Arrow In The Sky
"All right, one more tour and we go back to the spaceport."
Jake looked fairly human for a spacer. His wiry, if well-toned, upper body may well have been baseline. Only his pointy face and big ears -- which made him resemble a rat -- suggested he wasn't. His lower half was another story entirely, hydraulic legs and tail resembling a kangaroo's more than anything else. A tank top was all the clothing he needed.
His partner's body morph was more obvious. Casandro's sand-colored mane flowed over round, fuzzy ears and his stubby fingers sported retractable claws. A pair of leathery wings sprouted out of his back and draped over his leather jacket like a mantle. He yawned, prominent jaws parting to reveal pointy teeth and a long, curled tongue.
"Yes, yes, not exactly a good market day. I just have this feeling..."
That was an understatement if Jake had ever heard one. Latji was one of those worlds where terraforming hadn't quite caught, so even at the equator the few inhabitants huddled into tunnels, away from the arctic cold and snow. The market reflected that, being mostly deserted and boring despite sitting right next to an interstellar traffic hub.
They turned into a side tunnel, between a clean shop selling fish and mushrooms (the colony's most common foods) and a rickety stall covered in power tools. The lion strode on confidently as the lights grew dimmer and the merchandise more dubious. This was the pawn brokers' area it seemed, but even the various alien knick-knacks barely managed to hold Jake's attention as he followed his partner. They stopped in front of a table on the verge of falling apart, manned by an ugly old woman. Jake could understand that some people liked themselves just as nature had made them, but a refusal to fix obvious flaws made no sense to him.
Casandro was doing a pretty good job of feigning disinterest. He went several times over various objects, asking about their age. In the end, he scooped up a dusty orb that fit his big hand perfectly.
"Aha!" exclaimed the hag. "Now, that one has quite a story. They say it's an Orb of Seeking, made by an ancient sect back when people were just discovering magic. When evil spread over the galaxy, they went into hiding, but left these behind so innocents could find help in their hour of need. But nobody knows how they work anymore."
"I bet you say that about every item," smiled the lion. "How much?"
The hag eyed him shrewdly. "Five hundred credits for you, spacer."
The spacer choked. "You mean 250. If that."
"It's a unique item," she complained, wringing her hands. Then, as he turned to leave: "Four hundred, and a hyper-fold to go with it." Without waiting for an answer, she wrapped the orb in a shimmering material with a pattern that made their heads swim. Jake couldn't see clearly, but he could have sworn parts of the tissue were passing through each other. Then, as the woman completed a last knot, the whole package simply vanished, leaving only a small cloth bracelet. "There you go! Completely undetectable!" She unpacked the items again as Casandro turned his pockets inside out.
"Three hundred and fifty is all I have," he said.
She took the money.
They took the overland route back to the ship, Jake hopping through deep snow while Casandro circled overhead. "Need a lift, bouncy-boy?"
The cyborg stopped and looked up. "I could never figure out how you can fly at all with those silly wings of yours. But carrying me? Hah!"
Casandro landed next to him, blowing snow everywhere. "Cats are mostly fluff, don't you know. Besides, I can has magic!"
"Too bad your business sense isn't as developed. What possessed you to spend that much on a dirty antique? Assuming it's an antique at all."
The lion chuckled. "Well, I don't know how old it is, but one thing is certain: nothing else in there was even remotely magical."
"You mean..." Jake grinned widely. "Do you suppose she knew?"
"Probably not. Come, I'm getting cold."
They went on through the uniform white landscape, broken only by rock formations and smoke stacks from which black clouds billowed up into the sky. In another century, there could be enough CO2 in the air to trap a little heat for a change... and no ozone layer. Oh well, thought Jake, you can't have them all.
It was always easy to tell the ground crews apart from the spacers. If you saw a baseline human, chances were they had never set foot into space. A few of them were milling around their spaceship, finishing the preparations for departure. Jake made a mental note to double- check everything. Casandro was going to protest, lazy cat that he was, but if you wanted something done right, you did it yourself. Better safe than sorry; space wasn't a child's padded playground, and the squishies never seemed to grasp just how big, cold and empty it was.
For the nth time, the lion admired what was now their home and most valuable possession: the Lionese Authority Cargo Craft 33AC-0BBF-E527, which they affectionately called the Trashcan. It looked like an oversized freight truck, except armored all over and mounted on leviters instead of wheels. The trailer had room for eight standard containers, but one slot was permanently taken by their workshop and exercise space, leaving room for exactly one hundred metric tons of cargo. Painted a deep blue, and hardly aerodynamic, it didn't look exactly stunning, but it was theirs. Their very own spaceship!
"Mr. Casandro?" They turned towards the plump little woman approaching them with a 'pad in her hand. "Can I help you, madam..." He struggled in vain to remember her name. "...dock manager?" he finished lamely.
She didn't seem bothered by it. "Someone was looking for you earlier. Black wolf, with a cybernetic eye. Wears some kind of uniform. Creepy guy, really. Do you know him?"
The lion blinked. "Can't say I do. But thank you."
"Isn't that odd?" interjected Jake. "Why didn't he message you?"
"Who knows? I dropped some of my old encryptions keys after that incident back home."
"Should I warn the police?" asked the woman.
Casandro waved a hand dismissively. "It's probably a mistake."
"Suit yourselves." She turned to leave. "You are cleared for departure at 1400 hours."
They never noticed the little scout ship trailing them as the Trashcan accelerated away from the local star.
"Where to now?" asked Jake, staring into the three-dimensional star chart projected above the dashboard.
In the pilot's seat, Casandro yawned and stretched. "Who cares? With an empty cargo bay, we can go anywhere."
"That's my problem, yeah. We barely made a profit on the way in."
The lion cast him a sleepy look. "We were able to afford extra reactor fuel and replicator mass. What more do we need?"
"Speak for yourself, cat. I plan to settle down and have kids someday." He noticed his partner's downward glance. "Well, if I can find a way."
"How did you get like that, anyway?"
Jake's face darkened. "I told you not to ask about that," he snarled.
Casandro blushed and stammered. "I... I meant your morph."
The cyborg regained his temper as quickly as he had lost it, and even smiled a little. "Oh, that's a funny story. My parents got the same genemorph package on a dare. They were still young, you understand. So I'm a natural born rat, man." He waggled his big round ears. "What about you? Never met another lion with dragon wings."
The big cat took the orb out of his pocket and started cleaning it absently. "That's a long story. See, my mom's lion genes run in the family. Possibly as far as the first Lionese colonists. Now, dad..." He paused. "Well, he's a wizard. You know how they favor the dragon package for some reason."
The rat nodded, and Casandro continued, warming up as he spoke. "When they decided to have a kid of their own, everybody told them it was impossible. Their genes were way too different."
The globe was nice and shiny now -- smooth, heavy, and translucent. "So they set out to prove them all wrong. Mom spliced their genes one by one with the nanomanipulators in her own lab, and dad taped everything together with his magic. Should't have worked, really."
"But it did," pointed out Jake, just as the lion's new toy lit up from the inside.
They brought their heads together over the crystal ball.
"Is that an arrow?" giggled Casandro, pawing at the curved surface.
"Looks like. What did you do?"
It was indeed an arrow made of green light floating in the middle of the sphere. It kept pointing in the same direction now matter how it was turned or moved.
"I wonder what it's pointing at. What do you think, Jake?"
He shrugged. "Most likely, nothing in particular. Must be some sort of glorified gyroscope."
"No, no. I can smell the spell. It's more complex than that."
"Hmm. Some point on Latji, then?"
The lion pointed a claw at his instruments. "Can't be. We're leaving the planet behind at 300 klicks per second and accelerating. Do they have anything on the outskirts of the system?"
Jake examined his holographic display. "Not according to the charts. The next thing in that direction is... let me see... an uncharted star cluster."
Casandro grinned widely. "Shall I change course?"
"You're not serious, are you?" Jake sighed. "All right... just a quick look. At least that will put us close to the antimatter plants at Holma."
"Holma? What a horrible name."
"But a profitable merchandise. Oh well, there's your drive solution."
It took a few more hours to curve the Trashcan's trajectory roughly in the direction of their target. Then, at the flip of a switch, the universe turned inside-out and they were hurtling forward through that non-dimension where time and space didn't play by the rules, which spacers simply called "hyper mode".
One week and ninety light years later, Casandro had figured out the hyperfold. With a flick of the wrist, he unwrapped a plastic ball, which for the tenth time in a row had stayed one, instead of turning into a Klein bottle or for that matter vanishing forever. He placed it on the dashboard next to the Orb of Seeking, and... wait a minute. The glowing arrow, which had pointed straight ahead since the start of the journey, was now askance. As the lion watched it, the deviation increased visibly. Without a second thought, he flipped the big red switch again.
In the workshop, Jake finished upgrading one of his mechanical legs. He kicked a little, nodding approvingly at the improved speed and range of motion, then turned it off to replace the cover panels. The normal-space alert gave him just enough time to reach for a grab bar. The ship lurched as it suddenly had mass and momentum again, and half his toolbox came crashing on the floor.
He arrived to the cab hopping on one leg. Casandro was already revving up propulsion, the starfield outside the windows rotating as the lion carefully manipulated the control yoke.
The rat fell heavily in his chair and surveyed his instruments. "I so wish you'd learn to give me fair warning when you do that."
"You're in one piece, aren't you? Anyway, there's no hurry. It will take me a while to scan the area."
Jake nodded. "You know where to find me."
"We have company." Casandro said dryly when Jake returned to the cab.
The cyborg started punching keys even before he sat down. "Let's see, small rocket-driven ship, half a light-second away, going roughly in the same direction as we are. What are the odds?"
"Hmm. Assuming they came from the same direction, expecting a planet somewhere along this trajectory..." His voice trailed. "Damn, I'm an idiot. This... thing," he pointed at the orb, "was meant to lure us here all along, wasn't it?"
"Seems rather elaborate for a trap." He paused. "There's another one."
"And three more," nodded the lion. "How long until we can go hyper again?"
"After such a short trip? Under an hour now."
Casandro nodded as he pushed the throttle. "They'll be far behind by then. I'm yet to see the rocket engine that can measure up to a good set of leviters."
They both watched tensely as their pursuers were falling behind, not even trying to keep up.
"We're going right where they want us, aren't we?"
There was a brief burst of radiation far ahead, and another ship came out of hyper, cutting them off. A big one.
"Yep." concluded Jake.
"Time for plan B then. Call for help?"
Jake tapped an indicator. "No network here. Uncharted star systems, remember?"
"Then how are they coordinating?"
"Do you want to call and ask?" The Trashcan shook. "What now?"
"Tractor beam. And we're accelerating right into it." He swore under his breath, as turning the control yoke had little effect other than pushing them into their chairs as the ship banked hard.
After a little while, it became obvious that their engines weren't going to make a difference. "I guess we get to ask in person..."
The pirate mothership turned out to be a mile-wide torus, rotating about its axis once a minute. The spacers got a good view of it while a magnetic field funneled them into the central hub; the ring appeared to be made of inflatable segments, and the rest was a hodge-podge of recycled spacecraft parts, haphazardly connected together. It must have been about as mobile as a beached whale in normal space, but in hyper mode that hardly mattered.
And then they were in, and out of the Trashcan, and a big burly brute was demanding that they surrender a certain item which he obviously couldn't describe. The spacers were scanned, and searched, then taken away as the Trashcan was subjected to the same treatment. At some point, Casandro thought he noticed the shadowy figure of a wolf with a cybernetic eye watching them, but their jailers just hurried them along.
The hydroponic farm was a cavernous space where layer upon layer of vats where arrayed in steps along the curved walls, so as to better catch the light from the full-spectrum lamps hanging along the axis of the cylindrical ring module, or sunlight from the mirrors above when such was available; but that was hardly the case now. Seventy-odd people were gathered in the middle of the vast floor, Casandro and Jake standing out not so much due to their appearance -- though few of the pirates had either cybernetics or fur -- but more because of their good clean clothes. Other such groups stood further away or worked up in the terraces.
"How well can you jump with those legs?" The man in charge was fat, unshaven and dressed in faded orange coveralls on top of which sat an apron sporting more patches than original material.
"Well enough," answered Jake cautiously. That was not the reception he had expected.
"Good. You're on the climber team. I want you all up the wires today, those lamps won't clean themselves."
"Don't you have maintenance robots?"
"Sure we do." He kicked a rusty box on wheels next to him. "What we don't have is enough people who can fix'em."
"I'm a starship engineer."
"Real-ly! Well, feel free to poke your nose inside 'em. After you clean the lamps. Any questions?"
"Yeah." Casandro shifted his weight. "What happens if we don't cooperate?"
The fat boss cast him a long look. "Then you don't eat. This is a farm, not a luxury hotel."
The man next to Casandro eyed him from head to toes and back. He was taller than the lion, wiry and with a wild look in his eyes. Slowly, he reached out and took the spacer's augmented reality glasses off his nose. "Fancy toy. You don't need these anymore, do you?"
The lion's roar deafened everyone around, and the pirate fell over on his back. A wet spot formed on his pants. Casandro calmly recovered his glasses in the thunderous laughter of everyone else.
"Speaking of that," resumed the supervisor, "now that you two are acquainted, there's a big pile of crates over there waiting to be carted off to the kitchens." He paused. "And I don't want to see one scratch on any of you when it's done."
There wasn't. However, a couple of hours later the wiry pirate was sweaty and red-faced, while the lion was grinning for some reason.
There was more work to do afterwards: kilometers of pipes to inspect, old equipment to inventory, thrash to sort. By lunch time, Casandro and Jake no longer stood out. They shuffled along with everyone else into an ample refectory that nevertheless felt cramped after the farmgrounds. Jake asked about showers at one point, but that only elicited more thunderous laughter. There were greywater sinks at least, both in the common spaces and the cell where they were shown after eating. Nobody locked the various doors behind them, but there was hardly a corner of the cell block not covered by surveillance cameras.
"I feel broken," groaned the lion as he sprawled on the top bunk bed.
"Perhaps that's the point," mused Jake. He took a rag and started polishing his cybernetic half.
"It's odd, though. Who's ever heard of space pirates tending farms?"
"Until today, I didn't think there was such a thing as space pirates. Too much trouble."
"Well, what else are they? We're prisoners, they've taken our ship..."
Jake gestured around. "What does this place look like to you?"
Casandro pondered. "A prison. As in, a real prison like in backward cultures, not a shipboard brig."
"Precisely. But then, where are the guards? Where are the locks?"
The lion smirked. "We're literally light years away from civilization."
"A real prison wouldn't be flying around, Cas. Or capturing random travelers."
"Then they are pirates after all."
Jake pondered some more. "I guess. But in that case they seem awfully welcoming."
They both looked at the door.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
Nobody paid the spacers any attention as they ventured out of their cell and through the complex, now quiet apart from the sounds of life behind various doors. A pair of bored watchers eyed them placidly as they crossed the farm module again. The space station was shaped like a wheel, and one of the four spokes -- the one they had been brought down through -- was right next door.
It was there that they met the first actual guards, in front of the big elevator that led up into the hub. The woman had cybernetic hands, the man had canid ears, and both looked cold and professional in their uniforms. Casandro and Jake found themselves staring into the barrels of two flechette guns.
"You must be the new guys," stated the man. "This is a restricted area."
Casandro was very good at playing the fool. "But our ship is up there."
"Your ship?" They looked at each other. "Not anymore, pal."
"You mean it's not up there anymore," asked Jake very quietly, "or that it's not ours anymore?"
The woman measured him up.
"Har har. Now get out of here, both of you."
Casandro and Jake stared at the automatic weapons again. There was little else to do.
The refectory was animated again by the time they made the return trip, this time with laughter and glass clinking on glass. A shouting crowd gathered around several tables off to a side, chiptune fragments and flashes of light escaping among the din and moving bodies. A different shout attracted their attention: the fat supervisor was waving at them from the counter. The spacers made for him, dancing around upturned chairs, people with their hands full of beer mugs, and in one case a malfunctioning robot that kept moving back and forth over a short stretch of floor.
"What're ya drinkin'?" he greeted. "First one's free."
He gestured at the bartender, who filled a pair of tankards with some murky golden liquid.
"Our own ale. Can't set too many vats aside for grain, so we make it count." He lifted his own jug. "Cheers."
They returned the gesture and sipped, Casandro with enthusiasm, Jake with suspicion.
"Oh, hey... Jake, is it? I got you something." The man lifted a toolbox onto the bar. "Good enough?"
Slowly, the engineer set down his tankard and opened the box. "Tools are tools," he said mildly. "But I have much better stuff on our ship."
The fat guy stared him in the eye. "I've seen you two leaving for the elevator. It won't do you much good to be impatient."
"Impatient?!" Jake ignored the lion's attempt to calm him down. "We've been captured, our ship confiscated, we're in a friggin' prison..."
His voice trailed off as Casandro pressed a huge hand on his arm.
"If it's any consolation," said their new friend after taking a sip, "this old spintop hasn't been a prison for many years now, and the big boss doesn't do anything without a good reason. You might even get your ship back."
"Should I hold my breath?" snapped Jake. He grabbed his drink and the toolbox, and wandered off towards the broken robot, which was still doing its pointless little dance.
He had his arms up to his shoulders inside the box-shaped machine, muttering about poorly designed access panels, when somebody stopped behind him. Somebody who smelled really, really nice.
She was wearing a short black tank top which left her navel exposed. Short fur on her arms and midriff was the same tan color as his, much like her pointy face and big round ears were similar. Only her slanted eyes were different. That, and the lack of cybernetics. Of course.
Her hand on his armored thigh had no right to feel as good as it did. "Do you have anything good for me under all that steel, Jake?"
"I might," he answered, somewhat less friendly than he had intended. (Damn, he thought.) "How come everybody knows my name around here?"
"You're hard to miss."
"Fair enough." He managed a little smile. "Then again, so are you. How come I haven't noticed you before?"
She laughed. "Come with me, and you'll get the whole story."
He looked over at Casandro, drinking his ale at the bar, then back at her. "I'll think about it."
"Don't think too long, pretty boy. By the way, the name's Carol."
She wandered away, hips swaying. Nobody else seemed to notice her, apart from an older woman watching with undissimulated jealousy from a nearby table.
"I can't believe you turned down a good piece of tail like that."
They were back in the cell, Casandro looking down from his perch on the top bed.
"Well... you know me. One-night stands aren't my style. Besides, I don't want to get too comfortable."
"You have a point there." The lion rubbed his eyes, groaning. "We need to get out of here soon. But how?"
"I can help with that," came a whisper from the door. It was partially open, not so much because it didn't close properly from the inside, but because the very idea made them uncomfortable.
They both jumped. Whoever it was at the door moved very quietly. That, or they were more inebriated than they cared to admit. Probably both.
Jake's legs were very much awake, however. In the blink of an eye, he was at the door and pulled the intruder in by the arm. He was light. Short, too, and scrawny on top of that. In fact, Jake realized, he must have been around fifteen years old. His fluffy black fur and twin white stripes immediately suggested a skunk, complete with a tail seemingly made for zero-g work, which also kept his baggy pants from falling.
"Ow!" he complained. "It hurts! Take it easy."
Jake released his arm. "Who are you?" he asked dubiously.
"My name is Pete," the teenager said quickly. "I can help you escape."
On the top bunk, Casandro yawned. "Wonderful. What's in it for you?"
Pete looked fearfully at the door before answering. "You'll take me with you."
Jake couldn't hold back a snarky reply. "Fed up with the pirate life?"
"Pirate?" he smirked. "You mean fugitive. I haven't set foot on solid ground since my folks croaked and left me stranded."
"Tsk, language." The lion jumped down lightly and stood in front of the adolescent, towering over him. "All right. What's the plan?"
"I'll tell you on the way. We don't have much time."
"Most cameras don't actually work, or the wires are cut," explained Pete as they snuck out again in the dim nighttime lighting. Nearby, the newly repaired robot hummed to itself as it went around collecting empty glasses and washing the floor. "And there are all kinds of hidden corners anyway."
The maze of cables in the farm module, halfway between the terraces and the mirrors above, concealed more than one passageway. "They're going to fire the engines tonight, see. That means no tractor beam for fifty minutes. The main reactor was never designed to handle both."
"Ooh, I love old technology." deadpanned Casandro.
Jake still sounded concerned. "How are we going to get past the guards?"
Instead of an answer, Pete stopped in front of an access panel which he proceeded to unscrew with a multitool. "Hidden corners, remember?"
They crawled up the narrow space left behind some pipes. Progress rapidly became easier as the already low gravity dropped the more they neared the station's hub. Soon they were floating, and the lion emitted a strangled sound.
"Don't stop now!" Pete whispered urgently. "What is it?"
"I'll... be fine." Casandro waved a hand and clumsily tried to push himself forward. He only succeeded in spinning head-over-heels.
"He always does that in zero-g." explained Jake. "Close your eyes, I'll lead you."
A long deep rumble echoed through the metal around them, and the vertical tunnel became horizontal. It wasn't much, only one fifth of a g instead of the usual nine tenths, but they could stand, and run.
"Oh no, they started early! Hurry!" They dashed after Pete in long, low jumps through the tight passage.
As they snuck up through the docking bays, Casandro couldn't help but stare at the little scout ships that had stalked and herded them so efficiently. They were flimsy, little more than fuel tanks with a cluster of rocket engines at one end and a cockpit at the other. The whole vehicle was smaller than the Trashcan.
"You like?" whispered Pete. "I designed them." His eyes were gleaming.
Both spacers looked suitably impressed. "That's no small feat, kid," shushed Jake. "How did you learn to do that? I'm not sure I could."
"I reverse-engineered that one." Pete pointed at a ship that looked much different from the others, streamlined and shiny, yet with a clear family resemblance. "It's Carol's."
Jake blinked and opened his mouth to ask something, but the teenager stopped him. A pair of guards in the now-familiar uniforms were posted on the uppermost level of the docks, right next to the freighter.
"Great," mouthed the lion. "How are we going to sneak past them?"
Pete grinned mischievously. "See, I have my own little burrow here in the hub. And I left a surprise in it." He pulled his sleeve, revealing a wrist computer, and pressed a key.
A few moments passed in silence. Then a few more. "Any time now..."
They looked at each other tensely. Then an alarm klaxon started blaring, red lights flashing in the background. The guards looked around in confusion, then raised their hands to their earbuds and ran towards a nearby elevator.
"Uh-oh," said Pete, "I hope it didn't actually catch on fire."
They dashed across the empty floor towards the Trashcan. They never reached it. Carol was just coming out of the cab, looking even better in uniform than she had a few hours before. She came towards them, holding up a duffel bag.
The alarm cut off, her steps deafening in the sudden silence. It was Pete she was looking at. "You forgot your things."
"As if I need them anymore," he protested, before snatching the bag.
"You're letting us go, Carol?" Jake asked quietly.
She sighed. "I can't do that. But my offers still stands. You deserve an explanation."
The elevator doors opened again, admitting a handful more guards. They were armed, unlike Carol.
"Just go back to the dorm, will you? Get some sleep. I'll drop by tomorrow."
Behind Jake's back, Casandro manipulated his own wrist computer furiously. "I don't think so," he growled as the Trashcan came to life, lifting off the floor and turning menacingly towards the pirates. Not that it had any weapons, but the mere sight was enough to give them pause while the spacers and their accomplice ran towards the cab. Then the brutish-looking guard who had searched them earlier that day raised his flechette gun and fired.
And Carol was in the way.
They piled up inside while deadly razor blades whizzed by, ricocheting off the armored hull. Then Pete saw the woman fall and Jake had to hold him with both arms, lest the closing door crush him. The last thing they remembered before the Trashcan shot through a launch tube and out into space was a black wolf with a cybernetic eye craddling her as paramedics rushed in from the elevator.
Then Casandro flipped the big red switch and the universe turned itself off like an old TV set.
Three random hyper-jumps later they were reasonably certain of having shaken off their pursuers, and Pete had stopped crying enough for Jake to arrange a distraction. "Help me check up on the ship," said the cyborg, and they both went crawling through the Trashcan's innards. The boy spent the whole time exclaiming in awe at the myriad little technical tricks that made the compact interstellar freighter work. But the biggest surprise had been the cargo itself; not only none of their supplies had been touched, but the trailer had been filled with six containers' worth of replicators, construction robots and a portable power plant.
"They must have been saving all this for something," mused Jake. Pete didn't say anything. "Let's get some rest, kid."
Hours later, Casandro awoke on his narrow bed behind the pilot's chair only to see a fuzzy tail dangling from the one above: Jake had offered Pete what little hospitality he could. The lion found his partner on a sleeping bag in the workshop. He smiled, shook his head and tiptoed back to the cab to order breakfast from their own small replicator. Cocoa, eggs and bacon; hopefully it would improve the mood all around.
He needed that badly himself.
"Where to now?" asked Jake as the remains of their meal were being recycled atom by atom.
"Well..." mused Casandro. He took off his cloth bracelet, and with a flick of the wrist unwrapped the Orb. "I was thinking, since we're already here, why not see where this is pointing to?"
"Ooh! Is that a hyperfold?"
The lion giggled and handed Pete the shimmering tissue. "Pretty cool, huh? And wait 'till you see this." He proudly indicated the glowy arrow.
Pete leaned forward to see better, until he almost fell over. "So that's what the boss was looking for! Is is really magical?"
"M-hm! Wait, what do you mean, they were looking for the Orb?" He and Jake exchanged horrified glances.
"Yeah. I heard them say the ship was a bonus... What?"
"Whatever this thing is pointing at, it must be really important, Pete."
He nodded. "What are we waiting for?"
The planet was anything but friendly. Just large enough for gravity to be a burden, just close enough to its K-class sun for the warmth to be suffocating, its surface evenly divided between rolling black hills and sickly green oceans. Somewhere in that desolate landscape, there was a valley covered in clouds, in no way different from its neighbors.
Except the Trashcan was hovering directly above it, and the Orb of Seeking pointed straight down.
"Can you see anything?" whispered Pete.
Jake looked up from his holographic display. "Not even longwave radar gets through. That's some powerful magic down there!"
"So, why don't we simply go lower?"
Casandro cast him a quizzical look. "Because it could take out the Trashcan, that's why."
"Oh." His ears drooped a little, then perked up again. "Where does the radar start getting an echo?"
Jake quirked an eyebrow. "Good question." He moved a joystick. "And the answer is..."
Half an hour later, they were trundling over the rocky ground at the bottom of a ravine, breathing heavily into their respirators. Pete was last, his shorter legs doing a poor job in the high gravity. He turned to look at the ship, resting on its bed of pebbles at the edge of a stream, but couldn't see it anymore. And then he bumped into the two spacers, who had stopped shoulder to shoulder, staring at something ahead.
It was a sea of flickering lights that covered the valley floor and climbed the slopes around it. The cloud cover hung like a ceiling over it all, swarms of luminous insects standing in for the unseen stars. A few metres away, children played around a jumble of bricks like a giant mushroom cross-bred with a house. A woman in rustic attire came out to yell at them, only to gasp and run away as she noticed the intruders. The kids merely froze and stared at the trio.
"Do you think we're in trouble?" asked Casandro in his deadpan tone.
"Dunno," shrugged Jake, "but the air is clearly breathable." He took off his respirator, soon followed by his companions.
A small crowd was coming back with lanterns and torches. They stopped mere paces away, and the two groups scrutinized each other across a gap of many centuries.
"Yes, this Orb is our work. Honestly, I am surprised the spells have held for so long."
"I'm glad it did," purred Casandro. "See, Jake? The legend was true after all."
The cyborg nodded absently, his attention focused on their host. The mayor was a woman of princely attitude and ageless beauty. Dark hair, swept back and tied in a bun framed an oval face of striking palor, and her blue-gray dress matched the bronze of the gazebo they were in. She held the Orb of Seeking delicately, reflections from the lantern above dancing inside the crystal.
"I still don't get it," said Pete, and the mobile on the table barked, translating his question in the locals' baroque dialect. "Why did you have to go into hiding if your magic was so powerful?"
The lion coughed. "See, Pete, when magic was still a new thing, there was widespread fear that dictators would use it to build literally inescapable prisons. And for sure, dictators did jump at the chance. But they forgot that if a tyrant can bend the laws of physics, then so can a freedom fighter. Magic still didn't make anyone special, let alone invincible."
The mayor nodded wisely. "Your friend is right. But my ancestors did not know that. I still find it hard to believe that the galaxy is at peace."
"Well... ninety-nine percent of it is, at any one time. Our homeworld has never seen war, but nearby systems have."
She nodded again, thoughtfully. "So there may be a place for us out there."
"Sure there is!" laughed Pete. "I don't think you need to hide anymore. Well... maybe a little." he added shyly.
She smiled. "You're thinking of those people who are after you? I do believe we should be able to deal with the likes of them."
"You're risking much for us as it is," said Jake. "I don't know how we'll be able to repay you."
The mayor smiled mysteriously. "As a matter of fact, there are some things we need."
She led them across the stream on a stone bridge, then past a water wheel and up a windy path lit by gaslamps and bordered by shops. More than one sported steam engines in adjacent yards. Into a small grotto they went, then out into a smaller depression, bordered by cliffs on all sides. The artificial cloud cover was much thinner here, or rather the sunlight passing through it was stronger and whiter than the three visitors would have thought possible with the local sun. Row after row of vegetable plots took up the middle, surrounded by a ring of fruit trees.
"We tried to reduce our dependency on magic for most purposes," resumed the host abruptly, "but for air and food we simply need to keep our enchantments up at all times."
Jake was the first to understand. "Your plants never adapted to the local sun."
"Some did. But most simply require the kind of sunlight under which they have evolved. With our emphasis on magic, we did not bring suitable technology with us, nor enough engineers. In time, knowledge waned."
Pete was puzzled. "I don't understand why using magic instead of technology would be a problem. Sure, it's not as cool, but..."
Casandro put a hand on his shoulder. "Well, Pete, you know magic doesn't come free, right? It must be fueled with mana."
"Sure! But mana regenerates, doesn't it?"
"Of course. If you give it time."
"Yes..." The mayor's voice was strained. "Our mana wells are drying up. And we cannot reduce our usage any further."
They all fell silent.
"You know," Jake said slowly after a while, "we might have just what you need."
Casandro mingled casually among the small crowd of onlookers, gawking along with them as robots put the finishing touches on yet another of the new buildings. It was a public utility, of course; there was no reason to displace the locals from their existing homes. The changes were disruptive enough already.
"They are taking it well, everything considered."
"You've read my mind, Mayor." he smiled widely, turning around.
She returned the smile. "Have you practiced the spell I taught you?"
"Indeed!" he said. He raised a finger as if he wanted to add something, then closed his eyes. His wings fluttered a little, then vanished. He turned in place cheerfully: only the slits on the back of his jacket remained. She clapped her hands, and with another gesture he made his wings reappear. "Thanks. I'm still working on, ahem, certain details."
"Good! It would not do to let your talent for sorcery go to waste."
He did not have time to protest. A tiny biplane whirred by above their heads, painted in sea pirate motifs but with no apparent pilot. After a failed attempt, it landed on a stretch of land not far from them. There was a flash of light, and Pete stood in the vehicle's place. He came running towards them. "Best toy ever!" he exclaimed from afar.
Casandro caught the boy in his arms. "Did you thank our host for it?"
"Many times," laughed their host.
Pete nodded happily. "Where's Jake?"
"Teaching our scholars about computers. Says about one in five learn easily, while the rest are hopeless."
"That's perfectly normal," the lion assured her.
"Should we go and..." She didn't finish. A short man in a crumpled, worn-out three-piece suit was running in their direction, waving a small telescope.
"Your honor! Your honor! You have to see this!" He stopped by them, struggling to straighten up his hair and glasses while the mayor peeked through the telescope in the indicated direction.
"What do you make of this?" she asked Casandro, handing him the device.
Guided by her hand, he squinted into the eyepiece. To his mild surprise, the effect was to make the cloud layer invisible, revealing the true sky of the planet. That, and a couple of odd falling stars. It took him a moment to figure out they weren't falling at all.
"Rocket engines. It's probably them." He handed back the telescope.
"I do not understand," frowned the mayor. "How could they have found us so soon? Is your spaceship so easy to detect?"
"Not on the ground. Unless... Oh no! Follow me!"
He ran towards the ship, and they followed. "Assemble the council!" called the city's leader, and her underling ran back the way he had come.
Jake was already at the Trashcan when they arrived, furiously flipping switches inside an open circuit panel. "We have a computer worm," he said instead of a greeting. "Good thing you've reset the autopilot permissions after we escaped, or it could have left us pedestrian."
"Giving us away is bad enough. What did it do?"
"It answered to a radio signal, that's what."
"What is going on, exactly?" asked the mayor with some confusion.
"We have a ghost in the machine." explained Casandro.
"Ah," she said, visibly confused. "I don't suppose we can talk to it?"
"It doesn't work that way, no. It's just an automaton."
"Aw, show some faith, Jake." An image began to form in the holographic display above the dashboard. It was Carol.
"Didn't you just shut off the comm array?" whispered the lion.
"C-Carol?" Pete's lip quivered. "How...? Why...?"
"I figured you might run away on me like that," she said softly, "so I hitched a ride."
Two more scout ships screamed past, the sonic booms penetrating even the Trashcan's armored hull.
"Open the comm array, Jake. Let me talk to them."
"Why," interjected the mayor, "so you can give us away?"
Carol pierced the other woman with her gaze. "You don't understand. We're not hostile. But if our people don't know anyone's living down here..."
"Then we still have the element of surprise." She turned to leave.
"No, wait. Did Pete ever tell you what we're after?"
He seemed about to cry. "I would have... but you never told me."
"A home! We need a home, nothing more. The station is falling apart."
"I have heard enough. We have a city to defend."
More meteors were visible in the sky now, coming straight at them. With a gesture, the mayor enveloped herself in a magical aura and stepped out of the Trashcan. The spacers moved to follow her.
"No. You get out of here. We will keep them busy."
"Listen. You have no weapons to speak of, and little magic. Go. Bring help if you can."
She vanished up the path like a wraith. All they could do was watch as the protective cloud cover that had held for generations dissipated in moments, then beams of light from below struck the returning jets. Their engines sputtered and died, and they fell in slow motion, enveloped in the tell-tale glow of magic. Larger drop pods followed, coming from above, and this time the beams had little effect. The air twisted into strange transparent creatures, but the remaining jets were passing through them, drawing them away, protecting the drop pods.
Among all this, the Trashcan went unnoticed as it shot up into space, then out of it entirely.
"It's been weeks. We have to go back there."
They were sitting in the lounge of the Latji spaceport, Pete staring morosely into his mobile while the spacers nursed drinks.
"Us and what army, Casandro? The police in three systems couldn't be bothered to listen."
"We could hire mercenaries." Pete said without looking up. "That antimatter run was lucrative."
Jake smiled. "Sure. Another ten runs like that and we can talk."
They all fell silent again. After a while, an attendant robot walked up to them.
"Mr. Casandro? There is someone looking for you." it said in a tinny voice, and wandered away.
It was a princely woman with very pale skin and dark hair swept back in a bun, dressed in bright red travel clothes. Arm in arm with her stood a black wolf with a cybernetic eye, wearing the now-familiar uniform. He looked much older than last time they had seen him, but also serene, as if a huge weight had been taken off his shoulders. The spacers tensed, but then he noticed them and waved. Timidly. Smiling.
Felix Pleșoianu & Casandro