“Give me your hand!” The man stretched his fat callused fingers toward Adria. She kept her arms behind her back while her eyes flicked around the tent. That was, if anyone could have called it a tent. The entire thing had been jumbled together by hanging curtains and privacy panels, making it more of a hole carved in a trash heap than anything else.
The man dropped his hand and smiled at her. His smile widened for a moment, then he dropped that too. He turned to her teacher.
"Hutch, she has to let me, or I can't do anything for you."
"She can strap herself in," Hutch said.
Hutch gestured toward the table, waiting for Adria, but not looking at her directly. She stared at Hutch, searching for a way to communicate. She had been waiting for this moment for as long as she could remember. This was too important to risk on this man, but Hutch didn't look back. It was one of his dark days again.
The only sound was the hollow hum and repetitive ticks of machinery outside. Factory noises, covering the nearby voices beyond the tent, transforming words into murmurs. Adria didn't have to hear them to understand their meanings. She could already feel their fear and secrets. This wasn’t a place for anyone who was living in respect to the Fifth Imperium. This was the public market. If she screamed, no one would come.
Adria made her way to table in the middle of the room. Every step made her legs hurt more, but she took her time, making sure she wouldn’t stumble over the rubbish on the ground. Some heaps were piled in ways that appeared to be random, others helped reinforce the curtain walls. Old metal parts, unmarked bottles, carbon-graph boxes. Most of it was probably merchandise, left unlabeled because of its illegal status. Adria wondered how anyone could keep track of all the clutter.
The man at the table waved her on.
“Hurry up, I’ve got second sleep cycle and I don’t want to miss it.”
Adria sat down in the metal chair across from him. Sitting relieved her legs, but now the pressure traveled up her spine. Her body always ached. She was only nineteen, but for as long as she could remember her joints had felt like wire, brittle from bending and ready to break. She was a master at keeping still and avoiding the pain, but each day it grew. There never was a comfortable position, only a game of balance. Any relief came at a price.
She tried to scoot herself closer to the table but the chair didn’t move; It had been bolted to the ground. In a place so thrown together, that fact seemed ominous. She glanced back at Hutch, his figure silhouetted in the dim opening, making his long coat look like a knee length skirt, and his dark curly hair looked less tangled now that it was all blocked out in black.
She set her left arm down between a set of black straps that came up from under the sticky black table.
Black. Everything Adria had ever known seemed to be black, white or blue. Everything on the planetary was a variant of those same stark colors. From their regulation clothing to the food they were given. All of the planetary was made from the same inexpensive carbonate or covered with white reflect paint. Mama used to unknowingly show her the color of sunsets and daffodils in her dreams. Stolen memories of a home world Adria had never known. Sometimes Adria thought of them to calm herself. Yellow. More things should be yellow.
"Not just the left! Both arms down! Come on!” The man said.
Gingerly Adria attempted to buckle her own hand in, touching as little of the gritty material as possible. The dirty straps did have one different color for her, they were stained with a dark brown that she hoped was rust from the buckles, and not oxidized blood.
The man stepped closer. She hated the feeling coming from him, it was like egg yolks; Undercooked egg yolks dripping onto her skin, forming little beads that wouldn’t rub away. His cheeks were raised in strange grin, showing the long line of his teeth. He reached out toward her. Adria flinched.
“Can’t Hutch do that?” Adria asked, loathing herself. Hutch wasn’t going to do anything, but she couldn’t help pleading. As expected, Hutch stayed by the door, waiting.
“Why?” The man said, hovering above her. His smile accompanying the teeter between anger and amusement. He tugged at her sleeve. “You need this out of the way.”
Adria rolled her regulation shirt up to her elbow exposing her scrawny arm and a splatter of freckles. It was so strange, seeing her arm uncovered in public. Savets hardly ever showed their arms. The man was looking it over too, studying her skin.
“Look at that! No identification scar, no tattoo. Not that you could read a tattoo with all those moles. It’s almost as bad as your face!”
“They’re just freckles.”
He took over the straps, wrenching them through the buckles with a zipping sound.
“Sure, call them that if it makes you feel better. But you’re so blotched I can’t tell what color you are. With skin like that I’d avoid the view ports. The clothing they hand out here doesn’t protect from the sun. Me though,” he tapped his shirt. It looked identical to hers, except that it’s seams were stretched out to accommodate his size. “I have connections. Got this hand-made. Looks just like the one size fits all, so it makes the Imperium happy, but it’s got a lining so it doesn’t chafe. That makes me happy.” He finished tightening the buckles, but paused, looking at Adria’s arm again. “No identification... Can’t get rations, can’t get housing, no one would know who you are if you wind up dead.” He shot Hutch a meaningful look, then smiled and shrugged. Hutch shifted in the darkness.
As he bound her arms down, the man’s hand passed over Adria's. She winced, feeling inside his head. Never gonna forget to tighten these things. Not after that wild one. No one ever tells me they can rip through a wall, they just— and the connection was gone.
It only took a moment for her to see who he was. The information came jumbled, like torn pieces of paper, drifting into her lap. His name was Darius. That much was easy to see. Minds were always aware of themselves. He thought she was a prostitute, though he couldn’t decide if she was only for Hutch or if she was for hire. People usually assumed that when they saw her with Hutch. Adria knew it, but it didn’t bother her any less. She also knew he didn't care about her. He didn't care about any of the customers anymore. She was nothing to him, except perhaps—
"Please!" Adria hissed through a shudder. "Don't touch me!"
"What? What is it?" He stared down at her, grinding his teeth for a moment then he laughed coldly and flicked her with his finger, a momentary connection. Whiny little thing. What's the point of—
His emotions were heightened by her rejection. Even if it was only a slight touch, she could see rejection bothered Darius at the highest level. It brought him back to the repeating old pains he never let go of. Of course it did. She’d seen it all before. People always interpreted things through their own cracked lens.
He laughed at the way she jerked when he flicked her. A forced cold laugh to hide his real response, the one she already knew. Adria strained her neck to look back at Hutch, she didn't know if she could handle any more contact.
Hutch was close enough to see his face now, but he was busy picking at his bloody nails again, the only part of his arm left visible by his fingerless gloves. Dark hair covered his eyes as he pulled a thin strip of skin from his index finger.
When she turned back Darius was sitting opposite her. He was eating. Thick blue noodles jiggled as they dangled from his chopsticks. She wondered if he was used to his client’s fear. Possibly he enjoyed its power, but she couldn’t be sure, she hadn’t fully seen inside him. The mind was a maze. Ever changing, growing, pulsing, and thriving. She’d seen something about his angry father, the watered- down medication he’d been selling, but most importantly she saw Hutch should have found someone else.
Darius leaned toward the ground, hidden by the edge of the table. There was a ceramic clunk; He must have set down his bowl. Then he cursed, lifting a large gray medical arch. It was older than any Adria had seen before and only about as wide as her shoulders. This model had rounded abutments, forming a half circle opening. Just the right shape for sticking body parts through. He maneuvered it on the table until the bottom clicked into place, locking it down over Adria’s arm.
Darius tapped on what must have been a control panel from his side of the device. A small door slid open and quick-released a beveled silver tube. It looked as thick as Adria’s little finger, that hovered directly over her skin.
Her tongue knotted in her throat. She’d never imagined the needle would be so large. Most people were identified after birth. How could such a large needle be used on a newborn?
“Wh—” She cleared her throat. “Why is it so big?”
“It’s not like I have the newest technology here. You get what you get.”
“No, not the arch, the needle.”
Darius shifted so he could see her around the arch. He stared at her for a moment and then laughed, turning back to his work.
"Well then Hutch, what’s it for this one?" He was back behind the table, pulling out a beaten metal lock box.
Hutch had come out of his stupor, and was leaning down by her, his breath tickling the hairs on her arm. Adria jerked. She had never been so close to his face before. If it wasn’t such a hard face it would have looked like linen before it was ironed, all creases and curves.
"He's going to put your identifier in.” Hutch Said. “Last chance. What kind of pouch do you want with it?”
Adria tried to sound confident, but her eyes flicked back to the needle.
“I don’t want…” Adria looked over at Darius. He was keeping his head down, digging through the lock box, but she could feel him listening, so she mouthed the words. “I don’t want to hurt anymore.”
"Give her the clearest you have,”
Darius lifted his eyes from the box, closing it.
"I can't waste a clear, they cost me more!"
“Put in three.”
“Gnosis drugs? Three? You have to be joking." Darius waited, frowning. “Who is she? Edom himself?"
He laughed but stopped abruptly when he looked up at Hutch’s face. Darius turned back to Adria.
“I wouldn’t do it if I were you. I get it. Life’s hard; Drugs take the edge off. But you can't imagine the stuff these guys get.” He gestured to Hutch. “They have to get training to not abuse themselves on clears. I’ve heard of people losing limbs. Too much medication and you don’t know you’re limits anymore.” Adria’s awareness told her Darius was trying to persuade her for his own gain, but he wasn’t lying. “Look at me, I’m a long-sleeves like you. I could’ve implanted myself years ago, and I don’t touch this stuff!” Adria didn’t like him focusing on her. She tried to look away, but Darius leaned in. “Let me make this simple. You look like you’re, a nothing. Just like the rest of us Savets. So, if you’ve never, lifted five times your weight or memorized a jumble of numbers just by looking at them, you’re a Savet. Wanna feel good? Then try the drugs at the clinic and—”
"Three.” Hutch said, cutting in. “All clears."
Darius’ closed his mouth mid-sentence. His expression didn’t change, but the air went crisp with his excitement.
“So, she’s not a Savet then?” Darius asked, turning back to Hutch. “Long sleeves, regulation clothes, no identification, and a Gnosis?” Adria’s eyes shot to the floor, but Hutch only laughed in response. “No? She’s a mule then? Getting them somewhere else? Fair enough but you don’t want to waste three on a prostitute. You could still get something— I've got it all here!" He tapped the box. "All of them! Timed release, self-producing, annual replacement. You could have it for a year and then decide!"
“That’s an interesting way to describe a malfunction, Dari. Do you make your clients pay a higher price for them too? Funny how cutting off the dose can cause the body to go into shock.”
"Fine. Pay for it then. They're in high demand right now, so that makes it worth all the more. You already owe me for your regular shipments..." His voice trailed off, looking up expectantly as Hutch placed a brown packet on the table. Darius reached for it but Hutch was faster, sliding it backward between his own arms, leaning forward with his knuckles on the table.
"It's not thoreia." Hutch lowered his voice. "It’s hubris."
"You brought me hubris?" Darius asked. Hutch slid the packet slowly back to him. Darius took it, his fingers twitching a little before he actually touched the pouch. "How can I test this? What if I—"
"If you don't have the means to pass it on, then I’ll take it back with me and you can get a supply of thoreia instead.”
“What are they even using it for? I’ve watched the price rise, obviously, but not here. It’s the outer systems that use it. Besides, if this is hubris then how did you get so much?"
Hutch reached out for the packet, but Darius palmed it and went back to digging through his box. He pulled out three small cards and put them all inside a slot on the arch. Hutch pulled a similar looking card out of his coat pocket and slid it in too.
As soon as the arch accepted Hutch’s card, Darius looked up at Hutch, waiting for something. Hutch glared back.
"You’re not going to stand next to her, are you?” Darius asked. “They bite sometimes, you know. Kick, try to smash you with their heads. I’d keep my distance.” In response, Hutch crouched down next to Adria’s arm, his face inches from her. “Really now? Fine then, fine."
The needle shot into Adria. She told herself she wasn't going to scream, but she couldn’t help it.
Darius had to yell over her.
"Oh, come on! It's not even hurting yet!" The rim of the arch lit up, glowing in a dim red. "When the identifier gets in place, see if it hurts then."
In between her breaths Adria could hear a quick scraping sound as something slid down the needle’s shaft into her. A foreign object bulged under her skin like a growth forming on muscle tissue. Darius shot a glance at Hutch.
"It's gonna’ grab the nerve now. You’re sure she’s not a strong one? If she starts breaking things, or I'll have to—"
The glow on the arch turned yellow. Adria had a deep contempt toward the machine then for mocking her with her favorite color. She couldn’t think about it long though because the hole in her arm shifted into a different kind of pain. It wasn't sharp anymore, it was a sickening jolt running along her forearm toward her skull.
Panicking, Adria attempted to pull herself away, even though the needle was still in her. The edge where it met her skin flooded with a rim of blood, but in that moment, all she knew was she had to get away.
“I didn't want this!” She screamed at the two men next to her. Her muscles started twisting and convulsing on their own. “It hurts more! Make it stop! Please”
Hutch was even closer, transfixed on the vibrating bulge. Adria’s fingernails scratched the air next to his face, trying to grab anything.
The needle gave a jerk and shot back up in the arch.
Adria rattled her arms, trying to jerk free from the straps.
"Wait!" Darius said, pushing a rag toward her. "It's not done yet." Annoyance? The hot metallic taste of it built up in her, but her thoughts were confused, still focused on her pain. Why was he annoyed? He wasn't the one getting mutilated!
The arch rim turned green and Darius unbuckled the restraints, setting her free.
Adria stood instinctively, ready to get further away from Darius. She backed into the side of the tent and held her arm up to study the hole that was steadily dripping blood on the floor.
“W-why did it move around like that? What did you do to me?”
"That's what this was for!" Darius yelled— throwing the rag into Adria’s chest.
Adria’s fingers fumbled to hold the rag as she placed it on her arm, tenderly avoiding the pulsing bulge. She tried to slow her breathing but couldn't seem to exhale all the way, air building in her lungs.
Darius shrugged. "It connected to your nerve endings. It needed—"
"Then it shouldn’t hurt anymore!"
"It takes time!" His annoyance started to feel waxy on her tongue. "That's how they all work! Just clean yourself up and get out!"
He came at her, ripping the rag from her to wipe the blood off the floor. He grabbed her arm again and put the dirty rag back on her wound. Stupid. What's the point of— there’s no way she’s worth all that he’s paying to get to—
Adria shrieked. Yanking back, holding her head.
When she looked up again, Darius’ attention was back to Hutch, watching him stand by the table. Hutch was looking at the arch, obviously waiting for something more.
"What?" Darius said. "We're done here."
"You forgot my identity information. I'd like my card back."
Adria felt Darius’ unease. He didn't show it though, lazily stepping back up to the arch and leaning in toward the information panel. Hutch put his arms on both sides of the arch and yanked it toward himself before Darius could touch anything.
The arch resisted with a whiny crack before it came up from the table, ripped free.
Hutch held the machine in his hands as though it was weightless and set it back down in front of himself, scrolling through the command options. Adria caught a glimpse of gray words on a black screen, but Darius’s emotions drew back her attention before she could read anything.
"You have to disconnect it first! You just broke my table lock!” Darius paused. His anger shifting into insecurity. Adria was glad he had enough sense to stop yelling at someone who could snap metal. She could feel it seething beneath him though, and found herself worrying about the next person to cross his path.
Darius took over the arch, running one hand over the bent metal. He started to get upset again, but coughed instead.
Though Darius’s emotion persuaded her, Adria felt more awe then fear. It didn’t matter that she already knew what Hutch could do, she didn’t often get to see his Gnosis abilities on display.
“Your information card,” Darius said, “was fully disintegrated. I keep that option selected as a default. Most people don't want their information at risk, so that's usually best."
Adria shook her head in disbelief. The air stiffened, soft and suffocating, telling her he was lying. More than that, his voice was so different then how he felt. It made her wonder if even Darius knew himself underneath the lies.
Hutch took the arch with one arm, using his other to push Darius’ back. Darius didn’t give up, reaching around Hutch, attempting to touch a command on the screen. Hutch caught Darius’s hand in midair and squeezed, making him howl. Adria flinched with him.
She wondered if Hutch had felt Darius lie the way she could. How could anyone not feel it? Lies were so tangible, so thick. Hutch’s thoughts were always locked safely away so she couldn’t be sure. He had told her many times he only had his strength, but Hutch always seemed to know more then he shared.
“You’re usually better than this.” Hutch said, putting the arch back on the table. “You’re getting careless. Asking questions? It’s obvious you have an information buyer. Someone told you time’s running out, and you’re selling hard.” Hutch poked at more commands, one hand still twisting Darius’s arm. Adria held her breath, waiting for Hutch to let go. Darius was still scared, but his voice didn't falter.
"It seems to be jammed.” Darius shrugged, the motion mostly symbolic of an actual shrug because of his contorted arm. "It just needs time and the proper tools.” This time there was more truth in his words, but they were twisted. Adria decided Darius must have a lot riding on that lie. “Tell you what, you come back tomorrow and I'll have it ready."
Darius attempted to pull the arch toward himself with his one free arm. Hutch rolled his eyes and pushed it out of reach, then tightened his grip on Darius’s hand. Adria couldn’t watch any more.
“Hutch, Please!” She took an achy step toward the table, supporting herself with the bolted-in chair. “Don’t hurt him!”
Hutch let out a low laugh, shaking his head at her. He tossed Darius away then pressed both of his thumbs into the hatch. His cracked nails lost their color with the pressure as the metal concaved inward. Hutch pulled the door off completely and removed his card, throwing the bent piece of door on the table. Then he crushed the card in his hands, dropping the dust and scraps on top of the table.
“There.” Hutch said, rubbing the last bits off his palms. “Now it’s all yours. Don’t worry Dary, the Imperium won’t notice one extra card you didn’t sell them; you’ll still get your ticket out of here. I wouldn’t mention you lost one though, don’t want to lose any leverage.”
Darius jaw was slack, but he didn't let it gape. That, Adria thought, was Darius without the act.
Darius crossed the table reaching for the scrap. His scuttling feet kicked his bowl of noodles that still lay on the ground, sending the chopsticks flying and leaving himself standing in the puddle of hot blue soup. His eyes met Adria's, blaming her somehow. Adria held out the rag that was covered in her blood. He was infuriated, but took it, bending down to wipe up the floor. The feeling of rejection burned around him, forming itself into hate.
Without a second glance, Hutch walked through the puddle, light blue footprints trailing behind him as he left the tent.
Adria started to follow, but she stole a moment to look back at Darius.
"I'm sorry for the trouble, Darius." Adria said. She was afraid, yes, but there was always something after the connection, the understanding that haunted her. Darius stared at her, his anger slipping into confusion.
"How did you know my name?"
"Hutch." She lied. It surrounded her.
"No, he didn't. Hutch calls me Dary like everyone else."
"Oh. Maybe he knows the rest of it." Lies.
She could feel his contempt building, but part of her was still with him. She wanted to tell him his Fa was drunk when he said and did the things she’s seen in his memories, but she didn't. Darius already knew and it hadn't changed anything. It would only leave him more likely to know she was a Gnosis, and not one he’d ever seen before.