It was while perched on the remains of a concrete pillar, knees hugged tight to her chest, that Jaskee realized Nicholas and Gajei were up to no good. The pair lurked in the shadows of the Pinnacle Complex, bloated backpacks on their shoulders and bulging sacks in their hands.
Before the earthquake they’d lived in the apartment opposite Jaskee’s. Now they, along with Jaskee, her Da’, and a myriad other marooned souls, spent their nights wrapped in scarred sleeping bags and skinny blankets within the Heritage Public Gymnasium, waiting for the Commonwealth to creak into action and start repairing their lives.
The earth trembled and the rubble shifted. Jaskee pressed her chin further into her knees. Each aftershock brought to mind the big quake, the memory of Ms. Glaskin stopping mid-sentence and standing frozen for several heartbeats before shouting, “Under your desks. Now!”
Then the windows shattered like a million bones breaking and the bookcase and the holo-board crashed to the floor and the walls groaned and everybody screamed and it went on forever, ocean waves but on solid ground. And when the shaking finished Ms. Glaskin rushed them through cracked corridors that smelled of plaster and gas until they were outside, where the sky was cloudless and blue and alarms blared and sirens sounded in the distance.
Jaskee didn’t know how long she and the other kids stood there, the teachers just as shellshocked but trying to appear brave. Finally, face dirty and dusty and tear-streaked, Da’ appeared and swooped her into his arms and squeezed her so tight she couldn’t breathe.
“Where’s Mama?” Jaskee asked once Da’ let her go.
Da’ didn’t reply, his face twisting into the grimace that was now his primary expression.
In the hundred-and-twenty-five years that Heritage had been Mongiel’s lone city there had never been an earthquake. All the seismic activity took place on the other side of the globe.
But now everybody feared this one was only the first of many.
Jaskee, guarding her mother’s grave, sobbed.
Once darkness fell, Jaskee sneaked through the cordon and into the gymnasium.
Da’ sat on their blankets, a mug of steaming broth in his hands, staring intently at the ground. That was where he spent his days now, apart from an occasional trip to the food-stamp line in the cafeteria. Jaskee plopped down next to him. After a moment he leaned over and kissed the top of her head. He smelled of dried sweat and grief.
“Here,” he said, thrusting the mug into her hands.
“I’m not hungry,” Jaskee replied.
“It’s okay. I’ve already had mine. There’s crackers, too.”
His voice had more vigor than usual. That alone compelled Jaskee to dip a cracker into the tasteless broth.
After she started eating, Da’ said, “What would you say if I told you I could get us a berth off-planet?”
Jaskee stared at him, each word of his question slapping her across the face. She’d nearly given up hope that he would ever leave the gymnasium but he wasn’t just talking about moving somewhere else within the city, he was talking about leaving the whole planet behind.
And not just the planet. Mama, too. Jaskee opened her mouth, closed it.
Da’ caressed her cheek. “I know this is sudden. But think about it, okay?”
Jaskee managed a nod.
Da’ stood. “Let me get some dessert.”
Jaskee watched him weave his way through the crowd of sprawled people. His shoulders hung bony in a shirt far baggier across the midriff than it had been a month ago, and he’d developed a limp in his right leg.
They couldn’t leave Mama behind. At least not yet. Not until they’d recovered her body and properly put her to rest.
She turned. To see Nicholas and Gajei squatting on the edge of the blankets. She yelped.
“Quiet,” Nicholas said.
Gajei smiled. “It’s okay. We’re not here to make trouble.”
Nicholas jabbed a finger at her. “You saw us today. And we saw you.”
Jaskee didn’t reply.
There was a dried bloodstain on Nicholas’s shirt, and his knees poked through his trousers. “Did you see what we were doing?”
“And have you told anybody?”
“Good.” Nicholas’s expression loosened.
Gajei sat, crossed her legs, her black hair tied in a frazzled bun. Before, she’d always worn it out, long and lustrous. She’d been a florist and sometimes gave Mama leftover arrangements which would sit in pride of place on the dining table until they completely wilted.
Nicholas remained crouched. He’d owned his own business, running projections for the miners on Mongiel’s moons. “What were you doing inside the cordon?”
Jaskee looked around. She could scream. Someone would come running. But what would she tell them? She cleared her throat. “Visiting Mama.”
“Oh, you poor thing,” Gajei exclaimed.
“Do you go there every day?” Nicholas asked.
“Have you ever been caught?”
“Do you always go the same way through the cordon?”
Jaskee stared at her scratch-covered hands. “Yes.”
Gajei patted her on the knee. “Can you show us where?”
Jaskee forcefully shook her head. She slipped through the cordon so she could be close to Mama. They crept through so they could steal and sell things families might’ve one day used to remember their lost ones.
Nicholas leaned close. “It’d really be best if you told us.”
Gajei put a hand on Nicholas’s wrist. “Be nice, love. Jaskee, honey, let me explain. Those Commonwealth ships that are supposed to be coming? Well, they’re not. The closest Commonwealth vessel is at Gerard’s Star. That’s two weeks away. But there are independent traders in port who are willing to take on passengers. For a fee, of course.”
“And,” Nicholas said, “we need to be on one of those ships.”
Gajei nodded. “It’s true. If we don’t get to Jaust within the next month, my mother’s estate will default to my uncle. And then Nicholas and I will have no way to rebuild our lives.”
Who cares, Jaskee wanted to say, but chewed her lip instead. She wasn’t going to help them. No chance.
Just then Da’ arrived back, a pair of pastries in hand.
“Amari!” Gajei leaped up and hugged him.
Nicholas stood too, and shook Da’s hand. After exchanging commiserations, the pair left.
Da’ watched them go. “They just catching up were they, Jass?”
Jaskee hadn’t told Da’ where she spent her days. If she did he’d order her not to go back, she just knew it. “Yeah,” she said. “Catching up.”
The following morning, Jaskee considered remaining within the safety of the gymnasium. But Mama called out to her, a visceral yearning that she couldn’t deny, so she kissed Da’ and left the stale air of the sports center behind.
The nearby buildings bore no signs of having survived an earthquake. Neither did the road beneath her feet. Half the city had been destroyed but for the other half life went on almost as usual.
She made it as far as the courthouse before Nicholas and Gajei appeared in front of her. Gajei bore a smile, Nicholas a scowl.
Jaskee put her hands on her hips. “I’m not showing you.”
Nicholas lunged forward but Gajei blocked him with her arm.
“Jass,” she said, “we wouldn’t ask you if we had other options. This is the only way we can pay for passage to Jaust. Once the estate is settled we can repay everybody for what we’ve borrowed.”
“You’re taking things people could use to pay for their own passage,” Jaskee replied. “You’re robbing them of their chance to leave if they want to.”
Gajei’s smile turned downwards. “We’re only doing what we have to.”
“If you don’t help us,” Nicholas said, “we’ll tell the cops you’ve been crossing the cordon every day.”
“Then I’ll tell them you’ve been looting.”
Gajei shook her head. “They won’t believe you. We left a brooch in one of your blankets. The owner’s initials are imprinted on it. The police find that and you’ll go to jail.”
Jaskee had heard plenty about jail. No room even to shrug. No toilets, just metal pots encrusted with feces. She glanced around. It was like everybody in the world had disappeared except for the three of them. But if she was quick she could get back to the gym, take the brooch to the lost and found, say she’d picked it up off the street.
She turned. A hand grabbed her upper arm.
“You’re going to show us how you get through the cordon,” Nicholas said, his voice low and menacing. “And don’t you dare try to trick us.”
Gajei started walking. “Like I said, this is the only way.”
The Leska Plaza Archway had collapsed, but the two office buildings either side of it remained intact apart from shattered windows. A block east and west, all the buildings had crumbled. That was where the police focused their patrols.
“You found this all by yourself?” Gajei said.
“And all we have to do is climb over the rubble?” Nicholas asked.
“Excellent.” Nicholas let go of her biceps. He’d gripped it so hard her whole arm throbbed.
Jaskee made to leave but Gajei blocked her path. “Sorry, dear, but you’ll have to come with us today. Just to make sure the police aren’t waiting when we come back.”
Jaskee did an about face. Once they were in a building they’d get distracted. Then she could flee.
“Good girl,” Gajei said, and Jaskee fought the urge to spit at her.
Tall and stylish, the Pyrenee Complex had been home to some of Heritage’s wealthier citizens. Outside, with a flourish, Gajei produced a keycard from her pocket.
“That better be worth what you traded,” Nicholas said.
She grinned. “It is. This is the building manager’s universal key. And he assured me it’ll work regardless of whether the power is on.”
Nicholas snatched the card. “You didn’t tell me that last night.”
She giggled. “I wanted to surprise you.”
He gave her a messy kiss. “If we do this right today, we’ll be out of the system by tomorrow.”
The glass from Pyrenee’s front doors lay in shards on the pavement. Gajei herded Jaskee into a foyer full of cracked marble tiles and debris from lights, smashed pots, and fallen paintings. The elevator doors were buckled.
The keycard opened the stairwell access without a problem. Nicholas retrieved a flashlight from his pack, tested a couple stairs, then started up.
Gajei gave Jaskee another push. “After you. And don’t do anything silly, Jass. This place is dangerous.”
Jaskee did as she was told, her mouth dry, her tongue sticking to the back of her gums.
Nicholas stopped at the second floor. “This one?”
“No,” Gajei said. “Let’s start as high as we can go.”
After the fifth floor, the staircase partially collapsed. Nicholas shrugged. “Looks like this’ll have to do.”
The hallway was gloomy and spooky, but undamaged apart from shattered overhead fixtures.
Gajei barged past Jaskee, eyes gleaming. “Let’s do this.”
Nicholas laughed and adjusted his backpack. When his jacket shifted, Jaskee saw the butt of a gun poking out from his belt. She gasped.
Both turned towards her. Then the earth shook and Jaskee squealed. But the aftershock quickly passed.
Nicholas laughed again. “Nothing to be afraid of, Jaskee.”
He pressed the keycard to the first apartment door. The lock clicked and he kicked the door open.
Now, Jaskee thought. But before she could move, Gajei grabbed her by the collar and jerked her inside.
The natural light flowing in through the broken windows illuminated lush carpet, luxurious armchairs, and coffee tables. A bookcase had toppled, its contents scattered around the room.
“Oh, this is nice,” Gajei said, maintaining her grip on Jaskee’s shirt. “Is that sailing boat on the floor silver?”
Nicholas picked it up. “Feels like it.” He stuffed it in his sack, then walked over to an ornate reading lamp and did the same.
Gajei yanked Jaskee into the kitchen. The smell coming from a pile of moldy dishes on the bench made Jaskee gag.
“Empty these drawers,” Gajei said.
Jaskee crossed her arms. “No.”
“Do it,” Nicholas said.
“Or what? You’ll shoot me?”
Gajei shook her head. “That’d be a waste of a bullet. No, if you don’t help we’ll lock you in this apartment. Without a keycard there’s no way out.”
Jaskee slumped her shoulders and pulled out the first drawer, the cutlery inside jangling. Nicholas might be all bluster but everything about Gajei’s stance and stare indicated she was deadly serious.
“Just dump the stuff on the floor,” Gajei said. “Nicholas will sort through it.”
Once Jaskee had emptied all the drawers, Gajei led her up the hallway to the bedrooms.
The first was a kid’s room. A holographic displayer labeled The Run Through Titan’s Gorge sat on a set of drawers next to an unmade bed. That movie had been Jaskee’s favorite of the summer. A variety of items lay on the floor: a t-raptor interceptor; VR goggles for the Streetrush game; some Commonwealth soldiers, the type that could fight fully automated battles.
Jaskee picked one of the soldiers up.
“Good spotting,” Gajei said. “The electronics in those fetch top dollar.”
Guilt making her stomach churn, Jaskee put the soldiers in Gajei’s bag.
Soon they moved on, Gajei and Nicholas leaving what they didn’t take strewn on the ground behind them.
Two apartments later, Nicholas tested the weight of his bags and beamed. “What a haul. More than enough to get us passage.”
“We’ll do a couple more,” Gajei said.
“Are you sure we need—”
“Yes.” Even in the dim light Gajei’s flushed face stood out. “Better to have too much than not enough.”
The next apartment was the biggest so far, adorned with the kind of items it took a lifetime to accumulate.
Nicholas whistled. “Hell’s bells. We should’ve started here.”
He rushed over to a projection unit hanging between two armchairs and wrenched it free of its mooring.
Jaskee could imagine an elderly couple sitting in those chairs at night watching a show, comfortable in the fact their life’s memories were displayed around them. She snuffled.
“Into the kitchen with you,” Gajei said.
A sudden thought struck: Gajei was going to leave her locked in the building regardless of whether she helped them or not. That would be the only way to ensure she couldn’t rat them out before they boarded the ship to Jaust. Panic coursed through her.
Gajei shoved her. “Hurry it up, already.”
Jaskee spun around, kicked Gajei in the shin, darted towards the door. Gajei grabbed at her jacket, her nails scraping along Jaskee’s neck in an explosion of pain. Nicholas, projection unit in hand, only stared. Gajei yelled at him and he threw the unit onto one of the armchairs, reached for his gun. Then Jaskee was out into the hallway, running blindly in the gloom.
Half-a-dozen steps towards the stairwell door the shaking started.
Except this wasn’t like the earlier aftershock. This was like the original quake. The ground bucked and Jaskee screamed and dived for an open doorway, covered her head with her arms.
The world dropped and bounced and rumbled, Jaskee’s stomach lurching into her throat, her brain rattling in her skull.
Then sudden silence.
Jaskee didn’t move. She was crying, and saying words, but she didn’t know what they were.
After a minute or two, or maybe five, reality returned. A curtain of dust greeted her when she opened her eyes. Got in her nostrils the moment she moved, started a coughing fit.
She stood. The hallway was off-kilter, sloping where it had been flat. There were cracks in the ceiling.
Someone shouted. Gajei. A single word: “Help.”
Jaskee picked her way back to the apartment. Chunks of concrete along with insulation material and air ducts filled the lounge where Nicholas had stood. Sparking wires dangled from one of the blocks.
Gajei called again, her voice faltering. Sucking in breath, Jaskee crawled over the rubble. Gajei’s legs were pinned beneath a ragged slab, her lips curled in an enormous grimace, her body covered in powder. Blood dripped from her cheek.
“Jass,” she wheezed.
Jaskee pushed against the block but it didn’t move. She tried again, heaving with all her might. “It’s too heavy.”
Jaskee turned. Saw Gajei’s bag of loot, it too mostly crushed. One of the Commonwealth soldiers had fallen out. Without thinking, she grabbed it, stuffed it in her pocket, then scurried out into the hallway.
The roof creaked. Holding an arm above her head, Jaskee ran to the stairwell door, stumbling several times before she reached it.
The doorway had warped, the door open but not wide enough for her to squeeze through. Flinching, she leaned against it. It moved an inch. She rammed it with her shoulder and it squealed further open. She contorted through the gap, her jacket catching and tearing.
The stairwell was pitch black and she didn’t have a torch. She’d have to crawl. That took forever, feeling with a hand, carefully lowering herself, repeating the process. Once she encountered something large and rough but there was enough room for her to scrape by. Twice more the world shook and each time she screamed, though both quakes only lasted for an instant.
Just when it felt as if her descent would have no end she saw muted light coming from underneath a door. The lobby, which looked almost the same as it had when she’d entered. Barely aware of the blood dripping from numerous grazes and scratches, Jaskee sprinted outside and back along her special route.
She saw no police along the way.
Why quickly became apparent once she crossed the cordon. Many buildings that had survived the first quake hadn’t been so lucky this time around.
Da’! Jumping over newly formed cracks, Jaskee raced to the gymnasium.
It still stood. She let out a sigh of relief. The courthouse hadn’t fared so well, though, the giant pair of bronze scales that adorned the front now embedded in the road.
A crowd milled about aimlessly on the street. Jaskee pushed through them.
“Da’,” she yelled, but the crush swallowed her words.
There he was, standing on tiptoes on the steps, one hand shading his eyes.
She almost knocked him over with the force of her hug.
“Jass!” he said. “Thank goodness. I didn’t know where you were. And nobody had seen you since this morning.” He held her out at arm’s length. “You’re covered in blood and dirt. Are you all right?”
“Yes, Da’,” she said. “I’m okay.”
“Where were you?”
“Just. Nearby. A building fell. But I’m okay.” She pulled away. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
A pair of police officers stood near the ruins of the courthouse.
“Sir,” Jaskee said to the closest.
“Yes,” he replied.
How could she put this? “Sir, I think there might be two people trapped behind the cordon.”
“Oh. Why do you think that?” Did his voice harden or was her imagination in overdrive?
“Well… well, they said they were going to the Pyrenee apartments. To collect some of their things.”
“Are they friends of yours?”
“Yes. No. Not really. They’ve been next to us in the gym.”
“And you’re sure they’re not back?”
“I’ve looked everywhere.” This wasn’t working. She took a deep breath. “I followed them, sir. And they went in the building. And then the quake… and they didn’t…” She trailed off, remembering Gajei’s tormented face, the pile of blocks where Nicholas had been standing.
The policeman patted her shoulder. “Okay. I’ll see what I can do.”
Jaskee nodded and wiped her eyes. She doubted they’d get to Gajei in time, but she’d done what she could. She ran back to Da’.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he said.
“Yes. Just, it’s all very scary.”
He hugged her close again. “It is.” He paused. “Do you remember what we were talking about yesterday?”
“Well, the ship’s leaving tomorrow. It’s headed for Jaust—”
He nodded. “They need laborers to help rebuild the colony. They’ll pay me what I was earning at the factory and I’ll learn a ton of new skills. And you know the best thing? If we sign on, the Commonwealth will pay our passage. We can even sleep onboard the ship tonight, in our own cabin.”
Rebuilding a colony? So Jaust wasn’t even inhabited? Which meant Gajei had been lying about needing to settle her mother’s estate. And about needing to pay a trader for passage. Still, Jaskee couldn’t quite bring herself to decide that the pair had got what they deserved.
“Do you want to go?” Jaskee asked.
Da’ nodded. “I do. But if you want to stay, that’s fine, too, darling. There’ll be plenty of work here once the rebuilding starts.”
“Can I think about it for a few minutes?”
Jaskee squeezed him tight, comforted by his warmth. Mama was dead. Jaskee would miss her for the rest of her life, without doubt. But as callous as thinking it felt, sitting on her grave every day wouldn’t bring her back.
Jaskee remembered the soldier in her pocket. And the present Gajei and Nicholas had left for her.
“I have to do something else,” she said. “But I’ll be quick.” She darted off before Da’ could object.
Inside, under the sweater she’d been using for a pillow, she found a gold-plated brooch. She took it and the soldier to the lost and found desk at the front of the gymnasium.
“Are you looking for something, young lady?” the elderly woman manning the desk asked.
Jaskee placed the items in front of her. “I found these today. Maybe somebody’s missing them.”
The woman examined the brooch and then the soldier before transferring them to an already overflowing carton behind her. “Do you want to leave your name? That way if someone does claim them they can thank you.”
“No, it’s okay.” Jaskee ran back outside.
Da’ stood where she’d left him. “I think it’s going to rain,” he said, and even as he spoke it the first drops fell.
“I want to go,” Jaskee said.
“Are you sure?”
“Then let’s go.” Da’ squatted, scooped her up, set her on his shoulder like he’d used to do when she was little, and began walking.
Jaskee took in the view: the crumbling buildings; the dazed people; the uniformed rescue crews.
She’d come back one day. For Mama. But not for a while.
Did you enjoy this story? Read more of my short fiction here on Simily and in Dry Ice: A Short Story Collection, available at all good electronic bookstores!
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