Maeve Cavainna is running and her wings won’t save her. The infamous bounty hunter, Logan Coldhand, chases close behind her and intends to drag Maeve back to the planet of Axis to collect the high price on her head. When he finally corners her, the long chase seems to be over… until a frightened alien girl stumbles into their fight and begs for their protection. Maeve and Logan call a reluctant end to their battle and promise to help the girl, but they have agreed to far more than they know. Can the fragile peace between hunter and mark hold long enough to save the lives that depend on them?
Anvil of Tears is the first book of the Reforged Trilogy.
Chapter 1: Hawks and Doves
“One need not be asleep to dream.”
– Arcadian proverb
Maeve Cavainna stared out at the elongated rainbows of passing stars as the Blue Phoenix soared between them. Superluminal flight scattered the light into a thousand subtle hues, turning starlight into something strange, exotic and unfamiliar. At such speeds, even the brightest suns were only colorful smears against the perfect velvet black of space. A heartbeat of light and then each was gone.
How many millions of lives did the ship pass by, unnoticed by those living on the worlds circling the hazy little stars? But the planets were invisible to Maeve, too small and gone too fast to ever see. The universe was a cold, dark and ignorant place. Uncaring and blind. She pressed her fingertips to the hard glassteel of the viewport, searching. It was as if there was no one else in the entire universe, as though she were alone. But Maeve knew better.
Where are you?
He was out there somewhere: Coldhand, the bounty hunter. Tiberius was certain that they had shaken him from their trail, but Maeve wasn’t so sure. No matter how many worlds she fled to, Coldhand always found her. Whatever stinking alleyway she found to hide in, he would be there. He was the song-silencing hand of the Nameless come for her at last. There, that spark of light… Was it Coldhand’s ship?
No, it couldn’t be. Maeve frowned as the sparkle faded back into nothingness. She struggled to remember what Gripper had told her about SL flight. At superluminal speeds, there was no way she could see any pursuing vessel. The Blue Phoenix was flying faster than light, outrunning sight of anything that might follow. So excited that he had hopped from one huge foot to the other, Gripper had explained the surprises that had come with interstellar travels.
Everyone expected time dilation and lapses, Gripper had said, grinning like a little boy. All of the science supported it. Relativistic travel, they called it. But it never happened. No one stepped off a starship to find themselves years younger than their own children. Time was not the mutable, changeable thing that physicists and temprologists predicted, not stretched and twisted by superluminal travel like cloud-candy. It behaved nothing like anyone expected, but as a strange, steady galactic constant, an unwavering interstellar heartbeat.
Maeve leaned against the window. Her breath clouded the pane. She squinted into the fog, willing herself to see the impossible.
Where are you, Coldhand?
In the back of the ship, Maeve could feel more than hear the low thrumming of the superluminal drive. There was a clang and a shout from Gripper as he tried to wring more speed from old machines. Maybe she should visit him. He was so innocent, so much like Caith…
Maeve’s com chirped insistently, distracting her. Where had she put it? She patted at her baggy spacer’s pants until she found the small radio, about the length of her thumb and twice as wide.
“Cavainna here,” she said when she had clicked it on. “What is it?”
“We’re almost ready to drop out of SL,” came the muted, tinny response. The voice was masculine, with a faint accent muddied by the buzzing on the channel. The engines were probably interfering with the signal, even at this short range. “You might want to strap in.”
“If you are the one making our landing, Duaal, then I had best say my final prayers. How close are we?”
“Sink it. We’ll be coming in about ten minutes from Axis. Just sit down and strap up, Maeve. Axis’ gravity well is an absolute Nnyth. It’s going to get choppy.”
“You have been heard. I will pass the message along to Gripper.”
She keyed off the radio and moved to turn away from the port. She caught her dim reflection in the glassteel and paused. At a glance, she might have passed for human, if light and very small of build, not even topping five feet. Long, tangled hair, black as a starless midnight, framed Maeve’s fine-boned face. But she wasn’t human and no human would have been flattered by the similarity. Maeve was Arcadian. Under her mess of unkempt hair, her imperfectly hidden ears tapered to points like an elf from some coreworlder child’s story. Her stained, torn shirt did even less to conceal the pair of wings that arced from between her shoulders. Each was as long as she was tall and covered in feathers that would have been snow-white if Maeve ever bothered to clean them. They were as functional as the wings of any bird and generally considered just as dirty.
Maeve turned away and ducked through the small hatchway, into the engine room. The ceiling here was low enough that Maeve had to curl her wings tightly to avoid tangling them. In the original blueprints, this ceiling was much higher, but the ship was old and many times remodeled. Any meaningful height that would have given her room to stretch was lost to the jumble of pipes and wires that connected the ship’s aged systems. With the crest of one wing, Maeve brushed a colorful bundle of dangling wires out of her face. It was a miracle that Gripper managed to keep the Blue Phoenix flying.
There was another loud thud and more shouting. Maeve stopped in the narrow passage. Anandrou, or ‘Gripper’ as he preferred to be called, was squeezed uncomfortably into the corridor up ahead, pulling delicately at the exposed wiring behind an open panel. He cradled a length of frayed wiring in his massive hands and eyed it mournfully. One long, brown-mottled ear twitched at Maeve’s approach.
“The FMS relay is shot,” he told her in a plaintive, boyish voice that belied his ogreish size. Gripper craned his neck awkwardly in the tight confines to regard her morosely. “We’re going to need a new one. Are we there yet?”
Maeve had no idea what the relay did, or why the rather chewed-looking piece of wiring was the death of the contraption. The Blue Phoenix was a coreworld construct and made little sense to her. But Gripper loved the ship like a living creature, like a pet, and she could not help being momentarily charmed. The inevitable failure of the old machinery always seemed a personal wound, while the numerous cuts and blood-oozing scrapes in his brown hide went unheeded.
“Duaal will be dropping us out of superluminal flight a few hours away from Axis,” she answered.
One of Gripper’s thick green eyebrows shot up. “Shimmer’s landing us? We better tape ourselves down or something!” he cried, even as he began an urgent wriggle out of the hatchway and into the engine room.
Watching him go, Maeve’s heart twinged painfully. Anandrou was so much like her little brother. The thought would surely have offended them both. How boys treasured their pride, like favorite toys, and hated to be reminded of their youth!
Fools and children, all of them.
“Hey, Smoke!” Gripper called to Maeve over his lumpily muscled shoulder. “Come on! You’d better strap in, too.”
Maeve followed Gripper as he picked his way through the cluttered engine room. The fibersteel floor was patchy and dark from countless coolant and oil spills, so many times cleaned up and respilled that they had seeped into the very metal. Maeve’s wings dragged over the stained floor. A feather caught in one of the jagged chip welds and tugged free with a bright spark of pain.
Gripper led her across to the far hatchway. This door was larger, tall enough that he could pass through without hunching his bulky brown shoulders. He didn’t bother with the short flight of stairs. Instead, he jumped, grabbed onto the joint of the heavy ceiling plates and swung on his long arms up to the top. By the time Maeve caught up, the Arboran mechanic was already in the crew mess and tugging impatiently at the too-short belts on one of the acceleration couches.
Xia had arrived long before them and the Ixthian’s expression was one of carefully composed serenity. Only the tightness of her safety harness and a faint red sheen to her gem-like compound eyes betrayed any concern about their co-pilot’s competence. Her slender, long-limbed build and six-fingered hands hearkened back to her race’s insect origins. Her skin was a polished pewter color and she had short, fine silver-white hair, more like a spider’s gossamer silk than Maeve’s long black tresses or the fear-puffed green fur on Gripper’s forearms. A pair of short antennae rose from her forehead and tended to curl when she was annoyed.
The deck of the Blue Phoenix pitched beneath Maeve. She shot her wings out for balance and stumbled the last few feet to throw herself into a seat beside Xia. It was uncomfortable to cinch her wings so tightly against her back, but it was better than the beating delivered by Duaal’s amateur flying. In the opposite couch, Gripper grimaced and clapped his hands to his stomach.
“This always makes me so sick. I wonder if it’s the deceleration or just Shimmer’s flying. Four years, right? And the guy is still wasp-crap at piloting,” he groaned. “Do you think Claws could teach him the SL drop some other time? Like some time I’m not here?”
“How could he when you never leave? You’re married to this ship!” Xia joked with a nervous, clicking laugh.
“Hey, it’s not my fault. She’s old and needs a lot of repairs,” Gripper grumbled, flushing.
Maeve listened absently to their nervous banter and let her head fall back. The harness straps pulled tight across her chest as the sudden deceleration into sublight speeds made the ship buck and shudder. What if the Blue Phoenix did crash? What if Tiberius or Duaal had miscalculated their drop time? What if the ship smashed into the planet, scattering shreds of flesh and steel and stone, spraying clouds of lubricant and blood into the air? At least it would be an end.
No. No, I have a better way.
The streaks of stars outside the viewport shortened, blurred and then burst into hundreds of thousands of scattered star-blooms that filled the blackness with blinding white light. Silence fell over the mess as the thrumming of the SL engines and clanging of bouncing metal faded away. The ship intercom buzzed. Maeve could just make out Duaal cheering his successful SL shift from the cockpit.
“Welcome back to Axis,” the captain said over the noise of his copilot. “Our home away from scattered homes.”
Axis was a silvery-blue planet located almost in the precise center of the galaxy, off by only a few thousand light-years. But it was not that for which it was named. By agreement of the worlds of the Central World Alliance, Axis was the galactic capital, center of the largest government in the stars and a vital checkpoint for travel and trade.
Axis’ megatropolis had swallowed the earth and seas of the planet long ago, burying them under uncountable tons of concrete and fiber-woven steel. The great city was divided into ten distinct levels, each a world unto itself. Level One was the outermost shell of the city, the crowning jewel, the only layer privileged with true sunlight and open air. Aglow in the bright radiance of the system’s young yellow sun, Level One was the shining face the Alliance presented to the galaxy. Here was the great glass and steel heart of the CWA that moved the vital lifeblood of Alliance trade and bureaucracy.
On a lesser planet, the colossal Central World Alliance capitol complex alone would have covered an entire nation. In the center rose the vast Lyceum, the parliament in which every world of the CWA had a voice. Four species of thirty-six worlds argued in the Lyceum daily for – or sometimes against, when certain debts were called in – the interests of their homeworlds.
When Duaal had finished his bumpy landing, Maeve followed the others down in the cargo hold of the Blue Phoenix. They gathered in a loose knot before the airlock, waiting eagerly to venture out into the city. Xia stood to one side, smiling and joking with Duaal.
The world of Ixth had been one of those responsible for founding the Central World Alliance. Under the long-fingered touch of the Ixthians, all life flourished. They were masters of genetics and medicine, natural doctors and biologists. Centuries ago, unwieldy and unresponsive metal cybernetics had been the only recourse for those who had lost limbs and organs to disease or injury. With the help of the Ixthian cloning tanks, the Alliance had all but stamped out such barbaric practices.
Xia was as much a healer as the rest of her race and served as the ship’s medic when trouble inevitably found them. “So I gave him the redprints and that was that,” she said. “I never saw him again after that. Who can blame him?”
Duaal smirked back at Xia. The copilot was one of the several human species ubiquitous in the core worlds. This particular one had been born on the watery world of Hyzaar. Duaal’s skin was a dark, burnished bronze color and his bleached-blond hair was cut in the ragged, shoulder-length fashion that was so popular on Alliance planets.
Like Ixth, the human planet of Hyzaar had been an early member of the CWA. The sapphire-blue planet boasted a surface area that was ninety-five percent oceans and the Hyzaari considered themselves masters of every aquatic sport. Since no other race in the galaxy could best a Hyzaari craft in the annual Beven competition, no one disputed their claim.
Despite his typical Hyzaari coloring, Duaal Sinnay was very little like the rest of his people. Most were full of smiles and good cheer. Hyzaar was one of the most prosperous planets of the Alliance and her people knew it. But Duaal had not been raised on his homeworld, only born there. He smiled as often as any Hyzaari, but there was something schooled and tight about the expression, something suspicious and arrogant that marred his otherwise youthful good looks.
Duaal did not even dress like other Hyzaari. Instead of the loose, comfortable garb favored by most of his race, even off-world, Duaal’s wardrobe was stiff, elaborate and flamboyantly exotic. Today, the Blue Phoenix copilot wore a long, stiff coat of black and purple dyed leather, clasped in shining gold. Beads and charms hung from every inch of edging, from collar to floor-brushing hem, and chimed with each step. His shirt was sewn from deep blue silk and his boots finely stitched black and gold. Duaal covered himself with so much expensive, ridiculously extravagant clothing that Maeve wondered sometimes if it was his face she recognized or only his silly costumes.
Duaal’s strange dress was not half as strange as his studies. In the century that Maeve had lived in the core worlds, since the fall of the White Kingdom, he was the only human she had ever met who demonstrated even rudimentary knowledge of Arcadian science, what the core-world races ignorantly called ‘magic.’
Did Duaal think he needed the arcanery stitched all over his clothes for his magic? Perhaps. Maeve never asked, and Duaal never talked about it. How he had ever learned to sing even a single spell was a mystery to her. Duaal didn’t need all of those symbols, of course, but maybe someone had told him differently. Maeve had no intention of wasting her breath teaching him otherwise. Besides, Duaal seemed to take great pride in his strange look.
Boys and their pride…
Gripper hung overhead by his long arms, impatiently digging his huge fingers into the support hard enough to dimple the metal. Much like Maeve and Xia, he wore cheap, easily replaceable spacer’s pants and a simple shirt. By necessity, his were cut far, far larger. They were fit for a Hadrian, but even those seams had to be let out in places. Gripper dropped to the floor with a low clang. He eyed the damaged ceiling support, flushed and sidled quickly away.
The Arboran towered over every other member of the Blue Phoenix crew, nearly nine feet tall and stockily built. His body was covered in leathery, mottled brown skin. His ears were pointed, much like Maeve’s, but considerably longer. His arms, too, were elongated, and hung past his knobbed knees. His head was barren of hair, but his thick forearms were covered in green fur. Gripper was built for climbing and swinging through the trees of his homeworld, not for cramming himself into an engine room.
Gripper told his crewmates that he looked just like other Arborans, if a little on the short side. Of course, they had to take his word for it. No one, in the Alliance or in the rim kingdoms, had ever seen another Arboran. Gripper’s sudden appearance in the core was a bit of a mystery, even to him.
Stares followed him everywhere, but no one challenged him. It was far easier and more rewarding to harass the smaller, less intimidating and more numerous Arcadians and that was lucky for Gripper. For all his great size and strength, Gripper was a shy young man, awkward and more or less a coward. His world was a peaceful one, he said. The Arborans lived high in the great trees of their homeworld, far from the predators below. They were strict herbivores and knew nothing of hunting or bloodshed.
Tiberius Myles, captain of the strange crew, stood at the airlock controls. He cleared his throat loudly, silencing Duaal and Xia. Though hardly as massive as Gripper, Tiberius was large for a human, with broad shoulders and a barrel chest. The captain’s stubbled face was worn and lined with age, years of heavy burdens of which an unruly crew was only the latest. His hair was short and steely gray with age. When he spoke, it was in a rough, deep voice with the rolling accent of his homeworld, Prianus.
“Listen up,” Tiberius said. “We’ve got about eight hours on planet. We haven’t seen any sign of Coldhand yet, but that doesn’t mean he’s not still out there. We’ve got a good lead on him, but it’s shrinking by the minute. That Raptor he flies isn’t meant for SL. It’s slower than the Phoenix, but he’s probably tracing our wake just fine with that core leak.”
Gripper held up his hands at the accusatory glance Tiberius threw his way. “Hey, I’m going to pick up a new venno plate today. Even the FMS relay is broken. The recyc’ system is old, Claws. It’s falling apart! What do you expect?”
Tiberius continued as though he had not been interrupted. “If we can get off Axis before Coldhand touches down, he’ll have a hard time following us to the next planet. That means not making a fuss, not giving anyone anything to remember. Let’s not invite trouble. That means you,” he said, leveling his blue-eyed glare at Maeve.
The fairy shrugged. Her trouble with Coldhand was her own business. Maeve had never brought back more than a few dark bruises and broken bones. What did Tiberius care? Even if the bounty hunter caught up with them now, all he wanted was Maeve. The rest of the Blue Phoenix crew was unimportant; unless they tried to interfere. Gripper watched her and shifted his bulk uncomfortably. He was obviously worried about Maeve, but knew better than to voice his concern.
“Anandrou, you get that shielding taken care of. You two–” Tiberius indicated Duaal and Xia with a wave of his calloused hand. “–we need supplies, especially water. With the recycling system working at half, we’re losing a lot of it. Duaal, let Xia handle it. We don’t have a lot of colour to throw around. Just help her get it back to the bird.”
Duaal pouted less than subtly, disappointed at his uninspiring duties.
“Maeve, take care of our datawork and landing fees. I’ll get the ship refueled. That should leave each of you more than enough time to get anything personal done on Axis. Remember, get back to the Blue Phoenix within eight hours or you’ll be finding another bird off this rock. We had to leave Hadra before we could finish restocking or pick up new work,” he added. “So keep your eyes open. Salvage has been thin lately, so we need cargo to move. We can’t afford to be picky.”
The crew nodded their understanding and Tiberius punched the glowing green lock button. The ramp hissed as the seal broke. It lowered with a mechanical whirring that grated and ground a bit more than it should have. Gripper did not exaggerate the ship’s age or disrepair.
Outside, the blastphalt abutted expansive white walls, studded with yellow fluorescents and striped in colorful map tracks. The ceiling above was ribbed with arcing beams as wide as Maeve was tall and covered by a network of huge yellow-white daylights, all dimmed for the late night traffic. The landing that Maeve was to pay for was not expensive enough to buy one of the Level One open-air pads.
A massive mechanical claw clasped the Blue Phoenix where it had set the hauler down, crampingly close to a bulbous Hadrian bulk transport and a smaller Dailon carrier. The Blue Phoenix was not a large ship, well suited to handling cargoes too small to command the attention of the major shipping companies or whose owners wanted to avoid attention. It was a little less than five hundred feet long, almost half of that length dedicated to the cargo hold and engines. That left little space aboard to accommodate the crew. The corridors were narrow and quarters were small, resulting in an abundance of scraped knuckles for Gripper and scuffed wings for Maeve.
The Blue Phoenix was shaped like a narrow cone, bisected from base to tip and set on its flat side. The cargo ramp extended from a sloping bulge in the underbelly of the ship, nestled between three stout landing legs. The underlying shape, however, was almost invisible under a multitude of sensor spars, invaluable in scanning for salvage. They thrust out in every direction from the ship like the spines on a drunken porcupine. A pair of wings, lumpy with stabilizing jets, jutted out from the forest of sensors, with a matching rotational thruster on a fin on top.
Only the nose of the ship was smooth, marked only with the long horizontal slash of the viewport around the cockpit. The window was not strictly necessary, since pilots flew almost entirely by instruments and computer readings, but shipbuilders had learned centuries ago that pilots liked to see where they were going.
With slender silver fingers firmly wrapped around his embroidered sleeve, Xia led Duaal from the ship. Gripper knuckle-walked behind, a small computer folded under his chin. Maeve moved to follow, eager to finish her paltry task and see to her own interests, but Tiberius caught her by the shoulder.
She rustled her wings at him and the captain glanced down at the feathered lengths. The humans of Prianus esteemed birds over all other animals and Maeve was sure that her wings had something to do with the captain’s patience with her. Of the coreworld species, Prians alone treated the Arcadians with anything like respect. It was a shallow sort, warranted only by the fairies’ superficial resemblance to their beloved birds, but it was something. Maeve never hesitated to use it to her benefit.
Not this time, it seemed. Tiberius held her fast. “Maeve, I’m serious. You stay out of the lower levels. I don’t want you coming back to the ship low on something or beat to blast from some fight that you picked.”
She narrowed her eyes at Tiberius. “What I do with my own time is my business and none of yours,” she replied frostily.
The broad-shouldered Prian captain shook her angrily, like he would an unruly child. “It is every inch my business. I need you to keep this crew together! I didn’t choose you as first mate for your looks, dove. I don’t know how to manage people! Never did. If I’m going to keep the Phoenix in the sky, I need you to keep the crew in order for me and you can’t do that when you’re out of your skull on some chem!”
“I will consider your desires.”
Tiberius grunted and released Maeve. It was the best he was going to get, for now.
“You’ve got eight hours, princess,” the captain reminded her before stumping down the cargo ramp. He vanished into the throng of travelers pouring from the other ships, out onto the busy streets of Axis.
Maeve followed suit. She closed up the Blue Phoenix behind her, punching the code Gripper had given her last week into a keypad. The airlock hummed and cycled, then the light ticked from green to red. Secure.
Published 12.11.2009 by Loose Leaf Stories