Human. Alone. Hunted.
Tony Saviano's only ally is the unlikely love of his life.
When a lowly engine tech from a rust-bucket freighter finds himself the target for multiple assassination attempts, the race is on -- to find out who's after him, and why. To keep of out harm's way, fighting for his own life as well as thousands of people on a distant colony world.
Luck never favored Tony before the Dorellan cargo-hauler Ursago came to a half-forgotten rural spaceport on Amelos. In this galaxy, mankind is marginalized, disdained, often used. Now, Tony has one stroke of incredible good fortune: the love of his life -- brawny, beautiful, tech savvy, and as half-barbarian as his forefathers, Kenzana Emetral Betru. Tru for short.
Together, they're a single jump ahead of sudden death, while the reason lies buried in Tony's wilful human memory. When the facts are winkled out, it's "game on" for a survival run among alien races, through alien systems, where time becomes the toughest enemy, friends are scarce ... and old-fashioned love is one of the keys to victory.
A knock-down, drag-out, planet-hopping romp in the spirit of Science Fiction's Golden Age.
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The trouble with Dorellan environment suits was, they didn't quite fit humans. With too-long arms, too-short legs and girth designed to accommodate an outsized gut, the suit gaped like a bag around a slender human frame. Tony Saviano had never considered himself scrawny, but he had cinched the suit down with three extra bungees, taped the arms above the elbows, and chosen a pair of massively oversize boots to get a reliable seal below his knees. The arrangement made him so clumsy, a simple task took risk factors he didn't relish; and a job like this became a nightmare.
He'd never liked working in suits, but in his thirty-four years he hadn't acknowledged the tendency to claustrophobia till he clambered into one of these. Still, any tech spent far too much time in environments too corrosive, toxic or oxygen poor to permit humans to work at all. A 'fixologist' got into the habit of suits early, or else got out of the job.
The access conduit had been designed for bots, not humans, nor even Dorello. If the tube were designed to fit one of Captain Ghast's people, Tony would have slithered through without a problem, but this pipe had a diameter so meager, not even the most sylphlike of Ghast's crew could fit into it. As for bots -- the last went intermittent ten days before, and at this distance from a licensed dealership, warranty automatically voided itself. Service centers appeared to be nonexistent, replacement parts no more than a daydream.
The fantasy mocked Tony as he wormed through the conduit, pushing with both outsized boots, hauling himself hand over hand, up a pipe tack-welded to the inside of the access tube. Years of heavy vibration had worked the pipe loose; those welds were older than Tony, and he felt another give way as he pulled his weight against it. Loose edges sprang out, jagged, sharp as razors.
Any of them could slice through the ridiculous suit, which looked to be even older than the welds. Tony Saviano would end his short, ridiculous life right now, right here, eight meters up a service conduit in the ass-end of a Dorellan freighter, parked in a forgotten corner of a rundown spaceport on a planet nobody in the real galaxy ever heard of.
Sweat stung his eyes, prickled his ribs, and he swore fluently. His own breath rasped in his ears over the open com. He found himself absurdly grateful to hear Ringo's harsh, booze-pickled voice:
"Hey, Tony, you okay in there, kid?"
"No, I'm not bloody okay," Tony informed him, panting when he wished he had the breath to snarl. Not that any of this could be deemed old Ringo Rutecki's fault. If blame fell to anyone, it fell on Ghast himself. The skipper knew his four maintenance bots were shot to hell, but buying refurbished units seemed beyond the captain's understanding; and as for laying in enough components to keep four aged machines in working order ?
"You snagged your suit?" Ringo bleated.
Bless the old man, he sounded genuinely concerned. Tony reined back on his temper and reached down with a gloved hand, feeling along hip, thigh, knee, where a rip would open up, the moment he did snag fabric.
"Not yet." He took a moment to catch his breath. "I'm almost there, Pop. How's she looking?"
At three times Tony's age, Ringo cut an odd figure: almost as thick around the middle as Ghast and his crew, half-blind and fuddle-headed after too many years up to his armpits in chemistry as toxic to humans as to Ghast's folk. But no other human worked on the freighter Ursago.
Like Tony, Technician First Class Rutecki spoke the common tongue of Earth, and remembered the old world, the old people. Only Ringo reminded Tony of his humanity, his home; and only Ringo had ever been friendly toward the Irdnan, as Dorello called them.
Their mouths would not pronounce the word 'Earthman,' and the way they said Irdnan made it sound like the insult it probably was. Dorello made no secret of the fact they scorned humans, but those with skills like Tony's could be useful in tight spots. They were cheap to hire, he thought cynically, since they were frequently desperate --
And if such humans should perish this far from home, nobody asked questions. In fact, he admitted as he tugged himself to the service hatch and fumbled for his tools, no authority in the homeworlds would have investigated the death of Anthony L. Saviano III, even if he'd died on Earth itself.
"Too many of us, that's our problem," he muttered as he got a lever under the hatch and wriggled it loose.
"Whatchya say, now?" Ringo rasped in his ear.
"Talking about humans," Tony told him as he fetched the replacement L44 unit from the pack strapped to his chest.
"Too many of us on Amelos?" Ringo demanded. "You gotta be kiddin' me. Buggered if I can think of another one on this shitty planet, 'sept you an' me."
"Back home, I mean." Tony wished he could wipe the sweat out of his eyes as he peered at the old, corroded L44. It had fused firmly into place, surrounded by a mess of silver-gray blisters which would eat the flesh from his fingers if he touched them barehanded.
Ringo snorted rudely. "Home? An' where would that be?"
"Earth?" Tony suggested, plucking a tool from the pouch at his waist.
Again, the rude snort. "Can't hardly even remember the place," Ringo said darkly, though his tone carried a thread of nostalgia belying the words. "Got outta there more'n fifty year ago. Never went back. Never had no reason to. You forget. Wait till you's been out here long enough. 'Earth' is just a sound in your ear that most folks can't even say right."
Earthman. Tony applied the crab-claw wrench and twisted hard against the L44 joint, but it had cemented itself in place with its own bubbling corrosion. Irdnan. Not a term of endearment. Humans weren't good enough for the Dorello in any social sense. Their culture was too different, incompatible. But freighter captains would always sign on a human. Useful. Expendable. Cheap.
Cheaper than bots, or the spare parts to keep work bots functioning, Tony thought, and anger gave him the extra strength to move the frozen joint. He swore as it came loose, juggled it between clumsy gloves designed to fit a creature with seven fingers of very different lengths. Cursing easily, fluently, in several languages while he cleaned up the socket, he exchanged the old unit for the new.
"Okay, give it a kick, Ringo. See if it's working," he called tiredly.
Time had slithered away. He'd been on duty over sixteen hours already -- his downtime officially began four hours ago, right before the module in the fuel regulation system died. Without the engine idling, the Ursago must fall back on storage cells, and in twenty hours, red warning lights would pepper Captain Ghast's cockpit. Moments later, the skipper would glare at Tony Saviano and Ringo Rutecki, aim a long, accusing finger, and dump the pair of them at the next spaceport where he could hire replacements.
Being dumped in the port of Barazoz without severance pay or references would be dire news for any crew, and worse for humans. Ships from all ten space-trading races used the docking and fueling facilities, but only the Dorello would, or could, hire humans. The others were hydrogen breathers, or native to the kind of gravity loading under which Tony and Ringo couldn't even stand up for long, or kept their cabin temperature hot enough to roast humans, or maintained a breathing mix high enough in ammonia to strip human lungs.
Ships out of Earth seldom used Barazoz. Work on the docks could be tough to get, when one didn't possess the robustness of the high-G folk, couldn't tolerate harsh temperatures at either end of the scale, and atmospheres so acid, they scoured the lungs. And without work, a ticket out as a passenger represented another mirage.
Only Dorello shared environmental needs similar enough to make humans useful, even if they were socially despised. So Tony wedged himself and his ridiculous suit into the service conduit and yawned, waiting for Ringo to see the fuel regulators come back online, four hours after he should have been cleaned up, dressed in his best, with a beer in one hand and some friendly Amelosi in the other.
Ringo liked to call Amelos 'the ass-end of space,' because the native folk were decades, even centuries, away from developing tech of their own ... but the people here were friendly, Tony thought charitably. They at least breathed the same air. Their gravity was comparable, their star pleasant. Humans could even eat their food, though it tasted odd, with a coppery tang.
And the Amelosi shared humankind's passion for games of chance. Tony should be out there right now, watching the big wheel spin, waiting on the next turn of the machekot tiles ?
"Ain't workin', kid," Ringo told him tersely. "Give it a kick."
By which he meant, grope for the crab-claw wrench, take the unit right out of the socket, clean the fitting again, clean the unit, put it back in. Tony groaned soundlessly, gritted his teeth and gave the job the twelve minutes it demanded before he barked,
"Any joy, Ringo? Because if it's not working this time --"
"You're good," Ringo yawned. "Come on outta there ... an' mind yourself on them busted welds!"
Because even after a thorough purging before service work commenced, the environment in the conduit remained so toxic, so corrosive, exposure would land any human in the medical unit for a month ... if a medical unit, credentialed to treat humans, could be found. Tony knew of none in this part of Amelos, nor in the ship's next port of call. Vessels out of Earth avoided Barazoz for good reason.
As usual, so far from home, the Irdnan was on his own. Or her own, he allowed. Ten months ago, the Ursago briefly numbered a third human among its complement, a qualified loader, Cher Hendry -- the savvy kind, always on the lookout for a better ride. The last Tony saw of her, they were jostling in some fleapit port on the wrong side of Montego. Cher hooked up with the pilot of a frontier courier, and jumped her contract with the Ursago to leave aboard a Terran Trade Commission ship.
She wouldn't find it easy to get another berth on a Dorellan vessel -- then again, Tony admitted as he clambered down the conduit and fed himself out into Ringo's little engineering compartment, Cher Hendry wasn't likely to be back this way. Not when she'd scored with a human ship, and forged a partnership with a pilot like Shaz Yoshida.
"Onward and upward," Tony growled as he dropped out onto Ringo's filthy deck. He shuffled deliberately into the decon cubicle, and spread arms and legs to let the high-pressure steam blast the crud off the suit.
Getting out of the thing was as bad as getting into it. Sixty seconds in decon, and he found himself fumbling with oversized gloves, picking at the tape he'd used to hold up the sleeves.
"Onward, like where?" Ringo brandished his old fashioned bowie knife -- not as old as it looked, but easily twice as useful -- and began to slice through the swatches of black duct tape sealing the tops of ill-filling boots.
"Anywhere," Tony said gloomily. He groaned as he got the gloves off, dropped the helmet onto a cluttered bench and knuckled his eyes. "I just gotta get out, Ringo. Just a couple hours, before I go nuts."
The old man looked up doubtfully from Tony's left boot. "You ain't got time, kid. We lift in six hours, an' nuthin' in this universe'll make Ghast wait for you, if you's late."
Because Captain Ghast could sign another like Tony Saviano in any port. They were twenty to the credit: desperate, hungry, broke. Tony might be a certified Technician First Class, but 'fixologists' were commonplace everywhere, anywhere. Colleges from Mumbai to Yokohama churned them out by the legion every year. And then?
Work was the real fantasy, Tony decided. Ringo had been lucky to get out five decades ago, before the real fun started. "Just a few hours," he promised, kicking off the suit, which ran wet outside with decon chemistry, wet inside with his own sweat. He needed a shower, fresh air, anything for a break, before the Ursago plowed back into space, bound for Barazoz, where a human, an Irdnan, could barely breathe the air or stand up under the gravity load.
Ringo watched him strip to the skin and dump his clothes into the hamper. The old man didn't judge or appraise. He'd been out here long enough for any human to be just that. Human. Good, bad, beautiful, butt-ugly, stupid, smart, rich, poor, Ringo saw none of these qualities. His weak eyes peered at a naked human being and saw merely a creature like himself: fragile, vulnerable, lost in an alien millrace where the social values of Earth were so far away, so limited and limiting, they seemed preposterous.
So Tony had glossy brown skin, because his father came from much warmer islands than Vestmannaeyjar; so he grew up liking guys, not girls; even fully grown, he remained lean and wiry, like his mother's people. His alma mater was unremarkable, his diploma a bare scramble-through pass, his family history checkered, his employment history questionable. Back on Earth, all this constituted more than enough to keep him in the camps till he expired of sheer old age. But out here ...
Who cared what Earthmen thought or liked or did? The Chukutzu had four genders, never mind two, and couldn't begin to grasp whatever 'heterosexuality' meant. The last hundred generations of Dorello were batch-bred in community incubators and educated in a virtual ocean of virtual information where virtual reality completely replaced school, college, workshop. Folk like Ghast sneered at a diploma from a 'chalk and talk shop' in a camp where resources were so meager, kids like Tony did their training in theory and went hands on' for a few scant weeks before graduation. The Ptalnshi were green skinned at birth and gradually matured to every shade of blue, mauve and royal purple between infancy and old age. They laughed disgustedly when they discovered humans' tendency to oppress and abuse whole races over minor differences in what shade of brown they happened to be born ?
"Onward and upward?" Ringo chuckled. "Shit, kid, I dunno where you get them ideas! Where you from, anyway?"
Tony sighed as he searched through his locker for fresh denims, underwear, a shirt. In lieu of a shower, since he had seriously run out of time, he spritzed himself thoroughly with cologne. "You keep asking, I keep telling, then that booze brain of yours keeps forgetting." He gave Ringo an amused, indulgent look as he thrust his legs into the jeans. "Vestmannaeyjar. Remember? Iceland."
"The camps," Ringo said thoughtfully. "Yeah, I recall now. Refugee or somethin', wasn't it?"
"Yep. Iceland. Only place that'd give survivors dry ground to live on, after the storms of '47. They all went there, in my grandparents' day," Tony said philosophically. Ringo blinked curiously at him as if he'd never heard all this before, though he'd heard it several times. Booze did evil things to the human brain. Sighing again, Tony went on, "Thousands of survivors headed west in anything they could keep afloat. They put out from towns right down the Atlantic coast of Europe, especially lowlands, where the storms hit 'em worst --
"My grandparents'd been contract labor in the Netherlands, they could only walk away from the wreckage. The rest, generations of us ... born right there in Vestmannaeyjar. Folks grow up in the camps, grow old and die there." He pulled a pale blue teeshirt over his head, tucked it into his jeans. "That's the way it is."
"Back home," Ringo said doubtfully.
Not words Tony would have chosen. "You were lucky to get out when you did, Pop. There's Earth for you: we poisoned her till the folks who 'stay home' are suffocating. But out here, our kind are nobody, nothing. Humans? We get by on scavenged tech, don't own the credits to impress anybody."
"Poor folks," Ringo muttered, looking away.
"Just ... human." Tony dropped a hand on the old man's shoulder. "Hey, some of us made it out. You and me, for a start."
"Hop a Dorellan freighter, don't never go back." Ringo poked around in his tool chest, produced a green glass bottle of Old Kirkpatrick, half full and begging to be empty.
"You pays your money, you takes your chance," Tony agreed. "What, you telling me you regret it? Don't gimme any of that, Ringo! You've seen more of this galaxy than any ten other guys I know, including the Dorello."
The booze roughened Ringo's voice. "Regrets? Nah. Coulda wished to own me own ship, but it wasn't never gonna happen. M'too old now, so ... what the hell?" He toasted Tony in bourbon. "If you's gonna grab a few hours, best get goin'. Me, I'll just cozy up wi' this, take me own downtime in Barazoz."
Tony snorted with acerbic laughter. "In that atmosphere, that gravity? Rather you than me!" He hunted through his wallet, found enough in the odd, garish scrip of three local systems to get himself a decent meal, a drink, even buy into a game, if he embraced the concept of restraint. "See you soon. If Ghast comes down here asking for me, tell him I stepped out for some air. I'll be back before you upship." He snatched a jacket from the tool chest, heading for the hatch as he spoke.
He felt Ringo's eyes on him as he hurried forward, but the old man had the bottle in both hands now. In another hour Ghast might be lucky to rouse him. As usual, Ringo should be snoring peacefully before the Ursago headed for space, which suited Tony. The escapee from Vestmannaeyjar Camp D could tend the freighter's cantankerous old engines in his sleep, while Ringo had lately grown more likely to dither, confuse himself and just get in the way.
The side hatch opened onto a warm, star-sprinkled night. The air crackled, sharp with wood smoke from the town, synthetic fuels closer at hand on the landing field, and the peaty aroma of the boggy lowlands on the south side. Waterfowl called from the nesting grounds there with thin, keening voices. Tony turned up his collar, though the night was warm enough, thrust both hands into his pockets and began to hustle.
He had a date with the big wheel ... a plate of real food, even if it did taste odd, coppery, washed down with a few shots of something local, like a cross between rye and gin. If the goddess of fortune should take his side, he might even score an hour or two in one of the rooms over the bar, where the Amelosi hustlers came in every size, shape, gender, temperament -- and shade of green.
Just then, Tony had a taste for something around his own age, maybe a hand's span taller, bigger through the shoulders, with the dark gold hair of the northern Amelosi, and their gorgeous, glossy emerald skin. Four times in the last trading year, the Ursago had landed here to offload one cargo, take on another. Four times in this port, he'd hooked up with the same Amelosi guy and had a time so fine, he wanted much more.
With a glance at the rising moons, he knew exactly where Betru should be. He quickened his pace, jogging east across the stained, cracked landing field, doglegging between the few freighters laying over in the ramshackle, backcountry port of Jiva.
Beyond a narrow margin of low scrubland, the lights of town danced invitingly along the edge of the plascrete wasteland, marking the line where indigenous blurred into alien.
The hour before midnight, the Red Rooster was doing good business. A new sign swung over the door, emblazoned with what appeared to be a crimson lizard with crests of feathers from skull to tail. Close enough to a rooster to call it one, Tony decided, and certainly the locals considered the reptile's eggs a delicacy. He couldn't read the Amelosi language, but the chip in his head translated the name, which native speakers pronounced kushkuck, apparently onomatopoeic, for the creature's voice. The Amelosi tongues were full of such words, some of which humans found amusing.
Their term for 'booze' was glugg. Tony could never hear it without a smile. Plenty of glugg flowed in the Rooster as he stepped in through double doors, where a towering bouncer demanded to see his money before he would let an offworlder inside. Tony flourished a fistful of diverse scrip and shouldered by, headed for the bar.
Four Dorello perched on the stools there: humanoid enough for the term to be accurate though the details often left humans speechless: short legs, long arms, massive shoulders, the capacious belly of a creature with three stomachs and the massive jaw to support pulverizing the vegetables that had been their natural food a quarter million years ago; seven digits, dusky skin the color of khaki, wide amber eyes with catlike pupils. Modern Dorello were no longer arboreal, but the physical characteristics persisted. Their females preferred males with shoulders so wide, they went sideways through a door; and apparently, the bigger the belly, the heavier the jaw, the more masculine the guy. It seemed unlikely the ancestral form would change any time soon.
At least Dorellan biology fell close enough to the human and Amelosi for them to share the same atmosphere, get drunk on the same glugg. Seated beside them, the Cobrana crew appeared lethargic, overburdened, as Tony would have expected. They towered over humans and Dorello, but their limbs were beyond slender: fragile, feeble, designed for their own low-grav homeworld, and a powerful disadvantage here. The Cobran wore nasal tubes feeding them supplementary hydrogen and methane, and still looked sleepy in the oxygen-rich Amelosi environment; and they bundled themselves into thermal suits, from the chin down to wrists and ankles.
Still, their long, mournful faces turned pleasantly toward Tony; wide red eyes blinked in the Cobrana version of a smile of greeting, which he returned in kind. He'd always found the blue-hued, fragile Cobran pleasant company. As a race, they seemed to make few enemies and many allies. Humans had traded with them for over a century -- mankind's critics liked to say only Cobrana tech had brought humans out here at all, and those critics were far from wrong. Tony often wished an Irdnan might work on Cobrana vessels, but the environment would soon damage a human.
The rest of the Rooster's midnight crowd consisted of several rowdy gangs of assorted locals, reluctantly willing to make the likes of Tony Saviano welcome here, if only for his cash. Unlike the physically daunting and arrogant Dorello, and the Cobran -- flimsy, extremely long-lived and slow, slow breeders with no apparent libido most of the time -- the Amelosi were comfortably familiar to any human.
Even the smallest stood above average human height, but proportionally they had something that spoke to an Irdnan, said, 'Hi, cousin.' They were bi-gendered, comparatively long-lived; and those who hung out around places like Jiva Field, where the offworld freighters landed, had begun to leave behind the archaic ways of their people.
Three gyrobikes stood parked outside the Rooster's door, alongside two pickup trucks, battered, rusted, belonging to local farms. Not too shabby, Tony thought, for a community where most people still rode mokes, drove mokes in harness, plowed fields with mokes. He had nothing against the indigenous animal, which to his eyes might have been a hybrid between horse and llama. But given the choice, he'd have taken the electric blue bike in the employees' parking bay, the one with the panniers and gooseneck high beams. And he knew who it belonged to.
Betru was working here tonight, not out on the town. He paused to give Tony a wave as he spotted him at the bar. Tony waved back with a tall, frosted glass of ale, and watched the Amelosi's long, talented fingers stack the machekot tiles. The game fell somewhere between dominoes and backgammon, with a dash of mahjong -- fiendishly complex, dangerously competitive, with seemingly arbitrary rules which sparked the Dorello to anger. Then again, the Dorello scorned any race who conceived their young physically, incubated them in a living body, and they were swift to find fault, any fault, in those they considered inferior.
"Hey, Tony!" Kenzana Emetral Betru spoke in a deep baritone, not quite bass. Working, he wore the sleek, iridescent fabric common to the Rooster's waiters, bar staff and croupiers, but his dusky emerald skin shone with a light sweat in the evening's humidity, and he'd unmeshed the house uniform to his navel. Tru had eight years over Tony -- taller, and good looking by anyone's standards, with the hard-worked physique of a farm hand, the painted eyelids of a courtesan, and numerous gold rings in his delicately pointed ears. The apparent contradiction was as enchanting as it was commonplace here. Everyone painted their faces in rainbow colors, often clashing and, to Tony, bizarre.
Exotic, at any rate, he decided. The most subtle hue and pattern sent every kind of social and sexual signal. So many Amelosi were homosexual, the preference was considered entirely normal here. Tony found the atmosphere refreshing, inviting, though he'd often wondered how, why, evolution designed a heterogeneous species with a distinct preference for unisex intimacy. The Amelosi surely had their reasons, but he hadn't yet stumbled over the facts of life here. He must ask, see if Tru ever blushed into deep shades of azure or sapphire.
Wide indigo eyes surrounded by deep purple kohl surveyed the human with mocking humor. "You're late, man," Betru unformed him. Like so many locals, he wore his hair long, tied at the nape and tucked behind the Amelosi's faunlike ears while he worked. It gleamed gold as the new season's hazelnuts in the soft lights over the machekot table.
The chip in Tony's head conveyed meaning and inflection, while Betru's actual language still meant very little: Soi sawoy, chubu. Tony had soon learned to listen to the chip and meld the sound of an alien voice with the meaning which materialized in his mind on a time-lag of less than a second. Fourteen years old now, his chip was original Cobrana tech, and not cheap; but nobody left Earth without one.
"Got stuck at work," he told Betru, "and I can't stay too long. We upship in a few hours. I just blew a year with stupid, worn-out Dorellan crap, and all the maintenance bots are busted."
"Busted," Betru echoed as he dealt another hand to the five Amelosi at the game table. "Busted." He always liked to try offworld words on his tongue, though he had the same brand of chip in his skull. Betru had been to space, laboring in the cargo holds of Dorellan freighters till he'd seen enough of the systems between this world and Earth itself, and longed only to come home.
At least, Tony thought as he slid into a vacant chair at the table, Betru had something to come home to. Amelos was immense, with a surface area far greater than Earth's, and a core so light, its gravity still felt comfortable, familiar, to the human crews who traded here. The world sat just off the main trade lanes between the Dorellan Mercantile Alliance, the Federated Cobrana Freeworlds, the territories claimed by the Chukutzu Hegemony, and those systems where Earth itself had begun to forge a foothold. All of which made Amelos a free-trade dumping ground for freighters needing to use the planet as a glorified warehouse -- or an open-pit mine.
Faces turned toward Tony as he shuffled in at the table, and though many were as good looking as Betru's, none wore a friendly expression. Humans were seldom actually wanted here; only their money. So Tony flashed the wedge of scrip he'd gathered in twenty other ports since the last time the Ursago landed here, and, predictably, the surly faces turned away.
"Sorry, man," Betru murmured in some blend of Spanglish, Chinglish, Angdian, the Terran lingua franca that had evolved in spaceports across countless worlds. He'd picked it up from travelers through Jiva, and pronounced it with a thick accent, but Tony easily understood while the nearby Amelosi gamblers didn't get a word. "You guys got a history here, you know."
"Oh, I know." Tony shrugged off the reference. "But it all happened thirty bloody years ago. I was a kid, freezing my tiny little butt off in a camp on the edge of the goddamn' Arctic. Not guilty, all right?"
"Sure. But they don't care." Betru gestured at the gamblers as tiles began to rattle onto the table. "You playing? If you don't ante up, I got a manager who's quite likely to shove his nose in and tell you to move along."
"I'm playing." Tony threw down the hundred lur ante -- in fact, a twenty Cobrana credit bill: close enough -- and took seven tiles from Betru's nimble, talented fingers.
Tough luck, he decided, that around the time Tony Saviano had learned to toddle on the Icelandic island of Vestmannaeyjar, an Earth-based consortium tried its luck here. Not just here on Amelos, but here, where the shanty town of Jiva sprouted like so many toadstools alongside the landing zone installed to handle the heavy machinery for the mine.
Many of the older buildings, long abandoned by the company, remained in service today. City hall, the hospital and police station, occupied what had once been site offices, hangars, warehousing. A human entrepreneur with a name recorded in history's more iniquitous pages, Gerald L. Bartoli-Wang, swung a deal with the headman of a village stuck in a time warp. Nobody on Amelos wanted a mine, with its toxic fallout and radical clearcutting, but a recent ancestor of Betru's signed the deal, got stinking rich -- and fled Amelos so fast, his tail feathers must have caught alight, with a lynch mob ten minutes behind him
Even today, few humans lived on this planet. A damned shame, Tony decided. Amelos had the vastness humans craved, though her population remained manageable, her sky clear and blue. Forests sprawled to the horizon; the rivers ran so clean, you could put a line in the water and actually eat the fish. To an exile from Earth it sounded a lot like paradise.
With any luck, Tony thought, the lynch mob caught up with Gerald L. Bartoli-Wang. The man dropped out of sight, along with his partner, the indigenous chieftain, Shalkyr Zamaya Rok. Between them, they made off with an incredible fortune.
With a philosophical sigh, he surveyed his eccentric assortment of currency and wondered if it were possible to transplant the money gene. Fourteen years, up to his armpits in grease and goo on the engine deck of one Dorellan freighter after another, and all he had to show for it was a couple of hundred in tattered bills. Plus a job to go back to, if he kept one eye on the time, stayed sober, and didn't mind listening to Ringo snore while Ghast bellowed over the comm as if he were talking to an obstinate secondhand bot.
"You look blue," Betru observed, taking the house cut from the pot and dealing again. "You got trouble, Tony?"
"Just the usual." Tony anted up, took his tiles. Garbage, as usual. "I got a Dorellan skipper who'd actually rather have his bots fixed than employ an Irdnan, but as for shelling out for the parts to mend 'em ...? Forget it. I got a boss who's so wasted most of the time, I do ninety percent of the work and he gets the rep for being indispensable, so I'm never gonna get off that scow." He drained his beer and set the glass on the tray as a waiter passed by. He offered a tattered Cobrana five. "Can I get another of those?"
The waiter batted long inky lashes at him. His or her gender was so indeterminate, Tony wouldn't have been able to guess. Amelosi females grew up big shouldered, long-legged ? flat-chested unless they were breeding, and since they birthed exceptionally tiny young, they retained the boyish body shape. Tony's eyes returned to Betru, and he gave a groan of overt frustration.
"Not getting enough?" Betru guessed, dealing a third hand.
"Not getting any," Tony corrected. "The Ursago only stopped by here four times in the last year, and this time's a touch-and-go, doesn't even count. You ever tried getting laid in ports like Barazoz?" He looked sidelong at the Dorello and Cobran, who seemed to be haggling over some deal. A cargo had just changed hands right there, to someone's profit. "On the Ursago, I ... don't often fancy the rest of the crew, if you know what I mean." He gave Betru a rueful grin. "And you do know what I mean! You were out there yourself, long enough to see it. Know it."
"And come home." Betru closed the betting and began to turn over tiles, challenging the players. "I saw all I cared to see. Home is better."
Two of the Amelosi launched into a bidding contest and Tony threw in the garbage hand. "Home is better. If you've got one."
"And you don't," Betru said thoughtfully as the waiter sidled closer with Tony's beer.
"And I don't." Tony thanked the boy ? or girl ? with a nod, and took a deep drink. "I'm also scoring zero luck at this table of your, Tru. If you don't mind, I'll head over and try the big wheel. I could use a few bucks. No offence."
"None taken," Betru said easily. "I deal fair. If luck flows in the other direction, it ain't my problem, Tony."
"Never said it was, mate," Tony admitted affably. "Let me give the wheel a shot, see if I can raise a few credits. Then ... when d'you get off work?" His eyes strayed idly over the long vee of emerald skin exposed where Betru had unmeshed the shimmering house uniform.
Indigo eyes flicked to the chrono over the bar. "Two more hours. That's cutting it fine, for you, if you want to get friendly."
"Shoot." Tony groaned, and pressed the heels of both hands into his eyes. "This just ain't my furlough. It's not even a furlough! Junkyard dogs get more downtime, and more perks ... vershek, I hate Ghast and his bloody ship."
But it was a job, and beggars couldn't hope to be choosers. He gave Betru a self-mocking look and had drifted away from the machekot table toward the big wheel, when Tru's voiced called after him. "Watch yourself, Tony. I saw a couple of Ravek's lads in here, not ten minutes ago."
The name sounded familiar, but for some moments Tony struggled to place it. Then he had it, and swore softly as he glanced quickly around, searching faces for any he recognized. Back in Vestmannaeyjar Camp D, Banni Ravek was the kind the Icelandic 'camp kids' called a harður strákur. Tony would have called him by less complimentary names, but 'hard boy' was good enough. Five times, he'd been busted for mugging visitors to the port of Jiva, but since Ravek never rolled Dorello or Cobran or Ptalnshi, the sentence invariably amounted to a slap on the wrist and a warning -- which any harður strákur seemed honor-bound to ignore.
Even now humans were not quite welcome in this part of Amelos. Perhaps a thousand lived or worked around the planet, but in this region, only their money gave them license to leave the freighter docks for the watering holes, casinos and cathouses which flourished around any port.
Tony had been lucky numerous times, never yet waylaid on his way in or out of the port; but he knew several of the local thugs on sight. None hung around the big wheel as he sidled in among the local gamblers, and he put down fifty just as the wheel began to spin.
It reminded him of the steering wheel of an ancient sea-going vessel, with multiple handholds around the perimeter. Each handhold carried a color and a number, and they rotated around a larger disk marked off with colored, numbered divisions. Players chose a number and color, and if anything matched when the wheel stopped, the payout varied. The house set the stakes, which seemed to change almost randomly, every few spins of the wheel.
Still, the odds were much better than roulette, and the game involved no skill, unlike the wickedly intricate machekot. Tony felt the pleasant buzz of the second beer as he watched the wheel set turning by a posing, posturing female -- so bored, she lacquered her toenails while it spun. He lost on the first turn, and the second, but at the third he crowed in a minor victory.
"About bloody time! Here, darling, let's have it ... yeah, six hundred." He gathered the bills, wadded them up and kissed them. "How about another beer?"
A small voice in the back of his mind whispered that he'd already had enough, but the upturn in his luck made him beckon the waiter. He dropped a Dorellan ten onto the tray and placed another bet as the girl set up the wheel again. Cash in his pocket felt good, even if he recognized an illusion when he saw one.
The bald truth was, Tony Saviano never possessed the brains to be a scientist or engineer, nor the brutality to be a soldier. The only other escape route from Earth lay in a contract with a crew of enviro-compatible aliens, and they were few and far between. Earth's own vessels ran crews drawn from the best of the best, highly qualified, brilliant -- or at least born to privilege and well connected. Tony had never been sure which.
On good days he liked to flatter himself: it took guts and ingenuity to scramble through trade school with passing grades, then sign with a Dorellan skipper, headed for a life that could be rough and uncertain. On bad days he wondered if putting Earth behind him, running away from every human problem, might not be more an act of cowardice.
The wheel turned again while he waited for his beer, and he lost. He gulped the bittersweet amber liquid for solace, or courage, and placed another, more cautious bet as the girl primed the wheel. As it spun, he counted his cash and calculated roughly where and when to cut his losses, step out in search of fresh air.
If Betru went off-shift in under two hours, there was still time for a quick one. Skinplay, as the Amelosi called it: zhiniki. Simple pleasure, release, relief. Not the lazy days in the sun and long nights in the sack he might have hoped for, but something, anything, before the Ursago headed back into space, and who knew when she would find her way back to the port of Jiva?
If she stuck to schedule, and no unanticipated cargo brought her back ahead of time, she would dock here again in six long months. Half a year, he thought bitterly, before he could expect to set eyes on Betru again, feel the hard warmth of him, taste the kiss he'd begun to crave.
Halfway down this third glass of Royal Snow Duck, his eyes shifted out of focus. Suddenly the Rooster seemed hotter, noisier, while sounds made less sense. He wondered dazedly if the chip in his head might have malfunctioned when the wheel operator spoke to him and her Amelosi words refused to translate.
He heard cockroach cocktail gulp-down sleepy-sleepy solemn suggestion, which made less than no sense. Sweat slicked his palms, his ears began to roar like the dragon-growl off a furnace.
He never glimpsed the shuffling figure in the crowd behind him. The Amelosi made way for it, let it pass unchallenged; no sound of confrontation alerted Tony. The last thing he saw was a whirl of colored lights -- the lanterns set into the Rooster's high ceiling -- as his legs numbed, his balance spun like the wheel, and the floor hit him hard in the right shoulder.
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