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Jon Moore

I rode in silence until the transport was almost at the restaurant.

“Do you think I should have killed those men?” I said to Lobo.

“Absolutely,” he said.

“What about the law? It exists to provide justice. That’s not mine to decide or to deliver.”

Lobo laughed. “I love that you can still make me laugh. Human legal systems exist for many reasons, justice being only one of them. It’s almost certainly true that the men at that auction were wealthy and, at least some of them, maybe most of them, were also powerful. Find anywhere, anytime in human history in which justice for the rich and powerful was the same as justice for the average person, and I’ll change my position. These men were going to buy and abuse those children. Unless someone stops them, they will do the same thing again.”

“So some combination of the Studio legal system and the planetary coalitions will try them and put them on a prison planet somewhere.”

“Maybe some of them,” Lobo said, “for some period of time, but I’d bet not all of them, maybe even not most of them. In no time, they’ll be free, and they’ll be doing the same thing again. They deserve to die.”

I shook my head, more in frustration than in disagreement. “I hope you’re not right, but even if you are, who am I to decide that? If everyone killed everyone they felt was evil, we’d have chaos on every world.”

“That’s a fair point,” Lobo said, “but in this case, with the data we have, my judgment is that you should have killed them.”

“Well, it’s over,” I said, “and I believe I made the right choice.”

“Whatever you believe,” Lobo said, “I am confident this is not over. But, we can discuss that later, because you’re there, and we need to rendezvous.”

The transport stopped behind the restaurant where I’d borrowed it.

I told it to open the rear door, and I stepped out.

The man came out of the kitchen. He smiled and nodded his head but said nothing.

I handed him the transport’s controls and left my arm extended. “Thank you,” I said. “You helped me a lot.”

He shook my hand. “It’s always good to help an honorable man,” he said, “even when he’s not an entirely honest one.” He stared at me for a few seconds. “We both know you weren’t running some errand for some rich boss. I trusted my instincts with you, so now I have to ask: Is any of this going to come back on me?”

“It shouldn’t,” I said, “but if it does, tell the truth, and you’ll be fine.”

“Okay,” he said. He pulled out a control, and one of the carts resting against the rear wall of the restaurant headed toward the transport.

I jogged away, toward the landing area. “Incoming,” I said over the comm.

“I’ll be a few minutes behind you,” Lobo said.

As I was about to round the corner of the alley, I glanced back. The carts were heading into the transport, the man’s attention focused on them, just another guy doing his job. I checked the street and slowed to a walk now that people might notice and remember me. I hunched forward and stared at the ground as I walked, making myself shorter and also exposing as little of my face as I could manage.

I passed a street vendor selling balls of something fried and fishy. My mouth watered at the smells. I stopped, thumbed my wallet to an ID I hadn’t used, and bought four of them in a paper bag along with the juice of some local fruit. He poured the juice from a jug.

“Squeezed it this morning,” he said. “Best on the streets. Best fish fritters, too.”

I saved the food until I was inside the landing zone and standing next to another shuttle that sat alone, no crew in sight. I ate as I stood there, to any observer simply another guy on a break. Grease from the first bite of fritter ran down my chin. It was delicious, hot and flavorful and a reminder that even on a planet like Studio you could find fish worth eating. The juice was tart but also sweet, a lovely combination. I ate quickly, hungrier than I had realized. When I was done, I wiped my chin and hands first with the bag and then on my overalls.

Lobo landed as I was putting my trash in a recycling container. He opened a hatch as soon as he was fully down.

I walked inside.

We took off.

“That zone’s logs are going to show—” I said.

Lobo cut me off. “Absolutely no trace of us. I’ve been busy, too,” he said, “and their security system was weak. We might as well never have been here.”

“Excellent,” I said.

“And now we should leave,” Lobo said.

“Not until we know Chang and the kids are safe. Take us out, but no farther than orbit, and give me all the feeds you can find that mention them.”

“It’s not like we can do anything else at this point,” Lobo said.

I flashed on Chang standing among the still awakening children, all those kids spread around her. I hated abandoning them before I was certain they were safe and would get back to their homes.

“We can be sure!” I said. “We can verify that these kids are going home, that we saved them, that…” I forced myself to stop screaming. “We’ll go back if we have to, but we won’t let them down. We won’t.”

Lobo said nothing. Displays filled his front wall. Holos danced around the room. Two newstainment types were standing near Chang, stepping around and in front of her as they fought for the best position. An overhead shot showed at least another dozen converging on her. The kids stood and sat near her. The cops’ own feeds looked good, the primary one the product of in-vehicle cameras focused on two attractive officers, a man and a woman, their faces set in resolute expressions as they instructed the crowd to let them in. Their voices boomed across multiple feeds.

“Do you know the names of these other children?” one woman asked Chang.

“No,” Chang said, “but I’m hoping that all of you here will help the police identify them and return them to their homes. I know their parents would be as grateful to you as I am to have my son back.”

Though probably not necessary, it was a smart move; she’d made sure they realized the potential interviews awaiting them if they could be there for the reunions of these children with their parents.

The newstainment teams reacted quickly. Close-up images of each of the kids played across all the feeds as sympathetic voice-overs recounted the horrors they’d endured. Announcer voices, their volume noticeably higher than the others, cut in and dangled the hopes—though not the specifics—of rewards for those who could step forward and help identify the kids.

The cops arrived. The team we’d seen earlier led their charge. Other cops on their flanks made sure we saw the calm, knowing faces of those two as they took charge. Police departments can never afford the best media people for their street action crews, but they frequently attract young talent on the way up.

“We couldn’t ask for more,” Lobo said. “Can we go now? I’d like to get out of this system before anyone starts inspecting exiting craft. Right now, I’ve filed a flight plan as a tourist shuttle heading to Mare, but the backstory I built won’t hold up well if anyone decides to dig into it.”

I scanned the displays once more. Chang held Tasson tightly while a police officer interviewed her. The other children, probably still disoriented, stayed near her. Their faces played at different moments and in different sequences on other feeds.

“Yes,” I said, “this should do it. Let’s jump out of here.”

“Good choice,” Lobo said. “I’ve already reconfigured as the shuttle, and we’re heading for the gate.”

The combination of post-mission weariness and fatigue from the short and poor sleep last night made me feel tired even though darkness had yet to fall. “I’m going to nap,” I said. “Wake me when it’s our turn to jump.” Even after all the thousands of times I’ve gone through jump gate apertures, I still love watching the miracle of the process.

“Don’t rest yet,” Lobo said.


“We have two new problems,” he said, “and we need to decide before the jump what to do about them.”

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