Chapter Three: Nesta

I hated the surface.

It was noisy everywhere I went, so much I could barely hear my own thoughts. The whole city seemed to be submerged in a chorus of loud voices, and the growl of shuttle engines as they zoomed back and forth overhead didn’t seem to help. Never mind the giant green dome of vines that encased the whole place. Just looking up at its domed surface made me feel as if I were a tiny fish in some creepy alien aquarium.

I kept the hood of my ragged cloak up, doing my best to blend in with the crowd, but I quickly realized I didn’t need any of that. The crowded streets and back alleys were brimming with people, and everyone seemed too preoccupied about their daily lives to give a damn about some bony woman wearing a dirty old cloak.

“Sol Avenue,” I read from a sign, doing my best to recall the city layout. If I followed the avenue, I should be able to find the farmer’s market…which meant I should be able to find some food.

I was pretty sure that the vines had cut off the city from the rest of the planet, and that the city must’ve been running low on food, but I tried to keep my hopes up. As bad as the situation probably was, I didn’t see anyone assaulting whoever committed the sin of carrying a bag of vegetables down the street. I took that as a good omen, silencing my inner critic as it tried to convince me that the surface idiots were just too civilized to do something as lowly as steal food.

At the end of the avenue, my heart started jumping happily as I saw dozens of street stalls lining the walls of buildings. Merchants called after the potential customers with loud voices, but few people stopped. Some of them glanced warily at the food carts that seemed to pop up every hundred feet or so, but almost everyone kept their heads low and carried on. Either people weren’t going hungry, or they had no money to spend on food.

Well, I was definitely hungry, and the fact that I had no money was just a detail.

“Greetings, good sir,” I said with the largest smile I could conjure, approaching one of the vendors. I had no idea how polite I should act when dealing with surface street vendors, but I quickly decided that being as pompous as I could was a great idea.

“Hey,” he said, an annoyed expression on his face. He eyed me curiously and, pursing his lips, folded his arms over his chest. Then, with a quick gesture, he threw some old blanket over the fruit in his stall. “No money, no food.”

“What? Who the hell said I didn’t have any money?” I found myself saying, already clenching my fists.

“Have you looked in a mirror recently?” he continued, his serious expression giving way to a mocking grin. I noticed he was missing teeth as his lips curled up and, for a moment, I imagined how it’d feel to make him lose another tooth or two. “Where the hell have you crawled out from? A mine?”

“Who the hell—”

“Do I think I am?” he finished for me. “The guy who won’t sell you any food…unless you can pay for it, that is.”

“Of course I can pay,” I lied. Credits really dropped in value after everything went to shit, at least when it came to the underworld, and I hadn’t bothered with carrying any these past few weeks. Not a problem: I’d pay this asshole with my fists. “Show me the goods.”

“The goods?” he snorted. “What are you? Some hardened criminal?”

Briefly, I wondered if his teeth would have any value in the underground market. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a Xathi chef, after all. Perhaps it was my destiny to become a vendor of handmade collars made out of assholes’ teeth. Not my first choice but, hey, you don’t get to choose the talents you’re born with.

Shaking his head, the man finally reached for the blanket covering his fruit and pulled it back. I looked down, my fingers already twitching as I imagined myself with a big fat apple in my hands, but what I found wasn’t what I was expecting.

“What the hell’s that?” I asked, frowning as I realized he wasn’t selling fruit, after all. There were round pieces of bread on a tray, but they seemed almost as old as I was, blots of a sickly green mold covering their cracked surfaces.

“Food,” he responded, quickly throwing his blanket over the tray again. “Now, pay up or get out of my way.”

“I’ll spend my money somewhere else, asshole,” I finally said, holding my chin up before turning my back to him. My stomach grumbled in protest, the moldy bread looking more appetizing with each passing second, but I held strong. If I was going to steal something, I definitely wouldn’t settle for something that seemed more mold than bread.

Stalking away from the mold vendor, I ambled down the avenue while paying close attention to whatever the vendors were trying to sell. Almost all fruit looked as if it were slowly rotting, all bread seemed to have mold in it, and there was barely any meat to be seen. It seemed that life wasn’t being kind for anyone.

“Excuse me, miss,” I heard a tired voice say from right behind me, and I quickly turned around to find an old woman standing there. She was pushing a cart loaded with apples down the avenue, and even though the apples didn’t look freshly picked, they sure as hell seemed edible. In fact, the more I looked at them, the more they started looking like the best damn thing on the entire planet.

Taking one step back, I jumped out of the woman’s way and she slowly went back to pushing her cart, groaning with the effort. She looked frail and tired, her face covered with wrinkles. Someone’s grandmother, of that I had no doubt. “Let me help you with that,” I said, standing next to her and laying both my hands on the cart. “Where to?”

“Oh, bless you,” she smiled, pointing with her finger straight ahead. “Just at the end of the street. I’m taking these to my son’s stall. I would do it myself, but my bones…getting old, you see.”

“I see,” I said as I smiled back at her, happily letting her lead the way.

I couldn’t help but notice how some people greedily stared at the apples in the cart, but none of them seemed as if they were about to try something. You’d think that a war against spider-psychopaths from outer space would have given the surface folk an edge, but they seemed pretty civilized. I wondered if that had something to do with the aliens that had settled in the city. The bastards looked tough enough, so if they had taken it upon themselves to maintain the order…

“Here we are,” the old woman said, pointing to a stall right beside her. In it, a portly man in his fifties was busy haggling with a woman carrying two small kids. “I know it’s not much, but…” Still smiling, the woman reached for her cart and grabbed one of the apples. She threw it in my direction and I caught it midair, my stomach immediately coming alive as I felt the smooth surface of the apple under my fingertips.

“Thank you!” I exclaimed, already burying my teeth into it, juice dripping down my chin. It tasted amazing, perhaps the best meal of my entire life. Apparently, going for days without food was a good method of improving one’s palate.

Hunger really is the best sauce.

Busy with wolfing down the apple, I only noticed the old woman had disappeared when I was about to thank her once more. She had joined whatever argument her son was having on the other corner of the stall, and she had left her apple cart unattended. I was about to call to her when another idea crawled into my mind.

Holding the half-apple I still had between my teeth, I closed in on the cart and went for the apples. Being as discrete as I could, I started stuffing them inside my ratty blouse, hoping that the way I had my cloak wrapped around my body would be enough to hide my spoils.

“Sorry,” I quietly mouthed, throwing one last look at the old woman before I turned around. I started going down the avenue hurriedly.

Guilt ruined any excitement I should have felt at the score.

Food was scarce.

Fresh fruit was a hot commodity in the underground marketplace, and I knew I’d make some good trades with the dozen apples I was carrying inside my blouse.

Worse-case scenario, I’d just eat them all.

Maybe the surface wasn’t that bad, after all.

Maybe I should visit more often.

I made a sharp turn at the end of the street when I felt something tug on the back of my cloak. “What the…?” I muttered, a massive green hand grabbing me by the bicep. I was spun around fast, only to come face to face with a man way taller than I was. Except, of course, he wasn’t a man.

At least, not a human.

There was intelligence in the way his eyes glinted, but his body looked far more powerful than anything I had seen before. Even though he was wearing what looked like tactical gear, I could almost feel the way his hard muscles rippled under the surface of his green skin. If he wanted, I had no doubt he could pick me up and break me over his knee like a twig.

I had to be careful around this one.

“You stole from that woman,” the green alien said. “You’re going to jail.”

And, just like that, being careful was out of fashion.

Gritting my teeth, I laid one hand on his wrist and, applying some pressure on the articulation, peeled his fingers off my shoulder. Then I gained as much balance as I could and sent my right foot flying against one of his ankles. The impact was brutal.

On me.

“Shit,” I groaned, falling to the ground as pain travelled up my leg from my toes. “What are you made of? Stone?”

“I saw you steal from that woman,” he declared, completely ignoring my totally relevant question. “Return those apples right now.”

“What apples?” I asked, putting on what I hoped to be a look of pure innocence. It didn’t help that, in that moment, the apples I had tucked inside my blouse rolled out from under me, one of them stopping right before the green alien’s feet.

Shaking his head, he sighed audibly. “You’re coming with me,” he said, grabbing me by the scruff of my neck to pull me to my feet. As he did it, I noticed that he wasn’t alone. There was a blonde woman with him, and she was already busy with picking my apples from the ground.

Defeated, I watched as she went back to the old woman’s stall to return them. When she came back, I presented her with my best frown. She just ignored me, strutting down the avenue with the boundless energy that came with a full stomach.

“What now?” I asked my green captor as he pushed me down street, trailing after the blonde woman.

“Now you shut up,” was all he said.

It was official: the surface sucked.

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