Tayel ran through the undercity smog, her gas mask rattling with every breath. She smacked the filter cartridge, but the centimeter-wide hole in the tubing still hissed as she inhaled. Stupid thing. Pollution burned the back of her throat. She coughed, and Jace — huffing and puffing — sped up to reach her side. He grabbed the loose fabric of her jacket and pulled her forward. Together, they rounded the corner where the neon sign over the grocer’s mart flickered, dispersing light through the haze. One more block to Otto’s. Pick up the pace.
Bustling city denizens fresh off the after-work tram slowed them on the main street. The cacophony of rasping gas masks drowned out Tayel’s leak and pounding pulse. She gagged at the sour taste along her tongue. Nothing mattered more than the hope of fresh air. Fresh air, and safety.
Two more shops down, and there it was. Neon tubing spelled out “OTTO’S” in crooked letters above the shop, washing Tayel’s arm in green light as she reached for the door. She pushed inside, holding it open only long enough for Jace to hurry in after her.
She steadied herself while the door she’d come from and the door ahead clicked. A sharp sucking sound gave way to a rush of wind as the airlock triggered. She tore off the mask, freeing her dull, red hair to fall in sticky waves around her face. Against the opposite wall, Jace removed his own mask and smoothed his ruffled head feathers down with his talons. She eyed him for injuries. She’d seen Argels break their beaks from a misplaced elbow in a crowd, but he seemed fine. At least he’d fared better than her.
“You alright?” she asked.
“I’ve felt better.” He clutched his chest. “What about you?”
Her throat burned, her face hurt, and her heart threatened to beat right out of her. “Not so good. You saw it too, right? The—?”
The door ahead clicked and he tugged it open for her. A rickety overhead fan churned the humid air into a musty breeze just inside the pawn shop. It was far better than the murk outside. Breathable, at least.
“Well, I’ll be,” the Cyborn at the register said. “It’s a little late to see you two around.”
“Hey, Otto, we—.” Tayel’s breath caught against the itch in her throat. She buried a cough in the crook of her arm.
Otto leaned over the counter, his leather jacket too snug around his broad metal shoulders. Unlike most Cyborn, whose deadpan faces had no moving parts, he’d installed blinking blue eyes and a makeshift jaw which hinged and unhinged as he spoke. Although that was probably a mechanical error, not a feature.
“You okay?” he asked, his robotic voice inflective — like a human’s.
“Otto, there was a raider at Sif Field,” Tayel said.
“This black hole-looking thing popped up out of nowhere, and we saw a raider in it. We—"
“Is it still there?”
“I don’t think so.” She noted Jace’s nod and said, “The portal blinked out of existence after I fell.”
“Portal? ‘Bout two seconds ago you said it was a black hole. Which is it?”
“I have no idea what it was. A giant shadow popped up, and a fragging raider stuck his head out of it. Portal makes sense to me.”
“Black hole would’ve swallowed us up by now,” Jace said, rapping his talons together.
“Okay, okay. Sit.” Otto gestured to the bar stools across his counter. “Now you’re sure you’re recollectin’ alright? Raiders don’t often start sayin’ ‘hello’ to the locals without harassing the government first.”
“We know what we saw,” Tayel said, taking her seat.
He let go a mechanical sigh. “Alright, then tell me what happened — line for line — and gimme that mask. I can tell the damn thing’s broken just by lookin’ at it.”
Tayel set the defunct thing in front of her. That itch in her throat came back, and she scratched her neck. It wouldn’t stop the discomfort on the inside, but that didn’t stop her from trying.
Otto examined her gas mask, narrowing his rusty eyebrows at the damage. “Oh screws. This is worse than when you were mugged. How long were you breathing through it like this?”
“A couple minutes,” Tayel said.
Jace crossed his wings. “It wasn’t that fast. We ran into foot traffic from people getting off the tram.”
“First things first. Can you breathe?” Otto grabbed a toolkit from under the counter and dropped it on the linoleum top.
“Good. Tell me about the raider.”
“Well, we went to Sif Field after school,” she said. “We were just sitting — talking — and then this shadow, a little taller than you, Otto, and maybe a couple persons wide, popped out of nowhere. It looked like — help me out, Jace.”
“It really did look a bit like a black hole — like in the movies. It was swirling and black and purple,” Jace said.
Tayel continued, “There was the silhouette of a person in it—”
“—A human,” Jace added.
“A human silhouette. And it looked like he was coming toward us, like the shadow was a window he was on the other side of. As he started to fill out, we could see the glowing goggles and the cyonic augmentations.” Her tightening chest squeezed the words out faster. “He even had an aether-tech blade. It looked like he was about to come through, so I stood up to run, and that’s when the bleacher broke in two. I hit my head, broke my mask, and Jace was yelling like crazy, but the portal vanished. We came right here.”
“Damn rusted things. Told city hall a month ago they were starting to wane and — hell, never mind that. One thing at a time. How far’d she fall, kiddo?” he asked of Jace.
“And it took how long to get here?”
“Sixteen minutes,” Jace said, eyes on the chrome band around his wrist. “That’s a long time, right? For a human to breathe in the murk?”
Tayel would’ve chastised him for babying her if the mood was right, but he wasn’t wrong. She tried to remember all the effects of inhaling the pollution: burning sensations, numbness, lung erosion — if exposed consistently.
“The murk wouldn’t have caused any permanent damage — not right away anyhow,” Otto said. “You hit your head, though.”
“More my face, really,” Tayel said.
“What’s your face attached to?” Jace asked.
She swatted at him. Otto grabbed a light from his toolkit and shined it into both her eyes. After she was sure she’d be seeing spots for an hour, he put the thing away.
“Well, yer eyes are right and you’re talking straight, so no concussion,” he said. “And you saw that raider, too?”
“Yeah,” Jace said.
“Well, you two were right to come to me. Just hang on, alright? Now that I know Tayel’s brain isn’t oozin’ out her ears, I’ll make a call to the force. Try’n relax.”
Tayel gave a short laugh. Relax. Right. After burned lungs and raiders.
She shuddered, remembering the incident. She’d sat on the bleachers with Jace, staring out over the open field where she would play magball the next day. Goosebumps had pricked her arms. She’d whipped her head around at the strange sensation of being watched, and a silhouette reached its hand out from within an enormous shadow before flickering away into nothingness.
“You sure you’re okay?” Jace asked, interrupting the memory.
She rubbed her arm. “Yeah.”
His head cocked to the side in his trademark look of inquisitiveness.
“Really. I’m fine,” she lied. “It’s the raider that—.” She stopped on the word “scares.” “When was the last time they launched a raid?”
“It’s been a while. Not since the Elshan Council agreed to pay the peace tax, but they’d have a heck of a time getting into Deltic City, anyway. It’s too dense.”
“Then what did we just see?”
He shuddered, and the red feathers along his wings puffed up. “I know. It’s scary to think about. I hope this was just some freak incident.”
Otto pressed his comm to the side of his head. “Yeah, I’ve got a lead for you. Couple local kids came in to report raider activity.”
Local kids. Otto never did let the “kiddo” nicknames go, even though Tayel turned seventeen four months ago, and Jace was only a year behind. She spared Otto the reminder since he was on link with the defense force, and spun her chair around to look at the shop through the veil of swirling dust.
Five double sided shelves sat in the middle of the small floor space. Knick knacks covered the displays, from action figures and plushies to computer parts and home automation kits. The walls were just as crowded. What wasn’t taken up by shelves was covered in flexi-screens — micro thin computer screens as flexible as paper. One showed the action hero, Xander, launching fire aether from his talons as though he were attacking the observer. The fireball grew larger until it filled the entire image. The flames fizzled out, and the scene looped again.
Another flexi-screen displayed the entire Igador Star System where her home planet, Delta, spun on its axis large and purple — the sixth planet from the sun. But that paled in comparison to what looked like a new flexi in the corner.
“Alright.” Otto hung the headset back on a hook in the wall. “Report’s in. Can’t say they don’t think it’s some kind of hoax, but at least they promised to investigate the field.”
“You don’t think it’s a hoax, right?” Jace asked.
“’Course not, kiddo, I trust you two ‘bout anything.”
“Thanks. I just hope… I just hope this isn’t the start of a raid.”
“The force’ll look into it.” Otto’s gaze lingered on empty space before he reached for the shelf behind him. “Here. These the cards you were lookin’ at last time?”
“I don’t think these are going to help. Not right now.”
“Give it a go at least. I thought Tayel was the pessimistic one.”
The cartilage at the corners of Jace’s orange beak pulled upward to shape an Argel’s closest approximation of a human smile. He lifted the chest’s lid, reached in, pulled out a bundle of rectangular cards, and began to sort them. In what order, Tayel couldn’t have guessed.
“Hang out for a little bit. I gotta fix your mask anyway.” Otto grabbed a patch kit from the toolbox.
“Thanks,” Tayel said. The flexi-screens drew her attention again. “You got a new flexi.”
“I did. Got wanderlust for Modnik now?”
The new flexi-screen played a landscape shot of Cryzoar, the capital of planet Modnik. The skyline of the city towered above a valley of snow, unseen trails of wind tossing flakes of white so the ground shimmered. The aurora streaked green and pink through the night sky above the city, from which giant crystals protruded out of the walls. Perfectly beautiful.
“Well, Modnik’s the only planet in Igador I don’t have a picture of in my room,” she said.
He chuckled, but was obviously distracted by his work. His heat gun whirred to life, melting the patch plastic over the hole in the mask’s tubing. Tayel rapped her fingers on the counter. A box of trinkets sat in front of the register marked for only a couple gafs — dirt cheap enough to bother looking through, and better than keeping still so thoughts of raiders came back. She dug her fingers through the pile until a glint of bluish-white caught her eye.
“Is this eir stone?” She plucked the necklace out of the box.
Otto nodded. “Good eye.”
It reminded her of Mom, of stories about the stone mines where she used to work long before Tayel was born. “I think I’ll get it.”
“It will look nice on you,” Jace said.
“Getting it for Mom, actually. She hasn’t been able to splurge on herself. Especially not since she got that computer installed in the apartment — and that thing’s mostly for me."
A few cards slipped from his talons. “O-oh. Well, it would still look nice on you.”
“Repairs are done,” Otto said.
Tayel pulled her worn wallet out of her back pocket and flipped through it to find the card with Galaxy Accrued Funds embossed in the plastic. She held it out.
He waved it away. “This one’s on the house, kiddo.”
“Otto, take it. I’ve been working a couple days a week at the magball shop down the block. I’ve got the gafs.” She pushed the card into his waving hand. “Oh, and the necklace, too. You want anything, Jace?”
He mulled over the growing pile of cards. “No… thank you, though.”
Otto mumbled and disappeared beneath his seat. He placed a black canister on the counter and lowered the necklace inside it before sealing the top. Tayel took her gaf card back after the transaction finished.
“Thanks for everything,” she said.
“Sure, sure.” He set a tool back in its place. “I’ll see you at your magball game tomorrow? Good a time as any to check in about this raider business.”
Right, the game. She put on her mask, sliding her fingers over each of the seals to make sure they held. Going back to the field was the last thing she wanted to do. Whether or not it was daytime hardly mattered when shadowy portals could pop up out of nowhere.
“Yeah,” she said quietly.
Jace worked his own mask over his beak and put the trading cards back in their chest. “Thank you, Otto. Did you need me to put this back on the shelf?”
“Of course not, kiddo. You two get on home safe, alright? Don’t stop for anything.”
“We’ll be okay,” Tayel said.
“And if you see any more of them raiders—”
“Yeah.” Tayel coughed. “We’ll let you know.”
She led the way out of the shop and into the street, still crowded from the after work rush. She struggled to calm her nerves while inhaling the first few gulps of air. Her throat still itched from the exposure, but Otto did good work. The mask performed as it needed to.
Dim rays of upper city lights hit the pavement through gaps in Median and Top Sector roadways far above her. The contrasting beams spread randomly through the undercity streets, highlighting sections of walkways and buildings in faded neon. Tayel craned her head toward the undersides of the roads — her sky.
It must have been nice not to live in the Under Sector. They didn’t need to worry about gas mask leaks up there, where the air was fresh enough to breathe. Maybe they didn’t need to worry about strange shadows either. She and Jace turned onto the first residential block, where she eyed the dark gaps between apartments with scrutiny. Nothing.
Her first floor home stood at the end of the block where the security gates didn’t work and the pavement had crumbled into gray dust. Mom’s ceramic welcome sign on the front door had seen better days. Tayel gave Jace a nod before pulling open the entrance. He ran, and she ducked in after him, closing the door behind her. In the apartment, the fan above them whirred into action, sucking up whatever murk had slipped inside. Hardly any got in this time.
Mom looked up from the kitchen counter, her red hair frazzled. “Where have you two been?”
“We got caught up at Otto’s, Mom. Sorry we’re late.” Tayel turned sideways to get around the couch and went straight to her bedroom. The apartment was just about as crowded as the pawn shop.