Yellow eyes peered through streaks of brown dirt that striated a single moulded window. Semi-derelict cargo units stinking with discarded garbage, their flat tops rippled with fine dust, ran in straight lines of depressing conformity, broken only occasionally by under-used trading jetties lined with cranes and jigs. The eyes caught sight of a grey sphere hanging motionless in the perpetually dismal sepia sky. Within seconds it had faded. The eyes roamed elsewhere then darted back to the same section of sky; and for a second or two the sphere again existed before vanishing. It was a game many had played since the sphere's arrival three days ago.
The eyes focused on ugly children swarming like multicoloured insects on piles of putrid waste heaped between two cargo units. They made a noise like tortured animals. Without doubt Peptox was the most joyless, squalid and thoroughly repulsive place Blueflame had ever encountered.
She noticed three Zouvits crossing a walkway, smart silver and black uniforms glowing faintly in the sickly air. She watched them approach and climb the steps to the door beneath her, then lost sight of them and turned away. She knew the procedure: first the superficial exchange with Quof who usually sat by the door, watching, waiting, collecting; then the heavy footfalls ascending the corroding stairway to her spartan, musty room; then the condescending greetings, inane banter, and finally the business. Not pleasure - business: becoming their slave for a time, submitting to their alien perversions, their abuse of her body.
How she wished the Sedian army had destroyed Peptox during the trading riots of fifty-seven. The festering eyesore had always been more trouble than it was worth and there were plenty of better controlled trading posts elsewhere on that side of the planet. Why keep Peptox and encourage the scum of the galaxy? She could think of reasons and they all stank as much as Peptox.
Her eyes moistened as she coughed, her thin frame shuddering, pain knifing her lungs. She sat on her bed, tired and hungry. Images of another life blossomed and shrivelled in her mind. She had once been pretty with lively yellow eyes and soft milky skin. Now her eyes were devoid of emotion, her skin grey and uncared for. She remembered the long blue hair she had once been so proud of, now lank and dirty, and her teeth, so white they had dazzled like a cluster of stars. Now they were stained yellow with cotein gum and her mouth tasted of dust.
She sagged with the memories. From always smiling and laughing, being hopeful and vibrant, she had fallen to an endless scowling, weeping with despair and hopelessness, thinking of death, release.
The door crashed open and the three Zouvits entered, jeering loudly at her, their jaundiced faces and faceted eyes pulsating with a cruel lust. She stared coldly at them. Her mistake heightened their desire and they set about exercising their rights, again and again.
"Ai! Ge ready! Vahga come soon. You look good for him. You hear?"
It was Quof, a Jikon warlord who had switched from war to crime. He looked fiercely at Blueflame sitting on her unmade bed, his face taut with a savage authority. She looked up, watched his big red eyes rolling, knew he was high on something.
"An clean room," he continued. "It look bad."
He scanned the room as if inspecting an enemy's dismembered army. Wrinkling his noses he coughed violently, green mucus slithering into a catch sac from a vent in his neck. He slumped into a chair and closed his eyes, breathing laboured, his bone and metal frame grinding quietly. Blueflame sat silently, unmoving, watching cautiously. Suddenly he jerked forward, eyes gazing wildly at one plastic arm of the chair. He started to pick at the design, destroying embossed patterns with a nail resembling a talon.
"What you look at?" he said menacingly, his eyes not moving from his act of destruction.
"Are you feeling better, Quof?" She knew something in the wretched Peptoxn air was troubling him. It troubled everyone eventually.
He looked across to her, his eyes flaring like a pair of volcanoes about to erupt. "You jus ge ready for Vahga. He here soon."
"I've only just finished with the Zouvits. They gave me a hard time. They always do."
"So what?" he snapped. "This why you here."
"Please, Quof. I know Vahga is important and I want to look my best, but it will take time to make myself-"
"You look good for him - you hear?" He lifted himself from the chair and stood over her. "Give him bes time ever - you hear? Bes time."
She nodded, nausea rising. Quof walked to the door and shouted up the stairway.
"Mar! Mar! Down here clean Blueflame room. Now!"
A woman's dead-pan voice responded. "I hear. I come."
Quof stood by the door studying Blueflame, his eyes brick-red, reflecting the notions filling his mind.
"You good Blueflame. Look Vahga well an I give nice thing after," and he clanked down the stairs to his usual position on the doorstep.
Blueflame continued sitting on the bed, listening to heavy steps descending the stairs from the floor above. A tall solid woman with coal sleek skin walked in and immediately protested.
"Zouvits! I smell them. Your trouble? You do too much make happy. You weak. Everyone want hurt last specimen with blue hair yellow eyes."
"I have a choice?"
Mar didn't reply.
Blueflame rose and walked into an adjoining bathroom to wash and prepare for Vahga. Mar started tidying up the room, talking to Blueflame as she worked.
"Flame. Why Quof no put you on junk like others?"
"I'm a Turquoin. We don't react to junk. It does nothing to us."
"We? Us? You only one left."
"Maybe there are others ... somewhere ... perhaps in the Outer Zone."
"Outer Zone? Nothing there. Maybe few your people escape war but no last long in Outer Zone. Nothing survive there. Besides, no one see Turquoin for long time. Since war. Turquoin extinct, except you."
Blueflame said nothing.
"He disgusting. Bad creature. No one like his breed. He only one of kind to come Peptox. Must be special. Do business with Quof. You careful Vahga. Watch him. He slime. Many time he come here? Five, six? Always you?"
"Yes. Always me."
"He touch me I scream. How you do it? He rotten. Who know what disease he have? Make me sick."
"It pleases Quof."
"Strange. Not like Quof let Vahga breed use his girl. Must be big business. I hear in club Vahga very dangerous. Wonder what Quof do or got make him meet Vahga?"
"Best not to ask," said Blueflame as she emerged from the bathroom to check Mar's progress.
Mar took a deep breath. "I finish now. Must go, otherwise..."
"Quof - I know. Listens everywhere. Thank you, Mar."
"Like you - no choice. Take care."
Blueflame returned to the bathroom, studied her face in a stained mirror and tried hard not to think of what was to come. She finished washing, the water yellow-grey, clean or dirty, never changing, bitter to taste. She scented her neck, a memory of fresh fruit, and dressed in a black and silver robe. Her hair shone with a little of its original gloss; she brushed it, applied a delicate shade of eyeshadow, lightly coloured her lips, slipped silver rings on her ankles and wrists, smaller ones on her fingers. Her nail polish was chipped but would suffice. She checked herself in a full-length mirror in the bedroom and found the result satisfactory. Pity, she thought, that by the end of the day she would look so ravaged.
For a moment she felt like a flower grown for no other reason than to have its beauty destroyed. She sighed with a sadness so profound that she caught herself thinking of suicide. Suppressing the notion she stood by the window and waited. She was as ready for Vahga as she could ever be.
He had never visited Peptox, only absorbed the data received from the grey spherical Intelligencer Probe. The data had ill-prepared him for the repulsion he felt as he stood on a broken walkway and let Peptox soak into his senses. The sky and ground were oppressive, claustrophobic, like two sides of a vice that threatened to come together and crush not only him, but the tatty constructions and shabby inhabitants. He wondered if Peptox had ever been any different, if it were possible for anything on that part of Sedia to look anything other than slovenly and criminal.
As he walked eyes followed him; the hungry eyes of dubious traders, miscreants, sallow-skinned addicts and vagrants. Their eyes glimmered not so much with curiosity as with astonishment, and he knew that later, when the surprise had worn off, their rheumy features would twitch with the ill-disguised menace of opportunity, and they would start to confer, question, plot his capture, perhaps even his death.
As he passed a rundown holovid and restaurant complex, now almost empty and well past its peak, two Sedian cops stepped out and halted in surprise as he came towards them. Both placed a hand on their side-arms and watched him approach. He ignored them and carried on walking without slowing his pace or looking back. He had no fear of being shot in the back; indeed, he had no reason to fear any act of violence.
He continued carefully along the walkers, fetid mud sucking beneath them, an eerie silence in his wake. He stopped at a junction and listened to a faint sound from a distant workshop, metal hammering on metal. It reminded him of the war that had almost destroyed his race. A hand brushed his shoulder and he turned, his yellow eyes staring into the corroded face of an old miner, bewhiskered and benevolent.
"You a Turquoin?"
"What do you think, old man?"
"I see but I don't believe. You lot is dead. Long time ago. Xal war. I remember, I was a kid then. You lot were slaughtered." He shook his head at the memory. "Shouldn't have happened. The Turquoins were peaceful, did no harm, didn't interfere. Typical. Ain't no room for nice folk these days. Gotta be a bastard or go down. Pity, those Turquoins like that. And ain't none been seen since - except Blueflame, the last of 'em, or so I thought."
"Blueflame." The word ebbed softly off the Turquoin's tongue and the old man thought he caught a spasm of pain in the yellow eyes.
"Blueflame a servicer. Was real nice once. Real beautiful, like you don't see nowadays. Now, she just worn out." He grunted and spat. "I remember when I was a kid; they used to say Turquoins never got old, just sorta died. She got old since she come here. Anyways, where d'you land? I didn't see no strange craft at the jetties."
"Beyond." He glanced up at the grey sphere.
The old man followed his line of sight and chuckled. "The flicker ball - you kidding me? I thought it a Sedian Spyball." His eyes narrowed within folds of crimson skin as they settled back on the Turquoin. "It looks far too small to contain you."
"What do you know of Turquoins, old man?"
The miner smiled roguishly. "With the exception of Blueflame, who's protected, I knows the bounty on Turquoins still stands. Never lifted after the war. Wait til people here see you and get to thinking. When they remember that, you gonna be in big trouble Turquoin. They'll hunt you like a dog. And Quof, he ain't gonna like it."
"Yeah. He looks after Blueflame, if you can call it that. I wouldn't mess with him. He's a Jikon. Runs all the rackets here."
"Yeah, Jikon. Half-metal, half-bone. Warrior breed. Old and ugly and just as nasty as he always was."
The Turquoin nodded. "I understand."
"Sure don't seem like it to me. Where you been all your time? The Outer Zone? You don't seem too wise on things."
"Yes, the Outer Zone."
"What! Ain't nothing alive out there. But then, what do I know? Many more of you?"
"Yes. And here? What is here?"
"Here? Well, if you wanna see what's in Peptox these days, you wanna check the club. Food, drink, servicers and music. Be a good place to die, Turquoin, especially with a price on your head. I don't go there myself. Being a noid I find all those fancy lifeforms make me wanna puke. Besides, I ain't good on the psychology and stuff and don't own a translator, and conversing with a mouth like a freshly slit belly would get me thinking I'm stuck in some everlasting junkmare. And anyway, the club stinks, even when the extractors are working. Like a well-stocked excrefarm."
"Where is it?"
"If you must know, it's down this walker. Second left, third right. Lit-up bright. Can't miss it. Don't take the third left though, that'll bring you into Quof's territory. Remember - third right. Okay?"
"Good luck Turquoin. You'll gonna need it," and he glanced at a few scumbags milling about, watching them with great interest. When he turned back the Turquoin had vanished.
Lined with buildings as low and bleak as the surrounding terrain, the main walker was a decaying strip of missing slats and oozing sewage. Moving past provisioners, document centres, customs and transport agents and the occasional bar, the Turquoin came to the second left turn. It led to more of the same before petering out to disused units and wasteland in an area grim with decay.
At the third crossway he looked to his right and saw a solitary building, a gaudy ulcer in an ailing trading post on the surface of a dying planet. Then he looked to his left and saw the territory of Quof. It was a crime slum. With a Turquoin woman. And the old man's information had come as nothing new.
He took the left turn, walked surefooted along the walkway until it collapsed into mud, a foul mixture of brown soil and leaking putrescence. Without hesitating he stepped into the thick morass, his movement unimpeded. Two and three storey units lined his route. At a distance four Kets sat under a dull light and eyed him with contempt, disbelief suddenly crossing their faces as he came closer, his long blue hair and pure white skin reflecting the light. Vicious but slow, with more brawn than brains, they nevertheless stood abruptly as he veered straight at them.
"What you want?" said one, rheumy green eyes recognizing something to which he couldn't put a name.
The Ket straightened up. No one had ever appeared in the area before and simply asked - demanded! - to see Quof. It just wasn't done.
"Quof no see strangers. He busy."
"He with Vahga," said one of the three behind him.
The leader turned and slapped his subordinate, knocking scabs off his face. "You got big mouth." He turned back to the Turquoin. "Quof busy. That all you need know."
"What is Vahga?"
The leader stepped closer. "You making me angry. More me ask. What is you?"
"He like Turquoin girl," said one of the others. "Vahga give her some inner rip with his roots," and he laughed like a regurgitation.
"Shut mouth!" yelled the leader, and then with a thoughtfulness not often associated with Kets: "Turquoin?"
No answer was forthcoming. Yellow eyes stared down at the leader without blinking. The Ket shifted uneasily.
"I no like you. You wait. I go see Quof." He began to move round the Turquoin, uncomfortably aware of the yellow eyes following him.
The leader took a step back and spat. "You say what?"
"Die?" The leader looked incredulous, his followers giggling like death rattles. "Die? I give you die!" and he tore protective padding from his sleeves and jerked his arms. Blades flicked out, razor sharp and highly polished, ten in all. "Die now, Turquoin."
"Yes. You die now. Goodbye."
The leader swung his arms back for a first assault, took a step forward and brought the blades flashing down and back in, stabbing and slicing, ripping through his own black leather tatters, tearing madly at his own pale orange flesh, spraying his own sickly blood into the dusty air, wailing and shrieking like an animal, unable to stop, the surprise too quick for comprehension. He fell to the ground, still thrashing, hacking, rolling about like a creature possessed. The other Kets looked on, stunned by their leader's violent madness. His arms slowed their movements, the blades sticky with morsels of tissue. Then he twitched, one arm rising as if in a final salute before dropping to the ground.
For a moment no one moved, then a second Ket pointed a discharger at the Turquoin. As his finger touched the fire button his wrist flicked back and he shot himself, his flesh smoking beneath his ragged clothing. The remaining Kets jumped back and looked at the smouldering body, unsure what to do or think.
The Turquoin observed them. "Kill me? Or kill yourselves?"
One of them grunted, picked up a large rock, swung it back to launch at the Turquoin and promptly smashed it down on his own head. He fell on the fourth blow, his hand tight on the rock, the rock tight in his crumpled skull.
The remaining Ket gazed about in shock.
"In what unit is Quof?"
The Ket looked up at the yellow eyes and began to tremble. "I no tell." His voice was close to a timid whisper, laced with profound fear. He backed away. "I no tell," he repeated, then turned and ran away.
The Turquoin remained motionless, watched the Ket's diminishing form, and noted his path of retreat.
In his private room at the front of the ground floor, Quof sat tapping his nails impatiently as Vahga sat opposite him and took an age to consume a beaker of nectoren, a synthetic non-alcoholic cordial.
"Quof," he said suddenly. "My plan." The Jikon looked up. Vahga was either infuriatingly slow or remarkably abrupt. "I want the Turquoin girl." The words hung in the dusty air like a poisonous cloud. "Let me explain."
"Perhaps you should."
Vahga settled further back in his chair, his twisted limbs on the armrests, thin strands as tough as wire hanging over the sides. He looked more at home than Quof.
"It is generally understood that you have the only surviving Turquoin, and she is barren at that."
"Barren to all cept her own," Quof corrected.
"Yes." Vahga's gaze fixed more tightly on Quof. "Her own."
The Jikon's response was slow. "There are others?"
"Yes. Many. Since the Xal war the few survivors have sought refuge in the Outer Zone."
Quof jerked upright. "Outer Zone? Nothin survive there. Nothin."
"Until now." Vahga watched Quof's eyes glimmer like hot lava. "The Turquoin survivors have discovered something in the Outer Zone that has eluded all others. They have discovered how to survive. And multiply. You know what that means?"
"It mean what you want to mean. War, bounties, mining..."
"The latter. They are as peaceful now as before and seem content to stay in the Outer Zone. However, in order to stabilize and expand, they must have a commodity or more to trade. And they have ore! Ruthenium. Platinum. Zenithium. Titanium. Gold. They are the only things out there."
"And you want?"
"And the girl?"
"Bait. To lure the Turquoins from their hiding places."
"To capture them. Interrogate them. Learn how they survived in such a hostile environment, then kill them and take over their mining operations. In return for your assistance you will be given all the Turquoin females. These we won't kill. You will be able to expand your market in flesh quite considerably."
"How very beautiful, Vahga," responded Quof coldly. "No doubt they will be soiled by your army."
Vahga's mass heaved as if it might explode. "The spoils of war," he offered. "Their beauty will prove irresistible to my troopers. How can I deny them?"
"How indeed. And if the plan fail, the girl lost?"
"I am willing to pay a considerable deposit. Five kaes of gold. Another five if the girl is lost."
"Gold easy to come by; Turquoins I'm not so sure. Who your sources?"
"Those that live on the edge of the Outer Zone. The Brown Gypsies. They have seen the Turquoins many times. They appear sporadically to barter. They barter with ore."
"The gypsies know Turquoins exact location an numbers?"
"The Turquoins say little. They exist beyond the rock belts. Some fringers have followed them and duly perished in that barrier."
"A formidable barrier."
"I have a powerful fleet. I can blast through."
Quof grunted. "I wish I share your confidence."
Vahga stiffened. "I have over a hundred ships. I see no problem - do you?"
Quof rasped indecisively. "It sound ... unusual."
Vahga rose, his tendrils quivering, brushing the floor. "You don't trust me? After all the junk and blackmark business we have done?"
"Trust not my worry. The vagueness worry. You go blind. The Turquoins might ambush with new skills."
"Not with Blueflame. They would never kill one of their own, or any other breed come to that. You know what they are like. They take no life. We will be able to slaughter and capture with ease."
The door crashed open startling them. The Ket stood trembling in the doorway, head bobbing, eyes oozing a thick green discharge. "Sorry sorry come in bang. Urgent."
"What is?" snapped Quof.
"A Blueflame man. Outside. Blueflame."
"What? You make no sense."
The Ket gulped nervously. "Outside. Man. A Noid. Like Blueflame."
Quof and Vahga exchanged puzzled glances and moved to the window. The Turquoin stood in front of the unit looking up at the floor above them. Behind him stood several Kets that had emerged with malicious intent from nearby rubble.
Quof turned to Vahga. "Blueflame. She must be at window."
"If he sees her he will know what she has been through. My plan will fail if he gets away. We must kill him or catch him for interrogation."
Quof decided to take no chances and ripped through the window sheeting, pulling it apart. "Kill him! Kill him!" he shouted at the Kets.
The order sent them into a frenzy of activity. They pulled out a variety of weapons and before Quof and Vahga's disbelieving eyes, proceeded to kill themselves in a savagely demented cacophony of death more shocking in its occurrence than the sight itself.
The Turquoin ignored them, moved slowly to the steps and glanced across to Quof and Vahga with an unsettling expression.
Footsteps on the stairs alerted the Ket messenger. "Blueflame. She come down," he shouted.
"Stop her," shouted Vahga.
The Ket withdrew a metal bar and looked at Quof for confirmation. The Jikon's red eyes blazed with a mad anger. "Stop her not kill her, you stupid beast."
The Ket nodded and moved out to the bottom of the stairs.
"The fools," bellowed Vahga. "Why are they killing themselves? The Turquoin must be stopped." He pulled out a dozen slimliners from somewhere within his squirming feelers and leaned through the ripped window. "The Turquoin has gone. He must be by the door or already inside," he shouted at Quof.
The Ket staggered back into the room, smashing his own skull with the metal bar. Quof moved to finish him off and get him out of the way. Within the growing panic Vahga saw and seized a rare opportunity and blasted them both with the slimliners, countless tiny flechettes lacerating the Ket but unable to penetrate Quof's body armour.
Quof turned, his eyes burning with the bloody red rage of betrayal before a second volley of flechettes tore bone from his skull and sparked white against inlaid metal. The remains of his head hung in different directions, a serpent's nest of smoking flesh and brain, twisted metal strips and plates, their interface points burnt out and dead. He fell like a sack of scrap.
Vahga moved to the door as the Turquoin and Blueflame walked in, catching him by surprise and causing his tendrilled mass to undulate back towards the window.
"I have what I came for," said the Turquoin, indicating Blueflame. "If you try and stop me you will fail as surely as you will die."
Blueflame gave him a puzzled look.
"So the Turquoins have at last learnt to kill," hissed Vahga.
"No. We have learnt to survive."
Vahga sneered. "I don't think so, Turquoin," and he levelled the slimliners at them, felt his control slip and looked in dismay as the slimliners pointed back at him. Instantly a white intensity tore through him, driving him back through the window with a high-pitched screech and scattering him over the remains of the broken walkway and stinking mud.
The Turquoin moved to the window and watched Vahga's remains sink beneath the mud, tainting it with a viscous white that turned grey then black as raw sewage bubbled over it.
Blueflame moved to his side. "How did you know he would die?"
"The same way that I knew the Kets would die. Their aggression is, in a way, the essence of our survival."
"I don't understand."
"Those that attempt to kill a Turquoin will always fail and instead kill themselves. The assassin becomes his own target through illusion, and turns his murderous aggression on to himself. It is something we have learned in the Outer Zone. It enables us to survive without having to take life. A form of defence without any aggression on our part."
"Or a form of offence?"
He turned and smiled at her. "Perhaps one day when there are more of us. Come, it's time to take you home."
© Paul Pinn 1993, 2001.
This story first appeared in Alternaties.
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