Soldier of Fortune: Chapter 6

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Stepping off the tram onto the Lipton Street station, Gideon glanced around to see where he should go next. And to make sure none of the other passengers had any particular interest in him. 

After the scuffle at the airfield, he didn’t feel inclined to take any more chances. 

His glance caught the eye of a sergeant of infantry who’d boarded at the third stop with another noncom. From their speculations on the best places to get a drink, get laid, or, for preference, both, he guessed they were on furlough. 

She gave him an assessing top-to-bottom review, hesitating over the draco tucked around his neck, and moving downward with military precision. 

The sergeant was a tall woman, he noted, the sort with lots of curves overlaying the muscle, and the interest in her light brown eyes was palpable. 

So palpable, Gideon could feel certain parts which hadn’t palped in some time coming to attention. 

Then her eyes fell on his right hand, and his right hand’s tattoo, at which point the interest about-faced to disgust, and she favored him with one last withering glare before taking her companion by the arm and retreating into the rain-drenched streets. 

Gideon watched them go, telling himself it was just as well, that he had more pressing issues, that he wasn’t a one-night-stand type of guy and—

And that was complete and utter aurochs’ crap. Six years in the stir, he’d have gone for a one-hour stand, assuming he could stand for a full hour after such a prolonged drought. 

And that, he thought, while true, was also not why the sergeant’s rejection had struck him with the force of a fist to the gut. 

It was the look in her eyes, the first eyes from outside Morton to have seen the tattoo, and recognize it for what it was. 

So, he told himself forcefully, you can stand here in the rain, whinging over a stranger’s judgment, or you can take the next step. 

Okay, he asked himself, so what’s the next step?

I dunno, dumbass, but maybe the map will tell you. 

Sometimes his self could be a real pain in the ass. 

“What ma—? Oh,” he said aloud, realizing he was, in fact, standing directly in front of a map, tacked to the kiosk outside the tram station. 

An incredibly detailed map, Gideon discovered, as its borders stretched well beyond the city proper, displaying the city’s wind farm to the south, the keeper-protected salt marshes and Oracle Ocean in the west, and the Corps Tactical Division Headquarters in the northeast. To the east was the airfield from which he’d come, and on the opposite side of the river from the airfield sat the mag lev train station. 

Turning his focus towards the city’s interior geography, Gideon saw that, like his home city of Tesla, Nike followed the wheel plan, with the colonial and city government offices housed in the center of the wheel, and twelve main avenues running from that center like spokes. The spokes created eleven wedges of real estate which were, themselves, connected by streets which circumnavigated the city like variegated hoops. 

Each wedge between the spokes was a district and each district had its own district minister, as well as its own park and agri-center, overseen by keepers assigned to the city. 

There were some differences from Tesla, he saw. 

In Nike, for instance, the university was located in the Second District, near the city center, while most of the manufacturers were in the outer rings of the Eighth, Ninth and Tenth, making use of the river which bounded the city to the north and east. 

Tesla’s university had been scattered throughout nine of the city’s fifteen districts, each area of study having its own unique space, and the manufacturers were mid-city, where the Folger River flowed through, dividing the city in half. 

None of which mattered, he reminded himself, as right now he was in Nike. 

Nike where, as with most of the wheel cities, residences nearer the center were claimed by individuals of influence—individuals such as five-sun generals of the Corps, currently in command of Tac HQ. 

Yeah, he thought, Jessup Rand would keep a house in the center of town. 

Thinking this, Gideon had to force his left hand to remain unclenched as he imagined wrapping it around Rand’s throat. 

Last resort, he reminded himself, relaxing enough to give Elvis an absent scritch. First, he’d try the mostly legal way—the way that led to the truth—and if that didn’t work…

“Oy, need a lift?” 

Gideon and Elvis both started at the rickshaw driver’s call. “No, thanks,” he said, in part because he was mindful of the need to preserve his small amount of cash, and in part because he was not quite over the thrill of actual water falling from the sky. 

The driver shook his umbrella-hatted head at the wet nutter and rode on, the wheels on his bike spraying Gideon’s shins. 

Gideon turned back to the kiosk map, where another moment’s study showed him what he was looking for and, with his pack on one shoulder and an unhappy Elvis on the other, he headed out into the downpour. 

As he walked, he wondered how long it would take the twins from the air dock to report to Rand. 

He wondered not because he was worried about his parole, but because Gideon wanted Rand to know he was here. 

He wanted the murdering bastard to know who was coming for him.

“That one.” Fagin Erasmus Ellison pointed at the man who’d just stepped from the airfield tram, and was looking somewhat lost. 

Mia peered around the fagin’s bulk to see who he meant.

Though Ellison’s chosen mark was only on the other side of Lipton Street, she had to squint through the sheeting rain to see him. “Don’t look rich,” she said. But he did, to her experienced eye, look dangerous, even with that weird hump on his shoulder. 

That comment earned her a clap on the side of the head that left her ears ringing. “Don’t question, girl,” Ellison snapped. “You’re in enough of a stew, ain’t ya?”

She hunched in on herself, which she’d long ago learned was the only safe response to her fagin when he was in a mood, and, since he’d discovered her Marlowe Street book cache a few hours past, he was in a truly smogged mood. 

“I told you time and again, readin’ ain’t nothing but a distraction,” he said now, indicating he was still thinking about those books. “And dodgers lookin’ for a distraction ain’t challenged enough t’keep their head inna game so that,” he jerked his chin towards the tall man’s apparent deformity, “is gonna be your challenge.” 

Looking closer, Mia was astonished to see the deformity move, stretching out first a head and then a pair of long, articulated wings.

“Oy!” she said, then before he could thump her again dropped her voice to whisper, “He’s got a draco!”

“Not for long,” Ellison said, glaring down, paying no mind to the rain sluicing from his bald head. “Once you nick it, it’s gonna be my draco.” He laid a hand on the girl’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze she felt down to the bone. “You bring that winged bugger back to me and it’ll be double rations and a quarter the take once it’s sold. If you don’t bag it,” he continued, leaning down so the rainwater dribbled from his head onto hers, “you’ll be onna streets. And these,” he patted the inner pocket where lay the much-thumbed books he’d confiscated earlier, “are goin’ inna river. You savvy?” 

“Yeah—yes, sir,” she amended, wincing as the heavy hand began to squeeze deeper. The tears that pricked, however, weren’t for the pain—that she was accustomed to. The tears were for her books, which were the only things that made life in Ellison’s hive bearable.

“Good. Now he’s movin’, so get on with ya’, and remember,” he added, “you don’t bring me that draco, you’ll be out your books and your place.” 

He didn’t add, because he’d long ago beaten it (often literally) into every one of his dodgers, how easy it was for a child to disappear in Nike. 

What he did add was a slap on the back to start Mia on her way, nearly sending the girl face first into a muck-filled puddle. “And mind your feet,” he hissed, as though it were her clumsiness, and not his abuse, that had caused the misstep. 

Once Mia was on her way, Ellison remained in place, watching the mark until he rounded the corner and was lost to sight. 

There was no point watching Mia. Mia had already blended into the rain-drenched dark, as if she were no more than a shadow herself, and not just a practitioner of the shadow trade. 

Which made it all the more pity he’d have to be rid of the girl, whether she succeeded at tonight’s task or not. 

Sure, she was one of the best dodgers he’d ever brought up, but that didn’t make up for the fact that the girl had ideas, all picked up from the books she was so keen on. 

Books, he’d discovered—having trailed her to a little shop on the corner of Marlowe and Deckard—that she’d bought. 

With money. 

His money, cadged from her nightly takes for who knew how long. 

And when he’d followed her a mite farther, he found she had a regular little library, tucked away in a keeper’s shed in Rosalind Park, and was using those books to teach Ellison’s other dodgers to read!

His ears were getting hot again, just thinking on it. 

As if a dodger had any need of posh learning. 

If they could dip twenty customers in one round of the Shakespeare Circus, tell the difference between a genuine Stolichnaya and a fake Coca-Cola, and how to count the starbucks the fence offered, then they had all the education they’d ever need. 

At least, it was all they needed until they were too old to dodge. Once they hit that age—the age when they became too tall, too noticeable, and too independent—they’d follow the long tradition of dodgers on Fortune by graduating from the hive. 

Not the kind of graduation the dodgers expected, the one that included walking away with shares from their years of earnings. That was tradition, and how Ellison’s own fagin, Dixit, had operated back in the day. 

The end result of that arrangement had been Ellison deciding he’d be better at running Dixit’s turf than Dixit, and Dixit disagreeing, vehemently. 

The disagreement ended when Ellison countered Dixit’s argument with an inarguable point (in that Dixit had stopped arguing once the point of Ellison’s knife was stuck through his ribs), whereupon Ellison took over the turf, the dodgers, and their shares. And because Ellison knew he wasn’t the only selfish bastard in Nike, he made sure none of his dodgers would get the chance to do unto him as he’d done unto Dixit. 

At first he made sure of this by simply eliminating any potential competition before they had the chance to become actual competition, but he soon realized there was a greater profit in encouraging a lateral career move for those mature enough to leave his hive. 

So, with the help of an independent contractor (slaver being such an ugly term), who docked in Nike twice yearly, he laterally moved several dodgers into the domestic, agrarian, and pleasure trades in the Coalition states of Adidas, Faulkner, and Midas. 

A few, the strongest and most cunning, were taken for the Adidan and Illyrian cage matches.

On the whole, the practice had served Ellison well for going on thirteen years, with only the occasional hornet to muddy the waters. 

Hornets, troublemakers, tended to move on rather sooner than graduation, though as far as their mates in the hive were concerned, they’d just up and run away. 

And Mia, despite being a top earner, was a hornet in the hive. Always at those books, her head in the clouds, thinking about a future that didn’t include her fagin; and there was every chance the other dodgers would catch Mia’s ambition, and that would mean being washed of the entire lot. All of which meant Mia would be running away in the near future. 

And in the meantime, there was every chance he’d be getting an honest-to-comb draco out of her before she moved on. 

Feeling particularly good about his business acumen, Ellison turned away from the tram station, thinking to head into town. It was still early enough that Antonio and Cara should be working the Shakespeare Circus, and Ellison wanted to be sure they weren’t using the rain as an excuse to slack off. 

Thoughts already on the night’s profits, Ellison turned away from the tram stop. And because he turned away, he missed the second figure, taller than Mia, also peeling from the shadows of the station, to follow in the footsteps of the draco-bearing mark.

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