The kid was quick, darting ahead of Valentin around chunks of concrete and metal scraps that lay in the street like a giant child’s playthings. Valentin’s lungs burned. He was four strides behind but pumped his legs harder to close the gap.
Two strides now. Almost close enough to grab a fistful of hair and give a good, hard tug. The boy looked back, yelped, and surged.
The gap widened. Four strides. Six.
Valentin could not match the faster pace. He also could not let a curfew-breaker escape. He trained his gun on the boy for the 1.5 seconds it took to scan in a lock.
The boy slowed and stopped.
Gratefully, Valentin stopped, too. He hadn’t wanted to fire on a kid. His knees and sides hurt. Not for the first time, he felt all of his 51 years and then some.
He touched his earpiece. “Shannen?”
“You got one?” she said through the static. Reception was hit-or-miss on the city’s outskirts.
“Yeah. I’m sending the coordinates.” He did so with another touch and looked back to his captive. “Turn around.”
The boy did, framed against an abandoned warehouse tagged with graffiti. He didn’t look like much: dirty, frayed clothes, bare feet. But in three decades on Coelus’ force, Valentin had learned appearances could deceive. Not only had this boy snuck above ground during a Pass—an accomplishment in itself—he’d also had the balls to run.
It had almost worked. He’d almost escaped.
Valentin lowered his gun but kept it in hand to remind the boy not to bolt. “What’s your name, kid?”
“I’m not a kid.”
“Give me something else to call you.”
He hesitated. “Greger.”
“Why are you breaking curfew, Greger?”
“Needed some fresh air.”
Cocky bastard. “If a meteor hits, you could be dead before you realize its coming. You’re not authorized to be above ground during a Pass. So let’s try again. Why are you here?”
Fine. The hard way it was.
Valentin switched his gun to scanner mode. It linked with the chip in Greger’s neck and displayed his profile on a screen on the gun’s grip. For a registered citizen, a profile included name, employer, birthplace, criminal record, immigration status, and so on. For Greger, the gun showed the basics of a physical scan: male, age 16, height 1.6 meters, weight 54.55 kilos.
Unregistered. Probably from the slums. High society had a name for a kid like that: slum rat. They had a name for officers like Valentin, too: rat catcher.
Shannen Naegel jogged up and made a face. “Sheesh. The first thing we do at the lockup is hose him down. And that smell.” She gagged.
Greger stiffened. Valentin pitied the kid. The stench, the castoff clothes, the empty stomach, he had grown up with those things, too. Only he had escaped them.
“Keep him in your sights,” he told Shannen. He holstered his gun, unhooked his cuffs from his belt, and yelled, “Turn to the wall. Hands behind your back.”
Greger obeyed, and Valentin opened the cuffs. Before he could snap them into place, there came a sound: a whiz and a crack like a gunshot. Light streaked across the sky. Buildings rumbled. Bricks dropped to the pavement.
Valentin shielded his eyes as the meteor rocketed overhead. It was the biggest so far this Pass. Luckily, its trajectory took it over the city. But on a planet that crossed orbits with an asteroid belt twice a year, luck had a way of running out.
The meteor disappeared. Valentin glanced at Shannen, who lowered her gun.
“What?” he said.
Her gaze went past him. He turned, then started in on every curse word he knew. Because while he had been gaping at the sky like a rookie on his first day, Greger had gone.</p>
“You were supposed to watch him.”
“I got distracted,” Shannen said. “You did, too.”
“We’ll be laughing stocks.”
“No, you’ll be a laughing stock. It was your takedown. I’m only your backup.” She rubbed her chin. “Now that I think about it, maybe I wasn’t here at all.”
He tapped his earpiece. “Everything’s recorded.”
“You’re an ass.”
“Listen, it doesn’t matter who let him go, and the longer we argue, the farther away he gets. We should split up. We’ll find him faster that way.”
“Are you crazy? You saw that meteor. We need to—”
“Return to headquarters,” he finished.
“I know the rules, damn it.” He kicked a rock down the street.
Chances were, one meteor was all they would see. But that one might have been part of a larger rock the planet’s defense network had blown apart hundreds of miles above the surface. Atmospheric heat would vaporize most of what was left, but not all of it. In the interests of safety, the Coelus City Council decreed that after a meteor sighting, all topside personnel—officers, firewatchers, and star catchers—must go underground until the danger passed.
But Valentin hated to lose a catch.
More than that, he needed a catch. He used to be one of the best at his job. That’s what everyone said. That he used to be.
“Ten minutes,” he said.
Shannen shook her head.
“Ten minutes. Then we go.”
“I got responsibilities. A son. I can’t take the risk.” She patted his shoulder. “There’ll be other catches. One slum rat isn’t worth it. Let it go.”
If only he could. Shannen didn’t understand because to her, this was just a job. To Valentin, it was his life.
“The Council’s been looking for any excuse to push out the old vets,” he said. “They want a younger squad.”
“Come on, you’re not old.”
“I’m old enough, and letting that kid get away right out from under my nose proves it. It’s exactly the sort of pretext they’re looking for.”
She gave him a long look. “Be careful. It’d be a shame if you got yourself killed.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“I caught a glimpse of the kid when he ran.” She pointed to a street lined with derelict buildings. “Try that direction. Stay alive.” She jogged away.</p>
The industrial district Greger had fled into was one the universe had crapped on good and proper. Even between Passes, when Coelus bustled with a million people above ground, no one respectable came here. Not anymore.
The district had once teemed with factories and warehouses. Then came a planet-killer. A nuke broke it apart, and when the pieces rained down, the biggest one hit here. It flattened every structure, streetlight, vehicle, tree, and power pole. Companies started over elsewhere and abandoned this district to criminals and scavengers.
Valentin jogged toward the blast zone, three blocks ahead. Across the landscape of rubble were squat structures at the city’s center, many kilometers away. He had heard of skyscrapers on other planets, but not here. Structures close to the ground were less likely to lose their top floors to a passing meteor.
Greger would not enter the zone itself, not with the danger of becoming trapped in debris. He would take refuge amid the old warehouses that lined the street.
Valentin started with buildings farthest from the zone. He didn’t go inside but looked for signs of recent passage or forced entry. As he worked his way down the street, two meteors whistled overhead—either smaller than the one before or higher up. Still, they made Valentin uneasy.
When he got within a block of the zone, he thought he must have passed by Greger. Then around the side of a warehouse, he found scuffmarks in the dirt. A door was cracked open.
He stepped inside. Sunlight streamed through window frames jagged with broken glass but did little against the gloom. The air was stifling. Small animals skittered away as Valentin followed a trail of dusty footprints.
He walked toward a glow. Greger sat against a crate, staring up at the building’s exposed guts of wires, pipes, and wood beams. Anything of value had been stripped and sold long ago. A tesla box, probably a warehouse castoff, gave off light near Greger’s feet.
Valentin drew his gun. “Nice try.”
Startled, the boy jerked and kicked over the box. He glared at Valentin.
“Good to see you, too,” Valentin said.
“I’d find you.”
“What’s this place to you?” Valentin asked.
“Nothing. Just a place. I was going to hide here until you stopped looking for me.”
“Stopped looking?” He laughed. “You don’t know much about rat catchers if you think we give up that easily.”
“It’s worked before. With others.”
“Why are you here? Did you plan on doing some breaking and entering while everyone was below ground? You picked the wrong part of town.”
“I’m not looting.” He sounded insulted. “I don’t need a Pass to steal stuff. I can do that any old day.”
“Then what’s your business?”
“None of yours.”
“Fair enough.” He pulled out the cuffs. “It doesn’t matter. Either way, you’re coming with me.”
Greger stood and held out his hands, wrists bared. The gesture appeared contrite, but Valentin didn’t buy it. The kid had already proven he wouldn’t come quietly.
“On your stomach,” Valentin said. “Hands behind your back.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
“On your stomach, or a hole in your stomach.”
Once Greger was down, Valentin holstered his gun and snapped the first cuff around the boy’s wrist. He grabbed for the other wrist when Greger bucked, hard. Valentin stumbled back. Greger scrambled to his feet.
They faced each other. One cuff dangled by its chain off Greger’s wrist. He swung it like a weapon.
“Don’t be an idiot, kid.”
“I told you already, I’m not a kid.”
Valentin reached for his holster but found it empty. Where was his gun?
Greger swung the cuff. Valentin ducked, but the backswing caught him in the cheek. He gasped. Five years ago, he would have dodged the blow. Older body, slower reflexes. He punched Greger in the ear.
Greger backed off, rolling his jaw.
Valentin spotted his gun several feet away, where it must have fallen when Greger bucked against him. He outweighed Greger by 10 kilos, but even so, he was unsure he could take the kid in a fight and wasn’t itching to find out. He said, “I’m not going to hurt you,” and stepped toward the gun.
Valentin took another step. “I’m long past the age for schoolyard taunts.”
“What good would that do? You’ll come with me either way.”
“I did nothing wrong.”
“You’re topside during a Pass. That’s against the law.”
Greger bared his teeth. “It’s not my law. When did those Council bastards do anything for me? They eat caviar and chocolate while my family starves in a tent that doesn’t keep the rain off. Every time I take a piss, I do it into a dirt hole. I hate your rules.”
“The rules protect you.”
“They protect the rich and to hell with everyone else. Why are we forced to go underground during a Pass? Shouldn’t that be a personal choice? Why are all fallen meteors property of the Council?”
“Meteor sales fund the government, and we don’t pay taxes. It’s a trade-off. Everyone knows that.”
“Like everyone knows not all the money goes to the city? The councilmen are living the high life. I say every person deserves the same chance.”
Then Valentin understood. Greger had come to the site of Coelus’ biggest strike in hopes of finding a metoerite the star catchers had overlooked. He planned to sell his prize on the black market, where the rocks were highly coveted. Their unique compounds fueled reactors and powered starships.
“You’ll never manage it,” Valentin said.
“The star catchers are too good. There’s nothing left to find.”
Greger charged again. He threw himself against Valentin and toppled them both down with Greger on top.
Valentin’s head slammed against the floor. The world spun. A hand grabbed his shirt. Then came a fist. Pain exploded in his nose.
Valentin regained enough of his senses to block the next punch. He rolled them over and pinned Greger’s arms. Blood from his nose dripped onto the boy’s shirt.
Valentin pressed down harder. “Will you just—”
He stopped. There was a rumble in the distance—a meteor. Then it was not so distant. It grew louder and louder until it became deafening roar. The warehouse walls shook.
Valentin yanked Greger to his feet.
“Run!” he yelled.
The support beam above them exploded, and a dozen things happened at once. Wood splinters shot down. Secondary beams snapped and fell, taking pipes and wiring with them.
Valentin dove for his gun.
The whole structure groaned, and with a final heave, the building came down in a great, crashing heap.</p>
Valentin awoke on his back in the dark. He felt at his surroundings. Debris had fallen on both sides and arched a half-meter above, leaving him in a pocket. He could move both arms and one leg. Something pinned down his other leg.
“Greger!” he said. No reply. He drew breath to yell again and got a lungful of dust. His tongue felt thick, coated with a metallic taste. “Greger!”
A voice came from not far away. “I’m here. Something’s on my chest.”
“Hold on. I’ll get us out.”
Anyone who worked above ground during a Pass learned in training that a trapped person should stay calm and wait for help. But what if help never found him? A few times over the years, an officer’s body had been pulled from some debris weeks or months after a strike. Valentin had no intention of becoming one of them.
He touched his earpiece. “Shannen?”
“If anyone can hear me, please respond.”
He tallied his assets: three usable limbs and his gun. In the pitch dark, he skimmed the gun’s buttons, activated the screen and used its glow to examine his leg. A crossbeam 15 centimeters square lay across his calf.
He turned off the screen to conserve power and felt along the beam. He could get his fingers underneath, but first he had to tend to his leg. If an artery had been severed, he could bleed out in minutes. After a short struggle, Valentin got his shirt off and tied it tight below his knee.
He returned his efforts to the beam and heaved. Pressure eased. Pain flared in his calf. With agonizing slowness, he pulled his leg a few centimeters and set the beam down, closer to his ankle than before.
“Are we gonna die?” Greger asked.
No point in lying. “Maybe.”
“If I die, would you do something for me?”
“Depends what it is.”
“Find my family in the camp on the western outskirts and tell them I’m sorry. Ask for Maryann Sinclair. That’s my mother. Will you do that?”
It seemed a harmless request. “Sure.”
“Thanks.” A pause. “Is there anyone you want me to talk to if it goes the other way?”
The last time Valentin had seen his parents and brothers had been 30 years ago. They had been living in a shack on the outskirts, no clean water and barely enough food. He had packed his only change of clothes and left for a Council recruiting station. Years later, he had sent them a letter and a generous amount of money. The package came back unopened, “return to sender” scrawled on top in his father’s handwriting.
“There’s no one,” he said.
“Is your family dead?”
“Look, kid, I just left,” he said, irritated. “I was relieved to get away.”
“What about now?”
Now he wished that someone would care if he didn’t make it out alive. He had traded his family for a squad of rat catchers who had once admired and respected him but now saw him as past his prime. The mistakes of a young man had become the regrets of an older one.
He could not tell that to Greger, though, without whom he wouldn’t be in this rubble heap in the first place. He lifted the beam. His leg slid another few centimeters.
“Why do you care about my family?” Valentin asked.
“Don’t know. Makes me less scared if I talk.” Then: “My father died like this.”
“He was a firewatcher in Mefitas.”
Now Greger had his attention. “Mefitas?”
“Back before… you know.”
He knew. Before the biggest meteor in centuries blasted apart a kilometer over the city. It had been a fluke. The meteor should never have made it so close to the surface. No one above ground had survived, and those underground became refugees.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“My mother and sisters and I came to Coelus, but we lost the lottery for citizenship cards. Without cards, there was no work, so we ended up in the slums. That’s when I started stealing. Without me, they’d starve.” The boy sobbed. “I used to go to school. I was gonna be a firewatcher like my dad.”
Another tug. Valentin pulled free.
“I’m almost out,” he said.
Released from its confines, his leg became a fount of pain. He breathed deep to keep from passing out and felt along his calf. Beneath the shreds of his pants, he traced a wound the size of his palm. The injury seemed to have missed any major artery. He would not bleed to death. Not immediately, at least.
He dug upward. Dirt poured onto his face. He might dislodge a chunk of rubble that would crush his head, but he had to take the risk.
“You haven’t told me your name,” Greger said.
“I suppose not.”
“What is it?”
Quiet. “Hey, Valentin?”
“It’s really hot. And it’s getting hard to breathe.”
Damn it. He had wanted to catch the kid, not listen to him asphyxiate. He shoved aside a block of concrete. Light streamed into the hole. He pulled himself out, into the fresh air.
The warehouse was a total loss—wood, metal, and concrete in a heap with Valentin at its center. Nearby buildings had survived the blast, which meant the meteor—or meteors—had hit right here.
Not far away, sunlight glinted off an empty handcuff poking out of the rubble. Greger.
Valentin put weight on his bad leg. Fire shot from foot to hip. He cried out. In the daylight, he could see a chunk of muscle was missing down to the bone. There was no way he could walk. He would be lucky if he ever walked again. A rich man could afford to replace the leg, but he could not.
He was done, his career over.
Despair washed over him, but he pushed it down. Now was not the time to fall apart.
“Greger,” he shouted.
“If you can hear me, bang on something.”
Nothing. Was he alive?
With some surprise, Valentin realized he cared whether the boy lived. Greger was now what Valentin had once been: young, idealistic, full of raw talent. A rising star. Except, Greger was better. Given the chance, he would lift his family up with him instead of leave them behind.
Valentin could give him that chance.
He scooted over to the cuff. Greger was right, the debris was warmer over here. Heat radiated through gaps as he dug. Grit coated his arms. It ground into his wound, making it burn. Sweat stung in his eyes and the cracks in his lips.
Several minutes’ more work, and he had Greger cleared to the waist. A metal beam crossed the boy’s chest. He eyes were closed, and he drew in oxygen in shallow gasps.
Valentin could not move the beam, but he did not have to wait long for help. An aircraft flew in and hovered, looking for a place to land. Valentin waved his arms. The pilot flashed his lights in return.
Valentin reached to unhook the cuff around Greger’s wrist when a glint beside the boy drew his attention. Not steel, wood, or glass. It was a fist-sized rock speckled with metallic sheen.
The meteorite was too small to have collapsed the building by itself; it must be one of several. He touched it—warm but no longer scalding hot.
The star catchers wouldn’t miss one rock among many. He scooped it up and stuffed it in his pocket as two men picked their way toward him over the heap.
“Here,” he yelled. “We’re here.”</p>
Two weeks later, after the Pass ended and life resumed on the surface, Valentin visited Greger at the hospital.
The boy had his own room. The IVs, heart monitor, and respirator that had surrounded his bed were gone, which opened up a view of the room’s chameleon wall. Greger had set the wall to transparent and was gazing out at Coelus’ high-end district.
He looked up when Valentin came in. “I’m being discharged today, but you know that.”
“Are you taking me into custody?”
Greger relaxed. He nodded at Valentin’s leg. “Can I see?”
Using a cane, Valentin limped to a chair and rolled up his pants. The prosthesis started below his knee. Except for a sheen to the faux skin, Valentin couldn’t tell where flesh ended and technology began. Judging by Greger’s frown, neither could he.
“I thought it would look robotic.” Greger pulled his knees to his chest. “The doctors told me I broke two ribs and had a collapsed lung. That would cost a lot to treat, wouldn’t you think? But they said the bill was paid for. You wouldn’t know anything about that?”
Valentin suppressed a smile. He reached into his coat for some documents and placed them on the bed.
Greger’s eyes widened. “Citizenship papers? How?”
“Money in the right hands will buy anything.”
“And this?” Greger pointed to a string of numbers Valentin had written in the corner.
“Bank account number. It’s in your mother’s name, since you’re too young. After you receive cards for you and your family, you should visit the recruiting station in the lower district. They’re expecting you.”
“Expecting me for what?”
“Training. As a firewatcher or rat catcher, or something safer if you prefer. But I don’t think safe is in your blood.” He drew his gun and set it atop the papers. “In which case, you’ll need this.”
“I can’t take your gun.”
Valentin stood, leaning on his cane. His surgeon had said he would not need extra support once his body adjusted to the new limb. But for now, the cane illustrated how incapable he was of using the weapon.
“I’m retired. Tomorrow I’m catching a transport off-world to do some traveling.”
Left unsaid was that he had to leave before the Council thought to give his credit account a closer look. They did not take well to theft, which was the charge Valentin would face if the origin of his newfound wealth was investigated.
Unlike him, Greger should face no problems with his share of the money. The Council had no record of his finances. For all they knew, his family had always been rich.
“If there’s anything I can do…” Greger said.
“Take care of your family. Don’t leave them or forget where you came from. Don’t make my mistakes.” He limped toward the door.
He looked back.
Greger peered at the gun’s display screen. “The shot counter says zero. That’s impossible. It means in all your years on the force, you never pulled the trigger.”
“You said that day you would shoot me.”
“Maybe I would have, if you had kept running. But you stopped. Everyone did, and I always made the takedown. That’s why I was one of the best.”
He winked at the astonished boy and limped from the room.
About the Author
Jennifer Campbell-Hicks is a writer, journalist, wife, mother and lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy. Her fiction has appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, Intergalactic Medicine Show and Daily Science Fiction. She blogs at jennifercampbellhicks.blogspot.com.