Kerr Avon was hurt, but he was not dying. Not yet.
But if he didn't find a place to hide, soon, he would be dead. And dying after cheating death so recently seemed like a dreadful waste of effort.
He hurt. His skin was scored with burn marks, where his last line of defence had gone up in flames - but not before saving his life. Standing, he had piloted the stolen shuttle away from Gauda Prime, and into untracked space.
He had himself, this ship, and a deep loathing for the Federation and all that it stood for. He didn't want to go back to civilization. He wanted to find a new place, where nobody had ever heard the name Avon. Or Blake. He needed to find some colony where he could start again, start a new life. He had some - uniquely marketable skills. And he was ruthless enough to use them. But he didn't want to start at the bottom rung of that colony's society; he wanted some falling room under him, just in case of error. That meant money.
He set in his course and his search parameters, and then found the first aid kit. He stripped the tatters of his clothing from him, and laved burn salve into his wounds. Then he wrapped bandages over the salve, all of the bandages in the kit and down to the end of the roll. Until he was layered with gauze, head to heel. He found a too-large coverall and drew it over himself, before padding the command chair with the remains of his other clothes and gingerly sitting down.
* * *
The thief was full of self-righteous noble intentions, as the worst thieves often are. This one apparently had a strong streak of mysticism as well. Pilot Avva sighed and toyed with one of the control keys on the spaceship panel in front of her, as she listened to the thief's recorded message.
"When the constellations of the Fish are in alignment and the Shod Jewels are returned to our planet, it will signal the rise of a new dynasty and-" Avva hit another key and the message paused. A new display came alight and displayed a humanoid face fringed with reddish lobes like tiny flower petals along the jaw. A Sast face, like her own.
"Does this girl ever get to the point in this message?" asked Avva.
The other Sast nodded. "Her clutch stole the Shod Jewels, and is spending the family fortune to conceal them. She wants the Jewels hidden where nobody will find them until the time is right for a revolution. Or more specifically, when nobody will find them."
"Physical time travel?" Avva's own purplish lobes paled. "I thought we were keeping strictly away from that technology, Frit."
"This shows a minimal chance of interference in timelines," Frit replied. "You'll be going to an uninhabited planet, well off the regular space lanes. You leave the Jewels there, some hundreds of standard years in the future. Even if the thieves' conspiracy is revealed here and now, their planet's conquerors can search all they want and not find them."
"The Shod Jewels. Not the Crown Jewels?" asked Avva.
"No, they go in for sacred footwear and lots of ritual toe-kissing." Frit sat up a bit straighter. "Avva Omet-J, will you accept this offered contract?"
" I don’t have to take any passengers, do I?" Avva scowled, and Frit scowled back.
"We wish you weren't such a loner," he complained. "You should visit more."
"I like the company I keep," she said shortly. "No passengers?"
"No, Avva, no passengers. You pick up the cargo box, use an accelerator flagg to drag the Righteous Flea ahead to the chosen date, drop off the cargo and fall back to our time. Simple."
Avva drooped her eyelids in thought, and asked for the formulas of translation and probabilities of paradox. Once she ran those through her own computers, she decided to accept. Her palm print on her control panel, rather than a physical handshake, sealed the deal.
Once the Flea was set on her course to the flagg, Avva stretched in her chair and decided that it was time to inform her permanent companion of their new contract. She rose and stepped out into the main room.
It was a dull little room, with steel walls and doors and ceiling. The plain metal acted as a frame for the spectacular carpet, which was asymmetrically lumpy and pulsing with colour as though alive. It sat in the center of the room in its own shallow divot, and at the vibrations of Avva's feet moving across the deck, the colours raced across its surface faster, mauve overlaid with lilac and white.
She stepped on the carpet, and heard a delicious cry of pleasure and pain in her mind.
~Hello, Tragan,~ Avva thought back, with that specific part of her mind that she used to speak to him. ~We have a contract, and I'll want to be in my best condition. So I think I should take my exercise now. I hope you don't mind my piling all my heavy equipment on you.~
Grovelling acquiescence flooded her mind, and Avva smiled. Tragan used to be quite the nasty piece of work, before he had overstepped her bounds. A Naglon, sadistic even by his species' standards, broken out of prison by none other than herself. He had lashed out at her at the first opportunity, torturing and eventually killing her - he thought. But the tables had turned, the dice had rolled. Now he had been bio-formed into a flat slab of meat on her floor, and his mind bound to hers. He was her devoted slave. And every year he spent under her feet, another payment was secretly sent from the Parakon Corporation into the Sast accounts.
She carefully laid out the weights, the flexrods, and delighted in rolling the coordination spheres up and down him, leaving little trails of coldness across Tragan's warm flesh. Then she started her routine, and soon her sweat was pattering over him, hanging in the hairs that were carefully groomed to form a fringe around his edges.
She tried to do at least one hour of exercise a day, and often did two: even though the Sast were gene-engineered for space, muscles did sag in artificial gravity. And she wasn't as young as she used to be. So she stretched and pulled and gasped and clenched her teeth as her muscles burned. And listened to Tragan's mental sighs of delight at her every tread, her every touch.
Of course she could easily make his cries be those of pain. She controlled his nervous system, controlled whether it interpreted sensation as pain or as pleasure. In the past she had spent long happy times tormenting him to agonies of madness with the touch of a pin, or a feather, or just her fingers. But now her touch pleasured him, and he thanked her humbly for that blessing and begged for more.
After she was done, she showered and lay down on her carpet, and explained to him exactly what the new contract was. As she expected, it made him unhappy, and she savoured his unhappiness.
~Time travel,~ Tragan moaned miserably and mentally. ~It's forbidden to my species.~
~I won't tell if you won't,~ thought Avva, carefully poring over one corner of his fringe. She was searching for pink hairs, which she was determined to pluck if she found. She would not have him showing any signs of age. But his fringe seemed to be staying its usual warm mahogany shade all the way around, so she stopped and rested her cheek on him, feeling him pulsate softly against her touch. ~And it's not like I have left you any choice in the matter, Tragan.~
~No, Mistress,~ he whispered in her mind.
* * *
Avon was getting worse. There was no time to rest, no time to heal and recover. His body was fighting to repair itself; his will was fighting to keep him going. So he healed slowly, and stressed himself more. Eventually he was going to come to the end of his resources and collapse. How pathetic after all he'd endured, to be found in space by the enemy, helpless.
He needed to find a place to hide. His ship had enough power to make more than one landing. He was looking for a planet. Any planet. He needed to stop and give himself time to fully recover from his injuries, then move on from there to find his colony.
Avon reached absently for his forearm, and then restrained himself. He itched; his healing skin itched and burned. It was like being under the blasters again, but he knew that if he scratched he would only make it worse.
So, a planet. His search was fortunate enough to pick up something. A green world, the green of chlorophyll and living things. Oxygen, water, and plants - he could rest there, if he could make it.
He sincerely hoped that he wasn't about to land on a planet that was completely covered with oxidised copper. Or carved out of jade.
Piloting with all the skill he could drag out of himself, he set course for the planet, which his charts referred to only as T-113.
* * *
The accelerator flagg burned a blazing red against the black of space. It looked like a flowing transparent streamer of glowing fabric, thousands of units in length. One end contracted into a single point of searing red light, while the other end waved off into - elsewhere. Beside the flagg was a blinking space buoy, which Avva promptly scooped into the Flea's tiny airlock.
The cargo box was smaller than her head, and a peek inside showed jewel-encrusted shoes that would barely have qualified as thimbles for Avva. How big was this species, anyway? Avva hadn't thought to ask. But she carefully sealed and stowed away the cargo box, and dumped out the silenced buoy, before maneuvering into position near the flagg's 'end'.
She put the Flea into turbulence mode: all mechanical systems locked down, force-fields stiffening the hull, her own seat belts fastened, and even a neat set of padded clamps holding her beloved carpet in place. Carefully, slowly, she extended a gleaming steel landing claw. She was watching from three camera angles as the claw deployed, set itself straight, then lashed out and speared that burning point of light that was the flagg's sole solid manifestation, and also its start button.
The flagg latched onto the landing claw, which reeled back against the hull. This was the tricky part, and Avva held her breath. If the flagg did not root, it might disperse into nothing, or shear off part of the hull.
The flagg adhered itself properly to the Flea, and began to wave and ripple, gathering up the energies necessary to haul the ship into the future. Avva started breathing again. The attachment had been successful, and now she had only to wait while the flagg prepared itself.
She ran the calculations: it looked like she would have almost two full days on the other end of her trip, before temporal inertia sent her sliding back into the past. Since she was going to be dropping off the Jewels in a location that would soon be visited by the people who had stolen them (or, more likely, the thieves' descendants), any plant life she damaged in her trip should also be affected by their visit. She had to be careful; one slip in the future could create a fountain of paradoxes. Paradoxes that would probably be accompanied by certain unnatural things that would tear her, Tragan, the Flea, and everything else around them to pieces.
So she wasn't planning on stomping on any butterflies. Just in case.
* * *
In the future, there was a sudden churning of space. A burst of undulating red light, like a flower suddenly unfolding. And in the heart of the flower was a tiny yellow spaceship, which spun to orient itself, and then darted for planet T-113.
T-113 was remote and unnamed, inhabited only by plant life. Avva placed the Righteous Flea into orbit, and started looking for the three volcanic peaks that were her landmarks. Once she found them, she was to plot a point equidistant between them, and place the Shod Jewels there under a cairn. In and out, and then back home.
She was patient; she put the ship into a spiral orbit, to scan the entire planet. To pass the time, she watched some selections from her justly famous media collection. Tragan was beside her in her mind, watching along with her. She had only recently allowed him this privilege, of seeing directly through her eyes. Generally she only did it while she was sitting watching video: she did not want to risk having him start to identify too closely with her physical body. It might give him ideas about trying to take it over.
T-113 was annoyingly well stocked with metal deposits, which made it difficult to spot anything artificial that might be down there. And whoever had said it was inhabited only by plant life has not taken into account the massive herds of bigheaded herbivores that were currently eating their way across it. Perhaps they were a recent addition: abandoned pack animals, ship refugees. Or some terraformer had decided to strip the planet bare, and left a breeding pair of these things. She checked orbit, but couldn't find any buoys broadcasting Future Home of Meat Market, or restaurant adverts.
She slid into atmosphere, and hovered for a quick scan: no, those big heads were just anchoring big jaw muscles. These beasts weren't sentient. And hopefully, they would be no threat to her. So she headed for her volcanoes.
There they were, and fortunately there was heavy tree growth in the valley between them, strong and lush, sprouting out of generations of ash and volcanic debris. It didn't look like anything could stampede through and step on her, at least. It meant she had to land a little further away from her destination than she liked, is all.
She stripped off the light film of gauzy fiber she had been wearing, and put on her exploring gear: heavy puncture-resistant leggings, weapons both hidden and obvious, a stiff jacket with various sensors and repellers built into it. A heavy plasticised gorget that slid around her neck and rolled up over her jaw line. It was flexible enough to not impede her head, but it would protect the delicate tissues of her stripes and wattles. And liquid sunscreen, of course.
She decided to go pick the spot for the cairn first. No reason to go wandering about with the (invaluable) reason for her contract tucked under one arm.
One of the last things Avva did before leaving the Flea was strap a gravity plane to her back. This was one of the Sast's more subtle pieces of technology: it allowed the wearer to hover over a center of mass, nearly weightless. So if she happened to throw herself backwards, the plane would take effect before she hit the ground and send her slipping away. She could have fastened it to her front, of course, but then its field would have been tweaking at her arms as they moved, and she didn't like sliding around facedown unless she had to.
By now it was probably hideously out of date, completely superceded by more advanced technology. So what. It worked, that was all that mattered.
Before she put her gloves back on, she knelt and caressed Tragan's throbbing skin. ~Be back soon,~ she thought, and bathed herself in his emotions: love, devotion, anxiety.
~Take care, Mistress!~ he thought back.
* * *
"And to think," she said to herself a half-hour later, "that there are such creatures as nature-lovers!"
Those were the sorts who would have thought this jungle a paradise of alien diversity; she found it thorny, obstructive, tedious, and scratchy. But there weren't any bugs at least. The plants were sticky, hideously sticky, and they clung abominably, even to her naturally waxy hair and skin. More than once she wished that the Flea had a chemical propulsion drive, so that she could just burn her way to the drop-off point.
"Time travel means avoiding excessive disruptions of the time stream," she said aloud. "So instead of hacking my way through these things, I push them aside, politely." And kept pushing, being careful only to use the back of her machete.
She finally stumbled across a path where the plants were wilted and limp; it looked like an animal had come by, secreting something that killed them. Avva looked hopefully behind her, but the plant life she would have to wade back through was still hale and hearty. She tensed her shoulders in misery, then relaxed them, one side and then the other. She would make her cairn, THROW the damn jewelry box into it from the air and drop a rock on top. Then get into a stable orbit, and take a long, hot shower. And roll herself dry on Tragan.
She considered the path, and her own frustration at how long this was all taking, and decided to risk moving down it. It was heading right towards where she wanted to go. The telltale clipped to her sleeve agreed, flashing brighter as she approached the coordinates the computer had picked out.
At last! The telltale shone solid yellow, and there was even a tiny natural clearing here. The rocks were thick underfoot, and she flipped a few over with her toe. Perfect, and she could use the gravity plane to move them. She sheathed her machete and sighed with relief, inhaled - and paused. There was a smell in her nostrils, something warm and rotten.
"Hello," said a cold male voice behind her. "Please don't run, I'd hate to shoot you in the leg."
Avva widened her eyes, but did not move. She could hear unsteady footsteps behind her, shifting the small rocks underfoot. Whoever it was circled around to her left, and finally got to where she could see him.
He was barrel-shaped and intense, with sharp dark eyes. Standard biped, looked like a human. Avva's eyes picked out the unnatural lumpiness of the coverall he was wearing, and connected it to the ring of burned skin showing under a bandage on his wrist. It looked like he been burned all over, and was bandaged to match. His hand shook, but the blaster it held was still quite capable of killing her.
"Good," she looked up at the sky, a quick flick of her eyes and back, "afternoon, I believe. Am I disturbing you?"
"Not exactly," he said dryly. "I'm new to the neighborhood, and was wondering if you could recommend a good source of food and water?"
Avva looked him over again. He wasn't asking about the Jewels; maybe he wasn't looking for them. He certainly wasn't the same species as the thief, who had been a hexaped. His eyes were not sunken yet, but he was clearly dehydrated. Flushed with fever as well, she guessed. To give herself time, she asked, "I can understand not eating the plants, but what's wrong with the water?"
"It's all slimy. Strings of this stuff in it, I can't filter it out," he said, batting at a plant beside him in fury. The plant seemed to wither at his touch.
So much for not affecting the future. But when the future pulls a gun on you, it's hard not to interact. With delicate care, Avva hooked one finger into her jacket's harness and pulled out her water bottle. She stepped forward to hand it to him, and the man staggered and went down on one knee. His head lurched up desperately, along with the gun.
"Keep back!" he grated.
"You want me to squirt it into your mouth from here, maybe?" She sniffed. There was something very wrong smelling about this man.
"I," and he swayed. Avva slowly walked backwards, away from him. She shook the water bottle, and they both heard the gurgling from it. His eyes lit up with desperation.
"You aren't just dehydrated," she said. "You smell awful."
"I have not managed to fit a bath into my current schedule," he sneered.
Avva looked perturbed. "I mean, you smell like you have an infection or something. Are you supposed to reek of dead meat and vinegar?"
The man just knelt there. Avva backed away another step, and he said, "Stop!" With slow care, he braced the gun with both hands. "Leave the water bottle. If you please."
She paused for a long moment, and then made her decision. A soft underhand toss of the bottle; he flailed and managed to scoop it against his chest with his arms, while still clutching the gun. He fell back onto his rump; with one hand and his teeth he pulled the bottle top off, guzzling, gulping the water down. He didn't look back up until the water bottle was empty.
She was gone.
As soon as the man's eyes had closed at the sweet shock of the water hitting the back of his throat, Avva had toppled over backwards. The gravity plane started to hiss, and she found herself floating a hand width above the ground, on her back. She reached up and back with both arms, like a person doing the backstroke in water, and shoved with the outside of her palms and went flying over the ground, up the path and out of sight. She weaved from side to side as she moved like a frightened fish, to avoid any incoming shots, and tilted her head back just far enough to see where she was going. This worked until the path started veering away from the Flea. Avva jumped to her feet, hacked and stomped her way to the ship's hatch, and in. She didn't have time to poke the plants aside, she didn't have time to talk to Tragan. She had to think this out, right now.
She couldn't just leave the Shod Jewels here now; this strange man was sure to pry open the cairn out of curiosity. And if she killed him, or dropped him into stasis, what sort of paradoxes might result? He'd said he was new to the neighborhood. Probably not a hermit then. She drummed her toes on the floor. Perhaps she could persuade him to leave? She might have to repair his ship, heal his infection.
Or she could just let him die. If had no water, it wouldn't take more than a few days. She didn't have a few days though. Time travel using the flagg was like being pushed on a swing; you were shoved up, hovered for a moment at the top of your arc, and then back you fell. She was going to be falling back in time, in a day and three quarters, and she really didn't want to do it from a planet's surface.
She rummaged through her storeroom, and came up with some standard Human ration packs she had lying around - at last she could get rid of them. She'd tried their 'ice cream' once, at her mother's insistence. Revolting. She filled another water bottle, and shoved it and the ration packs into her various pockets. Paradox had not shredded the stranger when he touched the water bottle, so apparently she was not bending Time overmuch by interacting with him.
Her plan was to find the man and get him off this planet in his own craft. If he'd crashed, well … hmm. She supposed she could just grab him and drop him on another continent. That way he couldn't get to the cairn. But if he had his own transport, it would be best to get him to leave using that. Tidier, less interference with the timeline.
She retraced her steps, and found the man stumbling doggedly up the path, not too far from where they had just met. He stopped at the sound of her footsteps. "More water," he said, and wavered on his feet. He was weaker than she had thought.
"Throw the gun," she said, with one hand extended to catch it. The other hand was clutching a dart thrower behind her back. After a long pause he threw it - sideways, off the path. The blaster vanished into the thick foliage.
Score one for him. "You have interrupted my private retreat," said Avva crisply. "If I asked you to leave, would you be able to?"
"I can fly," he said; he was shivering, even though the air was fairly warm. "My ship is fine. Please, food and water and I'll get out of your hair right now, I swear!"
Doubtful, in his condition. More likely he'd crash whatever he was flying. Making a big, visible mess, which was exactly what she was trying to avoid - her clients wanted to find the Shod Jewels intact, not under a wrecked ship. Dropping a ship on the Flea wouldn't do her any good either.
"A contract," she said. "I feed you and heal your wounds, and you leave this planet." She stared at him, and he stared back, all flushed face and dark magnetic eyes. In the back of her mind, she wondered if she might ask for something in the way of personal services from him, before he left. He looked like he might clean up nicely - very nicely.
"Do we have a contract?" she asked again, and he nodded. She tossed him a ration packet and he tore it open with his teeth, wolfing down the sugary crunchy stuff. Avva cringed.
"So. It seems you are my guest," said Avva. "Does my guest have a name?"
"Call me - Ka," he replied.