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Thirteen [Original Sci-Fi Serial Novel]

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Thirteen arcologies drift in the vast expanse of space, the last known remnants of the human race. These bastions of humankind have been traveling for millennia, seeking a new home. They have built their own cultures from what they brought with them, all save the smallest ship. It has no name, only a number, and is the prison ship for the fleet. Inside, the prisoners run amok, controlling the interiors of the arcology, while the warden and her guards maintain control of Command. Once a prisoner disappears into that ship, they never come out. 

Inside Thirteen, the prisoners and their descendants live on limited resources, squabbling between the factions for survival. There are secrets deep in this ship, and a simmering anger that has been building for centuries. When that rage is sparked into fury, there is no escape on Thirteen.

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Chapter One: Nothing Personal

The oppressive silence bore down on the two waiting for the transport. Doyi clutched the arm of his wheelchair, his nails biting into the padding. The dread he’d been feeling since the doctors told him he’d never walk again calcified into terror. He’d tried every avenue of escape to avoid his fate but one by one they had all been closed to him.

He hated and envied the guards in front of him. They were young Han men in the prime of their lives. The two were so casually proud, standing tall on working legs. They had a gift which they were taking for granted–whole, able bodies. Doyi had once taken his body for granted. It hadn’t always been a strong body but he’d never marveled at its power. Now, he would never enjoy it again. He wanted to tell the men what a precious thing they possessed, but he said nothing. He didn’t want to draw more attention to himself; the chair made him a target and speaking to the guards would make it worse. They knew he was bound for Thirteen. They knew his life was over.

Doyi stared at his distorted reflection in the metal doors. He was a brown and black lump at this distance–brown skin and black hair, hunched in the dark chair. Compared to the sterile white docking ring, he was a formless shadow. He’d worn his charcoal colored tech suit as if wearing it proclaimed his value. I’m an engineer! I can still be useful! Don’t send me there! But it was an empty plea. The policies of the Guangdong were clear: the disabled were a burden that couldn’t be compensated by their talents, not when there were others who shared their skills. Had he been the only engineer, then perhaps they would have kept him. But he was not the only one, and they would not let him stay, not unless someone took him in as their burden.

He was not alone in his fate. The woman standing next to him had no arms; like him, her body had rejected the regeneration treatments. The stubs were still covered with bandages and she held them away from her body. She swayed as if she might fall over at the slightest push; her sallow skin was creased around her eyes and mouth with pain. Doyi knew the feeling; his own painkillers were often insufficient against the agonies that plagued his useless legs.

She lurched forward. Doyi thought she had fallen but she shambled into motion. Walking like a puppet with broken strings, she staggered past the two guards framing the airlock doors. The men glanced at her and let her enter the airlock chamber without comment. Doyi watched with numb horror as she awkwardly used one of the stubs to push the cycle activation. The heavy door rumbled shut as the two men exchanged unreadable glances. The small screen next to the door began to count down from ten. Silently, one of the guards reached over and flipped the intercom off.

Doyi wanted to look away but his eyes were drawn back to the countdown. Another screen showed the interior of the airlock; he did not look at that feed. He didn’t want to see her die. Still, when the timer reached ‘3’ he looked, moved by a fear as old as humanity.

Her face was a rictus of pain; the decompression had started and veins stood out on her exposed skin. Doyi locked gazes with her over the screen. She couldn’t see him but her eyes seemed to be calling out to him, begging him to stop the pain. He was powerless to help her, just as the accident had left him powerless to help Zheng. The thought of his husband deepened the ever-present ache in his chest; he closed his eyes for a long moment. When he opened them again, the woman was gone and the airlock was open to the void.

The guard who had flipped off the intercom turned it back on and cycled the airlock. As the heavy door rumbled back open, he offered, “You going to go? Not to push you, but if you do, I can call the transport before it leaves.”

Doyi wanted to take the easy way out. He wanted to roll his chair forward and into the airlock. He wanted to embrace the freedom of death and perhaps to join Zheng in whatever waited beyond this life. He didn’t know that his husband was waiting; perhaps there was only nothing when you died. What did he, a useless cripple, have to live for? Not even love; the accident had taken away his husband when it crushed his chest just as it had crushed Doyi’s spine. But fear of death kept him outside of the airlock. In a whisper of defeat, Doyi muttered, “I‘ll wait for the transport.”

He’d always been a coward.

~ * ~ * ~

Late night was her favorite time. Ángela enjoyed having her staff around and they were undeniably helpful, but her best thinking occurred when she was alone. Solitude only happened when her staff were done with the day’s tasks; they were dedicated people but these projects were her babies.

Not that she had much choice in that, she mused to herself as she leaned over the Ocimum basilicum bay. These were the only children she’d have. The tiny sprouts were bright green in the hydroponics tray, their promise of life already shining like an emerald treasure. Ángela brushed her brown hair back as she breathed in the scent of the growth solution. She thought she could almost smell the sweet basil, too, but it was too early for the herb to have a clear fragrance yet.

Ángela straightened and checked the computer banks over the basil, typing the settings into her tablet. Her new growth medium was working well, but the plants weren’t showing signs of expedited growth. Her exasperated sigh was loud over the whispers of moving water in the hydroponics bays. She was sure she’d found the right formula this time.

Very discouraging. She stared at the words she’d just entered into her notes for a long moment. Pressing her lips together, she erased them and typed, Very good opportunity for new innovation.Ángela didn’t feel much better after writing the words but she refused to give up to the bleak depression that always hovered at the edge of her mind.

Pushing away thoughts of failure, Ángela went to the next bay, where tiny sprouts of Helianthus annuus pushed up jauntily out of the red-stained soil. These was more promising and a small smile graced the woman’s face. “Gracias, St. Isidore.” She had been taught to pray in Latin, yet when she was alone, she preferred the sound of her native Spanish. “Gracias por su generosidad en mi trabajo.” Her fingers moved nimbly over the tiny round leaves, picking loose the sunflower shells that some of the plants wore like caps.

A beep from her tablet drew her attention and Ángela blinked as she saw a new message from her half sister. The subject, Invitation, left an uneasy knot in her stomach. She opened it and read through the wedding announcement, the knot twisting into a stone weight.

She thought she had accepted this but seeing Dona’s invitation drove home her lack of marriageability once again. Ángela stared at the image of her maternal half-sister and her fiance. He was not conventionally handsome but he looked kind and dependable. Pain and loneliness gripped her heart and suddenly Ángela didn’t want to be alone in the lab anymore. Turning from her sprouts, the young botanist started the long walk back to her office.

If it had been her fault, something taboo she’d done or said to ostracize herself, Ángela could have accepted her situation. But her condition wasn’t her fault and Ángela was tired of being stigmatized for it. It marked her as tainted, possibly inbred, and it meant that any sons she might bear would share her hemophilia and her daughters would at least be carriers.

It wasn’t her fault that the people of La Esperanza de Dios hadn’t tracked their familial ties until they’d started to see the traits of inbreeding. Then the answer of correcting their oversight included ostracizing those who were suffering from their ancestor’s lack of foresight. No man would dare to have children with Ángela and what man would marry a sick woman who wouldn’t bear him children? If such a man existed, she hadn’t found him yet.

Ángela stopped walking long enough to rub at her wet eyes, wiping away tears. No matter how many times she swore she wasn’t going to cry over her condition anymore, something came back to remind her of what she couldn’t have. She thought she’d made peace with her fate, but she wanted to marry and she wanted a child.

Find another ship. It wasn’t the first time she’d imagined leaving La Esperanza de DiosThe Arcmight need a botanist even one who wasn’t particularly good at the genetic alteration of the plants. Something had to be used to feed their livestock and few people had Ángela’s gift for coaxing plants to grow in whatever medium was available. Find a place where someone will value you for your gift in spite of your affliction. Find a man who loves you and is willing to adopt. She’d had these thoughts before, but tonight, her sister’s news had created a new urgency in her.

In her office, she set her tablet in it’s charging cradle and dug her jacket out of her drawer. Her movements were too fast and she forced herself to be calm and careful. A banged shin would result in another visit to the clinic and Ángela had no desire to be captive to her body’s treacherous weakness tonight.

“Dr. Orziaz.” The man’s voice jerked Ángela’s attention to the door. He was not a large man but he stood between her and her exit. His dark brown skin blended with the black jacket he wore, and his shaved head and upturned eyes gave him an unfamiliar appearance, particularly on La Esperanza de Dios. His lips twisted into a smile, hard and malicious.

“Yes?” she asked, her voice high and breathless around the tightness in her throat. Ángela reached deeper into the drawer, past her bundled jacket. Her knuckles bumped the handle of the NervStun before she got a grip on the gun. Another man, fair skinned with dark hair and eyes, moved to stand behind the first and Ángela felt her hands start to shake. She didn’t know how to defend herself; with her condition, how could she learn?

“Please come from behind the desk. Leave the weapon. No one will hurt you if you come quietly with us.” His accent was unfamiliar to her; she only knew he wasn’t from her ship. For a moment, Ángela thought about pulling the non-lethal device anyway and trying to fight. She heard a soft cough from behind the two men and realized that there even more people she couldn’t see. She had no chance. Swallowing hard, she abandoned her weapon and picked up the jacket instead. The first man shook his head. “No, no, hababuu. Leave that behind.”

“It just has my medicine in it.” Ángela clutched the jacket, desperate to not be parted from the Desmoclot that would prevent her from bleeding heavily if injured.

“Toss.” The man held out a hand and Ángela hesitated only a moment before throwing to him. He caught the bundle of synthetic cloth, undid the tabs that kept it folded tight, and dug through the pockets. When he found the medicine, he peered closely at the label and checked the bottle for its pharmacy seals. Satisfied that the bottle was truly the clotting aid and not some other drug, he stuffed it back in her jacket and lobbed the garment at her. “Put it on.”

The botanist complied with shaking hands. “Let’s talk about this. I’m not sure why you’re doing it, but–” she started to say, only to have his laughter cut her off.

“I’m doing it for money. Get moving.” When she wasn’t fast enough, he circled the desk and took a firm hold on her arms. A blend of machine oil and some other vaguely familiar scent filled her senses.

“Please don’t hurt me! I’m a hemophiliac.” She had a brief hope that would stop them from kidnapping her.

His grip softened a bit but didn’t waver, and the dark-haired man stepped forward with padded handcuffs in his hands. The restraints even had a longer-than-normal chain between them for her comfort. “They told us that. We’re ready to bundle you up and deliver you unharmed.”

“They who? And where are you taking me?” Ángela didn’t fight, couldn’t fight as the second man secured her wrists.

“They are the lovely gentlemen on board that hired us.” He was watching her closely as he spoke and she realized he was enjoying her dawning horror at the realization that someone onLa Esperanza de Dios had arranged for her kidnapping. “We bring in some ladies with healthy hips who aren’t related to any of the men on the Esperanza, and in exchange, we get to pick up some people to fill orders we have from other parties.”

Leather. That’s what she was smelling, and not the cheap faux-leather; the man’s jacket was real black leather. Runner, he’s a Runner. All the horror stories she’d heard of the mercenaries ofThirteen flooded her mind and Ángela’s vision went gray as her heart pounded in her chest. “Please,” she begged one last time, “let me go. I’ll pay you!”

His smile chilled her to the bone as he moved behind her and shifted his grip to her shoulders. “We’ve already been paid. Now, move.”

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Chapter Two: Petty Rules and Fuko

He tugged self-consciously at the sleeve of his uniform; it felt heavier now, even though Shay knew the left sleeve patch was the exact same weight as the one on the right. The old one was one of the Twelve, the symbol of the HMS Caelum and of home. He didn’t really want to think about the new one.  He sighed and tugged at the sleeve again, trying to settle himself while the transport ship locked onto Thirteen.

Thirteen. How the hell did I end up here? He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose, grateful to hear the dual-tone beep that signaled the Vancouver had finished docking with the scarred and pitted bulk that made up the arcology spaceship ThirteenI wanted a bloody promotion, he reminded himself, one I should have had three years ago. That’s how.  Shay was determined to make this work, to earn his promotion and learn from Warden Misao Oshiro.  He admired her reputation as the commander who had finally tamed the wild denizens of Thirteen and was looking forward to seeing her in action.

“Sir?” asked the corporal with the cute freckles and button nose that had been assigned to transfer him. She had already unbuckled herself from her chair and was waiting at the door, eager to deliver Shay to his new assignment and be on her way back to the Caelum and civilization. He wished he could join her for that return trip.

“Yes, yes, I’m coming.” Shay undid his own harness. At least she didn’t call me ‘ma’am’ again, he thought uncharitably. He followed her through the corridors of the small ship to the airlock. Several privates were unloading the supply shipment and personal belongings of the arriving soldiers.

As Shay disembarked with the new arrivals, a weary-looking group approached the Vancouver. He watched them with a touch of envy; their tours were over and they were going home. Distressingly, only one of them wasn’t showing a scar, missing finger or eye, or some other wound to make the average citizen of the Twelve wince and cringe away. The slim, unscarred man had delicate features and long russet-colored hair hanging loose over his shoulders. Shay wondered if discipline was so lax that regulations and grooming were ignored. Green eyes met Shay’s own violet ones as they passed each other, trading ships. The man wore the stripes of the Assistant Warden under the Thirteen patch on his left shoulder and the patch of the Union on his right; he grabbed Shay’s arm and pulled him close.

“Just do what she says and it’ll go easier,” he spoke low in a Slavic accent. “She’ll get bored quicker and let you transfer back before some Kingsmen or Goddess guts you in the Deeps.”

“What?” Shay blinked in surprise, but the man had already released him, making his way onto the Vancouver without a backward glance.

“Is there a problem, sir?” The corporal asked nervously. She’d heard of other soldiers losing their conviction or their greed when finally faced with the reality of Thirteen, accepting court martial if it meant they could just go back to the safety of their home ship. The pale commander with his white hair, fair skin, and soft, delicate features didn’t look like he should have made it through basic training, let alone have accepted a tour on Thirteen.

He only shook his head after one last look at the Vancouver and shrugged. “No, corporal, no problem. Lead on.”

She let out a relieved sigh and led him through the loading dock and down a maze of heavily patrolled corridors to a set of large double doors. They were emblazoned with the Thirteen logo, twelve four-pointed stars outlined in a circle around a larger center star. The corporal pressed a panel next to the door and announced, “Lieutenant Commander Addison of the HMS Caelum is here to report in for debriefing and assignment, Warden.”

“Send him in and scurry off, Corporal Davison,” a smooth feminine voice replied over the intercom, her words carrying the clipped, precise accent of the Nihonmaru. “I know how much you detest actually having to set foot on my ship.”

Davison glared at the panel and rolled her eyes, then turned neatly and gave Shay a review-perfect salute. “Good luck, sir,” she said sincerely.

“Thank you.” He returned the salute, watching until she was gone. Once alone, he took a deep breath, and when he felt ready to face his new superior, ran his hand over the panel to open it. Stepping forward smartly, he placed himself in front of the large desk that dominated the room, standing at attention. “Lieutenant Commander Addison, reporting in, Warden Commander Oshiro.”

The woman behind the desk was dressed in the same black uniforms as the guards in the dock, though hers was of a far more flattering cut and finer fabric. The patch of Thirteen was sewn on the chest of her uniform, directly over her heart, instead of on the shoulder per regulations. Although her copper skin and almond-shaped eyes were unmistakably Japanese, she wasn’t wearing the patch of the Nihonmaru. She was attractive woman as well, a thought which Shay noted and dismissed as inappropriate.

Oshiro chuckled, “No need to stand on such formalities here, Shay. You are my assistant warden, my right hand. You must learn that life on Thirteen is far too unpredictable to waste time with petty rules and regulations. And most of them are petty.”

He frowned at the use of his given name by his commanding officer as well as her openly cavalier attitude towards proper procedure. It stood in stark contrast to the woman he’d expected from her reputation, which made him nervous. He stood, hands clasped rigidly behind his back, and gave a terse, “Yes, ma’am.”

She stalked her way around the desk, dark eyes studying him as she approached. “You disapprove of what I said?” she asked in a low, dangerous purr.

Shay had met women, and men, like her before, in and out of the Service. They usually thought he was soft, easy prey for whatever their particular power trip was. His heart sank as he realized that once again, he would be judged on his appearance.  He’d hoped Warden Oshiro would be above that. His eyes tracked her as she slowly paced around him. “Yes ma’am,” he replied, “I do.”

“Mmm, so you do have some spirit.” Her voice was tinged with humor and he thought she was grinning. “Good, I’ve never liked spineless cowards under my command.” She came back to stop in front of him, standing tall and proud though her head barely came above Shay’s shoulder. Her tone went cold and hard as she said,“But, it is my ship. My rules.  I am the Warden of this prison and all will obey me, be they guard, prisoner, or fuko. Understood?”

“Yes, Warden,” he replied automatically, still stiff in his stance and staring forward. He glanced down and ventured a question, “Who are the fuko?”

She turned away from him, walking back to her chair, and waved a hand towards the interior of the ship. “The unfortunates, the ones born on this ship. Children of criminals, yes, but some also children of the original crew. They are technically not prisoners but they can never leaveThirteen. Who of the Twelve would ever take them in?”

Shay blinked in surprise, he hadn’t considered before that children were born on Thirteen. The brief history lessons in school had always glossed over the original passengers on the prison ship. He’d had one teacher tell his class that they were criminals on Earth before the Launch, though he’d never found verification of that.  He remembered another teacher telling him that the original citizens of the ship had died out before Thirteen was taken over by the Twelve. The empty ship had been designated as the official prison of what was left of humanity.

The warden took her seat again and shook her head, drawing Shay’s attention back to her. “Oh, do not look so shocked, sweet Shay. Of those that manage to survive to adults, most do so because they are willing to be criminals. By now it is simply in their nature. All decency and civilization has long since been bred out of all but the rarest poor little lost soul wandering the halls. You will learn that you can do nothing to rescue them. There is no room on Thirteen for weakness or mercy, whether it comes from a guard or a prisoner.”

She waited for a reply but the silence stretched between them as Shay struggled with his irritation at her familiarity and his horror at her stark revelations. A slow, knowing smile curved across Oshiro’s lips and eventually she released him with a terse, “That will be all, Shay. You will report for duty in the command center tomorrow at 06:00 hours. You are dismissed to your quarters.”

He nodded sharply and turned on his heel, striding out of the room quickly.  Leaving the Warden’s office wouldn’t let him escape the reality of what he’d agreed to do in the name of career advancement. Once outside her office, he paused to take a breath to steady himself.  Briefly, he battled internally between the voice telling him to call this off and run now, and the voice that told him he had no choice.  The rationale that had brought him here won out and he turned to the business of joining the ship.  He would make this work; he had to make it work.  With familiarity of use, he synced up Thirteen’s computer system with his shiplink. The silver band projected a small holomap above his wrist, leading him to his new quarters.

It was larger than his space on the Caelum, but the light seemed dimmer. There was no wallscreen to display tri-vid programs, or to show nature scenes and pretend to be a window. The room felt close, like the walls were leaning slightly inward.  Dropping his head into his hands he sat on the side of the bed for a long moment, ignoring the trunk of his belongings waiting patiently to be unpacked.

“What have I gotten myself into?” he asked the room, but it gave him only silence in return.

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Chapter Three: Water on the Rodina

“I still don’t understand why you would trust a Runner with this, Narindar.” It wasn’t the first time Vidyahari had voiced her concerns to him. Shivering, she wrapped her sari tighter; Narindar wondered if it was the chill of the hanger bay or the topic that caused her discomfort. “Surely the warden is more trustworthy, and even with the bribe for her, it could not be much difference from the cost of hiring some black-leathered thug with a shoddy transport.”

Narindar sighed and turned away from checking the medical cargo. He put his hands on his wife’s shoulders and gave her a direct look. “I can trust Warden Oshiro for as long as I’m looking at her or whomever she hands these supplies over to. She’ll take her bribe and the legal cut for the guard, and after that it’s just as likely we’ll find the medicine and equipment on the black market or sitting in some storage room on Thirteen instead of going to Zakariya for the clinic.” He squeezed her shoulders and glanced behind her to the airlock, willing the Runner ship to be there already. “The warden is good at her job, beloved, which is keeping Thirteendocile for the Twelve, not ensuring that the people who live there have adequate medical access and supplies-”

“And you think a Runner is any less likely to sell off the supplies, husband?” Keen dark eyes stared boldly back at his, her sepia skin flushed red. She was worried too, Narindar knew, but it had always been her place to question him until they both knew that they were taking the best course of action.  It was his place to listen to her and value her judgment.  In this case, he knew more about Commander Oshiro than most among the Twelve did, to his regret.

“This Runner isn’t just some ‘black-leathered thug’, Vidya,” he reminded her. “Zakariya knows him personally and trusts him- Ah, there he is.”

Klaxons began to ring, signalling the approach of a transport ship. The hangar crew scurried out of offices and storage rooms, grabbing dollies loaded with medical supplies. The computer station by the exit whirred to life as it powered the sensors that would sync the smaller ship with the rotation of the Taraka and allow a safe dock.

Vidyahari sighed and slid into her husband’s arms, kissing the palm of his hand. “Your heart is trusting, Mani. Perhaps too trusting.”

“‘Love without risk is the meager refuge of the coward.’” He smiled at her as he spoke.

She elbowed him in the side, gently, and flashed her own smile back. “You use my own words against me, Narindar Alekar. You truly have become a politician.”

“Sticks and stones, beloved,” he chuckled.

The ship didn’t look like much on the monitors as it sidled into the bay, but both of the Brahmin could tell it was responsive, moving smoothly without hitches as it crossed the gravity well of the Taraka.  Compared to the other transport ships this one was small, despite being more than sixty meters long and half that wide.  Its metal was painted black and lacked a call sign, unlike the shining hulls of the twelve arcology ships and their sanctioned transporters.  The running lights were either off or disabled, making the ship look like a menacing shadow. Unnervingly the docking computer failed to lock, sending a ripple of concern through the bay.

The husband and wife were silent as the Runner ship turned so that it matched the massive arcology’s speed and angle.  “At least they’re good drivers,” Vidyahari murmured, drawing a nervous chuckle from her husband.

After a few moments, the airlock’s light turned from red to green and the door hissed open.  The two people that exited were not what either one of the Brahmin were expecting.  The man was not atypical; he looked mostly Japanese or Korean save that his skin was darker than normal for either group.  His hair was cut short and his narrow beard was trimmed close to his face.  Aside from the black leather jacket that was the defining feature of the Runners, he wore casual, sturdy clothing in dark gray and brown.  He had the scowl that both were expecting, an expression of mixed annoyance and aggression as he scanned the room with dark eyes.  Spotting the couple, he walked towards them.

The woman who exited was less typical; her expression was open and eager as she looked around the room.  She was fair skinned with chestnut hair and bright hazel eyes.  While shorter than her companion, she managed to fill more space with her wide smile and eager motions. Her patched Runner’s jacket swam on her smaller frame, obviously built for someone larger.

“Victor Fujioka.”  The man gestured to himself then to the woman.  “Claudia Dante.”

Narindar inclined his head in a shallow bow, “Narindar Alekar.” He gestured to the elegant woman next him, “My wife, Vidyahari.” Dark eyes regarded the Runners cooly and she barely even nodded, but the smuggler pair hardly seemed to notice the slight.

Narindar moved on quickly, pulling the quartet over to the large crates. “Everything is ready. I was told you would be able to power the cooling units for the transit?” The statement turned up to a question and he glanced between the two of them, looking for confirmation.

Victor gave one short, sharp nod. “Zak made it clear what you needed. We’ll get the stuff there in one piece.”

Claudia circled the crates like a wheeling vulture, eyeing them inquisitively. “That’s a lot of medical supplies, Mr. Alekar.” Curious hazel eyes caught his own chocolate brown, and she tilted her head quizzically. Narindar had to bite down a chuckle as an image of his youngest daughter’s pet cat flashed through his mind. “Why the-”

“Not our business,” Victor cut in with a growl before she could finish her question; he waved an arm at her to move so the dock worker with the forklift could start loading up the ship. “We pick up, we deliver, we get paid. That’s the job.”

The grouse carried the cadence of an oft-repeated mantra and a common argument; Vidyahari frowned at the dark-hued runner and crossed her arms, ready to deliver a mother’s scolding for his rude behavior. Narindar quickly stepped into the breach.

“I am a doctor, Ms. Dante,” he said with quiet confidence and soothing tones. “A healer. My oath and my caste impel me to help where I may and where it is needed.” He gestured to the quickly dwindling number of crates. “I have the wealth and access to do this, so I do.”

Victor grunted and crossed his arms, unimpressed. Claudia made a face at her partner as Vidyana put her hands to her hips and stepped up to the surly Runner, her expression one shade shy of fury. “My husband is going to great lengths and great expense to help your people, Victor Fujioka,” she started.

Dark eyes peered down at her, just as unimpressed by her anger as by Narindar’s philanthropy. “Lady, he said it himself. He’s got money to spend. It’s easy to give away what you don’t need. If he was serious about helping Thirteenhe’d be going, too. You think the Tribe is just chock full of docs and techs that are gonna know how to use all this stuff or repair it when it breaks down?” His eyes slid up to Narindar’s, over the top of Vidyahari’s fuming head, and he shrugged again. “Not sayin’ it’ll go to waste or it isn’t needed, but as far as gesture’s go, it’s a drop of water on the Rodina.”

“Vic,” Claudia said softly, “lighten up. Jeeze.”

Silence fell for a moment, then Vidyahari turned on a heel and marched past her husband, headed for the loading dock doors and the interior of the Taraka. Narindar caught her arm gently, “Vidya…”

Her eyes flashed and she shook her head. “I’ll be at home, husband. Cooking dinner for children that know the meaning of gratitude.”

He let her go and she strode out proudly. He sighed and regarded the taciturn Runner. “There is truth in what you say, Mr. Fujioka,” he admitted after a moment, “but truth and reality are too rarely to be found keeping happy company. I do believe it is time to see to the matter of payment, yes?”

The Runner was staring at the door Vidyahari had exited, his expression wrath-filled.  Narindar was suddenly glad his wife had left; it likely had prevented a true fight between the two.  “Yeah, past time.”  Victor extended his wrist; the shiplink was tinted red, indicating that he hadn’t connected to the Taraka.  Narindar held out his own arm so that the two links could connect directly though the touch interface.  The exchange of funds was done quickly and Victor checked the small display for verification before nodding.  “We’re done here.  You’ll get a message from me when your supplies are safe.”

“Thank you, Mr. Fujioka.”  Narindar offered a hand to the scowling Runner.  “I appreciate your aid.”

“You’re paying me enough for it.”  Victor shook his hand and glanced at Claudia.  “Let’s go.”

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Chapter Four: Kilos of Ass

With Narindar’s goods stowed, the pair of Runners threaded their way through the Atheist’s now-crowded cargo hold and up to the small cockpit. The compartment held all the navigation and communications equipment, as well as a pair of bucket seats. Two slim beds bolted to the wall and buckled up out of the way. They each slid into a seat, going through the disengagement procedures in perfect synchronization and without a word spoken.

As the enormous bulk of the Taraka rolled away from them and the sub-light engines of the ship spun to life, Claudia linked into the Runner navigation database and updated Vic’s course information. He adjusted their path at several points to avoid coming too close to any of the huge arcology ships, then turned over the bulk of the piloting to the ship’s computer. Not that he’d leave the pilot’s seat until they were safely docked back at Thirteen. The auto-nav was basic at best and, Claudia had concluded quickly after their first few weeks together, he was just a too much of a control freak when it came to his ship.

She leaned back in her chair and stretched, settling in for the trip back. “So,” she glanced over at him, shooting for casual curiosity instead of the intense need to know that was itching inside her, “what was that about?”

“What was what about?” Victor’s disingenuous tone might have fooled someone else but the best he could manage with Claudia was a pitiful attempt to divert conversation. Indeed, she stared at him silently, her expression adamant. After a moment, Victor sighed and admitted, “It’s exactly what I said – he’s throwing money out the airlock to show what an awesome guy he is.” Victor shook his head in disgust. “It’s a show, a ploy. Nothing more.”

“So?” Claudia shrugged. “Even if he’s just showing off, that’s not a reason to be such an ass to him.” She stretched farther, arching up out of the seat and popping several points along her spine. “I mean, don’t get me wrong,” she continued, the edges of her lips curving up just a little, “you are an ass. But you put on like twenty kilos of extra ass just for that guy – well, and his wife, but she was kinda snotty, so it doesn’t count as much. But now you’ve got twenty kilos of ass to work off and the hold’s all full of delicate medical stuff.” She was grinning fully by the time she was done, tensed to to roll out of the chair if he decided to throw something at her. With the clutter of electronic odds and ends she left strewn over the small room, there was almost always something at hand that he didn’t care about.

Victor scowled for a long moment. “If he was just shitting on money and flushing it into the void, that’s his business. But Zak is… This Brahmin is giving the Tribe false hope. It’s like I said – they’re getting stuff they can use, but they’re also gettin’ stuff they can’t. That’s what has me pissed. It’s not that he doesn’t care, it’s that he’s doesn’t care enough to think for three minutes about what the Tribe can or can’t do. If it was medicine and bandages, it’d be a nice, pretty, self-serving gesture. But what are they going to do with an MRI scanner? Who there knows how to read it? Or even use it properly as a diagnosing tool? The Chemists snatch all the doctors and scientists who come to Thirteen and everyone else has to buy from them or make-do with fungus and folk remedies. It’s not just pointless, it’s pointless and self-serving.”

Claudia settled back into the chair and rubbed the side of her neck along a faint scar tracing from just under her jaw down to her collarbone. After several moments of thought, she shrugged, “Well, Zak could have told him. I mean, they’re in contact somehow, right? Or Zak wouldn’t have personally asked us to take the run.” Vic grunted and Claudia rolled her eyes; sometimes he was thirty kilos of extra ass. “Besides, even if the Tribe can’t use the machines, it’s not like the Chemists have ones as nice as this. They’re still a damn good bargaining chip. Alekar might be clueless about what it’s like on Thirteen, but pretty much everyone is. At least he thinks there’s a chance they can use all this stuff.”

She paused, then added quietly, “And he also believes that anyone on Thirteen is worth having it to use. Even if it’s just showing off, he could have kept it on the Taraka or sent it to some poor sector on one of the other Twelve.” She watched the panoply of arcologies, stars, and other small intra-fleet ships spinning slowly outside the cockpit windows. “Zak’ll take selfish and self-serving pity over corrupt indifference any day, and you know he should and he has to. Beggars can’t be choosy.” Her eyes slid back over to him as she realized something. “That bothers you more, doesn’t it? That Alekar gets to be ignorant and arrogant and pat himself on the back for a half-assed job because it’s not like he’ll ever step foot on Thirteen to train anyone in the Tribe on how to be a real doctor or use all the equipment he’s sending, and Zak just has to nod and smile and say ‘thank you so much, kind sir.’”

“You don’t understand Thirteen until you’ve been there.” Victor spoke softly but pain and anger coiled in his tone like twin serpents. “You’ve seen it but you know it as a Runner. You didn’t grow up Tribe and you’ve never lived on the benevolence of others.”

“Which is why you became a Runner.” Claudia nodded in understanding; being a Runner offered freedom and self-sufficiency.

Her taciturn friend was quiet for a long moment before he added, “I became a Runner so that everyone in the Tribe would stop expecting me to become my father.”

Claudia didn’t have anything to say to that; family was one of the few subjects she didn’t have quick retort or teasing jibe for. After all, she’d left the safety of the Twelve for a life without any legal protections and all the dangers of being a Runner because of family. Not like Vic, but close enough. He rarely talked about his family, either. She waited for more but that single line seemed to be all he wanted to share.

“Oh,” she said into the silence a few minutes later, her tone careful and just a touch cagey, “I need to go to Processing when we dock. Got a delivery to make.”

Victor twisted in his seat to give her glare. “A side job? Because those always work out so well.”

“It’s a simple delivery!” The auburn-haired woman protested as she crossed her arms and slumped petulantly into the seat.

Victor snorted. “So was the time we delivered that furniture to The Malak for that sheik’s wife. Through a hail of projecs after the wife tried to seduce me!”

“Hey, she made a pass at me, too.” Claudia grinned. “I don’t know why you were so upset. She was pretty.”

“She wasn’t my type and her husband’s guards weren’t too happy.”

The tech genius held up a finger. “So one side job – One! – that went bad, and I never get to pick another one?”

“No, you don’t. Because it wasn’t one,” Victor retorted. “What about the fish eggs?”

“Hey, the contact didn’t secure the crate-”

“Or the stolen silk that we tried to deliver to the guy our contact had stolen it from?” Victor glared at her.

She shrugged and grinned, unrepentant. “Hey, you don’t learn without trying. Besides, this run isn’t like those. No theft. No fish. Just delivering some personal stuff to a new arrival.” She gave another small shrug, her smile slipping a little, but still there. “I figure the guy should have something from home, y’know? And the pay’s good, but not too good.”

Vic let out an annoyed huff and shifted his shoulders. “Fine, but it’s your delivery. I’m coming with you to Processing, but if it goes sour, you’re paying for anything that gets broken. Including me.

The grin came back in full force, its own miniature sun in the small room. “Aye aye, captain!”

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Chapter Five: Side Job


After unloading the supplies and locking them up, the pair of Runners walked to Processing. It was the first room that new arrivals on Thirteen saw. The sizeable area was designed to secure up to six dozen prisoners but it had been years since the prison ship had seen so many arrive at once. Today, the room only held a few people aside from the guards. Two beefy-faced man were shackled together and whispering in Russian, ignoring the two guards issuing them new clothing. A Middle Eastern woman with an ugly facial scar and an uglier stare was watching the men in the room. A female guard verified her identity through the woman’s shiplink before stripping it off her wrist. A third guard was taping up a seated man’s arm; the slight prisoner looked scared. Claudia winced in sympathy at the bandage; she’d never had to remove her own chip and Vic had been born on Thirteen, so he’d never had one. They’d seen and heard stories about getting it cut out without a local to numb the pain. Often the cut would get infected once the new arrival got tossed to the corridors outside of Processing–those that survived long enough for infection to take hold.

“So, who is it?” Victor asked, scanning the room.

“Oh, shit.” Claudia grabbed his arm and used a finger to point at the prisoner in the corner. Victor started as he realized that the man was sitting in a wheelchair.

She gripped Victor’s arm harder, the toolcrate in her other hand suddenly a lead weight. “We can’t leave him here, Vic. He won’t make it ten meters in the halls before-” She cut herself off, not wanting to voice one of the too many horrible ways to die in your first few hours on the prison ship.

“We don’t take in strays,” Victor scowled at her. “I wouldn’t have taken you on, if you hadn’t hijacked my ship.”

“I don’t mean on the ship. We’re going to the Tribe anyway. Vic, please,” her hazel eyes implored him as her nails dug into his coat.

Victor broke first, looking away from that pleading gaze. “Damn it.” He glowered at the frail-looking man huddled in the chair. “Damn it! Why do I let you talk me into this?” Stalking across the room, trailed by Claudia, he stopped short in front of the man. “You processed yet?”

“I’m… sorry?” The new arrival was almost cowering from the angry man looming over him.

Victor took a deep breath but it was Claudia who spoke, setting the toolbox in the new arrival’s lap. “We have your tools. Have they processed you?”

The timid man nodded. “Yes. They said I am… free.”

“Yeah, that word’s a kick in the teeth around here, ain’t it?” Victor grunted as he walked behind the man’s chair, releasing the brakes and pushing it into motion. “Don’t worry, it’ll only get worse.”

“Wait, where are you taking me!” Panic bubbled up in the prisoner’s voice but the guards didn’t intervene as Victor exited with him.

Claudia put a hand on his shoulder as they walked. “Somewhere safe.” She spoke intently, willing him to believe her and trying to distract him from his panic. “My name’s Claudia; this is Vic. What’s your name?”

“He. He Doyi.” His voice shook and his fingers gripped the arms of the chair tightly.

“Welcome to Thirteen, Doyi.” Victor sounded more sardonic than friendly as he wheeled the man rapidly through the hallways. Away from Processing, the corridors became grubby and the lighting sporadic, leaving pools of darkness where no one had replaced the LEDs. Ragged holes appeared in the floors and walls as they left the safety of the areas patrolled by the guards.

They were halfway to the secure point where they’d left the medical supplies when Victor paused. “Well, fuck.” Claudia peered up at him as he drew his knife from his belt. “Claud, take the chair.”

His partner did as he asked, ducking in front of him to grasp the handles of the wheelchair. “Who is it?” she asked as she started to push it forward.

“Not sure. But someone is following us.” Victor shifted his grip on the blade; it was as long as his forearm and honed to a sharp edge. When Doyi caught sight of the weapon, he stared as if he’d never seen a knife before.

Claudia leaned down, her expression taut with adrenaline, and murmured in Doyi’s ear, “Can you fight?”

“No! I’ve never-”

“Of course not.” Victor sounded pissed as he picked up his pace to slip a small gun into Doyi’s lap. “If one of them pops up in front of us, point and pull, buddy.”

Doyi stared down at the gun as if a live snake had been dropped on his legs. “I can’t-”

“It’s a flare gun,” Claudia instructed him tersely. She wished she had a few moments to calm him down, but they had no time to deal with Doyi’s fresh-meat nerves. “Aim at the center of their body and shoot. You’ll get a single shot.”

“I can’t-”

“You fucking can and you fucking will.” Victor’s order snapped like a whip. “I’m watching our sixes and Claudia is fuckin’ pushing you. Our asses are in the fire together, and you’ll pull your weight or I’ll leave you to the Kings or the Goddesses or the Porkers or whoever is following us.”

“At least try,” Claudia urged in a softer voice, squeezing the Chinese man’s shoulder for a moment. Doyi nodded slowly, shaking hard enough that any attempt to aim would likely be useless. Claudia smiled at him and squeezed his shoulder gently once more before putting her focus on keeping his chair in motion.

Their path would take them to the right but Victor waved Claudia down another hallway. A door bisected the corridor; Claudia moved to the panel quickly removing the cover. With sure, quick motions, she pulled the opticards out of their slots, sealing the door shut.

Victor moved to the edge of the hallway and knelt, peering around the corner and over the path they’d just taken. “They’re coming,” he muttered as he slipped back to them. “No projecs, thankfully. Here, I can take the flare now.” Doyi happily relinquished the improvised weapon to the Runner.

Claudia grimly pulled out a small taser. “If one of them gets past Victor or I, you’ll have to defend yourself.”

He paled further. “How can I?”

“You have that heavy wrench – use it.” Claudia smiled at him, trying to be encouraging. “Half the time, when you fight back, they’ll leave you–”

She chopped her words short as a form in ragged clothing peered around the edge of the hallway and then pulled back quickly. Victor crouched and readied the flare; Claudia knelt behind him, aiming over his shoulder. For a long moment, all was silent, save the hints of whispers as their attackers planned. Claudia watched Vic; he had a knack for knowing when people would act, and when he tensed, her attention returned to the corner. She was just in time to see the charge.

As their attackers rushed them Victor fired first, creating a blazing trail of light. The flare hit the leading man in the chest; he yelped and jerked away from the heat. She and Victor had trained for this, so Claudia fired her taser at the form to the left of Victor’s target. The gun didn’t look like much, but the electroslug threw the person to the floor with a halo of lightning highlighting their spasming body. They were down for at least five minutes, more than enough time in a fight like this.

The young woman’s hands were steady as she reloaded the energy weapon; long hours of practice allowed her to do it without thinking. That had been Victor’s doing too; he’d made her practice over and over until she could have loaded her gun in her sleep. As she prepared her next shot, her partner rose to his feet and lifted his blade. The remaining five attackers were advancing; they started to split into three groups but Victor closed to keep them off of Claudia and Doyi. He presented too tempting of a five-to-one target for their enemies and they turned on him. For a moment, Victor was in the heart of a flurry of slashes as they tried to dogpile him; then Claudia fired again and another one went down, writhing and twitching.

The remaining four paused, rethinking the fight almost as one. In the enclosed hallway, the stink of the poorly-tanned skins of the assailants was pungent and the faces that looked out from under their hoods were a mixture of ethnicities but unified by signs of malnutrition and scarring. They looked frightened and desperate.

The hesitation ended when Victor thrust his knife into one’s gut and jerked sideways, opening her stomach. The dark-skinned woman began to scream as her entrails and blood hit the floor; her shrieks were monstrous in the enclosed hallway as she collapsed. Another woman, pox-scarred and wild-eyed, lunged at Victor with a howl of rage, her knife slicing toward his torso. The Runner used a sweeping block to turn the potentially fatal blow into a glancing strike. She hit him in the chin with her fist, her blow hard enough to rock him back a couple of feet. The two who had held back started in as Claudia aimed her last shot and fired. Her electroslug hit one of them and the last one stared a moment before fleeing.

The woman fighting Victor didn’t stop; she was in a frenzy and she sliced at him again. Victor ducked the knife and tackled her to the bloodied floor, pinning her. Claudia stepped forward, watching for an opening to help her partner. The chance came when Victor pinned her armed hand to the floor, and Claudia kicked the woman’s blade out of her grip. Without the threat of her knife, it took Victor only a few seconds to gain the upper hand and slip his blade between her ribs. She howled again, her scarred face twisted with pain; Victor’s expression was hard as he held her down. Claudia watched tensely until the woman went limp; Doyi’s face was full of horror and Claudia felt sympathy for him again. Those who had grown up on the sheltered habitats of the Twelve were often not ready for the violence that was routine on Thirteen.

Victor staggered to his feet. “Fuckin’ Porkers,” he gasped as he doubled over with his palms on his knees, trying to catch his breath in the fetid air.

“Agreed.” Claudia glanced at the others, the wounded woman, whose moans were slowly fading, and the three tasered men. “What about them?”

Victor straightened. “I’ll take care of them. You get him out of here.” He pointed at the ghost-white Doyi, who had developed a tremor in addition to his expression of stark horror. Claudia nodded and re-enabled the door. When it opened, she wheeled him into the cleaner hallway.

“Please…” Doyi’s voice shook but he persisted in asking, “who were those people?”

“Porkers. The Foremen is what they call themselves.” Claudia made a face, both at the mention of the most-hated group on Thirteen and the necessity of shattering the new man’s innocence. “They’re slavers and butchers. They deal in flesh of all kinds.”

Doyi swallowed hard, staring at the wall of the ship. “Why did they attack?”

Claudia’s expression softened as she tried to explain it gently, so as not to scare him anymore. “They probably thought you’d be easy to take, kill, and sell your parts.” She laid a hand on his shoulder, offering what sympathy she could. “That’s why Vic and I are taking you to the Tribe. They’ll protect you from people like the Porkers.”

“They’re dead.” Victor emerged from the hallway, his expression hard. He had a bundle of cloth; the outline of the former Porkers’ weapons pressed against the exterior as he slung it over his shoulder. “Sorry, Claudia, they didn’t have anything of value to you.”

The young technician shrugged. “I don’t expect Porkers to have any fun toys.” She moved to her position behind Doyi again. “Ready?”

Victor started walking, reloading the flare gun. “Fuck yes. Let’s go before someone else, like the fucking Goddesses, decide to jump us.”

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