Excerpt from "Scraping By"

The Somathans were pissed off. And when they’re not happy, they smell like pig shit. Jaka had been trying to hide in a niche outside the 166th floor on a tower in central Ilion until they left their ruined lab, but her nose wrinkled. Again. Then she sneezed and vomited at the same time. 

She knew her tactical black armor would be no help despite the fact it was pouring rain, because Ilion at night was awash in a kaleidoscope of light and movement and, sure enough, a particle beam took off the cornice above her head. The gene scraping lab she just destroyed occupied the 166th and the floor above and below, so getting back inside was an option with little reward. Just then, a Somathan appeared at the transparency in front of her and she launched a charged crossbow quarrel through the ceravit, it’s liquid nitrogen core shattering the surface and, fortunately, the figure right behind. But she could see several more pigs bunching behind their once-companion, now a frozen ham. Time to go.

Jaka leaned back into a free fall. At twenty years old, she’d done too much of this and thought, as she fell among the swirling rain, her long blonde hair whipping side to side, there’s got to be another way. As a lovely parting gift, she loosed another quarrel from her self-loading crossbow in the general vicinity of the 166th and saw a couple of piggy ice blocks fall from the building. OK, immediate grief solved. Now. How am I going to save myselllllffff . . .

Suddenly she was in a tight grip, the one she expected, who knows, hmmmm, maybe forty floors before? The dragon who cradled her, black against the swirling night storm, angled up and over a block of smaller buildings. When she caught her breath, she said, “What took you so fucking long?”

“Weather. Relax” A particle beam bolt gashed by to her right.

“WTF?”

“Well, weather and a couple of maglev PTVs that were shadowing me.”

“Thanks, asshole.”

A few powerful wing beats brought them back to a safe altitude. An undirected particle beam skewed far to the right so they were still on the hunt. Rain blinded her.
“Looser, Titus, looser!”

The grip opened fractionally and Jaka twisted her small body to a rear-facing firing attitude and the talons gripped her securely again. A sudden dip, and the dragon heeled ninety degrees They skimmed down several streets of skyscrapers, up, over, and under the crush of pods and IAAs in a nauseating undulation that made the rest of Jaka’s lunch want to get the hell out.

Turing level at last, Jaka was at last able to take aim on the forward PTV. She smacked the dragon’s belly with her free hand. “Tail up!”

The dragon turned tail and she sent a quarrel the lodged in the PTV’s intake vents, detonated the frozen nitrogen, and split the vehicle into frozen shards 300 meters above city streets. Where the debris landed was a problem not their own.

More thumping wing beats. There was still one PTV in pursuit and the forewarned pilot hung back, slewed side to side, giving Jaka fits as she tried to target. The dragon looked back over his shoulder to calibrate, jaws slavering with the effort of his flight, but when he turned back, he was perhaps seventy meters from another skyscraper and if he didn’t do something drastic, noting would end well. Up or to the side. Down was not an option at his speed. A juke right, oncoming air traffic, so a quick left. Of course, Jaka was the rear view mirror and had no clue about the current exigencies of driving at altitude, at speed. A hell of a lot of speed.

The PTV performed a clumsy wing-over and kept following.

“What the hell was that?”

“I’ve never been to Ilion before! Excuse the fuck out of me!”

Just as the dragon righted, another skyscraper blocked their way; Titus received a blast of rain from the torrential downpour that momentarily blinded him. Before his second eyelid could open, it was too late to decide, only react. They shot up vertically, mere meters from the composite wall only to face a maze of buttresses that rushed at them like a fast freight train. Titus arched his back into a loop, his tail smacked a fitting and, swearing, using muscle groups he didn’t know he had but would hurt like hell in the morning—if they lived that long—he completed the circle.

The PTV gamely followed their maneuver, but as their loop closed, Jaka had a clean shot at the PTV’s magnetic repulsion surface; she closed her eyes against the wind and the strain, fired. The PTV stalled at the apex of its climb and fell like a three thousand kilo ice cube into the street below. Jaka puked again from the release of tension.

Well, there was going to be a lot of ‘splaining to do, so Titus ramped up speed, wings thrashing against the nearly horizontal downpour, and within ten minutes they were far beyond the city’s borders where he circled an unoccupied clearing, luffed his wings, and gently set Jaka on the ground. She took a step and fell. Titus then alighted on the ground and sembled into his human form. He helped her up.

“Damn, Titus, why is it this way every single freaking time?”

“I dunno,” he said, poking a finger in his ear to clear water. “Gene scraping is about as lucrative a trade as neo-artifact mining and a lot easier. So is protection. Undamp 45.”

As soon as the code left Titus’s lips, the luxury trimaran Beats Working came into view on the other side of the clearing. Titus called down the airstair and they entered the main cabin.

“Go take an anti-emetic. I’m going down below and find a towel.”

“Anti-emetic? Shit, Titus, there’s nothing left. Thanks for that.”

“Then go to bed. I’m too wrung out to fly. We’ll wait until the last hour of the night.”

A few minutes later, Titus came up from below decks in a white robe; the hood thrown back showed his shaggy hair wet but it no longer dripped. He re-set the visual damper and played a quick ditty on the coms surface. “Well, that was nice. Daraus just placed the fee in our account. Start thinking of place for vacation.”

Jaka called. “Hey Titus.”

Oh shit. Not this again. He knew the drill. The door to the captain’s cabin on the main deck was ajar. Jaka’s cabin, as it had become. He poked his head through into the embarrassingly over-sized quarters that sported a monster pedestal bed at the rear under skylight transparencies.

“I’m cold,” Jaka said, curled up under the coverlet.

“Turn up the heat.”

“You just don’t like me, do you?”

“I like you fine, but I keep telling you, I have two daughters about your age. Ain’t gonna happen.”

“I’m not your daughter.”

“No, you’re a very naughty little girl. Goodnight.”

As he closed the door and headed to the companionway down deck, he stopped at the top of the stair. “Auuugh! Titus! You make me so god damn mad!”

He smiled, found his cramped cabin, locked the door. In five minutes he was asleep, another job well done. Well, maybe just done.