A short man, mixed-race by the look of him, smiled at Réalta across her counter. “Young lady, my name is Arvin O’Hanlon. I hope you can help me with a small difficulty.” A pair of old-fashioned glasses perched on his brown nose; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen someone wearing glasses. Maybe a stylish fad on his planet-of-origin? More likely, he was one of those human-firsters, so against genetic mods that he hadn’t even had his eyesight corrected.
But it wasn’t any of her business why the man wore glasses; she smiled back professionally. After a month on the job, she had the smile down. “I’ll do my best to help you, ser. What seems to be the problem?”
He said, “The weight allowance is only thirty kilos for a third-class ticket to Earth, and second-class is far more than I can afford. But I was hoping to bring forty kilos; I have some sentimental memorabilia I’d hate to leave behind.” The man slid the baggage form across to her, and Réalta glanced down, then froze. Underneath it was a hundred-credit chip, sticking out.
Her parents named her Réaltán, little star, though she went by Réalta. Her mother told stories while brushing and braiding Réalta’s long red hair, tales of how they’d wished on the stars for a child, for long weary years, and finally been granted one. Her papa said that maybe the fey folk had brought her – the fey were cruel, but they were also capricious, and might as easily turn to kindness. Be faithful, hardworking, and true. Someday, cariad, you’ll shine as bright as the stars above, as glorious as the sun shines over old Earth. You’ll shine brighter than any of us.
After the fire, after her parents so suddenly died, there was no money for university, even at the reduced rate for locals. Réalta tried to finish out the semester, but it was beyond her; too many nights of weeping and too few papers written. Her professors took her circumstances into account and let her withdraw, even though it was long past the deadline. So Réalta didn’t fail, exactly. But she had nothing to show for all that hard work.
The plan had been university, then culinary school. Réalta spent her teen years practicing with every cooking holovid the planetary library held. Months when her parents could afford it, they’d even bought her real ingredients. She could chop onions in uniform quarter-inch portions, temper cumin seed and mustard seed with curry leaves for the perfect finish to a dish. She never scorched the leaves, either! If it were up to her, Réalta would have happily skipped university. But her da said, you might be bright, cariad, and this planet might even consider you a legal adult now. But trust us – at fifteen, you’re too young to know what you want to do for the rest of your life.
Her mam had backed him up, so Réalta had agreed; she wanted to be a good daughter. University had been interesting while it lasted. But now she had no degree, no credentials. No one would hire a fifteen-year-old to the chef’s line. She did find a gig as a dishwasher, but there were three problems with it: the work was exhausting, being that close to the kitchen and not getting to cook was torture, and worst of all, the pay wasn’t enough. Three months after the fire, her money was running out.
She’d finally found a decent job at the spaceport. Aunty Saroja had heard about it, pulled strings to get her in, out of pity for the poor orphan girl. Everyone felt bad for Réalta, but her relatives and friends had their own troubles. After a few weeks of dropping off casseroles – and really, an algae-casserole was almost inedible, no matter how heavily you spiced it – they’d gone back to their lives. Even her girlfriend, Usha, had disappeared, with only a message on their private channel. Réalta’s grief had been too much for Usha to take.
She was left all alone.
Anxiety knotted her stomach; she needed this job. Réalta smiled uncertainly at the slender brown woman facing her. The supervisor seemed kind, if a little harried; she’d raced through the tutorials. Amara’s sari was draped impeccably, crisp-ironed pleats neatly pinned, embroidery gleaming. Réalta had tried to look nice for her first day, but she was conscious of every worn spot on her tunic.
“I’m sorry your training’s been so abbreviated,” Amara said, frowning. “We’ve had a lot more traffic through here recently, people trying to get visas and tickets off-planet, most of whom either don’t have the right documentation or can’t afford the full ticket price.”
Réalta asked, uncertainly, “But why? We’re not even at war.” She felt dumb for not understanding, but her father had always said, Better to ask for a light than stumble in the dark.
“Oh well.” Amara shrugged. “Violent incidents on Old Earth and Solvida, people panic.”
Réalta nodded, pretending to understand. Why leave home? In a cruel universe, home was one of the few safeties you had.
Amara smiled apologetically. “Sorry, you don’t need to hear my opinions about politics! The work is straightforward – just follow the prompts.” She frowned and added, “I’m honestly a little surprised they gave you the job; you seem young.”
“I’m older than I look,” Réalta said firmly. She was actually younger than she looked – after the fire, a white streak had appeared in her red hair overnight. But Réalta was a legal adult, which was all the government cared about; terraforming planets were always short of labor, and needed all the adult workers they could get. Amara couldn’t be that much older than she was – twenty-one or twenty-two, maybe. “I was in university before this.” Only because she’d been admitted years early, since she’d scored so high on her exams, but Amara didn’t need that particular piece of information. “I can handle it.”
Amara smiled, lighting up her face. That smile made you notice her curving cheeks and bright brown eyes – for the first time in a long time, Réalta felt a spark of attraction flare. She took a quick steadying breath, smothering the spark; that kind of complication was the last thing she needed right now. Amara said, “I’m sure you’ll be fine. Just let me know if you need a break; you can sit down for a few minutes in the back, rest your feet.”
“Thanks,” Réalta said. Then Amara turned and stepped away, leaving her bereft. Just long enough to iris open the facility door, admitting the queue to the waiting room. First day — time to work.
“Hello, can I help you?” That first day at work, Réalta read the words off the screen; the young couple facing her smiled, with a hint of desperation in their eyes. She flinched away from their emotion, grateful for the careful script. If she had to turn people down for an exit visa, she could at least defer to a higher power. Réalta had enough misery in her life; she didn’t enjoy adding to someone else’s.
Most mornings, the room quickly filled with people waiting their turn, a morass of hope, impatience, and frustration. It was busy enough that Réalta didn’t have much time to think or feel. The misery that crushed her chest lifted, a little.
The first few days on the job Réalta said no more often than yes. But there were some who had everything they needed, the right papers and sufficient money to buy a ticket on an outgoing ship. Mostly humods, those wealthy humans who’d chosen to genetically engineer and visibly modify their bodies, adding antennae or wings or simply making themselves unnaturally gorgeous.
If Réalta were rich, she’d be in culinary school right now, stirring a creamy cheese sauce, adding a splash of off-world liqueur. She’d never actually had liqueur, but she’d watched enough vids to know how it ought to taste, what it would do to the dish. At least, she thought she had. So many ingredients Réalta hadn’t tasted, so many dishes she hadn’t yet cooked. Instead, here she was, adding digital stamps to virtual passports. Glorious.
Lunchtime was a reprieve; Amara closed the office for fifteen minutes: “I’m not really supposed to, but I think we can get away with it.” Her eyes glinted wickedly, and Réalta couldn’t help smiling in response. Lunch quickly became a tradition, chatting over reheated rice and curries. Réalta just had algae, but Amara brought in more interesting options, and seemed happy to offer her tastes.
“You have to try these Varisian chilies – they’ll blow your head off!”
“That sounds painful,” Réalta said, laughing.
Amara grinned. “Yes, but in a good way…”
The chilies were sharp and vinegary, and Réalta was grateful for the yogurt jar Amara slid across the table, creamy tang taming the bite of spice. Maybe someday she’d design a sandwich, yogurt and chilies wrapped up in a toasted piece of naan…
“So what do you want to be when you grow up?” Amara asked.
“I am grown up!” Wasn’t she holding down a job, supporting herself? What more could the universe ask of her to prove her adulthood?
Amara smiled and quickly said, “Oh, I know, I know. I’m just teasing you.”
Réalta had to take a deep breath, pushing the defensiveness aside. Amara wouldn’t like her if she was too prickly. “I want to be a chef. I know culinary school is expensive…”
Amara tilted her head to the side, considering. “It should be possible, if you’re careful with your money, save up. A smart girl like you?”
Réalta glowed in the warmth of Amara’s regard, and leaned in a little closer. Was it her imagination, or did Amara lean in too?
Maybe. Maybe not.
A few aliens who came through the office, which livened things up. Amara glanced at her warily the first time a big saurian came in, but when Réalta calmly took the alien through the script, Amara nodded approval, and Réalta flushed with pleasure. The saurian’s swishing tail knocked over a potted plant on the way out, the most entertaining moment of the day. She and Amara managed to keep from laughing until he was safely down the hall.
Her second week didn’t start well. They were in a slow afternoon stretch, just one client in the room, and Amara had stepped to the back, leaving her to handle him. Réalta forced a polite smile for the tall pale-skinned man glowering across the counter. “I’m sorry, ser. Your papers don’t seem to be in order. You need sign-off from your district’s zamindar. If you can get that and come back here, I’ll be happy to help you.”
The man leaned across her counter, uncomfortably close. His voice dropped to an angry growl. “Girl, I know you can make that little machine of yours pass my papers through. There’ll be something in it for you if you do. And if you don’t…”
What was she supposed to say to that? There was no script on her screen for attempted bribery, or threats – was he threatening her? Réalta’s chest tightened, her pulse pounded in her throat. But then Amara was there; she ducked out from behind her counter and rushed forward, stopping an inch from the man’s chest. He must have been half a foot taller than her, but she didn’t seem to care, practically vibrating with fury.
Amara raised her hand, fingers counting off sharply, one, two, three, as she snapped the words: “First of all, we work for the government of Kriti, and in this government, we don’t take bribes. I don’t know what Fringe planet you were raised on, but this is a civilized place. Second, I don’t respond well to threats. In two seconds, I could have security here, and they’d haul you off to prison. You wouldn’t like prison – they’re always short of workers for the asteroid mines. And third, can’t you see the big red letters on her badge that say Trainee? She’s just a kid. What kind of man are you, bullying a kid? Your amma would be ashamed of you!”
Amara’s gaze was fixed on the man, who didn’t seem to know what to say. His brown face flushed darker, and his hands clenched into fists at his sides; the potential for violence hovered in the air, a black cloud.
Then he spun around and left the room, leaving the two women alone.
Réalta’s stomach heaved; she felt light-headed, dizzy. “Thanks.” Her voice wobbled, and she had to work to steady it. “Really, thank you.”
Amara rolled her shoulders, releasing the tension gathered there. She laughed, with only a slightly hysterical edge to it. “Whew. That was something, huh? Don’t worry – that’s not a typical event. You’ll get the occasional offer of a bribe, but usually they’re more subtle than that, and too smart to try threats.” She grinned, now seeming almost exhilarated. “This isn’t actually a dangerous job. Which is a good thing, as I have no aspirations to heroism.” She reached out and squeezed Réalta’s arm. A steady, reassuring grip. At the touch, Réalta’s pulse raced.
“Good to know,” Réalta said, fighting the urge to lean in, to wrap her arms around Amara’s waist and bury her face in that cascade of black hair. Amara let go of her arm, walked back to the counter. Back to work, just another day.
Réalta wouldn’t mind being a hero, if the chance came up. Maybe the man would come back; she almost wished he would. Now she knew what to do; she could tell him a thing or two. She’d be a shining star and make Amara proud.
But no opportunities for heroic acts arose that week.
Was this Réalta’s future, standing in a hot room, processing paperwork for ten hours a day, trying to stave the off the waves of grief that could still overwhelm her with a flood of papers? By midday, her feet ached. You’d think the government could afford to buy them chairs; their taxes were certainly high enough and had been climbing higher recently. The taxes were necessary to put the planet on a war footing, the politicians claimed. Just in case. Those politicians didn’t know the price of lentils and didn’t care that it had doubled in the last few weeks.
Not that Réalta could afford lentils. The second week’s paycheck arrived, and then the third. Réalta kept trying to save money, but she didn’t earn enough. Her salary was enough to pay her rent and utilities and that was all – if it weren’t for the standard algae ration, she would starve. She could give up the apartment, of course – she didn’t need two bedrooms. A one bedroom or studio would be much cheaper.
But she couldn’t give it up. When Réalta walked into her parents’ bedroom, she could smell her father’s clove-and-sandalwood scent, lingering in the air, despite the building’s ancient air filters. Sometimes she lay down in her mother’s place, curling up and closing her eyes. When she got up again, the indentation left in the worn bedding made it seem as if her mother had just walked out the door.
Réalta would have to leave eventually, she knew. Not yet.
She’d only been on the job for a month when O’Hanlon showed up at her counter with his quiet request. Réalta stared at the bright edge of the credit chip, her heart fluttering in her chest like a caged bird. Though there was no threat here, not like last time; this man was perfectly polite.
Her mam, her da — they would have turned it down. They’d expect her to do the same. But it wasn’t fair that rich passengers got a higher weight allowance; if Réalta helped the little man, it would even things out.
Amara was distracted, a large family crowding around her counter, a long line of clients waiting. Amara wouldn’t understand — in this government, we don’t take bribes. Réalta’s throat tightened at the thought of disappointing her.
But Amara would never know.
Réalta took a breath, willing her churning gut to stillness. She reached out, pulled the sheet towards her, and stamped an approval next to the twenty kilo mark. “I’m so sorry, ser,” she said, as she slid the credit chip off the counter and into her pocket. “I’m afraid it’s only thirty kilos for third class.”
“Ah well. That’s a shame, but perhaps I can find a friend to carry the extra weight.” The man was entirely calm, as if nothing had happened. “Thank you for your help; you’ve been most kind. I’ll be sure to tell my friends to come to you if they need assistance.” There was the faintest upward inflection in that last sentence, a question.
Réalta’s fingers still touched the credit chip; icy cold and stinging, as if they’d burned. She hesitated, then answered firmly. “Please do. I’d be happy to assist them.” A hundred credits was a week’s rent. That was worth a little burning.
Bit by bit, the money accumulated. It was mostly the same man who came in, supposedly to arrange trips for various friends and colleagues, timing his visits for the busiest part of the morning, when Amara would be well distracted. Sometimes someone else would come, a ‘friend of Arvin’s.’ Generally, they wanted extra baggage, and Réalta tried not to wonder what they might be carrying in that baggage; it wasn’t any of her business. Sometimes they needed her to slide through a visa that wasn’t fully documented. Money didn’t seem to be a problem for them. They always paid the appropriate price for their tickets, though, surprisingly, they never bought a first-class ticket. Of course, first-class tickets were rare – maybe one would draw too much attention?
The bigger the request, the bigger the payment. Réalta splurged, buying a new dress – just one, since she didn’t want Amara to become suspicious. Still, the first time she came in wearing the pretty cotton dress, blue to bring out the color of her eyes, with red embroidery to match her hair, Amara said, “You look lovely today!” Réalta turned away to hide her heated blush, envying Amara the concealing darkness of her skin.
Mostly, she bought food – fresh amaden, green chowki leaves, the bitterness glorious on Réalta’s tongue. A little musthi tang to counter the algae-salt, and when she charred a senthii corm and sprinkled it on top, the taste was the first true pleasure she’d had in a month. If only her mam could taste it.
After a few exhilarating weeks, she stopped splurging and started saving. Réalta made herself a deal – half for the groceries, half for the future. She was smart enough to plan. She was going to make it to culinary school and make her parents proud.
She’d been working almost two months before Réalta finally got up the nerve to ask over lunch, “So, are you seeing anyone?”
Amara was looking beautiful that day, her long black hair worn loose, falling down her back to graze the rectangle of brown skin bared between the golden borders of sari blouse and skirt. Réalta wanted to touch that skin, see if it was as soft and warm as it looked. How long had it been since she’d touched anyone? Aside from that one squeeze of Amara’s hand on her arm — three months. Longer.
Had her mam hugged her goodbye before Réalta went off to school that morning? She couldn’t remember. She focused on Amara instead, and Amara’s bright eyes.
Her supervisor looked surprised. “Surely I’ve mentioned him. I’m married. My husband’s a professor at the University.”
Married! “Monogamously?” Réalta asked, hoping against hope.
“Yes,” Amara said, looking embarrassed. “We’re terribly old-fashioned. It’s even a life marriage, not a seven-year renewable.” She shrugged. “I met him when I was very young, almost as young as you.” Amara looked oddly sad. “I was very sure of myself, and of him.”
Réalta forced a smile. It was silly to feel so disappointed; she barely knew the woman, really. But she’d started building up a narrative in her head. A fantasy that they would go home together, would feed each other delicious food, would find a warm spot in the bed where they fit together… It wasn’t fair, to have her chest hurt like this, all over again. Hadn’t she had enough heartbreak for one lifetime? “It must be nice to be married.” Her parents had liked being married to each other. You could tell.
“Sometimes,” Amara said, frowning slightly. Before Réalta could pursue that ray of hope, the timer rang and lunch was over. Back to work.
All the requests were innocuous enough, until one day a little over three months in, when Arvin himself showed up again. He’d managed to time it for when Amara was out of the room on a restroom break.
“I need a full set of papers; there’s a man who needs to get out quickly. ID, travel docs, baggage forms.”
Those papers usually took weeks to gather and process. Réalta could, in theory, do it all herself. She could use other forms on file as the template, change the names. It would take a few hours to do well, but it was possible. But this was a far more serious breach of protocol than anything she’d done so far – who would need to move so quickly, so secretly?
Réalta froze, not knowing what she should do.
Three months into job, Réalta had traded in her Trainee badge for a normal one, hoping Amara wouldn’t see her as a kid now. Not that she would deliberately try to break up a marriage, but the marriage didn’t seem happy. Amara sometimes came into work teary, and while Réalta didn’t know what was wrong, she was sure the husband had something to do with it. It wasn’t as if there could be much else wrong with Amara’s life – she didn’t even have to work if she didn’t want to. Must be nice. Her husband had to make plenty of money as a professor; in fact, Réalta wasn’t sure why Amara was here at all. Maybe to get away from him.
Though at least he didn’t stint her on money; Amara wore lovely silk embroidered saris to work, saris she couldn’t possibly afford on her meager salary. They were much nicer than Réalta’s government-issued garb. Once a week, Réalta let herself wear the blue dress, but the rest of the week, she made do with drab grey tunics and salwar pants. No wonder Amara didn’t see her.
Maybe the fey had intervened and sent Arvin to her. Maybe it was her fate turning, her luck finally shifting. The universe wanted her to be able to stay in her apartment, to plan for a future. It was such a small thing, those credit chips sliding smoothly across the counter.
Her parents wouldn’t have agreed. Réalta was fourteen when her teacher caught her cheating on a biology test and dragged her into the principal’s office. Réalta had written some papers for money, then bought an illegal hack off an older kid to let her access the net during the test, subverting school safeguards. The test was so easy, and so boring – three hours! If she whipped through it with the hack, she could spend that time watching holovids. This wasn’t the first time she’d done it, and it really wasn’t that big a deal – lots of kids hacked the tests. But her parents didn’t see it that way.
They had to miss half a day’s work to come in and deal with it, and Réalta knew what that meant – no takeout dinner after church for the next few Sundays, just more rice and algae, algae and rice. She loved the salty fried skin on vat-meat, and there would be none of that now; that was what burned, not the lectures from teacher and principal.
“We thought we’d taught you better,” her da said on the long walk home. “Don’t you understand, cariad? The way they see us, the things they assume? People like us, we have to try harder, be better.”
Her mam didn’t say anything at all, just pressed her lips together in a thin, pale line. Réalta wanted to protest, to explain. The system was rigged – rich kids went to private schools, had tutors for every class. Life was hard. Why not make it a little easier? But her parents didn’t understand; they had too many principles, too much pride.
Her parents were gone now, had abandoned her. What had their fine principles gotten them? When Réalta closed her eyes at night, every night, she heard her mam screaming.
They’d died in a fire, along with six other workers in Kriti’s biggest algae factory. The processing machines overheated; the owner had bought the lowest-rated suppression system he could get away with, which proved inadequate to the task. The company sent her the required file showing cause of death, along with the last of her parents’ pay and the death-gild. Réalta left the file alone for weeks, but eventually, she broke and watched it through.
The factory cameras caught the tedium of her parents’ daily work, and the small pleasures too – the little jokes her mam made with friends on the line, the way her da incessantly bragged about his daughter at university, first in their family. See, it’s how I told you. Keep your head down, work hard, and you’ll get ahead. Of course, our wee girl’s as smart as a whip. She’s going to make us rich in our old age.
The fire started, the suppression system failed. Réalta watched her parents panic, run, scream, burn. The recording ended before they died; the camera must have burnt up. At night, Réalta’s dreams filled in the rest. Some nights, she couldn’t stop crying. She cried from night to morning, as if tears could drown out fire.
She did try to substitute happy memories: her big, burly father, who’d loved to throw his little girl up in the air. Her mother, who held herself straight and tall, long hair wrapped in a crown of braids, like a queen. The two of them at home in the kitchen, teaching her how to make algae-bread, pressing the dough flat. Her mother, rolling dough into a ball, dipping it in oil. Her father’s hand on Réalta’s, gently pressing down.
When the memories rose up, tight in her throat, she couldn’t eat, or even enter the kitchen.
Better not to think of them at all.
“I can’t – “ Before she finished the sentence, Arvin slid a credit chip across the counter. Five thousand credits. Five thousand.
He said quietly, “ A quarter now. The rest on completion.”
Twenty thousand credits. Two years of culinary school, for a few hours’ work. “I need time,” Réalta said. “I need to think about it.”
His eyes narrowed, and for a moment, the genial little man looked almost dangerous. But then Arvin shrugged. “Take the rest of the day, and tomorrow. I’ll be back in two days, and I’ll need your answer. Think hard, little star.”
He turned and walked out the door, leaving Réalta trembling, her fingers clutching the counter, the credit chip hard against the flesh of her palm. Little star. How had he known – had he known her parents? Unlikely. But the kind neighbor who’d suggested looking for a job at the spaceport – had Aunty Saroja been paid for that suggestion?
How far back did this go? And what would happen if she said no?
That evening, alone in her parents’ apartment, Réalta huddled under a quilt her mam had stitched, her swift needle blooming a garden of flowers across a grassy field. Réalta felt as if her mam’s needle was stabbing her now, working its way in and out of her fragile skin. The holonews was full of flames – a missile attack on the alien enclave of the Warren, buildings destroyed, people dying. Who might Arvin be shipping off-planet so secretly, and might it connect to a missile attack?
Did she have a choice about helping him?
If she told Amara, confessed everything, maybe Amara would know a way out of this mess. But could Réalta bear the look in her eyes, the judgement? Amara was fearless; she lived a charmed, safe life. How could someone like her understand?
Still the next morning, she’d almost decided to tell Amara everything. But her supervisor didn’t show up for work, and at first, Réalta had no time to think at all, slammed with clients. By mid-morning, word came down that the spaceport was closed, and her office too. Réalta was walking home when the news came, images flashing across the net. A disaster narrowly averted, a massive missile attack – the first missile to hit the Warren had only been the beginning, a premature foray before the real attack. The University was in flames.
Six people had died stopping the terrorists. Many more were injured. Réalta froze in the street when she saw Amara’s bloodied face flash across the net. Somehow, Amara had been there, in the right place at the right time, had done the right thing. She stumbled from the wreckage; a hero, it seemed. She’d somehow saved thousands of people – thousands of aliens. Not everyone thought they were people.
Réalta ran. She ran to the hospital nearest the Warren. Her heart felt like it would slam its way right out of her chest. She found Amara in a bed, bloodied, bandaged, but alive. A disheveled doctor stood beside her, taking her pulse, a doctor who looked almost as badly injured herself.
“Amara?” Réalta’s voice came out weaker than she wanted, shaken.
Amara didn’t look happy to see her; she just looked bewildered. “Réalta? What are you doing here?”
“I saw the news. I was worried…” The words were tripping on her tongue on the way out. She wanted to say: I need you, I think I might love you. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.
Don’t leave me alone again.
Amara smiled faintly. “You’re sweet to worry. I’m fine, really. You should go home; it’s not safe on the streets right now.”
Réalta’s head was pounding with fear and frustration. “Can I do anything for you? Shouldn’t your husband be here?” He couldn’t love her, not if he was just leaving her alone like this. He didn’t deserve her.
Amara’s face went flat. “I left him. Yesterday. He cheated on me again.”
“I’m sorry.” Réalta said the right words, but new possibilities opened up in front of her, like a piece of origami, unfolding. Dizzying. Maybe she had a chance.
In a few days, Amara would be back to work; they’d start having their lunches again. Réalta could tell Amara about her parents. They’d both been through things now. Amara would understand. Réalta could make Amara see her as a woman, an adult, someone who could be Amara’s equal. Not that it would be easy being the equal of the woman the city was already crowning a hero – at the thought, her heart quavered.
But Réalta’s parents had believed in her: Someday, cariad, you’ll shine as bright as the stars above. All she’d needed was someone to be strong for. It had been too hard when she was alone. Tomorrow, she’d give Arvin back his credit chip, give up her parents’ apartment and rent a smaller place, start saving up money for school, the right way. Tomorrow, her star would rise.
But Amara was turning away to the doctor beside her. A doctor who, Réalta could see now, was gorgeous, despite the blood and grime still caking her face. Gorgeous with that humod perfection that only the very rich could afford. Amara’s hand sought out and found the doctor’s; their fingers entwined. Réalta’s face burned. She wrapped her arms around herself, tightly. Trying to hold herself together, though it felt like she was going up in flames.
“I’m not sorry,” Amara said softly. Not even speaking to Réalta – her eyes and voice were for the other woman. “Now that I’ve found you again…”
Rage coursed through Réalta, bitterness flooding her mouth. There was a story there, no doubt – a story of courage and faith and all the things you could have if you were lucky enough, lucky in ways Réalta had never been.
Amara probably wouldn’t even bother coming back to work. Réalta had lost. What was worse – she’d never really had a chance at all. People like her never did.
She was alone in the office when Arvin walked in, a question in his eyes. She had his papers ready. Her parents had been wrong about her, and even more wrong about the way the world worked. Réalta understood now.
Some people were meant to rise, and others – others were always meant to burn.
“It’s like the backstory for how somebody became corrupt,” Maya says. “What a great and terrible world.”
“I do have some food,” he says. “No coffee, and not what I usually have for breakfast, but some curries and rice and a yoghurt dip, with algae and vat meat and the occasional real expensive ingredient.”
“She only wanted to be a cook,” Maya says, accepting the bowl of food. “She’d have been a good cook, if she could have taken the course. But she had to take money from bad guys.”
“It’s a real dilemma,” he agrees. “And maybe they weren’t bad guys, maybe they were right to be attacking a society that forced people into those choices.”
“Is this the beginning of a book?” Maya asks.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think it’s another standalone story especially for us. We’re so lucky, really.”
Maya nods. “It’s open-ended. There could be more. But there doesn’t have to be. It’s interesting to see the difference between that, and the awesome Laura Mixon one about the girl whose parents went to Mars, which just has to be a first chapter, and something like E. Lily Yu’s The Hemlock That Was Afraid of Heights, where it’s absolutely definitely a short story and complete as it is.”
He smiles at her. “Yes, it’s very interesting. And it’s great to see you figuring these things out. How’s the food? Not too spicy for you?”
Maya laughs. “This food is great. My grandmother makes this kind of curry sometimes. Not with algae, with spinach, but it’s not so different. Not normally for breakfast, but I’ll count the pomegranate as breakfast and this as lunch.”
“It’s all breakfast until I’ve had coffee,” he says, grumpily.
“Let’s see if you can find you some coffee then. What do we have?” Maya looks at the books on the pile, which seems neither bigger nor smaller than when they first started reading. “Jenn Lyons? Is she a coffee kind of person?”
“I don’t know, she’s new. What’s it called?” he cranes his neck “The Blackmailer’s Guide To Friendship and Marriage. Well, it sounds fun anyway. Let’s give it a go.”
And they read.