Back then, we liked to scour the docks of Termina Celeste for starships to tag: sleek crafts with hulls like vast canvases and cabins that were mostly unattended because the space-lagged passengers were off in the city somewhere, getting drunk or on business or both.
Blaise Landry was the leader of the crew, being the oldest out of the five of us. I was his lieutenant. That meant whenever Blaise was out, decommissioned–because sick or in deep trouble with his dad or whatever–I got to be in charge that day, which meant I got to choose which ship to tag.
Our evening began like every other: calm and lubricated with a little beer. No hint of the chaos you may’ve read about or seen on holotrope feeds. That all came later.
We were leaning over the cliffside railing in the southeast quadrant of the docks, spitting into the deep canyon beside which Termina Celeste had been built. In my holotrope lectures that week, I’d learned about DNA, and I fancied each little ball of my saliva was bringing down into the River Andalosi a library of tiny blueprints of me. An artist takes whatever legacy he can get. I hocked up a good one and watched the yellow tadpole tumble through four and a half kilometers of space.
“I’ll do you one better, Lucas,” said Hugo Gunfrey. Turning at a slight angle for modesty, he relieved himself over the edge with a sigh that shook his huge belly.
“God that’s revolting,” Robin Vexler said. She guarded her eyes with a flap of her orbital-jumper jacket and scowled. “You and me, Lucas, let’s push him over, how about it?”
“Sounds like a lot of work,” I said.
“Gravity’d do most of it.”
I knew I wasn’t the only one with murderous fantasies whenever we hung out by the abyss. Everybody has dark thoughts now and then. But imagining them behind Robin’s waifish face and big brown eyes was difficult.
“Any word on the boss?” I asked Jacob.
At fourteen, Jacob Landry was younger than his brother Blaise by a year. He was also the tallest and sturdiest of our crew by far. He could’ve passed for a bouncer at one of his father’s mob-front nightclubs, or maybe a truancy officer.
Jacob shook his head as he cast through his wrist holotrope for Blaise’s whereabouts, then shut it off, nixing the dance of holographic minutiae. “With a girl tonight, probably. Doesn’t drop out of the Buzz otherwise.”
“Traitor,” said Hugo.
Robin clipped on her orbital-jumper helmet. Like her jacket, it was several sizes too large and scuffed from the junkyard where she’d found it. “Give that here, Lucas. I wanna hit one of those buzzards.”
I handed her my empty beer bottle, and she chucked it at a sentry drone floating overhead. The bottle burst with a festive crash, a tinkle of falling glass.
By the time the robot spun its floodlights around we were already gone, darting off across the cliffside promenade and laughing.
Bands had struck up in the neon towers of Termina Celeste’s midtown, which clustered like an orthodontic night-terror below the city roof. Music of all kinds, from all places: Jovian blues and heat-death metal, quantum jazz and Horsehead pomp. One strain after another came rolling down off the cool evening air, balled up with smells of fried noodles, potatoplum sauce, koalaroo dumplings, trampagne.
“If Blaise is out, you know what that means,” I said, smiling. I was the first to take out my vaulter. It was long and cold and smooth, a baton of collapsible supercarbon thick as a femur. I kept it in my knapsack with the spray cans and other things.
“Means out with Benito, in with Blackbeard,” said Jacob. His back furrowed as he unsheathed a vaulter of his own. He held it like a gladiator might a pike, with one end balanced on his trapezius muscle.
“That’s right,” I said. “Means I’m in charge. And seeing as I’m in charge, I pick that beauty as our target.”
I pointed my vaulter at the pristine white argosy that’d held my eye all evening, snug and so temptingly secure in its hypersilk moorings. The name Kingfisher was lettered on its hull in old-fashioned silver characters, and from the blue roses running through their gaps I knew the craft belonged to a Delphine merchant prince. The sort of prince, from what I’d glimpsed on holotrope feeds, who needed taking down a few pegs anyway.
“Delphines? They don’t screw around,” said Jacob. “It’s like picking on the uranium mafia.”
“Stuff we’ve been through? Tch,” I said.
“This is different,” said Robin, rubbing her nose through her visor. “This is crazy. You’re crazy, Lucas.”
“Amen,” said Hugo.
“Bunch of cowards, then,” I said. “Guess I’ll have to do it myself.”
They tensed. Getting tagged a coward was no small thing if you ran with a high-wire crew like us. The only worse insult was snitch.
“Screw it,” said Jacob.
“You can’t be serious,” said Robin.
“He’s the boss, and I’m no coward. Are you?”
“These snakes, the Delphines, you said it yourself. They catch you, it’s not exactly a fine.”
“They have to catch you,” I said.
Hugo crossed his pudgy arms. “No way.”
But I’d made my point.
After waiting for a sentry drone to pass, I ran to the edge of the cliff overlooking the docks–faster, faster–and rammed my vaulter into the girders at an angle, letting the energy in the supercarbon whisk me up and fling me over the gulf between platforms. I was rising, flying, and landed on a docked starship with a metal thud, somersaulting once to absorb the impact.
I twirled my vaulter. “Last chance!” I called.
They glanced at each other helplessly. What choice did they have?