Krivash was already sitting in the office with Grimmel when several of his lieutenants knocked and then entered. Cyan and Kich were with them. Krivash straightened in surprise. Oh no.
Without speaking, Grimmel reached up and took a data pad from one of the lieutenants. He skimmed it over and then grunted in irritation.
“I’m going to leave and find—” Krivash began, rising from his seat.
“Sit. I want you here for this.”
Krivash plopped back down. He was really glad he didn’t need to move his head to look around the room. Cyan and Kich didn’t look too worried, and Grimmel wasn’t looking at him, so it’s probably nothing involving him.
“We’re pretty sure there’s a snitch.”
Krivash’s antennae twitched. It only involves me.
The second lieutenant chimed in, “The hit happened as predicted. The force took in Rouza and Piffen after they dropped the haze.”
Grimmel didn’t say anything. After a moment, he looked over at Krivash. Krivash did his best to hold very, very still.
Was time even moving anymore? He was pretty sure neither of the lieutenants, Cyan, or Kich were moving anymore. Grimmel’s gaze must create a vortex that sucks in time. Krivash thought he was going to die long before Grimmel finished his thought.
“Have you heard any other groups been hit by the police?” Grimmel said, looking back to the group in the room.
“Not that I’ve heard, but I’ve only met with groups that would probably go down in one raid.” Krivash said, trying to keep his tone even.
Grimmel was quiet again. After a moment he looked up, his look unreadable. “Do we know who the snitch is talking to?”
“People inside are pretty sure it’s Ashraya Demeza. She took down Dismember.”
Krivash’s antennae wanted to twitch so badly.
Grimmel looked over at Krivash again. Krivash forced himself to meet the gaze.
“We can’t afford to have the police interfering yet. Find out where she lives and kill her.”
Krivash had made his way to the nicer neighborhoods up in the Ring. The roads here were flanked by actual sidewalks instead of faded paint on the ground. The air smelled cleaner and the houses were nicer. None of the businesses had broken windows or flickering signs. Easily Krivash’s favorite part was that you could see space through massive plate windows in the ceiling. Depending on rotation, you could actually feel the warming rays of the nearby sun.
Krivash was in a foul mood.
He found the building he was looking for and walked up the stairs to the door. Stairs? For the door?
After a moment the door opened and Ashraya greeted him politely and in ushered him inside.
Her house was nicer than any place Krivash had ever slept. The entry way had a tile foyer that led directly into a furnished living room. The walls were actually painted—a subtle cream color—and matched the dark brown carpets. There was some comfy looking furniture. Ashraya asked Krivash to take off his shoes. He walked towards the kitchen, and hesitated for a moment. The carpet was so comfortable to walk on; Krivash had only ever known concrete and steel floors.
Her husband, a tall, sturdy looking lashunta, walked out of the kitchen wearing plainclothes and a blue apron. If Ashraya was a caramel colored lashunta, he was definitely some kind of chocolate. He reached out a hand to greet Krivash.
“Lafid. Nice to meet you. You timed that well—dinner is just finishing.”
Krivash desperately wanted to be rude, but something about this place stayed his sharp retort. He opted for uncomfortable silence.
Lafid smiled warmly and went back into the kitchen. Ashraya offered to take Krivash’s coat, which he did very reluctantly. All of his favorite stuff was in there.
“You don’t need to be polite. I know you aren’t comfortable. Be yourself. I’ve warned Lafid about you,” she said with a smile. “Just hear him out, won’t you?”
“When can I leave?” Krivash asked.
“After dinner.” Ashraya said. She gave him a pleading look. Krivash wished he knew how to roll his eyes.
This was easily the greatest meal he had ever eaten. The food was steaming as it was brought to the table. Krivash kept looking around, his first reaction to find the exits. He was uncomfortable. Why are they making him dinner? What do they want with him?
Krivash ate mostly in silence. A variety of utensils were on the table, and Krivash had to wait to see which big spoon was for which bowl of colorful foodstuffs. He was used to eating everything like a fruit, held in hand and eaten quickly and greedily; how food was supposed to be eaten! But Ashraya and Lafid were using spoons and forks to eat. Krivash knew how to eat with them, he wasn’t a mongrel, but it felt so fake. Eating with them made him feel like he was pretending to eat.
Even using utensils, Krivash still finished his dinner far faster than the lashunta pair. He wasn’t talking. He was listening to them talk with each other; they talked about their days, what they had for lunch, their coworkers and friends. Everything was so practiced. It felt rehearsed. This wasn’t real. They were like preening birds in a cage. Trapped.
“You all right there, Mr. Roach?” Ashraya said.
“I—uh, yeah I’m okay.”
“Did you enjoy dinner? Is there anything else I can get you?” Lafid said. He stood up, crossed to the sink and rinsed his hands off. He patted them on a towel and began to collect plates.
Krivash didn’t answer. His antennae flicked about. The air was too calm here.
“You don’t look comfortable.” Ashraya said. “You counting the minutes before I let you go?”
“No. I don’t have anything to say. You guys practice talking like this, and I haven’t.”
“It’s—it’s not practice.” Ashraya said. Her face scrunched up in confusion. “We are just talking about what happened today. Small talk. Chit-chat.” She absentmindedly swirled some type of sweet, red alcohol in a fancy cup.
“Chit-chat.” Krivash repeated. “But your days sounded really boring.”
Lafid laughed from the sink. “They might be. Maybe for you picking up groceries and cleaning the house sound boring.”
“Yeah. I’ll never know how difficult it is to purchase food with money. Then I’ll finally have something to talk about.”
Lafid returned from the sink, refilled Ashraya’s glass. He looked over at Krivash. His eyes and smile were warm. “What would you talk about Mr. Krivash?”‘
There was a long moment of silence. What the hell did these people want with him? He just wanted to go home. He didn’t want to be out having dinner.
“My day started when I woke up in a room owned by a man who wants to squish me. He has my friends, and if I try and stop working for him, they’ll get hurt. He sent me on a mission to steal someone else’s guns, and then I made a new friend. This friend tells me that I work for her now, and she sends me back into the place that I don’t want to go to. I don’t get to go out and have fun anymore, because everyone keeps making me do things I don’t want to do. Then my new friends invites me over to dinner, and threatens me when I say I don’t want to.”
While he was speaking, Ashraya’s pleasant smile began to fade. She looked down at the table. Krivash suddenly felt guilty. He hated this. Why did he feel guilty? He didn’t do anything.
“That sounds hard.” Lafid finally said. “Sounds like you don’t get to make your own decisions anymore.”
“No. I don’t.”
“It sounds scary.” He said again. His voice was comforting.
“I’m not scared.” Krivash lied.
Ashraya looked up with a smile. “It’s almost over. When you are done, I’ll let you go. I won’t bother you again.”
Another quiet pause. Ashraya smiled at Krivash.
“How old are you, Krivash?” Lafid said. He placed a hand on Ashraya’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“I don’t know.”
“Would you like to get off of Absalom?” Lafid asked.
Krivash paused for a moment. “And do what?”
“Well, Ashraya wanted me to talk to you about the Starfinder Society.”
“I don’t want to join your society. How hard can it be to find stars?”
“Original,” Lafid said with a wry smile on his face. He continued, “You could explore space for a time. You could get away from all of this. You could learn a trade, or get an education.”
“You think I could do that?” Krivash asked flatly.
“I think you could learn. You could go see new worlds.” Lafid continued. Krivash’s twitching antennae betrayed him. “You can explore planets, maybe even meet new aliens.”
“Is that your job?” Krivash asked.
“I’m a pilot. I fly the exploration ships.” Lafid said. “When I was young I really wanted to go see the stars.”
“Driving vehicles has never worked out for me.”
“Well—you seem to want to make sure no one gets hurt. You could be an diplomat.”
“What do they do?” Krivash asked, trying to still sound surely.
“They help mediate between groups of people. You would represent the Society and it’s goals, while also negotiating with peoples we may meet out there.” Lafid said.
“I think you could be really good.” Ashraya added.
“You picked a job for me?” Krivash said, his frustration bubbling up again.
“No. We wanted to talk to you. But if you are interested, I have already placed your name on the list of trainees. The shuttle leaves next week.”
“Why are you two so concerned with what I do?” Krivash demanded. He worked to keep his tone level.
“Because we care,” Lafid said.
“You are kid doing a dangerous job. You are doing this for your friends. Ashraya tells me you are a good kid, just a little misguided. I know you’ve grown up on the street, and I want to help you do better.”
“I am doing fine.” Krivash said. “Or at least I was—before everyone suddenly cared what I was doing.”
“We care about you because—”
“And I still don’t know why Grimmel is forcing me to work for him. I gave his guns back—”
“I don’t want to see you turn into someone like him.” Ashraya shouted. She calmed herself and straightened in her chair. “I think you are a good person. You are risking your life for your friends—”
“And now I’m risking my friend’s lives for you.”
Krivash stood up suddenly and made for the door. He grabbed his coat off the rack and looked out the window to make sure no one was outside to see him leave.
“Krivash. I need your help to stop Grimmel because he has killed dozens of people, and he’s on track to kill dozens more. I’m sorry, okay?” Ashraya said. Lafid was behind her leaning against the kitchen door jam. Krivash turned to look at them, his back to the door.
“What happens if Grimmel finds out about me? You get to come home here. You have carpets, and spoons, and a bed. I get to go back and be near him.” Krivash said.
“You’d be stuck there anyway. He has your friends, right? You are helping me free all of you.” Ashraya said sharply.
“He has my friends, and that’s my fault. But I can keep working, and they’ll be okay. But you—you are risking us all, from the safety of your office.”
Anger sparked in her eyes. “I am an officer—”
“Then do your job and arrest the bad guy before he kills me.”
Krivash couldn’t sleep. It had been a couple of days since he stormed out of Ashraya’s house. He tossed and turned in his bed: he felt guilty about not telling Ashraya that Grimmel had his eyes on her.
But why should he? What did he owe her?
Krivash didn’t want anyone to get hurt or die, but if Grimmel could take care of her than Krivash could start to plan how to get everyone out of here. Grimmel may have been the wild animal, but Ashraya had locked him in the cage.
“Roach? You awake?”
The voice came from across the darkened room. It was Cyan. She had come in late, and Krivash had pretended to be asleep. He felt too anxious to talk, and Cyan felt like a stranger now anyway.
“How could you tell?” Krivash said.
“You sleep in your coat. Whenever you roll over it sounds like I dropped a box of stuff down some stairs.”
“My coat is very comfy.” Krivash said.
Cyan giggled. “Do you even have a blanket?”
“Nah. It always gets wrapped around me.”
“It’s a blanket. It’s supposed to wrap around you.”
“I’ve never slept in a blanket that wasn’t planning to kill me. It’s safer in my coat.”
Cyan laughe again. She was laying on her back, and then she rolled onto her side to face him.
“We don’t really talk anymore,” Cyan said. “Things got real messed up.”
“Yeah—yeah. I’m sorry I got you all into this. I never thought my greatest blunder would be mistaking guns for fruit.”
“It’s okay. It’s not all bad. We have jobs now—we get food and stuff.”
A long moment of quiet. Krivash knew what he wanted to say, but couldn’t find the words. They were trapped here like him, and it was his fault. He wanted to play a fun game, steal a truck, and have a good laugh about it later.
“I know the only reason we’re all here is because Grimmel is threatening you with us.” Cyan said after a time.
“I didn’t mean for it happen this way. I tried to make it right but—”
“You don’t need to say sorry. It was gonna to happen eventually.” Cyan said softly.
“Huh?” Krivash said.
“We were growing up. People went easy on us because we were small. But we’re adults now. Things aren’t easy for adults,” Cyan continued. “I wish I had never run away from home. I miss my mom sometimes.”
Krivash sat up suddenly on his bed. “You had a mom?”
“I did. I got mad at her because she wouldn’t let me do the things I wanted to do, so I ran away.”
“Where is your mom now?”
“I don’t know anymore. It was a couple years back. I shouldn’t have left my mom, or my dad.” Cyan said.
“What was it like to have a mom?” Krivash said after a time.
“She was mean, but she took care of me. I was a kid, and she was an adult. She had to worry about me because adults always have to worry about kids. She worked a lot and got mad at me a lot. But that’s because she wanted me to be a good kid, and I wasn’t.”
Krivash’s antennae twitched.
He could sense her quietly crying. She was shuddering.
Krivash got up and went over to her bed. He wrapped the blanket around her more tightly.
“I’m so scared.” She continued. “I just wanna go home.”
“Do you think the police could help? Help find your mom?” Krivash asked.
“I don’t know. The police don’t really help us—we’re thieves,” she said. She sounded confused that he would even bring it up.
Suddenly Kich walked in. He trundled over to his bunk and sat down. He groomed the fur on his face before flopping onto his back and groaning loudly.
Cyan wrapped herself up, sniffed quietly, and tried to act casually. “Where have you been?”
“I was helping find some ammunition. Found it though!”
“For what?” Krivash said, cold taking over his chest.
“They found the officer who’s been nicking our crew. I was helping load up the vans.” He said casually. Just another day on the job—arranging a murder.
“For what?” Krivash tried to sound genuinely curious. He knew he was failing.
“They’re gonna off her. Weren’t you there when Grim gave the order?”
“It’s late—are they going tomorrow?” Krivash said.
“What? No they’re goin’ now.”
Krivash stood up suddenly. What was he supposed to do?
“Cyan. Do you want to see your mom again? Even if she’s mean?” Krivash asked. Kich was squinting at him confused.
“Yeah,” she said. She seemed embarrassed that he brought it up in front of Kich.
“Even if she’s mean?”
“She wasn’t mean. She was being a mom. She just wanted what was best for me.”
What was best? For me?
Krivash ran out of the room, both Cyan and Kich calling after him in confusion. The door slammed open as he pushed through it. He ran down the hall, pushing past people, before coming to the loading zone. There were no vehicles here.
He turned and tried to walk casually out of the dock, and onto the street. Once he was several blocks down, he began running for the lift elevator.