Chapter One - Excerpt

"Can you drown in this stuff?"

"Only if you're short. Think of it as snow. Poisonous snow."

Ciela leaned forward into the convex windscreen of the sled to peer through thick fog over the trackless blanket of white stretching before them. On either side of the valley, jagged peaks rose too steeply for the powder to cling and presented only a vague wall of darkness in the murk. "You don't die from breathing too much snow," she said.

"Well, you don't freeze in this, so there's that." Sethran Kada looked up from the navigator on the dash and pointed past her nose to the west. "Should start to see something over that way."

It had taken little time to descend into the valley from where they had left his ship atop one of the mountains, the only place out here to land a cruiser of that class without churning up toxic clouds of the powder that covered much of this continent. The dust of Tor Ag did not settle quickly in the planet's light gravity and would hover in the air to clog lungs, respirators and machinery for weeks. The sled they had borrowed left little more than a gentle wake which closed quickly as they passed, leaving no track. Despite these precautions a fine mist hung in the air, hiding any other vehicles traversing the valley.

"You think she's still alive?" Ciela turned in the narrow cockpit and put her knees onto the seat to fish for the protective gear they had brought with them.

"She's useful to them." Seth took a respirator and goggles from her. Although oxygen existed here, it was laced with things neither of their species tolerated for long. "Stupid place to keep a Human, though."

Ciela dropped back into her seat and used her fingers to comb her thick blue hair back from her face. "Typical Shri-Lan rebel logic: this place will probably kill the doctor they stole but it's the last place Air Command would come looking for her."

"This is about the last place," Seth said. "They've been looking for her for over a year now. If that Centauri back on Pelion wasn't such a blathering drunk, they'd be looking for ten more years."

"If you hadn't started him blathering, we never would have gotten stuck with this rotten assignment. You Centauri can't handle alcohol. Everyone knows that."

"So says the Delphian."

"If we ever decided to pollute our heads I'm sure we'll handle it just fine." She fastened her respirator over her mouth and nose and then wrapped a burnoose around her head. Although her people, rarely found off-planet, were a constant target for abduction by rebels and pirates, she no longer colored her naturally blue-black hair or bothered to change the brilliant blue of her eyes. When necessary, it took little to fool most people into assuming her to be Centauri or perhaps Human.

Seth grinned when she checked the long blade tucked into her sleeve, ready for deployment. Her marksmanship had improved in the year since she had joined him aboard the Dutchman. Using her genetically enhanced spatial acuity allowed her to aim as precisely as any targeting tool. But still, she found comfort in knowing a deadly weapon was available even at close range. "Try not to poke anyone with that," he said. "I don't expect any trouble here."

"I expect trouble every time you say that."

Seth turned the sled toward a broken line of rocks, following the beacon recognized by the sled's navigational system. "Well, I don't want any trouble while we have only this piece of tin to get back to the Dutchman. I'm surprised it's gotten us this far. So behave."

"What's that supposed to mean," she said, a slight edge in her voice audible even through the respirator.

He didn't bother to remind her of her tendency to treat Shri-Lan rebels with the sort of contempt that was common among their rival faction, the Arawaj. She had long ago cut her ties to the Arawaj who had raised her far removed from the gentle, intellectually advanced influence of her people. Growing up in that world had made her a fierce opponent of the Commonwealth that ruled these worlds although, since joining Seth, she had softened her stance. But her opinion of their common enemy, the Shri-Lan faction, had not changed. He reached out to give her mask a gentle tug. "Just watch your step in this place. It's a rough bunch."

"Have you looked in a mirror lately?" she replied. "You're lucky I have a thing for ruffians."

Seth ran his hand over the thick stubble along his jaw. Like Humans and some Feydans, his people were blessed with hair growing in places other species found peculiar. He was probably due to do something about the current crop as well as the thick shock of black hair in dire need of cutting. To round out his appearance as an utter vagrant, he wore faded black combat trousers and a scuffed flight jacket over a rumpled shirt. In contrast, Ciela, typical of Delphians, looked tidy and oddly elegant no matter what she wore. "It helps to look like a rough bunch," he said. "Comes with the job."


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"Hmm, sure," she replied and turned her attention to the scattering of massive boulders that marked the edge of the powder layer and the beginning of higher ground. The sled scraped painfully along some of the bare rock before it remembered that it was not a multi-terrain vehicle and came to a crunching halt. Long scratches on the ground showed where drivers had come to the same conclusion. More of the customized skimmers lined the bank of the silt flat, left there by other visitors to Piara, erstwhile village of indigenous herd ranchers and now a hiding place for Shi-Lan operations.

Seth adjusted his own respirator and goggles and then raised the sled's canopy to step onto solid ground. The reek of ammonia crept into his mask despite the high-quality filter and he felt his eyes watering.

A tumble of pre-fab buildings clustered at the base of the grey cliff rising up into thinner, dust-free air. Threads of native stone dwellings followed ledges to where small herds of goats of some sort still roamed. Many of the locals these days simply subsisted by supplying the rebels with foodstuffs and water and were paid extra to include their silence.

Ciela stood by the shore and gingerly poked her booted foot into the powder. A puff of silt swirled around her feet, slow to settle in the light gravity. They had added extra weight to their footwear like most off-worlders here did.

"You coming?" Seth said.

"Feels weird here," she said. "Like sound gets absorbed, too. It's so... still, I guess."

He looked out over the expanse of white which did not sparkle like snow in the waning sunlight, but simply seemed to blank out the valley floor like an unfinished painting. "Peaceful?"

"Creepy." She turned to walk with him toward the modular buildings. "Lifeless." "Lots of things live in that stuff," he said. "Just very tiny things. Which way?"

She nodded toward a domed shed. They had seen some images of Piara and, from their drunken informant's description, she had fleshed out a general idea of the town's layout. Her enhanced memory made maps and coordinates here unnecessary. The individual building modules, some augmented with ramshackle additions, huddled close enough together to suggest that many of them connected to form a rambling complex. A few people moved among them but none seemed curious about the newcomers. Neither windows nor visible cameras suggested that anyone watched their approach. "Depot there, legit goods. Those barracks are private. Machine shop over there. This is the one we want."

The door to the building squealed in its warped frame when Seth pushed it aside. His scanner had revealed four individuals to the left of the door and he looked that way at once, his hand not far from his gun. Ciela slipped in behind him to cover the other side.

"Cazun bless," Seth said in greeting when he realized that three of the men here were, like him, Centauri. Nearly indistinguishable from their Human cousins except for their long-limbed height, their most startling feature were eyes that, like Seth's, reflected the dim light in violet iridescence. The fourth, a woman, was a Feydan whose traditional tattoos were nearly invisible on her reddish-brown skin. They lounged on what appeared to be stuffed animal skins, arranged around a crate serving as table for their drinks. A brazier puffed feeble trails of fragrant smoke to combat the bite of the ammonia in the air.

This rebel hideout looked no different from any Seth had seen in dozens of places where Air Command didn't visit too often. That usually meant crude conditions in the least hospitable of climates. Eventually someone tipped somebody off, either to the lair's location or to the approaching military patrol, and the place was blown to bits, before or after the rebels had managed to bug out. It took a vast network of informants, spies, agents, and of course currency in the right places to keep up to date on where the more interesting outposts were to be found.

Ciela, rarely given to chatting with strangers, shifted closer to the Feydan, able to interpret the complex tattoos far more easily than most off-worlders. All four Shri-Lan rebels stared at the visitors with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity but no surprise. Although no outlooks had greeted them, their approach would not have been missed by even a simple hand scanner. Seth removed his respirator to show them his friendliest smile.

"Heard this was the place to get a new pet," he said when none of them returned his greeting.

There was some exchange of glances. The elder among them returned his attention to his drink. The man beside him was busy ogling Ciela but the other two kept wary eyes on Seth. "Is that what you heard?" the Feydan woman said.

"Trevor Geory says I can get my moonfish replaced here," Seth said, dropping the name like a password.

She appraised him silently, then looked over to Ciela. "He mentioned a couple of Arawaj smugglers looking for some caps."

"That'd be us," Seth said. "Are we in the right place? Looking for quality."

"You don't look like you can afford quality."

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