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Collecting Strays

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June 18, 2515; approx. 0900 hours

"Wa ó!” Abby exclaimed as she stepped around the corner and stopped so abruptly that Sully, who had been preoccupied checking street signs and business numbers across the thoroughfare, nearly tripped over her. Abby held up an arm to steady him, keeping Sully from stumbling any farther forward. "Careful! You'll ruin it!"

The artwork at their feet had been done in chalk. It was maybe two meters in length and depicted a jagged, lightning-bolt shaped rent in the pavement of the sidewalk, through which a brilliant blue sky with distant cirrus clouds could be seen. Through this dimensional rift fluttered a stream of brightly colored butterflies, each one showcasing wings that were impossibly jewel-toned and unique. The chalk art was shaded so realistically that Sully's eyes tricked him into seeing the flutter of wings where it was impossible, and another pedestrian coming up behind them looked up from her hand-held and staggered aside at the last moment with some alarm, as though she feared she had been about to step on of the gem-stone winged insects.

"That's really beautiful," Abby breathed.

"It is, isn't it?" Sully said. "I bet I know the artist."

That earned a shift of wide, sky-blue eyes. "Nǐ zài kāi wán-xiào ma?"

"No," Sully replied with a laugh. "I'm serious. I did grow up on Beylix, you know. The capital is sort of my teenage stomping grounds. C'mon, Suzuki's Superior Scholarship is right on down there," he said, escorting her around the street art, and on toward their destination.

They were on the second-day of their planned seven-day layover on Beylix, and Abby had wanted to review a wider selection of educational materials for Tilly than they had been able to find during their brief time on Greenleaf. Sully had gathered up a list of supplies Hoss and Chang had both needed for their respective refit projects, items which couldn't be gleaned from Uncle Slim's scrapyard, and had volunteered to pilot the shuttle the hour's flight to the capital. Sully showed Abby through the smoked glass of Suzuki's front door. "You good for an hour or two?" he asked.

"Shi," Abby replied. The place had an antiseptic vibe and a determinedly white-on-white decorating scheme that attempted to look Core, without the benefit of having ever been there. The wide, high-ceiling shop offered shelves and shelves of old-fashioned text books, as well as what promised to be a wide selection of programs and VR tutor systems. It all just looked like school-porn to Sully, but the expression Abby's face hinted that she might enjoy this browse more than she had expected.

Sully spotted there a primly suited sales clerk setting an intercept course for them. "I'll come back here and find you when I'm done, then," Sully said quickly, excusing himself back out the door.

Although Newhouse’s urban center strove to present a sophisticated face, Beylix's capital was like much of the rest of Beylix -- concentrated pockets of industry, surrounded by a whole lot of rustic. Sully strolled down the street, feeling almost as though each step carried him back in time. He had done a lot of growing up on these streets, and not all of the nostalgia he was felt for Newhouse was of the warm and cozy variety. Two blocks down the street, and Sully crossed the invisible border between the Admiralty District into the less savory Ming Kok neighborhood, where the architecture immediately grew more crowded and less modern and the crowds on the street grew thicker. It did not take him long to find familiar faces. He chatted up a couple of old friends and one old rival, who now appeared to be operating a deli -- and hell if Sugaliski knew how to make a decent sandwich, so no doubt the place was a front for something. Sully made eye contact and nodded and kept walking, promising himself to ask further questions of his uncle when he and Abby had returned to Uncle Slim's. Of more immediate interest was the gang signs visible now and then, and on two buildings were impressive murals that hadn't been there when Sully had last walked this street, a year or so ago. One of them was in the old Mao Worker's Party style, featuring the likenesses of what Sully guessed were ranking members of the Seven Cranes Triad; he even recognized one of the faces, although if the art were representative of real life, then Chen Li had lost an eye since Sully had last seen him. The second mural was a beautiful landscape, done in an classical style. It featured a mist-shrouded lake, crossed arching bridge with a gabled bridge house in the center, with vibrant blue-green hills beneath a rose-hued dawn sky. Seven cranes waded in the foreground -- no question of ownership of this neighborhood, not when grand murals like that went unmolested by rivals.

Once again, Sully suspected he recognized the artist. He was mulling that thought over when he came to the corner of Sui Sai Wan East and Tim Wa Avenue, and looked down the side street to see a figure kneeling on the pavement, putting the finishing touches on a giant steaming noodle bowl, large enough to bathe in, perched on a white plate. Like the sidewalk rift with the butterflies, this piece of street art was expertly shaded so that it looked (from where Sully was standing, at least) as though it were 3-D. Indeed -- a pair of girls in uniforms from the noodle shop nearby were already moving in for the kill. One of them was giggling as she crouched as if sitting on the rim of the plate, while the other snapped her friend's picture on a hand-held unit. Then the two swapped places, ignoring the teenage boy who was putting the finishing touches on the wisps of steam nearby.

Sully skirted around the edge of the chalk noodle bowl to stand beside the kneeling artist. The hair had changed colors -- what had been a neon orange before was now half lilac, half-cornflower blue -- but the face beneath the pastel mop was still child-like and androgynously pretty. "Cianán Mac Dara!" Sully said.

Dark make-up emphasized the pale gold eyes that glanced up at Sully in distraction, then widened with recognition.

"Sully!" The artist shot to his feet and held out a chalk-smudged hand in welcome. "Hey, hǎojiǔ bùjiàn! How long has it been?"

"Quite a while, unfortunately," Sully replied. "You're looking good!" It was a relative truth -- Cianán still looked like he slept in the clothes he was wearing, but his complexion was clear and those pale eyes were bright and alert, no longer sunken and chronically glazed. The boy had grown a little, too -- he had to be what -- 17 by now? Maybe close to 18? -- but the kid was still short and slight beneath the long, dirty overcoat he wore. "I see you've been doing some work for the Seven Cranes -- the murals back on Marsh Road and Oi Kwan are yours, aren't they?"

"Every genius needs a patron," Cianán replied cheerfully, but Sully did not miss the sudden falter in the teen's smile.

Sully clapped the youth's shoulder and gestured toward the noodle shop. "I'm starving -- can I treat you to a bowl of phở? Looks like you're finished here, and I'd love to catch up, and sound you out about a possible job."

The smile returned, almost blinding in its intensity at the promise of work. "Lead the way!" Cianán said, quickly wrapping up his box of chalk and sliding the cloth-bound bundle into an inner pocket of his oversized coat.

In a few minutes, they were seated at a window table in the noodle shop, enjoying bowls of hot soup with a fine view of pedestrians outside, reacting to the chalk art.

“How are you? How is your beautiful Carolyn Jane?" Cianán asked.

"I'm doing well -- I lost Jane, however. Some bad luck on a job. But I'm first mate on a new ship that's downworld for a short spell -- and my new ship needs to be prettified. You still available for freelance efforts?”

“Sure am!” Cianán was attacking his bowl of soup with real hunger. Sully knew either the youth had missed a few meals from lack of funding -- or had missed a few meals because he’d been too sunk in a creative fugue to notice he was hungry. “Nose art again? You know what you want?”

“Do you remember what you painted for the Carolyn Jane?”

Cianán grinned. “Oh yeah. How could I forget that face -- or that figure?”

Sully laughed. “Great! Then I want the same sort of thing. But here’s the complication -- the ship’s name is the Jin Dui. Can you work some sesame balls in there somehow as well?”

Cianán blinked, considering the challenge. “Let me think on it. I’m sure I can. But my real problem is gonna be that I’ll have to beg or borrow a spray brush.” He grimaced and shrugged. “You know how it is. I got jumped and they got stolen.”

Sully nodded. He toyed with chopsticks for a moment, weighing his next question carefully. “How are you doing, anyway?” he asked, looking the youth straight in the eye.

Cianán didn’t flinch away from the eye contact. “Good,” he said. “Better than I was. I had a place for a while there, was even doing tattoos at this joint down at the dockside. But Buddha’s dream stick knocked me down and batted me around a bit. I came to my senses when I realized how the pin yen was hurting my art, and I’ve weaned myself from the habit. I’m still paying off my debts, but I’ve been clean for a three full months and counting now.”

"That's good. Good." Sully had suspected the drug use, when last they'd met. He hoped what Cianán said was true. He truly liked the kid. He had first met Cianán several years ago, when the youth was truly a boy. The kid had run away from a difficult home situation -- Sully didn't know the details -- and had lived on the streets since. Cianán had an extraordinary natural talent as an artist, and it was a skill he had used to save himself from working the streets in other ways. That he was devoted to the pursuit of his art was clear -- whatever money Cianán earned went toward supplies before food or shelter. Sully wondered what the Seven Cranes had paid for their murals in. The triad was powerful on Beylix and had been the primary suppliers of opium for the past three generations, so Sully would be willing to wager payments had not been in credits.

"If you want the job," Sully said, "then let's talk price. I'm willing to pay 5 creds an hour -- and I'll buy you the tools and paint, as well. But you've got to be willing to fly out with me today, in about an hour or so. We're parked at a scrapyard out near Mt. Wutai, and I'm only in town for a short time. But I'll fly you back when we're done. If the job takes longer than the afternoon, then we'll feed you and provide you a clean bunk for the night."

"You had me at the 5 creds an hour," Cianán laughed. He grinned and spit in his palm, then held it out to shake.

Sully spat in his own palm, and they shook to seal the deal.


Carver saw furtive movement from the corner of his eye; he pivoted with the wrench in hand, and the dog which had been sniffing hopefully around the cargo bay ramp bolted. He had a glimpse of gaunt ribs and hipbones, a red merle hide -- and distended nipples. A nursing female -- although from the wretched look of her, she wasn't producing much milk.

Carver went back to work replacing the cracked porthole in the inner lock door. He was tightening the last bolts when a larger form ghosted up the gangway, intent on the sounds and smells of the goat pod. This time, the invader was a big, rangy black creature, which bared its fangs at Carver and snarled a warning when he turned to face it.

"Get!" he told it firmly, shifting his weight to the balls of his feet and facing it full-on, projecting challenge in every line of of his body. The big brute stopped indecisively, ears flat and nose twitching. It sensed an easy kill near at hand, and it was hungry -- but Carver was an obstacle. It growled in threat, locking eyes with the man, then began another wary advance.

Carver took a fresh grip on the heavy wrench, preparing for combat. He could pull his gun and shoot the creature, but the sound of gunfire would alarm the rest of the crew--

A four-wheeler ATV came roaring up from the direction of the scrapyard's main compound. Finding itself with an unknown hostile approaching from the rear, the dog wisely decided to make a tactical retreat. Carver watched it go, thinking to himself that he should have taken a clean shot anyway. That one would be back, and it was dangerous.

The ATV braked at the bottom of the Jin Dui's ramp, and Uncle Slim himself dismounted. "G'day!" the short, wide man called cheerfully as he waddled up the gangway. "It's Carver, isn't it? Just the man I was hoping to see -- and I see you've gotten an eyeful of my problem as well!" The scrapyard owner chuckled to himself as he paused for a response, and not receiving one, launched merrily on his way. "We've had some trouble with wild dogs. There was someone who was driving out from the city and dumping them, and for a while, some of my staff took to feeding poor things. But then the puppies started coming, and now there's dogs everywhere. Some of them were probably pets and were nice enough, once. But some of them are pretty gorram fierce, and it's getting so I'm scared to step out of my own front door at night. Sonny Beck and Arikesari are my night watchmen, and they're fine fellows. But Sonny can't shoot for shit, and Ari is a Jainist, so I can't ask him to do this. And I'm too much of a softie myself. My nephew Sully says you're a hard man. Bully, says I -- because I need a hard man for a hard job. Can I hire you to make this problem -- or rather, these problems -- just go away, nice and neat and no fuss?"

Carver thought about it. He did not like the prospect of shooting a pack of wild dogs. But some of the pack were clearly dangerous. The more aggressive ferals would kill the ship's livestock if they could get at the goats or chickens, and certainly there was risk to other members of the crew. Uncle Slim was clearly asking for a favor, and Captain Cooper was depending on the man to fence hot items gathered from the Lucky Day, so Carver was loath to say no. "I will speak with the captain," he finally replied, as it was clear the stout scrapyard owner was waiting for an answer.

"Bully!" Uncle Slim exclaimed, clearing taking a delaying tactic for a yes. "I will tell my staff. They'll know to expect to hear gunfire on the lot, then, and I'll have them communicate their patrol schedule with you, so that you all can coordinate the necessary details." Beaming with relief, Uncle Slim and returned to his ATV, and puttered on back toward his compound. Carver watched him go, then returned his attention to finishing the job at hand.

---to be continued