art by Erin Cardwell
“You have a message from Mirx.”
Kinch felt the muscles in his shoulders go rigid. He reached with a shaking hand for the ambrosia bottle at the side of the pool, and shot a pump of it into his nose. The anxiety melted from his shoulders, and his hands steadied.
His pax, KL, and he had an unspoken agreement not to read him any disturbing messages until he had ambrosia in him.
She read the message without emotion.
“You owe me 1577. I’ll have it this week, or you start to lose fingers.”
Kinch felt bad — just a little — for the sucker whose digits hung in the balance. It would be several minutes before that poor sap was him again.
He shifted atop the thick, dense liquid of the pool and stared at skinners. The attractive young men and women wore no exoskins under their clothes as they passed this way and that among the float-pools, picking up empty ambrosia bottles and dropping off full ones. With no electromagnetic shoes to keep from bouncing, they moved in a peculiar yet graceful crouch. A woman in the pool next to Kinch was staring up at them also, her expression vacant.
As he watched, one of the skinners stepped into her pool, his bare feet submerging only up to his ankles. He bent down and scooped her up easily, the liquid of the pool shedding quickly from her exoskin in opaque, cyan droplets. He swung her easily onto his shoulder and carried her away.
She had been in that pool since Kinch entered. She must be broke, now. This place was a brilliant innovation — his best ambrosia experience since his first time — but burning expensive.
Kinch began to wonder about how much he still had in his account. He’d been at perihelion on his bets yesterday. The long shot with Rhene… He smiled, shaking his head.
He pulled the glass of his helmet down over his face, and rolled onto his belly, his whole field of view suddenly a wall of uniform blue-green. “How much do I have?” he asked KL idly.
Had he really spent over 400 dunnets already? He’d only been here for a few hours. Right?
“Tell Nellina I want to talk.”
There was silence for a couple of minutes. Kinch could feel the tension seeping back into him, but he needed to be alert.
“How much do you want?” It wasn’t his ex-wife’s voice; KL was reading her message aloud.
“What makes you think I’m going to ask you for money?”
“You’re not going to ask me for money?”
There was a pause.
“Then what do you want?”
“How are you?”
“I’m fine. Is that all you wanted to talk to me about?”
“I can’t be concerned for your well-being?”
“Be concerned if you want, but you forfeited your right to know details about my personal life years ago.”
“Are you still working in the kitchens at the Mining Mess?”
There was an extended pause.
“If you really want to know so badly, I got a job in Biorecycling.”
“Decided you want to see crap become carp, instead of the other way around?” He chuckled quietly at his own joke.
No response came. He rolled over onto his back again. After a few minutes, he gave up waiting, and sent another message.
Kinch sat up quickly, his butt sinking to the bottom of the shallow pool to support his weight.
“Yeah, I know. I meant how’s the engagement going?”
“Nice try. She asked me to tell you about it the next time you called to ask for money.”
He sat for a few minutes, staring blankly at where his feet disappeared into paint-like liquid. He hadn’t been aware that she was seeing someone.
He’d thought years ago that he’d finally won out over Nellina when Dema had taken to gambling, like her old man. Nellina wouldn’t even talk to him for a year after that. It hadn’t mattered, though. He’d heard enough about Dema from his fellow gamblers. He’d even used her reputation to keep in the black a few times.
But then she’d stopped gambling about a year ago, and no one knew why. And even though Dema still made a living at the grum torus, Nellina had gloated.
And now Dema was settling down.
Somehow, though, he felt very proud of her. This wasn’t her path because her mother had told her to take it, or because of her father’s legacy. She was her own, smart, capable person, and he was proud of her, dammit.
He would buy her an engagement present.
He stood up and quickly stepped out of the pool… His head swam and he tipped backward, falling slowly in the low gravity. He felt the double impact of striking the surface of the pool, and then its bottom. Giant globules of topaz drifted lazily up around him. The skinners dodged out of the way with practiced ease in their spider-like crouches, shooting him dirty looks and shouting things he was still too dazed to hear.
Kinch sat up, shaking the stars out. Then the globules came down, splattering on the walkways, and in the other pools, and on the people laying in the other pools. One landed on the face of a man two pools down from him. He sputtered, cursing, and sat up, trying to shake the liquid out of his nose and mouth and eyes, making sure that none of it slipped down his neck under the edges of the exoskin.
Kinch stood up again, more slowly this time. Setting aside his gray flat cap for the moment, he picked up his pants from the foot of the pool. He was about to put them on when one of the skinners, a beefy woman in her thirties — a former grummer, by the look of her — came up to him. She took him by the shoulders, moving him toward the exit.
“Hey!” he said, slipping out of her grasp and going back to get his cap.
She walked up to him, snatched the cap, and threw it down into the pool, stepping on it with her bare foot to force it under.
“How dare you?” He draped his pants over his left arm and fished out the cap with his other hand.
She took him by the shoulders again and escorted him out as he wrung the liquid out his cap, which was now a queer, dark aquamarine.
The skinner shoved him — stumbling — out the door.
“Don’t expect me to come back here!” he shouted.
“Good,” she replied without looking back at him, and shut the door.
Kinch raised his left hand, his pants — still draped there — sliding up to his elbow. He smiled at the little ambrosia bottle he was palming. He’d grabbed it in his left hand when he’d reached with his right into the pool for his cap. He raised it to his nose and inhaled another pump of it before slipping his pants on. Then he walked past the front desk of the “spa” and up the stairs to the first floor.
Kinch checked his helmet, which already had the glass down, shook his cap out once more, placed it on his head, and then punched the button to evacuate the airlock.
“What would she like for an engagement present?” he sent to Nellina. He took the cap back off and looked at it, studying its new color. To be fair, it had been white when Nellina had bought it for him.
The airlock doors opened, and he walked out, his mind and eyes still on the cap.
Hands grabbed each of his arms and carried him back into the airlock.
“Hello,” Kinch said, waving his cap at the two thugs who held him with what limited mobility his arms had. The ambrosia was still in effect, so he felt no anxiety at their appearance.
A third man walked straight up to him, slicing the cap clean in half with a ten-centimeter nanoblade. “Give us the money,” he said, idly twirling the white knife in his hand.
“Who sent you?” Kinch asked.
“Mirx,” came the answer from the man cutting off circulation to his right arm.
“Well, he’s going to have to get in line.”
“Huh?” asked the thug on his left.
“I owe five times as much to Arich.”
“You’re in some deep cack, then,” the man with the knife said.
“I don’t think Arich will take well to having his repayment delayed by your boss. I was actually on my way to go give him the money right now.”
“Was you? Because it looks to me like you was doin’ your best to spend it all before me and Arich can get our hands on it.”
“Look, if you want to risk your boss’ neck, that’s your business.”
The meatheads holding his arms looked questioningly at the man with the knife.
“Alright,” he said. “I’ll let you go. But, just to show you, you don’t mess with Mirx…” He raised the knife.
Kinch started to hyperventilate, pulling his right hand toward his chest. The man on that side forced his arm back out immediately, and the eyes of the leader shifted hungrily to that hand.
“Just not my index finger,” Kinch begged. “Please not my index finger.”
KL started reading a message. “She’d like a new tablet–“
“Tell her I–” Kinch whispered, but the man holding his right arm interrupted him.
“I need it for… you know… skinner business…”
The man with the knife laughed. “Thanks for the tip.”
“Don’t. Please don’t.” Kinch pleaded with them.
“Shut up!” shouted the man on his right.
The man with the knife slid the blade down between the index and middle finger of his right hand. He turned the blade to face toward his index finger, and made a swift motion upward.
The finger came off and Kinch screamed. The men holding his arms let him go as he pulled his right hand back to his chest and covered it with his left. Blood seeped out between his fingers.
The thugs backed out of the airlock, laughing, as Kinch struggled over to the wall and hit the button to repressurize with his elbow.
As soon as the doors closed, Kinch’s screams turned to laughter. He let go of his right hand and scooped up one of the torn pieces of cap, wiping the fake blood from the stump. Then he picked up the prosthetic finger and cleaned it off as well, squeezing the excess fake blood out. When it was clean enough, he looked at it, grinning.
The best insurance policy he ever invested in. Only needed it twice in twenty years, but worth every dunnet. The airlock doors behind him opened, and he turned, startled, slipping the finger into the pocket of his pants.
He waited a couple of minutes to let the thugs clear out before trying to leave again through the same airlock.
“Why exactly,” KL read, “do you need a tablet for skinner business?”
“What? KL, why would you send that Nellina? Obviously I was talking to the thugs!”
“You told me to.”
He sighed. It was no use trying to explain to Nellina. The lie would reflect better on him than the truth, anyhow.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Tell her I’ll get Dema the tablet.”
He stepped from the airlock out under the dark sky. “Where do the twenty-somethings shop for tablets these days?”
Read the next chapter: Roddy