Nerve Zero

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Nerve Zero is a zero-g noir novel by Justin Robinson.

An engrossing noir novel of an occupied, zero gravity, artificial world.  Crime, mystery, cults, secret police, assassins, betrayal and a chase through the atmosphere of a gas giant - this book has it all!

Idriel Ramirez has returned home, haunted by the shame of being a conscripted pilot for the New Terran Empire.

Haunted by the shame that he's felt the sky.

Once respected as a nerve, now he's just pressed. Few in Hinden, clouded jewel of a fallen empire, will even look him in the eye.

Drawn into crime and mystery by Ausiel Montoya, an old itch, Ramirez tells himself he's floating through Hinden's steel nest of assassins, pscyhos and cultists because of what the money she promised can buy him - years off his indenture.

But as he delves deeper into the heart of his wretched homeworld he finds the secret she's carrying is as big as the secret at core of Hinden.

And just as dangerous. 

Phase 5 Elements:

Human Derivative 13, Another World 101, Noir 0

Classification: Science Fiction
Appropriate for adults: Variant violence, Death, Infrequent cursing, Non-graphic deviant sexual situations

ISBN: 978-0-9835795-3-3  ebook
ISBN: 978-0-9835795-2-6 $10.95 trade paperback 5.5"x8.5", 279 pages

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About the Author: Justin Robinson

Much like film noir, Justin Robinson was born and raised in Los Angeles. He splits his time between editing comic books, writing prose and wondering what that disgusting smell is. Degrees in Anthropology and History prepared him for unemployment, but an obsession with horror fiction and a laundry list of phobias provided a more attractive option.

He has been named one of The Top Ten "New" Horror Authors on Matt Molgaard's Horror Novel Reviews!

Follow Justin on Twitter: @JustinSRobinson

or check out his Website

Author of Nerve Zero, a zero-gravity noir novel of the Log of the Hand of Tyr.

Other publications:

Undead on Arrival, available from Solstice Publishing.
Everyman, available on Amazon.com (published by Books of the Dead Press)
Sympathizers, appearing in Space Doubles Collection 1: Set the Controls, Th3rd World Studios
The New Job, appearing in Popgun volume 2, Image comics
Contributor to No Quarter magazine, Privateer Press
Head Writer: The Satellite Show
Other work for sale on: www.th3rdworld.com

About the Artist: Ralph J. Ryan

Ralph J. Ryan is lives in Maplewood, Minnesota, USA. He has earned a Bachelor of Arts in Photography and Graphic Arts, San Jose State University 1971, and followed that up with Graduate work in Theatre Arts at University of California, Santa Barbara, 1973.

Artist Statement

Landscape painter. I create landscapes of the imagination. I am inspired by speculative fiction in all of its forms, and by a long-time interest in architecture and the dramatic lighting of the theatre stage.
History I started painting in earnest when I was 12. I explored many art forms and styles including the psychedelia of the mid to late 60’s, to traditional landscapes, and finally Science Fiction and Fantasy beginning in 1974.
About The New Work The new work will be much the same as I have been doing, except for the use of digital photography and printing to create drawings or under-paintings. More work will be done on paper instead of canvas.

Recent Exhibitions:

  • St. Paul Art Crawl October 2009
  • Artful Home Show (part of the Parade of Homes) September 2009
  • Exhibition at Roseville Covenant Church as part of a month-long celebration of the works of C.S. Lewis July 2009
  • St. Paul Art Crawl April 2009
  • Phipps Center for the Arts, Hudson, WI members art show August-September 2007
  • St. Paul Winter Carnival Art Show January-February 2006
  • New York Mills Cultural Center Regional art exhibits 2003 (cash award), 2005
  • North St. Paul Art Exhibit, September-October 2003

Ongoing:
Numerous Science-Fiction/Fantasy Convention art shows, nationwide and Canada, going back over 30 years. 2011 included two local conventions: Marscon and ConVergence.

Honors:

  • Artist Guest of Honor at Icon 2007 . Icon is a SciFi/fantasy convention in Iowa.
  • Numerous awards at Conventions including First Place, Best in Show (cash award), and Best Professional Artist

Creator of:

Solaris, published in the Phase 5 Monthly Review

Hinden and Typhon, cover art for Nerve Zero by Justin Robinson.

Other work: 

Forty years as a scenic designer for theatre productions locally and on the West Coast, including national and international touring productions. Theatres include:

  • The California Theatre Center
  • Alameda Civic Light Opera
  • The Jon Hassler Theatre
  • The Phipps Center for the Arts

Free Sample of Nerve Zero

Nerve Zero

by Justin Robinson

1

Ausiel Montoya had not remembered the corridors of Santiago being so long. She yanked herself forward, grabbing the rungs placed for just that purpose, her breath coming in sharp gasps that sliced her lungs and squeezed her veins. The corridor was a small one and would have been called an alley in a dirtwalker city. Hatches all around, like the spokes of a wheel, led to the back exits of quarters. This part of Santiago, they were probably empty, stinking like fried skin. Montoya ignored them. Worthless. She had to get somewhere public and fast, or she was a corpse.

She chanced a look over her shoulder as she glided only half a foot from the wall of the corridor. In the dim light of the alley, she could make out the spidery shapes of the other zeroes. They were moving fast, but she was faster. She hoped they would get tired. She knew they wouldn’t.

A sharp hiss ripped the air in two. One of the shapes had stopped, a glint, mercury bright in his hand. Montoya grimaced and sped up. Useless. She couldn’t outrun a wasp. No one could.

Up ahead, two corridors split from the first, each across from the other. One was at a ninety-degree angle pointing coreward, the other was forty-five degrees and partially doubled back on the skinward.

With a push, Montoya flew to the skin wall of the corridor. She planted her feet against a steel rung, curled into a ball and pushed off with all of her strength. She soared coreward, hoping to confuse her pursuers by doubling back. They wouldn’t expect it. Couldn’t. Pray that was more than just vain hope.

She skimmed along another wall – in the absence of gravity, every barrier was a wall; just as she began to lose her momentum, she grabbed a rung, her hand squealing along the surface, and pushed off again. The light was little better in this alley and it was obvious that swabs had not been by in a while. Like so many places in Santiago.

The entry to another tunnel was just above her, a toothless mouth breathing frigid air. The lights would be long broken; no money to fix them. Montoya pushed off again, not daring to glance behind her. Her body was on fire. She skidded against the side of the corridor and her knee slammed into the side with a hollow clang. For a moment, there was no feeling; then the pain crept in, a dull ache accompanied by the sick warmth of blood. Montoya winced, but would not look: it might be worse than she thought.

The corridor was almost completely black. Montoya pulled herself up through it, grasping a hatch, and with a final heave, she was past it. Montoya planted her feet on the wheel and looked down, the dim light of the previous corridor, only twenty feet below her feet. She could not run anymore. Her best bet was to hide. Maybe they would lose her. And maybe they would follow, their wasps in hand, and drop her, her body heavy like she had never felt, falling off into darkness. Then when she awoke, a life, short and painful.

She was gasping, her breath in thick plumes of frozen fog. It was deafening, and she prayed to Ausiel for deliverance, but the angels were far away, and lately Ausiel had developed a hearing problem. Montoya held her breath, exhaling in a low hiss. The sweat on her face formed tiny streams of ice. She knew she was a dead woman. The voices of her pursuers boiled below. There were four of them, all Hinds and all armed. It was sheer luck that she had evaded them this long. She would not have even noticed them had she not already become paranoid from the events of the past few days. It seemed her luck would be running out in a stinking dark tunnel in the bowels of Santiago. More than one person had made that prediction.

The voices grew louder, the echoes melting into words. “Where is she?” hissed the first voice, a reedy whine.

Another voice, deeper: “She has to be ahead.”

They were almost underneath her now, the wet slaps of hands on steel audible. She held her breath as she saw a hand grasp a rung in the corridor below. A long and lithe shape pulled itself into view. Mercury glinted in the holster at the small of his back: a wasp. The shape moved past the mouth of the corridor. Two more silhouettes followed: pack hunters. They were moving fast, rattling off razor sentences. Then a fourth. Montoya knew that they would look up at any moment, and she would be dead. A fifth.

“Should have taken her at the float.” She remembered the blue darts tinking off the wall, needles broken at first impact, tranquilizers hungry. They wanted her alive. That was worse than a clean kill.

“I tried.”

“You missed.”

The second man disappeared, then the third, the fourth and finally the fifth. Montoya stood on the wheel, a statue, hardly daring to breathe.

Twist it,” shuddered another voice, quavering like an old man, but strong like a hammer.

The voices silenced, replaced by quick gasps of the men redoubling the pursuit. Montoya waited until she could hear nothing. Finally, she pushed off, sailing along the corridor.

She followed several more tunnels, moving through the back alleys with ease, no longer at the burning pace she had been forced into, but she didn’t take her time. The alleys soon gave way to small side streets, occupied by the types of people that Montoya knew: pops, dimes and mobs. She did not see a single hart and that, at least, was a good omen. They were all over Hinden, but Santiago, the capital city, was infested. The Shadows, the secret police, were worse, but at least they were invisible. Out of sight.

The last thing Montoya wanted was to attract attention. She still had no idea where she was heading, but anywhere had to be better than where she was. A public place would be a start. After that, there was a chance she could find passage on a skiff, or even a starship. Maybe running into a press gang was not so bad after all. She was no pilot, and chances were she could bribe one of them to find her a freighter pilot with enough room for passage and enough secrets not to ask why. She glanced around as she pulled herself along. The one time she needed a hart and, of course, they were as scarce as a pop in temple.

Montoya turned down another corridor, heading for the outer bulkhead. The closer she got to the skin of the world, the more people there would be, at least in Santiago. The corridors were much wider now, and people were thick. Pedestrians pulled themselves along on the plentiful rungs, while men and women fluttered down the center of the hall on passenger skiffs. The rail ran down the center of the corridor, but the car was nowhere in sight. Getting out of the city would only solve her problem for a time. Odds were she needed off Hinden if she wanted to stay alive.

Businesses had set up all along the street. Some were in shabby constructions of metal salvaged from the slums or the dead decks, others were encamped in booths that must have been built in the days of the Old Terran Empire. Some of the businesses were in vast quarters, their heavy doors open to the public. Montoya ducked into one of these and found herself in a bar.

Along one wall, about half way up, was the bar itself. Built at a right angle to the floor, the bartender anchored himself to the wall by sliding his feet into loose rungs along the wall. He faced what was the floor when one entered the room, and he watched Montoya as she drifted in. Scattered along the floor, walls and ceiling were small tables, with similar anchors for the patrons. One wall was transparent, Typhon looming large, an orange-red storm like the planet’s eye crawling slowly across the surface. The sun stabbed light, throwing blinding reflections from the skiffs that ducked in and out of the storms like blades through soft flesh. One disappeared into a bright flash, as ship and man were destroyed. These pilots hunted hydrogen. She had known some madmen who did that.

Montoya glanced around the bar. It was still early, and the bar was nearly empty. Pilots and skiff crews were the only people in this place, and they purposefully looked away as Montoya tried to catch their looks. She was not their kind. A single person floated at the far wall, staring at Typhon as though hypnotized. He was a zero, wearing the black and gray jumpsuit of a pilot, but there were odd accents. A silver shield, stitched into the sleeve at the shoulder; soft braided ropes at his neck and belt. He had been pressed. She could see it in the subtle slouch of his shoulders, as though the hatred of the room at large scraped him like steel wool.

Without knowing why, Montoya gathered herself and pushed off, angling for one of the rungs by the floating man. She sailed across the bar with a bit too much force, and when she caught the rung, it yanked her arm. She winced, but as she looked at the man, who had not even responded, she was glad she had moved. The face was familiar and that was good, even if some of the memories were not. The violet under his eyes said he hadn’t slept, the sunken cheeks said he hadn’t eaten. Gray had sprouted through his black hair, and in the stubble on his chin: an early sign of rust. Any new scars would only show up in those places in his face.

“Idriel?”

Idriel Ramirez looked from the planet to Montoya, his nearly black eyes focusing as though they had not done so in several hours. “What?” he snapped.

“We were… acquainted. Ausiel Montoya.”

“Strange way to put it,” said Ramirez. His eyes wandered over Montoya. She smoothed the creases in her jumpsuit. No smoothing would cover the dirt or block the scent, or hide the streaks of frozen sweat.

“What are you doing here?” Montoya said. She tried to suppress the hysteria in her voice. There was no telling how long it would take her pursuers to find her, and she had to keep moving.

“My ship is retrofitting,” Ramirez responded, returning to his contemplation of Typhon. He used to refer to the planet as “the bitch,” but he did it reverently, almost like he was quoting someone. “From the looks of things, you haven’t changed.” He had the same clipped accent he always had. Nerves – pilots – learned to talk quickly, or they learned not to talk at all.

“Yeah. Maybe. I need your help off this planet.”

He had the good taste to try a laugh. It didn’t sound right on him. “Transporting a civilian zero out of Hinden is illegal. Death sentence. Good thing is, at least they wouldn’t waste your time with a trial.”

“I thought you were a lochley.”

“We have a writ.”

“A privateer, then?” The desperation bubbled up.

Sing-song: “And so subject to the laws of the Empire.”

“I can pay. A great deal.”

“We probably have different definitions of that.”

“Ten thousand arka.”

“Prostitution must pay better these days.” His voice was colder than the air.

“I’m not the pop-” she bit off the response. Call him pressed, conversation over. She struggled to find something else to say, settled on: “You have to do this!”

“If you had the money, I might have to do this. As it stands, I have to do nothing.”

“I have the money! I have to gather a few things – including the money. Come to deck twenty-six, corridor 73-A. Room 309. Meet me in three hours.”

“I can hardly contain myself.”

“Deck twenty-six, corridor 73-A, room 309. Three hours. Be there.” Not enough. “Please.”

Ramirez looked at Montoya, and for the first time, a cloud passed over his face. “What are you after, Ausiel?”

“I swear, on Ausiel himself, I am not after anything.” She hoped he would not have so much loathing for her that he would lack respect for that plea. Slavery couldn’t have made his blood that heavy. “Please, Idriel. Ten thousand arka.”

With that, Montoya gathered her body beneath her on the ceiling and pushed off.

2

Ten thousand arka, Ramirez turned the figure over in his head. Too much for someone like her. Ausiel had ten thousand, she swindled someone for five times that and was running from the wasps that her victim put on her trail. She swindled someone like that, she was running a better game than she had before.

It was a lot of wasps: ten thousand was too much. It screamed desperation. She had to know what that offer meant. She had to know he knew he had her pressed if he wanted it.

He had transported others on the Mason’s Revenge for a lot less. But the potential of that kind of money could not be ignored. Not enough to buy his license back from the dirtwalkers, but it could make a serious dent, assuming he found the right man to bribe. A date updated and Ramirez would be five years closer to the end of his slavery. He was in the seventh year of thirty-nine. He could still return to Hinden young enough to enjoy his freedom. He could leave Santiago, maybe find someplace no one knew him. Maybe find a nice girl who had never met a pilot. Maybe forget the slavery. Never forget the shame.

Ramirez sighed as he made his way down the central avenue of Santiago, heading to the harbor itself. The shuttles and skiffs sat in the harbor ahead, while larger starships floated outside in drydock, and Ramirez had no doubts that the Santiago family owned over half of the vessels out there. If not for the New Terran Empire, the city would be theirs and theirs alone. The gangways connected to the central sphere of Hinden with thin bones of steel, and zero mechanics floated back and forth to the few ships that were docked. Ramirez’s ship, the Hand of Tyr stood alone, as though her sheer alienness had pushed the other vessels away.

The bow of the ship was opened up like a flower as mechanics installed the gravity shielding in the newly built pilot’s womb. Ramirez blocked the horrible blackness of the sky, taking comfort in the harsh lights of the station. He pulled himself along the gangway, the mechanics giving way at the sight of him. They avoided looking directly at him, for though he was a pilot and their superior, he had been pressed, a shame greater than serving as the lowliest waste-extraction technician.

Ramirez ducked into the starboard airlock and began his trek down the corridors of the ship. The smell was not something that Ramirez was ever prepared for. Each man, wearing the same clothing day and night, stewing in his own stink, left their individual traces along the halls and floors of the place. There was Valentine’s cleaner scent that smelled like a hard day, Enoch’s pungent musk that owed much to the animal skins he wore, and Lichtenstein’s sweeter aroma, as though the chaniberries in his tobacco had actually taken root in his bloodstream.

The rooms aboard the Hand of Tyr were far more spacious than those on the Mason’s Revenge, and there were many that the crew did not use. From what Ramirez could piece together, twenty men should serve the Hand. Compared to a modern frigate, this was less than half of what should be required, although a zero pilot could operate an entire ship well enough with only a minimum of assistance. The crew was a skeleton, after having lost thirteen men on Fenris, but it had not become a problem yet. As much as Ramirez was loath to admit it, men like Enoch, Crow and Lichtenstein were worth many times that of a normal man. They were also a barbarian, a maniac and a pervert, respectively. Dirtwalker paragons.

The halls were quiet. As far as Ramirez knew, several of the men were planetside, and the rest were locked in their quarters. Lichtenstein would be in his lab, cutting apart that abomination they found on Fenris. The one that had taken his arm.

Only one man to talk to for this. Ramirez arrived at the door to Crow’s quarters. He stared at the door for a long moment.

Ausiel Montoya needed transport offworld. Ramirez spoke: “Idriel Ramirez to see the Captain.”

Pause, then the iris opened, Crow’s quarters beyond. Chests were stacked and belted to the floor. Crow’s boot stood open, blankets spilling out, but it was clear Crow had not slept in days.

Crow was a formidable man. Tall for a lochley, he had the slight hunch that all men who served aboard ship developed. Even still, he tended to have a few inches on siders. Like all Scythians, his skin was pale blue, his hair iron gray. He wore a long coat that enfolded him like wings, three pistols visible, and only one a wasp. His face was soft, nearly gentle, but the eyes were stone.

One hand fiddled with the silver ring on his middle finger. “What is it, Ramirez?”

Ramirez kept his eyes on the line of tattoos that fell from Crow’s hairline, over his left eye to the middle of his cheek. Sharp glyphs that reminded the pilot of weapons.

“A passenger sir. I was approached to ferry someone offworld.”

“Do it.”

“A civilian, sir. Zero.”

The captain never stopped his fidgeting. It was strange to see Crow moving more than necessary.

Crow: “Fine.”

“Sir?”

“Take the fare, Ramirez. See to it the men get their shares. Now get out.”

He never asked about price. Tell him two thousand. That was close to reasonable, then eight thousand right off the top for Ramirez. But not right now. Speak again, get a knife through the neck.

Ramirez nodded and pushed off, back out. The iris ground shut.

Don’t question the captain, even if he’s plainly not himself. Think of the money.

No, think of the reasons.

He turned and pushed from the wall, glancing about the hallway. Who? That was the word that circled his head like a frest pilot around a hydrogen storm. Who had she crossed? She was a cheat and a liar. Could be anyone. Anyone with a taste for gambling and more money than sense. She had enemies even back when Ramirez had known her. Scratch enemies, but things could change. Back then she always had someone to pull her out of the storm.

She had been close with a friend of his, another pilot: Vehiel Calderon. Ramirez’s thoughts turned to Calderon as he made his way from the ship and down the gangway into Hinden itself. They had been drinking in one of the clubs on the lower levels when the press gang had found them. The harts had caught Ramirez, but Calderon had escaped. Ramirez wondered if Calderon had continued his streak of luck, or if he now served on a Terran vessel, taking orders from a strutting Marite.

By the time they crossed paths with Montoya, Ramirez and Calderon had already been nerves, skiff pilots, since they were twelve. Flying through Typhon was over half instinct and only young bodies could learn those instincts: instincts that commanded a sudden shift into the teeth of a storm; instincts that could feel when a pocket was ready to detonate. Old pilots were dead as soon as they entered a skiff. Either Typhon had mercy and killed them quickly, or she was cruel and caught them in a whorl, to be helplessly drawn in and slowly crushed over the course of hours. At least the wrap saved them the trouble of getting to Typhon.

The bars around the harbor were hives squirming with mobs and dimes. The women frequenting them were of two types, those who were selling and those who were buying. Montoya was neither. Unique.

Ramirez could remember seeing her for the first time. His ears were still hissing from the storm he had weathered on the way in. When he had spotted it, swirling lambent oranges that could tear his wrap apart with uncaring strength, he smiled. It was a big one. The hold in the belly of the skiff was nearly empty, and ducking into the storm would fill it in moments. A full hold and he would be home early. It was madness, but Ramirez had done it anyway, ignoring Calderon’s protests over the wire. Still, Calderon’s wrap dipped into Ramirez’s wake, following into the ripping winds and gravity swells.

When they had returned to port, everything was washed in orange, as though the storm itself had made a home in Ramirez’s mind. His hands buzzed with insects, his ears rushed with a dry river, and he wanted more than anything to find a woman for the night. He and Calderon had entered their favorite place and in the skin left corner, he had seen the woman he wanted to bring to his skiff and take in the cockpit. She was not beautiful, but her attitude was. She was running a game of bolts, a group of mechs and pops surrounding her. She floated above the others, watching the men throw the bolts at the wall, her wide mouth twisted in a cocky smirk, black eyes unreadable. Like any Hind, apart from the pops, her hair was cropped close to her skull. Her pale skin had a dusting of freckles across the bridge of her sharp nose and Ramirez wanted to compare them to stars. He wanted to laugh at himself, but it was a choke. She was a predator and this is exactly what Ramirez needed.

“I know who I’ll take home,” said Calderon.

Ramirez’s gut seized and he glanced over at Calderon. Driven by the sadistic laws of the universe, Calderon’s eyes were welded upon the woman. As Ramirez readied himself to say something, Calderon pushed off from the floor and soared toward the game. Two minutes, he had made her laugh.

The woman was Ausiel Montoya, and now she needed Ramirez. They had never gotten along. Ramirez made every effort to make Montoya miserable. He hated himself for hating that she chose Calderon over him, even if he couldn’t blame her. That was the way of things. Ramirez had never had trouble getting women when he wanted them, but Calderon had always gotten first choice. After the Montoya incident, Ramirez started a period of celibacy that had lasted longer than he had intended it to.

The more he had gotten to know Montoya, the more he wished he knew less. The woman was a cheat: her games were fixed. She lied about everything. She stole. She was disgusting. She was perfect. He wanted to rip her from Calderon’s arms. She would never have let him. Ramirez was tolerated. That was all.

Ramirez moved into a worse section of Santiago. The quarters near the harbor were those of pilots and mechanics, and were solidly middle-of-the-road in terms of prosperity. The harbor was a place of employment, and ultimately, the seat of the Hind economy. As one moved away from the harbor, deeper into the planet, the halls grew darker and dirtier, the quarters smaller, crawling with Hinden’s trash. Follow the skin of the world toward the planet’s crown, there was the nice section of the city. Large quarters, viewing ports facing Typhon, armies of pet servants, rich imports, contraband in plain sight, and everyone had the very best names. Names like Ochoa, Cortez, and even Santiago, and some of those even had the blood still in them, could trace the line right back to old Memiel Santiago. There were a few Ramirezes there, all pilots that had managed to survive long enough to amass a fortune and quick enough to avoid the harts. Ramirez could never visit them. One pressed pilot: that would be the shame that no one would forget.

He was on the outskirts of the harbor district, the tunnels going deeper into the sphere of Hinden. It was becoming obvious that swabs did not make these passages a priority. Light was poor. He forced himself to keep going. The majority of the quarters appeared to be unoccupied, by floaters or anything else. Ramirez turned down a passage that opened up directly below him. He gathered himself above it and pushed off from the wall. His perceptions shifted, and what once seemed like a downward plunge became horizontal. It was this sensation that made the dirtwalkers sick. The land made them strong. Also made them base.

This was corridor 73-A. It was more of an alley than anything else, but the A at the end already told that story. Back alleys always had some letter after them, separating them from the corridor that gave them birth. The quarters off these alleys were the smallest on the station, little more than back rooms that must have originally been intended for storage. They had become homes for some of the poorest Hinds, refuge for fugitives and floats for the flat broke. Ramirez’s nose wrinkled; old scents of piss and shit permeated the corridor. For ten thousand he could handle it. Ten thousand, that’s five years less shit eaten in slavery. Five more years to forget what he could.

The journey would be a quick one. Though he would have to be crammed in the pilot’s womb with Montoya, he would not enjoy it. He would find some way to make things uncomfortable. The journey to Lodestar would be a quick one, and if she insisted on another zero world, he could gouge her. He would spend the time talking to the ship’s surgeon, Lichtenstein. The man was a Marite, from Marathon, the seat of the New Terran Empire, and he was disgusting even for his kind. The others hated him, but Ramirez never had to interact with the man in the flesh. But it was a cinch that Montoya would hate Lichtenstein, and a couple of his leering comments would be just the thing to put her on edge. And no defense from Ramirez for that. The perfect way to show her where she was.

The doors were clearly marked with paint that had faded and been retouched over the long history of the station. The doors were heavy and solid, and they could open automatically or manually, using the wheel at the center of each. Ramirez doubted that the doors were in good enough repair to open automatically anymore, most were not, but the entire neighborhood was still capable of being sealed off in case of a hull breach. There had been too many of those in Ramirez’s day. No reason for that to change. In several cases, the doors were entirely missing, and only the red edges of the digits were visible on the bulkhead surrounding the black openings. 309 was one of those missing doors.

Ramirez stopped at room 309. This was the location Montoya had given, but she had not mentioned inside or outside. Ramirez wondered if this was where she was sleeping. He glanced back and forth along the corridor. It was empty.

The room was utterly black.

Whatever lights were once inside had long since died. No one had replaced them, and it was likely that no one would. Ramirez looked within, but he could not manage to push off from the far wall and investigate. The room was dark, as utterly black as space itself. He tried to speak, but it was as though the yawning thing in front of him swallowed his voice. He felt gravity pulling on him, trying to crush the air from his lungs. He stared into the black void, and prayed to Idriel that Montoya would not see him. Angel of Storms, help me hide. Not a prayer that got answered.

Thick gasps shook him. He fumbled in his belt, his fingers like raw meat. He found what he needed. He wished the click from his light would echo, but it was swallowed by the dark.

The thin beam crawled over the interior of the float. Someone had been here. A large hammock drifted in one corner, partially unlaced, stained blankets spilling from the inside, its tether nearly frayed to nothing. Messy soldering glued an altar to the wall, the pieces magnetized to the surface. Broken spheres, old bolts and a single wheel marked this as dedicated to Ausiel’s namesake, the Angel of Chance. Ramirez used to have an altar like this for his own cherub on the Mason’s Revenge. He managed to save a few pieces when they abandoned ship.

There was more. The thin beam drew Ramirez forward. The space within the blankets was too large for one person. He shook his head and nearly laughed at himself.

A sound invaded his ears, stopping his drift forward. Ramirez looked over his shoulder in time to see a hand, followed by a shoulder, dip into the tunnel. Without knowing why, Ramirez pushed off from the wall and pulled himself up into a small alcove made by the pipes that ran along one side of the tunnel. He shifted once, adjusting his lanky body to the small space. He hesitated. Then winked his light out.

The owner of the shoulder came into view. At first only a silhouette, the dim light began to play off the shape. It was a zero. The man wore a plain brown jumpsuit, no insignia of any kind – he could be nearly anything. The man paused in the tunnel, cocking his head as though he had heard something. His face was ugly, with one eyelid that seemed to think it was too heavy to open completely. His cheeks were pitted like the surface of a moon, and his thin-lipped mouth was frozen in a snarl. One of his spidery hands moved to his belt, where small compartments bulged with various small items, removing something from his hip. The light glinted off the silver surface.

He carried a wasp.

The man moved more cautiously down the hall. He was getting closer now. To get to Montoya’s room, and Ramirez could not imagine another scenario, the man would have to be directly beneath Ramirez. If the man looked up, Ramirez would be lost, pumped full of whatever vile poison the wasp contained. If he was lucky, as he was the first time he was hit with a wasp, it would be just a dormer, and he would be in a black sleep. If he was unlucky, it would be twitchers and his insides would be melted into a thick paste. The Angel of Chance had gone with his daughter. Ramirez was alone.

The man was barely two arm’s-lengths away. Ramirez stopped breathing. The man shoved off, his hand aiming for one of the pipes hiding Ramirez. Ramirez could do nothing. So he prayed. The angel Idriel never helped his children hide. The man’s hand closed around the pipe. The knuckles were bare inches from Ramirez’s chest. The man poked his head into room 309.

“Come on, Montoya. I don’t want to hurt you. Come on out and we can talk this thing over.” The man’s voice was reedy and higher-pitched than Ramirez expected.

The man waited at the door, as though expecting some kind of response.

“Did you get smart?” muttered the man. “I think you may have gotten smart. Wonder what you have in there.”

Ramirez wanted to put as much distance between himself and this man as possible, but he was trapped behind the pipes for as long as the man chose to stay.

The man’s back disappeared into the room altogether, and after a moment, Ramirez could hear the man rattling about in room 309. Ramirez knew that this was his chance. If he left his hiding place, there would be a moment when he would be silhouetted against the door, and if the man turned around, one shot from the wasp would end everything. Staying was suicide. It was sheer luck that the man had not looked up, and that kind of luck never held.

“Oh, this is nice, very nice. Almost new,” said the man. Ramirez heard him stuff something in one of the pockets on his belt.

Ramirez eased himself up, praying for the clattering to continue. He pulled himself forward, pulling one leg from the hiding place, letting it dangle into the tunnel. He shifted the other, and his knee hit the pipe. The resulting clang froze his blood and he stopped moving. The clattering continued inside unabated, accompanied by the man’s running commentary on whatever it was he was handling. Ramirez pulled his second leg out. This was the moment that would decide whether he lived or died. If he chose the wrong moment, the man would see him. Ramirez forced his arms to move, pushing himself from the low platform upon which he sat. He fell into view of the door. He looked within, but could only see dark movement. Gathering himself, he pushed off from the floor, and flew down the hall.

“Now this is interesting.” Ramirez nearly stopped. Whatever it was, the Collector was serious.

Not daring to look back, Ramirez pulled himself along the tunnel, knowing that, at any moment, he would hear the reedy voice of the man, shouting for him to stop. The sting of the wasp would follow, and then there would be nothing. Someone would find his body, twisted by the wasp’s poison, floating in the tunnel. They would wrap his body in a shroud and fire him into Typhon, to be torn apart by the storms and gravity. That would be the end.

These thoughts were colder than the air around him. Despite his predicament, despite his shame, he had no wish to die. He imagined death as dark, the darkest thing possible, darker even than the Black itself, and he had no desire to be stuck in darkness for all time.

Fear drove him along, and when he pulled himself around a corner, it was with more relief than he believed possible. The man was behind him, rooting in Montoya’s quarters and it was no longer Ramirez’s concern. He closed his eyes, feeling the sweat on his brow begin to crystallize.

The thought of the man in the hall forced Ramirez to push off from the wall and continue down the hall. Seeming to enjoy rifling through Montoya’s room, he looked in no hurry to leave. There could not be anything of importance in that room if Montoya was not there as well. Which left the question: where is Montoya?

Did it matter?

He floated down the corridor, making several random turns before making for a main avenue with that thought in his brain. Montoya had vanished, trying to get away from whoever sent that man to collect her. All of this meant that Ramirez was out the ten thousand Montoya had promised him. Ten thousand, two for Crow, and eight for the record keepers. That could buy him a reduction of five, or even six years if he found the right official. Six years off meant thirteen years served, a full third of his slavery. He might even escape during the lifespan of the current Emperor, adjusting, of course, for assassination, coups and everything else that Marites called politics.

Several more years to try to live as free from the Marites as he could.

Deep in the planet, where there was nothing they wanted.

Ramirez cursed to himself, first the name of Idriel for not protecting him from this, then Ausiel for drawing him in. Neither one seemed to be doing their duties particularly well, considering Ramirez was contemplating standing against the Collector and whatever unseen allies he might have and Montoya had gone missing. Ten thousand was too much to ignore.

It was decided then; he would find Ausiel Montoya and fulfill his contract. Santiago was a large place, and there was no guarantee she stayed in the city. It was possible she had fled to the middle decks, far from any real settlement, to hide in one of the forgotten corridors that honeycombed Hinden. If she had done that, she was lost, but Ramirez did not believe she had done this. Aside from a few harbors scattered about in other cities, it was impossible to leave the planet from anyplace other than Santiago. Those other harbors were tiny, used by only the very wealthy. Heavily patrolled by Marite ships. The Viceroy himself came and went by one of those. The only way she could get out would be through Santiago’s harbor. Only one big enough to camouflage someone like her.

Where would he start? Santiago had any number of places to hide, especially for someone like Montoya. The first, and obvious, place would be with Vehiel Calderon. Ramirez could learn all he wished about Montoya, and what she had done while Ramirez was in exile. Seeing Calderon again might be a pleasure, but as he thought of it, Ramirez’s stomach turned. Calderon would see Ramirez while still pressed. There would be another way.

The Collector had carried a wasp. So chances are he was a green, a constable, and if that was the case, he might be collecting Montoya on a criminal charge. That would not be surprising. If there were a warrant sworn for her, the contract could be maintained, but the price would have to increase. Fifteen thousand, then, a couple more years for a couple more headaches.

There would have to be an office nearby. Most districts were built around a central hub, out of which corridors radiated, like arteries from a heart. Lesser hubs would be scattered about, as there was very little of Hinden that was pre-planned, but it would be in the central hub of each district that an office of the constabulary would be located. Ramirez would simply have to find the largest corridors, and ride them to the center. There was a dirtwalker saying that all cities were downriver. For those that would never touch open water, this was downriver.

Glancing about, he settled on one that looked slightly larger than those around it. It was easy to get lost. Dirtwalkers were unused to the subtleties of navigation, the tiny marks that let the natives estimate every area. Even though Ramirez had been gone seven years, even though he had been locked up with dirtwalkers, it was still instinct. He pushed off from the wall, pitching into the tunnel skinward. It leveled out, and Ramirez began to follow the arteries in search of the heart.

Ramirez pulled himself into the hub. It was a busier place and zeroes were coming and going from all manner of portals. Ramirez held onto the rung by his portal and looked about until he saw the door into the constabulary. It was across from him, and the door was standing open. Ramirez pushed off from the wall, floated across the room, and grabbed hold of the rung by the door. He went inside, emerging from the floor.

The room was a small antechamber, enclosed on all sides. A portal stood above him. A reader was next to the portal, the screen blinking with a blue warning. Ramirez knew that if the chamber had been in any semblance of good repair, there would have been a voice accompanying it. Ramirez wondered if life free of the Terran yoke had been different. Every bit of him knew that it had been better.

He removed his card from his belt and put it against the reader. Predictably, it took longer to read it than if he had still been a skiff pilot. After its consideration, the hatch slid open and Ramirez pulled himself up into the room. The desks were below him, spread along the far wall and the side walls. Floating lights marked the avenue by which he was expected to approach, and he followed their lead. The office was stuffed with all manner of people. There were the greens, with their clean uniforms and the wasps on their hips guiding drunks and pops into cells at the back. There were people reporting crimes, mostly Hinds, but one a well-dressed Marite clumsily trying to float from place to place, surrounded by greens doting on him like nannies. Along one wall, a Hind held his bloody head, the blood drifting away in little crimson drops that floated across the room until they hit one of the lights, casting ruddy spots.

Ramirez tapped a passing constable on the arm. “Pardon?”

The constable turned and scanned Ramirez with tired eyes. “Papers please.” There was such fatigue in the man’s voice that Ramirez imagined he must say that phrase thousands of times every day.

Ramirez handed over the booklet that contained his identity card, his ration card, his writ from the New Terran government, his license to pilot a military ship and his license to walk free on a New Terran world. The last one always struck him as a joke: as though he would ever walk anywhere. The constable looked it over without much interest, and when he was done, handed it back. He no longer looked directly at Ramirez. A pressed man was no one.

“Press your palm there.” An insult.

The tattoo was the size of a coin, right in the center of Ramirez’s left palm. Every Hind had one, inscribed at birth. A spiral of venom, no two the same. A link to another file, a failsafe of control. Ramirez pressed it against the scanner. A light went from red to green.

“What do you want, pilot?” asked the constable.

“I wish to report a possible fugitive. I was wondering if a certain person was under warrant?”

The constable looked at a far wall and frowned. “Seems an odd question, pilot.”

“I suppose it is.”

The constable shrugged. He wanted Ramirez to be someone else’s problem. “See Carrillo.” He gestured to a desk against a far wall, at a ninety-degree angle to the desks below. Ramirez could see the top of a zero’s head. “She has the unfilled warrants and she will want a more coherent description of exactly what you want.” The green moved off without another word.

Ramirez floated across the room, flipping his body as he reached the far wall, effortlessly sliding his foot into the rung on the side of the wall. The zero on the other side, a uniformed constable that Ramirez would have taken to be a man had the other constable not already specified a gender. “Constable Carrillo? I need to ask you a few questions.”

“Papers please,” Carrillo said.

Ramirez sighed and handed her the soft booklet. She looked it over, pausing on one of the cards. She turned to her computer and tapped a few keys. When next she spoke, she did not look at him directly, but watched him out of the corner of her eyes.

“It says that you are the pilot of the privateer ship Mason’s Revenge. According to the docks, there is no ship by that name docked. Care to explain, or shall I turn you over to the Office of the Military?”

Ramirez winced. “The Revenge was destroyed. We transferred to another ship, the Hand of Tyr, which belongs to us by right of salvage. If you consult your computer, you will see that this vessel is in the docks.”

“The Hand of…”

Tyr. T-Y-R.”

“So it is.”

“The Captain of that vessel should be registered as Augustus Crow. Check my records and see the name of the man who holds the lien on my license.”

Carrillo tapped a few more keys. “Very well. Get these discrepancies taken care of, and in the meantime, we will be watching you. Now, what do you want, pilot?”

“I was curious if a certain citizen had an unfilled warrant. You see, I know her address and would be happy to assist in her capture.”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“She owes me money.”

Carrillo still refused to look directly at him, trying vainly to probe his defenses without breaking any taboos. Ramirez stared at her, tried to wither her.

“What is the name?”

“Ausiel Montoya.”

Carrillo consulted the computer. “There is a record for a person by that name. Gambling without a license, petty theft and the like, but she appears to be paid up on her fines.”

“So you are not pursuing her?”

“Not at all. She is as free as you. Freer, actually. Anything else?”

Ramirez smiled, trying to meet Carrillo’s eyes. The green squirmed. “I can’t think of anything just now.”

“Very well. Get out.”

Ramirez left the office, his brain picking over what he had just learned.

The Collector was not a green, or, if he was, he was doing something in his off hours. Her record was a dead end, but perhaps there was something else. He thought of seeing Montoya in the bar only four hours before. She had seemed winded, and her face was shiny with partially frozen perspiration. She had not seemed especially dirty. Ramirez put himself back in the bar, floating by the corner. He saw Montoya, the pleading in her nearly black eyes. He forced his mind’s eye to look away from her face, wander down her slender form and rest on her hands. There were no oil stains. He concentrated, verifying what his memory was telling him.

She was clean. There were no baths in her float; that much could be certain. Eliminate that option, and she had to have a membership with one of the public baths. In a poor neighborhood like that one, there would be several to choose from, but it would be a place to begin. Ramirez pulled himself into a larger corridor, thirty feet across. An obelink jutted from one wall between two lines of rungs. Ramirez pushed off from the floor, soared to the other side, expertly catching himself on one of the handles.

The obelink hummed, scrolling through news of New Terran military victories, social programs and technological advances. Ramirez was certain over half were lies. A large glowing green question formed in New Terran, and immediately below it, the same question in dimmer blue Hind. The languages were cousins, Old Terran was their great-grandfather.

Ramirez stuck his hand into the aperture, running fingers across flickering light, playing the puppet show and within moments, the obelink’s crown sizzled with three spinning three-dimensional maps. Ramirez took a moment and memorized all three. Checking the baths would not likely yield more than someone who had seen her, but perhaps there would be descriptions of her associates. Ramirez was grasping at straws and he knew it.

He set out for the nearest of the three places. Baths were common in the lower class sections of any large city. Certain places catered only to pilots, and Ramirez had been a member of one such place before his impressment. None of the establishments in Montoya’s neighborhood were fit for a pilot, and Ramirez was quite glad that he never had to visit a place like it.

He pulled himself up through the floor, the sharp scent of the oils hitting him as soon as the door opened. They were not good quality, and the smells were far too intrusive. They’d need such things to banish the smells of living in this place. The antechamber held a single terminal, anchored to the wall with a small shelf. Behind the shelf, an older woman waited, her form skeletal even by zero standards. She had sold her rations several times too many.

Like the rest of the planet, the air was chill, and Ramirez wondered if they had the resources to heat their oil. Likely not, and the poor clientele could not afford anything better. He imagined himself, naked and shivering, as he scraped the hardened oil from his skin. His shame let him afford better.

“Five arka,” said the woman, looking him over. Her eyebrows fluttered a bit at his clothing, which was clearly in too good repair for such a place.

Ramirez shook his head. “Not here for that. I would like to ask you a question.”

A smile crept over the woman’s face, and Ramirez suppressed a shudder. “What can I do for you?” She put a pause in there just so Ramirez didn’t think the question had any innocent component.

“I was wondering,” he began, trying to force himself to smile, “if you served a certain young woman.”

The old woman began to scowl. “My cousin,” amended Ramirez. “She’s my cousin.” He opened the small compartment on his belt, removing a knuckle of coins.

The scowl vanished beneath the weight of a smile. “Your cousin?”

“Montoya. Ausiel Montoya.”

The old woman turned to her terminal. “No. No one by that name.” Ramirez detached an arka from the string and pushed it toward the woman. She snatched the spinning coin from the air and it disappeared into her belt.

“And you are…?”

“Leaving,” said Ramirez.

Two more visits to two more nearly identical baths, and Ramirez was beginning to wonder if he had not imagined Montoya. Perhaps the time aboard the Mason’s Revenge had driven him crazy. It was well known that zeroes who spent extended periods with dirtwalkers eventually went mad. Got the chatters, they said. Felt the sky. Perhaps it had happened to him already. Perhaps he was still in space, alone, and the Hand of Tyr was still orbiting Fenris. Perhaps the crew had forgotten him, and he would spend his eternity here, in the dark.

The thought knocked him back, and he released his hold on the rungs of the wall. He floated for a moment, concentrating on the metal walls, the hiss of the vents, and most of all on the comforting hum of the lights.

He felt the crushing Black. He floated alone, in a space that was too big to describe. It was hell.

Ramirez was breathing rapidly, sucking in great gusts of frozen air. He was not in space. He was in a hallway in Hinden, his homeworld. Ramirez opened his eyes, realizing that he did not remember shutting them. He focused on the gray bulkhead of the wall, where a sign had once been, now faded to the point of illegibility. He was safe.

Ramirez looked up the bright hall and began moving. His body shook, still wracked by tremors. He was ginger in his movements, and he was grateful he was in one of the smaller streets. He turned a corner to find a place to rest, but only for a moment.

End of Free Sample

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