Excerpt from "Scraping By"

The Somathans were pissed off. And when they’re not happy, they smell like pig shit. Jaka had made the mistake of trying to hide in a niche outside the 166th floor, but the exo’s fetor was just too strong and the pissed off part was personal because she’d just demolished their lab with liquid nitrogen grenades (always a favorite). Her nose wrinkled as she held to the slim facing. Damn. Again. Then she sneezed and vomited at the same time. 

 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. Despite their stink, the Somathans could hear and see perfectly well. The gene scraping lab was little more than ice-rimed shambles and had occupied the 166th and the floors above and below, so getting back inside was an option with little reward. A Somathan appeared at the transparency in front of her and she launched a charged crossbow quarrel through the shattered ceravit, its liquid nitrogen core impaling then detonating inside the chest of the hulking exo. 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 crap 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 a second quarrel from her self-loading crossbow in the general vicinity of the 166th and saw two stiff piggies 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, hmm, maybe forty floors above? The dragon who cradled her, seemingly black against the howling night storm, angled up and over a block of smaller buildings. When she caught her breath, she yelled, “What took you so fucking long?”

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


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

 “Thanks, ya big oaf!”

 A few powerful wing beats brought them back to a safe altitude. Another poorly-directed shot skewed far to the left, so the protection was still on the hunt. Rain blinded her.

 “Looser, Titus, looser!”

 The claw’s grasp opened fractionally and Jaka twisted her small body to a rear-facing firing attitude before the talons closed securely again. A sudden dip, and the dragon heeled ninety degrees and skimmed down a congested boulevard hemmed in by skyscrapers, up, over, and under the crush of oncoming pods and IAAs in a nauseating undulation that made the rest of Jaka’s lunch want to get the hell out. A quick diagonal cut into a no-fly boulevard, a proscription their pursuers similarly ignored.

Turing level, 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 that lodged in the personal transport vehicle’s intake vents, detonated, and split the maglev into icy shards 300 meters above city streets. Where the debris landed was a problem not her own.

 More thumping wing beats. There was still one PTV in pursuit and the forewarned pilot hung back, darted side to side, giving Jaka fits as she tried to target. The dragon looked over his shoulder to calibrate, jaws slavering with the effort of their flight, but upon turning back, he was perhaps seventy meters from another skyscraper and if he didn’t do something drastic, nothing would end well. Up or to the side. Down was not an option at his speed. A juke right: oncoming air traffic again, so a quick left. Of course, Jaka was the rear view mirror and had no clue about the current exigencies of driving at altitude, in a tropical storm, at speed. A hell of a lot of speed.

 The PTV performed a clumsy turn and kept following.

 “What the hell was that?”

 “Excuse the fuck out of me for being lost!”

 Just as the dragon righted, another skyscraper blocked their way; Titus received a blast of rain from the torrential downpour that momentarily clouded his sight and before his third eyelids rolled back, 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 its loop crested, Jaka had a clean shot at the machine’s magnetic repulsion surface; she slit her eyes against the wind and wuthering, fired. The craft stalled at the apex of its climb and fell like a three thousand kilo ice cube into the street below, while Jaka puked again from the release of tension: a sick valediction.

 Well, there was going to be a lot of ’splaining to do, so Titus ramped up speed, 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 and sembled into his human form, 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 Southern Cross.”

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

 “Go take an antiemetic. I’m heading below to find a towel.”

 “Antiemetic? Shit, there’s nothing left. Thanks for that.”

 “Then go to bed. I’m too wrung out to pilot and my guess is you are too. We’ll wait until the last hour of the night.”

 A few minutes later, Titus came up from below in a white bio-synth robe; the thrown-back hood showed his shaggy yellow-gold hair still darkly wet, but it no longer dripped. He re-set the visual damper, played a quick ditty on the coms surface, and mumbled with a trace of astonishment as if Jaka was still nearby, “Well, that was nice and quick. Daraus just placed the rest of the fee in our account.” Raised his voice. “Start thinking of a place for vacation.”

Silence. Expected. He’d bring the subject back up in a few days, but for now, the door to the captain’s sumptuous cabin on the main deck, Jaka’s cabin as it had become, was closed and assuredly locked. The message it always sent told him hurt that bad was ever hypervigilant.

Shrug. There was no argument for it. Titus found his cramped lower berth, and in five minutes he was asleep, dead to the world, another job well done. Well, maybe just done.