“Flops” by Michael Mersault

Inga held Karl’s little right hand with her left, while Mitzi gripped the fringe of Inga’s stained and rumpled shirt, trailing along, her eyes wide, a finger in her mouth. Fluffy, threadbare Flops had its long ears tied in a loop, slung comfortably over her shoulder. The three of them (and Flops) followed in their father’s sour wake, his long legs jerking with each stride of his unsteady progress. He was coming down now, Inga knew, and she wanted Mitzi and Karl safely ensconced in the Foundling dayschool before he became uncontrollably volatile. She would remain with her two little siblings, of course. At ten standard years of age, surviving the slums of Battersea’s Port City, she did not require the protection of charity-minded Vested Citizens, though the juice and crackers they provided made for a welcome breakfast.

To the east, the muted roar of an interface lighter lifting from the spaceport barely drew Inga’s attention, and her father did not even spare a glance. Lighters and orbit-capable execujets represented common scenery for the residents of Battersea’s largest municipality, even for those residents dwelling in the lowest slums.

At the next intersection Inga followed the accelerating progress of her father around the corner, his growing need driving him from that lowest slum to a merely weary-looking quarter. At times, when his blood chemistry attained a rare equilibrium, Inga’s father might dispense acid comments aimed at the demi-cits populating their regulated domicile across from the Foundling School, but now they were spared such tedium. He left Inga and her siblings with the other ragged children awaiting the volunteer Inga called “Slow Top,” to open the doors, mumbling something incomprehensible as he careened off down the lane, an invisible string dragging him forward, his cheap sword rattling at each step.

Little Mitzi looked up at Inga and placed a moist hand on Inga’s wrist, tapping out a short message in the silent code Inga had devised: Hungry.

“I know, Button,” Inga said in a low voice, smoothing Mitzi’s blonde locks. “It won’t be but a minute.” Karl frowned up at Inga as she spoke, then resumed eyeing the other urchins all waiting outside the battered metal door of the Foundling School. Inga took the moment to address Karl’s morning hair also, never giving a thought to her own blonde disarray, her wrinkled ill-fitting clothes, or a livid bruise adorning her upper arm. The tattered shape of Flops almost covered the bruise anyway.

Like all the waiting urchins, Inga and her siblings bore the black wristbands of Vested Citizens that they would one day exchange for the sword, if they lived so long.

As Inga’s eyes flicked about the perimeter, she saw idling demi-cits sipping from steaming mugs while they stood about the apron of their domicile across the lane. She did not need the absence of a sword at their hips to identify a demi-cit. Their well-fed ambivalence combined with something of a dismissive, cynical air to clearly delineate them from any Vested Citizen, rich or poor. Despite her father’s scathing estimation of demi-cits, Inga saw their tidy attire, their neat little apartments and evident leisure, and wondered if the “liberty” of a Vested Citizen might be overrated.

A rattle and scrape of the school’s metal door set all the urchins in sudden motion, pushing forward eagerly, but Inga held Karl and Mitzi back, staring into the open door. Two tall, unfamiliar figures stood well back in the simple schoolroom behind Slow Top. Inga gripped her siblings firmly, tapping out: Wait. Strangers.

She took in the strangers’ essence in a flash: Wealth. Then she measured the two figures in detail, seeing the fine, sober clothing, well-worn swords and sidearms belted in the comfortable ease of long practice, the curve of toned muscle. Lastly, Inga studied their faces, shifting the plastic eyes of Flops toward them.

The woman seemed quite old to Inga’s eyes, though her dark hair showed little gray and her solemn visage bore few lines. The expression shared on both strangers’ faces revealed their identity to Inga’s perceptive gaze as clearly as if their Family name was stamped on their foreheads. Her caution eased with the certainty of her identification, but she also observed that these two wealthy interlopers recognized her on sight, and this kept Inga’s vigilance simmering. Citizens of their lofty status should have no knowledge of her, even if they did share half a surname with Inga and her siblings.

Stay close, Inga tapped onto Karl and Mitzi, releasing them to follow the others as she eased into the dreary little schoolroom. Her right hand drifted to caress that shard of jagged metal, lovingly sharpened to perfection, tape-wrapped to fit her small fist and concealed for instant use. Flops slid down her arm, and she untied the long ears without looking down.

Slow Top looked over at Inga with his do-good smile in place, and began dispensing snacks to each waif as the two fancy strangers gazed on without expression.

Inga knew a good many things on a wide range of topics. She knew Battersea didn’t amount to much as a planet in the Myriad Worlds Imperium, and she knew Port City couldn’t compare to primary cities on a dozen other worlds. She obtained her information from scores of books, and forgot little that she ever read, but she particularly prided herself in her knowledge of Battersea’s preeminent Family, the Great House of Sinclair-Maru.

Her initial interest in the Sinclair-Maru began because of that double-barreled name, and because of her own father’s absurd brag one afternoon three years earlier. On that day Inga had spotted the Sinclair-Maru crest emblazoned upon a dozen cargo transports en route to the space port. “Maru,” Inga had blurted, pointing at the stylized characters. “That’s our name.”

Generally, Inga learned to regret impulsive observations in the presence of her father, but on that particular day, his response sparked only curiosity in Inga. “Damned right it’s your name, scut! And don’t you go and forget it. They weren’t shit until the Maru clan—our people, you understand?—until the Maru clan taught them all our secrets. And now? And now? We’re practically their gods-damned cousins. They live on the biggest estate you’ll ever see, and where do we live?” The remainder of his commentary that day comprised curses regarding the Sinclair-Maru lack of generosity, but that had been enough to launch Inga Maru’s own research.

It turned out his account of the family connection fell far short of accuracy, which did not surprise Inga at all. Her father was a drug-addled fool, on top of his regular preoccupation as a small fountain of vice. But she discovered he hadn’t been as completely wrong as usual. The great Sinclair-Maru clan really was founded (way back around 5670 or so) by Inga’s own ancestor, Mia Maru—a sort of great aunt—and a fellow named Devlin Sinclair. They were a House dedicated to their adherence to the Honor Code—the same Code all Vested Citizens supposedly followed.

After learning of this ancient connection, Inga couldn’t help noticing the irregular appearance of the Sinclair-Maru on the fringes of her dreary world as they dashed importantly from place to place. The contrast between their world and hers provided food for formless ambition, but she also came to recognize a particular characteristic all members of that esteemed Family seemed to share, though she couldn’t readily describe it, even if she had anyone to describe it to. Aside from a visible tendency toward athletic builds, all Sinclair-Maru appeared to carry a sort of wall of stillness she could perceive beneath their businesslike exterior. That stillness now jumped out to Inga as she continued to observe the two strangers through her eyelashes, keeping them in sight even as she guarded Mitzi and Karl’s snacks from the other street rats, smelly old Flops held to her skinny chest.

When the last crumb of soy cracker disappeared, and the last slurp of juice trickled into greedy lips, the children shuffled to their worn little cubicles for their individual lesson programs, but Slow Top stepped up to Inga with a smile.

“Inga Maru, right?” he asked in his over-polished voice, even stooping down to put his face near Inga’s level. This performance was clearly for the benefit of his two guests. She might call him Slow Top, despite his real name, but he wasn’t so slow as to forget her name.

“Yes.” Her eyes shifted from Slow Top to the two Sinclair-Maru observing nearby.

“Of course you are,” Slow Top agreed with enthusiasm. “Say, Inga, you see we’ve got guests here today—”

“Yes,” Inga said, looking directly at the two. “The Sinclair-Maru.”

That got a response. The woman’s eyebrows raised marginally, and Inga perceived an odd flicker in those dark eyes. Shaper implants. Of course, a wealthy Family would supply its members with those expensive implanted modules. Inga knew the implants provided something called a User Interface inside your eyes or brain or something. They could access Nets, communicate and do other neat stuff all within the privacy of their own skull. She wanted a Shaper implant of her own, in her fantasies at least.

Slow Top glanced back at his guests, chuckling with an embarrassed air, “Well, uh, Inga, they’d like to speak with you, if that’s acceptable.” Slow Top indicated his dumpy desk and two bordering chairs in the corner.

Inga’s abiding curse, even raised in such a slum, by such a man as her father, remained curiosity. She shrugged. “Okay.” What could the Sinclair-Maru want to talk to her about?

The Sinclair-Maru woman went to the desk, ignoring the chairs, sitting on the edge of the desktop, her hand resting lightly on her thighs. Inga observed the thickness of the woman’s wrists, the image calling to her mind heavyworlders she sometimes saw. It communicated an impression of strength to her mind, adding to the suggestion of the woman’s solidity.

Inga settled on a chair where she could keep Mitzi and Karl’s cubicles on the periphery of her vision, Flops pulled tight to her belly, her dirty little shoes barely scraping the floor. The Sinclair-Maru man leaned back against the wall, his face expressionless, his long legs crossed, palms casually cupping his sword hilt and pistol grip.

For a time the woman seemed to wait for Inga to speak, but Inga sat quiet, her feet swinging idly, her attention shifting from Mitzi and Karl across the room, to the somber woman and back. For some reason, the tattered form of Flops—or perhaps its beady plastic stare—seemed to bother the Sinclair-Maru woman, her gaze shifting downward to Flops in Inga’s lap, her expression revealing some hint of uncertainty to Inga’s perception.

Inga won the stand-off, the woman breaking the silence, but her words created only confusion. “Tell me, Miss Maru, do you forget anything at all?”

What kind of question was that?

“Course,” Inga said. “Everyone forgets things.”

“Really? What kind of things do you forget?”

What kind of things did she forget? What kind of things could she never forget? As the question spawned these thoughts, Inga felt the flash of raw agony where memories of a mother lingered, refusing to be forgotten. She shook her head, swallowing, but she did not speak.

The woman waited a spell before saying, “I am Bess . . . Bess Sinclair-Maru, as you said. You know your family and ours were once intertwined, don’t you?”

Inga nodded and looked down. “Yes. Back four hundred years or whatever.” She shrugged. “What do you want?”

Bess smiled a little. “Put in my place, am I? Very well, then, plain dealing it will be.” She placed her palms together and measured Inga again. “My family may have a purpose for you—a job, you might say.”

Inga stared. She knew all too much about certain slum transactions: an impoverished parent—always a Vested Citizen—lost a child, and gained a fortune, all in one night.

But Bess went on, oblivious of Inga’s sudden suspicion. “You remember some weeks ago, an extensive battery of tests in this very room—of course you remember, of all people.” Bess smiled again. “You displayed . . . unique capabilities, and that is how you came to our attention.”

Yes, Inga remembered that day; the first interesting challenge she’d ever experienced in this place. Her sudden misgivings began to evaporate. Those tests bore no connection to the sort of slum exchange Inga knew and feared, but they bore no connection to any rationale she understood either. “What job could I do? I’m ten.”

Bess nodded. “Training would occupy some years until your first majority. Then, if you choose, your real work for us would begin.”

Inga could scarcely comprehend such a concept, her mind spinning with the enormity of it all. Bess would invest most of a decade in Inga’s training for some job? What job could she possibly do that would be worth such an investment? Could it possibly be?

A moment later insurmountable barriers emerged to extinguish her first hope of escaping the slum—of escaping him—she had ever known. The tyrannical bastard who slowly destroyed her could not be so easily shed, and only Inga stood between that inevitable destruction and Mitzi and Karl. Inga unconsciously pulled Flops more tightly to her chest as hope sprang up, only to wither away at the first harsh touch of reality, leaving a cold void within her.

This woman, Bess, seemed to read some ghost of Inga’s emotional rise and fall. Her eyes searched Inga’s face. “You are interested, but . . .?” Bess said.

Inga looked to the side, seeing the older street rats sneaking glances from their cubicles, curious about the fancy strangers and Inga. She turned her eyes back to Bess. “I can’t leave.”

The perplexed expression Bess wore, slowly gave way to something else. Bess seemed to nod to herself as she began. “We know more about you than you might think, Miss Maru.” Inga felt a twinge of nausea at what secret knowledge Bess might hold. No other person should know the darkness of Inga’s personal hell, but as Bess continued, Inga breathed more easily.

“You may have noticed how extensive those tests were. We measured not only reasoning and memory, but personality traits, psychological characteristics. The results can be very revealing.” Bess paused. “It is clear you possess a unique . . . let’s call it a protective inclination.”

This all meant nothing to Inga, solving nothing: mere words. She looked off at the nosey urchins all wondering what these rich people wanted with Inga. Inga wondered the same thing.

“That inclination, combined with other qualities, is valuable to us,” Bess continued. “The question is, what developed such a powerful motivation within you? Who do you protect, Miss Maru? Not your father, surely?”

Inga’s lip curled. “No.”

“So who?” Bess said, then followed the direction of Inga’s unconscious glance. Mitzi sat at her grubby little cubicle, a finger in her mouth as she traced colorful animals upon the learning screen with her other hand, unmindful of their regard.

Bess mused a moment, turning back. “I see,” but she did not seem surprised. How much did Bess really know?

Inga looked down at her swinging shoes so she would not reveal any more, Flops pulled beneath her chin, its unblinking eyes fixed upon Bess.

Bess began again. “The Battersea Youth Academy is a fine school not so far from here . . . If your brother and sister were accepted at the academy, their future—”

“No.” Inga shook her head. Without Inga to protect them, even failing them as she had so many times—no fancy school would preserve them, even if the bastard allowed it.

The silence stretched out, only broken by the scuffing sound of Inga’s shoes slowly swinging, the standing Sinclair-Maru man remaining as quiet as the tomb. At last Bess said, “While your siblings are fine children, they don’t possess the qualities we need. Only you possess what we need. I’m not sure what we can offer to . . . settle your concerns..”


Inga heard Bess use that word, and looked up. Where there was need, there was power. Inga’s key survival skills centered upon that simple reality: the ability to manipulate, to steer those more powerful than her by their needs, their fears. With that power animating her, Inga spoke: “If you—if you take them away . . . someplace safe, someplace far away . . . I’ll go wherever you want.”

“Your siblings?” Bess said, and Inga nodded, looking down. “And if we did bring this about, you would undergo the training we require? Follow strict orders?”

“Yes,” Inga said. It would be worth anything—everything.

Bess pursed her lips, nodding to herself. “Very well,” she said glancing over to her silent companion. “Message her father to set terms. We will see how willing he is.”

Inga sat bolt upright. “What? Don’t talk to him.” Were they such fools?

“We must, child,” Bess smiled. “It is the law.”

Inga shook her head. The law . . . in this dirty world animated by lawlessness. “Don’t . . . You don’t understand.” Inga hated the shaking in her voice as she spoke, but some note of her desperation seemed to resonate.

“Here.” Bess motioned to her companion, and he passed a small stack of gleaming credit chits. Bess held them in her lined, brown hand as she looked at Inga. “I’m sure your father is a cash-oriented sort, so bring this as a token of our . . . seriousness. Now won’t that settle all to your satisfaction?”

It decidedly would not settle all to Inga’s satisfaction, but she only nodded, looking at the credit chits, wondering at the naïveté of the Sinclair-Maru. Bess reached out and dropped the chits in Inga’s palm, the delightful clacking sound of each chit elevating Inga’s mood. Five twenty-credit chits! And Inga had never held more than a half-credit stamp of her own before.

Some intuition caused Inga to glance to her left just in time to catch that sneak-cheat Stevey getting an eyeful of her new largesse—an error that would inevitably create problems.

Bess Sinclair-Maru stood, her silent companion joining her. “There are a few technicalities to be addressed, but I feel comfortable you will be joining us soon, Miss Maru.”

Inga shook her head. They did not know her father . . . but then again, they were the Sinclair-Maru, and they had just dropped a hundred credits in the palm of a ten-year-old. “I—I hope so,” Inga said, standing and tucking Flops under her arm, its duties concluded.

The Sinclair-Maru drew aside to confer briefly with Slow Top before departing, never looking back.

The remaining hours in the Foundling School passed in a dreamy, unreal state for Inga. She could not yet accept even the chance that she could be free, Mitzi and Karl finally safe. But they were not safe yet, and she had been a witness to her father’s brutal guile too many times for any comfort.

Stevey, the rat, made it clear he had seen too much, eye-mugging Inga for the remainder of the day. By himself the little beast represented no great threat, but Inga recalled an older, larger brother cut from a similar cloth, and she scented hazard in the wings.

As Slow Top prepared to close up for the day and send the urchins back to the tender embraces of whatever slum derelicts parented them, Inga hovered about the man, chatting childishly. When Stevey and the others cleared out, she broke off her babble abruptly, turning to her siblings.

“Karl, Mitzi,” Inga called. “Let’s go.” She paused only a moment to secret four of the credit chits in a hidden pocket she had constructed in the scabrous belly of Flops. She tied the long ears together once again and thrust the loop well up her arm. Flops comprised a treasure in more ways than one, now more than ever. Taking Mitzi and Karl each by a hand, Inga stepped out and looked westward toward the slum, toward home. In the distance she descried the smarmy figure of Stevey, peering out from a side alley. That decided it.

“This way,” Inga said, turning resolutely east, toward the abodes of the wealthy, or at least the well fed.

Where going? Karl tapped out on Inga’s wrist, his expression revealing fear and curiosity at the unprecedented change.

“We are going to eat,” Inga said. “Real food. Loads of it.”

By the first cross street, Inga clearly perceived the immediate improvement in their surroundings. Like the slum, nearly every figure in sight wore the short dueling sword of the Vested Citizen, yet none of them lay sprawled in the gutter or slouched against a wall, scratching the endless itch.

Karl stared at everything suspiciously, but Mitzi trooped along, her eyes wide, her head turning about, finger in her mouth. Posh skimcars glided by, glossy dumb-mechs trotted along behind their owners, and everything, everything looked clean. Inga felt the twenty-credit chit in her pocket and just hoped all this might be their world soon.

The restaurant Inga selected admitted the three children, but a demi-cit servitor frowned down at them until Inga negligently produced the credit chit, tossing it in her hand as if she possessed dozens of them. A moment later they sat at a spotless table, a sparkling napkin roll at each place, Mitzi’s nose up, scenting the spice-laden air like a forest creature on the hunt. It had been some hours since the paltry juice and crackers.

Inga looked at the menu holo rising in the center of the table, noting the prices with relief. She had never set foot in such a place before, and it seemed at first they might charge anything at all for a meal. The prices were shocking, but within the realm of her new funds.

“Pick anything you want. I’ve got plenty of money.”

Karl worked slowly and carefully to read each delicious description on the menu, while Mitzi popped the finger from her mouth and reached it out to the delectable pictures on the holographic menu. She chirped in surprise when her selection illuminated. Inga smiled with delight; this moment, at least, would be theirs.

They feasted as greatly as their shrunken stomachs allowed, and Inga waited until they picked at their leftovers to speak. “Those strangers gave me the money,” Inga said, suddenly buoyed up with calories and sugar. “They—they want me to work for them.”

Mitzi’s contented expression disappeared, and she reached out a sticky hand to clutch Inga’s arm. Going? she tapped out, looking up fearfully.

“Not unless we all go, Button,” Inga said, and that seemed all there was to be said.

Inga gathered the fragments of their meals and wrapped them in napkins, cramming them in pockets and sleeves, even receiving a few credits of change from the expended twenty-chit. They might enjoy another meal or two from the leftovers, and save Inga an argument and a beating later.

The westward walk, step after step, slowly consumed any optimism Inga possessed. As they left the bright, clean world of civility and order behind, reality began to reassert its grimy weight.

Inga thought Stevey and his cronies would surely have abandoned their vigil by now, but as the light of Battersea’s sun fell behind the western sprawl, Inga saw indistinct figures emerge from an alleyway—three of them, with Stevey in the lead. Her mouth went dry. Her instinct to run could not be obeyed. Karl might keep up, but burdened with Mitzi, there was no escape. “Hold tight to my shirt, Button,” Inga said, freeing her right hand from Mitzi’s grasp.

What was the name of Stevey’s brother again? Gabe? Yes, Gabe. He stood tall, a head above Inga at least, and he wore the knowing expression all the street rat boys received at a particular age.

“Inga, that’s your name, right?” Gabe said without preamble, sauntering out to block their path, Stevey and one of his smarmy little mates in his train. His voice carried almost the man-sound to it, except for a break and squawk toward the end of the sentence.

Inga stopped still, her heart beating fast, her breath coming short. “Yes,” she said. “Inga Maru.” She instinctively sought some lever, some purchase to manipulate . . . fear and need. What did Gabe fear? What did he need?

Gabe inclined his head and Inga saw a gleam of cheap holo lenses on his eyes. Few of the slum’s denizens possessed the funds for Shaper implants, but equally few, except children, would advertise their shameful poverty by sporting holo lenses. For Inga, Gabe’s lenses merely increased the difficulty in reading Gabe’s variable moods.

“Inga bloody Maru,” Gabe said. “The fancy nobs gave you something today, didn’t they, Inga Maru?”

Inga’s mind raced, pulled by the gentle tugs of Mitzi’s hand on her shirt tail. “Y-yes,” Inga said. “They’re my cousins. I’m—I’m going to work for them.”

Gabe’s expression changed, his smirk fading into a frown. “Get out. Cousins? I don’t see it.”

“Sinclair-Maru,” Inga said with emphasis. “Cousins.”

“Ask about the money, Gabe,” Stevey said from one side, his eyes sweeping over Inga, seeing the bulge of leftover food protruding from her pockets.

Gabe glanced at Stevey. “Shut up.” He turned back to Inga. “What about the coin, Inga damned Maru? Let’s see that then.”

Inga shrugged, striving for nonchalance. “Spent it.”

“What?” Gabe demanded, looking from Inga to Stevey.

“She’s lying, Gabe,” Stevey said in a pleading tone. “There was a stack! Couldna’ spent it all.”

Inga began edging around her assailants as casually as she could, tapping on Karl’s hand. Take Mitzi. Walk.

Karl obeyed at once, still clinging to his misplaced faith in Inga’s infallibility.

“My cousins bought us loads of food,” Inga said. “See?” Inga kept edging beyond them as she scrounged out a crammed, greasy napkin, the ostentatious restaurant logo plain to see in the half-light.

Gabe reached out fast, catching hold of Inga’s left wrist, his lips twisted with the cruelty that bent his soul. “Hold up, scut.” His free hand groped over Inga, jerking the bundled food out of her pockets. His practiced fingers discovered the change chits from her meal. “What’s this now?” He looked at the small coinage resting in his palm, pocketing it. “Where’s the rest, huh?”

Inga writhed in Gabe’s crushing grip. “That’s all! That’s all!” she cried, but his hand continued pressing, searching, roving over her, stoking her shame and revulsion until Inga struck out in sick desperation. Instead of soft, sensitive eyes, Inga’s clawed fingers struck Gabe’s holo lenses, her flashing knee hammering Gabe’s interposed thigh, rather than his stones.

Gabe snarled, sinking his fist in Inga’s belly, doubling her over. Inga vomited on the walkway, her expensive meal cast up as she struggled to breathe. She had no time nor thought to check on Karl’s flight as her right hand blindly fumbled.

She felt a tug at her shoulder as Gabe grabbed at Flops. “Ugly damned toy. What’s the score, huh?”

Gabe’s knee hovered before Inga’s streaming eyes, and she desperately looped her right hand out, fast and hard, sinking her needle-pointed shank deep in Gabe’s thigh. She clearly recalled the human anatomy chart, the junction of muscles and tendons her crude blade now intersected. Before Gabe could even screech, Inga ripped her blade out, visualizing each fiber of sinew as she severed them.

Inga fell back, scrambling as Gabe toppled, screaming, his two idiot mates flapping uselessly. Wiping her mouth and straightening to her feet, Inga chanced a glance, seeing Karl and Mitzi still far too close, staring with wide eyes. With her jagged blade dripping red, Inga backed toward her siblings, her focus on her three assailants. “Keep—keep walking, Karl,” Inga gasped, coughing. “Hold Karl’s hand, Button. I’m—I’m okay.”

After retreating a stone’s throw, it was clear Stevey and Gabe had too much on their hands to effect a pursuit. A pool of dark blood gathered around Gabe’s fallen figure, and Inga idly wondered if her little blade had pierced the femoral artery. She rather hoped so.

After assuring Flops remained securely cinched in place, and taking a moment to stow her sticky blade, Inga quietly led the way back to the dismal tenement they called home, her gut aching from navel to throat.

Unfortunately, her father awaited them.

At the first glimpse of his grinding, champing jaw and enraged eyes, Inga knew the worst combination awaited them. His body visibly quivered, burning with the cocktail of street chemicals that owned him body and soul, and fresh suspicions clawed his twisted mind.

Go to bed. Plug ears. Inga urgently tapped on Mitzi and Karl.

As they stepped up to the door, he wrenched it open. “You!” he snarled at Inga, snatching her by her bruised shoulder, jerking her forward. Karl and Mitzi trooped silently by, their heads down as they shuffled into the small closet that served as a bedroom for all three siblings.

“What did you say to them? What lies did you say?” her father shouted, shaking her, his face alive with suspicion.

“What do you mean?” Inga managed to say. Clearly the Sinclair-Maru offer was received and predictably distrusted.

He lashed out, slapping her mouth. It wasn’t so hard a blow as she had known, but blood started from her lips. Inga glared up at him. “Don’t wreck the merchandise,” she said. His shaking hand rose for another blow and she stared, waiting. He released her, pacing around the filthy little room, his hands waving about.

Inga took the opportunity to pull Flops free and untangle the long ears, dipping into the hidden pocket for the four remaining chits. She settled Flops on the dirty table, beady eyes watching all, and turned back, wiping the blood from her mouth.

“What’s their game?” He tugged at his loose garish shirt. “You said something . . . some lie . . . I know it. Don’t trust those . . . gods-damned nobs. I’m not a bloody demi-cit!”

No, Inga thought, demi-cits are allowed only limited access to intoxicants. He could never surrender full citizenship, demote to demi-cit and accept the stipend, the lodging, the medical care . . . and only four ounces of alcohol per day.

Need and fear. Fear and need.

Inga knew the levers of her father’s demons all too well, but how to maneuver him now to the advantage of Karl and Mitzi?

Fear first . . . and what did he fear? Exposure, and any interruption of his chemical supply.

“I don’t want to go far away,” Inga said, laying it on just thick enough.

Her father stopped pacing and stared at her, swaying from foot to foot as his jaw continued working. “So far? What’re you saying?”

She couldn’t be sure what the Sinclair-Maru had said, so she took another chance. “Battersea’s all I know. I don’t want to go offworld to some stupid outpost.”

“Offworld? They said that?” He continued swaying back and forth as his hands writhed fitfully, but the expression on his face seemed to contain a veiled slyness that turned Inga’s stomach.

“I told them,” Inga said, “plenty of kids are better than me, but they think since we’re sort of related, I could keep their secrets way out there.”

His face reddened. “Plenty of kids? Are you stupid? If they say you’re something, you don’t argue! Trying to jam my deal or something?” He uttered a string of poisonous curses centered on Inga’s lack of wit as she hung her head, exulting internally.

“But I said you’d throw their dirty money in their face!” Inga said. She held out her hand with the shiny credit chits in a row. “You’ll throw their money in their—”

“What the hell?” he demanded, snatching the money from her hand and examining the chits in the yellowish light. “They gave you this?”

“But I don’t want to go offworld,” Inga said.

“Shut up. Do what you’re told and shut up.” He stepped up to Inga and straightened her rumpled shirt. “They fetch you day after tomorrow, and you’ll—you’ll go with them if I say so.”

“And—and Mitzi and Karl—”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself.” The sly curve appeared on his lips. “They think they’re getting the whole set. Once they pay up for you, they’ll learn I’m no god-damned demi-cit. No pushover.” He shook the credits in his hand and moved toward the door. “Wash your face. You smell like puke.”

Inga saw him dragged by his appetites, hurrying out the door, his scuffling steps retreating away, and she was alone.

After just a moment, she stepped into the shallow closet and looked down on Mitzi and Karl sprawled in their communal pile of dirty blankets. Mitzi lay sleeping with full-bellied contentment, one finger in her mouth, one finger jammed in her ear. Karl frowned in his sleep, beads of perspiration dotting his brow.

Inga eased the closet door shut and settled onto the floor, pain rising from her bruised belly to join the sting of her split lips. With him gone, and her poor little angels peacefully sleeping, Inga wrapped her arms across her meager ribs and stifled a sob, rocking as she gasped. She allowed herself these few moments of weakness, but no more.

When the tears abated, she wiped her cheek with the back of her hand and stood. In a moment she stood before the flat plastic eyes of Flops, the only witness, her silent ally. She grabbed Flops by one tall ear and carried the cloth creature along as she painfully scaled a dusty shelf up to the low ceiling. With her head, Inga pushed the loose panel up, clambering into the dark recess above.

Inga’s little handlight illuminated her tiny workshop and collection of unlikely treasures: tools salvaged from the rubbish or “borrowed,” a couple of actual wood-fiber books, a woman’s colorful, fragrant scarf, and a small selection of old memory kernels, each cryptically labeled by Inga’s own hand. Here she had refined her weapons. Here she had also rebuilt a few key electronic items. Inga dropped her blood-crusted shank, grabbed up the kernels and audio earpieces and crawled over to a vent on the outer wall, pushing it open. This created her private balcony to the world, her redoubt.

She looked out, well above the street level, glancing down at the small foot traffic of human derelicts, then looked through a notch in the buildings to the east, toward the spaceport even as a larger vessel lifted. The glow of the ship’s drive painted the night sky in golden hues as important people went to faraway places, doing important things. Was it a Sinclair-Maru vessel?

Inga tugged at Flops, looking down, feeling about the squishy torso with a probing finger until she triggered the catch and revealed the patched and taped old vid-capture device she had painstakingly repaired. Perched in her elevated fastness, the night’s cool breeze on her face, Inga activated the device, playing back the events of her day, in fast succession, seeing every moment Flops had recorded. When she saw Bess Sinclair-Maru appear on the screen, Inga slowed the feed, savoring each word, “. . . Only you possess what we need . . .”

Only you.

Inga believed it. Bess Sinclair-Maru intended to rescue Mitzi and Karl, and Inga encompassed the price of that freedom.

But, in the end, would he let them out of his grasp? Or would he try to retain Mitzi and Karl as insurance for Inga’s silence?

Could she risk this one great opportunity for all of them on the unreliable word of the bastard? Of course not, but Inga's meager tools of manipulation could not be trusted either. They were subtle powers that generally produced results over time, and now she required the fast outcome of aggressive action. Aggressive action . . .

More than once, Inga had researched common substances that one might add to her father's food or drink, which would then end the abuse all in a single night, and that sort of action rose before her scheming eyes yet again. But the consequences of such a step might be even worse than their current torment, separated from her siblings, grilled by Imperial gendarmes. That image horrified her. She could only reject such a solution as she had rejected it a dozen times before.

Must she then rely upon the good nature, the decency of her father, a man wholly possessed by whichever fleeting appetite had its claws in him?

Inga bit her lip, thinking back through years of violence and degradation. He as much as said he already thought of some way to defraud the Sinclair-Maru, get paid and yet retain his three little liabilities. Of all people, he would chance a Sinclair-Maru dueling sword through his vitals just to . . . Inga nearly stopped breathing. A Sinclair-Maru dueling sword.

Her mind suddenly looked upon a new path, a new weapon. She would turn her manipulation upon the Sinclair-Maru instead. She reached down, fumbling through the memory kernels to that one she had nearly cast out any number of times, the kernel she prayed no one would ever see.

What sacrifice would she withhold for Mitzi and Karl? Her life? Her self-respect? Her pride.

She withheld nothing.

Inga held that small kernel in her palm, recalling with nausea and shame what it contained. With shaking hands, she placed the poisoned kernel in the vid-capture, tucking it back within Flops. The truth it revealed would push the Sinclair-Maru and their honor to a point they could not ignore.

Just two days, and their day of liberation would dawn. The Sinclair-Maru would collect them, and at the key moment Inga would finally destroy the destroyer.

The tools of Inga’s conquest?

The swords of the honor-bound Sinclair-Maru.

And Flops.

Copyright © 2022 by Michael Mersault

Although born in the northwestern United States, Michael Mersault spent his formative years in a series of magical locales, including expat communities in the Middle East, a secretive air base in the Arizona desert, and an Alaskan fishing village. These endless hours of travel prompted an enduring love for books that continues unabated.

At times in his adult years, he has dabbled in kickboxing, competitive marksmanship, and international business ventures. He now lives as a semi-recluse back in the northwest, where he fluctuates between the paths of a confirmed technophile and a neo-Luddite.

“Flops” is set in the world of his Baen Books debut novel The Deep Man.