Given

THREE: Kara

I waited, checking my chrono obsessively, preparing the last items, until the first moment the microcams flew away. The way was clear, but not for long.

Ninety.

The false covering of the weakened wall came off easily. I set it on the ground next to me, hands shaking.

Any loud unexpected sound in the area would summon the microcams out of their regular routine, and my ninety seconds would be over fast.

Ideally I would have waited days after the last of my corrosive little beasties had done their work. That would have been plenty of time for the area to be safe. But now I’d have work the job despite a dulled sense of touch through an acid proof glove.

One tentative push through the jagged opening, another against the half-dissolved back wall of the safe.

Eighty.

A final push, and nothing but empty space beyond. I was in.

The opening was narrow, barely wide enough to slide my hand through, but there was no time to widen it. Now that I’d breached their security, there’d never be an opening like this again.

Even through the glove I could feel the triangular prism shape of the antonium vials. I grabbed one and slower than I would’ve liked eased it out out to place in the pouch I’d unfolded while waiting.

Each vial would nestle in a separate pocket. Antonium had a reputation for nasty surprises when jostled about.

Sweat ran down my back, measuring the seconds in fear. I’d wipe it off later. No time now.

Eyes watering from the fumes that still lingered in the alley way, I reached through the gap for another vial, then another.

Seventy.

The urge to just grab a handful, stuff them in my pack and be gone shook my chest. But the hole wasn’t large enough for a fisted hand. I had to wrap my fingers underneath each prism and slowly coax it out towards me.

Another one nestled in its pocket.

The sting of the acid against the flesh of my arm began to burn. I hadn’t thought it would still be so potent when I came in for the job, I’d assumed the gloves would be enough. I reached for another vial. Better some scars on my arm than to be tossed into the Waste.

Fifty.

“My hands are smaller, let me do it.”

Crap. “What are you doing here?” I hissed between my teeth, trying not to split my attention, and knowing I was failing.

“I want to help,” Bani whispered back. “Here, I can…” As he reached towards the opening, his foot caught the edge of the section of wall I’d removed.

The sheet of permasteel wobbled once, twice, and then fell with a clatter that could be heard for blocks. The shrill whir of the microcams changing direction, picking up speed, told me in no uncertain terms we’d been noticed.

I snatched my hand back from the opening. One last vial, no time to gently pack it. The long strap of the bag went over my head, and I grabbed Bani.

“I’m sorry…” he started.

“Just run,” was all I had time to say.  

“You there, wait!” The heavy footfalls of the goons as they emerged from the shop punctuated the sound of the microcams.

The chase was on.

I grinned. I couldn’t help it. I’d been running through the streets and alleys of Ghelfi for over half my life. The hit of adrenaline, the intense focus on the next step, the next jump, left no room for any other worries.

In the alley behind the row of gambling dens that all paid tithe to Xavis, we could hear the murmur of winners and losers, a soft rush of voices that faded as we darted down another small passageway, twisting and turning. But still the cams were on us. The goons didn’t need to be fast, just keep their tracking on.

The smell of fried noodles hit me; we were behind Old Law’s place. He’d always looked the other way when I snagged leftover food from the trash as a kid. My stomach growled, heedless of the current crisis.

If we got out of this, if I survived the tithe, I’d treat Bani to a feast.

If.

Into the oldest section of Ghelfi city, alleys filled with broken parts not even worth the recycle bounty, snarled nests of wires cracking between buildings, dodging the dangling streamers, because you never knew what was still live, and what could kill you.

“Kara,” Bani gasped from behind me. “I can’t keep up.”  His voice broke, sobbing for air as we ran.

“Just a bit farther, I promise.” I hated promising. I hate lying, and promises too often end up that way, at least in our world. But if we could just make it to the old tunnels, we had a chance.

Legs aching, we sprinted across the street of the main bazaar, dodging the tourists and miners and gamblers and suckers that all thought that here, on the fringe of the Empire, they’d make their dreams come true.

“Through here,” I called over my shoulder, and darted between two dingy storefronts, back in the shelter of the alleys.

On the streets it was too easy for a goon or a drone to take a shot. Needlers were illegal in the Empire, which meant everyone seemed to have at least a pair on New Rhea as a badge of citizenship. Everyone except me.  Needlers, pretty much all guns made me queasy. Not for the first time I wondered if I should reevaluate that plan.

The back ways, left over from when the huge assembler machines had formed the basic structures of the city back in the day, zigged and zagged in a tangled pattern. Their creators probably thought it made perfect sense, but they were all long dead.

Finally, the maintenance shaft I’d been homing in on came within sight. My fingers laced in the grill, jerking it off as I skidded to a stop.

“Told you…” I was talking to the air. Bani was gone.  

Rings. I needed to get away, get clear of the area and to Xavis and get shit straightened out. It wasn’t my fault the stupid kid tagged along. Hell, it was his fault we were running now.

Damn it.

I stashed the bag in the shaft. No point risking it, even if I was an idiot.

I headed back the way we’d come, slower this time. If Bani had just gotten lost, that would be one thing… but if he’d been caught, I didn’t feel like rushing my head into a noose.

“Get your hands off of me, you jerk!”  The yelling made a great beacon, and a warning. I poked my head around the corner, and pulled back right away. They’d caught him, one of the goons holding Bani’s thin frame pressed against the wall of the old water plant, seepage running out from under the wall, turning the dust underfoot to mud.

The kid kicked in his grip, but he’d need to weigh at least four times as much to make any difference.  I risked another look, discarding options as fast as I came up with them.  A crackle overhead caught my attention.  Maybe….

Digging through the rubbish, I found a length of scrap wire. I pulled out my knife and started wrapping it.

It wasn’t a great plan, but it was all I had.  I eased out from the corner and waved. Bani saw me, and I pointed overhead, then to the ledge of a boarded up window next to him.  His eyes widened, but he nodded.

Then he bit the hell out of the arm of the goon holding him.

Bastard hadn’t expected that, and dropped Bani.  Instead of falling like a rock, he wiggled, twisting his body so he caught the edge of the window sill with the tips of his fingers.

“Don’t fall, kid,” I muttered, and threw my knife into the tangle of wires overhead.

For a long moment it looked like my gamble had failed. The knife tangled in the cluster above, the long wire I wrapped around the blade trailing into the damp dirt below. But nothing was happening. Then with a shriek of metal on metal the whole tangled mess tumbled down, catching the goons and the bots in their net.

The goons lay in the damp ground, twitching slightly. It didn’t look like the shock had been enough to kill them, even if the electronics were fried. One small knot untangled in my gut. I’d made it so far without killing anyone, at least, that I knew about.

Movement on the wall caught my attention. Bani still clung there, pressed tight against the wall. I guess, if it that was my choice today, I could live with it.

Bani worked his way down at the window sill towards me hand over hand and dropped down, well clear of the danger zone. He looked up at me, grinning. “That was great.”

I ran my hand through my hair and smothered the urge to shake him. “Belay that. The cams probably got our faces, probably sent them to the servers. The trouble isn’t over.”

My hand drifted to my side, fingers ghosting over the sheath. “And I’ve lost my favorite knife.”

His face fell. “Thanks for coming back for me,” he whispered.

I punched his arm. “Of course, idiot.” Maybe I should have hugged him. But that would have been weird for both of us.

He must have known what I meant, because he perked right back up, nearly skipping in circles around me as we headed back to the hiding place. “Did you get enough to make tithe? Maybe extra to sweeten Xavis back up? He’s only angry because he likes you, you know.”

At his age, the tithe would be pretty minimal. It was for most kids, made it easy to agree, trade a little of the take for protection, for food. For the semblance of a family, when you had no one else.

Xavis had always pushed me harder, said I had a talent for the game that would be a shame not to develop. Unfortunately, his idea of encouragement was to push, and push hard.

My tithes had always been twice the other kids in our band of castaways and orphans.

But still, it was better than starving.

I’d pulled eight vials out from the safe before Bani had showed up to ‘help.’ “It’ll be enough, maybe even a little left over as a buffer.” For all the chaos, even with having to push the timeline on the plan, it had worked. Xavis would forgive me being late with such a haul. The vise around my chest finally started to loosen. It was gonna be alright.

“After I check in, let’s go hit up Old Law’s place, get some station style noodles?”  

Bani nodded, and started chattering about all the other fabulous treats in the street stands on the way. I half listened to him, half paying attention to the noise of the bazaar, the smells and sounds from all over the System. Things were going to work out. I could find a new long term job, something that would really…

We turned the final corner back to the maintenance shaft and froze. Shock flipped a switch, filling my veins with fire.

“Hey!” I shouted. “Get away from that!”

A black uniformed man hunched over my hiding place. The grill had been tossed into the alley and he crouched, head bowed down, peering into the shaft.  He didn’t flinch.  I reached for my knife, and swore at the empty sheath.

Instead I grabbed a cracked tile, discarded years ago, and flung it at the guy. A rushing noise filled my ears, drowning out the city, Bani, everything. I’d gone through way too much hassle to lose the haul to a scavenger like that.

Except this wasn’t like any scavenger I’d ever seen. Too neat, too clean. I would have thought he was military, if the Empire ever bothered to send anyone this far out.

The invader might have ignored my shouts, but the edge of the tile cracked against his shoulder. There was something wrong about his movements as the black form slowly rose, and turned my way.

His face was covered by a dark helmet, but all my attention was focused on the satchel in his hand. My satchel. My vials. My only hope.

“Get away!” I shrieked and tore towards him. I might not have my knife, but you didn’t survive in Ghelfi city without learning a few things about a street fight. He might have been bigger than me, but I could count on desperation to lend me extra strength.

This day just wasn’t going to stop, was it. I had to have that satchel. I flung myself at the dark shape, snatching the loop of the bag as I went by.

My own momentum snapped me back. The black uniformed presence didn’t move, didn’t speak. I rushed at him, hoping to knock him over, get him to loosen his grip on my satchel.

Nothing. He stood as immovable as the rocks outside in the Waste.  I grabbed another tile, ignoring the sting of the sharp edge that cut my hands, and smashed my fist with improvised blade against the black helmet.

Didn’t even scratch it.  What the hell was this thing?  I made another snatch at the satchel, pulling until the muscles in my arms screamed.

Suddenly the motionless figure snapped. He twisted, shaking me like toy at the end of the string, until one final flip sent me flying into the opposite wall. Someone dropped a pile of permasteel bricks on my head, and blackness took me.

**

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