by Auston Habershaw
read by Jeff Ronner
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about the author…
On the day Auston Habershaw was born, Skylab fell from the heavens. This foretold two possible fates: supervillain or scifi/fantasy author. Fortunately he chose the latter, and spends his time imagining the could-be and the never-was rather than disintegrating the moon with his volcano laser. He lives and works in Boston, MA.
Auston is a winner of the Writers of the Future Contest (2nd place in quarter 1, 2014) and has published stories in Analog, The Sword and Laser Anthology, and Stupefying Stories. His debut novel, The Iron Ring (Book 1 in the Saga of the Redeemed), will be released on 2/10/15.
about the narrator…
Jeff Ronner is a voice actor, audio engineer, and sound designer. His work has appeared in radio and TV commercials on this planet, and he’s considering doing a series of translations with an advertising group on Theta Prime. But they’re demanding several body parts from him as a retainer, so he’s currently keeping a low profile traveling throughout Australia.
Adaptation and Predation
by Auston Habershaw
Everyone thrives in someone else’s version of hell. For the Quinix, this meant sheer canyon walls a hundred kilometers deep, every surface coated with a thick layer of red-orange vegetation and bioluminescent fungus. The arachnids liked to string cables in complex patterns from wall to canyon wall and built nests where the cables crossed. For them, each oblong, womb-like nest was no doubt cozy and safe. For me and every other off-worlder on Sadura, you were made constantly aware of the fact that, with just the right (or wrong) application of balance, you would plummet to a death so far below that you’d have plenty of time to think about it on the way down.
I’d seen more than a few fall—Dryth tourists to little fluffly Lhassa pups, all screaming their way down into the abyss. In the dim, humid depths of the Saduran canyons, the bodies were hard to find.
For that reason, among others, I came here to kill people for money. I make a good living.
Tonight I had a fat contract on a big Lorca—an apex predator, both because of his fangs and his bank account. As a scavenger, living on the bottom of the food chain my entire life, the irony was delicious. Here I was, a lowly Tohrroid—a slop, a gobbler, a smack—paid top dollar to do in some big shot whose trash my ancestors have been eating for ages. Sooner or later, the bottom feeders always get their due, don’t they?
Either that, or I was going to wind up dead.
I knew the Lorca liked to dine at the Zaltarrie, and I knew he’d be there tonight. I’d spent the last few weeks shadowing one of the wait-staff—a Lhassa mare with the fetching chestnut mane, a full quartet of teats, and the long graceful neck that fit with Lhassa standards of beauty. I had practiced forming her face in a mirror—the big golden-brown eyes with the long, thick lashes were the hardest—and now I had it down pat. I could even copy a couple of her facial expressions.
The Zaltarrie hung like a fat egg-sac in the center of one of the deeper canyons, webbed to the walls by at least five hundred diamond-hard cables, some of which were thick enough to run gondolas from the artificial cave systems that honeycombed the walls and were home to the less authentic Saduran resort locales. The Zaltarrie, though, was all about local flavor and a kind of edgy, exotic energy that appealed to the young, the bold, and the hopelessly cool.
I came in through the staff entrance already ‘wearing’ my uniform—a black, form-fitting bodysuit with a wrist console tying me into the club’s central hospitality net. The Quinix manager at the back door gave me an eight-eyed glare which I took to indicate curiosity. Most staff changed once they were here, I guessed, but I’d simply shaped my outer membrane to mimic the look of the clothes without bothering. It was a necessity; while I understand how elbows and ball-in-socket joints work in theory, mimicking the biomechanics of it all while stuffing an arm in a t-shirt is something else entirely. At any rate, I brushed past his fuzzy, leggy body and headed to the floor.
The music hit my whole body at once. It was a sultry, lilting Dryth ballad sung by a particularly attractive Lhassa mare dressed in a kind of micro-thin smart-gown that barely qualified as a garment. She was backed up by a small clutch of Voosk with the matching plumage to indicate they were part of the same flock. They had no instruments; with Vooskan vocal chords, they didn’t need them. The song shook me to my core, and I mean that literally. I see, I hear, I smell, and I feel with the same organ—my external membranes, my skin. The volume on that Lhassa crooner was such to make me wish I had a garment to hide behind. It made me sag in the door for a minute while I acclimated myself to the ambient sound. Between the thick pipe smoke and the freely flowing narcotics, nobody noticed.
The Great Races can’t appreciate the things they have. Take the Zaltarrie, for instance. Lush carpets, thick as an uncut lawn. The scent of finely spiced food. Each chair and cushion hand-stitched by arachnid feet from synthetic fabrics so smooth and soft they barely existed but as a sensation of cool breath on the backside of so many clothed bipeds. The music, too, and the pipe smoke and the low murmur of polite conversation in a half-dozen languages—all of this world of sensation, and it had to be funneled through at tight array of tiny sensory organs clustered at one end of some clunky organism’s static body. I could feel, taste, see, and hear it all at once and wear the experience as a garment, yet I was surrounded by organisms who sat in little fortresses of their own mind, carefully sifting through a couple streams of sensory information as suspiciously and greedily as customs agents looking for a bribe. It almost made me pity them, moments like this.
Don’t worry—the feeling passed. Screw those people.
I glided across floor, sweeping the faces clustered around the tables for my ‘date’ for the evening—Tagrod the Balthest, the Lorca shipping mogul. He was easy to spot; Lorca always are. He would have topped three meters standing, had he been standing. Instead, the great businessman lay across a mammoth divan no doubt custom designed for his use, his four lower limbs tucked beneath his lithe, muscular lower body. His torso was wrapped in Quinixi silk, black as charcoal and broad as the gondola that probably took him here. His forelimbs were folded across his chest, and I noted his talons were untrimmed—a mark of wealth. If all went well, I’d see him dead inside two hours. If not, I’d probably get a first-hand look at his digestive tract.
Lorca of such stature as Tagrod are never alone. He had a half dozen retainers—two Dryth bodyguards in armorgel suits, a snail-like Thraad with a control rig and a few servo-drones floating around, and a trio of overweight Lhassa mares chained by the neck and marked on the forehead with Tagrod’s personal sigil. These last were feed slaves. Tagrod kept to the old ways, where the predator/prey relationship between his species and the Lhassa was still observed. Just judging from the expressions on a few Lhassa faces elsewhere in the room, there were even odds I wasn’t the only person there planning to kill the big Lorca. I was, however, the only person sauntering towards his table with a packet of metabolic poison stashed in a vacuole hidden in my ‘abdomen’ and a multi-pistol likewise concealed within my ‘ribcage’.
An intoxicated Lhassa bull leaned out of a booth and pinched my backside. My buttocks clenched in what was probably an unnatural way—contracting like some kind of mollusk into a shell. I danced away, hoping he didn’t notice, and tossed my long neck so my mane flipped away from him—Lhassa body language that indicated I wasn’t interested in coupling with him. The bull laughed and followed me with his eyes until it was clear I was heading towards Tagrod’s table. Then he mouthed something cruel about me to his friends and turned away. Any mare who was going to speak with a Lorca was clearly beneath him, anyway. Lucky break. I made a mental note to avoid any other handsy Lhassa bulls—I looked convincing, but not so convincing a good fondling wouldn’t find me out.
The ballad was wrapping up just as I reached the corner where the big Lorca was splayed out. There were hoots of adulation from the tables in a dozen different languages made with as many different sets of alien vocal chords, noise bladders, or what-have-you. Tagrod clapped his taloned hands a couple times and roared, smiling. I got a good look at his three interlocking rows of needle-sharp teeth. I found myself hoping I’d estimated the dosage on the poison correctly—a half-dead Lorca could still do some pretty serious damage to an entirely-alive me.
One of the Dryth guards stopped me before I’d gotten within arm’s reach of Tagrod’s table. Like a typical Dryth, he was a compact and functional biped, knots of bumpy muscle in all the right places, and a face as smooth and streamlined as the prow of an airship. “We’ve already ordered.” The Dryth announced.
“I understand, sir. We’ve got a few specials, though, and the manager was concerned that your master hadn’t heard them before making his selection.”
The Dryth wasn’t buying it. His eyes—blue-white and sharp as ice picks—searched my face for some sign of deception. My deadpan, though, is unbeatable—it isn’t even really a face, after all.
Tagrod’s voice was a deep, resonant purr. “Othrick, please—the lady wishes to speak with me. Let her through.”
I had to keep my external membranes from shuddering in relief. Killing a Lorca is a lot like fishing: it’s all about the bait you use. Tonight, the bait was my assumed shape, and I’d just gotten a nibble.
One of the Thraad’s servo-drones pulled a chair out for me. The Dryth patted me down for weapons without so much as an ‘excuse me,’ and it took much of my concentration to keep my “body” appropriately rigid as to simulate a real Lhassa’s endoskeleton. I had practiced this, though, and there was no danger of him finding anything—my weapons were in vacuoles hidden inside my body. Unless he actually scanned me or I accidentally jiggled in the wrong place, I was safe. Comparatively, anyway.
Behind me, the Lhassa singer started into another number, this one in a language I didn’t recognize. Reflexively, I fiddled with the translator I’d hidden inside my ‘head’ until I got the words right. It was a Lhassa dirge from a subculture I wasn’t aware of. The Voosk did their best impression of a trio of sultry woodwinds, striking a jazzy backdrop to what was essentially a song about a mare’s children all dying in a fire. Leave it to the Lhassa to make something like that sound sexy.
Tagrod gave the Thraad a significant glance and the slimy bookkeeper twiddled a few tentacles. One of the servo drones chirped an acknowledgement and the song dimmed behind a dampening field. The big Lorca gave me an exploratory sniff from his perch. Even with two thirds of his body lying down, I was only at his eye-level. At this distance, I could easily see how his species could devour a full-grown Lhassa in one sitting—his great jaws could probably fit around my shoulders even before they unhinged to swallow me. There was a second—just the barest second—where I felt a sense of terror at his presence and wanted to run. I had to remind myself that, between the two of us, I was the dangerous one here. Predatory species or not, he wasn’t a trained killer, he was a business man—a three meter tall, five-hundred kilo, carnivorous businessman.
For some reason I didn’t feel much better.
“You don’t usually work this shift.” Tagrod observed.
I made a conscious effort to blink. “You noticed?”
Tagrod smiled, but didn’t show me his teeth. “My dear, every Lorca can’t help but notice the Lhassa around them. An old instinct, you understand—don’t be frightened.”
I made my eyes flick towards the feed slaves, who were absently stuffing their faces with sautéed crimson slugs. They hadn’t even given me so much as a glance since I’d sat down.
Tagrod picked up on the gesture and nodded. “All my slaves are voluntary. Their families are handsomely paid. I’m sorry if they make you uncomfortable.”
I shook my head. “No. No, it’s all right.”
Tagrod purred at a low, powerful volume that made my body shiver. “So pleasant to meet a Lhassa who understands. So few of your kind can rise above their instincts. Our two species are interdependent. Your people have provided the numbers and done all the great labor. We Lorca have provided the vision. Like all good predators, we drove our prey to greatness.”
It was an old tale—the famous refrain of the oppressor: “but where would you be without me?” I know more about this than even the Lhassa do. Intelligent blobs of omnivorous, asexual goo do not advance well in a society full of so-called higher-order beings. My people eat trash in waste dumps and everybody thinks they’ve done us a favor. I wasn’t even spoken to by one of the Great Races until I was nearly a full cycle old, even though I worked in a restaurant like this one, surrounded by people. I was paid in table scraps.
“Are you all right?” Tagrod asked.
I realized I had been neglecting my facial expressions. I went back to work, batting my long eyelashes and smoothing my mane with one hand. “Sorry. I was just…just remembering something.”
The Dryth guard who had patted me down returned from some kind of errand. He leaned over and whispered in Tagrod’s ear. I turned my head away, making it look like I was watching the stage, but I focused most of my attention on the Dryth’s lips. I didn’t catch it all, but I caught the gist.
“Othrick tells me that you aren’t even on the schedule today, Tal.” Tagrod reached down and speared a slug with a single talon. He popped it in his mouth, again giving me a chance to see those impressive teeth. “Is this true?”
I curled my neck in the Lhassae gesture of embarrassment. “Yes.”
“Then what are you doing here?” Othrick asked, his hand resting on the ornately carved butt of his multipistol.
“Forgive Othrick,” Tagrod said, grinning. “He always suspects that a Lhassa is planning to kill me. We’re friends, though—aren’t we?”
I shrugged. “I suppose.”
The big Lorca nodded. “Good, good. I’m glad.” He leaned forward, sniffing me with his broad nostrils. “You smell strangely.”
“I wear perfume.”
Tagrod grunted. “I don’t think that’s it.”
I stood ready to pop the multipistol out of my chest and drill the giant merchant at the slightest sign of the Dryth going for their weapons or of those big talons reaching out for me. Had I underestimated the Lorcan olfactory abilities, or maybe Tagrod had had them boosted somehow? It didn’t matter. I made my face look confused; I decided to reel him in a little early: “I’m sick.”
“I see.” Tagrod hummed. “Is it serious?”
I mimicked embarrassment as best I could. I leaned close, but not too close—no free Lhassa gets too close to a Lorca willingly—and stage-whispered. “I had an accident. A couple organs were ruined real bad. I got some germline engineered replacements, but…”
“But they’re losing integrity, aren’t they?” Tagrod shook his mammoth head and clicked his muscular tongue. “A cheap clinic, poor standards. Probably promised you the stars, didn’t they?”
I hung my head. “Yeah…pretty much.”
A single talon caught me by the chin, but so gently that it was barely a caress. Soft pressure made me raise my head and meet the grand, yellow eyes of the Lhassa’s ancient predator. “Which organs, pretty Tal?”
“Both kidneys, a liver, part of my heart…” I tried to whip up some tears, but I’ve never had the knack—no really effective valves for that kind of thing in my external membranes. I settled, instead, for a shuddering sigh.
Tagrod frowned at this for a moment, then rolled his massive shoulders in a Lorcan shrug. “That sounds like quite an accident.”
“There are a lot of accidents on Sadura.” I shot back, putting a little steel into my voice. I was letting the big fish play with the line now, giving him some slack to drag out. If he thought the catch was too easy or if he smelled a trap, my hook wouldn’t set.
Tagrod hummed. “Quite true.”
Everybody at the table was watching me. Othrick and the other Dryth were ready for action, probably worried I had a sliverblade secreted in my marsupium or something. The Thraad had both his eyestalks trained on me, his tentacles quivering with a kind of academic interest at my behavior. Even the feed slaves had finished their feasting and were eyeing me with expressions that were probably unreadable even for other Lhassa, let alone me. I wondered what that was about—was I competition of some kind? Did they hope Tagrod would devour me before themselves?
“Tell me, Tal, why did you come to see me?” Tagrod asked. He folded his arms.
Carefully, carefully…“I was interested in speaking with you. You don’t seem as cruel as…as…”
“As you’ve heard Lorca to be?” Tagrod laughed sharply. “Charming, simply charming. This truly is the planet of the adventurous, isn’t it?”
I bowed my head in acceptance of his praise. It never hurt to stoke the ego of an apex predator.
Tagrod smiled at me and told me things I already knew. “My slaves have dined, and I regret I am about to depart. I have appreciated your company, little Tal.”
“I’m leaving too.” I said.
I could see the thoughts clicking into place in the Lorca’s head. The words he said next were the words I had been hoping to hear all night. “Would you care to accompany me? It is so rare I am able to converse with a free Lhassa. I would hear tales of the homeworld.”
I did my best to look cautious. “I don’t know.” I made a show of glancing back at the other Lhassa scattered around the floor at the Zaltarrie. I knew that many of them had been shooting me and Tagrod dirty looks ever since I came over here, but this was the first time I allowed myself to act as if I knew.
Tagrod snorted. “Don’t mind them. Small minds and small hearts—vestiges of a bygone era. You’ve outgrown them, Tal.” He held out his hand, talons and all, for me to take it. “Shall we?”
I have a lot of textural control over my external membranes, but simulating skin that felt perfectly to the touch could be difficult. I focused as much of my concentration as I could spare on making my hand feel right and gently laid my palm on his. My little Lhassa-size hand seemed like a dry leaf atop the large, flat boulder of the Lorca’s palm. Had I bones, I might have been worried about him crushing me. As it stood, he merely placed his other hand atop mine and held it there for a moment. He smiled, still keeping his teeth hidden. In his great, yellow eyes I saw something like affection. Maybe he thought of me as a pet; maybe his overtures of companionship were sincere. I doubted it. “I’ll go with you.” I said.
Tagrod stood, his massive bulk shifting the delicate balance of the entire club as it was suspended between its thousand Qunixi spindles. The Zaltarrie swayed slightly, as though moved by a gentle breeze. At the great Lorca’s stirring, a host of black-clad Qunixi seemed to appear from nowhere. The arachnids shifted tables and shooed patrons from his path with a flurry of hairy-legged activity so he could move to the service entrance—the only door large enough to easily admit him. Othrick preceded his master out the door while the other Dryth kept his unblinking eyes fixed on me. I fell in with the Thraad, who evidently wasn’t the chatty type; he slid along on his single muscular foot with barely even a flick of an eye-stalk in my direction. As we left, our little parade drew the baleful glares of more than a few Lhassa. I knew they considered me—well, considered Tal—a traitor, but that fact made no impact on me. How easily they judged how others sought to survive, the self-righteous prigs. Every creature had to find its niche—how did they know this wouldn’t be Tal’s? Who were they to deny her it?
This train of thought was academic, though—I wasn’t Tal in the first place, and I was about to do something most of the Lhassa in that room would approve of, anyway. I focused on the task at hand. Slowly, I pushed the multipistol near the surface of my body and held it between my Lhassa breasts. It was a sleek model and only made the slightest bulge beneath my ‘clothing.’ We would see how long it would take the Dryth to notice it.
Outside, we found ourselves standing on an aluminum terrace that jutted out of the side of the Zaltarrie. Just over our heads were wrist-thick bundles of Quinixi cabling that protruded from the spherical bulk of the club at regular intervals. Large bins of garbage were lined up on either side of the door. In one bin I could hear the thumping and squelching of one of my own species, feeding on the scraps tossed out for vermin like itself.
As we stood there, waiting for Tagrod’s air-yacht to arrive, the scavenging Tohrroid poked a pseudopod above the edge of the trash bin to get a look at us. It colored itself bright green to attract attention and warbled something in a loose approximation of Dryth Basic. “Food? Food? Please?” It reached out to us, forming a crude four-finger hand.
The feed-slaves recoiled from its touch. The Dryth behind me stepped forward to slap away its tendril. “Get back in the trash, smack!” The Tohrroid withdrew its tendril immediately and went back to trying to digest whatever semi-organic refuse it had come upon. The Dryth wiped his hand on his sleeve. “Ugh. I think it slimed on me.”
Tagrod laughed in rich, musical tones. He reached into his robe and withdrew a small confection of some kind. He threw it in the trash bin and gave me a wink. “The Dryth never have understood charity, have they, Tal?”
I hugged myself, as though cold. “The smacks have always creeped me out, too. I think everybody should look like…like something. Like what they are.”
“Ah,” said Tagrod, “but that would remove all the excitement in life, wouldn’t it?”
That statement bothered me. I managed to suppress a shudder—he didn’t know anything. He was a sham—his charity, his gentility, his humor—all a big lie designed to lure in prey. Just like me. Just like everybody.
We all looked up as the yacht appeared with the heavy thrum of AG boosters. It swung as close as it could without brushing the spindles and extended an umbilical for us to travel up. The yacht had an open-deck plan, kitted out like a pleasure cruiser but with a former military frame. I could see where the guns had once been mounted in the prow, and I wondered what the ship’s core AI thought of its new role in life, assuming they’d left the AI intact when it was repurposed, of course.
Once on board, we rose up about three hundred meters at a slow climb, the yacht pivoting itself gently to avoid all the spindles and cables that crisscrossed every open space. The Thraad disappeared below deck along with the Dryth and Tagrod himself. That left the feed-slaves and me, as well as a couple of the servo drones. One of them brought me a drink unbidden; I wasn’t so foolish as to drink it.
“He’ll have you first, you know.” One of the slaves said. It was the first time she had spoken since I’d laid eyes on her. She was fat, probably middle-aged, but with larger breasts and darker eyes than ‘Tal’. Her mane was well kept and silver in color, which I knew to be a genetic rarity in the Lhassa genome.
I gave her a blank stare. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Please.” She rolled her eyes. “I know what you’re up to. His stable’s full. If you think you’re buying yourself a few more years of life by offering yourself to him, you’re wrong. He’ll have you inside a week.”
“Conza!” One of the other feed slaves–younger, prettier–flicked her tail and gave the older slave a withering glance. “Leave her alone!”
I tossed my mane at Conza. “Well, I don’t plan on being eaten.”
“As if it’s up to you!” She snorted. “I know his tastes as well as anybody. I’ve been his slave for almost a full cycle.”
I laughed. “You must not taste very good.” I looked at the other two slaves. They were both watching our exchange carefully, but neither reacted to my little quip. The one who had spoken up for me hugged herself, though not against any external chill—the canyons of Sadura were hot as jungles and just as humid.
“Shut your mouth about things you know nothing about.” Conza snarled.
I smiled. “Same to you.”
The two Dryth returned to the deck. Othrick had a hand scanner, while the other one had his hand on his pistol. Behind them, strutting along on his rear four legs with all the cockiness of a bird doing a mating dance was Tagrod the Balthest. He had shed his clothing, and now moved towards me slowly, his eyes shining. “Just a formality, Tal. I’m afraid Othrick insisted.”
It took Othrick less than a second to find the multipistol. Dryth faces are poorly suited to smiling, but there was a tightness in his eyes and nostrils that indicated some degree of vindication. He seized the pistol and held it up for his Lorca master. The other Dryth drew his weapon and leveled it at me. “An assassin, sir.” Othrick announced. “As I suspected.”
Tagrod frowned at the tiny weapon. He shook his head. “Ah, Tal, I thought you were different.” Tagrod shook his great head.
Othrick tossed my pistol over the side and then grabbed me by the collar. It’s easy sometimes to forget how much muscle is crammed into a Dryth’s compact frame until they lay a hand on you. Othrick dragged me over to the edge of the yacht and probably would have pitched me over with little trouble, had not Tagrod stopped him. “I want to know why.”
I smiled. “The usual reasons. You’re a great, smelly murderous beast with pretentions of civility. It’s almost sad if it weren’t so barbaric.”
Tagrod grinned, but showed his teeth this time. They glittered in the dim light of Sadura’s bioluminescent fungi. “The Lorca are no different than the Lhassa, Tal. We both feed on one another and on those around us, as does everything. The Lhassa have never understood this, which is why they consume whole planets with the ravenous appetites of their many young. We Lorca—we true Lorca—eat you to thin the herd, which benefits all.”
“Except the meals.” I tested Othrick’s grip by struggling a little, but he held me with geological firmness. Without bones, I had no way of leveraging an escape.
Tagrod waved Othrick away from the rail. “You care so deeply for my slaves, but so do I. This may be difficult for you to understand, but I love them. When, at last, I consume them, it will not be a barbaric act. It will be the course of nature—the way of the world. There is beauty in it.”
“Bull shit.” I wished right then I could have spat at him, but I’m not much good at it. All that nonsense about the beauty of nature made me ill. I wanted to grab him by his fat head and make him watch the little kids falling off the cliffs of Sadura. I wanted him to smell the dumpster I slept in as a child, slowly eking out nutrients from the festering remains of long-dead vermin. Screw him and his natural order. The civilized species of the galaxy had conquered it for a reason.
I let this show on my face. Tagrod watched me with the intensity a predator can only muster for prey. “I see you disagree. Come. Let me show you.”
Othrick muscled me close to the big Lorca. I pushed my face into a sneer. “Careful—I might disagree with you.”
The Lorca’s middle limbs reached out and seized me by the legs and waist as easily as if I were a candlestick. “Understand, pretty Tal, that it is you who have made this come about. I wish…” He lost the words and shook his head.
“Just do it already. I’m getting tired of talking to you.”
Tagrod sighed. “I do this out of honor, not pleasure.”
His giant, gaping mouth snapped down over my head faster than I thought possible. The pressure was incredible—were I the real Tal, my skull would have been crushed and my spine snapped in and instant. As it was, I compressed in his mouth like a half-full balloon. I felt the dozens if needle-sharp teeth pierce my outer membranes, each puncture burning with intense pain and weight. I let myself flow around his jaws and pulled myself up and into his mouth as quickly as I could, abandoning my Lhassa form with all the speed and alacrity of deeply-ingrained muscle memory. The great Lorca immediately knew something was wrong. His forelimbs clawed at my amorphous body, but most of me was in his mouth, filling his jaws and throat like a tumor. With a simple internal jerk, I expelled the metabolic poison down his gullet—the poison that the pistol had diverted his guards away from finding.
Tagrod threw himself on his side, still clawing at his own face, but by now the poison was hitting his system. After the fires of adrenaline cooled, his motions became sluggish, erratic, uncoordinated. The Dryth were on top of their master, trying to pry me out. When they were close enough, I let some of myself flow into a pseudopod that pulled Othrick’s pistol from his holster. My aim has never been good, but at that range it didn’t need to be. I set the pistol to shoot slivers and unloaded a burst into Othrick’s forehead and another into the other one’s face. They dropped like the eighty-kilo sacks of meat they were.
When it was all over, I flowed out of Tagrod’s throat and formed myself into Tal again. I saw the big Lorca’s eyes were still open, one eyelid twitching sporadically. I gasped for air and did my best to seal the dozens of little puncture wounds that leaked from my body. Everything hurt. “Dammit, that took a long time.”
“You monster!” Conza darted to her master’s side. “What have you done? You’ve doomed us! You’ve doomed our families!” Her eyes were glassy with tears, “He was generous to me! My children…what will they do?”
I didn’t bother trying to shrug—I was too tired. “I dunno—get jobs?” I checked Othrick’s pistol. Like all Dryth weapons, it was high quality, but needlessly ornate. I weighed the advantages of keeping it with the advantages of pawning it.
“Of course you wouldn’t care, you miserable smack!” Conza spat at me. “What does a pointless, disgusting trash-eating blob know about honor and decorum and…and decency?”
“I gotta admit, lady, not a hell of a lot.” I pointed the multipistol at her, considered shooting her. Before I could make up her mind, she screamed and darted below deck. I could hear her yowling as it shuddered up through the deckplates.
The other two said nothing, still clinging to one another, keeping their distance. “Which one of you is Yvret?”
The youngest one raised her hand. I nodded. “Your Uncle Jainar sends his regards and his love.”
A tear welled in the mare’s eye. “He…he hired you?”
I shrugged. “Guess I was cheaper than the cost to buy you back from the Lorca.” I produced a piece of paper in my hand. “Here is the comms address at which you can reach your uncle. Contact him using the comm on this yacht.”
She stood there, staring at me. “Now?”
“I don’t get paid until you do, so do it now, yes.”
Yvret vanished. This left me alone with the third feed slave—the one who had stood up for me a few minutes earlier. I had seen, though, how she looked at my cousin in the trash bin; she looked at me no differently now. I was some horrible abomination, no matter how I’d saved her. “He treated us well. He was generous to our families.” She said at last. “Conza hadn’t lied about that. I…I think he actually cared for us.”
I spun my Lhassa neck around in an impossible circle, just to creep her out. It worked—she backed away a pace. “I really don’t care. He could have been the long-lost love of your life, saving your pups and atmospherically reconditioning a moon just for all the orphans of Lorcan appetite and I still would have killed him. I don’t owe you miserable bipeds anything. If the Thraad below decks spots me a fiver and I’ll put holes in you, too.”
She blinked at that. “We’re not all bad.”
“You are.” I snarled. “But that’s beside the point. I’m just making a living, and killing people beats the hell out of eating garbage.”
“That can’t be the only reason.”
I laughed in her face. When Yvret got back on deck, I used the comm to confirm the money had been wired to my account, and then ordered the ship to dock at the nearest side cavern. I left without saying goodbye or giving anybody any advice—not my problem. I slunk off into the shadows, reverted to a faceless blob that nobody would give a second glance, and oozed towards home.
I thought about what the third slave had said, but only much later. I was taking the form of a Dryth Diplomat, House Ghaisi colors braided into my uniform, at a private table at the Zaltarrie. There was food—better food than I’d eaten in ages—piled high on warm plates, a Quinixi server hovering over my left shoulder, his palps quivering at the prospect of the tip I’d promised him. I was comfortable, respected, left alone.
I held out a plate of algae noodles. “This food is terrible.”
The Qunixi bobbed and swizzled something in its language that translated as, “I’m terribly sorry sir! I shall take it away!”
I deposited the plate in the arachnid’s fuzzy limbs. “I want you to throw it in the dumpster. Out the service entrance–to the left.”
“Just do it.”
The server left. I wondered if the Tohrroid would be there or not; I wondered if it mattered one way or the other.
How many reasons does a creature need to do what it does, anyway? I made my body shrug, just for practice. I ate well.