Flinx was just a freckle-faced, redheaded kid with green eyes and a strangely compelling stare when Mather Mastiff first saw him an the auctioneer's block. One hundred credits and he was hers.
For years the old woman was his only family. She loved him, fed him, taught him everything she knew—even let him keep the deadly flying dragon he called Pip. But when Mother Mastiff mysteriously disappears, Flinx tails her kidnappers on a dangerous journey. Across the forests and swamps of the winged world called Moth, their only weapons are Pip’s venom . . . and Flinx’s unusual talent.
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“Now there’s a scrawny, worthless-looking little runt,” Mother Mastiff thought. She cuddled the bag of woodcarvings a little closer to her waist, making certain it was protected from the rain by a flap of her slickertic. The steady drizzle that characterized Drallar’s autumn weather fled from the water-resistant material.
Offworlders were hard pressed to distinguish any difference in the city’s seasons. In the summer, the rain was warm; in autumn and winter, it was cooler. Springtime saw it give way to a steady, cloying fog. So rare was the appearance of the sun through the near-perpetual cloud cover that when it did peep through, the authorities were wont to call a public holiday.
It was not really a slave market Mother Mastiff was trudging past. That was an archaic term, employed only by cynics. It was merely the place where labor-income adjustments were formalized.
Drallar was the largest city on the world of Moth, its only true metropolis, and it was not a particularly wealthy one. By keeping taxes low, it had attracted a good number of off-world businesses and trading concerns to a well-situated but mostly inhospitable planet. It compensated by largely doing away with such annoying commercial aggravations as tariffs and regulations. While this resulted in considerable prosperity for some, it left the city government at a loss for general revenue.
Among the numerous areas that were rarely self-supporting was that involving care of the impoverished. In cases in which indigence was total and an individual was isolated by circumstance, it was deemed reasonable to allow a wealthier citizen to take over responsibility from the government. This thinned the welfare rolls and kept the bureaucracy content, while providing better care for the individual involved—or so the officials insisted—than he or she could receive from underfunded and impersonal government agencies.
The United Church, spiritual arm of the Commonwealth, frowned on such one-sided economic policies. But the Commonwealth did not like to interfere with domestic policies, and Drallarian officials hastened to assure the occasional visiting padre or counselor that legal safeguards prevented abuse of “adopted” individuals.
So it was that Mother Mastiff found herself leaning on her cane, clutching the bag of artwork, and staring at the covered dispersement platform while she tried to catch her breath. One curious attendee moved too close, crowding her. He glowered when she jabbed him in the foot with her cane but moved aside, not daring to confront her.
Standing motionless on the platform within the Circle of Compensation was a thin, solemn boy of eight or nine years. His red hair was slicked down from the rain and contrasted sharply with his dark skin. Wide, innocent eyes, so big they seemed to wrap around the sides of his face, stared out across the rain-dampened assembly. He kept his hands clasped behind his back. Only those eyes moved, their gaze flicking like an insect over the upturned faces of the crowd. The majority of the milling, would-be purchasers were indifferent to his presence.
To the boy’s right stood a tall, slim representative of the government who ran the official sale—an assignment of responsibility, they called it—for the welfare bureau. Across from her a large readout listed the boy’s vital statistics, which Mother Mastiff eyed casually.
Height and weight matched what she could see. Color of hair, eyes, and skin she had already noted. Living relatives, assigned or otherwise—a blank there. Personal history—another blank. A child of accident and calamity, she thought, thrown like so many others on the untender mercies of government care. Yes, he certainly would be better off under the wing of a private individual, by the looks of him. He might at least receive some decent food.
And yet there was something more to him, something that set him apart from the listless procession of orphans who paraded across that rain-swept platform, season after season. Mother Mastiff sensed something lurking behind those wide, mournful eyes—a maturity well beyond his years, a greater intensity to his stare than was to be expected from a child in his position. That stare continued to rove over the crowd, probing, searching. There was more of the hunter about the boy than the hunted.
The rain continued to fall. What activity there was among the watchers was concentrated on the back right corner of the platform, where a modestly attractive girl of about sixteen was next in line for consignment. Mother Mastiff let out a derisive snort. Government assurances or not, you couldn’t tell her that those pushing, shoving snots in the front row didn’t have something on their minds beyond an innocently altruistic concern for the girl’s future. Oh, no!
The ever-shifting cluster of potential benefactors formed an island around which eddied the greater population of the marketplace. The marketplace itself was concentrated into a ring of stalls and shops and restaurants and dives that encircled the city center. The result was just modern enough to function and sufficiently unsophisticated to attract those intrigued by the mysterious.
It held no mysteries for Mother Mastiff. The marketplace of Drallar was her home. Ninety years she had spent battling that endless river of humanity and aliens, sometimes being sucked down, sometimes rising above the flow, but never in danger of drowning.
Now she had a shop—small, but her own. She bargained for objets d’art, traded knicknacks, electronics, and handicrafts, and managed to make just enough to keep herself clear of such places as the platform on which the boy was standing. She put herself in his place and shuddered. A ninety-year-old woman would not bring much of a price.
There was an awkwardly patched rip at the neck of her slickertic, and rain was beginning to find its way through the widening gap. The pouch of salables she clutched to her thin waist wasn’t growing any lighter. Mother Mastiff had other business to transact, and she wanted to be back home before dark. As the sun of Moth set, the murky daylight of Drallar would fade to a slimy darkness, and things less than courteous would emerge from the slums that impinged on the marketplace. Only the careless and the cocky wandered abroad at such times, and Mother Mastiff was neither.
As the boy’s eyes roved over the audience, they eventually reached her own—and stopped. Suddenly, Mother Mastiff felt queasy, unsteady. Her hand went to her stomach. Too much grease in the morning’s breakfast, she thought. The eyes had already moved on. Since she had turned eighty-five, she had had to watch her diet. But, as she had told a friend, “I’d rather die of indigestion and on a full stomach than waste away eating pills and concentrates.”
“One side there,” she abruptly found herself saying, not sure what she was doing or why. “One side.” She broke a path through the crowd, poking one observer in the ribs with her cane, disturbing an ornithorpe’s ornate arrangement of tail feathers, and generating a chirp of indignation from an overweight matron. She worked her way down to the open area directly in front of the platform. The boy took no notice of her; his eyes continued to scan the uncaring crowd.
“Please, ladies and gentlebeings,” the official on the platform pleaded, “won’t one of you give this healthy, honest boy a home? Your government requests it of you; civilization demands it of you. You have a chance today to do two good turns at once; one for your king and the other for this unfortunate youth.”
“I’d like to give the king a good turn, all right,” said a voice from the milling crowd, “right where it would do him the most good.”
The official shot the heckler an angry glare but said nothing.
“What’s the minimum asking?” Be that my voice? Mother Mastiff thought in wonderment.
“A mere fifty credits, madam, to satisfy department obligations and the boy is yours. To watch over and care for.” She hesitated, then added, “If you think you can handle as active a youngster as this one.”
“I’ve handled plenty of youngsters in my time,” Mother Mastiff returned curtly. Knowing hoots sounded from the amused assembly. She studied the boy, who was looking down at her again. The queasiness that had roiled in her stomach the first time their eyes had met did not reoccur. Grease, she mused, have to cut down on the cooking grease.
“Fifty credits, then,” she said.
“Sixty.” The deep voice that boomed from somewhere to the rear of the crowd came as an unexpected interruption to her thoughts.
“Seventy,” Mother Mastiff automatically responded. The official on the platform quickly gazed back into the crowd.
“Eighty,” the unseen competitor sounded.
She hadn’t counted on competition. It was one thing to do a child a good turn at reasonable cost to herself, quite another to saddle herself with an unconscionable expense.
“Ninety—curse you,” she said. She turned and tried to locate her opponent but could not see over the heads of the crowd. The voice bidding against her was male, powerful, piercing. What the devil would the owner of such a voice want with a child like this? she thought.
“Ninety-five,” it countered.
“Thank you, thank you. To you both, the government says.” The official’s tone and expression had brightened perceptibly. The lively and utterly unexpected bidding for the redheaded brat had alleviated her boredom as well as her concern. She would be able to show her boss a better than usual daily account sheet. “The bid is against you, madam.”