I knew it the second the door slid shut. It wasn’t going to slide back open as easily, and I had three hours before Tanner got back. Assuming everything went right. Judging by our track record from the last couple days, that meant it would probably be more like five, and then he wouldn’t be able to get the door open anyway.
I growled out an emphatic oath.
Granted, it wasn’t as bad as it could be. The emergency lights were still giving off their vaguely neon glow. Stuck though I was, at least it wasn’t like no one knew where I was, and I had food–or at least a couple of protein bars–in my backpack, as well as enough water that dehydration wouldn’t be a problem.
And given that this was the bridge of a military-type ship, I supposed that having a door fail secure on me because I got careless and snipped the wrong wire was probably the most benign thing that could have happened. Well. Aside from nothing, of course.
I groaned softly as I looked around the room. Five hours. About thirty cubic meters. We had said we would need to go over the area with a fine-toothed comb. Looks like I was going to get a chance to do just that.
So much for fobbing that particular task off on my unsuspecting brother.
All things considered, the Duster Gang’s hideout was one of the best ones I’d seen. For one thing, they hadn’t set up shop in the Outlands, and I appreciated the change of scenery. For another, the panoramic view of the valley was truly impressive, and made moreso by the clear and cloudless sky: unless I missed my guess, that smudge off to the southwest was Coville itself. But the best part was the water.
There was a whole pool of it in the deepest part of the cave: cold, sweet water. As soon as Tanner and I saw that, it made sense how the eight scruffy miscreants we had tied up and disarmed in the mouth of the cave had been able to run their cattle rustling outfit for as long as they had. It was one thing to have enough water for a handful of people. It was another entirely to be able to keep twenty or thirty head of stolen cattle in good condition while you waited for a chance to sell them off.
Somehow, I managed to avoid venting my spleen until after we were out of Kemp’s earshot. Or until I thought we probably were. Or could argue to Tanner that I thought we were when it turned out he heard us—or rather, me—after all, and it came back to bite us. Not that he didn’t deserve every word I said, of course, but working with a butthurt and testy ranger would just be working for trouble.
So, I waited until we were out of earshot. Probably. And then I let loose with nine hours worth of frustration and righteous annoyance.
“…and he’s probably just working as a ranger so he can get filthy rich,” I finished. It didn’t sound right even as the words left my mouth, but I didn’t particularly care.
Tanner raised one eyebrow. “I’ll ask Paul next time we see him how that’s going for him.”
I glared at him. He would derail a perfectly good rant with a quick dose of logic.
“Alright, look. I’m the first person to admit that the last job got a little out of hand.” That was, of course, not strictly true. Or true at all, really, but admitting that would undermine the point I was trying to make. “But don’t you think this might be a bit of an over-correction?”
The “this” in question was the job that Tanner had just finished telling me about. It was a bit of a departure from our usual fare, if only because we wouldn’t be getting paid to do it.
“Actually, I’ve been wanting to do this for a while. We just couldn’t have afforded it until now.”
“So, you’re saying that letting Surr hire us was a good idea after all?”
Tanner narrowed his eyes. “No. And don’t push it. But we did, and there’s no reason we can’t make something good come out of it.”
He was baiting me; I could tell by the wicked twinkle in his eye. That, and he was my brother. It was usually a good bet.
“See, I thought having money in the bank account was something good.” Of course I took the bait. What else was I supposed to do with it?
“It is. But only because of what we can do with it.”
“I should have known you were going to go all philosophical with that.”
He grinned. “You really should have.”
I signed. “Fine.” Then I grimaced. “I don’t know if there’s any way to say this that won’t make me look like a heartless mercenary, but I’m going to try anyway.”
“You know, it’s never a good sign when you have to lead with that.”
I did know, but that didn’t mean I was about to let it stop me. “You have a point, and I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t do this. I actually think it’s a good idea, truly. But this whole thing is going to be a bigger…” I waved my hands around and tried to come up with a better word than the one that first came to mind. I failed. “A bigger thing than the jobs we get paid for. If it all goes south, we’re not going to have a lot to fall back on.”
I didn’t mention that this particular job seemed at least as likely to go off the rails as the aforementioned and much maligned Surr job. Because doing so would invite a little too much scrutiny into the nature of a whole bunch of our jobs, and we’d need more time for that discussion. That was strange. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was being the voice of reason to our little family enterprise. What was the world coming to?
“I’ve thought about that. And first, I don’t expect things to go sideways.” I opened my mouth to remind him that that was exactly how we were going to get jinxed, but he waved me off before I could get the words out. “But, even if they do, we’ve got enough people around here who like us now that we’d be okay. Heck, if we get hurt trying to help out the whole colony, Folks around here are going to make sure we’re taken care of.”
I narrowed my eyes. “You’ve been thinking about this for a while, haven’t you?”
“A bit, yeah. I just didn’t want to bring it up until we had the foundation to make it possible. Or at least something other than a patently bad idea.”
A part of me still wanted to argue the point. It might not be a bad idea anymore, but I wasn’t sure that meant it was a good idea. More like an idea that involved a whole lot of risk and not much in the way of reward. Not for us at any rate. The only problem was that while it wasn’t the best set of circumstances for us personally, if we succeeded in pulling it off, it was undeniably going to make things better for the colony as a whole. And that gave me the sinking feeling that the only reason I was really balking at it was the selfish thought that it wasn’t going to be worth our time. Maybe it wasn’t the only reason, but it was probably the biggest reason. And I didn’t like that.
And that’s how Tanner and I ended up offering our services to a group heading out into the deep Badlands with the intention of setting up some basic defenses for the group that was already out there figuring out a way to safely provide more water for the growing colony.
Now. Before we go on, let me do a little to mitigate some of the damage done to my reputation by admitting that I was less than enthusiastic about the idea of offering our services free of charge, despite how important an endeavor it was. First, despite the fact that it was deeply important, it wasn’t an urgent problem. Not yet, at any rate. But the colony was going to be growing. A lot. Maybe not this year, and maybe not the year after that, but construction was already well underway on a sister ship to the Overland, and as technology continued to advance, it was growing easier and easier by steps to reach this planet. And that was without counting on whether or not the Anchor station tests continued going as well as they seemed to be. Because once that was done, things were going to be getting even more crowded out here.
Add to all that the fact that we had already heard for sure that there was another big colonization push going on back on Earth, and it didn’t take a civil engineer to figure out that we wouldn’t have anywhere near enough water to go around once everyone showed up. So, instead of waiting until everyone was actually on their way and we were all living just short of disaster, a number of bright minds among the Verdant colonists decided to get together to do something about it before it became a problem. They had tried to get official backing from any number of the colony companies back on Earth, but hadn’t gotten more than what amounted to token support. Certainly, they hadn’t gotten the financial backing that would make it easy to pay for the time of a couple of freelancers at the going rate, and the defense system they had provided, while not terrible, was certainly not top of the line, either.
It just so happened that Tanner and I were going to be able to help with both of those.
“Miranda, get back in bed or I’ll break your other leg.”
That was my brother’s version of compassion for the wounded. But, as I was only ninety-nine percent sure that he wasn’t serious, I muttered something derogatory about his bedside manner and limped and crutched my way back to my sickbed and dropped back onto it. I also let my crutches clatter to the floor in a noisy protest. It was an exercise in cutting off my nose to spite my face, of course, since I was going to be the one to have to pick them up next time I wanted to get around the room, but for now, I allowed myself to take some pleasure in annoying my brother.
“I’m not useless, you know,” I said. “I can still help.”
Tanner didn’t turn around as he answered me. “Sure. Right until the pain meds kick in. We went through this yesterday.”
And the day before, and the day before that. Though, granted, yesterday had been the worst.
“Fine,” I grumbled. “But don’t come complaining when you can’t find any leads.”
So… it’s not a full story, and there’s no guarantee that this is the start I’ll be sticking with, but enjoy the first couple paragraphs of a new Tanner and Miranda story!
“Tanner,” I said, “you’re not nervous, are you?” The corner of my mouth twisted up in what could best be described as a wicked grin.
“I’ll be fine.” My brother cast a look in my general direction that was probably meant to chasten me. It didn’t work. “How long until orbit?”
“Orbit? Just a couple minutes. But it’ll be an hour or so before we rendezvous with the ship.”
He just grunted in response.
The ship in question was a derelict that had shown up above Verdant a couple days before. At least, everyone assumed it was a derelict, given that the scans we’d managed had shown minimal power and no one had responded to any of the messages sent on all the common frequencies. It was the sort of thing that would probably end up being a non-event, but was still just strange enough that it merited a closer look. And seeing as Tarj and all the other Rangers had their hands as full as always with things on the surface, that left it up to a couple of freelancers like us.
Which was how my brother and I ended up sitting across from each other in the passenger compartment of a skylark-class shuttle, strapped in and buckled up while a woman named Amanda Vasquez flew us up to orbit. Our gear was all secured as well, though in a smaller pile than usual. You packed different for a quick trip into vacuum than you did for a week in the Badlands.
I, for one, was looking forward to the change of pace. Tanner was somewhat less enthusiastic, as evidenced by the greenish hue his whole face took on every time we hit a little bit of turbulence.
“It’ll be better once we break out of atmo,” I said, trying to look and sound as sympathetic as I felt. “I promise.”
He spared a glance at me and forced his grip to loosen enough on his safety restraint that his knuckles went from corpse-white to panic-pale. “I know. I’m okay. I’d just forgotten how much I hated ever leaving dirt.”
The traveler sat on a stool near the fire, one hand wrapped around a mug of strong drink, the other tapping idly at his knee. His too-green eyes glinted in the half dark. Almost half of the village’s inhabitants sat around him, some in chairs, others—children, mostly—made do with the floor. All told, it seemed he had the attention of more than twenty people. He cleared his throat and began.
“The sun is down and the moon is dark and new.” His voice was low, and there was a rumble to it like a cat’s purr. “This is the time to tell tales of monsters.”
A shiver ran through his audience, and anticipation held the room in perfect silence. The traveler basked in it.
“But what sort of story should I tell? You’ve already heard about wyrms and dragons, giant, scaly beasts that snatch and devour. And you probably know about the kelpies and other creatures like them, the ones that seem so lovely until they destroy the hapless person who is lured too close. Perhaps I could tell you about giant wolves or bears that have stalked roadways and forests and slain a hundred men despite the best efforts of brave and mighty hunters.”
The youngest members of his audience, a brother and sister, shivered. Even the adults sat in rapt attention and let themselves feel frightened.
“Or… I could weave a story about a thing even more terrible than these. A thing that might have once been man, a thing that brings death and terror in its wake, a thing that fears no simple bow or blade.”
He paused. His eyes flitted across the room, over all the faces watching him. He took a breath and slowly filled his lungs. And when the tension reached its apex, he finally spoke again.
“I could tell you of the Rehk.”
Murmurs worked their way through the room. The gathered audience looked away and lowered their eyes. The storyteller’s spell wavered and broke, and nothing remained but a lopsided quiet.
An old man coughed and cleared his throat. “Tell us a different story, traveler. We don’t tell the Rehk’s tales here.”