Price of Tomorrow: Chapters 1-3

Chapter One

Rhiovannara whirled, the gauzy fabric of her many-layered dress flaring, then twisting tight as she reached the end of her tether. She paused an extra beat, resisting her partner’s tug. Costumes swirled around her in a riot of silks and satins, feathers and jewels. The many-hued patterns of rank and wealth tattooed over every patch of exposed skin glittered under the chandeliers of the grand ballroom. For a moment, she could almost believe she was enjoying herself. Then she finished her spin and came toe to toe with her companion.

The old man tottered unsteadily when he caught her, clutching her hands as much for support as form. His skin was dry and coarse beneath her sweating palms. Shining tattoos traced the backs of his hands and crept up his neck and face like a glorious disease, swirls of incandescent ink dipping into the crevices of his sagging skin. One thin arm snaked around her waist, and the scent of alcohol and toxic air surrounded her.

I appreciate you agreeing to dance with me,” he said.

As if she’d had any choice. Owning the asteroid belt from which Mars harvested water since the mines beneath the surface ran dry made Aldous Rutherford the most influential person on the planet, which her father had reminded her before the party. Repeatedly.

Offering up the practiced smile drilled into her muscle memory, she resisted the urge to pull away and silently promised herself extra time in the sonic shower when this was over. “It’s an honor, sir, to dance with so distinguished a guest. My father is fortunate to count you among his friends.”

The old man’s lip twitched. “Let us not discuss politics. It’s not often I get to enjoy the company of such a beautiful young woman. You’re turning sixteen soon, are you not?”

“In two days.” She twirled out until only their fingers touched and pulled in a deep breath.

“And a wedding to follow,” he said with a wink. “A busy week.”

Rhiovannara’s composure slipped as he reeled her back, and she trod on the corner of one perfectly polished boot. “To what wedding do you refer?”

Light glinted in the old man’s eyes, and a heavy dread spread through the pit of her stomach.

“Why, yours of course.”

Rhionavannara froze mid-step, pulling her hands free as his words wiggled their way into her mind and the sweat on her skin turned cold.

Party-goers continued to swirl around the unmoving pair, and some small part of her cringed at the curious glances thrown her way, but she couldn’t force her feet to move. She couldn’t even find the smile she wore like a second skin.

Could it be true? What reason did he have to lie? Perhaps he was simply misinformed?

A slow smile spread across Mr. Rutherford’s face. “Your father hasn’t told you yet?”

Her stomach twisted.

“If you’ll excuse me, sir.” With a tight-lipped curtsy so slight it bordered on rude, she fled the dance floor.

Weaving to the edge of the crowd, she stretched to her tiptoes and scanned for any sign of the blue silk suit her father had commissioned for the occasion. But blue was a popular color, and it seemed half of Center had come to show their support of her father’s nomination.

Cursing, she stalked to the staircase that led to the gallery above. A group of ladies waved as she passed, but she pretended not to notice. Halfway up the stairs, she turned back to study the room.

There! The luminescent tattoos of her father’s accomplishments stood in bright relief against the cappuccino skin Rhiovannara had inherited. His hands were moving in lively conversation with a stately blond woman whose intricate ink covered most of her arms, neck, and face.

“Father.” She waved as she approached, drawing not only his attention, but that of several others.

“Done already, dearest?” He gave her an admonishing look, then gestured to his companion. “This is Mrs. Mercer.”

Rhiovannara chafed as years of etiquette overrode her impatience and forced a smile. “I know you by reputation, of course.”

Rangda Mercer owned the air, most of it at least. Eighty percent of the ventilation technology that kept the inhabitants of the Dome breathing belonged to her.

With studied grace, Rhiovannara offered her hand to the third wealthiest person on the planet.

Mrs. Mercer lightly grasped hands by fingertips alone. “Lovely to meet you, Miss McAllister. Your father’s boasts don’t do you justice.”

Bobbing a curtsy, Rhiovannara turned to her father and gripped his forearm. “I’ve heard some unsettling news I hoped you might clarify.”

“News?”

“About a wedding.”

The color drained from her father’s cheeks, but his smile never wavered.

Rhiovannara’s heart sank.

Turning to Mrs. Mercer, he said, “If you’ll excuse us.” Then wrapped an arm around Rhiovannara’s shoulders and half-led, half-dragged her toward one of the balconies that opened off the ballroom.

Rhiovannara crossed her arms as her father chased off a handful of party-goers enjoying the fresh air with a few choice words. It wouldn’t do to have anyone witness a scene of domestic unrest between the future Chairman of Mars and his loyal and supportive daughter.

Once the door closed on the last retreating back, she placed one hand on the rail and looked out over the shining spires of Center that surrounded them like a frozen forest. Far below, past the reservoir with its spindle bridges and the treetops of the Garden District, a crisp line marked the boundary of the habitable world. Lush green gave way to row upon row of angels, the engineered plants that stood sentinel to the promise and prison of Mars.

“Is it true?”

“Sweetie, the situation is–”

“Is. It. True?”

He sighed and looked up. She followed his gaze. Beyond the Dome, fingers of light scraped the evening sky, and white motes of angel dust trailed in playfully swirls on an unfelt breeze. They collected along the edges of reinforced steel and glass, seeking a way inside, a chance to spread their poison.

“I was going to tell you.”

Rhiovannara ground her teeth. “When?”

“After your birthday. I didn’t want to spoil your party.”

More like he didn’t want to risk a scene at the extravaganza he’d turned her birthday into.

“To whom have you promised me?”

“Gien Vallor, an assistant to Mr. Rutherford. I intended to introduce you tonight, though not like this.”

Rhiovannara clenched her shaking fists and tried not to scream. It wasn’t unheard of for wealthy families to arrange marriages for their children, but she never dreamed it would happen to her. Certainly not so soon. And to a lackey! “Why him?”

“It’s the price of Mr. Rutherford’s support.”

“So, you sold me to advance your career.” She meant it to be a question, but the words came out flat.

“I didn’t have a choice.”

She spun to face him, heat flaring through her. “You could have said no!”

“And destroy everything we’ve worked for?”

“I’ll not marry a stranger! Certainly not some lap dog to a man neck-deep in Syn.”

A muscle jumped in her father’s jaw. “The accusations against Mr. Rutherford are just that. He’s never been charged.”

“We both know that doesn’t mean anything.”

“Look!” He wrapped thick fingers around her arms, and she gasped at the pressure. “You’ll marry Mr. Vallor, and that’s the end of it.”

Rhiovannara opened and closed her mouth a few times, but no sound came out.

Stepping back, Mr. McAllister rubbed a hand over his face as though he could scrub the unpleasantness of the conversation away.

“This is part of life. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t like to get what we want. Growing up means learning to make sacrifices.”

“Like mom?” The words tumbled out before she could stop them.

The color drained from his face, then flooded back to stain it purple. “Leave her out of this.”

Resisting the urge to cradle her bruised arms, she held his gaze for several breaths.

His eyes slipped first.

Dizzy with her victory, however small, she gripped the balcony rail, squeezing until the small silver ring she never took off dug into her flesh.

With a sigh, he joined her and looked out over the kingdom he hoped to rule. “This is something that needs to happen.” His knuckles turned white on the rail beside hers. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”

She cut her eyes to the side. “I assure you, Father, I understand perfectly.”

Spinning on her heel, Rhiovannara stormed through the door to the ballroom. Several curious faces turned in her direction, but she didn’t slow. She was too angry to be embarrassed, and, for the first time since she was six years old, she couldn’t care less how such a display might affect her father’s standing.

To one side of the dance floor, Mr. Rutherford stood with another, younger, man. Both tracked her movements. The cold, calculating smile that played on the stranger’s lips when his gaze met hers was like a warm breeze compared to the ice in his eyes. From the way Rutherford whispered in his ear, Rhiovannara assumed the man to be her proposed husband.

Seething, she marched on, ignoring the murmurs of gossip that trailed after her as she left the party.

*

The bedroom door cracked hard against the wall as Rhiovannara stormed through, and Marilyn jerked up from her cleaning, brow furrowed. “Back so soon, my lady?”

“Get me out of this dusted dress!”

Her servant gasped at the language but jumped to action, stripping layers of varied green silk and unlacing the ribbons that held it all in place. Rhiovannara’s ribs ached as she took a deep breath for the first time all night.

Marilyn gathered up the discarded fabric. “Will you bathe?”

Rhiovannara shook her head. “Later. That’s all for tonight.” Belatedly, she called, “Thank you,” to the closing door as Marilyn hustled away.

She stood for a moment, bracing against the torrent of her rage, then slipped into a simple dressing gown and paced to the balcony. Dust fell in earnest now, white puffs dyed pink and gold by the fiery sunset, soft, and beautiful, and deadly as a solar flare. Between the twisted trunks and draping vines of the angels from which the wispy tufts shed, the surface of Mars lay covered in drifts of downy fluff like stories she’d heard of the snows of ancient Earth. It looked soft enough to sleep on, if not for the excruciating death that accompanied their touch.

Spread beneath her ivory tower, the lights of the Garden District sparkled. A breeze from the circulation turbines tugged playfully at her hair and made the lights shimmer as leaves danced. Rhiovannara twisted the band on her pinky. She would have liked to stay in Garden, near the orchard her mother loved.

Tears tickled her cheeks. If only her mother were there. Surely she wouldn’t throw Rhiovannara away like a pawn who’d served its purpose?

Hadn’t she been a perfect daughter? Hadn’t she always done what was asked of her and more? But then, maybe that was the problem. Clearly, her father thought she would play the role of dutiful daughter no matter the task. But, marriage to a complete stranger?

The pale eyes she’d met briefly across the dance floor flashed in her mind and she shuddered. It was too much. She would not continue to be a puppet in her own life while her father pulled the strings. She would not become another casualty of his blind ambition.

She squeezed the rail until her fingers grew numb. If growing up meant learning to make sacrifices, so be it. But she’d choose what went on the block. She glanced up at the Chairman’s office, the tallest point under the Dome, as it caught the last of the dying light and threw it back.

She’d never be free on Mars. Not with people like Mercer and Rutherford backing her father. She needed to go somewhere her father, his business partners, and even the Syn couldn’t reach her. Somewhere they’d never think to look.

Rifling through drawers and jewelry boxes, she pulled out any valuables small enough to carry and started making bundles.

 

Chapter Two

Jet scanned the crowd. There were few guards this close to the fringe, but nowhere in Market was completely free of them. Mostly they stayed near Center, where the fancy plazas between shops encouraged people to rest and mingle. That’s where the biggest scores were, if you were good enough not to get caught. Most days, that’s where Jet would be if he hadn’t landed a courier gig, but someone had to keep lookout for the new recruits and Zeke was a no-show for the third time that week.

He clenched his jaw. Zeke was getting out of hand.

A tram rattled overhead, sifting fine red dust from the ceiling above as those too rich to get their shoes dirty soared the three miles back to Market Station. No one walking this far out had much to lift, but it was a good training ground for Home’s youngest members. Filthy children darted through the crowd that milled between merchants shouting their wares. Sasha, about six years old with ratty pigtails and dirt-streaked cheeks, held a woman’s attention while her partner lifted a string of beads. She and Will had become a solid team. Soon they wouldn’t need supervision.

Jet almost felt bad about the beads when the woman handed Sasha a coin, but kids had to eat. Speaking of which…

Jet strolled over to the stall of Three-Finger Charlie, where barrels of brackish water roiled with fish too tightly packed. The odor from a bin of entrails, heads, and bones to one side kept all but serious buyers at bay, but that offal provided the kids of Home with food when pickings were slim.

Charlie gave a gap-toothed smile. “Jet, m’ boy. Here for the scrap?”

Jet nodded, “Whatever you got, and anything this’ll get me.” He dropped eight copper chips on the counter, the sum total of three courier jobs and his fence’s idea of a fair price for Home’s latest haul.

Grabbing a slippery tail, Charlie slapped a fish on the slab and pinned it in place with one deft spike through the head. “Been up to no good, I see.”

Jet shrugged. Besides pickpocketing, the only jobs he could get were for Syn, and ‘no good’ was on the honest side of what they offered.

“How many you got at Home these days?”

“Twenty or so.”

“Well, this’ll see ’em fed for a bit.” Charlie slipped his knife into the fish’s belly and started slicing.

Along with three freshly gutted fish, Charlie ran the scrap through a sealer without being asked. Sealing left a rubbery aftertaste that overpowered even the strongest flavors, but it would keep the meat from turning for a few more days.

Charlie leaned in to hand Jet the tidy stack of vacuum-packed parcels and whispered, “Rumor goin’ round ’bout a Syn-man snatchin’ those what won’t be missed. No ken where or why, but your lot fit that bill nice. Word is he’s got hair as pale as dust and eyes like the Devil hi’self. You see someone like that, you steer clear.”

“Thanks for the heads-up.” Jet lifted his purchase in salute. “And the fish.”

“Take this too.” Charlie looked away as he pushed a large canteen across the counter with one calloused hand.

A sloshing sound brought Jet up short, his mouth suddenly dry.

“Might be a bit salty, but it’s cheaper’n water tokens.”

Jet’s hand hovered over the gift as though it might vanish on contact. Water, even slightly fishy water, was hard to come by in the Levels. “Charlie, you’re a saint.”

“Don’t go advertizin’ it.”

Eyes shifting side to side, Jet hooked the canteen onto one of the many straps stitched along the top of his pants and pulled his coat to cover it. Grateful as he was for the water, the bulky jug made him a target.

He tucked the food out of sight beneath his shirt, caught Will’s eye, and headed for the alley where they’d agreed to meet.

The youngsters came running around the corner a step behind him.

“Wanna see what we got?” Sasha’s energetic smile was infectious.

Will rolled his eyes and batted the little girl’s shoulder. “Not yet!”

“Will’s right,” Jet added in a softer tone. “It’s not safe till you’re locked away at Home.”

Pulling loose half the packets he’d stashed, he split them between the two kids. “Hide these under your shirts and go straight Home. Don’t act like you’ve got anything, and don’t stop.”

“What about you?” Sasha’s big eyes showed only curiosity, none of the fear she should have felt at smuggling food through the Levels.

Jet’s heart clenched. If only she could stay that innocent forever.

“I’ll be along.” Turning to Will, he added, “Keep each other safe.”

Will nodded solemnly and, taking Sasha’s hand, led her out of the alley. It was amazing the difference a little experience made. In a cycle, Sasha’s eyes would match Will’s and she wouldn’t need reminders to be wary.

Jet made one last check to ensure his parcels and the canteen were secure before stepping out of the ally, then headed for the nearest lift. His skin crawled as the blue light of the scanner assessed him as a non-threat and lowered him past the Mid-tiers and Industrial District, into the belly of the planet.

Stepping carefully into the open space surrounding the lift, he narrowed his eyes and scanned the deep shadows clinging to the walls around him. Then he headed for one of the narrow paths leading deeper into the Levels. The shadows grew thicker and longer as the single strand of incandescent gel along the ceiling lost the battle to hold them back. Gravel stabbed through the soles of his second-hand boots as he shuffled along the uneven ground, willing his eyes to pierce the gloom.

Sheets of scrap metal and crumbling cinder blocks crowded in on either side, every space filled to bursting with makeshift shelters built to cram over half the planet’s population into a space only intended to house the initial colony workforce. Even in the seventeen or so cycles of Jet’s life, the streets had steadily narrowed as rickety balconies and stilted rooms that clung to the faces of sturdier neighbors grew from the original buildings like a mutating fungus.

Turning a corner, Jet nearly tripped on a zombie – a young woman blasted on Heaven, laying in the street like a puppet with her strings cut.

He stepped over her with a shiver. It was terrifying how fast the drug had spread through the Levels.

Picturing Sasha and Will, and all the kids at Home, he suppressed another shudder. How long would he be able to keep them clean?

Zeke’s face flooded his imagination, and he balled his fists until ragged nails bit into his palms.

“Whatcha got?” A middle-aged man in a tattered blanket stumbled out of the shadows.

Dust! Jet jerked away from the question, trotting faster down the twisting alley. The man fell behind, unable to rouse from his stupor enough to give proper chase, but other faces turned at Jet’s too-hurried passage.

Taking a deep breath, he slowed, measuring his steps. Running had been stupid. Now the empty eyes around him lit with hunger.

A hand shot out from a pile of rags in the gutter and clamped around Jet’s ankle. Pinwheeling to keep his balance, he couldn’t hide the sound of sloshing liquid. Bright eyes widened in the hooded face that looked up at him, and a battered shiv appeared from beneath the rags.

Bracing on his still trapped leg, Jet kicked.

His boot caught his attacker square in the chin, and the man’s head flew back with a sickening snap. A metallic echo rang out as the rusted strip of sharpened metal hit the stones, and the man folded into the rags from which he’d crawled.

Chest pumping, Jet squared his feet and brought his fists up. The sound of his own racing heart filled his ears.

The man didn’t move.

Jet’s eyes darted side to side.

A woman’s pale face stared from behind a half-shuttered opening across the street. A hunched man who’d stopped to watch the exchange turned back to his own business of tacking a strip of plastic over the gaping hole in a patchwork wall. Two children, tiny skeletons draped in rags, scurried into a pile of boxes at the end of the ally.

No one came closer. Either they hadn’t noticed the water, or they wanted an easier mark.

Jet took a shaky breath as the desperate eyes of the street lost interest and turned away. Then, in slow, even, strides, he covered the remaining four blocks to Home.

Little more than scraps of polymer and concrete wedged between an apartment and a support column, it was a welcome sight. The common room was filled with children who’d finished their rounds. Sasha and Will played cards with a group in the corner. Jet breathed a sigh of relief.

“Talli.” He waved to the girl who handled Home’s cooking and pulled the packets and canteen from his belt. “Get these locked in the stash.”

“Sure thing, Jet.” Red braids swinging, the tiny girl spun back toward the small stove that served as both kitchen and hearth.

Jet spotted Zeke lounging in a corner, and his lips pressed into a tight line. Not only was Zeke avoiding low-level assignments, but the glazed look in his eyes confirmed Jet’s suspicion that not all his earnings made it back to the group.

“Zeke!”

The boy jerked, awkward limbs flailing, and looked around.

Jet hooked a thumb toward the door. “Need a word.”

Grumbling, Zeke tucked a strand of stringy blond hair behind his ear and trudged outside.

On the front stoop, Jet crossed his arms and scowled at the way Zeke swayed on his feet. Zeke was nearly as old as Jet, and he’d spent most of those years alone on the streets before landing at Home. He should know better. “Tell me you’re not on Heaven.”

Zeke looked away, staring into the middle distance of the gloom around them.

Jet grabbed the gangly youth’s arm, pulling the taller boy around to face him. “Dust, Z! You know what that stuff does.”

“Back off, ‘Dad’.” Zeke shoved Jet hard in the chest. “Ain’t none of your business.”

Jet balled his fists. “It is when you bring your zombie ass Home! You wanna waste what little you got on drugs, that’s your business, but what happens at Home is mine. Long as you’re using, you ain’t welcome here.”

Zeke’s eyes finally focused as Jet’s words broke through his Heaven-induced stupor. “You self-righteous little – “

Jet was looking for the swing when it came. He ducked low and, bracing, put all his strength into a double-palm shove that sent Zeke sprawling in a cloud of red dust.

Spreading his stance, Jet crossed his arms loosely over his chest and lifted his chin. “Come back when you’re clean.”

Growling, Zeke picked himself up and shambled away.

Jet ground his teeth. He hated to turn anyone away, but there were kids barely out of diapers looking up to him. He couldn’t let something like Heaven take hold at Home or everything would fall apart.

 

Chapter Three

Rutherford’s fingers tapped their impatience against his armrest.

Gien hid a smirk. The Old Man had been in power a long time. He’d forgotten how to wait.

Gien stood, relaxed, behind Rutherford’s chair, biding his time like the trained dog everyone thought he was. You couldn’t play the long game without patience.

The irritated staccato of Rutherford’s drumming cut off when the heavy doors of the study finally swung open and their host glided through.

“I apologize for the wait.” Mr. McAllister waved a hand as if shooing flies. “There were a great many guests to see off.”

“Yes, quite the party, Antero,” said Rutherford. “Though hardly necessary so long as you hold up your end. That is why we’re here, is it not?”

“I appreciate that, but I must be seen to make an effort or people will grow suspicious.”

“Let them.” Rutherford brushed the concern aside with a flick of his wrist.

Antero McAllister licked his lips and wiped a palm on his thigh. “About my daughter, surely there is some other collateral we can agree on.”

Rutherford quirked an eyebrow. “You delayed telling her in the hopes I’d change my mind? That was a fool’s wager.”

McAllister stood a little straighter. “The resources I’ve provided should be more than enough to purchase your help.”

“I agree.”

“Then why?”

“Insurance. I’m a businessman. I prefer arrangements I can control.”

“I’ve already promised my cooperation.”

“And that would be fine if we were children, but what good are promises to me?”

“Please, she’s all the family I have left.”

“Which is precisely why I’m willing to accept her as collateral against your continued support of our interests.”

“And you?” McAllister turned his plea on Gien. “Have you no qualms about this marriage?”

Gien almost felt sorry for the man, but if McAllister was looking for an ally he was in the wrong room. The marriage had been Gien’s idea. He needed that leverage if his plan was to succeed.

“Do we have a deal or not?” Rutherfard snapped impatiently.

Shoulders slumping, the would-be Chairman turned away from Gien’s stony silence. He nodded.

“Splendid.” Rutherford raised his glass in mock salute. “To the future leader of Mars.”

He downed his drink, then glanced at Gien and jerked his head in silent command.

Gien left his employer and future father-in-law to get better acquainted. Now that the matter was settled, he had work to do.

With a measured gait, Gien marched out of the McAllister residence. A public transport pulled out of the lot next to the guard house to deliver the last of the party-goers back to their homes. Three personal transports were all that remained, waiting like sleek black bullets. He’d pulled more than a few strings to call one his own, but it was worth it.

Nodding to his driver, he settled in the back and pulled on a pair of black gloves. “Drop me at the lift to Market.”

The vehicle glided forward with barely a hum.

Despite the late hour, the streets of Market were in full swing when Gien arrived. For those with creds to burn, Market never closed. The plaza where the grand lifts of Center emptied out boasted glowing fountains that lit the area as bright as day. Wide streets leading farther into Market were lined with triple strings of gel-tube lighting, plus lanterns and accent mirrors along every block. Hand-drawn carts and carriages pulled by bicycles taxied up-tier visitors along the even lanes, weaving through throngs of less wealthy pedestrians.

Lining the streets were restaurants and shops of every kind, smoke houses with specialized filtration systems, and casinos where men and women tried to entice him with calls of, “free drinks” and, “instant creds.” Further out, ladies of the night crooned from their doorways.

Gien passed it all with a tight frown. If nothing changed, in a few cycles Market would be no better than the Hub. But things were going to change.

Beyond the playground of the rich, the streets grew narrow and the lights dwindled to a single strand.

Gien stopped in front of the dark window of an unassuming pawn shop.

He thumped the door, and a figure stirred in the alley to his right. No more than a pile of rags, probably juiced out of their mind. If they were lucky enough to survive the night, they’d likely lose what little they had.

Chains fell away and bolts drew back. Chubs opened the door with a glare that quickly turned to deference. “Mr. Vallor, what can I do for you this evening?”

Gien was careful not to brush against the man as he slid into the tight corridor of the shop. When the door latched behind him, he pulled a datapad from his jacket. “This needs to be delivered at precisely noon tomorrow. Use your most reliable courier.” A weak pang twisted near his heart, the memory of guilt in a soul long lost to the heavy toll of progress. Just a few more, then things would change.

Chub’s stroked one of his jiggling chins. “Got just the kid.”

“The timing is imperative, neither early nor late. His failure means your life.”

Taking the pad, Chubs swallowed heavily. “He’ll be there.”

“Good. Here are the details.”

Chubs took the slip of paper Gien offered as though handling a holy relic. Only the wealthiest could afford the luxury of physical paper, but data transmissions could be tracked. Pity it would have to burn.

Gien let himself out, already focused on the next task. So focused, he nearly bumped into the grubby urchin who jumped in front of him.

“Hey, Mr. Syn-man, hold up.” The lanky youth swayed as though the ground were rocking beneath him.

Gien loosened his grip on the blade beneath his coat, but kept his fingers on the hilt.

“Heard a rumor ’bout a Syn-man with blond hair lookin’ for info. That you?”

Gien looked the boy up and down. No more than fifteen. Greasy hair nearly as light as his own curled against the tattered collar of a patched coat. The sweat pouring off him and the way his hands shook were clear symptoms of withdrawal. Probably looking for a fix.

“What makes you think I’m with Syn?”

Thin fingers gestured to the shop Gien had just exited. “Ain’t no one else Chubs’d let in this late.”

Gien’s lips pulled tight over his teeth, a shark smile. “What else did this rumor say?”

“That you’re lookin’ for folks what won’t be missed.”

“And you’re offering yourself?”

“Nah, nah.” The boy’s hands flew up. “But I know where there’s a whole mess of kids. Runaways and orphans. Ain’t no one gonna miss ’em.”

“What makes you so helpful?”

“Info ain’t free, right? You got any Heaven?”

Backing into the dark alley, Gien pulled out a sealed patch of Heaven and dangled it before those hungry eyes.

The boy shuffled forward, the look on his face saying he’d follow that patch to hell.

Gien brought a map of the Dome up on his neural link and set a projection chip against the wall. “Where do I find these volunteers?”

It took visible effort for the kid to tear his eyes away from his prize, but he moved to the projection. With the clumsy maneuvers of someone unused to the technology, he zoomed the image to a junction on the third level down.

“Here.” A marker appeared under his finger.

“One more thing.” Gien pulled the patch from the boy’s grasping hands. “Where did you hear this rumor?”

“Three-finger Charlie, sells fish near the fringe.”

“Thank you.” Gien lowered his arm.

The boy snatched his reward, frantically ripped open the seal, and slapped the Heaven against his skin. The drugs took effect instantly. Happy in his delirium, he leaned back and slid down the alley wall until he hit the ground. His eyes glazed over, expression slack.

Gien pulled out two more patches.

A weight pinched his chest as he crouched next to the senseless boy whose sunken cheeks conjured ghosts to scrape against his withered conscience.

“Sorry, kid.”

He carefully opened the remaining packets and placed them against the boy’s grimy skin. It was a waste of Heaven, but it would save on the cleanup. Just another street kid overdose.

 

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