Dylan's heart is in the OSS but within that framework his tales have the bite of realism. As for instance in this adventure where we're treated to a semi-romantic, semi-scientific picture of Saturn's main moon.
A young woman huddled in an abandoned mining tunnel, bleeding from a hole in her right arm, a gift from her now ex-lover and former captain. She struggled with bloody hands to tear a ribbon of cloth from her coverall for a makeshift tourniquet. She had nothing left - only a few rupiahs in spending money and her pistol. Her ears pricked as she fumbled with the fabric strip, the voices of her once crewmates echoed from the shadowy passageways. They were getting close. She brushed the dark, sweat soaked hair from her face and began crawling, painfully, further into the dark.
The Titanian sky was overcast with mustard haze. Frigid, oily rain fell in drops like quarters and pounded against the muddy frame of a layer-printed plastic habitat. Printing was cheap on Titan, hydrocarbons being readily available, which was a blessing for a wanted woman in hiding. The main drawback was that the life support reflected the price.
Kira shielded the guts of the simple air filtration system from the downpour with one hand and sought the source of its malfunction with the other. Her fraying exosuit shielded her from the cryogenic temperatures without, its neon yellows and greens faded on worlds that received more sunlight than this one, but it made the work awkward. The slick rain made it worse. She ought to return the cover and wait out the storm, but she was reluctant to give up on this particular system even for a little while: if the air inside the habitat was allowed to accumulate too much methane from the atmosphere, an errant spark could be deadly.
Overhead, A shoal of squid-like Ropen drifted, looking for all the world like long, fleshy kites. Kira didn’t give them much thought; the natives tended to stay far above their Earthly visitors.
A frozen, poisonous world where one might explode if they didn’t keep their air clean; It wasn't the ideal place to raise a family, but it was great for hiding. She could even pretend, sometimes, that she was a child on Venus again, standing in a warm morning drizzle beneath the churning blue clouds.
She muted her mic and swore venomously as she battled the machinery. The strain of holding her arm aloft was waking her old wound, and she had to lower.
“Mami.” The voice of her young son, Tirta, came over the general channel. She revived her mic.
“There are people coming down the road.”
Kira started. “Yeah? If this is a joke, I’ll dump you in the sea.”
“No!” Tirta insisted. “There are three!”
“Alright, get inside right now.” Kira switched the private channel she shared with her husband and replaced the cover of the AF system. Their son would do as he was told, when her voice took that tone he knew it was no time to mess around. So did her spouse.
“What is it, sayang?” he said. “Gas leaking in?”
“I wish. You inside?”
“Ya, in the greenhouse.”
Kira packed her equipment and hurriedly trudged through the mud to the shipping container-turned-toolshed she kept behind the house. “I need you to get suited up and get Tirta’s O2 refilled, then go hide in the reeds. And grab my gun.”
Yasu was silent as Kira reached the shed. “Someone coming?” he finally said.
“Tirta says three. He should be inside any minute.”
“I hear him.”
“Good. Be fast, hun.” Kira tossed her tools into the shed and made for the front of the house.
Yasu was there, and Tirta. Her husband’s eyes were wide beneath his yellow-tinted visor. Across the furrowed mud of their blackroot field, three suited figures were stepping off their speckled kuda, five-footed Titanian steeds dissimilar to horses but equally useful. Even through the downpour, it was obvious when the riders unpacked gauss rifles.
“I loaded it.” Said Yasu, handing Kira pistol and gunbelt. “Please be careful, sweetheart.”
The weapon felt familiar in Kira’s hand, even after years of disuse and in the weight of an alien moon. She strapped the belt on and holstered it as her family made a beeline for the forests of black, chitinous reeds that surrounded their homestead.
The visitors were making their way through the field, the foremost of them wearing a black suit with snowy white roses painted on their helmet. They led their pentapedal mounts, the creature’s wide feet churning dark soil as they walked.
“Hey, I'd appreciate it if you kept your animals out of my blackroot.” Kira called.
The decorated figure stopped and consulted with one of his companions, who led the steeds out of the field while the other two resumed their approach.
Cops? Kira hoped so. Police at least wouldn't poke a hole in her suit and leave her to choke.
“Kira Hastif?” The leader asked as he approached, gauss rifle hanging casually beneath his arm. “I am Marshal Marco Taban. My partner here is Sheriff Ira Darmadi.” He gestured to the woman beside him. His Saturn Indonesian was fluent, despite his Earther accent.
“Nobody here by that name,” Kira replied. “Sara Ota. Anything I can do for you officers?”
The Marshal turned to his escort, who unclipped a scanner from her belt. “We obtained Hastif’s genetic profile from the Interplanetary Patrol. All I need is a small sample from you. Let’s go inside.”
“Uh, well,” Kira said, “I’m gonna need to see a warrant before I turn over any hairs.”
“And you are right to insist,” said the Marshal, fishing a tablet from his suit pocket and presenting it to her.
“Okay, you got me.” Kira sighed. “But my last name really is Ota. I got married.”
Taban extended a hand. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Ota, and congratulations.”
They shook. The man’s grip was Earther strong; it was unlikely he’d been on Titan overly long.
“There was no need to send those others away - your spouse and child, I presume? We’d like to be friendly.”
Kira hesitated. “So you brought your big guns… to be friendly?”
“A precaution.” The Marshal assured her. “You’re not under arrest. Shall we carry on indoors? I don’t know about you, but I’d like to warm up.”
Unsure, Kira nonetheless radioed her family to emerge from hiding. They only had so much oxygen, after all, and with Yasu around at least the odds would be a little better. Reluctantly, she beckoned for the lawmen to follow.
“You were identified at the Pantei Berbatu trading post a kilometer and a half south of here. A scavenger recognized you from an Interplanetary Patrol bulletin.”
“A mudder thought he recognized me, eh? And you came all the way out here on that?”
Taban leaned against the moist plastic wall, clad in a tidy police coverall. They had left their exosuits, skins blazing with cold, in the habitat’s airlock. The Sheriff and her deputy had tied down their kuda and come in after her family, and now the four of them were crowded into the cabin while Kira and Taban talked in the adjacent greenhouse.
“Out here past the Belt, sometimes a settler’s word is all we have. And my hope is that mudder’s hunch will lead me to Gabriel Tury.”
Kira’s breath caught in her throat. “Gabe?”
Taban nodded. “Have you been in contact with him recently?”
“No. Honestly, Marshal, I came out here to get away from him more than you. I was doing a fine job avoiding the law before.”
“So you were.” Taban smiled. “What happened? Between you and Mr. Tury?”
Kira unzipped her coverall and freed her right arm to reveal the angry white eye of a gunshot scar.
Taban clucked. “Well then, you’ll be troubled to know that he’s been on Titan for a while now. And that he’s become something of local legend.”
It was the likelihood of being followed - Saturn Liner tickets were not hard to trace - that had driven Kira to lose herself in the Titanian wilderness to begin with. After meeting Yasu and having a child, she had taken them still further out, far from civilization but resultantly far from news. If she’d heard Gabe was nearby, they would have run again, maybe to another moon altogether.
“I’ll get right to it.” The lawman went on. “I want to draw him out, and I need bait.”
It took a moment for the Marshal’s words to sink in, and when they did Kira responded reflexively. “No. I’m sorry.”
“Not even for your family? Surely, you don’t want your son to grow up with the threat of Mr. Tury over his head.”
The greenhouse was suffocatingly humid. “They need me here, I’m the only one with any mechanical experience.”
“You won’t be gone for long, I promise.”
Kira shook her head. “I’m sorry, I can’t.”
“Do you think,” Taban said cooly, “that your family would be better served to have you imprisoned?”
She was reminded of the man’s gauss rifle, still hanging at his side, while she had been made to turn her own weapon over to Sheriff Darmadi. Unhappily, she wiped the sweat from her brow.
“What would I be doing?”
“Contact him and arrange a meeting. We’ll put a tracker on you, and keep a close eye. All you need to do is draw Tury out, and we’ll take over. In return, I’ll forget I ever found you, and I’ll make sure the local precinct forgets as well. You can return to farming blackroot in the boonies, you can even pick up and disappear if you want. No one will try to stop you, at least not in my jurisdiction.”
The lawman seemed to regard the plan as a sure thing. Kira flexed her stiff right fingers.
“You’d just let me go?” She asked.
Taban nodded. “A few months after Gabriel arrived on Titan, he usurped the throne of a man named Pak Suprapto, who managed the illicit narcotic sales in Mambang. We found his body floating on the Kraken Sea in an airtight shipping crate. The cold had seeped in and blackened his flesh before he finally suffocated.”
It wasn’t hard for Kira to believe. When they were together, Gabriel used to do all sorts of horrific things in the name of forging a reputation as a pirate.
“After that, the bodies really piled up. His network extends from Mambang to New Bokor, Ubud, Seldonport… and the amount of keriaan being confiscated off world has more than doubled.”
The colloquial moniker for a local fungoid with a peculiar and euphoric effect on the brain, keriaan was a product of the unique life chemistry of Titan. It was illegal on most worlds and incredibly rare, being difficult to grow outside of its natural setting, and Kira had stolen more than her share of it.
“I’m responsible for apprehending fugitives in this territory, but I’m willing to let the little fish go if I can catch the big one; if you’ll pardon the Earthly metaphor.”
“We didn’t have fish on Venus so much as spiny eels, but I get your drift.” Kira looked again to the cabin where the police were keeping watch over her family. It might be possible to go along with their plan, then escape when their guard was down - but the life of a fugitive was no life for a child. Tirta and Yasu were prisoners here as much as she was, and for her crimes. But with Gabe gone and the cops off her back, even for a while…
“I also want three Saturn Liner tickets to Ceres Station. First class.”
Taban scoffed. “Third class.”
“And I want to have my gun when I meet him.”
The Marshal shrugged. “If it wouldn’t put him off, I’d let you take a grenade launcher.”
The trip to Mandang on kudaback took the better part of two days, with a rest stop at the overgrown box that was the Pantei Berbatu trading post. Kira thought she might find the mudder who identified her, but no one inside showed any hint of recognition when they walked in. Instead, she thought of how her son had cried when she left, and how Yasu had said only “you better come back, sayang.”
Mandang was enormous, two tent-like domes and a sprawl of printed homes not unlike her own. Surrounding the city, great expanses of reed forests had been cleared to make way for the plantations that harvested Titan’s singular flora. Mighty barges pulled into port where they were loaded up with fresh plants and sent off to be sold to Inner System pharmaceutical corporations. Above, distant Ropen circled languidly.
To Kira, the sight of that city, perched on the ebony shore beside a sea like molten gold, was a breath of fresh air. To be around people again...
Unfortunately, she saw little of the city’s populace. Her time was spent at the police station, a plastic wart sprouting from the side of the original dome. After their arrival, she had used Taban’s computer to send a message to one of Gabriel’s old network IDs, and then been escorted to a cell to wait for his response. Thankfully she didn’t have wait long, he agreed to meet at the Lumpur dock provided she came alone and at the hour of his choosing. Taban was delighted, it was exactly what he had hoped for.
The feeble, diffuse sunlight was fading when Kira arrived at the dock a day later. Far from the bustling hive of the barges, it consisted of little more than a single plastic walkway extending over the methane “water”. A solitary speedboat was lashed to it, bobbing gently.
The cold grew worse with dusk, overpowering the thermals of her exosuit, and Kira wished she could duck into the nearby bar and bring feeling back into her extremities. Apart from that lonely establishment, the street was quiet, with every other building turned over to housing plantation laborers.
Taban had planted a tracker in Kira’s suit and then sent the sheriff and her lackeys ahead to get in position atop the printed apartments before discreetly escorting her to the meeting point.
Kira let her bad hand rest on the butt of her pistol. Despite the tremors, she had never learned to shoot with her left. She was berating herself when the bar’s exit airlock cycled, releasing half a dozen figures who turned in her direction. Her eyes jumped uneasily between them. None of them looked like Gabriel, but their suits made identification difficult.
One of the mob, a head taller than the others, pushed to the front of the crowd carrying a small stainless steel cylinder, electric sparks crackling from one end. Casually, the figure tossed the device in Kira’s direction.
At the cylinder’s touch the mud vaporized into a cloud that settled in a coat of frost on Kira’s visor, obscuring her vision. That same instant gunshots sounded, deep and booming in Titan’s thick atmosphere. Practiced habit drew her gun from its holster, but before she could shoot blindly she was pushed to the ground and her weapon knocked away.
“Taban!” Kira heaved, her voice drowned by gunfire. She pushed herself up, arms sinking into the icy slush, but was knocked back once more. Strong hands gripped her shoulders and began to drag her through the mire.
The sounds of fighting grew more intense and her captor picked moved more quickly. She reached over her head and grabbed at their ankles.
“Cuk!” A woman’s voice exclaimed, and with a splat its owner toppled. Kira tried to wipe the ice from her faceplate, but succeeded only in smearing it with mud. She recognized that voice.
“Beth?” She shouted in wonder.
“Come on, blo’on," said the voice, gripping her by the helmet and dragging her once more. Kira tried to wrestle free, but Bethany Castile had always been an ox.
The drumbeat of firearms faded as Kira was dropped on a smooth, bobbing surface - the boat - and it was replaced with a hiss as the vessel’s cabin pressurized.
As the engine rumbled to life she cracked the seal on her helmet and tossed it aside. She was indeed on the boat she had seen waiting at the dock. Around her, the figures from the bar milled, patting each other on the shoulder and exclaiming elatedly.
Beth crouched beside her, muck caked over her enormous suit. Slowly, grunting painfully, she removed her own helmet.
She appeared much as Kira remembered her: gaunt face, hair cropped close to the skull, sad, sunken eyes. She and Beth had been close, during the old days. They used to fight together, drink together, make each other laugh.
Beth sat back, unzipped the torso of her suit, and carefully peeled it back. The coverall beneath was stained with blood.
“Boss!” One of the men exclaimed, rushing to her side. He was short and red bearded, Kira didn’t recognize him. “They got you!”
“Its alright.” Beth placated. “The nicked me. Suit sealed it up before there could be any frostbite. Get me a patch.”
Redbeard moved to the other side of the cabin, grabbed the first aid kit hanging on the wall, and brought it over.
“Who’d we lose?” She inquired, applying a med patch.
“Lnu.” Redbeard said. “The Marshal got him before the Sheriff could take him out.”
Beth grimaced. “But she got ‘im?”
“That’s what she said. Him, and a few of the deputies who never fell in line.”
“Good.” She relaxed as the drugs on the patch set in. “Hey,” she addressed Kira warily.
“Hey.” Kira had thought about seeing Gabriel again on many a sleepless night, but never Bethany. She’d tried not to think about her old friend.
“Good to see you again, bud.” Beth said.
“Yeah.” Kira replied.
“You okay? It got crazy out there.”
Kira nodded.“Gabe sending you to do his dirty work now?”
“He’s busy. Our operation has changed a lot since you… left.” Beth leaned forward. “Sorry, by the way. This isn’t how I wanted us to meet again.”
“Yeah, kidnapping.” Kira replied. “It’s nice.”
Bethany wheezed merrily, a hearty, contagious cackle that used to drain the tension from a room. Kira couldn't help but grin. “Well,” Beth finally said, “it’s not like you were gonna come on your own.”
“Hell no I wasn’t.”
“And you and Gabe have a lot to work out.”
Kira’s smile disappeared. “Do we? He shot me, remember?”
“Are you sure?” Beth asked. “Things were… nuts that day.”
“It was him.” Kira replied coldly. “I told him it was over and he got mad.”
“Look,” Beth placated, “He says he’s sorry, even if it wasn’t him. The way he tells it, you were stressed, which is completely understandable, and you… had a meltdown and tried to run off with the crew’s money. I’ve seen things like that happen. When I was a pit fighter, I saw good fighters completely lose it. It even happened to me a couple times. If Gabe hadn’t gotten me out-”
“He told you I tried to rob you?” Kira replied, suppressing her disbelief. Of course, she thought, Gabe would have his own version of her departure.
“That’s what he says. If it did happen, nobody would blame you anymore.”
“We had a talk like this before I ran.” Kira said. “You didn’t believe me then either.”
The big woman struggled for words. “It’s not that I don’t, I just don’t know what to believe. You’re both important to me.”
Kira shook her head, black hair swaying slowly in the low Titanian gravity. “He shot me, Beth!”
“I know! And I know he’s always had a temper. Obviously he’s not a saint, but he does use some of his money to make life better in the plantation communities. You at least need to give him a chance to apologize, and if he tries anything again I’ll kill him for you.”
Kira pulled herself up to a bench by a window. Fat Titanian raindrops drew slow paths across the plastic.
“It is good to see you.” Beth added after a moment.
After a couple hours of nothing but frothy methane waves they finally arrived at their destination.
Tucked in an alcove beneath a rocky overhang was a ship concealed in the mist. A tugboat, of the kind used to shepherd corporate barges, but far from its home at the docks. Surrounding it were a number of small speed boats like the one they currently occupied, a few coming and going on errands around the Kraken Sea. On the tugboat’s bow was stenciled The Siren.
What held Kira’s attention, however, was the score of Ropen perched upon its deck.
“Looks like we’re making a sale.” Beth explained. “Told you things changed.”
They pulled up to the hull of the larger craft and fastened their helmets. Someone above lowered a rope ladder, which Kira was ordered to climb, with Beth and the others following close behind.
As she reached the top, Kira got her first close look at the towering natives of Titan. They stood at twice her height on five ribbon arms, each tipped in delicate feelers, and supporting a wide, thin kite of a body. As she watched, several of them emerged from the fog like flying molluscs and settled beside their comrades, moving with grace that contrasted their enormous frames. Jewelry and things that might be weapons hung from their limbs, glinting like glass.
And fixed among them, flanked his men, was Gabriel. She recognized him even after her absence and despite his new indigo exosuit, the way he held himself was uncomfortably familiar. He was addressing the crowd of Ropen. “You can see, these are good batteries.” He said with the singsong of a showman, “A blow to the top will break the seal and release a surge of heat.”
As he spoke, a slender woman beside him translated his words to the gurgling language of the Titanians. She seemed to be doing her best to mimic Gabriel’s tone and salesmanship.
“Observe,” Kira’s former lover said, removing a fusion battery from the crate before him. With a quick strike he smashed the cap of the battery against the crate’s lip, eliciting a pop and a sustained spark. The Ropen stirred with apparent approval.
“Ice.” Gabriel ordered, and a speckled chunk was brought forward. With a dramatic flair, Gabriel held the sparking end against its surface.
“Ten sacks of keriaan for the crate.” He said.
If the spark had made the Titanians happy, the resulting plume of steam pleased them still more. One of them, brown with darker spots, bellowed in its strange baritone, conversing with the translator.
She turned to Gabriel. “The shoal leader agrees.”
The demanded number of woven sacks were deposited on the deck, and the crate of batteries was lifted into the air by the aliens. They took to the sky, departing like a school of fish, leaving one of their members behind. This one, a blotchy black and grey, remained motionless until the translator addressed it. It responded in terse grunts.
“Captain, this guy is telling us to pack up and leave. Again.” The woman said, “Says it’s got friends who don’t like our evil toys.”
“Tell it to go away.” Gabriel said, turning his attention to Kira as the final Ropen lifted ominously from the deck.
“Go on, bud.” Beth said from behind her as the last of her abductors topped the ladder and helped the man who had lowered it raise it back up. Kira was overcome with the desperate compulsion to throw herself overboard and make for the shore, there to face a clean death by hypothermia rather than confront her ex.
“It’s alright.” Gabriel called solemnly. “I’ll come to her.” He took long strides, hands outstretched, like a father taking his child into his arms.
Kira made efforts to slow her breathing as Gabriel embraced her.
“Asu, sweetheart, It’s so good to see you alive. I worried every day.”
“Okay.” Kira muttered.
The captain held her at arm’s length, saying nothing. He looked to Beth and the crew.
“Beth, please take Kira to her room, and stay with her. Get her anything she needs. I need to see to our new inventory.”
Kira was led through a narrow airlock into the wheelhouse. Containers of batteries lined the cabin walls, and Bethany pushed a stack of them aside to reveal an exosuit locker with her name printed on the door.
“Gabe always insisted.” Beth explained as Kira stripped off her suit and hung it within. She then led her through the bowels of the ship to the crew deck, where a room was similarly Kira’s. Inside, she found all of the things she had left behind when she had run, all her belongings nearly as she had left them on Gabriel's old rocket.
“He kept it all?” Kira’s eyes were wide. She picked up a flier for CR59 JUMP, a bossa nova/dangdut fusion band she had once loved. It was from her first date with Gabe, and he had gotten the band members to sign it.
“Of course," said Beth.
Kira put the flier down. “I agreed to help that cop. He coerced me, but I think I would have eventually agreed even if he hadn’t.”
Beth’s eyebrows shot up. “Why?”
“Because I’m married now.” Kira said.
Kira nodded. “And we have a son. I didn’t say anything earlier because I don’t want Gabe to know they exist, who knows how he’d react. But we can’t live in fear of my ex forever. That’s why I was at the docks when you picked me up.” Beth seemed about to reply, but Kira pressed on.
“They need me. My husband is a farmer, he has no technical experience, and Tirta’s just a kid.”
“I…” Beth rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I’ll talk to him.”
“Wait.” Kira said. “Let me tell him. He should hear it from me.”
"Are you actually going to tell him?"
"I will, I promise."
Beth nodded after a pause and departed, leaving Kira alone in her cabin.
She found she was locked in. She searched for a way to force an escape, but the door was sturdy, and she knew Beth was no doubt waiting right outside.
With nothing else to do, she passed the time going through her old belongings. Aside from the flier, she found her forgotten clothes, books, tools, and the little stone figurines of Martian Water Gods she had once collected. In one of her toolboxes she found an old, worn screwdriver, which she spirited into her coverall pocket.
There was a knock at her door. A moment later, Gabriel came through, still clad in a chilled exosuit, sans helmet.
Last time Kira saw his face, he was maddened, raging, slinging curses and bullets wildly. Today he looked as handsome as he always had, dark and well groomed, with alert brown eyes and a boyish face that managed to be charming, terrifying or self assured depending on what he was after.
On his hip was his beloved Petier II Repeater.
Kira rose from her seat on the bed when he came in. Neither of them spoke.
“Why?” He finally said. Kira realized with surprise that he was holding back tears.
“Why did you leave? I needed you, and I thought you needed me too.”
Kira’s was incredulous. “I couldn’t take it anymore. And then you shot me.”
Her old lover managed to look hurt.
“I would never.”
“Really? I’ve got a scar that says you would.”
Gabriel’s voice was calm. “When you ran off, there were a lot of bullets flying-”
Kira laughed. “Bullets you shot! You looked right at me and pulled the trigger-”
“Said you wouldn't let me leave-”
“You were taking our money-”
“Yeah,” Kira interrupted, exasperated. “I heard that's the 'official’ version.”
“So whoever it was that shot you I don’t blame them. I’m just ashamed it was my woman who did it.”
“You babi kimak-”
“Don’t insult me.”
“Ngentot lu bajingan tolol-”
The freezing mesh of Gabriel’s gauntlet struck Kira across the face and sent her sprawling onto the floor. His fist was raised in warning of another strike when Kira leapt for him, planting a punch on his perfect face.
Unfortunately, she didn’t hit as hard as she used to, and Gabe shrugged the blow aside, bringing his fist down on her again. Stunned, her mind went to her concealed screwdriver. She fell back, reaching for it, when she found herself facing Gabe’s drawn pistol.
“Gabe,” She said anxiously, “don’t.”
“You’re crazy. Unstable. You’re a danger to yourself and my crew.” The sorrow in his voice didn’t reach his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Gabriel. I’m sorry.” Kira replied, raising her hands.
They stood like that for a long moment, the black mouth of the repeater barrel reaching hungrily for Kira, Gabe overcome by the same calculating, cold spirit that had fired at her in anger once before. She realized, this time, there was nowhere for her to run.
Finally, he lowered the gun. Kira realized she’d been holding her breath.
“You’re bleeding.” Gabriel said, eyeing her temple. He spoke in the soothing tone he always employed after a fight, the reasonable calm that used to make her feel ridiculous for being angry. “I’m sorry. You just… you have this effect on me. You make me so mad, I just…” He holstered his gun, turning his back to her. “I’ll get the doctor.”
As he shut the door, Kira found herself shaking uncontrollably. She sat on the bed as blood ran down her cheek.
A young man had come in a few moments later and escorted her to a maintenance-locker-turned-makeshift-infirmary. There, a spindly old woman examined the side of her head while absently growling Ropen words and phrases. Evidently, the doctor was also the translator.
“I’m Luiza.” The elder had said. “This will take just a moment.”
Kira needed stitches and the medical equipment available was less than par; it was a while before Luiza was willing to dismiss her as “patched up.” She was given pain meds for a mild concussion, along with an order not to sleep and not to “pick at it.”
Her trips to the infirmary reflected a change in her status: she was free to roam the lower deck of the ship, which encompassed only her cabin, the galley, the cargo hold and the infirmary. Her newfound freedom was unexpected, and she surmised it was Gabriel’s way of apologizing to her. She carried her screwdriver at all times, in case an opportunity to make a break arose.
She got a decent picture of his new operation. Far from the raiding of the old days, the tugboat served as the center of a drug network that saw keriaan harvested by the Ropen and shipped to settlements across Titan. In exchange, the natives received the fusion batteries, which Luiza explained they found desirous.
“Started learning the local language a bit after I got here,” she said while removing her stitches a few days later. “Always loved xenos. I also speak Low Canal Martian and a few words in Maxwell Venusian. Anyways, the captain saw a chance to open up trade with the Ropen, thought he might finally have found something of ours they want.”
“What’s that?” Kira asked, wincing as Luiza pulled the string out of her skin.
“As in warmth?
“Yep. Think about it. This frozen mud ball hasn’t an atmosphere fire. I mean, the air’s downright explosive when you get it indoors, but out there, they can’t get a flame going, they never even thought to try.”
“So how did he convince them it was something they wanted?”
“Took some work.” The doctor mused. “Had to demonstrate the concept first. Visited a few of the big shoals and put on demonstrations. It didn’t take them long to grasp the implications, to their credit. Better tools, better weapons, better jewelry. They melt the ice and refreeze it into new shapes. Can’t get enough of it.” She looked thoughtful. “Well, except the grey and black one. That fella doesn't seem to like us much.”
Kira was curious. “It doesn’t?”
“Mhmm. A reactionary type, I guess. Or maybe just over-cautious. Thinks our stuff is dangerous. I’ve heard it arguing with its shoal leader a couple times.”
Kira remembered the glinting weapons the Ropen carried. “Maybe it has a point.”
Luiza shrugged. “Who knows? I do get the impression their wars are lot nastier now. But then, they’re smart, they’d have fire by now if their planet allowed it. The way I see it, we’re just helping them evolve.”
So the week went on. Kira spent most of her time alone. Apart from Luiza, Kira interacted little with the crew, most of them apparently having joined Gabriel’s operation after he came to Titan. It was evident they thought of him as Robin Hood and they his merry men, and he gave generously to churches, temples, hospitals and orphanages all around the Kraken Sea. There, at least, was an explanation for the disloyalty of the Sheriff to Taban. Apart from her limited investigations, the solitude gave her plenty of time to worry about Yasu and Tirta.
She spoke to Beth again only once. Her friend had finally lost her temper, but not in the way Kira would have hoped.
“You punched him?!”
“He gave me a concussion! You kidnapped me!” retorted Kira.
“Jancuk!” Beth cursed.
“You said you’d kill him,” Kira said.
“I didn’t expect you to start things!” The big woman sputtered. “And I don’t feel good keeping your family secret, either. Or the fact that you went along willingly with the police.”
“Beth, please. You can’t tell him.”
Her friend looked tired. “He’s not a monster. If you’d just explain to him-”
“I can't.” Her hand went up to the healing scar on her head. "At least, not yet."
Beth sighed. “I’ll try to smooth things over with him. Hang tight, okay? I told the rest of the crew to leave you alone, so, no more incidents.”
“No more incidents.” Kira nodded. “Thank you.”
Later that day Gabriel met again with the Titanians, and Kira thought she might take the distraction as a chance to escape. To her disappointment, she was kept under watch for the whole visit. When the Ropen finally left, Gabriel could be heard celebrating through the thin plastic walls. Warfare, it seemed, had broken out between two large shoals and his fusion batteries were in high demand. A king's ransom of keriaan was brought below decks. The crew drank and sang late into the night.
Kira was woken by a knock on her door. Sleep had been elusive, as it had each night in the week since her arrival, and she rose sluggishly from her bunk to answer.
Standing there was one of Gabriel’s men, fresh from the outdoors and stinking of gas.
“The captain wants you on the deck.” He said implacably.
Kira nodded her drowsy assent and shut the door to get dressed. The screwdriver was in her pocket as her guard directed her to the wheelhouse. As she opened her locker, she carefully transferred it to a pouch on her exosuit, taking pains to block her actions from view. Suiting up, she scratched the caked mud absently from her faceplate, wondering what it was that Gabe wanted with her outside after dark. The mystery sharpened the ever-present anxiety in her gut.
Finally, she stepped out into the cruel Titanian night. The rain of daytime was snow when the sun set; enormous flakes impossible on a larger world flitted down around her. A blanket had already settled on the deck, and Gabriel was waiting in it with half a dozen of his gun-toting followers.
Kneeling before them was a man wearing a helmet decorated with white roses.
“What is it?” Kira asked, the night air chilly even with her suit’s thermals completely up.
Gabriel answered. “Don’t know him, sayang? He’s a Marshal, got a badge in his pocket. Beth pegged him inside our perimeter.”
Even without seeing his face, Kira could tell Taban was in a bad place. He was holding his leg painfully, and through his clenching fingers an emergency patch was evident.
“Had a… hunch.” He gasped. “Tracking keriaan shipments…” He must have guessed Kira hadn’t told Gabriel about the tracker. His voice faltered, and he shivered violently, as if the gunshot had shorted his thermals.
Gabriel knelt before him and held up his head. “Really? You’re the first, then. Funny enough, the Sheriff warned me about a Marshal who wanted to turn my girlfriend into a trap. He’s dead, supposedly.”
Taban groaned. “I have to wonder,” Gabriel said, standing, “if there might be a connection. Beth, tell me, when you brought Kira here, were you followed?”
Beth stood back, rifle slung over her shoulder. “No, sir.”
“Hm.” Gabriel stood up and faced Kira. “What do you think, sayang?”
Kira shrugged. “Don’t know. Maybe Beth just didn’t see him.”
“Could be, could be.” He said. “But I doubt it. Cops are wiley, you can’t trust them. Sheriff Darmadi claimed to have killed this man, yet here he is. Maybe she also failed to mention a tracking device planted on your suit?”
Even with his helmet on, Kira could feel his watchful eyes on her.
“Oh, you think?” She said, doing her best to sound surprised. “I feel like I would have noticed.”
“Sir.” Piped Beth guiltily. “...Kira isn’t telling you everything.
The captain looked from Kira to Beth, and back again. “What isn't she saying?”
“I wanted to tell you earlier, but she asked me not to. She collaborated with this man. Willingly.”
“How do you know?”
“She told me.” Beth went on. “She wanted the lawman to arrest you because-”
“Diam!” Kira shot. “Don’t!”
“-Because she has a family and she’s afraid you won’t understand.”
Gabriel didn't move. He just looked at Kira and whispered, “A family?”
“Captain!” Came a voice from among the men. “Ropen!”
The night dark was thick and impenetrable, with only the beam of the wheelhouse light to illuminate the dancing snowfall. At the edge of the light, balanced at the nose of the boat, the diamond silhouette of one of the natives towered darkly over the huddled humans before it.
“The hell?” Gabriel sounded more annoyed than surprised. “Does the blo’on think we’re dealing now? Wake up Luiza.”
As he spoke, two more Titanians alighted on the deck, then a dozen more. The very first of them slid smoothly into the light, revealing its skin to be a blotchy grey and black. Weapons of glassy ice, hard as steel, glittered in the yellow light.
Everything was quiet. Men stirred uneasily as the Titanians swayed gently in the icy breeze, anchored to the deck by their long, slender arms. Gabriel backed toward the airlock, hand on his repeater.
Finally, a grey-and-black tentacle lashed.
Its barbed tip punched a hole in the faceplate of the man it struck. He screamed, collapsing in the slow motion of low gravity, as all at once the Ropen descended like a swarm of wasps, stinging and gouging with pointed arms. Guns fired wildly into the air, blowing holes in the thin Titanians, but it only made the aliens more belligerent. Men were pierced, their suits ripped asunder, their bodies flung into the frigid sea.
“Get inside!” Gabriel shouted. Kira saw he had, in the confusion, managed to down the commanding Ropen, and now was dragging it by one of its feebly writhing limbs. Bethany plowed toward the door like a juggernaut, clearing the way, with Gabriel and Kira following after.
Gabriel’s prisoner was too long to fit in the airlock chamber, so he forced it in, bending its light body with a snapping sound. Inside the wheelhouse, the alien flopped onto the floor, leaking clear, watery blood.
“Cuk!” Gabriel hissed. The Ropen moaned, its voice higher in the thinner air of the cabin. It’s skin sizzled and popped as it lay, the methane that made it up vaporizing into gas. With a whine, the hostage died.
The Titanians, seeing their general taken, scratched and battered at The Siren, their growling bellows resounding in a deafening cacophony. The viewport was an angry tangle of ribbons and barbs.
“Terkutuklah engkau semua.” Gabriel said, visibly shaken. “Beth, go below and tell everybody what’s going on. Get them suited up and ready to fight.”
“Yes, Captain.” Bethany replied, turning and stomping down the ladder that led to the lower decks.
The tugboat creaked as the Titanian throng surged against its side, setting it rocking. Kira braced herself against a bulkhead as the wheelhouse tipped sideways, throwing Gabriel from his feet. One of the battery crates toppled with a crash, sending silver cylinders rolling across the floor.
Kira took in the spilled batteries, the disintegrating Ropen carcass on the floor, and her stumbling captor. She thought, maybe, she saw a chance.
She shuffled carefully as the Ropen rocked the vessel again, their low banshee wails mingling with the beating of their arms as Gabriel righted himself.
“Gabe!” Kira called, grabbing his face and turning it towards hers. “Gabe, I need you!”
“Sinting lu!” Her ex-lover responded, knocking her away. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“I love you!” Kira insisted above the din. “You were right! I always needed you, I was just confused!”
“Omong Kosong. You have a ‘family’.”
“I can explain.” Kira replied, drawing him in.
Gabriel pushed her back again, leveling his pistol at her. “Don’t touch me, Asu.” He spat. “I have enough to worry about right now.”
Kira placed her hand on his gun and lowered it calmly, discreetly feeling for the safety. “I have something to confess.” She said, putting her arm around his waist. “But I’m so scared, sayang.”
“Confess?” Gabriel growled as she flipped the switch on the side of his gun. The clamor outside was deafening as the Ropen dug into the hull with their blades.
“It's something I have to show you,” Kira shouted, reaching slowly into her suit pocket.
“Get off me-”
Gabriel’s order was cut short as Kira plunged the screwdriver into his stomach. His indigo exosuit was tough, but she pushed hard, holding the tool in her good arm and leaning into the blow. He gave a quick gasp and threw her off, staring down at the embedded handle with bewilderment.
Kira stooped down quickly, scooping up one of the loose batteries. When she looked up, Gabriel had his gun trained on her.
He examined the weapon with consternation, looking it over and seeing the engaged safety. He primed the gun to fire once more.
With the unearthly moan of a score of alien voices, The Siren tossed again, threatening to tip the ship onto its side. Kira slid back across the floor slick with alien innards, and Gabriel came down on top of her.
Gabriel jammed his elbow into her throat. As he brought his pistol to bear, Kira swung at it with the battery.
The boat rocked again and they were separated, Gabriel's repeater skittering away as they fell to the floor. She crawled desperately toward the airlock as he scampered after his gun, both of them coated in the evaporating Titanian remains.
There was a stomp of boots climbing the ladder as Kira pulled herself into the airlock. Beth, accompanied by a crowd of angry thugs, exclaimed suddenly.
“Gabe! Don’t shoot!” She cried, voice muffled by the sealing airlock door. “What the hell is going on?”
“I wasn’t going to.” Gabriel said, smooth and sad. “Kira’s gone mad! She stabbed me, and now she’s trying to get outside with those things!”
As if to support his point, there was a rattle like a mighty hailstorm as dozens of alien blades harangued the hard plastic hull.
“He’s lying!” Kira called through the airlock door, her voice shifting in pitch as the breathable air was displaced by the heavier Titanian atmosphere.
“Kira,” Beth called. “Don’t go out there. Those Ropen will kill you.”
“So will he.” Kira answered.
“Please, Beth, let me go. My family needs me.”
“Override the door.” Gabriel ordered. “She’s lost it.”
The airlock door popped open as the automatic seal was broken. Kira grabbed the handle, holding it in place with all her strength.
“Beth, get it open.”
The fingers of Bethany’s worn gauntlets appeared around the door’s edge, and she began to pull, Kira pushing against her. It slid torturously aside, Kira fighting for every inch of the widening gap.
“Kira! This is crazy!” Shouted Beth.
“He’s crazy!” Kira groaned, putting her weight into the struggle, trembling with the effort. “I don't know why you won't see it!"
“Lets talk about it,” The big woman said. “Don't go out there!”
“Jack, Sabar,” said Gabriel, determined, “help her get the megancuk door open.”
Summoning the last of her tenacity, she released her hold on the door and swung the battery hard into her friend’s fingers with both arms. There was a resounding crack as the cap gave way and Bethany jerked her hands back with yelp.
Kira frantically forced the door shut and pried the cap free, unleashing a flurry of sparks. She dropped the device to the ground as the airlock completed its cycle.
“Ngentot lu bajingan tolol!” Gabriel raged. “You blo’on! You want to die?”
“Sorry, Beth.” Kira said as the exterior airlock opened. She didn’t hear her friend’s confused response as she leapt out onto the deck and shut the door behind her.
Some distance in the air, the great dark shadow of the Titanian mob was gathering speed for another run at tipping the boat. Kira searched frantically through the scattered bodies, seeking one with white roses on its helmet.
“Mrs. Ota!” A voice called feebly. “Get down!” There was the marshal, lying a few yards away. His suit was scratched but he wasn’t obviously hurt, apart from the wound Beth had given him.
“Can you move?” She called, picking her way hastily toward him. She was keenly aware that the airlock was cycling once more, this time to admit Gabriel and his men. “We gotta jump ship!”
A squirming cloud descended on Kira, battering her with ice and lifting her bodily into the air. She felt a sting as a frozen point punctured her suit, and she flailed wildly, dislodging the blade in her effort to resist the Titanians.
She was freed suddenly by a powerful yank on her foot. Her exosuit sealed her wound as Taban gripped her heel, pulling her hurriedly toward the edge of the boat with muscles hewn in Earth’s mighty gravity well.
In the wheelhouse, Gabriel threw the interior airlock open. The sparking battery within was exposed to the confined air of the cabin, now a veritable soup of oxygen and methane gas.
The tubgoat erupted in a stupendous fireball Kira and Taban hit the surface of the Kraken.
Kira’s homestead didn’t appear to have fallen apart in her absence, which was a relief, but she'd need to be sure. Each of the life support and greenhouse systems would need to be thoroughly inspected before she was satisfied.
Tirta had hugged her, crying, and then Yasu had privately done the same. He promised to prepare a great meal to celebrate, with the Marshal invited - although the lawman had gratefully declined. The speedboat they had commandeered had limited medical supplies, and he needed to rest for a while.
“As I promised,” he said as Kira was seeing him off, “we won’t bother you again. And you’re clear to settle somewhere else if you’d like. The tickets are waiting for you. First class.”
Kira smiled, thanked him and watched him go. She flexed her right hand, barely noticing the stiffness - for the first time in years, the System was open to her. She looked up at the ever present clouds, letting the rain splatter against her faceplate. Somewhere beyond, they would make a new home. Somewhere warm. Maybe Venus.