Dragon Pearl(10)

“Identification,” the officer said in a bored voice. “Come forward slowly, and no sudden moves.”

“Here you go,” I said, drawing the license out from its pouch. I admired it surreptitiously. Even the holographic seal in the center, depicting Jinju’s pearl-and-carp symbol, looked convincing.

“Kim Bora,” the guard read from the ID.

I grimaced at the reminder of the bet I’d made with her, and what was at stake: Jun.

The guard caught my expression and scowled at me. “You have some problem, miss?”

“Sorry,” I said. “I just remembered that I forgot to put some food back in the fridge. The entire kitchen is going to reek of rancid gimchi by the time I get back.” I wrinkled my nose, which wasn’t an act. I could smell it just thinking about it. Was I never going to escape the stuff?

“Oh, leave her alone,” the guard’s cohort said. I liked her immediately. “Remember the last time you had us over and there was a bowl covered with mold in the middle of your—?”

“You’re fine,” the first officer muttered to me. “Go on through.”

I smiled brightly at him and accelerated. As I passed, I heard the second guard saying, “You need to get a new robot to replace the one you broke. . . .”

Funny, I’d never thought of guards as going home and having chores like the rest of us. Or having broken-down robots, too, for that matter.

Would life be any easier off-world? I was looking forward to getting away from Jinju for the first time, though I wished I were leaving under better circumstances. Had my family realized by now that I had disappeared? I regretted making Mom worry, especially because Jun had gone missing, too. I probably should have left a note, but I didn’t really want her to know my plans—she might have tried to track me down. Anyway, it was too late now.

After I’d left the West Gate behind, I stopped next to a directory. It resembled a thick rectangular column, each face with a screen you could use to search for shops or addresses. A pair of giggling kids, not much older than six or seven, were entertaining themselves by getting one side to project holographic images of various landmarks and making them virtually collide. At the moment, a temple had the city’s oldest spire protruding through its bell.

I did my best to ignore the kids while I asked the directory the fastest route to the spaceport. Even from here I could spot the high spire and the gleaming flash of starships flitting in and out, but Hongok’s streets were a tangled mess, and I didn’t want to waste time going in circles. A map popped up with the route highlighted. It would take me through the Market District. I’d always loved its bright colors and mixture of smells and gossip, although Mom thought poorly of most merchants. (Then again, Mom disapproved of practically everything.) In any case, I’d have to take care not to attract the attention of the guards there. They had a reputation for demanding bribes from out-of-towners, and I couldn’t afford to waste my precious supply of jades before I got off-planet.

I oriented myself and sped away, but not before the kids had “rammed” my scooter with a hologram of the spire image. Distracted by the sight, I swerved and almost left my designated lane before straightening out. Concentrate, I reminded myself. Don’t get into any trouble.

Traffic crowded the streets: speeders, which seated up to six; personal scooters like mine; and the occasional pedestrian. On a wealthier world, teams of dragon weather engineers would control the climate. In Hongok, everyone was obliged to wear masks and endure whatever the weather brought.

At the edge of the Market District, faded neon signs advertised bars and restaurants. Groups of old people gathered around outdoor tables marked with nineteen-by-nineteen grids for playing baduk. A dancer spun and leaped to the beat of an improvised drum. I longed to linger, maybe even watch a match of baduk. At home we had a cheap old set we hardly ever took out anymore.

Instead, I parked my scooter in a designated area in walking distance of the spaceport. The vehicle itself was dented and its paint job could have used retouching, but Mom had insisted on buying the best biometric lock we could afford. It was programmed to recognize the way the adults, Bora, and I drove, and it would seize up if anyone else attempted to make off with the scooter. No one was allowed to park here overnight, so the authorities would use its tracker to identify the owner and levy a fine when I failed to return tonight. Sorry, Mom.

The Market District enfolded me. People shoved past without apologizing, or spoke rapidly in loud voices. Whenever I spotted the guards with their distinctive blue armbands, I slipped sideways into the crowd.

Just when I was congratulating myself on having evaded a swaggering knot of guards, another group of officers pelted from a side alley and ran into me. I yelped.

“Watch yourself, citizen!” said one of the guards, her brows lowering as if I’d caused the collision.

It was too late to duck away and lose myself amid a chattering group of tourists in out-of-season robes. “Excuse me,” I said, reining in my impatience. “I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.”

“Obviously not.” She looked me up and down, as though my clothes were broadcasting criminal intentions. Only then did I realize that she was only a few years older than me, scarcely an adult.

Three other guards had taken notice. “Hey, Eunhee, what’s keeping you?” one of them called out. “That girl giving you trouble?”

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