Atlas Fallen

By: Jessica Pierce
For Mom—

Who taught me that seeing the world through a library is cheaper than a passport.

And for Dad—

Who taught me libraries are also good places to catch grasshoppers.



I love you.





ONE





TONIGHT, SHE WOULD BURN.

Bodies pulsed around Tesla like a swarm of sweaty insects. Strobe lights flashed from the ceiling, programmed to match the motion of humanlike draadhart dancers on suspended platforms above her, their lithe frames slithering to the heavy electronic beat. Tapping their wristcomms, patrons sent the dancers tips, and the synthetic lips of the androids smiled in response. She’d never understood the fascination with draadhart robots—they were just sprockets and gears and wiring. She’d scavenged enough of their inner workings in the past year for the novelty to fade.

Her ears absorbed the thunder of the deep bass as she scanned the crowd. They’d be ringing for a day, at least, the way they always did after visiting Minko’s gambling den.

To her right, a beefy bouncer she didn’t recognize eyed her with suspicion. It was no wonder; grease soiled her fingernails and scorch marks from the botFight still smoked from her jumpsuit. The bouncer scanned her dark forearm, looking for the pulsing digital tattoo of a forked phoenix tail—the mark of the Red Ashes crime family. He found only smooth, bare skin glistening from a mixture of sweat and blood.

She hadn’t allowed Minko to brand her. It was part of the deal. The bouncer spoke into his wristcomm, stepping toward her, but Tesla melted back into the raving crowd.

He must be new.

A live DJ behind a turntable nodded his head to the rhythm. His blue-tipped Mohawk barely swayed, and Tesla felt a twinge of jealousy. He probably spent more on hair product than she made in a month. The pace of the song increased, and the crowd roared.

She aimed for the lux boxes near the stage. Overhead, vents pumped in pleasant-scented mist, designed to inject endorphins into the club patron’s brains and cover the musty smell always permeating through the space station’s lower levels. More endorphins meant more pleasure at the clubs, which meant more corpCredits for the Red Ashes.

The thought of money reminded her why she was here. She pushed through a wall of sweaty club-goers and made her way toward the lux boxes, careful to avoid anyone who looked troublesome. Minko’s den was a favorite of those ready to spend their hard-earned corpCredits on distractions, and the Red Ashes made certain to satisfy any appetite... for the right price. Not a single patron spared her a glance as she passed a card table filled with orange-clad maintenance jumpsuits playing a game of Six Man Slicer.

Just as she ducked under the serving bar and slid out the other side, a fat man with bushy eyebrows offered her a square blue tablet. Tesla declined—she wasn’t a skirri user. She grasped the hilt of the knife tucked into her waistband as he narrowed his eyes at her rejection. Tesla hurried forward, eager to put some distance between herself and the drug peddler before the man got any ideas.

Minko sat in the center of a golden booth. Red velvet seats engulfed him, making his overflowing figure seem somehow smaller. Two bodyguards flanked the booth on either side like giant, meaty pillars. In the flashing club lights, Minko's shaved head glimmered almost as brightly as the diamond rings on each of his fingers.

A waitress delivered him a large drink and a stack of buttered wings. The girl shuddered as Minko admired her figure. With a grunt, he shoved her from the lux box and sent her scrambling back to the kitchens.

Tesla’s hands tightened into fists. Everything about the crime lord set her teeth on edge.

Her stomach grumbled at the sight of steaming food, the kind that wasn’t something heated from a nutrition tablet. It was a rarity to find this far down in the Atlas space station. Come to think of it, she hadn’t eaten since the day before, so caught up had she been in her focus on the fight against Radek.

She gritted her teeth against the hunger as the crime lord bit into a wing. As much as she hated Minko, she needed his good mood to last. He didn’t like getting bad news, and today she had very, very bad news to give him.

“Tesla,” he cooed with a sluggish grin. His slurred speech told her the crime lord was already gut-deep in lunarshine pints. He spread his flabby arms and gestured for her to sit. With a large bite, his sharp teeth snapped against a wing, ripping the meat clean from the bone.

She shook her head, forcing herself to be polite. If his anger raged, she wanted to be on her feet to make an escape. Tesla eyed the two bodyguards watching her with disinterest. They don’t think I’m a threat, she thought bitterly.

Nyen Atu, whose Red Ash tattoo included three stars—the sign of his status as Minko’s personal security—acknowledged her with his usual curt nod. How long had she been coming here? Eight months? Only four more to pay her debts from the funeral expenses.

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