The Clan Chronicles # 4 - Trade Pact
Lost on an alien world,
Her memories stolen,
All Sira could do was run.
To do that, she needed a starship.
First Published in 1997 by DAW Books Inc.
Cover art by Luis Royo
Editor’s Choice SFBC
10th Anniversary Edition published in 2007
by DAW Books Inc.
The rain had also stopped, although drips continued to slide from the roof tops, usually on my head. The chimes sang softly to themselves. Over those same roof tops, the rising sun was melting away the storm clouds, gilding the spires beyond them with gold. Those spires. I puzzled over their irregular, narrow shapes for a moment; they couldn't belong to buildings. It took several heartbeats before I allowed myself to believe I was looking at the tips of starships. Now, I knew the way to the shipcity. The question was, which set of twisting alleyways would take me there?
Considering that my mind was almost empty, I was almost grateful for the compulsions trying to pass themselves as my thoughts.
Find my ship.
Perhaps I'd made those decisions but couldn't remember my reasoning. They gave me a purpose I accepted without questioning -- yet. But more and more I wondered what was missing from my mind. The universe, and my place in it, could not have begun last night. The piles of old litter in the streets proved that much.
But as I tried to concentrate, to think about myself, my mind grew fuzzy, unfocused. I quickly tired of the effort; it was like trying to pull a hair out of syrup. I'd work on survival, and think about regaining my place in the universe later. My stomach growled its agreement and I knew it was time to move again. But where?
As if yanked by a thread, my head turned without my deciding it, scraping my cheek against cool, wet stone. I blinked, unsure of what had attracted my attention.
I was looking along another of the All Sapients' District's narrow winding walkways. I was alone. Doors, some sporting colored and, to me, incomprehensible signs in the local language, others firmly barred and forbidding, lined the walls on one side. Where I stood was an unbroken depth of shadows, with the still-shuttered windows of living quarters beginning on the upper floors. As I watched, rooted in place by some anticipation I didn't understand, a door burst open across from me.
“Sleep it off on your ship, Outsystem Dregs!” This bellow in accented Comspeak was warning enough -- I wasn't surprised when a figure was propelled out of the doorway. I winced at the smack as it hit the pavement and slid into a pile of waste. The door slammed shut. I moved, thinking to help the unfortunate creature, then froze -- the impulse checked by the clattering of a shutter above. Stay hidden, I reminded myself.
Two pairs of arms, one pair glittering with golden paint and the other striped in green, waved from the open window. They were female arms, slender and adorned with bracelets. The man, for once he pushed himself up to a stand I could see him plainly, glared at the now-closed door before bowing gallantly to the occupants of the window above.
He then began to stagger away. As he did so, he set his foot down carelessly and twisted about in a full circle. This brought titters of laughter from the window, but I drew back, startled. As he spun around, the seeming drunkard had raked his surroundings with eyes of vivid blue -- eyes which found me unerringly and which were anything but clouded by drug or drink. Then, to all other observers a fool ending a binge, the fascinating man wandered off, his path weaving toward the shipcity.
Another tug on the thread -- this time stronger. Shrugging my shoulders, which hurt my arm, I began following him, unable to refuse that urging and wishing I knew how. True, the man was dressed as a spacer, with coveralls not much better than my own. Significantly cleaner, I added to myself honestly.
He has a ship, something inside of me gloated.
Fine. But how did I know his ship was the one I had to find? His exit from the inn could almost have been planned, as if he needed to deceive any watchers. Maybe he was a smuggler -- or worse, one of the pirates who made their living preying upon the space traffic of fringe systems like Auord's. A normal, sane person would avoid this man.
But a ship was a ship. And I understood enough of my fragmented thoughts to know I was hardly normal, though I hoped at least sane. If the mysterious figure ahead, whose clumsy steps miraculously avoided the more odorous litter underfoot, could lead me to a starship, to transport off Auord, maybe I could silence the compulsions drumming in my head long enough to think for myself. With the utmost care, I kept my spacer just in sight.
Abruptly, he was gone! I gasped, instantly and unreasonably desperate. I hurried forward, turned a corner too sharply, and was roughly grabbed from the side. Frantically, though silently, I kicked and twisted.
“Stop,” a voice breathed in my ear as my body was given a quelling shake. “What were you planning, thief, a knife in my back?” Then, as if considering a new, more unpleasant possibility: “Or were you sent to follow me?”
“I'm no thief. Let go of me,” I said, thoroughly disgusted. His grip pulled me into the shadow of a nearby doorway, then released me.
I rubbed my bruised arms and eyed the spacer warily. There was equal suspicion in the tanned, plain-featured face glaring down at mine. His clear, shockingly blue eyes were cold and hard. “If you're no thief, then perhaps you're worse -- a runner for ~~**~~.” My surprise at the chirping whistle emitted by his pursed lips must have been plain enough. He frowned, a trace of puzzlement raising one dark brow. “Stop looking so desperate, chit. I won't hurt you. But you'll tell me who set you on my back.”
He made it sound as though he had some unknown means to force such information from me. I stifled an urge to laugh. “I followed you because I need transport,” I said truthfully, though I doubted he'd believe it. “Back there, I heard him say you had a ship.”
For the first time, the man seemed to notice the spacer clothing I wore, so like his own despite its present unwashed state and odd size. His nose wrinkled. “Who are your kin?” he demanded. I realized with a rush of hope that he was becoming troubled.
Kin? A word possibly with meaning for another me; an empty space here and now. “Do you have a ship or not? I need to leave Auord.”
“I don’t need crew,” he said, his expression making it plain that he’d rather be somewhere else too. But he hesitated.
“We're both spacers,” I pleaded. “You can't leave me stranded.”
He was silent for a moment, blue eyes hooded. I could hear a distant murmur -- voices. We were close to the market. Louder was the pounding of my heart, counting each second in double time.
Then: “I'm sorry, chit,” and there seemed an honest regret in his voice. “I'm booked for lift already. Your kin must really be down on their luck. Spacers should stick by their own. Especially on this dirtball of a planet.” He paused and then shrugged as though he was doing something against his better judgement. “Here.” One hand dug into a pocket and pulled out a crumpled handful of what appeared to be local currency. He pressed it into my unresisting fingers. “Next street over you can flag yourself a groundcar. Go to the north gate and ask at traffic control for Thel Masim – Got that?”
“Thel Masim, north gate,” I repeated without understanding.
“Tell her Morgan of the Fox sent you. Thel’s got a soft spot for youngsters. That's the best I can do.”
I raised my chin. “I don’t need her help. I need to get off this planet. I must leave. Please...” then, although I didn't plan it, my voice failed me. Waves of exhaustion and pain roared in my ears. I leaned back against the doorway.
The spacer, Morgan, had already assumed an absent-minded air that I knew meant he was done with me. “I’ve been grounded myself a few times, chit; happens to everyone,” he said briskly. “Start taking care of yourself though, or no ship will take you. Get a wash and a good meal…you’ll feel better.”
Suddenly, I was looking at his back. He was leaving.
And I would have to follow, whether I wanted to or not, even if I had to crawl.
I tried to call after him, but my voice lost itself somewhere in my throat. He turned a corner and was out of sight. I shivered, dropping the currency heedlessly to the ground. One thing I couldn't do was lose him.
The compulsion to follow was strong enough to push me away from the doorway’s support, when I couldn't have done it alone. I had to get to my ship. I had to follow Morgan.
I had only taken a couple of unsteady steps when a familiar sound whined out of the rain, exploding against my skull to drag me like an anchor into total blackness.
For fun, this excerpt is from an early draft of A Thousand Words for Stranger, rather than the finished, published version. There were a couple of changes -- less than I’d thought there’d be when I pulled the file out of the archive. © 1997 Julie E. Czerneda and DAW Books Inc.
Used with permission.