My dad named me Puke when I was born because I was so ugly that he wanted to vomit all over me. That’s the story, anyway, and it gets my dad roaring. Every time he tells the tale he laughs so hard that the metal barbs in his neck twitch like reeker bugs. Makes me want to throw up. But a lot of things do. My sis, Avarice, says I was born on the wrong planet. She’s got that right.
I wasn’t born on a planet at all but on the As. It’s an asteroid with its own gravitation bubble. A company from old earth established a penal colony here to carve it out, but once the As was more or less self-sufficient, the convicts revolted and made it their own. The fact that my ancestors were the scum of old earth explains a lot. Not that I know where old earth is. Dad says it’s through a wormhole, which is the universe’s mechanism for barfing into the far reaches of space.
Dad and I used to get on better. It all kinda went south after I got caught in Robbert’s booby trap, ate Fungus’ poisoned mush, and made a pet out of a stolen puffeky. That’s when Dad started talking at me and kicking me in the butt.
Last week I heard him yelling at Mom and smacking his fists together. “Is he my son?”
“Got your eyes,” Mom had snapped. “Got your teeth.”
“He’s too skinny and dumb. He has a fuzzy pet.”
The fight ended when Mom stabbed him in the arm with a fork. For some reason that always puts Dad in a better humor.
It’s just good he doesn’t know about Sister Wren yet. If he finds out I visit the nun in lock-up almost every day, I’ll be dead. Corpse dead. Sent-down-the-bone-chute dead.
“I’ve got to do something Avarice.” I sat huddled at the end of her bed, clutching the puffeky to my chest and trying to keep the shake out of my voice. Bile had been building in my throat for days.
Avarice didn’t look up. She kept picking bits of ick out of her toenails with Mom’s tactical knife. I knew she was thinking hard because her lips were pressed together. I didn’t interrupt, but it was hard not to blabber or squeeze the puffeky too hard around its middle.
Somehow I had to prove to Dad that I was worthy of being his son. It’s hard enough to stay alive without having your own dad on your bad side. But there it is. That’s how life works on the As. Trick and be tricked. Kill and be killed. Want to move up in the world? Pull a fast one on your best-hated friend. Want respect? Get away with murder or kidnap an Avarian Nun. Want fame and fortune? Strike a hard bargain with a visiting merchant, let them fly off, then steal it all back and frame someone else for the attack. But whatever you do, don’t have a skinny, thatch-headed son who falls for other people’s tricks.
Avarice finished the toenails on one foot and switched to the other. “You need to trick him.” She looked up at me and her chin thrust out. “And I can’t help, otherwise he’ll give me all the credit. You gotta do it on your own, Puke.”
I fought down the acid in my throat and tried not to cry. “I need a hint,” I said. “Please.”
Avarice examined the tip of the tactical knife, then threw it at the back of her door with a vicious flick. It stuck, rocking back and forth in the wood. Her eyes went hard and I saw her teeth behind her lips. “You gotta think of something he’s proud of, something he’s bragged about. And then you gotta trick him into getting rid of it without knowing he’s doing it. And he’s gotta know it was you, but without it being obvious to other people.”
I inhaled through my nose and clutched my hair. I yanked on it and forced myself not to scream. “Is that it?” I asked.
Avarice grinned at me. “Yeah,” she said. Then she punched me in the arm. “You can do this. Think about all the things you care about that he’s taken away from you. Get yourself reeker bug angry.”
Okay. That part I could do with zero trouble.
I left the puffeky in Avarice’s room and wandered around the tunnels. I stepped around the stone spikes thrusting through the floor, hopped over a pit here and there, and paused to disable a tripwire. What a ninny Robbert was. Despite my string of bad luck, no one had ever tricked me the same way twice. As for Fungus, well, I legitimately thought she liked me. And was it so awful to want a pet that didn’t try to eat my guts, click pincers at me, or make me want to throw up?
My fists clenched and I ground my teeth together. Burning-hot breath zipped in and out of my nostrils. What was Dad proud of? What would hurt him to lose? I stopped and cocked my head. I’d reached a fork in the tunnel. The main passage continued to the right. On my left was the most booby-trapped and protected stretch of hallway in the As. It was where we kept the hostages. Right now only one cell had anyone in it. The sound of Sister Wren’s humming meandered into my ears.
I snapped my fingers and punched the air, grinning my cheeks off.
At dinner Dad laughed like a maniac, banging his fist on the table and upsetting all our bowls of mush. “Somebody pinched Robbert’s spacesuit,” he said, tears streaming from his eyes. “I haven’t seen him in such a tiff for ages. He couldn’t go to the landing pad without it, so I got to bargain with the newbie space captain. We’ll be in for good money on this one.”
“Gonna do a sell and snatch?” I asked, trying not to sound too interested or too bored. Sweat seeped out of my armpits and dripped down my ribs.
Dad looked at me and his laugh died on his face. “What’s it to you?”
I stared hard at my mush, forced a shrug. “Wanted to come.”
Dad snorted and opened his mouth to say no, but he saw Mom pick up her fork. “Fine,” he said.
Dad finished his deal with the visiting captain in the morning. She had a keen gaze, choppy hair, and a frame a bit on the slight side. But she kept her chin up and looked Dad right in the eye. She didn’t let anything slip.
We gave her a bit of a head start after she loaded and took off. I stood beside Dad’s chair in the cockpit of the Grime Wallower. We kept her ship, the Bowhead, in our sights. Soon the virus Dad had implanted would kick in.
Meanwhile, the Excrement, another As ship, rose out of the landing pad’s long shaft. “What’s it up to?” I asked though I knew very well. I rubbed at my eyes. They were hot and irritated. I hadn’t slept much.
“Waste dump,” said Dad, sparing it a glance. Then he thumped his fist on his knee and sniggered. “Right on cue.” Ahead of us, the Bowhead’s flight path became erratic. I went cold.
Dad slapped the controls and the Grime Wallower bore down on the Bowhead’s tail. He keyed in the commands for a disabling pulse. I went hot all over.
At the edge of my view, I saw the Excrement vent its hold into space. A few large barrels shot out. The skull and crossbones on them spun in and out of view as their momentum carried them into the black. Goosebumps lifted the hair all over me. My nuts shriveled up.
Dad fired the disabling pulse. Just before the shot reached the Bowhead, fire burst from her engines. The ship pirouetted with perfect control. The shot went wide.
Dad cursed and banged his fist in shock. The Bowhead turned and zoomed towards us.
A bolt of blue seared my eyeballs. It collided with us, sending a shock reeling through the Grime Wallower’s metal. The noise of impact blasted through my head.
Dad’s eyes went huge, he bashed his fingers onto the controls. She disabled my ship!”
The Bowhead hurtled straight at us. My clothes swam with sweat. “Is she going to ram us?”
Dad hollered. I screamed. The Bowhead lifted its nose and shot overhead. Then it banked and zipped towards the Excrement. Just before it reached it, the Bowhead dipped. A net bloomed from the hold and snagged the barrels of toxic waste. Then the net retracted, pulling them in. The barrels vanished into the hold.
“What in the…” Dad’s mouth hung open.
Then the Bowhead’s engines burst into overdrive. It streaked out of sight.
I went limp with relief. There’d be no catching it now.
I stole a peek at Dad, trying not to breathe too loud. A slow grin formed on my face, but I tried to hold it in, keep my cool, act like I had no idea what had just happened. I had come mighty close to pooping my pants.
“Grime Wallower, come in.”
Dad stared around the cockpit like he didn’t know what to do.
I hit the response button. “This is the Grime Wallower, go ahead.”
The voice crackled with static, then cleared. “The nun has escaped. I repeat, the nun has escaped.”
“What?” Dad shook himself. “How?”
I couldn’t help it. I smiled. It didn’t matter that I was just about dead on my feet and had been on the verge of a puking heart attack for the past 24 hours. All that mattered was Dad. I could see his brain working, turning around and around and not getting anywhere. He was completely befuddled.
“Gosh,” I said, scratching my head. It was all I could do not to pump my fists up and down and screech with excitement. “You don’t suppose Robbert had anything to do with this, do you?”
Dad stared at me. “Robbert?”
“Well yeah. Wasn’t it his spacesuit that supposedly went missing last night? Who’d be dumb enough to steal it? Everyone knows he keeps it wired and booby-trapped. And someone must have tipped off that pilot about your virus. She knew exactly what to do. Seems a bit suspicious considering Robbert was the one who was supposed to deal with her in the first place. He must have told her how to disable it in exchange for a favor.”
Dad’s eyes tracked mine. Encouraged, I forged on. “He’s also responsible for what? Half the booby traps on the hostage block? For all we know, he might have had a key to Sister Wren’s cell. All he had to do was get her out of there, put her in his spacesuit hooked up to an oxygen tank, and stick her in an empty barrel. Everybody knew that the Excrement was doing a waste dump today.”
“Huh,” said Dad. He bit his lip and creased his forehead. “Sounds a bit too brainy and complicated for Robbert.”
“Oh?” I feigned innocence.
Dad looked at me, puzzled. Then his eyes went wide. He opened and closed his mouth. Something like awe came over his face.
Then he took my hand and shook it.