Donte looked at the sagging awning above him, at the straggly hedge separating the restaurant patio from the graffitied wall next to it, and thought about space and how he'd like to be there. Out there he and Jordan would both be safe, and Jordan might actually learn math.
“Yes, Alex is a bully,” he said, interrupting Jordan's story. “But I'm not fighting him.” Donte shoved his hair back and tapped the notebook. “This answer is wrong,” he said. “Can you see why?”
Jordan didn't even look at the paper, staring instead at Donte in challenge. “Why not?” he demanded. “You could take him! Alex is big, but he's just a coward. And it's not just me that he picks on. He stole Cadie's bundle last week. You know she thinks it's her baby what died. She was on her knees begging him to be careful and he held it over his head and laughed.”
“Math.” Donte tapped the paper again. When he started tutoring Jordan, Donte had bent the mentoring rules to give the boy a digital workpad and stylus. Jordan’s aunt had sold the tech to buy a bottle, so now Jordan and Donte worked on paper that fluttered in the intermittent breeze. “Find your mistake.”
Jordan muttered, but he pulled the tablet closer and frowned at it. Donte tried to ignore the tapping of the stylus on the boy's teeth as he thought. If he didn't tap he'd click, and if he didn't do either he would talk. Jordan's body was not compatible with silence. It was a failing of small children, apparently.
The sun came out again, wan light at a low angle to stream under the awning's edge and warm Donte’s right shoulder as he waited. He shifted the chair to catch more sun, careful not to let the flimsy thing fold under him. Winter was coming, he’d been told. He should enjoy the weather while he could. Donte doubted the winter here compared to Tolberra VII’s, but he soaked in the sun anyway, because he had known the unending winter of Tolberra VII.
Jordan’s movements increased as if they powered his thoughts. His legs swung, his chair wobbled and the dingy “cape” he’d started wearing swayed in the motion, all while he tapped faster and thought harder.
Aside from the child’s small noises, the sandwich shop’s patio was quiet. The few other customers had chosen to eat inside, out of the wind.
As Donte thought of it, the wind picked up, flinging grit and garbage smell in his face before sinking back to just a breeze. Donte wiped his face and coughed. He’d thought he knew the worst of slums, but the smell here always surprised him. Back in Port Royal, garbage froze before it could rot, and soon the wind blew snow over it. Here in the hidden part of Greater Ma Terr, the stench was strong enough Donte could taste it on the back of his tongue. He considered going inside for a drink to remedy that, weighed the likelihood that Jordan would want to go along or would decide he needed the restroom or more nachos or any of a hundred other needs or wants that weren’t math, and stayed where he was.
Jordan started whistling between his teeth. Donte propped his arms on the table and rested his head on his fingers.
It could be worse, Donte knew. He could be tutoring Taro in history. Taro learned history by reciting and editing his list of the Biggest Jackasses of All Time. While he kicked his feet, wriggled, whistled, muttered, tapped—
“Hey, Tiny!” A hand fell on Donte's shoulder. “I heard—”
Donte caught the hand with both of his, twisting the arm as he bounded up and to the side. His mind caught up with his reflexes; he stopped the follow-up kick and let go of Alex’s arm before he tore ligaments in the shoulder.
Alex was not grateful.
“You stupid bastard, you about broke my arm!”
Dislocated, Donte didn't say. And he didn't apologize. Courtesy looked like weakness. Weakness made you prey. Donte put his hand on the back of a chair and waited.
“Aren't you going to say you're sorry, college boy?” Alex's gaze swept his subordinates; they chuckled obediently. “You're usually so polite!”
As fast as any prey before a predator, Jordan had scurried behind Donte. Now he poked his head around Donte’s waist. “You idiot,” he said. “I told you if you fucked with Donte he'd kill you.”
“Is that so?” Again Alex's glance collected laughter from his followers. “I don't want to die!” Not as dumb as he looked, the bully took a moment to re-evaluate his target. Donte knew what he saw. Skinnier and shorter, shaggy hair and baggy clothes and a tired face. Captain Marcori had tried to give Donte attitude as well as skills, but it was like trying to get a flit-about to reach orbit.
Alex came to a decision. The tough swung a gut punch.
Donte blocked with the folding chair. Shoved the thing back, smashing Alex's face. Turned Alex with the chair, tripped him into the path of one minion, dodging the swing of the other, who hadn't expected Donte to go through the middle of their formation. Donte slammed a fist into the second minion's face, slipped clear as the man staggered.
On the far side of the formation of toughs, Donte waited. Alex was smarter than the average bully. He might call off the fight. The man stood staring in disbelief as blood dripped from his nose.
Jordan had jumped well out of range when the swinging started; now he darted a wide arc around the attackers and hid behind Donte again.
“Don’t taunt them,” Donte ordered softly.
“You can take them!” the boy shot back, but quietly. “You can end their reign of terror!”
Reign of terror? That explained the cape. Donte shook his head. What someone read didn't matter, Dr. Alexander said. What was important was that he read.
“What the fuck!” Alex finally said, grinning around the damage Donte had done. His minions looked confused. “They don't teach that at your fancy college.”
“Why didn't you just say you were one of us?” The brute swiped blood from his face and waved. “Come on, boys. Tiny's one of us.”
“He isn't—!” Jordan cut off when Donte grabbed him. The thugs picked themselves up and left. Donte sent Jordan inside with cash to get them both a drink.
When the boy was out of sight, Donte stumbled into the alley and threw up.
Normally Donte took the bus back after tutoring Jordan, but after the fight the thought of sitting in a small space with a lot of people made him shudder, so he walked back to the university. The light faded as he trudged, grey day into dark and forbidding night, and Donte watched his path and his fellow pedestrians. He wanted to go home, or what passed for home anyway, and take a long shower then crawl into his bed forever. Instead he had to go to the Safehouse. All semester Donte had gone to the coffeehouse three nights a week, doing his homework in public to fulfill his orders to “get out sometimes dammit.” Selene might think he’d died if he didn’t at least stop in.
Back in the better part of town where the sidewalks were wider but no one walked after dark, Selene was waiting outside the door of the coffeehouse. Donte didn't know how she stood in those high-heeled shoes of hers, but she was there and it looked like she'd been there for a while. Donte found energy to smile at her, but her expression didn't change, and her arms were crossed under her breasts. Was he late? He didn't think he was late—
“You are late, Donte Stromei.”
“I'm sorry, Selene. And I'm sorry that I can’t study tonight, so—”
“What has happened?” She didn't wait for an answer; she snatched his hand and tugged him into the light from the window to look at his face. Donte winced as her grip made his skinned knuckles sting. She saw it, frowned and lifted his hand to see the damage.
“Boys,” she snarled, and shifted her grip to his wrist as she turned towards the Safehouse door.
She wasn’t listening, and he wasn’t going to fight her. So Donte let her drag him inside where he blinked, half-blinded by the soft lighting. Selene pulled on and he went, back to the table they usually took. It was empty not only because of Selene’s reputation, but because being in a far corner with no windows and nothing nearby but the emergency exit, it had little appeal to most.
“Sit,” Selene ordered, tugging Donte past her to push him at the chair that backed the wall. She stood looking at him for a long moment even after he’d obeyed.
“What?” he asked. Selene tossed her hair and turned her glare on the next table. Three students Donte knew and a couple he didn’t sat there, and they all hunched over their study materials to avoid Selene’s eye. She put her hands on her hips and moved the glare on until the entire room was pretending there was no corner table.
“I will return,” she said then, and walked away, her heels clicking on the polished wood floor. Donte propped his head on his hand and felt some of the tension leave his shoulders. They knew Selene here, knew she was quick with a slap or a spiked heel or even a knee, and while many of the males might risk her temper to ask her out, no one of whatever gender would chance getting her angry just to talk to Donte.
He’d still rather be home.
After a few minutes Selene came clicking back, a mug in one hand and a small box in the other. As always, eyes followed her, men watching the switch of her short skirt and women glaring at the back of her head. For once she didn’t take the opportunity to stir trouble. She came to set the mug in front of Donte, then pulled the other chair around so she sat in front of him. She opened the box that he now saw was a small first-aid kit she must have borrowed from the manager.
“Give me your hand,” she ordered. “And drink the tea.”
Especially since he was sitting close to her, Donte was less eager than the rest of the coffeehouse to annoy Selene. He let her have his hand, but he didn’t touch the tea. “Caffeine—”
“It is chamomile,” she said, mopping his skinned knuckles with something that smelled clean and made his scrapes sting. Her tone was sharp, but her hands gentle. “It has no caffeine.”
Donte sniffed the tea. It smelled good, sort of citrus-y with a hint of spice, so he sipped it. It was good. Selene blew on his knuckles. “You’re not supposed to do that,” Donte said. She looked up and he shut up. She reached into the box for bandages. “I don’t need—” She looked up again. Donte shut up and sipped his tea.
“You should not go to Old Greater alone,” Selene said as she folded a gauze pad. “It is not safe.”
“Nowhere is safe. I can’t always hide under my bed.”
“Here where the police patrol, you go out of your way with friends rather than let them walk alone. There where none care what happens, you will not take a friend. You make no sense.”
Donte shrugged and sipped the tea and didn’t ask how Selene knew he’d been in Old Greater alone. Selene knew things, and she only looked smug when he asked how.
“Your precious Captain Marcori would not approve,” Selene said.
Donte tensed. Talking with Selene about his captain was far more dangerous than going to the slums alone. Especially as she held a pair of scissors near his hand.
“No,” he said slowly, “but if Captain Marcori wanted to go somewhere, she wouldn’t stay home because a friend decided he wasn’t getting out of bed on the weekends any more.” Donte knew he wasn’t supposed to meet Jordan alone, but when Albert wouldn’t even get up, let alone go meet his own partnered student—and he was studying to be a teacher!
Selene sniffed and went on cutting tiny bits of medical tape. Donte decided it was probably safe to relax and drink the tea. Selene picked up his injured hand and carefully applied the bandage over his knuckles, using the bits of tape to fasten it securely while leaving his hand fully mobile. He let her work and didn’t tell her that the bandage would surely come off in the shower he’d be taking just as soon as he escaped and got home.
Of course then a waiter showed up with the dinner Selene had ordered for Donte. He should have known. Often if he didn’t order food, she ordered for him. She always let him pay, though.
“If you will go to Old Greater,” Selene said as the waiter set a soup-and-sandwich meal on the table, “I will go with you.”
“I thought you worked in the afternoons,” Donte said. Most of his own classes were bunched in the mornings. Back on the Pendragon’s Dream, Dr. Alexander had suggested that, since Donte was already used to getting up early. On the Dream physical training started at 0500. At the university 0500 meant Donte got to use the public areas of the dorm when they were nearly empty.
“Then we can go before. Or after.”
“I have an appointment. And I can handle it. Thank you.”
“College boy,” Selene muttered.
Donte didn't sneak into the residence hall, but he did hurry his steps to slip in at the back of a loud group of students, attempting to use them as camouflage. He failed. Rob the Residential Advisor went right through the middle of them, greeting each by name but arrowing in on Donte.
“Guys, Rob the Residential Advisor is in love with the crazy boy!” one of the loud group announced like it was a new joke. The others dutifully laughed. The name with title was a leftover from the beginning of the semester, when Rob had introduced himself that way to every student repeatedly, explaining that “you have so many names to learn, I don't mind telling you again.” The “love” part was because Rob thought Donte needed extra attention, and applied himself with enthusiasm. The “crazy” was because it was Donte.
“Bleep off, you bleeping bleeps!” Rob the RA replied, censoring himself for the babies, as he put it. His grin split the beard he claimed to wear so it was easy to spot “the grown-up” in an emergency. Donte tried to go around him, but Rob draped an arm across his shoulders. “Can I get your assistance, Donte?”
Donte stifled a sigh for the long-awaited shower. “Yes, sir.”
“Not sir!” Rob waved his finger at Donte yet again. “I'm just Rob. I'll even let you leave off the 'residential advisor' part.” He guided Donte into the big common room where he sometimes put on community-building events that Donte only attended if they were mandatory. “I can't get my handcomp to play nice with the new projector,” he said, finally letting go of Donte when they reached a small table holding equipment. “I was hoping you could work your magic.”
Compatibility. Fun. Donte set his bag down and leaned to check the cord connecting the computer to the projector.
“I checked the connections,” Rob said. “And I restarted them both, separately and together.”
Donte swiped the comp's control, starting the slide-show Rob had loaded. Across the room the first slide appeared on the screen, a smiling young woman with a ragged glowing line across her.
“I thought there was something in there,” Rob said, “but why would it glow like that? Then I remembered my handcomp was doing that a while back, the screen going funny after I downloaded—ahem—something I shouldn't have. That's why I know it's the connection.”
Donte lifted the hem of his sweater from his thigh and wiped the lens, but when the woman was back, the line was too.
“Can you return the projector?” Donte asked.
Rob made a face. “Do you have any idea how many forms I'd have to process? I can't just do an exchange—it already has the inventory number etched on the side.”
“What if I break it, trying to fix it?”
“Then I'll have to do the forms, won't I?”
Donte nodded and disconnected the power source. He pulled his circuit meter from his pocket and used the pry end to remove the back of the projector. Something on the light assembly, maybe...
“I had a talk with a few of the guys today,” Rob said. “Hopefully I've put an end to this 'scare dare' bullshit.”
“...thank you,” Donte said, tilting the projector to see if anything rattled. Engineer test number one: had something come loose?
Rob sighed loudly. “I wish you'd been the one to tell me,” he said. “I'm here to help, Donte.”
And how exactly did one explain that some guys had made a game of jumping at him from behind doors and sneaking up to poke him, awarding each other points for style and not getting hit? Bad enough they all called him crazy already. Donte pulled the power element out and the unit went dark. He set it aside.
“I do still need you to work harder at not hitting people,” Rob said. “I understand the point of their game was playing chicken with your limits, but...” He shook his head. “Well. I don't know how it was where you grew up, but here you're lucky you haven't been arrested.”
“I'll be more careful,” Donte promised. Somehow. He had to get control— “Sorry.”
“Or...” Rob said. “I mean, definitely work on not hitting people, but...if you went to the help center, then if you did get in trouble it would be better because you were already getting help, right?”
Go tell officials that he was crazy and he couldn't stop himself from assaulting people. Sure.
“I have a friend who works there,” Rob said. “I'd be happy to walk you over.”
Donte had learned since starting school that when you told people no, they pushed harder. “I will think about it,” he said instead.
“Great! How's that projector looking?”
“Taken apart,” Donte said, setting a divider aside.
Rob chuckled. “So are you ready for the end of semester?”
“Yes.” He hoped. He had to wonder, when no one seemed to believe he could possibly be... Donte stirred the leads inside with a finger, looking for—that one. He detached the tiny wire carefully.
“Are you?” Rob asked. “All studied up and ready for finals?”
“Yes.” Unless he'd missed something, blanked on an assignment or something. Donte pulled the remote sensor component out and set it aside.
“I don't know how,” Rob said, “with what I've heard about your study partner. You're not studying anatomy, are you?”
“Me, I skived off a bit this semester, then that fire last month threw me off schedule big time. I'll be lucky to pull a Satisfactory out of Abnormal Psych, but I can take an incomplete and write a paper for extra credit. So that and watching the hall are what I'm doing over break. How about you? Going home?”
“No.” Captain Marcori had tried to arrange it, but the contracts hadn’t fallen out that way and Donte had told her he'd be fine. And he would. It would help that the campus would be nearly empty. “Turn the lens turret to the right, please.”
“You don't have to say please when you're doing me a favor,” Rob said, turning while Donte twisted inside the machine. “So you'll be around to help me fix whatever I break over break? Awesome!” Rob tapped a foot. “I know! We should hang out. Have you seen Wilberforce Rides Again?”
“No.” Donte tossed his hair out of his face. “Tri-vids give me headaches.”
Rob laughed. “It's a live show, silly! We can go over break. You'll love it; it's hysterical.”
“That—” Donte took a deep breath. “Thanks. It sounds fun. But I do need to study.” Finally the lens apparatus gave up and came apart. As he'd guessed, there was something in it. Donte pulled the bit of shiny string-like something out and handed it to Rob.
“Tinsel!” Rob said. “It's a bit early for that! Or maybe it's from last year's celebration?”
Donte re-assembled the lens apparatus. He almost dropped it as Rob clapped him on the shoulder.
“My hero! You have to let me take you to Wilberforce. My treat, all the way.”
“I—I really don't think—”
“You can't study the entire month. Your eyes will fall out. Tell you what—bring someone.” Rob grinned. “That's it. You bring your study partner and I'll bring that pretty girl who kindly says she's my girlfriend but is too busy earning A's and scholarships and baking cookies for orphans to come see me ever.”
“Selene...doesn't get on well with others.”
“Oh, so it's true? I heard she's a spitfire!” Rob flung himself into an overstuffed chair as Donte secured the lens apparatus inside the projector. “Is it true she walks by and fire alarms go off for three city blocks? Details, man, details!”
“She's a person,” Donte snapped, reassembling the projector much faster than he'd taken it apart. “If you want details, ask her.”
“Whoops!” Rob raised his hands. “Sorry, Donte. Didn't see you for the jealous type. I didn't mean anything.”
“Your projector works,” Donte said, flicking the handcomp so the young woman reappeared on the wall, unmarred by debris. “Goodnight, Rob.”
Donte considered the five flights of stairs to be part of his physical training, so he never took the lift no matter how tempted he was. Once he made an excuse, he reasoned, he would find more. So he trudged up flight after flight, telling himself it was good for him. When he finally reached the far side of his door he leaned against it and locked it, heaving the long-pent sigh before he checked the closet. Checked the tiny bathing room he got laughed at for calling the head, checked under his bed and cracked the window to check on the continued and undisturbed existence of the fire escape. When he was certain everything was as he'd left it, Donte at last slipped into the shower and turned it as hot as he could stand.
The next afternoon found Donte sitting outside the sandwich shop waiting for Jordan. He had candy in one pocket and flash cards in the other, and he was determined the boy would learn something. But the minutes passed one by one, and Jordan didn't show. Donte told himself kids were unreliable, and pulled out his bookpad to study.
Half an hour an hour after Jordan should have been there, a man sat down across from Donte, setting his nachos between them as if in invitation. The sharp scent of jalapeno slices burned through the garbage smell of the area.
“Hi, I'm Chad,” the man said. “You're...?”
“Sorry,” Donte said. “I'm meeting a friend.”
“Heard you flattened Alex and two of his thugs,” the man said. He had short spiky hair and a facial piercing that put a small sparkling gem in the dimple of his cheek as he smiled. “Three to one and nobody landed a hand on you. Nice going.”
“I didn't flatten anyone.” Recently, Donte mentally added as Taro would. The boy usually needed qualifiers; there wasn't much that the captain's little brother could state he'd never done.
“Heard of you,” Chad said. “You're at the university. You enjoy the freedom down here on the less regulated side of town. You like nachos.” He bumped the tray between them a little farther across the table.
Donte looked at him. Captain Marcori said to keep his head up when dealing with slime, and Chad's friendliness and nachos made Donte suspicious.
“Sorry about your friend,” Chad said, and took a cheese-covered nacho chip.
Donte held himself still. “What friend?”
“The one not meeting you. Little boy, yeah? Cute smile, red hair?”
“Why sorry?” Donte asked, holding back the urge to smash Chad's face into his nachos and break both his kneecaps as well. He might not mean—
“I could teach you a bit about business,” Chad said. “For instance—people are always looking to take anything you’ll let them. You let toys run around loose, where you going to end up? All your merch stolen and sold off, broke in the gutter till someone picks you up and sells you.”
“Someone stole Jordan?” Donte demanded. Chad grinned at him.
“Now I've got your attention. Lesson two—they're all replaceable. I can help with that. How do you feel about blonds? I know a few prospects you won't have to court. There's a kid—”
On reflex Donte's hand shot up, grabbed Chad by his spiky hair and slammed his face to the table. Shit! Should have talked! Now guards came from inside, one lean, one big, both scarred and coming fast—Donte held Chad's face to the table and leaned over him.
“Tell me about Jordan. Now.”
“Let go, fucker!” Chad writhed. “I'll have you—”
Donte slammed Chad again, scooted around the table as the man rebounded, snatched Chad up in a full nelson and dragged the slime's body between Donte and the thugs.
“Stay back,” Donte warned, “or I break his neck. Tell them, Chad. I just want a few answers.”
“Stupid fuck,” Chad spat. “What, you in love with the little—”
Donte squeezed. Chad gasped, the thugs lunged. Donte swore, shoved Chad into them and ran.
The guards didn’t chase him. Donte lunged around a corner and lurched against a wall.
Stolen. Jordan had been stolen, maybe—Chad hadn’t said it outright but he’d used the word twice.
Think, he had to—Donte fought his stomach and lost, bent over a storm sewer and heaved until his head spun and he saw spots. Then he wiped his mouth and straightened.
“All right, let's look at this,” the officer said, setting his back to the abandoned house where Donte had found him. He tapped his tablet, scrolling through his notes. “You're a university student, working through a mentoring program to tutor a young man named Jordan. Today Jordan was late, and some guy gave you nachos and hinted that something happened to Jordan.”
“Yes, right. He made disturbing assumptions about your relationship with Jordan and offered to find a 'replacement' for you.”
“That's human trafficking,” Donte said. “Child slavery.”
“That,” the officer said, “is a local seeing a chance to mess with a uni student. You said he didn't even know the boy's name.”
“Look, Mr. Stromei. Donte.” The officer reached for Donte's shoulder but he stepped back. The officer put his hands in his pockets. “Look. Maybe the guy was for real. But it's far more likely that he saw you there with the kid yesterday, and saw a chance to mess with you today. Probably he gave the boy a couple credits to hide for a bit, play a joke on you. If you were to go back—”
“He won't be there!”
“Mr. Stromei.” The officer straightened. “You're in Old Greater, sir, and the young ones on the streets know a bit about staying safe. I'm sure the boy's fine. I'll tell you what. Tell me where he lives, and we'll go and check on him.”
“I don't know,” Donte admitted.
“Last name?” the officer asked.
Donte shook his head. “I don't know.” Jordan said he hated it, so Donte had carefully forgotten it.
“All right.” The officer put his tablet back in his breast pocket and sealed the pocket with a finger. “Here's what you do. You go back to the university, and on the way you think. If you get there and you're still convinced something's happened to Jordan, go to Student Services or wherever your mentoring program is housed and get his full name and address. Get them to call in an alert. We'll send someone round and let you know he's okay.”
“I...all right.” Donte shrugged his jacket up against the wind. “...thank you.”
“Sorry I couldn't be more help, Mr. Stromei.”
“Have a nice day, officer.” Donte walked away. He walked to the next corner and turned towards the university, but on the corner after that he turned again, heading deeper into Old Greater.
“Come on, sweetheart, give me a try.” Fahari laid a dark arm across Donte’s shoulders. “I’ll take that sad out of your eyes.”
“He’s a student,” the shorter prostitute, Estelle, said. “He hasn’t got money, so why talk to him?”
“Because he’s cute!” Marci bounced as she spoke.
“I do appreciate your kindness,” Donte said, slipping away from Fahari, “but as I said, I’m looking for Chad. Do you ladies know him?”
“Ladies!” Estelle hooted. “Ladies!”
“He’s polite,” Marci said. “I like him.”
“Don’t matter if you like him, doll, he’s not looking for you.”
“Sweetie,” Fahari said, sidling closer, “Chad’s the competition. We’re not gonna send you away, right?”
“If Chad offered you a discount, tell me,” Marci put in. “Maybe I’ll match it. And give you my virgin discount too.”
“Chad,” Donte said. “Please. You see, he…” How to put it? “I’m trying to help a child.” Donte held his hand out just above his waist. “I can’t find him, but Chad knows what happened to him.”
“Girls, girls, we got a celeb!” Fahari slipped her arm around him again. “This is the uni boy who broke Chad Burkett’s nose!”
“He is?” Estelle said. “Should have said so! I’ll do you for free, baby.”
“We all will!” Marci spouted. “Got a room, handsome?”
“You’re very kind,” Donte extracted himself again, “but please. Chad? Burkett, you said?”
“Try the Pretty Pony,” Estelle said. “Watch your back. Break his kneecaps. And come find us when you’re done.”
“See you soon, sweetheart!”
A hand grabbed Selene's ass. She managed not to turn and bash thecabron, but she couldn't find the flirty smile she was supposed to use. Before she could, the hand was removed.
“Naughty, naughty!” Dove's voice said over the noise of the bar. “No touching the girls for free, honey!”
Selene swallowed hard and walked on, wending her way with her tray held above her head and a smile she made out of glittering hate.
A cloud of smoke blocked her path; Selene held her breath until she passed through it. She reached her table and greeted the idiotas with a smile, setting drinks in front of the right people and laughing at a stupid joke and twisting aside from an attempted grope. As the lights dimmed for the next dance set, an imbécil asked a question about the dancers' schedule and Selene brushed her hair back as she answered, her eyes searching for the girl the man wanted to see.
Instead she found a different face. Selene's breath stopped in her throat.
Donte. In a strip club. Even though he never stared at her legs, never looked down her cleavage. Perhaps he just didn't like brown skin because here he was—
“Sorry, doll, what was that?”
—in a strip club, talking urgently to—
“Hey, gorgeous, I'm talking to you!”
—some small-time grifter, Selene knew his face but not his name.
“You're not getting a big tip like that, doll.”
—But Donte wasn't looking at the girls. Star put a hand to his shoulder and he jumped. Looked up at her and looked away from her overfilled stage bra. Stammered an apology, if Selene knew him at all and she did.
“Hey!” The cabron grabbed her arm.
Selene stomped his foot with a stiletto heel. “Never touch me.” He let go with a yelp; Selene walked.
Donte had turned away from Star. If he thought that would stop the puta—he was speaking to the grifter, who smiled greasily, and while Donte wasn't watching Star slid herself into his lap.
Selene cleared five cluttered meters in a slamming, enraged heartbeat.
“Perra,” she snarled, shoving Star, “él es mío!”
“Careful, little one,” Star said, “your roots are showing.” Donte's arms were out, hands up so no one could think he'd touched the slut sitting on him.
“Get off,” Selene said. “Now. Bitch.”
“Blast off, little girl, he likes me.” Star wriggled.
“I will kill you.” Selene’s hands tightened into claws. Star looked at her hands, looked at Donte's hands still held away, and heaved herself up with a sigh and a pout.
Donte stared at Selene as Star moved off, his eyes wide as he took in the red leather bikini and the fishnet stockings. Selene crossed her arms, feeling naked as she hadn't since her third night working tables.
“What are you doing here?” Selene demanded. “You’re missing Orbital Mechanics! Your precious Marcori will be angry if she learns you are skipping classes.”
“Ooh, she's a feisty one!” the grifter blurted. “You sure you can handle this one, Tiny?”
Selene gave him a glare. He smirked back at her.
“Selene—” Donte began again.
“Divine!” Eleanor, with Star, using Selene’s work name. “What’d I tell you about fighting the other girls? And what the hell you doing talking? I don’t pay you to talk, girl!”
“You do not pay me to do anything,” Selene snapped. She worked for tips. Which she split with the bar. Bitch.
“Girl, you better jettison that attitude,” Eleanor warned. “And your friend, if you want to keep working here. Now go find yourself a paying customer. I’ll handle this one. He hasn’t dropped a credit since he came in.” She waved a hand, and the bouncer headed their way.
Donte stood. “Ma'am, I don't want any trouble. Please—”
Star sneered at Selene.
“You didn’t say he was your boyfriend, little one. Haven’t you learned not to give it away free?”
Selene’s hand shot out and slapped the perra. She squealed, Eleanor shouted. The bouncer tried to grab Selene and she kicked his shin. The bouncer swung a huge fist at Selene, and slender, shy Donte knocked it aside. Star scratched at Selene and she attacked the puta. Then Eleanor tried to separate them and Selene nailed her too and then the bouncer grabbed Donte and Selene saw red and the next thing she knew she was on her ass in the street with Donte shoved out beside her.
Selene bounced to her feet and marched back for the door. Donte caught her arm, and blocked her slap.
“Hold on!” He jumped back as she tried to stomp his foot. “I don’t want to fight, I just don’t want you to get hurt going back in there.”
“I had clothes, you old bitch!” Selene shrieked at the door, then spun on Donte. “Do you think I can walk home like this?”
Donte looked at her and again his eyes widened and this time she liked it. Then he looked away. He shrugged out of his jacket that he never took off and held it out towards her.
Selene pulled it on, fastened it up to her chin.
“I’m still getting my things,” she said.
Selene folded her arms “Excuse me?” she said. “Do you decide what I do?”
“Look.” He spread his hands, offering peace. “It's what, fifteen to one? Even if we hadn't just lost the first round, I can't stay to help. I've got to find Jordan.”
“Jordan?” Selene's hands tightened into claws again. “Who is Jordan?”
“He’s that boy I’ve been tutoring,” Donte said. “Rumor has it his junkie aunt sold him today for a bottle and a bag. I have to find him.”
Oh. Selene tossed her hair. “You got me fired for some child?”
“I don’t remember asking you to slap your coworker, actually.”
“Listen, college boy—”
“Please!” Donte threw up his hands. “I swear, I’ll do all I can to make it right. I’ll help you find a job, I’ll buy you new clothes, I’ll do whatever you want. Just—you know this place. Help me find Jordan!”
“What do you mean, I know this place?”
“You work here.” His forehead wrinkled. He was confused, he didn’t understand why she asked. “You have to know the area a little, maybe who can help?”
She’d spoken español. She wore a leather bikini, for work in a strip club. And he hadn’t changed towards her at all.
“Please,” he said again. “I have to find him. I’m supposed to protect him. He’s in danger, I know he is, and no one cares.”
Donte cared. Selene tossed her hair.
“Whatever I want?” she repeated with a grin. “Deal. But I need more clothes first.”
Selene knew from experience that the safety of Donte's friends was a matter Donte never took lightly. She couldn't keep him from walking her home, so she made him promise to wait across the street before she went inside. It might be far enough.
At the top of the steps Selene paused to pull her shoes off before she went into the hall. If Mama was asleep—
She wasn't. As soon as Selene opened the apartment door, she smelled the cheap incense Mama burned to hide the smell of that garbage she liked to smoke. Still, if Mama had been smoking, she might be sleepy, or in a cheerful mood...
Mama appeared in the kitchen doorway. She smiled, but then it melted into confusion. “Mija? Why are you home—where are your clothes?
“I needed some things,” Selene said, turning away. “Are you cooking?” The smoke made her hungry sometimes. Distract her enough and Mama might even forget Selene was home. To help that happen, Selene slipped into her room.
Mama followed. “Mija, what has happened?”
“It's all right, Mama. All is well.” Selene tossed Donte's jacket on the bed and shimmied out of her work outfit. Her mother stared at the jacket.
“That is not your coat. Where is your coat?”
“Forgot it at work.” She'd have it back, Selene promised herself. Eleanor would give it back or—
“There's a boy out there,” Mama said as Selene threw on clothes. She'd gone to the window to peer around the privacy screen. Mama wasn't dumb though she acted it. “Without a coat.”
“I know, Mama,” Selene said, trying to think what else she might need. Where would they go to look? Probably not the university. Selene knew some places to start looking for this Chad who knew something, but those places—
“Is he a nice boy?” Mama asked.
“Yes, Mama.” Change of clothes at least… Dress for power. The right clothes would get answers Donte couldn’t. Selene grabbed a bag and started stuffing things in it.
“He's cute!” Mama said. “But he's not Latino...”
“Some people aren't, Mama.”
“Why are you packing? You're running off with some white boy?”
“I'm helping him with something, Mama.” Selene grabbed the roll of socks that hid her cash-stash, stuffing it in the side pocket without opening it. She threw her bag over her shoulder and moved into the bathroom.
“Helping? Helping?” Mama followed. “With what, his cojones?”
“He comes to you for help, what else can he want? He's not after your mind!”
Selene stuffed things in her bag without even seeing them and didn't answer. Get out, get out, get what she needed and get out because if she answered Mama—
“I hope you got paid first,” Mama said.
“If you did that, we would be rich,” Selene shot back.
Selene had only needed to walk across the street, but Donte had still been wary about letting her go alone. The jacket covered the bikini, but it still looked like she was walking—strutting?—around without pants. And though she had left marks on the owner, the bouncer, and Star, Selene was not the fighter Captain Marcori was. So Donte had watched everyone who even thought about coming near Selene as she crossed a street that had seen better days.
When Selene had reached the door of a tall building with regularly-placed windows, Donte set his back to a wall and waited, arms crossed against the chill.
As he’d hoped, Selene knew places to look. She didn’t know anyone who specifically sold children, but she knew people who had money but never went to a job, people who used people, people who did all the things that Donte so carefully avoided. As Captain Marcori would say, wander into a sewer and you’ll step in slime. In Old Greater were people who didn’t see people, only chunks of meat with price tags attached. Donte shrugged his shoulders to loosen them. His skin still crawled from that strip club, but Selene had handled it—he didn't know how Selene handled it. Maybe some customers liked the pain she'd surely inflicted on anyone who touched her.
The wind changed direction, shoved Donte's hair forward. He shoved it back. He needed to get it cut, the captain wouldn’t like—
His captain wouldn’t like him standing around in Old Greater, especially not as night was falling. But damned if he could think of a better plan than enlisting Selene. No one else would look. And he couldn’t wait. Every second he screwed around was another second Jordan might be—
A shriek came from the building Selene had entered, followed by shouting growing louder. Donte straightened. Though female, the voice wasn’t Selene’s. Most of it wasn’t even—
“English, Mama!” Selene shouted. “You want everyone to understand, true? To know what your daughter is?”
“You little—” The door burst open. Selene flew through it, dressed and carrying a bag. Behind her scurried a tiny woman with the same long black hair, screaming.
“Selene Consuela Chiquita Ramirez Jorqueras, you walk out this door now, you no come back! Hear me? Nunca vuelto!”
“Never come back?” Selene spun on the stoop. “Who pays the rent, drunk?”
Oh shit. Faces were appearing in windows above now, to watch the show.
“Oh, and you’re so fine,” Mama returned, “chasing the rich boys!” She tossed a glare at Donte. “Fishing the university to find a smart one! I birth you, raise you, for this!Madre de Dios! You put your mother in this hovel, then run off!” The woman turned her appeal to the audience of neighbors. “Who will pay the rent? Who will care for me?” She started weeping. Then wailing. “Mija, my flesh and blood! My baby, turning her back—”
“The rent is paid, Mama.” Selene hoisted the bag on her shoulder. “I’ll get another job, and I’ll pay it next month. I never said I was leaving. Don’t cry, Mama.”
“You will get a job!” Mama spun on her. “Will you go upstairs? I know that club, you little slut, I know—”
“You ought to know it! Who is my daddy, Mama? Did you just make up Ramirez, pull it from the air?”
Fast as Selene, her mother’s hand shot out and slapped her.
“Poco puta! How dare—”
“Puta? Whore?” Selene slapped back. “Who will drop her pants for any man that waves a bottle? Borracho! Puta del vino!” Her mother slapped again, Selene caught her hand. “You are a slut, a drunk and a booze whore,” she hissed. “And no mother to me. Go sell your own ass for rent money.” She shoved, her mother stumbled back. “Vaya al infierno, Mama. Go to hell.” Selene trotted down the steps while her mother wailed about her baby turning on her. Selene’s eyes fell on Donte across the street and her step faltered, but she went on down the street followed by cheers, jeers, and three proposals of marriage.
Donte hurried after, but stayed on the far side of the street.
He reached the corner first and waited, carefully studying a flyer in a window for a child long lost or since found. When Selene came beside him he switched his gaze to her reflection in the window. She shrugged her suede jacket tighter around her shoulders, her eyes daring him to say one word about the hand-print branded on her dusky face, brighter than the red of her collar. “So,” she said. “Where do we start?”
Hard-won wisdom made him ignore the break in her voice, and the sniffle she tried to choke back. “I think,” Donte said, “instead of looking for the guy who told me, we need to find Jordan’s aunt. If he was—if he was sold, she probably did the selling. With luck you might recognize the person she sold him to.”
“Why would I?”
“Because the type who’d buy a kid is more likely to hang out in strip clubs than college bars.” She still looked blank. She was right. It was thin. “Because no one else I know can help me. Because if you don’t, I have no clue where to start, and gods know what those bastards are doing to Jordan!”
Brown eyes stared at him a moment, waiting for just a little bit of sense, then Selene shook her head. “Fine,” she said. “The aunt. Where does she live?”
“I don’t know.”
Selene heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Does the boy live on this side of Macadam, or the other?”
“I don’t—Jordan always met me on this side. He said the other side was dangerous.”
“For him, perhaps. We will ask Cadie.”
“Cadie? With the rag baby?”
“She is mad. She is not stupid.”
“I saw her earlier,” Donte said. “I think I know where she’s sleeping.” Donte turned to lead the way. Selene sniffled as she followed him. Donte knew better than to notice.
“Pretend the child is real,” Selene said after a block, “but do not pay too much attention to it. If she says her husband is coming, do not argue with her.”
“But you really think Cadie knows where to find Jordan’s aunt?”
“Do you want my help, college boy?”
Cadie sat on a grate built into the pavement in an alley beside a restaurant. Her bags were collected around her and her rag bundle lay across her knees. She was crafting something, Donte saw as they approached, tying knots in string while she crooned to the “child” in her lap. He thought their presence in “her” alley as night fell might scare her, but Selene walked right up to her. The two stared at each other. Donte stepped in front of Selene before he watched her slap someone else.
“Ma'am.” Donte touched his forehead as he'd seen Whizz do to the captain sometimes. “May we come in?”
“It's a free alley, go where you like.” Cadie waved her hand at trash cans opposite her. “Dump them over, toss 'em on me while you're at it. Why not?” She leaned forward, placing her upper body above the bundle in her lap. “Go on, then. You've got the right.”
“Thank you,” Donte said, and sat down opposite her. He looked up at Selene and she cast a meaningful glance at the litter on the pavement, then stepped back, leaning her shoulders against the next building.
“Come to share my dinner, then?” Cadie asked. “I've got some candles about. Make it a nice fancy meal, eh? Will you have your tea with one lump or two?”
“Do not hit him, old woman,” Selene said. Cadie giggled but didn't look at her. Donte shook his head.
“I'm sorry to disturb your dinner, ma'am. I just wondered if you could help—”
“Ahh! Help!” Cadie's face lit up. “He wants something! Of course he wants something, eh, my boy?” She patted the bundle. “Everyone wants something, you learn that. Nobody talks to the likes of us 'cause they like us.”
“I don't know you to like you,” Donte blurted. “But I don't have time. Do you know where to find the aunt and guardian of a boy named Jordan? He’s about this high, red hair, wears a cape—”
“Not anymore.” Cadie hunched over her bundle. “Monster.” Her hands ran over the bundle, as if caressing a frightened child.
“Who is a monster?”
“Luanne! Stole the boy’s cape, stole his magic! No guardian, that one. Only a monster.”
Donte leaned forward. “You do know what happened! Please tell me.”
“Sold him.” Cadie clutched the bundle to her chest and rocked, her head bowed over the rags. “Sold her light,” she muttered, “sold the boy. Sold her heart and soul for a bottle and a bag of drugged damnation.”
“Cadie,” Donte took a deep breath, “Cadie, do you know who she sold Jordan to?”
“Spacer,” Cadie said.
It felt like she'd kicked Donte in the stomach. He tried to breathe past it as Cadie went on.
“Sold her boy to space, sold her soul to demons. Lost forever, gone forever. Lost and monstrous and weeping.”
Donte couldn't catch his breath to ask, but Selene stepped in.
“What spacer?” she demanded. “What ship?”
Cadie shook her head, rocking her imaginary baby.
“How about Luanne?” Selene asked. “Do you know where she is?”
“In her hole, the snake!”
Luanne was where Cadie said she would be, passed out in the filthy basement of a half-collapsed building. She looked like a bundle of pile of rags and brown sticks, and the lack of wind in the basement was balanced by the abundance of smell. Selene snorted disgust as she stepped off the last sagging wooden step. “Good luck talking to her,” she said.
Donte shook the woman’s shoulder. Her head lolled, but she didn’t twitch. Selene rolled her eyes.
“Like this.” She leaned past him and for the third time in two hours, Donte watched her slap someone. He caught her hand as she swung again.
“Have you no cojo—no courage?” She gave him a teasing grin, and kicked the woman’s leg. “She doesn’t feel it, not yet. Do you want to talk to her or not?”
“Then let me wake her. I know how.”
Donte backed off. Selene picked up a bottle from beside Luanne and put it in her jacket, stealing from Luanne before slapping the woman again. Donte tried not to care. Selene had good reason, and Donte had no time. And—Luanne had sold Jordan, and gods knew what was happening to the boy right now and Selene was helping. As always, Selene was ruthlessly helping. From one to Captain Marcori, Selene was rating pretty high on the ruthless scale, and Donte wasn't getting in her way to protect a woman who had sold a defenseless child.
Finally Luanne groaned, and Selene stopped slapping to call her name. “Luanne, wake up. I have something you want, Luanne.” The woman’s eyes opened, and Selene pulled out the bottle she’d just stolen, waved it in Luanne’s face. Luanne snatched, but Selene jerked it away.
“Not yet, Luanne. First you’re going to talk.”
“Thirsty...” the woman moaned.
“I know, Luanne. I’ll take care of you. Do you see that man?” She pointed at Donte. “Answer his questions. Then get the bottle. Yes, Luanne?”
Faded blue eyes tried to focus. Donte moved closer. “Luanne, do you know me?”
“Stupid rich boy.” The woman licked her lips and smiled. “Want Jordan’s ass...”
Selene slapped again. “Be nice, Luanne. Tell us who you sold Jordan’s ass to.”
“Jordan. Sweet boy...”
“You sold the sweet boy. Tell me about the man.”
“No.” Luanne cringed. “Hurts...”
Selene shook her head, twisted the lid off the bottle. “Do you want me to dump this?” She tipped it. Luanne lunged, but she was a small wasted woman and Selene was healthy and ready for the move. Selene blocked her, shoved her back. “Tell me.”
“I asked around,” Luanne admitted. “Didn't want to sell him! Just...rent him a bit. That one wouldn't pay.” She jerked her head at Donte. “Buy Jordan dinner once a week, teach him fancy knowledge he'd never have a use for, that's all that one wanted to do. I couldn't feed him!” she wailed. “What was I supposed to do?”
Selene kicked her. “Stop selling his food allowance for booze, that's what,” she snapped. “Who did you sell him to?”
Luanne pulled herself a little straighter. “Judge me, will you? At least I'm not a spic. Or a whore.”
Selene twitched like she was going to kick the woman again, but instead she jerked the bottle and splashed alcohol on Luanne. The woman wailed and tried to catch it in her hands. She licked the spatters off as she glared at Selene.
“Suck it out of your clothes, perra,” Selene growled. “Or do what I tell you before I pour out the rest.”
“Ask your questions!” Luanne said.
“Who did you sell the child to?”
“Some spacer. He didn't introduce himself!”
“How did you find him?”
“Bernie told me.” She nodded at the form across the basement. Donte hadn't seen the body till then, curled up and maybe breathing, maybe not. “Said there'd been a fellow at hidden market, looked at the only redheaded boy and didn't buy. Only looked at the redhead. Said he could set up a meet—take the boy down and if the fellow liked him, I'd get paid good and my boy'd never want again.” She scrubbed at her face. “He'd be fed, and taken care of like I can't! How am I not gonna do that for him?”
Donte fought his stomach.
“What ship?” Selene demanded, holding her arm straight out and tilting the bottle slowly. “What ship did you take him to?”
“Give me the bottle, girl! It hurts, it hurts!”
“Does she need a doctor?” Donte asked.
“No,” Selene said. “It is the drug. Addicts try to sleep through the pain of after, but if wakened early, they suffer more. Drink lessens the pain. What ship, Luanne?”
“TheRiver of Lyonne!” Luanne wailed.
“Is that what you need?” Selene asked Donte.
Ten minutes later Donte hurried through the chilly night towards the short-term landing field. Selene walked behind him, muttering what sounded like curses in her other language. He didn't know why, but it wasn't important. The River of Lyonne—that mattered. He saw the ship where Luanne had said, off to the far left of the independent operator landing field. Now they walked for customs as fast as they could. Donte figured it would be easier to get past disbelief in person. Then he’d have the problem of what to do with the boy, and with Selene. Both were now homeless, and it was getting cold. A hotel would get expensive fast, and he couldn’t sneak them into his dorm room. Well, Rob the RA might turn his back on Selene—but only for one night. And Jordan would send him scurrying to call the police.
Worry about that later. First, they had to get Jordan back.
But the night was broken by the rumble of engines and as Donte watched in horror, the ship on the far left of the landing field lifted into the sky.
Donte’s eyes followed the ship as it shrank into toy-size then nothing.
Slavers. Taking off, taking Jordan.
Selene grabbed his arm. “Donte, that was—”
“I know.” Damn it! Damn it, damn it, damn it! Minutes! Ten fucking minutes—
“Mierda,” Selene said. “Shit.”
“It’s not over,” Donte growled, and ran toward the landing field. Selene cursed and ran after him.
“What will you do? You have no ship!”
“I’ll find a way!”
“You don’t know where it’s going!”
“I’ll find out!”
“Donte—damn it,” he heard her stumble behind him, “Damn it, estúpido, stop a minute!” She caught his arm, spun him around. “What will you do, stomp and shout until they put you in jail? Think! He is gone.”
“The cursed ship is gone,” she growled. “The child is gone. You can’t follow, you cannot fly without a ship. Your precious captain will be here in a week, she can go after him! If half what you have said is true, she will be back with him in a day and a half!”
She...yes. Captain Marcori could deal with slavers. She could, and then Jordan would be safe while Donte stayed safe, and...
But Donte knew the math too well. “She'd be a week behind,” he said slowly. “The hyper-space engines—she'd gain on them, but it could take her a month—more—to shave off a week's lead. Five to eight weeks, following them port to port if they don't just vanish, while Jordan—they could do anything to Jordan.”
“You still don't have a ship,” Selene said. “A month is better than never, and—”
“It's too long!” Donte shouted in her face. He rolled on over her surprise. “Do you know what they can do to him in a month? I won’t let them! He trusts me, he’s waiting for me! It’s not fucking happening to him!”
She stared a moment. Then she tugged her jacket straight. “Fine. What do we do now?”
Donte froze. Then he shook his head. He didn’t understand, but he didn’t need to. She was still helping. He ran his hands through his hair and grabbed, to help him think.
“We—we need to know where that ship was going. It had to file a plan, and the plan will probably be true. They have no reason to lie, no one cares about the kids. But if anyone catches them falsifying logs, they’ll really be in Shit System.”
“Fine.” Selene clearly wasn’t surprised at the priorities of bureaucrats. She tossed her hair. “So who knows this plan?”
And it was that easy. Donte read the “crew wanted” postings while giving her room to work. Selene made him ashamed to be a man, as she batted her eyes a few times, and got a lift onto the counter. A few more flirts, and allowing the young man on duty to massage her supposedly turned ankle, and Selene had the next three destinations of the River. Donte shook his head. How did she do that?
Damn. Not one ship was going the right place. Donte expanded his search to second and third ports. Somehow there had to be a way. Dr. Alexander said there was always a way...the right posting leaped out at Donte as the young man lifted Selene off the counter, to escort her back to her ‘brother.’ Ha. They looked as much alike as Calanians and Kertak. Just because both were furry… The young man went back to work, with many a backward stare as Selene gave him a little wave and a smile.
“You done?” Donte growled.
“Do you want him to report us?” she shot back. “He knows I used him. But as long as he thinks he has a chance, he does not mind.”
“Let me know when you are done. I can walk you back to the transit station, anyway.” Buying Jordan back was no longer an option, Donte knew. He couldn’t bargain with slavers in a strange place, where his disappearance wouldn’t make a ripple. But he could track them, maybe find a way to delay them... At least that meant he could spend a little to get Selene home safely—if she had a home to get to. Hell.
“Walk me?” Selene demanded. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Donte pointed at the posting. Selene read over his shoulder. “Engineering crewmen needed, freighter of small tradeables. Third-class certification required. References a must. Regular route: next stops Colari Port, Spectra Gathering, Horsta System, leaving 0500 11/24. See Executive Officer Carter, Jazz Lizard.” She grabbed his arm. “Donte, ten hours, and the second stop...! We might even get there before the slavers!”
Donte printed the post, and pulled her out the door. “I,” he told her. “I might get there before the slavers. Look, Selene, you’ve been a huge help. Gods know I never would have got this far without you—”
”—but it is time to leave me.” She shook her head. “Estúpido. Truth, you would be nowhere without me. But now you think you have it handled, because the trail leads to space? You can handle everything out there, can you?”
“Silence! I lost my job for you, loco, and nearly everything else! And now you want—”
“Damn it, do you have an engineering background?” He waved the posting at her. “Do you have references? They won’t let me bring my sister along for the ride! What do you want me to do? Pack you in my luggage?”
She stomped her supposedly hurt foot. “You will leave me here. Fine. Vaya al infierno, Donte Stromei. Go to hell.” She spun away.
“Wait!” Donte caught her hand, moved to block a slap that didn’t come. Yet. “Selene—” Shit. There was no way to say it quickly without getting hit. If he had hours, maybe, he could work around to it, but—to hell with it. He deserved to be hit. He’d lost her everything, and now he was abandoning her. Donte decided to let her nail him. She’d feel better. And maybe then she’d accept his offer as it was meant.
“Selene, let me—let me give you some money. To get—”
A hiss of fury as she grabbed his shoulders, and Donte forgot his resolve, barely managing to get his knee in the way of hers. “Hey!” Don’t hit her, she’d missed, and this was his friend anyway—Selene shoved him and walked. Donte knew better, but he caught her hand again. “Please, Selene! I just—”
His friend spun with a full-arm slap, making his eyes water and his head swim. He let her go to fight the reflexes Captain Marcori had trained into him. He’d never had to do that before.
Selene had never hit him so hard before. She was safe now, though, she’d stalked out of his reach, headed back for the city. That was a good thing. He’d come damn close to hitting her. He really needed to find a way to tell her not to hit him, for her own safety...no, that was sure to get him hit. Better defense was what he needed. Letting her hit him had been a damn stupid idea. He felt worse, and she hadn’t looked like she felt any better.
Donte sighed and turned away, tried to forget the glimpse of tears in her eyes. He’d make it up to her. Somehow, when he got back, he’d find a way to make it up to her. After he repaid his debt, whatever he owed in the deal they’d struck. Selene had come through like few friends would have. Above and beyond, as Captain Marcori would say.
Right now, though, he had to go to a job interview. And he’d better leave a message for the Dream. At best, he was going to need a ride home. At worst—he would need rescuing himself.
Spectra Gathering wasn’t a planet, it was a meeting of ships. Of Wanderers, to be specific. Donte’s stomach twisted. Every spacer had heard tales of the Wanderers, who stole what they didn’t feel like paying for. Including people.
Captain Marcori would be less than a week behind him, Donte reminded himself. She'd be pissed, but she would come after him. And she would be slightly less furious if she didn’t have to break any laws here on Greater to find out where he’d vanished to.
As galleys went, the one on the Jazz Lizard was clean and utilitarian. Both qualities were fine by Donte. He couldn’t help comparing it to Captain Marcori’s Dream though, where the crew ate reheated—but good—frozen traveler’s meals in the luxurious galley once reserved for ship’s officers and guests.
TheDream’s galley held one long table with fourteen tall padded seats. The Jazz Lizard’s galley held at least a hundred tables, surrounded by assorted chairs and benches. Donte might be the only diner there, but he wouldn’t be for long. He hurried over to the buffet lines. Scents rich and spicy met his nose.
His exhaustion last night had done him a favor. Donte had gone to bed as soon as he could and now despite the difference between ship and planet time, he was first in line for breakfast. On a ship this size, where the food was actually prepared in batches, that could be important.
Donte helped himself to the cereal, a cup of coffee and a milk, and moved to the hot food line. A slender woman was struggling to get a large pan into the warming table. Donte set his choices down to give her a hand.
“Thank you,” she growled. Donte smiled at her. Then stared. Selene tossed her head. It wasn’t as effective when her hair was restrained.
“Did you think you were rid of me, college boy?”
“What—how did you—?”
“I am not as stupid as I look.” She sauntered back into the work area. Donte swore and scooped up his food, dumped a serving of the hot stuff on a tray and grabbed a table in the corner where he could mutter in private. Somehow Selene had that effect on him. He had never, ever, not for a second thought she was stupid, but she always acted like he did. And then to try and prove she wasn’t, by jumping in and getting a job on a ship—what if Donte hadn’t been hired? Selene would be on her way across the galaxy, not even realizing Donte wasn’t aboard for how long?
Half his meal was gone before Donte managed to regain a little perspective. What would it hurt if Selene came along? Even if he hadn’t been aboard. The job she had now was certainly a step up the ladder from where she’d been yesterday. As for the muttering, the girl was plain infuriating. But at least she didn’t have the same effect on him she had on most males, which was to turn him into a drooling, stumbling idiot. Of the two, he’d take the muttering.
Donte took a deep breath and released the annoyance. It was just because she’d jumped without looking, after all. As an engineer, he preferred everything well-planned. Which was why this chase sat so wrong with him. Exactly how had he gone from college student to would-be rescuer in less than a day?
Well, not rescuer, not now. He knew when he was in over his head. He was—a scout. A forward scout. All he had to do was find the ship again, and call in the Marines. The ex—no. How the hell did she say it, when she had to be clear? Captain Marcori called herself a Marine, and she lived the belief there was no such thing as an ex-Marine. But she was not in the Corps.
Whatever. She would come, with her ship and crew. Which included two more whatever-they-were. With the captain leading Mikey and Whizz, Donte had all the backup he could ever need.
That was a damned good feeling.
Singly and in groups, people were wandering in. Donte checked the chrono. Forty minutes till he was due in Engineering. He shoveled a few more bites of breakfast and lifted his tray. Never hurt to be early to work.
“Here.” The tray was snatched, two cups of coffee shoved into his hands. “Jenny says the chief likes it black.” Selene pointed at the door. “You better go.”
What did she think he was doing? Donte didn’t ask. One piece of advice Mikey, Whizz and Dr. Alexander had all agreed on—never argue with a woman unless absolutely necessary. Donte raised a cup in casual salute and obeyed. Selene grinned and bent to wipe his table.
As he walked, Donte tried to imagine how Dr. Alexander would handle Selene. Or would she be so annoying to him? He imagined even Selene would have a hard time being rude to Dr. Alexander. And if she managed it, Captain Marcori would sort her out pretty quick.
That thought brought a grin, the idea of those two meeting. Fire and ice, and who would win? Captain Marcori, of course. But gods, Donte wouldn’t want to be anywhere near when it happened! For one thing, because Selene would never admit defeat...
But maybe he should try to introduce them. Captain Marcori would know what to do with Selene. Even infuriating and hot-tempered as she was, Selene was wasted on serving. And on food service. Though he couldn’t imagine what exactly she would be suited for, especially with that incredible body keeping her from being taken seriously.
Captain Marcori was beautiful, and had an incredible body. But her attitude was “try and die,” and she had the skill to back it up. Selene, though—with every move Selene asked the question, “Are you man enough?” And that was a challenge it seemed few men could pass by.
Fortunately Selene liked it that way. She surely didn’t walk around in those shoes because they were comfortable.
One more turn, and Donte put the problem aside. Now he’d find out if his hours in the Dream's engine spaces with Profli, and his months of classes, were enough to keep him out of trouble in a real job.
Selene knew by the end of her first day that every worker in the galley hated her, and that was fine because she hated them right back. Did they think she could have slept in the hall, rather than moving into their dorm in the middle of their night? Was it her fault they had turned the empty bunk into storage space and had to get up and clear it off? Was it her fault their morning came hours before she was ready for it?
Why should she apologize?
The hazing had started right after breakfast when the ship converted to hyperspace and Selene nearly threw up, but Jenny the manager didn't let her go back to her bunk to sleep it off. Some of the girls snickered at her. Lana made her almost-vomit again, shoving a plate of half-cooked eggs at her and asking “does this look rotten to you?” as the smell filled Selene's nose, but she fought her stomach down and the perra got no satisfaction from it.
Selene didn't dare eat or drink anything, so she worked tight-lipped and averted her eyes from the food as much as she could. As they began serving lunch, the bastardo Carter stopped to talk. By then Selene felt like death warmed over and knew she looked it, but Carter flirted anyway. He didn't even stop when Selene asked where she could find Donte; he just made her work for the answer while the other girls did the serving she would have been doing, had not the man who could fire her been talking to her.
Before she left that ship forever, Selene promised herself, she would damage him so badly he never felt another lustful urge.
Finally lunch was over and cleaned up, and supper was prepped for easy completion later. Jenny told Selene she had three hours, and Selene bolted.
She went for her bed first, but the other women were in the dorm they all shared, and Selene knew she'd get no peace when they didn't have work to get in the way of torturing her. She changed quickly out of her work clothes, kicking them under her bed, and got out of there.
When she was alone in a corridor three turns from the girls' dorm, she finally slowed down and put her hand to the wall while her head spun. Her stomach twisted and she wondered if she was dying. She'd heard of radiation in space—
And she was the only one affected? No. She was just sick. She wanted with all her soul to lie down in her own bed and have Mama bring her tea and soothe her head, but she'd left Mama behind forever and—
Selene straightened, swallowed hard, and walked.
Donte didn't answer when she pushed the call pad, but the door opened when she tried the handle. The cabin was barely as large as her closet back home, but it held one bed where she could suffer in peace. Selene kicked off her shoes and dropped her jacket and crawled in.
The pillow smelled like Donte. It was the first scent all day to make her feel better instead of worse.
She hadn't thought she would sleep, but the next thing Selene knew the door was opening.
“Selene?” Donte asked as if anyone else would be in his bed. “What are you doing in here?”
“Sleeping,” Selene snapped, clamping her mouth shut before more than words escaped her. She closed her eyes against the spinning of the universe, but it only helped a little.
“Are you—no, I can see you're not all right.” His hand rested on her forehead, warm and rough. Donte's hands were not those of a pampered university student. “You're not feverish.” He took her hand. “Ice-cold. I thought so. You're space-sick.”
“Is that—” Her voice sounded like a small child's. Selene cleared her throat. “Is that bad?”
Theidiota laughed at her. “No, it's not serious, though I bet it feels that way. I'll be right back.”
He was right back, with a container of water he harassed her to drink and a pill he said was just a vitamin. Any other time Selene would have hit him as he pestered her. Right then all she could do was let him help her sit up, then lean on his shoulder as he put his arm around her and told her exactly how to drink her water.
She felt so weak she wanted to cry from sheer frustration, but that she would not do. Besides, his body beside her was warm, and something, the water or his care, was helping. She felt better than she had in hours.
“Small sips,” Donte said again. “It helps your brain adjust somehow.”
“Hyperspace. Seriously, didn't anyone tell you what to expect and how to handle it?”
“Would I be here?” Without thinking she tossed her hair. The universe did a dizzying twirl and she dropped her head back to Donte's shoulder. He made a soft sound and pulled the blanket from the bed around both of them.
“You’ve got it a little worse than most,” he said softly, “but you’ll be okay. Look, Selene, I’m sorry. It’s just hard to believe they didn’t tell you anything. I’ve found this ship to be pretty well run.”
She snorted. “Not in the galley. Jenny is in charge, and she does not know how many are on the crew. She just makes what the—exos?—tells her to.”
“XO. Executive Officer. Mr. Carter is the captain’s second-in-command, and he’ll take care of discipline problems and seeing we have food and supplies, things like that. But I wouldn’t expect him to be that involved.”
Second in command. There was someone above Carter, who might keep him in line. Or encourage him in his skirt-chasing. “Those galley workers are idiots,” she told Donte. “Not a one bright enough to shame a candle.”
“A—a what?” Donte demanded, laughing. “A candle? Do you even know what that is?”
“Yes. I do.” She remembered not to toss her hair. “And I know they don’t put out a lot of light. So they are not bright. Get it, college boy?”
Donte raised his hands in surrender. “I guess not, if even right after conversion, they didn’t tell you what to do. Do yourself a favor, though, and play dumb. It’s not a good idea to look smarter than your boss.”
“You are brilliant. It is good I have you to tell me what to do.”
Donte shrugged just a little under her head and fell silent. Selene leaned on him and listened to him breathe and that was all. She knew how easy it was to send him into retreat, and that was the last thing she wanted. So she did nothing. Still after a long moment she felt him tense.
“I know,” he said, easing her away from him. “Let me get a shower, and then I’ll show you sickbay.” He wrapped the blanket all the way around her. “That's where you should go if you have a mysterious ailment. And I'll show you everything else you might need too.” He dodged out before she could try to keep him.
She was feeling well enough to stay sitting up, swearing every curse she knew in two languages, while she waited for his return.
Donte did show Selene sickbay, and introduced her and himself to the doctor, a blonde woman with pale eyes that laughed at Selene. Then Donte showed Selene how to follow the signs to the airlocks and the escape pods, and demonstrated both the proper and the immediate danger procedures to use for each. He mimicked alarms she needed to know. She would have laughed as he whooped, but he was deadly serious so she paid attention.
Selene didn’t need to see the Captain’s Corridor, Donte told her as he led her there, but he wanted to show it to her. Many ships, he explained, had a place set aside for simply staring out into space. Tradition held it was to remind captains and crew that they all had a responsibility to the rest of the ship.
When Selene stood in a corridor with a transparent wall and ceiling, lit only by the colors and lights of hyperspace, it came to her that she truly had left her home to travel the stars aboard a great collection of moving parts with a million ways it could fail and kill them all. She clutched Donte's arm and he grabbed back as if she were still dizzy, so she went with it and leaned on him, remembering that Donte worked in Engineering and understood far more than she did about spaceships. And he wasn't worried.
“I'll bet you haven't eaten since breakfast,” Donte said. “Some supper will fix you right up.”
“Supper!Mierda!” Selene jerked away and ran.
Right, Donte thought as Selene ran off. She was probably supposed to work every meal. She should have told him there was a time limit on their tour. He could have shown her the Captain’s Corridor another day.
It was nearly suppertime, and having actually worked for the first time in months, Donte was hungry. Maybe if he was early he could avoid most of the crew? Donte headed after Selene.
The galley already held some thirty people, a few at tables, most still in the serving line. Donte decided if he ate quickly he could get out before the worst press of people, so he got in line.
As he left the line Donte saw Chief Jackson at a table in the corner. Donte hesitated. Captain Marcori would expect him to eat with her, but he didn't think that was how officers acted on most ships. Not to mention he didn't want to. Then one of the Engineering techs sat down next to the chief and Donte moved from wondering if he should sit with his boss to wondering if he had to.
“Hey.” An arm slipped through his; Donte jumped. Reva, the other Engineering tech, grabbed the edge of his tray, helping steady it as everything slopped. “Sorry. You must've been light-years away! Come sit with us, shy guy. We don't bite.” She winked at him. “Much.”
“I actually—” Blast, Selene wouldn’t be able to sit with him.
“Come on. We want to get to know you like we didn't have time to all day. It's tradition.”
Oh. Fun. Donte took a deep breath and let Reva lead him to the rest of the Engineering department day shift.
“Hello, Donte,” Chief Jackson said as Donte waited for Reva to take a seat. She sat where he was hoping she wouldn't. Donte made a quick choice between keeping his back to the wall and sitting as far from everyone as he could, and sat unreasonably close to Chief Jackson. The chief moved over without comment, granting Donte more space on the bench encircling the table. “You've met the other two,” Chief Jackson said, “but in case you've had too many names thrown at you today, our official greeter is Reva,” he nodded at her as she grinned, “and this is Johnny.”
“Also known as 'freeloader' when the chief's in a bad mood,” Johnny said, offering his hand.
“Daydreamer,” Reva added, “cloud-watcher...Johnny's a Pisces. His brushes with reality are brief and accidental. I'm a Libra. We make great partners. And you're...?”
“...from Tilta? At least, my grandfather was. I was born in space.”
Reva laughed. Johnny shook his head.
“She's talking about this ancient religion-thing she follows,” he explained. “Supposedly you can tell what a person is like based on when and where they were born. Mostly she uses it as a pick-up line. Tell her your sign and she'll tell you how you're the perfect match for Libra.”
“Most signs are a good match with Libra,” Reva said, digging into her fries. “We're amazing like that.”
“So, born in space, Donte?” Chief Jackson's tray looked like something Dr. Alexander would eat. Vegetables and cooked grains and no meat that Donte could see. “You're an engineer from way back, then?”
“Of sorts. I did learn safety procedures with my ABCs,” Donte said, and took a bite before the next question came.
“I'm from the frontier,” Chief Jackson said. “Little mining colony that was too low-tech and closed-in to suit me. Reva was born in space. Johnny—we figure Johnny just wandered into an airlock at some point and didn't notice.”
“Born on Evergreen,” Johnny said, grinning over his hamburger as he lifted it. “Wanted to see the galaxy.”
Donte nodded and kept eating in hopes—
“When and where were you born, Donte?” Reva asked, pulling a handcomp from her shirt.
“Some other time, Reva,” the chief ordered before Donte could clear his mouth to answer. “Donte, Carter said you were a university student? Couldn't take all the classrooms?”
“I'm going back.” Donte shrugged. “I just...needed to get off-planet for a bit.”
“Three weeks before the semester ends?” Chief Jackson asked.
“I know how that feels,” Reva put in. “Once the ship I was working on broke down and I spent two months on Goodfella. Thought I was going to explode by the time we cleared atmosphere!”
“That's why we don't let our ships break,” Johnny said. “Miss Expert Engineer.”
“Wouldn't have, if they'd let me be in charge!” Reva shot back. She smiled at Donte. “You tell Chief Jackson that an engine's making a funny sound, and he'll go and listen. Not like some muckers I've worked for!”
“So, Donte, you worked on your family's ship until you went to university?” Chief Jackson asked.
“Your paperwork said you earned certification on the Pendragon’s Dream. At seventeen.”
“Yes, sir. That was—after my mother’s ship. I got stranded for a while, and the Dream picked me up.”
“Ah. So they made you work your way? Why don’t you tell me—”
Selene stepped into the space between Donte and Reva. Her hair was braided but not netted, and she wore her apron wrapped tight and tied in front. She snatched up the coffee Donte had taken since he didn't see anything else, and thumped down a covered mug that smelled familiar. She stalked away without a word. Donte's table-mates stared after her.
“My fate has found me!” Johnny announced, clutching his chest. “Who was that goddess?”
Chief Jackson shook his head. “Donte, are you not to have coffee?”
“I shouldn't be drinking caffeine this late,” Donte admitted, lifting the chamomile tea. Sweetened with honey—he could smell it.
Reva rolled her napkin and snapped Johnny with it. “Stop it, you idiot, she's clearly Donte's.”
“Is she?” Johnny turned pathetic eyes on Donte. “Is she yours?”
A lie might have saved Johnny some pain, but Donte knew it would come back on him. He shook his head. “Selene belongs only to herself,” he said as firmly as he could. It was a warning, but Johnny didn't hear it.
“Selene...lovely name for a glorious creature!” Johnny leaned forward. “Tell me everything about her!”
“You'll...have to ask her,” Donte said.
“So that's the new girl,” Reva mused, her eyes on Selene as she scrubbed something off the drink station. “If her effect on this doofus is any indication—”
“You laugh,” Johnny said, snatching up his burger without taking his eyes off Selene, “but I'll still invite you to the wedding.”
Donte ate as fast as he could, and escaped before the talk turned back from Selene to him.
When the door of Donte’s cabin closed behind him, he realized it was just as tiny as it had been when he woke too early that morning. He bundled up his bedding and went to find somewhere he could sleep.
The access tube he’d marked earlier seemed to be a girls-only make-out spot, but his second choice, an odd-shaped space behind a heating conduit in the bowels of the engine spaces, was empty. Probably because most people didn’t have clearance for the engine spaces. Donte spread out his bed and lay down on it, warm from the conduit half a meter away. He stretched and wriggled, trying to get comfortable, and wished he’d thought to grab a shower first. Too late now, half the crew would be in there.
He thought longingly of the water shower in his cabin on the Dream, available whenever he wanted it. And the sounds of the Dream, rhythms he knew in his bones unless Profli was messing things up…
Donte snorted in the half-dark by himself. Captain Marcori liked to play icy and angry, but anyone could see she had a heart by how she didn’t space Profli for messing up her ship. Any of the times he’d messed up her ship. It wasn’t like the Kertak would be angry—they’d cast Profli out themselves before the captain took him in.
Kofel had told Donte that. It was so strange to Donte that the two were—well, in human terms, father and son. Kofel so calm and wise, caring and…well, cuddly. Unless he was angry. Then there was Profli—quick to move, to speak, to judge—quick to get angry. Any Kertak’s resemblance to a teddy bear definitely ended when one got angry.
Maybe that was why Donte liked the race so much. They got angry, and they did something, where nearly anyone else would respond with “not my problem.” Every Kertak he’d met was like that, and he’d met more Kertak than anyone else but Captain Marcori.
Donte wondered if Captain Marcori or Profli would scare Jordan more when they caught up.
When they caught up. Twenty days until Donte could catch up, and days after that for the Dream. Could Donte just “hang out” watching an airlock and waiting for the Marines while maybe on board the River in a tiny cell—
Donte shoved himself upright.
Selene. Think about Selene. She was easy to think about, since Donte didn’t understand her at all. She could be so irritating, but then she did something like—like walking away from a life in shambles to help her friend find a child she’d never met. And the trouble she started just for fun—that was the other reason Donte never left her sitting at the Safehouse. If he came late, he might walk into a Selene-started brawl.
She was like Captain Marcori in that. Donte had never seen it, but Mikey had story after story of fights “the Bitch” started just because she was bored…
Mikey told a lot of stories. Donte lay back down, and told himself stories of Captain Marcori in Mikey’s voice until he drifted off to sleep.
Donte coughed and couldn't inhale, couldn't breathe, had to—
“I can't sit heavier!” The man on Donte's back shifted. Donte gratefully inhaled air filled with sweat-stink. The man sitting on him grabbed his hair and pulled his head back. “Hold still, you stupid shit,” he said. “You want him to cut your arm off?”
Donte froze, staring at the gun-shaped device in the other man's hand.
“That's better.” The man in front of Donte pulled Donte's arm straight and turned it, exposing the scar that ran from his wrist to his elbow. “This won't hurt a bit.” He grinned. “And by 'not a bit' I mean it's gonna burn like hellfire, baby.” He brought the gun to the scar.
Burning, stinging, it hurt, it hurt—Donte writhed. The man sitting on him chuckled.
“Damn kids don’t know what’s good for you,” he said. “Stay still while we make you pretty!”
Donte gritted his teeth. He wouldn't scream, he wouldn't, he wouldn't give them—
“Turn it up,” the man told the other. “He can take it.”
The man with the gun-device flicked a finger, and a whimper slipped past Donte’s teeth. The man sitting on him laughed.
Donte jerked upright and the first thing he saw was the escape route over the conduit. He looked at the place on the other end of his haven where he could crawl under the conduit, then checked the access tunnel above his head where he could get into the ship's insides. Only then did he shove his sleeve up and stare at the scar, fainter than before the treatment but still there, visible even in the half-light of ship's night. He scratched at the scar and it stung a little. Donte drew a deep shaky breath and put his back to the warm conduit. He rested his head on his knees and listened to the engine-throb as his heart slowed to pace it.
He'd closed his eyes, but the darkness was too much. Even the half-light wasn't enough. The dream was too fresh. Donte shoved his hair back and groped in his bag.
The chrono said 0338. Too early to get up—he'd run into night-shift workers wanting to know why he infringed on their time. Donte sighed and pulled his bookpad from under his pillow. He tapped until the file manager came to his least-favorite subject, and buried himself in Comparative Religions.
Captain Marcori could do practically anything she set her mind to. It was possible she'd get him back to school in time for finals, and he'd better be ready.
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