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A short story by

Matt Burns




The port grub awoke in a cold sweat, as usual. The transponder implanted in his wrist cried its shrill alarm at five-second intervals. The boss man, Ivan, was calling. New product was in.

Instinct seized control, issuing orders to the grub's body. Twin adrenal glands juiced his veins with nature's own brand of stimpack. His lungs billowed. His heart raced. Blood cells rich with oxygen surged through muscle tissue as he began the rituals of awakening.

The grub rolled off the moldy pilot seat where he slept and squirmed into a grimy jumpsuit reinforced with a hair-thin layer of neosteel threading to ward off shivs. Dull lights flickered on overhead, illuminating the grub's home: a crumbling system runner cockpit. He sifted through the disemboweled electronics strewn across the floor, scavenging for an emergency ration pack. No such luck.

The urge to leave, to obey Ivan's call, was strong, but the ritual wasn't over. He scuttled up to the system runner's corroded control panel and reached into an open compartment. His hand emerged from the darkness holding a pair of gold pilot wings attached to a length of rubber cord. The grub slid them over his head, and the metal pressed against his chest, cold and strong and reassuring.

He slowly said his own name: "Vik." It was easy to forget sometimes when the days bled into one long string of near-death experiences. "I'm not like them... I'm Vik."

The port grub named Vik bolted out of his system runner, sealing the door behind him with a set of maglocks. He allowed himself a brief moment to acclimate to the environment, his sensory organs taking in the new day. A gray miasma hung thick overhead, stretching out as far as the eye could see. Muted sunlight crawled across the twisted ship hulls, metal beams, and other discarded trash that formed the arterial streets of Deadman's Port. Home sweet home.

The junkyard city hummed with activity, an insect-like buzz that gave the illusion of budding life to a place trapped in perpetual decay. Somewhere, smugglers loaded a hundred kilos of hab cut with industrial solvents into shipment crates destined for rich kids on Turaxis II. Somewhere, refugees who thought they'd bought a ticket to paradise disembarked from their transport into the welcoming arms of slavers.

Just another day in the port.

Other grubs were scrambling through their daily activities, running product for local crime lords, doing odd jobs for gambling halls and brothels, or thieving cargo from the starport. Their grimy skin and soiled clothes acted as a natural camouflage against the gunmetal surroundings. People called Vik's kind a lot of things: street urchins, parasites, leeches. He didn't disagree. Abandoned and unwanted in a city wedged firmly between the treads of humanity's boots, they'd become animals in order to survive.

I'm Vik. I'm not like them...

He wove through the dusty streets, walking with a measured pace and mostly keeping his eyes forward. He risked glances at passersby, noting the subtle flush of blood beneath their skin--unconscious biological markers that could warn of impending attack. He stepped over a body swarming with mangy red-eyed nerrats. A few days old from the look of it. No one was ever buried in the back alleys.

Before long Ivan's chop shop came into view. The refurbished vespene refinery towered at the edge of Deadman's Port proper. The grub was sprinting forward, glad he'd made it through the gauntlet unscathed, when someone reached around a corner and grabbed him by the collar.

He balled his hands into fists and readied to defend himself until he saw the attacker: another grub. Like Vik, and every other member of his kind, the assailant was dressed in ratty clothes and had a shaved head marked by fresh insect bites. He looked dangerous. He was Vik's only friend.

"Late again. My ass too, y'know," Serj said as he released his grip.

"Screw you." A smile edged across Vik's face as he looked up at the other grub.

Serj was big. He could've been a real skull cracker in some crime lord's outfit, but he had brains, something in short supply on the port. The two grubs had met out in the streets and combined their penchant for engineering, doing repairs and selling goods to save up enough credits for tickets off the port. They'd made a pact to leave this place on their own terms, without becoming nothing more than animals on two legs, like the rest of the grubs. Then Ivan had caught wind of their talents and "hired" them, implanting transponders in their arms. Employment was non-negotiable. Vik and Serj had thought about running off from time to time, but without money, there was nowhere to go.

"Lemme see 'em." Serj pointed at Vik's chest.

"Want 'em today?" the other grub said as he pulled out the pilot wings. Serj had found them on a dead guy in the back alleys. They were the one thing that had kept their eyes on the future in recent years. Even so, Vik wasn't as optimistic as he'd once been. Whenever the two grubs started saving up a good stash of credits, a grub gang would rob them, or they'd run out of food and have to spend their savings on more. Something always came up. Life in the port had a way of grinding you down into a nub of what you were. It tired you out. It dulled dreams.

"Nah. Keep 'em. You say the words this morning?"

"Course. You?"

"I'm the one who taught them to you, ass." Serj shoved Vik's shoulder. "By the way," the big grub said as he tossed an emergency ration pack to his friend. "Could hear your stomach growling down the street."

Vik shrugged, a little embarrassed, and then tipped his head in thanks. "Not your last, right?"

"Eat up," was Serj's only answer. Vik knew better than to argue with him. It never worked.

As he downed the gelatin mix of nutrients, he noticed the dark circles under his friend's eyes. Every day Serj looked a little more worn out, and Vik wondered how much of it was due to looking after him. Vik had never had a family--no grubs did--but if the concept of "big brother" existed here, well, Serj fit the bill.

"C'mon." Serj headed toward the shop's open blast doors. "Somethin' big came in."

Vik's mind raced with what kind of tech he could sink his teeth into today. Ivan's crew had perfected the art of focused piracy, hijacking lone transports that dealt in contraband goods. Usually Ivan's boys pulled in medical goods or foodstuffs, but every so often they'd reel in some rare tech that Vik would reverse-engineer before his boss sold it off to the highest bidder. Those were the good days.

"Well? What is it?" Vik urged.

Serj turned on his heels. There was something in his eyes... disgust... unease... fear.

Vik's instincts snarled. Run.


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