The Last Hour of Gann by R. Lee SmithFrom R. Lee Smith, author of Heat and Cottonwood, comes an epic new story of desire, darkness and the dawn that comes after The Last Hour of Gann.
Amber Bierce had nothing left except her sister and two tickets on Earth's first colony-ship. She entered her Sleeper with a five-year contract and the promise of a better life, but awakened in wreckage on an unknown world. For the survivors, there is no rescue, no way home and no hope until they are found by Meoraq-a holy warrior more deadly than any hungering beast on this hostile new world... but whose eyes show a different sort of hunger when he looks at her.
It was his last year of freedom:
Uyane Meoraq is a Sword of Sheul, God's own instrument of judgment, victor of hundreds of trials, with a conqueror's rights over all men. Or at least he was until his father's death. Now, without divine intervention, he will be forced to assume stewardship over House Uyane and lose the life he has always known. At the legendary temple of Xi'Matezh, Meoraq hopes to find the deliverance he seeks, but the humans he encounters on his pilgrimage may prove too great a test even for him... especially the one called Amber, behind whose monstrous appearance burns a woman's heart unlike any he has ever known.
From R. Lee Smith, author of Heat and Cottonwood, comes an epic new story of desire, darkness and the dawn that comes after The Last Hour of Gann.
WARNING: This book contains graphic violence, strong sexual content and explicit language. It is intended for mature readers only.
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The Last Hour of Gann (Sample Chapter)
© 2013 by Red Hot Romance and R. Lee Smith
The eviction notice was hanging on the door when they got back from the hospital. The time stamp said 1:27 am, six minutes after Mary Shelley Bierce’s official time of death, an hour and twenty-eight minutes before her two daughters sitting in the waiting room had even been informed.
Amber sent Nicci in to bed while she stood out in the hall and read. The eviction gave them thirty days to either vacate or sign under the terms of the new lease, a copy of which was attached. Amber read them. Then she folded up the notice and slipped it into her pocket. She made herself a pot of coffee and sipped at it while watching the news. She thought. She said hello when Nicci woke up and that was all. She went to work.
The funeral was held three days later, a Tuesday. The insurance company covered the cost, which meant it was a group job, and although it was scheduled ‘between the hours of eight and eleven,’ the other funerals apparently dragged long and then there was lunch and so it was nearly two in the afternoon before Mary’s name was called and the cardboard case with her label pasted on the side slid by on the belt and disappeared into the oven. Nicci cried a little. Amber put her arm around her. They got a lot of dirty looks from the other mourners, even though it had only been sixteen years since Measure 34 had passed—Zero Population Growth, Zero Tolerance—and they had both been born by then.
Amber was used to getting dirty looks when she went out with Nicci. Sometimes siblings could pass themselves off as cousins or, even better, as just friends, but not the Bierce girls. Even with different fathers, they were each their mother in miniature and the three years between them had an oddly plastic quality: in the right light, they could be mistaken for twins; in the wrong light, Amber had occasionally been addressed as Nicci’s mother. Part of that was the size difference—Nicci was, as their mother used to be, fine-boned and willowy below that round, cherubic face, while Amber was pretty much round all over—but not all of it. “You were just born old, little girl,” as her mom used to say. “You were born to take care of things.”
She tried to take it as a compliment. The only part of Mary Bierce that knew how to be a mother had been cut out years ago and tossed in a baggie with a biohazard stamp on the side. The parts that were left after that didn’t give a damn about homework or lunches or scrubbing out the toilet once in a while. Someone had to be the responsible one and if Amber wasn’t actually born knowing that, she sure learned it in hurry.
* * *
There could have been a lot more than two children at the funeral if it hadn’t been for Measure 34. Mary Bierce (known to her clients as Bo Peep for her curly blonde hair, big blue eyes and child-sweet face, a name she was quick to capitalize on with frilly panties and ribbons and the intermittent plush sheep) had never been the careful sort. Amber had been putting out cigarettes, sweeping up broken bottles, and making sure the door was locked since she was six; she knew damned well that her mom wasn’t going to lose a good tip by insisting her clients wore a condom when she was working. Bo Peep had been to the aborters three times that Amber knew of and there had probably been others, but that all ended with the Zeros and Measure 34. One day, she went off for her regular monthly shots and came staggering home three hours later wearing a diaper. She sort of collapsed onto the sofa, sprawled out like she was drunk, only she wasn’t loud and laughing the way she ought to be. Her mouth had hung open slightly and there was some kind of gooey paste caked at the corners of her lips. All her makeup had been wiped away and none too gently; she looked haggard and sick and dead. Nicci—easily frightened under normal circumstances and utterly terrified by this slack-faced stranger who looked like their mom—started crying, and once she did, Mary Bierce burst out into huge, wet sobs also. She lay spread out over the sofa with her legs wide open and that plastic diaper showing under her skirt while her daughters hugged each other and stared, but all she seemed capable of saying was one nonsensical word.
“Spayed!” their mother wept, over and over, until she was screaming it. Screaming and digging at her stomach so hard that one of her bubblegum-pink fingernails broke right off. “Spayed me! Those motherfuckers spayed me!”
At last, in a kind of desperation to quiet everybody down before one of the neighbors had them written up again, Amber climbed up on the kitchen counter and brought down a bottle of her mom’s black label. She poured a juice glass for Mary and, after a moment’s uneasy deliberation, a sippy-cup for Nicci and made them both drink. Within an hour, they were both asleep, but her mom kept crying even then, in a breathy, wailing way she couldn’t quite wake up for, and all she could say was that word.
Later, of course, she had plenty to say—about Measure 34 and the Zero-Pop zealots who passed it, about the insurance company and their fine print policies, and about men. It always came back to the men.
“They’ll spay the hookers, sure they will,” she’d sneer at some point. “But do they ever talk about neutering the fucking johns? Oh no! No, they’re still selling Viagra on the fucking TV, that’s what they’re doing! Let me tell you something, babies, what I do is the most honest work in the world because all women are whores! That’s how men see it and if that’s how they see it, little girl, that’s how it is!”
And Amber would nod, because sometimes if you agreed enough early on, the real shouting never got started, but privately she had her doubts. Privately she thought, even then at the age of eight and especially as she got older and Bo Peep Bierce grew more and more embittered, that it didn’t prove a whole lot to say that men thought all women were whores when the only men you saw in a day were the ones…well, buying a whore. If you want to hang with a better class of man, Amber would think as she nodded along with her mother’s rants, quit whoring.
Not that you could quit these days. But it had still been her choice to start.
And these probably weren’t the most respectful thoughts to be having at your mother’s funeral. Amber gave Nicci’s shaking shoulders a few more pats and tried to think of good things, happy memories, but there weren’t many. Her mind got to wandering back toward the eviction and the Manifestors. It had better be today, she decided, listening to Nicci cry.
After the funeral. But today.
* * *
She didn’t say anything until they got back to the apartment. Then Amber sat her baby sister at the kitchen table and put two short stacks of papers in front of her. One was the eviction notice, the new lease, and a copy of their mother’s insurance policy. The other was an information packet with the words Manifest Destiny printed in starry black and white letters on the first page.
“Please,” said Nicci, trying to squirm away. “Not right now, okay?”
“Right now,” said Amber. She sat down on the other side of the table, then had to reach out and catch her sister’s hand to keep her from escaping. It was not a gentle grip, but Amber kept it in spite of Nicci’s wince and teary, reproachful look. Sometimes, the bad stuff needed to be said. That was the one thing Mary Bierce used to say that Amber did believe.
“We’re going to lose this place,” Amber said bluntly. “No matter what we do—”
“Don’t say that!”
“—we’re going to lose it.”
“I can get another job!” Nicci insisted.
“Yeah, you can. So can I. And they’ll be two more full-time shifts at minimum wage under that fucking salary cap because we dropped out of school. And that means that the most—the absolute most, Nicci—that we can make between us will be not quite half what we’d need for the new rent.”
“What…? N-no…” Nicci fumbled at the papers on the table, staring without comprehension at the neat, lawyerly print on the new lease. “They…They can’t do that!”
“Yes, they can. They did. Maybe they couldn’t raise Mama’s rent, but they can sure do it to us.”
“How do they expect us to pay this much every month?”
“They don’t. They expect to evict us. They want to get a better class of person in here,” she added with a trace of wry humor, “and I can’t say I blame them.”
“But…But where are we supposed to go?”
“They don’t care,” said Amber, shrugging. “And they don’t have to care. We do. And we’ve only got about four weeks to figure it out, so you really need to—” She broke it off there and made herself take a few breaths, because stop whining wasn’t going to move the situation anywhere but from bad to worse. “We need to think,” she finished, “about what we can do to help ourselves.”
Nicci gave her a wet, blank stare and moved the papers around some more. “I don’t…Where…What do you want to do?”
Amber picked up the brochure and moved it a little closer to her sister’s trembling hands. “I went to see the Manifestors.”
Nicci stared at her. “No,” she said. Not in a tough way, maybe, but not as feebly as she’d been saying things either. “Amber, no!”
“Then we’re going to have to go on the state.” She had a pamphlet for that option, too. She tossed it on the table in front of Nicci with a loud, ugly slap of sound. More a booklet than a pamphlet, really, with none of the pretty fonts and colorful pictures the Manifestors put in their own brochure. “Read it.”
“Okay. I’ll just run down the bullet points for you. To begin with, it’ll take six to eight weeks before we’re accepted, if we’re accepted, so we’ll still lose this place. However, once we’re homeless, there shouldn’t be any trouble getting a priority stamp on our application to move into a state-run housing dorm, so there’s that.”
Nicci put both hands to her face and sobbed harder. Amber’s own eyes tried to sting, but she wouldn’t let them. Crying was a pointless little-girl thing to do and it hadn’t fixed one goddamn thing since it had been invented by the very first pointless little girl. Problems only got solved when you did something about them.
“We’ll only be allowed to take one standard-size carry-case each,” said Amber evenly, watching her baby sister cry, “and we can’t afford a storage pod, so most of this stuff will have to be sold or left behind.”
“Stop it! Please, just stop!”
“And we probably won’t be able to live together. Not in the same dorm room, maybe not even in the same complex.”
“I can’t be alone!”
“You won’t be alone, Nicci. You’ll be rooming with up to seven other women, they’ll just be strangers.”
“We’ll lose our jobs and have to work a state-job as partial payment for those dorms, where our salary cap will be half what it is now, so once we move into those dorms, we are never getting out.”
“Yes, dammit!” Amber snapped. “These are the facts, Nicci! We can’t stay here and nothing we do can change that. This place is all over. Maybe if we had enough time, we could find another place we could afford on just what we’re making now, but you know goddamned well that we’d end up on a first-served list and we could be there for years! Where are we going to live in the meantime, huh?”
“You could get more time!” Nicci snatched at the lease, tearing it in her haste. “Did you even ask? There has to be a number that…that you could call and they’ll give us more time if they know we’re…on a list or…”
“We can file for a four-week extension. That’s what we can do, and only if we can prove we can pay the lease at the end of those four weeks. That’s all they care about and that’s all they have to care about. Everything else is on us.”
“Then I’ll do like Mama did! I’m not leaving!”
“You mean you want to be a whore.”
Nicci flinched. Amber did not.
“You want to do like Mama did,” said Amber, ruthless and calm as her stomach churned. “You want to be a whore.”
“How are you going to fuck men—”
That flinch again.
Nicci broke, tried to get up. Amber caught her by the wrist again and held on in spite of her sister’s squirming efforts to tug free. She hated this, hated herself, but she kept on talking and her voice never shook. Sometimes you had to say the bad stuff, right, Mama? Right.
“—if you can’t even admit you’ll be a whore?”
“I can do it,” whispered Nicci, but she wouldn’t look at Amber.
“Maybe you could, but you couldn’t do it here, and you had better be sure that’s the way you want to go because they don’t let you stop anymore once you start. You’ll have to get the barcode and you’ll be subject to scans at any time. They’ll cancel your insurance—look at me, Nicci—and garnish your wages to pay for the state insurance and all your monthly tests, plus the initial registration and the operation where they spay you, and you know it took Mama five years to pay all that off. And in the meantime, where will you be living? Because you won’t be able to pay the new lease on a state-paid whore’s salary and this place will still be just as gone.”
“Stop it!” Nicci shouted. “Stop bullying me! I’m not leaving!”
Amber pressed her lips together and folded her hands. She told herself she wasn’t a bully. “What are you going to do, Nicci? Where are you going to go?”
“Shut up!” Nicci beat her palms on the table loud enough that old Mrs. Simon in the next apartment banged her cane on the wall. “I’m not leaving! You can’t make me leave, Amber! You can’t make me leave the planet!”
“I’m not making you do anything,” said Amber, knowing damned well it was a lie. “I’m just telling you that I’m going, with or without you.”
Nicci stared, her mouth working in silent horror.
“There is no other place for us to go,” said Amber.
And she waited, but Nicci still couldn’t find anything to say, so she picked up the brochure and started to flip through it.
“So I went to see the Manifestors,” she said. She sounded, to her own ears, a lot like the pinch-faced old man at the orientation seminar, trying to be professional while still getting through something deeply unpleasant and perhaps contagious as quickly as possible. Everyone knew about the Manifest Destiny Society and their ship; she said it anyway. “They’ve still got room. I guess they’re having some trouble filling their quota for young women, so we’re actually guaranteed a contract if we apply.”
“They’re having trouble because it’s never been tested!”
“Sure it has. They’ve Tunneled out to all the other planets.”
“Oh what? To Neptune? Saturn?” Nicci uttered a shrill, fearful laugh and shook her head. “They’ve never taken it to this other place! This…This…”
“Plymouth,” supplied Amber, not without rolling her eyes a little. The Director of the Manifest Destiny Society was simply full of the pioneering spirit. “They’re calling the planet Plymouth.”
“I don’t care what they’re calling it! I don’t want to go!”
“You don’t have to. But I am,” said Amber again, and watched her baby sister start to cry. “The trip’s going to take about three years, they said, but we’ll be in Sleepers the whole time. That’s kind of like in the movies, when they freeze you, only we won’t actually be frozen. We won’t feel anything and we won’t age, although the guy said sometimes the umbilical…the place where they plug you in leaves a pretty gnarly scar. Those weren’t his exact words—”
“Amber!” Nicci wailed.
She waited, but that was apparently the sum and substance of Nicci’s argument, so after a moment, she just went on.
“When we get there, the ship lands and becomes like the staging area for the colony. We’ll be building the colony up around it—farms and stuff, I guess—but civilians like me won’t be responsible for much. I guess it’ll be pretty hard work, but it’s only supposed to be a six-hour shift, which is less than I’m working now. I got one of their silver civilian contracts, which means five years—Earth years, that is, and it doesn’t include the transport time. They’re going to pay me twenty thousand dollars a year, plus five thousand just for being a fertile female of childbearing age.”
Nicci looked up, her tears hitching to a brief stop in her throat. “W-what?”
“Plus another ten thousand for every kid I have while I’m there, but I’m not having any. I told them that, and they said that was my decision, but I still have to take my implant out before I go. They won’t pay for that, but they do pay for a full medical exam and I’ll get all my shots so I’m clean to go. By a doctor,” she added. “Not some insurance company’s medico. Plus, I’ll get the Vaccine.”
Not a vaccine. The Vaccine. And even Nicci, who obviously tried so hard to understand as little as she possibly could, knew what that was. Because before the Director had been the leader of a bunch of space-happy freaks, he’d been a doctor, and much as he would like to say that his greatest contribution to humanity was the ship that would carry the first colonists to another world (and he said that a lot), he would probably always be known best for the Vaccine, which worked itself all the way down into your DNA and made it so you could never get sick again. Here on Earth, people paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to endure the agonizing year-long process while the Vaccine was introduced, but the Director was just giving them all away to his happy little colonists, who’d get them painlessly in their Sleepers, which was the perfect application process, according to the brochure. No more worrying about that niggling little 14% failure rate or the greatly exaggerated reports of the birth defects caused by genetic drift. They’d just wake up, secure in the knowledge that now they were cured for life of every possible virus—of the flu, of HIV, of whatever alien illness might be crawling around on Plymouth. Of everything.
Amber could see this sweeping, silent argument hammering away at Nicci’s defenses. Ever since the Ebola attack at the UN summit, there had been a dramatic end to the prohibitions on biological warfare. These days, it was fight fire with fire, and now it seemed every country was bragging about the bugs they could grow. Super-polio, rabies-13, dengue, hanta, yellowpox and God only knew what else. They lived in the city. They were a target. It could happen any day.
“Well…” Nicci ran her wet eyes over the papers on the table without seeming to really see any of them. “Can’t we go on the next ship? When we know it’s safe?”
“There’s going to be more!” She reached tentatively for the Manifestor’s pamphlet, but withdrew her hand without touching it. “We can take the next one, okay?”
“No, Nicci. They only pay people to be colonists for the first ship, because it’s the first and everyone wants to wait and see what happens. After it gets there safe and sound, the Manifestors stop paying and start charging.”
“You don’t know that!”
“I do know that, actually, because I was there and I talked to them. I also know that the next three ships are already booked, so it’s this or nothing. Well,” she amended ruthlessly, “it’s this or go on the state or start whoring. I guess we do have options.”
Nicci sniffled and rubbed at her face.
Amber picked up the brochure on the ship and made herself read it. It took a lot of time and when she was done, she could not remember a thing she’d just read. She’d hoped it would settle her twisting stomach some, but if anything, the wait and the silence and the sound of Nicci sniffling made her feel even sicker. She folded up the brochure and put it down, talking like she’d never stopped, like she didn’t care, like she was sure. “The best part is, the five years I spend on the planet counts as improved education when I get back. Not as much as a degree would, but some. My salary cap will be raised and I’ll even be eligible for college credit, just like if I’d been in the army.”
She waited. Nicci kept sniffing and wiping.
“Fine,” said Amber, sweeping the papers together in a single stack. “You stay here and have fun with the whoring. I’ll miss you.”
Nicci didn’t call her back as Amber walked down the narrow hall to the room that the sisters had shared since Mary brought baby Nichole home from the insurance company’s birth clinic. Amber put the papers in the drawer with her shirts and socks, then changed out of her funeral clothes and into her work uniform. She went into the bathroom and threw up in the sink. She tried to be as quiet about that as possible and she didn’t feel a lot better when it was done. In the other room, she could hear her baby sister crying again. She looked at herself in the bathroom mirror and saw a big (fat) unsmiling (mean-eyed) stranger (bitch) who’d bullied her only living relative on the day of their mother’s funeral.
“It had to be said,” whispered Amber. She rinsed her mouth and washed her face and put her hair up. “Sometimes you just have to say the bad stuff.”
She went on out past weeping Nicci and off to work like it didn’t matter. In a way, it didn’t. They simply didn’t have any choice.