Cassandra Quinn groaned, “Make it stop!”
She had her pillow tucked up over her head, but it was no use. The repair crew across the street was just too loud. No pillow could have deadened that noise. “For pity’s sake, it’s only…” she glanced at the chrono embedded in her bed cubbie. “Oh! It’s 7AM!”
She flung off her blanket and sat up, banging her head on the low ceiling of her sleeping compartment, as she did often. She cursed. Then, she gingerly slipped out of the cubbie, pulled on her street clothes over her tank and underwear and pulled her long blonde hair back into a ponytail. She folded her bed back up into its cubbie, slipped on her boots and walked into the common area of the 3rd floor apartment she shared with Mabel Reid and Roseanna Straub. The other two women were sitting at the table.
“Wouldn’ be morning without you cussin’ to greet the day,” said Mabel, not bothering to look up from her newsreader. She was a fifty-something woman with a mass of unruly hair, intelligent looking eyes and, like the building she owned, possessed a graceful sort of fading beauty. She spoke with a pre-Crisis Old Baltimore accent. “Wunna these days you’ll learn that the cubbie ain’t fer sittin’. It’s for layin’. Then again, the sounda your head onnat compartment’s how I know you’re up.”
“Least I wasn’t sleeping,” added Roseanna. She was in her late twenties, soft, with short brown hair and eyes that somehow looked sleepy even after 10 hours of sleep. “You’d have woke me right up – you raise more of a ruckus than that repair crew!”
“Yeah, yeah…just as well the crew woke me up. I gotta go in to work this morning anyway.” Cassie muttered. “Oh hey, Is there any left?”
“Saved ja cup,” said Mabel. She nodded in the general direction of the coffee pot in the kitchenette, her curly salt-and-pepper hair dangling in her eyes. She blew a curl out of the way.
“Adding mind reading to the routine, Mabes?”
Mabel grinned. “But this was the last of it. I’ll see what we can trade to Delivery for a new pack later today.”
“Oh, reminds me,” Cassie said. She dug in her pocket and pulled out a pile of TerraLuna credit markers, and scattered them on the plastic table hinged to the wall. “Got paid.”
“That’s a lotta cheese,” Roseanna said, and whistled.
Mabel peered at Cassie over the tops of her cracked and taped-together reading glasses. “This is gonna come to trouble for us one day, C’sandra.”
“Your fortune telling needs a little work, Mabes, cuz this is all spiff and legal like! Jimmy’s a legitimate businessman. These credits are mine, fair and square!”
“I danno what you get up to out there, but a sixteen-year-old girl don’t make this kinda credits doin’ ajitimate work. I live where you live, Cassie. Don’t try to put nothin’ over on me.”
Cassie thought about correcting Mabel, that Mabel did not in fact live where Cassie lived. Mabel lived on the third floor of her own rickety brownstone apartment, telling fake fortunes to strangers for credits, and rarely went outside the building that had been handed down to her by family. Mabel didn’t know anything about running scrap, or why it paid so well. She didn’t know that the wad of credits in Cassie’s other pocket was for Hex, and that it wasn’t nearly enough in payment for what he went through for that ‘verter.
But Mabel had taken Cassie in, and Mabel was certainly not stupid. So instead, Cassie just nodded and poured herself half the coffee Mabel had saved for her. She split what was left between Mabel and Roseanna without asking.
Mabel thanked her and greedily drank, and Roseanna raised her cup in a salute. Cassie tossed back her own coffee in one gulp and scrubbed her face off with the kitchen towel. Then, she popped a Denti Kleen tab into her mouth and chewed it, grimacing at the minty flavor that didn’t quite hide the medicinal taste.
Cassie’s attention was captured by the little monitor on the wall. Roseanna was watching TerraLuna News. There was a graphic showing a facility on the moon. “…construction on TerraLuna’s flagship exo project Luna One has completed, and isn’t she a real beaut? The self-sufficient facility includes everything a growing colony needs.”
The screen showed a large glass-walled structure. “The greenhouse plants supply oxygen and food, all kept alive through an ingenious process that harvests water from deep within the lunar rock. The energy system, fueled by the abundant Helium-3 from the lunar surface, will reportedly become the norm of power generation right here on Earth. As the concept proves out on the Lunar Base, the company looks to issue in an era of cheap, ubiquitous energy for all!”
“That’ll be the day,” Mabel said. “Nothing’s ever cheap with that company. Ubiquitous, yes. They’re everywhere. But cheap?”
“Hang on, Mabes,” said Cassie. Roseanna leaned forward and turned up the monitor.
“…is also slated to house TerrraLuna Academy, a training facility for the next generation of TLS Aces skilled in low-grav and zero-grav flight. The search is on, so any of you trusty viewers looking to take to the skies, take note! Fifty spots for fifty of Earth’s Best and Brightest. Izzatt you? Could be!” The monitor switched to a closeup of the buxom blonde news reader. She was an oversexualized, overenthusiastic caricature with a ridiculously wide smile and low-cut blouse, and the card identified her as Savannah Bonn. She was a wildly popular news reader, though slightly more popular with the men than the women. As she continued, the screen switched back to the footage of the facility.
“So, good luck all who apply, and we’ll keep you updated on that as the selection goes through next month! Company officials also want you to know that even as construction on Luna One draws to a close, the company’s Luna Two project is gearing up. Progress never sleeps! The luxury tourist destination…”. On the screen, the sun was just at the right angle behind the low lunar mountains, and Luna One was silhouetted. Its lights glittered like diamonds.
“Oh, it’s just so lovely…” Roseanna said.
“Only fifty spots,” Cassie said. “I mean, I knew it would be tight, but…” and then muttered under her breath, “It might as well be on the moon.”
“Oh, Cassie…” Mabel said. “Maybe… maybe I could take out a loan on the building! The old girl’s not in the best shape, but I could get enough to get you to the Academy!”
“I’ll pitch in, too!” Roseanna said. “That academy is where you belong!”
“Thanks,” Cassie said, and smiled. But she thought she just might get money enough on her own. Jimmy said he had big plans for her and the scav-bot. If it played out like he planned… “We’ll see. Meanwhile, I gotta actually go places right now. Ladies.”
“You goin’ out there without breffis?” said Roseanna.
“Is there any?” Cassie looked doubtful. Mabel motioned to a half-eaten bix ration from a couple of days ago. Cassie scowled.
“Yeah, me neither,” Mabel said. “So the Lemon Bix ain’t for us. Guess I know why it was on clearance. Was hopin’ when we got hungier…”
“I don’t think even starvation would make us eat that,” Cassie said. There were rotten-looking spots on the bix, and a couple of flies crawling on the plastic wrapper. “And time hasn’t made it more appetizing.”
“Thanks for this,” Mabel said, holding up a few of the credits from the table. “I’ll git sumpin new from Delivery today.” She picked up her TerraLuna Access card and scanned the credit markers on the table. It tallied the credits into her account, and deactivated the live markers.
“There’s not more jobs down at that garage of yours, is there, Cassie?” Roseanna asked.
Cassie thought about it for a minute. She tried to picture Roseanna running scrap and couldn’t see it. “I’ll ask,” she said. Roseanna smiled.
“Slater,” Cassie said, and headed out.
The hallway smelled of urine, stale alcohol and desperation. Cassie hurried down the hallway to the stairwell, which smelled worse. She stepped around a couple of Mabel’s tenants who hadn’t quite made it home, sleeping off the previous night’s substances on the stairs, and held her breath while she took the steps down two at a time.
On her way to the first floor, she noted that the walls of the old brownstone were getting more cracked the farther down she went. She’d seen the cracks before, but they seemed to actively be getting worse. Some had daylight showing through. She exited the dark stairwell into the bright morning glare, and her senses were assaulted.
The smoky smells of strange foods sizzling on street grills made her salivate. Some smelled good, some bad, but together, it was a savory mix, certainly more appealing than a spoiled Lemon Bix. She bought a hot, greasy ‘rito from a short mustachioed man who had several lined up on his griddle. She surreptitiously slipped him the credit marker because it wasn’t wise to flash credits in the street.
The mass of people coming and going in the crowded road made a din and kicked up clouds of street dust. A mule-drawn cart trundled past, wooden with wheels that had been repurposed from an old bus, and it stirred up even more dust. An old man shouted some insult at the cart driver, but Cassie was having trouble hearing anything over the mechanized repairs going on across from Mabel Reid’s place. She could feel the vibrations through her feet and thought again about the cracks in the foundation. She wondered if the vibrations from the repair crews were having a bad effect on these old buildings. They were stone and looked strong as mountains, but many of them seemed to be developing problems as they aged into fragility. It was probably Mabes’ building’s turn. The thing was over 250 years old now.
She backed into the street and looked up at it. The shingle hung out into the street proclaimed that Mabel Reid the Fortune Teller lived there. Cassie hoped to catch Mabel’s eye, so she could tell her about the worsening cracks in the foundation, maybe get a repair crew to look at it sooner than later, but Mabel wasn’t near the window.
Cassie went across the street to where the noisy repair crew was shoring up another row house. Up close like this, the equipment was deafening. She approached the person who seemed to be in charge, a sturdy looking woman in a hard hat emblazoned with the TerraLuna Industries seal.
“Excuse me!” Cassie called. “Excuse me, I wonder if –“
The woman turned around, confused. She was wearing noise reducers, and made it clear through a series of hand motions and facial expressions that she couldn’t hear, but also had no intention of removing the reducers.
Cassie looked back up at Mabel’s apartment. How she wished she had a beezer so she could get ahold of Mabel and get her to call someone about the building, and laughed at the absurdity. She couldn’t afford the monthly subscription to something like that, even if she could afford the device, not if she was going to get the tuition together for the Academy. She thought about just running back into the building to tell Mabel in person, but she was already late, and anyway, she didn’t relish the thought of smelling the hungover tenants again. The ‘rito was already floating uneasily in its grease in the pit of her gut, and she didn’t want to give it a reason to come back up. She’d tell Mabel later.
As Cassie headed off down the street, Johnny Wong and Gunnar Halpain watched her. They were hidden in plain sight, buried in the throng of humanity that clogged the street.
“Told you this was where she lived,” said Johnny. “I know how to track people, unlike y–”
“Shut up,” said Gunnar. “You found the girl, big woop. We tracked the kid. I know exactly where that little punk lives, but he never went home. I guess he’s out getting medical after I got him with my bat.”
“Or maybe you missed him while you were getting patched up yourself.”
“Ah, what would you have done, gone right up to the door? Homes have cameras. Or didn’t you think of that?”
“Hey,” said Johnny, “The Guv put me in charge of you for a reason. Questionable decisions, I believe he said.”
“Questionable — hey, as soon as that kid came home, I was gonna find out where he put that ‘verter and bring it in. He just didn’t come home yet.”
“Whatever. You didn’t come home either, so now you’re with me.”
Far away from them, Cassie had reached the end of the street and turned toward the VeeTee. The boys followed.
* * *
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