Today's story by the amazing Susan Kaye Quinn is set in the future world of her upcoming "Singularity" series. Visit her website, www.susankayequinn.com, for more about her and her bestselling books.
Risha hurried through the entrance of the market, grasping her satchel of paintbrushes in one hand and pushing aside the rough canvas flaps of the tent with the other. The thick smell of human-made foods and human-type stink reassured her. After her encounter on the tram, barely being saved from the virtual reality addict by a handsome boy several years older than her, it was good to be back where the dangers were more familiar. And less likely to end up with her dead.
Plus she was a whole chit richer than when she left!
She had no idea why the boy bought her gray-market brushes for a full chit— any fool could see they were worth less than half that. It left a weird feeling in her chest: kindnesses weren’t the kind of thing you traded in Seattle. The city was filled with bots and left-over humanity and the occasional ascender, with their super smart nanotech brains… humans were at the bottom of that pile, and you had to fight to even get a fair trade half the time. At least the gray market was better than the black, where a reasonable bit of bargaining could still get you dead, if you angered the wrong types.
But the boy had given her a kindness… and now she had a whole chit riding in her account. It was a full half-chit more than her uncle would expect back for the two brushes she’d sold. Risha wound her way past heaps of clay pots and woven throw rugs, her fingers crossed. Maybe Tuval would have one of his amazing chocolate pastries in his stall today. Why… for a half chit, maybe she could even bargain him for two! But she’d have to eat them quickly. Destroy the evidence, before her uncle found out.
“Hey Risha!” The voice stopped her dogged search for the smell of chocolate buried in human odors. It was Samuel the Orphan. His parents had been exiled by the ascenders. The bots took care of him now, but Risha only ever saw him at the market.
“Hey Samuel.” She gave him a tight smile, but her eyes were still hungry for Tuval’s stall.
“I found something perfect for you.” Samuel was her age, fourteen, but he acted like he’d been a grizzled trader all his life.
“I don’t have money for shells,” she said, absently, still peering through the bustling commerce for Tuval’s stall. Samuel haunted the beaches where the ascenders won’t go, scavenging seashells then trying to sell them. It’s not much of a business—although she’d seen a few of the girls use them to decorate their hair.
“Not for sale,” Samuel said as he dug through his bags. He had dozens of them, small and large, all carrying his worthless bounty from the sea. “This one’s special.”
Risha frowned. Not for sale? Was this some kind of new trade gimmick? Samuel’s face lit up as he found his prize: he pulled an unbroken shell the size of Risha’s thumb from his weathered paper bag. It caught the dim light of the market and gleamed blue.
He held it out to her. “It’s perfect. Not a scratch. And the pearling on it is blue. Very rare.”
She took it, just to be polite, and turned it over, admiring it. “It is pretty, Samuel. You should be able to find a buyer for this one.”
He looks disappointed. “No, it’s for you.”
She tried to hand it back to him. “I told you—I don’t have chits for shells.” Although a twinge in her chest nagged at her: she was dying to spend a half chit on a pastry that wouldn’t last the next five minutes. The boy on the tram hadn’t hesitated to help her when she needed it… and now she was hoarding her windfall like it belonged just to her.
Samuel took her hand but just folded her fingers over the shell. “And I told you—this one’s for you. I knew it as soon as I saw it. It’s pretty and different. Unique.” He dropped her hand, his gaze suddenly intense on the bags before him.
Risha’s face heated as she stared at her fingers closed around the shell. Another kindness. “Thank you.”
He nodded but kept his head down.
She wished she hadn’t been so adamant about not having chits for shells… but now it was too late for that. “Are you hungry?” she asked.
Samuel peeked up. His gaunt cheeks spoke of an ascender-allowance-only diet—the kind that barely kept you moving. She had never noticed it before. The heat in her cheeks grew stronger.
“Come on.” Risha held out her hand, the one not holding the shell.
Samuel shuffled around his barricade of sacks, and she towed him toward Tuval’s stall. If he was still open, she reckoned a kindness would taste even better than his famed chocolate pastry.