“Hold it right there!”
He froze. That tickling in his neck told him somebody was pointing a weapon at his back. He knew that feeling well. Years on the run had develop it into an almost mystical sense. Too bad it didn't warn him before people started pointing guns at him.
“Raise your hands. Slowly.”
Something about her voice grated in his ears. Yes, it was that steely undertone, that sense of 'I'm doing business here and you better not try to play any games', which was plain wrong. Nevertheless, he spread his hands so that they were visible.
He wondered whether he would make it the couple of meters around the corner, into the warren of the smugglers' quarter. He discarded that thought. You couldn't outrun the finger on the trigger – unless you distracted the person at the other end of the finger first.
“Turn around. Slowly!”
Repetition. Usually he considered that a sign of nerves. But this voice didn't give him any reason to believe that. He slowly turned, careful to raise his hands above his head to keep then in view all the time.
The gun was one of those no nonsense affairs. Well, all guns were that, but this one was it with a big 'no'. He checked the setting. Red. One shot and he'd just be a bit of evil smelling smoke. The woman holding the gun would have fit a lot better in one of the red light districts. Gorgeous. Deadly gorgeous. A Venus fly trap in human shape.
He smiled slowly. “What...”
“What's a pretty thing like you doing with such a big gun?” she cut in. “That's what you were going to say, isn't it? Don't bother. I've heard it all, usually from guys who later came to regret their words.” She gave a small nod with her head. “Your gun.”
He slowly pulled it out of its holster and then let go of it. It drifted down and settled smoothly on the ground, bolstered by its security shield.
“Your other gun. In your boot.”
He tried to look innocent but a warning flash in the woman's dark eyes made him sigh. He bent down carefully and with one hand slipped the tiny ray gun from the holster on his ankle.
“Remove the ID chip.”
He pressed the button on the side of the grip. The button acknowledged his biometric signature and released the chip. It fell to the ground. Without it, the ray gun was now useless.
He gritted his teeth a moment. Getting that chip had cost him a tidy sum. The woman gave an impatient nod but her gun continued to point rock steady at him. None of that showy fidgeting around with it. She was a pro. He sighed again and then stepped on the chip. The crunch under his boot made him wince.
He looked back at her, spread his arms, smiled as if to say... you got me... that's it.
She didn't buy it.
“Why don't you make life easy for us and just unpack? There's another gun, three knives and a Laothian boomslang hidden on you. Quite aside from a set of blowpipe and darts, and a coil of mono filament. Careful with that pack of booby-trapped rare poisons! Are you sure you packed everything this morning?” She sounded slightly amused.
He gritted his teeth. She had him down pat there. Giving a small shrug he started to discard his arsenal of weaponry. Finally he spread his hands again.
“That's it.” He cursed himself at the faint trace of annoyance in his voice. The woman was getting to him. Not something that happened often. She looked a moment at the weapons around his feet. Her thumb flipped a switch on her gun. His eyes opened wide and he jumped as she pulled the trigger, but too late. The world in front of his eyes dissolved in a blinding white flash.
* * *
“What the...!” He groaned and tried to touch his head but his hand felt as if it was moving through molasses. He blinked and sighed. He knew that feeling. Energy fetters. He raised his hand more slowly and the movement became easier.
“You're awake. For somebody who's said to be the escape-artist of the century, you sure take long to recover from a stun gun.”
He turned his head. The annoying coloured flashes in front of his eyes finally started to fade and vision swung back into the normal range of light. He took stock of his surroundings. He was on a bunk, but where? The small room had impersonal gun metal grey walls. It held two bunks, a small service nook and little else. The air had a metallic smell too... the tang of ozone. A spaceship?
“Where are we?”
The woman sat across from him on the second bunk, running a diagnostic on his ray gun. She looked at him, seemed to deliberate how much to say, then shrugged.
“We're on my spaceship.” She spoke to the air. “ Anaïs, lower the power of his fetters to 30%.”
Anaïs' well modulated voice confirmed. “Power lowered to 30%.”
When he raised his hand again it moved without that sense of having to push against a heavy wind. He sat up. A quick look showed him that she had put fetters not only on his hands but feet as well, and his neck. He touched the Solanium ring around his throat.
“Isn't that a bit of an overkill?”
She continued to check out the program of the gun and shrugged. “Considering your history, no, I don't think so. Just in case you'd like to try something stupid, “ her voice indicated that practically anything he might attempt would be considered stupid, “Anaïs is a biometric ship. She can even detect your intentions. She will respond only to my commands. In case of a threat to myself or her she will automatically react with the necessary force.”
Her. Trust a woman to get emotional about a thing! He raised an eyebrow. “The necessary force being?”
The woman gave him a long look. “If necessary, death. I know your reputation. The League would like you alive, but even dead you're worth a tidy sum. I won't hesitate to accept a lower price to assures my own and my ship's welfare.”
He smiled a little, acknowledging her threat, then leaned back, and crossed his arms behind his head.
“You know who I am. And who do I have the pleasure with?” he said mockingly formal.
She gave him another slow, measured look then asked in turn. “What name are you going by these days?”
He ignored her. “How did you find me?”
She gave him a thin lipped smile. “You've managed to changed your face and veil your biometric stats. I'm sure you'd like to know. But you'll have to continue wondering, Number Twenty-four.”
He exaggerated a wince. “Call me Jem then. So much more human.”
She considered that, then closed her diagnose device. “I'm Shadée, Number Twenty-four. That's all you need to know until I hand you over to the League.”
He rolled onto his side, propped his head onto his palm. “Do you need to hand me over to the League? I could pay you the bounty too.”
Shadée gave him a quick look. “You don't have that kind of money, Number Twenty-four. I'm honour bound. There's isn't enough money in the whole universe to buy me out.”
“Honour bound. So you're a Sha'anti. I've never met one of you.”
“If you had you wouldn't be sitting across from me. You'd been in the hands of the League long ago.”
He sat up, facing her. Shadée gave him a thorough scrutiny. He knew what she was seeing, since he had chosen it. His face was dark skinned, unusual among the space faring races, with a large, proud nose, full lips and upwards slanting eyebrows. He had been told he was ugly. He had also been told he was beautiful. A shock of black hair seemed to invite a woman to run her fingers through it. He smiled and could see a sudden, faint flush on Shadée's face.
She pressed her lips together disapprovingly. “It needs more than a few pheromones to get around me, Number Twenty-four. Turn your attraction off. It doesn't work with me.”
So she knew about his ability to produce pheromones at will. It had helped him out of more than one scrape when a woman was involved. He gave a rueful smile and shrugged. “Can't blame a man for trying.”
Shadée frowned. “You're not a man. You're a Construct, one out of thirty.”
That one stung. He felt his smile freeze. To cover it he gave a nonchalant shrug. “Maybe. But I'm the only one left.”
“Because you destroyed all the others. You're faulty.”
He tensed. “Faulty? I'm faulty because I have my own mind? You humans pride yourself of your free will. Why is it that my free will is considered a fault?”
“Because you were conceived to be a programmable entity, to serve where humans can't work. You're just a biological machine.”
That cut right to the core. He impulsively moved to jump from his bunk. Anaïs reacted immediately. The Solanium fetters glowed faintly and he felt a huge weight settle on him. He was slammed back hard into the mattress.
“Hostile emotions detected,” Anaïs announced with an annoyingly pleasant voice. Shadée looked a moment at him then she said: “Lower power by 50%.” The glow on the Solanium fetters dimmed and he rolled over slowly.
“Your ship is pretty protective.”
Shadée got up from the bunk. “You better remember that. I've got some work to do. Anaïs, the guest is authorized to request food and drink. Help yourself.”
Guest! Jem grimaced at the ironic statement. He watched her walk to the end of the cabin. The hidden door slid aside silently and closed behind her again. After a moment Jem slowly rolled out of the bunk and then walked towards the door fighting the drag of the fetters. He reached the door, but it didn't move.
“Anaïs, open door.” The door gave a small sound that could have been interpreted as a snigger but otherwise remained stubbornly closed.
“That's what I thought,” he muttered and then began a slow and laborious inspection of the cabin.
* * *
“Full power is really not required. Do you have any idea how uncomfortable total immobilisation is?” Number Twenty-four protested from his bunk. He turned his head with difficulty to look at her.
Shadée gave him a bland look. “I want to sleep without any risk of you trying something funny. I'll just sleep for three hours... I don't require more at one go. You should survive that long, I think.” Shadée rolled onto the bunk and curled together. “Anaïs, blinds.” Shadée's bunk raised a semi-opaque blind, creating a kind of cocoon around her. She watched Number Twenty-four look a moment at the blind, then turn his head and stare at the ceiling. After a moment she wiggled a little more deeply into the mattress and closed her eyes.
* * *
Shadée was already standing beside her bunk before her mind completely cleared the mists of sleep. “Anaïs, status!” She gave a quick look at the other bunk. Number Twenty-four was still in there, turning his head slowly. He couldn't be the reason for the alarm.
“Ship on interception course. Evasive measures unsuccessful.”
Shadée muttered a curse and ran out of the cabin.
“Hey! Don't leave me here like that!” The door whispered close behind Shadée, cutting off the construct's shout.
There was no reason why her prisoner shouldn't just remain in immobilisation, but something caused her to show unusual mercy. “Anaïs, lower power by 50%.” She jumped into the pilot's chair, and ran her eyes across the displays.
“Identify ship.” A short moment, then an image appeared on a screen. Shadée cursed. Kenza'i. They must have learned about her capturing the construct and now thought they could make an easy buck. Not with her! She quickly scanned across the stellar map, then tapped in a few coordinates. She could have asked Anaïs to change course by voice, but at moments like this she felt better doing things by hand.
One of the displays began blinking. What the hell?They were shooting at her? Her hands danced across the displays as she initiated an evasive manoeuvre, then cursed as the missile followed her course. They'd tagged her.
“Anaïs, identify missile.”
“Electro-magnetic impulse missile.”
Shadée thought she could hear something like worry in the ship's voice. Her ship was a light yacht, fast but without armour. If they got hit, the circuitry would just go. And the ship would be a dead hull. Shadée pressed her lips together. Nobody would do that to Anaïs!
She changed course again. There was only one way to hide - she must go to ground.
* * *
The planet glowed like a green-red marble in the sky as Anaïs shot towards it.
Shadée checked on the missile. It was slowly gaining. No time for fancy manoeuvring. She put her hands on the panels to override the automatic pilot and changed course once more.
“The atmospheric entry trajectory is too steep and velocity too high.” Anaïs announced.
“I know!” Shadée gritted.
“Ship will be in danger of overheating.” Anaïs insisted
I know, Anaïs!”
“I'm here to assure the safety of ship and crew. If you override me I cannot guarantee that.” Anaïs sounded peeved.
“Anaïs, shut up!” The last Shadée wanted now was an argument with her ship. There was a sudden shock as the ship entered atmosphere. Shadée was almost thrown out of her chair at the sudden deceleration.
Anaïs's hull screamed under the strain as the ship ploughed through the thickening atmosphere like a shooting star. The temperature reading of the outer hull shot right past the red index and started blinking frantically. They were going way too fast but anything less and the missile would catch up.
Shadée checked the display. The blip of the missile suddenly vanished as it too hit the atmosphere and vaporized. Shadée grinned grimly. They were safe – until they hit ground. She gritted her teeth and tried to change course.
“Engage auto pilot. Anaïs can get us out.”
She jerked around, surprised, as Number Twenty-four dropped heavily into the navigator seat. How the hell had he managed to get out of the cabin? No time to think about it.
“Do it!” The construct shouted.
What the hell - he certainly didn't want to die either. She withdrew her hands from the control panels on the side.
“About time. I thought you'd never let me do my job,” Anaïs commented smugly as the ship took over and the thrust-reverser cut in.
The ship shuddered and groaned and the ground continued to come up with frightening speed. Alarm signals started pinging and hooting, red lights flashed, showing her that her poor ship was about to fall apart. Then the ocean came at them and smacked them in the nose.
* * *
Shadée opened her eyes. She must have lost consciousness for a moment, despite the shock absorbers. She checked the displays that gave her a view of the outside world. The ship seemed to be submerged in shallow water. In the navigator's seat Number Twenty-four sat up laboriously. Looked like Anaïs was still functional enough to keep control over her prisoner. What now? How long could Anaïs withstand the water? Could they get out again?
“Status evaluation still running. Self-repair still running. Status check estimated in three minutes.”
Shadée got up. She needed to make a thorough inspection of the ship, before she could even begin to answer the most pressing questions. There were still several red lights blinking but the pinging and hooting had stopped. She quickly checked the status of Number Twenty-four's fetters. Still at 50%. “Are you OK?”
The construct gave her a lopsided grin. “Nice of you to ask, considering. “
Shadée was about to answer when a sudden 'ping' attracted her attention.
“Active scan detected.”
“Unable to identify. Active scanners are inoperative.”
“Is it the Kenza'i ship?”
“Signal is identical to Kenza'i ship signature.”
“OK. Can you drop the space jargon and tell me in plain?”
“I detect a second signature. They set out a ship to surface shuttle.”
“Is it heading our way?”
“Affirmative.” Anaïs still sounded slightly peeved, but there was a tiny flickering in the voice. Was the ship failing? Shadée frowned.
“Anaïs. Will you be able to leave before the shuttle is here?”
“We're sitting ducks then. We've got to get out.” Shadée nodded at Number Twenty-four to get out of his seat.
The construct raised an eyebrow. “We? Aren't you going to leave me here? If they are after me, you'd be a lot safer alone.”
Shadée gave him a dark look. “I'm not going to leave you. Dead or alive, you're mine. Now more than ever I need the money to get Anaïs back into the air. There's a colony on the planet. We've just got to reach it.”
Shadée pressed on a panel, which slid aside. She took out a flexible belt, covered with flat discs of Solanium. She strapped the belt around Number Twenty-four's waist then pressed a button on the buckle. The construct groaned as his hands were sharply pulled together and his head forward when forces multiplied.
“Reduce ship power to zero, Anaïs.” Number Twenty-four relaxed and gave her an irritated look.
“A bit more care would be appreciated,” he complained.
Shadée ignored him and went over to the pilot's seat. She took a small box on a strap and slung it over her shoulder. From the arm rest of the pilot's chair she extracted a small crystal cube and set it into the box. Several lights flickered on, then Anaïs's voice came from the box.
“Anaïs' memory crystal. I'm not going to leave her here. The ship will continue to run the auto-repair without her personality profile. With any chance I will be able to get it back. Now come. We need to get all the provision we can carry.”
* * *
The construct waded through the surf and up the flat beach that extended to the right and left, without any signs of human habitation. He stopped.
“Go ahead. I don't know how long it will take for the shuttle to reach here. I'm sure they know where Anaïs went down.”
Shadée collapsed the small safety field that had kept her dry and within a small bubble of air. Number Twenty-four nodded his head at the green vegetation bordering the beach.
“Maybe not such a good idea.”
Shadée took a closer look and frowned. Possibly vegetation was the wrong word. The green things growing, or sticking to the rocky ground looked more like sea anemones, with thick stems and rubbery tentacles waving lazily through the air. Nevertheless, that's where they had to go. That, or back into the sea.
Shadée pulled her gun from the holster. “Move. We should be saver under cover of those... trees.”
Number Twenty-four frowned and asked, “You sure about that? They look rather more alive than I prefer. What do you know about this planet?”
“Not much. I didn't have time to read anything.” She gestured him forward. He gave a shrug and set out towards the forest in the sluggish pace the energy fetters enforced on him.
“Why don't you ask Anaïs?”
“The crystal cube contains only Anaïs' memory and computing faculties. The library is stored in a different set.”
Number Twenty-four perked up and turned his head to the left, just as Anaïs announced, “Vessel approaching from south.”
The construct pointed along the coast. Shadée squinted but couldn't see or hear anything. Number Twenty-four began to waddle up the beach. Shadée muttered, “I sure hope those things aren't what they remind me of!” as they ducked in under the first waving tentacles. She strenuously avoided contact with the things.
From behind the fringe of tentacles they watched the shuttle pass. Shadée wanted to get up but Number Twenty-four stopped her. When he touched her she felt a small electrical jolt. Damn. If he could touch her then the power was far too low on the fetters. She would need to raise it. She tried to move out of his grasp but he whispered: “Wait. They're coming back.”
Sure enough the shuttle made a second pass along the beach, then circled above the spot the ship lay submerged. Shadée bit her lips, then motioned to the construct to move further back under the tentacles. He went ahead carefully. Shadée noticed that the tentacles seemed to move away from him but when she came close they dropped back. She quickly tapped on Anaïs' box. “Raise power of fetters by 25%.” The effect was immediate. Number Twenty-four cursed as his movements suddenly were hampered more, but the tentacles withdrew even further. Shadée hurried up to him.
“I'm sorry, but those things seem to dislike the fetters. We can pass safely that way I should think.”
He nodded, looking none too happy but resigned.
* * *
The fire crackled merrily, the flames edged with blue-green as traces of copper burned up, throwing dancing shadows against the cave wall. The smoke smelled acrid but was harmless, as Anaïs had assured them. It curled lazily out of the cave entrance and dissipated in the night.
Jem sat cross-legged, apparently watching the dancing flames. But covertly he scrutinized Shadée, who chewed slowly on the survival mix. In the light of the fire her stern features looked softer. Her beauty was even more apparent and in stark contrast to the combat gear she wore.
Jem broke the silence. “Is money all you care about?”
Shadée frowned. “Why do you mean?”
Jem picked up a stick, pushed it into the fire, then raised it, looking at the glowing tip.
“Don't you wonder about... life? About me?” He waved the glowing stick at her. A tiny flame flickered up. “I'm here. I look like a human. I am a human in everything but birth and yet you deny me my humanity.” He blew out the flame. “I'm not destroyed, any more than you are. I am killed. The League - they think I am theirs, but I'm not. I belong only to myself.” The anger in his voice surprised even himself.
Shadée shook her head. “You are a made thing. The League made you, so you belong to it.”
“I am ... not...a ... thing!” Jem threw the stick with some force into the fire. “Why don't you understand? Not even the League can create life, they can just modify it. My genes come from human stock. How can you deny me my rights just because somebody meddled with them?” Jem paused, trying to find a way to convince her. There must be words to do so. A voice from the distant past provided them, spoken by another human considered an outcast. He took a deep breath and recited:
“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”
Shadée looked puzzled as the words teased her memory then she too seemed to recognize the words of the Bard. But they did not convince her. She pressed her lips together and shook her head.
“Your genes are anything but human. Nothing can change that fact.”
Jem jumped up, forgetting about his fetters. There was a low hum, the Solanium glowed and the energy fetters tightened. His hands and feet were pulled together briskly and painfully. He barely escaped falling into the fire but hit the ground hard.
“Hostile action detected.” Anaïs proclaimed.
Jem sighed in resignation and closed his eyes for a moment. “I wasn't going to attack you, Shadée. You've got to believe me. I just... I... “ He winced. “This is really uncomfortable. Please, release me.”
Shadée raised an eyebrow. “You're a killer. Why should I trust you?”
“A killer? I've never hurt anybody who didn't try to hurt me first. I've just fought for my life. That was self-defence!” Jem protested in honest indignation.
“And what about the other 29 yous?”
Jem stiffened as memories flooded his mind. He shook his head vehemently.
“There is only one me. I am. I am Jem. Jem, not Number Twenty-four! The others - they were machines, out of flesh and blood but with as much of a mind of their own as a pumpkin.” Jem tried to control the anguish and anger he always felt when thinking of the others. He rolled around awkwardly to face Shadée more fully.
“Yes, I killed them. I killed them because I couldn't bear to see them suffer. When creating us the League kept all the sensitivities, the ability to feel pain, to grow tired and to suffer discomfort of normal humans. And then it sent us into situations where we got hurt, maimed. The others didn't know how to stop the suffering, but I did. So I destroyed them. I killed them all and then I fled.”
Jem rested his head a moment on the ground to get the crick out of his neck. When he spoke again his voice was devoid of emotion.
“Tell me, who is the greater criminal; is it the League who reduced creatures capable of thinking, feeling and acting independently to mere biological machines, following a programming without taking away their capacity to suffer? Or is it me who relieved them of their pain?”
Jem tried to read Shadée's expression but her eyes were a careful blank. He smiled bitterly.
“You know the worst? They still understood enough to know what I was doing. And they welcomed it. They walked willingly into my gunfire.” Jem swallowed hard then he shook his head, trying to banish the image of twenty-nine bodies lying peacefully at his feet.
The restriction of his fetters suddenly relaxed. Jem rolled onto his belly and buried his head in his arms. He couldn't face Shadée anymore.
* * *
Shadée leaned against the entrance of the cave. Below, the disquieting tentacle forest began to stir under the first rays of the sun. Shadée closed her eyes a moment, allowing the sun to warm the skin of her face then she turned her head, looked into the dark of the cavern. Jem had curled up next to the ashes of the fire. Shadée watched him, and thought to herself that he had chosen a beautiful face. His long, dark eyelashes looked like moth wings on his skin, the full lips, relaxed in sleep... Shadée interrupted herself. What was she doing?
“I can feel you watching me,” he said. He had given no apparent sign of going from sleeping to waking state.
Shadée bristled a little. “I'm not. I just looked in to see whether you were still asleep.”
Jem stretched thoroughly then rolled over and propped his head on his arm.
“I know when somebody watches me. It has saved my life more than once. But it's the first time I don't have to wake to a fight.”
Shadée ignored that and turned to scrutinise the outside world. “We can't stay here. We need to go ahead. Anaïs says the colony is further south.” She looked back to Jem. He watched her with an unreadable expression. After a moment he got up with a shrug.
They climbed back down into the forest. Progress was slow and tiring with Jem's shackles at half power, but at least it kept the tentacles at bay. Once they could hear the shuttle close by and they froze until it was gone.
“Why didn't you warn us, Anaïs?” Shadée complained.
“Interferences make active scanning impossible.” Anaïs sounded defensive. Shadée looked at the lazily waving tentacles. Maybe that explained the effect the force fetters had. They reacted with the field the anemones created.
Shadée felt more and more unsettled by those things. Rustling and distant noises betrayed the presence of other creatures. Shadée turned at a sudden screech close by, stumbled over a rock and fell behind.
She quickly got back on her feet and hurried after Jem but the tentacles closed behind him like a curtain. She ducked, and pressed forward and brushed against one of the tendrils. It curled, waved and stretched wildly until it latched on to her. Myriads of tiny suckers fastened on her skin, hair and clothes.
The tentacle tightened, lifting Shadée up into the air. She screamed as the suckers pierced her skin with hundreds of pricks. Twisting she aimed her gun at the tentacle but other tendrils moved in, wrapped around her, and immobilised her.
From the corner of her eyes she could see Jem try to hurry back. The fetters automatically tightened and slowed him down. Shadée fought desperately while he inched his way towards her. The three short meters seemed to take him an eternity to cover.
Finally the energy field took hold and the tentacles withdrew. The original one, however, kept hold until Shadée shot it off. She dropped, almost landing on Jem. The severed tentacle curled up, releasing her sucker by sucker.
Shadée hissed from pain. Tears ran down her cheeks as she ripped away the last suckers. Jem knelt down by her as she shot up into the trees in fury, cursing like a mariner.
“Sh,sh... don't!” Jem tried to take hold of her hand but the forcefield of the fetters kept him from touching her. Shadée stifled an anguished scream as fiery pain shot through her. A spasm seized her and her arms and legs flailed around uncontrollably. Jem threw himself over her, pinning her down, floating above her on an energy pillow, a concerned expression in his eyes.
Shadée cursed in seven different languages while spasm after spasm raked her body. Finally the convulsions lessened. Shadée sagged, exhausted and out of breath. She allowed herself to lay still for a moment. Once she got her breath back she rolled over and to her knees.
Jem, on his knees opposite her, shrugged. “It was in my own interest. If you're dead who's going to deactivate the fetters? Anaïs won't.”
“How do you know?”
Jem grinned disarmingly. “I tried. What do you think?”
Nonplussed at the frank admission Shadée just looked at him. Jem got up, extended his hand then withdrew it as she couldn't take hold of it.
“Can you get up?“
Shadée nodded, and stumbled to her feet. She was still wobbly and her skin felt on fire but she gritted her teeth and forged ahead.
* * *
“I thought this forest would never end!” Shadée sighed with relief as she emerged from under the tentacles.
In front of them a wide plain extended. Compared to the lushness of the forest it was really a desert. Strange, twisted rock formations jutted out of the red sand. Surreal coloured Sponges grew like grotesque warts from the rocks.
Shadée limped to a rock nearby and collapsed onto it.
Jem eyed the wasteland then peered up at the blazing sun and shook his head. “We can't cross that during the day. We're far too exposed and the heat would kill us. Let us rest till midnight. You must be exhausted.”
Shadée propped her hands onto her knees and studied the expanse in front of them. There was a drawn expression around her eyes and mouth. She looked exhausted. Noticing his glance, however, she straightened. “Nothing I can't handle. But your suggestion makes sense. We'll take turn watching. Let's draw straws.”
Jem was puzzled. “Straws? What do you mean?”
“I mean... Oh, just let me show you.” Shadée plucked two prickly dry twigs, measured them and then broke off a piece to make them uneven. She closed her fist around them, turned quickly away then back to Jem. She offered him the fist, with both twigs sticking out an equal length.
Jem looked at the fist in incomprehension.
“Pick one. Short straw, first watch.”
“Oh.. I understand. But that won't be necessary. I'll take the first watch.”
“No, pull a straw. It's only fair. Did you never do that as a child?”
“I'm a construct. I never was a child,” Jem said quietly, hesitated a moment, then chose a twig. He held it up. “My watch. You lay down in the shade of this rock and sleep.”
Shadée nodded. She settled behind the rock, pulled the box close and and pressed a button. “Energy fetters deactivated.” Anaïs announced. Jem looked at Shadée. She closed her eyes. After a moment she murmured, “Just don't try anything stupid, will you? Anaïs is still keeping an eye on you.”
Jem smiled a little. “I know.” He sat down on the rock, looking across the wide expanse. Nothing stirred under the relentless sun. He should take shelter in the shade too, but for a moment he just wanted to treasure the illusion of liberty.
“You really never were a child?”
Jem looked down at Shadée. She had her eyes closed. He looked back at the red desert in front of him.
“No. The constructs have accelerated growth. What we needed to know we learned in our sleep.”
“No memories of a childhood. How sad. What is your first memory then?”
Jem pressed his lips together. “You should be sleeping.” There was silence. Jem peered down at her. She had her eyes closed. He returned to his watch. The emptiness had something restful. He could lose himself there and nobody would question his humanity.
“What is your first memory, Jem?”
He startled a little when Shadée settled so close to him she brushed his arm. He caught a whiff of her scent. Did she know she'd just called him by his name for the first time? “I thought you wanted to sleep?”
Shadée shrugged. “Can't seem to sleep. So, tell me.”
Jem smiled a little at her obstinacy. There was something childlike about her curiosity which was in stark contrast to the first impressions she had left with him. He closed his eyes and sent his mind back.
“My first memory? The lab... cold, loud, white. Just a blur of impressions. Being afraid. Isn't that what humans remember when you are born?”
“We don't remember our births normally. Considering your memory, that might be a blessing. What is your first happy memory?”
Jem gave Shadée a glance from the corner of his eyes. There was no answer to this question that wouldn't either sound maudlin, or like a bad come on. He shrugged.
“Why are we only talking about me? Why don't you tell me something about you. There isn't much I know about the Sha'anti, except that they place honour above anything else.”
Shadée suddenly yawned then smiled at Jem. “I think I am more tired than I thought. I'll better take a nap now.” She slid down from the rock and settled again in the shadow. Jem felt a strange twisting in his stomach. He didn't quite understand why but he felt - hurt? Hurt that Shadée obviously didn't want to talk about herself.
He slipped down from the rock and leaned against it opposite Shadée, realising that he wanted to put something between her and himself, but not sure why.
* * *
Night feel with surprising swiftness and with it came the cold. Shadée woke from Jem stamping his feet. She wasn't feeling particularly cold because her suit regulated her temperature to perfection, but Jem wore conventional clothes. She got up. Jem gave her only a short glance then continued to rub his arms. Their breath formed little puffs of mist in the air. Was it possible that the temperature had dropped to sub zero in such a short time? Jem in any case was shivering from cold.
“Jem? Why didn't you wake me? It must be high time for me to take over the watch.”
He hardly looked at her and shook his head. “Too cold. I wouldn't be able to sleep anyway. We should go.”
Shadée frowned a little. There was something brusque about Jem, a certain distance she hadn't felt before. On the contrary. So far he'd been a surprisingly engaging and compliant prisoner. Well, he had tried to soften her up with his pheromones, but that was only to be expected. So was his attempt at becoming friends. But now he was suddenly so cold, almost hostile. What was going on? She decided to ignore his mood shift for the moment.
“You're freezing. If I turn on the energy fetters, they might isolate you a little from the cold.”
“No! Let's just go ahead,” he growled.
“Well. Suit yourself.” Shadée shrugged, picked up the remaining survival packs and opened one. “There's time enough to eat something.” She unwrapped an energy bar, broke it apart and handed Jem half. He hesitated a moment then took it. They munched silently on the dry bars, taking only a few sips of water to make it last. Shadée shook the canteen and listened to the hollow sound. “We're going to run out of water faster than of food.”
Jem gave a non-committal grunt.
Shadée frowned again. Compared to the day before he had gone from talkative to taciturn. “You're very silent.”
He gave a tiny shrug. “What's there to say?”
Shadée considered that. There was plenty to say and Jem seemed to have wanted to talk before. So why not any longer? She had only limited experience with male behaviour, despite her great age, and didn't know how much a construct's behavioural patterns agreed with normal men, but this, this looked like...
Jem's dark face darkened a little more. “Rubbish! Let's go. I'm freezing!” He cleaned his fingers on the seat of his pants, then bent to pick up his share of the rations. Shadée looked at his neck and smiled a little. Looked like he could blush even at the neck. Jem straitened and slung the packs over his shoulder, then stalked ahead.
“Jem?” He turned. Shadée pointed to the right. “That way.” He changed direction and continued. Shadée watched his stiff back for a moment, then grinned and hurried after him.
“Yesterday you couldn't stop talking and now you say there's nothing to talk about? You are pouting.” She fell in step beside him. Looking straight ahead she could still see from the corners of her eyes that he scowled at her for a moment. Finally he grumbled.
“What is the use of talk when you won't talk about yourself? Am I the only one to disclose his past and bare his soul?”
Shadée bit back a flippant remark about the soul baring part. She shrugged.
“There's nothing much to know about me.”
“Then tell me about your people. Why do you put so much store on honour?”
Shadée kicked a pebble away. “That's all we have. Our colony was established by accident. The moon I come from has no natural resources. There's nothing we have to trade except ourselves. Through generations we have established a code of honour which assures our clients that every contract will be fulfilled. There is nothing that can end a contract prematurely, except death.” Shadée paused a moment. “Every Sha'anti knows that their failure will be a failure of the whole people.”
Jem seemed to mull that over for a moment then he concluded, “That means you'll hand me over to the League no matter the costs.”
“Then I will have to kill you.” Jem stated, bluntly.
“Well. Thanks for warning me. That notion hadn't appeared to me so far.” Shadée quipped. They walked on without another word. Finally Jem broke the silence. “How long does it take to fulfil a contract?”
“Sometimes a few days, sometimes years.”
“And how many contracts have you fulfilled?”
Shadée thought for a moment. “Three hundred and twenty seven, yours excluded.”
“Three...hundred? How old are you?” Jem stumbled in shock.
Shadée smiled a little sadly. “I'm one hundred and eighty three years old. And you?”
“Fifteen. I've existed for fifteen years and lived for ten.”
Shadée felt a tiny twinge at Jem's precision. Funny - or not so funny really, but an observer would have given both of them an age between thirty and thirty-five, maybe. “So young.”
Jem turned away as if feeling embarrassed and started walking again. Shadée fell in step beside him. They continued for several minutes before Jem asked again.
“Do you have a... have children?”
Shadée shook her head.
“Sha'anti leave their moon to fulfil contracts. They do not have any family bonds at that stage. Once they return to Sha'ant they will never leave again. Only then do we settle and raise a family.”
Shadée's attention had been on the horizon. Her foot hit a rock and she stumbled. Jem caught her by the arm and pulled her up with both hands. The movement brought them chest to chest. For a moment they stood transfixed then Shadée gently pushed herself away from Jem. He dropped his hands and stood there a moment with an undecipherable expression in his dark eyes then he muttered a short curse and stomped away. Shadée felt something stir inside her and clamped down hard on the unwanted emotion. She hurried after him. They walked a moment side by side then Shadée exclaimed.
“Turn it off.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Your attraction. Turn it off. I thought we were through with that.”
Jem looked puzzled. “My attraction? I didn't... I... “ He blushed furiously. “I didn't mean to use it. I'm sorry.” He looked a little confused and muttered, “I don't know how that could happen.” He ran a hand through his thick hair. A black strand fell into his eyes and Shadée felt the instinctive urge to push it back. She mentally stamped on it. Hard.
To regain her self-control Shadée silently recited one of her people's mantras. She might be inexperienced but she still understood what was going on. She felt a deep sadness, and something else - something she wouldn't even acknowledge to herself.
“Let's continue.” She walked a few paces then asked: “Would you like to know more about my people?” Jem nodded.
Shadée went on. “Only one out of two Sha'anti returns home. When we do we marry within days. The families back home have spent years finding the perfect match for us so we don't waste time.”
“And you? Has your family already chosen?”
Shadée managed to smile. “Yes. His name is Arzad. We will both return to Sha'ant in another few months.”
Jem scowled a little. “And then you will marry. Do you even know him?”
Shadée laughed. “Certainly I know him. We've been communicating for years now, since the families decided on the match.”
“Communicating. As in talking via sub-space radio?”
“Exactly. We've both been doing our share of contracts, so there was never any time to meet personally.”
Jem grabbed Shadée's arm and turned her to him. “And that is enough for you? What if you don't like him?”
Shadée shrugged. “Unlikely, since we've spent much time communicating. But should this happen, we will arrange ourselves accordingly. We match perfectly, genetically speaking, and our children will have all the advantages of our genes.”
“Are you breeding cows? What about your own feelings?” Jem sounded outraged. Shadée wondered whether he understood why. She consciously cut a little deeper.
“You have to understand that for every Sha'anti the Commonwealth and -health has priority. All the earnings from our contracts go into a communal account, from which we are then paid back our expenses. We are a small population and have to be careful about bad genetic traits. Without close monitoring the Sha'anti would already have degenerated, or disappeared. We all know that and accept it.”
Jem looked at Shadée for a moment longer, then he almost pushed her away, turned and strode off stiffly. Shadée had to hurry to keep up with him. There was a prolonged silence broken only by the occasional scatter of a pebble as it was kicked across the bare rock.
Jem gave a little shake of his head as if denying something and then said: “One last question. Have there been no Sha'anti who chose to stay off the moon and find a life partner somewhere else?”
Shadée suppressed a sad smile. “No. The only Sha'anti who do not return are those whose bodies cannot be recovered.”
* * *
The night progressed. A reddish moon hung in the sky, giving enough light for fast walking. Jem pressed ahead, forcing Shadée to hurry as his long strides ate the kilometres. He simmered silently, feeling an anger he couldn't place. In the distance the eerie moonlight outlined a dark outcrop against the horizon.
Shadée veered towards it. Jem heard a high whine in the air and was about to say something when Anaïs gave a small click and announced, “Shuttle approaching from the east. Distance one kilometre and closing.
Jem looked at the outcrop. The shuttle must be moving very slowly for the sound to reach here before the craft itself. Maybe they could get to the outcrop for cover before it was upon them. Hopefully the interferences would still be playing havoc with the active scan. Jem began to run. Shadée sprinted after him.
They couldn't make it. Shadée careened into Jem, throwing him off balance.
“Down... if we don't move we might have a slight chance.”
Jem lay still, knowing that they stood really only a chance if the shuttle passed out of range. Otherwise a simple infra-red scan would make them stand out like a beacon in the cold desert. The shuttle whined past several hundred meters to the south and for a moment it looked as if it would continue, but then it made a sharp turn and headed right for them.
The shuttle settled down about fifty meters away. Shadée got slowly to her feet, crouching low, watching. Jem followed suit.
“Give me a gun.” Jem held out his hand to Shadée. In the distance the shuttle's back ramp opened and five shapes left, keeping under cover of the shuttle.
Jem calculated quickly. “The thing can take six passengers. If they count on bringing back a prisoner then they're all outside. We can take them on, grab the ferry and get out of here. Just give me a gun!”
Shadée just looked at Jem. His attention was focussed on the five Kenza'i who were coming on the left and right around the shuttle. So far they were still out of range of stun guns, but not ray guns. They should be acting quickly now. He held out his hand to Shadée.
“Shadée! What are you waiting for?”
Shadée pulled her gun out of the holster. Then she took Anaïs' box and pressed a button. “Activate energy fetters, 75%.”
“No! What are you doing?” Jem shouted, furiously. Shadée stepped behind him. “Don't worry... it will be alright.” With that she shot the first Kenza'i. He dropped like a stone. The other four gave their fallen comrade a quick glance and then spread out, running. All four started firing at the same time.
Jem, practically immobilised, winced as the energy of the shots crackled around the fetter's shield.
Shadée, from behind Jem's cover, took out two more Kenza'i in quick succession. The remaining two fired again, now spread out at an angle to target her behind the protection of Jem's shield.
One of the Kenza'i scored while the other's shot earthed itself on the shield. Shadée groaned in agony and sagged to her knee, thigh lacerated by a disruptor shot. She rolled and managed to shoot the fourth Kenza. The last one standing fired again and caught her point blank in the back.
Shadée collapsed, face down. Jem, struggled in vain against the fetters, watching helplessly as the Kenza cautiously edged closer. The man kept his gun aimed at the fallen woman, but she didn't move any more. The Kenza, however, wasn't about to take any risks. He raised the gun a little to shoot a second time. Jem shouted, for all it was worth, “Watch out!”
Shadée rolled, uncovering the hand with the gun and shot right when the Kenza shot as well. His ray set the sand sizzling where Shadée had been just a moment before. Her shot caught him right in the head. It exploded with an unpleasant sound. Bits of brain smacked against the energy shield and then dropped to the ground. Shadée rolled onto her back with a groan and passed out.
“Shadée! Shadée!” Jem fought desperately against the energy fetters even though he knew that the more he fought the less he would be able to move. But rational thought was taking a back-seat in the face of a far more instinctive reaction Finally his frustration broke through in a furious scream.
Somehow the scream seemed to have gotten through to Shadée. Her chest heaved up then she coughed. Her hand inched slowly towards Anaïs' box. She coughed again and bloody froth emerged from her mouth. Finally her questing fingers found the box. “Deactivate energy fetters.”
Jem almost fell on his face as the field collapsed. He stumbled towards Shadée and fell on his knees beside her.
“Why did you do that? Together we could have handled them!” He pulled her upper body onto his knees and supported her. She coughed again bloody froth then smiled a little.
“Everything will be alright.”
“How can you say that! You've been shot!” Jem shouted at her. He cradled her against his chest, tried to look at her back. The stench of burned flesh made him gag and he closed his eyes at the sight of the horrible gaping wound under her right shoulder blade. It was a wonder she was still alive. Jem gently eased her back into his arms and pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes.
“How can it be alright? You're going to die!”
She nodded then painfully reached inside her suit. She fumbled a little then took out a small disk. “Give me Anaïs.” Jem handed her the box. Shadée inserted the little disk into a slot. The lights on the minicomputer flickered a few times. Shadée coughed, then said: “Anaïs, code two. Accept fully authorized access for Jem.” The box blinked a little, then Anaïs said: “Access granted.” The little disk slid out of the slot. Shadée held it out to Jem.
“Promise me to send this back to Sha'ant. It will tell my people that I'm dead.” Jem took the small disk and shook his head. Shadée smiled then offered him Anaïs.
“Jem. Anaïs knows how I found you. She's yours now. She will tell you. You'll be free then.”
“Why have you done this?” Jem closed his hand over hers. She struggled for breath. There was a terrible gurgling in her lungs as she gasped for air. Finally she managed: “I've taken the only decision open to me. A contract can never be broken...” The pained breathing ceased. Jem looked at Shadée for a long moment then he whispered, “A contract can never be broken - except by death.” He gently closed her eyes and let her slide to the ground. He rocked a little back and forth then he raised his head to the sky and screamed.
* * *
Jem looked a last time out of the window of the Kenza'i shuttle down at Shadée. She lay in the pentacle of the five Solanium rings, on a bed of colourful sponges. The belt around her waist would produce enough energy to keep away predators until her people came to fetch her.
Jem put his hand on the view port in a final goodbye, aware of a tearing emptiness within himself.
Beside him Anaïs' box stood on the armrest of the pilot seat, the disk on top of it. He took it and put it carefully into his breast pocket then he gave the box a tap.
“Are you ready for a new home, Anaïs?” The box flickered a little then said, “Absolutely.” Jem almost dropped the minicomputer. “Shadée? Am I loosing my mind?”
“Hello Jem. I've saved my memory and bio profile to Anaïs. If you wish to reset to Anaïs you just need to specify.”
Jem shook his head fiercely. “Heck no!” He pressed the button on the armrest of the pilot seat and dropped the memory crystal into the slot.
“Ah, that's better,” Shadée's voice echoed through the ship. “I suggest we leave immediately. I detect an incoming call from the Kenza'i mothership.”
Jem sat down in the pilot chair, and closed his eyes for a moment. Where moments ago only emptiness had been he now felt a deep joy. He smiled.
“Well, then let's take off, Shadée. Where shall we head to?”
“I've heard that the sunsets on Lagolan are particularly beautiful. I've never been there before.”
Jem laughed. “To Lagolan then.”
The ship started. Jem leaned back in the pilot seat with a grin. After a time he said, “Shadée?”
“Thank you. Because of you I'm finally free.”
“So am I, Jem... so am I.”