Transport delivered his murderer at sundown.
Runt had been semi-starving for three weeks when he returned to his habitat and found the huge cargo container in a shallow crater in the sand.
He might have missed it ’til morning, but coming back from the eelbeds, he almost stepped on a bold crab scuttling toward the turquoise water and dragging a shiny mealpak in its claw. Runt gave a whoop of relief and rescued the food from the startled, spiny thief.
Without even rinsing off the day’s grit, Runt popped the recovered mealpak and sucked the nutrient paste. Wasn’t like anyone could see him out here except the eels offshore and the insects yattering in the palm trees. Facing the broiling suns on the horizon, he turned to jog up the beach in search of the fresh provisions.
Runt’s prefab habitat sat tucked under a steep rock wall in view of the cove that provided some windbreak; the cargo had been dumped about twelve meters away on the slope down to the cove. The long crater around the container indicated the drop-ship hadn’t even slowed as it passed.
“Thank you!” His shout echoed off the pumice cliff. Knobjobs.
The container itself had split at one corner, but the contents remained intact thanks to the impact-foam. Runt had gone hungry too many weeks to complain. If he couldn’t get this bitch open any other way, he’d hack in with the submachete.
Food. Real food and gear. Runt almost passed out in relief.
At least he’d brought an industrial weapon with him. He stabbed the sand with the submachete and left the blade there, freeing his hands to dig out the treasure buried inside this overdue shipment. And her?
Runt bent over the keypad on the undamaged end of the cargo, and with a calloused finger, he tapped in his farm code. Hisssss—a meter-long panel sighed open on the container’s side and fell into the hot sand.
Please let her be pleasant to look at.
Dispatch had wedged mealpaks and canisters and paraphernalia into every centimeter of the container and braced them in impact-foam for interstellar transport.
Hands shaking, Runt dug his calloused fingers into the dense padding and peeled off a thick strip. Reaching inside, he grabbed a handle and hefted out a tank of phytoplankton.
I’m saved. She saved me.
At a meter and a half high, the container stood almost as tall as he did and so jam-packed Runt had to haul out a few crates to gauge the contents. Atop a barrel of acid, a folded smart-net sat ready for action. Throw that in the ocean and it would go find dinner for him! So much cargo . . . Since when did the HardCell suits take pity on anyone?
He tunneled back through padding and packages with hope in his heart. His stomach hummed pleasantly around the rich meal after being empty so long, but food wasn’t what he was looking for.
C’mon, c’mon! Where is she?
Dispatch always tossed in a few pretend-we-give-a-shit extras: candy and dice and lubricant, shiny gewgaws to keep the terraformers from getting shackwacky.
Something glowed faintly and he barked in relief, wrenching fistfuls of transport foam free to expose a tray of specimen tubes that just might save his ass.
Bee-moths! The new design!
His heart hammered. These little beauties had made it all the way to this crappy system in Andromeda from HardCell’s labs. The biodesigners spliced moths with bumblebee DNA to groom and pollinate vegetation, but rarely replaced them. Freed of the packing and woken by the tropical warmth, striped caterpillars glowed pale lavender in the shadows of the container. His crops would be saved in time!
As if handling lace coral, Runt extracted the tube trays in slow motion and set them in the shade until he could take them to the hive for hatching by the digital queen.
He knew it was foolish, but the fresh moths planted hope in him. Again he tunneled into the provisions looking for the woman and found more mealpaks, food tanks.
He shook his head in wonder. All this had to be a mistake at the depot. Schmuck’s luck. At least he wouldn’t starve this season.
Runt peeled away the cushion of impact-foam that had cradled the phosphorescent grubs and a tub of biotic lotion. Beneath, he found a bigger surprise from Dispatch: an old oversized life-support duffel big enough to hold a cow. For one moment he expected to discover his new mate, but when he unzipped the case a few centimeters, he found a lumpy four-meter roll of mirror-bright flex-canvas to wrap his habitat against tsunami and scavengers. Help had finally arrived.
Hope made him stupid. He should have unpacked and unrolled it first thing, but in his eagerness he skipped it. HardCell must’ve sent the tarp as a wedding present.
Maybe someone loves me. Maybe this is a dowry.
HardCell, the conglomerate that owned Runt’s contract, had marooned him here in the middle of an alien ocean a year and a bit ago, long enough that his bare feet had leather soles, and his skin didn’t burn anymore. His bosses had shipped him to terraform remote planetoid HD10307-E in Andromeda almost as soon as they’d extracted their seismologists and genetic engineers. They’d altered its orbit to increase daylight, melted its ice into freshwater oceans, and dumped a few patented life forms into them to fight and fuck.
Like the ads blared: HardCell means business!
Runt’s farmstead covered a small patch of a hundred-acre volcanic landmass that looked like a disk with a wide bite taken out of it. Almost a month ago, a storm had ravaged the island’s little cove, and he still hadn’t finished repairing the devastation. A fuck-awful night, that: ground lightning striking the curdled sky and his walls split in two places.
Worse, the sky had thrown back a bolt of charged ions and obliterated Runt’s hive-shed; for two nights after the tempest, thousands of bright bee-moths drifted on the tides as they tried and failed to fight their way back to the farmstead. The air had smelled like burnt ozone for a week.
Some genius goofs, grunts pay the price. Business as usual.
Once HardCell finished fine-tuning the climate, the storms would cease and the planetoid would stabilize like every other corporate combine: islands of fertile dirt and brackish oceans, perfect for eel-ranching and irrigation. In the meantime, Runt had patched his habitat as best he could and hunkered down. Losing the moths had ruined his meager harvest and he’d started rationing to be safe.
Then—blam—this loaded container: twelve cubic meters of salvation. With his shitty harvest stats, Runt knew he should feel grateful, and yet . . . Stepping over that big rolled tarp, he cleared a path through the supplies to the back of the container.
A few of his requests were missing like always, but he’d gotten his essentials and more: eight crates of spirulina pellets, six barrels of desiccated vegetable cubes, clean worksuits, a case of bright pink Soyshimi, fresh medkits, new tools, two pairs of sea boots twice his size, even some fresh holo-porn from the company’s sex resorts.
HardCell hadn’t supplied this much when they’d hired him. In his head, he logged the contents quickly as he shuttled packages onto the warm beach.
That silvery weatherproofing for his habitat would change his life. With luck, this one would be reflective enough to cover the entire habitat against the blinding double daylight and drop the temperature inside by at least thirty degrees.
Still no wife. Yet.
His stomach growled at the nearness of all those nutrients. For the first time in his life, saliva pooled in his mouth at the thought of the “tasty” mealpak paste. Hunched inside the cool darkness of the transport container, he devoured another two mealpaks, forcing himself to go slowly and licking even the odor off his stiff mustache.
With a beggar’s wisdom, he chose textures and entrees he loathed (curry and pickled tongue) to save the good stuff. His taste buds exploded. In seconds, he had new favorite cuisines and let himself lick the wrapper to get at every speck.
Now sated, Runt climbed out, blinking at the sudden brightness, and shuffled the supplies into piles: edibles for his habitat cook-space and the meds, new blades, and lotion for the wash-space and auto-privy. Hammergun and seed to the greenhouse, pipe and plasticrete and cubes of krill to the shed, the stasis canisters of eel pups to the brood tanks. He continued to pluck the massive supply container clean, not wanting to waste anything Dispatch might have sent to help him not die out here. Even the packing would prove useful.
Terraforming was lonely work, but at the end of a seven-year tour, Runt’d own a stake in the farm he’d build here on the edge of nowhere and become a voting HardCell shareholder. Building a planet gave you a head start on the other knobjobs.
They were building paradise. Or he was.
What Runt really needed was his new clone bride. Odd’s Gods! Eighteen months of masturbation didn’t breed too many brats to help at harvest. Even if it primed the pump.
Far as Runt knew, assigned mates were one of the only perks of terraforming. Runt knew he was too small and too rough to court a real civilized bride, but he’d be able to charm whatever fertile female they cooked up for him, no matter how ugly or ill-tempered. Clone spouses were engineered for compatibility.
No wife yet. Still, the lavish provisions eased his let-down.
Runt cracked his neck and decided to store the crates of food first. Thankfully, the past year had packed so much sinew onto his compact frame that he could manage alone. It was grunting, sweaty work, even with the suns throwing long, low shadows.
This was three times the produce the transport pricks had dropped last time. Odd. He’d almost starved last season. As he hauled a hundred kilos of mealpaks and food tanks from the shore and into the habitat cook-space, he moved at the rhythm set by his heart thumping in his ears. Silent work came easily now. He had stopped talking to himself after about six months because it made him feel even crazier.
HardCell always placed cofarmers in mated pairs for safety and entertainment, but Runt’s original partner had died on entry. She had vaporized inside the cheap delivery pods used by space freighters for dropping non-sentient cargo. Some blind date, huh? From lifemate to hot dust before he’d even laid eyes on her. Just his fucking luck. And just hers, apparently.
Trouble was, no replacement wife (or explanation) had arrived. Runt hadn’t seen another sentient being in months. There were terraformers posted on other islands, of course, but in a year and a half he’d not met one.
The geologists had scattered landmasses carefully across these roiling seas; HardCell Corporation discouraged any kind of contact or conversation that might lead to discontent or unionization. Planetoid HD10307-E was to be an agricultural combine harvesting high-yield produce and protein that would feed HardCell employees as far away as Algol.
The cooler air inside his Spartan habitat made sorting easier. With work-numb arms, Runt hummed tunelessly to himself as he slid canisters and paks into the bare cook-space shelves. The pearly overhead lights made the candy-bright packaging shimmer in his dirty hands.
Little by little, the heap of provisions on the habitat floor vanished into orderly rows in the cook-space. Runt vibrated with bone-deep relief at seeing his molded shelves full of nutrients again.
The bee-moths! Shit.
Twilight had become a double sunset while he was indoors. Bathed in the salmon glow, he jogged to the cracked container and rescued the shimmering caterpillars for safekeeping indoors.
Until he rebuilt the hive, their tubes went in his sleep-space, the only one that hadn’t sustained storm damage. He’d have to rig a new hatchery first. Until then, best to be cautious. Feeling wise, he rewarded himself with a quick mouthful of dry tofu-bacon, chewing as he stepped back under the smoldering suns to tackle the gear. His sweat rinsed the dust off him. It took him an hour to sort and snack until his belly was full, the beach clear, and the transport container nearly scooped clean.
A meter from the crate, the creamy heap of foam shreds shrank as wildlife swiped it to line nests. By morning it would be gone. Frankly, Runt appreciated the cleanup, and the biodegradable padding would only help the island’s ecosystem.
Finally, only the architectural tarp remained inside the container, probably three meters long across its floor. Runt grabbed the handle at one end of the sack with a rough hand and dragged the dense silvery roll onto the sand.
Chance’s pants, it was heavy! Starvation had withered some of his muscle.
The smaller sun was coming down and night bugs were chittering in the brush. He decided to leave the fabric for daylight so he could check it for parasites. If rats or millipedes had hidden in its folds, he didn’t want them catching him barehanded.
Runt had almost turned toward the habitat when the huge bundle jerked and curled like a monstrous metallic worm.
Runt’s shout sent a few surviving moths fluttering from the bluish palm trees. He fell to the ground and scrabbled back on his ass toward the heavy-duty submachete still planted nearby. Noisy, but the only accessible weapon.
The resurfacing tarp moved again, a wriggle all along its length, something packed alongside the fabric.
Something alive stuffed inside the sack.
What the hell could be that big?
Hogs, dogs, humans . . .
His recruiter had warned him that, if he didn’t meet their terraform schedule, forcible termination was likely. Fuck. His numbers were shit and he was behind schedule.
I’m a dead man.
After a scant eighteen months, they’d finally sent his retirement plan in a corporate Trojan Horse, the cracked container packed with nibbles, and he’d fallen for it like a hungry idiot.
HardCell means business.
Runt realized HardCell had sent a new pair of terraformers stashed in foam to retire and replace him. Duh. Runt was undersized and had been trapped working solo.
All that’s their food.
Legs braced to pounce, Runt gripped the whirring submachete and circled the enormous squirming life-support duffel. He could see big angled bumps like limbs inside straining hard at the closure.
The reflective packaging moved again and one of its occupants gave a bass groan. Transport anesthesia wearing off. With a tearing sound, the flex-wrap split, and one gigantic hairy arm clawed at the sand a moment as Runt’s assassin struggled free from the life-support sack and the silvered fabric.
A man, large enough to be two people, but no mate.
Because he’s too oversized to share a stasis sleeve.
Huge. Naked. Drugged. Alone.
Runt goggled in confusion as the superhuman body squirmed out of the shiny canvas like a colossal larva to flop on the sand and gulp the briny air.
I sat on him. I ate a mealpak sitting on my executioner.
Runt circled nearer, submachete by his side with the safety off. He took a step. He took another one.
Still shivering from the drugs and the bruising impact, the strapping stranger didn’t react. He twitched and curled on the hot ground, heaving.
Fuck, he’s huge. Runt took another wary step. He’s a fucking mutant.
The stranger unfolded his limbs and rolled onto his side. His bulging arms were longer than Runt’s legs. His broad back was a shifting wall of muscle over a high, square ass. His flaccid penis hung like some kind of blunt trunk.
Runt knew he had about a thirty-second window as the transport tranquilizers wore off. If he was going to kill his replacement, this was the only moment. The submachete whirred softly in Runt’s calloused hand a few centimeters above the ground as he crept.
Closer . . . closer.
Runt’s mouth hardened into a scowl under his salt-stiff mustache. If he slaughtered this circus clone now, he could claim the goon had died on entry like his long-lost wife.
The groggy giant gasped and spat, then rolled onto all fours, his head hanging. He shuddered, and drool ran from his mouth. He had close-cropped tawny hair, bronzed skin, and a stubbled face that looked like it had seen plenty of fights.
He’s a killer.
Brawny slabs of military-grade synthetic muscle covered his frame. Maybe not a full clone, but growth hormones out the wazoo, obviously. The broad paw spread on the ground had a palm bigger than Runt’s entire face.
Don’t look at him.
Runt’s eyes scanned for the sweet spots: throat, kidney, groin. He raised the humming submachete, his hand sweaty on the gel grip. He glanced up at the habitat, his crop terraces, the little kingdom he’d built by himself for eighteen months a millimeter at a time.
Retire him now.
Suddenly, the troll turned his head and looked right into Runt’s eyes and simply smiled in relief . . . as if greeting an old friend. A small smile . . . no triumph, no cruelty, a faint hopeful curve of childlike pleasure which dampened Runt’s murderous thoughts. As if the big dumb freak was happy to be naked and puking on the sand at the ass-end of the universe.
A human smile after so long.
Runt couldn’t stop himself: his face smiled back reflexively. He killed the blade and lowered it, stepping near enough to look the burly bastard in the eye.
Kneeling, the ogre was easily as tall as Runt was standing. The window of opportunity was gone, but this idiot didn’t seem to want to slaughter anybody. For now.
The ocean rolled gently, mango syrup simmering under the mismatched suns. Over the bay, long scarves of humidity hung in the air behind the giant.
The big stranger tried to use the cracked transport container to pull himself to his feet, but his thick legs were too wobbly. As he leaned against the shell, a form transmission crackled into life, the holographic words hovering in the air between them as a feminine synth voice read aloud, putting odd stress on the few customized phrases HardCell’s recruitment division had inserted by way of explanation:
“Well met, terraformer! Our sensors indicate that you currently occupy only . . . thirty-seven percent . . . of the living quarters of your habitat. In the interest of efficiency, we have identified and negotiated with a cohabitant facing similar . . . physio-spatial challenges . . . to fill the remaining . . . sixty-three percent . . . as the optimal solution for all employees concerned. HardCell means business!”
Those corporate pinheads had given him a new partner who wasn’t female? Odd’s Gods! Someone had fucked him big time.