Elizabeth Tybush © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Polaris, New York, Gaia
I stole the sunglasses with ease, unseen by any who’d dare report it. The large-lensed mask reflected the busy downtown of a city I neither knew nor understood but was nonetheless stranded in. I hid my eyes and features behind those lenses and continued my prowl.
I headed for the sidewalk patio of a bistro where a man with attentions diverted elsewhere would soon lose the hooded sweatshirt draped over the back of his folding chair.
“You gonna pay for those?”
I stopped. Had I not been caught entirely unaware, I would’ve fled, albeit into unknown territory with mere morning shadows and dubious dumpsters as my cover. I turned to face the source of the familiar voice, knowing I could not flee from them in my state or else I would be hunted.
Sam smirked. Sunglasses concealed his brown eyes, and he wore the same style of casual garb I wore although he had more of a decision in it than I did. His tailored clothing came from finer cloth and perfectly fit his slender form. He gave me a dramatic once-over and smirked again. His brown hair had taken on some salt since we’d last met, and his sun-kissed peach skin glowed.
“So, what brings you back here?” he asked in singsong. I waited for him to call for local or regional law enforcement. I couldn’t be sure he wasn’t here by their command. “Couldn’t have just had the hankering for some light shoplifting. Don’t they have stores where you’re from?”
I glared at him, calculating the many ways to escape his clutches. Sam and I shared similar builds, although he stood slightly shorter than me and had thinner limbs. My training alone would overpower him if I needed it to. If only my body were bereft of the aches that naturally came from sleeping on dubious hard surfaces for several cool summer nights in a row.
I said nothing but regretted hiding the heat of my glare behind my disguise.
“Of course they do.” He reached. I dodged. He held up his hands in peace and nodded a silent invitation to walk alongside him.
He studied me with the same expression he had when we’d first met. This was Sam. This would always be Sam. With one glance he’d understood me, treated me as an equal, and never underestimated me. A good quality in an ally as well as a friend, but for us, neither applied.
I took his invitation only to keep myself from staying still too long in a crowd I’d stolen from. When I’d first met Sam, he’d offered me a drink. I only hoped this offer had the same hospitable intent.
“Seriously though, are you gonna pay for those? Because I can buy you new clothes, Solin.”
“No, I am not going to pay for them, and I don’t want your charity.” My stomach disagreed. Food had only come my way during brief moments of opportunity.
“Yeah, about that…oh, here we are.”
“This is your vehicle?” I examined the nondescript, aging hatchback and its peeling, off-silver paint. “Part of your disguise, no doubt.”
“I’m rich, not famous. This is more for your benefit. Get in.”
“I’d rather not.”
“I’m not going to kill you.”
“Have you seen yourself lately? I totally could.”
Had he seen me lately? How long had he been watching me? Of course he hadn’t just stumbled upon me, which meant he had been observing me for a while without me detecting him.
“But I’m not going to.” Sam opened the passenger-side door. “Trust me?”
I got in.
“You should put your seat belt on.”
“I’m aware.” I struggled to find comfort in the cramped passenger seat.
“The thingy under the seat, on the side there.”
I clicked into a more comfortable place. “I’m not thanking you.”
He flipped down the visor above my head. “And you have a little something on your chin.”
I grumbled and looked through at least three layers of dust and two more layers of grime on the cracked mirror above. A light-brown blob surrounded by a black blob looked back at me with its dark blobby eyes. No little something detected in my warped reflection. I flipped the visor up, then wiped my chin of the grease smudge using the slightly cleaner rearview mirror, albeit when Sam turned his gaze away.
The car revved to life, and we sat in silence for a few blocks. Passersby were too invested in their mobile devices to notice us—perhaps utilizing the very technology that had made Sam his wealth—sometimes at great detriment to their own health. He drove beyond the territory I’d explored since arriving in this place into areas slightly cleaner, slightly brighter, and slightly less bumpy. On these roads, the dreadful pine-scented ornament dangling from the rearview mirror no longer danced annoyingly in my peripheral vision.
“Radio’s busted, sorry,” he said. We slowed to a stop at a traffic light. “They don’t know you’re here.”
“Nonsense. You know I’m here.”
“Because I’m awesome, but that’s not the point. The point is, I might’ve done something slightly illegal to make sure what I saw, no one else saw.”
I considered unbuckling and jumping out the door. “For vengeance, no doubt.”
“Nah, seems like someone beat me to it. Besides, the best revenge is…something about being the better person? Living a good life? Whatever. We’re here.”
He parked the car next to an empty alley wedged between buildings of varying heights, though none over ten stories. The alley’s putrid odor smelled worse than the dumpsters that had served as shelter last night, but the rodents didn’t seem to mind.
“I taste garbage, Sam.”
“Keep walking,” he said. “We’re good.”
As we ventured through the maze of alleys, I understood he told the truth. I could trust him, for this moment. He clearly hadn’t told his friends about my arrival, and he didn’t move as a killer moved. The farther we walked from the car, the safer I felt.
The alleys smelled nicer too. We arrived at the back entrance of a shorter building where he punched a number into a keypad before opening the door and holding it for me.
His kindness alarmed me more than comforted me, but for however little I trusted him, I did trust my own assessment of the facts I had. I walked not to death, nor to barred walls. A keypad could mean anything. It did not mean Sam was luring me into a trap.
I entered after a moment of pensive reluctance and followed him up the stairwell of warm whites and polished woods.
Signs of humanity were everywhere. In the sole set of crisp boot prints on the vinyl-covered steps. In the recycling bins we passed at every floor’s exit, sitting below signs advising residents not to leave their recycling bins in the stairwell for safety reasons. In the leftover clear tape adhered to each floor’s door, ghosts of former safety signs. In the chewed gum beneath the handrail to the fifth and final floor before the roof.
“This way.” Sam nodded at the door.
Sunlight spilled from rooftop windows into the long hallway, reminding me briefly of home. Our steps echoed off the wooden floor as we passed doors with Welcome signs and decorative mats. At the very end of the hallway, Sam pulled out keys, unlocked the door, and opened it with a grand gesture.
“Home sweet home.”
The scent of fresh latex paint greeted us. Before us lay a furnished yet oddly empty apartment, save the bright morning light beaming from the windows and the gently frosted skylight. Beautiful but impractical. A man of such wealth put himself in grave danger with such windows. I had a hard time imagining a man of Sam’s status living in a home with…apparently no walls between rooms.
“This isn’t your home,” I said.
“Nope.” He dangled the keys. “It’s yours. The apartment, not the building. Forged your name on the lease and paid ahead for a year, so the landlady might not recognize you when you finally need to pay—”
I swept away his hand and headed for a window, forcing myself to squint through the intense light of morning. “I need nothing from you.”
“Okay, so maybe stop thinking I’m doing this as a favor to you, and maybe think about this as me having to do this for myself.”
“Why? I left you on a rooftop to die.”
“Oh, so you remember that? I blamed you so long for that, forgetting completely that it was—you know what, just take the damn keys, Solin.”
“You don’t know what my father would do if he discovered I cheated my way through exile.”
“Exile? Shit, did you try to take over your home planet too?”
“That’s not what I did here, and it’s complicated,” I said. “Let me wallow in my reckoning alone. My path doesn’t include charity.”
“Maybe it can. My charity. Take it. I guarantee you that being human is suffering enough.”
Powerless. He knew just how powerless I was. I faced him and paced the room, circling him. I had to reclaim some of my power, and I tired of being idle. My boots clicked along the glossy hardwood, which groaned whenever I neared the kitchen island.
“This is your last warning, Gardyner. My redemption will not include you. I will make my own way, and I won’t have you or anyone else meddling in things they don’t understand.”
“My last warning? You think I care about your warnings?” Now Sam paced, and I stopped, ceding power in the dialogue to him. I’d relied on fear to impress a message, and that didn’t work with Sam. He knew I had nothing to flex. “Listen, Solin, your redemption, if that’s even what you’re doing here, does include me. I was affected by that stunt you pulled. People died because of that bomb.”
“You know that wasn’t me—”
“But you enabled it. You trusted that asshole with power, and look what happened. And don’t forget, you did leave me to die. After I helped you. So yeah, I’m part of your redemption now. And you’re going to take this apartment and that credit card on the counter, and you’re going to be clothed and fed and sheltered while you walk this path.”
“I don’t want your money.”
“It’s not mine. It’s yours. I figured you might’ve been amassing some wealth here when you tried to conquer Earth five years ago.”
“Not conquer. Invite you to join our Federation.”
“That’s not what the internet said.”
“You know that’s not what I was here to do. You were there, Sam. Things didn’t go according to plan.”
“Yeah, I was there for the worst part of it. Anyway, you needed money to ‘invite us to join your Federation,’ especially if you wanted to establish a base of operations for thousands of years to come.”
“I had no plans for a base and no ill intentions for humanity. Besides, my account was drained. You watched it happen.”
“I found some leftovers. Moved them without a hitch. Don’t worry. The Shadowfall Alliance didn’t see a thing. They’re still pretty young, and their tech is weaker than they think. Plus, they aren’t as brilliant as I am.”
“But just as narcissistic,” I returned.
He grinned. “What you call narcissism, I call being realistic.”
“And what, you’ll let me live here and spend all of this money without supervision?”
“Do you need to be supervised?”
I said nothing.
“Do you want to be supervised?”
“No. Did we not just establish that?”
“Maybe ‘protected’ is a better word.”
“Get over yourself, Gardyner. You can’t protect me from anyone. Not your people in the Alliance and certainly not my own.”
“I found you, didn’t I?”
“Only because I dropped my guard.”
“Right,” he said incredulously. “How about this—I’ll keep an eye on things too. You know, for my sake. Not yours. Because you can do that all by your lonesome.”
“Fine.” He turned to leave, but when he made it to the door, hand on the knob, he stopped. “I’m not kidding. I’m doing this for myself.”
“Of course you are.”
“Sometimes it pays to understand what, or whom, you hate. Makes some of the pain go away.” He tossed the keys at me. I caught them. “One for the lobby, one for your mailbox downstairs, and one for each lock on that door. Code is 8152. Oh, and there’s an ID card for you too. And a checkbook. But no one uses those anymore. Your name is Jonathan now. Probably best that you don’t share a name with Earth’s Most Wanted.”
I squeezed the sharp ridges of the keys with my fingertips, hoping the distraction would serve as a mask for my emotions since I no longer possessed any of the deceptive powers I once relied on.
“Thank you, Sam.”
He nodded at a device on the coffee table. “Call me if you need anything.”