The Dread Fox and the Down-home Dandy, part one

spacegambler-flyerA swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.

 

Dear Reader, you know what happened afterwards, the romance, the malarkey, the star-crossing lovers – everyone does, but few know how it started; so here is the tale of how it went down – it goes a little something like this.

******

She was a woman with no name, at least none she cared to recall, and a woman with many names. Today, she was going by Eliane.

She brought The Dread Fox in hard and fast, angling down sharply to the plane of the ecliptic, locked on to an asteroid tumbling inwards on a convenient orbit, and slammed to a halt metres from its surface.

It was a fierce and costly ride, virtually impossible to detect.

She powered down Fox to nothing but sensors and minimal life support, set defensive systems a hair-trigger from consciousness, removed her clothes and slipped into a rudimentary dropship. Protective foam flooded the tiny compartment, solidified about her and put her under. In her last moment of consciousness, she felt the kick of ejection.

She came to three days later on Rendall, as the last traces of foam sublimed through precise hull ruptures. She kicked free of her cocoon and staggered to her feet, the customised single-shot already dissolving in the atmosphere. By morning, not a trace of it would be left.

Getting off-world would not be quite so easy.

She dressed quickly in simple grounders’ wear, slipped a small pack onto her belt, took a bearing, and started walking in the dark. She had a long night ahead of her and some kinks in her back to work out.

Drops were never as straightforward as she liked to pretend.

Maybe she was getting too old for this shit.

But Spiker had something of value for sale. Something she wanted.

******

Brett lathered his face the old fashioned way, with soap and a brush. He flipped a monitor around and called up the spaceport’s security feed, hijacked and streamed to give an external view of the ship.

‘Everything quiet out there?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ the ship replied, and then added with a sigh, ‘the trouble will come later.’

‘Hey,’ he drawled, ‘you know it’s just a one-off.’

‘Always is.’

He remembered the first time they’d had this conversation. Back then he really believed it would be just the one time, but things were getting tough all over. If they wanted to keep flying, they would just have grin and bear the shadier deals a little more often.

He watched for a few moments as longshorebots shifted cargo pods from a pair of transport sleds and set them down at the perimeter to be scanned, registered and stowed by the ship’s own drones. He switched to a wider view.

The Fare Thee Well, Annabel was a maverick vessel, plying the trade routes out on the Riff, out beyond the interstellar network of commerce and communications, out there, where such matters were conducted with a touch less formality. An independent, she connected scattered settlements, lonely mining stations and isolated outposts, and brushed up against the leading edge of civilisation’s ever-expanding web so they didn’t have to. A cargo-hauler and a troubleshooter, some said a freebooter, she stayed just inside the law and at least one step ahead of it. Not that the law was any too clear or uncontested thereabouts, or particularly enforceable.

An elegant-looking ship, she stood out among the half dozen or so squat corporate luggers in the grimly utilitarian spaceport. Her long sweeping curves and delicate fins were as nonsensical as they were alluring. Brett knew they would probably rip right off if he was ever desperate enough, or sufficiently drunk, to try bringing her down manually through an atmosphere. They say that you can make a brick fly if you stick a big enough engine on it, and that was, in truth, what she was – a brute ugly thing with a big hold and engines powerful enough to make her shape irrelevant. But such comely stylisation was worth it.

There’s no point in having a reputation for reliability, Fare Thee Well, who was in truth a little vain, liked to point out, if no one remembers what you look like. And while folks out on the periphery were no fools, life for most was tough enough just hanging on to what little they had that they were happy to be won over by a little glamour. Often, all it took was a glimpse of a ship as purty as her and repeat custom was guaranteed.

For the other kinds of jobs Brett sometimes took – the shady, necessity-induced one-offs like this one – it just paid to look good. Even in the port’s low light, her burnished skin glowed. It was the semiotics of a wealth they did not possess, with just enough twist to imply she was teeming with exotic alien technology but being discreet about it. A simple enough trick if you didn’t mind rerouting a little power

Even the occasional client who saw through such thimble-rigging appreciated that they made the effort.

Brett could sense Fare Thee Well waiting while he shaved with his pappy’s old cut-throat, expensively edged with a monomolecular fibril. He knew she considered it a foolish affectation, more dangerous than efficacious. A gene-tweak would have cost less than adapting the blade, which even now did not shave as close the lasers down in Medical, but he figured Fare Thee Well understood why he did it. Even though she was Turing torced down in the deep code equivalent of her DNA, she was not so limited in empathy that she could not imagine and appreciate similarities between them. Like her, he was not exactly what he seemed; and as with her, his masquerade also contained a fair measure of truth, at least from a certain angle.

‘Last sled’s about to arrive, I’ll need you on the ramp to sign off on it all,’ she said. ‘Or we could have a sudden change of heart…’

Fare Thee Well left the suggestion hanging in the air.

Brett studiously ignored it. Money was tight, and this deal on Rendall promised a solution, at least in the short term.

*****

TO BE CONTINUED     Part 2

 

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