Children of Scarabaeus
|Series:||Scarabaeus: Book 2|
1. Song of Scarabaeus
|Sub-Genre Tags:||Galactic Empire|
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The crib is everywhere . . .
Edie Sha'nim believes she and her bodyguard lover, Finn, could find refuge from the tyranny of the Crib empire by fleeing to the Fringe worlds. But Edie's extraordinary cypherteck ability to manipulate the ecology of evolving planets makes her far too valuable for the empire to lose. Recaptured and forced to cooperate-or else she will watch Finn die-Edie is shocked to discover the Crib's new breed of cypherteck: children. She cannot stand by while the oppressors enslave the innocent, nor can she resist the lure of Scarabaeus, the first world she tried to save, when researchers discover what appears to be an evolving intelligence.
But escape-for Edie, for Finn, and for the exploited young-will require the ultimate sacrifice . . . and a shocking act of rebellion.
Edie Sha'nim was dying.
Surrounded by the hubbub of a busy border station, she huddled her knees to her chest and concentrated on remaining conscious. The pressure of sensory overload jangled her brain as the too-bright lights and too-loud shouts of travelers assaulted her from every angle. The molded plaz chair pressed into her spine like a row of knifepoints. As if frozen in blocks of ice, her fingers and toes pulsed with fire each time her heart struggled to squeeze one more measure of blood through her arteries.
Resting her cheek on her knee, she stared across the concourse to the large windows overlooking the jump node. She'd counted four incoming vessels in the hour or so she'd been sitting here. Counting was about all she was up for now--neuroshock had taken over her system, mincing up her brain, stripping her nerves, leaving every nerve ending screaming.
At any moment, the jump node would light up again and the ship that came through would be the one looking for her.
Her eyes flicked to the side--she was too exhausted to move her head--focusing as best as they could on Finn standing thirty meters away in the waiting area of the security checkpoint, talking to someone. He'd positioned himself so he could watch Edie while he talked. His gaze roved around the concourse every few seconds, then back to her and occasionally to the woman with him. She was, Edie presumed, a ship's captain--and with luck, their ticket off Barossa Station.
The concourse stretched out between Finn and Edie to opposite bulkheads, and was bulging at the seams with traders, spacers, and station crew. Some moved with purpose, others milled around the makeshift market stalls or chatted and argued in small groups.
At last, Finn walked back to her. He was speaking on his commlink, but she couldn't pick out the conversation over the background noise and he was done by the time he reached her. He looked grim--but no more so than he had for the past week. Considering her slow slide into catatonia, he didn't ask how she felt. He'd stopped asking four days ago--days that she'd spent disoriented and curled up in pain on a bunk. Flashes of light danced around his short dark hair like a broken halo. Her optic nerves could not be trusted.
"Cat's on her way with her trader pal," Finn told her.
Edie nodded her head once, which made her feel woozy. Her thready heartbeat stuttered with hope and fear. Cat's on her way--which meant the deal had gone well: the trader had accepted the payment they'd offered. The only question now was whether he'd stolen the correct drug for her. If he'd made a mistake, Edie was dead.
And the moment she died, the leash that bound Finn to her would break, killing him, too.
Taking the seat next to hers, Finn sat motionless and watched the crowd. The tension written on his face had become a familiar sight during the past week, the leash filling his head with a staticky echo of her desperation and disintegration. She had promised to fix the interference but was in no state to try now.
Through the blurred confusion of holoviz screens and billboards, Cat Lancer's approach was unmistakable--the elegant slender figure, the dark skin and flashing eyes, the gold flight suit. She walked with a barely noticeable limp, still recovering from a bullet wound. Formerly the navpilot of the rover vessel Hoi Polloi, Cat was now helping them. Yasuo trailed behind her--the Hoi's young engineer, as eager as the rest of them to evade their client Stichting Corp. A few weeks earlier, Stichting had organized the forcible recruitment of Edie and Finn by the Hoi's crew, and sent them on a deadly mission. Six of them had survived, but only four remained together. Gia the cook, a freed serf, they'd already shipped home, and Corky, senior engineer, had been cut loose as soon as they arrived at Barossa Station. Having convinced him that Captain Rackham had betrayed the crew, they trusted him not to turn them in--but no further than that. As far as they knew, he was drinking himself into a stupor at one of Barossa's many bars.
Captain Rackham was dead, shot by the least likely member of his crew to wield a gun. It was a fitting end for a man who'd tried to preserve his false war record by murdering his crew.
The Hoi Polloi was already on its way to the junkyard, and its scrap price would pay for their ride off Barossa. Even without the Crib plasma bolt that had blown out the ship's rear end, they would have had to dump the vessel anyway. The Crib would be looking for it, as would Stichting Corp, which believed as strongly as the Crib did that it owned Edie.
Beside Cat was a burly man in a smart jacket--the trader-thief Cat had hired to do their dirty work. If he'd done his job, done what Cat had recruited him to do, Edie's lifeline was only meters, seconds away. Anticipation made her limbs tremble.
Finn stood. Edie didn't trust her body to keep her upright, so she stayed put.
Cat introduced the trader as Beagle. "He's seen the goods and he's happy."
Beagle stared at Edie, not acknowledging Cat's statement. "You got the shakes, love?" He looked her over with a measure of disgust, like she was a drug addict in need of a fix.
Finn held out his hand, palm up. "Show me."
From his inside jacket pocked, Beagle whipped out a small box bearing the distinctive insignia of the Crib, a circle cradled by two arcs. He opened it, delicately removed a bright sliver of plaz the size of a grain of rice, and dropped it into Finn's palm.
"Only one?" Finn eyed him suspiciously.
One was enough--for now. Six months of life.
Beagle grinned. "It wasn't easy. The only way into that lab was through the front door. Bought myself an expensive ident and posed as a Crib doctor. Got a fascinating tour of the place." He turned the box around to show the contents. "Stole the stuff from under their noses..."
Edie wasn't listening. She stared into the box in disbelief--at row upon row of implants, neatly aligned. Years of life.
It was impossible. Neuroxin had to be distilled from the native vegetation on her homeworld of Talas, and the drug degraded after a few years. Edie was the only person who used these implants, so the lab manufactured only a few at a time. Why would they make so many at once?
Her heart sank as she realized what it meant. They looked right, but...
"Too many... You made a mistake," she whispered, wrapping her arms around her ribs as a wave of neuroshock ripped through her body. If she hadn't been sitting, she'd have fallen over by now.
"I don't make mistakes." Beagle sounded indignant. "You weren't expecting such a bounty, huh? Maybe we need to reconsider the price." He glanced behind, at Cat and Yasuo, both of whom had none-too-subtly boxed him in.
Finn already had an injector out and slotted in the implant. He turned on the built-in holo and tipped the readout toward Edie so she could read the micro-inscription. The magnified text swam in her vision. Neuroxin, batch #13-AA3. Crai Institute Research Labs, Talas. This was genuine. It made no sense.
Her relief lasted only a second, crushed by doubts. What if it was counterfeit? What if it was outdated and ineffective? What if the Crib had switched the drug for something else? But what was left of her rational mind knew that couldn't be the case. The Crib--specifically, her boss, Liv Natesa--didn't want her dead. They just wanted her back.
Cat's commlink beeped and she glanced at the message.
"We've got three Crib battlecruisers headed this way."
Edie felt like all the air had been pushed out of her lungs. A surge of adrenaline set her heart racing, and Finn flinched as his chip reacted.
"How long?" he asked Cat.
"My buddy in TrafCon just picked them up on a node beacon. They'll be in-system in about three minutes. Then we've got maybe fifteen until they dock. The general alert will go up in a few seconds and I don't think Barossa's guests are going to be happy."
Beagle looked petrified. "They're after me."
"Three battlecruisers? Don't flatter yourself." Finn took Edie's arm and pushed up her sleeve. He gave her a questioning look and she nodded. They had to try it. He flashed a microbial flare across her skin and injected the implant inside her elbow. With alarm, Edie noticed that his hands shook. She tried to calm down to ease the interference along the leash.
Beagle wasn't far wrong. His ship, or perhaps even his body, had been tagged. She'd expected it. The Crib needed Edie, and Edie needed neuroxin. Talas was the only place to find the drug, so the Crib had to simply sit back and wait for her, or someone she paid, to steal it. The trader needn't have bothered with his disguise--Natesa and her cronies wanted him to steal the implants and lead them back to Edie.
The station's PA system chimed. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is TrafCon announcing for your pleasure the imminent arrival of our noble allies, represented today by three warships chock full of friendly milits." There was more than a touch of insolence in the young male voice.
The reaction on the concourse was immediate and dramatic. People ran and yelled. Some pushed their way toward the docking bays, others to the lifts leading to the cargo bays. Many gathered around the windows that overlooked the jump nodes, staring out with disbelief written on their faces. Edie turned in that direction just as the incoming node flared in an arc of light. The light faded and three white dots emerged.
Beagle's face paled and sweat popped out of his pores. "What the hell is the Crib doing out here? They have no jurisdiction."
"Crib Interstellar Patrol has ordered us to shut down the docks," the voice continued over the PA. "It will take us a few minutes to comply."
Cat grinned. "That's Digger up in TrafCon. Barossa can't argue with three battlecruisers, but I asked Digger to give all these guilty consciences time to leave if they want to."
Plenty of people wanted to leave. The concourse was in pandemonium and the docking bays were no doubt even worse. Beagle looked around at the mayhem.
"The box, please?" Cat asked sweetly.
Beagle gave it one more try. "I got you good stuff and lots of it. The price has gone up."
"One implant or fifty--makes no difference." Cat dangled the key to the cargo hold in front of his face. "You can't sell it anywhere else. It's worth nothing to anyone except her. You get paid what we agreed on. Hand it over."
The payment was all the valuable antiques from Captain Rackham's collection on the Hoi. Beagle had nothing to complain about--other than the tag on his ship, which would soon land him in a Crib jail unless he could pull off a disappearing act.
Beagle clutched the box to his chest, unwilling to give it up, his face scrunched with indignation. Crib milits were only a few minutes from docking--Finn had no time for games. He grabbed the trader's forearm and twisted it away from his body, then closed his other hand around the box. When Beagle didn't let go, Finn pushed forward suddenly and jarred the man's shoulder, knocking him off balance. Finn easily extracted the box from his fingers, and Beagle, a head shorter than the big man and not in the best shape, didn't try to get it back.
"Is it working?" Cat asked Edie.
Edie had felt nothing when the implant first went in. Now a calm presence seeped through her veins, blanketing and shielding her from the surrounding hyperstimulation of colors, sounds, and movements. The nausea that had been her constant companion for a week was lifting, and she moaned in relief. Her senses dulled but felt more closely linked to reality.
"I feel okay," she said. "I'm okay." After having no neuroxin in her bloodstream for days, the sudden surge of the drug had a dramatic effect. Her biocyph-enhanced cells immediately metabolized the chemical--toxic to other humans--and its byproducts flooded her nerve endings. Her muscles relaxed and she sagged in the chair. Finn's warm fingers closed over her wrist as he checked her pulse.
Cat looked over Finn's shoulder at the approaching vessels. When Edie followed her gaze, she saw that ships were already fleeing Barossa and heading to the outgoing node.
"You sorted out our ride?" Cat asked.
"Over there." Finn nodded toward the area where he'd been talking earlier to a ship's captain. Then he leaned over Edie with concern in his eyes and pushed sweat-soaked hair off her forehead, cupped her chin with his hand--a steady hand, this time. "Okay?" Finn's intense gaze burned through her as his thumb dragged along her jaw before dropping away, his expression fading to something lighter and safer.
He pulled her out of the chair, supporting her with his arm around her back, and picked up one of their two duffle bags. Edie felt dizzy and numb but already stronger as the neuroxin pumped through her body. The knowledge that she was not going to die--not from neuroshock, anyway--was enough to keep her conscious and upright.
She turned to Beagle as Finn tried to get her walking. "Your ship's tagged." Her voice was drowned out by the noise of the panicking crowds. She repeated herself, louder this time. "Your ship's tagged. They followed you here. Get off the station and pay a good infojack to destroy that tag."
"What?" Beagle was furious. He rubbed his wrenched shoulder. "Why is the Crib interested in one lousy box of meds?"
"Just leave." Cat tossed the cargo hold key at him before moving quickly through the crowd toward the security checkpoint.
"It's you, isn't it?" Beagle yelled. His panicked eyes bored into Edie's. "They want you. Who the hell are you?"
The desire to explain made Edie pause. Who was she? The Crib's protégée and pawn, its most successful cypherteck, its least loyal citizen. Unwitting creator of the new face of Scarabaeus, the world she'd tried to save. Abductee, fugitive, Finn's partner in crime and his constant companion until they could find a way to cut the leash.
No words came out of her mouth. Her brain was still sluggish. And this trader was irrelevant, in the end. She'd warned him--there was nothing more she could do.
Finn turned Edie around and they followed Cat, with Yasuo behind them holding the second duffle bag. Finn's strength and heat bled through her jacket and into her bones. Every step was easier than the last, and her senses were settling back to normal. For the first time in a week, her thoughts coalesced into meaningful patterns and she was able to concentrate on more than just staying conscious. The captain up ahead... Passage off the station... A ride to the Fringe. And then, helping the Fringers with the cryptoglyph locked inside Finn's head--the key to saving the outlawed planets from ecological meltdown.
The concourse streamed with people rushing in every direction. The imminent arrival of three Crib battlecruisers was out of the ordinary on any station. But the lowlifes on Barossa had more reasons than most to consider it an emergency--and hundreds of spacers and dozens of ships did not intend to hang around to find out what was going on. A mass exodus was under way.
The security checkpoint was the barrier between the concourse and the docking bays. It only worked one way--arrivals were checked on their way in, departing spacers were not. Barossa was just outside the border of Crib space and had no interest in following Crib procedures when it came to tracking people's movements. A couple of rovers, an escaped convict, a cypherteck on the Crib's most-wanted list--they should have no trouble leaving.
The woman who'd been waiting for them stood up and appraised the group. She wore clean, faded clothes and a cap on her head stamped with her ship's logo. The no-nonsense, hard lines on her face suggested she was a seasoned space traveler.
"This is Captain Xin," Finn said. "She's agreed to take us to Tallyho Station on the Medusa."
The captain nodded a greeting to Finn. "Are you ready to leave? We have company, it seems. The Crib doesn't send Lines unless it means business, and I've no desire to get caught up in Crib business."
"I agree," Finn said. "We're ready."
"Then there's just the matter of payment." She had a thick accent. "I thought you said there were four of you?"
Yasuo had disappeared.
"Shit." Cat looked around frantically. "Thought he was right behind us."
They scanned the crowd. In the hustle it was impossible to spot him.
Finn handed Cat his duffle bag. "I'll go look. You pay up and wait for me."
He didn't have tell them not to board without him. That could mean a death sentence for him. Not only was the chip in his head wired to explode if Edie died, it would also detonate if they were separated by more than two thousand meters. Having recruited him as Edie's bodyguard, the rovers had thought the setup provided a good incentive for Finn to protect her.
"We leave in three minutes," Xin called after Finn.
"Kid's probably buying a souvenir," Cat told her with a tight smile.
Edie knew better. Yasuo had always struck her as a bit skittish. He'd been silent during their plans over the past week, just going along with them, never really saying what he wanted to do. Now he'd finally decided to go his own way. That would've been fine if it weren't for the three battlecruisers about to dock. They couldn't risk him being captured by the Crib. Unlike Corky, he knew their intended destination.
While Edie kept a lookout for Yasuo, Cat completed the payment with Xin. Eager to depart before Barossa shut down the docks, the captain became increasingly anxious as the seconds ticked by.
"Four minutes until the docks are locked down," the PA announced.
"I'm afraid I can't wait any longer. Follow me." Xin looked from Cat to Edie. "Unless you want--" She stopped suddenly, staring at something over Edie's shoulder. Her brow pinched. "We have a little problem."
Edie spun around to see what she was looking at. Every holobill and viz on the concourse showed the same display. Fugitive at large. Apprehend upon sight by order of Crib Central Command. Reward offered.
Accompanying the text was a larger-than-life revolving mug shot of Edie.
Copyright © 2011 by Sara Creasy
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