Shafter: Treats from the Cutting Room Floor

I originally posted this scene on my blog while I was working on the edits for Shafter. While it was cut for length reasons, the scene gives a good sense of the life Trina is leading in the beginning of the novel, a science fiction adventure with thievery and political intrigue. Some things have changed since this scene was cut, such as shafters are no longer considered part of Festival, but the overall is still true to the novel.

Margaret McGaffey Fisk

A Visit to FenceA shadow appeared across the distant light. Trina tightened her grip on her knife hilt and slipped against the wall, hoping the red glow from behind her didn’t reach this far into the tunnel. Surprise often made up for her thin bones, and wiry strength had saved her more than once.“Trina?”Her muscles relaxed as she recognized Piper’s voice. A few years older than she was, he’d gotten her started with coin purses on Festival days, the one time all people of Ceric bore the same value–even shafters. She’d learned quickly and found her own places as soon as she could. Sharing kept both hungry, and since her mother lost the ability to work, Trina’s catches fed her whole family.“Ho, Piper. Good hunting?” She hoped he hadn’t done his exchange yet. They’d both get better deals with one to frown at the offer made. Piper had taught her all she knew about bargaining with Fence, and he’d mastered the best techniques long ago.“Good enough. You on for cash out?” He fell into step beside her, leaving her weapon clear. She’d trained both hands and had a flair for hitting right where she aimed. He hadn’t missed the glint of steel in her hand any more than she’d overlooked the dull gleam of pipe in his.“Yes. Walk with me?” Trina said.“As always.”Their staccato phrases fell away and silence returned, broken only by their footsteps crunching on old trash and bones scattered in the dark tunnel. Even in the main shafter settlement, lighting only kept homes and junctions illuminated. The godless would dismiss some power loss as natural. Too much pilfering and they’d repair the node, darkening a whole section of shafts.blogscenesfAgainst all rules of power conservation, Fence kept his area lit, demonstrating his close connections with the surface.Trina glanced at Piper, happy he stood at her side. Being exposed in the light made her nervous. She stroked her knife hilt with one finger and adjusted her grip.The corridor stretched in front of them, appearing endless. Fence lived in a shaft containing rooms at the far end. He shared his space with no one else and controlled the only entrance and exit. She didn’t know what the space had been used for when the metal worms still ran, but she’d caught a glimpse of at least one room behind.Just another shafter, Fence had earned or bought his position as a big man a long time ago. Of those she knew, only he kept a servant. If the trade took long enough, and Fence thought it seemed promising, he might even serve them tea and sandwiches. She’d been surprised the first time, but now she found his mimicry of the polits amusing, not that she’d ever dare to smile about it in his presence.A shadow crossed the yellow light in front of them. Trina flinched, her arm swinging up to toss before she could stop herself.“Now little polit girl, is that any way to start a trade?” A laugh shook Fence’s prominent belly as he teased Trina for her name. Shafters carried names demonstrating their skills. Only polits had labels with no meaning.Trina had tried to earn a good shafter name when she first ventured out, but too many remembered what her mother called the twins, mocking them for false hopes.She stowed her knife and glanced at the big man for only a heartbeat. The bright light blinded as it pretended to be rays from the sun. An image of his ample bulk filling the doorway and protruding forward burnt itself on her eyelids, giving him a red aura. The contrast with his pale skin reminded her of when fevers wracked her mother’s frail body. And yet, his coloration came from avoiding the surface if rumors held any truth. No one knew his age, and people said he never left the shafts.Most shafters thought he’d been part of the same medical experiments Trina’s mother had suffered, only he didn’t seem to show any ill effects. While he might have been given immortality, Trina’s mother got immunity enhancement and a time-bomb disease that withered her slowly and painfully. Her enhanced immune system delayed her death, but the disease ripped through her so hard it left her incapacitated by pain. Trina wanted a clean death long before she ever reached a similar state.She stepped forward with Piper, entering the receiving room as Fence backed up. Even as she sat down on the old, cloth-covered sofa, her mind focused on what she knew, or guessed, about the value of her catch. If she didn’t know her range to start, Fence would find her an easy mark. Despite the jewelry’s true worth, she’d have to bargain hard to make what he’d pay her cover their costs.“So, what do you have for me?” Fence lowered himself into a chair across from them, waving at the table between. “Piper, you first. I like to save the pretty girl’s finds for last.”Trina stayed still under his lecherous stare, once again grateful for Piper’s presence. She thought Fence only used it as a way to gain leverage, but his interest still disturbed her. Servants were rare, but in the deep tunnels, shafters kept slaves for purposes she didn’t want to think about. She’d be unlikely to appreciate whatever Fence wanted of her.A clatter broke through her dark thoughts as Piper spread his catch on the table. A timekeeper, a couple of baubles, nothing special she could see. Piper chose the smaller catches in favor of staying on the street. He didn’t have a family to provide for.Fence pulled out his pointer and prodded the haul, pushing a wristlet around to see the clasp. “Hmm.” The sound rumbled in his chest and Piper tensed.Trina leaned forward, careful not to touch. “That’s pretty.” She pointed at a pendant on a chain, hoping to up the price.“Would you exchange your bounty for it, polit girl? If not, keep silent.” Fence slashed a glance at her, both his frown and fancy speech intended to intimidate.“She should.” Piper grinned. “That’s an access key.” He stared hard at Fence, who frowned again, obviously hoping Piper hadn’t known.“You don’t know what it accesses, boy, so the only value is as a trinket.” Fence leaned back, waving negligently at the pile. “The whole thing’s barely worth a handful of coppers.”Piper reached out as if to pull the access key back, but Fence stopped him, the pointer pressing against Piper’s hand. “Two silvers and you tell me exactly where you caught that one.”“Four and you find it yourself. I’m not revealing my spots any more than you want me to know you can hack the key.” Piper appeared to relax, but Trina felt the tension in his leg where it pressed against hers.“Two and five coppers.”“Three and a ha’silver.”“Two and seven coppers.”Trina shook her head slightly, making sure Fence noted the movement. She might not know what an access key did, but Fence had already tried to cheat Piper once. She wouldn’t let him do so again.“Three silvers and that’s my final. Those services cost, and without the hacking, it’s worth less than nothing.”Piper nodded slowly and put out a hand to receive the coins. He placed each in his mouth, testing the metal. He’d taught her how the different coins tasted in the very beginning so she could recognize low volume forgeries worth a fraction of the true value.The coins disappeared into Piper’s tunic with a muffled clinking sound soon silenced.Fence cleared his throat, hiding how he felt about the bargain they’d struck. The man was too good at his calling to reveal anything.He shifted, emphasizing the wealth of flesh decorating his form in comparison to either of theirs. Trina’s body grew skinny no matter how well she fed while Piper showed signs of malnutrition common to most shafters.Fence coughed as if aware her attention had wandered. “So, polit girl. Got something better to offer?”Trina turned away to dig her haul out of the hidden pocket. She didn’t want to teach either of them how to search her.The jewelry felt warm after so long next to her heart, and as she pulled it out, for a moment she fancied it was alive. Alive with promise. Those gemstones looked true, their minute flaws making their glitter even more attractive.She poured the necklace out first, turning and twisting it until the light caught on its facets. Then, she placed the earrings in the center, trapped flashes of color surrounded by a sea of green.A gasp broke the silence, whether from Piper or Fence she couldn’t tell. There’d been other pieces, but these were the cream. A wise polit would have hidden the jewels or saved them under lock and key. The family she’d taken them from had little wisdom and vast arrogance. These she’d found tossed on a dresser, as if waiting for a servant to tidy them away. They deserved the lesson.“Hmm, nice quality. Amazing how good replicas have become. Beauty from godless hands on machines.” Fence smiled. “But not all can keep a pure heart and follow the doctrine. Some are drawn to the machines, their honest labor forgotten in the clutches of false gods.”Trina stifled a laugh at the trader’s condemnation. As if Fence had ever labored at anything more intense than counting his coins. She shook her head, concentrating on the bargain at hand. Rather than refute his words, she looked to Piper to question him.“No replicas this good crossed my streets. Polits go real.”Fence laughed, a single bark of sound. “And you think this slip of a girl could get real gemstones from a polit’s house? You taught her well, and she’s grown since, but she didn’t recognize an access key. How would she break through the locks any wise polit would place on such beauties?”“Any wise polit,” Trina interjected, nodding her head as if agreeing when really her words did the opposite. At the same time, she filed away the information about access keys, sure it would come in handy.“And I suppose you found the unwise one? Of all the polits, you stumble on the only one who’d leave gems lying out?” He shook his head in a mockery of bewilderment. “I won’t believe it until I see this miracle for myself. Where can I find this once innocent polit?”Trina smiled as she shook her head. Every time she came to trade, he tried to find out where she got her finds. She spent days watching and learning the habits of her targets before acting. Each grab meant a long time until she could return. With the necklace, weeks would pass before they stopped accusing each other and the servants for its loss. Longer still before they grew careless again.Fence had his own thieves. He’d love to benefit from a moment of carelessness on her part, but she knew better now. Once, he’d wormed her most prosperous street spot from her and the reduced income had driven her to the rooftops.Most polits didn’t discuss pick pocketing from what she could tell, probably thinking they’d be seen as foolish. It benefited ones like Piper who could keep the same spot without discovery if he stayed quick and clever. As long as he kept his mouth shut.“But, without verification, how can I know they’re true?” Fence shrugged.Trina leaned forward, reaching for her catch. The gesture was symbolic at best. They both knew she had no other option. She couldn’t waste time walking to the next city, and the unknown fence would probably rob or scam her even worse, assuming she could find one. It didn’t matter. She’d make Fence work for the deal, ensuring her family’s safety and continuance for a few more days.“Don’t be hasty, girl.” Fence never spoke her name, as if offended by gracing a shafter with a polit label, or maybe just one worth more than his own. “I’m sure we can find agreement. You give a little, I give a little, and we both go our ways happy.”A snigger broke free of Piper’s lips. Fence frowned heavily at the older boy before turning to focus on Trina. “What say you? Three silvers? Same as your compatriot.”If he thought to confuse her with fancy words, he’d be disappointed. Trina’s mother gained more than just a twin-swollen body from their Festival father. He’d shared books and knowledge in the month before leaving on a colony ship. Their mother had explained how he planned to send for her as soon as the colony stood firm. She still waited for the word, believing even when time had shown that belief false.Trina rarely found use for her education, but if it kept Fence from scamming her, it had some value. “Three silvers? An insult. I’ll be back when you’re ready for a true offer.” This time, she did grab the necklace. Joining with Piper had been a mistake. Fence lost out over the key and now wanted to make it up on her offering.Trina estimated the remaining coins in her apartment and came up short. She shouldn’t walk away from whatever Fence offered. Food ran low and her mother needed more medicine. Although the potion cured nothing, it lessened the pain. No cure, no real treatment, existed for the poison injected in Mother during the polit experiments, only pain and death, with years between.A jerk on the other side of the necklace brought Trina’s focus back to Fence.“Now you know I’ll give you a good deal. Time’s been rough lately. Not so much call for something as rare as this, and much more difficult to pass along without attracting notice. Let me think on it for a moment.” He brought forth the pointer again from some invisible pocket and poked the necklace, his expression contemplative.Internally, Trina sighed with relief. She couldn’t bear her mother’s moans, and the thought of leaving her twin trapped with the pained sounds seemed too cruel.Despite her preoccupation, she did notice Fence had accepted the jewels as pure when his argument failed and now used their very purity against her.She watched him closely. In this, she considered nothing beneath him. If he could, he’d swap her goods with something cheaper and she’d never get the true value. “You may have to take it far, but I know your network’s strong.” Her serious tone didn’t match her physical age, but shafter life wasn’t one to keep innocence alive.“Five silvers.”The haggling began again, this time starting with much higher amounts that reflected the rarity of pure stones. She didn’t miss Piper’s jealous look when she finally pocketed twelve silvers, a ha’silver and three coppers. He didn’t understand this would all be gone to the apothecary. No one knew about Mother.She twisted her scarf through the coins in her money purse so the metal wouldn’t clink with each step and give her away. Fence had paid her enough, though not as much as she had hoped for. With this, she’d be able to purchase another two weeks of medicine, and stay away from polit houses for at least half that long.Swallowing against a throat gone dry with the bargaining, Trina hoped Fence would offer tea and the small, cucumber sandwiches he ate when playing polit.Instead, the trader rose, a clear sign he considered their meeting over. No one dallied after Fence stood, not if they knew what was good for them.Trina matched his expression as she also got to her feet, followed by Piper.“Good hunting,” Fence called after them as they walked down the lit corridor.Trina kept her shoulders straight and her stride confident while listening for any sign that the trader had changed his mind about the coins he’d given her. A subtle jerk sent a knife sliding into her hand. No one could be trusted in the shafts, Fence less than most.