Boy From the County Hell
by Maya Tawi

part four

And maybe that was dreaming and maybe that was real
But all I know is I left the place without a penny or fuck all
-The Pogues, "Boys From the County Hell"

This is what happens when the world falls.

Oh, it's not so dramatic as I make it sound. It's happened to me before. When Declan and Siobhan died, when my parents died... every time you start getting used to a situation, you finally let down your guard, that's the cue for life to come along and kick you in the ass. Eventually I learned to stop getting complacent. Keep an eye on everything and everyone.

That's what saved my life to start with. The next step was deciding what to do after that.

My mind wasn't really a blank. Part of it was numb with the shock, but part of it was already running through options and discarding the least plausible. It's one of the many benefits of sheer genius- multi-tasking. But even a genius can't do everything, and I must've been far freaking gone if I didn't notice Beka till she was practically on top of me.

She grabbed my arm as I passed, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. "Hey!" she exclaimed, seemingly oblivious. "You finished yet?"

I blinked, coming back to reality, and quickly took in my surroundings. I was about three blocks from the machine shop, on a broken side street lined with low brick walls, with junkyards on either side. I could see the telltale signs of refugees in the yards, huddled under blankets and piles of trash for warmth. Winter was coming; I could feel it in the wind cutting through my clothes. Why hadn't I noticed before?

Beka was still staring at me, her blue eyes narrowed and suspicious. Her face was flushed and sweat was beading along her hairline; she'd had to run to catch up with me. I pulled myself none-too-gently from her grasp and said, "Trust me. I'm through."

I started to walk around her, and she moved to the side, blocking my way. The wind whipped strands of burgundy hair in front of her face, and she brushed them away irritably; the black leather outfit was gone, I noticed, replaced by a more standard, but no less form-fitting, gray and black flight suit. Ready for a hasty exit, no doubt. More power to her.

"Beka-" I began with a sigh.

"Where are you going?" she interrupted. "I thought maybe we could go somewhere, have a drink?"

Oh, pain. Now she starts falling for me. "Beka, babe," I said with feeling, "there's honestly nothing I'd like to do more. I'm just a little busy not dying right now."

I moved to the side. She followed, planting her hands on her hips. "What's going on?"

"You know, I'm kind of in a rush-"

"Do I have to get Bobby over here?"

"Now that," I said, "was uncalled for."

She raised an eyebrow.

"It's a sordid story," I warned.

"My favorite kind."

I exhaled loudly. It came out as a kind of frustrated growl. "Look, I'll say it politely, okay? Please fuck off."

"Harper, you idiot, I'm trying to help you!" Her voice rose continuously as she spoke; a Nietzschean patrol down the block gave us a suspicious glare.

"Not so loud!" I hissed. Then I paused, as the words sunk in, and added, "Help me what?"

Beka let out a long breath of air through pursed lips. Between the two of us we could've powered a Dutch windmill. "Can we just go somewhere and sit down?"

"Nothing doing, angel. You want to talk, you keep up with me."

This time, when I started walking, she didn't try to stop me; she just matched my stride and started babbling.

"Okay, fine. Here's the situation. I need a ship's engineer. I mean, I know the Maru inside out, and Bobby has some technical training, but neither of us really has the, the instinct for it, and in a situation like the one we flew into here, where those Nietzscheans got all macho territorial on us, we're both busy trying to stay out of the way of the bullets. If we'd had someone on board to patch her up as we went, we wouldn't have been in nearly as bad shape as we ended up."

She paused, seemingly expecting an answer, and I said sharply, "Ten Hail Marys and an Our Father. Any other confessions you'd like to make?"

Beka scowled. "I'd like to offer you a job."

I stumbled, almost pitching forward onto the broken concrete. Beka caught my shoulders and hauled me back up with surprising strength. Then she just looked at me and waited.

I opened my mouth and shut it a few times. My vocal cords didn't seem to be working.

She took this as a cue to continue. "You're good, Harper. Hell, you're fucking amazing. I looked over everything you did, right? It's genius. You're wasting your life here."

Finally I found my voice. "Well, thanks for the update, but-"

"I want you to join my crew."

"Beka," I said quietly, "if you knew what an incredibly huge deal this was, you wouldn't offer so lightly."

She shrugged. "Well, I don't know, and I am. Consider it your lucky day. So what do you say?"

"I can't."

As soon as the words left my lips I wanted to punch myself. How many times had I dreamed about getting the hell off my home planet? How many times had that one impossible dream gotten me through the night? And the first time some lovely lady comes along with her own ship, and asks me to leave with her, and look after said ship- well, I'd be insane to say no, right?

But it was true. I couldn't.

"You can't?" she echoed disbelievingly, and dismally I thought, I'm with you there, babe. "What, you have like a contract with these people?"

"Look, Beka," I said quietly, glancing over my shoulder at the patrol at the end of the street, "the Niets don't even let the natives cross city lines, much less leave the planet. It's simple as that. You think I'd still be here if I had any chance in hell of getting out? Every departing ship is searched. Thoroughly. Punishment for attempted escape is death. And, I mean, it's been twenty years. I've kind of grown attached to me."

Eyes like ice drilled into my own. Matter-of-factly, she asked, "So why are you running now?"

"Running?" I repeated, as innocently as I could.

Apparently that's not very innocent. "Don't bullshit me, Harper, I'm well versed in the art of running. If it's so dangerous, why are you doing it now?"

"Because...." I stared up at her for a long moment, trying to come up with a plausible lie. My mind was a complete blank, probably for the first time ever. And then I thought, Why bother lying?

I sighed again and said, "Because Gaireth pretty much just sold me to someone, and I don't want to stick around and find out who."

Beka blinked, and I could see her struggle to process this information, to fit it in with what she already knew. Error: failure to compute. "Sold?" she repeated. "That's legal here? You're a slave?"

I smiled wryly. "Technically, no, it's not legal. I mean, we're all Niet slaves really, but kludges aren't supposed to sell other kludges. Which means it's either something the Niets themselves are running, or it's someone so powerful they don't need to answer to the law, and either way I'm screwed ten ways from Tuesday if I stick around. I mean, the guy sold me for two hundred guilders, for fuck's sake."

"Is that a lot?" she asked dubiously. Apparently, to her, it wasn't. And to someone like Gaireth, or the people he answered to, it was pocket change. Too bad it'd be a fortune to me, and I wouldn't be seeing any of it.

"It's a freaking insult is what it is," I said tartly. "So I'm taking a chance on the open road. All right?"

I pulled away and started walking again. A moment later I realized Beka was still beside me, silent but implacable, like a faithful hunting dog. Or a prison guard. One or the other.

I stayed quiet and stared straight ahead as I walked, waiting for her to speak.

She broke first. "I have a better idea."

I didn't turn to look at her. "Yeah? Tell me, O Wise One, what's that?"

"Take a chance with me."

I snorted and kept walking. "Me, you, and Bobby the Psycho Hose Beast? Sounds like a real cozy threesome."

I guess even purple-haired angels of mercy have their breaking point. I'd just hit Beka's.

"Well, that's just fine," she snapped, stepping crosswise in front of me, forcing me to either stop walking or hit the wall. "I'm giving you a once in a lifetime offer here, emphasis on the once. I mean, call me crazy, but I thought you'd actually want to get off this shithole of a planet. I guess all that suffering and oppression I saw is actually just patriotic pride, right? My bad."

Then she turned and started walking back the way she'd come.

I stared after her departing back, mouth open, not quite believing what had just happened. No way she'd just offered me an out. No way I'd just turned it down.

She didn't stop walking.

I ran faster than I ever had in my life.

"No, no, no, wait," I gasped, grabbing at her arm as I caught up with her. She jerked away and watched me dispassionately. "Let's not be so hasty here-"

Beka crossed her arms. "Yeees?" she drawled, waiting as I slumped against the low wall, trying to catch my breath. I could tell she was trying not to smile. Sadist.

"You honestly-" I stopped, inhaled a giant lungful of air, and looked around warily. The patrol had gone. "You honestly think you can get me by the Nietzscheans?"

I looked her straight in the eyes, and she met my stare unblinkingly. "With the upgrades you made? Yeah, I do."

"I didn't mean in a race."

"I did."

I blinked. "You think you can outrun them?"

Beka just shrugged and said, with more matter-of-fact confidence than I'd ever thought one person could safely contain, "I'm just that good."

"Okay, fine. Say I grant you that much. What's Bobby gonna say?"

"Fuck Bobby," she said decisively.

"Not even for a one-way ticket to Tarn-Vedra."

A sudden, unguarded grin split her face, the most beautiful smile I've ever seen, and she actually laughed- the first genuine laugh I'd heard from her yet. The first genuine laugh I'd heard from anyone in a long, long time. Hesitantly I felt myself starting to smile back.

Beka turned her head and met my eyes, and she sobered. "You know, Harper," she said seriously, "this is going to work. I can feel it."

That was nice. At least one of us was convinced.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight | Epilogue


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