and he saw Lana swept into the black, still strapped to her seat as the entire row detached itself from the floor and disappeared toward the half of the ship that was no longer there. He tried to scream her name, but no words came out. He saw Jade fly through the air towards the gaping hole, and grabbed her leg in mid-flight. Then he realized that he was being dragged too, and held onto the door jamb for dear life, pulling himself and his charge back into the corridor. He couldn't breathe. Something metal pierced his leg; he didn't even have time to figure out what it was, but he yelped in pain. As the door separating him from what was once the passenger compartment started to close, he saw something which sent an even greater chill through his bones. Through the tear he saw the clear outline of a spacecraft — a spacecraft with guns. This was no accident. They were being fired upon.

The door closed and pressure returned, but Slate knew he didn't have much time. He ran into the first door he encountered, dragging the screaming girl behind him like a rag doll. The door led into the lifeboat hanger. He acted without thinking and virtually threw the girl into the lifeboat, jumping in, dragging one useless leg behind him, and sealing the door. But he did not press the launch button. Instead, he switched everything off. He wanted to run, but his instincts said hide, and he trusted those instincts.

He lost count of the number of bangs and crashes he lived through. He knew that he must have launched the lifeboat at some point, but he couldn't remember even that. He did remember shutting down the lifeboat's power altogether, to the point of pulling the wires from the batteries. Through the window, he saw the explosion, and then felt the shockwave, as the Greg Edmonson was vaporized. With no heating, his breath formed clouds before his face as he exhaled. And then it was dark. He looked and looked, trying to see the ship which had fired upon them, which had killed his wife; his brother; his brother's wife. Then he saw it — the unmistakable outline of an Alliance military fighter, glinting in the distant sunlight. Why?, he thought. That was the part he couldn't understand — Why?

He waited. He waited a long time, hugging his niece to his body like she was the most precious thing in the 'verse. When, finally, he was sure that it was safe to do so, he reconnected the battery and switched on the heating. Some considerable time later, he activated the SOS.

The bow of the Lana crashed down onto the ocean surface, sending a plume of spray into Slate's face. He found it refreshing, and braced himself for the inevitable next wave. This, he reflected, was true freedom. There was nothing like it.

“You think we're gonna get lucky today?” a voice in his ear made itself heard over the crashing of the waves. This was Hagar, a local man who was one of the largest, most muscled individuals Slate had ever encountered. In the eleven years since Slate had known him, Hagar had never once shown anything but trust and loyalty to Slate, though quite why was anybody's guess. Slate was certain he didn't deserve it.

“Damn straight we're gonna get lucky”, Slate answered, his voice a gruff, serious monotone. “We don't get lucky, the town don't eat”. His wasn't the only fishing boat in these parts, but it wasn't far off the truth. The folk of Herren Island were almost entirely dependent on the sea. Trouble was, most of what they caught was exported to raise taxes for the Alliance, and the surplus never seemed quite enough.

Someone yelled something. It was hard to hear over the crashing of the waves. “What?”, Slate yelled back. He heard the voice more clearly this time, a woman's voice, emanating from the cabin door:

“Got a blip!”, the woman called. He nodded to Hagar — time to go inside.

Once inside the small bridge, Slate saw immediately what had grabbed the woman's attention. He, too, saw the blip on the sonar screen. It was a large fish, possibly a ray. “Nice work, Merissa”, he told her. “Oh, happy day. Let's get ourselves a fish supper”. He took the boat off autopilot and turned the ornate steering wheel in the direction indicated by the blip.

The Lana, it had to be said, was a magnificent boat, and all the more magnificent because the islanders had built it, largely to Slate's design. As he turned the wheel, powered couplings turned the large sails to just the right direction to catch the wind and send the boat where it needed to go. A small onboard computer took care of all the tacking and other navigational trickery required, but these were people of the sea, and could certainly have managed without it.

“You wanna man the harpoon?”, he asked Hagar.

Merissa cut in. “My sighting”, she objected, “my kill”.

“My boat, my fish”, he told her. “You spear it, but if it gets away, you don't get no second chance”.

“Ain't no way this mother is gettin' away, Boss”, she told him. “Don't you worry none. We'll all be eatin' steak tonight”. They closed in on the blip. Merissa headed onto the deck and made for the harpoon.

Hagar grinned. “Ah, that Merissa”, he said. “You either love her or you hate her. Every time I think I got her sussed, she does something takes me by surprise”.

“I don't doubt that”, Slate agreed. “So which is it? Love or hate?” Hagar didn't answer the question. He merely laughed.

As they approached the area, Slate lowered the sail and the boat slowed to drift on the current. It didn't take long. The large manta ray slid gracefully under the boat, blissfully unaware of the danger it was in. Merissa took her time taking aim. This fish wasn't going anywhere. When she was sure of her aim, she pulled the firing lever and a streak of barbed metal plunged into the water trailing steel cable to mark its path as it broke the surface and skewered the doomed creature. It was a perfect hit. The ray swam off in panic, but the harpoon was deeply embedded into its flesh, and it dragged cable as it fled. Merissa played out the slack expertly, waiting for the fish to exhaust itself. It struggled once more as gave its all in a last ditch attempt at survival, but in the end, there could only be one outcome.

The entire crew cheered as the ray was reeled in. It took four burly men, including Slate and Hagar, to wind in the cable by degrees as the fish alternately struggled and relaxed, getting weaker at every turn. Finally the giant creature was on deck for just a moment before it fell, flapping, into the hold. It must have been a good ten feet across. They had indeed been lucky.

Slate slapped Merissa on the back. “Good work”, he told her. “Crew, let's get ourselves home”.

There was a commotion in the harbor as the Lana pulled into its berth. Slate wasted no time in attaching the boat's ropes to its moorings, but even before he had finished tying off, a friendly voice greeted him from behind. “Slate, my old sea dog. Someone I want you to meet”.

He turned around, and couldn't have been more surprised at what he saw. He had recognized Gruvick's voice, of course, and from Gruvick's words he expected to see someone with him, but he hadn't been prepared to be staring into the face of a vision of loveliness such as this. The woman who stood before him was tall and beautiful — and clearly not an islander. In fact, he doubted she was even from this world. She was dressed in smart, expensive clothing. There was not a hair out of place. She offered a handshake, and as he took it, he noticed that her hands were soft, like she'd never done a day's work in her life. “Mister Slater? I'm Elizabeth. Elizabeth Adams.”

“Miss Adams”, he greeted, releasing the handshake. “Like to stay and talk, but as you can see I'm kinda busy right now”.

Gruvick interjected, cheerily: “She wants a tour of your boat”.

Slate realized he was staring at her, and quickly turned his gaze to Gruvick. “She what?”, he asked, nonplussed.

“I hear you had a good day”, Gruvick beamed. “Merissa told me she'd caught a manta”.

“I think she meant to say we'd caught a mantra”, he quickly interjected.

Gruvick continued unabated, “So don't you worry none about your catch. I'll have a dozen townsfolk butcher and barbecue it before you can say ‘thank you very much, Gruvick, you're welcome’“.

Gruvick's rambunctious manner always amused Slate, but to be honest, he was more taken aback by the woman who stood beside him. To the woman, he said: “Did I hear you say you wanted a tour of my boat? Why? It's just a plain old fishing boat”.

“I want more than that”, she smiled. Was there a double meaning in that sentence, or was that simply Slate's wild imaginings? “Come. Let me buy you a drink. We can talk”.

He looked at Gruvick, and then at Hagar behind him. Hagar shrugged. Gruvick was grinning from ear to ear, which was his normal way of going about the world. Slate shrugged too. What the hell, he figured, this is turning out to be an interesting day. Across the road was the aptly named Harbor Saloon. He beckoned her toward it. “Pretty lady wants to buy me a drink, who am I to argue?”, he said. She followed his lead. En route, he added “And don't go calling me 'Mister Slater'. Friends call me Slate, and if you ain't my friend, I'd be plumb disappointed”.

“Slate”, she echoed, adding “Then you must call me Elizabeth”.

They walked into the saloon.

It didn't take Slate long to realize that the bar was full of strangers, and that was more unusual than he cared to think about. In fact, there were only two islanders in the bar altogether: Mike Turner and Li Chow. And all of the newcomers seemed to know the woman, this mysterious Elizabeth Adams.

He took a seat, then waited while the newcomer went to the bar and returned with two large whiskey straights — one for him, and one for herself. He took a sip, mildly surprised, but becoming less surprised by the minute. This was good stuff: fine Bernadette whiskey — expensive Bernadette whiskey — none of your mass-produced Blue Sun every-bottle-the-same stuff, this. This whiskey had character.

“All right”, he told her. “You've got me intrigued. We don't get too many strangers here on this rock, most certainly not dozens at a time with money to spare. So you tell me: what's the deal?”

“I make documentaries”, she told him. “For the Cortex. This is my film crew”.

“That being true, why here? Why this planet? And why me?”

“All of the worlds that have been terraformed are unique in their own ways”, she said. “Newhall has no large continents, just chains of islands. Most of the settlers on this world exploit the planet's major commodity — water — something in scarce supply in other parts of the 'verse. Others farm sea plants for trade. You don't. You fish”.

“Like to feel the ocean 'neath my feet”, Slate explained. “Don't wanna work in no factory, nor in no farm. Ain't nothin' like being free. 'Sides — fishing ain't exactly uncommon on this world”.

“Indeed, but you are an outsider yourself, are you not?”

“Been here ten years, maybe more. I don't keep track no more. May have been an outsider once, but this I call home now”.

“I'm not disputing that. What I'm saying, Mister… I mean, Slate, is, you've made a life here. Against all the odds, you came to this border world with almost nothing, built yourself the best boat on the island, and created something special — a life, a home. You've made something of yourself. You've actually made a success of emigrating to the rim”.

Slate saw where this was going. “Oh I get it”, he concluded. “You're looking for a success story, so you can tell all the folks back at the core how great it is to settle on the new worlds, and you found me”.

“Exactly. But more than that”.

But Slate wasn't interested in being interrupted at this point. He continued: “But what you're really doing is recruiting labor for the border industries. Alliance needs workers. You paint a rosy picture, so all the good folk who aren't quite as rich as you get suckered into spending the rest of their lives grafting. And I ain't exactly much better off myself. Sure, I got my own fishing boat, but I doubt I'll be getting off of this rock any time soon”.

“If you're not interested—“

“I didn't say I weren't interested”, he pointed out. Choosing his words carefully, he added, “There's a price”.

“All I want is for you to take me and a small film crew out on one of your fishing excursions. You catch something big, we film it. You talk about how you started with nothing, built your boat, and made a life. That's it. You'll be well compensated. If money is—“

He interrupted again. “Not money”. He told her. “I said there's a price. But the price ain't money”.

Her eyebrows raised. “Now you've got me intrigued”, she admitted.

Slate downed the rest of his whiskey, then paused for just a moment before speaking. “I got me a niece”, he told her. “She's my only living relative, and the only damn thing I care about in this hellhole of a 'verse. Only problem is, she's sick, and there ain't no doctors here can help her one bit. We got one doctor in Tamasin – name of Lewis. But most he was ever able to do was keep here alive. You got doctors on that fancy spaceship of yours you arrived in? Course you have. The deal is, you find out what's wrong with her, find out what medicine she needs, and make sure she gets it. That's the price. You do that, and I will make your propaganda movie for you with icing and sugar on the top”.

Momentarily lost for words, Elizabeth looked nonplussed. “I'm not a doctor”, she said.

“Never said you were”, he conceded. Taking his time, he explained: “I ain't asking the impossible. You got doctors? Then examine her, that's all. If you can't find out what's wrong, well, then you will have done your best. But if you can… Hell, even the chance makes it worth it”.

Elizabeth was suddenly unsure, and it showed in her eyes. She didn't want to be bringing this man false hope. Then she decided to see where this would lead. “All right”, she asked, “what's wrong with her?”

Slate entered Jade's room and looked down upon her sleeping form. She looked so peaceful. And yet, that was exactly the problem. Eleven years ago, by the time their SOS had finally been answered, Jade had already fallen into some kind of coma. She had spent the first four years after that in deep sleep, waking for only a few minutes each day, if at all. Even keeping her alive had been difficult back then. Doctor Lewis in Tamasin called it “sleeping sickness”, but that wasn't a diagnosis, it was just a name for something he didn't understand. But as the months and years passed, her periods of wakefulness had slowly increased. Eleven years on, she was up to six hours of wakefulness a day, enough to lead an almost normal life. But still, nobody knew exactly what was wrong with her. She did not remember the attack on the Greg Edmonson. She did not remember anything before that date, except fleetingly in dreams and nightmares. The only parent she knew was Slate, her uncle; the only home she knew was The Isle of Herren, Newhall.

And yet, in many ways it had been the perfect place to grow up and recuperate. The island of Herren was dominated by a single town, simply called Herren, and the townsfolk were as amiable as any you could meet. Simple folk, to be sure, but that simplicity may have been exactly what Slate and his niece had needed. It had been a hard life, but a rewarding one. And Slate had more than succeeded. In addition to raising a sick child, he had earned respect as a skilled craftsman and fisher. Here, he was somebody. He had never been somebody before. Elizabeth Adams had been correct about one thing — that Slate had indeed made something out of nothing — but she didn't know the whole story, and he wasn't about to tell her. And his success certainly had nothing to do with the Alliance resettlement program!

“Hey, little one”, he spoke gently, brushing aside a wisp of hair from her eyes, which she opened at the sound of his voice.

“Slate”, she said, sleepily, pushing herself to an upright position. “What's up?”

“Nothing's up. Might even be good news. Got some fancy strangers in town. Got a doctor with 'em. Reckon they might be able to give you something keep you awake longer”.

She didn't take long to process this information; she was still a smart kid. “We can't afford to pay no fancy doctors”, she told him.

“We can this time”, he affirmed. “All they want from me is a ride on my boat”.

“ But—“

“It's a long story, but there'll be plenty of time to tell it later. Come on. Get yourself up. We got things to do”.

“So what happened to her?”, Elizabeth asked. She and Slate sat in the editing room of Elizabeth's ship, while the girl underwent her barrage of tests in the nearby medical ward. Of course, at twenty one years of age, she was hardly a girl, but Slate still thought of her as such.

“Truth is, nobody knows”, Slate answered.

“So what does she think happened to her?”, Elizabeth persisted.

Slate smirked. “She has invented her own little tales to account for what's been done. Don't make 'em true. She'll tell you we was attacked by Reavers. It's the only thing that makes sense to her”.

“Isn't she a bit old still to believe in Reavers?”

“Maybe. But that poor kid has spent most of her life asleep — leastways since she was nine years old. She ain't growed up at quite the same speed as other folk. 'Sides, who says Reavers ain't real? For all I know, she might be right”.

“Reavers?”, queried Elizabeth. “Like vampires, or zombies? You're telling me you actually believe in them?”

“For truth I don't know what to believe”, he explained, “but I know what I hear. Story is that men reached the edge of the system, and saw there was no place to go. For whatever reason, they went madder than moonbrains, turned savage. They rape. They kill. They will eat your body and they will decorate their ships with your bones. And they never, ever leave survivors”. He let that hang for a moment.

Elizabeth was clearly not convinced. “Stories”, she assured. “Trust me, I'm a reporter. I've been everywhere. If Reavers were anything more than a figment of someone's wild imagination, I would know about it. Reavers are no more real than…“, she struggled for an example, “…than sea monsters”.

“Sea monsters are real”, Slate chided. “You spend as much time on the ocean as I do, you'll know there are some mighty strange things out there in the depths”.

“Save it for the tourists, Slate”. He didn't mention that Newhall wasn't exactly known for its tourist trade. Still, he did enjoy swapping stories with visitors, and it had never mattered to him greatly whether or not they were true. “Let me tell you how I know there are no such things as sea monsters”, she offered.

“I'm listening”.

Patiently, she explained, as if to a child, “This solar system has dozens of planets, and hundreds of moons, but every single one of them was a dead rock before we humans terraformed it. We changed the gravity of those worlds, the lengths of their days, their air. We did this to make them all resemble Earth-that-Was as closely as we could manage. And then, and only then, did we seed those worlds with life”.

“Newhall had an ocean 'fore it was terraformed”, Slate countered.

“Yes it did”, Elizabeth agreed, “but it was still a dead rock covered in a dead ocean. Humans brought that ocean to life. We did that by filling it full of Earthlife. And I can assure you that when we seeded Newhall, we did not seed it with one single sea monster — let alone a breeding pair”.

“Guess I can't fool you”, Slate conceded. “But hey – you're a fine one to talk. You make up stories. Get paid to do it and all”. He looked around at the screens around him. They depicted scenes from Herren's small streets. “You setting up cameras in the town now?”, he asked.

“The Finest technology that Yoshida-Kendall has to offer”, she acknowledged. “We want to record it all for the documentary”.

“Fabricate it, more like. But I ain't here to argue over whose tales are more fanciful. All I'm saying is, Reavers could be real”.

“Only idiots and small children could possibly believe such nonsense”, she said, reproachfully. That stopped Slate in his tracks.

“Well”, he said finally, “Maybe it is a little fanciful. But I ain't closing my mind just yet, on account of the fact that I ain't got no better explanation for what happened to me and my kid. We was shot, and for no good reason”.

He didn't tell her about the Alliance ship. In fact, there were a lot of things he didn't tell her. He'd made it sound like the ship which had been attacked was one of the ships disembarking for Newhall, and that he had been on it by chance. And why not? This wasn't going to be part of the documentary she wanted to make. The good folk of the Alliance didn't want to hear about settlers' ships being attacked. They only wanted to hear about the good life, and that's all they would choose to hear even if he shouted the bad at the top of his voice. And that story could wait until after his niece had had her examination.

As if on cue, Jade entered the room, clutching her arm. A slim woman followed behind her. This, Slate knew, was Cassandra Briggs, the doctor who traveled with Elizabeth and her crew. “I just took a few blood samples”, the doctor explained. “I won't know anything until tomorrow”.

Elizabeth gripped Slate's hand, just fleetingly, while she stood up and made her way to the exit. “Then I will see you again tomorrow, Slate, and you can take me out to sea”.

So here he was, on the ocean once more, the one place where, ordinarily, he felt truly free. But he didn't feel free today. Today, his crew was a skeleton crew. Most of his regular helpers had stayed behind, partly because this wasn't a serious expedition, it was just a sham, and partly to make room for Elizabeth and her film crew. On top of that, Slate felt a bizarre obligation to “perform”, to succeed in front of the cameras. Oh, Elizabeth had assured him that catching anything was not important. They could always edit in stock footage, and they had the capture they took a couple of days ago, of the Lana's arriving home with a large manta ray. Nonetheless, Slate still felt the pressure. He didn't want this to be a fake. And to cap it all, he now had some vague hope of a diagnosis for his niece. That was something he wanted to push to the back of his mind. He had had his share of false hopes before, and did not want again to experience the desolating, crushing feeling he always got when those hopes turned out to be false. So he stood on deck, feeling the wind against his face, and stared out to the distant horizon.

Elizabeth was beside him. “Are you ready to talk to the cameras?”, she asked.

“Guess I am”, he said. “Ready as I'll ever be in any case”.

“Let's go inside”, she suggested, drawing her coat around herself tightly.

It was certainly warmer inside the small cabin which passed for a bridge. The bridge seemed ostentatious for this world, Elizabeth noted. The paneling looked like oak or mahogany: expensive items. She knew that there were trees on this world, but there was no lumber industry of which to speak, and she doubted that all of that finishing work had been done on Newhall.

“We're recording”, she told him, then launched straight into: “I'm talking with Mister Harry Slater, known to his friends as 'Slate', here on the border world of Newhall. Slate is the captain of this fishing boat on which we are standing, and the reason we're on a fishing boat is because Newhall is a very watery world. Fishing is one of the main occupations of the inhabitants here. Slate is one of the many settlers on this world. He came here eleven years ago as part of the Alliance resettlement program”. She turned and addressed Slate directly. “So Slate, what is life like here on Newhall?”

Slate smiled a false smile. He wasn't sure he liked being called by his more familiar name while on camera, but he had made a deal, and he was going to stick to it. That said, he didn't actually have to lie, he merely had to tell the parts of his story that she wanted to hear. He said: “I live free. I'm the captain of my own boat. I have a community of people around me who care about me. I couldn't ask for a better life”.

“This is certainly a fine boat”, she attested. “But surely, not every settler could afford a boat like this?”

“Well, you know, I had nothing to my name when I first got here”, he told her, and implicitly, the unseen audience who would be watching her documentary. “Spent several years just doing odd jobs for folk, and looking after my little girl. Then I decided I needed a project to keep me occupied, so I set about designing this boat. Got a few of the townsfolk to help me build it”.

“You've had experience designing boats before?”

“Worked as a carpenter afore I came here. Never designed a boat before, but I built a few, I knowed wood, and I figured, ‘How hard could it be?’“

The interview went on in much the same vein, leaving Slate feeling like he'd sold a part of himself. He didn't care much, but he didn't like the way it left him feeling soiled and used, even though he had agreed to this deal. The recording over, he retreated to the aft deck. He felt the need for fresh air once more. Sitting lazily on a wooden bench was an old man wearing a hat. “So what's your story?”, Slate asked. He wanted to feel in control once again, to feel like he was the one asking the questions.

The old man looked up and adjusted his hat to keep his eyes out of the sun. Then he shrugged. “I go where the money takes me”, he answered, straightforwardly. “I have a mighty powerful need for coin”.

“She pay you to just sit out back like this?”

The old man grinned. “Name's Ben”, he said. “I edit this gos se together. I fly the ship. Nothin' for me to do until they've got scenes for me to put together — which, now that you're done, I guess I have”. He offered a handshake.

Slate felt slightly relieved, even if only for the patterns of the man's speech. This guy seemed more down to the ground, more real than the other members of Elizabeth's crew he had encountered. He took the handshake. Ben had a firm grip, despite his apparent years. “Slate”, he said, introducing himself.

“Yeah, well, that ain't no surprise to me, seeing as you're the reason we're here”, Ben replied.

Slate laughed. “So you're the pilot and the editor?”, Slate half queried, half mused. “My brother was a pilot”. His thoughts inadvertently turned to Hawkeye. In the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of a couple of vapor trails in the sky, but his mind was on other things, and he paid them little attention. He realized that the old man had been talking to him, and that he hadn't been listening. Almost apologetically, he tried to change the subject. “So how come they got you doing two jobs?”

“Flying ain't difficult”, he said. “Pilots are two a credit. 'Specially on a smart boat like the boss's. But you try mixing all them bits of hologram together into a convincing story that ain't even necessarily true. That takes skill, and I got it”. He pointed to himself with his thumb. “Come on — let me show you something”.

The old man stood up, and headed for the back cabin, beckoning for Slate to follow. Slate wasn't sure he was likely to be particularly interested in whatever it was that Ben wanted to show him, but was glad of the company and followed anyway.

The aft cabin had been transformed into a small editing studio. Banks of screens now adorned the walls, and a large gray box adorned with an array of knobs and levers filled the surface of the room's only large flat surface. Ben placed a disc shaped cartridge onto the reader, and at once one of the screens lit up with a scene from two days ago. Large men with tanned, strong arms took knives to a ten-foot manta ray. “Shiny”, Slate said, dryly.

Something beeped: a comm signal. Ben pressed a few more buttons and the face of Doctor Briggs filled another of the screens. “Slate? Is that you?”, she said. Ben merely moved aside.

“It's me”, he acknowledged. “Tell me you got good news”.

“I have some incredible news”, she told him. “I've just got back the results of Jade's blood tests”. She held a small test tube to the screen. “You would not believe what's going on in that woman's bloodstream”.

“Why? What's the story?”

“I'll tell you all the details when you get back. I just wanted you know. There is a possibility that I may be able to prescribe something once I've sorted through all the results”. There was a crashing noise coming from just off screen. “Gotta go”, she told him. “Talk to you later”.

Ben was all smiles. “See. 'tain't all bad”.

Slate wasn't sure how he felt at this point. His emotions had run the gamut, from avoiding false hope, through prostituting his soul to an uppity lady he wouldn't mind taking to his bed, to this hope of a cure. No, he reminded himself. She hadn't say “cure”, she'd said “prescribe”. That could mean anything. One emotion in particular was making itself felt almost immediately. He saw an image of Merissa on the small screen, talking to Elizabeth, and what he saw, caught his interest.

“…then his father died or something, back on one of the core worlds, and Slate inherited a load of money, and a fair pile of computing hardware”.

That was not entirely true, Slate thought. Oh, his father's death had been real enough, but his inheritance hadn't even been enough to pay for passage off this rock. And as for that pile of hardware — it amounted to one computer, the very computer he had installed into the Lana.

“…and all that about designing the boat”, he heard Merissa's voice continue. “Truth is, he pulled most of that design from the cortex, and all the really sophisticated stuff, like automating the sails to tie in with the navigation — that was me. I designed that”.

What the? Slate sniggered. That was just blatantly untrue. He glanced at Ben, who beamed a wicked grin at him. This is why you're showing me this, he realized. You know when a story doesn't ring true.

He didn't really care though. So far as he was concerned, this entire filmmaking exercise was one big lie. What difference would one more make? The only thing he cared about was Jade. The rest didn't matter. Merissa would have known that. If she wanted to take some credit, then good luck to her.

There was another beep. Thinking that it might be Cassandra, he hesitated. When he heard the screams, he froze, transfixed, and then slowly turned around to face the comm screen.

“They're everywhere!”, a man's voice rang out. “You gotta help us. They're killing us!”

Slate turned his head around sharply to face the screen, momentarily stunned. What he saw made his blood run cold. Three horrifically disfigured individuals grabbed the man who was speaking from behind and dragged him away from the screen. One plunged a knife into the man's ear. His scream was the most chilling thing Slate had ever heard

Ben was already on the comm. “Boss, you gotta see this. Get here now”. Slate didn't hear Elizabeth's reply, but he did hear Ben's counter-reply. He practically screamed: “There's an attack on Herren going on right now. Just get here”. He shut down the comm, but the other screen, the screen linked to cameras on Herren, was still running. Slate could hear gunfire, and knew that the townsfolk were fighting back. On the screen he saw Gruvick empty a six-shooter into a crowd of the invaders — before one of them sliced off Gruvick's gun arm with an axe. Slate stared into the horrified expression of his old friend, and watched as he fell to his knees, crying in terror and disbelief, revealing the face of his assailant: face cut, scarred, burned and hideous. Elizabeth raced into the room, demanding: “What's going on?”.

Ben answered with a single word: “Reavers”.

Mortified, Slate could only think about one thing, or more precisely, one person — the one person who gave his life meaning. In a whisper, he uttered one word of his own: “Hide”. He knew his instruction wouldn't be heard, but hopefully his niece would have the sense. Reavers didn't leave survivors. Everybody knew that. If the attack eleven years ago really had been Reavers, then the only reason they were still alive would be that the Reavers hadn't known they were there. Slate snapped to his senses, and raced out of the room. “Come about!”, he yelled. “We're heading back. Full speed back to harbor”. To himself, he added, We're coming to get you. Just hang on a little longer.

“Are you crazy?”, Ben demanded, following Slate as he ran into the bridge and took the boat off autopilot.

“That is my town”, Slate told them, his voice commanding. “Those are my friends. And this is my boat”.

One of Elizabeth's people tried to get to the wheel. Merissa blocked him, holding a knife before her, threateningly. “Like the man said”, she told him, “We're heading back. I got family there”. Despite Merissa's earlier play for glory, Slate was not the least bit surprised at her show of loyalty. In fact, he took it for granted.

Elizabeth entered, and by now the small cabin was getting crowded. “Easy, easy”, she said. “Let's all relax”.

Ben explained the situation to her in his own words, somewhat panicked: “Slate here wants to take this boat back to the island. Them's Reavers on that island. Going back there is suicide”.

Elizabeth looked unsure. “They can't be Reavers”, she said, uncertainly.

“It don't matter none what you call 'em”, Ben continued. “Them's still killing just the same. And I ain't going nowhere near them”. But even as he spoke, the Lana tacked against the wind, driven by the navigational commands Slate had already fed in.

Rationally, Elizabeth spoke to Slate. She said: “What exactly do you think you will be able to do once you arrive on the island?”

“Haven't thought of that part yet”, Slate answered. In this, he was being completely honest. His mind had gone over dozens of scenarios, none of them pleasant. But he had to keep on hoping, because the alternative was to give up, and Slate had never done that in his life. Oh, he'd run away from things, but retreat was just a specialized form of action.

Elizabeth considered the options. “What weapons do we have?”

“A few knives, and one harpoon”, Merissa answered.

Elizabeth thought for only a moment before saying: “It's not enough. We can't help”. To Slate, she said: “Turn the boat around. Head for the nearest populated island. We'll get help from there”.

No one moved. Slate stared at her with incredulity. Slowly and carefully, he explained to her: “You seem to be having a little trouble comprehending who's in charge here. So let me save you from any future embarrassment. It's me”.

Tension filled the air. For a moment it looked like there might be a standoff. Slate's crew at this point comprised four people: himself and Merissa, plus two others: Polly, his mechanic and Moreton – for want of a better phrase, his strong arm. If it came to a fight, he'd be relying on Moreton. Elizabeth's side numbered five, but that included Ben, and Ben didn't seem inclined to fight at all. Slate didn't know all their names, but by Elizabeth's size were two men and one woman. He figured that he and Moreton could take the men, leaving Polly and Merissa to tackle the women. He clenched his fists. Ben left the room.

It lasted for only a moment. The film crew looked to Elizabeth for leadership, and she was no fighter. She held out her hands in pacification. “Easy, no need for trouble”.

Slate took advantage of this acquiescence. “Now I know you're afeared”, he said, addressing everybody. “You wouldn't be human if you weren't. We're all scared. But we are going back to the island, and we are gonna do whatever it takes to save our people. I ain't giving up on them now. And for what it's worth, the nearest island is in the wrong direction. This ain't exactly a densely populated world. We're on our own”.

The impasse was over almost as quickly as it had begun. Elizabeth nodded her head, acknowledging the chain of command, then said: “I'm going to find Ben”. She left. It was true enough that she sought to find her editor, but whether or not she had truly accepted Slate's leadership was something still open to debate. She was a reporter, not a soldier, and she had seen for herself these madmen attacking the island with axes. There was no way she could fight, and it didn't matter whether you called them Reavers or murderers or just simply insane — the fact was, they were there, and they were killing people, and her presence would make not one iota of difference to that fact, except that her being there would give the Reavers one more victim. She was torn between two unpleasant alternatives. If she tried to take over the boat, she would likely fail; but if she didn't, she would probably die.

Slate rushed past her. “I have to see what's going on”, he told her, and made his way back to the aft cabin, to where Ben's screens were still set up, still showing a view of the town square, slanted sideways as the camera screen itself had been dropped to the floor. It was difficult to get any clear idea of what was going on, but some things were obvious even without the details. The town was ablaze with small fires. He could still hear the almost constant, terrible sound of human screams. He saw a woman fall into the camera's frame, her throat cut, blood streaming from the gash across her neck. He didn't recognize her, which meant that she must have been one of Elizabeth's film crew, for he knew the face of every islander. A Reaver — and by now he was certain that that was what they were — dragged the woman mercifully out of frame. The last thing he remembered seeing of her were her eyes. They blinked. The woman was still alive!

Slate felt a powerful need to vomit.

Then he saw something which made him lose control completely. There on the screen, he saw Jade. Her clothing was torn, and blood streamed from cuts down the side of her leg. Three Reavers dragged her screaming into the frame of Slate's view. She was half screaming, half crying. He heard her voice. He heard her choke his own name: “Slate! Help!” Then the image was gone, as a heavy boot kicked through the camera screen.

He cried out — a primal scream, a cry so loud, so bloodcurdling, that there was not a soul on this boat who did not hear it, even over the noise of the ocean.

Ben sat curled into a ball in the corner of the room. In a quiet voice, he said: “They'll rape her, and they'll skin her alive. She'd be better off dead”.

Slate grabbed him by the throat and pushed him up against the wall. And then let him go. Ben slid down the wall and curled up once again. Slate collapsed onto the floor in a heap, and then began to cry, because he knew that Ben was right. If he could have done so, he would have put a bullet through the brain of his niece right then, to save her the torment. And then he would have put a second bullet through his own. But he was helpless. They all were.

Any thought of mutiny dissipated from the crew, and even from Elizabeth's team, when they witnessed two pillars of white smoke rise gracefully into the sky. The marauders were leaving. They would be long gone before the Lana could reach the island. Their mission now was one of mercy: find any survivors, if there were any, and give whatever help was possible. But even as they approached the island, they knew that there could be no recovery from an attack of this magnitude. The town was dead. Even if any people had survived, the best that could be done for them would be to take them to another island, to start a new life somewhere else. Black smoke rose from the island, and as they got closer, a dull orange glow became apparent. The town had been burned.

The boat almost crashed into the harbor. Slate ran through the docks and into the main street. Merissa was careful to tie the boat to its moorings. Devastated though she was, she didn't want to lose this means of getting away.

Bodies littered the streets. Or at least, pieces of bodies. He cried out, calling for survivors, but nobody answered. Precious few of the buildings were left. Fire had taken its toll. He looked for Jade. He didn't expect to find her alive, but he hoped at least to find a body – at least then, he'd know that her torment was over. But he found nothing.

“My ship”, said Elizabeth, after they had wandered around the devastation for longer than anyone should ever have to witness such a scene.

Slate took her meaning. She must have landed outside of town. Maybe they would find survivors there.

They reached the open space where Elizabeth's ship had landed. Slate registered the name, Uriah Heep, before he noticed that it, too, had been attacked. It was a small ship, designed to carry no more than a dozen crew. He had been here before of course, two days previously. Then, he had been full of hope. Not any more.

Ben and Elizabeth rushed past him into the ship. The airlock doors were open. Slate followed them, but he was in no hurry.

In Medical, he saw the body of Cassandra Briggs, who earlier had shown such optimism. This time, he really did vomit. The woman was naked, but the sight was about as far from erotic as you could get. She had had the skin ripped from her flesh. Only her head had been left untouched.

More wails came from the rest of the ship, but they were not the moans of survivors, they were the cries of despair from the filmmakers who had returned to their ship, and seen the utter devastation which the Reavers had left.

Then Slate found himself in the common area of Uriah Heep, surrounded by what was left of his own crew, and what was left of Elizabeth's crew. In a quiet voice, he said: “We're taking your ship”.

It took a little while for that to sink in, before Elizabeth had the presence of mind to say, “What?”

“I said we're taking this ship”, he repeated, just as calmly. “We're getting off of this world. Anyone who wants to go their own way after that is welcome to do just that, but the ship stays with me”.

“You can't—“, Elizabeth began. In unison, Slate's crew raised guns at the filmmakers. They hadn't had those guns when they were at sea, Elizabeth noted. They must have picked them us since arriving back in town. Did they actually contain any bullets? She and her crew weren't about to put that to the test.

Slate pointed at Ben. “You will fly it”, he commanded. In all this time, his voice barely raised above a whisper, but the strength of his resolve was evident in every breath he took.

“And we're changing its name”, Slate added, a determined look on his face.

“To what?”, Elizabeth demanded.

Vindicator“, Slate said, with conviction. No one said a word. To the assembled gang around him, he declared: “They took away the only thing in this gorram 'verse that ever meant a damn to me. They wiped my home off the face of the 'verse. They killed half my crew, and half of your crew as well for that matter”. The last comment was addressed to Elizabeth. “And now, I am going after them. I am taking this ship, and as many of you as will fly with me, and I am going after them.”

“This is madness”, Elizabeth declared.

“This is vengeance”, Slate corrected. “I will find the ones who did this. I will hunt them down. And then, I will take them out. All of them. Who's with me?”

Not everyone said “aye” immediately, but one by one, they all said it, Elizabeth last of all.

“We are going Reaver hunting”, Slate said, and strode toward the bridge.

Dark Places

Dark Places

I run exuberantly through down the Jang Yin Road, my best friend Rory running alongside me. I am eight years old and full of the joys of youth. Tall buildings line the road. My daddy says they are mostly office blocks, but that means very little to me. All I really know is that these are places where people come to work, not to live. I notice some disapproving stares from some of the passers by, but pay them little attention. I guess they must disapprove of Rory — my parents certainly do — but I don't care. Eagerly we run the length of the road. As we reach its end we cut through Dilys Street and turn right onto the Valley Road. Now it is my turn to be at the receiving end of disapproving stares. Grown-ups can be so dumb sometimes.

“Race you to the swings”, challenges Rory.

We run and laugh, and run and laugh some more. The “swings” are, in reality, nothing more than tires on ropes, hanging from the struts of an overhead walkway. I leap onto one of the tires and pull back on the rope to increase the extent of my arc. Rory is only a fraction of a second behind, but it is enough to prompt me into eagerly gloating “Beat you. I won”.

From behind me, an unexpected voice interjects: “Sorry, kid. You don't win. Not here”.

Rory and I turn round to see one of the older boys approaching us threateningly. I know of him only vaguely as “one of the O'Hanlon boys”, a phrase always associated with trouble. But that's just grown-up talk — something to which I rarely pay attention.

Rory stands up for me. “She's with me”, he says. “She's my friend. Leave us alone”.

The older boy stabs a finger at the air in my direction, saying: “You walk into our street, you're either with us or with them”. He points in the direction of the tall buildings not so far away. “Which is it?”

“Leave us alone, Joe”, Rory repeats indignantly, climbing off the swing. “She ain't done nothing to you”.

“I ain't talking to you”, Joe states, fiercely. “I'm talking to little miss Alliance there. What you got to say for yourself?”

I'm not stupid. I can sense the obvious threat. But I am eight years old, and cute. I haven't yet encountered a situation I couldn't talk my way out of. “I'm with anyone who wants to be my friend”, I tell him.

“You conjure that include me?”, the older boy asks.

“If you're nice”, I respond instantly. “Not if you're horrid”.

The older boy turns and walked away. But as he turns, he warns: “Be careful what you wear next time you come here, little Raven. Purple don't go down too well in this neighborhood”.

Waiting until after Joe O'Hanlon had left, Rory suggests, “Conjure it weren't such a good idea to wear that shirt here, you know. Just causes trouble”. I take this in my stride. I look back at Dilys street, the cut-through which connected the Jang Yin and Valley roads. Though I have lived here a year, the division continues to surprise me. Though there is no marking on the road, and neither fence nor barrier to separate the two districts, this understood boundary effectively separates the rich from the poor. The Jang Yin Road leads to opulence, to high-rise blocks and hovercars; the Valley road leads to slums and ghettos. I don't understand why, but I do understand that I want no part of it.

“All right then”, I agree, adding “But you can't wear brown either”.

“'kay”, he agrees.

“You know what scares me?”, I ask.

“Not Joe O'Hanlon, I hope”

“Do you see an invisible line between one neighborhood and another?”


“I never used to”, I agree. “What scares me is that I'm starting to”. I shake off the feeling. “I never want to grow up”, I declare.

Jade opened her eyes suddenly, startled by the intensity of the memory. Why had she remembered that incident? Was it significant? This had been the first time that she had ever been able to recall anything at all from the time before the incident which had killed her parents. And that surely was significant. She had just experienced her very first memory of her own childhood.

And then another memory struck her like a hammer blow — a much more recent one. She remembered the blood. She remembered the screaming. She remembered her friends and neighbors being slaughtered like whales.

She remembered the Reavers who had dragged her kicking and screaming through the streets.

The scents of blood, vomit and shit assaulted her nose.

She felt someone grab hold of her hair. She felt her head being pulled back sharply. Eyes closed tightly, she yelped. She felt someone sniffing at her neck, and then withdraw. She opened her eyes, and a bloody face stared back at her.

She stared into the eyes of a Reaver.

The face which greeted her was not merely deformed, it was quite literally defaced. Three large cuts were scored across each cheek, and shards of metal pierced the forehead and mouth of this man — this creature. The metal appeared to make it impossible for this Reaver ever to close his mouth. She smelled offal on the creature's breath, a powerful stench, overcoming even the stench of this place. And she realized, she had absolutely no idea where this place was.

The Reaver grunted and moved away. The frame of her vision no longer filled by the grotesque individual, Jade took in more of her surroundings. She immediately wished she hadn't. This was a charnel house. Human bodies — naked, dead human bodies — were piled onto a long table-like surface which ran the length of the room. And almost all of those bodies were the bodies of people she knew. She wondered if anyone from Herren had survived. She thought of Slate, and held out hope that he and the people with him had escaped the carnage and were still alive.

She turned her attention to her own situation. She struggled to move, but her hands were tied to something above her, some rail or girder. Her feet were tied to another metal bar below her. She was effectively pinned into the shape of an X. She could move her head — even her torso to a limited extent — but she could not escape. She pushed her body back, and felt a wall behind her. She was suspended just a few inches away from the wall. She still wore the same clothes she had worn when she was captured, but her left trouser leg was ripped from top to bottom, and stained with dried blood.

She looked back at the pile of bodies on the table at the center of the room, and immediately regretted having done so. Bile collected in her throat. She couldn't use her hands to move the hair from in front of her face. She couldn't bend forward far enough to keep her own body out of the trajectory. She vomited. It streamed from her nose and mouth, and splashed back onto her legs as it hit the floor. Tears streamed from her eyes, though she wasn't crying.

She heard a voice: “Jade?” it croaked.

She raised her head. Awareness of her surroundings came slowly. She wasn't the only one still alive. In total five other people were secured in similar fashion around this room. She knew every one of them personally: Abigail, the weaver; Li Chow, a fisher; Mike Turner, the carpenter who had helped Slate build the Lana so many years ago; Hagar, the fisher from Slate's crew; and Jeanette, who grew the finest vegetables this side of the archipelago. Assuming, that is, that they were still in the archipelago, which somehow she doubted. The voice came from Jeanette. “Jade” she repeated.

Jade turned her head towards Jeanette, and opened her mouth to speak, but shock prevented her from saying anything. Like lightening, the Reaver raced across the room, and slit Jeanette's throat. Jeanette at first looked surprised. She tried to scream, but the cut had gone clean through her windpipe and no air reached her mouth. Blood poured down her clothing. The Reaver walked off, paying Jeanette no more attention, but leaving her to bleed to death. Terrified, Jade could barely breathe as the extent of the barbarism made itself apparent. The meaning of the Reaver's actions was clear enough. No talking.

Jeanette made strange gurgling noises, and alternated between thrashing about in terror and periods of calm. Perhaps, in those quiet moments, she imagined it was all just a dream, that she would wake up safe and sound back on the island? But those periods of calm were brief, and between them. Jeanette struggled against her restraints, her movements wild and involuntary. The back of her head struck the wall behind her more than once, and tears visibly rolled down her face. This continued for several minutes before finally, she hung silent and motionless.

Jade had had to keep her eyes closed through much of Jeanette's torment. She simply couldn't watch. And the thought hammered itself home: This can happen to me. I could die.

Mike Turner chose to speak at this point. He spoke angrily. “What the fuck are you?”, he screamed. Like the rest of them, Mike was bound and helpless. But he was not stupid. He must have understood the “no talking” instruction. Even without words, the ruling had been clear as daylight. Then finally Jade understood. Mike's wife was dead, killed even before Jade's capture. His family were dead — their bodies amongst the pile on the table which was the main feature of this room. Mike wanted death. He would welcome it, or so he believed. Or so Jade believed he believed. Mike Turner simply saw no reason to live. “Go on then”, he yelled at the Reaver. “Do your gorram worst”.

The Reaver plunged a spike of metal into Mike's stomach and tore downwards. He reached into the wound with one hand and pulled out a string of intestine. He bit into the intestine with his teeth and tore out a gaping chunk — which he then spat back out into Mike's screaming face. And then he walked off once more, leaving Mike to his agonies. Mike's screams went on, and on, and on.

We're all dead, Jade realized with certainty. We're all going to die, and perhaps those who are already dead are the lucky ones.

Jade had no idea how long she'd been there, but surely it must have been hours. The sole Reaver who had been in the room with them had left, and the survivors were alone. There wasn't much in the way of conversation, however. Mike cried and screamed for so long it was unbearable. When he stopped, Jade wasn't sure if he was alive or dead, but if he wasn't dead yet, he surely would be soon. That left four: Jade, Abigail, Hagar and Li Chow. For a long time, nobody said a word. Fear kept them silent — perhaps the Reavers were listening? Perhaps they would storm in to kill anyone who spoke. But more time passed, and no Reavers entered the room.

Eventually, Hagar spoke. “He wasn't on the island. He'll come. He'll rescue us”. He was talking about Slate, Jade realized. No Reavers came to punish him, but his words were empty, devoid of hope. Jade felt a pressure on her bladder, and knew she was going to need a piss soon, but held out little hope of being allowed out for a lavatory visit. Some remnant of civilization kept her from pissing her pants, but she knew it was only a matter of time, and the only saving grace in that was that she doubted anyone would notice. And in any case, they were all in the same boat.

“Where are we?”, Jade asked. “Where is this place?”

Nobody answered straight away, but Li Chow responded after a time. “All I know is we're not on Newhall any more. I think we're still in space”.

Jade was so far beyond shock that she felt nothing could perturb her any further, but still she was surprised by the news. She had been in the black only once before, but she had no memory of that journey. Every memory she had, save for her recent childhood recollection, was of her life on Newhall. Now that life was over, and she was somewhere else. She figured that she would be dead soon in any case, and wondered whether her death would be quick. Half of her wanted that. The other half screamed at her a desire for survival at any cost, but there was no way she could be sure of living beyond the next few minutes. If anything, the uncertainty made it all the more terrifying.

Again there was activity. Many Reavers entered the room and started to carry away the bodies. Jade didn't know why. She didn't ask. These Reavers seemed less “Reavery” than the one who had been in here before. Their faces were less scarred; they had fewer piercings. Perhaps, Jade wondered, there was a pecking order among Reavers, and these were somehow lower in rank. She didn't ask. She was grateful that the bodies were being removed. They took away the bodies of Jeanette and Mike, too, though Jade still wasn't completely convinced that Mike was actually dead.

And then sometime after that, they came for Li Chow. Four Reavers came for her, cut her bonds, and dragged her away screaming, one Reaver to each limb. Jade figured she knew what was in store for Li Chow. They would rape her. And if she was lucky, she'd be dead by the time they finished. Jade didn't even want to contemplate what her fate would be if she survived. Legend had it that Reavers were cannibals, and that they weren't particularly fussy about their food being dead. Jade began to sob, something she had not done since her capture. They would come for her soon, she knew. Warm piss ran down her leg, but she was beyond caring.

When they came for Jade, as she knew they inevitably would, they didn't just take her, they took Hagar as well. They were dragged by their arms, but not by their legs. Jade tried to walk but her legs would not obey her commands. Astonishingly, Hagar managed to walk. He had the look of a condemned man on his way to his execution. He seemed resigned to his fate, as though his last remaining wish was: I hope this won't be too painful.

Jade struggled to get her legs underneath her so she could walk instead of being dragged. She managed it, after a fashion, and tried to take in her surroundings. She could have been in a space ship, but she really had no way of telling. What was certain was that the corridors through which she was taken were short, that the part of this lair was small, at least compared with the town of Herren. And there was a hum, a constant hum she could feel through her feet coming from the very body of the ship — if ship it was. She guessed it was the sound of air recycling, or some such.

They were taken to a small room which looked like it had been designed as passenger quarters. What they saw there was sickening. Li Chow stood on some sort of bar stool. She was naked, her hands tied behind her back, her feet tied together. Blood and cuts covered her body. Around her neck was a rope — a hangman's noose — looped around a girder in the ceiling and tied to the room's only bed. The geometry of it was simple, effective, and utterly chilling. If that stool were to be kicked away, Li Chow would fall, the rope would tighten around her neck, and she would hang. Jade figured she knew what was coming: they were here to witness another murder. She was correct, but only in part.

Hagar was pushed forward, now free of all constraint. He looked around him. Four Reavers were in the room with him. They all drew knives and glared at him. One, a Reaver with long gray hair down one side of his face, but bald on the other, spoke. It was the first time they had heard a Reaver speak. Jade hadn't even been sure if they could speak, until now. He said: “Kick”. He spoke to Hagar, and his eyes indicated the bar stool on which Li Chow trembled.

Hagar's eyes widened as understanding dawned. They wanted him to kick out the stool from under Li Chow. They wanted him to kill her. Hagar had never killed another human being in his life. He fell to his knees and began to sob, “No, no”.

He felt knives at his back, and stood up, slowly, shaking, the reality of his situation making itself clear. He was being offered a choice — a simple choice: kill, or die. He could choose to kick the stool from under Li Chow, and end her life, or he could refuse, and his own life would become forfeit.

Jade could only watch in horror. She was still held captive. She wondered what she would do in that circumstance, and then realized that the question might not be hypothetical. The possibilities unfolded in her mind. If Hagar refused to kill, he would be killed, and then perhaps Jade might be offered the same choice. On the other hand, if Hagar killed Li Chow, then perhaps he would be forced to kill her next. It was unbearable.

She saw Hagar look into Li Chow's eyes, both people crying. She heard Li Chow, begging for her life: “No… No…“. She heard Hagar say “I'm sorry”, choking the words through tears. And she saw him kick away the stool in one swift movement, then collapse onto the floor, crying “I'm sorry, I'm sorry”. She saw Li Chow fall, the rope suddenly tighten, her head jerk upwards. But still she lived, writhing, eyes wide, unable to breathe.

What the Reavers had done to Li Chow was horrible, but what they had done to Hagar was in many ways worse. Jade was overwhelmed with the inhumanity of it — and yet, on some level, some small part of her mind could see the inevitability of Hagar's actions. Li Chow was dead anyway. Regardless of what Hagar did or did not do, the Reavers would kill her. And she had heard many a tale of how it was better to be dead than to be captured by Reavers. Back on Newhall, some of the townsfolk had saved their last bullet for themselves. She had heard tales of people shooting their own children rather than let them end up in hands of Reavers. Li Chow was dead the moment the Reavers took her. So was she. But what of Hagar? For how long would the Reavers keep him alive? Presumably only for as long as it took for him to kill all of his friends and townsfolk. But what then? Realistically, Hagar was already as dead as Li Chow, but it was clear to her that Hagar wasn't prepared to give up breathing just yet. Racked with guilt though he must surely have been, the Reavers had apparently taught him that he would do whatever it takes to keep breathing for just one more second. And so, Jade knew, would she.

Then the room became a flurry of activity. The Reavers dragged Hagar to his feet, and released the rope from which Li Chow dangled. If she wasn't dead, she was at least unconscious. Her face had a bluish tint, blood marks from burst capillaries adorned her face and eyes, and her body rippled unnaturally. The Reavers released the rope from around her neck and dragged her body out of the room. Jade had no idea where to, or for what purpose. And then it was Jade's turn. They put the noose around her neck. She struggled, but it was to no avail — there were too many of them, and only one of her. Jade closed her eyes in sadness — sadness at the life she would now never have, the things that she wanted to do but now would never get the chance. For a fleeting moment, it occurred to her that she had escaped a greater torment: she had not been sexually abused; she had not been eaten alive. She was simply being used as a device to turn Hagar into something he never should be. Once again her hands were tied, this time behind her back, as Li Chow's had been.

They righted the stool and pulled on the rope. Jade hadn't wanted to climb onto the stool, but as the rope was pulled upward, she had had no choice but to rise to meet it. So there she stood, precariously on a support likely to be removed at any moment, hangman's noose around her neck, and surrounded by Reavers. Hagar was placed before her, his face now wet with tears. She looked into his eyes. She knew what they were going to make him do. At least, she reflected, it would be over soon. At least she wouldn't have to suffer the continued torment through which Hagar was likely to be put. She didn't beg for her life. What would have been the point? So she just looked at Hagar, looked into his eyes, and watched him staring back at her. She drank in the sight. She wanted the last face she saw to be that of a human being. And she thought of Slate, Hagar's captain, her uncle, and the only parent she had ever known, at least that she could recall. Silently, she framed the thought in her mind: Slate, stay safe.

Another Reaver stormed into the room. This one she recognized. The three scars on each cheek were clear identifying marks. This one had already been responsible for burning painful memories into her brain. This was the one who had killed Jeanette and Mark before her eyes in the room full of corpses. This one, she observed, watching the others defer to him, had rank. He walked past them, brushed them aside. The one holding the rope released it hurriedly. The scarred one pulled Jade down to the floor, grabbed her hair, and pulled her face close to his. She yelped.

The scarred one barked a command. Jade could not make sense of the words, but they were clearly decisive. He repeated the command more loudly, virtually yelling it to all his Reaver subordinates.

The scarred one grabbed Jade with one hand, and a subordinate with the other, and brought them close together, close enough that Jade could smell the stench of this hideous abomination. Then he released them both. He took a knife, and with one swipe cut the bonds which tied Jade's hands together. He wasn't particularly careful in this, and took a chunk of her flesh in the process, but at least her hands and feet were free.

She didn't understand any of what was going on, but she knew it couldn't be good. She had formulated a theory in her mind. The scarred one, she hypothesized, was angry that his subordinates were about to offer her an easy death. He was chastising them for their lack of cruelty. She was to be taken away, tortured, tormented, given a slow and lingering death, instead of a quick and easy one.

But right now, she was unfettered. Nothing and no one was restricting her. She saw the open door beckoning. If she ever had any chance of escape, this was it. This was her one chance. Here in the moment, while her captors were engaged in some sort of dispute, lay the possibility of freedom — if she dared to take it.

She dared.

She started to run, but her legs buckled underneath her, and she fell to the floor. Black spots swum before her eyes, as though her body had had enough. She saw angry faces, and arms pointing down at her, but had no idea what it meant.

The fog cleared, and her dizziness ebbed away. Clarity of thought returned to her. She was too weak to run, and even had she succeeded, there would have been nowhere to run. Her situation was hopeless. But at least she wasn't dead. Not yet.

Hagar offered her a hand, and helped her back to her feet.

Logic told her that things were likely to get much worse, but at this moment she took comfort from the warmth of Hagar's hand. It didn't last. The scarred one put his hands on both their shoulders, and pushed them apart. Then he growled at the subordinates. Jade got the impression he may have been speaking, but if that was the case, she didn't understand the words. In any case, they left the room, taking Hagar with them. She desperately wanted to follow, Hagar was her one remaining link to humanity here, and at least that road led to a quick death, not prolonged agony and torment.

Alone in the room now with the Reaver with six scars, Jade trembled. The Reaver closed the door, and turned to face her.

Jade sat down on the bed. Her mind screamed that this was a bad idea, that it might anger the Reaver, but exhaustion had the better of her. She looked away, afraid even to look in the Reaver's direction. She had no strength left to fight. All she could do now was await her fate. Fear coursed through her every nerve.

The Reaver grunted something. She couldn't make out what it was. She looked in his direction. The Reaver repeated his word, if word it was: “Geng”. She saw him move his arm, to point as her. It was as if he expected a response, but didn't know what response to give, didn't even know what he was trying to say.

She watched more closely. The Reaver pointed to himself, and said, once again, “Geng”. Then he pointed at Jade, and waited.

Realization dawned slowly. Geng was his name. This monster had a name — and wanted hers. Trembling, she answered: “Jade”.

The Reaver bared his teeth and snarled. “Yade”, he said. It was close enough. To be honest, Jade was surprised he could speak at all with those metal spikes at the corners of his mouth. He pointed to various locations around the room, and spoke again. She understood only part of his speech. It seemed he was trying to say “Jade. Clean…“ followed by some incomprehensible snarling. The Reaver — Geng — walked to the door, opened it, and left. Before closing the door finally, he peered through the gap and spoke two last words. These Jade made out very clearly. The words were: “One hour”. And then he was gone, and she was alone in the room. Alone, for the first time since her capture. She lay on the bed and sobbed.

At times, none of it seemed real. It was as though it had all been a bad dream, that any time now she would wake up and be back in Herren with Slate and Gruvick and all her friends. But those times were fleeting. Reality had struck home, and it overwhelmed her, paralyzed her. Her mind screamed with questions, like: What can I do to make everything right?, but death is final. She tried desperately to think of a way to fix things, to make everything all right again. She blamed herself utterly for this situation. Surely she could have done something differently and made everything okay? Maybe if she hadn't spent the last ten years or so being ill, she and Slate would have been off Newhall a long time ago? But even that wouldn't have helped her friends.

Maybe the Reavers had come specifically for her? That made sense, in a twisted logic kind of way. They had failed to get her eleven years ago, so they tracked her down and came for her, and they were so angry that it had taken them eleven years to find her, that they burned down the town and killed everyone. She should have seen it coming. She should have warned everyone.

At last, some degree of sanity returned, and she looked up from her weeping. What was it the Reaver had said to her? “One hour” — what did that mean? An hour until what? Until they would come for her to kill her, presumably, or something worse. She suspected it would be something worse. At this stage, no amount of barbarity would have surprised her. Moreover, if all they wanted to do was kill her, they could have done that a long time ago.

She looked around to try to get some bearings. She was in a room, which had exactly one door and no windows. So she was a prisoner — no surprises there. The room looked like it had once been someone's bedroom. The bed was not the only evidence of this; the opposite wall contained lockers and a sink. Jade stood up. She expected to see spots before her eyes, and for her legs to buckle, but that did not happen. She reached the sink and turned on the tap. Cold water splashed into the basin and onto her face. Below and to the left of the sink was a pull-out panel which turned out to be a stowable toilet. To the right of the sink was a locker full of relatively clean clothes — she wouldn't exactly call them clean as such, but they were at least not caked in blood and piss. She found a temperature control and was able to get hot water out of the tap. She looked around for towels and sponges and such. Everything she needed to get clean was here. She wondered whether the Reavers themselves made use of such civilized facilities, or whether it simple came with the ship.

Somehow that mattered that she get clean. She didn't know why. She recalled that the Reaver had said “Jade. Clean”. Had that been an instruction to get clean? Either way, it was irrelevant. She wanted to be clean, to erase the stench of death from her senses. And so she made full use of the facilities, washed her hair, and sponge-bathed her body, and then dressed herself in fresh new clothing: black jeans; Blue Sun T-shirt; black leather jacket; comfortable hiking boots. She found a hairbrush and brushed her hair into some reasonable shape. After some time, she felt almost human. But no matter how much she washed her face, the redness of her eyes would not go away. It was obvious she'd been crying, and that was something she could not wash away, because every time she did, every time she began to feel composed once more, tears would return and wipe away that facade. But still, at least she felt reasonably in control once more, and that was valuable.

She remembered that the Reaver had said “One hour”. How much time had passed? She didn't know. And why had the Reaver told her to get clean in the first place? Why did he tell her his name?

“Geng”, she remembered. The Reaver who had locked her in here was called “Geng”.

At least, she assumed she was locked in. Until now, it hadn't even occurred to her to test the proposition, but the fact was, she hadn't actually tried the door. She berated herself for that. It was stupid not to have tried — maybe escape was possible. How foolish would it have been to have sat here and awaited death when an unlocked door beckoned. Confidence returning, she tried the door. It wasn't locked.

Gently, she opened it just a crack, and peered outside. All she could see was darkness. She waited for her eyes to adjust. She saw a corridor. Parts of it were illuminated, but parts were in darkness, as though lights had failed and no one had bothered to fix them.

She stepped back into the room and closed the door, wondering if she could perhaps find something she could use as a weapon. She looked around, aware that she may not have much time left. Her eyes lit upon a holo-picture of a woman and child that she did not recognize. This was once somebody's room, she reasoned, someone who had a wife and child. She stared into the hologram, seeing the joy in the woman's eyes as she caressed her child, a child of perhaps four years old. What is going on?, she wondered. She put the hologram back down. It was made of plastic. She had hoped it would be glass — then at least she could have smashed it and made some kind of sharp implement from the shards. She looked around more.

In fact, there were plenty of things which could be used as weapons. All it would take was imagination. The problem, though, was one of resolve. Once you start to attack a Reaver, you have take it all the way, you have to kill. You don't get a second chance. Jade had never killed anyone in her life, and the prospect scared her. She wasn't sure she could go through with a physical attack. Better to kill from a distance, she reasoned. Perhaps poison would work? Perhaps she could do something to the ship in which they were traveling?

So she took nothing, and stepped out into the corridor, closing the door behind her. There was no one around.

Now what?, she thought. She could go left, or she could go right, but either direction seemed equally daunting. She couldn't even remember which direction she had come from when they brought her here. She figured she would simply have to choose a direction at random, unless there was some compelling reason to go one way rather than the other.

She heard footsteps coming her way, coming from the left. That pretty much decided it. She turned right, and moved off as quickly and as quietly as she could, trying to keep to the shadows.

This ship was not large, she concluded. It was more a boat than it was a ship. That was good in one way — it limited the number of Reavers on board, but it also limited where she could go, where she could hide. This stretch of corridor was short. It ended in a T-junction, both arms of which ended in stairs which led downward. There were noises coming from down those stairs: grunts, yells and snarls. It seemed not to matter which staircase she took; those same noises emanated from both. The stairs went around a corner, in the direction away from the bedroom. She guessed that both staircases led to the same place, possibly a cargo hold or something. On tiptoes, she made her way down the left hand staircase and peered cautiously around the corner.

She was looking into a large room. It may or may not have been a cargo bay. Probably it doubled up as anything it needed to be, it was simply a large space. And here, she saw creatures like she had never seen before.

“Creatures” was definitely the right word. These people were not human any more. Perhaps they had been human once, but they had lost all humanity in becoming Reavers. These ones weren't merely cut, scarred and decorated with facial piercings; these ones looked like they had been burned, their faces red and blistered, hair falling out. Their clothes were…

…Jade resisted the urge to vomit.

Their clothes were at least partly made of humans. Human skin had become fabric, human bones had become decoration.

She wanted to look away, but could not. Horror mounted upon horror, but she could not look away. At first, she thought she was witnessing a rape, but dismissed that thought. The victim wasn't struggling, wasn't making a sound. Then she figured it out — the victim was dead. She wondered if the victim had been dead when they started. Their sick activity over, one of the Reavers picked up the body and carried it across the large room, opened a vault-like door and walked through, out of Jade's sight. Jade had recognized the body during that motion. It had been Abigail. The light from inside the inner room was bright and white, making a stark contrast with the relative darkness of the outer room. She felt the temperature drop, and realized that the inner room was a freezer. They were freezing human carcasses, for… For what?

For food.

Suddenly she was flying through the air and into the wall, making a loud thunk as she came into contact with it. It didn't take her long to understand what had happened. She heard the angry snarl of a Reaver, and looked into the eyes of the most hideous Reaver she had seen yet. Her skin was blackened and blotchy, she had no hair, and perhaps strangest of all, no eyelids. She had cut off her own eyelids. This Reaver could never close her eyes. Jade trembled as she looked into bulging, staring eyes, while the Reaver snarled and lunged at her. She ducked and ran, and more by luck than judgment managed to get away, but the only route of escape was downwards, down into the large room full of creatures who would rape a person to death. Instinct drove her forward, but instinct brought her to a dead stop at the foot of the stairs. There was nowhere to run. Reavers surrounded her, running toward her from all sides. The female one grabbed her from behind and thrust her forward, into the crowd. Three Reavers caught her, grabbing her by two arms and one leg. I should have stayed in the bedroom, she reflected, terrified, as they dragged her into the room. She realized she was screaming, and tried to stop. Something told her that her cries of panic were only encouraging them, but her panic was involuntary. Her brain was screaming “No!“, and try as she might, her body told that story loud and clear.

They threw her to the floor. She rolled over and looked up at them, a sea of vicious, distorted faces.

“Go on then”, she said, finally. “Do your worst”. At least, that's what she tried to say. In reality, her words were indistinguishable from the sobs and moans which were the larger part of her immediate vocabulary.

A roar and the crowds parted.

Jade blinked and regained her mental composure, though her body still shook with fear. Six Scars — Geng — was there, and he looked angry. Very angry. He marched through the crowds directly toward Jade and kicked her heavily in the side. She yelped and instinctively squirmed, but she wasn't going to be allowed that luxury. Reavers picked her up, and forced her to face Geng, who withdrew a knife with a long, curved blade, and waved it in front of her face. This very individual had gutted Mike Turner in front of her, with a piece of metal. She had no doubt that he was capable not just of killing her, but of killing her most slowly and painfully, and taking delight in it. She could smell the anger and rage which surrounded him. It was almost tangible.

And then there was another commotion. Someone else entered the room — another Reaver. He looked as though part of his face had been burned. Flaps of skin around his mouth had been crudely sewn onto his face. His hair was a thick black mop, bald in patches. Piercings adorned his cheekbones, and something had been sewn under the skin of his forehead, giving his head a ridged appearance. The Reavers who were holding her released their grip. She stood there, motionless, some deep instinct telling her not to run. The newcomer walked closer, and the crowds parted to make way for him. If appearances were anything to go by, this one could rip her arms off with his bare hands. This one was king.

Geng and the newcomer snarled and growled at each other. It was a conversation, Jade realized. She detected the odd English word here, the odd Chinese word there, but mostly it was gibberish. And yet, they seemed to understand each other. A language?

Geng turned to face her once more, and held out the knife toward her. She closed her eyes, but Geng snapped at her and she opened them immediately.

Something was wrong.

The knife was being thrust at her, handle first. It dawned on her that Geng was offering her the knife. Hesitantly, she took it.

All sorts of possibilities raced through her mind at this point. Presumably, they were going to make her fight to the death, but with whom? With one of the Reavers? The possibility occurred to her that they might make her fight Hagar, and she already knew that Hagar would kill her. Truthfully, she knew she wouldn't blame him. She knew that if Hagar took her life now, it would be a mercy.

And yet… A fight didn't seem to be what Geng had in mind.

Geng spoke to her simply, directly, and in English. She had difficulty understanding the words at first, but then it came to her. He had said: “Cut your face”.

Jade was stunned. She simply stood there, knife in her hand, unable to move. Do they want me to kill myself?, she wondered.

Geng grabbed her by the throat and pulled her forward, roughly, though without choking her. He spoke into her ear, his voice a whisper, his tone commanding. Even through his speech impediment, she could make out: “… Understand? … Try … save you … life!”

One question blared in Jade's mind: Why?

He pushed her away once more, and stood back. He stood aside, and Jade looked into the eyes of the leader, who bared his teeth at her, and snarled.

Geng's actions had stunned her far more than any atrocity she had witnessed. Was there method to it? The behavior of these people, these creatures, had been monstrous, but she had come to perceive some method to their madness. There was a pecking order; there were rules to be followed. But even in this context, Geng's actions made no sense to her.

She stared back at the leader of the Reavers and gulped. She knew what she had to do to stay alive. She didn't know why, but that didn't matter. Hesitantly at first, she raised the knife up to her face. When the point of it touched her skin, she pulled back, instinct taking over. She felt fiery pain spread from her cheek. She knew she wasn't doing well — she had flinched at what amounted to a pinprick. The Reavers wanted to see much more pain than that.

For an instant, she considered throwing the knife to the floor, or even trying to lash out with it at one of the Reavers. Why give them what they want? If they want to see her in pain, why do it for them?

But some inner wisdom took over. The equation was simple: do this, you live; fail, you die.

And so, for the second time, she lifted the knife to her face. She looked away from the leader as she drew the blade into her flesh. Pain like nothing she had ever known coursed through her face and head, but still she continued. She stared into the eyes of Geng, the one Reaver who had ever spoken to her and told her his name, and watched as he stared back. For a moment, she thought she could sense sympathy, but perhaps that was just her imagination. Drawing strength from some inner reserve she didn't even know she had, she slowly drew one vertical cut down her right cheek. Maybe it would have hurt less had she done it quickly, but she didn't want to make the wound too deep. Tears entered the cut and it stung even more. Jade hadn't even realized she was crying, all she knew was the terrible, searing pain, which blotted out all other sensation. She focused on the sight of Geng's eyes, and moved the knife to her other cheek. Subtly, so subtly, Geng nodded, and she made a similar cut on her left cheek, and when she could take no more, she simply let go of the knife, and let it fall to the floor.

Commotion ensued. Geng grabbed her arm and shook it about. Reavers were arguing with other Reavers. Then Geng raised his voice, and, still holding Jade's arm, proclaimed in his loudest voice: “Jade! Reaver!”

It was clear that not everyone was happy with this proclamation, most especially not the one whom she had previously decided must have been the leader — who merely grunted and walked away. The crowd dispersed.

She stared once more into Geng's eyes, and shook her head slowly. I am not a Reaver!, she thought to herself.

And then another thought occurred to her, a thought which took her completely by surprise: How much time has passed here? I have never felt so … awake!

Dark Places

Suddenly Inhuman

The band of nomadic wanderers headed out once more into the black. They were forty eight in number, young and old. The group had numbered sixty when first they had embarked upon this journey, but attrition had taken its deadly toll. Some had been lost to illness, but most of the dead had been taken from them by the sheer dangers they had to face in order to survive as a group. The gods had not been replenishing their numbers as quickly as they were being depleted. Perhaps the gods were angry with them, as some believed. Card feared the gods, and the priests who interceded with them, but he had his people to keep safe, and that mattered more than anything. He was their leader, after all. He had kept them together with the promise of food and shelter. So far, he'd managed to keep that promise, but continuing to do so was getting more difficult each day.

Card stood alone in the sanctum. Yesterday had been a good day, and that raised hopes all round, but Card had to look not just at yesterday and today, but tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.

His mate, Gala, stood at the entrance to the sanctum and whined, a sound which indicated her desire to enter the room and share his company. Card acknowledged the request with a quiet grunt. The language that they spoke was neither Chinese nor English, though it was in part derived from both. Their communication relied more heavily on facial expression and body language than any human language, and its vocal component based around entirely different sounds, but language it was, and the two had no difficulty understanding each other.

“My mate”, she said. “The hunt was good. What troubles you?”

“The hunt was indeed good”, he acknowledged. “The gods were benevolent, and we should be thankful. But the gods' ways are mysterious, and I do not understand them. They took Khled from us, and gave us Hagar in return”.

“It is the way of things. What they take with one hand, they return with the other”.

“You know that my leadership was questioned”.

“What of it?”

The question took Card by surprise, though it should not have done. But Gala's status had not been threatened by the challenge. If Card were to be usurped by Khrau, Gala's status would be unchanged; she would simply be Khrau's mate instead of his. “Khrau is not fit for leadership”, Card declared. “He does not understand the way of things”.

And yet, Khrau's challenge had almost succeeded. If yesterday's hunt had not been successful, Card's decision would have been questioned. He could not afford another question mark against his name.

“Khrau believes that we should have stayed at the edge. There are resources there—“

“Yes”, he interrupted, “There are resources there. But they are getting fewer and fewer with each passing day. Soon there will be none left at all. We have no choice. We must go where the hunt takes us. And yet…“ He did not complete the sentence. She knew the rest. They all did: inward lay danger; inward lay the lions.

“It will be fine”, she reassured. “The gods favor us. We have meat. And I will see to it that we have nuts and fruit. And if not, we can always return to the home world”.

Angrily, he retorted: “I will not return to Miranda!”.

“Then we must venture inward”, Gala concluded.

“My thoughts”, Card agreed. But still, he could not help but be troubled. If Geng's warnings were accurate, it would be a mistake to awaken the sleeping lions. To do so could spell the end, not just of their own pack, but of all Reavers everywhere. It was a warning he took seriously.

“And what of Jade?”, Gala asked.

Card grunted noncommittally. This was a problem with no easy solution. “I don't know”, he said finally.

Jade thought that she had seen everything, that nothing more could shock her. She was wrong.

She stood before someone, or something, that had once been Hagar. Except that now, he was totally transformed. Hagar had gone mad — Jade could think of no other explanation. He was a seething ball of rage, fighting with anyone who came near him. The Reavers seemed to enjoy taking turns to bait him. They would taunt him, wait for him to lash out, and then fight him, as if to the death. The Reavers always won, but each time, they stopped short of killing him. Each time, they released him, to fight another fight, until, in the end, he collapsed through sheer exhaustion. Jade wasn't exactly alone with him, but the Reavers let her be, for reasons she did not understand. Whatever the reason was, though, it did allow her to get close to Hagar and attempt to communicate with him.

“Hagar?” she ventured.

The man that was once Hagar looked up at her. His face had been cut several times, as had his bare arms. Shards of metal pierced his arms. Jade couldn't help but be reminded of her own facial cuts. Those cuts had been made yesterday, but still they stung. Hagar's looked to have been made more recently, but it was hard to tell. But there was a difference. Jade had done what she had done because she'd been given no choice. Hagar seemed now to enjoy desecrating his own body. When the Reavers gave him a weapon, if he couldn't use it on them, he used it on himself, although now he was clearly too tired to do either. It was impossible to fathom his thoughts.

“Hagar?”, she repeated. “It's me. Jade. Do you remember?”

Hagar growled at her: a low pitched rumble that sent shivers down her spine. Then he snarled like an enraged rottweiler and pounced. He immediately tried to lunge at her throat with the knife he had been given. Only his exhaustion saved her. She leapt back, and wrestled the knife from his hand, but still he fought like a wild man. Finally, Jade pressed the knife to Hagar's throat, as she had seen the Reavers do earlier, and he backed off. And when he did, a sensation flooded through her body, filling her veins, invading every cell of her being. The sensation was exhilaration, and it shocked her. Around her, she heard the howls and yelps of the Reavers, who seemed to have enjoyed watching the struggle. Jade backed off also, unsure of what she had just experienced.

“What has happened to you?”, she asked Hagar, quietly. And in her mind, followed the question she did not dare ask aloud for fear that speaking the thought might give it power. The question: Is the same thing happening to me?

Hagar's eyes cleared, for just a moment. It was as though he had just stepped out of a fog; as though, just for a moment, he remembered who he was. “Jade?” he said, exhaustion evident.

“I'm here”, she told him.

Struggling for each word, Hagar managed to say: “Need … sleep …“

Of course he needs sleep, Jade considered. He's exhausted.

But that wasn't the only interpretation of Hagar's words, and Jade knew it. She herself had not slept since her arrival on this boat, and the fact was, she didn't even feel tired. For the past twelve years, she had slept through so much of her life before, and now she couldn't sleep at all. There was a meaning to it, she knew, though she had no idea what that meaning might be. Could it be, she wondered, that all of these people suffer from sleep deprivation? Could it be that that's what makes them mad?

But she knew that could not be the whole story. Hagar had not had enough time to have been sleep-deprived. She had lost track of how much time had passed, but it couldn't have been more than a day. Twenty four hours without sleep was not considered excessive. At least, not for other people.

Hagar struggled for words once more. “Tired … me. … Awake … “. He looked around, and yelled the next word at the top of his voice: “Reaver!” He began to laugh hysterically and thrash about. Jade moved further away.

“I think I understand”, she said, continuing to talk to him. “When you're tired, you're Hagar, but when you're not, you're…“ She didn't complete the sentence.

Hagar was changing, and so was she. She couldn't deny it — she had not stayed awake for more than eight hours at a stretch in all the days she could remember. This was new.

In one day, Hagar had transformed from human being to Reaver. In another day, she guessed, there would be nothing left of Hagar. And the same thing was going to happen to her. Perhaps it would take longer; perhaps her sleeping sickness had given her some advantage which had slowed down the transformation; or perhaps the process was just different for different people. But either way, she knew it was only a matter of time. Already, she could feel her grip on her mind loosening. She could feel the madness invading.

Aloud, she commanded: “Fight it. Fight it, Hagar”. To herself, she continued. “I will fight it. I am not a Reaver”. More quietly, she added: “I will never be a Reaver”

“She is a Reaver”, insisted Geng.

Card looked unconvinced. He had invited Geng into the cockpit to discuss this very issue, but his understanding of the situation was limited, and the ways of the gods strange to him. “Geng. I have always considered your advice when it comes to spiritual matters. You know the ways of the gods. But our tradition is clear. One for one. This I understand. This is our tradition. And yet, now you wish for us to take two, to make two Reavers, not one. Why?”

Geng shook his head. “That's not what I said, my leader. I said she is a Reaver”.

“Then you are mad”, Card concluded. “She is not Reaver. She is meat. How can you say otherwise?”

“I cannot explain it”, Geng admitted. “But I know that what I say is true.”

“If I see a horse and you tell me it is a cow, that does not make a horse a cow”, Card argued. This was quite sophisticated reasoning for him. He could think such thoughts, but they were rarely articulated. Seldom was there a need for such verbose conversation. Only with Geng was it ever needed, and only Geng needed true communication skills, for he was the priest, the man who communed with the gods.

Card may have been alpha, but Geng in many ways had more power, for he interceded with the higher beings that could make a hunt successful or unsuccessful, that could bring health or disease. And yet — this time around, Geng's statement seemed nonsensical. He was losing Card's confidence, and he knew it.

“My leader, do you remember before we arrived at the hunting ground? Do you remember that Khrau questioned your decision to travel to the border worlds?”

Card growled at this reminder. “I remember”, he acknowledged.

“He did not have faith in you. And yet, you were right. And all of this pack was rewarded”.

Card nodded. This was true.

“Then have faith in me. I know I am right. There is something about this one — I cannot explain.”

“Are you telling me that trusting your judgement in this will reward the pack with food?”

“It might”.

Card snarled. In truth, he considered the request, but the request was outrageous. It simply wasn't possible that Geng might be correct. Not this time. And that did not bode well, for if his priest started to lose his judgement, the whole pack could be in danger. And yet … what if Geng were correct? Deciding that doing something was better than doing nothing, he commanded: “Bring her to me”.

Geng lowered his head and left the cockpit.

A million miles away, a freight hauler hurtled through the blackness of space, heading from Newhall to Ariel. Its captain strolled into warehouse seven, bathed in the chill blue light, and approached the supervisor. “Everything in order?”

The warehouse supervisor looked surprised. “Captain Bailey. It's not often we see you on these decks. I hope there isn't a problem?”

“No, just a routine unscheduled inspection”, she replied, grinning mischievously. “I like this deck when it's laden. I like the look of it. I like the smell of it. Plus, this will be my last chance to take in the sights before you turn off life-support here”. She looked around the warehouse and took a deep breath. The smell was invigorating, but the sight was even more impressive. As far as the eye could see in any direction was wall to wall ice: processed water from Newhall, purified, frozen into yard wide cubes, and packaged for transport. Of course it did mean that the temperature had to be maintained below freezing, but in space that was hardly difficult, and only made the bay all the more invigorating.

Mercy McCready returned the smile. “I don't think about it any more”, she confessed. “It's just routine to me”.

The captain paused to take in the splendor. This was her first tour of duty aboard the Gentle Giant. Perhaps one day this would all become routine to her too, but she hoped not. There was something primal about this space. It was like standing at the foot of a glacier, or at the base of a crevasse. The cool air literally fell down the walls of ice. No cargo she had ever hauled was quite this breathtaking. “Don't mind me”, she suggested. “I'm not here to nag you, or to keep you from going about your work. I'm just enjoying the scenery. Feel free to go about your business”.

“Yes, Sir”, Mercy acknowledged. She saluted, and left the captain to her contemplation.

A buzzer sounded from the wall. Captain Bailey sighed. Work — always work! Still, at least she had had five minutes. She pressed the talk button and said: “Yes?”

“Captain”, came a scratchy voice which she recognized as that of her comm officer, “Got a wave. It's Sandra. Want me to bounce it down to you?”

“Yes, I'll take it here”, she acknowledged.

A concerned voice emanated from the comm. “Haley? Are you okay? I heard there was some sort of ruckus on Newhall”.

“Everybody's fine, Sandra. No problems. Why? What happened at Newhall? We didn't hear anything about any trouble”.

“Apparently one of the settlements got attacked. No details yet. But you might want to be on the lookout for pirates”.

She looked around the warehouse at the stacks of white and smirked. “I'm carrying ice this run, Sandra. I don't imagine pirates will be interested in a dozen warehouses full of ice. It's big and bulky and hard to smuggle. But thanks for the warning”.

“No probs. See you when you get home”.

She disconnected, paused for thought, and then pressed the connect button one more time. Once more she spoke to her comm officer: “Jack. Bailey here. I want you to be on the lookout for any unregistered ships. If you see anything strange, I want to know straight away”.

“Yes, Sir”, came the reply.

She sighed, hoping that her day wasn't going to be ruined by pirates.

Jade stood in the cockpit of the ship. This was the first time that she had been able to look out into the black and know that she actually was on a space ship. She still didn't know which ship she was on, or even what kind of ship it was. She didn't know how far they'd traveled from Newhall, or their destination. But it did feel a little better to know something. Before her stood two Reavers. She recognized both of them: Geng, the one with three parallel scars on each cheek, and metal spikes piercing his forehead and at the corners of his mouth, and the Reaver leader — she didn't know his name — burns, flaps of skin sewn onto his face, patchy black hair. The asymmetry of it made the man look decidedly daunting.

He spoke. Jade didn't recognize the words, but she recognized it as speech. Fortunately, Geng translated his words to English, for her benefit.

“He says: I am Card”, Geng told her. “I am alpha male. You defer to me”.

It occurred to Jade that she was having much less difficulty understanding Geng than before. His words had not gotten any clearer. Rather, she was becoming more accustomed to the way he spoke. Unsure how to respond, she did nothing, merely stood still. This was clearly the wrong response, since Card reacted angrily. He leapt toward her, grabbed her by the throat, pushed her against the wall, and growled menacingly. She tried to grab his hand, but he was stronger than her several times over, and such efforts were futile. In the distance, while choking and struggling for her life, she heard Geng say, quietly: “Bow”. She tried to lower her head, though it was difficult while Card held her.

It was enough. Card released her, and she collapsed to the floor. Card seemed disgusted, and a conversation in growls and snarls took place between Card and Geng. She could not understand what was being said. Finally, Card turned to her and spoke once more. Again, Geng translated.

“He says: My priest says you Reaver. What say you?”

Again, Jade had no idea how she was supposed to react, but some things were starting to make sense. She understood that being in the presence of Reavers had a maddening effect on people. She knew that that effect had already turned Hagar into a Reaver, and that it was starting to affect her. She also knew that her own changes were happening much more slowly, for whatever reason, and it seemed logical to her that this must have been noticed by those around her. What she imagined to be happening was that Card was displeased that she hadn't gone completely mad yet, and so wanted to kill her. She imagined that the only reason that this had not happened was that Geng had argued that her madness was progressing, that Card should be patient. Patience was not a virtue she traditionally associated with Reavers. But still, Card had asked her a question, and she needed to answer it. This was one of those moments when she wanted to be anywhere else but here, for here and now, she was forced to think about her own humanity. She could feel the madness creeping across her mind. Soon, she knew, she would be like them. The only way out — the logical way out — was to be dead. That would be easy to achieve. All she'd have to do would be to say “No”, and Card would kill her. But her survival instinct was strong, and she could not bring herself to do that. Like Hagar, when the chips were down, she knew that she would do whatever it took to stay alive for just one more minute. Of course, she couldn't speak their language, but she did know how to say yes and no. She nodded her head. Yes. Yes I am Reaver. It was a lie, but it was a lie that, she hoped, would keep her alive just a little bit longer.

Card reacted furiously and hurled something metal at her. It hit her in the upper arm and she yelped. It stung, momentarily blocking out the pain from her other injuries. Card snarled. Another question.

“Where you from?”, Geng translated. “What planet?”

“Newhall”, Jade answered, promptly, caressing her upper arm with her other hand.

Card continued to rage. Geng translated further. “Where you raised?”

“I … I don't remember”, Jade said, almost under her breath.

I rub my arm and wince at the pain. Why is someone throwing stones at me? I try to move out of the way, but another stone hits me in the leg. I yell “Ow”. Rory pulls me into the crowd, out of danger.

This is a march. We are on a march; some kind of parade. I can hear drums and flutes coming from up ahead. I don't understand what all of this is about, only that I'm not supposed to be here, and I am terrified of getting caught.

Daddy had told me to stay away from this area, to stay right away, as far away as possible. I don't pay much attention to stupid grown-up rules, especially when they keep me away from my friend Rory, especially when they're having a parade. Why should I miss out on that?

Now I wish I had. Someone is throwing stones at us. Not specifically at me — I just happen to be in the way — but it angers me. I want to throw back, but Rory prevents me.

I am dressed in brown. I fit in well with Rory and his friends, though why they all want to wear such a drab color is beyond me.

I notice more stones flying overhead, but these ones are going the other way. Now the marchers are throwing stones at the bystanders. No, wait — they're not bystanders, they're police — or some security firm, or some such. Why are people throwing stones at the police?

I hear the marchers up ahead chanting, keeping time with the drum beats. It is some kind of civil rights march. They are complaining that they can't get jobs, that all the best jobs go to the Alliance settlers — my parents; my neighbors. I don't understand. How can it be so hard to get a job? Daddy says there are lots of jobs. He says that anyone who can't find a job isn't trying. None of this makes sense to me. How can a march help anyone get jobs anyway?

The noise level rises, and I comprehend the reason. The army have arrived: the local army, the Regional Army Volunteers, or RAVs, colloquially known as the Ravens. I breathe a sigh of relief. Everything will be okay now. I trust the RAVs. They came to our school once, and told us all about how we could join and make the world a safer place. The noise level continues to rise. Any minute now I expect to see the RAVs arrest the troublemakers and we can all get on with our parade in peace.

There is the sound of a gunshot.

Startled, I look around.

There are screams.

Joe O'Hanlon grabs Rory and me and pulls us further into the crowd, further out of danger. Joe still isn't exactly a friend, but I think he respects me for being here, and for wearing brown.

There is another gunshot, and Joe lies bleeding on the ground. I think he might be dead.

I look around. The army are shooting into the crowd. I am dumbstruck. This is unbelievable.

Everybody is screaming, running, trying to get away. Rory tries to pull me towards the Valley Road, but I resist. I don't want to go there. I want to go home, where it's safe. So I pull Rory in the other direction. I tell him I know a shortcut.

We race through the alleys. Grownups try to stop us but we are too fleet. We cut through a shop, under a barbed wire fence, through a shuttle depot and out into London Road. We are wearing the wrong colors for this neighborhood, but we are eight years old and this is my home. As far as I am concerned, we are out of danger.

We collapse onto the sidewalk. Passers-by stare at us, but we don't care. I don't understand what has happened, or why, only that things have taken a nasty turn, and somehow I understand that Rory and I won't get to see each other at all for very much longer.. We rest, and get back our breaths, not knowing quite what so say. And then we look up to the sign above the shuttle depot. The irony is like a hammerblow, but neither of us is in the mood to laugh. “Welcome”, the sign says, “to Miranda”.

“Miranda”, Jade said, remembering. All conversation stopped dead.

Card and Geng were utterly silent. She wasn't sure whether or not Card could understand English, but he had certainly understood the word “Miranda”. Yet it was a word Jade had not heard in all of her years on Newhall.

The Reavers still looked thunderstruck. Though Geng's expression quickly turned to a smile, it was clear that even he had not expected that answer.

Card barked at her. “Wait here”, Geng translated. Card stormed out of the room, virtually dragging Geng behind him.

Jade sat down at the pilot's chair and stared out into the black. She was alone in the room. Directly ahead lay a pinprick of light. She thought nothing of it.

“It's definitely a ship”, Jack told her. “And an old one at that”.

Captain Bailey, now on the bridge, frowned curiously. “Could you be more specific?”

Jack's hand flew across the dials and switches of the nav console. “Impossible to tell at this distance. Whatever it is, it's heading our way. I guess we'll find out for sure when it gets closer”.

“How long until they reach us?”

“An hour? Maybe two?”

Bailey considered this, but she also remembered the warning she had received earlier. “Let's ask them”, she said. “Try to raise them. See what they have to say for themselves”.

Startled, Jade almost jumped out of the chair. A voice. The first sane, human voice she had heard in … how long?

“Unidentified ship. Calling unidentified ship. This is the freight hauler Gentle Giant calling unidentified ship, requesting identification. Please respond”.

Jade looked around, furtively. She was alone in the cockpit. The voice came from the radio. Elation surged through her bones, closely followed by horror. In quick succession came the thought of rescue, followed by the thought that she could never be rescued, followed by fear for the lives of those on the Gentle Giant.

“Unidentified ship, you are going too fast. If you don't slow down you're going straight up our ass. We strongly suggest that you change course immediately”.

Jade looked out of the window once more. That light directly ahead — it must be the freighter.

Still no one came to the cockpit. She was alone here.

It occurred to her that maybe she could answer the signal. Maybe she could actually talk to another human being. She studied the controls in more detail. There were way too many controls for any of them to make sense, and she was by no means a pilot. But there was a viewscreen which looked remarkably like the one Slate had installed on the Lana. If the controls were similar…

She pressed what she hoped was the right button.

At once the screen lit up. A man's face filled the screen, the face of a youth, not much older than herself. He said: “My god, what happened to you?”

“What?” Jade said, confused.

“Your face. How'd you get all cut up like that?”

She reached up to touch her scars. She'd almost forgotten about them. Realizing that she might not have much time, she said: “Please, you gotta get outa here. Change course. Run”.

“Well, see, it's not that easy, coz we're big and bulky, and you're light and maneuverable, so, not trying to pull rank or anything, but we'd rather prefer if you changed course. 'Sides, this is a regular trade route, and, not to be rude or anything, but you shouldn't be on it”.

“You ain't comprehending”, she said. “There's Reavers here. Are you the captain?”

The man laughed. “Yeah right. That's a good one. And no, I'm not the captain. Name's Jack, Jack Norton. You? You the captain?”

“Jade”, she told him. “I'm not the captain either. But honest — if you don't believe me, let me talk to your captain. It's really, really important”.

“Jack and Jade”, he winked. “I like it. Well, you know — I can put you through to my captain if you'd like, but honestly, she's much less fun to talk to than me, and she is very likely to use certain strong words, given that you're — you know — about to crash into us and all”

“Please…“, she implored.

“Okay”, Jack said, reaching forward. The screen went blank. For a moment, Jade started to panic that the connection had been lost, but she realized that Jack was probably talking privately to his captain. She looked around the cockpit once more, ever alert for Reavers. But still she was alone.

After what seemed like an eternity, the screen lit up once more, this time filled with the face of an older woman. She wore a crisp blue uniform which Jade did not recognize, complete with a peaked cap. “I'm told your name is Jade”, she said. “You must change course, Jade. This is an authorized trade route, and you are not authorized to use it. You also happen to be on a collision course with us, and, not to put too fine a point on it, we are a lot bigger than you”.

Jade was close to tears. After what she had been through this past day or so, tears came easily, but it surprised her that a simple telling off from a freight captain might hurt this much. But then — maybe it wasn't the captain's voice that hurt her, it was what she knew she was going to have to say. “Please …“, she began, “Destroy this ship”.

Momentarily nonplussed, Captain Bailey found herself lost for words. Then she said, succinctly, “Explain”.

“Listen. They might come back any moment. This is a Reaver ship”.

“And you think those cuts on your face will make me believe that?”

At this point Jade really did burst into tears. “Just listen will you?”, she screamed. “They attacked the Isle of Herren on Newhall. They killed everyone. And worse. They—“. She wanted to tell about the carnage, the unbridled brutality of it. She wanted to make clear the extent of the horror that these Reavers had inflicted on her, but the words would not come. How could you convey that agony in a sentence?

“Reavers don't leave survivors”, Bailey countered.

At last, Jade thought, Someone who believes in Reavers. “Yes they do”, she explained. “But they … turn them … somehow. It's like a disease, an infection maybe. I'm changing. I can feel it. I can feel it in my head. I'm turning into one of them. Please … destroy this ship. Please”. She sobbed. She meant it, too. A quick death from a laser shot or some such would be amply preferable to any death she could imagine here, and certainly preferable to being taken over, as Hagar had been.

“This is a freight hauler, not a warship”, Bailey told her. “We're not armed”.

“Then run”, she told them. “Run like hell”.

Something about the lighting made Jade aware that she was no longer alone in the room. A shadow, where no shadow had been before. Slowly, she turned around. Behind her stood Card, and he was grinning with bared teeth. He pushed her aside and snarled at the image on the viewscreen, which immediately went blank.

Geng entered the cockpit, following closely behind Card. Jade feared that they'd be angry with her, but it hardly mattered. What would come would come.

Card raved. He was ecstatic. “You were correct, my priest. I should not have doubted you”. Animatedly, he pointed first at the viewscreen, then at some control which Jade did not recognize, and then out through the window. “She brings us to meat. This is a good sign”.

Geng bowed. “It is, as I have said”.

Card looked at Jade with narrowed eyes, then returned his gaze to Geng. “The hunt is on”, he said. “If it is successful, if all hunters return from the hunt, then I will take that as a sign that the gods are pleased. Then, she may join us”.

Geng nodded.

Jade heard none of that. All she heard was meaningless noise. She assumed that she'd been caught in the act of trying to betray them, and that they were angry with her.

A hundred thousand miles away, the captain of the freight hauler Gentle Giant closed the comm connection, and said, simply, “Oh shit!”

The bridge of the Gentle Giant was a flurry of activity. Captain Bailey took charge, but clearly their options were limited. “I hate to break this news to you people but we got Reavers on our tail”.

Jack screwed up his forehead in consternation. “Reavers are real?”, he ventured.

“Can we outrun them?”, she demanded.

Her pilot, Chi Ho, answered that with a swift “No. They have better acceleration than we do. They're smaller and, lighter, and they have way, way more maneuverability than us”.

“Do we have anything we can use as a weapon?”

“Wait!”, Jack interjected. “That girl—“

“Is better off dead”, the captain declared, her expression stony and resolute.

For a moment Jack was silent. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. “What!?”, he finally exclaimed. “Isn't that just a little over the top? You can't just go around killing people”.

“I appreciate the advice Mister Norton, but we have been given the good grace of an advance warning, so I suggest we take advantage of it. They are Reavers. Given the chance, they would kill us all without a second thought. They would skin us alive, eat our innards … and after that they would start to get nasty. So no more talk of being nice. We need action”.

“Well sure, but—“, Jack paused, choosing the right words carefully. “If we find a way to attack them, won't they get just a teensy bit annoyed?”

Ignoring that, she addressed her first officer: “Perth. What's our lifeboat status?”

Perth answered: “We can fill the boats and evacuate the ship, but I don't think it will help. Those lifeboats would never be able to get away. The Reavers would chase them down, every one”.

Jack spoke up again. “Am I the only one who's not buying the whole Reaver thing?”

The captain fixed him with a stern gaze. “Buy it”, she commanded, “Or get off my bridge”.

Perth spoke again. “We're bigger than they are. Much bigger. Surely they won't be able to board us?”

“It's what they do”, she answered. “They've had practice. They'll take out our electronics with a pulse beam, hook onto us with a magnetic grappler—“

“But they still have to dock, right?”, he reasoned. “They'd still have to come in through the airlocks?”

“Not necessarily. They could get in through the cargo bays. What do you have in mind?”

“Get everyone to the bridge, seal the bulkheads, and open the airlocks before they get here. Empty the ship of air, except for here. Let them breathe vacuum when they come on board”.

“Won't work. I'm fair sure they understand space suits”.

“We could call for help”.

Jack quickly curtailed that plan. “Actually, we can't. There's a lot of static. I think someone might be jamming us”. He seemed surprised at that.

Perth suggested: “Barricades?”

“I'm not sure we'd have time to build any decent fortifications. There are only twelve of us”.

Jack said: “I have an idea”.

The captain eyed him suspiciously. “Are you with us, Mister Norton?”

“Call me Jack”, he said, taking umbrage at the formality. “It's just — does anyone know the legend of the Titanic?”

The whole bridge crew stared at him, incredulously.

“It's just — I've heard that icebergs can do quite a bit of damage”.

Preparations for the hunt were well underway. Card expertly organized the pack into an efficient hunting team. This was a tribute not just to his leadership skills, but to the way that the whole pack meshed together to become more than the sum of its parts when the time called for such action.

Jade was not allowed complete free run of the ship, but there were places she was allowed to go. The cockpit, however, was not one of them. That, it seemed, was by invitation only. The Reavers to some extent left her alone, but that only made her feel more isolated. The room in which Li Chow had been hanged seemed to be somewhere she was allowed to go, and she made use of that room to stay clean, use the toilet facilities and acquire clothing that wasn't made of dead bodies. She felt sick every time she entered that room, for she couldn't shake away the image of Hagar, when he had still been human, kicking away the stool which had led to Li Chow's death. But then, that was now only one image among many that she wished she could forget. Primary among her thoughts were recollections of the massacre at Herren Island. Perhaps it would fade with time, but it had happened only yesterday — if days meant anything here — and the memory was still fresh, and try as she might to avoid it, those images kept coming back to her, most especially when she was alone. So she sought out Hagar's company. She found him in the large cargo bay where Abigail had been raped to death. He was accompanied by one Reaver — or rather, one other Reaver — for there was no doubt now that Hagar had turned, that he was no longer human. Jade did not recognize the Reaver who was with Hagar. This Reaver was female, and tall. Her face had no cuts or piercings, but daggerlike markings had been tattooed onto her face, and her hair was cut short. She reacted to Jade only when Jade came too close, snarling a warning territorial growl which was a clear indication to stay back. She seemed to be teaching Hagar, as though she had taken him on as an apprentice. Once more, she resisted the urge to vomit when she realized what it was that was being taught. He was being shown how to butcher human bodies. The Reaver wielded a long curved knife, like a machete, and hacked into the frozen naked corpse of a boy of probably teenage years. Thankfully, the body was by now so mutilated that Jade was unable to identify who it might have been. Her demonstration done, the Reaver handed the knife to Hagar, who proceeded to copy what he had been shown, though with somewhat less finesse. Jade wondered why he didn't attack the Reaver, but that was just one more mystery among an almost limitless supply of unknowns.

The impression Jade was getting was that there was a pecking order among the Reavers, and that Hagar was the lowest of the low.

Exactly where she fit in she didn't know. It was almost as though she had no place at all. In a sense, like Hagar, she was at the bottom of the pecking order, but unlike Hagar, she had not been given any work. It was as if the Reavers, by and large, didn't know how to deal with her, as if she simply didn't fit into their social structure at all. That they even had a social structure was something which amazed her.

Her biggest problem now was hunger. It had been a day since she had eaten. Thankfully, none of the Reavers had offered her any bits of dead body, but then, they hadn't offered her anything at all. She wasn't sure what she was supposed to eat. It occurred to her that there might be no food at all on this ship, save for human bodies. If that were the case, she would starve. What would she do, she wondered, if the Reavers tried to force her into cannibalism? For how long could she refuse to eat? What if they told her to eat flesh or die?

More disturbing still was her continuing loss of control of her mind. It wasn't that she felt any kind of compelling urge to kill and maim and rape, more that she felt that that urge could come at any time, that she could be taken over by it. It was as if her humanity were hanging by a thread. It took more and more mental effort, as time went by, just to continue to be herself.


Jade looked up. Her name had been called. The Reaver who had been tutoring Hagar was addressing her. She had no way of telling whether this was a good thing or a bad thing, but anything was better that being ignored. She remembered to bow. She didn't understand the significance of the bow, only that failure do so usually met with assault. Only with Geng and Hagar did she not need to employ that gesture.

The Reaver spoke, but not in English nor Chinese. She spoke in “Reaver talk”, a language by and large made up of very different sounds, and also of gestures. It occurred to her that Hagar could not speak or understand it, that he was being taught menial tasks which did not require speech. Language was key, Jade realized. If she was to survive, she would have to learn how to understand these people.

Jade repeated what Geng had first done when teaching her his name. She pointed to herself and said “Jade”, then pointed to the woman.

The woman understood. “Sing”, she said. For a brief moment, Jade almost laughed. It was as though this woman, this Reaver, had instructed her to sing, and that was far worse than monstrous — it was absurd. But no, Sing was the woman's name. The woman smiled. For just a moment, that made Jade feel good, as though she'd made a friend. Then she remembered where she was, that the woman was a Reaver, a monster, and the warmth evaporated, leaving her feeling empty and confused. She bowed her head, and slowly, very slowly, got up and left for what she now thought of as her room.

Mercy McCready sat in her office overlooking warehouse one and prepared to open the cargo bay doors. “Now, remember”, she told the captain, “Some of this ice will get burned off by our engines, but most of it will stay solid”

And we can't turn our reaction engines off, Captain Bailey considered, because if we did that we'd be at rest relative to the ice, and the Reavers would thunder into us as well as into the 'berg. “Fire at will”, she said. She'd always wanted to say that.

The warehouse depressurized as the doors slowly opened. Elsewhere on the ship, the same thing was happening to warehouses two, three and four. It was only a shame they couldn't unload all eight, but the exterior doors of the other bays faced in the wrong direction. When all of the doors were fully opened, Mercy flipped the switches which would disable the grav drive locally within the warehouses. Immediately the huge walls of ice fell backwards into the blackness of space.

A Reaver sat alone in the pilot seat of the cockpit. Her name was Gra. Her job was simple enough to describe, but took great skill to execute. She was to disable the prey vessel, and dock with it so that the hunters could enter. She prided herself on that skill. Few others on this vessel could match it.

She looked out of the window at the ship directly ahead as she aimed the EMP weapon toward it. Suddenly she caught a flash of white from the prey ship. She didn't know what it was, but instinct made her panic. She grabbed the control stick with both hands and pulled upward as the white fleck got larger. Clearly it was a projectile of some sort. Desperately, she struggled to pull away. The white fleck began to expand visibly, and rapidly. Whatever it was, it was big. She surged the thrusters, trying to make headway. The white expanse became large enough to make out details. It was a cluster of many smaller objects, possibly cubes, forming a wall of immense size. The engines screamed, but collision seemed unavoidable, though it was difficult to tell because the scale of the cluster was impossible to judge.

In space, a wall of ice pounded into metal. It screeched, and slid, and cut swathes of grooves into the ship's underside. Propelled by momentum, its corrosive power was immense. Alarms rang within the ship, urging an evacuation of the lower deck. The chunks gauged their way along the ship's belly and cut their way into the main engine housing. The horrifying, tearing, grinding sound reverberated throughout the ship. The impact could be felt everywhere. Though the grav drive had rendered Gra's violent maneuverings unnoticeable to those aboard, the impact with the huge artificial iceberg was not compensated for. The entire ship shook with a thunderous roar, and a jolt which left almost no one still standing.

And then, just as suddenly, it was over. The ship pulled clear, and the bulk of the berg passed by underneath. But Gra could not relax. Her body was filled with anger and fury, her every instinct cried out for her to attack. With difficulty, she kept those instincts in check. She had a job to do. Taking deep breaths, she got the ship back under full control and eased back the throttle. The ship now stable, she pitched forward, putting it back on course to intercept their target.

With almost half of its mass jettisoned, the Gentle Giant was able to nearly double its acceleration. But even with pulse drive on top of that, it still wasn't going to be enough to escape.

The internal comm beeped, and Gra hit the talk button. She knew it would be Card. She wasn't wrong.

“Report”, he roared.

She read the instrument panels. “They threw something at us. We're clear now, but we've taken some damage. The underside heat shielding is fried. The main engine was damaged, but it's still working. We've lost reactor core containment”.

She heard Card growl and mutter something incomprehensible. Then came the attack order. “Let's get them”, he spat.

Sparks flew from the consoles, and the lights went out on the bridge of the Gentle Giant.

“What happened?”, Captain Bailey demanded.

“Some kind of electromagnetic pulse beam”, Perth replied. “We have no internal power”.

Their eyes adjusted to the emergency lighting. “Where's backup?”, she asked.

“Coming on line very soon”.

“Wait!”, she commanded. “What happens if we power up and then they hit us with that beam again? Will it take out the backup power?”

“It might”

“Then just hang on one more moment”. They waited, and just as the Captain had anticipated, a second pulse coursed through the ship. She breathed a sigh of relief, and said “OK, now you can switch on the backup. But emergency systems only. Try to stay as dark as possible”.

The Reaver ship loomed frighteningly close, decelerating as it matched its velocity to theirs. Even its appearance was daunting. It had a bulbous bow, at the front of which was a large clear cockpit which would afford the pilot a good all round view, including above and below. Two large struts extended from the ship's sides, each terminating in a large and powerful thruster. From the back roof of the ship extended a number of short wings, presumably for maneuverability in atmosphere. These were silhouetted by the orange glow from the ship's rear and main engine, making them look spiky and threatening. Lighting arced along the port thruster strut, a clear indication that something had been damaged. It was hard to judge scale in space, but Bailey estimated its hull to be maybe 250 feet across, and maybe 400 feet long.

“Do we have any control at all?”, Bailey asked.

“A little. We—“. Perth's explanation was curtailed, as new information appeared on the screen before him. With obvious irritation, he continued: “Ai-ya! What little control we have will do us no good. We've been grappled. Magnetic. There's nothing to stop them boarding us now”.

“Get everyone onto the bridge. We'll barricade the place up as you suggested”.

Jade hadn't been forgotten in all this. At least, not by Card. He instructed his troops with gestures which needed little language. Even Hagar understood, and complied without question. They were getting agitated, fired up for a battle. The tension was tangible. Jade wanted to leave, but that wasn't going to be allowed to happen. She was to be dragged along, to witness, she presumed, another massacre — as if one hadn't been enough; as if watching the monsters rip her home town to shreds were insufficient torture. Why was she being put through this? She wished right now that she could be left alone, as they had left her alone in the past, but it was not to be.

There was a clunk, and she knew what it meant. Their ship had docked with the freighter. The airlock doors opened. There was a hiss as some of their air blew out through the airlock into the other ship, but the pressure soon equalized. As soon as the doors were opened wide enough, ten of the hunters ran through. Card grabbed Jade by the arm and thrust her through the airlock door and roared loudly. She wasn't sure whether he was yelling at her or his hunting pack or the other ship in general, but he was certainly making himself clear in one regard. He wanted her to follow the hunters. Card intended to stay at the rear, making sure that she obeyed. Once more racked with fear and panic, she ran.

She lost track of the route the Reavers took inside the ship, but it contained a number of twists and turns, and led to solid bulkhead. The Reavers were trying to break it down. Some, Hagar included, were simply throwing their bodies at the door, fueled by pure rage. One opened up a panel, and began pulling out wires — though, Jade noted, not randomly. This one knew what he was doing and within a very short space of time, there was a hiss as the hydraulic clamps which kept this door glued tight were released. Then, slowly but surely, the door was prized open.

Gunfire whistled through the door, and more than one Reaver took a bullet. One fell to the floor, bloodied, but not dead. Others who had been hit acted as though nothing had happened. Moreover, the Reavers were themselves armed: they held fierce looking throwing weapons, metal discs rimmed with spikes or blades; they fired metal bolts from crossbow like devices. Soon they were in the room, Jade dragged along with them. The noise was unbearable, a cacophony of screaming and agony.

She saw the captain take a bolt through the shoulder and fall to the floor. She rushed over, at first to help, but halted as the Reavers dived onto the woman and began tearing into her flesh with teeth and knives.

She looked away. She wanted to close her eyes and shut out the images, but she could not shut out the sounds, and some driving force gave her a need to see. On the captain's desk was a screen. Jade read the some of the text on the screen. It read: “…have been attacked by Reavers. These Reavers may also have attacked a settlement on Newhall. We are attempting…“. Further down the screen she read: “…I treasure every moment that we spent…“. Wanting to lash out at something, anything, Jade let fly at the screen. She failed to even dent it.

Someone pulled her sideways. She turned to see her assailant. It was Jack Norton, the cheery comm operator she had spoken to earlier. Momentarily startled, she froze, as did he. It was obvious to her that Jack was confused as to what to do. He held a long metal bar in his hand. Seeming to come to a decision, he raised it and prepared to swing it at Jade.

Nuclear fury enveloped her. It was a rage, a passion, with an intensity that she had never felt before. It consumed her, beyond any control. Her conscious awareness took a back seat as her body reacted with venom. She felt her lips mouth the words “Jack and Jade”. Maybe she even heard the words, but it was difficult to know for sure, drowned out as they were by the sounds of killing and dying.

She bit into Jack's face, her teeth piercing his left cheek and lower eyelid. He screamed and dropped the metal bar. She clamped down harder, or at least, her teeth clamped down harder, and she ripped chunks of flesh from the young man's face.

What happened after that, she could not remember. Awareness came back to her slowly. There were shouts of triumph and victory. She looked around at the carnage. Before her lay the body of a young man, his face ripped to shreds. She fell back, as realization overwhelmed her. She could taste blood at the back of her throat. She looked down at herself. Blood covered her clothing. It wasn't hers.

She lay on the floor, staring at the body in disbelief, her mind screaming at her: This ain't me! Ain't no way I could have done that!

She sobbed, and tears mixed with blood.

What have I done?

Dark Places

Rites of Passage

Beyond the drapes, the air was cold. The man felt the drop in temperature as he pushed the insulating curtains aside and stepped into the refrigerated space beyond. He had come looking for meat, and there was certainly no shortage of that here. He rummaged through the current stocks, which were plentiful because a batch had been transferred from the freezer very recently — probably only yesterday.

Deeper inside the pantry, the man observed, a second person stood, collecting items into a sack. It was the newcomer, the one called Jade. The man had seen her about the ship from time to time, but never before had he had the opportunity to study her up close. He decided that it was time to change that. Wasting no time, he strode further into the cold space and grabbed her by the arm.

“Khrau”, the newcomer said, startled, then quickly remembered to bow her head.

The man, Khrau, however, was not appeased by this gesture of submission. So far as he was concerned, the newcomer did not so much embrace their ways, as mock them. He snarled at her, then demanded: “You! What are you?”

Feeling the pressure of Khrau's strong grip on her arm, she whimpered slightly, then said: “I get food”.

This angered Khrau. “I didn't ask what you were doing”, he declared, “I asked what you were. What kind of a creature are you?”

The human-looking thing quivered. “I not understand”, she said. Sounding almost desperate she re-iterated: “I not understand. I get food. I get food for Sing”.

Khrau released her at that. “You can't speak”, he said, sounding disdainful. “I thought as much. You are a savage, yet Card sees fit to treat you as though you were civilized. Why?”

A pause, then the savage once more repeated: “I not understand”.

“I not understand!”, Khrau spat. “Is that all you can say? Well, maybe it is”. He looked down at her with scorn and pity. He studied her clothing. She dressed like prey. Khrau prided himself on his attire, hand crafted from the skin and bone of the hunted. This one — she might as well be the hunted! It would serve her right if one of the hunters were to tear into her flesh by mistake. Then it occurred to Khrau that her clothing was not the only thing about her that was atypical. He hadn't paid her much attention until now, but now that she was here… “One more thing”, he snarled. “For three weeks you have been among us. Three weeks. And in all that time, I have not once seen you eat meat. What do you eat? What is in the sack?”

Jade struggled with the words. “The … sack?”

Unwilling to wait for comprehension, Khrau grabbed the sack from her, and peered into its interior. He inhaled, then handed the sack back to her. “Vegetation!”, he spat.

“Is food, for Sing”, Jade tried to explain that she was here on an errand, that she wasn't stealing. “Food for Sing make gruel”.

In a low growl, Khrau said: “You are not Reaver. You may have fooled the others, but I see through you. You smell like Reaver; you taste like Reaver; but you are not Reaver. One day, I promise, I will strip the flesh from your bones, and then you will submit to me.”

Uncomprehending, but clearly terrified of him, Jade merely bowed her head, and once more said: “I not understand”.

Khrau threw her to the ground and stormed out of the pantry, grabbing an arm bone thick with meat as he marched into the mess hall, cursing with every breath.

Jade lay on the ground, and wondered what all that had been about.

She made her way back to the lower galley, thinking about the incident with Khrau. She knew more or less that Khrau was some high-ranking individual, possibly even second-in-command though she still hadn't fully understood the social organization here. She had recognized Khrau immediately, not by his facial markings, but by his stature. Khrau was short and stocky, but it surprised her to find that he was incredibly strong. She wasn't sure what she had done to upset him, though that hardly mattered — it didn't take much to upset a Reaver. The surprising thing, though, was that he had continued to be angry at her even after she had bowed her head in submission. That was unusual, and it made her think she must have done something wrong.

She gave the sack of vegetables to the tall, tattooed woman, Sing, who immediately began unloading it into a large bowl and began mashing it with a leg bone. Jade copied the action, and Sing looked pleased. She picked up a carrot, showed it to Sing, and asked “What this?”

Sing said the word. To Jade, it sounded like a short, quiet grunt.

She mimicked the sound, and tried to associate the sound with the vegetable. Sing nodded.

Language was key, Jade had realized. Though she didn't know much about Reaver society, she knew that the lowest ranks, which included Hagar, had almost zero understanding of the Reaver language used by the higher ranks. If she were to survive here, she reasoned, she would have to understand them, and so had set about deliberately to learn how to speak, their way. But she had a long way to go.

Sing, though, was helpful, which pleased Jade. It was almost like she had found a friend. Sing held up a corn cob, and asked “What is this?”

Jade frowned in concentration, then said the word she had learned for corn. Sing nodded once more: “Yes”.

This wasn't much of a life, Jade reflected, but she was surviving. Ever since the incident on the Gentle Giant, she had been somewhat withdrawn. She understood that whatever had changed her, it's grip on her, though not as pronounced as the effect upon Hagar, was nonetheless real and undeniable. Something had happened to her. She still remembered the mutilated face of poor Jack Norton, and the fact that it had been she who had inflicted that damage burned her. In recent weeks, she had learned that she could be human one moment, but transformed by anger into a creature of fierce rage the next. She didn't like it when she lost control to rage — it was as though her body acted with a will of its own, her awareness taking a back seat. What surprised her though, was that she never lost control completely. Unlike Hagar, who was by now all Reaver, all the time, Jade still had her memories, and her sense of who she was.

She had changed so much from the last time she saw Slate. She had not slept in three weeks, but she was not tired.

She knew now that even if Slate happened still to be alive, she could never return to him, for if the madness were to overcome her, she could hurt him, or worse.

The relationship that she had formed with Sing was a strange one. Sing spoke no English, and no Chinese, but she was willing to teach Jade the Reaver speech, one word at a time. Sing worked mostly in the galleys, preparing food for the pack. Though the pack's main diet was meat, what vegetable produce that took from their raids was every bit as important, nutritionally. Sing made the vegetables into a kind of gruel, which the Reavers used to flavor their meat. Though it looked like green porridge, the gruel was the only part of the Reavers' diet which Jade could bring herself to sample. Their meat, she knew, was most likely human flesh, and the thought of eating that sickened her. Still, she pounded the mash with her leg bone, and tried not to think of the fact that bone was human.

There were many questions she wanted to ask of Sing, but she simply could not express herself in ways that Sing could understand. She could say the names of certain objects, a few verbs like “get”, and “mash”, and even the odd adverb such as “quickly”, and yet the simplest things were somehow the most difficult, not because the language was necessarily difficult, but because she couldn't figure out how to ask for the word. Disturbingly, she realized that Geng would probably have made the better language tutor. He spoke English and Chinese, as well as Reaver, which was bitter irony given that Geng's facial piercings made it difficult for him to speak clearly. But she had seen him kill Mike by the most brutal of means. Mike Turner had been around her for the whole of her life — or at least, that part of it that she could remember. He had worked with Slate to build not just the Lana, but parts of the home in which she had lived. Now he was gone, his life extinguished without reason, and Geng had taken it with a scrap of metal.

She was more comfortable with Sing. Possibly Sing was guilty of atrocities just as horrific, but Jade had not witnessed them, and that made it easier.

She made an attempt to ask a question. She wanted to ask Sing what she might expect at the ceremony in which she was expected to take part a few hours from now, but all she managed to say was “What … Jade … ceremony”.

Sing tried to answer, but her rapid speech was lost on Jade. The prospect of a ceremony did not frighten Jade. Fear no longer held quite the grip on her that once it had done. It was as though she had passed straight through fear and out the other side. What she understood of the ceremony was simple enough — they were going to make both herself and Hagar official members of this pack. She figured it probably involved something horrible, because pretty much everything Reavers did was horrible, but she knew she would survive it. But still, she wanted to know.

Sing issued a new instruction. Speaking slowly and simply, she said: “Jade get ice”.

Jade nodded, and confirmed the instruction. “Jade get ice”. Then she stood up and left for the freezer room. Sing would use the ice to make a chilled drink from crushed fruit, which, from Jade's point of view, was easily the most palatable thing on this boat. She eagerly strode into the corridor which would take her to the large cargo bay housing the freezer.

A commotion in the cargo bay distracted her. There was some sort of fight going on. Fights were not unusual among Reavers but there was something different about this one. At first, she couldn't put her finger on it. It seemed as though three people were ganging up on one victim, and she was screaming. It didn't make sense. Why didn't the woman just acknowledge defeat and go down a peg or two in rank for a time? That was how it worked. Then she realized: this wasn't a ritual combat — it was a rape.

Thunderstruck, Jade was immediately angry. It seemed to her that this was a violation even by Reaver standards. The woman at the center of this was a Reaver, and a member of this pack. Jade didn't know her name, but she'd seen her around. While she could, to a certain extent, follow the logic of attacking outsiders, attacking kin seemed outrageous.

Jade acted without thinking. It was a dumb thing to do, but she had long since been numbed to fear. She ran into the mêlée yelling “Leave her alone”, in English, and started to pull the attacking Reavers away from the victim.

Then she wished she hadn't.

As one, they turned toward her, and eyed her suspiciously, and furiously. Three Reavers stared at her, snarling. She noted that human skin was sewn into their clothing. Suddenly there were four Reavers staring her down, angry looks upon their faces. Jade's heart pounded. The fourth Reaver was the woman, the victim. What was going on?

Her mind raced trying to think this through, to think her way out of this one. She had acted impulsively — an unwise move, but that was something she had been doing more and more these past few weeks, a consequence, she supposed, of the transformation affecting her. Now she needed an escape, a survival strategy. She doubted that her life was in danger, but there were things worse than death, and she did not want to experience them. So she growled, roared, and attacked the woman.

The fight was brief. It took only a matter of seconds before Jade was on the floor and the woman lunged at her, teeth bared. Gritting her own teeth with determination, Jade turned her head aside and bared her neck to her attacker, who proceeded to clamp down on her jugular vein with controlled force. It hurt, but the Reaver did not pierce skin. Grimacing at the pain, Jade moved her head forward in a bow of submission.

It was over. She was released from the vice-like grip of the Reaver. Automatically, her hand went to her neck to inspect the damage, but though it hurt like hell, her fingers could detect no cuts.

All four Reavers wandered off, leaving Jade sitting alone at the center of the bay, still trying to figure out exactly what had just happened.

And standing on the catwalk overlooking the bay, two Reavers who had just watched the whole incident looked at each other, then back down at Jade.

“Did you see that?”, asked Card.

“I did”, Geng answered.

“Why did she attack Mace?”

“To avoid having to fight Smit, Han or Barker”

Card did not follow the logic. “Why was fighting Mace better than fighting Smit, Han or Barker?”, he asked. “Jade is a crude fighter, untrained. She could not have defeated any of them”.

“Her intent was not to win. Her intent was to lose”. There was admiration in Geng's voice.

“That was inevitable”.


There was a brief silence. It was clear that Geng had deduced something. Card wanted to know what it was. “Explain”, he commanded.

“The men were aroused”, Geng explained. “Their intent was to mate with Mace. That intent could easily have been transferred to Jade. Jade did not want that”.

“So she decided that losing to Mace would be better than losing to the men because she reasoned that Mace would not want to mate with her?”


Card considered. “That is sound tactical thinking”, he concluded.

“Yes, it is”, Geng concurred.

“She is a thinker”, Card mused.

“Yes”, came the simple, quiet acknowledgement.

“This bodes well. But why did she attack Han in the first place?”

“That, I think, was not sound tactical thinking. I suspect that, in that case, she was driven by impulse”.

Card grunted. Impulse was something he could easily understand. “So”, he concluded, “Sound tactical thinking … sometimes“.

“She has no training”, Geng said.

“Hmmm…“, Card considered. “It has been on my mind of late, what to do with her? After the ceremony, she will be a member of this pack. I will need to give her a role”.

“That is true. But you have many options”.

“Hunter was my first thought. She performed well during the last hunt”.

“That is always your first thought”, Geng pointed out. “In this case, it might not be the best placement”.

“She seems to show a preference for galley work”, Card said.

Geng shook his head. “No. I have watched her with Sing. The work is not her motive”.

“Then what?”

“She is learning to speak. She works in the lower galley because Sing is willing to teach her words”

Card said nothing. This was an astonishing revelation. Newcomers rarely learned to speak the true speech. Usually they picked up the basics during training, but that was all that they ever needed. Jade was an enigma.

“I do … have a suggestion”, said Geng.

“I am listening”.

There was a brief pause, before Geng said: “I could use an apprentice”.

Card was momentarily astounded. This was a strange suggestion. But on reflection, it did seem appropriate in many ways. Geng could teach Jade to speak. She could be trained to develop that tactical thinking that he had earlier seen deployed. And it was important for this pack that there should always be a priest. Right now, if Geng were to die, there would be no backup. Card had been considering the problem of Geng's apprentice for some time. This, it seemed, would kill two birds with one stone. Not only would the pack be strengthened if there were someone available to step into Geng's shoes should the need arise, but the problem of what to do with Jade would be solved also. It would be a strange placement for a newcomer, to be sure, but then, Jade was a strange Reaver. She did not seem to fit into any of the usual categories.

Satisfied that he had come to the right decision at last, he said: “She will be your apprentice”.

Geng nodded. “As you command”

“See to it that she is prepared for the ceremony”.

Again, Geng nodded. “It shall be done”, he acknowledged.

Back in the lower galley, Sing was showing Jade how to make the ice drink, and at the same time speaking all the words for what she was doing, one at a time, and carefully. Jade tried to pay attention, but there were too many words and her grasp of grammar too ill-formed.

Then everything went silent. Geng had entered the room. Sing bowed her head toward him. A few moments later, Jade copied the action, although Geng was one of the two people on board who did not seem to mind if she did not bow.

Geng broke the silence. “Jade. Come”. He turned, and walked slowly out of the room.

Jade looked at Sing, as if to ask What is going on?, but it was clear that Sing had as little an idea as Jade. Sing said, “Go”, ending the impasse. Jade got up and followed Geng.

Though she did not know the details of what was going on, she was, frankly, relieved that Geng had come for her, because it ended an uncertainty. A ceremony was planned for her a few hours hence — that much she knew — but the details were still a mystery to her, and so the pending ceremony seemed all the more frightening for being unknown. It wasn't clear to her what she was expected to do, or even how exactly the ceremony would change her position on this ship. Geng was terrifying, but still, he represented certainty. And Jade would take knowledge over ignorance any day.

They came to a room that Jade had never been in before. Located on the uppermost deck, just back and up from the cockpit, it was a small room decorated in bones. The walls were many shades of red. At first, Jade assumed it was blood, but it was not — it was simply paint. The bones, however, were definitely real, and, so far as she could tell, human. They adorned the walls, making patterns and pictures which seemed meaningless, but which nonetheless had a definite symmetry to them. The walls also housed many lockers and shelves. The shelves contained ornaments carved from bone, and curiously shaped pieces of metal. At the far end of the room was a kind of altar or shrine. Spread across the floor was a deep black rug.

Speaking in English — the first English Jade had heard in weeks — Geng said: “This is the sanctum. Sit”. His arm directed her to the rug. She sat, cross-legged. Geng closed the door, and sat opposite her. “Do you know why you are here?”

Jade shook her head.

“In three hours' time, there will be a ceremony, containing several rituals. Right now, most of this pack are engaged in preparing for that ceremony — including Sing, who is preparing some of the food”.

Geng's English, Jade noticed, was actually very fluent, once you got past his speech defect. Perhaps she had simply gotten used to the way he spoke?

“Part of that ceremony is to welcome you into this pack”.

“I know that”, she acknowledged.

“Good. I will help you prepare for that ceremony. I will tell you what you need to know, and what you will need to do. Also, our leader has decided upon your role, your place in this pack, after the ceremony is over”.

Her heart thumped at that. She had given little thought to after the ceremony. Her existence here was lived on a day-to-day basis. She had long given up thinking about tomorrow. “What?”, she asked. “What will they do with me?”

“You are to become my apprentice”, he stated, matter-of-factly. “You have much to learn, including the true speech. I will teach you”.

“I don't even know what you do”, she objected, though her tone of voice made it clear that this was not in any way a rejection.

“I am the spiritual leader of our pack. I interpret the gods”.

Jade merely nodded. Three weeks ago, she would have been shocked several times over by these revelations: that the Reavers had priests and gods was unexpected; that they wanted to involve her in such matters was also unexpected. But she wasn't astounded; she wasn't blown away. The only significant thought that entered her mind was that it sounded better than killing people. “What about Hagar?”, she asked.

“He will become a hunter”, Geng explained. She waited, but he explained no further.

Relief flooded through her as Geng's words started to sink in. Apprentice priest sounded like a reasonably easy job, and more than that, she would be working for someone who spoke the two major human languages. But then she remembered once more what Geng had done to Mike Turner, and was reminded that there simply were no easy options here. She shut that thought out of her mind and turned her attention to the immediate future. “What am I supposed to do at the ceremony?”, she asked.

“You must drink the ceremonial drink, wear the ceremonial attire, repeat one or two words after me, and then it is done. Then you eat, drink, and dance”.


Geng stood up, walked to one of the lockers, and returned carrying a long, patchwork robe. “You will wear this”, he said, handing the garment to her.

The robe was gossamer thin, and almost transparent. She felt its soft smoothness with her fingers, and too late realized what it was. This robe was a patchwork of pieces of dried, cured, human skin. Hastily, she threw it aside. “I can't!”, she declared.

“You can”, Geng said, gently, “because the alternative is much worse”. He glared at her sternly.

Hesitantly, Jade picked up the robe. She didn't trouble her mind too much with thoughts of what that worse alternative might be.

“And that's it?”, she asked.

Geng nodded his head. “Also”, he explained, “I will need to decorate you”.


“You need markings. Your face is plain”.

Automatically, her hand went to her face. Her scars had all but gone now, her face almost smooth once more.

“You must have markings that are more permanent”, he told her.

She shuddered.

“When it is over, when you are accepted into this tribe, you must dress like us, not like prey”. Geng spoke his words with utter calmness. “You have lived with them for too long. You have forgotten who you are. It is time that you remembered”.

“It's never easy moving into a new neighborhood”, my father tells me , “But you'll soon get used to it”.

“But I liked living in the Jang Yin district”, I protest.

“I know, Honey”, he says, sympathetically. “But it's safer here”.

I walk across the room and look out of the window. The ground is a long way down, and I can see most of the city from here. It does look pretty cool, and I'm sure my friends would be envious — but, if I never get to see them then how can I tell them? I ask: “Why did we have to move?”

“You know why”, he tells me. “We weren't in a safe place. It was too dangerous. Too many Independents causing trouble”.

I don't tell him that I was there when the shooting started. I never told anyone that I was on that parade — at least, not anyone here. But I was there, and I remember — it wasn't the Independents who shot bullets into the crowd, it was the army. So instead, I say: “Maybe they just want jobs?”

Daddy looks at me with a strange frown, and says “I know it's hard for you to understand, Jade. Miranda is an Alliance world, but we're on the Rim, and all of our neighboring worlds are Independent. That puts this planet in a very dangerous position. It makes us very isolated, very vulnerable. This world is surrounded on all sides by barbarians”.

I don't get all of what Daddy says. I do know that Miranda is an Alliance world surrounded by independent worlds, but so what? There are riots going on here. I don't see the connection. That's the part I don't understand. So I ask: “Why does that mean we have to move to the City Center?”

“Jang Yin district was too dangerous”, he says.

That is an answer of sorts, but it doesn't help me to understand. I was there when the Ravens fired on peaceful protesters, and I don't understand why it happened. I don't understand why they did that, and I can't ask because everyone here — even Daddy — says that the Independents must have started it, and that they got what they deserved.

I look again out at the tall spires of the City Center. It is beautiful, but I miss my friends. I tell this to Daddy. He says not to worry. He reminds me that I'll be starting a new school tomorrow, and says that I'll be bound to make new friends.

“Come on”, he says, sounding almost exuberantly happy now, “Let's go and make some party food”.

“Can we have ice planets?”, I ask.

“Of course we can, Honey”, he answers. “You can't have a housewarming party without ice planets”. Come on — race you to the kitchen.

We run and laugh, our troubles for the moment forgotten.

Later, much later, when the new apartment is full of grown-ups and music and dancing, Uncle Harry gives me my first ever glass of wine. He puts his finger to his lips and tells me not to tell my Mommy or Daddy. I agree, conspiratorially, then gulp down the red liquid. It's not very nice, but I'm not going to tell that to Uncle Harry.

The drink was sharp, bitter. Jade grimaced at the taste, but forced herself to drink more. She had no idea what it was, except that it was made from some kind of mushroom. She stood in the great hall, known on less auspicious days as the cargo bay. Drapes adorned many of the walls, and covered the freezer door. The atmosphere of the room had been completely transformed. Now it felt warm, and somehow alive.

The Reavers stood in small groups around the hall. They were watching Geng, rather than her. She gulped back the last of the pungent concoction, and screwed up her face in disgust. Someone took the empty tankard from her.

There was music, or something like music. There was a drumbeat. From all around the room, certain Reavers were banging bones, sticks and other implements against the floor in heartbeat rhythm.

Khrau stood at the back, watching the ritual in disgust. He had opposed any and all moves to accept Jade into the pack, but Card had overruled him. Now he just watched and fumed as Geng went through the rituals that would sanctify this hall to make it a place suitable for such ceremony.

Jade looked around the room. Almost all of the Reavers were here. The only ones absent were those whose duties were essential elsewhere. She had never seen this many Reavers together in one place at one time. The drumbeats pounded into her consciousness from all sides: thump-thump, thump-thump. The colors began to seem just a little brighter, the sounds just a little sharper.

Then, suddenly, the thumping stopped. She looked toward Geng, who held his arms out in a gesture meaningless to Jade. The musicians, if they could be called that, had taken their cue from Geng. As Jade watched, there seemed to be a kind of halo around Geng, and as he moved his arms through the air, she saw trails following the movements. His words took on an echoing quality, and the quiet hubbub from the hall began to fade in and out of clarity.

Khrau watched Geng's moves, and listened to his words, with increasing agitation. He could not believe what he was seeing. At first, he thought that Geng had made a mistake, and would quickly retract his words. Then he realized that it was no accident — Geng was purposefully invoking the wrong ritual. Khrau was furious. Geng should have been invoking the Turning Ritual, the ritual by which the hunted were made Reaver. That should have been happening, here and now — but it was not. Instead, Geng appeared to be invoking the Joining Ritual, the ritual used when a Reaver from one pack joined another. But he was not mistaken — Geng was doing exactly that. Khrau was by now beyond anger. He was incensed. This was inappropriate beyond measure. This ritual would make Jade a member of this pack, but it carried with it an implication, the implication that she was a Reaver, that she did not need to be made Reaver because she was already Reaver. It also had implications for her status within the pack. The turned are invariably last in the pecking order, but the joined retain their status from their previous pack. But Jade had no previous pack, so how could that possibly work?

When Geng held up the ritual blade with which Jade would be given tribal markings, Khrau knew that he had witnessed enough. Anger mounting upon anger, he stormed out of the room. How dare he!?, he thought, his body twisted in rage.

Card watched him go. This, he knew, could not be good.

Khrau marched into the cockpit. Gra was there, one of the few pack members still on duty and unable to attend the ceremony. She looked at him with her lidless eyes and let out a small whine. Khrau fumed aloud: “How dare he!?”. Gra said nothing. Khrau's anger was obvious, and she did not want it turned against her, so she waited for Khrau to explain.

“Geng is performing the Joining Ritual”, he spat, “for Jade. Card is allowing it!”

Gra spoke quietly. “This is not a surprise. It is—“. She stopped talking suddenly, her attention drawn to the flight controls.

“What?”, demanded Khrau. “What is it?”.

Gra's hands flew over the switches and dials. “It's a ship”, she said. “There's a ship. I'm slowing us down”.

A ship? “What kind of ship?”, Khrau roared.

Gra shook her head. She didn't know. “It's not Reaver”, she told him. “It's a prey ship. Food!”

Khrau's expression changed from unfocused anger to targeted aggression, his rage now redirected against the prey ship. “Attack them!”, he ordered.

“I can't”, Gra said.

Khrau almost couldn't believe what he had just heard. “I am Beta”, he declared, “You will defer to me or I will rip out your throat”.

“I defer to you”, she said, quickly accommodating him, “But I cannot attack the prey ship”.

This was intolerable. “Why not!?”

“All our hunters are occupied”, she told him. “We cannot interrupt a Joining Ceremony. It is sacred”.

Khrau slammed his fists onto the copilot's chair, almost breaking it off of its support. This, he decided, was totally unacceptable. Not only was Geng committing sacrilege by adopting an obvious human into the pack, but now his stupid ceremony was going to cost them food. It was outrageous. Someone had to pay.

He fumed silently as he watched the smaller ship approach, and then pass by underneath them. Someone had to pay for this outrage. And at once, he knew who that someone was going to be. Jade. Jade was to blame for all this. He would find a way, he decided, to punish her, even if it took every last breath in his body. He would catch her out in some infraction of custom, and when that day came, he would rip out her innards and laugh as he watched her scream and die. Oh yes, Jade was going to pay for this.

Jade had lost all track of what was real and what was not. Images were sliding, melting and transforming. She saw faces materialize in the shadows on the walls and the patterns on the drapes. She heard voices tuning in and out of clarity, snatches of conversations from around the room blending into a single reality. Walls, floors and other surfaces undulated gently, relaxingly. The constant, slow, slow pulse of the drumbeat no longer seemed to be a product of people, but an organic, living thing of its own. And everywhere, there were friendly, friendly faces, all cheering for her, welcoming and inviting.

She felt warm blood on her cheeks as Geng cut into her. She counted six strokes, and smiled — now she was decorated just like Geng, three scars to each cheek. That was nice. Geng held a bowl of thick black liquid, and proceeded to rub the sticky substance into her fresh wounds, producing a mild stinging sensation. Intrigued, Jade dipped her hand into the bowl, and it came out dripping with something like ink. Experimentally, she moved her hand to her face, and rubbed the liquid into her cuts, as Geng had done. It stung, but it wasn't unpleasant. This will stop the scars from fading, she realized. It'll be like a cool tattoo.

“Repeat after me”, said Geng, in English, followed by some guttural sounds which were not English at all. She mimicked him as best she could, and the crowd howled. They were pleased with her. She liked this feeling. She liked it a lot.

She looked out toward the audience, a sea of faces, sparkling with green and pink dancing, shining dots, and felt their warmth and acceptance.

And then she walked down into the crowd, and there was Sing, whom she hugged. Sing gave her a drink which tasted like strong, bitter wine, and she drank, and watched as Hagar was next brought into the open space which she had just vacated. Geng performed a ritual for Hagar too, though a different one from hers. She understood that though Hagar may now not be as close to her as perhaps he once had been, nonetheless he would always be her protector.

She saw Khrau walk into the room and glower. Khrau was not a nice man. For some reason, he didn't seem to like her. But that did not matter now because she had lots of new friends. Khrau wandered around, picking out certain select individuals and speaking to them quietly.

Jade joined in with the other Reavers as they howled acceptance for Hagar. Hagar walked toward the crowd. Someone gave him a pitcher of liquid, which he immediately began to drink. To Jade, in her hallucinatory state, it looked as though the pitcher and Hagar's arm had melted into a single object, slowly but constantly changing its form and color. Everything sparkled. Everything echoed. Everything was wonderful.

And then she was back at what she now considered to be the stage area, the center of attention. Geng placed a firm grip on her shoulder, and began speaking once more to the audience. She guessed that he was telling them her new job, that she would be working with him. It was difficult to gauge what the people in the audience thought of this. There were some murmurs of approval, but it wasn't as tumultuous as her joining ritual had been earlier. Mostly, she sensed surprise, but also acceptance. It was going to be OK.

She looked around for Khrau as she stepped back into the crowd, but he was gone. Someone handed her a meat covered bone, which she inspected with some curiosity. She hadn't eaten meat for three weeks. Why was that? Oh yes — because it's wrong, she remembered. But she looked around, and other people were eating. She felt so hungry — carrots and cabbage were all very well, but she needed more if she was to stay healthy. She brought the bone toward her face and studied it hard, as if it might do her some harm, and she was unsure what to do with it.

Through the haze of drug induced stupor, she realized: this is human flesh.

But then she remembered that Herren Town was no more, that she could never go back there. She remembered that she could never again live among humans, because she might hurt them like she had hurt Jack Norton on the Gentle Giant. She remembered that she had no home to go to but here, and that these people wanted her, accepted her. And she remembered that she was so, so hungry for meat. So she bit into it, and let her mouth fill with warm, bloody chunks of raw meat. She closed her eyes and savored the exquisite pleasure as the rich taste and texture of flesh filled her being. Why had she put this off for so long? Ravenously, but at the same time savoring every bite, she finished off the bone.

“It is done. The sacred rituals are over”, Khrau declared. “Now go!”

In the cockpit, Gra hovered over the controls, unsure what to do. The sacred rituals may have been over, but the party was not. Still, Khrau was certainly her superior, and another hunt would not be a bad thing. “Changing course now”, she told him.

“Can you track the prey?”, he asked.

Gra nodded. The prey ship had long since passed out of detection range, but she had skill. “Last reading, they were heading for the Athens system. We should be able to pick up their trail from there”.

Stars slid downward and sideways across the cockpit window as the new heading was set. “The hunt”, Khrau whispered, determination evident through his quiet, even voice, “is on”.

Card drank copiously from the pitcher which had been passed to him. “It is done”, he said.

Gala, his mate, stood beside him. “You have done well”, she told him. “You made a wise decision. Jade will be well placed as Geng's apprentice, if she can learn to speak”.

“And Hagar will make an excellent hunter”, he decreed.

“We should celebrate”, Gala said.

Card looked around him, at the throng of dancing, drinking Reavers, and asked: “Are we not celebrating?”

“That isn't what I had in mind”, Gala said, mischievously. She grabbed his hand and pressed it against her breast.

Card was immediately aroused. A low growl filled his throat, and he pushed her to the floor.

Khrau re-entered the room and sought out Card. He had intended to talk to Card, to tell him about the prey ship, to tell him that a new hunt was on, but he could see at once that Card was otherwise occupied. It doesn't matter, he said to himself. I will take care of it, and headed once more back to the cockpit.

“I have located the ship we passed”, Gra told Khrau as he strode once more into the cockpit. “It has landed on the fourth moon”.

That was a problem, but also a challenge. Khrau realized. Hunting in space was one thing, hunting in atmo quite another. He was aware that their ship had taken damage in their encounter with the Gentle Giant, and wasn't certain that they could survive an entry into atmo. He watched through the window as the moon grew larger in his vision.

“Our heat shielding is damaged”, he reminded her.

“Only the underside”, she said, exuding confidence.

“Can you get us down?”, he asked.

Gra grinned from ear to ear. She so loved the opportunity to demonstrate her skill. “Watch this”, she declared.

As he watched, the sky span around in the view before him, the moon spinning to the top of his vision. Specks of flame began to surround the top of the window as the ship streaked upward toward the ground. His voice full of wonder, he queried: “We're going in upside down?”

“I can do this”, she told him, with certainty.

“I believe you”, he said, though he harbored some small glimmer of doubt which he struggled to conceal.

The ride felt shaky, as the ship began to buffet about in the atmosphere. Everyone aboard would be feeling it now. This approach felt different from previous landings, because of their upward descent. As freefall gave way to aerodynamics, true gravity began to make its presence felt, pulling upwards. The grav drive compensated where it could, but the buffeting prevented an exact compensation. Negative gees pulled at their bodies, suddenly decreasing their weight, and just as suddenly they were brought back to normal as the grav drive caught up. It felt as though the cockpit was suddenly falling freely for just a fraction of a second, until the safety net of the grav drive caught it and normal weight returned once more. This was a bizarre landing, Khrau mused. On a normal landing you feel positive gees, momentary increases in weight. He had never entered atmo upside down before. The experience was invigorating. It added to the excitement of the hunt.

Then the flames died down and the sky spun once more in the window ahead, and the curved horizon righted itself.

“OK, that was impressive”, Khrau stated, a little awestruck by the flying skill.

“The prey ship is in the distance ahead”, Gra told him. “But it's lifting off. I think they're running”.

“Good”, he decreed. “I hate sitting targets. I want the thrill of the chase”. He sat down in the copilot's seat. “I will operate the grappler”, he told her.

They could see the object of their hunt almost directly ahead. Though it looked a little different from behind, Khrau was convinced it was indeed the same ship that they had seen in space. It was small and squat. Its main feature appeared to be the two large thrusters, one each side of the boat, which gave it its maneuvering capability in space, and its sole source of propulsion in atmo. Gra's piloting skills were excellent, Khrau noted, and she kept the small ship nearly dead center in his field of view as the gap between hunter and hunted closed.

Khrau activated the grappler. He could hear the whirr from starboard as the shields of the grappler unfolded like petals, repositioning themselves into part of a parabolic reflecting surface. “Just a little closer”, he said, quietly.

He frowned. Something strange was happening. The little ship spun one of its thrusters sharply and re-ignited it, causing the whole ship to pivot on the spot until it was flying backwards, nose toward them. The same thruster then snapped back to its regular position, and suddenly the little ship was flying toward them rather than away from them. The distance separating the craft was closed in a second, and the boat disappeared over their heads and surged away behind them.

Khrau was furious, but at the same time fired up with excitement. His ship rattled as the trailing vortex from the fly-by shook them in its wake. “What the fuck happened there!?”, he demanded.

“Crazy Ivan”, Gra explained. “That's a Firefly. Independently maneuverable thrusters. Hang on, I'll turn us about”.

But she never got the chance. Almost at once, the ship found itself enveloped in flame. Vibration coursed through the very fabric of the ship, shaking them to their bones. They heard creaks and groans as the already damaged ship rattled and careened almost with a will of its own. Gra struggled to re-establish control. It was as if the whole sky had ignited around them.

“Gods! What now!”, Khrau yelled.

“Hard burn”, Gra told him. “Hard burn in atmo. The cunning bastards!”

“Will they get away?”, he demanded to know.

“That's the least of our worries right now”, she said, yelling above the tearing, creaking, sickening sound of a ship pulling itself apart. “Strap in. We're crashlanding”.

Khrau did as he was told, and then got on the comm and issued a shipwide instruction to brace for crashlanding.

The ship spun out of the burning sky. Gra wrestled with the controls and watched as the ground spiraled toward them. She stabilized the flight path, but still the ground continued to rush toward them. At the last minute, she gave partial power to the thrusters, converting what could have been a deadly impact into a harmless slide. There was a brief shudder, and then silence, broken only by the sounds of things falling and striking the ground. Gra finally allowed herself to breathe a sigh of relief. They were down. They were safe. She looked out at the desert vista that was Whitefall, and trembled.

Loud footfalls and the sounds of cursing told Khrau he was in trouble long before it arrived. Card stormed into the room, furiously roaring: “What in the name of the gods is going on?”

Khrau was quick to defend himself. “It was a hunt”, he began.

“Did I authorize a hunt?”, Card fumed.

“I took responsibility”, Khrau stated. “You were busy. And if you hadn't had that ceremony—“

Card grabbed him by the throat. With his other hand, a spiked disc quickly was brought into play, the prongs almost, but not quite, piercing Khrau's neck. Strapped in to his seat as he was, Khrau could not escape. He nodded his head forward just a little. It wasn't enough for Card, who pressed the spiked disc into Khrau's neck, drawing blood at the blade's teeth. Khrau finally bowed his head fully, and conceded defeat.

In a quieter, though obviously still angry voice, Card said: “You will be responsible for the necessary repairs. And you will never, ever again order a hunt which I have not personally authorized”.

He withdrew the disc, released Khrau from his grip, and left the room.

Khrau could not believe what had just happened. One minute, they had had the prey in sight and the future looked rosy, the next, they were downed on the surface of a moon and Card was blaming Khrau. Well Khrau did not wish to accept blame. It isn't my fault, he told himself. If you hadn't had that stupid ceremony to adopt the human, this would never have happened. You are a stupid, stupid leader. But Khrau wasn't ready to take on Card just yet, so instead, he vented his anger toward another target. Jade, he thought, coldly. One day, I will be avenged upon you. One day, I will be the leader of this pack, and then you shall fear me.

And then you shall die!

Dark Places

Conflict of Interests

“I still say this mission was ill thought out”.

Slate glowered at the woman. Though he hated to admit it, she was right.

This discussion hadn't been planned, it had started spontaneously, but it had been coming for a long time. Slate and Elizabeth found themselves in the engine room, trying to figure out a problem with the air filters. “I assume air filters are somewhat unnecessary on a fishing boat”, she said, somewhat sarcastically.

“We need a mechanic”, Slate said. “Polly's good, but she ain't used to space ships”

“No”, Elizabeth corrected. “It might surprise you to know that I think Polly is actually pretty good when it comes to mechanics. But that doesn't change the fact that we need a new air filter. Look. Just look at it. It's humped”.

“So you're saying we're all going to suffocate?”

“Not yet. There are three more filters besides this one. But two of those need cleaning out or they'll suffer the same fate. We need to stop for a layover. It's not just the air filters, it's everything. We need fresh water. You know? Water? I believe they export that from Newhall”.

“I'm getting right tired of this abuse”, Slate said, although in truth he had no solutions. “We stocked up on everything before we left”.

“Apparently not everything”, she remarked. “You may have taken charge, Mister Slater, but you know nothing about running a space ship. This is my boat, and you are not taking good care of it”.

“'Tain't your boat”, he objected. “This boat belongs to the Alliance. And what's with the 'Mister Slater'? It's Slate, remember?”

“That was when we were still friends”.

“We ain't friends?”

Elizabeth sighed. She stood up and threw the defunct air filter into the spare parts bin. “Unless we pull into port, refuel, clean the crap out of out the waste disposal system, and restock with food and water, and do so within the next few days, life on board this boat will rapidly become markedly unpleasant”.

“Didn't come here for no joy ride”, he stated.

“…markedly unpleasant”, she continued, sternly, “As in, we'll all be dead. Am I making this point clearly enough for you?”

Slate dragged himself out from under the air filtration system and followed behind Elizabeth. “But we can't pull into no port”, he argued. “Ain't none of us here even got the money for port fees, let alone fuel”.

“That's what happens when you head out into the black without a source of income”, she mocked.

They walked out of engineering, continuing to argue as they strolled past Medical. “You've got money”, Slate persisted.

“Not enough to keep a boat in the sky and feed a crew of nine indefinitely!”, she objected. “And nor should you expect me to. Until Newhall, Yoshida-Kendall was paying all the running costs for this boat. Since we seem no longer to be working for them … no more credits. Besides, if I start spending credits, the authorities will know exactly where we are, and I believe you don't want that”.

“You're saying we're screwed?”

They reached a ladder to the upper deck, which Elizabeth began to climb. “I'm saying this mission was ill thought out, that's all”.

Slate followed. “And I s'pose you got a better plan?”

Reaching the top of the ladder, she waited for Slate and then strode forward, passing crew quarters both left and right. “Only that it's time to call it quits”. She stopped in mid-stride and turned to face him. “Look — it's not too late to back out. Nobody's going to get into trouble. I can easily claim that this ship was damaged in the attack and that we've been limping back to civilization ever since. I can even say that we rescued some survivors — you. Everyone will want to hear your story. But if we carry on, all that will happen is that we will run out of everything, and die, without ever having discovered a single clue as to the whereabouts of the attackers”. She resumed her stride, Slate following.

From ahead, they heard commotion. Running toward them was Ben, the pilot. “Slate, Boss, come quick. You gotta see this”.

“See what?”, Slate asked, relieved to have some distraction from this conversation.

“I found a ship. Looks like it might be derelict. Leastways it's awful quiet”.

They stared at each other in silence.

In space, the wreck of the Gentle Giant hung lifelessly ahead of them.

The crew assembled in the bridge. They numbered nine in total: Slate, and three of his fishing crew; Elizabeth, and four of her film crew. It was an uneasy alliance.

“To bring you up to date”, Slate said, as the last of the crew entered the bridge, “We're approaching a ship. It's a large cargo ship, and it ain't far off a shipping lane. Most like to be headed for the core. Trouble is, it's without external power, and it ain't answering comm signals, which as you know is a mite unusual. There ain't no distress beacon, so could be they just lost power. Leastways, don't look like no lifeboats have been launched. Or it could be they was attacked by Reavers. If that's the case, Reavers ain't around now. So, what we got is a big pile of uncertainty. If it was Reavers, maybe we can find something out could be useful. And if it ain't — well, likely there's gonna be folks there needing our help”. With a nod to Elizabeth, he said, “Either way, I'm hoping we can restock on fuel and basic supplies. Any questions?”

There were none.

“Let's get moving folks. First time in a month we've actually got something to do”.

Ben moved the ship closer to the massive hulk. As he himself would admit, he wasn't the 'verse's greatest pilot, but this ship was fully automated and he was familiar with its operation. All he had to do was instruct the ship where to go, and it would comply. As the Gentle Giant loomed closer, other odd things about it started to become apparent: all four of its rear cargo bay doors were open — and they were massive doors. Ben shone Vindicator's lights into the open doorways, and could clearly see that the huge spaces within were all empty.

“That looks to be our best way in”, he commented.

“Surely that's vacuum?”, observed Polly.

“Sure is”, Ben confirmed. “But a ship in that condition — maybe it's vacuum everywhere? We're gonna need to suit up whichever way we go in”.

As they approached the silent ship, its true size became overwhelmingly apparent. It was simply enormous. Each cargo bay was the size of a warehouse. Vindicator would easily fit inside any one of them. And yet, the crew compartment would have been smaller than their own. The ship was really just a big engine attached to a big cargo space and just enough room for a skeleton crew

The bridge of Vindicator afforded them a good forward view, but a limited side view. Only Ben, who had many screens before him displaying multiple views, was privy to the wider picture. To the rest of them, it seemed as though they were being swallowed up by some giant maw.

“Now that's gorram weird”, Ben said, as the ship glided into the large warehouse space.

“Problem?”, and “What is?”, asked Elizabeth and Slate simultaneously.

“No gravity in here”, he told them. “I 'spected vacuum. I didn't 'spect there'd be no gravity”.

Slate suggested: “Maybe they switched it off to save power”.

Elizabeth laughed, though there was no humor in it. “It's obvious you're no spacefarer”, she said, going on to explain: “It takes energy to power up the grav drive, but not to keep it going. Powering it down is just nuts”.

They slid further into what was now in effect a large hangar. Polly asked: “Why would anyone do that?”

“They wouldn't”, Elizabeth stated, matter-of-factly.

“What would happen to the cargo if someone switched off the gravity?”, she pressed.

Elizabeth thought it through. “If the ship was using reaction drive to accelerate, and the doors were open, the cargo would just be … left behind. It would just fall out into space”.

Nobody said anything while that information was absorbed. The deck was indeed empty of any kind of cargo.

“We're inside”. Ben said. “Anyone planning on setting foot — by which I mean floating — outside of this boat, had better get suited up”.

“All right”, Slate said, taking charge once more. “Polly, Merissa, Moreton, Papagina, you're with me. The rest of you stay here”. Ideally, he would have left Papagina off of that list. It would have been better to take only the people he trusted: those who had crewed under him on the Lana, but he needed to take at least one of the film crew with him just in case Elizabeth had any ideas about flying off and leaving him behind.

“Wait!”, Elizabeth interjected. “All of your crew, but only one of mine? Are you playing favorites?”

Slate sighed. “Fine! Merissa, stay. Corey, suit up”. He made his selection quickly and decisively. The ongoing power struggle between himself and Elizabeth had never entirely abated. Though he had the upper hand for the moment, that could easily change at any time, and he had long since learned that concessions like this were necessary to prevent the whole situation from getting out of hand. At least this way, the final word had still been his.

It took a little while for the five of them to suit up. It had been a long time since Slate had last been in a space suit, but he found it came back to him with no trouble. Corey and Papagina, from Elizabeth's original crew, were perfectly adept. Polly and Moreton, on the other hand, had never even left the archipelago until a month ago. Wearing a space suit was a new experience for them. Slate made sure that all the safety checks were run through thoroughly. There were precious few of his townsfolk left — he didn't want to lose any more.

Five space-suited figures drifted out of Vindicator's airlock.

If wearing a spacesuit was a new experience for Polly, weightlessness was even more so. It felt like falling, but the ground did not rush up to meet them. She was clearly having difficulty. Even her breathing was erratic. Papagina went first, dragging behind her a rope ladder. Slate followed, hanging onto the airlock door until the ladder was in place. The view was spectacular. The lights inside this vast cargo area were still on. Looking back, Vindicator floated, suspended in nothing, just yards from the doorway to which they were headed. The cavernous room was almost an optical illusion in itself. It looked like it ought to have gravity. To see freefall motions in this warehouse was an outrage to the senses, but it didn't end there. Slate looked to his left, and saw the open hangar doorway filled with stars. His mind balked at such a scene. Millions of years of evolution had ingrained into him the notion that the starry sky was always above, never sideways. There was an instant of reorientation, and his perception shifted. Suddenly it seemed as though he were at the bottom of a vast well. It took an effort of will to shift back. When the rope ladder was in place he pulled himself along it, the others following. Finally, they were in the Gentle Giant's own airlock, and slowly but surely, both air, and gravity, returned. He breathed a sigh of relief, and then made sure the rest of his crew were okay. Moreton looked like he was having fun. Only Polly looked shaken.

They had entered through an upper cargo bay, so that when gravity returned it would be a gentle descent toward the bridge. The rest of the ship had gravity — it was only these cargo bays which did not. With full Earth-norm gravity restored, the inner airlock door opened, and they set out into the corridor.

“Air's breathable”, Papagina said, studying the readouts on her suit sensors. She was the first to remove her helmet. The others did likewise.

“Let's find the bridge”, Slate said.

There were no signs of fighting in their current stretch of corridor, but as soon as they reached the first corner, things were very different indeed. Pieces of metal were strewn about the floor, and there were marks looking like hammer blows on one of the doors. A panel of some sort had been ripped open. Wires had been cut and rejoined.

“The bridge?”, Slate asked.

“Say so”, Ben answered.

They pulled the doors open, which slid apart with almost no resistance. Slate guessed that the panel contained a locking mechanism, which some tech wizard must somehow have bypassed. He strode into the bridge, and at once wished he hadn't. Pieces of bodies littered the floor — there was no doubt that this was the work of Reavers. It took an immense effort of will to resist the urge to vomit.

Elizabeth looked around her. She was in the editing suite, a room originally designed for storage, but since decked out with all manner of video and audio composing and editing equipment: everything a good reporter needed. She hadn't been here in weeks. Since their days of making documentaries had come to an end, there had seemed little point. Until now.

She still harbored a certain amount of resentment about Slate's taking over her ship. To be fair, it hadn't been Slate who had murdered most of her crew and skinned poor Cassandra Briggs. The Reavers had been responsible for that, and for the eradication of Slate's entire town — which pretty much included everything he had had to live for. But still, the fact remained that this used to be her ship, at least in the sense that she had once been its captain. Slate had changed all that, and he had changed it initially by force of arms. Tensions had eased somewhat since then, but they had never entirely abated.

And now things were different again, because Slate was no longer on board the ship. Once more, she was effectively in charge. And yet, she was still powerless. She began to regret her earlier insistence that Slate's boarding party comprise more members of her own crew. Perhaps it would have been better to have let Slate's original choice stand? Perhaps then she could have retaken her ship?

She shook away the thought. This mission invoked so many mixed feelings within her. There were no easy answers.

She sat down in her chair. This comfy red chair had been her second home, after the bridge. This was her corner, her desk. It was here, not the bridge, not the captain's office, not her quarters, where she truly felt most at home, most useful.

Partly experimentally, and partly out of habit, she pressed the buttons which would normally have logged her onto the cortex. Of course it didn't work. She had not expected that it would. One of the first things Slate had done after taking over the ship was to order shipwide administrator status transferred to him. Once that was done, he had revoked cortex access for everyone. He hadn't needed any real skills for this. He hadn't needed hacking abilities, nor even programming abilities. All he'd needed was the most basic of knowledge, and a gun. Once the computer thought he was in charge, the user-friendly system had itself walked Slate through everything he had needed to do to lock the original crew out of anything connected with communications.

“It won't work”, came a voice from behind her.

She spun in her chair to face Merissa. “Force of habit”, she said, dismissing her actions with a hand wave. As an afterthought, she added: “Besides, we are going to need to document all of this eventually. People are going to want to know what happened. If we do find the Reavers who did this, if we do, by some miracle, succeed in killing them all, people are going to have to know. Otherwise what will it have been for?”

“You know Slate's expecting you to be on the bridge”, Merissa said, gently, but mildly accusingly.

“I'll be there shortly”, she said. “I just … wanted to feel at home again”.

“Conjure we'd all like that. For some of us that just ain't possible”.

“I'm sorry — that was thoughtless of me”, Elizabeth conceded.

There was a moment of silence between them, before Merissa said: “You know … I could help you”.

“Help me?”, Elizabeth queried.

“Log onto the cortex. That's what you want, ain't it?”

Elizabeth stared at her, mildly in disbelief. “It … would be useful”, she acknowledged.

“But from our point of view unwise”, Merissa said, completing Elizabeth's thought. “If you could get onto the cortex, you could report the theft of this ship, get rescued”.

“I wasn't thinking of that”, Elizabeth lied.

Merissa continued unabated. “Slate can only think so far into the future. He's a real one-step-at-a-time guy. No real concept of the big picture. Far as he's concerned, the future only goes as far as finding and killing the Reavers who killed his niece”.

“And you?”

“I want a future beyond that”, she said, plainly. “Maybe get me a job in journalism? Could be you might be able to help? There ain't nothing for me on Newhall no more”.

The silence between them extended to several seconds. The implications of Merissa's words were hardly disguised, yet still were frankly hard to believe. Eventually, Elizabeth broke the silence. “I could put in a good word for you”, she said.

Merissa strode forward. “Let's see if we can't get you logged on”.

“It's a three factor authentication system”, Elizabeth stated, not wishing to underestimate the difficulty of getting past the ship's security. “Something-you-know, something-you-have, and something-you-are. The something-you-know is a password”.

“I know Slate's password”, Merissa grinned. “It's Lana. He uses the same password for everything. He ain't very imaginative when it comes to security”.

“The something-you-have is a key, something you can plug into a port such as th— “

Merissa jangled a key ring in front of her. “Didn't think he'd take this with him onto the other ship, did you?”

“The something-you-are is a voiceprint. I don't suppose you happen to do a good Slate impression do you?”

Merissa looked at Elizabeth curiously. Why was she not seeing the obvious? “This here's an editing studio. You got recordings of Slate's voice. You interviewed him on his ship. You got the skill to put words together in his voice”.

Elizabeth blinked. It was true. Why hadn't she thought of that?

Again, Merissa jangled the key ring in front of her. “You want this? Tell me about that good word you were thinking of putting in for me?”

Elizabeth thought for a moment, then concluded: “Assuming we get back to civilization, and assuming I still keep my old job, I could simply employ you”.

“Good enough”, she said, and handed over the key ring. “I'll be on the bridge, explaining why you ain't”. She smiled and left the room.

Well now, thought Elizabeth. There's a turn up.

It didn't take Elizabeth long to put together a reasonable voice sample of sufficiently good quality to log in. It wouldn't have fooled a human — some of the joins were decidedly obvious, but it would pass a voiceprint ID test.

And then she was in. Wasting no time, she hit the record button.

“This is Elizabeth Adams, and I have an extraordinary story to tell. I'm here with some of the survivors of the Herren Island massacre. They have commandeered this ship, Uriah Heep, and taken control of it. They believe that those responsible for the massacre were Reavers, and I … I have little reason to doubt that now. Most of my crew was also killed in the massacre. The leader of the surviving settlers is intent on locating those responsible for the massacre and taking his own form of revenge. I don't know what that will entail, but— “.

She stopped, and hit the delete button. That wasn't quite what she wanted to say. She tried again. Once more she hit record.

“It's me, Elizabeth, Elizabeth Adams”, she said. “I'm all right. I'm still alive. But most of my crew isn't. We were on Newhall when The Isle of Herren was attacked. There are four other survivors from this crew. They are: Benjamin Austin, Corey Long, Papagina Vichot and Kwok Fi Lee. In addition, we have rescued four survivors from the Newhall settlers. They are: Harry Slater, Merissa Goldovskaya, Polly Launbjerg and Moreton Crellis. We're all OK, but in need of some assistance. We— “.

Again, she stopped. That, too, wasn't quite right. What to say? She wanted to tell someone, to say something. As a journalist, she had a story to report, and from a personal point of view, it would be good to get back to some sort of normal life. A month of subservience on her own ship, now being run by someone who had never captained a space ship before, had already been more than enough.

Finally, she composed her thoughts, and hit the record button for the last time. And this time, she poured her heart out, saying everything that she wanted to say. She told of the Reaver attack, of poor Cassandra. She told of Slate, and that he had seen, by means of remote camera, the child for whom he was caring, his only living relative, screaming as she was dragged off by Reavers. She told of the pogrom which had lain Herren Island waste and decimated her own crew, and of how Slate had taken her ship to the stars with vengeance in his heart. She told it all, and she told it with passion — a human story, but one centered around death and bloody revenge. There were tears in the corners of her eyes as she gently touched the stop button, and knew that she had said all that she wanted to say.

She addressed the message to her agency back on Londinium, and her hand moved toward the send button.

But she stopped, her finger hovering over the button, unsure if sending it was indeed the wisest thing to do. If her bosses knew where she was, and what had happened, they would come and retrieve the ship, arrest Slate, and end the mission, just as they were starting to make some small progress. On the other hand, if she declined to send it, she would remain under Slate's command on her own ship … but maybe, just maybe, he was crazy enough to succeed. Maybe she would see the monsters who killed most of her crew brought to justice, and make them understand that sometimes people fight back.

She moved her finger away from the send button, and slowly but deliberately pressed instead on delete. She closed her eyes, certain, finally, that she had done the right thing. She hit a few more buttons, and logged off the cortex. Then she stood up. It was time to head back to the bridge.

The five of them stared with some horror at the carnage strewn about the bridge of the Gentle Giant. Two complete shriveled corpses lay on the floor, dried and wrinkled, as well as limbs and other severed body parts. It was hard to believe that these had once been living, human beings. Dried blood stained the walls, floor and consoles in splatter patterns. But it wasn't the sight which made Slate and the others want to retch — it was the stench. Life support had kept right on running in the weeks since the attack. Air had continued to circulate, heat had continued to warm. All of this had caused the two bodies to decompose and decay. Slate wondered about that. Why was the power still on? Why had the Reavers not disabled it?

There must have been more than two crew members on a ship this size, Slate reasoned. For a brief moment, he wondered what had happened to the rest — and then he realized. They had been dragged off by the Reavers to become part of their food supply. These two here — they were the lucky ones.

“Everyone look around. See what you can find”, Slate said.

“What we looking for?” Polly asked.

“Clues. Anything”, Slate answered. “Anything can tell us whether these are the same Reavers hit Newhall. And anything which might tell us where they might be headed”.

Papagina said: “My suit sensors claim this air is breathable. I'm inclined to disagree with that assessment”.

“Won't kill you”, Slate replied, dryly.

He walked over to what most probably was the captain's chair, carefully walking around one rotting corpse on the way. He sat down in the chair, trying to put himself in the place of this ship's commanding officer. What would he do, faced with a Reaver attack?

“I got a crew manifest”, Papagina said. She was already accessing the ship's data banks. Slate had to admire her skill. She was good. “This is the cargo hauler Gentle Giant. Captain — she was transporting ice!”

He knew what that meant. Ice was one of Newhall's major exports. This ship had been to Newhall, and that meant there was a good chance that the Reavers who attacked here were indeed the ones who had killed Jade. “What else you got?”, he asked.

“Commanding officer was Captain Haley Anne Josephine Bailey. This would have been her first tour of duty on this vessel”.

“Haley Bailey”, he summarized. “Cute!”

“You want the rest of the crew?”

“Get the info. Take it back to Vindicator“. His attention was drawn by Corey pointing at a cracked screen in front of him, displaying what looked like it might have been a log report. Thanking Corey, he scrolled back the text, and read the message from the beginning:

To: Sandra Winslett
From: Haley Bailey

I guess you were right. I should have listened to you. Sit yourself down, Sandra. Get yourself a strong drink. Make it a double. I'm afraid I have to tell you something that you're not going to want to hear.

The Gentle Giant has come under attack, but it's not pirates — it's Reavers. We have been attacked by Reavers. These Reavers may also have attacked a settlement on Newhall. We are attempting to prepare some defense against them, but it's not looking good. You told me that there was some sort of ruckus on Newhall, that one of the settlements got attacked. Well now we know. They were Reavers.

I just want you to know, Sandra, as if you didn't know already, that I treasure every moment that we spent together, and regret every moment that we spent apart. I don't know if we'll get out of this one alive. If we don't, then let my last words to you be these: I love you. I always have. I always will.


Slate reeled. He'd expected some sort of official log entry, not a personal message.

Recovering from the surprise, he said to Corey: “Least now we know for sure. See if you can find something we can use. The chin-soul came here. They were here! I want to know everything about them. Especially, where they went next”.

“I doubt you'll find that out”, Corey reasoned. “Everyone here would have been dead long afore the Reavers set off for somewhere else.”

Papagina interrupted. “Found some camera footage. Looks like this is the ship that attacked. Care to see it?”

“Damn straight”, said Slate, resolutely.

“I can put it on your screen”, she said. Immediately, the text message was replaced by the sight of a damaged Reaver ship heading straight for the camera.

“That's them”, Slate said, his voice low. “That's the ship we're gonna find. That's the ship we're gonna destroy”.

From the floor behind him, Polly supplied additional information: “I've identified the bodies from their ID tags. One's Captain Bailey. The other's Jack Norton, communications officer.”

That message was never sent, Slate realized, thinking back to the text screen. Why not? To everyone, he asked, “Was this ship being jammed when they were attacked?”

“No way to tell”, Papagina offered.

Moreton added: “Of course they were being jammed. Them's Reavers!” His tone of voice was like someone explaining the obvious to a child.

Slate paused in reverie. Then said: “Be quiet everyone. Something I gotta do”.

He logged onto the cortex.

He copied the destination address from the text message, and almost at once, the slender face of a woman in her late thirties or early forties appeared before him on the screen. “Yes?”, she said.

Slate pushed back into the chair. “Are you Sandra Winslett?”, he asked.

“I am. And you are?”

“Name's Slate”, he told her. “I, er … I don't know how to say this, so I'm just gonna come out and say it. I got some news for you. It's about Haley”.

Sandra winced at that. “It's been weeks”, she said. “Has something happened?”

“She's dead, Sandra”. There was no reaction at first, as though the words had not yet sunk in. “She's dead”, he repeated. “Ship got hit by Reavers”.

“Are you sure? How can you know that?”

“I'm on the bridge of the Gentle Giant right now. She's here. I mean — her body's here. She died afore the Reavers could take her away, so at least…“. His voice trailed off. They both knew how that sentence might have ended. “She left a message for you”, he added. “I'm sending it your way now”.

He saw Sandra glance briefly at a screen on which the text message must now be appearing. Then she said, “Thank you for telling me, Mister Slate”. Her face was stoic, but she couldn't hide her pain.

“We're going after them”, he interjected, quickly. “The Reavers. The ones who did this. They killed my niece, my whole town, everything. I will get them. That I promise”. Remembering his conversation with Elizabeth, he added: “Leastways, if I can find somewhere to refuel and lay over for a spell; if we don't all run of air before we find the bastards”. Resolutely, he stated “That ain't never gonna happen. I ain't the type for giving up”. He saw the look on her face, and made a decision. He sent her his cortex ID in case she would want to get back to him

“I…“. Whatever it was Sandra was going to say, she never finished it. She terminated the conversation, leaving Slate sitting in the captain's chair, his expression devoid of emotion.

He hated being the bearer of news this bad, but sometimes you have no choice. He could have left the job to others. He could have walked off and put some distance between himself and this ship, left an anonymous message on the cortex. But he wasn't that sort of person. If something had to be done, then Slate was not one to flinch from the task.

Suddenly there was a bang, and the room was filled with flying harpoons.

“What was that!?”, I ask. I see debris raining from the sky.

Pu geh shi yi!”, Hawkeye exclaims, “That was a bomb. Was that a bomb?”

“I think it was”, I say, still reeling from the shock. “Come on. Someone might be hurt”.

“What? Are you crazy? What if there's another bomb?”. We hear the sound of sirens. “Besides”, he says, “Listen to that. That's an ambulance on its way. Or could be its the RAVs. Either way, the authorities know about it. Let's leave this to them”.

Angrily, I glare at him, but I know my brother is right. “Damned Independents!”, I exclaim.

“Jeez, am I glad I don't live here any more!”, Hawkeye said.

“Where you live is safe”, I reassure him. I assume this to be true — the City Center has never been the target of any terrorist activity so far, and is likely to remain safe for a good while yet, since security is so tight there.

Smoke billows from the direction of the Raven's Arms, a soldiers' pub. More sirens fill the air. I'm not sure, but I think I see a lick of flame. Hawkeye stares in disbelief, then says: “You have to move too. You can't stay living around here”.

“Yeah right”, I say, scornfully. “And how am I going to afford that?”

“Hell with the cost!”, Hawkeye says. “This is just too damn dangerous. You stay here, you could be killed. Stay with us until you find your own place”.

“There work there?”, I ask.

“For someone with your skills, I'd say that's a definite. There's plenty of work for carpenters and joiners. Didn't anyone tell you: Miranda is a blossoming world. Best of everything”. The sarcasm in his voice is obvious. “But they still need people to build the buildings, do all the woodwork”.

“I'll think about it”, I say, looking back in the direction of the explosion.

Armored hovercars swoosh along the street, their sides emblazoned with the message: “Confidential terrorist hotline. If you have any information, call this ID today”. Grim faced soldiers stare through their windows.

Now other people start running. Some toward the explosion, others away from it. There is confusion and panic. I don't know what to do.

“Let's get out of here”, Hawkeye says.

“Let's get out of here!”, Slate yelled, anxiously looking around, trying to figure out what had happened. It didn't take long to figure out. Someone had triggered a booby trap. It wasn't clear how, exactly, but some kind of harpoon weapon secured to the door jamb with duct tape and jerry-rigged to fire randomly had begun shooting, three, four, five, now six harpoons, their directions almost arbitrary.

One harpoon thudded into Slate's leg, causing him to yell involuntarily. But that was nothing compared with the shudder of horror he felt as he watched one harpoon pierce Moreton's chest, a direct hit through the heart. Moreton gasped as he collapsed to the floor in teeth clenching pain.

But it didn't end there. His horror turned to fear as he saw the trajectory of the seventh and final harpoon. With a sharp crack, it pierced the window and continued on out into space, glass blowing out behind it in the ensuing gale. Ignoring the pain in his leg, he grabbed onto the captains chair with one hand, and his helmet with the other. He watched as Corey and Papagina were blown out into space. Papagina managed to hold onto her helmet as she flew through the window. She might be all right, Slate reasoned, but for Corey, he knew there was no hope at all. His ears popped, and he prepared to suck vacuum.

On the bridge of Vindicator, things could not have been more calm. Shielded as they were inside one of the cargo bays, with hangar doors facing rearwards, they had no knowledge of the events ensuing on the bridge of the other ship. All they knew was that they had been receiving a steady stream of useful information — most importantly, camera images of the Reaver vessel they were chasing.

That calm did not last long. It ended when enraged cries were heard over the comm system. Ben looked up at Elizabeth, startled. “Boss, we gotta go”, he said, manipulating the controls as he spoke.

“What's happening?”, Elizabeth demanded.

Ben was already striding toward the bridge, explaining the situation as he walked. “We gotta mount a rescue. Papagina's out front”.

“Out front?”

“Out front. In space. There was a booby trap. We gotta go get her”.

“You're saying we have to fly Vindicator out of here, maneuver round to the front of the Giant, and then pick up Papagina who's floating in space?”. Elizabeth tried to get the picture clear in her head.

“Got it in one”, Ben said, taking his place in the pilot's seat.

“What about the others?”, she asked, concerned.

“Slate and Polly are still on the Giant's bridge, but they can get out the front way too. A Reaver harpoon did some serious damage to the window”. He paused to compose his words before adding: “Corey and Moreton are both dead”.

Elizabeth went white. Hadn't she lost enough crew already? Hadn't they all? Through their own window they saw the cargo walls slide past them, followed by a sheet of starry sky which stopped its sideways motion as soon as, Elizabeth assumed, the ship was in the correct position. For a moment, it seemed as though they weren't moving at all, and then stars resumed their sideways motion. When they had completed the full 360 degree turn and were again parallel to the Gentle Giant, its great bulk became a wall filling the view ahead to starboard. Then that seemed to slide backwards past them. After a time, that too was behind them, and only empty space filled their view.

“Papagina”, Ben directed through the comm. “I need you to switch your suit radio on now”.

“I'm here”, they heard her say, and the entire population of the bridge breathed a collective sigh of relief. “Not sure where here is”, she added, “But I'm here”

“Just keep talking. We'll find you. Can you see the ship?”, Ben asked.

“Frequently”, she answered. “I'm spinning”.

Elizabeth pointed ahead. “There she is. I can see her”.

“Now what we're going to do”, Ben explained, “Is pull alongside you, and match your velocity exactly. Once we've done that, you'll be stationary relative to us”.

“But still spinning”, she emphasized.

“Your suit thrusters should still work. Once we're alongside you, you can orient yourself to match us”.

“OK”, she said. “But don't forget — your thrusters are bigger than mine. Don't set fire to me”.

“We'll keep our distance”, he reassured.

And then it was done, at least, according to the instruments. Their thrusters disengaged. She and they now shared an inertial reference frame. In effect, Papagina found herself stationary outside the ship, and she had never been so pleased to see it. She righted herself and moved toward it. At the airlock, she found the rope ladder still attached at one end. Carefully, she grabbed onto it. Only at that moment, when she felt the pressure of the rope beneath her gloved hands, did she truly believe she was going to be safe. Another airlock cycle, and she was safely aboard Vindicator. She hugged Elizabeth. She would have hugged Ben, but he was busy. “I owe you a drink”, she told him.

“I think your life is worth at least two drinks and one of those hugs”, Ben said, though he didn't pay much attention to the words. His mind was focused on the controls before him. “OK, let's go and get Slate and Polly”.

There was another, similar round of maneuvering. The stars slid past the window once more, this time from bottom to top. After a time, the Gentle Giant scrolled into view, nose toward them, and relatively upside down. Slowly, it began to loom larger in their vision.

“Slate, you there?”, Ben asked.

“Still here”, his voice crackled through the comm set.

Elizabeth asked: “What about Polly?”

“She fainted”, Slate said, “But she's OK. I got her”.

“I hope she fainted with her helmet on“, Elizabeth said, more or less in jest.

“Nope, she weren't that considerate. I had to do that bit for her”.

Impressive, thought Elizabeth.

The Giant was now close enough for Ben to see human figures. Slate stood in the window, carrying Polly in his arms. He was oriented relative to the Giant, which meant upside down relative to them. They watched him jump out of the shattered window. He fell upwards, accelerating under that part of the Giant's artificial gravity field which leaked just beyond the walls of the ship, until he exited its reach and moved with constant velocity once more.

Elizabeth asked: “Are you OK maneuvering and holding onto Polly at the same time?”

“Nope”, came the reply. “I could use a little help here”.

She made her decision quickly. “Ben, Kwok Fi, suit up. Help him”. She was taking no chances this time. There was to be no pretence of fairness between the two crews. She wanted experienced spacefarers only on this rescue, not fisherfolk. It wasn't prejudice, it was practicality.

In truth, the two filmmakers had had very little weightless experience. But some was better than none, and they leapt out into the black, and between them manhandled Slate and Polly back to the airlock.

Eventually, the airlock opened, and Slate, Ben, Kwok Fi, and an unconscious Polly stepped out into the corridor. Elizabeth stared at Slate, her eyes wide open with amazement. The leg of his space suit was patched with duct tape. More duct tape attached Polly to him.

“Ow”, Slate said, and fell to the floor, finally allowing unconsciousness to take him.

“We have a small problem”, Elizabeth told the crew the following day as they assembled in the bridge. She still sat in the captain's chair, despite the fact that Slate was now out of Medical and limping around on his one good leg, the other bandaged. Slate didn't mind. If anything, he was glad that she had taken over so competently in his absence.

“We have gathered a great deal more data from the Gentle Giant, and we now know a lot more about the ship we are pursuing. It's an old Trans-U, but it's heavily damaged. It was damaged in its encounter with the Giant itself. That's not our problem.

“We have taken on some new supplies from the Giant, including fuel and rations. “We have discovered, and mapped, a number of other Reaver booby traps around the Giant, including explosive charges on the exterior airlocks. If we'd have gone in that way, instead of through the hangar, we'd have been toast by now.”

“Those don't sound like problems, they sound like benefits”, Ben said. “So what is the problem?”

“Our problem is that we need a layover for repairs, recycling and so on. By now this ship will have been reported missing, perhaps presumed destroyed. But any port we pull into will be alerted to its presence. Yoshida-Kendall would be informed, and then they would take the ship from us. As far as I'm concerned, we're only borrowing this ship, and we'll give it back when our mission is done. But the company may not see it like that. They might not be prepared to wait.

That, my friends, is our problem. I don't suppose anyone has any ideas as to how we might address this problem?”

Nobody spoke straight away. After a time, Polly said “Back on the island, Gruvick told us of a place called Haven, might be able to put us up for a spell”.

“If we have the coin to pay them”, Slate interjected, “which we don't. 'Sides, Gruvick's dead, and without his word, they got no reason to trust us”.

Belatedly, Kwok Fi asked: “Isn't that a mining colony?”

“I don't know, Elizabeth”, Slate said, resignedly. “Maybe it's about time we gave up this fools' errand; called it a day. Don't get me wrong — I still want to go after those Reavers, but maybe there's another way of doing it. Maybe it don't have to be in this ship. Two good people died today. There ain't no need to risk more lives for this”.

“We're not giving up”, Elizabeth said, coldly.

Slate nodded and looked around at the rest of the crew. “Rest you feel like that, we go on”, he said. “But we might have to bend the rules a little further than we'd hoped. Might have to do a bit of lawbreaking to get us some coin”.

There were murmurs of approval.

“I want to make it clear”, Elizabeth said, “That this is not a suicide mission. We do what it takes to find and kill the Reavers, but I don't intend to die doing it, nor for any one of us to die doing it”.

There were louder murmurs of approval.

Merissa asked: “Has anyone given any thought as to how exactly we might take out a Reaver ship?”

Slate answered: “Figured I'd just ram the bastards. After evacuating the crew in lifeboats, of course”.

There was a beep from the comm set. Slate and Elizabeth looked at each other, then at Ben. Everyone looked confused. Since the entire crew was here, there was no one left to be calling them. Slate limped over to the comm station and took the call. To his surprise, he saw the face of Sandra Winslett. She was dressed in an Alliance uniform, minus the peaked cap. “Mister Slate?”, she introduced.

“Just Slate”, he corrected.

“You said you needed a port layover. I happen to the harbormaster of the Leningrad — it's an Alliance cruiser, in your vicinity. I'm on leave right now — compassionate, you know — but I still have my position, and I can still pull a few strings”.

Slate was stumped. “You're offering to help?”, he queried.

“I can get you in and out without appearing on any records. You did say you were going after them, didn't you? The ye-man tón-uh who killed Haley”.

“We'll take them down”, Slate promised.

“Then I suggest you visit”, she said, and closed the connection.

Slate's stunned reaction permeated to the rest of the crew.

Merissa was cautions. “Could be we're walking into a trap”.

“No”, Slate said. “No, I think it ain't. Ben — take us there”.

“You got it”, he said.

Dark Places


“Small moments define us: not grandiose deeds, nor noble actions, but small, simple acts of kindness. These are what make us human. These are the moments that make us care about each other. Small moments, between two people: these are what make life worth living.”

Elizabeth paused to compose her thoughts, and then continued the recording.

“And so when I tell you that the I.A.V. Leningrad masses five point five million tons, occupies two and a half billion cubic feet of space, and houses a permanent crew of forty thousand people, you'd probably start thinking somewhat on the large scale. There is no doubt — this is a city in space. Within its walls are administrators, bankers, clerks, shopkeepers, and more. You might imagine that within these towering green colossi, there would be no room for the human element, that the small moments would get drowned out. You would be wrong.

“The Leningrad is not, of course, a city in the strictest sense. Over ninety per cent of its population all work for the same company — the government — and the rest are the husbands, wives and families of the highest ranking officials. Within such an environment, finding those small moments is not always an easy matter.”

Slate interrupted her. “Still promoting the Alliance?” he queried.

Elizabeth stopped recording. She was in her room. Slate was peering in through the doorway. “Do you have something in particular against the Alliance?”, she returned.

“Hard to say. You gonna invite me in?”

“I can't honestly say it was top of my list of priorities”.

Slate hesitated. Not too far back, he would have made some smart-aleck quip and strolled right in. Now he found that he couldn't do that. He wasn't sure if that was because he had acquired more respect for her these past weeks, or because the two of them were becoming more distant. “Look”, he explained, “we'll be docking soon. I just thought you might like a quiet drink somewhere, that's all”.

Elizabeth paused to consider, but there was really only one answer she could give. “Truthfully? Yes. Yes, I'd like that”.

Slate nodded. “I'll let you know when we're docked”.

Vindicator approached the docking platform slowly and carefully. On the bridge, Ben handled the maneuvering with ease. From this perspective, Leningrad was a squarish platform a thousand feet to each edge, a single control tower overseeing the landing field. The landing platform itself was easily large enough to take a dozen ships the size of Vindicator.

“This is the civilian ship Vindicator requesting permission to dock”, Ben said.

“Permission granted”, came the voice of harbormaster Sandra Winslett. Though this was expected, Ben was relieved nonetheless to find things going so smoothly.

The ship touched down, but it would be a few minutes before it would be possible for anyone to leave. Docking pillars and tubes rose from the floor and snaked across the landing field, connecting with Vindicator's fore starboard airlock, making an airtight seal.

Gravity on the landing platform was upside down with respect to the rest of Leningrad. This was because the platform was built on the underside of what was essentially Leningrad's base, its orientation inverted. It was an efficient use of space.

Slate walked onto Vindicator's bridge as Ben powered down the engines and told him, “We're here”.

“Power everything down”, Slate ordered, quietly. “Everything we don't need. Get life support down to a minimum. If it don't need to keep running, it don't keep running”.

One by one, the ship's systems went off. The hum of life within its walls quieted and stilled. One by one, the ship's crew left the protective vessel which had been their home for the last month.

His sense of humor still intact, Ben called back: “Last one to leave, switch off the lights”

Small moments, Elizabeth reflected, define who we are.

The funeral of Haley Bailey was eloquent and brought tears to the eyes of many, but it meant little to the crew of Vindicator, who had never known her. And yet, they were not entirely unmoved. They were also in need of a double funeral of their own, for Moreton and Corey. But more than that, every one of them had lost people on Newhall, and the funeral reminded them of that loss, a loss made more bitter by the knowledge that none of the townsfolk had been given a proper burial, their bodies simply left for other authorities to find and deal with. There had been no closure for the Newhall survivors. It was as though, Slate realized, they had not truly faced up to it. They had spent the time since then running away from facing that truth. He wondered when he would ever be able to put Jade's ghost to rest. Of course, he would remember Jade forever, as he did Lana, but he wondered how long it would be before he could think of her without feeling pain. There had always been some comfort in the fact that Lana's had been a quick death, but no such comfort existed with respect to Jade. She could have suffered any number of terrible fates, including having been eaten alive, skinned alive, raped to death, or some combination of all three. Anger welled within him once more, and he knew it would be a long time yet.

When the funeral was over, those present dispersed to various locations throughout the Leningrad. Ben hung around. It wasn't like he had anything else to do, and he wanted to meet Sandra, for she piqued his curiosity. The ensemble moved to a bar, called the Beacon, which suited Ben fine, since drinking was not something with which he had ever had a particular problem. Besides which, the drinks were free, this being a post-funeral gathering, which was definitely an added bonus.

He was made welcome, and ended up sitting at a table with Sandra and two other people, and eventually with Sandra alone after her two friends had left to attend other duties. For her part, Sandra welcomed the opportunity to speak with any of the crew of the Vindicator, for the official story of the fate of the Gentle Giant had involved pirates, not Reavers, and Sandra had been given the distinct impression by her superiors that no other story was acceptable. Ben, at least, was someone who knew the truth. “I don't want to talk about how she was killed”, Sandra told him, her eyes moist, “But I do feel more comfortable talking with someone who at least knows what happened”.

“She must have been a fine woman”, Ben said, feeling awkward.

“Let me tell you about Haley”, Sandra said. “You should know who she was — who she really was: not a ship's captain, not a Reaver victim, but a person who loved and cared and…“. She paused to sniffle, and wiped her eyes with a tissue. “I was on Osiris when I first met her. I was in my twenties then. I'd just finished doing a whole bunch of military training, and when that was over I was without a job, living on back pay. I'd stayed with my parents for a while, but that didn't work out, so I got an apartment with three college kids. It was only temporary, so I didn't really care who I shared with. The first night I was there, I sat up drinking with two of them, getting to know them a bit, and then crash! There's this almighty thud, and bits of plaster rain down on us from the ceiling. We look up and there's this pair of legs dangling down from a hole in the ceiling. That was Haley. It was so funny. She yelled down: 'I'm all right', and one of the students recognized the voice and just said 'Haley, what are you doing up there?'. Turned out she was trying to fix some problem with the water tank. There was this whole mad conversation we had, yelled through the ceiling, and there was just this pair of legs waving about. I didn't get to see her face until the students went up into the loft and pulled her out. She was the fourth housemate. She walked into the room with the other two. Her clothes were all covered in plaster, and she looked so embarrassed, not to mention ridiculous. I just burst out laughing, and then so did she. Then we had our first conversation. Stayed up all night drinking green tea and just talking, long after the others went to bed. We were from very different backgrounds, and I was seven years older than her, but we just had so much in common. We liked the same music, read the same books. It was like she was a younger version of me, but more like I would have been if I'd gone to college instead of military academy”.

Ben was amused already, and involved in the story. “So when d'you figure out she leaned toward womenfolk?”

Sandra gave him a sharp look, as though the question has taken her by surprise, then asked: “That bother you?”

“Hell no”, he replied, quickly. Feeling a need to explain himself, he said: “I'm an old man. I've been around a bit, seen plenty. Known my fair share of folk of all different sortsa persuasions. But you gotta know that the thought of two women is kinda exciting to an old man like me”.

“I can't believe you just said that”, she said, looking slightly startled. Then shrugged, and continued: “But I appreciate your honesty. A bit. Tell you what, when I'm finished telling you about Haley, you can tell me about you”.

“Fair enough”, he agreed, adding. “But I don't conjure you'll find my life particularly enthralling. Go on”.

“I'll answer your question. Haley just came straight out with it. Told me that in that first conversation. I thought she was brave to do that because she'd only just met me and I'm sure you know some folk can be a mite prejudiced, although maybe not so much on Osiris. But it might surprise you to know that we didn't get together straight away. We became friends. Good friends. The sort of friends who could tell each other anything and not have to worry about feeling silly. We moved a couple of times — we actually got away with the damage to the ceiling! We patched it up — or at least, disguised it — well enough. What the landlord must have thought when he found out is anybody's guess. But always shared apartment, because we liked each others' company so much. Then one day, maybe two years on, we ended up sharing a bed at someone else's party — and we still didn't get it together. We just stayed up talking and then both went to sleep fully dressed, trying not to bump into each other in the night. It was maybe a month after that when we talked back about the incident that we realized we'd both been thinking the exact same thing, but we'd both been afraid to do anything about it in case it damaged our friendship. That was pretty much that.

“Then there was the time we got drunk at Haley's end of college party. When the party was winding down, we went out rampaging through the college grounds. I think there must have been half a dozen of us, all students except me. And there's this kind of park area in the college grounds, done up like a chess board. There were, like, squares of dark grass and light grass, and big ornamental chess pieces. No, seriously, there was. So, Haley decides it would be fun to play drunk chess, which is like chess only without any rules. It was just like a big crazy free for all. We were moving our pieces around the board, and some of the other students were moving other pieces around at the same time — there was no concept of turns. And then all of sudden these floodlights switch on, and there's this security guy wanting to know what the hell's going on, so we all just run. Oh god — those were fun times”.

And then the tears welled in her eyes once more. “It's not fair”, she cried, giving in to the tears. “She didn't deserve it. I…“.

“I know it's not fair”, Ben said, gently. “It never is”.

“I didn't mean to cry like this. I'm sorry— “

“Don't”, he interrupted, “say you're sorry. It's good to cry if you've got reason to”.

She abandoned all attempts to stay composed, and began to sob unrestrainedly. Ben moved his chair closer to her, and put his arm around her.

“Just you cry”, Ben said, gently. “I can't promise you'll feel better, but it's something you gotta do”.

She collapsed into his arms. Through tears, she said: “It has to be your turn. You lose people on Herren?”

“No, I ain't from there. I'm with the film crew”. Slate had previously explained to her how the survivors of the two groups had joined forces.

“Oh, sorry”, she said, a little startled. “I just assumed … from your accent. You don't seem like the core world type”.

“Been a lot of places”, Ben told her. “Born and raised on a crop farm. Place called Greenleaf. Border world. But I weren't the type for staying still, so I took what jobs I could, worked on ships, got around. I got me a wife, then a divorce, then another wife, then I got widowed — no, it was a long time ago. Died peacefully in her sleep. Left me with three kids, and now eight grandchildren”.

“Weren't any of them worried when you went missing on Newhall?”

“Hell no. Don't speak to any of 'em month to month. They didn't even know I was on Newhall. 'Sides — I talked to my eldest since then. She's fine”. Slate had restored cortex access to everyone shortly after he had realized that Elizabeth was as dedicated to this mission as he. Most of the crew had been reassuring surviving loved ones that they were OK, but laying low for a while for various reasons. “I didn't lose no family on Newhall, but I did lose friends. Some good friends, who didn't deserve to die”.

She looked up him sharply, her eyes conveying resolve. “Get them for me”, she said, sternly. “Get them. Kill them. Don't let this happen to anyone else, ever again”.

Quietly, he said: “We'll get them. I promise”.

Throughout the bar, similar conversations were going on, though most of the people around had known Haley only through Sandra. Out in the black, economy alone was enough to prevent most family members from attending the funeral, and transport to a military vessel would have been hard to come by in any case.

One of those conversations was between two people who had never met Haley at all. At least, not when she'd been alive. Slate and Elizabeth had been drinking, sociably. For Slate, this had been his first opportunity to relax. He wasn't sure he liked it.

“You have nothing to do”, pointed out Elizabeth. “For the past month you've been busy— “

“Weren't always busy”.

“Depends what you mean. There's always something to think about when you're running a ship. And it must have been harder for you not knowing the ship or half its crew”.

“What you saying?”

“Only that you've been so caught up in this quest for vengeance that you've never allowed yourself time to stop and think. But now, Vindicator's in space dock, and you have absolutely nothing to do for the next twenty four hours while the ship is refueled and made spaceworthy”.

“That's true enough”, he conceded. “Guess I am a bit without purpose right about now”.

“But that's only half of it”, Elizabeth continued. “You have a lot of feelings bottled up, and it's been easy to keep them buried all the while you've been busy. But one day on a cruiser, where you have no responsibility, and now you've got no excuse to keep those feelings in check. And they need to be expressed”.

“You 'spect me to burst into tears? Is that it?”

“No, I would never expect that of you. Not while anyone's watching anyhow. But at least you should talk”.

For a long time, he said nothing, merely taking a long slow sip from his beer. Finally, he said: “Reckon you're right”.

Elizabeth waited, then said: “…and?”

Slate took a deep breath, and then started to speak. “There's things I haven't told you. Things I haven't told anyone, ever”.

Patiently, she said: “I'm listening”.

Slate shook his head and laughed. “You're a reporter for fuck's sake. You're the last person I should be telling things I don't want known”.

“I may be a 'reporter', as you put it, but I'm also a friend. At least, I hope so. Your secrets will be safe with me”.

“You know I lost my wife?”

“Lana, yes”. The turn of conversation took Elizabeth by surprise, but in hindsight, it shouldn't have been so unexpected.

“You know how she died?”

“You said your ship was attacked by Reavers”.

“No I didn't. I said Jade believed the ship was attacked by Reavers. I never told her the whole story”.

A pause. “Which was?”

“We were attacked. Someone attacked us. Blew the ship right out of the sky. But I got no idea who attacked us, or why. Could be it was Reavers. Could be it was someone else. But I swear it was an Alliance gunship I saw doing the firing”.

“Even if that's true, it doesn't mean it wasn't Reavers”, Elizabeth pointed out. “Perhaps Reavers took over that ship, killed its crew, then attacked you”.

“Could be that's true”, he conceded. “But I have to wonder — you'd think a military vessel would have some sort of defense against EMP”.

“Why would the Alliance attack your ship?”

“Can't think of any good reason”, he admitted.

“And that's why you don't trust the Alliance?”

Slate knocked back some more of his beer, then said: “I was a good Alliance citizen before that. Bought into all the bullshit about how great it would be to settle on a new world. Could be it was Reavers, but I hadn't heard of Reavers back then. It weren't 'til later — years later — when I first started to hear all the stories about Reavers. Didn't believe 'em none neither. Leastways, not straight aways. Eventually I put two and two together. Maybe I made five”.

“You're a complex person, Slate”, Elizabeth stated. “All this time I had this idea about you — Reavers killed your wife, then ten years or so later they killed your niece who had become, in effect, your adopted daughter. Of course you were pissed with them. But now I'm hearing maybe it wasn't Reavers at all the first time. What should I make of that?”

“That I am a deep and multifaceted person?”, he suggested..

“Are you a gambling man?”, she asked, innocently.

He smirked. “Once upon a time”, he mused, almost to himself.

The room is hot and sweaty, but the cool breeze from the overhead fan keeps things from getting too overheated. I look at my cards: four plums. Oranges are tall. I am in with a good chance of winning. I look at the pot. It is the biggest pile of cash I've ever seen at a card game before. My own stake — my wages, my entire week's wages.

I've pretty much been forced into this position. Taking Hawkeye's advice, I moved into the city center, away from the violence. But there is a reason why I hadn't done that sooner, and that reason is money. The city center is expensive, and more than I can afford, even with the new job. At first it looked like it would have been feasible, but there are hidden costs here that you just don't take into account when you're planning it. Little things, like food is more expensive here. It all adds up. I've been playing cards all my life. I'm pretty good at it too, and so when the opportunity arose to take part in this spieler, I didn't refuse. In fact, I jumped at the chance.

What I didn't take into account was how high the stakes would be raised. Now I find myself in a situation I don't want to be in: sitting here with every credit of my week's wage — converted to platinums — in a pile on the table before me. I could lose it all. The thought is nerve racking.

The player to my right, a muscular fellow with a patch over one eye, lays down three apples. He has a self satisfied look on his face. He thinks he's won.

I breathe a sigh of relief. Four plums beats three apples. I lay my cards, and begin laughing. I've done it! I've actually won! I wait for my victory to be acknowledged by all, and then reach for the pot with both hands.

“Thank you, gentlemen”, I say. “It's been a good game. So I will take my leave of you, and maybe we can do this another time”.

“Wait!”, says eye patch man. “You can't just leave with all the coin”.

“Why not?”, I ask. “I won them, didn't I?”

There is general acknowledgement of this fact.

“You gotta give us a chance to win back that money”, says eye patch man.

I smile. “I don't think so”, I say. “I have rent to pay. This little lot will tide me over for a month, and fact is, I won it fair and square”.

“Maybe you cheated?”, eye patch man says.

“You accusing me of cheating?”, I ask, astounded by the question.

“Not saying you did. Not saying you didn't. All I'm saying is, I want a rematch”.

Again, I smile. “Another time”. And maybe there would be another time, I think. Although next time, I won't gamble quite so much.

I walk out the door and through the corridors of the tower block, bag of cash under my arm. I whistle a happy tune. Things are going well.

Outside the building: it is night. There are no stars in the sky, because there never are, and even in the depth of night, you can see the glow around the horizon from the sun on the other side of the planet. I think I will never get the hang of the way that this planet diffuses sunlight. I miss the stars.

Suddenly I double up in pain. From nowhere, a punch has come, straight to the solar plexus. I yell in a mixture of surprise and agony, and collapse to the ground clutching my stomach.

My bag of coins hits the deck, and I reach out to grab it, but my assailant steps on my hand and I cry in more pain. Recovering quickly, I swing my body around, and prepare to counterstrike, but a second assailant pulls me back and kicks me in the side. It hurts like hell.

And then there is the sound of running footsteps, and my attackers are gone, along with my money.

It takes me a while to get my breath back. Eventually, I clamber up, and stagger out into a main street. People are walking and driving by as if nothing had happened. I guess, for them, it hasn't. My assailants are nowhere to be seen, and I realize I haven't even seen their faces. I don't know who they are. I could take a shrewd guess, but hell — that guess might be wrong, and it wouldn't do to go around accusing folk. Seems I was too trusting. I'd been caught with my pants down.

My attackers are gone — and I have no idea how to find them.

“What would you say the odds were against our succeeding?”, Elizabeth asked, in all sincerity.

Slate looked up at her. “In taking out the Reavers?”, he began. “I honestly couldn't say. I do believe that if we find that ship, I will be able to do it some damage, hopefully take it out altogether. The hard part will be finding the ship in the first place. The 'verse is a big place, and there's lots of empty space they could be hiding in”.

“Have you given any thought to how we should go about that? Do we carry on systematically exploring around the shipping lanes, or do you have some other plan in mind?”

“Can't say a decent plan is springing to mind right now”, he admitted.

“Then you should focus on the now”, she told him.

“What do you have in mind?”

“Your crew need a release. Even if you don't, they do”. She was shrewd. She knew that if she couldn't make him think of himself, she could give him what he needed — what they all needed — by appealing to his loyalty to his crew. “Sandra has had her release: this funeral. It's closure, of a sort, something we all need to help us move on”.

“You suggesting I hold a funeral for Jade, for Gruvick, for all the people on the island? We got one funeral to plan already: Moreton, Corey. It ain't gonna bring 'em back”.

“Yes I am”, she said, simply. “And for my people too. At least — if not a funeral, then a memorial, some kind of…“, she searched for the word, “…ritual”.

“I ain't never been no religious type”, he said.

“Even atheists need closure”, she pointed out.

He paused at that. She was correct, of course. “I could organize something on the ship”, he conceded.

Elizabeth closed her eyes. “I would like that”, she said, quietly.

The next day, Polly and Papagina were sightseeing. They had no money to spend, and in any case, this was an Alliance cruiser — not the sort of place you'd want to try spending hard coin. They'd managed to get served breakfast at one of the canteens, along with a bustle of nameless faces, some in uniform, others not. No questions had been asked, but it wouldn't have been wise to stay in the same canteen all day long, so they went wandering. It seemed as good a way to spend time as any.

“We have to be back at the ship by midday”, Polly reminded.

“I know”, Papagina acknowledged. The memorial service Slate had organized was not something she wanted to miss.

They came to rest at a corridor having a huge window along one wall, offering a view of the blackness of space, speckled with pinpoints of light. For a moment, they just stared at the scene, then Polly shivered, and said: “It's just empty nothing”.

“It's beautiful”, Papagina responded.

Polly blinked. “No it ain't”, she said, softly. “The night sky from the surface of a planet or moon — now that's beautiful, when you get to see all the stars twinkling — but not harsh and steady like this. This is just, cold and clinical”.

“They twinkle because you can't see them clearly”, Papagina said, her voice almost a whisper: quiet, respectful, awestruck. “Here they are like perfect jewels. I've always wanted to be out here among them”.

This statement caused Polly to rethink, but she couldn't shake off the feeling of unease. “I like to feel the ground beneath my feet. I like warm sunshine”.

“But you have ground beneath your feet”, Papagina argued. She pointed out into the black at a small yellow disc. “And you are bathed in sunlight. That is — Georgia, a sun”.

“It just looks like a yellow circle. How can we look at it? Why aren't we blinded?”

Papagina tapped the window. It's filtered. Special glass. Atmo makes it look larger, traps the warmth, And over there…“, she pointed.

Polly shook her head. “Too many stars. I can't see which one you're pointing at”.

“You can't see it with the naked eye, but in that direction — with a good telescope, you can see our original sun, the star of Earth-that-Was”.

“You know a lot about the stars”, Polly commented. She tried to imagine the distant star that was humanity's cradle, too small and distant even to be seen.

“Out among the stars is where I've always wanted to be. And so working for Elizabeth was kind of a dream job”.

“What is it you do? Normally, that is”

“Before the Reavers came, I was a camera operator. So I needed to be able to handle myself in all sorts of situations: out in space, underwater, inside wrecked spaceships. I get to go places other people just see captures of. I couldn't ask for a better life. What about you?”

“Born and raised on The Isle of Herren. Never been off the archipelago before this, 'cept out to sea. Got me a husband. Reavers killed him, same as they killed my mama and papa”.

“What did you do there?”

Polly laughed. “What does anyone do there? I could tell you all sortsa tales but the bottom line is, I lived. I had a life. And I was happy”.

“No, I meant what job? I know you were a mechanic of some kind. At least, you've been doing a pretty good job here, since…“

“Sort of a general all rounder kind of mechanic. Looked after all the boats, but especially Slate's coz I was part of his crew. But on top of that, we're, all fishers, all the survivors. I could fix an engine or put a sail up in next to no time. But it weren't the job that made it worth it, it was the life. We made our own destiny”.

“I can't imagine settling down, being in one place the whole time”.

Polly shook her head. “Weren't like that. We weren't in one place the whole time. We had the boat — actually, lot's of boats, but the Lana was the best. We went all sorts of places. Got a good crew too, not like here”.

“You think this isn't a good crew?”

“I think we have a fine bunch of folks here, but they ain't a crew. Not really. We got no medic, no mechanic but me. I wasn't exactly trained for space travel, you know? Hell, we're lucky even to have a pilot. If old Ben didn't happen to double up as editor and pilot, we'd be screwed”.

“But we're not screwed. That's the beauty of it. And you do know your way around the engine”.

Polly countered this. “Elizabeth is used to pulling into a repair stop any time something goes wrong. Place like this. We were lucky this time. We ain't gonna be so lucky next time. We gotta get ourselves some cash 'cause ain't no one gonna do us any favors for free after this. I ain't even figured out why the Alliance is helping us now anyhow”.

“We're just a number to be processed that's all. We come in, we get serviced, we leave, and as long as it all goes smoothly, we're just another bookkeeping entry. But you're right about not having a medic. Cassandra was a good person. They all were, before the Reavers came”

They stared out into space a little while longer, before wandering off to continue their exploration. Eventually, they made their way back to the ship, now refueled and fully spaceworthy once more. The power was back on, and it hummed again with life. They had spend the night on the ship — after all, they'd had nowhere else to sleep — and it had seemed so strange and quiet with only the emergency lighting on, and with heat and air circulating from the Leningrad. Now Vindicator was revitalized and ready to go. But there were two more hours before their scheduled departure time, and as Papagina had said earlier, things run like clockwork here. It wouldn't do to upset the schedule by leaving early.

Slate had originally planned to hold the memorial in the cargo hold, but there was still loading going on there. Apparently they were being resupplied with food and other stocks. Though Vindicator was not a military vessel, it was nonetheless a sleek looking Alliance vessel, a refitted former patrol boat, in fact. Papagina had been correct — the workers here were just going through the motions, and so long as Vindicator did nothing unexpected, it was probable that no questions would be asked.

But the cargo hold's being in use meant that the memorial had to be held elsewhere, and so the crew of seven made its way to the mid level lounge. One by one they filed in, some bringing unopened bottles of drink from the night before. Polly wished she had thought of that. Sandra Winslett was also present, an unexpected but certainly not unwelcome guest.

The atmosphere was formal. People were dressed in their best. Polly wished she'd thought to pack some clothes from Newhall when they'd left so abruptly — although at the time, getting out of the world as quickly as possible had seemed the only sensible option. There were plenty of clothes aboard Vindicator, but they lacked the personal touch of being hers. Nonetheless, she put together a suitable white outfit, and joined the crew as they assembled in the lounge.

Elizabeth stood before the assembled crowd, and waited while conversation came to a halt. She nodded to Ben, who pressed a single button. The lights began to dim, and soft music began to play, timeless and classical, an ancient piece from Earth-that-Was. Candles had been lit around the room, and as the lights dimmed to near darkness, the candles took over as the primary source of illumination, with yellows and oranges dancing across everyone's faces. Elizabeth looked radiant in her long white flowing dress.

“Thank you all for being here”, she said. “Ordinarily, it would be the responsibility of the ship's captain to conduct a memorial such as this, but our circumstances are far from ordinary, and Slate and I have decided that we will conduct this together. Before this ship became the Vindicator, it was Uriah Heep, and most the people who died here knew it only by that name, and they knew me as their captain. The people who died on Newhall knew Slate as an important community figure, and the captain of the best fishing boat on the island, and of everyone from Herren Island who is here today. Today, we are going to remember all of the people who died, and lay their ghosts to rest”.

Slate stood up and limped to stand beside Elizabeth, walking with a stick. “I ain't good with fancy words”, he said, “But I lost people, same as you all. Maybe by rights we should have stayed, given our people the decent burial they deserved. But there were thousands of dead, and only nine of us, and back then, getting away from that place of death seemed powerful important. Anyways, what's done is done. I thought it would end there. Then we lost two more. But what matters is that we remember those folks like they deserve to be remembered, as decent, honest folks, who never did nobody no harm”.

The introductory music came to an end, to be replaced by music which was softer, more ambient. The assembled were completely silent. And in that hushed room, Elizabeth said: “Let us begin”.

One by one, people took their turn to stand up at the front of Vindicator's lounge and speak about friends and lovers and other people who had died. And then it was Merissa's turn. She had a brief, and amusing, vision of simply telling the truth as she saw it:

“Seventy or more years back”, she began, “a bunch of brave settlers headed out from the core to the border worlds, knowing they was gonna make a new life for themselves and their families. With only the tools and blankets they brought with them, and what was left of the spare parts of the ship they traveled in, they built themselves a home, and made it their own.

“But they wasn't content even with that. Those people didn't want to work in no factories. They didn't want to slave away in what was left of Alliance terraforming plants, or in the water processing plants. They wanted to be free. So they struck out on their own — again — found a chain of islands, and built themselves a goodly settlement there, where they could be all self-sufficient, growing their own food instead of having to buy it from the Alliance, catching fish from the sea. Sure — their lives was hard most like, but they were free, independent, and living the good life. They knew what they wanted, and were not going to let anything stand in the way of getting it.

“Those people were our grandparents, and our great grandparents, and their legacy is our town, Herren Town. And I say that Herren Town will never be forgotten, because it matters too much to let go. No one, not the Alliance, not the Reavers, can take that from us. And we will carry the memories of those who died with us, because they cared about our world, and we care about them. Those people, will never, be forgotten”.

She wondered if that would be enough, or too much. Maybe she'd gone too over the top with that speech — it was difficult to judge. And then, one by one, people started to applaud her. It wasn't exactly a standing ovation, but it was enough to let her know that her words had gone down well. Only Ben, she noted, did not join in.

Ben, in fact, was suspicious that she had not meant a single word, but he wasn't about to spoil the mood.

Slate was certainly moved. As far as he was concerned, it was one of the finest speeches he had ever heard.

When the ceremony was over, he spoke once again with Sandra.

“You'll be on your way then”, she said.

Slate nodded. “Thanks for getting a medic to fix up my leg”.

“Not a problem”.

“You sure you'll be OK with this boat coming in and out of your yard? We must have taken a fair bit of your fuel. Ain't someone gonna notice?”

“It's a drop in the ocean. They won't notice. There are records of it now, but I've already doctored the backups. When the time comes for these logs to be filed away, they'll quietly disappear, and no one will even remember you, except as just another ship that came and went”.

“You won't get into trouble over this?”

“Commander Harken can be strict and efficient at times, but nothing I can't deal with”.

“Well then — thank you very much for all your help”.

“It was nothing. Oh, and Slate — I've left a present for you in the bridge”.

“A present?”

“Just think of it as a U-Day present”.

“Today is Unification Day?”, he queried. He'd lost track. Not that he particularly cared one way or the other about the anniversary of the war's end. “Well anyway — thanks. We appreciate everything you've done for us”.

“Just make it worth my while”, she said, grimly.

Slate nodded.

One by one they departed, and made for their respective stations, Sandra staying behind on the Leningrad. Many of the crew were required in the bridge. Slate hobbled in last, to find a small flight case sitting on the captain's chair. A note attached to the case read: Happy U-Day. “That my present?”, he queried.

“Looks like”, Elizabeth answered.

Gently, he opened the lid of the flight case, then gasped, and snapped it shut again quickly. Then he opened it again, and this time he allowed his eyes to settle on the device.

“What is it?”, asked Elizabeth.

In a voice so full of disbelief it was almost a whisper, Slate said: “It's a nuke. It's a gorram tsao li-hai warhead”.

They stared at each other for just an instant, then Elizabeth said: “Let's make tracks”.

Their fortunes had changed.

“Let's make tracks”, Slate agreed, and they headed out into the black.

Dark Places


Tom and Emma Thatcher ran exuberantly through the corridors, laughing as they went. Tom was twelve years old, his sister eight. They ducked into a doorway. “He won't find us here”, Tom cried, gleefully.

“He's got spies”, Emma told him. “They're half man and half shark, and they carry pitchforks”.

“King Neptune don't have spies”, Tom argued.

“He does so”, she argued. “They protect Atlantis from all outsiders”.

“All right”, he agreed. “He's got spies. So we'd better watch out for them. They should be easy to spot if they're half man half shark”.

“They've probably surrounded us”, Emma added, playfully. “We'll have to sneak out through the secret tunnels and get help from the merfolk”.

Tom nodded and looked around furtively. In his imagination, the corridors of the Pioneer had become the deep ocean, the other passengers merfolk or other aquatic beings. In reality, he and his sister could barely swim, but in this game they were able to breathe underwater because all Atlanteans could. The evil King Neptune had captured the fabulous underwater city and driven out the good merfolk, but fortunately for the merfolk, Tom and Emma were there to there to take the city back. All they had to do was steal the King's magic pitchfork, and his power would disappear with it. Seeing no one was around, Tom beckoned his sister forward, and they tiptoed through the door which led to the galley. A moment's glance told them the room was empty. Breakfast was long over, and it would be hours still before the main midday meal was served to the passengers. The place was quiet, and deserted, which was exactly how Tom and Emma liked it. Of course, they weren't really allowed in here, but that just added to the fun.

They heard footsteps, and quickly hid. There was a grille at the foot of one of the walls, and it was one of their favorite hiding places because it allowed them to see out, without anyone being able to see in, or so they thought. Secure in their hideaway, they looked out through the grille and shushed each other as a grown up walked into the galley. He didn't look like one of the crew, so that meant that he wasn't supposed to be there either. “He's a spy”, whispered Emma.

“I can see”, Tom agreed, in hushed tones. “The shark fin is a dead giveaway”.

The spy appeared to be rummaging through the galley cupboards, in reality probably looking for something to eat, but in their game, of course, he was looking for them.

They knew the man's face, of course. There were no strangers on the Pioneer. In the eight weeks of their journey so far, they had come to know the faces of all sixty of the crew and passengers, and at least half of those had been known well to them from before the journey began. But though they had seen his face before, this man had not been part of their community back on Bernadette, and was essentially still a stranger to them. So they stayed silent, and watched the man suspiciously.

But then he turned to face them, and walked toward the grille. Tom and Emma shrank back into the shadows, but it was too late. They'd already been seen. The man knelt down and opened the grille, saying “Hello, what have we here?”

Tom mimed firing a gun at the man with his hand, and he and Emma prepared to run.

They were taken aback by the man's reaction, however. He staggered back, clutching an imaginary wound, yelling “Oh my god, I've been shot! I'm bleeding, I'm bleeding. I'm gonna die”. He stumbled back and sank onto the floor. Emma laughed. The man thrashed about on the floor hilariously, until he finally stopped moving. Then in a deadpan voice, he announced: “I'm dead”.

Tom put his clenched fists onto his hips and sighed an exasperated sigh. “That was a stun gun, silly”, he chastised. “Atlanteans don't kill”. Emma laughed some more.

The man sat up, sharply. “You're Atlanteans?”, he said, looking surprised. “Oh well, that's all right then. I'm Jamie, and I like Atlanteans. Atlanteans are my friends. They're much nicer than— . Who are the bad guys?”

Tom said: “King Neptune”.

Emma added: “And his spies”.

“Ah”, said Jamie, nodding. “I guess you must have thought I was a spy”.

Emma said: “We thought you looked like a shark, but it was just the light”.

“Well, you might as well close the hatch”, Jamie encouraged. The two children complied, and closed the grille behind them. Jamie could see at once from their style of dress that they were Gendish children. The Gendish were a Christianity-based religious order which valued community, but who tended to be somewhat insular and afraid of strangers. That the children were Gendish was not that surprising, since half the passengers on this boat were of that persuasion, but it was surprising to find himself engaged in play with them.

“I'm Tom”, said Tom.

“And I'm Emma”, said Emma.

“You like the ocean then?”, Jamie concluded.

“Of course, silly”, said Tom. “Why else would we be going to Newhall?”

The man known as Shazone closed the door to his tiny cabin, and strode across to his bunk. He shared this room with one other, a woman called Suzanna, another loner, but she had just left for dinner so he knew she would not be back for at least an hour. He pulled a trunk from under his bunk and unlocked it. It was triply locked, requiring a key, a combination, and a thumbprint to open. Even so, he was cautious. He turned the trunk away from the door and opened the lid. Inside were two smaller bags, one of which he pulled out and opened. Inside this were notes — banknotes, and lots of them. He counted them. He wanted to be absolutely sure that every single one was still untouched. When he had finished, he collected them back together and replaced them in the bag. Five thousand credits — it was a lot of money. But considering what he was arranging to transport, it was worth the risk.

He removed the other item, then locked the trunk and placed it back under the bed. Of course he knew that there was no real danger of its being stolen. Almost everyone on this boat had a religious aversion to theft, and those that didn't lived on the deck above and would never dream of venturing onto this part of the boat, but it was always wise to check.

He stepped across the room to the comm center, which was designed to allow the passengers to make log entries. But Shazone wasn't interested in making log entries at this time. Deftly, he pulled a cord from the back of the screen and effectively isolated it from the rest of the boat. Then he plugged the gadget he had retrieved from the trunk into the now spare socket. The device was not much bigger than the palm of his hand, and yet it was sufficient for his needs: a portable dedicated source box — which ordinarily would provide a direct connection to the cortex. This far off the beacon, of course, the connection was somewhat indirect, routed as it was via the McCoy, but it served his needs.

He fired it up and quickly logged onto the cortex. There was a message waiting for him, originating from one of the moons of Athens. Real time communication was impossible at this distance, since the time lag even for a cortex message was half an hour each way, so he downloaded the message, and disconnected. He read:

All arrangements have been made at this end. As soon as we receive the package, we will begin distribution. We will collect the package from the collection point at the agreed time.

The message was short and to the point, but it pleased Shazone greatly. He shut everything down, unlocked his trunk once more, and replaced the source box within it. Finally, he pushed the trunk back under the bed and sat down to consider his next move.

He decided he ought to pay the captain another visit.

He strode through the corridors and up the stairs, irritated, as he always was, with the sheer number of people he inevitably encountered, over half of them dressed in the black robes of the Gendish. Shazone was not particularly fond of people, a fact which had made this journey decidedly unpleasant. He would be glad to get off of this boat!

He arrived at the captain's office and knocked. He waited patiently until he heard the captain's gruff voice, saying: “Jin-lai“, then entered and closed the door behind him.

“Ah, it's you”, Captain Griff complained. “I was wondering when you'd show up”.

“I was just making sure everything was in order”, Shazone told him.

“And is it?”

“Of course”.

“Damn well ought to be, the trouble you've put me through. We're already two weeks behind schedule as it is, thanks to this little detour of yours”.

“I have already made it worth your while”, Shazone pointed out.

“Hrrmph!”, Captain Griff grumbled. That much was true. He had been paid handsomely thus far, and more payment had been promised still. The detour meant that they would be late getting to Newhall, but though there had been one or two grumbles, by and large the passengers had simply accepted the delay and gotten on with their business. Of course, he hadn't told them the true reason for the delay. Instead, he had blamed in on a faulty thruster — quite a believable excuse in the case of the Pioneer. But he had assured them that their safety was paramount, and that it was better to get everybody there in one piece than to risk not getting there at all, and no one had questioned him after that. “Well then”, he continued. “We'll make the rendezvous with the McCoy in half a day”.

“Which is where I'll be getting off”, Shazone reminded.

“Hrrmph! I've said this before, so you know my mind. My ship is not a taxi service. This is a settler ship. I have a new life waiting for me on Newhall. So do my family. So does everyone else on this ship. Everyone, apart from you. If it hadn't have been for the considerable sum you offered in compensation for the inconvenience, I would never have allowed it”.

Shazone smirked. For all the old man's grumbling, he knew that most of it was bluff. Griff had nothing to his name. Even this ship wasn't really his; it was owned co-operatively by the settlers — Griff just happened to have enough experience to make captain. When the ship touched down, it would be for the last time, the last of its life exhausted in this single, heroic journey. Griff was glad of the coin, and Shazone knew it. Money would make a difference even to new settlers. If nothing else, it could be used in trade with the more populated parts of the world. Shazone continued: “But I take it we're both clear on what you need to do to get the rest of the money?”

“Don't you worry, Shazone. When you get your package from the McCoy, you can personally watch me lock it safely into the hold. No one will touch it there. It will be safe all the way to Newhall where I will personally deliver it to this Klein fellow. I'm sure…“. He guessed: “Blue Sun … will be very pleased”.

“What makes you think Klein works for Blue Sun?”, Shazone said, poker faced. He was giving nothing away.

Captain Griff smiled. He hadn't expected any acknowledgment of his suspicions, and frankly, he didn't care. So long as he got his shipload of people safely to the new world, and made a little bit of extra cash along the way, he wasn't going to complain. At least, not to the point of turning down the commission!

Unfortunately for the two conspirators, their conversation was not quite so secret as they had hoped. The ship's ventilation network, while too small for any adult to navigate, was quite literally child's play. And there were places where the airflow brought any such playful children into earshot of the captain's office.

“They're spies”, whispered Emma. They were downwind of the captain's office. Her voice would be carried away from the Captain, not toward it.

“Sssh”, said Tom, though there was not much more to be heard. Soon after that, Shazone left, and the captain ambled about doing things which Tom and Emma were unable to ascertain from sound alone. Eventually, Tom said: “Something's going on, I'm sure of it”.

“Maybe he is Neptune?”, Emma offered.

“No, I mean really. Not in the game. Captain Griff said that we'd changed course, that we were going to meet another ship, drop that man off, pick up a package, and take it to Newhall. That's why we're two weeks late. It wasn't the port thruster after all”.

“What are we going to do?”, Emma asked, excitedly.

“I think we should tell Father Quincy”, Tom said. “He'll know what to do. He always does”.

And with that, they backed out of the air duct, re-emerging in a broom cupboard near their own quarters. They made sure that the coast was clear before exiting into the corridor and closing the door. If anyone had asked where they had been, they would have said they'd been exploring the secret tunnels of Atlantis. If pressed, they would have stressed: No Really! It was unlikely that any adult would press beyond that. But now it seemed that they would have to tell someone voluntarily. They weren't too worried. After all, it's not like they'd committed any kind of major crime. They were, after all, only playing.

Family life aboard the Pioneer was complicated. Privacy was something of a luxury. A total of sixteen families, plus one or two loners, formed the crew and passenger compliment of the ship, and although it had been retrofitted to accommodate that many people, nonetheless, it had not been originally designed to carry families. It had, in fact, been designed to carry cargo. Not only that, its design had intentionally limited it to only short journeys within the planetary system of Bernadette. But where there was a will, there was a way, and the mechanics and engineers who had made it possible for the Pioneer to travel the extreme distance to the Rim had done so by utilizing some of the cargo space to carry fuel, while packing whole families into quarters originally designed for one. The ship had no pulse drive, so the entire journey was being made by reaction drive alone. As the journey progressed, and the fuel consumed, so certain parts of the ship became once more accessible to people. This near to the end of the journey, the cargo bays were once more open spaces, used now for various communal activities, but the wear and tear on the engines meant that once this journey was over, Pioneer would never fly again.

Many meals were taken in the mess hall, but the mess hall simply was not big enough for a complement of sixty, not even in shifts, and so for the most part, people ate in their quarters. The family meal had once more become a private and important ritual, especially in those communities, such as the Gendish, where family bonds were considered paramount.

Cooking was made difficult by the absence of any suitable equipment in family quarters. So the routine was that food was delivered to the various quarters in a kind of meals-on-wheels service. Nobody got much choice in the way of menu — you simply had to accept what was delivered, or go hungry.

Of course, there were those, such as Shazone, who preferred the mess hall. The loners, those traveling without family, found other ways to bring about their own sense of community. But the family Thatcher were typical of the families aboard the Pioneer. Parents Sam and Nellie were always grateful when the trolley arrived at their door with the main midday meal.

And so it was today, except that today they had a guest, a friend of the family named Johann Robinson. The two children, Tom and Emma, sat patiently around the small table with Johann and their mother, Nellie, when their father, Sam brought in the meals and laid them out on the table. They waited until the meal was fully laid out. Then Nellie said grace, thanking the Lord for his benevolence in supplying their meal, and then they began to eat. Dinner consisted essentially of bread and soup, though both were laced with nutrients and flavorings which disguised their otherwise bland taste. Hunger made everything taste delicious, and so the family ate their meal, enjoying every morsel, as well as each other's company.

“I am so very much looking forward to Newhall”, Johann told them.

“That I can believe”, said Sam. “Of course, we are all looking forward to arrival, but you have a special reason. Have you heard from your wife recently?”

Johann traveled without family, because his wife was already on Newhall. Seats on these flights were difficult to come by, especially if you were of limited means, and sometimes you had to take what you could get. On the last flight, only one place had been available, but the rates had been too good to pass up, and so Johann's wife had traveled with another Gendish family on a previous, similar flight, leaving Johann to meet up with her later. This young couple were just starting out. They had no children yet, but knew that Newhall would be the ideal place to raise a family.

They knew that this was what they wanted to do. Bernadette had been a nice place, but there had been no room there for a community like the Gendish to exist on its own terms. Back there, Buddhism was the dominant religion, and the government liked to keep its finger on everything, and so life there had been too much of a strain. It wasn't that Bernadette had any problem with the Gendish per se, it was just that Newhall offered a chance to start afresh, to live as the Gendish should live, by their own rules, not by those of the Alliance.

“I heard from Mary, only today in fact”, Johann stated. “She is very much looking forward to seeing you all again. She says that the community there is running very smoothly, and that we will all be made very welcome when we arrive”.

Tom finished his meal, and scrambled to leave the table. Mildly outraged, his mother scolded him: “Thomas Jefferson Thatcher, what have you forgotten?”

Embarrassed at his forgetfulness, Tom climbed back onto his seat, and then said: “Please may I leave the table?”. Emma finished her meal, and then said the exact same words.

“You may”, Nellie said. The two children walked swiftly out of the room.

“So shall we go see Father Quincy?”, Emma asked, once they were out of earshot.

“Let's”, Tom agreed.

Father Quincy was effectively the head of the Gendish community. Not that it had a leader as such, but he was their spiritual advisor, their bishop, their priest. The only title he held was “Father”, but that alone spoke volumes about the respect with which he was held by all of the Gendish people.

Shazone was in his cabin, but no longer alone. His roommate, Suzanna, lay on her bunk, quietly reading. Nonetheless, Shazone smiled. Soon he would be off this boat. The presence of his roommate meant that he was unable to connect up his dedicated source box unnoticed, but he could live with that inconvenience. He quickly typed up a log entry, knowing that he would be able to send it later. He typed:

I received a communique regarding the shipment and have been appraised of the shipment awaiting us upon arrival at the docking bay as well. I have been assured that every precaution has been taken to insure the safe arrival and expedient dispersion of said materials. All is under control. Will contact representatives upon arrival.

He stored the message, then lay on his bunk, and began to read.

Captain Griff stood rigid, his hands clenched behind his back, gazing through the bridge window at the ship which approached them. His pilot, Faraday, wasn't sure what to do, and awaited instructions.

“Engines off”, ordered the captain. They couldn't afford the fuel to bring themselves stationary with respect to the other ship, but at least they could drift, allowing the other ship to maneuver to match them. His pilot complied.

“I've tried waving them”, Faraday said, “but I get no answer”.

“Damn cloak and dagger nonsense”, the captain complained. “I wonder what's worth all this secrecy anyway?”. He stared at the ship which now approached them. The McCoy, if indeed the McCoy it was, looked damaged, as though part of the underside had been torn away. But there was not enough illumination to be sure. Could be it was a trick of the light. The captain pressed a few buttons on his comm panel. “Shazone”, he said. “Looks like your ship is here”.

To Faraday, he simply said: “Let's go”.

“And that's what happened”, Tom said, finishing his explanation.

Father Quincy looked serious. “And you're certain of all this?”, he queried.

Emma said: “Yes, I heard it too”.

Father Quincy stroked his chin. This was strange business indeed, he thought. And yet, somehow he was not surprised. Though he had great faith in human nature, he knew that that nature had to be nurtured, which of course was why the Gendish existed — to bring out the very best in its people. Those who were not of their community were prone to all sorts of sinful behavior. “I will pray for the captain, and for the man he spoke with”, he eventually declared. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Now I must ask the Lord for his guidance on this matter”.

“Yes, Father”, they both said.

A pause, and then Father Quincy said: “You may go”.

They ran off. Everything would be all right now, they knew.

Shazone met with Captain Griff by the docking passageway. Unlike in other ships, the passenger dock of the Pioneer was not situated within a vast cargo hold; here, it was just an airlock at the end of a corridor. In its past life as a cargo hauler, cargo itself would have been loaded separately from below. Beyond the airlock before them, they knew, a docking tube would extend to connect with the other ship. They waited patiently.

“They're early”, Shazone commented. This annoyed him a little. He expected nothing less than precise punctuality. To be off by a matter of hours was simply unprofessional, to his way of thinking.

The minutes passed, then the inner airlock door opened. The captain stepped forward in greeting…

…and a harpoon came flying through the airlock doors, piercing his stomach. He screamed in surprise and fear. A cable attached to the harpoon went taught, and Griff was dragged along with it, out toward the airlock and connecting tube.

Shazone wasted no time. He ran. He almost tripped over a child's tricycle as he turned the corner, but he made the turn safely. He pulled a gun from his inside pocket — he was probably the only person on board who was armed — and clenched it tightly. He smashed glass with the revolver and hit the nearest emergency button, and carried on running.

Throughout the ship, a soft, gentle voice permeated the air. In both English and Chinese, it said: “Attention all passengers. Please make your way to the assembly point on B-dec. Please proceed calmly, and in an orderly fashion. Suo yo tsen ke zhu yi. ching tao B-zhuan zhong shing ji ho. Ching ta jia len jin ehr gen shuei tsen sui liou ton“.

There was certainly some confusion among the passengers, but by and large they complied with the instruction. There was no panic. This was largely due to the efforts of people like Father Quincy, who assured everyone that there was no need for concern, and that in all likelihood it was probably just a drill.

Tom and Emma were separated from their parents, and wondered what they should do.

“We should go back to our quarters”, argued Emma.

Ever the sensible one, Tom said: “No. We should go straight to the assembly point. Mother and Father will be going there too. We should meet them there”.

Emma considered this, then said: “OK”.

They tried to run, but there were too many people in the way, so the best they could manage was a fast walking speed as they continually pushed past other people. As they were doing so, they bumped into someone they knew. It was the funny man they had previously encountered in the galley.

“Hey, you guys”, greeted Jamie Shaw. “What's the rush? Anyone would think there was an emergency going on! Oh wait — there is!”

This brightened their mood. “Please Mister”, began Tom, “Do you know what's going on?”

“I think someone's hit an alarm button”, Jamie said. “Probably by accident. Someone's bound to get into trouble for it”. Grinning, he added, “It wasn't you, was it?”

They both shook their heads.

Emma said: “We don't know where our parents are. Praps we should wait for them?”

“No, you go ahead”, advised Jamie. Tom gave his sister a told-you-so look. Jamie said: “I'll go find your folks and tell them you've gone ahead. Fair enough?”

They nodded.

“Off you go then”. More loudly, he called: “And if it's King Neptune come to take over the ship, you stay away from that pitchfork”.

It was only after he had left them and started heading back the other way that he realized he had absolutely no idea who those kids' parents were! He laughed to himself. It didn't matter. They were Gendish, and he knew that all the Gendish knew each other. He decided he would go to the mess hall and leave a message with whomever happened to be there of the Gendish persuasion. Ignoring the alarm, he continued back in the direction against the flow of people.

The assembly area was full of people when Tom and Emma arrived there. From across the room, they spied their parents, and pushed their way through the crowds toward them. The family hugged, Sam showing his evident pleasure at the fact that his children had been sensible enough to have come straight here. Nellie just look relieved. She and Sam had argued about whether or not to wait in the cabin, and on this occasion she was very, very pleased that Sam had been correct.

For the first time though, they began to suspect that this was not merely a drill. The ship's officers were guiding people into groups. Then one of them said: “Now I must ask you all to start boarding the lifeboats. Women and children first. Stay calm, but please start boarding”. This was actually the ship's pilot, Faraday, but none of the Thatcher family knew him by name.

In other parts of the 'verse, “women first” might be considered something of an old fashioned attitude, but among these settlers it seemed quite natural. Nonetheless, there was considerable reluctance for families to split up.

Father Quincy kept a careful eye on the situation. It was evident to him that there were too few lifeboats for the number of people. True to its original design, there were just four lifeboats enough for sixteen, maybe twenty people. To have fitted more, to have adapted the ship's structure to accommodate them, would have pushed the cost of the vessel beyond the point where the community could have afforded it. So he saw the wisdom of filling the boats with the most vulnerable people first. He spoke to the assembled crowd: “Fear not, my friends. We are in good hands. The Lord is watching over us, and will not allow any of us to come to harm. But I must concur with the uniformed gentleman. I would ask you to allow the women and children onto the lifeboats. The rest of us will wait our turn”.

Sam nodded, and Nellie took Tom and Emma forward to join the line. Before long, they were ushered into a small lifeboat with one other woman and one other child. The door closed, and, much to their surprise, they watched the Pioneer lurch away from them as they were launched into space.

Sam watched the lifeboat depart, wondering what the emergency could possibly be. He, too, had done the math regarding the number of lifeboats, but he trusted Father Quincy, and was glad that his wife and children would be safe. Then the room went quiet — almost silent, in fact. As one, all eyes turned to the starboard fore doorway, not quite believing what they saw: men and women with scarred, deformed faces, and wearing the strangest of clothes.

Father Quincy made a shrewd guess as to who these people might be. Like most people, he had heard tales of Reavers, but also like most people, he had dismissed them as foolish imaginings. He guessed that these people were the source of those stories, but still, he did not believe the things that had been said about them. They were people, after all, and like all people, they could be healed by God. He alone stepped toward them, but he kept his arms outstretched, clearly showing that he held no weapons. He spoke aloud as he walked, talking primarily to his own people. “Calm your fears, my friends”, he said. “For we are under the protection of our Lord, and while we are under his magnificent protection, no harm will come to us”.

As if to confirm his prediction, the Reavers did nothing. They just stood there, watching, waiting.

One of the Reavers stepped forward, and grabbed at Quincy's black coat. The holy man did not flinch, but walked where the Reaver led him. As he did so, he spoke to the Reaver, saying: “You have been apart from civilization for too long”, and smiled gently.

A brief surge of panic began to emerge among the crowd, as Father Quincy was led away, and the Reavers began to herd other people in the same direction, but Quincy calmed them, saying “Do nothing to antagonize them, my friends. Look to your hearts, and the Lord will protect”.

The mess hall was deserted when Jamie arrived there. He shrugged, and was about to make his way to the assembly hall, when he heard noises. In particular — screams and commotion. He ducked into the galley as he heard footfalls approaching. The footsteps seemed loud, and fast paced. Some instinct caused him to panic, and without even thinking he ripped open the grille where he had earlier seen Tom and Emma hide, and dived into the tiny space, pulling the grille back into place behind him. He pushed himself back, as far back into the shadows as the tiny space allowed.

A woman ran into the galley, Jamie saw. She looked terrified, but so was he. Jamie watched, afraid to move, afraid even to breathe. He saw one man enter the room after her. The man's face was covered with scars, the corners of his mouth pierced with pieces of metal. He carried a butcher's knife in his hand.

“Please”, the woman said, quietly, shaking with fear. “Please — don't kill me”.

It was hard to make out the man's words, since the piercings in his mouth obfuscated his speech, but it sounded to Jamie like: “I offer you no mercy, only an end”.

Then he sliced the knife through the air. It met the woman's neck, and she fell to the floor, blood pooling below her. The Reaver — for now Jamie was sure that's what this creature must have been, bundled the woman into a clear plastic refuse sack, slung her over his shoulder, and strode out of the room with his prize.

Jamie did not move.

Not all of the passengers in the assembly area had been entirely placated by Quincy's words, and now that Quincy was gone, some chose to adopt an alternative course of action. They ran out through the aft doorways, hoping to make their escape.

The stairs downward were blocked by more Reavers ascending, but the stairs upward were clear. Some dozen or more people raced up those stairs, Reavers in hot pursuit.

That's what they'd been waiting for, Johann thought, as he sped up the stairwell. They'd been waiting for us to run. They only attack if you run. That wasn't entirely correct, but certainly Johann was right about the chase acting as a trigger. Johann hadn't actually disregarded the advice of his holy Father — for he hadn't heard it. Johann had been a late arrival at the assembly point, having spent a brief few moments in his room composing a letter to his wife while the assembly had proceeded without him. Now he wished he'd stayed in his room a mite longer.

At the top of the stairs, he collided with Suzanna, who had made a similar escape up the other stairwell. They found themselves with only one place to run, so they ran into the only door available to them — and then wished they hadn't, for it was a dead end. Or at least, almost a dead end. The one other door led to the ship's hold, where all the valuables were kept — but that door was locked.

Faraday was there, brandishing a key. He ran toward the locked door, but in the panic, the key was knocked from his hand and fell to the floor.

And then the Reavers were there.

Remembering his earlier theory that the Reavers only attack if you run, Johann stood motionless, then raised his arms slowly in surrender. But it was too late. A killing frenzy had already overtaken the Reavers, and Johann gasped in horror as a harpoon pierced his throat.

Shazone finally reached his destination, the bridge of the Pioneer. He would have arrived sooner, but for the fact that he had sought to remain hidden during his escape. He had taken the long route, through the cargo bay and crew quarters on A-deck and then upward, because B-deck would have taken him through the assembly point where he figured everybody else would be headed once he'd set off the alarm. When he arrived at the bridge, as he expected, he was alone.

He didn't know who these people were who had attacked Captain Griff, but he guessed they were probably members of the facility, and were probably after him. It was easy to guess why. What he didn't know was how much his pursuers knew. Clearly they were not aware that the precious substance for which he was responsible was still on another ship, the McCoy, or they would have gone straight there. It followed, therefore, that they sought him, personally, because he knew where it could be found.

An accomplished pilot, among many other talents, he sat in the pilot's seat and powered up the engines. His escape plan was simple: fly away. The enemy ship was attached only by a docking tube. At the Pioneer pulled away, the docking tube would rip apart, and anyone in the tube would be blown into space. But that didn't matter — the ship's airlocks would close automatically. What mattered was that the enemy ship would be left behind, and possibly disabled by its proximity to Pioneer's thrust jets. Moreover, he would have a head start in his escape bid.

He tried to wave for help, but the ship was too far out away from the nearest beacon to connect directly with the cortex. Ironically, he reflected, the reason they were so far off the beacon was because of his detour to pick up the cargo. He considered contacting the McCoy, but leading the enemy to the cargo was precisely what he didn't want to do.

He began to wonder: just how valuable were those precious few drops of Pax anyway? Maybe he should have asked a higher price?

The ship's thrusters fired.

The ship lurched. But this was an old ship, and its thrusters were nearing the end of their life. If Pioneer had been operating according to its design specifications, he would have made a perfect launch, but in their elderly condition, the thrusters did not take kindly to sudden firings. They demanded to be treated gently. The port thruster misfired, and an explosion took place within it. That thruster would never work again. It wasn't possible to escape with just one thruster, so, in frustration, he shut both down.

The jolt had left both ships gently spinning end over end, but the other ship was still firmly attached. Shazone quickly exited the bridge, figuring that he had already made his position within the ship known, and that it would not be wise to remain there. The safest thing now would be to get into a space suit, and out one of the airlocks. Once in space, assuming he had enough oxygen, he could outwait them, and then wave the McCoy for help.

The jolt shook everyone, but Suzanna managed to keep her nerve for long enough to pick up the dropped keys and unlock the hold door. Quickly she dashed inside, although in the frenzy several others made it through the doorway before she. Inside the hold were boxes and boxes of valuables: not just personal possessions, but everything one would need to settle a new world: blankets, genseed crops, fishing nets, tools…


Tools could be weapons, she figured. Unlike the pacifist Gendish, she had no intention of going down without a fight. She picked up a hammer…

…and a harpoon spike pierced her right arm. The door hadn't been closed and locked. The Reavers were inside. She cried in pain, and fell to the floor. Perhaps this would be where the last battle was to take place, but she knew she wasn't to be a part of it, except as its first victim.

Shazone reached the locker room beside the forward emergency airlocks, and ducked inside. To his horror, there were no spacesuits. His senses reeled. How can there be no space suits? Has someone used them already? Then he realized that there probably had never been any. These were settlers, not exactly the richest folk in the 'verse. It was a miracle they could afford a spaceship at all. They must have decided that spacesuits were not worth the cost. Presumably they never planned on going outside. Logic dictated that there must be at least one space suit on board, but he had no idea where it might be.

Frustrated, he left the locker room and closed it behind him. His resisted the urge to slam his fist against the door. He knew the noise would attract his pursuers. He was almost out of options. All he could do now was find somewhere to hide, and stay hidden.

He heard a roar, and turned to face a hideous monstrosity. At last he understood — this was no Alliance department. This was a Reaver assault. He saw another, and then another. He turned and ran, but ahead were two more. In panic, he grabbed a door handle to his right, opened it, and ran inside, pulling the door closed behind him. The door had a locking mechanism, which he yanked on firmly. He could hear Reavers pounding at the door, but they were powerless to enter.

Shazone tried to figure things out. This did not make sense. Reavers always try to disable a ship before boarding it. They use EMP weapons, grapplers, and the like. Why had they not done so this time?

He turned to run away from the pounding, and it was then that he realized his terrible, fatal mistake.

He was in an airlock.

And he had locked the inner door.

Which meant that the outer door could be opened. If the Reavers could figure out how…

And then a hurricane formed around him. He slammed into the outer door as it flew open, and held onto the door jamb for dear life, gripping it with both hands with every ounce of strength. But as the intensity of the gale decreased, so did his ability to breathe. His ears popped, and he felt a pressure in his chest, and air forced its way out of his mouth and nose. He snapped his hand to his face, letting go of the door jamb. He expected to remain stationary relative to the ship, but had forgotten that the ship was slowly spinning. Within seconds, that too was out of his reach, and he hung alone in the black, and knew then that his life was over.

Father Quincy led his flock, following the Reavers' directions, through the connecting tube and onto the Reaver ship. Gravity was the other way up in the Reaver ship, and the docking tube compensated by means of a rotating sleeve which had reoriented them on their way through.

And now they were in a large room containing a long table, and pipes and girders around the walls. He had no idea what any of it was for. As he saw it, he had two duties now. Firstly, he was obliged to tend to his flock; and secondly, he needed to bring the word of God to these heathens, to help them on their road back to civilization. He urged his people to stay calm.

The adults complied, but one crying baby did not. The mother tried to shush her child, but one Reaver moved toward her and the baby, and Quincy saw trouble brewing. He placed the knuckle of his small finger over the baby's mouth, and the baby moved to suckle it. “The Lord will provide”, he said, softly.

Then Khrau snatched the baby from the woman and smashed its head onto the table. And then the slaughter began. The Lord, Quincy reflected in his final moments, has provided. But he seems to be providing for the wrong team.

In the valuables hold, something of a battle was going on. The Reavers were certainly winning, and they were relentless, but the remaining survivors were not going down without a fight. One man swung a pickaxe at Jade, but she ducked back and avoided the blow. Then without missing a beat she lunged forward and pierced the man's eyeballs with her fingers.

It would be more accurate, of course, to say that Jade's body acted in this way, for her mind, or at least, her conscious awareness of her identity, had been submerged almost to the point of non-existence by the rush, the killing frenzy which had overtaken her, and the pack around her. Once the rush began, it was unstoppable. The only route back to normality was let it play out, and hopefully to allow sanity to return on the other side.

One of the Reavers went down, felled by a bullet. A small part of Jade's awareness recognized the man as Barker, then the rush overcame her once more, and she roared and dived headlong into the fray.

Faraday held the revolver steady. This was the only genuine weapon which he had been able to find in the hold, but one revolver was certainly better than none at all. He aimed the gun at another Reaver.

What happened next seemed to Jade as though it happened in slow motion. She saw the prey holding a gun, and swinging it round to point toward Sing. Jade cried out, “No-o-o-o-o!”, and fell back, picking up Barker's discarded harpoon with her left hand. Card watched, but knew she had no hope of success, for she was not a trained warrior, and obviously had never used a harpoon gun before, and even if she had, the distance was too great for a good aim.

What Card did not know was that Jade had used harpoons many times before, and over much greater distances. She had used the large harpoon fitted to Slate's boat; she had used other smaller ones attached to smaller boats; she had grown up around them. She was familiar with their operation, and she knew how to compensate for the weight of the cable in flight. Some semblance of who she was returned to her, just for an instant, and in that moment she was back on the ocean and spearing shark. The weapon crossed into her right hand and her left hand pulled back the firing string. Then she let fly. The projectile spear sailed through the air, trailing cable behind it. Up, over the fray it went, and down the other side of the room. Card followed the trajectory with his eyes, daring to hope that it might just make it. Faraday squeezed his finger against the trigger, but before he could pull far enough, Jade's harpoon pierced his skull. The gun fired, but its aim was not true. Sing cried out in triumph.

Card stared in wonder at Jade, and he was not alone. To fire a Reaver harpoon that distance was not impossible, but to do so accurately was usually considered so. He was thunderstruck. Realization dawned on him that Jade had just saved Sing's life.

The remaining prey were quickly dispatched. Card ordered the bodies hung from the ceiling by means of a fishing net. Then he saw to Barker, who was unconscious, but still alive. Gently, Card picked up his packmate, and carried him back to his own ship, where he would have time to heal.

Back at the ship, there was only one topic of conversation. Jade had saved Sing's life. People began to look at her in a new light.

Khrau walked into the cargo bay where the impromptu gathering had assembled. He carried a carcass over his shoulder. He was pleased with himself. He and his warriors had slaughtered dozens of the prey. But as he walked around the room, and overheard and oversaw snatches of conversation here and there, his mood slowly changed from triumphant to angry. All he saw and heard was Jade this and Jade that, and how Sing owed her life to Jade. And incredibly, no one was talking about him. This seemed an utter outrage to Khrau. After all, he had killed many of the prey, while Jade had only killed one. That didn't seem anything special to him. Jade, it seemed, had stolen his thunder, taken away his moment of glory. How dare she!, he seethed. How dare she!

Jamie Shaw waited until all was quiet and dark, and Pioneer had powered itself down, before he dared to emerge. Then he took a sponge mop, and cleared up all the blood from the galley floor. This cleansing ritual over, he collapsed onto the floor and began to cry. Through his tears, he began to mutter, in echo of Geng's words: “No mercy. No mercy…“.

Dark Places


“Explain to me again why we're doing this?”, Slate asked. He sat at the top of the ramp which led down into the cargo hold — a hold now filled wall to wall with what could only be described as exotic sex toys.

“Because we're getting paid”, Papagina told him, sitting beside him.

“Aha — and this … frippery. That'd be worth a bit, would it?”

“Sex sells”, she said, standing up. “Come on. Let's see what we got. Have some fun?”. She started down the ramp.

Reluctantly, Slate followed. As he walked down the ramp, he felt the thrum of the engines through the hull and knew that Vindicator was lifting off. Soon they would be out of the world of Persephone and into the black. Truth be told, he was embarrassed to be around the stock — but he was captain, and it was his responsibility to make sure the goods got delivered to Greenleaf intact. “You can look, but don't touch”, he told her, concerned for his cargo.

“I'll bet you say that to all the girls”, she winked, teasingly.

“What? Hey! That's not what I— “.

“Oh wow!”, Papagina interrupted, stopping before an army of lovebots. “Do these talk?”

“Don't know if they do”, said Slate as he caught up with his crewmate. He waved his hand before the eyes of one long dark haired girl 'bot.

In a sultry voice, she/it said: “Ready to accept program”.

“What the!”, he said, stepping back sharply. “Guess they do”.

Papagina laughed. Copying what Slate had done, she waved her hand in front of the eyes of a boy 'bot. He/it likewise said: “Ready to accept program”.

“I must say”, she told him/it, “Your conversation is somewhat limited”.

“Ready to accept program”, he/it repeated.

Slate gave Papagina a stern look. “Away”, he ordered.

She feigned disappointment and walked away. The 'bot reverted to its robotic stance.

There was a buzz from the comm panel. Since she was already on the move, Papagina went straight to it and took the call. “Cargo hold. Papagina here”, she said.

“Slate with you?”, came the voice of Elizabeth Adams.

“He's testing out lovebots, but I'll see if he can be dragged away”.

“What!”, Slate yelled, rushing over the grab the comm handset from Papagina. “It's not … I wasn't … Gorramit, don't listen to her, she's just teasing”.

“Slate, it's none of my business. But we do have a wave from the Leningrad“.

“I was not…“, he began to protest, then realized the rest of what she'd said. “The Leningrad? Sandra?”

“Got it in one”.

“Put her through”.

“Slate?”, came Sandra's voice. “Got some information for you. We pulled in a ship recently for illegal salvage of a derelict ship. The crew of the derelict were all either missing or dead. The crew we pulled in swore blind Reavers did it”.

“Do you be— ?”

“At first I assumed they were lying. The signs were all wrong.”

She hadn't waited for him to stop talking, so he assumed he was listening to a recording. “From the reports I read, there was no sign of EMP attack, and no sign of struggle. But then, Commander Harken ordered the derelict destroyed and let them go. It's suspicious enough that I thought you ought to know about it. I'll send y— “. There was a pause. Then he heard her say, “Slate, I believe I've answered your question, however there is a forty second round trip time lag between us. Probably not a good idea to try real time conversation”.

Papagina whispered in his ear: “I could have told you that”.

To the comm, Slate said: “Sorry. Just send us what you got”, and mentally kicked himself for forgetting the time lag a second time.

When the conversation was over, he replaced the comm handset and turned round to face Papagina — and was startled to discover her wearing a red velvet blindfold over her eyes, and grinning from ear to ear. “What the…!”, he exclaimed, totally off his guard. He pulled down the blindfold to below her eye level. She stuck out her tongue. Slate said: “I'm putting you on stock duty. Your job is to list all this stuff, make sure we know exactly what we got”. He strode toward the ramp.

As he reached its base, he turned and added: “And I'm sending Ben to help you”.

She stuck her tongue out once more.

Four months had elapsed since Jade had first joined Card's pack, and the pack had settled into the usual routine of hunting and scavenging. Whereas Slate needed to ensure that his ship earned enough money each month to afford a regular refueling stop, Card only needed to ensure that a monthly scavenging run was successful.

The last run, however, had not been quite so successful as Card had hoped. One of his crew Barker, had been shot, and had later died. This, he took as a sign that perhaps it was time to turn around, and head back toward the Rim. They had already spent far longer in the Border region than he had originally planned. Now, with a freezer full of food, and ship full of fuel, and air and water recyclers fully replaced, was perhaps the ideal time. However, he was not one to make a hasty decision. Life was hard at the Rim, and hunting was good in the Border regions. It would take more than one death to scare away this pack — and besides, Barker had already been replaced.

The new recruit had been taken from the Pioneer and turned. His human name had been Jeremiah, but here he was just called Miah. Sometimes the turned kept their original names, sometimes they did not, it depended primarily on whether or not it was easy for Reavers to pronounce in the guttural sounds of the Reaver tongue. Hagar had kept his name through the transition, but Jeremiah was just not a suitable name for a Reaver by any stretch of the imagination. Miah was now the lowest ranked member of the pack — a fact which had not gone unnoticed by Hagar, who took great delight in having at least one person subservient to him.

Throughout all of this time, Geng had been teaching Jade how to speak. Jade was very keen to learn, and a bright student. It helped somewhat that Geng could speak English, but he made it clear early on that he did not like doing so. English, he used primarily to worry prey, and wherever possible avoided its use among his own kind.

It had taken Jade a long time to learn the basics. The very structure of the language was different from either of the languages she knew. And yet, her grounding in English and Chinese had helped, largely because they were so different from each other. Chinese used tones, which lead to short words which must be pronounced very precisely. English used tone-neutral syllables, resulting in longer words, but which could be pronounced more lazily. In fact, the differences between English and Chinese were vast, and that held Jade in good stead for learning a third language … which was as different again as English and Chinese were from each other.

It had taken her forever, it seemed — just as a for instance — to grasp the notion that in Reaver, a word could be a facial gesture. A facial gesture was silent, after all, so how could it be a word? But indeed, it was so. Facial gestures and hand gestures together combined to add to the vocal richness of the Reaver tongue to create a language capable of complex thought and structure.

She paid attention to other Reavers, and eavesdropped on conversations, just to get the feel of how words were put together. The hardest part had not been the gestures at all — it had been the sounds, for surprisingly, the sounds were put together out of an entirely different set of phonemes. Two different shades of growl would likely have different meaning, while vowels which would have been distinct in English were often interchangeable in Reaver. Surprisingly, eavesdropping was easily tolerated within the pack, for the Reavers seemed to have very little concept of privacy — although they did value territory. A favored spot to lean on a balcony; a favored seat — these were all possible triggers for the many mock fights that took place, particularly among the males.

Jade had also developed a strong bond of friendship with Sing — a bond made stronger by having saved Sing's life in the most recent hunt. Neither Jade nor Sing routinely took part in hunts, but on that occasion Card had decided that the situation favored it. The prey had been particularly docile; the hunters had been in and out with no difficulty, and so non-hunters such as Geng and Jade had gone in to scavenge. Sing would not even have been there had the prey put up more of a fight initially. It just went to show that the hunted can be unpredictable. Still, Jade was glad to have been there, for had she not been, Sing would now be dead. Her concern now was that Card might decide she'd make a better hunter than priest — and she did not want that.

One day, Sing said to her, whilst preparing a pan of delicious smelling stew: “You know, you really were good with that harpoon”.

“I have practice”, Jade said.

Sing shook her head. “Amazing”. She looked slightly embarrassed, though Jade was not clear why.

“What you think will happen?”, Jade asked.

“Geng has made you his apprentice. That's usually final”. She coughed.

“I hope so”, Jade said. “Our leader did say I make good hunter. I not want be hunter”.

“You can relax”, Sing said, explaining. “Hunters are valuable, but priests are more valuable still. After all, we only have one. Geng is needed, because he is the only one who can talk to the gods”.

“But I not talk to gods”, Jade said, concerned.

Sing coughed again. “I'm sure you will”, she said. She believed it too. “Geng chose you specifically. He must have had a reason. Perhaps the gods chose you.”

Jade didn't think it was possible to talk to gods, primarily because she didn't believe in them. But it was clear that these people did — particularly Card. That worried her. In fact, a lot of things worried her, and the things that worried her most had to do with not fitting in. Sing handed her a bowl of broth, which she raised to her lips and began to take mouthfuls. After a time, she realized that she was eating alone. “You not eat?”, she asked.

“I find it hard to eat much at a time”, Sing confessed. Then she coughed once more.

It occurred to Jade that Sing wasn't the only one suffering the occasional cough. Throughout the ship, more and more people were getting sick as time went by. She told Sing: “You try. Is meat broth. Is good for you”.

“I know what's in it. I made it”, Sing pointed out. “It's just … if I eat too much I … my stomach wants rid of it. It's not nice”.

Others came by, bowls in hand, to collect some of the broth for themselves. One of those people was Mace, the woman whom Jade had fought on the day of her joining ceremony. Mace was pleasant enough to her, until one moment when she turned her head and presumably spied something, at which point her whole demeanor changed. “And another thing”, she said pointedly to Jade, “You still don't dress right!”

Jade was startled by this verbal attack, particularly because, so far as she could tell, it wasn't true. She'd been dressing in Reaver clothing ever since her ceremony. She looked around to see what could possibly have triggered Mace into making such an attack, and there, smirking from the doorway, stood Khrau. The conclusion was clear — Mace was prepared to be kind to her only so long as Khrau was not watching. She knew that Khrau had taken a dislike to her — the whole pack could hardly avoid knowing that — but Khrau was second in command, and a person of some importance. For some, the need to appear good in his eyes outweighed any possibility of friendship with Jade. Jade, for her part, did not understand the source of Khrau's animosity toward her in the first place. What had she ever done to him?

She waited until Mace had left, before herself deciding to leave. “I let you give out food”, she told Sing. “I go talk with Geng. I have more teachings”.

“You go”, said Sing, adding: “And don't you worry about Mace, or Khrau, or any of his followers. After what you did with that harpoon the other day, most of this pack have a lot of respect for you.”

Jade smiled at that, and stood up to leave, but as she left, she saw Sing have another coughing attack, and it worried her. Reavers were hardy people. They didn't get sick often — or so she'd been told. She hoped Sing would get better soon.

She sat in the sanctum, waiting for Geng. Rarely did Reavers employ any concept of time. The single exception appeared to be for the various ceremonies which infrequently punctuated their existence. There was no guarantee, therefore, that Geng would show up here at all in the near future. It might be days before he next wandered into the sanctum. Nonetheless, it was a good place to be. Other people came here to unburden themselves before the gods. She just came here to be alone, for the sanctum was the quietest place on the ship. Even her own room was not as quiet. She guessed that the walls of the sanctum had been soundproofed. Among a people for whom privacy meant little, the sanctum was the one place where it was almost guaranteed. If she were interrupted here, it would be by Geng, or by people who would be composed and mostly silent.

Her concerns that she might end up waiting a long time were not confirmed, however. Geng appeared in the room some ten or fifteen minutes later. “Ah Jade”, he said. “You must help me with the ceremony”.

Ceremony? “What ceremony?”, she asked.

“There is only one”, Geng explained, patiently. “The turning ceremony, to make Miah a part of this pack”.

“I— “. She had forgotten. Miah would be like Hagar, she guessed. But as Geng's apprentice, of course she must help. “What must I do?”

“Watch. Observe. Pay attention. One day, when you are ready, this responsibility will be yours”.

“Geng, I am concerned”, she said. She could hold herself in no longer. There were things she had to say.

He sat cross legged on the floor opposite her. “What troubles you?”, he asked.

She didn't speak straight away. It took time to compose her thoughts, time to organize them into words of the Reaver tongue. “I not … Is difficult for me. Sometimes, I think … I not fit in well”.

“Do you want to fit in?”, Geng asked.

“Yes!”, she answered, emphatically.


“I— “. That was a good question. “Geng — you believed in me. You believed I was Reaver, before anyone else. Why you believe that?”

Geng smiled. “I knew from your scent. You have Reaver blood”.

Jade considered that, and hoped fervently that it was true.

“You look uncertain”, Geng said.

“Sometimes, I not know if I Reaver”, Jade confessed.

“That is understandable”, Geng said, compassionately. “You lived among the prey for too long. I can understand why you might be confused. You have forgotten who you are. But your blood does not forget”.

“I want to believe”, she said, earnestly.

“Why?”. Again, that question. A question which perhaps she needed to face.

“Because … I done things”, she said, quietly. “I kill prey, eat prey, fight…“. She remembered the face of Jack Norton moments before she'd bitten into it and he had screamed as the killing frenzy had engulfed her. She wanted to say: If I were human, then I would be a monster. If I were human, then how could I live with myself, knowing that I've done all the things that I've done? I wear their skins in my clothing. If I were human, my conscience would not allow that. How could anybody live with that?

But if I am Reaver, then at least my actions make some kind of sense. I have a home, a people. I belong somewhere.

So I have to believe, because otherwise none of it makes sense — none of it.

But she was not able to be that eloquent in the Reaver tongue, so instead, she said: “What means Reaver blood?”

“You ask the right questions”, Geng said, pleased with her. “I chose well in asking for you to become my apprentice. But the answers are not so easy to give. That is why you must learn”.

“Teach me”, she said.

“I can teach you only the beginnings. For the rest, you must learn from the gods”.

A pause, then Jade asked: “They speak to you?”

“Not in words, but yes, they speak to me. In my thoughts, and in my dreams. And they will speak to you too, when you are ready”.

“When I be ready?”, she pressed.

Geng laughed. “When will I be ready?”, he corrected. “And perhaps the answer is, when you no longer need to ask in this tongue”.

She understood that. Language was part of the ranking system in this pack. Challenges and mock fights could gain you temporary advantage, alliances could win you a notch or two, but language would always remain an impenetrable divider. Those who could not speak would forever be lower in rank than those who could. But she sensed that Geng was implying that it went further than the physical plane, that there was a higher language, the language in which the gods communicate. For the first time, she began to wonder if there might be some underlying reality behind all this priest talk. It was already clear to her that Geng was held in very high regard among the pack, and presumably that respect would accrue to her, if she were to follow through with this training.

She tried a new tack: “Mace say I not dress properly. But I dress properly. I dress like Reaver, not like prey. Why she say that?”

“I think perhaps you try too hard”, Geng said. “It is not about outward appearance, it is about who you are. It is true, you are different — but we are all different. Your difference arises because you have been kept apart from us, and lived among the prey. Now you want to rediscover who you really are, so you learn the ways of this pack. That is good, but you must never forget, that it is just as important to be yourself, the unique person that you are”. At those words, he put one hand on her shoulder and said: “Come. I must prepare the sacred drink. I will teach you how it is made”. He stood up.

Curiosity about the rite overcame her as she too stood up. She asked: “The turning ritual — what is for?”

“It allows us to accept a newcomer into our pack”.

“Is what Hagar had, but is not what I had”.

“Correct. For you, I performed the joining ritual”.

“Because I was already Reaver but Hagar was not?”


“So … the turning ritual makes prey Reaver? How?”

Geng stopped in his tracks. That was a powerful question, and indeed one worthy of the priesthood, but he wasn't sure if Jade was sufficiently advanced to comprehend the truth. Nonetheless, his own curiosity compelled him to answer: “The ceremony is not what changes prey into Reaver. The gods do that. The ceremony is to offer our thanks to the gods, and to acknowledge and accept that the change has been made”.

Jade had hundreds of questions she wanted to ask, but first she wanted to assimilate what Geng had already told her. Parts of it made sense. Other parts confused her.

Geng walked across to one of the lockers and opened it, pulling out bags of dried ingredients. Jade couldn't tell what they were. “Watch”, Geng instructed, as he began pouring what appeared to be dried, tall, thin mushrooms of some kind into a wooden bowl.

Jade had observed Miah, though not so closely as she had observed Hagar during his transition. It seemed clear to her that the gods had already done their work, assuming that gods were indeed the agency for change. And it seemed to her that what had happened to Miah was very similar to what had happened to Hagar. The hunters had shown him how a hunter is supposed to behave toward prey, and soon after that, Miah, as Hagar before him, had forgotten how to behave any other way. But she herself was different. That change had never happened to her. Certainly a change had happened to her — four months without sleep was indisputably a change, as was the killing frenzy to which she was occasionally subject. But unlike Hagar, unlike Miah, she had never forgotten who she had been before her life here. She had considered the possibility that the turning ritual may have been what was responsible for the memory wipe, but it was hard to be sure. Her memory of those ceremonies was hazy, but she seemed to recall that Hagar and she had both drunk the same substance, along with others of the Reavers. If it was chemical, it wasn't in the sacred drink.

She paid attention to what Geng was doing though. Even if it wasn't relevant to what made her, it was very relevant to her new life here. She was Geng's apprentice, which meant that this was her job. So she watched as he mixed herbs and fungi in precise proportions, and then handed each item to her in turn and told her the Reaver name for each item. He never asked her to perform the mixing herself, but she was sure that would be required on some future occasion. For now, she tried to memorize the names of the ingredients, and exactly how they were mixed together.

Jade walked through the large cargo bay where the turning ceremony would be held a few hours hence, on her way to the engine room. Geng had sent her on an errand to fetch Vash, the ship's engineer. As she passed through the large space she couldn't help noticing that many of the people there did not look their best. Many were prone to the occasional coughing fit. It worried her.

She had to step over a couple having sex in order to get into the aft corridor, which amused her, though she didn't give it much thought beyond that. These people were very primal when it came to base desires, and were not shy when it came to expressing pleasure, but Jade doubted she would ever witness romance again.

She found Vash lying on the floor of the engine room, which was unusual. Concerned, she asked: “You OK?”

Vash sat up, slowly. His face was red and raw, and there were blisters which Jade could not remember having seen previously. “You took me by surprise”, he said. “I am fine”.

Feeling awkward, she said: “Our priest requests your presence”.

“Ah. It's later than I thought”, he admitted. His job regarding the ceremony would be to ready the cargo bay for the gathering. This entailed little more than affixing drapes, but nonetheless it was of huge symbolic importance. He stood up, but was wobbly on his feet and almost immediately sank down again to one knee. “Give me a moment”, he said, apologetically, and stood up once more, using part of the ship's engine housing for support. Finally, he said: “I will go to our priest”, and walked carefully out of the room. Jade watched him go, puzzled at his apparent weakness.

She wandered around the engine room, feeling the thrum of the great rotating machine responsible for the vessel's pulse propulsion. This was not a place she visited often, and she did not know it well, so she wandered around, studying its layout. The rear wall was cracked, and in places there were actual holes — some large enough to put a finger through. It worried her a little that the bulkheads could be so damaged, but she knew that it wasn't enough to threaten the structure of the ship or Card would never have allowed them to lift off from Whitefall all those months ago. Still — it was unsettling.

She decided to take an alternative route back, since this was a part of the ship she did not visit often, and felt the need to explore. So she took the stairs downward, into the belly of the ship, below the cargo bay. Corridors ran along each edge of the ship, so, picking one at random, she chose the port corridor. The corridor was empty, and it felt strange to be alone here. Partway along, she found a door to her right, and decided to see where it led. She had long learned that very few places on this ship were forbidden or had any kind of restricted access. Privacy seemed an alien concept to them, a side effect of which was that she had almost complete freedom of movement within the ship.

She came to a sudden halt within the room, shocked because she recognized it. This was the charnel house, the place where the prey were slaughtered. Half a dozen people were there, scrubbing the walls, and the place smelled of a combination of vomit and disinfectant. There was a great deal of noise, but they were industrial noises, not the sounds of screams. It sounded like she imagined a factory would sound. She recognized Hagar as one of the cleaners. This, she reflected, was probably the worst job on the ship, relegated to the lowest ranked members of the clan. A few people looked around at her, but paid her little attention. They were making noises amongst themselves, however, and seemed quite content.

Jade walked to the long table, now scrubbed clean, which ran the center of the room. She lay her hand upon it, and felt its smooth surface. It was here, she remembered, that the corpses of the people of Herren Town, Newhall had been piled, while she herself had been tied to the wall…

…She looked around…


She walked across to the spot where she had been bound upon her arrival here. Horizontal pipes ran the length of the walls at ankle-level, and more just above head level. Where the pipes were attached to the wall was where she'd been chained. She looked outward. Around the room were other attachment points, to which other people had been secured.

No, not people, she reminded herself, prey. But it was hard to shake off the association. She thought once more of Slate, glad, once again, that he had not been present at the massacre.

Hunt, she corrected.

She decided that she might as well say hello, while she was here, and strode across the floor to Hagar, who was gleefully firing a high pressure water hose at the wall. At first, she wondered how it was possible to waste so much water on a space ship, and then realized that it wasn't, in fact, being wasted, merely recycled round and round, as it pooled on the floor and sank through grills into wherever it was reclaimed. Through those grills would also be washed the blood, shit and vomit of the prey. There was an efficiency about the room — a far more mechanized approach than was used on Herren to slaughter the creatures of the sea. “Hagar”, she said. “Is me, Jade”.

Hagar closed the valve on his pressure hose, and turned to face her. “Jade”, he said.

She smiled, but noticed that his face was red and blotchy. Also — was it her imagination or was his hair starting to fall out? It was hard to tell because tribal markings were designed to look fearsome in any case, and additional damage was often simply incorporated into the design. But it seemed to her that the texture of Hagar's skin was somehow different from how she remembered it. “Is you well?”, she asked.

Even as she spoke the words, she realized that Hagar would not understand her. He could not speak, and could understand only rudimentary commands. For the briefest of moments, she considered speaking in English, but decided against it. She knew from long experience that Hagar had forgotten the languages of his upbringing. Hagar's reply was: “Is good. Clean”.

She wasn't sure whether the phrase “is good” referred to himself or to his work, and decided it was probably intended to mean the latter. So she simply patted him on the back and said: “Yes. Is good. You carry on”, before ambling out to leave him to his duties. As she reached the door, she heard the whoosh as the hose was reactivated. She closed the door behind her as she left.

She felt an involuntary shudder as she recalled her own treatment in that room, and felt inordinately glad that she had been recognized as a Reaver, and accepted into the pack. Had that not been the case, she would by now be just another carcass in the freezer. Either that or already consumed. The warmth of acceptance quickly drove away those thoughts, and her mind turned to more pleasant things, like her friendship with Sing.

But even that made her feel uneasy, and she knew why. Sing was coughing and being sick. That wasn't good. What if she were to die? This ship had a diverse crew, including a pilot and a mechanic — but it did not include a medic. Medicine was an unknown concept among this pack. Once upon a time, she had asked Geng about that, and Geng had said that only the hunted had need of such things, that we are protected by the gods. But Barker had still died from a bullet wound.

She climbed the two flights of stairs at the forward end of the ship and made her way to the sanctum. She saw Vash leaving as she entered. She needed to talk to her mentor.

“Geng”, she asked, “Why people get sick?”

Geng stopped what he was doing, which was carving designs into a leg bone. He put down the bone and his knife, and sighed. “The gods cause sickness”, he explained. “It is rare, but when it happens it is always a bad omen”.

But Jade had been thinking. “What if not gods? What if…?”. Having once lived among humans, she was aware of alternative explanations of sickness, but the Reaver language did not contain the words to express such thoughts. Finally, she said: “Have noticed. People at back of ship more sick. People at front of ship not sick. People in middle of ship little sick”.

Just for a moment, Geng prepared to explain to Jade why that could not possibly be so, but stopped himself before speaking — when he realized that she was right.

“I think…“, she said, speaking slowly and carefully, “…is something bad in back of ship. Make people sick”. She remembered the crack in the rear bulkhead even as she spoke.

“That's not…“, began Geng, unsure of himself.

“Ship hurt”, she said, gaining confidence as she spoke. “Ship damaged in first hunt, then more on desert moon. Damage not good. Damage make people sick. Damage make … gods angry”. The last two words she added a bridge between her own theory and Geng's world view.

Geng was thunderstruck. This was an unbelievably complex leap of logic — higher order thinking which surpassed even his own. Could she be correct? “How can you know…?”, he began.

Jade's mind was racing, thinking back to things she had learned from the cortex, things that Slate had taught her about engines and energy, things that she had learned from … from somewhere. “Engine…“, she said. She struggled to find the words in Reaver, but she did not know them. In desperation, she switched to English, and blurted out: “It's a gorram nuclear reactor. It needs to be shielded!

“Wait there”, he commanded, and strode out of the room, purposefully. By rights, he should have been angry with her. Had he not made it clear to her never to speak in that tongue? But he could not be angry. He needed to speak to Card.

As expected, he found Card in the cargo bay, overseeing Vash erect the drapery for the ceremony. Vash himself was doing less of the work than Card would have expected, preferring on this occasion to delegate the task to others. Geng bowed before Card, and said: “My leader, I must speak with you”.


“What damage did the ship take in our recent hunts?”

Card almost laughed. “Plenty. We've lost our EMP and our magnetic grappler, and that's just the weapons. But nothing structural. We are still spaceworthy”.

“What about core containment? Do we still have core containment?”

Card considered, and thought back to moment when Gra had first delivered her damage report. “No”, he said, “Not since the hunt after Newhall. Why? That's not important”.

Speaking slowly, Geng said: “Perhaps not to us, but the gods consider it so. That is why some of our pack are getting sick. It is the gods' way of telling us, this is our home, we must honor it”.

Card sighed. This was annoying. This was not the best of times to ask Vash to conduct repair work, given his poor physical condition. And for such an inconsequential thing at that. But he looked at Geng, and looked into his eyes, and saw that he was serious. “The gods have truly spoken to you?”, he asked.

“Yes”, he said, determinedly. And in his mind formed the words: but they spoke to Jade first.

Card was annoyed, but he knew he had no choice. It was not often that his priest came to him with news like this, but when he did, it could not be ignored. Card was the alpha male of this tribe, but that only made him leader in this realm. There were higher realms, and only a fool would ignore them. Reluctantly he said: “I will order it repaired”. Quickly, he added: “After the turning ceremony”.

Geng bowed, and breathed a sigh of relief. “Of course”, he agreed, and moved quietly away.

Alone in the sanctum, Jade struggled to understand her revelation. How could she possibly have known so much about engines? Fishing boats didn't have fusion reactors, and she had never been a great one for learning from the cortex. She closed her eyes, and at last the source of that knowledge came flooding back to her:

“And this”, Daddy says, “is the core”.

“How does it work?”, I ask.

We wander around the inside of this ship, the Greg Edmonson. Daddy is keen and enthusiastic. He wants me to like it, but I do not, because I know it is going to take him away from me.

“Why do you have to take this job?”, I ask.

He looks at me, and his smile fades. “Aw, Honey”, he says, his voice now gentle. “It costs a lot of money to live in the city center. This job will pay for it. Keep us in the manner to which we've become accustomed.”

“We could live somewhere else”, I suggest, “Somewhere cheaper”.

He holds me in his arms, and says: “We could. But then we might get hurt. Mommy might get hurt, and neither of us would want that, would we?”

“No”, I agree. The logic seemed irrefutable, but that didn't stop it being unfair. “But you'll be gone for months at a time!”, I protest.

“It'll be okay. Uncle Harry will be around to look after you— “.

“He's called Slate!”, I insist.

“He— “, Daddy begins, finally agreeing: “Well, yes, he is. But he's still your unc— When did he tell you to start calling him Slate?”. Before I can answer, he says: “Well, it doesn't matter. Look — we'll all be fine — you, me, Mommy, Slate, Aunt Lana, all of us. I just need to do a few runs, and then we'll be set up for a long, long time.”

I hug him. I still don't want him to take this job, but I do want us all to be safe.

“Come on”, he says, more cheerily now. “You want me to finish showing you around the ship?”

The ritual in full swing, Jade once again tasted the narcotic beverage which had first inducted her into the pack, but this time she was part of the audience, not part of the show, and so she only took a sip or two, and passed the beverage on.

The lower dosage of the drug left her pleasantly inebriated, but still in full control of her senses. It definitely changed her perception — colors seems just a little bit brighter, sounds just a little bit sharper — but she was not hallucinating. It also gave her that warm, fuzzy feeling of total belonging which she sorely sought. I want to carry on feeling like this when this wears off, she thought.

And around her, the thump, thump, thump of people drumming heartbeat rhythms on the deck of the bay with whatever implements came to hand.

Geng said his words, and this time she understood them. He said: “In the names of the gods of our people; in the name of Oban, and in the name of Urkha, we welcome this man, Miah, into our pack. We acknowledge the noble sacrifice made by our fallen packmate, Barker, and accept this man, Miah, to take his place. We thank you, for making this exchange, and beg you for good fortune, for all of this pack, in the time to come”.

He spoke something to Miah. It seemed as though Miah did not understand straight away, if at all, but he seemed willing to attempt to copy Geng's example. Geng cried out, a wordless roar, and Miah followed suit. The crowd joined in the roar, Jade included.

But at the back of the hall, one man did not join in the chorus. Vash tried to roar, but instead, he coughed up blood. He staggered, and fell onto the back wall. He did not understand what was happening to him. Someone handed him a bowl of the intoxicating sacred drink, and he gulped it down, hoping it would quell the ache at the back of his throat.

It did no such thing. Instead, he threw up. Two friends picked him up and carried him outside the room, and sat him down against the adjacent wall, then went back to join the party, looking for lower ranking people whom they could order to clean up the mess.

Vash felt hot, burning even. And then he felt cold. Hot, cold, hot, cold, all in rapid succession. Spots swam before his eyes.

Card was there before him, saying something to him, trying to speak, but Vash could not see — his vision was blurred. He heard the sounds of Card's voice, but sound alone could convey only the most basic of communication, so all he heard was: “Vash, not die”. And then he gave in to the one thing he had not known in eleven years. He slept.

Card strode out of the ceremony, his pace rapid, his resolve firm. He strode into the cockpit. Gra was there, as he expected. “I always miss these ceremonies”, she complained as he entered.

“You told me you didn't like them”, he countered.

Gra nodded. “True enough”, she said. “So what brings you into my realm”.

“We're changing course”, Card told her. “We need to repair our core containment”.

“Why?”, she asked.

“The gods demand it”, he explained.

“Which? The repair or the course change?”

“Perhaps both. Vash is the only one who could have made the repair. Now he is fallen”.

“Fallen?”, she queried. “Dead?

“I don't know. In any case, there is now only one place we can go to make repairs. And it's time we went there anyway. Our hunts have been successful; our freezer is full of much needed meat. It is time to rejoin our people”.

Gra spun in her chair and flipped the three switches above her head. “Heading back out to the Rim”, she said, and in a quieter voice, added: “We're going home”.

The small cube drifted through space. Slowly, but with precision, a small robot eased its way through the void, trailing a strand of cable in its wake. It touched the hull of the cube, and attached itself to the airlock handholds, and signaled back its success at its mission.

The cable went taught, and gently, the cube began to accelerate toward the larger vessel. Almost in slow motion, it collided with the larger ship, but the cable pulled tighter, and held it in place.

A docking tube snaked from Vindicator's belly to the lifeboat's airlock, and two space suited figures made their way along the tube, and forced open the door.

Inside the lifeboat, five frozen bodies lay huddled together on the floor, two women and three children. All power had long since been exhausted.

“Pioneer”, said Slate, sweeping his torchbeam across the nameplate.

“Was that the derelict?”, asked Papagina?

“It was”, he confirmed.

“If we connect a power cable from Vindicator, we might be able to read the log entries, if there are any”.

“Worth a try”, he confirmed, “Worth a try”.

Dark Places


The pack had become increasingly restless after Vash had fallen ill. With their ship in such disrepair that even the weapons failed to function adequately, and Vash too ill to fix anything, returning to the Rim had seemed the only reasonable option — especially since the wrath of the gods seemed now to be upon them. Brack, another of the Reavers, had done a reasonable job filling in for Vash, but Brack was primarily a component scavenger. His efforts were adequate at best.

Geng had explained to the pack that the gods were displeased with them for having failed properly to look after their ship. And sure enough, more and more of the pack were showing inexplicable symptoms that could only have been wrought by the gods. Card had ordered everyone to move to cabins near the front of the ship, leaving the rear cabins unoccupied. This had meant that, for the first time, Jade had been forced to share a room. When she'd heard that she was going to have to share, she had immediately asked Sing if she would like to be her roommate. Sing had been pleased to have been asked, and had said she would be delighted. Finally, after two solid months of space travel with not a single stop for supplies, they had arrived at this wondrous place.

It was a town in space, and it was breathtaking. Jade had never seen anything even remotely similar to it. At least, not that she could remember. Like their own ship, the space station had no name, but it didn't need one. Geng's description of it to Jade had been more than sufficient, when he had told her: “This is our home”.

“Who are these people? Who runs this station?”, Jade had asked, when first she had learned their destination.

“They are family”, Geng had explained. “Our people. Your people. The wider pack, of which we are a part.

When finally they had arrived at the station and docked, the whole pack were eager to get out and stretch their legs. For too long had they been confined to their own little boat. And Jade was no exception.

It was good to have family again, to be a part of something. Truthfully, Jade had never been happier. Even on The Island of Herren, she had not felt quite so at home as here. On the island, she had always been the odd one out, always excluded by her sleeping sickness from almost all communal activities. Oh, she had joined in all right: done a little fishing, a little planting, a little socializing, but even copious amounts of caffeine had not been able to keep her awake for more than six hours out of every twenty four, and so she had been forever excluded from many of the activities which others on the island had considered their birthright. Only with Slate had she ever formed a true bond. But here among the Reavers, wakefulness was a permanent state. The six months that she had spent here was the equivalent of two years of experience in her life before this. She had found a people who, Khrau aside, accepted her. In fact, not only had they accepted her, they had given her a job of high importance. In the long term, she could one day end up as the highest ranked non-combatants of the pack. And in addition to all of that, her recent deduction concerning the ship's core containment had impressed even Geng, The pack believed that the gods had spoken to Geng, but Geng knew that it had been Jade to whom the gods had first turned with this information, and it awed him. All of this gave Jade a confidence she had never previously known, and she walked with liveliness, and with a smile upon her face. She almost danced through the corridors of the space station, swinging her arms as she moved. And when she looked out through the windows to see the huge Reaver warships, stark and fearsome, she saw only security and protection. Any human this close to a Reaver warship would be shitting their pants, she mused as she gazed upon the gaudy war paint, but I am allowed this close. I could walk on them, and no one would mind. She felt privileged to have been allowed into this position.

Life had never been so good.

Only one thing marred this otherwise idyllic existence. His name was Khrau.

There were twelve ships in total, either docked with or tethered to the space station. They comprised what was known as the “wider pack”, which was sort of like an extended family. Card's pack were made especially welcome — after all, they had brought back a vast freezer full of food. Food was scarce out here on the Rim. Prey were few and far between, and becoming fewer with each year. Expeditions such as Card had just completed were becoming more common, of necessity. One ship would head inward, toward the core, stock up on food, and then bring it back home. That ship had been Card's. This extended family were more than happy to patch up, restock and refuel Card's ship. Geng made sure they paid special attention to the core containment, particularly because most people considered it a minor, cosmetic repair, hardly worthy of their efforts.

But of course the most exciting thing about docking with the station was the meeting up with old friends — or, for Jade, with new friends. Almost as soon as Card's pack had arrived, a party had sprung up spontaneously, with drink flowing freely Everyone wanted to hear the stories. They were fascinated in particular to hear of Jade's unusual tale.

“She was brought up by prey”, Mace enthused, gleeful to be the one to tell the story.

“Is that even possible?”, one of the station people asked, his eyes wide.

“Is why I not talk good”, Jade explained. “I learn since join pack”.

“And the prey let you live?”, the questions came hard and fast, but they were all friendly in nature. The crowd was eager to hear this strange tale. The story, so far as they eventually came to understand it, was that at some time in the past, Jade must have been left alone, abandoned somehow. Maybe her pack was wiped out leaving her as the only survivor? Jade couldn't remember, but that only added to the intrigue. Reavers are not solitary beings. They do not like to live alone. It would be difficult for any Reaver to have lived alone, particularly one so young as Jade must have been. Survival in such circumstances was unlikely in the extreme. But Jade had somehow managed to survive as a lone Reaver. She had been taken in by prey, who, incredibly, had kept her alive until civilization in the form of Card's ship had come to rescue her.

Jade, for her part, was intrigued by this wider society. It made sense that Card's ship could not have been alone in space. It even made sense that the job of Card and his ship had been to collect food to bring back to the wider pack. But other puzzles still remained. There were no children here, Jade observed. For some reason, that surprised her. She didn't feel sufficiently comfortable to ask strangers about this — even though they were, in principle, family — but she vowed to ask Geng or Sing later on, in private. If the children weren't here, then, where were they?

One of the women from the station began to recite the tale of Oban and Urkha, one of the old legends. Jade later learned that the woman's name was Targ. Jade had heard this story before, from Geng, but Targ told it with subtle differences which fascinated Jade almost as much as the story itself.

“And so there was a great battle in the spirit world”, Targ said, enthusiastically telling the tale that everybody already knew, but loved to hear again and again. “And the army of Oban was forced back by the Lions. Oban was almost defeated, but he roared his defiance at the Lions and vowed that he would find some way to defeat them. And at that moment, the wise and beautiful Urkha heard his roar, and came to him, saying: 'Oban, you cannot defeat the Lions now, but you can stay hidden from them. And so hidden, we shall prosper. And then one day, when the time is right, when we have raised an army whose roar is mighty enough to drown out even the Lions, then we shall take back the Core, and the Lions shall tremble at our feet'. And Oban heard these words, and saw that they were wise. So they hid out among the stars, where they live to this moment, growing stronger year by year, and awaiting the time to resume their age old battle against the Lions. And secure in their hiding place among the stars, Urkha gave birth to the twins … but that's another story”.

“I have a story”, Khrau said, swigging clear liquid from a glass bottle emblazoned with the Blue Sun logo. “And this one is true”.

“Are you saying the old legends are not true?”, questioned Targ.

“I would never dare say such a thing”, he conceded, truthfully, “But this is story that I can verify with my own eyes and ears. It is the story of the greatest hunt of our voyage”.

At once, he had the attention of all ears.

“And a great hunt it was”, he continued, “for the prey outnumbered us at least four to one. It took great skill and cunning to kill the prey in such numbers. But these prey, they had a weakness. They lived on a island surrounded by water, and so when the time came to signal the attack, the prey had nowhere to run”.

Jade began to get a sinking feeling as she heard Khrau begin his tale. She knew where this was leading, that Khrau was going to tell the story, from his point of view, of the attack on Herren Island. To be fair, it was a legitimate story to tell, and Khrau's claims about the numbers were not exaggerated, but Jade was fully aware that Khrau was telling this story in her presence for one reason and one reason only — to disturb her, to cause her pain. She vowed there are then that she would not give him the satisfaction, that he would not see her in pain. So she smiled and nodded, as if it were just another story.

“With the water on one side, and our hunters on the other, the prey had place to go, so they hid inside their wooden houses. And then we brought fire to flush them out”.

Jade remembered seeing fire, but at the time, she had already been dragged away from her particular wooden hut by Reavers — one of whom, she now realized, had been Khrau. Khrau had heard me, screaming like a human. Maybe, she considered, that was why he hated her so much.

She had woken up with a start. She had been asleep. Three Reavers had pulled her from her bed. She pictured their faces: Han, Smit, and another she did not recognize at all. Khrau had not been with them at that time. They had thrown her onto the floor. Han had slammed the point of a knife into her upper leg, and tore downwards, cutting into pants and flesh indiscriminately. Knowing what she knew now, it seemed likely that Han had been trying to cut away her clothing — either to rape her or eat her, either was a possibility. And then Khrau had appeared at the doorway, argued with Han, Smit and the other, and the four of them had dragged her out of the building and into the street. At some point after that, she had passed out and descended into blissful sleep — the very last time, she now realized, that she had ever slept.

“And one of the prey bewitched our priest”, Khrau continued. He stabbed his finger in Jade's direction, saying “That one!”

Jade was shocked, but nonplussed. She had no illusions about who she was any more. She had found her place among the people of Card's ship, and Khrau no longer frightened her, so she said, defiantly, “I am no prey. Do you see me lie down? Do you see me sleep? I bleed Reaver blood and I heal like that!“ She snapped her fingers. “Don't you dare call me prey again”.

Too late, she realized that her last sentence could be seen as a challenge. Damn!, she thought as Khrau lunged toward her. And I was doing so well up to that point. She steeled herself for the onslaught, and as Khrau's momentum knocked her from her seat she slowly and carefully nodded her head in admission of defeat. By all logic, Khrau should have accepted her submission at that point. It would have been to his advantage to have done so. He could then have ordered her to leave, and told his story without fear of contradiction. But he did not stop. He kept on coming.

Jade started to panic. She made the submission gesture again, more clearly. Other people must have seen it, she realized, but Khrau ignored the gesture. Perhaps he really believes I am prey?, Jade considered incredulously. Khrau yanked on the collar of her shirt and pulled it toward him, exposing her shoulder. Perhaps he expected her top to tear, but it did not, for it was made from well cured human skin and so was pliant and stretchy. But it dug into her neck as he pulled and she let out a quiet yelp. Then Khrau bit into her shoulder, and the pain flooded through her, an uncontrollable torrent. She wanted to cry out and scream, but dare not, for that was how prey behaved, and she knew damn well that she was not going to be prey.

From somewhere deep within her, she summoned up the rage, the rush, the killing frenzy which had taken over her body on more than one previous occasion in her dealings with humans. Back then, she had despised herself for giving in to the rush. Now, she willed it. She watched as Khrau jerked back, tearing flesh from her body, flooding her with waves of unstoppable pain centered on the red bloody hole in her shoulder, and the fury enveloped her. She roared, and lunged at Khrau, pulling back his hair, clamping her teeth down on his neck. She refrained from the killing bite and waited for him to show the gesture of defeat, but he did not. He pulled aside, and turned on her in a whirlwind of ferocity.

The frenzy began to take on a life of its own, and Jade's own awareness of the details became subsumed into the overwhelming and awesome power of the mêlée. All she remembered was being pulled away from Khrau by other arms, and feeling sticky. And then, for the first time in six months, she blacked out.

Card took his time in deciding what to do about this incident. He went over it again and again in his mind. But ultimately, he was the alpha male, and that meant that the decision would fall to him, come what may. So, some several hours after the fight had been broken up, Card summoned Khrau to the cockpit of his ship.

He wasn't that surprised to find the cockpit occupied. Gra was there, staring blankly into space, even though they were safely moored. He told her to leave. She looked around sharply, almost surprised at the intrusion into her private world, and then, seeing who had given the order, stood up and left.

Khrau entered as Gra left.

“Well?”, Card demanded, his voice calm.

Khrau was tempted to say “Well what?”, but he could see at once that that would gain him nothing. “The girl challenged me”, he said.

“I know!”, Card said, slamming his fist down onto the flight console. In a calm voice, he said: “Yes, she challenged you. There were witnesses. And…?”

Khrau was nervous. He had never seen Card behave like this before. It was as though Card was simultaneously angry and not angry, or perhaps as though he was angry and trying not to be. It troubled Khrau. “You expect me not to accept a challenge from a subordinate?”, he queried.

Finally, Card exploded with rage. “I'm not angry at you because you fought her”, he declared. “I'm angry at you because you didn't stop when she yielded”.

“I did not see her submit”, Khrau lied.

“Everybody else did”, Card stated, his voice once more returning to relative calm.

“I did not”, Khrau repeated. “Perhaps she needs to learn to be clearer”.

Card reacted violently. He gripped Khrau by the throat and slammed him onto the console. Khrau's head hit the glass window behind the console with such force that for a moment Khrau was concerned the window would break and send them both flying into space. That did not happen, but when he heard Card's next words, he almost wished that it had. “One more infraction”, Card warned. “Just one. One more incident involving Jade, and I swear I will banish you from this pack”.

Khrau went white. Banishment? Banishment was almost as severe a punishment as death. Reavers did not live alone, they were pack hunters. Alone, Khrau would die. Banishment from Card's pack would mean that he would have to find another pack who would have him, and even if he succeeded, he would likely find himself at the bottom of the ranks. He blamed Jade entirely for this predicament.

Card was calm again, and backed away from the console. “Do you understand that I am serious?”, he asked.

From Khrau's point of view, this was far worse than a straight fight. This was utter humiliation. He was grateful that no one was there to see it, but even to have Card think of him this badly was unacceptable. “You would really banish me?”, he asked, still not quite believing it, or perhaps hoping that Card would lose his resolve.

“You give me no other choice”, Card said. “I will not have my pack turning against itself. If you cannot accept that, then you must leave”.

“I— “. He wanted to argue, but knew it would do no good. Card was resolute. For a moment, Khrau considered the possibility of taking on Card in a physical challenge. The trouble was, he'd tried that before, and had lost every time. If he challenged Card and won, his problems would be over, but if he challenged Card and lost, then he would no longer be a member of this pack — he would become a nobody, a loner. It simply wasn't worth the risk.

“Go”, said Card, in a voice almost too quiet to hear.

Khrau backed out of the room, and then turned sharply, and did his own share of hitting things as he strode through the ship, thinking of what Card had said. One more infraction, one more incident involving Jade, and I will banish you from this pack! Outrageous! Unbelievable! And probably the most serious threat that Card could possibly have made. And it's all Jade's fault, he concluded, angrily.

Jade saw black spots dancing before her eyes, her vision otherwise filled with red. She felt a damp sponge on her forehead, and passed out once more.

The face before her came into focus. “Sing?”, she queried.

Sing looked down at her, sympathetically. “Welcome back”, she said.

Jade tried to sit up, but her body would not let her. Where her skin was not cut, it was blotchy yellow and purple with bruises; where it was, dark brown stripes of dried blood formed spectacular new scars. “What did I do wrong?”, she asked, her voice a whisper.

“Shhh”, said Sing. “Just you get better”. She lifted Jade's head and brought some broth to her lips. Jade sipped slowly.

Eventually, her strength began to return. Jade was certainly right about one thing — she did heal fast, a trait shared by all of the Reavers. But even so, many hours passed before she was able comfortably to move about.

Her confidence returned slowly, too. At first, she refused even to leave the room, and Sing did not argue, but after a time, her own restlessness pushed her out into the wider world. And everywhere she went, it seemed that people looked at her with new admiration.

“She stood up well to Khrau”, she saw one Reaver say.

“It was an impressive challenge”, said another.

Her confidence increased further as she caught sight of her own reflection in a polished surface. She had never looked so Reavery — the new scars made her seem much more fearsome than before. She decided to stretch her legs, and left the confines of the ship to wander around the space station.

My home, she reminded herself, determined that Khrau would not take away from her the acceptance that she had found here.

She spoke with many people. All were friendly — even Mace.

“I'm sorry if I was mean to you when you first joined us”, Mace said. “It's just that you were different, and sometimes it takes me a while to accept new people”.

Jade smiled. At that moment Khrau walked into the room, and Jade's smile froze, her face turning to an expression of fear. Khrau noticed this, and was pleased.

Mace turned to see what had caught Jade's attention. Seeing Khrau, she returned her attention to Jade and hugged her. “We are friends”, she said. Khrau walked off, not looking pleased.

Little by little, it began to dawn on Jade that not only had she survived Khrau's assault, she seemed to have ended up much more esteemed than had been the case before. And as the days went by, she also began to notice that Khrau no longer seemed to be picking on her — at least, not directly. Often, Khrau would exit the room as Jade entered, which was certainly a snub of sorts, but hardly one which Jade minded.

She began to wonder if perhaps Khrau had been chastised for his behavior. As a newcomer to this pack — indeed, to any pack — the rules of behavior were new to her. But from what she understood, a gesture of surrender should always be acknowledged, and Khrau had ignored hers. Perhaps Khrau now understood himself to have been in the wrong, or perhaps Card had punished him in some way. It was hard to grasp the way that things had changed, but there was a difference, and it was none too subtle.

One day, she found herself working with some of the people from the station, carrying butchered carcasses from the freezer on Card's ship to a similar freezer on the station. “Ow, these are cold”, she said, laughing, as she accidentally dropped a frozen meaty leg bone into a cart. “I should wear gloves”. She noticed Khrau nearby. Ordinarily, it would not have been out of character for him to have chastised her for dropping the leg bone, but on this occasion, he just looked aside and ignored it. Jade decided to do an experiment. She walked over to Khrau and looked him straight in the eye, saying: “So — do you still call me prey?”

Khrau was angered. This was not a polite enquiry, it was almost a challenge. But he heard Card's voice in his mind, saying: One more infraction…, and refrained from responding with aggression. “Go back to your work”, he said, as calmly as he could manage. Jade stood, unresponsive for just a moment, before heading back to her work. Now she was sure. Ordinarily, there was no way Khrau would have responded so timidly. Her confidence elevated several notches.

The joys of spring filled her once more. The pain and bruises from her injuries had long since departed, and now she was happier than she could ever remember being.

“I don't think I've ever been this happy”, she told Sing one day. “Not even when I was sailing the ocean with Slate”.

“Who's Slate?”, asked Sing.

“He's my… He's one of…“, Jade began, unsure how to complete the sentence. “He's one of the people who brought me up”.

Sing looked decidedly embarrassed. After a time, she said, “People?”

“Prey, then”, Jade corrected. Then she added, “You know, some of them are not as bad as you think”.

“I don't think you should be talking like that”, Sing said, her voice a whisper, her face a look of concern.

The look on Sing's face at once made Jade regret her words. Her friendship with Sing was in the here and now, and mattered to her a great deal.

With the food all moved from the ship to the station, and the repairs to the ship well underway, preparations began for a feast to honor the returning ship. Feasts were rare among Reaver folk, and reserved for very special occasions. But this qualified as one, since Card's ship had been away for many months, and had returned fully laden.

Sing, of course, volunteered to help prepare the food, and Jade volunteered because she enjoyed Sing's company. There were others involved too — a woman called Hura and a man called Lun. Neither were from Card's ship, although they were both from the same pack, under the leadership of someone called Ekh. Sing seemed to have heard of the name, and treated it with some respect, so Jade did the same, as she tried to understand the complexity of relationships within the station.

“So, Ekh's pack and Card's pack are like … sibling packs?”, Jade queried as she sat cutting up vegetables.

“Yes. Or friendly neighbors”, Lun said. He too was cutting up vegetables. Jade wondered about that. It occurred to her that on Card's ship, the galley duties had always been done by women. Now she was starting to realize that that was a choice, not a rule.

“Are packs related?”, Jade asked.

Everyone stared at her blankly.

“Am sorry”, she said. “I don't always know right words. I want to know … are packs related by blood?”

“All packs have Reaver blood”, Lun said, looking confused.

“No, I…“, she began, but gave up. It was as though there was some huge cultural misunderstanding, which prevented her from getting her meaning across. Her inability to enquire about sibling relationships reminded her of her earlier observation about children. With Khrau now acting almost friendly toward her, she had come to feel entirely confident and at home here, and able to ask pretty much anything, so she came straight out with it. “Do Reavers have children? Babies?”. Her companions looked up at her sharply, so she quickly added: “If I cause offense, I apologize. Prey have children. I brought up by prey. I just wonder”.

Softly, Sing said: “Jade, you can't go around saying that”.

Lun laughed. “Why not? If it's true”. To Jade, he said. “You should be proud of who you are, and what you've accomplished, not shy away from it”.

“But it's…“, Sing began. It took her a while to find the words to complete her sentence: “…not something you want to brag about”.

Lun laughed again. To Jade, he said: “I have no problem with your having grown up around prey — so long as you have no problem with eating them”.

“I…“, Jade said. Now it was her turn to be startled. “No, of course not”, she told him, which by now was certainly true.

“So”, Lun said, “To your question. Yes, Reavers have children, many children — but only some Reavers are capable of that. None of us here have that capability. It is a rare gift”.

Hura spoke — the first time she had said anything in this conversation. “It's been a long while since I ate fresh prey. Frozen is all very well, but I miss fresh. It sounds like there's a lot of good hunting nearer the border?”

Jade said: “Lots of worlds, but are little bit organized. Too close to the core”.

Sing said: “Fresh is good. Frightened is better still. I keep telling the hunters — frighten the prey before you kill it. It just makes the meat that much more tasty. It's all that adrenaline in the blood”. Sing was on home turf whenever the conversation turned to culinary topics. In Reaver terms, she was a master chef.

“You should have brought some back alive”, Hura suggested.

Lun dismissed that suggestion. “They were two months traveling back. It's hard to keep prey alive that long. They either commit suicide or else they start turning”.

Turning — the word echoed in Jade's mind. Turning. Turning Ritual. Lun had meant: they start turning into Reavers, as Hagar and Miah had done. But why?

“Pity”, Hura said. “In the old days, there was always enough fresh meat to go around. The whole pack could eat prey while it was still alive. Now only the hunters have that privilege”.

Sing nudged Jade. “When we get the chance, I'll show you what real fresh meat tastes like. And I'll bet you get the opportunity before too long too — now that you're Geng's apprentice”.

Jade remembered how Geng had killed … what were their names? … when she'd first come aboard. “Why priests kill prey?”, she asked. That seemed a job for a hunter, not a priest.

Hura said: “Priests can worry the prey in ways that even hunters cannot”.

Lun said: “Priests can talk to the prey and be understood”.

Hura said: “Talk their language”.

After a pause, Jade said: “I can speak their language”.

A little shocked, Sing chastised: “Jade!

“There you go then”, Hura concluded. “That's what you need to be a priest. Your Geng chose well”.

“To talk to the prey?”, Jade queried.

“The prey, the gods”, Hura said, her words coming fast. “Everybody”.

That interests me, thought Jade. Far as them's concerned, the priests are like translators, people who talk to other beings.

“If you're interested”, Sing offered, “I could teach you how to properly gut them. Properly, I mean — not like the hunters do, but with finesse“.

Somewhat proudly, Jade said: “I've gutted shark, ray, whale… And all of that I learned from the people you call prey”.

Sing kicked Jade under the table, mentally shouting the message: Shut up!

Lun said: “Now that's just freaky”, referring to Jade's words.

“You're the one who told me to be proud of who I am and what I've accomplished”, Jade argued.

“I did”, he agreed. “But I didn't tell you to start taking pride in the accomplishments of prey”.

“They built this space station”, Jade said. It was true. She had noticed as she had wandered around, signs written in Chinese and English. This had once been an orbital platform, for use around worlds in the process of being terraformed. It was a fully self-sufficient ecosystem, and could last for decades — though not forever — without needing a single layover.

There was total hush after Jade had made that pronouncement. Finally, Lun broke the silence, saying, his voice gruff, “That is why we are at the top of the food chain. Next time you see him, get your priest to explain it to you”.

She looked to Sing for support, but Sing just looked embarrassed. OK, she thought. That was a faux pas.

The preparations continued, but with the four of them working, it didn't take too long. In other parts of the station, other teams were preparing other parts of the feast. It was all coming together nicely.

Yes, thought Jade, faux pas aside, everything is going swimmingly. People like me, and I've even stood up for myself against Khrau — which is perhaps one of the reasons why people like me.

When she thought about it, she was still a little bit bothered by the whole notion of killing people and eating them — especially if not done in that order — but when Sing, who was probably one of the gentlest Reavers she had ever met, talked about such acts in purely culinary terms, it was hard not to see her viewpoint. Besides, she wanted to be accepted here. It mattered, in part because she had never felt truly accepted in her previous life.

And yet…

Once upon a time, she had had a life before her previous life. Since joining this pack, she had seen snatches of that life in occasional brief memories. And those memories presented her with an astounding mystery, for she remembered a man she had called Daddy. Yet Geng said that she had always been Reaver. How can that be? It didn't matter though. It was just one more mystery to add to the list.

I stand at the window watching the spacecraft lift off. He is gone. Daddy is gone. He will be gone for four whole months, bringing more people to this world from the core. Mommy stands beside me. She looks a little sad, but also confident. Slate and Aunt Lana are with me. Slate says: “Come on, Squirt. Let's go get something to eat”.

Mommy says: “Today, you can have whatever you like”.

I say: “He's going to miss my birthday, and Christmas”

The feast was underway, and an atmosphere of cordiality swept through the station, helped, no doubt, by copious quantities of alcohol. Everywhere, people were talking about their adventures, their stories, catching up on gossip and so on.

Card was pleased. He sat at the head table along with his mate, Gala, and the leaders of each of the other eleven ships, listening as Ekh told tales of what life had been like on the Rim during their absence.

“The fact is”, Ekh said, “We're thinking of moving the station”.

“To where?”, Gala asked. “Not toward the Border worlds I hope?”

“No, we plan to stay in the Rim. It takes a special kind of bravery — though some would say madness — to venture in toward the Core. The gods made me old — too old to go chasing around the inner worlds. But they made you young, Card. You have the strength of will to lead such an adventure. I admire you”.

“But—“, Card interjected, “You spoke about moving the station”.

“Resources are scarce here”, Ekh told them. “Food, especially. There are over a hundred people here, and I do not want even one of them to go hungry. I feel we have stripped this environment, and it is time to move on”.

Gala said: “There's still pickings here. Or so I gather”.

“Yes, but we need to keep some prey alive so that they can breed. Overhunting could mean no prey left at all”.

“So we move”, Card agreed, “But to where?”

“The Rim is a big place”, Ekh said. “Plenty of possibility. But we cannot take the risk of moving the station to a barren space. We need to explore first. We must send out scouting parties, to travel around the Rim in many different directions, to find a new home for this extended pack”.

Card's eyes widened. This was an opportunity for adventure he did not want to miss. “My pack will of course be one of the scouting parties. The thought of heading out around the Rim just to see what's there is an appealing one.”

“But dangerous”, Gala said.

“More dangerous than the Border?”, Card asked.

“In the Border, we had detailed maps of prey shipping lanes. In the Rim, they don't even have shipping lanes.”

“That won't matter”, Card said, thinking it through. “We will still be able to raid settlements, if we find any. We know where all the planets and moons are. That's where you will find good hunting”.

Later, much later, when the feast was over and much drink had been consumed, the party quieted down, until almost all of the revelers had returned to their usual duties, Jade sat in the communal hall talking with Mace. There was no “morning after the night before” among Reavers, for Reavers never slept, but things had become very quiet. There was a lot of sitting around, saying nothing, staring blankly into space, a trait which Jade assumed somehow made up for never sleeping. Nonetheless, Jade wanted to talk, and the remnants of alcohol in her system certainly made that easier.

“…and so I told Geng that the core had to be shielded”, she recounted.

“The gods spoke to you?”, Mace queried. Like everyone else, she had assumed it had been Geng to whom the gods had spoken.

Geng had done nothing to dispel this assumption, and in fact had warned Jade that the pack might not be ready to hear of her intercession with the gods. You are too young, too inexperienced, he had said. They will learn of your skills in good time. But drink had loosened her tongue, so she said: “I don't know. Maybe. But I knew what to do because I remembered what my… what someone had told me”.

“Jade”, Mace whispered, conspiratorially, “If you're talking about prey, please stop. It's just not seemly”.

“Everyone says that”, she said, confidently, “But they were kind to me, and they are people too”.

“Jade. Stop. I'm serious. You're not doing yourself any favors with that kind of talk”.

She stopped, frustrated, and then said: “You want more drink?”

Mace considered. “Sure. Why not”.

“I get some”, she said, and stood up. But as she walked across the room, somewhat unsteady on her feet, she ran straight into Khrau. He did not look pleased. She glared at him, and said: “You're in my way”.

Khrau was incensed. He looked around. He saw Card, still sitting at the top table. Card was watching them, paying attention to the incident. Jade saw Card too, and felt confident that his presence would inhibit Khrau. Khrau's blood boiled, but he tried to keep his anger in check, remembering once again Card's words: One more infraction… Then something broke within him. Why should I accept this treatment from a subordinate!, he thought, angrily. He snarled, and pounced at Jade, pushing her to the floor and taking her totally by surprise. Then he was on her, again, digging his fingernails into her exposed neck. Shocked, Jade yelped in a most un-Reaverlike way, before sluggishly bowing her head in the gesture of surrender and hoping that this time it would stop him. It did, but she still stung with lingering pain, and blood dripped onto her top.

“Leave this room”, Khrau snarled, determinedly.

Defiantly, Jade said: “I will not!”

Then Khrau was at her again, pummeling her with his fists, and then slashing at her with a broken bottle. She felt cuts across her face and struggled to wrestle the glass weapon from his hands, but she was no match for his superior strength. Eventually, others pulled the two apart, preventing continued fighting by force. Khrau struggled against his confinement, but Jade merely collapsed, exhausted, thankful that the fight was over, that it had not been as bad as the last one.

Card was with them almost at once, and Khrau went white.

“Khrau”, Card began. Khrau looked into his leader's eyes, anticipating the worst, but Card merely said: “You acted properly. Now go. Get cleaned up”.

Khrau almost couldn't believe what he'd just heard. Finally it dawned on him — of course I acted properly. I responded to a challenge. No one can punish me just for that. It was all right. Card was not angry with him. Feeling vindicated, he stood up, and strode out of the room.

But Card was furious at Jade. “You shame my pack”, he told her.

Crushed, Jade could only say: “But… he…“

“You baited him”, Card pointed out. And Jade could only nod, because it was true. “But that's not the worst of it. You surrendered. Why did you not leave the room as Khrau had ordered you to do?”

“I… He…“. Jade was confused and distraught. Why was Card angry with her.

You surrendered!“, Card emphasized. “You yielded. Yet after the fight, you acted as though you had won. Do you not understand what it means to yield”.

“I… I'm sorry!”

“Go! We will talk of this some other time”.

She ran. She ran out of the hall and made her way back to her room, where she found Sing sewing decorations of bone onto a jacket. Sing looked up immediately. “Jade. What's wrong?”, she asked.

“Khrau fought me again, but Card let him”, she cried, close to tears.

“Well, you have been asking for it for some time”, Sing chastised. “You should show him more respect. He is the second in command, you know!”

Jade couldn't believe what she was hearing. She had expected sympathy from Sing, not rebuke. “I… thought we were friends”, she said, desperately.

“We are”, Sing said, sternly, “But I'm telling you this for your own good. You must act properly if you want to be a part of this pack”.

Jade was mortified. She felt tears coming to her eyes, and knew that she would not be able to stop them. She didn't want Sing to see her crying, so she backed out of the room and then ran as fast as she could to the sanctum. She hoped she would be alone, but that hope was dashed as soon as she entered the room. Geng was there, meditating. She tried to back out, but Geng said: “Come in, Jade. Close the door behind you”.

She could hold back tears no more, and closed the door. This room was soundproofed. At least only Geng would see her cry. She collapsed to the floor and sobbed. Geng waited for her to finish, and then said: “Tell me what happened”.

So she told him, leaving out nothing. Finally, Geng said: “Dry your tears. It is not our way to exhibit such behavior.

“I do everything I'm supposed to do”, Jade argued.

“But you don't do it right“, Geng replied. “You are defiant. You act as though you want to be prey”.

“But I don't, Geng, I really don't”, she sobbed.

Compassion flooded Geng's heart. He couldn't imagine what Jade must be experiencing, but it was clear to him that her old life was having far too much influence on her behavior. He wanted to be gentle, to assure her that everything was going to be all right, but he knew that that would be up to her. For now, he had to be cruel to be kind, and though it pained him to do it, he said: “I do not know you”. And with that, he left the sanctum.

She cried and cried. She still smarted from her wounds, but she was hurt more by her feelings of rejection and wounded pride. Finally, she dried her eyes, and decided to go back to her cabin. At least there, she could wash her face and look presentable.

And so, sullenly, she re-entered her room. Sing was still there, looking concerned. Earnestly, she asked: “Why are people angry with me?”

Gently, Sing said: “I'm not angry with you, but you make people feel uncomfortable. The way you talk about your life before; the way you belittle those above you in rank. People don't like to see that kind of behavior”.

Jade sat beside Sing and embraced her in a hug, feeling tears come to her eyes once more. Sincerely, she cried, “I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I don't want Geng to think bad of me. I don't want you to think bad of me. I won't do it again. I'll do everything right from now on. I'll be a good Reaver, I promise”.

Sing returned her hug, whispering softly into Jade's ear: “I know”. Like Geng, Sing did not understand why Jade should be having such a hard time adjusting, but she recognized sincerity when she saw it, and her heart ached for Jade. “Shh” she added quietly: “It's for the best. Things will be better now. You'll see”.

Dark Places


“So, what do you think?”

The long-haired man pondered the question as he looked carefully around the engine room. “Your ship is in good working order”, he said. “It'll get you wherever you want to go”.

Card fumed inside. It was exasperating talking to this man. Why could he never get a straight answer? And yet, he had to remain civil. Annoying though the man undoubtedly was, he was known to be a good mechanic, and, since Vash's death, a good mechanic was exactly what Card needed. Gala stood beside Card. Her presence calmed him. “I mean, will you travel with my pack, as I have requested. Ekh has offered me your services, if you are willing. So are you willing?”

Gala interjected, easing some of Card's tension. “My mate, you are too hurried. Tuss has only just arrived”.

Tuss leaned against the side of a bench and put his hands behind his head. “And your previous mechanic died, how exactly?”

“The gods took Vash from us”, Card said, sternly. “As I told you. They were angry”.

“At Vash? Now why would that be?”

Gala said, gently: “Our priest tells us that it was because he did not look after the ship sufficiently well. I am certain that is not something you would have to fear”.

Card smiled inwardly. Gala was an excellent diplomat.

“Oh, I know ships, and I know engines”, said Tuss. “No worries on that score”.

“Then you'll stay?”

“Maybe, maybe. I'm still thinking about it. Of course, I'd have to bring Erin”.

Card scratched his head. “Erin? Who's Erin?”

Gala said: “Of course we will make accommodation for your mate”.

Tuss laughed, a laugh that turned into a guffaw then a bellow. Almost crying with tears of laughter, he said: “Erin is not my mate. She's a bird”.

Perplexed, Card admitted: “I don't understand”.

“A bird”, Tuss reiterated. “A caged bird. Specifically, a budgerigar.” He straightened himself up and struggled to control his laughter.

Card's outrage was obvious, though he tried not the show it. In a low growl, he asked: “You want to bring a caged bird onto my ship!?”

“Erin travels with me”, Tuss insisted. “If she's not welcome here, then I stay on the station”.

Card had had enough. For sure, the man was in a position to bargain: Card needed a mechanic, and mechanics were few and far between. By all accounts, they would be lucky to get Tuss. But there were limits to how far anyone could push the boundaries of custom. So he said: “On this ship, I am alpha, I am leader, and what I say, goes. And if I say to pull the wings off your caged bird and feed it to— “

Card never got any further with that sentence. Faster than he had ever seen anyone move, Tuss had wrestled Card to the floor, had one arm around Card's neck, and his foot readied to deliver a kick which would snap Card's neck in an instant. There was no doubt that Tuss had the advantage. As challenges went, this one had been executed with skill and precision. In a voice of utter sincerity, Tuss said: “Understand this. I would kill before I let any harm come to Erin. I would die before I let any harm come to Erin”. He didn't wait for Card's surrender gesture, he just released him. “The ship is yours”, Tuss said, simply. “I'm not challenging your authority. But Erin travels with me. Erin was with me before there even were Reaver packs”. And then, acting as though the fight had never happened, he cheerfully looked around the engine room, concluding: “I could really do things with this ship. I would be honored to travel with you”.

Card stood up. “That was a fine challenge”, he conceded. “You would make a good fighter”.

“Me?”, Tuss said, looking surprised. “Ah no, I'm no fighter. You'll never get me in a fight. My idea of fighting is to build a better ship to run away in. I'm a mechanic”.

“…unless your bird is threatened”, Card added.

“Ah well, there is that”, Tuss conceded. “You still want me?”

Card considered. “I still want you”, he agreed.

“Then I would be honored to join your fine pack”, Tuss concluded. He beamed a toothy grin. “Excuse me, while I go get Erin”, he said.

After he had left the room, Gala reminded Card: “He said he'd kill. To protect a pet. That's mad”.

Card laughed, and gestured around him. “So long as he keeps this ship in good running order, I will allow him one eccentricity. Besides — aren't we all a little bit mad in one way or another?”. With a smirk, he added: “Except me, of course”.

Gala grinned. OK, she considered. I can accept that.

Jade hit the floor with a thump. Mace was on her in a second and grabbed her hair, pulling back her head and exposing her neck. Jade reacted instantly and covered her neck with arm just as Mace dived forward, biting into her arm. Jade almost cried out in pain, but that was not the Reaver way, so she held back from making any noise. With her other arm, she grabbed Mace's hair and pulled back, then rolled onto her side. She felt her pulse quicken. Like lightening, she struck, jabbing her knee into Mace's side. Mace released her grip on Jade's arm, and Jade lashed out with it, striking Mace across the cheek.

And then she had the wind knocked out of her as Mace's other arm stabbed into her stomach with a force she would not have believed, and she doubled up in pain, unable to breathe. A sharp pain gripped her as she felt teeth bite into the back of her neck. It felt like heat, starting from the neck, and spreading out throughout her body. Anger coursed through her, and she felt the killing frenzy begin.

Mace released her bite. “No”, she said, gently.

Jade relaxed. Waves of heat and chill rippled through her body. She felt a head rush, and struggled to maintain control of herself.

Mace sat up beside Jade. “Why did you lose?”, she asked.

Jade looked around and stared up at Mace, waiting until she was sure that the frenzy had ebbed away, that it had not taken control of her mind. “You've had a lot more practice than me”, she said.

Mace smirked. “Specifically”, she demanded.

Jade thought. “I lost control when you punched me in the stomach”, she offered.

“You lost control”, Mace agreed. “You must keep that in check”. She stood up, and offered Jade a hand. “Another bout?”

Jade sat up and took Mace's hand. “Let me rest first”, she said, still winded. She took Mace's hand and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet.

Jade had been a model citizen since the time of the feast, and it had not gone unnoticed. In the last two months she had taken part in almost every social activity enjoyed by the Reavers. Card had been pleased. He was certain that it had been his firm leadership which had caused this change in Jade. Sing wasn't so sure. She felt that it had had more to do with love than with authority. But whatever the reason, there was no doubt now in anyone's mind — except possibly that of Khrau — that Jade had taken the pack's way of life to her heart. Fights were among the most common of pastimes, as the people of Card's pack honed their hunting skills in mock battles with each other. Even those who were not hunters took part, as fighting was such an integral part of Reaver life, with mock battles determining the fine grain of status within the pack. Jade had avoided fights before their arrival at the station, but now she had found a tutor, and was determined to learn this skill, as every other that she would need.

She remembered the first time she had ever fought with Mace, now some seven months behind her, before she had even had her joining ritual. It amused her now to think of that time. Back then, numbed by events, and thoroughly misunderstanding the social rules of those around her, she had leapt to what she had thought was Mace's defense, but had ended up fighting Mace herself. Since then, she had always been a little afraid of Mace, particularly since Mace had always seemed eager to please Khrau. But in the last two months they had become firm friends.

For that matter, even the friction between Jade and Khrau had eased. Jade now always showed Khrau the proper respect due to the second in command of her pack. She was certain that Khrau still did not trust her, but at least the open warfare of past months seemed to have dissipated.

Jade looked around her. They stood near the center of the upper cargo deck, which was by no means empty. There were people all around her, some watching the fight with vague interest, but most ignoring them.

“The rush is useful”, Mace explained, “But it can also hamper you. When you fall into the killing frenzy, you can be more effective, but you also lose judgment. The trick is to control it. Don't let it control you”.


“You need to stay on the edge. Experience the rush when you need to, dive into it with all your being when you need to, but pull back and rise above it when strategic thinking is required”.

“When the rush takes over me, I can't control it”, Jade stated, concerned.

“You controlled it then”, Mace pointed out. “You almost fell into it, but pulled out. I could see it in your eyes, feel it in the way you moved, the way you smelled”,

“I didn't want to hurt you”, Jade said, truthfully.

Mace laughed. “No chance”, she said. “You're not that good”.

That was probably true, Jade reflected, but it wasn't what she had meant. “I meant, this is a mock fight, Reaver against Reaver. There's no killing involved”.

“Rest assured that even in the firm grip of the killing frenzy, you would not be a match for me. There is no shame in that. I am a hunter with years of experience. You are a priest with almost none. Don't worry yourself with that possibility. You lost precisely because you were in the rush, because you were not thinking”.

Jade thought back. “Yes”, she agreed.

“Again”, Mace offered, standing back from Jade, her arms held poised before her.

Jade readied herself for another fight. Though the odds of winning were stacked against her, Mace's objective here was not to win but to teach, and Jade's objective to learn. Conceivably, Mace could let her win if she perceived that the lesson of control had been learned.

“When you're ready…“, Mace proffered.

Jade moved like lightening, but Mace was faster. And though she had her breath back, her arm and neck still hurt from Mace's previous bites. She could use that pain to encourage the rush, but Mace had said the trick was to stay on the edge … if only she could figure out how.

Again, it was over quickly, with Jade swiftly overpowered by Mace's superior strength and reactions. Jade yielded the inevitable surrender, and Mace released her once more.

“Let's up the stakes a little”, Mace said. “Wait there”. She strode off to the little nook at the corner of the room where Sing sat, watching events, and returned with two knives. She handed one to Jade.

“We fight with knives?”, Jade queried, taking the offered blade and handling it awkwardly.

“Feel its weight”, Mace told her. “Make it a part of you”.

Jade tested its weight, and threw it from hand to hand.

“It's a game”, Mace said. “The object is to carve an X into your opponent's body. Somewhere non-vital, obviously. The first one to succeed wins”.

“What if I miss and hit somewhere vital?”, she asked, concerned.

“Don't”, Mace said, succinctly. “This is the ultimate test of control. Control is what you need to learn. Are you ready?”

Jade steadied herself. Go for the upper arm, she told herself. “I'm ready”, she said.

Mace's blade sliced through the air. Jade jerked back just in time and caught a nick at the bridge of her nose. Hey wait a minute!, her mind reeled, I don't count my face as non-vital! She lunged forward, but Mace deflected her without effort.

She felt herself gripped and pulled forward, and felt a stab of pain as Mace's knife tore into her back, carving one stroke of an X. She jerked her arms apart and pushed Mace away. She felt blood running down her back, and concern began to transform into fear. I don't like this, she reeled. This isn't fun any more.

She felt the rush surround her, envelop her, a frenzy which, if she let it, would take over her completely and turn her into a killing machine. She knew she had to use it, but not be overcome by it. It was an impossible balance. She dived into it, and strove to pull back out the moment she felt its grip, and meantime, her body had fought mindlessly, slashing Mace's arm, just where she'd intended. She felt pleased.

And then Mace had her in a vice-like grip and the two of them were on the floor once more. Mace had her knife pressed to Jade's throat, Jade had hers at the back of Mace's neck. Neither spot would suffice to win this game — the neck was too vital an area to cut in mock combat. But though there was a stalemate, Mace had the advantage of weight.

Just then, Mace looked up. “Hello, who's that?”, she asked nobody in particular. Was Mace giving Jade a chance to win or was she simply distracted? Jade had no idea, but either way, she took the advantage. She pushed Mace away, freed her arm and brushed the knife from her neck with her newly released limb. She didn't escape entirely unscathed though. Mace's knife sliced into her arm as she pushed it aside. With her other arm she whipped her knife away from the back of Mace's neck and brought it to bear on Mace's arm, completing her X.

In truth, she had made more of a V than an X, but it was close enough. “You win”, said Mace. “But I still want to know who that is?”

Jade looked up. A stranger strode across the room, carrying a birdcage.

“His name is Tuss”, Sing told them as they returned to their little nook. Mace kept an eye on the stranger as he spoke briefly with Card before the two of them headed off in the direction of the rear of the ship. “He's one of Ekh's pack”.

“Why don't I know him?”, Mace demanded.

“Apparently he only joined Ekh's pack six months ago. But they say he's a mechanic, and that he'll be joining us on our next voyage”.

Jade looked forward to the next voyage. As exciting as it had been to hang out with other packs for a few weeks, the station now had begun to seem small and cramped. Like most of the people here, she was by now just aching to head out into the black and see what's out there. And that was to be precisely the purpose of their next journey, to travel around the Rim, to explore. They had originally planned to leave a few days ago, but their departure had been delayed. Now it seemed likely that the acquisition of a mechanic might have been the reason for the delay. Jade approved. It made sense to have someone replace Vash. Though that wasn't her primary concern right now.

Topmost on her mind was the pain she felt at the center of her back where Mace had cut her, her arm where she had cut herself while pushing aside Mace's knife, and the bite wounds in her arm and neck. Not to put too fine a point on it, they hurt. She glanced across the nook at Mace, who sat cross legged on the floor opposite her. The wounds which Jade had inflicted upon Mace had completely healed. She felt her own back, and winced, quickly concluding that though she healed fast, Mace obviously healed faster. She began to wonder whether other Reavers felt pain but didn't show it, or whether they actually felt no pain at all, for she, Jade, certainly felt it. Either way, she would do nothing which would make her appear different in the eyes of her packmates. If enduring some small degree of pain without complaint was what it took to be a member of this pack, then that to her was a price worth paying.

“It is sensible to have a mechanic”, Jade said. After a time, she added: “I'm looking forward to heading out round the Rim”.

“And it will be easy too”, Sing added. “On our last voyage we had to stock up enough food and supplies to bring home to the wider pack. This time, we'll only have to feed ourselves”.

“That's right”, Mace agreed. “Much less work to do”.

Jade laughed. “I think I will still have plenty of work to do. Geng said I have much to learn, and that once we're underway would be a good time to start”.

Sing said: “If you learn priest duties as fast as you learned to talk, Geng will teach himself out of a job within a year”.

Jade smiled. She seemed to have found the right balance now between accepting her past without being constrained by it. Now it was just a part of her history, but not something which marked her as significantly different.

“I have to say I don't envy you”, Mace said, in all seriousness.

“Why?”, she queried.

“I would be afraid to talk with gods”, she admitted.

This took Jade somewhat by surprise. “But you're a hunter. I've never seen you afraid of anything”.

“Gods can bring death in ways you can't fight”, she explained. “Vash couldn't fight his way free of divine retribution. You are going to be standing right in the path of that force”.

“I hadn't really thought of it like that”, Jade conceded.

Sing chose that moment to cough, and it was obvious to Jade that she was coughing up blood. Though the core containment breach had been repaired, and no more new cases of sickness had emerged, those who had become sick before the repair remained sick. The mending of the radiation shielding had not cured those already affected. She vowed there and then that if there was any truth whatsoever to the gods, then she would beg them to make Sing well, at the first chance she got.

They talked for a while about various aspects of the coming journey, and the various jobs that different people would need to do. Jade had already learned that life aboard the pack was much more rigidly segmented than life among prey. Reavers tended to be much more single-minded. Socializing within the pack was very important, but as far as professional skills were concerned, pretty much everyone seemed to have just one job and no other, to specialize. That's why Gra never did anything but pilot, that's why Gra had cut away her own eyelids so that she could see better for piloting. In fact, now that she came to think of it, most of the pack's body decorations served a utilitarian purpose.

“How do you get your teeth pointed?”, she asked, while thinking along these lines.

Mace grinned, and rows of sharp pointed teeth glistened

Jade looked at the bite marks in her arm and compared them with Mace's veritable fangs. Definitely utilitarian, she concluded.

“You like?”, Mace asked. “I used a drill. You can borrow it if you like”.

To her credit, Jade did seriously consider the offer — but only for a moment. Some pain was too great for her to want to experience just for the sake of fitting in. So she said: “Thanks, but I want to do something different. I don't know what yet. Something that would be useful for a priest”.

Just then, Card and Tuss re-emerged unburdened from the rear door, spoke for a short while, and then went their separate ways. Card ascended the stairs to the balcony where Geng stood in his favorite spot, overlooking the various communal activities. Jade noticed none of this, but sharp-eyed Mace took it all in, then saw fit to comment: “Tuss is back”.

“Do you not like strangers?”, Jade asked. It was a reasonable assumption — Mace had not liked her much when she had first joined, and it made sense that a warrior would have a natural tendency to want to defend the pack from outsiders. But on this occasion, she was dead wrong.

Mace laughed. “That's not what I'm thinking here. I want to lay that guy”.

Jade blinked, not quite sure if she'd heard correctly.

Sing said: “Go for it, girl. Now's the ideal opportunity”.

Mace considered for only a second, then began removing her pants and undergarments. Torn between curiosity and embarrassment, Jade did not know how to react. She looked away, but then felt self-conscious for doing so, and so quickly looked back, only to find herself staring straight at Mace's exposed crotch. She jerked her head upward, just as Mace thrust a handful of clothes at her, saying “Look after these for me”.

After a heartbeat, Jade succinctly said: “OK”. What else could she say?

Mace stroke across the deck toward Tuss, naked from the waist down. Well, actually her top was long enough almost to cover her ass, but even so… Jade found herself shocked, and yet at the same time unable to tear her eyes away. Of course, she had seen plenty of people engaging in sex since her arrival here — it wasn't something which the pack felt required privacy — but like those around her, she had never really paid it much attention. Rarely had she had seen the act initiated, and never by a woman, and certainly never by someone she knew as a friend. Fascinated, and unable to turn away, she watched Mace stand before Tuss, hands behind her back, swaying her hips suggestively. There was absolutely no way this message could be misunderstood. Reavers, it seemed, felt no need for pretence or social graces, and though she doubted that Tuss would decline, she had the feeling that even if he had, Mace would simply come bouncing back, shrug her shoulders, and say “Better luck next time”, and nobody here would think badly of her.

So this is how girl meets boy in this society, Jade thought, by now amused rather than shocked.

There was an honesty to it which was not present in the courtship lies indulged in by prey. In its own bizarre kind of way, it was refreshing.

Sing spoke, but Jade didn't catch it. She turned to face Sing. “Sorry?”, she asked.

“I said, you were talking about body decorations. It isn't just gods you'll be talking to, you'll also need to talk to prey. You could use piercings to wire your mouth open”.

This is such a bizarre conversation, Jade thought. “That may have been Geng's intention”, she reasoned, “but it doesn't work. He's actually less understandable to the prey, not more”.

“Are you sure?”, Sing asked. Then, after a short time, added “Sorry — yes of course you're sure. I forgot.”

Jade turned her gaze momentarily back toward Mace and Tuss who were by now seriously copulating, in full view of everyone, but being paid attention to by no one. She turned to Sing and almost laughed, commenting: “I like it here”.

And yet it occurred to Jade then that in this world where sex was indulged in as easily as breathing, at twenty one years old, Jade herself was still a virgin. And even though this way of going about things might be right for Mace, somehow Jade felt that there should be more. Where was romance in this equation?

“Some people have mates”, she commented. “Card has a mate. What does that mean?”

“I'm not sure I understand the question”, Sing said.

“Well, if…“. She couldn't help but glance at Mace and back again. “…if a permanent mate is not required for … sex … then … why do people have mates?”

“Status”, came the straightforward reply.

“Ah”, Jade said. I can see it's going to take me a while to really understand this society.

Geng stared down into the open space. He wasn't really staring at anything, just thinking. Card was ready to set off on their voyage, and had just finished conferring with Geng as to whether or not there might be any supernatural reason why they shouldn't leave immediately. Since Geng had said no, they would doubtless be underway any time now. In fact, it was possible that they were underway already. Geng would not have known, and the ship's inertial damping would have rendered the ship's motion imperceptible to its occupants.

His reverie was interrupted by Jade, who stood beside him. “There's something I've been meaning to ask you”, she said. “Is now a good time?”

“It is always a good time”, Geng said. He smiled.

“It's about something Lun said at the feast. I would have asked you sooner but I was too embarrassed”.

“And you're not now?”

Jade smirked. “I think I've just seen an example of not being embarrassed. I figure, it's time”.

“Then I'm listening”.

She took a moment to collect her thoughts. “At the feast, I commented on the fact that the prey had built this station. That's … why I was embarrassed. I was … wrong to have said anything”.

“The station was built by the prey”, Geng confirmed. “Everybody knows that. It could not be any other way. What you did wrong was not in what you said. Perhaps it was in the arrogance with which you said it?”

“Yes”, Jade said, thinking back. “Anyway, after that, Lun said to me: 'That is why we are at the top of the food chain. Next time you see him, get your priest to explain it to you'. I never did get round to asking you”.

“Are the meaning of the words not obvious?”, Geng asked, calmly.

“The surface meaning, yes. Animals eat plants; other animals eat those animals; the hunted eat those animals, and we eat the hunted. So we are at the top. But there has to be more to it than that”.


“Because otherwise, why would Lun tell me to ask you?”

“Ah. I see you have not forgotten how to use your mind. That is good”. Geng turned to face her, then gestured around the ship. “This boat in which we travel, was originally built by the hunted. The station at which we are docked, or were docked, was originally built by the hunted. We have made only minor modifications. Every ship in which the Reaver people travel, was either originally built by the hunted, or else was put together by us out of pieces of other ships — which in turn, were originally built by the hunted”.

“Then we're scavengers? We don't build anything ourselves?”

“Why should we, when the prey do it for us?”

Jade considered this. “It makes us dependent. And it also makes the prey seem … more than just prey”.

“Everything is dependent on something. Everything in the food chain is dependent on something below it. Without food, even animals will starve”.

“But we could eat anything”.

Geng smirked. “You mean horses, cattle and fish?”

Jade pondered. “We could survive on those things”, she concluded.

“And then where would we get our spaceships?, our means to spread?, our very means to survive?”

Jade could see where this was leading, but she had to know the extent of it. She had to take this conversation to its conclusion. “We could make our own”, she suggested. “I know you said, 'why should we?', but I can also ask, ‘why shouldn't we?’“

Ignoring her question for now, Geng added: “And when we raid the farms of horses, cattle and fish, do you imagine that the owners of those animals might not come after us, to defend their property? We would have to fight them in any case”.

That was logical. But still not complete. “Unless”, she reasoned, “We ran our own farms”.

“From those creatures we could obtain meat, bones and skin — all very valuable items. But we would not obtain all of the other things that the prey provide for us: the plants they grow, the machines they make. You suggest that we could create those things for ourselves— “

“No”, she corrected, interrupting him. “I don't suggest that. I'm only asking why we don't”.

Geng returned his gaze to the deck below him, and gestured for Jade to follow his gaze. “These people”, he said, gently, “Do not have the skills for it. And they could not learn”.

“Reavers can learn things”, Jade objected.

“But we specialize”, Geng said. “It's what we do. It's how we're made. You could no more ask a hunter to prepare a meal as you could ask a fish to breathe air. We are specialists, all of us. The lowest ranked members almost inevitable possess only a single skill. In fact, that's true even of the upper ranks. Some people do have more than one skill, but it's always a low number. The most multi-talented of all of us…“. He turned to look her in the eye. “…are the priesthood.

“We have no farmers, no miners. We can build machines out of parts, but we cannot build the parts. Therefore, if we are to survive, we must rely on the efforts of the prey to do these things for us. And we have a right to survive”.

“But if we kill all the prey, there will be no one to make those things for us”.

“Exactly. That is why we must never cull the prey entirely”.

“We never leave survivors”, Jade pointed out. That fact seemed in contradiction to Geng's words.

“Where possible, that's true. But we do not hunt all settlements or all ships. The prey greatly outnumber us. Even so, it is wise to spread out our efforts, not to concentrate on one small part of space. That is why we need to explore the Rim, to find new hunting grounds, so that we do not overhunt our pack's territory”.

“Why the Rim?”

“The further inward, the greater the danger”.

“Because the prey are more organized toward the Core?”

“No”. Geng looked astonished at the suggestion. “Because of the Lions!”

Jade had heard that term before, but didn't know what it meant. It was an English word, not a Reaver word, somehow subsumed into the Reaver language. “Do you mean the Alliance?”, she asked. She had to use the English word for Alliance, since she knew no Reaver equivalent.

“I do not know that word”, Geng admitted, “But you have heard our stories. Surely you know the story of the Lions?”

“I know the stories”, she agreed, but with the qualification: “I don't always understand them”.

“The gods created our people. We were their newest creation, a new experiment of nature. We were an evolution. We were made from the hunted, and the gods commanded us to become the hunters, and gave us the means to do so. But the Lions were there before we were. They guard and protect the hunted. We must be careful to avoid them, for now. One day, so it is said, our people will be strong enough to venture into the Core and face the Lions, but that day is not today. Nor tomorrow. The gods will tell us when that day has arrived”.

Jade felt a chill run down the back of her spine. Could that really be true? She still hadn't made up her mind about gods and Lions and the spirit world, but evolution she understood. Could it really be true that Reavers were a new evolutionary branch from humanity?

But that can't be true, logic told her. I remember my parents, and they were human. Slate is my father's brother, and he's human.

And that was another mystery. Why had she started to remember her life before Newhall since joining Card's pack, but had not remembered it before?

She stared into the cargo deck, and her eyes glazed over as she retreated into daydream.

“Wait here”, Slate says.

I look around as he gets out of the hovervan. We are parked in a back road, though still within the safe confines of the city center. I do not know this road. Slate crosses the road and disappears into a betting shop.

My Mom doesn't know I'm here. She knows I'm with Slate, but she thinks he's taking me to the park. Daddy isn't here at all. He missed my birthday, and now he's going to miss Christmas. He's out of the world, bringing passengers from the Core. I hate that he left Mom and me for a job. Why couldn't he have stayed here, like Slate? Slate can afford to stay here, and he's only a carpenter.

I switch on the Cortex feed. It's one of those audio-only ones, for people who drive so they don't get distracted and crash. I'm not sure how to work it, but after a few tries I figure that Slate has some presets set up, so I flick through them at random. I find a nature program, which is cute but not that exciting, talking about how wildlife has adapted since being brought to Miranda. I hadn't really thought about that before. All planets and moons were terraformed — that was a given, but Miranda was the most recently settled Alliance world, and the terraforming wasn't really finished. Even the wildlife hadn't really settled down yet.

I am bored. Not that I would have preferred going to the park — that's boring too. But just sitting here, waiting…? I hope I don't have to wait long. There is a tinge of excitement about this though, I have to admit. There is something about doing stuff behind Mom's back that is just thrilling, like I'm a part of some big conspiracy. And in fact — it is a conspiracy. And I'm not going to complain about the extra pocket money, even if I can't tell Mom where I got it.

“…We interrupt this program to bring you an important newsflash”, comes the voice from the radio. That annoys me. I was listening to that wildlife program, whatever it was. I reach across to change channels, but before I get to the buttons, something the newsreader says catches my attention. “Following discussions initiated out by the Alliance negotiators, the I.L.A. have announced a ceasefire beginning midnight tonight”. From what I understand, the I.L.A., the self-styled “Independent Liberation Army”, have been responsible for starting all the violence on this world. They are the reason that we had to move to the city center. Can it really be true? Can the violence be over?

Can we go home now?

Can Daddy come back?

Politicians are on the feed, being boring, saying that they don't trust the Independents, and that it remains to be seen whether or not they will be honorable, and advising an increase in military patrols in case it all turns out to be a trick.

The door opens and Slate climbs back in. The grin across his face tells me the answer to the question I have to ask anyway: “Did you win?”

He jangles a bag of coin at me and grins. Then he pulls out two gold coins and gives them to me. “That's for keeping this to yourself”, he says.

I stuff the gold pieces into my pocket, hoping no one sees. Hard coin is illegal currency. It says “black market” like nothing else. But there are places where I can spend it, so I'm happy. Then I think back to the newswave, and say: “Slate. They just said on the news there was a ceasefire starting. Does that mean that the outskirts will be safe again?”

“I heard the news”, he says. I guess that news must have been everywhere, even in the betting shop. “I'm not buying it”. He starts the van. There is a jolt as the anchor disengages and we hover freely.

“You don't think it's true?”, I ask.

“I don't think any of it's true. I think it's all gos se, the whole gorram lot of it”. I am mildly surprised by Slate's use of language; he never used to say “gorram”.

“Why do they go around killing innocent people anyway?”, I ask.

Slate laughs. “You think our side doesn't do the same thing to them?”, he asks in return. Now I am shocked. Until now, I had largely accepted the conventional wisdom that the I.L.A. were just a bunch of evil criminals acting with no cause beyond madness. I mean, sure — they had a few gripes about jobs and stuff — but nothing worth killing over. But a small part of me remembered the gunfire that had killed Joe O'Hanlon. There hadn't even been an I.L.A. in those days, just peaceful protesters who'd got shot at by our army, by the great and glorious Ravens who were supposed to have been there to keep order.

“They should all stop. All of them”, I say. “And then everyone should obey the law”.

“You'll be giving me that coin back then”, Slate suggests, mischievously.

Well, he's got me there. I go quiet for a while, trying to think up a suitably witty response that will save face. I don't think of one in time.

“The question is, which law?”, Slate says, his voice serious. “The Independents were here first. They started to settle this world before the Alliance came, took over and built these big cities. Now it's an Alliance world, and the Independents are not happy”.

“Doesn't mean they can shoot us and plant bombs”, I argue.

“No it doesn't”, he agrees. “But we took their homes from them and then we took their rights”.

He looked to the road, and drove the van forward. “Where'd you want to go?”, he asked. Slate had done his thing. Now it was my turn.

“Shopping”, I say. “The market — where I can spend this coin”.

The newswave has ended. Now they're back to talking about animals again. Apparently budgerigars can live for fifteen years or so if you look after them. How unexciting. Slate switches off the feed.

Jade was summoned to the engine room to see Tuss. Apparently, he had demanded to see Geng, but Geng didn't like being ordered about, and so had sent Jade. It unnerved her a little. The newcomer was making demands beyond those merited by his rank, and she herself had learned from bitter experience that this pack did not take too kindly to that. Still, she was curious to meet the man Mace had seemed so infatuated with.

Tuss was alone in the engine room. In this respect, he reminded her of Gra, who spent most of her life alone at the other end of the ship, in the cockpit. Except, Tuss wasn't quite alone. He stood beside a birdcage that hung from an engine support, feeding what looked like lettuce through the bars of the cage. Inside the cage was a green feathered bird of some kind, a dark stripe adorning the top of its head. Tuss had a similar stripe tattooed onto his forehead. Jade was intrigued. She had never seen anyone in this society who had a pet before. “A parrot”, she observed, trying to be friendly. “What's it's name?”

“Erin”, said Tuss, tersely adding: “She's a budgerigar — although I'll concede that a budgerigar is a kind of parrot. Who are you?”

“I'm Jade”, she replied. “Geng sent me”.

He turned to face her fully. “He didn't come himself?”, he asked, surprised.

“I'm his apprentice”, Jade answered.

Tuss considered this for a moment, before concluding: “You'll do”.

“What is it you want?”, she asked.

“I'm told that our gods took your previous mechanic into their realm. I want to know why”.

The question took Jade off guard. She had expected that he was concerned by something spiritual, else why ask for Geng? But for some reason she had expected a more mundane question, like whether or not there would be any kind of ceremony to welcome him into the pack. She knew the answer to that one — no, because his presence here was considered temporary. She didn't know how to deal with this question, so she decided on the simple truth, as she saw it. “There is a power source which feeds this engine”, she said. “The reactor, where the fuel is burned”.

“I know it”, said Tuss. That statement alone proved that Tuss was indeed a mechanic, for who else could know what lay sealed behind those opaque layers of shielding.

“It gives off a kind of … I don't know the word. It makes people ill. It makes people die. The prey put shielding around it to protect themselves. Vash didn't know about that, so when the shielding was damaged, he didn't know to repair it”.

“The word is radiation“, said Tuss. “Well, at least I seem to be better informed than your Vash”. He relaxed. “Come say hello to Erin”, he offered.

Jade stepped forward, and following Tuss's lead, fed strips of lettuce through the bars. The tame bird pecked at them nonchalantly. Casually, she said: “You know, budgerigars can live up to fifteen years if you look after them”.

Tuss smiled, and warmed to her immediately. “I think we're ready to leave now”, he said, visibly relaxed. He began pulled levers and flicking switches, and the room hummed and came to life.

“Gorram Reavers!”, said the bird, in English. Jade nearly jumped out of her skin.

Dark Places

Moments of Truth

Doctor Shahbazi waved goodbye and walked back into the ramshackle building that constituted a surgery. Slate watched him leave, and stood alone in the dusty street. It had been a long time since he had stood in a town like this, mostly desert scrub and a few wooden huts. Herren, back on Newhall, had been almost civilized by comparison. He gripped the piece of paper in his hand. A job — they had a job, one that would tide them over for a few months more, until the next clue came along. They weren't having too much luck with clues, that was for sure. They had been able to read the log entries of the lifeboat of the Pioneer. Automatic captures of the surrounding starscape, primarily intended for pinpointing location, had showed the clearly visible outline of a Reaver ship. The Reaver ship. But alas, no indication as to where it might be headed next. And in the meantime, he had to keep fuel in the ship and food in the bellies of his crew.

Polly emerged from a saloon bar and met up with him at the center of the empty street. “You got us a job?”, she asked.

“I did”, he confirmed.

“What's the deal?”

“We're picking up medicines”, he told her. “From someone called…“, he paused while he unfolded the note and read from it, “Malcolm Reynolds”.


“Suits me”, Jade said. “I'm just glad to be on the ground again”. She pressed her feet into the scrubland soil and looked behind her, seeing the vast bulk of Card's ship, and being amazed once again that anything that size could be capable of lifting itself into space. They had been traveling for a while, and had spent more time at the station before that. Now she stood once more on the surface of a moon, and let her eyes drift to the horizon. The freedom was exhilarating.

“Don't go too far”, Geng told her. “There could be dangerous animals around — including the hunted. Stay within sight of the ship”.

“I will”, she agreed. She pointed, and gleefully exclaimed: “I see a stream over there. I want to be in water”. She would have said swim but her vocabulary was still forming, and swim was one of those words that you don't encounter on a space ship.

“Go”, Geng smiled. “Have fun”.

He watched as she trotted off into the distance. It was indeed good to be on the ground again. They had been in the black for too long. He shuffled back toward the ship, the heat of the sun beating down upon him. Gala sat on the ramp, enjoying the heat. Seeing him approach, she stood up. “My priest”, she said, “There is something I have to discuss with you”.

“What is it?”, he asked.


“I'm leaving”.

Slate blinked. He hadn't expected that. “Mind telling me why?”, he asked.

“We've been in space for nearly a year”, Merissa told him. “And— “

“Ten months”, Slate interrupted. “It's only been ten months”.

“Whatever”, Merissa condescendingly agreed. “It's still too long. Look, we could be swanning around space for years before we find that ship. Don't get me wrong — I want to see it destroyed as much as anyone — but how much of my life am I expected to give up to achieve that?”

Slate looked visibly wounded. “It's your choice”, he agreed, “But I'd be lying if I said I weren't disappointed”. After a few seconds' thought, he added: “Where would you go?”. After all, he was fully aware that her every living friend and relative had been wiped out by the ship that he was still intent on destroying..

“We'll be on Ezra for a while, right?”

“A few days. Maybe a week”, Slate agreed.

“Maybe I'll stay here”, she considered. “Try to find work. There are cities here. It's not all ramshackle towns like this one”.

Slate nodded. He didn't want it to end like this. Not this suddenly, with so little discussion. He had half expected somebody to leave — he just hadn't expected it to be Merissa. The former film crew were likelier possibilities — they, at least, still had family alive in other parts of the 'Verse. But he didn't know what to say, so he just said: “We'll talk later”.


Geng looked worried. This wasn't good.

Gra was also enjoying her new freedom, though she wasn't walking about the planet surface like most of the others — she was flying one of the shuttles low above the desert soil. Card sat in the copilot's seat beside her. “This moon was a good find”, he said.

Gra had no reason either to agree or to disagree. She wasn't that interested in hunting or gathering or any of the other activities in which the rest of the pack liked to indulge. The thing that she loved most of all in all the 'Verse was flying. What she liked about this reconnaissance mission was that she got to fly a shuttle in atmo, and that was a whole other experience from guiding a ship through the black. If Card were not present with her, she would have looped the loop. She couldn't do that now. The inertial reducers were switched off to save power, so even if Card were to move to the back of the shuttle, he would notice.

But it was an exciting adventure, exploring a new world. With that, she had to agree.

“Are we sure this moon is populated?”, she asked.

“It's terraformed, isn't it?”, Card reasoned. “Why would they terraform a world and then not settle it?”

“There's definitely technology here”, she agreed. “I saw artificial satellites on the night side as we were coming in. But that doesn't prove the world is settled”.

“It's settled”, Card said, though he was less certain than he sounded. The truth was that this moon had to be settled, for if not, then they would likely be stuck here. The lower cargo hold had been partly converted into an additional fuel tank, but even so, two months of space travel without refueling was the limit of what his ship could push. He needed to find prey. He needed it to feed his pack, to fuel his ship, to keep flying. The chances were good that there would be villages, towns and cities on this world. The trick was to find a settlement of just the right size.

“There!”, said Gra, pointing.

Card squinted. “I see nothing”, he confessed. In fact, he couldn't even follow where Gra was pointing. She seemed to be indicating a point on the horizon.

“Vapor trail”, she said.

Card stared hard at the patch of sky above where he'd been looking. It was true. A faint white line struck out from the horizon, so distant it was almost invisible. “You continue to impress me”, he said. He would have ordered her to head for it, but Gra had already made that course change without having waited to have been asked.

They flew over the sandy soil, the vapor trail visibly rising into the sky as they rounded the horizon. When they eventually reached it, it would be above them, and horizontal.

After a time, Gra brought the shuttle to rest. In the distance, horses grazed, an almost sure sign of prey habitation. “There has to be a settlement of some sort just beyond those hills”, she said. “What do you want to do?”

“Can you find this spot again?”, he asked.

“With my eyes closed”, she said, confidently, and with the trace of a smirk.

“Then we go back, and return with hunters and other trained observers. Including you”. Gra was pleased that her talent for vigilance had been recognized. “We must observe them for a few days, find out their patterns of movement, then devise a plan for the hunt”, he decreed. He was cautious when it came to hunting prey in unknown territory. “It's always wise to have a plan”, he told her.


Merissa always had a plan.

Though she had been traveling with Slate for a while now, and in that time had seen many worlds, it certainly had not been her intention to carry on traveling with Slate forever. The chances were that the Vindicator would never reach its goal, or — even if it did — what then? Assuming anyone survived, what would happen after that? Had anyone given any thought to that? She was fairly sure that Slate hadn't, and that, should the presumed day of victory arrive, everyone would be standing around saying “OK — now what?”, Presumably they would go their separate ways. If the ship was still intact, maybe they could still use it, but surely not forever? Perhaps they would drift off to different worlds, each leading separate lives. She could see it all. But she didn't want to leave her own fate to chance.

Vindicator would never go anywhere near a Core world. She knew that. Partly, the reason was that Vindicator was technically the property of Yoshida-Kendall Captures, who might want it back; partly the reason was that Reavers never ventured near the Core. So the best place to leave would be on a Border world, preferably one that had large cities. Ezra fitted the bill to a degree. It had cities, though not large ones. But there were certainly signs of technology. There were even skyplexes in orbit.

“Where to?”, asked the stagecoach driver.

“Globe District”, she said. She had done her research. The Globe District of the city of Topia was likely to be her best starting point. Though Ezra was not a water world like Newhall, it did have its share of lakes, and she knew boats. She had skills that could be used. She could make a life here. The biggest harbor on this world was in the Globe District. All she had to do was find lodgings, get a legit job, and start making a new life.

As plans went, it was simple enough, but it would suffice. She had enough money — her cut from Vindicator's last job — to tide her over for a few weeks.

“You here visiting relatives or something?”, asked the stagecoach driver,

“Looking for work”, Merissa explained. She disliked chatty stagecoach drivers, but she would never let that show. If he expected a congenial passenger, then that's what he would see. “Just touched down with a boatload of hired hands. Figured it was time I went my own way”.

“What sorta work you been doing?”

“Been doing this and that. Mostly cargo runs. But I'm trained in boats, so anything to do with water is where I'll be looking”. Sensing that the driver wanted more, she continued. “My crew came here to deliver medicines. I just didn't see the need to go back”.

“Your people got medicines?”, the driver pressed, intrigued. “Ah, there's certainly a lot of demand for those”.

“I don't think they've actually picked them up yet. They'll be doing that job without me. They're supposed to be picking them up off this guy captains a Firefly”.

Though Merissa did not see it, the driver's eyebrows raised a notch. “A Firefly, you say?”, he queried.

“Think so”, she acknowledged, not quite sure. “I didn't pay that much attention”.

The stagecoach driver changed course. His passenger would be taking a detour.


“After twelve weeks of stalled negotiations, the I.L.A. ceasefire has ended”, I hear the man on the news report, but I pay little attention to it. I haven't seen Slate for a couple of weeks now, but that's not the most important thing on my mind right now either. What matters now is that my Dad is on his way home. For four months he's been off world, and I have missed him so much. Today he comes home. I look towards the arrivals gate in anticipation. “Is that where he'll come from?”, I ask.

“I think so”, Mom says.

But she's wrong, and I spy my father emerging from a door marked “Staff Only”, still in his uniform. I run to greet him, leaving Mom looking around saying “What? Where are you— “. Then I guess she saw him too.

He sweeps me up in his arms, known to some as Hawkeye, but only to me as Dad. “Hey, little one, how's it going?”

“I'm not little any more”, I tell him. “I'm grown up now”.

He snaps his fingers and jokingly says: “Darn it. I missed that. When did that happen? Was it a Tuesday?” I warm to his cheery nature. Mom catches up with me, and I hear Dad calling to her. “Alison. God, I have really missed you”.

There are hugs all round. “So”, he says. “What's the plan? I take it the two of you do have a plan?”

“I thought we'd just go home”, Mom says.

“Great plan!”, Dad agrees. “I like it already. Can we get some coffee first though? Only I wouldn't mind just sitting down for a bit. I've just finished doing one bit of traveling, and it took months“.

Mom laughs. Dad has a great sense of humor. So the three of us head off in the direction of the spaceport café. Dad puts me back down on the ground, saying “Now that you're all growed up, I guess that means I can't carry you any more”. I feel vaguely disappointed, but I figure he's right, and that he's recognized my growing maturity.

We sit down at a vacant table, and Mom goes and stands in line to buy coffee. “So how old are you now, then?”, he asks. “I mean, now that you're all growed up. What are we talking? Eighteen? Twenty six?”

I punch him gently in the arm. “I'm nine years old”, I tell him, though I'm sure he knows that.

“Ah. Good”, he says. Then he pulls a present from his bag and hands it to me. “I got you a birthday present”, he says. “Sorry it's a little late. If it's not grown up enough for you I'll just send it back”.

Eagerly I rip apart the paper. Inside is a book: “Rachel Roberts and the Pirates of Ishtar”. I've already read it, so I'm vaguely disappointed, but I don't show it. The best present of all is having Dad home.

Mom returns, and for a short while Mom and Dad pay more attention to each other than to me. I glance briefly and my book, and then look around me, noticing for the first time how quiet it has become. The news is being broadwaved across many of the screens in the building, and everyone seems to be watching. I pay attention…

“…the ceasefire came to a dramatic end at three fifteen this afternoon when a massive bomb destroyed the Miranda Finance Exchange at the heart of Miranda City Center, killing four people…“

“…Honey?”, Dad beckons, “We're still in the safest place”. I think he wanted to reassure me, having seen what I was watching. “They'll just increase security. It'll be fine”.

“No”, I tell him, sincerely. “It won't”.

A fist slammed into her face and she fell to the floor, momentarily stunned. “Now, let's start again”, the big man said. “You're all alone on a strange planet, with just us for company. Your crew ain't expecting you back. Seems to me you better start talking, coz if you don't talk to us, you'll be a corpse. And I wouldn't want to see that”.

“I told you”, Merissa said. “I don't know no Reynolds guy, and I don't know where to find him”.

“Then tell us what you do know”.

Merissa seethed. What had seemed like it was going to be a simple stagecoach ride had taken a decided turn for the worse. She had been driven to the back of nowhere, robbed of all of her money, and now punched in the face. Her concern now was no longer finding a job nor setting up a new life — it was getting out of here alive. “So far as I understand it, Slate arranged to buy medicines from some guy at some rendezvous point in the desert–“.

“A Firefly captain! Name of Reynolds?”

“Might have been Reynolds. I couldn't say for sure. And then we were supposed to sell them on to some Doctor in Banford. For a profit, obviously”.

“The rendezvous point”, pressed the taller of the three thugs. “Where and when?”

Tentatively, Merissa queried: “And if I tell you, you'll let me go?”

“We only want Reynolds”, the man assured her. Though, Merissa noticed, he had not actually answered her question. Yet it was possible that he thought he had. People were like that.

Finally, she said: “Ten miles due North of Banford. Four this afternoon”.

To the other thugs, he said: “Kite, make sure Mister Niska knows about this. Scarlet … kill her”.

“My pleasure, Lory”, replied the one presumably called Scarlet. She pulled out a gun and pointed it in Merissa's direction. In one smooth movement she pulled back the safety catch, and Merissa could see where this sequence of events was leading. There was no hesitation in the woman's smooth movements. If ever there was a time for panic, it was now.

“Wait, wait!”, Merissa yelled. “I can make you all rich”.

The one called Kite had left the room. Scarlet held back from squeezing the trigger, and instead said, “You better start talking”.

Another man entered the room, skinny, pasty-faced, wearing a pin-striped suit. He didn't say anything, he just leaned against the wall, his arms folded, and watched. No one else seemed even to notice him.

Merissa looked around for anything she could use as a weapon, but it didn't take long to realize that the odds were stacked against her. Two thugs in the room, plus the suit wearing guy, one outside, all three with guns, she with none. What could she say? When she had made her “I can make you all rich” declaration it had been nothing but a bluff, an act of desperation. She knew full well that she had absolutely nothing she could offer them.


“I can get you a nuke”, she said quietly. There was silence. She continued. “A nuclear warhead. You want it?”

The silence continued for just a moment more, just long enough to give Merissa hope. Then it was broken by laughter. At last, Lory said, “Nice one, Sheharizade”, choking the words through peals of laughter. To Scarlet, he said “Kill her”.


Pin-striped suit man had spoken. It was the first sound that had emerged from his lips. Even through the laughter session, that one had remained stony faced.

He spoke directly to Merissa. “I'm not interested in unnecessary violence”. To the thugs, he said: “Put your weapons away”. They did. Addressing Merissa once more, he said: “I am a business man. So I will make you a business proposition. I understand that you spoke out of desperation — I am not stupid — but if what you say is true, your luck may have just changed. I will pay you five thousand platinums for such a warhead. But double cross me, and you'll wish that Scarlet here had let you have that bullet. Do we have a deal?”

Merissa breathed a sigh of relief. If nothing else, she had won time. She decided to press her disadvantage. “Your boys got me at the end of a gun barrel. You don't need to offer me money. You could have just threatened me. Why the parley?”

“I told you. I'm a business man. If you're not lying, I'm going to want your co-operation”.

“I'm not lying”, she said.

“So where is this fabled warhead of which you speak?”

“It's on my ship. The ship I just left”.

He considered for only a moment. Then he said: “All right. Let's deal. Pull up a chair. You may call me Cambridge. Kite” — this to the man now re-entering the room. “Drinks, I feel would be appropriate”.

“Do I get any money in advance?”, Merissa pressed.

“No”, Cambridge said, curtly. “But I can arrange that you be reimbursed for what was taken from you by my … associates”.

She sat down at the table, and gratefully accepted the whiskey which Kite placed on the table before her.

Lory, the man who had earlier ordered her death, relented. “All right”, he said. “What's the plan?”.


“We attack just before dawn, when they're least active”.

Jade looked up at the stars, only vaguely listening to Card's words. His directions were primarily intended for the hunters, not for her, though there was sure to be work for everyone once the hunt got underway. It was a warm night. She had never before been able to sit outdoors in the hills, surrounded by friends, right through the night. The sleeping sickness she had borne for most of that part of her life which she could remember had made that impossible. A small fire burned, not for warmth — the night air was easily warm enough for comfort — but for cooking. A skewered, skinned rabbit sat atop a stand over the fire, fat occasionally dripping into the fire causing the occasional sizzle. Sing kept an eye on the spit, turning it occasionally. Not too far away, she could hear Card giving direction to the hunters.

On the other side of a ridge lay a small prey settlement, a ranch or a farm. Through careful observation, it had been determined that the farm housed about a dozen prey, easily enough to feed the pack for a good while. There was also machinery they could use, and better — the farm had its own power supply, a generator, which ran on the same fuel — liquid hydrogen — that their ship burned. It was perfect for all their needs. Over the past day or so, much had been learned about these prey. Their farm was called Morgan's Ranch; the nearest town Kemar, twenty five miles to the east. The moon itself was called Lilac.

The prey below were blissfully unaware of the hunters observing them from the hills. Most likely, all of them were asleep right now. Jade did not miss sleep. She had done too much of it in the past. Permanent wakefulness was the marvelous norm for her now, and it had come to seem like the most natural way to live.

Sing took the skewered rabbit from the fire and laid it onto a flat stone which she had placed beside the fire in preparation. They had had to be careful when positioning the fire, for it was essential that the prey not be alerted to their presence. Hidden from view behind the ridge, it had been deemed safe enough. “You want some of this?”, she offered.

“Mmm”, Jade acknowledged, feeling hungry. The rabbit would satisfy her craving for fresh meat. She looked forward to the gluttony which was bound to follow any successful hunt, but the rabbit would do for now. Sing cut off a chunk of rabbit meat and handed it to her. It was hot, and burned her fingers, but she bit into anyway and put the rest down to cool.

“I think I prefer it raw”, Sing commented, “though this does make an interesting change”.

“I'm fine either way”, Jade said, though in truth, cooked meat still held the upper edge for her.

She had been involved in many hunts in one way or another, but all of those had been in space, with the prey conveniently trapped in their own ships. This would be her first planet-based hunt.

Geng wandered over and squatted across the fire from Jade and Sing. He spoke to Jade: “I feel you are ready to help me worry the prey”, he said. “You will assist”. His voice was gentle, but there was an assuredness in his voice which told her that this was not a request.

“What must I do?”, she asked.

“As priests, we possess a unique ability, the ability to make ourselves understood by the prey. We can use that ability to appear more frightening”.

Sing chimed in. “The more adrenaline, the better”, she said. “Makes it tender”.

“I'm not expected to join in the first wave of hunting?”, she asked, seeking clarification.

“Of course not”, Geng explained. “The hunters will go in first, as always. They will kill a few of the prey, the most dangerous ones, the ones most obviously a threat. Once they declare it safe, the rest of us may go in, just as we would on a ship”.

She nodded. “I can do that”, she agreed. To Sing, she asked “Do I look scary?”

Sing laughed. “If I were one of the hunted, I'd be scared of you”, she said.

Jade beamed. These last few months she had truly become accepted into the pack by all, and that pleased her immensely. She was glad to be a part of all this. It was adventurous, exciting, and a far, far cry from her former life of long periods of sleep punctuated by short bursts of dull wakefulness — dull because what had there ever been to do on Herren anyway? The most exciting thing on offer had been fishing — and fish were hardly a worthy prey for anyone with a lust for adventure. The Reavers hunted prey which could be truly dangerous, and that upped the stakes beyond measure.

“I think the hunters will be making the first attack in a couple of hours' time”, Geng said. “Be ready”.

As he stood up to leave, Sing offered him some cooked rabbit. He waved his hand to decline. Cooked meat was a taste that Geng had never acquired, though Sing had assured Jade that it a perfectly acceptable way to prepare food, it was just that few people ever bothered.

“You'll do OK”, Sing reassured Jade.

The rabbit was cool enough to hold now, so she took another bite. “I hope so”, she said, earnestly.

Polly looked up suddenly, startled by the sudden noise. She had dozed off, on the bridge! She looked around. Ben was there, feet up on his console, reading some book or other. Apart from that, she was alone. The ship was almost deserted. Slate and Elizabeth had gone to off to do their trade, Papagina was just out — somewhere — exploring the world of Ezra. She'd fallen asleep some two or three hours ago. Truth was, she didn't know where most of the crew were right now, except that they weren't on the ship.

She realized what the noise had been when Ben put down his book and picked up the comm unit handset. Someone was calling in. “Hello?”, she heard Ben say.

“That Ben?”, came a voice. “This is Merissa. Would you let me in, please?”

“You forget something?”, she joked.

“Something like that”, came the enigmatic reply. “I'll explain things when you let me in.”

“Be right down”, he acknowledged, before replacing the handset. Wearily, he said to Polly: “I'll never understand that one”. Taking his time, he headed toward the door.

It puzzled Ben that Merissa should be back so soon. He hadn't been too surprised that she had left though. In truth, he had seen that coming a long time ago. He never did buy her apparent sincerity in … well … anything. In his mind, she'd always been in it for herself. He wondered what she could have forgotten. He'd keep an eye on her, he decided. Maybe she was after something that wasn't hers. He descended the ramp down into the cargo hold and briefly looked around. The hold was empty. He hoped Elizabeth's deals were going well today — he hadn't been too happy about the idea of having to put money up front for something, even if Slate did have a buyer lined up. It was a lot of money, after all. He reached the door control and glanced at the airlock. He could see Merissa through the faceplate, so he hit the Open button. With a pneumatic hiss, the large inner door slid open. “So”, he said, sardonically, turning to face the door, “What brings you ba— “

He stopped in mid-sentence. Seven people strode through the door, Merissa, and six other people whom he did not recognize. All but Merissa pointed guns at him, and he got the distinct impression that she would have done too if she'd had one.


“We're thieving”, explained one of the strangers, the tall one.

“So don't you worry none”, said the only armed woman in the group. “You just do as we say, and nobody will get hurt”.

“Merissa...?”, he queried.

“It's like the man said”, Merissa responded, her face emotionless. Now, who else is on board?”

“No one”, Ben said, crustily. His face betrayed anger, but not, he hoped, his lie. “They're all out. But you should know that. Ain't that why you chose now to come visit?”

“Kite”, ordered the tall one, “Take Moore, Banks and Orlando. Search the ship. You find anyone, kill them”.

Kite nodded, and strode up the ramp, signaling for the three others to follow. He unholstered his gun as he walked. Ignoring the restrooms and airlocks, Kite and Moore headed straight up the ladders towards the bridge, while Banks and Orlando made their way aftward. They readied themselves outside the bridge, guns at the ready, and hit the “open” button. The doors slid apart.


The room's sole occupant jumped up with a start, hastily reaching under the pillow where he knew his firearm to be. The word Reaver sprang to his mind. It was to be his final thought. Khrau's axe shattered the base of his skull, and the man thought no more.

The first rays of the morning sun bathed the farm in a gray light. The limb of the sun had not yet crept above the horizon. Card gave silent hand signals to direct the hunters around the various buildings of the farm. This first stage was crucial. Three adult males had been identified as potentially dangerous, and it was important that they be taken out first. The rest could come later as they would be easier to deal with. A direct attack had succeeded with the first one, but two more remained. Smit deftly broke down the flimsy wooden door of one of the outhouses and Mace ran through the opening and up the stairs, heading for the bedroom in which one of the males was known to be sleeping. A bullet from inside the room splintered the bedroom door, narrowly missing Mace's head. Be careful, she told herself. The prey is armed. She fought to control the seething rage which threatened to overtake her, but through an effort of will she succeeded. It was important to stay in control at this point, since the rush could drive her to run headlong into a hail of bullets, something she knew would not be good. Smit caught up with her and by means of silent gestures they arranged to stand on each side the door. The prey, at this point, knew only that it had intruders, not that it was being hunted by Reavers, and that was still their advantage. Acting in complete co-ordination, Mace entered the adjacent room, deliberately making noise. Smit waited outside, still and silent. The prey fell for the trap. Believing the corridor outside his room to be empty, it ran out of its room, gun at the ready, and turned the corner to the spare room. A long knife slashed the back of its legs as it ran, causing it to fall to the floor. With the prey thrashing about on the floor, shooting wildly, their element of surprise was effectively over. Quickly, Smit brought the knife to bear on the back of the creature's neck. Blood pooled around it as it gurgled, then lay still. Mace emerged, and removed the creature's gun from its hand.

The last of the assumed dangerous prey had sensed danger and reacted quickly. Its head poked out of an open window and it fired a shotgun at them as they approached. Card was in no mood for games. Quickly the building was set alight, forcing the prey from its vantage point. At some point, it jumped from the open window, and then it was all over, as a bullet from the gun Mace held pierced its side. She fired another shot, then another, then another, enjoying the feel of the recoil. Then she pulled the trigger one more time, and nothing happened. She discarded the now useless weapon.

“Follow me”, Card said.


“Where to?”, Ben demanded, though he was in no position to demand anything.

“All clear!”, Kite yelled, beckoning the party forward. Ben breathed a sigh of relief. That meant that Polly had not been found.

They reached the top of the ramp. “That way”, Merissa said, pointing rearwards. That surprised Ben. If they had come for the ship, surely they would have headed for the bridge?

“In there”, Merissa said when they eventually reached the camera bays. Ordinarily, these tubes contained forward facing cameras which looked out into space, or what would have been space had the ship been in the black. But now one of them contained a nuclear warhead, raw power, stashed and ready to be unleashed in a single chain reaction.

Ben went white when he realized what it was that these people were after, and that Merissa had told them where it was. “No!”, he said, his voice almost a whisper, “You can't— “. He felt the vibration through his feet as a bullet ricocheted off the floor, and he kept silent.

Deftly, Merissa unlocked the outer door. Inside was a sealed container. “There are two ways to get inside that”, Merissa explained. “One is to pretend to be Slate. To do that one of us would need to have Slate's voice, and since that ain't the case, that leaves the second way”.

“Which is?”, Lory demanded.

“Unbolt it. Take the whole container. Then laser it open … carefully … at a more convenient location, such as engineering where we're likely to find the right tools”.

Kite said: “Got an easier way than unbolting”. He fired at the housing struts, and one by one they came free. Ben winced with every shot. Not knowing what had happened to Polly added to his confusion. He tried to keep his nerve, but it was not easy.


From this point on, panic amongst the remaining prey would not be considered a disadvantage. In fact, it was positively desirable. The rush came to Mace and she let it take her, knowing that there were times when this gift from the gods was useful, and that now was one of those times.

They broke into the remaining occupied buildings and herded up the prey. A small number were still in their beds, but most were either running or playing at a pale imitation of fighting. Hagar had to run a knife through the stomach of one screaming female who seemed to be trying to protect her young, but apart from that, the rest were rounded up efficiently.

The hunters' numbers were swelled as the rest of the community arrived to assist with the gathering. Even those who were not skilled at fighting played their part, dragging the squealing bodies by their limbs. Tooth and claw were put to good use as the rush filled the Reavers with rage and fury, but they held back from outright killing of those still left alive. Instead, the captured prey were herded into one of their own barns and then tied up with their own rope. There were occasional complaints from the prey, but the removal of a limb was usually sufficient to quell further resistance.

Finally it was over, with five dead but still edible and seven tied up in the barn. Hagar, Miah and a few others were sent outside to collect the carcasses before some scavenger could rob them of their kills.

It was at this point that Card entered the barn, Jade beside him. He selected one of the prey at random, and ordered it skinned alive before the others of its kind.

With surgical precision, Orlando lasered through the casing. The casing was not part of the warhead itself, merely the vessel in which the warhead was entombed. Ben could only stand and watch in horror as the container broke apart, piece by piece, like the shell of an egg. There should have been something he could have done, some tool littered around engineering which could have been used as a weapon, but Ben was not as sprightly as he once had been, and he doubted he would have been successful in any event.

Finally it was done, and the warhead sat unprotected on the floor of the engineering deck. It didn't look like much, certainly not like the classic pointed nose and tail fins that one might have expected. Instead, it was a small, squat cylinder, a foot or so in length, maybe four inches in diameter. A square box adorned one side, full of numbered buttons and a display screen. Cambridge had told Lory what to expect. By all accounts, this was the real deal.

“Thank you kindly”, Lory said. “Looks like we'll be on our way now. You just stay put in this room now until we're gone, and then you can haul anchor”.

They backed out of the room leaving Ben inside. Lory fired a shot through the hydraulic pipes which held the emergency bulkheads open. The bulkheads slammed shut instantly, sealing Ben inside the room until the pipe could be repaired.

Ever alert, guns at the ready, the gangsters pressed forward through the ship, until they reached the ramp which led down to the cargo bay. Nobody was about. Their prize carefully in hand, they descended the ramp toward the open airlock doors, and freedom.

And the bulkhead snapped shut above them.

“What the— “, Scarlet began, but her words were interrupted by the roar of engine noise, and through the open airlock doors they could see the ground receding behind them.

Slate's voice echoed through the cargo bay's speaker systems: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Please strap yourselves in as we are going for a little ride, and things might get a bit bumpy”. They looked in horror at the door to aft. It wasn't closing. Wind whipped around the cargo bay. “Oh, and one more thing”, came Slate's reverberating voice, “Did I mention that I can't fly this thing particularly well. See, I pilot fishing boats mostly, and, well, our pilot seems to be trapped in the engine room”. There was a bump. Crates tumbled from their stacks. One small crate bounced toward the open inner door into the airlock zone.

Merissa turned to face Lory, and with not a trace of doubt of hesitation said: “Now tell your men to put down their guns. It's over”.

Lory blinked, surprised. The thought came to him slowly. “Why you double crossing— !”

Another bump.

Now!“, Merissa barked.

One by one, they dropped their weapons to the floor. Merissa picked up one of the guns and aimed it squarely at Lory. He kept hold of the warhead, but Merissa didn't mind that. There was no way he was going to detonate it on purpose, and with all the bouncing around it was probably safer in someone's arms than on the ground. She backed toward the intercom and hit the call button. “Slate”, she said. “I got them. They're all in my custody. You can land now”.

Moment of truth, thought Merissa. What will Slate do now?

The moment lasted too long.


Voices flitted through her mind like echoes. She could hear the thoughts of the prey, or at least their words, their vocal utterances. Some were sobbing, others were consoling each other. None, it seemed, could fully grasp their circumstance. It didn't matter. Their lives as prey had already ended, and nothing could change that. Even if by some miracle they survived, they'd simply turn into Reavers themselves, and Jade doubted they would want that. What mattered to her now was that she look good in the eyes of her people, most especially Geng. He had told her that her job was to worry the prey, make it afraid. That didn't sound too difficult.

“There, there”, she heard one of the prey say to it's mate in the prey tongue. “It'll be all right”.

She stood before it and interjected. “No”, she said, assuredly. “It won't”.

The prey looked up, startled. “You can speak?”, it said. Jade didn't process the words immediately, so unaccustomed was she to hearing English. “What are you going to do to us?”, it asked.

“We're going to make you suffer and then kill you”, she told it, straightforwardly.

The prey visibly started to shake. “Please .. please … my wife. Let my wife go. Take me but let my wife go”.

Jade stepped back and pointed toward the prey's mate. In the true speech, she said: “That one. Hurt that one. Make sure that one sees”.

Geng placed his arm gently on her shoulder and spoke softly to her. “You can't give orders”, he told her, “But you did well”. He turned to Card and gave a small nod. Hunters dragged the screaming creature away from its fellows and threw it to the ground. The male, the one Jade had spoken to, was now screaming in pure frenzy, but it was bound and could do nothing to affect its situation. The Reavers made it watch as they raped and killed its mate.

They dragged the screaming, sobbing, pitiful creature onto the dirt floor of the barn and held it down by all four limbs, face toward the sky. Khrau walked toward it, bloody axe in hand. He was about to raise it, to impart the killing blow, when suddenly he changed his mind. He glanced toward Jade, a curious look in his eye, a daring look. Then he strode toward her, a gleam in his eye. He held out the axe. “The kill is yours”, he said, offering the axe to Jade.

What is this?, she wondered. Are you testing me? I've killed prey before. And so she had, but only, she now realized, when in the grip of the killing frenzy they called the rush. Now she was in control of her mind, and that made it different.

So, moment of truth, she realized. Can I do this? But there was never really any doubt, except possibly in the mind of Khrau. It mattered too much to Jade that she be accepted, and she wasn't going to let Khrau's hatred of her destroy her position within this pack. And besides, if anything, it would be a kindness to the prey, an end to its suffering. So she took the axe, and brought it down squarely onto the skull of the prey, and its tormented writhing came to a close.

Khrau raised an eyebrow as he took the axe back from her. A glimmer of a smile crossed his lips, and the hint of a nod of approval. She had done well, and even Khrau was acknowledging that. She stumbled across to where Sing stood, giving Jade the thumbs up. She collapsed into Sing's arms, not sure if she wanted consolation or congratulation. But it was over, and now all she wanted was the comfort she knew Sing would provide.

“So, all's well that ends well”, Merissa commented, as the entire crew relaxed in the lounge.

“Well, I wouldn't say it entirely ended well”, Slate said. “Because I got called back to rescue you, that meant we weren't able to make the rendezvous we'd arranged. Shahbazi had to rearrange things, send another couple of guys in our place. We lost the job. And some reputation. No money”.

“And we couldn't hand over those gangsters, even though there would have been a reward”, Papagina pointed out, “Because we don't exactly want it made public that we have a nuke”.

“But”, conceded Elizabeth, “at least we're all alive and safe. In my book, that's all that matters”.

“And I'm damn glad it was you flying the ship, not me”, Slate told her.

Merissa glanced across at Ben, who shot her a cold, hard stare. She looked away quickly. “Of course it might not have ended so pretty if those thugs had found Polly”, she pointed out, “Given that Ben had told them the ship was empty”. She smiled sweetly.

“I was onto them straight away”, Polly grinned. “I picked up your clue when you asked to be let in”.

“What clue?”, Ben demanded.

Yeah, I was wondering that, Merissa thought, puzzled.

To Ben, Polly explained: “She was nice to you. She said ‘please’“. To Merissa, she said: “You two are always fighting so I figured you had to be trying to tell us something”.

Not one to waste an advantage, she chose to agree wholeheartedly. “Right. I knew you'd get that. Where did you hide anyway? I'm curious”.

“I went out one of the airlocks by the bridge”, she answered. The others were stunned into silence by such an obvious solution. “What?”, she said. “I may be afraid of going out those airlocks in space, but we were on the ground!”

“So you summoned Slate back from a lucrative deal just because you heard me say 'Please' to Ben?”

“Well, I waited to see if I was right first, but yeah”.

“So”, said Slate, eager to change the subject, though his voice remained light. “Any travel plans?”

“I thought I'd stay with you for a while”, Merissa said, smiling. “I can do better than Ezra. I hear Paquin's nice”.

“It sure is”, Slate agreed, “And if we ever go anywhere near it, I'll be sure to let you know. In the meantime, welcome home”.

“Yes, welcome home”, agreed Polly.


Welcome home, thought Jade.

Dark Places

Valse Triste

The streets were filled with bright lights and noise. Glaring neon signs blazed from every direction. Lights flashed and strobed, gaudy advertisements sang out, competing with oh so many others. Casinos were everywhere, two or three to a street, and in between them cafés, restaurants, hotels. The night sky was cloudless, but few stars could be seen, so great was the light pollution emanating from almost every visible surface.

“You'd never believe this is where Lana and I took our honeymoon”, Slate commented, nonchalantly, as he sauntered down the busy street, Elizabeth by his side.

“I take it that was before the war?”, she concluded. As a well informed reporter she took pride in knowing something of the history of the 'Verse. Once upon a time, Santo had been a popular vacation spot. Then the war came, and it turned into something else, something sleazy.

They turned a corner. Above them, red lit windows illuminated scantily dressed women and men. “It was”, he acknowledged. “There used to be fine restaurants — decent food, drink, entertainment”. The flashing sign to their left read GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS. Moving arrowheads picked out in lights directed the eye to a small, dimly lit doorway. “I think this used to be a theater”, he said, almost to himself.

With a mixture of curiosity and amusement, Elizabeth pointed and asked: “What about that casino? What was that? A museum or something?”.

“No, that was always a casino”, he said. After a moment's thought, he added: “'cept, without the cowboy hat”. A twenty foot Stetson appeared to be embedded into the casino wall, multicolored lights around its rim flashing in a variety of nauseating patterns.

“You don't talk much about your life before Newhall”, Elizabeth noted, her voice taking a more serious tone.

“What's to tell?” This used to be my life. Back on Osiris, I was a carpenter by day, and a gambler by night. If there was a poker game going, I was there”. Reflectively, he added: “It would be so, so easy to fall back into that”.

“What made you give it up? You lose too much money?”

“Oh I lost all right, but it weren't money I lost. I had aspirations to being a 'high roller'. That means— “

“I know what it means”.

A beat, then: “I won a game. Got enough money in one game for Lana and me to set up a new life for ourselves on M— . On the most promising new Alliance settlement of all time, or so they told us”.

He let it hang. “Newhall?”, Elizabeth guessed.

“Yeah right”, Slate said, dismissively.

It was clear to Elizabeth there was still a part of Slate's life that he didn't want to talk about, the part involving his wife's death. But there was no need to press him. He'd tell, when he was ready. She looked again at the map, and then up at the street. “This is the place”, she said.

They stood outside a blue-lit building. A gaudy ultra-violet light picked out the words BOB'S BONDAGE BASEMENT, making the words fluoresce.

“Let's hope our cargo isn't too kinky”, she said.

“It's just the meet up”, he reminded her. “Come on”. They stepped through the doors past the leather-clad bouncers. Once those bouncers were out of earshot, he said to Elizabeth: “We're just here to pick up a package. Our contact is paying us good rates for taking cargo to Greenleaf”.

“Too good”, she said, wryly.

They had to raise their voices as they entered the main bar. Loud and raucous music assaulted their ears. Lights pulsed from the ceiling. People danced at the center of the floor, wearing all manner of strange clothing. They walked across to the prearranged alcove. An elderly gentleman sat waiting. Slate extended his hand.

Into the black once more, Vindicator set course for Greenleaf. “Cargo loaded up fine”, Slate told Ben. “Paying us a pretty penny too. Too bad about the smell”.

The cargo consisted of boxes and boxes of what could only be described as sludgy goo. He couldn't begin to imagine a use for it, or why it might be considered valuable.

“Slate, there's something we gotta talk about”, Ben said earnestly.

“You still on about Merissa?”, Slate asked, weary of the endless accusations.

“No, but I ain't changing my opinion none neither”, Ben replied.

Kwok Fi spoke up. “This is something that affects all of us”, he said.

Slate sat down in the captain's chair. “You want I get the whole crew here? Elizabeth's busy looking up stuff on the Cortex, seeing what she can find out”.

Papagina said: “It doesn't need a group meeting, but you are going to hear this from other people unless it's dealt with”.

Slate looked around at the four people in the room with him: Ben, Polly, Kwok Fi and Papagina. They all seemed apprehensive about something, and that started to carry across to Slate. “All right, what's the problem?”, he asked.

Kwok Fi said: “We are coming up to a year since the attack, and we still have no clue where to look for that Reaver ship”.

Polly said: “It's possible we might never find it, no matter how long we stay out here”.

Ben said: “It's been a year, Slate. Maybe it's time to stop looking”.

Slate let those words hang, for a while. Then he asked: “You wanna give up?”

Ben continued: “Want? Hell, no. Cassandra Briggs was a good friend of mine. Reavers skinned her alive. Ain't nothing I can do to change that. I wanna see them Reavers get what's coming to them, same as you. But do I want to be floating around in the black forever, not finding that ship? You gotta see — that ain't the same situation”.

Kwok Fi said: “I have a life, a family. I gave up that life to chase Reavers. But I didn't think I'd be giving it up forever. I'm sorry to say this, but … I want to go home. Not necessarily straight away, you understand. I'm not saying we should turn tail right now. But, we should set an end date. If we still don't have a clue where to look by some specified time that we all agree on, then it's time to stop looking. A wise man knows when it's time to stop banging his head against the same wall”.

Slate took all that in, then asked Polly: “What about you?”

She took her time before answering. “I ain't got no home to go to, as you well know. But I'm happier on the ground than in the black. I want us to stay together, because you people mean a lot to me — all of you — but I would like to know how long we're gonna fly around for afore we settle down”

“You want me to put a time limit on it?”, Slate said, his voice low. “I can't do that. I mean to avenge my little girl, no matter how long it takes — a year, two years, ten years— “

“But what if you never find them?”, Ben interjected.

An awkward silence arose. Polly broke it by saying: “Look — couple of months back, Merissa tried to leave, and she was the last person I would have expected to leave. She's one of us, a Herren islander. She didn't have nowhere to go, but she was willing to give it a try anyway. The film crew do have places to go, but they stay here coz of loyalty to Elizabeth”. Slate was a little hurt by that. He'd expected her to say loyalty to him.

Kwok Fi said: “My parents have a farm on Beylix. They're always on the lookout for hands. We could all find a home there, a new home, a permanent home. All of you would be welcome”.

“You've always been free to leave”, Slate said, coldly.

“That ain't true”, Ben said. By way of explanation, he added: “Ship needs a crew. Without me, who'd fly the ship? Without Polly, who'd look after the engine? Seems to me anyone who just up and left without consideration for the rest of us would have to be a real hwoon dahn“. He didn't even have to say the name. It was plainly obvious to whom he was referring.

Papagina said: “It makes sense we all stick together.”

Defeated, Slate sank back into the chair. “The ship needs a crew”, he repeated. “So either we all stay, or we all leave. — 'cepting of course, I can't force anyone to stay”. He looked around at them. “I don't have answers for you”, he admitted. “But I will think about it. And I'll discuss it with Elizabeth, see if we can keep everyone happy”.

A long time back, the film crew's employers had been led to believe that the crew were missing, following the attack on Herren. Those employers had stopped looking for them, or for the ship, a long time ago. The film crew's families, on the other hand, had been kept in the loop, or told some other story to keep them happy. Elizabeth had been cunning enough to tell her family that she was on a secret undercover assignment — an excuse which could even conceivably get her back into her old job if she returned with a Reaver story, with proof of their existence — and proof that people could fight back. Now it seemed like that was the easy part, and that the hard part was going to be keeping up morale and determination as time wore on. And time was really the key. For how long could Elizabeth claim to be chasing a story? A year was pushing it. Something would have to give soon, Slate knew, even there.

“I gotta go check on the cargo”, he said, desperate for an excuse to leave the room, to change the subject. He wished that Merissa hadn't asked to leave a few weeks back. That had been the catalyst, he believed; that had been the thing which had gotten everyone thinking about quitting. Merissa had always come across as the most determined of the crew, himself and Elizabeth aside. More than that, she was charismatic, she inspired. People liked her, wanted to be around her — apart from Ben, for some reason. So it wasn't surprising that with Merissa talking about leaving, others would start to get disillusioned. He wished it weren't so. He wanted her to stay. A few years more experience and Merissa would make a fine captain in her own right, he thought.

He didn't get as far as the cargo bay, however, before having to deal with another issue. Ben followed him out of the bridge. “Cap'n”, Ben said. “You got a moment?”

Slate stopped and turned. “Can you talk and walk?”, he asked, and continued on.

Ben followed, keeping up with him. “I know you ain't gonna listen to me”, he said, “But I gotta say this anyway. Merissa Goldovskaya is— “

“A traitor and an evil no-good doer out to harm us all”, Slate said, sarcastically. “I've heard it all before. Haven't you got anything new to say?”

“You're simplifying”, Ben argued. “I never said she set out to harm us”.

“Well, what then!?” Slate stopped suddenly and looked Ben straight in the eye. “What is your problem?”

“She looks out for number one, is all”, Ben said, simply.

“Well who the hell doesn't?”, Slate demanded.

Nonplussed, Ben continued. “Look — do you remember back on Newhall, when we were trying to make that documentary? You remember that capture I showed you? When Merissa more or less told the boss that she designed your boat, instead of you?”

“I think it was just the sails”, Slate said, trying to dismiss the accusation.

“Whatever. It still wasn't true, was it?”.

“Ben! Shut it, will you?”, Slate insisted. “Yes, she lied, OK? That what you wanted to hear? You gonna tell me you ain't never told a lie? That you're all pristine perfect? So she exaggerated her part a little so she could maybe earn some extra coin. You think I really care what got recorded for that gorram puppet theater? All I cared about was Jade, that's the only reason I was out there in the first place. But…“, he paused for emphasis: “That was before the Reavers came and took away everything that mattered . Merissa lost family too, same as we all did. Like it or not, we are all on this boat together, all in the same situation. And I will not have discord amongst my crew. Whatever your problems are with her, you sort them out. You hear me? You sort them out”

Ben was stymied. Defeated, he turned and strode back toward the bridge.

But privately, Slate was starting to wonder. Ben's constant badgering had gnawed away at his resolve. He had known Merissa for twelve years now — eleven on the island and one more on this mission. He had found her immediately likeable from the start. She always knew the right thing to say, always had seemed to have influential friends. He truly didn't believe that she would sell them all out for the price of a nuke. And yet … Ben had planted a seed of doubt in his mind, and it was starting to take root.

He badly needed to talk with Elizabeth.

He went through the motions of knocking on Elizabeth's door, impatiently awaiting her acknowledgement. He heard her call: “Ching-jin“, and entered quickly, closing the door behind him.

He found her laying atop her bed, hands behind her head, and a pleasant smile across her face. Music filled the room, classical music. He wasn't sure he liked it. It seemed dark and morose. “What's the music?”, he asked, curiously.

“Sibelius”, she answered, succinctly. She sat up.

Now that he was here, he wasn't sure how to start, so he said: “Is this a good time? I can come back”.

“A good time for what?”, she asked.

Good question. He wasn't sure. “I just need to escape for a bit”, he confessed.

She swung around and sat on the edge of the bed. “You want a drink?”, she asked.

“Do I look like a man needs liquor every time he encounters a problem?”, he responded, irritably.

Taken aback, she simply said: “I think you'd better pull up a chair, sit down, and tell me what's on your mind”.

Slate relaxed and sunk into the comfortable armchair that was, in fact, the only item of furniture in the room designed for sitting on. Elizabeth remained at the edge of the bed, looking quite relaxed. Slate closed his eyes and let the music wash over him and through him. Its mood seemed to be picking up — now in was less dark, more dreamy.

“So”, Elizabeth began, gently. “Let me guess. Our continued lack of success at finding our Reavers is starting to get to people”.

“Conjure that about sums it up”, Slate agreed, adding: “Weren't you supposed to be scanning the Cortex for clues?”

“Oh, I did that”, she said. She shook her head, saying: “Nothing came up”. There was silence, which she broke with: “It always was a long shot, you know”.

“Am I pushing too hard?”, he asked. “Am I asking too much? Am I too obsessed?”

Elizabeth took a deep breath, considering carefully how to answer. Slate knew that he wouldn't necessarily like her answer, but it would at least be honest — and probably wise. After a time, she said: “Your crew need certainty. But that's the one thing you haven't given them. They can handle tracking down the Reavers responsible for the massacre, blowing them up, all that. Alternatively, they can handle moving on, doing something different. You're their leader. You lead, they will follow, providing you know where you're going — or at least, give that impression. Right now, we're all lost, and there's no hiding that. We've fallen into a pattern of one cargo run after another. We might as well just be a freight ship. If that's to be our life, your crew need to hear you come out and say that”.

“I haven't given up, Elizabeth”, he interjected.

“I know”, she said, softly.

“You think I should give up?”, he asked.

“Does it make a difference?”, she answered. Seeing his confused expression, she explained: “Look — when we get information as to where to go to find our quarry, we can go there. Until then, does it really matter whether we're flying around in a ship or planting crops on a farm?”

“It matters”, he answered, “because once we stop, people will start to drift off. This crew won't hold together”. He considered further, then asked: “What do you want?”

“I want whatever you want”, she said, simply.

He wasn't sure whether that was good or bad, so he simply laughed. “Is it too late to change my mind about that drink?”, he asked.

Elizabeth smiled, pleased that he had perked up a little. “Whiskey or whiskey?”, she asked. “Those are your only choices”.

“Whiskey then”, he said, falling into the flow of the music, which had perked up somewhat by now.

She poured him a drink and took it over to him.

“This what you do in your spare time?”, he asked, “Listening to classical music?”

“On this ship it is”, she said.

“And what would you be doing if you weren't on this ship?”, he asked, curiously.

Looking slightly embarrassed, she just said: “You'll laugh”.

Curiosity piqued, Slate said: “No I won't”.

“Yes you will”, she argued. She had come to know him quite well by now, and had concluded that that was a distinct possibility.

“I promise, I won't laugh”, Slate said. His face was serious, and he put his hand on his heart.

In a quiet, sheepish voice, Elizabeth told him: “Ballroom dancing”.

Slate burst into laughter. In fact, he laughed quite a lot. Elizabeth simply pursed her lips, and waited for his outburst to finish. When it was over, she said: “At least I never wasted my time playing cards”.

“Is that what you think I did?”, he asked, serious now. As if to match the tone of the conversation, the music had turned somber again.

“I don't know, Slate, because you haven't told me”, she admitted, honestly, “You said that you lived on Osiris, won a lot of money, and then … there's a big missing bit that you're not sharing. And then you ended up on Newhall. So what happened in that gap? I don't know. If I had to guess, I'd say it involved gambling and getting into debt. Would I be right?”

Silently, Slate just nodded.

“…and somewhere along the line, you lost your family”. Her voice now was almost a whisper.

“Except for Jade”, he said.

“…who emerged in a coma, where she stayed for the next — what? Year? Two years? Four?”

Slate said nothing, but tears formed at the corners of his eyes.

“Tell me what happened”, she coaxed.

“When did the war start?”, he asked her, unexpectedly.

Elizabeth blinked. Why the change of subject? Why the history lesson? “June 2506”, she answered, matter-of-factly.

Slate said, simply, “Wrong!”

But he added no further explanation.

“You're right”, he said, again unexpectedly, and knocking back the last of his whiskey. “It doesn't make a damn bit of difference whether we're flying about moving cargo or sitting on a farm somewhere. It ain't like we stand much chance of bumping into them Reavers by accident. I'll make a decision. A week from now, it'll be a year since we started out. We don't get a clue by then, we stop moving”.

Elizabeth pondered over the obvious evasion, but decided not to push it. “That's a good decision”, she said.

“But we don't stop looking”, he added. “You stay on that Cortex, and you find them. And when you do, we'll get back in this ship — assuming I still have a crew — and we will pursue them”.

“I know”, she acknowledged.

There was little more to say, so they sat in silence for a while, letting the notes of Sibelius wash through them. It was evocative, incredibly so. It had a fairy tale quality to it that was at the same time dark and mysterious. “What is this music?”, Slate was eventually forced to ask.

“It's called Valse Triste“, Elizabeth answered. “In its original form, it was the music for a play, but Sibelius reworked it after the event. It depicts a part of the story. A mother lies dying in her bed. She sleeps, and dreams of dancers, and dances with them. Then she wakes, and dances again, and the dancers from her dream return. Finally, Death comes for her, knocks three times, and takes her out of the world”.

“Charming”, came Slate's dry response.

“No, it's entrancing”.

“It is that”, he agreed. “It is that. Any time you want to play me music that's all about dying, you just go right ahead. What was the play anyway?”

“In Sibelius's native language, it was called Kuolema“.

“Which means?”

“Death”. She smiled a sad smile.

Slate listened to the last notes of the piece. There was a beauty to this symphony that transcended its subject matter. It had a surreal, otherworldly quality. It had grace. It had serenity. He imagined Lana dancing with ethereal beings aboard the Greg Edmonson, and Jade similarly dancing on Herren island. He wanted to believe in those, better, peaceful, tranquil deaths, not the violent deaths he knew to have occurred.

“I'll tell the crew”, he said, getting up to leave. “One more week, and we stop traveling, until we know where we're going”.

Elizabeth nodded. “It's a good decision”, she said.

“I hope so”, Slate said, his voice gentle. He felt relieved, now that the decision had been reached, as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. As he left the room, and headed back toward the bridge, he realized that it was the only decision he could have made, for even he did not want to travel aimlessly through the black forever. Perhaps it was time for a new direction, a new path. He entered the bridge, and announced his decision.

Dense, lush forest surrounded the landing clearing. The first word that crossed Slate's mind as he stepped off the ramp was jungle. And the word was appropriate. Everywhere was teeming with the sights, sounds and smells of life. Even the clearing in which they had touched down was quilted with brightly colored flowers and insects. Greenleaf, it must be said, was probably the most pleasant of all the Rim worlds — at least, to visit. He had brought Vindicator to this world only once before, and recalled that he had loved it at first glance, then quickly tired of it, then found himself eager to get away after the raw heat and sheer number of insect bites had begun to overwhelm him.

The heat struck him the moment he walked out of the cool of the ship. A voice called to him from the edge of the clearing, emanating from the man striding toward him. “You must be Slate”, the man called. “I'm Carter. I hope you brought the cargo”.

“Intact, and in perfect condition”, Slate told him, “is … your … “. He struggled to find an appropriate word to describe the pungent liquid his crew had been carrying across space, but words failed him. “…goo. Why don't we go somewhere a mite cooler where we can talk price?”

Behind him, a small fork lift truck rolled down the ramp, one crate in its arms. Corey called from the vehicle's cab: “Where d'you want this?”

“Anywhere will do”, Carter called back. To Slate, he beckoned, “Follow me. The sooner we're back under the canopy, the better”.

Slate felt the temperature drop immediately as he left the clearing and walked into the shade of canopy of tall, tall trees, a green ceiling that obscured the sky except for tiny chinks here and there. Sounds of wildlife abounded, from birdcalls to sounds he did not even recognize.

The economy of Greenleaf was upside down, compared with the rest of the 'Verse. Elsewhere, fresh fruit was a luxury commodity, medicine an expense only the rich could afford. Here, those things were cheap and plentiful, but Greenleaf lacked metals. It had little in the way of industry.

“That goo, as you call it, is our lifeline”, Carter explained as they reached a small hut, which was basically a wooden framework with cloth walls and no ceiling. “It's a smart material, a kind of ceramic, made on Higgins' Moon. It may look like goo right now, but heat it and it becomes solid, rubbery and flexible. Heat it more, and it sets into shape — any shape — tougher than metal”.

“So how come you're needing to get it smuggled in from Santos? Seems to me it'd make more sense to buy it through some more legitimate route”.

“Sure, but then how would we pay for it?”, Carter argued.

Slate's silence spoke volumes. He understood so little of the economics of this world.

“Fact is, our most lucrative exportable items are pharmaceutical”. He looked Slate in the eye. “Drugs, Mister Slate, we make drugs. We can't sell them legit, so we sell them on the black market. There's too much money involved to mess around with bags of coin, but larger amounts are harder to launder, so more often than not, we forgo money altogether, and trade in goods alone. What you've brought us is payment for a deal”.

“Ah — and speaking of payment…“, Slate reminded him.

Carter handed over a bag of coin. “For delivery”, he said, smiling.

“I thought you said you don't mess around with bags of coin”, Slate threw in with a trace of humor.

“That's not exactly what I said”, Carter corrected, completely straight faced.

In the distance, he heard the trumpet of elephants.

“Drink?”, Carter offered, proffering a glass of pinkish orange liquid. Slate took the glass and sniffed at it, suspiciously. “We make it from local crop”, Carter explained, “Mangos mainly. A little fermentation, a few added ingredients…“

Slate sipped, cautiously. “It's good”, he said, at last. Then: “I've tasted this before…“

The liquid is sweet, pleasant, and more than a little alcoholic. “What is this?”, I ask.

“It's called mangarine”, said the smartly dressed one. “Comes from Greenleaf”.

“I said no alcohol”, I remind him, and put the drink to one side. I focus my attention on the game before me. “I'll match your twenty, and raise you another twenty”, I say.

“You're bluffing”, said the white jacketed one.

“Only one way to find out”, I say.

The white jacketed one looks annoyed, then adds his pile of coin to the pot. “You know five Independents got arrested for that bomb went off a few weeks back”.

I ignore the attempt to distract me and study my cards. I add more money to the pot. “How could I not?”, I ask. The newswaves are full of nothing else.

“You know they're completely innocent?”, pressed white jacket.

“Are we playing poker?”, I ask.

Ignoring me, white jacket continues his insistence. “Seems to me the Ravens just rounded up the first five Independents they bumped into and fitted them up. Forced confessions out of them. Could have happened to any one of us. Could have happened to you”.

“I ain't Independent”, I say.

“That's right, you ain't”, white jacket says, his voice becoming angrier.

The smartly dressed one intervenes: “Leave it out, Knuckles. This is a spieler, not a soapbox”.

I say: “Could be you ain't got the cards to win this pot. Could be you're looking for a distraction”.

Knuckles stood up suddenly, bringing heavies to the table to stand either side of him. He says: “Damn straight I'm looking for a distraction. Do you know how many checkpoints I had to pass through to get here? How many times my car was searched by your volunteer army?”

“Ain't my army”, I point out, but I don't think he's convinced.

“Entire neighborhoods dragged out of their homes. Houses searched. Furniture smashed to pieces. Innocent people put in jail. This spieler is my distraction. I came here to forget. And here you are, Mister Alliance”.

“The name's Slate”, I say, hopefully remaining poker faced.

The smartly dressed one interrupts the conversation. “All right, all right. Keep the war outside. Here we play poker. Now — are you gonna bet or fold?”

Knuckles looks at the heavy set gentlemen standing beside him and makes his decision. He slams his cards face up onto the table. “I'm outa here”, he says.

“I'm sorry about that, Slate”, the smartly dressed one says. “But you must understand, tension is running high. Perhaps it might be better if we make this the last game”.

“It's just people getting tetchy”, I argue. “Ain't none of us here involved in the fighting — leastways, not so far as I know”.

“If you're an Independent, it's impossible not to be involved”, he says, somewhat patronizingly, I think. “We are all guilty in the eyes of your police, your military”.

“I never judge a book by it's cover”, I say.

“Quite. And clearly, neither do I, or you would not have been allowed in this establishment. But perhaps it is time to end these sessions. One day, war will come between the Alliance and the Independents, for real, and when that happens, I won't be able to vouch for your safety”.

I collect together my winnings and rise to leave. I feel bitter, because I'm being made to feel guilty just on account of where I was born, and that can't be right. There is nothing I hate more than injustice.

Ben sat quietly on a fallen log, gazing across the tranquil lake. Shaded by the overhanging canopy, this spot was truly idyllic. Beside him was a pile of clothing, though not his. Its owner was right now swimming naked in the lake. In all probability, she wouldn't have begun her swim if she'd known Ben was around, or that he'd have the audacity to just sit there watching her. But Ben had an axe to grind.

Merissa noticed him as she swam toward the shore. Stopping short of the shore, she treaded water and called out to him: “Would you mind? I wanna come out?”

“Don't mind a bit”, Ben said, not moving.

Seemingly perplexed, Merissa called: “I mean, would you go away, or avert your eyes, or something. It ain't polite to watch a woman getting dressed”.

“You sold us out”, Ben said, abruptly.

Acting surprised, Merissa said: “What!?”

“You never intended to double cross Lory and his gang. Your plan all along was to steal the nuke and sell it. If things hadn't gone against you, you'd be on Ezra right now, living a life of luxury.”

“It's the heat”, Merissa said, patronizingly. “You've gone mad”.

“If you wanna leave, I ain't got no problem with that”, Ben said, ignoring her comment, “But did you have to try to ruin things for the rest of us while you were at it? What next? Sell the ship? To hell with the crew?”

Still treading water, she called out: “To hell with you. I told you what happened. Everyone else believes me. Why not you?”

“Guess I've just seen your type before”.

“My type?”, she queried, with genuine outrage. “There is no 'my type'. I am not a type”.

“Greedy, selfish, in it for number one”, he accused.

“Are you trying to goad a confession out me?”, Merissa asked, amused, still splashing about in the water. “It won't work. You're an amateur, and I ain't got nothing to confess”.

That irked Ben. Somehow she had managed to insult him without admitting a single thing. But he didn't show it. Even if he couldn't get a confession out of her, he could at least embarrass her. “Ship takes off in half an hour”, he pointed out. “And it is a fine day for sitting out by the side of a nice tropical lake”.

“They won't take off without us”, Merissa argued.

Ben considered this. “You're right”, he agreed. “They won't”. He stood up. “I think I'll head back to the ship now”, he said. He picked up Merissa's pile of clothing.

What!? It dawned on Merissa what he was planning to do. “Wait!”, she cried out. Ben stopped in his tracks, and turned to face her once again.

“This is my world”, Ben reminded her.

A determined expression crossed Merissa's face, and she swam shoreward, toward Ben. Reaching solid ground, she stood up, naked and dripping, and strode toward Ben. Her eyes narrowed as she reached him and snatched her clothing from him. He had not once taken his eyes from her, and though he tried to avoid it, embarrassment did show on his face, in his expression. Merissa, by contrast, was cold as steel. She leaned forward, and spoke quietly in his ear. “You have made an enemy today”, she told him. “I will kill you for this”. Then she started to dress.

Ben strode off, angrily. He may have got one over her, but it hadn't made him feel as good as he'd hoped it might; he hadn't gotten the confession he hoped he would wring. Above all, he felt dirty, and even a little … afraid. She had acquired the upper hand. Chances were, no one would believe that Merissa had made that threat, and even if they did, Ben would then have to admit to how it had been provoked. Her words could be explained away as heated emotion. But he had seen the look in her eyes, and there had been no emotion there — save for cold, steely determination. He wondered: could she make good on that threat? In the blistering heat of Greenleaf, he shivered.

Slate sat alone in the ship's lounge, looking out toward the stars. He wasn't at all sure that he wanted to spend the next few months on the garbage tip of a world that was Beylix — but, he had promised, and he was a man of his word. It was true, they could scan the Cortex for information just as easily in one place as they could on the move, but that wasn't what worried him. He knew that as time went by, his crew would drift off. By the time they knew where to go, he may not even have a crew, or those that stayed together might no longer be interested in vengeance. What if they truly settled down? Started new families? Would they then want to take off again, risk danger, risk their new lives?

“We have it!”.

Slate looked around sharply. The voice was Elizabeth's. He hadn't heard her enter the room. “Have what?”, he asked.

“The clue. The information”, Elizabeth said, excitedly. “They're on Lilac”.

Slate blinked, hope filling him, but not quite believing it. He needed to be sure. “Who's on Lilac?”, he pressed.

“The Reavers. Our Reavers”, she enthused. She sat down on one of the seats beside him. “There have been reports coming out of Lilac of repeated Reaver attacks”, she told him.

“Is this from official news channels?”, he asked.

“No”, she said, laughing. Then her face turned grim, disgusted. “The Alliance aren't reporting it. They're covering it up”.

“Figures”, Slate responded. There was no trace of surprise in his voice.

A brief moment of anger flared in Elizabeth's voice. “Do you know what the top story is in the Alliance newswaves right now?”.

“I wouldn't dare to guess”, Slate said.

“Somebody's stolen the Lassiter”, she told him.

“The what?”

“The Lassiter. It's an antique gun. Can you believe that? Dozens of people being killed, whole communities being wiped out on the Rim, and the biggest story coming out the Alliance is that a gorram gun's been stolen. It's just— The mind boggles”.

“You said ‘gorram’“, Slate pointed out.

“I learned it from you”, she responded, quickly.

Slate thought through what had been said. “So how do we know about it?”

“I have access to news sources that don't make the puppet theater”, she stated. “The reports come straight from Lilac. But there is corroboration from the actions of the Alliance”.


“They've hired a private security firm to keep the peace. They wouldn't do that if there weren't something going on. In principle, that firm is there to enforce the law, make sure all the citizens behave, but it could be they're also there to defend against marauders. I doubt they'd be told it was Reavers, although they must have heard the stories by now. To add even more credibility to our information, the firm is being paid in cash”.

“Cash, electronic, what's the difference?”, Slate asked. “It's all just as traceable. And I doubt the Alliance would pay in platinums.

“Cash transactions can only be traced if you spend the money in Alliance facilities”, Elizabeth explained. “The serial number on the note can be recorded, and tied to the person making the transaction. But there's plenty of scope for that money to change hands several times before it gets anywhere near an Alliance facility. There are many ways to launder money, especially out here on the Rim. In some parts of the 'Verse, paper money can be as anonymous as coin.”

“All right”, Slate agreed, “That tells us there are Reavers on Lilac. But it doesn't tell us those are our Reavers”.

“Don't they all deserve to die?”, Elizabeth asked, mild bitterness in her voice.

“Could be”, Slate agreed. “But we've only got one nuke, and I want to see it gets to the right place. 'Sides — I want to send the Reavers a very specific message, if they're even capable of understanding a message: That we are not like them. That we don't kill indiscriminately. But — that if they kill our families, we will come looking for them, and we will destroy them”.

“You think the rest of the Reavers will understand that and stay away from humans?”

“No. But we're only gonna get one shot at this, and I don't want to miss the target”.

She nodded, and reached across the floor to pull the controller, a small upholstered table with a tiny touch-sensitive screen, toward her. As she operated it, the lounge's larger screen mimicked the smaller, and Slate saw a still image of a desert world, with a small space ship in the sky. He frowned as he looked at it.

“Can you magnify that?”, he asked.

“Sure can”, she acknowledged, doing so. There was no doubt. It was the same ship.

“The front looks different”, Slate observed. “It looks like they've bolted on part of another ship”.

“They're been doing some repairs”, she deduced, almost involuntarily exclaiming: “Hell, that's crude”.

Realization dawned on Slate slowly. The smile that slowly grew across his face extended its effects across his whole body. It was like a warm, fuzzy feeling that engulfed him little by little until his entire physiology was poised on the verge on excitement, and about to be flung into the embrace of triumph. He turned off the screen and strode across to the drinks cabinet, which, unusually, was not empty. “Wine”, he explained, “From Greenleaf”. Not all parts of Greenleaf were equally hot. Some were cool enough to plant vineyards, to make wine. And quite decent it was, too. He poured two glasses. “To victory”, he toasted. Elizabeth returned his toast. “Play that music again”, Slate suggested.

“What?”, Elizabeth queried, confused.

“That music you played the other day. Val's Twist or whatever”.

She frowned, but complied with his request, using the controller to find the song and pipe it through the lounge's sound system.

Slate lowered the volume just a tad, and then dimmed the lights. He stood in front of the seated Elizabeth and held out his hand to her. Still confused, she took it, and he pulled her to her feet. “I'm sorry I laughed at you that day”, he said, earnestly. “I'm not laughing now”. His voice was soft, gentle.

“What are you doing?”, Elizabeth asked, just as softly.

“Dance with me”, he suggested.

She lay her right hand on his shoulder and held out her left. “You do know how to waltz?”, she queried.

“I know”, he said, and took her hand, placing his other hand on her waist. And then he led, and they danced to the delicate strains of Jean Sibelius.

Elizabeth closed her eyes as she danced, and in her mind, the lounge of the Vindicator was transformed into a ballroom every bit as splendid as the Regency ballroom, Londinium, the lamps around the walls replaced by glistening chandeliers, and her pants and jacket replaced by a flowing, ruffled gown that reached to the floor, magnificent in its grandeur. Other dancers shared the floor with them, but they weren't dancing in pairs, they were moving in perfectly choreographed orchestration, a ballet of pure beauty, of smooth, silky, flowing movement, with herself and Slate as the ballet's centerpiece.

She felt the warmth of his body. In the dancing, they had somehow nestled closer together, but she didn't mind that. She opened her eyes. The ballet troupe were still there, in her imagination, carrying the dance into something more than a simple waltz. She saw Slate's eyes, big and brown, and saw in them a passion she had not noticed before.

Slate whispered to her as they danced. “You wanted to know what happened to me after I left Osiris?”. Elizabeth nodded. “Once upon a time, I didn't want to tell you because you were a reporter, and I was afraid you might tell others, put me and mine in danger. Now I don't want to tell you because I don't want to put you in danger. You could be just quietly getting on with your life, and then one day just disappear”.

“The Alliance don't just make people disappear”, she said, softly, but without conviction, and even as she said it, she knew that it wasn't true.

“Believe me”, Slate said, his voice soft, but his message hard, “If they want to, they can make a whole planet disappear”.

They slowed to a halt as the music ended, and finally came to seem embarrassed at their closeness.

“It was called Miranda”, he whispered in her ear.

There were three knocks at the door. Merissa entered. “We're out of the world”, she reported. Then, “Oh — was I interrupting something?”

Dark Places

When Worlds Collide

The two young lovers giggled as they lay back in the basement of the big house amidst the stocks of supplies. Albert giggled as Sue rebuttoned his shirt. They weren't supposed to be lovers — Sue's parents did not approve — so they met in secret, away from prying eyes. But their playful activities were interrupted by the sound of a scream, a cry of pain. “What was that?”, Albert said, alarmed.

They soon found out. The basement door flung open and a man tumbled down the stairs, as if thrown. Sue jumped up in shock, crying out: “Papa”.

Sue's father looked as though his arm had been broken, but it didn't stop him trying to get up and get away. Upon seeing Sue, he just said: “Run!” He made for the basement's only window, the only way out of this room apart from the stairs, but he never got that far. A harpoon bolt thudded into his leg and he fell to the ground. Sue screamed: “No!”, and at once a harpoon bolt pierced her gut. The raiders descended the stairs.

Albert ducked behind a stack of crates and trembled, trying to stay silent. Staying out of sight, too terrified to move, he could only listen to the sounds of torment. He heard Sue and her father beg for mercy, for their very lives, but all they received was torture. Then he heard a girl's voice, speaking English, explaining to Sue and her father that they were going to be killed. It was a voice which contained not a trace of pity. Then he heard Sue's cry. He didn't see what happened, he only saw the splatter of blood which flew over the crate and onto the wall behind him, and Sue's scream went on and on, while her father sobbed and pleaded. Albert could do nothing. All he could do was stay hidden. His one plan was to get help, but you can't get help if you're dead, so he stayed still, and silent. He lost track of time as the cries and screams and sobs went on, and on, and on. Then finally, he heard the sound of people climbing the stairs and leaving. Sue's father was still alive for sure — he could hear his tortured sobs, but he could no longer hear Sue. Finally, when all was quiet, he dared to lift his head above the crate. He didn't recognize what he was looking at straight away, but bile came to his throat once he did. He saw Sue's decapitated head, just lying on the floor, mouth open in a silent scream. He stood up, sharply. Why would anyone do this?

Then he saw her, the girl. He didn't recognize her, but he knew that that image would be burned onto his brain for as long as he lived. The girl was covered in blood from head to foot. She had marks on her face — either cuts or tattoos, he wasn't sure. She was looking down at Sue's head, and smiling. Then, slowly, she lifted her head, and looked directly into Albert's eyes.

For just a brief instant, Albert thought: I'm dead. Then he realized that the girl had no weapon. He saw the glimmer of a chance, and took it. He bolted for the window. It was above his head height, but by leaping onto a cabinet he could make it. He heard the girl give chase. He threw stuff back to slow her down.

Then, miraculously, he was outdoors. He didn't stop to look back. He just kept on running.

The brief glimpses he took in from around him told him enough. Marauders, invaders, bandits had come to Fortune and were attacking and killing people indiscriminately. Part of him felt ashamed, because he should be helping his neighbors to fight the invaders, but terror drove him to move without thinking. He could hear the pounding of footsteps behind him, and knew that he was being chased, and not just by the girl. His foot hit a rock and he stumbled, but quickly caught his balance and continued running without a break. Then he saw a thick metal arrow thud into the ground just ahead of him, attached by rope to whatever weapon had fired it. He just kept on running.

He took an erratic course, hoping this would help him to avoid getting shot, but he never looked back even once. He was out of breath, but fear propelled him regardless. Instinct drove him toward the horses, as though he thought he could leap onto the back of one and gallop away to safety, but it was not to be. As he reached the three horses tied to the rail, a harpoon thudded into the neck of one them. They were panicked enough as it was, and only a miracle took him through and past the rearing, screaming animals. As he fled, he thought he could hear what must be horses trampling people — perhaps the invaders had tried to run through the panicked beasts and had not been so lucky as he. He didn't look back to find out.

But now there was nowhere to go, nowhere to run. Already out of the ranch, ahead was the cliff edge. He veered left, and wished he hadn't. Four of the ugly marauders were running toward him from ahead. He skidded to a halt and turned around, hoping to backtrack along the cliff, but as soon as he did so, he knew that his options were limited. One attacker headed toward him, but this one was on horseback, and aiming some kind of weapon in his direction. He didn't wait to find out what it was. His options were now extremely limited, and any of those options might kill him. Without thinking, he took the only option which held some possibility of survival, and ran headlong over the cliff edge, tumbling down the steep incline as he fell.

The Reavers reached the cliff edge and halted, looking down to see what had become of their prey. The scene told its own story. The prey had tumbled down the cliff and plunged into the lake. It was almost certainly dead, and there was no point in risking hunters for just one piece of meat. Card laughed, and directed his hunters back toward Fortune. There was more meat to be had there.

Barely conscious, Albert surfaced and gazed up at the sky. Every single part of him hurt, and he still had no idea what had just happened, or why. He tried to breathe, but his chest hurt. He lay on his back, not moving. Only his face peeked above water. Finally, he gave in to the inevitable and lost consciousness. Then he simply drifted, Albert Coleman, the sole survivor of the massacre of Fortune Ranch.

Angel stared vacantly across the still waters of the lake, eyes glazed, saying, sarcastically: “Well, this is interesting”. The tone did not go unnoticed.

“It's a lake. We're fishing”, Olivia pointed out. “What did you expect? Pirates?”

Angel turned to face her companion, hair waving in the gentle breeze. “You said this would be exciting”, she complained.

“No”, Olivia corrected. “I said this would be fun”.

Angel leaned back and looked once more across the vast expanse of the lake, whose extent reached far across the horizon and beyond, her fishing rod propped on its stand, line dangling into the gently rippling surface. They sat on a brick floored platform which extended out over the lake for a short distance. To their left, a brick wall gave them a feeling of privacy and isolation. “What is this place anyway?”, she asked. She'd always known about the existence of this old ruin, but hadn't been here since her childhood. What would have been the point?

“Way back when”, said Olivia, slipping into storytelling mode, “Before there were any settlers on this luh se moon, there were terraformers. Big machines; big buildings”. She thumbed the ruin. “That was one of them”.

“It doesn't look like an atmosphere processor”, Angel objected. The ones she had seen had been tall pyramidical or conical structures, not flat buildings like this.

“Weren't for making air”, Olivia explained. “That there was for the water. Purifying it, or putting … microbes in or … some such. Hell, we're fishing ain't we? Fish gotta come from somewheres”.

Angel jumped up suddenly, her eyes scanning the distant horizon. She lifted her hand to shield her eyes from the sun.

Olivia wondered what could have caused her friend to become so agitated so quickly, and looked out across the lake to see what had caught Angel's attention. She saw nothing. “What the hell you looking at?”, she asked.

“I think there's someone out there”, she said, excitedly. “I think — yes, it's a person. A body, or someone in trouble”.

It took Olivia a moment to locate where Angel was pointing. When she finally did, she said: “Well I'll be damned. I'm fair sure that's young Albert”. Wasting no further time, she kicked off her shoes and dived into the water.

Angel stood on the edge, watching anxiously. Albert? Albert Coleman? What was he doing on the lake? He couldn't even swim!

The cloud of dust edged its way over the horizon, closely followed by the sound of horses. Sitting on the porch of his office, Sheriff John Coleman looked out toward the cause of the ruckus. No, not horses, he thought. One horse. Just one. And a rider who seems in a mighty hurry.

He stepped off the porch and into the street, and waited while the rider brought her steed into the town's one and only street. He recognized the horse long before he recognized the rider. He was about to ask what the problem was, but the rider, young Angel Briar, beat him to it.

“Sheriff Coleman”, Angel called, desperately. “It's Albert. He's hurt. I've come to get help”.

“What!?”, the sheriff exclaimed. “My son? Hurt? Where? How?”

“He's all right”, Angel reassured. “Olivia is with him, be we need help getting him home. They're up at the ruin. You know — the old terraforming station. We found him in the water. He was half drowned and covered in cuts and bruises”.

The sheriff wasted no time, quickly untying his own horse. As he did so, he hammered Angel with questions. “What were you doing there? What was Albert doing there? Is he OK?”

“We were just fishing. We found Albert in the water. We think he's OK but Olivia's no doctor. Nor am I. I came back for help as soon as we were sure we'd got him safe”.

“Good thinking”, said the Sheriff. “You did good. Now stay here”. He rode off, yelling at various townsfolk, or their houses, or their offices, as he passed them. “Doc, get your ass out here, we got a gorram emergency. Brad, ready that cart, we got a patient to bring back”.

Angel dismounted, relieved that her part was over, and that she'd done the right thing, but still concerned for Albert. She patted her horse, and led him gently toward the lake, wondering what could have happened to Albert to have left him in that condition. She fervently hoped he'd be OK.

Slate assembled the crew in the lounge. “It's time to weigh up our options”, he told everyone, “decide what we're gonna do next”.

“You got a plan?”, Polly asked, expecting the answer yes.

“Nope”, Slate told them. “I just want to make sure everyone knows what we're up against, what we're dealing with. Wouldn't want us getting ourselves too reckless, getting ourselves killed. Those are Reavers we're up against. It don't pay to take too many chances”. Nobody argued. He sat down, saying “Elizabeth, why don't you tell everyone what we know?”

Elizabeth stayed seated, but brought up an aerial shot of part of the moon's surface on the big screen. It showed an almost perfectly circular lake, surrounded by desert. “What you're looking at is Lake Linford”, she told them. “It was originally a crater, just a big hole in the ground, twenty miles across. When the moon was terraformed, it was turned into a lake. There are three things of interest around its shore. Top right on screen is where the Reavers are now, picking the bones of a small ranch called Fortune. Their ship is too small to see at this scale, but if we zoom in, we can see it”. She touched some controls on the table before her and the picture zoomed in to show the Reaver ship they were after. Tiny specks moved around like ants outside the ship: the Reavers themselves. The image zoomed back out again.

“Almost diametrically opposite the lake from Fortune”, Elizabeth continued, “is a small town with the somewhat unfortunate name of Malady. Malady is much larger than Fortune, population maybe fifty to a hundred people, but that still makes it smaller than Herren. The Reavers could take it. And as it's the closest settlement to where they are now, it's likely to be their next target. The second nearest potential target is fifty miles further, and much larger — Malady has to be where they'll attack next”.

Polly interjected: “You said there were three items of interest”.

“That's right. Near the top of the screen you can see a small structure”.

Actually, they couldn't, until Elizabeth caused the view to zoom in. When she did that, Polly voiced her observation: “It's a ruin”.

“That was built when people first started to terraform the moon”, Elizabeth explained. “It was designed to make the water breathable”.

“Excuse me”, Ben interrupted, abruptly. “There are some things I'm pretty sure about, and I'm pretty sure that water is not supposed to be breathable”.

“Not for humans”, Elizabeth explained, “For fish. They had to aerate it, fill it with plants or plankton or whatever. There's more to terraforming than just making things nice for humans. If you want it to last, you need the whole ecosystem, right the way down”.

Kwok Fi asked: “Why is it interesting if it's just a ruin?”

“Because, back when this terraforming station was up and running, the atmosphere of this moon was not breathable — if there even was an atmosphere. Everyone on this moon had to walk around in space suits whenever they were outdoors. Indoor places like that would have had to have had airlocks, probably deep underground. And it would have had its own internal power supply. It's possible that if you could find a way in, then maybe, just maybe, it could be a safe place to shelter from Reavers”.

They stared at the ruin for a brief time, before Elizabeth zoomed out the image to show the whole lake once more. Merissa said: “That's gotta be a long shot. That place has had hundreds of years of neglect”.

“Yeah”, Slate said. “I just wanted all the facts stated. OK, so here's the situation. We're here, and I ain't got the foggiest where to go from here. Going in with guns drawn would get us killed. I trust y'all enough to want your input,”

No one spoke straight away. Then Polly said: “We could tell the authorities. Or what authorities there are on this world. Didn't someone say there was a security firm hired?”

“Done that”, Elizabeth said, “But I don't expect much to come of it. They said they'd send someone to investigate”.

Cynically, Slate added: “For that matter, why ain't they here already? How come they don't know as much as we do?”

Elizabeth said: “They're just there for show, to reassure the population that something's being done”.

There was just the briefest of pauses, before Merissa spoke up. “I got a plan”, she said.

“Go”, Slate proffered.

Merissa said: “We drop the nuke on the Reavers and we detonate it”.

Horrified, Polly almost leapt out of her seat. “You can't do that! It would kill all the people in Malady!”

Keeping her face composed and her voice calm, Merissa said: “They're dead anyway”.

Slate was stunned. Completely taken aback, he almost didn't know what to say. How could anyone even think of suggesting the killing of dozens of men, women and children? It was beyond his comprehension. “We ain't murderers”, he finally said.

“I'm being compassionate”, Merissa explained. She elaborated. “Think about the alternative? Wait until the Reavers kill them and then kill the Reavers? So we can all feel good about the fact we ain't murderers and we how we avenged the good people of Malady who'd been raped, skinned and eaten alive? But they'll still all be dead, or worse. We can spare them that pain”.

Slate started to say something. “That's not— “.

But he didn't finish the sentence – because he knew that she was right. He knew that, back on Herren, if he could have put Jade out of her misery, if he could have put a bullet through her brain to spare her whatever fate the Reavers had in store for her, he would have done it without hesitation. It would have been a mercy. What made this any different?

“Be nice if we could come up with some other options”, he finally concluded.

Ever eager to argue with Merissa, Ben suggested: “How about this: we fly down, land the ship just outside town, get everyone onto Vindicator, and get the hell out as fast as possible with everyone on board”.

“We can't risk the ship “, Elizabeth said, sternly.

Ben pressed the proposal. “We can be in and out real quick”.

“Elizabeth's right”, Slate said. “If we lose this ship, it's over. There won't be a second chance. There's no guarantee that the townsfolk would even believe us, or that they'd want to leave if they did. You can't just assume we can just round them all up quickly. We could end up there longer than you imagine. The Reaver ship has weapons. Ours doesn't. If they fry us, we're all dead”.

“So what does that leave us?”, Papagina asked.

Elizabeth replied: “The old terraforming station. It's the only place nearby that could be a viable fortress. We have to investigate it”.

Slate said: “OK, how about this — we go down in two groups. We leave the ship up here where it will be safe, but we go down in shuttles. Elizabeth and I will head into the town and try to persuade the townsfolk that they need to leave, and quickly. Meanwhile, Ben and Kwok Fi, you go and investigate the ruin — see if there's any chance it could be used as a shelter”.

“I'd rather take Merissa”, Ben said.

“Why?”, Slate asked, curiously. Ben's wanting to work with Merissa was a new one on him.

“Let's just say I think the chances of a nuke going off on the ground would be considerably lessened if Merissa was on the ground too”, Ben said.

“Now wait!”, Slate objected. He didn't like to see discord among his crew.

“It's all right”, Merissa said. “I'm happy to go”. After all, she reasoned, that station might well be the safest place around. Safer even than this ship. And it's wise to have all the information to hand.

“Then it's settled”, Slate said. “That's our plan. Let's get organized”.

Albert Coleman sat up in bed with a start, crying “Sue!”. His mother, Marjorie, gripped his hand tightly. She had been keeping a more or less permanent bedside vigil ever since the Doc had left.

“It's all right, Al”, she told him. “You're safe”.

He looked at her with sorrow and pain in his eyes. “The girl”, he cried. “Monsters! It was a nightmare”.

“Shh”, she said, gently. “I'll go get your father. The Doc says you should get some rest, so take it easy”.

She closed the door quietly as she left the room, but then raced down the stairs and across the street to the Sheriff's office. “John”, she called. She marched into the office and, without preamble, said: “Al's awake”.

“Is he all right?”, John asked.

“I don't know”, she told him. “He was dreaming. Had a bad dream. He wasn't making much sense. I told him I'd fetch you”.

John thanked his wife, and set off across the street. He called back, “Tell the Doc Al's awake”.

When he entered his son's bedroom, he was relieved to see his son lying there, eyes open and awake. “Son”, he proffered. “We were all worried about you. Won't you tell us what happened? How did you end up in the lake?”

“I jumped”, Albert said, seemingly calmly. Then he laughed, senselessly. “I jumped. From the cliffs at Fortune Ranch”.

“You what!?”, John said in disbelief. “Why?”

“I was running. Away. From … Sue. They … they … I couldn't… I couldn't. Too many. Too many of them, and… And the blood, and—“

“Whoa, son, slow down. Who's Sue? Do you mean the Harrison's girl? What were you doing at Fortune?”

Albert gazed silently at his father for just a moment, before continuing his recap. “Strangers. Monsters. Not like in fairy tales. Sue. Yes, Sue Harrison. I loved her”. He started to cry. “Please, Dad. She's hurt bad. She… Her head—“

“I'll send the Doc”, he promised.

Albert visibly relaxed. “Good”, he said. Then in a quieter voice, he repeated: “Good”. Then he closed his eyes and was silent, save for gentle breathing.

A frown crossed John Coleman's face. “What do you mean, monsters?” But Albert was already asleep. He shook his son gently. “Albert, are you telling me that raiders attacked the Harrison place?”

Albert stirred in response to the question. “I breathed their air”, he said. “Too close. Much too close”. Then he fell back, instantly asleep.

John walked back down the stairs. Marjorie awaited him in his office. “Boy's feverish”, he told his wife, “Reckon he saw something that shook him up. I'll send a couple of my men along with the Doc; check things out”.

“Shouldn't we keep the Doc here?”

“Boy was pretty insistent Sue Harrison was in need of Doctoring. We only got the one medic.” He shrugged. “Be on the lookout for strangers”, he added.

Jade sat quietly within the quickly constructed hillside shelter, binoculars at the ready. She and other members of her pack had been observing the town of Malady for days now, while others picked the bones of Fortune. The raid on Fortune had only been half successful. They had gained equipment, but not as much meat as they would have liked. Many of the prey had had the audacity to retreat into a cellar full of explosives and then commit suicide rather than be caught. What was left of that meat had been inedible — such a waste. The four or five specimens which they had managed to catch had been useful, but hardly enough meat for the whole pack. It was important that the next hunt be more successful.

Malady was a larger town, larger than any they had tackled so far on this moon. Its population, she now knew, consisted of thirty adult males and thirty four females. Of those, eight were children, and eleven were too old to be of concern. That left twenty four males and twenty one females who could be considered substantial prey. In total, the prey outnumbered the Reavers, but the pack were unencumbered with young and old. The advantage was still theirs.

Malady, she knew, was situated on the coast of a large, circular lake, which served only a single town — not counting the small ranch they had just raided. The town did a little fishing, a little farming, and not a lot else. The single saloon bar on the main street was probably its busiest establishment. Occasionally, one or two of the prey would ride out on horses, sometimes with carts, sometimes without, presumably to trade with other towns — although since the nearest neighboring town was almost fifty miles away that would have meant a journey of several hours. In addition to horses, the town possessed exactly five motorized vehicles which they could conceivably use as means of escape: a boat, a tractor, a combine harvester, and two large wheeled buggies. Those seemed to be used rarely, presumably because fuel for them would have had to have been brought in from outside. Nonetheless, those vehicles were kept fully fueled. Jade guessed that they would have to be taken out first. Some might try to escape on horses. She wasn't sure what would be done about that, but that wasn't her concern . Her job was merely to observe and report. Others would plan and execute the attack.

“I brought you some food”, came a voice. Startled, she turned to see Tuss carrying a haversack. He sat down beside her, without waiting to be asked, and began to rummage through the pack. It was a presumptuous thing for him to do. Reavers are territorial. Jade didn't exactly “own” this observation shelter, but while she occupied it, it was her territory. Tuss should have sought permission before entering, yet he had not. Another eccentricity. From the bag he pulled out a string of sausages, ground up prey meat mixed with blood, fat and herbs and stuffed into their own cleaned out intestines. He tore off a couple and handed them to Jade. “I guessed you might be hungry”, he explained.

She was. She hadn't realized how much until Tuss had reminded her, and she devoured both sausages with great relish. “Thanks”, she said, her mouth full.

“Sorry there's not more, but we're running low on meat”.

“Not to worry”, she said. She looked at Tuss, studied his features. His most striking attribute was his hair, which was sufficiently long as to reach his hips. In fact, Jade considered, now that she came to think about it, few among her kind had long hair, and many had no hair at all — the result, she assumed, of radiation sickness — yet Tuss had long, flowing locks. It was really quite breathtaking. His second most striking feature was his tattoo, the dark band up his forehead, made in imitation of the similar stripe of his pet.

Tuss's mention of Sing, and her own thoughts about radiation sickness, turned her thoughts toward her friend. “How is Sing?”, she asked, concerned.

“Getting worse”, Tuss reported. With evident confusion, he added: “I don't understand it. There's no more radiation leakage. I checked. I checked several times. How can she be getting more ill? And she's not the only one either.” He noticed Jade's look of worry, and then added “But she'll get better. Reavers always do.”

“Vash didn't”, Jade objected.

Tuss laughed. “Yeah, but that was before we plugged the leak — and he was working right on top of it. Sing will be fine”.

She looked into his eyes, and quickly looked away, feeling a vague flush of … something. She couldn't define exactly what it was that she felt. All she knew for sure was that she enjoyed this man's company, and that she wanted him to stay.

“I guess the hunters will be gearing up to attack this place soon”, he commented, cheerily.

She looked back toward the small town. “I hope so”, she said, thinking of Sing. More food meant more nutrition, more chance of Sing's recovering. “I hope so very much”.

Having dropped off Ben and Merissa, Elizabeth brought the shuttle down gently and parked it outside of town. They would have to walk in. They had considered simply landing right by the town, but it seemed more important to keep the shuttle hidden. If the Reavers came, that shuttle might be their only advantage. “OK, we're here”, Elizabeth said. “Let's go”.

They had landed in a small crater — much, much smaller than the one which had formed the lake. It made a perfect hiding place for the shuttle. One would have to be almost overhead in order to have seen it. However, the crater wall was sufficiently eroded that it was easily possible to find a path at its edge which allowed the visitors to ascend to the lip and walk out onto the plain.

It was only a thirty minute walk from the hiding place to the outskirts of the town. They carried radios but only Slate carried a gun — the idea was to be in and out quickly. They talked as they walked. “How do you suppose these folk will react when we tell them there's Reavers coming?”, Slate asked.

“How would you have reacted?”, she returned, answering his question with a question.

“I guess we would have gotten the vulnerable folks somewhere safe, maybe out to sea: the old, the young, the ill, mothers. Them as was able, maybe we'd get ready to fight, build up defenses”.

“Think they'll do that here?”, she asked.

“Who knows?”, Slate said, resignedly. The town loomed before them.

Far off in the hills, a pair of binoculars affixed to a tripod within a canvas shelter, pointed in the direction of the town's main street. Slate and Elizabeth walked into its field of view, never even knowing that it was there.

Jade wasn't paying attention to her duties, however. She was otherwise occupied. In fact, she and Tuss were kissing. The binoculars remained unattended.

It had happened straightforwardly and uncomplicatedly. There had been no teenage awkwardness, despite Jade's inexperience. Nonetheless, she was unprepared for the moment when she felt Tuss's hand on her breast. With an almost instinctive snap, she pulled back, and in the same movement grabbed Tuss's hand and pulled it away from her. “No”, she said, sharply.

Tuss looked momentarily stunned. “OK”, he said. Then, after having thought through the sequence of events, he said: “I understand 'No'. I don't understand why”.

Her sense of panic ebbed away. “Sorry”, she said, genuinely.

“It's all right. I'm just confused”, Tuss replied.

In a quiet voice, Jade said: “You and me both”. She understood how things worked in this society. She was the higher ranking of the two, but Tuss could still have challenged her with a fight. If he'd done that, and won; if she'd surrendered — well, surrender meant just that. She would have had to have conceded. She was glad that events hadn't taken that course. “It's just … I'm still new to this society”. She didn't add and still a virgin — it would have seemed a trite thing to say. Changing the subject, she asked: “What were you, before you became a Reaver?”

The question took Tuss by surprise. “Now I really don't understand”, he confessed. “I'm not up on the supernatural”.

Jade frowned. “No, I just meant … you know … before”. How else could she ask that? She wondered if it was a problem with language.

“There was no before”, Tuss said. “How could there be?”

Jade had an ominous feeling. She tried again. “What were you like as a child?”

Tuss looked almost offended. “I was never a child”, he insisted.

Jade felt a chill run down her spine. Something was starting to dawn on her, something she should have realized long before, if only she'd paid attention to the clues. She asked: “What's the first thing you remember?”

Tuss closed his eyes and tried to answer. “Fear”, he said. He thought more, and added: “And rage. Definitely a lot of anger. Prey littered around me. People trying to kill me. I got away, took Erin with me. I found an armored car, made it work, and stayed out of trouble. Until the packs formed. Then I figured I had to join one or I wouldn't survive”.

“And that would be … what? … twelve years ago?”, Jade guessed.

“I don't know. Could be”.

“And you have no memory of being…“ She was going to say prey but thought better of it. “…Anything but Reaver?”

“It's how the gods made me”, he said, simply.

The pieces clicked into place. Twelve years ago, I lost my memory of everything before that date. And so did you. So did all of us Reavers. Except that in her case, things were a little different. Because now she, and she alone, was starting to remember.

Ben and Merissa entered the old ruin and began to search. They had brought with them grenades and dynamite, reasoning that if they found an entrance to the underground portions of the station, it might take explosives to get through.

Elizabeth had given them a map of how the place used to be, hundreds of years ago, but it was difficult to correlate the map to the sometimes overgrown and corroded walls. Eventually, however, they found what should have been a staircase. It was now a pile of rocks.

“If we blast these out of the way, we'll get to see what's underneath”, Merissa suggested.

“Dynamite?”, suggested Ben.

“Let's do it”, Merissa agreed.

Slate and Elizabeth strode determinedly toward the sheriff's office. As they stepped onto the porch, one young girl grabbed Slate's arm. “Have you come to see Albert?”, she asked.

Slate stopped in his tracks, looking confused. “Only if Albert's the sheriff”, he answered. He knelt down so as to be at the same eye level as the girl. “Name's Slate”.

“I'm Angel”, she said.

“Nice name”, he acknowledged.

Elizabeth tapped him on the shoulder. “Slate, we need to move”, she urged.

Slate smiled at the girl and stood up. To Elizabeth, he said: “You never had kids, did you?” He watched as Angel walked off.

“Technically, nor did you”, Elizabeth retorted.

The sheriff looked up as the two strangers entered. “Well now”, he said. “What have we here? Don't often get strangers in these parts”

“We came here to warn you”, Elizabeth began.

“That so?”, John replied, the tone of his voice making it clear he was suspicious.

“It is”, Slate responded. “Look, I know you got no reason to believe us right now, but–“

“You folks just come from Fortune?”, John asked.

Slate frowned in puzzlement. “You know what happened at Fortune?”

Elizabeth said: “Whatever you think happened at Fortune, I assure you the danger is far greater than you imagine”.

Slate interrupted. “Place got hit by Reavers”.

“Reavers, huh?”, John replied, clearly not believing them.

“We do have evidence”, Elizabeth said, conciliatorily. From a pocket, she withdrew a small video screen. At the touch of a thumb, the pictures they recorded from Herren island began to play.

Albert Coleman chose that moment to amble down the stairs. “Water”, he said. “Need water. And a knife”. That last part made no sense to anyone, least of all to John, who simply assumed he must have misheard.

“Son, wait there”.

Albert looked up at his father, and spied also Elizabeth and Slate. Slate looked up at Albert, partly in confusion, but mostly because he simply couldn't bear to watch the scenes unfolding on the capture which Elizabeth held. But Albert's eyes were drawn toward it. On the screen, he saw Jade as she was dragged out of the frame, and fear and panic took hold of him. “It's them!”, he cried. “Butchers! Murderers!” He pointed toward the capture, toward Slate and Elizabeth.

“What!?”, Slate said, stumped by the unexpected outburst.

“They killed Sue! They killed everyone! I saw!” The young man was almost crying. He snatched the player from Elizabeth's hand and smashed it against the corner of his father's desk, then collapsed to the floor as he spoke.

“You know what?”, the sheriff said to Slate and Elizabeth. “I think we should discuss this some other time”.

“We don't have time for— “

“It wasn't a request”, Sheriff Coleman insisted. “You're under arrest”.

Slate reached for his gun, and a dozen of the sheriff's men did the same, except that they were faster.

“Oh, crap!”, Elizabeth said.

Gra looked up from the binoculars just as Khrau entered the shelter. Gra had taken over the watch from Jade. Khrau was there in reserve. “Something's up”, Gra told him. “The prey are getting skittish”.

Khrau frowned. Card was back at the ship, which meant that, right here, right now, any decisions affecting the hunt would be his. He didn't want anything to go wrong, and he hadn't liked the sound of Gra's warning. “What do you mean?”, he asked.

“Hard to say exactly. They're moving about, but it looks more … purposeful … than before. Small numbers are heading out of town. I think somehow they sense their danger.”

“Do they know we're here?”, Khrau asked, his voice a low growl.

“I don't think we've been spotted”, she said, thinking aloud. “But I think they suspect we're here”.

Khrau wasn't happy. If this news was true, it could ruin the hunt. He had to decide quickly. “We're going to have to attack sooner than planned”, he concluded. “We need to get back to the ship. I need to rally the hunters, and we'll need you to fly”. Gra nodded and followed Khrau out of the shelter. They headed back, Khrau thinking hard. It would take at least half an hour to get back to the ship, maybe another half hour to organize the hunters. But there was no faster way. He simply had to hope it would be enough.

When the dust had settled, Ben and Merissa knew they'd hit the jackpot. The dynamite had punched a big hole through the stone, clearing an opening to a descending staircase.

“According to the map”, Ben said, “This should lead to basement level one”.

“Any airlocks there?”, Merissa asked. “Anything which could be used to keep Reavers out?”

“Not on level one”, Ben answered. “The airlocks would have been on the ground level — this level. But deeper down, there are places on the map look like they might be sealable. Maybe laboratories, hermetic”.

“Give me the map”, she instructed.

Ben hesitated, but gave her the map. Merissa studied it intently. “Basement level four”, she said, pointing out something on the map. “I think we can make our fortress there”. He didn't quite see what she was pointing at, but he reasoned that she was right. As little as he trusted Merissa, he did acknowledge that survival was high on her list of priorities, therefore he wanted to be where she was, because he knew that Merissa would inevitably gravitate toward the safest place.

“OK, Let's go”, he said.

Ben called Vindicator to let them know they might be going out of radio contact. Then, waving dust aside and covering their mouths with their sleeves as they went, they descended the staircase. Merissa went first, carrying the map.

From the inside of a jail cell, Slate yelled at the top of his voice: “Will somebody listen to me?” But there was no one to hear — no one but Elizabeth in the adjacent cell. The sheriff's office was empty. Sheriff Coleman had decided that looking after his son was more important than guarding prisoners, especially prisoners who might be murderers and who seemed to have had something to do with his son's current state of distress. Slate rattled the door of the cell, all to no avail. His gun and both their radios had been confiscated — there was nothing he could do.

In the streets outside, there was commotion. A space ship had appeared over the horizon, and flew toward them across the lake. Sheriff Coleman ran from his home into the street, wondering where the ship had come from, and what it was doing here. Four shuttles separated from the main ship and headed straight for the town, while the main ship veered off somewhere else. As the shuttles approached, people simply stood and watched.

Angel stood in the street beside the Sheriff. She held her hand to her eyes to shield her vision from the sun, and could make out ropes descending from the shuttles, and people … or … not quite people … being lowered from the ropes.

“Get inside”, said the Sheriff, quietly but firmly.

Angel followed his direction.

When she was gone, the Sheriff spoke to the man beside him. “Everything set up?”

“Well as it can be”, came the reply.

Within the sheriff's house, Albert Coleman sat on the floor of the bathroom, softly crooning. He held a razor blade in one hand. Slowly and deliberately, he drew cut after cut across his left arm, drawing blood every time. “You're going to die”, he murmured in a quiet, singsong voice. “You're all going to die…“

The invaders dropped to the ground. Sheriff Coleman drew his gun.

Dark Places

When Worlds Collide (part 2)

Crane yawned, and looked out through the slit at the unchanging blue sky. “Do anything on U-Day?”, he asked.

Corby glanced across at his associate. “Took the wife and kids out for a pizza. Usual stuff. You?”

“Believe it or not, U-Day was when I got this lousy job here”, he complained. Then he commented: “I don't know why you don't just leave this thing on autopilot. It can fly itself, you know”.

“Yeah, in straight lines”, Corby quipped. He kept his hands on the controls and watched through the slit as the armored hovercar flew across the desert. “Anyway, what's wrong with this job? It's easy money, ain't it?”

“It's boring”, Crane complained, yawning again. “Nothing ever happens. I mean — take today. What are we doing?”

“We're investigating”, Corby said, simply. “We were told to investigate, so we're investigating”.

“Investigating, my ass!”, came the retort. “They send us to a pissant town on a pissant moon, and all because the locals are scared of ghosts”.

“Reavers”, Corby corrected. “It says Reavers in the report”.

“Ghosts, Reavers, whatever”, Crane said, his tone bored. “When are we going to see some real action? I signed up to fight real villains, not to mollycoddle superstitious yokels”

Corby shrugged. “I like it easy. We still get paid just the same”.

Crane closed his eyes. “Wake me up if anything interesting happens”.

Some time later, the hovercar slid into Malady's main street just as the odd-looking space ship appeared over the horizon. “Come on, Crane. Let's go see what's up”, Corby said. He set the craft down by the side of the road and flicked the switch which would open the doors. With a hiss they opened upward, hinged at the top. He climbed out of the vehicle. “Now, what do you suppose that is?”, he asked, pointing at the incoming ship.

Crane followed suit and climbed out of the cab. “That, Mister Corby, is a space ship”, he said. With forced enthusiasm, he said: “Let's go see the locals, find out what's of interest”.

There was a crowd on the street, which they walked toward. Must be a reception party for that ship, Crane thought. He wasn't far wrong. They headed for the guy in the sheriff's uniform. Then they saw people start to dissipate, and saw the sheriff draw his gun. They looked at each other, and drew their own. Beyond the crowd around the sheriff, they saw raiders descending from shuttles on long ropes. “Looks like we might have trouble”, Corby said, finally paying attention to the cause of the commotion.

A shuttle flew overhead, and a harpoon whizzed down from the sky and embedded itself in Crane's shoulder. Crane yelped, more in surprise than in pain, but his voice took a different tone when he found himself lifted off the ground and flying through the air. The barbed arrowhead didn't merely pull itself out when the shuttle shot by, it took Crane with it, and he dangled in the air like a fish on a line, screaming for help. Corby fired a few shots, but it was too late. Just like that, his colleague was gone.

Angel rushed into the jailhouse and took the keys from the sheriff's drawer. Slate jumped toward the bars. “Angel”, he said, desperately. “You gotta let us out”.

“I'm doing it”, Angel said. She fumbled with the keys and unlocked first Slate's cell and then Elizabeth's. “Sheriff said you came to warn us”, she said, fear evident in her voice. “The Reavers are here. What do we do?”

Elizabeth said: “You run”.

“Can you ride a horse?”, Slate demanded, looking for his confiscated gun and radio.

“Yes”, Angel said.

“Then you get on one and you go. Fast as you can”. He found his gun and replaced it in its holster. No joy with the radios, however.

“Where to?”

“There's an old terraforming station. You might be safe there”.

“It's just a ruin”, Angel complained.

“Shelter's underground”, Elizabeth told her. She and Slate ran out into the street. Reavers were already on the ground. Guns were being fired, but they weren't stopping the Reavers, who appeared to be wearing body armor.

Sheriff Coleman took careful aim at a barrel at the end of the street. It exploded with some force, flames shooting into the air, two Reavers dragged through the air by the force of the blast.

So they did prepare after all, Slate thought. He looked around and saw the strategically placed barrels at the ends of the street.

But they didn't prepare enough. They didn't evacuate the town.

And then it dawned on him that he was standing in a street with Reavers invading — and not just any Reavers, but the Reavers, the ones who had wiped out his home, the ones who had killed Jade. He looked up at the sky. Merissa, you were right, he thought. Drop the bomb! Drop it now! End it while you have the chance! But he had no way to communicate that message to Vindicator, and he doubted that the people still on board would have followed that order anyway, even if he had been able to give it.

“We have to find some cover”, Elizabeth yelled over the noise. “Then try to get out of here”.

“Are you mad?”, Slate argued. “We have to help these people”.

“Fine”, she retorted. “You die. I'll take over the ship when you're dead”.

Slate wasted no more time arguing and ran behind a building. He peered round the corner. Two Reavers had broken through and were slashing away at people using metal implements he was not able to identify. He looked at his solitary gun. Six bullets, he thought — That's all I have. He looked around at the street, the openness of their situation, and the Reaver shuttles that were still in the sky making further attacks from above. He lay his head back against the wall and closed his eyes in desolation. “We are so humped”, he finally admitted, in exasperation.

“Maybe not”, said Elizabeth.

Slate opened his eyes. “Why? What's happening?”

“Only the gorram cavalry!”. She pointed.

Slate followed the line of her arm. There in the sky was a speck, growing larger as he watched. “What the-!”, he exclaimed. “Don't those people ever obey orders?”

There was a rush of wind as Vindicator flew directly over their heads, scattering the Reaver shuttles.

“We still got Reavers on the ground”, Slate pointed out.

“A handful. The townsfolk outnumber them”.

“All right. Now I'm joining in the fight. You try to get as many people as you can away from here”. As he peered around the corner, his gun preceding his gaze, it occurred to him to wonder who was flying the ship. With Ben and Elizabeth both down here, that only left Papagina and Kwok Fi as realistic possibilities, and he had never seen either of them fly. Still — that was one mystery he didn't have time to worry about right now. He fired a bullet, and a Reaver hit the ground … and then got up again. Body armor! Five bullets left.

The Reaver shuttle spun and bounced across the desert sand, jolting Jade into full awareness. Something was going wrong. She tried to look out of the window but her view was limited, and as soon as she tried to stand up to get a better view, Khrau stood before her and snarled. “Sit”, he ordered, in a tone which made it clear that he must be obeyed.

She closed her eyes and tried to relax. She wasn't a combatant as such. She knew that ordinarily she would not be expected to take part in this initial phase of the hunt. Only at the end, when the time came to round up the stragglers, would she become involved. And yet … Mace was out there. What if she got hurt?

The shuttle door opened. They were outside the town, but they could see the town not too far off. Only a few minutes' walk would take them to the main street. Khrau spoke to everyone aboard. “We've crashed”, he told them. “So nobody gets to stay behind. Hunter or not, you're going in. You will all follow my orders”. He stared directly at Jade. “All of you”.

Jade was annoyed by the implication. Does he still not trust me?, she wondered.

“Anyone not wearing armor, kit up now”, Khrau instructed. Jade began looking through the lockers.

At the far end of town, people were leaving in droves. They had horses. They had carts. But unfortunately, they had nothing faster. They were fortunate that even this escape route had become available to them. Reavers had started to drop from the sky at this end of town too, but Vindicator had made it impossible for them to drop any more, and only two had descended. A sharpshooter had taken out one with a head shot; a barrel of dynamite the other. Now the way was clear to escape and families hastily rushed onto the carts and headed in the direction of Aegis, the nearest town, fifty miles to the south west.

Their flight from danger was fuelled by panic. Though two Reavers had been killed to make the escape possible, those Reavers had killed three of the townsfolk outright, and — perhaps worse — had given four others injuries from which they would never recover. One man was now permanently deaf, one woman hamstrung and unable to walk. But they continued to flee.

At the northern end of town, the fighting was much worse, and only seemed to escalate as time went by. The Reavers didn't carry guns, preferring their own harpoons, but they had no hesitation in picking up discarded guns from the dead and injured, and using those until their bullets ran out.

Albert Coleman descended the stairs just as his mother was about to climb them. She didn't bother to complete the journey. She just said: “Come on, Al, we're leaving. Time to go”. She held out her hand. When he reached the bottom of the stairs, Albert grabbed hold of his mother's outstretched hand, and stopped. He gripped her tightly, an inane grin spreading across his face. Marjorie looked confused. “We have to go now”, she told him.

Albert stabbed a piece of broken mirror into her arm. She screamed in surprise and pain, but Albert just kept on stabbing until, eventually, Marjorie stopped moving. He ran into the front room, picked up a gun, and headed out into the street.

The wagon train of escaping townsfolk was well underway while the battle raged on at the northern edge of town. Elizabeth was there, helping people onto carts. Almost all of them had decided to head in the direction of Aegis. Few were prepared to head in the direction of the terraforming station. Elizabeth couldn't blame them. To get there, they would have had to have traveled past, or somehow around, the Reavers, and even if they had managed that, there would still have been no guarantee that the station would offer safety. Aegis, with its larger population, might well offer safety, but the problem was that Elizabeth wasn't convinced that any of the escaping populace would even make it that far.

A man and a woman approached Elizabeth. “Help us”, they cried. “We're looking for our daughter, Angel”.

Jade entered the town, not through the main street, but by a side route. Khrau had ordered a multi-pronged attack. Jade carried with her a harpoon gun, having proven her skill with the weapon in the past. A bullet struck her arm, which stung through the body armor. She fired once at the prey and speared it through the leg. It dropped its gun and screamed in pain. She strode toward the prey, and, from a closer range, speared it through the shoulder, pinning it to the wall of a building. Then she picked up its gun and shot it through its head. I hope we can get all this meat into storage before it starts going off, she thought, as she pulled the two harpoon darts from her prey. Otherwise it would be a serious waste.

Slate had been forced more or less into the open. Ahead of him, the sheriff and the new security guy were doing a grand job of holding the north end of the main street, but with Reavers now pouring in from the sides, that might not help for much longer. Slate heard a noise, and turned his head with a start. He saw what he took to be a Reaver, and raised his gun, but as he did so he decided he must have been mistaken. This was no Reaver — this was a human. This was…


He lowered his gun and turned his attention away from Albert, toward the main battle.

Albert raised his gun and aimed it in Slate's direction.

Slate snapped his head round suddenly when he heard Albert gurgle, a Reaver harpoon sticking through his neck. He wasted no time and ran.

Jade lowered her weapon as the prey fell to the dirt. Behind it, another creature ran away, but she paid it little heed. One piece of meat was as good as any other.

Sheriff Coleman ran into his house. He was out of bullets, but knew he had more indoors, and more still in the sheriff's office across the street. He had intended that this would be a quick in and out job, but as soon as he crossed the threshold, he knew that something was wrong.

He saw Marjorie lying at the bottom of the stairs, bleeding, and barely alive. Suddenly, he could take it no more. He wrapped his arms around her and burst into tears, and even as he did so, he knew that it was over, that the defense of the town had failed. He could hear the sounds from all around him, that the Reavers were now entering the town from all directions, from between buildings, through buildings, from everywhere. There could be no defense from them, he knew. The Reavers had won.

Except … not quite. Because some townsfolk had gotten away. How many? He didn't know. But in that moment he knew that even if all he could do was to keep fighting for as long as possible so that as many people as possible could get away, he would do that. He staggered back out along the corridor toward the front door, and put his hand on the door jamb, having forgotten the reason he had come in here in the first place. Then an axe came swinging through the air, through his hand, and splintering into the door frame. He screamed. Then he saw the hideous deformed face of a Reaver. With his left hand, he fired his empty gun, and when nothing happened, the Reaver snarled, and bit into the veins of the sheriff's wrist.

The last of the escaping families climbed onto the last cart, and Elizabeth joined them. The horses were geed, and the last wagon of the convoy left Malady for Aegis. Elizabeth looked back toward the town and wondered what would become of Slate, who had been left behind there. For that matter, what would happen to this wagon train? There were too many unknowns. Would the Reavers pursue them using their space ship? If they did, it would be all over for her. Vindicator might be able to chase off a few shuttles, but it was no match for the Reaver ship itself.

A woman extended her hand in greeting. “Name's Olivia”, the woman said, “Olivia Wordsworth”.

“Oh”, said Elizabeth, distracted. “Elizabeth Adams”. She took the hand and shook it.

“So what brings you to a sorry ass place like Malady?”, Olivia asked.

Elizabeth sighed. “I came to warn you about the Reavers. Guess I should have tried harder”. But I didn't bank on being thrown into jail.

“So … you knowed they was coming?”, Olivia pressed.

Elizabeth nodded. “That ship that flew overhead and disturbed all the Reaver shuttles — that was my ship. Now I'm not sure that I'll ever see it again”.

“But it could rescue us, right?”

Elizabeth smirked. “If they've got any sense they'll stay away. Reavers could take down that ship in seconds if they got close enough. Reavers already killed more than half the crew of that ship. I don't want them to get the ones left”.

Olivia looked crestfallen. “Well … you got any ideas as to what we might do to stay alive?”

In a monotone, Elizabeth said: “I've been trying to tell people to head for the old terraforming station. No one listens”.

“I'm not surprised. It's just a ruin”.

“On the surface it's a ruin. Underground it might be defensible”.

Might be?”

Elizabeth said nothing. What could she say?

“Well, who went there?”

She tried to describe some of the people she could remember who had taken her advice, but the details were not clear in her memory. But she did manage to say “…oh, and a girl, name of Angel”.

Olivia considered. Few people from the town ever went to the ruin, but she was an exception, if for no other reason than it was a quiet place to fish. She knew the ruins fairly well. She wasn't sure if there was a way in to the underground floors, but she did know that floor was hollow, that there must be some cavern or some such below the concrete. Finally, she said: “I hope you're right. I hope she'll be OK there”.

Slate fired his last bullet. He tried for a head shot, but his aim was not true. The Reaver at whom he had been aiming turned sharply and metal flew through the air. Slate didn't even think about what it might be, he just reacted and jerked back out the way of spinning projectile. It grazed his forehead before thudding into the wall of a wood shack. Briefly, he looked at the object, a heavy disc of spikes. His face felt wet, and he realized that blood was running down his face. But he didn't have time to pay too much attention to that. The Reaver ran toward him, and the Reaver was not alone. Three, no four Reavers ran toward him, bearing axes and swords. It was time to run.

But there was nowhere to go. Reavers were all around. Every direction he turned there were more of them.

And then he saw it — the hovercar. The armored hovercar. He dived inside, and pulled first one door then the other closed. He only just made it. Almost at once, the vehicle was covered with Reavers, pounding on the metal body. He got his breath back and thought quickly. The doors were closed, but not locked. If the Reavers figured out how to open them…! He looked around the cab for the door controls and found the switch. Quickly, he flipped it to the locked position. The pounding on the hull continued. In front of him was a slit in the metal armor. Within the slit the only protection was some kind of reinforced glass. The Reavers began pounding on the glass, through the slit, using axes and knives, and even trying to fire harpoons into it. It was bullet proof, for sure, but how much sustained assault could it take? He didn't know.

I gotta get outa here, he realized.

Just one problem. He couldn't fly the thing.

Still, he figured, there was a first time for everything, and now was a good a time as any to learn. He studied the controls, trying to figure them out, relating them to the controls of Vindicator and the Lana. He wished Hawkeye were here. Hawkeye would have known how to fly it.

He found the start button and pressed it. With a whoosh, the craft jerked into the air. Some of the Reavers fell off, but others were more persistent. He grabbed onto the steering column and twisted what he hoped was the thrust control. The hovercar fired into life and surged forward. There were too many Reavers on the front of the car, however, and he couldn't see where he was flying. He collided with a building and bounced off it, struggling with the controls to keep the vehicle upright. The collision worked to his advantage — the view through the slit was now clear. There were no more Reavers obscuring his view. He screamed down the center of the main street, smashing into Reavers without slowing down. But his control over the vehicle was limited. When he ran out of street, he tried to turn, and the hovercraft spun out of control. And then … there was the lake. The lake!

The craft skidded out onto the lake. He heard a splash as one more Reaver fell from the vehicle. He hoped it was the last one. He let go of the throttle. The car span in circles over the water, and slowly but surely, came to rest, hovering above the water.

Slate's heart pounded. They would come for him. He was sure of that. After a time, he became aware once more of the injury to his head. He lay back, and saw spots before his eyes — spots that grew bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Finally, he succumbed to unconsciousness. Whatever happened next would happen. It was out of his hands now.

The prey screamed as it was thrown into the jail with a dozen others of its kind, and the door locked behind it. Card beamed. The caged prey could stay where it was for now. These ones could be saved and eaten alive when needed.

One of the prey, the one wearing a security uniform, begged: “Let us out. Please!”

Geng strode toward the cage. In English, he said: “When we let you out, it will be to eat you”. Then he picked up one of the prey's own guns and shot Corby through the bars. The bullet hit Corby in the throat, killing him instantly. Geng turned and walked away.

The remaining prisoners looked stunned. They hadn't understood most of Geng's words, but they had understood “eat you”. One man ran to the bars and started shaking them, yelling: “You can't be real. There's no such thing as Reavers. Reavers aren't real”.

Outside the sheriff's office, Card spoke to Geng. “The dangerous ones have been quelled. But we have taken more casualties than I would have liked. Four deaths. Four deaths in one hunt! It is too many”.

Geng nodded. “The gods did not favor this hunt. Strange. The signs all told of good fortune. Perhaps there is more going on than we understand”.

“Well, no matter”, Card said, waving Geng's suppositions aside. “Our meat is traveling as a herd, south east, toward their next town. It is time we rounded it up”.

“I agree. But only two of our shuttles are working”.

“It will be enough. Some of us can take horses”. Card cried out, loudly, calling his pack together. When they were assembled, he sorted them into groups, and instructed them to get organized. With the dangerous part of the hunt over, the rest would be easy. But it needed to be done now. There would be time to mourn Smit, Han, Hagar and Grun later, and their numbers could be replenished from the prey captives.

Jade hung back. She'd been thinking. She walked out toward the jetty, toward the lake, away from the pack, and looked out across the water. There was something she was missing — something they were all missing. There was something staring them in the face that they weren't seeing, and it was important. She racked her brain trying to figure out what it was. She saw the armored hovercar still sitting atop the lake, and dismissed it. That didn't matter. But something else did.


Khrau's voice made her jump. She turned to face him.

“What are you doing here?”, he demanded.

“Thinking”, she told him, truthfully.

“Thinking like prey?”, Khrau sneered. There was no trace of friendliness in his voice.

But Jade was beyond caring about Khrau's offhand remarks. She was onto something, she was sure. She asked him… “The map. Do you remember the map?”

Khrau frowned. “Do you mean the map we made of the terrain? Of the area around the lake?”

“Yes. There was a ruin. Do you remember?”

“I remember”, Khrau said.

“I know what it is”, Jade told him. She didn't know how she knew, but she knew. So far as she could recall, she had never seen anything like it in her life — and yet, it was familiar. She knew.

“Tell me”, Khrau ordered.

“Shelter. Defense. Maybe even a Cortex connection”.

“I don't understand”, he said.

“Some of the prey will have gone there”, Jade explained. “If they can connect to the Cortex, they can contact the Alliance”.

“You speak gibberish”, Khrau barked. “We have our orders. Get ready to move out”. Even as he spoke, he saw one of the shuttles lifting off, ready to round up the fleeing prey.

“Listen to me!”, Jade snapped. “They will be able to call the Lions. And then it will be over for all of us”.

“Ha!”, Khrau exclaimed. The second shuttle lifted off as he spoke. He reached out to strike Jade, but stopped in mid move. Then he said: “Are you sure about this, little priest?”

“Yes”, she said. And she was — although she still didn't know how.

Khrau looked back at the pack, all getting ready to depart. Card and Geng were already gone. He was the ranking hunter here. He grabbed Jade by the collar and pulled her toward him. “This is how it works”, he told her. “I am in command here. But you are my priest, and it is your job to advise me. So advise”. Then he released her.

She thought quickly. “Someone has to go there”, she said. “Someone has to get there before the prey, and stop them”.

“But the prey have a head start”, Khrau pointed out. “And the only mode of transport left to us is horseback. We won't be able to catch them”.

“There is a faster route”, Jade argued, “A shortcut”.


Jade pointed out across the water. “Straight line”, she said. Then she pointed down, to the speedboat tied to the foot of the jetty. “In that”.

Khrau was flabbergasted. “But — but… None of us can drive that thing”, he protested. Reavers could be masters of their individual trades, but there had never been much call for speedboat drivers in Card's pack, and Khrau doubted that even Gra could operate that thing.

“I could pilot it”, Jade said, softly.

Khrau glanced in all directions: at the rapidly depleting pack, at the lake, at the boat, and at Jade. Finally, he strode toward the pack and called: “Mace, Brack, you're with me. We're going for a ride”.

Mace objected: “But Geng's orders…“

“I said you're with me”, Khrau declared fiercely. Then, to Jade, he whispered: “You had better be right about this”.

“I am”, she told him.

Merissa and Ben looked around the control room with awe. There was no dust. This had been a completely sealed environment until she and he had broken into it. The only problem was that none of the controls worked. There was no power. Their torch lights cast eerie shadows around the room.

“If we could get power, we could turn this place into a fortress”, Ben said. “Those are electromagnetic seals on the doors. We get power, no one gets through less we want them to”.

Merissa frowned. “I heard the word if“, she said.

“It's not impossible”, Ben explained. “When they shut down this place, they would have switched off the power. But the battery is a nuclear fuel cell — it won't have run down, leastways not by much. All we have to do is go down to the circuit breakers and try them one at a time until we find the right one”.

“Why not just turn all of them on?”

“We don't want to turn the whole plant on. If this place starts trying to terraform the lake again, well — best case, we drain the battery; worst case, we explode”.

“How would we know which was the right one?”

“One of us would have to stay here and watch the controls. We'd have to stay in touch by radio”.

Merissa saw the logic of the plan, and had to agree it had merit. “Who does what?”, she asked.

“Doesn't really matter”, Ben said. “Probably best if I go. I know what to look out for”.

Merissa breathed a sigh of relief. She hadn't fancied wandering around the basement levels on her own. “How will I know when you've done it?”, she asked.

“If the screens light up and the lights come on, it's the right one”, he said. He pulled out his radio and tested it. “You hearing this?”, he asked.

She heard his voice twice, a scratchy second copy coming from her comm box. She spoke into hers. “Looks like”, she said. Her own voice echoed from Ben's.

“OK then, I'm off”, he said, and left. He took the map with him as he went. Merissa didn't like that part, but she could hardly refuse. Without the map, she felt naked. She swung her torch around the lifeless, empty room. Even in darkness, it impressed.

Card flew the shuttle over and past the retreating convoy of wagons, and then circled ahead of them. He saw the prey start to panic as they spied the shuttle. The orderly chain broke up, with horses and carts retreating in all directions. He flew ahead of them, and then to their flanks. He was herding them like cattle, guiding them back in the direction of Malady, in the direction of his horseback hunters.

The second shuttle joined in the shepherding. Card enjoyed this part. He understood that it was possible to frighten the prey without ever making contact with them, and that was a tremendous boon. Flying the shuttle to and fro, every now and then getting one of his hunters to pick one off one of the prey from the air when they threatened to separate from the herd, he waited for the rest of the hunters to arrive.

One cart though, was not with the others. It had left the train some time ago. When the occupants of that cart saw the Reaver shuttles in the distant sky, they bowed their heads in sorrow.

Hwoon Dahn!“, Olivia said, bitterly.

Elizabeth merely looked blank. All their efforts to save these people, and they had failed.

There were three other people traveling with them. Elizabeth didn't know their names. Maybe they'd introduced themselves earlier and she hadn't paid attention? It was hard to think of anything but Reavers, and what they were about to do.

A space ship flew over their heads: the Reaver ship, the big one. It was headed toward the townsfolk, toward the two shuttles already there. Those poor people, she knew, now stood no chance at all.

“Let's go”, Olivia said, and geed their horse on toward the station.

The speedboat pulled up at the pier beside the building. There were no steps, so Jade beached the boat and the four of them climbed up the bank and into the ruinous structure. It didn't take much tracking to deduce that prey had been there recently. In almost no time at all, they found the hole that Ben and Merissa had created, and saw the staircase beyond. Khrau led the way, and the four of them descended.

“Trying one now”, came Ben's voice through Merissa's comm box. “Anything happening?”

“Not yet”, she replied. That was the fifth failure so far. This was starting to look like it was maybe not such a good plan after all. Merissa was already trying to think up ways to fortify the doors without power, but with little success.

And then the lights came on.

And the screens lit up.

And the control room came to life.

She looked around in awe. She had never seen such a vast array of screens and controls. There were seats for easily twenty people.

Ben's voice said: “How's that?”

“You've done it”, she replied. “Come back”.

She looked around the room, trying to make sense of what she could see. Mostly, she was looking for something which would lock the doors, but it was difficult to make sense of the array of screens.

She found a screen displaying a map of the place. She recognized it from its similarity to the map that she had previously been carrying, the one Ben now held — except that this was more detailed. Much more detailed. And then she frowned as she studied the map, and noticed six red dots. One of them corresponded to her position; one of them corresponded to Ben's; the other four were in a group on basement level one. We are not alone, she thought.

She looked closely at the map of the room she was in. The map displayed the position of the doors she wanted to close. Experimentally she touched the point on the map representing the doors. There was a loud clang and a thud. She looked around. The lock had engaged. She looked back at the map. The Chinese symbol for locked appeared over the door.

She breathed a sigh of relief. Then she touched the red dot representing herself. A screen above her came to life, a camera image of the room she was in. She could see herself, small and distant. I think it will let me see anywhere in the complex, she reasoned.

She touched the four dots representing the strangers, and froze when she looked at the upper screen.


They were here — inside the building!

She got up and raced to the doors, checking and double checking that the locks were secure.

Ben — What about Ben?

And then it dawned on her, and she started to smile. This was her opportunity. She could leave Ben locked outside where the Reavers would surely kill him. Or better still, she could force him into their path.

Ben was the one member of Vindicator's crew who did not trust her, and who represented a possible threat to her security there. And after all — she had told him she would kill him. He'd been warned. That was fair, wasn't it? It wasn't her fault if he hadn't taken her seriously.

She plotted out the routes in her mind. The Reavers were on the first floor below ground; she was on the fourth; Ben was on the fifth. Ben was heading back here. She had to make sure the Reavers got to him before anyone else arrived: any witnesses could wreck the whole plan.

She had to give the Reavers some help finding Ben.

“I don't wanna concern no one”, Olivia said, her voice sounding very much concerned, but we got Reavers on our tail”.

All four of the cart's other occupants looked back. Reavers were pursuing on horseback.

“We shoulda shot all the horses got left behind”, Olivia said. “Too late now”.

She grabbed the horse's reins and cracked the straps like nobody's business. “Go fast, boy”, she pleaded. “Go very, very fast”.

Elizabeth looked at the distant cloud of smoke heading their way and wondered how much further away was the station, the only place left where they might survive.

Slate groaned and opened his eyes. At first, he could not recall where he was. He seemed to be trapped inside a metal box with a slit for a window. Then he looked out of the slit, saw the lake, and remembered.

He collapsed back into the seat, his whole body aching. He touched the wound on his head. There was plenty of dried blood there, but none fresh. The bleeding had stopped. Hesitantly, he took hold of the control stick with both hands, and, very gently this time, turned the throttle. The hovercar made a slow circle. With the limited view available to him through the slit, it took him a while to get his bearings, but once he had oriented himself, he didn't hesitate in steering the vehicle northwards.

There was only one destination that made sense at this point. He had to get to the terraforming station.

The hovercar cruised across the lake. He didn't know what he'd do when he got there, but right now, getting there was the only thing that mattered.

Back on basement level four, Ben strode forward and tried to push open the doors into the main part of the complex. They wouldn't budge.

He took a look at the door controls. A red display showed the word “LOCKED”. Below that was a green button marked with a graphic OPEN/CLOSE symbol. Below that, a numeric keypad was the only other visible portion of the locking system. The actual electromagnetic bolts were embedded in the wall, unreachable. He thumped the green button one more time, but nothing happened.

He pulled out his radio. “Merissa, what's going on?”, he queried. “The outer doors to level three are locked”.

He was relieved to hear a reply. “There's a fault”, Merissa told him. “This door's jammed. It won't open. All the others are fine. You'll have to go round. Take the counterclockwise route — there are side doors you can get through”. She sounded totally convincing. Unaware of the danger, Ben proceeded around the corridor.

“Prey have been here, recently”, Khrau observed, noting carefully the dusty footprints on the floor. “They are in this building”.

Mace said: “Yes, but we don't have time to track them. You must decide, my leader, which way we go”.

As if on cue, a door opened somewhat ahead of them containing a staircase leading downward. Khrau listened, and then pointed. “Use your ears”, he declared. “I can hear prey — or at least, their footfalls. No further decision is needed. We go”.

Jade adjusted the strap which secured her harpoon gun to her body, and set off toward the staircase, following the sound of meat.

Ben found the side door to which Merissa had referred, opened it, and strode into it. He found himself in a strange room full of equipment he did not recognize. He stopped to look around. There were rows of connected metal cylinders, like milk churns only bigger. He walked to the end of one of the rows, determined to try to understand what he was seeing. He climbed up onto a table and peeked into the end of a cylinder. There was a hatch, with a wheel to open it, except that the wheel would not budge. He tried to picture in his mind how it all fitted together. Water from the lake must pass through each of these rows of cylinders in turn, at each stage undergoing some form of processing. It fascinated him.

But he knew he didn't have time to sightsee, so he continued on. It was then that he discovered that the inner door was unexpectedly locked. He pulled out his radio again and tried to contact Merissa. “I'm in”, He told her. “Would you open the inner door, please?”

There was no answer.

“Merissa, this is Ben. Can you hear me? The inner door is locked. I need you to open it”.

Again, no answer.

He cursed. This was no time for the radio to go dead!

And then it started to occur to him that perhaps all might not be as it seemed.

He heard footsteps — running footsteps — and an inhuman roar such as he had not heard since that first day on the Lana when he had glimpsed the fate of Herren through comm screens, and a chill ran down his spine..

Khrau, Jade, Mace and Brack marched through the corridors. An open side door led off to the left. Khrau took that route, Mace and Brack following. As the only non-hunter, Jade held back.

The Reavers entered the room full of big cylinders and looked around. It was empty, but the smell of prey was everywhere. “Search this place”, Khrau ordered. “Find them”.

Jade slowed. A thought had occurred to her. She backtracked back to the large doors they had passed earlier, and studied the locking mechanism. It didn't make sense to her that the prey would hide in an undefended room. It seemed much more logical to her that the prey would be behind this locked door. She stared at the numeric keypad, and the glimmer of an idea started to come to her. The power was off, she reasoned, so the passwords will have been reset. So she pressed the keys: zero, zero, zero, zero … and the word LOCKED vanished from the display. She hit the green button. There was a loud clunk, and the door slid open. Without waiting for her packmates, she readied her harpoon and squeezed through the door before it had even finished opening.

One prey creature — just one. A female. Jade fired her harpoon but the prey ducked behind a console. Sparks flew as the metal bolt pierced a display screen. She snarled, and felt the onset of the rush. She tore seats and panels aside and bore through to the terrified, retreating prey. She heard it scream and cry out, and paid little attention to its words, but one word out of the all the prey's tortured screaming caught her attention. The prey had said “Jade?”. How dare it!? How dare it utter my name!? She leapt over the last console and grabbed hold of the prey. She heard it say: “Jade, it's me. It's M— “. She pulled the prey toward her and bit into the back of its neck, stemming its words as it screamed. She bit harder and ripped flesh from the prey's neck. It spluttered and fell to the floor. Triumphantly, she drove a harpoon bolt into the creature's neck, and let out a primal scream, a roar of victory as life ebbed from the prey. Slowly, its thrashing and squirming ceased, and the prey was still.

The glorious rush of triumph filled Jade's being in a way that she couldn't have described even had she tried. It was more than that she had made a kill, it was that she had made a kill where Khrau had failed to do so. She had used her mind to infiltrate the creature's den. Somehow, she was more than the others.

The feeling of victory washed away, and some semblance of awareness of her surroundings began to come back to her. She looked down at the prone corpse, still feeling pleased with herself, when something about the creature made her look again. The creature was face down, so she turned it so that she could see its face. A chill ran down her spine and her flesh rose in goose bumps, the hairs at the back of her neck rising to alertness.


And then another thought occurred to her: If Merissa is here, then Slate might be here too.

If that's true, he's in danger!

Khrau, Mace and Brack ran into the room. “Well done!”, Mace called.

Jade jumped to her feet. “We have to leave!”, she told them.

Slate entered the building cautiously. He didn't know what to expect here. He had no gun and no radio; he wore no body armor, and he was alone. In fact, he reflected, coming here had been decidedly stupid — except that there was really nowhere else to go. In hindsight, it occurred to him that he could have gone instead to the shuttle, but to what end? He couldn't take off while there were Reavers about. The fact was, no choice was safe; no choice was wise. He might as well be here as anywhere else. Throwing caution aside, he called out: “Ben — Merissa — Anyone here?”. He figured, if there were Reavers here, he was dead anyway, and if not maybe his crew had come up trumps and found a place to hide.

He wandered around the lonely building, looking for a way down.

“What do you mean we have to leave?”, Khrau demanded.

“We have to leave this moon”, she stressed. “All of us. Now”. She would never have dared to speak to Khrau so forcefully before this moment, for fear of her own life. But now she dared, for fear of someone else's.


Thinking fast, she pointed at a screen. It displayed the words OXYGEN LEVEL NORMAL, but Jade knew that, apart from herself, none of those present could read English. “Look”, she said, stabbing at the screen. “We were too late. The Lions know we're here”.

Khrau was puzzled. Jade had been right about this building, right about prey coming here, and right that the prey might have used this place as a defense — but as to the rest, that was something else. He didn't know much about spiritual matters, but it seemed to him that the gods and other supernatural entities intervened in their lives by indirect means only. The notion that the prey animals might have some mystical hotline to the demons that even the gods feared was an outrageous claim. He shook his head. Yes, she was a priest, but she was only a trainee. She had misinterpreted the signs — that was the only explanation that made sense. “We stay”, he decided.

So be it, Jade thought. She leapt onto Khrau and tried to get her jaws around his throat. It was a futile gesture. He cast her aside as though she were made of paper. His expression incredulous, he said: “You challenge me?”

“I must”, Jade said.

“You cannot win”, Khrau told her, sincerely.

“I have no choice”, she replied. “All of this pack is in danger. We must leave this moon now. The gods have told me. That is my advice.”

Khrau considered for only a moment, then he laughed. Finally he said, “So be it, little priest. There are other moons. Everybody — out!”.

Slate saw the staircase and approached it. He heard voices from below and called out, “Ben? That you?”. Then it occurred to him that the voices were not quite human. Though the sounds he heard could certainly have been made by a human being, they were more feral in nature. With a start, he realized that his worst fears could well be about to come true. Reavers were here, and coming toward him — and this time he knew he wouldn't be able to make it back to the hovercar in time to make an escape — he was simply too exhausted. He looked around for a place to hide, and saw none. In desperation, he simply pressed himself against the wall around the nearest corner. Reavers ran past, ignoring him. He didn't breathe until at least a minute after they were gone.

Outside the building, Khrau laughed once more. Fortuitously, a new mode of transport had presented itself. “Now that I do know how to drive”, he said, pointing at the hovercar.

“What is it?”, Jade asked.

Mace explained: “A skiff. Like a hovercar, only armored”.

“And easily big enough for all of us”, Khrau concluded.

Its driver and passengers aboard, the skiff took off and raced across the desert sands. They passed plenty of prey traveling in the opposite direction, toward the structure they had just left. They ignored it. Before too long, they encountered the pack, who were only just beginning to capture the corralled prey. They flew directly toward the main ship, and into its cargo bay before skidding to a halt.

Khrau turned an accusing eye toward Jade. “You really want to leave?”, he asked. “Break all this up? Leave all this fresh meat behind?”

“Yes”, Jade said, simply.

Khrau paused to consider his next move. Then stepped out of the hovercar and strode toward the front of the ship.

Kwok Fi paced nervously across the floor of the bridge. He knew, without doubt, that this mission had been a complete disaster. The Reavers had attacked Malady before they had even finished mopping up the remains of Fortune, and nobody had expected that. There had been no word from Slate nor Elizabeth since they had entered the town, and no word from Ben nor Merissa since they had ventured below ground. Even Merissa's plan of dubious humanity was not feasible at this point, since their own crew could still be alive down there. He hated being in command in circumstances like this. In fact, now that he came to think about it, he hated being in command altogether.

A light started blinking on Ben's console, where Papagina now sat. Kwok Fi strode over to it and stared at the light. “What does that mean?”, he asked. “Do you know what that means?”.

Papagina said: “I think it's a proximity warning, but I don't— “

And then the Reaver ship flew past them.

Ta ma teh!”, Kwok Fi exclaimed.

Polly looked back and forth between each individual. “They didn't zap us. Why are we still flying?”

Nobody answered straight away. Eventually, Papagina said, in an awed whisper, “I guess they were in a hurry”.

His hours of indecision behind him, Kwok Fi strode forward. “Can we chase after them?”, he demanded.

“Why?”, Papagina asked.

“Maybe we can get them to chase us? Then we can drop the nuke behind us, and — boom“.

“They don't seem interested in chasing us”, she observed. “Besides, half our crew are still down on Lilac”.

Kwok Fi sighed. Indecision had been replaced by inability. He asked: “Can you take the ship down?”

Papagina's eyes opened wide in shock. “Land!? I can't land this thing. It was hard enough just doing a fly-by. There's no way I can land! Sorry”. A few moments later, she added: “Can you land it?” There was no answer. She had expected none.

Slate put his arm around Elizabeth's waist as Ben covered Merissa's body with his coat. Elizabeth buried her head onto Slate's shoulder, moistening it. No one said a word.

Two carts had made it to the station, the Briars and the Wordsworths, but Angel Briar was nowhere to be seen. No one wanted to assume the worst, but they had searched this place from top to bottom, even inside the bacterial infusion tanks where Ben had hidden, but to no avail. And so eventually they made their way back to the town, by cart and speedboat. Thirteen men and women were found captive in the jailhouse. The keys were gone, but that was hardly a serious problem at this stage. It was nothing that a hacksaw couldn't sort out. The remaining townsfolk began to drift back in, wearily, but mostly OK.

In all, over twenty people from Malady had died, but by far the majority were still alive. The scars of this attack would haunt them forever, but the town would recover, and life would go on.

Slate and Elizabeth held hands as they walked slowly back to the shuttle with Ben. Eventually, Ben said: “She was a goodun. She led me to that room where I could hide. Never a thought for her own safety”. Let her be remembered a hero, he thought. He knew the truth, but it didn't matter now.

“I wonder why the Reavers left so quick?”, Slate pondered. “That's the part don't make no sense”.

“Maybe we'll never know”, Elizabeth mused. “Reavers are mad. That's almost their defining characteristic”.

“No, chewing your bones is their defining characteristic. They may be monsters, but they ain't stupid”.

But it was just one more mystery among many.

Carefully, they trod their way down the incline around the crater wall where the shuttle was hidden, and there, sitting on the ground by the shuttle's closed door was Angel Briar. “I went in the direction you came from”, she explained. “I found your boat and waited for you. Seemed like the safest place”.

They would have laughed had the mood been brighter, but even in this somber atmosphere, Angel's words brought a smile. Ben, then Elizabeth, then Slate hugged the girl. “You remind me so much of Jade”, he told her. Then he said: “Your folks are safe, and back in town. Come on in — we'll give you a lift home”.

True to their word, they dropped the girl back with her family, in a town filled with more grief than any should have to bear. “Come on”, Elizabeth said. “Let's go home”.

“Home?”, Slate queried.

“Home”, she confirmed.

Slate took one last look across Lake Linford, still beautiful despite everything. “I'll remember you, Merissa”, he said, quietly, before closing the door, and heading out of the world.

Dark Places

Unfinished Revolution

War has started. No one admits it, but it has.

They don't tell me everything, my parents. Sometimes I sneak downstairs after I'm supposed to have gone to bed and listen to Mom and Dad talking. They try not to show it, but I know they're worried. When I ask them what's going on, they just tell me stuff to reassure me, whether or not it's true. Only Slate tells me the truth.

“What will happen?” I ask Slate, one day.

He ponders the question. “I've heard a few rumors”, he says. “People I play cards with — or used to, before I got banned for being on the wrong side — say they've heard a few things. How much of it is true, I couldn't say”.

I look out across the green at the spaceport behind it. Ships are going up and down, carrying on like everything was normal.

“Well, what have you heard?”, I ask.

“People are still talking about peace”, Slate says. “But both sides want the other side to stop first. What do you expect? All the big decisions get made on the Core worlds, not here. The Alliance are cooking something up though. I got a name — Klein — and a word — Pax”.

“Pax?”, I query.

“It's Latin”, Slate explains. “It means peace. Maybe Klein is some sort of negotiator. Maybe Pax is some sort of peace treaty. Who knows? Maybe even that isn't true. I don't think the Independents have any faith in it”.

“What if this treaty thing doesn't work?”, I ask, concerned.

“I think it will just get bigger. Other worlds will get involved. Then the Alliance will have to fight them too. Maybe they'll try to take over all the worlds. Who knows?”

I shudder.

“Don't worry”, he says, reassuring me. “We're still in the safest place”.

I believe him. But Slate isn't as well off as we are. “Can you afford it? The rent, I mean…“

Cynically, he smirks. “Oh yeah”, he says. But something in his voice isn't right.

Across the green, a large billboard depicts this world, seen from space. Mockingly, the words “Welcome to Miranda” still adorn the posters.

Jade stared at the blue disc which Gra had indicated, and as they got closer, it resolved into a planet — a beautiful blue-green jewel of a world, with a single, large gray moon.

“I know that world”, said Jade, in a whisper. “This is Miranda”. Goosebumps prickled on her skin.

They weren't alone in space. If the space station of the wider pack had been a small town, then this was a city. Jade had never seen so many ships clustered together in one place: there were literally hundreds of them. It was the biggest aggregation of Reavers she had ever seen. By multiplying up the numbers from her own ship, she concluded that there had to be tens of thousands of people living here, and this was clearly a community, not just a parking lot. Looking out from the cockpit, she could see much activity going on. Industrial ships with crablike claws literally tore apart smaller ships, while even smaller boats flitted in and out of the wreckage, scavenging for parts. She saw other ships in the process of being welded together from cannibalized parts, and marveled at the scale of it.

Gra pointed out various features of the floating city as they drifted through it. Here an algae farm; there a temple. Some of the component parts had moved around since the last time Gra had been here, but skilled navigator that she was, she had no difficulty identifying all the major districts. And yes, there were districts! This aggregation of ships was so large that Jade could make out sub-clusters, and open stretches of space linking them together like highways.

“This place is special”, Gra said, her voice reverent. “This is where we were born”.

Geng also looked out into space, though he wasn't in the cockpit. His view was on a screen, but it was no less profound for that. He clutched a wooden staff with a bone handle, his grip tight. He looked out at the various ships and boats crisscrossing across the expanse, and wondered again why he alone felt uneasy about this place. A few people stared with him, but they might as well have not been there. His mood was not helped by the conversation with Card which he knew he was about to have. It had been a long time coming.

“We must talk”, Card said, entering the hall.

Geng turned to face Card, his expression sorrowful. “I know”, he said.

Card strode up the Geng, wasting no time. “Was your apprentice right about the danger on Lilac?”, he asked.

That was a question Geng hadn't wanted to answer, but it was just like Card to have come straight to the point. “I don't know”, he answered.

“How can you not know, when Jade is so certain?”, Card pressed.

But Geng did know. Jade had got it wrong, and sooner or later he was going to have to confront her about that. “The signs which the gods give us are not always easy to interpret”, he said.

“Then Jade may have been wrong”, Card insisted. He wanted an answer. He knew that Jade had acted in what she had thought had been in the best interests of the pack, and he could not fault her for that, but in coming here, his pack had abandoned a good supply of food when they were already short, and that was something he would rather have avoided. But it had been his decision to leave, no one else's. Khrau had insisted there was danger, but Card's had been the final say; he could blame nobody else for bringing his pack back to the homeworld. He just wanted to know whether or not that decision had been right.

“Yes”, Geng said, reluctantly. “Jade may have been wrong”.

Card pondered this for a moment, and then apparently brightened up. “Well, no harm is done. While we're here we can trade some of the parts we took, and we can always go back to that world later”. He slapped Geng on the back, concluding: “But have a word with her. I don't want this happening again. It's you that I trust, not her”.

He left, and Geng watched him go. Well, at least that was out of the way. But the next conversation he knew he must have, he looked forward to even less.

Card strode out of the hall. Reaver Space would be a temporary refuge at best, he knew, but while they were here, there were things he had to do. He needed fuel, and all he had to offer was machinery. The small number of prey they had taken aboard would barely feed his own pack. There would be none left to trade.

The shuttle bay was a hive of activity. Though they may have acquired less meat than Card had hoped, they had done very well indeed when it came to machinery, and here it was being put to good use. The sounds of industry filled the room: hammers clanked, welding guns burned. And Card had to admire his workers. They were good. Unlike the pathetic prey from whom they had acquired this bounty, his pack did not use protecting clothing or welding goggles or such. They weren't afraid of a few little burns.

Tuss leapt down from the front of the skiff, having just been modifying its front end. He had welded additional reinforced metal onto the front, giving it a more frightening and aggressive appearance. “What do you think?”, he asked.

“It looks like your parrot”, Card complained.

“What!?”, Tuss said, surprised and concerned. “No, it's supposed to be more like a hawk or a falcon or something”.

Card laughed. Pointing at the skiff, he said: “That is not a hawk. It's a parrot!”

“Well I didn't exactly have great material to start with”, he said, his pride hurt. “I mean, given that this started its life as a plain old armored hovercar this is pretty impressive”.

“It'll do”, Card said, still smirking. He looked around the room, hoping to find at least one working shuttle that wasn't in pieces. Two had had to have been towed off the surface of Lilac, of course, since they had been too damaged to have made it on their own thrust. That didn't matter. They could fix them. He spied a working shuttle. Khrau stood outside it, just about to board. “Wait”, Card instructed. “We will share this ride”.

Khrau snarled in displeasure. Tension between the leader and the second in command had been high since leaving Lilac, and it showed no sign of getting easier. “What if I'm not going your way?”, Khrau asked, his voice a sneer.

“You are now”, Card answered, reminding Khrau who was in command.

They stood face to face outside the shuttle, neither saying a word. Finally, Card broke the impasse, saying: “You advised me badly. We should be back on Lilac”.

Khrau fumed, but he knew where the real blame lay. He would have words with Jade later. “And you know this for certain?”, Khrau said, trying to retain at least some degree of pride.

“Not for certain, but Geng would not have advised that we leave, and that is good enough for me”.

“Maybe he's getting too old”, Khrau spat. “For that matter”, he added, “Maybe you are”.

Card's composure vanished almost immediately. “Are you challenging me?”, he demanded, his voice quiet, but cold.

“It wouldn't be the first time your leadership was challenged”, Khrau responded.

Card grabbed for Khrau's throat, but Khrau was faster, and caught Card's arm in mid-flight.

“I guess I am”, Khrau decreed, and punched Card in the stomach. Card stumbled back, winded, but felt no pain and quickly turned his disadvantage into an advantage, head butting Khrau on the nose as he doubled over in reflex.

All activity in the shuttle bay came to a halt. This was no ordinary run of the mill fight, this was a leadership challenge. If Khrau won, he and Card could exchange ranks. But if he lost, the penalty was likely to be severe.

Khrau felt that Card had become complacent. It had been over a year since his leadership had been challenged. It was time to remind him that there were other, worthier candidates. Khrau reached inside the shuttle and brought out a wrench, handling it, menacingly.

“Card!”, Tuss called out from the crowd, and threw a large metal bar across the floor toward him. It skittered across the floor and Card caught it under his foot. Khrau swung his wrench at Card's head. Card pulled back quickly and then immediately lunged forward, bringing tooth and claw into play, forcing Khrau back. When he was able to do so, he kicked the metal pole up and caught it, and immediately swung it at Khrau.

The fight was vicious — more vicious than any of the onlookers had ever seen in any mock fight. Both of the combatants had glazed looks in their eyes, as though they were right on the edge of the rush, and determined to stay teetering on that edge, never giving in to it, never giving up on it. Swipe after swipe after swipe, metal clashed on metal with deadly force, hands, feet, teeth, all played their part in the mêlée. The shuttle by which they were standing took a few dents too — if any one of those impacts had been with skull instead of hull, one person would now be dead. But both fighters took a few serious blows: Card felt a bone crack in his leg; Khrau took a devastating strike to his wrist. If these people had not been Reavers, both would by now be screaming with pain, but still the fight raged on.

Khrau caught Card's metal bar in mid swing with his damaged hand. He tried to wrestle it from Card, but his hand would not obey his will. Desperately he swung the wrench, but Card stepped aside — and then tumbled as one of his legs buckled. Khrau was on him in an instant, knee to the stomach. He raised his weapon ready to strike, as Card's bar fell from his hand and onto the floor. Khrau grinned and brought the wrench down hard, smashing into Card's shoulder.

But Card was not going to give in. He was not going to have his leadership of this pack taken from him. He dug sharp claws into Khrau's thigh and pulled him to the ground, and then rolled. Having no weapon beyond his own body, he smashed his arm onto Khrau's damaged wrist. Khrau winced. It was only for a moment, but it was the moment Card needed, and in that moment, the fight finally bore a victor. Card snatched away Khrau's wrench and pressed it to his neck, strangling him. “Yield!”, he hissed.

Khrau struggled, and Card pressed harder. Finally, Khrau understood that he had lost, that if he continued to fight, he could die. He gave in to the inevitable, and nodded his head in submission.

Exhausted, Card stood up, and dropped the wrench to the floor, where it clanged, bounced and landed beside the metal bar, both weapons now bloodied. Card took a moment to regain his breath, and his composure, then finally announced: “You are banished”.

“You have made a mistake”, Khrau said, slowly recovering his wits.

“Oh no”, Card insisted. “You have had your warning. Now face the consequences. You are banished. As of this moment, you are no longer a member of my pack”.

Khrau said nothing at first, but anger clearly showed on his face. “This isn't finished”, he said, rising to his feet.

“Yes, it is”, Card said, his voice cold and determined.

Khrau did not argue. He simply walked off, striding at a determined pace out of the hangar bay.

Tuss watched him go, then looked back at Card, and breathed a sigh of relief.

“Well?”, snapped Card to the onlookers. “It's over. Get back to work!”

He limped into the shuttle and collapsed into the pilot's chair, and waited while the spell of dizziness passed. His leg would heal, he knew, but it wouldn't do to show weakness in front of his pack. He flipped switches and the shuttle jerked upwards, pulled by the iron clad magnetic grip of the loading crane into the airlock. He could recover away from the ship, away from prying eyes.

Khrau, meanwhile, had taken an entirely different course. He pounded through the ship, thumping on walls with his good hand at each step. This banishment is not fair, his mind reeled. If there was danger on Lilac, then I saved everybody's lives. If there wasn't, then the fault was not mine, it was Jade's. Either way, I did right. He was sure of one thing though. Somebody was going to have to suffer for this — preferably someone a lot weaker and smaller than he; preferably someone responsible for his predicament. He rampaged through the ship, looking for Jade.

Jade was in her room, in the room that she shared with Sing, and Sing was not well. She lay on the room's only bed, hot and sweaty, as though she had a fever. Jade sat on the floor beside Sing and gripped her hand. This new turn of events frightened her. “You're lying down”, Jade said, stating the obvious.

Sing coughed, and then drew herself together to reply. “Not supposed to do that, huh?”, she said, half jokingly. “You only lie down when you die”.

“It's what people say, but it's not true”, Jade insisted. “I've seen people get ill and recover”.

“As ill as this?”, Sing asked.

Jade paused to consider. Among the Reavers, there was only one answer: “Not until now”, she said. “You'll be the first”.

Sing smiled at that, but then coughed again.

“We could get medicine”, Jade suggested. She used the prey word for 'medicine', since she knew of no other.

“What is medicine?”, Sing asked.

“It's … stuff”, Jade tried to explain. “Pills or liquids that taste horrible but make you well”.

“And where would we get these magical pills or liquids?”

“Same place we get everything else”, she answered. “We hunt for it. We take it from the prey. Except…“


“Except that medicines are rare. We'd have to kill a doctor or something”. She lowered her head in despair. “Oh, it's hopeless”, she declared aloud. “What am I thinking? I don't even know what's wrong with you or what would treat it”

“Ssh”, Sing said, gently. “Trust in us, in what we are, in our natures”. Jade looked up at her friend. Sing continued: “We heal. Prey don't. They make their pills and liquids to help them do what we can do all by ourselves. We don't need their .. medicines … because we don't stay ill”

Jade was silenced. But she knew that, while what Sing said was true up to a point, it wasn't true in absolutely all cases. Sometimes people got injured beyond the point of recovery. Then they died. “You must get well”, Jade insisted.

“Oh I will”, Sing said, closing her eyes. In a whisper, she added: “But to do that, I need to rest”.

Jade released Sing's hand. “You rest then”, she said, gently, and silently exited the room. She knew that Sing was right about one thing — prey medicines would be useless to them. Sing would have to get well the Reaver way — and that meant that the gods played a big role in all of this. According to accepted beliefs, the gods decided who got ill and who didn't, who lived and who died. Jade still wasn't sure she believed in these gods, but at this stage she had nothing to lose. Prayer and meditation were worth a try. If couldn't do Sing any harm, and if nothing else, it was an experiment. Besides which, it was what she would be expected to do, as an apprentice within the priesthood. She climbed the stairs to the sanctum, and entered with more reverence than usual.

Geng was there, seated cross legged on the floor. Without looking round, he said: “Come sit”.

“How did you know it was me?”, Jade asked.

“I didn't”, Geng answered, succinctly. “But I do now. And it is just as well. We must talk”.

“Yes”, Jade said, seating herself beside Geng. “I want to know how I can help Sing. How do I know what will appease the gods?”

“I thought you were the expert there”, Geng said. Jade was sure she detected sarcasm in Geng's tone of voice and posture.

“I'm sorry?”, she queried.

Geng looked her straight in the eye. “Why did you advise Khrau to leave Lilac?”, he asked, directly.

Flustered, Jade delivered the response she'd prepared. “I… There were screens, with messages in English and Chinese. I could read them. The prey had logged onto the Cortex. They had called for help”.

“What of it?”

Jade looked surprised at Geng's dismissal of this fact. This lie, she mentally corrected.

Geng continued: “Though we try to jam their signals, sometimes, for whatever reason, we are unable to do that. When that happens, prey come — but not in great numbers, and not straight away. It would not have been the disaster that you imagine”.

“But— “, Jade began, flustered. “They were calling the Lions”.

Geng snapped at her. “Never say that”, he insisted.

Jade was crestfallen, and also confused. “What? Why?”

“The prey cannot communicate with our gods”, Geng explained, “Nor with any of the pantheon of beings of the spirit world. Oh, they have their own primitive beliefs, but they do not know the gods. If they did, they would understand their place in the 'verse, and ours, and would offer themselves to us willingly. That they resist is clear evidence that they do not understand”.

Jade frowned in consternation. “Now I'm confused”, she said. “The Alliance— “

“I know not this word of which you speak”, Geng interrupted. “This Alliance. What is it?”

“I— “, Jade began, and then stopped. It occurred to her then that she'd always assumed that the word Lions was just slang for Alliance. Could it be that she was wrong? She explained: “The Alliance is, the prey who live at the Core. They are very organized, and very dangerous”.

“Perhaps, but if that is so then they are irrelevant to us. We do not visit the core”.

“Because of the Alliance”, Jade half suggested, half insisted.

“No. Because we cannot survive without the protection of our gods, and our gods would not be able to protect us there”.

“… because of the Lions?”

“Yes”, Geng said. Now she was getting it.

Jade did indeed understand, and in fact, she understood more than Geng. She knew now that Geng, like all of the Reavers, had lost his memory twelve years ago. He must have retained some fragment of memory, for he remembered how to speak both English and Chinese, but she doubted he had any concrete recollections. Geng did not know about the Alliance, because he could not remember it. Jade, on the other hand, hand grown up on The Isle of Herren, and had learned about the Alliance after her memory loss. The Reavers had had to learn to speak all over again. Somehow, they had invented their own language, but fragments remained from what had come before. A perfectly rational fear of the Alliance had been transformed over time into this one simple dictum: Do not approach the Core worlds. They hadn't known why, so they had invented a supernatural explanation for the prohibition, and so were born the Lions, spirit creatures, supernatural beings — the enemies of the gods. She almost laughed at the absurdity of it.

And yet … she had known prey with even more bizarre beliefs. Perhaps every species simply invents their own explanations for that which they do not understand. Perhaps that was the origin of all religions?

But Geng wasn't finished with his lecture. “Your misinterpretation of the signs caused us to abandon the hunt while it was still in progress. That is not to your credit”.

Jade was not worried about that, given that she had lied anyway. She would take whatever punishment was due to her, and then carry on with her life. What worried her more was the fact that Merissa had been on Lilac. She still hadn't figured out how that might have happened. She had always known that some of the islanders might have survived, but it was impossible to guess who. Slate would definitely have been out to sea at the time, since the Lana was his boat, and he was its captain. But beyond that it was anyone's guess. Hagar had been one of Slate's crew, and yet he had been on the island during the attack. But either way, Merissa had obviously survived — until a few days ago, anyway. Could it be that the islanders had resettled? That they had found a new life on Lilac? It seemed an unlikely coincidence, but then, they would have to have had settled down somewhere, and she doubted they would have stayed on Newhall. Certainly not Slate. She knew him — when disaster strikes, he moves.

But whatever had happened, she was sure that Slate would be on Lilac no more. He would see the signs of a Reaver attack, including Merissa's body, and he would move, again. Slate wasn't stupid. He was no coward, but he would not stand in the path of certain death.

“We could go back”, Jade suggested. Now that she was sure that Slate had been warned away — if indeed he had ever been there — this seemed entirely sensible.

“Perhaps we will, but that will be neither your decision nor mine”, Geng said, patiently. “And it is entirely irrelevant to the issue at hand — which is this: you have shamed me. You have made a mockery of my teachings. I now have to question whether I am prepared for you to continue as my apprentice”.

That surprised Jade, and shocked her somewhat. Her sense of security faded. Without this job, what other job could she do? She was no hunter, and galley work like Sing did was so time consuming.


She had almost forgotten why she had come here. She looked down at her feet, and said: “Whatever you decide, please would you pray for Sing? I'll take any job you want, if only Sing would get well”

Geng felt the truth and compassion in Jade's voice, and could not help but be moved. “That I will do”, he stated. “And so will you”.

Jade leaned heavily against the wall after having left the sanctum, closing her eyes and breathing deeply. But she was not alone when she opened them. Standing before her was the one person she most certainly did not want to see.

“Walk with me”, Khrau said, the tone of his voice making it clear that this was a command, not a request. He turned his back to her and strode away. Jade knew she was expected to follow, but hesitated. She had already taken one telling off. She did not need another right now, not when Sing was still her primary concern. But Khrau did not even look back. He just assumed she would obey. Finally, she took a deep breath and ran to catch up with him. Whatever it was he wanted, he had the right to demand it of her. That was the privilege of rank. That was how things worked. Jade had no desire to risk her life by defying the system. Survival meant following the rules. She knew what was to come. It would be the same lecture: You should not have dragged us out of Lilac! Except this time it would be Khrau doing the complaining instead of Geng, and Khrau, she knew, hated her.

She began to wonder where Khrau was taking her when his course brought them to an airlock. Although it made no logical sense that Khrau would want to throw her out of an airlock, the thought occurred to her nonetheless. Khrau opened the door and stepped through. She hesitated, looking for traps, looking for witnesses, for means of escape — anything. And then, to her great surprise, Khrau opened the outer door. Both inner and outer airlock doors were open at once, and yet there was no rush of air to blow them into space. The outer door opened into a corridor which had not been there before — a docking tube! In this city of Reaver Space, their ship was merely a part of something bigger. She dismissed her foolish fears and stepped forward into the tube.

The tube ended at a small ship, much smaller than Card's, though larger than a shuttle. She wondered to whom it might belong, but it seemed empty at present. She stepped into the smaller ship, and at once the smell assaulted her. It wasn't an unpleasant smell, but it was strong. It was the smell of freshly killed meat. Carcasses hung from racks around the walls, and not just human ones. There were carcasses of horse and cow and sheep also. But no fish, she noticed. Khrau walked forward into the cockpit, and she heard a gentle hiss behind her as the door closed and the docking tube retracted.

It occurred to her then that she was alone on this ship with Khrau. There was nobody there but the two of them, nobody to whom to call for help if things got nasty. No witnesses even, to testify that she had even been here. If Khrau wished to kill her, this would be his ideal opportunity.

She walked nervously into the cockpit, and at once was again awed by the sight of the city of space ships sprawled across space. It stretched for almost a mile in every direction she looked, It was breathtaking. Khrau sat in the pilot's seat, operating the controls. She doubted he was in any sense a skilled pilot, but he knew enough to maneuver this ship slowly through Reaver Space. It was then that she noticed that Card's ship was no longer beside them. She was truly separated from the pack.

“Now we can really talk”, Khrau said, releasing his hands from the controls and swiveling his head to face her. “Sit!”, he commanded.

Jade did as she was bade, casting glances through the cockpit window for sight of Card's ship. Finally she saw it. She could just about make out Gra through its window — but then, she had known what to look for. She wondered whether or not Gra would be able to see her. She turned to face Khrau, steeling herself for the worst. “You don't like me, do you?”, she finally said.

“No”, Khrau said, coldly.

Jade took a deep breath. “I don't understand why not”, she said, finally. “What's your problem?”

“Guess”, Khrau said, revealing nothing.

“Because of my background”, Jade said. She had not intended for it to have been a question.

“Perhaps”, came the less than useful reply.

Jade struggled to find words. “I don't want to play games”, she said, finally.

“I'm not playing”, Khrau said. “You are not one of us”.

Anger flooded her veins. “What more do you expect me to do?”, she demanded. “I have done everything I can to fit in. I have joined in every ritual, every activity”. Well, not quite every, she considered, privately. There's still sex. “I've joined in hunts, worried prey, killed them— “.

“Yes you have”, Khrau agreed, interrupting her. “You have said and done all the right things. You have made every effort to fit in with our way of life. I applaud your tenacity. And yet … you are still not one of us”.

“You think I'm prey?”, she demanded to know.

“Of course not. If you were prey, you would sleep, you would stay damaged when injured. Clearly, you are not prey. And yet … you think like prey”.

“I do not”, she countered, defiantly. “How could I kill them if that were true?”

Khrau smirked. It was the first time during this encounter that she seen him display any expression that might seem even remotely positive. “I didn't say you shared their values“, he corrected. “I'm talking about your skills. Most of us here have only one skill, one thing in which they excel. Some of us have two or three — the leaders and so on. Take me, for example. I can fight, I am a hunter. That's a skill. I can lead, I can command. That's a skill too. At a pinch, I can even fly this little meat boat. That's three — which makes me very highly valued among our people. But you — you are more. You have an ability that none of us have. You can learn new skills.

“You know that it's true. You have a strategic mind. You must have noticed. The rest of us must seem limited in comparison. When we hunted prey at Malady, it was you who realized where the prey might find shelter; it was you who figured out a way to get there fast; and it was you who saw the danger from the prey”.

“I thought…“, Jade began, her mind reeling. “I thought you were going to tell me off for that”.

“Geng thinks you were wrong”, Khrau acknowledged. “Card believes Geng. But I believe you. I may not like you, but I acknowledge your skills. You see things that others do not. You see more than Geng. When I am leader, you will be my priest!”

Jade swallowed. That was something of a mixed conclusion. “So”, she summarized, “You're saying I'm not quite Reaver … but that's somehow good?”

“You hide it well”, Khrau said. “But you never fooled me”.

She blanched, and knew at once that what Khrau had said was true. There were differences between she and the others: she alone had started to remember incidents from before the Reavers were “born”; she alone had slept for most of the time since that “birth”. She had kept those differences to herself, tried to pretend they didn't matter, but they were there, just the same. And somehow that difference had never been put into words — until now.

What am I?, she wondered, not for the first time.

Khrau added: “And one day, you will explain to me the nature of the danger on Lilac. I know you simplified it for our benefit, but I do not believe that what you saw was supernatural”. That surprised Jade also. But Khrau had said his piece, and had a satisfied look on his face. Jade wondered how this would change things. As if in answer to that unspoken question, he said: “I will tell no one of this conversation. And neither will you”.

“No…“, Jade said, meekly.

“I won't be going back to the ship for a while. Card has banished me. For the time being, I must stay here”. He indicated the expanse of Reaver Space with the sweep of his arm. The revelation took Jade by surprise even more so than his earlier statements. “But”, he continued, “It isn't finished. Card is getting old. He is starting to make mistakes. Banishing me was only the most recent, and it is one I intend to correct. This isn't over”.

A mixture of emotions washed over Jade. Could it be true that Khrau was to leave the pack? If so, life with the pack would suddenly become much, much more tolerable.

As if to underscore that, Khrau added: “But I still don't like you”.

She actually smiled. “OK”, she said.

The little boat had traveled in a circle, and now had returned to the docking tube. “This is where you get off”, Khrau said. “I must wait here for the owner of this meat boat”.

Jade stood up, not knowing what to say.

“This is not goodbye”, Khrau said. He grabbed Jade's hand and squeezed it tightly.

Jade said nothing, but returned the tight grip.

It was as though all ghosts between them had been swept away: a fresh, new start to their relationship.

Hands now separated, Jade walked back through the meat store, through the connecting tube, and back onto Card's ship. Only after she had closed the airlock door behind her did she sink to the floor, her knees trembling, thinking: Did that really happen?

The engine room lay almost silent once more, now that the ship was parked in freefall. The only sound was the twittering of Tuss's budgerigar. “Hello Erin”, Jade said as she walked around the otherwise unoccupied room. The bird made no response. She had hoped to find Tuss here, but there was always plenty of work for a mechanic around the ship even when parked. So she decided to wait.

Tuss had really made this place his own. He hadn't been given quarters, like she, and so instead had more or less converted the engine room into his own private domain. There was no bed, of course, since Tuss did not sleep, but Erin did. She noticed a cover by the side of the cage. Once a day, Tuss would shroud the cage in darkness, simulating night. The illusion was good enough to fool the tiny bird brain, and Tuss had assured her that it was part of proper caring. “Budgerigars are not Reavers”, she remembered Tuss telling her. She hadn't considered until now the implications of that statement — whatever it was that happened on Miranda and gave birth to the Reavers, it affected only humans. Wildlife, or at least, avian wildlife, had not been affected.

Jade stared into empty air, and time passed. Reavers, she had noticed, did a lot of blank staring when nothing was happening. It felt like daydreaming, except that it was deeper somehow. You could blink, and not notice the passage of hours. It was, she presumed, an alternative to sleep. Or perhaps, a consequence of not sleeping. But there was no denying it was certainly more convenient. A daydream was easily interruptible. Sleep was not. She still found it incredible to comprehend that she had been here well over a year, and had not slept in all that time. She had awakened, and she liked it.

After a time, Tuss returned. She didn't know how much time, for there was no clock in this room, but it hardly mattered. “Jade”, Tuss greeted, cheerily, “You will not believe what happened in the hangar deck earlier on”.

“Surprise me”, she encouraged.

“Khrau and Card in a fight. I mean, a real leadership challenge, not just a mock fight for some minor dispute. Card won, and then Khrau got banished. I saw the whole thing. It was amazing”.

“I heard”, she said, succinctly.

Tuss turned his attention to Erin. “Has Jade been looking after you while I've been away then?”, he asked in a softened voice.

The bird seemed to understand that a response was called for, and replied: “Gorram Reavers”

To Jade, Tuss said, “I'm sure she can understand me, you know. I'd bet that's budgie talk for “Yes, and you should take Jade out, see the sights, get…“. He noticed Jade staring at her. “What?”, he asked.

Thunderstruck, it occurred to Jade only then that Tuss could not understand Erin's words. “She does speak — but that's the language of the prey”, she explained.

Tuss considered. Half jokingly, he said: “I suppose it would be too simple if all animals spoke the same language”.

“She just repeating words and phrases that she must have heard when she was young”.

“What did she say?”

There is no Reaver word for gorram, so Jade translated Erin's words simply as: “Reavers”.

Tuss smiled. “She does know us”.

Jade brightened up. “Wait a minute”, she said. “Go back a few sentences. What was that about 'Take Jade out and see the sights'?”

He held out his arms. “Well we're here. This is Reaver Space, the homeworld, the city of space ships — and I understand you've not been here before. Do you want to see around?”

She beamed, and almost fell into his outstretched arms. After all that had happened to her in recent hours, she appreciated this show of kindness. “Yeah”, she agreed, enthusiastically.

“Give me a moment to get cleaned up”, he said. It was true he was covered in oil — and to some extent so now was she. But she could live with a few minor stains. He changed quickly, and wiped his face and hands on a rag. “I have to put Erin to sleep”, he said, and reached for Erin's cover.

“Everybody's sleeping”, said Erin, quickly followed by “Somebody help!” — although the bird did not look in any distress. Far from it — Erin was clearly in the best of health.

Jade reacted suddenly. “Why did she say that?”

“What did she say?”

She supplied the translation as Tuss put the cover over Erin's cage. Tuss frowned. “That's weird”, he said. Then he added, “Makes sense though. Everyone was asleep, once”.

“What do you mean?”, Jade asked, an ominous feeling starting to creep over her.

“Well, prey”, Tuss clarified.

“I don't understand”, she insisted.

“I know some people don't remember the early days. If that includes you, you can count yourself lucky. But I remember. There were prey. Lots of prey. All asleep”.

“What happened to them?”, she asked.

“We took some for food, but there was far more meat than we could eat, so mostly it just went off. The prey never woke up. But you should know this”, he insisted, “Even if you don't know from memory, you should know from the stories”.

And she did know. But she had never put two and two together before. Geng had told her that the gods created a paradise and filled it with food that didn't need to be hunted, because people would not at first know how to hunt. Then, when the paradise was ready, the Reavers were created in the image of the gods, as the highest of all creatures. But it wasn't just a story. The paradise had been Miranda, the food had been sleeping prey. Everyone's asleep!

She felt the blood drain from her face.

Everyone fell asleep.

Including me!

And somehow, Slate had taken me out of the world, and kept me alive for four years before I even started to wake up.

“I have had so many shocks today you would not believe”, she told him. “No more stories. Take me on that tour. I want to see Reaver Space”.

She would have preferred if Tuss had held her hand as they walked to the hangar bay, but for all his eccentricities, Tuss was still a Reaver, and his attitude to romance did not include wine and candlelit dinners. Romance as such was probably never going to happen between them, but in its place was a friendship that was growing ever closer and deeper as time went by. They had not repeated that kiss on Lilac, incredible though it had been, but Jade knew that she had to live by Reaver customs now, not human ones. The next time she kissed Tuss, it would be when she was ready to go further. All the way, as the humans would say. But that time was not now. In the meantime, Tuss himself had no problem getting laid. Mace, for example, was always willing. But only Jade offered a friendship that was more than surface small talk. She had no idea how this relationship would work out, but she wasn't about to spoil it by rushing things.

There were no shuttles left in the shuttle bay, so Tuss and Jade had to wait. Eventually another ship docked, a scrapper, collecting discarded metal and other junk, and the two hitched a ride. And then another ride. And then another.

It was difficult to grasp the enormity, and certainly the geometry, of this fantastic realm. For Jade, used only to two dimensional thinking, this was like some bizarre otherworld. The best analogy she could come up with was, it was like being underwater, swimming in the middle of a school of fish. Ships were all around. Whichever way you turned, even if you turned “upwards” — except that there was no upwards because gravity was only local to the floor on which you were standing — there were more ships. In whichever direction you pressed, you passed between more ships, until they thinned out at the extremes. Then you could turn around, head in a direction only slightly different, and see yet new parts of the city. It was a spectacle she would not have missed for the 'verse.

But although she had previously declared that she wanted no more shocks this day, Jade did experience one more, and it totally dwarfed every other shock that she had experienced thus far.

They visited the nursery.

Tuss hadn't intended for it to have been a shock. So far as he was concerned, it was just one more wonder of the city. But the nursery was unlike anything in Jade's experience. The children were well looked after, but they were feral, fighting over scraps of raw meat. She saw dozens of children of all ages from two to around twelve. The older ones were given live animals to kill. And yet, when they were fed, they were as playful and joyful as any human child. It was a startling contrast.

“Where are the parents?”, Jade had asked.

“Oh, we won't get to see the Queen”, Tuss had explained.

“You mean … all of these children have the same mother?”, Jade queried, making sure she hadn't misunderstood.

“We all have our specialization”, he elaborated. “You talk to gods, I mend things, the Queen makes children. How else would it be?”

Jade shuddered. For the first time since she had convinced herself that she could accept this lifestyle, the first shard of uncertainty sent a chill to her heart.

Dark Places

Never Forget the Chickens

In the seven months since Merissa's death, Polly had not been idle. The trouble was, most of the time, the rest of the crew had no idea what she was up to, and this day was no exception. Papagina stared at the unwieldy contraption, with its profusion of multicolored spaghetti wiring and huge metal rings, in utter bewilderment. “And, this does what, exactly?”, she asked.

“Well, the power from the ship's fusion core comes in here”, Polly said enthusiastically, indicating a cable which looked no different from many others, “and charges up this coil here”. Again, she motioned with her hand. To demonstrate, she flipped a switch, and an electric hum filled the room.

Undaunted, Papagina pressed her enquiry: “Yes, but what is it for“.

“Oh, it's just an experiment. But it could turn out real useful”, she explained. “Look”, she indicated thin sheets of mesh surrounding the giant coils, “I pulled these from the engine spares. It's shielding. Got fine filaments in, like a wire grid. Should act like a Faraday cage— “.

Papagina interrupted. “Go back to the part where it's real useful”.

Polly gave her friend a disgruntled look, then said. “The big capacitor charges up, then discharges an EMP. If the shielding works, if it blocks that pulse, then we might have a defense against Reaver EMP weapons”.

“OK, that's useful”, Papagina agreed.

“Well, don't get carried away none. In the first place, my little pulse will be tiny compared with what the Reavers can throw at us. And in the second place, those sheets are all we have spare, so even if it works, we ain't got enough to cover the whole ship, and even if we did have, we still don't know how it would stand up to a bigger pulse. Hand me that wrench, would you?”

Papagina obliged. “I don't get it. If it's not practical, what's the point?”

Polly sighed. “You want everything at once, that's your trouble. One thing at a time. If this works, we figure out the next step”.

The smell of ozone was everywhere. The electric crackle was almost tangible. There was a hum which raised in pitch noticeably with each passing second. “Is it supposed to be doing that?”, Papagina asked, quickly followed by “All right, all right. Forget I asked” in response to a dagger like stare.

“You gotta have faith in me”, Polly said, proudly adding “Cap'n has faith in me”.

“All right. I'm having faith. See how much faith I'm having sitting here next to this … um … thing, and not being worried that it might explode. That's … a lot of …“. She trailed off.

Polly didn't react straight away. Finally she said, “It'll be fine”, and with that, she flicked a switch.

The hum increased to a deafening level, and then there was a sudden, electric blue flash followed by darkness. Then light returned in the form of fire, as the sheets of shielding burst into flame. Illuminated by firelight alone, Papagina ran to the nearest fire extinguisher and began spraying fine powder onto the flames. Polly did likewise. Eventually, the fire was extinguished altogether, but once that was done, they found themselves plunged into blackness. You could wave your hand in front of your face, and not see any discernable change to the blackness. It was then that they noticed the equally eerie silence — a silence broken only by the bumps and grinds of footsteps and the two women crashing into things.

Eventually, Polly conceded, “OK. That was not good”.

Overall, time had had a stabilizing effect on Card's pack. Fully six months had been spent in Reaver Space, and during that time, everyone had had a chance to hone their skills or to consolidate their position. Mace had involved herself in many of the raiding parties which kept the city fed. Tuss had found plenty of work, since his mechanical skill were everywhere in demand. Most importantly, Card's pack had come to accept Khrau's absence, and to understand that Card was now the undisputed leader. Khrau himself had been seen occasionally, but he no longer mixed with Card's pack. And Jade had found it necessary to get over her shock at seeing the nursery, because Sing needed her. She had devoted almost all of her time to assisting in Sing's recovery, sometimes even going without food just to make sure Sing got enough. She did not know what drove the fast-healing mechanisms of Reaver metabolism, but she reasoned that whatever it was, it couldn't work without fuel, and so she had gone out of her way to make sure that Sing was kept warm and well fed.

And it obviously had worked. After months of confinement, Sing finally began to get back onto her feet. She took it easy at first, under Jade's direction, but fell back into her usual food preparation duties as soon as she had been able.

More recently, the pack had returned to Lilac. Card could have chosen to return immediately, but to do so would have made his initial decision seem wrong, his command seem weak. But after six months in Reaver Space, and with Geng assuring everyone that what danger there might have been had definitely now passed, Card had finally taken the step of leaving Reaver Space and venturing back around the Rim.

His decision had been rewarded. Their first hunt had been very successful, leaving the ship well stocked up on almost all supplies. And Crane, the newest member of Card's pack, was fitting in very nicely indeed. He learned fast.

He learned fast.

Jade pondered over that point more than once. Reavers, in general, did not learn fast. In fact, Reavers, in general, did not learn at all. They were able to improve on their existing skills, but not to learn new ones. But Crane was turned. When a hunter is killed during a hunt, custom allows for a replacement to be taken from the prey, assuming the gods were willing. Four hunters were killed in last hunt. By rights, there should have been four replacements, but Crane was the only one. Little by little, this pack's numbers were diminishing.

It has to be a virus, Jade reasoned. It has to be some sort of airborne virus, but one which only spreads in confined spaces such as space ships. The turned always breathe the same air as us. The turned can learn, but only for a short time. After a few months, their patterns become fixed, and their skill set is frozen.

And then, life went on pretty much as normal for a while. Until, that is, the day that everything changed.

On the day that everything changed, Jade sat outdoors looking across at the bereft farm buildings, emptied of prey by the most recent hunt. Lit by sunrise, the scene looked hauntingly beautiful. There was plenty of activity going on, as busy individuals loaded up the last of the bounty into the ship. A few hours from now, another hunt would be underway, but in the meantime there was nothing for Jade to do but sit and watch the sunrise.

Tuss came to sit beside her. She smiled at him. “You know”, he said, “I think that half a year we spent in Reaver Space did you a lot of good. You seem a lot more alive these days”.

“Alive?”, she queried.

“Excited by life. Enjoying every day, moment by moment”.

She beamed. “Things have been good”, she said. “First Khrau left, and he and I didn't get on too well. Then Sing got better. Then there's us”.

“We do get along pretty well”, Tuss agreed.

“You could stay”, Jade suggested. “Officially you're still only temporarily traveling with this pack, and one day you'll be needed somewhere else. But there's a way you could stay. You could join this pack permanently”.

“That's a pretty big deal”, Tuss said, matter-of-factly. “I'd need Card and Geng both to support me. I guess that's possible, but I still have commitments in Ekh's pack— “.

“You could be my mate”, Jade said, interrupting him. She had given this plenty of thought since their first kiss. Their only kiss. Despite her misgivings about the reproductive strategy applied by her people, the fact remained that they were her people, that this was now the only society in which she could live. And, given that, there really was no other candidate with whom she might consider sharing her life.

“I could”, Tuss replied, adding: “But you know, it's kinda traditional for mates to be a little more physical than we are”.

Gently, Jade said: “I know”, and kissed him.

It was a long kiss, and one that had been a long time coming. When it was over, Tuss spoke, concern evident in his voice. “You know, last time we tried this, I got confused. Am I going to get confused this time?”

“No”, she told him. “I'm ready. But — not here. Not in public”. That was one condition on which she was not ready to back down.

“Why not?”, Tuss asked. “Is there a reason you don't want to be seen with me?”

Jade halted her train of thought. It hadn't occurred to her that he might see it like that. Flustered, she replied: “I… No, it's not that. It's just there are some things that I'm still not ready for”.

Tuss looked around. “Come on”, he said, indicating a nearby barn. “We'll be all on our own in there”.

And so they were, apart from the chickens. They didn't offer enough meat for the Reavers to even bother rounding up and so now roamed free around the farm.

Jade figured she knew what to expect. Despite having spent most of her early life asleep, she wasn't a child. She was innocent only in experience, not in knowledge, and there comes a time for sexual awakening in everybody. She had learned enough about Reaver customs to know how it worked. She knew there would be little in the way of foreplay or afterplay. All of that, she knew, and she thought she had been prepared for it. But she hadn't been prepared for the pain. Tuss, gentle Tuss, drove sharp fingernails into her shoulders, immersing her into unavoidable agony. She clawed at his back, but he didn't seem to mind. She wasn't sure, in the end, whether pleasure or pain had been the greater sensation, and when it was over, her hair was stuck to her face in places by her own blood. She breathed heavily, looking at Tuss lying beside her, wondering, just for a moment, whether or not this had been a mistake. Then Tuss smiled, and it started to seem all right again.

And at that moment, a chicken peeked its head over Tuss, and leapt onto his back. These birds had been domesticated to the point where they were not even remotely afraid of people — and made no distinction between Reaver and prey. Jade could only laugh. Tuss swept the bird aside with one arm, and then joined her in laughter.

“See, that wouldn't have happened if we'd been outside”, Tuss said between laughs.

Jade grinned, then quietly said: “That was my first time”.

“What — ever?”

“I grew up with prey, remember?”

Tuss snapped his fingers. “Right. And you wouldn't want to … with them, with prey … coz that would be … somewhat disgusting”.

Jade blinked, surprised at that conclusion. Reavers do have sex with prey. She'd seen it. But that was rape, and was done primarily to terrify the prey.

“So, first timer”, Tuss continued. “You gonna remember this day forever? Coz, you know, you always remember your first time”.

Jade pulled her hair away from her face, and wiped the blood from her skin. “Oh, I think so”, she acknowledged, pain still ebbing from her upper body, and doubting it was something she ever could forget.

“Remember the barn, all this hay, … the unbridled lust, the … more hay”.

Jade laughed. “And the chickens”, she added.

“Never forget the chickens”, Tuss instructed.

There was a bang from outside the barn. Both of them looked up, startled. Tuss leapt to his feet and ran to the barn door, not bothering to dress first, and showing no modesty.

“Oh no!”, he cried out. “Who's driving that thing?”

Curious to see what the problem was, Jade stood beside him and peered around the door, careful not to reveal any naked flesh beyond her hands and face. The armored hovercar had run aground, and hovered no more. Black smoke poured from its rear. Crane's head and shoulders emerged from the newly added front section, looking confused and embarrassed.

He used to be able to fly that thing when he was prey, Jade realized. He can learn, but he can also forget.

She wandered back inside, picked up her clothes, and quickly dressed.

Several million miles away, on a mining world called Haven, Vindicator's crew dined with the locals. Haven wasn't much of a world, and supported only a few colonies, but Vindicator had had to go somewhere, once the power had been restored, and Haven was simply the closest place. The locals were friendly enough — or at least, they were, once you made a sufficiently large donation to the community purse.

“You think she'll get over it?”, Elizabeth asked, amusedly.

“Who, Polly?”, Slate answered. They reached the edge of the quarry. It hadn't been much a walk, and the view now that they'd arrived was less than spectacular. “I don't think she's ever been so red faced over some piece of machinery gone wrong. No wait, there was that time when the bilge pump… But you don't want to hear about that”.

“You know”, Elizabeth said, peering down into the quarry. “The view isn't that bad. It does have a lake”.

“That's a puddle”, Slate argued. “Miners dig a hole. Rain fills it up. I call that a puddle”.

“Well … it's got birds on it”.

“Hmm”. Slate was noncommittal. Changing the subject, he said: “We do got ourselves a problem. Lot of our electrics got burned out. We don't have the coin to repair all of it. Reavers find us now, we're humped”.

“They're not looking for us, Slate”, Elizabeth pointed out. “It's the other way round”.

“True enough. But we could be here for a long time”.

“Folk here are nice enough”, she commented. As an afterthought, she added: “Apart from the Shepherd. I don't think he trusts us”.

“Well that's mutual”, Slate said. “I never did trust preachers.

They stared into the quarry pit for a short time, before Elizabeth conceded: “It is a puddle, isn't it?”


“You wanna go back?”


“OK. Gets my vote”. They turned and headed back to the miners' camp.

The camp was clearly intended to be a temporary dwelling place. Some of the buildings looked solid enough, but many were just tents, and even the solid looking ones were more than likely kit buildings that could be put up and taken down in only a few hours. And there was a reason for this utility. The mineshaft which was the raison d'être of this community was a finite resource. When its bounty was exhausted, this community would end, but others would spring up in its place, in other parts of this moon. Life on Haven was tough, but it was potentially rewarding. While most laborers struggled like the rest of humanity to make enough coin to live by, there were those few who got lucky, who struck it rich. The people here were true pioneers. They had laid claim to their own moon, and they weren't about to be shoved off. They were, however, wary of strangers. Slate didn't mind that. In fact, it seemed only common sense. But suspicious they were, which is why Slate was immediately on guard when three of locals seated at a table invited him and Elizabeth over to join them.

He strolled over, Elizabeth beside him. “Hey stranger”, said one of the three, a bearded man. “We's just about to play cards. Got room here for one more. Maybe two. You're welcome to join us”.

“I don't gamble”, Slate said, truthfully. He didn't mention that the reason for that was that he'd given up a long time ago.

“Name's Bartok”, said the bearded one. He made his placations: “'Tain't gambling, it's just a bit of fun”.

Elizabeth sat down at the table and indicated for Slate to join her. “I'm Elizabeth”, she said.

None too happy about the prospect, Slate sat beside her. They were introduced to the three players: Bartok, Charlie and Joanne. “So there's no money involved, right?”, Slate queried.

“Only a little”, Charlie answered, jovially. “Just to make it interesting”.

Slate was beginning to see the setup, and decided not to reveal too much. “What's the game?”, he asked.

“Poker”, Joanne replied, succinctly.

“Is that like tall card?”, Slate asked, exuding innocence. “I'm not sure I know poker”.

Elizabeth looked at him blankly, but said nothing.

Joanne smiled. “Don't worry. We'll teach you”.

I sit at the table, as blank faced as I can manage. The pot at the center of the table stands at over a thousand platinums. Every credit I own is on the table, either in that pot, or in front of me. I know I have a good hand. I have three sevens and an eight face up, but I'm holding four sevens. All of the other players have folded, bar one, fellow by the name of Jack. He's showing eight, nine, ten and jack of clubs. He has to be bluffing. He's waiting to see which of us will lose our nerve first. Well it ain't gonna be me. I got him beat, I'm sure of it.

“That's your hundred, and I'll raise you another hundred”, I say, pushing more coin from the pile in front of me toward the pot.

“Let's see what you got”, says Jack, pushing another hundred platinums onto the table.

I turn over my other seven, and smile. I want to reach for the pot, but only amateurs do that. I wait.

Jack smiles back, and turns over his remaining card: the queen of clubs.

I bury my head in my hands. It's over. Everything's over. That's all I have, all I own. I can't believe I just lost it all.

I feel like I'm in a daze. I rise from my seat. I hear the words come out of my mouth: “Thanks for the game”. I guess it must be me saying them, but the thoughts in my head are elsewhere, pondering the fact that the good life here on Miranda had just effectively ended. What am I going to tell Lana?

I walk out of the room as Jack scoops up the pile of cash.

“I think you may have accidentally misdealt”, Slate said, stony faced.

“I'm sorry?”, Bartok said, looking perplexed.

Slate turned to look across the table. “Joanne, how many cards you got?”

“Five, I think”, said Joanne, uncertainly.

Bartok started to look angry. “What are you implying?”, he demanded, sharply.

Slate reached across the table and slid one of Joanne's face down cards aside, revealing another hidden below it. “Just an accident, I'm sure”, Slate said, placatingly. He turned over Joanne's extra card, and said: “Pity. Would have made a good hand”.

Elizabeth looked at him, disbelievingly. She decided to bet small and fold early from that point on.

“Fine!”, Bartok agreed, reluctantly. “We deal again”.

“You gotta help me”, I beg.

Hawkeye glares at me, wide eyed and angry. “How? I don't have that kind of money to throw around”.

“Whatever you got spare, I'll take it”, I say, trying to accommodate as much as I dare.

“What are you going to do with it? Put it on a horse?”

“I have to turn it into something. That's the only way it can work”.

“No. No way. Slate, we can't even pay our own rent without me going off world for four months at a time. Do you think that's fun? Do you think I enjoy that? Being apart from my wife and daughter for half my life? What do you expect me to do? Give up all my time?”

Hawkeye's anger perturbs me to the core, but I know I have no choice. “Hawkeye, listen to me. I am in so much debt you wouldn't believe, and some of it is the sort of people who will take payment in limbs”.

“I'm sorry Slate. I can't help you. At least, not financially”.

“Then you gotta get me off this planet”, I insist. “Me and Lana both”.

What!”, he exclaims. “How? You think I can just smuggle people onto the Greg Edmonson without anyone noticing”.

“You have to”, I insist.. “I don't have any choice”.

Hawkeye sighs. Eventually, he says: “I will see what I can do. But you have to promise me one thing. Never again. No more gambling. Not ever. You give it up, you hear? It ends right here, right now.”

Sheepishly, I agree. What else can I do? “Fine. It's over. No more gambling”.

It was down to three players: Slate, Joanne and Bartok. “Any objections to a marker?”, Joanne asked.

“Fine be me”, Bartok agreed.

“No markers”, Slate said, resolutely.

Disgruntled, Joanne slapped her cards onto the table and slid her chair back across the floor. “Then I'm out”, she said.

“Your fifty, and raise one fifty”, Slate said, sliding the coins across the table.

“Two fifty”, said Bartok, doing the same. The tension at the table was electric, but Slate, Elizabeth noted, seemed calm. Bartok, by contrast, seemed to barely contain his anger.

“Your two fifty platinums, plus five hundred more”, Slate said, just as calmly. Elizabeth was astounded. Seven hundred and fifty platinums was enough to buy a moderately furnished workshop, and Slate had just played that in one single betting round. She held her breath.

“You're bluffing!”, Bartok exclaimed. “Let's see what you got”

“That will cost you five hundred platinums”, Slate said, coldly.

Seething, Bartok declared “I thought you said you didn't know how to play this”.

“It's all coming back to me”, he replied.

“I've beaten you”, Bartok insisted, his voice an uncomfortable hiss.

“Five hundred coins and you'll find out”, Slate insisted.

Bartok fumed. He knew he'd won, but he didn't have the money to cover the bet. If he couldn't cover the bet, he'd lose the entire pot. “What about an IOU?”, he said, desperately.

“An IOU's just paper”, Slate replied.

Wang pa tan! You know you're beat!”, Bartok exclaimed. Angrily, he flipped over his last card, completing four sixes.

“If you can't cover the bet, what cards you got don't matter a damn”.

Making a decision, he declared “Right!”, and slammed down a set of keys onto the table.

“What's that?”, Slate asked, his voice making it clear that he would bode no deception.

“My ship”, Bartok explained. “My gorram space ship”. There were whistles around the table.

“I'd say that covers it”, Slate agreed. He leaned back in his chair, and slowly turned over the last card, completing four eights.

There was silence around the table. Bartok stood up, and walked out.

Slate leaned back and laughed. Elizabeth whooped with joy, and gave Slate a big hug. They were back in the game again.

Hurriedly, Tuss finished his repair work on the skiff. “It'll fly”, he told Card. “It won't be pretty, but it will fly”.

“Good”, Card acknowledged. “Now let's go!” He was impatient to be underway. The hunt was overdue to start, and would have started already, but for Tuss's insistence that the skiff would be ready to fly any second now. He didn't know how many seconds had passed since then, and frankly he didn't care. He just wanted to lead the hunt.

“What!?”, Tuss said, confused. “You want me to go with you? I'm not a hunter”.

“If there is a chance that this contraption might break down, then I want you inside it, ready to fix it”, Card insisted. “Gra, Mace, you're with me too”.

Mace eagerly piled into the hovercar. Like Card, she was annoyed at having been made to wait, and eager to start the hunt. Gra, by contrast, cared nothing for the hunt itself, but greatly looked forward to flying the skiff. Quickly, she made her way forward to the pilot's seat.

Jade stood at the door of the hangar bay and watched as the skiff flew away across the desert sands of Lilac. Tuss is with them, she reflected. I hope he'll be all right.

This hunt was well planned, as always. The town had been reconnoitered, the habits of the prey studied. Once every seven days, most of the prey assembled inside a single building, always unarmed, for a few hours in the morning. That seven day cycle had come round again, and so now was the ideal time. Card sat in the turret at the top of the skiff and peered out of the widened slit. Thanks to Tuss's handiwork, the skiff had been considerably modified. Through the slit, he could see the shuttles flying around them. “Faster”, he urged Gra. The skiff screamed under her expert control as it sought to catch up with the shuttles.

The shuttles arrived, and began lowering Reavers onto the street on long ropes. The skiff arrived at more or less the same time and spun to a halt. Mace was beside Card in an instant, firing serrated metal discs at whatever prey happened to be near.

“I hate to say anything”, Tuss interrupted from the back of the skiff, “but we're belching black smoke from both engines”.

“Then you stay here and fix it”, Card insisted. “Mace, you're with me. Let's go”.

But before they had time to open the doors and exit the vehicle, there was commotion from up ahead, and Card waved them to a halt. One of the hunters was waving at Card, indicating there was something ahead, something to be pursued.

“You see that?”, Card called forward to Gra.

“I see it”, she replied from the nose of the vehicle. With a lurch, the skiff took off one more time and screamed forward.

“Wait, wait”, Tuss cried from the rear of the vehicle. “What about the repairs?”

“They can wait”, Card insisted. “Do what you can from inside”.

Gra pushed the skiff around a bend in the road, and it was then that they saw the cause of the commotion. Another vehicle was in the air, a prey vehicle, making a hasty retreat. It was yellow, industrial looking, open topped.

“Dinner”, said Gra, eager for the thrill of the chase. She careened the skiff around, bringing it onto a pursuit course.

“Push it as hard as it needs”, Card commanded. He yelled back: “Tuss, what is that thing?”, indicating the vehicle they were chasing.

“It's your basic beast of burden”, Tuss called in reply. “Called a Mule”.

“Is it armed?”

“Not unless it's been modified”.

The skiff emerged from the town into open ground. The landscape was hilly and wild. What plant life there was consisted mostly of grasses and a few small bushes. Ahead of them, the retreating Mule forged ahead, trying to escape. It bore four prey. Two of them, at the back of the vehicle, fired guns back toward the skiff, but their bullets were useless against its armored skin.

“Gra”, Card called down from the turret, “Have some fun with them, then try to run them down. Might as well capture them alive if we can”.

Gra grinned excitedly. “I was hoping you'd say that”, she called back.

She gunned the skiff forward, traveling slightly faster than the prey, and closed the distance between them. “Hold on”, she called, as she nudged the nose of the skiff slightly past the back of the Mule. Then she swung the nose rightward and slammed it into the side of the fleeing craft. The shock of the impact rang through the skiff, but it was easily tough enough to withstand the shock. Card, like the others, felt the thud reverberate through his entire body. That was good thinking on Gra's part, he reasoned. The prey were not enclosed. A jolt like that stood some chance of knocking one or two of them off their vehicle. If she could knock off the ones with guns, that would be very good indeed.

The prey craft screamed ahead once more, and Gra let them go, to give Card and Mace a chance to let fly with weapons. The two prey at the rear continued to fire guns back toward them, but the slit in the turret was too small and too distant for them to get an accurate shot.

Card fired serrated metal discs at the prey, launched from a kind of modified crossbow. One disc missed one of the prey by only a fraction, and embedded itself into the skin of the Mule. “Nearly”, Mace said, readying a harpoon gun.

“Wait”, said Card, watching carefully what the prey were doing. One of them, the bearded one, prized the serrated disc off of the vehicle using a crowbar, and then climbed onto the back of the vehicle. “Now!”, he ordered.

Mace fired. It was a perfect shot, skewering the prey in the leg.

“Reel it in”, Card said. Mace wound in the rope, bracing herself against the front of the turret as she did so. The prey was yanked from the back of the vehicle, but, incredibly, it managed to grab onto the back of the Mule as it fell. It hung there, suspended in the air as both vehicles sped over open ground, desperately clinging to the handhold before it, while its lower half was pulled into the air toward them.

Gra called back: “You want me to slow down?” If she slowed down even a tiny bit, the prey would literally be yanked off the vehicle.

“Oh no”, Card replied, thoughtfully. “Let's frighten this one while we can. Just match their speed”.

Gra grinned and set her sights on maintaining the amusing spectacle for as long as she could.

Card readied another metal disc. The other male prey was standing at the back, shooting, apparently at the bearded prey. Card launched the disc, narrowly missing the standing prey's face. It jerked back as it realized its close call.

And then the rope went slack. One of the prey bullets had severed the rope. Impressive, thought Card, but still a wasted effort. He knew the prey stood no chance in the long run. His craft was faster than the prey's, more heavily armored, and more heavily armed. Still, he watched with fascination as the clean-faced male pulled the bearded male back on board as their Mule raced across the scrubland.

“All right, enough playing”, said Card. “I've seen enough. Gra, just run them down”. He figured that at least one of the prey was a sufficiently good shot that it might conceivably hit them, even through the turret slit. With that in mind, it clearly became advantageous to simply knock the prey out of the air.

Gra gunned the engine once more. The prey careened into a narrow pass between rocky outcrops, but Gra was easily skilled enough to follow through the winding course.

Until, that is, she reached a gap that was too narrow for the skiff!

The starboard engine smashed into a rock. It survived in one piece, but burst into flame.

Whoa! Gra thought, as she desperately tried to regain control of the skiff. She almost had it when the port engine hit an even larger rock. This time the engine did not catch fire, but the skiff spun out of control. Both Card and Mace found themselves on the floor, their weapons skittering about beside them.

Tuss now found himself extremely busy as he wrestled with a fire extinguisher and at the same time tried to keep the now seriously downgraded engines functioning. “I could use a little help down here”, he called.

In the turret, Card concurred. “Go help”, he told Mace. She collected herself and climbed down into the back of the vehicle.

Gra finally regained control of the skiff, but by that time the prey had put considerable distance between them, and there was only so far she could push the engines in their damaged state. But the prey were now back on open ground. There were no large rocks between skiff and Mule. This time, when they caught up, it would all be over. If, that is, they could acquire enough speed to catch up at all.

Black smoke continued to pour out of both engines, but that was nothing new. The fires were out, and the engines recovered enough to give Gra enough power to accelerate.

She saw the prey vehicle rotate sharply leftward. It curved around in a tight, controlled skid, until it ended up facing them. Then it headed back toward them, now, it seemed, on a collision course.

Suits me, Gra reasoned. She could play chicken with the best of them, most especially when her vehicle was armored and the other one wasn't. If it came to an actual collision, the skiff would be relatively unscathed, but the prey would be scattered in several pieces across the scrubland floor.

And then, the unthinkable happened!

A large spacecraft appeared over the hills ahead, flying directly toward them, on a collision course with both the Mule and the skiff. The space ship must have been some half the length of their own ship, but that was still massive in comparison with the skiff. There was no doubt that a collision with this ship would not be quite so endurable. With extreme urgency, she tried to steer the skiff out of the way, crying as she did, “Brace yourselves!”. But everything was moving too fast, and the rapidly shrinking distance between them too small. She only had time to notice that the big ship was flying with its hangar door open, and that as it reached the Mule it swallowed it up into its cargo bay, before pulling the skiff as far to the side as she could.

It was not enough.

The skiff collided with the side of the ship at full speed and ripped in two. The upper part tore away from the body. Gra had no opportunity to see what happened to it. The lower part was hurtled aside, slamming into the ground. That was when Gra lost consciousness.

Card was still conscious, but only just. His portion of the skiff, the turret, was first thrown backwards into the air, and then swallowed up by the maw of the encroaching ship. Flames were all around him. The burning turret skidded on metal, and finally smashed into the rear interior wall of the engulfing ship and came to rest.

He breathed deeply, trying to make sense of what had happened, of where he was. He could hear prey talking. Anger enveloped him with a fury he had not known, and the rush filled his body, powering him with adrenaline beyond the normal limits of endurance.

Covered in blood, he leapt from the turret and lunged at the nearest prey creature in sight, teeth bared. Even in his enraged state, he noticed with some satisfaction that this prey was the sharpshooter, that finally he was going to get even with this troublesome prey.

Bullets tore into his stomach, not just from the sharpshooter but from all around. He struggled to stay conscious in spite of this, but even a Reaver has limits, and finally, Card fell. Bloody and motionless, he lay as life ebbed from his body and the prey stood around him, watching. He imagined them gloating. Then he imagined no more.

Slate gazed up at the hulk that was Mirabelle, and sighed. “Well, looks like I won me a piece of gos se“, he commented. His five crewmates shared his sentiment.

“It won't fly”, Polly said. It didn't take an engineer to see that. The glass was shattered, the hull was rusted, and the main door wouldn't close properly.

“Well”, Slate finally concluded. “It don't matter none. We still got the money. And we'd best be getting off of this rock before someone starts wanting it back”.

Elizabeth looked at him quizzically. “You think they'll get violent?”

Slate shrugged. “Probably not. What I won, I won fair and square, front of witnesses and all. That makes it mine. That means taking it off of me would be thieving. I don't think these people are the sort like to be thieving off paying guests”.

Polly squeezed into the Mirabelle through the not quite closing doors. She carried a torch, bearing no illusions about the likelihood of the electrical systems working.

“I don't get it”, Kwok Fi said, clearly puzzled. “If it's that easy for you to win money playing poker, why not do it all the time? Why bother trying to get work?”

“Coz it ain't that easy”, Slate replied, a little incredulously. But of course, Kwok Fi didn't know. None of them did. You couldn't know, unless you'd led this life. “Truth is, I ain't like to be welcome in no card school in these parts any time soon, 'cepting them as think they've got what it takes to win.”

Elizabeth chimed in, “You mean you might lose?”

“Not against these clowns. They weren't poker players, they were your basic con merchants. It's all stacked decks and sleight of hand. Make them play a straight game, they fall over”.

“As you proved”.

“That's my point”, Kwok Fi interjected. “Why not just keep doing that?”

“Coz sooner or later you lose”, Slate said, bleakly. “I made my brother a promise that I would never gamble again, coz that's exactly what I did, once too often. I just broke that promise. But I ain't about to do it again”.

Papagina asked: “So what did you mean then, 'before someone starts wanting it back'?”

Slate shrugged. “Maybe they'll want a rematch. Maybe some other game, maybe a little bit more rigged. Could be any of a million things. Come on, let's go”.

Polly stuck her head out of the door. “Hey Slate”, she said, “This boat may not be much, but we sure could use some spare parts”.

“From this rust bucket?”, Slate exclaimed.

“Ceramics don't rust”, Polly countered, “Nor do plastics. There's stuff in here we could use. Not least of which is mesh we can use to make EMP shielding”.

Slate coughed conspicuously. “I seem to recall that not working none too well”, he commented, reminding her: “which is why we're here”.

“Well, maybe we just didn't have enough”.

“Maybe so, but I don't want you wrecking my ship trying to find out”.

As one, all heads turned toward Mirabelle. You couldn't wreck something that was already scrap.

“You think you can make this work?”, Slate said, finally.

“Well, we still ain't got enough to shield the whole ship, but we might be able to shield parts of it. Might be that's enough”.

Slate raised his arms in the air. “OK”, he agreed, “Looks like we're staying here a mite longer”.

The pack assembled in the upper cargo bay. Tuss was draped around Jade's shoulder, still not recovered from his ordeal. Gra was here too, which was a remarkable event in itself. Normally Gra avoided even ritual ceremonies if she could avoid it. But this was more important than any ceremony. She nursed her still healing arm. She had broken many bones in the crash, but that hadn't been the worst part. Reavers heal quickly, and a bone which knits together in the wrong place could cause permanent disability. More than once, she had had to re-break the fractures so that they would set right. Once she had even had to lie still while somebody else applied more force than she could apply herself.

Tuss looked weak, Jade noticed, but he was OK. He and Mace had been at the back of the skiff. When Gra had called “Brace yourselves”, he had wrapped himself in the webbing which held the fire extinguisher. Mace had tried to do the same, but only half succeeded. Consequently she now had a gash running right up her left arm. It would heal, but the scar would be permanent. For a Reaver, and especially a hunter, that would be a badge of honor, but right now it was just an inconvenience.

Gala addressed the assembly.

“Our leader is dead”, she said, straightforwardly. “That means, leadership now falls to me. It is not a position I want, but it is one I will accept, for the time being”.

There were grunts of approval. Someone had to take charge. Gala had been Card's mate, and remained the alpha female. She was an obvious choice.

“I don't claim to know anything about gods, or why they do the things they do”, she continued, “Or why they take the people that they take. But if I had to guess, I'd say they weren't too happy right now”.

Geng nodded. Gala was surely correct.

“We were warned against coming here”, she continued, “But we chose to ignore that warning, and now we have paid the price”.

We were warned?, thought Jade, wondering what Gala could possibly have meant. Then she realized. Gala was talking about her. She, Jade, had provided the warning, on their last visit to this moon. She had provided the impetus which had driven them to leave. But Geng had disagreed, had said this world was safe, and so they had come back. Geng's considered opinion, it seemed, had been tested and found wanting.

But Jade cared for none of that. All that mattered to her was that the people she cared about were safe. Tuss had only minor injuries, and would soon recover fully, Mace would take a little longer, and Gra longer still, but they'd all be OK. Sing was on the mend, and Geng suffered only from wounded pride.

But Card was not all right. Card was dead, and there was nothing that could be done about that. She recalled all the times that Card had been kind to her, and understood in a moment of clarity that even when he'd been harsh, he had been so with good reason. Card had been a wise and considerate leader. Gala could never fill his shoes in quite the same way.

Gala spoke again: “And so, we shall leave this place, to recover from our wounds among our own kind.

“The hunt, at least, was good. We now have dozens of prey, half of them still alive. We have more than enough to feed ourselves, and enough spare to trade. We won't be going back empty handed.

“That is all”.

“Actually…“, Tuss called out from beside Jade, “There is one more thing”.

That took Jade by surprise, and, by the looks of things, everybody else too.

Gala quieted down the throng. “Go on”, she proffered.

“I formally request to be made a permanent member of this pack”.

Gala raised her eyebrows. “I have no objection”, she said, puzzled, “but, why the urgency?”

He gave Jade a squeeze. “We are to be mated”, he announced.

Jade wasn't sure if the tears in her eyes were for sadness at Card's death, or joy for her own future.

Dark Places

The Leader of the Pack

Two women inched into the cockpit, the one, dark haired, elegant, her dress gold, sleeveless, the other, smaller, rounder faced, boiler suited, both nervous. The captain walked in front of them, pacing slowly, every bit as nervous.

They had good reason to be nervous.

There were other people in the room, but not a one spoke. The tension was so great that it seemed it might snap at any moment — except that it could not. Nobody dared snap; nobody could break the binding, hypnotic, and terrifying attraction of what lay beyond the window.

The pilot gripped the steering column resolutely. No sudden moves — that was the only way. Standing behind him, his wife put her hand on his shoulder, partly for comfort, partly through fear. The smart, blue shirted one kept his cool on the outside, but even on him the fear showed. The most fearful of them all kept back, cradling a gun so massive it looked like it could punch a hole straight through the hull, knowing all along that if came to it, even the gun wouldn't help. Each one of them understood that death would be inevitable, if the Reavers chose to pursue them. Those who were religious prayed that that would not happen.

The crazy girl pressed her face against the glass of the window, eyes wide, staring out into the armada.

They saw a ship pulled apart, ripped in two by cables attached to larger ships. Still nobody spoke.

There was a flash of light, drawing attention away from the demolition. Big Gun Man had backed away as far as he could go; any further and he would be out the door. The captain looked around, trying to see what had caused the flash. Then he saw it.

“Wash…“, he spoke, quietly. His voice sounded as loud as thunder in the eerie silence.

The pilot, looked upward and saw for himself. A massive ship, a Reaver ship, changing course, turning toward them.

But it did not pursue.

They pressed forward. There was no other way. They had traveled more than halfway across Reaver Space. They were almost through it. Before them, Miranda shone brightly, lighting up the ships with an eerie, but beautiful blue light. To their port side, a larger ship dwarfed them. They could see activity within it, a carriage moving along a rail, its purpose unknown — a train perhaps, or maybe an elevator. Either way, it carried death, should they be caught. Being caught was not an option.

Jade gazed out of the cockpit of her own ship. She saw the tiny intruder, far off in the distance, but paid it no heed. It looked just like any other Reaver ship, differing only in its unfamiliarity. Had Gra been here, even she would not have recognized it, though she had seen it before. Red paint adorned its skin; human skeletons ornamented its nose; vicious spiked metal graced its body. Jade could not have known that inside that ship were prey, already terrified, ready to pick off, tear apart, and consume. Of course, she had no reason to suspect that. No prey ship would ever venture into Reaver Space. It was unthinkable.

The captain paced, slowly but nervously, as Serenity moved silently toward the edge of the city. Below them, yet another Reaver ship loomed, this one big, boxy, its surface embellished with shark fin spikes, but they passed over it without incident.

Wash looked around, still nervous, but his nervousness was now tempered with something else — hope. But he dare not jinx it by saying anything. Others caught on soon enough. They were through; they were in open space — but they were still not out of danger. At any moment, they could easily become a meal for the sadistic, fearsome cannibals who had laid claim to this region of space. But hope spread, and became tangible. The elegant woman in the golden dress stepped forward, only now feeling free to move even an inch, and put her hands on her hips, not exactly relaxing, but daring to dream of it. The crazy girl closed her eyes and breathed out. How long had she been holding her breath?

Serenity entered Miranda's atmosphere. They had come looking for knowledge. If they should find what they were looking for, then everything could change.

“Are you ready?”

Jade looked around to see Tuss peering around the cockpit door. She smiled. “I'm ready”, she confirmed, standing up to leave the room.

The upper cargo bay had been home to many a ritual in the nineteen months that Jade had spent with this pack, but none mattered more to her than this one. And, clearly, it had mattered to the rest of the pack too, for the room had been spectacularly decorated with skulls and ornate bone carvings. Lush drapes hung from the ceiling; gallons of drink, both alcoholic and narcotic, circulated the ensemble; and whole baby prey roasted on a makeshift spit over a heating element at the center of the room. Mating ceremonies were not usually this elaborate, but the sumptuousness of this event had been Gala's idea. After the death of Card, the new leader reasoned that this pack needed some morale uplifting, and what better way to achieve that than a party? A mating ceremony provided just the excuse, and both Jade and Tuss were well liked individuals among the pack. The two caught the sights, sounds and smells as they walked into the room, and found it almost overwhelming.

Sing greeted them at once. “I hope you like the fare”, she said, grinning. She was back, and wanted everyone to know it. There was no doubt in Jade's mind that the food today would be par excellence.

“I'm sure I will”, Jade said, hugging her. Tuss followed with a hug of his own.

Through the crowd, Jade spotted Geng at the far end of the room. She excused herself, and zigzagged through the throng toward him. But though he smiled at the sight of her, there was a sadness in his eyes which he could not disguise.

“Welcome, Jade”, he said as she reached him.

He held out both of his hands. Jade took them both in hers. “How are you holding up?”, she asked.

Geng regarded her quizzically. “I am more than ready to conduct your ceremony”, he answered, his voice perhaps a little prouder than it ought.

“That's not what I meant”, Jade insisted. “You and Card were good friends”.

Geng looked uncomfortable. “Card will have made his way to the abode of the gods by now”, he said. “He will be fine”.

Jade nodded and smiled wryly. She caught the evasion, and would have none of it. “I miss him too”, she stated.

There was a silence between them which lasted for a good few seconds, broken only when Geng decided to break hands and change the subject. “Come on”, he said, “I have something for you. A gift”.

They walked across to the altar which had been set up for this ceremony. Geng withdrew a small package wrapped in skins and presented it to Jade. Gingerly, she peeled off the layers to reveal the precious content at the heart of the bundle. She gasped. “Blackberries!”, she exclaimed, her eyes wide. Out here on the Rim, this was a rare gift indeed. “Thank you”, she said, and kissed him on the cheek.

“Come on”, he beckoned. “Let us begin”.

The assembly drew to a hush as Geng took his place before the altar. He waited until the quiet was complete, then spoke loudly and clearly. “This is a proud and joyous day”, he announced. “For today, two people, known to us all, are to be mated, in accordance with our customs.

“Jade, my apprentice, has been with us for more than a year and a half, and in that time has become known and respected, and, I hope, friends, with you all”.

Jade walked forward to stand beside Geng. He handed her a knife, plain, but well crafted, which she held reverently before her.

“Tuss”, Geng continued, “has been traveling with this pack for almost a year, though until now we have not regarded him as one of our own. That changes with this mating. After this ceremony is through, Tuss will be a member of this pack, and I know that is something that all of us will welcome”.

Tuss entered the space before the altar and likewise stood beside Geng. Geng handed him a knife, identical to the one he had given Jade. He grasped it gently, but solemnly.

“Begin”, Geng said, simply, and stepped back, melting into the shadows of the altar.

Their steps had been rehearsed many times over, but not until now acted out in the flesh. Jade and Tuss faced each other, each holding their knife in their right hand. Tuss placed his left arm on Jade's left shoulder. Jade copied the motion.

“Your blood is my blood”, said Tuss, his voice loud and ritualistic, but at the same time nervous. He cut into Jade's bare arm. She flinched, and clenched his shoulder, but no change of expression showed on her face.

“Your blood is my blood”, Jade repeated, and likewise cut into Tuss's arm. He did not flinch. He only smiled.

They each drew their knives along the length of the other's arm, drawing blood all the way. Then, the knives dropped to the floor, and Jade and Tuss raised their bloody arms, to show the stilled congregation. Finally, they pressed their arms together, wound to wound, and their blood mixed together as it streamed down their bodies and pooled onto the floor.

Geng stepped forward and emerged from the shadows. He placed a hand on each of them, and spoke solemnly. “You are mated”, he said. At once the assembled cheered, and rhythmic thumping began as sticks were hammered onto the floor. Jade looked around at the throng, still not quite believing she was mated. She was elated, yet at the same time afraid that at any moment she might blink and find it all to have been a daydream. But it didn't go away. When finally she grasped that it was real, she breathed out, turned to face Tuss, and smiled. He kissed her.

The assembled crowd gave way as a large trolley rolled toward the newlyweds, steered by one person to each corner. Sing followed behind, carrying a butcher's knife. Atop the trolley lay a prey male. Its limbs had been removed and the stumps tied off, but still it lived. It squirmed against its restraints and cried in fear and pain, and Sing grinned as she plunged the knife into its chest and expertly cut out its heart as those around her applauded in rhythm. When it was done, she handed the heart to Jade and Tuss, saying “May this heart bring you happiness”.

“Thank you”, said Tuss, accepting the gift.

“Thank you”, said Jade.

Then they each bit into the heart, and there were more cheers from the crowd. The ritual over, the feasting could begin.

Instead, the room fell unexpectedly and coldly silent. Heads turned as one toward one door. Standing there, tall and implacable, a manic grin on his face, stood Khrau.

“What is this?”, Khrau said, his voice eerily calm as he strode into the room. “A mating ceremony? And I wasn't invited? No matter. Let's make it a double. You!”, he stabbed, indicating one of the crowd with a finger, “Go get me some of that prey”.

The man shuffled nervously, but did not move from his spot.

Khrau laughed. “Quite right”, he said, approving, “Quite right. You should always pay proper respects to the command chain— “

“Khrau!”, Gala interrupted, stepping onto the floor to confront him. “What is this?”

“It is exactly what you think it is”, he responded without hesitation. “I am here to take charge of this pack”.

“Leadership falls to me”, Gala explained.

In a quiet voice, one all the more threatening for its lack of volume, Khrau said: “Yes it does. And with you it stays. Until someone challenges you. But of course, no one will, because no one here has the guts for leadership. No one, that is, except me”. More loudly, he added, “but you need not fear for lack of status. I will accept you as my mate”.

Gala blinked. She had half expected this, but she had wondered exactly how Khrau would pull it off. Now she knew. “You can't fight me to the point of surrender and then expect me you become your mate”, she objected.

“Oh, I can”, Khrau argued. “But then, you don't have to fight me. You could surrender, before the fight even begins”.

“And then leadership would fall to you”, Gala concluded.

“Do you want to fight?”, Khrau asked, almost laughing.

Gala studied Khrau's bulky frame, his steely determination, considered her own slight build, and reluctant hold on this position, and knew at once that there would be no fight. She lowered her head. “I surrender”, she said. “The leadership is yours”.

Khrau jumped onto the altar and addressed the crowd directly. “You hear that?”, he called. “The leadership is mine. I, am the leader of the pack”. He jumped down and spoke again to the man in the crowd: “Now get me something to eat”, he demanded. The man left promptly. Khrau laughed, and then strode back toward Gala. “Now”, he said to her, “Will you be my mate? Given that if you say yes, you will remain the alpha female, and that if you say no, I will reduce you in rank to cleaner of the abattoir, what do you say?”

It was not even a choice. “I expected you to succeed Card”, she said. “I just didn't expect it in quite this manner. Even so, I accept”.

Khrau grabbed her arm and dragged her toward the altar, and grinned at Jade and Tuss as he passed them. “Geng”, he demanded. “This is now a double mating. Join us”.

Geng picked the knives up from the ground, cleaned them, and handed them to the new leader and his future mate. “I'm afraid the heart has been eaten”, he said, bitterly.

“I only need the ceremony”, Khrau pointed out. “I'll share the party”.

Jade watched the proceedings with a mixture of horror and awe. Of course, she should have expected Khrau to capitalize on the opportunity afforded by Card's death, but somehow she had not expected it to happen right here and now, during her own mating ceremony. The pack had put on an awesome party, just for her and Tuss, and that was very humbling, but Khrau had hijacked her celebration, and Jade considered that outrageous.

Yet there were murmurings of approval from those around her. By and large, it was felt that of Gala and Khrau, Khrau would make the better leader. He may be obnoxious in some ways, but he was without doubt a strong presence, and that was exactly what this pack needed right now. Gala may have had no difficulty in leading the pack away from danger and into safety, but how would she fare at leading a raiding party? With Khrau in charge, this pack had a future. Even Jade could see that. Khrau was the wiser choice. But he could have chosen his timing better.

The second mating ceremony over, Khrau stood before the assembled crowd. He chewed occasionally upon the meat which he had earlier commanded be brought to him, and waited for the gathering to quiet down. When that did not happen, he grabbed a stick and pounded it against the floor, and the room fell silent at once.

“As my first act of leadership, I am making changes to the organization of this pack. We've been standing still for too long, growing weak, growing old. It's time for a stronger chain of command, for leadership with courage and wisdom.

“Card was a good leader. I hope to succeed him well. But every leader needs a second in command, someone who is strong and skillful, someone the leader can rely upon. So, as of now, I appoint Mace as my second in command.”

There were murmurs of approval. Mace was a good choice. She was a hunter, and a good one. She was brave, and could plan well. She had already become the lead hunter. Second in command of the pack was an obvious extension.

“There is more”, Khrau continued. “A leader cannot function without wise counsel. Some of this pack's more recent hunts have been ill advised, most especially the last one, which resulted in the death of your former leader. I do not intend that to happen again. Geng has done good work in the past, but he is getting old, and I must look to the future. As of now, I appoint Jade as the ranking priest of this pack”.

The murmurs around the pack were greater now. This was less expected, and no one quite knew what to make of it. But it was certainly true that the gods had not been favoring the pack recently. Maybe the gods wanted a new priest? It was also true that Jade had seemed to have the ear of the gods of late. Though it may be unexpected, there was logic behind the choice.

Jade glanced across the room at Geng. His face contained a mixture of anger and sadness. “No”, Geng cried out, addressing Khrau. “She is not ready. I have not finished training her”.

“Then you will stay on as her advisor”, Khrau conceded. “It shall be your job to complete her education. However, when it comes to the safety, well being, and good fortune of this pack, I will take my counsel from Jade. Is that clear?”

That last question placed no doubt in anyone's mind that this was as much of a concession as Geng could hope to win. Finally, Geng lowered his head, and dutifully acknowledged, “Yes, my leader”.

Khrau clapped his hands in the air. “That is all. Let us celebrate!”

With the concession made that Geng would not be completely out of a job, Khrau's decisions seemed to meet with overall approval. Tuss was certainly pleased, and made that known in no uncertain terms to Jade. Of course, as her mate, he shared in her new status, so he could hardly be expected to argue, but Jade was concerned about Geng. He had lost Card, his friend and leader, and now he had lost his job. The sadness on his face was almost tangible.

Someone passed a drink to Jade, and she sipped it, unthinkingly. Only as it slid down her throat did it occur to her to wonder what it might be. She had tasted this before — on the day she joined the pack, and at other times. She remembered how it had made her feel good, but also that it had some mild hallucinogenic properties. Tuss drank, and grinned. What the hell, she thought, and gulped down more of the pungent brew. This is my party! I plan to enjoy it.

Time passed. She didn't pay attention to how much.

The view from the balcony is pretty, that's for sure. I can see the harbor. A couple of ocean going ships are on their way out to sea. But I wouldn't call it spectacular, like my teacher, Miss Lau says. Still, it's a good day out, and way better than being in class.

“Come on now”, Miss Lau says, “It's time to go back”.

As school outings go, this one hasn't been so bad. Port Stratford terraforming station is kind of interesting, in a schooly sort of way, but I'm glad to be getting home. I file onto the escalator with my classmates.

I notice Miss Lau talking into a handset as we ride the escalator down. I pay it little attention. My friend Charlotte whispers a joke into my ear, and I laugh. But then, as we reach the bottom of the escalator, something changes.

“Children, there has been a change of plan”, Miss Lau tells us. “We will be staying here a little longer”.

I hear a collective groan. This has been a good day out, but now we just want to go home. “Why?”, we ask.

“There's just a small problem with our transport”, she explains. “We just need to wait while it's fixed”. I think she might be playing a trick on us.

“So what are we going to do now?”, one boy asks.

“One moment”, she says, and talks again into her handset, pressing it to her ear, volume low, so that we can't hear what's being said. “We're going to have an extended tour”, she tells us. “This way. Let's go see the control room”.

My eyes widen. It is kind of a rare privilege to be taken into the heart of the station. They don't normally allow visitors right inside, not even for a school trip.

We walk through stuffy corridors, and then emerge into fresh air. I breathe deeply and look around, except … we are not outdoors at all. We are indoors, inside the building. There are chairs and desks and people sitting at them operating machines. I breathe in again. It is like fresh sea air, with just a hint of flowers.

“Class, this is Mister Nix. He's the supervisor here. Say hello”.

We dutifully say hello, and Mister Nix smiles to greet us. He's a short, bald man, wearing a white lab coat. “Hello Children”, he says, cheerily. “Sorry this is such short notice. We didn't have time to organize a proper tour, but if any of you have any questions, just ask away and I'll try to answer them if I can”.

Charlotte raises her hand. “Why does it smell like outdoors?”, she asks.

“It's even better than outdoors”, Mister Nix explains, a smile beaming across his face. “This is the freshest air you'll ever breathe. That's because we make it. That's what we make here. We make fresh air. That's the whole point of this station. And in here, we get to breathe it first”.

I see the picture and chirp in: “And then it gets pumped out and the rest of the world gets to breathe it, right?”

“Right, little girl”, Mister Nix says, obviously pleased at my deduction. “But then it's very, very diffuse. It takes a long time to spread around the world”.

“What happens if the machines break down?”, Charlotte asks. “Will everyone in the world suffocate?”

Mister Nix laughs. “No, no. In the first place, that can't happen, and even if it did, this isn't the only air processor in the world. There are dozens more. In fact, this one will go out of operation next year anyway”.


“Because it won't be needed any more. The terraforming of Miranda is very nearly done. A few more months and the ecosystem will be completely self-sustaining. Then this place will shut down and it will be just be another piece of history.”

I inhale deeply. It really is like being outdoors. But we're not. It's so weird.

One boy asks: “Do you process water here, or is it just air?”. I see the teacher raising her eyebrows. We are supposed to know that already. She made a big thing of it earlier on in the visit.

“Yes, but I…“, Mister Nix begins, hesitantly. “I'm not really the best person to talk about that.” He indicates to one of the technicians. “Mister Gingham, would you come over here please?”

The older technician turns around. I see his face and

she recognized him!


Jade reeled, the room spinning before her. Tuss caught her, and said: “Perhaps you'd better sit down”.

“I'm fine”, she said, composing herself. “I was just daydreaming”. But she sat down anyway, finding a space on the floor at the back of the room.

“All the ocean processing goes on underground”, Mister Gingham tells us. “There are huge inlet pipes, and huge outlet pipes, and in between, there's us. Later on, I'll take you all down to show you. But it's not operating any more. We finished terraforming the oceans years ago”.

“It was a bomb”, Jade said quietly, memory dawning. “Or at least, a bomb scare”.

“What?”, Tuss replied, confused.

“That's why the visit was extended. That's why we didn't go back to school straight away. There was a bomb scare at the school, so we couldn't come home until it was over. Geng took us round the plant, to the bits you don't normally see. That must be how I knew about the underground shelters on Lilac”.

Tuss listened carefully, and then laughed, and knocked back another swig of the hallucinogenic brew. “This really is good stuff”, he said, giggling.

And then what felt like an explosion rocked the ship. And that was no hallucination.

Gra raced into the cockpit, closely followed by Khrau. “What's going on?”, Khrau demanded. “Did something hit us?”

“Looks like”, Gra agreed, scanning the instruments rapidly. “But that's not what worries me”.

“Then wha— “, Khrau began, before following Gra's direction. He looked out into space. Beyond the window was chaos.

The city had lost its cohesion. Ships were scattering, flying apart, almost desperately trying to maneuver through the ephemeral gaps which separated them. Something was happening, and Gra did not like it. Khrau liked it even less.

“What's causing this?”, he demanded.

Gra pointed into space. “There”, she said, firing up the engines. Mace entered the cockpit, followed by half a dozen others.

“Hey!”, Khrau objected. “Engines off! We're still docked with the pulse shuttle”.

“The what?”

“The ship I arrived in. Engines off!

Gra complied. Khrau stared out into space in the direction Gra had previously pointed. “I don't see anything”, he admitted. He could see plenty of chaos, but no obvious cause.

“Looks like one ship fired on another, and now the other is giving chase”.

“Fired!?”, Khrau exclaimed, outraged. “On purpose?”

“That's the sense I'm getting from these movements”.

“But … how? Why? That doesn't make sense. Has someone gone mad?”

The silence hung in the air while Gra adjusted controls, and a magnified image of the miscreant ship appeared on one of the screens before him.

“I don't recognize that ship”, he commented. It was red, spiky; predatory, as one might expect, yet smaller than their own ship. But unknown. How could there be an unknown ship in Reaver Space?

“They're prey”, Gra concluded, finally. “In disguise”.

Khrau thumped his fist down onto the console and roared with glee. “Ha!”, he cried. “They bring the hunt to us! Perhaps the gods are with us once more. Can you pursue them?”

“Once your pulse shuttle is undocked, I can try”, she answered, “but…“

“But what?”

Uncharacteristically, Gra turned away from the window to face him. “I'm drunk!”, she admitted.

Mace chimed in. “Of all the times…!” Irony evident in her voice, she complained, “You never leave this cockpit! All the ceremonies and parties you've missed because you'd rather be in here! Why did it have to be this one?”

“We're parked. We're in Reaver Space”, Gra explained, missing the humor in Mace's words.

“Seriously”, Khrau interjected, now looking slightly worried. “Can you fly?”

She considered the question. “I don't know”, she admitted. “Maybe”, but confidence was entirely lacking from her voice. Admitting defeat, she got up from the chair and staggered slightly before taking support from the doorframe.

Khrau roared his displeasure. “I'll take the pulse shuttle”, he finally decided. “I can fly that! Mace — get the hunters together. If there's going to be a hunt we want to be ready. Gra — go get Jade. Anything involving prey, especially anything unusual, I want her knowledge!” Under his breath, he added, “And this certainly qualifies as unusual”.

On her way out, Gra commented: “Jade just got mated. She's probably more out of it than anyone”.

“For someone whose job involves talking to the spirits, that's probably an advantage”, Khrau growled. “Now move”. He did not remind anyone that he, too, had just been mated. What would have been the point? He was almost stone cold sober, and right now that mattered.

Jade paced up and down the engine room. “It's gotta've been the air”, she said, thinking aloud. “He said we were breathing it first, and Geng was there, and now he's a Reaver. Could be there was an accident or could be it was sabotage”.

Tuss grabbed Jade by the shoulders, halting her pacing. “You know I don't understand a word you're saying”, he said, smiling.

Jade halted her diatribe for only a moment. What could she do to make Tuss see? Her words raced ahead. “Probably sabotage. I don't see how no accident could make people turn Reaver, and there was a lot of terrorist attacks and suchlike going on. There was even a bomb scare at the school I was at”.

She looked into his eyes, hoping he would understand, but all he said was: “You do know you're speaking in some other language, right?”

Jade blinked, stunned. Tuss was right. She'd been speaking English. How long had it been since she'd spoken English? “I… Sorry, I didn't— “

She never got the chance to complete the sentence, as Gra rushed into the room, interrupting her. “Jade”, she said, “You're wanted”.

“What's happening?”

“We're regrouping. Some ships are joining the hunt, others are staying back”.

“Hunt?”, Jade said, confused.

“No time. Khrau's taking another ship. He wants you”. Still Jade did not move, so Gra insisted: “Come on“. Finally, Jade started to move, still not understanding what was happening.

The ship, Card's ship (No, Khrau's ship, Jade reminded herself), was docked with another. Jade had no idea what the other ship might look like on the outside, but from the inside it was clearly smaller. At first, Jade simply went along with events without giving them much thought, but then she caught wind of Gra's urgency. It could only mean that something was amiss.

In the cockpit of the smaller ship were Khrau, Mace and two other hunters. As soon as Jade was on board, Khrau undocked the ship and blasted them out into open sky, careening the ship round to join the chase. Gra stayed behind, Jade noted. “Why are we hunting?”, she asked, nervously. She didn't like the circumstances. Though she had been on many hunts before, none had begun in Reaver territory.

“That's what I'm hoping you will tell me”, Khrau said, as the small ship tore out of Reaver Space and joined the tail end of a hunting party. From rear view screens, she could see that they were not the last to join the fray. Dramatically, he explained: “We were attacked by prey”.

“Here!?”, Jade queried, wide eyed.

“Perhaps they were wounded”, Khrau suggested. “There's nothing so dangerous as a wounded animal”.

Mace countered that thought. “They didn't act like wounded prey”, she said, “Their ship was disguised. They really wanted to get up close before firing”.

In no uncertain terms, Khrau said: “I just want to make sure we get them. I don't like prey that does not act like prey. What I want from you, Jade, is any information that might help us get them. Any idea where they might be going, for example?” He did not look round. He kept his hands firmly on the steering column, his face showing grim determination.

Jade was stumped. “I have no idea”, she said.

“Well, too late to send you back now. You think of anything, you tell me”.

They raced through space, now part of a posse of dozens of ships. Jade lost count of exactly how many, but it must surely be getting on for a hundred. The rear view screens showed their own pack's ship following them — Gra must be making the attempt after all.

The chase continued coreward, until finally a destination came into view — a small moon.

“We will chase them to the ground”, Khrau snarled.

As the moon got closer, it started to make more sense to Jade why the hunted would go there. The moon was blanketed in several layers of cloud: an outer, blue translucent layer, and an inner, opaque layer. There may have been more layers she couldn't see. “They think they can hide in there”, Jade ventured.

Mace spoke. “They might be able to hide from one of us, but not from all of us”.

Jade said: “It's a tiny ship. Is it worth the chase for such a tiny amount of meat?”

“This isn't about meat”, Khrau said, his voice a low growl. “They fired on us. They crossed a line”.

Jade held her breath, thinking fast as the prey ship disappeared into the cloud cover. There's more going on here than we know, she realized. Suddenly the view changed as their ship was shrouded in blue light — some kind of electrical field surrounding the moon. Below them, the cloud cover rippled as ship after ship tore into its depths. Finally, she figured it out. If she hadn't been intoxicated, she might have figured out a long time earlier. In a quiet voice, she said, simply, “It's a trap”.

Khrau made no response at first. Finally he paid attention to her words. “What?” he said.

More loudly, and with certainty now evident in voice, she elaborated: “It's a trap. This moon is a trap. That ship was just bait.” Silence filled the ship. No one wanted to respond to those words, or even to acknowledge them in any way. Breaking the silence, Jade voiced her now obvious conclusion. “We have to turn back. Get out of here!”

But it was too late. As they dropped through the cloud cover, the nature of the trap was laid bare. A fleet of prey gunships was already engaged in a pitch battle with the ships ahead of them. Dozens of Reaver ships versus dozens of prey ship. This did not look good.

“Khrau, we must turn back”, Jade urged.

Enraged, Khrau snapped: “Abandon a hunt? Never! And from now on you call me ‘my leader’“. The ship tore toward the ensuing battle.

“Leader of what!?”, Jade argued. “Our ship is behind us, flying toward the same trap. Gra is not exactly at her best; she might not be able to evade the gunfire. There are no hunters on board, because they're all here with you. Even your second in command is here with you. You may have the skill to survive, but they don't. If we don't get out and warn them, they will die. You will have no pack to lead”.

Khrau thumped the console and leapt from his chair. He grabbed Jade by the throat. “I do not like your counsel”, he roared. Jade began to choke. Mace grabbed the pilot's controls, but did not change course. Rage poured from Khrau, evident in his every move, in his expression. Finally, he released Jade, saying, “But it is wise”. Jade fell to the floor and struggled for breath even as Khrau took the controls back from Mace. He laughed, then said: “I knew there was a reason why I chose you. Very well. We warn them. We warn everyone”.

A brilliant flare lit up the port side of the pulse ship. Something had exploded outside. Then the ship rattled as the shock wave hit them. That was close.

Outside the cloud cover once more, Jade looked back toward the oncoming swarm of fellow Reaver ships and gasped. How Khrau could steer between them almost beyond belief. This ship was small, light, and maneuverable, a fact which doubtless had saved their lives, but their luck could not hold indefinitely. She could only hope now that Khrau could pull them out of the fray. Mace activated the comm system and called, “Gra, can you hear me?”, but there was no reply. Jade didn't know how the comm system managed to link one ship to another, and she suspected that Mace didn't know either. For all she knew, Gra was broadcasting to all and sundry, or to anyone who happened to be listening on the right frequency. Khrau reached across and flipped a switch, and Mace tried again.

This time there was a reply. “Got here eventually”, came Gra's voice as her face appeared on a screen before them.

“We're leaving”, Khrau told her in no uncertain terms. “Change course”.

“Where to?”, Gra enquired.

Khrau's answer took Jade by surprise, though perhaps it shouldn't have done. “The station near Whitefall”.

Home, Jade realized. The space station that was home to the wider pack, socially equivalent to kin, and also home to the pack from which Tuss originated.

“The moon is a trap”, Khrau told Gra. “Spread the word”.

For Gra, it was almost too late, as the ship she was flying burst through the cloud and into the face of the enemy. Fight or run?, she asked herself, alcohol slowing down her thought processes.

The word spread fast, and ships began scattering in all directions — but not all. Some continued toward the moon, either because they had not heard the warning, or because they didn't care. Possibly those in the grip of the rush would not have been able to do anything but join the fight. Jade kept a careful eye on her pack's ship, and winced as she saw another ship collide with it, tearing a chunk out of the rear section. Tuss might have been there, she realized.

Eventually, they found themselves in open space, traveling parallel to the pack ship, far from the battle. Behind them, the Reaver ships that once had been a city was now an uncoordinated mess. Jade held her breath while Khrau docked the pulse shuttle with the pack ship once more. As soon as she was able, she raced through the docking tube, only to witness chaos.

Debris was everywhere. The odd fire burned here and there. People staggered to and fro, some putting out fires, others just wandering about looking confused.

She ran through the ship, heading toward the rear, heading toward the engine room where Tuss was most likely to be, but she didn't get any further than the upper cargo deck, when someone called her name.

She froze when she saw the cause of the commotion.

Sing was on the floor, lying face down.

Jade rushed across the room, silently crying, “No!”, and hoping that her friend would be all right. She touched Sing, and was immediately relieved. Sing was still alive, but her breathing was shallow. She remembered Sing's words: You only lie down when you die. “That's not gonna happen”, Jade determined. To those around her, she demanded: “What happened”.

She didn't recognize the Reaver who answered. The crews of the various ships had become somewhat mixed up since being moored in Reaver Space. She wondered how many of her pack would be missing, simply because they hadn't been on board when the decoy prey ship had started shooting. Probably not many, she realized. Most of my pack would have been here, attending my mating ceremony. “A beam fell on her”, the Reaver answered. “We pulled it off of her”.

That was about as good a description as she was going to get. Blood pooled around Sing, but that wasn't what concerned Sing. Blood replaced itself. Wounds healed. Reavers had that ability. What concerned Jade more was Sing's breathing, which was highly irregular. She had no medical knowledge. Acting out of instinct, she rolled Sing onto her back, then felt the pulse in Sing's neck. That, too, was weak, and irregular.

A falling beam could not have done this to Sing, nor to any Reaver. They were too resilient for that. But Sing had been in a weakened condition even before this accident. Possibly her weakness had compounded the accident — or perhaps it was the other way around, perhaps the accident had re-triggered her illness. But whatever the cause, Sing's condition was now worse than Jade had ever seen it before. Previously, the worst symptom had been sleep, but this was deeper than sleep, and far more terrifying.

“You, get Tuss”, Jade barked at one of the Reavers. “He'll be in the engine room”. To another, she commanded: “You, get Gra. She's in the cockpit”. Without argument, the two scurried away.

Jade touched Sing's face. “I won't let you die”, she said, quietly.

A voice rang out, loud and familiar, but clearly panicked. “Jade!”, it called. It was the voice of Tuss.

She looked around, relieved to see him, but at the same time disturbed by Tuss's look of worry. “That was fast”, she commented.

“She's dead!”, Tuss cried, grabbing Jade's arm.

Jade looked down at her friend, then back at Tuss. “Not yet”, she answered. “Not at all if I can help it. She's recovered before. She'll do it again”.

Tuss looked confused, until he realized whom Jade was talking about. “Not Sing!”, he cried. “Erin!”

“Erin?” Now it was Jade's turn to be confused. Erin the budgerigar? She said: “Tuss, I'm sorry”.

“You've got to help her”, Tuss besieged.

“What? How? You said she was dead”.

“You're a priest. Talk to the gods. Do something. Make her alive again”.

Momentarily stunned, it took a while for Jade to compose an answer. “Tuss, I can't do that. I can't bring back the dead, and I have to look after Sing now”.

The hunters were all back now, many of them helping to clear up the debris and restore the ship to some sort of order.

Jade felt sorry for Tuss. She'd miss that bird too, but she had more pressing matters to deal with. Tuss, however, would have none of it. For him there was no higher priority. “Forget Sing!”, he insisted. “You have to help Erin”.

“Tuss”, Jade said, reasonably, “Erin was very old by budgerigar standards. She'd had a good life, thanks to you, but she always had to die eventually. You made her life good, and that's what counts”.

Anger filled Tuss, and he pulled Jade away from Sing and hurled her onto the floor. “Erin mustn't be dead”, he yelled, as if saying that would negate the reality of it. “You're not an apprentice any more. You're a priest. Now do your priest thing and tell the gods to save her!”.

“Listen to me”, Jade implored. “I have to help Sing. Right now!”.

Tuss snarled. His face and fists bunched up. For a moment, Jade thought he might attack her, but the reality was much worse. He picked up a metal rod, perhaps part of the structure that had fallen onto Sing, and raised it above his head. Only in the last moment did Jade realize what he was aiming at, and leapt to push him aside. His weapon struck the floor with a resounding blow.

If Jade had not intervened, it would have come down squarely on Sing's skull. With that amount of force, he would probably have shattered it. “What are you doing!?”, she cried.

“If she's dead you won't have to look after her”, Tuss raved. “Then you can save Erin”. He raised the metal bar for a second blow.

“No!”, Jade yelled, trying desperately to stop him, but all she got for her efforts was a twisted arm, and she cried out in pain as she fell to the ground. She watched Tuss raise the weapon one more time, horrified that there was nothing she could effectively do to stop him.

And then Mace's arm was around Tuss's neck, dragging him back across the floor. He fought like crazy, literally. Mace was the better fighter, but Tuss was in the grip of the killing frenzy and he wasn't going to back down. Three more hunters surrounded him and forced him to the ground. Eventually, the four of them dragged him away, screaming one word over and over again: “Erin!

“Where will you take him?”, Jade asked, running to catch up with Mace.

“Thought we'd keep him locked up till he calms down”, Mace answered.

There was a call from behind her. “Jade!”. It was Gra.

There was no time for debate. If she could have allowed it, she could have cried buckets for Tuss, but right now there were more pressing matters. Jade knew what she had to do. “I need your help”, she said to Gra, picking up Sing in her arms and striding toward the side door.

“What do you want me to do?”, Gra asked, following Jade at a brisk pace.

“I want you to fly the pulse shuttle”, she answered succinctly.

Gra stopped in her tracks, stunned, then raced to catch up. “What's going on?”, she asked.

“I'm going to save Sing's life”, Jade declared, resolutely. The depth of passion in her voice was so great that Gra had no difficulty in believing she could do it. She strode through the docking tube, Gra opening and closing doors in her path. When they were safely on the pulse shuttle, Gra stepped through to the pilot seat and released the docking tube. “Where are we going?”, she asked.

“Newhall”, Jade replied, determinedly.

Gra froze. This was unexpected. Recovering quickly, she returned her attention to the flight controls, wondering what there could possibly be on a prey world which was capable of saving Sing's life. Whatever it was, she figured, it had better be good.

Dark Places

The Signal

Ernst Klein stared longingly through the window of his portable cabin at the shining red column of reflected sunlight as the last limb of the sun crept toward the horizon of the vast, peaceful ocean. He sighed, and then pressed the record button of his personal diary.

“Hello again, Diary”, he spoke. He always addressed his diary in this manner, as if it were a person, perhaps because he missed the company of people. “Sixteen months now. It's been sixteen months since I arrived here. I've been here since July 2517. It seems like forever. And I am no closer to success. But I still marvel at the beauty of this moon, and of this island. Herren is truly remarkable. It must have been something very special before it was attacked. I walked through the ruins again today. You can still make out what must have been the harbor, and the pub opposite, which must have been buzzing with activity every day, once upon a time.

“And the sunset… That sunset is perfection itself. I can't believe there are people out there in the 'verse who have never seen the sun set over an ocean. They should. They really should. They should take a vacation just to see it. It almost takes away the horror of what once happened here.


He paused, lost in thought. His took off his glasses to clean them — a habit, since they were clean enough to begin with. He continued his recording: “I've collected more samples to analyze, but I'm not hopeful. I still don't know what went wrong. If that shipment from Londinium had turned up, maybe I would have a clue, but it never completed its journey. Guess Shazone and his friends weren't as reliable as I'd assumed.

“I don't know why I'm going over this with you again, Diary. Lord knows I've told you enough times before. It's just … I know I can't ever go home. I know this is my punishment: destined to roam the worlds, chasing in the shadows of the Reavers. Maybe it would be better if I did go back — hand myself over to the Alliance, let them kill me. But what would be the point? There are only two people left alive who know as much about the Pax as I, and I don't know where the other is. So it befalls to me to find out what went wrong; to find a cure, if I can.

“Yes, it definitely caused a change in the mentality of the victims. And yes, it spread like a virus, eventually mutating into an airborne form — thankfully with minimal ability to survive without a host, or we would have been in a lot worse trouble.

“But I've known that for a long time. What I want is that breakthrough, that leap in understanding which will make everything make sense, and it's not coming.

“Ah well. Maybe it will come tomorrow”.

He stopped the recording, and looked around at the makeshift lab, wishing it could be better equipt. Then he lay on the bed, as alone as anyone could be, and thought again about Reavers.

Slate opened the crate and looked inside. “Nah”, he said. “It's just what they said it was. Mining gear”. He picked up a pair of goggles with black lenses. “How you supposed to see through these anyway?”, he asked, holding them up to his eyes and seeing nothing but blackness.

“Well what did you expect?”, Elizabeth asked, not at all surprised. “Drugs? Guns? … Treasure?”

“I'm serious”, Slate continued, ignoring her question. “What is the point of goggles you can't see through? Don't make no sense”.

Polly sighed and snatched the goggles from his hand. She pressed buttons and turned dials, and then handed them back to Slate. To Elizabeth, she said: “I think it just takes him by surprise every time we get a legal job”.

“Hey, that's pretty neat”, Slate said, looking around the cargo bay through the strange eyewear. Then, “Why's everything green?”

“Let's just put the cargo back in its box and get it to Regina”, Elizabeth suggested.

Polly held out her hand for the goggles, and, when Slate had finally finished playing with them, switched them off and replaced them in their crate. “Yeah, but why green?”, Slate persisted. “Why not blue, or … rose? Now there's an idea — rose tinted spectacles — might make mining actually seem worthwhile some”.

“They're night vision goggles”, Polly explained. “For seeing in the dark”.

“Oh yeah, I knew that”, said Slate, catching on. “Because it's dark in mines, right?”

There was a buzz from the comm system. Elizabeth went to answer the call.

Slate continued his monologue. “If you go mining in daytime, is it still called night vision?”

Nobody bothered to answer.

His reverie was interrupted, however, as Elizabeth called them over. “Slate, you're going to want to see this”.

He turned to face her. There on the screen was a face he recognized: Sandra Winslett. Abandoning all thought of mining gear, he raced to the screen, Polly following. “Sandra”, he said, “What you got for us?”

“We found them”, Sandra answered. Slate saw her reaching for a button, then the image changed to show the familiar ship. Its overall shape reminded Slate of a shark. He shuddered as he saw the picture, and he wasn't the only one. “There was a battle”, she told them. “A big one. Reavers versus the Alliance. Dozens of ships involved. Dozens more got away”.

I took a little time for that to sink in. When it did, he could only exclaim: “What!?”

Elizabeth contemplated the information. “That's got to be a first”, she concluded.

From the screen, Sandra answered: “Far as I know, it is, but the Alliance are clamping down on this story, big time. Complete cover up”. Her face showed exasperation. “I just wish I knew why. It makes no sense. You'd think they'd boast about taking on the Reavers like that”.

“It's coz Reavers don't exist”, Slate said, dryly.

Sandra took a deep breath. “I swear, if I find out the Alliance could have prevented Haley's death and chose not to, I will quit this job and join you”.

“You're doing fine right where you are”, Slate said. He appreciated the leads that Sandra occasionally brought them. It certainly was helpful having someone on the inside who could bring them information like this. “What about our Reavers?”, Slate asked.

Sandra's voice continued. “They were fleeing from the battle, heading somewhere in the direction of Athens— “

“But not actually Athens itself?”, Slate interrupted.

“No”, Sandra said, her face reappearing on the screen. “Somewhere further out than that. I can give you an approximate course projection”.

And so it was done. Their quarry was somewhere on a line drawn through space from New Omaha to … where? Did the Reavers have some specific destination in mind, or were they just running? He patched in the comm to Ben. “You get that?” he asked. Ben confirmed. He had already changed course.

“I'd better go make sure everything's OK in the engine room”, Polly said, motioning to leave. Slate acknowledged, and Polly left, leaving Slate and Elizabeth alone in the cargo bay.

The communication over, Elizabeth sat atop on of the crates of mining gear. For a time, neither of them said anything. It had been months since the last lead, and now, this time, they not only knew where the Reavers had been, they also had some vague idea as to where they might be going. And this time, they would be able to confront the Reavers in space. “Tell me a story”, Elizabeth said.

Slate raised his eyebrows. “What you wanna hear?”, he asked.

“You know what I want to hear”, she stated. And he did: she wanted the one part of his life story that he had kept from Elizabeth — in fact, from all of them, even from Jade.

“I didn't keep it from you deliberate”, he said.

“I understand”, Elizabeth said. “First you didn't tell me because I was a reporter, then you didn't tell me because it was too dangerous for me to know. But we're beyond that now. It's time, Slate. What happened?”

He sighed, pulled himself up onto the crate, and sat beside her. “My brother, Hawkeye, had been saving for some time, wanted to start a new life for him and his family. Alliance said there was a perfect place — planet called Miranda. It was out on the Rim, but it had all the comforts of civilization”.

Elizabeth frowned as a vague recollection of resettlement commercials flitted across her mind, but she remembered nothing specific about Miranda. So far as she knew, there was no such planet. She stayed silent, and allowed him to continue.

“Then I had my big win, so Lana and I decided to join them. What the Alliance didn't tell no one was that Miranda already had settlers, and they weren't too happy none about the Alliance taking over their planet. We lived on Miranda for two years, and every day, the fighting got worse. Meanwhile, I was running up debts, just trying to pay to keep Lana and me safe. Eventually, I got so deep in debt, I figured it was time to leave, so I asked Hawkeye to smuggle Lana and me out of the world.

“He said no at first. Then one day, there was a bomb scare at Jade's school. That was too much for Hawkeye. When he realized his own family was in danger, he knew it was time for all of us to get out.

“He was a pilot of a passenger transport called the Greg Edmonson. Once every eight months, it brought new settlers from Bernadette to Miranda, but in the opposite direction it ran empty. So, next chance we got, he sneaked us on all on board — his family, my family. Apart from the copilot, nobody knew we was there.

“It's a two month journey from Miranda to Bernadette, so we settled in for the long haul. Didn't make too much contact with anyone else beyond what was necessary, coz we weren't supposed to be there. There was some communications problem with Miranda, but we didn't think nothing of it.

“And then it happened. We were shot out of the sky. And it weren't Reavers. Matter of fact, no one had ever heard of Reavers back them. We were shot out of the sky. It was right about the time the war started. We were shot down by the Alliance. I'm certain of it”.

He paused for breath. Elizabeth took all this in, and then asked: “Why? You were in an Alliance ship.”

“Can't say I know for certain”, Slate answered. “All I know is, somehow I got Jade and me into a lifeboat. I switched everything off, including the heating, and waited for a long, long time. Then I activated the mayday. Eventually we got rescued by a ship bound for Newhall, and that's where we ended up.

“Years later, my father died, and I inherited enough money to get a source box, so I logged onto the Cortex to try to figure out what might have happened. That's when I knew for sure it must have been the Alliance”.

“How?”, Elizabeth asked.

“Because Miranda was gone”, he answered. “Erased from the cortex. Erased from history.

“I believe that the Alliance wiped out the whole planet, and then came after all the witnesses, and then they rewrote history to cover it up”.

Elizabeth was stunned by the scale of the claim. “If all that's true”, she wondered aloud, “Why didn't they do a more thorough job of eliminating the survivors”.

“They were only expecting two people on that ship. They didn't know Jade and me was there”.

The silence spoke volumes. Finally, Elizabeth said: “Come on. Let's get to the bridge. We have Reavers to intercept”.

They strode up the ramp.

As they were reached the bridge, Slate pondered: “We still don't know exactly where those Reavers are going to be. I mean, that projection was a bit vague, and who's to say they won't change course”.

“I have an idea”, Elizabeth said, and stood beside Ben, operating the controls of his console. Ben leant aside to accommodate her. Finally, she said: “I have them”.

“What? Where?”, Slate said, rushing over to see.

“Sandra said they heading in the vague direction of Athens, right?”


“Only further out toward the Rim, yes?”


“Our Reavers were on Whitefall once before, and Whitefall is a moon of Athens. When the Reavers left, they headed outward. This is the projected route they took”. A slightly curved line appeared on the screen. “Now”, Elizabeth continued. “Factor in the latest projection and what do you see?” A second curve appeared on the screen as she said this.

“The lines meet?”, Slate queried. “That what you're saying?”

As if to make the point, Elizabeth had the 3D model rotate. Seen from all angles, it was clear that the two lines did, in fact, intersect. “There's something there”, Elizabeth concluded, tapping at the point of intersection. “Maybe some little pocket of Reaver space. Whatever it is, our quarry are headed there”.

Ben interrupted them. “We can intercept them — put ourselves between them and their destination”.

Slate thought for only a moment. “Do it”, he ordered. “Open space — that's where I want to meet them. Not in some place where there might be more Reavers. I want it to be just them and us”.

Ben nodded and complied, though Kwok Fi spoke up: “Wait a minute”, he said, “What about the miners on Regina? They're still expecting their cargo. Are we just going to forget them?”

“Reavers first, miners second”, Slate stated, categorically. “We might not get another chance like this for months. The miners can wait for their picks and shovels and … and …“

“Goggles?”, Elizabeth suggested.

“Whatever”, Slate dismissed. Then, “Let's get moving”.

The tiny pulse shuttle continued to speed its way through the black, diverging ever further from the main ship. Having spent several hours patiently tending Sing, Jade reluctantly made her way forward to the cockpit, where sat the ship's only other occupant. “How's Sing?”, Gra asked.

“I don't know”, Jade admitted. “There's no way I can tell. Her breathing seems steadier now, but she's still unconscious”.

“I told Khrau where we were going”, Gra said. “He was furious. You're going to be in big trouble when you get back”.

“You spoke to Khrau?”, Jade queried. “How's Tuss?”

“Completely insane, by all accounts. There's no reasoning with him”.

Jade sighed. Grief was heartbreaking, she knew, but it didn't last forever. Tuss would get over it, eventually. Right now, she had to take care of the living.

Gra said: “Khrau wanted to know why were going to Newhall. I couldn't give him an answer, because you haven't told me. Why are we going to Newhall?”

“There's a doctor there”, Jade explained, “name of Lewis. He lives on an island called Tamasin, which is the closest island to Herren, where you found me”.

Gra's forehead wrinkled in consternation. “I don't get it. You're talking about prey, right?”


“Then how can it know what to do? Our bodies are not the same as theirs”.

“He's treated Reavers before”, Jade explained. “Or at least, one Reaver”.

“You?”, Gra queried.

“Me”, Jade acknowledged. “And with a similar problem. I was asleep, unconscious”.

Gra raised her eyebrows. That was one piece of information Jade had never revealed. It made Gra curious as to what sickness or disaster could have put her to sleep, and for how long? But that could wait. There were more pressing questions. “So why should it help us?”, she asked.

“Because we'll kill him if he doesn't”, Jade said, simply.

“How will that help?”, Gra pressed. “We'll kill it anyway”.

“Not this time”, Jade insisted. “That will be the deal. If he can save Sing, we let him live”.

If Gra could possibly have opened her eyes any wider, she would have done. “You want to make a deal with prey? That's absurd. It's never been done before”.

“If Sing lives, we let him go”, Jade insisted.

Gra shrugged. She was a pilot. Prey matters were Jade's concern. She wasn't going to argue, though she held little hope that the scheme could work.

It was the dead of night on Tamasin when the pulse shuttle descended . Gra approached the island stealthily, keeping the lights off, breaking atmo over ocean, and flying low over the beach. They landed close to the small village. Nobody was about.

Chao Lewis awoke with a start and sat up in his bed. He could hear noises downstairs — footsteps, shuffling, and then a crash. His first thought was burglars, come for his pharmacy supply. He dismissed that thought quickly — that sort of thing happening in big towns and cities, not in tiny little villages on nowhere islands like this. Logic told him, it had to be either an animal, or someone he knew. “Hello”, he called down, getting dressed hurriedly. “Anyone there?”

There was no answer. He clambered down the stairs. The noises were coming from his surgery. “Anybody there?”, he called again.

This time there came an answer. “We won't hurt you”, the voice said. It was a female voice.

There was a figure standing in the shadows. He couldn't make her out. “Show yourself”, he demanded, moving cautiously forward.

Jade stepped forward, saying: “We need your help”.

The doctor froze. He saw at once the scarred, tattooed face and understood its meaning immediately. Reavers! He turned to run, but another Reaver grabbed him as fled. This one, he noticed, had no eyelids, and snarled rather than spoke.

“Doctor Lewis”, Jade said, calmly, “Please stop struggling. I said we won't hurt you. We need your help”.

“You're Reavers!”, he argued, but he stopped struggling. Then, “How do you know my name?”

Jade stepped forward. “Do you recognize me, Doctor Lewis?”, she asked. The man frowned, but said nothing. She continued. “I'm Jade, from Herren Island. My uncle is Slate, Harry Slater”.

Doctor Lewis relaxed, and Gra released him. He stepped forward to approach Jade, still afraid, but curious also. “What do you want?”, he asked, while his mind raced, trying to process this new information. Didn't Jade die? Or was she one of the less fortunate ones?

“Please step into the surgery”, Jade insisted. “We have a patient for you”.

Chao did as he was bade. There, lying on the gurney, was a third Reaver. “What?”, he stammered.

Now Jade and the other one were in the room with him. “Help her”, Jade commanded.

“But… But… But she's a Reaver”, Chao protested.

“So are we”, Jade said.

“I can't treat Reavers”, Chao insisted.

“Help her”, Jade said, coldly, “Or we'll invite you to dinner”.

Chao felt his blood freeze. This may have been Jade once, but she was something else now. “You said you wouldn't hurt me”, he argued.

“If she lives, we won't hurt you”, Jade clarified, indicating the patient. “If she dies, you die”.

“What's wrong with her?”, the Doctor asked, finally taking measure of the situation.

“She's asleep”, Jade said. “Reavers don't sleep, unless there's something wrong with them. You helped me, when I slept. Now help her”.

Chao walked around the room, switching things on, more to buy time than anything, and considered his options. It was the middle of the night, so the chances were there would be no one awake to help him. If he started yelling for help, he'd be dead before anyone else arrived. The problem was that though he had, once upon a time, looked after a little girl named Jade, he had not been able to do particularly much to keep her awake. At best, he had instructed Slate how to keep her alive. He switched on a cortex terminal, thinking he might perhaps be able to use it to call for help. It auto-logged-on, and connected to a default medical news feed. “All right”, he finally said. “I'll need to take her pulse and blood pressure”.

“Just get on with it”, Jade told him. So he did.

Then the news feed flared to life. The face of a young woman, a doctor, appeared on the screen. She said: “These are just a few of the images we've recorded, and you can see, it isn't what we thought”.

Chao froze. As did Jade. The images in question were pictures of Reavers. What they were seeing was a human doctor, talking about Reavers. At first, Jade assumed that Doctor Lewis was playing a recording to educate himself. Then she figured it out. This was live. Someone was broadwaving this.

“There's been no war here”, the voice continued, “And no terraforming event. The environment is stable. It's the Pax — the G23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate that we added to the air processing system”.

Jade went white. She could feel the prickles creeping up her spine. The woman was talking about Miranda! She remembered Slate telling her: I got a name, Klein, and a word, Pax.

“It was supposed to calm the population”, the woman said, “weed out aggression”.

Gra said “What—“, and Jade silenced her with a wave. Gra couldn't understand the words anyway. So this was the great peace treaty that Slate was hoping for?

“Well it works. The people here stopped fighting. And then they stopped … everything else”.

“Slate, are you watching this?”, Elizabeth called.


The screen instantly changed view.

“They stopped going to work. They stopped breeding, talking, eating. There's thirty million people here and they all just let themselves die”.

Miranda“, Slate whispered.

On the screen, there was a roar, and a crash. The young doctor jumped, clearly frightened. “I have to be quick”, she continued. “About a tenth of a percent of the population had the opposite reaction to the Pax. Their aggressor response increased, beyond madness”.

Ernst Klein touched the face of the young woman on the screen. “Janice”, he whispered in awe.

“They have become … Well, they've killed most of us. And not just killed. They've done things.”

Ernst almost couldn't believe what he was hearing. At last, it was out, it was public. The terrible, terrible guilt he had held all these years now at least had some release.

Yes. We made the Reavers.

“I won't live to report this”, the image continued, “but people have to know … we meant it for the best, to make people safer”.

On the screen, he heard the Reaver enter before he saw it. He saw Doctor Caron fire a gun off screen, and then point it toward her own head, but she was too late. The Reavers dragged her down, below the camera's view, but her screams continued, on and on and on.

“Janice…“, he repeated, his eyes moist.

The planet below looks beautiful on the screens, a blue white jewel of a world. “What do you suppose happened?”, I ask.

Janice says: “Most optimistic scenario? Some minor glitch in the Cortex feed?”.

“Let's hope that's all it is”, Doctor Choi says.

Ensign Brisbane says: “I'm picking up some strange radio chatter. Mostly interference”.

“Let's hear it”, I say.

“Yes Doctor Klein”, the ensign answers. At once the orbital station is filled with white noise, flecked with odd comprehensible word or phrase.

“What was that?”, Doctor Caron asks, listening to the static and looking puzzled. “It sounded like … 'Reavers'?”

“Could have been ‘Ravens’“, I suggest. “That's the local army volunteer force”.

“Could have been ‘fevers’“, Doctor Choi suggests. “Maybe the Pax had some unexpected side effect?”

“Emiline”, I say, calmly, “We'll know soon enough”.

“OK”, Doctor Caron says. “There's only one way to find out for sure. I'll take a team down and report back. Klein, you and Choi stay here. Ensign, you're on the team”.

“Janice, you should have taken me with you”, he sobbed, alone in his portable cabin, alone in the chill of night, alone, as he deserved to be alone for ever more.

Sing opened her eyes. She saw the prey creature hovering above her, but she was too weak to move. Then Jade was with her. “Where am I?”, Sing asked.

“You are on Newhall, the world where I grew up”, Jade told her.

Sing breathed heavily, taking this in. “Khrau brought the ship to Newhall?”

“No, Sing. Khrau took the ship home. I brought you here with Gra, in another ship”.

“Why?”, she asked, her breathing erratic.

“Why do you think?”, Jade answered, a tear at the corner of her eye. “To make you well”.

“You make me well with prey medicine?”, she spat.

She remembered the word, Jade realized. “Yes”, she answered, confused.

“I do not want it”, Sing said.

“But— “

“No buts. The spirits are ready for me. It is my time”.

“Not while I live and breathe”, Jade said, determinedly. “And anyway, I'm the one who knows about spirits”.

“Perhaps. I asked only one thing of the spirits, Jade. One last wish. The spirits have granted that wish: to see you. But I can't keep them waiting forever”.

Doctor Lewis heard none of this. All he heard were growls and snarls, and the constant beep-beep of the heart monitor. He had done what had been asked of him; he had awoken the Reaver, without killing her. Now all he desired was to get away. The Reavers weren't letting him go yet. He suspected they wouldn't let him go until their friend was on her feet — but then, he wasn't completely convinced they would let him go even then, or that he could even achieve that goal. The Reaver was dying, yet he dare not let her die. He strove to look busy. With Jade distracted, he had only the other one to worry about, and the other one seemed to have no idea what most of the equipment was for. But he was logged into the cortex, and that meant that he could call for help. He typed a text message, and kept his fingers crossed that Jade would not look around.

The drugs that Dr. Lewis had given Sing had triggered the last of her body's reserves. Sweat pooled from her brow as fever kicked in, her body's last, desperate attempt to fight off what it thought was a disease. But such a strategy was doomed to fail, for Sing's body was effectively fighting itself. Jump started by the radiation leak of more than a year ago, the fantastic healing power that Reavers boast had lost its way, and had begun tearing apart the very body it was supposed to protect. Yet that last burst gave Sing a false look of health. Her eyes sparkled, her cheeks were rosy. Only her voice gave away the weariness she felt.

Gra paced nervously. She was unaccustomed to this place, and did not like it. Yet this prey creature was doing as it was told, and Sing appeared to be getting better, just as Jade had said. She made sure that the prey creature kept busy, always checking his machines and mixing his drugs. The worst times were when there was nothing to do but wait. Then, she kept an even closer eye on the prey, and on Sing. It bothered her that there was nothing she could do directly. She wanted to help, but she was out of her depth, and that made her afraid.

His message sent, the doctor worked constantly over Sing, trying every medicine he could think of. He knew it would be hours until anyone woke up and read their mail. He had to keep the Reaver woman alive until then. He dare not let her die in the meantime, for he understood fully that her death would mean his death.

The sky grew gradually lighter as he worked. For Jade, the hours during which Sing was too weak to speak were hours in which she contemplated the message which had come through the Doctor's screen. That in itself was hard to digest. It was no accident, she realized. They did it deliberately. They put something in the air, and it put everyone to sleep — or at least, almost everyone. Those who didn't sleep went mad and lost their memories of who they were, and became the Reavers.

And what about me? I breathed it first. I breathed it…


…but only for a short time. Not enough to put me to sleep straight away, but enough to…

The word “vaccinate” crossed her lips, and slowly it all began to make sense. After her experience at the atmo processor, Slate had taken her off the planet. No — her father had taken her off the planet. But Slate had been with them. They all had left before the Pax had filled the atmosphere. Slate, she realized, had never breathed it at all.

Something made her jerk her head and end her contemplation.

“Jade”, Sing repeated.

“I'm here”, Jade said, giving Sing her full attention.

“I have to tell you something, before I go”, Sing said, forcing her lips to speak, then relaxing from the exertion.

“Ssh. You need rest”, Jade admonished. “There'll be time to talk later”.

“No”, Sing argued. “No time. I have to tell you now”.

“You're not going to die”, Jade insisted.

“Why is it so hard for you to accept the truth, Jade? My time is near. I can feel it. Let me finish”. Jade squeezed Sing's hand, waiting helplessly. “Jade”, said Sing, “You are a strange one. You've always been a strange one. Look at you, here, now. Would any others of our kind have thought to seek help from the prey? You gave me these extra hours, and for that I am grateful.

“I think I have loved you more than any other in our pack. I don't know why — perhaps because you were different. But Khrau will use that difference to further his own ends. You won't be safe. And you don't belong.

“Poor child. Not quite Reaver, and not quite prey. Is there a place for you in this 'verse? I don't have an answer for you. But you don't belong with us, Jade. You must leave the pack. If there is a place for you, you must find it”.

Sing closed her eyes. Her hands dropped. She struggled to take another breath, and then breathed no more. The only sound was the constant whine of the heart monitor.

“Sing! Sing, no!”, Jade cried. “Don't die. Sing, don't die”.

Doctor Lewis responded immediately. “Stand back”, he commanded, and flicked switches on a machine. A high pitched electronic whine filled the room, rising in tone, a contrast to the steady monotone of the heart monitor. He held Sing's nose and blew into her mouth. He thumped her heart. Jade had to pull Gra back from the doctor and his patient. Gra had no idea what was going on and assumed that Lewis was attacking Sing. Only Jade's persistence, persuaded her otherwise.

Lewis applied electric shocks in his attempts to restart Sing's heart. He begged for her to live, and he wasn't alone, but it was all to no avail. He kept making the attempt, even beyond the point where he would have given up on any other patient, for he feared for his own life, but eventually, there came a point where he backed away, tears of fear and exhaustion streaming down his face. He edged toward the door.

Gra reacted instantly, the moment she saw the prey slinking away. Effortlessly, she slit its throat and watched as it crumpled to the floor, gurgling. Then she huddled round Jade and Sing, and found herself locked into an embrace with Jade. Jade convulsed as she wept. Gra had never seen so many tears from one Reaver. But though Gra did not cry, her pain at Sing's death was every bit as real.

Jade sat on the beach looking out to sea, trying to take meaning from everything that had happened. One side of the sky was now definitely much lighter than the other. It would be morning soon, and she and Gra had better be gone before the village awoke. She tried to think back, wondering again and again if she could have done something differently, and every time she came back to the same thing. If only she had stopped the radiation leak sooner, or had moved Sing further from the source of the leak. She would have given anything, then, for the ability to go back in time and change things.

And what was she? If the Reavers were simply humans driven mad by some pacification drug gone wrong, and not, as Card had believed, some new branch of evolution, then surely that could only mean that killing humans was wrong? The argument that humans are to Reavers as animals are to humans no longer had any meaning. These were not new arguments, of course, but they were arguments which had been forced once again to the surface by the bizarre message from Miranda.

Then she heard the bang.

It was more of a whoomph than a roar. She turned to face inland, and could clearly see the flames and column of smoke where the pulse shuttle had been. And then a second set of flames, emanating from the village. For a second, she thought that Khrau had come to raze the village, as the pack had attacked Herren so long ago. But no, this time it was other way round. The villagers were attacking the Reavers. That seemed to be the way of things these days. In any case, it meant that she could not stay here.

It also meant that Gra was almost certainly dead. But there was no time to mourn right now. There was not room in her heart for two great losses — not yet. That would come later. Right now, all that mattered was survival. With her ship gone, there was no way off this moon. She didn't want to kill any more humans — and, even were that not the case, there were too many of them to fight.

But she did have one advantage, which one might not expect of Reavers. She knew this place. The tide was going out, and she knew where the current would take her. It would be five miles across open water, but all she would have to do would be to stay afloat and let the current guide her. She heard the distant sounds of angry villagers, and wasted no further time. She swam West, out to sea, in the cool water, until her muscles could take no more, then she lay on her back and stared at sky as the last of the stars gave way to daylight.

Ernst Klein shuffled through the open space beside the town where nineteen months ago the Reavers had landed their ships. He carefully brushed aside soil with the patience of an archaeologist. The work gave him solace, and was occasionally rewarding. But things were different today, because today was the day after yesterday, the day after the Miranda announcement. He wasn't sure how it would change things, but he knew that it would change things. The news was out. It would spread. Even if the Alliance blocked all news feeds, the announcement would be copied, would be distributed by underground means. And even if they could stop it, it would do them no good. The damage was already done. You can't put the genie back in the bottle. You can't cover up what everybody already knows.

You can't stop the signal. The signal goes everywhere.

He sighed. It was fortunate that his portable cabin had been restocked only last week. It meant that he would have three weeks before the next supply run arrived. Three more weeks alone. That was good. He didn't want to meet people right now.

He picked up a fragment of glass from the soil and carefully dropped it into a clear plastic bag before holding it up to the light to examine it. It was a piece of a test tube. The label was worn and rotted, but he could still make out some of the words: “J. Slater, blood sample, 2517.04.14”. There was no blood visible of course, and he doubted there would be anything left after nearly a year and a half of degradation. But still, April 14th had been the day before the attack. Maybe the fragment would reveal something under a microscope.

It was late afternoon before he trudged his way back to the portable cabin. His thoughts were again with the Miranda announcement. He recalled that Janice hadn't actually said where she was, or when the report was made. Of course, all of that information would be carried out of band as part of the report — but still… Was it possible the Alliance could claim the message to be a fake? Would they even try? They might want to try, but it would be a fool's game. The Reavers themselves would be evidence, now that people knew where to look.

He stopped in his tracks. Something was different.

It took him a while to figure out what it was that had distracted him. Then he saw it: footprints! Footprints, not his.

He crouched down to examine the prints. They were fresh. Someone had been here, barefoot. The prints were smaller than his: perhaps a child or a young woman. It didn't make sense. The islanders of the archipelago would never come here. They were too superstitious for that. To them, this island was a graveyard to be respected, or a ghost town to be feared, or both. Either way, they never came here. And yet, there were footprints.

Most disturbing of all, as he followed the line of marks in the sand, it was clear where they led. From the evidence, it would seem that the owner of those prints was inside his portable cabin, right now.

Slowly, thinking carefully, he picked his way across the beach to his refuge.

Gingerly, he opened the door. “Hello”, he called, quietly. “Anybody there?” There was no answer. Gently, he said: “It's all right. I won't hurt you”. He stepped inside.

He looked around. At the far end of the cabin, huddled in a ball on the floor, sat a young woman, or a young girl. It was hard to tell which, since the sun shone in through the window behind her, casting her into silhouette. But she was here, and clearly frightened.

“Are you from around here?”, he asked. Then, “Would you like some food. I have plenty. Enough for a while anyway”. Again, there was no answer. Poor child, he thought. Probably a runaway from Tamasin who braved the taboo against being here.

“I'm Ernst”, he said, eager to establish communication. “That's my name, Ernst Klein. Will you tell me your name”.

This time he got an answer. “Jade”, the young woman said. It was a start.

“I- I can't see you clearly”, he admitted. “Come out of the glare. Let me see your face”.

“No”, Jade said, sharply.

Ernst relaxed, and sat down. “Very well”, he said. “But there's really no need to be afraid. There's food in the fridge. Just help yourself, whenever you're ready”.

Jade looked back at the gentle, older man. He was the first human being she had spoken to as an equal since her abduction. He was talking to her as though she were human, and she liked it. She dare not move, dare not show her face, for fear that she would reveal what she had become.

“Where are you from?”, the man asked.

“Here”, Jade said, quietly. “This is where I grew up”.

“Here? You mean, this archipelago”.

“This island”, Jade said. Her voice was flat. There was no challenge in her tone, no expectation that she would be believed or disbelieved. And for that reason, he believed her.

“My word”, Ernst said, surprised. “You- you must have been lucky to have escaped…“ His voice trailed off. Then, more animatedly, he said, “You know, you might be able to help me. I've been trying to find out what happened here when— “

“Reavers”, Jade interrupted.

“Yes, yes I know, but before that”, Ernst explained. “You see, I'm trying to understand all about the Reavers, their physiology, their … their thought processes, and I… Well … if you can tell me anything at all I would be inordinately grateful. You — you could stay here as long as you liked”.

Jade stood up suddenly and marched forward a pace. “Klein!”, she exclaimed.

“I — I'm sorry?”

“You said your name was Klein”, she stated.

“Well, yes, I— “

“You made the Pax”, Jade accused, stepping forward another pace.

Ernst wished he could see whom he was dealing with, but she was still in the glare of the sunlight and so her face remained hidden. But it didn't matter. The signal was out now. It was time for people to know the truth. And it was starting to dawn on him only now that, though perhaps this period of hiding for his life from the Alliance might soon be over. “Well, I can't take sole credit for that”, he said, “but you — you have to understand, we—“

“You made the Reavers”, Jade said, forcefully. She took another step forward. “You made me!”

And then Klein saw clearly the marks on her face, and for a moment went white. “I can help you”, he said, recovering quickly. “With this laboratory, I can…“

Ernst lay on the floor in a pool of blood.

It took a while to sink in. At first, Jade didn't understand what had happened. Then she looked at her own hands, and saw the blood on them, and tasted the blood in her mouth. “No”, she cried, disbelievingly, and knelt down to touch the prone form. “I didn't want…“

It had been a long time since she had lost control, a long time since the rush had taken her, driven her, wrested control of her body from her mind. She had almost forgotten it could do that. Slowly, the memories came back to her. She had killed him. She hadn't wanted to — at least, not consciously. “You said you could help me”, she cried. Then finally, she understood. She could never again live with Reavers, not since the signal, but she also could not live with humans. She was alone. She burst into tears, and sobbed, for all that she had lost, for Slate, for Gra, for her parents, for Geng. She was alone. That was how it must be.

She stood outside the portable cabin, dressed for the first time in ages in human clothes, and watched as it burned, a fitting funeral pyre for the man who stolen her life. But she was not angry at him. If anything, she felt sorry for him, and for everyone whose lives had been touched by his work.

But people have to know … We meant it for the best. To make people safer.

And then she walked.

She walked through the ruins of Herren town. There is nothing for me here, she realized. It is dead. Memories of her life on this moon flooded through her, but the past was the past. That life was gone now.

She reached the harbor, and stared out to the sea. It would be so easy, she thought. I know the currents. From here, the ebbing tide would sweep her out to sea, and she would be gone, no more than a memory. And perhaps it would be better that way. She would be remembered as she wanted to be remembered, as a human being. The brief interval of her life when she lived among the Reavers would be erased from history. No one would ever know. Her body would eventually be eaten by sharks and other marine predators. Perhaps this is how it should end.


Some deep instinct stopped her from taking that step, pulled her back from the brink. When the Reavers had taken her, she could have given up then, but she hadn't. She had survived. Something inside of her was too strong to die. She couldn't give up then, and she couldn't give up now.

She fought back tears as she walked along the harbor, thinking of all she had been through.

And then she saw it.

The Lana.

There, moored to the jetty, perfectly intact, untouched by flame or the passage of time: Slate's boat.

She ran to it, and leapt onto its deck. The hull was undamaged. The deck was solid. It was lower in the water than it should be, but still it floated.

She descended into the bows. The lower deck was filled with water, but the water was only knee high. The boat was still seaworthy. She activated the bilge pump. The fuel cell was still good. Soon the constant hum of the tiny motor was augmented by the sound of water splashing on water as the pump emptied the bows of their load.

She raced to the cabin. I can live here, she realized. I will be alone, but I will survive.

How long had it been since she had tasted fresh fish?

Her incredible journey over, she sat on the fore deck and looked out to sea. I'll bet I can get this boat working, she thought.

Dark Places

Vengeance is Mine

The thrill of the hunt surged once more through Khrau's veins as he studied the strange, unknown ship on the screen before him. It looked to some extent like an Alliance patrol boat, except that this was clearly a civilian vessel. There were no guns or armaments at all. The ship was simply a target, a vessel of the hunted — prey!

He may not have been quite so proficient a pilot as Gra, but he could fly this thing close enough to the ship of the hunted to disable and board it. And then the hunt would truly begin. The excitement of anticipation would make the kills all the more satisfying, the meat all the more delicious. He adjusted the dials which manipulated the cameras, trying to zoom in the picture. His adjustments were more random than methodical, but after a time, he succeeded. He grinned from ear to ear as he took in the details. This prey had painted out the original name of their ship and replaced it with another, but the new name had been crudely painted by hand. That told him that, despite appearances to the contrary, this definitely was not an Alliance ship. At least, not any more. Perhaps it had been stolen. He didn't need to think twice to realize that the ship would make an ideal target.

“Vindicator”, said Geng, reading aloud. “It means avenger, bringer of justice”. His voice was oddly calm.

Khrau laughed. “We'll show them justice!”, he exclaimed, slamming his fist on the console. He didn't really care why the ship was in the sky. He only cared about its capabilities. How fast could it fly? Did it have guns? How many prey would be on board, ready for slaughter?

He returned the camera controls to their regular positions. Geng told him: “They're not running. Either they haven't seen us, or they're hoping we won't chase them”.

“Oh, I hope they've seen us”, Khrau said, grinning. “I hope they're shaking with fear at the thought of us. It's been a long time since the last time I was involved in a good hunt. I want this one to be special. I want to skin them alive. I want to rape their weak and helpless, and pull their strong limb from limb. Our hunters deserve it, do you not think?”

“Yes, my leader”, Geng said, though his voice was noncommittal.

“All right”, he said, now thinking forward, formulating a plan. “Go get Mace, and tell the rest of the hunters. I want them prepared”.

Geng nodded slightly and left the cockpit. Shortly afterward, Mace entered. Screens were not needed now. The prey vessel was close enough to see through the window. Without a word, Mace simply nodded and sat down in the copilot's seat. She knew which buttons to press, which switches to flip. When it was done, she said: “Magnetic grappler ready. EMP beam charging. Course matched”.

“We'll hit them with EMP first”, Khrau said. Mace nodded. It was a tried and trusted strategy. By knocking out their electronics first, it would make it impossible for the prey to run — at least, with any degree of control. It made it that much easier to snag them with the grappler and haul them in.

“EMP weapon will be fully charged in ten seconds”, she reported. “Nine, eight…“

Suddenly, sparks flew from the console. Khrau lurched back as he felt the jolt of electricity through his hand and body, and landed on the floor. His roar of anger was primal. When finally he was able to speak clearly, his words were sharp and savage. Even Mace was terrified of him, as though he could kill her with voice alone. “What happened?”, he demanded. Only then did he notice that the lights in the cockpit were dead.

Hesitantly, Mace answered: “I think we've been hit … with an electromagnetic pulse”.

Khrau was wide eyed. “You're telling me that prey shot us?” He fixed his gaze on the prey vessel and roared, as if his voice could travel through the vacuum of space. Then he turned to Mace, and said, coldly, “Wipe them out of the sky”.

Mace flipped switches in frustration. Nothing worked. “We're fried”, she told him.

“We're fried”, Ben said, worriedly. The larger version of the EMP generator Polly had built had worked fine, and to some extent the shielding had forced the pulse primarily in one direction. But the shielding hadn't been perfect. Now Vindicator was as dead in the water as their quarry.

“Then it's a stalemate”, Slate said, dryly.

Slate spoke into the comm handset he was still holding. “Polly, what's our situation?”

“Well, it's not as bad as you might think”, came the hesitant reply.

Slate frowned. “That's not sounding too good”, he said.

Polly didn't answer straight away. Then she said, “Well, the shielding mostly held. I mean, we've still got all the backup systems, life support's still good— “

“The engines”, Slate insisted, “What about the engines?”

“They're OK”, she replied, even more hesitantly.

“Is there a 'but' implicit in that statement?”

“It's just the starters that's fried, is all. I reckon I can divert power from the backup system and get us going again in no time”.

“OK, good”, Slate said, relieved.

“Well, when I say ‘no time’“, Polly explained, “I mean more like two hours”.

Zen-sh kai shin, Slate replied, sarcasm evident in his voice. Then, “Just get to it. Tell me when there's good news”. He replaced the handset and looked around at his crew. No one looked particularly calm, but no one was panicking either. As one, they stared through the window of the bridge at the Reaver ship beyond. It wasn't completely dark. It still had some lights, which meant it still had some power, but everything external had to be dead. That meant the Reavers had no weapons and no engines. The situation was oddly symmetric.

Ben studied the instruments before him. “They matched our course before we hit them”, he explained, “but the match wasn't perfect. The Reaver ship is drifting towards us, very slowly. It'll pass over our heads in four hours”.

“Good enough”, Slate said, relieved. “We'll be gone in two”.

Elizabeth took a step toward the window. “What if they manage to start their engines before we start ours?”, she asked, worriedly.

“Let's hope they don't”, came the reply. Everybody knew the score. Now it was simply a race against time. Whichever of the two ships could start their engines first would survive. This was not a great comfort, but Slate figured he had better plan on surviving, because unless they carried their plan to its conclusion, nobody would survive in any case. “All right. Ben, you go give Polly a hand. Anything she needs, you get. Can't pilot nowhere till we got a working engine”.

Ben nodded, and stood from his chair.

“Kwok Fi, you and me we'll go unpack the nuke”, Slate said, a sly grin on his face. “We're gonna kick some Reaver ass”.

“I'm with you”, Kwok Fi agreed, and likewise stood up to leave.

The plan was pretty simple, so far as it went. Disable the Reaver ship, place the nuclear warhead in space, and run. When far enough away, detonate the bomb by remote control — boom — no more Reavers. But the plan had become complicated by the crippling of their own ship. If they placed the nuke where the Reavers could see it, it was possible the Reavers might somehow be able to deflect it. That meant they had to position it such that Vindicator was between the Reavers and the bomb — which in turn was fine, if Vindicator could get itself out of the way on time.

“It's just you and me then”, Papagina said, after the others had left.

“Yep”, Elizabeth agreed. “Let's hope this is an uneventful watch”.

Even as she said the words, she knew they were premature. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw movement on the Reaver ship. It was hard to make out the details at this distance, but there was definitely something happening. Concerned, she ran to Ben's station and adjusted the cameras for a close up view.

There were Reavers in space suits walking on the back of the Reaver ship.

Wo cao!”

Papagina strode to look at the screens. “What are they doing?”, she wondered aloud. She didn't have to wait long to find out. One Reaver raised a harpoon gun and fired it toward them. There was a clang which reverberated through the ship as the harpoon struck the hull, but it did not penetrate. Instead, it bounced off, harmlessly. Papagina breathed out, aware only then that she'd been holding her breath. The harpoon darts, she noted, had no rope tail, no way for the Reavers to pull them back and reuse them — almost certainly because the distance between the two ships was greater than the rope length. But with no friction in space, distance became irrelevant. A hit at any distance would be just as forceful as a hit at point blank range. It still made no sense though. Why bother to shoot harpoons if they could never pierce the hull?

The answer occurred to both of them at the same time.

“They're aiming at the window!”, Elizabeth said aloud.

“Suggest we abandon the bridge”, Papagina said, nervously, adding, “At least for now. We can come back in space suits”.

“Good idea”, Elizabeth replied, backing out. Another clang. The design of Vindicator's nose made the window hard to hit, but not impossible, and the Reavers were aided by the fact that Vindicator was almost directly facing them.

The two reached the door as the first harpoon to hit glass made its mark. The glass cracked but did not break, but that was enough to chill them to the bone. Hurriedly they closed the door, then the bulkhead door behind it which could act as an airlock in the event of a breach.

“Let's get suited up”.

Already in space suits themselves, Slate and Kwok Fi shuffled the warhead into the port shuttle bay and opened the rear door. The view straight out into space was breathtaking, as always, but this time the beauty and wonder was tinged with fear. They couldn't see the Reavers through the back, but they knew they were out there, and the thought alone was menacing enough.

“So what do we do, just sling it out the back?”, Kwok Fi asked.

“We don't want it to drift too far away. Ideally we just want to leave it floating in space, just outside our gravity field”.

“All right then, let's have a little EVA”.

“I only ever done this once before”, Slate said, not wanting to remember that on that occasion he had needed to be rescued, and that Kwok Fi had been one of the people who had done the rescuing.

“Come on”, Kwok Fi urged. “Don't let go of this, and jump”.

It was almost a liberation to be free of gravity. For a moment, Slate could almost believe he could be free out here, drifting to safety, far out into space. But it was an unrealistic dream. The suit had limited air, and the nearest human settlement was millions of miles away. Following Kwok Fi's directions, they used the jet thrusters on their suits to bring themselves and their load to a halt relative to the ship. Then they released it, separated from it, and made their way back into the hangar.

Fully suited up, Elizabeth and Papagina re-entered the bridge. There was no glass left in the window, save for saw tooth shards around the edges. Though everything was still operational, it gave the room an eerie feel. Using her suit radio, she called: “Slate, you'd better stay suited up. Reavers smashed our window”.

“It gets worse”, Papagina added, looking down at the screens on Ben's console. She looked up at Elizabeth and said: “I really don't like Reavers”.

Elizabeth considered looking at the screens to see what had worried Papagina, but she didn't need to. All she had to do was turn her head slightly and look out of the window. There were Reavers in space, in the space between the two ships.

They were jumping from one ship to another.

They both stood frozen there for a second, marveling at the audacity of it, before Elizabeth had the presence of mind to cry: “Tsou!”

Half a dozen specks drifted slowly but inexorably toward Vindicator.

Polly found herself in the corner of Engineering where here original EMP test device lay, and she noted with some concern that the fire extinguishers had not been replaced. That was shoddy, she told herself. Then she realized how absurd it was to be worried about fire extinguishers when there were Reavers nearby. She tugged on a length of cable.

“Let me help”, Ben said. “I may not know much about engineering but I know how to untangle leads”.

“All yours”, Polly said, backing away.

“You think this'll be enough?”, Ben asked, setting to work.

“Should be”, she said. Looking for something to do while Ben was busy, she decided to check the radio frequency spectrum. It occurred to her only then that the Reavers might have called for help. Vindicator had a vast array of cameras and detectors, since it had previously been a mobile film studio, and it was relatively easy to hook up to the feed. At soon as she did so, she wished she hadn't. “We got trouble”, she told Ben.


“There's continuous radio traffic between the Reavers and wherever they were heading. Wait a moment. Let me adjust the sensor”.

Ben struggled with the knot of cable. “What's that mean?”, he asked.

Polly's eyes widened as she trained the high power telescope in the direction of the transmissions. “Reaver ships”, she told him, “Heading our way. Eleven of them”.

Khrau was the first to enter Vindicator's bridge through the open wound that had once been its forward window. Mace followed a close second. They jumped down onto the floor of the bridge. Four other hunters followed behind them. It felt good to be in normal gravity again. They rested for only a moment, long enough to check that all of the hunters had arrived safely. Then they moved out. There was killing to be done.

Elizabeth and Papagina almost collided with Slate and Kwok Fi in the mid level corridor. “We're being boarded”, Elizabeth blurted.

Ta ma teh!”, Slate said. He carried his suit helmet under his arm, but otherwise was still suited up. The others had done likewise.

There was a roar from the deck above, and it was clear what it was that was making that noise. It was the sheer, terrifying roar of the monsters who had invaded their ship, and they were getting closer.

“Down”, Slate ordered. At a run, the four broke for the cargo bay.

“How does this help?”, Kwok Fi asked, breathlessly, as they descended the ramp, slamming the door closed behind them.

Slate opened a crate and pulled out pickaxe and a sledgehammer. The armory was on the top deck. This was the best they had.

“You're joking”, Papagina said, blanching, but knowing that he wasn't.

“Reavers won't pause to gloat”, Slate told her. “They won't stand there with a self-satisfied grin before they pounce. They'll just pounce. They'll come straight at you, and if they've a mind to be nice to you they'll kill you”. He handed the pickaxe to Papagina. She took it, and held the weapon with both hands, leaving her helmet on the floor. It hardly mattered, she reasoned. She was dead anyway.

Slate's suit radio buzzed. “Polly here”, came the worried sounding voice. “There's a fleet of Reaver ships heading our way. ETA two hours or so”.

“In other circumstances I might find that bad news”, Slate replied, anxiously, “But right now I got more pressing matters. We already got Reavers on board, and some of them's heading in the direction of the cargo bay, which is where we are. You might want to think about not making too much noise yourself”.

The door burst open. Four Reavers piled through, moving with inhuman speed. They wore space suits, but had removed their helmets and strapped them to their suits, which only made the rage etched on their hideous, deformed faces that much more evident.

Polly and Ben stared at each other for a while, saying nothing as the comm signal cut out. “Now what do we do?”, Ben asked nobody in particular, looking around for somewhere to hide.

“The cargo bay”, said Polly, quietly to herself, thinking furiously. Her eyes lit up as she turned to Ben, saying “They're in the cargo bay”. Ben looked blank. Her words meant nothing to him. Then she pulled a lever, and an electronic hum filled the room, slowly rising in pitch.

“What are you doing?”, Ben protested, flabbergasted. “Slate said to keep quiet”.

They heard a crash from the main mid deck corridor: Reavers! Ben backed away from the door, urging Polly to follow, but she resolutely she stayed where she was. Fearing that he was too exposed, Ben continued to back further.

Sparks crackled as the hum rose in both volume and pitch to an almost deafening level. Out of the corner of her eye, Polly saw the grotesque creature and reacted instantly, ducking under the machine. The gap was too small for the Reaver, who instead opted to jump over, but as soon as he put his hand on the casing, he jumped back automatically, his hand burned by thousands of amps of electricity.

Then the overload happened. Lightning arced through unfortunate Reaver, killing him instantly. A thunderous clap filled the room, which immediately plunged into darkness as a second Reaver stumbled through the door.

For all their bravado, Slate and his crew had really not stood a chance against the ferocious onslaught of four Reavers. Almost immediately, Mace had disarmed Kwok Fi of his pickaxe and plunged it straight into his leg, leaving him screaming in agony on the floor. They had tried to fight, they had tried to run, but the Reavers were simply too fast, too strong, and had no inhibitions about inflicting pain or torture. Slate was able to duck behind a crate only in time to see Papagina floored as one Reaver pushed his boot into her neck and proceeded to cut into her space suit, her clothing, and her flesh as she choked. Then just as Slate was about to leap to Papagina's defense, another grabbed Elizabeth.

And it was then that the lights went out, and the cargo bay was plunged into absolute blackness. Slate backed away until he bumped into a crate, still hearing the cries of pain of Kwok Fi and Papagina. He couldn't hear Elizabeth, and darkness prevented him from seeing her. Then realization dawned. Thank you, Polly, he thought, and opened the crate as quickly and as quietly as he could, grabbing a handful of night vision goggles. He heard the Reaver approaching him, and slid away in a random direction, slipping on one pair of goggles as soon as he was able. It seemed to take forever to fumble with the controls before anything happened, but then with a suddenness that almost took his breath away, the room flared back into existence, looking eerie in the green light-enhanced image.

Slate was now the only one who could see, and that gave him tremendous advantage. He instinctively rolled aside as a pickaxe plunged into the floor where his head had been. He picked up his own pickaxe and swung it with both hands at the Reaver who had attacked him, scoring a glancing blow to the head.

He looked around to see who was currently in the most danger. Both Elizabeth and Papagina were being held firm and cut with knives, but it seemed to him, in the flash of a moment that was available to him to make a decision, that Elizabeth was in the greatest danger. Her captor seemed to want to kill her, whereas Papagina's assailant seemed to be trying to inflict fear and pain while his victim squirmed and struggled. Or so he told himself. Perhaps it wasn't even a logical decision, just pure instinct, but he roared and put the sharp point of a pickaxe through the Reaver's side, and pulled Elizabeth away as the Reaver lay squirming and convulsing. He held one pair of goggles to Elizabeth's eyes and she quickly got the idea.

Khrau was enjoying himself. For him, the dark simply made the hunt more exciting. The prey creature whom he had pinned down had become more terrified by the absence of light, and that only encouraged him to scare it further. He released the pressure from his boot for just a moment to give it time to breathe, and then pushed back, choking it again. He used his knife to cut into its space suit. The knife would cut into its flesh too, causing pain, but not death. He wanted fun with this one.

Then he heard the voice, a prey voice, harsh and angry. Had he understood the language, he would have heard: “Get off of her!” But he did not understand. He merely felt the impact which knocked him to the ground. He heard someone dragging his intended victim away, but his attention was drawn to the voice. He lunged at it, but encountered only empty air. “This is for Jade!”, the voice said, and a sledgehammer struck his kneecap. He fell to the floor, cradling his damaged leg but still not screaming. The voice continued: “And on behalf of my very good friend Sandra, this is for Haley!”. It was the last thing he ever heard, save for the crushing of his own skull.

Mace was bewildered by the new turn of events, but she wasn't stupid. She backed herself against the nearest wall, and flailed wildly with a wickedly long knife, figuring that if anything came anywhere near her, it would be cut to pieces by her random swipes. She had no way of seeing that Slate and Elizabeth were gesturing to each other in the silent communication of hand movements. All she knew was that one second everything was fine, the next, a heavy crate slid across the floor and slammed into her, pinning her to the wall. Stunned, she took a while to recover. She could hear the prey leaving, helping each other, somehow. She summoned her strength and pushed away the crate, then moved toward the prey. Her leg struck the ramp which led to the mid deck and she fell. She groped in the darkness, trying to find some reference point, somewhere where she might feel secure. She heard the prey returning. This time there was just one pair of footsteps. She hurled herself toward the sound, and heard the unmistakable sound of a gun cocking. She froze, making no noise. Then the bullet came.

In Engineering, the one remaining Reaver moved purposefully and methodically around the room, keeping one hand to the wall for bearings, ears alert for the slightest sound of movement. To Polly it was a game, though a deadly one. She sat on the floor, near to the center of the room where the EMP prototype lay. She, too, kept her ears alert, but even when she heard the Reaver come close, she did not move. Instead, she had a different strategy. She would throw a nut or a bolt to some far corner of the room, and wait for the sounds to move away.

Ben had managed to work his way around the room, and out into Medical. He would have retreated further, but concern for Polly kept him close to Engineering.

Then came footsteps — purposeful footsteps. They marched with a surety that belied the blackness around him. He heard Elizabeth's voice, saying: “Ben, put these on”, and something was placed into his hands. He soon got the idea, though Elizabeth had to help him switch the device on.

Slate walked into Engineering and pointed his gun at the Reaver, who held some form of harpoon weapon. “Drop it”, Slate said.

The Reaver spun the weapon around, bringing it to bear on the voice, but Slate shot first, striking the Reaver in the arm. The weapon dropped to the floor with a crash.

“Darn it”, Slate said, disappointedly. “Now I'm going to have to kill an unarmed man. That ain't the sort of thing I like doing. But then, you ain't exactly a man, are you?” He was speaking more to himself than to the Reaver. He knew what he needed to do. He just needed to talk himself into doing it.

“My name is Crane”, the Reaver said, groping around in the dark.

Slate blanched. Reavers didn't talk — or at least, that was conventional wisdom. “What?”, he stammered.

Crane never got the change to answer. The harpoon dart bore into his throat and up into his brain. Polly rolled aside gracefully, still holding the harpoon gun. Then she stood up and faced the voice of Slate, smiling. saying: “Just a shot in the dark”.

Slate walked over to her, hugged her, then handed her a pair of night vision glasses. She put them on, only to see that Slate still wasn't smiling. “We still got problems”, Slate said. And that was an understatement.

It took hours to bring the ship back to sufficient functionality, and those were hours they just didn't have. The only components which worked were those which had somehow escaped the most recent pulse. They found portable lights inside the crates of mining supplies which at least meant that they didn't have walk around wearing goggles. Life support was fried, but they still had air for several hours. What mattered most was the engine. But, with everyone helping, the job did go quite smoothly. Still a good fifteen minutes ahead of the approaching fleet, Vindicator's engine flared to life. They were ready to go.

It felt strange to be occupying the bridge in space suits, but they had no choice. It was that or stay put, waiting for the Reaver fleet to arrive.

“Don't set off the nuke with the engine flare”, Slate warned.

“Don't plan to”, Ben confirmed. There was a slight nudge, then the starscape, including the ever present Reaver ship appeared to slide upwards. Finally, they began forward motion, evidenced by the Reaver ship's sliding back past them.

“When we get far enough away”, Slate said, “We blow the nuke”.

“I got the engines working at last”, said the voice from the screen.

Finally!“, said Gala, with satisfaction. She pointed to the fleeing Vindicator, saying: “The hunt is on”.

Brack looked at the spinning engine with satisfaction, grinning. Nothing could stop them now. This time they had the upper hand. Full power had been restored both to the engine and to the EMP weapon. That was all they needed.

He heard a noise and turned around sharply. His eyes widened when he saw the last person in the 'verse he expected to see. “Tuss — what?”

“This is where she was supposed to be”, Tuss said, his voice eerily quiet.

“I thought you were supposed to be locked up”, Brack said, nervously.

Tuss blinked. Was the man stupid? Did anyone honestly expect him to stay in any room but the engine room? “It wasn't the right place”, he explained.

Brack considered. “Well”, he said, finally, “Let's get this thing going faster. We've got prey to hunt”. And then he lurched backwards, as a wrench struck his forehead with incredible force.

“WHERE IS SHE!?”, Tuss yelled at the top of his voice. “WHERE IS ERIN!?”

Brack wasted no time arguing. He picked up the nearest metal implement and began swinging it at Tuss.

But Tuss was unstoppable. He was enraged, in the grip of the killing frenzy, the rush that normally kicked in only when attacking prey. Reavers did not, as a rule, kill each other, but Tuss was way past playing by the rules. “You killed Erin!”, he cried, as he brought the wrench down onto Brack's shoulder. “Where is Erin?”, he sobbed, as he drove a screwdriver in Brack's throat, as Brack writhed and squirmed. “It's all your fault”, he screamed, as he pushed Brack's almost lifeless body backwards into the rotating block of the engine. There was a scream, and a brief splatter of blood, and then the engine ground to a halt with a sickening, crunching sound.

“The Reaver ship is no longer pursuing”, Papagina reported. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

No one said a word as Vindicator increased its distance from the Reaver ship, and from the nuclear bomb floating beside it. Ben kept an eye on his screens. Eleven additional Reaver ships were heading their way, but the bomb was between Vindicator and the oncoming fleet. If only they could get the timing right, those ships could be taken out right alongside the primary target.

“Are we gonna make it?”, Slate asked.

Ben said, “We'll be at a safe distance just about the same time that those ships catch up with the first ship”.

So now it was just a question of waiting.

Elizabeth hadn't intended to speak aloud, but her suit radio magnified every whisper. “Now!”, she said quietly, as the first of the pursuing ships overtook the killer of Herren Island.

It was Slate's finger on the button. He didn't waste any time in pressing it.

The explosion was like nothing in Slate's experience.

Within the bomb's core, atoms of fissionable material split in two, releasing bursts of gamma rays. Those rays struck other atoms, splitting those, releasing more gamma rays, the whole thing cascading into an unstoppable chain reaction. The temperature of the chamber hit a million degrees before the walls had time to vaporize. The sphere of energy expanded at the speed of light, turning everything it touched into plasma. As the sphere expanded, its destructive power decreased, but as it engulfed the twelve Reaver ships, it was still sufficiently deadly that all twelve were melted within a second. When the sphere hit Vindicator, it still carried enough energy to fry every electrical component on the ship, sending thousands of amps of electric current through every conductive path. But that was nothing compared with the shock wave which followed, as the ash of the Reaver fleet hurled itself in all directions, shaking Vindicator about with the force of its impact. If Vindicator had been facing the explosion, the ash storm alone would have destroyed the bridge. Even the cameras were destroyed, so they had no way to see the explosion. But they sure as hell felt it. And then, just as suddenly as they started, the tremors ceased.

No one else said a word at first. And then Elizabeth said “Woo hoo!”, and then everyone joined in.

Shiny!”, Slate exclaimed, his fist clenched – the first time he had used that word since Jade's death.

There was crying, there was laughter, and there was hugging. Celebration time had begun.

The hovertrain pulled in at Paradiso, Regina, just as Slate and Elizabeth unloaded the last of the crates of mining equipment. “You're late”, the grizzled miner complained.

“Yeah, well, sorry ' bout that”, Slate said, not quite so apologetically as his words suggested.

“We'll give you a discount”, Elizabeth said, conciliatorily.

Passengers started to emerge from the train.

Slate decided that Elizabeth was more than able to handle the negotiations on her own and left her to it, after having said a brief farewell. This sale hardly mattered in any case. There was simply no way this sale would pay for the repair of the ship. This time around it had been so badly damaged it couldn't even make it to Regina on its own. Instead, they'd had to send a mayday out to YKC, to the company that actually owned Vindicator, since staying incognito was no longer a priority. YKC had arranged for the rescue, and for transportation to Regina, but beyond that, everything was up in the air. For the first time in years, the future was no longer laid out before him. For the first time in years, it seemed the future was an unwritten book.

But there would be time to make those decisions. Kwok Fi and Papagina were both injured and would need time to rest and recover, and Paradiso was a good a place as any. It wasn't exactly a tourist spot, but it did have a good name, and the locals were glad enough of the port fees.

Slate blinked a few times, not quite recognizing the woman standing on the platform before the train, until suddenly realization dawned. “Sandra”, he called.

Sandra Winslett glanced in the direction of the voice. “Slate”, she replied, moving off in his direction.

“I wasn't expecting you”, Slate said, as they met amidst the throng of people. “Didn't recognize you without the uniform neither”.

“I quit the Alliance”, she explained. “Remember I told you that if I found out the Alliance could have prevented Haley's death I was going to quit and join you? If … you'll have me, that is”.

Slate laughed. “Well, I got a broken ship the owners want back, and a crew so full of holes it will be days before we even think about moving. But, for what it's worth, you're welcome”. They hugged. “You think the Alliance could have prevented the attack on the Gentle Giant?”, he queried, just making sure he'd understood right.

“And Herren, and all of them”, Sandra replied. “All they had to do was not make the Reavers in the first place, or at least, not cover it up”.

“Well I can't argue with that. But it's not like I can offer you a better life here either. I put everything we had into vengeance, and now that that's over, I got nothing left”.

“I pretty much would have had to leave anyway”, Sandra explained. “There's only so long you can cover up a missing nuke. They'd have figured it out in time”.

“So that makes you a civilian now”.

“It sure does”.

“Come on. I'll give you the tour of the ship. It's still ours for the next few days at least. After that… who knows?”

Slate started to wander off, leading the way.

“Umm…“, Sandra said, not moving.

It was only then that Slate noticed the suitcases. Seems she really had left for good. “Oh. Right”, he said, catching on. “Let me help you with those”. He took one. Sandra took the other.

Elizabeth joined them as they headed toward the ship. “Hello Sandra”, she greeted.

“Hi”, came the reply.

“Well, that's it. The last deal done”. Elizabeth held out a bag of coin. “Our last wages. What shall we spend it on?”

To Sandra, Slate said, “See, you come at the wrong time. We might actually end up stuck here on this rock, and then we'd have to get jobs as miners and spend the rest of our lives breathing poison”.

Sandra laughed. “I do have some money”, she explained. “At the very least, I can get us off this rock”.

“That's good”, Slate said, relieved. “The mining life is not one I was looking forward to”.

“You haven't answered my question”, Elizabeth prompted. “We just got our last wages. Shall we blow our cut or shall we be sensible?”

“I figure you're angling to not be sensible”, Slate reasoned, “Coz, you're always sensible, so if you'd wanted to be sensible you wouldn't even have asked, you'd have just … been sensible. Did that sound stupid?”

“A bit”, Sandra acknowledged. “But I followed it”.

“So”, Slate continued. “Here we are, strangers on a world that ain't used to having tourists, where the height of entertainment is getting drunk and falling over. How should we blow our magnificent fortune?”

“Let's get drunk and fall over”, Elizabeth suggested. “Only, without the falling over”.

“Party time”, Slate concluded.

“Party time”, Elizabeth concurred.

Beylix was not a world primarily known for farming. Nonetheless, farming was still the primary occupation for many of its inhabitants, and right now, the crew were glad of that.

“Home grown beef and potatoes”, announced their host, though it hardly needed announcing. The aroma alone was enough to tell them they were just about to consume the most delicious meal they'd even been near in months.

“Thanks, Dad”, Kwok Fi beamed.

“Yes, thank you, Mister Lee”, everyone else chimed, more or less in unison.

Waiting for the meal had been almost unbearable, but when it came, it was well worth the wait. Kwok Fi's parents were gracious hosts, and the food was beyond compare. Between mouthfuls, Papagina said: “You know, we've been living on protein cakes for so long I'd forgotten what real food tastes like”.

Slate said: “It's coming back to me. I can't tell you how much I've missed this”.

“You're all welcome”, said Shan Fo, Kwok Fi's father.

Su Ka, his mother, chimed in with: “It's good to have you home, son”.

“So how long you staying?”, Shan Fo asked.

“I think I'm staying for good this time”, Kwok Fi replied. “I've had my fill of space travel. Besides, I'm bringing someone with me”. He smiled at Papagina.

“If it's all right with you”, Papagina interjected quickly. “I'm sorry. Kwok Fi said you were always looking for ranch hands, and I would love to do that, but I had actually planned to ask first”.

Shan Fo laughed. “Are you two kids together?”, he asked.

Kwok Fi and Papagina looked embarrassed. Finally, Kwok Fi said: “I think so”.

“It's early days”, Papagina explained.

“You sure you gonna like farm life?”

She answered: “Honestly, I'm looking forward to it. I've spent so much time in space going from place to place, never settling down anywhere. It's time for me to stop wandering. I've seen too much…“ — she was going to say death, but decided the setting was not appropriate. She continued from another angle. “- And, I got injured recently. Just a few cuts and bruises, but … I was lucky. I want to settle down, somewhere where life or death struggles don't happen quite so often”.

Su Ka looked around the table. “And what about the rest of you folk? There's work here if you want it. I gather most of you come from a settlement not too different from this one”.

“No thanks, Missus Lee”, Slate answered. “See, I never thought too hard about the future these past few months. Couldn't see past one thing. Now that thing is behind me, well … what happens next is a blank slate. Don't want to be closing down my options”.

Polly interjected, “And I want to see the universe”.

“I thought you didn't have a ship?”

Elizabeth answered, “They're still deciding our fate. We brought back enough material to make one hell of a documentary, and we've shown that Reavers can be beaten. It's not over yet”.

“Well, I wish you all luck”.

Slate, Polly and Ben sat in the lounge of the newly restored Vindicator, now named once again Uriah Heep, looking more relaxed than they had been in a long, long time. Soft music played in the background. Ben cracked a joke, and there was laughter. And that made Slate smile.

“So what do you think the verdict will be?”, Polly asked, optimistically.

Ben replied, “Yoshida-Kendall fixed up the ship. Ain't no question they want things back the way they were”.

Elizabeth entered the room with Sandra. “But not quite the way they were”, Elizabeth clarified.

Slate rose to greet her. “What's the news?”, he asked.

“Looks like I get to be captain again”, she declared, looking pleased.

Congratulations were exchanged, and Slate embraced Elizabeth in a tight hug. “I knew you could do it”, he stated.

“On the bad side”, Elizabeth began as she sat down with Slate on a sofa just big enough for two, “We don't get back pay for the past year and a half. But then, we don't have to pay for the damage to the ship either, so I guess we get the better part of the bargain. But good old Yoshida-Kendall Capture know a good story when they see one. And a good team. We're back in the black, people. This ship gets a new crew. I'll be captain. Ben, if you want your old job back, it's yours”.

“Well, I don't know about that”, Ben said. “After what we learned these past months, I ain't sure I want to be pimping the word of the Alliance no more”.

“That's just it”, Elizabeth enthused. “We'll have a new mission. We won't be making Alliance propaganda any more. From here on, we tell people the truth”.

Sandra said: “After Miranda, the Alliance don't have anywhere near the clout they used to have. They're treading on eggshells. They'll recover, in time, but YKC see this as a window of opportunity.”

“And we have just the crew to do it. In this room alone, right now, we have people from every side, and every one of us has learned so much, and changed so much, and crossed so much distance. We can share that experience with the 'verse now”.

Polly said: “Just so I'm clear here — is this job open to me and Slate here? Coz we ain't never worked for Yoshida whatever before”.

“Yes it is. If you want it”.

“I want it”, Polly said. “I've seen the possibilities out there and I want to explore them”.

Slate concluded: “And I guess we won't be scrambling about picking up work were we can, neither. We actually gonna get paid for flying about causing trouble”.

“What about you?”, Ben asked of Sandra.

“Oh, I'm in”, she said, positively. “I've put the past behind me. It's time to move on. There's new worlds to see, new stories to tell— “

“New women”, Ben interrupted, raising his eyebrows suggestively.

Without batting an eyelid, she continued: “That too, and if I find a really pretty one, I'll be sure to let you watch”. She let that hang for just a few seconds, watching as Ben's jaw almost hit the floor. Then she said: “In your dreams!”

Everyone laughed, save for Ben who, despite being the oldest among them, now had a face like a guilty schoolboy.

“When do we leave?”, Slate asked.

“We got a few days”, Elizabeth answered.

“Perfect”, Slate responded. “There's just one more thing I want to do, 'fore we start all this truth telling. One more place I have to go”.

The two of them walked along the beach, hand in hand, bathed in the orange light of evening sun. “Why here?”, Elizabeth questioned, as they walked slowly across the sand, their bare feet making sludgy indentations in the wet surface as the waves licked gently around their feet. “Why The Isle of Herren? I'd have thought this would be the last place you'd want to be”.

“Lot of people died here”, Slate confirmed. “Gruvick, Hagar, Abigail, Li Chow… And Jade”.

“A lot of my crew died here too”, Elizabeth reminded. “Cassandra, many more… I can't deny the beauty of this place, but if this is your idea of romance, I'd have to say there's a good chance we're not on the same wavelength”.

“You know what day it is today?”

“December 10th, 2518”, Elizabeth replied, automatically.

“Jade's birthday”, Slate told her. “She would have been twenty two today. I may have gotten over the hurt, but I ain't never gonna forget her”.

Elizabeth wrapped her arms around Slate's neck. “Guess you are a romantic after all”, she concluded.

Neither she nor Slate truly understood what had held them back all this time. Perhaps they had simply needed to be alone in order to admit the possibility. But they were alone now, and the moment dragged on. It was the moment — that moment — when you still had the chance to take things either way. You could pull back, be professional, talk about things that don't matter, knowing that your friendship was safe, but that that was all it would ever be. Or you could take things in that newer, scarier direction, which offered hope, comfort, and love, but which might break your heart if you were wrong. The moment lasted a long time — a long, long time. But in the end, there wasn't even a decision. They were simply kissing. The moment had transformed, and now, if either of them could have wished it, this moment would have lasted forever.

“Come on”, he said, taking her hand once more.

“Where are we going?”, she asked, as they walked further around the coast, in the direction of the setting sun.

Slate pointed ahead. “The Lana“, he said. “It's still there, right where we left it. I got a lot of good memories connected with that boat. When you build something with your own hands, it tends to mean something. I want to show you around”.

“The boat?”

“Not just the boat, but where it can take you. We got coral reefs here you wouldn't believe. We got shoals of fish like nothing you've ever seen before. I want to show you my world, make you a part of it, before we head out into the black and become part of yours”.

She smiled. “You know, your world and mine are not so far apart we can't make both into our world”.

“I'd like that”, he said, as they sauntered onto the jetty, taking in the breathtaking beauty, and the crisp, fresh smell of sea air.

“This is a beginning”, Elizabeth told him, “the start of a new adventure”.

They kissed once more, framed by the light of the setting sun, then held hands, and stepped onto the Lana.

A beginning, Slate thought, and smiled approvingly.

He opened the door.