Debt Collectors, Part 2
If you missed part one, read it here.
Max stopped at the intersection to consider her options.
She glanced east towards the sliver of blue at the end of the street. That way led off planet, but DeltaPort still sat dark and slumbering. She heard Jaspar's voice telling her how impossible her dreams of a life in the New Territories were.
Her brother would bail her out. He always did.
She turned right with a new sense of purpose. She could have gone straight and taken the freeway, but it wasn't free. Besides, passing through the tolls might twig the system and send her location to the collectors. So, she made her way along the back streets despite the longer, bumpier ride.
As Max wended her way through the gridded streets of the Flats, the city started to wake. Autonomous delivery carts dropped boxes in front of shops, birds cawed over scraps of food, and the murmur of waking people tumbled into the silent street.
Still, the few people she came across all appeared lost and a little stunned, shades of the night before. A few lay where they had passed out, unmoving as the street scrubbers sensed their presence and calculated a route around them.
Despite the deserted streets, it still took 40 minutes to get to her brother's house in the Estates. Her intermittent visits meant the gate recognized her as an acceptable guest, and the guard granted entry with little questioning despite the early hour.
Pulling up Jaspar's place, she expected a wait while the house woke up and figured out who rang the bell. But without a second ring, the door opened. Her 7-year-old niece, Jaks, launched herself at Max and clung to her while ushering her inside.
"Should you be answering the door?" Max asked, returning the hug.
"Why wouldn't I?" Jaks cocked her head. "I knew it was you."
Max noted the view of the entry broadcast onto the screen on the far wall. Jaspar had splashed out on security even more than she had.
"What are you doing up so early?" she asked her niece.
Jaks squinted at her. "It's not early. This is the best time for toons. Want some Choco-lot-Os?"
Max's stomach burbled. "Sounds delicious, but I think I'll pass. I can't stay. I just need to talk to your dad."
Jaks shrugged and took her bowl full of cereal and brown liquid over to the sofa.
Max looked around at the life Jaspar had built. Polished white floors melded into gleaming white walls punctuated by splashes of chrome and colour from real flowers. Gladiolas. He'd come a long way from the Eastside. Much further than she had.
"He's not here," a woman's voice said. Max turned to face Elisa, Jaspar's wife. Her expression was blank, with only a slight squint of the eyes and tightening of the lips to tell Max how she felt about this unexpected visit.
Her brother followed his wife down the stairs, belying her words. He placed his hands on his wife's shoulders. "Hey Max. What brings you out here so early on a Sunday morning?"
"Can we talk in private?"
Elisa looked from her to Jaspar and back.
"It's fine," he said to Elisa, leaning over to kiss her and whisper in her ear. Her frown deepened, extending to her forehead, but she went to join Jaks on the sofa. Jaspar turned his focus to Max. "What do you want?"
He looked tired, tense. The lines around his eyes and the grey at his temples hadn't been there when she'd seen him last.
"I need some money," Max said, looking over his shoulder at the wall screen, now playing Jaks' cartoons.
"Just a little. To put off the collectors."
"Shit! You've been sent to collections?"
Max shrugged, and they both stared at the glads in the chrome vase.
Eventually, Jaspar broke the silence. "Did you know that Cass was sent to Hephaestion?"
"Collected?" From what Max knew of the Hephaestion colony, it was a place for grifters and bullies. Not Cass.
Jaspar shook his head. "Sent there by her new husband apparently."
Max's gaze slid to her brother, then returned to the spears of red flowers. "Although I'd love to see her again, I'd rather we aren't reunited this way," she said, not looking at him. "So, can you lend me the money?"
"Sorry, Max," he said, slowly shaking his head, not taking his eyes off the flowers. "I can't. Things have been tough."
"I promise I'll pay you back," she said, her voice reedy. "I just need to get the collectors off my back."
Jaspar hugged her tight. "We don't have the money to lend." he said, not letting go. "I have to think of Elisa and Jaks. I can't have the collectors looking at me."
Max stepped back and glanced at his family. Elisa looked away.
"I…," she said before her voice left her. She hugged him.
"Yeah, me too," he said.
Max sped through the Estates, heading back toward the Core. She pressed her lips tight together, telling herself it was the wind as she swallowed against the lump in her throat.
Cass. Pretty, petite, golden Cass.
Max thought about their past to keep from thinking about her present. She'd had a crush on Cass for as long as she could remember. Cass had never responded to Max's handful of subtle and sometimes shameless advances. Eventually she'd had to accept that Cass didn't share her feelings despite trying to tell herself Cass was just too afraid of her Universalist father's hellfire or his congregation's damnation. Whereas Max had no father to fear, Universalist or otherwise.
Just outside the Estates, a reminder of why she never left the Core leapt in front of her. Nature. All the trees and their leaves scattered across the sun-dappled pavement, and deer you couldn't see worth shit in the shade.
Her bike sensed the obstacle before she did and decelerated too rapidly for the combo of dewed pavement and befogged mind. The back fishtailed, then the bike slid out from under her. She grit her teeth as she grated along the pavement, the friction slowing her down. The deer stared at her, stoned by fear, until she came to a stop. Then it bounded away, unscathed, into the mossy forest, leaving her and her bike lying on the asphalt.
Max blinked. Dust motes floated in front of her vision and an incessant buzzing filled her ears. She tried to pretend she nestled in her warm, soft bed, ignoring her alarm, delaying the day. But no, she lay on cold, hard pavement.
Breathing deeply, she took a mental inventory. Everything hurt, but the lack of shooting pains told her it was nothing more than bruises and rasped skin. Her throat constricted as she swallowed a sob. She refused to cry: weakness opened the door to attack.
Her visor fogged up as tears trickled into her ears. She blinked.
"Shit." Max clenched her hands into fists. The year had started out so well. She'd finally scored a good job in the Core, scrubbing data bound for InterWebX. She'd gotten credit for the first time in her life, bought a shiny, new bike and rented a flat in the Flats. Then the Correction came. A bunch of people didn't show up for work one day. Max kept her job, but her pay was right-sized. By then she had a taste for the life a good job could buy, without a constant choice between food or shelter, security or warmth. And she had credit.
"Frig." Max slapped the road with her palm. "Ow." She forced herself to sit up and do a more thorough probing of bones and vertebrae, moving one body part then another, while checking for bleeding beyond the road rash. She took off her helmet, which appeared to have survived intact though not unscathed. A deep scratch ran through the pearled purple. She shuffled over to check her bike: same story.
Staring into the oppressive green wall of trees, Max considered what to do next. She shuffled through her mental gallery, shifting through the tenuous connections to find someone who might care enough to help. In the end, only one image remained. She turned her head to peer at her bike.
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