In the dark, nighttime shadows of The City, close to the outer wall, far from the skyscrapers and lights centered beneath The Traveler, something hastened across the dimly lit streets. And then another something. Then a third and fourth and fifth and sixth and finally, a smaller seventh. The shadowy figures, a group of darkly dressed children, teenagers to be more exact, darted from shadow to shadow on their way to their destination. They moved with speed and purpose, and, judging by the unlit locations they stopped at along the way, they meant not to be seen.
The small gang grouped together in an alleyway just out of view of their ultimate destination: a small bakery serving Ghetty Prime, one of the distant slums farthest from the Traveler’s light. After making sure they were all accounted for, the kids spread out and encircled their target. Some skirted right past it checking for threats, while others scouted more than a block away, on the lookout for trouble, before eventually returning to the alley for final instructions.
“There’s a security bot patrolling one street over,” Dustan, one of the larger boys, whispered to the rest of the gang.
“We can deal with that,” another replied. “As long as Nate-la can get inside,” he continued, sounding out the name of the gang’s defacto leader.
The thin seventeen year old girl opposite him brushed her stringy, brown, shoulder length hair out of her eyes and grinned. “You deal with that bot, Roy, and I’ll deal with the break in,” she told him confidently. “Now get moving.”
“You heard her boys, let’s go,” Roy commanded the rest of the gang, a second, slightly younger girl included.
“Be careful, Luminita,” Natela called out softly to her sister. The younger girl nodded and then was gone.
The gang moved out of the alley in ones and twos, trouble gleaming in each of their eyes. Natela counted to sixty then got to work. She had cased their latest target herself earlier in the week, but she still moved with caution as she approached the bakery’s back door. Still no cameras. Still no motion detectors. Still no lights. It was exactly the same as she’d left it. Then, instead of darting over to the door, or creeping to it sneakily, Natela made a show for anyone who might be watching. Leaving the shadows, she walked angrily down the street, splashed her foot in a convenient puddle as if she didn’t know it was there, and finally plopped down with her back against the bakery’s faux brick wall. To the casual observer or observation device she would seem like nothing more than a dejected teen, out too late, with troubles on her mind. She sold her lie, whether it was necessary or not, by banging her head back against the wall. It hurt some, but more importantly it gave her a good reason to look up and check for any last security devices she might have missed. There were none. A few seconds later a siren sounded in the distance, opposite the bakery. That was her cue.
“‘Atta boy, Roy,” Natela said to herself as she stood and inspected the bakery’s back door. A quick turn of the handle proved it to be locked. ‘Good for them,’ she though. Without a moment’s hesitation she drew a large beat up knife from the torn sheath connected to her belt. The knife was in terrible condition. Its blade was chipped, part of its rubberized grip had long given way, but it was hers, and it was all she really needed for this job or any other. First, she tried sliding it between the door and handle. A cheap lock would give easily when faced with such a simple trick. This one held firm, but no matter. Natela withdrew the knife and then did something… different. With a flick of her wrist, the polysteel blade flared white hot and illuminated its immediate surroundings with tiny arcs of lightning-esque electricity. Smiling, Natela tried again. This time her knife sliced through the locking bolt smooth and clean, as if the steel pin had been made of nothing but butter.
With the lock defeated, Natela sprung into action. There was no telling what kind of alarms might have been triggered or who might be inside. Throwing open the door, she let her knife light her way as she dashed through the bakery’s back rooms, past ovens and cooking sheets. She sheathed her knife once she emerged into the front room, and, with surprising strength for her seemingly malnourished frame, hefted the antique looking register into the ragged sack she’d brought with her. Her eyes widened as she saw some left over bread left in the display case in front of her. She hurriedly stuffed her mouth full of baked goods before darting back the way she’d come. For several tense minutes Natela walked briskly away from the scene of her crime, checking behind herself repeatedly as she crossed street after street, traveling in seemingly random directions in case anyone was following her. Finally, when she was sure she was alone, she headed back towards The City’s outer wall. Back to the place where the rest of the gang would be waiting.
“One thousand two hundred and eighty credits total,” Natela told the others after she finished downloading their loot from the antique styled payment terminal into her modified phone. “That’s three hundred twenty for me for me, and one hundred sixty for the each of you.”
Luminita and two of the others held out their own phones, eager to be paid for their night’s work. Roy and his two friends, however, did not. With a knowing glance between themselves they stood as one and advanced on Natela.
“Me and the boys were thinking we should do things differently, this time,” Roy said slowly. “We’ve been thinking, why is it you always get the double share? We were thinking, why don’t we…” he glanced warily at the three members of the gang still sitting, “…split it evenly this time.”
Natela chuckled. “This again Roy?” she asked. “We’ve been through this before. I get double because I do most of the work.”
“Seemed like we were the ones risking our necks, giving you your distraction. That seemed like half the work to us. We think an even split would be… more than fair. And, I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist on it this time.” Roy rotated a length of pipe in his hand as he finished speaking so everyone could see it. A pair of gasps came from two of the still seated gang members, but Natela remained unfazed. With a well practiced movement she suddenly held her bright, blazing knife in her right hand making it clear to all as to who held the better weapon.
“We’ve been through this too,” she said calmly. “Just take another step closer if you feel like losing a second finger,” she threatened, sure of herself.
“You’re right, we have,” Roy replied. Natela followed his sudden glance to her right, but not even she was quick enough to avoid the makeshift pepper spray Dustan directed at her face. Her left hand automatically flew to her eyes in a desperate, frantic attempt to wipe them clear. She yelled and cursed, but a second later she had to pull in her next breath. The burning pain that had blinded her immediately spread down into her throat and lungs, and with that her fight for dominance was over. Natela dropped her suddenly dormant knife to the ground and doubled over on her hands and knees as she coughed and choked on the intensely irritating spray. Roy watched with a smug look on his face as his two accomplices dragged their former leader out of the street and held her up against a nearby wall.
“Stop it, you’re hurting her!” Luminita screamed, but the three boys ignored her.
Confident that Natela was securely pinned, Roy advanced on her and was about to strike her with the length of pipe when a bright light illuminated the entire gang.
“Halt, Guardian,” a nearly monotone, clearly artificial voice called out. For a long second nobody moved, and then everyone did, Roy included. They scattered every which way in the hopes that one of the others would be followed. Only Luminita risked a glance back before she too disappeared around a corner. Alone and unable to see much less run, Natela slid to a sitting position low against the wall as she did her best to control her pained breathing.
“Do you require a medic?” The oddly calm, almost detached voice asked her.
“No,” she replied in between coughs. “They were… they were trying to rob me…” she said, wisely not mentioning that she had just finished playing the part of the robber.
“Hmm, I’m not surprised. You’ll have to learn to keep better company, Guardian. Well, maybe not. But you should at least consider it.”
“Guardian?” Natela asked as she continued wiping at her face and eyes. It was starting to work. Soon she was able to squint her eyes open wide enough to see who had saved her. What she saw would have made her jump back in shock if she hadn’t already been pressed up against the wall. In front of her was not some oddly voice patrol bot or a flesh and blood member of law enforcement, but the strange, small, angular, floating shape of a Ghost. She’d seen them in vids and heard about them all her life, but to have one so close to her, and have it speaking to her… To say she was startled would have been a vast understatement. “I think you’ve got the wrong girl…” she protested weakly.
“No. I don’t,” the Ghost said in return. “You are Natela Tamaya Murk, one of the ‘little lights in the darkness.’ I’m curious, do you think your parents knew you were destined to become a legend when they named you?”
“My parents are dead,” Natela answered bitterly, “and legend nothing. The only thing I’m becoming is out of here,” she said.
“You’ll need to try harder than that,” her Ghost replied as she shakily pulled herself around the corner. It hovered in place for a moment, looking on with amusement at her less than rapid departure. “We can do this one of two ways,” the Ghost said as it effortlessly moved to block her slow, clumsy exodus. “Either you come now with me, or I flood this sector with law enforcement. I think you’ll find I know a thing or two about The City’s security protocols.”
“Come with you… and become a Guardian?” Natela asked incredulously.
“Right, that’s how that works?” she laughed. “Do you always pick starving thieves living in the slums?”
“Not typically. More often we select from among the heroes of your past… but your natural talent was too good to pass up.”
“Well… uh…” Natela said, searching for an excuse, “I can’t leave without my sister. She gets sick and there would be no one else to care for her.”
“I fully expected you to bring her along.”
“Bring? I don’t even know where’s she’s gone!”
“I do,” her Ghost replied. It flexed its angular plates in such a way that might, maybe, indicate a knowing smile. Natela turned to follow its gaze and there, peeking around the corner, was her thirteen year old sister.
“You were supposed to run!” Natela tried to say, but her inflamed throat couldn’t yet support her angered tone.
“I was scared,” Luminita offered softly.
“I was too…” Natela admitted. She held open her arms and in an instant Luminita was in them, burying her tears on her big sister’s shoulder. “If I went with you she would be taken care of?” Natela asked the floating intelligence.
“Of course. As would you,” it replied.
Natela bristled. “I can take care of myself!” she complained, before descending into another painful coughing fit. The Ghost just stared at her, not even bothering to speak. “Most of the time…” Natela conceded as she recovered. She stroked her sister’s head for a few moments before making a decision. “All right” she said, “but I’m doing this for her… not for that,” she gestured to The Traveler, “or to become your legend.”
“Understood,” her Ghost said in reply. “If you two will follow me, I already have transport waiting for you.” The two sisters helped each other off the ground and began to follow. They didn’t make it more than a block before Natela froze and urgently turned to look back down the street.
“Right here,” her Ghost told her before she even had the chance to ask. She marveled as her old knife rewove itself out of bright motes of light right before her eyes. She grasped it out of the air and was further surprised to feel its unfamiliar heft and balance. It had been remade good as new! Maybe even better!
“What else can you do?” Natela asked, her voice a mix of awe and suspicion.
“No sense revealing everything all at once,” it replied. “Now come on, I need to tell some friends that I found you.”