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Picking up the Pieces

By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 2 of 14

The vitriol in Dar's voice drowned the blaze of his anger as Colin knelt to help with the messy job. "What else do you expect? This is a frontier world . . . harsh . . .untamed. But it's better than life in the domes on Earth."

"Is it, little brother? Is it really? You were only a toddler when our father decided to emigrate and raise his family in the Outer Worlds, away from 'Federation corruption?'"

"You weren't that much older," he retorted. "What do you remember that was so great?"

"Safety. . .security. . .regular meals, even if they were only the sustenance ration issued to every citizen. At least we weren't living on the thin edge of starvation. Or likely to become dinner to the local wildlife." Dar glanced down in disgust at the half-gutted carcass. "I'll take the security of the domes over the `freedom' to starve to death any day."

He'd stared at Dar in disbelief until the older boy looked up and hissed, "Keep watch, you idiot. The stink of this kill will draw every scavenger in a ten-mile radius. I want to bleed the carcass and harvest a little of the meat before we pitch it in the river."

"Why? Fenris meat is so rank it's almost inedible."

Dar grimaced bitterly, "Not if you're starving, little brother. And judging from what I've seen of this year's crops, it's going to be a cold, hungry winter."

Colin subsided, recalling how even the hardiest of hybrid grains had not thrived that year, with the drought sucking every bit of moisture from their crops.

Dar gazed up at him, a calculating look in his eyes, although his face had its usual bland expression."There's going to be an emergency meeting within the sevenday. My hunch is that they'll vote to send out a general distress call, hoping Space Command will come pull their fat out of the fire. But I doubt they'll get any response. The Federation has too many other more valuable worlds needing its protection to bother with borderline outworld settlements."

He sat back on his heels, wiping his gore-splattered hands on the brittle dry grass. "But the Free Traders might intercept the signal and come in sniffing after whatever marginal profit could be made from a salvage operation. Whatever the case, I intend to get out on the first ship that grounds here."

"How are you going to pay passage?" he'd scoffed. "You don't have credits. . . or anything else of value to interest a Free Trader Captain."

Dar's hands were covered with drying blood and there was a shrewd look on his face. "There are other ways to earn my keep, Colin. Talents that are always useful, whether on a Free Trader cargo vessel or a Federation troop ship. I'll make it worth their while to take me on." He glanced obliquely at the younger boy. "Why not come with me, Colin? You're too smart to be stuck in a backwater dump like Metis III. Together we could cut a better deal and guard each other's back."

He dropped his eyes, breaking away from that compelling gaze. What Dar suggested was tempting. . .very tempting. But there were obligations to his father and the rest of the family to be considered. And other people, too. Like Marissa Reeves, the girl Dar was supposed to be bonded to that fall. Dar had found his sense of loyalty laughable.

"Conal thinks waving Jacob Reeves' daughter under my nose like a prize sow will seduce me into staying on. That I can't resist her rustic charms and after I put a child in her belly I'll be forced to stay here and perpetuate this doomed venture." He wiped his knife in the brittle dry grass before sheathing it. "I'm not that naive. . .or that hard up."

Dar gave him a condescending smile, "She's all yours, little brother, if you want to be tied to this death trap of a planet. But don't preach to me about loyalty and the duty we owe our family. Conal's fed me that line of jetwash often enough and it's too thin a gruel to keep the hunger pangs at bay."

Pushing to his feet, he gestured to the gory quarters of meat. "Take your pick. At least you'll have the satisfaction this winter of dining on fenris before it dines on you."

With a queasy lurch of his stomach, Travis hoisted the blood-stained package on his shoulder and followed his brother back to the farm.

Vila Restal whistled cheerfully to himself as he ambled through the crowded backstreets of Xanadu's docks. Considering the dire events Blake and the crew of the Liberator had survived during the past year, he considered himself fortunate to be alive and in one piece, free to roam where his fancy took him while Avon was talking business with that Free Trader Captain, Jenna's uncle. Of course, he didn't have the cash to celebrate as enthusiastically as he would like. But for someone as agile-fingered as he was, it was a momentary setback at most.

He smiled and waggled his skillful fingers at one of the numerous females, both exotic and plain, sauntering throughout the area. The one he had his eye on had dark curly hair and was wearing a snug-fitting gold jumpsuit that hugged her lush figure as tightly as Vila would have liked to, if she had given him the slightest encouragement. She arched one brow but did not seem particularly impressed by what she saw; a medium-sized wiry individual, with thinning dark blonde hair, hopeful brown eyes that topped a sly grin but no readily obvious bankroll. Instead, she turned her attentions to a much more impressive specimen, who flashed a fat roll of credits and an broad, gold-toothed grin.

Vila shrugged off-handedly, knowing that he was going to have to acquire a fairly heavy purse before he could get into the swing of things. Luckily Xanadu did not seem to be cursed by presence of blackclad security types like those who had dogged his steps in the domes back on Earth. With just a little judicious mingling, he should have enough discretionary funds to begin his celebration.

He brushed past a plump blonde matron, managing to acquire the fire emerald pin securing her cloak. Then he appropriated a xenite studded chrono from a harried looking bureaucrat. And was about to score an especially thick wallet when a small magenta-furred beast on the shoulder of the mark he'd brushed against began to shriek. "THIEF! PICK-POCKET! FOOTPAD!"

Vila recoiled and tried to duck into the half-open door of a noisy bar just behind him but a hand the size of a small ham buried itself in his tunic. "Hold it right dere, short-stuff. I t'ink you got somep'n belongs to me."

Vila sputtered as he gazed into the scarred, fierce features of the rough type whose pocket he had just rifled.

"Whhhha...wha.. whaat are you talking about? I never saw you before in my life!" he managed to squeak, attempting to sound like an outraged upstanding citizen.

"Maybe not, but accordin' to my little TP alarm here, my poke jus' found its way inta your pocket."

The owner of the ham-sized hand shook Vila so hard his teeth rattled. Fumbling hurriedly to return the appropriated cash, Vila attempted a placating smile, "Just a misunderstanding. No harm done. You looked like an old friend who owed me money."

Rather than releasing his bone-crushing grip, the grim hardcase drew Vila closer, wheezing his boozy, garlicky breath into the lockpick's face. "I don' like pickpockets, little man. But even more I don' like pickpockets who insult me! When I get t'ough wit' you dere won't be enough lef' to wipe my boots with."

But before the irate giant could make good on his promise, a tall gangling youth pushed out of the crowd. "Go pick on someone your own size, Brock. Unless everything that big is already extinct, too stupid to live."

"Back off, Jason, dis is between dis sticky-fingered thief and me. Or has Stannis clan sunk to `prenticin' lowtown docksweepings `sides tank grown nonborns like you!"

The youth glared at Vila's tormentor, his blue eyes colder than a northern spring. There was something familiar about that icy glance though Vila couldn't quite place it. But the soft-spoken menace in that voice set off alarms in the lockpick's head even though he wasn't its target. "You think you can take me down, Brock? By yourself? Or do you need the help of that gang of slack-jawed lackwits you run with?"

Three other over-muscled types sauntered up, much to Vila's dismay. They had the broad-shouldered swagger of dockworkers and eyed him with predatory contempt, like a pack of hyenas sizing up a lone packrat.

Tossing Vila off-handedly to one side, their leader grinned savagely. "I'll let dem have my leavin's after I break you into tiny pieces, Travis. Dere won't be enuff left to fill dat test tube you came outta."

Though Vila was not inclined toward physical heroics, the sheer folly of a half-grown kid taking on his oversized opponent ignited his sympathy for the underdog. Of course, the fact that when the bully finished mopping up the streets with the boy, he'd resume where he left off with Vila contributed to his sense of outrage. He glanced around furtively hoping to spot something he could use for a weapon while the two combatants circled, feeling out each other's weaknesses, oblivious to the curious crowd of onlookers that had gathered.

Sidling away from the actual conflict (and helping himself to two small purses as he did), Vila spotted a shopper with a large basket of pottery, just about the right size to crack someone's skull. He casually appropriated two of the larger pieces while he peered over the shoulders of the crowd, hoping the boy was still more or less in one piece. As he did so, Vila gaped in amazement.

For the first few moments of the brawl, the boy had moved awkwardly, woodenly, as if this was the first time he'd ever fought anyone hand to hand. Then abruptly, his eyes glazed over and he dropped into a trained defensive stance that caused Brock to step back, momentarily wary.

When Jason didn't press his attack, Brock threw a fast jab to his chin, which Jason sidestepped so it grazed his cheek instead though the force behind that blow still left him half-stunned. Dazed as he was by that near-miss, the youth countered with a rapid-fire series of punches, aimed with an inhuman accuracy that left his opponent reeling.

Brock stumbled toward the slighter youth, attempting to pin him against a wall and make full use of his greater weight and strength. But the boy was quicksilver; slipping through his fingers, eluding his grasp, continuing to pummel the roughneck with repeated, damaging blows until the larger man dropped to the ground, brought down by the cumulative effect of the attack.

Kneeling beside his semiconscious pal, one of his buddies glared up and growled. "You cheatin' bastard. You musta drugged `im. Nobody takes Brock out dat easy in a fair fight!"

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