Not All Who Wander Are Lost
By Jude-Marie Green
DAWN SUTORIUS LEANED AGAINST her auto’s flank on that hot grimy day while the fuel pulsed into the tank. A family of orange-skinned lizards, caxwal maybe, crossed the broken tarmac in a single line. Maybe I should take a specimen, she thought. The University expected a lot of specimens. Smithy had even given her a schedule. But maybe not. She was in the middle of her route through the great Midwest Desert. Nothing organic would last long in a specimen box, too damned hot. Her clothes rode uncomfortably on her skin, sweat-greasy after three days’ travel. She rolled her stiff shoulders and scratched at her itchy scalp. Maybe I can buy a shower at the service station.
She threw a longing glance at the station. But maybe not. She had just enough money to get to the next town and no budget for extras like showers. In the next town she would sell some of her gadgets, repair some non-functioning techno items, and earn enough money to buy a few more broken electronics with promise, before traveling on.
Plus, a police aircar waited near the station door. She wanted to move on before the officer came out.
She scanned the hard blue sky above her. Two hundred meters up, aircars blasted along in a silent traffic jam. Most travelers used modern air flight. Air traffic patterns followed the decrepit asphalt roads. Very few people continued to drive autos, just eccentrics and those too poor to buy aircars. Am I poor or just eccentric? she wondered. Yes. And I’m happy.
Service stations dotted the road, maintained by family settlements. This particular station, labeled Travelers’ Rest by the tastefully painted sign in front, featured Plexiglas pumps, so visitors could see the orange fuel emptying into their vehicles, and according to the sign, offered showers, beds, and laundry, as well as food and drink.
Prosperous station, Dawn thought, even if I am the only customer right now. I bet they get lots of aircar traffic. She glanced up again.
An aircar, dinged up like a teenager’s first ride, peeled out of the traffic flow and slowly spiraled towards ground. The side window opened and something was hurled out.
At first she thought the falling object was a dog. Dawn knew the game. A skylifter would swoop close to the ground and snatch up a slow rabbit, a cat, a dog. The aircar would climb up until the ground was a smeared memory, and the living creature would be dropped.
Dawn, safe on the ground, automatically raised her phone to record the drop and the identity of the aircar involved in the lift. She zoomed the focus. The drop was a child.
“No, no, no, oh no!” She awkwardly turned to unhook the fuel hose, jumped into her auto, struggled a moment with the ignition, then squealed out of the station.
The child lay on the sand, across the main highway from the station. Dawn cut across the black asphalt surface and braked to a sudden stop next to the broken child sprawled on the ground.
Only it wasn’t a child. She crouched next to it, light-headed with relief. Robots, bloody robots. A rich kid’s toy, an educational companion, probably tossed away by some spoiled child or irritated teenager. This one was small, toddler-sized, with natural hair and green eyes. Someone had dressed it in an orange dashiki and jeans. Someone had drawn designs on its skin. Someone, in other words, had loved the machine. Perhaps she could sell it back to the owners, if she could repair it. Dawn ran a finger across the robot’s skull, feeling out the breaks and looking for shards and defects.
Huh. Bet I can fix this, it’s just a matter of the right tools.
She jumped up and dusted off her jeans. She kept her black rubber satchel, her Bag of Tricks, within easy reach while she traveled. She dug into it and found four metal tubes.
And I have the right tools.
She framed the robot with the tubes. The last one resisted before snapping into place. The frame activated with a click and a low drone. An electrical shroud she could not see surrounded the robot. The electricity tickled her hands and made the hair on her arms stand on end. She grimaced and held on.
Dawn sweated into the oppressive stillness of the hot day, resisting the urge to let go and wipe her forehead. Restraining the tubes was more work than she remembered.
The tubes hummed quietly. In moments, the broken bits of green board and electronics put themselves back into place like a self-solving jigsaw puzzle. Outer layers of skin, the cosmetics of the educational robot, did not bind together. Dawn would have to fix the skin in another way.
Satisfied with the level of repair, Dawn released her hold on the tubes. They popped apart and the humming stopped. The robot, flat on its back, cranked through some restart program or another.
Dawn sat back, exhausted. This valuable and now functioning robot had been discarded. It was hers. Tired as she was now, getting this bit of electronics was worth the effort. Wait till you see what I have now, Smithy. She hopped to her feet.
A siren bleated behind her. She jumped, half-turning, and almost fell. A lime-colored police aircar slammed to a stop in back of her auto.
She didn’t have enough time to climb into her auto and run away, so she stood still and raised her arms. The officer, a small man sporting wraparound goggles, ignored the robot that lay still on the ground. He grabbed Dawn’s shoulder and spun her around, slamming her full-length against her auto’s hood. His grip hurt but she didn’t cry out.
He dug into her pocket and found her wallet. She thought perhaps he would steal her money and she tensed, but he only pulled out her license. He dropped the wallet on the ground.
Don’t forget, she thought.
“What are you doing here, Tinker?” the officer asked. “No one here has money to buy your wares.” His forearm against her neck pushed her harder against the auto. “And if you steal one of the station’s children, I’ll arrest you myself.” He tapped her license, with its red recruiter’s sticker, on the auto’s hood.
Silence is the best part of valor, Dawn thought. The license gave her rights to recruit any promising child for the University and no one could arrest her for that. A year back, however, she had recruited a Constable’s child. No matter that the child thrived at the University and would someday be a Great Mind. She was the daughter of a Constable. University wasn’t what he’d had in mind for her. Since then police had harassed Dawn at every opportunity.
This officer tossed her license onto the asphalt.
“Lost your flight license?” His lips peeled from his teeth in a hostile grin. “Watch yourself on the road, Sutorius. The speed limits are strictly enforced.” He swaggered back to his aircar.
Dawn pushed away from her auto with a sigh. Another day in the life, she thought. She retrieved her license and wallet. Horns sounded distantly as the lime-green aircar broke into the flight pattern above her.
Something touched her hand. Dawn shrieked. A boy stood beside her. He was poised to run away at the slightest wrong move from her but he stayed rooted, his hand in the air, shaking but steadfast. Brave kid, she thought.
“What? Where did you come from?” Stupid question. He must have come from the station house.
The child repeated his words. She almost understood them. A new dialect of a familiar language?
The child tugged at her sleeve. Dawn noted that the boy had long, talented fingers. He’d be a possibility for the University. They paid for good leads on capable students. She extracted her sleeve from the child’s grasp and held up one finger.
“Wait.” She rummaged through the contents of her bag until she caught the gadget she needed, a brushed-chrome square with a green display. Dawn pressed the display with her thumb and the gadget chirped. She clipped it to her wrist and held it close to the boy. He reached for it. Dawn shook her head.
“No. Tell me. What do you want?”
The device clicked and whirred, then broadcast something in the child’s dialect.
“Damned thing works.” The device translated her words. The boy frowned and spoke again. The translation was just a step behind his voice.
“Please help my sister. Please bring her back.” He pointed to the robot.
The robot was his sister? He couldn’t mean that. More likely the robot belonged to his sister. She sighed. The robot was hers by right and repair, but what was she going to do, fight a kid for it?
“Where do you live?” she asked.
The boy pointed to the station house across the highway, Traveler’s Rest. “We live there.”
“Of course,” she said, sighing. “Okay, into the auto. I’ll drive you home.” She slung the robot over her shoulder and took it to the car. It fit nicely in the jump seat. The boy sat in the passenger seat and pushed the seatsafe button, enclosing himself in a forcefield. She retrieved her tools and tossed the satchel into the auto.
Okay, just a short hop back there. Today’s going in circles.
Dawn followed the boy to the house, neatly hidden behind the service station bulk. The door stood open and the family’s shoes—small and large, sandals and boots, many colors—littered the stoop. The boy pulled off his boots and dropped them into the mess. Dawn kicked off her own shoes and entered the home behind him.
An even-dozen adults crowded the first room. They stood, as if at a party or a wake, in small groups, talking excitedly. Her translator couldn’t pick up all the words, too much, too indistinct.
A young man saw her. He gasped. The family fell silent.
He challenged her. “Are you a doctor?” His nostrils flared on the word. He embodied suspicion.
“No, I’m a tinker,” she replied. She thought about showing her license with the University holo, but she didn’t want to show the red recruiter sticker. She didn’t want them to lose trust.
“So? Why are you here?”
A motherly woman pushed him aside. “Jordach, hush. She’s helping,” the woman said, but her eyes were doubtful. “Come here.”
The boy grabbed Dawn’s hand and led her to the older woman. The three of them walked single-file through a narrow hallway and into a darkened bedroom. The family squeezed in behind them. A handful of honest beeswax candles burned in the windows and on the bedside table. Dawn waited for her eyes to adjust to the dark.
A child slept on the bed. A young woman tucked layers of bed sheets and blankets around the child.
“My granddaughter is sick,” the older woman said. Dawn raised her wrist so the translator could catch the woman’s voice. “She has had a fever for a week. The boy, Jax, says you are a healer. Can you help my girl?”
Dawn shrugged helplessly. “I’m a tinker,” she repeated. ”I have tools to fix machines. I mostly fixed the robot. But I don’t work on people.” Or animals. Or plants.
The old woman listened to the translation and waited a moment. She looked down at the floor and said, “Can you try?”
“Of course I’ll try,” Dawn said. I just hate to fail.
“Jax, would you get my satchel from my auto?” she said.
She waited in the dark, waxy heat and thought about her options. She did not have a healer license. Her tools worked well with electronics on the nanolevel but she’d always used alcohol and cotton wool for her own wounds. That didn’t mean the tubes wouldn’t work with flesh. Just, she’d never tried it.
Jax returned with her satchel. She set out the tubes like she’d done for the robot. The girl was larger than the robot, half again as big as the frame. She let the bottom tube rest on the girl’s stomach.
“I don’t know,” she said. “If I turn it on, she won’t be properly shrouded. It might not work.” Dawn paused. “It might hurt her.”
The grandmother’s eyes met hers then slid away. Try, the old woman’s eyes said.
Dawn’s hands hovered over the tube connection. When the boy Jax shouted something she flinched away. Her translator did not work so she did not know what he said. But she figured it out.
Jax led the robot into the room. The robot’s scalp hung in flaps and its underlying cream-colored skeleton gleamed bare in spots. Its eyes jumped erratically but it walked straight to the bed. The machine pushed her away.
Dawn slumped in relief.
“It probably has medical files,” she said. “More than I have.”
The grandmother stood up, clapping her hands together. “Yes! The robot knows our family, knows my granddaughter. She will help my girl. How did you find her? Those reivers stole her.”
Reivers? Dawn said, “It was stolen from you? Is that why the police were here, to take the report?”
Jordach laughed, a harsh sound in the dark room. “The policeman stole it. He wanted a lot more.”
Oh boy, Dawn thought. I can’t get into a fight with the police.
“The robot was tossed before the police left your home,” she said.
Jordach shrugged. “Skylifters. They work for the Constable. Constable Stevens.”
Shock raced through her. Small world, she thought. The one cop I never want to deal with again, and he’s not only vengeful, but corrupt.
The robot chirped at Dawn. I never started up her voice, she thought. The robot spit out a page and offered the paper to her. Dawn read it out loud.
“The fever is gone, but she’ll have to rest for a while, to get strong again. A week should do it.” Why’d the robot give it to me? Dawn thought about it. Oh. It thinks it belongs to me.
“Robot, you belong to this family. Confirm.”
The robot spoke in Dawn’s language. “Confirm.”
“Communicate in their language. Tell them who you belong to.”
The robot spewed some words that the translator didn’t catch. The grandmother smiled and even Jordach nodded happily. Not that Dawn cared.
My work here is done, she thought. Too bad there’s no money in it. She stood up and stretched. “Could I have some water? And maybe a shower?”
After the shower, she wandered back into the family kitchen. The adults sat around the table, talking and eating. A tureen stood in the middle of the table, filled with red pepper stew topped with dollops of cream, the perfect agent to mellow the spice. The stew smelled wonderful. Dawn’s stomach rumbled.
The family laughed.
“Sit, sit,” the grandmother said. “We’re about to eat dinner.”
Dinner at a table with company, Dawn thought. I miss being around people. Sometimes. She shoveled another spoonful of stew into her mouth to quiet her thoughts.
After two helpings she pushed back from the table.
“I haven’t eaten that well in a long time,” she said. “You are too generous. Thank you. But I do need to get moving on. I made a recording of the damage to the robot. I’ll send the information along to the police. In the next county, I guess,” she said. “The police around here might be unreliable but someone will come along soon and take care of those skylifters who stole it.”
The cheerful family chatter around the table stopped cold. The adults stared at her.
Jordach shoved his bowl aside. “The law won’t come.”
Jax tried to explain. “The police won’t come. They never come when we tell them about the bad people using our station!”
Grandma hushed him as Jordach rolled his eyes.
“The boy is telling the truth but he has no idea how dangerous that can be. Why don’t you leave before you get us all into trouble?”
“But I can help!” The words escaped before she could filter them. Why do I want to help?
No one spoke. Even the boy sat quiet. Followed by silence, Dawn retrieved her shoes and left the home.
She walked out to her auto. She looked up into the sky, anxiously, wondering if the skylifters were anywhere near. Air traffic flowed along peacefully.
Jordach’s voice rang out, without benefit of the translator device.
The whole family gathered by the porch. Grandma pushed Jax forward.
“Temet,” he said, holding out his arms. An enormous teal-skinned lizard clung to his shirt. A thin chain link harness hung around its neck and legs. A long blue tongue flickered out and licked the boy’s chin. “Temet,” and the translator said, “Friend.”
She eyed the lizard. It rolled an eye back at her.
“Wait, is this your pet? I can’t take your pet.”
The boy nodded but repeated, “Temet.” He pulled the lizard’s claws free from his shirt and gave it to her. His arms dropped to his sides—she saw that his fists were tightly balled—and his red face held back tears. Still, he let go.
Dawn thanked him seriously. She grasped the lizard’s neck chain and carried it to her auto. The specimen case was big enough but she did not want to cage it in front of the boy. The passenger seat would do. The creature resisted going into her car, spreading its limbs wide and hooking the doorframe with its claws. She gently struggled with it and finally got it settled. She pressed the button for the seatsafe to enfold the lizard and restrain it.
Dawn turned back to the family. She had a duty to complete. They might not take what she was about to say well, but she was compelled to speak. I wish I didn’t have to do this any more. Only for you, Smithy.
“You, child,” she pointed at the little boy. “You must choose.”
The family recognized what she was doing. They gathered around the boy but didn’t touch him.
Dawn breathed in deeply and stood up straight, her hands spread open at her sides. She forgot her tiredness, the filthy clothes on her skin, as she summoned the authority of the University.
“You will come to the University as Chosen,” she said. “You will train and learn. You will find your true self and your true family. You will be great and you will lead our country.” She smiled coldly. “Or. You will stay with this family. You will become what they choose for you.”
She waited, her hands motionless.
The boy backed away from her, into the arms of his family.
Dawn relaxed. “You have made your choice. Remember that the University protects you,” she said, completing the formula. She kept her own doubts out of her voice.
She smiled down at the boy. “If you change your mind before your thirteenth birthday, you may go to the University as Apprentice.” She looked at the boy’s mother. “They’ll send an aircar for him. Just call.”
The family stirred like trees in a wind. Dawn had one last question.
“What is the girl’s name?” she asked.
Jordach, still barefoot, shouldered his way forward through his family.
“Ahmoley, she’s my daughter.” He gestured broadly at the service station and took a deep breath before saying, “You are always welcome here.”
Dawn nodded. “Health and long life to your girl,” she said automatically. She hesitated, wanting to ask about the family’s problems but worried about getting involved and drawing police attention. She had to avoid that. Still, she arguably had a responsibility to this family: she’d helped them, now they were her obligation. And then her curiosity overwhelmed her good sense.
“Why did the skylifters take the robot? And then just drop it. Seems rather pointless.”
Jax piped up. “We won’t pay into the fund anymore.” He looked at his family for confirmation.
Grandma said, “He’s just a boy,” as she hugged him to her skirt.
Dawn’s mouth dropped open. “Money? You let your family be victimized over money?” She waved, indicating the prosperity of the service station. “You have money. Keeping your family safe is the most important thing.”
Jordach’s face reddened. “You are always welcome here,” he choked out. He turned his back on her and disappeared into the house. The adults filed in after him. Jax followed the adults.
Dawn shook her head. None of my business, really.
She dropped into her auto. Stamping hard on the accelerator she peeled out back onto the highway.
She shoved the recording disc into the dashslot and hit “send.” The recording burst up to the nearest satellite, which would forward it to the Constabulary in the next county. The skylifters would be caught. They’d be punished for stealing property and preying on the boy’s family. And that will take care of that.
“I don’t usually have company in my car,” she said to the blue lizard. “I suppose I should release you somewhere. I saw a bunch of lizards at the gas station. Perhaps you’d fit in with them.” She glanced at the creature on her passenger seat. “Or maybe not. They were orange, maybe they’re a different species? I thought maybe caxwal. I’ll figure something out. I am certainly not eating you.”
The lizard hissed. Dawn’s translation device clicked on.
“Good. I’m not dinner,” it said.
Dawn laughed. Her auto swerved across the road’s center line. She hastily pulled to the berm and stopped.
“Oh, the day just gets stranger by the minute,” she muttered. To the lizard, she said, “You have language. The University has been looking for native intelligent species. Would you let me take you there?” Dawn tried to imagine how much she’d earn from this discovery. She would be able to buy a homestead. She might even be able to retire.
The lizard hissed quietly. “I am your slave,” the translator spoke.
“Oh no, you’re not,” she replied quickly. She waved her hand at him. “I, uh, emancipate you. You’re a citizen, as far as I’m concerned.” She wagged a finger at him. “I’m not responsible for you.”
The lizard examined her, its head moving from side to side. “Yes, you are a healer, not a warrior. You are not responsible.”
Dawn looked away from the lizard. She started up her auto and drove onto the road. After a few miles of silence, she shook her head.
“I’m not a healer,” she said. “I’m a tinker, a technologist. And a recruiter for the University. My name’s Dawn Sutorius. What is your name? What should I call you?”
The lizard pulled against the harness until it stood on its claw tips. It hissed, a long and musically complicated sound. The translator device tried, but it could not translate the sounds into words she could understand.
She said, “I supposed I could always call you Spike. Does that suit you?”
“A sharpened point on a stick? This is not my name,” it said. Its jaws spread and its blue tongue licked out from between its teeth, wiping its eyes. “But that will do. Warriors must have many names, to confuse the spirits of the enemy.”
It fell forward against the seat restraint, digging into the seat with its claws to keep from tumbling.
“Would you release this force field?” it said. “I will tell you my story, if you would release me.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to tease the lizard—“will I be safe if you’re free?”—but she resisted the impulse. “Not a slave-keeper, me,” she said as she released the seatsafe field. The lizard immediately slithered over the seat to explore the auto. After a few minutes of untranslated hissings and clickings, Spike climbed back into the passenger seat.
“It’s sad that you think you are not a healer. Many in my tribe are sick. I was sent on this quest to find help.” Spike looked at her slyly, then continued. “The Oldest, our far-seer, declared that I would succeed in my quest, but that I would have to earn the help.”
“I was captured by human poachers. They sold me to the station’s family in trade for fuel. I was certain that my quest had ended badly,” Spike said.
“I know you healed that little girl. You must be a powerful healer, and I need, that is, my tribe needs a powerful healer. If you go to them, I will go to your University.”
It stepped anxiously from claw to claw, whining a sad hiss.
“Huh,” she said. The lizard was volunteering! She’d make her money after all. Except, how could she keep her end of the bargain?
“I didn’t heal the girl,” she admitted. “I did fix the robot that was stolen by the skylifters, stolen and dropped. That’s the kind of healing I do. The robot healed the girl. Maybe you should hook up with the robot.” Damn. No profit from the robot, the boy, and now I’m throwing away the lizard. I’m gonna go broke. I may have to take Smithy up on his offer.
“I know what you did,” Spike said. “You were the catalyst. Your actions healed the girl. You interrupted negative flow. You are the essence of healer."
“Now I ... I am a warrior of my people,” it continued. “I honor my commitment to die for you, so I shall sing my life chant.” The lizard’s lungs swelled with a deep breath.
“Wait!” Dawn quickly placed a fresh recording disc in the machine. Its intelligent eyes followed her actions. When the disc clicked home and the light turned green-for-go, Spike began singing.
Dawn attached the translator to the dashslot above the recording discs. The recording disc faithfully copied each of the lizard’s hisses and grunts and copied the translation.
She listened to the translation as it whispered quietly a step behind the lizard’s sounds.
The lemon light of day faded into evening’s blood sky as the sun fell behind the horizon. The night sky turned velvety midnight blue before Spike completed his song. Stars sparkled and aircars flew by in a careless ribbon of movement high above the ground.
Dawn had a bowl of water waiting for the lizard. She wasn’t sure what it would eat but surely water would be a good start after its long vocal effort.
“I liked that,” Dawn said as Spike dipped first one clawed foot then the other into the water, licking the drink off its talons. “It won’t replace rock and roll, but it was kinda like Italian commedia del’arte. Serious but funny.”
“I don’t know rock and roll. I have extensive training in rocks, how to find the safe stones for sunning, which ones to roll over for food. And rock secrets.” The lizard rolled an eye at her again. “My song did not reveal my rock training.”
Dawn laughed. “Music, Spike. I was complimenting your song.”
“Oh.” The lizard hissed quietly. “Thank you.”
As Spike fell silent, Dawn realized that half a night had passed since she sent the transmission burst to the satellite.
“I should have heard back from the police by now, acknowledging my message about the skylifters and the family,” she said. “I’ll send it again.” She pushed the button on the console and sent the recording to the satellite bouncing station one more time.
“And you, my friend,” she said to the lizard, “I’m sending your recording to the University. They’ll never believe it!”
She addressed the recording to Smithy, her handler at the University. She briefly summed up the difficulty with the local lawmen. She also mentioned the little boy with the station family. Families often changed the potential’s minds within a day after a refused recruitment. She trusted Smithy would look after her interests.
As she finished her messaging, Dawn heard the scream of a rapidly descending aircar. She saw the rusted heap just before it smacked into her auto. The aircar scraped her auto’s roof. Glass crackled as her windshield shattered. The auto slewed sideways, skidding half off the road.
Dawn shouted at Spike, “Stay in the auto, I need to get something from the trunk, and they’re coming.”
She cracked her door open and looked up. Three aircars circled above. As she slid out of the auto, an aircar dived and smashed into her auto’s hood again, then bounced up.
She punched the trunk’s release button and the trunk failed to open. She jerked on the emergency handle, once, twice, then the trunk opened with an offended squeal. She grasped a large case and heaved it onto the ground.
She pulled the cannon out of its case. The weapon fired anti-magnetizer glitter, which would stick to the aircars. Any aircar caught in the spray would lose power as its battery drained and quickly went cold. She only had two loads, and they had three aircars. She hoped she could hit two aircars at once or perhaps scare one or two of the aircars away. She aimed and fired.
The cartridge flew past all three aircars. Dawn ducked as another aircar sped towards her. The cartridge finally burst, and a cloud of silvery bits drifted down like burning embers from a rocket. Two of the aircars flew under the spray and were coated. One heeled to the left, dangerously close to the highway, then pulled up and flew away. The other lost power and dropped. The driver revved the engine mercilessly until the turbine scream hurt Dawn’s ears. The aircar straightened, though it was a near thing, and circled her, wobbling in the sky over her head.
The third aircar swooped on her, bashing the front end of her auto. She screamed and rolled away, clutching the cannon. Jeez I hope the lizard’s okay. Maybe it went seatsafe. Aw, damn, it’s coming back.
The aircar twisted and ascended again. She jumped to her feet, hand against her auto’s rear panel for balance, aimed the cannon, and fired the last cartridge.
The shot hit the aircar’s underside. The metal load spread across the surface, flowing up like living mercury. The aircar’s engine failed. The aircar fell from the sky. The driver aimed it at her auto. The aircar tumbled like a gymnast showing off. The driver aimed to crash into her auto again. He missed. His aircar hit the ground nose-first, a lone car length from her auto. A piece of doorframe jolted loose and twirled towards her. It struck her full in the chest and scraped past her face. She dropped face first into the sand and rolled onto her side. Blood poured over her face, blinding one eye. She saw the driver of the last aircar advancing on her. He didn’t hold any weapons. He lifted his leather-clad foot to kick her in the head. She folded her arms around her head.
Before his boot connected the lizard leapt at the man, hissing and clawing wildly, ripping the man’s pants, testing its teeth against the man’s leg muscle. The lizard grinned and hissed and bit down once more.
The man screamed and batted at the lizard. Spike hung on tight. The man fell onto the sand next to Dawn, screaming at the lizard. Dawn wiped the blood from her face and laughed.
As she struggled to her feet, a little woozy, sirens exploded in the air and lights flared down on the scene. The police had arrived, five aircars’ worth, and they scared off the last skylifter. Two aircars followed after it. The others landed near Dawn.
Police grabbed the screaming man. Someone else grabbed at Spike but the lizard slithered away.
Another man, not wearing the police uniform, ran to Dawn. He touched her face delicately.
“You’re hurt,” he said.
“Yes, I am, Smithy,” she said, “but I’ll live.” She closed her eyes and rested her head against his shoulder. His arm circled her protectively. After a short minute of comfort she opened her eyes again.
“What are they doing?” she shouted.
Police were at her auto, pulling her stuff, her personal belongings, and trade items and restoration tools from its dented body.
“Confiscating these items as evidence for trial. You can have them back. After.”
“You can’t take my electronics!” she yelled, grabbing her satchel back from an officer. “I built these myself! The designs were approved by the University. Put that back!” She tried to pull the translator out of another officer’s hand. It became a tug of war.
A Constable in a suit laughed at the tug of war. “Approved by the University? That holds no force of law or extra protection, Sutorius. Surrender these things until trial.” He paused to let that sink in. “Too bad about your business.”
“What business?” she said. “Your thugs are taking my business away!”
The Constable shrugged.
She dropped the translator. “Smithy, do something.”
He lifted his shoulders helplessly. “I can’t interfere with the Constabulary. We can try to get your possessions released, uh, quickly.”
The Constable shook his head. “It’s gonna be some time before trial. A couple of years, maybe, if we can move the process along. We’d need some motivation to do that, of course.”
Smithy’s jaw dropped. “Are you soliciting a bribe from a University official? Awaiting trial will be the least of your worries if I decide to follow up on your bribery attempt.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” the Constable said. He stared at Dawn. “I was making a business arrangement with your independent contractor. That’s what you called her, right? One of our best, you said. Recruits the best potentials. I was so proud when she selected my daughter. Of course I wasn’t home when she ripped my family apart. Lucky for her. She’s still breathing. Staying in business is up to her, now.”
Dawn took a deep breath. Oh, so that’s what’s going on here, she thought. “Constable Stevens. So nice to make your acquaintance finally. You didn’t come out to help me because of my transmission, did you?”
He laughed again. “We got your transmission. There’s the perfect Dawn Sutorius sticking her nose in my business again. Too bad Mr. University here showed up and scared off my skylifters.
“But where were we? Oh yeah. You want your stuff back, you gotta pay. Think of it as moving and storage fees.”
“All right,” she said. “Let’s make it official, then. Smithy, I accept your standing offer of a University position.”
Smithy nodded. “Approved.”
Dawn got nose to nose with Constable Stevens. “That means all this is University property. Put everything back.”
He laughed. “You’re kidding. The University doesn’t have that kind of pull around here. And I’m not doing anything for you, Sutorius.”
Her fists clenched. “But you are, you’re giving my stuff back now.”
His baton was faster than her reflex away from him. She grunted and crumpled into a ball.
Smithy’s voice broke through her pain. “Stop! Assaulting a member of University is a criminal offense!”
Oh great, he’s giving that thug a warning. Needs more than that. She tried to speak, retched up some blood-streaked mucus, spoke.
“Press charges,” she croaked. She rolled to her knees, sat back on her heels, and spat into the sand. “Criminal assault on an employee of the University.”
Smithy crossed his arms over his chest and smiled. “Officers, arrest this man.”
The two police officers didn’t move. One cleared his throat and spoke deferentially to Smithy.
“We can’t arrest the Constable on your word alone,” he said. He glanced at the other officer and said quietly, “He’ll make our lives hell. Worse than he did to Sartorius.”
Smithy grinned. “Ah, you admit there was a pattern of harassment against the newest member of the University. Perfect.”
The officer’s face reddened. “She’s not the only one.” He grimaced. “It’s pretty much what he does. Oh, hell, Diego, arrest Constable Stevens for criminal assault. We’ll build up a case and get him ousted.” He shook his head. “Won’t be easy. You know he’s an elected Constable, right?”
Sutorius said, “Might be a good opportunity to investigate voting fraud. And, put my stuff back, will you?”
Officer Diego zip-tied the Constable’s wrists together. Then, under the observation of two University representatives, the officers collected her confiscated property and deposited all the electronics and bags by her auto.
She grabbed one of the bags to stash in her auto but stopped before she passed Constable Stevens. She turned to stand nose-to-nose with him.
“You should know, Potentials are allowed to contact their families. Every week. The screen links are overwhelmed during family time. Your daughter refuses. She won’t even allow family photos on her wall.”
Dawn scanned his face for reaction. He stared over her shoulder, his lips a white line.
She leaned closer to him. “But you can call her. Didn’t you know that? She wasn’t stolen from you. You abandoned her.” Dawn shook her head. “Call her when you can. She needs you.”
He refused to meet her eyes or acknowledge her in any way.
I didn’t even begin to get through to him.
She stashed the bag in her auto and stuck the translator back on the dashslot. Spike hissed at her from under a cushion.
“So that’s where you went,” she whispered. “Stay here.”
She backed out of her auto and perched on the hood.
“How did you find me?” she asked Smithy.
“You know that police in this area won’t respond to a signal from you,” Smithy said, watching her. “Constable Stevens got them all to fall in line, defying the University after you recruited his child. But this!” He shook his head in admiration. “They had to respond to this!” He fiddled with his data pad.
“We received this burst message about one hundred times.” He started the recording.
Spike’s translated voice was louder than the hisses and the explosions in the background. “Help us! Help us!”
Officer Diego joined them.
“We just discovered that Constable Stevens, personally, has been filtering signals from a series of service stations. No one’s responded to a call from the stations in eight months, because he canceled them all. We’ve added charges to his arrest, for extortion and interference. But we know the station families won’t confirm anything. They’re afraid.” He shrugged. “We need a witness.”
He looked at her unhappily. “The Constable will say you’re retaliating against him. Your word alone will not be good enough.”
Dawn considered a moment, then said, “What about Spike? The lizard. He’s been in at Traveler’s Rest for weeks.”
“The lizard? Sutorius, you’ve lost your mind.” Officer Diego’s eyes widened as he made a connection. “We responded to a distress signal sent by a lizard, didn’t we?”
Dawn said, “Yes, and the University will vouch for his species’ intelligence on the sentience scale.” I hope they will. Smithy nodded.
She pointed to her translator inside the auto. “Spike, will you give testimony about what you saw and heard in that house?” She heard her voice translated into hisses and clicks.
The lizard slowly crawled up on top of the auto. “When my family is well, I will give this testimony. That is a warrior’s oath.”
What A Warrior Knows
“‘Help us,” Dawn said.
Spike showed his teeth. “Even a warrior knows when to ask for help.”
“So, this whole warrior thing,” Dawn said. “I thought you were a seeker, not a warrior.”
The lizard rolled its eye at her. “You were there. I won status by fighting. It’s a new part of my song. Just like you, Tinker. Now you’re a healer, too.”
Dawn shook her head, laughing. “Now I’ve got a lizard giving me life lessons. Wow. Did you hear that, Smithy? I’ve added to my song.”
Smithy laughed. “You’re an eccentric, Dawn. Just what the University needs! Come back with me.”
She rolled her shoulders, stretching out the aches. Long day. An orange lizard scurried across the tarmac. She nodded.
“Soon. But for now, I have other obligations. I have to help a friend find his way home.”
Jude-Marie Green is a Clarion West 2010 graduate. Her stories have appeared in “Abyss & Apex,” “M-Brane Science Fiction,” “Every Day Fiction,” “Insatiable,” and “Penumbra.” She lives in Southern California, amid palm trees and lots of birds.