Zhemosen – Commonwealth Space
A nudge to the left centered the crosshairs. Through the scope, light flashed off a head devoid of hair. Blinking, Gael pulled away. By the time he’d cleared his vision, his target had moved. Gael panned the scope back and forth for a while, eyes watering.
He sat back with a sigh. The job wasn’t going as expected—not that he had many expectations. He’d never used a rifle before. The ugly weapon was supposed to be easy to operate, and it was, in theory. Acquire a target through the scope and wait for the computer to calculate distance and trajectory, taking into account weather conditions and even how many layers of cement or plascrete a hardened shell might need to pierce. The rifle mocked such ideas as bulletproof glass, not that there was much of it in District Twenty-Eight.
The only thing that might stand between the end of this rifle and death was a deflector field, and there weren’t any of those down here, either. Nothing but dead air and a half-open window between him and his target—who was currently alive, and not supposed to be.
But Gael hadn’t killed anyone before, and the idea of it wasn’t as easy as computing the obstacles between his bullet and some poor dope who thought letting his head shine free was a good fashion choice.
Gael examined the dull black casing of the rifle, the stubby gyropod protruding from the underside, and the surprisingly short barrel. His gut churned. Closing his eyes, Gael tipped his head back and counted. By the time he got to ten, he’d imagined how the light of the sun might feel on his face, even though no gentle warmth seeped down from the upper levels of Zhemosen, the City Without End. Only soot, grime, and the stench of hot glass and steel. He’d never seen the sun. He rarely got the chance to breathe fresh air.
Neither was his choice. It’d been a long, long time since he’d had a say in how he lived his life.
Gael opened his eyes and leaned in to peer through the scope. A rightward nudge found a girl, slender and fair-haired, which was unusual. The light-colored hair, not her build. Her face put her age somewhere between ten and twelve, if he had to guess. Her cheeks had the roundness of youth.
The rifle stock clicked beneath Gael’s palm and a green ring circled the crosshairs in the scope. Exhaling sharply, he moved back, making sure to push the weapon aside. The girl wasn’t his target. Sun, no! He’d never agree to kill a child. His stomach cramped violently. Sweat sprang from his hairline, dampening his forehead.
“I can’t do this.”
He glanced across the alleyway at the building opposite. A lazy holo blinked sporadically two windows over: Capitol Hotel. It was one of more than a dozen so named establishments in Zhemosen. Every district laid claim to the idea they were the original city, the seed from which the undercity had spread, spawning the overcity and the outercity—glass and steel closing in district after district until it reached from sea to sea.
His target was a visitor from another district, apparently unwelcome. He obviously wasn’t doing business with the Trass family, or Gael wouldn’t be here with an execution order.
But who was the girl? He hadn’t been given any instructions regarding a girl. He’d only been told to wait until the transaction was complete; until the visitor’s bodyguard disappeared—presumably to escort the other party (another person Gael didn’t know) out of the building. The bodyguard would be taken care of somewhere between here and there. Gael’s job was simple: kill the visitor.
He leaned in again, using his fingertips to line up the rifle and scope, moving his hands away as soon as he could see into the room. He didn’t want to feel that click again. He most definitely didn’t want to kill the wrong person.
He didn’t want to kill anyone, really.
Another quick pan left and, there, the bald man. His target. Swallowing, Gael rubbed his palms against his thighs.
Just do it. One kill and it will all be over. You’ll get to keep your life.
“What a lie.” His whisper tasted of poisoned air and regret.
Still, Gael put a hand to the side of the rife, carefully, gently, and waited for the weapon to indicate readiness. The soft thrum of the click tickled his skin. He edged a finger toward the trigger, around the guard, barely daring to breathe as he slid a digit inside. The slightest movement would throw off the targeting. He should have had his hand there from the start. He was doing this all wrong.
Oh, sun, he was going to kill someone, he was going to . . .
Within the green-tinged view of the scope, the bald man’s head erupted. Disconnect spun his head one way, his stomach another, as tinted red and gray matter exploded outward into a mist of blood and bone. Gael jerked back with a short cry, finger tangling in the trigger guard. The weapon coughed beneath his hand. Distantly, he heard a pop as his bullet pierced the glass of the window.
Gael leaned over and vomited onto his shoes.
A faint shriek pierced the stillness around his ears, the numbing buzz dulling his senses. With trembling hands, he pulled the rifle from the concrete windowsill and fell backward into the room rented for just this purpose. He dropped the weapon onto the bag and sat staring at it, gulping, ears ringing. Next step was to disassemble the parts, put them into the bag, and dispose of them at different locations throughout the district.
Gael couldn’t move. Couldn’t make himself move.
“I killed someone.”
He hadn’t. Rationally, he knew he hadn’t. Someone else had taken the shot seconds before his trembling hands botched the job. But he’d been there. He’d witnessed it. Guilt slithered beneath his skin—cold and slimy.
Who had pulled the trigger? Same person who’d taken care of the bodyguard? That would mean Julius Trass had known he wouldn’t be able to do it.
“Burning sun,” he cursed.
Would the mysterious extra assassin also kill the girl?
Gael peeked through the window. The girl was outside on the balcony, crouched behind the glass door. His bullet hole showed in the pane just over her head. As Gael watched, she glanced over her shoulder, directly at his building. Without the scope, he couldn’t see her expression. Couldn’t see her eyes. He imagined what both contained. Horror and accusation. The question of why. Oh sun, had the man been her father? Had he been teaching her the family business? She seemed young for it, but age was so often irrelevant in the undercity.
The girl looked away and down before moving toward the edge of the balcony. They weren’t that high up. She could probably drop to the balcony below, and then to the ground without hurting herself.
Get away from here, he silently urged.
Fresh misery clutched his gut. He wasn’t cut out for this kind of work. Why had Julius given him this job? Stupid question. He knew why. But surely there were other ways to bind him, to make him regret ever asking for help.
Gael moved away from the window and glanced at the rifle, thoughts spinning. Breathe. Pretend there is sky up there and breathe. He closed his eyes and counted. One, two, three . . .
By ten he had a plan. Julius might not know he hadn’t done it. The rifle had been fired, and he was supposed to dispose of it anyway. What mattered was that the visitor was dead and no one was knocking on his door. In fact, given the direction of blood spray—oh sun, oh sun—any search would start to the east, not the south. He had time to make a clean getaway, all this useless panicking aside.
What if he sold the gun? Was it worth enough for a ticket off planet?
Would Trass make him kill again if he stayed?
What about the girl?
Stop thinking about the girl!
Gael pulled the gun apart and stuffed each piece into the bag. Then he slung the rattling sack of fabric over his shoulder and left the apartment without pausing to look out of the window. If the girl knew what was good for her, she’d be gone. She was well old enough to take care of herself.
He’d been looking after himself and his brother since he was eight.
His brother . . .
Shaking his head wouldn’t dislodge thoughts of Loic, but he did it anyway, one violent jerk that nearly had him falling down the stairs. Gael gripped the rail and waited for his balance to come back before starting downward. His footsteps echoed in the narrow stairwell, bouncing off the walls like ominous shadows. Gael moved faster, eager to escape, and began to push through the door into the alley. The door struck something and stopped. Gael froze as blond hair wrapped around the edge of the door, blown back by the impact and the lazy stir of air from a nearby vent. A hand appeared below the hair, short fingers curling around the doorway. Then she stepped away, stuttering and crying, her eyes red and her face pinched with panic.
It was dim in the alleyway. Long, permanent shadows striped everything in the streets of the undercity. What light they had was filtered by layers of dust and grime. He knew it was the same girl, though, and not just because her pale-yellow hair lit up the alley like a flare. His life was a string of unexplained coincidences; him being in an empty apartment with a sniper rifle he didn’t know how to use was simply the most recent. Now before him stood the only witness to a crime he hadn’t actually committed.
“Can you help me?” she asked, her accent lighter than the heavy air of the undercity.
Gael shook his head without thinking about it. “You need to get out of here.”
“I don’t know where to go!”
Was that blood on her dress?
He couldn’t take her with him. Couldn’t be responsible for another person, not again. Besides, how would he explain her to Trass?
Gael started to lean away in the direction he needed to go, and the girl let out a sob. Balling her fists, she thumped them against her hips. She wasn’t going to have a tantrum, was she? Neither of them had time for that—and why was he still standing here?
Thankfully, she seemed to pull herself together. She smeared tears across her cheek with the back of one hand. “If you’re not going to help me, at least tell me where to go.”
“Away from here.” Advice they both needed to follow. Now.
How she could be so clueless would be a better question. Gael extended one finger in a shaky point. “The . . .” Damn it, he couldn’t send her to an illicit gate. Little girls only had one thing the keepers were interested in, and while he might be a sort-of killer, he wasn’t that low. Gael shifted his finger toward the east. Toward a more official exit. “The gate is that way. Have you got any credits? How did you get here?”
She gave him a blank look.
Gael tapped his wrist where legal, registered citizens wore a Broad Area Network Device. “How many credits do you have?”
The girl pulled back her sleeve, exposing a slim silver Band. Given the shine of the metal and lightweight design, it could be loaded with enough credits to take her two districts over or even off planet.
He should steal it.
Gael glanced up to find her staring at him warily. Curling his fingers inward, he pressed his hand to his thigh. “You need to go.” Before someone kills you or cuts off your hand. Or both. “Find the gate and climb as many levels as you can. Go to District Twenty-Five.”
Gael backed away. “There’s a junction there.” Or so he’d heard.
She didn’t move.
When she opened her mouth again, Gael pushed past her and ran, duffel bag clanking against his back. He’d already lost the person he cared about most in the world. He didn’t have it in him to take on responsibility for another.
Alkirak – Muedini Corporation Space
Bram’s scalp itched as sweat crawled through his hair. Because he couldn’t scratch his head, his nose twitched. Then his ear called for attention, a bead of moisture tracking the cartilage and running down his neck. Bram curled his fingers inside the thick glove until the urge to open his helmet receded.
Next time he had nothing to do, which would be never, he needed to take another look at the environmental controls on his suit. Sweat wouldn’t kill him, but the poison mist outside was another matter entirely. It’d kill him in the time it took to choke, if he was lucky. If he was unlucky, he’d carry a lungful back up to the terraces and spend a night in agony as his organs dissolved from the inside out—and his skin melted down to meet them.
Blinking sweat from his eyes, Bram focused on the task at hand and leaned forward to set a small ultrasonic device against the stippled patch of rock illuminated by his helmet light. He thumbed a switch, and the tool hummed through his glove. Chinning the helmet display, he cycled the HUD from atmospheric conditions to the readout from the device.
Ten centimeters into the rock, an inky mass spread away in every direction. Iron, most likely. So much iron lay just beneath the surface of Alkirak it was a wonder the planet didn’t sink to the bottom of the solar system—the effects of gravity and the vacuum of space notwithstanding. Iron wouldn’t make him enough profit to justify the expense of pulling it out of the crevasse, however. The Muedini Corporation had the monopoly on anything that was simple to extract in large quantities.
Bram checked his map again. The seam of something different he’d been following extended in this direction. He’d hoped—with a giddy sense of expectation—that it might show up here, whatever it was. Close to a ledge, and accessible from the terraces above, set to provide him with an extra source of income he could mine with ease.
Ease almost being a relative term half a kilometer below the green zone.
The crevasses marring the planet were both blessing and curse. Over ten kilometers deep in places, they provided shelter from the inhospitable surface. Go down too far, however, and poison mists boiled up from the planet’s core. Mining Alkirak had produced a “green” zone that extended downward between two and three kilometers into several of the crevasses. Broad terraces supported a slim variety of flora and fauna, which the colonists added to from time to time as they discovered new species prepared to adapt to the unique biosphere.
The best mining for the rarest minerals lay below the green zone.
Cycling his HUD, Bram looked for the last ping he’d had on the new mineral deposit and prepared to backtrack along the ledge. The seam might have turned into the rock, up (in his dreams), or down (most likely scenario). He had forty minutes to confirm his suspicions, one way or another, before he had to start up. Longer if he cut into the filter time reserved for the climb up to the terraces.
As he stepped back along the ledge, his thoughts wandered around what he could accomplish if he had an extra source of income. He could carve out another terrace, expanding his farm. He could buy a new environment suit, or the parts to upgrade this one and the junker he kept as a spare. The one he should be using for parts. He could add a couple of rooms to his living quarters—not that he needed them. Not right now.
But if he ever started a family . . .
Snorting, Bram shoved that thought aside. He’d have to meet someone first, and folks weren’t exactly lining up to live halfway down a trench on a half-terraformed planet with a former miner turned farmer who wrote poetry in his spare time.
When nothing needed fixing. So, about once a year.
And it all sucked. Because, really, what did he have to write about?
In response, his nose twitched and sweat rolled down the back of his neck. Bram clenched his fingers in his glove. “Less dreaming, more suit fixing.”
A thin light bloomed on the left corner of his HUD. Bram chinned the display, enlarging the map, and grinned. There. The seam did branch. Down, not up or back, but what was another few meters of poison atmosphere? After tucking away the device, he climbed over to the point where the seam curved downward and looked for handholds in the rock.
The ledge he stood on tapered to a point a meter or two distant, but there might be another one just below it. Ledges sometimes ran along the side of a crevasse for a hundred kilometers or so, forming highways of a sort. The green-zone terraces were wide ledges, grouped together. The deeper into the crevasse, the narrower the ledges became.
Bram leaned out and aimed his helmet light down the wall. Through his audio pickup, he could hear grit shifting under his boot soles as he glanced over his shoulder. His left boot slipped, and he grabbed at a small outcropping, pulling himself back upright.
Not content with merely being poisonous, the mists also left a greasy residue on everything they touched.
There was another ledge, more than a short drop down. He’d need to come back with better climbing equipment, unless . . . Maybe the other ledge wandered up to meet this one? It’d be a couple of days before he could make another trip down if he didn’t check now.
Bram moved carefully along his ledge until only the toes of his boots clung to a narrow sill. He balanced by digging his gloved fingers into regular holes in the rock.
If only he’d thought to bring an anchor or two.
“We’re just looking today, right?”
His breath was hot and unpleasant inside his helmet. Bram chinned the display and dug the ultrasonic device out of his thigh pocket. Might as well see if the seam passed by here before angling downward.
He pressed it to the rock and thumbed the switch. His breath hitched as the glow of his find filled the display, now occupying the entire lower left-hand corner of the map. Jumping up and down on a narrow ledge would be stupid, so the giddy sensation that had been crawling around his gut since he found the seam would have to suffice, as far as celebrations went, until he got back to his terrace. Or until he identified the mineral. He hoped it wouldn’t be useless, but it could be mundane.
Pulling the device from the rock, Bram shoved it toward his pocket and missed. He reached for it, cursing as the tool bounced off his fingers and tumbled into the swirling mist below. Bram swung his arm back up, and one foot slid from the ledge, his heavy boot threatening to drag him out over the crevasse. He scrabbled at the rock in front of him, searching for hand holds, and stuck one gloved finger into a hole just as his dangling weight pulled his other hand free.
His left foot kicked into the mist. His right boot slid off the ledge.
Bram had half a second to look up at the finger he’d managed to wedge into the rock, less than a quarter of a second to wonder if it was going to hurt when the weight of his body tore it loose, about an eighth of a second to imagine leaving the finger behind and the pain of amputation, before he was falling into the dark, an uncharacteristic yell echoing from his helmet pickups.
He didn’t fall far. The ledge below his was wider than it had appeared, and Bram landed heavily enough to force air from his lungs. His helmet collided with the wall behind him, and one of his legs tried to measure the distance between the not-really-that-wide shelf and whatever lay below it.
Purple and green spots danced across his display—his vision dimming and brightening as he struggled to breathe. If he passed out, his body would remember that most basic function, right? Bram blinked again, multiple times, and listened for the alarm signaling a suit breach. For several long seconds he heard nothing but a ringing behind his ears and the panicked thrum of his blood.
His finger hurt.
That probably meant it was still attached.
His vision continued to fluctuate. Thoughts careened around his skull, leaving lightning imprints—words, images, memories. A vision of wide green terraces climbing the side of each crevasse until they basked beneath an atmosphere designed to tame the sun’s radiation. Blue skies. Trees. Community. A family.
You are such a dumb fuck. Thirty years of experience mining in adverse conditions and here he was possibly venting precious oxygen into a cloud of poisonous gas while lying broken and bleeding on a ledge well below the green zone of a barely habitable planet.
The ringing in his ears subsided into a single insistent beep. Bram blinked, drew in a painful and shuddering breath, and dropped his chin to access his HUD. His suit had a tear on the back of his hip. Because he was lying on it, he hadn’t vented an appreciable amount of air. How much poison mist would creep in when he moved to repair it?
Okay, okay. Think fast. He had a patch in a thigh pocket. Experimentally, Bram lifted one arm, then the other. Both his gloves were intact, but the finger that had held his weight for those stupid seconds felt as though it had torn loose from his knuckle. His right hand throbbed. Left hand, then.
He reached across his body and flipped open the appropriate pocket. Extracted the patch and squeezed the corner to activate the sealant.
“One, two, three . . .” He rolled off his hip, reached back, and slapped the patch over the breach.
The alarm fell silent. Bram lay back and breathed for a moment or two while his filter unit struggled to account for the small rip. Then he sat and looked for a way up. His helmet light glinted off something on the ledge next to him: the ultrasonic device. Dried sweat pulled his skin taut as Bram grinned. “Well, how ’bout that.”
He thumbed the switch and put the device to the rock next to him. His helmet display lit up from end to end. He’d found it, the end of the seam, and it was big.
Big, beautiful, and all his.
The closed shutter bowed beneath the weight of Gael’s fist. “I know you’re in there. C’mon, Price. Open up. I need your help.”
As the muted sounds of the undercity rolled in to cover his ragged breathing, a sense of finality settled heavily across Gael’s shoulders. Tracing his error back to the beginning was pointless. His current troubles hadn’t started with him trying to sell the gun, or failing to plan the job better. Nor had they begun with him taking a position with the Trass family, and not keeping a closer eye on his brother. He couldn’t blame Loic, either. Blaming a dead person was the coward’s way out.
He just didn’t know how to make a good decision—putting aside the fact he rarely had a lot of time to consider his choices.
Gael raised his hand for another knock, the movement as tight as a last gasp, and fell forward as the shutter rose. Two gloved hands grabbed his arm and dragged him into hot, close twilight, and the shutter banged down behind him, catching the bag on his shoulder and knocking him to the ground.
He yelled as his knees hit cement, and the gun parts clanked as they dug into his back.
“Shush!” a voice hissed in his ear.
“Stuck.” In more ways than one.
His rescuer pulled him forward, out from under the shutter, and an echoing clang sealed the darkness. Shaking the hand from his shoulder, Gael got to his feet and reached blindly into the gloom. A light snapped on, the sudden brightness a painful flare against his retinas. Hissing, Gael squeezed his eyes shut.
“Seriously, Gael, if you can’t keep it down, I’m going to have to knock you over the head and shove your body into the sewer.”
“Fuck you, Price.”
“That’s the thanks I get?”
Gael cracked one eye open. “For not opening your door? Yeah.”
Price put his hands on his hips. Light flashed off the connective fibers of his biofeedback gloves. He’d obviously been working. Fixing something cybernetic. Price was always fixing and tinkering, and hated to be interrupted, even by paying customers.
“Wait!” Gael raised his own hands in an effort to ward off the incoming rant. “I’m sorry, okay? Thank you for opening your door.”
Deflating slowly, his expression indicating he’d rather yell, Price sighed. “C’mon. I was about to put the kettle on.”
Gael’s throat ached drily at the thought of tea. Still blinking, he followed as Price wove a path through the cluttered shelves of his store. Items poked out here and there, the end of a crossbow, a single oar—useful in the sewers maybe, as the coast was over two hundred kilometers away—a bolt of cloth that reeked of sweat and smoke, jumbles of wire, some spooled, some hopelessly tangled, the corners of stacked tablets and handheld task panes, pots, pans. If it existed, a part of it was likely as not stored somewhere in Price’s store. Actually, no. If it existed and had been used a time or three hundred, Price had it on his shelves—and he’d charge quadruple its worth to let you use it again. More than that if he’d “fixed” it.
“I probably just killed my business by letting you inside,” Price muttered as he entered a small, cramped kitchen. He pulled off his gloves, exposing chubby pink hands, lifted the kettle, shook it, and put it back down again. The kettle obediently started hissing. “Why are you here?”
“You’re the only one who opened the door.”
“You’re all over ShopNet, Gael. What under the burning sun did you do?”
Glancing behind him, Gael located the corner of a chair otherwise piled high with stuff. He swung the bag from his shoulder, letting it land on the floor with a clatter, and sat. “It’s what I didn’t do. Or maybe it’s what people think I did. Could even be what I did after. Then there was the girl.”
“As usual, you’re making no sense whatsoever.”
“Trass gave me a job to do. It was supposed to be a one-off thing to”—Gael formed quotes with his fingers—“leverage my position with the family.”
“So, to pay off another of your brother’s debts.”
Gael was too tired and numb to rise to the bait. He settled a hand over his tortured gut and pressed inward. “I fucked it up.”
“Of course you did.”
“I know where the sewer access is, Price.”
Price crossed his arms over his wide torso. “You might be able to put that gun together in time to kill me, if I sat here and watched. But it’d all end with you not having the stomach to cut me up into enough pieces to feed to the sewer rats.”
A bang echoed through the front of the shop, causing both of them jump. Price frowned. When Gael made to get up, Price gestured him to stay where he was, and grumbled his way back into the shop. A few moments later, the front shutter rattled and banged again.
Price cursed as he returned to the kitchen, pausing only to flick off the shop lights. “Some other swine thinking I was open. Okay, where were we?”
Gael swallowed, and the sides of his throat stuck together. “That tea ready yet? And how did you know I had a gun in this bag?”
Price tapped his head. He had a small, silver disk embedded in his temple. “Merch chatter.”
“Right.” Gael should never have tried to sell the damn thing. “I’m an idiot.”
Price lifted the kettle and shook it again. When he set it down, it started chugging. “We could talk about that, or we could talk about why you’re here.”
Or they could talk about why Price insisted on using a kettle when beverage dispensers cost less to run than getting fresh water and actual leaves. Guy was permanently jacked in to the undercity network and didn’t balk at linking directly to devices through biofeedback gloves. Previous discussions on the topic usually ended with Price going on about parts of the tea leaf and the temperature of water. None of it made sense, so Gael had stopped asking, and let Price make tea the way he wanted to.
Price pulled two cups from hooks behind a shelf and started spooning precious leaves into a diffuser.
Gael nudged the bag with his shoe. “I need you to buy this gun from me. I don’t care what it’s worth, I just need enough credits to get to District Twenty-Five.”
“You can walk to D25.”
Not easily, even if he was more used to parting with what the keepers of illicit gates wanted than that girl might have been.
“What you’re asking for is enough credits to get out of the city,” Price continued.
“Okay, first of all, I’m not touching that gun. Having you in my shop is bad for business. Buying stolen Trass property?” Price made a cutting motion in front of his throat. “Second of all, you have nothing worth a ticket out of Zhemosen.”
While Gael stewed on that, the kettle belched a fitful cloud of steam. Picking it up, Price glanced over at him. “You didn’t use the gun, did you?”
Gael thought about lying. Prepared, even, to shrug and let Price figure it out. Then he shook his head and buried his face in his hands.
Crying wouldn’t improve his situation. It never had. Gael sucked back the urge and buried it deep. He needed to think clearly. More clearly than he ever had in his life. He also needed to put himself first, which hurt in a way he couldn’t quite grasp yet.
On top of all of that, he had to stop showing weakness to Price. It was one thing to silently acknowledge that Price knew he was a fuckup. Quite another to share that opinion out loud.
“Rufus is going to be looking for you.” Rufus being Julius’s nephew and the Trass family enforcer. It’d been Rufus’s job to take care of the bodyguard. Probably because it would have been messier than a shot across an alleyway.
“I had my finger on the trigger,” Gael said. “Then the target was dead.”
The dim lighting in the shop cast a lazy shadow over Price’s surprise. “So, you did do it?”
Gael shook his head for about the fiftieth time that day. “No, someone else did it just as I was lining up the shot.”
“Could be good? I mean, if Rufus hasn’t caught up with me yet, they might think I actually did it.”
“And then tried to sell the gun you were supposed to dispose of.”
“So I could simply be guilty of idiocy.”
“Trass will hurt you for that.”
Gael’s shoulders pinched together. He knew how Julius would hurt him. “I can’t do this anymore, Price. It’s not just what’s waiting for me back at Trass Tower.” That sense of finality was back, heavier than before. “I don’t want to be a killer. And I’m no good at intimidation.”
Too small, too delicately featured. Besides, that had always been Loic’s line of work.
Thinking about his brother and how he’d been used, how they’d both been played, threatened to send Gael looking for the sewers on his own. He wasn’t brave enough for that, though. The undercity might be dark, but it wasn’t close and cramped and full of rats and the detritus of a million illegal activities.
“I’m not smart enough to be one of his inside guys,” he continued, rubbing his face. “And I threw up for three days when he sent me on a cleanup job.”
“Is that what that stink is?”
Gael glanced at his shoes. “The only thing I’m good for is running shit back and forth, and I grew out of that fifteen years ago.”
“What about . . .?” Price arched both eyebrows. “You’re pretty enough.”
“Apparently not smiling upsets the clients.”
“So smoke some weed beforehand.”
“Do you really think I’ll be pretty enough after this?”
“He’ll mark you where it doesn’t show.”
Ignoring that, “This was probably my last chance to prove my usefulness. With no other way to pay down what I owe the family, Trass will own me.”
Exhaling, Price distributed the tea mugs and perched one ample buttock on the corner of another chair. Somehow it didn’t tip over. “Okay. How about an off-planet indenture?”
Ten years of his life given to a corporation that might sign him off with enough credits to starve slowly rather than quickly while he waited for another indenture. It didn’t always go like that, but Gael had heard plenty of stories, and he didn’t have time to find a good contract. He’d have to take what he could get, and what he could get might be worse than what he already had, hard as that was to believe. He’d heard those stories too.
Some indentures were little more than legal slavery.
“Know, offhand, of any recruiters on Zhemosen offering contracts that will pay, in food as well as credits, for work that won’t kill me before the expiration date?”
Price tilted his head. “Actually, yeah, I might.”
Snorting, Gael lifted his mug for an experimental sip. Price was still looking at him. Thoughtfully. Not good.
“How scarred are you?” Price asked.
Gael coughed over his mouthful of tea. “Are we talking mental or physical scars here?”
Managing a chuckle, Gael took another sip of his tea and swallowed. “What are we talking about?”
“Okay, hear me out before you say no.”
“How about I just say no now.”
“This could work for you, man. Like I said, you’re pretty, and you’re not as fucked up as most.”
“Oh hell no.”
“I’ll take the damn gun, but you need to listen to me.”
Gael held his breath.
“There are a lot of lonely colonists out there, and some are on dust balls so remote, they’ve got next to no chance of finding a partner.”
“I’m excited already.”
“Shut up and listen. You’re a nice guy, Gael. You’re clean.” As in he’d never used and hadn’t been too roughly used. His scars were more mental than physical. “That in itself is a miracle. And you’re good in a way that makes no fucking sense. You don’t belong here. You never did. Julius knows it, I know it. Even your brother knew it when he wasn’t breaking everything around you.”
Pain slashed through Gael’s heart.
“We could try to get you an indenture, but if you didn’t end up cracking rocks down a deep, dark hole, you’d probably find yourself running through another slum, carrying another bag of gun parts. This, though.” Price put his mug aside and spread his hands. “Imagine it. A new colony, far end of the galaxy. Wide-open spaces. Fields and trees and water that doesn’t taste like my grandmother’s backside. Sunlight.” The mythical thing only the overcity citizens ever got to see. “Sky.” Another legend. “Space, man. Enough space to swing your arms without knocking anything down.”
“If it’s so good, why aren’t you signing up?”
“And give up my business?”
Gael scoffed. “Okay, so who’s out there looking for pretty young failures like myself?”
“Everyone. I checked it out for another client. There are people who just want a friend, and who are willing, and stupid enough, to pay for one.” He picked up his mug and waved it, sending tea sloshing up the sides. “You can’t incubate any babies, so that’s going to narrow your field.”
“I dunno, Price, this—”
“Seriously, man, some of them only want a companion. It probably means sex, but every profile is tagged. You can make your preferences as simple as you want. Though you’d up your hit rate if you were willing to—”
“How long would it take?”
“To set you up? We can do it now.”
“No, I meant for someone to offer me a contract.”
“Depends. We might find an ad today you want to respond to, or someone might take one look at your face and make an offer.”
Gael’s gut squirmed. “I dunno. How is this any different from an indenture?”
“It’s not cracking rocks in an asteroid belt or chipping ice from a moon. It’s not running errands for a psychopath like Julius Trass, and with as far out as some of these contracts are, it wouldn’t be worth his time to follow you. Commonwealth jurisdiction doesn’t extend as far as most people think. There’s the whole rest of the galaxy out there.”
The tension gripping all Gael’s limbs abated slightly.
“Oh, and I saved the best part for last.”
“A lot of the contracts are for a single year.”
“A year! Seriously, why isn’t everyone doing this?”
“Not everyone is willing to pack up and cross the galaxy without a return ticket. Some of these colonies are pretty remote. They can be primitive too. Low tech. No network, no access to news nets. Little automation.” Sounded like Price’s personal nightmare. “Being that far away could have its perks, though. Like I said, the Commonwealth doesn’t extend that far. Pick somewhere outside its borders and you could literally fall off the map. That thought might scare most folk, but I’m thinking that’s exactly what you need.”
To fall off a map? Gael sipped his hot tea and let silence rise between them. Well, quiet. It was never silent in the undercity. Water dripped from the faucet behind them, and the kettle continued issuing arrhythmic burps. Outside the shop, the grind of life pushed through the city like the ever-present soot and dust.
He’d promised Loic he’d take him to the ocean one day. That they’d both go. Find a corner of Zhemosen where the city gave way to the sand and a man could look up and see sky. The sun everyone swore by. They hadn’t dared dream further, of getting out to one of the island chains looping across the vast oceanic planet. Of seeing actual trees, grass, live animals bigger than a rat and not half as vicious. Of eating things that grew out of the ground. Nor had they dreamed of heading out into the stars they’d never seen, or to far-off colonies where he had always supposed people lived fairy-tale lives.
How primitive would these places be? Life beneath the city was pretty basic, but less complicated would be good. To not look over his shoulder every minute would be more than good.
Gael drained his cup and set it aside. “One year?” So he might have to have sex. It’d be with a single person, and he’d know their preferences beforehand. Hell, if every day was the same as the day before, he could do two years, three, especially if he got to see the sky.
“Best case, but, yeah.”
“How will I get through security at the shuttle port?”
“Let me take care of that.”
“And I could get far enough away that Trass wouldn’t find me?”
“If I were you, right now I’d be more worried about whoever shot your target.”
“Burning sun.” Gael shook his head. “Have you ever heard of that happening?”
“Doubling up on a job? Sure, happens all the time. Conflicting contracts, mistakes. Maybe Trass knew you couldn’t do it and sent someone along to babysit you.”
Which meant Rufus had probably done it, and that meant he really, really couldn’t go back.
“Okay, how do we do this contract thing?”
Price leaned over to grab a small holo terminal balanced on the side of the table behind him. He tapped his temple and the embedded disk flickered. A keyboard materialized in the air in front of him. “Ever had an official ID?”
Gael shook his head.
“Then that’s our first step.” Price started typing. “You’ll be a new person. A real person.”
Gael rubbed his thumb over his palm, as though expecting his skin to have changed, and was slightly disappointed to discover he already felt real, whatever that meant. “What are you gonna get out of this?”
“Probably a busted face.” Price rubbed a pudgy hand across his mouth. “Ah, sun, Gael, not everything comes out even. You’ll owe me for this. But of all the people I’ve helped, and there have been a few, you’re the most likely to remember. You always have before.”
“If I’m gone out there somewhere, I might never be able to return the favor.”
“And I’ll be thanking the burning ring of sand around this forsaken city that you’ll never be able to bang on my door again.”
Gael shook his head and turned a rueful smile toward his stained shoes. “Okay.” He blew out a breath. “Okay. Let’s get this done.”
For more excerpts and extras, visit the book page for To See the Sun