“We’ll never make it,” Khopesh said, shaking her head. She climbed into the Obsidian and walked to the dining room. It wasn’t small, but it wasn’t big either. An electronic window displayed a beach from Gliese 581c at sunset. She hit a button on the wall; four slate white stools and a matching table rose from the floor on telescoping legs. She sat on one of them as Dactyl fished maps out of a locker near his control station.
“We should get one of those SmartTops in our next upgrade,” Chirwa said, sitting beside her. He fished a pen out of his vest and flipped it around his thumb. “How are we still using paper maps?”
Khopesh rubbed the bridge of her nose. “A vector jump won’t land us — ”
“It’ll land us close enough,” Dactyl said. He plopped the maps down and pointed to the Eridanus system. “We can jump into Achernar and then bounce into Beta Horologii.”
“Zeta would be safer,” Chirwa said, twirling the pen.
“Whatever,” Dactyl said. He sat back and gestured. “The tracking signal will activate, and we can find the site.”
Khopesh pulled the indicator from her pocket and laid it on the table. A grey tablet slightly larger than her hand. The black screen sat dead, surrounded by an array of tiny lights, also unlit. “This is so stupid,” she said. “Why couldn’t they just tell us?”
“It’s pretty smart,” Chirwa said. “If we get attacked, we can’t tell anyone — ”
“I know,” Khopesh said, shooting him a look of irritation tinted with humor. “It makes sense for the hedonists and epicures who are paying us.” She put her hands on her knees and sighed. “But it makes life more difficult for us.”
“The best thing about the vector jump,” Dactyl said, “is that they won’t see us coming.” He grinned. “No one will be watching from this direction.”
Chirwa tilted his head. “They might.”
Dactyl threw up his hands. “They might,” he agreed. “But I might be a spy.” He tossed a hand toward Khopesh. “K might be a robot.”
Khopesh chuckled. “Beep boop,” she said with a tiny smile.
“Please do not speak that way about my mother,” Gorf said. A rustle of laughter rolled through the room.
Khopesh shook her head. “I guess it makes as much sense as anything.” She looked across the maps.
An hour later, the Obsidian was back among the stars and nearly at launch range. “Hold on to your butts,” Khopesh said. “Let’s do a vector jump.” She engaged it and their eyes shot through their brains. The cabin took a second to stabilize, and Chirwa held a hand to his mouth. Khopesh looked sideways at him and chuckled. “Close one,” she said.
“One of these days,” he said, rolling his eyes.
Beyond the viewscreens, lights shot past as they hurtled toward the Achernar system. After a few minutes, the craft shook violently and froze into place, the stars jostling backward for a moment. “I never get used to that,” Khopesh said, and glanced at Chirwa. “How does that part not bother you?”
Chirwa shrugged and fished a Beta Bar out of his vest. He peeled back the beige wrapper and crunched into it.
“That’s the best bit,” Dactyl said, grinning. He unbuckled from the navigator seat and clambered over to them. He gazed at the lights beyond the viewscreens. “It’s like when the last line in the movie credits stops scrolling.”
“Okay,” Khopesh said, tucking a gaggle of hairs behind her ear. “Let’s head toward Horologium.” She punched indictors on the command console and flipped switches overhead.
Dactyl returned to the navigation panel and set the course. “We’re good to go,” he said, and opened a can of Cherry Nitrous.
“That’s stuff’s gonna rot your teeth,” Chirwa said, crunching the last of his Beta Bar.
“I’m more worried about his brain,” Khopesh said. She hit the boost and they took off toward the next system. “Twenty minutes?” she said, halfway between a prediction and a question.
“You’re both nuts,” Dactyl said, and leaned back in his chair. He held the canister aloft and gazed adoringly at it. “This is the nectar of the gods,” he said.
Chirwa turned to face him. “How can you say that?” he asked.
Dactyl put on a little grin. “What?” he asked.
Chirwa gestured to him with his chin. “Sleep okay last night?”
“I woke up a couple of times.” Chirwa gave him a look, but Dactyl shrugged. “I’m worried about this delivery,” he said.
Chirwa raised an eyebrow. “Keep telling yourself that,” he said, and returned to his console. He scrolled through the scanner results.
“Anything interesting?” Khopesh asked.
“Nope,” Chirwa said. “A few dozen commercial transports, three security frigates, and one cloaked hopper.”
Khopesh raised an eyebrow. “Where’s it at?”
Chirwa waved a hand. “Other side of the system,” he said. “Hasn’t left this area in over a year.” He closed the scanner output. “Probably scientists.”
Dactyl scowled. “Then why is their hopper cloaked?” he asked.
“Working for a biotech firm,” Khopesh said, tapping the quantum sonar. “Proprietary genomes. They move in secret.” She watched the pink glow diffuse away from their ship and into the darkness.
Dactyl approached the viewscreens again and smiled as the Horologium system took shape before them. “Finally,” he said.
Khopesh opened her eyes and scanned the horizon. “Heading for Zeta,” she said.
“Oh come on,” Dactyl said. He shuffled his black cap and put a hand out. “Beta-H has like twenty casinos,” he said. “I hear they comp you a hundred house credits just to get you in the door.”
Chirwa turned and scowled at him. “For what purpose, do you expect?”
“To get your scratch,” he said. “I know.” He waved a hand. “You just gotta play it smart and don’t go into debt.”
“Yeah,” Khopesh said. “I’m sure no one else ever thought of — ” She froze as a series of beeps rang out. “What the hell is …” She broke off and pulled the tracking tablet out of her pocket with a grin. “There we go,” she said. The screen was filled with data, most of it faint. The device beeped again. Chirwa and Dactyl crowded around. “Can you read this?” Khopesh asked, pointing it toward Chirwa.
“Some of it,” he said, peering at the screen. Khopesh tapped the command console and pulled the Obsidian to a static hover. Chirwa pointed to an orange box in the top-left corner. “It says this is our target.” The device beeped. Khopesh tapped the box and the data cleared away with a quiet chime. It was replaced with a plain white circle in the center of the screen, and a faint green block in the corner.
“What the hell?” Khopesh said. She waved the tablet and scowled at the green block as it wobbled on the screen. She rose and moved it around, facing the ceiling and floor and each direction in turn. Eventually, as she faced the sleeping quarter, the green block lurched toward the middle of the screen. She maneuvered the tracker around until the block hit the exact center with a beep.
She twisted her head to look back at them. “I guess we’re supposed to go this way,” she said.
“I guess so,” Chirwa said.
“What’s over there?” Khopesh said, trying to keep the tablet steady. It beeped occasionally as she missed her aim and regained it.
Dactyl closed his eyes and put his arm out. “It’s not Dorado,” he said, waving his hand diagonally. “That’s more over … there.” He gestured to the airlock. “Over there” — he pointed back to where Khopesh was aiming — “is …” He clenched his eyes tightly. “Reticulum.” He opened his eyes and beamed with satisfaction.
“Okay then,” Khopesh said. “Let’s set a course for — ”
Chirwa raised a hand. “Hang on,” he said, and sat. He swiped through the scanner data. “We should wait a minute.”
“What’s up?” Khopesh asked.
“Probably nothing,” he said, and gestured to a vessel indicator on the stellar map. “This transport is moving to Horologium from Outer Eridanus.”
“You think they’re — ”
“Not likely,” he said. “I just wanna let them go by.”
“They didn’t stop when we did?”
“Nope.” He pulled up a histogram and ran back through its movement record. “Probably just importing some rare octopus or something.”
She nodded. “But it’s good to be careful.”
“Yep.” They waited as the blip on the screen traipsed along.
Khopesh jerked her eyes open and turned on the bed and propped herself on her left arm to silence her alarm with her right. The noisy music cut off and she glanced over to Chirwa, who was meditating on the far side of the sleeping quarter. His back straight, his legs twisted into lotus, hands on knees, he stared straight ahead at an unornamented white enso scroll. On the floor, a small pile of rocks sat beside a virtual incense burner. A thin curly trail of virtual smoke rose into the air and dissipated.
“Sorry,” Khopesh said. Chirwa waved his left hand briefly and replaced it on his knee.
Khopesh lay back on the thin mattress and stared at the photograph taped on the underside of Chirwa’s bunk. Revolution Day, she thought. I must have been ten. Which would make Naima seven. She was holding something on fire away from her sister, their faces pinched with delight. Naima had a purple shirt on, with her hair in braids. She loved that shirt, Khopesh thought. Mom must have done those braids. Or Aunt Kadijah. There was movement in the photo, from the kids in the foreground to the festival in back. The dragon kites whirled in the dusk sky, and a line of drummers was banging on the right side of the picture. One man’s arm was raised high. Looks like he’s about to clock me on the head, she thought. Naima said that when she first saw this photo. She let her head drop on the pillow and sink to the side. She gazed past Chirwa to the sliver of space coming through the viewscreen. She closed her eyes and tried to stop thinking about Naima.
A melange of chimes came and went. Chirwa rolled his head, took a deep breath, and stood up.
“Sorry about the alarm,” Khopesh said.
Chirwa stood over her bunk and held his hand out. She took it and he pulled her to her feet. “It is a bell of mindfulness,” he said.
“Pretty noisy bell,” Khopesh said as they crossed into the bridge.
Chirwa smiled. “Sometimes it takes a noisy bell to quiet a noisy mind,” he said.
Khopesh went to kick the back of the pilot seat, but Dactyl spun just in time and caught her foot with his left hand. His right, however, lost balance and his book fell to the ground. “Dammit,” he said, scrabbling for it. “My place.” He flipped the book open, turned some pages, took his bookmark from the panel, and dropped it in place.
“How do you like Pirx?” Khopesh asked, dropping into the pilot seat and checking the tracker tablet. Chirwa had rigged a clamp on the face of the panel to hold it in place, the green block locked in the center of the circle. “Oo, it’s getting bright,” she said, and gestured to the block. Chirwa leaned over and nodded.
“Yeah,” Dactyl said. “It’s good. Kinda hit ’n’ miss.” He tossed the book onto his navigation desk. “I liked Futurological Congress better.”
“We should refuel,” Chirwa said, and gestured to the “17%” on the indicator.
Khopesh tapped through the atlas displays and nodded. “Alfa Stop not too far,” she said, and set the course.
Twenty minutes later they were docked. Khopesh returned from the WalAzon kiosk with tired eyes. Chirwa was rubbing the nose cone of the Obsidian. “What happened, girl?” he asked. “You hit an asteroid or something?”
“Maybe during the vector jump,” Khopesh said. She leaned against the metal wall of the station. Always the same, she thought. Why don’t they have any local vendors in here? She hesitated. “Would it kill them to let some local vendors in here or something?” she said, glancing at the desolate station. “Why not let the place reflect something of the people in the system?”
Chirwa turned to her. “Careful what you wish for,” he said. “When I was on the Czolgosz we stopped one time at a bazaar near SWEEPS-04. They were selling body parts.”
“Ugh,” Khopesh said. “What kinds of bodies?” In the next hangar bay, they could hear a ship landing.
He shrugged. “All kinds,” he said. “They even — ” He froze and turned his head a little.
“What?” Khopesh asked. She glanced around.
“That ship landed real fast,” he said.
Khopesh cursed and pulled the knife out of her boot. “Where’s Dac?” she asked. Chirwa gestured with his head toward the bar. She walked toward it. Chirwa produced his chopsticks from his vest and twisted the back of one. A tiny keypad appeared. He tapped it carefully and the stick whirred and tapered the tip into a needle-sharp point. He did the same with the second stick and twirled it in his hand.
“Dactyl,” Khopesh called out. She could barely see the entrance to the next hangar bay in her peripheral vision. Dactyl, leaning casually on the bar, glanced at her and — with a strange grin of satisfaction — gestured at the boxes of Cherry Nitrous being stacked beside him by the android clerk. She made a rapid summoning motion with her knife and gestured with her head toward the hangar bay. Dactyl scowled at her and walked closer.
“What?” he asked.
A shot rang out and barely missed him. Khopesh looked toward the next bay and saw a group of tentacled aliens racing for them, blasters out. Their limbs were muscular, taut with suckers spiraling around. Light neoprene armor plates shielded their torsos, with gas-powered boots adding speed to their steps. The bar clerk smashed a button behind the bar and a semiclear metal wall clanged down, sealing it off.
“My Nitrous,” Dactyl said, whipping around.
“Leave it,” Khopesh shouted, and jumped behind the dividing wall.
“I already paid for it,” Dactyl said, but she could hear him clomping toward her anyway. More shots rang out and Dactyl screamed. Khopesh peered over and saw him on the ground. His leg was bleeding. She froze and stared at her knife and tried to stop her mind from racing. With a clank, a pistol landed near her feet. She looked back at Chirwa, standing in the doorway of the ship. He nodded and ducked inside as she picked it up. A second later the Obsidian’s engines started up.
Khopesh swung around the wall and fired at the creatures. She hit one in the head and it gave a shriek. The one in front shot at her but missed. Something clicked. He was at the Gemini Sigma Alfa Stop, she thought. Where the convocube hired us. The third creature pulled a device off its belt and fired it at Dactyl. A mess of cables whipped around his legs and drew tight. He screamed again. She pulled herself behind the wall.
“We’re up, Kho,” Chirwa shouted from inside the ship. “Come on.”
“They got Dac,” she called back. Her breath was fast and shallow. “What do you want?” she yelled toward the space beyond the wall.
“You know,” the creature said in a slow deep bass-heavy drone. “Give it to us.”
“We don’t have anything.” Her back hurt, mashed against the cold metal wall of the hangar bay. She stared at her hands, pistol in one and knife in the other.
“Oh,” the creature said. “We both know that’s not true.” With an oozing sound, he reached a tentacle toward the ship. She glued herself to the wall and stared at it with repulsion. It grew slender as it extended slowly, the suckers pulsing. “Give me the tracker and you can have your friend.”
Without thinking, she swung the knife down and tried to sever it. The creature yelped as dark blue fluid spewed onto the wall and floor and her shoulder and neck. She pulled back and realized she hadn’t cut it all the way through. It pulled back and began sealing up.
“Oh dear,” the creature said, its voice stuck in the depth of bass. “That will cost your friend here.” She heard sounds of shuffling and a bang and Dactyl screamed again. She put the knife back in her boot and gripped the pistol with both hands.
Chirwa appeared in the doorway of the Obsidian with the tracker. Khopesh glared at him and closed her eyes and saw Naima in the hospital bed. She looked at Chirwa again and shook her head. He paused and tucked the tracker into his vest.
Khopesh popped around the wall and fired over and over at the creatures, careful to avoid Dactyl. One of the creatures — the one she had hit before — went down in a blue splatter and lay still. She looked at Dactyl; his left arm was sprawled out, and one of his fingers was gone. The other two creatures returned fire. Khopesh ducked back behind the wall.
“This is merely a business transaction,” the creature said. “None of us need suffer more.”
“We don’t have any tracker,” she said.
“Your lies do not become you,” the creature said.
“Kho,” Dactyl called out, his voice weak. “Please.”
Khopesh closed her eyes and tried not to cry. “Naima,” she whispered. Somewhere in the darkness of her imagination, her sister’s voice murmured. She saw the filthy room and smelled the blood.
“I can wait,” Naima said.
Khopesh shook her head. “Not this time,” she whispered, and wiped her eyes with the back of her glove. “We’re so close.”
“Yes,” Naima’s voice said. “Even this time. I can wait.” There was a pause. “Don’t let him die for me.”
Khopesh dropped to her knees and let out a furious scream and clenched the pistol until it hurt. She cursed and held her left hand out to Chirwa, who placed the tracker gently in her palm. Her eyes sunk, the pistol raised, she rose and emerged from the hangar bay.
The creatures were ready. One trained its blaster at her, the other on Dactyl.
She hurled the tracker at the ground between them. “Leave us alone,” she said.
The creature nodded at her and reached out. Its tentacle wrapped around the tablet and pulled it away. It peered at the device and jostled it, watching the green block move around. It glanced at the other one and nodded, then shot Khopesh one last opaque glance. They moved toward the heap of their downed associate and pulled it into their ship, leaving a slimy blue trail. Khopesh couldn’t tell if it was alive or dead. Their ship started up and took off.
She tucked the pistol in her belt and dropped to Dactyl. She pulled her knife and severed the cables around his legs. “I’m sorry,” she said. He grunted in pain and held his hand out. The stump of his ringfinger twitched and spurted blood and he pulled it back. Chirwa appeared with a bandage and wrapped it across his hand several times, pulling hard on the gap.
Khopesh grimaced and found the top knuckle on the ground. She picked it up with thumb and forefinger and marveled at how much had been shot away. Maybe they can reconstruct it or something, she thought. And then, suddenly: They who? We can’t afford that kind of surgery.
Chirwa pulled Dactyl up and swung his arm across his back. They limped back to the ship. After a moment, Dactyl dropped his head to the side. “Kho,” he said. “Get — ”
“Yeah,” Khopesh said, displaying the severed digit and trying to smile. “I got it.”
He looked at it and shook his head. “No,” he said with a wheeze. He cleared his throat and gestured weakly behind him, toward the bar. “Get the Nitrous.”
Khopesh and Chirwa exchanged looks, then chuckled. “Um,” Chirwa said.
Dactyl held his good hand out. “Gimme that,” he said to Khopesh.
She blinked. “You’re serious.”
He gave a faint nod. “I already paid for it,” he said.
She laughed, shaking her head, and placed the bloody knuckle in his hand. Chirwa trundled him into the ship.
They spent two days in the Alfa Stop. Chirwa patched Dactyl up as best they could, which wasn’t very well. The finger was unsalvageable, the spot sealed with a thin vinyl-lyocell panel cut from bathroom tile. Chirwa sewed the leg up with some wire he found in a drawer and ran through the sterilizing sink. They agreed to invest in a medical kit when they could afford it.
Khopesh stirred her Alfa Ration Pak and looked at Dactyl, his head on the table. They had switched the display in the dining room to the Caverns of Calbruc, a breeze rippling through the fields of rock-cactus. “You allright?” Khopesh asked.
Dactyl nodded, still collapsed on the table. “The meds make me heavy.”
“You should start slowing those down,” Chirwa said. Dactyl shrugged.
“He’s known for his moderation,” Khopesh said with a grin.
Dactyl forced himself to a sitting position and rubbed his face with his good hand. “So what do we do now?” he asked.
“What can we do?” Chirwa asked, twirling his chopsticks in a bowl of ramen. “We get some titanium and sell it somewhere close to home.”
“This sucks,” Dactyl said. He got up and moved into the kitchenette. He opened the icebox and took out a canister of Cherry Nitrous.
As soon as he released the carbonator, Chirwa called out: “Stick to water.”
“Oh come on,” Dactyl said, returning to the dining room. “It’s been two days.” He took a sip. “Oh baby,” he said, sitting. “I’ve missed you.”
Chirwa chewed noodles and raised an eyebrow. “Are you going into withdrawal?” he asked.
Dactyl gave him a look. “No,” he said. “I can stop anytime I want.”
Khopesh stabbed the stick into her rations. “This sucks,” she said. “Why don’t we go after those bastards?” She looked from Chirwa to Dactyl. “We know where they’re going.”
Dactyl held his wounded hand out and spread the fingers. “I can give you four reasons why that’s a bad idea,” he said. Khopesh chuckled mirthlessly.
A moment passed. Chirwa drained his bowl and stood. He paused near Khopesh, who stuck the stick into her Ration Pak and tossed a hand up. Chirwa took it and tossed it in the trash, then washed his bowl.
“You know,” Dactyl said, looking sideways at her, “I would have left you.”
She laughed. “Yeah, I know, right?”
“No,” he said, and sat up. “Seriously.”
She put her hands to the table and braced herself. “What?” She didn’t mean to be so loud, but she didn’t regret it either.
“Four hundred ingots,” he said with a shrug. “I gotta be honest.”
“My life’s worth less to you than four hundred ingots?” Her eyes were black hot. Suddenly she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“He’s saying you should have left him.” Chirwa’s voice was slow and calm.
Her gaze softened. She glanced at Dactyl, who nodded. “Aw Dac,” she said quietly. “I couldn’t do that.”
He shrugged. “Sounds like your sister needs help.” He closed his eyes but couldn’t stop a few tears. “You chose me over her.”
“No,” she said, and rose. She put her arm around his shoulders. “Dac, listen. I didn’t.” She gave him an awkward hug. “She’s not gonna die or anything. She’s just in a crappy facility right now.” She sighed into his neck. “Besides, she wouldn’t want me to sacrifice you.”
“Tungsten,” Chirwa said.
Khopesh looked up with a puzzled scowl. “What?”
“Titanium’s not trending in the colonies,” he said, staring at his datapad. “We can make about 45% on a load of tungsten.”
Khopesh nodded weakly and stood up. “Woo,” she said with a dismal voice. “I’ll go set it up.” She trudged out of the ship and headed back toward the WalAzon kiosk.
“Hello again,” the robot clerk said in a chipper tone, unchanged by the violence it had recently watched.
“We need some tungsten,” she said, sinking into the stiff white metallic chair.
“No we don’t!” Chirwa called out, jogging toward them.
Khopesh scowled and turned toward him. “What?”
He grabbed her hand and pulled her up. “Cancel that request,” he said, waving a hand at the clerk. He yanked her back toward the ship.
“What’s going on?” Khopesh asked as she tried to match his stride. Despite his stony exterior, his pace was rapid and excited.
“You’ll see,” he said.
Back inside, Dactyl was flinging maps around the dining room table. His arm caught the canister of Cheery Nitrous and sent it to the ground. “Augh!” he cried, and tossed the map in his hand to the side, where it landed in a small red puddle. He cradled the canister and righted it to stop the spill.
“Dac,” Chirwa said, hoisting the map and wiping the fluid away. “You just bought four dozen canisters of that crap.”
He looked at Chirwa with a puzzled look, and shook his head slightly.
“Never mind that,” Khopesh said, spreading her arms. “What’s going on?”
Chirwa smiled and looked up at the sensor on the ceiling. “Gorf,” he said. “Where’s the package?”
After a pause, Gorf spoke. “The parcel requiring delivery to Nimbus X,” it said, “is waiting for you in Nu Fornacis.”
Khopesh froze. “What?”
Chirwa moved his hands around. “Gorf got … an encrypted message,” he stammered. “Once the tracker moved … a certain distance away — ”
“Zero point seven five Astronomical Units,” Gorf said.
“ — it became unencrypted.” He beamed at her.
Khopesh narrowed her eyes and tilted her head. “So the tracker was a fake?”
He shrugged. “Apparently.”
“And the tentacle scumbags just cleared …” She moved one hand away from the other.
Chirwa nodded. “Yeah.”
Her eyes shot around the cabin. “So where’s New …”
“Nu Fornacis,” Dactyl said, shuffling maps on the table. “I’m working on it.”
Khopesh and Chirwa exchanged a look of guarded excitement. She clapped her hands and sank into the pilot seat. “Well crap,” she said, starting the engines. “Let’s go get us some recreational drugs.”