Zee stared at the map. He fingered the card in his pocket.
Anywhere but here, that was his destination, but he ought to be smart about it. Anywhere but here, and as far away as he could get while still arriving with enough credits to secure a warm place to sleep and the few meals he’d need until he could contact his provider.
One of the circles on the map lit up, glowing blue. His eyes flickered to the key in the top left corner. The words on it weren’t comprehensible to him, but if the numerals next to the circles were departure times, then perhaps blue meant boarding. Would he have time to purchase a ticket from the kiosk and find the departure portal? The sooner he found his tram, the better.
“You headed out, mister?” The voice came from his elbow.
He glanced down and saw a sprite, human variety, aged too young to be out alone, too old to be talking to strangers. He glanced around the station, looking for the negligent elder, but failed to find an evident connection.
“I am,” he said, choosing politeness over discretion. “And you?”
“Nah,” the sprite grinned at him, smile wide and eager, but the eyes stayed unnervingly steady. “Not old enough.”
“Are the trams age-restricted?” Zee knew he shouldn’t converse with the sprite, but the eyes —or perhaps it was the shadows under them — seemed to be triggering a response he hadn’t felt in more than a few decades. “I wasn’t aware.”
“You could say that.” The sprite’s chin lifted. It was pointy, but not unappealingly so. The nose was pointy, too. It reminded Zee of one he had seen before, but the memory wouldn’t come clear.
“I assume the restriction of which you speak is not for your well-being?” Zee knew the danger of making assumptions. And yet the sprite was… although it pained him to notice it… dirty. The hair didn’t shine with health but was spiky with grit. The skin tone, which Zee suspected should be a perfectly reasonable beige, was overlain with grey. And the clothing was best not considered, but certainly not sufficient for the weather. Zee was grateful that his fitted air filters blocked odors because he suspected that the sprite smelled. Bad.
“Minors are a resource, essential to the health and well-being of any city-state,” the sprite recited, with a flash of scorn in those unwavering eyes. “Unaccompanied minors aren’t allowed to leave Tamris.”
“Let me guess.” Zee didn’t let himself look around for watchers or for recording devices although he was sore tempted. If there weren’t eyes on them, there should be. He let his voice drop. “There is a margin, somewhere between minority and majority—not old enough to leave, but old enough that should you be charged with a crime, the penalty is indentured servitude.”
The grin held an edge of ferocity. “A fine. If you can’t pay, you have to work it off. Food, bed, water, they come out of your earnings. No one ever catches up. It’s not possible. And everything is a crime. Sleeping in a public place, causing a disruption. They get everybody in the end.”
Zee gave a slow nod. The blue light on the map flickered to green. Not a boarding call, then. Too quick. Perhaps a warning of imminent departure.
The sprite waited, saying nothing more. The implications must seem obvious, as indeed they were.
“Are you seeking a companion, then?” Zee asked.
The sprite didn’t gasp, but for a moment its inhalations appeared to pause. “That’s cutting to the chase, isn’t it?” The words were soft, but sharp teeth — not pointy, but small and straight, the white of eggshells — emerged to chew at the lower lip.
Zee recognized the signals of uncertainty. The sprite hadn’t expected his offer. And perhaps he—she?—feared a leap from a known danger to an unknown. Well, and there was no way Zee could reassure it. Danger existed. But perhaps it would help them both to learn more about their options.
Zee gestured at the map. “Could you guide me? I am unfamiliar with this system.”
“The transit map?” The sprite sounded surprised.
“Indeed. And the places it reveals.”
“I’ve never been to any of them.”
“I expected no more.” Zee inclined his head gently. “Still, I am a stranger here. I expect you possess knowledge which I am lacking.”
“Could be.” The sprite put a finger on a circle close to the star that marked their own location. “Corinth. It’s a sister city. The mayors are friends. Every year, they get together for a big party. It plays on all the screens.” The sprite gestured to the walls of the station, currently covered with some sort of sporting event, perhaps taking place in real time. “It alternates locations, here or there, but you can’t tell the difference between them.”
“Not our destination, then,” Zee said.
The surge of hope that leaped into the sprite’s eyes was almost painful. Zee felt a thing in his throat, a blockage. He cleared it away brusquely. “Is there a way to show the cost of the necessary ticket on this display?”
“Course.” The sprite nodded briskly. “What currency do you prefer?”
Zee’s fingers closed around the card in his pocket. He hadn’t come prepared for a rescue mission. His provider wouldn’t object, he knew. Indeed, he suspected she would be pleased. The sprite would make a lively addition to their team. But would he have enough to cover two tickets?
The sprite tapped at the key at the top of the map. Data slid by, too fast for Zee to even attempt to decipher, until it slowed and settled. The key now provided information in a language familiar to him. The lights: blue for an arrival, green for boarding, yellow for a departure, red for a delay. And the numbers, times and prices.
He let his eyes skim over the map. He put his finger on a name. “This one. Do you know it?”
“Oarim. There are some restaurants here. They smell good.” The sprite shrugged.
“Good enough.” Zee smiled at the sprite. “Have you decided?”
Zee’s smile grew. “Whether you’re coming with me.”
“I was…” The sprite gestured to Zee’s bag, sitting next to him on the floor, and gave a breathless laugh. “I was gonna ask if I could carry your bag for you. If you could spare a chip, you know.”
“I can spare a chip. Or a ticket out. Your choice.”
Zee waited. He felt… something. It had been so long that he almost didn’t recognize it. Anticipation.