Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Thief of Futures

Mr. Naajy Padwal, Mumbai business magnate and collector of eclectic futures, slides a rectangle of paper across the counter. He doesn’t remove his hand, the back of which is covered with coarse black hairs.

The smell of spiced tea and charcoal smoke hangs heavy in the humid air of Subang Jaya’s market.

Not certain anymore why I agreed to meet him, I start to turn from the chai wallah’s cart.

Mr. Padwal puts a hand on my arm.

“I’m retired,” I say.

“Retirement is a state of mind, not an incurable malady.” His accent betrays his Oxford education. When he speaks again, he lowers his voice, even though the portable privacy shield protects our meeting from prying ears and eyes. “I need you to obtain a future for me.”

Out of habit I look to see who is watching. Outside the privacy screen, Mr. Padwal’s two Sikh guards funnel the crowd away from our chai cart, no small feat in a city of sixteen million.

I settle back against the counter. “Why not Bautista?”

“Interpol has him at a black site somewhere in Africa.”

The news surprises me, but it doesn’t upset me. The world is a better place without him. “What about that new girl?”

“Jessica Cavendish? She’s not what I’m looking for.”

“What are you looking for?”

“Someone special. You.” He drains his cup of chai in a single swallow. “I know your circumstances, Mr. Kingston. How long can you survive scrubbing walls in a Trenchtown brothel? For a man who has stolen so many futures, you seem to have no future yourself.” He lets this painfully accurate assessment seize hold; then he says matter-of-factly, “Is this what you want for your daughter?”

“Leave her out of this.”

Mr. Padwal raises his hands in mock surrender. “I am sorry. I did not mean to offend.”

He lies. Years in business have made him a man of supreme calculation. Even knowing this, I find it hard to collect my thoughts because I know what he says is true. Kimbelle deserves better.

“With what I’m offering, a man could do anything.” Mr. Padwal shifts his weight. Over his left shoulder, the ISF launch facility glistens in the distance along the Puchang ridgeline like the spinal plates of a dragon. An orbital shuttle stands ready to launch that afternoon, taking lucky colonists to an orbiting ship bound for Echelon colony.

He pushes the paper closer to me and withdraws his hand. It’s an old-style cashier’s cheque with a very big number.

My mouth goes dry. At the height of my career, even a high-end job wouldn’t have fetched half the sum Mr. Padwal is offering. For a fee like this, he wants something exceptional. Given his reputation, that means something really exceptional.

He grins at me, and my spine tingles. Like any successful businessman, Mr. Padwal knows he has me where he wants me. He produces a finger cache. “The details,” he says, putting the thumbnail-sized data unit on the counter. “Like my offer, that advance is good for twenty-four hours.”

He snaps the shield generator closed. The market crashes in on us like the Red Sea. Flanked by his guards, Mr. Padwal vanishes into the flood of flesh and sweat and noise.

I stare at the finger cache, trying to decide if I should walk away, but a tightness in my throat tells me what I already know. I can never walk away, not as long as I am Earthside.

***

Trenchtown sits at the bottom of the Klang Valley in a haze of smoke and dampness thick enough to turn the sunlight the color of cockroach wings. Levees to the south hold back the steadily rising sea but can’t stop the water from seeping up through the ground. Even on a good day, the streets are a pig wallow of trash and shit.

Two million people squat in Trenchtown. Like me, they have come to Kuala Lumpur hoping to win a lucky seat on one of the ISF’s monthly colony ships. For those without money, the only ticket comes through the indenture-service lottery, but a hundred seats a flight means the odds are long.

I rent two rooms on the ground floor of a decaying two-floor walkup. I step over the sandbags and slip inside. Kimbelle and Shayana, the Tamil girl from upstairs, are in the other room singing a nonsense song in Bahasa, the only language they share.

Where the mildew from the water line hasn’t obscured them, the walls are covered with Kimbelle’s stick figures and smiley face suns. She’s a five-year old master, and her dancing girls, butterflies, and trees give life to this otherwise dreary box. One day, I hope she will be an artist, but I’ll take anything, as long as she has a future.

I pull the cashier’s cheque from my pocket. Fifty million rupees are enough to get Kimbelle out this place, but the money isn’t free, and I’m not sure I can pay the price. My chest tightens. As a father, I should be willing to do anything for my daughter, but it’s hard when I’ve already lost one person I love.

From under the futon, I remove a watertight box. My hands tremble as I fumble with the lock and clasp.

You would think a future has no value, except to the person who owns it. All our futures, however, are intertwined. My future is as much Kimbelle’s as it is mine. Stealing one future has far reaching repercussions.

The lock clicks open, but I don’t lift the lid. I don’t know why I torture myself. I should throw the box away, but I can’t.

Bao thought I worked as an acquisitions manager for a transnational aerospace firm, acquiring electrical components for off-world shipment. It was the only secret I ever kept from her because I’m sure she would have left me had she ever found out.

I think it would have been better if she had known.

I take a deep breath and open the box.

Inside is a picture of Bao. She sits in the arcade near the Bethesda fountain in New York’s Central Park. I remember that day like it is today. I had snapped the picture quickly, catching her glowing face before she had a chance to mar the perfect moment with a plastic, picture smile. She had just told me she was finally pregnant after years of trying.

Under the crinkled photograph, the pieces of a blown-glass globe are smoky and dark, covered with a dull black film that seems to absorb the light.

They’re all I have left of Bao.

***

I snap Mr. Padwal’s finger cache into the BIOSlot at the base of my palm. It hums as it draws power from my flowing blood. In my hand appears a holographic dossier of a woman named Sulee Hendricks, a widowed American of Chinese descent, who rents a flat in Subang Jaya, the once affluent suburb of Kuala Lumpur that now sits just above Trenchtown. While she waits for her lucky number to be drawn, she earns enough to survive by chopping cows at an industrial slaughter-factory.

When I come to a series of holographic portraits, I am struck breathless. While Sulee wears her hair pulled back into a tight bun firmly cemented to the back of her head, she shares the same round face and delicate nose as Bao. I spend many minutes staring at the images before a queasiness grips me.

For men like Naajy Padwal, collecting futures is like stealing priceless art to hang for their own edification in an underground gallery. Some collectors believe that possessing a future of great promise will exert a positive force on their own futures, but that reeks too much of Chinese mysticism for me. Others simply admire them for their physical beauty, and I must admit, an exceptional future glowing pink or electric blue in its blown-glass sphere is spellbinding.

But a future is not a painting. A person without a future is nothing more than a body unable to move forward in time. It simply exists in a comatose-like state, as long as food and water are provided. If the future is returned, the body will recover; otherwise, it slowly dies.

It’s for this reason I have never worked for a collector. Instead I ransomed stolen futures back to loved ones. A dirty business, true, but my conscience could reconcile it.

I sit quietly on the futon, my mind a jumble. I take several deep breaths and continue to read. It isn’t until I get near the end of the dossier that I realize Mr. Padwal doesn’t covet Sulee’s future, but rather her five-year old son’s.

The dossier shakes in my hand, and if it hadn’t been a hologram, I would have dropped it. I remove the finger cache and drop it on the table. My pulse races painfully in my neck.

I have never stolen a child’s future, not even to ransom. The thought makes my stomach twist into knots. I can’t do this.

The singing in the back room stops. The door swings open and Kimbelle and Shayana rush in. They skid to a stop when they see me on the futon.

“Mista?” Shayana says, surprised. It’s the only English word I’ve ever heard her say. She’s a good kid, and I know she’s safe. For a handful of coins, she watches Kimbelle anytime I need her.

Kimbelle’s long black hair hangs in a braid over her right shoulder. Between her delicate eyebrows is a smudged crimson bindi.

She looks so much like Bao it hurts.

“Daddy!” She leaps into my arms, and I hug her until she struggles to get away. I will do anything to make her safe.

***

I cash Mr. Padwal’s advance and set to work. Every night Sulee travels by a circuitous route past curry carts shrouded in films of ghee and grease, and tarp-covered stalls from which women with missing teeth hawk meager piles of rice or fish or bananas. At dawn she stumbles home and is barely able to turn the key in the lock. During the day she stays shuttered inside. I never see the boy. The only evidence he exists is the presence of an old Malay woman who arrives minutes before Sulee leaves and departs soon after she returns.

After a week, I am left wondering if I can even do this job. Stealing a future is not like pinching a purse—not just any rascal with fast feet and a set of cojones can do it. Only a handful people have the innate talent, and of these, few have the necessary moral flexibility.

Before I can take a future, I must sufficiently attune myself to my target’s spatial-temporal trajectory. This means getting close, literally and figuratively. Only then can I take the threads that are their future life. I need to spend time with the boy—lots of it—and the only way to do that is to get close to Sulee.

I finally get my opportunity when she digs into her bag to pay for a bundle of rambutan and a head scarf drops unnoticed to the ground. I retrieve it and push through the crowd calling to her in Bahasa. She does not hear me over the market din, so I grab her elbow.

She spins and sweeps my legs from under me with her foot. I land with a crack. The air explodes from my lungs.

“What do you want?” she says in Bahasa. Her foot presses painfully against my windpipe.

I can’t say anything, so I wave her scarf in surrender.

The pressure on my neck eases. She takes the scarf. “I’m sorry,” she says, kneeling next to me. Up close, she resembles Bao more than I expected. Although Sulee’s eyes are a lighter shade of brown, they have that same depth and complexity of color.

I rub my neck. “It fell out of your bag.”

Sulee studies the ground. “These are dangerous times. You shouldn’t grab people.” After a moment of awkward silence, she says, “Can I repay you with a chai?”

***

By the time we wend our way through the market, Sulee is late for work. She offers to buy me a chai anyway.

“Maybe tomorrow?”

She smiles demurely. “Tomorrow then, Mister …”

“Eshram.”

She turns into the crowd and before she is swept away, I pray she will look back. She doesn’t, and I feel like I have been robbed.

The chai wallah grins at me and motions hopefully to his pot of steaming tea. I wave him off and head back toward Trenchtown.

I remind myself that she isn’t Bao, but that doesn’t fill the hole.

I turn onto the road down the hillside. Even at this hour bicycles weave through throngs of sari-clad women armed with bamboo switches to fend off the gangs of sticky-fingered children. The night air is thick, and I labor to force it into my lungs. It is like breathing water.

Near the toe of the hill, I get an odd sensation that I am being watched. In the shadows ahead, a dark silhouette sits on the side of the road. As I approach, it unfolds spindly legs, like those of a spider, and pushes its torso up effortlessly to an incredible height. The man is easily over two meters tall.

Mr. Oduya. It can be no one else.

We have history. He works for Interpol, hunting people like me.

He draws up on my right and matches my pace. His skin is as dark as the night, so his white cotton shirt seems to float in the blackness. For a full minute the Kenyan says nothing to me.

Finally, as we near the archway that marks the edge of Trenchtown, he says, “I hear you’ve come out of retirement.”

“That’s none of your business.”

“It is if it’s true.”

“Are you bored with Bautista already?”

Mr. Oduya’s grin floats like the Cheshire cat’s.

I wonder how long he has been shadowing me in Kuala Lumpur. I would think by now that he would have given up and gone after someone else, like the new girl, Cavendish. I suspect he doesn’t know about her yet.

“I like you, Eshram,” he says. “You have scruples, unlike the others, which is why I find it odd you’d work for Naajy Padwal.” I feel his eyes on me, watching for a reaction that will give something away.

As we reach the archway, Mr. Oduya stops me with a hand on my elbow. “Padwal is not a man to mess with. If you were to help us ….”

I pull my arm away and leave him, riding the flow of people into Trenchtown.

***

I fill Shayana’s hand with coins totaling just over a ringgit. She leaves with a wide grin, and I latch the door bar behind her. I check on Kimbelle. Her room is filled with acrid smoke from a smoldering mosquito coil. She sprawls across her bed in a position only a five-year old could find comfortable—arms akimbo and body twisted awkwardly at the waist.

Only after seeing her do I relax.

Other than the bed and a few toys purchased a year ago, the room is empty. With the upfront from Mr. Padwal, we could afford to move to the top of the hill, but we will need every rupee if we’re going to buy passage off-world. So the scattering of toddler toys will need to amuse her a little longer.

When I kiss her sweat-damp forehead, her eyes flutter, but never quite open. “Mommy?”

“No,” I say gently, unable to say more. I stroke her hair until she fades back into sleep. Reluctantly I close her door behind me.

The apartment is sweltering. Before I lay down, I sponge my face and chest with a damp rag. The water is precious—hand carried in a twenty liter bottle from a public fountain—but the heat is oppressive.

Outside a gunshot cracks the night. I don’t even flinch at the sound.

I lay on the futon, crushed by the weight of the darkness. When I close my eyes I see Bao’s face, not as it was when she eventually died, but as it was when we shared a future. My chest aches. I don’t know who took her future. I paid the ransom, nearly all of the money I had, but all I got back were broken pieces of glass and a shattered future of my own.

It hurts to admit, but that’s not what troubles me most. To steal her future, someone had to get close to Bao, and it eats at me to think that someone could get that close without me knowing it. If they could get Bao, they can get Kimbelle. The only way to protect her is to get as far away as possible from people like me.

***

I meet Sulee the next night. Instead of wearing her hair pulled back into a bun, she wears it down, softly framing her brown eyes. I can barely take my eyes off her. Twenty minutes later she rises. Her dress clings to her body. She has barely touched her chai because our conversation seldom broke long enough.

“Can we do this again?” My spirits drop when she frowns. She is going to say no.

“I have a son,” she says, haltingly. “If you’re not okay with that, I understand.”

I pause for a minute, pretending to contemplate her revelation. “That doesn’t scare me.”

The tension drains from her body. As it does, my spirits rise.

She shoulders her bag. “Tomorrow.”

As I watch her leave, I notice Mr. Oduya’s head poking above the crowd. He leans against the post of a fruit stall sucking at a mango pit. He nods at me.

I see Sulee regularly after that. We meet almost nightly in the market. At first for only twenty-minutes, but as we increasingly find the time too short, she comes earlier and earlier. Tea becomes dinners of nasi goreng or spiced beef.

I tell her my fabricated history. Like any good lie, I have assembled it from bits of truth, to make it seamless and easy to remember. I find it difficult to lie to her. Gradually she reciprocates with stories about her childhood, her dead husband, and most importantly her son.

Every night after I kiss Kimbelle’s forehead, I meticulously transcribe our conversations into a paper notebook. The act of writing reinforces even the smallest details.

Some nights I see Mr. Oduya’s head rising above the market crowd. I try to ignore him, but my eyes are drawn to him, and I am afraid Sulee will notice. I don’t want uncomfortable questions. Even when I don’t see him, I sense him nearby, like an unspoken threat.

Any day now, I fear she will invite me in to meet her son. I become irritable and contemplate ending it. How can I take her child from her? I wonder, but then I look at Kimbelle, thin and fragile, lost in the slums of Trenchtown, and I think, how can I not?

***

The next time I see her, Sulee suggests I come to her apartment the following night. I can barely accept the invitation around the lump in my throat. Before she leaves, she whispers in my ear, “I hope you will stay.” She pecks me on the cheek and disappears into the crowd before I can answer.

I wander in a daze to the end of the market and sit on a low, stone wall trying to breathe. Mr. Oduya comes up to me, his hands thrust into his pockets. “Do you think this is his dance of destruction or reincarnation?” he asks, his gaze over the top of my head.

Behind me is a statue of Shiva, his four arms waving gracefully and his right foot raised in dance.

“Aren’t they the same?”

Mr. Oduya shrugs. “I am not Hindu.”

In no mood for his games, I walk away, but with his long strides, he catches me easily. “You have gotten close with this Sulee woman, yet you do not take her future. I am confused.”

“I’m not going to take her future.”

“I’ve already figured that out. What would Naajy Padwal want with her? She is … unremarkable.”

The word stings me. Sulee is no less special than Bao, and someone took her future. “Do you have something to say?”

“If it is not Sulee,” he says, as if musing to himself, “then it must be someone close to her.” A confused look slides across Mr. Oduya’s face. After a second of contemplation, his eyes widen. “The boy?”

My stride breaks. I try to recover quickly, but Mr. Oduya notices.

“You’re after the boy. But you don’t steal from children, unless you’ve changed.”

My face flushes. I walk on, refusing to look at Mr. Oduya. People change.

He follows a step behind. “Help me catch him,” he says.

“Why should I do that?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do.”

I walk faster, but Mr. Oduya comes up along my side. I refuse to acknowledge his presence.

“Padwal does not have a reputation for collecting young futures,” he says. “They are risky, too much possibility for them to lose their luster.”

He falls quiet and waits to see if I will let something slip. I wish he would go to hell.

“Padwal has the reputation for working the long game. He is very patient.”

Mr. Oduya’s comment causes me to pause. What is this new game he’s playing? I learn nothing from the Kenyan’s blank expression.

“Piss off.” I storm on, tired of being talked at.

Mr. Oduya doesn’t follow, but he yells at me as I walk away, “Do what is right, Eshram. Think about your daughter.”

I bite back a retort. He plays me again, trying to goad me into saying something stupid.

As I walk down into Trenchtown, I can’t shake the surprise on Mr. Oduya’s face when he figured out Sulee’s son was the target. I had never stopped to question Mr. Padwal’s motivation, but Mr. Oduya is right. As a collector’s item, a child’s future is a boom or bust proposition. Initially it may look special, but any number of things could cause it to lose its luster as it matures. No collector would pay big money for a child’s future unless he was certain.

Something isn’t right, but I haven’t time to sort it out. I know someone who can, but his services aren’t cheap. With a curse I turn away from Trenchtown. I have no choice but to visit Hiruku.

***

I pay a hefty fee for a secure connection at a reputable VR conferencing facility in Petaling Jaya, a bustling business district north of Subang Jaya. When I transfer another one million yen to gain access to Hiruku’s location, I try not to do the math in my head. The implications are too painful.

With the attendant’s help, I don the VR neural net and lay down in the coffin-like module. She closes the lid and the equipment hums as it powers up. I close my eyes …

… and open them to birdsong and the clean smell of pine trees. Crouched in the mist ahead is a squat Japanese cottage with a clay-tile roof pulled like taffy into long overhanging eaves.

Inside Hiruku sits cross-legged on a cushion, eyes closed in meditation. He wears a black haori and the pleated hakamas of a fifteenth century samurai.

Without a word I sit on a cushion opposite him.

Eventually he opens his eyes.

Hiruku is a Yogen-sha, a seer capable of foretelling the quality of a person’s future. While he smiles at me from across the table, I don’t think he’s human. I think he may be an artificial intelligence that examines probabilities to extrapolate a likely future from a person’s past actions. However he does it, whatever he is, I’ve never found him to be wrong.

I hand him the finger cache. “I needed to know about the boy.”

“A child? Children are difficult and uncertain, usually not worth the fee.” Hiruku’s lips press into a thin line. After a moment, he exhales loudly and takes the finger cache. “This is not your child,” he says. “What is your interest?”

Even if I wanted to tell him, I’m not sure my mouth would form the words. “I paid for no questions asked.”

Hiruku sets the finger cache back on the table, and I return it to my pocket. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have a reading more worthy of your fee? Yours perhaps?”

I don’t want to know my future, because the only one I wanted is gone.

“A shame. I see special things.”

“I bet you say that to everyone.”

Hiruku shrugs non-committally. “All gold does not glitter. The boy, however, he is like any other. Special? Not at this time.”

I want to ask if he is sure, but I know it is a useless question. I can only assume Mr. Padwal has access to someone as good as Hiruku. “Could someone less skilled see anything different?”

“Only if he were incompetent.”

***

I have been lazy. Unlike my usual approach to work, this time I gathered none of the information on Sulee myself. It gave me a sense of distance, as if by doing so, the taint of it all would somehow be less. As I review the dossier again, I see how superficial it is. It points me toward an obvious plan of action. Exactly the one I took.

I stop at a pay terminal and access the datasphere. I begin with a search on Sulee’s name. Nothing. A search of the birth records in her hometown also comes up empty. I curse my stupidity. I can’t trust anything that Mr. Padwal has given me because Sulee is a carefully crafted invention.

Creating an alternate identity is difficult, especially one that must withstand the scrutiny of a close relationship. I know from experience—it’s the stock of my trade. Questions always arise that need details, and the easiest way to create details at a moment’s notice is to draw from something known. The best lies are built on the truth. Somewhere out there is a real person from which Sulee has been constructed. I need to find her.

I recall the many details of our conversations and pluck out the ones that could not be easily scripted ahead of time: the name of her college roommate, names of friends, her first job, places visited on vacation, and dozens of others. From this information I assemble my own profile of Sulee.

I then begin to search for this person. I haven’t done this type of research in over a year, but after a few failed attempts, I hit my stride. I delve into university records, search employment databases, visit genealogy websites, newsfeed archives, and advertising databases. After several hours, I find Sulee, except her name is not so exotic: Jennifer Costa, mother of three and owner of a NGO that specializes in building homes for the impoverished in the southeastern United States. She has all the pieces that come together to make Sulee’s life.

On an Atlanta newsfeed, I find a picture of Jennifer wielding over-sized scissors at a ribbon cutting for a new low-income housing project. She’s not Sulee—I never expected her to be—but she has the same eyes.

I dig for information on Ms. Costa. Her maiden name—Cavendish—puts a cold lump in my belly. “Can’t be,” I say, but my fingers shake as I run the lead to ground. A few minutes later, I have it.

I locate a picture of Jennifer with her mother, Jaiying, and her sister, Jessica. Her hair is different, but from her eyes I have no doubt that Jessica and Sulee are the same person.

“Shit.” Jessica Cavendish, the new girl who backfilled the void created by my retirement.

The boy isn’t Mr. Padwal’s target.

I am.

***

I stand outside Sulee’s apartment trying to decide if I should leave. I want to believe it could be that easy, but I know it isn’t. Mr. Padwal plays the long game, and I suspect I have been in his sights for at least a year. I know people are often poor judges of their own future—maybe my future holds more than I can see—but I can’t imagine why he would want to add it to his collection. Yet he does, and he won’t give up.

I take a deep breath; I’m surprised at the way my nerves vibrate.

When Sulee opens the door her smile looks genuine. I wonder if any of what we have shared was real. She is a professional, so I suspect everything has been an act—just as it has been for me, right?

Her expression changes quickly when I remove the blown-glass sphere from my pocket. Caught unaware, she turns to flee back into the apartment, but stumbles and falls. I sense her future coiled around her like the coarse fibers of a hemp rope, anchored to her in the here-and-now, but extending off into the what-could-be.

As I reach toward her, she looks up at me. In her eyes—brown and deep and so much like Bao’s—I see fear, white-rimmed and stark.

I wonder if Bao knew what was happening as her thief unspooled her future, and if she, like Sulee does now, looked up at her attacker and whispered, “Please ….”

My fingers hesitate. I know that I am taking more than Sulee’s future. I am taking the future of anyone who loves her. My hands grow weak. The strands scrape across the pads of my fingers, slipping away, fiber by fiber. I can’t do it. Yet I know I must, for Kimbelle.

Sulee can do nothing except watch as I wrap my fingers around the threads of her existence and yank violently, snapping them free. I slide to the side to avoid getting entangled in the loose ends that swirl around me, but as they brush close, the hairs on my arm stand up. Carefully I begin to feed the hours and days and years of her future into the glass ball. With each sweep of my hand, my throat constricts, and by the time I tuck the last threads into the sphere, I can barely breathe.

Sulee’s head lulls back against the floor. Her eyes, now shrouded and dull, stare out into nothing.

***

Mr. Padwal tries hard to hide his surprise when I place the glass ball on the counter. It starts to roll toward the edge. For a moment I think it’s going to drop, but then he stops it a hand’s-breadth from falling.

He forces a smile that is unpleasant to look at. He peers into the sphere’s smoky interior. It is gray and thick, almost oily. Nothing about it is remarkable. Certainly he already knows that. As he lowers the sphere, he looks nauseated. “The rest of the payment—”

“No need. I did it for Bao.”

In that split second, his expression confirms my suspicions. He removed Bao, because with her around, he would never have gotten anyone close enough to me to take my future. In the process, he cleverly took everything I had, leaving me desperate and rudderless. Taking my future should have been easy.

Surprisingly, I don’t feel anger. I feel an oppressive weight lift away.

“I—” Mr. Padwal’s face hardens. He has decided not to lie to me because he believes I cannot take his future.

“You are special, Mr. Kingston,” he says. “Resilient. A man that will overcome anything for those he loves. For one like you, the world is open. I should have known you wouldn’t end wallowing in Trenchtown shit.” His teeth bare in a predatory grin. Although he does not say it, he doesn’t consider this over.

But it is.

I step through the privacy screen, into the din and bustle of the market. A few strides into the crowd and I turn to watch as Mr. Oduya’s men descend on the chai wallah’s cart so quickly the Sikh guards don’t react. Mr. Padwal does not have the wherewithal to dispose of the sphere. The agents force him onto his belly.

Mr. Oduya falls in at my side, and I wonder if he is going to arrest me, regardless of our deal. He may be on the wrong side of the law, but he is still honorable.

I begin to walk toward Trenchtown and Kimbelle. I need to hold her.

“The boy is safe,” Mr. Oduya says. “We’re looking for his family.”

The news is welcome, but I say nothing.

Mr. Oduya keeps pace at my side. “Tell me something, Eshram,” he says. “Would you have taken the boy’s future?”

His question is one I don’t want to answer, but I must. If I don’t, it will devour me.

“That’s not a future I could live with,” I say. As I speak the words, I can taste bile in the back of my throat. Have I just traded Kimbelle for someone else’s child?

Mr. Oduya nods, as if satisfied with my answer. “Did you know there is a reward for information leading to the conviction of Naajy Padwal? If the charges stick, I’ll see you get it.”

I stop walking and Mr. Oduya’s momentum carries him several steps farther. “Why would you do that?” I ask.

He shrugs. “I like you, Eshram; didn’t you know that? You have scruples. The reward is enough to retire anywhere.” He arches a knowing eyebrow.

“Who says I ever came out of retirement?” I leave Mr. Oduya standing with his hands in his pockets. His smile tickles my spine.

The Subang Jaya market fades into the night as I careen down through the crowd into Trenchtown. I don’t stop to pay Shayana, but go straight into Kimbelle’s room and scoop her into my arms.

A rectangle of light streaming through the open door illuminates her innocent face. My racing heart slows to match her gentle breathing.

Mr. Padwal was right. My future is remarkable and it lies before me. We will not end down in the wallows of Trenchtown; our journey upward is just beginning.

Kimbelle stirs. Her eyes flutter open. “Daddy?”

I kiss her forehead. “I’m here,” I whisper. “I will always be here.”

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D. Thomas Minton

D-Thomas-MintonD. Thomas Minton tells people he lives with his wife and daughter in a grass hut on the beach of a tropical Pacific Island, but only some of that is true. When not writing, he gets paid to “play” in the ocean, travel to remote places, and help people conserve coral reefs. His fiction has been published in Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and Daily Science Fiction. His idle ramblings hold court at dthomasminton.com.