Credits and Good Intentions - Laeral (2024)

Everyone in Fortuna finds themselves at Ticker’s Secondhand sooner or later. Half don’t know what they’re looking for; the other half only have the faintest idea. One comes late in the cycle, a Solaris in a machinist’s rig. She spends a long time looking at a motherwrench, waiting until all the other customers are gone, and when Ticker asks her what she’s looking for, she says in a flat, dead voice, “The Taxmen brain-shelved my da.”

That’s all it takes. Ticker closes up the shop and invites her to a table in the back of the store, where the vents wheeze until the drumming starts late in the cycle. Some need a little prodding, some need a little more, but this one starts talking as soon as she collapses into her seat.

“I can’t afford to buy him back,” the machinist explains in a rush, dropping her rig’s monitor in her hands. She sounds too tired to be afraid, but it’s still there, clear as coolant. One of her hands, Ticker notices, is all metal, but the other is still flesh, skin and burn-scars. Her fingers clutch the front of her monitor, as if she might pull it off her casing and let everything pour out. “It’d take a miracle to pay off all his debt, a real, Void-given miracle. I already owed some, but now… now it’s gonna cost me everything. My job, m-my kids. I don’t know what to do.”

“Tell me about your kids, luvvie,” Ticker says sympathetically. “How many you got?”

“Two. Both boys.” The machinist straightens with pride. “Bract is my first-born. Axil was an accident. Best accident I ever had. I sold my uterus since, so I can’t have more. Their father isn’t… isn’t around.” Gone or gone. No elaboration. “My da, he is—was—called Dram. He was adrift, so I put him to work watching the sprogs while I was working. My kids are too young to be left alone. I can’t just let them crawl around in the mucking vents. I need… I need some help.”

“Help with your family?”

“I feel guilty just thinking about it,” she confesses at low volume, as if she were a penitent and Ticker the priest. “Taxmen shelved my da, gave me the gift of his debt and it’s growing all the while he’s sitting on that shelf. The interest alone is impossible. I don’t know how to afford it without working, and I can’t work without someone to watch the sprogs. If I can’t pay it off, then my boys inherit it after I die. Brain-shelving’s easiest on the shelved. I know, I know, that’s awful. Da always wanted to go back to Pluto, to Cypress where his grandparents came from, and now he’s sitting on some shelf in the dark. Is it like sleeping? Is he aware? I don’t know. I—I can’t help him. My kids miss him so much. It’s all mucked up. I can’t do it alone, but I don’t know where to start or who to talk to.”

“Well, you’re talking to me right now. That’s a start,” Ticker says, very gently.

“Is it?” Her tone isn’t hopeful, it’s smaller than that. Hoping for hope.

“It’s the start of something,” Ticker reassures her. She already has someone in mind. “I know someone who might be just what you need. Give me a few cycles and I can make an introduction. How do your boys feel about kubrows?”

“Depends if it’s trustworthy.”

“She’s a good girl. Her owner is somewhat trustworthy himself.”

“Is he? What would it cost?”

“I don’t know yet,” Ticker admits. “It’ll take some time.”

The machinist nods. She falls quiet for another minute, thinking, rubbing her hands together above the table, one polymer and circuits, the other flesh and bone. “I don’t have much. Taxmen are elbow-deep in my accounts. If he can’t help the three of us, maybe he could just… see to my kids. I don’t know.”

Ticker understands the fear: pushed to the edge by forces beyond her control and still too scared to jump. “Let me handle the details for you, luvvie. You just worry about those kids of yours. But”—this is the moment to jump—”he’ll want a name. What should I tell him?”

The machinist inhales, exhales. “ME-23, but everyone calls me Sepal.”

At the end of the cycle, Ticker closes her shop, shuts down the lights, and takes her comm off the hook. Light leaks in through the gaps in the shutters, blue and red and violet. Drumming rattles the vents while she waits on the line, taking over the broadcast sermons. “Solaris, are you listening?” the Prophet of Profit demands, a disembodied voice in the coolant canal. “Know that I have plans for you. Know that the Order of Profit safeguards your hope, your wellbeing, and our shared future. Donate today, with the credits in your account, with the sweat of your brow…”

The first call goes unanswered, so she places a second.

Vail answers on the third ring. “Ticker, my love, I was just thinking about you,” she says by way of greeting, a smile in her voice. Her audio crackles with each word. “Found anything good for me in your treasures?”

Ticker leans forward in her seat, both elbows on the table. She has a good view of the shop’s entrance from where she sits; she find it reassuring to have eyes on the exits, especially when she’s on the comm. “Darling, you’re in luck. I do have something you’ll love: a circuit puzzle set in need of a good home. All the pieces are there, best as I can tell.”

“Marvelous! I’ll come by later to pick it up.”

“That’s good to hear. The shop misses you. So does Ticker. It’s been a day.”

“Oh, guts, that hurts to hear. I’m here if you want to tell me all about it, love.”

A conversation in Fortuna is seldom one conversation, and a conversation in Fortuna is never between just two people. “I don’t want to impose if you’re busy,” Ticker says. I can’t talk about it unless you’re secure, she means.

“You’re never an imposition. I’m right here if you need me. Well, me and the kids in the vents,” Vail replies, friendly as a neighbor coming over for a cuppa and a chat. I can listen but trust we’re being monitored by the usual suspects, she means.

It’s the closest to green they ever get.

Ticker puts out a long sigh. “I don’t know what I’d do without you,” she begins. “If you must know, luv, I just learned someone I used to know has been brain-shelved. It’s a terrible fate to condemn someone to, innit? Dram is how I knew him. He has a daughter, Sepal, and grandsons. I just don’t know what the family will do without him. The news has been weighing on me since I found out.”

“Oh, that’s awful,” Vail murmurs. “Full body repos are always hard. Even on the repo teams it’s hard. I’ve been doing this job long enough that I know to shut off my emotions and process the dossiers. Not everyone can do that. Preacher says, ‘The Void does not give unto the freeloader,’ but I don’t see many freeloaders. Just bundled out rig jockeys behind on their payments. It’s sad—for them, for their families, the people they leave behind—but without consequences for unpaid debt the whole system falls apart.”

Right, Ticker thinks but does not say, without oil, the whole system turns to rust.

“Listen,” Vail continues, “I have a long shift tomorrow—there’s more than ever to process—so I can’t come by the shop for at least another cycle. I’m going to send you a care package to cheer you up until then. How’s that?” She means: Repo dossiers are mounting up soon, but I’ll find the one you need.

Ticker files away that factoid. “Luvvie, you’re an angel.”

Vail chuckles. “Where should I send it? Your hab? Or will you be at the shop?”

“Send it to my hab. I’ll be out early tomorrow; I want to check on his daughter, see what she needs.”

“Always doing something for someone. Fortuna would collapse without you.”

“Oh, Fortuna would continue on without little old me, and someday it will.” Ticker smiles inside her case. “Come visit when you can. I’ll have that puzzle set for you.”

Ticker dreams again about the sea. She stands on the shore, in her first body. Her feet sink into the wet grit of the sand, pooling around her ankles. He’s out in the water, the waves rushing through him, the tides rising higher and higher, threatening to consume him… but it never does.

She remembers her legs prickling with goosebumps, the salt spray on her face. She remembers, but she doesn’t.

The comm is ringing when Ticker enters the shop the next cycle. She suspects she knows who’s on the other end of the line, yet she can’t help but register a warning at the sound. Is it a Solaris hoping to pawn enough treasures to afford their rent? Another lost soul seeking a way off this planet? Vail, panicky and breathless, warning her that her name—the name used by the Corpus in all their official records—turned up on a repo dossier? Or, worse, some dispassionate floor boss on the other end of the line, telling her, “We found him in the canal. Seals failed. You’re his emergency contact, yeah? When can you collect the body?”

“Ticker, beating heart of Fortuna,” Zeno Pleth greets her when she answers the call. “How are you?”

Ticker exhales, inhales, puts on a smile inside her casing. “Oh, I’m getting by, same as anyone else—”

As soon as she speaks, a cacophony of barking breaks through the crackling audio. “Bezzie. Bezzie!” Zeno wheezes into the line, his voice falling away, and then an unmistakable sniffing sweeps across the mic. “Down, girl, down. Ah, there we are, good girl. Poor old girl’s had nothing but merc-mercs and Corpus for company for weeks,” he tells Ticker as he regains control of the comm. “Europa leaves much to be desired. Glad I am to see it in the rear.”

“Europa? And what takes you out so far?”

“Signed my tractor to a double-digit convoy running wide-bore out to some archaeo-freighter in need of emergency resupply. Deadheaded the full manifest. Turnaround is good but the company’s lacking,” Zeno explains cheerily. “I got back in late cycle and noticed a missed call from you. Bezzie would be remiss if I didn’t call back.”

One conversation, two meanings, an unknown number of spies on the line. “I’ve come into a rare set of treasures to be delivered out to Pluto that I thought might interest you. I’m still working out all the details, but it’s a set of three, maybe four if I’m good.”

Zeno doesn’t answer immediately. “Pluto is far, Ticker.”

“It will make a small family very happy.”

“Hmm. Let me grab a cuppa and run the numbers. I’ll have an estimate for you tomorrow. And Ticker?” he adds soberly. “Corpus raised their fees after Pluto started breaking out in zits. Official word is the Infested are contained to the remote outposts conveniently containing nothing worth anything, but curiously the fees never came back down. And there’s still the matter of the distance. Go-go juice isn’t cheap even on a short haul, never mind the other end of the system. All this to say you’re not gonna like my rates.”

Someone outside rings the bell.

Ticker nearly jumps out of her case in her haste to end the call. “We’ll talk again soon,” is all she can say before the comm’s on the hook and she’s rushing out from the back of the store. The interloper is just one of the Temple’s personnel clerics waiting outside her shop. Not good, not bad. He didn’t hear anything, she tells herself, but her throat, what’s left of it, constricts, the invisible hand of the Temple, squeezing. She takes a moment to compose herself before she greets the cleric on her doorstep. “Good morning. And to what do I owe the pleasure?”

The cleric is a rig jockey with fresh seals and a brand new rebreather. A supervisor in a past life, she thinks, or a laborer who saw a way out and up. “I’ve come with a message direct from the Temple of Profit for one who has an open heart and a tranquil mind. Do you have a moment to discuss your interest rates?”

Twenty thousand credits.

Ticker can scarcely believe it. She figured it’d be high, but it’s almost twice his fee the last time he spirited a Solaris family out to Pluto. “I’ll reach Fortuna in two cycles,” he concluded his message. “Not staying long but I plan to make the most of it. We should talk.” Ticker knows he’s offering to negotiate—likely on the destination—but she doesn’t have much of a counteroffer.

She’s still processing the bid when The Business enters the shop. “I’m looking for a particular instrument to dismantle a load of servofish,” he explains by way of greeting. He walks inside with the slow, easy gait of one who is deceptively at ease in his environment. “I bought a dozen brickies off a poacher, and I think I’ll dismantle them for parts. Their muon batteries can be used as power sources for MOAs. I suspect Legs would find them useful.”

“Anything to keep the boy out of trouble, eh? You’re more than welcome to have a look. I certainly wouldn’t know where to direct you.”

The Business wanders over to the wall where she’s hung most of the tools, still serviceable albeit scuffed, chipped, and well-worn. She doesn’t know what half of them are meant for, but he does. The Business examines the tools one after another, finally settling on a small, thin pry tool and brings it over to the counter. “Just this for me today, unless you’ve any cages in your possession.” He opens his casing as he talks, revealing the wrinkled, kindly face of an older man with a large nose. “One of my people alerted me to a frogmouthed sawgaw out in the Vallis. They’re exceedingly rare, you know, thought to have gone extinct here on Venus. The Corpus stuff them and mount them on their walls as trophies. I’ve one in my possession already, from off-world. If I can bring in the wild one before the Corpus catch it, I might be able to introduce them, maybe even pair them together.”

Ticker remembers another sawgaw he’d had in his shop for a few weeks. It was much larger up close than she’d figured. “What you see is what I’ve got, but I’ll keep you in mind if anything turns up.” She rings up his total: eight credits for the pry tool. A small enough sum to go to the shop’s lease, never mind the greater cost of her other dealings. “It’s good to bring people—and birds—together wherever we can.”

“Indeed. Gets a little harder every year, I think.”

“Mm-hm. That’s what I’ve been hearing.”


Ticker accepts the eight credits from him, pushes herself back from the counter, and pops open her casing so she can look at him with her own eyes. “I had a chat with Vail yesterday. She said work’s picking up.”

The Business doesn’t blink. “Did she now?”

“It’s not surprising, though, is it? Temple cleric came ‘round yesterday, said the interest rates are going up again. Even out on the rails, I’ve been told the Corpus are charging more.”

“Well, we all do what we must. I had good dealings with a buyer on Lua myself, getting a rare horrasque out to a collector on Earth. A female swimmer. Graceful creatures, if not terribly pretty. I’m sure she’s right at home in the Cetus bay.” He chuckles at the thought.

The only buyer on Lua would be the Tenno. It’s a long shot, but she has few options.

“I’m sure she is,” Ticker agrees. “The sea’s lovely this time of year.” She closes her casing when she sees three figures approach the gate. The Business shuts his casing, wishes her well, and makes his exit. She knows he’ll pass on her warning to Eudico, and in a few days’ or weeks’ time, certain dossiers will disappear from the Corpus’s records and their repo squads will find themselves short of work. Some of the newly forgiven may even make an exodus out to the stars, making the most of their second chance at life.

Ticker recognizes the first of her new customers as the machinist herself, Sepal. The two little boys trotting after her must be her kids. There aren’t many kids left in Fortuna; the older one might be eight years, the younger closer to five or six. They have curly mops of ginger hair and beak-like noses. The little one is missing a tooth in the front when he smiles shyly. Neither has been modified. It’s rare to see children, but even rarer to see children without rigs.

“You can pick out one toy each,” Sepal tells her boys in a firm, motherly voice.

“What if it’s too much?” the older one asks warily. Bract, Ticker recalls; his little brother is Axil.

“Let me worry about that, my love.” Sepal sweeps her fingers through her son’s copper hair, using the hand that is still blood, flesh, and bone. She watches as her older son takes the younger by the hand, wandering off in the direction of the shelves in the back. Once she’s certain they’re occupied, she makes her way over to the counter and leans across. “Have you… have you heard anything?” she dares to whisper. She sounds exhausted.

“I’ll know more soon,” Ticker whispers back, matching her volume.

“How soon is soon? I’m jumping at shadows. I don’t know how much longer we can hold out. What if my boss realizes I’ve been acting off? Every time someone knocks on the door or drops by the hab, I’m worried they know. They’ll turn me in. They’ll take me away from my kids. It’s just a matter of time.”

“Everyone’s afraid when they’re about to take the plunge, but you know you’re standing at a dead end. This jump is a second chance—for you, for your kids.” Ticker looks past Sepal at her two boys, picking through a small assortment of previously loved toys. Axil, the younger one, clutches a threadbare kubrodon floof; Bract, the elder, is on his knees, examining an old donda on the bottom shelf. “I’ve already opened talks with some of my contacts. You’ll get out of here, luvvie. All I ask is a little faith.”

Sepal leans on her elbows, folding her hands together like a prayer. “I had a chat with a rig jockey the other day, said the Perrin Sequence is hiring out on Pluto. Seems too good to be real. Get away from the Temple, start over somewhere else, maybe see if there’s any family still out there, but I keep thinking… this is insane, innit? I can’t uproot my family and move us halfway across the system. What if things change by the time we get out here? What if there’s no work? What about my da? My neighbor watches the sprogs right now, but I don’t know anyone on Pluto. Da’s family is out there, but I don’t know if they can help… or would.” Her volume drops lower. “My kids don’t really understand what brain-shelving is, how much Da owes. They think he can just pay the bill and come home. What if they think I’m abandoning him?” Her audio cracks. “What if he thinks I’m abandoning him?”

“Is that what he’d think?”

“My da? Maybe. He’d probably be hurt, us leaving him behind.”


Sepal lapses into silence. She lowers her hands and hangs her head. “No,” she murmurs. “No, he wouldn’t. He’d tell me not to worry about him, just take the sprogs and get out. He never wanted me to spend my life paying off his debt, but he needed the upgrades for work, and my grandparents were still in the red when they passed, and then he had the accident. After he moved back in with us, sometimes he’d… he’d cry. Tell me that a parent’s supposed to take care of their kids, not the other way around.”

Ticker notices the boys are coming over. Her younger has the floof, her older is empty-handed. “It has to be Pluto?” she asks quickly.

Sepal nods. “Yeah. Don’t know where else to go.”

“Mummy?” the little one interrupts. “Can I have this?”

Sepal clears her throat and stands tall. “Of course. Bract, darling, you don’t want anything?”

Bract shakes his head. “No, mum.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

Ticker knows he’s lying. She’s certain Sepal knows, too.

Sepal turns her head to Ticker. “How much for the floof?”

“Two credits,” Ticker answers immediately.

“The tag says five,” Bract says defiantly, as if he’s just caught her in a lie.

Ticker chuckles inside her casing. “It’s on sale. I must’ve forgotten to update the tag.”

Sepal fishes two credits out of her pocket. “Thank you.”

“No need to take me.” Ticker accepts the silver-shards and looks down at Axil. “All I ask is that you be good to that kubrodon. He’s part of the family now.”

Axil looks her in the optics and nods.

Ticker finds Roky waiting outside her hab after work, sitting on her k-drive beneath the glare of the streetlight. One leg dangles a meter off the ground, braced at the knee. “Howzit, missus?” Roky squints at her with one eye as she holds out a thin, rectangular package. The stripes of her tattoos stand stark against her skin: lucky number seven. “Delivery for you.”

“Good, good.” Ticker tips her twenty credits. “Any messages?”

Roky counts out the credits, nods with satisfaction, and shoves the fistful into her pocket. “Said Temple’s gone lateral, she’ll scope you in a cycle or two.”

“Thanks for this. Be safe out there, Roky.” Ticker is careful to hide her concern. No need to worry the orphans.

Roky snorts. She throws herself to her feet and pivots her board’s nose down the habway, the pair of reactors flashing gold as she takes off—fast, just to prove a point.

Ticker enters her hab and locks the door behind her. She turns on the lights, illuminating spare furnishings and gleaming walls, and sits down at the table with the package. Inside is exactly what she’d expected to find: a repo dossier. Two of them, in fact. ME-05, the first one reads. Alias: Dram. The Corpus have compiled everything about him from his date of birth to his entire employment history to the size of his debt, and the figure is enough to make Ticker set the dossier down. Nearly a half a million credits. Two-thirds of the total sum is just interest. She notes transportation costs, rig upgrades, medical expenses, inherited debt, and—the largest number—interest charges.

An impossible figure. No working Solaris could ever hope to pay that off.

Ticker flips to the second one, and the name at the top would’ve made her heart stop if she hadn’t sold it years ago. ME-23, it reads. Alias: Sepal. She processes the data in numb shock: high debt, excessive absenteeism, widow. The repo squads will come for her soon and take what’s left of her.

She doesn’t have much time.

Ticker grabs the dossiers and hurries into the bedroom. She finds her tablet and the glove on the shelf beside her rack. “The good preacher says, ‘Give unto the Void and be rewarded.’ How, I wonder?” she asks the glove, the hand of a ghost. She lays her polymer hand on the glove; even though she has no nerve endings to feel with, she’s never forgotten the way his fingers felt on her skin. “They never have an answer, but they know every decimal of what’s owed, and they’ll take it all.” She pulls away from the ghost and reaches for the tablet.

The first message is the longest and the hardest; Ticker sends it to Lua. The second she sends to the Perrin Sequence. The next four she sends to the buyers that have generously donated their credits in the past. The last is the shortest: a warning for Sepal. She doesn’t sleep at all, and the morning-cycle comes too soon.

Ticker knows the vents where the orphans run their parts shop and ‘skeg out,’ as they call it, late in the cycle. She knows from the silence when she enters that they’re sleeping in, and, sure enough, she finds two snoring softly in their hammocks. Roky curls around herself, arms folded across her chest, hands fisted against her shoulders; Boon sleeps on his stomach, one arm and one leg hanging over the edge. Ticker’s entrance is careless; the vent cover squeals as it opens, and both kids are immediately awake, cursing, hammocks swinging.

“Oi, you mucking null—oh,” Boon interrupts himself mid-oath, blinking blearily at her. He yawns and throws himself backwards onto his hammock. He’d slept in his clothes, kubrow fur collar upturned, tattooed stripes gleaming on his arms and legs. “Howzit, lady-matey? You brought something for us?”

“Thirty credits and two boxes of energy bars,” Ticker answers. “I need you to deliver a message for me.”

“Energy bars?” Roky whines, wrinkling her nose.

“Pump the brakes, sis. Ain’t you tired of tinned fish?” Boon asks.

Roky shoves herself upright with a huff. “Who’s the message for?”

Ticker produces the credits and the energy bars for the kids’ examination. She’s never piked them on payment, but they’re a suspicious lot. It can’t be helped, given their circ*mstances. “Her handle’s Sepal. She’s one of my customers.” She knows the orphans are involved in illegal activity—and that they run messages for other parts of Solaris United—but she still feels compelled to spare them of the details. Where Nef Anyo and the Temple are concerned, there are no children in the vents.

Boon sits up. “Isn’t she Bract’s mumsie?”

Ticker didn’t expect them to know the name. “You know him?”

“Yeah.” Roky nods, scrubbing the side of her nose with her thumb. “Lives with his biofam in Habway 9. Looks coddled, hangs logical. Sneaks in here to skeg out with us.”

“Haven’t seen him in a while,” Boon adds. “His mumsie’s a right terror.”

“So we’re gonna need forty,” Roky concludes.

Ticker might’ve considered haggling in any other circ*mstance, but she doesn’t have the time to spare. “Forty,” she agrees, fishing out another ten credits and adding them to the pile. She waits as Roky counts out the credits. The orphans were some of the hardest negotiators in Fortuna.

Roky grabs an energy bar and unwraps it, satisfied with the deal. “Primo. What’s the message?”

The kubrow enters the shop first, a graying girl with black spots and a snub nose. Her owner follows behind her, an older gentleman huge in both height and girth. He wears coveralls with shiny seram beetle shell buttons and a pair of alloy-plated boots. There aren’t many in Fortuna permitted to carry firearms, and Zeno Pleth’s detron marks him as both an off-worlder and a Corpus. He isn’t any longer, but not many know that.

“I hope you’ve come here to mend my broken heart,” Ticker teases, rising from her stool. Bezzie rushes straight for her, circling around the counter to sniff her boots and shove her muzzle into her hand. Ticker scratches her chin, and she knows she’s found a good spot when the old girl wags her stump of a tail. “Your last message caused no small amount of heartache, Zeno.”

Zeno sighs. “If I can mend your heart, it’s only at the cost of a small piece of my own. We carry our loves with us in our DNA, Ticker.”

Ticker smiles, remembering why she likes him so much. “Ever the businessman, eh?”

“Some things carry a price not in credits, but everything carries a price.” He meets her at the counter. His wrinkled face is striped with the tattoos of his past life hidden beneath a neat, gray beard. “Now, I’ve heard tell about some treasures about to pass through your shop. Tell me the story, Ticker.”

“It’s a story about memories,” Ticker promises. “My treasure is a real sculpture from the days of the old Orokin Empire. I’ve collected an amber and two cyan stars, but it’s incomplete without the third. It moves but slowly without that third star, but it still moves. Who knows the memories stored inside this old relic? A price not in credits indeed, Zeno.”

“Do you have a buyer?”

“I’m in contact with potential buyers. I expect to have one soon.”

“But not now?”

“No, not now.”

Zeno sighs deeply, his great frame expanding and contracting. Bezzie is drawn back to him by that sigh. She presses her side into his leg, offering comfort the way only a kubrow can. “It’s a compelling story, I’ll admit. Memories—the first and last good of the Orokin.” He smiles wistfully, bare-faced and grizzled. “Without a buyer, though, it’s only a story. Reach out when you have a buyer, Ticker, and we may yet see these treasures to their safe haven.”

Ticker knew from the moment of his arrival that she had only bad news for him—a promise of a promise, no contract or terms—but it guts her anyway. “How long will you stay in Fortuna?”

“Bezzie and I will only stay here until someone tells us where to go and when to get there. I have some others I’d like to visit whilst I’m here, but I hope to hear from you soon. My tractor’s parked on Sigma Pad.”

“I’ll have the ending of our story before you leave,” Ticker promises. She’s not sure it’s a promise she can keep. No one has been answering her on the comm.

Ticker dreams again about the shore, but this time her feet sink in the sand, sucking her down into the wet muck, and she wakes suddenly in the dead of the night-cycle. Her heart would race if she still had it. She collapses on her rack and turns her optics to the ceiling. Maybe it’s racing in the chest cavity of whoever bought it, she thinks. Maybe it’s going to burst.

Sleep eludes her, and within an hour, Ticker locks her hab and begins the long walk to her shop. The coolant river cuts silently through the habway, casting an oily, rainbow glow. She’s an hour early to her shop, hoping, however much in vain, to find a message waiting for her on the comm. Ticker isn’t surprised, at first, to find what she thinks is a huddled group of repos outside her gate. She usually sends them away with a few nutrient canisters where she can spare them—better to send them off than risk them getting caught up in her business—but these are suddenly familiar. “Sepal?” she calls out, causing the family of three to come apart, as if shot. “What are you doing here, luvvie?”

Sepal’s first instinct is to put herself between Ticker and her boys, and even once she recognizes Ticker, she doesn’t relax. She’s coiled tight, ready to spring. “I got your message.”

Her boys stand behind her, their eyes on Ticker, round and luminous.

Ticker understands immediately. “Let me get you lot inside,” she says, hurrying to unlock the gate.

The shop is dark when they enter, slivers of light pouring in through the gaps. Ticker guides the family into the back room, where distant skegging bangs around in the vents like a tractor collision. Sepal tenses at the ruckus. Bract squares his small shoulders and stares down at his feet. His skinny legs poke out underneath his overcoat, his knees red and rough. Once she sees them in the light, Ticker notices the boys are still wearing their sleepclothes beneath their coats. Axil holds the kubrodon floof in his arms.

“Is anyone hungry?” Ticker asks, digging through her cupboards, but all she has for the boys’ gastrointestinal tracts is tea and a couple of energy bars. No one speaks until she sets them down in front of Bract and Axil, who croak out polite thank-yous. “Do you want some caff?” she offers Sepal.

“No,” Sepal answers automatically.

“Are you sure?”

“No,” Sepal answers again, after a pause.

Ticker pulls down an empty mug and begins brewing the instant caff for her. She’s tempted to make a cup for herself, but in the storm of questions clogging her processors, she forgets. Sepal follows her, aimless, unmoored, as if she doesn’t know what to do with herself. “What happened?” Ticker asks. She doesn’t need to ask if something happened, because she already knows. She just doesn’t know what.

Sepal doesn’t answer immediately. She turns her optics to her boys. Her younger son is feeding crumbs to his kubrodon floof while the elder stares blankly at the table. His small hands are clenched into fists in his lap. “I got your message,” Sepal says, at last, in a low whisper. “One of the orphans in the vents. I know her. Caught my son messing around with them a few times, you know. I didn’t think… I didn’t think it would happen so fast. Didn’t even think it was real. I thought she’s mucking with me, like she does. My neighbor turns up to watch the boys, so I put it out of my mind and went to work. Stupid. As I’m leaving, she says, ‘Don’t worry, they’re in good hands.’ I should’ve taken them and left.

“But I didn’t,” she continues. “At work I can’t shut down the feeling that something’s wrong. I decide I’m going home early. Don’t care what the boss man says. So, I do, and when I get there, my kids aren’t in my hab. I have a feeling, so I go upstairs and I hear them in her hab. She comes to my hab and watches my kids in their home. They’re not supposed to be anywhere else. I pound on her door and she opens it, all smiles, until she sees me, and her smile drops, and I know. I just know. That mucking ambidexter”—it comes out with such venom that her sons glance at her—“sorry, my loves. Anyway, she asks me what I’m doing there. I lie, tell her there was an accident, line’s shut down early, and she blathers on about how she didn’t hear anything, and I ask her how she would know. She can’t tell me. I force my way inside—stupid unit tried to stop me—and I find my kids in her bed. I pull them out and tell them we’re leaving. Axil, my boy, he starts crying. He tells me she says they were never going to see me again.

“He…” Sepal breaks off, her audio crackling with emotion.

Ticker hands her the cup of caff. “Well, you’ve got your kids. That’s all that matters right now, luvvie.”

Sepal accepts the mug and sets it down. “I checked my accounts after we left. Taxmen froze them. I have nothing. Not a single silver-shard to my name. What in the Void do I do now?”

“Take a breather, clear your processes. We’ll come up with a plan and get you out of here.”

“Alright, but…” Sepal takes Ticker by the hands, her volume so low she’s nearly mute. “Do not let them take my kids, alright? Promise me.”

“I promise I will get you all out of here.”

“No, promise me. Promise you’ll get the sprogs off this planet.”

“I… I promise.”

“Thank you.” Sepal takes her caff and carries it over to the table. She opens her casing and appraises her children with her own eyes. Her copper hair is long and unruly, her face lined with premature wrinkles. “Eat and drink, darlings,” she says in a motherly tone. “Axil, don’t make a mess. We’re guests here.”

Bract hasn’t touched his energy bar. He hunches down in his chair, fists knotted on his lap, sheltering himself. “What’s going on, mum?”

“It’s nothing that you need to worry about right now,” Sepal lies.

“Emi said the Taxmen were going to brain shelve you. She said the repo squad had already taken you away.”

“Emi is wrong—”

“You’re lying to us again, mum!”

“Don’t accuse me of lying, Bract!” Sepal snaps, white-hot, and Bract flinches as if struck. She collapses into her chair. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Listen to me, Emi is wrong, because she was trying to scare you when she said that. Sometimes folks say cruel things to get you to believe them.” She reaches across the table to take their hands in her own. “Grandda owed the Taxmen a lot, more than he could ever hope to pay, and they shelved him because of it. Someone had to take over his debt, so they made me do it.”

Axil bursts into tears, real salt-and-water tears, startling Ticker. “I don’t want them to take you away!”

“They’re not going to take me away—”

“We should go into the vents,” Bract exclaims, jumping to his feet. “There’s one right there, it wouldn’t be far! Roky’s crew could help us!”

“We’re not going into the vents!” Sepal swears, embarrassed, then swivels her monitor around to Ticker. “Could you give us a moment?”

“Do what you need.” Ticker excuses herself and closes the door to the back room. She doesn’t know what else to do with herself, so she takes a quick inventory of the shelves. The donda on the bottom shelf catches her optic sensors. She bends down to retrieve it, and it’s then she sees a shadow pass across a sliver of light falling into the shop. Ticker goes still. She can’t explain the sudden feeling that she has, but she supposes it must’ve been the same that her mother had the night she passed. A dread feeling. Something is wrong.

Ticker rises slowly in time to see two more shadows pass outside her shop. She watches without moving, still as a pobber, as the shadows walk back and forth outside. One of them lean against the gate and peers inside. Ticker has no chance to hide. She pockets the donda. “The shop’s closed, mate,” she calls out and hopes the family hiding in the back room hears over the skegging.

A voice answers from outside: “I’m looking for the owner. And I’m not your mate, mate.”

Ticker can’t quite place the voice, but it’s familiar somehow. “You’re speaking to her. Is there something I can help you with?”

“Open the gate, please. It’s rude to make us stand out here.”

“Certainly, as soon as you tell me who you are.” Ticker inches forward as she speaks, trying to get a better look at the number of strangers on her doorstep, when she sees it: an opticor, held at waist-level. Her visitors are armed.

“This is Junior Consultor Mun.” He pauses for a millisecond while Ticker considers her response and continues, “In the name of the Order of Profit, I demand that you open this gate! The Order will consider you a dissident if you do not heed my instruction, which carries a mandatory penalty of full body repossession and—”

Ticker unlocks and slides open the gate while he’s still raving. “My apologies,” she cuts in, tone pleasant. “It never hurts to be careful in this subsection of Fortuna. You know how it is, I’m sure.”

Junior Consultor Mun, she realizes, is the Temple cleric from a few cycles ago. His uniform is brand new and freshly pressed, a dera rifle holstered across his back. The security personnel flanking him could be mistaken for Terra crewmen by their opticors, but their uniforms are mismatched and outdated. Merc-mercs, then. Mun clears his throat and straightens his collar. “Thank you for your compliance, ma’am. You’re the owner, you said?”

“I am,” Ticker answers cautiously, hoping to stall. “I remember you. I’m quite satisfied with my interest rates, thank you.”

“I’m not selling interest rates any longer.” Mun bounces on his heels. “I’ve been promoted to the Division of Bodily Repossession for the Order of Profit.”


“Thank you. The Order of Profit has rewarded my investment generously. The Void be the word…” He looks at her expectantly.

“And the word be profit,” Ticker finishes automatically. She knows all the sermons by heart. “I can’t imagine what the Division of Bodily Repossession would want with a girl like me. I’m up-to-date on all my payments. Are you interested in having a look at my treasures? Come to invest in a story waiting to be told?”

“No, no, thank you.” Mun waves her off and looks past her into the shop. “I’m here on Temple business. We’re here about a suspected dissident.”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

“Is that so?” Mun asks, pulling out his tablet. “Our informant has, uh, informed us that this shop is being used as a front for charity. Do you have anything to say about that?”

“I charge for all my treasures, like the good bishop says.”

The skegging cuts out, thrusting the shop into near-silence. Ticker forces herself not to respond, but her audio feed picks up the smallest noise from the back room. Mun peruses his tablet, oblivious. “The Temple recorded video of a known dissident outside this shop less than an hour ago. If you’re in possession of information regarding this individual, the Temple is willing to reward you with a 0.63% remuneration bonus. If you’re not and found to be lying, you will be considered by the Temple to be a co-conspirator, which carries a mandatory penalty of full bodily repossession and brain-shelving.”

Ticker glares at him from inside her casing. He speaks the words ‘brain-shelving’ as if they weigh nothing, only an idle threat to be tossed around. She sees herself on the beach, the sand sucking her down. “There are no dissidents here, junior consultor. Only Ticker and her shop.”

THUD. Something heavy and metallic crashes onto the floor of the back room, and with that, the pretenses drop. Mun draws up short, squinting into the darkened store. His security raise their opticors, pointing them past Ticker.

“Is there someone back there? Who are you hiding?” Mun demands, then to his security: “You, keep her here. You, search that room.”

“There’s no one back there, it’s probably just the orphans in the vents,” Ticker protests, but then she finds herself staring down the barrel of an opticor and she falls silent. One of the merc-mercs—and she suspects Mun doesn’t really know their names—trains his weapon on her while the other forces her way inside. Ticker can’t watch, only listen, as the footsteps approach her back room. “Listen to me, the kids in the vents like to skeg above the shop. There’s nothing back there except—”

“Step outside, ma’am,” Mun orders.

“I am not leaving my shop.”

“Take her outside,” Mun tells his security, and then Ticker finds herself being forced out of her own shop with the opticor pressed against the back of her rig. She twists her head to see what’s happening and watches, in horror, as the merc-merc throws her shoulder against the back door and bounces off it.

“Mister cleric, I think the door’s jammed!”

“I don’t care, just open it!”

“Optics front,” the merc-merc at her back barks. “Raise your hands! Open your case!”

“You’re making a mistake,” Ticker protests, but she has no choice but to submit to the humiliation. She turns her monitor around to the empty street as she pops open her casing and raises her polyester-and-circuit hands.

The merc-merc circles around her to take in her bare features. “Mun’s hoping to make quota with this haul,” he sneers in a Jovian accent. “Not much of you left, is there?” He pokes the tip of his opticor into her casing. It feels horribly violating.

Ticker stares down the firearm with her own eyes. Her self—her real self—is nothing more than a head inside a polyester rig, with circuits for veins, a processor for a brain, a microphone for a voice, and optics for eyes. Everything else she sold for him. If there isn’t much left of her, then there isn’t much for the Temple to take. They’ve already taken everything else.

Sepal still has her children and the hand she uses to hold them. And her children—guts, they have everything.

I failed them, love, she thinks in despair. I couldn’t save you and I can’t save them.

Ticker can’t see past the opticor in her face, but she sees it when the merc-merc jerks and twists. Talons erupt through his chest cavity, his body thrusts forward and up with a spray of blood she feels on her cheeks. She falls back on her heels, watching in disbelief. His killer stands behind him, hoisting the merc-merc off his feet as the opticor clatters onto the ground. She tosses him down as if he’s nothing and flicks the blood from her talons. Ticker stares up at her savior: a horned demon slashed with crimson, a small pouch swinging from her wrist.

She knows this one.

Ticker hears another slam on the door inside the store and snaps out of her shock. She dares to speak plainly: “There’s a family back there, Tenno. Don’t let him hurt them.”

The Tenno pivots on her heel and dashes into the shop, fluid as quicksilver. Ticker hears the crunch against the back door before she’s even stumbled into the gate, and when she enters she finds the Tenno pulling away from the merc-merc, her talons long and red, as the body slumps at her feet. Mun stumbles backwards until he hits her counter.

“Y-you killed my mercenaries,” Mun gasps, fumbling for his dera. His tablet clatters to the ground. “This—this is treason against the Order of Profit, the Temple will—”

The Tenno cuts him off with a flick of her hand. Ticker watches the spray of blood arc across her shop in rhythm with his still-beating heart. Mun drops the rifle, clutching his throat, and turns, gagging, and falls to the floor. And doesn’t move.

Good, Ticker thinks. “Thank you,” she says.

Garuda, Queen of the Vallis, stares back at her in silence. Her horned helmet has a dark circle with a white mark like a bird where her face should be. She thinks she feels her eyes on her, but everyone knows the Tenno don’t speak and they never remove their helmets.

Outside, Vox Solaris’s voice fills the canals. “The Taxmen teaches that truth plus profit equals life. Solaris United reminds you that, if this is true, then truth is life without profit, and profit is life without truth.” The Bishop of Greed has gone silent for the first time in weeks.

Somehow, they knew.

“Was that you? Thank you for that, too.” Ticker steps over the bodies on her way to the back room. The door is punctured inward and red with blood. She has to throw her shoulder against it to force it open. “Sepal? Kids? Are you alright?”

A terrible, frantic scene greets her inside: the vent cover lies on the middle of the floor, Sepal cowers in the corner, and a pair of smoke-gray faces stare at her from inside the vent. “Wh-what happened?” Sepal asks in a wet, trembling voice.

Ticker crosses the room and helps her off the floor. “A rescue, luvvie. We don’t have much time. Are you hurt? Can you get your kids? We need to leave now.”

“I—I think so.”

Ticker watches as the poor woman gathers herself and approaches the vent, where she begins guiding her children out of the vent. She turns when she senses Garuda approach her from behind, her horned helmet turned towards the scene. “The family’s shaken but not hurt. You’re a miracle, Tenno, you really are,” she says. “Are you here to answer my message?”

Garuda unties the pouch from her wrist and drops it into Ticker’s outstretched hand. She doesn’t need to count it to know it’s enough.

“This will help smuggle the family off-planet,” Ticker explains. “Did you know, charity is a sin in the eyes of the Temple of Profit. You and I are both going to hell, Stardust.” Garuda doesn’t answer, but when she turns to leave Ticker stops her. “There’s something else. Our little family here is incomplete. Their granddad, a man named Dram, was brain-shelved. He waits in total darkness, going mad until the family can afford to pay his ransom. Half a million credits. It’s a lot, I know, and I understand if this is all you can do, but—” She stops talking.

Garuda exits the shop, her talons long and red.

“How often have you sat in the Temple of Profit as your parts fail and your families starve, looked up to all that gold and grandeur and wonder if you’ve been had?” Vox Solaris’s broadcast crowds every communication channel in Fortuna. Security personnel is up in arms over the hijacking, rig jockeys watching the sermons, their faces hidden in their casings. No one gives Ticker and the family of three at her heels a second glance.

Ticker knows the way to Sigma Pad by heart, but she doesn’t recognize the tractor parked on it. She bids the family to wait at the bottom of the ramp and ascends alone. “Zeno, it’s Ticker,” she calls as she enters the tractor. “I have the rest of your story.”

Her call is answered by an old kubrow, who rises from her bed and trots happily towards her. Bezzie circles around her, giving her a thorough sniffing, then shoves her snout into her hand. Zeno follows at his own pace. “You know, I was on the comm when every channel was suddenly taken over by Vox Solaris. Shut down even the convoy dispatchers. My gate for leaving is rapidly closing, I fear.”

“Funny, that. I have your credits.”

“And the treasures?”

“Outside.” Ticker leads Zeno and Bezzie down the ramp. She isn’t sure how the kubrow picks up their scent through the dense cloud of tractor exhaust, but the kubrow picks up her pace halfway down the ramp and makes straight for the family. One of the boys—Axil, she thinks—gives a gasp and retreats behind his mother. “Sepal, let me introduce you to Zeno Pleth.”

“Do you know why we’re here?” Sepal asks warily.

“I do,” he answers.

“Have you done this before?”

“I have.”

“Why? For credits?”

“Why do I do it?” Zeno taps his chest. “In working well for the greater good, I benefit myself. Happy is he who takes care of his immortal soul.”

“I don’t think a soul goes for much ‘round these parts, but I thank you, anyway. Boys, are you ready to leave?”

Axil watches the kubrow with both excitement and worry, but Bract solemnly asks, “Do we have to leave Grandda?”

Sepal lays a hand on his shoulder, but Ticker nudges her before she can speak. “The Tenno is here,” she says, gesturing towards the habway. A white-and-black horned helmet rises above a crowd of laborers, jockeys, and rail agents; and behind her, an outdated rig jockey struggles to keep pace.

“Boys, keep back,” Sepal warns, but then: “Da?

“Grandda? It’s Grandda!” Axil shrieks and bolts into the crowds, ignoring his mother as he hurtles into the crowd, his brother hot on his heels. Ticker watches as the boys throw themselves into the old Solaris with nearly enough force to send him toppling over. Garuda reaches the landing pad alone and turns to watch their reunion in silence.

“This must be the last of the four Ayatan stars,” Zeno muses. “This sculpture will move with endless, perfect continuity.”

“I can’t believe in the Golden Faith like you, but I can believe in them,” Ticker replies. “Take good care of them.”

Dram staggers up the ramp with his grandchildren holding fast to each hand. He stops to take a look at Sepal. She doesn’t move, doesn’t speak. “Sepal, my dear,” he croaks, his audio crackling. “I dreamed that I was dead.”

“You’re alive again, Da.” Sepal sniffs. “Come on, we’re leaving.”

“Where are we going, petal?”

“To Pluto.”

“Oh, that’s good. Did I ever tell you I have family on Pluto?”

Bract releases his grandfather and hurries down the ramp to face Ticker and Garuda. “Thank you,” he says quietly. Some of the color has returned to his face, but Ticker suspects he’ll never forget whatever he heard whilst hiding in the vent.

“You’re welcome. And here.” Ticker produces the donda she’d pocketed what feels like hours ago. “This is for you.”

Bract looks at her suspiciously. “I don’t have money.”

“It’s a gift.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Thank you,” he says again, taking the donda with a look of wonder, and follows his family into the tractor.

Ticker turns away from the landing pad, acutely aware of Garuda as she follows her out onto the habway. They say nothing as the ramp folds up, the tractor roars to life, and, finally, it rises from Sigma Pad. The spectacle of Vox Solaris draws away the crowds as the tractor disembarks from Venus, fading like a star in the morning light. “Thank you,” Ticker says once they’re alone.

She doesn’t expect Garuda to answer, but her optics pick up something strange: an artifact, almost, some kind of error, and then a boy appears in front of the Warframe. He appears so quickly and so fluidly that she doubts anyone in the habway even noticed. The boy is no more than fifteen, but his gray eyes are much older, and he has delicate silver implants in his jaw that must’ve cost a fortune. “Happy to help,” he tells her.

Ticker nearly jumps out of her casing. It’s funny the sorts of reactions that stay with you long after your body is gone. “Tenno! I—I don’t understand, who are you?”

The boy smiles. “I’m Garuda’s operator, Salk.”

“Salk,” Ticker repeats, stunned. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

“We have. You showed me your face, so I thought you should see mine.”

“Is that so?” Ticker wonders if he was inside the Warframe the entire time, but she can’t make the shapes fit in her processor. Salk has wider shoulders than Garuda. And she doesn’t know how to explain the artifacts in her video feed when he appeared. “Nevertheless, thank you. Both of you.”

“I got your message. You didn’t mention the Ayatan treasures were a family.”

“We have to be careful here, Stardust. Never know who might be watching. Or listening.”

Salk shrugs. He wears a black crewsuit with an unfamiliar black-and-white sigil on the chest. “Nef Anyo isn’t doing either. He’s probably panicking in his pleasure dome,” he explains. “You don’t have to worry about him. I made sure to erase the video feed of your shop and get rid of the bodies. There’s no evidence of what happened. Garuda insisted.”

Ticker examines Garuda, who stands so still she might’ve been a statue. “Did she now?”

“She’s very protective of her people.”

“Aren’t we fortunate?” Ticker smiles. “Pass on my thanks to the Lotus when you get the chance, will you?”

“I will,” Salk promises, but there’s something oddly hollow in his tone. “Are you going to be safe here?”

“Safe?” Ticker almost envies his innocence. “No, Stardust, but I’ll be fine.”

Credits and Good Intentions - Laeral (2024)
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