Toki held a locket in one hand, her daughter in the other sleeping soundly. The locket was an heirloom handed down to her from her mother, who received it from her mother, who likely bought it at a big-box store. The locket could not carry as many photos as more modern devices, a simple storage system would not even allow video playback and the screen had HD tech that was forty or fifty years old. Still, it was a precious reminder of the life she once had. The golden oval flipped open to show pictures of her life on a planet she could no longer visit, of people she could no longer speak with without putting them in grave danger.
Toki was sitting in a diner at the edge the zone nicknamed “Controlled and Patrolled”. Her daughter could not even crawl yet. The little cherub face sat wrapped in a blanket stolen from a passing stroller. Her eyes were closed tight and every so often a slight whimpering sigh was let out. Toki wondered if she should have left her little treasure with friends before fleeing. That would have put her friends in danger though. She needed to keep her daughter near to keep her safe.
Her former planet had trees and shrubs and two suns to look upon; one blue, one yellow. This place, she did not even know the name, was a landscape of red dirt and cacti. And one sun. It appeared to be little more than a service station for Fleet ships and merchant vessels. The diner smelled of over cooked onions and burned butter. It was nice to smell anything other than the cargo hold of a smuggler’s ship. She was not even given the luxury of a multi-passenger smuggler craft when she fled Srio’s research planet. The only smuggler available was a personal freighter; one seat in the front of the craft and little more than boxes in the back. She and her baby hid in a wall to make it through Srio’s detection devices.
She ripped her ArmComp 4K straight off her arm, pulled out her daughter’s chip and ran to the smuggler when arrangements were finalized. She was not safe on the research planet; a small swampy outpost full of tall trees and surrounded by three moons that gave it near perpetual sunlight.
Toki’s ancient locket held a secret beyond how awful fashion looked when she was nine years old. It held the dictation of a meeting between Srio research leaders detailing the results of an experiment on a “fuel planet”; a lifeless planet mined for fuel. Srio introduced a bio-mechanical life form on to the planet. A weapon. It adapted, it controlled; it thrived. The experiment was a success. Next step was to introduce the organism to a planet already capable of hosting life, see how it interacted with other creatures.
Toki knew little of Srio’s work. She was contracted to help in a mass-hiring event. 4,000 new employees in three months. She was excited for the challenge. Then the researchers held a loud meeting next to her office. She knew the discussion was illegal, but she was simply terrified of the topic. Without hesitation she began recording the chat.
The next day threatening phone calls began. Then the knocks at her door late at night. Then her husband disappeared. Then the police, Srio’s police, started arresting her friends. She had to flee.
The waitress put a plate of fried potatoes and coleslaw on the table then politely asked if anything else would be needed. Toki shook her head no and tried not to let the waitress see her red and puffy eyes. Toki ate all she could as fast as she could then made her way for the restroom.
She had no money, nothing to barter with and if she offered to stay to wash dishes the entire diner risked being murdered by Srio’s goons. She hoped the bathroom had a window she could use to sneak out. Criminal planning was new to Toki.
“Excuse me,” said a faceless voice Toki had collided with on her way inside. She did not look up. There were no windows, no escape; no hope.
“Sorry,” Toki said, looking down.
There must have been a lump in her throat or the ears on the faceless voice were quite accustomed to sadness, but the tone of the room changed.
“You ok? Is your baby ok?” The voice asked.
Toki was not ok. She was tired and stressed well beyond what could be considered normal for a new parent. A single tear fell to the floor and the voice continued talking.
“Oh, hey, hey, now. You can’t cry in a diner. There are french fries here. You know how many light years we are from the next good french fries? My name is Eris, what is your’s?”
Toki did not answer.
“Ok, well, I am pretty good at figuring people out. Your daughter there looks like an Abigail. You two are from the edge space. Judging by your hair you have been in a cramped space for a few days. Your shoes are dirty, so you’ve been running. Are you in trouble?”
Toki looked up to Eris, her eyes squinted and confused, “how did you figure all of that out?”
“I am actually a professional thief, have to know how to really get people, figure them out to make them do things for you,” Eris said smiling.
“Theif?” Toki asked.
“Well, in a way. How can I help you out of whatever trouble you are in?”
“I cannot pay for my dinner. Can you help me steal it?” Toki asked. She almost felt herself smile.
Eris shook her head. “No, that’s not really who I want to steal from. I can give you some credits to pay for it, plus some more for many more meals.”
Toki rose from the bathroom floor and was handed a satchel full of coins and gems. “This is too generous,” she said. The satchel weighed more than her baby.
“I am a thief. You are on the run. I have a much higher probability of getting more,” Eris said.
Toki was unaccustomed to receiving gifts without giving something in return. She felt compelled to give this ever so kind Eris a gift too. When Toki realized the only thing she had to give was the only thing keeping her on the run, her heart sank. She could give the locket to a thief named Eris and be rid of Srio. Repaying such kindness with an incredible burden was an awful thought, but it was all she could do to save her daughter.
“Please,” Toki said, “take this locket. It does not play video, but you can put plenty of photos on it.”
“No, no, of course I cannot take your locket,” Eris said.
“I insist,” Toki pulled it off her neck and put it in Eris’ hand. “Thank you for saving me this night.”
Toki left the bathroom and returned to her booth. She and her daughter sat there most of the night. She waved goodbye to Eris and her unfortunate looking companion when the two of them left. She sat in her diner booth ordering good french fries one order at a time as the last one depleted. The waitress provided drink refills before the last one was even empty. For the first time in weeks, Toki was happy.
The diner door clanged and in walked three men in long black coats. Each removed black gloves from their hands and pulled black hats from their heads. Toki startled. She had seen these men before, walking the halls of the Srio complex on the research planet. She wanted to run, continue to flee, but there was no hope of escape. The three men saw her as soon as they entered and made way for her booth.
“Toki,” the tallest of the three said, “we’ve been looking for you for a long time now.”
“Where’s the locket?” The shortest asked.
“I don’t have it,” Toki said.
“Where’s the locket?” The shortest asked again. The third man put a hand into his coat.
“Stolen. A thief named Eris took it from me,” Toki said. Her eyes welled with tears as the words left her lips.
“Eris? You’re sure of that?” The tallest asked.
“Yes,” Toki said. She sniffled and the baby began to wake.
“You need to flee, Toki. Get back to earth. Forget the word Srio even exists. If we even so much as see your name appearing in a local news stream I will come back for you. Abigail would be quite upset with a missing mommy and daddy,” the shortest said.
“I understand, please leave and let me finish my meal,” Toki said.
The three men left as quickly as they arrived.
The waitress returned as they exited, “What was that about?”
“Nothing. We used to work together. Can I have another plate of these?” Toki looked down at the table. She was free and clear of Srio’s attack hounds. She could not say the same of her new friend Eris.