“Well, what do you think?”
Shion turned zer head to regard Shirokani’s dark and wizened face. He was gesturing toward the saucer-sized window set low on their cabin's wall. A thin, cold smile creased zer thin lips as the massive globular ship loomed behind the venerable man.
“I think it’s huge,” ze said with a chuckle. “Lots of places to hide. It must take thousands to man it.”
“Over eight thousand, to be precise,” Shirokani said with a slight nod. He scratched his scalp through a bushy mane of graying hair and grunted. “Damn Lebowski. Six weeks on this garbage scow with no bath, not even a seismic shower.”
“It doesn’t bother me,” Shion said, leaning back on zer bumpy, hole ridden sofa. The spartan quarters on the small cargo barge they’d booked passage on boasted few luxuries. Their sleeping cots leaned against the far wall, less than four paces from where ze sat. Shirokani bent his lanky form under the low ceiling to gaze out the porthole next to Shion. Clear glass panels concealing lighting mechanisms remained dark. The only light came from Shirokani’s three foot wide anti-grav tablet, hovering near the curved ceiling.
“Well, some of us can’t regulate our body’s processes so thoroughly we don’t need to sweat,” Shirokani said with a sniffle. “I bet the cold and terrible food on this wreck don’t bother you, either.”
Shion laughed, returning zer gaze to the GSS ship blotting out the stars. Zer own reflection looked back, transparent against the void. The reflected thin face bore a smile that didn’t reach the slanted, yellow eyes. The toothless mouth opened to speak.
“The cold is nothing compared to what I remember about Hokkyoku,” Shion said. “Winds so fierce they can strip the flesh from your bones, and a pervasive, numbing chill that freezes spittle before it reaches the ice beneath your feet.”
Shirokani’s jaw worked, but his mouth remained closed. Shion mentally berated zerself. Ze knew the doctor missed both his planet and his people, the Ainu. After all, it was zer fault he was so far from home…
“Anyway,” ze said, trying to change the subject to something more agreeable “I believe that this excursion will be a simple matter.”
“Simple?” Shirokani straightened up with deliberation, mindful of the low ceiling. “Your arrogance grows by the day. I have no trouble seeing the Hebi clan in you, little one.”
Shion’s smooth brow wrinkled, scaly ridges over zer eyes lowering.
“Don’t call me that,” ze said. “I’ve been an adult for seven years.”
Shirokani let out a bark of laughter and adjusted the brown jumpsuit he wore so his ample belly remained concealed by his wide leather belt.
“Yes, the Blade Children are considered...mature...by the age of seven, but most cultures would still consider you but a child.”
“Do I look like a child to you?” ze asked, standing up and gesturing to zerself. Shion stood just over five feet tall, every inch wiry muscle. In spite of zer tiny frame and slender build, she weighed twice as much as Dr. Shirokani. Zer grease stained brown jumpsuit hid much, but the visible flesh on zer arms rippled with muscle. Shion’s excitement had zer tantos on the verge of exposure, so ze closed zer hands into fists.
“Hardly,” Shirokani said, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’ve watched you grow into a capable fighter-”
“Capable?” Shion said incredulously.
“-but this excursion is about more than brute strength,” Shirokani continued as if ze hadn’t spoken. “You will need subtlety, wit, and charm to succeed. It’s more than just slitting throats.”
“If you are so opposed to assassination,” ze said “then why did you offer me up to Newstar? What else did you think they would do with one of the ‘abominations’ from Zero?”
“Don’t call it that,” Shirokani said darkly, eyes narrowing until they seemed squinted shut. “That is what the anun call our homeworld.”
“It never felt like home to me,” Shion said, arms crossed over zer chest. Sullenly, ze stared out the porthole at the GSS ship. At this distance, ze could just make out finer details, like the several of the eight dome-shaped plasma turrets and a wide, azure fissure which contained the civilian ship docks. All in all, Shion felt ze should have been more impressed than ze felt.
Shirokani crossed the short distance between them and leaned against the curved metal wall. He put his hand on Shion’s shoulder and squeezed it gently.
“You are of two worlds, Shion,” he said softly. “The Oni spawned you from their twisted loins, and the Ainu-”
“The Ainu couldn’t wait to get rid of me,” Shion said without turning to face him. “You know it’s true.”
“I know that it is not,” Shirokani said, adding a squeeze for emphasis. “Hotene spoke with you on your birthday, did she not?”
Shion’s gaze and heart softened at the mention of that name, but ze stubbornly held on to zer anger.
“Bah,” ze said, sniffing “the Oni were honest, at least. They dumped me on the surface to die, but the Ainu hid their contempt behind false compassion.”
“No one knows how you ended up on that ice flow,” Shirokani said firmly. “A thousand different things could have led to it.”
“Yes,” Shion said “but the Oni often abandon their failures on the surface. I’m a mutation, a reminder that their mastery of transferring genes between species is not complete.”
Shirokani knelt down in front of Shion and held zer face between wrinkled, calloused palms, forcing zer to look him in the eyes. In his lined face and gray, rheumy eyes ze found only affection.
“You are a person,” Shirokani said. “You hear? A human being, deserving of all the things that brings.”
“Suffering, discontent?” Shion said, though ze was smiling. “Thank you for trying to cheer me up, Doc, but all the good cheer in the galaxy can’t change the facts. I’m an assassin and saboteur with unstable DNA, as likely to be used and cast aside as any other tool when it breaks.”
“Then we’ll just have to make sure you don’t break, won’t we?” He glanced at the partly open door to their chambers and scowled. “And do not speak so freely on this ship. I fear it has ears.”
“Oh please,” Shion said, rolling zer yellow eyes. “Surely you don’t consider that smelly one-eyed fool of a captain a threat?”
“A threat, no,” Shirokani said “at least not physically. But even a fool can put the right words in the wrong person’s ear. Our purpose here must remain clandestine.”
Shion grinned zer toothless grin, leaning back and putting hands behind zer bald head.
“Clandestine? That’s my specialty,” ze said smugly.
“Don’t let your abilities, impressive though they are, lead you to take foolish risks,” Shirokani said. He stood up, knees and back creaking, and sighed. “I had hoped you would learn wisdom as readily as you learned to take life, but I can see that in many ways I have failed you.”
“You haven’t failed anything!” Shion said, grabbing the old doctor’s hand in both of zer own. “You’ve been the closest thing I’ve ever had to a father.”
Shirokani’s gaze softened, but he yanked his hand out of her grasp.
“I’m not your father,” he said. “Don’t dishonor the memory of my son with your sentiments.”
Shion pursed her lips and tried to grin, though his words jabbed zer to the core. In a galaxy of modified humans, extraterrestrial life, and sentient machines, Shion was truly alone.
And always would be, in every way that really mattered.
Shirokani’s lips curled into a worried frown, and he held his hand out toward Shion in supplication.
“Come on now,” Shirokani said softly “don’t be upset. I do care for you a great deal-”
“Save it,” Shion said, glad the aged doctor felt at least a tiny bit guilty for his outburst.
“Fair enough,” Shirokani said, mouth becoming a tight line. His dark eyes glittered in the half light as he scrutinized Shion head to toe. “It is nearly time. We should go over the plan once more.”
Shion groaned, holding zer head in zer hands. Ze stared at the stained deck plating below. One of the smears sort of resembled a transvestite smiley face, and it made zer want to smile. Instead Shion lifted zer head and glared at the old doctor. “Again? Come on, Shirokani, how many times-”
“At least one more,” Shirokani said, turning about and facing the stars.
Shion flipped him the middle finger, but went into the memorized narration.
“The Shanghai will dock on the Cheney at approximately 7:45 pm Earth Standard time. At Approximately 9:25 pm Earth Standard time the Cheney will encounter unregistered military grade frigates which will extort the tesser plates from the GSS cargo bay. Captain Glover will order all non emergency crew to their quarters. During this period, lasting approximately twelve to fifteen minutes, the hallways will be flooded and I will intercept Private Matthew Jenkins and follow him into his quarters.”
Shion licked zer lips, which had gone dry.
“And what will you do once you are in Private Matthew Jenkins’s quarters?” Shirokani prodded, his eyes so narrow they seemed black pits in the dark.
Shion hesitated. Ze knew this was a test.
“I will kill Private Matthew Jenkins, dissolve his body, and assume his identity,” Shion said in a rush. “Then I will proceed-”
“A moment, Shion,” Shirokani said, lifting his gnarled hand. “I want to be certain that you can do what is asked of you.”
“Of course I can!” Shion snapped, leaning forward in zer seat. Knuckles popped as ze gripped zer knees tightly. “I’ve killed people before, right in front of you! You were in awe of my prowess!”
Shirokani dragged a three legged stool over toward him and settled upon it carefully. His eyes seemed far away, though he was looking at Shion.
“Yes, I was in awe of the way you fought to save both our lives,” Shirokani said “but this is different, Shion. This Matthew Jenkins did you no wrong, but you are going to kill him because it suits the interests of others.”
“But I have to do it,” Shion said, zer voice quivering. “I have to! You said...you said I’m dying, and that the Hebi are the only ones who might be able to fix me, and the only way the Hebi will deal with a genetic failure like me is if they can use me-”
“Enough, Shion!” Shirokani snapped. Shion held zer tongue, digging zer nails into zer knees. “I know what I said, and what we have done—and will do—are all necessary. I just don’t want you to lose sight of the fact that in all of this, an innocent man has to die.”
“I don’t want to think about that,” Shion mumbled. Ze looked up to Shirokani. “Lord Kappa said I shouldn’t think about things like that. Lord Kappa-”
“Is a pompous ass!” Shirokani snapped, cheeks flushing with color. “Of all the Oni you could possibly idolize, why does it have to be that spoiled brat?”
“Lord Kappa is a great warrior,” Shion said “he led his forces to victory dozens of times.”
“I know,” Shirokani said “I heard, as well as everyone else in earshot of him. Listen, Shion, that man cares only for himself. Himself and no one else. He’d bury us alive if he thought it would get him ten kilometers down the road.”
“But you said to try and get close to him,” Shion said, pulling zer head back and eying him warily.
“I did,” Shirokani said. “But you’re forgetting the purpose of the thing. Kappa has found you to be interesting, for whatever reason, and we need to play on that. As long as he finds you interesting, then he has motivation to keep you alive, and you will get the best medical care.”
“You think you can stabilize my DNA with the Hebi Clan’s help?” Shion asked hopefully.
“I said maybe,” Shirokani said, lips pursed into a frown. “Maybe. It’s the best chance we have. Just remember not to trust him.”
Shion cleared zer throat. Ze stared out the portal and licked dry, cracked lips.
“What is it?” Shirokani asked.
“It’s nothing,” Shion said.
“No, it’s not,” Shirokani said. “Spit it out, child.”
“Lord Kappa said I’m his sibling,” Shion said. “That we have both the same mother and the same father. That means I’m noble!”
“No, you are not,” Shirokani said “not unless Kappa says that you are, and even then he’d face an uphill battle with the noble houses of his clan.”
“Because of my mutations?” Shion asked.
“No, because you were raised among us, the People, and are not one of them,” Shirokani said simply. “The Oni have been transgenned to the point that they have no room to criticize. It is the fact that you are a barbarian—at least in their eyes—that will hold you back in court.”
Shirokani shook his head.
“Enough of this,” he said “after you leave Jenkins’s quarters, you will proceed to the cargo area. What then?”
“Afterward,” Shion said “I will locate the tesser plate our benefactors desire. Then I will board one of the pirate vessels, making it appear Michael Jenkins has turned traitor and discrediting his family name. The pirates will drop me at Baracca station and I will deliver the plate to an AI sanitation worker.”
“Excellent,” Shirokani said, nodding. “Your recall is impressive as ever. Now-”
A pounding on the metal door to their shabby quarters drew both their gazes. Shirokani grunted in annoyance but pressed a button and unlocked the door anyway.
“Enter,” he barked. The door slid to the side about halfway and got stuck. Cursing, a woman out in the hall grabbed hold of the metal and shoved hard until it opened all the way.
“God damn piece of shit,” Lana said as she strode into their room. Her hair lay on her scalp in tight, greasy curls. An ugly scar ran from her left eyebrow down to mid cheek, though her eye seemed to have been spared destruction. It focused on Shirokani’s aged face.
“Captain wants to see you,” she said in a gravelly voice. “Now.”
“Why?” Shirokani asked with patience. “We’ve paid your extortionist fee, in advance. I’ve no further business with the captain.”
“He has business with you,” Lana said. “His word on this ship is law.”
Shirokani’s jaw worked silently, and he nodded.
“Very well,” he said, turning to face Shion. “I’ll be back soon.”
“I’m coming with you,” Shion said, standing up in a fluid motion. Zer yellow eyes dared Lana to argue, but the first mate merely shrugged and proceeded the two of them into the hall.
They followed Lana down a poorly lit, short passage. Shion glanced into an open door, where several members of the Shanghai crew were engaged in a game of Tonk. One of them, a burly man with a shaven head, showed teeth in a sinister smile.
“Hey, little halfman,” he said “getting cold at night? Big daddy Rock will keep you warm.”
Shion only smirked and kept walking. If Rock ever made a move to touch zer, Shion intended to snap his neck like a dry tinder twig.
Shirokani grunted as he climbed a metal ladder to the bridge. Shion could hear his knees creaking with each agonized step. Ze followed quickly, leaping up the rungs with liquid ease.
The captain turned about in his chair, facing them as Shion stood up next to Shirokani. Behind the captain, an AI punched in commands to guide the cargo ship toward the Cheney’s waiting docks. The ship’s nose plunged toward the interior of the globular vessel, though the Shanghai’s AG drive kept their feet planted solidly on the deck. In spite of zerself, Shion’s toothless mouth opened in awe as they were swallowed by the Cheney. Spread out before them lay the docking bay, with a half dozen civilian vessels arranged in a rough circle around the center. A GSS officer in a black and gold pressure suit waved them toward an empty dais with a pair of brightly glowing staffs.
“We’re here, Captain Lebowski,” Shirokani said, drawing Shion’s attention back to him. “What did you want?”
“Money,” the heavyset, one-eyed captain said. He ran a hand over his dirty overcoat and stood up slowly, gaze full of menace. His oft-broken, crooked nose twitched over a thick lips drawn into a sneer. Curly dark hair lay in greasy coils on his scalp.
“You’ve already been paid,” Shirokani said. “And quite generously, I might add.”
“On that, my friend, we have a difference of opinion.” Lebowski scratched his dirty beard and grinned, showing several gaps in his teeth. “You see, there’s a fine reward out for those who deliver Newstar terrorists to GSS hands. If you don’t make up the difference, well, I’ll be hard pressed not to try and collect it.”
Shion widened zer stance, arms held out to the sides. Shirokani glanced at zer and shook his head slightly.
“I’m not sure that would be a viable option,” Shirokani said sadly. “We would almost certainly be questioned, and we’d be hard pressed not to tell them all about the smuggler who took our credits, knowing full well who we represent.”
Lebowski laughed without mirth. He reached a hairy knuckled hand down to his side and revealed the slugthrower pistol he wore at his waist.
“I think you’d better consider your options, doctor,” he said with utter confidence. “And tell that little halfman that if it don’t stop staring at me, I’ll gut it like a fish.”
Shion moved, crossing the few feet separating zerself from Lebowski in a nanosecond. One of zer hands grabbed Lebowski’s wrist in a crushing grip, preventing him from drawing his archaic weapon. The other she held up, palm outward, in front of his one eyed gaze.
“You’re so close to dying right now,” ze said, flexing muscles in zer forearm. With a wet, viscous sound, Shion’s tanto extended from zer palm until its poisoned tip brushed Lebowski’s battered nose. In the dim light of the bridge, it appeared much like a cat’s claw, with a partially translucent shell covering a dark core.
The AI made no move to help its captain. In fact, Shion noticed that its silicate face seemed to be grinning.
“Let him go, Shion,” Shirokani said “our good captain has seen the error of his ways. Haven’t you, sir?”
Lebowski started to nod, then thought better of it. He licked his lips, treating Shion to his fetid breath.
“We’re good,” he said in a friendly tone that belied the fear in his eye. “Everything is copacetic.”
“Good,” Shion said. Ze released the portly captain and retracted zer tanto.
“If you’ll excuse us, Captain,” Shirokani said politely. He gloated with neither tone nor expression, but Shion knew he was pleased they had embarrassed the captain. “My young friend must prepare for zer excursion.”
Shirokani turned his back on Lebowski and eased himself down the ladder. Shion offered a polite bow reminiscent of the Oni, unable to keep a smirk off zer face. Eschewing the ten foot ladder, she leaped down the shaft and landed softly in a crouch.
“Enough showing off, Shion,” Shirokani said. “We are not in this for personal glory. We only seek to free the people, both mechanical and organic.”
“Does that mean we can’t do it with a little style?” Shion asked.