Scorch Stackpole hit the deck at the first sound of weapons fire. She'd learned to do that in boot camp, a quarter-century's worth of T-years ago, and the reflex had saved her life many times.
Boots Smith landed beside her, with a booking counter between them and the spaceport's main concourse. A concourse built after Stackpole left, because back then Sagarmatha barely had a spaceport. She'd been all of sixteen. Half Sagarmathan, half Terran, and dying to see her father's home-world. Wanting that almost more than she wanted to get off her mother's world--although not by much.
The memories of being that desperate kid flooded through the former master chief as she heard Smith's winded grunt and stifled her own attempt to replace the air she'd just had knocked out of her lungs. The deck (no, floor, in civilian lingo!) hadn't a gram of forgiveness in it. By this time tomorrow, both newly made retirees would be nursing bruises; but for now, they were still alive. And still unhurt, in all the ways that mattered, as wide-angled blaster fire raked the concourse.
"What the hell?" Smith mouthed, after touching her shoulder to gain her attention. "Sagarmatha's supposed to be a recreation planet!"
So the advertisements all said, and as far as they went they were true. Stackpole mouthed back: "Later." Simultaneously she damned herself for not doing her homework, because she pretty obviously hadn't. The Sagarmatha she remembered posed plenty of dangers to its natives, but getting burned down along with a terminal full of visitors wasn't among them.
"Attention, offworlders! We know where every last one of you is hiding. Come out now if you want to go on living. Stay put if you prefer to join the blasphemers we just killed."
The voice spoke in Standard Anglish. Her father's language, and the one she'd spoken during her years of Navy service. It did so, though, with a heavy Sagarmathan accent. Stackpole traded another look with Smith, who would have to depend on her judgment now. This wasn't his world. It was hers. And if he didn't like the price of joining her here in retirement, at this stage of the game that was just too damn bad.
Retirement, hell. The accurate word, of course, was exile.
Smith touched her shoulder again. When she turned, he was mouthing more silent words. "Are we offworlders?" he wanted to know.
A very good question. Stackpole wished she could give it a very good answer. "Depends," she shot back, also without sound. Which choice was more likely to keep them alive? For the next few minutes, at least. Until she could find her footing on this home-world gone suddenly alien ... damn, but this felt like being back on duty.
Boots sure as hell was an offworlder, and couldn't pretend to be otherwise except in relation to her. Stackpole herself could go either way, as long as whoever was out there yelling in Sagarmathan-accented Anglish didn't recognize her face. She was still calculating the odds of that happening when a series of popping noises sounded through a concourse gone eerily quiet. After which she heard the grunts and thuds made by bodies hitting an unmerciful surface.
A different voice spoke in Anglish. Lightly accented, this time, as if this speaker had been using it as a second language for years. As Stackpole's mother had, complete with her stilted phrasing. "Honored guests, you may show yourselves safely now. The danger is over."
"Who the hell?" Smith wanted to know, this time in a whisper.
Stackpole stood up. A second later, so did her comrade. They stood behind the counter, and they looked the concourse over. Bodies littered it.
"Are you the only ones left?" A man came toward them, walking fast and cradling an outdated projectile rifle--or "pellet thrower," as Sagarmathans called such weapons--in his arms. He wore a uniform and insignia that Stackpole didn't recognize, but his manner told her everything she needed to know.
"Looks that way," the retired master chief said. She put out a hand in the United Autonomy's standard greeting, which wasn't at all standard here. Or it hadn't been, anyway, back when she left ... what else had changed, that didn't show up in the recreational recruiting ads? "Maryama Stackpole. This is my--friend, John Smith. You're from the constabulary?"
"Spaceport security, actually, ma'am. Sir." The fellow's gaze shifted briefly to Smith, then returned to Stackpole. "I'm sorry for the danger you were in, and I'm awfully glad you weren't injured. Please come with me now. We need to clear the concourse, and my manager will want to talk with you. Don't worry about your luggage. We'll make sure it gets to your accommodations."
Luggage. He thought they might be worried about that, after they'd just come close to being burned down by--terrorists? Or whatever they were.... Stackpole traded a look with Smith, who rolled his eyes in full agreement. As the pair of them fell into step on either side of the armed man, she said, "If you don't mind my asking, why in the universe did your manager send you in alone just now? And who were those people? What did they have against visitors to your planet?" Or against returning natives; but she wouldn't identify herself that way just yet.
"One man's enough when all the opposition's dead, ma'am." Their rescuer didn't smile, because he plainly wasn't joking. "As for this filth," he paused to kick the corpse of a man who'd died from projectile fire, "they call themselves Purifiers. I think I should let my manager tell you about them. Or perhaps your guide will want to do that himself?"
"We don't have a guide waiting for us. We're not here to join an expedition." So much for putting off identifying herself by more than her name. Stackpole stifled a sigh as her shoulders braced themselves automatically. Beside her, Smith adopted the same stance.
"Why are you here, then? How did you get landing permits?" The security guard had stopped walking. Now he swung around to face them, with his rifle once more held at ready.
Now it had to be. "I don't need a landing permit to come home," Stackpole said, with the deliberate calm she'd so often felt just before a battle. "I was born in High Valley, Shangri-La Province. My mother was called Keela-shampura, and my father--"
"Was Keela-shampura of High Valley's outworlder consort." Another voice finished the sentence for her. "Hello, Maryama. This person is your guest?" Someone had come up behind the security guard, slipping into the scene so quietly that the two military veterans discerned his presence only a few seconds ahead of the armed man. Who whirled, trained his weapon, and then lowered it.
"Manager," the guard said, his voice catching. Clearly he knew only too well what would have happened to him, and to his two charges also, if the man who slipped up on them so easily had meant to do harm.
"Get a mop-up crew in here." The spaceport's manager looked around the corpse-littered concourse and wrinkled his broad nose. Although his skin showed the rich bronze of Sagarmathan stock, his face lacked a mature male's customary weathering. Nevertheless he was still a few shades darker than Stackpole, whose father hailed from Terra's British Isles. "I'll take over with Maryama and her, um, friend."
"John Smith. He's landing as an emigrant. No, I mean immigrant! I'm his sponsor." How many years since anyone had addressed her as Maryama? Her buddies had used her surname, always, until she picked up the nickname Scorch. But on Sagarmatha, only outworlders went by two names or more--and since her father was always "Stackpole" here, she had always been Maryama.
"We'll have to see about that. Do you remember me from our schooling?" The manager walked them up a sliding staircase, the kind most people stood still on and let themselves be carried. "We're going to my office. I'll have Customs send someone up to interview you and process your documentation. I'll have your luggage brought up, too, as soon as it's located. We're going to be shut down for the rest of today, at least. Could be longer, if we don't figure out right away how that," he gestured from the upper level they'd just reached toward the carnage they had left behind, "happened."
He said it so casually that Stackpole shuddered. She thought of herself as a hardened combat veteran, but clearly her shell wasn't as tough as she had imagined. She said truthfully, "I don't remember you. No." She couldn't add the apology that courtesy required, because she wasn't a bit sorry for not remembering the boy this man had been.
He opened his mouth, quite likely to tell her his name. She would remember him then, of course. But Smith's body slammed hers to the deck in the next moment, and when she looked at the manager again he no longer had a mouth. His body stayed on its feet for a moment after turning into a corpse. Then it folded over and landed belly-down. Stackpole found herself staring into the frame formed by its smoking collar, at the cauterized stump of its neck, while more energy beams sizzled through the spaceport's air.