The jungle was eerily quiet.
Hugging the uneven ground behind a thin screen of greenery, Nathan Graynor peered over the precipice to where a dirt road followed the narrow, undulating floor of a steep-walled canyon. The suns, one yellow and one orange, were high overhead. Anyone glancing up from the road toward either ridge would only see glare.
The perfect time and place for an ambush.
The day was cool and a breeze blew steadily. Still, sweat trickled down Nathan’s face. Nerves, he told himself, knowing that was at best a half truth.
With the barrel of his laser rifle, he nudged aside a frond for a clearer look. (The fern was green, clearly terrestrial. Across the rugged gorge where the second group of rebels hid, the red-gold vegetation was as plainly native.) Ruts and potholes scarred the primitive road: no obstacle for antigrav vehicles, but scarcely navigable for anything with wheels.
He wasn’t afraid, not exactly. Fear would have required truly believing that this was happening, that he was here.
Life had been that way, surreal, since the missile punched through Clementine. The emergency restraints in the pilot’s couch had saved him. Everyone else aboard died when the ship broke apart. Resistance fighters reached the wreckage first. Deep in shock, unquestioningly, he had gone with them.
He took small, measured sips from his canteen. He took deep, cleansing breaths. When neither calmed him, he looked skyward for serenity, at the birds and their native equivalents soaring effortlessly in the thermals that rose from the plain. That didn’t work, either.
In the Resistance camp he had drawn plenty of sideways glances. The rebels didn’t fully trust him—yet here he was. Maybe they had chosen not to leave him behind unguarded. Maybe, finally, they felt comfortable with him. Or maybe they wanted to see if he would bolt into the jungle given the chance. (Would they have let him go? He didn’t think so.)
One way or another, his presence here was a test.
A faint droning drifted Nathan’s way, and hints of metallic clanking. Over the plain below, in the far distance where jungle still hid the road, a cloud of brown dust now hovered.
Their target approached.
The aristos controlled space around Wunderland more completely every day. Nathan—and even more so, his former crew—had learned that the hard way. Snoopersats might intercept even the briefest radio whisper. And so from Nathan’s left, where Logan, the leader of this guerrilla band, lay hidden, the most basic of signals: a soft avian trill.
Nathan whistled an acknowledgment as best he could, not knowing what he tried to imitate. More “birdsong” to his right and from across the gorge. The guerrillas wore camouflage over their improvised armor; even with their whistles to guide him, he spotted no one. Seven answers in all, including Nathan’s own.
The crossfire would be deadly.
Reviewing what had passed for training—mostly “If it reflects, don’t shoot it” and “If you see them, assume they see you”—Nathan raised the laser rifle to his shoulder. (There had been a lesson, too, on improvising explosive devices from house hold chemicals. Making bombs scared the hell out of him, and he tried his best to leave that knowledge theoretical. Seeing his hands shake, others had built the explosives now hidden in the ravine far below.) Through the scope he followed the barely-a-path across the rocky plain below. Not-quite trees swayed where the road entered the lower jungle.
The first vehicles emerged: tractors, cargo floaters, flatbed trucks. Civilian vehicles, all. People jammed the truck beds, balanced precariously on the sideboards, plodded alongside on foot. Another few minutes would bring the caravan into the canyon. Into the trap.
Birds circled high overhead, indistinct against the suns’ glare. Their presence, perhaps, signified nothing.
In his mind’s eye they were vultures.
Cranking up the magnification Nathan saw more women and children than men. Everyone kept glancing fearfully over their shoulders. He saw a few dogs and even a sway-backed horse. Here and there people clutched hunting rifles, but that didn’t make them the enemy. Who would venture into this wilderness unarmed?
He zoomed closer still, examined weary faces. Half the adults looked old. Boosterspice was plentiful, if pricey; to look old meant you were poor. Most men’s chins were stubbled, but of asymmetric, pointy-on-one-side/close-cropped-on-the-other beards, Nathan saw not a one. Only Wunderland’s aristos sported those ridiculous, high-maintenance affectations as symbols of indolence and leisure.
This couldn’t be the rumored garrison resupply convoy. Nathan waited for the call to stand down. Instead, from his left, a brief chittering.
On my signal.
Madness! These were civilian refugees. Poor farmers by the look of them and of their vehicles. Why the tanj ambush them? Nathan cleared his throat.
“Quiet!” Logan hissed.
For the first time since getting stranded, Nathan wondered if one side was any better than another.
Be honest, he chided himself. The second time. The first time was when two guerrillas marched a third, her face bruised, the cloth badge of the Resistance ripped from her blouse, out of camp into the jungle. Only the men, their expressions grim, had returned.
Nathan had chosen to believe they had sent her away. These people had pulled him from the wreck, whisked him away before Internal Security arrived. He owed the guerrillas everything, from the shirt on his back to his very life.
Now he wondered if he could live with the debt.
As the hum of engines swelled, Nathan’s mind churned. Join in the slaughter? Never. Stand by, doing nothing, and watch? How was that better?
There had to be another way. A warning shot to scare off the civilians? No. The laser beam between plain and cliff top would point back at him. That woman vanished into the woods outside camp . . . Nathan had a pretty good idea how the Resistance treated sympathizers. Or—
Probably no one was looking up. Nathan raised his rifle and fired. With a squawk a bird stopped its circling. Gravity here was scarcely half that to which Nathan was accustomed, and the bird, cut almost in two, fell in slow motion.
Splat went the carcass, just ahead of the caravan.
The people on foot turned and ran, zigzagging, back toward the trees. Engines raced. Vehicles jerked into reverse or turned off the road to circle back. Maybe he had saved a few—
Crash! A tractor and a truck collided, blocking the way into the jungle.
“Now!” shouted Logan.
From both canyon rims guerrillas opened fire. Laser beams, silent, scythed down three men before anyone below noticed. Then: screams. Curses. More bodies crumpling. Chaos.
It was a massacre, sickening—
Sudden motion behind the slaughter. Sleek and sharklike, three antigrav gunships burst from the jungle, their charge spookily silent. Laser cannon blazed bloodred. As the gunships neared, their railguns let loose.
The guerrillas launched their only two surface-to-air missiles. One hit. Trailing smoke, its engine stuttering, a gunship arced down, down, down. . . . It smashed—boom!—into a cliff face, and the ground shook. Across the gorge two men more brave than sane (“If you see them, assume they see you!”) kept firing. The remaining gunships spewed their own missiles.
No one could have survived those blasts.
“Fall back!” Logan shouted.
At least Nathan, his ears ringing, decided that was the order. He was already slithering backward, away from the precipice and deeper into the jungle, as quickly as he could.
He had done what he could for the refugees. The thought offered no comfort.
The caravan was doubly bait. The militia had used civilians to entice the Resistance. The guerrillas, just as callous, had attacked the refugees to lure an aristo patrol into reach.
More missiles. The ground slammed Nathan, flung him high into the air. He came down stunned. Through the underbrush, backlit by explosions, he glimpsed a profile. It loomed over him, well over two meters tall. What with the low gravity, most Wunderlanders were gigantic.
One of the guerrillas. Cody something. Was he here to help Nathan or kill him?
“Come on,” Cody growled. Maybe he hadn’t seen Nathan warn the refugees. “Time to go.”
As Nathan struggled to his feet, another blast bounced him off a tree trunk. His left arm and some ribs snapped. And something molten had spattered his camo. It ate through the cloth, through his body armor. The bellow of railguns swallowed his scream.
Cody sprayed first-aid foam over the hole in Nathan’s vest and his side went numb. The Wunderlander helped Nathan to his feet and together they staggered into the jungle.
A YELLOW OVAL GLEAMED on the sloping roof. Not a sun, Nathan gradually decided. The glow of a lamp, reflected on . . . what? How long had he been staring at the glow and why were his thoughts so fuzzy?
He looked around. He was flat on his back on one narrow cot among many. All the cots were filled, most by people wearing bloody bandages. He remembered the jungle being eerily quiet. Now that dubious honor belonged to this . . . ?
First-aid ward, he decided. In a futzy cave. Geological time later, he figured it out: body heat. Snoopersats would zero in on any camp this size in the wild.
He didn’t remember getting here. Cody had carried Nathan out, then.
Had anyone else among the guerrillas made it? Nathan sat up, the better to check the other beds. He noticed his cast before trying to put any weight on that arm.
But he had forgotten about the ribs and the burn. He gasped. The one person standing—a medic?—was tweaking the flow rate on a drip bag. She turned her head. “Be with you in a minute, soldier.”
Drip bag. Cast. Bloody tanj bandages! Blurry though his mind was, it hit Nathan: this was medieval. He should be asleep, oblivious, within a computerized cocoon dedicated to healing him. But did the guerrillas even have autodocs? He couldn’t recall seeing any.
He had felt fine until he sat up. Now all he felt was the throbbing in his side. Pain was so . . . archaic. Finagle, he couldn’t remember when autodocs came into general use. Well before his time, and he was 130. He didn’t know how to deal with pain. No one did anymore. His head spun and his breathing raced—
“Careful.” The medic, her sweat-dark hair gathered in an untidy bun, caught Nathan as he toppled. She helped him lie back down, then squirted something into his IV. “Here’s a little something for the pain.”
“Wait,” he said, a moment too late. Maybe that tardiness was no accident. The first wave of relief kicked in and it felt familiarly wonderful. “How much of this stuff have I . . . ?”
He drifted off before finishing the question.
ACROSS THE WORLDS of Human Space, people disdained the Wunderlander aristos. Running a blockade to deliver medical supplies to freedom fighters was noble. Running a blockade to sell medical supplies? That dimmed the luster, but it was still in a good cause.
Things were less black and white viewed up close. Wunderland’s civil war, like all civil wars, was nasty. It sundered families. It offered no quarter and expected none. It recognized no civilians, no innocents, no neutral parties. Benefit of the doubt was a scarce commodity—
A nonexistent commodity once you’d bled DNA all over a wrecked blockade runner.
Through a drug fog Nathan struggled to make sense of things. He had not set out to be a smuggler, any more than he had set out to be a master chef, a mechanic, a pilot, or any of the other things he had been. No career, no hobby, no marriage could last for a century. He had had honest, if mercenary, intentions buying a share of the med shipment. Joining Clementine’s crew thereafter was simply prudent, just protecting his investment.
He had deluded himself, of course.
A respite from the dull routine yet another career had become? Of course. A way to get beyond Paula Cherenkov dumping him? Running the blockade was that, too.
Sinking back into hazy oblivion, Nathan confronted a harder truth. He ran—still—from far older demons.