"...and take your damn cat with you!"
"It's not my damn cat," he muttered, staring wrathfully over his shoulder at the black stray. All he'd wanted was a quiet drink, goddammit. Somehow the cat had slunk into the bar.... okay, so maybe he was slipping it a few pieces of his sandwich, because the thing did have the most wistful eyes... but he still thought Jack was overreacting just a little...
"And don't come back until you can pay off your tab, freeloading bum!"
Well, maybe that had a little to do with it, too.
"This is all your fault," Alex muttered, directing a half-hearted kick at the cat.
It jumped up onto a hitching post and regarded him from world-weary green eyes.
Man, there sure are a lot of black cats in this world, Alex thought, staring at it. He'd passed through a lot of towns, and there seemed to be black cats in all of them. Maybe the seed ships had been full of frozen cats or something.
He laughed aloud at the idea of banks of frozen cats, awaiting the lifegiving warmth of the new world to thaw them, but his laughter died at the thought that out of all the people on this world, only a handful would have any idea what he was talking about.
It was a lonely way to live.
Damn, you're morbid today, Alex told himself, slouching along with his hands jammed deep in the pockets of his jacket. His fingers wrapped around a half-empty pack of cigarettes and he shook one out into his hand, stared at it thoughtfully for a moment before lighting it.
He couldn't help thinking, briefly, of the only person he'd ever known who had the ability to make him laugh when he was feeling like this ... but he clamped down hard on those thoughts, as he had learned to do over the years, clenching the cigarette between his teeth.
Don't think about it and the pain goes away.
Only it doesn't really, it never does... but at least he'd finally got on with his life, if a succession of field-hand jobs and one-night stands could be considered getting on with his life.
Now he'd been fired from yet another job -- for not showing up to work, of course -- and had nothing to do but hang around town until his money ran out and all the locals started hating him.
How the hell did he ever screw up his life this badly?
Alex raised his eyes from the sun-baked street to the curve of the city's Plant, just showing above the buildings. A blue energy corona flickered above it, sometime flaring up into the sky, sometimes guttering sullenly like a dying gas flame. It had been like that for days, sometimes worse and sometimes better. But not normal, Alex thought. Even the damn Plant is depressed ... or whatever they get.
"Let's face it," Alex said aloud, staring up at the suns until his eyes teared. "There's only one thing in life that I'm good at, and I'm never doing that again, ever. So dump on me all you like. I made a promise and I intend to keep it."
"Here," a voice said, and Alex felt something cold brush his hand.
"What the hell?" He blinked sunspots out of his eyes.
The girl who had spoken looked about fourteen. Maybe a little older... tough to say. She was ragged and filthy beyond belief. From the look of the fading bruises on her face, somebody had slapped her around a little, too.
She had just pressed a doubledollar into his hand.
"Go get something to eat," the girl said, in an oddly vacant voice, and turned and started to walk away.
"Hey!" Alex yelled after her. "Hey! Hey, you, I'm talking to you!"
The girl paused, and turned around. "Yes?"
"What's this all about?" Alex demanded, waving the coin at her.
"My... aunts... always said I should give to those less fortunate than myself," the girl said quietly. "So I do."
Alex stared at her ragged clothes and scrawny wrists in disbelief before he exploded, "You think I'm less fortunate than you?"
She just stared at him, and Alex realized what she must see: a guy in a beat-up leather jacket, with a scruffy beard and black hair down to the middle of his back, talking to himself. Check that: ranting at her. No wonder she looked freaked out.
"Well, all right," he admitted. "Maybe I do look kind of like a bum."
"That's because you are a bum," one of the local women commented, walking by.
"Mya..." agreed the cat -- or a similar-looking cat, at any rate -- trailing behind her.
"Nobody asked you," Alex muttered.
He looked up to see that the girl was smiling, and her eyes, no longer vacant, were fixed on him. That smile melted his heart in an instant; it reminded him so much of --
Don't think about it.
As he gazed at her, the smile faltered, and fell from her face. Her eyes grew wide and haunted.
"What is it?" he asked her, hoping to recapture that enchanting smile.
"What one of us sees, we all see," the girl whispered.
"I'm sorry," she said, recovering herself. "I thought for a minute I'd seen you before. I must be wrong. I haven't met too many people." She cleared her throat and fidgeted with her ragged clothes. "Look... I -- I'm sorry. I didn't mean to insult you. There's so much I don't understand... I'll just leave now." She spun and started to walk away.
"Wait -- wait!" Alex called. "Hey -- miss!"
"Is he bothering you, ma'am?" Jack called from the door of his bar. "He's been drinkin', you know."
"I'm not bothering her! Trust me! Tell him!"
"He's not bothering me," the girl said obediently. Once again, she looked glazed, as if she stared past the world into ... something else.
"Hey," Alex said. "Kiddo. I'm Alex. Alex Daniels."
"I'm ... Sand."
"That's an unusual name."
She shrugged, looking past his head. "It's my name, that's all. I -- I should be going."
Alex raised his hand, with the doubledollar between his fingers. "Buy you lunch?"
In reality, the girl called Sand wound up buying him lunch, since a doubledollar doesn't go nearly as far as it once did. (Alex used the one she'd given him to buy another pack of cigarettes.) She didn't seem to mind; in fact, she seemed happy to have the company. She'd been traveling alone, she said, as she blithely counted coins onto the table for the bill.
"Christ! Put that away! Don't count your money in public like that, kid!"
"Why not?" she asked, looking up at him.
"Well... people see it and get ideas. They'll try to rob or hurt you for it, understand?"
She shuddered, and looked down at the table. The bag disappeared quickly under her tattered cloak. "Yes... I understand."
Yeah, she probably does, Alex thought, seeing the yellowish stains of the bruises fading on her wrists and cheekbones. I wonder what sort of hell she's running from.
He stared off into the ether, trying to concentrate on anything but the girl. Listened to the other patrons of the restaurant complain about their miserable lives. A group of middle-aged women were giggling like schoolgirls about somebody's bedroom scandal. Two men at the table next to them were talking about the notorious outlaw, the Fire Engineer, and how he'd been seen in the area lately.
Finally Alex said (cursing himself for a nosy bastard)...
"Where did you get that kind of money, anyway? You seem a bit innocent to be a thief."
She gave him a quick stare. "It's my aunts' money. They... gave it to me. For a trip."
That girl was a really terrible liar. Either that, or a good enough liar to fake being a terrible one -- he'd met people like that, seem like the world's biggest suckers until they rob you blind -- but he would put money on this kid being the innocent she appeared.
He knew from personal experience how the world treated innocents.
No, no, no, he told himself. You do not need to protect this kid, understand? She can probably take care of herself just fine. Probably got six-shooters under that cape and knows how to use 'em. Besides, how are you going to protect her, genius, when you not only don't own a gun but wouldn't be able to fire it if you did?
Dammit. Sometimes I hate myself.
"So," he said. "Where are you headed?"