Authors: Ann Aguirre
Tags: #Science fiction
He considers for a moment. “I can’t say. My mother died when I was five. My father remarried, and my step-mother never cared for me, but she had Svetlana . . .” The wind carries his words away, or perhaps he simply doesn’t want to talk about her. “Anyway, I don’t know. It just seems strange.”
Ouch. Low blow. We duck into the tunnel that leads down to the vehicle-maintenance bays. The Corp owned a fleet and a half, and the Conglomerate is still taking inventory. They won’t notice if one vanishes for an hour or so. The ramp winds down and around for quite a ways, but at least we’re out of the wind.
Lucky break, I know the guy working this level. Squid washed out of the academy because he suffers from heterochromia iridium, which he hid by wearing one tinted contact. Unfortunately, two different eye colors meant he didn’t possess the J-gene, and he lost some IQ points inside the simulator before they got him out. These days he’s only fit to patrol the vehicle-maintenance lot.
The thermal vents mean I can pull off my hood. Should have known something was wrong when my mother didn’t say anything about my hair, or lack of it, as soon as I bared myself at the café. I wave to Squid, who glances behind him to see who else I might be signaling.
His moon-pale brow wrinkles up in a scowl. “I’m not supposed to let anyone take them. They’ve been . . .” Ira struggles over the word, and I wince in sympathy, though he doesn’t notice. “Confiscated!”
“I’m sure that doesn’t apply to the newly appointed ambassador of New Terra,” March says smoothly. “If you don’t believe me, confirm with Chancellor Tarn. Of course, he might be annoyed with you for making the ambassador wait, as well as interrupting his conference with the Ielosian representatives.”
Damn, the man is good; poor Ira looks bewildered. I imagine I don’t look like an ambassador, but then again, how many would he have seen, spending his life roaming around vehicle maintenance? If this works, this gig might have perks I hadn’t even imagined. Assuming I don’t die horribly on the way to Ithiss-Tor.
“I didn’t know you were an ambassador,” Ira says finally. “You should really have a badge or something. I can let you borrow a B-class Skimmer, but you have to bring it back before my shift ends at five. Please?” he adds, as if remembering he needs to be polite to me.
That sends a cold chill down my back. Famous last words, best-laid plans, and all that. March takes the codes that will start the engine, and I follow him toward the black-and-red-striped one in the far corner. Ira trails behindus, obviously conflicted. I gather he likes following the rules, and we’ve made him break them.
The speed, the control, the hint of danger as we swoop around the city. Ankaraj isn’t a pretty settlement, glittering metal bones jutting from the snow with more determination than grace. I’ve never been sure why the Corp chose to center its headquarters here. Even though New Terra can’t compete with other worlds in terms of natural beauty—and functions as nothing so much as a farm colony—it certainly possesses sites more scenic than this.
I hold on tight to March while the wind whips against my face. For these moments, I am perfectly, gloriously free. I don’t need to think about the future, my obligations, or what’s in store for us on Ithiss-Tor. March knows I can’t stand feeling trapped. Shit, being planet-bound is bad enough. He intuits what those days trapped inside the cave, then later confined to quarters because of the Conglomerate inquiry, meant to me.
If not for Velith Il-Nok, the bounty hunter slotted to accompany me to Ithiss-Tor, I would have died in a Corp asylum,after taking the blame for any number of their crimes. He and I spent several nerve-wracking days riding out a storm in a cave off the Teresengi Basin, after he killed his own crew on my behalf. They were monsters, no doubt, but he’d hired them in good faith. To someone like Vel, his word is his bond. But I can’t think about what I owe him, or guilt will set in. I’m not used to owing people debts so big, I have no coin to pay.
By the time we park outside a Transplanetary Bank, my fingers feel vaguely numb. I can’t even remember the account numbers to get past the first security check, so we’re forced to push the call button. An irritated blond man flashes onto the vid screen above the double doors.
“This location doesn’t handle transplanetary wires or open new accounts,” he tells me brusquely. “For that, you need to visit our wonderful new branch in the city center, just two blocks from the AquaDome.”
At least fifteen minutes pass before a stocky brunette appears to unlock the doors manually. Her expression radiates disapproval for customers who forget their account codes. If I’d entered them, the door would have verified them as viable with in-house security and their AI would have unlocked the doors for fifteen seconds. It’s not a foolproof system, but it cuts down on passersby asking to use the lavatory, at least.
Transplanetary Bank doesn’t believe in embellishing the workplace: beige walls, beige carpet, and one fake plant. Her desk is even beige, built of heavy synthetic wood. A prominent nameplate reads SILVIA KUYEIDI, which means she’s descended from the original settlers. I wonder whether her distant ancestors, who revered raven and wolf totems, would approve of her career in banking.
While she taps away, I unwind some of my layers, my least favorite part of a cold climate. They don’t offer chairs for clients unless you’re important enough to be ushered into a private suite. I guess we don’t qualify.
When March grins, I don’t need to be a mind reader to know he’s considering a reprise of the whole ambassador bit. That’s going to take some getting used to. I fidget, trying to ignore the unusual aches and pains I’ve acquired along the way.
“I’m sorry, I have bad news, Ms. Jax. When you were . . .” She makes a moue that I interpret as discomfort. “. . . declared dead, your husband filed a next of kin claim, and we consolidated your accounts. And when the Conglomerate froze all Corp assets, that included the personal accounts of Corp executives, such as your husband, who are now awaiting trial.”
“Your accounts have been closed.” Ms. Kuyeidi refuses to meet my eyes, which tells me she’s aware how shitty this is. “I can provide you with the amount that your husband received at the time of your . . . er, death,” she adds. “Perhaps the Conglomerate can see about retrieving the wrongfully allotted funds. Such inquiries take time, I’m afraid.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more assistance, Ambassador.” She speaks the last word with a conspiratorial air. I must have looked perplexed because she adds, “I saw the announcement on the news just before you arrived. I didn’t recognize you right away, though. Your hair . . .”
Silvia sees us to the door. After thanking her, I stomp out into the cold and immediately regret the impulse. I shiver from head to toe as I rewrap myself. Feeling me tremble, March powers up the thermal vents, which help a little.
These little beauties can toggle between hover and ground mode with the flick of a switch. Speeding over the ice is the closest thing on earth to flying, and it carries a unique thrill. Any other time, I’d beg him to break some records on the tundra—final remnant of the Jax I used to be—but right now I need to get this sorted out.
I shrug, knowing he’ll catch the movement as well as the accompanying thoughts. Tarn will offer to “look into the matter,” but my hope of recovering that 100K hinges on how things go on Ithiss-Tor. That’s politics for you, a filthy polyglot of one hand washing the other until everything’s unclean.
Suddenly glum, I rest my chin against March’s back. If I succeed, they’ll kill my mother. If I fail, I’ll be jobless, penniless, and the laughingstock of the tier worlds, assuming the Bugs don’t execute me for some breach of etiquette.
And that doesn’t begin to factor in the danger we’ll be in, trying to get to Ithiss-Tor. I didn’t realize how much the clockwork Corp patrols factored into keeping the star lanes safe. I hope pirates and raiders will be too busy jacking cargo vessels to mess with a small cutter like ours.
A surge of heat beneath me catches my attention, but it’s the high-pitched whine coming from the Skimmer that alarms me. I hear March mutter, “Shit,” as he lets go of the controls and rolls hard left. Since I’m holding on to him, I fall as he does.
We hit the ground and tumble, careening into packed snow and stacked garbage cans. My hip feels like it has ground glass embedded in it. The Skimmer continues in its flight, but it slows without a hand on the throttle. Midair, it shudders and then blows into shards, raining fire and ash down on us.
I cover my head as the larger pieces plummet to earth. The icy air smells of burning metal.
Ira’s gonna be pissed. Hope he doesn’t get in trouble, poor bastard has enough problems.
Then again, if being an ambassador
anything, I should have the power to promote him out of it.
I test my left hip, the one that took the impact, by taking a step, and fire streaks up my thigh. To cover this, I try to sum up our situation, ticking off the points on my gloved fingertips. “So one faction—the Conglomerate—wants me to succeed on Ithiss-Tor because they want to strengthen their position as the galactic governing body. Another faction—the Syndicate—wants me to fail because periods rife with chaos are good for the smuggler’s bottom line. And an unknown faction doesn’t want me to get there at all.”
His face looks sharp and harsh within the shadowed frame of his black hood, but his eyes soften his whole mien. March swings me up into his arms. “You always have a choice, as long as I’m around. If you’d rather, we’ll hop a ship to Maha City, claim some land according to the New Homestead Act, and plant rutabagas or something. Is that what you want, Jax?”
For a moment, just a moment, I consider it. Imagine being planet-bound, no more grimspace, no more wildfire, no more notoriety. Just a quiet life easing into a quiet death. I could almost, almost manage it, with March by my side.
Then I shake my head, smiling. “I don’t think I’m what Chancellor Jackson had in mind when he set out to attract honest, hardworking citizens to New Terra. Besides . . . I didn’t become a jumper to die old and gray.”