“Tell me what we’re looking at,” Mama whispered as she surveyed the tree husks and drifting fog in the depths of the forest beyond us. She did her best to hide the tremor in her forearm, but I saw the flicker of tendons as she finished assembling her handgun, just the slightest judder when she pulled back the slide. She played it off like a little shiver, and I think a small part of me chose to play along, deciding that the misty chill of the planet was to blame even if the other parts of me knew there was something deeper going on. It could’ve been I was too intent on telling her all I’d learned, this being the first time she’d sent me ahead to scout the surface alone. I’d been getting the lay of the land for a week, and I was itching to show her the work I put in ahead of her arrival.
“There’s a nest, running a lot of heat, in the building up ahead,” I told her, pointing below our ridge to the dark shape peeking out from behind the nearby tree line. “Tough to scan, but from all the stories the locals tell, it’s definitely where our Sap’s been hunkering down, and I’ve—”
“No, Baby Boy,” Mama interrupted, a hard undercurrent to her otherwise tender voice, making it clear she had no interest in whatever I was winding up to tell her. “Look again. What is it you see up there in that nest? Think.”
I’ll admit, something about the way she cut me off made me bristle.
Her tone felt more like what you’d use on a poorly trained pup than a young crofter coming into his own, but I took it without complaint, like I always did, and eyed the decrepit structure nestled in the cradle of those woods until I understood what it was she wanted.
“Not a building,” I corrected, a little sheepish, after studying its outline. The nest had been cloaked with scrap metal to look like a warehouse, I realized. But if you were familiar enough, and knew what to look for, you could tell it for what it really was: the wreck of a colonial sloop or maybe a streamlined carrier, some ship the Sap likely hijacked for passage to this system and crash-landed on this planet so it could get to feeding and breeding.
But I could already tell from the way Mama kept adjusting her handgun and looking at the sight alignment that she wanted more insight than what I’d given her.
So I buried my frown in the folds of my palm for a bit, fumbling at a few ideas until I gradually put two and two together. “It’s... a damaged craft. Decommissioned, single-engine model that hasn’t been in service for years, if not decades.”
“Meaning... the Sap’s been growing here for a good long while. Too long.”
“You getting it, Baby Boy?”
I felt a little halt to my swallowing as I caught up to Mama. “We got to move fast,” I said softly. “This job’s going to be a crunch.”
“There you go.” She tucked the handgun away under the folds of her long coat. “Now you see.”
I normally would’ve taken a moment to puff with pride, but I could tell Mama was unimpressed, bothered even, that it’d taken me that long to get there. And in truth, the thought of a crunch job made me anxious more than anything else, because we’d never run one that didn’t scare the shit out of me in one way or another.
Usually, when Mama and I hunted Saps on terminal planets like these, ailing worlds limping on in their final years, we could take our time, planning and mapping out our angles of approach. The Saps were almost always freshly flagged on landing by some satellite or probe, and it wasn’t like dying places could get much worse off if a new invasive organism ran amok a little longer.
But the game changed a whole lot if we found a Sap thriving, unhindered and unchecked. Something about the toxins their species secreted had a way of destabilizing matter right down to the molecules, and at some point the seeping decay would reach a critical mass and metastasize through the entire regolith, just like that. That split second would render all of the planetary resources worthless, I’d been told, make it impossible to strip-mine even dead worlds, or to recycle them inside young stars without infecting other materials.
And if that happened, then the Heritors—the folks who owned these systems and paid us to croft these worlds of theirs—well, they’d have something to say about all that property becoming worthless: something Mama told me we never wanted to hear.
“So then, Baby Boy.” My mother kept her eyes forward, but it felt like she was still scrutinizing my every expression somehow. “What’s our move now?”
My thoughts locked up, all those preparations I’d made falling by the wayside, and in my fear, my mind went for something simple and direct. I reached for the pouch at my belt and drew out a few sunbeams I’d brought with me from my shuttle.
The micro-drones floated up to eye level, humming as they initialized and began mapping the forest floor. All it would take was my command, and they could start razing the Sap’s structure down to a smoldering cinder with a rapid series of incendiary blasts—clean and easy enough, I’d thought, at least.
But again, Mama’s disappointment was immediate and palpable.
She pointed past the trees and held up two fingers, and I realized I’d missed a couple of turrets mounted at the edges of the nest. They were all but certain to detect the sunbeams and shoot down at least some of them. And once that happened, the noise would most likely warn the Sap we were coming and give it time to skitter off. So an initial bombardment was absolutely out of the question—something I should’ve registered from the jump, without having to be told.
Mama gave me the worried look, the one that made me feel like I’d never get this right.
“You really—really got to pay attention, Baby Boy. I won’t always be around to figure these things out for you. We’ve got to do this up close, with scans of the interior. Only way to be sure—”
She stopped, shutting her eyes for longer than I liked as creases of pain traveled across her brow. I knew that if she couldn’t even talk work, her spells were worse than she was letting on. I should’ve said something to her, I really should’ve made her listen to what was weighing on me just then. Pushing her body beyond the brink was too big a risk, even if the regolith did go critical on us and spoil the whole job.
But, of course, I couldn’t manage to get any of the words out, or anything even close to it—wasn’t as good or as strong as I needed to be, I guess.
I knew she had no interest in hearing my worries anyway, and no matter how much I might’ve pretended otherwise, I was still just a boy who only wanted to tell his Mama the things she wanted to hear.
So instead, I sat real quiet, looking away from her tremors until her pain eventually passed, like a tiny storm breaking at the edges of a valley. And when she gathered herself, straightened her coat, and told me we were moving, I snatched up my gear and stumbled right on after her, wishing there were some way to slow her down, just a little, but knowing there was no way I could get her to stay in place.
When Mama and I stepped out from our vantage point, approaching that scuttled ship that was looming in the heart of those greying woods like two locals come to beg for favors, I got a much clearer picture of just how rundown that scrap-pile was. There was something innate in Saps that drew them to trash, Mama theorized, because they always seemed to stack layers of inoperable junk around their homes. It reminded me of the way some organisms barricaded themselves down in anticipation of a cruel and inhospitable season, like they expected the troubles they had coming, which this Sap very well might have, now that I thought on it.
Mama had readied herself, making sure all of her tech was good and covered, and I did the same with my handgun and gear as she approached the entranceway, which seemed to be nothing more than a waterproof tarp draped at the beginnings of a shadowy corridor.
It was only a couple of seconds before we heard from something that perked up in there, more than a little overeager to greet us.
“And who’s out there comin’ to see the Prospect Pig?” a voice rumbled out from the dark with the slight crackle of a modified translation device.
Mama looked to me, since I’d been the one to collect information from the locals about the ways this Sap operated, and I’d heard enough from their accounts to know the kind of story we’d need to offer up to get through the door.
“My mother and I are in a spot of trouble,” I spoke up, my own translator working from the console I kept wrapped in cloth at my wrist. I did my best to use the cadence and turns of phrase I’d picked up while scouting, but in this instance I think the finer points mattered less than sounding meek and shaky. “We had a string of harvests the last couple seasons that didn’t work out, and we’re behind, more than we like or can afford. We heard this was a place to help and be helped.”
There was a quiet for a while, followed by a dragging sound somewhere ahead of us.
“Well, you heard right,” the voice crackled again. “The Prospect Pig’s always got something to exchange. Why don’t you come in, and we’ll have a little chat about it? Buddy here’ll show you the way. You just stick real close.”
The noise coming toward us turned out to be steps scraping across the hallway—boots belonging to an emaciated man with wispy gray hair, who seemed barely able to keep himself upright.
I thought I’d gotten used to the way the people on this poisoned planet tended to appear. Their faces were deeply lined and hardened by whipping wind and gritty soil, and most of them were beyond mid-life when I encountered them, with fewer children than one would expect in a fertile, healthy population. But this man, drawing up from the darkness to receive us for his boss of a Sap—he’d clearly gone through things well beyond what I’d come across so far.
His skin was scabbing all over his slackened jaw, turgid pustules swelling in different spots, and there was nothing even close to meaningful consciousness in his milky, weeping eyes. This thing, that the Sap had called “Buddy,” turned slowly and began to drag his feet in the other direction, which was about as close to an invitation as he seemed capable of giving. So we followed him, down through the throat of the ship and along a slight decline, taking us to a lower deck that likely lay half-a-dozen feet into the soil, where the craft had burrowed on impact.
It was hard to make out much in the passage as we went, but I could see that the corridor was festooned with all kinds of dangling finery and metal decoration we had to push aside—no doubt trinkets scavenged by others who’d come before us to seek out help from the Prospect Pig. Likewise, we stepped delicately over haphazard carpet and patterned rugs all over the ship’s floor grating, probably meant to distract from the mess underneath.
But all the trimmings in the world couldn’t hide the dark wet growth on the walls and on the ceiling—the hints of the decay spreading throughout the innards of the craft.
It reminded me of the longer trips between the more spread-out stars, when Mama would have me tend to the plants we kept in our ship’s hangar bay, not too far from where we docked our scouting vessel. Every once in a while, she’d pick up one of the sickly sprouts drooping with all kinds of bad coloring to it and show me the moist rot that had gotten to the roots. She’d do her best to pare the roots back or replenish the troughs, but sometimes you just knew they were essentially fucked, and all you could do was try to keep things clean and stop the thrips and mealybugs and other wriggling pests from climbing into the sore spots.
Can’t always save them, but maybe you can help them die right, she’d tell me. And it was always that phrase, and the distinctive splotchy blight of the plant rot, that I’d think of whenever we’d walk into one of these mushy Sap nests.
The thing called Buddy seemed like he was just about done leading us. He shuffled over to one side of the room, joining dozens of other vacant, pale-eyed men and women who watched from the darkness, their milky stares like glimmering flies. I sweated a little, realizing there were a lot more of those folks than we’d suspected huddling in the bowels of the ship like that. Our instruments always had difficulties reading bioforms through the Sap growth, but I thought I’d filtered the interference better than that.
Without realizing it, I grabbed at Mama’s sleeve, the way I used to when I was younger and our shuttle hit some unmapped debris or popped a fuse unexpectedly. It was the kind of reflexive gesture that didn’t mean much, but the stare Mama sent over her shoulder as she shook me off was severe and unmistakable.
And, of course, I knew Mama was more than right—that it’d been childish and weak, and I hadn’t the faintest idea why I’d done it to begin with. I shrank back a couple paces and gave Mama room, trying to hide the flush in my face and doing my very best to ignore all of those crouched bodies lingering at the edges of my vision.
For better or worse, there wasn’t much time to dwell, because we’d just about reached the center of the ship’s deck, where we came up on a mess of welded metal, assembled like a misshapen throne and lit from underneath by a single dull yellow light, and we found ourselves face-to-face with the Sap who was going by the name of the Prospect Pig, just staring down at us with a glistening, gut-withering grin.
He was enormous for a saprophyte, probably the biggest I’d ever seen in my life. His organic mass formed something like a giant head, which almost reached the top of the domed ceiling of the room, with the melty, dripping contours of a snout protruding toward us in a way that felt unseemly. It was typical of a Sap to try to resemble something symbolic for the people it was taking from—creatures from folklore, or, if it felt bold, the vague echo of a deity, though that could always go sideways depending on the stability of the culture. The pig, from what I could tell during my scouting on this planet, was synonymous with material fortune, a good bounty and the like. So the imagery no doubt fit well with the game he wanted to run on the people here.
“Well, well,” the Prospect Pig snorted, each of his crust-caked, clicking teeth bigger than the span of my hand. “New faces today. Always love to see them, new faces.”
Because it’d been my first solo scouting trip and I’d been the one to get us entrance to the nest, I’d thought, naturally, that I’d be the one to carry this forward, or at least give it a first take. But just as I took a breath to answer the Pig, Mama shifted, taking up a position right between me and him—her way of indicating that this wasn’t for me.
“And we appreciate you taking the time to see these new faces, of course,” she said, her translator crackling as she held her head up, respectful-like, while meeting the glowing shapes of the Sap’s attentive eyes.
I can only guess why she did it that way, without any kind of warning to let me know it was coming. It might’ve been because of the sleeve-grabbing, which had made her question my snuff. Or it could’ve just been the unusual parameters of the particular job, the crunch and danger of it all with a Sap as organized as this. Regardless of her reasons, I could see that, whatever else she intended, she wanted me to hold my place and shut my mouth, so that’s exactly what I did.
“You folks... you don’t seem very... local.” The Pig gave a prolonged chuckle, and he fixed on me for a while in particular, his gaze floating down to my hands and boots, like he was double-checking for something.
“Well, we did come just a little ways to get here, that’s true, though I’m sure you see all kinds from all places,” my Mama answered steadily, her pace of speech unrushed, with just a touch of deference layered in.
I’d seen Mama use grafts to get up close to saprophytes hundreds of times before, but it was still an art of hers: the way she drew his focus and kept the conversation going in the right direction, correcting without ever actually disagreeing, so the tenor between them was just right.
“We came from beyond the mountains and then some, just for this,” she explained. “Because, like my boy mentioned, we’re not doing the best right now, and it’s bad enough that we thought it was worth talking to someone about it. Someone with... maybe some special way to fix things.”
“Hmmm...” The Pig gave a throaty growl, like he seemed sufficiently buttered up, or at least a little more comfortable with who he was speaking with.
I kept a close watch on the edges of the Pig’s head and noticed his translucent flagella, like noodles flowing out of an overstuffed pot, snaking their way in and around the grating of the deck floor and raining a soft patter of fluid somewhere beneath us.
I knew I didn’t have to warn Mama, who no doubt saw them too, but she just kept smiling sweetly, like some schmuck farmer who was too invested in this opportunity to let some weirdness turn her away. All the while, her fingers moved gingerly against the side of her coat, pressing the inputs of the console she kept in her pocket, using close-proximity scans to sweep the bulkhead for any sign of saprophyte pupa quivering in the crevices of the hull. There’d at least be eggs gathered up somewhere in this hole, that was all but certain.
The Pig, who didn’t seem to pick up on Mama’s hand movements, drew his lips up on one side in a kind of smirk, like he felt he had a handle on us, enough to get to business at least.
“So what crop is giving you the trouble?” he asked. “Lot of problems for growers these days, I hear.”
“That there are,” Mama said, fingers still tapping at her side. “It’s grains mostly, for us. What we used to grow at least. But they’ve died so many times that we’re thinking of turning to gourds, since some nearby us have had better luck with those.”
“Gourds,” the Pig chortled through his inflamed nostrils, blowing hot gusts of reeking breath all over us. “Gourds! Y’hear that! Gourds!” The milky-eyed men and women in the dark around us all started cackling, like awful screeching chitters of rodents filling the hull of the ship all at once.
“No, we can’t have that! If it’s grains you aim to grow, then we’ll aim to grow you grains! Buddy, bring one of the nutrifying nodes over here. You know what I’m talking about.”
Buddy shuffled about and then emerged into the light by the throne, carrying an item I didn’t recognize—something compact and octagonal that reminded me of a supply container. He cradled it back and forth in his thin arms, like he wasn’t ready to let go.
“Now, your problem—and it ain’t just your problem, believe me—is that the soil’s contaminated with all manner of nano-synthetics, little bits of shit that your plants are sucking up and choking on each time they try to get going in your fields. So they’re only going to get somewhere if you take care of the pollutants, understand?”
“And that thing... that node, will help us, is that right?” Mama gestured.
“That’s right.” The enormous fleshy face smiled back. “You just put that about ten feet deep in your soil and give it a month or so, and you’ll be growing your grains again in no time. Several hundred acres, clean down to the substratum. You can count on it.”
This was always the trick with saprophytes.
They offered a little bit of good to people who’d never known good in their lives, passing off advanced interstellar tech as a kind of divine gift to folks too desperate to question what they’d have to give up in return.
In the case of the Pig, the locals I’d spoken with had shown me the marks on the back of their necks, the scarred-over gashes where the Pig would insert his flagella and gorge himself on their neural matter. They said they’d wake up, feeling strange and maybe a little off-balance, like something wasn’t quite right and they’d forgotten what they’d been up to, and they’d gradually discover little things missing from inside their heads—a dialect they spoke, or a talent for fixing things a certain way—skills and bits that might have flourished if they’d been left well alone.
And while most of those folks got their bearings and went on with their lives without thinking about the Pig too much—maybe just the occasional nightmare of that massive fleshy head bulging out at them in the dark of the hull of this ship—there were other folks, the ones that were really troubled, that inevitably found themselves coming back to the Pig a second time, or a third, so that he kept feeding and feeding on them until they had nothing left to give.
I had no doubt that Buddy and his friends, who seemed to have more pieces of them missing than remaining, were among those that had gone much too far down that road.
But Mama didn’t need to worry too much about setting off a trade like that, of course. It’d only be a couple more minutes, and her scanner would have the data we’d need from the inside of the ship, including the Prospect Pig’s unique tissue signature, the key piece to see this thing through. With his markers, we’d be able to trace his brood in this craft and in any other stray nests he might have set up elsewhere. Then we could use our ship’s orbital munitions to excise the Sap’s rot, here and everywhere the signature came up on our planetary scans, just as soon as we gathered ourselves, with a polite excuse, to back on out of here.
Mama knew she couldn’t walk without at least pretending to think over the deal, though, so she took a little time, eyeing the nutrifying node for a bit longer, then asking the Pig what he wanted us to pay him for it, innocently, as if she had no idea what this deal was.
And then the Pig started to giggle, like someone’d said something real funny, and it filled up the chamber in a way that made my head hurt and my stomach kind of queasy.
“Oh, nah, don’t you worry about pay just yet,” he said. “All you need to do, for right now, is take a little gander at this node right here. Make sure that this is what you’re really after, since, you know, you came all the way down here from so far away.”
Something about the way the Pig glanced around, and about the way Buddy, empty-minded as he was, kept squeezing at the node, made me edgier than I’d already been. And even though I knew I’d worn on the last of my mother’s nerves, I couldn’t bring myself to just let it pass.
“Mama,” I called out, and everything from stem to stern in the hollows of that craft felt like it came to a stop.
I suddenly knew the weight of hundreds of eyes, including my Mama’s.
I didn’t use the words, but she understood. The Pig and Buddy were going to try to push things further than we wanted them to go, I just felt it. And I wanted us to run, to abort the hunt, no matter how flimsy the excuse we’d have to use or how dumb it would look to stumble on out of there. We needed to go, the two of us, out of this junk heap back to the open air again. That’s what I was trying to plead with her, anyhow.
“Baby Boy,” was all she answered.
I braced myself for her anger, a sharp glare I figured was coming and knew I deserved for speaking out of turn.
But to my surprise, my mother just gave me an assured and unbothered smile, and it felt like the real article, too, not just a cover for something she didn’t want the Sap to see. It was the kind of grin she’d give me when we’d cashed our fee from the Heritors and were taking our time before the next croft, because we didn’t have to worry about fuel rods or lateral thrusters, or whatever ship part or upgrade we were paying down next.
It was her way of saying she’d just about finished grabbing the scans we needed—that she had a clean lock on the Sap and was going to wrap this up smoothly and in short order, like she always did.
She was Mama, and it was okay, she was telling me.
Except her eyelids flickered.
And it was only a second, but I saw it start in her wrist, the twinge just below her thumb, followed by her fingers tightening to a claw, so stiff and bent that she wouldn’t be able to draw her gun.
I wasn’t the only one who clocked the problem.
“Buddy!” the Pig howled, like he’d been ready for what was coming.
I should’ve been faster getting to my gun once I heard the Pig cry out. Maybe it was my confidence in Mama, or the overbearing presence of the Pig that kept me distracted, but I didn’t react quickly enough when Buddy touched the side of the node and its panel whirred open, sending bright bursts of light into the dark dome around us.
With each flash, I saw the bumpy swelling planes of the Pig’s massive head glaring down and the hunched bodies of the milky-eyed figures crowded in the corners. I watched, stuck in place, as Mama fell backward, so sudden and yet so damned slowly, like someone had hit her square in the chest and laid her out, even though no one had taken a step toward her.
Despite the fact that my pull was slower than it should’ve been, I did manage to clear my holster and fire in the span of those flashes—two shots into the center of that container, cracking apart a glass pane. One into the side of Buddy’s cheek, which sheared open his rancid skin in a spray that got swallowed up in the shadow behind him, and a final shot that shattered Buddy’s soft forehead and sent the remains of his skeletal body tumbling across the room.
I nearly got one shot off at the Pig himself, but I felt a tangle of skinny limbs and ribs crash into me all at once, and I watched my gun spin across the grate as I slammed against the deck. No matter how I thrashed and threw my weight, those mind-starved folks, piling into something of a small hill on top of me, managed to keep me from budging any more than an inch.
But I kept my eyes on Mama the whole time that I was pinned, watching her body flop violently, trails of frothy spit spilling out from the edge of her lips.
“Easy!” the Prospect Pig bellowed, his voice carrying throughout the ship. “My God. Take a fucking breath, kid!” He extended a thick flagellum up from the grating and wrapped it around my mother’s arms, curling it right at her throat.
And that there was enough to make me go dead still.
“Finally! Okay. Okay-okay.”
Someone started binding my wrists together with old cables, and when they seemed to think I was going to sit in place, the pressure on top of me eventually let up.
“Sorry about all that. Must’ve given you a real start, I bet!” The Pig used a few larger flagella to tilt my mother upright, almost delicately even, so that she wasn’t choking on her tongue. “Wasn’t my preferred way of handling things, to be honest with you, but we all have to do what we can with what we got, now don’t we?”
Mama’s shaking had slowed, but her limbs were completely limp, like there was no chance she’d be moving on her own any time soon. I could tell there was still a hint of breath in her body, and that was the only thing keeping me anchored to what was going on.
“You had to have known your mom was already plenty sick when she stepped foot in here.” The Prospect Pig gave me a searching glance, studying me closely now. “I mean, shit, her brain’s so swollen and raw that I’m surprised she was even still standing. All that light did was just bring some of her symptoms to the surface. I didn’t want to jump to that, but it was pretty clear what she was trying to do, fiddling with that scanner on me and all.”
I did my best not to react, but who knew what he was or wasn’t seeing if he already suspected us of all that.
The Pig furrowed his brow and sat in silence too, like he was deciding on a strategy before engaging any further, and I guessed he was probably just giving a minute for my feelings to dissipate before he got into the real substance of what he wanted to discuss.
“Why don’t you and I start over? And leave the grains and gourds out this time,” the Pig rumbled. “This is where the real dealing starts, where it was always going to start, you understand? So I want to put it all on the table, with you, kid. That sound good?”
It was clear I didn’t have a choice in the matter, and every minute he didn’t kill us was time for me to test the strength of the cable at my wrists and watch for any kind of opportunity to slip something past him, so I nodded and pretended to settle in to hear him out.
“Now I know you two are fellow travelers,” the Pig began, trying to hold back a gleeful smile at having the upper hand. “Even ignoring the fact that you’re way too healthy to fit with the feeble folks down here, I’ve had tabs on you ever since you touched down. Just a professional tip, son. You got to be more careful when you’re entering the atmosphere. But... ah well, that’s something you’ll pick up with time, I’m sure.”
Several tendrils weaved their way across the deck into the darkness and dragged Buddy’s leaking corpse to the center of the chamber. “Aw, Buddy. Shit... Poor little guy.”
He couldn’t have been too broken up over the loss, though, because a few seconds later he inserted the ends of his flagella into the body and began sucking at it, drinking in all the fluids, until the remains crumpled into a wrinkled mass.
When he finished, he lifted the desiccated lump up to his snout, and the rest of Buddy disappeared down his gullet with a few decisive, squishing chews.
“Anyway,” the Pig continued after he finished with some heavy breathing through those teeth, “given that you were peeping around and asking folks about the Prospect Pig, it didn’t take much figuring to realize you and your Mama were crofters coming to exterminate this pesky old Sap, am I right?”
I didn’t say a word, but the silence was its own kind of affirmation.
“Now, I’m sure you appreciate that I could’ve easily had Buddy... poor Buddy... and his pals jump and gut you as soon as you darkened my door, but... I was thinking there’s maybe more to be discussed between the two of us yet.”
Again, I stayed steady, though I was keeping my eyes on the slight rise and fall of Mama’s throat, to make sure it was still going.
“Yeah. That’s rough.” The Pig looked at Mama as well. “You can’t be a crofter like that, going from sick planet to sick planet, without picking up some damage yourself. I sensed the stink of the illness in her, pretty much from the go.” He made a funny expression, which I think he thought was supposed to be sympathetic. “If it’s one thing saprophytes know, it’s dying things. And if your mother is anything, that is what she is.”
Even as he said it, and even if I didn’t want to admit it, I knew, of course, that he wasn’t wrong about that.
Mama and I’d never argued about it in the open, exactly, but we always got real tense on the ship whenever a new job from the Heritors came in. A couple of times, when we were full up on fees and weren’t hurting to settle up with someone, I’d asked her why she bothered. These worlds were almost always doomed, Sap or no Sap, so there never seemed to be a good reason for Mama to take on more pain just to clean up messes on Heritor property.
And those few instances I worked up the guts to raise it, she’d tell me a bunch of shit, about how there was a natural way of things in the galaxy, a chain of responsibility, from the Heritors down to the little folk. And she tried to make it sound like some grand purpose we were working toward, not just the dirty work I knew it was, but everything she said was always tinged with anxiety, just that little bit of fear that she wasn’t getting enough done while she could still make her body work.
Like if she didn’t wring every bit of sweat from herself to earn, that she’d failed us somehow.
And that was a feeling I’d never really understand.
My face must’ve let slip some of those thoughts, because the Pig seemed to pick up the pace of his nodding. “It doesn’t have to be that way for your mom, is the thing,” he said, a flagellum, a real big one, bending and rearing up to my face. “You see, kid, I can suck all those damaged cells and broken bits out of her body and leave her with the good stuff. She’ll still need some rehab after, and it won’t fix things forever, especially if she keeps up with the crofting. But... it could buy you and her some time, which, I don’t need to tell you, is everything for some folks.”
Of course. This was what he’d been building up to, and why he was keeping me intact. He was setting me up for an exchange of some kind, and this was what he had to bid. I looked over at my mother, and I knew if she could talk me through it, she’d indicate I should draw out more from him, so I could figure out how to play this.
That’s what she’d do, after all.
“And what exactly’s the cost of something... as generous as all that?” I asked, in just the way I thought she would’ve, and the Pig’s mouth got real big in a way I didn’t like.
“Not much at all, in the grand scheme, I’d say. Just... a pass, of a sort,” he said. “A way on out of this place. My ride’s... a little wrecked, as you can see. And as much as I’ve enjoyed my time on this patch of dirt, I didn’t exactly plan to spend the end of my days here. So all I really need is a ship. Like... your scout vessel. That would more than do the trick. Just something to carry me over to the next rock. And you and your mom would still hold onto your main shuttle, of course.”
“And I’m sure you’ve considered just torturing or killing us and taking it anyway,” I replied—just a little bit of pushback to feel things out.
“Oh. Come on.” The Pig put on a long face. “Even if I’d... you know, touched on that approach, have you ever tried torture? About as effective as deboning a fish with a mallet.” He chortled. “And as messy too.
“Besides, I know you crofters like to load your ships with fail-safes, so the engine’ll shut down before some yokel can break their way in. So no, force is not a great way for me to play this, for either of us, I’d say.”
The Pig had really thought this through, I had to give him that. He could see I was keeping as impassive as I could while I bought some time, so he went on for a bit more with something he’d clearly practiced, about how he thought we’d do the exchange—him performing his procedure on Mama first, cleaning out her disease, then holding onto her somewhere neutral away from the nest, until I walked him through how to disarm the fail-safes. And he wasn’t hiding the ball or trying to put one over on me—not in any way that I could see, at least.
“The only thing I expect that’s holding you back at this point is the idea of reaching an understanding with a no-good, dirty Sap.”
The Pig frowned and loosened the flagella around my mother’s body, making a show of how he was handling her with care.
“Everyone knows my kind preys on the weak, feeds on their goodwill until they lose everything they have, right? But how’s that any different than what those planet-owning Heritors are doing to you and your mama, when you get right down to it? What good are they doing for you, or for any of these struggling folks stuck down here, hm?”
Everything in the chamber went real quiet—not a single blink or a breath as he let that settle over the air and sink in.
“I mean, you think they told her when she was a gal, what it’d cost when she worked for them, years in the muck? Or do you think she just had to figure it out as she went, when all the bits of her body started breaking down, piece by piece?”
I wasn’t sure why, but I didn’t take well to that, and my wrists started pressing hard against the cables, until my skin started to scrape. Had he known, he might well have backed off from that line of discussion. On the other hand, maybe he knew exactly what he was doing and where this talk would take us, I don’t know.
“Now. Last thing I’ll say, while you mull for a minute—” he took a gusty bit of breath, “—is that I caught those little back-and-forths you and your Mama had going. Those disagreements, like cracks spreading between you—would’ve been hard to miss, even if I wasn’t already eyeing you close. You were jittery about what you were walking into, that was obvious, and your mother, well, she overplayed things by charging on through anyway.
“But now you know for sure, for better or worse. Your instincts were on the money, kid. Right on the goddamn money. So I want you to just think about that, and trust those instincts nowabouts, while you sit down here, ponder everything a little, and—”
“What? Just cut a deal? Help a Sap scurry off and suck the life out of other worlds too?”
I shouldn’t have done that, let things spill out that way.
Not because I was worried about upsetting the Pig—he’d already made it clear what he needed to happen with me. But getting worked up showed him he was getting through.
He snorted and whistled. “And there he is, ladies and gentlemen. No whispered questions or sullen little stares, that’s for sure. Welcome to the conversation, boy! Got anything else boiling that you want to get out? Might as well let it loose, because we ain’t ever gonna reach any kind of understanding otherwise.”
He shifted his snout eagerly.
Now I knew this was the road to mistakes. Mama would’ve told me I was only helping him by getting agitated, and every unnecessary bit of bile would just come back to bite me, even if I couldn’t see how. But the thing, the thing that kept sticking in my craw about what the Pig said, the thing I hated him for pointing out, I realized, was that Mama had been wrong about all of this to begin with.
“What if... what if I don’t want to come to any understanding?” I didn’t so much raise my voice as say the words clearly and separately, so that the Pig had to really stop his yapping and pay attention to each part as it came. “You’re... talking all friendly to me, like we’re neighbors at a fence. But I can see what you’re doing here, no matter how much you gussy this up. You’re rotten where it matters, and what you’ve done to all these folks, at their worst—” I jerked my head over at the milky-white eyes floating around us like stars, “—it’s rotten all the way down. So don’t you pretend to want to understand me, because I sure as shit know I don’t want to understand you.”
The Pig didn’t even move to answer, just watched what I was going through.
“And you... you really want to rattle on about the Heritors being nasty, like I don’t already know. But, honestly, who even cares? Some assholes, lounging on faraway worlds, with soil that’s arable and air that doesn’t burn, reaping their fortunes without ever lifting a finger. And so what? Who gives a shit, that they get to live and enjoy while Mama dies? While we die?
“I don’t need some Sap to sell me repackaged shit and then explain the stink. At the end of the day, their bad doesn’t somehow change yours to good. So get on out of here with that, because I don’t want to hear it.”
The Pig’s mouth flattened into a crease after a good while of nothing from him.
“That it?” he asked.
I stared off into the dark parts of the chamber and couldn’t bring myself to show him anything more.
“Gotta admit, that wound a couple of ways I didn’t fully expect.” He cleared his throat a few times. “Can’t say you’re completely wrong about any particular part, albeit in a rough, black-and-white sort of way. Comes with youth, I suppose. And you’ll have to forgive me, but it’s been so long since I’ve been there that I’ve honestly forgotten how that can be.”
He blinked and looked past me, almost like he was recalling something, before he finished his thought.
“It’s funny, though, with all of that sharpshooting you were doing—how clear it is that you can’t see what’s really got you worked up, the thing you most believe is ‘rotten,’ to put it in your words.”
He stretched out the snaking flagella holding Mama and laid her body down on the grating, right up against me so I could take her in. His dripping coils unfurled and just let her be, so small and still like that, where I could reach out and touch her.
And, I’ll credit him this, the Pig didn’t say any of this next part with the smugness he’d had before. He was calm and soft about it, probably because he was very well aware of what it might do.
“You see, every day, your mama chooses us over you, that’s the thing. Every day, with every job, whether she says it or not, she chooses the croft over more time together with her boy. Maybe she tells you it’s a kind of duty, or she’s building something good, but you know, and your mama knows, she’s trading away the days, not so far off in the future, when she might see you grown, or your kids maybe bouncing on her knee.
“And those things you hate? All of that repackaged shit you said I was selling? She chooses those things, time and again, no matter what you do or how you ask her not to. And I can tell it makes you so fucking angry that you can’t even bring yourself to think it without making yourself sick.
“That’s what you’re not saying, boy, whether you actually know it. That not so deep in there, you think she’s the most rotten of all, for putting this on her son.”
And when he’d just about finished, I could tell that the Pig had me pinned, because if I’d still had my hand on my gun, I’d probably have tried to kill him before he finished half of those words. I couldn’t stop my wrists from pulling at the cables behind me, the trickles of blood starting to collect down my fingers. And I just looked at Mama lying there, unable to meet the eyes of that enormous Sap above me.
“The thing you were most right about, though, is that at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what I think. And even though you love your mama, it doesn’t matter what she thinks, either. All that matters, all that ever mattered, is what you think about all of this, kid. And what you choose to do now because of it.
“So what’s it gonna be?”
The anger in me drained after his words washed by, and then I started letting the situation, the full situation, really settle in my head.
I knew it was a habit that was too deep to fight, but I imagined what Mama would do if she could talk to me, to save the two of us from all this mess. I pictured her, not so limp and crumpled but standing tall again on that deck, looking over at me with a glint, telling me without words to think hard about what I could use to get one over on them.
I knew she’d probably encourage me to keep stringing the Pig along, pretend he got through to me with that speech. Use that hunger of his to get him to overreach. Maybe tell him that the access codes for the scouter were, say, in the pouch in my belt—offer that up as a first step and a show of good faith. He’d order one of his milky-eyed friends to search me, and they’d pull out a handful of the sunbeams I’d brought along from my scouter, with no idea what the hell they were. And, of course, Mama would smile that reassuring smile of hers and tell the Pig and the others the sunbeams were nothing important, just remote devices we used to operate the ship, maybe dangle the idea they could be of use to him somehow. The excuse itself wouldn’t much matter, so long as it bought me a few seconds to tap at the console under the cloth at my wrist, letting the sunbeams acquire the signature of everything breathing in that hull that wasn’t me or Mama.
And I could see it all unfolding in my mind, almost plain as day: the Prospect Pig staring at the sunbeams with that greedy, bloated face, that snout puckered up at the thought of a ticket to another planet. He’d swell, for a nanosecond, almost like he was taking on too much air.
Then his organic matter would burst open in a violent spasm, a giant wave of bile and fluid cascading onto the grated floor as the sunbeam shot a charge right through that gigantic snout. And his pals with the milky eyes, the sad remains of those folks who weren’t even really in those bodies anymore, they would start writhing and screaming all at once, their bony chests and gaunt faces popping one by one while the sunbeams shot them to pieces—hundreds of blasts in just a few short seconds, until everything on the deck stopped moving but Mama and me.
I really could envision it all, almost as if she were right there with me, carrying it out.
But she wasn’t there with me, not really, anyway. And even if we squeaked by with this Sap, or the next one, or the next one after that, it still wouldn’t change the things that were wrong inside of her.
This was always going to fall on me, in one way or another.
So my choices, right or wrong, were going to have to be my choices and not hers.
The Prospect Pig was patient while I thought this through. He had nowhere to go and nothing more important to tend to, after all. He sat there looking over me and Mama, waiting while I wrestled with the questions I had, but he knew he didn’t have to push me to answer them, or convince me, or really do much else from then on.
All he had to do was offer a little bit of good to people who’d never known good in their lives, and those people, well, they tended to do the rest.
I drew my mother’s body up in my arms and held her, and I found she was so much lighter than I thought she’d be, when I stood and brought her toward that mess of metal where the Sap was grinning, waiting for me to tell him everything he’d expected to hear.
And I did it, much to his unrestrained delight. I asked him for the healing he offered to provide for Mama, and I offered him the codes and fail-safe procedures for the scouter in return.
Because, when it came down to making the final call, when I sorted through all the blur of things in my heart, and I considered which parts were really me and which parts were really Mama, which parts were coming from the Heritors and which parts were picking at me from the Pig, I knew what it was that I wanted to happen.
So I went ahead and finally did it. The one thing my Mama never could.
I chose us.
I chose us over them, and I knew then that I wouldn’t ever have it any other way.
Now the never-ending quiet of our ship humming through the dark between worlds gives me time to practice explaining what happened, as we drift the light years from that poisoned place toward the nearest medical center. And I have to word it all just right, be clever and thoughtful and better at describing it if I want Mama to understand why, exactly, I did the thing I did.
I keep rehearsing as I tend to the plants in our hangar bay, the cavern of metal that sits empty now that our scout vessel’s been given away, and I remind myself of everything that was said between me and the Pig after she fell ill, all while I dig around in the garden soil feeling the mush as our sprouts suffer and die off, one by one.
And any time I think I’ve nearly gotten the story, when I’ve unlocked the words that explain my choices, I stumble a little, because I keep imagining that fucking Pig, preening and smiling with those giant, clicking teeth, and I picture how he’s floating somewhere out in the black, his voice rumbling into someone else’s ear about whatever deal or trade he’s dreaming up next, whatever false promises he’s making that folks won’t realize are empty until it’s too late.
But when I’m not working on my words or thinking of him, I’m at Mama’s bedside, smoothing out her sleeve and watching the stillness in her face. And I think about how, after I’ve told her my reasons for what I did and how we got where we are, I’ll ask her to listen, to hold on and just listen, to the things I’ve been waiting to tell her.
Like, how she doesn’t have to do this anymore, that we don’t have to croft and tend to the dying if we decide that’s something we don’t want to do. And how I don’t care or see much meaningful difference between a Sap or a Heritor, if she keeps getting eaten alive for it, bit by bit. But most of all, I’m going to tell her that I love her for trying so hard to make ends meet, and that I appreciate everything she’s been hoping to give me, but none of it, not any of it, would mean a damn thing to me if she were gone too soon.
Every day I hold her hand, and I listen so closely to the soft rattle of her breath, waiting for that moment when her fingers will move just slightly and her eyes might open.
Then, maybe, just maybe, I’ll finally get to tell her.