An extract from Grace Curtis’s debut novel Frontier, published by Hodderscape on 9 March 2023.
THE HUNT FOR THE FALLEN STAR
It was a night like any other on Earth. Silence on the land, stillness in the sky. Stars glittered like sunken jewels, and from the ground below, human eyes regarded them as one might a benign tumour.
Something trembled. A shard of silver detached itself from the great black canopy and hurtled down in an arc, ember-hot, vomiting smoke. It landed in a shock of sand and debris that rose high into the air before settling back down with a sigh.
Many miles away, in a ramshackle nest at the peak of a column of criss-crossing metal beams, Bolton Strid snapped his telescope shut.
‘Crawley,’ he hissed, not daring to look away. ‘Crawley, wake up!’
Behind him, a bundle of sacking groaned and slumped onto one side. ‘S’not my turn yet.’
‘Wake up, you old bastard!’ He aimed a kick with his heel. It glanced off Crawley’s shoulder, and the older man sat up, blinking. ‘God’s tits, mfiniJ
‘Grab your things,’ Bolton replied, stuffing the telescope into the lining of his jacket. ‘We’re rich.’
Marie Marakova, driver, fixer, and sometime-mechanic, leant against the struts of the front porch with her broad forearms crossed, watching narrow-eyed while the scavenger Bolton examined her van. He came to the rear doors, stuffed one hand in each pocket, and sniffed.
Marakova raised an eyebrow. ‘You got a better offer?’
‘Ms Marakova, please disregard the words of my good friend Mr Bolton here,’ said Crawley, clasping his hands together. ‘I can assure you it will be sufficient. However, about the matter of you driving—’
‘I stay with the truck.’ She shifted her bulk, casting a shadow over Crawley. ‘Or no deal.’
‘Of course.’ Crawley nodded quickly. ‘Quite fair. Quite fair indeed.’
‘You know where it fell?’ she asked Bolton. He shrugged. ‘Roughly.’
‘And you really think… ’ Marakova paused. Despite his slack posture, there was a dull excitement in Bolton’s eyes. Ever since they arrived, Crawley, the smaller one with an actor’s voice, had been darting from place to place like a hoverfly, dampening an old rag on his forehead and spouting a continual stream of nervous nonsense. But Bolton stayed still. He watched the horizon.
Optimism was a disease of which Marakova had long since cured herself. She fastened the money with a bulldog clip and pushed it into her back pocket.
‘Let’s go,’ she said.
Buckette was a scrap trader’s town, tucked away in safe obscurity at the edge of civilisation. Most of the shopfronts they drove past lay empty. The few that were in use displayed cardboard boxes stacked high with quasi-legal valuables: lithium batteries, tinned food, cans of gas. Armed guards stalked the base of the water tower, through which passed a sad trickle of people lugging jerrycans. A similar trickle slid in and out of the chapel, thumbing their beads, loosening their collars, muttering apologies for sins committed against the sacred Earth. The border to the wasteland was marked by a circular mound of decaying grass and a weathered marble plinth. There’d been a statue on top of the plinth once, evidenced by the two slender legs of a rearing horse that were still welded there. Someone had taken the rest down with a buzzsaw.
At Bolton’s direction, Marakova drove out for many miles, until Buckette receded to a line of bleached stubble in the rear- view mirror. Crawley unpeeled himself from his seat, revealing a moist stain the length of his spine.
‘Pardon me, Ms Marakova,’ he said. ‘Would you mind turning on the air conditioning, if such a service is available?’
She cranked the driver’s-side window open half an inch, belching hot air and dust into Crawley’s face.
‘Keep your eyes open,’ said Bolton. He was sat with his boots up on the dashboard, sucking at the nub of a cigarette that had long since burned out, fanning himself slowly with the brim of an old ranger’s hat. His eyes were bloodshot and unblinking. ‘We’re close.’
‘Hope so.’ Marakova glanced down at the fuel gauge.
They came at last to a sort of crest, a crease in the land that ran down to a dried-up riverbed. Bolton raised a hand, and the van stopped. ‘There.’
Across the valley a thinning pillar of smoke rose faintly into the sky. Something glimmered at the base. Marakova’s lips peeled back, showing a pair of sharpened silver incisors.
‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ she declared. ‘You were right.’
There was a trail of gutted soil and black grass, some quarter of a mile long, scarring the ground where the star had slid on landing. Bolton rolled the window down and stuck his head out as they drove along, peering down at the charcoaled earth. ‘It’s big,’ he said.
‘That good?’ asked Marakova.
‘Oh, yes, ma’am.’ Craw1ey’d shuffled forward so that his whole head and shoulders were wedged between the front seats. ‘When it comes to the scrap trade, volume is everything. Our very bread and butter.’
Marakova ignored him. ‘What is it?’ she asked, watching the thing getting closer.
‘Probably an old satellite,’ said Bolton. ‘Hedonists used to use them to power their, uh’ — he made a gesture with his hand that was equal parts vague and derogatory — ‘decrees.’
Marakova nodded. Everything from the old world was stained by sin. But sin, fortunately for her, had no bearing on market value.
She edged the pedal down a little further.
It was about the size of a car. That was the only thing Marakova could think to compare the fallen object to, though the resemblance quickly fell short. It was huge and pill-shaped, chrome body scored with bright red paint, small thrusters built into one side still dribbling smoke. There was lettering scored on the base: LIFEBOAT — 01.
No solar panels, no radio dish. No fragile gold casing. And no signs of wear, either — it wasn’t brand new, but it certainly wasn’t centuries old.
It dawned on her slowly. This was no satellite. It was part of a ship.
With some effort, Marakova kept her composure. ‘Say,’ she called to Bolton. ‘What’s the bounty on space tech these days?’
‘Can’t recall,’ he replied mildly. ‘Quite high, if I’m not mistaken.’
‘It’s a gift from Gaia!’ Crawley howled. ‘Thank you, O Mother beneath me! Thank you!’ He lowered himself onto his knees and started kissing the ground.
‘What’re you thanking God for?’ asked Bolton. ‘It came from the sky.’
Crawley stood up, scowling, ashy dust darkening the creases of his face. ‘Always one for the details, aren’t you, Bolton?’
They stared at each other.
‘I found a door!’ Marakova shouted. Hatch would have been a more accurate term. It was oval-shaped, curved to sink into the rest of the structure. She grabbed the handle and yanked with all of her considerable might, bracing ‘There’s a window over here,’ Crawley said, kneeling at the far end. In front of him was a thick circle of hardened plastic smeared with dust. ‘Can’t see inside. Maybe we can break it—’ He started to cast around for a rock.
‘Stop,’ said Bolton. ‘The pair of you. Stop.’
They stopped, watching Bolton amble towards the pod. He studied it much as he’d studied Marakova’s van; as an indifferent and slightly sceptical customer, deciding if the purchase would be worth his time. From his front pocket he drew out a matchstick, which he struck on the plated hull and used to light another cigarette.
‘Here’s what’s gonna happen,’ he drawled. ‘Crawley, you take the van and go find a Sheriff. Tell him what we’ve got, where we are. When you’re done, come straight back here and don’t speak to anyone else.’
‘Of course n—’
Bolton hooked a finger in Crawley’s collar and drew their faces together. ‘Anyone.’
‘Whatever do you take me for,’ he muttered, not meeting Bolton’s eye.
Bolton released him. ‘Me and her will stay here and guard the loot. That okay with you?’
The last sentence was directed at Marakova. She pondered for a moment, chewing her cheek. It seemed wrong to separate from the van, but the cost of that old tanker was a pittance compared to what they had here. Against her better judgement, there was a fantasy blooming in Marakova’s mind: a fantasy of an auto shop with a whole fleet of trucks, dozens of overalled underlings at her beck and call. Some place in the South, maybe with an office in New Destiny itself. To even see the city was a dream. But living there?
The thought alone made her mouth water. She nodded. ‘Alright. Call it collateral.’
‘That we will.’
They spat and shook. Crawley rubbed them both on the back, the grin returning to his face. ‘Oh, my friends.’ He chuckled. ‘Just think what we’ll get. Even with a three-way split. Oh, this is tremendous. God keep you both, my friends. May she hold you down.’
He climbed in the van and, after a few stutters and false starts, trundled off in the direction of the town.
Bolton and Marakova watched him go. Neither spoke.
Bolton circled the pod again, pausing to squint down into the window. Marakova attempted to work some of the red paint off with her thumbnail. It wouldn’t loosen.
Both were thinking the same thing, but neither of them could incriminate themselves by speaking the idea out loud. They had to dance towards it.
‘You known that guy long?’ she asked at last, picking a scab at the base of her chin.
‘Longer than I’d care to.’
She crossed over to the hatch, pulling idly at the handle. ‘It weren’t him that spotted the wreck, were it?’
‘No.’ Bolton nodded slowly. ‘That honour does go to me.’
‘So he ain’t really done anything, has he?’
‘Yet he spoke of a three-way split.’
‘Yeah. Funny that.’
‘I never been a big one for close-up stuff,’ said Marakova.
‘I’ve known him longest.’
And just like that, the matter was settled.
Earth days were long. Crawley was gone for several hours, but when he returned the sun was still high in the sky, bearing down on the diseased planet with resentful passion. He found Bolton and Marakova sitting a few yards apart from one another, staring out at nothing. They both stood as he approached. There was a strange atmosphere around Crawley as he climbed down from the van — his chin drooping, his back hunched.
‘Well?’ said Bolton, stepping forward, all anxious aggression. ‘I found a Sheriff,’ Crawley began, reordering a mound of dirt with his toe. ‘I was obliged to drive all the way to Springwell, but I found him.’
‘I told him what we have: the weight, the shape of it. He was rather sceptical, but I talked him around. He was able to give me an estimate as to what we could expect in compensation.’
Marakova’s hands were on her hips. ‘And!’
Crawley motioned for them to come closer. They did. In a low voice, he told them the figure.
Marakova took a deep breath. She leant forward, one hand on her knee, and stared at the ground. Then she raised up in a great wave of noise—
‘WHOOOO!’ She slammed one hand between Crawley’s shoulders. ‘Are you kidding me!’
A winded smile cracked across his face. ‘No, Ms Marakova, I am not.’
Bolton was shaking his head, skipping like a record, slapping his hat against his knee: ‘Well, I’ll be damned. Well, shit. Wow. God forgive me. I’ll be damned.’
Marakova ran her tongue back and forth along her teeth, tasting the metal that had stained her breath for almost a decade. Those silver teeth were her backup in the case things ever went bad. She wondered if platinum would taste any different.
‘A convoy should arrive in a few hours to hoist it away,’ Crawley said. ‘I gave them our coordinates. I hope you don’t mind, Bolton.’
‘Of course not. You did good, Crawley.’
Crawley tried to look modest, but the muscles in his face kept pulling into a smile. ‘I thought…’ He bustled back to the van and pulled a clinking paper bag from the passenger seat. ‘I thought that celebrations were in order.’
‘I’ll say!’ Marakova yanked the offered bottle from Crawley’s hand and popped the cork free with a slick move of the thumb.
She raised it to her lips and downed a third. ‘Gaia!’ She belched. ‘Tastes like spicy petrol.’
‘Waste of good petrol,’ said Bolton, taking a lengthy sip.
‘You may complain, friends,’ said Crawley, ‘but to me, it tastes like freedom.’
‘To freedom, then.’
They clinked nozzles. For a fleeting moment, caught in the crossfires of booze, hope, and minor heatstroke, the three of them were taken in by a genuine sense of joy. Then Marakova caught Bolton’s eye.
‘Hey, Crawley.’ He turned to his friend, who was downing the drink like he was afraid someone would take it from him. ‘Guess what? While you were out, Marakova figured out how to open the hatch.’
Crawley threw his bottle to the ground. It bounced and rolled. ‘Did she now, my fine old friend?’
Marakova crossed her arms. ‘Uh-huh. We thought we ought to wait for you to come back. In fact…’ She trailed off, looking back at Bolton.
‘… in fact,’ he picked up, ‘we were thinking you ought to do the honours.’
Crawley looked between them, his eyes glazed. ‘You two — you two think I’m not aware of your little game?’
Bolton’s posture stiffened. ‘Uh…’
‘Like you’d ever let me have any sort of honours.’ Crawley spat. ‘You don’t want to get hit by anything that might spring out, do you? You mangy old dog?’ He smacked Bolton on the arm hard enough to make his teeth rattle.
‘Aha—’ Bolton chuckled, shrugging helplessly. ‘You sussed us,’ said Marakova, grinning silver.
‘You’re glass to me, friend.’ Crawley tapped his temple. ‘Glass. Well, to space with it—’ He marched over to the hatch and wrapped both hands around the handle. ‘Let’s see what the heathens have been so kind as to send us, eh?’
Crawley yanked. The hatch didn’t budge. He yanked again, face reddening. He turned and was startled to find Bolton standing close behind him. The scavenger stepped away, hiding a hand behind his back. ‘You, uh — you need to twist it.’
‘Oh, do I?’ Crawley went to try again.
It was a wet noise — or rather, a hardness that turned into a wetness. Crawley fell like a cut puppet, first to the knees, then to the face. Totally silent. His fingers trailed down the hatch and fell limply to the ground.
Marakova squatted down and checked his eyes. A pair of marbles. The man was gone. She nodded to herself.
‘There’ll be trouble if the Sheriff sees. We ought to hide him before—’ She realised she was being ignored. ‘Hey.’
Bolton’s body was contorted, one hand braced on the star’s chrome shell, the hat pulled low to cover his eyes. He was still clutching the rock.
‘You alright there?’ Marakova put a hand on his shoulder. He brushed it off.
‘I don’t feel too good.’
‘Look, we both said—’
‘Sweet Mother Earth, would you just give me a damn minute!’
His voice cracked on the last word.
A surge of white-hot irritation passed over Marakova’s face. She mouthed a few unpleasant words at the back of Bolton’s head, and then said, in an affectedly sweet tone, ‘Take as long as you like, darlin’. I’m gonna drag the body down into that scrub, okay? Then we can start talking numbers.’
Marakova grabbed Crawley’s corpse around each of the ankles and pulled him easily towards a patch of high, yellowing grass, coming to a halt a dozen yards in.
‘Hey!’ she called. ‘This far enough?’ The scavenger didn’t respond. She squinted. ‘What’re you…?’
He was standing with his legs apart, pointing at her.
Not pointing — aiming.
The first shot caught her in the shoulder; the second in the centre of the chest. Marie Marakova fell backwards and vanished into the grass.
Bolton stuffed the handgun back into his jeans. His face glowed with sweat. But he was alone, now, finally, just him and his treasure. He ran his fingertips along the surface, feeling the other-worldly metal under his palm — smooth and well formed, still cool under the sun’s heat, still unmarked despite the incredible distance it had fallen. All his life, Bolton had made do with what was old and rotted and cobbled together. Clothes that didn’t fit. Tools that didn’t work. Someone else’s hat. Leftovers. That was all he knew, all that Earth had given him: the scraps and the cast-offs from the people they called sinners, just because they’d had the good sense to leave. But now he had something of theirs. Something new. Something of his own. Something, God’s disapproval be damned, that would set him up for li[e.
He peered through the window. Dark shapes lay unmoving within. Then he took out his telescope and turned it southwards. A small sound came from the back of Bolton’s throat. A whine, dissolving into a gurgle as the muscles contracted one by one. The sensation was that of a throttling fist. He dropped the telescope and seized his neck with both hands, clawing, grasping, tendons leaping forward like taut ropes against the skin. He tried to stumble towards the trio of bottles that lay empty in the dirt, but his legs seized up before he could arrive, and he had to reach out and pull them towards himself. On the corner of the label someone had etched a small cross. The other, also a cross. The third — the one Crawley had drunk from — was marked with a circle.
The bitter taste. He should have known.
‘Crawl—’ He couldn’t even get the name out to curse it. ‘Crawl—’
He convulsed another moment, and then lay still.
After a while a breeze picked up. The collar of Bolton’s shirt flapped feebly against his jaw, and his hat, broad-brimmed, lifted and fell a few times before coming altogether clear of his head and settling face up on the ground beside him. Half an hour passed.
The star shuddered. It was just a tremble, followed by a faint sound from within. Then it shook again, harder this time. Once more, and finally the hatch door flew open, slamming against the outer shell and bouncing forward again to dangle delicately on its hinges. Sticking out of the star’s interior, into the arid atmosphere of Earth, was a single boot.