The planet’s F-class star burned impossibly bright in the pink sky, casting stark shadows on the ground as Fuchs made his way through the maze of market stalls. Ash-like sand swirled around his digitigrade feet as he trundled along but he hardly noticed, divided as he was between gawking at the merchandise, dodging the crowd and keeping up with his partner.
That at least wasn’t hard to do. Xor’s big bulky spacesuit — relic of a much earlier era — towered over the shifting mass of bodies. People with fur, scales, horns, armor plates or cybernetic implants walked around, chatted or haggled over exotic goods from far-away worlds, dressed in clothes of every imaginable texture and color. And then there were the smells. Oh, the smells…
A glint caught Fuchs’ eye and he lifted his pointy muzzle to peek at the sky. There was a spindizzy in orbit that month, its 100-Km-wide disc barely visible as it passed overhead. With a little luck, they would be on it for the upcoming departure, away from their troubles. His big pointy ears drooped a little: there he was, in the largest bazaar within a thousand light years, and he was yet to buy a souvenir.
Xor was already far ahead, ponderously making his way towards their more immediate destination. With a sigh, Fuchs dropped on all fours and scampered after him, fluffy red tail swishing.
Their contact turned out to own the most extreme body morph Fuchs had seen in a very long time. His body was shrunken from human proportions to those of a large Maine Coon, and he looked like one too. Long white fur framed a face from which striking green eyes watched them intently. The clothing seemed more symbolic than practical: a loose navy blue overcoat with golden stripes on the sleeves and collar, and two rows of shiny brass buttons which didn’t seem to do anything, as the coat was open in front, and only long fur preserved his modesty. A white combination cap sat on his head, rather floppy in shape and with a crest depicting an anchor into a cloud. He sat on his tail across the table from them, directly into the only beam of light that managed to find its way through the covered windows.
“Mr. Claude, I presume?” stammered Fuchs.
“Oh hai,” said the cat grumpily. “Care for a drink?”
From behind his polarized visor, Xor surveyed the bar suspiciously. There was a distinct dearth of customers if one counted the agitation just outside the front door. Here, an anthropomorphic dragon — bigger than himself in the spacesuit — sipped a bubbly, glowy drink from a tankard inscribed with magical symbols. There, a group of pale figures sat glumly around a corner table. Xor doubted they were baseline humans. As a general rule, the squishies seldom traveled in space. Perhaps these were vampires; they certainly looked the part.
Fuchs was busily explaining their problem to the stranger, in his awkward way. Dear little Fuchs.
“You must understand,” said Claude patiently after he listened to their predicament, “that by our own laws we are open to everyone until further notice. So you are welcome to hide with us, but we can’t turn your pursuers away unless they make themselves guilty of some wrongdoing.”
A robot waitress brought drinks: a glass of nectar for the young fox, and a bowl of milk for the feline. He lapped it rather than drinking. Fuchs was beginning to suspect their contact wasn’t a morph at all, but rather a mind upload in a genuine feline body, or even an uplifted animal. At long last, he finished the milk and licked his chops.
“Why are they after you anyway?” he drawled. “Simple curiosity, mind.”
Fuchs and Xor looked at each other, then the latter leaned over the table and lifted his visor partway. Claude stared into a blackness where luminous green ideograms raced each other in a miniature whirlwind. It seemed to take an eternity, then the visor slammed shut.
“Looks like someone miscast an infomancy spell,” he deadpanned.
He didn’t press for details, and they didn’t volunteer.
“So,” added Fuchs after a break, “when can you get your ship ready?”
“Mine?” meowed the sailor cat. “I thought you had a ship.”
They looked at each other again. Then the door burst open, admitting five or six coyote-like figures in shiny uniforms. They were small, but that didn’t make their sonic rifles any less dangerous. “Why did it have to be them,” groaned Claude. By then, he was already in motion, sprinting for the back exit while the bouncer took a rifle butt to the groin and the dragon extended his scaly tail as if by coincidence, making the metre-tall thugs trip over each other. The two fugitives overtook the cat, and his puffy tail was the last to vanish into the hallway, promptly followed by a sonic blast that slammed the door shut and showered the space beyond it with splinters.
“I thought it was the government you had problems with,” puffed Claude as they tried to find a way out of the building.
“It is!” protested Fuchs. “We never said which government!”
They turned a corner just as the sounds of pursuit reached them again. The feline stood upright (which slowed him down considerably) and fumbled inside an oversized coat pocket. Xor watched inexpressively as Claude retrieved a gun almost as big as himself (and definitely bigger than the pocket, large as it was) which he fired at the wall behind them with a clapping sound. The projectile exploded on impact, filling the air with cat hairs, and they ducked through a side door and down some metal stairs while the corridor filled with cursing and thumping noises. A high-pitched voice was yelling something about allergies.
Several dark and musty rooms later, among pipes and boilers, a dying lightbulb revealed not the exit they were hoping for, but a conveyor belt disappearing into a dark tunnel. A rusty electric motor sat at its end, quite visibly out of commission.
“Do we have to go in there?” whimpered Fuchs.
“Are you afraid of the dark?” snickered Claude.
“We don’t even know where it leads.” Xor pointed out calmly. “Besides, how are we going to outpace them?”
“Aha! That is the question, isn’t it?” The cat poked and sniffed around the dead motor, its power cord long gone, control circuit repurposed for who-knows-what.
“What are you doing… ?” Xor’s question trailed off as Claude busied himself drawing alien runes on the machine with a pencil. They began to glow as he finished, and when he spun the shaft, it kept spinning. Gears screamed, and the conveyor belt lurched into motion.
Fuchs’ jaw fell. “You’re a technomancer!”
“Let’s hope you’re right, mister. In you go!” He pushed the fox on the moving surface and into the tunnel, while Xor crouched behind them to clear the low ceiling.
“It’s dark,” shivered Fuchs. Immediately, a beam of light shot out from his friend’s spacesuit. “It’s cold, too.” The cat leaned against him. He hugged their new companion quietly and they pressed on in the sound of grinding gears and dripping water. The narrow tube dug into the rock beneath the Bazaar, descending at an increasingly steep angle. After a while, they found it easier to pad along.
“What if it’s a garbage chute?” whispered the teenager.
“I doubt it,” muttered Xor. “Then it wouldn’t need a conveyor belt. I bet this thing used to roll the other way around.”
“Bingo,” quipped Claude. An opening became visible ahead, and the trio breathed easily when they dropped into a vastly more spacious tunnel with a mass of murky liquid flowing down the middle.
“Old cargo delivery route,” he explained tersely. Behind them, gears kept grinding away. He turned to leave.
“Wait. What if we’re still being followed?”
On cue, the gears squealed and the conveyor belt ground to a halt.
“That ought to slow them down.”
“You catch on fast, kid. Come on.”
“Wait. Which way?”
“Downstream.” answered the cat, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and went right on along the narrow ledge.
Time seemed to pass differently underground, but it couldn’t have been long before the ledge simply ended. The rest of it had crumbled into the water, for as far as the spacesuit’s meager light could pierce the gloom.
Claude slumped. “Maybe we could go back… find a boat?” he suggested weakly. Fuchs tilted his head at him.
“I don’t feel like going into that sludge either,” stated Xor.
The fox reached down to sniff at the liquid. “But it’s not waste, just water. A bit sandy, but otherwise clean. As Mr. Claude here pointed out: this is a waterway, not a sewer.”
“All right then,” sighed his friend. “In we go again!”
A second later, Claude was on Xor’s shoulders, clinging to his helmet. “Do not want!” he meowled pathetically.
The massive humanoid chuckled. “Very well. Hang on there, and let’s hope the canal is not too deep.” The cat nodded weakly, and they waded carefully towards the other side. The current was noticeable, but not enough to stumble Xor, and the water never passed over his armpits.
“Fraidycat,” Fuchs snorted as he clambered on the ledge ahead of them. He shook thoroughly, spraying drops of water every which way. Claude hopped off to safety. Xor followed more slowly, and stood on the ledge for a while (drip, drip) to examine the surroundings. It was obvious on a closer look that it wasn’t so much a tunnel as the space left between the foundations of various buildings. The canal itself must have been open to the sky once.
“How did you know about this place, Mr. Claude?”
“I didn’t. But the Bazaar is a very old place.”
“So you don’t really know where we’re going?”
Claude shook his head, just as Fuchs showed up from the darkness. They hadn’t noticed him wandering off.
“How about that-a-way?” he asked, looking smug. “I found us a train.”
It was indeed a cable car, with small ugly cars designed more for cargo than passengers. The teenager hopped in excitedly, with Xor patiently clambering after him while Claude poked and prodded at the mechanism. It didn’t take him long to join them.
“Well? Work your magic, cat.”
In response, he reached over and slammed him paw into the big green button jutting out of a nearby control panel. The engine started. “Often, kid, the real magic is knowing what to do with the means you already have.” he said, patting the young fox’s shoulder.
Out of the tunnel they went, and over a rickety steel bridge where a floodgate prevented the canal waters from outright plunging into the river below. Then up a steep incline, until they could see all across the Bazaar’s plateau. The track leveled up again, and the car pulled up at a small platform. Again, Fuchs was the first to hop off and into the shadow of a nearby warehouse.
“You look crumpled,” said Xor when they were all together on the rough concrete. His voice, normally flat, sounded distinctly worried.
Dejectedly, the adolescent examined his faded t-shirt and torn jeans. They must have snagged some sharp corner during the recent escape. Claude didn’t look much better either, the bright colors of his coat turned to grays by the omnipresent dust.
“Do… do you think we lost them?”
Claude hehs. “More likely, they gave up. There aren’t many places we could go.”
“How do you know those people anyway, Mr. Claude?”
He waved a paw dismissively. “We had a run-in with them at our latest refueling stop. What about you?”
Fuchs ear-drooped, and the gentle giant wrapped big strong arms around his friend. None of them said anything for a while.
Xor found his companions sprawled on their bellies in the shadow of a scrawny tree, tails touching. They were taking turns looking at the Bazaar and neighboring spaceport through a telescope. He needed a moment to recognize the brass contraption, with its countless springs and levers, as Claude’s gun.
“See anything interesting?”
“Actually, yes!” they both started at the same time, only to stop, laugh and point at each other. “You tell him.”
“Here’s the deal,” said Fuchs excitedly. He started waving his hands around, pointing at the various terrain features as he described them. A small plateau stood in the middle of the desert, roughly a kilometer across and bordered by various buildings like some kind of fortress. In the middle, a jumble of tents, stalls, tables and platforms formed the Bazaar. A second plateau connected to the first housed the new spaceport, but there was no direct way to get there. A long stripe of packed earth circled down the hill they were on, crossed the river on a natural limestone bridge and entered the giant open air market at the near end.
“What we can do,” Claude took over, “apart from going back the way we came, is to follow that road back into town. I’m not so worried about passing unnoticed in the crowd. Getting to a ship unmolested will be the tricky part. Have you found anything useful, by the way? It’s a long way down.”
Xor sighed. “Not really. This was an airfield once, but everything not nailed down was looted a long time ago. There’s a small truck… but it has no engine anymore.”
“That’s all right. Mr. Claude can magic it up. Isn’t it?”
The technomancer smiled faintly. “My magic doesn’t work that way, I’m afraid. There must be a motor to power up, at the very least. Luckily, we need little more than a street luge to go downhill.”
In all honesty, the vehicle took them almost two thirds of the way before falling apart entirely.
Claude had bought a big sheet of predator foil and had Xor wear it like a veil; it made him essentially invisible from a distance. Fuchs had been a little disappointed when all he got was an exotic snack, but his growling stomach testified of the feline’s wisdom.
“Now let’s make ourselves look presentable,” said the cat, and pulled them inside a sizable tent decorated with colorful clothing items around the entrance. A few of the patrons cast them long glances, but most paid no attention as Fuchs bounced happily among the overflowing racks and shelves. It looked like anything could be found there, from boring copies of his own things — sitting in piles against the back wall — all the way to slick coveralls made of a translucent material inside which neon images chased each other, and which could turn into vacuum suits on a moment’s notice.
“Is it all right to encourage him like that?” asked Xor placidly. Claude was sitting at his feet and, having borrowed a brush, was dusting off his overcoat and fur.
“I can afford a change of clothes for the poor boy.” Shuff shuff shuff. “Besides, we don’t want to look suspicious.” He looked up. “Don’t you need anything?”
“You’re doing much for us as it is. Besides, since I’ve been turned into this, I have not needed much of anything.”
Claude nodded absently. Fuchs was coming back, dressed in a brilliant white shirt that underscored his youthful musculature and deep black cargo pants with too many pockets to count. An elegant gray longcoat came on top, and a bandolier over the right shoulder completed the setup. He cradled a little bundle made of his old clothes.
“You’re growing up, little brother.” stated Xor, and even Claude purred approvingly.
His purring cut off abruptly when he heard the price. Xor slipped him a few coins on the way out.
They dodged several patrols on their tortuous way to the spaceport. It wasn’t just the labyrinthine nature of the place; the crowd had thickened in the past few hours. At least Fuchs finally had time to admire the wares. Here, a whole aquatic ecosystem thrived in a crystal globe about the size of his head. There, a walking, talking optical illusion hawked portable holes and real, headache-inducing tesseracts. He snapped a few photos with the camera buttons on the sleeves of his coat. It was the next best thing to affording all those little wonders. He almost exchanged his new clothes for a hoverboard, but reconsidered. What was the point of a hoverboard if you didn’t look good on it? Worse, Xor would have berated him. He would have been right, too.
It was the local police who stopped them in the end. The cop — masked and armored so you couldn’t even tell his or her species — was accompanied by a robot waitress. She looked familiar.
“What seems to be the problem, officer?” Fuchs looked nervously left and right, cursing himself for his lack of reassurance.
“This lady here claims you left her bar without paying. Is it true?”
“We were in a hurry,” Claude explained dryly. “Besides, I have credit.”
“Your credit doesn’t cover orders by other patrons,” chirped the robot amiably in her tinny voice.
“It doesn’t cover a glass of nectar?!” Claude’s tail started to poof up. “What is this about…?”
“We’ll take it from here, thank you officer.” The jackbooted coyote looked awfully smug as he appeared next to them.
They turned and ran.
Claude was in front, ducking and weaving among feet, tails and staves. Now and then, someone from the crowd tripped on him, and then Fuchs would jump over them, while Xor simply swept anyone out of the way.
The giant’s camouflage started to slip just as they were turning a corner. He grabbed it desperately, and it caught the edge of a stand. So he yanked. Crash! The upended stand sent writhing and squirming fruit tumbling all over the place. The merchant wailed as he went around on hands and knees to gather his moving produce up again. Tromp! Five or six of the little uniformed thugs burst into the alley, using the upended stand — and his back — as a trampoline. Neither took the shocks very well. Finally, an equal number of policemen rumbled through the spot, in hot pursuit of the first two groups, trampling into the dust what was left of the spilled merchandise.
“Through here!” called Claude, hindpaws skidding as he turned to head into a long narrow tent. His friends followed. From outside, one could see in turn an electrical discharge, a flash of light and hear a little explosion as the trio came out the other end in a puff of smoke. The coyotes followed a moment later, wheezing and panting. This time the lightning poked holes in the canvas, the flash scorched it in places and flames chased after them when they reappeared. Miraculously, the tent did not collapse until the police squad passed through, getting rather singed in the process.
The fugitives crossed a wider alley, dodging placid little trucks. One of them honked to get their attention, but they didn’t dare stop.
They rested under the awning of a small fountain, almost in view of the spaceport gates.
“Can we find a ship that will take us?” asked Xor. He carefully folded the miraculously still intact predator foil.
“That’s the easy part.” Claude was breathing heavily. “Some friends of mine are in for last-minute shopping. I’m more worried about getting through that gate in the first place.”
Both cat and fox stared at him wearily.
A dinky van passed them by slowly. Then it stopped.
“Heya, boys!” called the elderly driver through his bushy mustache. “Aren’cha looking good today, Fuchs. Who’s your new friend?”
The teenager jumped to his feet, dusting himself off as well as he could. “Thank you, sir! Listen… can you give us a lift? Pretty please?” And aside to Claude, “He drove us here in the first place.”
“Sure, hop in! I just need to drop ’em empty crates at the docks, then I’ll take you wherever.”
They piled up in the back. Nobody asked to check the cargo as they were smuggled into the enclosure.
Their ride turned out to be a battered blue spaceship, looking very much like a heavy freight truck, except armored all over and mounted on leviters instead of wheels.
“Is this it?” asked Fuchs doubtfully.
“Yup!” Claude scratched at the door insistently, then jumped on the hood in a futile attempt to peek in. “But nobody’s home.”
“Oh well,” shrugged Xor, “nothing to do but wait.” He paced back and forth. “Are you all right?” he asked Claude, who had gone cross- eyed and was muttering to himself.
“What? Oh, yes. I’ve just called. They should be here any minute.”
“More accomplices of yours, criminal?” sneered a high-pitched voice.
Five coyote-faced people, under a metre tall, their shiny uniforms and jackboots now tarnished, descended the ramp into the dock.
The giant was the first to react. He charged them like a bulldozer, ignoring the sonic rifles pointed at him. The first blast washed over him with little effect, but the second made him stagger. One more, and he was down on his back, struggling to regain his balance.
“Xor!!” hollered Fuchs as he jumped over his brother’s body, fists flying. The weapons needed a few seconds to recharge. Too long. The largest coyote was curled up into a ball and moaning by the time his comrades managed to restrain the furious teen.
“Take them!” snarled the leader of the pack, sniffing around the ship. “And where’s that blasted tom?”
Twelve kilograms of angry feline dropped on him from above like Thor’s hammer. It took many, many hits with rifle butts to get him off his bloodied enemy. They kicked him some more once he was down. Then one of the remaining thugs pointed his rifle at him.
“You’re dead,” he grumbled. From that distance, he was probably right.
But the shot never came. The would-be executioner blinked at his suddenly empty hands. He swirled around only to stare at the three leather-clad individuals, almost as big as Xor and bristling with cybernetic enhancements, who had just entered the dock. The one who seemed to be the boss, sporting a sand-colored mane around his ears, lifted a huge clawed finger and waggled it. His toothy grin threatened to swallow the coyotes whole.
“Oh no, you don’t,” he said matter-of-factly.
Claude opened an eye. “I’m so glad to see you, Casandro.”
“…and that’s our story, you see.” concluded Fuchs as the planet grew indistinct on the rear-view screen, and the spindizzy grew larger ahead. “Now we have nowhere to go.”
The lion nodded. “That reminds me of the time when we were chased by space pirates across three star clusters for an Orb of Seeking.” And he started telling his own story, while his crew groaned theatrically.
The gleaming spires were almost on top of them now, and Fuchs wondered what awaited them. He was still wondering when they landed.
Bucharest, 15 December 2011