Ting-ting. Ting-ting-ting.  Laughter rang across the crowded line as street performers danced for them.  They seemed to make the most money by entertaining travelers to and from Illagu.

            I couldn’t enjoy their show, of course, since my job was to inspect the travelers coming in.  As yet another wagon pulled up, I assumed my now familiar role of looking for dangerous items while my superior officer, Sergeant Sam, chatted with the driver.

            “I’m mostly here to pick up Illagwen fabric,” I heard the driver say as I lifted up the tarp.  Underneath was only a few bundles of brightly dyed cloth.  Moving them around slightly revealed nothing more than the wooden planks of the cart’s floor.

            I was about to replace the tarp when a gold thread caught my eye.  The shining string hung just off the edge of the wagon floor – why would anyone knot up a false bottom?  I pulled on the thread.

            SNAP!

            The magically made floor unraveled instantly; I gaped at a bottom covered with square paper packages, black powder grains seeping out along the edges.  Soot.  I’d know it anywhere.

            I glanced up at the driver who stared back at me completely horrified.

            “I’m sure you have a very good explanation for this,” I remarked.

            He leaped off the wagon, running through the outgoing line towards the wilderness.  The personnel on the other side tackled him before he could go far while Sergeant Sam strung together a rope to tie him up from where we stood.

            After we had sorted out the resulting mess, we gathered in Sergeant Sam’s office.  The smuggler was tied to a chair by the rope Sergeant Sam had made while I stood beside my superior.

            “So,” Sergeant Sam said, shuffling through forms, “let’s hear it.”

            “Well, um,…” the smuggler began, eyeing Sergeant Sam curiously.

            “Ifemkflhefidomrkfoemfl, call me ‘Sergeant’ or ‘officer’; my pronouns are ‘they’ and ‘them’.”

            “Pardon?”

            I could hear Sergeant Sam stifle a sigh.  “Never mind.  Continue.”

            “Look, we all gotta eat somehow,” the smuggler said with a grin.  “Andajkmfekwjuhtioel fdmlskthiewlfmejwusdhslmaeejidnlsice.  Being so close to the System is a stressful business; might get incorporated any day now.”

            I frowned.  I knew why Outcasts thought that way, but it still bothered me that they believed the System was interested in them when she would never try going past her city walls.  She didn’t even know where we were.

            “The drugs themselves aren’t the problem,” Sergeant Sam responded.  “There’s no laws against them here – ”

            “I know that!  Yoweudfmlakehfiuknewhtfieojfmdklshtiejfporiekuce!  Andauheimfldkajthu eidlkmtujdlksteicpweofmear!  Besides, trading with the System is illegal anywhere – even if I am just dealing with the middle men.”

            Sergeant Sam put down the pen they’d been writing with.  “What?” they asked.

            The smuggler said nothing, instead looking very interested in one of the walls.  I bent down to Sergeant Sam’s ear.

            “Sergeant,” I whispered, “I can tell you for a fact that soot makes its way into the System all the time.  It’s one of the biggest open secrets among bytes – there’s a certain pride in it being the one thing the System doesn’t know about.”

            Sergeant Sam glanced up at me with a half-raised eyebrow.  “What in the world is being traded for it?”

            “I’m afraid I don’t know, officer.”

            “Hmph.”

            “You have a byte in your ranks?” the smuggler asked as I straightened up.  “What if she’s spying on you?!  Ijthedfmskmdjhfnelgnbfhsfjnmslfjm!”

            Sergeant Sam rolled their eyes.  “She’s a former byte and you’re one to talk.  Now, sindfhsmrfkdshgmejhwtojefmls.  Anefdhsdjlmgjfhdjoslmghdhtjlm.”

            As my superior continued talking, the smuggler, still tied to his chair, eyed me suspiciously.  Some Outcasts really were more paranoid than others.

To be continued…

Episode 20