by Fred Warren -
I would show Rose Maylie in all the bloom and grace of early womanhood, shedding on her secluded path in life soft and gentle light, that fell on all who trod it with her, and shone into their hearts.
Smith’s palm light flickered, and he knocked the device against his knee to restore its pale glow. The energy cell was failing. He’d need to steal another tomorrow, but it would last long enough for him to finish. He flipped the final page in his tattered copy of Oliver Twist.
Kate brushed away a few bits of litter, sat down beside him on the floor of the corridor, and leaned back against the wall, wrapping her skirts around her legs, her breath fogging in the chill air. “Moppets are tucked away for the evening, and the guard’s posted.”
She peered over his shoulder. “Thinking on Ave again?”
“How did you know?”
“When she’s on your mind, you read that last chapter over and over again. Surely you’ve memorized it by now?”
“I want to remember her as she was. Kind, sweet, and sensible—if I’m the Artful Dodger, she was Rose Maylie.”
“And yet you parted ways. You’ve never told me why.”
“She fell ill. Fever, pain, delirium. After she recovered, she began going off by herself, down to the deepest levels of the station. She told me she’d had a vision—there were angels on Eclectia, and they’d chosen her for a great mission. She needed to stay as close to the planet as possible so she could hear their instructions.”
“Is that all? Hardly the most eccentric behavior we’ve ever encountered.”
“She became obsessed. Before, it was just me, her, and the other orphans, living one day at a time, getting by. I hoped...I even dared to plan for the future. Our future, together. After the fever, she started talking like a revolutionary, saying things needed to change, humming that idealistic old colonial hymn everywhere she went. We argued. She took the half the children to wherever she goes to commune with the angels.”
“I caught a glimpse of her a few turns in-station from the passenger terminal last week, sending her moppets to beg, same as us.” Kate shrugged. “If she’s planning a revolution, I think she’ll need larger soldiers.”
Smith sighed and slid the book back into his pocket. “The children still worship her, even the ones who stayed with me. I’m afraid one day she’ll lead them all on some foolish crusade to right all the wrongs of Avenir, protected only by their pure hearts and her angels. She’ll get them all killed or turned into little wind-up dolls for the aristocrats, just like Wallace said.”
Kate surveyed the filthy, corroded corridor. “She’s a mite older than you—perhaps the weight of responsibility weighs heavier on her shoulders. Can’t say I disagree about things needing to change around here.”
Smith shook his head. “The only way to save them is to help them survive to adulthood and steer clear of the gangs. They may have to work the mines or hunt beetles, but they’ll be able to make their own choices and fend for themselves. In the meantime, a few...the smart ones, the pretty ones, the lucky ones...might become Olivers and find themselves a real life where they’ll never be cold and hungry again.”
“Fewer ladies or gentlemen of means venture down here each Founding. I think we frightened off a couple of likely marks during our last raid. Poor timing, that.”
A soft whistle echoed down the corridor, followed by two more, louder each time.
Smith stood up and dusted himself off. “Poor timing all ’round. Blasted Enforcers picked a fine night for a random patrol. Wake the babes, Kate. Two levels down, four corridors outward ought to be enough.”
She scurried away as Smith began to gather their few possessions. And what of us, Ave? he wondered. What will our fate be?
No matter how many times he read the ending, the Dodger landed in prison.