Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Ratcatcher

Pepper’s vision fades slowly away in the empty midnight as he tumbles end over end. His eyes frost over, moisture crackling and icing over pupils, hardening against his eyelids. The pinpoint stars fracture behind the fractal cold of the ice, then shatter into a multitude of glittering refractions.

Unseeing, he still stares wide-eyed into the vacuum.

A wisp of his last breath congeals in the top of his throat, a half-swallowed spiky sponge of air that clings to his tongue. Two grinding cracks thunderclap in each eardrum, and then there is silence.

The prickling sensation on the inside of his skin has faded. Before that, he endured the pain of fluids being sucked out through his pores. For a while he could feel the cold in his bones, but even that has gone dead.

He is dead.

Dead and coasting through the vacuum in the lonely dark.

Drifting.

There’s enough still working under the skin and muscle to register the impact. Pepper comes alive and grasps for a handhold, slides over pitted metal, then catches something. He can’t tell what it is. He has a half second of strength and awareness to spend. A half second upon which so much depends. He’s investing the precious spark of energy in priming mechanical triggers to force a frozen arm awkwardly into motion.

He blinks. A scraping, cornea-scratching shaving of ice shatters and floats away.

He’s hit the airlock. That was the goal, though it feels like something he decided a century ago. Time is dilated, dialed down.

There’s a cloud of flaking skin, blood, and spit, all of it turned into ice and drifting around him. Pepper pulls himself to it and raises a fist. Strikes it once. Twice.

And that’s all he has.

• • • •

Electricity jolts him back awake, back arching as hearts suddenly kick online with a surge of adrenaline released from artificial glands. Pepper vomits blood. He can feel it seeping out of his pores and starts to raise a hand.

Something slices deep into his wrists. He stops.

Blind and deaf, Pepper retreats. Focuses down until he can feel the presence of footsteps just out of reach.

Then there’s the problem of the nano-filament wrapped around his wrists. It winds its way around his arms, up his chest, around his neck, down his back and binds his legs together. The slightest motion will cut him apart into a hundred different slices.

Unexpected. This had definitely not been part of the plan.

As his eardrum flimsily heals the damage, Pepper listens to the calm breathing from the other person in the room. “I need something to eat,” he croaks.

The tiny machines buried in his bloodstream have been knitting him back together. But they need fuel. They are stripping it from his body’s metabolism, which has fed them all the non-essential tissue it could already. Now he can feel the fever chewing through muscle.

“I’m sorry,” says a voice. High, possibly female, with a faint tremor. “I’m watching you heal, watching your body eat itself. All that meat’s got you back alive, but that’s about it. You’re weak, now. And that is the way I prefer you.”

Pepper’s vision is back. A little cloudy, perhaps, but functional. The floor is a functional self-cleaning industrial plastic. A nearby first class leather recliner is mounted to the floor, and a pair of functional hiking boots shift slightly.

She taps a spot just in front of her ear. “De Fournier, confirm. All available resources to the Hakken Depot of Line Three-Zero-B. Cross check with D. Franklin, case manager, for authorization and budget allocations. Suspect hostile.”

“How about water?” Pepper wiggles slightly. The nano-filament digs deeper into skin on his back from the motion. But he is able to look up above the boots.

“Do I look that naive to you?” the owner of the boots asks, looking down at him. The compact woman’s face has been aged by sun, weathered by time. She leaves her straight hair gray. The crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes tighten as she smiles sadly down at Pepper. Her brown arms are covered in New Anegada tattoos, Teotl-style serpents wrapping both her forearms outside her bulletproof vest.

She’s pointing a high-calibre gun at his temple, but keeps herself at a respectable distance.

“Yamaxtli de Fournier,” Pepper says. “You are anything but naive.”

• • • •

“I’ve been tracking you for five months,” Yamaxtli says. She pulls a small, black notebook out of a shoulder pocket on her vest. Flips through the pages and stops. “The whole story is in here.”

She turns the open notebook toward him. Pepper can see the faded pencil strokes of carefully written Nahuatl. She taps a line. “Yes,” Pepper says. “I remember that.”

Yamaxtli’s lips narrow with disapproval. “I don’t, no thanks to you. I got up this morning and the last good memory I had was twenty years old. Not a happy one, but not a bad one. A fight with my daughter. But I knew something was wrong with it right away: It felt so distant. The haziness everywhere. And then I look down, and on my arm in henna is a note to myself to read my notebook.

“It’s an old habit I had, even before the damage to my brain. When working the case, I keep a narrative. I wrote down what I did, how I came to conclusions. It was the story of my investigation. Apparently, after the neural damage and before my memory implant, I kept the book to help myself live week to week instead of day to day. Thanks to this old wound.” Yamaxtli taps a faint dent on her forehead.

“A bullet to the temple, and yet you stayed on until you helped them catch her,” Pepper says. He looks around the train car. They’re definitely in first class. It’s also been totally cleared out.

No bystanders. Yamaxtli is thorough.

The stars twinkle outside the windows. The train is whipping through tracks out in the gulf of vacuum between two wormholes. Pepper finds himself missing the comfort of the small spaceship he’d jumped out of to get here. At the time it had seemed cramped, barely big enough for just him and his supplies as he lurked out there in the dark, waiting for the signal to leave it.

“According to the crib notes of the story of my life, I’ve been back to work and had quite a successful twenty years. They call me the Ratcatcher. Retrograde amnesia only took a year out of my life. Once I had my neural implant installed and successfully synced up, I could keep memories again. Until you, seemingly deliberately, destroyed my ability to keep memories when I tried to bring you in.” She runs a finger over a burn mark just under her right ear.

Pepper is overriding cramping muscles, sending relaxants down his bloodstreams to handle the fact that he is hogtied by nano-filament and unable to even breathe too hard. “Really?”

“Says here, ever since I started tracing you, others on the case have mysteriously dropped away. No one has shut the case down: That would have gotten noticed. But people kept getting offers to leave for better departments. Others suddenly had family problems. Someone even won an off-planet lottery.”

“Lucky for them,” Pepper observes.

“I cut communications,” Yamaxtli says. “Went dumb with technology. Which is good, because even after you took my memories, the case was all right here for me on the paper. You were trying to knock me out, Pepper, without outright killing me. Which would have been noticeable. But it didn’t work.”

Pepper would nod, if the action didn’t slice his neck. “You are more dangerous than most people might imagine.”

“I’m not dangerous,” Yamaxtli says. “I don’t kill people. I catch people who kill people. Like you.”

“Fair enough,” Pepper says. How much time does he have to get out of the filament? He’s thinking about strategies. He’s not going to be able to talk her out of this. And if he does something really stupid, he might have to hurt her. “What happens next?”

Fucking filament. Where did she get that from? He hadn’t known she had it.

“Now I’m back up on communications,” Yamaxtli says. “You didn’t smash that ability, thankfully. I called for backup to take you in at the next stop.”

“I heard you send up the beacon,” Pepper says. He had hoped she’d stay dark, give him time to convince her to get him out of the filament before the shit hit the fan.

Instead, he is going to have to improvise something.

• • • •

The wormhole’s maw is just minutes away. To Yamaxtli, Pepper knows it doesn’t seem like more than a few minutes before the train hits it. Then there’ll be a faint flip in their stomachs. Darkness. Then the train tracks burst out somewhere else.

They might burst out onto tracks running on barges that bob next to a floating city. Or maybe they’ll be on a coast. Perhaps the other side of that wormhole will see them trundling through the center of a hollowed out asteroid.

In some places the tracks will be out in space again, but hanging over a planet or swinging around some strange sun. The Xenowealth has pulled more and more of the entire wormhole network closer together to run tracks through them. The trains ferry increasing numbers of citizens around every day. The tracks connect planet to planet through wormholes. It takes just hours for a high-speed train to cross from world to world.

In theory, it’s just minutes before the train starts to slow down to pass through the wormhole, and then to stop at a station where people with weapons will swarm the car. Yamaxtli isn’t relaxing, but she certainly thinks the end is in sight.

But things are really only just beginning, aren’t they?

“I have a theory.” Yamaxtli shifts her weight. The gun in her thin hands looks oversized, almost comically large. But she holds it steady and with familiarity. The holster on her left leg is rubbed smooth from use and age.

“Tell me,” Pepper says. He’s only half paying attention. He is more focused on cranking up his senses to reach further out. To listen for any faint sound or any motion that isn’t quite right. He’s been slowly trying to ease the nano-filament around his wrists back down his forearm. If he needs to, he can now slice his hands off at the wrists to gain motion from the elbows forward.

Blood trickles down the small of his back off his arms from the motion as nano-filament tightens and digs in further.

“These implants, the changes to your body. You’ve remade yourself from the core out. I don’t think you’re human anymore, Pepper,” Yamaxtli says. “I think you’ve been gone so long, seen so much blood, fought in so many wars, you have no perspective. And now that the Xenowealth is no longer fighting revolution, now that we’re using economy, research, negotiation, to slowly pull over the League, what is there left for you? These planets, these peoples, there was a time you were desperately needed in the war against our enslavers. But in peace, you became so used to killing that you started searching out chaos and death: It’s your programming. Your reason for being. All those little chips in you, it’s all they know to do. And you found the way to continue on . . . as a serial killer.”

Pepper rolls his eyes. “You say that so confidently, I could almost believe you,” he says. “But you know it’s bullshit your expert ‘researchers’ fed you to make sense of the data.”

Yamaxtli’s expression doesn’t change. “You think I’m unsure?”

“Until I hit you with an EMP to disable your brain backup, you had a memory implant to deal with your retrograde amnesia from that bullet to the brain. You have new eyes. Bone grafts for the osteoporosis. Glands to stimulate muscle growth. How does it feel to walk around without that extra motorized help in your right hip? I noticed you have a bit of a limp. Does that make you less human, or just aging?”

Yamaxtli nods. “You argue that it’s all degrees?”

“Pacemaker . . . or backup heart. It’s very gray,” Pepper says. “I, for one, have just followed the idea that I should be all that I could be.”

“But what are you being?”

Another rivulet of blood splatters to the floor as Pepper shifts filament by shoving it through skin. “You don’t really think I’m the Line Killer,” he tells her. “You have doubts.”

There is a faint discomfort in her face. But Yamaxtli smiles sadly. “Doesn’t matter what I think. I’m the Ratcatcher. I bring you in. The researchers, the judges, they’ll do their bit. They’ll study you, study the evidence, and we’ll find out what is true.”

She has her doubts. It’s written across age lines and the crinkles in the corner of her eye. But she’s a professional. She’s got sixty years of hunting under her belt and she’s damn good.

She’s the Ratcatcher.

“Politically, this has to be complicated,” Pepper observes. “You are brave to have taken it on. Or it is a strange form of career suicide.”

The uncertain look in Yamaxtli’s eyes disappears. “Yes. Franklin thinks that. Give the old woman an impossible task: Catch one of the founders of the Xenowealth: a killing machine that made our enemies nervous and destroyed our oppressors. Accuse him of being a serial killer.”

A smile flicks across her lips. Pepper returns it. “I’ll bet they didn’t anticipate that call you just made.”

“It’s inconvenient, having the founding fathers still around,” she says. “Much like the younger supervisors in my department might wish the old Ratcatcher wasn’t around to correct them and suggest improvements as they muck up basic security work. Maybe some people would prefer you faded away and stopped popping up.”

There it is. A shiver runs through the train. She notices it as well, but doesn’t take her eyes off him. Sharp. She taps an earpiece. Nothing. It’ll be dead.

Yamaxtli, for the first time, looks somewhat unsure. “What’s going on?”

“The train is stopping,” Pepper says. “The real killer has arrived.”

• • • •

Without the acceleration, their cars reorient. The mild feeling of gravity gives way to weightlessness. Pepper shifts to catch blood that has pooled around his lower back, soaking it up so it doesn’t float away. He’s been shoving nano-filament around, letting it slide under his flesh and carve muscle in order to get it bundled up where he wants it. The skin and muscle has healed, but at a cost: energy burned from consuming even more muscle.

He is emaciated now. His clothes hang like rags on him. But even that is giving him room to shift more nano-filament around that had been looped around a different shape.

Yamaxtli kicks off a luxurious designer leather chair to the nearest doors. She forces them to slide open.

As Pepper had suspected, there are no other passengers in the other train car. Yamaxtli buffered them to protect civilians.

The train shivers, and then an explosion further on down toward the engine reverberates through the cars a second later.

“Who?” Yamaxtli asks.

“Your killer is an Individualist. It’s name is a unique encryption key, but I call it Vlad.”

Yamaxtli stares at him from the doorway. “Bullshit.”

“I do indeed call it Vlad. The thing is really into impalement and some other creepy shit. You read your own your notes, you saw all that fucked up shit about flaying. You have to know it isn’t really my style.”

Another shiver from up near the front of the train. Pepper imagines Vlad is going through the train cars one by one. He hopes Yamaxtli has cleared the entire train of people using her authority, but looking at her paling face, he can tell that each explosion and shiver means lives.

“I was tracking the killer as well,” Pepper said. “That’s why I kept showing up. Always minutes behind.”

“But why is it coming at us now? How?”

“It knows you have me. It knows I’m weak, if you are reporting my capture. And for Vlad, I’m one of the bigger trophies around the Xenowealth. It’s tried to snare me. We’ve tumbled. I get away. Study it.”

Yamaxtli is barely keeping an eye on Pepper now. It’s all eyes on the car ahead. “The Individualists, an alien society older than ours and more advanced, crossed thousands of lightyears and a great war to get to this quiet zone of wormholes and survive . . . just to commit serial murder?”

“Serial killers exist no matter what civilization looks like. Why not Individualists? You thought I was capable of it. Why not an Individualist?”

She pulls her notebook out and scribbles notes in.

“Let me go,” Pepper says. “Unleash me.” This has gone too far. He needs to figure out how to protect her.

“No,” Yamaxtli says, though she’s uncertain.

“Listen,” Pepper says quickly. “What’s something you would never tell anyone?”

Yamaxtli ignores him and pushes off into the other train car. She pulls a bag along with her, letting items trail out of it as she moves. Thumb-sized impact drones, flash bang mines, directional EMP emplacements, more high-calibre handguns.

“I’m not letting you go,” she says. “But I do think you are telling the truth that trouble is coming down the train at us.”

She’s sticking defenses on walls and strategic surfaces. But it’s mostly non-lethal shit, aimed at disabling the sort of tough, human trouble that is most definitely not what is moving from car to car toward them.

It is time for this to end. Time to get them free of this. “What is something you would never tell another soul, ever?” he yells again at Yamaxtli.

She glances back at him, frowning.

The door to the car is ripped off its hinges.

• • • •

Flash bangs light up the car’s interior, wild chaotic shadows dancing across the walls and the starry windows. Concussion charges thud. It’s loud and disorienting, but not to Pepper. His eyes adjust to see the shape of the Individualist silhouetted against the spitting sparks left by the dying defenses. The Individualists were a conglomeration of various species struggling to survive against a greater threat. Most of them opted for caterpillar-like body forms: hundreds of manipulators and half-biological, half-machine carapaces.

Vlad isn’t like other Individualists. Vlad takes takes being an Individualist seriously and is its own shape: bipedal. The biological armor exoskeleton it has instead of skin is bone-white and serrated, covered in spikes and maleficent swoops.

Yamaxtli fires into the maelstrom of light at the one persistent shadow, reloading one-handed via magazines floating in a careful line over her knee. Her back is to the nearby bulkhead so that each shot doesn’t propel her backwards in the lack of gravity.

Fall back, Pepper urges. Run.

But Yamaxtli won’t. Not even as the massive heft of bone and spikes launches itself casually across the car at her, ignoring the bullet strikes for the tiny swats of annoyance they are.

The impact drones dart out from behind the sumptuous first class chairs and slap into it. The air ripples. Pepper feels electromagnetic pulses dampen the electronic world.

“Shit,” Yamaxtli says.

Vlad looms, continuing forward.

Pepper finally gets the worst of the nano-filament free with a last, skin-slicing, peeling shrug that leaves muscle bare to the air and streamlets of blood expanding out around him into a cloud of light red mist. He doesn’t have mass anymore; he is no more than a skeletal vision of what he used to be.

But he still has speed.

And armfuls of nano-filament.

Pepper loses his right hand to pull away the last of the nano-filament, then uses it as counterweight. He tosses nano-filament in spinning configurations gyrating all through the room in various patterns. A shield and an attack at once.

But Vlad, in a sudden burst of speed that seems impossible given the eight-foot tall size, weaves, ducks, and spins away from the nano-filament. Yamaxtli keeps firing throughout all this. She throws more drones at it, but it keeps coming.

There is a split millisecond. Pepper makes the decision.

“Let her go, she’s a civilian,” he shouts.

“The hell I am,” Yamaxtli snaps.

And then it is over. Vlad has redirected and spun the nano-filament around them with all the skill of a bony spider. It pulls back. “You are both prey and that is all,” it says, speaking for the first time. “Trophies. You are both mine.”

It jerks the net forward and Yamaxtli screams as the filament bites into flesh. Vlad doesn’t seem to mind the trail of blood hanging in the air as it pulls them back through the cars. Just gently enough not to slice them all up . . . just yet.

Pepper grabs Yamaxtli and spins to put his back to the filament, grimacing as it sinks in. “It’ll dig into my skin, but not past my bone,” he says.

She doesn’t protest this. She curls up slightly as her back keeps bleeding. “You stayed. You should have run.”

Pepper looks around at their crude, wobbly cage and then down at his missing hand. “I was not expecting the nano-filament,” he says.

They fall silent as Vlad pulls them through cars further down the long train. Cars that had been full of living people just minutes ago. They now float in rows, hammered to the luggage racks over their heads by long nails of bone run through their chests. Bubbles of blood grow from the white bone spikes.

Yamaxtli stares at the bodies.

One of them twitches and moves, then groans.

The alien carefully guides them into a large, clear sack. It holds onto Yamaxtli for a moment, pulling out a jellyfish-like device that fastens to her scalp. She hisses and struggles, then goes limp as the tentacles latch on. Blue light pulses, then the alien pulls it away and seals them both in.

Yamaxtli jerks back to consciousness as Vlad pushes open a door. There is no more train in front. Just a mangled mess of metal on the track that used to be the engine. “What did it just do to me?” she asks, voice shaking slightly.

Air whips out with them as they burst into space.

“It scanned your mind for malware,” Pepper says.

“You too? It was horrible.”

“Not me. We tried that once. The Individualists know better now.” He is hardly paying attention to her, though. He’s looking through the sack toward the glint they are hurtling at.

“Zero gravity,” Yamaxtli muses with a sudden half-startled laugh. “It’s comfortable. My doctor suggested that I might prefer moving somewhere lighter. Now I’m cursing myself for not retiring. People tell me: You’ve lived such a long life. Well, I still have a lot to see and do. This is a shitty way to end a long career.”

Pepper has stopped paying attention. He’s looking at the smooth cylindrical object moving towards them.

“There it is,” he whispers. “A rare bird.”

An Individualist ship. One of only five that snuck through into the Xenowealth before they’d managed to shut the wormholes down.

Pepper has always wanted one.

• • • •

Vlad the Individualist pulls them down a corridor of horrors. There are creatures, intelligent or not, Pepper can’t tell, frozen in moments of fear and mounted to the walls. A beetle-like alien rearing back from a door, legs out in some kind of defensive pose. A ten-foot tall hummingbird with fluorescent wings yanked apart into constituent parts, each one framed like some anatomy illustration, looms over a room as they pass by. Pepper glimpses more figures in the shadows.

And the human section. Varnished skulls decorate the bulkheads, teeth wide and grinning into the murk. Full humans, naked, are posed with arms outstretched in a freak show of an honor guard that they pass below.

There is a throne room deep in the heart of the cylinder. The walls are all bone. The throne itself is covered in flayed skin from a multitude of species.

“What’s something you’d never tell another person?” Pepper asks. Yamaxtli jumps. They’ve been quiet for the whole trip down into the throne room of the ship, watching each new contorted body slip out of the dark air toward them, then fade away. “Something so secret, that if I could tell it to you right now, you would know it was a signal from your past self that you could trust me implicitly. Think about that secret, hold it in your head, and I’m going to whisper a single word to you.”

Yamaxtli is staring at Pepper, the horror outside the transparent sack they’re in forgotten. She looks old, vulnerable, and for the first time, scared.

Pepper leans forward and whispers a word into her ear. A word that only she could know the significance of.

She begins to shake. “No.”

“You were a child. The elders told you about the old ways. You couldn’t have stopped them.”

Tears hang in the air. “So I once told you why I became the Ratcatcher, and now I cannot remember,” she said sadly. “Why? What purpose . . .” She is, Pepper knows, thinking about seeing a clearing in a park near the edge of a town, deep in the heart of New Anegada. Leaving with the respected elders, chanting the old words in the old ways. The comfort of tradition.

Only this time it’s different. They are meeting far from the lights of town.

Yamaxtli’s bright, young eyes would have not understood the first few seconds she saw the person tied to the stone at the center. But when the obsidian knife came out and struck ribcage, when the still-beating heart was ripped out from under flesh. And her parents stepped forward toward the blood.

Old-school religion, Pepper thinks. It’s dead now. But Yamaxtli saw it practiced before she could even write.

In the here and now, he sees a quick understanding rushing into her eyes as she moves past reflection, memory, childhood horror, into realizing what this meant. If she has told Pepper this, something she would never have told anyone else, it means she had trusted him at some point and told him and then never written it down.

Pepper nods. “Eat your notebook,” he says.

“That is everything to me.”

“This was your idea,” he says. “Trust yourself.”

“You could have tortured that memory out of me . . .” she starts to say, but Pepper rolls his eyes. Her hands shaking, Yamaxtli nods and pulls her notebook out. Even under torture, she would never have given out that. A secret so dark, so buried.

The sound of a ripping page seems to fill the entire universe, but the Individualist is moving around its throne room, tapping at consoles. It pays no attention. The ship is shuddering, moving away from the train tracks.

“Keep eating,” Pepper urges in a low, measured tone.

Yamaxtli rips page after page, grimacing. “It tastes nasty. What is this?” A tiny wisp of smoke leaks from around the corners of her mouth. “It’s burning me.”

“This is all your idea,” Pepper whispers. He’s keeping himself between Vlad and Yamaxtli, blocking the line of sight. “Keep eating.”

Vlad twists around, suddenly curious.

“Keep eating,” Pepper hisses.

The alien whips toward them. The clawed fingers rip into the filament, ignoring the shards of bone that slice off as it rips a wide hole open. “What are you doing?” it asks, the voice powerful enough to shake Pepper’s chest. “What is this?”

It flings Pepper aside. He bounces off a wall of bone. There are alarms, alien in cacophony but recognizable in their urgency, coming from around them. It fishes Yamaxtli out of the net, knocking the notebook aside as she tries to eat one more page.

“What are you trying to hide from me?” it demands. “What is this?”

It grabs the notebook, and drops it just as quickly.

Smoke roils out of Yamaxtli’s mouth, nose, leaks out from her eyes, and congeals in the air between the spiked, ivory alien and her mouth. Shields of translucent energy rip up out of the floor, seizing Pepper in an invisible fist. Yamaxtli, hovering in the air as well, gasps. More smoke billows from her pores as she’s squeezed.

“I am not the hunter,” Vlad says slowly to Yamaxtli. Then the Individualist looks over at Pepper. There is a battle going on under the bone-white spikes. Something shivering inside of it as its insides are torn apart. “You are not the hunter.”

The smoke is fading. Yamaxtli coughs and clutches her sides.

“This . . . frail thing. This is the hunter.”

“And you,” Yamaxtli spits black bile and goo as she struggles to speak. “You are the prey.”

Vlad the Individualist slumps in the air. The spikes crumble, disintegrating into a fine ash that hang in the air. The rest of the bio-armor collapses away. Hanging in the air is a three-foot long, pale slug, neural implant tendrils tangled in the air.

Yamaxtli attacks it with a pen, stabbing it until fluids mix with the ash in the air and trail around them in wet, ropy strands.

• • • •

The invisible fist still refuses to let Pepper go. He twists in place to better see Yamaxtli.

“Your idea,” he says.

“My idea,” she repeats, voice hoarse. “We were hunting the same killer.”

“Yes. You realized it couldn’t be done alone. You were a little harsh on yourself. You said I should be the bait, and you the Trojan Horse.”

Yamaxtli vomits more black bile. Coughs. “The pages.”

“Let them run their course. A two-part weapon. One half in the pages, the other in a virus present in your saliva. It will pass.” Pepper twists around, looking at the bone-clad walls. “The nano-filament, where the hell did that come from?”

“Black market weapons fabricator,” she says. “What now, Pepper? We’re trapped.”

“There’s company coming,” Pepper twists back to her. “Just hold on.”

Yamaxtli coughs again. This time it isn’t black bile. It’s blood. “I don’t think there’s much more to hold onto.”

“You hang on,” Pepper repeats. “Yamaxtli?”

Her eyes close. Blood hangs in the air around her mouth.

Pepper yanks harder against the force holding him. Magnetic fields, gripping any and all metal in him. Maybe even down to the iron in his blood. He pushes, what little raggedy muscle he has left popping and straining. His veins seem to remain in place, but there is a grating sound on the bone as implants scrape.

The new arm and leg he replaced after visiting Chilo have a lot of ferrous material. They’ll both stay put. Implants, nodes, assorted machinery, that’ll all stay as well.

Messy human remains? All that should be able to move.

Pepper strains. Tearing sounds move to audible. A pop, a crack, and he begins to pull at his right elbow. The joint rips apart. The tearing of skin comes, starting where the bone has punctured the elbow. The pain comes and goes, the regulators are themselves being torn out as Pepper continues to grunt.

His left knee buckles and shatters. Pepper helps it along, digging the fingers of his left hand deep under the skin and pulling.

Implants pierce through the skin and muscle as Pepper finally rips his biological body into the air in a cloud of blood and viscera. He sees himself in the reflection of a mirrored surface: skeletal, missing an arm and a leg, clothes thick with dried and new blood. He was as much a horror as anything else on the ship.

“I made you a promise: that you would drag that murdering fuck back to New Anegada,” Pepper wraps his good arm around her waist and braces against a chest of ribs under his boots with his one good leg. “Now hold on tight, this is going to hurt.”

Yamaxtli is not breathing, and does not respond. Pepper starts to rip her free of the fields, pulling her free of the pins and implants that came naturally with old age in the developed Xenowealth. As they rip away from her papery skin, he winces.

He drags her along with him toward the corridor.

Back through the hall of terrors.

Back to the airlock.

It takes far too long to figure out what an alien manual override looks like. But when he does, the air blows out of the lock instantly.

The temperature begins to drop.

Pepper fastens himself to the wall by looping his good arm through a ladder. As the blood soaking his clothes begins to ice over and stiffen, he looks at Yamaxtli. She is peaceful, wedged near the crack. And ice cold, his eyes tell him.

As for him, what little flesh that is left on his bones sizzles. There is almost nothing left. He is the walking skeleton that is death, sitting here to guard Yamaxtli against Death.

Pepper laughs.

Soon come, Yamaxtli. Soon come.

• • • •

It has been three weeks since an interplanetary train was attacked by an Individualist. Three weeks since agents swarmed the Hakken Depot and waited. And waited.

In the old quarter of Capitol City, deep in the Dread Council’s citadel, alarms sound. The alert goes out: Individualist ship inbound. The planet of New Anegada kicks into high alert. Ships thunder down out of orbit to provide cover on the incoming wormhole a mile outside the harbor.

And still they are unable to do anything as the long cylinder flashes out of the wormhole along the tracks, ignoring everyone as it speeds for Capitol City. It speeds past Parliament, past the citadel and shrugs off the anti-aircraft fire, and it settles right down at the Depot where all train lines connect in the heart of Capitol City.

Agents inside the Rail Agency rush to look out broken windows as the Individualist ship hovers just a foot over the old marble flagstones. Seconds later, Ragamuffin ships still glowing hot from orbital reentry circle overhead to surround it.

The bottom of the ship disgorges Yamaxtli de Fournier and the frozen remains of what is left of the Individualist. Pepper watches from the corner of the ship’s bay as she walks toward the Rail Agency. Yamaxtli’s new eyes gleam silver and her arms are now ribboned with matte black swirls that cut through her tattoos.

She drags the body of Vlad behind her in a large clear sack as Rail Agents stare at her. On the steps to the lobby, she stops in front of someone Pepper assumes is her supervisor. He zooms in, sees the name patch: D. Franklin.

Franklin stares at her. “We thought you were dead,” he says after a too-long moment.

“I was,” Yamaxtli says. “But I’m doing much better now.”

Franklin isn’t sure what to say to that. “That doesn’t look like Pepper,” he finally says, looking at the corpse.

“Pepper sends his regards,” Yamaxtli says. “But he isn’t the killer. This thing is.”

Franklin looks down at the bag of organic sludge. “Really?”

She hands him a chip. “All the info is on there. You had me tracking wrong. Follow the info, and we’ll be dumping a bunch of evidence out of the ship in a few minutes for you to pore over.”

“What about you?” Franklin asks.

“First, I’m owed a favor by the people who are flying that ship around. So I’m going to have them take me to all the horrible vacation spots I’ve always wanted to see throughout the Xenowealth. And after that, I think I’ll consider a new job offer.”

Franklin hasn’t been expecting that. Now that he’s faced with suddenly losing her, he understands what he’ll lose in the department. “What will you do?” he asks miserably.

“We’re going to hunt Individualists,” Yamaxtli says happily.

Franklin makes a face. “What makes you think you can do that?”

Yamaxtli points to the corpse by his feet. “You’re standing on one I already caught. The serial killer was an Individualist.”

Franklin jumps back in surprise.

As she walks back, Pepper gives the command. The bay vomits bones and humans in stasis, the remains of the many numerous species kept as art aboard the ship. They’ll be poring over all this for months.

Pepper moves back into the shadows until the doors seal shut.

“I thought I’d feel more,” Yamaxtli says. “I’ve been a Rail Agent for as long as I can remember. Moving up and down the line, catching criminals that hop from planet to planet and jurisdiction to jurisdiction. I’m neither happy nor sad.”

“It’s going to take a while for the neural connections to your new memory to link up. Another month,” Pepper says gently.

“I know.” They’d both been in healing tanks for weeks after Pepper’s contacts reached them.

“In the meantime . . .” Pepper reaches into a pocket and pulls out a brand new notebook and a pencil. Yamaxtli takes them, flipping through the paper and smiling as her fingers riffle through. “Record some new memories.”

Yamaxtli nods. A whole blank page to explore.

“There’s the whole Xenowealth out there,” Pepper says.

It is time to go see it.

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Tobias S. Buckell

Tobias Buckell by Marlon James

Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times Bestselling author born in the Caribbean. He grew up in Grenada and spent time in the British and US Virgin Islands, which influence much of his work.

His novels and over 50 stories have been translated into 18 different languages. His work has been nominated for awards like the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author.

He currently lives in Bluffton, Ohio with his wife, twin daughters, and a pair of dogs. He can be found online at TobiasBuckell.com.