The cardboard sign read, “HOPELESS, ME AND MY SISTER NEED MONEY FOR SHUTTLE BACK TO VENUS.” The word “hopeless” should have been “homeless” but because Vida couldn’t write in Hangul, she dictated the words to Menino instead. She blamed the mix-up on her outdated translator, which began acting up ever since she arrived in Seoul.
“People will get it,” Menino argued as the escalator descended to the first level of Chungmuro Metro Station. “You’re desperate and embarrassed, and you’d rather be dead than ask anyone for help.” He walked over to a nondescript corner, took his seat on the immaculate tiles, and held up their sign. “The bigger problem is that no one will believe a Korean boy and black girl are related.”
“‘Black’ isn’t a country,” Vida said.
“It is for us,” Menino answered. “Look around you. You’re alone.”
She didn’t have to. Blacks mostly appeared in Hollywood films dramatizing why many of the brown people had left Earth. Their histories were scripted as tales of intrepid, star-crossed minorities pioneering the empyrean sea. There was no mention of the ballooning economic disparity, and strongmen’s desires for an Aryan state of nature, that caused World War Three. Characters failed to remember how the United Nations, interested in conserving Earth’s resources, offered mega-corporations and billionaires subsidies for taking asylees off-world to be used as cheap labor. No one discussed the revolution of Brazil’s negro class, and how attempts to replace them through automation would free up real estate for developers seeking to house wealthier, whiter asylees. The fact Vida was in Seoul at all granted her instant and irrevocable fame, which was great for attracting audiences, but terrible for hiding.
“Please hurry up,” Menino said. He leaned in closer to their sign until his face was hidden. “You know I live up the hill. My parents could walk by anytime.”
“Don’t start,” Vida warned. She pointed at the cinema across the station, which audiences began to leave as they headed for the subway platforms below. “The last matinée just ended, and I need that crowd. Shut up and sit there if you don’t want to be dead weight.”
Vida walked away and went for a clearing. She began playing music from her wrist terminal. Her hips swayed rhythmically as she mimicked the dance of Romani descendants on Venus. Crowds formed around her with little effort; as Vida predicted, the sight of a Venutian following the premiere of another diaspora film was a good move. Despite the June heat, she veiled her face in a silk scarf, which added to her allure.
With a sizeable crowd in place, Vida sought the wealthiest-looking person to engage. Standing out almost as much as she did was a pink-faced, khaki-wearing, profusely sweating, balding white tourist beside his wife. He wore a gold mechanical wristwatch with diamonds in the bezel—a relic so rare one only saw them in museums or junk bazaars. Vida approached and removed his sunglasses. His beady eyes were drawn to her exposed midriff and long legs like radiation to a blackbody.
She sealed the deal by leaning forward until their noses touched, which left him slack-jawed; his spouse was less than pleased. Vida quickly took a step back—for dramatic flair, of course—and then raised her arms and snapped her fingers. The jewel around her neck lit up, and the man’s outfit transformed before his eyes. His pedestrian clothes were swapped for a flourishing pink dress. Its low neckline exposed his shoulders and revealed unsightly blonde chest hair. A corset dug into his rotund abdomen, while a crinoline cage rounded him out in the rear.
Clearly displeased with his new Victorian fashions, the man blushed in silence. His wife was the first to laugh, and the audience followed in suit while recording every moment on their terminals.
“Tip, please?” Vida said innocently.
The tourist grumbled something her translator couldn’t process. His wife slapped him upside the head and forced him to transfer credits over to her terminal. The chime of a successful payment made Vida’s heart flutter. She restored the man’s clothes with the snap of her fingers.
The show now over, the crowd fled downstairs at the announcement of an incoming train. Vida waved them off, removed her scarf, and wiped the sweat from her neck. She walked to Menino, whom she had earlier spotted chuckling along with everyone else. Compared to his usual stewing in unwarranted jealousy, mirth was a good look on him. She’d told him that foreplay with audiences was just part of the business, but the point never seemed to stick.
“I think we’ve made enough to finish the repairs,” Vida said. She exposed her sharp-toothed grin, which used to make Menino flinch. What could she say except that dental mods were cheap back on Utopia Planitia?
“Can we get some burgers?” Menino asked.
“Are you hungry again? If you want a free lunch, go back to school.”
“I made the sign!” Menino said as he stood up in protest.
“And you fucked that up,” Vida said. “You can dance next time if you want burgers.”
As Menino went on about his insatiable hunger, Vida’s attention wandered. There was chatter across the station. Moviegoers and commuters backed away from the escalator she and Menino had just come from, making way for a shadowy figure descending. For an instant, Vida mistook it for a dog. But its long whiskers came into view followed by its coiling tail and spindly fingers.
It was a rat. A giant fucking rat.
“Menino,” Vida said to the droning boy. “Shut up.”
He turned to see the creature.
“Oh,” he said, “I forgot you’re scared of dogs.”
The rat’s nostrils flared and sucked in the stench of summertime humans, sifting for a unique chemical signature. It turned to Vida. With a blink, its vapid black eyes changed to bright blood red, and it let loose an ear-shattering snarl.
“That’s not a dog!” Vida yelled. She yanked the boy by the collar and sprinted for the subway tunnels below. She felt the biomorphic beast racing after them in vicious pursuit. Its scraggy body would grow into a sleek obsidian monstrosity, limbs rippling and exploding and reforming in sinewy masses.
It didn’t take long for Menino to outpace Vida. As they came upon the turnstiles she watched Menino pay the toll, and then he politely moved tourists and elderly Koreans out the way while running through the underground convenience marts. Vida, less concerned with being a good citizen, barely hopped over the turnstiles and shoved as many people as possible to the ground.
Looking back, Vida saw the rat—now three meters tall—uproot the turnstiles and toss them aside. While Menino zipped downstairs to the platform, Vida grit her teeth and cursed her rapid fatigue. Without thinking—or perhaps thinking she was still in outer space—she tried leaping downstairs in a single bound. She twisted her ankle as she landed and dropped to the floor.
Menino turned back.
“You okay?” he asked. “Be careful, you’re still not acclimatized.”
Vida brushed him off and hobbled away as fast as possible. Never far behind, the rat possessed even less grace as it tumbled down the stairs, knocking clueless commuters away until it crashed through a concrete wall.
It was around 4:30 in the afternoon. The subway platform was saturated with people waiting for the 3-Train. The sight of that rodent sent everyone into frenzy, and Vida and Menino braced themselves for the rush of bony elbows and bulky backpacks. For passengers on the arriving train, the chaos at Chungmuro gave them no reason to exit.
This was really fucking bad.
“Get on the train!” Vida shouted to Menino as she fought against the tide.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Saving your ass!” Vida watched the rat recover from its impact. It kicked up dust and debris as it plowed through bystanders and ran straight for her. Vida knew she’d never make it on her throbbing ankle, so she squared-up as best she could. She planted her feet, bent her knees; this summoning would require all her focus. She endured the tide of rushing humans until finally seeing an opening.
Vida began, circling and swaying her arms like her father had every time he used the necklace. It was a power barely understood, and hardly under her control. Time trapped her within a bubble as the rest of the station froze. The temperature dropped. The air grew charged and heavy. The surrounding space began to warp, and photons twisted like paint in water, tearing apart with a thunderous noise. From this tear emerged a rusted two-meter steel cube. It hovered centimeters from the ground on one of its vertices. It was delicate and phantasmagoric.
Vida frowned at the sight of this.
“Really?” she sighed. “Tony Smith? Right now?”
The die tipped over a bit as if to frown back.
“Whatever,” Vida said, “just make it work. I’m tired and my foot’s killing me.”
The sculpture straightened up. It slowly rotated on its vertex and picked up speed with every spin. Vida could never predict what the esoteric sculptures would do. The safest bet was to get out the damn way.
“What the heck is that?” Menino asked.
Vida spun around and noticed him cowering behind her. He stared ahead at the neon nebulae within the closing tear.
“I told you to get on the fucking train!” she yelled.
But it was too late to scold him. Their time in warp space was up, and the shouting and rampage on the platform returned. The revolving cube launched ahead with impossible speed and smashed the rodent pursuer into the wall. Its body was shredded and strewn about by spinning steel edges. Vida grabbed Menino, shoved through the crowds, and squeezed into the departing train.
They were welcomed with groans from sympathetic but already squished passengers. Vida took a seat on the floor and leaned on the exit doors. Her breathing grew labored. The pain in her ankle was subsumed by numbness in her hands and face. Menino stood above her and tried striking up a conversation, but she couldn’t hear him because her translator flooded with a hundred conversations taking place at once. Its quantum computing couldn’t express their fright or convey all the nuances of their relieved sighs and reassurances to one another. She envied these people and their familiarity.
Menino crouched down to Vida.
“I told you not to exert yourself,” he said.
As she was too tired to speak, Vida offered him her middle finger. No need for translation.
• • • •
After disembarking for Menino’s burgers and then visiting Vida’s favorite patbingsu shop, they walked to the Black Light District of Itaewon. The BLD felt like a foreigner’s impression of Seoul, a blend of hyperkinetic Myeongdong and bohemian Gangnam. Gaming cafes ran beside idol-themed strip clubs in a fantasy fit for incels. Menino sometimes would hit up the arcades for Street Fighter, and Vida would cheer him on after a couple beers to distract the other players. But overall, she hated the place because she wasn’t a nerd.
The BLD was also the only place that would service her ship.
Menino spotted Ji-Hoon inside his open garage at the other end of a street too narrow for car traffic. The man was watching his favorite interactive program, Days of Your Lives, on an obsolete LCD television. He should have been fixing Vida’s starfighter, the Abelha Rainha. Only half the scorch marks on the left wing had been welded over and painted, which left no doubt in Vida’s mind that he hadn’t begun the engine repairs.
Ji-Hoon looked behind him as the pair came within earshot. He raised his hand, which held a silver Sapporo beer can, as if to say “hello.”
“I got one more if you want,” he said. He reached into his mini fridge and tossed Vida a can before she could answer.
“This better be free,” Vida said. She cracked it open and took a swig. It tasted like shit, so she gave the can to Menino. He took a sip and pinched his nose so he wouldn’t gag.
“You ever gonna upgrade to a wallscreen?” Vida continued. “I thought the idea was to have actors talking to you.”
“Maybe when you finish paying me,” Ji-Hoon said, “I could afford one. But for now, I have to enjoy my program without the 4D sensorium. Instead of the actors talking to me, I watch them talk into empty rooms with green screens.”
“I’m so sorry,” Vida said flatly.
“Your starfighter’s almost done,” Ji-Hoon said. He stood up from his lawn chair, placed a hand on his stomach, and let loose a belch. “I know you don’t give a shit about the excellently produced, well-scripted modern masterpiece that is Days of Your Lives.”
“Wow, you’re perceptive.” Vida swiped through several windows on her terminal. “We’ve got your cash. Went through hell to get it.”
“Yeah,” Menino chimed. “We fought a giant rat.”
Ji-Hoon looked to Vida. He was clearly puzzled.
“She doesn’t want to talk about it,” Menino answered for her.
A smirk cracked Ji-Hoon’s face. “Badass-space-pirate Vida is scared of rats?”
“And dogs,” Menino added.
Vida finished transferring her funds. She crossed her arms and glared at Ji-Hoon. “Is that enough money for you?” she asked. “I’d like to get off-world by tomorrow.”
Ji-Hoon checked his account. He whistled in astonishment.
“That’s it?” he said. He finished his beer and tossed the can to the trash can across the room. It missed and landed on the ground. “You can forget about me finishing that paint job, or even the hull repairs. This won’t even buy that wallscreen I’ve been after. You know, the one with ambient soundproofing?”
“I swear to Virgin Mary,” Vida said as she rolled her eyes. “You said you were almost done. What about the engine? Can I at least fly?”
“I need more money for the power couplings,” he said. “Get me that by tomorrow and I’ll order them, I promise. If you’re that desperate to go off-world, I know guys that’ll smuggle you out.”
“You’ll get your money,” she answered in her most polite voice. Slavers were the only “guys” that transported penniless women, a fact Vida was sure this hack-job mechanic was ignorant of.
“Just chill out,” Ji-Hoon told her. “It’s not like I can find parts for a Stinger down the street. That rat’s not gonna get you—”
“Can you ship those parts overnight?” she interrupted.
“Yes,” Menino said, “Ji-Hoon can do one-day shipping. He would love to do that. He does it all the time.” Menino could see the veins Vida’s neck throbbing. Her fists were balled up. He, too, had once told Vida to “chill” and quickly came to regret it.
Ji-Hoon took the hint. “I mean, I’ll see what I can do. But I can’t promise anything.”
Even though harming this man would bring her great pleasure, Vida did not punch him in the face. She thanked him for his work and motioned to leave. Shopkeepers were emerging from their daytime slumber while gamers patiently waited in line for first dibs at the machines. Vida needed to leave before Menino suggested they stay.
“You never told me how you got this ship,” Ji-Hoon called out to her. “Did you fly for the Emperor?”
“Not me,” she said. “My father did.”
Vida walked out into the alley. Menino lagged behind.
“Are you coming?” he asked Ji-Hoon. “If you promise to stop being rude, Vida won’t mind.”
“No way,” Ji-Hoon said.
“Are you ever going to leave this room?”
“Are you a recluse now?”
“Probably.” Ji-Hoon had gone back to watching his show. Menino threw his empty beer can at Ji-Hoon’s head but received no response.
Menino caught up to Vida as she descended the cement stairs just outside the garage. The stairs led to a winding path that separated Itaewon from the Han River. The pair walked in silence for a bit. Vida watched the river-people rafting in and out of their mostly submerged buildings and over the scintillating sunset waters. Like most of the diaspora children, she’d always wanted to visit Earth even though the brown people put all that effort into escaping. A little air pollution and global warming wasn’t going to stop anyone.
“Ji-Hoon can be rude sometimes,” Menino said. “But you two antagonize each other, you know.”
Vida sighed. “Stop talking, Menino.”
“Sorry,” he said. “So, this woman is looking for you? Cachorro Louco? And we just killed her pet rat? Is it really a rat?”
Vida sat down. She removed her red Converse and placed them at her side as she dipped her feet into the water. It had been a long day. She didn’t care that the road was too narrow to sit on, which forced the horny BLD clientele to squeeze by single-file.
“She should have found me much sooner,” Vida said. “She probably went through official channels for clearance.”
Menino sat beside her. “Are we going to fight her?” he asked. “You killed that rat pretty easily.”
“It’s not dead,” she corrected. “And fighting Cachorro Louco is stupid. We just need to get out of here. I need more money.”
“Yeah. I forgot that cardboard sign back at Chungmuro.”
Menino was still dead weight. One solution had come to Vida a while ago, but she’d settled into this hustling routine with him and didn’t have the time to explore it. She’d refused to consider the idea unless things became desperate; a near-death experience by a large rodent seemed an appropriate occasion.
“Maybe we can try something,” she said. For the first time in years she removed her necklace.
“Is that really oridium?” Menino asked with wide eyes. He marveled at the necklace, its hypnotic core swirling with all the colors in the universe. “Isn’t possession . . . a capital crime?”
“Yeah, if they ever catch you.” Vida slipped the necklace over his head. She wondered if she were cosigning Menino to a fate he wasn’t ready for. “You might need to use this if some serious shit goes down.”
Menino offered a puzzled look.
“I don’t know if my translator wants me to interpret your words literally, or metaphorically,” he said.
“Emotionally,” Vida said with a smile. “This necklace emits Hawking radiation. When I summon matter, I’m not creating it. It’s being pulled from someplace else. And I don’t entirely have control over what it summons.” Which objects emerged from the necklace seemed subconsciously chosen, although Vida’s father always pulled out practical things. Maybe the stone had favored him.
“Yeah, I remember,” Menino said. “Why is it so warm?”
“That’s the radiation cooking you alive.”
“Okay . . .” Menino stared at her. “How do I use it?”
Vida held her breath and then crossed her arms. She hadn’t planned this out at all. “It’s situational? ‘Reactive’ is a better word.”
“So I need to be in danger?”
“No, no, no,” Vida said. “Um. Close your eyes. Imagine I’m kicking your ass at Galaga.”
Menino cringed. “How old are you?”
Vida punched him in the arm.
“Fine, Street Fighter,” she corrected. “Whatever.” She grabbed Menino by the shoulders. “I’ve beat your ass ten times tonight. I won’t stop auto-blocking, and I love to spam.”
“You can’t auto-block anymore,” Menino said. “They took that out last game.”
Seeing the shift of colors in the gem, Vida kept at it.
“Cool,” Vida said. “There’s no auto-blocking. I’m just really good at blocking. You hit me with a light punch, medium punch, heavy kick. Then you tilt the joystick and shoot a kamehameha!”
Menino opened his eyes.
“You mean a hadouken?”
Vida stared at him.
“Dude, that’s not important. How does it make you feel?”
“I feel like you had a boring childhood,” he said. “Especially if you were playing Galaga.” Menino clutched his stomach as it groaned loud enough for even Vida to hear. “Can we go eat?”
“My childhood was just fine,” she said. “More fun than anything you did here.”
Just her luck. Of course Menino couldn’t use the necklace and even if he could, it would take too long to teach him. Vida considered stealing a ship, but Incheon Spaceport had too much security. She was out of time.
Vida grabbed her shoes and walked down the road barefoot.
“Where are we going?” Menino asked.
“I gotta get a drink,” Vida said, “or five, or ten. Hopefully, I’ll drink myself to death.”
“Great, let’s get some wings.”
Moments later, they heard thunder in the distance. The slight breeze that was relieving the scorching heat stopped. The waves lapping against the road froze in place. Clouds ceased their slow crawl in the sky.
“Is it supposed to rain?” Vida asked.
“No?” Menino said. They spun around to see a time rift twenty meters or so behind the boy. A hideous buzzing sound preceded the appearance of a giant wasp bursting forth. It soared on oversized, blue wings and fired lasers from its mouth. And it flew straight for them.
“Jesus Christ!” Vida tackled Menino into the river. The water nearly boiled them alive as lasers broke the surface. They remained submerged while the wasp circled overhead. Vida squeezed Menino tightly to avoid sinking, until the wasp went off into the distance.
Menino shot back up with a broad smile on his face and climbed back ashore.
“Did I do that?” he asked.
Vida couldn’t answer. She was too busy keeping afloat and gasping for air. The boy extended a hand and helped her back to land. They sat there for a minute while she recovered.
Menino couldn’t take his eyes off the gem. He cupped it in his hands like a closely guarded secret. “That was a Galaga ship,” he said aloud.
Vida nodded but couldn’t hear him. There was still water in her ears.
• • • •
Cachorro Louco made her way down the platform stairs. The steps were partially collapsed, and a handful of civilians sat upon them while being treated for minor injuries. At the landing she could see what was left of Algernon, though it took her a minute to comprehend what had happened. Chunks of its black flesh were thrown about the subway and splattered against the walls, while the rest of the oridium creature was pinned by a large steel cube.
Vida, it seemed, had become quite the summoner.
A couple of paramedics struggled to free a woman pinned under rubble. They noticed the bounty hunter and asked for assistance. Cachorro Louco possessed broad shoulders restructured to accommodate even more imposing cybernetic arms. Lifting concrete debris would be no trouble at all. She stooped down to the woman in distress.
“Did a foreigner do this?” the bounty hunter asked. “A thin woman with curly hair and black skin?”
The woman nodded in affirmation.
“Thank you very much,” Cachorro Louco said. Her terminal identified which debris was safe to lift and she tossed slabs of concrete aside like pebbles. It was a rare interlude; unless the natives got in her way, or were of use to her, noninterference was always preferred. There were too many countries, colonies, and customs to hold kindness in any regard.
She noticed pieces of Algernon rolling across the floor in dark blobs. They crawled over people and debris and gathered by the cube, which the blobs had dislodged to unpin the rest of the carcass. The masses congealed and morphed until it resembled the formerly dog-sized rodent. It wagged its tail as if nothing was wrong at all.
“It’s not like you to get killed,” Cachorro Louco said to the rat. “Now you know not to rush in by yourself.” She went to her terminal and began memory synchronization: the Hawking trail to Chungmuro, displayed as a loose cloud of floating lights, burned bright upon seeing Vida. She had a teenager in tow who was likely ensnared by false promises of adventure.
Cachorro Louco hadn’t seen the girl, now a nineteen-year-old woman, in at least two years. In that time, rumor spread of Vida’s viciousness; she was inspiring upstart teens all over the system—kids from the bottom of the scrap heap who were forced to grow up in an age of accelerated expansion. Spotting Vida’s obnoxiously yellow vessel while docked at Noctis Base had been fortuitous.
And now she had a weak spot.
“Ma’am,” someone behind her said. “This is an active crime scene and you’re tampering with evidence.”
Cachorro Louco ended the playback and turned around to see several officers had arrived onsite. The one who addressed her was a small man with a small voice and a small presence. His rank was sergeant.
“Were you and this . . . rat involved in this attack?” he asked. His knees shook ever so slightly. One hand rested on his TASER, which wouldn’t be effective against her no matter how much voltage it contained.
“I’m here on behalf of the Venutian Empire,” Cachorro Louco said. “I have full immunity.”
“That may be,” the sergeant said, “but you don’t have jurisdiction here. Do you have identification?”
“The girl is mine,” she said. With a tap of her wrist console, she transmitted the footage to the officer. “I can’t promise to bring the boy in alive.”
Cachorro Louco watched the tiny man size her up. She was tall enough to cast him completely in shadow. Her neck and chest were covered in white Special Forces tattoos that contrasted her obsidian flesh. Titanium arms bulged with fiber optics and copper muscles. Venus wasn’t the only world to engineer military cyborgs, but few nations could match the ferocity of their warriors.
“I’m really not worth arresting,” Cachorro Louco said as she sensed everyone’s apprehension. She pointed to her shoulder-length dreadlocks. “My hair releases poison if I’m in danger.”
The sergeant stared at her.
“Really?” he asked.
“No, you fool!” she said. Haughty laughter echoed throughout the tunnel as she made her way back up the stairs. “Should you find the Venutian before I do, give me a call.” The warrant for Vida’s body was good dead or alive; after having to chase her down to this planet, killing her wasn’t out of the question.
The sergeant offered no resistance. When the bounty hunter was gone, he watched the video she had transferred to him.
“Should we follow, Sergeant?” one officer asked.
The sergeant raised his hand. His officers fell silent.
“113 to dispatch,” he spoke into his radio.
“Go ahead,” the dispatcher said.
“Put out a call to the embassy. We need the Commission.”
• • • •
For such a meek kid, Menino had an eye for choosing bars. He went straight for the seediest hole-in-the-wall establishments where his parents would never think to find him. He’d probably seen them on the way to school or heard about them from his peers. A boy like him, however, never had the courage to enter bars until Vida came around. That night she was having a hell of a time taking bets on the aerial dogfight championships. The broadcast was on all wallscreens and the Korean squadron, typically the underdogs against the U.S. team, was kicking ass.
“We’re down to two pilots, boys,” Vida said to a group of American soldiers at the barstools. At the rate they were drinking, it wouldn’t be hard to fleece them before the end of the night. “It’s Cheong and Simmons, Korea versus the U.S. I can put you in for 50,000 credits each.
“They’ve already made their bets,” Vida continued as she pointed to a group of local gangsters across the room, the Sons of Sejong. “Cheong beats Simmons in under five minutes with seeker missiles. You gonna let them talk shit about Team U.S.A.? Didn’t you guys invent airplanes?”
That riled up the drunkards, although her terminal had trouble translating their slurred words and backwater accents.
“We match gamble because Korea team is feces,” their commanding officer said. “And after victory, you can show us pleasure time at base, Hot-and-Taut Venus.”
“Sure, sure,” Vida dismissed. “Whatever you want. Sex ‘til your dicks fall off.” As flattering as the offer was—and Vida wasn’t sure it was an offer—the plan was to sneak out with all the bets and finally pay Ji-Hoon.
At the other end of the bar, Menino stared down a half-liter glass of beer. Vida told him not to get it, but he did anyway. Now he couldn’t drink any more of the bile. She slid into the chair beside him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders while starting her sixth pint of Cass. Her hands were greasy with oils from garlic-fried chicken.
“You having fun yet?” Vida asked.
“You said you’d finish this for me,” Menino whined.
“No,” she said. “No, no, no. You have to finish it now, or you lose all those cool points you got earlier.” Vida pushed the glass with her own until it sat in his hand. “That Galaga shit was badass.”
Menino sighed heavily. “You better have some mean hangover cures on Venus.” He closed his eyes, raised his glass, and gulped, and gulped, and gulped. Beer ran down his chin and throat until the mug was empty.
“Way to chug, Menino!” Vida slapped him on the back, as proud of him as she’d ever been. “I promise not to make fun of you for the rest of tonight.”
He cupped his mouth, holding back a rush of vomit.
“Never again,” Menino said.
“That’s what I used to tell my father,” Vida said. “Look at me now! Another alcoholic dirtbag.” She raised her pint to the ceiling. “Rest in peace, you piece of shit.” She drank half of it before coming up for air, then tried refocusing on the broadcast. Her father did love competitive dogfighting.
This year the championships took place over Acidalia Planitia. With all the other pilots tagged out, Don Simmons faced off against Heong Cheong in a ferocious stalemate. Cheong fired two missiles, but Simmons deployed flares and successfully lead them astray. Still in Cheong’s sights, Simmons attempted to break left; the Cockpit Cam revealed Simmons crushed in his suit as a result of massive G-forces—the best part of flying, as far as Vida was concerned.
The screen returned to a wide shot of the aerial arena where off in the distance, one could spot the domed colonies of Mars. Everyone in the bar sat up as Cheong countered the break with a barrel roll and corrected his angle of attack. After that, Simmons was easily clipped by machine gun fire.
“Ha, fuck you, Simmons!” Vida yelled, showering the bar in saliva. “America sucks!”
Menino shut his ears to the noise. Amidst the excitement Vida grabbed her young, slightly intoxicated friend and tried helping him to the exit. The two hadn’t left the barstools when the Americans approached them, red-faced and frowning.
“Fucking Korean team wins!” the commanding officer said. “Never not cheaters, are they? We win next year. Please transfer our credits for more beer.”
“Excuse me?” Vida asked, feigning offense. “You guys lost. You don’t get this money back.”
“You are wrong, loose woman,” the man said. He grabbed ahold of her forearm. “We bet against Korea winning with missiles. Korea use gun, not missiles. We are winners.”
Vida cast his hand off her.
“We’re not doing this tonight, colonizer.” She looked to the bartender and hoped he would shoo the Americans away or something. He was too busy cheering along with others in the bar to notice.
“Make no trouble, female dog,” the officer said while petting her curly hair. “You come back with us to base for relations.”
Before Vida could punch him in the face, Menino shoved him.
“She’s not interested, white man,” the boy said.
In response, another American grabbed Menino from behind and locked him into a chokehold.
“Jesus, Menino,” Vida mumbled. “Why would you do that?” She told the boy to close his eyes while she raised her half-empty pint—and smashed it into the assailant’s face.
For the burly gangsters on the other side of the room, who had alcohol in their veins and earnings to collect, the sound of shattered glass was reason enough to start a fight. Their nano-ink dragon tattoos spread flames across their skin in reaction to adrenaline. They rushed at the Americans and tried tearing them away from Vida and Menino.
Now free, Menino lunged for the American officer and tackled him to the ground. Vida had neither the stamina nor the coherence to fight, so she wasted little time kicking men in the nuts. Maniacal laughter escaped her lips.
But she got the sinking feeling that Menino needed her help. She dropped to the floor, dodging haymakers and elbows until spotting the boy biting the officer on the arm. Vida removed her scarf, wrapped it around the man’s neck from behind, and then hooked her legs around his waist. He thrashed around and slammed her onto the floorboards. She hung on even as the scarf began to tear.
“Menino!” Vida yelled. “Get him!”
The bloody-nosed kid sat up and kicked the American in the face; the heavy man grew limp in Vida’s embrace. She shoved him off.
“How do we get out of here?” Menino asked as he helped her up.
Without a good answer, Vida thought to use her magic.
A half-second later the room rushed past as she flew in the air. At first, she thought it a dream in the midst of her passing out. Her body catapulted through a window and slammed onto the street outside. She was greeted by a starless sky. Debris fell like rain.
And then tremendous nausea came. Her throat filled with stomach acid, so she turned over to dry heave. No one vomits in their dreams.
“Are you alright?” someone asked her.
Vida looked up to see the gang leader. She swatted the woman’s hand away, grabbed the closest wall, and helped herself up. There was a crowd of onlookers staring from down the block. The Americans were splayed on the road in all manner of disarray. Menino sat up against the wall and held his head in his hands, but otherwise he seemed okay.
Where the bar had been, there was now a massive Moai head bursting from the walls and ceiling. It shot through the floor of the second story ramen shop; noodle-eating patrons slid down the Easter Island sculpture, as its surface was sleek with water from burst pipes.
“Where the hell did that come from?” the gangster asked.
Vida walked over to Menino as another gangster helped him up. The kid turned to her and smiled through bloody teeth.
“Can we go home?” he asked.
Vida wanted nothing more than to leave. Several Sons of Sejong stood in her way, however, bruised and banged-up but ready to kick her ass. In spite of her tipsiness she normally would have fought them off, and her failure to acclimate simply meant she’d have to be creative. But with Menino in tow . . .
“Sorry for the trouble,” Vida said to their leader while transferring back their gambling share. For a moment she considered giving the Americans’ share to the barkeep, but it would never cover the costs of rebuilding, so she kept it.
The gang cleared the path to the back alleys. Vida grabbed Menino’s hand. They stumbled down graffiti dreams, walls splashed in strobing neon and darkened by bitter shadows, carcinogen and college kin vibing in hookah dens to “The Girl from Ipanema” as it echoed through the Deadalean streets of Hongdae.
• • • •
The air that summer night seemed to boil just like it did on like Venus. Or maybe Vida’s lungs were burning due to their shriveled and weakened state. To be honest, it had been so long since she was on Venus that her knowledge of the place was reduced to trivia. Was Venus hot? Yes. Was Venus a slum-kingdom and blemish upon the Chocolate Diaspora? Certainly. Did everyone there regret leaving Earth and Mars? Without a doubt. Her recollections felt like stories read in a book or flashbacks from a movie. That old life and that old Vida were but dim reflections in a mirror.
Vida and Menino sat at Mojeon Bridge. She waited as he projectile-vomited into the shallow stream. Although she would never admit it, Vida was equally tired, and breathless, and intoxicated. It was a level of misery she’d come back from before and would look forward to again.
A couple of college girls some meters away dipped their toes into the current only to quickly withdraw when chunks of hot wings touched their feet. Vida laughed and yelled obscenities at them until they left. They’d be fine by morning: soon there would be resumés to submit, careers and families to juggle, and retirement to look forward to. It was a life wholly alien.
“You feel like a man yet?” Vida asked Menino as she slapped him on the back.
“I think I’m dying,” he said. He snorted and spit his lingering vomit into the water.
“Being a man means choosing how you die,” she said.
“Oh, right. I almost forgot about Vida the Drunk Philosopher.” Menino wiped snot from his upper lip.
“I’m serious. Things don’t get easier once we leave the planet. Mars is alright if you like dictators. But the rest of the system is full of trash—people like those imperialist Americans and those Hongdae assholes. Giant fucking rats and bounty hunters. People like me.”
“I know,” Menino said. He took a tissue from his pocket and blew his nose. “I know, but I can’t do this every night. I’ll come along to make sure you survive. That’s all I’m good for.”
The longer Vida watched Menino gag the more exhausted with him she became.
“If that’s going to be your attitude, then stay here. Like I said, I don’t need dead weight.”
But she did need him, or whatever was inside him that activated her necklace. She didn’t know what that was, and he didn’t know it was there. They didn’t know anything about anything.
“When’s the last time you called your parents?” Vida asked.
He tossed his tissue into the stream.
“Home,” she said. “When’s the last time you called home?”
“Not since I met you,” Menino said. “You’d threatened to kill me if I did.”
“I’m clearly not gonna kill you, dumbass.”
Something nagged at her hazy, drunken subconscious. Perhaps it was that other Vida whose childhood was just beyond the reach of memory.
“You don’t want me around anymore?” Menino spat again into the water. “I was joking earlier. I can be useful.”
There were some things that stuck with Vida. She knew home had been the volcano favelas where greenhouse gases baked people alive. Home was where she browsed the library archives and dreamed of attending the university. She was going to be the first artist on Venus.
“I can call my parents,” Menino offered. “Is that what you want?”
After her father’s treason, the Abelha Rainha became her home. The radar ping was her morning alarm and her evening lullaby.
“I’ll call them if that will make you happy,” Menino said. He putzed around with his terminal.
No one chose to live in a starfighter.
“Go home, Menino,” Vida said as she grabbed his wrist to stop him. She squeezed until he squirmed away in discomfort. “Hug your fucking schoolteacher parents. Live your middle-class life. And don’t fall for the first girl that gets your dick wet.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
Vida rose from her seat. She stretched. She yawned. Despite her exhaustion, it was too hot to sleep at the usual spot under the bridge. She thought about visiting the bars a few blocks from City Hall, as she desperately needed some soju. This scene had grown too sentimental for her.
Menino began to follow. He seemed feverish and wobbly.
“You’re an asshole, Vida.”
Vida cocked her head back.
“Really? Tell me more.”
“I didn’t have to help you,” Menino said. “You didn’t know a damn thing about Earth, and I showed you everything you wanted to see. You said we could leave this bullshit city together. I believed you.”
Vida stopped walking. She turned to face Menino. He approached and stopped just shy of kissing her.
“There’s nothing out there for you,” Vida said. She pointed to the blank sky. “That’s my world. My blackness. You can’t go there.”
“Your father,” Menino said. “Did this bounty hunter—”
Vida shoved him away. Already off balance, he quickly fell backward and landed on his ass. She continued walking to the pubs and clubs where she fought off her ennui with pulsating music and debauchery.
• • • •
Ji-Hoon, always having been a light sleeper, stepped out from his garage and into the humidity of 4 A.M. Seoul. He watched shuttles depart Incheon Spaceport across the river. Their ion engines traced blue-white streaks against the dark stratosphere and into tar space.
Going to space wasn’t all that rare, and international flights were entirely conducted through hypersonic shuttles dipping in and out of the atmosphere. When Ji-Hoon was training for the Jovian colonial expansion, he had been stationed at Noctis Base on the moon, which many people saw as the true point where citizens became cosmonauts. He and a group of young, stupid, intrepid adults prepared to leave their families behind for the sake of mankind’s future.
Ultimately, Ji-Hoon didn’t qualify. He’d never see those crewmates again.
He didn’t care.
The pitter-patter of oridium claws against the street broke Ji-Hoon from his trance. A rather large black rat emerged from the shadows in the alley. Startled, Ji-Hoon jumped out the way as it walked through the open garage. It sniffed at the Sapporo can Menino left behind earlier.
“Are you with Vida?” Ji-Hoon asked while cautiously approaching the beast.
It failed to acknowledge him, but a low growl vibrated through its chassis.
“You know Vida?” said someone out of view. A different set of footsteps sauntered in from the unlit alley—a human this time, or someone who had once been human. Her steps were heavy, and her aura was odious. She hardly glanced at the mechanic before noticing his ship hidden beneath a beige tarp.
“Vida doesn’t live here,” Ji-Hoon said. “And I don’t know where the hell she is. Leave your number or something. I’ll call if she stops by.” He reached for the long wrench in his rear jeans pocket.
“She’s got something I need,” the woman said. “It’s a necklace housing a star gate. You’ll help me find her, and in exchange, you can pawn off that Venutian starfighter.”
It was an empty gesture: Ji-Hoon knew there was a bounty out for the ship. No one would buy it for parts when they could rat him out instead, but without leverage to keep the empire from reneging, no one would ever rat him out. He was stuck with hot merchandise.
“I don’t know where that girl is,’ he said. “The only thing I want is her money.” Ji-Hoon removed the wrench from his pocket. “Now get the hell out my shop.”
The woman snapped her fingers. The rat lunged at Ji-Hoon. He swung his wrench and whacked the animal; it flew into his workbench, knocking the unit over and spilling screws and washers over the floor.
“Why pick a fight with me?” the woman said. “You don’t seem the type to fall for Vida’s tricks.” After some silence passed, her eyes lit up as if the answer was staring her in the face. “Oh. You’re protecting the boy.”
The mechanic cocked his arm back for another swing. The woman shielded herself with a metal forearm, and Ji-Hoon dropped his wrench as his wrist dislocated. He was then blindsided by the rat as it slammed into his ribs and knocked the wind from his lungs. He crumpled over the television set; both fell to the ground with a crash.
Ji-Hoon knew his lung was punctured, but he’d be fine. He’d scrapped with the worst assholes in Korea and always came out on top. Last month he lost a couple teeth to the Incheon Road Sharks. The month before that the Sons of Sejong took his pinky toes as repayment for defaulted loans. And years ago the Busan Bitches—he’d never fuck with them again—tossed him onto oncoming traffic, which left him in a coma so long he had no recollection of why they hated him.
In any case, a giant rat and cyborg woman was a welcome change of pace.
“I don’t know where those kids are,” Ji-Hoon said while coughing up blood. He spat at the bounty hunter. “Fuck you and that rat you came with.”
Ji-Hoon tried standing up. He was still ready to break necks with his wrench. The bounty hunter kicked him back down and fractured his sternum. She followed up with a stomp from her boot that pummeled the muscles and bones in his forearm. The rat’s tail wrapped around his mouth to mute the screams.
“I don’t normally hurt civilians,” the woman said, “but you’re quite the troglodyte. If you happen upon Vida, tell her that this was her fault.” She lifted her foot and scraped her sole against the ground to clear the blood. The rat followed her back into the darkness.
Ji-Hoon lay still as his body numbed in shock. The spaceport launches seemed so muffled, so far away now. He suddenly regretted not finishing aeronautics school.
He turned his head to the television beside him. Images of a missing child filtered through broken glass and spilled ink.
“Tae?” His brother’s face was a bit chubbier in the picture, but the tired brown eyes and spiky hair were unmistakable. He’d never said anything about running away from home. It had been two weeks since he was reported missing—about the time he walked into the shop with that femme fatale on a humid evening like this one.
• • • •
Miles of suspended electrical wire cast a net over the city and powered LED street lamps so bright that night and day were at times indistinguishable. Circadian rhythms were a relic from before the second space race. Menino drowsily sneaked through the serpentine backstreets where light was scant. He passed the occasional caravan of corporate drunks shouting about the Korean aerial victory. They’d point to him and utter incoherent cheers. He looked away for fear of being recognized.
He opened the camera app on his terminal and poked at a face unknown to him. He’d probably lost a good ten pounds, and dark circles had formed around his eyes from little sleep. Vida spent nights regaling him with tales of her dad pushing oridium-q32 on the Martian streets under King Orion’s nose. She told of times her father won Mexican standoffs against pirates mining the asteroid belt. Her father would have hated him. Menino was sure of it.
Red and blue lights caught the boy’s attention. A block away some officers pulled over one of the rowdy groups and told them to keep the noise down.
Menino picked up the pace.
Home was just around the corner. From the bottom of the hill, he could already see Dongguk University where his parents worked. In an age where job transience was the norm, they’d toughed out administration changes and pay cuts long enough to earn “pity pensions.” Firing them was now illegal because the government refused to pay medical expenses related to mental distress.
Sending Menino back was the right move. There was nothing for him out there in Vida’s black skies.
His residence was one of the only freestanding two-story homes in the city, sandwiched between high-rise apartments. Menino went through his contacts list and found his mother’s number. He’d missed seventy-two calls from her in the time he was off the network.
He dialed. Her terminal rang, and rang, and rang. It was almost five in the morning, and she would be at work shortly.
“Tae?” she answered.
“Hey, mom,” Menino said. The name was now foreign and odd.
“Tae!” Mom shouted. “Oh, my . . .” A long silence followed. He could hear her sobbing, and that was enough to make Menino cry, too. Shortly she would wake Dad. Once he came to his senses, his voice grew louder and bickering ensued. He eventually synced onto the call.
“Were you kidnapped by those Busan girls?” his father asked.
“No,” Menino said. “I’m still in Seoul.”
“So where the hell have you been?” Dad pressed.
Menino hesitated. From across the street, he saw the light switch on in his parent’s room. Silhouettes scrambled behind white curtains. He could hear them shuffling and prepping to cruise the urban jungle in search of him.
“Did you run away?” Mother chimed in.
“No,” Menino said. “I’ve been out with a friend.”
“We spoke to your friends,” Mom said. “None of them knew where you were unless they were lying to us and the police.” His father tried to speak, and another argument broke out until Mom shouted for Dad to shut up. “Just come home, okay? Everything is fine here. We’re not fighting anymore, things are different.”
“You didn’t do anything,” Menino said. “I just didn’t want to be home.”
“What?” Dad shouted. His intensity distorted the audio and left Menino’s ears ringing. “Were you with Ji-Hoon?”
“What’s wrong?” Mom asked. “Where are you? Tell me what’s going on.”
The boy looked up at the wire mesh sky, where the first hints of navy and indigo dawn shone through. Even though it seemed a siren song, something beyond Earth continued to lure humanity away. It planted nausea and anxiety in Menino and had probably done the same to his brother years ago with the promise of curing a restlessness at the bottom of their mundane souls.
And that song had saved Vida’s people.
Menino remembered the warmth of her hands as she placed the jewel around his neck, which allowed him to summon the world with his willpower. She taught him to live for himself because that’s what the harsh vacuum taught her.
He placed a hand on his chest.
He still had Vida’s necklace.
And Cachorro Louco was coming for her.
“Shit,” Menino said.
“Tae?” his mother asked.
“Vida’s in trouble,” he said. “I’ll be back later. I promise.” She needed him one last time, or maybe for the first time—yes, definitely the first time.
His parents stopped shuffling in the window.
“Vida?” his mother said. “Who is that?”
“Tae!” Dad shouted. “Get your ass back home!”
Menino stepped away from the street lamps and hid in the awning of a grocery store. In the same moment, his parents pulled the curtain to look outside. His mother’s face had changed, too: they now shared the same hollowed features and sunken eyes, but Mom never asked for them.
Menino hung up before his resolve could crack. He slipped away into the streets once more. He opened his terminal’s net browser and searched for works of art he thought Vida would like. Lacking words to express his anger and elation, he would show her through one masterpiece at a time.
Because he wasn’t looking ahead, Menino crashed into a moped parked outside the 24/7 deli. He and the bike fell to the ground. A side mirror snapped off and cracked against the pavement while the kid skid across the concrete, bloodying his hands and knees.
Someone stepped out of the store holding coffee and a bag of Honey Tong Tongs.
“What the hell are you doing?” the man asked.
Menino saw the radio on his waist and the baton beside it. A badge was pinned to his shirt.
“You alright?” The officer placed his goods on the ground, approached Menino, and extended a helping hand. “What’s the rush? You training for a track meet or something?”
“Yeah,” Menino blurted out. “I can pay for the mirror—”
“No,” the officer said. “The precinct can take care of that. Just help me pick this up. And pay attention next time.”
“Yeah,” Menino said. “Yeah, I know. Thanks.” He assisted and then rushed off again, eyes still fixed on his terminal. He was halfway down the block before he heard the officer’s radio mention a missing teen in the area.
• • • •
With each thump of the subwoofer, her woes shed like dead cells. Every pass of the strobing lights wiped her spirit clean. She sank deeper into the worn leather couch and was absorbed by the room and everyone in it. She watched dancers touch skin-to-skin, hand-to-ass, thigh-to-crotch, teeth-to-flesh, and saliva-to-blood. She smelled their oxytocin and tasted twisted pain and passion in their sweat.
“Jesus,” Vida said while twirling the inhaler in her hands. “What the fuck is in this shit?”
The man who offered the drugs wouldn’t say. He wasn’t listening. They’d met at the bar not long ago and since then, he’d bestowed her neck and collarbone with more kisses than she’d ever care for in a lifetime.
“Okay,” Vida said, “Get off before you give me herpes.” She punched him in the face. The man was beyond coherent and unwilling to back down.
“So,” he slurred, “is it true that cosmic radiation gives you two pussies?”
Vida thrust a knee into his stomach. A woman on the couch shoved a foot into his pelvis. He whimpered and fell back. The intoxicated masses trampled and tripped over him.
“I’m sorry you came to Earth to see that,” the other woman said. “Unless you came here precisely to meet trashy men. I’m not going to judge you. We all have our kinks.”
“Oh yeah?” Vida said. “What’s yours?”
“Oh, I’m perfectly boring, trust me. Sometimes I cosplay, but everyone’s doing that now. You don’t seem the type, though.”
“I’ve been in the BLD so long that I’d seriously consider it.”
The woman stared at Vida for a bit with dreamy eyes and a sensuous smile. “Let me buy you a drink. I can tell it’s been a rough night for you.”
Vida laughed and shook her head, ashamed of being so transparent. “I’m flattered, but you found the right person at the wrong time. I’m here to siphon credits from everyone drunk enough to offer them.”
“Did you get some?” the woman asked. “From that guy, I mean.”
“I left him enough for the cab ride home.” Vida clumsily went for her terminal and displayed the credits in her account. She had more than enough for the power couplings, and maybe some for a stay at a hotel. There would be too many cameras and security guards, and too many people put at risk. But these could easily be her last hours on Earth. A cold shower and clean sheets were well-deserved, right?
As a side effect of the drugs, Vida nodded off into microsleeps. She dreamed of being shot out the sky by Cachorro Louco’s shuttle. Smoke filled her brittle lungs and burned her eyes. She was subsumed by roaring blue ocean and crushed by its pressure. She screamed for help until her vocal cords tore apart one fibrous strand at a time.
The inhaler dropped from Vida’s hands, and the sudden loss of its weight startled her awake. It fell onto the miserable man on the ground. He had fallen into a deep sleep some time ago.
The club was now too loud and busy and bright. It wasn’t dark enough for Vida. It wasn’t dark enough at all. She quickly stood up and thanked the woman beside her.
“Take care of yourself, Queen,” the woman said to her. “Because no one else will.”
Vida fled to the boulevard. She was alone once again stumbling about in the machinery of night while passing outdoor lounges, which lead to savory barbeque drifts and bass that vibrated the concrete, until she returned to Mojeon Bridge. The Abelha Rainha would be dark enough, and quiet enough for her to rest in. She could curl up in her cosmic cradle and inhale the dust and cologne of her ghostly father.
But she would have to wait until nine o’clock for Ji-Hoon to open the shop. She took a seat on the ledge to watch the first bands of sunlight split the inky sky. She and Menino had done so every morning before napping ‘til noon.
“That fucking kid,” Vida mumbled to herself as the exhaustion of another twenty-four-hour romp hit hard. “Such a nerd.”
She nodded off again. Her head dipped forward. The thought of dropping into the shallow stream below no longer fazed her.
Someone grabbed Vida by the shoulder before she could fall. Their hand has heavy, cool, and metal.
“Where’s the boy?” her savior asked.
Vida looked over her shoulder despite knowing who it was. She should have felt Cachorro Louco approaching; stealth wasn’t the priority of a 300-kilogram Amazon. Algernon leaped onto the ledge soon after and stared at Vida. Surely he was begrudging their last encounter.
“Did he leave?” Cahorro Louco said. “I thought you two were an item, or that you’d at least made him into a pet. Were you too much for him to handle?”
“Leave him alone,” Vida said.
“No, no, no.” The bounty hunter placed both hands on Vida’s shoulders and leaned into her. “You singled him out because he’s useful.” She glanced at Algernon still snarling away. “We’ve already been playing tag for years. Don’t drag this out by making me find him—or even worse, letting Algernon find him. You don’t want that.”
“It’s not that deep.” Vida rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “When I crashed in the river he jumped out to save me because you know there ain’t no fucking water on Venus. And then, after years without activity, the necklace summons the Burghers of Calais. They pulled my ship to land.”
“Ah. You think this boy has an affinity for oridium.”
Vida nodded. “How else do I explain it?”
Cachorro Louco shook her head. She offered a brief sigh as if responsible for Vida’s ignorance. “In order to manipulate matter, activated oridium needs a host with immeasurable will-to-power.”
“So?” Vida asked. “He’s got willpower?”
“No, you fool. You do.”
Vida’s heart throbbed in her ears. Her body shook with fight-or-flight. The sun mocked her with its warmth while her body broke into cold sweat.
“Your raison d’etre,” Cachorro Louco continued. “Maybe you had forgotten your self-worth. Maybe you were lonely out there among the stars, where everyone claws for survival in the sea of dark matter.”
Like most of Vida’s memories, the last days spent with Father came in waves; it was hard to remember anything at all when rest only came between naps. But she couldn’t forget Cachorro Louco tracking them to Ceres. The bounty hunter needed one punch to end the fight, puncturing Father’s chest in a burst of blood and bone. It was only much later that Vida realized he’d gifted her, his petulant child, with a necklace she couldn’t use because she didn’t see the use.
Cachorro Louco acknowledged her sin with a simple grunt and nod.
“You should stay with the boy,” she said. “Assimilate with these people. They’ve already welcomed you, a celestial daughter of Ham, into their fold. You’re a goddess among insects.”
“The food makes me sick.”
The bounty hunter shrugged.
“Or flee to the motherland. Your ancestors are Brazilian, right? I’ll join you once I collect my bounty. It’s a fitting end for people like us. We never rest long enough to remember where we’ve been, or where we’re from.”
She sighed before spinning Vida around, reaching for her throat, and tearing off her scarf.
Vida looked down. The necklace was gone.
“Where is it?” Cachorro Louco asked.
Menino. That fucking kid still had it.
Vida punched the woman in the stomach as hard as she could. Cachorro Louco released her and Vida fell backward off the bridge. Out of habit she motioned to open a ripple in space-time, but nothing happened. She managed to land upright, and then pain shot through her already sprained ankle. There weren’t enough expletives in the world to express her agony.
Algernon quickly dropped from the bridge and splashed into the stream to face her.
“Leave her!” Cachorro Louco said.
The rat, snorting in disagreement, stayed put.
Vida climbed out of the water and ran up the slope to reach street level. With her ankle swelling by the second, she knew she’d eventually collapse. Her best bet was to go underground and ride to Ji-Hoon. Or she could abandon the Abelha Rainha and catch a train to Busan where no one would recognize her. Or there was always the chance the embassy would accept an asylum claim—no, not a chance. She’d caused enough problems in Korea.
There was also Brazil, the bosom of the diaspora children. Getting there would be difficult, but Vida was sure she could do it. She could get a job selling shaved-ice or fruit by the beach and use the money to rent a room from a grandmother whose kids never stopped by. For breakfast, Vida could make her coffee in the morning—black, strong, almost undrinkable, like every old person liked it. And before dinner, they would pray in front of a poster of Jesus the old woman found at a bazaar sale, but Vida would notice it was actually Liam Neeson from that turn-of-the-millennium space opera, and she’d keep the secret to herself because deep down Vida was a good person.
The closest subway station was past Gwanghwamun Square where the statue of King Sejong overlooked the presidential palace. Even at that early hour, the streets were filled with commuters whose eyes and ears swallowed newscasts and net dramas. Their terminals warned them to avoid Vida as she sped by. Everyone moved out the way in unison without ever stopping to see who she was. She was fine with that. She didn’t want her arrest to be a system-wide spectacle.
The pain in Vida’s ankle soon overwhelmed her. She lay down, hoping to rest only a short while. The crowds, jolted from their distractions, paused to look. Many likely recognized Vida from her subway shows; she undoubtedly had stolen from some of them. For a few weeks they were her neighbors, her baristas, her fellow commuters, her patrons, her dance partners, her drinking buddies, her haters, her admirers, her fetishists. Vida never cared to know a thing about them.
With police headquarters only down the street, it wasn’t long before sirens blared across the plaza. Officers established a perimeter and tried helping Vida up until they noticed Cachorro Louco and Algernon approaching at a leisurely pace.
“Aren’t you tired?” the bounty hunter asked. “Rather than learn from your father’s mistakes you follow in his stead. I won’t let you further embarrass yourself or our people.”
“Fuck you,” Vida said.
“Where’s the boy?”
Vida didn’t know. Menino was back in the fold now and would be comfortable with that solidarity. She would continue running away: she was the descendant of a slave race still seeking solace in the sea of stars and dark matter.
“I truly am sorry,” Cachorro Louco said. “We’ll find him together.”
She whistled to Algernon. At first, the rat paced around to ward off the police. It needed room to transform into the diatom-shaped shuttle that haunted Vida’s dreams. But before it could transform, Algernon froze in place. Its hairs were raised as if catching something that flew in with the breeze.
Vida could feel it, too.
Cachorro Louco regarded her terminal as it blared with high-pitched urgency.
“That fool,” she said. “He came right to us.”
People grunted and grumbled as someone forced their way through the crowd. Vida turned around to see what it was. The sight of her naïve sidekick clearing a path brought a smile to her face.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” she asked.
Menino smiled back at Vida. “She’s not leaving with you,” he told Cachorro Louco. He held the necklace in his hand for all to see.
The bounty hunter threw her head back and laughed.
“I like you already,” she said. “I really do. But your libido’s not enough to stop me.” As she approached the boy, some chatter rose among the crowd about who he was. More officers arrived to tighten the perimeter. Some called out to Menino by name.
“Libido?” Menino asked Cachorro Louco. “You think I like Vida?”
“Don’t you?” she said.
Menino blushed. He turned to Vida.
“I hate you,” Vida said to him.
He nodded and offered his biggest grin.
“I hate you, too.”
A star gate crackled behind him. Because Vida sat outside of the rift-space, she barely caught a glimpse of the oncoming stampede before hobbling out of the way. In that second an army of terracotta soldiers poured onto the scene with swinging swords and javelins.
At this point the human crowds scattered. Algernon gathered its wits and whipped around the plaza to combat the warriors, chomping their limbs off and tackling through their chests. The officers unbuckled their batons and defended themselves instead of striking back. Inevitably, the soldiers’ sheer numbers would compensate for their lack of durability.
One of the cavalrymen mowed through the crowds at breakneck speed. After whacking a few officers out of the way, he scooped up Menino and hoisted him onto the saddle. The warrior man changed course and charged to Vida, who hadn’t gotten very far.
“Come on!” Menino reached out to grab her.
Cachorro Louco, unperturbed by all the commotion, was two steps ahead. It took little more than a swat from her cybernetic arms to crush the brittle terracotta resistance. As the horse approached Vida, Cachorro Louco cocked her arm back and swung for the horse’s head. The mare and mounted rider crumbled under her immense force and Menino flew forward. He smacked right into the bounty hunter’s chest.
She peeled the boy off her lifting him into the air. “All this potential is—”
An arrow struck her on the temple only to break into dust. The bulk of the army congregated to her. One figure repeatedly stabbed her in the ribs, so she flicked him in the forehead, causing his face to explode.
“All this potential,” Cachorro Louco resumed, “is wasted on a boy and his unrequited love.”
Menino shook his head.
“No,” he replied. “Vida just owes me a trip to Mars.”
He found Vida in the crowd and tossed the necklace. She hopped on her good leg and snatched it from the sky. Cachorro Louco threw Menino to the ground and then turned to face her.
Vida felt the oridium’s energy surge through her once again. Despite not knowing what the necklace would summon, whatever emerged would have to suffice.
A new rift opened and unleashed a heat wave that smacked Vida in the face. Whipping sands burst forth to blot out the sun. Vida was knocked off her feet and crouched into a ball to shield her body. Through squinted eyes, she made out a human figure stepping forth from the rift to tower above the plaza. Gradually she saw its ibis crown, braided hair, and limestone body. She was beautiful.
“Wow,” Vida said while spitting sand from her mouth and rustling it from her curls. “Queen Nefertari, it’s nice to meet you. Would you help me kick some ass?”
The queen rolled her stone eyes. She took one look at Cachorro Louco.
“Yeah,” Vida said, “her ass. Kick it.”
Algernon, who stood some meters behind Vida, shook free from a mound of sand it was buried under. The terracotta soldiers proceeded to strike but with a shriek, Algernon’s body grew another four meters to match this new foe. The little clay men were inconsequential; the rat swallowed them in a single bite.
Vida crawled out of the way before Algernon charged at Nefertari. The queen took a step forward, thrust her knee at the rat, and nailed it in the jaw so hard that Vida felt the impact in her chest. Algernon dropped to the floor but quickly latched onto Nefertari’s shin and bit down until it began to crumble.
“Poke ‘em in the eyes!” Vida shouted.
The statue took Vida’s advice and shoved her thumbs into its eyes. Algernon yelped as it released her leg. In that split second Nefertari jumped over Algernon and grabbed ahold of its tail. Pivoting on her good leg, and nearly stomping on the people below, she spun the rat in circles, throwing it clear across the plaza where it crashed into the façade of the performing arts center. The rat broke through one of the massive support columns and was buried underneath the falling stones.
Queen Nefertari turned to Cachorro Louco. The bounty hunter seemed so small and pathetic.
“Go ahead,” Cachorro Louco said. “‘What a cage is to wild beast, law is to a selfish man.’ All you’ve done is continue your march to misery.” Her eyes were focused on something off and far away.
Menino dusted himself and ran over to Vida. Seeing that she couldn’t stand, he sat beside her.
“Did I do alright?” he said.
Vida shrugged dissatisfaction. “Clay fighters aren’t too tough. I’m telling you, Galaga is your thing. Stick to that.”
Noticing that Menino was also distracted, Vida looked up to see what the commotion was about. Three small shuttles were descending upon Gwanghamun Square instead of heading for the spaceport miles away. Their chrome-painted exteriors reflected the rising sun. To Vida, they looked like angels coming for the rapture.
“Who are they?” Menino asked.
“The law,” Vida said.
The police officers, who couldn’t do much about the chaos to begin with, no longer had jurisdiction and backed away for the landing party. The remaining clay fighters kneeled on the floor and awaited their next orders. Queen Nefertari sat on King Sejong’s lap. Cachorro Louco went to Algernon to soothe the bruised beast. Menino spoke to Vida and explained his theory that the electrical street poles and their dense wire weave were metaphors for his feeling trapped in Seoul. For once, she humored him. She said that after her release from prison, they really would go to Mars for the aerial combat championships.
Truths and lies didn’t matter anymore. Vida didn’t plan on seeing him again.
• • • •
Three months passed.
Coverage of the event spread throughout the solar system, though no one could explain the wizardry that pulled both Emperor Qin’s clay army from China and Queen Nefertari from the facade of Ramses II’s tomb. The recent theft of international art objects, in fact, seemed to congregate in the city of Seoul. Rumor spread that Korea had insurgents planted in museums around the globe, or that one of the country’s gangs had finally made it to Japanese Yakuza or Italian Mafia levels of success. The Sons of Sejong, who were present for the Moai sculpture disaster at Hongdae, happily took the credit.
Web images of the Korean and Venutian teenagers made the news cycle for a week and then vanished. Although there were dozens of independently recorded videos of the couple that fateful morning, most regarded the incident as a film PR stunt. The last time oridium was a serious problem was during the Sigma Rebellion where Martian King Orion waged war against Earth for control of the colonies. That was forty years ago: oridium mining had long since been outlawed, although drug runners always had cheap derivatives on them. But there wasn’t enough to create giant monsters or superhumans anymore.
The implausibility of that summer worked to the benefit of the United Nations Extraplanetary Commission. No suppression or smear campaign needed to be issued. The Korean government agreed to ignore the thousands of reports flooding police precincts until eventually, people stopped talking about it. The Commission could spend its time figuring out what to do about a rogue bounty hunter, a nightmarish rat, a dejected mechanic, a wayward teen, a misguided pirate, and a necklace made to fulfill some unknown but highly illegal purpose.
By the time Menino was released from custody, summer vacation had come and gone. His life would return to an absurd normalcy. Seeing a regular therapist and attending cram school were small prices to pay for the trouble he’d caused. On his first day back to the academy, his peers marveled at the fact he was still alive, and not at all dead or abducted by black smugglers. Menino wasn’t at liberty to discuss what he went through, so he told people the truth: he had been kidnapped and was rescued by the police. His abductor would go to jail for a long, long time.
Menino sat in the back of his math class that morning. His buttoned-up shirt and black tie literally and figuratively choked him. There was discussion of imaginary numbers, but like most students his attention span was so dreadfully small that he tuned out minutes later. His focus fell upon shuttles zooming over the city. The few aircraft still powered by carbon fuels left contrails that dissipated into the ether.
He never did get to fly in the Abelha Rainha.
The Abelha Rainha . . .
Something about the name stuck with him.
“Tae Kyoo Cho?” the instructor at the front of the classroom called. “Would you simplify the equation?”
Menino looked at the projection on the wallscreen.
“I’d prefer not to,” he said.
The classroom turned to Menino. He smiled at his audience. He suddenly remembered what that “something” was. He rose from his seat and walked out of the classroom, and then out of the school.
• • • •
The blaze of summer sun lingered into late September. A rare breeze made its way through the Black Light District. The day drunkards and NEETs spread their arms and lifted their shirts to cool their sweaty stomachs. The usual stench of vomit and urine were carried in the wind and filled Ji-Hoon’s garage. He took a break from changing tires on his yellow moped, reached for his mini fridge, and pulled out a Sapporo. It would certainly dull the pain in his hand, which made it impossible to work for too long.
The surgeon told him the pain was psychosomatic, and that he would eventually forget his forearm wasn’t the real thing. The faint clicks and whirrs of aluminum bone and artificial tendon would become background noise. The sensitivity in his hand would pass after callouses formed. The important thing was to keep doing regular activities: return to the garage, fix vehicles as they came to him, and ignore the blood stain on the floor. On the positive side, he could call himself a cyborg, a real trans-human, more so than the people with microchips and terminals in their skulls. Those were old hat.
Without a television—he was still saving up for a wallscreen—the sounds emanating from his arm seemed even louder. He missed the incessant chatter of his soap opera stars. Now, the only other presence in the room was the elephant hiding beneath its beige tarp.
“You still have it?”
Ji-Hoon turned around and was surprised to see his brother. Menino leaned on the doorway with his black tie undone and his white uniform damp. He dropped his backpack on the floor.
“Yeah, they must have overlooked it,” Ji-Hoon answered. “Or Cachorro Louco never told them it was here.” He checked the time on his terminal. “Why aren’t you in school?”
“Can I have a beer?” Menino asked.
Ji-Hoon tossed a can across the room. The boy caught it, cracked it open, and took a swig. He still pinched his nose when he drank.
“Sorry about your hand,” Menino said.
Ji-Hoon got another drink for himself. “Don’t worry about it. I just need a few more months of rehab. Why aren’t you in school?”
“Because I remembered the Abelha Rainha.”
“Do Mom and Dad know you’re here?” Ji-Hoon asked.
“You called the police, right?” Menino noticed the bloodstained floor. “On me and Vida?”
“I think your downtown brawl was why they showed up.” Ji-Hoon walked to the suspended ship and yanked the tarp down. It kicked up dust and aggravated his allergies. He had replaced the burned hull plating. The entire vessel was retouched in yellow and black metallic, and he even repainted the name on the fuselage. It had been good practice for his new hand. “Vida was never going to stay. Not for you.”
“That’s why I liked her,” Menino said. “She didn’t need me. I had to make myself useful.” He climbed up the ladder leading to the open cockpit and sat in the pilot’s chair. “You can fly this, right?”
“I doubt it. Maybe.” Ji-Hoon resumed repairing the moped.
Menino saw that a map of the solar system was projected onto the cockpit HUD. A blip close to Jupiter blinked on and off.
“You almost went to Jupiter,” Menino said. “Is there a prison there?”
“Yeah,” Ji-Hoon said. “Trojan Station. Biggest supermax in the system.”
“Is this ship is tied to her biometrics? I think that’s where they’re taking her. Do you know?”
“Do I know where Vida is? Why would I know that?”
“I thought you might have overheard during the trial,” Menino said. “They sent me home early.” He looked around the shop. Aside from the one moped being repaired, business was slow. “Are you busy?”
Ji-Hoon stopped to stare at the boy. “I’m not flying that ship, Tae. I don’t even have my license anymore. You’ll have to manage a long-distance relationship.” He finished his beer and went for another.
Menino leaned out of the cockpit and glared at the mechanic. “You used to be cool.”
“I’m still cool,” Ji-Hoon said with a hint of annoyance. “I just have responsibilities now. Why didn’t you tell me you ran away?”
“Because I know you don’t care.” Menino stretched his arms, outlining the bounds of the garage kingdom. “This keeps you busy all day? Hiding in your cave and fixing shitty mopeds?”
Ji-Hoon grew red in the face. “Vida wasn’t here to play house with you. She thought you were a conduit for her necklace. I’m not going to fly half a billion kilometers so she can tell you that to your face.”
“Then I’ll fly there myself.”
“You want to do Vida a favor?” Ji-Hoon said. “Leave her alone. Finish school and go to college and live the life she never had. That’s how you’ll make her happy.”
“You know,” Menino said, “she said the same thing. But you’re both hypocrites. You came back from training and all you’ve done is rot in this garage and act like a jackass.”
“And I have every right to do that!” Ji-Hoon shouted. In a fit he threw his drink at his brother. The can struck the ship, punctured, and sprayed beer mist into the air. “No one asked for your opinions or your help, Tae. Go home and get the fuck out of my face.”
Menino climbed out of the cockpit and made his way to the exit. “Vida doesn’t need to ask for help,” he said. “She’s my friend, and I’m helping her because she’s a person. But you don’t have any friends. I don’t need you telling me how to be one.” He walked over to the trash bin and spilled its contents over the ground. There were rags soaked in black grease, and cans that rolled throughout the room and into the alley outside.
Menino picked up his backpack and left.
Ji-Hoon lifted his motorbike and continued working. The afternoon was unusually quiet, and although he could no longer hear the mechanical sounds of his hand, the low ping of the Abelha Rainha’s console rang in his ears for the rest of the day.
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