• Thomas O'Beirne

The Junkers Guild

Ankle-deep in scrap metal, Idis watches the sun set. Mersa Prime, scarlet and swollen, hangs just above the horizon. The mountains of trash gleam in iridescent colours and, for a moment, the landscape of Forti is almost beautiful. From the crest of this hill, Idis can see several spans across, beyond the Putrid Lakes, to the end of her tribe’s territory. Since the last border negotiation, Yulin’s Plateau has marked the end of Ke land and the start of Ber land. Crossing the plateau could get you cannoned by a Ber scout, and you’d have nothing to blame but your own stupidity.

Idis takes a cautious, dizzying inhale, breathing in the familiar smells of oil fumes and rotting waste. Once, the planet of Forti was covered in flora, and there were creatures of all sorts. Now, there is only junk, and Junkers.

She refastens her air filter over her nose and mouth.

She treks from junk-hill to junk-hill, picking out a path through scattered pieces of plastic, and scrambles down a slope into a narrow valley. Here, in the shells of discarded vehicles, her tribes-kin have hollowed out little shops, restaurants, meeting-places and homes. Bilis, who makes a mean spicy noodle, nods at her as she passes his shop-front. Half a dozen customers are squeezed up to the tiny counter, faces buried in steaming bowls. Behind Bilis’s shop is a storage room where barrels of fresh water, flown in from off-planet, are stockpiled.

Idis follows the valley until the shops and homes peter out, and further still, until it wends to the edge of the Putrid Lakes. The air is cloying and sickly sweet. Hardly any Junkers come out this way. But she sees the bright spot of a headlamp, bobbing slightly, up ahead. As she nears, she switches on her own lamp. Nenthis steps out of the shadows, tall and lean. “You’re late. You said sunset.” “Did I?” Idis shrugs. “Follow me.”

She takes Nenthis into a narrow alley, squeezing between walls of compressed junk. After a few minutes, she pushes a canvas cloth aside to reveal another passageway, which they enter. Eventually, they reach a cove that opens onto the shores of the foul Lake.

Against the wall of the cove is a bulky shape draped in a canvas cover. “Can I see it?” asks Nenthis.

Idis hesitates, and then pulls the canvas off. It’s a spaceship. A patchwork job, dull grey in bits, green in other bits. A cockpit with seats for a pilot and a passenger. Four ion thrusters at the stern.

“Syro’s seed,” Nenthis says. Eyes shining, he walks forward and touches the ship’s smooth flank. “Is it spaceworthy?”

“If you can get me a chemical rocket, it will be. I can’t reach escape velocity without one. I’ve looked everywhere in Ke land.”

Nenthis shakes his head. “There aren’t any chem-rockets left in Ke. I’d have to sneak into Ber.”

Idis smiles up at him. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Zilch chance I’m doing it for three hundred credits.”

“Two hundred,” says Idis heavily, “plus my passenger seat off Forti.”

Nenthis stares at her. Above his air filter, a quiet gleam lights up his eyes. “Give me two days.”

Two nights later, the noise of an ion-engine wakes Idis before dawn. She’s camped near the cove. Suddenly awake, she scrambles to her feet.

“Demon-spawn!” she cries, snatching her bag and firearm, and runs to the shores of the Lake.

There’s a figure inside the cockpit of her ship. The lights of the dashboard cast Nenthis’s face in a blue glow. He glances up, sees her running towards him, sets his mouth, and tries the engine again. It whines and peters out.

Idis raises her firearm. “Get out of my ship.”

Nenthis frowns. He flicks the ignition again.

Idis opens her other palm to reveal a spark plug. “You can try that a hundred times, and nothing will happen. Now. Get. Out.”

Scowling, Nenthis raises the cockpit dome and climbs out. He’s dressed, in an improvised manner, for space travel: insulated jumpsuit, oxygen mask, plasma guns, backpack.

“Arms up. Away from your sides.” She kicks the back of his leg to send him sprawling to his knees, and then circles her ship. It looks undamaged. She replaces the spark plug. “I see you picked up a top-grade chem-rocket. I’m impressed. Less impressed that you tried to steal my ship. We’ve known each other since we were three, Nen. I built this thing with two seats. Why did you have to be so stupid?”

“I want to find my brother,” mumbles Nenthis, like a sullen child. “He left Forti to seek out Odium and the Neophytes. I haven’t heard from him in over two years.” Keeping her gun pointed at him, Idis throws her bag into the passenger seat. “A sentimental quest.”

“I deserve to get off this rock more than you do,” snaps Nenthis. “All you want is to go to Masse and get rich on some crazy expedition to the lost Ark.”

Idis sighs. “I thought you cared about me. Well, I hoped. Fortunately, my wiser mind told me to take the spark plug, just in case.”

She shoots a bolt of plasma into Nenthis’s leg and climbs into the cockpit as he howls.

“Thanks for the chem-rocket, Nen,” she says. She closes the dome and fires up the engines. As the ship shivers beneath her, Idis looks up. A streak of pink rises into the zenith of the brightening sky. A handspan above the horizon, Masse is a bright orange speck. Elation surges through her body.

Author: Grace Chan

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