Shafter Excerpt

Chapter 1Coins sounded faintly as Trina dropped the purse on their metal table, the noise dampened by a scarf she’d twisted between them. The shafter big man paid a good sum for what she could steal from the polit houses up in the sun, enough to feed them and pay for Mother’s medicine.Trina turned to smile at her sister, but her expression faded when she met Katie’s gaze.Her sister’s round face bore lines from fatigue. Even her curls, carrot-red to Trina’s blond, hung lank. Dark shadows gave her translucent skin an almost haunted cast. For a moment, Trina saw a reflection of Big Man Fence in her sister’s pale features. Neither he nor Katie ever left the tunnels below First City.Without smiling, her sister took the pouch and spilled its contents on the table, shaking the coins free of the scarf. “Twelve silvers, a half silver and three copper?” If anything, her haunted look deepened. “What did you do? How did you get the money?”Trina felt her jaw tighten but forced the muscles to relax under her sister’s pleading look. “It’s from the find I told you about. I got the necklace and some earrings. Bargained well for them too.” She could not keep the pride from her voice after beating Fence at his own game.“Nothing more?”Trina pulled Katie into a tight hug. “Nothing more. The necklace held pure gems. Almost had to walk away from Fence to get a good deal.” She launched into the tale of her latest encounter with the trader, trying her best to make it amusing. Katie didn’t need another excuse to worry. Trina could manage Fence as long as Katie watched over their mother.“I could work. Like Mother did. I already bring in some when I sell my patchwork blankets.”Trina choked on the next part of her story, but her sister ignored the sound as she continued, “Then you wouldn’t have to go out on the surface, and especially not into polit houses. It’s too dangerous. You could stay with Mother, and I’d go do nursing in one of the shafter hostels. They’d never know Mother was part of the experiments.”“Mother needs you.”Trina left no room for argument, but Katie argued anyway. “You can watch her as well as I can. We’d do okay. Like before Mother fell sick. You wouldn’t have to take chances. You’d be safe.”Trina jerked away. She walked to the back wall, tracing her fingers along the embedded tunnel map that hung beneath their timekeeper as she often did. “Mother kept us on the remains of what our father left her and you know it. No shafter would work with a victim of the experiments. Besides, shafter jobs don’t pay enough to cover her meds.” She looked away, unable to face her sister when she’d deliberately kept the costs hidden.“How much?” The strangled words sounded forced as they passed Katie’s lips.Trina gave her head a mute shake.“I need to know. You tell me everything, or I’ll go seek a job and you’ll have to choose between abandoning Mother and thieving. Maybe you enjoy it too much.”Trina stared at the wall as she answered, “Nine silvers.”Her sister sank to the floor as if shock removed the ability to support her limbs. “Nine silvers,” she repeated blindly. “So much.”Trina wrapped thin arms around Katie’s stout form, rocking her sister back and forth. “Hush. It’ll be okay. I’ll make it okay.”Their mother had called Trina “My Protector” and she swore to live up to the name.Katie swiveled and pulled Trina into her arms, as though she were the one needing comfort. “It will be okay,” she promised, tears tightening her voice. “We’ll make it work somehow; we always do.”
Trina knew Katie hadn’t wanted her to leave so quickly, but Mother needed the medicine and that meant a trip back to the surface.She peered through the tiny opening, and blinked against the bright sunlight before she could check for anyone in the alleyway. Though going to a surface apothecary was dangerous, shafters believed any who were foolish enough to be trapped by polits deserved what they got. Shafter doctors wouldn’t treat those who escaped the experiments because the scientists poisoned their subjects with fatal viruses, and no shafter wanted to risk infection.The apothecary Trina went to charged a steep price, but she didn’t hide behind fancy lies. She was honest about their mother’s state.If their polit father had stayed true to his promise, their mother would have been treated by the best of doctors with no thought to the cost. Instead, the tales about him had no more substance than the fairy dust in the books he’d left behind. His money ran out, and their mother bartered as many of the books as she could with Fence, who liked to collect polit treasures even though he couldn’t read. Then, finally, Trina took up stealing to feed them and keep their mother alive.She wriggled free, stopping long enough to dust her clothes and rub the fabric over her face so she could pretend to come from one of the buildings. Once metal worms raced between the cities, carrying the polits and laborers. Now only shafters came from below, a world nestled in the bones of ancient times.When reasonably clean, Trina could still pass for a child thanks to her slight build instead of being marked a shafter.She glanced at the sun, surprised to see it hanging so low in the sky. She’d lost more time to arguing with Katie than she’d expected. If enforcers caught her, the extra coin would not keep Katie for long.Trina could speak like a surface dweller and so might be able to convince the patrol they had the wrong person, but she didn’t want to test that theory. Her father taught Mother to read and use proper speech before leaving on a colony ship with the promise to send for her. The twins would have been born into the protected life of a polit had he claimed her from the start. As it was, he didn’t even know his daughters existed, but their mother had spent every moment she could spare preparing them for when their father’s courier arrived. She’d believed that he would send for them until she became too sick to care.Trina crossed the path and entered a side street, weaving in and out of the crowd without brushing or bumping anyone. Her smallest knife remained stowed despite the tempting items dangling a quick swipe away from her hands. She needed the medicine. Anything else just distracted from her purpose, thoughts of her father worst of all.The deep blue doors of the shop rose before her. A traditional mortar and pestle symbol hung above the window, the sign that brought fear to her mother’s eyes when pressed on medicine bottles. The experiments may have ended years ago, but the disease kept those memories fresh.Trina knocked once, twice, then waited three breaths before rapping her knuckles three times in quick succession. Their secret signal. The apothecary would only open the door to her if no one else stood within. Though Trina felt exposed out on the street, it held many opportunities for escape. Inside the store, she’d be an easier target.The door swung open, its well-oiled hinges whispering against each other.“I wondered when you’d get here. You are leaving it quite late, aren’t you?”She followed the older woman into the darkened shop, happy when the door closed and its bulk protected her from prying eyes. “I came when I could. Last batch’s almost gone.”“You’re lucky I put the ingredients aside for you. My polit customers like that medication, but you deserve it more.” The apothecary grimaced, pushing dark brown curls away from her face and revealing features better suited for joy than the mixture of guilt and pity they held.“I came when I could,” Trina repeated stubbornly, placing her empty bottle on the counter. She tried not to give anything away, but the apothecary made it hard with her kind interest. Trina had already revealed her name even though she didn’t know what the apothecary was called. Laborers, like polits, had nonsense names. Shafters — real shafters at least — earned their names like her friend Piper whose metal pipe proved so effective as a weapon.“Go have some crackers. I’m afraid I already ate the cheese, but it’s something. It will take me a little time to mix the potion. Go.” She made a shooing gesture, waving Trina toward the table.Trina nibbled cracker after cracker, waiting until they softened in her mouth before sending them down her dry throat. She tried to make the treat last, but her stomach pressed against her spine.The rhythmic sound of the pestle grinding the ingredients for her mother’s potion lulled Trina into a thoughtful state. She’d long grown used to the apothecary’s muttering, the subject always the same.“Some cully root and betline. Not much to offer as penance for what they did.”The noise stopped for a moment, and Trina looked up.“She’d better not miss a day. A body can’t fight when overwhelmed, enhanced immune system or not. You’re much too young to be on your own. Keep her strong. It’s all you can do.”Trina nodded, not bothering to reveal her true age of almost fifteen, or that her mother had been bedridden for more than three years now. The medicine kept some of the pain away, but it offered no cure. Maybe it would have if she’d found the apothecary in the beginning, but Piper hadn’t taught her how to navigate the surface back then.She slipped another cracker into her mouth as the pounding started up again, but coughed when it dusted her throat.“Get yourself a drink from the flask over there. It’s berry juice. The one you like so much.” The woman spoke without pausing as she ground the powders and herbs filling her mortar.Trina found the flask with ease. She reached for a cup, a rare item down in the shafts, and watched the purple liquid splash into kiln-hardened clay.The sweet-tart juice woke her senses, delighting them. Trina wished she could provide such treats for her sister even as she reminded herself to be grateful they had running water, something available to few shafters. The copper-stained liquid they drank at home had a strong flavor, but not a good one.“There. That should hold for four weeks, more than usual, but I don’t want you running out if you come late again.” The woman’s face stretched into a pained smile as she held two bottles where Trina had expected only one. “If I can’t change what’s been done to your people in the past, the least I can do is suffer whining from polits to give you this much.”A blush heated Trina’s cheeks as she stared at the bottles. “I don’t have enough,” she muttered. Something about the woman’s expression made her embarrassed to offer even the coin she could, but she paid her debts.“You’ll bring extra next time. Two weeks. Don’t waste this gift unless you have to. Keep your mother comfortable.” The last made Trina wonder how much the apothecary suspected.The woman brushed a hand against Trina’s straight hair but Trina jerked away from the touch. “Thanks. Nine silvers for the one?”A frown crossed the apothecary’s face before she nodded. “Nine silvers.” She waited for Trina to pull out the coins from her hidden purse before handing over the bottles. “You take care of your family and keep safe.”As soon as the silver rested in the woman’s hand and Trina had tucked the bottles into a hidden pocket under her tunic, she nodded, her smile more of a grimace. “As safe as I can.”She pulled at the door without waiting for a reply, and with a quick glance up and down the street, Trina set off on a different path than she’d used to come here, a path that took her by the chain-link fence surrounding Ceric’s only spaceport.Her feet slowed as if of their own will. She ran her fingers along the metal links. The faint tick made her smile, but the spaceship in the distance held her attention as it roared to life. A flash of light followed by a roll of thunder louder than the strongest summer storms transformed the ship into a backwards shooting star in the daytime sky.She rose on tiptoe as though she could ride its tail, her fingers clenched around the metal links barring her from dreams of stars and joining a space guild.No shafter ever crossed this fence. Trade with spacers was in polit hands, and the colony leaders pretended shafters didn’t exist.The medicine said just what polits thought of those who lived in the shafts beneath the aging colony. She’d never live on the surface much less leave Ceric all together.
Chapter 2The cool glass bottle pressed against her skin, absorbing the chill air of the shafts. Here, she found reality. A shafter dying from an engineered disease. The disease should have ensured the genetic changes tested on Trina’s mother couldn’t be passed to the next generation. Instead, the enhanced immune system they’d given Mother had fought off the virus for years, long enough to bear and raise the twins. Neither Trina nor Katie ever got sick. And they showed no sign of the deadly infection.A fresh cry echoed from the back room as Trina relocked the door, their only defense should someone see the powered light that shined through the thick plastic covering the top of their raised front wall. Their mother wouldn’t let them hide the light. She wanted to be sure it could guide a messenger who never came.“Hard day?” Trina said as she caught sight of her sister once she mounted the short flight of stairs. The protector was back in full force, even down to the staccato language common among shafters. She reminded herself to gentle it.“Mother’s breaking through the medicine again. She’s in so much pain.”“Increase it.”“At nine silvers? How will we pay?” Katie pushed up off the ground where she’d been sewing and headed for their mother’s door, clearly regretting the question.Trina trailed after her, pausing at the head of their mother’s cot. She struggled to connect the withered form with their vibrant mother, an image almost faded into a fairy tale.“Pour her what remains. The apothecary gave us extra. If you don’t, it won’t matter anymore. She says pain kills Mother faster.”“Sometimes I wonder if she’d find that a blessing.”Trina grabbed her sister’s arm and pulled her out of the room. “How can you say something like that? And right in front of Mother?”Katie sank into one of the salvaged desk chairs, letting the chair spin around once before dropping her foot to stop it. “Have you never thought it? I’m here every day and all she feels is pain. She barely eats, sleeps only fitfully, and the pain gets stronger. We’ve increased the dose four times already, far past what your surface apothecary said would kill her.”Trina stalked toward Katie. “She didn’t know our mother then. This medicine’s as pure as polits take. If Mother wanted to go, she’d go. She’s fighting too hard for us to give up on her.”Katie lowered her face into both hands, a sigh whispering between her lips. “I know. It’s just that you’re not here every day, all day. You don’t hear her. On days like today, well, I don’t know if it’s worth it.”Trina crouched in front of the chair and peered up at her sister. “It is worth it. It has to be. Mother’s in there somewhere. It might not seem like it, but her spirit’s fighting to survive. If you look deep, you’ll see her hiding.”Katie responded with a shaky smile. “Maybe I will.”Trina bounced up. “What you need is a break. You take the extra ha’silver and coppers.” She shoved the pouch of what little remained into her sister’s hands. “Go down to the market. Get some supplies. I’ll stay with Mother.”Glancing at the purse then at her mother’s door, Katie nodded. “Maybe just for a little while. We do need some things. You’ll be all right?”“I’ll be fine. Mother will sleep. You be careful though. It’s getting late.”“I know. Stay to the lit paths in the market and don’t come straight back. It’s like you don’t know who gets the groceries around here.” Katie said the last with a laugh.Ignoring the humor, Trina gave her sister a grim nod. “Better to wait than lead someone here. I can leave Mother sleeping if you don’t get back soon enough. I’ll come get you.”“Maybe you should give me one of your knives,” Katie said in a clear attempt to lighten the air.Trina barked a single laugh. “You’d be more likely to slice your own wrist. Just watch yourself.”“Better than you do up there.” Katie pointed to the ceiling.Before Trina could protest, her sister gathered up the coins, twisted them through the scarf to silence them once again, and stepped out into the darkness.
Chapter 3Trina stayed locked in their apartment for five days trying to keep busy. She cooked for Katie and her mother, patched shafter clothing only, because Trina’s ugly needlework would mark her up on the surface, and tried not to track how quickly the medicine bottle emptied.She let her sister think worry kept her there, and Katie’s exhaustion did make her nervous, but Katie didn’t recognize, in the fanciful tale Trina had told, just how angry Big Man Fence would be that she’d bested him. Better to let his temper cool than chance turning him against them.She had many rules to keep them safe. No one knew where they lived, not even Piper who’d been a good friend to her. No one knew they had the power and water their father arranged before leaving.The apartment’s remote location and strong lock wouldn’t stand against a determined search and assault. She didn’t hold on to what she stole longer than it took to exchange it, and Fence didn’t reveal how much he paid. He couldn’t thieve it back, either, because word would spread. Honoring the deals kept everyone where they wanted to be, and kept secret things secret.She still owed on the second bottle, though, and the heavy purses celebrants carried during Festival proved too much of a temptation. Fence would have to break any large coin, but she could gather enough smaller to pay her debts.Despite all those good reasons, the confinement drove her from apartment as much as any need, confinement and knowing Festival had begun.She’d grown too antsy to stay in their apartment another day.Trina pressed into a wedge of shadow made by the building’s ornate facade and surveyed the square. The shade did little to protect against Ceric’s muggy heat, but here she could survey all the polits, laborers, and even those responsible for what little tech had survived the early days. This square stood between most of the city and the fairgrounds, so Trina would have her pick of targets.She shifted slightly until a cool wind blew over her face as she scanned the crowd for a good mark. Two young ladies on a bench next to the central fountain caught her eye for a moment. From the smiles on their faces, they enjoyed the occasional splashes of water blown by the same breeze.Trina took a step toward them then noticed how their hems were frayed and grimy, not with dirt of one day, but with steady, ground-in mud from working outside. Even if those two had any coin, they needed it. They would have bought, or made, new Festival clothes otherwise.The sun rose higher and wind brought dust clouds with it, adding grit to the humid air.Trina pulled back into her corner and yawned. As much as she preferred it up here under the sun where they belonged, she needed to snag a few sizable purses and get back home. Katie seemed more irritable and tired lately. The dark patches under her sister’s eyes could signal something much more frightening than exhaustion. Just because they hadn’t caught their mother’s sickness yet didn’t mean they never would.At least trips to the shafter market seemed to help. Katie looked happier when she came back in, enjoying the time away without any pressure to rush home, happier even than when she sewed complicated patterns into their blankets with scraps of cloth. Mother had taught Katie the practice, and as their mother worsened, Katie sewed more often, living up to the first Ceric doctrine of performing manual labor to ease the spirit.Still, Trina wished the doctrine had not been necessary. It came into being when tech failed the early colony. If more tech had survived, or she could gain access to the spacers past the fence, maybe they’d have a cure for her mother.She muffled a sour laugh at the impossible thought. Even here at Festival where all types of people rubbed shoulders and enjoyed the annual celebration, shafters weren’t welcome. Most surface dwellers thought shafters were barely human, as if they’d recognize a true shafter from a great distance. Trina hadn’t revealed where she came from to the apothecary at first out of fear, but her mother’s illness gave them away. Luckily, the woman hadn’t been like most of her kind.In those early days when cryo losses took the work animals and disease struck down many who could run the technology, the cool darkness of the abandoned transit tunnels offered a better hope than found in the doctrine’s promises. Shafters had little interest in a good afterlife, not when it meant hard manual labor for the local polits in a harsh climate. Shafter life might be difficult, but at least they weren’t owned, or so shafters liked to tell themselves.She saw them as trapped. Even the lowest of laborers seemed to have enough to eat while most shafters had skin stretched tight over their bones. A shafter couldn’t hide the truth well enough to work on the surface for more than a few days, and few from the surface were willing to trade extra foodstuffs.Trina came alert, her gaze watchful even as her thoughts wandered.Three men staggered into the square, held upright only by their linked arms and rhythmic sway. They’d started revelry early this morning from the look of them. Her lip curled in disgust. Most likely polits who’d forgotten the value of working with their own hands. They failed to follow the doctrine even in spirit. While laborers made the final changes to their Festival gear or caught up on other tasks, polits had servants who worked long into the night to prepare them. Bright and early on Festival days, the polits spilled into taverns, especially the young ones.She turned away to look for others. Drunken marks might seem easy to a new thief, but she found them unpredictable, making it hard to judge the snatch and grab. They tended to be more aggressive and harder to escape if they caught her, while any injury to a polit came with a death sentence if the enforcers captured her.A better chance would come.Her gaze drifted back over the thick purse that dangled from the shorter one’s belt by a thin leather strap. It called out to her knife. Would he notice a simple toss? She sighed in regret, knowing better than to try for it.What wasted lives. They did nothing of value. Her talents gave her freedom to work with finesse while her knife skills kept her safe from other shafters. It might not be what the doctrine intended, but Trina wasn’t afraid of hard work. She fed and protected her family with the labor of her own hands.“How do you do, fine ladies?”The slurred words drew Trina’s gaze back to the polits, their progress having stopped in front of the laborers she’d noticed earlier. The men’s shaky attempts at elegant bows almost made her laugh until she saw the women shudder.The polit with the big purse leaned in, bracing his arm against the back of the bench.Trina flinched, imagining his hot, liquor-laden breath stroking her cheek as the woman shifted away.“What? The young ladies won’t speak with me? I’m a polit, you hear. The grand polit!”The nearer woman moved then, smothering her giggles behind a hand.“You don’t believe me?” He shifted his gaze to the second woman, almost toppling onto her friend’s lap.Clearly unfamiliar with drunken men, the laborer looked him up and down. “You’re much too young for such a position. And I’d like to think our grand polit could handle his drink.” She turned away.“Let them be, Paul. They meant no harm. What lady would acknowledge you in this state anyway?”Trina realized she’d been so involved in the pageant in front of her, she’d forgotten about his friends. From the words, at least one wasn’t as drunk as this Paul. She saw the other eyeing the shadows and pulled in as far as she could to escape detection.“It’s not safe here. Let’s go to the tavern. We’ll find some real women to dally with there.” The third man spoke this time, pulling on Paul’s arm.“Let go. Now you insult me.” Paul pushed against his friend, the movement more of a lurch than a shove. “I don’t need to find some tavern girl from the lowest of laborers. These ladies will do just as well. What’s your name?” He grabbed the second woman’s arm and pulled, jerking her tight against his side.Before she thought through her actions, Trina thrust free of her hiding spot and swaggered over to them, tossing her four-inch blade from hand to hand. “You’re looking for a real woman, are you? No mere tavern wench?” She threw the knife into the sky so it tumbled over and over until she caught the sharp edge on the down curve. She’d practiced hard, knowing intimidation often made a better weapon than force.Paul shouldered the woman aside, leaving her to drop back onto the bench. He seemed more sober and dangerous than moments before.His friends flanked him, turning to face this new threat. They were smart enough to watch the knife instead of dismissing her slight form or apparent youth. Though her head barely reached their chests, Paul’s friends were not fools.“You should show courtesy to one who is surely greater than you’ll ever be, Grand Polit.” She emphasized the title with a sarcastic bite, showing off her sophisticated speech in another attempt to throw them and mask her shafter blood.Trina stopped just out of their reach, gesturing for the women to leave with a movement of her head. “I’d think your thin blood would teach you some manners, if only to keep that flesh clear of scars.”Paul jerked forward at her words, but his friends held him tight. His movement startled the women out of their frozen terror and they rose. Paul grabbed the nearest, his grip firm enough that the woman gasped in pain.An image of Katie in the same position flashed before Trina. “Let her go.” The words came out fast and furious, though quiet.“Who’re you to school me, shafter brat?” Despite his friends restraining his body, nothing controlled the man’s tongue.She laughed at a truth he’d thought to use as an insult. If they’d known her to be a shafter, these men wouldn’t hesitate to call the enforcers.The woman trapped under his hand whimpered. Her friend stood by, too far to be touched, but ready to grab the other woman and run if given an opening.Trina swore she’d offer them that chance.“You think you can stop me? Are you really willing to risk death for these ladies?” He emphasized ladies until it sounded dirty, and even his friends looked surprised.Trina wished they had called the enforcers. She had the skills to evade security forces, and they wouldn’t tolerate such rude behavior even in a polit. Not at Festival when all the surface folk were equals.Taking a deep breath, she adjusted her stance and half raised one arm. “You willing to risk a scar on that pretty face?”He paused, catching the meaning behind her words, but he didn’t consider long.Trina lost the time to weigh the risks as he grabbed the woman’s dress, her bodice separating with a sharp tear.She was hardly aware of the knife as it left her hand, or the swift movement replacing the blade with two others. Time seemed to slow, allowing her to understand just what she’d done too late to change it.Steel flashed in the light as it flew true.A bright red line appeared across the polit’s wrist, and he dropped his hold on the woman.The knife hit cobblestones with a clatter that echoed through the stunned silence.Paul grabbed his wrist with a shout, blood appearing between his fingers.The women slipped away.She hadn’t cut him deep enough to scar, but it bled enough to scare. His friends took a step toward her but stopped when they saw her new weapons.The three polits glared at her as Paul wrapped his wrist with a handkerchief. She looked each of them in the eye, hefting the knives in her hands. They stepped away together, but Paul gained enough arrogance with the distance to call back, “You may be grinning now, little thief, but my father will have a say in this matter. He’ll treat you like a shafter for what you’ve done.”His words reminded Trina why she’d come, and another knife left her hands.She waited until the polits disappeared around a corner before moving forward to collect the two knives and the heavy purse her second toss had brought to the ground. The polit hadn’t even noticed his loss.A touch on her shoulder sent Trina into a defensive stance. She bounced away, her third knife at the ready and the purse thrust down her neckline where it made a solid lump against her waist.The woman jerked when faced with the blade, a small squeak emitting from her lips.Trina relaxed her defensive pose as she identified one of the two laborers. They must have waited just out of sight. The woman had patched her torn dress with a handkerchief covering the exposed skin.“Thank you so much. I don’t know what we would have done without you. How can we repay this aid?”Trina half turned, reaching for her first knife. She glanced at it, happy to see she’d made a clean cut with blood only welling up after the blade had gone. “I needed a diversion anyway. You served well. There’s money enough in his purse.” She kept her voice gruff and ran a finger along the knife, testing the edge. A frown creased her forehead when she felt new nicks. She’d have to sharpen it again, weakening the blade.“But at such risk.”Trina ducked under the woman’s hand, wishing she hadn’t heard the last as she snatched the knife she’d used to gain the purse. Without another word, she slipped away then jammed the dangling end of her scarf into the polit’s coins as soon as she was hidden from view. Her fingers twisted the fabric around until it muffled their noise. She’d had no choice, but avoiding capture was even more urgent now.

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