Fire in the Belly, by Rachael Acks

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Meet Henrietta, your new favorite preteen space Western thief. She’s all alone on a brand new planet, and she’s about to have a life-changing adventure. Rachael Acks weaves together a few genres in this rip-roaring tale, hopefully not the last we’ll see of this spunky young firebrand!

Fire in the Belly

by Rachael Acks

Henrietta squinted up at the rift ship Phoenix, a skyscraper of blinding metal and until recently the only home she’d ever known, as it lumbered into the sky. Choking clouds of dust turned the sun blood red, but she refused to duck her head or cover her eyes until the ship had become no more than a shining point of light. The wind died down, raining dust onto the landing field, but she kept her pointy chin high and blinked her blue-gray eyes against the sting.

“So this is what bein’ free tastes like,” she murmured, then wiped a swath of dust from her cheek and licked it from her finger. Taste the dirt and know the world, she’d heard the spacers say, and she focused on that instead of the shrill of fear waiting to become full-blown panic in the back of her head. She hadn’t had much of a choice about jumping ship, not if she wanted to keep her skin in one piece. The security boss on the Phoenix had made that abundantly clear with his fist. And so she stood here, wherever that was. “Don’t tell me what this place is called, though.”

Had to make the best of it. Had to keep moving.

A shadow fell over her as she bent to pick up the bundle of clothes at her feet, and someone kicked the back of her knee. She fell on her meager luggage, but came up swinging. “The hell was that for?”

The culprit was a man dressed in a blue suit, the special shade all TransRift employees wore, black tie pencil thin and tacked with a gold four-leaf clover. He wore sunglasses, but she felt him staring all the same, his lip curling up. That was her warning to grab her bundle and scoot. Half a second later, a glob of brown tobacco spit landed where she’d been. “Show some respect, trash muffin.”

She made a rude gesture, dodged another wad of spit. “Ain’t like you’re showin’ any. Got to give to get!”

The man sneered. “Fine words from a damn pocket picker.” He drew his jacket aside, reaching for the smooth black handle of a baton, spring-loaded to break bones. She swallowed back a whimper at the familiar sight. “Get off my landing field before you stink it up.”

No more threats were necessary; Henrietta ran. She knew what men with weapons like that did. But she still called over her shoulder in her best jeering voice, “Nyah, see your blue balls showin’, company man!” Never let someone think he owns you ’cause he got the last word. Spacers said that too. And she took it serious; it was the only education she’d had, eavesdropping at card games, learning to read off of manifests when she cleared her share of vermin from the hold. Better than a cat, she was.

“Them bastards’ll be real sorry,” she muttered as she left the landing field. “Gonna buy a house and a real family, make my name all big and important. Then we’ll see who’s trash.” The only rule in life she’d really learned was that big dogs ate little pups, and the way to be a big dog was to be strong, or be rich.

She didn’t have much muscle on her skinny frame, but money, that could be earned.

It was easy enough to slip through even with no papers. The exit was packed tight with immigrants in one line, residents in the other. She slid into a forest of dusty jeans and dull calico prints—she was small for her age, twelve years by best reckoning, and starving-thin, might as well have been a ghost—then tucked herself between a man and a woman who both had the same mousy hair color as her. No one paid attention to kids anyway.

The wall and gate were dull steel, topped with a blackened spiral of razor wire. Above it waited a sky so big and open it made her dizzy. She’d never so much as snuck a glimpse at worlds where the ship had landed as it followed its route, riding the sub-space rifts from star system to star system. She’d never seen a sky, outside of pictures, and no screen could contain something so infinite, terrifying, or exhilarating. Her head swam with it, and her knees locked until the man behind her shoved her forward.

Keep moving, keep moving.

On the other side of the gate waited a skyline of blinding glass and steel; at its heart rose the TransRift corporate tower, crowned with winking crimson lights. There’d be nothing but blue suits there, swarms of them, all like the security boss. She wanted as far from that as she could get.

So Henrietta followed the people dressed like her—cheap synthetic clothing ragged and stained with hard work—down a long, scrub-lined road where every step kicked up dust, then on to a train. She hid in a corner, behind someone’s flower print luggage set, and even caught a nap, her face pillowed on one suitcase. It smelled like she imagined sun and flowers would, like the images were pretending to be the real, sweet thing. She rode the train to the end of the line at Shimera and followed the few stragglers out into the sweltering late afternoon. The buildings near the station were synthwood, baked a soft, faintly shining gray by the sun, draped with swathes of the ever-present reddish dust. Great black rocks rose up and up to one side, scored with a latticework of metal struts and cables, the tiny figures of people moving in and out of tunnels only giving a barest sense of scale.

The rest of the town seemed small compared to the city, a dirt road with wooden walkways on each side, big general store and bank bearing the TransRift logo, then two bars by the train station. She slung her bundle over her shoulder, hanging on to the twine. Her stomach grumbled; her last meal, the remains of a cargo handler’s pottage and beer, seemed centuries past.

She walked down the street, scuffing her shoes in the dirt, and picked one of the bars to stand by. Drunk men were always easier to work, but she was too young to get away with spending much time inside. And so what if the TransRift man had been right, and she was a pickpocket? She’d learned that skill fair and square; if she ever wanted anything at all, she had to take it. Charity is a lie told by rich folk; they only want to own you. Stealing felt more honest, a onetime hand in the pocket instead of sitting on someone all their living days and pretending you were doing them right.

“Spare some coin, mister? My mom’s sick!” Henrietta called to the first one out of the bar. He shrugged and grunted, just kept walking. His feet were steady enough that he’d be too much trouble to pickpocket. She squatted on her blanket in the corner of shade provided by the building, and waited for the sun to go down and the real drunkards to start rolling out. To pass the time she braided her scraggly, dirty blonde hair into tails, knotting the ends. Made her look cuter, more like a waif and less like a jackal cub.

When the sun crept down, she gawped shamelessly as the sky turned orange and yellow, then deep red, purple to black. And glory! The stars, a million millions of them, winking and scattered, bloomed from horizon to horizon. Born and raised in the windowless confines of a rift ship, she’d never seen stars outside of staticky viewscreens, things with no depth or life. When the street lamp overhead turned on, hissing into sodium yellow light, she yelped, shielding her eyes.

Endless skies didn’t fill an empty stomach, either.

The sun going down cooled off the breathless heat of the air and brought out more pedestrians. Men and women strolled up and down the board walkway, chatting about work and dinner. Good, more targets and more cover. The next man out of the bar was perfect, stumbling and swearing, his hat barely on his head. She called to him and he cussed at her. When he looked away, fumbling for his tobacco, she darted forward. She was back on her seat, doing her best impression of innocent and sad, by the time he moved off.

Moment he stumbled down the street, she opened his wallet, gleefully counting the bills. Sadly, there wasn’t as much money as she’d hoped for, not enough for a real meal. “Cheap bastard.”

Three wallets later, and she had near enough to rent a room for the night, and take a bath besides. A new set of coveralls, or a shirt without stains might be in her future too, if the marks kept coming easy. Looking near presentable would help her sniff out the honest work her vague, angry plan required. She was a good little thief, but she also knew in her bones she was better than some pocket-picking spacer, and she’d prove it. She just needed a start.

Another man stumbled from the bar. He was tall and thin and wore all black, bleeding his outline into the night sky. Undertaker, most like, which would make him rich and slow, since dead people didn’t tend to flee or fight. His head rolled on his shoulders with each swaying step. From under the brim of his hat, she caught the glimpse of a black patch over his right eye. Even better, then, if he was blind on one side. He tripped on a loose board in the walkway, and it sounded like opportunity knocking. Any sound her thin-soled shoes made was covered by the music and shouting that leaked from the bar. She reached for his pocket, fingers slipping under his coat—

—only to feel her wrist caught in a crushing grip.

And then he laughed, a deep, low rumble up from his feet—his suddenly completely steady feet.

Knowing she’d been pinched, Henrietta lunged back, but he might’ve been a mountain for all the good it did. His grip was so tight she felt her bones grinding together. So she came forward again, sinking her teeth into his wrist. He just kept on laughing, harder, and brought up his other hand; she squinted, waiting for that familiar, ear-ringing slap, her mind already working out how she’d pretend to faint…

He flicked her nose.

She jerked back, eyes watering. “The hell was that?”

He grinned, teeth glowing in the sodium light against a dusting of dark stubble. “No bitin’, cub. I been watchin’ you.”

“Lemme go!”

“Wouldn’t you rather have a warm meal in that growlin’ belly of yours?” He patted her on the head, then let go abruptly.

She caught herself on the lamppost. Instinct told her to run, but defiance had her chin up. “You some kinda pervert, ain’tcha. Goin’ after little girls!”

He laughed louder, slapping his thigh. “Spit and fire, you are!”

“I’ll scream rape!”

“With all them wallets that don’t belong to you tucked in your skirt? Bold ‘un, but mayhap not so bright.”

“I ain’t a thief.”

“Thief and a liar to boot.” His grin broadened. “I think I like you.” He reached into his jacket; again she tensed to run, but he only brought out a flat silver case. He pulled a thin, black cigarette from it and tucked it between his lips. As he slipped the case away, he snapped his fingers. A spark leaped from them, catching the cigarette and lighting it.

She stared, open-mouthed. “How’d you do that?”

“Dinner?” He cocked one eyebrow up.

“You got flints on your fingers!”

He held out his hand for her to inspect: his fingers were rough with calluses and thin, shining scars, but nothing else. She sniffed, keen nose looking for the hint of chemicals, but he smelled of whiskey and smoke and the ever-present dust—and just a tang of coppery blood.

“Restaurant inside the hotel does a damn fine onion soup.”

She dropped his hand. “Fine. But you’re payin’.”

“I’m sure I will be,” he said, all cheer and smiles.

#

Henrietta ate as fast as she could chew, one wary eye on the man in black the whole time, through salad and soup and steak and a baked potato swimming in butter and sprinkled with chopped bacon. She made note of the way the owner called him “Mister,” and the way the waitress flirted with him, all fluttering eyelashes at a dried-up, ugly old fart. The man himself ate nothing, just took a glass of sipping whiskey flavored with gunpowder and tobacco and chain smoked his way through the time, slowly filling the frilly glass ashtray with bent, black butts.

“You ain’t no undertaker,” she said, almost accusingly, as the waitress whisked off her clean-licked plate.

“Nope,” he said. “I deal with live ones.”

“Then what are you?”

“Soldier.”

“You don’t look like no soldier.”

“Shows how much you know.” He blew out a cloud of thin, sweet-smelling smoke. “Name’s Nick Ravani. Commander of Ravani’s Ghost Wolves. Ask around, folks’ll tell you we got a long history and the reputation to back it up.”

The names meant nothing yet, but she burned them into her mind all the same; history and reputation sounded like a path leading somewhere she might want to go. She squinted at him. “I come here aimin’ to find work. But honest work, mind you. I ain’t no rat. Nor a thief, not really.” She hastened to add: “Nor a whore neither.”

“I see.” He sipped his whiskey, drawing out the pause long enough to be plain infuriating. “Soldierin’ is honest enough work. If you got the guts for it.” The slight twist of an eyebrow made it clear he thought she didn’t.

“I got guts. Plenty of ‘em. More’n you.”

“Sure you do, girly.” He brought out a new cigarette, lighting it with that same trick, that snap of his fingers. He grinned as her eyes followed his hand.

She gritted her teeth. “You gonna tell me how you do that?”

“What.”

“That trick you do with your cigarettes.”

“Ain’t a trick. It’s magic.” He gave her another wolfy grin.

“Ain’t no such thing!”

His grin turned inwards to something smug. “Really, now.”

“Yeah, really!”

“Ain’t from around here, are you, girl?”

She crossed her arms over her chest and shrugged.

“Got no papers either, I’d wager.”

Another shrug. She stared at the candle that sat in the centerpiece, over the matching salt and pepper shakers. The flame wavered toward Nick even though the air was still.

“And got no family.”

“Don’t need no family.” That fact ached like a bad tooth, but damned if she’d admit it.

“Come in off the rift ship, just today?”

“If you think you know every damn thing, why you askin’?” she snapped.

He snapped his fingers again, sparks jumping across them. “This here, they call witchiness. It don’t exist, you hear me? Ain’t no such thing as magic. Not anywhere, ‘specially not here, on Tanegawa’s World. Because mark you, this here is a company world, and all them miners are here on the company dime and doing company business. And the company don’t have no truck with witchiness.” He gave her a conspiratorial smile.

She fell silent, mulling his words over. She had no love for TransRift; she’d never been a bootlicker, especially not for a boot had been on her neck all her life. “You a bad man?”

Nick grinned. “The worst kind. I don’t believe in doing as I’m told.”

She grinned back at him. “So tell me how you do it.”

He pulled out a thick wad of bills, clipped with a silver bit shaped like a wolf’s head. He counted them out carefully and tossed them on the table, then stood. “Come along.”

“Where we goin’?”

He didn’t answer, just walked. His legs were long; he looked slow and languid, but she had to run to keep up. She followed him down the street, past warehouses and machine shops for the mining equipment. Boardwalk became dirt road, then they veered sharply off to the right, back into rows of houses that clung to the backs of the shops. Lots carefully covered with plascrete roofs housed vehicles, solar-powered motorcycles, and crawlers.

“Ain’t much here,” Henrietta observed. Sure, she’d never been in a real town before, but she was used to the close quarters of the rift ship, which was a full city in flight.

“Company gets nervous, too many of us get together all at once.”

A wall surrounded the town, split regularly by enormous gates that all sat open to the cool night, welcoming the dust-laden breeze. Nick strode through the nearest gate and out into the dust and sand. Henrietta sank to her ankles with each step, grit pouring into her shoes, while he just skated along the surface like a spider drone.

He stopped at the top of the first dune they crested; the land before them rippled in light and shadow, a frozen sea under the moon. He extended one arm, pointing straight out, his hand so steady he could have balanced a glass of water on the back of it. “You see the rock spire out there, girl?”

Henrietta squinted against the dark, standing under his arm to make sure she had the direction right.

“Yeah… I guess.”

“That’s where I learned.”

“So…I just got to go there?”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t look too far.”

He chuckled. “As the crow flies, not at all.”

She set her chin and took a step, brought short by a firm grip on her shoulder. His fingers were hard as rock. “What?”

He dropped the arm he’d pointed with, producing a silver coin with a twiddle of his fingers. There was a wolf’s head stamped on it, both sides. “Put this here in your shoe. The right one. It’s a bit of luck that’ll keep you from losin’ your way, out in the sands.”

She took the coin and slipped her heel out of her shoe.

“The right shoe, girl. Your other damn right.”

“Bastard.” Into the right shoe it went. “So…just out’n’back, right?”

“Right.” The red glitter of the cigarette reflected in his single eye. “Tell you what…when you get back, you find me. If you know the trick, I’ll buy you breakfast.”

“Bet I’ll do it better’n you.”

“Then I’ll buy you lunch too, girl. Now get.”

She stood, pack on her shoulder again. The sand slipped under her as she started down the dune face; it was run or be buried. Skating and stumbling, she made it to the bottom and sprinted halfway up the next dune, afraid of the avalanche she’d caused. Nick Ravani was a dark shadow behind her; as she glanced over her shoulder, the glowing cherry of his cigarette dropped to the sand.

And he was gone.

Only then did she realize he’d never bothered to ask her name. She gritted her teeth, crunching them against the sand that was everywhere, even in her mouth. Screw that dried-up old bastard anyway; she’d show him what she was made of. She set her eyes on the shadow and started walking.

#

The spire was no closer when the rising sun bathed the sea of dunes blood red, then buttery orange. As the sky melted blue, the shadowy impression of that stone monument firmed up, stark against the backdrop of rust-stained dunes and an unimaginable distance away.

Her blanket dropped from her shoulders, momentarily forgotten. “As the crow flies? As the damn crow flies? That…that bastard! Filthy, lyin’, cargo-rat bastard!”

Henrietta turned back where she’d come from. Nothing but more dunes, the shallow shadows of her footsteps across the tops. The red sand stretched on forever in a dizzying sea. Without the comfort of buildings surrounding her, she felt tiny, a gnat about to be crushed between ground and sky. Her stomach clenched, her head spun, and for a moment her thoughts unraveled under the onslaught of sheer greatness.

Fingers twisting at the hem of her shirt, she gritted her teeth. She hadn’t walked all that long. She could rest in a shadow and make it back to town later—but as a dupe, a child that a nasty old man had tricked. No. She’d gone days without food or drink before in the hold of the ship. “Ain’t gonna let you have the last word, you bastard. I’m gonna make it to those rocks, I’ll learn your trick, and then I’ll find you and do you one good.”

Decision made, she slipped and slid down to the lee of the dune. The morning was chilly; she dug a little hole in the sand—most comfortable bed she’d ever had—and rolled up in her blanket, falling quickly asleep. Breathing fresh air would do her nothing but good.

Sleep lasted only a few hours; she woke frying like bacon in the pan. Her tattered synthcotton was soaked through with sweat, clinging legs and chest. The sand around her felt like fire. How could anything be so goddamn hot? She tried to voice the thought, but her tongue was a strip of leather glued to the roof of her mouth. The blanket she kicked off, and suddenly the sunlight beat down, fists and blades of flame. Her head spun as she lurched up, then over, falling out across sand that burned at her hands and arms. She struggled to her feet, arms and legs lashing like she was drowning.

Alive, if gutless, now sounded like a fine proposition; she turned a slow circle, shading her eyes, trying to find the trail of her footsteps. A hot wind tugged at her tattered pant cuffs, and she hissed out another curse. That same wind had erased her trail. All she had was a sense of direction gone strange in air that wavered with ropes of heat. With no path, no direction she could go except toward the black rock spire, she set her eyes and started walking.

The heat ate her alive, chewed her up and spat her out as dry bones and dust.

Step.

She saw a pool of shining water at the foot of a dune, found the breath for a triumphant whoop, the energy to go into a stumbling run. Sand dragged at her shoes and kicked into her eyes, but she didn’t care. She launched herself down the dune’s face, straight for the water, and crashed into nothing but more sand. She didn’t have the water to waste for tears.

Step.

Night fell. She cheered inside as the sun fell below the dunes, the heat of the day quickly falling off her. There were no lights on the horizon, no sign of the town. Her blanket gone, she froze, her breath a puff of frost in the dry air.

The stars above, millions of them, watched her. Their eyes hung on her shoulders like weights.

Step.

The sun rose. Her lips cracked and bled. She licked at the blood, gagging on iron and salt, but eager for any hint of moisture. The sand whispered, laughed, called her trash.

Step.

Blisters formed on her skin, the backs of her hands, her forearms, her neck, bubbling clear, then turning black and cracked. The pain and sun folded together until all she could see was red and red and red and those black rocks, taunting her with shade and shadow, barely out of reach.

Stumble.

The angled face of the dune slipped beneath her feet, tumbling her down into rocks instead of sand. They cut her, bruised her with fists as unyielding as the ones that had driven her from the cargo hold centuries ago. She fought her way up to her knees, a thin wail coming from her throat in lieu of a scream. The rocks—where the lying bastard Nick Ravani had said she’d find magic—laughed out wavering ribbons of hot.

She bared teeth streaked brown with dried blood, raising her blackened hands in defiance. “Never,” she whispered, because she no longer had the voice to shout at Nick Ravani, at all the company men, at the world. “I ain’t ever given up. You ain’t gonna beat me.”

A shadow fell across the white-hot sun, weaving and moving. Hands shaking, she shielded her eyes, squinting against the light.

A bird spread its black wings across the sky. She’d never seen a buzzard, but she knew what human ones were like, and could imagine their purer, wilder form. “You come down here and I’ll eat you up! I ain’t your meal.”

And the bird asked in a voice like thunder: “Will you never give up?”

“Never!”

“Do you even belong here?”

She found the strength to yell, dragging her voice up from her toes, “Where I stand belongs to me!”
There was no answer; the bird dove at her, lines slimming and sleeking to a hawk, feathers outburning the sunlight. A wave of heat hit her like a wall; she was gasping for breath as the hawk pulled up in front of her. Wings beat her hands away from her face and then sharp claws dug into her right eye socket. She screamed as the hawk flapped its wings, rising back into the sky; it tore flesh and took her eye with it.

The hawk opened its beak and let out a piercing shriek. Flame poured from its mouth and erupted around it in a halo.

Phoenix, she thought in a far corner of her mind that floated above the pain. Phoenix, the name of my ship. Rebirth.

The hawk—the phoenix—spat that fire into the wet, red void where her eye had been.

It was more pain than a mind could comprehend. She burned, she screamed, and then it all went dark.

#

“Girl. Hey, girl. Open your eyes.”

Eye. She opened a single eye, groaning. Her head pounded, her veins burned. “What?” She had to be alive; death couldn’t possibly hurt so damn much. Dark, cool night, cool like a blessing from a heaven she’d never believed in, greeted her.

As did Nick Ravani’s ugly, grinning face. “Ah, you are alive.”

“No thanks to you, you…” Words failed her. She reached up and slapped weakly at the wavering shape of his face. “I died. Almost died. Died.”

He caught her hand. “That’s the way of it here. You come out the sands changed, or not at all.” He shook her fingers, held them up next to her nose. “Look.”

Sparks danced across her fingertips, in time with the pulse of the fire in her blood. “Did I make it? I—”

She recalled rocks, and a bird, but it was too confusing, too painful.

“You made it near enough, I’d say.” He scooped her up in his arms, sand sheeting from her chest.

“Time to go.”

“Where?”

“My Wolves, we got our own place, not too far from here.”

“Were you…were you followin’ me? All that time?”

“Not as such.” He produced the coin he’d given her with a little flourish. “This here’s a little transmitter. I figured I’d check on you in a couple of days. Good thing I did.”

But that meant he could have found her at any time, when she was dying of thirst and burning in the sun. Even being angry hurt, but she managed it. “Hate… I hate you… Bastard.”

And he laughed at her, deep in his belly. It shook her in his arms. “Most do at some point or another. Let’s go home.”

She hated him, more than she could bear. But that word, home, she loved, thinking of pancakes and a pillow and tartan curtains, the things she’d never had—and more than that, power, magic, fire in her veins. She’d bought those things, with blood and pain instead of coin. That meant no one could take it from her. “Bastard,” she whispered.

His answer was another laugh, then, “Tell me your name.”

Her name. It felt as distant as the old life, the old ship, the Phoenix. “Henrietta.”

“No more,” he said, low in her ear. “You showed the fire in your belly, girl. Hunger makes the Wolf. Your name’s Hob.”

“Hob…” she murmured. Short, and right.

“Hob,” he agreed. And he kissed her on the forehead, like she was his, his daughter.

She hated him, but that made her love him too, just a little. “Hob Ravani,” she whispered. “I win. I’m gonna be better than you. And I want my goddamn breakfast.”

“Hob Ravani, then.” Another smoky laugh. “I’ll make your flapjacks and bacon my own damn self.”

“No bacon,” she mumbled. She had too much sympathy for that particular food now.

“Then I’ll eat it so it don’t go to waste. Sleep, fire child. Breakfast in the morning.”

With no more energy to fight, Hob Ravani slept. Slept, and dreamed of fire; slept and dreamed of a home.


Rachael Acks is a writer, geologist, and sharp-dressed sir. In addition to a steampunk mystery novella series, she’s had short stories in Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Shimmer, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and more. She’s also written six episodes for Six to Start’s Superhero Workout game. Rachael lives in Houston (where she bikes, drinks tea, and twirls her ever so dapper mustache) with her two furry little bastards. For more information, see her website (http://www.rachaelacks.com) or watch her tweet (@katsudonburi) way too often.

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