Who am I?
She had been ripped into pieces and put back together so many times only to be torn apart again, that she didn’t know the answer any more. If she ever really had.
Raine Perselle stared through the window at the dark clouds overhead. It was raining. Heavily. She hated it. It made her think of the few days she spent in school where she’d been unwanted from the moment she crossed the yard.
Her guardian dropped her by the gate and told her to go in and find the teacher. There were a group of kids in the yard, playing despite the fine drizzle falling from a grey sky. Two were twirling a rope and the others jumped in and out. She’d thought it looked fun and was going to ask if she could join. Then she heard the chanting.
Raine, go away.
We want to play.
We don’t want you
Raine here today.
She’d felt so bad inside she wanted to scream. Instead, she’d piled into them fists flying. After that, no one wanted her in the school for real. So her guardian took her out again. And then it was just the two of them in the small ex-prospectors cabin halfway up a mountain. The two of them and the hollow emptiness where her mother should have been.
Except she wasn’t Raine’s mother. But Raine hadn’t known that back then. Back then it had been different. Memories of being held and feeling safe. Of playing daft games. Of being happy. Yes, there had been the boyfriends who came and went and yes, they’d moved around a lot. She said it was so they could see a lot of interesting places. But it had meant Raine never got to have many friends, except a few she’d got to know through links. But Raine had always known she came first. Then one day she just wasn’t there. And Raine was left with the cold-eyed woman who said she was Raine’s guardian.
It might have been yesterday the memory was so clear in her mind, not years ago when she was still a little kid. They’d been camping out in a cabin on a wilderness world as she wanted to paint the unspoiled mountains. A kind of vacation. Just the two of them for once. There was nothing much there apart from the wilderness. Not even any link access.
The cabin was very basic, it had a room with two beds and a bigger room with everything else. There was no proper hygiene suite, just an outbuilding with a hole in the ground and water had to be pumped up from a bore. She loved all that, but Raine liked it better when they were in proper places.
Raine had gone to bed with the usual hugs and smiles from her but woke to find herself alone in the cabin. Alone except for an old woman with cold-eyes who was doing something to a dead animal with a knife. She’d put the knife down and wiped the red from her hands on a cloth, then crossed over and looked down at Raine.
“You’re awake. Good. Go fetch some wood. Be sure it’s dry.”
“Don’t you dare argue with me you little bitch. Just get the wood.”
She’d been too shocked to be frightened. “I don’t have to do what you say. Where’s my mother?”
The slap had been hard enough to make her stagger back. Raine wanted to shriek, to cry. But she’d stood there, nursing her sore face with one hand and glared back at the old woman. For some reason that seemed to change her mood. Almost as if she was pleased Raine stood her ground.
“You will get the wood,” the old woman insisted. “Then we can eat. Then I will tell you.”
That was the old woman’s name. If she had a first name, Raine never discovered it. That first day, after Raine gathered the wood and followed instructions to help cook their meal, Var Tynacar told her that she was the older sister of her mother’s last boyfriend. She said that her mother had left Raine there as she had needed to go away for a while and she had appointed Var Tynacar to be Raine’s guardian. At the time, Raine had believed it. Now she wondered if it had ever been true. Any of it.
Life on Tranch, as the planet was known, was not all wild woods and people panning for precious metal up in the mountains. There was a half-way decent settlement with a spaceport, medical clinic and the school. Tranchtown. It was all grey block buildings, but then just about everywhere on the Periphery was like that. Their cabin was not even too far from the place. Near enough that Raine could have gone to the school. If they’d have taken her. But that hadn’t worked out. So she had learned from her guardian.
After that first slap, she’d not ever been hit again. Var Tynacar sometimes seemed to quite like her. She’d even smile when Raine did well. And as most of the lessons were things Raine found she liked to learn and was good at, she often did well. The lessons had names different from what she was used to. Tracking. Surveillance. Agility. Endurance. And when they got a passive link set up in the cabin she was able to study regular stuff too. Like any regular kid. She realised her guardian wasn’t as old as she’d thought. Older than her, but not old. No one as fast, fit and athletic could be that old.
Once, four of the prospectors who lived well up the trail rolled up at the cabin high on recs and wanting sex. When they didn’t take no for an answer, her guardian had killed them all. Her only weapon, the gutting knife. The men were all wearing snubs. Raine helped her drop the bodies down a sinkhole. So no, Var Tynacar wasn’t old.
Each cycle they’d go to the town for supplies and then her guardian would leave Raine in an eatery with free run of the menu whilst she went to the spaceport. Raine knew that because she’d followed once, using the skills she’d been taught to keep out of sight. But what her guardian did in there, Raine had no idea.
It was a bit over three years since she had arrived on Tranch when on one such visit, her guardian came back to the eatery looking like she was ill. She’d not stopped to eat and had made Raine leave half her own meal, ignoring Raine completely until they were back home. Then she had still ignored her questions.
“Just pack what you need for a few days. We’re leaving.”
“But we can’t leave. What if my mother…?”
“She wasn’t your mother and she isn’t coming back.”
And that was that. In those few words, Raine had all that remained of her life, who she was—who she’d thought she was—scooped out from inside her. Like when Var Tynacar was scooping the guts out from an animal she’d killed to eat.
“All I know is the Perselles bought you from a stranger on some planet called Temsevar. So I’m taking you back there. Maybe you can find your real family. Someone to take care of you. I can’t. I have work to do.”
So that was how her guardian had really seen her? Taking in a stray and then sending it back when it became inconvenient?
Raine didn’t say much all the way to Temsevar.
Someone had sliced her open, taken her heart out and put it in cryostorage.
Keran, the only place on Temsevar which had some kind of spaceport, had been worse than the worst place she could think of. This was a planet where the First Expansion never happened. People lived in crude buildings made of mud. They had no tech at all.
You couldn’t even link out to anywhere civilised.
No one on Temsevar had known who she was. Gernie and Micha, who had taken her in when her guardian abandoned her, told her she had once been a slave. That was what the odd mark on her shoulder meant. She had been someone’s property and they had sold her to the Perselles when she was a toddler. That meant there was no way to ever find her parents.
Micha hadn’t filled in the details but she didn’t need to. Raine was plenty old enough to get the picture. Her real mother would have been a sex slave and her father was probably some sick bastard who had owned her and raped her whenever he wanted, selling off her kids as soon as they were old enough. She’d worked it out and she’d come to terms with it. She’d stopped stabbing at the brand and cutting her arm. Mostly.
But that was not the worst thing.
The worst thing was the thought she might be stuck there forever. So when she’d been told she had a chance to get away. To get back to Central, she’d been willing to do just about whatever it took.
And that was why she was now in this place with Creepy and Cute.
The cover is an original artwork by Ian Bristow, you can find more of his work at Bristow Design.