Sam looked at the silver coins in her hand and sighed. Her other hand pulled the cape closer around her, a flimsy barrier against the cold wind. Icy rain smattered the sidewalks. The weather up here in the North really was a lot colder than she’d expected.
Seven coins… That wouldn’t even last her for the next couple of days. Not if she wanted a roof over her head, and in this weather there wasn’t really an alternative to that. She had to find work.
It had never occurred to her how expensive just the bare necessities were. Minny had taken care of the household finances, and not once had Sam accompanied her on one of her weekly market tours. She’d thought the two-hundred silver coins in savings she’d taken would have lasted her a few months. She gave a bitter chuckle at her own stupidity, and closed her eyes when the rain started coming down harder.
She grunted when somebody walked into her from behind. A tall man started yelling profanities, shouting at her to get out of his way. The nauseating smell of alcohol wafted from him. She tried to move out of his way, but he grabbed her collar and her hood slid off her head. His eyes widened and a grin stole onto his face.
Okay, time to go. Sam wriggled out of his grasp and hurried off in the other direction. After a few meters she turned to check that he wasn’t following her. Thank God, he disappeared behind the next corner.
Living in her father’s home near Powhatan City in an almost pastoral area, she’d never realized there were places of misery and poverty on Earth. During the past three weeks, she’d begun to realize how spoiled she really was. Daily showers had become a luxury she couldn’t afford anymore – mainly because guesthouses that offered showers cost more than the money she had. On good days, she’d be able to have at least one warm meal.
The backstreets, harbors and sometimes even entire districts in smaller towns were filled with crime, poverty and anger. With all the farmland on Earth, poverty shouldn’t even exist. At least according to official Aschen reports. Another one of those myths, apparently.
Sam pulled the hood back over her head. Not that it mattered. Her hair was soaked. But at least the cloth provided some shelter from the wind.
“Hey… hey girl.”
Sam jerked around when somebody touched her shoulder, and glared at the big man behind her. She’d learned that appearing unfriendly was a good defense against a lot of pestering that happened on the streets. “What?”
“I heard you’re looking for a job.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“Back at the store. You were asking for work.”
“Oh.” She had been. The shop owner had turned her down. Her heart beat faster. A job. Exactly what she needed to earn some money. “Yes, absolutely.”
“If you want, you can earn a few silver coins.”
She studied him. He had to be considerably older than her, and he looked well fed. Well, at least he wasn’t living in poverty, judging by his body mass. “That’d be great. What do you need me to do? I can repair almost anything. I’ll do cleaning or shop work too, and I’m good with numbers.”
“I got a few things that need repairing. I live around the block.”
He looked around and urged her towards a shady backstreet that led in between the houses where buildings provided a shield against the torrent of rain.
“What’s the payment?” Sam looked up at him. The man kept looking around.
“Depends on how good you are.” They reached a smaller backyard framed by walls. The man stopped.
Sam walked up to the only door leading into one of the houses. Since there was no other door, this had to be the man’s home. Her heart almost stopped when he slammed her up against the wall of the house, his body pressing her against it while his fingers started fumbled at her pants.
“Oh God, what are you… let go of me!” Sam’s fist beat at his chest. His foul breath assaulted her nostrils and she turned her head away when he tried to kiss her.
“I’ll pay you twenty silver coins if you don’t scream.” He muttered into her ear, and her stomach turned. “And I promise to be quick.”
“Get off me.” She slammed her hand against the man’s chest, and tried to wriggle out from under him. He grabbed her arm and shoved her roughly against the wall. “Please.” She pressed her hand against his face. “Don’t.”
“Come on, sweetheart. Do you need the money or not?” His rough laughter filled her ears.
No, no, no. This could not be happening. She’d been so careful up to now. How stupid of her to assume the man’s offer had been genuine.
She heard him fumble at his pants, the metallic clicking sound as he opened his belt. Oh God. “Help! Somebody help me!”
A door creaked somewhere, then a loud muttered curse. The next moment, a broomstick came down hard across her face. Pain shot through her head, and she cried out. The fat guy tumbled back from her and Sam used the moment to pull up her knee and hit him right between the legs. She trembled as she pushed him away and turned.
“How often do I need to tell you to keep your dirty, perverted little games out of my backyard, you goddamned son of a…” The old woman screeched as she kept beating at Sam’s attacker.
Oh thank God. Sam’s heart swelled. She was about to thank her rescuer when the woman turned to Sam, anger marking her worn, aged face. She must have been beautiful once. Apparently, rough street life hadn’t been good to her. “And you! You little slut! At least have the decency to get a room somewhere! Just taking your customers into anyone’s backyard, is that how you girls do it nowadays?”
Sam cried out when the broom came down on her head again. “No, please. This is a misunderstanding, I wasn’t…” She started running, and the old woman followed her a few meters before she stopped.
“Scram! And if I ever see you here again…”
Sam didn’t wait for her to finish. She raced through the maze of backstreets until her lungs burned. Finally, when she reached a larger street, she stopped. Tears stung in her eyes. Damn, she should have known better.
Streets in the shady districts were filled with people who committed themselves to a life of crime, like smuggling forbidden substances or weapons. Even slavery and prostitution remained ever-present. She winced. Her fingers rubbed over a painful bump at the side of her head, and with a sigh, she leaned against the wall of a house that shielded her from the rain.
What she wouldn’t give for a warm meal, a hot bath, and a soft bed. But she couldn’t afford such luxuries. Not with seven silver coins.
So far, she hadn’t found any trace of the resistance, nor had she managed to find work to extend her search.
I should go home to Dad.
She closed her eyes and let herself sink down to the ground. No, she couldn’t go back. Not with the life waiting for her. Anything was better than home. Even hunger or having to sleep on the streets.
Sam sighed and looked at the dirty silver coins in her hands. Maybe she should consider accepting one of the offers. Four, maybe five men, and she’d have enough money for another one or two weeks. How bad could it be to let them have her body for a few minutes, maybe an hour?
The thought made her shudder. No, she could never do that. If that was her only option, she might as well return home and accept whatever man the Aschen chose for her.
Somewhere in this town there had to be a job for her. She was good with repairing things, she could write and read. Somebody had to have use for those kinds of skills.
Sam looked around the rusty old shop before her gaze fixated on the owner again. “Please, just for one day. I can fix anything, and if you don’t like my work you don’t have to pay me.”
The old shop owner shook his head, and gave her a grumpy look. “I barely have enough work to keep myself busy, kid. Besides, you look barely old enough to know anything about engines.”
Sam pushed out a breath. Posing as a boy wasn’t making things easier. Granted, it kept the perverts away, but her high voice made her seem too young for work.
She rubbed a hand her face. The coal and dirt she’d smeared onto it to mask her female features were starting to itch. Her stomach rumbled. Her last meal had been yesterday. “Please, I’m begging you. Just give me a chance.”
“I can’t help you.”
Tears burned behind her eyes and she swallowed hard. Out of money, she hadn’t slept for almost two days. The only way she’d get a room without coin involved having sex with the guesthouse owner. Falling asleep at the side of one of the backyards or smaller side streets was too risky. Despite her disguise, somebody might still take advantage of her while asleep. She needed money now.
Her stomach gave another growl. Shoulders slumping, Sam turned to leave. “Okay. Thanks for your time.” She touched the metal knob of the glass door and the bell at the entrance rung as she pulled it open.
Sam looked at him. His face softened.
“I heard earlier they’re looking for a repair crew for one of the Aschen harvesters to go overseas. It would be a one way trip, but it’ll pay a hundred silver coins provided you can work Aschen machinery. Go to the harbor, and ask for Drew. Maybe he can help you. Tell him Old Mallory sent you.”
“Thank you.” Sam gave him a beaming smile. “Thank you so much.”
The man’s face hardened again. “Go.”
She left the shop. Working as a mechanic assistant in one of the Aschen harvesters. That she could manage. Definitely. She was more familiar with Aschen technology than most humans, and aside from that, she was a quick study. As long as she posed as a boy, she should be fine.
As soon as she reached the harbor, her heart sank. Apparently, the news that the Aschen were offering work on a harvester had spread like wildfire through the little town. A long line of men wound its way across the street, all of them strong and muscular.
Great. There was no way they would accept her. Still, it was her best chance so far. Maybe she could make up what she lacked in muscle with brains.
She went to the info stand at the very front to get an application sheet. One of the men securing the stand and the fence around the dock grabbed her arm. “Hey! You.”
Her stomach tightened, and she looked up at him.
“Carlos, get over here! Look at this one!”
Her eyes widened as another man strolled closer.
“What about him, will he do?”
“He’s tall, but he should be slim enough to work on the pipe maintenance. He’s at least the slimmest I’ve seen today. Kid, you looking for work on the harvester?”
She fit their criteria. Excitement shot through her. She nodded, careful not to speak.
“You know how to handle tools and repair things?”
Sam nodded again, hoping that her determination reflected on her face.
“Good enough for me.” The man named Carlos waved at one of the guards standing at the gate. “Let him in. And tell Drew we’ve found our pipe boy. Payment will be fifty coins for two day’s work, kid.”
Sam cleared her throat, and attempted to fake the deepest voice she was capable of. “I was told payment would be a hundred coins.”
“Who told you that?” Carlos folded his arms.
“Old Mallory at the repair shop on tenth street.”
“Old Mallory sent you?” Carlos raised his eyebrows. Apparently, the name rang a bell. “Well, if Old Mallory sent him, he’s got to have something on the ball.”
“Fine, a hundred silver coins. But if you’re not worth the money we’ll drop you into the Atlantic Ocean, understood, boy?”
Sam nodded and hurried to the open gate before he could change his mind.
“Sign here.” The watch guard held a piece of paper under her nose. It was a standard temporary labor contract. She checked the basics, just to make sure they didn’t screw her over, and then signed it as Sam Carter.
The guard studied her signature, then nodded. Sam inhaled deeply. It sure was an advantage to take a nickname that served as a boy’s name.
“Alright, Sam. Carlos will to show you the crew quarters. We’ll leave at dusk. Payment will be made upon arrival in three days.”
Sam turned. The guard grabbed her arm and leaned in to her. “You can get a hot meal down in the kitchen if you need it.”
Damn, did she look that hungry? Sam nodded with weak smile. “Thanks.”
The work was hard. Upholding her cover as a boy was even harder.
The worker’s quarters were located at the same level as the engine room, and just big enough for twenty people to sleep next to each other like sardines. The washroom was men only, so she had to be creative about using it. The first evening she snuck in at night when everyone else was asleep, and only a skeleton crew of Aschen kept the harvester on route upstairs.
She’d been given fresh clothes to work in, and used some bandages to wrap them around her chest to flatten herself.
It didn’t take long for her to understand why they had looked for slender people. The corn-pipes of the harvester needed maintenance and cleaning. A person slim enough to fit into the small tubes had to crawl in and do the work manually.
The Aschen required them to do sixteen-hour shifts to make sure they would finish the work in three days. They were allowed eight-hour breaks in between, barely enough to sleep and eat. Screws needed to be checked, minor holes in the metal corn tubes had to be sealed, rust eliminated. It was hard work, but nothing she couldn’t handle. Being in the tubes most of the time, she didn’t have a lot of contact with the other men, and that reduced the chances of discovery.
As the third day neared its end and the harvester prepared to land at the southern coast of Ireland, Sam had reached at her limits. Her muscles aching and her body completely drained, she longed for a shower to scrub the rotten, dusty corn smell away.
They paid everyone a twenty-percent bonus. Apparently, they’d exceeded the Aschen’s expectations and advanced their maintenance schedule with fast and thorough work. Sam declined their offer to participate in the maintenance of another harvester, even though they offered her two-hundred silver coins.
She set out to find a cheap guesthouse, take a shower, and have a long sleep in a real bed. Ireland was known to offer plenty of farm jobs, so finding work here should be a lot easier.
But she needed to think about how to proceed from here. There was no way back. Home was halfway across the world. She’d come a long way, yet she was no closer to finding the resistance.