The dropship thunders into the troposphere, leaving sickly yellow chemtrails in its wake and rattling the transparisteel ceiling above me.
My gaze wanders back to the smartly dressed Withholder behind the safety glass, drumming his fingers on the counter.
“You’re sure?” he asks. “Just double companion-class rations?”
I open my mouth to reply, but the dropship fires its atmospheric brakes with a heavy boom that reverberates uncomfortably in my chest. I nod instead, mouthing “cat.”
As the rumbling subsides, the Withholder slides two polychromatic packages across the counter.
“Thanks.” I tuck them under my arm and scratch at an imagined itch in my stubble. “I have extra for myself this cycle, so–”
I shoot him a glare before I turn, but he either doesn’t see it or gets enough of them that it doesn’t register.
It’s not that I don’t understand his situation. The line stands six deep behind me, and each of the fifty or so other lines in the building are at least as long. Closer to the great arched door on the other side of the structure, the queues devolve into a single, amorphous crowd. Hundreds of hushed conversations meld into a general murmur that echoes all around as I jostle and bump my way toward the exit, packages held tight against my side.
Outside the dispensary, a short staircase leads down to the marketplace, where stalls jam every inch of the cracked and crumbling concrete. Vendors hawk offworld delicacies, antiquated consumer electronics, and gray market tech. The whole place smells vaguely of sulfur, as much from the dropship’s passing as the combination of exotic spices emanating from the innumerable food stalls.
I’m only a few steps down when a fallow-skinned alien slinks up next to me, speaking in the garbled, upside-down language most of the exos use. She offers a sultry smile and winks the middle pair of her six obsidian eyes to make sure I understand what she’s selling.
She’s attractive enough, so I reply with two of the four words every exo on Earth understands.
The skin along her cranial ridge ripples and she starts chattering at me faster than even a trained interpreter could follow. I raise my hands, taking care not to let the rations drop from under my arm.
“Okay, okay, just asking.” She seems to take my meaning and trails off. I use the other two words I know she’ll understand. “How much?”
She glances at the packages under my arm.
“No thanks,” I mutter, brushing past her. She hurls a few curses at me in a confused slurry of English and exo. I pick up my pace, and her cries quickly fade into the general din of the marketplace.
The stalls gradually give way to abandoned mid-rises as I make my way home.
Slouching inward toward the street, the dilapidated buildings have changed little in the years since the initial orbital bombardment. Chunks of masonry, steel, and concrete litter the parts of the street not occupied by gaping craters.
My own building is missing a crescent-shaped piece along its top, obliterated by a superheated orb of plasma that tore clear through our floor and into the foundation of the building across the street.
Marijah and I had watched it collapse through our kitchen window. She’d started to slide not long after.
I get so wrapped up in the memory that I nearly miss the Enforcement prowler parked along the curb and the oversize sergeant leaning against it, looking right at me.
At least, I assume he is — I have no idea what the display inside his bug-eyed mask is actually showing him. He’s humanoid, and looks big enough to rip me in half without much trouble, but his overcoat makes it tough to tell for sure.
Not that there’s likely to be anything under it besides muscle, anger, and maybe a piece in case he gets bored with his fists. Enforcers’ personal shields obviate the need for body armor: they can stop almost anything short of a howitzer, though the resulting energetic discharge plays hell with most electronics, so they generally leave their masks unshielded.
Although unsettling, his presence is not unexpected, considering they enforce everything from curfew to exo registration infractions.
The distant rumble of a dropship vibrates within my chest. It’s just enough to conceal the gentle, scuffing footsteps approaching from behind me until it’s nearly too late. I spin to face my would-be attacker, hand dropping instinctively to my side and grasping for my .38. My fingers find nothing but air — Marijah used it last, and it’s still up in the apartment — and I trip over my own feet.
Jabbing needles of pain radiate out from the trick plate in the small of my back as my ass collides with the concrete. Once my thoughts clear, I recognize the goat-faced girl in front of me.
“Nydelle,” I groan. Going up the stairs is going to be hell now. “You know you’re a bit too good at that, right?”
She gives a quick nod of her head. The long, knotted braids hanging beneath her fuzzy chin sway with the motion. Her eyes are little sapphires nearly hidden between her low brow and high cheeks. She’s got them scrunched up as if in apology, but the corners of her mouth – her snout? I’ve never asked what she prefers – are pulled back in a mischievous little smile. A healthy mane of what looks like blond hair hangs past her shoulders.
She reaches for me but I wave her hand away, sucking in a huge breath before slowly — painfully — getting back to my feet. Then I realize the rations are still on the ground.
“Shit,” I mutter. “Can you grab those for me?”
She dutifully picks the packages up, stacking them like cafeteria trays, and glances at me for her next instruction. Whether my young neighbor is an adopted exo or a mutated human, her mother won’t say. But every once in a while she’ll touch my cheek – she always seems to know just when to do it – and everything seems a little more bearable. Only for an hour or two, but that’s usually enough to keep me going until I come to my senses.
“Come on. Let’s get inside.”
She nods agreeably, and as we walk toward the door, I cast one more look at the prowler.
The vehicle is still there, but the Enforcer is gone.
We only have to stop twice on our way up the stairs.
The first time, Nydelle plops down next to me, waiting patiently for my grumbling to subside. She manipulates the ration packs so they reflect the emergency lights, casting dim rainbows on the stairwell’s concrete walls.
They crinkle in her hands, the sound drifting down into the deep darkness of the sub-basement to mingle with the wet coughs and rat-a-tat hacks of the unseen squatters below.
Our apartments are on the top floor, where the reek of damp cardboard and stale sweat isn’t as powerful. This makes it all the more frustrating when I have to sit again, just at the edge of the stench.
As I work my fingers against my lower back, Nydelle quirks a brow and drags a finger over her chest, outlining a shield.
“I saw. What about him?”
She pantomimes binoculars around her eyes, then points at herself.
“Don’t be ridiculous. What makes you think he’s looking for you?”
She squeezes the ration packs tight against herself and shrugs, tapping her foot impatiently. The abyss swallows this sound as well.
“Yeah, yeah. I want to get back upstairs, too. Let me just–”
I break off, flinching away as Nydelle reaches for my cheek. “Not right now.” It comes out harsher than I mean it to. The kid’s tougher than she looks, but I try to soften it anyway. “Please.”
Frustration flashes across her caprine features, but she steps back to give me room. I grip the railing behind me and push up, my back popping audibly in the process.
It’s not long before we make our final stop, the landing with a faded red “7” painted next to its rusting door. I hold it open for Nydelle, then step through.
The sky starts halfway down the hall, blood orange and tarnished gold from the setting sun. A gust of wind crosses the opening at the end of our hallway with a low, ghostly moan as a ruined starship inches up over the horizon. Its bulbous form is one of many hulking epigraphs frozen in low orbit, a testament to our once grand fleet’s final, futile defense of Earth.
We make our way down a carpet that’s equal parts pattern and stain, past doors marked CONDEMNED and others blackened by fire.
I step over a small ripple in the carpet, stopping outside 713. “End of the line for me.”
She shoves the packages into my hands. As I fumble with them, she reaches up and touches my cheek. A static spark stings my skin, and suddenly the gold outside seems a little richer, the orange more fire than blood.
She’s back in her mother’s apartment by the time I realize she’s gone.
Paschal is waiting for me on the other side of the dry-rotted door. I leave it cracked and head to the kitchen, careful not to step on the orange tabby as he winds his way between my legs — not that there’s far to walk.
Thanks to Nydelle’s touch, the apartment’s little indignities — peeling wallpaper, an oppressive stench of industrial cleaner, the knuckle-bustingly shallow sink in the kitchen — don’t have their usual bite. But the one thing she can’t dress up is the closed bedroom door.
Paschal nudges my hand with his head as I bend to pick up his food bowl, then watches intently as I empty the packages into it. Not a moment after I put it back down, he’s crunching away. I rummage through the coldbox, then dump the last containers of potable water into a variety of bowls and set them down near the food.
It’s less than I’d hoped, but water rations don’t come out until next Tuesday, and I’m tired of waiting around.
I take a few steps and fall into my recliner. Its springs creak in protest, but it holds together.
My old badge and service revolver are on the tray table where I left them. I pick up the badge first, running my fingers over its smoothed letters, thinking about Nydelle and the shield she drew on her chest. I pin the badge to the same spot on my ratty overcoat.
The .38’s worn wooden grip feels almost unfamiliar in my hand. The last time I’d held it for more than a few moments was years ago, after Marijah borrowed it. I’d had to retrieve it from the bedroom before the Reclaimers arrived; they would have had more questions about the gun than her body.
As alien as the grip feels, the steel is cool and reassuring against my temple. The little ridges on the hammer bite into my thumb as I cock the weapon. Hidden mechanisms within the frame emit a chorus of clicks and clanks as the cylinder cycles.
I’d expected to be thinking of Marijah when the time came, but all I can picture is Nydelle’s reaction when she finds out what I’ve done.
It looks a lot like mine when I found Marijah.
My stomach churns at the thought as Paschal munches obliviously on his food somewhere out of sight. Little bastard.
My finger wavers over the trigger for a moment, and I decock the pistol.
Time passes as I stare at the gun in my lap, unsure whether I’m relieved or disappointed. Then I hear footsteps in the hallway.
Not the light, scuffling scurry of Nydelle’s feet, but a plodding, thudding march that could only belong to one person.
I turn in my recliner and peek over the backrest. There’s nothing to see yet in the sliver of hallway visible through the opening, but now I can hear his labored breathing, amplified by whatever device the mask uses to project his speech.
Suddenly I don’t feel so lousy about my own trip up the stairs.
I shove the snubnose into my coat pocket just as he passes the opening. I duck down behind my headrest just in case, but he either doesn’t notice me or doesn’t care, proceeding onward down the hall. An inactive energy weapon hangs at his side, nearly hidden inside his meaty fist.
A moment later, he pounds on the door to Nydelle’s apartment.
“Enforcement.” The mask modulates his voice into an oily, disorienting basso. “Open the door.”
I slide off the recliner and move to my doorway, keeping my grip tight on the pistol in my coat pocket. He slams his fist against Nydelle’s door again, and I slip out of my apartment and into the hallway.
As my left shoe contacts the carpet, I realize I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do. The thought distracts me just enough that I forget about the ripple. My right shoe catches it, and I overcompensate for the sudden loss of balance by taking a giant step forward, bringing my foot back down. Hard.
The Enforcer turns, but the weapon remains at his side.
“Detective.” For a moment I’m not sure what he’s talking about, then I remember the badge pinned to my chest and stand up a little straighter. “In recognition of your previous service, I’ll warn you once: return to your residence. My business is with the unregistered exo and her enabler.”
His clemency throws me off. Maybe that’s what he wants. I try to swallow, but my mouth is dry. I’m squeezing the .38 in my pocket so tight that the little bumps on its grip are digging into my palm.
“No can do.”
He doesn’t reply. Instead, he activates his weapon with a casual flick of his thumb, casting an unsteady aquamarine glow throughout the hallway.
A dropship booms in the distance.
His arm blurs and a blinding flash fills the hallway. Instinct takes over. I raise my arm, cocking my revolver in the same action. My free hand instinctively seeks the vague heat growing in my abdomen as my vision clears.
The snubnose barks. His body shield absorbs the round with a discharge of energy that makes my hair stand on end.
His weapon sputters and goes dark.
I thumb the hammer and fire again.
A clipped screech of radio feedback tears through the ringing in my ears as the bullet obliterates the comm device at the front of the Enforcer’s mask. His head twists as if he’s been slapped. Blood spatters across the wall.
But he’s still standing.
He faces me again, sparks leaping from his mouthpiece. A red stain spreads along his cheek.
I force back a gag as the metallic tang of gun smoke blends with the scent of burnt flesh. My fingers trace along the cauterized edge of a baseball-sized hole in my gut.
I work the hammer again, but my knees are quivering, and my next shot goes wide.
The Enforcer is upon me before I realize he’s moving. He slams me to the ground and I howl as the trick plate in my back breaks free. The snubnose thuds onto the carpet. He pounds his fists into my chest, each punch eliciting wet pops and snaps from my ribcage.
All the pain somehow condenses into one grand numbness. Everything feels so distant that I don’t even know if I’m still screaming.
Despite the darkness filling the edges of my vision, I can make out a small figure hurrying towards us.
Nydelle puts a palm on either side of the Enforcer’s head. He’s so preoccupied with beating me to death that it takes him a second to realize what’s happening.
That’s all she needs.
Nydelle’s eyes flash the blood orange of the setting sun, then she releases the Enforcer and scampers away.
He struggles to his feet, turning to face her as pink froth foams out around his shattered mouthpiece. Red stains appear under his mask’s bug eyes. He takes two unsteady steps and sinks to his knees, then falls to his side. He does not move again.
Nydelle’s beside me almost instantly.
“Let me guess,” I wheeze. “You didn’t know you could do that.”
The mischievous smile from earlier returns.
“Works for me.” I manage a smile of my own. “Take good care of Paschal, yeah?”
She nods, the braids under her chin dancing once again, then reaches for my face. A crackle of static stings my cheek, and I can hear Marijah calling me home.