A short story by Yasmin Inkersole
She is steel, from head to toe. Even her hat is trimmed with titanium and finished with a real peacock plume. Not that anyone here could recognise it, of course; the word ‘exotic’ has not reached this husk of a moon. Vocabulary here is simple: there is cost, debt and collection. Rarely, once in a turn around the distant red rock that dangles out in the black, someone like her arrives, bringing a new word. Her clean fingernails and polished boots grant her a special label. Premium.
He, on the other hand, is nothing. A whisper. A playing card folded in a back pocket. Right now, he is air and dust and the space inside the cold engine of a Julias. There are many names for his people – most have the same beauty of the filthy ship loading bay he laid upon for weeks, back when a different collar encircled his neck. But when the new mistress bought him, she addressed him with the simple term that stains his birth certificate. “I’ll take him,” she’d said, with the taste of a good investment on her tongue. She pointed at him, the feather in her hat quivering. “The Shrinker.”
“Came here alone?” the scrapman chews oliseum like it’s going out of style. His teeth are black from it, fingers stained golden-brown right down to the palm. He is the kind of man whose hand you’d avoid shaking. Awkward, for his kind of work.
“I’ll say det if it makes you feel better. Got twenty men just behind that rock.” She shrugs in the direction of her parked craft, a tiny hermit crab lying still in the distance, nestled beside a large chalky boulder. It is the smallest ship here, overshadowed by the giant hulks of steel scattered across the lot. The biting wind sweeping across the moon’s flat grey plains has piled decades of dust over the weathered spacecrafts. Like tumbled monuments or the carcasses of curious beasts, the ships here have long since dug their bodies into the dirt.
“Sure you do,” the scrapman mutters.
He glances at her modest craft, ironically named Hope. It’s a daughtership, meant for short trips back and forth from the main mothership. Only he’s willing to bet it’s an orphan now, heading as far as it can get on one tank of gas. He corners the wet ball of oliseum on the right side of his mouth, bites down into the smoky, sticky lump.
As for the boulder, he knows without looking that it’s barren as a card table when a brawl breaks out. He may never have left this ashy rock, but he is no first-orbiter, and he knows his trade. Not ships, but people. How much they can afford to pay. How much they can afford to lose. He understands that the latter must be very little to drive a woman like her to a place like this. He also sees her, through that thin blue orb enclosing her body. It’s a shielder – a thin protective membrane encircling the wearer, keeping them in a constant ball of protection. He imagines a person like her gives up the mothership and the workers before letting go of the boots that make her stand an inch taller than everyone else. She looks as grand as her hard eyes say she is, but one bad turn out in the speckled could bring anyone to their knees.
“You done pontificating?” She is staring at him. Her piercing eyes are a peculiar shade of violet.
He spits. An orange clump of oliseum strikes the ground at the edge of her shield; the blue film shakes for a moment.
She toys with the ring on her left hand, which is set with a jade stone, and nods.
Well then. What else matters?
He makes himself as small as a keyhole. He teeters on invisibility – his form is simple, a stream of silvery air that snakes through the lock and out the other side. He dribbles down to the rusty floor of the loading bay like spilt water. Once he hits the cold gridded floor he begins to reform; the boots come first, then the ankles, thighs, groin, until his whole body, dressed in a simple white robe, is present. The collar around his neck is dull, undecorated save for the owner’s stamp: a single peacock feather.
He stands in the unfamiliar abdomen of the Julias, a large, robust ship ideal for long-haul trips. Long ago this room might have been filled with shipping containers bringing supplies to some far-orbiting planet. But there is no trace of life left in the rusted walls and the broken pipework overhead. Parts, is what his owner would call it.
He steps towards the sealed door and places a hand on the cold metal. He can feel the weight of the ship’s bones, the giant, silent heart of its omniconscious engine lying dormant beneath his feet.
I’m parts too.
He learned to deconstruct himself from a young age. The townspeople taught him. Showed him. When he was five he watched his mother dissolve into a ball of grey smoke the size of a plum and drift through a crack in the window, into the jade-coloured snow outside. He pounded on the windowpane, shrieking, until she rematerialized, green snowflakes catching in her eyelashes.
“A gift from our land,” she had said, smiling.
He fingers the collar enclosing his neck, the metal warm from his skin.
As if she has a sixth sense, his mistress hits the button on her jade ring, dragging him to the ground in a sea of gasps. He has never gotten used to the throttling. She can have him on the floor suffocating in seconds, clawing at the collar which has tightened like a viper. It only lasts as long as she keeps her finger jammed to the ring – five seconds, sometimes six. Enough to push the air from his lungs and the blood into his ears. Enough to remind him that he is here to do a job, and not to take too long about it.
When she releases him he is light-headed; adrenaline surges and helps him to his feet, where he sways for a moment. He sticks a finger between the collar and his neck, assuring himself of that small space. He is the last one standing, all that she could afford to keep once she’d sold the ship and sacked the others. She paid for his life years ago, and she has kept him close ever since.
“You’re worth more than a star in Whitesbane, Shrinker,” she told him once.
It’s time to bet his life on it.
He steps up to the round window and spies the pair of them talking. She has her back to the Julias, her body enclosed in her navy shielder. It would take short-range lazer gun to slice through the buzzing blue layer surrounding her.
Like the one the scrapman carries in his belt.
When he’d first stepped out of their spaceship – slithered, really, his body a silver stream snaking through the dirt, as noticeable as a length of string – he had almost lost his form at the sight of that gun.
He lifts his fist up to the windowpane and breathes in. He knocks once, firmly. The scrapman’s eyes flit upwards and land on him, like a butterfly on a spindly shoot. He lingers for a second, staring at the scrapman’s yellowed lips. Pausing as long as he dares to, his peripheral lingering on a hat with a feather in it. It quivers, begins to turn–
He throws himself against the wall by the window, remembering the words of his mistress before their little ship, Hope, landed on the moon.
“You stay the hell out of sight,” she’d said, forcefield circling her in a furious whirr. “Just get in the ships and get out again. The Retriever, Spider and Julias are the best here, so meet me back at Hope and give me a full debrief: condition, size, skeletons in the closets. I’m not spending the last of what I’ve got on a pile of crap. And remember, Shrinker. He’s not to see or hear a peep out of you.”
He has not broken his silence. He tucks his chin in, and peers down at the collar. He prays that it did all the talking for him.
“So, what catches your eye?”
He tries to keep his voice steady and not betray what he has seen. The figure at the window was brief as a shooting star, there and gone again. But solid. Real. He’s seen Shrinkers before, packed together in barrels as tightly as sardines. As plain-looking as anyone, save for their owners’ collars. Dragged from one side of the galaxy to the next, he knows they’re sold for more gold than he has ever seen. He wets his lips.
“’Ain’t much here even worth a look.”
“There’ll be time for haggling later. You’ve touched soil for a reason, so which one’s it to be?” he chucks a thumb in the direction of the Spider sitting behind him. It’s best to keep the lady chatting while he figures out his next steps. “Betty Sue here is a real looker. Got a fresh coat of paint on her too.”
“Does she run?”
“Runs just fine. Soars, actually. All of these beauties have got omniconscious engines. You could literally fly them in your sleep, once you get the chip put in.” He knocks his left temple.
She shifts. The spinning shield sways with her, hissing like an angry swarm of bees. “Never flown omni before. Don’t much like the idea of going hands-free.”
“Well it’s all the rage. Takes the effort out of the flying, all’s you’ve got to do is think and it responds.”
“That right? How’d so many of these end up lying dead in this desert then?”
“Well, not every captain’s so good at thinking, eh?” he chuckles. “But if it’s peace of mind you’re after, they ain’t dead. All the ships on this lot are serviced and flight ready. Most are fitted out with manual controls too. For emergencies and the like.” He keeps a jovial tone, but lowers his right hand to brush the holster at his side. He thinks of the fleeting white face at the windowpane. A shifting body like that – a strong, healthy one – well, he could find a lot of uses for it. And if not him, someone else willing to pay. Premium.
“I see the Spider, the Retriever, the Julias… got anything else heavy-duty?”
“For hauling jobs and the like?” A lady dressed like that, carting compost and mealmeat across the galaxy? It was laughable. How badly had the scattered ruined her?
“All the rest here are small-crew cruisers, short range.” He sees her face begin to droop. “They come with a full tank.”
“Right. Well. I think I’ve seen all I need to see. I’ll head back to my ship and think about it.”
The scrapman toys with a ball of olesium in his pocket. It’s gone furry and stale.
“And will you be taking your friend with you?”
He is the length and width of a pencil, sliding cylindrically through the rusted cooling system of the Glassburst. It’s not the prettiest ship on the lot, and it’s by far the smallest. But it looks smooth, and fast, and newer than the rest. She has not told him to search this one; his being here is a defiance of orders. Perhaps that is why he swims through the air so quickly, nervous and elated at the same time.
He flows easily around the bend in the pipework and up into an empty coolant tank. If he released himself now and reformed, he would be crushed by the tiny space, a mass of blood and broken bones. It requires no concentration to stay as he is. Sometimes, he wonders if he is most himself in his shrunken state. No skin, no clothes. Just air. He could go anywhere. He has never spent more than an hour outside of his human form. The longest stretch occurred when he was ten, still adjusting to how his body could turn to smoke in a heartbeat.
When the black ship settled on the snow outside, his mother had demanded he secret himself inside a pot on the hob. Even in his shrunken state, with his senses dimmed, he could hear people crashing through the house, tearing it apart, wrestling his mother down. He’d lain still inside the cold pan slick with oil until his form began to unravel itself. He’d fought, of course. Uselessly. His limbs ached to be set free, his bones begged for materialisation. He was younger, then. Weaker. He sprouted forth on the kitchen counter, one ankle in the dirty pan. His mother had screamed as loud as if he’d died right there on the worktop.
Only collars and coffins after that.
He emerges in a silver cloud from a tiny hole in the cockpit’s control panel. The gap is about as small as he can make himself, and he shoots through it and up into the air in a shining arc. This time he emerges top-down, from the head all the way to his boots, until he is whole again.
He steps up to the control panel and peers out through the wraparound window. Before him lies white dust and ancient ships stretching all the way to the horizon. Above, a black plain scattered with stars. Buried in there, somewhere, are planets with people who wouldn’t know what he is without the collar.
He touches the controls carefully, flipping one dead switch after another. He has no idea where a pilot would begin. Perhaps in the other corner, with the large metal lever on the wall. Perhaps right here, closing his eyes and using the chip in his mind to stir the sleeping ship into life.
Well, he has no chip. Only a magic trick.
“I don’t know what you think you saw…”
“Didn’t think anything. Only saw.”
She lowers her hand to the pistol in her holster. “I have no quarrel with you, shipslinger. I’m here to buy.”
“And what money you gonna pay me with?”
“In my ship I have-”
“Osiris’ arse do you have enough to buy even a scrawny scrap of nothing off my lot. I know your sort.” He steps towards her. “Sold plenty to pretty folk like you, who tucked tail and scarpered to this end of the galaxy running from too many jobs gone wrong. Normally I’d take your money and wish you a pleasant goddamn day. But I have a feeling you’ve told that Shrinker to bury himself in my windpipe the moment you shake my hand.”
Her cool violet eyes narrow at him like a cat’s. “I’ve still got my men, waiting back there for the first sign of trouble.”
“And I’ve got a date with the Princess of Shapkahi. Listen here…” He inches forwards again, but she doesn’t retreat. “I’ll make you a deal. You can pick any boat here. Whatever you want to take out there into the speckled, you put your hands on it and it’s yours. But leave the Shrinker behind. That’s a fair exchange.”
“Fair?” she spits. “That man’s worth more than this entire garbage heap of a moon.”
“Well.” He reaches for his gun. “Looks like we might have a falling out.”
The only green snow in the universe is found on Ethedril. He still can’t believe, after all these years, that no-one has noticed this fact. Or perhaps they have noticed, but their lips are sealed. Like the Board of Intergalactic Living Standards, or the Centralised Waste Disposal Authority. There’s a lot of silence bleeding out there in the black sky.
He doesn’t dare look out the window. Whatever happens now – whether the scrapman has seen him or not – he knows this will be the only chance he gets. There are two ways off this little moon, and if he dwells too long on the second he will lose his resolve. It’s best to fly blind and lean on the old knowledge that almost spared him twenty years and a dirty stove ago. So he kneels. Through his thin white trousers, he can feel every screw fixture in the metal plating under his knees. He rests his hands flat on the cold metal and breathes deeply. A passerby might think the Shrinker has stumbled on religion in this little cockpit (hadn’t his mistress asked him to discover as much as he could within the ships?). But he is not praying. He is summoning.
It requires a kind of focus that settles over him comfortably, like snowflakes onto fallen leaves. He presses his lips together and reaches downwards. It is not a physical act – at least, not in the sense that the known world would call physical – and visually, nothing about him changes. But as though he has a third hand, invisible and somehow sighted, he reaches into the belly of the ship, searching for its heart. Not even his mistress knows he can do this.
He forces himself not to think of her, not to imagine her boots cutting a path towards that very ship. He is doing well, until he hears a gunshot resound through the air.
She reels towards her left side, clutching at her ribcage, which is all pressure and scarlet and agony. The old man is faster than she thought. Her shielder snaps quicker about her, a snake shot in the tail. It writhes and panics, a large rip showing in its blue skin.
“Listen,” she pants. “We can make a deal, like you said. A trade for the Shrinker.” She clasps her hands together, feeling for the ring on her bloodied finger. Come quickly, she begs silently.
He hesitates. “Drop the gun first.”
What choice does she have? The only card she can play now is her hidden ace. She pulls the gun from her holster and drops it into the dirt, forcing herself to remember that she has another weapon yet. This scarred end of the galaxy has taken enough from her already; it will not have her life as well. Her thumb slides around the ring and she finds the second button on the silver band; the one she has never had cause to use. Gasping at the hot needles penetrating her chest , she pushes it firmly.
He hits the floor face-first, as if a creature has leapt onto his back and pinned him down. The force of the push lingers, pressing his flesh from his collar right down to his feet. He tries to right himself, but a fresh wave of pressure keeps him held against the cold floor. He has never felt anything like it. He struggles to raise one arm up to his collar, and touches the metal tentatively. Has it always been capable of this?
It responds with a hologram – another feat he didn’t know was possible. Radiating out from the peacock stamp, beams of blue light shoot across the cockpit. The beams settle on the far wall and fan out, arranging themselves into an image. A woman with a peacock-plume hat.
“Shrinker. This is a message from your mistress. I am in grave danger. Abandon your duties and come to my aid at once. Should you succeed in saving my life, I will reward you in kind. You will be released from my ownership and made a free man.”
The pressure peels off of him in one smooth wave. He puts his hands against the floor and pushes, finding that he can push, and is kneeling when the hologram begins to repeat itself.
“Shrinker. This is a message from your mistress. I am in grave danger…”
He buries his face in his hands. Years ago he might have begged for this moment, for a chance to earn his freedom. If I am good enough, one day they will let me go. A lullaby that had soothed him, once. Before he became old and rough, like an asteroid, understanding that one day the black hole it orbits will swallow it whole.
“You will be released from my ownership and made a free man.”
He places his hands on the floor once more, closing his eyes for the summoning. The only thing that can release him now is something in turn released. He stretches out his phantom hand, and clasps it around the cold engine.
“So,” she hisses, both hands clamped over the wound in her side. Her shirt is soaked through, her fingers caked with dried blood. “What ship am I getting?” She is stalling. Buying time. Any second now and he will be here to aid her – how exactly, she isn’t sure. He could be a bullet of grey mist shooting into the scrapman’s flesh, or a ball ascending through his nose and pushing into brain matter. Whatever works quickest before she bleeds out on this nothing moon.
“If I were an honest man, I’d tell you to take the Glassburst,” he points his gun idly in the direction of the craft behind her. Does he expect she will be as stupid as to turn around? “A nippy one, that. Not a hauler, like you asked. But it’ll get you across the scattered nice and quick if you got anyone hanging on your tail.”
“If you were an honest man,” she hisses. Where is he?
“Det,” the scrapman sighs, as if the whole situation wearies him. As if she wearies him.
She clenches her eyes shut. Does your freedom mean nothing to you?
“For all the hard luck you’ve fallen on out here, seems like there’s a lesson you still haven’t been taught. Every good salesman cuts the middleman.” He barely takes aim before he points and fires, a lazer beam shuttling out from his gun and tearing a line through her bright shielder, right through her chest and out the other side.
A little black circle is burnt into the dirt, above a rapidly growing pool of red.
A gift from our land.
That’s what his mother had called it. Shrinking was its other name – its official name. Even before the black ships landed on the icy planet where he was born, the townspeople had had some inkling, it seemed, of the magnitude of their abilities. Many civilisations have been served well by the notion that a thing kept buried is a thing protected, and his was no different. But instead of a blanket denial of their aptitudes, the folks he grew up with opted for a safer route. A white lie. We are Shrinkers, they said. Nothing more. And therein lay the falsehood.
Omniconscious engines, when they were first formulated and produced on a mass-market scale, had a stable lifespan of approximately fifty-eight years. Nobody thought about their death. A renewal system would perhaps be invented, or some kind of replacement mechanism, maybe a partial repair kit. It was a problem for the future. But when the future came knocking, the question remained unanswered. Ethedril, an icy planet close to the core, had originally been of little interest to the universe given its hostile tundras and frequent avalanches. Those very same features turned the planet into a shining beacon for anyone looking to dump their deteriorating engine and avoid the galactic toxic waste tax. Give it a week or so and the troublesome parts were buried in slush, hidden from sight.
He remembers digging deep enough in the snow one day that he brushed an old omni with his small, mittened hands. ICOR1418, a metal plate on the black cylinder had read. Without even thinking he had closed his eyes and felt it, the way one feels an arm or a leg heavy with deadened nerve endings. He already had it shaking and beginning to rise when their neighbour came and hauled him out of the snow, snapping him from his trance.
His mother hadn’t been angry. She told him they were like gemstones, left on the land by those who didn’t understand their power. The dying bodies of gods, abandoned to rot. To bleed. Turning the ground green with seeping psyche-oriented communications fluid. Trickling into water and cattle feed. Giving people gifts.
His mother had not understood them either, he thinks now. He can feel the engine trembling under him, recognising that something is aboard, calling out to it. It is not a god awakening beneath him, or a geode cracking open. It is a living thing, stirring at the presence of its own kind. The same blood that runs through his veins seeps along its cooling pipes, its catalyst and exhaust. He is a born pilot.
“Should you succeed in saving – saving – my life, I will – wi – will – reward you in kind-”
The hologram glitches on the far wall, shaking with the ship.
He will not be rewarded his freedom; he understands well enough by now that there is no such thing as a gift in the universe. Taking, however, is another matter.
The scrapman stumbles towards the Glassburst. He is witnessing an impossible thing. The ship cannot be moving, and yet it is. Old, rusted wheels fold up into its underbelly. The two acute wings of the craft are jolting, metal flaps flying open in readiness for launch. Launch.
He barely has time to swear before a jet of exhaust fumes pours out from under the ship, smoke and fire billowing across the ground and knocking him prone under a cloud of vapour.
The roar of take-off assaults his ears, leaves them sore and ringing with the ship’s great exhalation. His face to the ground, he doesn’t see the Glassburst tear upwards, nose-first, ripping towards the scattered sky as if desperate to greet it.
He chokes on ash and smoke, hoping that when the shock wears off he will have no scorch marks, no pain. He stares into the dust, blinking his stinging eyes. He closes his left hand into a fist and pounds it into the moon’s gravelly crust, swearing into the dirt. What is left for him now? A body and a broken shielder.
A body… Perhaps it is the smoke, unfurling itself in his mouth and choking his lungs, or the thought of all that money tearing a trail across the stars, but his memory sharpens – clarifies to a single image of two hands wrapped around each other. He had thought it strange, that habit of hers. It made her look nervous, always fiddling with her ring. Or were they nerves after all?
He digs his elbows into the ground and shunts himself forward, crawling on his belly like a lizard. He fixes his eyes on the slumped figure ahead of him, and the paling hand still proudly hosting the last of its jewels.
Read more about the author Yasmin Inkersole HERE.