His knees were killing him. Not that he had asked for much more than a spirited hobble from them, but it seemed any request was a demand too far for his failing joints. He wheezed away, looking around the concourse for a hiding place. There were plenty of people about, but the way they parted around him left little chance of using them as cover. To his left was a glass fronted shop, the latest styles flickering across mannequins that posed in aspirational scenes. One moment they laughed heartily, back slapping paragons of sporting bonhomme. The next they sat swaddled in chunky exploring gear, eyes narrowed in an attempt to convey the brooding depths of their non-existent souls. Arty slipped past the shifting diorama and looked for where the forest of clothes racks was thickest.
A young man, almost a mannequin made flesh, was turning about in a suit as his equally attractive girlfriend pronounced judgement on it. The pair noticed Arty at the same time and their smiles fell. He was used to the reaction now; sometimes it even gave him a perverse pleasure. Today though he felt like hissing at them, but there was no need to scare them off. The couple feigned interest in another area of the shop and wandered away, suit tags dangling from the boy.
His heart, already pounding in his sparrow chest, jolted when someone behind spoke to him. He jerked round, but it was just a shop assistant, her arms folded defensively in front of her.
"Can I help you with something, sir?" The way she pronounced the sir made it clear that she meant anything but respect.
She was a beautiful girl, Arty decided. Not the indetikit beauty so sickeningly common up in the spires, but a carefully crafted one. Her features had been laid out by someone with excellent taste. Her mouth was a little too wide, her cheekbones higher than was fashionable. Whoever her parents were they had known their stuff. He flashed his smile at her on reflex.
"Oh, you could help me with so many things."
Her long nose wrinkled in distaste. He caught a glimpse of his weathered face in the mirror behind her, saw that his once roguish grin was now just thin lips stretched back across yellow teeth. It made him wrinkle his nose as well, then frown. He held up his liver spotted hands.
"No. Nothing. I'm fine, thank you."
The assistant looked doubtful but beyond her Arty saw something else in the mirror. Two cops jogged past the front of store, one hand on their sticks to steady them. They had not even glanced into the shop. His eyes flicked back to the girl.
"In fact. I was just leaving."
She nodded, but did not move. Probably thinks I'm going to steal some of this multimart rubbish, Arty thought, she hasn't even noticed I'm wearing thousand dollar shoes, the pretty little philistine.
He turned away, his heart still trying to find its resting rate, and shuffled back out of the shop. He went the direction the two cops had come from, turning the corner he had fled around when they had spotted him. The nearest D-train terminal was only a few hundred yards up the next concourse, which is why he had been coming this way in the first place. It seemed to take an age for him to reach the doors. When he did so without shouts of accusation from behind, he felt a surge of familiar excitement. He might actually get away with this.
He reached out with a shaking hand to hit the down button, the same shaking hand that had failed him not an hour ago. The same shaking hand that had set off an alarm which would never have been a danger before. A precision tool which had become a feeble, loose cudgel. He cursed its quivers but his frustration turned to delight when the capsule appeared almost at once. At last, he thought, some good fortune.
He stepped inside, the only occupant of the diamond fronted elevator. There had been others waiting, but this was the express unit to the base. The locals liked to call it "The Drain". Until recently Arty had too. Now he found himself waiting for the doors to close, keen to find his way back to ground level. He turned his back on the view and looked down the concourse, willing the doors to shut.
"C'mon. C'mon.” He muttered. The gleaming metal was not to be rushed however, waiting in case some other rubbish needed flushing from the affluent shopping arcade. Ahead, rising on their toes to survey the crowd, Arty saw the two cops come back onto his thoroughfare.
"Close, you bastards. Close." He swore at the doors. As if they had heard him they began to hiss together. At the last second Arty thought one of the men might have looked his way, but his eyes, like everything else, were not what they were and he could not be certain.
The elevator began to drop smoothly away and he turned to gaze out of the window. The underside of the bottom tier, all pipes and blocks, shaded the D-train from the weak sunlight. In the distance the spindly mushrooms of the other three towers rose out of the ramshackle sprawl. Appropriate shapes really, Arty considered, mushrooms do well growing out of shit too.
Under their transparent domes he could make out tiered gardens like the ones rising above him. Their colours were diffused by distance and the thin atmosphere, but he knew there was every hue of bright flower amongst verdant greens. He could almost taste the clean, thick air of his old hunting grounds. He lifted his satchel free over his head, his shoulders complaining, and flipped it open. Inside was his ticket back. He lifted the cylinder of metal slats out and smiled at its ancient grooved surface. He would return to defraud, debauch and deflower the brainless rich again. He was certain of it. This was not the end for him. The elevator jerked to a halt. The doors began to open without warning. Shit, he thought, this is the end for me.
A female cop stood waiting in a residential corridor outside, one hand up at her ear.
"Yep, got him now, thanks. I'll check it out and get back to you."
She stepped in to the elevator, her eyes immediately on Arty's prize. She took the artefact without resistance and jabbed an id stick into his neck. He felt the tell-tale burn of his skin cells being scraped away and the machine bleeped. She looked at the display.
"Arthur Schivare." His name was a statement, not a question. She examined his other details. "26?" His age at least got a reaction from her. "Two counts theft, one count embezzlement. They stuck 15 years on your clock for each one."
She looked him up and down, shaking her head. Arty looked around her and thought about running. The thought was enough to make his knees hurt again.
"Why the hell would you keep at it?" She asked. He was surprised to look into her face and find her in earnest.
"You try looking like this. Nobody hires an ex-con. Even in the geri-clubs I have to sit down, the real old timers can tell from how I move otherwise and they steer clear too. That was my only way out." He pointed at what she held. "It's a wheel from the Sojourner rover."
"I know that." She hefted it in her hand. "The museum on the top deck is going ape shit."
He started to become acutely aware that she had not gone straight back to her com-link.
"I've got a bunch of neo-earth nutjobs lined up to pay me a small fortune. Enough to get me back to how I should be." He gestured with one crook knuckled finger at the id stick's screen.
The cop looked at his grinning, aquiline face on the screen then back to the decrepit one before her. She sucked in one cheek.
"How much is a small fortune then?"
The old squirming excitement began to twist Arty's mouth into a smile.
"More than I could spend on my own." He waggled his unruly eyebrows.
The cop stared at the wheel for another few seconds, biting her lip. Then she sighed and reached for her earpiece. Arty's mouth fell.
"Base. Two seventeen here. I checked your man in the drain. Nothing doing, just some geri from the ground on a sightseeing tour.... sure... will do. Good luck anyway."
Her hand dropped down and her smile mirrored Arty's as she hit the elevator button without looking.
"Going down?" She held the wheel back out to him.
"Not on these knees." Arty smirked and turned back to enjoy their descent, physical and moral.