I feel the stars.
Energy pulses against my skin, murmuring secrets about this small galaxy, about orbits and alignments and asteroids streaming in space. Impulse makes me want to dive and cruise those currents, but I control these urges.
I shift my attention to the flutters of life within my skin.
Marko glows orange with crimson streaks. He is warm, always the easiest to find. Just now, he stands and stares at the blue-green orb swirling below us. I cannot swim down to see what he remembers of this place. The planet’s gravitational pull would break my bones. But he shows me flashes: smiling faces, a field of flowers, an old woman with eyes like slices of sky.
“I’ll miss you,” I tell him.
He flinches a little, surprised to hear me, as if he’s ever truly alone. “Me too. It was a good run.”
He once told me that it’s strange when we talk; he thinks I should find him as insignificant as he does the bacteria in his stomach. But I have had time to acclimate to the strangers in my system. I safeguard the small voices, as is my privilege and duty. There will be more to my life, but only when I’ve proven myself.
The stars sing again, this time in sleek, seductive harmony. I resist their melody, but the call is growing stronger.
Despite my passengers, I am empty in a way I cannot name. Marko tells me it is because our voyage is over; he calls this sadness. Perhaps I have learned this feeling from him. My first Honor gave me a human name, Nadim, and I have kept it safe, along with the other words and shapes and colors that shade my new existence. Like sadness.
I do not like this low orbit, but I must wait. I have been ordered to wait.
My new Honors will come.
Will they be warm and orange like Marko, or crisp and gray like Chao-Xing? She is harder to find, a shadow in my skin, and her silence feels like scraping. Yet her thoughts tap at me endlessly, asking questions I am not permitted to answer. Some answers have not even been given to me, so she can scratch as deep as she wishes. There will be no sudden brightness at the bottom. She is an itch I cannot shake out and I will not be sorry to see her leave. Marko touches where my skin is thin. Such gentleness, I should not feel it, but his feelings amplify at the point of contact. Warmth rolls through me, through layers of muscle and bone, until there’s a happy shiver in my depths.
“Please take care,” I say in his native language.
“You too. Bye, Nadim.” With a final pat on the surface near him, he turns.
A mechanical ship buzzes about me; I check the urge to play. Their constructs are fragile, they have no instinct, and a nudge from me would destroy the craft. I must be docile. I must comply to complete my training. I’m close now. I’ve learned so much.
To my other Honor, Chao-Xing, I say nothing. She has no words for me, no spare feelings either. Only questions, still, questions that I can’t answer. I open so the shuttle can land. There is a burst of cold, swirling energy, which compensates for the minor discomfort. I think this is what yawning must feel like. The humans speak, but not to me.
And then they go.
For the first time in one solar year, I am alone. No warmth. No shadows, either.
The elder makes contact, stern and determined. Be mindful. Stay alert. Now, we wait.
I am ready.
THE LOWER EIGHT
My mark moved with an expensive, high-heeled strut, the kind that said she’d grown up fed with a silver spoon. That tracked with the haircut and outfit that tried to look edgy but just looked money instead. Not much older than I was—eighteen, max. I’d been trailing her for blocks, but she’d never once looked around for trouble.
This one, she belonged in Paradise on the other side of the invisible wall, where the suckers thrived—full of brand-name merch and clean, wide streets. Full of polite good mornings and how are yous.
But she was in the Zone, my Zone: gritty, dirty, the shops full of knockoffs and people Paradise didn’t fit. Like me.
My mark swaggered down the cracked sidewalk and clearly expected others to make way and . . . they did. An old lady hobbling on a walking stick flinched to avoid a shoulder check, and my target didn’t even break stride. The street, she felt, was hers. With a designer bag dangling, she looked like the tastiest score I’d seen in months. She deserved this. Plus, she had to be up to no good, slumming in my neighborhood: the Lower Eight, only blight still remaining on the ripe peach of New Detroit. We could see the graceful old lines of downtown, preserved and refined, from where I stood. That didn’t mean we were part of it.
Moneygirl seemed to be aiming for a dive a block down. I moved faster, got closer, and before she could dodge inside, I flicked the knife open that I’d been holding ready in my hand. I quickly reached out and sliced the strap on her purse. Hardly a hiss of resistance, and no security cable in it at all. The prize fell into my hands like a ripe fruit, and I kicked off the broken sidewalk to a run.
I raced around the corner and pushed against the side of the building.
“Thief! You’re dead when they catch you!” Good luck with that. Enforcement drones were hard to come by in the Zone because people were always trapping and scrapping. She’d have even less luck finding a human patrol officer. Her shrill cries faded as I bounded over a fence and cut through an alley, high on success.
With this haul, Derry and I could eat and drink for a week. One more week of freedom. I crouched in the shadow of the VR porn studio and wedged myself in to take a quick inventory. It was every bit as lush as I’d hoped—all kinds of tech, some meds that would sell high, and . . .
I pulled out a metallic box. It had a thumb lock on the lid, but that was a fancy’s ignorant precaution; I popped the hinges and got the thing open within seconds. Inside, there was a single clear pack that quickened my pulse. Glittering crystals, flashing multicolored in the weak sun. Some kind of chem, definitely nothing I’d seen on the street before, but new ones showed up all the time. Might be worth coin. Under that, a slender little data tab. Only a right fool would take traceable tech, so I stuck the chem in my pocket, stashed the metal box with the data tab still in it under some bricks, and bolted.
I crisscrossed twice and backtracked once before darting down a crumbling set of concrete stairs. Constantly glancing over my shoulder, I knocked on a rusted metal door in a code reserved for Conde’s clients. A bony hand reached out and dragged me into the den, but I’d done this before, so I just shrugged out of Conde’s grasp and offered him the heavy embossed bag. The leather—real leather!—rippled like silk. Buttery soft. Cash in every inch.
“Make it quick, man. It’s warm,” I said.
Conde didn’t like to be told what to do. He was a skeletal old fence, pale as spoiled milk, gray hair ratty around his shoulders, but he was smart, and he didn’t argue. He shuffled to the counter, which looked like it had been ripped out of a kitchen. That was the only homey touch, though, as electronic guts, glowing screens, and dangling wires covered every square centimeter. His den swam with shadows and smelled vaguely of piss and rodent droppings, but Conde was the best in the Lower Eight, we all knew it.
“Nice,” he grunted. Not a big talker, Conde.
As he unpacked the bag’s contents, one of the wired-up screens on the bench lit with a broadcast, and a woman as flash as the one I’d ripped off smiled at me from the screen. The holo title pulled out and expanded into the room so you couldn’t miss the thing as it spelled out HONORS in spinning, swirling gold. Damn. It was that time again. This was Countdown Season, close to Honors Return.
Ugh. The Honors. I was already sick of hearing about them, and the season had only just started. Sure, when I was little, I believed all the hype about the arrival of the live ships; unlike in SF invasion vids, these aliens were good, helped us out with discoveries and knowledge, and healed the planet that we’d screwed up. But one thing I’d realized about the histories they fed me in school: they weren’t the real story. They were polished and half-true at the best.
Earth was still spilling over its banks, Mars could only take so many, and there was a waiting list for the moon, which had basically become a country club. While the Leviathan had solved a lot of problems for humanity, they couldn’t create additional landmass.
The planet was all nice again, thanks to their tech, but it wasn’t like we’d earned our redemption. The Leviathan showed up out of the blue, offering salvation, and asking for volunteers in exchange; they picked a hundred humans a year to ride along in some alleged cultural and scientific exchange. The way the media spun it, it sounded like the Honors spent their year aboard riding unicorns and farting rainbows, and I was sick of the whole spectacle.
Right then, the announcer was offering a boring retrospective. “Thanks to biotech supplied by these amazing living ships, humans have not only survived a global crisis that threatened to destroy us, but we now have clean energy, safe food and water, and incredible advancements in medical care. We continue to be grateful to them, and excited about the annual Honors selection process.”
His costar added, “Across the board technological gains have led to the booming space program and the shining beacon of hope that is Mars colony. And speaking of Mars colony, let’s get the latest gossip on what’s hot in the dome!”
And off they went, to another segment that I immediately tuned out. I’d always wondered why nobody back in the day questioned the Leviathan’s motives, but the world was so screwed that it must’ve been like dying slowly in a pit; you don’t ask questions of somebody tossing down a rope. In my world, there was no free lunch, and eventually the bill for saving our world would come due. I could feel it.
Not that it mattered to me. Those were Paradise problems. I’d never seen an Honor except on the vids, and I didn’t care about their magical lives and media-friendly adventures. Let the rest of the world throw parties and consume every bite of the media crap. I just wanted some food and maybe a drink and a place to sleep. I’d lived in their picture-perfect world and I turned my back on it. I’d rather be cold and hungry than trapped and steeped in propaganda.
Not that it was easy to escape it, even here where people rejected most of the alien-driven advancements that made living on the other side of the fence so nice.
I hated nice.
Conde growled and yanked wires to short out the holo. He wasn’t a fan of the show either, I guessed. I could see him tallying the value of each item he pulled out of the bag I’d brought—a brand-new H2, tricked out with shimmery crystals. Damn, I’d never had anything but an old tablet; this was next-gen holo-tech. There was also a nice case of nanotech makeup and some device too new for me to even recognize. I could just about see him mentally adding up the take with greedy twitches of his fingers. When he finished, he named a figure that seemed a little low.
“Are you kidding me? You’ll get twice that just from components.”
“I’m taking all the risks here, kid.”
“I could offer this haul to Gert instead.” That was Conde’s primary competition.
With a little growl, he upped his offer. “Final bid, take it or leave it.”
“Deal.” I hid my smirk. Haggling was just one of the charms the Zone had to offer. Before paying me, he popped open the H2 and snapped the tracking chip. He’d also strip and crack the other devices before resale, but that didn’t concern me. He paid in old money, no longer minted but still accepted by vendors in the Lower Eight. The other roamers would be convening in the squat by now, and I pictured Derry’s grin when I showed up flush with coin. We didn’t mess with e-money in the Zone, too easy to track, and we’d worked out our own currency, different values than anywhere else.
Maybe I’ll buy a fifth of something fun before I go home. . . . After all, it was Honors Countdown, right? The Flash were partying. Why shouldn’t we? Better alcohol than chems. Maybe if I got to him fast enough, I could convince Derry to have a drink with me instead.
Three blocks over, an entrepreneur sold rough homebrew out of a leaky still, and it would blur the edges. Waving to Conde, who was already working on the unit to break it down, I let myself out. It was second nature to scan my surroundings to make sure nobody had tracked me, but I’d been doing this a while, and the coast seemed clear. Tucking my pay into my undervest, I sauntered down to Moonshine Charlene’s. As usual, she was sitting on her front stoop in her housecoat, which was more than a little grimy. Came from using her bathroom for business instead of hygiene, I suspected. Her hands were filthy, but the process of fermentation would kill any bacteria, so I didn’t let it trouble me.
“Got anything good?”
“You know it, cookie.” She rose with an audible pop. “You want sour mash, dirty gin, or dry lightning?”
While she went inside to fill a plastic bottle with cloudy amber goodness, I extracted exactly enough coin to get the crew buzzed.
“You look like a dry lightning girl to me. Enjoy.” Moonshine Charlene settled on her porch with a grunt.
Deal made, I hid my contraband in a milky old-days plastic bag. Wasn’t especially worried anybody would try to jump me for it, but I knew better than to tempt fate . . . or other crims. People who preferred life in the Zone to Paradise also tended to make their own rules. Me included.
Ever since I was little, my personal file had been marked with judgments like “violent tendencies,” “impulse control issues,” and “serious problems with authority.” My family had been fractured a long time—my mother and sister had tried hard, but I hadn’t been right with living in Paradise, not like they were. Now they were gone, off to a new life on Mars, and all I had left—if you could call it that—was my father.
Better to think of myself as an orphan.
Currently I was supposed to be banged up in a reform facility learning to be an upstanding member of society, but like all the other group homes, Parkview couldn’t keep me for more than a couple of days. Derry always came, and when Derry appeared outside my window, he meant freedom. And freedom was pretty much all I wanted.
I stopped at a street stall and bought a bag of steamed meat buns to go with the homebrew, and there was still a reassuring jingle of coins in my pouch. More good stuff tomorrow, it promised. My belly growled, reminding me that I’d had nothing but a handful of sticky rice sometime yesterday, but going hungry sometimes was a proper tradeoff since I no longer had people telling me when to run, read, eat, shower, shit, and sleep.
I also no longer had anyone whispering that I was bent and wrong, a failure and a burden. Humming a few bars of a song that had been playing in Conde’s shop, I turned down the cul-de-sac half-barricaded by rubbish bins that led to our little corner of the world.
Something was very wrong in our world. I’d walked up on a face-off.
Derry held a broken board, his pretty mouth curled back in a snarl. His coppery hair shimmered like nanotech magic, and his pale skin was smooth, despite rough living and the chems he couldn’t give up. I knew him, down to the shadows in his eyes, the shake in his hands. He’d scored something while I was gone.
And it was wearing off hard.
A man in a suit stood facing him. Facing them. The rest of our crew—Lo, Timo, JJ— had bottles or blades, but they all seemed wary. Odd, since it was only the one guy. But he wore an expensive Paradise suit, custom-tailored, and I made out the telltale bulge of concealed weapons under the fabric.
One knife too, and maybe a second shoulder holster. This is not good. What was he doing here? He wasn’t slumming it. He hadn’t just stumbled on us, either.
The stranger had deep-set eyes, a prominent brow, and jaw that could crack open a beer. Not a handsome face but a strong one, fearless even. He half turned at my quiet approach. His smile chilled my blood.
“Ah,” he said. “There you are. I’ve been waiting.”
I put the booze and food down; no sense in having it get in the way. As I did, I let the folded knife drop from my sleeve into my palm. Not open yet. I didn’t want him expecting it. “You don’t know me.”
“Zara Cole. You made a mistake today.” The gentle tone contrasted completely with the promise of violence in the man’s flexing hands. “Your last, gutter rat. Where’s the box?”
He took a step toward me.
I didn’t back off. I’d learned fear made you weak if you paid mind to it. But he’d said the box, not the purse. And I was thinking about the broken metal case I’d hidden in the alley, and the shimmering chem in my pocket.
“Get away from her,” Derry growled.
He might as well have been talking to the wind for all the attention the suit gave him. “Do you know what you did wrong?” the man asked me softly.
“It’s a long list,” I said.
The man laughed. “Did you think we wouldn’t come looking? It was easy to ID you. Witnesses tend to be cooperative when you mention Torian Deluca’s daughter.”
Even I’d heard of the legendary Deluca. In the rush to rebuild on the ruins of Old Detroit, he’d come up hungry and ruthless. He’d made billions from strong-arm deals, but these days, he was a legit businessman with a lingering reputation for cruelty. People said he was rich and crazy, but never within the big man’s earshot.
And I robbed his daughter.
I should have known that strutting bitch had never felt afraid a day in her life—for good reason. Daddy’s rep was an invisible shield. But this? It still seemed like an overreaction.
“Yeah? Better call the cops,” I said, and squared my shoulders. Finger on the switch to open the knife.
“Mr. Deluca prefers private justice.”
That didn’t sound so good. I pictured myself tied to a chair, beaten to a pulp. Days later he’d hide my corpse in the foundation of some real estate development. My ass. I’m not going out like that.
It’s six against one. We can fight it out.
This ugly suit was reading my mind, because he smiled even wider and drew his gun. “Drop the knife.”
“Run!” I shouted, and took my own advice, but I wasn’t fast enough.
Deluca’s strong man ignored the rest of the crew as they scattered and was on me before I took three steps. He twisted my arm behind my back, and I went with it, rolling my shoulder so it popped out of the socket. This wasn’t the first time I’d used that trick, and the flash of pain didn’t slow me down. I kicked hard at his knee but couldn’t get the right angle, so my foot raked down his shin. Painful, but he didn’t seem to care.
The guy laughed, digging his fingers with intent to bruise. “I guess you already know how this turns out.”
From behind him, Derry said, “Yeah? You don’t.” He slammed the board upside the guy’s head, hard enough to stun. His face was set like one of the Paradise statues.
The suit let go of me, and I lurched forward, tumbling into a rubbish heap a few meters away. Glass broke my fall and sliced into the skin above my elbow. The stink of rotten food mingled with the coppery tang of my blood. As I stumbled to my feet, the thug charged, and at the last second, I used the wet garbage to skid aside, narrowly avoiding a hit that would’ve dropped me. Rebounding on the wall, I kicked off to a better defensive position while the goon rounded on me.
Derry booted him toward me as I searched for something—anything—to use as a weapon. There was a pile of broken pipes nearby, so I grabbed one and swung for the fences. The impact toppled him sideways and he landed hard on a metal cylinder that speared right through his fine suit. He coughed, tried to breathe, flailed . . . and went still.
He was dead. Really, really dead. The shakes set in.
I won’t panic. I can’t.
The others had already disappeared. It didn’t matter that we’d been together for six months. Survival and freedom at any cost, right? Only Derry didn’t leave. He dropped the board and wrapped his arms around me, not saying a word about how I should’ve known better, even though it was true. I held him hard, listening to his heart.
Stroking my back in soothing sweeps, he whispered, “We’ll hide the body and disappear. Nobody will ever know.”