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Strange Pulp 11: Pocket Full of Stars (Part 4)
A sexually-fraught voyage across the cosmos on the good ship HF909
The not-so-long wait is over! It’s time for more Pocket Full of Stars, the only scifi novel guaranteed to entertain you and clean your apartment at the same time. (Note: Novel may not clean apartment.) If you like the book, for god’s sake—
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My assassin had beady eyes, an awful haircut, and a cruel smile. His head had a bloody dent down the left side.
I told him he was dead.
He didn’t seem to care.
He chased me along the under alleys of the Old Strip, down the winding hallways of Katzen Station, through an endless pink ion lift haze. He finally caught up with me in the hold of HF909, where towers of cobalt shipping containers disappeared into the gloom. He backed me up against a mural advertising my mother’s show at the Campbell Theater, fanned out a trigun and shot bullets into my shoulder, my belly, my neck.
They say there’s no pain in dreams, but this fucking hurt.
My eyes popped open into the pitch dark of my cabin on the 909. Sweat soaked the coarse fabrifiber duvet. I tried to relax, letting the rumble of the engines remind me that we were approaching Jupiter, that there was no way Laabs or Jude or any of my growing list of mortal enemies knew where I was. But my chest was tight and my breath was short and every time I closed my eyes I saw Laabs killing a few more times.
I spent a long night sweating. When the day lights flared on at ship’s 0500, I was sweating still.
The stove on the 909 was older than my third grandmother and much less forgiving. A two ton mess of steel bolted right onto the bulkhead, it had only two settings: scorch and blacken. I would need to master both to get through our first breakfast alive.
I whipped up a half-dozen eggs, tossing the whisk into the wash unit with a theatrical flourish, and minced tiny handfuls of four types of herbs. Treating the old beast with a feather light touch, I coaxed out a round of omelets whose insides were just set and whose exterior was the pale yellow of my favorite sun.
I slid two of them through the dining compartment hatch and leaned against the bulkhead, waiting for Falk to explode through the door, to fall at my feet and howl something to the effect of, “Gregor, my beloved. I’ve been wrong this whole time. The omelette made me understand.”
And then I’d either fuck him or smack him. Maybe both.
Instead I heard Lennox whining like an ungreased engine.
“Use words,” said Falk, like he’d said it a few thousand times before.
“The inside is wet,” she answered. “Can I get something from the gastro unit and eat in my room?”
He must have agreed, because a few seconds later she slipped through the swinging door and scraped a perfect omelette into the trash.
“Thanks,” she said, smiling like she meant it.
“Didn’t like it?”
“Oh, it was super good. Just not for me?”
I shrugged, extremely annoyed by how much I was annoyed. She settled in front of the Matteson. After a moment’s concentration she punched in 242. Out thunked a can.
“I thought everything from the gastro unit tasted like old poop,” I said.
“Sometimes poop is not so bad.”
She popped the top, grabbed a metal spoon, and was gone.
“What’d she get?” said Falk. His voice went through me like a paper cut. He wasn’t shouting anymore, not like he had been on Katzen, but the rage was still there. He stood in the doorway, wearing a hot pink polo shirt with the NHI logo on the chest. It was an extremely stupid shirt and, infuriatingly, he made it look good. Willing my nerves to stop tingling, I ran my finger down the menu book until I found 242.
“Vegetarian chili with birthday cake flavoring,” I said.
“Nobody can compete with that.”
He set his plate on the counter and ate standing up, his hip pressed gently against the steel. I forced myself to do the same. The omelette burned my tongue in a most pleasant way.
“In a little while we hit the queue for the E-Gate,” he said. “They’re gonna ask how many people are on my ship. I suspect it would be better for you if I said, ‘Two.’”
“It wouldn’t be the first time you deceived a customs official.”
“First time I did it with Lennox on board.”
“You want to know what I’m running from.”
It wasn’t a question. I knew that’s what he was thinking and I think I would have told him the truth if he’d asked. But he shook his head.
“I don’t want to know a thing about it. I’ll help you as far as I can but my duty is to Lennox, this ship, and the cargo in that order.”
“When did you get so square?”
He raised an eyebrow. It didn’t make him look any less square.
“I’m not surprised to see you with a kid,” I said. “You always liked taking care of people. I bet you’re a fabulous dad. But I can’t figure how Yoshi Falk, swashbuckling smuggler, ended up squeezed into a corporate polo shirt, hauling seeds.”
“What does it matter?”
Everything, baby. Fucking everything. But I didn’t have it in me to say that. All I could do was shrug.
“Just tell me where I can drop you off,” he said.
“Funny thing is, you and I are headed the same way. Batavia.”
This surprised him. That felt very nice. Yoshi Falk is not the type of man who’s easy to surprise.
“What could you possibly need on Batavia?”
“I’ve got business with the NHI.”
“Galaxy Greg, a nightclub magician, has business with the galaxy’s fifth largest farm support nonprofit.”
“What can I say? I have very broad interests.”
He picked a last shred of egg off his plate, popped it in his mouth, and slid the plate into the wash unit. He looked disgusted. It wasn’t the omelette’s fault.
“I am moderately flattered that you would make up this insane nonsense just to get close to me,” he said.
“That’s not it—”
“But whatever you and I had, it was a long damn time ago and it is over now.”
I squeezed my fork, wondering if I could throw it hard enough to pierce his chest. It wouldn’t help anything but it might be kind of fun.
“Did I say anything about ‘whatever we had’?” I said.
“I see the way you look at me. You weren’t subtle when we met and you’re less subtle now.”
“I wouldn’t get back together with you if—”
He held up his hand.
“You’re asking me to lie for you. Don’t say something you’ll regret.”
My teeth were gritted so tight that it was hard to talk, but I managed to say, “Okay.”
“There’s no way I’m taking you to Batavia,” he said. “This job’s important and I can’t risk anything that would fuck it up.”
“What makes it important?”
“You don’t need to know.”
“Then drop me anywhere on the far side of the E-Gate. I’ll get to Batavia myself.”
“No you won’t.”
He pressed a button on the bev unit. Imitation coffee gurgled forth. His back was to me but I was certain he was grinning. A scream rose inside my chest.
“Why not?” I said.
“It’s off the maps.”
“What the fuck for?”
“That’s their business. Corporate espionage, maybe? These farming nonprofits can be pretty cutthroat.”
“Then get a pad of paper and write the coordinates down.”
He sipped his coffee and smiled like it tasted real. I really, really hated how much fun he was having.
“I can’t,” he said.
“I’ll make you another omelette if you’ll just stop being a pain in the ass.”
“It’s not my call, Greg. I don’t have the coordinates. I mean, I do, but they’re sealed until I complete my last delivery. And—”
“And when it comes to your non-prof overlords, you’re not willing to fuck around.”
“Bingo. You can ride with us as long as you like. Just let me know where to drop you off.”
I sighed through gritted teeth.
“Is there a data unit I can use?”
“You’re not going to find Batavia.”
“It won’t hurt you if I try.”
“There’s one in the lounge, but that’s Lennox’s space.”
“I won’t bother her.”
“You’ve never met anyone you didn’t bother. When she’s not in there, you’re welcome to it. But when she’s studying, stay out, or I’ll lock you in your cabin until we reach the next port, at which point I’ll have you arrested as a stowaway. I hope that’s clear.”
“Good. Oh, and if you’re making them, another omelette sounds divine.”
“Bring it to me in the cockpit. The E-Gate calls.”
He spun on his heels and was gone. When the door slid shut I slammed my skillet down onto the grill top. It rattled my wrist and achieved nothing else.
“You fucker,” I snarled, and I made his omelette. It was still perfect—I have my pride, okay?—but I didn’t give him any four types of herbs.
This time it was just basil.
That’d show him.
Falk spent the morning in the cockpit, navigating his precious seeds toward the E-Gate. I passed the time pacing the hallway, waiting for Lennox to vacate the lounge. Every time I glanced in there, she was sprawled across the couch, flipping through a book or dancing or singing songs whose words I didn’t care to hear. When the flat voice of Jupiter control crackled over the comm to say we were next in line for departure, my patience broke. I’d heeded Falk’s instructions for most of a morning—could he really ask for more?
The lounge had low ceilings, murky yellow carpets, and a stench of bleach and mold. Lennox was upside down on the couch when I came in. Her eyes followed me across the floor.
“Are you supposed to be in here?” she said.
“Pretend I’m not. You just go back to...whatever it is you do.”
The data unit was perched on a blue plastic desk that was barely half a meter off the floor. It was covered in stickers—shooting stars, nebulae, first gen colony ships. I wedged myself into the seat, hunched my shoulders, and turned it on. I was greeted by a stern looking cartoon teacher popped up on the screen, wearing a sash that said, “Sister Security.”
“Good morning Lennox!” she said. “What is the third largest city on Fourth Rochelle?”
“What?” I said.
Fourth Rochelle was a colony world. A backwater to the backwaters—I’d never even played a show there. I couldn’t name a single city on the rock, much less three. I was running my hands along the sides of the unit, looking for a seam to pop so that I could euthanize Sister Security, when Lennox jabbed a finger into my ribs.
“Don’t you know?” she said. “It’s an easy one.”
“Of course I do. Do you?”
She could tell I was lying but didn’t call me out on it. What a good kid. Instead she leaned past me and, with utmost care, pecked out the answer.
H - A - R - R - I - S - O - N.
Sister Security gave a warm nod and mercifully disappeared. I booted up the star atlas. Lennox hovered above my shoulder, whispering along as I typed—“B - A - T...” When I’d finished, she scowled.
“There’s no planet called Batavia.”
“Sure there is. It’s our last stop.”
“I don’t know about that. We’re visiting fourteen systems, okay? It’s going to take two months and our first stop is Kingsley I, which is boring because it only has one continent and one city and they don’t grow anything but Whorn.”
I tried so, so hard not to ask the next question, but there was simply no keeping it back.
“What is Whorn?”
“A corn-wheat hybrid. People like to eat it but I don’t like talking about it, okay?”
I pressed EXECUTE. After a long moment, the search returned: “NULL.”
“I must have spelled it wrong,” I said.
“Spell it however you want. There’s three hundred and forty-three settled planets in the near and far spreads. None of them start with BAT. Everybody knows that.”
“Nobody knows that.”
She shrugged. It was devastating.
“I’m into astrography,” she said.
She pulled a stack of books out from the shelf beside the data unit. They were thick. Some were colorful, childish—Your Changing Solar System, Miko Visits the Near Spread—but most were oppressively adult. At the bottom of the stack was a coffee-stained, dog-eared copy of the Ship’s Nav Book (Standard Edition). The cover showed a slender figure in a space suit floating free of their craft, reaching an arm towards the stars. Unless my memory was faulty—which it generally is—it was the same copy Falk and I had used on the Miranda, an eon or two before.
“Heavy reading,” I said.
“It’s the only thing I like. I used to be into dinosaurs, but astrography is way better.”
“Nothing new is ever going to happen with dinosaurs. Astrography is the future. You know what infinite means? It goes on forever.”
“A lot of people find that terrifying.”
“A lot of people are dumb. Dad says he won’t teach me to navigate until I can handle calculus, and that’s not any time soon. So until then I’m trying to learn as much as I can for when I’ve got a ship of my own.”
I’d have thought it would be strange to hear Falk referred to as Dad. But no, it fit.
“So why don’t you go read your books?” I said. “I have work to do.”
She took her stack to the low couch that ran the length of the room. She spread the books around, tucked her legs, opened the old Nav Book and started to sing.
“I’m Lisbeth N65 and my continents are sevenly. There’s Picca and there’s Dohm and the Northern Island’s heavenly. Loretta’s in the southern hemisphere and Johns is down there toooooo, Ice Sheet’s on the northern pole and the last one is named Newwwwwwwwww...Pittsburgh.”
It went on like that, a tuneless survey of worlds I’d never heard of and prayed I’d never have to visit. After three or four I realized she was going in alphabetical order—Lisbeth to Lerrington to Lurp. It’d take a week before she reached Zanzitella and then she’d probably go right back to the top. I tried to tune her out. It would have been easier to ignore a cracked molar. She was very, very loud.
I tried searching for the NHI. I learned that it had been founded by a woman with the unlikely name of Cinderella Houghton-Cobb. I learned that it did, well, non-prof stuff.
“Originally headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, the NHI relocated to the corporate planet of Batavia in the wake of the disaster at Osala in order to better oversee relief efforts for the few colonists who survived. Since then, they have extended their work to assist farmers in ninety-eight of the settled systems, providing agricultural equipment, support, and materials.”
It went on like that, saying nothing but boring me close to tears. Most of the proper nouns linked to articles of their own and I followed them doggedly, learning about the state capital in Des Moines and the disputed death toll at Osala and more about tractors than any sane man should know. The only one that didn’t link anywhere was the one I cared about.
Lennox was right. No matter how I spelled it, how I searched, there was nothing there.
I glanced down the hallway. No sign of Falk. It would be safest to get out before I got caught, but I didn’t know when I’d have access to the lounge again.
“Can I flip through one of your books?” I asked her.
“Uh, I guess.”
She nudged over Your Changing Solar System.
“I was thinking one of the grown up books.”
“You can have the grown-up books when you’re done.”
Her tone made it clear that there was no use arguing, so I flipped through Your Changing Solar System. It wasn’t helpful, but the pictures were nice, and it was a lot more fun than bashing my head against the data unit. When I’d finished it, she allowed me access to her more adult texts. I spent half an hour poring over them, my aging eyes straining to read font that was criminally small. For my trouble I acquired a piercing headache and nothing else. When I was certain there was nothing left, I asked if I could borrow the Nav Book.
“When I’m done with my song,” she said.
“How long will that be?”
“One hundred and sixty-two planets to go.”
The ship lurched. We were in position to enter the gate. Time was nearly up.
I squeezed the back of my neck. My temples screamed.
“I think I’ll get a drink of water. Are you thirsty?”
“Most of the time.”
I stacked her books neatly on the table. When I left the cabin, she had smeared them across the couch.
I hadn’t been lying to the girl. I really was thirsty. But to reach the galley I had to walk the length of the living quarters, which meant passing all the bedrooms, the toilet, and the glorified storage closet that served as Falk’s office.
Why not have a look around?
The man is literally in the process of saving my life—
So fucking what? You can’t run forever, Greg. You need a destination. A plan.
I need him to trust me.
After what that bastard did to you on Lauriston Station, what does it matter what he thinks?
It just does, okay?
The voice sighed. I must have really been getting on its nerves. I don’t think it had ever sighed before.
Just what do you think I am?
Doubt. Fear. Self-sabotage. A general pain in the ass.
I’m the little part of you that always speaks the truth. Even when it’s ugly. Even when it hurts. When you’re on stage and I tell you your act is shit, it’s not because I’m trying to hurt your precious little feelings. It’s because I know you can do better. And right now, Gregor, I am telling you that unless you want to die, you need to open that fucking door.
I looked down. My hand was already on the handle. I nudged it. It gave.
Ah well, I thought. If he hadn’t wanted people to snoop he should have locked the door.
There was not much there. A cheap metal desk painted institution green was wedged underneath a porthole so thick it warped the stars. On it I saw a radio, a tidy pile of star charts, a bare notepad and fountain pen, and foolscap copies of the forms he’d had to sign to leave Katzen. There was a safe which I probably should have left alone, but which opened so easily, I don’t see how I could have resisted. A wave of guilt surged over me as its door swung loose, but I whispered the word, “Lauriston” and it washed away.
Inside I found a rubber-banded wad of Falk’s personal documents—birth certificate, Naval discharge, passport, captain’s license. There was nothing for Lennox, but there was a neatly-kept ledger which showed that Falk was in debt to the tune of $347,919.48 in new bucks—the remaining mortgage on the 909.
The promised payment from NHI was $347,919.48.
I put the ledger back. There was only one thing left in the safe—a packet stamped with the logo of the NHI.
“Open Upon Completion of Final Delivery,” it said. “Captain’s Eyes Only.”
I turned it in my hand, thinking of the girl back there with her heap of star atlases and the man in the cockpit whom I’d tricked into saving my life. The guilt came back, stronger this time, and no matter how hard I tried to conjure up the past it would not go away.
I traced the wax seal with the tip of my fingernail.
Open it now.
The radio on Falk’s desk crackled to life.
“Jupiter calling, this is Jupiter calling,” came a voice both officious and bored. “HF909?”
“Here. Captain Yoshi Falk speaking.”
“Hey there. You’re carrying?”
There was a staticky pause, then a pair of little beeps. Jupiter grunted. Jupiter coughed. At last, they said, “Proceed to the E-Gate, HF909. You’re cleared.”
The impulse engines kicked in and the entire ship gave a pleasant shake. I slid Falk’s orders back into the safe. I locked it and slipped back into the hallway.
You’re a useless piece of shit, Galaxy Greg.
Yeah, but once in a while I make the honorable choice.
And that’s gonna get you killed.
My cabin was a dull gray box. Most people would have sneered at it, but it was cleaner than my apartment and smelled better, too. As we plunged through E-Space, I rooted around in my pockets in search of some kind of decoration. I found the crumpled remains of the handbill advertising K’s show at the signature. The peppermint smell was faint, but it was still there.
I smeared it flat and taped it to the ceiling above my bunk. K’s eyes locked on mine. Her mouth parted. For a moment I thought she was about to say something meaningful, but her message was locked in.
“Tonight Only! The Signature Ballroom! K the Magician Presents Real Magic! Real Wonder! Real Thrills! Shows at 6, 9, and 12! No Latecomers Allowed!”
The lights went off. K repeated her message. I snuggled up against the fabrifiber, her words forming a kind of white noise as I searched for sleep.
I’m sorry you’re dead, I thought. It won’t make a difference, but I’m going to find out why.
It did not take long to slip into a routine. The ship’s lights flared on at 0500. Falk and Lennox expected breakfast no later than 0530. Falk was content with omelettes, scrambles, benedicts—basically anything that came out of a chicken. Lennox’s tastes were narrow. Sugary cereal, buttered toast, peanut butter, a bit of canned fruit. I was quite unimpressed with her palette until I noticed that she ate exactly like me.
Once breakfast had been disposed of, Falk busied himself with the ship, which meant a lot of walking around with a clipboard and scowling at the walls. I’m not certain he was actually doing anything. It seemed far more likely that he was keeping an eye on me.
While he fiddled with the ship, Lennox attended school. At least, that’s what she and Falk called it. Based on what I observed through the hatch, she just spent all morning lying around the lounge, listening to endless tapes of a woman with a drowsifying voice she called Andromeda whispering the names of the colonies, their stars, their continents, their exports, their moons.
“Streon N3M1,” she’d murmur, and Lennox would nod in approval. “Population at last census: 10,349,831. Climate rating: B-1. Settled areas: nineteen, with seven of these spread across the northern archipelago Saporit, location of the spaceport.”
Dull stuff, but a lot more pleasant than the voice in my head.
While the woman delivered her monologues, Lennox followed along in her nav book or traced the connections of the E-Gates on a drawing pad or unrolled a carpet-sized map of the stars and simply stared at it and dreamed. And as long as she was at school and Falk was watching me, I couldn’t go anywhere near the data unit without risking censure.
So I waited until Kingsley to try anything. When the cargo hatch shuddered open and Falk left to oversee the delivery, I slipped into the lounge, gave Lennox a friendly nod, and settled in at the terminal.
“You again,” she said.
“Shhh. You’re gonnna miss school.”
Her eyes went wide and she rushed back to the speaker where Andromeda was mid-drone.
“Gacemia. A fishing colony on a planet whose inhabitable landmass is less than the principality of California. It has sixteen named oceans. In alphabetical order they are Fidelity, Honeywell, Knight’s Crossing, Laramie...”
The data unit groaned to life. I tried to figure how long I’d have before Falk was done. It would take at least an hour for him to get the stevedore units working. To be safe, I’d need to be out of here in forty-five. I answered the security question and was just confronting the specter of the blinking green cursor when Lennox tapped me on the elbow.
“Which of Gacemia’s seas is your favorite?” she said.
“I don’t know.”
“You have to pick one.”
I stared at her. Her green curls were growing out, leaving behind a tangle of pale brown. Her eyes were volcanic rock.
“Where did you come from?” I said.
“I mean where did your daddy get you? Are you his biological child or—you probably have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
“I know what you’re talking about. You’re asking if I’m adopted.”
“That is very rude.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. I’ll just get back to work and—”
She climbed onto my desk, sitting on my keyboard and typing “jjjkllj” with her butt. Her legs dangled, unkempt toenails tapping against my knees.
“My parents are dead,” she said. “They were colonists at Allens Lane, which had a population of 846,000 and whose main exports were cotton, rubber, and canned fruit. Do you know what happened at Allens Lane?”
I nodded. Even if I was fuzzy on the particulars I could fill them in. I figured it was a lot like what had happened at Osala. Falk had a soft spot for any colony that was put to the sword.
“So Falk adopted you—”
“Five years ago. I don’t remember it but that’s when it was.”
“And as long as you remember, he’s been doing this kind of work? Hauling seeds for the NHI?”
“I think this is his first job for them. He’s very excited about it. He says it’s going to, ‘turn things around.’ Now why is Fidelity your favorite of Gacemia’s named seas?”
I almost laughed, but I swallowed it when I saw how serious she was. I stroked my chin and stared at the wall and said, with great gravity, “Because Fidelity is a beautiful thing.”
“That’s a boring reason. But okay. Now which of Gacemia’s—”
“Wait. Before you ask me another question, can I work for twenty minutes?”
“You can work for ten.”
And that’s just what I did. She hopped off the keyboard, I deleted what her butt had written, and I searched for information about K. The trades contained no notices about the show at the Signature or her stint on Batavia. In fact, there was no record that she’d ever performed anywhere at all. I varied my spelling, looking for Kay and Keigh and Khei and Cay, and turned up nothing that could possible relate to her. So the stage name was a new one. Who, I wondered, had she been before?
Lennox returned to my elbow.
“What do you think is the average salinity of Gacemia’s sixteen named seas?”
“I have no idea.”
“You still have to guess.”
So I guessed and I was wrong and, mercifully, she agreed to give me another ten minutes alone. I quit banging my head against the public databases and turned to someplace more familiar: the stinking pit of gossip and invective known as Entertainers Chat. I logged in anonymously and scrolled quickly through the last few days of blather, skimming arguments about colonial booking practices, the death of the Starlight Circuit, the latest update to MEL’s firmware, and which cruise line was most likely to be afflicted with bedbugs. (Correct answer: all of them.) I searched for K and found more nothing, so I did something no sane person should ever do, and searched for my own name.
“Galaxy Greg, fucking twat, I’m sure he did it...”
“...deserves a death sentence for that suit alone...”
“...too stupid to just sit still and let them execute him...”
“...can’t hold a candle to his first mother...”
“...caught his act last year and, okay, it was pretty good but the guy is still an asshole...”
“...hope he fries...”
“...cut his fucking head off...”
“...couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
It turned my stomach but I forced my way through it. The voice was chuckling the entire time. I’d felt disconnected from my peers for a year or two, or five or ten. I’d thought it was my imagination. There was a grim satisfaction in knowing that, no, they really did hate my stupid face.
Towards the end of the search results, I found a long post by RoguesProgress, a particularly hapless juggler who once beat the shit out of me when I was thirteen.
“You guys know Jude Pritchard?” she wrote. “I was cooling my heels at Jupiter transfer, waiting for the next shuttle down to Europa, when she barged into the entertainer’s union lounge and started screaming for Galaxy Greg. I don’t know if she was drunk or stoned or what but she was a fucking mess. Blood on her face, eyes twitching, slurring, it was bad.”
“What did you say to her?” someone asked.
“You nuts? I kept my head down. Bitch can shoot a hole in a silver dollar from one hundred meters away and she waving that shotgun like she wanted to use it.”
“Where’d she go next?”
“Into the E-Gate. Said she’d find him among the stars.”
My mouth was dry. I read the post twice, first fast and then slow, and was confronting the ugly fact that I probably should have drowned her in the toilet on Katzen when the timer inside Lennox’s head went off and she tapped me on the elbow again.
“Third question,” she said.
“First I’ve got a question for you.”
“I hope it’s not very rude.”
“It’s about astrography.”
For the first time since we’d met, she smiled at me. It filled me with embarrassing satisfaction—like I’d just landed a trick before a particularly hard-to-please crowd.
“If you were going to hide a planet,” I said, “where would you put it?”
“In a black hole?”
“That’s a good thought. But it’d need to be someplace you could visit whenever you needed.”
Lennox shut off Andromeda. She bent double, wrapped her hands around her calves, and tumbled forward onto the floor, then sprang up and did the whole routine twice more. I said nothing. I know better than to interrupt a girl when she’s thinking. Finally she shoved the floor clean and kicked her star map until it unfurled.
“There are black spots,” she said. “See?”
She traced a finger along the E-Gate lane that connected Carpentier and an uninhabited system named HPC 102. Precisely in the middle, the line broke, leaving a space that was just big enough for a star.
“It could be a misprint,” I said, speaking softly, knowing I was on her turf now.
“Could be. This map has mistakes. The name of the Willlson system is missing the third L, and three of the twin stars are marked as singles. But the black spots. I don’t know.”
“There are more?”
“I’ve found nineteen.” She danced across the map, poking her toe onto every gap in every E-Gate lane. “I don’t see a pattern. Do you?”
I shook my head. Sixty minutes had gone. I hadn’t heard the cargo doors close. It didn’t feel like Falk was back on the ship.
“Can I borrow a piece of paper?” I said.
She carefully tore a sheet of wide-lined paper from her notebook. She handed me a green crayon and I got to work, copying down the coordinates for every black spot on the map.
00147 65482 55478 33201
32984 56987 21457 63217
55684 22338 45257 62994
65321 22479 66321 20047
99874 30142 00479 63680
Well, you get the idea. I’m sure it doesn’t make very interesting reading, and it would have been pretty dull writing as well if it weren’t for the thud of my heart against my ribs, the certainty that every creak of the ship was Falk coming down the hall.
My hand was cramping and the crayon was past dull when I scrawled out the last of them. I handed the crayon to Lennox. She smiled bigger than a crayon seemed to deserve.
“What’s the good news?” I said.
“How can you tell?”
“Can’t you hear him? He’s coming up the ladder now.”
I took one step towards the hatch. Lennox’s hand closed on my wrist. She was either uncommonly strong for a six-year-old or fear had made me weak.
“Stay,” she said.
“I have to go to the kitchen.”
“Can we do more questions later?”
“The next time we’re in port.”
She got out of my way. I leapt over the star map and stumbled into the hallway. I was halfway to the kitchen when the hatch to the hold thudded open and Falk’s head poked through. My eyes were dry and my neck was sopping but if he saw my fear he didn’t let on.
“Hey Greg,” he said, his voice so easy, he might have been lying in a hammock.
“Oh yeah. Everything went smooth.”
I gave a frantic smile and stepped over the hatch.
His hand brushed against me. It felt like I’d stepped in a bear trap.
“I’ve been meaning to ask,” he said.
“What happened to your cuff links?”
I glanced down at the gap in my sleeves where my magnetokines had lived. For a moment I couldn’t comprehend their absence, and then I remembered how I’d blown them to shit. I dug them out of my pocket. Falk nodded, almost impressed by how badly I had wrecked them.
“Maybe there’s something I can do about them,” he said. “Do you mind?”
I shook my head and he dropped them into his pocket. I made for the galley. Behind me, Lennox called to her daddy and he answered and neither of them said anything about me. I threw myself into the galley, slumped against the oven and fought back the urge to cry.
That night in my cabin I found a small package on my pillow. Inside were my cuff links, fully repaired and gleaming like new. There was a note in Falk’s handwriting.
“Did the best I could but the innards were pretty fried. These will work for whatever you need, but don’t push them above 10%, okay?”
I slid them back into the cuffs of my shirt and felt, for the first time in weeks, like Galaxy Greg. I hated that he was the one who’d let me feel that way, but I kind of liked it, too. It was getting harder to hate him. In a week of terrible frights, that might have been the scariest thing.
We saw other worlds.
Dawson, Pechin, Lamonte, Gates—planets that toiled to keep Earth fed—all of which, Lennox informed me sourly, were as boring as Kingsley. We refueled at Greene, which she called “a failed terraforming experiment,” whose endless deserts were patrolled by the planet’s only surviving native species: a massive crab like creature that dragged itself across the dunes with its single bleached claw. We visited Righter, the planet of crystalline rain, which she said was like regular rain but sharper.
I’d thought the 909 would be a refuge, but with every jump I felt the walls closing tighter. I slept little. I ate less. My quarters were smack in the middle of the living area, so every time Falk opened a hatch or Lennox thundered down the hallway, I was certain it was Jude getting ready to blow one hole through the bulkhead and another through my chest. I grew skinny and irritable and hopeless, but I taught myself to make soufflés, so it wasn’t a total waste.
Every time I stepped into my cabin, K’s handbill promised me real magic, real wonder, real thrills. The words seeped into me like ink on white linen. They left me wanting what she’d promised more than ever. They even touched the voice, whose comments grew gentler, even encouraging.
Whose speech began to sound like K.
Hang in there, Greg.
You’re doing okay.
Not great, admittedly.
This is a long road.
I don’t know where the fuck you’re going.
But you’ll get there.
You’ll clear your name.
Find my killer.
Learn to fly.
Or you won’t.
I mean you very likely won’t.
But that’s okay, too.
You’re doing okay.
I didn’t question the change. I’d only known K fifteen minutes, but her voice was a balm I couldn’t refuse.
When we were in flight I spent my time sleeping, cooking, and avoiding Falk. Every time I turned a corner, he was there, doing silent favors. If he saw me shivering, he’d tick the ship’s heat up a couple of degrees. When I ran out of olive oil, a fresh carton appeared beside the stove. The day I tore my starsuit on the galley stove, he slipped me needles and a spool of Ultra High Tensile New Steel thread—the same stuff he used to patch cracks in the hull.
This all sounds sweet, I realize, but he did it with disdain. Every little gesture was meant to remind me that he was putting up with me only because his kid demanded it. He rarely spoke except to give orders. He never really smiled. Being near him was like holding my hand to a hot iron, so I lived for those scant hours when he was in port and I could hunch over the data unit while Lennox quizzed me about systems I’d never heard of.
She was relentless, single-minded and annoying, and I found to my surprise that I had a sort of fun when she was around. I was charmed by the suddenness with which she could flip between staring grimly at her atlas and standing on her head screaming about how she needed to poop. I even began looking forward to astrography school, taking unexpected pride when I correctly answered questions like how many moons orbited Taryn II (six) and how many were considered fit for human settlement (two). It was a useless thing to know, but she liked me for it. It was the first time that anyone but Falk had ever liked me for something besides my work. It’s pathetic, I guess, in that moment it meant a hell of a lot.
At least her questions had answers. The only one I had—“Where the fuck is Batavia?”—seemed intent on driving me insane.
I spent two weeks staring at the coordinates I’d copied off the star map. I sorted and resorted them, broke them into pieces and piled them into one long string, attacked them with multiplication and division and math too senseless to have a name. As far as I could tell, they meant nothing at all.
I talked the data unit into giving me access to the ship’s nav library. I scrolled through thousands of sets of coordinates, squinting until my eyes burned, and found none that matched the blank spots. I devoured a book of Lennox’s called Impossible Expeditions!, which told of doomed voyages past the Redline. I read the final transmissions of ships martyred on the search for legendary planets like Conarroe, where the clouds rain gold, and Boone, where the dead do not die. This was more depressing than my usual reading, but I found myself enjoying it. Compared to these maniacs I came off moderately sane.
I was also doing better than Jude. I kept eyes on Entertainers Chat, where the gossips had mercifully forgotten about me. But every week or two Jude forced herself into the conversation. She beat the tar out of an elderly tap dancer at the Entertainers’ Union on Sunnyside because he was wearing a suit that looked like mine. She crashed a kids magic show at Kahn’s Point, took the performer by the neck and screamed “Greg!” until station security dragged her away. When she wasn’t violent she was melancholy, drinking herself stupid at every entertainer’s bar in the Near Spread. I tracked these sightings using Lennox’s map. Every time her name popped up, she was a little closer to me.
When that knowledge grew too terrifying, I calmed myself by skimming the public records on the NHI. There were thousands of pages, ranging from press releases about the progress towards a new type of super crop—“Whorn II: Now Whornier”—to the minutes of colonial council meetings at which NHI reps testified to their good intentions when coming to a new world. Deep in this pile of corporate blather, I found one item that made me sit a little straighter—a boilerplate announcement that the NHI had completed the purchase of theatrical booking agencies B.F. Blake, the Killian Sisters, and the Tripartite Pact.
Without anybody noticing, an agricultural nonprofit had bought up nearly every stage on the Starlight Circuit.
This meant something, probably, but I was too dumb to guess what. I’d have to find another way.
Our seventh stop was Kingsley II.
“It’s like Kingsley I,” Lennox told me as Falk guided the 909 into the clamps of the planet’s orbital platform.
“I thought you were going to say it’s like Kingsley I but...”
“No. It’s exactly like Kingsley I. The people who founded it liked Kingsley so much, they made another one. Just one continent. Just one city. Just a heck of a lot of Whorn.”
A trip to the viewport in the dining room confirmed her assessment. From our position on the satellite, Kingsley II hung over our heads like a ball of pale brown yarn. The people up there must lead the most boring lives imaginable, I thought. I wonder if they’re happier than me.
“It’s ugly,” said Lennox.
“It’s eighteen times the size of Earth but the population is only 78,914. 33% of that is mechanics. The planet is all auto-farmed. Andromeda says they use combine harvesters the size of an apartment block to do the farming stuff. That’s very super huge.”
The ship shook as the docking clamps gave a final squeeze. I spun around, intending to get back to the kitchen before Falk discovered us together.
But Falk was already here.
He leaned on the hatch, a flat expression on his face. There’s no way to describe his outfit except to say he was dressed like a pilot: loose leather jacket, long yellow scarf, black sunglasses, textured gloves—the whole thing. I’d like to say he looked like an asshole except he actually looked fabulous. Pilots are obnoxious like that.
Lennox ran to him and headbutted him in the pelvis—a greeting she’d lately found to be more fun than hugging. Falk’s eyes stayed locked on me.
“You’ve got school, kid,” he said.
“Get to it.”
She squeezed between his legs and thumped down the corridor. I still hadn’t gotten used to how much noise those little feet could make. I leaned on the table, waiting for Falk to scream. But when his voice came it was dagger quiet.
“Asked you to leave her alone,” he said.
“I was in here looking at the view and she just—”
I shut up. Falk tugged off his sunglasses. His eyes were red.
“You’ve been talking a lot, huh?”
“Not really, just—”
“Don’t lie. You’re bad at it.” He sighed. “I figured she’d be bothering you when I wasn’t around. Kid like that you can’t really hide from.”
“You’re not upset?”
“I’m extremely fucking upset. Lennox is the only thing I care about, you understand? She is the reason I exist. I will be there for her forever. You will not be. When you leave, if she’s attached to you, it’s going to be a nightmare.”
He rapped his fist on the table. Its vibration carried into my hand and up my arm and deep into my heart. He put his sunglasses back on.
“She’s got you in astrography school?” he said. “What’s the population of the fourth moon of Idontfuckingknow, that kinda thing?”
“I’m her star pupil.”
“Maybe that’s good. She doesn’t...she doesn’t talk to anybody else.”
His jaw dangled like there was more he needed to say. Instead, he blinked and shut his mouth and got out. I spent a few minutes watching Kingsley II inch its way across the sky, marveling that the galaxy held enough bellies to devour all that Whorn. As our cargo hatch groaned open and the fleet of stevedores rumbled inside, I found myself thinking stupid thoughts.
Thoughts of a universe without a death sentence hanging over my head.
A universe without Jude.
A universe where I could live where I pleased.
If you could go anywhere, anywhere in the cosmos—where would you go?
You’ve asked that before.
You haven’t answered.
Here, I guess. I would go here.
Pathetic, I know. So domestic, so predictable. But I assure you—it had nothing to do with Falk. Even when his armor was down, when he was in protective father mode, or goofy father mode, or—
None of that had made an impression. Falk meant nothing to me. But his kid was cool. Absolutely batty, of course, but clever and weird in the way that adults so rarely let themselves be.
She needed a friend.
So did I.
If you’re that attached to her—if she’s that attached to you...
I know, I know!
It’s time to disappear.
I went to my cabin to gather my belongings and remembered I didn’t have any. I checked my breast pocket for the only thing I owned of any value—the wrinkled scrap of paper on which she’d scrawled “GALAXY GREG.” I made for the hatch in the ship’s nose.
Each step was a knife in my heart, so I took them as quick as I could. Falk had been right—the kid was getting attached. The best that could come of that was heartbreak. The worst was, well—
Not something I could stand to contemplate.
He’d threatened to throw me off the ship if he caught me talking to Lennox. He didn’t have the nerve, so I’d throw myself out instead. It was the right thing to do. I could tell because it sucked.
The metal ladder that led to the nose was damp and rusty. It stained my palms orange. The passage narrowed and bent, so that I was crawling on my belly as I finally approached the exit. I was almost there when I heard Lennox scream—
“Gahh! This is impossible!”
She didn’t answer, so I climbed the last few meters and tumbled headfirst into the ship’s nose. It was a cramped compartment, utterly colorless except for the bright red text woven around the hatch—warnings about explosive bolts and threats to the ship’s warranty. The plastic on the control panel was yellow with age. A crate of expired ready meals perfumed the air with rot. Three moth-eaten space suits dangled from the wall like discarded skin. Lennox’s legs stuck out from behind the middle one. I nudged the suit aside.
“Don’t look at me,” she said.
She pressed her face to the grimy airlock door. She wore her favorite sweater—dark blue with comets—and her hair was piled on top of her head in two mismatched buns. She carried no bag.
“Packed pretty light for a girl who’s running away from home,” I said. She turned around. Her palms were streaked with rust. Her cheeks, too.
“I am not running away!” She stomped. A feeble sound. “I just wanted a quick look outside.”
“Are you kidding?”
“Open the hatch, please.”
I started to laugh—just couldn’t help myself—but I choked it off when I saw it was only making her more mad.
“You don’t really think I’m going to let you off the ship by yourself, do you?” I said. “Like, absolutely not.”
“Absolutely yes. I want to go. So I’m going.”
She said this like it would end the argument. And to be fair, I couldn’t think of any way to refute it. It’s the reason I wasn’t cut out to be a parent—if a kid said she needed something, I figured she was probably right.
“Let’s go down to the lounge and talk about it,” I said.
“Just for a little while.”
“You can listen to Andromeda, maybe finish that Moons of Lambeth coloring sheet you were working on?”
“No!” She took a deep breath. Her face went crimson. I thought she was going to start screaming, but as usual, I was wrong. When she spoke, it was hardly more than a whisper. “Daddy never lets me ashore. He says it isn’t safe.”
“I don’t care. We’ve crossed half the galaxy and I haven’t seen any of it. Ever since Katzen Station, I’ve been stuck on this ship.”
“So have I.”
“Yeah, but you...” she trailed off, then looked at me like she’d just noticed I was there. “Waitaminute. Why did you come up to the nose?”
Her eyes froze me. Whatever bullshit I offered her, I knew she would never bite.
“I was looking for you,” I said.
“So what? I’m still the grown-up, right? So let’s go back down to the lounge and we’ll wait for your dad and we’ll see which of us he believes.”
I started for the ladder. She didn’t move.
“I don’t care who the grown-up is,” she said. “You’re up to something.”
She ran the words together—uptosomething. Made it sound like a disease.
“You’re going to take me down to the lounge,” she said, “and then you’re going to leave us. That’s why you came.”
“And you don’t want Daddy to know, so you used the nose hatch. That makes sense.”
“This is ridiculous.”
And yeah, it was. Not just that I’d lost an argument to a child but that I couldn’t even use my size to make up for it. The passage we’d crawled through was too big for me to drag her down it. If I tried, we’d probably both get hurt. I had nothing on my side but useless little words.
“Let’s go. Now. I’m losing my patience.”
“Who cares? You open that hatch or I’m telling Daddy you’re uptosomething.”
“Not just coming up here. I was on my data unit this morning. Saw what you’ve been searching for. Bataviabataviabataviabatavia. You’re not supposed to be looking for that. If Daddy knew, he would be mad. A lot more mad, I bet, than if we took a little walk.”
“It’s my turn to be stubborn, Lennox. I don’t care how angry it makes your Daddy. I’m not doing anything that could get you hurt.”
“Then I’ll open it myself.”
She slapped the control panel with her entire palm. Nothing happened. She hit it again and again, the way I suppose she’d have liked to be hitting me. I twisted myself into an absurd crouch so that I could get a little closer to her.
“I don’t blame you for wanting to go outside,” I said. “I know how much you love the stars. A kid shouldn’t be cooped up—you deserve, hell, everything. When your dad gets back, I’ll talk to him.”
“He’ll say no.”
“Maybe he’ll listen to me.”
“He always says no.”
She slapped the control panel harder. Nothing happened. Even the rust stood still.
“Would you please just stop hitting that?” I said. “I don’t care how many times you smack that airlock, you’re not going to—”
The little room rumbled. Unseen gears groaned. Rust fell like snow. And then the hatch slid open. A faded orange emergency slide unfurled like a tongue all the way to the loading bay floor. Lennox didn’t even bother gloating. She gave me a single, smug look, threw herself through the hatch, and was gone.
She landed gracefully. I was not so lucky. I hit the deck shoulder first, finally coming to a stop right next to Lennox’s dingy white sneakers. I got to my feet as the 909 slurped up the slide and the airlock slammed shut. Lennox squeezed my hand and let out a gasp. I’d never seen her eyes so wide.
“That room is hugemongous,” she said.
She wasn’t wrong. The loading bay was the size of a small town. HF909 was a great lumbering beast—too long for me to even see its stern—but here were ships that made Falk’s freighter look like a cheap toy. Behind us, the stevedores streamed out of the hold, cobalt containers in tow. I couldn’t see Falk but I could feel him, and that had me very afraid.
“We have to go back,” I said.
“Please, Greg. We already broke the rule. Can’t we take a look around?”
Her eyes were big and wet. I knew she was manipulating me but that didn’t make it any less effective. I sagged, astonished that someone so small could be such a big problem.
“Fifteen minutes,” I said.
“Then we’d better run.”
And without even a readysetgo, she was off, weaving through stevedores and merchant sailors and customs agents in golden jumpsuits whose stun sticks crackled with silver fire. I kept up—I’m faster than a six-year-old, I swear—but didn’t catch her until she reached the food hall. To my eyes, it was a grim scene: ashen faced vendors slopping out plate after plate of Whornburgers, Whorn Vindaloo, Whorn Cakes, Whorn Patties, Cream of Whorn, Chilli Con Whorny, and Just Plain Whorn. But Lennox stared like it was the most wonderful feast she’d ever seen.
“They have Whorn ice cream,” she said. “Will you buy us some?”
“I don’t have any money.”
“Oh, okay. That’s fine. I just want to walk around and smell.”
We slipped into an ion lift and drifted, agonizingly slowly, to the cafeteria floor. As we negotiated the cramped spaces between stalls, my back tingled like it was expecting a bullet to the spine. The more crowded it got, the tighter Lennox clung to my hand. The stench of the food and the profane chatter of the vendors completely overwhelmed her. She said nothing, but she had her eyes and her nose and her mouth as wide as they could get, trying to swallow the place whole. I guided her through a quick circuit of the food hall. My mouth was dry and my heart was pounding and no matter how deeply I breathed, I could do nothing to stop panic’s rising tide.
I glanced up. The railing was thick with customs agents. It seemed impossible that so many of them had been there before.
“We have to go back to the ship.”
“Okay. But first...”
She pointed to the end of the cafeteria, where a glum marquee invited us to tour the Museum of Whorn. The glass doors were smoked, blocking whatever lay inside, but the banners advertising a new exhibit titled “Whorn, the Digestive Tract, & You!” did nothing to whet my appetite.
“Your fifteen minutes are up,” I said. “We’re going back to the ship.”
“Please. There might be a map in there.”
The sick thing is, I actually wanted to say yes. When I fought back my terror long enough to actually look at her, I saw that she had a smile so big it had swallowed her cheeks. Surely no one had ever been so excited at the prospect of the Museum of Whorn. Such blistering naiveté deserved a reward.
But it wasn’t possible. Not because of the clock or the customs agents, but because when the smoked glass doors of the museum slid open, her father was standing inside.
He was still wearing his sunglasses, his flight jacket, his scarf. He was the same man I’d watched fretting over his daughter in the 909’s dining room not thirty minutes before. But the paternal warmth that had colored his face was gone. He looked like the man I’d fallen in love with.
A smuggler, a killer, a thief.
And he was not alone.
Even from behind, I recognized his companion.
The limp bowl cut.
The NHI windbreaker.
Elwood Laabs was supposed to en route to Batavia—actually, fuck that, he was supposed to be dead—but the treacherous bastard was here.
I wanted to confront them. Get right in their faces and shriek and slap until they told me what was going on. But with Lennox there, it just wasn’t possible.
“We have to get back to the ship,” I said.
She didn’t argue. She’d seen her daddy and her hand was squeezing mine so tight that our palms had gone clammy. She didn’t say another word until we got back to the loading bay and scampered through the 909’s main hatch.
“That was fun,” she said. “I don’t think we should do it again.”
Once Lennox had been safely entrusted to Andromeda’s care, I staggered into the hallway, leaned against the bulkhead, and fought off the urge to slump into a ball on the floor. Whatever nightmare was swirling around me, Falk was involved. I had to know which side he was on before I could leave him behind.
I slipped into his office. Kingsley II gleamed bright brown through the porthole. I tore open the safe and wrapped my hand around the NHI packet that held his secret orders. In one smooth motion, I shredded the edge of the envelope and tugged out the thick sheaf of paper.
I slid my finger under the paper seal and ripped it off. I thumbed through the papers. There must have been twenty-five, thirty sheets.
The top one was blank.
The second one, too.
So were all the others. Totally blank except for the NHI watermark and the faintest stench of peppermint cologne.
So when Falk got back, I was still on the ship. There was no question of running any more. Our next stop was Salaignac, a week away. I spent the whole time watching Falk. Peeked through the gap in the galley door to watch him chew. Lingered in my doorway as he inspected the hallway lighting rig. Dropped by the cockpit while he was maneuvering us through turbulence in the E-Lane and admired the easy way he glided the mammoth ship across the storm. I saw no sign of Falk the smuggler. Except for when Lennox made him smile, his expression was always the same.
His shoulders were stiff. His neck, too—it seemed sometimes that it was easier for him to rotate his whole body than turn his head.
There was no reason to assume Falk knew what Laabs was doing. His orders were blank, his debt overwhelming. It made perfect sense for him to simply be a pawn in Laabs’ baroque scheme. But Falk had been the most cunning rogue in the galaxy. There was every possibility that Laabs was working for him.
The week wore on. Useless suspicion continued rattling around my brain. I needed time for to search the ship, to find something that explained his link to Laabs. It was only when Lennox gave me a preview of our next stop that I put together anything approximating a plan.
“Did you know Salaignac has even more oceans than Gacemia?”
“Nobody knows that except for you.”
Not quite bothering to conceal her pride, she continued her recitation, the Nav Book folded behind her back.
“It’s a fishing planet. No farming, no Whorn. Daddy’s only here to refuel and I think he has a meeting with some of the monks?”
“There are monks?”
“3,482 of them. They all have long hair and ugly robes and they drink something called salt wine, which sounds salty.”
An oily little idea writhed across my brain.
“And what about the oceans?” I said.
“Well, it’s sort of one big ocean or 44 smaller ones. It depends on who you ask. They’re purple. Can you believe that? Purple! The smaller ones are named—”
“Have you ever swam in the ocean before?”
Lennox tripped over the question like a horse falling down the stairs. She was quiet for a long time, surveying the great sweep of her life, and finally scowled.
“I think that’s something we should change. You did such a good job on Kingsley II—”
“We should not talk about that—”
“And I think you deserve a trip to the surface.”
We found Falk in the cockpit. He’d swiveled over to the nav station and was working his way through a stack of docking paperwork, his head leaned against the peeling wood panels on the wall. He smiled when he saw Lennox. He stopped when he saw me.
“What’s up?” he said, his voice caught uneasily between stern employer and loving dad.
“44 purple oceans,” I said.
“Purple!” said Lennox.
Falk’s gaze shifted between us. He looked like a man who wasn’t getting a joke but was pretty sure it was being told at his expense.
“Salaignac’s got 44 purple oceans,” I said.
“Or one big one,” said Lennox. “Depending on who you ask.”
“And we think Lennox deserves to take a dip.”
He shoved his chair into the center of the room. His posture, somehow, grew even straighter. He did not look like a man who liked my idea.
“We’re here to refuel. We’re staying in orbit, 500 kilometers above any purple sea.”
“I thought you were going to see the monks,” said Lennox. Her inflection was even more precise than normal, her tone as flat as water before a storm.
“I said I was thinking about it. But we’ve got a schedule. Have to keep moving.”
He was crouching before her now, hand on her shoulder, eyes locked on hers.
“There are shuttles to the surface every hour,” said Lennox.
“It’s just not possible,” said Falk.
“That’s what you say. But I want to swim in the purple sea.”
Falk sighed. He closed his eyes.
“Okay, baby. We’ll go for an hour or two.”
She squealed and hugged him and kissed him and squealed some more, then bolted through my legs and out the hatch. Falk stayed crouched, eyes and mouth squeezed tight, then stood up and got so close to me that I could feel the heat pouring through his flight shirt.
“Undermine me in front of my kid again,” he said, “and I won’t wait until the next station to kick you off. I’ll put you out the fucking airlock.”
His stubble looked soft. I’d have liked to run my hand across it. I tucked my hands into my pockets to suppress the urge.
“The girl’s been all over the universe and hasn’t seen any of it,” I said. “She really does deserve to swim.”
He got a look on his face like he was trying to decide if he’d rather hit me in the stomach or the jaw. Before he could make up his mind, Lennox screamed from the hallway, “Daddy!”
“Yes hon?” answered Falk, still staring death at me.
“I can’t find my swimsuit!”
“I’ll come help.”
I stepped aside. He squeezed past me. As suspicious as I was of him, I’m not going to pretend I didn’t enjoy the way his body pushed against mine.
“You’re not coming,” he said.
“Of course not. I was gonna trim my nails, polish my shoes, maybe—”
“Greg, I don’t care what you do. Understand that? Whatever you’re up to. I don’t fucking care.”
His words knocked out whatever pep I had left. I slunk back to my cabin, trying to ignore the thousand different things he made me feel, and stayed there as he guided us into Salaignac station. The refueling pumps shook the ship. I heard Falk and Lennox exit through the main hatch. I waited fifteen agonizing minutes. When I saw the shuttle from Salaignac station begin its long fall toward the purple ball below, I bounded out of bed.
I’d hoped that being alone on the ship would lessen my nerves, but the silence just made it easier for my brain to scream—
Falk will get you killed. Falk will get you killed.
Theoretically, I was barred from entering any part of the ship besides my cabin, the shared living spaces, the kitchen and the food store. But it was only the computerized door locks that kept me out of the ship’s private areas, and I’ve been charming computers since I was a child. A few whispered nothings, and every door opened for me.
I picked over the cockpit, taking care not to accidentally jettison the engines or initiate self-destruct. The little room smelled impossibly of Falk. His hair oil had gotten into the leather headrest; the joysticks shone with the sweat of his palms. In the cabinet above the nav console I found a first aid kit, a dog-eared set of star charts that Lennox had somehow failed to requisition and a series of ship’s user manuals as thick as my thigh. There was a little notebook which Falk used for a ship’s log, but it contained nothing but the dates we’d arrived at each port. Inside was a folded cargo manifest that just said, “SEEDS.”
On the Miranda, Falk hollowed out a space underneath the flight console to store a pistol, stim pills, an emergency store of pornography, and anything else a smuggler might need in a hurry. He’d done the same on the 909, but there was nothing interesting there—the same old pistol, well-greased and fully loaded, and a stash of noxious Leepers Creepers Chocolate Mints, his most secret vice. I popped one of them, closed the compartment and left the cockpit behind.
His cabin held no surprises—save that his waist size had not changed since we were in our early 20s and he was still wearing the same wool socks. He had a bookshelf full of third-rate detective fiction and a dopp kit whose only indulgence was a cake of shaving soap stamped with the logo of the Kingsley pilots club. It was cinnamon scented. It smelled like his neck and it made my heart race. I set it aside.
Don’t let him make a fool of you.
Way too late for that.
He doesn’t fucking care about you.
So don’t waste a second on him.
I paused outside of Lennox’s cabin. I was her star pupil. She trusted me and that trust was just about the only valuable thing I had left. But whatever Falk had done had put my life at risk.
Maybe her life too.
Her cabin was bare. There were no posters, no toys, no decoration save for a star mural that filled the ceiling and spilled down the sides of the walls. Her bed was so professionally made that it was hard to believe a child had ever slept in it. The room smelled of nothing at all. I gave the place a once over, flicking open her dresser and squirming my arm under her mattress. There wasn’t even dust. When I was done, I remade the bed as tightly as my first mother taught me long ago. I pulled a quarter out of thin air, flicked it at the linen and caught it on the bounce. Perfect, Greg, as always.
After that, there was nowhere to look but the hold.
Of course that’s where this had been leading. Laabs had something nasty stored in those cobalt containers. He’d killed K to keep the secret and was using Falk to distribute them across the near spread. Or Falk had ripped off a shipment of something-or-other and K had made the mistake of getting in the way. Or he was at the center of a vast conspiracy to steal magicians’ secrets or...
Or maybe I should just open the damn things and see what’s inside.
The entrance to the 909’s vast belly was three levels below the living quarters and the temperature dropped with every one. By the time I reached the last door, I could see my breath and I was really starting to wish I’d stolen a pair of Falk’s wool socks.
The hold was bolted. Gimlet cut through it without trouble and the door swung open to reveal stacks of cobalt containers, all stamped NHI. I squatted before the tank nearest the door and tried to open its lid. Naturally, it was locked too. I asked Gimlet to break the seal, but despite a shower of white sparks, the lock did not give.
I craned my neck. Crates stretched up higher than I could see. I wondered—if I shoved the top one off, would it break open when it hit the floor?
Worth a shot.
Of course, if Falk was toting nuclear devices or chemical weapons or something in the gunpowder family, this would be a pretty poor decision, but sometimes a fellow has to try.
I flexed my hands and started the climb. I was ten meters off the ground when the lights flared and a voice called from the deck:
“God damn it, Greg.”
It was Falk. And I could tell by his tone that he had a gun in his hand. A glance over my shoulder showed I was right. It was a small automatic rifle, barely longer than his arm but plenty big enough to kill. He had an expression that suggested that while he didn’t particularly want to shoot me, it wouldn’t bother him much. His sunglasses were still on.
“I thought you were going swimming,” I said.
“Lennox got scared on the shuttle. She asked me to take her home.”
“Running around the lounge yelling along with Andromeda.”
“So if you fire that gun—”
“She won’t hear. Climb down slowly. I’d hate for you to fall.”
I did what he said—that’s how guns work, isn’t it?—and in no time he had me backed up against the tower of crates. Breath steamed out of his nose, giving him the appearance of a very irritated bull.
“The fuck are you doing?” he said.
“I lost my glasses.”
“You don’t wear glasses.”
“Well that explains why I couldn’t find them. I’ll see you at breakfast. Goodbye.”
I tried to walk past him. He prodded me in the stomach with the rifle. I returned to my spot in front of the gun.
“Are you gonna make me ask you again?” he said.
“I wanted to know what you’re up to.”
“What you’ve got to do with Elwood Laabs.”
I couldn’t see his eyes through his sunglasses, but I felt like he was squinting.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“The man you met at Kingsley II.”
He took a step closer to me. The rifle nestled against my stomach. I could feel my organs scrambling to get out of the way.
“What were you doing on Kingsley II?” he said.
“What’s important here is—”
He cracked the rifle across my chin. I tried not to let him see how much it hurt.
“You were supposed to be with Lennox on the ship,” he said. “Did you leave her here to follow me? Or, sweet fuck, did you take her ashore?”
I kept my mouth shut, expecting him to hit me again. Instead he stepped back. For a moment, he took his eyes off me. The rifle drifted away.
“I’m not even going to waste time explaining what a piece of shit you are,” he said. “You’ve got two options, okay? Here’s number one. I shoot you in the chest and shove your body out the airlock and nobody in the universe ever wonders what happened to Galaxy Greg.”
“I don’t like that option.”
“So here’s number two. This is the nice one—the one I’m giving because my kid who doesn’t like anybody seems to like you. I put you ashore.”
“There’s no time. We’re scheduled for departure in fifteen minutes and I’m keeping this schedule if it kills me. You stay in your cabin until we make the next port. That means in your cabin—as in, poke your head out and I blow it off. When we dock, you leave the ship and don’t come back. Not one word to Lennox or I’ll tell her what a treacherous bastard you really are.”
“And I bet you’ll kill me, too.”
“Yes. I’d forgotten that part. Say one word to her and we’re right back to option one.”
“It’s not much of a choice, is it?”
“Will you tell me what you were doing with the man on Kingsley II?”
“He’s the NHI rep at that station. A functionary. I needed his signature on a couple of documents. I don’t even know his name.”
“Are you really hauling seeds?”
“What else would I be hauling?”
“Have you looked inside?”
“They’re sealed for a reason. I’ve got a lot to lose here, Greg. That means I’m smart enough not to pry.” He took a long breath. His face softened. “I don’t feel good about this, okay?”
“Neither do I.”
“If it were just me, maybe things would have been different.”
“She’s all I have.”
I eyed his rifle. He’d let it drift again. If I flung myself at him there was a good chance the bullet would go wide. Of course, it also might catch me in the face, but it was worth a try.
I squeezed my fists. I prepared to fight.
And then it occurred to me that I had no idea what I was fighting for.
I don’t fucking care.
Well fuck you too, man.
“I’ll take option two.”
“Where is our next stop, anyway? The ice giant of Reese? The piss swamps of Valiant?”
I cracked up. Laughed until I bent double, until Falk grabbed me by the shoulder and dragged me out of the cargo hold. I was still chuckling when I climbed the ladder, when he locked me in the cabin and left me alone to contemplate how badly I’d fucked this up. What else was I supposed to do? When the universe won’t stop shitting on you, there’s nothing to do but laugh.