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Space Unicorn Blues

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Space Unicorn Blues

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Author: T. J. Berry
Publisher: Angry Robot Books, 2018
Series: The Reason: Book 1

1. Space Unicorn Blues
2. Five Unicorn Flush

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction / Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags:
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Humanity joining the intergalactic community has been a disaster for Bala, the magical creatures of the galaxy: they've been exploited, enslaved and ground down for parts. Now the Century Summit is approaching, when humans will be judged by godlike aliens.

When Jenny Perata, disabled Maori shuttle captain, is contracted to take a shipment to the summit, she must enlist half-unicorn Gary Cobalt, whose horn powers faster-than-light travel. But he's just been released from prison, for murdering the wife of Jenny's co-pilot, Cowboy Jim... When the Reason regime suddenly enact laws making Bala property, Jenny's ship becomes the last hope for magic.


Chapter One

The Bitter Blossom

When the murderer Gary Cobalt trotted into the Bitter Blossom, he nearly gave himself away as half-unicorn within thirty seconds. His prison-issued pants were hiked up so high that his hooves stuck out the bottom, clopping across the tile, calling all sorts of attention. He'd hoped people would mistake him for a common faun, but the bartender let him know that he wasn't fooled.

"Why the long face, son?" asked the barkeep pointedly, holding a glass upside down to catch the liquid flowing out of a bottle of Gravitas. He shoved the cork in, set the glass rim-down, and slid it to a uniformed Reason officer at the end of the bar. The officer caught the drink and tipped it slightly sideways with a practiced motion. A stream of Gravitas rose from the edge of the glass and into his mouth.

"Another," said the officer. Heads turned. Gravitas wasn't cheap. Even high-ranking Reason officers didn't carry around enough cash for more than one glass. The bartender obliged and turned his attention back to Gary.

"Just released from the Quag?" he asked.

Gary nodded and tugged his baseball cap low over his forehead. Ten years in prison for murder had taught him the value of lying low. That officer's freshly laundered Reason uniform did not bode well for him. Prison guards from the nearby Quagmire wore the same basic uniform, but their trousers were encrusted with mud and waste from a dozen races, both human and other. You smelled corrections officers before seeing them. This was no CO at the bar. A well-dressed Reason officer on a dead-end planet like Earth was either here for an official inspection or a resource collection. Gary hoped it was the former, because if it was the latter, the "resource" in question was likely him.

Everyone in the employ of the Reason government, whether filthy or clean, wore the same embroidered patch on their left shoulder. A trio of red spheres: one filled with a five-pointed star, one with a seven-pointed star, and the center one with a twenty-four-spoke wheel, not unlike a space station. Each sphere represented one of the three nations - the United States, Australia, and India - who came together to form the Reason. Everyone called that flag the "spheres and tears," but you'd never say that to an officer's face. Not unless you wanted to end up in the Quag on charges of sedition. Reasoners didn't have much of a sense of humor about their flag.

Nor did they care for even the gentlest ribbing about polluting their planet until it became a hot, uninhabitable marble in space. Humans were touchy about being forced to flee their home world en masse in hastily constructed generation ships. And the people left here on Earth - people deemed too sick or too poor for a chance at a new life - were the angriest of all. Gary didn't blame them one bit. Mostly, he kept his head down and tried not to attract any notice, but today he needed to navigate the labyrinth of human rage.

"I need to see Ricky about my stoneship." Gary kept his voice low and slow. He'd been a free man for less than an hour, but it wouldn't be difficult for a CO on break in the Blossom to find a reason to throw him back into the Quag. Or worse, they'd declare him a natural resource and he'd find himself on the business end of a bone saw. "I was told he bought it at auction-"

The bartender slammed a silver bowl onto the counter to cut him off. Liquid sloshed over the edge and sizzled onto the bar's high-gloss varnish. His eyes went right down to Gary's hooves.

"If you mean Miss Tang, then she's hosting the game table," said the bartender, lighting the bowl on fire with an ember perched on a golden fork. The flaming drink smelled like crushed limes and wax crayons gone soft in the sun.

"I'm sorry. I have apparently misspoken," said Gary. "The last time I was here, Ricky was a-"

"A charming host who you will find at the game table," finished the bartender firmly. "Miss Tang will be pleased to see you again."

The sharply dressed Reason officer studied their conversation over his second empty glass of Gravitas. Gary dropped his face toward the floor, but there was no hiding the line of his powerful jaw; strong enough to crush bones into powder. His stomach rumbled. It had been a long time since he'd crunched through a bone bigger than a rat's femur. Unicorns in the wild primarily ate trisicles - palm-sized chitinous beetles that thrived in the cold vacuum of space - but he could eat any type of bone or exoskeleton in a pinch.

The officer opened his mouth to speak and Gary turned quickly toward the game table. He had to make this fast. Whatever that man came to do, it wouldn't be good for Gary to be here when he did it. If they found out he was part unicorn, his magical body parts would be portioned off throughout the Reason. Best-case scenario, they'd take him at his word that he was a faun and he'd end up playing the flute in some wealthy family's summer home.

Gary had learned never to underestimate a human being's capacity for cruelty. He'd been a toddler when the Reason Coalition formed, but his mother had been on the first generation ship to meet alien life on their way to a new planet. It didn't matter that the alien Bala had familiar shapes known to humans through centuries of myth and legend; unicorns, fairies, and elves. Or that they offered to use their magic to help the colonists survive in their new home. The humans fired the opening shots in what would become a hundred years of war between the humans and the Bala. Growing up, Gary watched a ragtag collection of starving humans become a highly efficient colonizing machine. War galvanized them and gave them the will to live. Humans were never more persistent than when they were in the wrong.

Gary scanned the game room. In addition to the main table where Ricky Tang presided, there were a few dozen low-stakes games going on. Most of the players were off-shift correctional officers, but there was a single table of Reason officers playing poker among the COs.

Gary saw the simmering heat of disgust between the officers and the COs. Every so often, a CO would walk a little too close to the officers' table and the whole party would look up, daring the glorified Bala babysitter to talk to them. The CO would eventually turn away, but always made sure to hesitate a moment to show the spot on their uniform that bore the largest tear or burn - a souvenir from some violent skirmish in the Quag. Most of the officers hadn't seen a day of combat since the Siege of Copernica Citadel ended fifteen years ago. They might wear the same uniform as the COs, but there was a galaxy of difference between them.

Gary tried his best to walk like a full human. His equine bottom half - two-legged like a faun's - was suited to soft dirt and not slippery tile floors. He skidded across the slick surface, trying to look more like a drunk human than an awkward part-Bala. The hem of his pants collected tumbleweeds of sparkling elf hair and more ogre toenail clippings than could possibly be sanitary in a food-serving establishment.

As he neared the game table, his right hoof slipped in a puddle of dusky brown dwarf blood. He caught himself before he fell, but a few COs snickered. A headless blemmye, pale and doughy, looked over at them with the face embedded in its chest. Gary sniffed the air, trying not to flare his nostrils. Something about it was familiar - a flowery scent that wasn't the usual damp ichor smell of a blemmye. It made the fur on his legs stand on end.

Gary stood behind a pair of neofelis cats at the main table. The cats pushed their furry heads together and played one hand as a team. One studied their cards as the other swatted at a dancing light on the leather tabletop. A group of COs near the window cackled each time the cat reached for the reflection coming off their buddy's watch.

In the chair next to the cats, a fairy sat forlorn, his transparent wing hanging broken and twitching. To be out here in public, wings exposed, meant this Bala was desperate. Indeed, most of Ricky Tang's clients were.

The blemmye bent over its cards, considering for a long minute before placing a vial of angel tears into the pot. As it moved, the floral scent wafted in Gary's direction again. Memories flooded back so powerfully that he had to grab the back of a cat's chair to keep from swaying on his feet. That was Jenny Perata, the woman who had held him captive for nearly two years. That lavender soap she used would forever be associated with the feeling of a knife digging around in his skull, searching for slivers of horn to power her ship. His ship, that the Reason had confiscated and awarded to her for defeating him in battle.

The blemmye was a particularly competent disguise. Really, he'd expect no less from Jenny Perata. The thick, coarse robes even covered her wheelchair. She was one of the fiercest adversaries he had ever faced. His gut clenched when he realized he was now vying against both her and Ricky for control of his ship, because there could be no other reason why Jenny was here, in the Bitter Blossom, from which she had been banned for life.

Ricky Tang shook the vial of angel tears, researching its value on her ocular display. The blemmye held its breath while she came up with an answer and Gary knew for sure that its appearance was a subterfuge. Blemmye didn't have lungs.

A wooden girl, kneeling on her chair to reach the game table, looked up at Gary with a wrinkled nose.

"Half-breed," she muttered. She took a drag from her cigarette and blew the smoke in his direction.

In the dealer's chair, Ricky's head snapped up at the slur. Her face moved from ire to joy before the smoke had cleared.

"Gary!" she cried, tossing her hand into the air. The other players threw down their cards in disgust as her voided hand landed face up on the table - three, seven, jack, ten, and king.

"I hoped you'd show up today," said Ricky, tossing a strand of dark hair over her shoulder. "It's been ten years and you haven't changed a speck."

"You have changed quite a bit," said Gary. Everyone at the table froze, but Ricky waved off his words with a calm smile.

"Oh you know, the outside caught up with the inside," she said. "I expect you're here to join the game?"

"I'm here to collect what's mine," replied Gary, raising his voice louder than he intended. His tones were deep and powerful from the generations of royalty in his ancestry. A few heads rose to look in his direction. He quieted both his volume and his mind with a slow breath. "My stoneship does not belong to you," he said calmly.

The damaged fairy looked up at Gary through bleary eyes.

"Leave while you still can," the fairy lisped. His tongue slid past the spaces in his jaw where teeth used to be. Razor-sharp fairy teeth were harder than diamonds and invaluable in the Reason drill bits that cored Bala planets for their minerals. From the oozing, it looked like this fairy had been betting his teeth all morning.

"Don't be a downer, Cinnabottom," said Ricky. "You got a fair chance. Gary can play if he wants to."

"I'm not here to play. I'm here to collect my ship," said Gary. The table of Reason officers had stopped playing and were now openly staring at him, but the officer at the bar was still seated, gulping down another gravity-defying drink. This transaction with Ricky had to go down fast, or he'd be taken back into custody. Gary didn't prefer to fight, but he would if he had to. And he almost always had to.

"Have you even seen it yet... since you were released, I mean?" asked Ricky with delight.

She flicked her eyes up and left to raise the shades on the back windows of the bar. In the distance, on the city's highest landing platform, sat a Halcyon-class stoneship with the terrible aerodynamics of unicorn deep space design. The Jaggery looked like a chunk of rounded stone as large as a planet-killing asteroid. It cast a shadow over half the city. A crew of workers was painting an enormous pink blossom onto the stoneship's hull.

The Reason was supposed to return his property to him upon release from the Quag, but they'd shoved him out of the gates with barely a word. The ship had gone to auction this morning and the only person with enough liquid cash in Broome City to buy even a heavily discounted stoneship was Ricky Tang.

Gary took a step toward the window and swiped a hand across the stubble on his chin. Seeing the Jaggery again, it felt, for an instant, like he might cry. He slackened his face into an unreadable mask that was the result of years of practice. Ricky already knew how much he needed his ship; he didn't need to broadcast it to everyone in the bar.

"The ship was supposed to be returned to me upon my release," said Gary. Ricky shrugged. One strap of her dress slipped down her shoulder and she let it hang there.

"The laws have changed since you went in." She fixed him with a gaze that was also a warning. Of course he'd noticed that the laws had changed. He'd seen more Bala come into the Quag for minor offenses like incorrect immigration documents in the last few years. Those who came in stayed longer or ended up in a harvesting center for parts.

"I'm just the buyer, Gary. You want to file a grievance about the logistics of the property sale, talk to one of those people."

She gestured toward the table full of Reason officers. Their game had ground to a halt. Gary shoved his hands into his pockets and hunched back down. Officers wouldn't be fooled as easily as a drunk CO.

"How much?" he asked quietly.

"Oh Gary. I have waited years to negotiate with you. I'm honored." She pretended to wipe a tear from her eye. "But my ship is so pretty, I don't think you can afford it. In fact," she flicked a fingernail at each of the beings seated around the game table, "none of these quags can afford it either."

One of the neofelis cats stood up and hissed at the insult. Her empty chair made a whirring sound, not unlike a timer. The other cat gasped and pawed at her to sit back down. After a loud click, a dozen silver needles sprayed out of the chair, piercing the cat's thick fur and burrowing into her flesh. She screeched in anguish and clawed at her back. Her partner pawed ineffectually at the piercings.

"The game is not over until I say it's over," Ricky said to the yawling cat. "Get out. You're bleeding all over my upholstery. But your kittyfriend has to stay."

The neofelis slunk out of the bar growling under her breath, "Ricky Tang, you suck." The remaining cat licked her wounds without taking her eyes off Ricky.

"Damn right I suck," said Ricky with a saucy smile. She turned back to Gary. "If you'd like to play for your ship, a seat has just become available at my game table."

"No game. A straight offer to buy."

"Oh Gary. What do you think this is, Myer? We don't sell merchandise here." Her head tilted toward the tidy Reason officer sitting at the bar. "That would constitute illegal black market dealing in Bala goods. And no one's doing anything illegal in here." She waved at the bartender to pour a fourth round of Gravitas for the officer. That explained how he was able to afford such pricey drinks. Ricky was trying to appease him.

"What do I have to do to get my ship back?" snapped Gary. He bit the inside of his lip and willed himself to be calm, because no one won a fight in the Bitter Blossom except Ricky Tang.

"Well, what do you have, kid? The Quag lets you out with two hundred and a shuttle ticket. Two hundred wouldn't curl my hair and I certainly don't need a shuttle ticket now that I own that beauty out on the platform."

"A private ante," said Gary, lowering his voice until it was nearly a growl. He hadn't been alive for thousands of years like his father, but he was still old enough to be Ricky Tang's grandfather.

Ricky dropped into her chair and let it spin in a lazy circle. Gary wondered if this was her tell. She seemed thrilled beyond speech.

"Gary, Gary, Gary..." she whispered. "That is a bold move, my friend."

"I am not your friend," said Gary.

"You used to be," she said, and Gary heard a hint of sadness in her voice that evaporated like alcohol a moment later. "Anyway, I doubt you have anything worth a ship that fine."

Gary snorted, a sound so close to equine that his hand involuntarily twitched upward as if to stifle it. Ricky's cheeks plumped and pinked with the spread of her smile. She wasn't even trying to bluff any more.

"My ship has been in storage for ten years. It may not even run," said Gary. He was losing the upper hand in this negotiation. The others in this room might be clueless, but both he and Ricky knew that you could bury a stoneship in the core of a planet for a millennium and it would still run like new. Especially if the dwarves stayed on board to maintain the ecosystem.

Ricky shook her head.

"I did a walkthrough this morning. Boges kept everything in working order. Well, as much as she could."

And this is where he had her.

"Everything but the FTL," said Gary pointedly. Ricky paused to wipe her palms down the front of her dress. She nodded, searching his face for any clue to the location of his horn. He didn't know where his horn was - he hadn't for quite a long time. The only horn he had was the tiny shaving of growth under his hat that he'd been working on for years eating vermin bones in the Quag.

He had eaten thousands of rats and rabbits in order to grow enough horn to power the Jaggery's faster-than-light engine. The tiny shaving wouldn't get him far, but a few AU in any direction was better than sitting on Earth. He'd had a full horn when he was younger, like any other unicorn. It had been sawn off so he could hide better among humans. It was a big enough piece of horn that he might go anywhere in the universe, but his mother had hidden it to keep him safe. He didn't feel particularly safe without it.

Ricky opened her mouth to speak. She stopped when a furry paw reached across the gaming table toward the ante. She flicked her eyes across her ocular display and the second neofelis cat howled and clutched her backside.

"I don't think so," said Ricky. She pointed to a sign mounted above the table.


The neofelis hissed and yowled.

"Fine then, go. I'm not into pussies anyway." The cat limped off after her partner and Ricky settled back into her chair.

"Is this private ante in the form of a liquid or a solid?" Ricky asked.

"Liquid," said Gary.

Ricky looked dissatisfied and drummed her fingers on the leather tabletop. The wooden girl lit another cigarette and picked splinters out of her teeth.

"Nothing solid at all? A shaving?" Ricky asked. Gary knew better than to admit it.

"Not a lot of bones in the Quag."

"I hear you ate well before you went in, though," said Ricky, staring intently at the front of his blue baseball cap. Gary balled his fists, resisting the urge to come back with a hasty reply. Ricky's words were always calculated. She was trying to goad him toward making a mistake by bringing up Cheryl Ann's murder. He heard a soft sigh from the table. The blemmye looked distressed. The elfin magic that had been used to craft the disguise was starting to drip down its face in the warm room.

"Fine. Five liters," said Ricky cryptically. Gary knew what she meant. Even the notorious Ricky Tang didn't dare say the phrase "unicorn blood" out loud. If the clientele figured out that he wasn't a faun trying to trade wishes for food, they'd be clawing over each other to tear him to pieces.

"That would kill me. Two liters," said Gary.

Unicorn blood healed most wounds and was one of the most precious substances in the universe. The last place he wanted to be was in a bar full of desperate people who knew who he really was. There was also a healthy contingent of planetbound xenophobes who had never made peace with the fact that the first aliens humans had encountered were an envoy of talking unicorns who offered to teach them farming. Within a few generations, most of the Bala races had succumbed to the human doctrine of manifest destiny. If there was one regret Gary had in his lengthy life, it was that he'd had to watch so many of his friends die in a pointless fight for galactic supremacy, when cooperation had been offered from the start. Then again, he'd never had just one regret.

"I don't care if you're dead. My ship's not worth less than five liters," said Ricky.

"Three," said Gary.

Ricky looked out the window, considering for long enough that the blemmye risked wiping away the slimy wetness collecting on its chin. The wooden girl narrowed her eyes.

"I don't know why you let a blemmye sit at your table, Ricky," said the wooden girl. "Everyone knows they suck the luck right out of the room."

Jenny might not have been an actual blemmye, but the puppet didn't know how right she was. If Jenny Perata had risked Ricky's wrath by coming back into the Blossom, things were about to get contentious.

The blemmye lifted a doughy middle finger and grunted. The wooden girl spat a wad of dry sawdust back. It settled on the table.

"Everyone is welcome at my games," Ricky said to the wooden girl. She turned back to Gary. "Four liters. Take it or leave it." She flicked her head toward the Reason officers. "This is your only chance to get out of here. The laws have changed. On any Reason-controlled planet you'll be picked up within minutes. Your very existence is illegal. It's only professional courtesy that they've left you alone in here for this long."

A pair of COs recognized Gary from the Quag and spat slurred curses in his direction with all of the intensity they could muster after complimentary glasses of larval eggwine. The dark purple secretion seared the throat on the way down and shredded the esophagus on the way back up, but during the twenty minutes in between, the drinker stood in the presence of their god. The COs looked disappointed to be back in reality, but were very much enjoying heckling what they thought was an ex-convict faun. He'd gone by his mother's surname, Ramanathan, while in the Quag. The name Cobalt was synonymous with unicorns and he hoped neither Ricky nor Jenny would be foolish enough to use it in here.

"You have no other options, Gary. Four liters is a gift. A welcome back present from me to you," said Ricky, blowing him a kiss. Her brown eyes crinkled at the corners. For a moment, it truly did seem like a fair deal. Then his blood kicked in and removed the toxin that she had just puffed into his face and the deal seemed just as raw as ever. But it wasn't as if he had many other options.

Copyright © 2018 by T. J. Berry


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