The sky sparkled, every particle in the atmosphere like a falling crystal flaring in the sunlight. All of it drifting down to land like snow on the face and outstretched limbs of the man lying sprawled across the rock. The trail of shattered glass, some of which was embedded in the man’s clothing and flesh underneath, led back to the wreckage of the sleek space cruiser, smashed on impact like cheap pottery. The bits of stuff falling on him were tiny flaming fragments of plastic and metal, even so it took a while before he woke up. Eventually though the gentle fiery taps on his face and hands kicked him back out of blissful unconsciousness into a world where pain existed again. Corlton Jak snapped awake at a sensation most like his older brother flicking lit matches at him while they dawdled in the woods, drinking cheap hooch and making a nuisance of themselves. That would been preferable. Instead he sat up and slapped urgently at the fine rain of detritus from the mess he’d made of entering the planetary atmosphere. It had been a bad angle, and he’d been on the verge of passing out anyway after a series of high velocity twists and turns. At first, he’d feared he was going to skip off the atmosphere entirely, yet a series of unwise but effective readjustments had smashed the ship awkwardly and spinning through that thin barrier. The spin had been impossible to arrest, and the re-entry fried the outside of the ship and started to dig under the external panelling. Much of what was still falling was insulation, and inevitably, invaluable parts of the engines that had exploded as he came down. It was not far short of a miracle that he’d survived at all. He was very bruised, very stiff and with a killer headache, but it seemed nothing was broken. Yet, anyway. Corlton had managed to drag himself out of the ship just after the impact nearly shattered his teeth, out through the old-fashioned windscreen and far enough away to possibly survive if the whole thing blew up. Losing the engines on the way down had actually been a bonus, since they’d gone bang while he was spinning and spared them blowing on crash landing. There hadn’t been a lot of landing about it. He gently plucked shards of glass out of his suit, wincing at a couple of longer slivers that had dug in properly. Time to review the situation.
Well, it wasn’t good, was it? Chased around a moon by pirates or cops (he hadn’t hung around to check, and these days anyone could look like anything), sniped at until he took his best chance and dived for the crappy little planet below. Corlton had been approaching the end of his series of covert iminal-space hops, from shithead planet to the next, all nicely out of the way and intended to avoid the precise kind of attention he’d received. Seriously, could no one smuggle in peace any more? He’d plainly been rattled by the crash because it took until he unravelled how he’d come to be here that he remembered why he was even in the damn ship to begin with. Smuggling has ever been a risky yet lucrative profession, and Corlton mostly shifted medical gear and objects generally the subject of colonial theft. Getting medicine and tech into the hands and bodies of those who needed them, albeit at ferociously inflated prices had never felt like a bad thing, and depriving the various empires and kingdoms of the riches they’d have stolen from their conquests was also in the grey areas, for him. Sure, the cases of Vaulx artifacts he’d last run out to some old man on a frighteningly weathered space station were hardly benefiting the Vaulx, but given that the Mondarian Empire was busy annihilating all of the Vaulx anyway, at least that handful of bone-worked statuary would survive. The money was decent, the risks were manageable. Or they had been till now.
Corlton climbed back into the spaceship through the newly open front, wincing from the bruises and ducking under the crumpled ceiling. At the rear of the ship, which looked like a stamped-on drink can, he put a good deal of sweat and effort into prising the buckled panels off the floor beside the bathroom facilities (a fancy way of describing a miserable powder shower and a chair with a hole in it). Eventually, with a broken nail and the extra bruise of the crowbar bouncing up and whacking him in the collar bone, Corlton pulled the boards away and inspected his cargo. It didn’t look like much: a neat metal case, complete with handle and flip-up panel that told him the contents were alive, and also dead – he wasn’t the only thing that had taken a few blows in the crash. Corlton didn’t like smuggling living things. They required extra maintenance, and might not wish to be cargo which led to all sorts of additional trouble. Further compensation however, very impressive further compensation had compromised whatever ethics Corlton liked to pretend he had. He only bent those ethics for a decent reward, and the reward would be nothing if the contents of the case weren’t alive at the other end. Getting off this planet would be a thrilling next step, but Corlton dealt with problems in the order in which they could be resolved. If the thing in the case had died, then he wouldn’t need to lug it to the nearest city or station while figuring out how to get off-world again. That was a trick he’d learned early on – if you’re engaged in a risky adventure, you should balance the risks against the consequences. Like crashing on an unoccupied world that you’re then going to die on. Far better to inimal-hop between planets that might help save your arse. There were more than enough rough and ready colony worlds who had zero imperial law enforcement, but did have ports and comms rigs. And Corlton always had money; he dug that out next.
There was no sign of the gunship that had chased him out of the moon’s shadow. It was possible that his crashing through the atmosphere and into the ground had looked just as fatal as it had felt. No reason to hang about though. His geolocator had already identified a nearby town, a mere sixty mile hike away. Best see what he needed to take with him first. He’d pulled the secure case and the rest of his gear out of the ship, which seemed even more bedraggled once he’d exited it. A shame. She’s been a nifty little cruiser for the last ten years. A new identity and ship might not be a bad idea if folks were willing to blast this one anyway. It would be night soon, and he needed to get moving. Sticking with the ship was not a good idea, and he doubted there was much in the rocky scrub ahead to worry him, other than the lack of good-looking cover.
Corlton laid the case on the ground and tapped at the screen. The case hissed a little and popped open. Inside lay what he’d been an awful lot of money to transport. He’d seen pictures, but never the real thing: it looked like a tiny deer, but made of feathers and icicles – the most delicate frosting of an animal he’d ever seen. A Vicunxian snowflake cat, or at least that’s what humans had called it. No one knew what the Vincunxians would have called it since they’d fled their homeworld only a few years after the Mondarians turned up in orbit, looking for rare metals. They’d found those, and a wide range of really weird animal life. The Mondarians were more interested in mining than preservation, and alas it was down to various collectors and zoos to catalogue and rescue the creatures. The empire guarded all its assets jealously however, even the ones they didn’t care about. Even though this little thing seemed terribly fragile it didn’t look broken and sets of flute-looking structures along the back of its legs were waving all by their own, breathing presumably. At least it was light. Corlton turned away to grab the heavy-duty rucksack he’d retrieved from the ship, intending to stick the case, food, water and anything else he might need inside. But when he turned back, perhaps a few seconds later, the case was empty.
“Goddammit,” he muttered to himself, slowly turning in a circle. It made a sound like a chandelier in a breeze, glass chimes and pouring wine. He snapped round and spotted it, standing on its hind legs, one foreleg resting on a rock and the other reaching out in the air. He had no idea if it was looking at him – the snowflake cat had no visible eyes and he was only fifty per cent certain that the larger shape pointed up at the sky was its head.
“Alright you, let’s get you back in the box,” he said, sidling up to its glistening shape. The snowflake cat allowed him to get within a few feet before hopping further off, neatly skipping up the crumpled side of the space ship and posing on its battered roof. Already Corlton was deeply regretting opening the case, reflecting that the panel might have been right, or at least not wrong if it couldn’t tell if the weird little glass deer as alive or not. He scrambled up the side of the ship, barked shins and all. Once more the snowflake cat waited until it was almost in lunging distance before gracefully leaping off down towards the tail of the ship, and from there onto a larger rock. It assumed its previous posture. Corlton sighed, and slid back down the side of the ship. The game continued, with one sparkling and insouciant alien cat thing, and one very exhausted smuggler. Each time the damned thing got a little higher up, rearing upwards with one paw extended to the sky.
Concussion plays merry hell with thinking and common sense, and it wasn’t until the Vincunxian snowflake cat was halfway up a tree that Corlton paused, panting, and figured out that the cat was pointing at the sky. A star was steadily burning its way toward them. Corlton had messed about with the cat for too long, and whoever had gone after him in orbit was coming down to finish the job. Whether the snowflake cat was trying to warn him or what, he had no idea, but if he couldn’t get it down from the tree he was going to have to abandon it and put some distance between himself and the wreck. Hastily, he stuffed everything else he could in the rucksack, and turned back to check on the cat. It was no longer in the tree. It had hopped back onto the spaceship roof, and was no longer pointing at the approaching vehicle. That was good, but it was plainly too nimble to be caught. At best it might follow him and he’d get a chance later to seize it. He laid the case on top of the rucksack and strapped it all down. Time to get moving.
The terrain had looked awkward and slow from a distance but Corlton was making good time, despite his array of bruised and sore joints. The snowflake cat was indeed following, pausing now and then to check on the progress of their pursuer. It was definitely getting closer, and there was damn all in the way of shelter. Corlton kept going, turning now and again to check on both the cat and the spaceship. It disappeared for a while, presumably to investigate the crash site. But soon enough it was back on Corlton’s tail. There just wasn’t anywhere to hide – a dismal lack of caves, pitiful tree cover and not even a stream to try hiding in. Corlton had a small pistol, and a rather brutal knife, neither of which would be any use against a trans-orbital vehicle. He was hot, tired and unlikely to get away, so he gave up and sat down on a rock. The snowflake cat came and knelt beside him, it’s sharply angled head gazing outward with what seemed like anticipation. He didn’t have to wait long.
The ship did indeed catch up in no time, having found the wreckage abandoned. It only took them a few minutes to cover the miles that Corlton had strained for. As the dull grey shape slowed and turned, presenting one its flanks, Corlton made a show of veery obviously placing his pistol and knife on the ground. The side of the ship flexed down and out into a ramp, and Corlton reluctantly braced himself for either being shot or arrested. Neither of those things happened. Instead the strangest creature Corlton had ever seen unfolded itself from the open door. It was obviously related to the snowflake cat by his side, which was vibrating and making small anxious motions with its feet. The thing emerging from the craft had the same icicle delicacy, with multi-jointed crystalline limbs, like a spider and a scarecrow and a centaur all mashed together and made out of cake frosting. Corlton didn’t even breathe. He had no doubt at all that this was another Vincunxian creature, perhaps even one of the natives who’d left their homeworld. It tip-toed down the ramp, the fading sun catching it through all the planes and vertices of its structure. Dazzling, so much so that Corlton had to squint to look at it, and then suddenly it was right in front of him, leaning over him, that scarecrow torso tilted down to coolly regard him. Then it turned to the little snowflake cat by Corlton’s side, and it made a sound like champagne flutes rattling against each other. The cat hopped down, and with a single backward glance at Corlton, skipped off up the ramp and into the craft. The Vincunxian returned its attention to the smuggler. It uttered another sparkle of breaking glass before joining the snowflake cat up the ramp. The door sealed itself and the ship departed, leaving Corlton quite alone as the sun fell below the horizon.