Archive for family obligation

Selecting Faces Chapter 10: Yazen

Yazen - bullied character from Selecting Faces

art by Erin Cardwell

Yazen bounded up the stairwell of the apartment building where he and his mom lived. He slowed when he saw Tix waiting for him on the landing. He was afraid this might happen.

Tix was actually a year younger than Yazen himself, but he was a few centimeters taller, and an extra ten kilos.

Yazen avoided Tix’s eyes — which were puffy, and yet blazing — and continued to climb the stairs. Tix moved over to prevent him from stepping onto the landing. Tix glared down at him, his extra height exaggerated by the last stair.

“Just let me go upstairs.” Yazen did his best to keep his voice from quivering.

Rhene didn’t deserve to win.”

“She didn’t break the rules.”

“But she didn’t deserve to win. That was obvious in the next grum.”

“So what she lost in the second round? She beat your sister.”

Tix shoved Yazen backward. He knew he wouldn’t be able to keep from losing his balance, so he leapt backward off the top stair and floated for a second before his shoes turned back on, pulling him onto the steel tiles of the next landing down.

“What do you want?” Yazen asked.

“My sister deserved to win that grum and you know it.”

He eyed the other boy. “You want me to give you my mom’s cut.” Yazen had picked up the prize money for winning the first-round grum. That was their custom, so that his mom wouldn’t be tempted to turn around and gamble it away.

Tix didn’t reply. He just stood, staring down from the top of the half-flight of stairs.

“And when my mom comes home?” Yazen continued. “She’s not going to be pissed at me, you know.”

“Then she can take it up with my sister. In a fair fight, you know Rhene doesn’t stand a chance.”

“A fair fight! Ha! We saw that today.”

Tix scoffed. “The only reason Rhene was able to splash Kasi today is because she was cherry-picking.”

“That’s how grums work, dummy! You can’t get so focused on taking down one person that you let someone else surprise you.”

Tix launched himself off the landing toward Yazen. Yazen yelped and charged up the stairs, under Tix’s gliding feet. Tix growled, hitting the lower landing and racing up after him.

Yazen took the steps two at a time, which was all he could do with his short legs. Tix caught hold of his left ankle, causing him to fall down onto the stairs. Yazen drove his right foot down onto Tix’s wrist, and he let go.

He scrambled to his feet and bounded up to the next landing, throwing open his door. He tried to slam it shut behind him, throwing all his weight against it, but Tix was already on the landing. His extra weight allowed him to shove Tix backward — magnetic shoes scraping on the metal floor.

Seeing that he couldn’t win here, he abandoned the door to run deeper into the apartment. Without his resistance, the door flung open, slamming into the wall. Before Yazen had a chance to take more than a couple of steps away from the door, Tix’s arms closed around his chest.

“Give me the money!”

Yazen’s mind reeled as he tried to remember what his mom would do in a grum.

He threw his hips back and spun to the left, slamming his left forearm into Tix’s gut to push him away.

Tix breathed out with the shove, grabbing Yazen’s arm and reeling him in. Yazen used the force of Tix’s pull as a source of momentum throwing a jab with his right hand.

Tix had him too close, though, and the punch was too far inside Yazen’s reach to be effective. Tix threw an undercut into his stomach. He crumpled to the floor.

Tix moved to pin him down, and Yazen kicked at him wildly. Yazen’s steel-clad shoe connected with his shin. He let out a yell, grabbing his shin and hopping onto the other foot. Yazen kicked at Tix’s remaining leg and the younger, larger boy went down.

Yazen scrambled away through the small living room. Tix was up and after him in a flash. Yazen darted into the bathroom and tried to shut this door behind him also, but didn’t quite get it closed in time. His shoes started to slide back — but then his feet hit the door of the shower and stopped.

With something to brace against, he was able to push the door closed. He took one hand off the door to reach for the lock, and Tix pushed it open again, slipping his arm through the gap. He didn’t have the strength to hold the door closed with one hand while he locked it with the other.

“Just give me the money,” Tix grunted, reaching around the edge of the door, trying to knock away Yazen’s hands.

Yazen didn’t reply. Beads of sweat were forming on his face and his breath was quick pants.

Tix braced his arm against the wall on the inside of the bathroom and put his back against the door — and pushed. Yazen’s arms were being forced against their will to bend.

He got an idea. “YB, don’t let me transfer any money until my mom gets home.”

“Account locked,” YB replied.

Tix forced his way into the bathroom, his eyes wild with fury.

“I can’t give you the money, even if I wanted to.” Yazen tried to catch his breath, kneeling on the floor before Tix.

Tix’s face contorted into a more vicious snarl, but he turned and stormed back into the living room, eyes roaming wildly. He grabbed a floor lamp and swung it against the corner of the wall between the living room and kitchen. It snapped in half, the top flinging across the kitchen and smashing into the wall.

He stood with the bottom half of the lamp dangling from his hand, his chest heaving.

“Why do you need the money so badly?” Tix ignored him, passing through the kitchen to retrieve the other half of the lamp on his way out the door.

Yazen got up, and hovered cautiously near the bathroom.

After a minute, Mr. Nolter appeared in the doorway of the apartment. He had on olive green trousers over his exoskin. “Are you okay?”

Yazen nodded.

“I heard a crash.”

Yazen shrugged. “The lamp broke.”

“I see.” Mr Nolter stepped into the living room, noting some broken bits of plastic on the rug. “But you didn’t break it.”

Yazen shook his head.

Mr. Nolter bent down and scooped up one of the larger pieces.

“I thought I heard Tix’s voice earlier. Did he do it?”

Yazen looked away, saying nothing.

Mr. Nolter nodded thoughtfully. “Tell your mom what happened when she gets back.”

“Yes, sir.”

Mr. Nolter went out the door, walking upstairs to the penthouse.

Yazen went into the kitchen to get the hose for the central vac. When he came back into the living room to clean up the broken bits of the lamp, Tix was standing next to the small sofa, facing away from him, plugging in an old — but working — lamp.

When he noticed Yazen staring, he shrugged. “Keep it. Kasi and I won’t be needing it.”


Read the next chapter: Kinch


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Selecting Faces Chapter 8: Kasi

Kasi - server character from Selecting Faces

art by Erin Cardwell

 

Today could not have been a worse day. Kasi had woken up with one of the worst hangovers of her life, had lost a grum that she should have won, and lost it so badly that she didn’t get paid. Fighting that injustice had made her late to her shift at Orion’s Bistro, so she’d been relegated to serve the worst tables in the restaurant. Not to mention the fact that she was still a little soggy from getting splashed in the grum — which wouldn’t have been a problem if she’d placed even a little higher.

And to top it all off, she had the worst customer occupying the best table in her measly bunch.

He was about thirty, tall, a little overweight, with nervous, shifting eyes. He was decked out in formal attire: white tie, black shirt, and white pants obscured virtually all of his exoskin.

Kasi’s section of the restaurant was meant for the truly ostentatious — set up on a balcony — which is why it had only three small tables. But unless one of the Alphas or Betas came in, it was unlikely that she would make tips enough to justify the inordinate service she was expected to render her customers. Instead, most of the time her customers were pairs of middle-class saps who were coming to a restaurant like this for a special occasion, sitting in the fancy section, and then proceeding to try and spend as little as possible because they couldn’t really afford to come here in the first place. This was the story with one of her tables. Another of her tables was sitting empty at Gabra’s insistence, in case someone truly important strolled in, expecting to be seated at once.

And the third was occupied by the man in the white tie. He hadn’t ordered anything but a glass of water, which he kept picking up and setting down, over and over, and alternately glancing behind him, over the edge of the balcony at the entrance of the restaurant.

Kasi dropped off a check to the other diners — not that they’d requested the check, but they’d certainly been here long enough, especially since they’d turned down multiple offers for more dessert or another round of drinks — and approached the man in the white tie as he picked up his water and set it back down without drinking.

“Can I get you anything?” Kasi asked.

“No, not until my girlfriend gets here,” he replied without looking at her. His eyes darted from the entrance, to his water glass, which he picked up and set down again.

“You could move to the other side of the table, you know.”

“I don’t want it to look like I’m waiting for her.”

Kasi grabbed the lip of the table to keep from slapping him.

He started to babble nervously. “If it looks like I’m waiting for her, then she’ll think that I disapprove of her and she’ll be upset and then I’ll be upset for upsetting her, and then the moment won’t be right and –” Kasi walked away even though he was still talking.

She went past a flight of stairs leading down to the main dining room, and turned a corner, disappearing into her station. It had a checkout stand, stacks of menus, bins of supplies, and a pneumatic dumbwaiter to lift prepared dishes up from the kitchen. Almost immediately Gabra appeared behind her.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Gabra asked.

“Ugh!” Kasi let out involuntarily.

“I saw you walk away from that customer while he was talking.” She stepped around the corner to get a view of him. “And now he’s crying!”

“That’s not my fault! He’s all worked up because his girlfriend is running late.”

“And you want his girlfriend to arrive to find him crying? I’m sure that will be really great for both of their appetites.”

Kasi shifted her weight to the side and gave Gabra an exasperated look, who returned to her an insistent stare.

“Fine.” Kasi brushed past her and strode over.

The man in the white tie had buried his face in his hands.

“I’m sure she’s just running late because of the shuttle. I heard the new colonists were arriving around this time today.”

“You think so?” he asked, looking up. His eyes were all puffy and red. He sniffed, sucking wet snot back into his nose.

“I do.” She turned to walk away, then she caught Gabra’s eye. She was hovering near the top of the stairs, watching her. Kasi turned back to the pitiful man. “Blow your nose on the napkin. I’ll get you a new one.”

He took the napkin off his appetizer plate, unfolded it, and emptied his sinuses into it. He held it out to her.

She stared at it for a few seconds, wishing profusely to scoff and stroll away, but she couldn’t. Not with Gabra watching her. She took it, holding it away from her with two fingers.

Gabra remained by the top of the stairs as Kasi brushed by her and went to her station. She dropped the dirty napkin in her bus bin, and then grabbed a replacement.

Gabra nodded her approval and descended the stairs again as Kasi dropped off the napkin to the man in the white tie. He gave her a weak smile, then picked up his water and set it back down. He glanced over his shoulder and his red eyes lit up. Standing, he waved at the entrance of the restaurant.

“Finally,” Kasi muttered, moving over to the now-vacant table where her other customers had left their check and gone. Maybe she could still make enough.

She picked up the check and dropped it into her apron. “Give me some good news, KM.”

“Seven dunnets on a seventy-two dunnet bill. Nine point seven percent.”

“Of course,” she sighed. She grabbed a pair of menus from her station and returned to where the girlfriend was just sitting down. He’d had Kasi wait to bring the menus until she got here.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” the girlfriend said.

“What happened?”

Kasi went ahead and placed the menus on the table, since they weren’t paying any attention to her. She was about to walk away when she saw Gabra down on the floor of the dining room glance up at her. These were the premium tables, and she’d be remissed if she walked away when there were no other tables to go serve, no other duties to perform.

“It’s a long story,” she replied, waving a hand. “And I’m hungry.”

Kasi opened her mouth to run through today’s specials, but the man interrupted her.

“I was really worried about you.”

“There was no reason to be.”

“So what happened?”

She sighed. “I was dragged downtown by an overzealous stripe.”

“What? Why?”

“Well, the streets were super crowded, and I was running late, and I didn’t want to keep you waiting, so I thought I could get here faster if I took the rooftops.”

“You were swifting.”

“I wasn’t doing it dangerously.”

“We talked about this,” he said. “It’s always dangerous. If not for your health, then for your reputation.”

“No one is going to blame me for hurrying to a date with you.”

Kasi interrupted them. “Can I get you started with anything to drink?”

“A Gin Centauri for me,” said the girlfriend.

“And anything for you?”

“But why were you running late in the first place?”

“I just lost track of time.”

“You were gambling, weren’t you?”

“Handicapping,” she corrected. “I haven’t gambled since we talked about how a mom shouldn’t gamble.” She turned to Kasi. “I’m sorry about your luck today, by the way.”

Kasi’s cheeks flushed as she recognized the woman she was waiting on. Dema. She had been an renown punter, and no one knew for certain why she’d quit gambling. There were rumors, of course. That bitter punters who she’d beaten had hired some thugs to teach her a lesson. Kasi and many of the other grummers didn’t take stock in that story: everyone knew Dema had nerves like nanotubes.

Yet here was the answer, and it was far more mundane than any of the rumors.

“A mom shouldn’t be swifting either,” he said quietly.

“You do realize that Dema is one of the best punters there’s ever been. She has a gift, and you’re making her waste it.”

“For the love of the alphas, can you give us some space!” he said, rising from the table.

With pleasure, Kasi thought as she ducked out of the conversation.

As soon as she left the table, KM automatically relayed the drink order to the computer. Within a minute, the pneumatic dumbwaiter rose up and opened, bearing the Gin Centauri. Dema and the man in the white tie were still bickering — rather loudly — but Gabra’s policy was clear: when food or drink arrived on the dumbwaiter, it was to be on the table in thirty seconds, unless it would mean interrupting service to the customer she was with.

As Kasi walked back out to the table, she saw a couple come in. The badge on the woman’s sleeve marked her as a beta. The host gestured toward the balcony. They looked up, saw the fighting couple, and shook their heads. They pointed to a table on the lower floor. Kasi sighed. She set the drink in front of Dema without a word, then stalked back to her station.

When she got back there, out of sight, she slid the glass of her helmet down over her face. “KM, mute outgoing for a minute will you.”

The noise of the restaurant — including that of the worst customers she’d ever had — faded to a low rumble.

“Remember, you’re in an atmospheric building, so –“

“You couldn’t do this somewhere else?” she growled, not to KM. “I mean really, you’re here for a half hour ordering absolutely nothing, just taking up space, and then even when your girlfriend does get here, you don’t even bother to order a drink before you start bickering like you’re already married. And not only that, but you’re driving the other customers away, the only chance I have of making some decent tips. And of course you would. Of course you would. Because the whole burning solar system is conspiring against me today!”

Kasi breathed for a few seconds. Very faintly, she could still hear the voices of her fruitless patrons. She closed her eyes, leaning heavily on the checkout stand, hanging her head.

“Could you send a message to Tix?”

“Go ahead,” KM replied.

“We’re not going to have enough to keep Roddy from throwing us out. Pack up the Gyro-tote with some blankets, and all of the food. Fill up our water bottles and put them in there, too. If there’s any more room, pack up anything you think we can sell. Wait for me in the stairwell. I’ll be home at 1700.”

A lump formed in her throat and she did her best to swallow it back down.

“Is that the end of the message?” KM asked.

“Tell him not to be scared… That’s everything,”

“Message sent.”

Kasi took a deep breath and turned back toward the dining room.

Gabra was standing right behind her.

She said something, but it was muffled. “Glass up,” she said, motioning.

Kasi hurriedly unlocked the glass and slid it back from her face. “Sorry I –“

“Go.” Gabra gestured back toward the dining room.

Kasi brushed past her.

The bickering couple was gone.

No. They weren’t gone. That was still Dema, but she was smiling now, and holding hands with the man across from her, who had taken off his white tie.

She strolled up to the table. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asked hopefully.

“Get us a bottle of bubbly!” he said.

“We’re engaged,” Dema explained. “What will you have to eat, dear?” she asked her new fiancee. “Anything you want; it’s my treat. Let’s dip into the gambling fortunes I’ll make tomorrow,” she said, giving Kasi a wink.


Read the next chapter: Arich


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Selecting Faces Chapter 6: Ruke

Ruke - zealous peacekeeper character from Selecting Faces

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


Selecting Faces Table of Contents

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