The Blind Ones [Read it online here!]

the blind ones cover art

Roland Geelen returns to Chuku, his home planet, on a mission — but with reluctance. Memories of his mother’s death haunt him, plus he still owes Slow Eddie a lot of money. However, if he succeeds in buying artwork from the Ulle artist Vialiki Kazurka, his wealthy client will reward him substantially.

He knows it won’t be easy, and might even be dangerous — Kazurka is known to collect lethal weaponry, after all — but the payoff will allow him to pay off Eddie and live free again.

The catch? No one knows exactly where Kazurka has hidden. Rumors put her in a small town in the far north, but Roland’s budget limits him to rental ground transportation. With a professional pilot at the wheel of a crawler and plenty of supplies, what could go wrong?

This story originally appeared in Beyond the Skyline, a collection of science fiction stories by Nashville writers.

The Blind Ones
Copyright 2013, Kim William Justice

I thought I’d seen the last of Morakinyo Station ten years ago when I boarded the train to New Lagos Spaceport. I thought escaping off-world would give me time to pay back the money Slow Eddie loaned me for my mother’s hospice bills. I figured I’d get a great job selling rock jockey powersuits for a year or so, make a bunch of big commissions, pay off Eddie, and put the whole business behind me.

Things didn’t turn out quite the way I planned.

I was back, hurrying through the concourse of that foul-smelling place, pack in hand, the dome above me gray with dust. My throat hurt from three days of Chuku’s iron-flavored air. The same vendors as before sat in their tiny, multicolored stalls. The wrinkled gentleman selling grilled snake-on-a-stick hadn’t aged a day.

Morakinyo was Chuku’s northernmost city, at the end of the maglev lines, a few hundred klicks from the polar ice cap. I had been hired by the CEO of a major asteroid mining company to locate the alien artist Vialiki Kazurka and negotiate the purchase of one of her works. Kazurka was one of the Ulle, rulers of an ancient interstellar civilization spanning more than ninety star systems, in contrast with humanity’s paltry five. Kazurka was best known as for her dazzling kinetic sculptures, her violent temper, and her refugee status. At the prospect of an arranged marriage to the royal family of a rival hive, she fled to Earth and demanded asylum. Earth denied her protection, but they also didn’t help the Ulle retrieve her. In retrospect, her ambiguous status revealed a lack of vision on the part of Earth’s leadership.

Over a three-year span, she’d travelled from Earth to Mars and then to Chuku, her behavior becoming more and more erratic along the way. She began collecting exotic weaponry to defend herself against imagined Ulle spies she believed were pursuing her. She was last spotted at the Morakinyo Station branch of an air transport company. My after-hours conversation with the clerk who helped her revealed she’d booked their largest heavy flyer to take her equipment to Uriel’s Drop, a frontier town.

After I reported my findings, my client instructed me to arrange overland rather than air transport to Uriel’s Drop because it would be cheaper and would draw less attention. Few visit the place for pleasure, so every flyer touchdown is a major event, greeted by dozens of curious onlookers. Crawlers and heavy trucks are common there, so I’d be practically invisible. Kazurka, burdened by her unusual appearance and the bulky, complicated equipment she needed to create her art, did not have the luxury of stealth.

My client’s urgency allowed me no time to honor my mother’s grave on the east side of town. I promised myself I’d visit her when I was done.

***

Crossing the rough terrain between Morakinyo and Uriel’s Drop meant renting a crawler. It would take at least three days to get there, depending on Chuku’s often-violent weather. On the plus side, compared to the cramped rental flyers my expense account could cover, a crawler would have plenty of room and anchor points on the roof to tie down the sculpture. I’m not sure if even Vialiki’s smallest works would fit inside an affordable charter flight.

***

My client wanted absolute secrecy. He even insisted I tell no one that I once worked for his company. My cover story was that I’d spent the past ten years living in the Ikoku arcology south of New Lagos. If everything went according to my client’s plan, he’d get his sculpture, Vialiki would make a tidy sum, and I’d receive a nice, fat bank deposit. I’d pay Eddie and be on my way. Within a week, I’d return to Harmony Orbital and resume my part-time job doing low-profile investigations for extra cash. Cheating lovers, missing boys who’d run off with their girlfriends—that kind of thing.

Even though I was a certified crawler pilot, every shop I visited insisted on providing their own driver-mechanic, no matter how much money I offered. I understood their reluctance—you don’t let just anyone loose with such an expensive machine—but I didn’t want to get an innocent crawler pilot killed. Given Vialiki’s famous temper and her collection of exotic weapons, the fewer people involved, the better.

The vendor I chose wasn’t the cheapest in town, but they had solid, well-maintained equipment. My sources said they were trustworthy—as crawler dealers go. Their Blumenthal R5500 had complete service records—everything on schedule and by the book.

The big green machine looked factory fresh, but was almost as old as I. The rear cabin had four bunks and a small galley. It rode on six huge metal-mesh tires. It was perfect for rough territory. It had been designed and built on Chuku, for Chukan conditions, based on similar machines on other colony worlds. As expensive as space transport is, it makes no sense to ship such large, mundane machines from Earth or Mars. Most equipment bigger than a loaf of bread tends to be made on-world. That sometimes puts us decades behind Earth in terms of technology, but it saves a lot of cash.

I was dubious about the driver, Ofure Dosu. She was petite, with dark brown, close-cropped hair and mocha skin much lighter than mine. She wore the company’s uniform of dark blue coveralls, but I just couldn’t see her as a crawler tech. She looked like she could barely lift a wrench, much less perform maintenance on heavy equipment. According to the shop foreman, however, she was one of his best employees, both as pilot and mechanic.

I chatted about nothing with my salesman while the back office processed the deal. The waiting area reeked of burned coffee, industrial lubricants, hand degreaser, and metal shavings.

The cashier waved to get our attention. I placed my thumb on the smudged biometric reader to approve the transaction, anxious about the expense. My budget was substantial but it did have an upper limit. I was getting closer and closer to that figure and had barely gotten started.

***

The hangar doors clattered open. Stuffing my bag behind the passenger’s seat, I climbed in. The interior had been cleaned and disinfected and the floor mats were still damp. The harsh scent of pine air freshener filled the cabin. I took in the view—rolling hills covered with a low scrub of spiky native vegetation, bright red and deep purple. It was a striking change from foliage farther south, where green Earth plants were more common. A wide dirt track split the view—the first segment of our trip to Uriel’s Drop.

Ms. Dosu walked around the vehicle, completing the pre-departure checklist. She climbed into the pilot’s seat and slammed the reinforced door with a loud clang.

She’s stronger than she looks, I thought.

The turbine under the cockpit grumbled to life. Its muffled whine climbed in pitch, settling into an almost inaudible rushing noise as it reached idle.

“Mr. Geelen, are you ready?” she asked.

“Please call me Roland.”

“Then likewise use my given name: Ofure. The sooner we leave, the sooner we arrive, yes?”

“Sounds good to me.”

She toggled several switches and adjusted the speed-control levers. The machine crept forward, barely fitting between the rusty corrugated iron doors. Once outside, Ofure accelerated at a gradual pace. I relaxed a little when I saw the care with which she drove. I settled in and watched the crimson landscape pass as our machine crested the first hill.

***

At sundown we slowed. Ofure piloted the big vehicle off the road, into the middle of a low clump of purple plants with broad leaves. She brought the engine to idle, then shut it off. It ticked and pinged as it cooled. I glanced at the map on my hand terminal. We hadn’t traveled as far as I expected.

“How much longer to Uriel’s Drop?” I asked. “We’re not even a quarter of the way. I thought this was supposed to be a three-day trip.”

She nodded toward the road.

“That path ends soon. The land beyond is rough and not mapped in detail. Let me guess: you estimated travel time based on straight-line distance and average crawler speed.”

“I also asked a few people, back at the station,” I said, a little defensive.

“They exaggerated or were ignorant. This is not a journey many attempt. The same trip by flyer would take less than two hours. You want to hurry, yet you choose to take the slowest conveyance possible. Why is that?”

“I have a terrible fear of flying. It makes me crazy.”

Ofure gave me a look of impatience.

“Roland, you reek of space; do you know that? It’s obvious from your walk. You’re not used to real gravity. You’ve been off-world for years.”

She was right, but my employer’s stipulations kept me from telling her the truth. After I left Chuku, I did sell powersuits, just like I planned—for almost a month. I got fired for my bad attitude, heartsick and prickly after my mother’s death. I bummed around Wheel Two for a few months doing odd jobs, barely scraping by, sleeping in little-used corners of the space station, unable to raise the cash for a ticket home.

Broke and hungry, I signed on as an asteroid miner, the last resort for a lot of us. Once I passed the physical exam, the company put me through a three-month training course, then installed the strength and speed enhancements I’d need to push rocks around in space. I got danger pay, confined quarters, stale air, and all the adrenaline I could eat. I put in the legal maximum of five years’ duty and then started drawing my subsistence-level pension, living in a cheap apartment with four roommates on Harmony Orbital. None of this information could I divulge to Ms. Dosu.

“No, really,” I said. “I’ve just spent a lot of time in the arcologies near New Lagos. Not a lot of open space there.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Of course. And I’m merely a crawler tech. I’m sure I’m mistaken.” She ticked a few items off the shutdown checklist. “The last time I took this route to Uriel’s Drop, it took five days. We have sufficient food and fuel for the trip, however long it lasts.”

She opened her door and grabbed a bundle from behind her seat.

“Would you assist with this netting?” she asked. “We need to cover the crawler. It is a tempting prize to some.”

“Of course. Happy to help,” I said.

After my lie, I was eager to ingratiate myself to Ofure. While I could pilot a crawler, I couldn’t repair one. A day of travel across that rough country convinced me our journey might include a breakdown or two, in which case I’d need her expertise. I was dependent on her skill, and the trip would be more pleasant if I had her goodwill.

The netting’s deep plum color mimicked the vegetation around the crawler, and it was scented to match the plants’ creosote and vinegar odor. Tangles in the netting and the vehicle’s bulk conspired to slow us. I thought I saw something flit by far overhead, but when I turned to catch a glimpse, the sky was empty.

Once the camouflage was cinched down to Ofure’s satisfaction, we entered the living space behind the cockpit. We shared a pre-packaged meal, then retreated to bunks on opposite sides of the room to sleep.

***

I woke in darkness to the sound of large creatures shambling past in the brush outside. They slammed against the crawler hard enough to knock me to the floor.

“Hey!” I said.

“Be quiet,” Ofure hissed. “Voices invite their attention.”

Banging and clattering came from the front of the vehicle. Violent shaking followed, and I feared we might overturn. I slid across the floor as one side of the crawler, then the other, was lifted high in the air. After a burst of intense knocking and clattering from underneath, our attackers lifted the vehicle and dropped it with a crash. Metallic scraping and screeching surrounded us.

After several minutes of chaos, whatever had taken an interest in us grew bored or found something else to do. The shaking and pummeling stopped. I heard a large creature—much bigger than those earlier—slither along the length of the crawler. When silence returned, the floor was tilted at an odd angle.

“They are gone,” Ofure said from the darkness. “There is nothing we can do now except sleep. In the morning, we will evaluate our situation.”

“What were those things?”

“I do not wish to discuss them now. We will talk in the morning.”

Unable to see in the darkness, I felt my way back to my bunk. I heard Ofure’s fast, ragged breathing from across the room. She flailed in her bed as I fell into an uneasy sleep.

***

Ofure shook me awake. Confused, I blinked in the bright morning light. She looked exhausted. I wondered if she’d slept at all.

“There are problems,” she said. “Please join me outside.”

I rolled out of bed to follow her.

The low sky was filled with black, fast-moving clouds. I groaned as I checked the weather on my hand terminal. One of Chuku’s famous storms was approaching. It would reach us in less than an hour and would continue for at least twelve. Now it would take even longer to reach our destination.

“This weather is not the worst of it,” Ofure said, her mouth a tight line. “Observe. The Blind Ones took tribute in the darkness.”

I stepped back a few paces and examined our vehicle. The netting was gone. The Blumenthal didn’t look like the same machine. Deep, gleaming gashes ran the length of its steel body. There were large dents in the roof. Paint was scraped away in dozens of places. Four of the six tires were off their hubs and lay as far as ten meters away. One had a big bite taken out of it. I shuddered.

“I’ll signal for help,” I said.

Ofure shook her head.

“No good. A tow rig sets out now, it arrives after dark. We cannot remain another night. We have whetted the Blind Ones’ appetite. They will not be so gentle when they return.”

“What do you suggest? We can’t move with four wheels missing, and hiking back to Morakinyo doesn’t sound like a great idea.”

“Correct. Backpacking is not advised, but the R5500 can function on as few as four wheels. I will reattach the three undamaged tires. I can have us on our way before the storm arrives.”

“You can fix this yourself, in the middle of nowhere?” I asked.

“I have the skills and the tools. Will you assist?”

“Of course. I’m not a trained mechanic, but I’ll do what I can.”

“Excellent. Let us begin.”

Ofure strode toward the farthest tire. I hurried to catch up.

“How are we going to move that thing?” I asked. “It must weigh a thousand kilos.”

“One thousand five hundred and forty-five kilograms,” she said as she put on a pair of metallic gloves. “I’ll roll them to the crawler, reattach them, and we will be in motion again. Not a problem.”

“How will you set them upright, much less roll them? There’s not a forklift within a hundred klicks.”

Ofure continued marching. “I can handle them. Don’t worry.”

Upon reaching the tire, she squatted and slid her hands beneath it. She stood in one smooth motion, bringing the tire with her. She gave it a hard push. It glided upward and wobbled before remaining upright.

I stared at the small woman.

“You’ve had work done,” I said.

“My friend Roland—you have no idea.”

“You’d be surprised. I spent time in the mining business down south,” I lied again, improvising a plausible story. “If you took away their enhancements, a lot of those guys were only a quarter human. You got the full kit: reinforced skeleton, replacement musculature, and a nervous system speed bump—maybe more.”

“And you? Were you office staff or were you in the mines?” she asked.

I looked away.

“I was in the pits. I had work done, too. Nowhere near as extensive as you, though. I got a loan from the company for speed, strength, and machine interfacing. I could maybe lift something half as heavy as that tire.”

She frowned and studied the dark sky.

“Useful information. The repairs will proceed more quickly with two enhanced persons available.”

I nodded, and we put our shoulders to the wheel. Literally.

***

Rain pounded down as Ofure torqued the last nut. I stood behind her with arms spread, holding an orange tarp as a shield to keep the worst of the storm from her work. Blue lightning arced through the clouds, followed immediately by thunder. She gathered her tools and we rushed inside. Ofure started the turbine. Water seeped through a small crack in the roof; drops plunked on the rubber mat under my feet.

“We must leave this area before nightfall,” she said. “Make your safety harness snug. We will soon encounter uneven land. It will not be a pleasant ride.”

I tightened the webbing. We were back on the road. Once we traveled a few kilometers without any parts falling off, I sighed in relief.

“Are you going to tell me why someone with a gigacredit’s worth of enhancement is working as a wrench twister in the arse-end of nowhere?” I asked.

“Not today,” she said, peering with difficulty through the storm and struggling to keep the crawler on the road. “You will require a strong drink—perhaps two—to hear that tale.”

“Don’t you mean you’ll need a drink?”

A twitch of a smile crossed her mouth.

“I choose my words with care, Mr. Geelen.”

“Fair enough. Bear in mind, I’m from the city. I grew up in central Morakinyo, in the Soyinka Tower area. Biggest animal I ever dealt with was this dog I had growing up. What in the world were those ‘Blind Ones’?”

She glanced my way. The windshield wipers were at full speed. Lightning struck nearby, followed by almost deafening thunder. The crawler shook, rattled, and groaned as the road ended and we rolled onto rough, rock-strewn ground. Thick, mottled poles passed us—the native equivalent to Earth’s trees.

“I have never heard anyone explain them to my satisfaction. Some—always those who have never encountered them—dismiss them as mere rumor, stories to frighten children. Many early settlers thought they were the gods of Chuku, diminished in strength by the arrival of humans. They have never been captured. The few photographs of them are of poor quality, blurry and unconvincing. Homes, burrows, or nests? Never found.

“I think they are not so much animals as phenomena that occur when conditions are right. They cease to exist when those conditions also fade. The area where we stopped is usually safe. Perhaps our presence helped bring them into being.

“Remember, even though much of Chukan native life looks familiar, and we use terms like ‘plant’, ‘animal’, and ‘fungus’ for them out of convenience, Chukan biology is very different from that of Earth.”

“You say they don’t photograph well. What do they look like? Have you seen them?”

“I have. I would prefer not to describe them,” she said with a shiver.

***

At twilight, Ofure turned on the headlamps. The wipers were on their slowest setting and I hadn’t seen lightning in a while.

“Should we look for a place to stop?” I asked.

“Our repairs cost time. Having gotten my second wind, I’d like to make up some of that time. You are welcome to sleep. I intend to continue driving.”

“Or I could take over. I’m certified to pilot these, you know.”

Ofure adjusted the speed levers, bringing the crawler to a stop. She pointed at the maze of pole trees before us.

“Which way now? Left, right, or straight?” she asked.

She folded her arms, waiting for my response.

I studied the rocky turf, the trees, and the shadows of hills in the fading light. I silently cursed the wilderness. My hand terminal showed our position in latitude and longitude, and even displayed a satellite view of our surroundings, but the images weren’t detailed enough for me to tell which way to go. If I drove, we’d probably end up in a rocky cul-de-sac or stuck in mud.

“I get your point. You know this place—or at least understand it—and I don’t. I might as well be blind myself, here. I’ll try to sleep, now. Thanks.”

“Rest well.”

I climbed into my bunk. As my head hit the pillow, I felt the big machine move. Its rocking motion lulled me to sleep almost immediately.

***

We were still rolling when I awoke. In the cockpit, full daylight streamed through the windows. Ofure’s face was drawn and weary.

“We are past the most challenging part of our route,” she said. “The way ahead is relatively smooth and straightforward. Are you still willing to drive?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Good. I require sleep; however, this area is known for their activity—the Blind Ones, I mean. Once night comes, we must keep moving until daybreak or until we reach our destination.”

She halted the vehicle and we switched seats. Placing a dark blue cap on her head, Ofure settled in to nap.

“Aren’t you going to sleep in the back?” I asked. “It’s a lot more comfortable.”

“I will stay in case you require assistance. Allowing you to pilot this craft is a serious infraction that could result in disciplinary action—perhaps even the loss of my job—but we need to keep going. Knowing I am close at hand will allow me to rest easier. Keep a northeast heading and we should make Uriel’s Drop in a little over a day. Wake me when necessary.”

She pulled down the brim of her cap and slept.

***

Night came. As Ofure dozed beside me, we entered a cloud of dark, finger-length objects, fluttering in the headlights’ glare. The cloud became thicker. I couldn’t see the ground in front of us. I stopped the vehicle, locked the brakes, and got a lantern from overhead storage. My hand was on the door handle when Ofure interrupted. There was an intensity to her words I hadn’t heard before.

“If you value your life, do not open the door.”

“I was going to see if I could draw those things away from the crawler, with a light or something, so we can continue.”

“No. These are harbingers of the Blind Ones, who must be very close. We are indeed unlucky this voyage. We need to take cover in the back of the crawler before they arrive. It is the safest place.”

She released herself from her seat and turned toward the cabin.

“I want to see these things. I want to know what we’re dealing with,” I said.

“I do not wish to see them again. Though you do not know it, you do not wish to see them even once. Is this not sufficient encouragement for you to take shelter?”

“Go back to the cabin,” I said as I switched on the lamp. “I’ll join you shortly. I just want a glimpse.”

Ofure stared, then without comment turned toward the sleeping cabin.

There were fewer of the small black objects floating in the air. I opened the door and climbed down. A few of the flying forms struck my face. Some stuck to my hands, where they crept onto my forearms, leaving sticky trails. I peeled them off and tossed them to the ground. I wiped my hands on my pants.

Large, indistinct shapes moved among the foliage. I wanted to observe them without being crushed or torn apart, so I set out into the darkness. I figured I’d be safer away from the crawler.

I reached a low hillock and turned. The headlamps and running lights of the vehicle were obscured but the rear lights blazed. An amorphous, changing shape enveloped the crawler bit by bit. The dark thing was studded with short, spiky appendages. It felt its way along the painted steel surface as it bubbled and grew.

Smaller versions of the entity slid along the ground. Some were as small as infants while others were half the crawler’s size. They bumped against the vehicle, rocking it on its suspension. Distracted, I dropped the light. As I retrieved it from the litter of the forest floor, a dark shape whipped out and circled my ankles. It threw me against the rear corner of the crawler. Bright red words blinked across the lower section of my field of view: SEVERE DAMAGE SEEK REPAIR.

I landed face up, paralyzed. A fluid shape slid over my feet, then my lower legs. I was enveloped, my face covered by the thing, and I could see nothing. The creature yanked my limbs, twisting my left wrist. My skin tore as I struggled to free myself. The bones in my wrist turned to powder. My hand came free and was gone, along with two of my right fingers. My left leg broke under the harsh pressure. The pain was almost unbearable. I remembered a fellow miner dying before my eyes, crushed between two asteroids. My team was maneuvering them into our ship’s gripper for mineral extraction but one rock spun in a direction we didn’t anticipate, tearing the man to shreds in a matter of seconds.

I was barely able to breathe. Grinding, tearing sounds came from the crawler, much louder than during the previous attack. Something large and solid struck the earth next to my head; it slid and tumbled along the ground for several seconds before coming to rest. Another piece of the crawler landed nearby, then another. I lost consciousness.

***

I woke as the thing pinning me to the ground moved away. I took deep, ragged breaths. The sky was pale green. Morning was coming. Damage warnings still pulsed just below my line of sight. I called up my enhancements’ diagnostic menu. Self-repair systems engaged automatically when I was thrown against the crawler. It would take days for them to bring me back to full functionality. Power systems were good. The artificial parts of my nervous system had taken damage—the reason I hadn’t been able to move—but were regenerating at a decent pace. Musculature and skeletal enhancements were in bad shape. I was at about twenty percent of my normal capability. My leg had knit back together but was not at full strength. The stump of my left wrist was covered in a thick, black paste—the reason I hadn’t died from blood loss.

With some difficulty, I rolled onto all fours and vomited profusely. My eyes watered. I had trouble focusing on the scene around me. The crawler was completely dismantled. Parts of the drivetrain lay in disarray, including the glowing, smoking turbine rotor. The cabin and cockpit were shredded. I stood and explored the wreckage. My boot struck a jagged shard of woven carbon fiber. It was a chunk of my hand terminal, now in at least five pieces. It lay next to a large, metal suitcase with “O. DOSU” stenciled on it.

I was surprised to find a few items still intact, including my pack, various tools, and camping gear including a compass, water bottles, and travel rations. I gathered these in a pile before looking for Ofure. I expected to find her dead.

She lay in a shallow depression twenty meters from the wreckage. She was missing both legs and her left arm. I picked my way around a large, acrid puddle of fuel. Ofure did not move as I approached. She was not breathing. Bright metal bones and black artificial muscles jutted from torn skin. This was military-grade hardware—expensive, acquired off-world. She had an almost frightening level of enhancement. I guessed her only remaining human organ was her brain, and much of that could be artificial. Her face was torn open, revealing more artificial structure. Her lips were slightly parted. I balancing on my toes next to her. Her eyes, filmed over and abraded, open and unmoving, stared at the clear, green sky. The blank expression on her ruined face—so alive just hours ago—disturbed me more than any other part of the destruction around me.

As I closed her eyelids with my thumb and index finger, she grabbed my forearm. Her fingernails broke my skin. I yelped in pain. Blood welled around the tips of her fingers. Sharp filaments—five sharp needles—extended from her nails and sank into my flesh. Bright blue text ran across the upper edge of my vision:

UNENCRYPTED ENHANCEMENT LINK ESTABLISHED.
UNABLE TO CONFIRM SOURCE IDENTITY.
AUDIO COMMUNICATION REQUESTED.
UNKNOWN SENDER IDENTIFIES AS OFURE DOSU.
AUTHORIZE COMMUNICATION [Y/N]?

In all my time asteroid mining, I’d never had to use this capability of my enhancements outside of occasional mandatory practice sessions. I opened an audio channel.

Her mouth did not move but I clearly heard her voice inside my head.

You survive!

“I’m in better condition than you,” I said. “How can you still be alive? I was sure you were dead.”

She dug into my arm harder.

My case. Have you seen it?

“A big, metal suitcase with your name on it? Yes, I found it.”

Bring the case. Put it where I can reach it. My sight has been disabled, so I must ask you to put my hand on it for me when you bring it.

Ofure released my arm. I stood and surveyed her broken body. Maybe the case contained automated repair equipment I could use when she finished using it.

I hobbled to the case. It weighed almost nothing. I carried it to Ofure and placed her limp hand on the lid. Her fingers traced a complex pattern on the metal. The locks sprang free with a hiss and the case popped open.

It was empty.

I shook my head and knelt beside her. When I took her hand in mine, her nails dug into me, drawing blood again.

Put me in the case.

“My hand terminal’s broken. I can’t signal for help and I sure can’t carry you in that thing all the way to Uriel’s Drop. I’m not sure I can carry myself that far.”

She gripped my hand tighter. There was panic in her voice.

Put me in the case. Please, Roland. Put me in the case, close it, latch it, and leave it here.

“You’ll die.”

Can’t you see that I will certainly die if you leave me out in the open? Do you think I have lost the ability to reason? I have not. I do not have the luxury of time to debate or explain this request. Again I say: put me in the case, close it, latch it, and leave it here.

I didn’t move.

Do not worry. I will be attended to, once I am in the case and you leave this area. You must not be present when I am recovered, for reasons I cannot at present divulge.

“Who in the world will come for you? No one knows where we are, and it will take me days to reach Uriel’s Drop and get help for you. You’ll bake in that thing in the meantime.”

There was a note of humor in her voice when she responded.

Trust me. I have resources.

My shoulders slumped.

“I don’t like it but I’ll do what you ask.”

Thank you. I apologize for keeping you in the dark.

She let go of my hand. Her lifeless arm flopped onto the dry, red dust.

***

After sealing Ofure’s body in the case, I stuffed my pack and set off toward the northeast. From my last look at a map the night before, I estimated my destination was about a hundred klicks away.

The first few hills I passed were low, easy to cross. An hour or so after leaving Ofure, there was an explosion in the clear sky. I turned to look but could spot no debris, no tumbling aircraft. I saw a fast, dark fleck on the horizon. I continued walking for the next three days, stopping seldom.

As I traveled across the red landscape, I felt a continual itch in my damaged right hand and the stump where the Blind Ones had removed my left. I examined my wounds. I would have to live with a missing hand and fingers until I could find a repair facility. By the end of the second day, checking diagnostics, I was happy to note that my injured leg was at seventy percent strength.

***

It was early morning when I stepped over a low stone wall—the outer border of Uriel’s Drop. A chill mist hung in the air, not yet burned off by the low sun. Nearby were several colorful yurts—goatherds’ dwellings; beyond them lay a wide swath of pasture, then the town itself, composed mostly of rectangular daub buildings. As I approached the town and passed a small lumber mill, the smell of fresh-cut wood and the ringing of saw blades filled the air.

Vialiki Kazurka was here. If she followed her usual habits, she would put on occasional viewings of her kinetic sculptures in exchange for the locals’ cooperation in shielding her from nosy outsiders. I would take care not to annoy them—or Vialiki—lest I end up in a shallow grave on the outskirts of town. Finding her wouldn’t be easy. Getting her to part with one of her works might be even more difficult.

***

Having secured a room and breakfast, I strolled the main streets, looking for signs of Vialiki, her sculpture, or anything that might lead me to her. I kept my stump in my jacket pocket so as not to draw attention. The missing fingers on my right hand weren’t remarkable in a town of woodworkers.

“You ever seen an Ulle?” I asked the waiter as I sipped chai in an outdoor cafe.

“Nope,” he said with a frown. “Why you asking?”

“I heard they put on a good show. Flying lights, fireworks, and such.”

“No such thing here.”

“Too bad.”

All my conversations went that way. No one would admit to knowing Vialiki, or to having seen her works. Over the course of several days, I explored Uriel’s Drop from southwest to northeast. Near dusk of the fourth day, I found myself in the main shopping district. I took another seat in another cafe and ordered another chai. I was getting a little tired of the stuff, but I needed the caffeine.

I picked up the local tabloid from a rack near the door. Flipping through it, an article caught my eye: “Red Aura! Portent of Doom for Chuku?” At first glance, it was nothing but an overexcited description of red lights in the sky that schoolchildren had seen a few days earlier. Nothing noteworthy—unless you knew that for the Ulle, the color red symbolizes wandering, death, and rebirth, and that Vialiki’s sculptures are most often composed of patterns of floating lights. I decided to visit the area mentioned in the article. It was the best lead, really the only halfway decent lead, I’d found yet.

A shadow fell across the newspaper, making it hard to read in the dim cafe. Before I could turn to protest, a familiar voice spoke.

“I see you are educating yourself about local events,” Ofure said with amusement.

I set down my cup and turned. She was whole, not a scratch on her. She had the correct number of limbs, she was breathing normally, and her eyes gleamed with life. Instead of the crawler company’s uniform, she wore casual clothes—a black top with long sleeves, a loose-fitting pair of gray pants, and black boots. She had a military-looking green pack over one shoulder.

“Ofure. How—”

She shook her head and held up a hand to stop me.

“Not here.”

She sat across from me and signaled the waiter, who took her order for a cup of the local ginger tea.

“I’m glad I paid for full insurance on the crawler,” I said. “I doubt I’ll get my deposit back.”

“I should say not. Luckily for you, it was close to retirement and soon destined for the recyclers. I doubt you will get any flak from my employer. In a sense, you saved them time and effort by disposing of it ahead of schedule. They’ll get more in compensation for its destruction than they would have gotten turning it in for scrap.”

“You say ‘your employer’. Which employer, exactly?”

She narrowed her eyes.

“The crawler rental agency, of course.”

“You’re not who you pretend to be, Ofure.”

“Neither are you, Roland.”

“What do you want, exactly?”

Her tea arrived. She took a sip and found it satisfactory. Setting down her cup, she leaned across the table and spoke in low voice, almost a whisper.

“Again I say: not here. This place is not as unsophisticated as it seems. Let me finish my tea. ”

I studied her face. I wondered if they’d repaired her or just put her in a spare body. I could see no scars, no welds, no sign that she was anything other than fully human. She even smelled right, with a touch of soap and a hint of perfume. It’s an easy giveaway that someone’s gotten cheap work done when they smell like plastic.

“I am eager to hear what you have to say, but I will wait.”

She relaxed into her chair.

“It is pleasant here, isn’t it? I should visit the north more often.”

After finishing her tea, she set down the cup and dropped a few coins on the table—enough to cover both our drinks plus a generous tip. She stood.

“Walk with me,” she said.

Some distance from the cafe, I turned to Ofure.

“What are you involved in that requires such secrecy?”

She met my gaze and said, “We seek a missing bride with a price on her head.”

“Vialiki Kazurka.”

“Just so.”

“That’s a little hard to believe. Vialiki is that important?”

“Why are you here in Uriel’s Drop?” she asked.

“I’m here to acquire one of Vialiki’s kinetic sculptures.”

“That is what you were told, yes. In truth, I hired you.”

“Wait, that’s not right. My client is—”

“The CEO of the largest asteroid mining company in the Delta Pavonis system—the same company you once worked for. We threatened to make public a number of his indiscretions and convinced him to contact you. We even provided the funds for your trip. He did not choose you. We did, based on your service record with the company and your skill at finding missing persons on Harmony after your retirement. ”

“Who’s ‘we’, who can blackmail someone so high up?”

“Chukan diplomatic corps.”

We crossed an empty street. We were in the wholesalers’ district in late evening, closed shops and vacant sidewalks all around us.

“I’m stuck here with no transport and I still owe Slow Eddie the money I was supposed to get from—well, from you, I suppose—once I acquired a sculpture,” I said. “Does the deal still stand?”

“That depends on whether you succeed in finding Vialiki. Do not concern yourself with Slow Eddie. He is no one. I will deal with him when I return to Morakinyo. We sent you to investigate Vialiki’s whereabouts because we did not trust the military to use the light touch we require. We are stretched thin and could not reallocate our own people quickly enough. It was a better choice to send you here—even given our unfortunate setbacks.”

“How many spare bodies do you have, Ofure?”

She surprised me by smiling, then I realized it was a bitter grimace, not a smile of pleasure or happiness. She looked at the ground as we walked.

“More than I like. Mine is not a life you should envy.”

“With all your resources, why haven’t you found Vialiki?”

“My personal expertise is in weapons and military strategy, not tracking fugitives. Also, we’ve been distracted by other affairs and have almost no presence here. When does anything notable happen in Uriel’s Drop? Never, which is why we haven’t paid it much attention. Other than myself, we have one agent here, a techie with abysmal social skills. Sending her to look for Vialiki was never an option.”

“If this is so important, why not call in the military? Put the place under martial law and fly in a few thousand soldiers to look for her.”

“They would almost certainly kill her when she resisted capture. If they failed to capture her, they would annoy her sufficiently that she would kill numerous innocents, then herself, just out of spite. Returning her dead is not an option. The Ulle want her alive. Extreme delicacy is required. We are also under a deadline to return her. Yesterday would not be too soon.”

“Why the hurry?”

Ofure studied me, hesitating.

“This is closely-guarded information,” she said. “You don’t have clearance to know such things. On the other hand, we’re all dead if this goes the wrong way. Should we succeed, I need your promise to keep this confidential.” She pinned me with a hard look.

I nodded. “Of course, certainly. Not a word escapes my lips.”

“We are in a state of conflict with the Ulle. They declared war on us three months ago but withheld their attack, contingent on Vialiki’s return. We chafe at the idea of capturing her to satisfy the petty demands of internal Ulle politics, but our battle simulations predict utter defeat. The best case scenario ends with most of Chuku’s population dead and a small remainder dying of radiation poisoning and starvation. We return her to her people or we face a war we are guaranteed to lose.”

“What’s the worst case? If we fight them, I mean.”

“The Ulle would use a space-based gravitic weapon to grind our planet into a fine powder. No survivors. They would then attack Earth and Mars. Other human worlds would be defenseless. The human species would come to an end.”

“Not an pretty picture.”

“Correct, but let us return to the present difficulty. You have been exploring here. What have you found?”

“Just this.”

I showed her the newspaper article. She snorted and looked miffed.

“Those lights could be anything or nothing. This is a third-hand account of something local children might or might not have seen.”

“I’ve studied Vialiki’s background and history. Lights like these are practically her trademark. We find the lights, we find her.”

“How do you intend to locate her? There is scant information here.”

“Tonight we’ll visit Marble Arm, the area indicated in the story. It’s to the east.”

“I think this is a fool’s errand. I have no better suggestion, however.”

Ofure and I boarded the Marble Arm tram. We rode without conversation, the vehicle squeaking and creaking around us as other passengers boarded and disembarked.

***

We were the only passengers as we drew near to our destination. Ofure lifted her pack and zipped it open.

“I need to provide you with the means to subdue Ms. Kazurka, should I fail.”

She extracted two flat discs from her pack. Matte black and featureless, they were about six centimeters in diameter and two centimeters thick. She handed them to me.

“Keep these for easy retrieval. They were provided to us by the Ulle. If you are able to get close to the target, attach one to her person. Even through clothing or light armor, they will detect Ulle biology, latch onto her, and emit chemical and electrical signals that will render her immobile. At that point, we may safely retrieve her.”

“If she carries the firepower she’s rumored to have, there’s no way I’ll be able to get that close.”

“Nevertheless, we must make the attempt.”

“It would be a lot easier if I had two good hands and if half my enhancements hadn’t gotten damaged by our friends in the forest. You’ve got access to military-grade repair facilities. Any chance you could get them to fix me up?”

She gave me a wry smile. “If you help us retrieve Ms. Kazurka, I will personally arrange a visit to our best shop. They’ll make you better than new. I should know.”

“All right, then. I’ll do what I can.”

“That is all anyone can ask,” she said as she lifted her pack to her shoulder.

The tram drew to a halt.

Aurora Borealis streaked the sky with turquoise and green as we stepped onto the sidewalk near a stand of trees. Red, glowing dots floated far above the forest. We passed through a stone archway—the entrance to Marble Arm Park. Crickets sang. Tall, Earth-native pines lined a cracked and broken stone path, which after several minutes’ walk turned into a set of steep stairs set into a hill. We reached the top, where a short cobblestone walkway ended at a packed dirt path. We followed that path along a ridge connecting several additional hills. Again I thought I saw something dark above me, hovering nearby, but when I looked directly at it, the sky was empty.

We approached a stone tower perhaps ten meters tall. Above it and illuminating it, dozens and dozens of red, glowing spheres floated and dived. Atop the edifice crouched a squat figure in gleaming metallic robes: Vialiki Kazurka. She faced away from us.

A series of loud pops came from the base of the tower. The dirt around our feet kicked up and my lower leg blossomed in pain. I sank to my knees with a gasp and touched the wound. Warm blood stained my fingers. Ofure dropped and rolled into the foliage next to the path.

“Lie flat. Projectile weapon,” she said.

“Stay where I can see you, Roland,” a familiar voice said from the darkness at the base of the tower. “Or things’ll get a lot worse for you.”

“Slow Eddie. What are you doing here?”

“You’ve been avoiding me since you made landfall. Didn’t even try to make a token payment. Now Vialiki here, she always pays on time, correct to the penny.”

“You loansharked Vialiki? I thought she was rich.”

“No, no, nothing like that. Investments like you? A sideline. I got a lot going on. I work security for her, Roland. I know you heard about her trouble back home, not to mention crazy fans who try to attack her, throw urine on her, all that stuff. I shadow her. Keep her out of trouble. Speaking of trouble, when do you plan to pay? Ten years is a lot of interest piled up on that loan.”

“I’ll have the money soon. A day or two, tops.”

More popping sounds. A bullet grazed my upper arm.

“Not good enough. I know you got serious backing. Won’t cover all you owe, but it’d be nice if you’d throw me a hundred thousand credits. Do that, and I’ll let you go with maybe only a few bullets in you. How’s that sound?”

Where was Ofure? He was talking about her money, after all. I decided to stall and give her time to take action. It occurred to me that if she had disappeared for good, ignoring my situation and going straight for Kazurka on her own, some passerby would find my dismembered corpse the next day.

“Sounds good,” I said. “You’ve got your hand terminal, right? I’ll set it up, no problem. Is that okay, Eddie?”

“Sure, come on over here. You better not be armed.”

“Roland is not armed, but I am,” said Ofure. A scuffle broke out in the darkness. Three or four shots popped, followed by a sharp, metallic crunch.

“Hey, your girlfriend’s got some surprises. Well, so do I,” Eddie said.

“Roland, the weapon has been disabled. I will hold Eddie here. Deal with Vialiki as we discussed.”

I limped to the tower as fast as I could. Ofure and Eddie grappled. She had difficulty keeping the big man under control. I wouldn’t have thought he’d go for enhancement, but it also didn’t surprise me once I saw the results. He’d spent serious money getting beefed up. I’m sure it paid off in triplicate. The two tumbled down the hill and out of sight.

As I reached the top of the tower, Vialiki turned to face me. She was a huge, foreshortened millipede. My skin crawled. She emitted a series of sharp chirps.

“You not known me,” said a black box on the tile floor. The gender-neutral voice of the translator was flat and emotionless. It sat among the technical litter of her art and a number of complicated metal objects I guessed were weapons.

“I’m a fan, Ms. Kazurka,” I said. “I’d love a souvenir. How about an autograph?”

More chirping and whistling as she waved her limbs. I gripped the disc in my pocket and stepped closer. Only two meters separated us.

“No. Away you. Me work. Me disturb. Where guard. Guard stop you not why.”

“Really, if I could just have an autograph, I would really appreciate it. If you could just—”

Vialiki lifted a plasma weapon from beneath her robes and fired. Flames shot up my left arm, severing it at the shoulder. I fell forward and writhed in pain. Damage warnings flashed across the lower edge of my vision, stating the obvious.

Vialiki pinned me to the floor, two legs on my back. She chittered much louder as she cracked my head against the stone again and again.

“No. No. Go. Die. Die. Leave peace. Vialiki not concentrate. Fault you. You die immediately. Vialiki concentrate art.”

I wriggled beneath her and managed to slap the disc onto her carapace. She let out a piercing screech and went limp beside me.

“Feces. Twice feces. Family do. Them hate,” said the translator.

Crickets chirped in the dark forest around the tower. Smoke from my charred flesh filled my nose. Vialiki’s massive body moved with her slow respiration. Footsteps pounded up the stairs. The newcomer walked around the perimeter of the rooftop and stopped near my head. I saw mud-caked boots. I looked up at Ofure.

“This is not precisely how I envisioned disabling the target,” Ofure said. “Nevertheless, well done, Roland. Wait a moment and I’ll summon help.”

She put two fingers in her mouth and whistled. A flyer appeared close above us, hovering in silence—the elusive shape I’d seen in the sky during our journey. A half dozen men and women in dark uniforms dropped to the roof. They carried an assortment of gear on their backs.

“You see the situation. Assist Mr. Geelen and take Ms. Kazurka into the flyer,” Ofure said.

While one of Ofure’s comrades tended to my injuries, the others rocked Vialiki’s thick, cylindrical body back and forth as they slid a thick rope net under her. When she was wrapped to their satisfaction, they attached the net to a set of hooks from the flyer. The Ulle rose into the cargo bay and disappeared from view.

“See you soon, Ms. Dosu,” one of the men said as the group jumped back into the flyer one by one. The bay doors closed. The flyer zipped south. I recognized its sonic boom—the same sound I’d heard after abandoning Ofure in the wilderness.

“Eddie,” I said. “What happened to Eddie?”

“He will trouble you no more,” Ofure said in a tone indicating I should not pursue the subject.

She helped me stand. All around her, the globes of Vialiki’s sculpture filled the sky. Beyond them, Chuku’s four small, bright moons sat close together in the sky.

“I wonder how long they will stay aloft,” she said.

“Ulle power units last for decades. This place could become a tourist attraction if we leave them here. Should I try to retrieve this sculpture for my client?”

She showed me a message from my employer on her hand terminal.

“Have a look. You’ve been paid in full for services rendered—plus a decent bonus—and released from your contract. No need to continue pursuing this.”

With trembling hands, I snatched the terminal from her. I felt dizzy. My heart skipped a few beats before it regained its normal rhythm. The numbers wavered on the screen before me. I blinked away tears.

“This final payment. It’s a lot more than we negotiated. I could live on this for a long time. I could even rent a place all on my own—no roommates.”

“You’re free, Roland. What will you do now? Your skills are wasted if you return to your little hobby job, chasing lost dogs and runaway children. I could offer you something much more interesting.”

“Are you asking me to work for you?”

“We’ve considered you a potential recruit for some time. Your overall conduct and your success in finding Vialiki have served to increase my already high opinion of you.”

“I need details about the job and time to think.”

“Completely reasonable. I didn’t expect an answer this very moment.”

I motioned toward my charred arm, lying near Vialiki’s abandoned equipment. “I also need to get back to Morakinyo and find a repair shop.”

“No need. I said we’d handle your repairs; after all, it’s included the budget for this operation.”

I couldn’t help but laugh.

“You’ve got a line item in your budget for replacement limbs?”

“Standard operating procedure. This isn’t our first time around the block, you know. When we’re done up here, I’ll arrange transport to our repair station. You’ll be whole again in a few hours.

While Ofure took inventory of Vialiki’s equipment and weaponry, I lay on my back and watched the sculpture, thinking. Its floating spheres soared above me in dizzying patterns.

***

I squatted near Jaiyesimi Geelen’s weathered and cracked marble headstone. The bright, floral wreath I’d brought added some much-needed color to that dismal place.

My new uniform scratched and itched everywhere it touched me. There hadn’t been time to launder it before coming here, a quick side trip on our way to the embassy district in New Lagos. We had been summoned to the Ulle embassy to meet a number of their dignitaries, including members of Kazurka’s new hive. The Ulle ambassador wanted to meet us in person and thank us for our role in retrieving their errant citizen. My skin crawled at the prospect, but diplomacy is diplomacy. It beats getting shot at—or exterminated.

Our silent flyer waited overhead. Tall weeds surrounded my mother’s grave. The cemetery had not been diligent about caring for this corner of their property.

“I’ll get this cleaned up, Mama. I promise. I’ll chew out the groundskeepers tomorrow, first thing.”

“What would your mother think of her son now?” Ofure asked. I was impressed by how sharp she looked in formal military dress.

“She’d probably say my dear uncle Atiku was a millionaire when he was my age, so what’s my problem?”

“Your uncle was a gangster. He dealt in the pelts, bones, and horns of protected animals, and he ran a protection racket on the side. His most trusted lieutenant got greedy and slit Atiku’s throat to take over the operation.”

“Is there anything about me and my family you don’t know, Ofure?”

She shrugged. “If it’s in your dossier, it’s in my head.”

“Fine,” I said with resignation. ”After that, Mama would ask what in God’s name am I doing working for the government, anyway?”

“I often ask myself the same question.” She tilted her head, listening. “We need to go, Roland. The ambassador is impatient to see us.”

The flyer descended, floating scant meters above the path. Its metal stairway clanged against the bare stone. We climbed aboard. The vehicle rose, then shot toward the setting sun.