Boy From the County Hell
by Maya Tawi
Now you'll sing a song of liberty, for blacks and Paks and jocks
And they'll take you from this dump you're in and stick you in a box
Then they'll take you to Cloughprior and shove you in the ground
But you'll stick your head back out and shout, "Well, have another round!"
-The Pogues, "The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn"
I stared into the mirror, contemplating the area where machinery met flesh. Slowly I lifted the splicing knife towards my neck.
The voices coming from the flight deck rose abruptly to ear-shattering proportions. I winced and gripped the knife more tightly, steadying it.
Something crashed against the other side of the wall as I made the first cut.
I worked slowly and deliberately, still wary of poking around my brand new data port. Designed though it may have been for integration with the brain stems and nervous systems of sentient beings, I still wasn't sure it was shockproof. Or waterproof, for that matter; Beka'd said that when I showered I could paste a sealant patch over it, but I was planning to avoid that particular event for as long as I could. The whole idea of showers? That much clean running water? Just... wrong.
Blood started to seep over my fingers. I gritted my teeth and pushed the blade forward, and my forbearance and sheer balls were rewarded with the dull clink of metal on metal. Dimly I heard the Maru's hatch slam shut and, before long, the heavy echoing slap of boots on the aluminum floor.
Beka appeared in the doorway of the crew quarters I'd co-opted just as I pried the chip out from under my port. I met her eyes in the mirror and did a discreet double-take; her hair was a pale, strikingly pretty shade of blue, only slightly darker than her eyes. I didn't think she'd had time to dye it since the last time I'd seen her. Maybe it was like a mood ring. Mood hair? Nanotech, probably; I could work that, it wouldn’t be too complicated....
Her gaze dropped to the splicing knife and she said, "I hope you sterilized that."
"Um," I said, and dropped the chip on a nearby table. "Sterilized?"
She sighed and leaned against the wall, looking utterly weary. "Oh, hell. What is that, anyway?"
"Tracer." I hefted a large wrench, then smashed it down on the chip; it shattered with a forlorn crunch and sizzle of betrayal. Poor blameless electronic device. "Now the Dragans can't follow us. We should probably leave station soon, just in case it broadcast that far."
Beka acknowledged this with a slight nod, then said, "No, I mean, that. The port."
I hesitated. My eyes went back to the mirror, and the now-oozing hole in my neck, as though drawn by a magnet. "It's a, well, it's a port."
"Thank you, O Master of the Obvious."
I grinned at her in the glass. "What, you've never seen a data port before?"
"Have you?" she retorted sharply.
"Nope," I said cheerfully. "But I've read about 'em. Believe me, they are not exaggerating about these things. Zing!" I clapped my hands together. "Better than flash. I could charge for hits."
"And the Dragans just- what? Gave you one for free?" She still looked skeptical. That specter of mistrust still lurked behind her eyes, and it hurt. More than I'd expected it to, it hurt.
"Nah," I said, and the cheer felt somewhat forced now. "I was just a guinea pig. They do that kinda shit all the time. They gave it some tweaks, and they wanted to try it out on someone who'd know how to handle it." I stared fixedly into the mirror and started bandaging the cut. Didn't want to bleed all over Beka's ship.
"Poor planning on their part," she observed.
"Clearly." Bandage, bandage, bandage. Tape, tape, tape. I was way too good at this. Practice makes perfect.
After a pause, she said, "So if they'd screwed up their tweaks?"
I shrugged. "Oh, I'd be dead now."
"Sucks," she said.
"You're telling me." I turned away from the mirror and started to clean up, sweeping together the scattered bits of wire and metal. After a moment I said, "Look, you don't have to be nice to me, you know. I'm sure you've got better things to do, like rearranging your sock drawer or something, so if you can just drop me off on the nearest free planet I'll be outta your personal space-"
"What are you talking about? We had an agreement."
She sounded angry, and I looked up quickly, startled. "Come on, boss- Beka-"
"Go back to 'boss'," she snapped. "You're still working for me."
I spread my hands placatingly and took a nervous step back. "Aw, now don't get me wrong- I worship you with every fiber of my being, and I owe you my life, and I'll be perfectly happy to try and repay you for that any way I can. But, hey," I jerked my head in the general direction of the flight deck, "I heard the argument. You weren't exactly quiet, you know? The whack-job doesn't want me here. I'm not worth losing him over, Beka, thrilled though I may be about the prospect of your imminent availability."
She looked genuinely bemused. Was that a good sign? "Are you kidding me?" she demanded. I hastily mouthed, no, and she went on, "I'd trade a minor body part to have someone with your skills working on my baby. Besides, Bobby...." At that, she paused, and the melancholy look spread across her face again. "He comes and goes. If it wasn't you, it'd be something else."
"Really," I said, dubious.
"Anyway, he left already."
I frowned. "That was fast."
Beka's smile looked strained. "He travels light."
"Wow," I said. Then, "A body part, huh?"
Her smile widened, seemingly genuine now. "A minor one."
I made one last attempt at caution. "You sure about this? 'Cause I'm warning you, once you take me on, I'm hard to get rid of."
Beka gazed at me and said, in all seriousness, "I was pretty much counting on that."
And really, who can refuse an invitation like that?
"Fantastic," I exclaimed, jumping up in a little over-excited bounce. "Fan-fucking-tastic! 'Cause I've got some great ideas on what to do with this port, and if you're willing to spot me a couple experiments-"
"Harper," she interrupted, still looking serious. "Seamus."
"Harper," I said fervently. "Please."
"Okay. Uh, Harper..." She hesitated, twisting her hands in her shirt. "The thing is, it won't be just us. I've got other crew members. Rev Bem and Vexpag. We're headed for Barton Drift next to pick them up."
Like that meant anything to me. I waved a dismissive hand in her general direction. "Hey, the more the messier. What's this crew like? Are they female? Are they hot?"
"Not female," she said, and she looked vaguely amused at that, so I figured they were emphatically not female. Or hot. "Definitely not hot." She paused again. If her shirt was a balloon, it'd be a giraffe by now. "Listen, Harper. Rev...."
She trailed off, and I felt my grin fading. Warily I said, "Yeah?"
Beka stared at me for a moment more, concern in her eyes warring with- defensiveness? was that it?- and some other, even less identifiable emotion. "You know what?" she said finally. "We'll talk later. You just settle in now."
I stared after her as she pushed herself off the wall and started out of the quarters, and as she left, she added over her shoulder, "We'll stop on the way to get you some new clothes. And do something about that hair."
By the time her words sank in she was already out of my line of sight.
"What?" I yelped, and ran out of the room after her. "Clothes? Hair? Beka! What's wrong with my hair?"
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight | Epilogue