The shuttle faded in and out of view, shades of black and grey flitting across its surface as stealth shielding fought to adjust to the blowing sand and turbulent night sky, the occasional bright burst as Helios, the smaller of Elyas’ two moons, peeked through tumbling clouds. Winter storm approaching. Soon there’d be lightning, thunder, and rain.
Pauly Nikos watched from the shelter of his carefully-constructed rock cave, and tried to squelch the fear that jabbed harder than the sharp stone through his thin coverall. A hundred meters of flat between him and the shuttle, twice that distance to the next outcropping large enough to hide him. No chance, if they detected him. He could run fast, but not that fast. He’d be a target in a shooting gallery. They’d pick him off easy as you please.
The fuck are they waiting for? The shuttle had landed more than a common hour before. Then it just sat there. If they were smugglers—and who the fuck else landed a shielded craft on the Karistos flat in the middle of the night—they were dumb. Their ground team should’ve been waiting for them with the goods ready to load. They should’ve been up in the air moments after landing. But now, the sand had time to crap things up, scratch the shuttle skin beyond its ability to repair itself, work its way throughout the body. Then the rain would finish the job, warping the shielding, contaminating the bioworks. First thing you learned when you lived in Karistos. Sand and water always found a way.
Pauly dug his handheld out of his slingbag and checked the time, cupping the device in his hands so the light from the display wouldn’t bounce off the rocks and betray his hiding place. Yes, this had to happen tonight, didn’t it? His best night in months. Four sandies, a hen and her three eggs. Even in the dark, the hen’s feathers glistened, breaking what light there was into rainbow threads. The unborn chicks’ down, fine as silk, was even more valuable. It would give the light movement, a back-and-forth shimmer like a living thing. Yes, this haul would make lots of pretties for the rich bitches. The Karistos jewelers could fake them, of course, but the real feathers from real birds cost more. Real always cost more.
He looked back out at the shuttle. If they spotted him, he’d wait until they grabbed him, offer them the feathers, hope that would be enough to buy him a break. He was small for fourteen—he could still pass for ten if he kept his voice from cracking. They might rough him up a little, but even smugglers drew the line at killing kids.
He heard the skimmer before he saw it, that up-and-down whine as it struggled against the wind. A small two-seater, it ran dark, the safety illumins squelched and the cabin interior hidden from view by black-tinted windows. As it slowed in approach, the shuttle finally showed signs of activity. The underside loading bay door dropped down and two figures emerged. Men, judging from their heights and builds. They stopped at the end of the ramp and waited for the skimmer to draw alongside, the gullwing doors to open, the driver and passenger to emerge.
Then it all happened, so fast. One of the shuttle men raised a shooter, fired twice. The skimmer driver collapsed; the passenger staggered, then tried to get back inside the vehicle. But before they could pull the door shut, the killer and his partner closed the distance in a few strides, yanked the door open, dragged them out. Then came a shout, cut short by the shooter crack.
The shuttle men moved quickly now. They walked around to the skimmer boot, opened the hatch, hauled out what lay inside. A wrapped bundle, body-sized and shaped. As they worked, a third man emerged from the shuttle dragging a gurney. They lifted the bundle onto it, hefted the other bodies into the skimmer, then maneuvered both up the ramp and into the cargo bay. The door closed.
Seconds later, engines hummed as the shuttle accelerated, coursed over the flat, then rose into the air.
Pauly watched it until it vanished into the clouds, waited until he felt sure it wouldn’t return. Then he gathered the hen, the eggs, his snares, and jammed everything into his bag. Rocks tore his coverall, sliced into his skin, as he struggled out of his tiny cave, then ran like hell.