Dragon Pearl(9)

That wasn’t going to be enough of a change to disguise me, though, if Mom decided to report me lost. I concentrated and summoned my magic to make small adjustments, not large ones: a flatter nose, glossier hair, smoother skin. I wanted to look prosperous enough to fit in with the other city dwellers, but not so wealthy that I’d attract thieves. The magic determined that I should be wearing emerald rings on one hand, sparkling brightly even in Jinju’s ruddy light.

There was also additional weight at my hip: Charm had supplied me with a pouch. I opened it up and found a slightly shimmering but official-looking license corresponding to my new guise. Fox magic was handy that way, if sometimes unpredictable—once you envisioned what you needed, it covered all the details. I hadn’t practiced Charm enough to have complete control over it yet, and I was dismayed to see that my alias was Kim Bora, the name of my most annoying cousin. The rest of the ID looked good, though, so I decided not to mess with it.

Once I reached the spaceport in Hongok, I hoped to book passage on a ship before any of the authorities caught up with me. After that, I’d have to get to a hub large enough that I could Charm information out of a sufficiently high-ranking Space Forces officer. Jun had never let any hints drop about the location of his battle cruiser, for security reasons. At least I knew the name of the ship he’d been assigned to: the Pale Lightning. Somehow I had to reach it so I could find out what had happened to him. All without being arrested and sent back home.

The enormity of the task before me was overwhelming. But I refused to allow myself to get discouraged. I’d just have to take it one step at a time.

First, get to the spaceport. The city was several hours away, and I should have worn better protective gear for the ride. I had on my mask, which always smelled faintly metallic no matter how fresh its filters were, and a helmet. The crisp air chilled me as I sped along the road. I wished I’d been able to grab a jacket on the way out of the house.

It was still early, and Jinju’s reddish sun glared through the morning mist, tinting the low clouds the colors of fire. I passed domes of varying sizes, which protected their inhabitants from the dust and the fickle weather. Some glistened like jewels in the blossoming light, while others had cracks patched with ugly but functional globs of sealant. When I was younger, I’d helped a neighbor with that kind of repair job, because I’d earned a reputation for being handy. Of course, I’d almost fallen off the roof, but I’d done good work. The last time I’d checked it, the repair was holding up beautifully. With any luck, I wouldn’t have to do anything like that where I was going.

For a moment I allowed myself to imagine what it would be like to breathe clean, sweet air without having to wear a mask every time I went outside. In the holos, fully terraformed worlds were lush and verdant, with trees rustling in the wind and flowers that flourished without having to be coddled in the protected gardens of wealthy people. If the Dragon Pearl truly had resurfaced, it could make that dream a reality.

I only passed a few other travelers. Most dome dwellers didn’t visit the city often—there were too many things to deal with at home. But as I drew closer to Hongok, other scooters and larger vehicles zoomed past me. Just the sight of the dust they kicked up made me want to cough, even though my mask filter was doing its job.

In the outskirts of the city, the domes were larger, like overambitious mushroom caps. The largest buildings weren’t domes at all, but spires spearing up into the sky. They dated back to Jinju’s early days, before the terraforming project had faltered. The oldest families dwelled in the spires, even though not all of them had held on to their wealth over the years.

The city’s name, Hongok, meant ruby. Maybe it had looked like a gem once—in the dreams of its founders, if nowhere else. I’d seen views of it from orbit on the news services: a glitter-mass of silver and gold rising from the darker ruddy plateau on which the city had been built, the needle-flash of starships arcing to and from the spaceport. Down here, though, I could see that the spires had discolored patches, and there were cracks and potholes in the streets. The scooter hovered a few centimeters above the surface, but it had a tendency to wobble when passing over the larger fissures. If Jinju had been terraformed properly, we’d be prosperous enough to afford better construction and maintenance.

I wished I could skirt Hongok’s boundaries to approach the spaceport, but the city was so sprawling I was sure I’d get lost. I would just have to go straight through and pretend I had legitimate business.

I slowed down as the West Gate loomed before me. It was flanked by two statues of four-legged, lion-maned haetae, or guardian spirits. Wish me luck, I thought in their direction. I knew security would be tight due to Thousand Worlds regulations over spaceport access. I could see why people from other areas had to protect themselves against raiders and pirates from the Jeweled Worlds, but in Jinju, which had so little of value, the additional precautions were just a nuisance. I’d have to rely on Charm to deal with the guards if they got suspicious.

I spotted a pair of red-uniformed officers at the West Gate. They were busy chatting with a woman in the flashy robes I associated with traders. After they finished dealing with her, they looked me over.

“You there!” called one of the guards, a squat man with a mustache that drooped like a plant that hadn’t been watered for a week.

I braked too suddenly and lurched forward, catching myself against the scooter’s handlebars. I pulled off my helmet and cast my eyes down the way I’d seen Bora do when she was talking her way out of trouble. “Sir?” I asked.

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