Song of Scarabaeus
|Series:||Scarabaeus: Book 1|
1. Song of Scarabaeus
|Sub-Genre Tags:||Galactic Empire|
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Trained since childhood in advanced biocyph seed technology by the all-powerful Crib empire, Edie's mission is to terraform alien worlds while her masters bleed the outlawed Fringe populations dry. When renegade mercenaries kidnap Edie, she's not entirely sure it's a bad thing . . . until they leash her to a bodyguard, Finn-a former freedom fighter-turned-slave, beaten down but never broken. If Edie strays from Finn's side, he dies. If she doesn't cooperate, the pirates will kill them both.
But Edie's abilities far surpass anything her enemies imagine. And now, with Finn as her only ally as the merciless Crib closes in, she'll have to prove it or die on the site of her only failure . . . a world called Scarabaeus.
Turquoise and black. She watches the beetle stalking over stones and dirt. Its long, feathery legs sink into a patch of woven moss and it flounders. But the harder it struggles, the more tangled it becomes. With one finger she could rescue it.
Rolling onto her back, she closes her eyes. It's been years since she felt the gentle heat of the sun on her face, and then it was a different star. It's been years since she cried. The sun dries each tear on her cheek.
She turns her head, opens her eyes to focus beyond the beetle to a seed falling in the distance, clean metal lines gleaming. Six meters long, bullet-shaped and deadly. Another falls, even farther away. And another. One thousand silent intruders drop from the sky to burrow into the planet's skin.
The beetle chirps incessantly. A distress call. But she hasn't come here to save it.
She has come to destroy.
# # #
Edie's boot slammed into the bulkhead with a satisfying squish.
She scraped the remains of the hapless roach off her heel, wrinkling her nose and making a mental note to inform pest control--yet again. She was so used to doing their job for them, her interface didn't skip a beat.
Below the maintenance platform, the sharp, repeating clang of something hitting hollow metal was more distracting.
He didn't answer. Edie withdrew her mind completely from the clutches of the biocyph connection, feeling the remaining trickle of the datastream disperse within her mind. She leaned over the handrail and squinted into the dimly lit freight car. Torres was propped against the bottom of the ladder, directly below, throwing a kid's ball against the opposite wall.
"Can you cut that out? You're driving me and the roaches crazy."
Torres scowled, caught the ball, and stuffed it into his jacket pocket. Poor guy--the latest milit sent by CCU to stand guard while Edie went about her work on Talas Prime Station. A post so dull, he must view it as punishment.
Settling in front of the access panel, Edie pondered her next move. The call to check out a malfunctioning freight car had come through twenty minutes ago, dragging them both away from lunch, and she still hadn't figured out what was wrong. According to the log, the car's automated rails had jammed. The departures of three ships, including a schooner at the VIP dock, were delayed as they waited for cargo.
She jacked into the car's loading systems again. The stream of data flowed through her wet-teck interface. She had de-merged the program layers twice already and analyzed each tier in turn, searching for the glitch. It had to be simple. The freight loading system, though it looked like an impressively choreographed mechanical ballet from the cargo docks, was controlled by a straightforward set of routines. But this particular car ignored its instructions and refused to join the dance.
Edie switched the loading routine back into diagnostic mode. It blinked a random command and promptly stalled.
"Damn." She sat back on her heels and called out again. "Torres, you sure you checked those servos like I told you?"
No answer. He wasn't the most talkative guy, but a little cooperation would've been nice.
From down below came a muted thud. The sound of blows, and then the murmur of low voices.
"...no, I'll do it."
The ladder rattled as someone climbed up in a hurry, and instinctively Edie backed against the paneling. Over the lip of the platform a woman appeared, wearing a remarkable gold flight suit. Striking dark skin, tightly braided hair, a navpilot badge on her sleeve. Her weapon lay extended along her forearm. She was entirely out of place. Beauty and elegance armed with a spur.
"How did you like my brainteaser?" She nodded toward the open panel. Her clipped accent was Crib--this, at least, was nothing unusual on a station where hundreds of outworlders passed through every day. "Don't be upset you couldn't figure it out. It's a sensor glitch feeding back from the railings. The car is fine."
Edie hissed a soft breath between gritted teeth. The first thing she'd done after responding to the call was send Torres under the car to check the railings. Not that he could be expected to do the job properly. He wasn't supposed to help fix things. He was supposed to protect her.
Speaking of which, he wasn't doing a bang-up job of that, either.
The navpilot beckoned with her spur and stepped one rung down the ladder. "I have a job for you. Come on."
"You need to--" Edie choked on a false start as her heartbeat thumped in her throat. "You need to file a request with Station Maintenance."
"Maintenance doesn't provide the kind of service I'm after. Come, Edie." Her tone was pleasant, but there was no mistaking the underlying menace.
Edie eyed the spur on the woman's arm and hesitated, fighting the rush of adrenaline that screamed at her to run. Trapped on a platform wedged into the top corner of the freight car, she had nowhere to go.
"I don't want to start making threats," the woman added.
Edie grabbed the console with both hands and pulled herself to her feet, locking her knees to stop them shaking. The navpilot allowed her to squeeze past and climb down the ladder, following close behind. Torres was nowhere in sight.
A man moved out from the shadows of the crates. A serf. The gray uniform, the close-cropped hair, the powerful muscles gave it away. Lithe muscles, the result of hard physical work rather than grav weights or sterospikes. He was a roughly handsome brute, years of labor etched into his face, and he stared at her with unwavering intensity. Edie forced herself to stare back, felt the heat of defiance rise. She'd heard it was never wise to back down to a serf.
Behind him, the freight car's main hatch slid open a fraction and a second serf slipped inside the car. He shrugged his shoulders into Torres's jacket. The simmering panic in Edie's gut started to boil.
"Where's Torres? Is he dead?"
The woman ignored her. "What's it look like out there, Ademo?"
"All clear for now," the second serf grunted. He snapped the hatch closed and ambled over.
The woman turned to Edie. "Listen carefully. My friends here have boundary chips in their heads--you know what that means?" Edie nodded mutely. "I need you to deactivate the chips so we can leave."
"Deactivate them? I don't even know if that's possible."
"Make it possible."
A surge of anger overrode Edie's fear. "And what the hell makes you think I'll do anything to help--"
Ademo moved quickly--a blur at the corner of her vision--and his hand closed around the back of her neck. She yelped as he shoved her forcefully to her knees. The sheer brutality of the act sent a wave of terror through her. Catching her breath, she kept perfectly still.
"You changed your mind yet, teckie?" He squeezed her neck so hard the blood vessels compressed and stars danced across her vision. She concentrated on staying conscious. Focused on a pair of boots--the other serf's boots--on the scuffs and scratches that crisscrossed the leather. The metal deck was ice cold against the palms of her hands.
"Steady on. Let's play nice," the navpilot said lightly, but it was an order.
"You're the boss, Lancer." Ademo released his grip, leaving Edie to grab the deck to stop from keeling sideways. A dizzying wave of blood rushed to her head.
The navpilot--Lancer--addressed the other serf. "Finn, you're up first. Ademo, get back out there and reboot those railing sensors. I'm going to prep the car."
Ademo muttered a reply and left, his boots clunking dully. Lancer headed to the ladder leading to the maintenance platform, where Edie had been working only moments before. Halfway up the ladder and still climbing, she looked down.
"You've got about ten minutes before these two are reported missing. I intend for us to be on the far end of this track by then." She moved to the back of the platform, where the consoles were, out of sight.
Edie forced her breathing to slow as the nausea passed and her mind clicked back into order, overwhelmed with relief that Ademo had gone. But he'd be back within minutes and furious if she wasn't ready. The serf Finn had not yet spoken a word. What would he do if she simply ran? The hatch was open a crack, three meters to her right, and she might get past Ademo if he was occupied under the railings. Neither serf was armed, although that hadn't stopped them taking out Torres.
All she had to do was raise the alarm. She weighed the options. The navpilot wanted her to help a couple of Crib serfs escape. That was all. She knew nothing about these men except that they were convicts. Perhaps they deserved freedom, perhaps not, but when she thought about it--which wasn't often--she'd always found it distasteful that they could be bought and sold as property for the duration of their sentences.
She resolved to go along with it and make sure she got out alive. Talas Prime had half a dozen serf gangs onsite, maintaining the gate around Talas's jump node. What did she care if two laborers jumped ship?
She hauled herself to her feet. Finn took a step forward and caught her arm to steady her, but she shook him off sharply. He was a head taller than she, with a solidly imposing build. She'd feel more in control of the situation with him sitting down, so she indicated a nearby crate. He took the hint.
Edie reeled out a line from her tool belt and pressed one end to his left temple, over an old scar. The other end she pressed to the matching position on her temple. A direct connection through the embedded lines in her fingertips seemed too intimate, considering the situation.
She let her eyes glaze as her wet-teck interface sought out the connection. A crude flash of data caught her by surprise. She gasped and pulled back.
"That's some piece of work," she spluttered.
Finn's lips twitched in what was perhaps a bemused apology. He regarded her steadily, uncommunicative, very still. Perhaps he recognized her--her job took her all over Talas Prime in the course of a normal day, following fault logs from TrafCon to the warehouses to the docks. With his head tilted up, Edie could see the narrow metal strip across his throat--a voice snag. That explained his silence. Someone must have taken offense at what he had to say.
Swallowing hard, she sent out feelers again. This time his chip spat out a few curt phrases of pidgin but let her in.
She probed deeper. This was definitely not a Crib chip, and that made her wonder what the serf's background was. Most likely he'd had a black market chip implanted in the past, and the Crib had hijacked the device for its purposes. She'd never explored a boundary chip before, but knew in theory how it worked. It wasn't supposed to fight her like this. The chips were primed to receive regular signals from a marker, placed within the area to which the serf was confined--in this case, somewhere on Talas Prime Station. If the serf moved beyond the marker's perimeter, the signal was lost and the chip reacted by detonating. It was an effective incentive to stay put.
Several layers of encryption protected the chip's receiver, but ultimately it was meant to be accessible. The boundaries would have to be changed every time the serf was moved to another job, and most serfs were freed eventually. There must be a way to deactivate it. Edie closed her eyes to concentrate on mapping the layers. The obvious course of action was to start at the first layer and work through each in turn. As soon as she tried that, a security blip courteously threatened to detonate if she didn't back off.
Well, killing the serf would be one way to facilitate her own escape, but she wasn't ready to do that yet. Ademo had better behave himself when it was his turn.
She withdrew and set about de-merging the layers instead. This wasn't something a regular op-teck might try, because it could go horribly wrong if the tiers started recombining at random. But she had tools at her disposal that a regular teck didn't--the wet-teck in her cerebral cortex created a smooth interface and she could keep the tiers separated but aligned, like melodies playing in counterpoint. She teased them apart one by one and imprinted a decoder glyph at each encryption point so the layers would be easy to find later.
At the fringes of awareness she heard Lancer call out for Ademo, then the sound of the outer hatch sliding open and closing again. Heavy footfalls jogged past. She allowed their voices to filter through to her consciousness.
"Just checked the bulletins," Lancer told Ademo. "Your escape's been reported. They're on the alert. First thing they'll do is lock down the docks."
Edie's heart skipped a beat. Station security would be here soon.
Ademo swore as he climbed up to the maintenance platform. She heard the two of them arguing. Lancer tried to mollify him, assuring him they would make it out in time. As if to confirm this, the car suddenly powered up, servos whining, hatch clicking shut.
"What the hell are you doing?" Ademo screamed. "We can't leave yet!"
"Calm down," Lancer said. "I didn't do anything. It's queuing up on auto."
It sounded like the woman's patience with the anxious serf was wearing thin. They exchanged more angry words. Edie tried to block out the sound but it was no use. She opened her eyes, keeping the link on standby.
The striplights had powered on. A milky glow illuminated Finn's face, a handspan from hers. Strongly masculine features, olive-brown skin weathered around the eyes. He might have been five years her senior, or fifteen--impossible to tell.
He was staring at her throat, at the pearlescent inlay between her collarbones. She wrenched together the lapels of her coveralls to hide it. Now he looked straight into her eyes. His penetrating gaze both frightened and compelled her, his eyes reflecting two pinpoints of light that hid a depth of experience beyond her understanding and destroyed her determination to not back down.
She looked away quickly, steadying her breathing, and focused on the link, gathering the strands of data together and double-checking they were fully separated before going back to find the first glyph. The encryptions were standard Crib fare, and it was now only a matter of time before she could break through them.
She hesitated. She could delay, hope Security showed up, hope TrafCon realized what was happening. . .
The car shuddered and grated against its railing. It started moving.
Startled by Lancer's voice, Edie turned toward the maintenance platform just as the first code of Finn's chip locked into place and the second glyph sang out, demanding her attention.
Lancer leaned over the handrail. "How do I stop this thing? Where's the manual override?" She sounded annoyed but not particularly concerned.
They would clear the dock and be out on the main track within seconds. Unless the docks were locked down soon, there was nothing to stop the car traveling all the way out to its destination--presumably Lancer's waiting ship. And at some point along that track, the boundary chips would fire.
"It's under TrafCon control," Edie replied. "You can't stop it." There was a way, but it would take several minutes to climb up into the platform, patch in, and trigger the necessary overrides. And both serfs would be dead by then.
Lancer was yanked backward and Ademo appeared at the handrail. "You, teckie! Get over here and help me!" He moved out of view again, and the sounds of a struggle came from the platform.
Edie remembered Ademo's earlier brutal rage and went cold with fear. Pulling back, she reached up to disconnect the line from Finn.
Finn forced the word through locked vocal cords, little more than a hoarse breath. His hand closed firmly around her wrist, but not painfully so. It was his eyes that held her there. Behind her and above, the navpilot cried out. The spur fired once, the round sizzling harmlessly into the bulkhead.
Edie twisted her wrist and Finn released it abruptly, catching her by surprise. In his eyes she saw a calm, accepting trust--the knowledge she would save him.
She would try anyway.
Pressing her eyes closed, she filed rapidly through the glyphs, setting each one to its task. Her mind flooded with the datastream, the familiar melody she both welcomed and despised. Her subjective sense of time slowed as the biocyph thrummed its rhythm and each tier sang its tune.
It was a juggling act, keeping the glyphs balanced, but one by one they clicked into place. She was aware of the sporadic jolting of the car, of Ademo coming down the ladder, screaming in a wild panic. He must have jumped the last couple of meters--she heard him land heavily and crash into the crates, thrashing about.
The datastream slipped away, the last eddies chasing down the link like whispered echoes. The car swayed and purred. Edie was shaking again. Then the warmth of human flesh as a hand cupped her cheek and Finn disconnected the line at her end, then at his.
She opened her eyes as he stood up. His gaze flicked over her shoulder and refocused, and Edie swung around to see what had caught his attention.
"Ah, jezus." Lancer staggered down the ladder, nursing a gash across her knuckles. "And I so hoped for a happy ending."
Ademo lay crumpled against a pile of crates, eyes open, filled with blood, seeing nothing. More blood oozed from his left ear and trickled down his jaw. He must have given up wrestling for Lancer's spur before plunging down the ladder to get to Edie. Lancer still wore the weapon but it was retracted. She hadn't used it to kill Ademo. The boundary chip had killed him.
Lancer addressed Finn. "Glad to see you made it through. Told you she was good." Then her brow knitted as she looked to Edie. "Why's the car moving?"
Edie dragged her eyes away from Ademo's blank, bloodied face. "It's automatic. Once he fixed the railing, the car took its assigned place in the loading schedule." She was mentally exhausted and her voice was unsteady--the kickback from making her wet-teck interface jump through hoops--but the words flowed easily enough now it was over.
"How long until they lock us down?" Lancer asked.
"I don't know. I don't know why they haven't yet. They're probably wetting themselves in all this excitement." Edie had spent three months dealing with Talas Prime Security, and knew the routine. "Give them time to triple-check their emergency protocols," she added bitterly. The serf would still be alive if they'd acted faster.
The navpilot grinned. "Hooray for red tape."
The whine of the car's servos changed pitch abruptly and the docking hatch mated with a soft clunk.
"We're here." Lancer stepped around Ademo's body and raised her arm to allow the spur to slide forward. It clicked ominously into place.
Edie felt Finn's presence close behind her. She was trapped.
"Hey--I tried to do what you wanted. I couldn't save them both."
"Don't worry," Lancer said, "you did the galaxy a favor letting that one pop. Never would have recruited him if I'd known what a shit he was. Finn, get the hatch."
The serf moved past Edie, a momentary brush of warmth. She shivered.
Lancer lowered her voice. "You did well. Honestly, I didn't think you could do it. Never heard of anyone hijacking a boundary chip before."
Edie frowned. If the navpilot thought she couldn't save the serfs, what was she doing here? As realization dawned, her unease returned.
"It's me you want."
"If you think I'm going anywhere with you--"
Lancer took a step closer, casually menacing. "You're about to get the offer of a lifetime, Edie Sha'nim, so think long and hard about your options before you reject it out of sheer stubbornness."
"I can't leave. I can't just walk away from my Crib contract."
"But I bet you'd love to, huh?" Lancer waved her spur toward the hatch as Finn snapped the doors open. "Go through there."
The mated hatch slid aside. Beyond it was the murky hold of a ship. Two men waited, shadowy shapes in the dark.
A siren blared through the freight car. One of the men in the hold gave a cry of alarm as the hatch doors started to close by themselves. He jumped up to help Finn shoulder them open.
Lancer clutched Edie's arm and pushed her toward the exit, the barrel of the spur bruising her ribs. "They've recalled the freight cars. Dammit, hold those doors!"
Edie grabbed the nearest crate and dug in her heels. If the hatch closed, there was nothing they could do to stop the car returning to the station. She'd be safe.
Lancer yelled and cracked the spur against the side of Edie's head. Disoriented, she tried to wriggle out of the navpilot's grasp. The hatch servos screamed in protest as the men forced them apart.
Something slammed into the back of Edie's knees, and her legs buckled beneath her. The scruff of her coveralls was wrenched aside by a huge black hulk of a man, a manic grin splitting his face. He hauled her up with ease and dragged her out. Struggling against such strength was useless, but she gave it her best shot.
She tripped over the lip of the hatch, and he released her. She tumbled into the hold of the ship, rolled down a ramp, and hit the musty deck. Hard. Her first bodyguard, Lukas, had taught her how to roll safely--years ago, eons ago--and she'd never once needed to know. Until now. She failed him dismally, slamming unceremoniously into the bulkhead, hitting her skull.
A face hovered nearby. A man--an angel with pale bright eyes, but she couldn't make out his words. The siren faded a notch as the hatch screeched shut, and half a dozen voices tumbled around her in confusion.
The cold of the deck seeped through her clothes. Her head throbbed.
Then a sharp pain against her neck brought instant relief, and she drifted away.
Copyright © 2010 by Sara Creasy
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