In the Hungry Dark, by Susan Brassfield Cogan

SFReader 2007 Story Contest
Third Place Winner

The Alyrian Pearl came to me first when I sat down to write this story. I knew what was trapped inside, I just had to figure out why. The Dark Man has been inside me for a while looking for a story. He won’t tell Q-Jett his name and, darn it, he won’t tell me either. He and Q-Jett will definitely be back, they both have a lot of stories they want to tell.

Once a man who asked me the wrong price for the food he gave me, insisted I pay horizontally. I refused. He insisted more forcefully. I’m strong for a woman and big and I nearly killed him. I deliberately left him alive so whispers about what I had done would spread across the city. A woman like me usually pays for protection on her back. I trade honest labor for food or money chips when I can and I don’t need a protector.

I knew the man I thrashed wouldn’t dare complain to the Morality Police because they would ask me why I beat him. He knew I would tell them and then we would go to the Pit together. The story did spread and I heard it was even told among the Atharians in the alien section. Because of my peculiar fastidiousness and my method of enforcement, I picked up the nickname Queen Jetti, which got shortened to Q-Jet almost immediately. That name has become a warning and a protection, so I have embraced it.

One night, in the hungry dark, I found a much more worthy opponent.

I walked along the river to meet someone who I was told would pay for a bit of work. I assumed it wasn’t honest work, but my empty belly didn’t care. I’d rather work for a meal than hunt for something to steal.

The bright lights of a pleasure craft on the river cast sharp, empty shadows that I could duck into and watch the happy, wealthy Atharian offworlders float by in a flash of color and light.

I bumped into a dark form who recoiled away from me.

“‘Scuse me,” I muttered, manners from the depths of a lost childhood.

“It’s nothing,” the shadow man grunted. He was tall, more than a head taller than I am and wrapped in a big ragged black cloak against the bitter night.

We seemed to be going in the same direction. There was something different about him. I followed at a respectable distance to study him. It took me a while to figure out why he caught my attention. Then, of course, it was obvious. He walked like a king, like the streets, the stars, the heart of the cold city belonged to him. He was out of place here by the river. He wasn’t lurking or keeping to the shadows to avoid hungry people like me who haunt the riverfront.

A beggar accosted the kingly dark man. I couldn’t hear what the whimpering, cowering bundle of rags said to him, but the man pressed something into his bony outstretched hand.

I used that chance to get ahead of him. For fun, I mimicked his stride and his air of high and bleeding mighty. It felt good. Better than I thought it would.

A scream tore at the night and I forgot the lordly man. I ran. A lot of women need protection from their protectors. I can’t stand that; I interfere where I can.

I turned a corner and saw only a street with a few late night creatures like myself. Distantly, deep growling followed a woman’s shaky voice pleading. It was too soft and diffuse to get a direction. Scream again, girl. Scream again. Another shriek split the darkness. Good girl.

I turned another corner and found a well-dressed woman struggling for her life, her attacker’s face contorted with fury. I recognized that face. It was Bron the Procurer. For the right number of money chips he’d get you anything you wanted. Everyone knew he had ties to the Atharians, he even bragged he’d been off world once.

I grabbed his wrist, which felt as hard as a tree limb, and aimed a kick at his knee. I missed and harmlessly bruised his thigh, but he was startled and turned the woman loose. He balled up his fist and threw a punch at me. I dodged and felt a menacing breeze brush past my cheek. I’m a strong woman but I am not as strong as most men. I don’t fight with my fists. I jumped and aimed a kick in his mid-section. It connected solidly and he staggered back but didn’t go down. He ran at me like a freight train.

The woman screamed again, making me jump. It broke my concentration and Bron was a step away. His fists were hammerheads; his arms were pistons.

Another step and he would slaughter me, but a dark form fluttered past and caught his arm before the fist could connect. I launched another kick to his midsection and followed with a kick to his face that connected with his chin.

Now he fell and lay still. I ran to him and prepared to crush his larynx, the killing blow.

“Stop!”

I stopped more out of curiosity than submission. “Why? When he wakes up he’ll find us all and kill us.”

“I’ll take care of him,” said the dark man.

“No! Kill him!” said the woman. Her passion surprised me. I hated killing and never did except to save a life. If I had to kill Bron later, I would, but I was happy to put off the chore.

“You want him dead?” said the dark man with a hint of contempt in his voice.

“He tried to steal the–. He tried to steal from me. I thought he was going to kill me. That woman thinks he’ll try again.”

“I said I would take care of it,” said the dark man. “You need to hire a body guard if you’re going to come into the wrong part of the city.”

“He was my body guard,” she said, looking at Bron like he was a pile of garbage. “One of the best agencies in the city sent him to me.” I looked at her in astonishment. I simply didn’t believe her. Any guarding agency would know Bron the Procurer and call the Morality Police if he stepped foot in their door.

But she was a rich Atharian and they would believe anything. She’d pulled a mirror from her heavy cloak and pushed back tendrils of hair loosed from her perfect coif. She had a smear of something on her chin. It was difficult to say what in the dim blue of a distant street light. I should have left then, but for some reason I was reluctant to walk away from them.

“You aren’t safe here,” I said. “Either of you. The Morality Police–”

“They wouldn’t dare touch me. I’m Chai En-Lao.” She had finished with her hair and was carefully examining her beautifully delicate features. I was obviously supposed to have heard of her. I hadn’t. I shrugged mentally; she’d been warned.

“My lady!” said the dark man and bowed his head an inch or two. “It is an honor to meet you.”

“You’re in just as much danger as she is,” I said to him. “You’re Atharian too, aren’t you?”

“Who are you?” said Chai, bluntly to the man. She didn’t seem the least curious who I was.

“No one of importance,” he said. He turned to me. “Judging from your fighting style you must be Jetti.”

So stories about me had reached the Atharians. It was a little chilling. Atharian attention was never good. “How do you know of me?” I had a sudden urge to run. Considering how my life changed that night it wasn’t a bad impulse, but my legs didn’t move. Something held me there.

“There are whispered stories about Queen Jetti.”

Chai stopped repairing her face and looked me up and down contemptuously. “What could you be queen of?”

“Nothing,” I said. “I am Q-Jet, queen of nothing.” I turned and walked away. I needed to find the man I was supposed to meet. I couldn’t afford to miss a chance to work.

“Wait,” Chai commanded. I took another step and then waited. The urge to run was still wrestling with the urge to stay with these people.

“No, you can go,” said the dark man to me. The simple words bore all the power of his lordliness. No one of importance, my aching ass.  He turned back to Chai. “I’ll walk you back to the spaceport. You don’t belong here.”

“No you won’t,” she said petulantly. “I want her to come with me.” She looked me up and down again. It made me want to smash the bones in her face. “I’ll pay you well,” she added.

“My lady,” said the dark man. “You don’t know this woman. I’ll–”

“No,” she said. She tried to sound imperious but she wasn’t quite carrying it off. “You will work for me.” It wasn’t a question. It was a command.

I looked her up and down just to get a little bit even. “Yes.”  Of course, I thought to myself. I was hungry and I would have cheerfully worked for a two-headed water scorpion.

“Good.” She looked at the dark man of no importance. “Clean that up for me, won’t you?” She flicked her fingers at Bron, who still lay on the ground breathing but not moving. The dark man bowed again, this time mockingly.

“Come,” she said to me. I followed her but I looked back at the dark man who crouched beside Bron’s body. He’d never told us his name.

Chai was no two-headed water scorpion, but she was dangerous. She was an addict. A user. She led me to a party in an underground warehouse on the edge of the alien compound, which surrounded the spaceport. She gave the Atharian at the door her name and he let us both in with a smile and without any payment.

The cavernous room was filled with people, sweating, staggering, hysterically cheerful. Music throbbed so loud I thought my ears would bleed.

The place reeked of alcohol. It is death in the Pit for anyone making and selling alcohol and a year in the Pit if you are caught in possession–which is the same thing as a death sentence. I’ve only tasted alcohol twice. It’s foul. The second time was an accident.

Chai was greeted with a warm and sloppy welcome. A waiter with a tray of glasses offered her a drink. She snatched one and downed it in three gulps. Another waiter drifted by with a tray of little dishes containing something I assumed was not candy. Chai ate a selected handful of them, washed down with another glass of alcohol.

I watched her, a ghost in the crowd. No waiters offered me anything. They knew I was working like they were.

People crowded around her adoringly as if she were their queen or their goddess. They darted little glances at each other in excited anticipation as if something important was about to happen.

Chai walked over to the elevated platform where the music machine stood. A man all in black, painfully thin and gaunt, climbed up with her and turned the music down to barely audible. I felt the relief like a release of pressure.

“Attend all ye revelers!” he intoned like a priest. It was wasted words. All eyes were focused on Chai except mine. I watched the crowd. Any threat to my client would come from there. I saw with surprise that the dark man was in the back holding a liquor glass, untouched, as if he could blend in to this crowd of brightly colored and dissipated thrill sluts.

When he saw I noticed him he raised his glass in a kind of salute.

A collective gasp from the crowd followed by a worshipful moan drew my attention back to Chai.

She held cupped in her two hands a globe about the size of my fist. It shimmered and pulsed in iridescent white and yet not white. It swirled with all colors and pulsed with life and light. Chai lifted it high so everyone could see it. Then she lowered it and bowed, pressing it to her forehead.

I felt my heart lift as I looked at it. It was like all the joy and peace in a sad and weary world were concentrated there in Chai’s graceful fingers. Her face was luminous with youth and health. I hadn’t noticed what a perfect beauty she was. She glowed with perfection.

At first I thought she had begun a slow dance in perfect time with the barely audible music. But after a moment I saw she was just walking to the steps and coming down from the stage, a queen among her devoted subjects. They pressed forward, but I felt she was in no danger. They approached her and touched their foreheads to the globe, imbibing its light. I ached to do the same, but held back by strength of will alone.

Chai slowly progressed through the crowd spreading light, beauty, and sighs of happiness. I longed to do as they did and bow to such perfect bliss. Finally I couldn’t stand it and moved toward her.

A hand grabbed my arm. Reflexively I shook it off. The dark man grabbed my hair and pulled my head back. His breath on my face was hot.

“Remember who you are,” he whispered in my ear. I didn’t want to fight him. I should have killed him for touching me like that, but I didn’t want to. I forgave him. The spell was broken. He released me.

I am Q-Jet and I’m not a dope slut.

Chai was still glowing and lovely and I still felt the pull of peace and beauty, but it was at arm’s length. I looked around and the dark man was gone.

As morning rose, Chai took me to her apartment and showed me where I could sleep. She gave me a stack of credit chips larger than I had ever owned in my life and told me to tell her when that was used up. I decided it was a week’s pay as I stuffed them in my pocket.

I didn’t make it an entire week.

I learned that the orb was called an Alyrian Pearl and that it was almost worth the price of a planet.

“How do you know I won’t steal it?” I asked.

“You were willing to walk away from it,” she answered. Before I could ask what in five hells that could mean, she stretched out on a rumpled bed and fell asleep with the Pearl pressed to her heart.

When I woke in the late afternoon I found her setting the Pearl in a little vault built into the wall. While I watched she shut the door and brushed it tenderly with her fingertips. It sealed perfectly. If I had not watched her doing it, I would never have known that a vault was there.

When darkness fell we went out. To my surprise she didn’t take the Pearl with her.  She told me she’d been well paid to exhibit the Pearl that night in the club. It was far too risky to carry it with her all the time. Over the next few days I learned she always slept with it.  She would stagger home drawn, haggard, sick, and dissipated and tumble into bed with the Pearl tight in her hands. Gradually her face would relax into sleep and she would become serene and childlike with a faint smile warming her face.

It happened on the fifth day—well, the fifth morning. I was supporting her as she staggered home. Two nights before, I’d carried her home across my shoulders but she’d puked down my back, so we wouldn’t be doing that any more.

I felt something sting my arm and found a small dart sticking out of my shoulder. My left arm went rapidly numb.  I looked around wildly for the source of the attack and saw an empty street. I had a knife in my boot, but it was the right boot and I’d have to drop Chai to get it. Then a net covered us both.

To all the hells with Chai. I dropped her and groped for the knife. But the numbness spread rapidly to my throat, my chest and up to my head. My knees hurt and I had a vague perception I’d fallen to them. I must have fallen further, but I don’t know.

A brief eternity later, I was lying in a warm, dimly lit room.

“She’s awake,” I heard someone say in the watery distance.

Bron was standing over me, a dark purple bruise on his chin. I should have been frightened but I couldn’t raise the energy. I closed my eyes to shut out the sight of him. When I opened them again Bron had been replaced with the dark man.

“Can you speak?”

I licked my dry lips and said “Yes,” experimentally. It was a dry croak. The dark man had a beautiful little silver tube in his hand. He pressed it against my shoulder and I felt a sudden sting.

The fog in my head began to lift. Bron appeared at the dark man’s shoulder. I must have reacted because the dark man said, “Relax, you are in no danger.” His authority, his command, made it impossible not to believe him.

“Why did you do this?”

The dark man smiled down at me, his face weathered with years. He had enormous eyes and a hawk-beak nose. He still wore the tattered black cloak but he’d pushed the hood back to reveal black hair, short cropped around his face.

“The Pearl, of course. Alyrian Pearls are beyond price and they are also beyond ownership. It does not belong to Chai. It belongs to itself.”

“So what?” I said. My voice was mine again. I thought I could sit up, but decided to stay paralyzed a little longer. I couldn’t tell if the knife was still in my boot.

“You are going to help me get it.”

“No, I’m not.” What else could I say?

“Sit up and look over there.”

Obviously my ruse was no longer a ruse, so I sat up and looked where he indicated. Chai lay on a narrow bed tied spread eagled hand and foot. Her mouth was covered by silver tape. Her moist eyes looked at me, filled with pleading.

“You will do what I ask or Bron will do anything with Chai that he pleases, and then he will do the same to you. He is allowed free reign as long as the final result is that both of you are dead.”

His words were chilling and he seemed quite sincere but his threat excited my curiosity more than fear.

“Screw yourself.”

Now the dark man’s eyes glittered with anger. “Bron,” he said softly.

Bron pulled out a knife and cut a shallow line on Chai’s shoulder without any hesitation. She writhed and screamed through the tape on her mouth. I knew him. I knew he’d dismember Chai like a chicken, with all the emotion of a housewife making dinner. Bron moved around Chai and prepared to slice the other arm.

“Stop,” I said. Bron had Chai’s arm in one hand and the knife in the other. He stopped like he was posing.  “It’s sealed in a vault. There’s no way I can get it for you.”

“A vault?” the dark man turned to Chai with such loathing that she closed her eyes and seemed to diminish. “Describe the vault to me.”

“Why don’t you just ask her?” I said nodding at Chai.

“She’s an addict. She would never give it up voluntarily. She’ll kill to protect it and die rather than voluntarily release it. Describe the vault to me.”

I did as he asked while part of my mind puzzled over the look he’d given Chai.

“It’s possibly a DNA key,” said the dark man thoughtfully. “What hand did she use to seal the fault?”

I closed my eyes and visualized the scene. “The left,” I said.

“And yet she’s right handed.” He went over to Chai and removed the glittering bracelet from her left wrist. He dipped it in the thin stream of blood beginning to coagulate on her arm. Then he handed me the bloody bauble.

“Bring me the Pearl,” he said. “If this fails, return here and we’ll try another tack.”

“If this fails,” I said. “You’ll never see me again.”

The dark man smiled pleasantly.  “Yes we will. Otherwise Bron will cut her head off and we will take a wrecking ball to her apartment.”

I tried to decide if he was telling the truth. This man was not a killer, and not an addict. Something else drove him.

I stood and left without another word. Chai struggled and growled through her gag. I ignored her.

“Q-Jet.”

I turned at the door. “Yes?”

“Don’t touch it with your bare skin. Use gloves or wrap it in something.”

I nodded and left. Many flights of steps took me to the night above. When I got to the surface, I realized I was inside the space port. I found the back entrance to Chai’s apartment building. There were no guards or doormen on this side. No need for them. Guards were only to keep people like me out.

I made it safely up to the apartment and keyed the security code.

Someday I want an apartment like Chai’s. Her apartment was clean, well-lit and warm. It had five comfortable rooms. All of that was nice but negligible. What I most admired was the sense of safety and security. The cold, hostile, world was outside. Warmth and safety were inside. I’d never slept so soundly as I had in Chai’s tiny servants’ quarters.

I made straight for her bedroom and the vault. I waved the bloody bracelet in front of the door and ran my fingers along the edge to trigger what I assumed was the latch. Nothing happened. I did the entire ritual again. Nothing.

I put on the bracelet, flecking my hand with powdered dried blood. I stroked the door as I’d seen her do. Nothing. The door stayed shut. I rested my palm flat on the area of the wall where I knew the door had to be. Even through the inches-thick plasteel, I could feel the Pearl.  I closed my eyes and imagined Chai’s movements. Stroking, almost caressing. I saw her pulling it out and pressing it against her forehead. A deep longing to hold the Pearl in my own hands overcame me. I stroked the door as I’d seen Chai do and it popped open. It was like my deepest heart’s desire had been given to me.

The Pearl lay inside the vault on a velvet cloth. It glowed golden yellow with flecks of brown. Trembling I reached for it.

I stopped.

“Remember who you are,” the dark man had said. “Don’t touch it,” he’d warned. Suddenly, I knew if I touched it I would lose myself — and I am all I have. Trembling, I pulled the velvet cloth up around it and then pushed the bundle into a pocket. Even protected from it by the cloth, I still felt filled with warmth, with daylight. While I had been inside Chai’s apartment, the sun had risen and its soft, clean light filled the decaying, dirty streets. Port workers, street vendors, housewives in their shawls and long skirts, market baskets over their arms were all bathed with shimmering, healing light.

I returned to the deep basement where the dark man and Bron held Chai. It was one of the most difficult journeys of my life because at the end of it I knew I would give the Pearl away.

I didn’t believe the dark man would behead Chai, but I knew Bron would do it eagerly if a few credit chips were involved.  Chai sat up on the little bed with her cloak pulled tight around her. The silver tape was gone from her mouth. It left a red patch when it had been ripped off. Her wrists were bound and her face was puffy from crying. She looked exhausted, more tired and drawn than I had ever seen her. I was surprised that the dark man wasn’t there, but he entered the door only a few seconds after me.

“You followed me,” I said.

“Of course,” he said as if it were understood. “Do you have it?”

“Of course,” I said and pulled it out of my pocket. I tossed the velvet bundle to him. It was like throwing away my heart.

“Noooo!” Chai wailed as if her last child were being murdered in front of her. “No, you can’t–” she tried to stand up, but Bron took care of that.

“Thank you,” said the dark man. “We will all go up into the sunlight.” He headed for the door without the slightest doubt we’d follow him. I certainly did. Bron made sure that Chai did too.

The compound was still empty. I could see in the distance the spaceport workers were arriving for their morning shift. Three ships hovered in the distance, their antigravs glowing brilliant blue in the early morning light.

The dark man threw back his cloak, and held the Pearl in one hand, slowly unwrapping it with the other. He, too, was careful not to touch it with his bare skin. He stood for a moment as the Pearl changed from brownish gold to glowing white.

“Alyrian Pearls must be nourished by light,” he said. “You can’t kill it, but darkness starves and tortures it. Shutting it away in a box is utter cruelty.”

I glanced at Chai. She was weeping hysterically again, limp in Bron’s arms. I felt I could never shut such a beautiful thing away, but then I am not a dope slut.

At least I thought I wasn’t. The dark man tilted his hand and dropped the Pearl onto the tarmac where it smashed in a thousand pieces.

A scream tore out of me, joined by wet, hysterical screams and insane thrashing from Chai. She clawed at Bron with superhuman strength and in a moment his face bled from several scratches. She slipped out of his hands like an eel and dove at the shards of the Pearl, cutting her hands and knees and face on the shattered remains. I just stood there stunned, too numb with grief to move.

Then I saw something I didn’t believe. A woman coalesced out of thin air above the spattered bits of glass. She was iridescent and shining, her skin shone like it was made up out of the same stuff as the Pearl itself.

“Good morning, Lady,” said the dark man to the shining woman. “Can you heal her?” He gestured to Chai’s sobbing form.

“In part,” said the woman. She reached down and touched Chai on the top of the head and Chai drew a deep shuddering breath. She didn’t look up or even act like she noticed the touch. She was bleeding from several small cuts and still focused on what was rapidly becoming just little bits of glass.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the shining woman. I stared at her hopelessly as if all the cold streets of the city ran through my heart. When she was gone, and I knew she would go, I would be alone in the hungry dark. She saw me and I flinched from her gaze. When she moved toward me I wanted to flee but I hopelessly stood my ground. I expected her touch to be cold, but it was more like being brushed with a feather. The darkness inside me lifted a little.

“Lady,” said the dark man. “Go to liner CAP5206-HG and present yourself to the steward. A passage has been booked for you back to Alyra. They will have the facilities to make you comfortable during your voyage.”

“Thank you,” said the shining woman. “I owe you a great debt.” She brushed his cheek and he smiled at her, years dropping away from his lined and leathery face.

“Be free, great lady, that is payment enough.” She smiled again and then she spread out and streamed away as if a wind was blowing her toward the distant space ships.

Chai still sat on the tarmac watching the shining woman go, tears streaming down her bloodied face. In this light she looked much older and deeply exhausted.

“Bron, take care of that, will you?” said the dark man flicking his fingers at Chai. Bron hauled the woman to her feet and set off in the direction of her apartment building.

“The whole thing was a set up from the beginning,” I said to the dark man.

“Yes. Thank you for your part in it.”

“You aren’t welcome.” I felt like I should have been angry. He’d used me from the first moment. But I wasn’t angry. I had enough chips left over to keep me for a month if I was careful. That wasn’t bad.

“You and I are a lot alike, Queen Jetti,” said the dark man.

“No,” I said icily. “We are not. Who was the woman inside the Pearl?”

“She’s not a woman. Her kind have no gender. That was the form of an actress I admire. She plucked it out of my mind.” He studied me for a moment with dark, alien eyes. I wanted to walk away from them. Fast. “Work for me,” he said finally. “The work suits your temperament and pays well. Would you like a steady job?”

Of course I would. This man was a big improvement over a two-headed water scorpion.

“I will work for you if you tell me your name.”

He laughed.

Susan Brassfield Cogan is the author of JUBILEE, A NOVEL (2003) and MURDER ON THE WATERFRONT, A Lady Chesterleigh Mystery (2004), and THE POCKET DARWIN. Recently, her novel THE MAN WHO NEEDED KILLING was chosen as a finalist in Amazon.com’s Breakthrough Novel contest. She writes short stories and essays on a broad range of topics and has been been published in AlienSkin, Hardluck Tales, Mysterical-E, Orchard Press Mysteries, Anotherealm (2-time winner of flash fiction contest), Burst, MoonDance and Deep Magic.

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