Darling Gentle Reader,
What follows is a sample of the first chapter of my next release, Crudrat. Coming in digital and print on April 1, 2022. I do hope you enjoy it!
Crudrat: The Tinkered Stars
by Gail Carriger
The Wheel turns and true scions sit its blades lightly – and close to the center. But those without implants ride far to the edge where it is easy to fall off.
~ From Claudicix’s Advice to Young Progenetors
The huge blade rotated towards her head, so close as to slice the top off right quick. Just there, above the ears. The blue-tinged metal was heavy and sharp enough to do it, too. Bone wouldn’t slow it anymore than dust.
Maura ducked, leaped into a flip and landed in a runner’s crouch on the other side of the blade. One knee came down too far forward, hitting the cruddy tunnel floor hard. Sharp pain ran up her leg to her hip. Worse by far — her knee made a loud metallic clang.
She froze, blood icy and muscles all aquiver.
Now I’ve done it — gone and dented the tunnel, like some pup on first run. She tipped her head, as though she could hear through the whirr of the blades. As though anyone could hear anything through that. Had foreman noted the knee-down? He’ll kill me deader than spacedross if I damage the scyther. Well, perhaps not that dead — too messy. Hates messes, does foreman. But the smallest dent’ll see my license pulled, that’s for certain-sure. Maura reached up and touched the cord that held her run-tag ‘round her scrawny neck. There it hung, the chip secured tight and tucked safely down the front of her vest.
No recall alarm sounded. No angry shout rent the rushing air. Naught to hear but the whirr of blades.
Shink. Shink. Shink.
Best keep moving then.
Maura slid to one side, still berating herself. Letting knee touch floor was a right-up-certain stupid mistake. Mistakes in a scyther got a girl killed, and dyeing bladeside? Now that really was messy.
She was getting big and sloppy. Maura shook her head at herself and darted forward, keeping low.
This time a blade came at her from the side.
And getting right-up old and slow to go with the sloppy. Maura lunged to the left, spinning up and bouncing off the tunnel wall with one foot. Every blade that came whirring in stacked the odds up against her. Half her life spent crudratting, and she was almost – what? She frowned, thinking hard. Three and ten? It hurt her noggin to calculate the number of cycles. Past-time always hurts when it’s been frittered away running blades and begging for scraps from highstocks. Too old to keep running. Crudrats mostly went in for dyeing young.
Maura shifted her weight and dashed up the opposite side of the tunnel until she was parallel to the floor. At the same time, she snaked out with her scrapper, scooping out crud from behind a higher blade where it met the wall. She tipped the long spoon over her shoulder and heard a little slurp as the murmel riding her swallowed happily. She felt whiskers tickle her neck as he snuffled about to see if he’d dropped any crud on her in his enthusiasm.
Lower blade. Maura pushed herself off the wall, and jumped to the opposite side of the tunnel. She twisted in mid-air, landed between two blades, and rebounded into a backwards flip.
Breathe, she told herself firmly. Running the scyther always worked best when she timed her breathing to the blades. It was one of the tricks that had turned her from a good crudrat into the best one this portside.
Another blade spun out. Maura leaped forward, curved aside, and balanced against the opposite wall, ending halfway up with her back to it, elbows and knees bent. She sucked in her stomach as the blade passed. Not that there was much to suck. Maura had intimate familiarity with all her ribs – never was a time when she wasn’t hungry.
Sliding down the wall, scrapper out, she culled crud from behind a lower blade and fed it over her shoulder to the murmel. The murmel made a funny purring noise as it ate. A lightly acrid smell wafted through the air.
Upper blade. Near haircut, and she already wore her blue hair cropped short. Curse my bones, I be getting too tall for this game on top of aught else. Maura ducked.
The murmel wrapped his long blue tail more firmly about her waist and chittered in her ear in a way Maura was sure he meant as reassuring.
The murmel’s chitter became high-pitched in alarm as a blade swished close to her back — and thus his.
Space it, what’s wrong with me this shift?
Maura back-flipped over the blade, dodged to the side, and vaulted off the wall forward using one foot, protecting the murmel but keeping her speed up. She scooped with the same movement and passed the ladle-full of crud to the hungry beastie on her back.
A loud animal shriek echoed through the scyther tunnel. It threw her next leap off. She stumbled, missing blade-cut by a hand’s breath.
“Tell your wild relations to go easy. Don’t they have naught quiet to say?” Maura addressed to her blue fuzzy companion.
The murmel ignored her, intent on digesting his latest scoop.
She’d no worries the wild murmels might interfere with her run. Sure they were mighty tempted by the massive crud deposits in the scythers, but wild ones weren’t stupid enough to face blades for it.
If they were, Maura’d be out a job.
Breathe. Scoop. Feed the murmel. And repeat.
She moved steadily forward – dancing the three-steps of her entire existence.
* * *
At the end of the run Maura flipped over her hands out the scything tunnel entrance, landing in a crouch on the engineering yard floor. Not a necessary maneuver, but sometimes she just liked to impress the other ‘rats.
Pant. Pant. Pant.
Maura squinted up. The steady bright light in the bay was almost blinding after the dim blue flicker of the tunnel.
“Check in!” barked foreman, wrenching her upright by her ear. He wasn’t impressed by her stylish exit.
Maura winced. Heya, that ear’s still attached.
“Four-four-five, sir!” she gasped out the words.
“Weigh out!” He threw her head towards the weight station. He was a big man and while Maura was getting tall she was not yet half his size in pure mass. His throw gave her a good start, motion-wise, and wrenched her neck as a kindly afterthought.
She dashed over, all her limbs loose and comfortable now that she hadn’t blades to worry about. She unwound the murmel from her back. The furry blue creature’s stomach was distended, full of crud. She cradled him against her chest. He reached one long fuzzy arm up and pawed at her cheek affectionately.
“Stop flirting, you.” She pushed his paw away. She wanted to scratch the head of the silly rolly-polly beastie but it wouldn’t do to be thought soft. Everyone was looking, all the other ‘rats wanted to know what her run was worth.
She plonked the murmel onto the weigh scale. Black numbers scrolled across its readout.
Foreman ambled over and noted the weight on his scanpad.
“Sixteen pips more than last time, four-four-five, but your time was off by thirteen ticks. Still faster than any other ‘rat this shift by,” he paused and checked the pad, “two ticks, and heavier by three pips. Never mess with your pay-rate, do you?”
Maura didn’t answer, busying herself about the scale. She fussed over the murmel and tried not to grin in pride.
Foreman grabbed her arm and yanked her towards him. His breath smelled of stale protein packs and caffeine tabs. “Someone will cut you down to size one spin, girl. You’re getting sloppy.”
Did he hear the knee down? Maura tried not to cringe. Foreman didn’t like it when they flinched.
Curled comfortably on the weighing scale, her murmel lifted his blue head and belched. The acrid smell of partially digested crud wafted up. Maura huffed air out though her nostrils and the foreman backed away. Processed crud was toxic. The murmel twitched his whiskers at them.
Foreman continued, “That’s poor numbers for you, four-four-five. Very poor indeed.”
“Sir!” Maura gasped. She was truly hurt by such a comment. She’d sooner take a blow than a mocking of her run. She was prideful of her work. It’s not like I got aught else to do well. She bit her lip to keep from talking back. He’ll seize any chance to obedience-me-rough or pull my license just because.
The murmel squeaked strangely soft. Everyone standing about watching hopped-to. Quiet sounds from murmels meant important business. They meant something might be really wrong.
The foreman let Maura go so she could look to the creature. No one else could touch him without loosing a digit, or more. Murmels didn’t take kindly to handling by any but their chosen runner.
She lifted the little creature and went to place him with his brethren. His squeak had obviously been meant to get her away from foreman. It wasn’t a noise of real distress. She scratched him under the chin in thanks.
“Loosing your step or your speed, Maura?” asked one of the other ‘rats smugly.
“Shut your face, Ger.” Rees elbowed the boy in the side.
Maura nodded to Rees without comment. Half her size and two-thirds her age, Rees liked to play the noble-gallant. Who am I to clog his fun?
Rees made a little bow. He fancied himself some long lost lordling, fated to sit parliament. “I come from progenetor stock,” he always said. Though he didn’t look to have a single trigger trait. Leastways not any visible ones. His voice was awful sweet-like. Nevertheless, he’d opted Maura as the victim of his court flattery. Using her to train himself up in proper etiquette. He said it was for “when they find me and take me back.” All rejects lived with that hope at first. The sum-total of pup wishes. Three turns in, his hair gone to blue and Rees still wouldn’t space that fantasy.
Maura dropped her murmel to the floor.
The little creature muttered reproachfully. It could be he was greedy for more crud or could be he wanted to stay with her. Then again, could be he was just grumpy. One never could tell with murmels.
She pushed him gently with one bare foot. “Settle,” she said, giving him the home command.
He skittered off into a nearby air-duct. Inside, the other tame murmels eyed him suspiciously, pretending they didn’t remember who he was. One or two sashayed over, blue tails lashing threateningly. Maura’s murmel, alpha of the pack, reared up and shrieked at them at the top of his lungs until they all sat and stared, like progenetor children before a teaching drone. Then he curled up in a corner and went to sleep. Among murmels, alpha seemed to be established by one-who-could-yell-loudest.
Maura took a calming breath and turned back to collect her pay.
The foreman looked her up and down. His expression disgusted and his scrutiny more pointed than usual.
Maura glared at him from narrowed silver eyes. Triggered eyes. She could read it in his face, him noting all her failures. I ain’t naught but crudrat — blue hair from too much tunnel-time and skin likely to go blue soon, too, if’n I keep at it much longer. She straightened her back and looked him full on. What of it? So you’ve a citizen chip implant and I don’t. Five turns scraping the blades and never a single cut. Not one. You can stick that in your implant and process it. I know some ‘rats who’ve lost limbs. Space it, I know ‘rats who’ve lost lives.
Foreman didn’t like it when they stood up to him, even if they didn’t say a whit. To him, Maura was nothing more than a scab of society, space jetsam, non-citizen – reject. His expression said it all. She was a waste of air.
“How much you weigh these ticks, four-four-five?”
Maura knew what he was thinking. There’s always more reject kids to be got at, small and nimble enough to crudrat. Heavy runners, on the flip side, dent the tunnel, and tall ones die on the blades. Maura was turning both heavy and tall. And getting cocky. Why gamble on her anymore?
Numbers, always on Maura’s side until now, were starting to weigh in against her. Whatever else my genetic stock, and surely I’ve the weirdest eyes going, I’ve been triggered tall. For months she’d been starving herself down, trying to battle adulthood — not that crudrats ate well to start. But bone weighed what it weighed no matter how little she ate. Not to mention the fact that tunnel running had built up her muscle and muscle read-out heavy.
“Don’t know my weight, sir.”
“You’ve been running my tunnels how long?” Foreman narrowed his eyes.
“Five turns sir.”
The foreman looked genuinely surprised at that.
Well, everyone knew, time flew on a spaceport.
“You must be on borrowed ticks by now.”
“Don’t know, sir.” That was what all ‘rats answered to that kind of question. How’er we supposed to know age, when we all started out abandoned dockside? No family Maura ever heard of wanted to raise-up a reject. Earliest she remembered was begging for food in the crossgenetor arena. The shops all about her stocked full and them that noticed her more like to spit than drop a single ration cube into her empty hands. That kind of thing soured a soul.
She’d started running tunnels as soon as may be, not the scythers – she’d been too young for blades – but training for scythers. Climbing, flipping, jumping – over, under, straight up walls. She’d even gone so far as to study murmels — feeding the wild ones now and again, sourcing out their litter areas. If crudratting was all rejects could do Maura intended to be best at it. Until now, she had been.
“Crudrat’s all I be good for,” she said, almost in a whisper. Dread sloshed in her stomach and hardened the back of her throat.
“Five cycles.” Foreman frowned in thought. “I wouldn’t have put you on a run if you couldn’t lift a murmel. You must’ve been at least seven to launch.”
Maura held her tongue.
He looked her up and down once more. “Time you started thinking about some other line of work.”
Maura felt as though a blade had sliced right into her gut. It stuck there, lodged below her ribs. It ends so quick as that?
“But sir, I didn’t make a mistake!” She waved her hand at the other’s. Some of them had cuts from their runs. Hoike had a wide deep gash over one eye. Yeah, he’s smaller n’ lighter, but he’s still cut. “I be clean as new blades!”
Maura tried not to care that Ger and a few of his pack were openly grinning.
Rees looked like he wanted to cry. His blue head was bowed, tufts of his crazy matted hair stuck up looking like one of those exotic growing things down planetside. What’re they called? Oh yeah, pants.
The foreman backhanded Maura. He moved slower than a blade, but she hadn’t known it was coming so she didn’t dodge. The inside of her cheek split open against a tooth and she tasted blood.
“It’s my job to see that you’re stopped afore your mistakes start damaging my livelihood. Can’t risk a scyther for your kind. ‘Sides, it’s always the best ‘rats that die on the blade or bust through the walls. I don’t need that kind of mess.”
Maura swallowed down both blood and backtalk. Neither would turn her any profit now.
With no ceremony at all, the foreman pulled out a burn blade and melted the cord from about Maura’s neck. He slid her licensing chip off of its end, large meaty fingers clutching her whole existence. The cord fell to the floor, a small sad coil of a thing.
Maura watched as he slotted the license into a pocket of his waistcoat. What little recognition she’d had from guards was gone. Rejects that can’t run. Without crudrat status I’s naught more than a vagrant. Armigers, port authority, progenetors, sequensors, enhancers, all that rode Wheel center and rank at its height, they’d be looking for any excuse to space her now. They’ll be finding it, too. In space, non-citizens wasted air.
And that is the end of the first chapter! Are you excited? I hope so!
And directly from me.
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Crudrat – The Tinkered Stars
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DIRECT FROM GAIL
Maura is doomed to starve. Her space station has no further use for her.
With only her crud-eating murmel and a fuzzy alien stranger to help, Maura must find a way to survive, before they catch her and blow what’s left of her life into space.
- Gail is embroiled in various projects she’s currently unable to talk about publicly here on the blog.
- Need to know what else Gail is working on right now? That’s in the Chirrup.
Gail’s Daily Tea Party
Tisane of Nifty
Functional Nerds Podcast interviews self about the Heroine’s Journey and more
Quote to SipCRUDRAT, Tinkered Stars