To See the Sun

Zhemosen – Commonwealth Space

A nudge to the left centered the crosshairs. Through the scope, light flashed off a head devoid of hair. Blinking, Gael pulled away. By the time he’d cleared his vision, his target had moved. Gael panned the scope back and forth for a while, eyes watering.

He sat back with a sigh. The job wasn’t going as expected—not that he had many expectations. He’d never used a rifle before. The ugly weapon was supposed to be easy to operate, and it was, in theory. Acquire a target through the scope and wait for the computer to calculate distance and trajectory, taking into account weather conditions and even how many layers of cement or plascrete a hardened shell might need to pierce. The rifle mocked such ideas as bulletproof glass, not that there was much of it in District Twenty-Eight.

The only thing that might stand between the end of this rifle and death was a deflector field, and there weren’t any of those down here, either. Nothing but dead air and a half-open window between him and his target—who was currently alive, and not supposed to be.

But Gael hadn’t killed anyone before, and the idea of it wasn’t as easy as computing the obstacles between his bullet and some poor dope who thought letting his head shine free was a good fashion choice.

Gael examined the dull black casing of the rifle, the stubby gyropod protruding from the underside, and the surprisingly short barrel. His gut churned. Closing his eyes, Gael tipped his head back and counted. By the time he got to ten, he’d imagined how the light of the sun might feel on his face, even though no gentle warmth seeped down from the upper levels of Zhemosen, the City Without End. Only soot, grime, and the stench of hot glass and steel. He’d never seen the sun. He rarely got the chance to breathe fresh air.

Neither was his choice. It’d been a long, long time since he’d had a say in how he lived his life.

Gael opened his eyes and leaned in to peer through the scope. A rightward nudge found a girl, slender and fair-haired, which was unusual. The light-colored hair, not her build. Her face put her age somewhere between ten and twelve, if he had to guess. Her cheeks had the roundness of youth.

The rifle stock clicked beneath Gael’s palm and a green ring circled the crosshairs in the scope. Exhaling sharply, he moved back, making sure to push the weapon aside. The girl wasn’t his target. Sun, no! He’d never agree to kill a child. His stomach cramped violently. Sweat sprang from his hairline, dampening his forehead.

“I can’t do this.”

He glanced across the alleyway at the building opposite. A lazy holo blinked sporadically two windows over: Capitol Hotel. It was one of more than a dozen so named establishments in Zhemosen. Every district laid claim to the idea they were the original city, the seed from which the undercity had spread, spawning the overcity and the outercity—glass and steel closing in district after district until it reached from sea to sea.

His target was a visitor from another district, apparently unwelcome. He obviously wasn’t doing business with the Trass family, or Gael wouldn’t be here with an execution order.

But who was the girl? He hadn’t been given any instructions regarding a girl. He’d only been told to wait until the transaction was complete; until the visitor’s bodyguard disappeared—presumably to escort the other party (another person Gael didn’t know) out of the building. The bodyguard would be taken care of somewhere between here and there. Gael’s job was simple: kill the visitor.

He leaned in again, using his fingertips to line up the rifle and scope, moving his hands away as soon as he could see into the room. He didn’t want to feel that click again. He most definitely didn’t want to kill the wrong person.

He didn’t want to kill anyone, really.

Another quick pan left and, there, the bald man. His target. Swallowing, Gael rubbed his palms against his thighs.

Just do it. One kill and it will all be over. You’ll get to keep your life.

“What a lie.” His whisper tasted of poisoned air and regret.

Still, Gael put a hand to the side of the rife, carefully, gently, and waited for the weapon to indicate readiness. The soft thrum of the click tickled his skin. He edged a finger toward the trigger, around the guard, barely daring to breathe as he slid a digit inside. The slightest movement would throw off the targeting. He should have had his hand there from the start. He was doing this all wrong.

Oh, sun, he was going to kill someone, he was going to . . .

Within the green-tinged view of the scope, the bald man’s head erupted. Disconnect spun his head one way, his stomach another, as tinted red and gray matter exploded outward into a mist of blood and bone. Gael jerked back with a short cry, finger tangling in the trigger guard. The weapon coughed beneath his hand. Distantly, he heard a pop as his bullet pierced the glass of the window.

Gael leaned over and vomited onto his shoes.

A faint shriek pierced the stillness around his ears, the numbing buzz dulling his senses. With trembling hands, he pulled the rifle from the concrete windowsill and fell backward into the room rented for just this purpose. He dropped the weapon onto the bag and sat staring at it, gulping, ears ringing. Next step was to disassemble the parts, put them into the bag, and dispose of them at different locations throughout the district.

Gael couldn’t move. Couldn’t make himself move.

“I killed someone.”

He hadn’t. Rationally, he knew he hadn’t. Someone else had taken the shot seconds before his trembling hands botched the job. But he’d been there. He’d witnessed it. Guilt slithered beneath his skin—cold and slimy.

Who had pulled the trigger? Same person who’d taken care of the bodyguard? That would mean Julius Trass had known he wouldn’t be able to do it.

“Burning sun,” he cursed.

Would the mysterious extra assassin also kill the girl?

Gael peeked through the window. The girl was outside on the balcony, crouched behind the glass door. His bullet hole showed in the pane just over her head. As Gael watched, she glanced over her shoulder, directly at his building. Without the scope, he couldn’t see her expression. Couldn’t see her eyes. He imagined what both contained. Horror and accusation. The question of why. Oh sun, had the man been her father? Had he been teaching her the family business? She seemed young for it, but age was so often irrelevant in the undercity.

The girl looked away and down before moving toward the edge of the balcony. They weren’t that high up. She could probably drop to the balcony below, and then to the ground without hurting herself.

Get away from here, he silently urged.

Fresh misery clutched his gut. He wasn’t cut out for this kind of work. Why had Julius given him this job? Stupid question. He knew why. But surely there were other ways to bind him, to make him regret ever asking for help.

Gael moved away from the window and glanced at the rifle, thoughts spinning. Breathe. Pretend there is sky up there and breathe. He closed his eyes and counted. One, two, three . . .

By ten he had a plan. Julius might not know he hadn’t done it. The rifle had been fired, and he was supposed to dispose of it anyway. What mattered was that the visitor was dead and no one was knocking on his door. In fact, given the direction of blood spray—oh sun, oh sun—any search would start to the east, not the south. He had time to make a clean getaway, all this useless panicking aside.

What if he sold the gun? Was it worth enough for a ticket off planet?

Would Trass make him kill again if he stayed?

What about the girl?

Stop thinking about the girl!

Gael pulled the gun apart and stuffed each piece into the bag. Then he slung the rattling sack of fabric over his shoulder and left the apartment without pausing to look out of the window. If the girl knew what was good for her, she’d be gone. She was well old enough to take care of herself.

He’d been looking after himself and his brother since he was eight.

His brother . . .

Shaking his head wouldn’t dislodge thoughts of Loic, but he did it anyway, one violent jerk that nearly had him falling down the stairs. Gael gripped the rail and waited for his balance to come back before starting downward. His footsteps echoed in the narrow stairwell, bouncing off the walls like ominous shadows. Gael moved faster, eager to escape, and began to push through the door into the alley. The door struck something and stopped. Gael froze as blond hair wrapped around the edge of the door, blown back by the impact and the lazy stir of air from a nearby vent. A hand appeared below the hair, short fingers curling around the doorway. Then she stepped away, stuttering and crying, her eyes red and her face pinched with panic.

It was dim in the alleyway. Long, permanent shadows striped everything in the streets of the undercity. What light they had was filtered by layers of dust and grime. He knew it was the same girl, though, and not just because her pale-yellow hair lit up the alley like a flare. His life was a string of unexplained coincidences; him being in an empty apartment with a sniper rifle he didn’t know how to use was simply the most recent. Now before him stood the only witness to a crime he hadn’t actually committed.

“Can you help me?” she asked, her accent lighter than the heavy air of the undercity.

Gael shook his head without thinking about it. “You need to get out of here.”

“I don’t know where to go!”

Was that blood on her dress?

He couldn’t take her with him. Couldn’t be responsible for another person, not again. Besides, how would he explain her to Trass?

Gael started to lean away in the direction he needed to go, and the girl let out a sob. Balling her fists, she thumped them against her hips. She wasn’t going to have a tantrum, was she? Neither of them had time for that—and why was he still standing here?

Thankfully, she seemed to pull herself together. She smeared tears across her cheek with the back of one hand. “If you’re not going to help me, at least tell me where to go.”

“Away from here.” Advice they both needed to follow. Now.

“How?”

How she could be so clueless would be a better question. Gael extended one finger in a shaky point. “The . . .” Damn it, he couldn’t send her to an illicit gate. Little girls only had one thing the keepers were interested in, and while he might be a sort-of killer, he wasn’t that low. Gael shifted his finger toward the east. Toward a more official exit. “The gate is that way. Have you got any credits? How did you get here?”

She gave him a blank look.

Gael tapped his wrist where legal, registered citizens wore a Broad Area Network Device. “How many credits do you have?”

The girl pulled back her sleeve, exposing a slim silver Band. Given the shine of the metal and lightweight design, it could be loaded with enough credits to take her two districts over or even off planet.

He should steal it.

Gael glanced up to find her staring at him warily. Curling his fingers inward, he pressed his hand to his thigh. “You need to go.” Before someone kills you or cuts off your hand. Or both. “Find the gate and climb as many levels as you can. Go to District Twenty-Five.”

“District Twenty-Five.”

Gael backed away. “There’s a junction there.” Or so he’d heard.

She didn’t move.

“Go!”

When she opened her mouth again, Gael pushed past her and ran, duffel bag clanking against his back. He’d already lost the person he cared about most in the world. He didn’t have it in him to take on responsibility for another.