by Grace Bridges -
Smith loitered in a dim corner of the Level 18 marketplace and chewed on his last lavabush seed. There’d be no more until another freighter docked—and then only if he was in the right place to catch any that dropped during transfer.
He peered along the row of meatmongers, noting which had shelled their wares already and which merely laid out the sections of beetle carapace with the meat still inside. He preferred the ready-to-cook variety, because it was quicker to “dispose of,” and there would be no evidence except in their stomachs.
A rumble within reminded him to be quick about his task or he’d lose the opportunity. He gave the signal agreed for today—three sharp raps on the nearest support strut. At the metallic clangs, two dozen ragged children emerged from the shadows, roughly grouped in two gangs who proceeded to charge at each other with full-throated yelling and blood-curdling screams.
The merchants, fearing the worst, ducked for cover and ran into the outer passage. The crowd of shoppers rolled back in waves with cries and screams. Smith darted along the tables as he unrolled his antigrav sack. Slab after slab of the best beetle steak slid into its dark maw.
He paused only once to look up at the staged fight—the kids actually enjoyed this, he could tell, and grinned at their exaggerated anger and fake punches.
Smith stuffed one more massive steak into the bag and pulled it along in the air behind him to a little-used service corridor. He tapped a strut to signal dispersal of the battle, then slipped inside a hatchway with the treasure clutched tight.
Tonight, the children would eat.