:: back to fiction ::

Closer to Home

"Lobo! Rein up!"

Jackie Lobo glanced over her shoulder, tipping back her wide-brimmed hat with a gloved fist. She tugged lightly on the reins of her well-trained felk[1] and the animal stopped, mouthing at its bit.

"What's wrong?"

"Pug's favoring his back foot," the rear rider said, dismounting. "Want to take a look, see if he picked up a rock."

Jackie nodded and leaned on her saddlehorn, scanning the desert country in front of them. They'd topped a low rise and the ridged rock-country of the Hadean frontier spread out to a pallid, cloudless sky, shimmering gently in the heat. Aside from a few twisted yellow trunks of Hadean rock trees, actually a form of giant lichen, there was no sign of life anywhere. Jackie looped her reins around the saddlehorn and cupped her hands around her mouth.

"Milcah! Horse! Horse!"

Something moved among the heat-shimmers: a dark shape emerging from a draw several hundred yards in front of them. As the animal loped fluidly towards the two riders, it resolved into a large, lean German shepherd, its foam-flecked tongue lolling in a canine grin.

"Horse," Jackie repeated, and the dog responded to the command by flopping in the shade under the felk's belly. It stretched out and laid its head on its big front paws, ears pricked and alert, waiting until the humans were ready to move on.

Jackie swung her foot from the stirrup and dropped to the rocky ground, stretching the saddle kinks out of her legs. She unstrapped her canteen and offered some water in the palm of her hand to Milcah, then some to the felk, before taking a sparing drink herself. The water was warm and stale.

She glanced back at the other rider, who was squatting by his felk's hindquarters with a hoof cocked up in his lap, digging at it with a hoof pick. "Trouble, Mike?"

Mike shook his head and let the hoof back down. "Got a sand thorn, but it wasn't dug into anything soft. We'll ride her easy for a couple of hours and she'll be good as gold." He slapped the felk's flank lightly.

Jackie nodded and returned the canteen to the saddlebag, but she hesitated to mount and stood for a moment looking down over the rock country. A hot breeze stirred the strands of hair escaping from her long braid, and dried the sweat on her face.

"See something down there?" Mike, back in the saddle, walked his felk over to her side.

"Nope. Not really."

Mike followed her eyes to the distant horizon, where a contrail cut through the afternoon sky like the white edge of a knife blade, rising straight towards the sun.

"Spaceport's just below that ridge," Mike said. "We've come farther west of Cat's Head than I thought. We go any farther and we'll be getting into Mesa de Viento land ... and I can't see even a bunch of goat thieves being dumb enough to run onto Mesa land, what with all the soldiers over there. Going to have a long ride back before dark."

"Yeah. Better get moving." But she didn't move, watching the shuttle's trail fade slowly away.

"Still thinking about it?" Mike said after a moment.

Jackie nodded without looking up at him.

Mike was silent, looking over the ridges of black basalt and yellow granite. His felk snorted wetly and snuffled at the bare rock under its hooves.

"I remember a kid telling me that she loved this place better than anywhere else in the galaxy," Mike said at last. "Remember her telling me she'd never leave it."

"I might've said that." Jackie turned away from the view as the shuttle trail became impossible to distinguish from the pale sky, and swung back up into her saddle.

"Changed your mind?"

"I dunno." Jackie snapped her fingers at Milcah and the big dog stretched and stood. "Time changes a person."

Mike snorted. "Don't change 'em that much. I've seen how you look at this country. It's part of you."

"Maybe." She wheeled her felk around and urged it into a slow trot. Milcah loped along beside. She didn't speak again until they had started down from the ridge, letting the surefooted felk pick their own way across the trailless rock, and the land beyond the ridge was hidden by a fold of basalt. Then she said, "It's a stupid thing to live a life that way, Mike ... avoiding what's different just because it's different. It was wanderlust that brought me out here, away from my folks' ranch. I was happy for a while here, but it's still pushing at me, shoving me a little farther. This land is big, but it's nothing compared to space."

They rode for another little while in silence, and this time Mike was the one to break it. "This have anything to do with you and me?"

"Maybe a little bit, but not much."

Mike grinned, but there was a touch of sadness in it. "One thing I like about you, Jackie: you say a whole lot with just a few words."

Jackie glanced at him, inviting explanation. After a moment, he said, "That there says more about our relationship than you could've said in a book, you know. You leaving just to get away from me ... that'd almost mean we had a chance, in a funny kind of way. You leaving because it doesn't matter ... well, I guess we don't."

Her mouth twisted slightly, half smiling, half not. "Sorry."

"No. Don't be. I know how you are. People never mattered that much to you." Though his words sounded bitter, his tone was not.

Jackie Lobo laughed softly and raised a hand to encompass the dry land around them, the razor-edged shadows, the dog loping along in its own world of scent and sound. "Funny thing to say. Why'd I join the Rangers then, Mike, if it wasn't to help people? I coulda rode around the back country for the rest of my life by myself, but it wasn't enough."

"It's a different thing, helping people in the abstract. You can get behind that all the way. I've seen you. But when it comes to individuals ... I dunno. When's the last time you went back to see your folks?"

"I've been home," Jackie said, a bit defensively.

"Every once in a while, I don't deny it. Since you've been with the Rangers, though, I suppose I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times you've taken personal leave."

"So where's this headed, Mike?"

He shrugged and stared off at the rocks, trusting his felk to avoid loose stones and pitfalls. "I dunno. Maybe some folks are wired a bit different from the rest of us."

"That's a cold thing to say." She waved her hand around them again, this time more abruptly, in sudden cool anger. "You saying I'm like these boys we've been tracking all day? A thief, a murderer waiting to happen?"

"No. No. Settle down. You've got this, I don't know what to call it, moral compass maybe, and that keeps you on the same side as the rest of us. But it's all abstractions with you, Jackie. I don't think you see the faces; you just see good guys and bad guys. And I don't think you'll ever change."


Maybe some folks are wired a bit different than the rest of us, said the voice across the years, a soft echo of an idealized past.

"Maybe, Mike," Jackie Lobo sighed, gazing at her reflection in the window of the shuttle. It had been years since she had seen her own face as more than a brief glimpse in a soap-streaked bathroom mirror. The black and yellow panorama of Hades beneath her blurred as she focused on her reflection, seeing for the first time the many small lines around her eyes and mouth, the unflattering way that her short, utilitarian haircut flattened her face. Maybe I should let my hair grow again, she thought.

Automatically she reached beside her for the comfort of Milcah II's soft ears. But Milcah wasn't on the shuttle with her; Milcah was packed in a stasis capsule like bread or meat, the only way that the animal would be allowed through station customs. She'd be able to pick him up at the Mesa de Viento spaceport.

It had seemed a strange decision, at the time, to bring the dog with her; it would have been far easier to leave him at home in Kismet. She could have asked a neighbor to feed and walk him. But she thought he deserved a chance to see the land where his namesake had been born and raised, the country where, she believed, her original Milcah had been happier than anywhere else. She had seldom regretted taking Milcah to space with her, and the animal had lived a long life, for a dog, and an apparently happy one. Still, sometimes, in her more introspective moments, she'd realized that the decision had been pure selfishness, based solely in the fact that she couldn't bear the thought of leaving the dog behind. Milcah probably would have been happier staying on her parents' farm, chasing goats and running wild in the desert.

Strange to realize that she missed Milcah more than she had ever missed her family or Mike. Milcah II was a good dog, but not quite the same as the original.

The shuttle clunked to rest in its docking grapples and Jackie released her handholds. The only other person on the afternoon shuttle was an old man in patched military fatigues who had made no response to her friendly attempt to say hello. She realized, following him off the shuttle, that back when she'd left this planet, the idea of greeting a stranger would probably not have crossed her mind -- any more than it occurred to him to return her greeting.

The Mesa de Viento shuttleport was as she remembered: small, grimy, and deserted in the hot desert afternoon. A bored guard with a gun on his hip watched without interest as she collected her luggage (a small satchel, and the canister containing Milcah II) and hunted down a squeaky handcart to transport Milcah's container. There was nowhere to eat in the spaceport, and no sign of any sort of public transportation; the old man had disappeared without a trace. Jackie tried to remember how she'd gotten here the first time, and could not; perhaps a relative had driven her? She bought a two-liter bottle of water from a vending machine, paid the attendant an exhorbitant price for the handcart and started down the three-klick road to the town.

The spaceport was located atop a low, flat mesa west of town, so the road sloped downhill for the most part, and the sun was at her back as she pushed the canister along, stopping for frequent pulls on the water bottle. She'd all but lost the ability to walk for hours in the desert without stopping to drink; after fifteen years she found herself sweating like an offworlder, and breathing hard in the afternoon heat. The water sloshed in her empty stomach and she regretted not buying a candy bar or a snack from the vending machines. About halfway to the town, the road stopped going downhill and started climbing a series of switchbacks up a sharp basalt ridge. Jackie grunted and strained, easing the handcart over a series of potholes and washboard bumps in the road. At the top of the ridge, she stopped to rest, sitting on a boulder and drinking sparingly from the bottle of water, which was already nearly empty. Her shadow ran forward like an arrow from her feet, pointing the way away from the sun and towards the town that spread across the foot of the mesa like a grove of squat, ugly trees.

"Here's home," she said to Milcah, patting the canister.

She wanted to thaw the dog out here, but common sense restrained her. Milcah would need a few hours to recover from the trank, and would need food and water and a place to rest. A ridge in the middle of nowhere was hardly the place for it. Jackie Lobo sighed, brushed the sand from her blisters and contemplated the rosy flush of sunburn on the backs of her hands, then started pushing the handcart down the hill.

The sun was setting behind the ridge by the time she finally trundled into town, tired, dusty, sunburned and already sick of Hades. She checked into the first hotel that she found, bought dinner from the food dispensers and went up to her room to defrost Milcah.

"I used to love it here, Mil," she said aloud as she followed the directions on the canister, flipping switches and waiting, disconnecting tubes and waiting. "Was I young and stupid or what? I remember how much I hated Kismet at first. I was so claustrophobic all the time. Now I can't wait until I visit Mom's grave and take care of everything here so that I can go back. Aren't human beings stupid, Mil? I'm sure you'd agree if you could talk."

She laid out the dog's limp, cold body on the bed, unpacked the animal's food and water bowls and set them, filled, beside the bed.

"Poor Mil. Sorry about all this. I should probably have left you on Kismet; then you wouldn't have to go through all this hassle and inconvenience. But I thought you should see the place where my original Milcah used to live. Even though I know you don't care and you won't even remember it. Just human silliness again."

She sat beside the dog and stroked his head until he finally came around, twitched his ears and licked her hand. He greedily drank the water that she offered him, but wasn't interested in the food. He staggered around the room a few times and whined at the door.

"Yeah, they said the drugs would be passed through the kidneys, huh?" Jackie opened the door a crack and peered out, alert for maids, then took the dog down the back stairs. She had no idea if the management would be bothered by the idea of pets or not; in a place like this, she doubted it, but there was also the fact that Milcah wasn't just any dog: he was a giant German shepherd, not exactly a cuddly lap-toy.

In the alley behind the hotel, Milcah relieved himself against the side of the building and then trotted down to the corner, still a bit shaky but getting more confident with every step. It was dark in the alley, but the sky overhead glowed with sunset's fire. Jackie smiled and followed the dog, enjoying the feel of the breeze in her hair. It was nice to be able to walk outside without a spacesuit.

The dying sunset painted the town in shades of blood -- old, clotted shadows pooling against the walls of the buildings, and bright swaths of arterial spray across porches and doors where the last of the light still touched. After living in a crime-ridden city for so many years, Jackie strolled down the center of the street without fear. No one in a small roughneck town was likely to bother a confident woman with a gun at her hip and a big dog at her side. Together Jackie and Milcah walked to the edge of town -- not a long walk, for it wasn't a big town. The prefab buildings and habitats gave way to plastic-roofed shanties with laundry flapping in the desert wind and old men playing cards in pools of coldlight, and as they walked even the shanties became fewer and fewer, scattered among the boulders.

Jackie drew deep breaths of air so dry it seared her lungs. The wind was coming off the mesa, and it carried tantalizing hints of coolness. She closed her eyes, depending on the dog to warn her of approaching danger, and sifted through the scents of hot rocks and sand, of sharp-smelling native flowers, excrement and trash from the shanties. Sudden tears sprang from beneath her closed eyelids: a waste of precious water.

Maybe I was a fool not to love this place, but to leave it.


Morning found Jackie and Milcah II retracing their steps of the night before, this time looking for transportation. Breakfast was a handful of vending-machine energy bars, which Jackie broke into pieces and fed to Milcah as they walked along. The town had nothing remotely resembling public transportation or anywhere to rent it, but she bought a beat-up landfoil from a greasy-haired kid who ran a mech shop on the edge of town. With a full charge on the batteries and the solar panels spread, she felt ready to take on the world.

"C'mon, Milcah. Hop on."

The dog was not used to riding in vehicles, since most people in Kismet (including Jackie) customarily traveled on foot or by tube, but he obeyed his mistress without complaint. Jackie couldn't help thinking of the old Milcah; that dog would never have set paw in an unfamiliar contraption without checking it out thoroughly first. But Milcah had been a country dog, where Milcah II was a city dog and used to looking towards humans for behavioral cues.

They left the town behind and cruised through open desert. Jackie kept the top of the vehicle rolled down (looking at the state of the canopy, she wondered if it could even still be engaged) and Milcah II quickly learned to enjoy hanging his head over the side with the wind flapping in his ears. For her own part, Jackie had taken the precaution of smearing sunscreen on her mildly burned nose and ears; though naturally rather dark-skinned, she'd lost her deep Hadean tan during fifteen years of city living, and missed it today.

They saw no one except two bored guards at a military checkpoint, who checked her credentials, took her bribe and waved her through. Jackie couldn't tell what in the world they were guarding, out here in the middle of nowhere. These times of relative peace between Hades' chronic border skirmishes and brushfire wars left the militia of its various small nations in an untenable situation: they could either downsize their military and risk being caught unprepared, or try to find something for them to do and some way to pay them. Mesa de Viento, she recalled, had always preferred the latter approach, leading to the development of what practically amounted to a caste system of military and non-military families.

There were no signs to mark their passage from Mesa de Viento into its neighbor, Patagonia, but Jackie began to recognize the country and decided to leave the road and travel directely to her parents' ranch. Not only was it faster, but probably safer, since the roads tended to be infested with bandits despite the efforts of the Rangers. At least Mesa de Viento's active military presence kept down the criminal element, although sometimes the soldiers themselves were no less corrupt and dangerous. Patagonia had little government of any kind, primarily a loose and apathetic bureaucracy supported by the Rangers and a volunteer militia. Only the sheer size of the place, the economic worthlessness of most of its land, and its neighbors' constant infighting kept it from being nibbled up like the last cookie in a grade-schooler's lunchbox.

Jackie marveled at how quickly the country flowed past, compared to the much slower pace of felkback riding. When the sun had passed noon, they stopped for lunch on a black volcanic escarpment. Jackie tore open a packet of dogfood from the satchel for Milcah, while she chewed on an energy bar, sitting crosslegged in the shade of the landfoil.

"I shoulda bought a hat in town," she said to the dog, who lay stretched out in the shade, panting -- Milcah II, unlike the original Milcah, was not used to the heat and Jackie knew that she'd have to watch the dog for signs of sunstroke. "Going out in the backcountry without a hat, with little water and no signaling gear ... I'm a city girl through and through now, Mil. A city girl and her city dog. When I was a teenager, I'd go off in the backcountry for weeks, just me and one of my dad's felk and Cappy ... that was my first dog, Mil, before Milcah. Dad would've hided me if I'd done something this stupid. Guess we'd better hope this thing keeps running, eh?"

Milcah flopped his tail in the sand, too lazy with the heat to raise his head.

"City dog," Jackie chided, patting his side. She opened the satchel and dug out her spare clean shirt, which she tied around her head as a crude sunshade. "Okay, bud, let's roll out!"

The pale afternoon sky was shading into the bruised colors of evening by the time they came down out of the hills into ranch country. Trailed by a rooster tail of dust, the landfoil cruised past mile after mile of blinking electric fence-eyes. Beyond the fence, small bands of foraging goats dotted the tawny hills, showing up brilliantly in their Easter-egg colors of blue, pink and orange. Most of the ranches back here were small outfits like her folks' place, where the goats rustled their own food in the hills and provided meat and milk for the family as well as colorful wool to sell on the luxury market. Dirty farm kids lazed in the shade beside their drowsing felk, watching the herds and turning hostile or disinterested stares on the landfoil hovering by their fields. On some of the buttes Jackie passed, an occasional antenna or satellite array bristled against the evening sky, marking the location of a ranch house.

One of the ranch kids hauled back and hurled a rock at the passing landfoil; it fell far short of its mark, and Jackie felt nostalgia tighten her throat. It didn't seem so long since she'd been eight years old and forced into herd-tending duty. She'd vacillated between the conviction that it was the most boring job in the world, and the fascination of exploring every inch of the giant goat pasture, each draw and ravine, each rock tree and high windshaped crag. She'd thrown her share of rocks in her time, she was sure. Laughing suddenly, she stopped the landfoil long enough to gather a handful of rocks from the ground (with Milcah watching curiously, head cocked and tongue lolling) and then tossed them from the moving landfoil as she rode along, picking out targets on the passing boulders. She hit almost every one.

"Still got it, Milcah ol' boy," she told the dog, who flopped his tail without comprehension and stretched out across the landfoil's backseat like a big furry rug.

The landscape became more familiar as she drove. She knew these ranches now: the Chienyans' spread here, the Salazars' place over there. It was the landscape of her childhood.

"Home, Milcah," she whispered. Milcah II twitched an ear at the sound of his name.

As sunset gave way to dusk, the landfoil toiled up the rough road leading from the valley to the Lobos' ranch house. Like most people in the area, they'd built high to avoid the danger of flash floods.

Before the terraforming, Hades had been a Marslike world, though closer to its sun -- marked by ancient erosion, but dry and barren for billions of years. Jackie understood that the terraformers had had high hopes for this world; when she was a kid, one of their neighbors still had a collection of old pre-terraforming Hadean brochures, designed to lure settlers with lush vistas of tropical greenery and rolling pastoral hills. Needless to say, as in so many other cases, the terraforming corporations had found that their equipment wasn't quite up to the massive job of total ecosystem reconstruction. Slowly the rock trees and other lichens reclaimed the rock as soil; slowly the terraforming machinery at the planet's equator and poles redistributed its subterranean ice deposits and a water cycle developed. Still, the weather remained unpredictable and dangerous, the hills mostly barren. The people were like the fragmented volcanic rocks strewn across the landscape: hard and scattered.

Jackie looked over her shoulder into the valley as she climbed into the hot wind, at the lights dotting the hills, and was suddenly, fiercely proud of her people for making a toehold in this harsh land and clinging to it. She found herself hoping that if the pipe dreams in the brochures ever did come true, if the hills of Hades ever sprouted lush forests and tourists flocked to the new frontier, that she would not be alive to see it.

Then she reached the top of the road and the rocks opened up into a flat-bottomed cleft. It was a good location: open to the air on two sides to catch all the breezes that came up from the valley, but sheltered to the south and west from the worst of the sun and the screaming westerly winds that came and went in this part of the world.

Jackie slowed the landfoil to a hover, and as the hot desert wind blew back her hair with the smell of scorched rocks and sun-blasted sand, she land her hands lightly on the controls of the vehicle and drew deep breaths, tasting it, dry like dust on her tongue.

The Lobo hacienda consisted of a cluster of domed habitats, once white but now scarred and stained to a dun color not too different from the rocks themselves. Satellite antennae bristled from the roof and from the rocks behind the habitat. Yellow light spilled from the habitat's windows into the dusk.

Jackie drew a final lungful of the fragrant, dry air and drove the hoverfoil across the lip of the Lobos' landholdings and into their front yard. The farm dogs roused from their half-watchful drowse among the outbuildings and ran towards the vehicle, giving voice in a cacophany of yips and barks. Milcah's head snapped up and his fur bristled. Though friendly with human beings, like no self-respecting ranch dog, he'd had little experience with other animals of any shape and did not trust them.

"Easy, easy," Jackie called to them, but they kept up their noise until light spilled out into the dusk and a sharp voice called from the habitat's porch: "Shut up, you damn curs! Who's out there?"

"It's me." Then, realizing that this wasn't enough: "Me, Jackie."

The bright square of the open door silhouetted a rangy figure who stepped down from the porch cautiously. "Jackie? Joaquina?"

"Yeah, it's me. Hi, Henny."

Henrika Lobo approached the landfoil, shading her eyes from the glare of its single headlight. Jackie shut down the machine and killed the light; dusk flooded into the yard, and Milcah stretched and jumped down from the backseat.

Henny let the dog sniff her hand and then scratched his ears. "This that same mutt you used to have?"

"No. Milcah died a few years back. This is Milcah II."

"Guess it's been a while, for a dog," Henny said.

And a human, Jackie thought. "Yeah," she said.

The silence grew uncomfortable.

"Well, no point in standing out here in the dark," Henny said abruptly, turning away. "We just finished up dinner, but I could rustle you something. Find a place to park that's out of the way, and come on in."

"Henny," Jackie said. "I'm sorry I couldn't make Mom's funeral."

Henny turned back. It was dark enough that Jackie couldn't see her face, but she heard a note of surprise in her sister's laconic voice. "Sorry? Why?"

Jackie shrugged, falling back on her family's usual lack of verbal expression. "I dunno. Seemed like I ought to be there."

"If you ought, then you woulda been," Henny said. "We figured you had your own things going on. That's what your letter said."

Yes, the letter. A few short lines, in response to her sister's terse message: Mom died yesterday. Heart trouble, been coming for a while. Love, Henrika. And she had written back something short and sympathetic; she couldn't even remember what she had typed. She had asked for vacation time at work, but hadn't said why, and when her boss wanted to know if three weeks later would be soon enough, she had answered, Sure.

If you ought to be there, you would have been.

Yeah, maybe.

She thought about it as she parked the landfoil, having to remind herself that she didn't need a complicated lockdown, not out here in the country. Milcah stayed close to her heels, intimidated by the farm dogs, who had growled at him but otherwise left him alone.

"Hey, Henny, you still follow Mom's rule about dogs in the house?" Jackie called through the open door.

"Yeah," came the reply.

"Sorry, Mil," Jackie told the dog. "Sit. Stay."

The dog sat obediently in the doorway while she entered the brightly lit kitchen. The shock of familiarity poured over her like cool water, and she felt herself sixteen again. Henny, scraping dishes at the sink, looked shockingly like their mother; her sister's hair, Jackie saw now in the light, was already turning an undisguised gray.

"Got anything I can give Mil?"

Henny shrugged. "Leftovers in the 'box."

Jackie took half a loaf of bread and some sliced meat from the stasis box, filled a bowl with water and laid out Milcah's repast in the landfoil. She noticed that the farm dogs had already left the wet streaks of their territorial markings on the landfoil's lower skirts. She half-raised the canopy (it did work, after all), leaving just enough room for Milcah to jump in and out. The dog moved to follow her when she turned back towards the house.

"No, Mil. Stay. Guard."

Jackie turned her back firmly, trying to stifle her feelings of guilt about leaving the faithful dog alone in an unfamiliar place. Maybe she'd see about sneaking him into the house after Henny went to bed, the way she used to skirt Mom's dog rules.

Henny was wiping down the table with a disinfectant cloth. A single dish sat on the immaculate counter, with a sandwich and a glass of milk. Jackie smiled and nodded her thanks. As she ate, she realized that she hadn't seen a single other person around the ranch, though the lights had been on in the hired men's habitat down by the pastures.

"Daddy in bed?"

Henny nodded.

"It's early."

Henny snorted. "You city folks probably stay up till all hours of the night. We need our sleep out here." The dish-scrubber chimed; she opened the door and began putting away the dry, clean dishes. "He's been going to bed earlier and earlier since Mom died, anyhow."

"How's he taking it?"

The older woman shrugged. "Decent enough." She offered no more information.

Jackie finished her sandwich and ran the plate and glass through a short cycle in the scrubber, while Henny set a robot sweeper loose on the floor and then opened them both strip-cans of beer. They sat at the kitchen table, drinking the cold beer and listening to the sweeper humming and the wind blowing outside the open window.

Fifteen years. There should have been much to say, but instead there was little. The silence was companionable, however. Jackie spoke briefly of her life in Kismet, working for the ISC.

"Like the Rangers?" Henny said.

"Little bit, yeah." She decided not to mentioned the gun-running bit, though she suspected that Henny wouldn't much care.

"Hmm." Henny had never understood Jackie's work for the Rangers. Shooting a man who stole your goats -- that, Henny could understand. Shooting a man who stole someone else's goats ... it didn't make sense, it didn't put food on the table or buy new shoes in the winter.

"So what's been going on around here? You guys doing okay for yourselves?"

"Like always." Henny gave a shrug, her answer to most of Jackie's questions.

That was about how it had looked from the outside. The ranch didn't sport anything shiny and new, but neither did it look as if it was being run under. It was just ... there, simple and working-class and always there.

But Mom was dead, and Jackie wondered what would happen now. Her mother had been the family's bookkeeper, the one who tracked the market cycles to see when the price of goat wool would rise or fall, the only one with much of an education. Henny took after their father: direct as a bullet to the brain, good with her hands, but not nimble in tongue or mind.

Jackie didn't have any intention of bringing up that topic. Nothing could be done about it; if the farm couldn't get by without Rosemaria Chavez de Lobo, then the farm would fail.

"Oh, I almost forgot," Henny said. "Mom left you somethin'."

"She did?" Patagonians didn't generally bother with wills; property, what little they owned, was informally passed between survivors.

"Yep. It's in the high field. Too late to go down there tonight; you can go over tomorrow morning."

In the high field ... a felk, then, or a goat. The high field was the nearest pasture to the ranch house, where they kept the felk and any goats that were injured or needed close tending. Jackie wondered what in the world she was going to do with an animal. She couldn't possibly take it offworld with her. Maybe she'd sell it, or give it back to the ranch.

Henny rose and dropped her strip-can in the disposer. "Well, I'd best be off to sleep. Your old room's a store-room now, but we still keep a bed there for guests. I'll lay out some sheets."

"Thanks, Henny."

Henny hesitated at the open doorway leading to the rest of the house. "Joaquina ... we buried Mom on the ridge back of the house, up by the Santiagos' summer road. If you wanted to go up there, or whatever." While Jackie gazed at her in surprise, she turned away, the moment of loquaciousness passing. "Close the window before you turn in, else we'll have a house full of sand roaches," she added on her way out of the kitchen.

"Thanks. G'night, Henny."

Jackie opened another beer and took it out on the porch. Milcah came immediately at her call, and laid his head on her leg while she sat on the edge of the porch and looked up at the stars. Compared to the panoramic skies of the airless moon where she lived now, the sharp desert stars appeared dull to her, blurred by atmosphere. The constellations were very different from those that shone over Kismet's cratered landscape. Jackie picked out the stars she remembered from her childhood: the two bright ones that her people called Brother and Sister, the fuzzy cluster near them that she was fairly sure was a nebula of some kind.

Above her, the light in the window of Henny's room flicked off. Apparently, she still slept in her childhood bedroom. Jackie lay back on the porch and tucked her hands under her head, the beer forgotten near her elbow. She wondered what it would be like to be forty-seven years old, unmarried, still living with your parents, most likely managing your parents' farm until the day you died.

"I'm glad it's not me, Milcah," she said softly, turning her head so that she could see the dark shape of the dog's head against the star-bright sky. Milcah twiched one of his ears and sighed deeply.

After giving Henny time to fall asleep, Jackie opened the kitchen door and quietly urged Milcah through it. She closed the window and then headed for her ground-floor room at the back of the main habitat, keeping a hand on the dog's ruff to make sure he didn't try to wander off and investigate. She found that her feet knew the way through the dark house without any conscious direction from their owner, though she did bang her elbow trying to navigate around her old room, which, befitting its new status, was mostly full of boxes and dismantled machine parts. She made the bed and undressed in the dark. Milcah climbed onto the foot of the bed, which creaked under his weight.

"No barking in your sleep now, Mil," Jackie whispered to him.

Milcah thumped his tail twice and stretched out.

The house was warm enough, particularly with Milcah's large body pumping off heat like a furnace next to her knees, that she soon tossed off the sheet and lay stretched out in her underwear, listening to the hum of the ventilation system and the snaps and pings of the cooling house. She was unaware of the transition from wakefulness to sleep; but the dark lumps of the boxes around the bed became gray in the glow of pre-dawn, and Jackie blinked at the ceiling's familiar pattern of cracks and stains.

Milcah wasn't on the bed. Her head snapped up in alarm, but she saw to her relief that the dog had simply deserted the bed for the cooler floor.

Rather than trying to sneak out the front door again, Jackie picked up a double armload of disconcerted German shepherd and lowered him out the window, dropping him as gently as possible onto the sand. He shook himself and looked up at her reproachfully.

"Sorry, kid. I'll meet you outside, okay?"

She pulled her pants on, and padded out to take a shower. The Lobo ranch's showers were sonic rather than the liquid kind that Jackie had grown used to using, and she dressed in yesterday's rumpled clothes feeling somewhat less than clean. She splashed a handful of lukewarm water on her face from the bathroom's small sink and went out to the kitchen.

Her father was sitting at the table, reading the morning's paper on a holographic display above a handheld reader, and drinking coffee. Jackie was a bit surprised to see him still inside; it was already full daylight.

"G'morning, Daddy."

He looked up and nodded to her, as if it hadn't been fifteen years since the last time she'd stood in this kitchen. "Heard someone pull in last night. Thought it might be you when the dogs settled back down."

"Yeah. It was me." She rummaged around and found some energy bars in a drawer. Munching on one, she poured herself a cup of coffee and pulled up a chair.

Her father sipped at his coffee. After a moment he said, "Noticed some sand on the floor this morning. Still keeping dogs, huh?"

Jackie felt a smile tug at the corners of her lips. "It's another German shepherd. Milcah II."

"Decent with livestock?"

"I suppose so," Jackie said. "He hasn't been around it much."

"Well, keep him out of the herd until you know for sure."

"I know better than that, Daddy."

"I figure you do." He rose from the table. "I'd best be heading out. Feed supplier's been jerking us around lately. Only so much talkin' you can do over the comm. Man can't do business unless he can shake another man's hand."

Jackie suppressed her smile. "You're heading to town, then?"

"Yeah. Back this afternoon. You sticking around a spell?"

"I don't know for sure." Her return ticket was scheduled for a week later, but she hadn't ruled out the possibility of moving her departure date up a bit if spending time with her family started to wear on her nerves. "I was going to head over to the Ranger station this morning and say hi to my old buddies out there. I'll surely see you this afternoon."

He nodded, started to turn, then, like Henny the night before, turned back. "Before you go, you oughta head up to the high field. Somethin' up there Rose wanted you to have."

"Yeah, Henny said so last night. What is it?"

"Red appaloosa felk colt. Good animal, partway trained. Rose thought you'd like him. His name's Buffalo."

"I'll go take a look at him, then," Jackie said, wondering how the hell she was going to back out of this one. Didn't they realize she lived in a small apartment in an underground city? Where was she supposed to keep a felk, in the closet?

Her father nodded, then cleared his throat. "Rose wanted you to have her saddle, too. It's in the shed by the machine shop."

Yet another thing she couldn't use. "Thanks, Daddy."

He still hovered by the door, and Jackie felt a sudden surge of guilt for her lack of enthusiasm. "Don't go anywhere quite yet," she said. "Indulge the silly womenfolks first." She waved him over; he came, with an almost shy grin, and hugged her with his chin on top of her head, as he used to do when she was a child. Jackie sighed, leaning against his chest and feeling his whiskers rasping against her short-cropped hair.

"Have a good day, Daddy."

After he'd left, Jackie washed his coffee cup and her own, and guiltily swept up the sand from the previous night's adventures. She took a handful of energy bars from the drawer -- "Didn't know we'd be living out of a wrapper the whole time we were on this world, huh Mil?" she murmured to the absent dog -- and grabbed one of the spare hats hanging on a row of pegs by the door. This one would never be missed: a beat-up old affair that had probably been worn by her father or some hired hand until it was so broken-in and sweat-soaked that it was demoted to emergency use only.

The yard was deserted in the morning sunlight. Milcah came trotting to greet her, his tail lashing at his flanks like a furry whip. Jackie laughed, rubbed his head and unwrapped an energy bar for him, feeding him from her fingers. "You're going to be one spoiled beast by the time we get back to Kismet, silly boy."

With Milcah loping along in his accustomed place by her side, she got her mother's saddle from the storage shed. Rosemaria's favorite saddle was a fancy affair, with delicate stitchwork describing a jungle of exotic, monochromatic flowers; but for all that, it had seen hard use in its time, and the embroidery was frayed, the threads pulling loose from the leather. Jackie found a bottle of saddle oil in the machine shop and sat in the sun, her head bent over the old saddle, rubbing the stiff leather until it was smooth and supple again. Milcah nosed curiously at her hands, intrigued by the muted animal smells.

"Hey ... help out or leave it alone, Mil."

Milcah quickly lost interest in arcane human activities and wandered off to growl at the farm dogs. When Jackie finished working on the saddle, she propped it on the hitching post and snagged a bridle from the shed, called to Milcah and set out for the pasture called the high field. The trail, beaten almost to a road, ran along a sharp spur of rimrock overlooking the valley. Far below, Jackie saw a cloud of dust trailing behind a lone rider on a galloping felk. Henny, perhaps, but she couldn't tell from this height. The rider vanished in a fold of the coffee-and-cream hills.

The sun beat down on Jackie's borrowed hat, stirring the faint stink of dust and old sweat. Milcah II padded at her side, just as the old Milcah used to do. Jackie felt a sudden, strange sense of dislocation, as if the last fifteen years in Kismet had been nothing more than a strange, vivid dream, and Patagonia was the only reality.

Gotta get home soon, before I turn into Henny and stay here forever, she thought.

The high field looked about the same. The corral fence was still the same weather-beaten deathtrap of plasticrete poles, barbed wire and leftover lumber -- still a miracle that none of the livestock had gotten trapped in it and maimed or killed. A pregnant felk and a leggy appaloosa drowsed on their feet in the shade of the rocks. The rest must all be out with the Lobos' hired hands.

Jackie whistled. "Buffalo!"

The felk raised their heads and the appaloosa snorted and came loping over. Responsive. Jackie ran her hands over his head, neck and legs, tested out his small sharp horns. Her mother had a good eye for felkflesh; he was a solid animal, and steady under her touch. Jackie clapped her hands behind his head and he flicked a curious ear at her, but didn't shy.

She still didn't know what she was going to do with him, but he would probably fetch a decent price.

Jackie bridled him and led him out of the corral, keeping a careful eye on Milcah since the dog wasn't familiar with livestock. Milcah made no move to nip or chase, however, and stayed instinctively out from under the felk's hooves. Jackie led Buffalo down to the farmhouse yard and he held tolerably still while she saddled him, with just a bit of juvenile skittishness. She estimated he was about three years old, and pretty well broke as far as she could see.

Jackie tied him off and filled a canteen in the kitchen, stuffing another couple of energy bars into her pocket, then whistled Milcah to her side.

"Hey boy, wanna go for a run?"

Her childhood rider's skills came back to her easily once she was in the saddle. Though Buffalo turned out to be headstrong, he had a sensitive mouth and she soon found the right rhythm for keeping him in hand. Milcah, too, quickly caught on to the new state of affairs and found the right distance to trot behind the felk's back hooves, staying just far enough away that he wouldn't be stepped on or kicked. Jackie longed to gallop, and she could tell that Buffalo wanted his head as well, but she reminded herself that Milcah wasn't used to long treks through the desert; she didn't want to lame the dog or give him a case of heat prostration.

So they trotted slowly through the morning sunshine, following goat trails in the general direction of the Ranger headquarters some ten klicks from the ranch. The desert, as usual, appeared deserted, but Jackie found her vision shifting into the roaming, far-looking habits of her youth, and she easily spotted clusters of goats among the hills, drifting along like low candy-colored clouds. She met no other riders. With frequent pauses to offer water to Milcah, she reached the top of the rimrock road to the Ranger station as the sun crested noon.

Like her parents' ranch, the Ranger station had not changed at all upon first glance: a cluster of white prefab buildings, tucked into a cleft cut out of solid volcanic rock, with a well-moored antenna soaring into the sky above it. Jackie grinned, looking up at that antenna. Despite the mooring cables as thick as her arms, it had still blown apart or completely away at least once a season, and she had many memories of welding it back together, patching and reinforcing it with pieces of metal gleaned from various sources around the station and then trying to tune the damn thing.

The felk corral beyond the building had been enlarged since she'd left, and in place of the old shed where the Rangers' riding animals had sheltered (in really bad weather, they'd just brought the felk into the anteroom of the Ranger station itself), a low barn had been constructed, snug up against the rocks. Jackie smiled -- the Rangers must have come into a bit of money since she'd been gone, in order to afford to build that. Two felk roamed in front of the barn. Neither one was familiar to Jackie but both were clearly Ranger animals: the long-limbed felk that the Rangers preferred because of their speed were impractical for farm work, and anyone who knew felkflesh could spot a Ranger mount from a good way off.

"Hallooooo!" Jackie called, dismounting and looping her reins on the saddle horn.

A short young man with a mop of sunstreaked brown hair emerged from one of the outbuildings, wiping his hands on a grease-stained rag. She didn't recognize him, but that was hardly surprising, since he barely looked out of his teens. They're getting younger and younger, Jackie thought, feeling suddenly old.

"Help you, ma'am?"

To her absolute amazement, Jackie felt a blush start to creep its way up her cheeks. "Mike ... is Mike here?"


Maybe he was gone, or, worse, dead, killed by bandits or rockslides or bad water. The average Ranger's stay in the outfit was less than five years; most didn't die, but they did burn out quickly and move on to other things.

"Michael Buhnerkemper. Does he still work here?"

"Oh ... Boon. What d'ya need to see him about?"

She had expected to feel out of place, but hadn't expected the pain of watching this young stranger looking her up and down: just some woman who'd ridden in from the desert. She swallowed back on it, hard. "I used to be a Ranger, years ago. Name's Jackie, Jackie Lobo. Thought I'd catch up on old times with Mike."

The young man jerked his thumb at the hitching post in front of the station. "Tie off and come on up."

Jackie tied up Buffalo and mounted the steps behind him. Milcah padded along at her side. The young man hadn't told her to leave the dog outside, so she didn't ask. The original Milcah had been a fixture of the Rangers' lives, and several of the others had had working dogs, too.

It was very dark inside, after the blinding glare of the desert noon. Jackie blinked the spots from her eyes, remembering too late to shut her eyes for a moment as she walked in. So many little things you forgot when you left a place.

As her vision cleared, she saw that the anteroom hadn't changed much: a large open semicircle with a few cracked chairs, a couple of satellite uplink stations, a coffeepot and the usual clutter of tack and saddles, old boots and coats tossed over chairs. The main habitat for the station was a big one. Stairs at the far end mounted to the next level, where a balcony overlooked the anteroom. Jackie squinted at the windows fronting onto the balcony, but she couldn't see anyone move behind them.

"Yo, Boon!" the young man called up the stairs. "You got a visitor."

"Down in a minute," came a thready echo of a voice from above, and Jackie felt her heart flop over.

"No, I'll go up. I know my way. Thanks," she told him. Milcah followed her up the stairs, navigating the steps without difficulty. At the top of the stairs she stopped, realizing that she had no idea which one of the various offices and storage rooms had been the source of Mike's elusive voice. She started to turn back and ask the young cowboy where Mike was, when a movement caught the tag-edge of her vision and she turned back just as Mike walked out of the station captain's office.

He stopped and both eyebrows went up. He wasn't wearing his hat and his hair was startling against his deeply tanned face, sun-bleached to the color of straw -- or was it actually streaked with gray? When he broke into his wide, trademark grin, the creases around his mouth and eyes made knife-slashes in the leathery flesh.

"Jackie Lobo. Damn it, woman, you're as white-skinned as an offworld office hack. Don't tell me that's what you are now."

"Hell no," Jackie said, laughing.

He threw his arms around her and she squeezed back, feeling his hard muscles moving beneath the skin. He hadn't let himself soften in the last fifteen years, but she wouldn't have expected it.

"So tell me you were just using the connex in Max's office, huh?" Jackie said as they broke apart, grinning at each other.

"Hell, woman, you think I've been sitting around on my duff since you been gone?"

"You kidding me? You really are the captain?"

"Sure am. Old Max is growing roses and trying not to let that harpy of a wife drive him nuts, these days."

"I can see we've got a bit of catching up to do."

Mike slapped her shoulder. "Well, what are you standing out here in the hall for, then? Come on in and sit down, if you can find a chair under my mess."

The office wasn't as much of a mess as the anteroom, and it wasn't even a patch on some of the people she had to clean up after, back on Kismet. "So what's this 'Boon' deal?" Jackie demanded, dragging a chair over.

Mike propped up his sand-encrusted boots on his desk. "Oh, that. Guess Buhnerkemper's too much of a mouthful for the kids around here. Some of the new recruits started calling me that -- aw, jeez, seems like forever now. Around the time you left, I guess. Figure the newer boys learned from the older ones, and now it seems like I hardly remember a time when folks called me Mike anymore."

Jackie sat on the edge of his desk. "You're the old man here now, huh?"

Mike's grin began to fade. "Sure seems like it. Ramirez took a laser out behind Carrion Point, a few years back, and Jodie retired not too long after that. Danny transfered to the Red Hills station, long time back, must be about ten years now. Cristobal got married and settled down. Not many of the old crowd left these days."

"When I asked after Mike, that kid didn't even know who I was talking about."

"The one that showed you in? Oh, that's just Howie. Not exactly the sharpest knife, old Howie. He does all right, though. They all do."

"You got a good bunch, then?" Her heart twinged somewhere deep inside. She would have been part of that bunch, once.

Mike took a wad of white cloth out of one pocket and unwrapped a pipe; the handkerchief kept the sand out. He started tamping down a bowlful of the local blend of shag tobacco and hashish as he talked. "Oh, you know how it goes. We've got good eggs and bad ones, like always. One kid's so dumb you just about gotta staple his gun to his hand or he'd forget it. Couple of them are sharp as tacks about some things, dumb as rocks about others. Take that Howie, for one. Kid's a genius when it comes to keepin' mech running. He can take any machine ever built and figure out what it does, how to make it work and how to keep it working. Don't know how we got along before he showed up. On the other hand, when it comes to logical thinking, he don't have the brains God gave a sand roach."

"Most people are like that in some way or other, you know, Mike."


"About some things. Smart about others."

"Yeah, I suppose so." He drew on the pipe and offered her a hit. Jackie smiled, accepted. The acrid smoke burned her lungs as she held it and slowly let go.

"So I heard you're out in Kismet town," Mike said, taking the pipe back.

Jackie coughed on the smoke. "Yeah. You heard of it, huh?"

"Once or twice," Mike said.

She opened her mouth to ask him to elaborate, but the clatter of feet on the balcony interrupted her. Milcah rose to his feet with a quizzical sound in his throat; Jackie laid a hand on his ruff as boy of about ten years burst through the doorway, his wide-brimmed hat fallen down around his shoulders and spiky blond hair sticking every which way.

"Hey, Dad! Guess what! Mister Gomez is takin' out the traxter and he says I can ride along. Can I go, Dad?"

Mike blew out a breath of smoke. "You finished helping Howie?"

"Yeah, I'm done, Dad. Can I go?" The boy bounced on the balls of his feet, then belatedly noticed Jackie. "Oh, hi, ma'am!" His eyes roamed to the big dog without any trace of fear, then went back to his father.

"Hi," Jackie said, grinning at him while she wondered at his features -- just like a little version of Mike, and his voice sounded just like him too.

"Go ahead, but let Ronnie Gomez know that you need to be back before dark, got it?"

"Yeah, Dad. Thanks!" The kid raced out again.

Mike chuckled and drew on the pipe.

"Woah, Mike," Jackie laughed as the clattering footsteps receded. "You got kids. I never thought I'd see the day. Some woman finally took pity on you, huh?"

She realized immediately after she said it that, considering she'd been the one who dumped him, it might have been a less than tactful comment. Mike, however, just grinned. "You remember Carmelita Perez, don't you?"

"Old Emilio Perez's kid? Jeez, Mike! You cradle-robbing or what?"

Mike laughed. "She's only, what, three or four years younger than you. Not as if it makes much difference at our age. Yeah, besides Mikey Junior, we got a little girl too. Dora. Five standard. She takes after her mom more than after me -- loves her dolls and helpin' out her mom around the house. Hair up in pigtails. Cutest thing you ever seen. Here, you wanna see a holo, I got one in my desk."

"Sure," Jackie said, fidgeting with the automatic discomfort that she felt whenever somebody started whipping out pictures of their kids. Dora Buhnerkemper was a pretty child, though: rosy-cheeked and very dark, with Mike's alert blue eyes.

Jackie was surprised that she felt only the slightest pang of what-might-have-been. She'd never gone around daydreaming about little kids with her hair and Mike's nose. He had found a nice girl and Jackie was happy about it, and a bit startled at her own pleasure in seeing some of Mike's traits in the little girl's face. Lucky kids. Lucky Carmelita too. But it didn't leave her feeling hurt or left out.

She rubbed Milcah's ears absently while she and Mike talked the afternoon away. The low sunlight slanting through the window of Mike's office finally drew Jackie's attention back to the real world.

"It's been fun catching up, but I guess I oughta get rolling. I still haven't done what I came here to do -- visit Mom's grave."

"You staying a spell?" Mike asked. "You can come over for dinner. Carmelita's a man's dream in the kitchen."

"I'll try to make it," Jackie said. "I doubt if I'll be sticking around more than a couple of days, though. Got a long trip home."

Mike smiled faintly, a sad smile with years behind it. "Same Jackie, I see." He sat up suddenly. "Oh, hey. Before I forget. You said you're working for an outfit like the Rangers in that Kismet town of yours, right? ISC or somethin'?"

"Yeah, the Internal Security Corps." The original full name of the ISC was actually Interplanetary Securities Inc., but the other joke-name had caught on in popular usage, just as the organization itself had inadvertently brought law and order to a lawless moon in the process of securing its gun-smuggling operations.

"You think you could do me a favor?"

Jackie laughed. "Well, I can't hardly say without knowing what it is, but I'll try."

Mike leaned forward and keyed up his comm. "There's a guy, a former Hadean, from Mesa de Viento. He ... did some things around here, a few years after you left. Folks haven't forgotten. They'd like to see him caught. Hell, a lot of them would like to see him shot. Through the kneecaps, if possible, and left out in the sun."

The muscles in his jaw tightened as he spoke. "Bad one?" Jackie said.

"The worst. Rapist and murderer. Goes after young women mostly, though he's done a few teenagers and kids, too. One of them you might have known. Luisa Morocco?"

Jackie thought about it, and shook her head. "Name doesn't sound familiar."

"She's got ... I mean, she had a sister about Carmelita's age ... Palba Morocco ... thought you might've known her."

"No. Sorry. It's been a while. She's dead, then?"

Mike nodded. "I went on that call. She was ..." He swallowed. "She'd been burned. Soaked in syn-petrol and lit on fire. Alive."

"Jeez, Mike," Jackie sympathized. She had seen similar things in Kismet, but it still didn't make it easy. "To hide his traces?"

Mike shook his head. "I don't think so. Just for the hell of it, most likely. None of his other victims had been burned, though it didn't mean that what happened to them was any better. Guy got his rocks off that way."

"Jeez," Jackie repeated. "So you guys think he ran offworld?"

Mike nodded. "Word is that he's surfaced in a few places since then. Kismet is one of them. I don't know how reliable those rumors are, but if you hear anything ..."

"What's his name?"

"Raymond Alvarez."

"Doesn't ring a bell," Jackie said.

"Might use an alias. He's been known to use a few around here. Al Raynard, Ray Allerton, Ray Garcia, those are ones I know about. He's probably got others." Mike downloaded the contents of his screen to a data stik, snapped it into a case and gave it to her. "Details are on here."

"Mike ... I doubt if I can find this guy for you."

"I'm not asking you to look. Just ... read the file, and see what he did to those girls, so if your path ever crosses his ... you can do what a lawman has to do."

Jackie put the data stik away, seeing the intensity in Mike's eyes, and understanding it from her more cosmopolitan perspective. In her urban pursuit of justice, or what passed for justice around Kismet, it was not unusual for murderes to escape. She hated it, but it happened. It happened a lot. For a rural lawman like Mike, however, whose practice was mostly limited to goat thieves and domestic violence, the escape of a brutal killer like Alvarez was a personal affront.

"I'll stay in touch, let you know if I find him," Jackie promised, a smile quirking her face. "Ranger's honor."

Mike grinned, reached out his hand. Jackie took it. The handshake lasted long, and when he released her hand first, Jackie heard the soft sound of a door closing, somewhere in her past.

"You do that," he said.

"See you later, Mike."


She stepped outside into dead-still afternoon heat like the inside of an oven. Upon seeing that the hitching post was empty, Jackie stopped short, a clutch of fear gripping at her chest. My mother's felk ...

"You lookin' for your beast, he's in the corral with the others," one of the Rangers called to her. "Felt sorry for the bugger, standing out in the sun. Took off his gear and gave him a little water and feed."

"Thanks a million," Jackie said, feeling a burn of shame creep up her face. Just like a city girl to sit in a shady, fan-cooled office, talking the day away, while her mount got sunstroke outside. Fifteen years ago, she would never have dreamed of doing such a thing; taking care of her beast would have taken top priority.

Times do change ...

Buffalo was lying down in the shade. He greeted her with a soft snort. "Sorry about that, old boy," Jackie muttered, rubbing his nose. She fed him half of one of her energy bars, and he stood still while she saddled him, sleepy with heat.

"Milcah!" The dog settled in beside the mounted woman as if he'd been trained for it. Jackie took a last, long look at the Ranger station, fixing it in her memory, then rode away.


Rosemaria Lobo's family had picked a pretty spot for her final resting place. The grave was atop a ridge behind the Lobo ranch, and standing beside the crude, waist-high grave marker, Jackie looked down at the many-colored panorama of the valley. The Lobos' house was hidden by the rocks immediately downslope, but the family's pastures spread out at her feet as sharp and clear as a map. Slowly she raised her eyes from the relatively cultivated valley to the sere reds, yellows and blacks of the desert beyond. A hot wind rose to billow her sleeves and ruffle Milcah's fur as the sun settled slowly on the horizon.

Yes, it was a nice place for an eternal sleep. Jackie didn't believe in life after death, and had never thought that she cared what happened to her body after she died, but she found herself hoping that her ashes might wind up being scattered across such a place.

She sat down in the shade of the grave marker and leaned her back against it, while Buffalo browsed halfheartedly on the scrub brush not too far away. Milcah flopped at her side, and Jackie took the opportunity to check the dog's paws to see how he was holding up to the unfamiliar exercise. His feet seemed a little tender, but nothing was bleeding.

"You looking forward to getting home again, boy?" Jackie asked him. "Back to climate control, nice smooth streets and neighborhood kids giving you goodies?"

Milcah flopped his tail lazily and stretched out in the sand.

"Yeah," Jackie agreed, taking her hat off so that she could rest her head against the grave marker. "Me, too."

She closed her eyes and half-drowsed in the heat, opening an eye now and then to make sure that Buffalo wasn't trying to wander away. The only sounds in the stillness were Milcah's panting, the soft clops of the felk's hooves as he nosed about for fodder in the barrenness, and the moaning of the wind among the rocks.

It would be strange to be back in Kismet, after feeling the wind in her hair again. Still, she didn't really regret going back. This place had been home once, but she wondered if her horizons had grown too small, living underground, to ever again encompass the wide-open spaces of Patagonia with true enjoyment.

Thinking of Kismet reminded her of the data stik Mike had pressed upon her. Jackie sighed and slipped it out of her pocket. She wasn't sure exactly when Kismet had become a mecca for criminals of all sorts, but she did know one thing: there probably wasn't a planet, country or cow pasture in the galaxy that some member of Kismet's underworld didn't hail from. The self-appointed role of the ISC was basically damage control. If somebody rocked the boat too much -- repeated murders, bombings, threats against the general public safety -- then the ISC took them out, but if Jackie and her co-workers went around trying to nab every crook who ever broke a law on some other world, they wouldn't have time to sleep or eat, let alone keep up with their inventory. It wouldn't hurt to take a look at Mike's information, but as long as the guy was keeping a low profile on Kismet, she didn't expect their paths would cross.

Being Hadean, she'd never had a data reader implanted in her wrist or head, so she went and got her portable one out of Buffalo's saddlebags. She sat crosslegged on a rock and began to sort through Mike's incomprehensible filing system.

As disorganized as the information was, it quickly made clear that this guy was, as Mike would say, a bad egg. Six brutal rape-murders in Patagonia, and thirty-two more attributed to him in the neighboring regions. The only real thread connecting the crimes was the sheer brutality of them. The guy liked to hurt his victims and he liked to violate them with a wide variety of objects. City-cynical Jackie wasn't as shocked by that sort of thing as a rural Ranger would no doubt be, but she still found herself chewing her lips as she read over the lists of clinical details in the case files. Maybe she would end up paying a visit to this Alvarez guy, after all.

"I bet I know this guy. The odds are against it, hell, the odds are massively against it, but I bet I know him. I wouldn't be at all surprised. That's just the way Kismet works. If I ever find out what he looks like." Jackie carried on a running dialogue with herself as she sifted through the files in the hopes of finding some sort of likeness of the man. Mike had a tencency to let the data system name the files itself, ending up with unhelpful monikers like "aXtj70Zv23moQ". "Oh, here we go. Damn it, Mike ..."

Her irritated murmur faded away as she got a good, long look at the man's face.

"Oh ... shit," Jackie mumbled.

She did know him. She recognized him on sight. He didn't go by the same name, but the man once called Raymond Alvarez was presently a freerunner who used Kismet's space station as his home port. While Jackie would never say she'd known him well, she liked him well enough, and their acquaintanceship went back several years. He seemed like a decent guy. His wife, Elaine, was a nice girl too.

"Shit," she repeated, and shut down the reader.

Nothing good ever came of accepting requests from old boyfriends, no matter the nature of the request.

One thing she knew for sure. She wasn't about to go off half-charged on the poor guy. Maybe they had the wrong suspect. Maybe people really did change. As far as she could tell, he'd changed his name and led a quiet life for the last few years. He was married. He had a job. Was it any of her business to come in and screw all of that up for him?

If he killed those girls, damn straight it's your business, said her inner voice, the voice that sounded a bit like Mike.

Jackie sighed, and stood up, stretching. Her legs were sore from the unaccustomed exercise (as well as a few tender places from the saddle that she'd rather not think about) but the soreness felt good. Milcah raised his head, large ears swiveling as he kept track of his mistress's movements.

"So what now?" Jackie asked, a rhetorical question directed about equally to the dog, the felk, the rocks, the sky and her mother's grave ... and to herself. The thought finally occurred to her to wonder why, if her return ticket was scheduled for next week, she kept hedging whenever anybody asked her when she was leaving. She realized that she had no intention of taking Mike up on his offer to meet his wife and children. Nor did she want to spend another night at the Lobo ranch house, forcing poor Milcah II to sleep out in the landfoil or sneaking him around as if he were an unexplained pregnancy in a decent Catholic girl.

Jackie laughed quietly, gazing down on the valley below. The place that she had once held on this world had closed up behind her when she left, leaving no seam to mark it.

Or perhaps ... only her place among the people of this world.

She raised her eyes to the horizon, squinting against the fiery glare of the low sun.

"Hey ... Mil. I have a crazy idea."

As a teenager, she would vanish for weeks into the back country, living on her own with just her felk and her dog for company. Her family thought she was insane, or at the very least, irresponsible.

"And perhaps I am," Jackie said aloud. "Or perhaps I need some time to think ... to decide."

She looked down at the reader and the data stik in her hand. What do you do with knowledge you never wanted? With a decision you don't want to make?

Maybe you go find yourself in the desert.

Jackie whistled to Buffalo, and the felk came immediately. Yes, he was a good colt. Maybe she'd just keep him. Maybe she'd find some way to get him back to Kismet and she'd be the first and only member of the ISC Mounted Police. Jackie grinned as she swung up into Buffalo's saddle.

"Come on, Milcah. Let's go say goodbye."

The sun was setting as she rode into the yard of the Lobo hacienda for the last time. She left Milcah at Buffalo's side, with orders to guard, and entered the kitchen.

"Daddy? Henny?"

She found her father in the room that they'd always called the study -- Rosemaria's study really, where the family matriarch had tracked the day's stocks and maintained the family's books while she was alive. Her father was sitting at the desk that had once been his wife's, poring over columns of figures on Rosemaria's ancient flatscreen.


Her father glanced around. "Huh. Dogs didn't raise a fuss this time. Might oughta get some new dogs."

"Oh, they're just getting used to me, I guess." She leaned against the doorframe.

"So when you leavin'?" Her dad might talk slow sometimes, but there was nothing slow about his mind.

"Probably tonight," Jackie said. "If it's all right with you."

Her father shrugged, nodded acknowledgment. If it bothered him that his younger daughter would not even stay for a meal with the family, he gave no sign. The Lobos were like that.

Maybe some folks are wired a bit different than the rest of us.

"Is Henny here?"

"Nah. She's out fixin' fences. Probably won't be back until late."

"Oh. Well, tell her ... tell her I said goodbye."

He nodded. "Do that."

Jackie hesitated. Life is short, Jackie my girl, she told herself. Life is short. She crossed the room to kiss her father on his leathery cheek. He smiled at her.

"I guess I'll see you around, Daddy."

"You do that."

Jackie smiled back at him and turned to go. In the kitchen, she packed herself a kit, enough food to last through a few days. She had a gun and she could hunt for the rest, or maybe trade or buy food in the towns she passed through.

It had been a long time since she'd done something like this. She realized that she was so excited that her breath came short.

She walked out the door of the habitat into a wind that blew back her short hair like the warm breath of freedom.

Buffalo and Milcah II were waiting for her in the gathering dusk.

Jackie knelt to check the half-elk's hooves and the dog's paws. After riding and running all day, the animals should be tired, but Milcah was practically dancing with his eagerness to be away, and the felk pawed at the sandy soil and tossed his head when she swung into the saddle.

On the lip of the hill, she paused to look back. The hacienda looked just as it had when she'd driven up in the landfoil the night before, with light spilling from its windows to combat the growing purple shadows. The landfoil ... Jackie realized that she'd forgotten about the landfoil. Well, she had much more reliable transportation now, and the Lobo ranch could always use another vehicle about the place. Considering the dilapidated status of the thing, it should just about match the value of the food she had taken, as well as what she'd eaten last night. And, of course, the hat.

Maybe it was strange to balance accounts that way. Wasn't it traditional for family to give things to each other, and not keep score?

Maybe some folks are wired a bit different than the rest of us.

Maybe, Mike, Jackie thought. Maybe. And that's all right. You have your wife and kids. And I ... I have this, and that's all I really want.

She tilted the hat rakishly on her short hair and slapped the felk's shoulder. He sprang forward into the dusk in a burst of youthful energy. Milcah matched him easily, stride for stride.

Jackie laughed.

A week. And after that, who knows? She'd never learned to measure time as city folks did--chopping it up into evenly divisible little packages. You can't saddle-break an old felk, as the saying goes. She was here, right now, and nothing else mattered. Let the future care for itself.

1. Felk: Short for "half-elk". Genetically engineered from deer, goat and horse DNA -- a hardy frontier riding animal. [back]

:: back to fiction ::