ONE: Kara

It was all Juda’s fault.

I kicked him out of my bed three weeks ago for cheating on me, but apparently he wasn’t done screwing me over.

I crouched, low on the roof of the abandoned gambling den across the street from Sary’s “general store” and cursed the limp dicked bastard all over again.

There wasn’t a lot of traffic at this time of day. Not that meant much in Ghelfi, the thieves city never truly slept. There was no point in waiting for night, like in the old vids Mom used to watch over and over. Like all sealed cities on the surface of New Rhea, lighting in Ghelfi varied throughout the day’s cycle, but never to a true night.

I saw real night, once. I stowed away on the back of a surface crawler that was heading to Lashell. I don’t know why, somehow I thought it would be better if I got out of Ghelfi, started over somewhere else.

The velvet sky, studded with stars, shone clean and cold. Perfect. Not like the barely organized chaos of the cities.  

But halfway there the crawler broke down, had to be towed back. I realized that there was no way out. Not for me.

In the old vids everything always turned out alright, something swooped in at the last minute to save the day.

That’s how you knew they were only lies.

So here I was, half-hidden among old wires and debris that had been kicked up to the top of the store years ago, long forgotten. Watching time slip away on the chrono, crossing my fingers to old gods I didn’t believe in.

“What’cha doing?”

I jumped, furious with myself.

Bani crouched next to me. His dark brown hair hung down in his face, but I could still see the twinkle in his eye. Snuck up on me and was proud of it, little bastard.

I socked him gently in the arm, just enough to let him know I cared.

“Everybody’s looking for you, Kara,” he said under his breath. He didn’t look at me but instead kept his eyes scanning across the street, trying to see what I was interested in. Smart kid.

I ran my hand through my own tangle of hair. It was past time to cut it, but things had been a little busy lately.

“How mad is Xavis?” I really didn’t want to know the answer.

Bani shrugged one bony shoulder. “He’s playing it down a little bit, but I think he’s pretty steamed. If you of all people don’t show up by the end of the tithe, he’s gonna lose a lot of face.”

A light crackled, the burnt smell of frying wires wafted by. But I wasn’t paying attention to the noise or to the stink of ozone that permeated the air of Ghelfi. If Xavis really was mad, I was in trouble.

I shoved the thought far to the back of my head. Nothing to do about it but keep moving.

A shuffling sound below surprised me, and I risked another glance over the ledge. A miner, wrapped in rags so filthy there was no telling the gender, half-staggered down the street. He, she, whatever paused in front of Sary’s store front, then stumbled inside.

Ice gripped my spine. Rings willing, he’d be quick. Claim whatever he came to trade, and get out. Not stay there, spinning stories of life in the Waste, screwing my time table.

“Is that the job?” Bani’s wide eyes fixed me. “A snatch and grab on the miners after they bring in the dust?”

I rolled my eyes. “They’re just trying to get by, same as us.” Besides, credits were no good to me, not with so little time to clean them.  But the antonium dust the miners brought in was untraceable. If I could just get enough of it.

Agonizing minutes passed until he left. I glanced at my chrono again. If she didn’t show up today, I didn’t have a backup plan. This was my backup plan. No more nets to catch my fall.

I closed my eyes to try to find the calm, cold center within that had kept me alive so far on the streets of Ghelfi, and waited. I didn’t need to see, didn’t need to check the time. I could only wait, and listen.

Finally the sound came. The sharp click of stiletto heels across the permasteel walkway. I opened my eyes and leaned forward ever so slightly to peer down the street.

There she was. Charro’s secret indulgence. Silver hair teased into a high fall down her back, her face paint marked her as one of Sary’s working girls. When I first found out about Charro’s extracurricular activities, I’d half thought of sending a note to Sary, stir up the nest a bit. Then I started thinking long term. That’d been almost two years ago.

Two years of planning and waiting, brought to a crash by that bastard Juda. I should have gutted him like a fish instead of just kicking him out.

Bani glanced at her and then looked up at me, frowning.

“That’s your mark?” He risked another look but I pulled him back sharply by the collar of his jacket.

He glared at me, with all the scorn a preteen could manage. “I know her. She works the landing pad. Even if she did have the sort of money you’re going to need to get out of trouble with Xavis, she isn’t gonna be carrying it with her on a job.” His eyes narrowed. “So what are you really up to?”

I grinned. I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t pleased to have to use this job to get out of the hole Juda left me in, but it was pretty brilliant.

“Just keep your eye on the alley, kid, okay?”

I checked my chrono again, but I didn’t need to. I’d timed this pattern so often. Like clockwork the shadows of Charro’s two goons came into focus on the tinted plex of the storefront. Just like every other time I’d watched, they paced back and forth, no doubt joking about their boss and his hobby.

“They’re supposed to be guarding the back room, but he always kicks them out when she visits.” I checked the time again, stupid habit. Couldn’t help it. “He might be there, but he’s more than a little distracted right now.”

I worked my way across the roof, down to the collection of rubble in the back alley that it let me gain my vantage point.

Bani followed me and I glared at him.

“Stay up here,” I snarled. “I don’t know how this is going to turn out.”

“Then you’ll need a second pair of hands.”

The kid had a point, but I’d be damned if I was going to let him have it.

“No, I need a second pair of eyes.” He shoulders sagged a little. But I couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t follow me anyway.

“Besides, I don’t know if I can trust you on this job.” His white face told me my words hit their mark. Hated to do it, but I didn’t want to be worried about him. I was in enough trouble as it was.

His face slid out of sight as I worked my way down the trash heap.

Even before I crossed the street the bitter stench of the acid bombs I’d planted clawed at my throat. The air recirculators only worked intermittently in this neighborhood, and in the alley the smell almost forced me to my knees.

That the miner walking by without flinching I could understand. I’d heard too much time in an environmental suit would have you smelling nothing but rubber. But the silver haired doxy must have been high on something to not notice something was wrong.

No time to linger in the alley. Microcams swept every ninety seconds, watching, waiting for anything out of the ordinary.

I dashed to the hiding space I’d carved out of the fallen wall that backed up to Sary’s, and held my breath, trying to hear over the drumming of my heart beat. The rushing in my ears slowed, and I poked my head out. Still all clear.

Nobody in their right mind would take on Sary, he ran half the games in town, and word in the pits said he wanted to take control of the city over from Xavis. Unlikely, but still, not someone I really wanted after me. But if the choice was Sary or Xavis himself….well, it was a sucky choice.

I counted, waiting for the next clear moment to check on the results of the clustered acid bombs, then ran back around the corner.

Ninety seconds is a long time.  

Ninety seconds is long enough to make one chip in the wall a day, until a section can be lifted away and replaced seamlessly.

Ninety seconds is long enough to plant one small acid bomb at a time, waiting for a few days for the smell to dissipate, for the interior wall that leads to to vault to weaken, bit by bit, day by day.

Ninety seconds is long enough to die in the Waste, outside of the protection of the domes.

And if I didn’t get my tithe to Xavis by tonight, that’s where I’d end up.


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