art by Erin Cardwell
“Ruke! What are you doing here!”
Shavera threw open the door and stepped outside to embrace him for a moment.
“I was in the area, so I thought I’d drop off the tickets,” he said, moving into her apartment and dropping the tickets on the table.
She shook her head. “You’re the only person I know who still uses paper tickets. But how are you? Still on the mend?”
“Just talked to the surgeon yesterday, actually,” he said, exercising his knee a little. “Said I could do anything that doesn’t hurt.”
“You look excited.”
He grinned, circling the room – a combination dining room and kitchen. People were awfully crowded here despite having the moon all to themselves. The table was small, only big enough for two. There was only room in the kitchen for a sink, a single induction burner and the small, under-counter refrigerator.
As he walked, the only sound was the clicking of his shoes on the steel floor.
Hanging upside-down above the sink were three blue alstroemeria with flecks of green in them. The coloration was meant to be reminiscent of earth, but by now their hue was less than handsome.
“You kept the flowers,” he said.
“I couldn’t throw them away!” she said. “They’re so expensive. And they’re still a comfort to me. They remind me I’m not the only one who remembers.”
He finished his circuit and returned to the door.
Shavera fell into one of the two chairs in the kitchen’s small dining area, burying her face in her hands to stifle a sob. Ruke sat down across the table from her, pulling the glass of his helmet away from his face and sliding it up over the top of his head. She glanced up at him, allowing one of her hands to fall. He reached over and took it in both of his.
Without a sob, another tear rolled down her eye to her nose. Another joined it from the other eye. A third also, and a fourth. The drop on the end of her nose was growing freakishly large. When it finally broke free, it fell slowly, rippling and shivering, before it hit the table and made an wet spot bigger than her eye itself.
“I’m keeping you,” she said, wiping her face. “Go, get back to your beat.”
He made no move to get up.
“I miss him,” she said.
He nodded. “Me too.” He glanced away, clenching his jaw.
They sat in silence for another minute.
She squeezed his hands and let go, withdrawing hers into her lap. He stayed.
At last she sighed and looked up at him.
“You won’t leave unless I throw you out, will you?” she said, giving him a bittersweet smile.
“I may not know much, but I know not to walk away from a woman who’s crying.”
She pushed herself up and walked over to the door. He followed. She hovered in the doorway as he went out into the stairwell. “You’ll have to come by for dinner sometime soon,” she called after him.
“You got it, sis,” he said as he turned to descend the stairs.
On the ground floor, he stepped into the airlock with several other people. Some of them were speaking to their paxes. Everyone stood at least an arm’s length from him. The doors on the atmosphere side slid shut and the airlock began to depressurize.
When the airlock finished evacuating, the doors to the outside of the building opened, and Ruke strolled out under a brilliant swath of stars.
From the buildings on one side of the street to the other were strung thin, nearly-invisible cables, from which hung lanterns shaped like inverted pyramids. During lunar night, these would flood the street with purplish light, but currently the sun was bathing the city in a warm yellow instead. It’s rays shot down the length of the street, the shadows of the throng playing upon Ruke’s exoskin.
Despite the bustle of the street, the crowd parted before him. Being a peacekeeper did have its benefits, even though many despised him for it. It was a noble calling, whatever they said.
He posted himself outside a shop and watched the people hurrying this way and that, many of them just getting off of work, others on their way to it, still others out on their breaks or weekends.
Back on earth it was different. People all had the same schedule — at least that was how it had seemed when he lived there as a kid. Surely there were people who worked the hospitals at night and such, but basically everyone went home at the same time.
He stretched his arms. Was this really what thirty-five felt like?
He remembered how strange it had been to come here, just ten years old. There was no impetus for the whole population to work during the same eight hours of each twenty-four, because the lunar day and night were nearly 15 earth days and nights each. He remembered his father explaining that to him and Shavera before they arrived.
People had called his hometown “the city that never sleeps,” but it was nothing compared to this perpetual buzz of activity. One was as likely to start work at 0900 as any other hour of the day.
A shadow blotted out a small patch of stars on the rooftop of a shop across the way. Ruke raised a hand to block the reflection of the sun glaring off the side of the aluminum-clad building. Without the glare, he could resolve the figure. That was no peacekeeper. The civilian was bounding along the roof of one building, leaping in a slow, graceful arc to the next, and continuing.
He opened his mouth to call to her to stop, but she was too far, especially with the hubbub of the passers-by delivered — volume modulated by proximity — through the radio in his helmet.
Ruke turned quickly and moved into the store. He hurried to the back to a door that read “Employees Only.” The door unlocked at his approach, recognizing him as a peacekeeper. He shoved it open, then hurried down a hallway past the receiving dock. He pushed his way through a door on the right side of the hallway into a small room with a ladder up to the roof of the building. He began ascending as quickly as he could. His joints weren’t aching exactly, but they weren’t as limber as they used to be.
In short order he emerged onto the rooftop. A momentary search found the swifter moving in the same direction as he had seen earlier, moving parallel to the street but on the opposite side from him.
He turned to follow her and nearly tripped as an autonomous rover zipped across his path. It cornered and started moving the direction he was going. It rolled full-speed to the edge of the building, where it crossed via a centimeters-wide wire with inexplicable balance to the roof of the next building.
Ruke regained his focus on the swifter. He ran after her, gaining speed as he neared the edge of the building and flinging himself from the edge. A thrill rose up inside him — it felt good to get back to the chase. He soared all the way to the middle of the next rooftop before landing in stride.
In a few blocks, Ruke had gained on the swifter enough to be within shouting distance. But he wouldn’t be able to cross to her side of the street until the skyway in another few blocks and she hadn’t noticed him yet. It would probably be better to keep his mouth shut for the time being.
Almost as soon as he had decided that, the swifter glanced over her shoulder, spotting him and increasing her pace.
“Stop!” he yelled at her, but he could see immediately that he was no longer gaining on her. The chase was over, in all likelihood, but he didn’t stop running, not yet.
A rover was coming in on a wire from across the street. He gauged its speed and crossed just behind it with minimal deviation from his path.
The swifter came to a skyway leading from the building she was on to the row of buildings even further from Ruke. She would take it, and he would have no way of getting at her.
But she didn’t curve away from him. That must mean wherever she was going, it required crossing to his side of the street.
He doubted he could keep pace with her if the chase continued much longer. If she was able to get to the skyway and cross to his side of the street before he could get there, she would almost certainly elude him. He put his head down and really started to push himself.
They taught him back at the academy how to run roofs safely. You were supposed to gain as much speed as possible and launch from the edge of the roof with a high trajectory. This would allow you to fly for the longest distance, giving you a wide margin of safety for clearing almost any gap, even when the roof you were jumping to was higher.
But taking such a high trajectory meant redirecting a lot of your momentum upward. The fastest way to run roofs required a much lower margin of safety. Ideally, you would land right at the edge of the next roof, spending as little time flying as possible. This was the strategy used by the reckless youth during their rooftop races. This was the practice that got Ruke’s nephew killed.
He felt a burning need to stop this swifter ignite within his chest. Ruke jumped a little lower from this roof, landing only two meters beyond the edge of the next one.
“Stop!” he called again.
She glanced over her shoulder, but didn’t respond. With her attention directed back at him, she bumped into a rover that moved in front of her. She stumbled, but kept her feet.
Ruke’s knees complained against this exertion. And still he could see that he wasn’t going fast enough to cut her off.
When he reached the next alley, he hardly even jumped at all.
It worked. He hit the next rooftop well within the first meter, and could see that if he kept up this new pace, he would certainly cut her off. He still had it.
A wave of energy and confidence surged through him as the gap between him and the skyway dwindled. One block. Three alleys, two alleys. The perpetrator turned onto the skyway as he approached the final alley.
He suddenly had an image of his nephew in the coffin, just before cremation. He remembered his sister’s convulsive tears, how she clung to him for support as she approached the body of her son. Who would she cling to if he himself were in the coffin? The fire in his chest was quenched in an instant. He wasn’t selfish enough to be this reckless.
But the alley was there, one step away. There was no time to stop, no time to think. He panicked, planting his foot and pushing off — too early. He wasn’t quite close enough to the edge of the building, and his shoes started pulling him back down before he floated out over the alley. He could see already that he wasn’t going to make it. He looked down. A fall from this height wasn’t fatal — probably.
He crashed into the building, the edge of the roof slamming into his chest. He could feel his ribs snap. He had no breath. He mustered some effort to try and lift himself onto the roof, but a stab of pain prevented him from having the strength.
He tried to swing one of his legs up onto the roof, but couldn’t summon the effort. He felt himself sliding closer to the edge.
A pair of hands gripped his left arm — the one with the stripes that marked him as a peacekeeper — and hauled him up. It was the young woman he had been chasing.
As soon as he was securely up over the lip of the roof, she turned to walk away. But before she got more than a step, he deftly pulled an Achilles from his belt and slapped it onto her shoe. It immediately overrode the normal function of her shoe’s electromagnets, locking her foot inexorably to the rooftop.
She cursed as Ruke pushed himself slowly, grimacing, to his feet. “You’re under arrest.”
Read the next chapter: Trinta