When the teenager sauntered through the door of my pawn shop, I almost booted him out before he took three steps inside. I know everyone on the East Neptune Space Station — the busy last stop on the way out to the AlCent colonies — but I didn’t know him. His grimace made me want to slap the hate-the-world expression off his face, but his eyes were bright and intelligent, and above all, I’m curious. It’s what made me a good sharpshooter, back in the war. That, and the after-market arm and leg I had installed after mine were blown off.
“Can I help you find something?” I stepped from behind the counter. “Name’s Alya Agrawal, and I’m the proprietor.”
His eyes flickered past my shoulder. Behind a self-repairing, quasi-intelligent security system sat the wall display where my private collection of commemorative wristbands hung. None were for sale. The one on the pedestal in front was worth more money than this kid would see in his lifetime.
“Decoration only,” I said. “What’re you looking for?”
“Nothin’, just browsin’.” He turned to go down an aisle but kept side-eyeing the display.
“Tiger shit and bubblegum fluff!”
“Means you’re lying.” I may be a hundred and three, but my ability to spot liars is second only to my shooting. Unlike sharpshooting, which I haven’t practiced in fifty years, I employ my liar detection skills frequently. All manner of unsavories comes into my shop, though why, I can’t understand. Everyone on the station knows I truck no nonsense. They know they can turn to me if they need help, too, but everybody knows not to cross me.
He stomped down the aisle and around the corner. “Whatever, old lady. I just wanna look at your video games.”
“I’m watching you.”
When he curled his lip at me, I pointed to the camera hanging in the corner. He folded his arms, huffed over to a worn copy of Battle Circus Takedown IV, and stared at the case as though he were attempting to laser-eye through.
I marched to the back. I had last year’s model holo-tablets to clean. I’d paid half the usual because they had goo on them, and the woman rocketing off to the Baryonyx Colony seemed interested in unloading them quickly.
Besides, I wanted to see what the kid would do with no one watching.
Several minutes later, the door chimed to indicate he’d left. I cleaned, sorted, even straightened shelves I’d been meaning to get to for the past week, and then headed out front.
When I came around the corner, I discovered an empty spot in my collection.
The full-colour, nano-etched wristband with the detailed picture of the New Paris, Europa skyline, worth 33.6 million uccs, was gone.
My state-of-the-art security system hadn’t even bleeped.
The Button is a simple piece of technology. You’re probably wearing one, nestled in a wristband on the underside of your wrist, yes? It’s a young person’s game, but even I’ve got one, thanks to my great-grandson Menkab. Now when I meet someone new, I press my wrist against theirs. I miss the old handshake, but it’s not my world anymore.
Even as a young girl, I never cared to collect Likes or Favorites or Awesomes. As an old girl, I’m less interested in collecting people. But everyone under the age of twenty-five loves Buttons. I can’t make head nor tails of these star maps kids keep on their profiles, but it’s supposed to be people they’ve met in person, not just online. Quantum entanglement created some kind of existential crisis in a generation that never knew a world without it, so this is the result.
Could be something more idiotic, I suppose.
I mentioned my great-grandson. You probably recognized his name. Yes, yes, the Menkab, the inventor of the Button. Calm down, no need to get your oxygen line tangled. He pooped his drawers as a baby, like everyone else.
With all these great-great-grandkids, I can barely keep track of who I’m related to, but Menkab’s special. He’s the last descendant I got to hold just minutes after birth — I can’t get out of the station every time another baby pops out. Too many nowadays.
So when he came to me thirty years ago, asking for money to produce the first Buttons (then called something else, don’t remember what), I loaned it to him.
As a gift for my initial investment, Menkab gave me the limited edition New Paris wristband, made for the one-year anniversary of the now multi-billion-ucc company, headquartered in the booming metropolis on Europa. He only had a hundred of those wristbands made.
And that little raggabrash had stolen it.
I was only a little surprised, though. I saw it in his eyes when he walked in.
I closed the shop, turned off the lights, and went to the back. I booted up my computer, pressed a few keys, and located the wristband. “Not even trying to get off the station, huh?” This was vexing. Disappointing, even. “How smart can you be?”
I swapped my general-purpose arm and leg for my custom-made, military-lite versions and opened my weapons closet. When I first came here, I’d carried a gun on each hip and one in the built-in ankle holster, but that was before the Neptune Port Authority cleaned things up. Now, kids walk through the passageways without their parents, whereas before, even adults would travel in packs of three and four.
But I’ve never gotten rid of my guns.
I smiled as I strapped them into familiar spots — I’m not ashamed to admit I miss them sometimes. I synced up the wristband’s tracking with my mini-tab’s locator app and went out the back way.
I was about to teach him a lesson in manners.
Several twists and turns took me through the tunnels, away from the shops and hotels, to a part of the station as close to abandoned as any part of a space station could be. He was napping in a back corner under a peeling sign, hidden by a pile of rusted metal. Although the NPA had most of the station under control, it’s huge, and the janitorial staff can’t keep up with every nook and cranny.
When the barrel of my handgun pressed into the side of the kid’s neck, his eyes flew open. I grabbed his dirty collar so tightly with my bionic hand, he’d have to rip the shirt to get away.
“Give it to me,” I said.
“I don’t know wh—” I cocked the hammer and he bit the words off. “Fine, fine, sheesh, Nans, what’s wrong with you?”
Even with a gun to his head, he was sassing me.
I liked this kid.
He dug in his pocket, pulled out the wristband, and held it out with shaking fingers.
“Thanks.” I took it, buried it inside my bra, drew the gun from his neck, and stood.
He let out a breath. “Wasn’t that a bit of an overreaction?”
I turned and pointed the gun at him, but uncocked it. “You know how much this thing is worth.”
He shrugged, looked down, poked a finger at a pile of scrap pitifully.
I had to know. “What’s your story? Where you going?”
“Nowhere. I ain’t going nowhere. Not anymore.”
I slid the gun back into the holster and walked away. A little drama never hurt anyone. As I was about to round the corner for a more reputable part of the station, I said, “You got a job. Show up on Monday, and I’ll forget this little misunderstanding ever happened.”
“Really?” The kid’s voice held more hope than I’d ever heard.
“Seven o’clock. We start early. What’s your name?”
“Rigel. Thank you!”
I frowned. I hate having my heart broken. What kind of terrible history did this poor kid have to be stuck on the East Neptune Space Port with no family to call his own?
No matter. Wasn’t my concern.
That SurvTech saleskid had said my security system couldn’t be hacked. I’d told him I didn’t believe it, and I was right. I smelled a hefty refund in my future.
With idiots running my security company, I needed someone like Rigel. That was all. I hadn’t gone soft.
Nope, not soft at all.