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A short story by

Matt Burns

"He'll know." The microwelder trembled in Vik's hand. "He'll know."

They'd stuffed the larvae into the box, putting the dead one on the left. The vital sign screens on top of the container were relatively crude. Each one displayed a green or red light depending on whether the specimen below was alive or dead. They were easy to change. The question was whether Ivan would buy it. Vik's boss was meticulous with his product.

"Forget about it." Serj paced around the pen. "It doesn't matter."

"Forget about it?" Vik put the finishing touches on the display screen above the dead larva. It blinked from red to green. "We have two options: we tell him, or we trick him. I don't recommend the first."

"Or we take them. Sell them ourselves." Serj squatted down near the other grub and spoke in hushed tones. "Think about it. We always talk about getting off this rock, right? This is it. The larvae are worth a fortune. Otherwise, why would the buyer come to this junkyard to pick them up? If it's true he's a government lab rat, then he wouldn't deal with the likes of Ivan unless he were desperate."

"It's Ivan's property."

"He stole it. It's as much ours as it is his."

"What is it with you? One day you're fine, and then the next you're..."

Serj laughed a cold, sad sound. "I'm what? Not acting like a dog anymore? Not cowering down whenever I hear Ivan's boots behind me? Every morning we do our ritual to remind ourselves that we're not animals. Then we come in here and get treated like them. I'm tired of it... just... tired..."

"We lie low. We bide our time and save up credits. That's how we do it. That's what you taught me."

"We've been working for years, and what do we have to show for it? Nothing. If we--"

"Grubs!" Ivan shouted. They turned toward their boss as he approached the pen. "Status."

"Just finished, boss," Vik said. Maybe for the first time in his life, he was relieved to see Ivan. He hoped that the boss man's presence would smack some sense into Serj. "Zerg are inside. Locked tight."

Ivan cracked open the box and peeked in at the three larvae collecting a new coat of frost. Dead or alive, they all looked the same. The three displays on the box's lid glowed green.

Vik held his breath until his boss nodded. "Good. You're done here."

The grub waited until Ivan was well out of earshot before speaking. "Let's go. Enough of your crazy idea."

"No." Serj stood his ground. "What's crazy is living like we do. We could do anything... be anything... but we accept being treated like this. It's gone on too long. Now, are you going to help me or not?"

"I... it's too dangerous, man. It's--"

Serj reached into Vik's jumpsuit and pulled out the pilot wings. He yanked hard, snapping the rubber cord. "Why do you wear these if you're fine with livin' your whole life as one of Ivan's dogs? You'll work and work, and then you'll die. No one will give two licks either way. Born a port grub, die a port grub."

Enough. He'd had enough. Emotion got the better of Vik, and he charged into Serj. His friend grabbed him by the collar and flung him against the chain-link fence.

"Go. Run home." Serj stuffed the wings into his own pocket. "Wait for Ivan's call like a good dog."

So Vik did, the anger building with every step. Serj... what had happened to him? If he wanted to kill himself, so be it. How would he even get the zerg out of the shop? Where would he find a buyer?

By the time Vik reached his system runner, his eyes were burning. He made it inside, where no one could see, before the real waterworks began. The crying just made him angrier. He took a wrench to the system runner's old console, where he and Serj used to spend hours acting like pilots, dreaming that they were soaring over some exotic jungle world and talking about their plans to make it off the port.

When the console was smashed and cracked, he shattered the dusty canopy and then curled up on the ratty pilot seat. He clenched the old foam with white-knuckled fists and buried his face in the damp fabric. The hardest thing was that he knew Serj was right. Vik had run home like a whipped dog, fleeing at the first sign of danger to save its own hide. Born a port grub, die a port grub.

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