Chapter One: The Big Loot in the Sky

Twitch wasn’t one to take risks now that he was full-grown and apt to break down soon. Auntie could fix his bruises and broken bones somewhat, but after Twitch turned twenty a sprained ankle could turn into a stiff joint for life.

The opening to the old dormitories was plenty wide enough for his slight frame, and he wriggled through without incident. Before he’d gained this new sense of caution (it had been instilled by Auntie through prolonged scolding on his birthday three days before) he would have dropped to the floor without more than a cursory glance downward. Now he made sure to hook his carabiner into a sturdy-looking ceiling support, pull his flashlight out of his harness bag and check out the ground below.

A rat skittered out of the circle of light from Twitch’s flashlight. He was impressed that the rat had managed to get in, though rodents were always going to be better break-in artists than he was. Twitch had modeled his own break-in strategy on mice, rats and squirrels.

There wasn’t much else on the ground, at least not anything he could turn his ankle on. He unhooked the carabiner and dropped the ten feet to the floor.

The dormitories were laid out like the ones in the South Grid: long narrow hallway with toilets and showers at either end, twenty doors on either wall, each door probably leading to the same small cubicles with a bed and personal-effects bin.

Twitch gave the door on his right a couple of sharp kicks. It cracked open. A few sweeps of the flashlight showed that the dust coating the bed, floor and bin was disrupted only by rat tracks.

No other looters had been here. Twitch stood the flashlight on its end in the center of the room and opened the bin, humming merrily. The room’s occupant had left behind all his clothes, neatly folded and covered in mouse droppings. They fell apart the second Twitch lifted them out of the bin, but he wasn’t here for some long-dead grunt’s tighty-whities. Halfway through emptying the bin he struck pay dirt.

Old tech, sophisticated stuff. Twitch shoved the matte black discs with what he was sure were inset solar chargers into his rucksack. Below the tech were some old food items in metal and plastic packaging. He discarded the decomposed food and put the containers in a pouch.

Then, tucked into what had once probably been socks, Twitch found the loot that was his bread and butter: old porno on vinyl pages. Those-from-before had been total prudes about letting their soldiers, or their whoever used to live in the dormitories, access pornos on the network, so there had been a thriving industry of hard-copy porno designed to withstand anything. Twitch still handled Cowboy Rides Hard carefully, it being a thousand-year-old relic and all, but it had been designed to stay intact for expeditions through the most extreme reaches of space.

Almost every room in the dormitory yielded similar riches. Twitch filled his rucksack as much as he could and climbed back out the hole he’d drilled in the ceiling. He pulled himself up over the ledge, twisting to the right to avoid triggering one of the drone-signaling motion sensors. The ceiling was littered with gravel Twitch had sprayed it with the previous day from a modified hose; where the gravel was blackened from laser blasts, he did not tread. He reached the ledge and swung himself over the side, clipping into the carabiners he’d drilled into the wall during his hundred fifty-meter climb upward.

No one except Twitch could scale the dormitory walls to reach the weak point, so he didn’t mind that some other looters had followed him to the armored entryway of the building. Almost all of them were silent, staring upward and scrutinizing his route. They’d all have questions for him back at the pub.

One little girl, Delia, wasn’t old enough to be served at the pub. She asked Twitch her questions before he had a chance to get his bearings.

“You going to leave your rope?”

Twitch untied the knot on his harness and started pulling down the rope he’d slung over a support joint. He’d yanked out each carabiner as he rappelled down. “You know the rules, kid.”

She snorted in frustration. “You know Bubs ain’t talkin’ to Auntie!”

“Maybe once he hears about the tech in this site he’ll change his tone.” Twitch always had a soft spot for scrappy little Delia. Too bad her boss was a bum who couldn’t negotiate for his life.

“Tell you what, Delia,” he said, bending down to look her in the eye, “Tomorrow I’ll take you up myself and you’ll pick something out, to keep or to sell. Just for yourself.”

“Even though Bubs ain’t talkin’ to Auntie?”

“Even so.” Twitch ruffled her hair. “Drinks on me tonight, folks?”

The grim, silent looters brightened and cheered Twitch at this announcement. Delia scowled.

Twitch hefted his pack and set off for Auntie’s Funhouse.

The Funhouse wasn’t near the center of town, where Warlord Johnny called himself Mayor Jim. It was plunked square at the edge of the hydro dam, where workers and engineers would see it first thing after their long trudge back up the hill toward town. The Funhouse offered hookers of all genders for those who could pay well, and a pretty decent peepshow for the near-broke. It also boasted the largest collection of porno this side of the Kissimmee.

This was mostly thanks to Twitch. Auntie treated him accordingly.

“Tortilla soup, Twitchie! Fresh masa from the mill!” Auntie plunked a steaming bowl of soup in front of Twitch as soon as he walked in the door. He always walked in the side door when he was coming back from a job. The diligent dam-laborers didn’t need to see a looting vagabond while they were carousing their honest troubles away.

“I brought back a sample. If I can bring in a team we’ll pull a clean-and-sweep like on the South Block last month.”

“Why don’t you make a few more solo runs?” Auntie asked. “I’ll show your loot to the other bosses for a week or so, jack up the price of a stake in North Block.”

“You know best,” Twitch said, using a piece of tortilla to scoop up a handful of bean and avocado.

“And when that’s done, I have another job for you.”

“I thought I find my own jobs?”

“This is different.” Auntie wiped her floury hands on her apron. “This is for Warlord Johnny.”

If Twitch hadn’t been so hungry he’d have spat out Auntie’s beans. Auntie had been one of Warlord Johnny’s favorite concubines. She’d negotiated her freedom and a chunk of land from the Warlord, she’d never gotten around to telling Twitch how she’d done it, and founded the Funhouse. Twitch was born to one of the Funhouse whores a year later. When the whore ran out, Auntie took Twitch in.

“Best business decision of my life,” she always said of him.

Of Warlord Johnny, she always said, “Plague take him and his fat prick.”

“Why?” Twitch spluttered. “Why would you want me working for him?”

“Because he’s offered me a price I can’t refuse. Don’t sit there with your mouth hanging open, eat!”

He shoveled down the rest of his supper without tasting it. Auntie put on her spectacles and sat across from him, opening her ledger to go over the day’s liquor inventory. She looked up from her work after Twitch washed, dried and put away his dinner plate.

“It’s a good job, Twitchie boy.”

Twitch grunted, leaving the Funhouse by the back door and turning his steps toward the pub.

His inner turmoil over working for the man who’d wronged the woman who raised him, versus disobeying the woman who raised him, did not show on his face when he entered the pub that night. The looters mobbed him immediately.

“There’s a droid station above one of the old mining houses, can you show me that trick with the gravel?”

“That’s old hat, mate. What strengthening exercises do you do with those fingers of yours? I can’t make it ten feet up that wall!”

“Buy me a stiff drink and I’ll tell you,” Twitch said.

The pub had no name and no clientele except looters. It was a thatched-roof hut three miles out in the Kissimmee mud flats. An old man named Oscar manned the lopped-off hull of a formerly sunken cruise ship that served as the bar.

Twitch had his own corner reserved in the pub, where he kept the non-porno books he scavenged. When the drinking and conversation turned, as it always did, to dancing and carousing, Twitch retreated to his corner and his books.

Reading the ancient books was something of a niche pastime. Most of the ones that Twitch found were written in an ancient language called English. Auntie had spent many painstaking hours teaching him to read it as a child, in addition to teaching him how to read and write their own language.

He looked up from his book a few times to watch the dancing, but once The Shining got interesting he soon forgot his surroundings. It was two hours later when little Delia showed up at the pub.

She ran straight to the bar and banged on the bar top to get Oscar’s attention. Oscar, who was watching the looters dancing on the dirt floor of the pub, didn’t notice her at first. Twitch wondered what on Earth Delia could be doing here, and why she’d gone to Oscar instead of running over to Twitch’s corner. She must be on an errand for Bubs if she wasn’t here to pester Twitch.

Oscar bent down so that he could hear Delia over the thumping music. Twitch went back to reading his book.

Two minutes later, the dancers began to filter slowly out of the pub. Twitch looked up. Usually, the looters would dance until dawn.

One of the looters switched off the music and beckoned for the remaining dancers, and Twitch, to follow her outside.

Twitch replaced The Shining on the bookshelf next to Grimm’s Faerie Tales and walked out. Everyone else had had thumbs tucked into suspender straps and cargo pockets, their heads craned way back.

An uneasy pricking sensation crept up the back of Twitch’s neck when he looked up as well.

Next to the bright full moon there was another, smaller moon. It was oblong, and bright blue. Parts of it were blinking as it rotated along its barely visible axis of blue metal.

“Those Who Fled,” said Oscar. “It’s starting.”

Twitch was off and running to the Funhouse before anyone thought to take their eyes off the omen in the sky.

The workers on their daily trudge back to town had all stopped in their tracks. Twitch sprinted past them, his breath harsh in his throat, the slapping of his old boots on the tamped-down dirt and grass of the path the only sound in the still night.

The Funhouse was a three-story building patched together from concrete blocks, corrugated tin and plastics, with a hot-pink paint job slapped over the whole mess. Twitch had salvaged some neon lighting from an ancient mall below the sea on one of his free-diving expeditions. During the daytime, the Funhouse looked rather drab, but at night it came into its full glory. Neon lights blinked out obscene messages. Whores in bright costumes leaned out the windows, advertising their wares. The smell of Auntie’s hot cakes, passed out to all the customers in the front hall along with her strong tea spiked with whisky, mingled with the scent of perfume and the indecent, pervasive musk of many sweaty, aroused customers crammed into the cramped rooms the Funhouse had to offer.

Twitch ran up the clean front steps, not bothering to go in the back door. His friend Irma Lee was on the center stage pole tonight and he tipped his hat to her, though it was doubtful she could see him in the throng. Clearly, no one in the Funhouse knew what was going on outside.

He broke free of the peepshow crowds, ducked into the back hallway and threw open the swinging doors to Auntie’s office.

“It’s not Warlord Johnny I’m working for, is it?” he asked.

Auntie, who had been staring at the night sky’s newest inhabitant from her desk, swiveled her chair to face Twitch.

“I have contracted you to Warlord Johnny,” she said. “But your immediate superior will be his techy.”

“The crazy lady who thinks Those Who Fled…” He was about to finish the sentence with “Will return,” but realized how stupid he’d sound with Those Who Fled floating in the sky opposite the moon for all to see.

“Warlord Johnny was ready to have her strung up, with all the time she was spending on tidal charts instead of directing the engineers, but it looks like she was right in the end. Convinced Johnny of it a week before they made it into visible orbit. Pat’s got a plan to break in and pull off a loot that makes your dorm break-ins small potatoes.”

“You don’t think they’ll-”

“Come back down? Room enough for them if they do, and no plague to flee anymore. They’ll come down and they’ll stay, but we’ll rob them blind first.”

Twitch took two glasses from the stack in front of Auntie’s decanter of moonshine and set them on her desk. Auntie poured. They clinked their glasses together and sipped in companionable silence, staring up at the loot in the sky.