Two in the Bush: A Novelette

Written for /r/WritingPrompts second annual novelette contest.


 

The storefront was old and worn, the windows dingy and streaked with the fingers of little children, the frames surrounding the glass cracked and warped by years of rain and little care. I shifted my heavy rucksack on my shoulder as I stood in front of the dark entryway and took a deep breath. I molded my expression carefully, my muscles falling into well-established positions. Friendly, but professional.

I opened the door energetically and strolled into the shop with a swagger in my step. A bell rang above my head when the door knocked into it. It was old charm. Very quaint, like the shop owner who sat behind the display cabinets, her frizzy grey hair tied back in a bun that continually released wisps of hair to dance and sway about her face. She turned at the sound of bell, looking up to see me enter. She smiled, her crooked white teeth gleaming in the bright store lights.

“Well, well, Lee, what brings you back?”

“Brought in some goods I thought you might want to cast your eye over.” I slung the rucksack from my shoulder, hefting it onto counter display.

“Now, you mind the counter here.” She rapped her knuckles on the glass. “That isn’t too heavy, is it?”

I shook my head. “Don’t think so. You want me to put it on the ground in case?”

She eyed the bag critically, her lips tightening. “No, I suppose it’ll be fine as it is. Why don’t you just start unpacking here.” She gathered up the papers scattered in front of her and turned around on her seat to set them on a shelf on the wall.

I opened the top of the bag. She spun around on her stool and craned her neck to see inside. “Looks like a full load, you have there, Lee.”

I nodded. “Yeah, got back last week from a run. Merchant ship. Lots of salvage.”

She eyed me. “You ever feel bad about taking the bits not on the cargo manifest? You’re raiding the crew quarters after all, aren’t you? Personal effects?”

I shrugged. “Well, they aren’t gonna use them anymore, are they? And I do send on most of what I find. Anything that seems real sentimental.”

“And whatever happens to fall into your bag is just happy circumstance?”

I shrugged again, keeping my attention on the items I pulled from my bag. What Brand called me out on was her own sin as well; half of the goods in her shop were stolen or ripped from a dead man’s hands. She was testing me, seeing where I stood today, and how my conscience was playing me. A guilty man is more likely to sell his goods off cheap.

She turned away to look at what I was laying out on the counter. She picked up a long, thin dagger. “What do you reckon this is from?”

“Looked like some sort of religious thing to me,” I said. “It was set up on a decorated table in the crew quarters. Looked like an altar of some kind.”

She peered at the handle of the weapon. “These gems. Don’t know if they’re real.” She took a jeweler’s eye from the shelf behind her and used it to inspect the weapon. “I’m going to say we’re looking at synthetics here. Glorified colored glass.” She looked up at me, the loupe magnifying her eye into a hideous monstrosity. “Care to wager?”

I chuckled at the thought. “No. I trust those eyes of yours more than mine, Brand.”

She grinned, revealing a crooked line of teeth stained by her vices, and set the loupe down. She turned again to the shelves behind her, taking a boxy metal instrument from the shelf. She set it on the counter and inserted the weapon’s handle into an opening in the device. Shortly, the device began beeping and she peered at its display. “Yup, all synthetic. It’s pretty, but that’s about it.”

I did not let my disappointment show on my face. “Pretty can be worth something. How much?”

She removed the weapon from the instrument and lifted it up, looking at it closely. “I’d say ten credits.”

“Ten? Are you trying to take me for a ride? I could sell it to any joker on the street for two, three times that.”

She set the dagger on the counter and looked me in the eye. “And you want to take the time to find the joker who would buy it? You willing to sink your time into that, Lee?”

“Twenty and it’s yours.” I knew she would not agree.

“Thirteen.”

“Fine.” She was right. I did not have the time to find another buyer. I needed the money today.

She turned back to the other items. She touched a finger to a large rock. It was a dark obsidian, its surfacing gleaming coldly under the shop lights. “What’s this?”

“I don’t know. It was on a shelf with the other one.” I jerked my chin at a second rock, a twin to the first. “Thought they might be worth a handful. Like display pieces or something.”

“They’re rocks, Lee.” She stared at me, her gaze as cold as the stones on the counter.

“Well, Brand, people pay for dumb shit all the time. Why not this?” I knew they were going to be a hard sell.

“I think I’d be a pretty dumb shit to pay for these.” She shook her head. “I’ll think about it.”

She picked through the rest of my goods slowly, meticulously, appraising each item with a careful eye. There was a bag of jewelry I had lifted from the captain’s quarters. A mix of gold, silver, and common gems. All worthless, save for a diamond that could be used in laser cutting. Twenty credits was the final bid and sold.

Then there was an ancient printed book, bound in cracked and faded leather. That in itself was pretty rare in our age of electronic gods. The book had some old Slavic name Brand recognized, but I could not pronounce for the life of me. Doughstoysomething. She said she knew a collector who would take it, but like the dagger, it was only good for looking at. Fifteen and I was glad to have it off my hands. Damn thing weighed as much as the rocks.

A small hand carved flute she took for three credits. She grumbled at an old two-dee gaming device with a cracked display panel, but said it was fixable. Ten credits.

I was feeling good, tallying up my earnings in my head when she returned to the pair of rocks, eyeing them again. She touched another finger to them, stroking their smooth, cold surface thoughtfully.

“Lee, I tell you what,” she said. “I’ll take these off your hands. I think they might be geodes, fancy old rocks with a glittery bunch of stones inside. I might know some people who would want them.”

I looked at the rocks. I popped my tongue against my lower lip thoughtfully. “Geodes? Never heard of them.” I looked at the boxy device she had on the counter. “Let’s run them through there and see what’s inside, then.” I reached for the rocks.

She set her hands on top of them. “No, no. That won’t be able to see through the rock’s surface.”

“All right then. What are you offering for them?”

She took her hands from the rocks and pursed her lips as she studied the rocks. “Fifty each.”

“Fifty?” I raised an eyebrow. “I dunno about that, Brand. It’s a matching pair. They’re identical, even the same size. Gonna look mighty fine on display.”

“I know what you’re playing at, Lee. I know the game.” Brand dipped her head, giving me a disapproving look. “And I can’t go much higher without knowing what my buyers will offer for them.”

“Not even a hundred each?” I put a finger on top of one of the rocks and spun it with my other hand. The stone spun smoothly on the glass cabinet, catching the lights of the store in its facets and reflecting them back in a dazzling display.

“Seventy, tops. Like I said, not without knowing what my buyers will offer,” she said. “Or what’s inside.”

I did not reply immediately. I stopped spinning the rock and looked at it critically. “What if we break one open, then? See what’s inside?”

She paled a little at the suggestion. “Break one open? Lee, are you stupid? A collector would want these whole.”

I turned my gaze from the rocks to study her face. “Brand, what aren’t you telling me?”

She tilted her head to the side. Wisps of hair fell into her eyes and she brushed them aside. “What do you mean?”

I waved my hand at the pile on the counter. “All this—it’s all junk, and yet you’re taking it off my hands. All of it. You’ve never bought a whole haul from me before. You’re more discerning than that. And now, seventy for a pair of rocks? Seventy each?” I emphasized my words with a shake of my head. “There’s something else here.”

She shrugged. “Lee, I don’t know what you’re getting at. I’m buying what I want, and I’m offering you a fair price for it.”

“You’re saying seventy—a hundred forty total—is a fair price for a couple of rocks?”

“I don’t know why you’re asking questions, Lee. You need the money. I know you do.” She smiled again. Her expression was hard. “Salvage doesn’t pay as much as it used to, does it?”

I bit the inside of my lip, trying not to let her see the truth of her words in my expression. She was right. I needed the money. It was a lot of credits and I had to pay off some people soon, or I might not be around to haggle on another deal ever again. At the same time, she was hiding something from me and that worried me.

I shook my head. “Sorry, Brand. I can’t just sell you these without knowing the full story. Either you tell me or no deal.”

She pushed the dagger and book across the counter towards me. “I’m not buying any of your haul without those rocks, Lee. You either take all the money or none of it.”

I felt like someone had dropped a black hole in my belly that was sucking up all of my insides into a singularity of pain. “That’s your choice, then.” I kept my face neutral and began gathering up my goods.

She watched me in silence, lifting her hand up to rub a finger thoughtfully along her chin. I kept hoping that she would change her mind and explain herself, but she did not break her silence. I hefted the rucksack to my shoulder and used two fingers to salute her. “See you around, Brand.”

She pursed her lips. “One thousand and no questions. Final offer.”

I felt the rest of my insides get sucked up by the black hole. I would be stupid to turn down such a deal, but I would be stupider to take it. I shook my head again.

She nodded and her hair danced around her face. “Be seeing you, Lee.”

I turned and walked out the door of the shop, the bell tinkling above my head to announce my departure.

After the initial shock had faded, I meandered down the street at a slow pace, mulling over what had happened. Brand was shady, sure—she had to be to deal with the people who drifted in and out of her shop—but she usually treated me fair. I could not remember a single deal where she had tried to cheat me out of information on what I was selling, or a decent price for it.

The rucksack was heavy and I shifted it to the other side. The rocks weighed on my shoulder about as heavily as they weighed on my mind. I had to find out what they were, and I knew someone who might be able to help.

But my nerves were still jangling, my stomach still twisted. First I needed a drink.

The bar was in the same neighborhood as Brand’s. It was run-down and perpetually smelled of smoke, though the city had banned the practice indoors years ago. A bright flashing sign above its door shone like a beacon in the darkening sky. Lucky’s was a dive, but the drinks were good and the atmosphere quiet.

I walked through the open door and descended the stairs into the bar’s dark interior. It was sparsely populated, just a few regulars at the bar and a couple holed up in one of the booths, whispering to one another. I acknowledged the bartender with a lift of my chin as I walked by. “The usual,” I said and continued to the washroom. I locked the door behind me and lowered the lid on the toilet before swinging the rucksack from my shoulder to rest there. Opening the bag, I rummaged through its contents until I found the rocks. Whatever they were, they were valuable and I needed to keep them on me. They were a bit bigger than my clenched fist, but I fit one into each of my roomy inner coat pockets. Checking myself in the mirror, I reckoned only a keen eye would be able to see the bulges in the pockets of my large winter overcoat.

I relieved myself and washed up. Then, hefting the significantly lighter rucksack to my shoulder, I returned to the bar.

The bartender was thumbing through a display when I took a seat. I glanced around for my drink but the bar was empty of any unclaimed beverage. I dropped my rucksack on the seat next to me and looked at the bartender. “Soren, where’s my drink?”

Soren continued to thumb through the display until he was finished with what he was reading. Then he set the display pad down and looked up at me. “Well, Lee, where’s your credit?”

I winced. “Is my tab not settled?”

He shook his head of thick black hair. “Lee, your tab’s never settled. You settle it when you come in, then you slip off before the end of the night and the next time you come in, the cycle repeats.” He glanced at a door to the side of the bar, which lead to the upper level, and looked back at me, tilting his head at the door. “Management doesn’t like it.”

“Management doesn’t like much,” I muttered. I turned over my arm on the bar, thumbing the display on my wristpad. “How much do I owe?”

Soren pulled up my tab on his display. “Thirty creds.”

I bit the inside of my lip. I had not expected it to be that much. It was nearly half of what I had left until I could sell my haul. I forced a smile. “Sure, here.” I tapped out the code on the display that would transfer the credits from my account to Lucky’s.

“Great.” Soren tapped his display, updating the information. He set it down and turned to the bottles on the wall. “So the usual, you said?”

“Yeah.” I was not looking forward to the drink as much as I had when I walked through the door. “But I’ll just be having the one tonight.”

“All right.” As he mixed the drink, I put a hand into one of my inner coat pockets, touching the rock there. It was been cold when I pulled it from the bag, but it must have begun absorbing the heat of my body as it was now warm to the touch. Its smoothly faceted surface was mesmerizing to touch. I remembered Brand laying her fingers and hands on the rocks. She must have felt it too.

Soren set the drink in front of me but did not let go when I reached for it. I looked up to meet his eyes. “Pay before you leave,” he said, and though he smiled, I sensed the steel behind his words.

I could be pretty think, but if there was one thing I had learned over the years, it was never to anger one’s bartender. “Understood.” I saluted him and then reached again for the glass. He let go and drifted down the bar to attend to other patrons.

I sipped my drink and rubbed my finger across the rock in my pocket, thinking. I reached for the display on the inside of my wrist, pulling up the videophone. I dialed a number and waited. It rang for almost a full minute before there was an answer.

“Hello, Lee.” The voice was smooth, like the gentle rumble of an engine. The video feed on my display was black: no picture.

“Hello there, Shims. I got something for you to take a look at. I think it’ll be worth your time.” I took another sip as I waited for her answer.

“I don’t know, Lee. Remember that fossil from New Terra you brought over last month? Turned out to be a fake and worth nothing close to what my time costs.”

I rubbed the back of my neck with my free hand. She sure sounded sore. “Okay, so I got a bit excited with that one, maybe pitched it up a little too much to you, but this is different, I swear.”

“It’s always different when you call up, Lee.” The exasperation in her voice could have curdled milk.

Fortunately, I was not opposed to pleading when the situation required it. “Give me one last chance with this one, Shims. I’m sure it’s genuine. Swear to God.”

The sigh that drifted through the feed needed no video to convey the resigned slump that accompanied it. “One last chance, Lee. Then you’re finding yourself a different specialist.”

“Fair enough.” I grinned. “But I won’t need to ‘cause there’s no way this is gonna go south. Meet me at my place tonight, couple hours from now? I’m at Lucky’s, heading back after that.”

“Fine. But you’re buying me dinner.” She terminated the connection before I had the chance to tell her I might not have the credits to afford dinner for myself, let alone the two of us.

I swirled my drink in my glass. It was half gone. I forced myself to slow down and savor the liquor. It was sweetly sour, with an acrid bite that made the back of my jaw pucker and lock as my salivary glands worked overtime. I had given up the hard stuff a couple years back after too many nights of lost memories, stolen goods, and broken dreams. This was it for me now.

A hand clapped me on the shoulder as someone slid into the seat next to me and I startled at the unexpected touch. “Jumpy there, aren’t you?” the woman said with a grin.

I shook my head. “Mischa, you should know better than to sneak up on an old dog like me.”

She lifted a hand to catch Soren’s eye, but kept her eyes on me. “What, you gonna bite me?”

I shrugged, lifting my drink to my lips to avoid answering.

“An old dog like you is bound to be missing some teeth at this point.” She leaned over, bumping her shoulder against mine playfully. My drink sloshed out of its glass and over my lap.

“Mischa!” I slammed the glass on the counter as I hurried to set it down.

“Oh, shit. Sorry, Lee.” She waved at Soren again. He came over. “You got a towel or something back there?”

Soren reached beneath the bar, pulling out a tattered, stained rag. “Here.” He threw it at my chest and I caught it. It was sticky and slightly damp. It might stain my clothes worse than the drink itself.

“Thanks,” I grumbled, using the rag to soak up the worst of the spill.

“Soren, I gotta buy Lee here something for spilling his drink.” Mischa glanced at what was behind the bar, her eyes drifting to the taps. “Get us two black ales.”

“Wait a minute—” I lifted a hand to dissuade her. “I’m drinking a sour here.”

She wrinkled her nose, scrunching her face up in disgust. “Not with me, you’re not. That stuff’ll rot you from the inside out.”

“Mischa—”

She lifted a hand, stopping my words dead. “Look, Lee, drink it or don’t, but that’s what I’m buying you.”

I dropped the rag on the bar and heaved a sigh of defeat. Mischa was a woman who was used to having her way and steamrolling every person around her to get it. I admired her determination, except when I was on the wrong end of it.

Soren filled two glasses with the dark black ale and brought the tall glasses to us. The tops foamed, a bit escaping to roll down the side of the glass, and through the glass I saw bubbles cascading upwards in the liquid.

Mischa lifted her glass. “Cheers, then!” She took a deep draft of the ale, the top of it leaving a foamy residue on her upper lip which she wiped away with the back of her hand. “Good stuff, that. Try it, Lee.” She gestured her glass at mine. “You’ll find it’s a sight better than that sour stuff.” She looked at Soren. “No offense, of course.”

He shrugged and removed the rag from the counter, then picked up his display pad and began thumbing through it.

I was torn. I did not want to drink the ale for a few different reasons. I hated Mischa buying it for me and did want to be indebted to her in even the slightest way. There would be a price tag on the drink: it was not a gift, but a favor to be called in. I even doubted that she had accidentally spilled my drink. She was too calculating.

The drink also represented what I had given up. It would be a step backwards.

“No, Mischa. I think I’m good.” I pushed the drink a short distance away from me. I glanced at the display on the inside of my wristpad. “I’ve actually got to meet someone in a bit.”

Mischa took another sip of her ale. “Well, Lee, if you’re not going to drink, at least sit with me while I finish mine. It’s been a while. What have you been up to? Word is it’s been rough.”

I bit the inside of my lip and schooled my expression. How did everyone know about that? I shrugged as nonchalantly as I could. “Eh, work comes and goes. You know how it is.”

She nodded. “Ain’t that the truth. Some months it seems I’m flush, getting some of the biggest payouts of my life from some of the top names in town, then poof!” She clenched the fingers of her free hand in a fist and then released them quickly to emphasize the word. “All gone.”

“Yup.” I nodded. “So it goes.” I reflexively reached for the ale that I had pushed away but caught myself before I touched the glass.

“So it goes, indeed.” There was an empty lull in which she lifted her glass to her lips again. I licked my lips. I was still thirsty. I looked around for Soren to ask for water, but he had drifted to the other end of the bar. I lifted my hand to try to catch his eye.

“So what kind of jobs you been running?” Mischa’s voice called my attention back.

“Salvage mostly. Towing wrecks back to dock.” I turned back to look for Soren, but his back was turned away as he talked with a regular. I let my hand fall back to the bar.

“You poor bastard.” She laughed bitterly. “I’ve done those jobs. Pays nothing. Covers fuel and just about nothing else.”

“Yeah, you got that right.” I looked at the ale in front of me again. It would still be cold. I had not had a black ale in a long while. I wondered if it still tasted like I remembered.

“Well, if I hear of something, I’ll shoot it your way.”

I looked at her with surprise. She saw my expression and scowled at me. “What? Can’t a lady be generous every once and a while?”

“I’ve never seen you like this,” I said, studying her face. “It’s not like you.”

“Let’s be honest, Lee. I keep up a certain face to the world. We all do, don’t we? That public façade, the business image.” I nodded. I understood all too well what she was saying. She sighed and looked into her ale. “But every once and a while I want to do something that goes against that. There’s nothing wrong with that, right?” She looked up. “As long as it doesn’t go beyond the two of us, though.”

I chuckled at the thought. “Word gets out about you going soft, there goes your reputation.”

“Damn straight.” She nodded sharply. “And you know the worth of a reputation. So I keep an ear out for you and you don’t say anything to anybody, all right?”

I reached out a hand. “I’ll shake on that.”

She lifted her beer up. “Let’s drink to it.”

I glanced at my ale. “All right, then.” I reached out and picked up the glass; it was as cold as I imagined it. We clinked our glasses together and drank deeply. The ale was deliciously smooth, with none of the puckering mouthfeel I had gotten so used to. It was as refreshing as a cool glass of water on a boiling summer day.

She grinned, watching my face as I drank. “I can see the look on your face, Lee. Beats the hell out of that shit you were drinking earlier, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah.” I set the glass carefully on the counter. “It’s pretty damn good.”

“Cold’s good.” She took another sip of her ale, eyed the low level, and lifted a hand to gesture Soren over. “Remember that shootout we got into a couple years back? With the terraformers?”

I laughed. “I forgot about those idiots. Weren’t they trying to terraform an ice planet on the edge of a system?”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, even if they managed to thaw out that ice block, it never would have gotten better than a couple degrees above freezing. What a hellhole.” Soren walked over and seeing her nearly empty glass, turned to get her a second.

I nodded. “Yeah, I remember that. We got into it because we brought them the exact cradle engine they asked for and when they installed it, turned out it was the wrong one.”

“And then they refused to pay us, wanted us to take it back!” She slapped her thigh with one hand she chuckled at the memory. “Like you can just get credits back on an engine like that.”

“Especially when we salvaged it from that other colony. No one left there to sell it to.” I lifted the glass of ale, saluting her with it. She lifted her glass as well. I paused before taking another sip, for a moment wondering if I should. I shrugged off the thought and took a gulp.

Soren set a full glass of ale in front of Mischa. He looked at the ale in my hand. “So you’re drinking that after all?”

I looked at the ale and then at him. “Guess I am.”

He nodded slowly. “All right.” He walked away.

We passed the time reminiscing over past jobs, both successful and failed. I realized that I had never really gotten a chance to sit down and talk with Mischa over the years we had known one another. It was always business. She had a way of retelling things, able to recall the smallest nuances and details that had slipped me by. In another time, she might have made a living as a storyteller. But there was not a lot of use for storytellers anymore.

As she talked, I sipped my drink and watched her. She was animated and lively. Under the dim lighting of the bar, her hair was the color of red desert clay, her eyes a dark endless brown, her skin a light tan. She was a kaleidoscope of clashing colors, a palette that would not work on anyone but her. But it did work for her and she was beautiful.

It was at that moment that I realized where my thinking was going and I excused myself to the washroom, leaving her and the ale behind.

After locking the washroom door behind me, I took off my coat and hung it on the hook on the back of the door. I turned back to the sink and leaned my hands on it, studying myself. I looked sober in the mirror; my eyes were open and bright, and I was not swaying or off balance. I had not drank enough for that. “So where is this coming from?” I asked my reflection. I tried to think over what I had been feeling but I was not even sure where to start.

I did not have time for this. “Okay, so this is how it’s gonna go.” I looked my reflection dead in the eye. “You’re gonna go out there, tell her you need to meet someone—which is true and you’ve already said—thank her for the ale, and then leave. No more of this chit-chat walk down memory lane. This is getting weird, plus you don’t have the time.” I nodded firmly and my reflection nodded in agreement.

I relieved myself and washed up, taking a moment to splash water on my face. I lifted my shirt from my stomach and used the fabric to wipe the water off. I felt better, refreshed. Before I put my coat on, I reached inside the inner pockets of the coat and felt the stones inside. They were still warm from my body heat. I must have been cooking in the bar.

I unlocked the door and exited the washroom, returning to my seat. Mischa’s seat was empty. I looked around the large room, but while it had filled up a bit since I had first arrived, she was nowhere to be seen.

Soren must have seen me looking as he walked over. “She’s gone. Left soon after you did.”

I studied where we had been sitting. Mischa’s second—or maybe third—ale sat barely touched on the bar. My brow furrowed. Then I saw that my rucksack was missing from where I had placed it on the seat next to mine.

I looked at Soren. “Did she have a bag with her when she left?”

He thought for a moment, casting his eyes upward for the memory. “Maybe. Think so. Why? Did she take yours?”

I grimaced and nodded. “Yup, bitch took my bag.”

He frowned. “Management’s not going to like that.”

“Yeah, not as much as I don’t like it.” I bit the inside of my lip. The stuff in the bag was pretty worthless; I would not have made much from selling it. But I had debts and I needed all the credits I could scrounge up.

“Sorry,” Soren said, the frown deepening as his brow wrinkled.

I took a deep breath and released it. “Shit.” I straightened my coat, patting the rocks to make sure I had not imagined removing them from the rucksack. At least I still had them and, if they were as valuable as I hoped, they would make what I lost in the rucksack pale in comparison.

He watched me turn from the bar. “You leaving then?”

“Yeah, I gotta meet someone.” I turned back, saluting him loosely.

He looked at the display pad in his hands. “Well, that’s gonna be forty creds, then.”

My hand froze in midair and I stared at the man. “What?” I rasped.

“Your drinks, plus hers. Forty credits.” He turned the display pad around so I could see the tally.

I approached the bar, putting my hands on the smooth polished surface. I leaned forward. “No, Soren, I get that. I can do the math.” I shook my head. “Come on, here. I get paying for my drink, but you want me to pay for the drinks of someone who just robbed me?”

He was quiet for a moment as he turned the display pad around to look at the tally. Then he shrugged. “Sorry, Lee. Management said you have to pay when you leave. And she didn’t pay and she’s your friend. So you gotta cover her.”

“She’s not my friend,” I growled. “She’s a two-bit thief. A siren who will spin you a song and kill you in the process.”

Soren glanced at the door to the side of the bar and sighed. At least he seemed genuinely contrite about it. “I’ll talk to Management later and see about crediting your account,” he said when he looked back at me. “But right now, it’s your bill and you gotta settle it.”

As I thumbed the display on my wristpad, entering in the information to transfer the credits that would pay my bill, I missed the days of physical currency. I would have loved to slam my money on the counter, letting everyone see my anger and frustration. It would be petty, but it would feel so good. As it was, I had to settle for jabbing my thumb viciously at my display and glaring at Soren as he waited for the balance to update.

He looked up from the pad. “All right. We’re settled.” He grimaced slightly, the corners of his lips pulling out tightly. “I am sorry, Lee. I guess you’ll just have to get the forty creds from her when you catch up with her.”

“If I ever catch up with her, I’m taking more than forty credits back. I’m getting interest,” I said sharply, then spun on my heel and stalked away.

I climbed the stairs out of Lucky’s with an anger smoldering inside me. I felt so stupid. Mischa had played me easily, reminiscing on old memories and pretending to be vulnerable with her talk about façades. She had a façade all right, and it was a good one.

The walk back to my place helped me cool off a touch. The night was chilly, with storm clouds on the horizon. The lights of the city glared off the windows of the shop fronts, hurting my eyes with bright reds and yellows. I waved off the advances of the streetwalkers and the fortunetellers, men and women both clamoring for attention and recognition.

At the corner of my block, I was stopped by a commanding voice behind me. “Is that Lee Denovan I see?”

I turned to face the voice’s source and frowned. Just who I did not want to see.

A man was walking down the sidewalk with his piercing eyes fixed on me. He had a large mane of dark hair that stood out from his head, making him appear larger and more imposing than he normally might be. He wore a pair of silvery pants which reflected the streetlights impressively, and a dark vest that complemented his nut brown skin. He grinned with a mouth full of sharp teeth. “I thought that was you, walking by my shop without stopping in to say hello.”

I sighed. “Erik, look, I got someone to meet with. I don’t have time for a reading right now.”

Erik stopped in front of me. The lights of the street glinted off his big dark eyes as he narrowly glared at me. “You don’t have time for me; that’s fine. But there’s no reason to be rude about it.”

“You’re right. I’m being a jackass.” I lifted a hand to my head, rubbing it through my short, thick hair. “My bag got nicked earlier and I’m still sore about it.”

“I knew there was something off about your aura.” He stepped back and looked me up and down. He lifted a finger to his lip and tapped it with a colorful nail. “Definitely something off.” He looked me in the eye, his expression serious. “Sure you don’t have time for a reading?”

I glanced at my display. “Maybe a quick one. But I’m supposed to be meeting someone.”

“A quick one, I promise.” He grabbed my hand and pulled me towards his shop front. His skin was warm against mine. He looked down at my hand, examining it between his own. “Lee, your fingers are like icicles! Get some gloves, man.”

I took my hand back and shoved my hands deep into my pocket as I followed Erik. Through the fabric of my coat, I could feel the rocks in the inside pockets. They were warm from the heat of my body and through the fabric I pressed my flesh against them to try to absorb some of that warmth.

“Lee, you should take better care of yourself,” Erik said, and he opened up the door of his shop and ushered me inside. “You know how the seasons here can catch you unawares.” I listened patiently to his gentle chiding as he made his way behind the counter of the shop.

I glanced around the room as Erik set up the reading. The shop was an odd collection of religious artifacts from what seemed like nearly every known culture. Erik collected them and dabbled a bit in every religion I could think of. He was ordained in more than a dozen of the major ones, and was an expert in a few of the others that refused to accept him into their ranks. As soon as he learned the ins and outs of one religion or belief, he turned to another with the kind of thirst and drive most men only idly dreamed about.

I turned back to see him setting up a device on the counter. “So what kind of reading are you practicing today?”

“Well, as you can see I’ve got this new toy here.” He patted the device on the counter. “It’s from a small technocult. Supposed to read your aura through your biometrics or something.”

“A technocult, huh?” I looked at the mechanism skeptically. The surface was covered in a smattering of symbols scratched into the metal. They looked pretty rough to me, like they were hastily done to decorate an otherwise unremarkable device. “Seems a little modern for your taste.”

Erik shrugged. “Thought I’d study something different for once.” He finished adjusting some dials in the back of the device and then turned it towards me. “So stick your hand in here.”

I looked at my hand and then at the device. “It’s not gonna shock me or anything? Draw any blood?”

He waved a hand in the air. “No, nothing like that. Just an electrical reading. Nothing invasive.”

“If you say so.” I tentatively placed my hand in the machine.

The box began a low humming accompanied by a slight vibration. I felt a heat on my hand. The display on the back of the device facing Erik lit up and he leaned down to look at it, but I could not see it from my angle.

“Oh, wow,” he muttered, the display lighting up his face. “This isn’t what I expected.”

“What’s it say?” I asked. The heat in the box was beginning to become uncomfortable. My other hand felt freezing in comparison, and I clutched the warm rock in my jacket tighter.

“According to this, your biometrics are all over the place. And your aura is dark. Really dark.” His brow furrowed. “I have no idea what this means.”

“Really? Then can I take my hand out of the box? It’s hot.”

He looked up. “Oh, yeah. Let me just save this.” He tapped the display. “Okay.” I took my hand out of the machine and looked at it. It was the same as ever, with no redness from the heat I had felt.

Erik was still studying the display. “If I’m reading this right, it’s saying you’re heavily in tune with one of the elements right now. Stone, I think.”

I removed my hand from my jacket pocket. The rocks felt heavy in their concealment. “Oh? And what’s that mean?”

“I don’t know.” He shook his head. “It’s either stone or air. I have to do some reading on this one. I’m still not entirely brushed up on this technocult.” He looked up. “I’ll give you a call when I figured it out, if you’re interested.”

I nodded. “Sure, why not. Your readings always seem to bring something to light.”

“That’s the magic of it.” He grinned. “People look for meaning, and you’ll find meaning in anything, even in the babble of a technocult.”

I glanced at my display and winced at the time. “Well, I better be off, then.” I turned to leave, but an artifact on the shelf to Erik’s right caught my eye. “What’s that?” I lifted my hand to point at it.

“What?” He turned and looked where I was pointing. “This?” He grabbed the artifact, a propulsive weapon with a design on the handle similar to the dagger I had salvaged. I nodded as he set it on the counter for my inspection.

“It’s a skarpathian war arm, a weapon for rituals and ceremonies.” He watched me as I picked it up and turned it over for a closer inspection. “Why do you ask?”

“What’s the skarpathian deal?” I wondered if the dagger Mischa had stolen off with was worth more than I had thought.

“It’s a death cult, worshiping life, but death more so. Lot of ritual scarring, some sacrifices.” He glanced around the shop. “I have a bit more of stuff, but it’s in the back. Want me to go get some more pieces?”

I set the war arm back on the counter. “Nah, that’s okay.”

He took the weapon and returned it to its place on the shelf. When he turned back to me, his expression was one of concern. “Why are you asking, Lee?”

I tried to shrug him off. “It just looked like something I’ve seen before, that’s all.”

“The skarpathians are no one to fuck with. Their clerics have these nasty animals, like a bird. Their talons will rip a man to pieces in a second. You get on their bad side, you might end up on the wrong side of one of their rituals, know what I mean?”

I bit the inside of my lip, debating whether or not to tell Erik about the dagger. His dark eyes bored into me and I caved. “I found a dagger on my last salvage. Looked a lot like that.”

“Look, I only have the war arm because I did a favor for a skarpathian cleric once. But you have one of those without permission, you’re in trouble.” He pursed his lips. “Where is it now?”

“It’s in my bag.” I sighed. “Mischa has it.”

“Mischa?” He rubbed a hand across his jaw. “So she’s the one who nicked it?” I nodded and he laughed. “That woman doesn’t know how to let things alone. When I let her lay low at my place when she was wanted by the Borough, she nicked a couple of my best pieces.”

“You let her stay at your place?” I quirked an eyebrow. “For how long?”

“Long enough for her to run off with a full bag.”

“Did you and she. . .” I trailed off when he crossed his arms over his wide chest.

“Yeah? And what if we did?”

“You and Mischa? Really?” I shook my head.

“What?” He glowered at me. “You don’t think I have it in me?”

“No, Erik. I just thought you knew better.” I chuckled. “I mean, me get duped by her, sure. But you? You’ve hustled with the best of them.”

He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. “Well, when it involves the right lady, sometimes a man forgets.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” A thought burst into my mind. “And speaking of ladies, I’ve got one waiting for me.”

“Don’t keep ‘em waiting, then.” He waved me off. “I’ll let you know if I can puzzle out this reading.”

“Thanks!” I called out over my shoulder as I rushed out the door. I walked at a brisk pace down the street, my shoulders bowed from the cold.

Shims was waiting in front of my building, stamping her feet and rubbing her hands together for warmth. When she saw me coming, her face transformed into a visage of rage. “Lee, what’s been keeping you? I buzzed you nearly a half hour ago. First you ask me out here as a favor, then you keep me waiting in the cold?” She picked up a large case at her feet and moved closer to the door. Muttering apologies under my breath, I pressed my hand to the scanner at the door and turned my face to the camera. The door unlocked and I ushered her inside.

She grumbled behind me as I led the way to my apartment, and I kept silent. I knew she would brush off any excuses I had to offer, but soon enough she would run out of steam. The door to my room unlocked when I placed my hand on the knob and I let her in.

“God, Lee, could you at least clean the place up before having company over?” she said.

My floor was littered with clothing, and empty food containers and stacks of paper covered the table next to the small cookery. The walls sloughed sealant and paint, which hung in strips in the best places, and at worst showered the floor with a dusting of paint flecks at the slightest draft. I hurried to clear a space on the table, kicking the clothing to a pile in the corner of the room. Shims set the case on the floor next to the table and straightened up with a deep breath. “All right. What have you got?”

I dumped the food containers into the sink and returned to where she stood. I reached into my pockets, withdrawing the rocks and then placing them on the table.

She leaned over the rocks. “Where did you get these?”

“Salvage. They weren’t labeled, just in the crew quarters on a shelf. Someone else told me it might be a geode or something.” I stood back, giving her space. She did not like to be crowded while she worked.

She did not seem to hear the answer and reached for her case, pulling out a few instruments which she laid out on the table. She tapped one of the rocks with the tip of an instrument, putting her ear close to listen. “Well, it’s not hollow and just from the outside structure, I really doubt that it’s a geode. This exterior formation, I’ve never quite seen anything like it.” Grabbing another instrument, she reached out a hand to pick up the rock. When she touched the stone’s surface, she let go and looked up to meet my eye. “Lee, it’s warm. Almost hot.”

I shrugged. “Well, I kept them in my coat all day, so I think I was warming them up a touch.”

She shook her head. “No, Lee, it’s hot.” She grabbed my hand and touched my skin to a rock. The stone did feel uncomfortably warm. Warmer than when I had set them on the table.

I shook my head as took my hand away. “That’s really weird.”

She picked up a scanner of some kind and pointed it at the rocks. Peering at the readings, she said in a tentative voice, “I don’t think these are rocks.”

“If they’re not rocks, what are they?”

Quietly, she studied the readings closer. Then she said, “Well, I can’t be sure, but I think they’re alive.”

I was about to ask her what she meant by that when my front door exploded inwards, knocking Shims and me to the ground. I felt the room spinning as I scrambled to my knees and I reached out to steady myself. Looking up at where my door used to be, I saw Mischa strut into the room, her red hair fanning out behind her. She had two large mercs with her, a man and a woman with twin scowls that could scour the rust off a knife.

“Heya, Lee,” she said, a smirk smeared across her lips.

I felt the anger rising in me again, but I fought it down. “Mischa, why couldn’t you just buzz me like everyone else? Dammit, you know I don’t have the money to fix that.”

She turned to look at the splintered remnants of the door and lifted a hand to her lips in mock horror. “Whoops.”

I stumbled to my feet, extending a hand to help Shims to hers. “What are you doing here?” The room was spinning less, but I gripped the table with my other hand for balance.

She walked slowly towards me. In one hand, she held a gun and as I watched she thumbed the setting down from explosive rounds to standard. “You’ve got something I want. Been told it’ll be worth a bit to the right people.” She glanced around the room casually, her eyes lighting up when she saw the rocks on the table.

“Mischa,” I said. I had to keep her occupied while I cast around for ideas. “You already have my bag. You’re gonna take a poor man’s rocks too?”

She laughed. “Poor’s right. I had to throw that bag in the trash. Bunch of junk. I kinda felt sorry for you.”

The anger bubbled up again and I let it rise. “Mischa, this is your last chance. You don’t want to do this.”

She shook her head. “Sorry, Lee. But I’m not afraid of you.” She glanced at the mercs, jerking her head in my direction. “Grab the stones.”

I shoved Shims in the direction of my bedroom as I reached my hand under the table and ripped my gun from its hiding spot. One of the mercs saw my movement and raised a weapon, but I shot him in the shoulder. The other dove forwards, grabbing Mischa and pulling her back into the safety of the hallway. I got off another couple shots before she was gone, but I only hit the wall opposite my door. Shims staggered into the bedroom and she slammed the door behind her.

I pounded on the door. “Shims, let me in!”

“No way, Lee!” Her voice was muffled behind the thick wood. “This is your shootout. I’m not dying for you today. Or any other day for that matter.”

“Dammit, Shims!” I snarled, but a round impacting the wall just over my head made me look for cover. I knocked my table over and took cover behind it. The wood replica splintered and cracked around my head and I cursed myself for not paying extra for a sturdier real wood table. I rolled my eyes at the thought. Now was not the time to think about money.

“Mischa, c’mon. We don’t have to shoot this out.” I called out over the top of the table as I checked my gun. Full, minus the few rounds I had shot off. Good.

I saw one of the rocks to the side of the table. They had fallen when I knocked the table over for cover. “Shit,” I growled under my breath and reached for the rock. A round grazed my hand and I withdrew it back to relative safety behind the table. I clutched my hand to my stomach. Through all the blood, I saw the round had taken some skin with it. My hand felt like it was on fire and I bit my lip. Dropping my gun, I grabbed a shirt from the floor and used my good hand to tie the cloth around the wound.

As I pulled the cloth tight, I glanced back over at the rock. I had knocked it onto its other side, revealing a long, thin red crack running through it. In frustration, I knocked my head back against the table behind me. “Shit.” They would probably be worthless now.

“Lee, we’re coming in for the rocks.” Mischa’s voice drifted in from the hallway and over the table. “You stay where you are and you’ll live through this.”

“I’d say ‘over my dead body’ here but it sounds like that’s what you’re gunning for,” I yelled back.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Lee. You’re all right.”

“Trying to soften me up again?” I moved into a crouch behind the table and grabbed my gun. “It’s not going to work this time.”

My words were met with silence. Were they in the room? Had they left?

I raised my voice, getting ready to move from behind the table. “You do this, Mischa, and I will hunt you down.”

“Lee, stay down. Don’t be stupider than you already are.” Her voice was closer now. They must be in the room.

I rolled out from the cover of the table to the side without the rock, hoping they would assume I would go for the stones. I saw the two mercs in the room, looking for the rocks among my scattered clothing. Mischa stood in the empty doorframe. She saw me immediately, but I was faster and took aim at the mercs. I fired, hitting the man in the thigh, but all my other shots went wide. I had never been the best marksman, and the pain was beginning to make me see double. I foolishly reached out to push myself up to my feet and my wounded hand met the floor hard. I yelped from the pain.

The woman merc jumped on top of me. She stomped down hard on my hand and I cried out again. The world began to go black. “Shims,” I gasped. “A little help.”

“No, no. You got this, Lee.” I had to strain to hear her muted voice. “Just shoot them or something.”

“I’m gonna kill him.” It was the man. He was standing over me, a gun pointed at my face. I tried to raise my gun, but they knocked it easily from my hand.

“No,” Mischa snapped. “Leave him. Just find the rocks.” The woman merc moved away, scanning the floor for the stones.

“Leave him?” Using his good leg’s large booted foot, the merc began to step down on my throat. “That’s easy for you to say. He didn’t shoot you. Twice.”

A sudden scream pierced my ears. The merc looked up and leapt away. Freed of his heavy boot, I sucked in a sweet, easy breath and rolled back behind the table. The gun was next to me and I picked it up. Clutching the weapon close to my chest, I began to wonder whether the rocks were worth my life.

Another scream from the other side of the table sliced through the room. I moved into a crouch, and then stretched up to peer over the edge of the table. One of the mercs, the woman, was down on the ground with a large blackish-blue thing attached to her face. It was shredding her flesh with talons on its feet. Blood streamed down her neck and chest. Its mouth attacked her eyes: it was eating her eyeballs. The merc was unrecognizable under the carnage and she gurgled through the blood.

One arm hanging limp from the shot to his shoulder, the other merc used one hand to grab for its long, whip-like tail. He screamed when his hand came in contact with the thing’s scales, which sliced his flesh like razors. His hand came away looking like something that would hang in a butcher’s window.

Meanwhile Mischa was nowhere to be seen. I was not surprised. She had always possessed a knack for saving her own skin.

I ducked my head back behind the overturned table and tried to stay quiet. I listened to the gurgling and thrashing, and then gunshots. But the struggle continued louder than before. As I did my best to stay low, I glanced over at the other side of the table. I was thinking about reaching for the stone when it rocked back and forth on the floor.

I froze.

The red crack in its surface widened and the rock began to split open. A thing identical to what I had seen mauling the woman’s face began to worm and twist its way out of the rock. It had four limbs ending in large, vicious claws, and a long, sinewy neck with a face that seemed to be only made of teeth. I bit my lip so hard it began to bleed.

My wristpad display began buzzing. It was a call. The thing emerging from the rock swayed its head around on its long neck, seeming to search for the source of the noise. I fumbled at the display to terminate the incoming call.

“Lee? I have the results of that reading.”

I leaned close to the display and hissed, “Erik, now’s a bad time. Again.”

“What did I say earlier about that?” He waved his finger at me in the video feed. “Anyway, that reading. It is elemental, but a mix. Stone and air. I don’t quite get it.”

It was fully out of the rock now. It stretched leisurely, like a cat, then raised its head into the air, sniffing. A large pair of leathery wings unfolded from its back.

Everything clicked.

I glanced back at the display. “Erik, those skarpathians. You said they had birds or something?”

He nodded. “Yeah, rockbirds. They’re vicious, nasty. Truebred killers.”

I felt my stomach lurch. “And how do you kill one?”

“Pretty hard to kill, actually.” He paused, then his voice sharpened. “Why are you asking?”

I watched the thing, the rockbird. It turned towards where the mercs were on the other side of the table and leapt out of sight. I heard it impact flesh, but thankfully the screaming and gurgling had stopped.

“‘Cause I’m pretty sure I’ve got two of them right here.”

His face paled. “Lee, who hatched them?”

“Hatched them?” I did not care how they had hatched. I wanted to know how to kill them.

“Yes, who heated them?” His tone was urgent.

“Well, I carried them around all day in my coat. They were kind of warm from that—”

Erik heaved a sigh of relief. “Then you’re safe. They’ll have fed and imprinted on your heat signature. No wonder your biometrics were so out of whack. Just be careful with them around other people. They’ll take direction from you. Kill anyone threatening you.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “This is bad either way. But at least you’re not gonna die.”

I heard a chattering from the table above me and looked up to see the two things perched on the edge of the table. They looked down at me with bloodstained faces and chirruped again. I stopped breathing for a moment. “I don’t know about that,” I whispered and terminated the call.

They stared at me, looking me up and down with empty black eyes. Their long talons gouged into the table, slicing through it with ease. They hopped onto the floor in front of me and stretched out on long legs, their wings outspread with a soft flutter. Their bellies bulged with their recent feeding and they stank of blood. I gagged at the memory of what I had seen done to the woman.

They began to preen, using long, sinuous tongues to carefully lick the blood from their scales. They made quick work of the mess and their scales soon glittered like a thousand dark gems. Once satisfied, the rockbirds slinked closer until they were practically touching me, then they each curled up into balls on either side of me. To the untrained eye, they might look like rocks again, but I could see their sides moving subtly and listening closely I could hear a barely audible trilling as they breathed.

“Lee?” Shims’ muffled words came from the other room. “You alive out there?”

I struggled to find my voice. “Uh, you might not want to come out yet,” I said as I stared at the monsters I had hatched and tried to absorb the last few minutes.

My valuable rocks had somehow become fiendish killing machines. Instead of the crystalline core of a geode, they had hearts of pure wanton slaughter. I tried to imagine what my life would be like with such creatures at my side. It would be bloody. I did not even know if Shims could safely leave the other room without the rockbirds seeing her as a threat and turning on her, tearing her to pieces. I doubted the little beasts could be tamed.

I realized that Mischa must have planned to sell the rockbirds to one of the local gangs or companies or even the Borough itself. The government would have uses for such creatures. They were the perfect weapon: iron enforcers without guilt or conscience. I looked at the beasts as they slept, blissfully unaware of their own power. And now they were mine to direct. The thought made my blood run cold and my wounded hand began aching anew.

Fate had dealt me a losing hand with this one. And, worst of all, as the creatures slumbered next to me cleansed of the blood and viscera that was evidence of their nature, I was starting to think they were kind of cute.

“Well,” I whispered to the baby butchers at my side, “you’re sure gonna complicate things.”

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