Ren leaned around the corner, hands grabbing the broken brick of the apartment’s corner. The hot, dry air scratched the back of her throat. Her wild, curly hair tangled down her back and stuck to her face. Wide eyes peered around the corner and out into the street.
It was midday and the streets of Yis 2’s only port city, Jan Ceilia, were busier than they had ever been. Thousands of different species crowded the streets of the busy city, carriages and speeders honking their obnoxious horns and street vendors hawking their wares, everything from fruit to jewelry, for all the world to hear.
Ren crouched on the rough cobblestones, eyes fixed on one of the vendors. A heavy man slammed his hand into his own table, laughing loudly. He’d been drunk since midmorning, she’d watched him knock back bottle after bottle of brown liquor. It wasn’t as strong as the black stuff that the cart-builder sold from behind his store, but it was real close. The vendor tossed his wares around, juggling and shouting at the passersby, who either hurried past or stopped to look. The one’s who stopped would be greeted by a loud, poor english, garbled by the long, snapping beak protruding from the front of his face.
The vendor bagged four sand apples and stuffed the bag back at one of his customers, waddling behind his stall for another drink.
Her bare feet scrabbled on the sandy street as Ren shot forwards, throwing herself around the corner and shooting to the fruit stand. Her dark hands tossed open the back of the ragged canvas messenger bag on her hip, stuffing it full of as much fruit as she could fit. Sand apples and bush peaches, white tatonan pears. Ren glanced up quickly, and tied the bag shut, just as the heavy vendor stumbled back into his stall. His eyes bugged from his head and his beak clacked loudly.
“Hey!” He growled. A massive, pasty hand swung at her head. “Get out of here!” Ren turned and ran, charging down the street. “Street thief!” He screamed at her back, spittle flinging from his beak. Ren hugged the bag to her chest as she tripped over the uneven roads.
Footsteps, loud ones, thundered behind her. Ren ducked around a corner into an alley, then around another. The street police were after her.
Ren cursed under her breath. The dark alley whistled with a breath of hot wind. The beggars and addicts that lined the corners muttered and moaned with it, surrounding Ren with a chorus of noise.
It was one of the street police. They wore the same black armor as the Government’s soldiers, with a white stripe around their shoulders. His voice came out robotic. Ren froze, skidding in the dirt. She turned to run the other way.
“Get her!” More police marched in from the other end of the alley. In her haste, Ren had sprinted straight into a trap.
Panicked, her head swung from side to side, hunting for a way out, any way out. Was this it, then? She’d spent a year on these streets, since running from her aunt’s home on her ninth birthday. Her tenth had passed just a month ago, it had been a year.
Ren looked from one end of the street, to the other. The poppy addicts in the corners, ragged and stinking, stared at her from wide, unseeing eyes.
She couldn’t go forwards, she couldn’t go back. She wasn’t going anywhere below her. But up...
Ren took a hard running start at the rough brick across from her. There was a window on the second level; Ren caught the ledge with her fingertips. Her bare feet scrabbled for purchase on the brick and she hauled herself over the ledge at last. She crouched there for a moment, but the police were crowding underneath her still.
“Alright, bastards” Ren muttered. She pulled a crumbling brick loose from the wall beside her and threw it through the grimy window, disappearing inside the building.
The room she landed in was empty, but not abandoned. It was a tiny kitchen, dirt on the tile floors and dirty dishes in a basin full of soapy water. Ren shot a glance from one side to another. She couldn’t go down the street level again, it would be too obvious. The building was a good four stories high, she decided. There was only one way to go, one way that didn’t involve hiding and waiting to be caught.
She scrambled across the room, through the doorway to the stairwell, then up the stairs to the roof.
The dusty wind hit her as soon as she through the trapdoor open. Ren dropped onto her stomach and shimmied to the edge of the building, overcome with curiousity. The police milled about below the window ledge she’d first jumped to, waiting for orders. As she watched, one of the soldiers took charge and pointed towards the building’s door. His garbled, radio-static voice just barely reached Ren’s ears, but she couldn’t tell what he was saying.
Ren stared out of the city, scared from her near miss. This wasn’t a bad place, she decided. A lot of thieves ran across the roofs in the richer sectors, where there was something interesting to actually steal. So much so, Ren had figured, that there guards on the roofs of those buildings now. The city spread out below her, every species she’d ever encountered, fighting through the mess of streets. One of the Government Outpost buildings rose in the distance, black metal glinting in the scant sunlight that filtered through the ever-present smoggy sky. The refineries in the north barfed yellow smoke into the atmosphere, causing the air to go thick and humid around them. Ren always avoided the north side of town because of them. That was a good thing about not having much of a home to come back to, she figured.
Then, something strange caught her eye.
Whereas most of the people on the streets below her walked about with their heads down, snarling at each other and shoving, there was one man who walked with his shoulders straight. He was head and shoulders taller than anyone else, walking like that, but Ren figured he was tall in any normal situation, too, and slim-shouldered. Even from this height, Ren fancied about seeing an intelligent gleam in his eye.
Her eye would’ve wandered away eventually, if at that moment he hadn’t stumbled into another stranger.
This one was tall as well, but with tough blue skin, pointed ears and a long tail like monkeys that Ren had met when she’d once broken into a zoo. The woman wore rough brown pants and a black tank top. Fighter pilot goggles hung around her neck.
Ren watched the exchange curiously. Anyone else on that street would’ve sworn and kept their eyes down, and moved on.
The sharp eye contact, the short conversation. Then- the first man snapped his fingers. It was unnoticeable, his hand down by his thigh, but the blue-skinned woman saw it, nodded. Then they moved on.
Ren had leant far out into the alley to see the curious exchange.
“Hey!” It was a robotic voice from a trooper helmet, down in the alley. “On the roof!”
Ren’s head shot up. What happened next was a long string of fortunate accidents in disguise.
Ren wobbled on the edge of the roof, balanced on her stomach and tilting forwards. Panicked, she tried to compensate, overbalanced and found herself tumbling towards the hard street below.
Ren squeezed her eyes shut, remembering everything she’d ever known about falling from high places. Hit with the balls of your feet, she thought. Roll. Then what? She was four stories up, she was about to be a pancake.
No. Ren took a moment to search through her pocket. There. Relief flooded through her mind as she pulled and tiny piece of metal and circuits.
She hadn’t tested it before. Now was as good a time as any, she thought, slamming her thumb into the control pad.
The tiny piece of machinery blinked and shivered and popped once. It sparked in Ren’s hand, and she knew suddenly it wasn’t going to work. Then a pressure formed underneath her. Amazed, Ren opened one eye to find her headlong fall had slowed to a drift.
She drifted until she was four feet from the soldier’s heads. Then the tiny device popped and sparked, and Ren dropped the rest of the way.
She fought her way quickly from the tangle of fallen plastic limbs and bounced to her feet, bruised and smattered with pulped fruit that leaked from the canvas messenger bag. She stuffed the tiny clump of circuits back in her pocket. It probably wouldn’t work a second time, but it would be good to have something to work off of next time.
The troopers clattered to their feet around her but Ren was already off, sprinting down the street with her hair flying behind her and soggy bag smacking the back of her legs as she ran.
A crowded street. That was all she needed. Ren flung herself around a corner and into a loud, crowded market square.
That was when the explosion happened.
The bomb shook Ren off her feet. She sprawled onto the ground, arms over her head with the rest of the square. Squawking and shouting pounded at her ears, before the second explosion shook the city.
Ren decided quickly that the bombs were a long ways away. The terrorists had no interest in the square. She scrambled to her feet and took off across the square and into the alley beyond it.
Risking a glance behind her, she saw troopers picking their way through the market full of collapsed people. Why were they going through so much trouble? She was just a stupid street thief!
Ren knew why.
Last month had been her tenth birthday; she was recruitment age. They needed as many soldiers as they could get. Especially talented ones. Ren ran flat out down the alley, then shot out into what should have been a busy street.
That was the third accident.
The street, Ren realized too late, was completely empty, and not from the bombings. She could see now, smoke rising from the black citadel far to the south. She wouldn’t have expected anything less.
Ren barely had time to register the high-pitched whine of speeders- four of them- sailing towards her, before she spun to see them bearing down on her. Ren screamed and tried to fall backwards, but it was too late.
The first speeder barreled into her. Ren saw stars and felt herself flying... up. Up, and over. Someone had grabbed her around the waist before the flying machine could smash her into a paste along the empty street. She landed with a thud on her stomach, on the back of the speeder. Government standard-issue speeder, excellent quality. Good firepower, too.
“What are you doing, Zane?” The speeder beside them, Ren realized that there were four of them, asked. “Why’d you nab her?” It was the blue-skinned fighter pilot she had seen before.
“I wasn’t about to run her down!”
“You should’ve!” Ren squirmed, trying to get into a better position. She wasn’t exactly comfortable with someone who’s friend said he should’ve killed her!
“We can drop her off somewhere on the other side of this cursed city!” Someone Ren couldn’t see growled. “She’ll be fine there.”
“Nacth!” The pilot growled in a language she didn’t know. “We can’t!”
“Why not?” His question, Ren heard, was addressed to the man in front of her- Zane. He answered.
“She’s right.” What? Where would they take her, then?
“Then what’ll we do?” The pilot shouted.
“We’ll think of something!” He shouted, and spun the speeder wheel hard to the left. They went into a careening tailspin, knocking over booths that Ren didn’t recognize. The air was thick and humid. They were already in the northern sector, near the refineries. She’d never been to this part of the city before, but she knew they were headed out of it. She tried to crane her neck upwards to get a good look around, and failed.
“Stay down!” Zane shouted over the whine of the engines. “You’ll fall off! These things aren’t meant for two!”
Ren ignored a comment made to her left about just letting her fall, and looked at the ground. It flew past her nose faster than she’d ever flown over land before. She decided to listen.
Staring at the ground sailing below them made her sick. She didn’t have a chance to consider what had just happened to her. She’d done stranger things.
Stranger than being practically kidnapped? By accident, apparently?
No. Maybe she hadn’t done stranger things. Wherever these people were going, though, Ren figured it had to be better than here.
“Karn!” The man in front of her shouted at his comrade. “We’ve got company!” Ren struggled to turn and her eyes snapped wide. Behind them was more soldiers than Ren had ever seen in one place, flying in formation.
“Narcht! Zane, this was stupid.” The fighter pilot shouted. “We shouldn’t do jobs this big without extra hands! I told you!”
“Fine! When we get out of the city, they’re going to open fire.”
“You’re telling me?”
Ren clutched the back of the speeder. Open fire? The soldiers were going to start shooting here real soon. Staring over the side, though, she could tell that jumping at this speed would break her legs. Why she had to fall off the building and waste that tech, she didn’t know. One thing she did know, however, that she wasn’t getting off this speeder, until Zane slowed down enough to let her.
The ground under her nose turned from the city streets to dusty, cracked ground and the speeders sped up from a high whine to a torrent of noise across the desert.
“Where are we going?” Ren didn’t expect an answer, and she didn’t get one.
“Karn!” Zane shouted. The blue pilot turned. “What kind of guns do these things have?” He smacked the speeder with his free hand.
“How should I know? I’m a pilot, I don’t do much shooting!” Karn shouted.
Ren could have sworn she heard Zane mutter “Liar” under his breath.
“Twelve-gauge twenty-four blast!” Ren shouted. She wasn’t going to get blown out of the sky, if knowing the kind of guns on the fliers would help, for whatever reason, she was going to help.
“The guns!” She yelled. “They’re twelve-gauge twenty-four blast!”
Zane didn’t answer besides for a nod she could barely see.
“Twelve pick-me-up, then. Tel and Yisome, you split first!” He shouted. Then, to her “hang on, kid. I’m sorry ‘bout this.”
Ren cussed at him rudely. Her Aunt would be embarrassed. Then, her aunt would be embarrassed if she knew Ren was eating spicy food or associating with poppy addicts, so it wasn’t too horrifying for her.
Zane held up one hand with three fingers, then two, then one. With a sickening lurch, Zane and Karn both spun their speeders around so they were gliding backwards. The seat rocked under her as the captain- for he was obviously the captain of whatever crew this was- opened fire on the government soldiers. The pilot joined him, while the others flew out to the sides and regrouped behind them.
When the soldiers got too close, Zane and Karn both split to the sides, shot forwards and sheltered behind the last two crew members on their stolen speeders.
While they were flying, both the captain and the pilot had drawn their own handheld blasters and fired at the soldiers. Ren noted somewhat amused that Zane had a horrible shot for someone who probably lived and died by the blaster. Karn, on the other hand, shot seven times and dropped seven soldiers from their seats. Their armor was built to guard against blaster fire. Karn had an incredible shot, with both hands. She held two blasters at once.
Ren felt just as part of the action as anyone else as the other two crewmembers split around them once more and the blasters mounted on the front of the fliers jerked into action once more. Until the firing stalled.
Zane clicked at the trigger, alarmed. He’d miscounted with his shots. Karn, who had been following his lead, ran out a second later.
“Narscht!” Karn screamed, firing from her handguns.
“Fly!” Zane shouted, cranking on the steering wheel, nearly throwing Ren from her precarious seat. “Fly!”
Ren didn’t know where they were flying to, but she knew that they were flying. She knew that, somewhere along the way, Zane shouted an order to the last two, Tel and Yisome. Ren hadn’t seen them, and she couldn’t put faces to their names. The order Zane had yelled caused them to spin around, just like they had before.
From the look that Karn shot at Zane, Ren knew that the two wouldn’t be joining them again.
Sure enough, minutes later, Ren heard a scream after a burst of fire. Her stomach clenched. Zane had known he was ordering them to die. Ren wondered if they had known it too.
Not long after, a ship grounded in the desert loomed in front of them. Hardly slowing down, Zane pulled his speeder into a tailspin and dived onto the metal ramp that led up into the small spaceship. Karn flew directly into the ship, then snapped a tie around the throttle and sent it rocketing back towards the soldiers without a pilot.
“Go.” Zane panted. “Get this thing out of here.”
Karn didn’t say a word, but she followed his orders, sprinting to the cockpit and diving into a pilot’s seat, flicking switches and hitting buttons. The engines booted aboard the small ship, and Ren cringed at the noise they made. The poor ship was sick.
“Narscht!” Karn cursed. She slammed a blue palm into the keypad control. Blaster fire peppered the ship’s outsides. “Your damn ship, Zane!”
Zane sprinted to the cockpit and landed in the seat beside her. He held one of the levers down. Ren slipped into the cockpit, curiosity making her eyes wide.
The ship hovered up off the ground, causing a sandstorm to spin around it. The soldiers around them couldn’t get into the ship, but it didn’t stop them from trying.
“Shields up, Karn.” Zane said, his voice grating and nervous.
“They’ve already failed.”
“Well get us out here.”
“What do you think I’m doing?”
Ren felt the ship spin under her, tilt upwards. Karn shoved a lever all the way forwards, and the ship shot away into the humid, smoggy atmosphere, leaving soldiers and fallen comrades behind in the dusty wastelands.
Zane leant back in his seat and let out a long breath. His eyes were shut. “That” he said “Was a disaster.”
Karn dropped back into her seat. Her massive eyes were storm-dark.
“Zane.” She said quietly. “How could you do something like that?” She asked “How could you give that order?”
Ren plastered herself to a metal wall, wishing she could become entirely invisible.
Zane’s hair had come out of it’s tight tail, and hung around his face, clean and shoulder-length but mussed. His face was hollow, haunted, his eyes shining like glass.
“I did what I had to.” He said, barely above a whisper.
Karn stared straight ahead. “You could’ve done more.”
“You’re a coward.”
“I know. Trust me. I know.”