December 1st, 2409
There were still some things you couldn't trust to machines.
Every house in New Saffron City had an alchemiter, but the sprawling metropolis was caught in the throes of its third grist shortage this sweep. And some packages were just too important to trust to the sendificator--one wrong button press and you could delay your shipment by a whole perigee.
That was why the runners still had jobs. Every night they took to the streets and alleys, cutting through slums and construction sites, navigating easily even when the smog was at its thickest. Whether they were transporting sensitive data, delicate tech, or drugs, the couriers did the job no questions asked--as long as you had the cred to pay. Runners were the darling of every crime syndicate and biotech corporation in New Saffron, and Jade Harley was among the best.
The cold sharp wind tickled her ears as she sprinted full-tilt through Twelve West. Jade hadn’t even broken a sweat when she finally arrived at Sollux Captor’s door six kilometers later. She had been engineered for speed and stamina; her muscular, tall frame was packed with the best biotech her grandfather’s money had been able to buy. Respirocytes in her bloodstream ensured a steady flow of oxygen to every cell no matter how hard she pushed herself, and her personal best for holding her breath was a full fifteen minutes. She could zoom in on a man fourteen meters away with her bionic eyes and count his freckles.
The benefit of being ruled by an alien race was getting access to their technology.
“About time you got here,” Sollux grumbled through the intercom before she’d even rung. “I’ll buzz you in.”
The door hummed, clicked, slid quietly open. Jade adjusted her floppy, oversized newsboy cap between her ears and stepped into the quiet of Sollux’s workshop.
She found the genius at his workbench, strewn with various tools and fragments of honeycomb. A cloud of bees hovered humming nearby in front of the security display. Sollux kept motion-activated cameras trained on every possible entrance to his lab. He loathed surprise visits.
“KK’s already sent me three messages asking if you’ve been here yet,” he called over his shoulder.
She rolled her eyes. “That jerk! He has no patience at all, does he?” Frowning, Jade checked her watch. It wasn’t even midnight. “--I’m six minutes ahead of schedule!”
Sollux turned to face her, rolling his eyes under his colored glasses. “You know KK. He’s not happy unless he’s micromanaging something or yelling at it. Douche.”
“The crabbiest crab who ever crabbed,” she agreed, smoothing out a wrinkle in her black shirt. “Is the package ready?”
Technically, Karkat Vantas, distribution manager for the Midnight Corporation, was her best customer. This did not stop Jade from thinking of him as grumpy, high-strung, and kind of adorable.
“Yeah, hang on.” He unlocked the workbench’s top drawer and pulled out a box no more than two inches square, wrapped in golden paper printed with a honeycomb pattern. In his long, slender fingers it looked impossibly small.
“Is that it?” Jade demanded. “I wasn’t even supposed to be working tonight, I’m doing this as a favor to Karkat!”
Sollux shrugged, his ill-fitting button-down bunching at the shoulders. It looked like it was yesterday’s shirt, judging from the wrinkles. “KK told me it was important.”
“You are too nice to him, Sollux,” she said firmly, tucking the box into her utility belt (black canvas with green stitching, three pouches, all with hidden compartments--a nine-sweeps wriggling day present from Kanaya). “I hope you weren’t up late working on this!”
“I’m always up late,” he said. “Least this is something I got paid for.” A bee darted from the cloud and hovered at his nose. “They’re starting to fuss, I’ve got to finish this repair and get them back into the frames. See you later.”
Jade let herself out. The quickest way to the Midnight Corporation would be a straight run from the west quarter through the low slums of North and out into the glittering business district of Four East. She’d run two blocks before she realized she was growling, a low rumble in the back of her throat.
Sometimes being part dog was completely embarrassing.
She took a deep breath and tried to dismiss her irritation. So what if she was working on her wriggling day? Karkat always made it worth her while--in addition to being her most frequent customer, he was also the highest-paying. The Midnight Corporation had deep pockets.
She cut into the construction zone at the bottom of Fifteen North, scrambling up the chain-link fence and dropping in a ready squat on the other side. Construction sites were as good as playgrounds to her. The smog was thinner than usual tonight, and the waxing moon above provided her light. Though trolls suffered no ill effects from the weak Earth sun, they were still by and large a nocturnal race, and humans had been forced to adapt to that in the generations after the Alternian invasion.
She ducked under a ladder, step-vaulted over a low wall, and kept moving forward. She knew the site well. Felt Enterprises was building a hivestem here, but construction had halted at the beginning of the last grist shortage and hadn’t picked up since. The company was probably rationing its supplies for projects in the upper-spectrum wards of the city.
There was a wall up ahead, she remembered, and that would divert her path to the right. She could tic-tac off it to clear the stack of cruxite dowels a meter away, come down running, and take a vault over the row of barrels. From there it was a clear shot to the single complete wall of the development, through the space cut for its door, then up the fence and out.
Jade kicked easily off the wall, soaring over the cruxite and picking up speed. Two meters to the barrels--she’d done this at least four times this week; it was her favorite path through the site. Sometimes she came here to blow off steam when she had nothing better to do. Of the city’s sixteen administrative wards, North was the least patrolled. It was mostly humans and lowbloods up here--no need for surveillance. The facilities available weren’t nice enough to bother preserving.
She took the barrels with a low chest vault today, swinging her feet over. Her right foot caught on something long on the other side, and she pitched forward as a howl of pain echoed through the construction site.
She twisted in midair, tucked her head in, came down on her shoulder and rolled, spreading the impact diagonally across her back and coming up in a sit.
“Oww! That’s new...”
Someone laughed behind her. “That would have been a bitchtits jump if you’d cleared it, girlie.”
Jade scrambled to her feet and whipped around. A pair of trolls leaned against the barrels--one painted and chuckling, the other holding one of his long, wide horns and keening.
“Oh noooo!” Thoughts of her own safety far from her mind, Jade darted to his side and knelt down. “I tripped on you, didn’t I? I’m so sorry!”
“Uhh, it’s okay, at this point I am well used to, various types of horn-related injury.”
Jade unclipped her flashlight from the D-ring of her utility belt and turned it on the two trolls. “No, seriously, let me have a look and make sure you’re okay.” The injured one leaned back, trying to shrink from the light, and she frowned. “Come on!”
He was shirtless, his chest crusted with muddy brown stripes, and Jade realized it was his blood.
“He ain’t liking the light, wicked sister,” the painted troll drawled. He was dressed in tattered blacks. If he had a caste symbol on Jade couldn’t see it. “Best put that motherfucker away.”
Reluctantly, she did so. “At least let me check you out,” she pleaded. “You got pretty roughed up somewhere, didn’t you?”
As her eyes readjusted to the dark, she saw the injured troll nod. She offered him her knuckles, and he gingerly tapped his fist against them, gray to brown.
“I’m Jade,” she said.
“I’m Tavros, and this is Gamzee.”
“What happened?” Her first guess was that a highblood had caused his injuries. It happened pretty frequently, despite the planet’s progressive politics.
Earth was on the very outskirts of the Alternian empire, and the Condesce’s grip here wasn’t quite as tight as on other planets. A hundred and fifty sweeps of trolls and humans coexisting side-by-side post-war had relaxed hemospectrum hierarchy enforcement in most of the major cities. A lowblood could rise far higher on a frontier planet like Earth than on any of the core Alternian settlements. Karkat had told her once that he and Sollux had both done unreasonably well for themselves--a management position in a large corporation, a technician with a workshop of his own.
Most others weren’t so lucky.
“The Wild Hunt up and motherfucking happened, pretty puppy-eared sister.”
Jade bit her lip. “That’s ridiculous! Everyone knows Faeries aren’t real.”
“Real enough, to almost kill me.” Even a sharp tone sounded hesitant coming from Tavros.
She’d heard the stories when she was little. Faeries had been part of Earth before trolls, before humans even, and they’d been driven underground by modern civilization. But they weren’t happy about it--oh, definitely not!--and they were as likely to kidnap a grub as a human child to exact their little revenges on.
“Well, if you were hurt by the Faeries,” Jade asked patiently, “how did you escape?” She snuck a glance at her watch. Karkat would be wondering where she was, no doubt... Well, he would just have to be understanding and patient for a change!
“Well that’s thanks, to Gamzee.” Tavros turned grateful eyes to the other troll for just a second before returning his gaze to Jade. Her infodevice buzzed in her pocket, and she ignored the message. Her watch beeped a second behind it, its screen lighting up. A Pesterchum Mobile message, then--she’d installed it on both devices. Runners needed to be accessible to their clients, after all.
Except... not now. This seemed important somehow.
“Brother was the center of attention when motherfuckers got their frolic on in the wilds,” Gamzee said. “I was camped there with some friends of mine, having us some smokes and a little relax, and I decided to take myself on a walk. And what do I see out in those wasted woods but some pale-ass winged assholes taking the knife to Tavbro here.”
“Fuck if I remember.”
“You fought them off alone?” Jade couldn’t quite believe that this rangy, loose-limbed troll might be able to take on a band of Faeries. The stories had said they were shining and strong!
“Gamzee’s... a highblood,” Tavros muttered very quietly, so that Jade had to strain to hear him.
Well, that would explain it, wouldn’t it.
“Yesterday, uhh, around dawn. Gamzee brought me here, he said it was, safe. He had to carry me.” Tavros reached down and tapped his legs. “These... don’t work anymore.”
Jade felt in the center pouch of her belt and pulled out two grub bars. They were bland, but at least the protein would help. “Here. One each. You’d better eat.” The infodevice in her right pocket rang. A single press of the top button sent Karkat straight to voicemail. She sat back on her heels, watching the pair, trying to figure out her next move.
She had to deliver this package to Karkat. But she had to help these two guys, right? Tavros was in bad shape--she wasn’t sure of the extent of his injuries. Broken legs, maybe? And even if Gamzee had rescued him, she didn’t trust his ability to continue providing for the other troll.
The infodevice rang again, and her ears flattened against the top of her head. Not now, Karkat! Once more, she silenced it.
“If I call someone to pick you up,” she finally asked, “will you go with him? Tavros, you need medical attention, and I bet you can both use a real meal.”
She watched, frowning, as the two trolls exchange glances.
“I’m going to need you to trust me! I know that’s really scary since we just met, but I promise I won’t hurt you, and neither will he.”
Jade pulled out her infodevice, silenced her third call from Karkat, and tapped on her contacts list.
“Hi John! Did you get me a birthday present yet? Good, because I chose one myself!”
Once again Jade Harley reflected on how lucky she was to have her brother around.
She’d started running at eight sweeps out of sheer boredom. It wasn’t that she needed the money, though the money was good. She just wanted a way to put her enhancements to work.
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me!” John had exclaimed two perigees later when he caught her mid-job. “It is totally not fair for you to hog all the fun adventures.”
So Jade started teaching him to run. She showed him the shortcuts through New Saffron, let him tail her when she was working. He wasn’t as fast as she was, though he was flexible and had a strong jump. Now, almost two sweeps later, they’d settled into a comfortable partnership.
He’d rushed to Fifteen North to meet her and accept her charges. “Finish your delivery,” he said. “We can talk later! I’ll take them home and make them lunch.” Jade had stayed just long enough to watch Gamzee swing Tavros up piggyback before taking off at a hard sprint.
As she crossed from the North quarter into Four East she checked her watch again. She was well over half an hour behind schedule now. She cut into the back alley behind the Saffron Hands store, then took a hard right onto Cat Street. Now that she was into the East quarter proper, there were streetlights to guide her way. It was one of the best-maintained wards of the city--clean sidewalks, neatly manicured foliage.
Three kilometers later she burst through the doors of the Midnight Corporation’s main office, shouting a greeting at the receptionist (“hi Aradia how are you sorry let’s chat later!”) and leaping into an elevator. She leaned close to the security scanner and sang her password into it (retina scans were so last century; almost nobody kept their natural eyes these days), then pressed the button for the eleventh floor.
Karkat’s office was at the end of the hall. Since he was expecting her she decided against knocking. She threw the door open with a crash, making the troll jump from his seat and bang his knees on his desk in the process.
“Sorry I’m late!” she shouted.
Karkat stared at the dirt smeared on her shirt and her ripstop pants. “God dammit, Harley. Tell me what happened this time.”
“It’s a long story,” she said. “There was a brownblood, and he was hurt, and--”
“God dammit.” His shoulders slumped. “So you’re late because you were busy doing charity work like Troll Florence Nightingale ministering to the wounded fucking soldiers.”
“It’s more complicated than that!”
He sank into his chair and held out his hand. “Give it here.” Jade rolled her eyes theatrically, crossing to his desk and producing the box, then pulled off her glasses and attempted to clean them on her shirt.
“Those look ridiculous,” he informed her. “No one’s needed to wear glasses for fifty sweeps now.”
“I like them!” She stuck them back on her face and glowered at him as he ripped the paper from Sollux’s package. “Anyway, if you don’t need anything else, I’m going to go take my night off--”
“Wait, god dammit. Don’t go yet.” Karkat pulled a pair of pliers and a short, jingling chain from his desk drawer and lifted something tiny from the box. “Just--shut up a second though, don’t distract me or I’ll break this and we’ll both have to go to the hospital, need our fucking stomachs pumped like we’re wigglers who drank the pine-scented cleaning detergent.”
Jade crossed her arms over her chest and tapped her foot on the floor, staring down at him as he opened a jump ring and hooked the object to the chain.
“Karkat,” she said, “did you call me out on my day off so I could pick up part of your charm bracelet?”
He glared up at her, then looked back to her left wrist. “Your charm bracelet. Give me your off hand.” Eventually his stubby fingers managed to clasp the chain.
“Listen to me. The three stars are stun grenades, and that mushroom releases a little cloud of hallucinogen--make sure you throw it far from you, the range is like five feet--this crescent moon’s a knockout drug, break it open over someone’s food if you ever need it, and if you snap open the dog it’ll sound a siren you can hear the whole ward over. Happy wriggling day, Harley.”
The way his features softened in a smile was almost enough to make Jade forgive the loss of her night off.
“Karkat! You got me a weapon!”
“You think I forgot the time that seadweller tried to mug you when you were delivering Vriska’s new arm? Or the time you decided to help stop a burglary on your way to Sollux’s lab?” Karkat stopped, scooting his chair back a bit to look up at Jade more carefully. “...You like it, right? I would be an insufferable nookstain if after two sweeps working together I still bought you presents you didn't like."
“Yes,” she assured him, beaming. “I really do like it.”
“Look, Jade. If you don’t already have plans for dinner...I guess it was kind of a jerk move to trick you into coming in, and you ran into trouble on the way, and...”
Jade looked down at him and waited. He squirmed in his chair.
“And I guess maybe I owe you a slab of moobeast at a very nice restaurant.”
Her ears pricked straight up. “A whole moobeast,” she corrected him. “I have had an exceptionally difficult evening, Karkat! I want a whole moobeast!”
“... Fine. A whole moobeast.”
She grinned triumphantly. “And while we eat, I can tell you about the trolls I found tonight, and you can tell me how to help them.”
“... Ugh. Fine. I guess.” Karkat hauled himself to his feet, already looking exhausted. “Let me get my jacket.”
She would deal with Tavros and the Wild Hunt later. For now, she was going to have dinner.
It was, after all, her wriggling day.