The digits flashed on Inna’s BitWatch at exactly midnight: $1000.00. She held her breath, half- expecting the shriek of her Aunt Li’s alarm clock, though she’d disabled it herself just twenty minutes earlier.
When the apartment remained silent, Inna slid her duffel from beneath the bed, careful not to make a sound. If Li woke, the gig would be up before she’d even reached the bus stop. Three years, Inna had been waiting, biding her time until the month of her eighteenth birthday, when her first basic income payment would arrive and she could finally get out from under her aunt’s tobacco- stained thumb.
Inna wiggled the window screen loose and dropped to the gravel, grateful that their apartment was on the ground floor.
“$330 a month for this hellhole,” Li never tired of complaining. Never mind that she received additional funds each month for taking in her deceased sister’s kid. Funds that would stop coming now that Inna was of age.
Their apartment building was like other Basic-level housing: small and dingy, but sufficient, with heat and water guaranteed. Inna slunk along the shadows, avoiding the lights of Market Street. Police would be patrolling there, as they did every payday, watchful for the drug deals and domestic fights that were sure to go down in the Basics on these nights.
The strap of her bag bit into her shoulder, but Inna didn’t slow down to adjust it. Li had friends throughout the Basics — folks who’d be heading out tonight to revel in their fleeting windfall, who’d be wondering soon why Li wasn’t joining their epicurean revelry. Already, cars were peeling out, urged on by cheers and laughter.
They’d spend the week in high spirits before their BitWatches hit zero and they’d be forced to return to the temp agency’s queue to fill the gap till next payday. It was a cycle Inna had seen over and over.
But she wouldn’t be sucked in. She knew better, that it wasn’t enough simply to survive.
A block from the bus stop, she slowed down. There were others there already — a man and a woman — waiting in the frosted-glass shelter beneath the sepia streetlight.
Inna pulled her hood over her head, praying she wouldn’t be recognized. Once aboard, she could hide, she could blend in, and she’d be across the city before she knew it. There was Basic-level housing by the university: clean and quiet places where she could lay her head and prepare her meals and attend classes. Where she could see beyond one month and the next.
She just had to catch that bus.
A woman hushed a fussing baby, too tired to be out this late at night. She startled at the sound of each car engine that passed, and in the strange streetlight, the makeup around her eyes looked caked- on, too heavy, revealing more than it concealed.
Beside her, a thin man stared down at his BitWatch with wild and sunken eyes. His face was familiar, and Inna drew back in the shadows. She’d seen him before, passed out in the apartment stairwell. Li had laughed and called him “Frank, the old drunk.” Tonight, it wasn’t a bottle in his hand but a brochure for a health clinic located across town. He looked up and saw Inna watching, then tucked the pamphlet in his coat.
It seemed she wasn’t the only one trying to do more than survive.
Without warning, a man sprung from the darkness with a pistol gleaming in his hand.
“Give me your payment!” His voice was muffled behind a black ski mask. “Transfer it! Now!”
Inna instinctively slapped her hand over her BitWatch. Without her income, she’d have nowhere to go. How would she survive? She glanced up the street, where the bus’s headlights were still two or three blocks away.
The woman with the child cried, and Inna backed into the shadows as the man with the gun pointed it at each of them in turn.
“Hey.” Frank stood, raising his palms. The brochure tumbled from his jacket to the sidewalk. “Leave these ladies be. Here, I’ll give you my payment.”
He fiddled with his BitWatch as the gunman stood over him, glancing anxiously at the approaching bus, urging him to hurry.
“There.” Frank tapped his BitWatch to the other man’s to complete the transfer just as the bus squealed to a stop at the curb. The mugger darted back into the shadows, and the woman with her baby rushed to the safety of the bus, but Inna remained fixed to the spot.
Frank stooped and picked up the brochure. His eyes passed over it, and he crumpled it in his palm.
Quietly, Inna approached and reached out a hand.
“You coming?” the bus driver called.
“Just a minute!” Inna’s hand touched Frank’s jacket, and he startled. “You were trying to get away from here. To get a fresh start.”
He smiled wryly. “Ain’t we all?”
Inna wiped her palm against her jeans, did some quick calculations, then tapped out the passcode on her BitWatch.
“What are you doing?” Frank asked, pulling away.
Inna took hold of his arm and tapped her BitWatch to his, completing the transfer. “You saved our lives. The least I can do is help you save yours.”
The bus driver honked and Inna gestured for Frank to go ahead, then followed him aboard the bus. As she reached out her arm to scan her BitWatch for her fare, she caught a glimpse of the digits. $500.00. It’d be tight, but she didn’t regret it. She had to do more than simply survive.
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