Chapter Six: Trini

As I led Quinn through the streets I fought to get my thoughts in order.

What on earth was I thinking?

I was still shaken, but not from my fall.

Maybe I should be, but something else had pushed that danger from my mind.

I could still feel his hard muscles under my hand from when he had clutched me to his chest.

He caught me so easily, so fast.

Who could move like that? Lift me so easily?

I wasn’t a tiny slip of a thing, but in his arms I felt it.

And that wasn’t all you felt, I chided myself.

Something about this man drew me in, made me want to learn more about him.

And I remembered Russar’s warning.

Quinn was a stranger, a visitor. Not just in town for a vacation, someone not even from the sector.

Whatever it was that I’d felt in his arms, it couldn’t last.

But that didn’t mean we couldn’t have a nice evening out, right?

“Where are we going?” he asked as I tugged him along.

I smiled a little, relieved that his voice sounded so much calmer. For a terrible moment I’d thought he was going to attack those kids back there.

Sure, they were careless, and sure, it could have gone wrong, but it was just as much my fault for being in a dangerous spot.

“Have I steered you wrong yet?” I called back over my shoulder. “And don’t tell me about not liking the cones. Cones are fantastic, I think you’ll just have to have a few more to work up your tolerance for sweetness.”

“Wait, what?”

He’d have to wait, because I could hear the noise, feel the electricity in the air from where we were heading.

The street narrowed to an archway, covered with a shimmer of blue light.

There was just a moment of resistance as we stepped through.

And then we entered the world of the Carnival.

The Boulevard might be Rondi City’s home for all pursuits in the sensual world, but I’d always thought the Carnival was where all the real fun was.

Games and booths dotted a wide open field ringed with a high wall, arches perforating the barrier at regular intervals. Acrobats and contortionists performed on high stages, moving their bodies in ways that just didn’t seem possible.

Crazy rides clustered around the middle, gravity falls and rocket slides, spinners and zonks and anything else that was guaranteed to make you scream.

“What was that?” Quinn asked.

“Barrier field,” I explained. “Keeps the kiddos inside.”

“Of course,” he said blankly.

“I told you, people come to Rondi to have fun.”

I headed off to the ticket booth and reached for my purse then paused, waited.

“Thank you,” Quinn acknowledged as he slid a credit chip into the slot I’d never even noticed before.

“I don’t know why you’re so funny about it,” I said, still uneasy about someone spending credits on my behalf. “I’m the one taking you to all the fun places. This might not even be something you like.”

“You’re taking time out of your evening, showing me around,” he shrugged and then waited for the machine to spit out two cards, loaded with the carnival’s own currency. “And I know you’re skipping out on part of your shift.”

“You can’t know that,” I accused him. I mean, it was true. But there was no way he could have overheard me talking with Russar. Then something else distracted me. “You filled these things all the way up! There’s no way we’ll ever use all those tickets.” I studied him through narrowed eyes. “Unless you really love the anti-g rides.”

Quinn looked at the massive rides in the middle of the Carnival lot, watched the capsules as they were flung around the mag fields and shook his head.

“That might be a little too high adrenaline for me.”

I thought about how fast he had moved, how it seemed like he’d just magically appeared on the top of the wall, grabbing me.

Saving me.

Somehow I doubted there was anything here that was too scary for him.

“I’m going to just let that go. For now.”

Courting couples shared piles of spun tolli, harried parents chased after children, and groups of young people tried their skills and luck at the games.

“I’m surprised to see so many families here,” Quinn mused.

“Why?” I asked, trying to decide if I could fit another piece of tolli in with the two cones that already were happily in my tummy.

“I guess when somebody talks about a pleasure planet, I’m thinking of well…” his quick glance towards me made my stomach do an uncomfortable flip.

And it wasn’t just the cones.

“I guess I had assumed they’re talking about other pleasures,” he finished.

“Well, sure,” I tried to get my tongue straightened out, my mouth suddenly, inexplicably dry.

“There’s plenty of that kind of thing. Anything you’d want, really,” I finally managed. “Almost. As long as everyone is old enough to sign a contract and willing, it’s all good here.”

We passed another crowd of children, each wearing the wristband that would keep them inside the Carnival’s boundaries, helping their parents track them when they ran off to find whatever mischief they could get up to inside.

“But people live here, work here, have families here. And even some of the visitors want to do something a little less…strenuous… sometimes.”

We wandered further down the midway, just taking in the sights and sounds.

“Were you as wild as that?” Quinn pointed to another pack of kids, giggling as they stayed just a few steps ahead from their babysitter.

“Not exactly,” I shrugged, looking over a booth where a wrinkled old man was deftly applying brilliant multicolored temporary holo tattoos.

“That’s beautiful,” I said, watching as he drew shimmering wings across the back of the teenage boy who lay face down on the table. “You’re going to love it when he’s done.”

“Yeah,” the kid remarked blandly. “We’ll see what my mom says when I get home.”

“Good luck,” I offered and we kept walking.

“I’m not from Rondi, and even when I was little, I didn’t run around like that. Didn’t have a chance.”

He didn’t say anything, didn’t press, but still I felt the urge to explain.

“My aunt and uncles raised me, down on a tank farm at the tip of the southern continent.”

Quinn looked surprised. “Hadn’t really thought of this is a place for much in the way of farms.”

“Seriously?” I shook my head. “All these people have to eat. That means a whole lot of replicators need to get stocked. And tank farming locally keeps the costs down. There’s enough demand here for non-replicated food that there’s even a few dirt farms.” I wrinkled my nose. “Even if that just seems weird.”

“Did you parents work on the farm as well?” he asked, his tone just a little too casual.

I tried not to let it bother me. Void knew I was used to that sound.

“Nope, they died when I was a kid, left me with my mom’s sister.” I continued the spiel. At this point, I didn’t even have to stop watching the darts game in the booth across the way. I’d told the story plenty of times. “Nice people, but never enough money. I got out of there as soon as I could.”

The air between us chilled, grabbing my attention.

“Why did you need to leave quickly?” Quinn growled.

I stared at him, confused. His lips were pressed into a thin line, eyes narrowed.

Angry.

“What?” It finally clicked. ” Oh, nothing like that, really.” I bumped his arm with my shoulder, waiting for him to relax.

“My aunt and uncles are the sweetest people you’d ever meet. Just too many kids, not enough money.”

His jaw clenched and then released. “Sorry,” he admitted. “Some of the places I’ve been, there’ve been…issues.”

It was sweet that he was worried.

A little paranoid, but sweet.

“They’re good people. Not that I want to go back to the farm anytime soon, but on good weeks with tips, I can usually send a little back to help them out.”

And that was enough of that.

“Come on,” I headed into the stream of people, “we need to play some of those games, burn through the tickets you bought.”

We wandered through the crowds, but nothing caught my eye. Quinn seemed more amused than interested, but surely we’d find something he wanted to try his hand at.

And then I saw it.

“I need that,” I pointed. “I’ve got to try to win it.”

Scrolling across the top of the next booth were images of the prizes you could win.

Five points would get you any number of random little toys. Ten points gave options for various costume jewelry. But twenty…

Quinn followed where I was pointing.

“What in the Void is it?”

Blue and fuzzy, long floppy ears framed three giant beseeching eyes.

It was perfect.

“It’s a baby zuhair. It’s adorable.” I studied the game, figured my odds. “We’ve got a set up like this in the back at the Merry Stormcloud. I can do this.”

“I’m not going to stop you in your quest to get the whatever-the-hell,” Quinn laughed.

I fed my card into the ticket reader and a rack of darts popped up. The targets floated back-and-forth, up and down, hovering in front of the backdrop.

“When it’s slow, I practice. It’s something to do, and every now and then we get someone in who’s willing to bet with me on a game. I’m not in a position to turn down money.”

I threw, taking a straight-forward shot.

Guaranteed hit.

And the dart missed, sliding to the side of the target before clattering to the floor of the booth.

“What the— ” I shook it off.

Different darts, different game.

Anyone could miss a warm up shot.

I threw again. This time it clipped the outer edge of the target, but still didn’t rack up any points.

“Let’s go find you another ugly thing to win,” Quinn suggested. “I’m not sure this game can really be won.”

“No,” I insisted, frustrated now. “I want that madrik.”

I finished the first rack, barely making five points.

I glared at the game board.

“Want to keep going?” Quinn asked.

“Do you mind? It’s just annoying,” I explained.

“Far be it from me to stand between you and an obsession,” he offered.

It wasn’t an obsession. I just couldn’t figure out why my throws were so off.

Sure, it had been too busy to practice lately, but I couldn’t have gotten that bad, that quickly.

“I think the stupid thing’s rigged,” I muttered after I’d been no more successful with the second rack of darts.

Or the third.

Which was annoying, if not surprising.

Half the booths probably were adjusted just a bit to make more of a profit. Sure, the Carnival was supposed to be fun, but according to one of the old-timers I knew that worked in security, crooked games were part of the tradition.

And more profitable.

“Could be,” Quinn said, and casually grabbed the last dart from the rack.

It didn’t hit the target, but I couldn’t see why not. It had flown straight and true, right towards the target.

And then it just slid to the side.

“Interesting,” he said. “There’s a glimmer, a light shimmer of blue just as the dart is about to hit. It almost reminds me…”

“Of what?” I asked, squinting at the background. “I don’t see anything.”

“It flashes in and out pretty fast,” he said. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was like the energy barrier used to keep the littles inside the Carnival area. How exactly does that work?”

At my shrug of bafflement, he turned to look at the archway we’d passed through on our way in.

“I’d bet that when the tracker in the wristband gets close enough to the arches it signals the barrier to switch to full force by the time the kid gets there?”

I nodded. “It has to be something like that, yeah. I’ve been stuck on the wrong side a couple times, waiting for an adult to come and retrieve their kid.”

“Then I guess we just have to be faster than the force field.” Quinn put in his card, waited for the rack to pop open, and then started to throw, hand moving faster than I could process.

By the time I realized what was happening, he’d finished the entire rack of darts.

Not only had all hit dead square into the bull’s eye, they were still there, each permasteel shaft quivering slightly from the force of impact.

Usually the dart struck and clung to the target just long enough for the points to be counted.

Then the target popped back out, pushing the dart to the grate in the floor where a magnet pulled them down and prepped them for the chute where they’d be re-racked.

Not this time.

This time the hovering, moving targets were pinned to the back of the wall.

“Does that get your whatever-the-Void yet? Quinn asked. “We might have to wait a while for someone to come by and reset the game.”

“Yes, yes it does,” I answered slightly stunned.

The selector popped up, prompting me to select how I wanted to spend my twenty points.

And when the replicator had finished generating the doll Quinn looked as startled as I felt. “It’s as big as you are.”

“Isn’t it fabulous?” I gushed. “It’s absolutely ridiculous, and I know exactly what I want to do with it.”

“I will agree with one of those words,” he said, eyebrows raised.

I hoisted the doll up to my hip, and the floppy head towered over me.

“Could you…”

“Sure.” Quinn pushed one of the floppy ears out of my face.

“Thanks.” I headed back through the crowd.

“Where to next?” he asked.

“Next,” I said reluctantly, “We should probably get some dinner and head back. I traded tonight’s shift with a friend, so I’ll need to pick up her’s tomorrow morning.”

“Is the bar even open in the morning?” Quinn looked surprised.

“It’s Rondi,” I shrugged. “Nothing closes for long. Not when there’s a chance to make money.”

He’d learn, if he stayed here long.

“Profit trumps everything.”

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