‘I think I see her,’ said Malachi.
‘Over there, that alleyway across the street. It looks like a market, I think. I see people eating.’
‘Is Ellie eating?’
‘She doesn’t have a credit chip. How would she pay?’
‘See? She needs us.’
‘Stop giving her such a hard time. It was you yelling at her that made her run away.’
‘She didn’t run away. She walked off.’
‘Oh, come on, Tila. Enough. I don’t know what’s going on, or what your problem is, but stop sniping at her. She came here for you, just like I did.’
‘Are you threatening to walk out on me too?’
‘Don’t be silly. It would take more than one of your moods to make me walk out on you. Remember that.’
Tila mumbled something that Malachi thought might have been apology.
‘Close enough. Now, are you hungry?’
‘Good, then you still have something in common with Ellie.’
The traffic had thinned enough for them to cross the street but as Malachi stepped forward Tila suddenly grabbed his arm to pull him back.
And then he heard it. The wail of a siren, growing louder and closer by the second.
‘Do you think that’s for us?’ said Tila, ‘Because of what happened with Suleman?’
Malachi shook his head, although Tila could see he was uncertain. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Why would they let us go only to have us arrested later?’
‘You tell me. This place doesn’t make any sense.’
‘Here it comes,’ said Malachi.
They stepped back from the sidewalk edge, eyes on the street, doing their best to look casual, like they belonged there, and failing. Tila shifted her weight to the balls of her feet, just in case.
The siren grew louder until it was a shriek. Windows at the end of the street reflected green flashes, and then a white gyrocopter turned the corner. It was about ten metres up and flew over their heads with a low-pitched hum before disappearing around the next corner.
Most pedestrians ignored it. A handful slowed to watch the ambulance pass by, but as soon as it was gone they carried on as if there was nothing unusual about what just happened.
‘That wasn’t police, that was medical,’ said Malachi with his usual know-it-all confidence, but Tila could hear the relief in his voice.
‘So, nothing to worry about?’
‘No,’ he said, but Tila wondered why he still looked worried.
They were forced to wait for another break in the traffic before they could cross the street. It came when nine vehicles, all wheeled, and in garish colours, turned into the street and lined up against the sidewalk. As other traffic paused to make room Tila and Malachi crossed and walked through the alley to the market area.
They passed a couple seated on stools around a flimsy metal table eating something that smelled like meat. Malachi’s stomach grumbled in envy.
‘Did you see that? Was that pork? I love pork.’
‘I don’t even remember what it tastes like. I’ve been living off rice and fungus and goat milk for too long.’
‘Do you remember cow’s milk?’
‘I remember it was better than goat.’
‘True. It’s a shame cows never adapted to space like goats did.’
‘I don’t know, did you ever smell a cow?’
‘Not up close.’
‘You’re not missing much. I remember visiting a farm with my… when I was younger. Anyway, their tongues are disgusting.’
Malachi ignored Tila’s unfinished sentence. She rarely brought up her parents or her childhood. He doubted she was enjoying these new demands on her emotional memory. ‘So, what do you want to eat?’
‘Let’s see what’s for sale. How much money do we have?’
‘Enough for a few meals, but be careful. We’re going to have to pay for this one way or another when we get back.’
Tila patted his shoulder. ‘Well you are.’
They saw Ellie before she saw them. She stood in front of two stalls, one making sandwiches and one serving portions of meat and sauce from a shallow pan that was as wide as Ellie was tall.
‘Well?’ said Malachi.
‘Go and say sorry.’
‘We’re wasting time here, Mal.’
‘We need to eat, and you need to remember you’re still her friend. We can look for the next investor after lunch.’
‘We should have landed closer. We wasted too much time walking into the city.’
‘The sooner we eat the sooner we can go.’
‘Fine,’ huffed Tila.
Malachi held back while Tila approached Ellie, touched her arm and spoke to her. He saw Ellie’s face soften a little, and thought the friction between them had passed, but then realised she didn’t hug Tila, as she often did, and he suspected that whatever was bothering them wasn’t over yet. Still, this was a start. At least they were all together again.
Behind him a noisy crowd entered the market, carelessly bumping into him. He stepped out of their way and approached the girls. Ellie gave him a big smile.
‘Who are they?’ said Tila.
‘The owners of those cruisers I bet.’
‘Are we buying food?’ Ellie asked hopefully, returning their attention to more pressing matters.
‘We can’t stay long. We need to find other investors,’ said Tila.
‘But first we feast! What shall we eat?’ said Malachi. He was sure of a lot of things in life, but when he was surrounded by such amazing sights and smells he didn’t have a clue where to start.
‘I want to try that bread,’ said Ellie eagerly, and pointed out the stall she had been looking at.
‘Okay,’ said Malachi. ‘Tila, why don’t you choose something while I pay for this?’
Tila nodded and walked slowly around the, examining the menus and dishes on display at every stall with intense scrutiny. They Commonwealth might have standardised language among the peoples who had left earth, but that didn’t mean she recognised all the words on the signs.
The noisy crowd that had followed them into the market had started jeering and pointing at a smaller group who had just arrived. Tila watched as they ignored the shouts of the larger group and headed to the far side of the market, where the sun was brightest. She shrugged and turned her attention back to the food.
Malachi ordered the sandwich Ellie had pointed out and handed over his credit chip while the meal was prepared.
The vendor waved the chip over a payment icon fastened to the side of the stall. It blinked red and sounded a disappointed buzz.
He tried again and got the same result.
‘Sorry,’ he said to Malachi. ‘It’s no good. Do you have another one?’
‘What do you mean it’s no good? I have money on there.’
The vendor shrugged. ‘Sorry. Maybe there’s something wrong with the chip?’ He looked more closely at their clothes and wondered to himself why anyone would choose to dress like them. ‘Or the credit,’ he added. He handed back the chip. ‘Do you have another one I can try?’
‘It’s the only one we have,’ said Malachi, confused.
‘Next customer!’ called the vendor.
‘Why won’t it work?’ Ellie asked as they walked away from the stall.
‘I don’t know. No reason I can think of.’
Tila rejoined them. ‘I’ve found something I want to try.’ Then she saw their faces. ‘What’s wrong? Did you change your mind?’
Malachi told her what just happened.
‘So now we have no money?’
‘There must be something wrong the chip. Or his computer,’ said Malachi.
‘What are we going to do?’ said Ellie. She clutched her belly.
‘We won’t starve, if that’s what you mean. I brought food with us. It’s not much, but we can eat more when we get back to the ship. It’s just going to be a hungry day, that’s all.’
‘Can we at least sit down while we eat?’ Ellie asked Tila.
‘For a few minutes.’
They found a table with four white chairs around a square white table and sat down. Ellie chose the seat directly in the sun between her friends and squinted at them through her fingers as Malachi pulled from his bag the food they had brought.
‘We only have the usual, I’m afraid. Potatoes, mushrooms and some goat jerky. No rat.’
Ellie tutted in disappointment. They all looked at the food and tried their best to ignore the sounds and smells of the market stalls. No one reached for anything.
‘I’m not hungry,’ Tila said eventually, after contemplating the piece of goat jerky in her hand. ‘Not for that.’ She tossed it back into the middle of the table.
The empty seat next to Tila scraped over the ground.
‘Do you guys need this chair?’ said a voice.
They looked up to see a boy about Ellie’s age take hold of the empty chair with both hands. The sunlight crowned him with a halo of white-gold where it shone through his blonde hair and cast a shadow over the table. Ellie blinked in the sun and stared.
‘What?’ said Tila.
‘Can I take this chair? Our table’s short one.’
‘Uh, sure,’ said Malachi. ‘Help yourself.’
Their new friend pointed at the food on the table.
‘Leftovers never look as good as the whole meal, right?’
‘That’s not leftover,’ said Tila defensively.
‘Ha. Good one,’ he laughed until he saw she wasn’t laughing along with him. ‘Wait, really? Who sold you that?’
‘No one sold it to us. Just take the chair and go,’ said Tila.
‘Credit chip not working?’
‘No,’ said Malachi. Tila glared at him. He glared back. ‘No, it’s not. I don’t know why.’
‘Been locked out of the family account, huh?’
‘The what?’ said Malachi.
‘It happens. You spend too much, party too hard, or some company accountant tries too hard to get noticed. Why didn’t you just use another one. I mean, there’s no way you three are related.’
‘How observant of you,’ said Tila.
‘We don’t have another one,’ said Malachi.
‘Mal!’ said Tila.
‘So just make a call. What, this is your first day on the planet or something?’
No one said a word. Tila and Malachi were locked in an unspoken battle of wills, and Ellie was still staring at the stranger.
‘It really is? Wow, where are you guys from?’ he asked.
‘Nowhere,’ said Tila.
‘The Juggernaut,’ said Malachi.
‘The Juggernaut? I thought no one was allowed to leave that place.’
‘They can leave if they have the money, they just have nowhere else to go,’ said Malachi.
‘But you do, huh?’
‘We’re here on business,’ said Tila, and added for emphasis, ‘Private business.’
A grin slowly spread over the boy’s face.
‘Business? You? Here? And you can’t even buy your own food? I need to hear more about this. Mind if I join you?’
‘Yes!’ said Tila.
‘No,’ said Malachi.
‘Okay, I see mixed opinions on my left and right.’ He nodded at Ellie. ‘What about you, princess?’
‘Ellie, say no,’ warned Tila.
‘Hi,’ said Ellie, lost in the halo. ‘What?’
‘Ellie? Nice name. Short for Elizabeth, right? I’m Jayce, by the way.’
‘Eleanor,’ said Ellie.
‘Eleanor? That’s pretty. Old fashioned though, right? It sounds like something you would name a ship.’
‘It is,’ said Malachi.
‘A ship’s name’ said Malachi.
‘Right, right. So, the Juggernaut, huh? That explains the, um, fashion. How did you get here?’
‘We walked,’ said Tila.
‘I mean how did you get here? I didn’t think they would issue a landing permit to someone-‘
‘Someone what?’ interrupted Tila.
‘Someone with no money.’
‘Who says we have no money?’ said Tila.
‘Well, I’m no genius, but your chip doesn’t work and you come from the Juggernaut,’ he explained.
‘We have a little money, and we landed outside the city. We didn’t get a permit,’ said Malachi.
‘Wow. No permit? I hope no one finds your ship.’
‘Why?’ said Tila.
‘Because they will impound it.’
‘But they won’t find it, will they? We hid it a long way from here,’ said Ellie
‘Let’s hope not. It’s a long walk home, right?’ He laughed at his own joke. ‘Are you guys not eating? Or are you done?’
‘Our credit chip won’t work,’ said Ellie.
‘But we have money,’ Tila added.
‘Yes,’ said Malachi.
‘Hold on for one quick minute, I’ll be right back.’
Jayce moved back to his table and spoke to his friends.
‘This guy is an idiot,’ said Tila when he had gone.
‘I think he’s going to buy us lunch,’ Malachi pointed out.
‘But he’s an idiot. Listen to the way he talks.’
‘What’s wrong with the way he talks?’ said Ellie
‘He’s got a stupid accent and a stupid sense of humour. He thinks he’s a comedian. That’s the last thing we need.’
‘But he has money and is willing to help us,’ said Malachi.
‘We don’t need his help. I don’t trust him.’
‘Why not, he seems nice,’ said Ellie, still watching him. ‘Who’s that girl he’s talking to?’
‘Who cares?’ said Tila. ‘We need to be careful. We can’t start owing people favours. What will he want from us?’
‘Who says he wants anything? He’s just being friendly,’ said Malachi.
‘No one’s that friendly with someone they just met unless they want something. And no one gives away something for nothing, especially here.’
‘You don’t know that,’ said Malachi. ‘You’re just being cynical.’
‘I’m being careful.’
‘He’s coming back,’ said Ellie.
‘Alright, who’s hungry?’ said Jayce, rubbing his hands together. ‘I know I am.’
‘We don’t need your help,’ said Tila. ‘Just leave us alone.’
Jayce held up his hands.
‘Okay, okay. I get it. I’m getting in your way. But all I’m saying is that I could help you out if you help me.’
‘How can we help you?’ said Malachi.
‘We’d love to,’ said Ellie.
Tila just grunted.
‘Easy. I’ll buy you all lunch, and you tell me all about life on the Juggernaut.’
‘Why do you want to know about that?’ said Tila, warily.
‘Because I’ve never met anyone from there. Hardly anyone has. You hear about people moving there but you don’t see them again. I want to know about it. And all it will cost you is a meal. Then you can get on with your very private business with all the money you have, right? Deal?’
Malachi tried to gauge the mood of the table. Tila clearly didn’t want anything to do with this but it didn’t look like she was going to stand in the way of a decent, and possibly novel, meal. Ellie, on the other hand, had suddenly become, as Tila had feared, useless.
‘I guess it won’t hurt,’ Malachi said.
‘Awesome,’ said Jayce with a wink. ‘Now what do you want to eat? Your dish is my command.’