Cinderella Suicide had the Whoremaster backed against the greasy-smooth wall of the Tarot, blade beneath his chins. She had that grinning-skull look that meant she didn't give a damn anymore.
We'd gone Tarot-side celebrating the fair end of a dinkum job: supplies run through the Eureka Stockade. Diggers dug in for years, and likely wouldn't move, not since they'd found a nice vein of gold ore and settled like ticks. This time we'd been running meds to the troopers. Last time it was swizzlesticks to the diggers.
I scoped 360. Tintype leaned on the wall behind, apart from everyone else like always. He was hefting his swizzlestick, so I edged out of jabbing range. He was a better judge of her moods, anyway.
Swiveling back, I noticed blur at 170 left. Better take it to the tech gnomes stat; outfitting me wasn't cheap, even with a triune money-pool.
Suicide let the Whoremaster and all his bulk slide down the wall, alive for now, so I quit reckoning the odds on who would succeed him and watched her back. Here a slithy one could punch out a lung, and the state she was in she'd never notice 'til later. Behind me Tintype sheathed the swizzlestick and unleaned. Sometimes Suicide killed, sometimes she didn't. I never asked why.
A little space between push and pull you could drop coin into. In the wide gap between moment and moment the Whoremaster was spared, but anyone unfocused could lose his life 'twixt breath in and breath out.
So I jangled my purse and smiled big. "A round on me, and one on the Whoremaster after!" I said. I nodded at the fat, sweating man and narrowed one eye. He frowned but nodded back, for no fool he after twenty years at the Tarot, and Suicide let him go and slapped him on the beefy shoulder. He didn't protest—and wisely, for she hadn't lost her death's-head rictus, though the blade sheathed back into her hand and she stepped away.
So I smiled more and tossed the purse on the bar and the whores and troopers cheered and drank and toasted me, six feet of blue-eyed blond, and "Superstar!" they cried with hoarse voices.
That's us. Cinderella Superstar, Cinderella Suicide, Cinderella Tintype. Fourth-stage triune shipped together, forged together through circumstance. Our real names don't matter because that's part of the deal. They link you duet and triune because the survival rate's higher that way. After manumission, the bonds tend to stick. With duets there's more to share, but with three, two can sleep at a time.
Superstar, Suicide, Tintype: pensioners with tickets-of-leave, four years past the end of our term. Free to earn our keep and free to starve, long as we never tried to leave New Holland's shores.
It was my shout for wide-eyes that night, but when dawn cracked gray, Tintype strolled out of the burrow, trim as you please, a pulp under his arm. He nodded to me, squatted down, and unrolled it.
"All the Year Round?" I asked. He shook his head.
"Traded it. Master Humphrey's Clock." I nodded.
I never saw Tintype topsy; not in the freight womb of the Greatship; not on the wharves of Botany. Dressed in black, close-buttoned always. When the Bulls herded us down the planks off the 'ship to the Dockmaster, we two jostled shoulder to shoulder.
Dockmaster looked up, hot day, rainy days, every day in Botany in his eyes, every day a world unto itself, and smiled a little.
"Pretty boy," he said to me. "We'll see you in the Tarot by and by, see if we don't."
I didn't know what he meant, so shut up tight. And he was wrong; I never made a living whoring, not after I came to Botany. Before, I will not say.
He glanced at the gray, trim toff beside me, who'd be tallish were I not taller. "Duet, then," he said, and scratched at his ledger. The Bull to my left hefted his chip-gun, and duet we would have been forever and a day if not for the shrill ricochet of a girl screaming.
She'd broken from the herd and now she dangled over the edge of the plank at the end of a Bull's arm, kicking like live bait. I knew what was in the dirty water. She wouldn't last a handcount.
The Bull looked at the Dockmaster with that girl-scrap clawing at his arm, and I knew he'd drop her if the Dockmaster gave the nod. Instead he beckoned sharp and the Bull twisted her back to earth, shoved her between us with a cruel grip. She bared her teeth at the Dockmaster and he smiled.
"Triune, then," said he. "Superstar and the Clerk here will keep you in line." He glanced at the ledger.
"Brand them Cinderella," he said, and hop skip jump, the three of us were chipped and pointed most politely, sir, to the pens. They chipped us alphabet-wise, by themes. Next was Triune Dulcinea and Duet Evelina. I kept Superstar, the toff shook off Clerk and became Tintype, and from that moment the girl was Suicide. We survived, side by side in the Jelly Orchards, back to back in the mines. Until boom, manumission, forty pounds allowance apiece, and license to upgrade. But never a ticket Home.
Tintype and I watched the dawn spread.
"Did she dream?" I asked, being that I was on wide-eyes since we made burrow-side from the Tarot, and that Suicide had never stopped grinning all the way home.
Tintype nodded, still scoping his pulp. It was never good when Suicide dreamed. "He grabbed at her hair," he said, suddenly. I looked at him and then let my sights swivel back to the horizon. It wasn't like Tintype to offer information unsought.
"Why?" Not like she was one of the Whoremaster's herd.
"He was slapping a whore around. New meat: bought her off the Docks last week. Suicide . . . objected."
She couldn't stand being touched anywhere on the head. Dockside on her entryday a Bull tried to restrain her by holding the back of her neck. I saw the bite marks she gave him, deep.
Not even headmods: cochlear, scoping, reinforcing—none of that. Just blades, nervewired underskin. Thin, so the variable-magnetization wouldn't rip them out. Blades all over her body.
Once when she was coming off of shut-eye and it was my turn to sleep I watched her. She was stark and face down because she'd just got her last mods and was healing: thin red welts across her shoulder blades, protruding like wingstubs. Her body was white and bony-thin, with knots of muscle, and I could see the blade-implants moving beneath the surface as she breathed.
I couldn't sleep that night.
Tintype got a cochlear and both of us have anteflap ear-buttons so we can talk short-distance, but Suicide wouldn't even get that. None of us elect mod layering; it's expensive, and a bad idea to have excess metal with the vee-em. Not that some don't try, and very gala they look, all loops and sparkles and pretty blinkies. Not that some don't try to fly, either, and some go far before the vee-em surges through and crashes them all atwitter.
Tintype looked up and shifted as Suicide emerged. I blinked. Last night her hair was shaggy-down, but now naught but a fine fuzz. You could see the shape of her skull beneath, no bumps from headmods. Unusual in a pensioner.
She didn't say anything about it, just scratched her velvet nap and yawned. "Time for your nap, 'Star," she said. "I'll wide-eyes a while."
"It's my turn," said Tintype. She shrugged.
"I kept you up."
"No," said Tintype. "I'll reckon while you watch, and when Superstar's up we'll go to Botany for a scope adjust."
Tintype kept all our accounts. I don't think we even debated that; it was just done-as-done when we got ticketed. He made sure we got every pound of our due, doled us out our fun money and made sure the rest worked for us. I've seen teams, duets and triunes both, go from ruination to ruination because they didn't have a dinkum reckoning-man. He wouldn't let the tech gnomes in Botany slide with dingbats in my scope.
I napped unsteady, for Tintype was humming whilst he reckoned, and it sometimes hit the button at my ear just so.
List, then. 1788, New Holland becomes New South Wales, and dear England starts to send her slithies there, her dribs and drabs and pick-pocks and whores and cutthroats, to drain the cesspool Britannia's become. And then we pin the gravitational constant, and solve Pringle's Mysterious Logarithm, and then just when we're ready for it there's an explosion of a different sort (I'm a proud product of my state school, whoreboy though I became). From the skies over Van Diemen's Land streaks a merry flaming angel arcing down to earth and boom! Kills most of the slithies, and their Bulls, and the Murri and the Nunga in their Dreamtime too, far as any know. Sky goes red from Yangtze to Orkney. A few Nunga are left, fishing the Outer Isles. And more slithies come soon, for England's still all-of-cess, and we'd just as soon have them die.
But! Scattered all about, like Father Christmas tossing pennies, rare earth, yttrium and scandium in luscious ashy chunks. And soon there are Magnetic Clocks, and Automatons, and Air-Cars, and good Queen Vickie trulls about in a Magnetic Carriage like everybody else. But still there is cess, and ever will be, pretend as they might at home, so still the slithies are transported.
And a good thing for Merrie Olde too, because nowhere is there as much rare earth as Australia, being that's where the Great Boom happened, and nothing so useful for gathering ore and jellies as a big jolly family of convicts. Work for the Squatters when you're Docked; work for them after you serve your time and are pensioned, but on your own terms. Or whore-about. Or prentice to the tech gnomes. Or mine gold, which never goes out of style. Or wander the Nullarbor, looking for the Source, and die. Or fish with the Nunga, if they'd have you, which they won't. Stick with your duet/triune mates, if you would live out the year.
Always something to do.
But don't fly, not much, because the variable-mag will crash you deep, and don't depend on Carriages to work all the time. Beware your metal, for it can betray you.
The tech gnomes shielded their sector so the vee-em wouldn't fry their instruments, and it worked most of the time. The shields were veined all over with newfill.
They made it so implants didn't function well either, and I could tell Suicide was nervous that her blades didn't work. Most were quiescent, but the blade on the back of her left hand kept on stuttering in and out. She kept it straight against her leg so it wouldn't snag. I couldn't distance-talk to Tintype either; the buttons only hummed.
The left side of my forehead felt raw and ticklish where they'd unplugged the scope, and I sat careful and still while the gnome bubbled at the mechanism. Tintype watched, quiet-like, while Suicide went to fetch us some pies.
The gnome chuckled as he found the dingbat, pulled the scope from the solution, and went to work with the thin tweezers that seemed an extension of his fingers and might very well have been. Suicide returned with three pasties, piping hot and early enough in the day that the mix still had some meat in it. We huddled and Tintype unrolled his latest pulp, removing a thin film of tissue as he did.
A bonus of the gnomes' shields: your council couldn't be overheard, like in the Tarot or even the burrows.
"List," he said, bending over the tissue. I saw a flicker of coiling type. "A job. It's a real rouser. Five hundred pounds of the Queen's own money, not Oz."
"Split?" said Suicide, her mouth full of 'roo.
"Each." We sat and mulled that a piece. Fifteen centuries of the Queen's Own Money could buy a Squat, a big one, the best in Oz.
He went on. "It's dangerous, very."
"Of course," said Suicide. "Fifteen centuries, it should be. Spill!"
"The Source," said Tintype. "Client wants the Source."
A long pause, then Suicide laughed, spraying us with bits of 'roo pie.
"The Source! Client doesn't want much, does he? And maybe we could find him the Queen of the Fairies while we're at it, and a magic wishing frog!"
"Maybe we could," said Tintype mildly, and looked at me.
Some make the mistake of thinking that because I am big, and mild of feature, that I am stupid; I am not. The Source of the ore, the point of impact, was somewhere north of the Nullarbor, the great, central, dry-as-death plain west of Botany, and everybody wanted it. But the vee-em got stronger the closer you got: less vee, more em, and gliders that crashed half the time in Botany and North crashed always when folk went sniffing round the Never-Never. Same with the Carriages.
That leaves horseback, muleback, humping in your own water and no sure place to go. Mind, people try. Pensioners, the occasional Squatter, and of course the expeditions outfitted by dear old England. Some came back from the Never-Never with stories of animals dying under them, mates going mad with thirst and running off into the desert, suicide, murder, hostile Anagnu (though all knew none were left). Some brought lumps of ore, veined with opal. Some said the further you got into the Never-Never, the more the land bled red stone and demons sang to you. Maybe some made it to the Source, but not that I knew.
Suicide was grinning again, licking her right-hand fingers (the blade still flickered about the left). She would go with us, I knew, and not so much for the money as the hell of it. Tintype was watching me because he knew upon me the choice lay.
I knew Tintype would not propose so risky a job, no matter the fee, without a plan, without backup. I stifled an urge to scratch my forehead. "Tell," I said, and Tintype bent close, the tissue-film still in hand. "A Nunga, fishes off Van Diemen's Land," he said, low. "Going to swim us west, into the Bight, show us where to trek 'cross the Nullarbor."
"Tickets-of-leave," I said. "Conditions: we can't set foot on a boat. Back to Dockside if we do." Against my side I felt Suicide shudder.
"We can with a pass from the Governor," he said. "Dinkum, not forged." I stared. Behind him the gnome was beckoning; my scope was fixed.
"Can you get a dinkum pass from the Governor?"
He smiled, lipless. "I can."
The Nunga, Johnny Roman, was ashy-gray and saturnine of countenance, and his boat was a big one, with room for five passengers. And that's what there was, for there was a duet out of East Botany, Pinkerton Red and Pinkerton Gold, jolly sorts with hair to match their names. They were bound for Nullarbor too, also with passes, and that seemed to put Tintype out a bit. He spent most of the three-day trip pondering his accounting-book, while I liked to see the shore go by with its little bays and strange outcroppings, and Suicide sat on the deck with the Pinkertons all friendly and jolly (with them a respectful distance from her blades). I hadn't been to sea before, save for my transport, and a twomonth of seasick in a metal womb full of dirty, vomitous slithies did not compare to this. I volunteered wide-eyes whilst the others snored, and watched the hard, bright pinprick stars veer by. When we docked at Nullarbor the Pinkertons took off quick, veering east. This mollified Tintype some, though he still looked a touch put out, watching them 'til they dwindled in the distance. He waited for Johnny Roman to dock right and swab down before we all huddled. Johnny took out a double-palm's-breadth span of bark.
"The map," said Tintype, who obviously expected it.
"A map, or a story, much the same thing," said Johnny. With a callused gray finger he traced a white line with a triple row of tiny dots beside it. "These are Anagnu markings," he said.
"I thought there were none left," I said.
He looked at me from beneath bushy eyebrows. "There are some. Hardly enough to matter. This"—he pointed again—"this is where Uluru was."
"She used to be holy, a holy place. She is a monster now. Or so the Anagnu say. She speaks to any that come near, and she drives them mad."
I glanced at Tintype. He didn't seem surprised to hear any of this.
"This path." Tintype's finger echoes Johnny's. "A stream. If we follow that by muleback, will we make it to Uluru?"
"Oh yes." Johnny sat back on his heels. "And then you will die."
We spread out on muleback, following the trickle of water outlined on the Anagnu map. Although a thin green fuzz grew by the water, clashing with the bright red soil, the air was dry and pulled at my face, drawing the skin tight.
Tintype and I alternated in front, and Suicide always took backup. A day in she yelled and pointed, and I told Tintype via his button to look to the east. Two gliders, pink and gold in the morning sun, paralleling our path. Heading to Uluru.
"The Pinkertons," I told him, quiet-like.
"Yes," he said. Then, "I don't like this."
"How, with the mag?"
"Cellulose. Hardly any metal in those things." To my puzzled look he said: "They're new."
We rested in the heat of day and also in the very dark of night, listening to the lizards scuttle and watching the Southern Cross sparkle across the black sky. After a while the mules wouldn't go on, although there was enough water. They were nervous, all atwitter, and finally we slapped their rumps and let them go home. According to the Anagnu map, it was time to turn from the stream. We filled our 'skins and bellies with the warm water, me double-loading.
Afternoon, Suicide was on wide-eyes and woke me and Tintype, pointing ahead. Just visible, a grey haze in the hot air, and a taste of smoke.
The wreckage of two gliders, one in the stream: they must have been following the thin green line as a guide. Pinkerton Gold was still in the hub of his craft, neckbroke. A line in the dust showed where Red crawled from his. He'd made it about fifty feet before collapsing.
The wings of the gliders were pale and flexible. Where one had broken I saw fibres. Cellulose.
Suicide and I salvaged their gear while Tintype searched the bodies, looking puzzled. I thought it odd that he checked their ears.
As we humped on, I kept on thinking about it.
Back at the Parramatta burrows we kept track, close, of the days that passed, a convict-habit. Making sure the Squatters didn't cheat you of your ticket-of-leave day. 'Twas too easy to let sunrise and sunset blur in the heat, in the boredom between jobs, in watching your back and the backs of your mates. But now, between red dirt and blue sky, I let day slip into day slip into darkest, star-strewn night. Only the bite of 'skin straps at my shoulders. Only Tintype fussing with his map and compass. Only Suicide crunching behind.
And thinking of the Pinkertons, of Tintype and his maps and messages, of cellulose planes in the Never-Never.
'Twas midmorning when a hum, faint, started in my head. Almost a whisper. I stopped and listened hard, sure I heard words.
Pain lanced through my head, beginning at my left ear. Ahead, I saw Tintype wince and paw at the side of his head.
The anteflap buttons. Feedback screamed through my anterior lobes: Tintype's button squealing at mine. I could hear myself echoing in Tintype's head.
Louder and louder. My head was in the dirt.
A smaller, quieter pain at my ear, and I fought the impulse to strike back. Suicide, slicing out the implant. I tried to hold still.
Suddenly just the echo between my ears, and a pink bloody lump dropped on the red sand before me. I watched her stride quick to Tintype, wrest his hand away from where he was clawing himself, and bend, blade out, over his hunched form. I saw him relax suddenly when she straightened up, implant in hand. Buttons aren't planted deep: a little pressure and the bleeding stopped. That whispering was still there, however.
I glanced at Suicide. She was tilting her head, looking mazed.
"Hear it?" I asked.
She nodded, frowning in concentration.
"Words. Soon. And hatching. And punishment." She listened a while, then shook her head. "Now just a hum."
"So not just the headmods."
Tintype untucked a little package. "Here."
White and spongy, little balls. Something hard in the middle of each. "Like this." He pushed one into each ear. Suicide and I looked at each other. The hum was getting louder, the whispers sharper.
We shrugged and put them in. The sound cut back, and faded. Still there, but still and small, like the voice of God.
"You were expecting this?" asked Suicide.
"Something like this," he replied.
We trudged on. Once, experimentally, I took a sponge half-out of one ear.
I staggered and shoved the plug back in. Tintype flashed me a look.
I walked in the quickening heat and thought some more.
You couldn't see it at a distance, but the ground was sloping up. Tintype still seemed to know where to go.
"I've been thinking," I said, close to his ear, since the buttons were out.
"Have you?" he said, with mild interest. "Then, tell!"
"I'm pondering how a pensioner gets word of that rarest thing, a map to the Source. Or a Governor's pass to go sea-wise. I'm wondering how a ticket-of-leave man has the very merry little bobbins that will block that too-terrible sound. I'm wondering how you knew about the cellulose gliders.
"The Pinkertons upset you, but you're not surprised. I'd guess you figured quickly that those who sent you would send others. Not the first time a client sent two teams after the same prize.
"But what's stuck in your craw is this: you didn't expect another plant. Because that's what you are, aren't you? You never were a dinkum convict. You were to find a team and sit, pretty, until the right time came. Until your sources could find a key, or a map, or the right earplugs, or a cellulose glider."
I thumbed backwards in the direction of the wreckage. "Wonder why they didn't get the earplugs. Maybe they did, and forgot. Or something went wrong with the gliders.
"Or your clients have a touch of the experimental, and want to know what works, what doesn't. How many teams that tried the Never-Never had plants? There's probably another, trying from the north. Scientific method. Try, fail, fail better."
He was quiet for a long time after that.
"I'm not so smart," he said, finally.
The whispering was becoming speech as we went up and up the gentle slope. Uluru driving us mad, Johnny Roman would say.
Soon. Soon. It hatches.
My scope was stinging, and I stopped to wrest it off. Suicide helped with the fine tip of a blade. The variable-mag was becoming permanent. We must be close to the Source.
"How do your blades feel?" I asked, as she neatly dissected the nerve.
"'Sallright," she said. "Nothing yet. That's why they're custom: the metal's too thin to register."
More speech, dropping like ripe fruit. Cold, here. How do you live? Things grow in the cold that should not grow at all. I'll never be warm.
I wondered if we were all hearing the same thing.
Ahead, a ridge of loose rock. Everywhere was dust in red streaks.
"Wait," said Suicide.
She was standing with fingers spread, looking at the backs of her hands. I had to turn to see her, hating not having my 360 scope.
We went back to her. Under her skin the blades were trembling.
"Back up," said Tintype, and she did. The movement stopped.
He studied the ground minutely. Meantime the voice went on.
Hatches soon. The others are dead.
Tintype was crouched on the ground. "How came you here?" he shouted suddenly. There was a pause while the whisper-speech stopped.
No one has asked in a long time.
I was . . . exiled? Yes. A punishment. Transported. From my home I was . . . thrown. Very far.
"Why?" I shouted, while Tintype grubbed in the dirt. Didn't see why he had to do all the talking here.
There was something self-satisfied in the answer. I bred where it was forbidden. Only the Matrix can breed the Central, but I won through, I did it. They feared me too much to disseminate, but exile me they did. They threw me to the cold worlds. But they could not stop my hatchings.
"Here," Tintype pointed. If you looked close, you could see a faint line on the ground where the little bits of ore shifted in straight lines. He dug in his toe and made a furrow in the dust, perpendicular to our path.
"You can't go beyond here, not with your blades," he told Suicide. "The mag gets stronger each step, and they'll rip out of your body. Do you understand?" She looked sullen but nodded. We went on and she squatted down, watching.
Because of the cold they fight inside me. They are all devoured, all but one. And he hatches.
We came to the ridge of rocks. And looked over.
Back Home, once, I saw the trap of an ant lion. Biggish sort of insects, they dig a hole, a funnel-shaped trap of loose soil, and ants and such who trip over it fall to the bottom where the ant lion lies buried.
This doodlebug's crib circled wide—how wide I could not tell; the slope all chunks of loose ore. One, two miles down, perhaps, was a black dot. I squinted, missing my scope. It might have been a hole. A century of Parramatta pensioners scrabbling a month would be hard-put to dig such a thing. Two century of Botany convicts with hell-for-leather Squatters on their tails, perhaps.
The voice was very clear now.
I would be Matrix. I couldn't wait. I should have killed Matrix when I had the chance.
Tintype knelt on the edge of the ridge and peered down. Hypnotic, all those rocks merging into something smooth-looking with that dot, harder to see than it should have been and the heat haze wavering. A long thin something—yellowbelly or fierce or maybe just a coppertail—scuttled past Tintype's hand and he startled back and overcomped sideways. Before I could grab him he overbalanced and started sliding down that slope of tumbled ore. He struggled for purchase but there was none.
I threw myself belly-down, digging in with my toes and grabbing for his flailing hands.
"'Type! Superstar!" Suicide yelled from behind the barrier Tintype had toed in the sand. "'Star! Hold him!"
"Trying to," I grunted, and the shadow of a smile shimmied over Tintype's face. "Told you I wasn't so smart. Don't let her come across," he said, maddening-calm with the long descent, that slope, that maw beneath him. Bloody rocks were wrong, too round, too slippery for what they were.
I could've killed them both, truly, yelling at me this and that while plowing in my knees and elbows and slipping in anyway.
Are you coming to me now? The voice was curious.
Then something like the wind at my back and she had me around the waist, both her wrist-blades protruding enough to root in my leathers and poke my ribs, thank you very much. I looked back and she had her knee-blades planted deep, enough to hold all three of us for a while.
You may all come. See!
"Get back, Suicide!" yelled Tintype, never mind that I was hauling him inch by inch up the rubble, his feet clawing for toehold, now she had us anchored.
But she hung on, grim as death, and I thought at first it was dinkum and the mag was variable after all when she started to scream.
I heave-hoed hard as I could and sent Tintype rolling safe past the lip of the trap. Suicide was writhing in the red sand, gashes opening down her leathers where the blades were birthing, ripped from her flesh by the mag.
Tintype grabbed her feet, I took her shoulders and we tried to heave her past the barrier. But she was spasming now, her screams a thin, shrill teakettle sound. She thrashed like nothing human, and a blade shot out of her, neatly skinning half my thumb.
I hung on, but Tintype got a solid kick in the chest, sending him tumbling. Coated in red dust, he staggered back. I lost my grip, and Suicide dropped. The back blade shot from her, clattering down the slope. Then one tore out of the back of her hand.
Somehow Tintype scooped her up and went running for the barrier. I followed, dodging as her hardware zipped past my head.
At the barrier he almost fell, but we caught her between us, laid her down gently as we could.
Past the leathers I saw slabs of red flesh and mottled white bone. The tendons on the backs of her hand were exposed. Beneath, her leathers, my arms, were soaked.
Tintype cradled her, holding her head. Don't do that, I thought automatically, but she didn't struggle. She was panting quickly now, like a tired dingo.
"What?" said Tintype, bending over her.
"Hatching soon," she said. "The barrier moons, all in pieces. So cold."
She looked past Tintype, up at me. "I'm cold, 'Star."
"Don't," said Tintype, but she was gone.
Tintype sat expressionless for a long time. In the twilight wind, the blood on my arms felt sticky and cold.
"Bollocks," he said at last, quiet-like.
Nine years, I never heard him swear.
"Bollocks to them all."
In a single movement, he got to his feet, Suicide in his arms. There was a terrible stillness about him.
He walked back to the pit and I trotted by his side.
"We need to get out of here, 'Type."
He ignored me. At the lip of the slope he stopped, and I tried to take the body.
"Let me take her, 'Type. We'll go back and find the mules."
Tintype snarled at me, and I recoiled. He folded himself upon the lip, with her body across his lap.
"Go away, Superstar," he said, deadvoiced. "Get as far away as you can."
Suicide looked boneless across his knees, and her shorn head in the crook of his elbow looked like a tired doll.
A smooth click and I stared down the barrel of Tintype's gun. Never knew he had a gun.
"Go, or I will shoot you, 'Star," he said, but I was fair mazed. Celluloid, fine grained, a lovely piece, really. But how did he rate a gun, forbidden to pensioners? And where did he hide it all this time?
But then. He wasn't really a pensioner, and hid everything from us.
Everything, even love.
Still, his voice was calm. "I'll start with the shoulder, 'Star, then the legs. Move out while you can."
I moved back slowly, crunching on the ore, then faster. Out of range, as I reckoned it, I stopped, and he put down the gun.
Methodically, he searched in his innumerable pockets. He took out something small, and square, and black, with a screen that glinted in the sun. Behind me and overhead, I heard the hum of gliders.
There were five of them, the same as those that crashed the Pinkertons. Tintype had something like a stylus and was manipulating something on the little black box.
I stifled the impulse to duck as the gliders hummed closer. Bollocks to them all.
Tintype, done with his fiddling-about, held up the box and flashed it in the setting sun. The gliders were straight up by now, and I saw them adjust their course to center on Tintype.
He waited. He waited until they were very close.
Then he tossed the box in a beauteous parabola, arcing into the pit. The gliders, one two three four five, went straight down into the trap. He never looked round to watch them, still facing me.
The hum stopped, hiccupped like an angry insect.
A great flare, straight up like a pillar of fire. For a second I saw them both silhouetted stark black against the orange. Then the ash rained down. I did duck then; I groveled in the dirt. It was a long time before the roaring stopped.
I walked to the dimple where the pit had been, taking the sponges out of my ears. Nobody was saying anything. I was covered in red dust, half an inch thick: a creature of the Never-Never.
As far as I could see, mile upon mile of ore. And the milky sparkle of opal.
Reckoning-man and all, he had brought us to this.
Something moved, shifting chunks of earth with a clink and clank.
I decided to wait and see if it was human. But 'twasn't. Tintype was gone, with Suicide, with the clients and their gliders, with Uluru buried deep in her exultation and despair.
Something tickled my brain, and I wondered if I'd missed a headmod.
Wings it had, which made sense, didn't it, if it was to fly between the stars? No head, but a mouth, serrated sharp, embedded in a stocky body. Nothing to compare this to: not 'roo, not goanna, not dingo, not man. Things like feet, too many, clawed like Suicide's blades. Like her, a thing made to fight. It could've gutted me with a thought.
It looked at me, eyeless, sideways-like, and cawed.
I'm cold, mother.
I stepped closer and saw things like worms crawling over its body. Closer still and saw they were pinfeathers, growing fast before my eyes.
I'm hungry, mother.
Days away the Pinkertons roasted beneath the sun, and I had no thought but to lead it there, though my 'skins were all but dry and I'd never make it. It followed me patient for half a day and then must've nosed them out, for that mouth came out of that dreadful body and hooked me up by the leathers. I dangled like a puppy while its feet beat the ground and the ground went by in a blur of dust and opal.
It ate fast, if delicately. Thought it would eat me too, but I was too tired to run when it stepped, fussy-like, towards me.
But it only settled against me, tucking its terrible feet beneath, and went to sleep.
I thought about howsome my last sea voyage wasn't half bad, and I'd rather like another.
"Well, little bird," I whispered. "Shall we go to London to see the Queen?"