I didn’t think about what Beck would do. Didn’t think about what I would do if I caught the kid. Didn’t think about the danger of rushing through a crowd after a stranger on a hunch so weak it would tip over if there were any wind. I didn’t think about a lot of things but I probably should have.
I just ran.
The kid was fast. Sleek and slim, like a racing drone fresh off the track. She dipped and dodged through pedestrian traffic and skirted past trolleys like she owned the whole damn street. Maybe she did.
While the kid dodged pedestrians, I bowled clean through. The first few fell and shouted, after that they moved and shouted, making a clear path for the rampaging giant in a trench coat to chase a little kid who was no doubt up to no good.
“Demarco!” shouted Beck far behind me, but I ignored her. Time enough for her to find me again later if she was so damn good at it.
The kid rolled around a stumpy automobile rolling up the inside spiral. Its driver reacted badly, pounding brakes and swerving hard into my path. I swore. The kid ducked down the outer loop, heading for the labyrinthine warehouse district behind the cathedral. She’d lose me for sure in there.
“Demarco!” Beck gasped as she ran up next to me. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m chasing that kid,” I said.
I sucked in a fresh lungful of oxygen and sprinted, closing some hard distance as the girl tangled with a cluster of shroom farmers.
“Stop her!” I shouted. Hell, there was a chance a decent citizen would help me out.
Not a good chance. She slipped their semicircle and burned turf upspiral, sticking hard to a row of grasslike vegetation forming the long crescent leading up to the cathedral’s front door.
Then, she ducked hard right. I was only a few long paces behind her, but the dark alley swallowed her like a whale and I charged right in.
A flash of red at the far corner.
My lungs burned. My legs ached.
She scrambled up a dumpster, then leaped onto another where she climbed a short fiberstone fence.
The dumpsters were sturdy things, but the lid of the first collapsed when I stood on it. I skirted the edge of the next one. Lifting myself up—oh damn I was out of shape—I topped the wall just in time to see the kid duck into a warehouse only a block behind the cathedral square, right in the shadow of the big church.
“Got you,” I whispered to myself, more to try to convince myself than a general declaration.
I brushed the dust off my coat and straightened my hat. My knuckles cracked, letting me know I was clenching fists. That wouldn’t do. I loosened up. Got myself ready.
Then I thought better of it. Clever kid like that wouldn’t lead me straight to a hideout. She’d lead me to a trap or somewhere sticky. Instead, I waited, making myself as invisible as a giant could be among the mottled stone of the dimly lit bead.
The minutes passed long and slow. My hands shook, and the rare craving for tobacco danced on my lips.
There! She crawled out the side of the building where airlock shutters butted up against a garbage chute. The skinny kid squeezed right through the chute, landing in a heap of trash. Filthy, but in a whole lot better shape than I would have been.
Well, that was one thing figured. If she was the thief, she hadn’t sent a drone in to steal the meds. This kid, or someone her size, slipped right past McCay’s security through the maintenance duct, climbed through the air vent, and stole the meds. It was a hell of a job for a kid to pull, but it made more sense than anything else I’d come up with. Now there was only one other question:
I hunkered up against the building, making myself invisible as possible in the morning’s darkest shadows. When she looked my way, I held my breath. The sparkle in her mischievous eyes flashed so bright it nearly blinded me, but she didn’t bolt. She sauntered off like she owned the damn streets. This time I was really convinced.
There are places all around Heavy Nicodemia where the dim gray light of the false sky only helped the shadows thrive and grow like a lingering mold. These warehouse districts with their flat fibersteel walls and grime-covered airlock ducts bred the kind of low-grade trouble that had plagued humanity since the first time someone decided to put two houses next to each other and call it a city. Cockroaches skittered along the darkest corners, feeding on the long-forgotten trash that for whatever reason has evaded both automated and manual cleanup for weeks, months, and even years.
Only someone with a low sense of self-preservation let his footsteps echo against these cavernous alleys.
The girl stayed alert, but I’d done my fair share of following. She had a pattern about her. Move forward, stop, check. Innocent people don’t move with that kind of caution. The kid had something to hide, and her eyes held the kind of desperation that made someone dangerous.
Why was she there? Trinity cared for the kids of Nicodemia. Somebody was always around to help raise children who really needed it, and the AI never had trouble finding the right parents when a kid showed up lost. Why, then, was she wandering the rougher parts of town?
When she finally ducked into an abandoned warehouse—one out of many—I stuck to my instincts and played it cautious. Circling at a safe distance, I made a note of all the entrances and exits. Then, when I was reasonably confident she hadn’t left, I approached.
The utility entrance stood clean and red against the grime of the surrounding buildings. It almost invited a visitor, so I took the extra time to poke around. A dozen bottles arranged to topple when the door slid open. Clever. I disassembled the noise trap and squeezed inside.
It was a cozy space that almost smelled like a home. Food and sweat and dust swirled through the closed air. Once my eyes adjusted to the dark I took a look around, but the big, open space was as black as the long void outside the station.
One corner showed all the signs of life. Buried in a crook of shelving was a mess of padding and a collection of trinkets. To one side, a pile of paintings leaned against a short wall. The work was exquisite, using textiles and debris from the ship to capture light in strange and interesting ways. A little video screen leaned against a small mirrored cabinet. Flickering images on the screen projected dancing lights on the nearby artwork, bringing color and shadow to a kind of haunted life.
But the kid was nowhere to be seen.
Maybe she had escaped after all. I crept forward, keeping my ears open to approach. My heart slammed in my chest. It’d been a while since I’d found anywhere truly off grid. Something this far in the dark was surely rare in the AI-surveilled ship, and it felt like it had been here for a long time.
I toed the mess with my boot, still unsure if this was really the kid’s place or just another trap. She had dogeared paperback novels, stuffed animals, and a series of little fiber army men, a crosstitch kit. Kid stuff, mostly. Little kid stuff.
Now that I was closer, I could see the cabinet door was open just a crack. I reached out and pulled it open, careful to move slowly and quietly, as if something out there lurked ready to pounce at the first noise.
The cabinet only held one thing, and it wasn’t what I expected at all. It sat there slightly to one side of the center, as if it had once been balanced by a second thing. Like two objects worshiped in a shrine.
And the one that remained was McCay’s meds.
The jar sat there clear as day, McCay’s name and dosage written right on the side. I picked it up and looked over my shoulder.
Sure enough, there was the girl.
“Damn, kid,” I said. “You know how to keep quiet.”
She raised her hand out of a pocket and pointed a slim pistol my direction. “Put that back.” It was the kind of weapon a professional killer would carry, and she held it like she meant business.
“How old are you?”
Without her aim wavering even a little, she took one step to the side, then another. “Old enough.”
I held up the meds. The red bottle was a dark blot in the dim light. “What’s this mean to you? You trading this for money or food?”
Another step. Where was she going?
“You wouldn’t shoot me,” I continued. “Think of the mess.”
“I know how to clean up a mess.”
“Is that so?”
She took another step. “Well,” she said. “now it’s not a problem.” She nodded at her previous position. “If I had shot you from there you might have gotten blood all over my best stuff.”
Damn. “The fella you stole these meds from sent me. You think he won’t send someone else?” I took a step closer to her little hideout. If she was so concerned about making a mess, then maybe that could be my final revenge.
“They’ll never find me.”
“I found you, kid.”
“Don’t call me kid. My name is Gretchen. My buddies call me Retch.”
I forced a smirk across my face. “Retch isn’t the first name I’d have guessed for such a pretty girl.” It was as much charm as I could manage.
“I’m not a girl.”
“You look like a girl.”
“Yeah, well, sometimes looks can be deceiving.” She—he jutted his jaw out. “You got a problem with that?”
Some instinct in me relaxed, and I knew he wasn’t going to shoot. His posture changed from raw musculature of a coiled snake to the defensive stance of a threatened rat. Still dangerous, but not quite the same. “I have no problem,” I said. “You live in the shadow of a church that’s still figuring it out.”
“The Church has a lot of stuff it hasn’t figured out.” He raised the gun a fraction so I could see straight down the barrel. “That doesn’t mean I don’t need those meds.”
“If it makes you feel any better, the church still hasn’t figured me out, either. Probably never will.” Gesturing with my empty open palm, I indicated that I was going to reach into my pocket. When he gave the go-ahead, I withdrew the chain and dangled the screaming Jesus cross in front of her. “This is yours, isn’t it?”
The cross caught his gaze like a hypnotist’s fob. “Where did you get that?”
“You left it at the scene.” I had to lay my cards on the table. “You’re right. Nobody else is going to find you.”
Retch absently pressed a open palm to his chest. The gun drifted, pointing a little to the side. If I needed to I might be able to jump at him and disarm him and only get killed a couple times in the process. I opted for a better option.
At least, I like to think I would have.
A sharp rapping came from the wall where I’d entered. Then, in an explosion of gray light, Beck’s statuesque figure emerged. She strolled across the open warehouse.
There was something in the worried look Retch cast at Beck that I couldn’t quite interpret. He hesitated, stuck between pointing his gun at me or at Beck. In the time it took to make the decision, Beck closed half the distance.
“Stay back,” Retch said, pointing the gun at me.
Beck kept walking.
“I’ll shoot!” Muscles clenched, and I braced myself for the inevitable gunshot.
It never came. Beck took one last long stride and struck Retch with a backhand hard enough to send the kid sprawling. She took his gun, ejected the clip, and opened the chamber.
“Demarco,” she said. “Do you know how hard it is to keep up with you in heels?”
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Bio: Anthony W. Eichenlaub's short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Little Blue Marble, On Spec Magazine, and the anthology A Punk Rock Future. His novels range from pulse-pounding technothrillers to the adventures of irresponsible scientists on a colony planet. In his spare time he enjoys woodworking, video games, and working in his garden. Support him at: https://www.patreon.com/AWEichenlaub