Professional thief Jan is about to find out that not everything goes your way
Word count: 3790
Jan, drenched from the downpour, huddled in the shadows next to a nightclub greedily inhaling the sniffer pod. A surge of adrenaline rushed through him like electricity, heightening the music from the building next door and bringing clarity to the situation.
Normal reaction times to technology theft range from 2 minutes to 4 minutes, depending on the security of the firm and the number and efficiency of staff present.
Behind him, Jan could hear the attention-grabbing scream of the alarm and the sound of sirens coming from several streets away.
With items of high value, systems are more sophisticated, bringing reaction times down to less than one minute. In 83% of cases, the offender is caught within an hour.
Jan patted his pocket to check that the item was still there then continued running through the misty gloom. It was winter, one of the longest on record on Aquila, stretching now to four and a half years. The rain had been relentless over the past few months and obstinately thwarted all the government’s attempts to artificially recalibrate the weather. Two years ago it had become too dangerous to fly. They still hadn’t found a solution, leaving the inhabitants of Aquila marooned on the planet.
If the offender isn’t caught within an hour, it is often difficult to trace them due to challenging weather conditions washing away material evidence. Every further hour exponentially reduces the chances of an arrest.
Skidding through the soggy streets, Jan arrived at his destination. The deep trenched gutters at either end of the path were fighting hopelessly against the torrent of rain, an endless battle to drain faster than they were filled. Like rapids they flowed over the edge of the path into the black sea. There was a time when there were ports spread around this area, but now the edges on all sides of the floating city simply fell into Great Northern Ocean.
“About time,” a grizzled voice called out from the enveloping darkness. Jan could just make out the wooden boat, rotten at the edges and teetering precariously in the choppy waters. “Get in, quick.”
Jan stepped agilely onto the small boat and took the oars. “I got it Hak,” he said.
“Good. I reckon we’ve got about five more minutes before they’re looking for us in the waters.”
“Doesn’t seem fair,” Jan said breathlessly. “They’ll never catch the Captain of the Backwaters!”
Jan was sure that he could see a proud smile on Hak’s face. There were few better navigators out there, as Hak quickly proved, steering them through a network of canals, small floating islands and detritus. Occasionally Jan saw flashing lights struggle through the mist, only to be drowned by the thick rain. Before long, they’d arrived at the safehouse.
Jan climbed onto the makeshift docking platform and into the building. Its entrance was a shelf of rock with a small entrance underneath, rendering it innocuous from a distance.
“You got the package?”
“I’m fine Kella, thanks,” Jan replied, pulling his waterlogged coat off and putting it into the drying area.
“You got the package?” she repeated, her voice hard.
“Yeah, here,” Jan said, reaching into his pocket. “What is this anyway?”
“Give it to me,” Kella said without turning round, checking the readings on the computers in front of her. Her severe ponytail accentuated the coldness in her eyes.
Jan handed the square plastic case to Kella and she immediately opened it. Despite his curiosity, he was drawn away from it by the entrance of Hak, who burst into the room red-faced.
“Two boats, four minutes away. They’re coming here, no doubt. We gotta move.”
“Where’s Yuri?” Kella asked. “Where’s that little bastard?”
Through the quiet in the room, Jan could hear the cacophony of the rain outside, the soundtrack to this cursed world. It was the rain that took everything away. He remembered being young, playing with his brother and laughing as they felt the first rain of their first winter. That was before, when the winters lasted months, not years.
“He’s gone. So has his stuff. The weasel talked, we’ll deal with him later,” Hak said.
“We need to go to the city and split up. Lay low, keep quiet,” Kella said. She turned to Jan. “We’ll drop you on the South East side. The police won’t go there tonight, it’s not worth the credits.”
Discarding another used sniffer pod, Jan stalked through the poorly lit streets of the South East side of the city. He’d been dropped off at an old smuggling entrance, out of sight and rarely used. Just an hour ago he thought he was safe and had completed the contract, but now he was running again. He remembered the last time he felt settled, sitting among huge green trees with his brother, talking about working off-world as a smuggler. Fanciful dreams of a fanciful age. That was before the rains and before everything changed.
The creatures that prowled the South East side of the city paid little interest to him, instead going about their business: hookers, dealers, beggars, all kinds of down-and-outs. Jan caught the eye of one and bought another cartridge of sniffer pods, just to help keep him sharp for the next few days.
Happy Christmas to me.
Noticing the unmistakable darkness around the nose and eyes, similar to one who has recently had reconstructive surgery, the dealer offered Jan some fixers to help cope with the fatiguing side-effects, but he declined. They took too much out of you and weren’t worth the temporary relief they provided.
Before long, Jan came to a decrepit building which overlooked the river and the main throughway. There was no signage, however he knew it well. He knocked heavily three times and a viewing slot was opened.
“Room for tonight?” Jan asked.
“’Fraid I dunno what you’re talking about, friend,” the voice replied. Jan could just make out grey eyes darting warily from side-to-side.
“I need a room. I can pay in advance.”
“Lot of police about, tryin’ to trick ‘onest men out of an ‘onest living. You a copper?”
“Do I look like a copper?”
The grey eyes appraised Jan carefully, scanning over his face before settling on the sunken patches around the bridge of his nose and the base of his eyes.
“Na, you don’t,” the voice replied. “Let’s see the credits then.”
Jan held out his hand showing adequate credits to pay for a room for several weeks. Meanwhile the rain continued its unrelenting downfall. All clothes were made waterproof as standard now, anything else would be madness. Even so, Jan hated the way the rain made them cling to his skin, suffocating it like an overbearing parent. His eyes were stinging.
“Come in then,” the voice said, sliding shut the viewing slot and opening the door. “Quickly!”
Jan was ushered inside and paid for three nights’ accommodation under a false name. He then walked down steep and narrow stairs to the basement room.
“Gadget, I need your help,” Jan said.
“What the hell have you done Jan? I haven’t seen you in years and suddenly your name is all over the scanners,” Gadget spluttered, his voice high-pitched and tinny.
“Routine job, but there was a complication. Someone on the inside perhaps, or some wayward information.”
“Pal, it was someone on the inside. And you’re not going to like who.”
Jan looked at his feet.
“You already know,” Gadget said. Jan nodded.
“I need your help,” Jan said.
“I guessed,” Gadget replied, swinging around on his chair to face Jan properly. “I still owe you.”
In front of Jan sat a man with strong, thick shoulders, muscular arms and no legs.
Owe me for what? If I’d left you then you wouldn’t need to live like this.
“You’ve stayed under the radar since the Fukata job,” Jan said. “Now I need to do the same, at least until I can get off this floating cesspit.”
“Easy enough, there’s nowhere safer than Paps.”
“He didn’t recognise me, you know,” Jan said.
“Jan-“ Gadget began, pausing to rethink. “You look like shit mate. Those sniffers eat away at your cells.”
“They keep me sharp,” Jan said. “Listen, I need to know the location of Yuri.”
Gadget spun his chair around and started pressing buttons on a large dull-silver computer. Before long, it beeped in response. He then picked up a handheld transceiver, flicking a dial until the crackling static turned to tangible words. With the transceiver to his ear, he wrote frantically in chicken-scratch handwriting. When he was finished, he turned his chair again.
“Yuri is out of reach,” Gadget said.
“Where is he?” Jan asked.
“Police HQ, downtown.”
“Too much. Give it up.”
“I can break him out.”
“Jan, there aren’t many better at infiltration and extraction, I know, but the heat that’s on you about the little plastic box is crazy – you should never have been able to take it, I don’t even want to know how you did. They know you’re going to come, but-“
“Gadge, I do this with or without you.”
“Listen, they know you’re coming and-“
“Fine,” Jan said, turning round to leave.
“Wait, you stubborn bastard!” Gadget shouted. “Just listen: Yuri, he went to them.”
Jan didn’t answer, just stared.
“That’s what’s on the radio. It’s a trap. Yuri gave away all the details, he compromised all of you. To be honest, it’s a miracle that you got out. The others have heat on them too, cops know where they are, tip-off came over the wire just before you got here.”
Jan’s mouth opened, then closed. “But-“ he started. “What-“
“I can’t believe it either, Yuri was a good guy. I’m sure though, no doubt about it. He’s sold you out man.”
“He wouldn’t,” Jan said, although his voice lacked its usual conviction. Automatically, his hands fell to his shirt pocket to pull out a sniffer pod. The first sent a volcanic rush into his brain, but didn’t dull the pain. The second made him see crystal stars in front of his eyes and the third made his legs numb and his head light. Gadget, immobile and helpless, could only watch as Jan’s eyes became lifeless and hollow, with thin, claw-like veins pushing to the surface from the dark swamps around them. Jan fell to his knees, then his face hit the floor.
When he awoke, it was difficult to tell how long he had been unconscious for. Jan’s temples throbbed and his eyes stung. Sniffers always gave an immediate high that made you feel as if you were operating on the level of gods, but the aftermath was a hangover that made it difficult to move. Propping himself up on shaking elbows, Jan looked around and realised for the first time that he could feel light rain washing over his body. The effect was soothing, reducing his body temperature and cooling his stinging headache.
Realising where he was, Jan checked his pockets hastily, finding that he still had all of his money and sniffers. He looked around and saw that he was three or four streets away from Paps’ place, perched in an alley in the shadows of two houses.
Can’t blame them. Last thing a place like that needs is a druggie. There’d be too many questions and Paps’ policy on drugs is well-known. Another bridge burned.
Jan pulled himself to his feet and unsteadily started to walk. As the blanket numbness began to subside, questions seeped into his consciousness. How safe would he be staying in an area where everything was negotiable, including loyalty? Would Kella and Hak talk if they were caught? What was he supposed to do now?
And what about Yuri?
Surely that wasn’t true, was it? Jan walked, unseeing, wondering how things could come to this. Only this morning he was a well-paid thief-for-hire with more home comforts than a senator, but now he was hunted by the police, betrayed by Yuri and cast out of Paps’, the only safehouse the side of the Divide. He wouldn’t be welcome anywhere else, not in this city, and his own home wouldn’t be safe now.
Happy Christmas to me.
Police sirens whined from a few streets away, the shrill squeal becoming gradually louder. Jan stumbled then stopped.
He sank to his knees, head slumped over his lap, eyes closed. Kella and Hak had probably betrayed him too, disclosing his whereabouts in exchange for leniency. He inhaled a sniffer sharply, then another, and another, his last one. May as well finish them, it wouldn’t be long now…
Jan felt strong hands lift him onto his feet. He opened his eyes. Closed them to blink away the uncertainty and opened them again. Someone was saying something but it was only on the edge of his hearing. He tried to read the lips.
Jan nodded. The stranger pulled on his arm and he followed dumbly, looking like a dutiful dog on a leash. The sirens were becoming fainter. Through the haze he could see a woman, hair uncovered and wet. He couldn’t keep his head up. Laser clear strands of understanding floated along his peripheral vision, enhanced and at the same time dulled by the excessive chemicals that he had pulsing through him. He couldn’t feel rain now. He felt tired. So very tired.
It could have been hours or days later when Jan awoke in a cramped, damp cellar. The constant, determined dripping of the ceiling reminded him of an urgency that he was struggling to understand. Something to do with rain, he assumed.
“Hello Mr. Sleepy,” a gentle voice said.
Jan sat upright and peered into the void, unable to see anything other than formless outlines.
“You’ve been out a while. Here,” she said, putting a tray onto Jan’s lap, “I’ve made you something to eat.”
Without replying, Jan voraciously began scooping things up. He still found it difficult to see exactly what it was, but he was grateful for the sustenance. He hadn’t realised how hungry he actually was until he had started eating.
“Drink,” he said.
She passed him a glass of water, much of which he spilled down his chin as he gulped greedily at it.
“I’m Lena Al-Sum.”
“Jan,” he said, groping around on the tray for another piece of bread.
As Jan ate, Lena sat quietly, smiling at him. Presently, she said: “When I found you it seemed as though you’d given up.”
“Maybe I had,” Jan replied.
“On life,” Jan said, but after a seconds thought he added, “On friends. On family.”
“No-one should feel like that.”
“No,” Jan agreed. The silence hung in the air between them, not unwelcome. “Things got crazy today,” he added, but hurriedly stopped himself, surprised that he was sharing intimate information with a complete stranger.
“It’s OK Jan, I’m here to listen.”
“It was a big job, I’m not a good guy,” Jan started, but again stopped himself. “Why are you helping me?”
“Because you needed help.”
“How much is this going to cost me?”
“Nothing costs nothing. Not anymore.”
“That’s why this costs nothing,” Lena said kindly.
Again, silence filled the room. Jan rubbed his eyes but was still finding it difficult to give shape to anything in front of him. Instead, all he could see was a blurred greyness.
“Your eyes,” Lena said, pausing to search for the right words. “They look pretty bad. You use hydo-snioxide chlorotil?”
“I’ve seen it before a few times. It can be treated.”
Jan laughed bitterly.
“It can. That stuff is poison, Jan,” Lena said, her voice betraying no sign of annoyance.
“Tell me again, why are you helping me?” Jan asked, looking at the imprecise silhouette in front of him. “You a religious nut?”
This time, Lena laughed. “Not quite.”
“So what then? Why help a guy like me?”
“If you’re not ready to tell me your story, maybe you’ll listen to mine. Seventeen years ago I was a twenty-three year old woman with an easy, well-paying job where all I had to do was lie on my back. Or at least, that’s what my pimp said. The scars on my face are from the times that I dared to question him on that.”
Jan squinted through the gloom but couldn’t make out any details, just the outline of a tall, broad woman.
“It all got too much for me. I hit bottom. I gave up. I felt like no-one should ever feel. That bitterness and anger and rage, all pent up inside me with no release. Every day was torture,” she said, her voice quivering almost imperceptibly. “I turned to drink and then to drugs.”
“And you overdosed,” Jan said quietly. The tragic story was, unfortunately, a common one in the city.
“Yes,” Lena said, sitting down on what sounded to Jan like a cushioned chair. “But I was one of the lucky ones, believe it or not.”
“Yes. My pimp left me to die but an old woman, a beautiful, kind woman, found me and nursed me back to help. She gave me hope. She made me feel like life was worth living,” she said, getting to her feet and treading gently towards Jan. He felt a tender hand on his cheek. “And ever since then I’ve promised to myself to do the same. No-one should ever feel so alone that they want to give up.”
Surprised at the openness and warmth of the stranger, Jan found himself weeping. Slow, swollen tears at first which soon became floods as indefatigable as the rains outside. His chest and shoulders shook and his mouth turned at the corners, emitting choked grunts, like a twisted ghoul. Lena held him tightly for some time until the emotion passed.
“Years ago,” she said, stroking his hair, “it snowed outside on Christmas day. Before the rains, we had beautiful white snow, like a blanket of convallarias. It settled briefly then began to melt. The whole time I would look out of our window, wondering which one would be the last snowflake.”
“The last snowflake,” Jan repeated.
“The strongest, most enduring snowflake of them all. The one that could suffer the sun’s heat and stand resolutely, even after all the other snowflakes had melted away and abandoned it.”
“You,” Jan said, “you are the last snowflake.”
“No,” Lena replied. “You are.”
The two sat in silence for several minutes. When Jan spoke, it was openly and honestly.
“I stole a LS4562 – a prototype that could detect insincerity or not. The implications were huge, in policing and in politics. Imagine a world where a dishonest politician could be rooted out immediately, not just for lying but for being insincere with his message. Because of this, it was locked away and put back on the shelf.”
“And then what happened?” Lena asked, still sitting close and listening attentively.
“We got away, we thought we’d made it. But then the police found us. Turns out Yuri betrayed us all.”
“My-“ Jan started. “My-“
“It’s OK,” Lena said, stroking his hair.
Cold tears started again, burning into the drug-damaged skin underneath Jan’s eyes. Automatically, his hand went to his pocket for a sniffer, but there were none left.
“He disagreed with what we were doing and asked me to stop, but I wouldn’t. His wife was a corrupt politician and he was afraid that the prototype would be used against her. He said that he couldn’t go along with it but I threatened him, told him that I’d expose his wife myself if he didn’t help. Now Kella and Hak have been taken, Yuri’s with the police, it’s just me that’s left.”
“The last snowflake.”
“I’m not though. I’m a druggie thief with no-where to go. I’m a down-and-out.”
“You’re stronger than that.”
“I’m not!” Jan roared, knocking his chair over as he stood up. He brushed Lena off and staggered towards where he believed the stairs to be, using the wall as a scaffold along the way.
“Jan,” Lena said. “Please, sit down.”
Jan, as if hypnotised, followed her voice and sat down sedately. His head bowed and stinging ferociously, he felt devoid of energy.
“Why are you helping me?” Jan asked again.
“I told you, you’re the last snowflake. You felt so defeated that you wanted to give up and that is something I cannot let anyone experience. Help me, Jan. Help me help others like you.”
Jan ran his hands through his greasy hair and gritted his teeth. How could a complete stranger have such faith in him? How could he help? He was blind, washed out, worthless. The skills he had before were redundant now.
“Please,” Jan said, his voice breaking, “tell me why.”
“Jan, there is too much pain in this world. Your pain has taken your eyes - that is the forfeit for your crimes. I want to help those who I can and I think you have something in you too. You could help,” Lena said, grasping his shoulder firmly. “It’s late, you’re exhausted. Sleep and we’ll talk in the morning.”
Lena led Jan over to a bed with a hard mattress and helped him lie down. She then left without another word. Lying there, all Jan could think about was Yuri. Initially he’d felt betrayed and angry, but now he realised that he had forced him into doing something that he didn’t want to do. Perhaps he should have seen that Yuri, his younger brother, needed help. The indignant fury that had been rising in him since the job went awry started to fade, becoming dormant.
Embarrassed, Jan started to think about Lena, the stranger who had shown no judgement and made him cry his first tears since…ever, as far as he could remember. If she could give a useless, washed-up bum another chance, surely he could forgive a brother pressured into submission.
He’d lost two good friends in Kella and Hak, been driven out of Paps’ place, probably forever, and had been given up by his brother. Perhaps this was all just. Perhaps Lena had appeared to help him show him how to serve the rest of his penance. A blind man had to find his way in this shadow of a world, somehow. He’d lost everything, but Lena had given him something back, she’d given him another chance.
Yeah, another chance. Maybe I can become a part of this. But Lena’s wrong, I’m not the last snowflake, I’m the first. If I can help all those other lost souls then I fulfil a greater purpose in this world. Hey bro, happy Christmas. I forgive you. Maybe one day I’ll earn your forgiveness too.