by Jennifer Campbell-Hicks
The bio-house’s heartbeat annoyed the hell out of Chase. The deep throb behind the walls pulsed through his eardrums, behind his eyes, impossible to shut out. Made it tough to focus as he crouched in a stranger’s living room in the dark, penlight in hand, ear pressed to the safe while he turned the dial with careful, deliberate clicks.
He closed his eyes and tried to clear his head. The place smelled rich. It smelled clean, which to Chase meant the same thing. The house throbbed like the living thing it was, heat radiating through the walls. The dial clicked under Chase’s fingertips.
The last tumbler fell into place.
“G-g-gotcha,” he whispered.
He swung open the door.
Inside were mostly papers and holodiscs, the usual stuff. Chase didn’t care about that. He pushed it aside to close his hand around a black microdrive in the back.
He held the microdrive under his penlight. Was it the right one? He had been led wrong before. Maybe this time the called-in favors, the jobs he had done in exchange for information leading to this house and this safe, had finally paid off.
This time he would find Emily.
He stuffed the thumbnail-sized bit of metal into a pocket of his pants, which were worn and too big for his scrawny frame. Street rats wore what they could find.
He started to close the safe. Before the door shut completely, his penlight glinted off something inside. He stopped.
Papers and holodiscs wouldn’t shine like that. He reopened the door and pointed the light.
It was a rock.
What the hell? he thought.
Confused, he picked it up. The rock was heavier than it looked. He turned it over. Roundish and bumpy, about the size of his fist, black but weirdly reflective in the light.
Why would a city bureaucrat put a rock in his safe? Chase couldn’t guess, but if the rock was locked up, that probably meant it had value. He stuffed it and his penlight into his pocket with the microdrive and closed the safe door.
“Hold it there, kid.”
He froze by the wall, midway between a crouch and standing. The voice was a man’s – deep and angry. Chase hadn’t heard him come in. The throbbing of the bio-house must have masked the sound of his footsteps. Or Chase had gotten sloppy.
Sloppy got thieves killed.
An overhead lamp flicked on. Chase squinted against the bright light that flooded the room.
“Turn around,” the man said.
He did. His stomach dropped. The man had him by two feet and a hundred pounds. The weight wasn’t muscle. It jiggled around his middle under a blue silk bathrobe, but the difference wouldn’t matter much if it came to a fight. Even worse, the man was pointing a burner at Chase’s head.
“Cops are on their way. Don’t try anything, street rat, or I’ll burn a hole in your brain. Do you have any idea who I am?
Who you’re stealing from?”
He didn’t know who the man was. A city official of some kind. His sources had said this house was where he would find the information he needed to find Emily. They never said who lived here. The man had a short, well-trimmed beard to match his short brown hair, and the pale skin of someone who spent most of his time indoors.
Also, he had Chase cornered. A couch and a coffee table lay between him and the man. Neither would shield Chase from a burner blast. A jade statue of a fat man with crossed legs, probably from off-world, sat on a side table, while a chameleon window behind him displayed a moonlit beach instead of whatever was really outside. As for doorways, there was one, and the man was blocking it.
“Give me what you took,” the man said, his eyes like cold black marbles. “I’ll tell the cops to go easy on you.”
Yeah right, and after that we’ll have tea and cakes, Chase thought. He didn’t move. Didn’t dare touch his pocket. No way would he give up the microdrive, not if what was on it might lead him to Emily.
Police sirens blared in the distance.
“You hear me, kid? Are you deaf? Mute?”
“N-n-no,” Chase said.
“Oh. Got a stammer, huh? Is that why you’re on the streets? Parents didn’t want you?”
The man grinned maliciously. Chase flushed, angry that he had risen to the taunt.
“You’re going to prison,” the man said. “I’ll make sure you are locked up for a long time. Unless you give me what you took.” He cocked his head, hearing the sirens. “Last chance.”
Last chance. Right.
Chase took a dive for the floor. A burner blast went off. Hit the couch. Luckily for Chase the man had bad aim. Bitter-smelling chemical smoke from the shot hung in the air as Chase crawled to the side table and grabbed the jade statue by its bald green head. It was heavy. Took all his strength to lift and swing. Not at the man but at the wall.
The statue hit hard.
The bio-house’s alarm activated and wailed like a banshee.
“Ah!” the man yelled. He dropped his burner and clamped his hands over his ears, his face screwed up with surprise.
Ears ringing, Chase swung the statue again – at the chameleon window. Glass shattered. He scrambled through. Sharp pain in his palm told him he hadn’t avoided all the broken, jagged edges.
He jumped down six feet to a narrow alley between houses. Asphalt under his feet. Trash piled on either side. It smelled like a sty. A gutter ran up the side of an adjacent building made of plain brick and mortar. Chase scurried up it, finding the bolts and chinks to use for hand and foot holds. He climbed as he had countless times on countless buildings.
Inside the house, the man yelled, “That way! Through the window. And someone make the damned house shut up.”
The alarm shut off as Chase reached a slanted tile roof. A rodent scurried away from him, while a night breeze ruffled his shaggy brown hair. His hand was bleeding, but the cut didn’t look deep. He ripped off a strip of cloth from his sleeve, wrapped his palm and tied it off with his teeth.
Below in the alley, uniformed cops picked through trash, sweeping their flashlights. They didn’t look up. Cops never did.
From the rooftop, over peaks and steeples and smoke stacks, Chase saw the neon skyscrapers of downtown and, farther off, the glow of the space port. While he watched, a ship launched from the port, quickly becoming no more than a speck of light against the starry sky.
Danilov, capital city of the planet Danilova, a hub for interplanetary trade and home to 5 million people, a melting pot of the human race, a place of opportunity — except for those who were unwanted. The homeless, the street rats. Vermin to be exterminated. Like Chase.
Emily was out there somewhere, too. His younger sister. The only family he had left. For six years, he had searched for her, and now, finally, he might have a way to find her.
He felt in his pocket. The microdrive was there, and the rock. Satisfied with the night’s work, he headed out, sure-footed on the rooftops, keeping low as he made his way toward the neon lights of downtown.
The cops called it gang row. Abandoned warehouses on the bad side of downtown. No bio-structures, no tech. It was all graffiti, broken windows and crumbled brick and concrete. Street rats were safe here because no cop dared to come in.
They knew their only way out would be in a body bag.
Chase climbed the rusty fire escape to the second floor of the third warehouse on the north side. Other buildings housed other gangs, more than a dozen. Chase called this one home.
The sun was rising. It had been hours since he had escaped the bio-house. He had spent that time dodging around the city to make sure he hadn’t been followed.
The ladder creaked and swayed as he climbed. Below the second-floor window, he listened. Low voices murmured over the shuffling of cards. He whistled two long notes and one short.
A boy stuck his head out the window. He had straw-colored hair and a nose broken so many times it looked like a lump of putty stuck to his face.
“It’s just Chase,” said the boy, Jose.
Chase climbed the last few rungs and inside. Dust coated bare floorboards. Two boys sat at a fold-out table playing with an old deck of cards. Jose glanced up from his hand.
“It’s about time. Ellie wants to see you.”
The younger boy, Bobby, who had joined their gang a few months ago, flashed a grin of missing teeth. “Someone’s in trouble.”
Suck it, Chase thought, but he didn’t say it. He never talked unless he had to, especially around the other boys. His stutter brought on ridicule, but his silence made him look stupid. At least when the others thought he was dull-witted, they left him alone.
He walked to the doorway opposite the window he’d come through and left down a hallway to a stairwell that led to the basement. He saw no one, for which he was thankful. Knocked on Ellie’s office door.
“It’s unlocked,” she said.
Chase went in.
Ellie sat behind an old wooden desk, military-style boots kicked up. She was alone. That made Chase nervous, that she wanted a private talk. On the wall behind her, shelves held an assortment of stolen goods: knives and burners, jewelry, bits and pieces from off-world. Some were so obscure Chase didn’t know what they were.
Ellie picked dirt from under her fingernails with a pocketknife. Her hair was cut raggedly short. Her features were square and mannish. She had passed herself off as a boy before puberty. Gangs didn’t take girls. Now that she ran her own gang, no one talked about her gender. Not unless they wanted a burner hole in the chest.
“Chase. How are you?”
His injured hand twinged. “I’m f-fine.”
“Glad to hear it.” She dropped her pocketknife and came around to sit on the front of her desk. Green eyes watched him with calculation. “I’ll get straight to the point. There was a break-in a few hours ago at the home of Counselor Barrett.”
Chase sputtered. “Wh-What?”
He’d had no clue the fat man in the bathrobe was a counselor. That meant big trouble. The gangs had nothing on the eight counselors who ran the city. Chase couldn’t steal enough in a lifetime to match what their backroom dealings got them in a month.
Ellie’s lips twitched. “Word is the thief was a street rat and that he gave the cops the slip. When I heard that, do you know what I said to myself? I said that there’s only one street rat in the city with the balls to try a stunt like that and with the talent to get out in one piece.” Her gaze fell to his hand. “Almost in one piece.”
She didn’t sound angry, but Chase knew better. He could see she was furious. She raised her eyebrows.
“You don’t deny it?” she said. “That’s why I like you, Chase. You’re honest. But here’s the thing. You stole from a counselor.”
“I d-d-didn’t know,” he said.
“You think that matters? Barrett won’t let this go, which means you have put our family in danger. I took you in. I taught you. This is how you repay me?” She eyed the pocketknife on the desk. “I should cut your throat and send your body to Barrett. It would save a lot of trouble.”
Chase bowed his head. Nothing he could say would help.
“You think I’m bluffing?” Ellie asked.
He knew she wasn’t. Boys who crossed her had a way of disappearing.
“Is this about Emily?” Ellie asked.
“No,” he lied, startled that Ellie would go there. He had been careful to never talk about his sister. “This gang is m-my f-f-family.”
“Give me what you stole.”
He reached into his pocket. His fingers skimmed the microdrive. He couldn’t do it. Not if this was how he would find Emily. Instead, he pulled out the rock.
Ellie’s eyes widened. “Meteor.”
Her whisper raised bumps on his arms. He had heard of meteor but had never seen one. They were mined in some far-distant asteroid belt. Their compounds powered star ships, power plants, everything. Chase turned over the rock, suddenly in awe, marveling at how it reflected the light. This rock was worth more than every possession in Counselor Barrett’s bio-house, including the house itself.
“Chase,” Ellie said. “Hand it over.”
“Y-yes,” Chase said, but he hesitated. With this rock, he could have the things that normal people had and then some. A house. Food and clothes that he hadn’t stolen. He wouldn’t be a street rat. He would be free. But it wouldn’t get him closer to his sister.
Reluctantly, he set the meteor in Ellie’s outstretched palm.
Her expression turned greedy as she hefted the rock. “There are people who would do anything I tell them to, just for a chance to get their hands on this. If Barrett is trading in black-market meteor . . . ” she trailed off.
She cocked a sly smile. “Then he has a buyer. And that buyer is probably very angry right now. I wouldn’t want to be in Barrett’s shoes.” She chuckled at the counselor’s misfortune. “Go get some sleep, Chase. You must be exhausted.”
He didn’t argue. Too tired. Too frustrated by the treasure he had just given up. He left Ellie and eased shut the door behind him with a soft click.
Up on the warehouse’s main floor, he found his cubby among the 30 or so that lined an enormous room. Each cubby was separated from the others by whatever its owner could scavenge: cinder blocks, wooden boards, an old dining table turned on its side. Chase flopped onto his bare mattress and pulled shut two tattered brown blankets strung between poles.
Light streamed in through high windows, reflecting off dust motes in the air. The room was quiet except for an occasional snore. Most of the boys slept in the daytime, except those who brought in their share for the gang by begging from tourists. They would be on the streets now.
Chase had never begged. Not even when he had first come here. He had picked pockets during the day and spent his nights sobbing quietly for what he had lost.
He had feared to sleep back then. When he slept, he relived the moment. An evening on the town, a treat for him and his little sister. Then came the first burner blast, the gang fight. His father threw him to the ground and lay on top to shield him. Mother did the same for Emily. Chase had felt the heat from the burners, heard the screams. Then it was over, and his parents were dead.
He had been seven, and Emily two.
They had been shuffled off to an orphanage. A week later, Emily was adopted, but not Chase. The trauma of their parents’ deaths had started him stuttering, and no one wanted a kid who couldn’t talk straight. He ran away to gang row.
Later, when he tried to find Emily, he found that there was no record of her adoption — or of Emily herself. She had been wiped from the system.
Chase took a shoebox from beside his mattress. Opened the lid. Inside were the only possessions he cared about. His father’s wallet, a mascara tube and blush from his mother’s purse. He took out a holodisc and activated it. A 3-inch-tall image appeared of a girl in a green sundress with baby-fat cheeks and chubby arms. She had curly blond hair and a sweet smile, like the holo had caught her laughing.
Only someone with power and connections could make Emily disappear. A counselor could do it. For the right price. If money changed hands, that money would leave a trail. The microdrive from Barrett’s safe just might show where that trail went.
Chase curled up around the holodisc, staring at it until he fell asleep.
The next night, he took the microdrive to Fixer.
“Government tech. High quality. This is serious stuff. Where’d you get it?”
Fixer studied the microdrive through magnification goggles, then looked at Chase bug-eyed through the lenses. He had slicked black hair, and was tall and wiry, like he belonged in here with the hundreds of tech parts that littered his cluttered workshop. Like he was one of them.
“B-better if you d-d-don’t know,” Chase said.
“Can you c-c-rack it?”
“I think so.” He set the goggles atop his head and licked his lips hungrily. “Tell you what, this is going to take awhile. Why don’t you go tell Mama Cho to get you some noodles.”
If Fixer said he could do it, then he could. He had never let Chase down. So Chase left the dingy backroom workshop through a beaded curtain and walked down a short hall, into a brightly lit dining area. The air in here was pleasantly cool — a refuge from the summer heat — and it smelled like butter and spices. He sat on a stool at the bar. A neon glow came through a wall of windows. The street outside was crowded with people. A young kid on the corner begged for change.
Mama Cho, her black hair in a tight bun, tossed a bowl of buttered noodles in front of Chase. She wiped her hands on her red apron. “Here, eat. You don’t eat enough. You’re nothing but skin and bones.”
Chase couldn’t say the same for Mama Cho. She was an older woman, thick around the waist. Chase did jobs for her sometimes. Acquired stuff for her and Fixer. They treated him like family.
“Th-thanks,” he said and dug in.
“Is my son helping you? Good. He’s a good man.” She leaned on one elbow on the bar. “How are you, hmm? You hurt yourself, I see.” She clucked her tongue disapprovingly at his injured hand. “Did you wrap that yourself? The bandage is filthy.”
“It’s n-nothing,” Chase said.
“Bah. You’ll get an infection. Wait here.”
She disappeared through the swinging door to the kitchen and returned a moment later with a metal box with a hinged lid, which she set on the bar. When she opened it, Chase saw the box held clean, white bandages and disinfectant spray.
“You d-don’t need to –” Chase started.
Mama Cho silenced him with a glance. She took hold of his hand and unwrapped it. “My kitchen boy left last week,” she said and sprayed the cut. It stung, and Chase winced. “Jumped a space freighter for heaven knows where. I need a new boy. It’s hard work, but it’s honest. There’s a bed and meals and 10 credits a week in it. What do you say?”
Regretfully, Chase shook his head. “Got s-s-something I need t-to do.” Also, Ellie would send her biggest boys after him if he left. Once in a gang, it was hard to get out.
“Too bad. You can’t live on the streets forever, you know. There, that’s better.”
Chase flexed his hand with the new bandage. He had to admit that it was an improvement. “Th-thanks, Mama.”
She patted his shoulder and left with the box, back to the kitchen. Chase finished his noodles. Mama Cho returned to refill the bowl, and Chase ate those noodles, too, before Fixer waved at him through the beaded curtain down the hall.
Chase walked back. Fixer was pacing between tables littered with computer parts, the microdrive plugged into a tablet in his hand. He showed the screen to Chase — a spreadsheet of names and numbers.
“When I said this was serious stuff,” Fixer said, “I didn’t think it was this serious.”
Chase stared at the screen. “Wh-hat is it?”
“Payoffs. Bribes. Shifty stuff, you know, seriously under the table. Payment amounts, names, dates. Goes back for years. Some of the names on here … getting caught with this shit would get you disappeared into a shallow grave real quick. Be careful with this. I mean it.”
Chase took the tablet, his hands trembling with excitement. He reorganized the data by date and scrolled through. The list went on and on. Some names he knew: Businessmen, merchants, politicians. Counselor Barrett had his hooks in half the people in the city, or they had theirs in him.
He found the day, six years ago, when he’d lost his family and his life had turned upside-down. A week later, Barrett got a 10,000 credit payment from a man named Harry Gurman. Enough to pull strings. Fast-track an adoption, wipe the records.
“There,” he said.
Fixer frowned. “I don’t know the name.” He picked up another tablet and typed on the screen. “Harry Gurman. Owns an interplanetary shipping company.”
They scrolled through. Gurman, bald with thin lips and a weak chin, in a suit and tie, shaking hands, cutting ceremonial ribbons. At the docks, in a business meeting, at a leafy playground at a park.
“Stop,” Chase said.
In the playground photo, Gurman had his arm around a girl. Eight or nine, curly blond hair, blue eyes. Chase could hardly breathe. It was Emily. He could see the 2-year-old grown. He wanted to reach through the screen to touch her. She was looking at Gurman with adoration and trust.
“Doesn’t say. His daughter?”
“What’s the d-date?”
“Six months ago.”
The time frame was right. “Where?”
The answer startled him. Karmanau was a city that was a couple hundred kilometers away.
Chase had never been to Karmanau. He had never been anywhere. The thought of leaving Danilov, the only place he had ever known, made his stomach churn. He could do it, though. For Emily, he could.
“But he doesn’t live there,” Fixer went on, reading his tablet. “He used to, but not anymore. He went off-world about two years ago. To Cuevas.”
Chase’s last hope crashed around him. He could reach another city. How would he get to another planet?
“A long way from here.”
“Can you p-print that photo?”
Fixer did and gave it to Chase, who carefully folded the copy in half and slid it into his pocket.
What’s this about?” Fixer asked.
“Gurman took something fr-fr-from me,” Chase said vaguely. Safer for Fixer if he didn’t know the whole truth. “I n-need to get it back.”
Fixer set down his tablet and ran a hand over his slicked-back hair. “Bummer. Whatever it was, you better let it go, kid. Because it’s long gone now.”
Chase walked out the front of the restaurant, into the press of people on the neon-lit sidewalk. The night was warm and humid. A storm was coming in. He scuffed his feet, head bowed, hands in his pockets, where he played with the microdrive.
How would he reach Emily? He didn’t have thousands of credits to pay for passage to another planet. He was just a street rat – poor, uneducated, alone. After so many years, did his search end here? Was the photo in his pocket the closest he would get to his sister?
He paid so little attention to his surroundings that he didn’t notice the black sedan that pulled up beside him or the man who got out until the guy grabbed Chase from behind, hand clamped over his mouth, and dragged him kicking into the vehicle’s backseat.
The car door slammed shut. Brakes squealed. The car lurched. Chase sat on smooth black leather, with dark glass between the front and back of the car. Two men sat on either side of him. One was the bruiser who had grabbed him. The other one …
He was in serious trouble.
“C-c-counselor Barrett,” he said.
Up close in his suit, the counselor seemed even larger than he had the other night. He smelled of sweat and cologne, and several rings glittered on his beefy hands.
Those hands could snap Chase in half. But if Barrett wanted him dead, he wouldn’t do it in the back of a sedan. The counselor must want something else.
“You know me now?” Barrett said, looking at him with beady black eyes. “There’s nowhere to run this time, street rat.”
“How did I find you?”
Barrett smiled coldly at Chase’s frustration at not getting the sentence out. The stutter got worse with fear or shock, and Chase could hardly remember being more scared than he was now.
“I had you followed. Did you think you would get away with stealing from me? Where is it?”
Chase breathed deep, tried to calm himself. Slowly, he took the microdrive from his pocket and gave it to Barrett. No point in playing coy. If they searched him, they would find it. Handing it over might gain him some mercy. Besides, he had what he wanted from the data, for all the good it would do him.
Barrett crushed the microdrive in his fist.
“Not this,” Barrett said.
Chase gaped. “I-I don’t h-h-have it.”
The man on Chase’s other side hissed through his teeth. “Boss, if Felix finds out –”
“Shut the hell up,” Barrett snapped.
Chase wondered who Felix was, but the thought went out of his head as Barrett turned back to him, his expression furious. A vein on the counselor’s forehead popped out, throbbing.
“Where is the meteor?” he said.
No point in lying. “My g-gang leader has it.”
“Too bad. But no matter. You’re going to get it for me.”
Barrett nodded at the other man, who took a syringe of clear liquid from inside his coat. Chase knew what was coming, but he couldn’t get away. The man stabbed the point into Chase’s neck. Chase yelled. He struggled, but the man held him down. A sharp burn spread from the needle to his shoulder. Then the syringe, empty, went back under the man’s coat.
“A tracking device,” Barrett said. “It’s in your blood now. You can’t get rid of it, and if you try to run, I will be able to find you anywhere. Understand?”
Rubbing his neck, Chase nodded.
“Good.” Barrett handed him a holodisc. “You have 24 hours to get the meteor. You’re going to bring it to a drop point. One hour before, the location will be sent to this.”
Chase nodded again.
A cold smile. “If you decide not to cooperate, I will have you hunted down and killed. And I will kill everyone you care about. Your gang. That sweet old lady who runs the noodle shop. Her son the petty hacker. All of them.”
“I-I understand,” he said, but he hated it. Stealing from strangers was one thing; stealing from your own gang was something else. It violated the code they lived by. But the boys in the gang had nothing to do with this, and Mama Cho and Fixer were his closest thing to family. He felt sick that Barrett might hurt them.
Barrett tapped on the glass between them and the front seat. The car stopped. The bruiser got out, dragging Chase by his collar, and dumped him on the sidewalk, outside a bar, as raindrops started to fall. Chase landed on his injured hand.
Pain stabbed up his wrist. By the time he looked up through the rain, cradling his hand, the car had driven around the corner and vanished.
Chase waited until the shift change an hour before dawn, for the few minutes when no one would be guarding the warehouse entrance. He climbed the fire escape, feeling vulnerable. Anyone might see him. He winced at every creak and groan of the rusty ladder and peeked over the second-floor window ledge. No one was there.
He scrambled in and quickly made his way to the basement and Ellie’s office, where he stood with his ear to the door.
His heart pounded like a bio-house, so loud he was sure everyone in the warehouse could hear it. If he were caught, Ellie would have him killed. She might do it herself. If he didn’t deliver the meteor to Barrett, though, he was dead for sure, along with Mama Cho, Fixer and the gang.
He had no choice.
No sounds came from Ellie’s office, so Chase used his picks to jimmy the lock until it clicked. He eased the door open a crack. The lights were off. He opened the door enough to slip through and shut it behind him. Flipped on the light. He was alone.
Heart pounding even harder, he walked around Ellie’s desk to the shelves behind it. The meteor wasn’t there among the jewelry and weapons. He hoped she hadn’t fenced it. If she had, he would never get it back in the few hours he had left.
He tried the desk drawers, one in the middle and two on each side. All locked. He used his picks again, starting with the drawer on the bottom left.
In seconds, he had it open. Inside were dozens of brown folders. Curious, he lifted one out. It held several holodiscs that when activated showed a man and a woman having sex. Chase wondered which one, the man or the woman, Ellie was blackmailing with the images.
After returning the folder to its place and shutting the drawer, he tried the one above it. The lock clicked. He pulled at the drawer. It rattled. He stopped and waited several seconds with held breath until he was sure no one was coming. Then slowly, silently, he eased the drawer the rest of the way open. Several items lay inside: a rock carving of a lizard, a pendant shaped like a telescope, a fossilized egg, and the meteor.
A painful tightness loosened in Chase’s chest, but he wasn’t out of danger yet. He grabbed the rock. It caught and reflected the room’s light. Heavy in his hand, it felt solid and real, like it was more there than other mundane things.
He put the meteor in his pocket, shut the drawer and hurried to the door, again putting his ear to it. Nothing on the other side. He shut off the lights and opened the door.
Ellie stood there with Jose and another of her biggest boys. Her eyes were filled with fury.
Chase made a break for it. He hadn’t gone two steps before one of the boys grabbed his forearm and yanked him back pinning his arms behind him. He kicked the boy’s shins and stomped on his feet, but the boy only tightened his grip.
Ellie stuck her hand into his pocket and took the meteor. The look she gave him was almost sad. “Slit his throat. Make sure to get rid of the body.”
“W-w-wait,” Chase said, desperate.
“I have nothing to say to you.”
“You’re m-making a mistake.”
She sneered. “The only mistake I made was trusting you.”
She started to walk away. Chase took a deep breath. Another. Tried to calm himself enough to speak. He yelled after her,
“I die, y-y-you die.”
She stopped, turned and strode back. “I don’t like threats.”
“N-not a threat. B-B-Barrett …”
“This is for him?”
“He’ll kill everyone if I d-d-don’t deliver the m-meteor. Th-the whole gang.”
Her eyes narrowed. “That’s not Barrett’s style. He’s more subtle than threatening mass murder.”
“It’s the truth. He’s p-panicking. I heard a n-name. Felix. I th-think it’s his buyer.”
He didn’t have to explain what that meant. They both knew how this worked. If Barrett made a deal and didn’t deliver, he was a dead man.
“There a h-holodisc in my other pocket,” he said, and Ellie fished it out. “I m-make the drop t-t-tonight. He’ll send the location to th-this. You c-could be there. Take photos. V-v-video.”
Understanding dawned on Ellie’s face. Her expression went from anger to greed. “He would do anything to make sure evidence like that wasn’t released on the vids.”
“Wh-hat’s that worth? More than a r-rock?”
She stood there, thinking it through.
Chase bit his lip. He clenched and unclenched his fists around the tight grip of the boy who still pinned his arms behind his back. His fingers tingled from the loss of blood flow. If Ellie refused … No, he couldn’t think about that.
“I have the drop point,” she said, waving the holodisc in his face. “I know the plan you made with Barrett. I can kill you and send someone else.”
Panic. “H-ha-has to be me.”
“Tracker in m-my blood. If I’m n-n-not there, he’ll know. Won’t show.”
Chase didn’t know whether that was true or not. Barrett might not care who showed up as long as he got his meteor. But it was enough to convince Ellie. A frown creased her mouth as she waved at the boy behind Chase to release him.
Blood rushed back into his hands. He rubbed his wrists. His shoulders burned.
Ellie poked a finger into his chest. “If anything goes wrong or if you cross me again, I will personally put a burner hole in your brain.”
He nodded. He had no intention of betraying anyone. Barrett would get his meteor, Ellie would get her blackmail evidence, and Chase would go on living. Get the hell out of this city. He only had to get through tonight in one piece.
The drop point was Mama Cho’s. The threat in the choice was obvious. If Chase didn’t show, Barrett would start his killing spree with Mama and Fixer.
That made Chase angry as he weaved among passers-by on the busy street near Mama Cho’s. He was angry at Barrett for making threats. At Harry Gurman for taking Emily off-planet. At himself for stealing the meteor in the first place. He would have left it in the safe if he had known the trouble it would cause.
He shouldered his way through the crowd outside the door into the restaurant. Every table had customers. Families, young couples, business folks having a drink after work. The place hummed with conversation. Chase looked at the diners as he crossed the room. Ellie sat with three boys at a corner table, pretending they hadn’t noticed Chase.
He sat at his usual stool at the bar. The meteor was heavy in his pocket. His stomach squirmed like a nest of eels.
“What’s this? Two nights in a row?” Mama Cho said as she set a bowl of noodles in front of him. She had on a blue apron, and her hair was in its usual tight bun. “You come here too much, and I’ll have to start charging you. Unless you’ve changed you mind on being my kitchen boy?”
Chase whispered. “Mama, y-you have to get out.”
“Get out? What?”
“T-t-take Fixer. Go. Leave.”
“Bah, you’re talking crazy. Leave? Look around. We have good business tonight. Best all month.” She laughed. “Get out, really.”
She laughed again as she hurried off to tend to customers. Chase could only watch, helpless. Telling her about Barrett might put her in more danger.
Chase picked at his noodles but didn’t eat. He wasn’t hungry. He wished that whatever was going to happen would just happen already.
A man sat on the stool beside him. “Well?” he said.
Chase glanced over. It was Barrett. He wore street clothes — a button-down shirt, jeans and a wide-brimmed hat to hide his face. A brown messenger bag was slung over his shoulder. Despite what he had told Ellie, Chase had thought there was a good chance Barrett might send a lackey to do his dirty work. He must be desperate if he was handling this personally.
“Do you have it?” Barrett said.
“What are you waiting for? Give it to me.”
“F-first I want your pr-promise. I give you the m-meteor, y-you leave me and m-my friends alone.”
“Yes, yes, of course.”
The vein popped out in Barrett’s forehead, beneath his hat brim. His voice grew impatient. “I promise. I won’t harm a hair on the head of you or anyone you care about. Now hand over the rock.”
Satisfied, Chase reached into his pocket for the meteor, his fingers brushing the folded photo of Emily. He set the rock on the bar between them. Barrett snatched it up and stuffed it into the messenger bag. He plucked a noodle from Chase’s bowl and popped it in his mouth.
“If I ever see you again, street rat —”
“Y-you’ll kill me,” Chase said tiredly.
Barrett stood from his stool. He was halfway to the door when another man — skinny with glasses and graying hair — stood from a table where he sat alone.
“Counselor,” the man said. He took a burner from a holster under his coat and pointed it at Barrett.
5Barrett stopped. The hum of conversation went silent. Customers sat still in their chairs. Mama Cho emerged from the kitchen with a bowl of noodles in each hand, and she stopped, too, mouth in a wide O.
Chase glanced at Ellie’s table. One of her boys had a holocamera pointed at the two men.
Barrett had his back to Chase. One hand dropped to his messenger bag and the other inched toward his coat, where Chase guessed he kept his own burner.
“We had a deal, Barrett,” the man said.
The buyer, Chase thought. It had to be.
Barrett gave a hearty laugh that came out as fake. “I was just coming to see you, Felix.”
“I know you, you greedy bastard. You were about to take the rock for yourself and run, then tell me later that you couldn’t recover the stolen merchandise. Did you orchestrate the theft, too? Was it all part of some plan?”
“Come on, Felix, be reasonable.”
Felix barked a laugh. “A hundred-thousand credits I’ve got sunk in this. I left reasonable behind a long time ago. Give me the bag.”
“Of course, of course.”
But instead of handing over the bag, Barrett took his burner from his coat. At the same time, three men stood from a table near the door, also drawing burners. Chase recognized one of them as the bruiser from the car. Two more men — in Felix’s employ, Chase guessed — stood at another table.
Chase glanced at Ellie again, but it seemed she had forgotten him entirely. She looked ecstatic, like someone had given her the perfect gift.
“I’m taking the rock,” Barrett said.
“Damn you,” Felix said.
Chase couldn’t tell who fired first. The burner blast shot over the bar. Chase felt its heat on his cheek. He looked over to see a small hole in the wall, smoking.
After that, everyone moved at once. Burner blasts shot around the room as Barrett’s and Felix’s men fired at each other.
The air grew warm and stank of chemical smoke.
Customers screamed. Some dropped under tables, parents shielding crying children. Others ran or crawled for the exit.
Mama Cho dropped her noodles, the bowls shattering on the floor, and ran for the kitchen.
Chase hurdled the bar and peeked over.
Ellie and her boys had tipped over a table and were behind it. She was firing her burner at anyone who got too close. One of her boys had a burner hole in his leg. He was clutching the injury and howling.
Barrett’s bruiser had crossed the room to Felix’s men. He swung his fist, hitting one guy’s jaw with a loud crack. The man staggered and fell on a table. Noodles and drinks went flying.
There was a bang as someone set off a smoke bomb, and a thick, acrid haze filled the room. Chase blinked against the sting in his eyes.
Most customers had escaped, either out the front door or to the kitchen. Felix was face-down on the floor, unmoving, while Barrett was crawling on his hands and knees toward the exit. A burner blast — Chase wasn’t sure whose — hit the strap of his messenger bag, which caught fire. Barrett yelped. He flung the strap off his shoulder and kept crawling, out the door.
The bag lay in the middle of the room, burning.
Chase crawled around the edge of the bar. The bag was a good 10 feet away. Ellie and her boys were shooting. So were the men. No one seemed to notice that Felix was either dead or seriously injured and that Barrett had escaped. Now was his chance.
Under the cover of the smoke, Chase scurried toward the bag on hands and knees. Like a rat. The thought almost made him laugh. It seemed to take forever to get there. A burner blast shot passed his nose. Someone moaned to his left. He didn’t stop. His hand closed over a part of the strap that was burned black but no longer aflame.
Over the blasts came the wail of police sirens.
Chase dragged the bag behind him back the way he had come. Blood pounded hard in his ears. He reached the bar and then he was past it, into the hallway that led to Fixer’s workshop. He scrambled to his feet and, still dragging the smoldering bag, tumbled through the beaded curtain.
A burner blast shot past his shoulder.
“It’s m-me!” he yelled.
Fixer peeked over a table littered with electronic parts, a smoking burner in his hand. He looked stunned.
The air was less hazy here. Chase wiped his watering eyes.
“Where’s Mama?” Fixer asked.
“The k-kitchens. I th-think she’s all r-right. Police are c-coming.”
“I called them.” He eyed the messenger bag. “What’s that?”
“F-found it out there,” Chase said.
He joined Fixer behind the table and flipped open the bag’s top. They looked inside. The meteor was still there, as were two thick bundles of papers. Chase sighed in relief. Everything was there.
Fixer took out one of the bundles and whistled low. “Hundred credit bills. Tons of them. No one carries this much cash.”
Not unless they planned to catch the next ship off-planet and never return, Chase thought. Felix had had the right of it on Barrett. The counselor had planned to run.
“You’re lucky,” Fixer said. “Finding that.”
He made to return the bundle to the bag, but Chase stopped him with a hand on his.
“K-keep it. For the r-restaurant.”
In the dining area, men were yelling. “Police! Get on the floor. Hands behind your heads!”
“B-back door?” Chase asked Fixer.
“That way,” Fixer pointed to a corner opposite the beaded curtain. “Don’t worry, as far as I’m concerned, you were never here.”
The door handle was stuck. Chase jiggled it until it turned, and found himself in a grimy alley that stank of rotten food.
Rats scurried among trash receptacles. He felt that he spent half his life escaping into dirty alleys. To his right, the way ended in a high brick wall. To the left, in the street, police vehicle lights reflected red and blue against shop windows.
He slung the bag over his shoulder and climbed. The hand he had cut at Barrett’s bio-house — what seemed months ago — was still sore. He grit his teeth and ignored it. Kept climbing and reached the flat-topped, gravel-covered roof of Mama Cho’s.
He sat and caught his breath, then looked over the edge at the street. Ellie and her boys were being led to police vehicles in handcuffs. For a moment Chase felt bad for her. But only for a moment. She had threatened to slit his throat, after all.
Next came Felix on a stretcher.
Barrett had gotten away, but two dozen customers would testify to his involvement in the shootout. Even if he knew who had taken his bag — which he didn’t — he would be much too busy avoiding cops to come after Chase.
Feeling better than he had in days, Chase adjusted the strap over his shoulder and set out across the rooftops.
The space port was bigger than Chase could have imagined, with vaulted ceilings that went up several stories and floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the ships outside. Some of the ships were sleek and fancy, others dull, dirty hunks of metal built not for comfort but hard work.
Chase admired them as he strutted through the terminal in his new clothes. He loved the soft fabric and the clean smell. A rich smell. He also had a new travel bag packed with more clothes, Barrett’s second bundle of money and the meteor.
He walked up to a ticket counter.
“May I help you?” asked a woman with long, blond hair. She smiled at him in a friendly way that Chase wasn’t used to. No one smiled like that at a street rat.
“Y-yes. I want p-passage to Cuevas.”
She typed on her screen. “The next ship to Cuevas won’t leave for two weeks. There is a freighter heading to Virak this afternoon. That will get you halfway there. It’s not as comfortable as a cruiser, but it is taking on passengers.”
“Th-that’s fine,” he said.
The woman typed on her screen again. “Do you have family on Cuevas?”
She was making polite conversation, another first for him.
“Y-yes,” he said. “My sister.”
“That will be nice.”
“I h-haven’t seen her in s-six years.”
“I bet she’ll be happy to see you.”
He paid the woman from Barrett’s money, and she gave him a holodisc with his flight information. He thanked her and moved off to join the crowds walking in a steady flow to their ships.
She’ll be happy to see you, the woman had said, but Emily might not remember him. That was his biggest fear. She had been only 2 when they last saw each other.
Then again, she might have yearned for him all these years the same way he did for her. Finally, he had the chance to find out. As he walked to his ship, he imagined her excitement at seeing him, her embrace, her soft curls bouncing against his cheek while she whispered in his ear, You found me, you found me, you found me.
Jennifer Campbell-Hicks’ stories have been published in venues including Daily Science Fiction, Fireside Magazine and the anthology Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera for a New Age.