It was early fall in the misty hills. The morning air was crisp. The little girl ran for the joy of running, up from her father’s house to the temple at the mountain peak. She leapt from small rock to small rock, occasionally stopping to preen; her pinfeathers were coming in, and she was duly proud. She scrambled up onto a boulder and perched on it, surveying her domain. She was about to climb down and run home for breakfast when she saw the man.
He was only a little over average height, but he stood tall, and the little girl’s father, who was short, had told her that standing tall was the important thing. He wore loose, comfortable clothing and carried only a small duffel bag slung over his shoulder; he looked like the sort of person who only brought with him the bare minimum of luggage. He had a little dog with him, a compact, stocky animal whose fierce mustache, the girl thought, looked like her father’s. It ambled unhurriedly along beside him, its mouth half-open, as if it was smiling.
The girl climbed down from the rock and ran down to the road. No one had ever taught her to be afraid of strangers, and why would they? She was of the wing and talon, and to injure such a creature was death.
The man didn’t seem surprised to see her. He squatted down so that their faces were level.
“Hello, little bird,” he said.
“Hello,” she said. “Can I pet your dog?”
The man smiled. “You’d better ask her first.”
“What’s her name?”
The girl took this in stride. “Can I pet you, Fairfax?” she said to the dog. It licked her talon and rolled onto its back. The girl drew gentle circles on the dog’s belly for a minute with her claws, and then tried to pick it up. She gave up after a moment. “She’s so heavy!”
“She is. Is your father nearby?”
“He’s up at the village.”
“Will you show me where it is?”
The village was nothing more than a small circle of stone huts with a well in the middle. It was quiet, but it was early in the day, and the mothers were most active at dusk. The girl’s father was in the little kitchen, cutting up rabbit for her breakfast. When he saw the man, he put down his knife and wiped his tattooed hands on his apron before coming over to embrace him.
“We all thought you were dead.”
“No. I’m really hungry, Ulysses. Do you have anything I can eat?”
“Of course. Can I get Fairfax anything?”
“She’d probably appreciate whatever’s left of that rabbit after you feed your daughter.”
“Yes. Let me take care of Podarge, then I’ll make coffee and snake’s eggs for the two of us.”
The girl gobbled down her bowl of raw rabbit while the man and her father drank their coffee. The man watched her with interest. “She’s your biological daughter?”
“Yes. They breed true.”
“Thank you. What happened, Milo?”
A cloud passed over Milo’s features. He salted his snake’s egg and took a bite. “It was Lucien Murdock,” he said tiredly.
Ulysses gave a low whistle. “Is it true about Central Terminal?”
“It’s true that the serpents destroyed it when they razed Mars Prime, if that’s what you mean.”
“And the trains?”
“The interplanar branch lines still operate, because their trains run on individual jump boosters, but the interplanetary Amtrak lines were centrally powered. They stopped working when Central Terminal went down.”
Neither man spoke for a while. Finally, Ulysses stood up and took their plates to the stone sink. “What have you been doing for the last two years?”
“The job. What about you?”
“Raising my kid.” He leaned against the counter and filled a long ebony pipe with tobacco and added a pinch of orange powder. “Furnace nettle. Can’t keep up with her without it. Would you like some?”
“No, thank you.”
“You’re going to have to go before the women come back. They’ll tear you to pieces if they find you here. You can stay for dinner, but that’s it.”
“I’m leaving now. I only came to warn you. Troubleshooters are being killed, Ulysses. Someone’s hunting us.”
“I’m not a troubleshooter anymore, Milo. I married a monster.”
“Whoever’s doing this doesn’t make fine distinctions about whether you’re still taking contracts. I just came from Max Malloy’s place.”
“Jesus. Max? Master Trainer Max? Is he okay?”
“Oh, Christ. What happened?”
“Someone beat him to death.”
“No. He was in Baltimore Theta. Ecthroi can’t blend in in a city.”
“Then what was it?”
“Who. He or she was baseline human. Max tagged him—or her—a few times; there was human blood spatter that the police couldn’t match to his DNA. Beyond that, I don’t know. He put up a fight—went to work on whoever it was with his tattoos. There were plasma cuts through the walls and the kind of supercooled structural damage you get from a frost elemental.”
Ulysses looked at his forearms. There was a jagged-toothed ice monster tattooed onto his left and a dragon on his right that matched the one inked on Milo’s neck. “Do you think it was Lucien?”
“No. Lucien is one of the best, but even at age sixty, Max would have eaten him for lunch. Teaching us to fight was his job.”
“I’m sorry, Milo. I know how much he meant to you.”
“It’s the job.” He picked up his duffel bag. “Like I said, a lot of the Amtrak branch lines still run. If I were you, I’d get on one and get to a port town. Get on a ship and get off-world as soon as you can.”
“Are you leaving?”
Milo finished his coffee. “The dog and I are headed for New Amsterdam to talk to the Spider, and then we’re going after whoever did this. We could certainly use the help if you want to come with.”
“They’ll kill me if I leave the village. I agreed to that when I married her mother.”
Milo nodded. He waved at the girl. “Goodbye, Podarge. Grow up strong.”
The girl looked up from her rabbit, blood dripping from her mouth, and waved back.
Ulysses watched man and dog until they were out of sight. He lit his pipe and sat by the fire while the girl hunted mice. Eventually, the sky filled with clouds and the storm winds began to howl over the peak. He waited until he heard something screaming piteously as it struggled to escape cruel talons, and then he took Podarge out to greet her mother.
Alexander Karelis is co-founder of Writers Room DC, a boutique co-working space for professional writers of fiction and creative non-fiction and the unofficial literary nexus of Washington D.C.