Authors: Megan Hart
“Eddie,” I explained to Declan’s curious expression. When his eyes narrowed, I continued the explanation. “My partner.”
I crossed to the viddy screen and hit the acceptance code. “Eddie!”
Eddie’s handsome face looked at me with worry stamped all over it. “G, what happened to you?”
“I’ve had some problems, Eddie. I need your help.”
He didn’t bother asking what trouble I was in. “Tell me what you need.”
“We need to get Offworld, and fast. I’ve lost all my access codes, my credit account’s been garnished, and I’m sure my passport’s been put on restricted use.”
Declan watched our interchange without speaking for a few minutes. Then he came and stood by my side. “I have money Offworld. It’s separate from the Adar accounts. My father doesn’t even know about it. If we can get Offworld, we can get to it. But I have nothing here.”
Eddie thought for a moment. “You need to get to Oldcity. You can get everything there.”
I nodded, refusing to think of Oldcity’s dangers. “I have Kaelyn, Eddie. I can’t leave her behind.”
Eddie sighed. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“I know, Eddie.” I grinned. “I love you, partner.”
Declan tensed beside me as the viddy screen went black. “I thought you meant you worked with him.”
I had to take a mental step back for a moment to register his comment. “Eddie is my partner. I do work with him. But he’s also my friend.”
“You tell all your friends you love them?” His dark eyes sparked, and his mouth turned down into a frown.
“Are you jealous?”
He allowed me to take his hand but didn’t return the squeeze I gave his fingers. “Do I need to be?”
I shrugged. “Depends on you, Declan. Eddie and I have worked together for six years. Yes, we’ve been to bed together, in training and just for fun. But we haven’t been lovers off the job for about three years now. Eddie has always been there for me, and I do love him. But…” I paused to clear the block in my throat. “But not the way you think.”
“Good.” Declan enfolded me in his embrace. “Because I really don’t want to have to kick his ass.”
This time, I ignored the pain and let him hold me.
It was hard to explain to Kaelyn that we had to leave. Her small body shuddered in fear when I told her to choose only the most important items to take with us. I held her close, hating myself for having to do this to her.
I pushed her away so I could look in her face, but kept my hands on her shoulders. “Kaelyn, it will be all right. I’ll take care of you.”
“My Gemma will take care of me,” she whispered, as though to herself. She looked around the bedroom, then at the small closet she’d always preferred to sleep in. “Take only the most important things?”
“Yes,” I told her. I pointed to the small chest of drawers that held her robes and the few small items I’d bought her over the past year. “Pick the most important things.”
Kaelyn put her arms around me again and squeezed. “My Gemma is my most important thing.”
Tears filled my eyes at her words, and I squeezed her back. “I love you, K. I’m so glad I found you.”
“I am so glad my Gemma bought me from that slave trader.” She wriggled a little in my arms to get more comfortable. “Can I take my ronagh-beast?”
“Of course you can.” I reached to the side and plucked the stuffed toy from the dresser drawer. “But we have to go quickly.”
“Before the hunters come?”
Again, my heart ached at what she must’ve gone through. Kaelyn had been little more than an infant when the trader came through Eloven and took her from her family. Only the tiniest Elovenian could survive the trip and adapt to the change in gravity. She’d lived more than half her life in a cage before I’d bought her. Now I was subjecting her to more fear and upheaval.
“K, remember when I first brought you home, and you hid in the closet all the time?”
Kaelyn giggled. “I was afraid of my Gemma.”
“But after awhile you started to come out, right? And you trusted me?”
“My Gemma was nice to me. You gave me chocobars. You gave me the ronagh-beast.” She hugged the worn plush toy.
“You have to trust me now. I won’t let anything hurt you. I promise you that, Kaelyn.”
She hugged me again. “I will hurry.”
I got up, my body making a million protests, and went back to the kitchen to Declan.
“Is that smart?” he asked.
He moved his chin toward the bedroom. “Telling her you won’t let anything happen to her. Where we’re going…you can’t really promise that.”
“I can,” I answered grimly. I looked toward the glimmer of fair hair in the bedroom. “I will die before I let something hurt her, Declan.”
“You really think of her as your daughter, don’t you?”
“She’s the closest thing I’ll ever have.”
Silence fell between us. Neither of us would have children the normal way. I didn’t know if Declan had ever thought of having children, but his citizen profile had shown he’d never had any.
“We’d better go,” he said with a glance at the clock on the viddy screen. “It’s been twenty minutes.”
Less than an hour had passed since we’d busted Howard’s secbots in the alley. I had the overwhelming sensation we’d wasted too much time. Information is instantaneous in Newcity. Howard knew the second his secbots went down.
I looked around the small apartment I’d lived in for the past five years. Though I’d outfitted it with every luxury my Op salary and rank could provide, I couldn’t pretend I’d be sorry to leave it. It was my dwelling, but not really my home.
Still, there were things in it that I didn’t want to leave behind. Memories, good and bad, but part of my life. How to pack everything in the small amount of time and with the small amount of space?
I was saved from the dilemma by a knock at the door. Declan and I looked at each other, startled.
“My father,” he whispered, though the door was three inches of plazsteel and nobody on the other side could possibly hear him.
I was inclined to agree. System hadn’t beeped to warn us of any impending visitor—whoever it was had circumnavigated the building’s front door code. Cautiously, I drew the weapon I’d stolen from Howard’s secbot, and pointed it at the door.
The knock came again, a brief series of taps followed by silence and another set of taps. My muscles released all their tension, and I winced at the aches that followed. I heal fast, but I wasn’t close to being fully healed yet.
“It’s Eddie,” I told Declan and made for the door.
He stopped me. “How do you know?”
“The code.” I had downloaded Evadian code and taught it to Eddie during one particularly slow shift early on in our partnership. We’d used it many times since. “It’s Evadian.”
He didn’t let go of my arm. “My father would know that about you, Gemma. He can access your entire citizen profile, remember? He’d know you can understand Evadian, and that you communicate that way with Eddie.”
I hesitated, but then reached up to touch his hand resting on my arm. “The only way to know is to open the door. If it’s your dad’s army out there—”
I stopped, aware of Kaelyn in the bedroom, packing her few belongings. My throat closed, but I continued. “We don’t have much choice, D.”
It was the first time I’d used the Newcity slang term of affection for him. He grinned and jerked his head toward the door, then took the hand not holding the weapon.
“Go get him, G.”
I palmed the door open button and waited, weapon aimed. The door slid silently on its tracks, and revealed Eddie waiting outside. I lowered the weapon quickly, but the look on his face showed me he’d seen it.
His glance took in me, then Declan behind me. Eddie’s blue eyes narrowed, and though he spoke to me, his words were meant for Declan.
“You’re in a heap of shit, aren’t you, G?”
“How’d you get up here without Gemma granting you access?” Declan came to stand by my side.
Between the two men, I felt the testosterone pulsing in the air. Under other circumstances, I might have been flattered, or amused. As it was, we didn’t have time for a bunch of male posturing.
“Eddie has my personal access code,” I told Declan. I looked to Eddie. “We don’t have much time.”
“I’m surprised you have any,” Eddie said with another narrow glare at Declan. “Howard Adar doesn’t like to be crossed. Or so I hear.”
No matter what Howard had done to him, he was still Declan’s father. My lover bristled. His hands bunched into fists. He didn’t advance on Eddie, not quite, but if I hadn’t been standing between them I can’t guarantee that fists wouldn’t have flown.
“Are you going to help us or not?” Declan asked. “Because if not, then get the hell out of here.”
Eddie grinned and shot me an approving glance. “He’s got balls, at least. Guess he’d have to, to take you on.”
Kaelyn’s small voice interrupted the banter. “I’m ready to—Eddie!”
The small form nearly flew across the room to leap into Eddie’s arms. Her wings fluttered, and she pressed her soft cheek to his with a sigh of rapture. Eddie, as always when presented with Kaelyn’s exuberance, patted her back somewhat awkwardly between her wings and then set her down.
“I’m all ready to go,” Kaelyn said.
“Visitors requesting access,” System announced, and we all froze.
“Access denied.” I spoke even as I ran to the bedroom to scoop up the small bag I’d managed to pack. Declan followed, close on my heels.
“Visitors requesting access,” System repeated, its modulated tone now coming from the bedroom speaker.
“Access denied!” I shouted, but knew it was no use.
I tugged open the top drawer of my dresser so quickly it fell out. Personal items scattered everywhere, and I grabbed whatever I could lay my hands on. Kaelyn’s purchase receipt, a holophoto cube…my wedding ring. Despite the urgency, I hesitated before tossing it in my backpack, but then did anyway. It was pure iridium, and could fetch a nice price in an Offworld market. We’d need the cash.
Eddie appeared in my bedroom doorway just as System spoke again.
“User command overridden. Visitors granted access. Level One.”
“At least we have a warning,” Eddie quipped.
Nobody took the time to smile. “We’ll have to exit through the roof,” I said.
“Unless they have guards up there already,” Declan said grimly. He took the pack from me and slung it over his shoulder.
“Keep your fingers crossed,” I replied. We had no other choice.
“Level Two. Level Three. Level Four.”
I lived on level twenty-eight. “Let’s move it, now!”
Eddie grabbed up Kaelyn and her small bag. I followed with the bag I’d packed in the kitchen, and Declan came after me with my backpack. Instead of turning right to go down the hall toward the elevators, we went left, toward the stairs. Eddie banged open the door to the echoing metal stairwell, and we started climbing.
I was closer to the top than the bottom, which was a blessing. We paused before bursting onto the rooftop, and listened for the sound of metal tread feet on the stairs behind us. So far, nothing, but we still had no time.
Eddie eased open the roof door. Night had fallen since my encounter in the alley, and the bright neon lights of the District Lovehuts cast their glow into the sky. Nothing waited for us on the roof.
“My father is a cocky bastard,” Declan said by way of explanation. He gave Eddie a grudging grin. “He doesn’t expect opposition because he never gets it.”
“Good for us.” I pointed to the closest neon sign, just one roof over from ours. “We can cross the roof and get into that hut there. And then…”
“I’ll take it from there,” Eddie replied. “We’ll do the Whitney maneuver.”
“The what?” Declan asked.
Eddie shifted Kaelyn in his grasp. “About forty years ago, some Oldcity gangsters decided they were going to market unregistered intoxicants to the underground clubs. Without paying the registration fee to the Newcity governing body—”
“Including my grandfather.” Declan nodded.
“Yeah. Well, without paying the fee, the gangsters stood to make a hefty profit. The problem was how to get the goods in and out of the clubs.”
“They used Pleasurebots as carriers,” Declan said, as though suddenly recalling. “Which is why so many of the regulatory inspection laws were passed.”
“Exactly,” I said. “They mostly used the LUV models, because they had extra storage capacity, but they used a number of the PSSNs too.”
“Whitney Camphill was the leader of the group,” Eddie continued. “Newcity Council knew it. But in order to arrest her, they had to catch her. They tracked her and a shipment to one of the huts, and waited until she came out.”
“But she never came out,” Declan said.
“She came out, all right,” I answered. “But she looked and acted like a Pleasurebot. The secbots were programmed to read her citizen profile in her scan when she passed, but because she looked like a bot, she slipped past them.”
“The Whitney maneuver.” Declan nodded again.
“Modified,” Eddie said. He turned to the sound of metal-tinged voices coming closer. “They’re here.”
Kaelyn whimpered, and I took a minute to reach out and touch her fall of bright hair. “We’ll be out of here in a few minutes, K. Don’t worry.”
She put on a brave face. “My Gemma won’t let the hunters get me.”
“Not ever again,” I said.
“We promise,” Declan added and squeezed my shoulder.
Getting across the roof was easy, since the buildings weren’t separated by more than a couple of feet. Even Eddie, who had just the standard law enforcement enhancements, could make the jump. Kaelyn made a startled squawk when we sailed over the space, but in seconds we were over.
“Your father really is an arrogant bastard,” I told Declan as we entered the Lovehut through a rooftop access door and made our way down the levels of exuberant and abundant sexual activity. “He doesn’t expect us to get away, does he?”
“If he did, he’d have more guards chasing us.” Declan elbowed past a group of hopeful orgiasts waiting to get into a room. “I told you, he doesn’t expect opposition.”
The lack of stronger pursuit unsettled me, but I tried to think of it positively. Adar’s arrogance could only benefit us.