Skies of Sand and Steel

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The floating Chrome City is always hot, but today it was scorching. Wrapped in roasting heat, the sun cooked the bleached boardwalk to a crisp. Giant hydraulic fans mounted to cafés, restaurants, and shops spun frantically to fight off the ceaseless heatwave, drawing customers with the promise of ice-cold drinks.

I strolled over to the railing and let the breeze wipe sweat from my face with cool fingers. The wasteland stretched out below, a shifting blanket of golden sand with razorback ridges of black rock and abandoned ruins, sculpted into rough shapes by dust storms. If it was sweltering hundreds of meters above ground, I didn’t even want to know what it was like down there.

I’d turned fourteen today, and was permitted to travel outside of Chrome City. Uncle had business over in Atrium City, and he’d timed it so I could come with him. His airship was probably at the docks now, being prepped for the long flight. He dealt in chemical fuels and gases, mined from the core. It was the source of energy for the cities, powering the quantum particles that kept The Free Cities levitating above the desert.

I trooped down a flight of coiling stairs, passing the fairgrounds set up along the esplanade. Squinting in the distance I could see my uncle’s hulking airship. It was a monster of a machine, all sleek engines, razor sharp air fins and chugging propellers, all finely honed and polished to perfection.

It dwarfed the rest of the dirigibles, made them look pitiful and frail. Robert Keeran was never one to hold back. No doubt he had to make himself look good for the Chieftains of Atrium City. They could get cheaper fuels from other buyers if they wanted.

I halted at the edge of the dock, waiting for the pathway to be cleared of shipments. A loud hiss sounded in the dark alleyway. The teeth-grinding scrape of metal against stone. I inched along, the weathered brick cool against my back. Two men were rolling a metal cylinder along and sweating from the effort. Dappled light caught their faces and I recognized Kage and Saul, Uncle’s most recent employees. No doubt this cylinder was pumped full of gases and fuel for the trip. I was about to speak up but I stopped. They swung open a side door, rolling out an identical cylinder. They heaved the original cylinder inside and shut the door up again.

Kage spat in the gravel. “How many more of these?” he panted.

“‘Bout half a dozen more,” Saul wheezed, lungs probably rotted from years of smoking.

The back of my neck turned cold. What was this? Why were they replacing the cylinders?

This really didn’t seem like the place to be. I stepped backwards and knocked into a stack of rickety boxes, sending them crashing to the ground. I tried to get away but tripped and they were on me like vultures.

“Who the hell is this?” Kage shoved me against the wall, face twisted in a snarl.

“Isn’t that Ruben?” Saul croaked. “Robert’s nephew?”

Kage squinted, the back of my skull grinding against brick. “By God, yes he is. How did—”

“Hey! You there!” We all turned toward the alleyway. A man in a crisp suit stood there, like some saintly guardian angel. “Whatever are you doing?”

“Stay out of it old man!” Kage spat. I squirmed in his iron grip, using my elbow to crack him across the face. His hold loosened and I wrenched free, tried to speak, but a wet pfft cut me off. The man blinked. Red blossomed on his shirt. Smoke coiled from the silenced revolver in Saul’s hand. I stood anchored to the spot. Unable to move, unable to breathe. The man rolled on his back, a glistening lake pooling around him.

“This could have been so simple.” Saul almost sounded disappointed. “He’s not going to be happy.” Taking no care to be gentle he gripped my head in his hands and slammed it against the wall.

I was aware of a deep, rumbling sensation that inched up my spine, rattling my bones. My mouth was coated with sawdust, throat parched. My head stung and throbbed, probing white-hot spikes into my brain. With an effort I peeled my eyes open.

I found myself umped in a seat. The broad straps of a shoulder harness secured me down, restraints around my wrists and ankles. I shifted and they only tightened against me as a reflex, crushing me into the seat. I could not move an inch.

Another jolt shook my frame. My molars squeezed together. I gazed around, my eyes adjusting to the gloom. Judging by the interior and the roaring engine, it seemed to be some sort of vehicle. Were we flying? In a ship? I realized hours must have passed. Uncle must have departed already! I struggled again but it was like being set in concrete.

“Ah. The runt’s came too.” There’s nothing like decades of cigarettes blasting into your face to get you alert. Up close, Saul’s face looked like it had been carved with a hatchet. A blunt one. Rheumy eyes gazed back. “You’re one hell of a pest. You know that?”

They’d killed a man as easily as lighting one of those cigarettes. I tried not to sound terrified. I didn’t succeed. “Where are you taking me?”

Kage’s voice floated down. “Something’s flashing red. I need you back here.” Saul grunted and moved out of my field of vision.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. Cold panic started to crawl through my guts and I had to stamp it back down. This wouldn’t help. I could only try and gain the upper hand and I’d start by finding out where we were headed.

There wasn’t much to go on in here. The interior was filthy, identical seats with seatbelts dangling like guts stapled to rust-brown walls. Strobe lights flickered and spluttered above me. Thick, discolored cables spilled out of the hatch like worms. Judging by the interior we had to be on some sort of ship.

The air began to heat up. A river of sweat ran down my chest and back, the air thick as soup. We were approaching the surface. Waves of fear and excitement washed over me. I was finally going down there. But what were they going to do to me? If they wanted to kill me they’d have done it already.

We flew for hours before the engine seemed to wind down, the ship circling around for a slow descent. The landing shook the ship like dice in a cup, bouncing my head against the back wall. Warm blood seeped into my mouth. They stalked over my way, bickering as usual. Saul pocketed what I presumed to be the engine keycard and stabbed a button on the side. My restraints popped free. I tried to make a break for it but Saul hooked meaty fingers around my throat. “Run and I’ll break your neck. Your choice.”

The fight slipped out of me.

He hustled me forward. The rusty gears screamed as the hatch clanked open. Harsh light flooded in. Three figures stood on the golden sand, swaddled in tattered cowls that snapped like sails in the hot wind. They wore harnesses, the broad leather straps crisscrossing their chest with a wide buckle in the middle. But it was the oiled carbines clasped in their hands that truly worried me.

On closer inspection I saw that two of the figures had skin that was almost a dark green, leathery like crocodiles. I’d heard about this sort of thing—people dabbling in body modification, pumping foreign DNA into their bloodstream. I thought it was just a rumor. I was wrong.

The leader tugged his cowl down to reveal a wrinkled face tortured to a dark tan throughout the years. His watery gray eyes were chips of slate. “This is him?” His voice was deep and rich without an accent.

“Indeed it is,” said Kage.

His eyes narrowed. He leaned forward like he was doing a uniform inspection. “He’s just a boy.” His voice had turned brittle. “You never mentioned his age.”

“You agreed on forty thousand credits.” Kage spat. “You said—”

“I never agreed to pay for this,” he replied, low and quiet. I shivered despite the blazing heat. I’d done the math. It was clear what was going on.

I was being sold.

“This is the deal we made. This—”

It happened so fast. The carbines cracked, deafening in the cramped interior. Saul and Kage lay dead, red dribbled on the sand around them. The two figures lowered their carbines, gazing at me with dead eyes.

The leader just shook his head. “I’m sorry, boy. This is the way it must be.”

It was then that I knew I was well and truly screwed.

They led me out of the ship and out onto the desert. It was a rolling stretch of gold, speckled with dry shrubs and red tufts of grass. Mammoth cliffs of ebony stone loomed above, threatening to topple over and crush us. The sand boiled beneath my feet, the air thick and muggy.

It was so tempting to run. To just get the hell of out here. But it was pointless. There was nowhere to go and I’d never survive out there.

A large cart with peeling paint was parked next to a waterhole. Makeshift chairs were welded at the front and back, a metal rail in the middle. A harness was draped over the rail, identical to the ones they wore. They prodded me to put it on. As I did I noticed the number stitched into the broad shoulder strap. I would have asked them what it was for, but I doubted I’d get an answer.

They restrained me again, hands bound to the sides, then huddled in the front, the vehicle revving up with a splutter of charcoal smoke. The cart kicked forward, spraying sand as it swerved around a hulking rock and rolled down to the open desert.

Then I saw it.

Chrome City—a giant metropolis floating in the sky. Gleaming towers of all colors yawned upwards, spires cloaked in shreds of clouds. Elevators scooted up and down mile-tall buildings. Planes, ships and dirigibles flanked the docks in orbit, giant rotor blades spinning as they sought out a landing spot.

My home. I’d waited all my life to leave it. Now I knew I have to get back there or die trying.

The cart bounced over rocks, splashed through muddy steams and climbed over scrapheaps, metal crunching underneath. My wrists were chafed raw from the rope and my back hounded me with aches and pains. By the time the cart had skidded to a halt it was dusk, the sun a blood-orange globe sliced in half by the horizon. We arrived at some sort of camp made up of makeshift houses, sheds, and tents. The thick veil of darkness hid the finer details. They unstrapped me from the cart and led me to the nearest of these sheds. They kept the carbine focused on me at all times—as if there was anywhere I could go.

One of them punched the code on a door and flung it open to reveal gaping darkness inside. They shoved me in, sprawling in the dust. The door closed and encased me inside like a tomb.

Alone.

“Well, well,” said a voice. “They’ve found a new one.”

I probably should have been afraid but I’d lost the ability to feel surprised today. A lamp spurted to life, the buttery glow peeling away the blackness. A young woman’s hand was on the switch, the light shining on her ebony skin. She had to be around seventeen or so. Maybe sixteen, maybe younger. Her smug expression wilted away as she pinned me with dark eyes.

“What in the hell?” she whispered. “They brought a kid!”

She wasn’t the only one in the room—there were at least four other people there, all keeping to themselves in the corners. One of them spat into the sand. The man next to him just stared.

“Don’t mind Burk,” she said. “He hates everyone.” She nodded toward the silent one. “You can talk to this guy, but he’s not going to say much. The Sandies cut out his tongue for trying to escape.”

“Sandies?” I asked.

“That’s what we call them.”

My insides turned sour and my vision blurred at the edges. “Where are we?”

A man with pale skin gave a low chuckle, turning toward me with eyes drained of hope. “We’re in hell, boy.”

The girl rolled her eyes. “Always the pessimist, eh, Kaidan?” She turned back. “It’s late. Get some rest. You’re gonna need it.”

For what? The words swelled and died on my tongue. She flipped the switch and I breathed in the pure, sweltering darkness. I lay down, and roots and pebbles dug into my spine as I tried to get some sleep.

The night lumbered away between blinks. The door scraped open and cruel light poured in, stabbing me in the eyes. Everyone scrabbled to their feet as the men from yesterday strolled in.

Sprawled across the hills were half a dozen identical sheds, two partially chewed away by rust. Dikes towered toward the left, offering glimpses of shade. A winding path led down to some sort of courtyard, filled with people. Numerous elongated poles stretched out, studded with metal rings. I had it on good authority we’d be spending the day there. And I was right. We were hustled forward, shackled by fetters around our wrists.

I was sandwiched between Burk and the mysterious girl, standing there like an idiot. Already I felt the heat, the chemicals and humidity coiling around my throat and tightening. Making friends would probably be a good idea. Burk was almost daring me to try and talk to him, so I turned to the girl. I realized I didn’t know her name. I told her mine and asked for hers, only half expecting an answer.

“Ashby,” she said, tossing black hair away from her face. She shook her shackled wrists. “Don’t ask me to shake hands, though.”

At least one of us maintained a sense of humor. “What’s happening?” I asked as more people were led from the sheds and cuffed to the poles. Others were strolling through, staring at us with a nasty sort of curiosity. “What do they want with us?”

A slanted smile curved on her lips. “Haven’t figured it out yet? They’re buying us to work in their quarry mines.”

Quarry mines? That wasn’t possible. That was Uncle’s region of work, and he didn’t ever use labor, certainly not forced labor. I’d seen the network of gigantic pipes and thousands of drones that farmed minerals and chemical. He had competitors, sure. But using people? It was unheard of.

I looked down at the number stitched into my harness. Now it made sense. I wasn’t a person anymore. A number. A figure. Ready to be traded and sold.

Something inside my head clicked into position and it all make sense. That chemical cylinder Saul and Kage had been swapping around, trying to disguise it as part of Uncle’s stock. There could only be one reason why they were doing that: they were planning to sabotage his business. No doubt he was already on his way to Atrium City, ready to hand over the barrels.

For the first time, I stopped worrying about myself and about what exactly was in that cylinder.

I had to get out of there.

But there was nothing I could do now but stand there in chains and bake under the sun. Buyers drew near to inspect us with callous scrutiny. A gust of wind spiraled across the courtyard, spraying grit that scratched at my eyes.

A buyer seemed to be in an argument with one of the Sandies. The man was jabbing at Ashby while the Sandie listened slowly and replied. The buyer twisted his lips and stalked away.

“What was that about?” I asked.

Ashby grinned. “I’m hard to get rid of. I’ve had a bad reputation since the last owner returned me.”

This would be interesting. “And why was that?”

“Might be because I bit his finger off, but I can’t be certain.”

A stupid grin curved on my face. I was starting to like her. Having her on my side could only be a good idea.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Alloy City,” she muttered. “It was late and I was drunk. Got cornered in an alley. The bastards conked me on the head and I woke up down here. What’s your sob story?”

I opened my mouth to speak, but a Sandie silenced me off with a shut the hell up look. Best not to piss them off. Close to midday the man without a tongue was purchased, leaving the four of us still standing. I’d expected there to be many more buyers here, but they obviously had to keep it quiet. It was crazy, having all this activity down here in the desert, right under the public’s nose. Did anyone actually know about this place, and had their silence bought?

The thought terrified me.

Lunch was peppery soup with bread and suspicious chunks of fatty meat. I told Ashby my story in low whispers: how I’d been ready to depart for Atrium City with my Uncle. What I’d seen. How I’d been kidnapped and handed over to the Sandies.

“And you’re Robert Keeran’s son?” she whispered.

“Nephew,” I corrected.

She wore a sly half-smile. “It’s your uncle who keeps The Free Cities afloat. And now you’re down here.”

“Indeed.” I snuck a glimpse at the Sandies. “I think I should tell them who I am . . .”

All traces of humor melted from Ashby’s face. “Don’t even think about it. They’ll sell you to a competitor who’ll use you against your uncle. Or hold you for ransom and send a finger along for proof.”

“I’m not staying here.”

“No.” Ashby turned silent, gritty wind rustling her hair. “We’ll talk afterwards. Can’t risk it now.”

The rest of the day dragged by. Sandies prodded around, repairing broken machinery and shifting crates of equipment. We were led back to the shed, bowls of soup pressed in our hands. I was already getting sick of the stuff, but I wasn’t in any position to complain. I looked at Ashby, but she shook her head, nodding slightly toward the rest of the group. Wait until they sleep.

Soon the slits of light trickling through the shed’s holes grew dimmer, blackness swallowing up the room. Ashby lay down next to me. “Don’t speak,” she whispered in my ear, her breath cool on my neck. “Just listen. There’s a way out of here, but it couldn’t be done. At least not until you came along.” I resisted the urge to ask questions and just listened. “The foundations for these sheds are built on solid rock. But in the left corner near your head is a small dip filled with sand. I’ve been digging away at it for months. But it’s too small for me to get through. But maybe you can.”

“Then what?” I asked as quietly as I could manage it.

“There’s an access code for the shed. I’ve memorized it. Punch it in and we’ll go. Then—”

“You’ll what?” A knot of tension twisted in my gut as the switch flipped in a burst of light. Kaidan stood there, eyes pinning us down. “You’re days away from any of the Cities. That’s if you even know where to go.”

Ashby tensed up next to me. “What do you care?”

He chuckled again. “You think I like it down here? I have a wife and three daughters in Atrium City.” His gaze swerved over to me. “I know who you are. You’re Keeran’s nephew, aren’t you?”

Well, this was getting interesting. “How—”

“I’ve travelled.” He squatted down to our level. “I used to work for someone called Jake Chakvar. He took your uncle’s success as a personal insult. He planned to sabotage his stock, stripping your uncle of his title and stepping up with his own supplies to sell to The Free Cities.”

Of course. Saul’s words loomed in my head. He’s not going to be happy. It all made sense now. “You knew how he mined his chemicals.” It wasn’t a question.

“I suspected,” muttered Kaidan. “I kept asking and it put him on edge. Then he asked me to take sabotaged cylinders and disguise them as your uncle’s. My refusal landed me here.” This time his chuckle was devoid of humor. “Rather fitting, no?”

“If you’ve got a plan, I’d like to know about it,” I said.

“That I do. Get me out of here and I can take you where you need to go. Before I worked for Chakvar I was a scouter, finding the quickest routes across the desert.”

“Then what’s the best route?”

“We’re closest to Titanium City. But unless you know how to get across a chasm we ain’t going that way. Atrium City is the next best bet.”

“That’s close to a week away!” Ashby tutted.

“Not if we fly.” The words shot out of my mouth. “They brought me here in an air vehicle. If we can get to that, it’s a straight flight.”

Kaidan chewed his cracked lips. “And where is this ship of yours?”

I thought for a moment. “Near a giant cliff of black rock.”

Kaidan nodded. “I know it. We’ll need to head back in Chrome City’s direction.”

Ashby seemed to be seizing him up. “Are you sure this’ll work?”

Kaidan scoffed. “You’re welcome to stay here if you like.”

“Try and make me.”

Gray light started to poke through the shed. Was it daylight already?

There was a shuffling in the corner. Burk came forward, the light tracing his scars. I’d forgotten all about him. “I’m coming too,” he rasped in a voice like quiet thunder. It wasn’t a suggestion.

The day seemed to stretch out with every painstaking second. The sun threw scalding heat down, enjoying every moment it had in the sky. We thought we’d gotten in the clear, but then a man with tousled blond hair bought Burk at the last moment. It was the end of the day and the Sandies were happy to make a bargain. There was nothing I could do as Burk was tugged away, off to his life of slavery. The last broken look on his face made something inside me crack.

For how long had people been doing this? How many hundreds of people had been lost down here?

The three of us were led back to the shed. “Wait for a few hours,” Ashby cautioned. “Then we move.”

This wait was probably even worse than the one outside. I lay motionless on the sand with Ashby next to me, hardly daring to breathe. After what seemed like a few hours, she nudged me. It was time to go. I almost wanted to stay here beside her, but that was out of the question.

“Don’t turn on the light,” Ashby warned. “They’ll see it.” She started clawing in the sand, grit spraying in our hair and revealing a crevice between the rock and the rim of the shed, moonlight lapping over the edge.

“How’d you manage to dig that with us in here?” Kaidan murmured.

“You’re heavy sleepers.” She tugged at my arm. “It’s your turn now.”

The size of the opening made my gut twist. I had no idea it would be this small. But it was too late. I pressed myself on the ground as low as I dared. Still not enough. Stone and metal grinded against my flesh, sandwiched between both sides. I clamped my teeth together and wriggled forward. My head popped clear. Then my shoulders. Something warm and wet snaked down my ribs. Blood, it had to be.

Keep going. Keep going. I kept inching forward, stomping down on the pain, even when I felt several layers of skin peeled from my back. I twisted my head to the side and my heart gave a cold jolt. A Sandie was stalking uphill. A few more seconds and he’d see me.

I clawed forward, bottled a scream and kept going, kept pushing. I tucked my legs out and rolled away, hugging the rock for cover, heart in my mouth.

If he’d catch me now it would be all over.

He strolled past. I let out a lungful of air as he turned the corner. Blood snaked down my legs, but there was no time to worry about that now.

I punched in the code for the shed door and it abruptly swung open, leaving me facing Ashby. She sliced past, eyes wide. I spun to see a Sandie standing there, knife in hand and gaping. He opened his mouth but Ashby reached him first, tearing the knife away and clamping her hand around his mouth. There was a wet, red gurgle as she opened his throat.

As we dragged him into the shed, Kaidan fumbled around in his clothes and drew out a sawn-off shotgun, loaded with a single shell. “This should be useful,” he muttered, tucking it away.

“Let’s go,” I urged, shaking from a toxic combination of fear and adrenaline that was gushing through my bloodstream. “We’ve been here too long already.”

“What about the others?” Kaidan asked.

“Can’t risk it. Let’s help them by reaching help.”

I didn’t like it, but she was right. We stole down the dunes, out onto the open desert: a sea of sand and rocks. “You’re the expert,” she said to Kaidan. “Where to?”

The man didn’t even blink. “Follow me.”

We ran into the night without looking back.

We continued running through the night, the unwrapped sky of blue velvet and countless stars staring down on us. Running out here was a nightmare, the ground studded with withered thorny grass, jagged red rocks and other nasties. It was like treading on broken glass. I’d have given anything for a pair of shoes. The heat was somehow worse out there, coating our skin with slick sweat that served as glue for the sand.

We came to a tiny well with some water remaining at the bottom. It was lukewarm and I only got a mouthful of the stale stuff, but right then it tasted like the sweetest honey.

The dust storm was the worst of it, countless sand shards taking small bites from our flesh. We took shelter overnight in a small cave, huddling together. If they were looking for us out there, it brought a smile to my face to know they’d likely been caught in the storm as well.

“How much further?” I asked Kaidan the next day as we trekked along the edge of a cliff, dust devils swirling in the distance.

“Not long,” Kaidan said, panting. He pointed over the horizon. “You see that?” I squinted, shielding my eyes from the sun. Over in the distance was a thick chunk of black stone, a dark mass sparkling under the sun. It’s just over that. It’s—”

“Wait.” Twin plumes of dust and smoke were streaking across the plane. This couldn’t be good. It didn’t take long to pick them out as two carts, each with two Sandies.

Oh hell.

We took off, scrambling through a bed of jagged rocks. I hoped they wouldn’t follow us for fear of puncturing a wheel, but we had no such luck. I ignored the stabbing pain of millions of spikes being driven into my soles, hobbling along as fast as I could. Still, not fast enough. It was the silver glint in the corner of my eye that saved me. I pitched myself to the side as the polished blade sliced over me with a whistle, nearly shearing my head from my neck. But in their momentum they lost control of the cart, the useless wheels fumbling for a grip as they skidded toward the cliff. The vehicle flipped over like a toy, tumbling over the edge in a spray of sand. Two screams echoed in the valley and they were gone.

I caught up with the others. The second cart was making wide loopy circles around us, plotting their move. They weren’t going to fall for the same trick again. The tortured engine screamed and they came charging down.

Kaidan unhooked his gun, got into a crouching position. “Don’t move.”

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I said, but I stayed rooted to the spot. We had zero chance on the open road.

Silence. Kaidan readied the gun, finger poised above the trigger. “Wait for it,” he murmured. The Sandies were so close now I could see the sweat on their brows. “Wait for it . . .”

The gun coughed, a devastating crack that almost blew my ear drums out. The Sandies jerked, the car maintaining its speed and bowling Kaidan into the dust. The cart continued across the plane, slowing to a crawl and finally halting.

I tried not to look at Kaidan, his body crushed under the weight of the wheels. We approached the cart, cautious. The Sandies were dead, chests speckled with buckshot. We pushed them out and Ashby started the engine. “You coming or not?”

I took one last look at the man I barely knew, the man who’d given his life for mine, before hopping in the car.

The aircraft was exactly where it should have been. It had only been a few days since I was last here and already it felt like a lifetime ago. The bodies of Saul and Kage had turned a repulsive brown, withered like overripe fruit. I’ve smelt some awful stuff in my time, but this didn’t even compare.

“Where are the keys?’ Ashby demanded from the cockpit. I blinked, trying to remember. Saul had slid them into his pocket . . .

Oh.

No turning back now. I did my best to pinch my nostrils together, but it wasn’t enough to block out the stench of festering flesh. I dug through his pockets, my fingers brushed against metal. I tugged the card out and breathed a sigh of relief. It was here.

The dashboard sucked up the card and booted up, the engine groaning in complaint.

“Have you flown one of these before?” I asked.

She smiled. “No. But I’m sure there’s someone else around here who has.”

“Fair point.”

The desert was deceptively peaceful from up here in the cockpit, like a carpet of golden silk. No wonder people were ignorant of the horrors that went on below, the hundreds of lost souls damned to a life of slavery.

“I never got to thank you,” Ashby shouted. I turned to her, surprised at the sudden conversation. “You saved us both. I’ll never forget that.”

I nodded and smiled, content to remain silent.

We swerved towards Atrium City. It was similar in shape to Chrome City, only much bigger. And grander. With proud, gleaming buildings, polished docks, and bustling airspace, it was like a jewel hanging high above the desert. No doubt we’d be conspicuous, half naked and smeared in grime, but it was too late now.

The radio crackled. “You are approaching Atrium City. Please provide your ship number, name, and business before proceeding to landing.”

I tried to reply but Ashby beat me to it. “Listen here buddy, I’ve got Robert Keeran’s nephew on board. If he finds out you’ve turned him away he’ll have your arse on a silver platter.”

I half cringed, half smiled. A long pause stretched out. “Is Ruben really on board?”

“Yes,” I replied, making no effort to hide my relief. “It’s me.”

“Where have you been? Your uncle has been looking for you.” Another pause, longer this time. “You’re cleared for landing in dock D8. Your uncle is up on the pavilion overlooking the deck.”

“Thank you.” Ashby guided the aircraft to the corresponding dock, setting it down with a jolt that rattled my teeth. She shrugged by way of an apology and undid the hatch. We burst out, startling the cluster of people gathered on the dock. I ignored their horrified gasps, feet slapping against hot marble steps that spiraled up to the pavilion. I flung the ornate doors open with a crash. A dozen angry faces twisted toward me. A man with thinning hair stamped forward, fists clenched.

“How dare—”

“Ruben?” Dressed in a dark suit, my uncle came rushing toward me, embracing me in a crushing hold. “Where have you been?”

“It’s a long story,” I said, watching the pale man carefully. All of a sudden he looked very worried. Time for a shot in the dark. “Something to do with Chakvar here.”

He paled. Bullseye. He stepped in, wringing his hands. “This is absurd. This—”

“Hold your tongue.” My uncle’s voice was iron. “I’ll hear what my nephew has to say.” He looked behind me toward Ashby. “And who is this?”

By now Chakvar had gone white as milk. “You! You!”

Ashby’s face twisted into a sly grin. “Surprised, you son of a bitch?”

My uncle motioned to his men, standing silently in the corner. “Escort Mr. Chakvar into the next room. I’d have words with my nephew.” He glanced at the other formally dressed patrons, all standing there in bewilderment. I guessed they were the buyers. “You too, please.”

The look on Chakvar’s face was priceless. He knew the nails had been well and truly buried in his coffin.

But I couldn’t resist adding one final nail in as he was led away.

“Kaidan sends his regards.”

Hours later, scrubbed of filth and reclining on overstuffed pillows, I could finally relax. I had a good view of the desert, the sun slowly sinking down beyond the horizon. Uncle had men searching frantically for me, both on Chrome and Atrium City. But none of them thought to look down in the desert. Uncle went pale when I told him what was going on down there, immediately sending out his men to investigate the camp and search out the quarry mines. But for me, it was all over.

Ashby was lounging next to me, her black hair flowing down in silky strands as she sipped a tall glass of iced tea. I wanted to speak, but I couldn’t find the words. Suddenly I found her hand in mine. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “Thank you.”

I shook my head. “You’re the one who did the saving.”

She laughed, flashing teeth white as bone. “I suppose we saved each other, then.”

I smiled and squeezed her hand all the tighter. “I—”

Suddenly the doors flew open. Uncle strode in, brow shiny with sweat. He sat down and let out a lungful of air. “We found the slave camps,” he said. “The Sandies were quick to point the finger at Chakvar. It won’t be long before we get hold of the quarries. The cylinders they planted contained toxic gas. We were minutes away from making the exchange. Would have placed dozens of dead people at my feet if you hadn’t come along.” He sighed deeply, wiping his brow. “I wish it hadn’t had to happen this way. I wish you hadn’t needed to go through this, Ruben. I’m so, so sorry.”

I folded my pale fingers between Ashby’s rich dark ones and smiled. Uncle seemed to notice us for the first time. “Some good came out of it,” I said.

end article

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Jeremy Szal

About Jeremy Szal

Born in 1995, Jeremy Szal is a Writers of the Future finalist and the author of more than forty publications. His fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in venues such as Nature, Abyss & Apex, Perihelion magazine, and his nonfiction has appeared multiple times in Strange Horizons, Grimdark Magazine, and Fantasy Scroll.