Zahya sighed inwardly as the message popped up into her vision. 

[Hi Mrs Sadeghi. This is Firti with the after-school group. I’m going to have to close up in 15 minutes but no one has come to collect Soha yet?] 

She let the customer continue to drone on with his life story, while making infinitesimal gestures with her hand resting on the desk. The dermal weave in her fingers translated her twitches into action.

[Create Message: Many apologies Firti, I will be on my way shortly. If you could add the late fees to the tab please.]

[Create Message: Mamad. Where are you? You should have picked your sister up an hour ago. I’m not angry, just disappointed]

She returned her attention to the surroundings and cleared her throat, interrupting the windbag.

“I can definitely see the benefits of importing these g-mod plants. It’s great to see local production rather than importing everything from Earth. Unfortunately, I have to leave on another matter, but I can expedite the shipment and will send you the details in a few hours. Of course, I assume your customs declaration is fully in order for these biologicals…”

She paused. The customer gave an entirely too nervous smile and slid a memchip across the table. Mr. Yilmaz might be old and rusty, but at least he knew the steps to the dance.

“Thank you, I’ll be in touch.”


“I’ll be in touch.”

Zahya was already on her feet, bounding lightly in the lunar gravity as she walked over to the ostentatiously heavy safe in the wall and swung it open to deposit the memstrip. It was already blank of course, flash cloned and wiped by the console up her sleeve the moment she picked it up, but customers liked the feeling of their data being secure. She placed it on a rack next to hundreds of similar blank chips, and closed the safe with a weighty thunk and exhalation of stale air.

Shooing Mr. Yilmaz properly out of her small office took another few minutes, and by the time she’d closed the plascrete shutters and collected her bags, she knew she was going to be late. 

Illustration by Benjamin Giletti

[Create Message: Mamad don’t do this again. I’m not getting any bounceback on your devices. Where are you?]

“And what else did you learn at school today?” Zahya asked as she and Soha waited for the transport elevator.

“There was some maths… oh and we built a Net display first thing! Most of the day was domebreach drills though—we’re remedial after Maggie got stuck in the dummy airlock last month. You know her leg turned—”

Yes. I remember, dear.” Zahya cut off the excited seven-year old before the grisly retelling happened again. The elevator had arrived but it would still be too long to get home. She cursed that the only good school she could afford was halfway across the city. So little of this rock warren was zoned residential, even people of her respectable means had to live in the industrial zones.

She checked the chronometer in the corner of her vision. The times just wouldn’t add up.

“Hey now my little light, Mother has to run a work errand on our way home.”

“Again, Mama?”

“Hold it steady, Soha, please,” Zahya said, as the girl balanced atop the crate with the easy grace of someone born in lunar gravity. It was difficult to fully disassemble a bio-sample container without disrupting the circulating fluids, so Zahya had just eased out one of the racks and left the connectors in place.

Soha held the meter-long piece against gravity’s gentle pull whilst Zahya ran her hand along the honeycomb of biomatrix cells, trying to avoid being put off by the organic aesthetics. Each of the black hexagons was only stamped with a tiny white tree logo, but the cybernetic weave embedded in the skin of Zahya’s fingers read their tracking chips over a PAN. 

She found her targets in the middle of the rack: four cells similar to the others but filled only with simple saline. She took the key codes from their chips and flicked their virtual icon across her vision. Her other cybernetic briefly activated. The illegal black diamond datastore built into a rib released the hash she’d received earlier and merged it with the key—a transaction code.

Slipping the slim baton of her console out the bag, she opened a connection to the Shadow Net. One almost legal fintech server talked to another. 

[Transaction Processing…]

“Not long now, princess.”

The receipt came back within a minute; confirmation of credits entering her account. Still enough time for the sender to be anywhere in Earth-Luna space, really. Zahya plucked the black hexagons from the rack and replaced them with four fresh ones from her bag. She could feel the excess weight of the replacements compared to the old, and updated the crate’s manifest after sliding the rack back into place.

“What special thing did people want this time, Mama?” Soha asked, lightly jumping the two meters down to the rock floor of the warehouse and scattering a tiny crater of dust. Zahya spared a nervous glance at the girl’s ankles; it was nearly time for Soha to get her next bone wastage g-mod. With a snap maternal decision, she wrote off half the credit payout she’d just received. They’d go to the good gene conditioning clinic this time.

At least explaining this one to her daughter wouldn’t require tiptoeing around a client’s risqué needs. 

“Some farmers are growing plants, keeping a whole Martian city fed. But a seed-license got pulled, so they got someone to make a copy of the source, and then Mother is helping get that copy to them.”

“Oh, oh, what sort of food?”

“I do not know, maybe something like the green herb stew you’re getting for dinner. You were very helpful today, as good as any of mother’s other employees. So you get extra dessert—” 


“—if you can tell me one of the important Rules.”

The little girl sighed, then answered in a sing-song voice. 

“Don’t talk to the police?”

[Create Message: Hello, Derek Tan right? This is Mrs Sadeghi. Have you seen Mamad today? No one’s seen him since he finished his shift. Zaid said you all were thinking of going to the new VR-arcade?]

Zahya was quiet as she stirred the stew, reheating a chunk of the big batch she’d made at the start of the month. She watched Dobromir attempting to help Soha with assembling a toy. The man’s massive servo-enhanced hands struggled with the tiny plastic bricks. He was a good employee, but had taken his partner’s death hard—rad sickness was always a rough goodbye. It was better he had a family dinner than spill Zahya’s secrets in some rusty dive bar. Besides… she might need some ostentatious muscle tonight when she went searching for Mamad.

Soha laughed, breaking Zahya out of her thoughts. Dobromir had accidentally crushed one of the bricks. 

She was laying the table when the sensor net at the end of the hab block corridor was tripped. The door pinged to announce that a known retina had been scanned. A gesture from Zahya unlocked it, and she called out to her eldest.

“Marhba! Lovely to see you Noor, hurry up and close the door before you let all the CO2 in.”

“Mother, you know they fixed the filters around here ages ago, it’s fine,” Noor replied with an amused tone. They lightly skipped across the room to help her with the plates.

“Don’t correct your Mother, Noor. It might not make the news up in Lunacent but the maintenance contract got underbid again. New management. I know for a fact no new industrial filters have come up from the Docklands.”


“Yes, oh. Well, why don’t you tell us what has been making the news up in the Dome, then. You two—” she turned to Dobromir and Soha, “dinner is ready.”

Soha whooped and leapt to the table, the jump clearing the large man’s head by a good twenty centimeters. Zahya made an internal note to put all the padding on the top of the door frames back up. They chatted as Noor told them about the projection rigging and the hologram styling they’d set up for some ritzy fashion show. Zahya mused on the incongruity of androids wearing haute couture worth more than a human miner’s yearly pay packet, but when you’re in the business of supplying luxuries yourself, it’s hard to throw stones. 

Eventually the conversation ebbed, and dinner was finished. Zahya stood and spoke.

“Dobromir, you can get ready in the storage room.”

“Heavy, light, or clean?” he rumbled back. Decades in Heinlein hadn’t put a dent in that Black Sea accent.

“Light. We’re searching tonight.” He nodded and carried his case to the back.

Zahya turned, “Noor, no more than an hour of virts or PADs for Soha before she goes to bed. I’ll aim to be back before midnight so you can get home, but if I’m not, you know what to do.” Noor gave a thin smile, worry on their face.

“You know… I could move back in. It would save money now I’m on piecework contracts, and I could help with Soha more…”

Zahya drew them in for a hug. In her opinion, parents who say they didn’t have a favorite child lacked clarity of thought.

“Oh, my child. Don’t be silly, you should have a chance to live your own life. You’re not going to get any networking done here by the Docklands! Besides, don’t…” Zahya raised her finger, her eyes flicking to the small black framed portrait on the wall. Both children joined in as she finished the well worn phrase.

“…put your eggs in one basket.”

Soha laughed as she said it. Her sibling did not.

Illustration by Martin de Diego Sádaba

[New Message: Hello Cai. This isn’t about the meeting. Have you heard of anyone new in the business making the rounds, maybe coming in on the maglev. I’ll take a favor from your tab]

They paused in the darkened tunnel, outlined against the riot of yellow light spilling off the shiny new arcade front.

“It’s open enough,” Zahya said softly to her employee. “Lead.”

Dobromir strode ahead without even nodding, starting up on a practiced monologue on the correct way to vacuum-proof fibres. Both were smartly dressed; they wouldn’t look out of place as business people returning from the Docklands at the end of the day. Zahya kept in step, the world around her fading to blurred shapes as she spun the flip switch on her BMI and plunged deeper into the link. Thanks to years of practice, she’d be able to keep alongside him, projecting the fiction of them just being normal pedestrians. The hardest part was smiling and nodding.

On the Net, the arcade shone even brighter, color tones on the AR structures so intense they couldn’t exist in meatspace. Zahya preferred an abstract visualisation of netspace: hard geometric shapes and intersecting shards and lines like the vault of an ethereal muqarnas. It made it easier to distinguish the virtual realm from the soft shadows of meatspace she sensed as she walked.

The slim console in her pocket reached out and gently peeled another layer of metadata with its sharp edge. A new buttress of green and blue shapes flicked into view, behind/deeper/through the garish displays in a way that defined Euclidean sensibilities. The outgoing feed. Far thicker than it needed to be for an entertainment venue. Possibly someone’s data-gathering operation, thrumming with invasively deep scans of everyone in the VR booths… and maybe the foot traffic outside as well.

The console shaved some ident keys as part of its standard grifter protocol. These markers would return a small profit from the rest of the shippers association forum as guides to avoid, but it wasn’t the main target. There: a dense gem of information on the backing buttress, the local buffer of security footage. As Zahya concentrated, the bright lights and tiles spun and twisted like a four dimensional kaleidoscope, again and again. Then, stillness: she had a direct line to the data gem, and her perspective followed towards it.

Perhaps she’d been too hasty in thinking it unprotected though, as the bright green shapes within the muqarna’s arch began turning grey. Reaching fingers protruded, organic shapes bulging with soft dissonance as a countermeasure began to act. A weak defense, but she was on a tight schedule to be home by midnight.

[Command Authorise: Unlock and deploy volatile AI stack 91P. Clear memory afterwards]

There was a discontinuity, a blinding flash of argent white and the sense of beating insectile wings, then color returned. 

And the fingers were inert, returning to straight cylinders as they acknowledged the sovereignty of her perspective. That was another 25% of the afternoon job’s profits spoken for, though. No matter. She had the security footage. She dialed down the flip switch, surfacing quickly.     

“Let’s stop for a coffee.”

The hole in the wall coffee shop was decorated with dome-grown bamboo and fake stone, with a tacky resin scent in the air, but the coffee was real and excellent. The remnants of a batch Zahya had helped a wholesaler get through customs two months ago, if her tongue did not deceive her. This late into the second shift, the place was usefully empty. 

She’d split the work; Dobromir was thumbing through the footage on his PAD, privacy beam in place, whilst Zahya sipped her coffee and experienced the scenes on her internal display. Displaying any agitation whilst still in the tracking footprint of the arcade would be a mistake. 

The man rumbled, “Here, 16:32, the north entrance.”

Zahya jumped her scene to the time. Yes, there was Mamad and Derek blowing their credits on an Apocalypse: Infinite immersion booth… and there was a man in sunglasses and a heavy impact jacket watching them. 

“Two more at 3 o’clock and 7 o’clock.”

Zahya nodded, seeing what could have been duplicates of the first man. She spoke: “Same clothes, sloppy fieldwork, Downstalk gait. Definitely not locals. We’d have heard of a new operator with that style. Must be cheap corp prisec.”

Dobromir slowly nodded in agreement, but Zahya was already scrolling forward in the footage from the time point. The two young men got out of their booth and started to walk out the arcade. The prisec goons made to follow. Mamad whipped his head back and forth, quickly whispering to Derek, and the prisec surged forward, clearly aware they’d been made. Good boy spotting them, but why hadn’t he dropped a message to her? Mamad and Derek rushed out the left entrance, only to be met by two more prisec coming from outside. Mamad had a hand in his suit pocket—was he texting a message? Why hadn’t she received it? Did they have local jammers?

Mamad and Derek were being manhandled now, two Prisec apiece hauling them down to the gate that led down to the Docklands. That was odd, corps would normally drag their catches up-city to their offices and compounds. Taking them to the Docklands meant they wanted privacy, which meant this was absent NAPD sanction. That was dangerous for the boys, but it meant she had more levers.

[New Message: Cai, Z again. Get tracking info across the Docklands for the attached faces. Right away. I’ll be in your debt this time.]

Each footfall was accompanied by a soundless explosion of moondust, the footprint joining the millions of others from the maintenance workers who ventured onto the surface. The domes shone with light in the distance as they bounded between the lower hangars that marked where the warrens of the Docklands broke the surface. Inside there were too many walls, too many people, to really take advantage of the lunar gravity, but out here, as you ran, you could almost fly.

Dobromir carried the heavy breaching tool with a surprising grace, easily compensating for its mass. Zahya could barely keep up, despite carrying a much smaller bag herself; perhaps she had started letting herself go. It had taken them nearly an hour to collect the breacher, exhausting the last of the day’s profits, and another twenty minutes to get to an unmonitored airlock. For Zahya’s company, a “light” outfit meant an expensively slim envirosuit under their clothes—and suiting up was only a matter of moments. 

All told, it had been six hours since the boys had been taken. The standard playbook meant they were probably still being left to stew in silence before an interrogation began, and the prisec didn’t look the sort to innovate.

They arrived at the warehouse Cai had marked. A white geodesic shell rose out of the regolith, with an external entrance wide enough to take a small shuttle and a smaller airlock off to the side. Using hand signals to avoid radio chatter, Zahya made a few gestures and pointed. Dobromir nodded and began to climb the slick shell of the building, hauling the breacher upwards.

Zahya, meanwhile, worked on the door systems, which gave up control almost instantly. She’d needed access to this warehouse a few years ago, and it looked like their security hadn’t been updated since. She locked the interior doors those inside might use to escape, but that they’d already blocked the internal cameras was worrying. She’d just have to lead with bravado and trust her console’s sensors to watch her back. If they already had her son, seeing her face wouldn’t make things worse, at least. She took the single emergency air mask out of the bag.

In seconds, she was in the airlock, the inner door opening as soon as the outer shut, striding confidently into the warehouse against the inrushing gale of air. It was a stark scene on the inside of the warehouse. A couple of loading robots stood idle next to dozens of stacked, sealed caskets. Two prisec trained stunguns on three kneeling figures handcuffed to the floor, while a man in a luxuriously black business suit sat easily on a stool addressing them.

Illustration by David Lei

They were all staring at her entrance, but more importantly, none of them had their helmets on. She held up her hand in warning and pointed upwards as the tearing whine of the breaching tool vibrated the outer shell of the building. Dobromir stopped it just as the tiniest cut opened on the inner lining and a tiny whistle announced that air was beginning to escape.

The suit smiled the smile of the untouchable and spoke with a smooth urbane BosWash accent. “Well, you seem to have us at a disadvantage, Miss…” He trailed off, not quite sure what to make of her gesture. Zahya was holding a palm up to her helmet.

Mamad spoke from his kneeling position on the floor. “Use the common channel, man, she’s not going to crack her helmet,” His voice sounded raspy from thirst but, Zahya was thankful he didn’t seem injured. She spared a quick glance for Derek and the older man, who bore a strong resemblance to the boy. Derek seemed equally unharmed, though the man had a black eye and blood on his fancy Lunacent shirt. All the Loonies were trembling at the sound of the escaping atmosphere.

“It’s always interesting to learn some local color,” the suit said as he pulled a golden PAD out of a pocket and thumbed it to the right channel. “Though I’m at a bit of a loss as to what this is about.” His lips tightened around his teeth. “Aha. You’re here for the other kid.” 

“Yes,” Zahya replied simply. 

The man’s laugh was like something out of a ritzy drama, starting and stopping too rapidly to feel right. He turned his head to look at one of the prisec.

“This is why professionals stick to the operational parameters, Sullivan. Oh well. Can’t be helped now.” The man pressed his PAD again, and the handcuffs unlocked on Mamad and Derek. “Take them both. Mr. Tan has been quite forthcoming. He will be staying, however, as there are considerable additional points in his collateral that need to be discussed. He may even need to be out of town for some time.”

Zahya’s eyes flicked at the stack of gleaming black caskets before returning to the suit’s. This obviously wasn’t their first job of the day. Crossing someone when you didn’t know the depth of their resources wasn’t a good idea for the long term survival of a business. Or a family.

She spoke quickly, “We leave out the corridor. Twenty minutes after we’re clear, the roof will be sealed.”

“Just so. And perhaps I could offer an inducement, just in case you were considering alerting anyone in Mr. Tan’s company or his friends in the administration. A little something out of the… messaging budget.”

Zahya had been toying the idea, but in the end, this other parent had endangered her son, and clearly had the resources to know better. She didn’t owe them anything.

The suit said a number. It was sufficient.


  • Iain F (dis)

    Iain was formerly Null Signal Games' main thing-namer, interim Creative Director, and keeper of the deep lore.