Night was drawing in. The temperature was now at least bearable. Bright neon signs towered imposingly into the blackness, jabbing adverts insistently down at the milling people below. Gloomy grey buildings loomed on either side, smattered with graffiti and dotted with jewel-bright windows. But the train glided by unconcernedly, its passengers replete on comfy chairs, basking in the air conditioning.

I was sitting in the corner when I received the phone call. I pulled out my headset and pressed the answer button on my PI.


"Sophie, where have you been? It's past curfew, you know what the Feds will do if they catch you out after dark again!"

It was my mother, gabbling away like an angry goose, as she always did. I wouldn't have been surprised if the man sitting next to me had heard every word.

"I can't explain at the moment," I said quietly, trying to hide my conversation from the silent carriage. "I'll explain in private."

"And how many times have I heard that excuse before? Get back here now, young lady, or I'll be docking your allowance -"

But I shut the lid on my PI, and my mother's voice. How I wished I could do that whenever I wanted.

Finally, after half an hour of waiting, I hopped off the train, back into the humidity, and plunged into the swarm of people milling on the platforms.

The station was packed - just as I'd hoped it would be. It was lit brightly by arc lamps twenty feet above, attached to a girdered ceiling which trapped the heat of the day and wouldn't let it out. I began to sweat as bodies pressed against me, making for the exit, and freedom.

I was still in Dogon. The city was the largest settlement on the planet, a full one hundred and fifty miles in diameter. When the traffic wasn't too bad it took seven hours to drive through it in a lev. Two on a train. And that was with the best road-and-rail system in the world.

And I wasn't heading for my own house, either. I was heading for my aunt, a woman called Ismara who I regarded as a mixture of mother and sister. To be honest with myself, I had leapt at the chance to get away from Mum, who seemed to be getting crabbier the older I got - maybe it wasn't purely because of the Watcher scare that I wasn't going home like a good girl.

But as I stepped out into the lengthening shadows, I saw no sign of suspicious men in suits, or spying droids. Even the CCTV didn't seem to have noticed me. But the city seemed to be waking up rather than falling asleep - lights were popping on everywhere as the sky deepened from deep blue to a crisp navy.

I turned off the main levway into a side alley, heading for my aunt's flat, ignoring the thudding mantra of a chopper above.

Then, suddenly, the darkness seized my collar. I was immediately wrenched backwards, as I heard a cruel voice whisper in my ear.

"I've got a silent blaster in between your shoulder blades. Make any noise and I'll kill you."

His breath stank of stale tobacco and strong alcohol. I tried to shrink away from him as his stubble grazed my cheek, but I felt the end of his blaster dig into my spine.

"What do you want?" I said.

"Everything," he muttered. "Everything you got."

"Get out of there!" I cried furiously, as I felt his hand enter my pocket. My voice echoed down the silent alley.

"I'm warning you missy," he said roughly, "one more noise -"

But I dropped like a stone, putting all my weight onto his right foot. Momentarily immobilised by pain, he winced, long enough for me to reach up and knock the blaster out of his hand. Then I straightened up and kicked him, hard, in between the legs.

The man doubled over, wheezing. I could see he was poorly dressed, and looked pinched and underfed. His empty eyes gleamed in the darkness.

"That'll teach you, you dirty pervert," I said contemptuously, lobbing the blaster onto the nearest roof.

I left the alley, as quickly as possible, before police droids turned up. I was right - if the Feds did find me out at this time, I would be in deep trouble.

I reached my aunt's building without further incident. The sides were speckled with lamplight from the various apartments, while on top glowed a beacon as a signal for low-flying aircraft. I stalked into the hallway, jamming my finger on a call button for the nearest lift. I watched the city descend gloomily out its window, before arriving at my aunt's floor.

The lift doors opened silently, and I wandered absent-mindedly towards my aunt's front door. I rang the bell.

"Welcome to apartment 4-86A. Please state your name and purpose."

I hesitated, not sure whether to disclose my full name. If I didn't my aunt would never let me in. Not in the present climate.

"Retina scan," I said. The computer said, "Unavailable."

"Print scan," I said. The computer said, "Unavailable. Please state your name and purpose."

I really hated that cold, crisp, female voice that greeted people at so many doors in this city. I was surprised that Ismara wasn't answering the door herself.

"Fine. It's Sophie, casual visit."

"Full name, please," intoned the computer.

"Sophie Aldins, casual visit," I said, more insistently.

There was a short delay, and the computer chirped, "Access granted."

I heard the lock click and the door swung open. I walked into the tiny hallway.

"Ismara?" I called. "Ismara?"

I opened the door of the living room. I saw my aunt sprawled on the floor at blaster-point before I could take stock of the situation.

The door was closed behind me.

"Good evening, Sophie. Glad to see you didn't slip through our fingers. That would have tarnished our reputation a little, would it not?"

The Watchers had Watched. And they had beat me to it.

The End

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