Book One: DIDI AND THE GUNSLINGER
He's broken, that much is certain, with one wing hanging at his side, a leg half torn, showing the shining metal beneath. But, he's been in worse shape than this. She bends and lifts him from the melted front plate of a trashed fighter pod, fingers dirty from the scorch marks.
"Silly Pip," she whispers over him, tucking his twisted body against her side as she picks her way to a level spot. It's hard to find a good place to work in the mass of garbage, her heavy, leather boots only finding purchase thanks to the humming deflection grid she's assembled around their soles. Just enough of a push to flatten a spot to tromp.
Sunlight beats down on the two of them in the quiet of the trash heap, hazy air thick with chemicals her nose filters do little to clear. Good thing she brought her new breath guard. The clear filament sits firmly around her mouth, transparent, porous surface blocking and flushing toxins as she inhales and exhales through parted lips. Doesn't help the raging heat, though. That she deals with by sweating through the thin fabric of her tank top, a narrow line tracing down behind each knee to pool in the tops of her boots.
The heat doesn't bother her all that much. The smell is worse, or would be if Trash Heaven wasn't home.
She settles on the crooked door of a mostly burned-out skimmer, the rounded surface a perfect place to perch. Crows caw overhead, imports from another planet making this one their own. She shades her eyes, looking up at them, scowling until her dark eyebrows almost meet.
"You leave him be," she calls after them. "He's broken because of you lot."
No response, heavy wings mocking her with their rustling as they disappear in a coordinated banking sweep around the next pile of garbage. She settles their cousin in her lap and, whistling a tune she barely remembers learning, the girl with the clever hands begins her work.
The sun climbs overhead, pounding her with its intensity, but she doesn't notice, not while doing what she loves most-fixing things. Nimble fingers sort out his feathers and the twisted end of one leg, fitting the pieces back together as the heat of the day fades into late afternoon and, finally, early evening. Twilight is a multicolored kaleidoscope of vibrant shades across the horizon, the pollution-heavy air taking on a softly undulating rainbow as the ultraviolet rays penetrate to their nighttime resting place.
Her shoulders shift when she sits up at last, sighing over his quiet body. "Worse than I thought," she says. "But you should be tops now, Pip." Her fingers find the faint depression on his chest under the thick, black feathers, and with a soft push, pops his power core back into place.
"-wait for me!" He leaps to his feet, a feeble attempt to flap his wings knocking him sideways, buffeting her face with the sharp edges of his pinfeathers. She catches him before he can tumble from her lap, his slight pound of weight a benefit, though as he thrashes she almost drops him, round face compressing with a frown and a hint of sadness.
"Pip." She pulls him to her chest, cradling him there, cooing softly and rocking him until he settles, panting out of his sharp, black beak, tiny red tongue darting into the night air before he settles.
"Didi." He says her name with such hurt her chest aches from the sound. But, as he ruffles his feathers, claws-some real, some metal-digging into her leg for purchase, she releases him and allows him the dignity of regaining his own balance. "You found me, I see." He cranes his neck, the whir of a motor in his spine allowing him that movement. "Where are we?" Pip looks up at her with his glittering black eyes, a pinpoint of red in the right one where a lens replacement gives him better sight than any crow. "And after dark. Didi!"
She shrugs, hopping down from the upturned door. Pip flaps and squawks, settling on the roof of the skimmer, his dark plumage blending into the burnt out husk.
"Wasn't about to leave your feathered behind out here alone." She can't let him see the tears rising in her eyes. It's not his fault he tries to join his family. It's just his nature. But, she saved him, saved his little life two years ago, and he should be grateful, she reckons.
She's grateful to have him, isn't she?
Pip flies to her side, lands on her shoulder. She extends her arm and waits while he hops down to her forearm then rubs his head against her shoulder.
"Thanks, Deeds," he whispers, the hum of his vocal motors soft in the background. Ingenious, she thinks, enhancing his natural ability to speak with a voicebox of metal and gears, and a brain that can think as well as any human. Makes her wonder why he bothers flying off with them, anyway. They'd never understand him.
Part of the problem, she guesses. Crows are a particularly snobby lot.
Her boots vibrate as she begins their walk home, miles to go in the gathering darkness. The locator beacon in her right shoe won't let her steer off course, so she's not worried. Besides, she has Pip in case she gets in trouble. He can fly home, now she's fixed him, and fetch Dad if the need arises.
"You shouldn't have come out this far." Pip sounds equally irritated and guilty. He's blaming himself for putting her in this position. She flips her black hair out of her face and grunts at him. Well, he has, silly bird.
"You fly off and vanish and you expect me to just let you go, is that it?" She slips down the side of an abandoned flyer. This part of the garbage heap is all discarded flight machinery from skimmers to planes to parts of old space ships huddled and piled on top of one another as though they can create more of themselves just by coexisting. She likes it here, though it's not her territory. Maybe that's why she likes it. "Nice for you to harangue me when you're the blikey corbie who knows better." She strokes his feathers to take the sting from her words while he clicks his beak at her.
"I do," he says, wistful, soft as his under plumage. "I adore you, Didi, you know that. But, sometimes when they call..."
She does feel for him, can't help herself. Didi pauses and hugs him again while he grooms the ends of her hair with his beak.
"A right pair of whackadoodles we are, Pip Squeak," she laughs, brushing at tears she refuses to acknowledge. Her boots begin their forward trek again while he mutters softly under his breath a moment.
"You've put yourself in danger for me again," he says at last. "Your father will take me apart with his own hands if he finds out."
"Dad wouldn't notice if the pair of us never came home, Pip, except if dinner wasn't on the table and his stomach told him something was amiss." Did pushes her bangs back from her forehead, her goggles descending as darkness envelops them. She loves her new lenses, custom made them from a sheet of polyaluminoid she dug up from the back side of a junked holojack. A simple press of one side and she can see the black of the Trash Heaven night now lit like daylight. It's her first chance to really test them, and as off-putting as this jaunt is, she's secretly pleased her new creation functions perfectly.
"So you say," Pip snaps his beak. "But there are more dangerous things out here than the wrath of Tarvis Duke. And you know it."
"Then stop flying your foolish tail after a pack of them who don't give one whit for you." Didi's tired of this conversation. She's had it too many times in the last two years. Pip seems content enough, until that blighted murder comes flapping around, stirring him up though they made him an outcast the moment she saved his life.
If she could catch their black hearts, she'd do it, no matter the trouble, if only to save Pip more heartache of his own.
Pip shivers and leans against her as she rounds one of the piles, the distant green glow of Trash City enveloping the horizon. It's hours away and around the curve of the planet, but the pollution allows its light to cover almost half the sky. She pauses, liking this view. Civilization-as it exists here, that is-lies miles from here, so far she can't even fathom, but the massive sprawl is big enough and bright enough she's sure they can see it from half way across the galaxy.
The galaxy. She looks up to the stars, the spread of twinkling lights barely visible through the thickness of the polluted atmosphere. Sure, there are other worlds out there. She's seen enough glimpses of them in trashed vids she's rescued. But Didi is practical enough to know she's a Trash Heaven girl and will always be happiest surrounded by piles of garbage.
Different thinking just makes her chest ache.
"Wait," Pip says, breathless, when she stifles a sigh and starts on again, doing her best not to think of anything but home. Dad's teased her in the past about her wide-eyed viewing of adventure on the screen he made her, has even joined her a time or two to watch one of her favorite vids. Makes her feel not so alone out here in the trash, just her and him and Pip in their little territory.
"You just said hurry," Didi snorts at the crow. He really needs to make up his little mind.
His cyborg claw cuts through her jacket and into the leather armband she wears for just this reason. He still doesn't know his strength, her crow. It flexes with more power than it should as he turns and looks around them. "Didi."
"Oh, hush," she says, focused on the trash crushed under her boots. The footing is slippery here, deflectors or not. "I'm going already. Bossy needs to choose stop or go for once."
"No." His tone pulls her to a new halt, the small hairs on the back of her neck springing alive, skin tingling with sudden nerves. A red spark flares in his right eye, the lens engorging his cornea. "We're not alone."
She doesn't hesitate, reaching for her side, for the weapon hanging there. Even as fat, quivering bodies slither from the dark and surround her.