Part Two

“A’gilll,” the l’s rolled high pitched and echoed across the sand dune valley. The teenage girl ran up over the hill, cupped her hands to her mouth, and called out again. “A’giiil,” followed by clicking sounds made with her tongue. Small black eyes turned towards her call. She stabbed her shepherd’s staff into the sand and raised her goggles to her forehead. It was early and the suns were low and the glare and wind minimal. Hands on hips she scanned the base of the dune and took count of the herd. She quirked her eyebrows and counted again. One missing. She pulled up her cane, slid back her goggles, and took a running start down the dune. She confirmed it- one of the lanya ewes wasn’t there. 

           It won’t have gone far, she thought and trotted off towards the nearest edge of the cliffs. The tall pillars of orange and rust colored stone loomed just a short jog over the crests of amber sand. After a brief search she found the missing ewe and the reason it had strayed.

           The girl knelt next to the newborn lamb. The small llama and sheep-like animal bleated at her as she scooped up the infant to carry back.

“There you are.”

She turned towards the voice and beamed brightly at the man standing on the hill.

“Da’sin,” Sandy called back, still grinning. He jumped forward and slid gracefully to the ground. Without her having to ask, he bent down and lifted the ewe and held it firmly on his shoulders.

“Thanks,” She said, heading back to the herd.

“No problem. I saw that you weren’t with the herd and came to find you. Dan’eth wanted to see you.”

             “Oh,” she sighed.

             “Hey, don’t worry about him. I’m sure it’s nothing,” Da’sin reassured.

That evening Sandy sat on the crest overlooking the herd’s small ‘valley’ made up of steep dunes. She worked at rewrapping her arms in the protective cloth that kept the grit off her skin. She finished the task and settled into a softer spot of unpacked sand and watched as the second of Dandawin’s suns set beyond the real valley’s cliffs.

“Hey,” Da’sin greeted. 

Sandy looked up. She was happy as always to see him. 

She didn’t know what had caused Da’sin to first approach her, they could have easily gone the entire past year without ever crossing paths, but every time she saw him Sandy was thankful that wasn’t what had happened. Until meeting Da’sin, she had never had a friend. She vaguely remembered playing with her siblings and the children of the other family, but since Sandy had been old enough to herd no one ever made time to come see her.

“How’d it go with Dan’eth?” Da’sin asked.

She shrugged. “Same as always, I guess. He treats me just like his other workers which wouldn’t be so bad if he didn’t treat me like a child. I’m almost sixteen and he still has me herding!” She sighed. “I wish I could do something else. I wish... I wish I were free. Like you are.”

Da’sin smiled in his quiet way. “Funny, seems to me you’re the one that’s free.” 

She looked up at him with a puzzled expression so Da’sin went on and answered her unasked question.

“You’re still young, no worrying about finding a place to live or debts to pay off or a job to pay it with. Sure, I can come and go as I please, but I have obligations weighing me down.”

Sandy nodded. “I just don’t want to be stuck here forever.” But she secretly didn’t mind so much now that Da’sin was in the valley. He’d traveled all over and done so much; she felt like he brought some of that to her.

“You know, being here isn’t so bad.” He was looking out over the distant dunes. “It’s a good wholesome life really. Sometimes I wonder how things would have been different if I’d had a background like this. Instead, I got into a lot of trouble. Would you believe this is one of the only legal jobs I’ve ever held down? I’ve done things I’m not proud of, yet it seems once you get pulled into that world you can’t always get back out.”

Da’sin had told her all kinds of stories about the places he had lived and seen but he had never hinted at this before. He was such a peaceful and kind person it was hard to imagine him as an outlaw, but rather than being put off by the idea Sandy was intrigued and flattered that he would confide in her. Dare she ask him more?

Da’sin mistook her look of indecision, “You shouldn’t worry though, you have your whole future waiting for you. I’m sure you’ll find your place in everything,” he said and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. Sandy basked in his touch. Isolated and friendless for so long even this simple contact was exhilarating. If not for Da’sin she might not know this small human comfort at all. He was the only one with whom she felt comfortable enough to accept casual touch.

What he said next surprised her.

“You know? I envy you. You’re so pure and you don’t even know it. I’m glad you won’t ever have to face the kind of life I’ve had.” He went quiet and she knew he was far away. 

The night was cooling and all the suns were set for their short time but Sandy’s cheeks were flush and her hands were hot. No one else ever talked with her or told her what they were thinking. Only him. She was trying to hold on to her moments with Da’sin. They finally made her feel whole.

The following day was the busiest of the year; the spring shearing. The animals already seemed to know and Sandy was having a difficult time trying to keep them together and calm. But soon she was herding them into their pens and latching the gates behind. They all bleated piteously; especially the infant, who was an extremely early birth. 

While the beta sun was still rising, everyone was up and preparing. The hired hands were gathering.  Da’sin among them, nodded good morning to Sandy. Dan’eth was standing tall and proud beside Angus, the head of the valley’s other family. Dan’eth and Angus had started their symbiotic businesses in the valley years ago. Her father’s side raised the herds and sold the wool and stock, while Angus’s family hydroponically farmed and produced dyes. Starting out small, soon they did well enough to hire workers and expand.

Wei’sen was also there. He came up to Sandy and smiled at her. She smiled back but was annoyed. She didn’t like Wei’sen around when Da’sin was. She flopped back her long, straight hair and began pleating it. Without the hair in her face she knew her tattoos would be more visible and she was extremely proud of them, but braiding was more an excuse to shrug off Wei’sen. It wasn’t that she specifically disliked Wei’sen, but he had made no more effort towards her than any of the others even though everyone knew their parents planned to have them marry. 

Before Da’sin came to the valley, Sandy hadn’t thought much about Wei’sen, but recently she began to think that maybe the valley wasn’t the total of what she was meant for. She could no longer accept that Wei’sen was all she’d ever have. The little she knew of him was from when they were younger and from the rare times she wasn’t out herding. Wei’sen was more like a sibling and any interest she might have had in him was lost when she met someone who caused her to form new ideals.

Maybe she was blinding herself, Sandy admitted. No one was that perfect, everyone had flaws, Da’sin included. Had he not all but admitted to being an outlaw? But even that was exciting. Her life was so boring, she had nothing to offer, but at the moment she felt her worst flaw was being too young. She sighed miserably but soon forgot it all in the bustle.

Side by side with Da’sin, she worked the rest of the day holding down lanyas as Da’sin sheared them. She didn’t have time to think anything more that afternoon. With the five pairs shearing and wives bagging wool with the help of the younger children, the work was done by the first sun setting, The rest of the week would be washing, spinning, and dying the wool. Those steps would take considerably longer.

A few evenings later, Sandy learned the news. She was laying on her back, her head towards the downhill slope of her typical dune. She was braiding her hair and thinking about the upcoming trip to town. It was the high point of her entire year and she was excited about going. Dan’eth was always in such good spirits that he actually turned into a father for a brief time. Sandy had been the one to accompany him since she was twelve. That first trip to the market she discovered there was a whole world that existed beyond the valley. It had also been where she acquired her distinctive tattoos.

After the bulk of the selling and barter was done, there was a brief period of free time while all the loose ends tied up. On her first trip, Sandy had noticed and admired the patterns bordered around some older women’s faces. She had seen nothing like it in the valley and asked Dan’eth about them. He explained that it had been customary for women to have a unique pattern tattooed along her hairline when she came of age. Once an old tradition, it was now rarely observed. On seeing how much the young Sandy admired it, Dan’eth not only allowed but encouraged her to have it done. Payment, he said, for a good year of herding.

Sandy considered what to do this year. She was leaning toward having her ears pierced a third time.

“What’re you thinking about?” She jumped up startled. She hadn’t even noticed Da’sin’s approach.

“Oh,” She beamed, “’s’you,” she rolled over on her stomach and propped her head up as the man sat down beside her. After a glance at his face Sandy knew something was up, and asked.

“Sandressa,” he began. She felt a little shiver at the sound of her real name. No one else ever used it, not even her father.

“I’m moving on,” he finished. She bolted to sitting.

“You’re leaving the valley?” It was too soon! Sandy had known from the beginning that Da’sin had not planned to stay. He was a traveler; a migrant worker with no ties but she had hoped... She had hoped he would have found all he needed in the valley, that something would have made him stay. Now she realized what a myth that had been.

Da’sin waited while she got over the initial shock.

When he left she would be all alone again. In a life where she was lucky to be remembered enough for patched up hand-me-downs and the only contact with her family consisted of brief meetings with her father over livestock, Da’sin had been a beacon leading her from isolation. He was so beautiful to Sandy, inside and out. He had shown her more consideration and kindness than she had ever known. How could she return to the days before they had met- before her time with him was the only thing she looked forward to everyday?

“Where?” was all she could manage without letting her feelings show.

“The other side of the wastelands,” he answered.

* * *

They locked her in a small bedroom, mostly empty save a beat-up old couch. She was almost glad for the chance to recover. At first she thought maybe her eyes were tricking her, making some stranger look like a familiar face. But, that height, that profile- she knew it was Da’sin, and yet in her shock she remained quiet. 

The next day, her door was open and Sandy was given what could almost be mistaken for free run of the cabin and the immediate area, but there was always another person within sight. Usually they were attending to their own business, but nonetheless they were there and watching. Sandy observed them discreetly as well, trying to figure out what they were about.

There were six of them, one a woman.  She was an obvious local, her skin a tanned brown that Sandy envied. It was mostly the woman who tailed Sandy around so it was hard to tell what her job was, other than baby-sitting, but Sandy noticed she was heavily armed. The other who kept an eye out was a built, towering man whose shoulders were at Sandy’s eye level. In addition, he dressed like an ex-military type. Sandy did her best to skate past him when he took up a position in the door frame, his scowl following her whenever she ventured into his vicinity. There was the local man from the trip to the cabin named Parr. She suspected she had him to thank for the knot of the back of her head. Lastly, Sandy caught glimpses of a scrawny bespectacled young man. 

Sandy tried to keep her distance from the others. Four strangers to adjust to, Alston’s strangeness, and Da’sin to avoid...

Early to rise, Alston and Da’sin almost immediately disappeared until late afternoon but everyone met back for the evening meal to discuss business. Sandy quickly decided to make herself scarce during this. She had no idea what Alston planned for her but she didn’t want to know any more than she had to about what was going on, at least as far as the others knew. She managed to piece together information from bits of conversation and from what she could tell, this little band of outlaws was responsible for refurbishing old mech-exoskeletons with some new programming. They had gotten hold of old models and were reworking them so that unlike before, the pilot’s brain wasn’t destroyed by prolonged use. They were reconfiguring the old models and testing the new program, planning to bid out the design to some off-planet buyers. Sandy had delivered some key component to Alston.

She knew the only place they could be all day was out in the barn in the back field. It was the only other structure in sight. Cabin, barn, field, more field, and then the tree line. Sandy assumed from their confidence in letting her run loose that there wasn’t anything beyond those trees either.               Alston tried to approach her early on the second day. He had dropped the sarcastic attitude he’d been using with her since their falling out.

“Sandy, listen,” he started. She was finding it hard to see him as the same man she had liked and traveled with just days before. She couldn’t respond. “None of this should have happened... I-”

“Hey, Alston,” Da’sin called urgently from the other room then barged in. Sandy immediately ducked her face. 

“Sorry, the contact is messaging you-” Alston had gone off with him immediately and Da’sin hadn’t even looked her way.

That afternoon she crept across the back field to the seemingly abandoned barn. It looked fallen and unused, but Sandy wasn’t fooled. The moment no one had an eye on her she took the opportunity to investigate. The barn’s front doors were slightly ajar. With another glance to see no one was coming out of the cabin, she leaned against the side, out of sight, to listen. She could hear four voices. It took no time to distinguish Alston and Da’sin. The other two she figured to be the spectacled mechanic and Parr. It was too hard to make out most of their words but the impression she got was that the new hardware was having a compatibility problem with the preexisting program. Sandy didn’t dare look in but she had a fair idea of what she would have seen anyway.

“You can join us if you like, Sandy,” Alston’s voice suddenly rang out clearly over the mumbled discussion. She gasped, unable to swallow her surprise, and took off running for the cabin. She knew she had been out of sight; how had he known she was there? Alston’s new trick rankled her shot nerves even more but he did not bring up the incident later and thankful, she let it slide. 

Everyone had their jobs but Sandy had nothing and the agony of being in limbo haunted. With the uncertainty there also came boredom. On the third morning, after they unlocked her door, Sandy slipped out into the fields. With the openness and lack of human inhabitance, she felt at ease in a way she never did in cities. If only she knew where she was, or even had a few measly supplies... 

Sandy began to practice the little martial arts she knew. It wasn’t much, but it kept her in shape and helped her to relax. After a high kick and a quick turn into an elbow thrust she saw Alston sitting on the fence.

“I had no idea,” he smiled. Indignantly she gathered herself to stalk away when she realized she’d lost her headband. She swung around desperately searching it out as Alston walked towards her. She found it, snatched it, and immediately brought it to her brow.

“Not so fast,” Alston stopped her. His sarcastic manner was back and she was glad she couldn’t see his eyes beneath those sunglasses. Her nervousness around him translated into anger.

“Piss off,” she snapped and stood firm to show she wasn’t scared of him but he only laughed as he brushed back her hair.

He studied her hairline, “I thought I’d seen something there.”

“What of it?” Not able to handle the flush his touch sent through her Sandy turned away tying the headband back in place.

“Traditional women’s facial tattoos. A lovely design, Sandy. Why hide it?” Alston raised an eyebrow.

“That’s none of yours,” she stated coldly. As a smuggler being fair was bad enough but with her tattoos showing there was no chance for her to keep a low profile. Then she realized and blurted out, “Don’t you dare tell Da’sin.” Her voice was stern but the look in her eyes was pleading. Alston was taken aback.

“I won’t,” he promised.

Sandy lay restlessly as the last of the cabin’s lights went out. Not yet. She tried to make herself rest while she had the chance. She’d need her energy and stressing would do her no good. She let her fingers linger where the kitchen knife was hidden in the mattress, carefully tucked in to be unnoticeable.

An hour passed full of her uncertain thoughts. If only she weren’t a prisoner... And what of Da’sin? How she longed to talk with him again just to let him know it was her; just to see how he’d react. She had wrestled with the thought for three days, but in the end she was too ashamed. He had once reassured her she was free with her future open, and had admired her untainted simple life... And look at me, she thought, a worthless smuggler, a petty criminal, and kidnapped at that!

It was time to leave. She slid her hand carefully into the cushion’s center and grasped the knife’s handle. Sandy had tried pushing the screen out of the window the night before to no use. Cringing with every creak of the couch’s springs and every saw of the kitchen knife against the wire mesh, she thought surely they’d come and find her right then. What would happen if she got caught? Would Alston finally decide to have her killed, thinking her too much trouble? She had no idea where she would even go, but only escape seemed important.

Sandy gave a final push where she’d sliced the screen, popping it out enough to slide her body through. She crawled out feet first, her sides scraping and cutting on the wire. As soon as she was free she took off at a fast trot across the open grass field, hunching forward as much as she could to use the cover of the high weeds. A mile out and at the tree line of the scrub forest she looked back. The insignificant shadow of the cabin sat on the horizon with one light on. She cursed and ran. Of all the nights to wake up. If she hadn’t already been discovered it was only a matter of minutes. Alston would find her, she was certain of it- he was inhuman.

She moved faster than she thought possible, imagining she could hear a commotion in the distance and skimmers warming up. One was already racing across the field but they would have to dismount to follow her through the forest. Sandy came to a creek and leapt into the icy waters up to her shins. It was shocking. Sandy wasn’t used to running water but her hope was that it would be harder to track her.

“Shit!” She bit back a scream as she stumbled, twisting her ankle. She’d never make it now but she couldn’t bring herself to just give up. She stumbled on against the current of the stream, already hearing the voices of her pursuers. Panic and adrenaline allowed her to run on her injured foot, but it wasn’t enough.

“That way!”

Blood pumping in her ears deafened her to nearly all sound save that of the splashing water. Sandy only got a few meters further before rough hands snagged at her back. Pulling away, she pitched face first into the water. She was grabbed by the front of her tunic and pulled out of the creek. Sputtering, she spat out her mouth full. She knew instantly who had caught her. Flashlight beams approached from behind him, casting his shocked expression in shadows.

“Sandressa?!” All her laying low and avoidance were over. Da’sin had finally looked directly at her and with her hair slicked back from her drenching there was no mistaking the tattoos bordering her hairline. Sandy was almost glad someone drugged her unconscious before she had to respond.

She opened her eyes, fighting the drug induced sleep. The room swam around her and the colors were too loud. Something was still in her system. She could barely feel her own body beneath the light coverlet and the tunic two times her size. She tried to raise herself on one elbow but disorientation slapped her back down. In the far corner of the room Da’sin was leaning his chair against the wall. Sandy’s movement woke him from his doze and seeing that she was conscious he pulled his chair across the room to the side of the cot where Sandy lay. The sound echoed inside her head disproportionately.

What could she say? Now confronted with Da’sin she had no option, no way of avoiding what was now inevitable. She waited for his first words.

“You alright?” he asked sitting down. Sandy’s twisted ankle began to ache on cue along with the pounding in her head.

“Still drugged,” she managed to croak.  It was agonizing to know Da’sin was seeing her this way.

“Re’nar likes to play with drug cocktails. I’m sure there’s still some junk in your system,” he warned.

Sandy thought with panic that with her mind this fuzzy, what was she going to say? Of all the situations for her first conversation with Da’sin... After an uncomfortable eternity Da’sin spoke again.

“Sandressa, why didn’t you tell me it was you? You avoided me the whole time and I was too busy to notice. There are so many “Sandys”, I had no idea. I guess the light hair might have been a clue but even then... I thought the valley was the only place in this entire world where you could be found,” he said. “If you had just told me I could have gotten you out of this mess. You could have walked away without trying to run! You could have even stayed of your own will...”

He trailed off. Of course he was right, and she was embarrassed. She was too ashamed that she had chosen the kind of life he had expressly not wanted for her. She knew he would understand why she had left the valley, but for her to have taken on a mercenary profession when he himself had wished to escape it... Before she’d always been content, even happy with the success she’d had, but now before the only one whose opinion mattered to her, what she had become seemed worse: a petty second rate rogue. 

All she could do was tell the truth. Well, almost the truth, she thought. Whatever her drug muddled brain would let her get away with.

“I didn’t want you to know it was me,” she said. “I didn’t want you to know that this is how I ended up.” Sandy didn’t dare say more or he might wonder why she cared so much about what he thought. If she broached that, she might as well admit what he meant to her, and she had never told him that and probably never could.  

When he had left the valley she was certain that he didn’t return her feelings. She had decided that knowing might only have been a burden on him because he was too kind to want to hurt her. Da’sin was a good man who had been a friend to her when she had most needed one; he had changed her life. Years had passed, but between them nothing had changed- surely he could never think of her as anything more than that kid. 

She wandered through the rest of the day in a daze. No one watched her out of duty now but out of concern. She was no longer a prisoner but she wasn’t one of them no matter what Da’sin had told them. Sandy caught a glimpse of Alston as he looked in on her. He knew her past now, she was sure. Little desert bumpkin destined to never leave her valley or her family. Sandy had been expected to marry and raise her own family to carry on the herd.

She had accompanied her father to the city that year as though her life wasn’t in a state of upheaval. Of course Dan’eth did not know enough about his daughter to even fathom that something was wrong; he had never noticed her friendship with Da’sin and had he, Dan’eth would never consider the effect on Sandy. To Dan’eth it was just a case of another transient worker moving on. 

Sandy had thought that this trip outside the wastelands would be just like all those before. She took comfort in the chance to see the world going on outside her valley. As she assisted her father in completing his business, it was all she could do to blot out any other thoughts and when everything was done and the time for turning home approached, her heart began to despair the return. How could she go back to nothing?

All the supplies for the year were purchased; there was nothing left except Sandy’s gift. Dan’eth would ask her, just as he always did, what she wanted as her reward for a good year of work.

Definitely an earring, she decided. It would forever mark Da’sin’s leaving as a turning point in her young life. She started to worry Dan’eth had forgotten when at last he broached the subject.

“This year, your gift will be different...” he started. She wondered if that meant she couldn’t get the coveted piercing. “We need to buy what you will need for a dowry.”

She stared at him. “A dowry?”

“Just because you have been pre-arranged to marry doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the proper offering to Wei’sen’s family,” Dan’eth stated matter-of-factly. “These will be things that you will have in your new household. Dowry is an archaic word; really these things will be for you.”

Sandy couldn’t move. Dowry. Marry. Wei’sen?! She tried to process the idea. She had always known but- A year from now she might have numbly submitted but how could she marry him now?

“First we should probably pick out the fabric for your dress. I wish your mother could have come along for this but there wasn’t a way. We’ll do our best for you.” Ironically it was the most kindness he had ever shown her but did he genuinely think that this was what Sandy wanted?

“Dan’eth- Father, I...” she had to go on, “I don’t want to marry Wei’sen.”

He looked surprised. “Sandy you are sixteen, it’s time. Possibly another year but-”

“I don’t want to marry him ever!” She raised her voice, beginning to panic.

Dan’eth took her arm roughly. She had never spoken back to him in this manner. “This is not your decision.” He started to pull her along but she jerked back. Dan’eth rose a hand to strike her in his fury but she whirled away.

“NO!” she screamed and ran as fast as she could through the crowd. 

She sat in a tavern, thinking. Her eyes were red from tears- red as the drink she was sipping. What had she done? How would Dan’eth ever forgive her insolence? Could she ever go back? If she sought him out now and vowed her obedience, surely she would be accepted back. She sat with her back to the door so as not to be tempted by the sight of the city outside. In the dimly lit room of strangers, she tried to consider things rationally. What could she do with no family- no connections at all? She was a shepherdess with nothing more than unrealistic ambitions for something more.

A commotion flew through the front door and ran back towards the bar, colliding with the unsuspecting Sandy. A dark girl with amber eyes and swathed in a ratty cloak collected herself then looked intently at Sandy and said in a whisper, “I’ll find you.”

Confused and distraught, Sandy composed herself as the strange girl darted out of the room though the door behind the counter. Just as she had settled back on her stool, Sandy found that the ruckus was not yet over, nor her part in it. A dust covered and burly man burst in the front entrance followed by another scraggly character. “There she is,” the first man shouted.

Sandy had no time to realize they were talking about her before the man had grabbed her up by the collar of her desert cloak. “HEY!” she shouted, swinging out a leg that missed its intended goal. The man choked up tighter, nearly cutting off her breath.

“That’s not the one,” the sickly thin man said catching up and looking at the captured girl. “Lookit that tattoo, she’s just some wasteland waif.”

Sandy was too scared to be inflamed by his statement, and too short of breath to reply. “Listen up brat, you see a girl come through here?” Sandy nodded. “Let her go,” the small man ordered.

“She’s gone,” Sandy gasped, “Gone ‘fore you got here.” She hated to be doing as told but this much would give them no more than what they already knew.

“Where?” The big man demanded.

“How the hell should I know?!” She snapped. The man swung at her and grazed her with a glancing blow that had been intended as much more. She had ducked just in time.

“You’ve got some gall,” the small man kicked some dirt at her as he discovered the back door and headed for it. “We’re wasting time,” he said and then they were gone.

A young man who had witnessed the whole ordeal came over to Sandy and tried to offer her a hand. She pulled away from him having had quite enough contact with strangers. “Stay away from me,” she said harshly before running away for the second time that day.

It was well past the peak of the day. The first sun was setting. In several hours it would be full night. She didn’t want to be out in the city when that happened. After her brush in the bar she realized how truly out of place she was. Sandy considered going straight to where Dan’eth had set up camp. He would be angry, maybe hit her but he would take her... She stopped. The valley wasn’t home. With Da’sin gone there was nothing for her to go back to. Her own family saw her as an employee who was bound into staying. Part of her job description was to marry and merge the companies. She wouldn’t go back. Not to her ‘family’, not back to Wei’sen and lanyas, or that valley, not ever. She would live in the wastelands alone first. If there was anything she knew, it was how to live in the wastelands.

She walked through the back alleys; she didn’t even know the city’s name. It had always just been the city. Sandy knew she’d have to do something soon. She could easily sleep in a dune tonight but soon she would need rations. She had to have some supplies or money to get by or even get started. Could she risk raiding Dan’eth’s camp to get her belongings? Because she was pondering this, she didn’t notice right away that she was being followed. When she did realize it, Sandy had to force down her alarm. This is just like a sand storm, she told herself. I just have to get under cover. 

Sandy reached into her inner cloak pocket to see how much money she had left but instead of feeling the cool smooth rectangle chips, her hand touched a small plastic cylinder. What the hell? She didn’t want to start digging through her pockets with a shadow in her wake so she ducked into the first bar she came to, confident that her follower had more tact than to just barge in after her. She quickly scanned the sparsely populated room trying to decide whether to make a break for it or wait in plain sight hoping whoever it was didn’t want to make a scene. Not that that had stopped those other two men. She touched the cylinder again. Did this have something to do with all the commotion, she wondered. 

If somebody was after her they were probably already checking the exits for her to try and slip out, so she decided to take a seat at the bar. From her corner there she had a full view of the entrance and some cover for her back. Sandy didn’t want another drink, but the bartender didn’t look sympathetic so she scrounged up the last of her credit chips and bought a glass of hydro. She took a sip as she eyed the door, then slipped the foreign object from her pocket. It was an opaque plastic canister no more than three inches long. Taking another look around she blocked it from sight with her cloak and popped open the lid. The door swung open and Sandy bolted up straight in her chair, covering the canister with her hands. It was only a laughing couple who took a seat at the far end of the room. Sighing, Sandy looked down at the thing in her lap. A crystal. Clear and sharp with the slightest green tint. She capped the container and put it in a hidden pocket under her tunic. 

That girl must have run into me on purpose to pass this off, she concluded. Now what? She still had no place to go, no more money, and those men were looking for this thing and might be following her now. More people trickled into the establishment but Sandy was still alone at her end of the bar. How was she going to know which one her shadow was? she wondered as a young man walked in. If she hadn’t been alert she might not have recognized him, but she saw it was the guy who hours earlier had tried to help her up at the other tavern. He sat across the bar at what would have been an inconspicuous distance had she not figured him out. He ordered and seemed to mind his own business but Sandy became even more sure when he never looked her way.

“Why are you following me?” she finally said. Pretending she didn’t know what was going on wouldn’t get her anywhere.

He looked up with an expression that asked, do you mean me? and smiled when he knew she did. “What makes you say that?” he asked.

Sandy thought maybe he was with those men after all; tailing her to see that she really didn’t know anything like she’d said. Then the other girl walked in. Casually the city girl opened her cloak and approached the bar. 

“Now you’re going to tell me this is just a coincidence?” Sandy said coolly as her mind raced to figure things out. The city girl sat between them, first looked at Sandy then to the young man.

“I told you to wait for me,” she hissed at him.

“I was,” he chuckled.

“What do you two want?” Sandy asked.

The girl turned back to Sandy. City girl wasn’t much older than Sandy and she was very small which did little to intimidate. Her partner, on the other hand, was full grown- about nineteen or twenty. “I said I’d find you,” the girl answered.

  “It’s about that thing you put in my pocket,” Sandy whispered.

City girl looked between the two of them and the boy shrugged. “Why don’t we get out of here?”

“Why should I go anywhere with you? Some guy nearly beat me up looking for you.” 

The girl stopped. She had no good reply to that. But the young man did.

“Where’re you staying tonight?” He asked. Sandy fretted. “You have a camp to go back to?  Money for a room in town? I watched you walk around for hours. Desert girls like you don’t wander around this city if they’ve some place to go.” 

Sandy turned red.            

“I thought as much...” he said.

The girl put a hand on Sandy’s arm. Sandy flinched but let it stay. “My name is Carrie and this is Brett,” she paused expectantly.

She almost answered differently but said, “Sandy.”

  “Well, Sandy, you help us out, and we’ll help you,” the girl said. “C’mon, let’s walk-”

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