Science Fiction

One Last Payday

By P.A. Cornell
12,615 words · 46-minute reading time


From the author: Vega dreams of a better life off Earth and when she’s finally offered a job that pays well enough to make her dreams reality, she jumps at the chance. But there’s no such thing as easy money and she soon finds herself neck-deep in more trouble than she ever expected.


Turns out sleeping in your piece-of-shit hovercar because you sold your apartment isn’t as bad as they say it is. It’s worse. As I rubbed the kink in my neck, I tried to remind myself that the credits I’d made from the sale, plus the few I’d managed to squirrel away, were worth it. A few more big scores and I might be able to leave this mud ball behind for a life off-world. I still couldn’t afford the luxury resort stations where the richies liked to spend most of their time, but there was a chance I could at least start a life on one of the colony planets. Somewhere with a real future. I was sick of living hand-to-mouth on Earth, a planet full of people too poor to leave—who could barely afford the ridiculous taxes or the Platform access that let them pretend their lives didn’t suck. But I was sick of pretending. That’s why my Platform system had been the first thing I sold. What good was living the perfect virtual life when you always had to come back out to the real one and be reminded that you were going nowhere? Earth was for losers, and I was done being one of them.

            I straightened in my seat and reached over to turn on the car’s comm system. There were two messages. The first was from my sister, Arden. I was going to just delete it, but it’d been a while since I’d heard her bullshit, so I played it instead.

            “Vega it’s me again,” she said. “Can’t you just call me back? Look, I know we didn’t exactly part on great terms last time but we’re both living in the same city now, and whatever happened in the past…well, we should try to reconnect. We’re all the family we’ve got, after all.”

            I stopped the playback and stared at her sanctimonious face frozen on the screen. Her perfect ponytail draped over her uniformed shoulder. She’d probably called during a break from busting criminals and saving the world. Reconnect, my ass. She’d been the one to turn her back on me, and now she had the nerve to talk about “family” as if I meant anything to her. Not a chance, I thought. We wouldn’t be seeing each other any time soon unless I got myself arrested again and ran into her during processing. But it’d been a while since I’d gotten pinched. My skills were honed now, and I didn’t take the stupid risks I had as a kid. I’d built a solid reputation in the past few years, which was what I hoped would soon pay off in the form of passage off world.

            I deleted the message without hearing the rest and skipped to the next one. It was from Jax, a friend I’d made growing up in the system after getting booted out of the academy.

            “Vega, I got a job for you! Call me back.”

            I’ll admit, I was intrigued. I didn’t usually get my jobs from Jax. Sure, we ran in the same circles, but his thing was digital theft, while I specialized in acquiring the rare items that couldn’t be accessed digitally. That didn’t leave much, these days, since even solid objects could be scanned and printed elsewhere, but for the more discerning customer only the original would do. That meant that while I didn’t get as many jobs as Jax did, my clients were often willing to pay considerably more for what I could get them.

            “Call Jax,” I told the car.

            He was up early, big smile and dark-framed digi-glasses as usual.

            “Ah, there she is,” he said. “You got my message, I take it?”

            “Yeah. What’s this about a job?”

            “Came in last night,” he said. “A pickup in High Town.”

            “Ooh, is someone stealing from the rich to give to the poor?” I asked. Knowing there were no Robin Hoods left on Earth, if there ever had been.

            “Probably more like stealing from the rich to give to the equally rich. Client is unnamed, but the price is right.”

            I didn’t like working for anonymous clients. I know how to keep my mouth shut, after all. But I liked them to give me something, so I knew who I was dealing with. Mostly so I could make sure they’d pay. Jax knew that, of course, so he cut me off before I could bitch about it.

            “Ten thousand credits,” he said. “And that’s just the first half.”

            “Are you saying they’re paying twenty for this job?”

            Twenty thousand creds would be enough to get me out of here. I could leave Earth with just one more job. Jax knew about my plans, of course. No wonder he’d called me about this.

            “This could be your last score,” he said, knowing I was thinking it too. “All you need to do is pick up some data. Then you get the advance. You get the rest on delivery.”

            “Wait, data? Isn’t that more your thing?”

            Jax shrugged. “I guess they don’t trust this getting moved online,” he said. “They want someone to go in person and get it.”

            That was weird. I’d gotten all kinds of things for people over the years. Art, mostly. Once even a car. But data was something you called a hacker like Jax for, not me. It was no wonder he’d heard about this first.

            “I’ll pass you the details if you’re interested. All I want is ten percent. Call it an agency fee.”

            He sat back and waited, blinking in that way that made it clear he was scrolling through stuff on his lenses while I thought about it. It seemed pretty straightforward though. The hard part would be getting in and out of the wealthy part of town without drawing attention, but it would hardly be the first time I’d done that. The rest was like any other job. Bring something to someone else; get paid.

            “You have the pickup address?”

            “Ha! I knew you’d go for it,” Jax said, leaning forward again. “I’m sending it to you now. There’s a contact that’ll meet you there. The mark’s girlfriend. Seems she’s not as loyal as he thinks. Looks like she’s been secretly working for the competition.”

            “So industrial espionage or something?”

            “Looks like.”

            “Is there a name for this girlfriend?”

            “They don’t give one. Just says you get yourself to the apartment. She’ll hand off the data and you get yourself out as fast as you can.”

            A readout on the comm showed me he’d sent the details. I touched my wrist to it and transferred it all to my wristcomp bracelet so I’d have it with me for reference. Sounded like an easy job, but the size of the payment made me wonder.

            Contract acceptance got me access to High Town. All I had to do was let the eastern security gate scan the details off my wristcomp and, since it’d been an open call, none of my personal information was on record. No doubt my employer had covered their ass on their end too. There were no other checkpoints before I reached the neighborhood where I was to make the data pickup. I could see the building in the distance; one of those insanely-high skyscrapers that make you feel they’re reaching out to space, as eager to get off this world as me. I decided to park about three blocks down. In High Town a beat-up old rust bucket like my hover would stick out like a dead body in a field of lilies. To make matters worse, it was still early enough in the evening that Earth’s perpetual smog blanket would do little to block the sun or otherwise hide my car. At least the day was coming to a close and it would be dark soon. Hopefully before I got back to it.

            I half-jogged to my destination, moving fast enough to get this job done as quickly as possible, but not so fast as to attract attention from the locals. High Town was covered in cameras, but Jax had made me a scrambler—a little gadget small enough to fit in my pocket, that when activated would ensure I’d look like nothing more than a blur to anything recording me. Sure, if anyone felt the need to check the security footage later, they might be able to guesstimate weight or determine my height, but that wouldn’t help them much when they couldn’t even say for sure if I was male or female.

            I stopped just short of the building, taking a moment to see what kind of security it had. The first layer looked like your basic automated door scanner. Judging by the way the residents were looking up at it, it was an ocular scanner. That meant I’d need to borrow someone’s eyes. No problem. I had that covered. Beyond the glass-enclosed entrance—bullet-proof I’d bet—was the main foyer with a security desk. An actual human rent-a-cop was sitting at it, but as I watched people coming and going I didn’t see him look up once. He was wearing a set of glasses that could have been for fashion, though were more likely digi-lenses. Not surprising. With so much of the security being automated, this guy had to be bored as hell. He was probably watching sports, or porn, or God-only-knew-what to pass the time. He wouldn’t be much of a concern.

            Not far from the guard’s desk was a set of elevators. People were scanning their eyes there too, then entering one at a time. Same security as the door, so I’d be okay there too. I smoothed out my clothes a bit and double checked my look as compared to what the people going in and out were wearing. I doubt I could have fooled any of them into thinking this was high fashion, but if no one looked too closely, it was enough to pass. They’d probably assume I was a nanny or some other paid help showing up for work. Hell, maybe a call girl. It didn’t really matter to me. It was enough that my outfit didn’t scream Low Town.

            Paranoia made me check my scrambler one more time, then I put on one of Jax’s other little presents: a modified set of digi-glasses. These ones had been made custom to help me bypass just this kind of security. All I needed now was someone to serve as my key. I spotted him within seconds.

            The man was middle-aged and balding—a fashion affectation on trend with the elite these days, since no one went bald naturally anymore. Someone this vain was ideal. I watched as he exited the foyer then started walking right for him at a pace that would indicate I was in a rush. When I was close enough I bumped into him as if distracted. I grabbed his arm just shy of seductively and uttered some apologies. Smiling like a bimbo, I tossed the unshaved side of my teal bob with a flirtatious wink and scanned his eyes with my lenses as he took in my features. He looked like he wanted to continue the conversation, but I was done with him and moved toward the building entrance. Luckily, he hadn’t been enchanted enough with me to follow. As I approached the doors I glanced up at the scanner and my glasses replicated the scanned signature. The system was fooled, and the door slid open.

            “Welcome back Mr. Hardinger.”

            I ignored the automated greeting and made my way past the rent-a-cop. I’d have bet my scrambler that he was off-duty SecForce. Some colleague of my sister’s looking to make some extra side cash. As expected, he didn’t bother to look my way. His faith in the scanners was my ally.

            The elevators didn’t stop me either, scanning Hardinger’s ocular signature and greeting me once more as I entered the cab. The door closed, and an electronic voice told me we were going as high as the ninety-eighth floor, which I assumed was where Hardinger lived. This was my first glitch, but not something I couldn’t deal with. My pickup was in the penthouse. It was an unspoken truth that the residents of High Town lived as high up as their wealth allowed. After all, you wouldn’t want to live on the planet surface like the dregs of society—meaning me. This told me that whoever I was ripping off had to be a huge fish in the corporate pond. He probably only lived on Earth when he absolutely had to.

Lucky for me, all buildings still came standard with stairwells in case of emergency. I could hoof it the rest of the way. The question was whether opening the stairwell door would trigger the fire alarm. Some buildings had this feature so that a single person’s escape would alert the entire building to the danger. As I approached the door there was no signage telling me either way. The door appeared to be locked and there was only a palm scanner next to it. There was nothing to indicate whether anyone other than a resident could unlock it. Glitch number two.

If I tested it with my unregistered palm that might trigger an alarm too. I was still mulling over my options and running a mental inventory of the tech I had on me, when the door opened and a haggard-looking girl not much younger than me came through, struggling with two full loads of laundry. She was muttering to herself about her employer who’d forgotten yet again to leave her the damn elevator guest pass. She gave me a quick ‘thanks’ as I held the door open for her, but with the baskets in the way she couldn’t even see me.

            Into the stairwell I went, my question about door alarms now answered. The only security on the stairs seemed to be cameras. I wondered if they were just recording or if the rent-a-cop could see me. My scrambler would keep me from being identified but I didn’t need him coming after me because he’d seen a blur on his monitor. It was a bit of a risk, but I didn’t think he’d be worried about the cameras any more than he had been with the people coming in and out of the building. My employer hadn’t been concerned enough to mention him in the job description either, which was a good sign.

            I broke into a run, hoping to minimize my time in the stairwell. Because of the often physical demands of my profession I like to stay in decent shape, but with forty-seven flights to go I knew I’d be feeling this in my thighs tomorrow, especially after another night in the car.

            When I finally reached the top, I was surprised that I wasn’t that out of breath. Hell, I was proud. I was almost looking forward to the run down, which would only be easier. Then back the way I came, right out the front door without anyone the wiser. I was all but humming as I made my way down the hall to the penthouse door.

I knocked and moments later the door slid open. A middle-aged Asian woman blocked my path and it occurred to me that I had no contact name to ask for. All I could do was assume this was the traitorous girlfriend—hell, not my place to judge. I’m sure she had her reasons.

“You here for the data?”

I nodded. She closed the door and I heard her talking to someone. The door then slid open again and next to her stood a young boy. Blond and maybe seven years old at most.

“Take him. Go quick,” said the woman.

For a minute I just stood there, sure that English wasn’t her first language.

“The data?” I asked again.

“Yes, yes,” she said. “It’s here. In the boy. You must go now!”

I looked at the kid and started shaking my head. No, this was not what I’d signed up for. I don’t do kids, under the best of circumstances. What the hell was I supposed to do with him? But before I could argue she shoved him out into the hall. The boy winced but said nothing. He hadn’t said a word during the entire exchange, in fact.

“I can’t take this kid,” I said. “I was told this was a data pickup. I figured it’d be something I could put in my pocket. I don’t even have an apartme—”

There was a chime from inside.

“That’s the front desk. They’re back!” said the woman. “Go now!”

I gathered that time was nearly up for this job. I could get the hell out of here and be none the worse, but also none the richer, or I could take the kid, get my upfront payment and figure things out later. It seemed like a no-brainer, so I grabbed for his hand, and he pulled away and started screaming.

“He don’t like to be touched,” the woman said as the door closed behind her.

Great. I looked at the boy and wondered how long it would be before the elevator door opened and whoever was coming caught us.

“Look kid,” I said. “You and me are leaving here together, got it? You can come with me and I promise not to touch you, or you can fight me and I’ll have to grab you, and maybe even carry you. Choice is yours.”

The kid didn’t seem to hear me. He didn’t make eye contact. There was no evidence he even saw me. But he did start walking toward the stairs.

“Run,” I told him. And he did.

            The boy was slow on the stairs, but luckily none of the high-brows who lived here would be caught dead walking up and down them without a fire alarm as incentive. Maybe not even then. My original plan had been to take the elevator down from the ninety-eighth floor, then right out to the street, but with the kid in tow there was no way that was happening. People would notice. The security guy might even know him, or the kid might make a scene to try to get away. There was only one option. We’d have to run all the way down and use the emergency exit at the end of the stairwell.

            Before we even made it halfway down, the boy started to slow even more, then finally sat on one of the steps and refused to move. Kids get tired so damn easily. I wanted to carry him the rest of the way, but I knew he wouldn’t react well, and the noise might attract unwanted attention. I had no choice but to let him rest for a bit, each second an agony. I’d never taken so long to get in and out on a job. For all I knew the kid’s father had already called SecForce. I imagined opening the emergency exit door only to find my sister standing there with a smirk on her face, judgment dripping from her voice as she read me my rights—few though they were these days.

            “Okay kid, break’s over,” I said. “You either move or I’ll move you.”

            For a minute I didn’t think he’d budge but after giving me a longer-than-average stare, he stood and started moving again at his slow pace. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than sitting.

            By the time we reached the bottom it felt like days had passed. I braced myself as I pushed the emergency door open, thinking I might find SecForce or security there. But there was no one. I figured the girlfriend must have done something to buy us time. But opening this exterior door did trigger the fire alarm. It was loud and startled the boy who froze and covered his ears. I tried to get him moving again but all he did was scream, almost as loud as the alarm. I wasn’t screwing around anymore. I grabbed him and lifted him over my shoulder and I ran like the devil himself—or worse, my sister—was after me. The kid screamed still louder, pounding and kicking against my body as he tried to get out of my grasp. Christ was I gonna be sore tomorrow. I held him tighter still. If I liked kids I might have worried that I was hurting him, but the kid was pissing me off, so I didn’t think about it much.

            When we finally reached my car I all but threw him in the back. Didn’t bother to strap him or myself in, just drove as fast as I could—but not so fast as to attract SecForce attention—and got the hell out of High Town.

            Back in my neck of the woods, when I was sure no one had followed, I stopped to take a breath. The kid was no longer screaming. He sat in the back breathing hard, his face wet with tears, but he said nothing.

            “What’s your name, kid?” I asked.

            His eyes drifted toward mine, but he didn’t speak.

            “Fine. You don’t have to tell me. We probably won’t be together that long anyway. At least once I figure out what the hell to do with you.”

            I called up the job on my wristcomp again and found the contact number for the client. I keyed it into the car’s computer and the call went through, but there was no visual. Whoever this was had blocked the camera. They said nothing; just waited for me to talk.

            “I have the…data,” I said. “Where do I take it?”

            The reply came by text. An address and a time—tomorrow evening.

            “No wait, you don’t understand,” I said. “I can’t keep this ki—this information on me! Not for that long!”

            The only response was the transfer notice of ten thousand credits. The first half of my payment. Then communication was cut off.

            “Dammit!” I said, pounding my fist against the dash. 

            What was I going to do with a kid for the next twenty-four hours? People would be looking for him. And my beat-up car didn’t exactly qualify as a hideout. Besides, kids need to eat, pee, do kid shit I don’t even know about. How the hell had I gotten myself into this mess? But then I remembered that I hadn’t gotten myself into this mess alone. I headed to Jax’s.

            Jax had a place in The Mids. He didn’t make any more money than I did—though his jobs were maybe more regular—but he’d gotten lucky when some fat cat client had paid him with a building rather than credits. Don’t get me wrong, the place was a shithole; a three-floor walk-up in bad need of—well, every kind of repair you could make on a man-made structure. But it was in a better part of town than where his old place had been, though just barely. And he had the whole place to himself, which was just how Jax liked it. I’d tried to talk him into renting out some of the still-liveable apartments once, but he hadn’t been interested, and anyway there weren’t a lot of takers for a place that would have looked more at home in Low Town. He’d offered me a spot once, but I’d passed when I saw a group of newborn rats huddled together in the bedroom closet. Earth made you tolerant to all kinds of stuff, but I drew the line at sharing my home with anything that might start to chew on me while I slept. Jax didn’t seem to mind the vermin though. He had laser traps set up all over his apartment, but I think they were mainly to keep the rodents from nibbling on his tech. Hacker priorities.

            Since the place was just on the edge of The Mids, Jax was still close enough to Low Town to maintain the connections that brought him a lot of his business. Jax worked with criminals, but he was basically a decent guy. Like most people on Earth, he had payments to make and he had skills that lent themselves to this kind of work. Criminals just paid better than most legit employers. We all did what we had to to survive.

            And to be fair, these days there was a fine line between legal and illegal employers. Ever since Earth had shifted from national governments to corporate control, competition had grown so fierce that basically anything was acceptable if it meant getting ahead. There was a sort of honor code among the wealthy companies that kept the off-world folk living in style, but lines were crossed all the time. They saw it as a gentleman’s war and as the cliché goes, all’s fair in love and…well, you get the picture. Sure, there were still some checks and balances to keep everyone in line. Like SecForce and what remained of old government bureaucracies like patents and copyrights, but even these weren’t what they’d been in previous centuries. It was dog-eat-dog these days. Which was why a small fish in the pond like me didn’t stand a chance of bettering her situation here.

            Despite all that, Jax had no plans to leave Earth. A Terran born and bred, he’d never set foot off-planet and was terrified of space travel, so his phobia kept him grounded. He seemed fine with it though. I knew I’d miss him when I was gone but as much as he meant to me, that wasn’t reason enough to stay. Jax seemed to understand.

            It was late when the kid and I showed up at Jax’s place, but I knew he’d be up. He’d never been one for sleep if he could avoid it. I palmed the sensor next to his apartment door and waited as the light turned green to let me know that Jax knew I was here. After a moment, the door unlocked and we stepped in. Jax was nowhere in sight, which was not unusual. He didn’t like to leave his setup when he was working. If he was in the Platform, even more so.

            “Hi,” I said, my voice exaggerated cheer as I moved through the small apartment to the room that served as Jax’s office. “How’s your day been? Mine’s been just peachy! You wouldn’t believe it.”

            The kid entered the room behind me and began looking around.

            “What the hell?” Jax said.

            He must’ve been surprised because he removed his digi-glasses, which he almost never did. His eyes darted from the boy to me a few times, then his shoulders lifted, silently asking the question we both knew was on his mind.

            “Oh this? This is just the data you sent me to pick up.”

            Jax leaned forward in his chair. “Who the hell is this kid, Vega?”

            “The job, man! The girlfriend passed him on. Said the data is inside him or something. Didn’t even explain what that meant!”

            “Shiiiit!”

            He put his lenses back on and started doing his blinking thing while looking at the kid. The boy imitated him for a bit before losing interest and resuming his exploration of Jax’s shithole apartment.

            “Got it,” Jax said, after a while. “Kid’s name is Cassius Lowell.”

            “Lowell? As in Damien Lowell, CEO of HabiTech? Practically the richest man in the system?”

            Jax gave a single nod. We both looked at the kid who was playing with the headset from Jax’s Platform system.

            Damien Lowell was not a man you wanted to mess with. No wonder the job description had been so vague. If I’d known I’d been hired to kidnap the son of the man who owned the luxury residential space stations orbiting four of the planets in this system, I would never have taken it. No one would have. I had to sit down. There was no chair besides Jax’s, so I took a seat on the floor while Jax kept doing his thing with the lenses.

            “Looks like Lowell’s put the word out about his kid,” Jax was saying. “Not long after you took him, I’m guessing.”

            “SecForce?” I imagined my sister hunting me as we spoke.                                   

            “Nah. He went through less official channels. He’ll have some shady guys looking for you. Guess he figures they’re more likely to find him than the cops.”

Even the upper crust knew how things got done on Earth. If this didn’t mean Damien Lowell had put a hit on me I might have been amused. My only advantage right now was that no one knew who’d taken the kid, but Lowell would’ve hired the best. It was only a matter of time. And if the hired guns didn’t get to me soon he’d send SecForce after me too. If I got lucky, they wouldn’t track the kidnapping to me until I was long gone spending my credits in the colonies. Of course, I’d never been lucky before, so there was no reason that would change now. And since Jax had got me the job in the first place, chances were this shitstorm would fall on him too. I was starting to wonder if even twenty-thousand creds was worth it.

            “So, what do you think the girlfriend meant when she told me the kid had the data inside him? Some sort of implant? Would even a credit-flush asshole like Lowell use his own kid as a data mule?”

            Jax shrugged. “Hand me that scanner.”

            I wasn’t sure what a scanner was, but I followed the trail indicated by his index finger and tossed him a hand-held tool that looked as though he’d made it himself. Knowing Jax, he had. Taking it to the boy, he turned it on and passed it over the kid’s body without touching him, which was good since I hadn’t yet had a chance to tell him about the way the kid reacted to physical contact.

            “I’ve never used this on a person before, but it should still work,” Jax said, staring at the instrument which was making a humming noise. “I’m not seeing anything though. I don’t think this kid is chipped. Not even a tracker.”

            “Well thank God for that,” I said. “Odd that a kid whose father is this rich wouldn’t chip him with a tracker at birth.”

            “I’m not saying he didn’t, just that the kid doesn’t have one now,” said Jax. “Trackers aren’t easy to tamper with and they’re near impossible to remove. I’m guessing if he had one she used a burner on it to basically melt the thing down to nothing. It’s an extremely painful process.” He looked at the kid as he said this.

            “Might be why he doesn’t like being touched. Speaking of which, you might want to back off. He’s looking annoyed. Trust me, you don’t want to set this kid off.”

            “Maybe he’s hungry or something, you think?”

            “How the hell should I know?”

            “You hungry Cass?” Jax asked.

            The kid looked at him but didn’t react. Instead he put on the Platform headset and started turning his head as if it were on. Then he tried a few times to connect. It didn’t seem to be working. Jax probably didn’t have the credits to pay for this month’s membership, and he sure as hell wasn’t one of the lucky few to have Platform access provided by a legit employer.

            “So, if it’s not an implant, then what…a memory? Can they even take that out of him?” I wanted to know why my clients even wanted this kid. Normally I did the job and asked only the necessary questions to get it done, but this was different. I was in a tight spot here. I wasn’t sure if I should wait around for the other half of the money or cut and run while I still could.

            Jax sat in his chair again. It shifted a bit under his weight. “It’s possible,” he said after a moment. “There are methods, though none of them pretty. Whoever wants him, if it’s a memory they’re after, the extraction process would likely kill the kid, or at least leave him with some brain damage. Especially if he resists.”

            “Any of your connections have the means to extract it?”

            Jax leaned toward me and I could see by the expression on his face what he was going to say before he even opened his mouth.

            “You’re not serious. He’s a kid, Vega!”

            I shrugged, trying to make it look like it was nothing to me. “Look, the kid already seems to have brain damage. He’s certainly not normal. Doesn’t even talk, just screams when you touch him.”

            Jax looked at the boy. “Maybe it’s autism?”

            “Richies don’t get that. They have vaccines for that shit, or something. Hell, this kid was probably genetically engineered.”

            “Well then, judging by the way his life seems to be going, my guess would be trauma,” Jax said. “I mean, come on; you were a kid once. We weren’t a hell of a lot older than him when we got shunted into the system. We’re the last people who should be doing this.”

            He pleaded with his eyes and I admit I felt a twinge of something like conscience. But I couldn’t very well call Damien Lowell up and say I accidentally took his kid—oops! Sorry. That was a good way to wind up dead. Even if Lowell took it well, my employer sure as hell wouldn’t, and unlike Lowell they had better leads on how to track me down.

            “It’s too late,” I told Jax. “The deed is done. Lowell won’t let this slide. Besides, you know how bad I need this payday. All I have to do is hand the kid over tomorrow and I can get so far out of here, Earth won’t even be a spot in the sky. You can use your cut to cover your tracks too.”

            “Aren’t you even curious why they want him?” said Jax.

            “Sure I am. But not curious enough to risk my life. I figure daddy must’ve given him some business secrets that the competition wants to use. Beat him to the patent finish line. Happens all the time. Not my problem.”

            “Well I’m glad you’re so okay with this.” Jax turned away from me and went back to watching the kid. I’d never seen him like this. We’d both done a lot of shady stuff to make it in this world but none of it had ever come between us.

            The kid grunted and threw Jax’s headset across the room. Jax had to roll out of his chair to avoid getting hit.

“Hey! Take it easy kid! I plan to get that running again next month. Or at least that’d been the plan for my cut of this job. Now I’m not so sure I want it.” I pretended not to notice the glare he shot my way.

            As expected, Cass said nothing. He sat on the floor, arms wrapped around his knees, staring at the Platform like the thing had betrayed him.

            “Must be how he spends his time,” I said. “His dad can probably afford the subscription every month. What do you think it’s even like in there for him? The constructs his mind creates, I mean?”

            Jax shrugged. “Who knows what’s going on in his head. The constructs are built largely on imagination. I’d think the mind of any kid could come up with some pretty messed up shit. But that gives me an idea. Maybe we could use the Platform to find out what the kid knows—at least in general. We’re gonna need a working system.”

            “Don’t look at me,” I said. “I don’t even have my system anymore. Besides, that’s insane. What’s to stop him from contacting good old dad once he’s in there?”

            “He won’t,” said Jax. “I can lock him down so he’s only able to talk to someone using the same system. All we need now is someone with access, but everyone I know is too broke these days to cover the fee.”

            I had a thought then. One that turned my stomach, but I couldn’t find an option that was better. It was ludicrous to even consider it. The risk was enormous. But I knew Jax wasn’t going to drop this and I had to admit I was also curious about what the kid knew. I could barely believe the words that came out of my mouth next.

            “We could try Arden’s.”

            Jax looked at me as if I’d gone insane. “Arden? Your sister Arden, who you hate? Who are you?”

            “I know, I know. But Arden’s SecForce. She’ll have a working Platform—they get the membership free because they use it for training. And as far as we know SecForce hasn’t yet been alerted about the kid.”

            “As far as we know,” said Jax.

            “Well if you want to know what’s in his head, Arden’s our one shot. Otherwise I just hand the kid over blind.”

            “Don’t you get it, maybe we can save him,” said Jax. “If we find out what he knows we might be able to pass on the information without the kid.”

            There was no way it’d be that simple. No doubt taking his place would just get us killed instead, but I couldn’t argue with him the way he was looking at me. I gave a half-hearted nod, but even as I did, I knew I would finish the job no matter what. I had time to kill though, and if it made Jax feel better to go digging in the kid’s head, then why not? I knew Arden. If SecForce had been alerted to the kidnapping I’d see it in her eyes the second she opened the door. It wouldn’t be the first time we’d found ourselves on opposite sides of the law. I knew I could handle her.

            “What will we tell her?” Jax asked.

            “We can say he’s ours. She hasn’t seen me in years so for all she knows I have a kid,” I said. “We’ll work out the rest of the details on the way. I’ll go into the Platform with the kid and your job will be to distract Arden while we do that.”

            “Okay,” Jax said. “But promise me you’ll at least consider leaving the kid with her. She’s SecForce. She could protect him.”

            But where would that leave us? Ten-thousand credits wasn’t enough to get me off-world. Especially not minus Jax’s cut. Plus, I’d still have Lowell coming after me. I didn’t say any of these things to him though.

            “I promise.”

            The thing about promising to consider something is that it doesn’t mean you’ll do it. It just means you’ll think about it. And I did. I thought about how my sister had betrayed me when we were just kids and I was accused of tampering with the academy scores. I thought about how no one believed me, but I was sure my big sister would have my back. But when she didn’t, and I got shipped off the training station—sent back to Earth and a string of foster parents who were in it for the credits—I knew I couldn’t trust her again. And I wasn’t trusting her this time either. Not with this kid, or this job, or with me. We had to be ready to cut and run because if Arden did know this kid was missing, she would be the first to turn me in and earn herself a nice commendation. She wouldn’t give a shit if I rotted in some SecForce prison. Hell, she might even visit from time to time to rub in the fact that she was so much better than me. To tell me how having been given the chance to enter the academy and join SecForce had been an incredible opportunity for a couple of war orphans. An opportunity I’d squandered, and she’d risen to.

            Bile rose in my throat as the three of us made our way back to my car. I hadn’t seen my sister since I was nineteen. It hadn’t been a happy reunion then either. I was dreading this.

            As it turned out, Arden didn’t live too far from Jax’s. She was still technically in the Mids. SecForce cops weren’t the poor lowlifes we were, but they also weren’t paid well enough to afford homes in High Town. Still, her neighborhood was a noticeable step up—or two or three steps up—from Jax’s. As we pulled up in front of her apartment complex, I couldn’t help but think that I could have had this life. I could have lived in a place like this, with walls that had actually seen paint in the last decade, trees (synthetic, but trees all the same), and neighbors you could trust not to steal your shit while you went to work. But I’d been screwed out of this life by my own flesh and blood. The only family I’d had left.

            I felt stiff as I walked up to the building and while we stood in the elevator. I stared at my reflection on the door and felt myself moving toward her apartment as if on automatic. Like I was just along for the ride inside my own body. When Arden opened the door, she looked surprised to see me, especially as late as it was, but I don’t think she felt the shock that I did seeing her face-to-face like this. Last time I’d been getting processed for something petty. She’d been helping the arresting officer with the data entry—a smile on her face the whole time.

            “Vega,” she said. Then she looked at Jax and down at Cassius. “I wasn’t expecting you.”

            “You called me,” I said, pushing past her and forcing my voice to sound neutral. “You said you wanted to reconnect, so here we are. This is my old man, Jax, and that’s Cass, our kid.”

            Arden closed the door and took a longer look at Cassius, this time lingering and giving him a smile, as if to say, I have a nephew. It’s stupid, but it made me angry. I thought, what right does she have to claim my kid as anything of hers? I know it makes no sense since Cass wasn’t even my kid, but her smile always seemed to bring out the worst in me.

            I swallowed my anger before speaking again. “Look, I hope you don’t mind but I figured you’d want to meet the family. Plus, Cass here’s sick. Part of his treatment is on the Platform, but to be honest things are tight since Jax lost his job, so I thought maybe you’d let us borrow yours. For Cass’ sake.”

            I knew SecForce cops weren’t really supposed to lend out their systems, but I could see her caving as she looked at Cass. She wouldn’t have broken the rules for me, but for him, well that was a different story. It was a good thing the kid was kinda cute. Plus, he didn’t talk which made him all the more endearing, at least to me.

            “You can use my system if that will help,” she said. “What sort of medical condition is it?”

            “Jax’ll explain. Come on Cass.” I made my way into the bedroom next door, where I assumed she kept her system, since I hadn’t seen it in the living room. Arden called after me. Something about first talking a bit and catching up, but I said “later” without so much as turning her way. I heard Jax stammering as he began to give her the reason we’d come up with for Cass needing the Platform while I closed the bedroom door.

            By the time I’d done that, the kid had already put one of the headsets on. Before he could connect, I ran over to plug in the program Jax had written to stop him from talking to anyone but me. I found a second headset next to the system. They came standard with two, but it looked like it hadn’t been used. The ice queen must not have anyone in her life to share it with, I figured. I put it on and connected to the Platform. Then the world vanished, and I was in the non-descript entry portal that began each session. A prompt asked if I wanted to join the other person connected through this system. I said yes, bracing myself for what I’d find in this messed up kid’s construct.

            A boy appeared, but it wasn’t Cass. At least not like I knew him. Rather than being seven he was about twelve years old. The same big eyes and sandy hair, but older. He stood with confidence in the middle of an enormous library—the kind they used to have back when there were still paper books. The shelves were lined with what looked like thousands of antique leather-bound books.

            “Hi Vega,” he said, greeting me as if we were old friends.

I hadn’t told him my name, but he must’ve picked it up when Jax or Arden said it. Who the hell was he gonna tell anyway?

            “Cass…nice place,” I said. “You’re…different.”

            He gave a single nod. “I choose to project myself older here. My father tells me I’m an old soul. Maybe he’s right.”

            Judging by the ancient look of the place he’d created for himself, I had to agree. It was strange hearing him speak. I realized I’d only ever heard him make grunting noises or scream when he was touched.

            “Yes, I can talk here,” he said, as though reading my mind. “I can do all kinds of things on the Platform that I can’t in the outside world. I often spend time with my father here and he tells me things.”

            “Things about his business,” I said. “Company secrets.”

            “More like ideas he has,” he said. “Improvements on what we already have. Or he shares problems he’s trying to solve.”

            “You’re his sounding board.”

            He gave another nod. “Yes. But I’m more than that.”

            I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but I let it go for now. I wanted to get right to the point before Arden figured out we were full of shit. She was probably grilling Jax as we spoke, poking holes in his lies.

            “Do you know why my clients want you?”

            “Yes,” he said.

            “Something your father told you? Something you overheard, or he shared?”

            He smiled. “That’s what they think, at any rate.”

            “So, you don’t have the information they want?”

            “I am the information they want,” he replied.

            I must’ve looked confused, even in avatar form, because he continued to explain, speaking as if I were the kid here.

            “My father’s about to unveil a new design for his luxury habitats to the World Patent Committee. One that will outshine all the others he’s put in orbit here and in other systems, but that will be a fraction of the cost to produce. This one is so cost-efficient he’ll be able to launch multiple, even in deep space. It will be a luxury home unlike any before it. And it will make my father the most powerful man on Earth and in all our systems. But they don’t know how he did it. They don’t know what the plans consist of or how we managed to keep the costs low. They need that knowledge so they can beat him to the punch.”

            “So it is a patent race. I knew it.”

            I didn’t know a lot about the corporate world, but I knew about patent races. Because tech had made it so easy to copy plans for virtually anything you could produce, or even the products themselves if they weren’t too large in scale, it had made it near-impossible to determine who the original idea had come from. In the past, companies had tied up the courts for years trying to prove who had stolen from who. Once Earth became corporate-run, and the WPC was established, things had changed. Now it was a literal race to get a patent. Whoever presented the product schematics and plans first won the exclusive right to production. So it wasn’t uncommon for a competitor to wait for you to do all the hard work then steal your ideas at the eleventh hour. Companies spent a lot of credits making damn sure their ideas couldn’t be stolen, and guys like Jax made a good living finding ways around their security. Only HabiTech was known for being impossible to steal from, but somewhere along the line Damien Lowell had made a mistake and told his kid a little too much, and he was about to lose both his son and his new station because of it.

            “Your father told you how to access his plans,” I said. “Because you’re his heir.”

            Cass laughed then. “Not exactly. See, there are no plans. No data to steal. No instructions for anyone to build with. There’s nothing, except what’s in my head and what I told my father during our planning sessions. And even with a memory extraction they won’t get it without my help.”

            “What?”

            The kid walked over to one of the stacks and removed a book. It looked like any average book I’d seen in historical archives. Yellowed paper bound between two hard sides that formed the cover. This one was a deep red color and had writing on it in gold. It seemed unremarkable though. I wasn’t sure what he was doing.

            Cass passed me the book and I looked at it. Coriolis, it said. I recognized it as the name of one of the luxury habitat stations. It was one of the early Earth ones that had come after the original—non-luxury—space stations HabiTech had produced, including my home for over a year: SecForce Academy. Coriolis, I remembered, had been decommissioned a couple months ago. It had been all over the news because HabiTech had transported the entire population to a larger resort station orbiting Saturn.

            I opened the book. Inside were detailed schematics of every part of the station, along with notes covering everything from the type of plumbing to the colour of the throw cushions.

            “My first,” he said. “My father’s company had architects and engineers create the prototypes and the very basic stations that came before this one. But when my father took me to visit them I knew I could do better. I began to design them in my mind, dreaming of new and better habitats. And so I created Coriolis, the first of the true luxury stations.”

He took the book back and flipped through the pages as if to reminisce. I glanced at the closest shelves and saw the books on them. Ideas of every kind from What to Get Father for His Birthday to Plan for a Model Solar Sail Craft were mixed together with no seeming order.

 “The more I came up with ideas for my father’s stations, the more I realized I could do it more efficiently than my father’s employees could. Faster. Better. I could see things they couldn’t and make sense of every detail in my mind. And the Platform made it possible to organize my ideas into this library, within each book. I was able to compartmentalize the knowledge so that you need both my mind and the Platform to access the complete information. One or the other is not enough. You were right when you said I’d been genetically engineered. I was. To have an exceptional mind. That was my father’s focus. Unfortunately, there were issues with my body that he did not anticipate, nor did those who engineered me, eager as they were to please him with my mind. They thought my father would not want me when I was born. They thought he would have them terminate me and begin again, but he didn’t. And with the Platform, he got to know the real me. The ‘me’ who could take his business to a level he hadn’t imagined.”

            “So, you’re the creator behind the stations?”

            He didn’t respond to that because we both knew that was what he was saying. This kid was the mastermind behind one of the richest companies known to humanity. He had used his imagination and the Platform to create the stations and had put the information here. I could see by the sheer number of books that even if you could hack your way in, it would be impossible for anyone—my clients included—to find the information they were looking for without Cass’ help. At least as long as they didn’t have years to search. And that’s if it even occurred to them to look in the construct created by a mute, seven-year-old boy. No wonder HabiTech was impossible to hack.

            “My one fault was that I initially lacked an understanding of the cost incurred in producing the stations,” Cass continued. “I let my imagination run wild and left my father to control what could and couldn’t be done. But I know better now and that’s why this latest design is the best one yet. My magnum opus if you will.”

            “But as smart as you are, you must’ve known your father’s girlfriend couldn’t be trusted,” I said. “You must’ve known something like this would happen to you. Why didn’t you warn your father?”

            “Ms. Lin is many things, but she’s not stupid,” said Cass. “She put on a convincing act, and I admit I was fooled, for a time. I knew she was planning something. I could see the interest she had in the private conversations my father and I had in the Platform. It did occur to me that she was working for someone who would want information about the new stations, so they could produce them first and put my father out of business. But this was nothing new to my father. People were always trying to steal his secrets. By the time I realized she was dangerous it was too late. But I also realized that Ms. Lin thought only that my father had divulged secrets to me. I thought it was best to let them take me and attempt to extract those secrets. You see, HabiTech is about to file. All I have to do is buy them the time, so they can get the patent before your client can. By the time the competitors realize I’m useless to them it will be too late, and my father’s company will be saved.”

            It took me a while to figure out what he meant. I’ll admit, I wasn’t the genius in the virtual room, but I did catch up eventually. The kid had known. He’d known that when they went in to get what he knew they’d kill him in the process—or at least damage him beyond repair. They’d get nothing out of him and they would not be able to use him to their own ends. His secrets would die with him. All the creativity. All that genius that had made HabiTech the empire it was today. But smart as he was, he must have given his father the information already—or somehow made it so that Damien Lowell, and only Damien Lowell, would be able to access it, even if Cass was killed. All he needed was the patent, and there were likely underlings getting the process started even as Lowell searched for his son. 

            “Jesus, kid. You sure must love your dad.”

            “He could have thrown me away,” he said. “I was a flawed result to something he had spent a good deal of credits on. But he didn’t. He took me home and he loved me, and he made me his partner. He would’ve left me the business. Even if I die now, he’ll be set for the rest of his life with this new design. It’ll allow him to launch resort stations in deep space. Far beyond this single solar system. And all previous designs will be rendered obsolete. HabiTech will no longer have competitors. They’ll be driven out of business—at least until someone improves upon my design, which won’t happen within my father’s lifetime. I’ll have given him something almost as valuable as what he gave me.”

            It made no real sense to me, but I guess this was where the seven-year-old came in. He loved his father that much. The way kids who have parents who love them do. I strained to remember having felt that once, before the war, when my parents were still among the living. But family had been a long time ago for me.

            “Finish your job Vega,” Cass said. “Hand me over. Get paid. And rest easy knowing it was for the best.”

            I disconnected rather than respond. A moment later the kid took his headset off too. We both stared at each other for a second. I could still hear Jax and Arden talking in the next room.

            “You are one fucked up kid,” I told Cass. I could swear I saw something almost like a smile form on his face.

            We joined the others back in the main room. Jax and Arden were sipping tea like a couple of old ladies at bridge. Seeing them all chummy like that brought back the earlier emotions from when she’d smiled at Cass.

            “We’re done here,” I told Jax. “Thanks Arden, but we gotta go now.”

            “What?” she said, putting down her teacup. Real porcelain. Must be nice. “You could at least stay for dinner. Give me a chance to get to know my nephew and for us to talk a while.”

            I mumbled something noncommittal and headed for the door. To his credit, Jax didn’t try to stop me even though I knew he would rather I leave the kid there.

            “Jesus, Vega! You’re the one who showed up on my doorstep,” Arden said.

            I couldn’t help myself. I stopped and turned, my body poised like I was going to hit her, but I didn’t. She’d probably charge me with assault. “Dinner?” I said. “Is this part of your happy reunion scenario? After what you did to me!”

            “If you’ll just give me a chance to explain,” she said. “Christ, Vega! We were both kids, not just you!”

            “Yeah, but we both didn’t end up on a shuttle to Earth. We both didn’t end up living with strangers who didn’t give a shit about us. With no education and no way to make a living. But you sleep easy. I survived. And I get it; you had to save yourself. No explanation required. That was my first lesson in looking out for number one and I guess I gotta thank you in that it served me well. Let’s go Jax.”

            Jax muttered something to Arden while I turned to leave. I didn’t care what it was. I just wanted to get away before the tears came. Tears I hadn’t cried since I was eleven.

            Just then her wristcomp went off and I could tell from her tone that it was official.

            “Vega wait,” she said in her cop voice.

            I stopped then and turned to see her face, so I could read her expression to be sure. But I didn’t have to. Jax stood close enough to glance down at her wrist.

            “She knows,” he said.

            We all ran. Even the kid didn’t need to be told. Arden didn’t immediately come after us and I suspected she’d turned back to get her stunner.

            “Move!” I yelled back.

            Jax picked up the kid and ran with him, Cass screaming and kicking like he had when I’d grabbed him. Poor kid. I actually felt bad for him. But I’d feel worse if SecForce caught up with us. Hell, Lowell would probably have enough connections to get us shanked while in holding.

            I told my wristcomp to get the car unlocked and open so that by the time we exited the building all we had to do was jump in. I drove off fast enough that I could hear Jax and Cass toppling over in the back. It was pure inertia that kept me in my seat.

            The comm chimed. I knew without looking who it was but for some reason I can’t explain, I still answered.

            “Vega listen to me,” Arden said. If I didn’t know her so well, I might’ve been fooled into reading her tone of voice as concerned. “You need to bring the boy back. If you turn him over to me I can tell SecForce you cooperated. I can get the charges reduced.”

            I laughed. “Hell no. I’m this close to getting off-world and I’m not about to let some misunderstanding ruin it for me.”

            “Misunderstanding? You kidnapped a child! What part of that is misunderstanding?”

            “I might bother explaining it to you if I thought there was even the slimmest chance you’d believe me,” I told her. “But we both know your track record for trusting what I say.”

            With that I shut the comm off, leaving her in the middle of a word. Whatever she was about to say, I wasn’t in the mood to hear it. Instead, I pulled over and told Jax to get out.

            “What do you mean?” he asked.

            “Just go Jax. You’re not part of this. Go ahead and throw me under the bus, I’m okay with it. If anyone’s gonna get pinched for this, it’s gotta be me.”

            “And where exactly do you plan to go?” He was asking me but looking at Cass.

            I let out a long sigh. “I’m taking the kid in,” I said. “The sooner he’s in the client’s hands the sooner I can get off-world. Don’t worry, I’ll send you your cut.”

            He knew I was good for it but seemed conflicted anyway. He hadn’t been in the Platform with Cass. He didn’t know what I knew. He shook his head but got out of the car anyway. We were close enough to his place that he could walk. He’d be safer taking his chances on the streets than with me.

            “You don’t have to do this, Vega,” I heard him say as I drove off. I watched him in my rear-view monitor. He stood there watching us drive away. I didn’t like the way he looked. I knew what he was thinking—we’d been kids once too. But I didn’t have time to explain to him that this kid wasn’t really seven, at least not on the inside. And that he’d said it was okay. I’m not sure he would’ve understood if I had had time to explain. Besides, I could always make an anonymous call to SecForce after turning him over to the client. There was a slim chance the cops might find him before my clients tried the extraction.

            “This is it,” I told the kid. “I hope you’re sure about this. We’ll have to lay low until it’s time to turn you over, but then you’re out of my hands. You’re probably exhausted anyway. You can get some sleep if you want.”

            He climbed into the front seat and sat next to me. Staring at me as I drove, in a way I couldn’t really read. Not that this kid was ever easy to read. Then he put his arm out and I felt his hand on mine. A tiny little seven-year-old hand. Warm, and a little sweaty. He held it there for what seemed an eternity. I wondered if he’d ever willingly touched anyone before. If he touched his father.

            “Thanks for making this easy on me kid,” I said. “You probably wouldn’t understand why this is so important to me because you’ve lived a privileged life. You’ve lived on those luxury stations you created, and you’ve lived in High Town. You’ve never gone hungry or felt like you had no one to count on. Anyway, I’m done with all that. Your life may very well be coming to an end, but mine’s finally about to start. I won’t forget what you’ve done for me—even if you’re really doing it for your father.”

            He stared at me a while longer, then took his hand back and closed his eyes. After barely a second he was softly snoring. Not even the jostle of the car seemed to matter. At least someone could sleep well in my cramped old hovercar.

            It was after ten in the morning by the time the kid woke up. I saw him move from outside the car where I was sitting on the hood, nursing a cup of synthcaf—Low Town’s answer to coffee—that I’d jacked from a now-broken vending machine. I pointed to the bag in my seat that held more goodies for the kid. He must’ve been hungry because he dug right in, predictably going for the snack cakes.

            We were parked behind one of HabiTech’s component plants. The plant was in shutdown for the moment, so no one else was around. The security systems wouldn’t be triggered so long as we didn’t try to break in. It was the perfect hideout since no one would think to look here of all places. Right in Damien Lowell’s backyard.

We’d arrived about a half-hour ago. I’d spent most of the night just driving and making sure we weren’t being followed. It was a good thing Arden had turned back for her weapon because if she’d had time to scan the car we would’ve had SecForce on us in seconds.

            The synthcaf had helped clear my thoughts. And I had been thinking, a lot. About the conversation with the kid in the Platform. About what the money meant to me and what the future would bring. About Arden and Jax. About betrayal. And at long last I’d come to a decision.

            I drained the cup and threw away the empty. HabiTech’s sanitation bots would take care of it. Sliding off the hood I gave the kid an appreciative nod as he stuffed yet another snack cake in his mouth. Hell, if I thought I was going to be dead in a matter of hours I’d enjoy the little things too.

            I got in next to him, handing him the bag so he could continue to help himself. He deserved it.

            “Look Cass, I’ve been thinking,” I said. “When I was a kid, a little older than you are, I was taken away from my home and my family, and it sucked. I didn’t get killed, obviously, but there were times in my shitty life where that would’ve been a better option. I won’t get into that now. Anyway, there was no one there to do right by me, growing up. Just Jax, but no adults. I swore I wouldn’t be like those assholes. Maybe that’s why I never wanted a kid. I didn’t want to screw another person up the way I was. But here we are. Me with a kid that landed in my lap all the same. And I know what you told me in the Platform. I know you said it was okay, but how am I supposed to go live my life—live my dream—knowing what I did to you?”

            He obviously didn’t respond, though his chewing slowed, and his eyes shifted my way.

“A long time ago someone let me down,” I continued. “She always said she had her reasons, but I never wanted to hear them. I know I’m letting you down now, but maybe you’ll consider what I just told you.”

The kid yelled and threw the bag at me, then went for the door but I hit the locks before he could and without an override he wasn’t going anywhere.

“I have a plan,” I said. “One I hope will keep you safe and still help your dad—even let you keep helping him in the future.” This got his attention. “You’re going to have to trust me.” But I knew that if my plan was going to have a shot, the kid wasn’t the only one who’d have to take a leap of faith.

Cass didn’t look convinced and I could tell he was still mad, but I pretended not to notice. I turned on my comm and called my sister. She did a good job of hiding her surprise when she answered.

            “Arden,” I said. “I’m going to tell you where we are. I haven’t trusted you since we were kids but I’m gonna trust you now. This really was a mistake. Jax can tell you—and believe me he had nothing to do with any of it. I’ll give you the kid and then I’m gone. Out of your hair and your life for good. You have to give me your word you’ll let me do that much.”

            “You have my word, so long as the boy is safe.”

            I told her where she could find us and that all she had to do was keep the boy safe until HabiTech got patent approval from the WPC. Once that was done the boy would be useless to my clients. She agreed to keep Jax out of it. No one besides Arden, Cass and me had any idea he’d been involved anyway. I was the one who’d actually committed the kidnapping.

I knew the risk I was taking in trusting her. She could show up with backup, or with the kid’s own father for all I knew. But what choice did I have?

            Next, I called Jax. I told him what I was doing and sent him ten percent of my advance. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be getting the rest of the credits, but what remained would be enough to get me out of the city before my angry former client came after me. Maybe even out of the country. Unfortunately, not off-world. But I could find some place to start fresh and no one would have to die for it.

            “You sure you want to risk this? Trusting your sister?”

            “I’m sure. Whatever happens, at least the kid gets to live.”

            “When did you go and grow a conscience?” he asked.

            “Maybe I just stole yours.”

            “Yeah, that sounds like something you’d do,” he laughed. “I’m gonna miss you Vega. Take care of yourself. And if you can, let me know how I can get in touch with you.”

            “I will.”

            I had to end the conversation there before I started to get all emotional. I didn’t know why this was so hard when I’d been preparing myself to leave Jax for years. I guess I’d let him get under my skin.

            It wasn’t long after that that Arden showed up in her squad car. I waited for a beat to see if any more would join her, but they didn’t. She’d started walking toward my car, so I got out to meet her. Cass got out too. We walked to where she stood, and I gestured toward the boy.

            “He doesn’t like to be touched. He does, however, like snack cakes. The cheap ones with the pink jelly filling.”

            She smiled, of all things. For once it didn’t piss me off.

            “Where will you go?” she asked, then raised a hand as if to stop herself. “Of course you can’t tell me that.”

            “You’re really not going to turn me over to SecForce?”

            “I gave you my word. But it was also the conversation I had with Jax. He gave me something while you were in the Platform. Records he’d dug up—I don’t even want to know how. I looked at them after you left. They showed what happened at the academy when the grades got altered. They showed who did it. Julia Greyson. Daughter of Maxwell Greyson, one of SecForce’s highest ranking officers at the time. They covered it up and used you as a scapegoat. And I let them. I swear I didn’t know Vega, but I was a scared kid. I was afraid they’d kick us both out if I didn’t back them up. And I—I wasn’t sure you hadn’t done it.”

            I exhaled. Of course, I thought. They picked one of the orphans—one of the kids with no connections—and just pinned it on her. They could just as easily have picked Arden, but for some reason they happened to pick me. Probably because even then I’d been a bit of a handful. Two birds with one stone. Jax must’ve dug all that up with his digi-glasses on the way to Arden’s. He hadn’t said a thing about it to me.

            “I’m not going to tell you that I approve of your life choices since then,” Arden continued. “You took this kid, whatever the misunderstanding, and you knew that was wrong. But maybe if I’d been a better sister to you none of this would have happened. We’d both be SecForce officers and working together.”

            I laughed.

“I guess I owe you this much,” she said. “Maybe I can still do right by you.”

At this moment she wasn’t the Arden I thought I knew. Maybe if we’d had more time things could’ve been different between us. Not like they once were but…something.

            “We should both go.”

            “You can still turn yourself in. It would mean some prison time, but I could keep the charges down. You wouldn’t have to go on the run.”

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

“Be careful, Vega.”

            “Hey, I learned a long time ago how to take care of myself,” I said. “I’ll be fine. I’m like a cat, always landing on my feet.”

            “That’s a myth. About cats, I mean.”

            “Well, even if I land on my back I know how to roll,” I told her. “Keep an eye on Jax for me.”

            “I will.”

            I walked away without looking back. At least not until I was in the car. She was putting Cass into her cruiser, making sure he was safely buckled in. So responsible. So Arden. I couldn’t help it, I suddenly felt afraid that I might have put her in danger. But something told me she’d learned to take care of herself too.

This story originally appeared in Scoundrels: A TPQ Anthology.


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