"So what happened? What caused the Long Fall? Historians all agree that the Battle of Swiftes, culminating with the destruction of the Imperium Aeterunus’ partially-constructed Star Sphere, marks the beginning of a long period of galactic decline. That hardly explains how the Coalition collapsed so completely in the face of the Formican Wars, or how only the rump state of the Regnum Tertius remained of the Imperium. Records of that period are remarkably poor. What documentation still exists points to an organized Imperium, and one need only look at the great Bastions they left behind to see that they were the technological masters of the day. Indeed, their technology is still far beyond the reach of modern man. We yet flounder in the dark, grasping for answers.”
Gerald Grummond, Volume I: The Fall and Rise of Galactic Civilizations
Bela Vista, Planet Seguro
“Hey! Grab her before she gets away!”
Safira dodged a grasping hand, dove and rolled to avoid another, and was back on her feet and running in a single motion.
Sarifa had screwed up, and she knew it. She was trapped.
It probably wasn’t clear to her pursuers, yet, which was the only edge she had. If she could get out of sight, maybe get to a rooftop, she could hide until they gave up. Then she could sneak back to her own hideout, lick her wounds, and try again tomorrow. Maybe then she would find something worth selling. Her empty stomach agreed with that plan.
Her pursuers were thugs and killers, part of one gang or another. She hadn’t stopped to see their colors, she’d just ran as soon as she spotted them. Sarifa knew the perils of cutting through gang territory. Unfortunately, if she wanted to scavenge in the junk fields so that she could eat, she had no other choice. She had to be sneakier.
The gangs of Bela Vista were deeply entrenched, and aside from the massive junk fields, were what the city was known for. The name of the city was a misnomer, for there were no ‘great views’ to see. As a desert city, there was little vegetation and almost no life outside of the artificiality of the city itself. To the north was a massive series of cliffs and canyons, and the gangs had left more than a few bodies to rot undiscovered there. To the east was a ‘river’ that was actually little more than a polluted stream, crossed by the lone road going in and out of the city. With the state of the city, it had a very wild, frontier feel. The magistrates did little more than protect the wealthy who profited off the finds of the scavengers and gangs, and were usually moonlighting as enforcers for gangs.
Safira had tried gang life once, when she was little. It was still possible then to get out into the fields without getting attacked on sight, but she’d been young and she’d always been small for her age. Over the course of a few weeks, she’d narrowly avoided being assaulted twice by her own ‘allies’, had even less to eat than when she’d fended for herself, and was expected to pay ‘tribute’ to the gang leader for the privelege of sleeping on a ratty, flea-infested cot. When a larger gang moved on her gang, Safira took the opportunity to run. She’d been ten years old.
Her heart raced as she ducked and twisted through alleys. She had made a wrong turn, and this part of town was moderately better off than the fringes she’d been spotted in. Alleys were fewer, with more fences blocking swift access. The wealthy part of town was on the other side, so she couldn’t go there without risking being shot down by the magistrates. Worse, this part of town was one she didn’t know very well.
Safira needed to get off the street. As long as she was on the street, they could see her and she’d never escape. She twisted into a wide alley that was conveniently open all the way through. A large trash bin took up most of the alley, at an angle. She ran past it, then ducked down into the narrow niche between the wall and the bin. If they turned around, they’d see her, but in her experience, most gang thugs had tunnel vision when chasing you. She tried to calm her breathing and her wildly beating heart. Two thugs ran by and exited the alley on the other end. She gave them a few seconds to get around the corner, and she ran back the way she’d come.
Once out on the street, she paused to catch her breath and to get her bearings. She was basically out of the gang territories now, but she didn’t want to accidentally stumble into Rager territory. They were the largest gang, and had consolidated their hold on much of the eastern part of the city. She shuddered to think of how they’d handle her. At least these thugs would just give her a brutal, life-threatening beating that might kill her. Ragers were nasty.
She turned around to see a thug leaning against the building. He was scrawny, bent over at the waist gasping for air. He’d not been able to keep up with his cronies. He was just steps away, which spoke very poorly of her own observation skills. She’d blasted out of the alley at top speed and stopped right in front of one of her hunters. Just as she froze, he looked up and their eyes locked. For a long second, they just stared at each other in surprise. In any other circumstance, it would have been comical.
Safira turned to run just as the scrawny thug leapt at her. She avoided his grab at the back of her shirt, but he stumbled forward and managed to tangle up her feet enough that she went down, hard. She rolled away from the boy, but he managed to get a grip on her ankle. Safira kicked him in the face as hard as she could. He screamed in pain, but he released her ankle.
With adrenaline still coursing through her, Safira leapt to her feet to run, only to run face first into the thugs she’d tricked in the alley. Strong hands grabbed her arms.
“Look who we have here. It’s the street rat who keeps poking around in our territory,” said the larger thug on the left. She mentally dubbed him Thug One as a shiver of fear mixed with resignation ran through her. She was terrified, but at the same time, knew the pain was coming. It wasn’t the first time. It wouldn’t be the last.
“She should know better,” said Thug Two. “Booker Boys don’t like creepin’ little rats.”
Thug One punched her hard in the stomach. A blow to her back showed that Scrawny Thug didn’t appreciate getting kicked in the face, either. Safira thought about using her last resort, but was a one-trick pony. It would take all day for it to be ready again. She’d definitely take out one of them, but the other two would still be after her.
“I don’t think she’s listening,” said Thug Two. He punched her in the left cheek. Safira could feel it start to swell.
“Isn’t this one the dummy who can’t talk?” asked Thug One.
“I can talk,” she mumbled. “Got nothin’ to say.”
Thug Two laughed. “Nothing to say? How cute. She ain’t got nothin’ to say.”
He threw a hard punch that smashed into her ribs. Safira gritted her teeth, willing herself not to make a sound, not to give them the satisfaction of knowing how badly their blows hurt.
Thug One, or Bones as his friend called him, gripped her by the face with one hand, his other still holding painfully tight to her arm. He twisted her face to one side. “I know you from somewhere. Do I know you?”
“I don’t know no Booker Boys,” she lied. He had been in the doomed gang with her, and joined up with the winning side after it was wiped out.
“I do know you. You’re Tanque’s little friend! You grew up nice. Maybe we could let all this go, if, you know, we had some time in that alley over there.”
Safira couldn’t help herself. She snorted a short laugh. “No, thanks, I’d rather just take the beating.”
Thug Two laughed long and hard. “She just jammed you so hard! That’s hilarious!”
Bones smacked his friend, but it didn’t stop the laughter. His face twisted in an ugly rage. “I was gonna be nice about it, but no street trash bitch like you can talk to me like that!”
He twisted her arm, forcing her to bend over at the waist, and began dragging her towards the alley. She resisted as much as she could, but only managed to slow him slightly. Horror and dread twisted through her mind as she struggled. She clawed at Bones’ grip on her wrist with her free hand, but his grip was iron.
“When your done, can I have a turn?” asked Scrawny Thug.
“Well hell, I want a turn, too,” said Thug Two. “I ain’t taking seconds after Skinny though.”
“Anyone want a turn with me?” said a deep voice, and a huge fist smashed into Skinny. Skinny flew a half-dozen feet before slamming into the side of a building and slumping to the ground. Relief coursed through Safira as she turned and saw her only friend standing there.
Tanque stood over two meters tall and weighed a hundred-fifty kilos of muscle. His genetic heritage was of a heavy-worlder, for he had the thicker, tougher skin that could turn aside all but a direct knife blow, and his dense, heavy bones meant that he was easily one of the strongest men in Bela Vista. Like Safira, he’d shunned the gang system and scraped by as best he could. They’d come to an uneasy alliance years ago, pairing up occasionally to raid the junk fields. Safira’s sharp eyes and light weight meant she could spot potential finds easier, and could traverse treacherous sands that Tanque would get trapped in.
Bones released Safira and drew a knife. Safira had still been struggling against his grip, so she stumbled backwards and landed painfully on her tailbone. She scooted away quickly to get out of his path. Bones pulled a knife, proving he truly didn’t know who he was up against.
“Tanque,” he spat. “You’re a lot bigger. Actually fit the nickname now.”
Thug Two swung a fist at Tanque, but Tanque snatched his forearm before it could connect. With an easy yank, he pulled the gang member towards him, grabbed his hair and slammed the thug’s face into his knee. With a sickening crunch, Thug Two sank to the ground. Tanque stepped forward towards Bones.
“Big mistake, meu amigo. The Booker Boys are going to kill you and your little girlfriend for this.”
Bones backed away like he was going to run, but he backed up to where Safira was just standing up. Without hesitation, she kicked him in the side of the knee with all her body weight. While she wasn’t very big, knees were not meant to bend that way. He screamed as he collapsed, unable to bear weight on that leg that was now bent sideways.
Before he could do anything else, or try to bring that knife into play, Safira pressed the hidden clasp on her right forearm, and a small spring-loaded dagger popped into her hand. It was an ingeniously made blade, only three inches long, that had swirls of black up and down the edge. She slammed the dagger into his neck.
Before she could even pull the blade back, what could only be described as pure corruption began to radiate out from the wound. In a matter of seconds, the corruption turned his veins black and the skin a sickly white. Bones’ screams turned horrifying for another minute or so, before he passed out from the pain and blood loss. Seconds later, his breathing stopped. Safira wasn’t sure if he bled to death or if the corruption got him.
“You shouldn’t have wasted it on him,” said Tanque to her by way of greeting.
Safira shrugged. “Bastard wanted to drag me into the alley.”
“We have to kill them all now, you know,” said Tanque. He knelt down to Thug Two, and snapped his neck with a quick twist.
“I know,” said Safira. She walked over to the scrawny thug and cut his throat without remorse. At seventeen years old, she had survived without a gang and without becoming a hooker. This wasn’t the first time she’d killed someone, and it wouldn’t be the last.
“See? No poison this time,” said Tanque, pointing to the now-dead scrawny thug.
“It works once a day,” she said. “I was waiting for a better opportunity. I was going to try in the alley, then run.”
Tanque nodded. It was as good a plan as he could have come up with in her place. “Trying to get to the junk fields?”
Safira began walking, and Tanque followed. They ducked through a few alleys, getting to a more neutral part of town. “Yeah, I ran out of food and money.”
Tanque sighed, and pulled a half-loaf of bread from a pouch on his belt. He held it out to her. She looked at it, then at him.
“Don’t look at me like that. No strings. I got a real gig.”
“A real gig? Serious?” Safira took the bread and took a huge bite out of it. She only partly trusted Tanque. He was still a thug in her mind, a hoodlum who was friendly to her, but still a hoodlum. She didn’t think of herself like that, and he’d been independent just as long as she had, but the harsh streets of Bela Vista had taught her not to trust anyone further than she could see them. Even friends. Maybe even especially friends.
“Yeah, new outfit on the west side. They’ve cleaned out a few gangs, organized groups for junking, even have a few skimmers working. I’m working security for their main warehouse.”
“So, no more junk field runs for you?” Safira was disappointed. They didn’t go out together often, and after today, she feared she couldn’t go out at all.
“I wouldn’t mind some extra cash. We could pull some long runs on the weekend if you want. Go further out.”
“Can’t. We don’t have enough canteens,” she reminded him. She was disappointed, because the idea of a long run was perfect. The best junk left out there was the furthest away. The terrible heat of the desert meant that getting far enough out required resources. Resources they didn’t have. Water, or a water reclaimer, food, and some way of hauling the good stuff back. If you were going out that far, you didn’t want to be limited to what you could carry.
The question nagged at the back of her mind. If he had a real gig, what did he need the junk fields for? A real gig might not give you the potential of finding something really profitable like a junk field run, but it also wasn’t nearly as grueling. And not all junk runs turned up anything more than scrap metal that was barely worth hauling back. If he kept his head down and worked for even a few months, he’d probably be doing better than junking with her.
“The outfit I’m working for will sell me the gear cheap,” he said. “If I return it, they’ll buy it back at 75% of cost.”
“Three-fifty,” he said.
Safira nearly choked on the last bite of bread. She’d never had that much at one time.
“I can’t afford to split that with you,” she admitted miserably. A good long run could have been just what she needed to get to the better part of town, get cleaned up and presentable enough to land a real gig of her own.
“Your half comes out of the take,” he offered.
Safira turned and looked at him hard. Tanque kept walking, a calm, emotionless mask on his face. He was trusting her. He was willing to trust her. And it wasn’t the first time. Safira took a minute to re-evaluate him. They’d been friends and allies for years now. What had he ever gained from it, truly? He could have made friends with one of the other solo scavengers out there. There were a few, like her. Maybe, this once, she could trust him back. She could trust that he wasn’t going to stab her in the back, that his intentions were friendly. He was the closest thing she had to a best friend on this hot, cruel planet.
Suddenly tired of wrestling with her stunted emotions, Safira nodded. “Yeah, that would be great. Have time to hang out for a bit?”
They arrived at the part of town where Safira had her hideaway. The buildings here were shabby. If anything, they were a little shabbier than where she’d had her run-in with Bones and his cronies. Paradoxically, however, this part of town was much safer. A few blocks away, a magistrate station sat with some decent neighborhoods around it. The magistrates tended to live in those neighborhoods, and the gangs shied away. Like most of the buildings in Bela Vista, this one was several stories tall and made of thick sandstone to shield against the oppressive heat.
“Can’t tonight,” said Tanque. “I need to work. That is so awesome, saying that!”
Safira cracked a smile, feeling genuinely happy for her friend. Her paranoia took a back seat.
“Come on up for a minute, I want to give you something.” It was spontaneous, and she almost didn’t offer. But he’d really saved her from a severe beating, or worse, today. On top of that, Tanque was bankrolling a long run into the junk field.
“Alright, but I can’t be late,” he said.
Safira nodded, and led the way to the back of the building. On the back corner, a trash bin stood. She climbed up on top of it, just able to reach the bottom rungs of a rusty fire escape. Nimbly, she climbed up. The fire escape went past several floors, each floor with barred and shaded windows, and up to the roof. She looked down to see Tanque easily following her, his eyes on her as she climbed. He averted his gaze quickly. Safira frowned, confused as to what he’d been looking at.
Once on the roof, Safira led him to a narrow gap to the next building. She jumped over, then ducked under an overhang made by a huge, dead air conditioning unit. Once past it, there was a false front, a six-foot tall wall on the front of the building to hide the equipment from view when looking up. In the corner, Safira had arranged several pallets to make a rough floor, and an old plastic tarp made a tent. A makeshift hammock hung under it.
Safira popped a board in the back corner and rummaged through the tiny amount of possessions she owned. She found what she was looking for, and turned back to see Tanque appraising her space.
“Not bad. How do you handle sand storms?”
“I take down the tarp and wrap up in it,” she said. “Hunker down and wait it out. Afterwards, I hide my stuff and leave, wait for someone to finish shoveling off the roof before I come back.”
Safira looked down at her hands, remembering what she promised him. It was a simple metal necklace, its cheap links worn but mostly still covered in the gold-colored finish. Suddenly embarrassed by how little the trinket was worth, she almost didn’t hand it to him. Before she talked herself out of it, she thrust it at him.
“Here,” she said. “I found it awhile back. I liked it, and was saving it in case I got really desperate. I want you to have it.”
Tanque took the necklace from her, examining it for a minute before looking back. “Hey, if you really need this, I can…”
“Just take it,” she said brusquely.
“Okay,” he said. He unclasped it and put it on, surprising Safira that he could manage the tiny clasp so easily. “Thanks.”
“No, thank you,” she said. “You really saved my butt today.”
Tanque nodded. “I’m off the next three days. Want to try a long run tomorrow? We can leave from my outfit’s area, so no need to dodge gangs.”
A sudden surge of hope and gratitude welled up, forcing Safira to blink a few times against it to prevent tears from leaking. She so badly needed this. She cleared her throat. “Umm, yeah. Yeah, that sounds great. Where do you want to meet?”
“I’ll come by here, we’ll go over together. Easier that way, so that security doesn’t cause problems for you.”
“Great,” she said. “See you tomorrow, then.”
Tanque stepped back, a large grin on his face. “Okay.”
After he left, Safira frowned. She’d revealed her hideaway to someone else. Her paranoia and her desire to trust her friend warred with each other. Paranoia finally won out. With a sigh, she opened up her hiding spot and cleaned out her stuff. She walked to a different edge of the roof, and jumped to a different building. Four rooftops later, she moved a vent cover that looked secured, leaving a gap just large enough for her to fit through.
She closed the cover behind her and squirmed along until the vent opened onto an attic space. The attic space was abandoned by the building owner, its interior access panel sealed up in a past remodel done when Bela Vista’s citizens had some hope of a better future. Cracks along the roofline let in daylight while ventilating the stuffy attic. Vent fans all along the room kept air circulating, and kept the temperature in the ‘unbearably hot’ range rather than in the ‘fatal’ range.
In the corner behind the vent access was a net hammock, a real one. It was salvaged from the city’s dump rather than the junk fields, and carefully repaired with pieces of twine and strips of cloth. On top of the net was a soft, worn blanket. The blanket was cheaply made and worn out completely before Safira had found it, but it had worn smooth and soft. Folded in half length-ways, it served as a perfect mattress for the hammock.
Safira first went to a simple cardboard box in the corner that held her dearest treasures. A broken watch that had been her father’s, according to her mother. A scarf that her mother had worn out when she wasn’t turning tricks. A solar-powered holo of her mother, its batteries dead because she hadn’t felt safe enough to bring it outside in awhile. A worn book about electronic devices, its plastic vellum pages still glossy and marked up notes in the margins. Three pennies. A dried flower. A sad, worn teddy bear.
At first, Safira planned to put her tradable treasures in with her personal ones. But her shrine was her heart. She couldn’t bear to put her scraps of interesting salvage in with her true valuables. Instead, she piled them carefully on the floor next to it.
The late afternoon heat had made the attic stifling, hotter than normal. Safira stripped off her clothes and hung them on a hook. She kept her knife strapped to her forearm, and picked up the iron rod that she kept in her other hand for when she slept. After creeping over to the vent and verifying that it was shut, Safira finally felt safe enough to crawl into her hammock.
It was her refuge, her safety. Only now could she relax. Only now was she safe enough to dare to hope. She drifted off to sleep wishing for a future where she could eat every day. Dawn would come too soon, but here, in this moment, Safira could dream.
Bio: I live on the coast of Virginia with my wife and daughter, where we enjoy hiking and camping. I am a lifelong reader and occasional writer who has decided to start sharing my work. Writing for me is recreation, what I do instead of watching endlessly repetitive reality tv or derivative shows. I joined RoyalRoad so that I can have a place for feedback to improve my writing, and in return I will be posting something every week.