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The Spiderboys of Aranae, Volume 1

 

 

The Spiderboys of Aranae

 

 

Volume 1

 

 

 

Three Spiderboy adventures chronicling the exploits of the difficult, contrary, irascible, contentious and sometimes disagreeable but otherwise worthy of our affections, HALEY MORGAN of the planet and Earth colony ARANAE.

 

 

 

By

Glenn Thomas

 

 

 

Copyright ©2015 by Glenn Thomas

 

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

 

 

Smashwords Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Smashwords.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

 

Cover art by the author.

©2015 Glenn Thomas

 

 

 

For Lorraine, Devon, Lynnelle and

in memory of Davis and Thom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contents

 

 

1: Haley’s First Spider Bite

 

2: Malady in Savoy

 

3: Along Came a Spider

 

1

Haley’s First Spider Bite

He figured he had only two, three hours tops to live out here on The Frying Pan. Jabez Loomis squinted at the binary suns overhead and could almost make out the accretion disc as the larger yellow sun’s matter was being sucked up by its white dwarf partner. Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to bring down that skimmer over such a bleak and inhospitable landscape as the Flats but the opportunity for escape presented itself and Loomis did not let it pass. And being the impulsive type, where exactly he brought down the skimmer and kill his guards was secondary to his regaining his freedom. He looked out over the intense whiteness of the alkali flats that surrounded him and thought perhaps he had acted a little too hastily. Whether you call it the “Frying Pan” or the “Flats,” this is not the place you want to be at midday in the summer on Aranae.

Miles away, a mountain range guarded the border of the dry lake. Loomis thought there might be settlements in that direction, maybe Salt Lick. There was a small spaceport there in Salt Lick. Loomis judged his chances of seeing if a scoot or another skimmer might come down nearby, which would point him in the right direction. Maybe hire a scoot and get off-world. Take his business elsewhere. He might be in for a long wait. Space travel to and from Aranae was restricted like so many other regulations imposed on them by Earth. He’d steal a craft but he didn’t know how to fly one. At any rate, Loomis didn’t want to stick around. The idea of frying on this alkali skillet didn’t appeal to him but neither did the thought of the law catching up to him again.

Loomis shuffled on over the Flats toward the mountains, hefting a backpack bearing the emblem of the Grandville Penitentiary stitched into its fabric. The number 801149 was stenciled in black over his heart on the dirty yellow jumpsuit he wore. Behind him, about fifty yards back, a wrecked desert skimmer lay in the trench it had carved out in the salt when it went down. On closer inspection, one would find three twisted bodies in the smoldering wreckage. Loomis knew that the wispy pillar of smoke was a beacon for miles around in every direction to anyone with a pair of eyes and a trace of curiosity. Just the sort of attention he wanted to avoid.

Loomis quickened his pace then thought better of it and slowed down. Better pace yourself. Don’t wear yourself out so fast. He peered at the horizon to his left, unsure of what that black speck might be in the distance. Heat waves rising from the hardpan distorted its shape but it did seem out of place in this wasteland. One would expect salt in abundance but anything black in appearance out here was worth looking into. Loomis shifted his path toward the speck and couldn’t help but pick up his pace in spite of the scorching suns that bore down on him.

Forty minutes later, the black speck grew enough in size that Loomis could make out its shape and what it was: a large black spider… a tarantula, he was sure of it now. Loomis came to a dead stop and stared at the spider to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. He judged the spider to be about four to five feet high at the top of its abdomen and maybe a ten-foot leg span. Although completely motionless, the spider gave every indication of being alive. The creature’s legs still held its weight up off the salt and that was enough for Jabez.

Loomis peered at the creature for a moment before a trace of a smile etched itself onto his face. Out here on the planet of Aranae, a spider meant only one thing: transportation. How it got out here on The Frying Pan and why, Loomis didn’t have a clue nor did he care. He had one thing in mind now and he set his path toward the spider. He had to get to it before the thing ran off.

As he closed in, Loomis noticed that the spider wasn’t completely black. An under-painting of green iridescent hairs grew among the black. Loomis had to stop and admire it for a moment. This was no ordinary eight-legger. This was one beautiful spider, a real looker. The tarantula faced away from Loomis at an angle and never so much as twitched one of its eight hairy legs. Even as Loomis neared the animal, it stood completely motionless. Loomis stopped, reached over his shoulder and felt around in the backpack. He pulled out a rod the color of gunmetal blue about two feet long and two inches in diameter. A coil of steel tubing was wrapped around one end; at the other end were a grip and switches.

It was at this moment when Loomis noticed the body. Beneath the spider, in its shadow, a lifeless human body laid stretched out on the salt. Loomis studied it from a distance and it looked dead enough. Must have been the spider’s last victim and Loomis was determined not to become its next.

Loomis neared the spider. The creature sensed his presence and spun around to face him, staring at him with three pairs of jet black eyes. Now face to face with the spider, Loomis stopped dead in his tracks. He saw for the first time the saddle and bridle on the spider’s back, between its head and abdomen. Loomis pieced together a scenario of its previous owner, who must have dismounted his ride for whatever reason and become abusive. Mistreat a spider and you take your life in your hands.

Loomis reconsidered. He glanced around and, seeing the white-hot surface of The Frying Pan, refocused his gaze on the spider. He swore a quick oath that he wasn’t going anywhere without that spider as he hefted the poker and flipped a switch at the grip. The poker’s coiled business end crackled with blue plasmic energy as it powered up with a whine.

The spider went into a defensive stance, raising its front legs in a display of strength and intimidation. A deep, throaty growl emanated from the spider followed by a threatening hiss. Loomis crept forward. Spider busting was never among his stronger talents but considering his remaining option of challenging the Pan under those blistering suns on foot, he didn’t see what other choice he had. He expected the spider to back up as he came within spitting distance but the animal stood its ground. Loomis jabbed at the creature with the poker to get a reaction, testing its resolve.

The spider didn’t budge. However, it did twitch with nervous energy as it anticipated the attack.

“Whoa now, big fella,” Loomis murmured. “I ain’t gonna hurt ya. We’re just gonna go for a little ride, that’s all.”

Loomis went into his best fighting stance and dug his back foot in, ready to pounce.

“Ready… one… two…”

“I’ll thank ya to stop aggravating my spider!”

The voice startled Loomis. His face went slack and he took a step back.

The body spoke. Loomis wasn’t sure what surprised him most, the fact that the body lying under the spider had indeed spoken or that its voice was unmistakably female.

Loomis lowered the poker but kept the power humming.

“What do I hafta do to get a little sleep out here?” said the woman beneath the spider.

“Pardon me if I upset your spider, ma’am,” said Loomis.

The girl raised her head for the first time and narrowed her gaze on Loomis. “You don’t touch my spider, ya hear?” She propped herself on one elbow.

“Oh, I wouldn’t harm such a fine animal, Miss,” said Loomis. “I was just under the impression that on account of your untimely death and the situation that fortune has placed upon me…”

“Do I look dead to you?”

The girl rolled out from under her spider and stood, slipping on her dusty black hat over long dark hair. She stepped out from the spider’s legs and faced Loomis directly. Loomis now saw that the girl wore a matching pair of black denim jeans, boots and a dirty white top with a black leather vest over it. She was a little scrawny but not too bad looking underneath all that salt and dust. The girl whipped out a gun from a holster at her hip and leveled it at Loomis. The gun was spotless. A Pike Model 8.

Loomis went rigid.

“Git yer hands up, dog-ass,” she growled. “I’m turning you in.”

Loomis put up his hands. He had momentarily forgotten that his prison jumpsuit had given him away—just as it was designed to do. “I hope you know how to use that thing,” he said.

“Care to find out?” she replied.

Now that the girl was up where he could see her clearly, Loomis stared at her light build, underdeveloped hips and came to the obvious conclusion.

“Why—you’re just a kid!” he said. “How old are ya?”

“None of your damn business! You drop that poker first.”

A poker might help to keep spiders under control but a good jolt to a human could prove fatal. Loomis stared at the gun aimed at his face. A Pike 8 was a multifunction, high-powered energy weapon that could split his head down the middle, and in the hands of a hotheaded kid, that gun was even more dangerous than Loomis was willing to find out.

Loomis dropped the poker.

“And that bag too,” said the girl.

The backpack hit the salt with a plop.

“What’s your price?” the girl asked.

“Pardon?”

“How much you worth? I know you broke outta prison, so don’t try to tell me you ain’t got a price on your head. What’s your name?”

“Percy Long and I ain’t worth a screen door on a starship, Miss. I’m just a victim of my own misguided choices in life. That I admit. Nothing more serious than breaking a few hearts, a sheriff’s daughter among those so affected. Of that I am truly remorseful and I have presently reformed my ways.”

The girl looked him over. She almost believed him. Must have been Loomis’s shoulder length sandy blond hair, keen green eyes and disarming smile that almost disarmed her. The word cute popped into her mind.

But on the other hand she just met the guy. And he was wearing a prison jumpsuit. She blinked and squashed cute from her mind, then holstered her weapon and went into her pocket, pulling out a small black disc about the size of a saucer. A curved cutout allowed the user to grip the disc and operate it. The girl aimed the edge of the disc at Loomis and pressed a button.

Loomis’s face was blanketed by a wash of red illumination from the disc’s emitter. A moment later, a holographic projection leapt up above the disc’s flat side in the palm of the girl’s hand—Loomis’s head. His mug shot revolved 360 degrees before stopping. The word ESCAPED flashed red over his face.

The girl read the data on the 3D wanted poster. “Liar. Jabez Loomis. Wanted for bank robbery, kidnapping and extortion, bootlegging, and public drunkenness. We can add escaping from prison to the list.” She smiled and added: “500. All that and you’re only worth 500 dollars.”

Loomis stared at the girl. “Who are you?”

“The name’s Haley. I’m a bounty hunter. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Loomis.” Haley flashed a smile revealing a crooked eyetooth. “Looks like you picked a fight with the wrong spider.”

“Now… Miss Haley—”

“If you’re wondering if I came all the way out here on the Pan just for you… keep guessing.” Haley said, returning the 3D wanted poster to her pocket. “Truth is, you ain’t worth no 500 bucks to me. I think I’ll just let you be, Mr. Loomis. More trouble than you’re worth, that’s what I say.”

“Ain’t you a little young for bounty hunting?”

Haley bristled. “I’m twenty years old and I’m a hell of a hunter! I hauled in more outlaws than you got fleas. Real killers too! You think a little two-bit hoodlum like you can scare me? You think I’d waste my time with the likes of you? I got bigger bugs to squash. Have a nice day.”

Haley turned to her spider to mount up, keeping her back to Loomis. She made it a point to look busy but it was an act to hide her shaking hands and the bitter expression on her face. His question about her age hit a raw nerve in Haley. Even all the way out here in the middle of The Frying Pan, she’s got to have this argument again—and with the likes of this low life of all people.

Loomis stepped forward. “Wait a minute,” he said. “You going?”

Haley’s jaw tightened. “I said have a nice day, Mr. Loomis.”

Loomis’s face went slack with disbelief. “Now hold on…. You can’t leave me out here.”

In a dazzling repeat performance, Haley’s temper flashed hot in her brown eyes. “And why not? I can go where I want. Do whatever I want. It’s a free planet, no one can stop me!” She pulled out the pocket digital wanted poster again and fumbled with the switches.

A face popped up and rotated. The man who possessed the face looked to be about forty years of age, unshaven and his brows turned up in an expression of bewildered surprise, like he’d just been woken up and had his picture taken without the courtesy of being asked.

Haley pushed the image toward Loomis. “You see him? That’s Frank Nugent. The Frank Nugent. Wanted for multiple homicides, bank robberies, spider stealing, rape, murder—”

“That’s homicide,” said Loomis. “You already said that.”

“Shut up!” With sharp, annoyed movements, Haley shoved the 3D wanted poster back into her pocket. “Frank’s the leader of the Sikes Gang and he’s got a ten-thousand-dollar bounty on his head, dead or alive, and I aim to collect.” Haley spun around and went to her spider again.

Loomis watched her. “You know where to look?”

“He’s in a whorehouse in Savoy.”

“Savoy?” Loomis jumped toward Haley. “Wait—!”

The spider lunged and threw Loomis down to the salt. It pinned him down with its forelegs. A pair of two-foot-long deadly fangs coiled above him ready to strike.

Haley appeared beside him, the reins in her hands. “Meet Paladin, my spider.”

Panic gripped Loomis and he struggled against the beast’s legs that held him down. “Get him off! Get him off!” he screamed.

“I wouldn’t fight him so much if I were you. Paladin’s liable to get jumpy with you thrashing around down there.”

“Just get him off!”

“Why should I? Give me one good reason.”

“Nugent ain’t in Savoy! I know where he’s at!”

Haley leaned in. “Oh yeah? How do you know?”

Loomis played his last card since he had nothing else to lose. Besides, to go out like this

“I used to ride in his gang! I know where he hides out,” he blurted. Amber drops of venom fell from Paladin’s fangs and wetted Loomis’s jumpsuit. “Take me with you! I’ll take you to him! Just get this thing off me!”

“I might. Where’s Nugent?” said Haley.

“In—in—he’s in Confusion! Now get him off!”

“Confusion?”

“He’s there. I know where to find him.”

Haley locked her eyes on him. “You better not be lying to me, you sand rat.”

“He ain’t in Savoy, I swear!”

Haley thought it over for a second. “Ok, I’ll bite,” she said. There was something morbidly ironic to her choice of words and she smiled to herself. Haley pulled on the reins. “Back up, Paladin.”

The spider remained rooted to the spot, pinning Loomis down under its fangs. It quivered with the inner conflict of obeying its human rider who’s always boss versus satisfying its instinct to dispatch this scum. It wanted to do it.

“Paladin! I said back!” Haley’s voice rose in authority. She strained on the reins, putting her weight into it. “Back! Now!”

Loomis’s face paled as he saw his death coming and it wasn’t pretty.

Haley looked down and, seeing the live poker that was at her feet, swept the device up and jabbed the crackling coiled end into Paladin’s side.

Paladin leapt off Loomis with an agonized grunt and skittered away several yards. It shook with fright, as it had not expected this kind of discipline from Haley.

Haley switched off the poker as Loomis struggled to one knee.

“Paladin,” said Haley, maintaining her authority. “Get over here.” Haley pointed to the ground beside her.

Paladin immediately jumped to her side and seemed to lower its head in remorse.

Haley stroked Paladin’s head. Her voice softened. “Sorry about that, boy. I didn’t want to use that thing but you gotta do what I tell ya. Y’hear?”

Loomis eyed the creature suspiciously.

Haley gathered the reins and went to mount up. “Ok, Mr. Loomis. You take me to Frank Nugent.” She pulled herself to the saddle, a posh, handmade two-tone black/grey with silver trim. Haley settled in. “Confusion’s a piece off. A day’s ride at least. We’d better get moving.”

Loomis crept forward, unsure.

Haley looked at him, absorbed with a sudden thought. “Tell me something first, Mr. Loomis,” she said. “Were you riding with Nugent four years ago when Sikes was still leading?”

Loomis shook his head. “No, ma’am. I believe I was avoiding the matrimonial advances of an upright young lady four years ago,” he answered. “Why?”

Haley considered a reply then shrugged. “No reason. Jump on,” said Haley, motioning with her thumb to Paladin’s bulbous abdomen behind her. Haley’s deep brown eyes went icy cold on Loomis. “But if Nugent ain’t in Confusion and you try something stupid, I’m giving you to Paladin. Got it?”

Loomis nodded.

Haley took hold of Loomis’s hand and pulled him up. And as he clung to Paladin’s backside, wincing every time one of the spider’s prickly hairs dug into him, Loomis noticed for the first time the laser brand that marked Paladin’s abdomen. It was the mark of the Liberty Star Ranch, owned and operated by none other than the great Wesley Morgan himself.

As Haley kicked Paladin into motion, Loomis allowed a broad grin to spread across his face. He clamped his mouth shut to stifle a laugh so as not to bring his delight to the girl’s attention.

 

To those who have never ridden on the back of an enormous spider, it might come as a surprise to learn that the ride is amazingly smooth even over rough terrain. The first group of scientists who set up outposts on Aranae in the 22nd century were astounded to witness the native primitive humanoid species, the grunts—or elumaki by their language, leaping onto the backs of the giant spiders and riding off. When one of the scientists summoned up enough courage, he gained the trust of a spider and tried it himself, eventually using the animal for remote geological expeditions. A directive from Central Control on Earth quickly banned the practice by all humans. But that didn’t stop the first colonists, who arrived on Aranae illegally 150 years ago and went to work setting up homesteads.

They called their planet “Araneae,” after the genus name of spider, and as the years rolled by, somewhere along the way an e dropped out, the spelling changed to “Aranae” and was pronounced “A-ra-NAY.” It just happened. No one knows who started it or when exactly but they embraced their name with great passion and patriotism.

As modern technology was scarce, including a viable means of transportation, the early colonists saw the value of incorporating the giant spiders into their society and violated the riding ban without a second thought. Ranches sprang up as well as numerous agricultural industries, all of which soon found the benefits of incorporating the spider into their labor.

One of the many ranches that appeared on Aranae was a minor operation owned by the Morgan family, which they christened the Liberty Star Ranch. At the beginning, they made little progress with the raising and breeding of various species of spider that are found on the planet. However, with the discovery of the Aranaen mineral iridescite on Morgan land, things changed. Under the leadership of Wesley Morgan, Liberty Star Ranch discovered how to combine iridescite with spider silk to create a new composite material called “Morgan Composite.” Incredibly light weight and stronger than Earth’s toughest metal, “Mor-comp” quickly found a very practical and highly sought out application. It was discovered that when a starship’s basic framework was constructed of Mor-comp, the material interacted dynamically with the ship’s propulsion drive, creating wider warp fields and faster speeds, cutting travel time between stars to mere fractions of previous journeys. That innovation translated into bigger and faster ships, and out in the Big Open like the Milky Way Galaxy, speed was everything.

The Liberty Star Ranch soon became the largest and most powerful industry on Aranae and the Morgan family raked in millions if not billions of Aranaen dollars from Wes Morgan’s innovations. But no one complained. They didn’t complain because anyone even remotely associated with the operation benefitted. From the supplier of the resin that bound the iridescite strands with the spider silk to the shoemakers who sold boots to the workers, they all tapped in. The millions of Aranaen dollars that were deposited into the banks were used to provide much-needed personal and business loans to all Aranaens across the planet. And no one complained because after reviewing human history on Earth, Aranae’s mother planet, when you have a goose laying golden eggs, the best thing to do is to leave it alone.

But even at Liberty Star, they still relied on the ubiquitous spider and the ranch hand that rode them. The typical duties of a ranch hand might include anything from digging a latrine to driving off a band of hostile mountain “grunts,” the nickname given to the native humanoids who resembled the homo erectus from Earth’s past. From time to time, a ranch hand—or spiderboy—was given an assignment that was outside his routine, ordinary duties.

And five of those riders on such an extraordinary assignment sat atop their spiders at the crest of a low hill overlooking the wide expanse of The Frying Pan, four men and one woman. Dressed in scuffed leather and denim, broad-brimmed hats on each, guns at their hips, the riders gazed out over the Aranaen landscape.

Doc, their leader, studied the glowing screen of a tracking device in his hand.

“She’s on the move again,” he said. “Headed in a new direction, though. Due west now.”

Tink, the sole female member of the riders, chuckled. She turned to Flip who sat on a grey jumper beside her. “That’s ten bucks you owe me, Flip,” she said. Her smile beamed through the dough-like features of her plump face.

Flip kept a lid on his youthful impulse to jump up and object wildly. “I’m telling ya, she’s going after Nugent in Savoy,” he said.

“She’s going the wrong way, then,” replied Tink. “Or maybe somebody moved Savoy.”

Sawed-Off stretched his timber-sized arms and legs. He shifted his position on Mona, his big tarantula that somehow was strong enough to bear his weight. “We ain’t getting back by suppertime, are we?”

Tink laughed and said, “Always thinking with your stomach, Sawed-Off. Don’t you know what a hellcat we’re dealing with here?” Tink rubbed her pudgy backside as she kept her tarantula from moving off without her consent. “Boy, is her old man gonna de-fang her when she gets back.”

“All he wants back is Paladin,” said Sawed-Off. “That girl’s nothing but trouble. What do ya think, Spook?”

Spook drew a puff from a half-smoked cigarillo and clamped it between his teeth. He stared out over the Flats and said nothing.

Tink smiled. “Spook says Flip owes me ten bucks,” she said.

“N’yuh uh!” yelled Flip. “It ain’t over yet!”

“All right, you two,” said Doc. “Knock it off. Looks like she’s headed for Four Friends Canyon. We can skirt around the Flats and maybe pick up some time on her.” He prodded Rowdy, his spider, into motion. “Let’s move out. She’s already got a good head start on us.”

The other spiders followed Doc and Rowdy down the rocky slope.

“So, who gets to shoot her when we catch up to her?” asked Tink.

 

Haley pressed her weight on the dead branch under her foot and used it as a fulcrum to snap the limb in two. She tossed it onto the fire, sending a shower of sparks swirling into the starry sky. The planet’s two moons were visible overhead, one rising in the east in a crescent phase, the second and larger of the pair nearly full and just past the zenith above them.

Loomis shivered in the cold night air and scooted in closer to the fire.

“I don’t suppose you might be toting an extra blanket with ya?” he asked. “It’s getting a mite frigid.”

Haley shook her head. “I hadn’t planned on guests,” she replied.

Loomis grinned as an enticing thought slithered through his head. “Don’t suppose there’s room for two under that blanket?”

Haley looked up at him. She stared quiet daggers of murderous intent through her eyes before speaking. “There is not,” she said, her voice low and tight.

Loomis nodded and tucked his arms in close to his body to keep his heat in. Another shiver ran through him.

Haley watched him for a long moment. When she was satisfied that he wasn’t up to some trick, she rose and went to Paladin nearby.

The spider was resting his weight on the ground, staring out into the night with his obsidian eyes, keen on the slightest movement in the valley surrounding their camp. The spider’s saddle and pad were stacked on the ground beside him. Haley grabbed the saddle pad and tossed it to Loomis.

“There’s your blanket,” said Haley.

Loomis picked it up. The smell of spider assaulted his nostrils and he bunched up his face into an expression of disgust. But he had encountered odors more foul in the past, many of which had come from his own body, so he spread the pad over his shoulders and tried to take comfort in the fact that he hadn’t been fried to death crossing the Pan earlier in the day.

Haley looked at him and was at a loss to explain the sudden rush of pity that swept through her though there was no reason for it. Uncontrolled flashes of mental images punched through her head, beginning with her sharing the blanket with Loomis. She shook the images from her head and decided that the best thing to stop them from coming back was to keep busy with something. Keep her mind occupied with some task. She saw Loomis’s backpack on the ground and scooped it up, then sat down by the fire and shook it upside down.

The bag’s contents spilled out over the rocky ground.

“Now—now, hold on!” Loomis sat upright, about to jump to his feet.

Haley shuffled through food containers, a bottle of water and other necessities of survival.

“I got a right to know if you’re hiding any weapons,” said Haley.

“Ain’t no weapons there.”

Haley grabbed a knife that was among the objects on the ground and pulled it from its sheath. “What do you call this?”

The knife reflected the flames from the campfire along its five-inch blade.

“You wouldn’t go off into the hills without some kind of protection, would you?” said Loomis.

Haley shoved the knife back into its sheath and stuck it in her pocket. She returned her attention to the rest of Loomis’s belongings. A leather-bound packet caught her attention.

Loomis went stiff.

Haley untied the strap that secured the opening flap and pulled out two folded documents. She studied the writing on the papers, the official pressed seal in particular. She had seen off-world passes before but never held one in her hands. But these were no ordinary passes. These were sealed with an official Earth stamp from Interstellar Immigration. No questions asked. Buy a ticket and go. Just like that.

Haley’s eyes sparkled as the childhood dream of actually flying off this world to see the stars up close had found its way right into the palm of her hand.

“You planning on any trips, Jabez?” she asked.

“Maybe.”

“And it’s for two people. Where’d you get it?”

Loomis stared into the fire. “From… somebody who wasn’t needin’ it no more.”

Haley took a bite of red-toe cornbread she had found in the sack. “Killed him, didn’t ya?”

Loomis sat upright. “No! No ma’am. He was already…” Loomis thought over his choice of words. “He wasn’t gonna do any more traveling. The skimmer that I was riding in suffered a frightful crash and he did not survive his injuries. Him and his friends.”

Haley folded the documents and tucked them back in the packet. “What skimmer are you talking about?”

“Them all was taking me from the local jail in Sawtooth City to a Federal pen. We crashed over the Frying Pan. Then I found you and your very fine spider there.”

“How’d you crash?”

“I might have….” Loomis flashed a quick nervous smile, as he wasn’t too sure of how much he should be revealing. “… perhaps I had a small role to play in the unfortunate events this morning.”

Haley looked at Loomis for a while, sizing him up. She didn’t like his history, the choices he’d made. But something gnawed at her. There was something she had to admit she admired about the escaped criminal. She was ashamed to entertain the thought but there was no avoiding it. Haley looked down at the bag in her lap to look busy but the thought kept echoing back and forth in her head.

Nobody tells him what to do.

Haley kept her thoughts to herself. There was no way on God’s good Aranae she was ever going to give voice to that in front of him.

As if he had read her mind, Loomis said, “I gotta be free, Miss Haley. Jail ain’t my home.”

“Then don’t do the things that’ll get you locked up,” said Haley, proud of her debating skills.

Loomis looked at her for a long moment, reading her. “You don’t like to be locked up either,” he said.

Haley’s heart nearly jumped out through her throat. She swallowed and looked at Loomis. “Who does?”

He smiled and pointed at the backpack on the ground in front of her. “Those two passes in there…”

“Yeah?”

“One for you. One for me.”

Haley narrowed her gaze on Loomis. “Just what are you implying?”

“You and I ain’t all that different from each other. We’re after the same thing. Whaddaya say we get off this rock and see what this galaxy’s got for a little fun? How ‘bout it?”

Haley gaped at him. “I’m taking you as far as Confusion. That’s it. When I’m done with Nugent, I’ll be done with you. Got it?”

Haley and Loomis stared at each other in silence.

Paladin jumped to his feet with a grunt. He stared into the blackness then took a few nervous steps away from Haley and Loomis.

“What is it, boy?” asked Haley.

Paladin’s senses went into full alert as he fell into an absolute quiet state. After a few moments of completely nothing happening, no sounds, no wild animals charging, Paladin paced around in a circle before settling down.

“He sees things sometimes,” said Haley.

“Maybe you should tie him up,” said Loomis. “Aren’t ya afeard of him running off?”

“You don’t tie up spiders, fool. A spider’s gotta be free. Tie him up and he’ll hold it against ya and the last thing you want out here is a spider owing you a grudge.”

“He never run off on ya?”

Haley shook her head. “Treat your spider with respect and he’ll return the favor. He might take off for a spell but he’ll be back.”

Loomis scowled at the fire as he spoke.

“That spider of yours… he ever kill a man before?”

“Nope. You were almost his first.”

Haley stretched out on her bedroll and pulled her blanket up to her chin.

“Sweet dreams,” she said.

 

Doc took a sip of his coffee and looked out over the narrow walls of Four Friends Canyon. The first rays of morning cast by the larger partner of the binary suns burned the iron oxide cliffs to the west to a fiery crimson. He thought back to the early days when Wesley Morgan had found him on a ledge on the side of a similar cliff and asked him if he’d wanted to come work for him on his ranch. Morgan had dangled a rope from up top and waited for Doc’s answer.

Doc looked over at his crew who were just finishing their breakfast and now packing up to ride. The spiders looked to be in good shape and eager to get moving again. The crew seemed in high spirits as well in spite of the fact that chasing after Haley yet again was taking them away from their regular duties at the ranch. But maybe that’s why they were in good spirits. Chasing Haley had turned into some kind of vacation, a break from the routine. They weren’t too worried about her. She proved over and over again that even at her young age she could take care of herself. But when the Old Man says go get the kid, you go get the kid.

Doc wasn’t much worried about Spook either. Spook took off on his own last night after they had made camp and hadn’t been back. That’s the way Spook was sometimes. When he went, you just let him go. He always came back. He always did what was expected of him and then some. Went the extra mile every time. Spook was one of those men you left alone, didn’t ask him questions unless it was about the immediate task at hand but beyond that, anything about him, his past, his family, you just left it alone.

Doc made his way to the other riders. Tink was laughing it up with Sawed-Off as the big spiderboy poured water over the fire.

“What you planning on doing with all that money, Tink?” asked Sawed-Off.

“Oh, I dunno. I can’t decide to get a new rig for Jezebelle or go into town and buy me some good looks.”

Flip slapped his saddle on his spider, Tex. “Whatever it is, just don’t forget who paid for it, Tink.”

“Got any more?” said Tink. “I don’t think ten bucks is gonna be enough.”

In spite of being ten dollars poorer, Flip couldn’t hold back a quick smile. Being the youngest and least experienced of the Liberty Star Ranch spiderboys, Flip was never far from being reminded of his status, especially if it was from a result of his own impetuous actions. But what Flip lacked in experience, he more than compensated for in his gun handling skills, a talent that had gotten them out of sticky situations on more than one occasion. Maybe it was those slim fingers of his or that mighty strong coffee he liked, but Flip was fast.

The remaining quarter cup of Doc’s coffee had gone cold and the crew leader tossed it into the cooling embers of their campfire. A movement down the slope of the valley caught his eye and he focused on the figure sitting on a medium-sized dusty grey spider heading up to them.

“Spook’s back,” said Doc.

The other riders spun around to see their fellow spiderboy approaching.

“What’s that? Spook’s back?” said Sawed-Off.

“Spook’s back,” echoed Tink.

“Spook’s back,” chimed in Flip.

Sawed-Off had to keep it going. “Spook’s back. Bring on the dancing ladies.”

Tink broke into a two-step. “Sorry, Spook. Looks like you’re stuck with me!”

Doc had heard enough. “Alright, you dust-lickers. This ain’t no party. Pack up your gear and get ready to ride.”

The spiderboys snickered at each other as they resumed their packing and tacking up their spiders.

Spook rode up and dismounted from his grey.

Doc stepped over to him. “Morning, Spook,” he said as casually as your next-door neighbor going out to the front lawn to fetch the morning paper.

Spook nodded a hello and reached into his pocket for another thin cigarillo.

The other spiderboys pretended not to have noticed Spook’s return and kept to their business.

“See anything?” asked Doc.

Spook lit up a match on the side of his jeans and set the flame to his cigarillo. A moment later, he puffed a cloud of blue smoke into the crisp morning air.

“Saw the girl,” said Spook in low tones.

Doc nodded. “We should be picking her up ‘bout noon today, I reckon.”

Spook scratched his salt and pepper stubble that covered his cheeks.

“I just wanna know what she’s after up in this valley,” said Doc. “Getting too close to the mountain grunts up here.”

Spook took in more smoke and flicked off a nub of ash. “She ain’t alone,” he said.

Doc looked at Spook and forgot all about keeping questions to a minimum.

“What? Who? Who is he? Where’d he come from?”

“Dunno. I saw them around a fire last night. Few miles up the valley. Tried to get in close for a good look but Paladin saw me and I backed off. One thing, though…” Spook continued, “The guy she’s with… he was wearing a prison jumpsuit.”

Having never heard Spook vocalize a string of words as long as that, Doc didn’t push for more information. “An escapee,” he said.

The other spiderboys caught fragments of the conversation and exchanged looks. Their faces lost the glow of cheerfulness from a few moments ago and a cloud of dread settled in its place.

Doc kept his voice down. “I’ll notify the ranch,” he said. “Have them get a hold of the Sheriff. Ask if there’s been any escapes recently.”

Tink pushed her way through the riders and leveled a gaze on Spook. Dead serious now, Tink said, “Spook… was he… is he holding Haley prisoner? Is she ok?”

Tink shared a special bond with Haley being the only female among a group of swaggering, smelly spiderboys. She took on the responsibility of being Haley’s mentor, protector and friend since the girl showed an interest in the spiderboy life. Though it remained unspoken, Tink’s role as surrogate mother to Haley was understood and approved by all spiderboys at Liberty Star Ranch.

Tink’s question went unanswered. “Spook… is Haley ok?” she repeated.

Spook shrugged and went to his spider.

Tink stared at him as he mounted up then ran to Jezebelle and jumped on.

Doc studied the screen of the tracker that marked Paladin’s location. Paladin’s implant sent a weak homing signal that triggered a frown on Doc’s face. He was careful not to let it show to the other spiderboys. He tapped the screen to check for a malfunction then switched it off.

“They’re moving again.” Doc pointed up the valley. “That way.”

The spiderboys didn’t wait for orders and were already on their mounts, prodding them in Haley’s direction.

Before mounting Rowdy, Doc pulled his gun from its holster and gave it a quick once over. Fully charged and loaded. He shoved the gun back in its holster and swung onto his spider in one quick move that he had practiced for when things get serious.

 

It is a little-known fact, completely lost on Haley and Loomis, that the day the two wanderers met on The Flats just happened to be the 93rd anniversary of the arrival of Julien Hjort on Aranae. A committed and strident Neo-Animist, a bit of a throwback, the 32-year-old Mr. Hjort devoted himself to the abolition of all forms of animal exploitation on Earth, and when he seemed to have run out of animals on Earth to save, he turned his attention to the colonies, Aranae foremost on his mind. He swore to end the practice of using the noble giant spider as a beast of burden, and when the Ministry of Colonial Affairs ignored the last of his many letters, pleading for their intervention in this barbaric practice, Mr. Hjort decided a bolder plan was needed, even if it meant going to the outlaw planet and putting an end to it himself.

And he did.

Well, he got as far the planet at least.

Upon arriving on Aranae with several sympathizers from Earth, Mr. Hjort was appalled at the apparent lack of civility and he was convinced that he had found himself in the land of barbarians, which only served to fuel his zealotry all the more. His words fell upon deaf ears and he was regarded as just another foreign kook who thought he knew more about life on this planet than the people who were born and raised there. His delicate ego couldn’t withstand the criticism and, in a desperate act of misplaced heroism, Mr. Hjort chartered a small aircraft and flew into the wild to find the spiders and rescue them one by one if that’s what it took to get people’s attention. This he did against the advice of the locals.

Julien Hjort ordered the craft down to the surface in a spot where he was certain he had seen a spider at the foot of a rugged mountain range, miles from the nearest settlement. He burst out the door and, weeping great tears of human guilt and remorse, rushed straight at the first spider he saw. Regrettably for Julien Hjort, the first spider he saw happened to be a wild female tarantula that was guarding her nest of eggs and the spider instantly pounced on the charging human, killing him on the spot before his horrified friends.

A few hours later when the spider had abandoned her prey, Mr. Hjort’s friends were able to retrieve his body and prepare a funeral. While digging their former leader’s grave, the four surviving members of the Great Spider Rescue Crusade struck a big fat iridescite deposit and realized at that moment they had just become richer than they had ever imagined possible. As they stood around Julien Hjort’s open grave, they all agreed on their next course of action. Hjort’s body was unceremoniously dumped into a nearby river; his former friends struck a partnership and staked a large claim for the land. News of the iridescite strike broke out and a mining town sprang up near where Mr. Hjort had met his fate. The town was named “Confusion” in posthumous honor of its founder who thought himself an expert on the planet’s wildlife. The four friends who had accompanied Mr. Hjort on his mission operated their iridescite mines for many years, then sold off bits of their claim at inflated prices and became enormously wealthy, retiring to various luxury resorts across the planet. They never returned to Earth.

By the time Haley and Loomis arrived in town, Confusion had been reduced to near ghost town status as a result of the iridescite mines going bust twenty years earlier. That fact was lost on Haley as she guided Paladin past a corpse hanging from a noose tied to a tree limb at the entrance to town. A crude handwritten sign hung from the dead man’s twisted neck: “SPIDER THEEF.” Beside the scene of execution, another sign hung crookedly on a post: “WELCOME TO CONFUSION.” Haley steered clear of the corpse and prodded Paladin to a hitching post by the town’s tavern and inn.

Confusion was a sunburnt splinter of a town splayed against the foot of the mountain range to the north. A scant twenty lopsided buildings dotted the main part of town, collecting ochre dust that the wind had kicked up.

Haley dismounted at the tavern and threw the reins over a hitching post.

“I’ll get us some water,” she said.

Loomis slid off the spider’s rump and wiped the dust from his brow.

Neither one of them noticed the woman sticking her head out from the second-story window above the tavern. She stared at the newcomers below her for a moment before a smile appeared on her deep crimson lips.

“Well, I’ll be a suck-egg mule. Jabez Loomis. What on God’s good Spider Planet brought you back here?”

Haley and Loomis swung their eyes up at the woman’s voice above them.

The woman made no effort to hide her partially undressed condition. Her lacey underclothes hung loosely on her stocky frame.

Loomis smiled. “Hey, Jesse. It’s been a while. Couldn’t quit thinking about ya.”

“Three years. And it’s Clementine. So glad you remembered me.” Clementine’s smile gave a punch of sarcasm to her voice.

“Clementine! I was going to say Clementine.”

Clementine looked at Loomis’s yellow jumpsuit. “I’d say you’ve been keeping the lawmen busy and, by the looks of it, they weren’t all done with ye.”

Loomis straightened with pride and brushed his jumpsuit with both hands. “Sheriff’s men were right charitable to give me these fine clothes. But I was looking for a change if the opportunity arose.”

Clementine turned her dark eyes to Haley. “Who’s the kid?”

Haley scowled. “I ain’t no kid!”

Loomis chuckled. “Just doin’ a little babysitting.”

Haley gazed at Clementine but spoke to Loomis. “How do you know this woman?”

“Her? She’s my…my cousin.”

Clementine laughed a low throaty chuckle and fingered the azure beads dangling from her neck, kept warm in the caress of a sizeable cleavage.

Haley frowned. “Liar. That’s a trollop.”

Clementine went from chuckle to laugh in a heartbeat. “Hell, I’ve been called worse.”

“Clementine, I gotta see ya,” Loomis announced. He skirted around to the front of the building.

“Might as well,” said Clementine. “Everyone else has.”

A low growl of a male voice rumbled from behind Clementine. “Rose, who the hell you talkin’ to out the window yonder?”

Haley’s frown deepened. “Rose? Now she’s Rose. Jabez, what are you up to now?”

Loomis glanced back at her. “I won’t be long,” he said as he disappeared around the corner.

“She’s got a—a—She’s got a visitor in her room.” Haley couldn’t hide the disgust on her face. She watched the swirl of dust where Loomis has stood a moment ago, then dropped her gaze to the gravel at her feet. “I’ll get us some water.”

She wasn’t sure exactly why a twinge of jealousy would get to her like that, why she didn’t like Loomis having friends like Clementine or what circumstances had brought them together in a place like this. She had no feelings for him so why should she care? Haley was hung up on the why? and hated herself for it. She made her feet move. Keep busy with something and forget about it.

Paladin shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he watched Haley make her way to the saloon’s swinging doors around front, push through and disappear inside.

Haley’s eyes adjusted to the light as she scanned the room. Typical frontier saloon with the standard bar against the back wall, battered tables and chairs across warped floorboards and a smattering of customers, each one huddled with his drink and private thoughts. So, this was why not one citizen of Confusion was seen on the streets. All nine of them were in the saloon. A bald headed bartender was just topping off a patron’s drink at the bar while a few stools down a short alien woman in her middle years fidgeted and threw nervous glances in Haley’s direction.

Haley did a double take on the short woman at the bar to make sure she wasn’t seeing things. The woman’s head was covered in a very fine reddish-brown fur that swept back across her neck and shoulders. Wide black eyes locked on to Haley for a split second before snapping back to her drink.

Haley had never seen a Jerullian bookkeeper before but she had heard of them. Descended from a long bloodline of bipedal marsupials, the Jerullians were the evolutionary beneficiaries of short range psychic foresight that alerted them to the approach of predators—a sort of sympathetic compensation after being tagged “prey animal” by Mother Nature. In the interstellar community, the Jerullians were often sought after and placed on crews of ships for the sole purpose of giving a “two minute warning” before danger had a chance to strike. They were also ace accountants and quite adept at handling bets on gaming where it was legal. Like on Aranae.

Being naturally skittish, the Jerullian kept her face down to her drink when she spoke.

“Get a drink, sit down, play a card game,” she blurted out. “Leave. Do something. Just stop staring at me.” She never looked at Haley once. “Makes me nervous.”

Haley looked away, feeling a little guilty. “Pardon me, ma’am. I just never seen…seen one of your kind before.”

“Bad enough with all those spiders crawling around all over the place. Can’t sleep at night most times.”

Haley took a step closer. “Then why not leave? Nobody’s keeping you.”

The Jerullian kept silent.

“And where would I be without the finest bookie in the galaxy?” said a voice behind her.

Haley jumped at the sound of the voice and looked to see who had spoken.

Three men sat at a table while a fourth man hung upside down by his feet over a pile of cash. A frayed rope loosely tied to a beam overhead was the only thing that prevented the man from crashing headfirst through the table. The hanging man in question wore a black suit that had at one time been very costly and immaculate. His head was suspended inches over an interrupted card game between the three spiderboys.

The spiderboys around the table wore their dust well. They were watching Haley with grins on their dirty faces except for the center man who stayed low.

“I find Miss Fidgets’ unusual ability of prognostication to my liking,” said the low spiderboy in the center.

Haley peered at the spiderboy at the table, wondering why he kept his hat low and chin down.

“Git yourself a drink and we’ll deal you in, little girl,” The tone of his voice carried authority, casual as it was, and marked him as the boss of the group. He kicked out an empty chair across from him, inviting Haley’s company at their card game.

Haley swallowed and took a breath. Her heart pounded in her chest as she tried to convince herself that she had no reason to be nervous. “No—no thank you, mister,” she stammered. “I only came to refill my water bottles.”

“I’m rather partial to Spider Bites,” he said. “You know what a Spider Bite is, don’t you? Ever had one?”

“Of course I have,” she lied. “Lots of ‘em.”

A Spider Bite consists of a half glass of dark ale, one jigger of whiskey (preferably Granny Divine’s Sour Mash), a jigger of head banger lemon juice, a piece of bitter root ground and mixed in, and to top it off, the kicker—a shot of real spider venom. A slice of lobotomy fruit is optional. Not recommended for drinkers with stomach ulcers. Drinking games involving Spider Bites often ended up with a trip to the town’s infirmary, most of the time by the game’s winner.

The spiderboy to the boss’s left spoke up. “You can have mine,” he said, pushing a short tumbler toward Haley. “Haven’t touched it.”

Haley stared at the dark amber liquid in the glass.

An idea struck her. She sat down at the table.

The spiderboys greeted her with polite smiles and nods of welcome.

“Where you headed?” said the boss.

“Around these parts,” said Haley. She glanced at the Spider Bite in front of her but left it alone. “I was thinking maybe you boys might save me a bit of trouble and point me in the right direction.”

“Just what might you be looking for?” asked the boss.

“A man.”

That drew a few sniggers and Haley’s face reddened.

The boss smiled from behind the rim of his hat. “Well now, your choices might be a bit slim but I’m sure we can find a spider buster in the room who can accommodate your needs.”

“I’m afraid I didn’t make myself clear,” replied Haley. “The man I’m looking for is Frank Nugent. Heard of him?”

The boss lifted his head, revealing his face to Haley. “I might.”

Haley stared at the face.

“How can I help you?” he said.

Of course.

Haley stared at Frank for another long moment before diving into her pocket for the 3D wanted list.

Frank’s image popped up from the disc and rotated, displaying all his pertinent data alongside his face.

Nugent smiled. “I see my price has gone up.” He turned serious and looked at Haley. “Is that what you come for, little girl?”

Haley fumbled with the switches on the disc, turning it off.

Nugent’s henchmen stiffened and reached for their guns but Frank waved them off, telling them to relax. This one’s a softy.

Maybe it was a desperate act of false bravado or maybe it was something to compensate for the fact that she was way out of her league, but a sudden impulse took hold of Haley and she grabbed the Spider Bite in front of her and knocked it back in one throw. Down it went.

That’ll show ‘em.

The next thought that struck her was: That wasn’t so bad. The alcohol burned her throat and the bitter spider venom caused her eye to twitch but she kept it under control and stared straight at Nugent.

She took one breath.

The spiderboys watched her, waiting for it.

She took another breath.

Then it hit her.

The effect of drinking a Spider Bite has been described as being hit in the head by a two-ton flaming meteor wrapped in a queen-sized mattress. This experience wouldn’t be so remarkable in itself besides the fact that many of those who continue to drink Spider Bites soon realize that getting hit in the head by a two-ton flaming meteor wrapped in a queen-sized mattress isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Haley pushed herself from her chair, staggered to her feet and gripped the chair’s wooden back to keep from toppling over. The room swirled around her and the only way she was able to stay on her feet was to dig her fingers into the chair as if it was her only lifeline that attached her body to Aranae. She was certain that if she were to let go of that chair, she unquestionably would float off the world and right into space.

She was vaguely aware of a few chuckles around her and the thought of blacking out in front of these reprobates repulsed her. She was determined not to go through that embarrassment.

Haley stiffened and turned her eyes to focus on Nugent but her eyes had for the moment lost their ability to focus. “Mr. Frank Nugent… I’m taking you into my custody… to be handed over to the… au…authorities of this county for… crimes committed against its citizens.”

“Is that right?” Nugent replied. He didn’t sound like a person who was in any danger of losing his freedom. Quite relaxed in fact. “You look a little young for a bounty hunter. Just how old are you?”

“That makes no difference.”

“Oh, when I want something from somebody, it makes a lotta difference. Just ask the revenuer here.”

The hanging man’s face was beet red. “If I were in your position, Miss, I would tell Mr. Nugent what he wants to know. And considering the circumstances of us both, your position appears quite unfavorable to mine.”

Haley looked at the hanging man who seemed to be doing cartwheels in midair. “You’re a revenuer? A Loyalist?”

The hanging man nodded his head, a gesture that’s understandable from any orientation. “That would be correct, Miss. But we prefer the term ‘investment custodian.’”

The room continued to spin. Haley found it useful to slow the spinning by concentrating on one particular object like this revenuer. Haley frowned at him. “You ain’t foolin’ nobody. You’re just a low-life Earth tax collector.”

“Well, I am in fact native to this planet; I only work for Earth.”

“That’s worse. You can stay there strung up like that as far as I’m concerned.”

Though her animosity toward the tax collector did help to bring her spinning world down to a slow wobble, Haley’s stomach churned.

Nugent chuckled. “Well, aren’t we a fine collection of patriotic brothers and sisters?” He looked at Haley again. “But you didn’t answer my question, little girl.”

“I’m twenty years old, if you gotta know,” she said, slurring a few syllables. “But I got plenty of experience!” she added quickly. “Now, I want to know something, Mr. Nugent before I take you in.”

Nugent decided to play along but an underlying tone in his voice conveyed that his patience was wearing thin. “And what’s that, baby bounty hunter?”

Haley’s voice turned cold. “Four years ago you robbed a coach en route to Evergreen from Dune City. You robbed them and killed all ten passengers on that coach. My mother was one of them. You stole her wedding ring. It was a platinum/iridescite alloy ring. You stole it right off her finger then you shot her graveyard dead.” The painful memory had a centering effect on Haley. The wobbling slowed to a tremor.

This intrigued Nugent. He squinted at the ceiling as he thought about it. “Hmmmm… lemme see. I do recall some mischief involving a coach some time ago. I was a mite reckless in my younger days though it just be four years.”

“I want my mother’s ring back!”

Haley timed her outburst with snapping her gun from her holster and leveling it at Nugent. Her fury at Nugent seemed to have cleared her head from the effects of the Spider Bite, at least for the moment.

Nugent’s men went for their guns but Haley swept the barrel of her gun across all three men.

“Don’t!” she warned. She meant it.

The spiderboys ground their teeth and checked their impulses.

Haley focused her wrath back on Nugent, her face twisted in a mix of grief and rage. “She begged for her life! She said she’d do anything you want, give you anything, just let her go.”

Nugent scratched at the stubble on his cheek as the incident replayed in his mind. “Most of ‘em say that, yes,” he said.

“You took her ring then shot her between the eyes.”

“I don’t right recall this woman.”

“After you shot her you said you didn’t like her ‘cause she reminded you of your mother.”

Nugent froze and looked at Haley. His eyes went dark with a distant and long-buried acrimony. “Who told you that?” he growled.

Haley smirked. “All this time and you thought you got everybody on that coach? I’m telling you now, Mr. Nugent… you missed one.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“I faked being dead. I was just a kid then, getting squashed under a dead fat man. But I saw you. I saw what you did. Heard what you said. I swore one day I’d catch up to you and bring you to justice. And it’ll be my reward to get my mother’s ring back and watch you hang.”

Haley’s gun quivered in her tight grip.

“Where is it?”

No one took notice of Miss Fidgets who sat at the bar with clenched fists, her eyes screwed shut tight. “Run,” she continued to murmur. “Gotta run. Get out. They’re coming.”

Nugent studied Haley’s face. “So, you were there, huh?”

“It’s shaped like two strands of rope with a knot tying them together with a big white star stone in the knot,” said Haley. “I want it.”

Nugent stared at Haley, refusing to believe that he was facing a survivor from that robbery. “Sorry to disappoint you, Missy, but most of that loot was cashed in at Savoy.”

Haley stiffened and stretched out her gun as far as she could reach at Nugent’s face. “Liar!” she yelled.

Haley felt the bump of cold steel at the back of her head. She froze.

“You can drop that gun now, Miss Morgan.”

Haley recognized the voice. “Jabez, what the hell you think—“

“I said drop that shooter.” Loomis cut her off with enough acid in his tone to shut her up fast.

Haley let her gun slide off her fingers and drop to the floor.

Loomis nudged her with his gun, indicating for her to move.

Haley moved to one side and Loomis scooped up her gun.

Haley took notice of Loomis’s new outfit: jeans, grey shirt and brown leather vest. She thought the chances were pretty good that the clothing’s previous owner was also missing his gun.

“Jabez Loomis,” said Nugent in a mixture of awe and nostalgia. “What brings you to the dance?”

Loomis handled both guns with loose casualness. “Gentlemen, I have the distinct pleasure of introducing to you Miss Haley Morgan, daughter of Wes Morgan, president and CEO of Morgan Industries and owner of Liberty Star Ranch.”

Nugent peered at Haley. “Wes Morgan. One of the richest men on the planet if not the richest. And you’re saying his daughter, Haley Morgan, is standing right in front of me in this dried-up stinkhole of Confusion? You jerking me around, Loomis?”

Loomis pointed his gun at Haley’s face. “Tell him,” he said.

“Jabez, I swear when we get outta here—“

“I said tell him!”

Haley blinked at the gun barrel aimed at her and wondered what a bolt of plasmic energy could do to her pretty face.

Nugent leaned in to her. “Is that right, little girl? You Haley Morgan?”

Haley nodded.

Nugent laughed. “Everybody heard of you, girl. Why, you can’t be more’n sixteen! Ha!” Nugent grinned at Loomis. “You did good, Jabez. You did right by bringing her to me. You got any idea how much she’s worth?”

“Oh, I’ve been conjuring up all sorts of sums and figures what this little girl might fetch me. But if you thought I was bringing her to you, I’ve taken a contrary point of view.”

Nugent’s smile faded. “What do you mean?”

In one quick snap of his arm, Loomis instantly took his gun off Haley, put it on Nugent and fired.

The blast flung Nugent off his chair and slammed him into the wall behind him.

Haley gaped at the sight of the newly departed Nugent wide eyed.

“No!” she screamed. Haley forgot about Loomis for a flash and jumped toward Nugent on the floor in a spreading pool of blood. She dropped to her knees and grabbed him by the lapels.

“My ring! Where’s my mother’s ring, you bastard?”

Haley stared as the life faded from Nugent’s eyes.

She rifled Nugent’s pockets in a desperate search for the ring.

“Where is it? What’d you do with it? Son of a bitch!”

Nugent’s two startled henchmen reached for their weapons.

Loomis had both guns on the two men before they could draw, causing the spiderboys to have second thoughts. They froze on the spot.

“I think not, gentlemen,” said Loomis. “Unless you two have any objections, I’m placing you both under my employment.”

The two spiderboys glanced at each other. With a gun pointed at each of them, the two men were in an impressionable frame of mind. “I’m good with that,” said one. The other nodded and both men left their guns in their holsters.

“Then I’m gonna need one of you to keep watch outside,” said Loomis.

The taller of the two men went to the door and stood there, half in, half out, watching for any signs of unwanted company.

Haley’s search for the ring on Nugent’s body turned frantic.

“Damn it! Where’s my ring?” Her hands shook as she pulled out crumpled dollar bills, poker chips, a pouch of tobacco and various articles of no importance. The Spider Bite wasn’t done with Haley yet, as she let down her guard too easily, making a display of her emotions, her eyes filling with tears.

“You can let him go now, Miss Haley,” said Loomis. His voice had taken on an unexpected soft tone.

Haley focused her teary-eyed gaze on Loomis. “You killed him, you son of a bitch. Why?”

“It seemed when we knocked off that depository a couple of months ago,” said Loomis, “Mr. Nugent was under the impression that he needed a patsy to take the fall for him. That responsibility fell to me, the fact of which was not brought to my attention until after I was locked away in a Sawtooth City jail. I had a score to settle with Frank and I just settled it. Thanks for the ride.”

Haley became acutely aware of revealing her vulnerabilities to Loomis and she quickly wiped her eyes with her sleeve and stiffened.

“You mean to tell me you had it all along to use me to find Nugent? Use my spider?”

“As a means of conveyance, yes,” replied Loomis. “And, at first, I thought between the two of you, your spider and you, the more valuable piece of property was that spider.” Loomis smiled. “Until I saw that brand on its rump. Liberty Star. That changed everything.”

Haley ground her teeth together. “I hope you get a big fat ransom for me,” she growled.

“That was heavy on my mind for quite a spell,” Loomis said. Again, his voice softened. “But I’ve been entertaining other thoughts,” he said.

Loomis motioned to the henchman standing close by and said, “Get her up.”

The spiderboy grabbed Haley, roughly dragging the girl to her feet, drawing a rebuke from Loomis. “Gentle with her!” he yelled. “From now on, you miscreants treat her like a lady,” he added, including both men.

Haley peered at Loomis, not sure what he was up to.

The tall henchman on watch at the door stiffened as a movement down the road caught his eye.

“Hey, Jabez,” he said with a touch of alarm. “Got a visitor.”

Loomis moved to the door to have a look. He peered at the solitary rider coming into town on a roan spider at a leisurely pace. He was a good 150 yards off still.

“Let him come,” said Loomis.

Miss Fidgets, the Jerullian bookie, jumped off her stool and ran for the door. “Run. Gotta run,” she muttered. “Can’t stay.”

The spiderboys watched her disappear outside. Loomis shook his head.

“Damn hoaxes, those furry aliens,” he mumbled.

The roan took its time. Its rider sat unmoving in the saddle like it was going through the routine of coming into town for the millionth time. When it shuffled up a little closer to the tavern, Loomis’s henchman nudged him.

“That’s a lady rider, Jabez,” he said. “And by the looks of it, she be a fat one, too.”

Loomis studied her for a moment. “I don’t like ‘em fat.” He looked at Haley. “They slow me down. I gotta be free to fly at any moment. How about you, Miss Haley?”

Haley looked at him. Though she held the same opinion regarding freedom as Loomis, she wasn’t ready to admit anything to him as yet.

“You said a minute ago that you were entertaining other thoughts about me,” she said. “If my ransom no longer interests you, what does?”

Loomis smiled. “You got ‘em tucked away in your backpack there.”

“The off-world passes.”

Loomis returned his gun to its holster to prove his sincerity. “How ‘bout it, Miss Morgan?” he said. “You, me and the gang. Just run free in the Big Open, no one telling us what to do. You won’t have your old man bossing you around no more.”

His preposterous idea, renewed from their discussion by the campfire last night, brought a snort of contempt from Haley. It was so outrageous, so utterly ridiculous that she even pictured herself doing it, flying all over the galaxy with no one to tell them what to do or where they had to be. Such ideas belonged to the rubbish heap in the back of her mind. Just after she seriously considers it.

“What makes you think I’d seriously consider such an outlandish idea?” she demanded.

“You want it as much as I do. Take control of your own life and show the old man you count for something. Ain’t that the real reason you went after your mother’s ring?”

Haley looked away and remained silent.

Loomis tried to read her and figured he was not far off the mark. Another idea came to him and he took a chance.

“You’re free to go now, Miss Haley,” he said. “I’m not holding you for ransom.” Loomis gave the henchman holding Haley a wave of his hand and said, “Let her go.”

The spiderboy hesitated, glanced at his buddy at the door then released her.

Haley stood there not sure if she had heard him right. The thought struck her that now that Nugent was dead, the ring nowhere to be found…

Just what exactly was her next move?

“But something tells me,” continued Loomis, “that Miss Haley is in no rush to run back home. Am I right?”

Haley didn’t answer. Her dark eyes darted from point to point as her thoughts held her rooted to the spot.

Loomis continued his point. “So, the question now as I see it, what do you do now that you’re not going back home with no ring to show the old man? You really wanna face your father after you stole his best spider and ran off?”

Haley didn’t like the mental image of her father’s face the next time she’s standing before the big man, waiting to hear what special punishment he’s got in store for her. He’ll throw her in to work on the spinning deck again like last time, harvesting spider silk for Morgan Composite. That reeking spider silk! He’ll have her at that machine for a month this time when she got back, she was sure of it.

if she went back.

Loomis watched the ordeal play out on her face. “There comes a time when a child’s gotta strike out on his own,” he said. “Or her own. Cut the family ties, Haley.”

Maybe it was some lingering effect from the Spider Bite, or maybe it was just in her rebellious nature that Haley’s thoughts brought up a radical idea.

“Wait…,” she said. “Get the ransom.”

Loomis blinked, not sure if he’d heard what he thought he’d heard. “What?” he said.

“We’re gonna need it,” Haley said. “How much do you think a good, fast star drifter fetches on the used market these days? One that’ll hold a crew of ‘bout six or seven?”

Loomis thought fast. “Ten—twelve thousand. I know a dealer in Grandville. Got the good sense not to ask questions.”

Haley’s heart pounded in her chest as she pictured herself at the silk combine, hour after hour, day after day. She squeezed her eyes shut tight. “You can get fifty thousand for me, easy,” she blurted out. “He’ll pay.”

Loomis nodded. “So would I.” He resisted the urge to grin broadly at hearing her words. He knew better than to push his luck. Instead, Loomis held out Haley’s gun to her, offering her to take it.

Haley stared at the gun. Somehow she knew that if she took the gun, she’d be crossing the line. Loomis was asking her to enter his circle of confidence, to confirm their new relationship as partners. Establish trust between them. Taking her gun back would seal the deal.

“For freedom,” said Loomis.

Haley gulped and took her gun. She eased the weapon back into her holster and dropped her eyes to the floor.

“Double-cross Dad,” she murmured. “He’ll never forgive me. Never.”

The sound of scuffling feet on the dirt outside the tavern brought their attention to the roan spider and its hefty lady rider who was hitching her animal to the post. Her boots knocked against the wood planks that made up the front steps and porch.

Loomis motioned to the others to keep quiet and ignore the newcomer. He turned his back on the door and the other spiderboys followed his example.

Haley surprised herself by doing likewise.

In that moment, Haley realized she was a member of a real outlaw gang. Strange, she thought, how simple it was, really. With one simple choice between two paths, Haley slipped into lawlessness as one would choose to wear this hat or that, ride this spider or the other. Was it really that easy?

Tink pushed through the swinging front doors and stepped inside the tavern. Her eyes quickly adjusted to the change in light from outdoors and she went straight for the bar, ignoring the group of riders, the dead body and the upside down revenuer at the side of the room. She’d seen stranger sights. She pulled off her hat, revealing a mass of sandy blonde hair squashed to form the shape of the inside of her hat.

Haley couldn’t resist a peek and did so. She did a double take at Tink.

Loomis watched Tink order a beer from the bartender.

What he missed was the look on Haley’s face, her slack-jawed expression as she gaped at Tink. Haley jerked her eyes off of Tink and stared at the floor. Her thoughts raced as she pondered the meaning of Tink’s presence here so far from Liberty Star Ranch. Did she come for her? How did she know where she was? Was she alone?

Tink lifted her glass and took a deep gulp of her beer. She turned to have a look at the place. The group to one side was in a tight knot, obviously ignoring her.

A little too obviously.

The bartender leaned on his counter with one arm.

“You ride far?” he asked Tink.

“Far enough,” said Tink. Knowing that the locals in these fringe towns automatically placed strangers under suspicion, Tink read his mind.

“I lost my jack-dog,” Tink said, cutting him off before he could get a word in. “You seen her?”

“Seen lots of ‘em. What she look like?”

Tink stepped away from the bar a short ways. She scanned the room as she spoke, letting the others hear what she had to say.

“She’s young. Still a pup. Got a dark brown coat and brown eyes.” Tink drifted over to the group of spiderboys next to the hanging man as she spoke. “She made off two days ago and I miss her bad. If any of you folk seen her, I’d owe you a debt of gratitude if you can tell me whereabouts I can find her.”

Tink made her way to Loomis’s group. She singled out Haley who kept her head down, the brim of her hat hiding her face.

As for Haley, learning the ways of the outlaw didn’t take long, as if she had it in her all along.

Tink spoke directly to Haley. “And I can’t stop thinking, ‘Is she ok? Is she hungry? Hurt? She must be all alone out here. Scared. Lonely.’”

Haley fought to control her shaking. She kept her eyes riveted on the floor.

“That must be one special jack-dog if you ask me,” said Loomis.

Tink locked her eyes on Loomis. She wasn’t sure what to read on his face, the half-smirk, the sparkle in his eye. Was that sarcasm or ordinary amusement she was picking up?

“A jack-dog pup don’t stand much of a chance out here alone, ya know,” Loomis added. “You might want to think about going back where you came from and getting yourself a new jack-dog.”

The spiderboy guarding the door took his eyes off the streets outside and turned attention to Loomis and Tink.

“I thank you, neighbor, for your kind advice,” said Tink. “But I didn’t come this far to give up on her. I’ve a feeling I’m getting close to her now. Right close.”

Now it was Loomis’s turn to look Tink over and question what signals to read off her. There was something about the stranger that unsettled him, like the way his sisters would hide a toy from him when he was a kid and waited to see when he noticed it gone before laughing at him.

Loomis didn’t hear the footsteps on the front porch or see the gun poking the side of the head belonging to the henchman guarding the front door. The gun promised silence from the henchman, who got the message loud and clear.

Loomis only heard the voice. It was the kind of voice that was accustomed to giving out orders.

“You can drop that gun now, Loomis.” Doc stood at the door, holding the gun that held the spiderboy there silent.

Loomis spun around and reached for his gun. He reached for it but froze.

Spook stood just behind Doc with his gun out and pointed straight at Loomis.

Instinctively, Loomis looked back for a way of escape only to be staring at the wrong end of Tink’s gun.

“You might want to do what the man says,” she warned. “Unless you want a few extra holes in your hat.”

Flip popped up from behind the bar, a gun in each hand. Behind Flip, Sawed-Off stood tree-like in the doorway to the supply room, backing him up with a scattergun. Beyond the supply room, a back door had given them entry to the tavern.

“The same goes for your buddies too,” said Flip.

Loomis kept his cool. He looked at Haley who avoided his gaze. “Friends of yours?” he said.

Though she stared at the floor, Haley fingered her gun at her hip. Thoughts of home flashed through her mind, her father, her brothers, the spiders spinning their silk for the family business. She suppressed the images from home and replaced them with thoughts of streaking through the heavens, zooming from one star to the next in complete freedom, no one telling her what to do, where to go. If she wanted something, go get it. No one can stop her.

No one.

At least that’s what she was trying to convince herself. Perhaps if she screamed it loud enough to herself she could make it come true.

Haley fingered a dial on the side of her gun. She’d had this gun long enough, knew each dent and scratch. She didn’t need to look at it to know which mode she was dialing in. The Pike 8 had a rotating chamber that resembled an old-fashioned revolver, only bigger. The difference being with the Pike 8, the chambers determined to which mode the weapon was being set. There were five choices.

With everyone’s attention on Loomis, no one noticed the chamber on Haley’s gun silently rotating into a new mode.

Loomis didn’t like his chances. Every scenario he played out in his mind ended up with him full of holes. He ground his teeth and lifted his gun from his holster with two fingers then dropped it.

Sawed-Off stepped forward with his scattergun in both hands.

“The whole lot of you can do the same,” he said.

One by one, Loomis’s henchmen dropped their guns.

Doc watched Loomis’s every move with a sharp eye.

“Now, kick it over here,” he said.

Haley timed her move perfectly. She waited until the instant Loomis kicked his gun across the floor before she went for it.

In one flash of her hand, Haley snapped the gun from her holster, swung it up and shot at the wall in front of her.

A tight fist of a concussion wave smashed against the wall, blowing the whole side of the saloon into a salvo of splinters and glass. Every living thing inside was thrown to the ground, their ears ringing, blinded by the clouds of dust and debris that swirled in the air.

Haley, the only one who wasn’t baffled and confused by what had just happened, struggled to her knees. She blew two sharp whistles between her teeth and blinked away the dust in her eyes. She saw Loomis a few feet away shaking some sense back into his head and she pulled on the cuff of his jeans.

“Get up!” she hissed.

Through the settling cloud of dust a large dark shape filled the space where the wall had been.

Doc and the spiderboys fought to regain a sense of direction. Doc looked around in time to see Paladin charging through the gaping hole that had once been one side of the saloon. In answer to its rider’s call, Paladin rushed in, sweeping aside fallen and broken tavern furniture with his bulk. He was jittery on his clawed feet, thumping the floor with nervous energy, sensing the dangerous situation into which he had been called.

Haley jumped to her feet and pulled on Loomis’s arm to get him to do the same. “C’mon!” she grunted as she pulled him up. “Move!”

Loomis staggered to his feet and wiped the dust and grit from his eyes.

Haley jumped on Paladin, pulling Loomis behind her. She grabbed the reins, spun Paladin around and dug her heels into his sensitive leg roots. Paladin bolted from the saloon with the two outlaws hanging on to the spider’s back.

 

Doc and the other spiderboys stumbled through the gaping side of the saloon, blinking and spitting dust. They squinted all around for a sign of Haley and Paladin. Tink pushed her way through them, her face an expression of pain and fury.

“Haley!” she yelled at the top of her lungs. “Haley, get back here!”

Haley was nowhere in sight.

Sawed-Off lumbered up to Doc and Spook, still holding his scattergun up and ready for business. “What was that?”

“She set her gun on concussion wave,” said Doc. “Her father gave her that gun on her last birthday.” Doc shook his head at another thought. “And if she keeps this up, she won’t see another,” he said.

Sawed-Off scratched his head in bewilderment and said, “What’s gotten into that girl?”

Tink spun around on them. “She’s growing up!” she spat. “We all go through it sooner or later.” Tink yelled at the empty space around them. “Haley!”

“I don’t recall running off with the criminal kind when I was sixteen,” said Sawed-Off.

Clementine stepped through the hole in the side of the saloon, surveying the wreckage around her, eyes wide. She was dressed in a black sheer robe that revealed the underclothes she wore beneath it.

The revenuer hopped out behind her, still bound hand and foot, and dragging a length of rope behind him.

Clementine sensed who was in charge here and looked at Doc. “Just who is paying for this?” she demanded. “I’m trying to run a business upstairs.”

Doc stared at her then tipped his hat. “Ma’am?”

“I’m a partner here and I want to know who’s responsible,” she said.

“You will be fairly compensated for any losses, ma’am,” replied Doc.

The revenuer hopped up to Clementine. “Might I suggest you file a claim with Earth’s Ministry of Colonial Affairs? I may be able to assist you with—”

“Oh, shut up!” yelled Clementine as she pushed the revenuer aside. She returned to the smashed saloon.

The revenuer toppled over and hit the ground. He wiggled there, unable to get up. Everyone ignored him.

“Haley!” screamed Tink.

“She can’t hear you,” said Doc, silencing Tink. “She’s long gone now.” Doc consulted his pocket tracker, looking for Paladin’s signal. “Their signal’s fading fast. The iridescite deposits around here are interfering with the tracker and she’s headed right into those mountains. It won’t take long before we lose her altogether.”

Doc pocketed the tracker and strode to Rowdy who was waiting at the rail. “She’s taken the road north,” he said. “If any one of you boys want to go back to the boss without his little girl, you’re welcome to turn back now. If not, then mount up.”

All five Liberty Star spiderboys mounted their spiders and kicked them into a full-out sprint, taking the road north.

 

The road on which they were making their escape from Confusion curved a bit to the east then paralleled a river that ran north/south. Small mammals fled into the brush at the sight of Paladin, not that they had much to fear. The spiders of Aranae preferred reptiles to mammals when feeding time came. Haley felt Paladin’s exhaustion beneath her and pulled back on the reins to bring him down from a frantic run to a quick walk.

In his usual place on Paladin’s abdomen, Loomis looked down at Haley and frowned. “What’re you doing?” he said, the unease in his voice showing his disapproval.

“We’ll kill him if we don’t slow down!” snapped Haley.

“He can take it.”

Haley ignored him.

Loomis decided against arguing with her for the moment. He looked back and so far no one was on their tail. Loomis smiled. “You done it now, Haley.”

Haley gave a quick shrug. The thought of turning outlaw unsettled her. It wasn’t part of the plan when she stole away in the middle of the night with Paladin. Her fantasy of returning home triumphantly with her mother’s ring and handing it over to her father vanished with the dust in the trail behind them. One of the many arguments she’d waged with her father in the past gnawed at her. You don’t think things through first, her father had hollered at her. You’re too impulsive and then you end up regretting your actions later. When you’re old enough, you’ll know from experience when to act and when to hold back. Haley simmered with the thought that he may have had a point.

“I’ll live with it” was all she said to Loomis.

Loomis looked down at Paladin beneath him. A thought came to him that darkened his expression. He gave another nervous look back at the road behind him then turned his attention to Haley. Loomis studied the back of her head for a long moment.

“Friends of yours,” he said. He framed his words as more of a statement of fact than a question, repeating what he had said to her in the tavern.

Haley did not answer immediately.

“Whaddaya mean?” she said finally.

“They know you. They’re from Liberty Star, aren’t they? Those spiderboys.”

Haley studied the road ahead of them. She didn’t know how to answer him but she felt compelled to say something.

“Maybe,” she finally said.

“They sure knew where to find you.”

Haley kept quiet.

They rode on in silence for a bit before Loomis spoke up again.

“I was reading a while back,” he said. “Forgot about it until just now. It was saying that they invented some little device, some kind of tech… they’d put it inside the best spiders, the real prizewinners the rich folk had. If the spider ever got lost or stolen, they can track it on account of that little homing device they put inside. Take ‘em right to the animal wherever it might run off, anywhere on the planet.”

“Paladin ain’t got no homing device,” snorted Haley. She kept her gaze locked on the road ahead of them.

“Then how’d they find us so easy?” Loomis asked. “Out of all the directions they could have gone, they came right to that saloon straightaway.”

Haley tried to ignore him. Maybe by keeping a stony silence she could show him how foolish he was to suggest such a thing as a homing beacon implanted in Paladin. That was the logic, at least. For some reason it wasn’t making her feel any better.

Loomis poked Haley in the back of the shoulder blade for a response.

“You got any better ideas, Haley?” he prodded.

This annoyed Haley and she pulled her shoulder away from Loomis.

“I told you he ain’t got no homing device!” she yelled. “I know that for a fact.”

“The fact is what are we going to do the next time they catch up to us?”

Haley returned to the job of driving Paladin and ignoring Loomis. Still, the thought nagged at her. If her father had planted homing beacons in his spiders, she would have known about it. He would have told her, right?

Right?

The sudden thrill of turning outlaw faded fast as Haley pushed Paladin up the road toward the mountains.

The forest to the right of them thinned out as they rounded a curve in the road, revealing an embankment to the river a short distance away. A movement at the river caught their eyes and they slowed their pace. Haley and Loomis watched the two spiders near the water’s edge and the two smaller figures splashing in the river. Haley recognized them instantly. Their diminutive stature, black skin, small heads and large black eyes were unmistakable.

Grunts.

When Haley and Loomis came into view, the two grunts had been catching the blue and yellow eel-like fish in the river, slitting their throats with stone knives and stuffing them into woven grass bags strapped around their shoulders. As the sole indigenous intelligent species on Aranae (though some include the spiders in that prestigious group), the elumaki could have laid claim as possessors of the planet had they cared enough or were even fully aware of the concept to begin with. They didn’t seem to care. Or perhaps their cognitive development hadn’t progressed to the level of understanding that would include the notion of possession of one’s own planet. Most of them were docile enough and didn’t put up much fight to human expansion as the years rolled by.

That was most of them. The mountain grunts were a troublesome exception. The elumaki-amum differed from the other grunt tribes by resorting to acts of violence and hostility when interactions with humans were unavoidable. Most of the time they kept to themselves in small bands in their caves up in the mountains and the humans were content to leave them there.

Judging by the grunts’ skin markings, Haley realized that they had come face to face with a pair of mountain grunts. When she saw that the grunts were not making any threatening moves and appeared to be alone, Haley decided that no action would be the best action and turned her eyes to the road in front of her and kept Paladin on a straight course.

The grunts’ two spiders became jittery at the sight of Paladin. There was a protocol to be observed when spiders encounter each other the first time. A meet and greet determines who’s the boss and who’s willing to concede authority or challenge it, followed by a few tense moments when a fight may or may not break out. Maintaining control of your spider was the best way to avoid calamity.

Loomis watched the two grunts for a moment before tapping Haley on the shoulder.

“Take us down there,” he said, pointing to the water’s edge where the two grunts were fishing.

“No,” said Haley.

“We gotta go down there. I got an idea.”

“Like what?”

“We’re taking those two spiders there.”

“Like hell we are,” said Haley.

Loomis pushed off Paladin’s rump and slid to the ground. He headed for the grunts and their spiders.

Haley gaped at him. “What are you doing? Get back here!”

“We gotta take those spiders, Haley.”

Haley turned Paladin around to go after Loomis.

“Forget about them!” she yelled.

“Your spider’s a liability, Haley,” said Loomis. “It’s gonna bring your friends right to us again.”

Haley’s temper broke new heights.

“Jabez!”

Haley halted Paladin and jumped out of the saddle. She went after Loomis who turned at the sound of her footfalls across the stony embankment.

The two grunts in the river sensed the change in the situation and stopped fishing to stare at the newcomers.

“Jabez, so help me, if you do anything to those grunts…”

“What did you pull me from that saloon for in the first place?” he retorted. “You made your choice. I gave you the right of free choice and you decided. This is what you wanted, ain’t it?”

He had her there. Though Loomis made all the sense in the world, somehow her new outlaw lifestyle wasn’t quite the fit Haley had in mind.

“And you oughta learn it right now that sometimes in life some sacrifices gotta be made,” Loomis added.

Loomis pushed past Haley and locked his eyes on Paladin. He went for his gun, slapping his hand to his holster at his hip.

But his hand slapped empty leather. His gun was gone.

Loomis stared at his empty holster, realizing his gun was most likely in the possession of the Liberty Star spiderboys at this moment. He turned to Haley, a smirk on his lips as he connected the dots.

“That was right clever of you, girl,” he said. “Waited until I kicked my gun over to your buddies. Waited until your spiderboy friends did the work for you, then you shot out that wall. Ain’t I right?”

Now it was Haley’s turn to smirk. “You’re a little slow sometimes, Jabez, but yeah. Just what were you needing your pistol for anyway?”

“Making sure we get off this planet, that’s what.”

“I told you, Jabez, you leave my spider alone. You so much as hurt one hair on his body…”

Loomis thought of his next move. A movement at the river caught his attention and he looked past Haley’s shoulder.

The two grunts were now approaching, spears in hand, about twenty yards off but coming forward at a cautious pace.

“Seems like you’re about to regret shorting us that gun,” Loomis said.

Haley looked at the two grunts for a moment, then held her arm outstretched toward them and flashed a hand sign at them: thumb holding down the middle fingers of her right hand, index and little fingers extended, simulating a pair of fangs. The sign of the spider.

Kroosh! Birami nokhh!” said Haley to the grunts, making sure they had seen the sign she had made with her hand.

The two grunts stopped in their tracks, stared at Haley, and then glanced at each other, pretty certain that they had heard the girl speak their language. It was an order to keep away from her business, and as the elomaki were unaccustomed to taking orders from women, they were thrown off their game, uncertain of which action to take next. One of them repeated the hand gesture back to Haley, and then turned away. His partner followed him. When confronted by surprise resistance from a female, which elicits indecision on your part, sometimes the easiest thing to do is to just walk away.

Haley watched them go. “They won’t be bothering—“

Loomis’s hand moved so fast, Haley didn’t realize her gun had been snatched from her holster. Only the uneasy light feeling at her hip that told her it was gone.

Haley spun around on Loomis who stood before her with her gun in his hand and a triumphant grin on his face. “Hey! Dammit, Loomis! Give it back. Now!”

“Oh, I think I’m gonna hang on to this piece of yours for a spell. It seems a right fit for me.”

“Give it back,” she repeated. “You don’t know how to use my gun.”

Loomis returned her gaze, accepting the challenge. “I think I got a pretty good idea how these things work,” he said. He instantly swung his arm around and pointed the gun straight at Paladin’s head.

And pulled the trigger.

Haley watched him and gave him another one of her smirks.

The gun failed to fire.

Nothing.

Loomis frowned and pulled the trigger again.

The gun remained silent. Loomis growled at the gun, looked it over, fiddled with a knob here and there. He tried it again and again with increasing frustration and vexation.

“Had enough?” asked Haley.

Loomis took another look at Haley’s gun. It was a Pike beam-splitter sidearm, Model 8. Multi-array. Five different weapons rolled up into one trouble-making dispenser of mayhem and destruction. Loomis had seen a Pike Model 8 only once before. Its owner had activated the User Recognition Lockout, which enabled the gun to fire only when it recognized the DNA of its proper owner through contact with the palm of his hand on the grip. A voice command by its proper owner was the only way to unlock it.

Loomis snarled and spun around on Haley whose smirk had remained firmly planted on her face. He shook the gun at her. “Unlock it!” he yelled. “Unlock it!”

“You ain’t hurting my spider, Loomis,” she said.

“Your spider’s gonna get us caught. They’re coming right now.”

“Let ‘em come. But nobody’s hurting Paladin.”

Faced with this deadlocked situation, a new thought hit Loomis.

“Then let me trade him. I’ll trade him for those other spiders there….”

But when he looked down to the river, his sudden bright idea crumbled to dust.

The grunts were gone. Along with their spiders.

Loomis turned his gaze on Haley once again, dark savagery returning to his eyes.

“Gone,” he said. “They’re gone. You scared ‘em off.”

Haley leveled her gaze on Loomis, her voice somber. She flashed him the sign of the spider and said, “Let’s just say the mountain grunts and me have an understanding. Now hand over my gun and get gone yourself. This partnership ain’t working out.”

Loomis had other ideas. “Oh, I don’t think I’d have come this far to just walk away like nothing happened,” he said.

“Whaddaya mean?”

The words were hardly out of Haley’s mouth when Loomis bolted and threw himself at Haley, knocking her to the ground. He stood over her, a figure of menace and threat.

“Hey!” Haley went to jump back to her feet but Loomis knocked her back down. He swooped down and grabbed her by the throat.

“Now, for the last time,” he snarled, his jaw clenched in rage. “Unlock this gun. I’ll do the rest.”

“No!” blurted Haley beneath the force of his grip on her throat. “I—I won’t let you!”

“You want your freedom or that spider? You can’t have both! You keep that spider, we get caught. Now choose! Which you want more? Freedom or spider?”

Haley gritted her teeth, forced a stream of air through her nose and down a tiny crevasse in her windpipe. She stared at Loomis, eyes widening but conveying an I dare you attitude to Loomis.

Loomis lost his patience with her and raised the gun in the air, threatening to smash the butt end of it down in a life-ending hammer blow. He made sure Haley could see his murderous intent.

“Now… Haley Morgan. It’s getting mightily difficult for me to decide which I want to see more: the ransom I can get from the old man or to end your life right here and now.”

Haley contorted her face as she fought to form words at the same time.

“You should know one thing first,” She croaked.

Loomis drew all his power into the gun in his fist, pulling back before releasing it in one big crushing blow.

He hesitated. “And what’s that?”

Haley forced the words from her mouth. “Look out…,” she said, “… behind you.”

Loomis let her words sink in before jerking his head around to take a look.

All he saw was a blur of black hair and fangs.

Loomis was snatched from behind by a pair of massive, hairy forelegs and pulled off Haley.

Loomis screamed.

Paladin dragged Loomis away about ten feet from Haley and pinned him to the ground.

Somewhere in the scuffle, Haley’s gun slipped from his grasp.

“Get him off! Get him off me!” hollered Loomis.

Haley pulled herself to her feet, rubbing her throat.

Paladin stood poised with his two big fangs hovering over Loomis’s chest, at the crossroads of a decision. Amber drops of venom seeped from Paladin’s fangs and marked two spots on Loomis’s shirt across his chest.

It had become a recurring nightmare for him.

Loomis caught sight of Haley approaching. “Get him off! Haley! Please!” he begged.

Haley saw her gun on the ground and picked it up. She slipped it back into her holster.

“Haley… Haley.” Loomis fought for some semblance of control and switched his tone from a panicked begging to something closer to reasoning.

Haley squatted down near Loomis’s head where she could get a good look at him.

“Haley…,” said Loomis. “I can’t say how sorry I am. Just… get this thing, your spider… Paladin… can you ask Paladin… to back off? Please?”

Haley thought about smiling but couldn’t find it in her. She stared at Loomis under Paladin’s dripping fangs and just sat there, expressionless.

Haley’s silence unhinged Loomis.

“Haley!” he yelled, panic gripping his throat.

Haley rubbed her throat where Loomis’s fingers had dug in mere moments before. Her voice was hoarse when she finally spoke.

“Freedom…,” she said looking right at him. “The spider… is freedom, Jabez.”

Loomis narrowed his eyes on her. “Huh?”

“You can’t choose one over the other. They’re one and the same.”

Haley stood up. “You’re too late to figure that out.”

Loomis’s panic hit the red zone. “Haley! Get him off!”

Haley gave him the sign of the spider once more and walked away, never looking back.

From his upside down point of view, Loomis could see Haley receding from sight. His screams echoed off the rocks and hills around them.

“Haley! For the love of God! Haley!”

Loomis thrashed against Paladin’s tree-like legs that pinned him to the ground. In the midst of his flailing about, careless as he was, Loomis inadvertently gave Paladin a hard kick to his sensitive underbelly.

Paladin grunted as a sharp pain struck his belly. An instinctual impulse took possession of the beast and he thrust his fangs downward.

 

Haley stumbled over a few loose rocks in the road under her feet as she made her way back toward Confusion. She noticed for the first time how dusty and scuffed up her boots had become. They were new when she left home two days ago. She had admired the thraxhide leather they were made from and how the deep black color seemed to engulf the subtle red tones that ran across the surface. She decided to give her boots a thorough cleaning as soon as she got back home. Good God, how careless I’ve been! she thought. The thought struck Haley as odd that she should be so concerned about her boots when a short time ago she had been fighting for her life.

Though she could hear Paladin’s footfalls a few paces behind her, Haley did not look back. She didn’t want to. Maybe if she kept her eyes forward and focused her thoughts on other things, she wouldn’t have to face that image again.

Loomis impaled on Paladin’s fangs.

She caught herself again and screwed her eyes shut. She forced a song into her mind, a song at random, something to drown out the screams that wouldn’t stop echoing in her mind, a song that she had heard on the radio when she was a kid. Haley hummed the song over and over again, trying to remember the words, barely noticing that her eyes were welling up with tears.

Paladin followed Haley as she shuffled along, keeping his distance as if he understood why she wouldn’t ride him, why she refused to look at him. Paladin had dropped the body some time ago when he noticed that Haley was nowhere to be seen. He searched and found her on the road, walking. Walking away. Ignoring him.

And that’s how they were found. Haley drifting down the road with Paladin close behind. The search and rescue team from Liberty Star Ranch caught up with Haley a second time, quietly, with no gunfire, no pyrotechnics, no concussion waves. Doc and the other riders were spread out to minimize themselves as a target to any hostile grunts that may be in the area. At the sight of Haley on the road ahead, Doc signaled stop to the others and dismounted.

Haley stiffened at the sight of the riders, and before they got too close, she quickly swiped her sleeve across her eyes, angry with herself for getting careless with her emotions. Haley stuck her chin up, determined to show them that she was fine. She walked on until she came face to face with her pursuers.

Doc broke the silence. “You ok, Haley?” he asked.

Haley wasn’t sure. She didn’t answer.

Tink pushed her way forward. “Haley!” Her anger toward the teenage girl quickly faded when she saw her on the road in front of her, apparently safe.

Haley looked at her. “Hey, Tink,” she murmured.

“Well, you sure led us on a good chase this time, girl,” said Tink.

“I’m sorry, Tink… about what happened back there. I shouldn’t have done that.” Her apology sounded hollow to her and she wondered if Tink would question her sincerity.

Tink smiled and shook her head in a gesture that said Forget about it.

“Haley, where’s Loomis?” asked Doc.

Haley looked at him for a moment then dropped her head. “Dead,” she said.

“How?” asked Doc.

Haley looked at Paladin. Words formed on her lips but she couldn’t speak.

All faces turned to Paladin who stared back with all six of his black eyes.

A murmur went through the spiderboys. They all knew what that meant. File reports with law enforcement, talk to the sheriff, deal with the government hack from the Ministry of Animals, Colonial Affairs from Earth. Inquiries would be made, statements taken. And the black mark would be forever stamped on Paladin’s registration papers: man killer. In one thrust of his fangs, no matter how justifiable he might have been in defending Haley, Paladin’s value as a show spider was instantly cut in half at least. Nobody wanted a man killer, even if he was a low-life outlaw who got what he deserved.

As Morgan’s right-hand man, Doc was never one to go easy on the boss’s daughter. Morgan preferred it that way and told him so. “Was it worth it?” he asked her. “Did you get what you were after?”

Haley took the reins and mounted the saddle on top of Paladin. She shook her head. “No,” she said as she nudged Paladin down the road. The others followed. “I got nothing,” Haley added.

Little was said on the way back to the ranch. When they arrived at the edge of the Frying Pan, there was a brief discussion on the best route to take, straight on over the flats to save time or take the longer way and skirt around the periphery. They decided on the longer route and turned their spiders to the south. They reached the far side at sundown and stopped to set up camp. Liberty Star was another ten miles to the east and they expected to pull in about noon tomorrow.

In the middle of the night while the others slept, Haley, unable to sleep, got up from her bedroll on the pretense of using the latrine. She quietly gathered her belongings and left camp. She left behind Paladin and the spiderboys, setting out on foot alone, heading north toward Savoy.

 

 

2

Malady in Savoy

Haley Morgan gave her cheeks a few last strokes of the powder brush, a sort of dusky rouge, and looked at her reflection in the lighted mirror. She hated the results but had no time to mess with it further. She jumped to her feet along with the other girls in the dressing room and headed out the door. She had found it insanely difficult to match her color to the makeup in her kit. Maybe after their number she’d find a little time to work on it. Haley followed the girl in front of her through the dimly lit hallway, through another door and emerged onto the left wing backstage of the theater.

The stage manager gave a hand signal to the six girls as they hurried to their places on stage. One minute. As always, the little man looked grumpy and annoyed. They followed the same routine every night but no matter how often the girls strolled in behind the show’s pacing, and regardless of the fact that they had never missed a cue, he always frowned at their apparent lack of urgency.

The curtain was down. A comedy act was on their last joke on the other side. Sounded like a full house. The Colonel ought to be happy for that. The audience broke into a chorus of laughter and applause. The band gave the comedians their exit music and Haley caught a glimpse of the two men as they rushed by the curtain and disappeared backstage. A story was circulating that one of the showgirls had run off with the horn player in the band. Another dancer was arrested for prostitution and had sat the night in jail waiting for someone to bail her out. The Colonel came to her rescue but she lost her job at the Opera House. And because of those misdeeds by two former dancers, vacancies had opened up and Haley had found herself in the right place at the right time.

Haley checked for her mark: that knot in the wood floor just inside her right foot. A quick glance on either side of her told her that the girls were in place. Her legs and feet were in the correct starting position: weight on her left leg, right leg extended to the back, toes pointed, left foot turned out. She’ll bring her arms up at the last second before curtain rises, a bad habit she’d picked up soon after she was hired a month ago. She could sense by the feel of her costume everything was fitted properly and in place. A black, pinstriped corset made of sturdy Aranaen cotton with underwire cups wrapped itself around Haley’s ribcage. Boning inside the corset gripped her torso in its acrylic fist and a frilly skirt hung from her waist. The skirt was cut away at the front revealing her legs in black stockings, and draped low at the back like a tail. Haley hoped her tail would cover the run in the back of her left stocking that ran from her knee to the top. The corset was riddled with small nicks and tears from countless performances, worn by countless showgirls, patched together with needle and thread between shows, slight imperfections invisible from the audience as long as Haley kept it maintained.

The M.C., that loud-mouthed buffoon, introduced the next act:

“Ladies and gentlemen, give a warm Savoy welcome to Miss Lani Lace!”

A thunderous round of cheers and applause burst from the audience. Haley rolled her eyes and brought her arms up just as the curtain rose. Personally, she hated Lani Lace. Something about the name. Lani Lace. Lani had an average voice at best, but what she lacked in talent was compensated for by a mind-altering gorgeous figure. Long legs, generous hips and bust brought the eyes up to her entrancing face and eyes.

Haley was less than entranced with Miss Lani Lace. It was work. The Colonel paid her at the end of every week regardless of the house receipts, up or down. He paid every girl what he owed them. For that, Haley put up with Lani Lace. To a man, the audience saw Haley as just another showgirl, a living backdrop from which the star stands out. She was one of her supporters, her adoring girlfriends who’ll never live up to the level of womanhood that Lani had attained. Haley despised her.

Haley went through her dance steps in perfect sync with the other girls on stage. She smiled when she was supposed to smile, sang with the others girls right on beat and didn’t forget the words. Lani made her entrance from off stage, from the back of the theater. The spotlight caught her at the back row as her song got underway and stuck on her as she sauntered through the midst of her admirers and up to the stage. It was an idea Haley had discreetly made to the other girls a couple of weeks ago. The idea was stolen from her and made to look that it had originated from the choreographer. Haley didn’t care. Take my ideas, you talentless hacks. I’m just here for a paycheck.

At certain moments during her performances, a memory would spark through Haley’s mind, her as a young girl taking music and dance lessons at home by the piano. Her incessant whining brought an early end to the lessons, but now as a young woman, when she needed a job on her arrival in Savoy, Haley’s childhood schooling in dance and music fundamentals came back to her in an instinctual flash. Just have some coordination, a sense of rhythm and know how to count to eight. Things happen on certain beats. You count the beats. Your feet are here on four, your arm is here on six… Memorize it. Practice it. Do it. Get paid.

A thought struck her in the middle of one of her performances. When, as a child, Haley was enamored with the image of dancing and singing, but she wasn’t prepared to deal with the work involved to actually get good at it. But her father tried to instill in her a no-quit attitude, a finish what you start habit that didn’t quite stick with Haley. But it was enough to get her this job now at the age of sixteen. When the curtain came down with a clamorous applause from the audience, Haley found herself whispering, “Thanks, Dad.”

Lani’s song came to a quick end.

Another round of thunderous applause and cheers. All those lonely spiderboys. You think they’d never seen a woman before. One cleavage was pretty much the same as the other, at least from Haley’s point of view. Just two breasts smashed together by those merciless corsets they wore. What’s the big deal?

The curtain fell and Haley instantly dropped her arms and marched off stage. The band cued up for the next act and the showgirls scurried past jugglers, magicians, more musical acts and more comedians, all in last-minute practice for their turn in the spotlight. The girls filed into their dressing room and all but Haley were in full chatter mode as they stripped off their costumes.

“I lost my balance! Did you see? Think anyone noticed?”

“What’s with that creep in the front row? Did you see him?”

“Lani’s put on weight. Five pounds at least. She keeps that up, they’ll have to bring her out in a wheelbarrow next time.”

“You bump into me one more time, I’ll clock you!”

Sometimes Haley would join them in the post-show banter but tonight she preferred to keep to herself. She was here to work, make some cash and satisfy the obsession that brought her to Savoy in the first place.

There were the flowers again. Haley shook her head and sighed. The flowers had started showing up a couple of weeks ago and a new bouquet would appear every few nights. Other girls would get them too once in a while but this was getting tiresome. A card would be tucked in with the flowers with a handwritten message. The first time the flowers showed up, Haley was stunned. The message read:

 

Z—

In town. Didn’t know you could dance.

—R

 

That first time completely unseated Haley. But nothing happened afterward. The flowers were an expensive breed of chameleon roses known for their ability to change their colors throughout the full spectrum. They were difficult to keep alive after harvesting so Haley knew someone was trying to make an impression on her.

More flowers arrived a few days later. This time the message read:

 

Z—

Love the outfit. Fits you well.

—R

 

The flowers always showed up when Haley was on stage and were waiting for her when she returned to the dressing room. She was told that a private delivery boy was bringing them but the kid wouldn’t say who was behind the orders. He was just delivering. He didn’t know anything else.

Haley didn’t feel particularly threatened in Savoy. However, on one or two occasions she did get the funny feeling that she was being followed. But of course, nothing was there whenever she spun around to catch her imaginary stalker. She fingered her gun at her hip and thought, Good for you, whoever you are. Just try it sometime. Come out of the shadows when you’re brave enough and I got a nice little surprise waiting for you.

Haley rolled her eyes at this latest batch of flowers on her makeup station tonight, a vase full of singing starbursts. The opening and closing movements of the little white flowers’ “mouths” mimicked the appearance of singing. They were known by other nicknames, some of an obscene nature but “singing starbursts” were what they were known as among polite circles.

What did he write this time?

 

Z—

Fun and games over. Eyes on you. Watch your back.

—R

 

Now that’s different. The messages she had been getting up to now had all been innocent flirtations, never a warning like this. She decided she’d take a different way to the boarding house tonight than her usual route. Gun at her side, she should be ok.

Haley pulled off her corset and rubbed the creases it had made on her skin beneath her breasts. Free from the corset, she filled her lungs with air and exhaled a sigh of relief. She looked at herself in the mirror, unhappy with her makeup. She decided to do something about that once and for all. Haley smeared on some makeup remover, then washed it off in the water-filled basin at her makeup stand. She sat there half naked, making sure to keep her weight off her right hip, leaning slightly to her left, careful not to put too much stress on the illegal alien tech hidden under her skirt, attached to her skin on her right hip: a small flat metallic object four inches long and an inch and half wide. The last thing she wanted was to switch it off accidently in plain sight of everyone in the room. Sometimes she wore it on her hip, sometimes on her belly. Tonight, her corset dictated where the tech was located.

Haley reached for her foundation and studied her face.

Only it was not her face. Not the one she was born with, that is.

Haley paused to look at it for a second. She was still getting used to it. Her hair was now big, wavy and jet black. Her eyes, to match her hair, were two impenetrable deep obsidians and her skin, once white and prone to burning, was now the color of dark burnt sienna. Coffee with a little cream added. She bore no resemblance to the sixteen-year-old girl who had run away from home over a month ago. She wasn’t even the same race as before.

Haley was a black girl.

 

When Haley had stumbled into Savoy six weeks before, she had sought out the first boarding house she’d come across and collapsed onto the bed in her new room. The bed was stiff and lumpy, it creaked whenever she moved but it felt like heaven to her after trudging nearly 30 miles on foot, mostly over rough terrain, rocks, bramble and the occasional wild animal. She had drawn her Pike 8 several times, shot at a Horny Devil to scare it off once and was sure she had walked over the lid of a Trap Door Spider in the middle of the night. Why the spider hadn’t jumped out and attacked her, she could only guess. Must have been an abandoned den.

The Trap Doors were a particularly mean species of spider, the only one on Aranae that seemed to have refused the “deal” between humans and spiders. They remained isolated, wild, and each one bore a nasty disposition. Even their Aranaen cousins, the tarantulas, jumpers and spinners seemed to have ostracized them. They were like the oddball in the family who turned their back on everyone and devoted themselves to a solitary life in the wild, bitter, angry and possessing a violent and deadly nature. Besides their ill-tempered bearing toward humans and just about everything else, the most notable feature of the Trap Doors, like their miniature counterparts on Earth, was their preference to burrow into the ground, hide under a well-camouflaged trap door and wait for prey to wander close to their dens, at which point the spider would burst out and pounce.

Haley slept through the first night in Savoy without waking once. She got up about noon the next day and ate the last of her rations. She then unpacked everything she had and took a quick inventory. She laid out her money and counted it. $22.48AD (Aranaen Dollars). It should last her a while but if she stayed in town much longer she’d have to do something to get more, and she swore she’d do it on her own terms. No more running to daddy.

Not all of her clothes were holding up. She had not counted on an extended trip when she had left home; a few days to find Nugent, another day or so to bring him in. A week tops. She didn’t take a whole lot with her. She had her jeans, two white tops, a couple of camis to wear under the tops, one white bra and a few pairs of panties and those were wearing out. The ones she had on were tearing apart at the seams, leaving holes that were only bound to get bigger. Haley fingered the holes where the cotton fabric had pulled apart from the waistband and shook her head. She regretted not bringing more from home.

Home. Haley looked out the window and thought of the furor that was sweeping the Morgan home at that moment. The Liberty Star spiderboys coming in empty handed. Her father’s disappointment and outrage as he takes back Paladin, now a tainted ex-show spider. Its value slashed in half at least by a single plunge of its fangs.

Haley hung her head and shut her eyes. My gift to you, Dad. I give Paladin back to you a marked spider. A mankiller. Practically worthless now.

She couldn’t face him now. She had gone too far to go back and face her father for all she’d done to him. That’s what had been eating at her that night when she and the other spiderboys had camped before the last leg home. She couldn’t face him. She had to run. It was either stand before him in shame and humiliation or do something to fix it. Make it better somehow. How exactly, she wasn’t sure. Just do something worthy. Something to make it all up to him.

All she had to go on was the ring. Mom’s wedding ring. It’s in Savoy. Nugent said so. He cashed out his loot from the coach robbery in Savoy. Maybe… Just maybe there’s a slight chance it’s still there. Sitting in a pawnshop somewhere. Unclaimed. If she were to be dragged in to stand in front of her father once more, at least she could look him in the eye and hand over the ring that he had given her mother on their wedding day years ago. Then she could walk away knowing that she did something. She made something happen. She’d no longer be “the baby” of the family anymore. She’d have equal footing with her brother and sister.

At least, that’s how it played out in her head. She lamented the apparent rule of life that dictates that the events of real life run a completely unexpected course than the one you had played out in your head. And the strange thing is, chalk it up to stubborn human persistence, but Haley swore that she’d try her best to make that scenario in her head a reality. If not the ring, then… something.

Haley shook her head clear and set off for a good meal, her first one in days.

The town of Savoy was not unfamiliar to Haley. She had been there many times in the past when, as a young girl, the family would sometimes take a trip there to take in a show at the theater or dine in at a fine restaurant owned by one of her father’s many friends. On this day, Haley steered clear of those restaurants and sought out an unfamiliar diner on the edge of town. She looked over the menu, ordered a modest sandwich and soup.

The alien behind the counter who took her order, a Breallian Ridgeback, a species renowned for their razor-sharp photographic memories, recognized Haley from the news reports in circulation. The Breallians were also known for their annoying propensity for nonstop chatter, perhaps some sort of release valve for the constant flow of information that accumulated in their dual brains.

Haley vehemently denied being Haley Morgan to the alien, finished her meal, paid and dashed out. Great. Just what she needed. Recognition. If there was one thing she really wanted more than anything else at this time it was anonymity. To go wherever she wanted without someone pointing a finger at her and whispering, “Isn’t that Haley Morgan? The millionaire’s daughter?”

Haley returned to her room. She thought she’d have to resort to pulling her hat down low and perhaps buying a pair of sunglasses to complete the set. It didn’t seem adequate, but it would have to do for now until she could think of something better.

There was a noise in the bathroom. Haley kept the door to the bathroom closed and locked on the advice of the owner of the boarding house. In this house a pair of rooms were shared and separated by a common bathroom between them. Each tenant had a bath mate and it was the tenants’ responsibility to get along with each other. There were two wings to this boarding house, one for men, the other for women, three floors, six rooms to each wing, twelve rooms total.

As Haley became more aware of her desire for secrecy, she decided against meeting her bath mate altogether and would wait until she heard the door on the other side close before she felt it safe to use the bathroom. On one occasion, Haley caught a glimpse of her as she hurried out when Haley entered to take a shower. Her bath mate was a black girl and no more than a blur of ebony hair and bronze skin as she shut the door behind her. It seemed the girl was as concerned for her own anonymity as Haley was for hers, so she left it at that.

Haley found a pair of sunglasses she liked and wore them, and with her hat pulled down, found it effective in hiding her identity, at least while walking the streets. She then went straight to the nearest pawnshop and asked to see the wedding bands. When she didn’t find what she was looking for, she’d ask the seller if he had seen a certain kind of band come into his shop. She would describe the ring and so far, no one had seen it. Haley wondered if the ring had gone through the shadier types, the denizens of the underworld that seemed to lurk through nearly any city on Aranae, Earth or anywhere in the galaxy. She poked around the back streets and alleys, her Pike 8 at her side to keep the odds in her favor should things get out of hand. Though the back alley route proved fruitless in her search for the ring, it did turn up a bit of information that fascinated her.

Down a certain street, down a certain alley, knock on a certain door. An alien lived there by the name of Creepy Dick. He’s got answers to everything. He even knows how to change you. Literally. Not entirely sure what to make of that, Haley thought about it but that was about the extent of it. Thinking.

Wrapped in her sunglasses and hat, Haley passed by a local theater one afternoon. This was the Savoy Opera House and by the looks of the poster art hanging on the walls outside, the shows in this opera house were not exactly opera. It seemed to be more of a collection of vaudeville and burlesque acts, singers, comedians and dancers. Haley took note that the management was currently seeking dancers to fill some vacancies. Why that intrigued her, she didn’t know but it did. She studied all the posters on the wall of the Opera House one by one, drawing all the information she could glean from them. When she saw her reflection in the glass window, she knew that as long as she was Haley Morgan, that identity, that face was going to stop her from going after what she wanted. When a couple passed by, Haley was certain she heard her name whispered back and forth between them. A glance in their direction and the woman averted her eyes in an instant. But she saw that. Haley caught it.

That’s it then. If she wanted to be a showgirl, live a normal life like anyone else, why should her face get in the way?

So, Haley went down a certain street, down a certain alley and knocked on a certain door. Creepy Dick the alien was not forthcoming. He evaded her questions and invited her to come in and join him in a round of singing games. Haley was persistent and eventually got Creepy Dick to admit that he might be able to help her after she produced her wallet and insisted that she was not working for the police.

Creepy Dick was short, about four and a half feet tall, had amphibian traits and a slight lisp in his voice. He had big green eyes on top of his flat head and two large disc-like impressions on both sides of his head and neck where one would expect ears. Smooth brownish-green skin was stretched tight over his round frame. He brought Haley into his one-room bungalow, which was a morass of boxes and papers, trinkets and souvenirs from various planets around the galaxy. He rummaged through one box and then another, searching and humming a happy tune. After a couple of false alarms, he found what he was looking for: a small wooden box with the mark of five wavy lines burned into its top.

“Ah, here it is!” said Creepy Dick as he held up the box triumphantly. “I only have a few of these left.”

“What is it?” asked Haley.

Creepy Dick smiled the best an amphibian could smile. “This will make you a different person. Specially formulated for humans. Very powerful. And… not actually approved by the local authorities, if you know what I mean,” he added with a nervous chuckle.

“I do and it’s not a problem. How does it work?”

He explained it. It even came with an instruction manual translated into Aranaen English. How convenient. Yes, it was powerful and yes, very illegal.

But Haley wanted it.

Creepy Dick held his quasi smile on Haley. “A real bargain at only 50 Aranaen dollars,” he said.

“I can only pay twenty,” replied Haley.

“That is a problem.”

Haley bargained Creepy Dick down to thirty but he was unwilling to go further. She frowned at the thought of coming all this way for nothing and asked if there was anything else she could throw in to sweeten the deal.

Creepy Dick eyed Haley’s Pike 8 but she told him flatly her prized firearm was off the table.

“Well, perhaps there is one other thing you could do…,” he said with a gaze that wandered over the multicolored stains on his walls.

Haley stiffened. “Just what do you have in mind?” she asked.

“Whistle for me,” said Creepy Dick.

“Whistle?”

“Yes! You know how to whistle?”

Haley narrowed her eyes on him. “Yeah, but… why? What does whistling have to do with anything?”

“On my world, we are all lovers of great music. Our lives and everyday activities are governed by music. Business deals are struck with an exchange of music and songs to confirm the deal.” Creepy Dick sighed. “How I miss the old planet sometimes.” He brought himself back to the present moment in his home with Haley on Aranae. He smiled and said, “Whistle a tune for me. It would mean so much to an old Pularian like me. Any tune you want. And you can have the device for twenty dollars.”

Haley peered at him for a moment. It was a strange request but he seemed to be sincere. Haley pursed her lips together and whistled a melody she had learned when taking piano lessons. It was a simple tune, just an exercise to limber up the fingers. It seemed to work well on the lips too.

Creepy Dick went into a euphoric trance, eyes closed and head tilted back. Haley watched him curiously as she whistled then stopped.

Creepy Dick snapped out of his reverie. “Don’t stop! Keep going!” he demanded.

Haley whistled a bit longer until she got impatient and stopped again. She gave him the twenty dollars and took the box.

Creepy Dick, saddened by Haley’s refusal to continue her performance, gave her instructions on how to use the device just to reiterate what’s in the manual that came with it, and then asked if she could sing a song for him this time. A quick song. Just one.

Haley tucked the box under her belt and shook her head. She had things to do.

Creepy Dick, greatly disappointed, said, “Come back again, my dear. Any time you need help! You will be back again, won’t you?”

“Yeah, yeah,” she said with no intention of doing so. She trotted out the door, happy to be out of there. She got what she was after.

He might have been one weird alien but at least I didn’t have to show him my boobs, she told herself in an effort to minimize the creepiness that followed her from Creepy Dick’s home.

Days later, when she stopped by the neighborhood where she had gotten the tip to see Creepy Dick, she related the story to one of the street urchins she had become acquainted with.

“You did what?” the girl exclaimed with a broad smile and a laugh. “You whistled to Creepy Dick?”

Haley nodded.

“Don’t tell me he fed you that line about how they seal business deals on his planet by singing songs and shit?”

Haley stared back without saying a word. The look on her face gave away her answer.

Another round of laughter echoed through the alley and not all from the twelve-year-old girl who was more than happy to educate Haley. Faces appeared in the windows, all with smiles.

“Don’t you know where he’s from?” she continued.

Haley shook her head.

“Creepy Dick’s from The Swamp, that planet… what’s it called? Pluria, Bularis or something, I forget.”

“So?”

The street urchin, who went by the street name Peekaboo, informed Haley that, whereas the human male (female, too, on second thought) is typically aroused by eyesight, the sight of a woman’s physical traits, her legs, hips, ass or breasts, for example, the males from The Swamp are stimulated sexually by aural cues from the females. Sound. Females from The Swamp can bring a male to his knees merely by humming a simple tune. And no respectable girl from The Swamp goes around humming or whistling in public.

Peekaboo laughed again at Haley and spelled it out to her. What she had done was the audible equivalent to showing her boobs to Creepy Dick.

Feeling completely filthy, Haley returned to her room to take a shower.

Putting the incident behind her, Haley laid out the device on her bed. It was in two parts: a tall jar of powder and a metallic object, the actual mechanism itself. Haley read the instructions: Produce a sample of DNA from a host, a “donor,” so to speak. Place that DNA sample in a receptacle in the device and close it. Mix a bit of the powder with water and drink it. Wait ten minutes and then put the device in “attach” mode and place it on your skin anywhere on your body. The device will automatically latch itself on to you and will stay there until you turn the power off or you physically pull it off. There’s a switch on the side of the device. Turn it on and get ready. The genetic material in your body will be transformed to match that which you placed into the device. In other words, your body will be transformed into another person. Shape shifting. The process takes mere moments and you might experience some discomfort during the transformation but you will come out as someone else in the end. The effect lasts about a day until the solution wears off or until you switch the device off or you pull it off your skin as previously mentioned.

Now Haley understood why this thing was illegal.

Furthermore, the instructions said, it’s important, for best results, to find a DNA donor that matches your body type as closely as possible. Don’t place too much stress on the device by asking it to transform a thin young woman into a fat old man, for instance. You don’t want to know what happens when the device experiences a catastrophic failure. The catastrophe is all yours as your DNA is permanently altered and you shape shift into something frightful and very much dead. Don’t take chances. Play it safe. And for chrissakes, don’t do anything stupid like try to transform into another species. There were stories going around town of some guy’s friend who came across a lump of flesh and bone in a back alley somewhere. A clawed hand poking out, a lifeless eye looking at you, wondering what the hell happened. It’s always somebody’s friend who had all these weird things happen to him. “I had a friend once who…”

The little toy she got from Creepy Dick left Haley with her last two bucks and she was going to need all that to pay next week’s rent on her room. Haley weighed her choices. She could call it quits and go back home or she could take a stab at supporting herself and earn a living, stand on her own two feet. Get a new spider, rebuild what she tore down. And for some reason, the fear of going home and facing her father and family outweighed her fear of this little alien device using her body like a lump of sculptor’s clay. There was just one missing piece to make it all happen.

Haley wanted a good look at her this time. She timed it so she entered the bathroom in her torn up underwear to brush her teeth just as she heard the water in the shower turn off. She brushed her teeth at the mirror and watched the shower stall behind her in the reflection. When the shower door opened, the girl grabbed her towel and stepped out.

“Hi,” was all she said. She flung the towel over her dripping body, drying her dark sepia-toned skin with quick pulls.

Haley nodded an acknowledgement and swung her head down to the sink to spit out the froth in her mouth. When she looked up to return the greeting the girl was bounding back into her room, wrapping her black hair in her towel, her bare ass the last thing Haley saw before the door swung closed.

Strange, Haley thought. She didn’t even stick around to exchange names and pleasantries and engage in idle chit-chat. On the other hand, maybe it was better that way. The less she knew the better. But she saw her body and that was enough. And in the nude too. That was a plus. Her comparison between the two bodies would be more accurate, her judgment more sound. The girl couldn’t be much older than Haley, a few years maybe but not too much. She was stockier than Haley, not overweight but a few pounds heavier, a little shorter in height but she was within range overall. The only problem, if it was one, was that the girl was black and Haley white. The device had a range of tolerance and as long as the differences in the two bodies were not too extreme, it should work fine. But what constituted extreme? Creepy Dick had given the example of a thin young woman attempting to shape-shift to a fat old man. With that scenario as a point of reference, white to black within the same gender and age sounded reasonable.

Haley tiptoed to the shower stall and reached down to the drain. She pulled up a knot of black hair between her fingers that had accumulated there and took it to her room. There was no mistaking which hairs were hers and which were her bath mate’s. She singled out a long, coarse black strand of hair and threw the rest away. She then placed the hair in the wooden box with the device and shut the whole thing up in her nightstand drawer.

She thought about it some more. She cleaned her room and counted the money in her wallet. She emptied the contents of her backpack and repacked it. Maybe a walk would help clear her mind. She walked around the block then broadened her route to the next block whereupon she found a murder scene being tended to by law enforcement.

Haley watched the police at work in the alley, roping off the scene and hunting for clues. Someone said the victim was a tourist, someone else said he was one of the sheriff’s men. Another claimed to have been the one who found the body. The victim had been killed by a Red Thread, his skull neatly sliced in two. A real professional, that killer. You really have to know what you’re doing to handle a Red Thread, a highly charged thin filament of searing red-hot energy strung between two terminals held in each hand. It can slice through bone and sinew like butter.

Haley watched them for a short time before she heard someone whisper her name and the group of spectators fell silent behind her. She left the crime scene to the people whose business it was to unravel these kinds of mysteries, and put it behind her. She returned to her room and shook her head in disbelief. Even with her hat and sunglasses that kid had spotted her. If she couldn’t rely on a simple disguise anymore, what else was left?

Go ahead. Try it just once.

Haley mixed up a dose of the solution, one tiny scoop of the white powder to two ounces of water, then drank it with a toss of her head. She placed the strand of her bath mate’s hair in the open cavity of the device. She closed it and put it away in her drawer once more.

Just one time. Just to see if it really works.

Haley pulled it out again and put it into “attach” mode. She tucked the device under the waistband of her panties against her belly and it seemed to leap to her skin like a magnet to a sheet of metal. It clung to her and grew warm. She checked the time. Ten minutes.

“Bet it doesn’t even work,” Haley muttered as she threw the switch.

Haley wasn’t quite sure if it was working but a moment later an unseen giant hand took her body in its grip and began to twist her, squeeze her, mash and stretch her. Haley screwed her eyes shut in pain and torment and fell to the floor. Though she felt like it, Haley fought down several impulses to scream at the top of her lungs, which she probably couldn’t do anyway because her lungs were in the process of getting ripped to shreds and put back together.

An incredible feeling of being very loose and rubbery swept through her tortured organs, muscles and bones to be replaced with a sense of being thrown together, tight and compact. The giant hand released her and vanished. Haley was on her hands and knees on the floor. She drew her breaths in deep pulls, filling her lungs with as much air as they would hold.

A feeling of nausea swept through her gut, a parting gift from the unknown alien race who had made Haley’s new toy. Haley grunted and staggered to her feet, stumbled to the bathroom. She ran for the toilet, fell to her knees in front of the bowl, and with coughing heaves, vomited her last meal into the toilet, not once but three times. She panted in exhaustion after the last round of heaves.

And for the first time her attention was drawn to her arms that gripped the sides of the toilet. They were darker than they had been a few minutes ago. Much darker. And her hair that framed her eyesight was made up of thousands of tightly bundled waves of coal black strands, tumbling from her head.

A knock on the door sent a jolt through Haley. The knock came from her bath mate’s bathroom door.

“Are you ok?” asked a voice from the other room, her concern genuine. It was her. Haley’s bath mate. The black girl.

Haley caught her breath and froze. Oh no, this would not do, not do at all. She looked at her hands. But they were not her hands. Haley pictured in her mind what was coming in one second when her bath mate opened that door. An easy quarter turn of the knob, push inward and there she’d be. Standing there. Staring. At herself.

Haley nearly panicked and stifled a scream.

“I’m ok!” she yelled, then immediately regretted raising her voice. She forced a lower, calmer tone. “I’m fine… don’t worry.” She didn’t recognize her voice. It was deeper and carried more resonance than what she had grown up with.

Haley wiped her chin, flushed the toilet and got the hell out of there, shutting the door behind her, happy to be back in the privacy of her own room again, feeling lucky the other door had never opened. What a disaster that would have been.

With the nausea fading from her gut, Haley felt her strength returning and she began a process of self-examination. Yes, she was black and no, it wasn’t rubbing off. She studied her hands, her arms, her hair. There was a very tight feeling around her ribcage and she looked down at her body for the first time. The tightness was digging in around her chest, so Haley unbuttoned her shirt and took it off. However, no sooner had she done so than she felt the tightness releasing and her chest expanding with relief. She almost forgot she was wearing her Flexee. Her 34B Flexee bra had detected the change in her volume and automatically resized itself to a D. The Flexee was a little gift her father had given her on her thirteenth birthday much to his amusement and her embarrassment. A little souvenir he picked up on one of his trips to Earth. With all the changes an adolescent young girl’s body was going through, a Flexee was the perfect gift. No need to keep buying new bras all the time. A Flexee will grow with your daughter from ages 13 to 17. Thanks, Dad.

Haley felt the Flexee had come to the end of its adjustment and it seemed it could have gone a little farther, stopping short of where it ought to be. It must have reached its limit. She took it off. She took the rest of her clothes off as well. The device was latched on good and secure like a barnacle on the side of a ship’s hull. She tested it to see if she could pull it off. She could. It would peel off if she pulled on it more but she left it in place.

She had to have a look.

Haley went to the mirror that hung over her dresser. When she stood back from it, she got most of her body within the mirror’s frame, from the knees up. She stared at the unfamiliar nude woman in the mirror, her eyes running up and down her body, her hands followed, touching her skin. Her eyes stopped on her face. The face that stared back at her was not Haley’s. And though she was fully aware of what she had done to be in her present condition, the sight of this stranger staring back at her with intense pitch-black coal eyes, this amazingly beautiful but yet completely unknown woman unsettled Haley. And staring at her reflection in the mirror—though not really “hers”—Haley felt a tinge of guilt pulse within her with every beat of her new heart. After all, she did steal that girl’s DNA, and now she possessed everything about her except her name. She never did get the girl’s name. Why she thought that to be of vital importance at this moment, she didn’t know. As she stared at her new face in the mirror, Haley’s ability to think rationally crept back. She decided on her next course of action and turned away from the face that stared at her in the mirror.

The shape-shift back to her true self was a little easier to endure, less of a shock than the initial application. Haley was more prepared this time for what was coming. She was able to conquer the wave of nausea that came with the shift, suppressing the urge to empty her stomach further with a deep breathing exercise. In a few moments, Haley was back to her original, pale, strappy, lean body and, so far, not suffering any side effects from the whole process.

Haley had put on her clothes, packed up her belongings and checked out of her room for good. An hour later, after shape-shifting again to the black girl in a public bathroom, she’d checked into a new room at a new boarding house, one with a single, private bathroom. The new boarding house where Haley was now living was just around the corner from the Savoy Opera House.

 

Luck. Pure luck. Haley could look back now and count herself lucky beyond measure that, one, she hadn’t been killed by that alien mash-your-DNA-to-goo tech; two, there had been a fairly nice boarding house with a vacancy so close to the Opera House; and three, she had gotten the job at the Opera House as a chorus girl. But that luck came with a price. The new room wasn’t cheap, double what she was paying before, and her clothes were begging for replacements, her stressed-out underwear in particular. So, breathing a heavy sigh of remorse after an assessment of her possessions, Haley trudged to the nearest pawnshop and took out a loan using her beloved Pike Model 8 sidearm as collateral. She felt naked and literally defenseless without it and swore to retrieve it on her first payday, which she did. Gun first—food, clothing and rent later.

New home. New job. She even had a new name to go with her new body. She registered her room under the name Maggie Holloway. The name Maggie came from a favorite spider she once rode back home when she was a kid and Holloway was the name of one of her friends from school. She just liked the way it sounded. Nothing more.

With her Pike 8 back on her hip, new clothes on her back, Haley crossed the street in the quiet darkness of night, her room just a five-minute walk from the theater. Her makeup test had gone on for an hour after her last act with the results coming up a little short of expectation. But the new colors she came up with ought to work out ok, she guessed. The famous Savoy fog rolled in from the nearby hills as it did nearly every night about this hour. Haley, still in the body of her former bath mate, remembered the last message that had come with the flowers and took a sharp right turn to mix up her route. She wondered how much longer this day’s shape-shift was going to last and turned down an alley with the thought to cut her path short, get back to her room faster. The catalyst, the powdered solution she drank, would be running out of her system pretty soon and, like the old vampires that she used to read about, she quickened her step to get back home before time ran out. She figured that she’d have to pay another visit to Creepy Dick in the next week or two for more catalyst and she made a solemn vow that next time there will be no whistling, no singing or humming. Just pay whatever price he quotes within reason and go.

There it was again. That funny feeling. Someone watching. Following. And for the hundredth time, Haley spun around, expecting a shadowy figure behind her, and for the hundredth time, nothing was there. She stared into the fog, all her senses on high alert, her hand on her gun.

She barely heard the whisper.

“Zaida!”

It was a shouted whisper. The kind of whisper you hear when someone wants your attention from afar but no one else’s. Urgent but forced to restrain itself.

It came from behind her. Haley spun around again.

“Zaida! Over here!” It was a man’s voice.

Haley snapped her Pike 8 out of its holster and leveled it at the shadows.

A movement came from her right, out of the darkened doorway to an abandoned warehouse.

Haley had the gun on him. One squeeze of her finger and this ghost becomes a real ghost. He stopped in his tracks.

Haley’s heart—the black girl’s heart she had stolen—was pounding in her chest. Gun or no gun, she had to admit it. She was terrified.

“Stay where you are,” she ordered.

He was already stopped.

“Hands up.”

His hands went up.

“Who are you?”

“It’s me, Zaida. Rhys.”

“Who?” asked Haley.

“Rhys. You remember me, don’t you?”

Rhys took a step, hands still up.

Haley’s hand shook. “Not another step!” she said.

He took another step. “You’ve been gone too long, Zaida. You’ve gotten all tense.”

Haley stared at the shadow before her. He was big, that much she was sure of. Like a tree. Almost as big as Sawed Off. Though his voice carried no malice, Haley was far from giving him her trust.

But something started to click. A piece fell into place.

“What did you call me?” asked Haley.

He chuckled. “You forgot your own name, Zaida?”

“Zaida.” Haley repeated the name to make sure she didn’t forget. “And who are you?”

Another chuckle. “Rhys. This planet must have done something to your memory.”

“The flowers. It was you, wasn’t it?”

“I thought the singing starbursts were a nice touch.”

“That last message… you said, ‘Eyes on you. Watch your back.’ What did you mean?”

“Breedlove knows you’re here. And if you’re here in Savoy, then he knows I won’t be far. He’s been watching you and so have I.”

It seemed the more Rhys spoke, the less Haley understood.

Out of the corner of her eye, Haley noticed a streetlight over the next doorway, covered by a metal hood, casting a cone of light on the sidewalk close by. Haley nodded in that direction.

“In the light. Move. I want a good look at you.”

They both moved together, the gun still up and aimed at Rhys’s chest.

In the light, Haley caught her breath.

He had dark, long hair that hung to his shoulders. His eyes penetrated through Haley’s defenses, spoke of tenderness and caressing in one look, rage and sudden violence in another. His jaw was set in unwavering determination, daring you to knock him off course.

And in the light, Rhys had a good look at Haley. He gazed at her face. Just stared at her.

Haley found her voice to have lost its weight, its ability to exert her will and was now capable of only a throaty murmur.

“What do you want with me?” she asked.

Rhys answered her. He surged forward and planted his lips firmly on hers.

Haley pulled back instinctively but his arms had now encircled her in a tight embrace with no intention of letting her loose. Her eyes widened with shock and she grunted a no! but could not be heard on account of her lips being too busy with a kiss at the present moment.

He kissed her again and once more. “Zaida… It’s been too long. Too long without you.”

And then something remarkable happened. Haley kissed back.

She returned the kiss. Not once but again and once more.

Rhys took it as an invitation and put his hands to work. One went up, the other down. The lower hand slid over Haley’s left hip and found a good spot on her left butt cheek while the upper hand claimed the best prize.

Haley felt a large and confident hand squeezing and fondling her right breast. For a moment, she let him, having never experienced a sensation quite like that before. It was a moment. She snapped out of it and pulled back. What the hell am I doing?

“No, wait…,” she said.

Rhys was persistent and advanced again, this time pulling her back in with his strong hand on her hip.

But Haley had sensed something. She remembered the gun in her hand and brought it up.

Rhys stopped.

Haley turned every sense in her being away from Rhys and threw it in the space surrounding them. Rhys picked up on it and fell silent and still, also peering into the darkness.

There it was again. A humming sound. It was coming from above.

Haley looked up.

A half-dozen intense spotlights flashed on and centered on the couple in the alley below. They moved and floated downward toward Haley and Rhys.

Rhys yanked Haley into the shadow of the doorway to the abandoned warehouse.

“It is often said that for every great man there stands a woman,” said a voice that came down from the sky along with the vehicles. It carried a strange undertone, a sort of mixture of psychosis and delight, a kid pulling a cat by its tail. It spoke from a twisted mind and yet at the same time was strangely charismatic and compelling.

“But in your case, Rhys,” he went on, “you have shown your vulnerabilities by seeking solace in the arms of a beautiful woman.”

Haley and Rhys shrank back into the shadow as far as possible. Rhys encircled his arm around Haley to protect her but she squirmed.

“Who is that guy?” she demanded.

The lights settled to the pavement. Haley could make out some movements, dark bodies dismounting from their machines, stepping forward. They fell in behind a larger figure who led them. He stepped into the light of a streetlamp overhead, taking in the glory of his moment in the spotlight.

He was a big man in his thirties with long, dark hair that hung in limp strands over his round face, leaving gaps for his green eyes, nose and grinning mouth. A wild, untrimmed beard grew out of control from his jowls and dangled to his sternum.

“Breedlove, if I’m not mistaken,” growled Rhys. “The one who’s been following you.”

“I believe we may know of each other, Rhys Hardison,” said Breedlove, “though formal introductions have not yet taken place. This meeting tonight and inevitable arrest in this dark alley will have to suffice.”

“I’m afraid I will have to hold a contrary opinion, Sheriff,” said Rhys.

Sheriff? Haley looked at Breedlove and noticed the silver star on his vest. She swung her eyes back to Rhys. Great, another outlaw. Even in someone else’s body, they still find me.

“I’ve been on Aranae only a short time,” said Rhys, “but just getting here, I’ve been in way tighter spots than this.” As he spoke, Rhys pulled out a small, metallic, spherical object from his jacket pocket. It was black, about the size of a bocce ball.

“Apparently, you haven’t been on Aranae long enough,” said Breedlove.

Rhys slid a switch on the sphere in his hand. He leaned in to Haley’s ear and whispered, “Stay close to me and don’t get separated.”

Something in Haley told her in which side to put her trust and she nodded. It might have been the same something that told her to trust Loomis a while back but tonight she really didn’t like Breedlove.

A small woman’s voice spoke from the sphere. Rhys brought it up to his face to listen. “Password?” it said in a voice that was as calm and professional as a synthetic voice could be.

“Malady,” said Rhys to the sphere.

“Five seconds to warp,” replied the sphere.

Breedlove and his men didn’t like the looks of what Rhys was up to and went for their guns.

“The game’s over, Rhys,” said Breedlove. “Throw down your arms and put your hands up. You’re under arrest.” Breedlove was getting impatient. The grinning delight on his face gave way to a scowl.

Haley felt Rhys’s hold on her tighten as the seconds ticked by. She saw Breedlove’s men reach for their guns and remembered that her Pike 8 was still in her hand.

The sphere in Rhys’s hand lit up in an icy blue glow. Haley had the distinct feeling of being stretched. She also felt Rhys pulling on her by the waist.

“Go!” he ordered.

Rhys pulled Haley back down the alley, right past Breedlove and his men.

Haley looked at them as they went by. Breedlove and his deputies were still staring at the doorway where they had just been and were now slowly—very slowly—turning their eyes in the direction they were moving. They were moving in slow motion, almost comically, lagging far behind Haley and Rhys.

Haley and Rhys came out to the street and turned the corner. Rhys kept a firm grip on the sphere in one hand and the other on Haley. Their pace was brisk and resolute. Rhys had a definite destination in mind and took the shortest and most direct route.

Haley looked at the glowing sphere in Rhys’s hand. “What is that thing?” she asked.

“A clock ripper,” he replied.

They passed by a drunkard who was in the process of stumbling into a streetlamp post. He bumped his head against the metal pole in slow motion. Drool from his mouth dangled on the edge of his bottom lip, wavered and shook slowly—very slowly. Haley was transfixed on the drunkard, fascinated and disgusted at the same time. Rhys pulled her away.

Haley had heard of clock rippers but had never seen one. She wondered if Sheriff Breedlove had heard of them too as she had passed by him, a mere blur of a blackbird’s wing against the dark of night. From her point of view inside the temporal distortion bubble, Breedlove’s expression was in the middle of transitioning from a look of self-righteous indignation to one of shock, total surprise that this apprehension wasn’t going according to plan.

The clock ripper intensified in its brilliance and a whining hum came from within it. It grew too hot for Rhys’s hand and he threw it to the pavement where it sputtered, flashed and died. Clock rippers were single-use devices and always burned themselves out after about a minute of time—that would be a minute of perceived time within the bubble. And now that their timeline was back in sync with the rest of the universe, Rhys and Haley felt vulnerable again and quickened their pace. A siren was heard in the distance. Red and blue lights flashed from down the street and a motorized humming split the fog overhead. They were after them, that was certain, and with reinforcements too.

They arrived at their destination, a small one-man hover bike hidden in an alley in the shadows of a trash bin. Rhys hopped on and pulled Haley on behind him on the elongated seat, just enough room for her.

“Hang on,” he said and she did. The bike rose off the ground a few feet and took off with a growl of its engine, picking up speed with blazing acceleration. Haley was nearly thrown off by its inertia but she clung to Rhys out of sheer fright. She became aware of lights in the air above them, sweeping back and forth, searching through the fog. The lights were moving and seemed to be correcting their search pattern, focusing on Rhys’s bike as it raced through the streets.

“You got another clock ripper?” yelled Haley into Rhys’s ear.

“That was my last one.”

A shot of hot plasmic energy sliced through the fog and exploded next to them, sending the bike reeling to the other side of the street. Rhys fought to keep themselves upright and gunned the engine.

“Hang on,” he repeated to Haley.

Wasn’t she?

Rhys slammed on the brakes and the bike skidded forward, its tail, with Haley clamped on, pitched upward, almost throwing her.

The police hoppers overhead streaked past them, losing their target for the moment.

Rhys spun his bike full around and headed in the opposite direction. In a heartbeat, they were at full speed again.

Lights at street level up ahead gave Rhys and Haley new reason to worry. Three police units spread themselves across the road. They flashed red and blue and had no intention of letting them pass.

Rhys slowed down. A glance over his shoulder told him the hoppers were turning around and in moments would be cutting off their retreat.

Haley saw the spot they were in and got an idea.

“Go for it,” she said to Rhys. “Straight ahead. Hit it now!” She brought her gun up and set her arm, straight and firm on Rhys’s shoulder. Her thumb dialed the desired mode into the gun’s brain and she aimed its muzzle dead ahead. The gun’s chamber rotated into the selected mode.

Rhys saw the Pike 8 in her hand and smiled. He hit the accelerator again and they took off like a rocket, straight at the sheriff’s vehicles a block away.

Haley pulled the trigger.

But nothing was fired. Instead, the air in front of them turned glassy, objects became wavy as if underwater then coalesced back into sharp clarity.

Shots came at them from the cars ahead, some in rapid succession, all hitting their mark on Rhys’s bike. But Rhys and Haley were not hit, nor was the bike. The sheriff’s rounds were all absorbed by the wall of shielding that Haley had thrown up with her gun. As long as she held the trigger back, nothing was getting through that shield.

Rhys picked out the space between two cars and punched it. As if they had read his mind, the two cars closed in together, narrowing the gap to a mere sliver. Rhys rushed for the paper-thin gap and at the last possible second, swerved to the left. By one car moving to close the gap it had left a larger opening on the other side and Rhys took advantage. He and Haley streaked through the hole in the rolling barricade and bolted for freedom.

Haley swung her gun up and over until it was pointing behind them just when another hailstorm of gunfire erupted from the sheriff’s line. Hot bolts of energy slammed into Haley’s shield and got sucked into its transparent blanket. A powerful blast hit the shield and nearly took Haley’s arm off. That one came from above. The hoppers were back on the scent and they had a bead on them. Haley angled her shield up, like holding an umbrella against gale force winds. Another shot from above hit wide of its mark. Haley noticed that her gun’s power level was crossing over into the red zone. The work it was performing had nearly drained it.

But she had another problem, a new reason to worry. A churning in her stomach told Haley that the catalyst was wearing out and she was about to shift back to her original form. Experience told her she had about a couple of minutes left. Her mind raced for ideas; get Rhys to stop, get the sheriff and police off her tail. Something. Anything.

Rhys dodged another shot from the hoppers. Haley recognized the neighborhood they were blazing through and smiled as she remembered something. Now she had an idea. She tapped on his shoulder.

“Take the next left,” she yelled in his ear. “I know a place.” She released the trigger on her gun and the shield vanished.

Rhys took the next left turn, swerving past a car and splitting the air between two pedestrians as he cut the corner. Haley checked behind them as they sped up and saw that they had put distance on the hoppers, the crafts losing speed on the turn. She holstered her gun.

There was another intersection ahead and the street bisected into two just after the intersection. The left fork was straight and level, the right fork on the other hand…

“Take the right fork,” said Haley.

That street went down. It dipped down to a subterranean level and where it went after that, Rhys had no idea but it looked good to him.

They had a red light at the intersection but there was no time for lights. Rhys checked both ways and gunned it, narrowly missing the back end of a streetcar. They disappeared into the lower levels of Savoy, safe from their pursuers for the time being. In a moment they were under the bright lights of Savoy’s underground 24-hour shopping district, still full of bargain hunters even at this time of night. Rhys slowed down to navigate through the herds of pedestrians. The twitching in her hamstring told Haley that she was about to give quite a show to everyone right there in the middle of the street.

She was transitioning back to her former body. The process was underway and there was nothing she could do to stop it. She had to do something.

“Stop! Stop!” she yelled. “I gotta get off now!”

Rhys slowed, tried to look around behind him to see what was wrong.

Haley slid off the back end of the bike before it came to a full stop and sprinted for the nearest clothing store. Shape-shifting by way of the catalyst wearing off was a slow and painful process and by far more grueling than flipping the switch on the device. But it was nevertheless a sight to see.

Inside the store, Haley grabbed a top off a rack and ran to the fitting rooms, threw open the first door she came to only to find a heavyset woman trying to squeeze herself into a pair of skinny jeans and now jumping with fright and gasping at Haley.

“Sorry!” Haley slammed that door shut and crashed into the next stall whether it was occupied or not, just as she felt her face sliding off her bones.

She was lucky. Vacant. Haley slumped against the wall and dug her fingers into her waistband and yanked the device off her skin. She gritted her teeth and screwed her eyes shut throughout the remainder of the transition, which was now mercifully quick, having separated herself from the device. She sucked air into her lungs with deep gasps, thankful that she hadn’t let loose a litany of bloody screams in the back of the clothing store. She opened her eyes. There was a mirror in front of her, which told her the transition back to the true Haley Morgan was now complete and she had survived once again. But her face was haggard, worn out. Her deep brown eyes, deprived of sleep, begged her to stop doing this thing to her body.

Haley dropped the device into her pocket and ran her fingers through her hair, massaging the headache that throbbed inside her skull. She tightened her belt to keep her jeans up and held up the top she had swiped when she ran in to give it a look. It was hideous, not her size—too big—and overpriced. She didn’t care. It would do to cover up what she was wearing if Rhys and Breedlove and the cops saw her. She pulled it on over what she was wearing then paid for it and left the store.

Rhys was looking for her outside. He marched up and down the sidewalk, peering into every shop then scanned the street outside for any sign of police or Breedlove. He walked right past Haley.

Haley glanced over her shoulder to see if he might look her way. He didn’t.

A streetcar slowed to exchange passengers. Haley jumped on and took a seat by the window.

Rhys turned back and looked up and down the street. Haley saw that his eyes were full of angst and concern. He had lost her.

He had lost her again after a separation of who knows how long, Haley had no idea. She couldn’t know. She wasn’t Zaida. That was her name. Zaida.

But she wasn’t Zaida. She was Haley Morgan and her father was Wes Morgan, millionaire industrialist, the inventor and maker of Morgan Composite. This was the right thing to do. Sit in this streetcar and wait for it to leave this place. What was taking so long? Why wasn’t it moving? And though every instinct in her body was telling her to get up and run back to him, explain everything to him, that she wasn’t Zaida, that she was Haley and how sorry she was, the other side of her convinced her that that course would be a mistake. It had been a mistake all along, don’t make it worse.

Haley turned her eyes back to Rhys standing in the street not far from her. And as the streetcar jerked into motion again, Rhys turned his head and looked at her. Their eyes met and locked together for an instant before Haley looked away.

Rhys watched the streetcar fade into the night, wondering what was that spark that burned inside him when he looked into that girl’s eyes.

 

Haley stared at the ceiling above her and wondered how much longer she had to endure this torment until dawn breaks. Dawn, which was to herald another day of worries and concerns. She rolled over on her bed and made another attempt at sleep but it was useless. One thought would lead to another, which would lead to six more, which would lead to a thousand more. Had she done the right thing? Had she ever done the right thing? Where was Rhys at this moment? In the space of a few hours, she had kissed an outlaw, run from the police and gotten shot at by same. She was instrumental in escaping from them and saving their skins.

But she kept coming back to that kiss. Though that may not have been her first kiss, she thought she had done pretty well considering she hadn’t had a lot of practice. She had plenty of willing participants at her school, had the pick of the boys, selected a few, but she had never had a man. A real one. And though Haley modestly considered herself to be an experienced kisser from her point of view, what lay beyond, what it sometimes led up to, was still uncharted territory. She was waiting for her man, no boys. And Rhys was no boy. And it wasn’t so much that he knew what he was doing, it was the fact that he wanted her. It wasn’t a boyish curiosity behind that kiss, he hungered for her. Haley had never experienced that sort of attention before; to be the focus of someone’s desire so intense she was prepared to throw all reason and common sense aside. And that unsettled her. The thought of what she was willing to do, how far she dared to go, on account of a sudden emotional rush brought on by a kiss disturbed her and guaranteed a sleepless night. In a way she was thankful that Breedlove had shown up when he did.

Haley sat up in bed and brushed her hair back. Nope. No sleep tonight. She rose and went over to the door to the balcony, pushed it aside and went out into the crisp predawn air. She was in a room on the sixth floor of a hotel far from the shopping district where she had last seen Rhys. Her boarding room by the Opera House was no longer safe for her and she was sure that Breedlove would be waiting for her if she returned there. But she would have to go back sooner or later. She’d be forced to check out again from another boarding house, have to quit her job at the Opera House and find a new job somewhere else.

Still undressed for bed, Haley sat in the chair on the balcony, not caring that she was outdoors in her black tank top and panties; it was still dark and hardly anyone was out anyway. She liked the way the cool air felt on her skin and thought to pull off the tank top as well to get more air but changed her mind. She wasn’t that brave. Not in the city. That was her skin feeling the cool breezes, not Zaida’s. That was her arm, her legs, her hair. She rubbed an itch below her breast and found herself holding it in her hand, fondling it like he did. But it wasn’t the same. She was smaller than Zaida. It was Zaida’s breast he caressed, not hers. It was Zaida’s lips he kissed, not hers. It was Zaida’s body he pressed his body against, not hers. It was Zaida Rhys hungered for, Zaida he loved.

Not Haley.

The faint glow of dawn tinged the sky to the east. So, here it comes. Another day of stupid choices. Being presented with the choice of multiple solutions to any given problem, Haley was certain beyond doubt that she would make the dumbest, most idiotic choice and plunge headlong into it with great earnestness. She lingered there on her balcony to watch the sunsrise and was pleased to see that it was a Ladies First sunsrise. She didn’t get to see this very often. A Ladies First sunsrise occurs a few times a year and is made distinct by the smaller of the two suns breaking the horizon before its larger yellow companion. For five short minutes along Aranae’s thin sunsrise strip, the edge of shadow separating day from night from pole to pole, the only light that hits the planet are the cold white dwarfish rays from the white dwarf star. The elumaki consider a Ladies First sunsrise to mark the beginning of a lucky day.

Armed with that bit of superstitious assurance, Haley got dressed and went out to tie up loose ends. She checked out of the hotel and left, resorting to the hat and sunglasses routine again as a disguise, then caught a spider cab downtown where the Opera House was located. The main theater was closed at that early hour but the adjoining restaurant and bar had just opened for business and Haley knew how to gain access to the theater’s offices through the restaurant. The Colonel would be at his desk, probably looking over the receipts from last night or perhaps interviewing a new act or working on next month’s schedule.

Haley crossed the street to the Opera House and restaurant at a quick pace and made a discreet survey of the surrounding neighborhood, certain that the theater was being watched. Let them watch. She was just an ordinary citizen on her way for a late breakfast at the restaurant. She wasn’t anyone they were looking for. They wanted that black girl, not Haley. Haley went in and quietly skirted along the walls toward the bathrooms. She knew where to go; she’d been there many times before. In the privacy of the women’s bathroom stall, Haley shape-shifted into Zaida once more, swearing that this would be the last time.

He was “The Colonel” and that was about all you were going to get out of him. The Colonel was in his 50s, a native to Earth but had come to Aranae fifteen years ago. The word was he was a veteran of any number of revolts and rebellions that had occurred on Earth but no one loyal to the throne would acknowledge any such unrest existed at all, not now or ever as long as they were under the “protection” of the Sen Ra family. Depending on who you talked to, he seemed to have had some hand in The Flea Market Rebellion, The Luzerne Pie Fight, The Mojave Uprising, and the Melbourne Tea Party.

The Colonel was saddened to hear Haley—Maggie as he knew her—was leaving and he begged her to reconsider. They had a show tonight. Couldn’t she come in for one more show? Just tonight? No, it was an emergency. She had to leave today. The Colonel finally nodded and paid Haley her salary, but before he said goodbye, he pulled out a pen and paper and wrote a letter of recommendation. He told her he had a friend in Salt Lick who owned a restaurant with singing waiters. Not the same thing but it might be worth looking into. She had a decent voice. He told her that she was welcome back anytime. They were always looking for good, talented showgirls. Maybe she could come back as a solo act and they’d give her the spotlight.

Haley left The Colonel’s office and went downstairs, reading the letter that he had written. It was simple and straightforward, giving her high praise and saying what an honor it was to have worked with her and that he would hire her back again without a second thought. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs while she was still in the shadows and wiped her eyes. Damn, she hated crying and she especially didn’t want to be seen by anyone. But it wasn’t so much The Colonel’s praise of her that drove her to tears but the thought that if she were to return, would he take her back as Haley Morgan or would he prefer Maggie Holloway instead? Or Zaida? She got angry with herself and almost slapped her face to clear her cheeks of any trace of moisture, then focused on her next step, which was to transform back into her original body.

The bathrooms were on the far side of the restaurant and Haley had no other choice than to cross straight through the dining room to get there. She picked out the shortest path and went for it. Halfway across the floor, she stopped dead in her tracks and stared at him. He was seated at one of the tables sipping a coffee and reading the paper. The young man noticed she was standing there gaping at him slack-jawed. He smiled at her.

Flip.

A few years older than Haley, but among the Liberty Star spiderboys’ core group which included Doc (the leader), Tink, Spook and Sawed Off, Flip was the youngest and least experienced. What Flip lacked in experience was made up for by his lightning-fast reflexes and aim. Impetuous, brash and given to impulsiveness, Flip was nevertheless devoted, enthusiastic and seemed to possess limitless energy and drive. And, as he was in possession of a face and physique that was nothing short of dazzling, this was not the first time a young lady had come to a dead stop to stare at him.

Flip gestured to the chair in front of him, inviting her to sit.

“The view’s much better from that chair, Miss,” he said.

Haley gaped at him then blurted out, “Flip!”

But Haley was still using Zaida’s body. Realizing her mistake, Haley gave in to her fear and marched straight forward, almost breaking into a run, with long strides, bent on getting to the bathroom where she could have some privacy.

But she had forgotten how fast Flip was and in an instant he was on his feet and she was caught in his hands.

“Excuse me, Miss,” he said. “I don’t recall making introductions. How is it you know me but I don’t know you?”

Haley stared at him with Zaida’s coal-black eyes for a moment then sat at the table. Flip did the same.

“My name…,” she began. Haley realized that this was the perfect opportunity to come clean, confess everything, tell Flip who she really was: She’s Haley and she’s using some alien shape-shifting tech and she’s in trouble with the law. What she really needs right now are some friends who can help her out, give her some good advice and support when she needs it. Just tell him she’s Haley. Tell him the whole thing. It’s that simple.

“My name is Maggie,” she said. “And… and…” Haley wasn’t sure where to go from there. “And I know her. I know Haley. She’s told me all about you. You and the spiderboys from Liberty Star. Tink, Sawed Off, Doc and Spook.”

Flip’s eyes widened. “You know Haley? Where is she? I gotta take you to Doc!” Already, Flip was jumping out of his seat, pulling on her hand.

Haley wasn’t following and stayed in her chair. “Are the others here too?” she asked. “And Tink? Where’s Tink?”

Seeing that she wasn’t moving, Flip settled back down to his chair but remained on its edge, ready to fly at any moment. “There was a report that Haley was seen here in Savoy.”

Inwardly, Haley cursed that Breallian Ridgeback at the diner and his big mouth. They never did know when to shut up.

“We all split up to different parts of town to look for her,” continued Flip, “and if anyone sees her or gets any news, we’re supposed to report back to Doc. So, I gotta take you to Doc. C’mon!” Flip jumped again.

Haley didn’t budge. “Wait, wait,” she said, not sharing his urgency.

Flip sank back down to his seat. “You gotta come with me to see Doc,” he pleaded.

“Wait. Just wait a minute. I—she—Haley wants me to tell you… if she were here now… she’d want me to tell you, she’s fine. She wants to… if she were here, I’m sure she’d want to apologize for leaving you that night when you made camp before returning to the ranch.”

Flip listened to every word, completely missing the subtle anomalies in her phrasing, that stumbling self-correction that revealed more about this girl than Flip was able to catch.

“But she wants me to tell you not to worry about her,” Haley went on. “She’s doing fine.”

“But Doc said—”

“Don’t tell Doc anything, Flip. Promise me you won’t say any of this to anyone.”

“But I gotta tell him. He gave orders.”

“Promise me. You didn’t see me or hear anything about Haley from me. Promise.”

Flip never could take a strong stance against an attractive female. He sagged in his chair. “I promise,” he growled. A new thought perked him up. “But you gotta promise me one thing.”

“Like what?”

“That you’ll see me again. We got more to talk about.”

Haley thought it over for a second. “Do one thing for me and I’ll see you again.”

“I’ve already done one thing for you,” objected Flip. He wasn’t totally clueless.

“Ah, right.” Haley thought about it again. She drew on her experience with Flip and what drove him. “Do me one more favor and perhaps you may see me again on a more social, intimate level.”

“You mean a date?”

Haley nodded. “That’s right,” she said.

“Besides keeping secrets, going against orders…” Flip struggled with his strong sense of ethics that at this moment seemed to have some flexibility. “Just what did you have in mind?”

Haley pulled out a paper and pen. However, the only paper she had on her was her letter of recommendation that The Colonel had just written. Haley carefully tore the bottom inch of paper from the rest of the page using the edge of the table as a straight edge and preserving the letter’s visual integrity. She scribbled a name on the paper and handed it to Flip.

“His name is Rhys Hardison. Find out everything you can about this person and tell me the next time we meet.”

Flip looked it over. “Rhys Hardison,” he repeated. “Who’s that?”

“Some outlaw. I don’t know anything else, and you should have access to information that I don’t. Through Dad—Mr. Morgan, Haley’s father. His network.”

Flip stared at the name and scratched the back of his neck. “I guess so.”

“Is that asking too much?” asked Haley.

Flip tucked the paper in his pocket. “I guess I could look him up. They got a terminal in town I think.”

“Thanks, Flip.”

“Don’t mention it. How can I find you next time?”

“Meet me on Thom’s Bridge tomorrow night, say at midnight. Come alone.”

Flip nodded. “Ok, midnight tomorrow. Alone.”

“Thank you.”

And just like that, Haley got to her feet and left, leaving Flip at the table. She left the Opera House and crossed the street, her thoughts on Flip and the spiderboys from Liberty Star. She hadn’t realized until now how much she had missed them and longed to be riding with them again on their spiders out in the hills, maybe rounding up a herd of spinners and funneling them onto the spinning deck. Hard work but she missed it and preferred the work among real friends to a pampered life of luxury within the spacious halls of the ranch house.

Haley caught her breath. Her heart pounded in her chest as a thought crashed down on her. She had forgotten to shape-shift back to her original body. She was in plain sight in public as Zaida and no doubt a wanted woman by the Sheriff’s Department. She froze in her tracks on the sidewalk, fully expecting the police to pop out of nowhere and corner her, hoppers to descend from above and perhaps Breedlove and his men to ride up on spiders and take her as a prize.

She looked around. Haley spun completely around full circle and to her amazement, not one passerby even gave her a sideways glance. No police, no Breedlove, no hoppers. It was as if last night’s chase and gun fighting spectacle had never happened. Could it be that Breedlove had returned to his original strategy, using Haley as bait to lure Rhys back out into the open? Would the fog of love cloud his judgment and drive him to push his luck and repeat his mistake?

And then that question led Haley to another: did she just quit her job at the Opera House unnecessarily?

Haley turned the corner and found herself in front of her boarding house. Her room was just upstairs. Still no one in sight. No one watching from the roof of the building across the street or a suspicious vehicle parked at the curb. Feeling a bit encouraged, Haley went in and climbed the stairs to her room. She unlocked the door and went in. She was alone. The room was empty.

Haley breathed a sigh of relief, closed the door and found herself staring down the barrel of a high-powered handgun aimed directly between her eyes. She froze, petrified to draw another breath. At the other end of the gun…

Zaida.

She was hiding behind the door and she wasn’t happy to see her.

Haley stepped back. Zaida stepped forward, her gun firmly on target on Haley’s face. When she spoke, her voice was iron, in no mood for pleasantries.

“I’m going to ask you one question,” Zaida growled. She kept a tight lid on her composure but the rage seething inside made it a challenge. “If I get anything other than a straight answer from you I will not hesitate to blow your head off your shoulders and through that window behind you. You understand me?”

Haley nodded.

“Who are you?”

Haley gulped. The burning anger in Zaida’s eyes told her that she meant every word of her threat. When one woman holds this much fury against another, it’s a safe bet she’ll make good on any threat she makes.

“Your bath mate,” said Haley. “From the other boarding house on Bennett Street.”

Zaida punched the gun in on Haley’s face until its muzzle poked her between her eyes. “I want a name!” she demanded.

Terrified, Haley had no other escape. “Haley,” she said finally. “Haley Morgan.”

Zaida stared at Haley for a long moment. It would have been an odd sight to any observer that might have been in the room with them. Two women, identical twins, one holding a gun on the other’s head and demanding to know her name.

Zaida took her breaths in quick, shallow draws and continued to stare. She was thinking it over. There was something about the name that kept her from pulling the trigger. Her eyes narrowed.

“You’re who?” she said.

“Haley Morgan.”

The Haley Morgan? From Liberty Star?”

Haley nodded. “Yeah, that one.”

“And… your father is Wes Morgan?”

Haley nodded again.

This was proving too much for Zaida. She was staring at a mirror image of herself who was claiming to be Haley Morgan, the industrialist’s daughter. She shook her head in disbelief.

“No… you’re not her,” said Zaida.

“It’s true.”

“Prove it!”

Zaida’s gun was still in her face and Haley didn’t like guns pointed at her face.

“Lower your gun and I will,” said Haley.

Zaida thought about it for a second. She lowered the gun but kept a firm grip on it. She waited for an answering move from Haley.

Haley unbuckled her gun belt… slowly. “Easy,” she said. “I just need to drop this first.” And she did. Her belt along with her Pike 8 fell to the floor. “I’ll show you,” said Haley. Her fear had now given way to a new resolve, that feeling of freedom you get when you know you don’t have to hide anymore.

Zaida watched her. She watched Haley as she unbuttoned her jeans and opened them, revealing a flat stomach underneath. There was something tucked into the waistband of her panties near her pelvis, just left of center from her Iliac Crest.

Haley touched the device with her fingers. “This is it. This is what’s making me you.”

Zaida stared at it. “What is it?”

“First, let me apologize. I stole something from you and for that, I can’t be more sorry.”

“You stole what from me?”

“Better to show you.” Haley turned her back to Zaida. “I’d rather you not see my face just now. This takes a minute. Try not to freak out.”

Puzzled, Zaida holstered her gun and watched.

Haley took in a deep breath and flipped the switch to the off position.

This never was a pleasant experience for her. Haley doubled over as her body shook with nerve-rending spasms. She dropped to the floor on her hands and knees to ride out the remainder of the conversion process.

Zaida stood there gaping. Her arms hung at her sides as all volition left her in a stunned frame of mind, that moment of utter astonishment to the point of paralysis because what you are witnessing is so inconceivable all you can do is stand there and watch. Haley became slimmer, taller. Her jet black hair grew lighter in color to a dark brown and changed in body from tight and coarse bundles to loose and cascading. Her skin went from a deep bronze to a pale white.

Finally, Haley was left panting on the floor, recovering. She struggled to her feet, holding her jeans up to keep them from falling. She turned to face Zaida.

Zaida gasped.

Tall, lean and still a little woozy from the shape-shift, Haley tottered a bit on her feet then came to her center and focused on Zaida, who gaped at her speechless.

“This thing…,” said Haley. She peeled the device off her belly. “… converts your DNA to whatever sample you place inside. It shape-shifts you. I used your DNA.”

Zaida stared, trying to form words but could only utter one. “Why?”

“I needed a disguise. As Haley Morgan, I couldn’t do the things I wanted. I just wanted to be normal. Do normal things like normal people.”

The two women stared at each other for a long quiet moment.

“So, I became you,” Haley added.

“If you wanted normal you coulda picked a better bath mate,” Zaida replied.

“You laying low too?” asked Haley.

“You might say that.”

“How did you find me?”

“There are some things you’re better off not knowing,” said Zaida. “But for now, let’s just say it was easy.”

Haley had a new thought. Better give it to her before she asks. She opened the shape-shifter’s sample-holding compartment and carefully lifted the strand of hair between two fingers. She held it out to Zaida.

“Here. This belongs to you. The rest is mine.”

“I want the tech,” said Zaida.

“Take back what belongs to you and I keep what belongs to me,” said Haley with equal conviction.

Zaida thought about it, thought about pulling her gun out again, then grumbled and took her hair back from Haley, making sure the strand was firmly pinched between her fingers. She went to the open window, stuck her arm out, made sure Haley was watching and released the hair into the Savoy wind.

Zaida came back to face Haley. “If you’ve got an ounce of sense left in your head you’ll take a hammer to that thing and smash it to pieces,” she said.

“I might,” replied Haley.

“Sooner the better.” Zaida took a seat in the chair by Haley’s unmade bed, making herself at home. Evidently, she wasn’t done with Haley. “I got another question for you,” she went on. “Where’s Rhys?”

The question caught Haley by surprise. The whole discussion of the shape-shifting device had taken her mind completely off Rhys. “I don’t know,” she said. She was content that even though it may not have been the answer Zaida wanted to hear, at least it was an honest one. “You must be Zaida,” she said, realizing that formalities had not yet been made between the two women on account of a gun being pointed at her face. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise,” replied Zaida.

Haley was still holding her jeans up with one hand. They had almost fallen off when she was getting the hair out of the shape-shifter. “I gotta change,” she said. “We’re not the same size. Excuse me.”

Zaida nodded her permission, not that Haley needed it.

Haley let her jeans drop to the floor and stepped out of them, then went to the dresser against the wall and pulled the top drawer open. “Underwear too, sorry,” she warned.

“Hey, you saw me naked in the shower, so we’re even.”

Haley picked out clean underwear from the drawer and shook off her “Zaida size” panties. She pulled on the new pair and left her jeans in the dresser, opting to go pantsless. “I had to get two sizes of everything, depending on… if I was going to be me or you,” she explained.

“Nice,” Zaida said. She didn’t sound too impressed.

Haley tossed her bra in the drawer and pulled out a fresh, clean, white t-shirt. “Your legs are shorter than mine and your hips are bigger,” she said, pulling on the t-shirt.

“Thanks.”

“But your feet are smaller, so go figure.”

Zaida looked at her booted feet. She had never considered them to be small. “Did he say anything to you?” Zaida asked.

“What? Oh.”

“Rhys. What did he tell you?”

Haley thought that over. How much should she tell her? Should she tell her that her boyfriend had had his hands on her body, groping and fondling? Should she mention the kiss?

“He misses you,” Haley said.

“Yeah, well there are an awful lot of women between here and Earth who miss him.” Zaida looked at Haley with casual observation. “Are you one of them?” she asked.

Though there were times when Haley couldn’t stop thinking about him, she shook her head. “No,” she said, hoping Zaida hadn’t caught the instant of hesitation in her reply.

But she had other thoughts. Too many to ask at this time. Better to go with what was uppermost in her mind. Haley went to the kitchenette. “What did he do? I know he’s an outlaw. Breedlove is trying to catch him, so I know he must have done something.” Haley pulled down two glasses from the cupboard and a bottle of wine.

“An outlaw?” said Zaida, not a little bit surprised. She chuckled at hearing that. “I guess it depends on your point of view. Whose law are you talking about? Aranae’s or Earth’s?”

That got Haley thinking as she filled the two glasses. She crossed over from the kitchenette to the bed, handed Zaida a glass of wine and sat on the bed. “Is he from Earth?” she asked.

Zaida took a sip of wine and nodded. “He is and Earth wants him back. But one thing you should know in case you’re wondering what we’re up against.” Zaida lowered her voice. “Breedlove is a loyalist. There are some certain parties on Earth whose security would be greatly compromised if the knowledge that Rhys possesses was shared with other certain parties, and they would like nothing more than to see Rhys back on Earth in chains. And by the same token, there are some people on Aranae who seek to gain favor with Earth and would do anything—betray their own mothers if they had to—just to catch a few crumbs from their marble table.”

“Breedlove.”

“Don’t be fooled by that silver star on his chest,” said Zaida. “He’s no more loyal to that badge than he is to Aranae. Delivering Rhys to Earth would land him some big rewards, a promotion, a governorship somewhere maybe. At any rate, he’d end up a lot more powerful by giving Earth what it wants.”

“Then we’d better find Rhys before he does,” replied Haley.

“How did you find him in the first place?”

“He found me. I don’t know where he came from or where he is now. He just popped out of nowhere. He said Breedlove was using you to get to him. You—or me, I guess—were the bait.”

“It almost worked, except I had little to do with it other than supply you with a sample of my genetic code, thank you very much.”

Embarrassed, Haley shrugged. “So, what do we do with Rhys?” she asked.

“It’s too hot in Savoy for him. Too many loyalists. We need to get him to a safe house. Someplace where he doesn’t have to hide out like a sand rat. We gotta get him out of Savoy. Problem is, Rhys has got a stubborn streak in him a mile long and he’s decided he’s done running and he’s not moving an inch until he’s back with me.”

Haley thought about it for a moment. She got an idea. And though it may have had self-serving origins, she thought it was a good idea. “How about Liberty Star?” she said.

“Liberty Star?”

“Our ranch. That could be a safe house.”

Zaida thought that over. “Maybe. But let’s find Rhys first.”

“Give him time, he’ll find you,” said Haley.

Haley kept her thoughts to herself, which were resonating with images of Rhys at the ranch house, making himself at home. If there was anything that could put an end to her constant wandering and keep her at home, that just might do it.

“Then from this point,” said Zaida, “we have to find Rhys and get him out of Savoy. You can’t be me anymore, so he can’t find you. But if you should see him, if you see him hanging around that theater looking for you, bring him straight to me, no playing around, no hugs, no kisses. Do I make myself clear?”

Haley gulped. “How did you know?”

“You think I don’t know Rhys? Not to brag or anything, but he never could keep his hands off me.” Zaida let a hint of a memory-laced smile play across her lips. “And after a year of separation, he’d be hungry for a little taste. Am I right?”

Haley squirmed. She definitely wanted to talk about anything else besides this. “If he wants another taste, where can I tell him to find you?”

“There’s a tavern on the corner of 5th and Tahno. Go in and ask the bartender for a Skinny Bandit.”

“A what?”

“It’s a drink… or supposed to be but not really. Just tell him that.”

“Ok. A Skinny Bandit.”

“That’ll get you in to see me. Keep it to yourself.”

Haley nodded.

Zaida drank the last of her wine and looked at the glass. “That’s really good wine. What vineyard is it?”

“It’s Aranaen. That’s all you need to know.”

“Right.” Zaida set the glass down and got to her feet. “I’m done here. Nice talking to you but I got a fugitive agent boyfriend from Earth running loose in Savoy who I gotta track down.” She headed for the door. “Sorry for the scary bit with the gun in your face and all.” She opened the door and went out.

Haley followed her. “You weren’t really thinking about pulling the trigger, were you?”

Zaida turned and gave her a big smile. “Oh, yes! You’re lucky to be alive now.”

“So, what stopped you?”

Her smile fading, Zaida said, “You’re Haley Morgan.”

“And who are you?” asked Haley, hoping to get more on Zaida than what little she got from her.

Zaida leaned in close to Haley. She studied her face, her eyes. “I’m Malady,” she said in a low and throaty tone, almost a whisper.

That made no sense to Haley. “What?”

“That’s all you need to know.”

Zaida walked away, down the stairs and was gone.

Haley closed the door. “Malady,” she repeated to herself. She couldn’t put her finger on it but the word sounded strangely familiar to her.

But back to business. Haley crossed the room to the wine glass Zaida had just emptied. Her lip marks were still on the rim. She took a cotton swab from her dresser and rubbed the end of it across the smear that Zaida had left with her lips on the glass, then picked up the shape-shifting device, opened it and rubbed the inside of the sample compartment with the swab. She closed it and touched the blue circle, putting the device in “test” mode. In a moment it would tell if the sample it was given possessed a sufficient amount of genetic material to put it to use safely. A circle of lights spun round and round, then stopped and glowed orange.

Creepy Dick had explained to her while giving instructions on the shape-shifter that in the alien culture who had made the device, the color orange was equivalent to Earth’s and Aranae’s color green. It meant good. It meant go, don’t stop. Move forward. It meant do whatever you want even if what you were planning was extraordinarily courageous or incredibly foolish but you were going to do it anyway because you were too young and stupid to know the difference.

 

It took them an hour and a half. An hour and a half of poking around, asking questions—the right questions—and knowing the right persons to ask. And while it was certain that Breedlove was still at a loss as to his whereabouts, that he was expending enormous amounts of the Sheriff’s Department’s time and resources to find him, Haley was convinced that the reason she succeeded and Breedlove had not was precisely due to the fact that she didn’t wear a badge. She paid the street kids for a job well done and they returned to their normal routine of petty crime and mischief on the streets.

For a long time she debated with herself whether or not to see him as her real self or hide again in Zaida’s body. Even now as she hopped off the spider cab as Zaida and paid the driver, Haley reconsidered and wondered if there was a private area nearby where she could transform should her mind change again.

They said this was the place. Haley found herself standing in front of a church. But it didn’t look like a church, not like the big shiny one Haley went to with her family in the city. Flat wooden sides encompassed a two-story space that stretched out for fifty feet before making a right-angled turn into an L shape. The stenciled letters below a gold colored cross on the window spelled out: THE CHURCH OF THE FREE GIFT, UNIVERSAL DIMENSIONALIST, SAVOY, JONAS FINCH, PASTOR. Haley went to knock on the front door but a sign on the door read: “Open, Please Come In.” So she did.

There was a peaceful stillness to the air inside that permeated through Haley’s body, even if it was in Zaida’s form, and had the effect of what one finds when coming in from the storm outside. She stood in the foyer and looked around for someone to welcome her but she was alone. Pictures on the wall caught her attention and Haley was drawn to them. One showed Jesus praying at a big rock in the ground. Another showed him preaching to a congregation on a hillside. On closer inspection, Haley recognized several alien species among the mostly human worshippers, all in rapt attention to their Lord and Savior’s every word.

There had to be someone around here. Haley went to the large double doors next to the picture, pushed them open and entered the main sanctuary. It was a typical space for worship, a center aisle dividing a horizontal stack of wooden pews, a pulpit on a dais dead front and center and an organ to one side. There was a space for a small choir behind the pulpit and a long, vertical, stained glass window on the back wall casting multicolored splotches of light on the floor. Two old women sat together in the third pew from the front on the right and appeared to be either in reverent prayer or fast asleep, Haley couldn’t tell which.

There was a man dusting the organ with a rag. Haley made her way down the center aisle, feeling the space around her and how it seemed to lift her from the floor. The black man at the organ took notice of her and straightened and smiled. He was in his thirties with his hair cut short and already balding on top of his scalp. He had a friendly face, the kind of face you liked to see when you needed a favor. He was dressed for work, the manual kind where you got your hands dirty and your rent paid.

“May I help you?” he asked.

Haley felt strange to raise her voice in such a quiet place but if she had the courage to dance on stage in front of strangers, mash her body from one shape to another and kiss a guy she never knew, she could find it in herself to speak up.

“Yes… yes,” she said, building volume. “I’m looking for someone. I was told he was here. His name is—”

“Ah, you must be the new organist!” said the man whom Haley took to be the custodian. He came down the two steps from the platform to the floor, smiling, hand outstretched for a shake.

“Oh, but—”

“I’m Pastor Jonas Finch and you’re here to see me!”

Haley found her hand being pumped hard by the smiling pastor who seemed to be enjoying the joke he had just played on her.

“You’re the pastor?” Haley asked.

“That’s right,” said Pastor Finch still smiling.

“Oh, I was told I could find—”

“Come this way, we’ll talk more in my office.”

Jonas led Haley by the arm to a doorway to one side of the sanctuary. “You must have come a long way. Have you had lunch yet? I can see what we have in the kitchen. Last Sabbath’s potluck was quite a feast.”

They passed through the doors and made their way down a darkened hall, followed it around a turn and continued past rows of classrooms on either side. Jonas waited until they were out of earshot of the sanctuary.

He lowered his voice. “You have to be careful, Zaida. The sanctuary is not secure.”

“I need to know—” This time Haley cut herself off. “What?” she asked. “What did you say?”

“Be careful in the sanctuary. The Waller sisters are retired teachers, faithful churchgoers and excellent cooks but beyond that, I don’t really know their background. They also happen to be two of the biggest gossips in the congregation, so even in church, be careful of what you say.”

Haley nodded and said no more. She followed Jonas to a door, beyond which a flight of stairs descended to a basement where a warm light glowed from the ceiling.

“We keep our nativity scene down here,” said Jonas as they went down the creaky steps, “our old chairs and furniture from the multipurpose room and…” They reached the bottom of the stairs. “… brave souls seeking shelter from tyranny.”

Haley turned and saw Rhys standing with his back flat against a stack of boxes, gun drawn and held up in both hands.

“Zaida,” said Rhys, holstering his weapon.

In an instant, they were together, locked in a kiss.

An awkward moment passed before Jonas tried to interrupt the lovers. “Pardon me, I know you two have missed each other very much but we can’t waste any more time. We need to get you both to a safe place.”

Haley backed off from Rhys. “He’s right, dear,” she said, getting a few more kisses in. “We gotta get you out of here.”

Rhys held her close. “Where did you go that night? When we got away from Breedlove?”

“They were chasing us,” Haley said. “I…I thought it best if we split up… to lose them. I’m sorry I lost you, though.”

“We tried to get him to a safe house in Greenstone,” said Jonas, “but he wasn’t budging without you.”

“I know a better place,” said Haley. “Somewhere where they’ll never find us.”

“Where?” asked Rhys.

“Liberty Star Ranch. They’ll take you, I know.”

“Liberty Star?” mused Jonas. “That could be tricky. Morgan’s a patriot, no doubt about that but he has contracts with The Provenance. Earth’s starships are built from Morgan Composite.”

“I know he’s riding two spiders at once but he’ll hide us,” said Haley. “I know he will.”

Rhys looked at Jonas for his thoughts.

“How do you know?” asked Jonas. “What makes you so sure he’ll take you?”

Haley stared at him not sure how to put it. She looked at Rhys and back to Jonas. They both waited for an answer. Haley gulped before plunging ahead.

“What’s that verse in the Bible?” she asked him. “The one about the truth? It makes you free or something?”

“John 8:32,” said Jonas. “‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’”

“Then I’d like to put that to the test,” said Haley. She turned to Rhys. “Rhys, there’s something I have to tell you.”

Rhys peered at her, not sure what to expect. “You can tell me anything, Zaida.”

“I’m not Zaida.”

They stared at her.

“What?” said Rhys. He stared at her. She certainly looked like Zaida.

“I’m not Zaida,” Haley repeated.

“If you’re not Zaida,” said Jonas, “then who are you?”

“The real Zaida knows,” said Haley. “I had to do this for her. I can do it for you.” Haley stood back. “Give me a little space, please.”

Like before, Haley dropped her gun belt. She turned her back to them and loosened her jeans. She reconsidered her decision as her finger lay on the switch but it was a moment’s thought. She flipped the switch.

When it was over a minute later, Haley picked herself off the floor, brushed her brown hair back and turned to face her staring audience. She cinched her belt a couple of notches to keep her pants up.

“This is who I am really,” said Haley.

Rhys stared at her. The look on his face said it all. He was repulsed and backed away from her.

Jonas seemed to be the only one who remained unaffected by what he saw. He was like a doctor who had been trained to keep a straight face no matter the horror placed before him that he’s been expected to cure. Jonas looked at her and nodded. “That’s a skin blender, isn’t it?” he asked.

“I don’t know what you call it,” replied Haley.

“Shape-shifting tech. Where did you find it?”

Haley ignored Jonas’s question. She saw the hurt look on Rhys’s face and went to him. “Rhys…”

But Rhys pulled back. “Get away from me!”

“My name is Haley Morgan. Wes Morgan is my father. I’m from Liberty Star.”

Jonas’s eyes widened. “Haley Morgan!” he exclaimed. “You’ve been missing for quite some time, dear.”

But Haley’s attention remained fixed on Rhys. “Rhys, I can get you to Liberty Star. We can be safe there. Together.”

“And that was you in the alley the other night?”

Haley nodded.

“And we were kissing and…”

She nodded again.

Rhys pondered that awhile. “So, what gets me then,” he said, “was that Zaida I was kissing or you? Was that Zaida’s body…” He replayed the memory in his mind, his hands running over her body, feeling, exploring. “… Zaida’s body I was touching or…”

Haley nodded.

“Or you?”

“It was me. I was in Zaida’s body. I needed a disguise. So I wouldn’t be recognized as Haley Morgan. It was just by chance that Zaida’s DNA became available to me to use. Besides that, she had nothing to do with it. She didn’t know I took her hair.”

Rhys thought it over. “You’re just a kid and kids do stupid things. So, go take your shape-shifting toys outta here and go back home where you belong.”

“Rhys—”

“I said beat it. I don’t need you or Liberty Star. I’ll try my luck somewhere else, thanks.”

“I can’t just leave.”

“Why not?”

“Because I love you.”

It was like the air got sucked out of the room.

Rhys looked away. “You don’t know love. You’re too young.”

Haley took another step. “Rhys, I’m so sorry if I’ve misled you, I just kinda got swept into things. Can you forgive me?”

Rhys looked at her with utter disgust and contempt in his eyes. “Forgive you? For stealing my fiancée’s body and posing as her, letting me kiss you and… handle you like that? You’re just a kid, for Christ’s sake!” Rhys looked at Jonas. “Pastor Finch, take this little girl out and make sure she gets back home with her family where she belongs. I don’t want to ever see her again.”

Jonas took Haley by the shoulders with gentle hands. “Come on, dear. Let’s go home.”

Haley stood rooted to the spot. “But…but I can be her if you want,” she said, trying a different, more desperate tack.

He stared at her.

“I can be her, Rhys,” continued Haley. “I can be Zaida whenever you want. Just tell me whenever you miss her, whenever you want her and I’ll turn it on for you.”

Rhys advanced on Haley. “Get out!” he roared.

The sheer power in his voice knocked Haley back.

Jonas gave her a tug. “Let’s go, Miss Haley. There’s nothing more you can do here.”

Haley dropped her head and turned away from Rhys. She scooped up her gun belt and bolted up the stairs. She ran from the basement, from the church and to the corner. When she got to the corner, she turned and ran across the street, dodging traffic and spider cabs. The street rose up a hill and when Haley ran to the top she stopped at an overlook that presented a sweeping panoramic view of the city and valley beyond. A young couple was perched on the guardrail enjoying the suns-set and each other’s company. Haley held herself up with her hands on the stone guardrail and panted in rapid breaths.

Someone was at her side. Pastor Finch. He also was out of breath.

When she was able to speak, Haley said, “Leave me alone.”

“I can’t,” he answered.

“Why? Because I’m God’s child or something?”

“Well, yeah but there’s more to it than that.”

“What?”

“You know too much. About Rhys and Zaida. You need me.”

“I don’t need anyone. Just me.”

“You’re getting mixed up in the empire’s business,” said Jonas.

Haley held her head in her hands. “The empire—The Provenance! Now I got The Provenance after me. How did I get mixed up in this in the first place? All I wanted was to be normal. Like everyone else.”

“Rhys was hiding out in a senior assisted living center orbiting around Aranae,” explained Jonas. “He spent the better part of a year hopping from one planet to another just to get that far. He was a member of the royal family’s personal guard, privy to all kinds of secrets until he left them to find Zaida and freedom on Aranae. He was waiting for our word to come in while in orbit. Zaida was in Grandville and we were about to send him there. We told her to lay low and she did. But then she dropped out of sight completely. Not long after that the mix up occurred.”

“The mix up?”

“Zaida reappeared in Savoy as a showgirl at the Opera House.”

Haley was unable to hold back a brief smile that flashed across her face, a tired worn-out but embarrassed smile that momentarily brightened the gloom. “I didn’t think anyone would notice,” she said.

“We thought she’d lost her mind, so we told Rhys there’d been another delay and to hold there a little longer at the retirement home. But being the bullhead that he is, Rhys said he was done waiting, done living with the old folks, he was going down to the planet anyway. Knowing I couldn’t stop him, I sent a message to Rhys: ‘Malady in Savoy. Proceed with caution.’”

“Malady. She told me she was Malady.”

“Zaida’s code name. Picked it out herself.”

“Who is Zaida anyway?” asked Haley.

“Another agent from Earth. I was not made privy to the details of her job or assignments and maybe I’m better off not knowing. But I’ve been told she is quite resourceful, cunning and deadly. She and Rhys are madly in love and want nothing more right now than to put away the cloaks and daggers and live out normal lives as free people on Aranae.”

“Normal lives,” repeated Haley, relating. “Good luck.”

“But I’m curious about one thing,” said Jonas.

“What’s that?”

“How did you get a sample of Zaida’s DNA? She’s usually not that careless.”

“We were bath mates at a boarding house. I took one of her hairs from the shower drain.”

“Ah,” said Jonas, smiling. “Brilliant. You were in Grandville then.”

“No, here in Savoy.”

“Savoy? She was here?”

Haley nodded. “Is that important?”

Jonas thought it over. “Perhaps. We thought she was in Grandville.” He turned those thoughts over in his head for a moment. “Never mind, we’ll ask her about it later. For now we need to get Rhys, Zaida and you to safety.”

Haley pushed herself from the guardrail. “Rhys and Zaida can go hang themselves for all I care.” Haley turned and strode away, taking a footpath that ran alongside the road.

“Haley!” called Jonas who went after her. “No more running. Your planet needs you.”

Haley spun on him. “To do what?” she demanded. “What exactly does my planet need me for?”

Haley’s outburst had no effect on Jonas. “That’s a good idea you have about Liberty Star. Go to your father. Ask him to take in Rhys and Zaida. Hide them, at least for a short time.”

Haley shook her head. “I’m done with the whole thing. What I need right now is a good spider and the nearest road out of Savoy.” She looked at Jonas. “But here’s what you do. Go to the tavern on the corner of 5th and Tahno. Ask the bartender for a Skinny Bandit.”

“What does that do?” asked Jonas.

“If he wants her that much, he can have her.”

Haley walked away, leaving Jonas by the road. He watched her go and shook his head. Haley kept walking without looking back. She walked down the hill and all the way to the river where she saw Thom’s Bridge not far away. She went there and crossed the bridge halfway, then sat with her legs dangling over the side and watched what was left of the suns-set. She sat there in thought as the stars came out and the streetlights came on. The God’s Hand Nebula came into view overhead, spanning halfway across the night sky. Aranae was so close to God’s Hand and the nebula was so bright that most nights it would cast shadows, and most of the time, Haley would lay back and stare at the nebula for hours, marveling at its rich palette of colors, but tonight she stared down at the black waters of the river flowing past below her feet.

It was a good idea to get out of Savoy, start a new life somewhere else, but she didn’t have enough money for a spider and she wasn’t up to another long hike over the hills. So, she was stuck here. No job, no spider and two agents from Earth who’d be happier to see this kid out of their way where she couldn’t meddle in the adults’ affairs any longer. Fine. So be it, then.

Traffic was light on the bridge. Passersby came and went , some stopped to enjoy the nebula, steal a kiss or two and moved on. Haley wondered if she should wait here until midnight when Flip was to show up or just leave. Should she see him as herself or Zaida? She was in the midst of that thought when a hover bike pulled up beside her. Haley looked over her shoulder.

Rhys.

Haley stared at him for a long moment.

“Get on,” he ordered.

Haley didn’t like taking orders. However, she did like the fact that he came after her. She sat there between the two thoughts and said nothing.

Rhys looked away, collecting his own thoughts. He looked back at her. “Ok, I’m sorry I yelled at you,” he said. “It won’t happen again.”

Haley thought it strange why he would show up now after treating her like he did in the church basement. “Do you still want Zaida or are you having second thoughts?” she asked. Her gaze on Rhys told him she expected a straight answer.

“Zaida and I are engaged to be married. Besides…” He regretted he started that line.

“Besides what?” demanded Haley.

“You’re just a kid. You got a lotta life left in you. You don’t want to be tied down to an old horse like me.”

“An old what?”

He forgot where he was. “An old spider,” he said. “Look, you coming with me or not?”

“What for? I’m just a kid. You said so.”

“I like kids. Get on.”

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“To freedom.”

That was a good enough reason for her but she made sure not to react too quickly. A moment later, Haley pulled herself up and hopped on the bike behind Rhys. She hung on as Rhys kicked the bike into gear and they took off.

Haley held on to Rhys as he sped through the streets of Savoy, turning down one street and up another. He seemed to have a definite destination in mind. Haley held on. She held on to keep from falling off then leaned forward, resting her cheek against his back. She held on to Rhys just for the sake of holding him and then kicked herself for doing it. But she held him anyway. She held his black leather jacket with two tight fists and shut her eyes, fighting to see clearly, that somewhere between the torment and ecstasy, she could find a measure of happiness that would last longer than a day.

The hover bike stopped and Haley opened her eyes. They were parked in front of a spider corral, a large one. Beyond the fence in front, Haley could make out the dark shapes of several spiders, all motionless, most likely sleeping and waiting for dawn. Rhys and Haley slid off the bike and approached the corral. Rhys looked over the fence and stared at the sleeping spiders. Some stirred, sensing their presence.

Rhys shook himself. “Give me the creeps, those things,” he said.

At first, Haley didn’t know what he was talking about. Then she remembered that her father had told her that the people on Earth feared the spiders on Aranae, that some visitors from Earth would refuse to go outside out of fear of encountering a giant spider. Although the Earth spider was very small, they projected an aura of the ultimate predator, that their very shape, the plain image of a spider could instill the most terrifying visions of death and being eaten, even in a full grown human. Haley thought it was ridiculous. Those spiders on Earth were no good for riding and you could smash them so easily with your foot. She felt lucky to have been born Aranaen.

Haley went over to a large brown tarantula that was by the fence and had just wakened. She leaned through the fence and scratched the spider’s head behind its eye set.

“See?” she said, demonstrating. “He won’t hurt you… or she. I can’t tell which in the dark. Come here and scratch him behind his head. They like that.”

Rhys kept his distance. “Thanks but I think I’ll stay right here for now.”

“If you’re that scared of them then why’d you bring me here?”

Someone behind her answered for him.

“Because I told him to bring you here, that’s why.”

Haley spun around at the sound of the woman’s voice. She knew who it was before she saw her.

Zaida.

Haley’s heart stopped. It resumed beating a moment later when she saw the look on Zaida’s face.

She was smiling.

“Haley, I’m glad you’re not hurt,” said Zaida, stepping through the horizontal planks of the fence, from inside the adjacent arena to the street side where Haley and Rhys were standing. Zaida went to Rhys’s side. “I’ve gotten used to the spiders, Rhys. So will you.”

Zaida turned to Haley who was still wondering why she hadn’t shot her dead on the spot yet. “Haley, I want to thank you for giving Pastor Finch the instructions on finding me. He told me your idea is worth pursuing. We were talking about it before. About Liberty Star. Can you take us there?”

Haley could only nod at first. She found her voice and said, “Yes, I would have to ask my father first but I’m sure he’d welcome you to the ranch.”

“Then we got no time to waste,” said Zaida. “I got a ship out back. Let’s go.”

“But I have to call him first,” protested Haley.

“Call him from the ship.”

Zaida led them through the fence and into the arena from which she had come.

The arena was a large empty space, no spiders. Several tiers of bleachers rose from ground level, seating for throngs of spectators to watch a spider show, an auction or to observe the spiders in training. Haley, Rhys and Zaida crossed the arena in silence.

When they reached the center, every light in the arena flipped on.

Suddenly exposed, the three would-be escapees froze in their tracks and looked around, guns drawn. Nothing could be seen.

A voice boomed from the PA system.

“A fine night for a catch, don’t you think so, Zaida?”

Haley had heard this voice before. It seemed to her that Breedlove had a special talent of surprising his targets in the most dramatic way possible and he enjoyed every minute of it. Haley noticed Zaida. She was fuming with rage.

“Breedlove!” yelled Zaida. “I told you—” She cut herself off.

Breedlove was not visible. He was somewhere here in the arena but had not yet chosen to come forward. He allowed his voice to do all the intimidation. “It is indeed my pleasure to meet you again, Zaida, Rhys and…” He paused to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. “Miss Haley Morgan,” he said.

Zaida turned to Haley and Rhys. “Get to the other side. That way,” she said with a nod of her head to show them which direction. “Our ride’s in the field over there.”

“I would advise you all to drop your weapons and put your hands on top of your heads,” ordered Breedlove, his voice taking a darker turn. “Before anyone gets hurt.”

Haley dialed in the weapon of her choice on her Pike 8.

“Go now!” yelled Zaida as she unloaded her gun on the bleachers.

They ran for the other side. Gunfire erupted from the bleachers. Breedlove had brought with him a larger force of deputies. Much larger.

Haley aimed her gun in the general direction of where she thought Breedlove might be—the announcer’s booth. She fired.

A huge concussion wave smashed into the announcer’s booth, shattering it to splinters. Haley fired again at the bleachers, rocking them into silence.

Zaida stumbled from the residual effects of the concussion waves and looked at Haley with a mixture of awe and apprehension. This kid was never running out of surprises and she wasn’t sure she liked that.

With the gunfire momentarily behind them, Haley, Zaida and Rhys bolted for the other side of the arena where they dove through the fence. Outside the main show arena, they found themselves in a field with a small warm-up arena to one side and the corral with the herd of spiders beside that.

On this side of the corral they could see the short “marker” fence that more or less held the spiders in the corral. The marker fence was no more than two feet high, was usually red in color and had absolutely no ability to hold a spider inside its perimeter. Any spider within the corral could easily crawl over it and wander out of the stables if it wanted to. The spider had to be free. Even in a corral. You couldn’t pen a spider like a horse on Earth. An imprisoned spider would likely go berserk and end up killing itself and anyone else who got too close if it believed that it couldn’t get out. A marker fence communicated to the spider, “We would like you to stay here, please.” A spider had to have a choice, knowing it could either stay or go but nearly always chose to stay where the humans asked it to stay.

And right now the spiders poured over the marker fence.

All the commotion, the destruction in the arena had shocked them out of their slumbers and they were now running loose in the field in a state of panic.

Haley stopped and looked back. She had heard voices, shouts and barks of orders. She had stopped because she thought one of the voices sounded familiar.

Zaida looked back and saw Haley standing there. She pulled on her arm. “Let’s go! Move it!”

Haley went along with Zaida but had to glance back a few times.

Haley finally saw where Zaida was leading them. There was a ship laying quietly in the darkness behind the arena and stables, safely hidden from sight. It looked like a solidly built drifter, a big ship, an eighty tonner, one that could jump to space in a moment’s notice.

Zaida spoke into a small communications link at her lapel.

Haley had no idea to whom she was speaking, couldn’t make out the words but was glad Zaida had friends who could lend them their ship. Zaida led Rhys and Haley with determined steps toward the ship and they were nearly there when a door on the side of its hull opened up. Several black uniformed figures stepped out.

Haley stopped. They all stopped.

And in the moment when Haley was staring at the men exiting the drifter, Zaida turned and with her gun walloped Haley on the back of her head.

Haley dropped to the ground on her hands and knees. Though her head was splitting with pain, she had not been completely knocked out. She was half-aware of Zaida poking a device into Rhys’s ribs and sending a stunning jolt of power that also dropped him to the ground. Haley fought to regain her sense of bearing.

Zaida rolled her over into a sitting position and grabbed her jacket in both fists. “You stupid bitch!” she spat out in Haley’s face. “I had everything planned out in Grandville. And then you showed up and ruined the whole thing! A showgirl! You made me a showgirl! Goddammit!” Zaida punctuated her vitriol with a stinging slap across Haley’s face.

Haley was vaguely aware of two men dragging Rhys’s unconscious form to the ship where they had come from.

Zaida pulled Haley to her feet.

“You know how much trouble you caused me? Do you?” Zaida shook Haley for cruel emphasis.

Haley reached for her gun but found an empty holster at her hip. She looked around on the ground, thinking she must have dropped it. And then she found it.

In Zaida’s hand.

“Whatsamatta?” said Zaida. “Lose something?” She held up her new trophy for Haley to see.

“Give it back!” Haley struggled but Zaida whipped her around and pinned her arm against her back. She did it with one hand as she was holding the Pike 8 in the other. The quickness of the move and how it had totally incapacitated Haley told her that she was dealing with someone who knew what she was doing, that this little one-handed move was kid’s stuff compared to her other maneuvers that usually resulted in someone’s life coming to an abrupt end.

Several spiders ran through the group and the men who were carrying Rhys dropped him and instinctively ran for the protection of the ship.

Zaida saw them. “Get back there and pick him up!” she ordered.

Rhys was coming to. He shook his head and struggled to focus his eyes on something, anything.

The men grabbed him and pulled him toward the steps to the ship’s interior.

Haley recognized the uniforms. They were elite guards from Earth, the most highly trained, professional killers in the galaxy. One of them approached Haley and Zaida.

“Malady, I presume,” said the officer. His voice was as cold as a knife-edge, his eyes penetrating.

“At your service, captain,” said Zaida.

Haley was slow to comprehend what exactly was happening but it sank in. Zaida was working for them. She was one of them. She was an agent for The Provenance of Earth, also known as the empire, and the Sen Ra dynasty. And what about Rhys? Haley turned her eyes to him.

He was coming around as he was being dragged up the drifter’s steps. His eyes found Haley and locked onto her.

“Haley!”

Haley saw the panic that gripped him when he realized who had captured him—and who had betrayed him.

“Haley!” he cried out again, this time reaching out to her with an outstretched arm, hand open, frantic to grab hold of Haley. But she was too far away.

“Rhys!” Haley yelled back with a lunge in his direction.

Zaida held her back.

“Miss Morgan, if I’m not mistaken?” said the Earth officer. “I am Captain Bock. Your father’s work is greatly admired on Earth. It is my esteemed honor and pleasure to place you into the protection of The Provenance and the royal family.”

Haley looked at him then back at Rhys.

“Please don’t worry about Citizen Rhys,” said Bock. “He is in good care now.”

And just as he said those words, Rhys disappeared inside the ship.

“Rhys!” Haley’s eyes were tearing up and she let loose her fury on the captain. “Let him go! He just wants to be free!” She struggled against Zaida’s hold on her but she wasn’t going anywhere. “Let him go!” she repeated.

Spiders were still running loose, on edge that things were not right, that order had not yet been restored. Haley glanced at them, getting ideas.

Captain Bock turned his compassionate eyes on Haley. “His hardships have come to an end,” he said. “He can rest now.”

Zaida just remembered something. Something important. She spun Haley around, looked into her eyes.

“Where is it? Where?” she asked.

Haley looked back at her puzzled. “Where’s what?”

“Give me that tech you got. The shape-shifting tech. Hand it over!”

Haley shook her head. “No. No, leave it alone,” she said.

Zaida went for Haley’s jeans, fought to unbutton them as Haley struggled to block her.

Bock watched them curiously. “Agent Zaida… an explanation please,” he said.

“She’s got a skin blender on her,” Zaida said. She gave Haley a punch to soften her resistance. “I want it.”

“A skin blender,” repeated Bock. “How exotic. Wherever did she get—”

“I would thank you to unhand Wesley Morgan’s daughter,” said a voice from the darkness. It was a polite order and if it wasn’t obeyed, the politeness would end.

They all froze and looked.

Haley recognized the voice. It was the same voice she had heard back in the arena when they were making their escape from Breedlove. Her heart leapt.

From out of the darkness and into the light cast from the royal drifter’s interior, a group of riders on their spiders entered.

Doc rode up on Rowdy, his mount. Behind Doc came the others: Tink, Spook, Sawed Off and Flip. All five of them.

Doc had given the command and he was expecting their compliance. His drawn pistol underscored his sincerity and intent. And though he held the gun pointed up at the sky, it was clear to everyone he wasn’t afraid of using it if anyone got any ideas.

Captain Bock regarded the newcomers with cool regard. “I’m sorry…” he said, expecting introductions.

“You can call me Doc. We work for Wes Morgan and he wants his daughter back.”

Armed men streamed out from the imperial drifter.

Haley took this opportunity to button her jeans back up, protecting the device that was still tucked away, firmly planted against her belly.

“So, unless you’re willing to start an interstellar incident between Earth and Aranae,” continued Doc, “you may want to rethink that plan of yours to use Haley as leverage against her father.”

Everyone looked at Captain Bock.

“It was never The Provenance’s intent to start any incidents with our most highly esteemed colony,” he said. Bock was not quick to back down.

Doc stared at him. He wasn’t in a mood to negotiate and Bock sensed it.

A moment passed as Bock received instructions from Earth straight to the implants that were nestled against his brain.

“Release the girl,” said Bock to Zaida.

Zaida looked at Bock, not happy with that. “You said Earth wanted her. And then I would get to have her when you were done with her.”

“We have acquired our main target, Agent Zaida. The girl was a bonus. That was your idea, wasn’t it? A bonus. But she is a bonus we can live without. Release her.”

“She stole my body!” And with that, in one quick motion, Zaida swung her arm out and brought it down toward Haley. A flash of thin red light appeared in the palm of her hand.

But her wrist was caught and now firmly in Bock’s grip. She had forgotten that the most elite troops from Earth were surgically altered humans, “improved” by cybernetic implants. Bock’s movement to intercept Zaida’s arm was too fast to be seen.

Zaida gripped the two ends of a glowing Red Thread. The intensely hot filament would have easily cut through Haley’s skull with no more effort than passing through a plate of gelatin.

But Zaida was no match for the enhanced Captain Bock. All she had left was supplication. “If the empire has no need of her, then she’s expendable,” she said to Bock. “Let me do it, please!”

Bock’s answer was to tighten his grip on her arm. Zaida cried out in pain and dropped the Red Thread, which deactivated upon hitting the ground. She loosened her hold on Haley and let her go. Bock in turn released Zaida.

“You may take this opportunity to board the ship, Agent Zaida,” ordered Bock.

Zaida soured on the words but spat them out. “Yes, sir.”

Haley grabbed Zaida’s sleeve, stopping her. She held out her hand.

“My gun, please,” she said.

Zaida shook off Haley and looked to Bock.

“The Aranaens are sensitive in regard to their property, Agent Zaida,” he said. “I suggest you return her weapon.” It wasn’t a suggestion.

Zaida gave it back.

Haley slid her gun back in its holster. It was good to feel its weight at her hip again.

But Zaida wasn’t done with Haley yet. She leaned in to her face. “I won’t forget you,” she growled. Her voice was low and full of ice.

Haley stepped back. In one moment she was under Zaida’s burning gaze, the next, she was being swept away in the arms of Tink who had dismounted from her spider and come to Haley’s side.

Doc holstered his gun. “Now, we got one more issue to settle,” he said to Captain Bock, “and that concerns that young man you’re holding. Rhys Hardison.”

“He is of no concern of yours, Mr. Doc,” said Bock. “Citizen Rhys is a member of the royal family’s personal guard and will return to his duties.”

“Is that so?” said Doc, not believing a word.

Tink swept Haley away and they were soon out of earshot of Doc’s debate with Bock. They stopped a short distance away.

Tink looked Haley over, giving her a quick inspection. “Are you ok, dear?” she asked. “Are you hurt?”

“No,” Haley lied. “I’m fine. Everything’s ok.”

Haley looked over to the ship. Some of the Earth elite were returning to the ship. She also saw Zaida climb the steps and disappear inside.

Haley had to clamp down on her emotions again to keep those tears in place. She looked at Tink. “How did you know? I mean, how did you know where to find us? How much do you know?”

Tink smiled. “We knew everything when Flip showed us that name you wrote on the paper.”

Haley had to think back to the time when she had met with Flip, when she was in Zaida’s body. “How?”

“It may have been that woman’s body you were using but you couldn’t hide your handwriting. We figured you were in some kind of disguise, but damn! A skin blender? Are you crazy? You know what those things can do to you?”

Haley shrugged. “I got a pretty good idea,” she said.

“Yeah, well, from there, we figured the whole thing. We talked to the colonial guys—our people. That name you wrote on the paper. Rhys Hardison. We knew you were in trouble way over your head. Trouble with the empire and that’s bad news. We followed you and were trying to get you, Rhys and Zaida all together. Well, it didn’t work out quite like we wanted.”

“You followed me?”

“Yeah, we walked right past you on the bridge. Doc and me. We posed as a couple and walked right by you. You didn’t look too happy, though.”

“How about now?” asked Haley.

“No different.”

There was some movement by the ship. Bock and his subordinates were filing back into the drifter. Doc made his way toward Haley, head bowed.

Haley stirred. She broke and ran to Doc.

“Doc!” she cried. “Where’s Rhys? Where is he?”

“I did all I could, dear,” said Doc. “I’m sorry. The empire was holding all the cards on that one.”

Haley shook her head. “No. No!”

The ship’s door closed and locked. Its engines whined and came to life.

Haley ran after it. “Rhys! Rhys! Come back!”

The ship rose into the air, sending clouds of dust in all directions, sending the spiders into a panicked rush again.

Tink ran after Haley. “Haley! Let him go!”

As the drifter turned away and lifted up, Haley fell to her knees. She couldn’t hold it back any longer and broke down in tears.

Tink ran to her side, wrapped her arm around her shoulders. “Haley, let’s go home,” she said.

And Haley once again hated herself for exposing too much emotion in front of others. She angrily wiped her eyes and jumped to her feet.

A red tarantula ran past.

Haley spotted it and bolted for the spider, jumping on its back. Without a saddle or bridle, she gave it a kick and controlled the animal with leg cues, sending the spider out from the stables, out to the city streets.

“Haley!” cried Tink. She ran for Jezebelle, her spider, and jumped on. “I’ll get her!” she yelled to the other spiderboys. “Settle things with the sheriff and I’ll meet you back at home base!”

Doc nodded and waved her off. There was a bond between Tink and Haley that even he couldn’t match and in this case he was in agreement with Tink.

Tink spotted Haley on the red and kicked Jezebelle into a sprint.

Haley sent the spider down one street and up another. But it wasn’t as strong or as fast as Paladin and she missed him terribly. She noticed the white hairs that were growing on the red spider’s head between her legs and her heart sank at the realization that she had taken an old spider that had perhaps another year or two of usefulness left. Already, this spider was winded and slowing down.

But Haley’s mind was elsewhere. She looked up repeatedly at the sky, her heart rending at the thought that he was up there somewhere, in pain, at the hands of those who wished to harm him, maybe under the ordeal of torture. And here she was on Aranae, not able to do a damn thing about it.

All she had to cling to was that one fleeting moment, those few precious seconds when their eyes had met as he was being dragged to the ship. Zaida’s betrayal had suddenly brought the truth crashing down upon him and all too late. The truth, which was that he was supposed to have gone with Haley, not Zaida. Haley was the one, not Zaida. And no one knew this truth more than Haley. She was sure of it. With every tear she shed, she was certain beyond all doubt this was the truth.

She brought her spider around the corner where her boarding house was. But another spider darted in front of her, blocking her path. The red skidded to a halt.

Tink sat on Jezebelle, looking at Haley.

“Haley,” said Tink, mastering her tense emotion, her impulse to shout, yell and punish. “No more running. Let’s go home.”

Haley gave her cheek a quick wipe on her sleeve. “Tink… he was supposed to be with me,” she said. “He called out to me while they were dragging him away.”

Tink listened. Better to have her let it out.

“He looked at me,” Haley went on. “He called out to me. Zaida was the one who stabbed him in the back and he reached out to me, Tink. Me!

Again, Haley lost control and broke down. “He loved me, not her!” she cried. “And now he’s gone!” Haley slid off the old spider she stole and sunk her face into its side.

Tink dismounted and went to Haley’s side. All she could do was to hold Haley as the torment was twisted from her in the form of wrenching sobs.

But a few moments later her sobs came to a sudden halt. Something was going on in her head. One thought led to another. Haley wiped her face and composed herself. “Thank you, Tink,” she said. “But I think I should be going now.”

“Ok, dear,” replied Tink in soft tones. “Let’s get your things and go home.”

Haley stood still for a long moment. “No,” she said finally.

Tink held herself together. “No more running,” she said.

“I think I’d like to be alone for a while,” replied Haley. “I won’t sneak off this time. I’ll ask this from you face to face. Would you please let me be alone? For a short time. I’ll come home soon. I promise.”

There was something in Haley’s voice that caused Tink to consider her request. It was maturity. And Tink could understand Haley’s desire to be alone after such a devastating heartbreak, having gone through a few of her own in times past.

“How much time do you need?” Tink asked.

“Just a day or two. And then I’ll come home. I give you my word.”

Tink thought it over. “Your father will have my hide, but… ok.”

Haley smiled. “Thanks, Tink,” she said, giving Tink a hug.

Haley’s boarding house was a few doors down. She went to her room, gathered her belongings and had to rouse the owners from bed to check her out. She stood outside with her bag over one shoulder and gave Tink a hug and a wave goodbye.

“One more thing,” said Haley to Tink. “Could you send my apologies to the owner of this spider? And if you could also ask my dad to compensate the owner?”

“I’ll do that,” said Tink.

“I’ll pay Dad back,” Haley added. “Tell him I’ll pay him back. He’s an old one, this spider. I don’t think he’s worth much.”

Tink nodded. “I’ll let him know.”

Haley mounted her stolen spider. “Goodbye, Tink,” she said. “I’ll see you soon.”

Tink waved. “At home,” she added.

Still riding bareback, Haley guided the old red with her legs and kicked him in the direction she wanted to go. She took him to the nearest road out of Savoy and left the city then turned him in the direction of Grandville where she knew there was a spaceport. A spaceport where she could find a ship that could take her off Aranae.

 

3

Along Came a Spider

One day they’ll call it “Haley’s Law.” Years from now they’ll talk about her. They’ll debate and argue over their Spider Bites, come up with theories and scenarios, and in the end they’ll be no further along in understanding why a reasonably thinking young woman, albeit a bit rebellious, when presented with multiple solutions to any given problem, would choose the most foolish, most reckless course of action and do so with great earnestness. They’ll shake their heads and laugh a sad, tragic kind of laugh and say how stupid she was while at the same time wonder privately to themselves if they wouldn’t do the same if they were in her position. And after much discussion they will pass it all off as blind love, give it a name, “Haley’s Law,” and move on to the next topic. But they’ll keep coming back to it.

Years from now they will wonder why Haley had never shown up at home as promised and where she had gone after Tink had spoken to her in Savoy, when she had ridden off on the old red, never to be seen again. And many years later, maybe decades or centuries, they will find her bones in this ravine, run DNA scans to identify the remains as the long lost Haley Morgan and wonder why she was nowhere near the path between Savoy and Liberty Star. The discovery of her skeletal remains would only raise more questions. What had driven her so far off course? Could blind love hold that much power over one person? It was a fairly simple conclusion that her destination had been Grandville where she could find a transport to pursue Rhys, and it appeared that she had gone off the highway to take a short cut through the hills as time was short. But how had she ended up in that ravine? In that narrow space, the vertical split in the rock wall that had become her final resting place?

And if her dusty bones could talk and remember back that far, they might tell of how she had ridden alone on the old red tarantula she had named Sid that she had “borrowed” from the corral in Savoy. She was the only one who knew. How she had gotten the idea to take the shortcut, how she had reconsidered her actions time and time again as she had ridden through the hills, at dawn of the next day when she had passed the sparkling clear pond of water fed by a waterfall over a wall of rock. She had almost stopped there, tempted by the thought of a cool swim in the water but she had pressed on, thinking of Rhys and where he might be at that moment. There had been no time for a swim. She had had a boyfriend to rescue. She had thought about how they had turned up a ravine, not sure if it would lead her in the right direction, how the ground had burst open beside them and the Trap Door had exploded from it, attacking Sid and killing him after a brief fight between the two spiders. Haley had been thrown off and hit the ground hard, almost knocked out, losing her hat. She had seen the Trap Door plunge its fangs into Sid. It had been a one-sided fight. Sid, at his age, had had no chance against the young and powerful male Trap Door. Haley had reached for her gun only to find an empty holster. The gun had fallen out when she had been knocked off Sid and Haley had looked around desperately for it. But when she looked up she had seen that the Trap Door was finished with Sid and was now looking at her. Haley had turned and sprinted up the ravine. The Trap Door had bolted after her. In a few strides of its eight legs it would have been upon her and it would have had the satisfaction of a double kill that day.

A stream of water, barely a trickle, snaked through the rocks, down the ravine, widening into shallow pools here and there in depressions along the ravine floor, merely overgrown puddles. Haley’s feet splashed through the puddles as she sprinted for her life. The ravine turned at a dogleg and Haley’s heart fell to see what was in front of her: a rock wall. The ravine was a dead end. How ironic. A dead end. She got the crazy idea to jump on the rocks ahead and scale the wall before the Trap Door could chase her down, but a glance over her shoulder told her this chase was not ending up in her favor. The Trap Door was almost on top of her. She ran on pure terrified adrenalin. A burst of speed from her only delayed the inevitable.

But Haley saw something in the wall of rock ahead. A space. An opening in the rock, maybe just big enough to fit her. Haley dove for it.

The Trap Door slammed its body against the sliver of an opening in the rock, a long vertical slice in the rock wall too narrow for a spider his size to enter. It squeezed itself against it, reached in and swiped at her with its longest foreleg, nearly slashing the girl with its clawed foot but missed. She retreated to the back part of the cleft. The spider grunted and hissed at her and when it became apparent that the girl wasn’t the quick and easy kill it had hoped, it backed away, took a position about fifteen feet away and waited.

When the initial shock of the attack subsided about ten minutes later and her adrenalin levels had returned to normal, Haley mustered up enough bravery to creep up closer to the door of the cleft for a better look at what she was up against.

The Trap Door was a big one. Haley judged him to be about a 600 pounder, a young one, a three-year-old maybe and barely out of his adolescence in spider years, full of energy, full of fight, full of frenzy. This was the time in a spider’s life when the males often fought each other for the females. Winners got the choice while the losers retreated or were killed when they didn’t know when to quit. This one was mostly black with a red patch that ran the length of the top of its abdomen. The red hairs repeated themselves at the leg joints and on its face, circling its black eyes, giving him the appearance of a crazed warrior.

Haley couldn’t have picked a better enemy. She would even prefer to be facing Zaida at this moment than this monster that only wanted to kill her for no better reason than to have the pleasure and satisfaction of killing her. Every now and again Haley would take a look outside the cleft and there he was. Waiting for her.

An hour later it was still there and she was getting annoyed and impatient. That was an hour of lost time that she wasn’t getting back. Rhys was an hour more away from her. How many light years was that at warp speed in space? How far could one drifter travel in one hour? Or was he on a bigger ship now and even farther from her than ever?

Haley ground her teeth together and set about exploring her shelter to see if there might be another way out. She had to get out. Now. She was in a dead end ravine, in a cleft in the rock wall, that much was certain. The stream of water that ran down the ravine was flowing through the cleft in which Haley had found shelter. It ran along the floor of the cleft, around her feet and flowed on outside and down the ravine. Haley squeezed her way to the back of the cleft. It stretched back about twenty feet in a jagged line, huge sandstone walls with some aggregate pressed in on both sides. The cleft was no more than four feet at its widest point and Haley had to squeeze through tight openings in order to see how far back it extended. There was nothing to see at the back other than water trickling down the rocks to form the stream along the floor. There was no back door, no second entrance that led to the other side of the ravine and freedom. Light filtered down from above. Interesting, Haley thought. It would seem the pseudo cave was open to the sky though she could not see the sky directly. Rock obscured the view upward as the walls on both sides were bent and folded like waves on the sea that had suddenly solidified into an abrasive sandstone.

Yes, very interesting.

And then on impulse, Haley made certain her backpack was on good and secure and placed one foot on one side of the cleft and hopped up, bracing herself against the other side of the rock wall. She shimmied up toward the light.

Outside, the Trap Door sensed some movement inside the cleft and took a step forward. It stared into the darkness, barely making out the girl wiggling upward.

Haley grunted and scraped her hands against the rock, pressing herself against the walls, rising upward. She looked up and saw blue sky. It was just a few feet away. Haley smiled. She was going to make it. Freedom was just a few feet away. In a few moments, she’d be on top of the ravine. She’d be on top and she’d look down on the Trap Door below her and sneer at him. Retrieving her gun would be another matter but for now she’d be out of the prison in which the Trap Door had thrown her. She felt a cool breeze come down from above to encourage her, energizing her spirit for the last push to the top.

Her head crested the opening at the top of the cleft. There was a flat spot above the cleft, the ravine on one side, and the hills to the other. All she had to do was to pull herself up and out and she’d be free.

Haley stopped. She sensed something and stopped to listen, her head poking up through the rift. A scuffle of feet behind her and she turned to see the Trap Door almost on top of her.

It had snuck up behind her and if she hadn’t heard his footfalls he’d have had her. He even caught her with his claw but she was falling away back down the cleft before he could get his fangs on her. It stamped with frustration and looked to see where she had gone.

Haley bounced hard on the rock walls on the way down and hit the cleft floor with a thud and cry of pain. Though the walls of the cleft gave no cushion, they did, however absorb much of the energy of her fall, which gave her a somewhat softer landing, although cut and bruised over what seemed to be every inch of her body. She lifted herself up and rubbed her shoulder, her hip, all those places that hit the hardest. She was bleeding from several spots but none too severely. Nothing seemed broken. She could stand. Her leather and canvas jacket was ripped and torn but she was not too badly injured.

Haley thought about it as she nursed herself. That spider knew what she was doing. It was waiting for her up there. While she was climbing the rift the Trap Door had run up a path to the flat spot above the ravine and waited in ambush for her. It knew its territory, knew every inch of it and how to take advantage of it.

Another thought came to her. The spider was still up there, wasn’t it? The image of her Pike 8 lying out there somewhere on the ravine floor flashed across her mind and she went to the door of the cleft to see if the Trap Door had returned. It had not.

Haley crept out. Then she bolted. She ran down the ravine toward the place where she had fallen. The sounds of crashing, bushes, bramble and small trees being swept aside came to Haley from her right. A glance in that direction and Haley saw the low spot in the ravine wall, the place where the Trap Door had gained access to higher ground, and where it was about to spring back down—right in front of her.

In a split second, Haley judged the timing of the spider’s reappearance against the odds of finding her gun and getting a shot off. She wasn’t going to make it. There wasn’t enough time. She skidded to a stop, spun around and sprinted back for the cleft. The Trap Door burst upon the ravine floor from the brush, spotted its prey in the wide open, completely defenseless and lunged after her.

It was a case of terrifying déjà vu. They had been here before: the Trap Door in hot pursuit of this young human female, now mad with lethal determination. And when she got away yet again, slipped into the safety of the cleft once more, a mere leg stride ahead of him, the spider groped and clawed for her in the cleft, then backed off without his prey, stamped his feet and spun around in circles, consumed with rage.

 

She gave it a name: Jennifer. Jennifer was a grade ahead of Haley at school and had bullied her mercilessly until Haley had stood her ground one afternoon and delivered a vicious right cross to Jennifer’s jaw, dropping the larger girl to the gym floor, out cold. She was never mistreated again, not by Jennifer or anyone else at school. It didn’t matter to Haley that the Trap Door was male. He was Jennifer.

And after Jennifer had thrown his tantrum following his third failed attempt to capture and kill this difficult girl, still quaking with residual fury, he went over to one of the several shallow pools of water that marked the ravine floor and lowered his head down for a drink. Haley watched him as he drank the pool nearly dry, draining it at a faster rate than it could refill. He then returned to his place near the cleft opening and resumed his surveillance on Haley.

Haley watched him as well. She sat just inside the entrance to the cleft and watched Jennifer watching her. She rummaged through her backpack and found a half-eaten energy bar, all she had for food. She took a bite and looked back at Jennifer.

“What about you?” she asked the spider. “You going hunting or are you going to hold out for me?”

Jennifer watched her.

“You can expect to go hungry ‘cause I don’t plan on being your next meal,” said Haley.

Jennifer rose and went to the stream for another drink.

“Yeah, water. That’s all you’re getting.”

It made Haley feel better to taunt Jennifer even though he may or may not have any idea what she was saying.

Haley remembered the poker, the metal rod with one hot end that’s used to control out of control spiders. She took it from Loomis and had to think where it had gone. Ah, yes. She had given it to Sawed Off back when they camped on the side of the Frying Pan on the journey back to Liberty Star, the last night when she saw her friends before she left them to chase her obsession. Sawed Off said he could use a poker on one particular difficult spider he was working with and Haley gave it to him. She didn’t like using them, thought there wasn’t a spider mean enough for her to warrant having one but now she wished she had kept it.

Evening approached. The shadows lengthened into night and Aranae’s two moons appeared close together overhead. Haley looked out again. Jennifer was still there. He wasn’t going back to his den. She was no specialist on Trap Doors, but what she did know was that Trap Doors always returned to their dens, shut their doors tight and waited for the next prey to walk by. Like tarantulas and jumpers they did not spin webs.

But Jennifer was different. He had made up his mind that he was going to get her no matter how long he had to wait there outside her refuge. He wasn’t going to return to his usual routine until he had Haley pinned on his fangs. Haley had never seen such stubbornness, such preoccupation in one spider before. This one thought and reasoned. It plotted, planned and strategized. If Haley tried to climb up the cleft again, it’d be there waiting for her. If she tried to outrun him, she wouldn’t get far. It came down to a matter of who had more patience. Haley or Jennifer? Who was going to give up first? For Haley it was a matter of life and death, for Jennifer, it seemed to be some sort of spider pride at stake, and if he walked away from this prey somehow it would make him less of a spider.

Haley fell asleep with those thoughts. The floor of the cleft was a lousy place for sleep. The stream running down its length seeped into the sandy bottom and made for a damp bed for Haley. She rolled around to find the driest spot, never could find one. It was a cold, restless night for her.

By predawn when the sky was turning grey with the approach of the new day, Haley had rolled closer to the entrance of the cleft. She didn’t notice that she was sleeping about eight feet from the entrance.

Someone noticed, however. Jennifer crept closer to the cleft, careful with every step his eight legs made, careful not to nudge a single rock.

He came right to the entrance and stared at Haley on the ground in front of him. He reached out with a foreleg, stretched his leg out as far as he could to hook her arm, drag her out.

Haley slept. She was still just out of reach. Barely. Jennifer pressed his bulk against the opening, took a few swipes at her.

Almost got her. His claw nicked her jacket.

He also brushed the wall of the cleft with his leg on his last attempt, ever so slightly, just a brush with his black hairs that grew straight out from his leg.

A few grains of sand on the sandstone wall came dislodged and fell.

Two little grains struck Haley on her face, one on her cheek, the other on her forehead. Her eyes fluttered open.

Jennifer froze.

For a moment nothing happened.

Haley sensed something wrong but she had the good wits to not panic. She faked sleeping. With her eyes barely open, she scanned her position. She knew where she was and what was at the door of the cleft. Enough info gathering. Act. Now.

Haley sprang toward the far side of the cleft in one burst of adrenalin.

Jennifer also acted. He lunged against the cleft opening and slashed at her.

It all happened in a split second. Haley jumped but she made the error of pushing off with her right arm, the arm facing Jennifer.

Jennifer’s slashing motion caught Haley’s arm. Haley jumped but was yanked back. Another foreleg dug into Haley’s back. Haley screamed and fought against the claws that were dragging her out of her hiding place.

Jennifer pulled Haley clear out.

He had her. She was his prey. She belonged to him now.

And for a moment or two Haley thought the same thing. So, this is how it ends. This is how she dies. Haley Morgan. In another moment two venom-laced fangs are going to plunge into her body, inject a quart of deadly poison into her, right into the core of her body, and she’ll die a screaming and agonizing death.

In one instant that’s what she thought. In the next, a new realization hit her. She could tell by the way Jennifer had her by his claws.

He didn’t really have her. He had her jacket.

She was leaning back, resisting Jennifer’s pull. In a last ditch move of desperation, Haley switched her position from leaning back to leaning forward. She threw her arms over her head, pulled back and slipped out of her jacket like shedding a skin.

Jennifer reeled backward at the sudden loss of resistance and Haley scampered back to the safety of the cleft, retreated to the rear part and looked back out, her heart pounding.

Jennifer, left only with a leather and canvas jacket in his claws instead of prey, using his forelegs, proceeded to rip the jacket into shreds. He made sure that Haley was watching from within the cleft, letting her know that he intended to do the same thing to her body after he kills her.

“You have to catch me first,” said Haley.

Though Jennifer quaked with rage once more, he had the sensibility not to make another spectacle of himself with a new tantrum. He maintained self-control this time. He had a better understanding of this prey. This one wasn’t like the others. This female was quick and slippery as well as cunning and intelligent. She was also extremely lucky up to now and he knew that sooner or later her luck will run out and when it does, he’ll have the utmost satisfaction of sinking his fangs into her soft flesh, hearing her screams as he releases his venom into her shaking body, feeling her kick and go limp as death takes her. He was undecided on whether he should eat her straight away or take her lifeless body to a Trap Door female and present this kill to her as a trophy. No, just eat her. It had been many days since his last kill, not counting that old red the human female was riding, and he was feeling himself getting weak. He will eat this one even though humans are not very flavorful. After killing her he will open her with his mandibles and ingest her fluids, turn her organs into slurry and consume those as well. Her essence will be assimilated into his. Her quickness, intelligence and shrewdness will become his. And then he will drop the hollow sack of skin and bones that was her body and return to his burrow. Perhaps he will revisit this spot where the young female had put up such resistance against hopeless odds and he will fondly remember her as his greatest kill.

Jennifer lowered himself into a resting position near the cleft opening and watched the human female inside. She was in there. He could just see her in the shadows there rubbing her shoulder.

At some point while Jennifer was dragging Haley out of the cleft, the spider had cut her right shoulder with his claw, leaving a four-inch long gash in her skin. Haley rubbed it and looked at the blood on her fingers. Maybe not bad enough for a hospital at this moment. Just a bandage and disinfectant ought to take care of it. She had none.

 

The first gravedigger showed up around noon. Haley swatted at it but missed and the bug scurried away. She didn’t want gravediggers around here. Not at a time like this. The three-inch-long reddish-brown beetles were opportunistic scavengers that were known to lose patience with a dying animal, decide it was close enough and jump in with their flesh-tearing mandibles, which accounted for half their overall length. They were usually considered harmless to humans but beware if they swarm.

Hunger gnawed at her. She was down to her last bite of her energy bar and had to satisfy herself to just nibble around the edges. She’d been hungry before, been roughing it in the wild with the other spiderboys but she had never faced starvation before. She sat there on the cleft floor and wondered how long a human could go without food, remembered something from school that she could possibly last a couple of months if she had access to water. But the idea of being held up in this cleft as Jennifer’s prisoner, staring each other down for two months at least, slowly dying, caused a shudder of dread to pass through her.

Jennifer lifted his weight off the ground and wobbled there a moment before circling. Haley had seen this little routine of his before when he was looking for a good pool of water from which to drink. She looked at the stream passing by her feet for a moment and, as the water flowed past and on out into the ravine, a rather fiendish idea popped into her head. She pulled herself up to her feet thinking that all this time she had been fighting a defensive battle and had never considered the possibility of an alternative, a way of striking back.

Haley went to the entrance of the cleft and stood over the stream of water, one foot on either side. She waited until Jennifer lowered his head down to one of the pools then quickly unbuckled her belt, unbuttoned her jeans and pulled her jeans and panties down past her knees. She squatted over the water and let her pelvic floor muscles relax and go slack, releasing a stream of urine into the water between her feet.

She watched him. Keep drinking, keep drinking, she told him mentally. An ever so slight devilish smile played at the corner of her lips, mirrored in the gleam in her eyes as she gazed at the spider taking in huge gulps. A trace of froth on the surface, which marked the tainted water, snaked its way from Haley to Jennifer.

When it reached Jennifer, he jerked back from the pool, spat and coughed, not sure what had gone wrong.

Haley’s smile broadened. Got him.

Jennifer looked around and spotted the female there at the mouth of the cleft, squatting over the stream, looking quite pleased with herself. She was in no hurry to hide, showed no fear, no respect. She wanted him to see her there with her bare haunches over the stream, wanted him to know what she had done.

He also knew that with her jeans down below her knees, her movements would be restricted.

Jennifer lunged, almost reached the mouth of the cleft in a single bound.

Haley jumped backward, pushing off with both legs. She landed just out of Jennifer’s reach and scrambled backward, splashing through the stream. She got to her feet and pulled her jeans up.

The Trap Door pressed himself against the cleft opening and stared at her with all six black eyes, hurled spider curses at her and renewed his vow to make a meal of this troublesome female.

But before he could make good on that promise, a just and proper punishment was in order. Jennifer turned to face the opposite direction and pressed the backside of his bulbous abdomen against the cleft opening.

Haley watched as she buttoned up, not sure what he had in store for her now.

Jennifer’s abdomen expanded like he was taking a deep breath, turning it upward at the same time, getting more of his underside to face the interior of the cleft.

An explosion of green and white chunky slime burst from Jennifer’s anus and sprayed itself all over Haley.

“Shit!” she yelled.

And it was.

Haley fell back, wiped the goo from her face and hair. “Bastard!” she shouted along with other choice curses. She couldn’t splash water from the stream over her face fast enough. The mere stench of spider excrement was bad enough but to have it shot at you from a spider’s cannon-like asshole was as humiliating as it was disgusting.

Jennifer turned around to see the results of his handiwork. Satisfied, he strolled over to his usual spot to keep watch on the girl.

Haley continued to mutter as she scrubbed the filth from her hair. “This ain’t over yet, bitch,” she said.

A couple of hours later, it seemed that it was.

Jennifer was nowhere in sight.

Haley crept out of the cleft into the sunlight, blinked and looked around, waited for a surprise attack but there was none. She looked down the ravine, tempted by the thought of making a break for it, scooping up her gun wherever it may be and blasting her way to Grandville.

But maybe that’s exactly what he wanted her to think. Maybe he quit and went off in search of easier prey. Just walked away. It was over.

Haley grew suspicious and returned to the cleft. On the psychological front, Jennifer had won. Haley knew that. He was free to roam about at will but for Haley, the thought of the spider lying in ambush up ahead kept her prisoner in the cleft.

As she scratched the grime from her scalp and tangled hair, Haley nearly wept at her loss. Her confidence, gone. Self-determination, drive, will. Her freedom. All gone. Haley covered her face with her dirty hands and thought she was going mad. A lone spider couldn’t do this to one human. Couldn’t have this much power over her.

A sound came from above. Haley looked up. It was a sound of rustling, branches snapping, gravel rolling, scraping across the ground. Haley stood, her eyes fixed on the crack overhead but nothing was to be seen.

A cascade of rock came down the cleft from the crack in the sky. Haley pulled back to one side, avoiding injury. More rock came down along with some bramble and dirt. Dust filled the air in the cleft and Haley coughed and waved her hand in front of her face to clear the air. Better to leave, get clean air outside.

Haley went out, breathed in deep. She stepped back and looked up to the top of the ravine above the cleft.

A spider’s face appeared there. Jennifer looked down at Haley in the ravine.

“It won’t work, Jennifer,” said Haley. “You come down here and I’ll just run back in.”

Jennifer stared at her.

“I thought you were smarter than that,” said Haley. She went back into the cleft.

It was quiet for a long while. No more rock came down and Jennifer did not return to his spot in front of the cleft. Haley looked at the pile of rubble that Jennifer had pushed down, obviously trying to flush her out. It did but his strategy fell short of expectations. The stream had found a new course around the debris and continued on outside after being momentarily blocked. Eventually, over the years the tiny stream would remove every grain, every trace of the rubble and push it out to the ravine and on down to the ocean.

Haley spotted something at her feet. She bent down to pick it up. Among the clutter was a single feather from a bird of some type with which Haley was not familiar. It was a deep blue color with a white edge and tip, about three inches long. It struck her as amazingly beautiful and she stuck it in her breast pocket.

It was at that moment that the first scream came. It was a very real and bone chilling scream. Haley looked around, went to the door of the cleft and looked out.

Nothing.

More screaming. It was coming from higher ground.

Jennifer had caught it after waiting by the river for what seemed like hours but it must have been less. He resisted the urge to kill and eat it there; he had bigger plans for the creature. He had it pinned between his short forelegs and fangs, keeping it firmly in place and alive. That was important to his plan. It had to be a live one. A dead one won’t work.

He brought it screaming and thrashing up to the flat spot above the ravine, over the opening in the wall, that space in which the human female had found refuge. Jennifer straddled the cleft opening and released the creature. It fell, screaming, claws scraping the sides, desperate to catch hold of something but it disappeared down into the shadows.

Jennifer ran back down to the ravine floor at a sprint. His window of opportunity would last mere seconds and he wasn’t going to miss it this time.

Haley watched as a Horny Devil hit the cleft floor, alive and in a high state of terror and panic.

Imagine a cross between a chimpanzee and a reptile, dusky green scaly skin, a spiky mask of spines radiating from its face and possessing an angry, ill-tempered disposition. That’s a Horny Devil. They generally kept their distance but sometimes would attack if cornered or trapped in a confined space. Like a narrow cleft in a rock wall.

The Horny Devil scrambled to its feet and jumped around until it saw Haley. It flashed its wild yellow eyes and bared its teeth then went after her.

Haley turned and ran. She bolted from the cleft and made a sharp right turn, hoping the Horny Devil would continue on a straight course. It did but just then Jennifer made his appearance down the ravine.

Both Haley and the Horny Devil saw the larger predator coming for them at a full-out charge. And Haley had a good idea, given the choice between her and the Horny Devil, which prey was at the top of Jennifer’s list. She turned and ran back for the cleft.

Unfortunately, the Horny Devil had the same idea, and when he and Haley got to the mouth of the cleft at the same time, he had no intention of sharing the cleft with Haley. With Jennifer just yards away and closing the gap fast, the Horny Devil took a swipe at Haley, snarled and bared his teeth.

Haley answered by grabbing the creature by its tail and flinging him at Jennifer. She dove for the cleft and scampered back out of the spider’s reach.

The Horny Devil struck Jennifer square in the face and fell away.

Infuriated that yet another attempt to flush out the human had failed, Jennifer took out his frustration on the Horny Devil by capturing it and impaling it on his fangs. The wiggling reptile screamed and died.

Haley fell against the wall of the cleft, slid down to the floor and nearly passed out from exhaustion, not sure how much longer she could keep this up.

 

She nearly froze that night, and although the temperatures never came close to freezing, it certainly felt that way to Haley. Her jacket lay in pieces out in the ravine and she missed it terribly. But she gritted her teeth and tolerated the cold. After all, if Jennifer could take it, so could she. It deprived her of sleep, however, and she sat there on the cleft floor shivering, begging time to move a little faster, praying for dawn to come and end this eternal bone-chilling night.

They came again that night. The gravediggers. They came in the dead of night, under the cover of darkness. Not many. Just a few. They sensed that this animal was still very much alive though somewhat weak. Still too early to feed. They would have to wait.

Haley could hear them, could hear the click, click, click sounds they made in the dark as they kept watch on her. As long as she gave every indication that she was alive she should be ok. But their presence was nonetheless unsettling and just another factor to deny her of sleep, and as the night wore on, Haley was certain that she was being pushed to the brink of madness. On more than one occasion did she let loose a litany of cries and curses, several screams and wails of despair. There was no one to see or hear her. Not one human for miles around, so let it all out and she did. She thought of Pastor Finch at that church and she prayed to God to deliver her, at least get her to dawn with her mind intact. On her hands and knees she prayed. She yelled and screamed at God to do something. Don’t abandon her and let her go out like this.

Click, click, click… click, click…

At least God got her to dawn. The cool grey glowing of daybreak crept up on the ravine and a grateful Haley felt she had preserved a thread of sanity on which to cling. She could also see again. See what was around her in the cleft.

About hundred or so gravediggers huddled together about four feet from her. They moved when she moved, fell back when she advanced. Came forward when she moved away. Some had burrowed themselves into the sandy bottom of the cleft and decided to bide their time there. There were some on the walls. They were crawling down from the opening overhead. They clicked to each other, shared scents and electrical impulses. The message was spreading beyond the ravine far and wide in all directions from beetle to beetle: We found one. Come and eat.

Jennifer had seen the bugs during the night with his flawless night vision, knew that they would only turn the situation to his favor. The female was nearly depleted mind and body, and he had not long to wait until she made one last fatal mistake. Or she could accept the inevitable and surrender to him, come out on her own accord. She would eventually have to accept the rule of order in the wild that he was the predator and she was prey. The sooner she accepted that fact the sooner the balance of nature could be restored. He couldn’t understand why this obstinate female put up so much resistance against hopeless odds. Just give up already.

Aranae’s twin suns rose to midmorning, warming the ground and the teeming wildlife on the planet. With the air growing warmer Haley felt sleep overtaking her. Flashes of micro-sleep flew through her but she had to resist the urge to lie down and drift off. The gravediggers had increased their numbers and were patient enough to keep watch for now. Hundreds of them milled about along the cleft floor, on the walls. Waiting.

Haley took another swat at them. They fell back but were not leaving. She screamed at them and panted like a wild animal, her eyes flashing. She had become one of them. Just another animal to eat or to be eaten. You were one or the other.

This then was the end. Her father had told her that she wouldn’t amount to much. She wished he could see her now. She’d tell him, “See, Dad? I became something. I’m food. I’m here to be food for a spider or gravediggers, one or the other.”

Yes, they will find her bones one day. They will wonder why and how and come up with theories and scenarios. Maybe far into the future the historians will pass it all off as Haley’s Law and put the whole matter to rest. They will finally bury her bones in the family graveyard, next to her father and mother, put up a grave marker and there she will find her eternal rest.

Haley couldn’t remember what they had fought about that had driven her to run away from home. Oh, wait. Father was going to sell Paladin. Yes, that was it. He was considering a very generous offer and had been keeping it secret from Haley, knowing how close they were. But Haley had found out. She had gone to him with her objections and it had spiraled down from there, their argument going off on wild tangents that had nothing to do with Paladin at all. He had read off a shopping list of her shortcomings: she was impatient, too impetuous, too short tempered. She was too young. Whatever it was, she was too young for it no matter how old she grew. Haley had always been forced to stand on the sidelines where it was safe while her older siblings had gotten to have all the fun. What did she have to do to show him he had nothing to fear if he’d just allow her to stretch out her wings once in a while?

He had sent her to her room. Like a six-year-old, she had been sent to her room. And there she had fumed. Mother wouldn’t have done that. Mother wouldn’t have sent her to her room. She would have given her hugs and wiped her cheeks dry and told her everything was going to be ok. She’d have told her that she was in that awkward grey zone between child and adult and sometimes life was going to get uncomfortable while things changed. That’s what Mother would have said.

But Mother was gone. It wasn’t fair to have her taken away so soon like that. Frank Nugent stole Mother from her and he was never brought to justice, never answered for his crimes in a court of law and never paid the price.

Then what if I brought him in myself? Haley had thought. What if I captured him and brought him to justice? And what if I were to get mom’s ring back? Would that get your attention? Would you send me to my room then? Would you say I was too young then and I don’t deserve to have Paladin as my own spider to keep forever and ever?

In the middle of the night, Haley had crept out her window, fully dressed, her Pike 8 at her side, climbed down the side of the house and run to Paladin in the corral. Nugent was in Savoy. Haley had done some investigating on her own. She’d take the shortest, most direct route straight across the Flats. But halfway across the intensely hot Frying Pan the next day, Haley had realized that she had misjudged her environment. The suns had beaten down on her, right through her black hat, and she had grown dizzy and almost fallen off Paladin. Knowing that spiders had better resistance against the suns than humans, Haley had decided to stop right there in the middle of the Pan, find shelter under Paladin and wait until the suns sank lower in the western sky when it would be safer to complete the journey.

She hadn’t been expecting company.

And now weeks later, after running away from all that had made her angry, Haley had been choked, shot at, slapped across the face and almost sliced in two by a Red Thread. It seemed that ever since she had left home everything and everybody had been trying to kill her.

Well, Jennifer, you’re the winner. From Jabez Loomis to Sheriff Breedlove to Zaida, they had all tried and failed. Yes, even Zaida, the lethal and highly trained assassin. She couldn’t do it. It was with that morbidly humorous thought that Haley drifted off to sleep.

She dreamed of flying over the ground, watching the rocks, the trees, the wildlife pass under her as she flapped her wings. With a bigger push she rose in altitude, kept rising until she was flying among the stars. She saw one star, a tiny speck of brilliant yellow and knew that that was where they had taken Rhys. Earth was there and she was going after him. She was going to be with him forever. It had to be.

Haley was shocked out of her dream by a sudden and intense stabbing pain on her left calf. She cried out and slapped her hand on the gravedigger that had bitten her leg, smashing it. She blinked her eyes into focus. She felt them before she saw them.

They were on her, crawling over her, dropping down on her from above.

Haley screamed and frantically swiped the bugs off her body, out of her hair. She looked around.

There were thousands of them. The gravediggers swarmed over the floor of the cleft, over the walls, all pressing in on Haley. They sprang up from beneath the floor and shook the sand from their joints. They all menaced Haley as one. Many pieces, one body. One intention.

Haley threw sand at the gravediggers, yelled at them.

Thousands more poured in from above, joining the ranks below. And with each new addition to the horde, they grew in power and confidence. Soon, in a matter of minutes perhaps, they wouldn’t need to wait for this animal to die on its own. There would be enough of them to do the job themselves.

Haley checked her leg. The gravedigger had drawn blood, left a pair of puncture marks in her skin before she squashed him. In another moment it would have torn a piece off her with its huge mandibles.

“Son of a bitch,” Haley cursed as she wiped the blood off with her hand.

The wound continued to ooze blood. She covered it with her dirty jeans and pressed down on it to stop the bleeding.

Haley noticed a bit of color on the ground beside her. Her feather. It had fallen out when she assaulted the gravediggers. She picked it up and looked at it. How nice it would be to fly out of here, she thought. Turn into a bird and fly out. She’d fly above the gravediggers and the Trap Door spider outside, fly in circles over their heads, scoff at them and fly off to freedom.

Another thought hit her. Where was her backpack? She looked around.

The swarm of gravediggers blanketed it on the ground a few feet away. She needed something to scatter them and waving her arms at the bugs had its limits. It occurred to her that the best tool for this kind of work, the only thing she could think of was right on her back. Haley unbuttoned her dirty, torn white shirt and took it off, held it like a whip and sized up her adversaries. She gritted her teeth and lashed at the swarm with her shirt in her fist, using wide sweeping arcs, driving them back. They gave way, retreated until the backpack was exposed. Haley snatched it up, swatted at a few gravediggers still clinging to it, sent them flying. She searched the main compartment. Nothing. Looked through the secondary compartment, looked through all her stuff. Nothing.

She found it in a side pocket. The skin blender.

She had forgotten about it all this time. But how to put it to use in a time like this? How would transforming into Zaida help her now? It wouldn’t, she told herself. She had other ideas.

The gravediggers renewed their threat and pressed in on Haley from all directions except for the one way that led to the ravine outside, the only path open to her, where Jennifer sat and watched. He was ready too. The Horny Devil had been a snack, barely a meal but it had given him a boost in energy and he was now ready for the female.

In her delirium, Haley seemed to remember something about transforming into other species. Something, something. She couldn’t remember what exactly. No matter. She went ahead and switched off the safety protocols on the device. That much she was able to recall from the instructions. It was now unstoppable. It would not automatically shut down if it detected an attempt at an extreme transformation.

She opened the sample compartment door and wiped the inside with her finger to clean it out, removing any trace of Zaida from inside. She brushed the feather over the open compartment and closed it. She forgot about the testing process, to see if it was good or not.

She botched the whole thing. In a clearer state of mind she would have known that brushing a feather over the device was totally useless.

But right now, Haley was on a mission. In her present state of semi-madness, things were progressing nicely. She had it all figured out. She just had to keep the gravediggers at bay for a while longer.

You see, Jennifer, she thought as she looked out at the Trap Door. The skin blender isn’t for me.

It’s for you.

Haley found a rock that was the right size and shape and picked it up, tossing it up in her hand like a baseball, feeling its weight. Jennifer himself had knocked it down when he had tried to flush her out the day before. This one will do nicely, she thought. She had learned tricks from the other spiderboys. Ways to deal with hostile spiders.

Haley clutched the rock in one hand and in the other, the bottle of catalyst. There was a little bit left, several doses for a human, but for a spider Jennifer’s size? Haley could only guess. And she had to buy time. She needed more time.

She threw rocks at the gravediggers, swept them off the walls with her shirt and crushed them under her feet. All the while she would glance outside to see what Jennifer was doing. From observing him over the past two days, Haley knew that Jennifer would get thirsty around midday and judging by the position of the suns the spider should be making his move soon.

And when he did about an hour later, Haley got ready.

Jennifer stepped over to a nearby pool of water, looked back at Haley to see if she had any tricks in store for him. He slowly leaned in for a drink.

Haley saw her opportunity and unscrewed the lid of the catalyst. She dumped the entire contents into the stream.

She watched him.

Jennifer jerked his head up. He watched her, suspicious. He wasn’t drinking.

No, Haley thought. The catalyst hadn’t gotten there yet. It was running on downstream while he watched her, a total waste.

Drink! Drink! Haley screamed at him in her mind. “Drink, you bastard,” she muttered. She then saw what the problem was and turned away and sat down. Her interest in what he was doing was tipping him off. But Haley had to know and she turned her head slightly to watch but made certain to appear unconcerned.

Still suspicious, Jennifer tasted the water. It seemed fine. He then pulled in a large mouthful, then more.

He returned to his spot in front of the cleft.

He drank but did he get any of the catalyst? Haley wasn’t sure. She feared the worst. It must have flowed past him before he drank.

And the gravediggers, sensing her trepidation, her anxiety, surged forward once more. They covered the floor and crawled up the walls to position themselves to drop down on her from above. This time their numbers would prevail. They would finish her this time. They whipped themselves into a frenzy and descended on Haley.

Haley swatted at them but they kept coming. They were not frightened of her anymore. One dropped on her. Another ran up her leg and sank its pincher-like mandibles into her flesh.

Haley smashed the bug and watched Jennifer.

She couldn’t wait any longer. If Jennifer had gotten any of the catalyst there still wasn’t enough time for it to work its way into his system. She picked up the rock, the one that was the perfect size. She was ready.

The gravediggers were pushing her out the door of the cleft.

Jennifer rose to greet her.

Haley put the skin blender into ATTACH mode and the device powered up. She was grateful that the power cell had enough charge in it to bring the device to life.

Haley stepped out. There was no going back.

“Let’s go,” she said as she faced Jennifer. She stood there in her jeans, boots and bra, rock in one hand, skin blender in the other. “Let’s get this over with.”

Oddly, Jennifer did not react to Haley’s move. He stood there and watched her. She was in plain view, totally defenseless, standing right in front of him and he did nothing. Maybe he was suspicious of another trick or maybe he was in no hurry to kill her. He was taking his time to look her over up close before ending it. Maybe, but Haley couldn’t be sure.

“C’mon, what’s the matter with you?” said Haley as she got annoyed with him.

The gravediggers were pouring out of the cleft but now in the light of day, out in the open, they felt vulnerable to predators, birds being their worst nemesis. They held back.

Haley lost patience with Jennifer. She held her arms outstretched. “Come at me!” she yelled.

And when he didn’t, Haley picked a spot on him and charged.

That got his attention. Jennifer knocked Haley down with his foreleg, cancelling her attack.

Haley hit the rocky ground flat on her back.

Jennifer pinned her down. He finally had her where he wanted her.

And oddly enough, this was also where Haley had hoped he’d have her. Yes, things are working out just fine.

Jennifer plunged down with his fangs. At the same time, Haley shoved her fist upward. The rock that was in her hand became wedged between Jennifer’s two fangs. He stopped and immediately shook his head in an attempt to get rid of it.

Among the many stories that Haley had heard from the spiderboys gathered around the campfire was what to do if you ever get pinned. Make sure you have a good-sized rock in your hand or your canteen or maybe even your fist, but get it good and stuck up there between their fangs. All the way up. They hate that. They’ll get so flustered, so distracted, they’ll forget about everything else until they get that rock out.

And Jennifer was no different. He backed off of Haley and shook himself and wiggled in an effort to drop that damn rock between his fangs. It was the worst feeling he had ever experienced and it had to be fixed NOW. He swatted at it with his forelegs and nearly slapped himself into idiocy.

Haley got to her feet. She had one chance open to her. In a moment Jennifer would free the rock from his fangs and he’d fly into another one of his rages again, and this time he’d kill her for sure. She dove for him and leapt onto his back.

She rode the enraged Trap Door for several tense seconds before slapping the skin blender on his back. It attached itself there, stuck on good.

And for a moment, she didn’t want to do it. It actually felt kind of good to ride his back, to feel a spider under her again. No one had ever broken a Trap Door before, had ever saddled one up and ridden him. She was going to enjoy this short ride.

Jennifer finally managed to loosen the rock between his fangs and swipe it away with his foreleg. With his fangs free at last he looked for her. He spun around in a full circle but she was nowhere in sight. But what was that on top of him? What was that thing on his back?

Haley held on good and tight as Jennifer reared up to throw her off his back. She saw that he had knocked out the rock and was now bent on killing her. Better not to push her luck any longer. She placed one finger on the switch.

“Sorry, big guy but it’s time that I be moving on,” she said.

And with that she threw the switch.

Nothing happened. Jennifer had nearly rolled to get Haley off his back and she almost fell off. He reared again and again but she stayed on. One more roll.

This time Haley came off. She scrambled to her feet and backed away.

Jennifer got his bearings, saw Haley and went after her.

Haley ran. But she wasn’t going back in the cleft, not with those gravediggers swarming around in there. She headed down the ravine at a sprint.

Damn, the catalyst didn’t work. He’d have her now. Haley looked back, expected to see him almost on top of her.

He was stopped, watching her.

Haley came to a halt and returned his gaze.

He wasn’t moving. Did he give up? Was he letting her go? Decided to salute his worthy adversary and let her run free?

Haley saw him shudder and drop to the ground. He continued to shake and he drew his legs in to his body. She knew what was happening and came toward him. So, it was working after all. It took a little more time than usual but apparently he had gotten enough of the catalyst.

Haley stood a few yards from Jennifer and watched.

Wave after agonizing wave of torment coursed through the Trap Door’s body. It jerked and twisted as the transformation process got underway. Its two body segments were merging into one, its black skin was growing paler, turning into a patchwork of black and pink. Four of its eight legs were withering into shriveled up twigs. His front two legs were taking the shape of…

Arms.

And his two rear legs were becoming what looked like legs… human legs.

A head was forming at the front end. A human head.

Puzzled, Haley traced her steps back in her mind before she stepped out of the cleft. She had dropped the feather into the skin blender, right? It was uncontaminated. She had cleaned it out herself.

Oh, wait. She had used her finger. Before handling the skin blender she had wiped her wound that the gravedigger had left on her calf. There was blood on her fingers.

Her blood. Her DNA.

Haley watched in horror as the head on the spider’s body sprouted a mass of dark brown hair. Features were forcing their way to the surface of the face. Eyes, nose, a mouth.

Haley turned away. She couldn’t watch anymore. She walked away from the horror taking place behind her and made her way to the spot where Jennifer had ambushed her and Sid three days before. The remains of Sid’s carcass were still there, what was left of them that is. Looked like the gravediggers had done a good job on him.

She looked around the area. She found her black hat near Sid’s remains, picked it up, brushed it off and bent it back into shape. She had to look a little harder for the gun, eventually finding it clear off to one side in the brush about twenty feet away. How it got that far from where she had fallen she had no idea. Haley picked up her Pike 8, blew off the dust and looked it over. It was still in good shape, which was a good thing because she needed it for one more task. Haley walked back up the ravine.

Jennifer was still there, wallowing on the ground, a naked half-spider half-human monstrosity. A stomach load of vomit, a revolting mixture of half-digested Horny Devil, bile and blood spewed from its mouth and splattered on the ground in front of Haley. It looked up at her with a pair of black malevolent eyes. No whites in those eyes. All black. A screeching croak emanated from its throat, hurled one last curse at Haley. It stared at Haley with all its hate, its all-consuming vitriol for this little human female and her trickery. It was all in its black eyes. It writhed on the ground, tried to wiggle its way to Haley, still bent on killing her. It didn’t know what she had done to him, didn’t know how it worked. He only wanted what he had always wanted ever since he first sprang out from his den. He wanted her dead. It was that simple.

Haley stared at the creature, dumbfounded. She was stunned to see the familiar face. It was there. It was she. She was staring at herself and she was the monster. She was the one who everyone wanted to kill. She was the problem, not the world. Not her father or her family, not any outlaw or the empire. It was she.

Haley Morgan. The grotesque fiend.

And Haley knew what had to be done with monsters. Finish the job that Loomis started, that was picked up by Breedlove and passed on to Zaida. Haley had to die and there was only one person qualified to do it.

Haley drew her Pike 8, dialed in the right setting and pointed it at the thing that was becoming her head. She fired a single shot.

The spider/Haley hybrid jerked and went limp. Dead.

Haley stared at it for a while. She saw the skin blender stuck on its back, still running. She pulled it off but Jennifer did not return to his original form. Apparently, it’s required for you to be alive for it to function properly.

Haley switched off the skin blender, the little machine that had caused her so much trouble in Savoy but now, in an ironic twist, had saved her life. So, why did she hate it so much as she stood there in that ravine with the twisted and malformed body of the Trap Door at her feet? Why did she regret so much buying it from Creepy Dick in Savoy and holding it so dearly up until now? It had allowed her to become someone else, deceive other people to believe that she was not Haley Morgan. But now someone—or something—else had become Haley.

No, it was a lie. All lies. There was only one Haley Morgan.

Haley dropped the skin blender to the ground, then bent over, picked up a rock and smashed the device to pieces. From now on she will be what she makes herself to be. She will determine her true self, who she will become. She will decide. Not alien technology, not a Trap Door spider or gravedigger beetles. And she will not be anyone’s next meal.

Haley holstered her gun and walked away. The gravediggers had taken interest in the spider/human corpse and were closing in on it. They ignored Haley. She retrieved her backpack and shirt and left the ravine. She did not look back.

Haley walked down the path from which she and Sid had come a few days earlier. She found a butt fruit plant growing in the shadows of a tree and pulled it up by its stem. Colloquially known as Jameson’s butt fruit, the roots were tubers that resembled potatoes, a good source of food in the wild and always good for a laugh among the spiderboys. But now it was no laughing matter. It was survival. Haley brushed off the dirt the best she could and devoured one of the butt fruits. She ate it as she walked to the sparkling clear pool of water she had passed by a few days before when she had been tempted to take a swim. She stopped there and washed the other butt fruits, ate those as well. Re-energized, Haley looked at the water spread out at her feet and then at the suns overhead. She had time.

Haley dropped her backpack, her gun belt, her hat, and sat on a rock to take off her boots. Standing, she unbuttoned her jeans, took those off and did the same with her shirt and underwear. She threw her clothes into the pool and jumped in after them, then sat in the shallows and scrubbed the filth and grime, the dried-on spider excrement from her clothes. She spent a good amount of time washing her clothes, then laid them out on the rock under the suns to dry out. As her clothes lay drying, Haley swam nude in the pool, asking herself if she was really alive. She dipped below the surface and glided over the rocky bottom of the pool. The water was icy cold, making her heart race within her chest. Yes, Haley Morgan, you are alive, the water seemed to be telling her, confirming it. You have been given another chance at life. What do you intend to do with it? Haley’s head broke the surface of the water and she filled her lungs with air.

She had won. Haley had fought the monster and had won. She had outlasted him. Outsmarted him. Years from now they would find the skeletal remains of a strange spider/human crossbreed in the ravine and wonder where it came from. They would come up with theories and scenarios but in the end they would be left scratching their heads. Haley sank below the surface of the water once more and scrubbed every trace of his filth from her hair, scratched and picked at it. The cold mountain water washed her wounds, removed the danger of infection or at least postponed it until she could get proper care for all her cuts, scrapes, bites and bruises that covered her body from top to bottom.

Haley swam to the far side where the waterfall fed the pool with an unending cascade of mountain water. She climbed up, stood on the rocks and showered under the torrent. She relived the events of the past few months, of Loomis and Paladin, drinking her first Spider Bite, how she had blown the tavern wide open and escaped, how she had danced and sung onstage in Savoy and proved that she could support herself, how she had shape-shifted into Zaida and how she had kissed Rhys and had fallen in love, their escape from Breedlove, and racing through the streets of Savoy on Rhys’s hoverbike. Through it all, highs and lows, perhaps with the exception of this latest ordeal with Jennifer, Haley had to admit one thing to herself.

She had fun.

Haley swam back to the other side, pulled herself up on the wide flat rock by her clothes and stretched out on her back, basking in the suns, letting them and a cool easterly breeze dry her body. It occurred to her at that moment that she had left home so that she could live free, no one to tell what to do or where she was supposed to be. She only wanted to experience life on her terms. Her life and no one else’s. She had left home to be free, do and go as she pleased, but right now as she laid out on the rock under the suns, there was only one place she wanted to be.

After about twenty minutes of sun bathing, Haley checked to see how dry she was. Not a drop. Another side of her didn’t want to go, wanted to stay there naked under the suns but she’d played around in the water long enough. She was refreshed and ready to move on again. She checked her clothes and found them dry and much cleaner now, so she got dressed and left. She retraced her path back to the 61 Highway where she had turned off to take the shortcut. She stopped there to reconsider her decision, go one way or the other. No. Her mind was made up. She was taking the right course of action, so she turned and set off with no regrets.

Haley caught a ride with a passing wagon, traded stories with the driver who refused to believe her, that she had killed a Trap Door after a three-day battle. He dropped her off at the intersection with the big tree on the corner and Haley hiked the last mile to Liberty Star Ranch in the middle of the night. Without saying a word to anyone, she walked through the front door of her home, went upstairs to her room, fell into bed and went to sleep.

 

 

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Glenn Thomas writes from his home in Woodland Hills, California, USA. When he’s not daydreaming or writing, Glenn has been known to direct films and experiment in the graphic arts.

 


The Spiderboys of Aranae, Volume 1

Take off on the back of a giant spider and explore the hills of the Earth colony of Aranae in Volume One of “The Spiderboys of Aranae,” a new anthology of Science Fiction short stories by Glenn Thomas. The reader will immediately recognize all the elements of a traditional Western adventure story fused with the magic and awe of Science Fiction. Did we mention GIANT SPIDERS? An Aranaen has to do something for transportation. It’s ok, they’re friendly. … most of them. Ride with sixteen-year-old runaway Haley as she encounters an escaped convict, a dangerous outlaw, a creepy music-loving amphibian alien, secret agents from Earth, a psychic alien, a chatty alien, scavenger flesh-eating beetles, and a ferocious giant Trap Door spider named Jennifer. Five spiderboys from the Liberty Star Ranch have been sent on a mission to track down and bring Haley home before she gets into more trouble or sets off an interstellar incident between Aranae and Earth, Aranae’s parent planet. Before Haley is caught or killed, one can only wonder: will Haley come home alive or will Aranae survive Haley? Five spiderboys give chase to the troublesome teenager: Doc—their leader—Spook, Tink, Sawed-Off and Flip. So, strap on your trusty Pike 8 sidearm and jump on your favorite spider for a wild ride across the planet of Aranae. Three spiderboy adventures comprise Volume One: 1. Haley’s First Spider Bite. Millionaire’s daughter Haley Morgan joins forces with an unlikely ally in an escaped convict on a quest to track down and apprehend a dangerous outlaw while at the same time dodge the spiderboy search party sent to catch Haley and return her home. And as in all young-woman-joins-up-with-escaped-prisoner stories, things are bound to get out of hand. 2. Malady in Savoy. Continuing her quest, Haley takes a job as a showgirl in the town of Savoy where she becomes the object of mistaken identity, gets caught up in interstellar intrigue and falls for a roguish fugitive agent from Earth. Shape-shifting does have its drawbacks. 3. Along Came a Spider. Haley endures a marathon battle of survival with a monstrous Trap Door spider that is determined to pin the girl on its venom-laced fangs. The stories run as a series so it’s best to start at the beginning.

  • ISBN: 9781310161544
  • Author: Glenn Thomas
  • Published: 2015-09-20 20:35:10
  • Words: 54465
The Spiderboys of Aranae, Volume 1 The Spiderboys of Aranae, Volume 1