By the time I got back to the grungy little apartment I called home, it was well after nightfall. My feet ached. My busted lip, courtesy of Zeen's bodyguard, was swelling up. My head still hurt from where I'd hit it against the furnace chute and I was sure there would be a nasty bruise.
Easing the door open, I crept into the kitchen as quietly as I could, hoping my late arrival would go unnoticed.
No such luck.
"Where the hell have you been?"
Mom's gravelly voice startled me. I squinted in the dim interior of the kitchen where she sat at the table, a Chuppiwi cigarette—cheap and smelling like dirt—dangling between her fingers, cherry red ember glaring like an eye in the dark.
"Well?" Mom prompted, quickly growing impatient when I didn't respond right away.
"Trouble in the market."
Not exactly a lie, though not exactly the truth either. Then again, I was a cheat, a gambler, a thief. It was only natural that lying wouldn't be too far behind on my list of transgressions.
"Palisade?" Mom grunted. "Or pick-pockets?"
"Guards took down Zeen Markle's den. There were more of them than usual and I had to come home the long way around so I didn't attract attention."
That, at least, was more truth than lie. She didn't need to know that I was at Zeen's den and I was the one who called the guards down on him. Of course, I wanted to claim credit for the victory but that would require explaining how I came to be anywhere near Zeen's den. I might be able to worm my way out of more than few tight spots but that would be a little too tight for my comfort.
Mom stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray beside her on the table.
"Good riddance," she said. "That little sucker has been bleeding Belters dry for years. It's about time he got what was coming to him."
She jerked her chin at my pack.
"Did you get the food like I told you to?" she said. "Sure hope you were careful with our money and didn't throw it away on frivolous trinkets."
I gritted my teeth, swallowing the burn of an immediate reply that I knew would cause more trouble instead of helping my cause.
Before I could say anything, a hacking cough echoed from my parents' bedroom down the short, cramped hallway.
My dad's frail voice wavered in the dark as he called for my mom. He never slept the night through, coughing up blood, struggling to breathe.
Mom heaved a sigh and pushed herself to her feet. She brushed past me, cradling the stump of her left arm to her side.
Two years ago, Mom lost her arm to a virus that raged through the poor side of the Belt. Killed hundreds of people within days. It was just a Helioline fever—like an allergy to the sunlight—burning the skin from the inside out until the body was dehydrated and eventually crumpled up, a dried-out husk.
It happened all the time on planets like Cer'yeva with non-existent sanitation and not enough protection from the suns circling the planet. But protection cost money, and money was in short supply.
Unless you belonged to the Palisade, that is.
Helioline was easily cured enough…if you could pay thousands of sorins for one shot of antivirus.
Protection cost money. Medicine cost money. Living cost money. Pretty soon, even the air would be taxed until every breath came with a sorin sign attached to it. Can't pay? Well then you don't get to breathe.
At the time Mom got sick, we couldn't afford the antivirus. Dad had already been fired and couldn't work, couldn't even get out of bed most days. I was just a pick-pocket, snatching up a few sorins here and there, working day and night to get that medicine for Mom.
But it was never enough. Mom was forced to sweat out the fever on her own with no antivirus.
Somehow, she pulled through. Probably thanks to that Le Doux stubbornness raging in her veins. Although her arm withered and had to be amputated above the elbow. And no one would hire her after that. So it was up to me, a lowly thirteen year old with sticky fingers, to make sure my parents and I weren't thrown in prison for debt.
Mom opened the storage compartment over the solar oven and pulled out our only slug lamp. Electricity was a luxury those of us living in the Bullet Belt couldn't afford. Candles were a major fire hazard in the packed apartments stacked atop the other, thirty deep.
So cheaper alternatives had to be found.
That's where the Orion beetle pupae came in. Fat, squirming maggots that were pale yellow in color with two red heads and a sucker cup of a mouth for vacuuming their way through the dirt. Give them a poke, aggravate them until they're squirming mad and they secrete a green gel-like substance that glows for hours.
Not the best source of lighting, mind you, but it was better than fumbling around in the dark. They're toxic as hell and they stink worse than rotten onions but it wasn't as if we planned on eating the nasty buggers. We weren't that desperate. Yet.
Mom moved to the ice box where we kept the maggots in a pressurized container so they didn't escape. But with only one hand, she couldn't pry the lid off.
"Mom," I sighed. "Why aren't you wearing the arm I got you?"
Mom growled and thumped the container on the counter. She flung her hand towards the garbage where the cyborg arm was poking out of the bin.
"Piece of junk malfunctioned again."
"I spent weeks on this, Mom," I said, retrieving it from the trash. Disappointment sat like a cold lump in my chest that she had gotten rid of the arm so quickly.
"Well it doesn't work," Mom countered. "It's useless."
Mom wasn't looking at me. She was jabbing a chopstick in the slug lamp with such ferocity she had probably gone far beyond annoying the little maggots trapped at the bottom. I wouldn't be surprised if she was killing them.
I fiddled with the cyborg arm, pried a small panel aside to get at the wires.
Cyborg parts were for the wealthy. They required maintenance and money to keep in good working condition. I had put this arm together myself from parts I'd collected—stolen—and in a way, I suppose I saw it as my penance.
Even after all this time, I was still trying to apologize to Mom for being unable to get her that antivirus she needed. She had depended on me and I had let her down. I'd been struggling to make it up to her ever since, even though I knew it was a fruitless effort.
The strap of my pack, heavy with dominions, bit into my shoulder as I twisted wires together, tapped at circuits to test if they were fizzing with living electricity or flat and dead.
I could buy a top of the line cyborg arm for my mom now with the money I'd grabbed today.
But what would that accomplish?
It wasn't like Mom could wear a shiny new cyborg arm around the Belt. Guards would have her arrested in a heartbeat. They wouldn't even interrogate her, let alone bother with a trial. They'd execute her right away since she couldn't possibly afford cyborg tech. The only reasonable conclusion they would reach was that she took it.
A circuit sparked and snapped to life. The arm twitched then went limp. I picked it up, gave it a shake. Something loose rattled inside and the arm tightened, fingers flexing.
"That should keep it running for a while," I said, holding out the arm.
"Tulin," Dad called again.
Mom huffed and pushed the arm aside. She shoved the slug lamp at me. Surprisingly, the maggots weren't dead. But they were writhing in enough stinking glow gel to illuminate every dark corner of the room.
"Go check on your father," Mom said. "I've been watching him all day. It's about time you started pulling your weight around here."
Life hadn't been kind to any of us.
Not to Dad, wheezing through his wrecked lungs.
Not to Mom, pieces of her body cut off in order to stay alive.
And not to me, pushed into factory work that would kill me before I reached adulthood. Instead, risking my life every minute of every day to steal right out from under Palisade guards' noses in order to put food in our mouths and a roof over our heads.
Anger flared searing hot before I could keep it in check. I dumped the rejected cyborg arm and slug lamp on the counter.
I dug around in my pack and came up with two packages of dehydrated sand bread, shoved them at Mom.
"What do you call that?" I said. "Worthless?"
Mom's jaw twitched.
"Or how about this?"
I fished out more food—calcified locust cubes, spark buns, and Hudan thao—tossed it on the counter. None of it was stolen. I could take pride in that at least. It might be paid for with stolen sorins but in my opinion, it was about time the Palisade started spreading their wealth around these parts of the universe.
Mom's expression remained flat, unaffected.
"Watch your mouth when you speak to me, Sinon," she growled in warning. "Do you expect me to be proud of you for bringing this home? For stealing it?"
"I didn't steal it."
Mom waved me off. "Oh, that's right. You gamble instead of getting a decent job like your father did, like I did."
I blinked, startled. I never told her that I quit the factory years ago. I never told her that I had turned thief.
Mom snorted at my surprise. "I'm not blind. You come home and you're not choking on soot or moon dust like everyone else. You get twice as much food than what other workers are rationed."
She grabbed a box of Hudan thao.
"Hudan food of any kind would cost you two weeks' worth of pay if you had stayed in that factory. And yet somehow you have enough left over to pay the rent at the end of the month."
"Then why aren't you happy about it?" I shot back.
"Because it will get you killed!"
"It's better than dying in a factory or a mine like Dad was."
Faster than I thought Mom could move, she slapped me. My cheek prickled but I curled my fingers into fists at my sides, refusing to let her see me break.
It hurt. It hurt a thousand times worse than the backhand I had received from Zeen Markle's bodyguard that had me spitting blood on the floor.
Mom's slap wouldn't even leave a bruise. But there would be a scar all the same.
"Don't ever," Mom said in a dangerously low voice, "demean what your father has done for us."
"It's the truth. If the Palisade would just—"
"Stop. These walls are paper thin, Sinon. You know that. There are rats everywhere. Gambling and stealing is one thing. If you're reported for slander of the Palisade, you'll incriminate your father and I by association alone. Your father won't survive prison."
He won't survive the year, I thought but didn't say. My cheek was still on fire from Mom's slap. I had no desire to earn myself a second one.
"I tried, you know," I said, my voice carefully measured and controlled. "I tried to stick with the factory work. It was killing me. This whole place is killing me." My throat went tight and my voice wobbled. I paused, swallowed hard then added, barely above a whisper, "But you don't care."
"Sinon," Mom said, firmly as if she was fed up with my nonsense. "I'd rather see you die by the time you're twenty in a factory or a mine than watch you executed by the Palisade."
My breath punched out of me in a rush. Those weren't my only two options—death by exhaustion, poverty, and virtual enslavement—or death by Palisade execution. It couldn't be.
This wasn't living. This wasn't even surviving. It was only fear, hunger, and suffocation. Waiting to die.
Mom turned her back on me. Silent.
Silence was never good. If she yelled at me, I could yell in return. I was always up for a good fight.
But I couldn't stand silence. There was nothing to fight. Just emptiness.
"Tulin," Dad rasped again. "Need…water."
Mom started moving automatically. She retrieved a cup from the cabinet, a pitcher of water from the ice box.
She didn't look at me. As she passed me on her way to the bedroom, her gaze remained straight ahead. Despite the incredibly tight space of the kitchen, she angled herself to the side so she didn't even accidentally touch my shoulder.
The conversation was over.
I waited until Mom entered her room and the indistinct voices of my parents began talking before I spun around and headed to my own room. I flung my pack on the floor, braced my hands on either side of the sink of my hydrostand.
Then the shaking started and I couldn't stop as the adrenaline from the past few hours drained out of me all at once.
I splashed water on my face, ignoring the faint metallic stench of it. Cer'yeva water wasn't the cleanest and had to be recycled multiple times no matter where it came from—sewers mostly. Although it wasn't like anyone could fix the problem.
That would cost money, I thought bitterly.
I raised my head, shoulders bowed, arms trembling slightly, and met my gaze in the mirror.
My short dark hair—cut haphazard and choppy around my chin—clung to my damp face. Dark highlights of purple in my hair caught the blue and white lights from the starship lanes outside my window, a constant buzzing hum in the background.
Cer'yevans prided themselves on the rich purple that touched their eyes, their fingernails, their hair—appearing stronger in some, while others exhibited nothing more than a watered-down dusky lavender hue.
But the colors were fading as sanitary conditions grew worse, proper health and nutrition spiraled, food was rationed to a level that couldn't even keep a child alive, let alone a grown being.
Dad had lost all of his hair after he was fired from the mines. The only purple markings that remained on him now—delicate streaks of his veins—had turned to grey now.
Mom had eyes the color of Ice Manna plums, so purple they were almost black. Now her eyes merely looked dark, shadowed with worried.
And simmering with rage. Rage quickly unleashed on anyone who dared to get within spitting distance.
Maybe Mom was right. Maybe I really had no choice in the matter. I wasn't going to live a long life, no matter what path I decided on.
Cer'yeva was dying.
And its people were going down with it.