A shining, prosperous city of glass and chrome gleams under the harsh light of the midday sun. It is massive, and dominates the landscape for miles. It is completely surrounded by desert—a long, flat, dusty land of heat and dirt that extends far beyond the eye can see. Far away, farther away than one could walk without collapsing of thirst, a person would look around himself and see nothing except desert and that city, shining in the distance, a beacon of hope and civilization.
In the city itself, it is just a regular Monday. The general mood of Marinth is quiet and resigned, just like the people within. People come and people go, in business suits mostly, using small hovercrafts to fly to their mechanized office windows 150 stories up which open to receive them. It is calm. It is drudgery. Nothing is out of the ordinary.
And then, a sonic boom.
Glass shatters. Windows shake. People rock back and forth in their office chairs, catch their balance on the sidewalks, and stare up with horrified looks upon their faces at the madness above.
Said madness is a ship. Small in size, unimpressive in nature: a little clunker of an airship, too tiny for anyone to take seriously. That is, if one hadn't taken notice of the large device unceremoniously strapped to the tiny ship's back. It's white and chrome, a new-and-shiny contrast to the oil-stained, twenty years outdated airship. It's a device designed to propel ships. It was in fact so new that it hadn't even been released yet, so owning, much less using, it was quite illegal. It had been recently stolen—uh, appropriated—by a pair of jailbreakers who were currently in desperate escape mode.
The tiny ship propels its way through the city streets, under bridges, over smaller buildings, as fast as it's possible for an old piece of junk to go. Inside, its pilot impatiently pushes back a mass of brown hair covering her eyes with her one free hand; the other grips the steering wheel. "I need to cut this shit off," she says, half to herself.
"What?" demands her companion from the other side of the cockpit.
"Nothing! It's not important."
"I heard shit. Is something wrong?"
"Nothing is wrong." She cuts through a park, too close to the ground for comfort, and just barely misses a throng of screaming businesspeople.
"Oh, no no no no no. It's never nothing with you. What is it?"
"I said it's nothing! It really is, I swear to the gods! Now shut the fuck up and let me drive! Actually, don't talk to me at all unless it's life-or-death important." All of this was said through gritted teeth as the pilot maneuvered her way through a complex series of overpasses.
"Is it the baby? You can tell me if it's the baby," insists her companion. "I can help. I've got training in—"
"NOTHING IS WRONG! SHUT UP, NICK!" The ship is too close to the ground. A person splats against the front window, and slowly, with a rather sickening noise, slides off, leaving a large trail of blood. "Shit! Shit shit shit! I just killed someone because of you. Congrats!"
"What? It's not my fault!" says Nick indignantly. "You're the pilot! If you're going to start blaming me for everything—"
"Your job is to be looking at the monitor to see if anyone's following us," spits the pilot, eyes glued to the path ahead. "My job is to get us out of this stupid city. I'm doing my job. When was the last time you did yours?"
His mouth open to deliver a retort, Nick glances at the monitor beside him. His mouth shuts instantly.
The reigning silence is worrisome to the pilot. "What? What's wrong?"
"Uh. Sorry, Lex. There's, uh, around eight of them."
"Eight of what?"
"Cops. Cop ships. Trailing directly behind with lights blazing."
"Shit. How long has this been going on? Do you know?"
"I, uh, haven't been watching. Sorry."
"Holy shit, Nick! Have they tagged us yet?"
"Don't know. I'll have to check when we land."
"If we ever get the chance to land." She checks a small screen beside the main window, on which there are several glowing gauges. "Fuel's good. We're almost out of here. Just pray they don't start shooting at us."
Nick frowns, stares at the monitor. "On that note, why haven't they started shooting at us yet?"
"Dunno. What are you asking me for?"
"We conned the mayor out of eighty thousand dollars, stole government property, and escaped from jail. We're dangerous fugitives. We even just killed someone, for gods' sakes!"
"That doesn't matter. We've done loads of crazy shit. They should have at least captured our frequency, taken the ship under government command, and brought us in already—and that scenario's under the assumption that they don't want to kill us, which they really, really should." He scowls. "It's almost like they're just going through the motions—playing cat and mouse with us. Letting us escape."
Lex is facing away from Nick, so he can't see her face when he looks up at her. "Do you have any idea why they'd do that?"
She shrugs. "No clue."
Nick gives her an incredulous look. "You're lying. Why are you lying?"
"I don't have time to talk, Nick! I'm on the verge of escaping."
"What do you know about this?" he demands. "Why are they letting us escape?"
"I—I don't know. Why would I know? Quit being stupid and keep watching the monitor."
"Did you make a deal with someone? Tell me, Lex!"
"Why would it matter if I had?"
"Oh, my gods, you did."
"Well, so the fuck what? It's got us out of here, hasn't it? They're practically giving us a free pass! No shooting, no frequency attacks, no nothing. I got our asses a ticket out of here while you were lounging in the main hall flirting with the guards!"
"Well, who? Who did you make a deal with?"
Lex is silent.
"You'll find out."
"That's not good enough!" he shouts. "If it's a mobster or some other type who might shoot us as soon as looking at us, I have a right to know!"
"Just trust me."
Something in her voice convinces him. He shuts up, though he gives Lex's back an angry look before he gets back to checking the monitor.
"Still no attacks," he reports. "They're not even trying to do anything. Just sort of… tagging along."
"That's great. He really came through."
"Hold on. You'll meet him soon."
"Right. I'll contain my amazement."
The little ship is now at the city limits, just before chrome meets desert. And something strange happens behind.
"The cop ships… they're just giving up. Turning around and flying back."
"Good." Lex slows the ship's pace down to a crawl in an instant, jerking both her and Nick forward.
"Still an abrupt lander, I see," Nick remarks.
"We're not landing. Just hovering."
"Just hovering? Well, what's the point of escaping if we're not going to escape?"
"The escape isn't over yet. Just wait and see, okay?"
She presses a small red button, one of multitudes of similar items on the dashboard. Immediately, the side of the ship hisses and a door lowers and extends, creating a place to walk outside of the ship. Lex unstraps herself from her seat, lowers herself down, and winces as her feet touch the ground.
Immediately, Nick unstraps himself and hurries over to her. He's thin, brown-haired, and not very tall, and absolutely exudes a sense of panic at the moment. "Are you all right? Is the baby—"
"Fine, I think." She touches her belly, swollen to several times its normal size, protruding with pregnancy. "It kicked, so it must be fine, right?"
The question is an unsure one, and she looks to Nick with a bit of worry in her own freckled face.
"I don't know. That was a wild ride—I think perhaps we should get you to a doctor."
She barks a laugh. "A doctor. Right."
"Well, we should do something—we can't just—"
"Nick." She gives him a smile. "You have to remember you're not its father. Right? You with me?"
He removes his hand from its resting place on her shoulder and steps back, a model of restrained dignity. "Right. Sorry."
"No, listen, all I meant was that you shouldn't get so panicked over it. Over me. We're fine, okay? You don't need to fuss over us."
"In the meantime, there's something I have to deal with." And she steps to the open door, and walks out onto it. Nick follows her, and squints against the sudden glare of the sun.
Lex has hovered the ship right next to one of the last buildings that makes up the perimeter of the city. They're hovering right beside a large balcony, on which stands a single man in a dark suit, with dark hair, and a face permanently etched into a frown.
As Lex walks right up to the balcony, suspended by the extended door, the dark-suited man approaches. "You killed someone," he says grimly. "Do you know that?"
"It was an accident," says Lex, almost petulantly.
"That doesn't change the matter. It took all of my influence to keep those officers from capturing you after that."
"And I thank you for it." Lex has a manner with this man that Nick hasn't seen her take with anyone for a long time. It's respectful—at least, almost. And it implies a level of familiarity that Lex hasn't had with anyone but Nick for a long time.
"You're welcome." The man hesitates, then drops his formality. "You could have been killed, you know. I don't want you taking risks like this anymore. Not in your condition."
"Don't order me around. We had six nights together. We're not married, and you're not my boss." The respect and intimacy her tone had previously suggested are now gone, and she's snarky again, the way Nick knows her.
"Six nights," says the man, sounding almost amused, "were enough for you to feel comfortable calling in a life-or-death favor from me, and for me to feel comfortable agreeing. Were they not?"
"Yes," she says, "but that's mostly because of our little bun in the oven, isn't it."
Nick's mouth nearly drops open. To keep it from doing so, he strokes his chin in a contemplative sort of way.
"I'm the father of that child," says the man. "I want it to be safe. But while it's in your body, I hardly think I can guarantee its safety. Please, Alexis. Please stay here in Marinth. I can make sure you are safe here. At least until the baby is born."
"So that's all I am to you?" she asks, hand on her hip. "An incubator?"
"If you were merely an incubator, I would have told the police to capture you alive and let you rot in jail until our child was born. You're more than that to me."
"So," she says, musing, "you're asking me to stay, but not compelling me. Is that right?"
"I don't want to force you. But that is my child inside of you, and I would like it to be born safely."
"I'm leaving," she says. "Don't worry; you can visit our kid as much as you want as soon as it's born—I might even give you custody. But I can't stomach another minute in this place right now. I have to leave."
"Do the arrest warrants play a part in your hasty departure?" asks the man, a gleam in his eye. "As well as the fact that you just broke out of Marinth High Security Prison?"
"Well, I had a little help, didn't I? And yes, they do. I don't want to be a hunted woman."
"I can make all that go away," he insists. "I have influence everywhere in Yasohan. I don't enjoy being corrupt, but I can't deny that I have the power to make the police and the warrants go away. All of them. That is, if you want me to."
For the barest instant, Nick thinks Lex is tempted. It's something about the look in her eye, the tiniest bite of her lip. "So you'd corrupt yourself for me?"
"If that's what you want to call it."
The tempted look is gone as soon as it came. "Thanks, but no thanks. I want to get out of here."
The man steps back, looking all business again, and the barest bit disappointed. "Fine. I won't force you to stay."
"Good." She hesitates a moment, then ducks back into the ship quickly, without a word of goodbye. follows her instantly, and the door shuts behind him.
They strap themselves back into their seats without a word, though Nick is positively itching to interrogate Lex. Finally, they're in the air again, moving almost as fast as sound. And finally they've left the hideous chrome city behind and are in the open desert.
After one last check to make sure no police are following them, Lex slows the ship down with a sigh and puts it on autopilot. "Best to conserve fuel," she says, half to herself.
After a few minutes of silence, Nick can't take it any longer. "Well?"
"Are you ever going to explain who that was back there?"
"That," she says, "was the personal adviser to the President of Yasohan."
Nick doesn't stop his mouth from dropping open this time. "You're having the baby of the president's advisor?"
She nods, nonchalant. "Yup."
"'Yup'—? My gods, Lex! No wonder you wouldn't tell me who the father was! How the hell did that happen?"
"Uh, it's a long story."
Nick sits back in his chair. "So tell it. I'm ready to hear it."
"It was six months ago."
"Yeah, no shit."
"It was six months ago, when we first set up in the city and started scamming people. Money was rolling in, I was getting overconfident—you know, the classic downfall story. Only I didn't fall down, I fell up."
Nick's arms are crossed. "Do tell."
"So I'm in this nightclub. Super prestigious place, you know. Only the best of the best go there. And I'm scamming up a storm—"
"Wait, wait, wait. When was this, and why the hell wasn't I there?"
"Six months ago, and you weren't there because you were too busy sleeping with that security guard, whatshisface."
"I was not sleeping with—"
"Fine. What were you doing with him, then? A two-week bender?"
"It wasn't two weeks—ugh. None of your business. Keep telling your story."
"That's what I thought. Anyway, you weren't there and I was in this nightclub, pretending to be psychic, telling people's fortunes, doing cold readings, having a great time, rolling in the cash, and I happen to look out the window, and there's the president's advisor. Matthias Rold. Just walking by down the street. In the middle of the night. I mean, it was kind of odd, but I didn't care."
"How did you recognize him?"
A shrug. "I don't know. I mean, I don't watch a lot of TV, but I guess I saw his face somewhere. Anyway, I'm drunk, I'm stupid, and I'm thinking, there's the greatest scam of all time walking by the front door. So I lurch out of my seat, I lurch to the door, and I go outside, and I snag onto the side of his coat. And I say, 'Pick a card.'"
"Gods, Lex. It's a wonder you weren't arrested."
"I know. I was a complete and total mess. I have no idea what he saw in me. But he must have seen something. He comes inside, and he picks a card."
"And then a steamy night of sordid sex, right?"
"Not quite. He picks a card, I show my stuff, and he laughs a bit and then tries to leave without paying. So I tell him, 'You've got to pay up.' Drunkenly, of course. And he calmly says, 'I know your name, I know your game, and I am not giving away money to a con woman.'"
"Then you fell in love with his cool demeanor, right?"
"Nope. Then I threw up all over his silken suit."
"Yes." A grim smile. "Then I collapsed, dead drunk."
"It was a humiliating night, and I remember every second of it."
"So what in the gods' name led to you making a baby together, if it started that awfully?"
"No one at the nightclub knew who I was. I mean, I'd given them a fake name and all. Turned out the owners weren't so pleased with me soliciting on their premises, or whatever—as I learned the next time I tried to set up shop there, by the way. So they were closing up, and they were just going to steal all my money and leave me on the street till I woke up in the morning and learned a hard lesson. But Matthias didn't let that happen. He asked around for an hour, trying to find out who I belonged to. You, of course, weren't there—thanks a lot, by the way. So no one claimed me. I was pretty bad off—unconscious and all, out of my mind drunk. So once he's done asking, he decides he can't just leave me on the street. He takes me to his hotel…"
"Oh my gods!"
"…and puts me in a separate room, and pays for it himself. When I wake up in the morning I've slept in one of the finest beds in Marinth, and I've got a continental breakfast to boot. All paid for by Matthias. Gods only know why he did it."
"Out of the goodness of his heart?" suggests Nick dryly.
"Doubt it," says Lex, just as dry. "Anyway, I stumble out of the room, half-naked, dressing myself in the hallways, with a wicked hangover, trying to get out of there as fast as possible so no one notices me. And wouldn't you know it. I bump into him in the hallways. And we get to talking somehow, and I thank him profusely after learning that he actually didn't drug and rape me in the night, which is what I thought at the time. Somehow there's a spark. I don't know what made me do it, but I was back there the next night. We just talked. I learned he was in Marinth for a year, to oversee various city projects in the president's place. I don't know how it happened, we just hit it off." She shrugs. "I like him. I know we're not alike at all, and it probably has no chance of working out, but I like him. And he obviously likes me, what with how he stopped the cops for me today."
"So anyway, I like him, he likes me, and the next night after that comes the steamy sordid sex you've been dying to hear about. Six nights we spent together, and after that I decided to cut things off before it became too regular. And ever since I learned I was pregnant, we've been in regular contact."
She sighs. "Listen, I may be a con woman, but I'm not the type who just cuts the father out of my child's life. In fact, he's probably the better parent for the baby, which is why I kept in contact with him and kept him updated about my pregnancy. When the whole mayor thing came out and we got arrested, he was the only one I told. I was counting on the idea that he might be able to help with my escape plan, and I was right. He's the reason we got a hold of that sonic blaster—the reason we got our ship back. He bribed the prison guards to manually open the hatch doors for us when we came through after our escape."
"Lex," says Nick urgently, "you seem to have no idea how valuable this can be for us. You actually got the president's advisor to like you. The second most powerful man in Yasohan! And you're having his child! We can use this."
She looks troubled. "I don't really want to use this."
"I don't want to use him."
"What? You did today!"
"That was life or death. I don't ever want to do that again."
"Why not, though?"
"I don't know. I just—I just don't want to hurt him."
"Lex. Don't tell me you've gone soft."
"No, I haven't. And before you ask, no, I'm not in love with him."
Nick shrugs and turns back to his monitor, pretending to be disinterested. "Whatever. Just seems to me like you might be."
Finally, Nick breaks the silence. "Where are we going, anyway?"
"Nowhere, I guess. We don't have any delivery jobs, and we don't have anyone to con, and we can't go back to Marinth for around another twenty years or so. I guess we'll just… float around."
He peers suspiciously at her dashboard monitor. "Looks to me like you might have a message there."
She looks. "Oh, yeah. That must be what that giant letter icon means."
"Might be, might be."
She taps the screen, and up pops a wall of text. "Hmm. This was sent a month ago. Gods know if the offer's still open."
"Well, what does it say?"
"Someone requesting our courier services."
Nick snorts. "'Courier services'. That's a really fancy way of putting it."
Lex squinted at the words on the screen. "Hmm."
"This is pretty sketchy."
"Well, we deal in pretty sketchy. What does it say?"
"The person or persons don't name themselves. They want us to come to the town of Walshak and pick up a package to deliver to the town of Ralston. I've never even heard of Walshak. Or Ralston, to be honest."
Nick has already called up a map of the country on his monitor. "Uh… Walshak is on the other side of Yasohan. And Ralston is right next to the Dela Rxxa border."
"Ugh, great. A long trip."
"Yeah. They'd better be paying really well for our troubles."
"They're offering twenty thousand dollars for a completed job."
Nick's head shoots up. "What? Seriously?"
"Well, respond to it, for crying out loud! Tell them we'll take it!"
"On it." She types up a short message of confirmation and sends it.
"Gods know if the sender's even still around," remarked Nick. "But still. Twenty thousand dollars! That's not cheap."
"No. I hope they answer. Still, it could take weeks."
"I hope not."
Lex is interrupted by the beeping of her dashboard monitor. She turns to it, frowning. "What? Wh— Holy. They've already responded."
"Really? Poor bastards must just have been waiting by their monitor for us to respond for the past month. What does it say?"
"It's just one word. Affirmative."
"Affirmative? Then let's go."
I'm not the best writer. I'm an amateur, really. Constructive criticism and feedback are absolutely welcome (and necessary). If there's any way I can improve, any plot inconsistencies you notice, or anything that's unclear, please let me know. I welcome that sort of thing since I'm always stressing over whether I've got my own plot right. (: