Just about anything can be found on the Crescent. Not only is it one of the major 'crossroads' of the galaxy but the authorities on the colony are some of the most corrupt. Plenty of things that are banned by the niao empire as a whole can be found relatively easily in the city. The prices are steeper than on colonies like Port Royal that are outside of the control of the niao empire but the selection is so much better. On this occasion I pick up a couple of anti-personal biological weapons designed specifically for use on niao and a few neat-looking explosives. There is also a very tempting rapid-fire laser cannon that I cannot figure out how to fit into the Raven. I may have to hire a smuggler to bring it somewhere a little more discreet.
Mostly though, my focus is on more normal things. I need to pick up groceries and other mundane supplies. These I arrange to have delivered and loaded into my ship. Abe won't move to take his goods off the Raven until after business hours but I have faith that the smuggling compartments in my ship will stay hidden. I also have to arrange the sale of my more average goods, which Abe was not interested in. These, too, I arrange to have taken off of my ship by the merchants. I run the risk of being scammed or stolen from doing this but the net allows me to check up on them and see what kind of reputations they all have.
Midway through the day, I stop and buy some food. The Crescent is a good place to find human food and I stop at a gyro stand I remember liking. I eat while leaning up against a building and watch the river of people flow by me. The majority are human and niao, of course, but other species can be found on the Crescent.
The ones that stand out the most to me are the Je'Techt. They are taller and bulkier than humans and niao. Or their suits are at least. Every one of them is covered from head to toe in dark grey or brown suits. They are roughly humanoid in shape, bipedal with arms and heads. Yet nobody is quite sure what they look like inside their suits. I've seen more than a few dead and when the suit was peeled open, all that was left was ash and smoke. They are tenuous allies of the niao but I wonder how long that will last. The niao dealt them a defeat in their last war but not before a lot of blood was spilled. Further, unlike the niao, the Je'Techt do practice straight up chattel slavery and there are rumors that several thousand niao, at a low estimate, are currently under the yoke of Je'Techt masters.
Towering above all the other denizens of the planet are the creatures we humans have dubbed nephilim. Their method of speech is even harder to parse than the niaos.' It is composed of clicks and vibrations at impossible frequencies. I can understand niaospeak even if I can't repeat it very well. I can't make heads or tails of nephilim talk. The beasts stand up to three meters tall and have heavy shoulders and arms that are usually three-quarters the length of their bodies. I've seen tired or sprinting nephilim use their hands to move in an awkward gallop. Like some horrifyingly huge ape. They are hairless, though, with a skin tone usually some shade of yellow. They have bulbous round heads and huge chins with mouths that split their heads nearly in half and big, blocky teeth.
Despite their looks, there is no doubt the nephilim are very intelligent. They used to be under the dominion of the niao like we humans but they managed to kick the naio off their planet centuries ago. Since then, the nephilim have become a galactic power in their own right. The rapprochement between niao and nephilim was only cemented a decade and half ago, during the niao/Je'Techt war. It was also the first time nephilim were ever seen on Earth. I often wonder why the nephilim gravitated back toward the niao after gaining their freedom. I guess a shared history helps, even a history of abuse and bloodshed.
Finally, running underneath all our feet are the Drut. The little buggers tend to be around half a meter high and skinny. Their skin is brown and knobby and the hair on top of their heads is green and thick. They have glossy black eyes and mouths full of sharp teeth. Their speech is high-pitched and fast but understandable. Like humans, they are a subservient species to niao but don't seem to mind it. Hundreds of articles and books have been devoted to the task of understanding Drut motivation and behavior. Including why they seem to be much smarter in groups than as individuals despite no tangible presence of a hive mind. I'm certainly no expert and I'm glad I typically do not have to deal with Drut. They never act as merchants, at least in the traditional sense.
One of them tugs on my pant-leg and offers up what looks like some kind of baked good. I shoo him off without accepting. If I had taken it from him, the little Drut would have expected something in return. It could have been literally anything. Even the napkin I was holding my gyro in. I do not know if they value things differently or simply do not understand the concept of trading value for value. Either way, I do not like trading with a partner if I do not understand his parameters.
The fact that the little bugger came up to me means that I've been standing around too long. A human lounging around is always bound to draw niao attention. I spend the rest of the daylight hours poking around in a few more shops and purchasing some high-quality plastic and metal composites. Then I find a place to stay overnight. Since Abe's people will be pulling stuff off my ship in the middle of the night, I need to be elsewhere. I go with a hotel I've stayed at before. It is a rundown, dirty hovel but I know I won't be hassled. The room has nothing but a bare mattress. And even that barely fits in the confines. It's a good thing I don't plan on sleeping.
Instead, I dive into the net, and check to see how the bidding war is going for Roots. The information on who is offering for the niao is almost as valuable as the astronomical bids they are putting in. With a smile, I enter a couple of bids of my own. That should keep the price climbing. Of course, I still have to decide whether I am going to keep him myself or truly sell him. Putting off the question for the moment, I begin my normal data sweep. I also order in some food. A niao delivery boy is the one who comes with the food. I take it from him suspiciously. It's true that humans cannot rent a convict but no niao would consent to work for a human. I am right. The restaurant claiming to have "100% authentic Earth food" must be run by niao. Their curry tastes like vomit.
I work until there are about two hours of darkness left, then I slip out into the night. There is a chance that Abe's crew won't be done yet but I have one more stop I need to make anyway. It takes me a little while to find the right apartment in one of the major human ghettos. There are hundreds of buildings with hundreds of apartments each and the signage is not great. Eventually I find it, though, and jimmy open a window.
Inside, I quietly sneak around, checking faces. There are eight people who live in this little hovel. I find him sleeping on a cot in the kitchen area. I place one hand over his mouth. He comes awake instantly, his eyes bulging and he would have screamed if I hadn't held his mouth closed. "Calm down, Mister Surrey," I whisper. "I'm not here to hurt you." Surrey settles back. His eyes are still open very wide and filled with fear. He nods, though, so I take my hand away.
"Who are you?" he whispers.
"I represent a man to whom you owe a favor," I say casually.
"The Exile King," Surrey breathes.
I grasp his shoulder and dig my fingers into his shoulders painfully enough for him to hiss. "I wouldn't use that name so cavalierly if I were you."
"I'm sorry," he gasps.
Releasing the pressure, I say, "That's alright. You were to pick up a package?"
"Yes!' Surrey says loud enough that I glance around to make sure no one else is stirring. He scrambled over the side of his cot to where a shirt and shorts are pooled on the floor. He extracts a thin envelope and returns to me. I take the envelope and pocket it.
"Thank you, Mister Surrey," I say.
"No problem," he breathes. "Is that really it? This makes me square with Outremer?"
I punch him in his midsection, right below the ribs, knocking the wind out of him. Surrey folds over, clutching his stomach and struggling to breathe. "I have to say, your loose lips worry me. I say this for your own sake. You know nothing that could hurt my organization but others won't be so quick to believe that. Are you understanding me?" Surrey nods. "Then we are done here." I start moving back toward the window.
"Wait," Surrey says in a strangled voice. I pause. "I just want...to let..." I look at him sharply and he continues, "...your patron...know that I am...truly grateful to him."
I smile. "Oh, he knows." With that, I slip back out into the darkness. There is no hint of the dawn yet but my internal clock tells me it is not long in coming. Traffic in Crescent City never completely stops. The trains run all night and there are always people on the streets at any given hour. The predawn hour is when things start to pick up, though, telling me that Abe should be done off-loading my ship. I start toward a train, happy to be going home after such a smooth visit.
My train spirals and weaves its way to the stop closest to my lift. I get off and take a few steps before something I see out of the corner of my eye makes me pause. As with just about every part of my anatomy, the Doctor saw fit to enhance my eyes. Like many animals, my eyes catch light better than a human’s, letting me see in semi-darkness and also making my eyes glow. I typically keep my eyes on the ground when I walk in populated areas so this fact is not noticed. What I see, though, makes me look up and strain forward.
Far enough into the dark of an alleyway that most would see only shadows, if anything, I see a human woman surrounded by four niao. Or rather, one of the niao is looming over her, trapping her against the wall of a building while the other three hang back in a loose semi-circle. I tell myself to forget it. This type of thing, trying to rescue any human I see being abused by a niao, is ultimately pointless. The work I am doing is so much more beneficial. Certainly too important to be risking it to help one random woman. Yet I drift closer, until I can hear what they are saying.
"Fuck you," the human woman says in niao. She adds a name which means something along the lines of 'fresh tilled black earth.' I decide to call him Sod.
"Why do you speak to me like this?" Sod whistles back. "I thought we were friends. I've done so much for you and you treat me with such disrespect."
"A friend wouldn't ambush me with three of his gang," she snaps back.
"How else was I supposed to talk to you?" He asks plaintively. “You're ducking and avoiding me. I'm starting to think you were just leading me by the beak."
"I wasn't, Sod, I swear." I can hear the lie in her voice. I wonder if the niao can. Then she says a name that is not easily translated, claiming that he is keeping her busy. And it hits me. This is the woman that was in Abe's shop. Nailah Luciana.
"I don't think so," Sod says. "I know you're afraid. There is something between us and that scares you. Don't be. I've had sex with human women before. They loved it."
"And you want to consummate that here, in the middle of an alley?" Nailah says, voice thick with scorn.
"Why not?" Sod makes a high pitched chitter that I think is laughing. "If you are feeling shy, my boys can make a nice privacy screen around us."
"Stop it," Nailah says firmly. "I have things to do." She tries to walk around him but the niao punches the wall hard, cutting her off.
"You've been teasing and promising for months, woman. I've had enough of it."
I can see that this finally shakes Nailah a little. "Now, just calm down, Sod..."
"I know you like me. I also know you are afraid," Sod screeches. "Don't be afraid. I can protect you."
I need to leave. This has nothing to do with me. This has nothing to with Hachimantaro. This has nothing to do with the Lindwyrm. This has nothing to do with the Exile King. This has nothing to with Marcus Cato. This has nothing to do with anything important. Yet for some reason my legs are carrying me forward. For some reason my fist is connecting with the closest niao, whipping his head around so violently I wouldn't be surprised if his neck broke. For some reason I snap kick the next niao in the chest and spin around to elbow the third in the chest. And then, for some reason, I grasp the back of Sod's head and smash it into the wall.
Before I quite know what I've done, I'm breathing hard with the corpses or unconscious bodies of four niao around me. And one very scared human woman pressed up against the wall, staring at me in horror. "What..." she whispers. "What the fuck did you just do?"
I push my hair back out of my eyes. It's a good question. What the fuck did I just do? This is exactly the kind of thing I made up my mind never to do. I quickly try to add up how bad this all is for me. I need to get off the planet now. There are security cameras in all of the public areas of the city. The moment that this is reported to the authorities they will start to look at the cameras. Even if none point directly into the alley they'll have seen me get off the train. I look around wildly. I can see the train station from where I am. The moment that dawn breaks...I need to get out of here right now. I don't even want to think about how much money and time it will cost me to wipe this from the Crescent's records.
I turn to go but Nailah catches my arm. "Where are you going?" she shouts.
"Away from here," I say, tugging my arm free and wondering what she is thinking. "You should do the same."
I hurry out of the alley and begin quickly walking toward the lift. I want to run but a sprinting human draws too much attention. Nailah falls into step with me, to my dismay. "Why did you do that?" she whispers plaintively. "Did you kill them?"
"I don't know," I say, in answer to both her questions.
"Oh, god damn it." She stomps her foot. "Damn you! I had two years left on my sentence. They'll add twenty more because of this." I glance at her and see that tears are leaking down her face. "Why did you do that?"
She is starting to get under my skin a little bit. "I saw another human about to be assaulted and I intervened." Though I sincerely do not know what came over me. I thought I had better control of my anger than that.
"I had it under control," Nailah snaps. "You think that is the first time I've had to deal with that idiot or others like him?" She looks back over her shoulder. "Oh, god, is he dead?"
"I don't really give a damn," I mutter. I finally arrive at the lift and wait impatiently for the doors to open. It must be descending now.
"Are you going up?" Nailah asks. I give her a look that I hope conveys my profound disgust at such a dumb question. Either she doesn't notice or doesn't care. "Do you have a ship?" Her voice pitches higher at the end.
"Yes," I say before I can think better of it. I hate this. I feel completely discombobulated.
"You have to take me with you," Nailah says breathlessly.
"No." The lift doors open and a few humans get off. Through some miracle, nobody is waiting to get in except for me. I step inside and much to my annoyance, Nailah follows. I consider throwing her out but the doors close before I can make up my mind.
"No?" Nailah snarls. "You just completely destroyed my life."
"You didn't do anything. Tell them the truth. Everything about me. I don't care." That sounded like a limp defense even to my own ears.
"Like they will give a fuck!" she screams. "I was a human present when four niao got the shit kicked out of them. They will make me tell them everything about you and then they will add decades to my sentence." She wipes away tears with the palms of her hands. "Probably find the worst work they can for me." She clutches her forehead. "Oh my god, what just happened to me?"
She isn't wrong and I know it. There is no way she will escape without an increased sentence, no matter that she didn't personally lay hands on any of those niao. It will be even worse for her because I will be gone. She would be the only human that the niao could punish. But what could I do? A thought comes to mind. "Go back to Honest Abe," I say. "I know that he sometimes smuggles people off the Crescent. Tell him that I'll cover the costs."
"Are you serious?" Nailah looks vaguely in the direction of Abe's shop. "That son of bitch can get us off the planet and he never said anything."
"He can't do it often," I say with exasperation. "Otherwise he'd bring the whole force of the Crescent down on him."
Nailah shakes her head violently. "It doesn't matter anyway. I'll never make it back there before they pick me up." She points a finger at me. "You think I don't know why you're in such a hurry to leave? They'll be after us in no time."
"All the more reason to hurry and get there," I bark. But, really, she has me again.
"No way." She shudders. "I don't want to deal with Abe." She steps forward, arms open and palms up. "Please take me with you. Drop me off wherever you're going next. I'll make my way from there but I cannot stay on this planet." Most of the anger has drained from her face and all that's left is naked fear. My mind flashes to the scarring I saw on her back.
I'm tempted to accept. This is my fault. I interfered in her life without her permission and caused this situation. Which is exactly why I promised myself not to do something like that. I am responsible for her now. But I cannot be. I have too much riding on me to be responsible for another person. I'm playing a game where a single misstep on my part is fatal. To everything I built. To the best shot humanity has of escaping the grasp of the niao. I can't add another variable to that equation. I won't.
The lift comes to a halt and the doors open. I shake my head. "I'm sorry. Truly. I won't take you. Try Abe. I'm serious about paying for it." I brush past her stunned form and walk onto the platform. I only make it a couple of steps before I hear a shriek of rage and I'm tackled from behind. The sheer shock of her attack lets her knock her off my feet.
She starts punching and kicking me and, in between various curses, she says, "You can't just ruin my life and then say: Sorry! Bye!" I try to extract myself from her but she is surprisingly strong and relentless. Eventually I get angry enough to simply seize her by the shoulders and fling her off me. Nailah sails through the air and she hits the now-closed doors of the lift.
I scramble to my feet and notice with some distress that there are a few other humans on the platform. I have to go now. A quick glance at Nailah shows that she is stirring. I hope that I haven't hurt her too badly. Hurriedly I connect with the Raven's computer and start the warm-up sequence. I had intended to check over my new cargo before I left but I won't have a chance now. The hatch of the cockpit pops open as I near it. The Raven rests so close to the ground that I simply leap in. After dogging down the hatch, I quickly try and move through the final few phases of the startup. I despise how long it takes the junk to come alive. My Psychopomp would be in the air already.
Just as the Raven starts to gently drift upward, Nailah leaps on top of the hatch, as if out of a nightmare. I can't hear her through the airtight hatch. She is hammering on the viewscreen, face flushed and eyes dripping tears. There seems to be more anger on her face than fear, though. I activate the external speakers. "Get off!" I yell. "I'm going whether you are on there or not. You'll either fall to your death or freeze to death if you're lucky enough to hang on that long."
"You've killed me either way!" she shouts back. "At least this way will be quick!" To punctuate her declaration, she punches my viewscreen hard enough that it leaves behind a streak of blood.
Damn her! Why won't she just let me leave? I should just go up a few more meters and roll, dumping her back onto the platform. I should. I stare up at her, into her dark eyes. A mixture of rage and terror but also steely determination. I open the hatch.