Meet Corporal Kendal Harris: chef, IT tech, and budding con artist. It's an easy gig, hiding in the cargo hold of a survey ship, easier still to run from your past. But at only fifteen, Kendal can't run forever, and the survey ship he has stowed away on is turning out to be a one-way trip.
Bex is the last of a dying breed. A trained Tender, it's Bex's job to raise, foster, and introduce virgin species into her world's ecosystem. Not an easy task. Between rampant poaching, predation, and the inevitable Great Sleep, her world is nearing the end of its sustainability. Resources have dwindled to desperate levels on her world, leaving many to harvest what they can to survive, even each other.
But when a strange new species emerges in Bex's life, she must decide whether its life is worth saving, or if its body is worth salvaging.
The PATCHER books (GLEAN and KIN) were originally planned as a much longer series, and still are. Pitched as "Gulliver's Travels in space… with body-horror" the story follows a teenage stowaway aboard a doomed survey ship. When it crashes, Kendal Harris suddenly realizes he can't con his way out of the brutal and cannibalistic alien civilization he's trapped in. I compiled these two novellas into one book, specifically for StoryBundle. – Martin Kee
"If you like character-driven science fiction with inventive world-building, Glean is for you. I thought Kendal's story contained an interesting twist, and the planet that Bex inhabits is extremely interesting. I would like to read more about its ecosystem. I am looking forward to the next book to see how Kendal and Bex's stories develop. I will also be checking out Martin Keen's other books."– Amazon Review
"This is a really interesting read. A science fiction story set on the frontier of another planet. I enjoyed visualizing the world the author created and savoring the details. It really made me think about the parallels between what happened in our Old West and what it will be like when we're going through those same processes in the future."– Amazon Review
A LONG gray tongue licks Bex's cheek and she makes a face. Bindo snorts.
"Ugh! Your breath smells like vickenberries and shit!" she says, pushing his muzzle away playfully. Being kissed by a plainsteer is like getting a bath with a wet sausage. "If you're hungry you can have some grass, but that's it until the next town."
She wipes her tunic in disgust, rattling the trinkets and patchwork there. Long chains and tattered rope drape from her vest in segments, remnants of a flag, or maybe it was a tarp. Bex doesn't really know. Everything comes from something, even her, even Bindo.
She takes a rag from another pocket and wipes her face more thoroughly, shooting the plainsteer a disgusted glance. He looks at her with plaintive bovine eyes. It's hard to stay mad at him.
"I know," says Bex. "It's not far, I promise."
She can see the village up ahead, another unnamed scrub town full of farmers and scavengers. She can barely make out the gardens and fields in the fading light. Beyond the mismatched buildings, a pair of spires stretches towards the sky, vanishing in the Godcloud. They grow in spirals, calcified and sharp—the horns of the world, with funeral pyres at their peaks. They are holy places. Fire is the true end, as nothing can be salvaged from flame. At their base grow new spires, smaller, calcium-rich shoots that look more like coarse hairs from this distance.
Bex drains the rest of her stitched water skin into her mouth. She squeezes the last bit for Bindo who laps at it, spilling most on the ground. He even tries to suckle as he did when he was a calf. Bex smiles.
Along his flank are two pouches, as much a part of him as not. Faint scars still appear where the skins have been grafted there, soft and warm. She peeks inside and looks at her Ward resting there. It's rare to see an egg anymore in this pieced-together world, and Bex has done her best to camouflage it with bits of salvaged wood and leather. She pats it gently as she places her empty water skin between it and a pair of thick gloves.
"I think we can make it by sundown," she says, her voice hopeful. Bindo glances back at her and snorts. It isn't a happy sound. He slow-blinks with those giant brown eyes then plods along beside her as she leads.
The desert itself isn't a huge concern. She was raised to survive this place as well as her ancestors, and if she does run out of water, she could always crack open a plant and suck some moisture out of it. What Bex is worried about are poachers. Just the thought alone makes her glance back to the pouch nervously.
A dusting of stars appears along the darkening horizon, blurring behind the Godcloud, and for a while she walks without thought, simply enjoying her companion and the cooling breeze. It brushes her face, jarring feelings of longing for a home she hasn't seen in a very long time. She wonders if she will ever find another. Home is just a word now—
Bindo stops without warning and snorts. It's something she has been dreading, and Bex can feel her stomach tighten. Her slender hand slips into her pocket, gripping the gun there. In her mind she does the math. Three bullets.
"It's okay babe," she says to him, her voice soothing in spite of her fear.
But Bindo isn't having any of it, sniffing the air. Sharp gray hooves paw the ground and Bex feels the vibration in her legs. He snorts again and this time she hears the clicking, hissing sound of stalkers.
They move between the scrubbrush, lanky in the dusk light. They crawl on four paws, but Bex knows all too well that they don't have to. This is just a scouting posture. They are sniffing her and Bindo out, moving low to the ground, setting up an ambush. When they do attack, they will stand upright, leaping with claws out, their tiny chest hooks exposed. But for now, they are keeping their distance.Good.
The village spires suddenly seem impossibly far away and Bex finds herself wishing that these were poachers. Poachers can be fooled or reasoned with. Stalkers kill for fun.
A rustling of bushes and the first one leaps from the ground, its torso splitting wide to reveal the killing mouth there, its dark black eyes rolling back into its head in predatory ecstasy.
Bindo rears up and catches it in the side with a sharp hoof. The stalker squeals and tumbles into the dust. Bex pulls the gun from her pocket as she spots the others. Two more skulk in like shadows from the bush, their movement smooth and hypnotic.
She fires, but too late. The bullet nicks the closest one, passing through the skin and leaving a puff of dust in the ground. It squeals, more annoyed than hurt, then leaps through the air. The long feline body splits down the center, and Bex can actually see the red gullet between those long vertical jaws. Teeth like needles line the mouth, stomach, and tongue. She fires again. Black liquid sprays out the stalker's back. It pinwheels in the air, flops to the ground and comes to rest near her feet.
A blur to her left, Bindo spins and almost knocks her to the ground with his massive clumsy flank. It's another stalker, but she can't see it with Bindo in the way. When she finally gets a look, it's already in the air, landing on Bindo, latching onto his shoulder like a giant leech. Saliva flings from the plainsteer's mouth in strands as he bellows. Powerful muscles move under thick skin as he tries to shake off the attacker. His movements become wild and untamed in his panic.
Bex can't get to it. The stalker is on the other side of her friend, and Bindo is too angry, too scared to stay still. Something rushes her from the corner of her eye—the first one, the stalker Bindo had kicked. It's limping but alive and ravenous. Without thinking, Bex fires. A cloud of black ichor sprays her and Bindo's flank. The stalker falls on its back and she pulls the trigger again, but the chamber is empty. It doesn't matter; her target is still.
The last stalker remains latched onto Bindo's shoulder, hooked in, unable to flee. Reflexive muscles hold the jaws in place and only death or unconsciousness will make them relax. Stalkers play to win every time. Bindo bellows again and a large liquid eye turns to her pleadingly.
She clamors over his flank and takes the barrel in her hand. The heat and pain bloom like a burning flower and Bex smells meat cooking. She screams obscenities as she hammers the top of the stalker, its body wriggling flat against the skin. Each blow sounds like she is smashing fruit. The stalker's screams are muted, its eyes rolling, body twitching. Bex continues to strike the creature even as her palm blisters and Bindo bucks. They dance in a circle in the dust.
You aren't helping, she thinks.
The butt of the gun hammers again and again, until at last she strikes the soft, squishy eye. Warm liquid covers her hand and the stalker shrieks. Unconscious, it falls away to the ground. Bindo rears and his hooves dance along the stalker, pummeling it into nothing more than a dark patch in dirt.
"It's okay," she says, stroking his neck. "Calm down. It's over." She sings him a tune from her village and Bindo seems to relax at last.
She hugs her friend and feels wetness against her thigh, but it isn't blood. It's coming from the pouch, and as she opens it, a small cry escapes her throat. Yolk overflows from the top, squeezed free in the struggle. One look inside and she sees that a fissure stretches down the middle of the egg, splitting it in two. Blood, yolk sac, and bits of body are all that can be seen of the emergent creature that could have been her Ward. Now it is nothing. The egg lies in pieces, a fractured, leaking globe.
Bindo is unaware that in his panic he has perhaps caused the extinction of a new species. He chews on a tuber, his eyes dull and dumb. She wants to hate him, but knows she can't. She needs him as much as he needs her. And you were the one who climbed over his flank. Could just as easily be your fault.
"Let's go, buddy," she said, feeling her voice catch in her throat. "We'll find you food in town."
He lows in response and follows her down the long slope into the village, limping, but otherwise undisturbed. She finds herself jealous of him. She had one job, one last job. With the egg, so went her purpose in life as a Tender, a nurturer, a conserver. Her great gray world will never know what she could have given it. They limp the rest of the way to town, and Bex has a hard time seeing the spires anymore, though she knows they are there beyond her tears.
AS STOWAWAYS go, Kendal Harris is pretty pleased with himself. Crewmen and women, young and old, smile as he passes them, unaware that the uniform he wears is stolen, his badge a forgery. Screens lining the corridor show their course, a tiny yellow dot, plodding along the universe pixel by pixel. He can't even believe he's made it this far.
Confidence, son. That's his dad talking. You show confidence and the world will believe whatever bullshit story you want. Just as long as you believe it first.
And so he did, envisioning himself as Junior IT Tech Kendal Harris—crewman, tech specialist, expert in Report Data Maintenance, and Light Mobile Lift operation. He's the youngest, newest, and most secret employee of CORPORATE MATERIAL SOLUTIONS.
Oh, and a chef.
He can cook, and that helps, jumping in to offer a hand when the galley found itself overrun. The flu can run rampant in close quarters, and even with today's medicine there are no guarantees. When the chef had fallen ill a month ago, there he was: Junior Stand-in Sous-Chef Kendal Harris, at your service, faking it 'til he's making it.
Senior Officer, Patel, wearing his red jumpsuit with Operations Director on the breast, points at Kendal from down the hallway. Kendal tries not to make eye contact, but it's too late. "Harris, right?" Patel says.
"You get the memo on the ScanData Transmission change?"
He freezes. Shit. Was he supposed to? "I was about to check my logs. Bit behind on email with all the work to do."
"No worries. They want a DoubleBlind Analysis Log run through all new reports. You think you can do that?"
"Oh… Yeah. No problem. Granger know?"
"Granger asked me to ask you."
Kendal laughs his amenable laugh, his corporate laugh, his can-do, you-got-it, right-away, I'm-on-top-of-it laugh. "I'll get right on it."
Patel gives him the tchk-tchk finger pistols and walks on. Kendal wipes his brow.
He makes a sharp left at the seldom-visited storage depot, slipping into the room when nobody's looking. A blast-panel hides his quarters, nestled behind some tension netting and giant crates of rations. He's chosen the ration crates because the chances of someone ever using them are slim to none—at least not this soon into the journey. They'll be offloaded when the ship comes to dock at the last destination, and he'll be unloaded with them. Perks of working on a private sector ship—if it doesn't raise an alarm, nobody checks on it.
The Luxemburg is home to him and three hundred people, crammed into narrow corridors, plates, ceramics, plasteel, and fiber, traveling through the vacuum of space at one seventh the speed of light.
Kendal slides the panel aside, revealing his sleeping mat, some pillows, an LED light, and a small reading tablet. He doesn't need much else. The tablet is his link to the world, and as a data technician—honorary data technician—he has access to check in on almost any news feed he wants. He just has to keep the noise down, do his job, and nobody's the wiser. Everyone on the Luxemburg is more interested in keeping busy anyway, typical corporate ship. Keep your head down, always be nice, always offer to help. Most people have their own deadlines, their own reports, and as long as he isn't in the way, he might as well be invisible.
Pulling the panel closed behind him, Kendal taps the tablet, running a quick check to make sure he has his work completed. If Granger starts to even suspect he isn't doing his job, Kendal will find himself dropped off (and probably arrested) at the next station. That's simply not an option, not now.
There's plenty of work left to do, and he wants to do it. Work is what keeps his mind from wandering into the reality of his situation—alone, hurtling through space at relativistic speeds, on his way to survey some gas-covered moving rock out in the middle of nowhere. They'll never find him again, and even if they did, Kendal Harris will be a distant memory to them after the time dilation. Thank you, Einstein and Hawking.
For now he just wants to sit alone, read some comics, maybe peruse some porn, and get some sleep. Rinse and repeat, then in a week, they'll be disembarking and Kendal can become Mr. Kendal Harris, entrepreneur, businessman, colonist, settler, and the youngest member of his family to ever see another planet—the only member.
But the porn is boring, the comics haven't updated yet, and suddenly he feels terribly and painfully alone. The walls press in and he clenches his eyes shut, waiting for sleep, trying to ignore the nagging feeling in his gut.
Should have left a note. Should have at least told them where you were headed.
He would do that when he lands. No problem. Besides, with this sort of relativism, they would be much older. He'd be a ghost, come to haunt their email fifty years later.
No one left to call you Ken Doll. No one left to goad you into the things you shouldn't do.
At fifteen, he is tall for his age, and slender. Give credit where credit is due—he comes from a long line of ranchers, folks who find the prospect of space, eerie, unnerving, and pointless. Realists. He's a long way from Utah now, and a long way from everything.
And a very long way from Jess.
He pulls a paper photograph from his pocket and looks at it. They don't make these anymore; he'd had to print it out special on printer plastic just to touch some sort of physical memento. Even the writing on the back is just a digital representation of her handwriting, but the last physical connection he'll ever have to Jess again.
He knows the obsession is crazy, knows it makes no sense, but a part of him just can't let it go of it, of her. They call it a crush for a reason, and now he figures he knows why. Jess should be around thirty by now, married with kids, fat, sitting on the sofa with some big-dick dumbfuck of a husband, watching Super Bowl CLVII. She should be a lot of things.
God, anyone would have been better than Brandon. Anything would have been better than what happened. But that was almost twenty Earth years ago, just a few weeks time to him.
Kendal brings the photo to his chest and closes his eyes. He's paid a hefty price for this illegal voyage to freedom—freedom from memories, freedom from the past… freedom from punishment imagined or real.
He shudders at the thought of what could have been. He doesn't even have a picture of his own mother, and he has her to thank for this ticket to nowhere—her and Uncle Ernie.
"They won't find you if you're smart," she said to him. "And they won't find you because you're smart. If they do finally figure it out here, it's too late anyway." She had smiled at him, patted his chest. "My boy. Lay low, and lay smart. Listen to your Uncle and we'll see you in a few."
He tries to imagine what his mother might look like now, assuming she's alive, assuming she hasn't been arrested for his little trip. The gravity of his situation is undeniable.
"Teens don't yet have the capacity of forethought. You can't see the consequences of your actions yet, son. And one day you're going to be really sorry if you keep shitting all over the people who love you. For once in your life stop being a selfish prick and start considering other people for a change." That's his dad talking again. The man who said he shouldn't run, the man who told him to just take it like a man.
Take it like a man. Fake it 'til you make it.
Even if he turned around now, the old man would be dead by the time he made it back to Utah, fifty years gone in the blink of an eye, and suddenly Kendal understands.
The fear is as real, and as final as a bullet hole to the chest, sinking with lead weights to the bottom of his gut. And his grief feels like vertigo.
It is vertigo.
The ship is changing course, a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a degree, so slight you'd have to be perfectly still to notice. They are slowing, maneuvering, and soon they'll be over a new world.
He pulls up the tablet and taps the screen, wiping his cheek with his other hand. He studies the output and frowns. As a survey ship their job is to scan planets for life, make any observations available to their corporate head, and then move on to the next. They'll be gone for another year before they swap out the crew. But as Kendal looks through the logs, something troubles him.
The mapping of the planet surface shows some weird anomalies, huge calcium deposits, flowing water—if somewhat scarce. It could support life, but then they thought that about Mars once too. Gaseous clouds cover most of the surface with an odd compound even the scanners have trouble identifying, and what really bothers him is that there's oxygen, nitrogen, and a shit ton of methane. The whole planet probably smells like one big fart.
That means life.
But the Life Probability Report is missing from the data. The planet classification: MUNDANE
There are close to a billion worlds classified as Mundane. It means the planet can probably be safely mined and harvested, with a minimal supply of water and ice for fuel. Earthlike planets are typically avoided, with probes sent in, scanning for civilizations. If something resembling a civilization is detected, the corporation steers clear. Mundane is classification reserved for planets like Mars—dry, inhospitable, exploitable. It's the type that ships like his are searching for. It means that the chances of human impact are minimal. Mundane means exploitable.
So then why is the Life Probability Report so hard to find?
It dawns on him just as the ship lurches out of acceleration—the LPR is missing entirely… no, not just missing. Someone is purposefully deleting them. Redacting them. He scans ahead, trying to find the data entry before they can be erased, but he's too late. As soon as he moves up a directory, the file directories have shrunk again and again.
"Backups…" he mutters, and starts through the archives. The LPR history would still have the caches stream, so he dives into the Temp directory. Just as he thinks he's found something—just the letters LPR—the ship lurches again and he drops the tablet. When he picks it up the archives are gone, wiped clean.
His stomach flips. He is floating. He stares at the tablet hovering inches from his face, the screen black with a spinning watch—NO INTRANET ACCESS.
Impact, jarring and neck-breaking. It travels through the ships skeleton like a shockwave as the superstructure absorbs massive amounts of energy. The only way gravity can cut out like this is if the AI is diverting everything into keeping the ship together. A high-pitched whine starts to fill his ears, mixed with muffled screams, and Kendal realizes this is the first time he's ever heard the Luxemburg's emergency alarm.
It is the sound ships make when they die.