Author : A. R. Coy

A fine layer of crimson dust covered the streets and filled the transporter with a red haze. Freetown claimed to be the finest of the planet’s three cities, which only made the scene drearier. Deals were made here that were banned throughout the galaxy. Josiah and Brent, smugglers, felt right at home.

Fronting each building were strung-out stoners, panhandlers, and hookers trying to catch their eye. Children – dressed in scraps, covered in dirt – stretched their emaciated arms into the windows begging. Most sniffed rags drenched in cheap intoxicants. The smugglers gave each hand a meal ration, a day’s supply of nutrition. Nothing more could be done. This planet offered no hope, no future.

They were to rendezvous with Chyna to exchange cargo. She had come before the great revolt and refused to leave after. Hundreds had passed through her school — trained as teachers, leaders, and medics. The overthrow of the planet’s Tribunal changed all that. Humanitarian groups had been ordered to leave; Chyna had gone underground.

Brent pointed to a Xv spraypainted over a door. The building changed each visit, the symbol — a Greek twist on her name – was always the same. Josiah nodded and after a quick look around, backed the transporter into the loading bay.

Chyna walked out of the darkness. “Any trouble?”

“No. Where do you want the crates?” Josiah said.

“The corner is fine. We’ll move them later.”

They unloaded four large, unmarked crates.

“Is the return cargo ready?”

Chyna nodded. With a quick wave seven women shuffled out — no, girls really – none appeared older than fourteen. As she spoke their name they hurried into the transporter.

“Meena, Velria, Tinah, Joni, Aprela, Kinndra, Rondeen — they were purchased from brothels across town. They have started detox, but will need to continue the process. Got it?” Then more to herself she said, “Or they’ll be so desperate they’ll just return to trouble. An endless trap.”

“Any others?” Josiah asked.

“All this information needs to be passed along, understand?”

“We’ve done this before Chyna,” Josiah responded tempering the annoyance he felt.

“I know.” Sighing, she continued. “Twenty in all.” She called to the dark, “Reid, Fuun, Gooty, Baln, Vinter, Garret, Timo, San.”

Eight boys under the age of ten walked out hesitantly.

“Shoo, shoo. Load quickly.” Brent led them onto the transporter and left Josiah to get the details.

“They all came from the scavenger blocks and one kidnapping away from the slave mines. They are all clean, luckily the sniffing has less of a hold. I have great hopes for them.”

Josiah nodded. He hated this part; hearing their stories. He would just as soon be off.

“Just five more…Suzza, Breesh, Kendy, Neena, Pahla.” These were women, but no older than early twenties. “Runaways. They are your greatest risk. They were given as gifts by their fathers to powerful men in exchange for favor. These men will be looking for them.”

Josiah swore. “Then I’d better be off.” He turned, but Chyna grabbed his arm.

“I am trusting you. You will get them to the refugee transitional safely? I know there is not profit in this.”

“Sis, I may be a smuggler, but I’m not a human trafficker. Think of me as a smuggler with a conscience. Besides, I’m your big brother. You would think that would count for something.” He flashed her a large grin. “I’ll get them there.”

With a quick squeeze of his arm she faded back into her underground world.

Josiah stared into the darkness for a moment, turned and boarded his ship.

“Everyone buckle up. Next stop freedom.”


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