“Sky-full in less than twenty,” I told Kompowski over the com-link. “We’re leaving in fifteen. You don’t make it back to the ship in fourteen, you live here.” What I didn’t tell him was that if he did live here, he’d be lucky to last out the night. I’d already seen bodies piled discretely in a couple of dark corners here and there.
“On my way,” he crackled in my ear. Kompowski knew the risks.
The way station on Mantus 8 was a dangerous enough place in the daylight. The mineral deposits throughout the system were heavy with all of the more useful metals: platinum, copper, zinc, lithium, uranium, thorium, you name it. Mantus 12 used to have seams of strontium 152 so thick that the nightside of the planet glowed with hazy red stripes.
But, that was years ago. The planets of the Mantus system had been mined out by several generations of various races and species. Let’s face it, if the Zantis could smell it, by the time you found out there’d be nothing left but granite.
Some comedian had gotten hold of a can of radium-infused spray paint and sprayed, “Summanus Station” across a disused hatch from some wreck or other. The hatch was propped against an old fuel pump just at the edge of the settlement. I’d looked it up when we’d arrived. Summanus was some Old World, pre-blast god, a physical embodiment of nocturnal thunder or something. I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to mean, but I guessed it wasn’t good. It made me think the locals had a little too much time on their hands. And an uncomfortable sense of humor.
The place was a boomtown on its way out. Scarcity value accrued to everything: water, oxygen, hooch, flesh. Add to that the strange affliction of the original settlers, their customs, rites. Money was the only conceivable draw to a place like this. Big money. Our cargo had netted us a geometric factor above what it would have someplace closer to the civilized clusters. It was a seller’s market, while it lasted.
It might have been interesting to see how, or if, the settlers’ disease translated into the other species, but not interesting enough to make me want to stay and watch. I shuddered involuntarily at the idea.
Things were beginning to heat up in time for the festival. More locals were coming out of the wilds, gathering in sinister little knots at the edges of town. There was a look in their eyes that tended to make you feel like you should be lying on a plate. They mostly looked human enough, though.
“They look as human as any self-respecting Voivod should,” Kompowski had said, laughing at his own joke. I’d told him enough times about keeping his trap shut.
Others had come for the Sky-full festival. Death cult nutjobs. Hunters. Even an anthropologist or two.
“Watanabe?” I called through the com-link.
“Hai,” he called back.
“How are we fixed?”
“High and tight. Just waiting on Kompowski and we’re gone.”
I got myself into place in the cockpit. I felt the engines thrumming beneath me as the ship warmed up. Watanabe dropped into the navigator’s seat.
“Kompowski?” I said into the com-link.
All that came back was a blast of static.
I sighed and checked my timer. Sky-full in five point three. I counted off the ticks on the timer.
“Kompowski?” I tried again.
Another blast of static over the com-link.
I looked at Watanabe. He fiddled with a few calculations. Then he held up five fingers without taking his eyes from his console. Then four. Then three…two…one.
I engaged the main servos and the ship lifted gently from the pad.
I glanced out the viewport. Kompowski was running across the wide expanse of the spaceport. He kept snatching looks behind as he ran, his mask flapping from his left ear. Even at this distance, there was no mistaking the terror in his eyes.
As we rose up into the night sky, I saw the first of what was chasing him. Whatever it was, it looked half finished. It wore sturdy cargo pants on its muscular legs. The work shirt still covered one arm, but the fabric trailed behind as the thing ran. The arm that had ripped free of the human clothing was longer than a normal arm should have been. It was covered with thick brown fur. The thing’s head was about three sizes too big for its body. The lips on the extended snout curled back over gleaming white teeth. Big teeth. It shook its head in anger, or possibly elation.
Kompowski disappeared beneath the ship as it rose. I saw at least three more half-human monstrosities run into the light at the edge of the pad. Then I looked up into the sky at the huge, luminous globes suspended like lanterns from the black ceiling of night.
The funny thing is how it all started. It was years ago now, centuries maybe. Who knew for certain? The government should have known better; the government always should have known better. They thought it was the perfect solution. Once lycanthropy was classed as a disease, the next logical step was to identify werewolves as victims. They weren’t savage, remorseless killers, hunters and devourers of their fellow men. They were sick, in need of treatment, or at the very least therapy.
Lycanthropy tended to make people inhumanly robust. They were ideal candidates for the space colonization program. A long tour on some distant rock. Peace and quiet. Calm. Remote. No potential victims in the neighborhood, or at least not many. And they were most likely non-human anyway and therefore someone else’s problem.
Some enlightened individuals even thought that getting them away from Luna’s influence might be beneficial, restorative. Only a bureaucrat could think it was a good idea to send a crew of werewolves to colonize a planet with six moons.
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