Otherside Gigs, an excerpt by Sandy Maren

“Girl, you look beat.”  Abraham’s freckled hands paused their whittling, and his ice-colored eyes slow-danced over me.  “Where you been?”

“Doing my job.”

He pointed his knife at my boots.  “And sidetracking into sand country.”  He sniffed the air.  Bastard can pull facts out of vapor with those eyes and that sunburnt nose.  “Twenty miles out of your way, at least, yah?”

Twenty-two, but it wasn’t his business.  Abraham’s skill at vacuuming info out of everyone in range made him an excellent source of gigs.  But I’d learned to keep my guard up.  He used his slow drawl, rangy body, and you-command-all-my-attention manner the same way he used his whittling knife.

I said, “You got more work for me?”

“That I might.”  He sheathed his knife, pocketed the pale disk of wood he’d been shaping, and pulled up a holomap.  We were in his hole, a dim and dusty boarded-up storefront in Denver’s Maze.  When Homeworld raided the Maze again, as they did every few weeks, Abraham would relocate.

He flicked the map to the drop site on my last job and murmured, “Twenty miles.”

“Drop it, Abraham.”

He ran his finger north, pinpointing the tiny settlement I’d detoured to.

Nosy ass-pain.  “Show me the job.”

“You find news of her?”  Her being my mother, Celia Clement.

He shouldn’t have been able to link that settlement to Celia.  I’d learned only a week ago that she might have been there.

Alarm must have shown on my face.  He said, “You should trust me more, Anya.”

Trusting him on this would be dirt stupid.  “What do you know about her?”

He soothed the air with his long fingers, and added an extra scoop of drawl to his voice.  “I’m not her enemy.  Or yours.”

“What do you know about her?”

He quirked his lips, then swiped the map to the Borderlands west of us.  “You want this next gig?”

What I wanted was to dig an answer out of him with his own knife.

Rein it in, Anya.  I don’t remember my father’s face, but I remember him holding my five-year-old body back from a fight, speaking into my ear as rage burned in my chest.  Play nice while you figure out your smartest move.

I shoved my hands in my pockets.  “Yeah.  I want the gig.”

Abraham took me through the pickup and drop-off locations and payment terms.  Homeworld had been hacking private NavPads, so I memorized everything.  They can’t hack my brain.  Yet.

I paid his commission, and still no smart move had occurred to me.  The exhaustion of the last job swamped me.   The concrete floor sucked body heat, leaving my feet icy.  The February light, stone-faced outside a hole in the metal wall, added weight to my fatigue.  The veining at my temple throbbed, as it does when I’m tired or emotional.

Abraham’s eyes flicked to the veining—meaning its iridescence was probably intensifying—then rested on my face.

I tried to hold an unreadable expression.  I had no leverage on him, nothing to negotiate with.

His head tilted.  “You’re afraid for her.”  Surprise in his voice.  “After . . . ” he waved his hand to fill in for words, “you’re still loyal to her.”

It wasn’t a question, so I said nothing.  If it had been a question, I’m not sure what my answer would have been.  “What do you know about her?”

Abraham pulled out the wood he’d been whittling.  “You’re not the only one looking for her.”

“Homeworld?”

He shook his head.  “Bonewoman.  Came through three days ago.”  He flipped the pale disk of wood to me.  He’d carved a spiral pattern studded with glyphs I didn’t recognize.

“What’s this?”

“Tattoo on the bonewoman’s palms.”

“Thank you,” I said.

He fixed those ice-colored eyes on me.  “There’s still a few of us might owe Celia some loyalty.”

I left out the back.  My detour to the settlement had been a waste, and I’d run out of leads.  A bonewoman’s resources extended far beyond mine.  She could be a powerful ally.

Or she could be hunting Celia to exact justice.

I needed to find out who she was, so I donned imaginary armor and set up a meet with a person likely to know.

Lolo.  My baby sister.

Green growth crammed the herbalist’s shop and wafted a blend of smells—tangy, vegetal, sweet—that gave me a shot of wake-up.  I paid the man his fee and climbed the stairs to a tiny sound-proof room.  It smelled like onion sweat.

Lolo sashayed in ten minutes late.  My sister leads with her cleavage, follows through with swaying hips, then tosses in wavy black hair, lush painted lips, and spicy perfume.  Men, and plenty of women, have panted after her, gob-smacked, since she was twelve.

Doesn’t seem to give her much happiness.

I hadn’t seen her in six weeks.  I wanted to hug her, but she’s prickly about that.

 “You should’ve come home,” she said.  “It’s stupid to meet in this rathole.”

Nice to see you, too.  But that wasn’t fair.  She wanted me at Haven more; I avoided the place; it hurt her feelings.  “Thanks for coming.”

She shrugged.  “You need me, I’m here.”  She detoured around a plastic bag oozing green slime.  “But let’s get this done quick.”

I slid the disk from my pocket, warm wood, textured yet smooth.  “What can you tell me about this?”

She took the piece and glanced at it.  “Still?”  She nailed me with her grey eyes.  “You’re wasting your time and risking everything—everything—over her?”  She said her like she was spitting out poison.

“Wait a minute.  Why do you think this disk has anything to do with Celia?”

Her chin went to full retreat, and she clamped her lips shut as if she wanted to swallow her own mouth.

I’d seen this look only a few times, when I’d caught her in a lie.

Red patches splotched her cheeks.  She flapped her hands and angled her body away.  “Let’s start over.  Where’d you get this?”

“Nuh-uh.  What’s it got to do with Celia?”

She glanced at me, then faced me squarely, eyes wide, face soft and vulnerable.  “Please, Anya.  You don’t want to know.”

Heat flared in my belly.  I hate her doe act.  “I want to know.  I’m standing here asking because I want to know.”  My voice came out too loud.

She didn’t flinch exactly, but the hurt showed behind her eyes.  “Aegis.”

“What?”

She tapped a three-pronged glyph embedded in the carved spiral.  “This is the mark of Aegis.”

“What’s Aegis?”

“Splinter group.  Mixed membership:  a bonewoman, a couple Rangers, some settlers and refugees.”

There are dozens of these groups.  They form and dissolve, quashed by Homeworld, absorbed by others, or destroyed from inside by power struggles.  I took the disk.  “What’s the connection to Celia?”

She avoided my eyes.  “They issued a PFI on her.”  A promise to Pay For Information.

“When?”

“That night.”  Meaning August tenth, the night Celia disappeared.

“And you knew.”

She didn’t answer.

“Six months I’m looking, and not finding her, and you had this clue all along and you didn’t—”  The words burned my throat.  Something burned at the back of my eyes, too.  “I want the file.”  She would have a file on Aegis.  Of course she would.

She looked at me finally, her eyebrows pulling low.  “You don’t see it, do you?  What this is doing to you.”

Here we go.  “I can’t hear this now.”  The fatigue descended on me again, sharpening the knife of irritation that pricked my skin.  “Just give me the—”

“You can’t keep running from your life.”

Running?  The unfairness clamped my chest.  Celia ran away.  Lolo ran, in her own way, by turning her back.  “I’m not the one running away.  I’m out there every day, getting back on my feet financially, hustling leads on Celia.  It’s taking everything I have to—”

“That’s what I’m saying.  You’re using yourself up for her.  Doing dangerous work for crap pay.  Sneaking behind Homeworld’s back, thinking you can save her.”

“That’s not . . . I like doing Otherside gigs.”  Saying it aloud made me realize how true it was.  “I’m getting kind of good at it.”

And the pay’s not always crap, I was going to add, but she’d already steamrolled on.  “You’re qualified for better.”

How stubbornly naive could she be?  I pointed to the iridescent veining at my temple that marked me as Quandra.  Veining that had emerged seven months ago and changed my life in ways I still had trouble comprehending, let alone coping with.

Her eyes flicked to the veining and flashed away.  “That doesn’t close every door.  You’re ignoring good opportunities close to home.”

Heat with a vicious edge flooded my core, goading me to strike.  I clamped my mouth shut and mentally glued my hands at my sides.  It didn’t keep the words from bellowing in my head and firing out of my eyes.  You in your pretty house, your normal life, everything intact.  You don’t have the first fucking clue.

Her hands came up, palm out.  “Okay, okay.  But you have to let someone in.  Your friends.  When’s the last time you saw—”

“Right, because they all rushed to help me.”  My friends had jumped back at first, so as not to get burned.  I understood that.  But now, when there were ways to connect, safe ways, under Homeworld’s radar, they still let my overtures fall like trash to the gutter.  Their silence grew heavier, cut deeper the longer it lasted.

“You can come to Haven, you know,” said Lolo, her voice gentle.  “Any time.”

The way she read me was hard to take sometimes.  It gave me incredible comfort, but it also destroyed my illusion that my secrets were my own.  I knew she offered Haven as just that—a haven.  Because for her, it was.  For me, it was complicated.  “I know,” I said.  “I will.  But for now, I have to keep . . .”  Why couldn’t she understand this?  “I’m not running away.”

She shook her head and spoke to the floor, almost whispering.  “I wish they would just catch her.”

I had no answer for that.

She looked up at me.  “What if she did it?”

Sometimes I’m so busy guarding against my sister’s doe act that I forget how vulnerable her heart really is.  I didn’t have any magic words of comfort.  All I had was the thought that kept me tracking down leads.  “What if she didn’t?”

The pain in Lolo’s eyes didn’t lessen.  But she gave me the file.

Chapter Two

By nine that night, I was in the Borderlands, hiking home from Abraham’s gig.  Lolo’s file had no data on a bonewoman with palm tattoos.  Nothing that easy.  But there were a few leads.

Leads I didn’t have the juice to run down solo.  I’d left a message for Gin, who’d helped me before.  Then I grabbed my pack and slid through Homeworld’s downtown Denver nexus, getting my mind back on paying work.

People are funny.  You’ll die out there, they’d say, talking about the Borderlands.  There are wraiths and murderers, they’d say.  You can’t go alone, they’d say.  Yet they always had a goofy curiosity about what rig and tech I used to outfox the patrols.  Like it was a game.

They were afraid of the wrong thing.

Yes, sometimes I’d see a wraith stream over the land, its shriek dragging like nails down my spine.  Yes, I could’ve gotten lost or broken a leg somewhere with no comms.

But people die everywhere.

 And my rig, old and puny and slow as she was, was my home.  Some laws I’d break, sure.  But not this one.  Not when they could take my rig.  So I went afoot, eight miles into sector G-43, across a procession of rocky ridges, their mahogany flanks punctuated with runnels of yellow sticker bushes.  On the return leg, chilly gusts slapped me with freshness and energy, waking my heart.

I was just one person, doing a job that thousands of others had done.  But I sensed that if we were to find healing for the Rift—and I didn’t know if we would; worlds die too, after all—it made sense that we might find it in just such a place.

I didn’t understand exactly what Homeworld did with the samples I got paid, through back channels, to collect.  I didn’t see how dirt and air from the Borderlands could ever mend the gaping Rift that slowly killed our world and our people.

What I knew, as I crested another ridge into a wind thrillingly, scouringly cold, was gratitude.  In my bones.  Gratitude to be alive, walking free through the lands between the worlds, doing my job.

Peaks of euphoria like that never last.

As I roller-coastered over two more ridges, daylight faded and a storm flash-formed to the north.  I double-timed it, aiming for an old wayfarer’s cave the holomap had shown.

The wind shifted, sluing the storm toward me.  Electricity tingled along my skin, raising the hairs of my forearms.  I covered the last half-mile at a run.

The so-called cave was a shallow scoop out of a rock face, but the overhang gave partial shelter.  As lightning tried to crack open the sky, I rigged a tarp, ate a cold meal and drank hot tea, then lay in my bag in the dark, listening to rain pelt the ground.  Fatigue weighted my body and emptied my mind into the utter stillness that is another kind of freedom, and I slept until my father’s voice sounded in the center of my skull, like a bell struck in warning.  “Anya.”

I leapt free of my sleeping bag, heart pumping too fast, ears straining, eyes searching.

Above me, indistinct against the pale pre-dawn sky:  gray streams of mist, flickering yellow eyes.

Wraiths.

A dozen or more.  Circling silently.

Wraiths hunt solo, and mass only when there is prey too big for one.  They feed on power, not flesh.  I’ve heard that a wraith can steal a body, and wear it as a sick attempt to live again.  But a body can’t be shared.  There had to be something other than me down here, luring them.  Something powerful.

My chest hurt; I’d been holding my breath.  I sipped air, searching the empty land past my tarp.

Putrid stench smeared the air.  From the wraiths.  They darted closer, crisscrossing above, turning their death-ruined faces to me.  Hideous hunger in their eyes.

I gritted my teeth to keep from crying out.

One of them flicked a tendril of yellow energy across my tarp, slashing it.

The fabric collapsed in a billowing swoon, leaving me exposed.

I dropped to a crouch, a scream surging in my throat.  No screaming, my mind ordered.  Don’t move.

The wraiths swooped lower, careening in silent frenzy ten yards from me.

In the surreal silence, I wondered if I’d gone deaf.  My legs trembled.

On the barren ground beyond the wraiths, a puddle of light appeared.

The wraiths whipped toward it.

The light expanded, rising to form an oval portal.  White vapors ghosted out.  A shimmering tunnel extended back from the opening, curving away to nothing.

The skin of my scalp tightened.  Time downshifted, and I saw each detail as a sharply rendered imprint.

Three wraiths dove at the portal, slashing its edges with crusty yellow talons, and lashing it with serrated black tendrils.

The portal rim and the tunnel walls ripped under their attack like skin splitting under knives.  The opening sagged but held, its edges flapping.

A short curvy brunette, early twenties, strode from the damaged passageway, wearing a T-shirt and pink knit shorts.

“No,” I shouted, plunging toward her.

Two wraiths whirled toward me.

I froze, my mind flashing an image of the girl’s cinnamon skin raked open by talons.  “Go back,” I yelled.

She cocked an eyebrow at me, then raised her arms overhead. She wore gloves, flesh-colored with metal studs.

Wraiths arrowed at her from every direction.

I had to help her.

I couldn’t think.

I didn’t move.

She jabbed the air with widespread fingers.  Purple lightning leapt from her gloves and arced instantly to every wraith, striking them simultaneously with a sound like a sledge smashing rotten wood.

Wraiths faltered and tumbled.  Several plummeted to the rocky ground, thinned to faint wisps, and disappeared.  Others, now nearly transparent, wheeled drunkenly, scattering.  Fleeing.

“And stay gone, you sniveling sacks of pus,” she said to the empty sky.  She strolled toward me, rolling her hips.  She wore brown flip flops, and her toenails were painted pink.

Did she paint them to match her shorts?  The suspicion that I’m supposed to do that stuff makes me feel unqualified for my gender.

She said dryly, “Thanks for the help.”

Blame my home training, but I appreciate that kind of bitchiness in a person.  ‘Course, I appreciate it more when the person isn’t wearing gloves that can roast me with purple lightning.  “Nice job with the . . . ”  I gestured to her gloves.

Her mouth curved in a feral smirk.  She waggled her fingers as if showing off a manicure.  “Yep.  Brilliant.”

“Any chance of you taking them off now?”

“Huh?”  She scanned my face.  “Oh.  Yeah.”  She tugged them off and stuck out a hand.  “People call me Rath.”

Shaking her hand, I said, “I’m Anya.”

“Duh.”

And yeah, my situational awareness was temporarily subpar.  Excusable, I thought, but it was time to catch up.  Rath hadn’t opened a portal here by chance.  She was here, and wraiths be damned, because I was here.

How much power did she have, to attract a mob of wraiths?  Or was the power all in the gloves?

And what did she want from me?

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