LOST COLONY CH. 06-4

At last he stumbled into the open. Before him, the walkway led to several docks, each a host to numerous small barges and skiffs. Farther to his right, to the south, an elevated road led toward a cluster of dark structures which might be abandoned colonist factories. Taking a chance, Sparr ran toward one.

Communicator within range.

Sparr drew his pistol and proceeded cautiously. Guessing that the thief would have entered through the near end, he circled wide and approached from the back. He was about to slip into the wide, empty door before he froze in his tracks.

The creature occupied some unmapped territory between a dog and a bear. Its haunches were broad like a bear’s, thick with oily fur. Like a bear, its thick paws ended in menacing claws. But the animal’s head called to mind a dog. It kept its nose raised, attentive, regarding Sparr with more intelligence than menace. Floppy ears lay along its head. It sniffed the air, but made no move to approach or threaten him. The thing must weigh more than fifty kilos, he guessed.

The oddest thing about the animal was the pack it was carrying. Like saddlebags on a horse, the pack had pouches on both sides, connected by wide leather bands. A strap under the animal’s body held the pack in place. Whatever was in the pack didn’t seem to trouble the animal at all.

Unnerved, Sparr backed away, half expecting the animal to charge him. Only when he had withdrawn ten meters did he feel safe. He decided to go in the front door, after all.

The warehouse was much like the factory that Sparr had investigated the previous day. Where once there must have been cabinets, racks, and stacks of materials, there were only piles of debris. Here and there were signs of fires, a few filthy garments, and other signs of passing human occupation, but the building for the most part had been forgotten. Sparr crept in.

He heard them almost immediately, a man’s rough, officious voice interwoven with a woman’s more pleading tones. Practically crawling, he advanced.

“… what these things are!” the man was saying.

“They’re from the Origin, I told you!” the woman replied. “New things, from Shong, I think.”

“You think,” the man scoffed. “What is this, then?”

“I… I don’t know,” the woman said. “But look. Look at the fabric. Touch it. Have you ever seen anything like this?”

Sparr crept closer. A partial divider littered with debris screened him from the two, but he wouldn’t be able to advance further without being seen.

“I can’t sell something that no one knows what the fuck it is!”

“You have smart customers,” the woman said. “They’ll know it’s special. The white and red bubbles!”

The thief, the woman, was trying to fence the contents of Sparr’s pack.

“Ten is all this is worth,” the man said.

“What!” the thief cried out. “Ten? You’ll sell it for five times that!”

“I’m not sure I can sell it at all,” the fence retorted.

“Twenty-five,” she countered. “I risked my life lifting this stuff. You should see that guy! He’s a giant.”

“You said he was from the Origin,” the man said. “He’d probably have tried to give you a sermon. Fifteen is as high as I can go.”

The two settled on eighteen tokens, both complaining they were getting the worst of the deal. Sparr slunk back into the shadows, watching as the thief headed back toward Racas. As he had suspected, she was one of the locals who had observed him at the inn the previous evening. He was faced with a decision. He could follow the thief and apprehend her, recovering the tokens she had just been paid. But the contents of his pack were priceless, especially the communicator. He couldn’t risk his opportunity to confront the fence. Groaning in frustration, he watched as the thief slipped away.

Once the thief was gone, Sparr peered around the divider, getting his first glimpse at the fence. The man was of an age with Sparr, but shorter and thickset. He had the sort of lineless skin that some heavy people did, with small eyes set into a broad face. As Sparr watched, he finished stuffing the pack with the medical kit, spare ammo, water pouches, and energy bars.

“I’m going to need those things back,” Sparr said, stepping into the open. He brandished the knife he had carried since the attack on the caravan. Even if the fence was comparably armed, he was confident that man wouldn’t risk a fight.

The man flinched, but recovered. “You can,” he said, hoisting the bag. “Forty tokens.”

“They’re mine,” Sparr said.

“You’re the giant?” the fence said, a smile crossing his lips. “Take it up with her then. She frequents a certain inn in Racas. I can tell you which one.”

“I will,” Sparr said. “But first I need those things back.”

The fence eyed Sparr’s knife, and with a sigh, lowered the pack. He leaned forward, making a show of placing it on the ground, then, with a sudden movement, pulled forth a pistol. Sparr froze.

“So, you recognize it then?” the fence said. He grinned at Sparr smugly. “Most people I just have to shoot. They don’t know what it is.”

“I’ve seen one,” Sparr said. His mind was racing. Though hundreds of years old, there was no reason to think the vintage pistol wasn’t still operational. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll take it up with the thief.”

“Mmmmm, I’m afraid that won’t do,” the fence said. He raised the pistol. “You see, now that you know I have it…”

“How much ammo do you have left?” Sparr blurted. “You can’t shoot everyone that crosses you.”

The question hit home. The fence paused, taking several deliberate breaths. “Plenty,” he replied, but remained indecisive. He glared at Sparr, but finally waved the pistol. “Go,” he said. “If I see you again…”

“Yes, yes,” Sparr swore, backing away. His heart was racing. At last, he emerged into the relative light of a damp, Kaybe morning. He sat in the grass, trying to collect himself. It seemed more colonist-era technology was in circulation than Sparr had assumed. Still, the pack was critical. Resigning himself to the risk, he circled back around to the other end of the building. When after a minute the fence emerged, Sparr was waiting for him, pistol drawn.

“You’re not the only one with a-“

“Well, I don’t be-fucking-lieve it,” the man swore. Whether he didn’t see or didn’t recognize Sparr’s weapon, he raised his own.

Sparr shot him. The pellet tore into the man’s side, exploding against a rib. The fence staggered away, dropping his pistol. After no more than two meters he collapsed. Sparr waited at least a minute before he retrieved the pack.

Watching the man die sickened Sparr. What was happening to him? He had never taken another man’s life on Earth. At least two had fallen at his hand during the ambush on the caravan, and now another lay dead before him. Sparr sat back against the side of the building. He closed his eyes. At some point, he thought, the planet would consume him. His heart might keep beating, but his essence would have dissolved in the planet’s pale sky. He missed Efreem and Silla. Sparr began to wonder what would happen if he just stayed here, leaning against the side of the long-abandoned building. The world would go on without him.

It was the animal that woke him. Intruding into his near dream state he first heard a sniff, then felt a cold presence against his temple. When Sparr opened his eyes he was looking directly into those of the pack-wearing beast he had seen earlier. He wasn’t afraid. Instead of drawing back he reached a hand up for the animal to sniff. It did, then gently nudged him. Sparr scratched the animal’s muzzle, eliciting a low, pleased groan.

The last lingering wisps of depression melted away as Sparr rose. The fence clearly had been using the creature as some sort of pack animal. He unbuckled the pack and inspected the contents. In addition to his communicator and survival kit, the pack contained a bedroll, an oiled jacket suitable for heavy rains, and, to Sparr’s enormous relief, a pair of shoes that might almost fit him. The other side of the pack contained some finely-wrought metalwork and jewelry that certainly were stolen. No doubt they would fetch a nice price if sold, but Sparr’s pack was already filled to bursting. He stowed them just inside the abandoned building. Some lucky traveler seeking shelter would find a small bonanza.

From the man’s body he took the pistol and a heavy pouch of tokens. The confidence of wealth would go a long way toward easing his journey. Sparr took a moment to assess his situation.

It was pre-dawn. By his estimate, he had woken around 4:00 in the morning. After the haphazard pursuit through Racas, and the confrontation at the warehouse, it must be nearing 5:00. The smaller, brighter moon nicknamed Feta was rising swiftly, adding its light to that of Cheddar. There was no point in returning to the fetid town. He would simply get an earlier start than planned.

Sparr rubbed the creature on the nose before heading into the day. “You’re free,” Sparr said. “Don’t have to lug stuff around any more.” But scarcely a hundred meters down the road, the animal caught up with him. It had found the discarded pack, which it now dropped at Sparr’s feet.

Sparr had the distinct impression that the animal wouldn’t easily be dissuaded. “You know I don’t pay well,” he said. In response the animal simply sat back and nudged the pack.

“Fine,” Sparr said. He began buckling the pack. “We’ll have to figure out what you eat.”

Having decided to keep the animal’s company, Sparr realized he had a great deal more flexibility in how he traveled. For one thing, he could carry much more than he could have managed on his own. With the creature plodding behind him, Sparr returned to where he had hidden the purloined jewelry. He stashed it, along with roughly half of the water pouches and energy snacks, into the animal’s pack. He also added the bedroll, shoes, and oiled jacket. Thus liberated of at least five kilos of weight, he resumed his journey.

“We need a name for you,” Sparr said. The two rejoined the road out of Racas, heading toward what he hoped was Santi. “I don’t even know what species you are.”

Whatever the locals had named it, the animal seemed to be slightly more bear than dog. Its hindquarters were broad, on relatively thick, short legs. Walking, its body swayed ponderously, not straight and purposeful like most dogs. Only its raised head, floppy ears, and compact shoulders brought to mind a dog. Like many of the creatures on Kaybe, its coat was a muddle of brown and grey. Only some white tips on its muzzle and paws broke the color scheme. Sparr wondered how old the bear/dog was. A name came to him.

“You’re a bear/dog,” Sparr explained to the animal. “Your name is Bogg.” He received back only a curious sniff in response.

In Racas Sparr had meant to inquire about the best route forward. He wondered if passenger ships plied the wide, brackish lake that the town nestled. Such a route might be safer than spending night after night on the road, and with his recent infusion of tokens, he might even have been able to afford it. Regardless, there was no going back. The thief, if she spotted Sparr with his possessions back, could easily connect him to the death of the fence. He doubted law enforcement was rigorous, but being found out would make him a target. With few alternatives, he plodded forward.

Sparr thought on the uncharted direction life had taken him. According to plan he should by now be busy cataloging and organizing the planet’s diverse plant and animal life. Calista had broken off their relationship, but he would still be in the company of other Alliance crew friends and colleagues. Simple but safe quarters would welcome him at night, even if the constellations overhead were different.

Instead, he spent every day in an unwelcoming land. He was alone, absorbed in a world so far removed from his own as to be unrecognizable. To survive he had been forced to run, hide, fight, and kill. He had found pleasure in the beds of beautiful women only to be torn from them. He had been bought and sold, drugged, and hunted. He was Alain. He was Animal.

Sparr halted, stretched, and took a moment to admire the sky. The odd constellations were fading, overwhelmed by Cheddar, Feta, and the almost-risen star that warmed the alien world. Bogg stopped too, rolling back onto his haunches. He scratched, emitting a relieved growl.

Morning was upon them.

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