When the portal dumped us in a trash-filled alleyway, I knew this world was worse than the last.
I collapsed against the closest wall, stomach retching from more than the stench of rotting meat. The violent passage through the contraband portal had racked every cell of my body. With a few slow breaths, I managed to calm my nerves and settle what little food sat in my stomach.
Darkness shrouded the alleyway. I ran a hand through my hair, pushing short brown locks from my eyes, and looked up to survey the night sky above. I’d hoped the constellations would disclose where the portal had discarded us, but only a pair of moons peeked between the rooftops of the alley, offering little hint of our location. Though the nausea still washed over me in cool, prickling waves, I pushed myself off the wall and obeyed the voice within.
The words repeated in my mind on an endless loop, like a mantra. A mission statement.
I forced myself onward and stumbled through the shadows, plastic wrappers crunching under step. The Armed Guard was still searching for Adrianna. They wouldn’t stop until I got her somewhere safe.
I found her on the alley floor, hair swept across her face. I knelt beside her and brushed aside her strands of flaxen waves to reveal closed eyes and parted lips. My breath caught as I stared down at her lifeless expression, and I felt for a pulse until one twitched against my fingertips. Relief flooded my body as I realized the jump had only knocked her out, though the satisfaction was short-lived. Peering down at her, she looked so tiny next to my large frame, but more than just her size had carved my perception of her frailty. Together with her pallid skin and hollow cheeks, it triggered the question that ravaged my mind after every portal we crossed.
How many more could she survive?
As I lifted her from the ground, wondering how I’d drag her unconscious through the streets without notice, her eyes fluttered open and met mine. She smiled. Through the darkness and stench of the alleyway, Adrianna found a way to smile. She always did. Despite the softening sensation in my heart, I didn’t return the expression.
“We can’t rest here. Can you walk?”
The hood of her cloak lay flaccid around her shoulders. I pulled it up, tucking the chin-length waves of her hair inside. Once the shadows of the hood masked her face, I took Adrianna under my arm and led her through the city’s maze of backstreets and alleyways.
We spent hours searching for the safe house, most of it dodging the Armed Guards on the street corners and even less civilized parties in the alleys. Since they’re only used for smuggling, contraband portals always dropped their human cargo in a remote corner of a city. As I trudged along the sidewalk with Adrianna pressed against my side, I surveyed our surroundings, trying to get a sense of this world.
The businesses and apartment buildings of every block stood shoulder-to-shoulder, as if melded together into one solid brick wall, and stretched upwards until they disappeared into the clouds. Passenger trains hurtled past on the roads. I avoided eye contact with a troop of I.G.A. as they marched by, dressed in their all black attire, rifles in hand. Adrianna kept her head down. My chest tightened as the group brushed past, but when they continued on without hesitation, I sighed with relief.
Every world had some form of law enforcement, and despite the Armed Guard, a growing flicker of hope that we’d made it to a free system tugged at the back of my mind until a shuttle slid past that crushed all optimism. I locked eyes with a woman pressed against the shuttle’s cell window. Her grayed skin stretched too tight over her cheekbones and jaw line, as if merely outlining the shape of her skull. Her frail fingers wrapped around the window’s metal bars and revealed the clasp and chain binding her wrist. Her eyes were empty, as if blind, and would only recognize me if I’d been death itself.
The shuttle continued on its journey, speeding ahead with the other traffic on the rails. My grip on Adrianna’s shoulder tightened as we walked. She shivered under my arm, her threadbare cloak useless for anything other than hiding her appearance. I pulled her closer, though the numbing chill in the air bit at my skin as well. Either this world was in its winter season or it sat on the outer rim of the system’s habitable zone.
As I surveyed the collage of doors and windows of the buildings around us, I finally spotted what I was looking for. Amid the light bulbs and flickering neon, an oil-burning lantern sat in a window, glowing with the radiance of an angel’s halo. Relief washed over me. I pulled Adrianna to the corresponding door and rapped my knuckles against it, mimicking the patterned knock I was taught. After some rustling inside, it opened.
I looked down at an old man even shorter than Adrianna. A few gray hairs curled the rims of his thick glasses on his otherwise bald head. Scorch marks plastered his rubber gloves and apron, leaving me curious about his profession. When I lifted the hood masking Adrianna’s face, his eyes went wide as he surveyed her cadaverous appearance. Without a word, he let us inside.
The ceiling of his home was low and sagged in the middle, as if straining under the weight of the rooms above. Save for the lantern in the window, the only light in the room came from a fireplace in the side wall. I led Adrianna to it, maneuvering through tables filled with scrap metal. I set her down in front of the fire. She curled up to the heat, smiling. The fireplace crackled with real fire, though I was sure the wood was synthetic. Judging by the state of his home, the old man could never afford it.
At the stove in the corner, the old man scooped helpings from a simmering pot onto paper plates. He handed one to each of us filled with some kind of cream-colored mush complemented by a sauce of the same color. I assumed it was a porridge of sorts, made with whatever ingredients were currently in season on this planet, and probably the cheapest.
I left Adrianna at the fireplace as she ate and sat with the old man on the other side of the room. I wolfed down the food as quickly as I could without looking desperate. It tasted as bland as plain mashed potatoes, but the growl in my stomach outweighed any complaints I had about the lack of flavor.
“Lots of carbs in that. It’ll keep you both going,” the old man said, rocking in his chair. It squeaked in steady rhythm against the white noise of the crackling fire. He surveyed Adrianna as she ate. “What world is she from?”
He nodded, head bobbing with the chair. “Mining slavery. The worst world for it.”
“By the way, I’m-”
“No names,” he said, shaking his head. “Call me George.”
I paused, taking the moment to chew my food instead of inhaling it. “Call me Rider.”
“What’s her name?” George motioned toward the fireplace. “That one you can answer honestly.”
I turned my gaze across the room, watching as she ate. A coughing fit seized her, racking through her body so hard she had to place a hand on the floor to steady herself. My throat seized with concern for her and I hovered in the chair, waiting to run to her aid.
George snapped his fingers in front of my face. “Hey. Not getting attached, are you?”
The reply left my mouth too quickly. George studied me through his glasses, as if the strength of their prescription allowed him to see beyond my physical being. To deter him, I forced my gaze over the room, purposely avoiding Adrianna. Makeshift tables, nothing more than sheets of metal resting on stacked bricks, overflowed with scrap aluminum, radiator coils, and spare gun parts.
“Blacksmithing and weapon repair. Hardly any honest trades left in this world. Or any of them,” George said. I heard the creaking of his rocking chair start up again. Though I didn’t look back at him, I felt the weight of his stare on me.
“This is your first run as a conductor, isn’t it?” he asked, though his tone sounded more like statement. I’d always thought conductor was an outdated word to describe who we were, but slaves running for freedom were usually so malnourished and exhausted that they needed a guide–a free citizen–to help them through the treacherous journey.
“It’s my first time,” I said. “It took us hours to find you. Why don’t they tell us where the portals or safe houses are?”
“Keeps them safe. Anyone gets caught, there’s no way they can compromise the entire organization. I only know the portals in this system, so I can’t incriminate anyone in the next.”
I thought about that. “So where is the next portal?”
“There’s a contraband one a few hours south of here. It’ll take you to the Eneth system.”
The way his words lingered, I knew he wasn’t telling me everything. I raised an eyebrow. “And?”
He sighed heavily, as if it had passed through his entire body. “And a day’s walk north of here, there’s one that’ll take you to Knara.”
I nearly jumped out of the chair. “That’s an abolitionist system. She’d be free there.”
“It’s a government controlled portal,” he warned. “You’ll never get through. If you get caught trying, they’ll drag her back to Leithan and beat her half dead. And they’ll imprison you, or worse.”
I grinned at his remark. “Same for you. Harboring a runaway slave is a five-year sentence.”
“So why help?”
He stopped rocking as he pondered my question. His eyes searched the floor. After a moment of silence, he met my gaze. “Because too many people won’t.”
A heaviness settled in my chest as the old man’s words rang true. Most people didn’t agree with slavery, but most did nothing about it. Some couldn’t be bothered. Others were afraid of the penalties that came with assisting an escapee. Still, if every world stood up against it, could they really imprison us all?
George looked at me again like he was watching my soul. “What about you? What’s a young man like you doing caught up in all of this?”
I looked down at the plate, pushing the beige mush around with my fork. “My mother was a slave. If someone hadn’t helped her escape, I might not have been born, let alone a free citizen.”
The old man went quiet for a minute. “I bet she’s worried about you. Does she know what you’re doing now?”
“She’s dead. So… maybe.”
Her freedom hadn’t come soon enough. She’d died from Pneumoconiosis, a lung disease acquired in the mines. Treatable nowadays if it’s caught early enough. I looked back at Adrianna huddled in front of the fireplace, knowing the same sickness raged in her lungs. I recognized the sound of her cough. It echoed in my memories. But I knew there was still time. The disease hadn’t advanced beyond the treatable stage, assuming I could get her to a safe system fast enough.
I snapped out of my thoughts when someone pounded on the front door. It trembled under the heavy, military precise rapping, and my gut tightened as I realized it didn’t follow the patterned knock used by conductors. Adrianna looked up from the fireplace while George and I exchanged worried glances.
“Are you expecting anyone?” I asked, my voice barely above a whisper. The fear in his eyes gave me the answer.
George snatched the paper plates out of our hands and tossed them into the fire, burning the incriminating evidence of our presence. He ran a hand along the wall beside the fireplace, head tilted in concentration. He tapped three times. The wall opened, revealing a hidden compartment.
I scooped Adrianna into my arms and squeezed into the closet-sized compartment. George closed us in. With Adrianna curled up in my lap, I watched through a small peephole as the old man opened his door. Four men stood on the other side, rifles in hand, dressed in traditional I.G.A black from boot to helmet. One of them stepped forward.
“Interstellar Armed Guard.” He flashed his badge. “Your neighbors said you let two people into your home. A man and a woman.”
“My nephew and his girlfriend? Yes, they were here. Funny how they saw when they came in, but not when they left. They’re long gone.” The old man adjusted his glasses. “My neighbors must have poor eyesight.”
Judging by the lack of response from the guards, the irony was lost on them. They pushed past the old man. Two marched through to the back of his home. The others stayed in the main room, searching only feet from the hidden door.
Another coughing fit racked Adrianna’s body. Panic seized my chest. I pulled her close, pressing her mouth hard against my shoulder, trying to muffle the sound. The closest guard turned toward the wall, his head tilted sideways in curiosity. I pressed Adrianna tighter against me. Her coughs subsided into murmured breaths, but the guard continued to close in on us.
I considered my options. Jump the guard if he discovered the door. Caught unaware, I might be able to get that weapon out of his hands.
Maybe I could take out the second one in the room too if I was fast enough. But could I take all four of them? Probably not.
Adrianna whimpered and balled her tiny fists in my shirt, eyes wide with overwhelming fear. I stroked her hair for reassurance, and returned an expression that meant I’d give everything to protect her.
The floor creaked under the guard’s feet as he neared, only a few feet from the hidden compartment. His shadow blocked out any light seeping in through the peephole. I shifted Adrianna to the side and pressed my hands against the closet walls, ready to pounce.
Inches now. My muscles tightened. My breathing steadied.
A loud buzzing erupted in the room behind the guard. He whirled around to find George snatching a spare part out of the other guard’s hands.
“Don’t touch that,” George exclaimed, and he slammed the hunk of metal down on the table.
“You set it off yourself, old man,” the guard claimed.
George muttered something under his breath and puttered away, as if playing up an act of senility, and returned to his rocking chair. The guard closest to us shook his head at the old man, and continued on.
The other two uniforms emerged from the back rooms.
“Nothing here. Let’s go.”
They left, slamming the door shut behind them. George peered out the front window for a minute, then opened the closet door.
“They’re gone for now, but you should keep moving.”
I took Adrianna under my arm and headed for the door. “Thanks for the food,” I said, “and everything else.”
“Wait,” George called out from behind.
I turned around to find him rummaging through an old chest. “The girl can’t go out like that. This world’s too cold.” After more rummaging and a few sharp murmurs in a language I didn’t recognize, he pulled out a heavy garment. “This should fit.”
He held it up and the garment tumbled open, taking the shape of a dark cloak. Adrianna ran her fingers against the wool. “It’s beautiful. I can’t take this.”
“Course you can.” George handed it to me, knowing Adrianna wouldn’t take it, and returned to his rocking chair.
I helped Adrianna into the cloak. As I wrapped it around her, I noted a few wrinkles in the belt where it had been knotted several times before, as if the cloak itself refused to forget its original owner. I knew it was too small to be a men’s cloak, even for a short guy like the old man. When I glanced up at him, I noticed how he strained to look the other way as I wrapped it around her.
With Adrianna safely hidden inside the new cloak, we headed for the door. The old man grabbed my arm as I passed and pulled me close.
“Don’t take her north,” he whispered. “There aren’t any safe houses that way. In her condition, she won’t make it.”
I lowered my tone to match his. “Any more jumps through contraband portals and she might not make it.”
Government controlled portals were stable, nothing more than a quick rush and faint turbulence. I wasn’t sure if Adrianna could handle the violent rides through the contraband portals much longer. More than that, she needed extended rest and medical care; somewhere she didn’t have to run.
The old man looked between me and Adrianna a few times, and relented, releasing my arm.
We left the safe house. I thanked George again, this time only in my mind.
Once we reached the sidewalk, I paused and considered each direction. A few hours south to another system–and who knew how many more jumps and portals it would take–or a day north to freedom.
I took her north.
The crowds on the sidewalks thickened as we travelled northward toward the government portals. I kept Adrianna pressed against me as thousands of people pushed their way past. Only the very rich could afford private transportation, and Armed Guard manned the gates and access points for the public trains. Above every gate, vid screens flipped through pictures of wanted runaways. Beneath, it read:
Reward: 50,000 credits.
I watched for a minute as we maneuvered through the crowd until Adrianna’s picture flashed across the screen. My stomach clenched. I pulled the cloak’s hood closer around her face. She understood without question and lowered her head as well.
After hours spent on foot marching towards the portal, exhaustion overtook Adrianna and she slacked against my side. I supported her with the arm around her shoulder and led her deep into an alleyway, behind an overflowing dumpster so we’d be hidden from the street.
I propped Adrianna against the wall and titled her head up. Her skin looked even paler than it had before, her cheeks more hallow. Another coughing fit seized her and she doubled over on herself. I took her in my arms and pulled her into my lap on the alley floor. Knowing the sounds of the city would drown out the noise, I simply rubbed her back in comfort and didn’t try to suppress her coughs. As I stroked her back, my hand inadvertently slipped under the cloak and grazed her skin. Raised lines like caterpillars crawled over her back.
The marks left behind from her owner’s whip.
I pulled her tight against me and whispered against her forehead. “I’m so sorry.”
She said nothing, though her head hung in silent shame.
“I know you need to rest but there aren’t any safe houses before the next portal,” I told her. I felt her weight sag against me, and the wool cloak brushed against my chin. “This is the last one. You just have to be strong a little longer.”
She looked up, eyes wide with disbelief. “If we make it, I’ll be…”
Free. The word wouldn’t leave her mouth as if she’d never learned how to pronounce it. I stroked her cheek. She smiled under my touch.
“It’s a government controlled portal,” I told her. The hope faded from her face. I gripped her tighter for emphasis. “We will make it. I’ll get you through, no matter what.”
“But how will we get past the customs agent, and the Armed Guard?” she asked.
I knew only one way to sneak an illegal through a government portal, and I certainly didn’t want Adrianna to come with me. I set her down on the alley floor beside me and pulled the cloak tight around her.
Between two towering buildings, a large set of stairs led down to government portals, an underground ant farm of tunnels extending out in all directions. At the mouth of the stairs, a uniformed customs agent handed out pamphlets. I approached and took one.
“Looking to go somewhere, son?” he asked.
I nodded as I read over the pamphlet, acting as if I didn’t know that Knara was already my destination.
“Yeah,” I said. “But I need an ID first.”
He flipped the page over and pointed a small map on the back. “Those are the locations that sell ID’s in the area.”
“Can you recommend one? I’m not from around here.” I laughed, hoping it didn’t sound forced. “I guess I’m asking where not to go. I don’t know what neighborhoods to avoid.”
He nodded eagerly. “Just don’t go to Tommy’s Convenience,” he pointed to it on the map, “unless you’re looking to get shot.”
I grinned. “Thanks.”
I followed the map.
Tommy’s Convenience was a collage of barred windows and cracked glass, framed by litter and empty bottles. A homeless man slumped beside the entrance, sleeping off a drunken stupor. Even the Armed Guard didn’t venture into this neighbourhood. Only teenagers or off-worlders would be stupid enough to walk into the place.
The sign in the window said:
Tickets and day passes available.
Good for use at any portal.
Government-grade photo ID’s in 30 minutes or less.
Inside, the store was empty other than the spiky-haired, tattoo-covered cashier, scrolling through nude photos on his tablet. I tapped my fingers on the counter and the cashier rolled his eyes up from the tablet, though he made no attempt to hide it or the handgun tucked into his belt.
“Looking for something?”
I shrugged, trying to be casual. “Yeah, I guess.”
“You guess?” he replied, smacking the gum in his mouth. “Either you need something or you don’t.”
Not the best customer service, but I expected it from the look of the place. I kept my tone light, as if only curious.
“What do you have for someone who doesn’t qualify for government-issued ID?”
He cocked an eyebrow and sat up straight, as if realizing his boss was present. “The sale of fake identification is illegal, sir.”
“I’m not a cop.”
“You sure?” His eyes scanned over my frame. “You look like one.”
I frowned. “I’d have to tell you if I was.”
He studied me for a moment, and nodded. Then he opened a new program on the tablet and flipped it around to me.
“Pick what you like,” he said with a wave of his hand.
I scrolled through various headshots until I landed on a healthy looking, twenty-something year old female. I turned the tablet back to him and pointed at the picture.
The guy faltered, then peered up at me. “Hey, this stuff is strong, but not that strong. It’ll change your face,” he motioned at the area below my waist, “not your junk.”
“Just give me the kit.”
He studied me again through the slits of his eyes, then grinned. “Fine. 10,000 credits.”
I slammed my fist down on the counter. “That’s ridiculous. I’m not paying anything over five.”
He shrugged. “You don’t like the price? Go somewhere else.”
There wasn’t anywhere else. At least, not that I knew of. The cashier was taking advantage, and he knew it. Thoughts of Adrianna and how much she needed this stopped me from wiping that grin off his face.
I scowled, pulled my cash card from my wallet, and tossed it down on the counter. The cashier swiped it through a scanner and handed it back. After rummaging beneath the counter, he produced a small plastic bag. Inside was an ID that matched the picture I’d picked out, and an oversized pill. I snatched it from him, tucked it in my pocket, and headed for the exit.
“Don’t swallow the damn thing. Just put it under your tongue,” he told me. “The effect will only last an hour, maybe less, so make sure you’re finished jerking off before then.”
I ignored him, though I seriously considered shooting him a derogatory hand signal that meant the same on any planet.
“Sicko,” he muttered as I slipped out the door.
I found Adrianna where I’d left her, curled up in the alley behind the dumpster, hidden from view. Before I’d gone for the ID, I’d wrapped the cloak completely around her and sprinkled wrappers and old bottles on top and around, camouflaging her amid the trash. I sat, pulled the bits of trash away, and lifted her hood. She’d fallen asleep, head resting against the bent knees pulled tight against her chest. Labored breaths whistled through her lungs. Whether she was exhausted from the journey or the disease was progressing, it didn’t matter. Adrianna was getting worse, and I couldn’t stand to think about it.
I shook her awake. She opened her eyes and smiled, as always. I pulled the plastic bag out of my pocket and deposited the pill in her hand. She looked down at it with doubt.
“Should I take it now?” she asked.
I nodded. “The area around the portals is too crowded. We can’t risk someone seeing the transformation. Just let the pill dissolve under your tongue.”
She did. In a less than a minute, her lips thinned and the hollow caves of her cheeks filled out. Then her forehead stretched and cheekbones became more prominent. She winced, and rubbed the sides of her face.
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
She shook her head, smiling with lips that were no longer hers. I knew it must have, but she’d long become used to pain. Her skin gradually darkened several shades to a healthy tan, nowhere near the sickly pale color of a mining slave. Though, her eyes remained her own–glistening like emeralds–as did her hair, the same thick waves it always was.
I tossed the baggie in the dumpster beside us and handed her the ID card.
“This is what I look like now?” she asked, pointing at the picture. I nodded. She curled a finger through her flaxen strands. “But my hair doesn’t match.”
“Neither do your eyes,” I told her. “It won’t matter. People change their hair and eye color every day. The scanner will match facial features, not your coloring.”
She nodded. With her face transformed and the heavy wool cloak draped around her, she no longer looked like a slave.
“Am I beautiful now?” she asked. Her head titled, framing an innocent smile. Her eyes held the smallest amount of hope.
The first time since my mother’s passing, I felt my heart seize with tender sorrow. I sighed, and trailed my fingers along her jaw.
“You’re always beautiful.”
Her smile faded. She’d been treated as property for so long, she didn’t believe she had any natural allure. I should have kissed her in that moment, as if the taste of desire in my mouth could have somehow proven it to her. But I couldn’t. Not now. Those lips weren’t really hers. If I went for it, she’d think it was because of her transformation, not her real appearance.
Once it wore off, I decided. Once she was free. We were so close.
“The gates to the portal are down that road.” I pointed. Adrianna peered around the dumpster and followed my finger to the street.
“We just have to get you through customs,” I said. “We have an hour.”
Fifteen minutes into the customs lineup, the portal went down. Maintenance, they told us. No one wants to think about a portal going down while they’re inside it, endlessly lost in the void between this planet and the next. I understood the precaution, but couldn’t help cursing our poor fortunes.
After thirty minutes, I began pacing, knowing I didn’t have enough credits for another fake ID. Adrianna stood silently beside me, vigilant and calm, though I saw the hope fading from her eyes. Just when I thought we’d have to bail, the gates opened.
The line of people added several more minutes. I fought every urge to knock them all out of the way, knowing we couldn’t afford the attention. When the last person in front of us passed through the booth, I pushed Adrianna up first. We only had minutes left. Maybe less.
Adrianna handed her ID to the customs agent, a young woman with a no-nonsense look in her eyes, as if trying to prove herself in some way. Naïve but serious. My gut tightened, wondering if her naivety would benefit us or if her seriousness would be our end. But she took Adrianna’s ID without question and began processing the transaction. Naivety it is.
The vid screen behind the agent replayed the same wanted pictures I’d seen at the public transit stations. My eyes went wide when Adrianna’s flashed across it again, but the agent failed to make the connection with the runaway slave in front of her, given her disguised appearance.
“Where are you headed?” she asked.
Adrianna peered up at me for the answer.
“Knara,” I told the agent.
She nodded at Adrianna. “Doesn’t she speak?”
“She’s shy,” I said, and Adrianna turned her head to the floor for emphasis. The agent eyed her, but slid the ID card into the slot.
“Please step up to the scanner, ma’am.”
Adrianna stepped up to the booth. Green, spiraling beams scanned over her face, looking to match the picture on the ID card. They danced over her face from forehead to chin, cheek to cheek. Back and forth, and again.
My throat tightened. This was taking too long. It wasn’t working. I glanced behind us. A few people in line peered up at us, wondering what was taking so long. Beyond them, a handful of guards stood near the exit stairs. We were trapped.
My breath quickened. The pill would wear off any minute. The agent would notice. The scanner would fail. There was nowhere to run. My hands trembled, nerves bursting as if on fire. They’d catch Adrianna. She couldn’t go back. Not when we’d come so close.
The scanner chimed positive.
The sigh of relief left before I could stop it, though the agent didn’t take notice. My panic subsided until I looked down at Adrianna. Her lips had begun to pucker. The effects of the pill were fading. I nudged her and motioned for her to cover her mouth. She trailed her fingertips over her lips, and her eyes went wide.
The agent handed the ID to Adrianna. She took it, avoiding eye contact.
“Thank you,” she murmured behind her hand.
The agent’s eyebrows knit together, but she said nothing. Adrianna turned away as the agent processed my information. I tried to calm my shaking hands, praying the agent remained as oblivious as she had so far. When the scanner chimed positive for me, I led Adrianna through the gate, walking as quickly as we could without running.
We got a few feet away before the agent’s voice came out from behind.
Out of instinct, Adrianna started to turn, her face now fully transformed back to her former self. I grabbed her shoulders and forced her forward.
“Keep walking,” I whispered.
“Sir, you forgot your ID card.”
I guided Adrianna through the crowd, weaving between as many people as I could, trying to lose ourselves amongst them. The agent didn’t pursue us. Finally, a stroke of luck.
Adrianna peered up at me. “You could go back.”
“Forget it,” I told her. “I’ll file for a lost card.”
We followed signs through the underground maze to a tunnel marked Knara. At the end was the portal, a rippling sheet of cosmic glass. Adrianna was a hundred feet from freedom. We’d made it. My hand squeezed hers. She smiled up at me, tears brimming in her eyes. Her whole life–both our lives–had led up to this moment.
A woman in the crowd pointed at Adrianna and shouted. “It’s the girl from the vid screen. Guards!” She waved her arms madly at a group of guards gathered around a security checkpoint. “It’s her! I get the 50,000 credit reward!”
The guards turned, shocked at first, then sprinted for us. I shoved Adrianna forward.
She bolted. Her hood slipped down as she ran, flaxen locks curling behind her. The guards closed in, gaining on us. With sick lungs and weak muscles, the guards would catch Adrianna before she reached the portal, and I couldn’t carry her any faster than she could run.
She’d never make it.
I stood my ground, then threw myself at the guards, knocking one to the ground and disorientating the rest. They hit my back with their tasers. Though my body bowed to it, I never really felt the pain. Even as I collapsed to my knees and the guards closed in around me, I couldn’t look away as Adrianna slipped through the portal. It swallowed her like a drop of water into a pond.
“He doesn’t have any ID on him,” a guard announced as he patted me down.
“Means he’s a fugitive. Send out a report. Gotta be a dozen wanted men matching his description.”
“The customs agent has my-”
They knocked me to the floor and slapped cuffs on my wrists. I landed facing the portal. Surveying the glimmering cosmic glass, I smiled, finally understanding how Adrianna always found a way to smile. She’d made it. She was safe. The other side was out of the Armed Guard’s jurisdiction. No whips. No slave masters. No air heavy with choking dust.
The gateway to Knara faded from view as the guards dragged me away. With their grip tight around my arms and nowhere to run, they marched me through the underground tunnels to the portal marked Leithan.
The mining camps.
Holly Jennings is a registered member with the Speculative Fiction Writers of Canada. Her short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, AE Sci-Fi Canada, and elsewhere, and she was recently asked to write non-fiction articles for the Clarion Writer’s Craft blog, forthcoming soon.