For this month’s free short story, I have something new for my science fiction fans. (Though this is more of a moon-side fun adventure than anything hard scifi, so fantasy readers may enjoy it too.) The characters in this story don’t appear in any of my novels yet, but if you enjoy what you read here, you can find another story with them in the freshly released Bridge Across the Stars anthology.
I’ll eventually bundle some of these short stories into ebooks, but for now, please enjoy it on my blog. Thanks, and happy reading!
“Payment received from six planets away within three hours? She must have had it en route before I even sent
my report. Put her down as someone we’ll rearrange the schedule for if she needs future debtors or delinquents located.” McCall leaned back in her chair and kicked up her slippered feet, resting her heels on the navigation console. The first sun peeked from behind the moon the Star Surfer was orbiting, its yellow-orange rays highlighting the lush green forests and vast blue lakes of the terraformed continent below.
“Knowing your preferences, I have already made that annotation in the records,” her business partner, Scipio, said from the other seat in NavCom.
“You’re an extremely efficient android.”
“All androids are efficient,” Scipio observed, turning his metallic silver eyes toward her. “Our programming does not allow otherwise.”
“But are they extremely efficient?”
“I am uncertain. Since extremely is a degree adverb, it is difficult for me to quantify it.”
“Just know that I’m pleased and will transfer your half of the funds over right now.” McCall waved for the holo display interface to float within reach so she could carry out the banking task. “What new type of hat will you buy?”
“Actually, I am considering purchasing a new waistcoat to go with my Devonresh suit, so I can appear more professional when I speak with potential clients who prefer video communication.”
McCall shuddered at the idea of video communications with strangers as she eyed Scipio’s impeccably dressed and wrinkle-free form, then compared it to her rumpled sweatpants, baggy six-pocket shirt, and fuzzy slippers adorned with dog hair. She was glad he’d taken over interfacing with clients and suspected that was a large part of why the business had been flourishing this last year.
“We’ve successfully closed twelve cases this month. I’m going to order a bottle of Château Nouveau Cheval Blanc to celebrate. But for now, what’s next on the list?” McCall twirled the chain and charms bracelet on her wrist, the reward of a fine wine sounding appealing, but not as appealing as a new work challenge.
“We’ve cleared the docket. The Imperial Diamond Trust Collection Agency is due to send a new list of delinquent accounts next week, but nothing is scheduled for this week.”
“Nothing at all?”
“We were efficient this past month. Extremely efficient.” Scipio offered her one of his three subtle smiles, no doubt letting her know he was pleased he’d worked in her degree adverb.
“I guess I can work on finishing my Lilac Mist Nebula painting.” McCall fiddled with her bracelet and wiggled her toes. “Though I prefer to paint on the way to a new assignment. Maybe we should scrounge on the sys-net, see if there’s any freelance work available.”
Scipio turned in his seat, regarding her with a diffident expression. Originally programmed to be a personal assistant android, he had more than a dozen diffident expressions. After a year, McCall was just getting to the point where she could recognize most of them if she tried. Oddly, she was better at reading androids than people. Maybe because their expressions were always the same, so the patterns were easier to see. People were complicated, and she’d never been that comfortable looking people in the eyes—or face—anyway.
“It has been seven hundred and forty-three days since you took a vacation,” Scipio observed.
McCall set her feet down. At the back of NavCom, lying across the hatchway per his usual modus operandi, her dog Junkyard lifted his big shaggy head.
“How do you know that?” she asked. “You haven’t been working with me that long.”
“As you know, I looked over the books when you first invited me to work for you. Aside from that short excursion last month with your sister, you’ve been continuously employed for two Perun Standard years. It is my understanding that humans need vacations, rest to ensure optimal health, mental clarity, and vigor.”
“My vigor is just fine. And I rest on my ship when we’re flying places.” McCall waved to indicate the Star Surfer. A couple of years earlier, she’d reached the point in her career where she’d been able to pay off the ship and now owned it outright. She’d outfitted it to precisely suit her tastes, including an exercise cabin, a crafts room, and computers loaded with the latest sys-net games and mystery-thriller novels. “I have no interest in going other places.”
“From my readings and observations regarding humans and vacations, they enjoy sunny beaches, snowy mountains, peaceful forests, and touring pre-imperial cities and ruins sites. Some relax in sedentary ways, and some seek adventures.”
“Yes, thank you for the tips, but I have everything I need here.” McCall didn’t like leaving the ship. The planets and moons and stations outside of the ship were unpredictable and full of strange people. She occasionally landed in wilderness areas so Junkyard could go out and romp around, but she certainly had no need for romping. The last time she’d been outdoors, she’d gotten a sunburn. Clearly, human skin wasn’t meant to be exposed to such harsh rays.
“Might I point out that we are orbiting Timor Moon, a holding with more than one million kilometers of imperial forests designated for recreational purposes?”
“Are you trying to get rid of me for some reason, Scipio?” She squinted at him, surprised. He wasn’t generally one to meddle, especially since she had ranted at him early on after he had, deciding she needed to make more social connections, arranged for a legion of businessmen and -women to descend upon her ship for a party he’d hosted. It had been his attempt to help her “make new friends” and potentially “find a lover to fulfill you.” Fortunately, after she’d locked herself in her cabin and hadn’t spoken to him for a week, he’d abstained from further attempts at matchmaking. McCall wasn’t above making friends and acknowledged the human need for connection, occasionally, but parties with strangers were the things of nightmares. And strangers coming aboard her ship? Even more horrific.
“Certainly not. I merely wish you to remain healthy, and my databases inform me that seven-hundred and forty-three days without a vacation is exceedingly long for a human. Also, Junkyard carried off my tasseled Bernardo Passione loafers this morning. The copious slobber I found on them when I located them is likely to damage the leather. Even though you exercise Junkyard regularly in the ship’s gymnasium, I have observed that he is seventy-two percent more likely to misbehave when he hasn’t been off the ship in the previous seven days.”
“I see. So, this is less about a concern for my welfare and more about your loafers.”
Junkyard’s ears had perked at the sound of his name, and one dark brown eye was open, observing them.
“They were hand-tailored by a octogenarian cobbler in a remote Sevillian village,” Scipio said blandly.
“Fine, fine. I’ll look for something suitable.”
Scipio waved a hand over the console, bringing up his own holodisplay. “I’ve taken the liberty of locating private accommodations that may be to your tastes and will certainly be to Junkyard’s tastes.”
Junkyard lifted his head, his other eye opening.
McCall eyed the rustic log cabin that appeared on the holodisplay. A single dirt path wound its way through a grassy meadow to the front door, and great towering pine trees and snow-capped mountains rose behind it. A stream meandered through a corner of the view.
“Bearadise Lodge is the perfect retreat for the adventurous soul or couple seeking a getaway in the forested mountains of Penn Park,” Scipio said, as if he were reciting a brochure. He probably was. “Tailored after Old Earth’s Yellowstone Park, the wildlife and scenery will appeal to your ancient Earthian genes. This particular cabin, capable of accommodating up to four, is one mile from the next closest rental, the Bearland Chalet, and four miles from the Bear Haven campground. Peace and tranquility await you.”
“Why do all of these rentals have bear in the name?”
“If you read the data on Penn Park, you’ll find that wolves, bears, lynx, mountain lions, and wolverines were seeded to perform the role of predators in the food chain. Timor Moon had no native species, due to its largely inhospitable environment in pre-terraforming days. Penn Park is the result of over three hundred years of scientific tinkering. It is now the perfect woodland sanctuary for humans and animals alike.” Scipio extended a hand toward Junkyard. “I checked and dogs are permitted.”
“I should hope so. Since bears apparently are.”
“Bears, wolves, lynx, mountain lions, and wolverines.”
“By all means, let’s strive for completeness,” McCall said.
“I always do. The tourist season is just starting for the year in Penn Park, so you’ll likely find it quiet and uncrowded.”
“Fine,” McCall relented. “One night.”
“I’ve booked you for three.”
“How thoughtful of you.”
“I was originally programmed to anticipate the needs of my employers. You are most fortunate to have rescued me and not some lesser android.”
“Yes, I tell myself that every day.”
• • • •
The backpack straps dug into McCall’s shoulders and she glared down at the combination landing strip and parking lot as she climbed the wood trail away from the visitors’ center. Scipio hadn’t mentioned that Penn Park didn’t allow spaceships or aircraft to land inside its borders and that she would have to hike to reach Bearadise Lodge. While carrying all her food and gear for three days, not to mention the copious amounts of dog food that Junkyard required.
If the one-hundred-and-fifty-pound mutt hadn’t been bounding from tree to bush to log, sniffing and wagging his tail at every new scent, McCall would have turned around before rounding the next bend. It was cold, even through her long underwear, sweats, and jacket, and she frowned at the dirty lumps of snow still hunkering in shady spots. She sighed down at her purple spaceship when the lot came into view again, the craft large next to the smaller private aircraft and ground vehicles the locals had driven up from the coastal cities. She imagined the perfectly climate-controlled temperature inside, including the toasty infrared sauna in her private lav, and hoped Scipio—and his loafers—would enjoy this four days of privacy.
When McCall and Junkyard reached a wooden sign with a trail map on it, she paused to take a picture of it with her netdisc since there were at least a dozen trails meandering past various rental cabins and campgrounds, most eventually heading up to Blue Glacier Lake. A name which prompted more longing thoughts for her sauna.
A sign next to the map proclaimed that dogs needed to be leashed or on auto-halters. Junkyard walked up, lifted a leg, and peed on the base of it.
“Sometimes, I think you understand System Standard and can read,” she told him.
He crooned, “Wroo-wroo,” then took off, neither leashed nor haltered, after a chipmunk.
A group of hikers descending the trail glanced at him, and McCall braced herself to explain that he had been rescued and had a deep aversion to restraints. But the hikers were talking among themselves and didn’t look at her.
“…was incredible, wasn’t it?”
“The geysers were amazing. I still can’t believe an imperial soldier died falling into one of the hot springs though.”
“A cyborg soldier.”
“I guess their implants don’t make them impervious to scalding water.”
McCall stepped aside so the hikers could go by, their conversation fading as they drew away.
As she continued up the trail, she withdrew her comm unit. “Scipio?”
“Present,” came the prompt reply.
“Do people die in this park?”
“Infrequently, due to negligence and stupidity.”
“Did an imperial cyborg soldier recently die?” McCall paid her taxes and obeyed the law, so she wasn’t a target for the imperial government, as far as she knew, but she hadplucked Scipio from a government-funded research laboratory. She didn’t think anyone knew she’d been involved, but she felt a lot less comfortable these days when she walked past the omnipresent soldiers stationed on moons, planets, and stations all over the system. She imagined returning from this little jaunt to a platoon of hulking men in armor surrounding the Star Surfer and dragging out Scipio.
“Yes,” Scipio said. “Three days ago, a local news feature reports. He reputedly stepped over a railing to test the temperature in a hot spring, but slipped in and was scalded to death in the two-hundred-and-ten-degree water. His body was not recovered. The park authorities believe that the boiling, acidic water dissolved his remains before the rescue team arrived. It’s happened before.”
“I see,” McCall said, following Junkyard up the trail. “And does that fall under the category of stupidity or negligence?”
“No chance his imperial buddies are on the way out to have a look for themselves, is there?”
Scipio hesitated, perhaps realizing the threat to himself for the first time. “It’s not mentioned in the report, but I will stay in the ship.”
“A good idea. If any trouble comes, let me know, and I’ll be right there.” Remembering the six-mile hike she had to the cabin, she changed that to, “I’ll be there as soon as I can. I’m perfectly willing to cut my vacation short if there’s danger.”
“I don’t believe that will be necessary.” Did Scipio sound dry? His tone was usually a monotone, but he did have some variation. “Don’t forget that I have downloaded numerous combat protocols and am proficient with five thousand different types of weapons.”
“I haven’t. I also haven’t forgotten that your personal-assistant programming underlies all that, so if someone asked you to make coffee in the middle of a battle, you would stop to do so.”
“A piece of information you should not give to our enemies.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Do not be concerned. I will pass the time aboard the ship without incident. Please fully enjoy your period of rest and relaxation. Should you grow weary of the books you have along to read, I understand the stream in the meadow is a favorite spot for panning for gold, and there are cliffs in the area where assiduous gem hounds have found turquoise.”
“The allure of wasting hours looking for rocks. Please don’t overstimulate me with these promises for excitement.”
“The weather report also predicts a few snow flurries. You could build a snowman in the meadow.”
“I don’t think that android is in a hurry for you to get back, Junkyard,” McCall said, turning off the comm.
The dog, his big broad head thrust into a pile of rocks and his tail quivering, did not acknowledge her.
• • • •
Bearadise Lodge the sign at the entrance to the meadow read.
McCall let out a relieved groan, both because what had started as a clear sky was now heavy with ominous gray clouds, and because her legs felt as limp and useless as the broken viper-coils in the back of the ship.
Even though she exercised regularly in her gym, her thighs hadn’t been sufficiently prepared for scrambling over boulders and logs on a trail that ascended two thousand feet before reaching its alpine destination. Even Junkyard had slowed down and now padded sedately along the trail, only occasionally springing after small critters. Fortunately, when they’d crossed paths with a pair of wolves, he’d shown uncharacteristic wisdom and hadn’t raced after them, barking like a hoarse-voiced banshee.
She’d no sooner than had the thought when Junkyard rushed past her, nearly knocking her into a fern. He halted a few steps into the dead brown grass of the meadow and growled, his hackles going up.
Imagining legions of bears lounging around Bearadise Lodge, McCall rested her hand on one of three stun guns she’d packed after Scipio’s description of all the predators abounding in the park. The second one in case the first one had a mechanical error or ran out of juice. The third because it was good to have a backup for a backup.
Junkyard’s growl grew louder, and McCall spotted the reason for it. A bare-chested man in black fatigue trousers and boots was striding away from a stream while wringing out a black T-shirt and jacket.
He looked over at them, and she groaned.
“Please tell me I didn’t hike to the wrong cabin,” she muttered, dread filling her at the idea of having to backtrack to one of the other turnoffs.
Though he was far across the meadow from her, the man tilted his head and frowned, as if he’d heard her. Then he startled her by sprinting toward the log cabin barely noticeable among the trees at the back of the clearing.
Junkyard took off after him.
“No!” McCall blurted, lunging for his collar far too late.
The big dog raced across the meadow like a giant wolf on the trail of a particularly succulent-looking antelope. Amazingly, the man—the soldier?—ran just as fast as he did. He reached the door of the cabin, flung it open, and sprang inside. The door slammed shut before Junkyard reached it.
“Junk!” McCall whistled and patted her thigh.
She didn’t want to go over there and physically get the dog. The man probably had a damn rifle in there—a real weapon, not a stun gun.
“Bacon,” she called, shaking the bag of treats she used to get him to return when he ran off.
Thankfully, the dog bounded back across the meadow toward her. A curtain stirred at the cabin’s only visible window.
Junkyard halted in front of her, sitting promptly, his gaze fixating on the bag. Distractedly, McCall tossed him one of the bacon-flavored vat protein cubes while she kept her eyes on the cabin. That man had moved far too quickly to be a mere human. He was either an android or…
“A supposedly dead cyborg soldier?” she muttered, then looked at Junkyard.
Not unlike Scipio, he’d also been a stray she collected. His rescue hadn’t been as dangerous and dramatic, involving less shooting and less escaping from imperial troops, but the end result was the same, that she didn’t know his past. A veterinarian had believed him about four years old and pointed out previously broken bones on his scans, so McCall gathered Junkyard hadn’t had the happiest of puppyhoods.
“Have you crossed paths with cyborgs before?” she wondered, remembering a few times when the dog had growled at overly burly soldiers in Cyborg Corps uniforms.
He rarely did that with normal humans, though he’d been known to bite the crotches of some who’d proven themselves enemies to McCall. She didn’t do as much to curb that behavior as she probably should.
Junkyard thumped his tail in the dirt, looked at the treat bag, and cocked his head, managing to appear extremely cute with his tufted ears and black terrier-like beard, despite his extreme largeness.
McCall tossed him another cube while debating what to do. She didn’t like talking to strangers under any circumstances, and walking up to the door of a little cabin when she knew a soldier was inside, possibly one involved in criminal activity, was even less appealing than usual. But she also wasn’t sure she had time to make it all the way back down the mountain before dark, especially when those dark clouds hinted of the snow Scipio had mentioned. If she were stranded, Scipio could come for her, but only if he could find a clearing large enough to land the ship in, and this was the only meadow she’d encountered. The way up had been smothered in trees.
“I do have a flashlight,” she said. “And a backup flashlight. I suppose—”
The cabin door opened, and the soldier ran out, this time wearing his shirt and fatigue jacket, and also carrying a camouflaged backpack. Without glancing at her, he ran across the meadow, jumped the stream, and disappeared into the forest.
Junkyard cocked his head.
“You’re not getting anything else until dinner.” McCall put away the treat bag and considered the cabin. “Does that mean the premises have been vacated and it’s safe to go in?”
Maybe that man hadn’t been a criminal or some loon who had staged his own death. Maybe he had simply been the person to reserve the cabin ahead of her. But if so, why had he run off into the woods instead of back down the trail toward the parking area? And why was he wearing a military uniform instead of off-duty recreational clothing?
Junkyard trotted across the meadow at a more sedate pace this time, sat on the cabin’s covered porch, and looked back at her expectantly.
“All right, all right,” she grumbled, heading for the log dwelling, more because of the coming storm than because she felt comfortable staying there. A cold wind gusted down out of the mountains, and she pulled her jacket tighter as she walked.
Once she was inside, she would comm Scipio and let him know that she might have found trouble. She considered asking him to pick her up, rules against landing inside the park notwithstanding. What would the authorities do if the ship came down? Send out drones with heat-seeking missiles?
McCall passed a tiny wooden structure on the way to the cabin. “Please tell me that’s not an outhouse. This vacation is getting worse and worse.”
Another structure, a woodshed this time, held piles of split logs, and she realized “Bearadise Lodge” might not have indoor plumbing or central heat.
“No wonder the cyborg was so eager to leave.” She reached the front door and opened it warily, imagining all manner of horrifying things inside, such as dead bodies and weapons stashes.
But the single-room cabin was empty, save for a few outdated furnishings and a faded oval rug. Fortunately, there was a light switch, which she flicked on, but her fears about central heat and toilets proved true. It wasn’t cold inside though. A fire burned low in the woodstove. Courtesy of the cyborg occupant? He clearly hadn’t expected her. At least he had left the place clean.
She walked over the uneven floorboards, the warped and misshapen wood groaning and creaking, and set her pack down on the single bed. The brochure’s promises that the cabin could sleep four seemed ambitious. Maybe if they brought their own sleeping bags and didn’t mind the floor.
The bed had been hastily made. She curled a lip at the idea of sleeping somewhere the sheets and blankets—if one could call that bear fur a blanket—hadn’t been washed since the last occupant used them.
Junkyard snuffled and sniffed, his snout stuck under a handmade rocking chair. He pulled out a candy bar wrapper and tongued the inside of it.
“Looks empty to me, buddy,” McCall said. “I’ll make you something to eat in a minute.”
She looked around, debating whether she truly intended to spend the night here. She’d left the door open and noticed a few fat snowflakes falling outside. Would the cyborg have to sleep under a tree now that she’d come in and claimed his cabin?
“Not his cabin,” she said. “He didn’t properly reserve it. Probably because he’s dead.”
Junkyard was pushing the wrapper across the floor with his snout and didn’t respond.
McCall pulled out her comm unit. Wind whistled down from the mountaintops, and she closed the door on the darkening day as she tried to get ahold of Scipio. Both so she could make sure he would be ready to pick her up if the dark clouds turned into a full-fledged storm—or if the cyborg squatter returned—and to harangue him about sending her out on a vacation when poor weather had been on the horizon. A few snow flurries, right.
“Scipio?” She frowned at the comm unit. It showed her as connected with the ship, but with a very weak signal. “Can you hear me?”
A gust of wind battered the log walls of the cabin, and her frown turned to a scowl.
“Listen, you comm unit, you’re designed to let me talk to my ship when I’m on a planet and it’s in orbit on the other side. Don’t tell me some storm clouds are affecting the reception.”
It spat static at her.
“Some vacation this is turning out to be,” McCall grumbled.
Junkyard flopped onto his side, then rolled onto his back with his legs in the air.
“All right, all right, I’ll make you some dinner.”
She eyed the falling snow outside the window, hoping her night wouldn’t prove even stranger than the day had been.
• • • •
Junkyard jumped off the bed, stood in front of the door, and barked.
McCall growled and snatched her stun gun off the table. Darkness had fallen outside, with the wind blowing falling snow sideways across the meadow, so she didn’t know how Junkyard could have heard anything. She stood up anyway. Just in case.
It was hard to imagine someone wandering around in the snow at night, but she imagined the cyborg soldier. Maybe he’d decided that sleeping under a tree in freezing temperatures wasn’t desirable.
She eyed the door, wishing it had a lock, but all it had was a simple wooden latch that a bear could have manipulated. And probably had. Since the door opened outward, she couldn’t even lean a chair against it to thwart intruders.
“What is it, boy?” McCall asked, not sure if she should whisper so whoever was out there wouldn’t hear or if she should shout and pretend there were more people in here than the cyborg thought. Large people with hulking muscles and BlazTech rifles.
She touched the comm unit in her pocket, but she hadn’t been able to get ahold of Scipio yet.
“…big dog,” someone said outside, the man’s voice close enough to hear even over the wind.
Damn, was there more than one soldier out there?
McCall took a deep breath and set her back against the wall next to the stove, giving herself a clear line of sight if anyone came through the doorway. A stun gun ought to take down a cyborg just fine. As long as there wasn’t a rogue android out there ready to steal her cabin, she could handle this. After all, she spent her life tracking down criminals. Granted, she never confronted those criminals. She let the debt collectors and law enforcement agencies know where to find them after she located them, so they could confront them.
The door flew open. No, it was yanked open.
McCall’s finger tightened on the trigger, but nobody appeared. Junkyard ran out into the snow, and she cursed to herself. Why hadn’t she thought to grab his collar?
Two men charged inside, one jerking the door shut behind him.
McCall fired twice as they looked toward her, raising weapons of their own. She ducked behind the stove, afraid they would fire before her stuns took effect. But when she peeked over it, ready to shoot again, both men lay on the floor of the cabin.
She stared in confusion. Neither were the cyborg soldier.
They wore numerous layers of clothing, had shaggy hair, and beards that hadn’t seen a trim in months. One man’s loose fingers gripped a six-shooter loaded with bullets. It was the kind of weapon favored out on some of the border planets and moons where imperial supply ships rarely visited. Local smiths could often make them without the need for advanced factories and refined materials such as stun guns and blazers required.
But they weren’t on a border world. Timor Moon was well within the empire, practically next door to Upsilon Seven.
“I am confused,” McCall said, moving forward to pick up the six-shooter.
She knew she should search the men and make sure they didn’t have other weapons, but then what would she do with them? Tie them up? With what?
Barking came from the meadow outside, and McCall opened the door to deal with Junkyard first. Why had he run out there when men had been standing on the porch right outside?
As she opened the door to peer into the night and yell for him, a man sprang up the steps and onto the porch.
“Hells,” she blurted, jerking the stun gun up.
With lightning speed, he caught her wrist and shifted it aside so she fired uselessly over his shoulder.
Cursing, McCall tried to jump back, but he held her by her wrist, his grip like steel. Then a great bellowing bark came from behind him, and his eyes bulged open. He lifted McCall and thrust her inside as he stepped in right behind her.
He let go with one hand and tried to shut the door behind him, but Junkyard hit it like a freight train. Even though the man was large, he stumbled inside, and his grip on McCall loosened.
She jerked her arm free and lunged backward. This time, she waited until she was out of his arm’s reach before pointing her stun gun at his chest. It helped that Junkyard, all his hackles up, barreled through the door, distracting the man. The soldier. He was the same person from before, the one in army fatigues.
Junkyard went for his crotch. He jerked his leg up in time to deflect the dog, but Junkyard’s teeth sank into the side of his thigh, and he roared in pain.
“Stop moving, or I’ll shoot,” McCall yelled—she would have shot already, but she didn’t want to stun her dog. Though maybe she should. She was alarmed by how violently Junkyard was reacting to the man. Granted, he’d barged into her cabin uninvited, but that was the trendy thing for intruders to do tonight.
“He’s trying to chew off my balls,” the soldier yelled, backing to the wall as he jerked his leg up to deflect another attack. “I don’t want to hurt him.”
“Junk,” McCall yelled, realizing the man could have hurt him if he truly was a cyborg. “Knock it off. Get over here.”
The dog snarled, more agitated than she’d ever seen him.
“Bacon!” she yelled.
It didn’t work.
Snarling herself, she risked getting closer to the soldier in order to grab Junkyard’s collar. She had to step over one of the stunned men in order to do it. Why in all three suns’ hells were all these people in her cabin?
Junkyard resisted, but she hip-checked him, and he seemed to realize she was there. She couldn’t pull off a hundred-and-fifty-pound dog by pure force, but she pushed herself in front of him, using her body to show him that she was in charge. She had control here. If only that were true…
She struggled to keep the stun gun pointed at the soldier’s chest as she worked the dog away from him. Fortunately, he lifted his hands and didn’t take advantage of her divided attention. He seemed willing to stand there calmly now that his balls weren’t in immediate danger.
His fatigue pants were torn, and McCall spotted blood. She winced, tempted to apologize, but he was the intruder, damn it.
“What do you want?” she demanded.
“I came to rescue you,” he said, his hands still up.
McCall squinted at him. He was at least six and a half feet tall, broad-shouldered, and had the bulging muscles of a gym rat—or someone with implants and whatever drug cocktails the cyborgs received to keep them looking like that. He looked more like a villain than a hero. Except for his face. He was young—mid-twenties?—with eyes that seemed very earnest as they gazed into hers.
But she didn’t trust strangers. Or very many friends either.
“From what?” she asked warily, glancing at the stunned men on the rug at the same time as he did.
“Them. I think there are two or three more in their gang.”
“Gang? There are gangs in Penn Park? What are they doing? Selling illegal drugs to the bears?”
“I… don’t actually know what they’re doing here. They were in the cabin before I was. I didn’t realize it when I moved in for a couple of days, but it was a suns-blighted mess. I would have left, but I was injured so I needed a place to hunker down and rest.” He frowned down at his leg, at the fresh injury dripping dog saliva. Junkyard was still staring at him and growling softly, his hackles like porcupine quills. “They stayed away while I was recovering in here, but they kept lurking around. I gradually realized they must have been squatting here over the winter. But they never came up and told me that or said this was their place.”
“Because it wasn’t, I’m sure. You rent it from the forest service, and it only just opened up for the season. It being the beginning of spring on this part of the moon. The verybeginning.” She looked toward the dark window, the frost rimming the panes.
“Yeah, I don’t think they were paying to rent it.”
“No, I was… temporarily indisposed.”
“Because you fell in a hot springs and died?”
He flinched and looked away. As bad as McCall was at detecting lies and guessing people’s thoughts, she was fairly certain this was the man from the news report.
“Do you want any help tying them up?” He pointed at the shaggy figures on the floor. “I can keep them from bothering you.”
“I didn’t see any rope.”
“I can tear strips from their clothing.”
“And ruin their fashionable attire?” McCall asked.
The soldier didn’t seem to know what to make of her sarcasm. She lowered her stun gun, suspecting he could have taken it from her if he’d truly wanted to, and he went to the men. He easily tore their jackets into strips, as if they were made from paper instead of sturdy water-resistant material. He glanced at the door frequently as he tied their ankles together and their wrists behind their backs.
“You think there are other ones out there in the storm, waiting to burst in here?” McCall asked.
“They may not since they probably saw me come in. Unless they think I’m dead because your dog ate me.”
“He doesn’t eat people, only castrates them.”
Junkyard had settled some, and she was blocking him with her body, so she risked letting go of his collar.
“Actually,” McCall said, “he doesn’t react like that to many people. It’s either because you barged into our cabin or because you’re a cyborg.”
“Your dog is trained to hate cyborgs?” He frowned at her. Was there an accusation in that frown?
She supposed imperial cyborgs were soldiers and represented the empire—they certainly represented law and order in most of the trinary suns system. Just because so many people were terrified of them didn’t meant they weren’t evil.
“I’m not sure exactly,” McCall said. “He seemed to hate cyborgs when I found him. He’s snarled at a few overly burly soldiers on space stations and gotten me in trouble. He seems to be able to sniff them out, even if they’re not in the Cyborgs Corp uniform.” She raised her eyebrows toward his attire.
He wasn’t wearing that uniform, just generic fleet fatigues that did not include his name or rank.
“That’s weird,” he said. “I wouldn’t think… I mean, the implants are all on the inside. I wouldn’t think I’d smell any different from another soldier.”
McCall shrugged. “Dogs can sniff out drugs, weapons, and cancer cells in humans. Why not implants?”
The soldier, whose name she still didn’t know, finished tying the men and knelt back. McCall still held her stun gun, but she didn’t point it at him.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Wasn’t it on the news?”
“Probably, but I heard the report of your death secondhand. My android friend didn’t seem to think names were worth mentioning.”
“Even androids are snubbing me these days, eh? I’m Sebastian Sears.”
“Sebastian? That sounds like the kind of name you give to one of those snooty breeds of cats.” McCall knew she was the last person who should tease others about first names, but it seemed an effective way to avoid giving hers in return.
He—Sears—arched his eyebrows. “I can attempt to be snooty if you want, but it’s hard with blood running down my leg and dog slobber soaking my pants.”
“Had a rough day, huh?”
“A rough six months, really.” He rubbed his face. It was stubbled with several days’ worth of beard growth. “Look, I didn’t mean to make trouble for you. Do you want me to leave?”
“I don’t know. Can you take those two with you? I wasn’t looking to entertain. I came up here for a vacation. A private vacation.”
A boom sounded outside, and Sears sprang toward the door. He didn’t open it, instead turning off the lights and peering out the window.
McCall shifted uneasily, uncomfortable with being alone in the dark with a strange man—technically, three strange men—and also with explosives going off outside of her vacation cabin. Junkyard shifted from growling to whining and tried to hide under the bed. Alas, only his head would fit. The other hundred and forty pounds stuck out, butt toward the center of the room. If not for the faint glow coming through the grate in the woodstove, nobody would have known, but Sears looked over at him.
“Does that mean he won’t go out and attack other men’s balls?” he asked.
“Not as long as there are booms going on. What was that?”
“Not military ordnance. I’d recognize the sound of anything out of an imperial armory.” Sears touched his ear, and McCall remembered that cyborgs had their hearing and other senses augmented, not just their muscles. “Dynamite is my guess, or something similar.”
“Who brings dynamite to an imperial park?”
“I saw them walking around upstream with pans yesterday, and if you go farther up the creek, there’s some freshly blown rock in the cliffs alongside the waterway.”
“You think they’ve been up here panning for gold?”
“Vigorously. Which isn’t allowed, I don’t believe.”
“You can pan in imperial parks,” McCall said, starting to catch the gist of why these people might be here. Though that didn’t explain why they had come to the cabin. And it also didn’t explain the not-dead cyborg. “You can’t dig or deface the land though. That’s a huge fine. Also, you have to bring whatever you find to the authorities to be weighed and assayed. The empire takes its seventy-five percent tax cut on the spot. Some people still find it worth doing, especially right now. With the rebels making noise and anti-imperial sentiment spreading throughout the system, some people are worried that imperial morats will take a hit, and they’re stocking up on gold, gems, and other commodities with intrinsic value.”
Sears turned from the window and looked in her direction, his face in shadow. “Uh, you didn’t say your name. Or who you work for. You sound…”
“Knowledgable about fiscal issues?”
“Like a government somebody who would turn in an AWOL soldier,” he said glumly.
She hesitated. She sometimes worked for the government, but more often for loan sharks and private debt collection agencies. Until she’d liberated Scipio, she’d always considered herself a law-abiding imperial subject, if not one that adored everything about the empire. She’d done her best to construct her life so that she was largely free of its sometimes suffocating restraints, though one could never escape taxes. At least her income wasn’t taxed at the same rate as freshly prospected gold.
“Did you really come in here to rescue me?” she asked.
“Nobly and valiantly, yes, ma’am.”
She snorted. “My name is McCall. I’m a skip tracer. I do sometimes get paid to track down fugitives, but it’s mostly about money. People don’t get terribly concerned about criminals unless those criminals are murdering folks left and right or owe someone important a lot of money.”
He looked out the window. “Did you get paid to track me down?”
“No. Like I said, I’m trying to take a vacation. It’s not my fault you were streaking naked across the lawn of my rental cabin when I got up here.”
“I wasn’t naked, ma’am.” He sounded aggrieved. “I was washing my shirt in the creek. It was smelly. And I’m… They teach you to be tidy in the military.”
“You wanted to get out? That’s why you faked your own death?”
“Yes, ma’am. But I wasn’t very… I didn’t think things through real well. I mean, I was pretty clever with making some tourists think I went into the steaming spring, I think, but what do you do afterward? Hardly anyone takes physical currency anymore, definitely not anybody official. You can’t get a ticket off a moon without getting scanned. Can’t buy anything without showing your banking chip. I’m afraid I’m going to be stuck scrounging around this park for the rest of my life. Or until they find me.” He looked at her again, though he didn’t ask if she would turn him in.
“Look, I can’t—”
“Shit, get down,” he barked.
An instant later, the window shattered. Something struck the floorboards.
He leaped for it, snatched it up, ran to the door, and threw it back outside.
A boom roared so loudly the floor quaked. Shards of glass glass flew from the broken window. Junkyard yowled. McCall gripped the wall for support and clenched her stun gun tightly, though she had no target.
Sears disappeared out the front door. As the floor stopped shaking, McCall inched toward it, not sure whether she meant to help him or slam it shut. Glass crunched under her boots.
One of the men tied in the corner groaned, and she jumped a foot. She almost shot him again before her brain caught up to her instincts. Sears had tied him well. She had seen it. Even if the men regained consciousness, they weren’t going anywhere.
Even knowing that, her shoulder blades itched when she turned her back to them, but she had to in order to look outside. If Sears truly thought he was rescuing her—by the suns, had any man ever tried to rescue her?—he might do something stupid. Like get himself killed for real. That would make her decision of whether or not she should turn him in easier to make…
The light from the explosive had disappeared by the time she reached the doorway. She squinted into the gloom and crouched low, hoping nobody outside would notice her. The wind and snow had lessened, but soft flakes still fell and she couldn’t see that far into the meadow. The faint gurgle of the creek drifted to her ears, the water not yet frozen. A noisy thud sounded, followed by a thump.
She spotted two dark figures right as one hurled the other through the snow. She gawked as the man sailed twenty feet. Only a cyborg could have thrown someone that far. He turned, throwing a punch at the second man. His opponent flew backward, landing on his butt in the snow.
McCall was about to lower her stun gun, certain Sears could handle any trouble out there, but she spotted someone off to the side, a man using a tree for cover. Was he pointing a weapon at Sears? In the dark, McCall couldn’t tell. If the figure hadn’t moved, she wouldn’t be sure it wasn’t simply a lumpy base to the tree. Could she shoot that far if needed? Stun guns were meant for close range.
The figure stirred, stepping away from the tree, and McCall fired. The person jerked and turned toward her. He or she didn’t topple over. Crap. She fired again, then lunged inside.
A bullet slammed into the doorjamb inches from her head. She scrambled away from the front wall, having no faith that the logs would stop bullets, and crouched behind the cast-iron stove.
Junkyard was combining growls with whimpers and still had his head under the bed, the explosions having stolen his ferocity. She tried to pull him closer while wishing she’d had the presence of mind to close the door. She imagined that thug out there, angry that she’d tried to stun him, sprinting across the snow toward the porch.
She gritted her teeth and pointed her stun gun at the door.
Footsteps banged on the porch. She tightened her finger on the trigger.
“Skip tracer?” Sears asked.
She lowered the stun gun. “Yes?”
“I got them all. Thanks for helping with that third one. I didn’t see him. He was probably going to shoot me.” Sears hadn’t appeared in the doorway yet, probably wary of her trigger finger. “Uhm, do you want me to tie them up and bring them in there? I think the three we downed are all of the gang. It’s all I’ve seen the couple of days I’ve been hiding out here.”
“So, five total? The cabin only sleeps four.” McCall was sure it was ridiculous, but the one thing her mind focused on was that there had been an extra fee for the cabin if more than four guests used it. She snorted and rubbed her face. There was a reason she stayed in her spaceship and didn’t go out into the system for fieldwork.
“Including or excluding the dog?” Sears asked after a pause. He probably wasn’t sure if she was joking or not.
Hells, she wasn’t sure.
“Probably including. He takes up a lot of room on the bed.” McCall patted Junkyard’s back. “I guess bring them in and tie them up. They’ll freeze to death out there, right?”
“I’m not sure. It is nippy.” Sears walked in, peering around until he spotted her, crouching in the shadows by the stove. “Are you all right? I saw that one shoot over here.”
“I’m fine. Though I’ll won’t get my damage deposit back if someone notices the bullet hole in the doorjamb.” She pushed herself to her feet so she wouldn’t feel quite as tiny, craning her neck to look up at Sears.
“They may not notice that, but, uh, the roof on the side porch collapsed when the dynamite went off right next to it.”
“Maybe you can tell them it collapsed under the weight of the snow,” Sears suggested.
“How much has fallen?”
“About two inches.”
“That doesn’t sound monumental.”
“There might be more by morning. It’s possible the park rangers or whoever you rent from won’t notice the soot on the logs.” Sears stepped forward, lifting a hand. “Look, I really do appreciate you helping. Thanks.”
McCall skittered back, bumping against the stove. She didn’t jerk the stun gun back up, but only barely stopped herself. “What are you doing?”
“I was going to pat you on the shoulder. That’s it.” Sears backed away and lifted his hands.
“Oh. Sorry, I don’t do touching.”
“Because I’m a cyborg.”
“No, because you’re not a dog.”
McCall sighed. “You’re not the first.” This was why dogs and androids were so much easier to get along with than humans. “It’s just me. You’re welcome for the help.”
“I’ll get the men.”
Did he sound stung? Because she hadn’t wanted a stranger’s meaty hand thumping her on the shoulder?
She rubbed her face again and leaned her butt against the stove, feeling its heat through her shirt and jacket. “What a vacation.”
• • • •
McCall woke up, not remembering making a conscious decision to sleep, but morning had come, and sunlight—along with icy cold air—came through the broken window. She was hunkered between the bed and the stove, her back against the wall.
Heavy breathing came from the bed beside her, and she leaned away, alarmed at the idea that Sears or one of the captured men might be sleeping so close to her. But Junkyard was the one with his head on the pillow, breathing deeply and evenly. His long body lay stretched out, legs thrust straight ahead, and there wouldn’t have been room on the bed for anyone else.
McCall snorted to herself. It figured.
Discontented grunts, groans, and mutters came from the opposite side of the cabin where Sears had tied up the five men. He’d added makeshift hoods at some point during the night—so they wouldn’t be able to identify him in the daylight?—and he sat in a hard wooden chair, keeping an eye on them. He didn’t look like he’d slept, and McCall felt a twinge of guilt. She must have been out for hours if daylight had come.
He looked over at her, probably having heard the snort.
“The sky is clear,” he said quietly. “If you want to comm someone. The park authorities. Whoever.”
“Will you leave before they arrive?”
“Yeah. I won’t bother you anymore. Assuming you’re staying here after all this.”
She snorted again, less softly this time. She’d had more than enough of this vacation, but she felt bad at the idea of leaving Sears here to fend for himself. He didn’t even know how to be off the grid.
“Why did you leave?” she asked quietly. Normally, she wouldn’t have pried—she hatedwhen other people pried into her background—but if she knew, it would help her decide… She wasn’t sure what.
She was already certain she wouldn’t say anything about having seen him, but should she help him? She couldn’t imagine herself risking the empire’s ire by sneaking him aboard her ship and giving him a ride off the planet, but maybe she could at least do something to give him a brighter future than this.
Sears looked at the hooded men, many of whom were doubtless awake and listening, then walked over to her side of the cabin. He crouched, the stove appearing small next to his bulk, and opened the door. It creaked, and a puff of warm air floated out. He plucked logs from the bin beside the stove and started laying them on the orange embers.
“It wasn’t what I expected,” he murmured, the words for her alone.
Junkyard lifted his head and rumbled at him. McCall poked him.
“Stop,” she said. “We’re not growling at him anymore.”
Junkyard rolled to his feet, hopped off the bed, and stretched on the rug. He probably wanted to go outside, but McCall wanted to hear Sears’s story first.
“Go on,” she said.
“When I signed up, I thought I was going to be heroic. A soldier. A brave warrior defending people from vile rebels, shifty Starseers, and outlaws from the border worlds trying to infiltrate the empire and do evil.” He grunted. “I didn’t realize I’d be putting down rebellions formed by people unable to pay their taxes and protecting imperial convoys from starving people who were so desperate to eat that they had to try anything to get at the cargo. The empire… Well, things aren’t as black as white as I thought when I was a kid. And by enlisting in the cyborg program and getting all the fancy surgeries, I’d committed to ten years. That’s forever.” He turned an anguished look on her.
McCall had gotten old enough that ten years didn’t seem like as long an amount of time as it once had, but even she allowed that it was an eternity to do work that one hated. Or that disturbed one on a moral level.
“I made a mistake,” he whispered, “but they don’t let you out. The only way out is to commit a crime and end up in a military prison, but that’s even worse than serving.”
“So you waited until you had some leave, came here, and staged your own death.”
She realized he was even younger than she had first guessed. Maybe only nineteen or twenty. People that age made mistakes. She certainly had. Even though she could understand why the empire would want its ten years from a soldier when it had invested a lot of money in implants and surgeries, she also knew they did a lot of borderline sleazy recruiting and made copious promises to talk men into serving. She wouldn’t feel that bad if they lost their investment this time.
“I can’t get in trouble with the empire for you,” McCall murmured, aware of the other ears in the cabin, “but—”
“I wouldn’t ask you to.”
“Let a woman finish, will you?”
“Due to my unique line of work, I know exactly how people are found when they try to disappear from the law—and debt collectors. The mistakes they make, the things they overlook. I’d know exactly how to effectively disappear myself.”
He gazed at her, eyebrows raising as he seemed to twig to what she was saying. Offering.
“Maybe we could go for a little hike before the authorities show up to collect those people,” she said, “and I could give you some pointers.”
“I’d like that, ma’am.”
Junkyard sniffed at the rug, then scratched it, rucking it up to reveal floorboards less grimy than the others. Afraid that meant he was looking for a spot to attend to biological needs, McCall pushed herself to her feet, patted the dog on the back, and opened the front door.
A frigid blast of cold hit her in the face, and she almost shut it again. But the beauty of the landscape—and Junkyard’s needs—made her stand there with it open. Four inches of snow had fallen, coating the meadow and the boughs of the trees beyond it. Nothing except for a set of rabbit tracks had disturbed the newly fallen powder.
Even though the night had been strange, she admitted it may have been worth coming out here to see this.
“Junkyard?” McCall realized the dog was still pawing at the rug, doing his best to push it aside. “Nature awaits.”
Sears finished with the fire, closed the stove door, and eyed the dog. He walked over to the rucked rug warily.
McCall stepped forward, worried Junkyard would lunge for the cyborg’s crotch again. The dog looked at him, then looked at the floor, pointing his snout at the floorboards he had uncovered.
Sears crouched and slid his fingers along the creases of a particularly short floorboard. He found a crack and pulled it up.
McCall almost asked what it was, but she didn’t want to give away to their hooded prisoners that they’d found some secret stash. What if this was what the men had been after?
It did indeed seem to be a hidden cache. Sears pulled out two ration bars, which Junkyard promptly put his nose on. At first, McCall thought that would be all the stash contained, but Sears also pulled out two sacks that appeared surprisingly heavy for their size—the tendons on his hands stood out as he lifted them.
He untied one, opened it, stared inside for a long minute, then held it open toward her. Pebbles of various sizes filled it. Gold pebbles. She spotted a couple of larger nuggets too. Sears handed her the bag, then opened the other one. That one held dozens of vials filled to the stopper with flecks of gold.
It seemed the winter’s panning had been lucrative for the men. If they had been blowing up the imperial park to send more downstream, that might explain why.
McCall hefted the bag, estimating it weighed at least twenty pounds. If they’d separated out the chaff already and this was relatively pure gold, she was looking at hundreds of thousands of morats. No wondered the bearded men had been eager to get back into the cabin. They must have planned to be out with their stash by the time the tourist season started—maybe they’d even made arrangements for someone to pick them up in the park so they could avoid passing the authorities on the way out—but they couldn’t have anticipated an imperial cyborg squatter moving in to their winter cabin.
McCall took one of the ration bars, unwrapped it, and gave it to Junkyard. Since he’d been the one to find the stash, it seemed fair.
Sears looked at the gold, up at her, back at the gold, then at her again, raising his eyebrows. She lifted her shoulders and made a point of turning her back and walking to the doorway. Once she commed the authorities, she would be obligated to show them the gold—otherwise, they would be bewildered as to why the men had attacked her in her cabin—and they would likely end up confiscating all of it, especially since parkland had been defaced in obtaining it. If some of what had been there was missing when the authorities arrived, what did it matter to her?
Junkyard finished his treat and bounded out the door. He took care of his needs promptly, but then cavorted around in the field as if he were a puppy. He threw himself onto his back and rolled about, all four legs in the air.
“Glad to see somebody is enjoying their vacation,” she muttered.
“I’m ready for that hike,” Sears said quietly, joining her in the doorway, his pack on his shoulders. With all his gear with him, he didn’t look like he meant to return.
McCall nodded and waved toward the trees. They wouldn’t have to go too far for the discussion. She just wanted to be out of the mountain gang’s earshot so they couldn’t report exactly who had helped her capture them.
“Did you take some?” McCall asked as they walked. She didn’t see any huge bulges in his pockets, but he could have jammed the bags in his pack.
He hesitated. “A few of the vials. I wasn’t sure it was right to take it, but I’m a little desperate right now. I thought it would be something I could barter with since I can’t access my own bank account, now that I’m dead.” He looked warily at her.
She only nodded, having expected he would take some. “I’m glad you’ve figured that much out. All right, here’s what else you need to know…”
• • • •
McCall’s thighs still ached three days later when Scipio was piloting the Star Surfer away from snow-covered Penn Park and toward the starry sky. She blamed that hike, though the tension in her neck and shoulders was from having to deal with the park authorities, authorities who had been sure to let her know they would be reporting the incident to the imperial government.
Apparently, they hadn’t found her story believable, that she’d stunned and tied up five known criminals—as they had turned out to be—by herself. She’d explained that Junkyard had helped, but suspicion remained. Nobody had mentioned Sebastian Sears by name, but some of the captured gold panners had claimed that a man knocked them down. McCall had shrugged and pointed out that they may not have wanted to admit she had bested them. Eventually, she had been scanned thoroughly and somewhat invasively, the park authorities wanting to make sure she hadn’t slipped any of those gold nuggets into her underwear, and let go. She had a feeling she wouldn’t be welcome back if she ever wanted to rent a cabin in Penn Park again.
“Not likely,” she muttered.
“Pardon?” Scipio turned toward her.
“I don’t plan to return to that place. Also, the next time your loafers are afflicted with dog slobber, I suggest you throw them in the clothes dryer and deal with it.”
“The clothes dryer? You can’t dry leather like that. It’ll shrink and crack.”
“The alternative is to keep the door shut on your closet and keep your shoes inside. I know foot odor isn’t a problem for androids. At least, I hope it isn’t.”
“Not in the traditional sense. Though, when we’re newly constructed, we occasionally off-gas a faint plastic-like aroma.”
“I didn’t need to know that.”
“Your mood is somewhat dour today.”
“I know. I need to recover from the relaxation of my vacation.”
“I detect sarcasm in your tone,” Scipio said. “Would your mood be improved by the knowledge that two new jobs came in while you were gone?”
McCall sat straighter in her chair. “Absolutely.”
Scipio gestured toward her computer, and she brought her inbox up on the holodisplay. She was excited to check out the new jobs, but she caught herself looking for a message from Sears, though he wouldn’t use that name. She’d told him how to set up a network account without using any personal information and to route all messages through one of the rim stations that didn’t share its data with the imperial government. Still, she didn’t truly expect him to contact her. It would be better for him if he didn’t contact anyone for a good long while.
But a message popped up, text only, from “Third Bear from the Right.” She snorted and opened it promptly.
You may have saved my life. Thank you. If you ever need the help of a noble and valiant rescuer… I trust you can find me.
McCall leaned back in her seat. She always had a hard time connecting with people, and it was rare for something someone did or said to touch her, but she found herself moved. And suddenly glad she had gone down there.
“Yes? Have you chosen employment that will satisfy you financially and intellectually?”
“Not yet but… thank you for making me go on that vacation.”
He cocked his head and gazed at her. She recognized Puzzled Expression #7, as she’d dubbed it, and patted him on the shoulder.
Thanks for reading! As mentioned, there’s another short story with McCall and friends in the Bridge Across the Stars science fiction anthology.
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