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Short Fiction: "Serpent of the Spoil"

AeternisSep 22, 2019, 2:26:57 AM

(Banner art by digital artist Eric Geusz.)

When the pair of single-seat lighters touched down, Dakila was the first to undo her harness and plant her feet on the oily mud and sharp-edged gravel that passed for soil on the Spoiled Plain. Above her, a line of behemoth mining crawlers, lined up as if still prepared for the return of their departed masters, cast long, jagged shadows across their artificially flat surroundings. The rusty cliffs rimming the plain broke up the horizon beyond the machines, stained and pitted by decades of caustic runoff but still jutting defiantly into the sullen sky.

Dakila immediately regretted the haste with which she had left the relatively clean cockpit; the rain-softened mine tailings and toxic runoff swallowed her feet to the ankles. Dakila hated everything about Anonga, but the Spoiled Plain was bad enough that even the the locals, inured to the planet's usual discomforts, avoided it.

The pilot of the second lighter, apparently taking a moment to reconsider the life choices which had brought him to his current position, remained perched precariously on the lip of the tiny vessel’s cockpit. “You sure you need my help for this, Dak?”

“Stay put, Knox.” With some difficulty, Dakila picked up her foot and took one uncertain step through the muck toward the line of abandoned machines. “I’m happy to take your share of the pay on this gig, if you’d rather not get your feet dirty.”

Though she didn’t turn to look, Dakila heard her partner’s boots hit – and then vanish into – the ground with a satisfyingly wet crunch. Knox, with his gambling debt, was in no position to be surrendering his share of Parson Yeung’s money just to keep his enviro-suit clean, and they both knew it. Dakila wasn’t in much better financial straits than her local partner in crime – if she could pay off the corrupt customs officials that had hard-locked her little ship to its berth, she wouldn’t be out on the Spoiled Plain doing off-the-books salvage work for local grandees – but she at least had a ship, and with it a distant hope of someday leaving the toxic world.

“Huh. These things don’t look as haunted as I was expecting.” Knox’s false bravado wasn’t even persuading the man voicing it, much less Dakila. Superstition riddled the dwindling population of Anonga, and even a dour skeptic like Knox couldn’t avoid being touched by the madness of his world. Superstitious or no, he knew the dangers of the wasted planet’s shattered biosphere better than any spacer could, and with two people searching for Yeung’s part, they could both leave the desolate plain far sooner.

In truth, the eerily perfect line of decaying machines, wind whistling through their exposed skeletons between corroded scraps of plating, were almost enough to make even Dakila think of ghosts. They were a relic of another time, when the world had seemed to have a future. “This one looks good. What do you think?” Fortunately, the gravel and toxic sludge seemed to provide more solid footing around the half-buried tracks of the towering crawlers, and instead of sinking in nearly to her ankles, the groundlocked spacer found herself on almost firm ground. The ladder bolted to the side of the towering machine was rusted through and missing several rungs, but the structural skeleton itself appeared easy enough to climb.

“I’ll try the one to your left.” The wet sound of his awkward footsteps across the mud were enough evidence of his forward progress. “Watch out for fangwinders.”


“Fangwinders.” Knox’s tone indicated that he was surprised that she wasn’t familiar with the threat. “Very territorial. They’ll hole your suit.” This, of course, would expose Dakila to all the toxins that fouled her surroundings, killing her in a few minutes even if the creature's bite lacked venom.

“Then why don’t you go first?” Dakila didn’t engage her suit comm to deliver this quip, of course. Knox wouldn’t be clambering up anything first. He would wait to make sure no otherworldly forces struck his partner down before making his own ascent. Checking her toolbelt, the spacer hoisted herself up onto the lowest-hanging strut, remembering the appearance of the part Parson Yeung needed to repair his parish generator. It would have cost twenty credits on any functioning world, or a hundred credits on any normal backwater, but on Anonga, only one rapid-fab mill on the whole planet could make it, and its owner was demanding the impossible sum of ten thousand. Dakila and Knox would find one for the Parson’s seven hundred, if they had to pry apart the whole line of hulks to find it.

After rooting through several of the most likely places to find the right part, Dakila emerged empty-handed. There was ample evidence that she wasn’t the first scavenger to visit the wreck. “This one’s a bust, Knox. Any luck over there?”

Only the mournful wind and the creaking of the rusting titans answered. Both the lighters were still parked below; Dakila climbed down and slogged over to where Knox had indicated he would start his search. Footsteps in the mud led to the base of the machine, then vanished. Most likely, he was inside the machine, and the radio signal was not able to penetrate its heavy structure.

Dakila clambered up after her local partner. She still had seen nothing that could be called a fangwinder – nothing bigger than lichen seemed to live anywhere on the Spoiled Plain – but that didn’t mean the place was safe. “Knox, where the hell did you get to?”

As she stepped onto a rickety catwalk, the spacer stumbled over a pile of loose parts, recently dislodged. Knox’s work, most likely – he seemed intent on carrying back as many parts as he could, to augment his winnings for the unpleasant task. It was immediately apparent that the whole pile was worth only a few credits; barely worth hauling back given the limited cargo weight of a lighter. He probably had pocketed better finds. “Come on, Knox, the little stuff is a waste of time. Did you find it?”

“I found it.” The distant voice came not through the radio, but echoing up from the bowels of the mining crawler. “I’m going to need some help prying it loose.”

“On my way.” Dakila found a likely passage down and began to climb. She hoped fervently that Knox had not damaged the necessary part in his efforts. At least if he had, she would know where to look on the other wrecks for another.

When she was halfway down, Dakila heard a whine outside – the noise, she realized, of a lighter’s turbofan. This was accompanied by a crash, and a splintering noise. By the time she recovered from her confusion and began to hurriedly scramble out of the hole she had been coaxed into, the sound was already changing pitch and dwindling into the air as Knox’s lighter climbed to cruise altitude for the return to Yeung’s parish. Most likely, he had taken the part, and as much odd salvage as he could carry.

“Bastard.” Dakila muttered, even before she extracted herself and spied the tiny, dark wings of Knox’s lighter against the western sky. He would have the whole payment in his pocket by the time she got back, and she wouldn’t see a single credit.

That wasn’t the end of his treachery, though. Dakila’s own lighter lay torn half-open, its relatively fragile airframe ruined. If she had to guess, Knox had intentionally rammed it with the durable landing skids of his own craft on his way into the sky, hoping to further slow her pursuit by damaging the aerodynamics of her ride home. Unfortunately, he had done so thorough a job the craft that it was beyond all airworthiness and hope of repair.

There was little point dwelling on the local's greed. The way back to the parish was blocked only by the old sentry perimeter on the far side of the Spoiled Plain, but even if she could bypass the guardian machines on foot, it was too far to walk before her enviro-suit powerpack bled dry – perhaps two hundred klicks.

Dakila took a deep breath, knowing she had options. Her lighter’s turbofan, fuel canister, and powerplant looked intact even if the aircraft would never fly again. Turning a critical eye on the crawler on whose rusted deck she stood, she began the search for the parts which she would need to make it back to the settlement alive.