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Authors: Sara Creasy

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BOOK: Song of Scarabaeus
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“My blood, sweat, and tears aren't toxic, if that's what you mean.” She'd explained this a hundred times to nervous schoolmates and lovers. “There's biocyph in every cell of a Talasi's body. It instantly metabolizes neuroxin that's eaten or touched or breathed in, into harmless by-products. But the Talasi screwed up. Or perhaps it was deliberate—a way to ensure their descendants couldn't be uprooted again. If the level of those by-products in the body drops because of a
lack of neuroxin, the biocyph metabolizes other compounds instead, like common neurotransmitters. That causes neuroshock. Death, eventually. So they're…we're dependent on neuroxin. I'm only half-Talasi—my mother was an outworlder—but still…”

Her voice dwindled away. Talking about herself, especially to a virtual stranger, caused the usual discomfort to resurface. She took a moment to collect her thoughts.

“Anyway, when the Crib Colonial Unit took me in for training, they developed these implants so I could leave the planet for short periods. It's my lifeline.”

“Then it's my lifeline, too. Don't lose it.”

They shared a grim smile and he returned to the annex without probing further.

Returning to her files, Edie found an appended report on Talasi history, written by a Crib 'crat but drawing on published articles by researchers who'd studied the natives. Naturally, the report reeked of Crib spin. Edie's unique experience from both sides of the controversy had given her what she believed was a more accurate picture. Five decades ago the new colonists had arrived, bringing clumsy black-market biocyph to tame the toxic ecosystem. The resulting ecological disaster had devastated the native population, while the colonists were forced to build their city, Halen Crai, inside a mountain where their air and water and food could be controlled.

Their forests dying, the desperate Talasi tribal elders finally allowed a small team of researchers to document their plight. The resulting anthropological articles caught the Crib's attention, but the end result was not what the elders had hoped for. The Crib's ever-changing tactics in its efforts to control the escalating Reach Conflicts placed Talas's jump node in a prime position. The new colonists were allowed to stay, and the Crib sponsored the building of a gate around the node to make transit easier. While the Talasi barely clung to life in their poisoned forests, the colony of Halen Crai quadrupled in size.

The only voice speaking for the Talasi was that of the researchers. But when one of them gave birth to a half-Talasi child, the elders felt betrayed and threw them out. The baby was left behind. Born with a dependence on neuroxin, like all Talasi, she couldn't survive offworld. The Talasi raised her but they were slaves to their superstitions—Edie was a half-breed, born out of season, and they never let her forget that stigma.

Shortly after Edie's birth, the Crib moved the Talasi into camps for their own protection. In those camps Edie had grown up—among a race desperately trying to maintain its tribal culture and traditions while its youngsters learned to speak Linguish from the Crib guards and heard unimaginable tales of adventure from the stars.

As for Edie's parents—the elders had exiled her father to a neighboring tribe and he'd never revealed himself to her, even after the tribal structure had broken down in the camps. Nor had she ever heard from her mother. She didn't even know her name. And some time during the last twenty years—she couldn't pinpoint exactly when—she'd given up waiting for her mother to come back to her.

Edie had had enough of reliving her childhood through the Crib's piecemeal reports. There was nothing here that would help her find Lukas. Shutting off the palmet, she walked through to the annex. Finn lay on his back, apparently asleep, one arm thrown over his eyes. His powerful frame dwarfed the too-narrow bunk. She couldn't help wondering about his background and whether she'd ever learn more about him. Considering her reluctance to talk about herself, it was unfair to expect him ever to open up. Every scar on his body told a story she'd probably never hear.

It was time for the briefing. If she left now, she'd be three minutes late—not quite late enough for a charge of insubordination.

Haller's office doubled as the briefing room, a triangular bay below and to the port side of the bridge. Edie showed up just as Zeke delivered the punch line of a joke, causing a ripple of bored laughter from the crew. They fell silent as she entered. Cat gave her a friendly wave, while a young man with unruly hair and a ruddy face—it must be Kristos, Zeke's young op-teck according to the crew roster—jumped up to offer his chair, one of two on the near side of Haller's desk. But Edie planted herself on a cabinet along the back wall instead. Kristos sat again, beside Cat, while Zeke lounged against the bulkhead. Haller worked the holoviz controls on his desk. There was no sign of the elusive captain.

Haller launched into the briefing without commenting on Edie's tardiness. He was all business, boosting Edie's faith that he might actually be competent, at least when things were running smoothly.

“Our full brief's come through from Stichting Corp. After our next stop, we make nine more jumps to system fourteen in the Valen Sector. Navconn's still working out the best route.” The holoviz displayed a graphical representation of several possible routes, which probably made little sense to anyone in the room except Cat. “The third planet in this
system was seeded seven years ago, and that's our destination. We grab—”

“Uh, seven years?” Zeke interrupted, frowning at the display. It now showed the third planet in a long-range scan, a CCU file dated several years ago. “You can't extract BRATs after they've put down taproots.” He looked over his shoulder at Edie for confirmation. Rovers were known for diving in and grabbing BRATs a year or two after terraforming had begun, while the taproots were shallow, but beyond that the task was more trouble than it was worth.

Edie watched the holo planet turning slowly on its axis, a pale blue sphere with the outlines of continents burned into it. The globe was scattered with tiny bright spots to indicate where the BRATs had been buried. Edie's vision narrowed on the image as a deep memory stirred. It couldn't be…

With a frustrated shrug at Edie's silence, Zeke turned back to Haller. “Even if we could get the BRAT seeds out of the ground, they'd be useless for making keystones. The biocyph is primed for that ecosystem and it's been brewing away for seven years.”

“Thank you, Zeke. I can always count on you to announce the impossibility of every plan.” But Haller was looking at Edie as he spoke.

“You're telling me it's not impossible?” Zeke persisted, incredulous. “We're supposed to uproot them after—”

“These seeds never germinated,” Haller said. “No taproots. It's embryonic biocyph.”

He had Edie's full attention now, and waited for her reaction. The memory, now fully formed, pushed to the front of her mind.

“Scarabaeus.” As she breathed the word, four pairs of eyes turned to look at her. She drew an unsteady breath. “We're going to Scarabaeus?”

“If you mean Candidate World VAL-One-Four Tee-Three,” Haller said, a smile tugging at his lips, “absolutely.”

Edie sat in stunned silence while he continued to explain for the benefit of the others. She gripped the edge of the
cabinet as the sound of blood rushing in her ears swamped the conversation. VAL–14 T3 had been her first mission, and the first major assignment for Liv Natesa's newly established seeding program on Talas. Natesa's big chance to impress CCU and to make herself indispensable when it came time to implement her grander vision. In hindsight, it was also a test run—albeit a failed one—for what would become Project Ardra. An unremarkable world, the commander in charge had called it during that briefing session so long ago, yet Edie remembered its serenity and her heartache at the thought of destroying ancient beauty, working it over, recreating it to please humankind.

“Edie?”

Startled, she looked at Haller through the glow of the holoviz, realizing he'd asked her a question. “What?”

“I'd like to hear your perspective on this.”

She swallowed hard, staring at the glowing planet. It showed a detailed image of the locations of each BRAT drop, generated shortly after they finished the job.

“Our information on the initial seeding mission is sketchy.” Haller's tone was patient but he couldn't have failed to notice how this was affecting her—in fact, he seemed to be enjoying it. “We do know that an unmanned scout returned a year later and reported the BRATs hadn't germinated. Our current intelligence indicates that CCU never returned to claim the BRATs. So unlike our usual hit-and-run, we can take our time with this one.”

Kristos spoke up. “Why would they abandon all those BRATs?”

“Cheaper to make new ones than dig up the old,” Zeke said, “if you have the biocyph templates. And no one but the Crib's got them.”

He didn't bother to hide his resentment of this fact. With access to templates, the Fringers could make their own seeding technology. During the Reach Conflicts, plenty of desperate people had tried everything in their power to get their
hands on the templates—blackmail, terrorism, humanitarian appeals. The Crib had ruthlessly crushed them all.

“Edie?” Haller insisted.

“What you said is correct.” Edie heard the tremor in her voice. “The BRAT seeds didn't germinate, and I don't know much more, sir.” She regretted that admission as soon as it was out. What would they do with her if she couldn't help them, if she was of no use?

“But why didn't they germinate?”

Because of me.

She had no idea how these people would react if she admitted what she'd done, all those years ago. She needed to fit in, to play along. She needed them to trust her so she could get through this, take the creds and run.

But she couldn't stomach the idea of these rovers profiting from Scarabaeus. She didn't want to go back.

“We…we never figured it out. That planet wasn't suitable for terraforming in the first place. We weren't supposed to be there. The ecosystem was too advanced.”

“The Crib breaks its own rules when it suits them.” Zeke shook his head like he had intimate understandings of the workings of that bureaucracy. “And then it just makes up new ones. That's what Project Ardra is, right? A loophole that's going to let them legally terraform advanced ecosystems like—what was it you called the place? Scara—?”

“Scarabaeus.” Edie was embarrassed to explain why. “That's just my name for it. I found a beetle there.”

“A beetle?” Kristos scoffed. “You mean, like, an insect?”

“An insect analog, yes. A sort of scarab.” She wished she hadn't brought it up. Kristos's astonishment didn't surprise her. For a candidate world to be eligible for terraforming, its life was supposed to be no more evolved than basic multi-cellular organisms. “Like I said, the world was too advanced. Marine vertebrates, insects, vascular plant analogs. Seeders showed up three hundred million years too late. We should've left it alone.”

And in the end, she'd made sure of that.

“Crib antics aside,” Haller said, “you just let me know when you remember something useful, okay? That's why you're here.”

The hint of a threat was unmistakable. Edie was going to have to justify her position on the team. It was now clear that their destination was no coincidence. They may have wanted her because she was the best cypherteck in the Crib, but once Stichting Corp had found out from her files that there was a world out there packed with dead BRATs, abandoned forever, they realized they'd hit the jackpot. Who better to help in a recovery and hack operation than the cypherteck who'd been present on the initial mission?

“Give her a break,” Zeke said after a moment of tense silence. Edie threw him a quick look of gratitude. Haller scowled, and the big man responded by jutting his chin defiantly.

Edie stared at her boots and let the XO's voice wash over her.

“We've scheduled six days on the surface. If we can avoid tripping the security beacons and CCU isn't alerted, we can come back later for more. With the help of our brilliant cypherteck here, we'll have dozens of keystones ready for our customers by the time we reach the Fringe in a few weeks. There's a fortune out there and nobody else knows about it. Fat bonus checks for all of us. One thousand gold mines…”

One thousand deadly bullets.

She'd saved Scarabaeus, but she wanted no part of this reward.

 

Haller ordered Edie to produce a detailed report on Scarabaeus. That afternoon, while Finn worked with Zeke in the equipment holds, which she'd yet to see, she sat at her console and attempted to comply. Scarabaeus had been her first mission and the many runs since then had clouded whatever recollection she had of the technical specifics. But worse
than that, she didn't want to remember. She'd tried for seven years to forget.

The actions of Liv Natesa and her team on Scarabaeus had been officially illegal. The mission had failed, but the 'crats in the Crib Colonial Unit that ran the seeding programs hadn't given up. As Edie became CCU's most successful cypherteck, Natesa's career quickly recovered and she set her sights on Project Ardra, a controversial and secret program to seed ecosystems that were up to half a billion years more advanced than had previously been permitted. But Ardra was more than just a career move for Natesa. Her personal ambition had morphed into a single-minded obsession to stamp humanity's footprint on every world in the galaxy.

Natesa called it her duty as a Crib citizen. Edie likened it to religious zealotry.

And now…Ardra would go ahead without Edie—there was nothing she could do about that. But for as long as she was in hiding with the rovers, she wouldn't have to be involved or go to prison for refusing to be involved. Her abduction was turning out to be unpleasantly convenient.

As Edie stared at the scant sentences she'd written, her pleasure at the thought of leaving Natesa high and dry evaporated. Had she known Scarabaeus was the rovers' destination, she'd have refused Haller's offer. Not that it would have made a difference. They controlled her life now, as surely as the Crib had until a few days ago. Haller had convinced her to help the Fringers instead of remodeling planets on the Crib's whim, but considering the man whose life now depended on hers, it was hard to calculate whether or not she'd traded up.

Finn returned in the evening, looking like he'd spent the day down a mine. His face was smudged, his clothes filthy.

“I thought you were hauling rigs?”

“No. Greasing drills.”

“What? They don't even use those drills. They're just for show.” The
Hoi
carried mining equipment because it was supposed to be a prospecting vessel.

“They have to
look
like they're being used.”

“Did they feed you?”

He nodded. Edie had skipped supper and not even noticed until now. She tossed him a palmet.

“I put the mission briefing on there for you, and a few details about CCU's seeding program.” Project Ardra. She wanted him to know why working for rovers was a better option than the alternative—at least for her. “Maybe you could take a shower first.”

“One shower a day is my limit.”

She wrinkled her nose, wondering if he was kidding. Leaning against the hatch, Finn scanned the briefing.

“It doesn't sound so bad,” she said helpfully. “Secret location, no Crib monitoring. Pretty safe.”

“I imagine working with rovers is never safe.”

“You know about that stuff—security, I mean?” Presumably the rovers had singled him out because they considered him bodyguard material.

He didn't answer, but perched on the edge of the console and considered her. Edie was starting to realize she'd never get more out of him than he wanted to give. On the other hand, she'd already told him far more about herself than she'd intended to.

She began to feel warm under his appraising stare, but when he spoke, it wasn't what she expected.

“You any good in a fight?”

“I had basic training.”

“Had?”

“It's been a few years.”

He quirked a brow, unimpressed.

“That's your job anyway.” Edie risked a question of her own. “What are the Catacombs that Cat mentioned?”

“That's where I was before Talas Prime.”

“But what are they?”

“Asteroid mining.”

He didn't elaborate. She'd heard a few horror stories and didn't push it. He handed back the palmet and she wiped a
smudge off the screen, throwing him a mildly accusatory look.

“I guess I'll take that shower now,” he said, as though it was his idea all along.

“Good idea.”

Alone again, Edie turned back to her report, but it was hard to concentrate with the echo of Finn's brooding presence lingering in the room. She leaned back in her seat and ran her hands over her face, trying to relax. Including their outgoing trip and then the long journey to the Fringe, she had four weeks cooped up in here with Finn. Four weeks with Haller breathing down her neck and Cat cozying up to her.

She stepped through to her room, undressed quickly down to her underwear and curled up on the bed. She must have dozed off, because the sound of the hatch snapping woke her up. Finn returned in clean casual pants and put away his things, shifted a few items on the console, threw a blanket onto the bunk. He moved with an economical grace that captivated her attention, his chest glistening with moisture in the half-light of the annex. Everything about him projected strength and assurance.

Things could be worse. Had Ademo not died back on Talas Prime,
he
might have been assigned to protect her, and tonight she'd be sharing her quarters with him instead—living in fear of his cruel temper. Finn didn't exactly set her at ease, but she felt safe enough.

She found herself seeking out the marks on his skin, the bruises, the wound at his throat, and old scars crisscrossing his back that could only have come from a flogging. He glanced over and caught her watching through the open hatch, and she was thankful that her room was in near darkness so he couldn't see the heat rising in her face. A vertical crease formed between his brows as he held her gaze in an unspoken query while he stuffed his dirty clothes into a laundry bag. Then he slid into the console and turned it on.

BOOK: Song of Scarabaeus
12.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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