The Last Marshal

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Chapter 14

I woke up to my PDA going off in my ear, a shrill whine designed to alert the user no matter where they were; asleep or even dead, it seemed. Chief Johann’s voice yelled in my ear “Hey, Marshal. The feds’ computers were able to track down the seller. An old man by the name of Jack Drabek. Sick bastard, this one. We’ve been able to link him to over seven dozen bombings in the past twenty years, and he’s apparently created a whole new network on Threed. Turns out the Jitara are quite amiable to the sale of whatever he wants if he gives their people a cut. Go figure. So, since I can’t exactly help you halfway across the galaxy, I’ll give you something almost as good: I’ve got the name of a contact in that sector. A real unpleasant info dealer, but he’ll be able to give you more information, and he owes me one after I sent him some hard-to-get information. Just look him up on Threed. Anyway, I have to say Marshal, I don’t envy you. Hopefully you have some backup. I’ll buy you a drink when you get back.”

I looked over at Amy who was drooling on her chair and occasionally snoring loud enough to surprise herself awake. Threed was going to be tricky; it wasn’t exactly close and it was a jungle, both physically and politically. The planet was so hostile very few Coalition ambassadors had been able to stay for more than a few years before quitting or being reassigned. Not the current ambassador, though. He was old-school; very hands on and proactive with locals, and since he grew up on an equally hostile world he never had too much of an issue with the environment.

Threed is a fascinating garden world orbiting a class A star, a rarity in the milky way. A warm, humid planet with short days and long years, it has two distinct but related species living there; the Jitara live in the trees, and learned to grow the branches into distinct shapes to create homes while the Kinari live primarily on the ground. The Jitara species is fairly slender in general with a thick pale green hair covering most of their bodies, and blend very well with the exceptionally large leaves in the higher elevations, while the Kinari are primarily brown, with many having black and darker grays mixed in. The Jitara have a strong but narrow tail, used primarily for providing another gripping point on a tree and balancing, and use all their limbs while climbing; they stand upright when walking around the various platforms that make up their structures. The Kinari, though, have no tail, and evolved to stand upright most of the time, though for long journeys they still prefer to use their hands for extra power. They have distinct societies, but both are dependent on each other; the Jitara can only harvest the fruit that hangs from the branches, which is delicious when cooked, but not very nutritious. The Kinari learned to grow crops that need very little sun, like root vegetables and fungi. The two cultures trade food; delicious, but nutritionally limited fruit, for healthier, but less flavorful foods. Linked also by common language and religion, both species believe in an omniscient alien species that gave their people sentience and taught them their basic skills and language. Thracians share a few important traits with humans, a fact which led to a fast alliance and mutual trust between the two species. Jitara, like most humans, are born with both an insatiable curiosity and a drive to better themselves and their world. Because all of their construction involves roots and branches, the Jitara never developed flight, let alone space travel, so they rely on human technology to leave their planet. The Kinari are significantly more reserved than the Jitara, so have mostly shunned outsiders. First contact with humanity happened on July 2nd, 2255, when a human ship was forced to land on the largest ocean of Threed and made contact with the Jitara. Surprised by the technology but incredibly curious about both the ship and the people in it, the Jitara were able to bridge the language barrier with a simple set of hand signals and pictographs. By the time the humans were rescued they had given the Jitara a limited grasp of the Coalition’s basic language, Coalition Standard, and left them with a piece of technology designed to assist new cultures in learning the Coalition’s language, history, and mission. Eventually it was decided that since the initial first contact was both an accident and far from a secret on Threed, they would seek to establish communications. When the Coalition came back to make formal first contact two years later, many Jitara leaders had mastered Standard and were able to converse with the ambassadors well and establish trading and exchange of knowledge. Per Coalition mandate, the people of Threed wouldn’t be able to have Coalition State status until a vote brought before every planetary denizen possible gained majority support. It never happened, since the Kinari were opposed almost unanimously, but the Jitara were still allowed to have contact with the Coalition and trade whenever humans came. Eventually the Coalition put a permanent outpost on Threed to study the planet and maintain contact with the Jitara. By the time I was set to leave for Threed the planet was a second-tier state under Coalition classification, and was already working with the Coalition to develop their own ships for interstellar travel. The Kinari, even though they had started to mine metals on Threed, were totally opposed to outside influence, but even they started conducting trade with the Coalition merchant vessels that came by, if only for technology that wasn’t strictly allowed for pre-spaceflight societies.

“Hey, Ryan. What’s going on?”

I turned around to see Amy sitting up in the chair, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Her hair was a mess and she clearly didn’t sleep long enough, but she still looked as great as she always did. “I got the call from the Chief. They know who and where he is; we’re going to Threed.”

“Threed? The jungle planet? Why would he work there? The communications from the planet are pretty thin, so it wouldn’t be hard to detect a signal coming from an unauthorized transmitter.”

I got dressed as we talked; Amy had picked up some new clothes since my old ones had Johr’s blood on them and we wouldn’t have time to clean them properly. “They think he’s using an independent Quantum Entanglement Transmitter, so his transmissions are all impossible to trace.” By the mid 22nd century humans had spread out across the galaxy just enough to make quick transmissions hard, and since instant communication was still a must for both private and governmental duties, they established the Network. A web of interconnected QET stations and relay hubs, the Network made instant communication between almost any Coalition colony possible. Only the newest and most basic outposts lacked a QET connected to a hub; well, those and the dark colonies.

“Ok, then. Let’s get going.” She said nonchalantly. Always the brave one, in spite of everything. She walked into the bathroom and came out a few minutes later, her hair in perfect form and her face with a fresh coat of makeup. I checked myself out of the hospital, much to the chagrin of the doctors, and stopped by Johr’s room. Colleen was still in there, holding her unconscious brother’s hand and sleeping soundly herself. They deserved a happy life from now on, a life free from me, I thought.

We arranged transport on a merchant vessel headed for Threed; I convinced them to let us on quietly in exchange for not telling the authorities that they were transporting goods deemed illegal for trade with tier-two worlds like Threed. I knew there was no chance Devereux wouldn’t find out where we were going, but I didn’t want to alert the black market dealer of our arrival, something which is usually well known by the time I would arrive. Having booked passage on a ship under no name I would at least have the element of surprise. Still, it was a three week voyage on a large cargo ship, something I hardly relished. At a few thousand cubic meters of storage, it was a big ship, but not the largest cargo transport I’d seen. The crew consisted of a dozen command crew and a hundred workers. Amy and I passed the time mostly by talking and playing poker with the crew, something she was terrifyingly good at. We played for a measly amount, only a few Realta here and there, but by the end of the first week she was up by 200 Realta. We slept in the same room, in bunk beds, but often found ourselves in the same bed by morning. It helped, I think, for both of us. I knew why I needed it; I missed the feeling of someone else’s warmth, the feeling that I wasn’t alone even while I slept. That hadn’t happened for me in a long time, not since Maria died. But Amy was from the nicer areas of Earth, the cities where casual sex was common – if not the norm – and polyamorous relationships were fairly regular for young people. As far as I could tell emotional attachment of any kind was shunned until well into a relationship for most, and monogamy was less common at a younger age for most. I didn’t know what she wanted anymore; and really I didn’t care at the time.

Two weeks into the journey the captain of the ship, John Daugherty, came to me, asking a few questions I wasn’t entirely happy about. But he was the captain and he wasn’t comfortable with two strays on board, even with the money I paid him. “So, what’s your story?”
“I paid you for your discretion, captain. I can’t have the people on board spreading rumors.”

“I’m not talking about my men, sir. I’m talking about myself. I have better sense than to tell my men. I trust them, but they’re bored, and likely to talk just to pass the time. But I know who your friend is and I have an idea as to who you are. I just want to be sure.”

That piqued my interest. “Oh? And who do you think we are?”

He readjusted in his seat and took a sip of his coffee. “She’s the daughter of the Councilor Devereux; an obnoxious young journalist famous for her willingness to go places most others refuse. And that would make you the Marshal, Ryan Darrow, on the hunt for some terrorists that bombed that police station in New York. And she’s following you because you’re a big story. Now, I figured all this out because I listen; I have a few friends in high places. Don’t worry about the crew, they won’t figure it out unless you tell them. But I want to know why you’re headed to a world like Threed, and why you have to do it all quiet-like.”

I considered carefully how much I was wanting to tell him. He was no one’s fool, but he could be a problem if he knew everything. “I’m following up on a lead; I think there’s a member of the organization responsible on Threed, someone who may be able to clear up a few things. He’s a fugitive from the Coalition, and I’ve been tasked with bringing him back. Alive, as difficult as that might be.”

“I see. Well, I have a few friends here. Men with knowledge of the planet and its people. Here.” He stopped moving for a second, operating his in-head PDA interface. A few seconds later a comm request popped up on my HUD, asking if I wanted to receive a message. When I agreed, a series of names and faces came up, people that he knew in the sector. At least I’d have a few people to talk to.

“Thanks, captain.”

“Listen. I know you have to be quiet. Just remember; Threed is not Earth. The Jitara are nosy, and your business won’t stay your business for long. You have to be quiet, but be quick. Hell, the second we hit radio comm range the boys are going to be sharing all the news they can. Way out here the QETs get the major news blasts, but some of the more specific stuff and rumor has to wait for ships carrying men and women with big mouths. I doubt you’ll make the news with the boys, but if you do word will spread quick, and not everyone down there is as dumb as the boys are. They’ll put two and two together, like I did. You’ll have a few hours, depending on where you man is hiding. Good news is, if he’s hiding with the Kinari, he won’t get the news for a few days. Those big apes don’t care much for interplanetary gossip.” “Big Apes” was a layman’s term for the Kinari, given their apparent relation to Earth’s gorillas, even though many on Threed consider it racist. Humans who were first describing the inhabitants of Threed used terms like “monkey” and “ape” to describe the Jitara and Kinari respectively, and it stuck. The Jitara, being generally kind and curious, didn’t mind the name monkey, especially after a few of them went to Earth and saw the animals they were being named after. The lead delegate apparently laughed, and called his human counterpart a hairless ape. They understood the need for humans to classify things in simple to understand terms. Eventually, the terms “monkey” and “ape” fell out of use after a starport was constructed on Threed and the Jitara started visiting other planets.

“Yeah, I’ve only been to Threed once and never met the Kinari myself, but the general consensus is that they’re too reserved for outside gossip. That’s a good thing, if my guy’s with them; unfortunately, that means they won’t be super excited about helping me.” I stood up and extended my hand. “Anyway, thanks for the advice, captain.”

The captain took it and shook my hand, then walked off to the command bridge. I still needed some sleep, and we still had a week on board. It went by fairly quickly, thankfully, with more poker and drinking and more sleep than I’d gotten in a year. Every night I’d go to bed on a decently comfortable, if small, bed, and every morning I woke up to the sound of Amy snoring away next to me. I was comfortable with it, and that scared me. I’d only lived so long because of caution and carefully considered behavior, not reckless disregard for all the rules I’d made.

We were scheduled to arrive at 2215 Earth time; Threed had a similar orbit and spin to Earth, but their days were only 21.5 hours long, which made Earth norm time keeping difficult. Instead, they divided up the days into 20 hours, each consisting of 72 minutes of 60 seconds. It wasn’t super popular with the humans who worked there, but they adjusted quickly. I woke up at 1800 Earth time and got ready to go down to Threed. It had been at least five years since I stepped foot on that planet, and it still made me nervous just thinking about what trouble I could find. Either way, the sooner I went down the sooner my job would be over and I would be done. I was about to head down to the chow deck for food when Amy appeared out of nowhere and grabbed my arm. “Hey, looking for food?” She had that beaming smile of hers, and this time there was less hesitation in it. She could feel what I did; the combination of anxiety and hope that things were almost done. I knew better than that, but thankfully I allowed myself to forget my doubts for a few hours.

“Yeah, well, I’m starving and they’ve got a great cook on board. That’s all I need to know.” I tried returning her grin, but as much as I wanted to feel it, I couldn’t give an honest smile. I was worried, as much as I was hopeful.

“Come on, then. The captain’s asked us to dine with him one last time before we land.”

I didn’t want to talk to the captain much anymore; we were in earshot at his table and I wasn’t exactly itching to converse about our plans. “Sure. Let’s go. He probably gets all the good food, right?”

Amy flashed another smile, and walked with me past the crew members seated at the long metal tables. We caught a few glances, but no stares. Men and women served aboard the ship, and sex was common among many crews that did long voyages together. It was a way for them to pass the time, and since jealousy was rare, it kept the crew from each others’ throats through the boredom. I wondered if that was why Amy wasn’t trying to get more physical with me, or if I was really as clueless as I assumed.

At the captain’s table we were seated in comfortable nano-leather composite chairs, and served a few delicious courses of the cook’s best food. After dinner, the captain opened a bottle of dessert mead that he said he brewed himself on the ship. I was never one to turn down alcohol, and Amy loved anything sweet. He started pouring a few glasses when he started his inevitable questions. “So, Marshal. How are you and the little lady getting along on our ship?” His constant use of archaic colloquialisms, like “ape” and “little lady” was a little strange, but he had clearly been raised by an ultra-traditional family. Such families still existed, but mostly in the slums. And few slummies ever made it to the position of captain on ships like this.

“Just fine, thanks. I have to ask, though, captain; where are you from, originally?”

Amy put down her mead after taking a sip, obviously pleased with the semi-sweet flavor. She was immediately as interested in the answer as I was. A typical reporter.

“I’m not from anywhere, Marshal. I’m from everywhere, I guess you could say. I was raised a spacer, a family of scavengers flying from wreck to wreck in deep space. We had a much smaller ship, then, but we eventually made enough to buy this bucket of bolts. They died not two years after buying it; radiation poisoning from exposure to reactor cores and weapons systems. So I got this ship, and picked up the crew, and started in the Coalition Merchant Marine service. Been ferrying cargo, passengers and the like from place to place, using my knowledge of the stars and space to get me there. It’s good, honest labor, that’s for sure. And it’s nowhere near as dangerous as scavenging.”

“Makes sense. So, when do you think you’ll retire? You’ve gotta be pushing eighty. This is a young man’s kind of work, even as captain. Surely you’ve enough to retire on.”

He laughed and took another swig from his mead. “No, sir, I’m almost a hundred and ten. But thanks, I’ll take that as a compliment. And yeah, I’ve got plenty to retire on, but I’ve got no one to replace me. No one I’ve met knows these stars like I do, and I figure as long as I’m dying among em, I should work to get there. I’ll teach one of these knuckle headed kids one day, but for now I’m happy right where I am.”

I stood and raised my glass and gave a toast in a gentle mocking tone, “To Captain Daugherty, may he live forever, the stars and the poor bastards under him be damned.”

Amy laughed and raised her glass, and Daugherty did too, his face already turning red from the wine and humor. We sat around talking for a few more hours before the captain went up to the command center to prepare for final approach and Amy and I went back to our cabin to get ready to go. We were still packing when Amy stopped and turned to me. “So, do you think this’ll end well for either of us?” The fear and trepidation in her voice were apparent; she was as worried as I was about how this would all play out. Maybe more. All I knew was that I was going to see it through, consequences be damned. She was committed; no doubt about that. But I still wondered what would happen when it all went to hell. Because more than anything, right then I knew it was all going to be going to hell very soon. It should have scared me, put me on edge; it didn’t. Instead it was a relief. I knew that no matter the outcome, it would soon be over, and I’d be allowed to rest.

“I think you’ll survive, no matter what. You’re good at that. And if I died you’d probably think of some way to bring me back just to yell at me for dying, so I’ll be fine either way.” I smiled the most convincing grin I could muster, but it wasn’t perfect. She saw through the lie as easily as she did with all her interviewees.

“Dammit, Ryan; can’t you be honest with me? I think I’ve earned that much.”

She was right, but I still couldn’t bring myself to think that way. It was too difficult to imagine what might happen; not just to me, but to her and everything else. So much was on our shoulders; the investigation, justice for the people hurt, and especially her father. We couldn’t fail, but failure seemed a real possibility. “Sorry, Amy. This planet is the biggest haystack in the galaxy and we’re looking for a needle. Nothing is going to make this easy, especially not false hope. We need to be prepared for the worst. But you’re right; I should be honest. You deserve that much. Sorry.”

She started packing a little more aggressively; she was angry with me, and she had all the right in the universe. Still, I didn’t want to think about that right now, so I finished packing and headed down to the launch bay. The North Wind was a large vessel, and as such couldn’t dock at the Threed surface port. We had to dock with the orbital platform first which would then transport the cargo and passengers down an orbital elevator to the planet’s surface. I sat in the docking bay waiting for Amy and Captain Daugherty, but all I could think about was finding my target on the surface of the planet. It was going to be nearly impossible without the Kinari’s help, and they weren’t exactly friendly with most humans. Drabek had paid them a king’s ransom in money and technology to keep them quiet; nothing short of a miracle would get them talking. Still, it was a better lead than I’d had in a long time. Amy showed up a few minutes later, not saying a word. I could hardly blame her. But still, I needed her help and she would never let me do this without her. I smiled weakly and nodded, and she returned it with a glare and more silence. She had somehow mastered the art of making her silence seem loud; I could hear her screaming at me in my head but her lips were sealed. The captain came a few minutes after her, a big grin on his face. “Are you two ready? We’ll be docking in about three minutes. Then it’s a bunch of cargo unloading and riding the damn huge elevator down to the surface platform where you’ll be free to go on your merry way. So, are you ready?”

I shrugged and nodded. “As ready as I’ll ever be, captain.”

Daugherty looked over to Amy, who gave a harsh nod and went back to staring at the closed docking door. “Whoa. What’d you do to her?” He asked me.

“Don’t ask. She might rip your head off.”

Amy shot me another annoyed look, but stayed quiet. She wasn’t giving up on the silent treatment just yet. I was about to respond with a remark that likely would have made it all worse when the PA announced the imminent docking. We braced ourselves for a moment as the ship was grabbed by the magnetic clamps and pulled into the docking port, shaking the ship a bit and nearly knocking me on my back. The captain laughed and stood perfectly upright, obviously used to the feel of his ship shuddering and shaking. After nearly an hour of unloading, we were on our way down the elevator to Threed’s surface; a twenty minute ride in near total silence, broken only by the occasional in-joke between the crew members who had come down with us to help the surface workers unload the elevator and go back up for a second trip.

Once we arrived on the planet surface and stepped off the elevator, the atmosphere of Threed felt like a slap in the face. With a thick atmosphere and a constant, nearly 100% humidity, it felt like I was trying to swim through the air instead of walk. Amy looked even worse off than I did; she had never been to Threed, and wasn’t mentally prepared for the climate. Once we got inside the climate-controlled building it wouldn’t seem so bad, but out here it was very unpleasant. I looked around at the jungle world I’d have to scour for the next month, and I knew my task was going to be even harder than I had imagined. The lower platform is an expanse of metal and plastecrete on the surface of Threed’s second largest lake, held up by three pylons and covering almost half a square mile. It’s connected to the shore by a large suspension bridge two hundred feet wide, and has been responsible for almost all cargo and passenger transportation on the planet since its completion.

Amy and I said our goodbyes to the captain and took the rapid transit over the bridge to the embassy district, where we would hopefully find our first contact. He was an assistant to the ambassador, and had a decent sum of knowledge regarding local Kinari that could help us find Drabek, or at least find someone who knew the Kinari helping him. We found the Coalition embassy, the largest in a group of ten buildings. Out here, outside Coalition territory, the various alliances and governments of the galaxy were vying for influence and direct control of whatever they could, and having an embassy on the most populated planet in the region helped. I saw the embassies of the Confederated War Council, the Rim World Alliance, and even the Cabal. The CWR was a disturbingly violent group of seventeen species spread out over a quarter of the galaxy, and before coming together spent thousands of years killing each other in increasingly violent ways with increasingly destructive weapons. The final death toll pre-CWR was estimated to be around seventy billion people, and the alliance was tenuous at best. Still, they eventually united against a common enemy, the Outsiders. Little was known about the Outsiders, only that they were powerful aliens from the void outside our galaxy. They were responsible for the deaths of almost twenty billion people before the CWR was formed to provide a united front. It took two hundred years of fighting and another billion and a half lives to defeat the Outsiders, who eventually retreated back into their own space. Now the CWR, the Coalition, and the Cabal, as much as they feared each other, were committed to preventing the Outsiders from ever gaining a foothold in the galaxy. The Rim World Alliance was a group of planets spread out across the rim of the Milky Way, nearly seven hundred planets, who aligned for trade and protection. They were constantly under threat of attack from the CWR before the Outsider invasion, but now simply stayed allied for the economic benefits. The Cabal was the most worrisome of the various factions in the galaxy; they were called the Cabal simply because no one knew much about them, despite their presence and influence on many worlds throughout the galaxy. They weren’t an alliance of planets, or species; instead, they were a group of people united by the desire to prevent another galactic war from breaking out. Made up of people from every species and world in the galaxy, they operated under their own rules and laws to prevent war, using both diplomacy and espionage to get their mission done. The embassy on Threed was part of their diplomatic front, while their more secretive branches operated behind the scenes among the most powerful governments in the galaxy. Everyone knew they had influence, but no one had ever been very afraid of the Cabal, since they were made of incredibly peaceful, sometimes even totally pacifistic, people. No government had connected an assassination, sabotage, or bombing to the Cabal, so they were left alone.

We went into the human embassy and found the reception desk, who asked us what business we had. We gave her the name Jeffrey Carson, our contact in the ambassador’s office, and she tapped a few buttons on her computer. A few minutes later a tall, thin man walked out the door to the left, a big oaken door nearly ten feet high. Wood was the primary building material here, since the locals used it for almost all their construction. “Hello, you must be Darrow and Devereux. Nice to meet you both. Please, come into my office.”

We followed him into his office, a small room partitioned out of the assistants’ area by electrochromatic glass. With a press of a button the glass went from transparent to totally opaque, and a sound dampener went up, preventing our voices from carrying out of the room.

“Ok. I got a call from Daugherty, who seemed to think you needed my help, but he wouldn’t say why. I know who you are, but I don’t know why you’re here, Marshal.”

I sat down in the leather chair opposite him. “I’m looking for someone. A black market dealer who went off the grid here, likely being hid by the Kinari in exchange for money or technology. I can’t find him without some serious help here, so the captain suggested I talk to you.”

Jeffrey sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. “I don’t know why he sent you to me. I can’t help you much there. I don’t have much contact with the Kinari, and they’re too secretive for me to ask around without raising flags. Sorry.”

Almost immediately I realized why the captain had sent me here; I saw the wheels in the ambassadors’ assistant’s head start turning quickly. He tried to hide, but I noticed it. I pulled up a suite of tracking and “wiretap” programs in my neural computer. He was trying to make a call, to tip off someone. I was able to activate a jammer and tap into his comm at the same time, so I was the only one that would hear what he said. “Ka’anili, this is Carson. There’s a Marshal here looking for your guest. You need to get him in hiding immediately. I’ll stall as well as I can. Just tell him he owes me.”

I sent the recording to Amy’s own PDA and put in a note of my own that explained where it came from and not to act surprised. She listened to it quietly, then sent me a note back. Got it, thanks. You think the captain sent us here because he was protecting Drabek or because he knew we’d catch on to Carson? I responded: Don’t know. Doesn’t matter right now. Just act like you heard nothing for a minute. To Carson I said “Ok, Jeffrey. Thanks anyway. I’ve got to get going. Got a few more people to talk to around here. God knows information isn’t hard to come by when you grease the right wheels.” He looked visibly frustrated that he didn’t get a message back from Ka’anili, but he was trying not to let it show. It didn’t work.

“Be careful, Marshal. Not everyone is as receptive to people poking around as I am. We don’t need an incident involving Coalition law enforcement, you understand.” I understood perfectly. He wanted to slow me down, give his friend a chance to get Drabek underground. I wasn’t about to go along with his plan.

“I understand. Just make sure you keep an ear out for me, will you?”
“Of course, Marshal. Good luck.”

I left his office, but I still needed a way of ensuring that he didn’t resend the message, but I could only block his communication as long as I was in proximity. I needed to make him think his message had been received, only I didn’t know the radio code his friend used to ensure receipt of the message. Without it, any communique I sent back would be flagged by his PDA as inauthentic. As if on cue, I got a note from my PDA saying he was trying to resend the message again, but this time I copied his code. Since my PDA was on full time, full-spectrum comm jamming, I asked Amy to send a radio check to this Ka’anili using his code and relay me the response. Seconds later I got a forward from Amy’s PDA, the response I needed to copy her code. I sent a reply in text form to Carson, thanking him for the message and asking that he stay off the radio so as to prevent me from tracing the communique. He agreed.

We left the embassy and found a transport rental station. It was the only way to travel around Threed quickly, at least for humans. The Jitara could move at incredible speed through the canopy level above using only their own power, but only for a distance of a dozen kilometers at most before they became fatigued. The rental place was run by a Jitara woman, fairly slender but obviously still very strong. She was about a meter and a half tall, and covered head to toe in a thick green layer of short hair, uncommonly dark for a Jitara. “Hi. I didn’t expect to see a Jitara on the ground, here,” I said.

She smiled slyly, taking no offense but still slightly amused at my ignorance. “I’m not full Jitara, that’s why. My mother’s family was half Jitara and half Kinari, so I’m only three quarters Jitara. I got my coloration from my grandfather, as well as my love of hard earth beneath my feet. No treetops for me, I’m afraid.” She smiled again, and pointed to the wall where a screen showed examples of the different vehicles available. There were ground vehicles, wheeled and covered, as well as sky transports made for traveling around the different Jitara “cities” but not well suited for the ground. I preferred to travel above the trees, hopping from one Jitara tribe to another until I found someone who could give me information I needed. The Jitara, being naturally curious, had many information traders among their people. Jitara curious enough to collect a wealth of information, but industrious enough to realize their value. There would be plenty in the main Jitara settlement of As’ilath, a few hundred miles from the spaceport. “We need to get to As’ilath. Something... quiet would be best. Don’t need everyone people pointing fingers.”

“Ah. Trying to be discreet, then? I’ve got just the thing. Ugly as a brick and about as fast. It’ll get you there, but not in style or much comfort.” She pulled up a picture of a basic model vehicle, shaped not entirely unlike a caterpillar and likely slower than said insect. It would work. Time was of the essence, but given the Jitara propensity for wanting to know everything interesting, discretion was more important right now. All the speed in the world wouldn’t help if word spread too quickly. Gossip is faster than any vehicle, after all. We took the transport and left for As’ilath, flying above the trees and across the sky. It was a beautiful planet, green treetops stretching as far as the eye could see and blending on the horizon with the clear blue sky. It was an incredible sight, and I couldn’t stop myself from staring. Amy must have noticed it herself; she gasped as we crossed over the mountain range that served as a prime meridian marker and saw a glistening lake surrounded by dense jungle. It was Kali’sava, or “sapphire” in Threcian. Not a large lake, by Threed’s standards, but the water was more blue and reflective than the larger lakes the planet was known for. As’ilath surrounded the lake, and even crossed it at a few points with bridges made from branches shaped over millennia by the Jitara. There was a small platform sitting above the treetops on the north side of the lake where vehicles could land, so I parked the transport and we went down an improvised elevator made of ropes, pulleys, and counterweights. I thought it was an ingenious solution, then I saw the main city. I’d been to Threed before, but only once, and I never really left the ground. Seeing As’ilath for the first time took my breath away. It was as incredible a city as I’d ever seen, but one without a single piece of plastecrete or metal. It was a city created over tens of thousands of years by hand. The Jitara, along with being very curious, must have been incredibly patient. They didn’t build houses, or buildings; they grew them out of the fast-growing and pliable wood all around them. Each family grew their own house over the span of a hundred years, foot by foot, until it was the house they wanted. And even when they finished the houses, they weren’t done. Each family had their own house, and as families grew, they eventually needed more space, so they grew addition space out of the trees they had formed their houses with. The buildings where the people congregated for celebration and governance were even more incredible. The main government building, a hall that seated a thousand people, was formed over the course of two thousand years. The Jitara grouped into city-states, with almost all of them using democracy to make decisions. Given the difficulty in expanding cities, it was common for groups to leave once they had grown large enough and start their own cities over a thousand years. The Kinari, by contrast, use cut wood, clay, and stone to create their houses and halls, and most used a tribal government led by chieftains and elders.

I stepped off the elevator and walked toward the business area of the city; as building a business location takes hundreds of years, families mostly stay in the same business they’ve always been in, with very little change. As such, the artisans and service providers have usually perfected their craft, with very little derivation between generations. Of course each generation has their own style and flair, but the craftsmanship and service usually stay the same. Amy stepped off the main “road,” a bundle of branches wide enough that a dozen people could walk side by side, to look at the various products and services offered. Everything from jewelry crafted from metals traded by the Kinari to tools and even ornate weapons. Violence, though far from unheard of, was not common among the Jitara, and trade was usually amiable, though swindlers and hustlers still existed. Because breeders had, over thousands of years, created wood of various types from a hundred different varieties of trees, tools could be made quite easily from the wood they had. Amy was paying particular attention to an incredible looking crossbow; an outdated weapon, by anyone’s standards, but beautiful nonetheless. The wood of the body had been carefully crafted from one solid piece of dark cherry-like wood, inlaid with ornate designs in gold and wood of varying colors. The firing mechanism had been made from various pieces of wood and bone, held together with special adhesive sap stronger than any glue on Earth. It looked like it could pierce plasticrete if fired from point blank range. The bolts were made entirely of wood, as well, with the shaft made from a somewhat flexible yet strong wood and the head made of bronzewood; a strong, metallic-hard wood that could cause damage as well as anything. Next to the crossbow sat a spear, made similarly to the bolts yet just as ornate as the crossbow. Amy asked the price for the crossbow, and when the craftsman told her, she got a dejected look on her face. She came back over and started walking with me down the path again. “Beautiful stuff! Expensive as hell, but incredible! How do they make that stuff? It must take them months to make even one piece of weaponry like that.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised. They are incredible artisans around here, and they pride themselves on their work, both to each other and tourists. You should see the builders. They plan a building, but it only gets finished by their children. That takes dedication to the craft.”

“Sorry, about earlier. That was immature and stupid. But you’re just so damn annoying.”

I laughed. “Yeah, I can be. But what did I do this time?”

“You keep acting like you’re on your own. Like you have no one you can count on, and it’s going to get you killed. You have to start trusting me.”

I sighed. I knew she was right. Trust was not something that came easily to me. I grew up on the streets where you had to trust only the one watching your back, and even then you couldn’t take both eyes off them. Too many members of the militia were led into worse paths by mercenaries, gangs, and mafiosos. I had been betrayed once, by a man I trusted like a brother. It hurt, and ever since trust was not something that came easily. That’s why I loved being a Marshal; I rarely had to trust anyone but myself, and I never felt the need to rely on people. I got information through sources that I trusted to be more afraid of me than my opposition, and I got help from people I trusted to be as selfish as possible. That was easy. Trusting someone else to do what’s right, no matter what? That’s hard. Hell, I hardly trusted myself to do that.

“Trust... trust is hard for me. Like, really hard. I can’t just start trusting people, not the way I’ve been living my life. I’ve always run from any situation that requires me to actually put my life in someone else’s hands. I trust you; I do. But I still have issues that make trusting anyone difficult, especially someone like you.”

She stopped, crossed her arms, and scowled. “What do you mean, ‘someone like you?’”

I realized my mistake too late, and tried to explain it away. “People with motivation to go against me. You have all the reason in the world; I’m going to try to throw your father in prison for the rest of his life, or even watch him get executed if necessary. Your father! I don’t know if I would trust me if it was someone I cared about, and I can read you about as well as I can the Voynich manuscript. You’re an anomaly, one I can’t wrap my head around. And worse than that, I don’t think I want to. Deep down, I trust you completely. On a totally emotional level I have no qualms. And on an instinctual level, that scares me. I don’t like having my head split like that, and it makes doing my job a damn sight harder.”

Amy’s expression softened as she began to understand what I was saying. She unfolded her arms, and right as I turned back onto the path she put her hand on my shoulder. “Ryan, I understand why you feel that way; it’s scary, trusting someone who for all intents and purposes shouldn’t be helping you. But you should know by now that I’m here to help you, not hurt you. And not just because I want to see my father taken down. He deserves everything he gets, even if it means his entire fortune gets seized and I become a slum rat. I don’t want blood money. I want to be free of his influence. And listen,” She pulled me around to face her, “I want to help you because I care, dammit. I want to help you get through this so that you can be free, and happy, and finally get what you deserve.” With that, she pulled me in and gave me a hug; squeezing me until I thought I heard my back pop. I waited, but she didn’t let go, until I heard her crying, quietly. I pushed her away gently and looked in her eyes, searching for some explanation for her behavior. It wasn’t love, or fear, or pity, or anger I saw; it was simply understanding. She was looking into my soul, opened to her more than I had allowed to anyone in a long time, and what she saw was making her cry. She smiled as she wiped away her tears, and said, “I care because I understand you. I understand why you’re doing it, and I know now that if I stop, if I give up, I’ll never forgive myself. As much as I’ve helped, it’s only because I feel like I actually have a purpose beyond simply looking for the truth. More than that, I finally have context when I think of the world beyond what I’m used to. I have seen and heard incredible things; this place being the true testament to that. It is absolutely amazing, and people more so; yet I’m only here because of you. So please, stop blaming yourself for dragging me along; I came willingly, and I’ll follow you as long as I want.”

My mind and heart were divided. Everything I had learned through years of training myself to stay closed off, to avoid making connections, was being rewritten. My instincts were screaming for me to run, to leave her here where she’d get home safe and not have to worry about getting hurt or killed. But I wanted her with me, to protect me from myself and to give me hope when I had none. I needed her with me; that scared me more than anything. I wasn’t used to needing anyone. Now if I didn’t have her help I didn’t know what I would do. “I’m sorry. I’ve pushed you away so many times, and asked you to put up with my issues more than anyone should have to. But I promise that I won’t ever think that way again. I need you with me, and that’s hard for me to admit. Truthfully, I think I would have been worse off had you stayed on Earth. And yet, part of me still wishes you had. You’re confusing as hell, you know that?”

Amy laughed, a proper laugh I hadn’t heard since she beat me for the hundredth time at poker. “I’m ok with that. Now, shall we continue?”

We walked toward the direction of the information broker, this time with Amy’s arm wrapped around mine. It didn’t bother me, but it definitely kept me from concentrating as well as I’d have liked. I didn’t need the distraction, that’s for sure. But at the same time it was oddly comforting. I had always relied on myself and my own wits and skills to get me through a job alive. But now that wouldn’t be enough; I needed help. And it came, in the form of a woman I thought of as a silly girl on an adventure for the sake of itself. But now I needed her strength and compassion as much as I needed my wits.

The information broker didn’t work behind a desk like many other service providers; he worked out of his home office, a study with it’s own entrance on the side of his family’s house. It was obvious by the books and papers all about that this had indeed been a family business for quite some time. Leather-bound books filled with information on houses all over the planet and even a Coalition-made computer with information on goings on in the various alliances that had offices on the planet. He wasn’t a specialist in off-world information, but he obviously valued it highly. What I wanted from him was well within his realm of knowledge, for sure. “Hello? Can I help you?” A voice from inside the house asked.

“I’m looking for information, and I was told you were the best at finding it.”

“Hmph. A tall tale, likely, but I’ll take a little flattery. I’ve lived long enough to know that flattery is sometimes as good as the real thing, if you don’t look too hard.” The door opened, and what I saw was not what I expected. The Jitara behind it was old, at least as far as I could tell. The Jitara are hard to read. “My name is Ja’asa, and I’m the trader you’re looking for, human. Now, what is it you seek, and what compensation can you offer me?”

“I seek information on a certain individual, a human hidden by the Kinari somewhere on the planet, responsible for the violent deaths of hundreds of men, women, and children across the galaxy. His name is Jack Drabek, and at least one of the Kinari helping him is named Ka’anili. As payment, I can offer information on the galaxy as a whole as well as the whereabouts of the lost cave of the Kinari, burial place of the first Kinari king and the emperor of Ka’inas.”

The last piece of information shocked him; he tried to hide his curiosity, but failed miserably. He wanted to barter, but I knew I had him. I learned of the location years before after a survey ship I was on had done a scan of the planet and found a cave that had collapsed in the Meridian Mountain Range as it was known to off-worlders. The Jitara and the Kinari had both been searching for years, but none had found it. I bribed the scientist with a bottle of very old scotch and a suite in the best hotel on the resort planet Silia. All he had to do was fudge the data so the cave didn’t show up. I knew that the Jitara would value that information far more than money, and I’d need a favor from one of their infamous brokers one day.

“H-How? How did you come by this information?”

“I can’t tell you how, only that I did. I will personally fly you there to see for yourself if you don’t believe me. Now, help me out. What can you tell me?”

J’asa was taken aback, but he collected himself and turned to the computer. “I store all the information I collect on this. Powered by solar panels on the landing deck you came in on. I just use the books for the aesthetic. Let’s see... Here. All I have on your friend Drabek.”

I looked at the information on the screen. The computer was fairly old, and couldn’t interface with my PDA, so I had to input the data manually. It looked extensive, at least on the surface. Drabek was brought to Threed two years ago when the bombings started; clearly he anticipated someone would come looking for him, and he wanted to be gone by then. He didn’t count on the greed of some Kinari combined with the curiosity of the Jitara, though. It made hiding on Threed far more difficult. Still, the information was thin and a few months old. If he moved recently, it would take longer. At least I had somewhere to start, though. I put the coordinates, as well as survey data of the lost cave in Ja’asa’s computer, and said my goodbyes. Amy was slightly more reluctant to leave; his books, though outdated, were still incredible. Full of information on the city of As’ilath, the histories went back hundreds of years, and detailed everything from births and deaths to noteworthy sales and governmental decisions. I finally pulled her away long enough to get her mind back on track, and we left.

According to the information I received, Drabek was taken by a group of Kinari to the outskirts of a Kinari village known as A’elasi, on the other side of the planet. It would take three hours in our cramped little shuttle to get there, and it wasn’t a pleasant craft to fly in. At least it was warm and faster than on foot...

We left the broker and were on our way back to the shuttle when Amy demanded that we stop for a quick shopping spree. Since I wasn’t dressed well for a tropical planet and neither was she, I figured it might not be a bad idea. I went straight to a tailor while Amy looked around at the various shops selling everything from tourist trinkets to expensive jewelry made with rare stones made on Threed. I bought a pair of well crafted leather boots made from the hide a boar indigenous to the planet and a shirt with pants that would breathe much better than my leather jacket, which I had left in the shuttle. I dressed and met up with Amy, who laughed at my clothes at first before admitting that she was getting too warm herself. I showed her a tailor who wasn’t as likely to rip her off, and helped her pick out a light shirt with shorts that would keep her much cooler than her pants as well as a pair of hiking boots. I also saw a young girl selling a pair of gorgeous cloth gloves while Amy was changing, and bought a pair as a gift for Amy. She came out in her new outfit and I tried not to stare. The shorts were short and made of a breathable plant-based fabric, like most clothes worn on the Jitara side of the trees. The shirt fell fairly loosely around her but still didn’t help dispel the image I had stuck in my head. I shook my head and looked away, but I knew she noticed. She laughed at me and tossed me her old clothes, which we put with mine in the shuttle’s storage compartment.

We climbed in the spacious but stuffy vehicle and set the autopilot for the coordinates we needed, then sat down and stretched out in the seats. I pulled the gloves out of my pocket and threw them to her, and she picked them up immediately, staring at the intricate work in her hands. They were silk; made from the terrifyingly large spiders on Threed – light but incredibly tear-resistant silk – and a dye that changed color based on the light hitting it. In the dark they turned a deep purple, but in the sunlight they were a bright lavender color that sparkled whenever the light hit them just right. I thought she was going to cry for a second, but then she reached over and gave me a hug and a light kiss on the cheek. “Thank you! These are gorgeous!” She stared at them for a second before sliding them over her fingers. They fit perfectly, the silk stretching enough so they didn’t feel too tight, but also wouldn’t slip off. I laid back, trying to think of how I could find Drabek once we got to A’elasi. The Kinari wouldn’t be incredibly forthcoming, but they also wouldn’t harbor much loyalty for him. They’d give him up for the right price, or the right incentive. I just hoped I knew what that was. I closed my eyes to rest for just a few minutes, but when I opened them back up the sky outside the window had turned from bright blue to a shade of burning scarlet as the sun set on the horizon, dipping below the expanse of trees slowly but surely. I just stared out at the sunset, marveling at the beautiful colors, when Amy almost shouted from surprise. I looked over, and her gloves were glowing. The soft light of sunset was reflecting in her gloves, creating a warm glow that filled the entire cabin. We both stared and watched as the gloves turned from a soft orange, to red, then dimmed into purple as the light faded.

A’elasi was lit with artificial torches made from a bio-luminescent fungus found on the surface of Threed. Many plant and even animal species had developed either incredibly good night vision or some sort of biological lighting method to hunt and move around. The Kinari used fungus as well as chemical lanterns to light the pitch black darkness underneath the trees. We couldn’t land near the village due to dense vegetation, but we found a spot near a major river where the trees had been cut back a long time ago and the river banks used for landing vehicles. We got out and looked around at the deep dark of the jungle, creeping across the banks like spilled ink as the moon passed over. A few lights from the village were visible in the distance, deep in the darkness of the jungle; we headed that way hoping none of the local predators took us for meals. Not a few hundred yards from the outskirts a voice yelled at us. “Who goes there?” It asked in a loud, deep tone. I recognized it as belonging to a human, not a Kinari, as they usually had a much thicker accent when speaking anything but their native language.

“I’m a writer, here to do a story on the life of the Kinari,” Amy yelled. It was as good a cover as any, but it still wouldn’t hold up long. “I was told this village had the most Standard speakers on the Kinari side of the trees.” It was probably true; the Kinari here were playing host to a human fugitive, and did regular business with other species.

“Who told you that? We like our solitude, thanks. That’s why this place is as popular as it is with humans. Please, leave us alone.”

This time I spoke up. “We’re just here for research, not to pry. We want to know what makes this place so popular, and maybe use it in a story. Please, it will only take a day, at most.”

I heard some quieter conversation as the man spoke to another, farther away. Then he shouted “Ok, just for one day. You’ll have to sleep in your transport for the night, though. We don’t let people in at night. Too dangerous.”

“Understandable, thank you. Just let us know when you open your gates.”

“I will.”

With that we said our goodbyes and walked back toward the rental, a long night ahead of us. It took a while for me to fall asleep in the shuttle seat, as uncomfortable as it was, but Amy was out within minutes. I laid there, staring out the window at Threed’s moon, a bright blue ball in the sky bathing the jungle around me in a warm glow. I thought of home, laying on the beach in San Martelos and watching the moon as it traversed the sky and wondering if I’d ever get up there. Now here I was, running around the galaxy and finding almost nothing but more darkness the same as what I found in San Martelos. I learned quickly that just because we had reached other planets the life on Earth wouldn’t suddenly improve. It would take real, hard work to make the world a better place. So I gave up. I was afraid of staying on Earth and working my whole life for a goal I didn’t think would ever be achieved. I was lazy. Now, as I sat there in the shuttle on another planet, I realized that I had been doing what I was so afraid of in the first place: trying to make a difference in people’s lives. And I had somehow roped another person into doing the same thing, and I didn’t even ask. Eventually I drifted off, the light of the moon and the sound of Amy’s gentle breathing lulling me into a fitful sleep.

I woke up, the blinding sun shining through the window. Next to me the empty chair screamed in the back of my mind, but my conscious brain didn’t even register Amy’s disappearance. Instead I thought of Drabek, sitting in a house not a mile away. I imagined him in a chair, waiting patiently for me, a gun at his side, humming a depressing old tune. I looked around, and only then did I realize Amy wasn’t there. I opened the hatch in the side of the blocky shuttle and called for her, but no answer came. Stepping out of the transport, I looked around at the jungle ahead of me, noticing many things in the relative light of day that I hadn’t the night before. Most of all I noticed the walls around the village of A’elasi; a palisade of old wood held together with vines and sap. Behind that wall was the man I came for, and now I was worried that Amy was with him. Or worse.

I ran toward the gate, fear and anxiety rushing through my mind. Every possibility, every scenario played out in my head, one by one; I saw Amy being held as leverage, or being killed. The guard manning the gate saw me coming; a large Kinari that spoke with a thick accent and broken Standard. “You Darrow man? Woman inside, waiting. Come.” The gate swung open, but instead of a busy village I saw smoke pouring out of a few stone huts and a large town center completely deserted. “Third house on right. Knock three times. No more than three.”

I did as the Kinari instructed, and an old Kinari woman opened the door. She stood only five feet tall, but like most Kinari had a large frame and strong arms and legs. Old or not, she could still tear my arms off if I said something she didn’t like, so I tried to be as diplomatic as possible. “The guard told me to come. I’m looking for my friend, the writer.”

She smiled, a thin smile that hid her mistrust of off-world types well, but not well enough. “I know. My name is Li’siali, I’m the matron of this family. Your friend is right this way.” Li’siali led me down a hallway that sloped gently into the ground; it was obvious most of the house was underground, with just the entrance above ground. I had heard of large Kinari families building this way; I had never thought I’d see it for myself. After the hall curved back toward the hut we came into a large room, with a few halls branching off in different directions. The room went up at least ten feet into a dome, built out of stone and brick around the edge. There was a fireplace set in one wall, with a chimney to release the smoke and another pipe leading to the surface. In the middle of the room sat a large table, with a single bench all the way around, occupied by several Kinari and a few humans, none of them Amy. I turned to Li’siali, who pointed down one of the hallways then dragged me over to the table to introduce me to a few of her family. There was Hi’erai, her son; Li’kai, her daughter; and her mate, Hi’suri. The names of the children in Kinari tribes follow their parents, with the first part of their name coming from their parent of the same gender and the second part an amalgam of their tribal name and family history. All Kinari are taught to value the lessons of their ancestors, and the “surname” is developed over many generations, constantly evolving in keeping with the family story. The three humans were traders, the traditional kind, who wanted to obtain seeds of the tree from which the Kinari in their weapons. Strong but hard, the wood was akin to steel in its usefulness but felt like oak in one’s hands. The humans, two man and a woman, excused themselves from the table and walked back into a back room.

“We are pleased to have visitors, but now you must understand that maybe we have too many. Still, you must stay and eat our midday meal with us. It is our pleasure, and tradition in our family.” Li’siali spoke Standard very well, especially for a Kinari. I told her as such, and she laughed. “Yes, we learned. Unlike many Kinari, our family believes that learning from outsiders is valuable, and they are to be respected and befriended, not feared or mistrusted. That is not to say we are not careful, but we never let our caution override our desire for understanding. Your friend is in the back room, a private area, speaking with my father. He is old, but he is also the wisest Kinari in A’elasi. He has much knowledge to share for your friend to write about. And I doubt many here would be as gracious. Sit, please.”

I sat down, and she poured me a bowl of some kind of stew. The vegetables were different, but were simple root vegetables similar to potatoes and carrots. They were sweet yet light, and balanced the Goala boar meat well. Along with the stew she served a beverage she said was made from fermented fungus; I was hesitant at first but after a few swallows I couldn’t get enough. It was slightly sweet, slightly tart, and full of spices which she said were grown in their garden and used to combat the cloying nature of the fungus. More amazing, though, was the color; made from the bio-luminescent fungus that grows under the tree cover, the beverage was a muted green but as the cup warmed in my hands it began to glow. I thanked her for the meal, and eventually Amy and her interviewee came out to see what all the fuss was about. Her eyes lit up and she threw her arms around me for a moment before sitting down to eat, and gobbled up her stew with gusto. She had the same reaction I did to her drink, but after I assured her it was in fact safe, she gulped almost all of it down in a few seconds. We sat for a while and talked to the family; they shared stories of their family history and Amy and I talked about what we knew of our own families, which for me wasn’t much. I told them about my childhood, growing up in a terrible area of Earth and the family I made with the militia. If I didn’t know better, I thought Li’siali was going to cry for a moment. The Kinari value family above everything; wars were rare but fights between families were common on Threed. Li’siali was able to trace her family back to the first Kinari to settle in the forest, over thirty thousand years before. Hi’suri was the same; he traced his lineage to the founding of A’elasi with ease. When the conversation turned to our more immediate lives, Amy and I were trying to be discreet, but we felt terrible lying to them; instead we simply gave a vague idea. They were curious, but not so much so as to start prying, which I was thankful for.

“Now we’re here; she for her story and me to try to save the galaxy. Though I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to do here.”

“Oh, I think I know,” said Hi’suri. “I know a way you can help everyone.”

“How’s that?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“There’s a human in this village, being protected by some of our neighbors in exchange for your forbidden technology. He’s a very bad person, and obviously here trying to escape your laws. I don’t know what he did, but he’s afraid.”

I had hoped to ask the family about Drabek, see if they knew anything about him or Ka’inili. This was so much easier.

“I had heard something about a terrorist here; that’s why I’m here. I just didn’t think I’d be able to find him. I came here because it was the first Kinari village I knew of. Do you know where he is?”

Li’siali spoke up this time. “I do. I speak with the woman who protects him, quite often. She’s become more defensive lately, more hostile. I’m worried that she’s doing something she’ll regret.”

I stood up from the table, and Amy turned a bit to watch me, her eyes narrowed. “If you could point me in the direction of your neighbor, I would be most grateful. If that would be difficult or put you into a bad position, I understand.”

Hi’suri stood up, and pointed toward the hallway leading out. “Come, I’ll show you. Just please, be quiet and try not to hurt anyone. These are good people, I know it, and I doubt they know what they got themselves into.”

I followed Hi’suri outside, where he pointed in the direction of a house nearly against the palisades on the opposite side of the village; I thanked him and started walking. So close. I knew I was almost there, but I had to get everything right. It wouldn’t do just to kill him and be done; he needed to be arrested and put on trial in front of the Coalition’s highest criminal courts where he could get justice and everyone would know it. More importantly, I needed the names of the people who bought his weapons and if I got lucky, his connection to Devereux. Still, it wouldn’t be easy, not by any stretch. He was a cornered animal, more dangerous than ever, and he had a whole house full of potential hostages. I heard Amy’s voice behind me, calling for me to wait. Once she caught up she asked me what my plan was.

“Walk in and arrest him. He’s coming out alive, and he’s telling me everything. Then I’m going to arrest your father and put him in prison for the rest of his life, as long as it might be.”

She thought about that for a moment, but her pace never slowed and she didn’t miss a step. She was as committed as I was. The house we needed was a large one, obviously very little of it was below ground. There was also evidence of technology, the kind you can’t get your hands on outside the Coalition unless you know just the right people. This was the house, and these people were in trouble. Suddenly I felt sick; I was worried about the family inside and what Drabek might do to them when I went in. At the front door I stopped knocking twice and waiting for a response. “Who’s there?” came the challenge, and I simply stayed silent. When the door finally opened, a small Kinari stood there, watching me and Amy for any sort of clue.

“I’m a merchant, far from home, looking for an old friend. He said he was staying here, and I need to speak to him quickly. He’s in danger. Please, let me in.”

The boy watched me for a moment, then swung the door open. In an instant I took it all in; a large room, not unlike the great room in Li’siali’s house, with stairways going down on one and a hallway in the back. At the table sat a family of Kinari, eating their midday meal. I didn’t see Drabek, but I knew he was there. I walked in, held up my badge in the hopes that they would understand, then told them all to leave. The patriarch of the family stood, but he didn’t leave. Instead he motion for his mate and children to leave the house, which they did, though reluctant to leave their meal still on the table. Once we were alone, I told the Kinari who I was, and that if he wanted to avoid trouble he should leave. He refused, standing with his arms at his sides and waiting for me to make a move. The Kinari are stronger, pound for pound, than human men, by a factor of around six. I couldn’t take him down, not in a million years, and he knew it. Luckily for me, Amy was less timid. She pulled out a can of Mace, the old name given to a relatively modern chemical mix of muscular paralytics and capsaicin, designed to incapacitate people quickly and somewhat painfully before locking up their muscles so they can’t move. Unfortunately, it was designed for use on humans, not Kinari, so when she unloaded the whole can into his face, it barely slowed him down. He came at me like a damn freight train, at least 350 pounds of muscle and bone, and I did the only thing I could do: I pushed Amy out of the way, moved at the last second and stuck my foot out. He went down like a sack of potatoes, only barely stopping himself before his face hit the floor. At that point the paralytic started to take effect, and he had a hard time pushing himself to his feet. I swung once, and hard, hoping his face wasn’t as tough as the rest of him. The punch landed with a heavy crunch, but he barely moved. His eyes were bright red and tears were pouring down his face, but he came at me anyway, so I tried a swift kick in the leg to try to create some distance. It worked, barely, and by the time he stood upright again I threw a jab into his nose and heard a crack as his fragile nasal cavity caved and he started howling in pain. The paralytic was working well enough at that point that he was barely able to stumble outside before collapsing to the ground.

I turned back to the stairwell at the side of the room; I knew Drabek was down there. And he knew I was upstairs. I hit the stairs running, taking them half a flight at a time. The door at the bottom didn’t last long, as I put my shoulder into it and the frame splintered. No one. An empty bedroom, likely the parents’, and a single small sitting area. Drabek wasn’t there. I thought about where he could be; the bedrooms up stairs? Why would he stay up there? Maybe a hidden room down here... My concentration was broken by a scream, Amy’s scream, calling my name. I burst back through the door and ran up the stairs to find Drabek, holding Amy around the neck and a gun to her head. Then it got worse.

I panicked, my hand jumping to my gun before I got myself under control and pulling it out of the holster. I thought for sure that she was dead, that Drabek had seen me and put a bullet in her head before I could draw; instead, he just laughed. “Marshal. So good of you to finally come. I’ve been waiting for days! I thought you had me when I heard you at the gate, but the guard told me you returned to your vehicle. So good of you to follow the rules. Now drop the gun or I drop the girl. Your choice.”

I didn’t need to think, I just dropped the gun and kicked it away. “I don’t want this to end badly, Drabek, but I have to arrest you. I need that information in your head, and you’re going to give it to me. Just let her go, and this can go easily. We may even be able to avoid a massive trial in front of the Coalition. You could get a nice padded cell in a deep space prison where they let you have a little exercise and even a semblance of dignity. Your choice. But either way, you’re coming back with me.”

Amy was squirming, fighting as much as she could against him, but his grip was too strong. She kicked him and punched whatever she could, but he just pulled tighter and squeezed her neck. No matter what, this situation was going to end soon, and I didn’t want it to end on his terms. “Jack. Calm down. This doesn’t have to end badly for you. But you’re stuck. You can’t go anywhere, so just let her go and give yourself up.”

Drabek thought for a minute, but I could tell he wasn’t ready to go. He knew what would happen, no matter what I promised, and he didn’t want to deal with that. He closed his eyes for a second and my PDA chirped loudly, indicating priority messaging. I opened the message in the corner of my HUD, and dozens of files popped up; people, places, weapons. All his files, as far as I could tell. All except one. Nothing on Devereux, at least not from what my PDA could tell. “Thanks, Jack. That’s great. Just one question: what is your connection to Councilor Devereux?”

Amy’s eyes went wide, but she couldn’t say anything through her ragged breathing. I forwarded her the information I got from Drabek, then asked him again. “What do you know about Devereux?”

Drabek laughed. “I know the guy. Real pleasant character. But if you’re wondering about some connection between him and I, or my people, that’s privileged information. I’m going to need your guarantee that you can get me off this planet alive.”

“That’s the plan. I wasn’t exactly planning on killing you or letting you die. So come on, let’s get going and get you off this planet and back to Earth. You’ll get there, I promise.”

He didn’t exactly relax, but he let go of Amy’s neck and lowered his gun a bit. “Well, then, Marshal. Let’s go.” He turned to walk out the door, but before he got there he froze. His eyes went wide then his chest exploded, blood and bone painting the wall behind him and covering Amy in viscera. I ran over and pulled him away from the door, but he was dead already. I did the only thing I could think of and used my PDA to search his body for nanites. When I found his body flooded with the little critters, I sent a command to them to do a data dump. Unfortunately when he died his brain probably overloaded with chemicals and caused a short in the chips in his head, but I took my chances. Amy took cover behind the window and tossed me my gun from beside her, but before I could get somewhere safe I heard a voice calling out. A familiar voice, for sure.

“Come on out, Darrow. You and Amy. Slow, and leave your weapon.” I holstered my gun behind my back, but Amy had nowhere to put hers so she dropped it. I wasn’t about to step in front of the door, but before I could talk to Amy she stood up and walked out the door.

“Hello, father. What could you possibly want here?”

I ran out the door to see the village completely destroyed. The huts were rubble and the walls torn down, the citizens on their knees with guns pointed at their heads. “Councilor? What the hell are you doing here?”

Devereux smiled at me, cold and uncaring. “I’m here for your protection, of course. I was brought here by a Coalition security escort to make sure the job finished and get the files. I heard everything, and my guys feared he was going to kill you so they took the shot when they could. So glad we could get out of here with everyone in one piece.” The snake actually thought he could get away with it, and I was afraid he was right. I got a chirp from my PDA and checked. The files he had stored in the storage chip in his head were mostly complete, so I sent a copy to Amy, just in case, while my PDA attempted to decrypt the information.

“Thank you so much councilor, but you don’t have to hurt any of the Kinari here. They’re good people. Just let us go with you and leave these people alone. You’ve done enough damage.”

“But they helped hide a fugitive. They’re criminals.”

“Not even you are that stupid, Councilor. They’re not in the Coalition, and they’re not to blame. Just let them go.”

The commander of the security detail said something into his comm and the rest of the soldiers disengaged and let the Kinari up. They scattered, heading into the trees or back to their homes, if they still had them. I knew Devereux wouldn’t kill Amy, but I didn’t know what he would do to me. So I transferred a copy of the files to Amy’s PDA and waited for him to make his move. “So, what now, Councilor?”

“Did you learn the identities of his contacts?”

“I did. No thanks to your trigger happy shooter. I got a few dozen personnel files; sloppy, really. He shouldn’t have had access to that many names. Still, it’s good for us. I already uploaded the files to the Coalition military servers; they’ll start making arrests any time now.”

Devereux eyed me carefully. He wanted to know if I found the evidence of his involvement, and if I had uploaded it as well. But asking would be an admission of it’s existence. So I just returned his looked with a stone face. The soldiers with him were good, but they were also loyal to the military. They wouldn’t shoot me just because he asked, so he needed an excuse. And I wasn’t about to give him one.

“So, Councilman. What now? Are you here to escort us back to Earth? Or ensure your continued freedom?”

“Whatever do you mean, Marshal? I’m here to ensure my daughter’s safety, that’s all.”

Without warning, half a dozen of the soldiers around the village turned and opened fire. Within a fraction of a second the lieutenant and the sergeant were dead and Devereux was smiling broadly. He had paid them off, and I was fucked.

The air was still and thick with smoke and death. I was a few seconds from cover in any direction and these guys were crack shots. Amy would survive, and so would the data; at least, I hoped she would. I watched the soldiers nearest Devereux; they were waiting for a signal to kill me, and he was all to willing to give it. Ah, hell. I’d hoped to live longer than this. Still, nothing to do now but bring the final act to a close and see who makes the epilogue.

I pulled my pistol quickly, and cracked off two shots into the nearest soldier. His armor caught the first bullet, but the second one smacked him in the leg, sending him sprawling on the ground and screaming. The soldier to my right clicked his safety off and fired a pair of controlled shots, one pinging off the stones beside me and the second hitting my coat and embedding itself in the nanoweave. They weren’t expecting the armor, so I took advantage and turned so my back faced most of them, pulling my pistol up and firing a shot into the second soldiers shoulder. The armor stopped the bullet but the force threw off his aim so his second burst slapped my jacket again in the shoulder and arm. I felt the sting, but I didn’t care at the moment. I saw Amy in the corner of my eye, pulling her own weapon just in time to have it slapped away by her father, who grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the ship. I spun while firing, feeling six more impacts in my back slowed by the jacket to a less than lethal, but still incredibly painful, velocity. Sprinting toward Amy and her father, I stopped only when he pulled his pistol with his off hand and pointed it at my face. Time slowed to a crawl, and I saw everything at once; Amy screamed at her father while he took aim, and the last four soldiers quickly reacted, leveling their barrels at my head. I saw Amy crying and felt the sting of a bullet scrape by my scalp. The next bullet hit my neck, and the last one I barely felt as it thudded against my jacket at my chest. The world spun, and I thought only of Amy and the night we spent in each others’ arms. The world faded to the sounds of crying and screaming, of soldiers’ weapons’ cracking, and my heart’s final thud against my chest.

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