Page 18

Author: Rachel Bach

The first quake hit just as Caldswell’s buyer showed up to unload his fish.

Cotter, Basil, and I were on hand to do the deal. As head of cargo, Mabel should have been there, too, but she’d run off at dawn to go visit some mechanic friend. How there was any mechanic worth knowing on this dirtball, I had no idea, but I wasn’t pleased by her sudden disappearance. Especially not when the buyer climbed out of his huge truck and started eyeballing the three of us like this was some kind of joke.

Though Basil was technically in charge with both the captain and Mabel away, I did all the talking, mostly because the buyer couldn’t stop gawking at Basil long enough to listen to him. I was taking his payment when the Lady’s alarm dinged in my ear a split second before the ground started shaking.

Cotter and I balanced instantly—stabilizers are worth their weight in gold in situations like this—but Basil and the shopkeeper we’d been dealing with both stumbled. I caught Basil by the wing before he fell, and he squawked at me, fluttering out of my reach before landing again with a huff as the shaking faded.

“Are you trying to pull my wing off?” he cried, his head bobbing right in my face.

“Sorry, sir.” I shrugged. “Next time I’ll let you fall like a—”

The next quake hit before I could finish. It struck like a crash, harder than the first. This time, Basil leaped into my arms, his long feet clenched around my legs so hard he might have broken them had I not been in armor.

“Easy, birdie,” I whispered, sending a quick message to Cotter not to laugh.

“What is going on?” Basil squawked, jumping off me the moment the ground was still.

Our fish buyer, who’d clung to his truck through both quakes, sighed and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. “That was a bad one,” he said. “We’ve been having quakes planet wide for the last week and a half.”

“Planet wide for a week and a half?” Basil said, regaining a bit of his composure with a shake of his feathers. “I thought colony grants are only given to stable planets. Do you think we should move the ship?”

“We are stable,” the man snapped. “Mycant started out as a mining colony, and we’ve got geologic surveys of everything, before and after terraforming. This rock’s as solid as any of the core worlds. We’re just having a spot of activity is all.”

I frowned. “Did you ask the local scientific council?” Scientific councils were the only part of Terran colonial structure I knew.

The man glared at me. For all that I wasn’t an aeon, I was obviously Paradoxian, which most Terrans considered nearly as bad. “Don’t have a government seismologist on a colony this small,” he said at last. “Local council didn’t see the point in paying for one when nothing’s going on.”

“Well,” Basil said. “I’m sure that’s a great comfort to you n-OW!”

I lifted my boot off his long toes before he could add anything else, completely ignoring his murderous look as I moved between him and our buyer. “You and the captain agreed on the price in advance?”

It took him a second to catch up with the change in subject, but once I’d gotten him back on business, we stayed there. He paid up front, transferring a surprisingly small amount of money onto Basil’s ledger, and then Cotter and I helped him load the crates of fish into the back of his hauler. The minute it was full, he drove away, his big tires squishing through the mud left by last night’s rain.

We didn’t get another quake until that afternoon. I was keeping an eye on the repair crew that had come to fix the busted cargo bay, and I was in a foul mood. Mycant was cold and wet, and the dreary weather was starting to get to my suit. Also, the repair crew had been late. It was bad enough that Mabel had vanished who knew where, but she wasn’t answering her com either. That meant I was the one left waiting for the repair crew, and then, when they did finally arrive, I had to stand around watching to make sure they didn’t put the new door on backward.

Normally, I enjoy being in charge. I like seeing things done right, and the only way to be sure of that is to keep an eye on things yourself. But I knew nothing about ship repairs, and the numbers the foreman was tossing at me kept getting higher and higher.

Basil approved each one without hesitation, though, and I watched in horror as all the money from the fish vanished. By the time the crew left, the broken hull was repaired, the new door was in place, and I had serious doubts about how Caldswell stayed in business. This deal he was off doing had better be a fat one, or else I didn’t see how I’d be getting paid this month.

I was still grumbling about money when the entire ship bucked under my feet so hard even my stabilizer couldn’t balance me in time. I fell sideways, and the Lady switched to emergency protocols, flipping me back onto my feet in a show of acrobatics I never could have managed on my own. Cotter, who’d been coming down the stairs to get back into his armor after his break, had to grab the railing to keep from going down the rest of the way on his ass.

“What the hell was that?” he shouted, clinging to the stairs for dear life.

“Quake,” I said unnecessarily, glancing up at him as the shaking gradually faded. “You okay?”

He straightened up at once, rolling his shoulders. “Course,” he said nonchalantly. “Nice flip.”

“Thanks,” I answered, ignoring the sarcasm in his voice. He hurried down the stairs and jogged across the bay toward his armor, stumbling only a little when a mild aftershock rattled the floor. I let it roll through me, watching the mud outside wobble.

“We need to get off this planet,” I muttered.

“Fat chance of that,” Cotter said, tapping the front of his suit. It swung open, and he hauled himself inside. “Damn turkey nearly pecked my eyes out when I said something similar. You tried calling Mabel?”

“All day long,” I said. “She must have her handset off.” And sister-in-law or not, I’d be reporting that to the captain. Vanishing when you’re needed is not the way to run a ship.

“Could be the interference.” Cotter’s voice was coming over the com now as his suit locked in. “Nova said something about that when I was up on the bridge.”

I turned to the stairs and jumped, flipping once to land in the door. “Cover for me a sec,” I said, jogging into the lounge. “I’ll go ask her about it.”

“Watch out for bird attacks,” Cotter replied, and then his com cut out. I smiled. Nice to know Cotter could be half decent when he forgot to be a jerk.

When I reached the bridge, Nova and Basil were standing around Basil’s projected star map. They both jumped when I came in, so I didn’t bother with preamble.

“We’re having communications problems?”

Basil glared at me, but Nova just nodded. “There’s magnetic interference. Basil thinks it’s from the quakes.”

“Nothing too serious,” Basil said, placated now that he was the acknowledged authority. “The main channels are working fine, it’s just the smaller sets that are having problems.”

I heaved a relieved sigh. “That explains why Mabel’s ignoring my calls.”

“I certainly hope you weren’t implying that the captain’s sister-in-law wasn’t doing her job?” Basil said, his voice more scornful than I’d thought such a whistling sound could be.

“Not at all.” I’d been ready to report her, but really, no one likes having to tell her commanding officer that a family member is shirking. Of course, it would have been great if Mabel could have waited to go visiting until after the hull was fixed. “Just worried. Protecting the crew is my job, after all.”

Nova beamed at me, and even Basil looked satisfied. I would have been too if the business with Mabel had been my only worry. “So,” I said. “What’s wrong with the handset signals?”

I should have known better than to ask a technical question in Basil’s presence. The bird pulled himself to his full height and launched into a long and detailed lecture on the difference between the bandwidths used for smaller sets versus satellite communication and how magnetic interference interacts with each. I glazed over almost immediately. My patience for technical description drops off once I get away from armor, guns, and other fun things, but I did catch his last sentence: “…my real worry is the clocks.”

“What about the clocks?” I asked.

Basil gave me a nasty look. “Didn’t you listen to any of that?”

I lifted my visor so he could see my wide grin. “Ignorant monkey, remember? Now, clocks?”

Basil harrumphed. “I said that our ship clock keeps losing time. Every time the Fool’s computer checks in with Republic traffic control, we’re off the standard galactic time by a fraction of a second.”

I shrugged. “Fraction of a second doesn’t sound like a big deal.”

“It’s a very big deal,” Basil snapped. “If our clock is damaged it could throw all our other systems out of whack.” He punched something on the console in front of him, and the large monitor at the front of the bridge flashed up a time display divided down to picoseconds. I froze when I saw it, and an uncomfortable tightening dread began to restrict my chest. See, I keep the time in the corner of my display at all times, and my clock? It didn’t match Basil’s at all.

I cursed in King’s Tongue and pulled off my helmet, examining the inside. I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, so I stuck it back on and brought my clock right to the middle of my vision.

Basil’s head bobbed toward me. “Don’t tell me you’re off, too?”

“By almost ten minutes,” I answered. “I don’t understand. Everything else is working. Why am I so far off?”

“Probably because your suit doesn’t check with outside clocks,” Nova said, her dreamy voice tinged with worry. “Are you on a vibration system?”

I shook my head. “Atomic clock, guaranteed accurate to within one second for three centuries.” My clock was part of my FWL, or Final Word Lock, the almost indestructible knot at the base of my spine designed to survive no matter what so that my officers could pull my data later and see how I’d died. Morbid, but useful—and, up until today, completely infallible.

“I don’t like this,” Basil announced, speaking for everyone. “But business is done and the captain comes back tomorrow. I’ll ask him to put in at a real space dock and we’ll have a professional electrician take a look at things. Maybe he can find the problem.”

I frowned. “I thought you said it was the quakes?”

Basil rolled his enormous yellow eyes. “Quakes don’t hurt clocks, idiot. We might be up to our eyefeathers in magnetic interference, but it shouldn’t matter to the clocks if we all turned into magnets. I’m more inclined to think this is more of the Glorious Fool’s usual bad luck. We’ll just have to hold our breath and hope nothing breaks too spectacularly before we can get to a repair bay.”

“Basil,” Nova said gently. “You’re not making Deviana feel more confident.”

“It’s not my job to be her mother,” Basil sniffed, but his voice was much kinder to Nova than the look he gave me. “Just keep your monkey mouth shut and try not to panic your fellow gun-toting barbarian. You would not believe how rude he was to me earlier.”

I believed it. “I’ll keep the rabble in line,” I assured him, turning back to the hall. “I’m going to shower and catch a few hours’ sleep. Go to Cotter if you need anything shot.”

“Like either of you would wait for us to ask!” Basil shouted after me.

The quakes didn’t let up for the rest of the day, though we only had one more as bad as the one that had thrown me in the cargo bay. Also, and maybe this was just my paranoia, but the quakes seemed to be coming faster and lasting longer. That alone would have been enough to put me on edge for the remainder of our stay, but now that I knew it was wrong, my clock was bugging me more than anything. I kept it at the center of my vision, but while it continued to lose time, I couldn’t tell if it was losing it faster or slower than before.