The Dreamer

by Lauren Jankowski

“Archer, my name is Archer,” he muttered under his breath as he ran a  hand over his face and scrubbed his fingers through his dripping blond hair.  His blue eyes were much colder then they usually were.  He was having a hell of a day.  It had been pouring nonstop since dawn, he was behind schedule, and now he was standing in the study of Richard Hartwell, the richest man in the Utopian Area.  That was enough to sour his mood, but now there was the added stress of Hartwell’s daughter Serina insisting that he, a lowly smuggler, had the right to have a name in her family’s presence.  It definitely was not his day.

Hartwell glanced up from the safe briefly, making a face.  He obviously wasn’t thrilled with Archer getting his expensive carpeting wet.  He sighed heavily and turned back to the safe, opening the heavy door.  Serina stood on Archer’s right side in the dimly lit room.  She beamed appreciatively when he spoke, her kind eyes sparkling.  She was practically rocking on her heels.

“Archer,” she repeated, nodding her head once.  “Antonomasia?”

Archer turned his eyes back to her in shock.  It had been years since he’d heard a word like that used, and from a woman no less.  Society dictated that women were to be seen not heard; apparently, Serina Hartwell hadn’t gotten the memo.

The Hartwell patriarch suddenly slammed his fist on the desk, drawing their attention back to him.  Archer adjusted the strap of the backpack on his shoulder, listening to the contents quietly slosh around.  He desperately wanted to finish the transaction and get the hell out of there.

“Serina, why are you in here?” Hartwell snapped at his daughter.  Archer, who’d been doing his best to keep his eyes forward, glanced over at the young woman.

“I just wanted to know if you gave any more consideration to my proposition,” Serina replied patiently.

Archer struggled not to roll his eyes.  The disagreement he had interrupted had obviously been going on for some time.

“You know, all this time you spend worrying about the Outside could be channeled into more productive activities,” Hartwell commented.  Serina frowned and crossed her thin arms over her chest.  Archer stayed quiet, but inwardly bristled at the way Hartwell spoke to his daughter.  Normally he didn’t care about the dynamics of families.  If it didn’t directly affect him, it was of no concern.

“I’m sorry, Father.  I just think that the welfare of others happens to be more important…” Serina began.

“Ladies don’t concern themselves with such things.  I really don’t have time for your nonsense right now,” Hartwell cut in, looking her up and down before letting out a disapproving sigh.  “What on earth are you wearing?”

Serina remained silent.  Archer’s eyes wandered over the pricey red wallpaper, which he was convinced cost more then his tiny little room.  She was wearing improper clothing: an emerald green blouse with three-quarter inch sleeves and dark jeans.  It had thrown him when he’d first met her, only minutes earlier.  She’d shaken his hand, something that no client had ever done.

“I don’t see why that’s important,” she murmured, digging her toe into the carpet.

“You look like a common whore, that’s why.  Men don’t buy the cow if they know they can get the milk for free.  Even Mister,” Hartwell paused as he gestured in Archer’s general direction.  “He won’t even look at you.  At least he has some sense of decorum.”

Archer closed his eyes, silently letting out his breath as he struggled to hold his tongue.  He desperately needed Hartwell’s business.  It was one of his major sources of income.  That didn’t mean he had to like the man.

“The soirée starts in an hour.  Anyone who’s anyone is going to be there and I expect you to be there, in proper dress, smiling and mingling like all ladies do.  Hopefully we’ll find you a proper suitor,” Hartwell continued.  “Your mother and I don’t want to be stuck with you for another year.”

Serina opened her mouth as if to argue, but then seemed to decide against it.  She turned to leave, pausing when Hartwell called her name.  She turned slightly so that she was facing him again.

“Don’t let me catch you in my office without my permission again,” Hartwell said indifferently.  His stiff posture and cold eyes didn’t match his casual tone.  Archer couldn’t help but stare at his client, picking up the hidden threat in his words.  Serina nodded before turning around to face Archer, smiling politely.

“It was nice to meet you, Archer,” she said.

For the first time ever, Archer believed what was normally a hollow parting phrase.  He stared after her briefly before turning his attention back to Hartwell, who was stacking bills on the tidy desktop.

“I apologize for that,” he stated.  “My daughter forgets her place sometimes.”

“It really was no bother, sir,” Archer replied as he stepped forward and unzipped the backpack.  He carefully removed the single bottle inside, handling it as he would a bomb.

“Château Lafite Rothschild, vintage 1874,” he stated as he handed the bottle to Hartwell.  The man took it as though it were the single most valuable thing in the world.

“Oh, she is magnificent,” he breathed in awe, gently turning the bottle in his hands as he examined the glass.  Archer turned his gaze to the windows, unable to look at the cursed thing anymore.  Tracking it down had set him back at least a month.  It was near impossible to find and then there were all the checkpoints he had to go through to retrieve it.  So much trouble for such an inane hobby.

“Name your price,” Hartwell muttered.  Archer couldn’t tell whether he was addressing him or the bottle of wine.  The rain continued to patter on the glass, but it sounded as if the storm were letting up a little.

“Ten thousand,” Archer responded simply.  Hartwell glanced up from the bottle, surprised at the figure.

“A bit steep, isn’t it?”

Archer shrugged.  “Actually, it’s quite a bargain.  Besides its value and rarity, I had to travel two states to find it.  Factor in the cost of travel, the business I lost, and the number of checkpoints I had to deal with, and you’ll see I’m being rather charitable.”

Hartwell made a noncommittal sound as he looked back to the bottle.  He carefully placed it on the desktop, turning his attention back to the bills he’d stacked in front of him.  Archer dealt with rich people regularly and they all had one thing in common: they hated being separated from their money.

“Don’t suppose you’d consider taking my daughter,” Hartwell jested with a grin.  Archer clenched his teeth, forcing himself to smile.  Hartwell never failed to make his skin crawl.

“I only accept cash,” he replied easily.  Hartwell laughed as he handed over five stacks of bills.  Archer examined each stack, thumbing through the bills before dropping them in his backpack.

“You’re good, smuggler.  I hope you don’t overestimate your services,” Hartwell remarked cryptically.

Archer just kept putting bills in the backpack.  “Never do, sir.  Pleasure doing business with you.”

Hartwell nodded his head once.  “If you wouldn’t mind going out back, through the kitchen doors.  My guests will be arriving shortly.”

Archer zipped his backpack shut, slinging it behind him and adjusting it on his shoulder.  “As you wish, Mr. Hartwell.”

As he left the study, he could faintly hear a car pulling up in front of the house.  He crept out the back and into the weather again.  Archer paused and glanced up at the second floor windows.  They were all dark; she had already gone down to the party.

The second time they met was a month later at another one of her parents’ gatherings.  Archer had seen her around a couple times, but hadn’t approached her.  It was odd to see someone as wealthy as Serina out on the streets, even in the Utopian Areas, but Archer had recognized her at once.  He never forgot a face.

He was dropping off a couple of pre-paid bottles of fine champagne for another party.  “Stuff you can drink, that’s a change,” Archer thought as he put the bottles on the tidy desktop.  The sun was setting and he was rushing.  He still had a few things to pick up on the way home and curfews were strict for the unprivileged.  He turned on his heel and tore out of the study.

Archer came to a halt in the gigantic hallway when his sharp ears picked up the nearly inaudible sound of a sigh.  He twisted around, squinting as he looked behind him and trying to pinpoint where the sound had come from.  After some debating, he began to move down the hallway in the opposite direction of the exit.

He discovered the source in the library.  Serina sat on a bright red chaise longue, a thick book beside her.  She was hunched over her knees, her chin resting in her hands.  She was wearing a beautiful lavender gown with subtle streaks of silver.  The color reminded Archer of the early twilight sky in the summer.  At that moment, the youngest Hartwell looked nothing short of lovely.

She glanced over towards the door as if she felt his eyes on her and smiled.  “Archer.”

He blinked.  “You remembered.”

“You’re a hard one to forget, Dom Pérignon,” she said, her smile deepening.  Archer shrugged as he leaned back and looked out into the hallway, wondering how best to leave.

“Might I inquire as to what you’re doing here?” Serina asked, drawing his attention back.  She leaned against the arm of the chaise.  The neck of her dress was tastefully cut, concealing just enough to entice the imagination.

“I was dropping off an order for your father,” he answered, his eyes drifting over the room.  He wondered if Serina ever lost her sunny demeanor.

“Ah, but my Father’s study is down the hall in the opposite direction,” Serina observed, tilting her head slightly in the direction of the study.

He shrugged his shoulders as he leaned against the doorframe.  “I’m a smuggler.  I like to exercise my appraisal skills,” he said by way of explanation.

She laughed lightly and stood up, smoothing the front of her dress.  He glanced briefly at her shoes.  They were simple, free of the gaudy adornments that usually decorated fashionable footwear.

“Come on,” she said, gesturing for Archer to follow her.  “I want to show you something.”

“What?” he asked suspiciously.  She grinned.

“Well, you’ll have to follow me and find out,” she replied.  “Don’t worry.  I don’t bite.”

Archer briefly considered protesting, but his natural curiosity won over.  He followed the younger shape shifter.

As he followed her up three flights of stairs to the attic of the enormous house, Archer noticed the grace of Serina’s stride.  She seemed to be the polar opposite of every socialite that he’d ever had the misfortune of interacting with; it had to be a façade.  After all, everyone wore masks to hide who or what they really were.  For the first time, Archer didn’t want the illusion to end so soon.

She led him up the last flight of stairs and into the darkened attic, closing the door behind them.  His eyes widened when she switched on the light, revealing a room filled to the brim with all kinds of illegal paraphernalia.  Books, paintings, posters, music…Archer had never seen so much in a single location, not since the Event.  The walls were decorated with portraits of great thinkers throughout the years.  Gandhi, Einstein, Gloria Steinem, Marie Curie, Martin Luther King Jr., Emerson, and many other names long forgotten.

His gaze drifted over to a small picture that stuck out on one of the shelves.  It was of Serina with her arms wrapped around a man.  They were both dressed warmly in a snowy landscape, surrounded by ski equipment.  The skiers and trees behind them were black specks.  Both Serina and the man were beaming, obviously enjoying themselves.

“My brother, Casper,” Serina murmured as she past behind him, answering his unasked question.  Archer glanced over at her and then at the picture again.

“Where did you get all this stuff?” Archer asked, moving towards another bookcase.  He picked up a large tan book and thumbed through a couple pages.  It was about Surrealist art, a topic that Archer had found fascinating back when he’d had the luxury of relaxation, back when there had been time to think about something other then survival.

“All over,” Serina answered vaguely.  Archer looked over at her as he put the book back on the shelf.  She was hunched over a large cylinder…a high-powered telescope.

“Here, look at this,” Serina said eagerly as she straightened up.

“Who are you?” Archer asked in wonder.  She smiled brightly and let out a soft laugh, tucking a strand of light brown hair behind her ear.

“This room is the East and I am the sun,” she teased.  “Come now, a man in your profession surely knows everything about his clientele.”

Archer couldn’t prevent the small smirk that crossed his face.  He leaned against the nearest bookcase, sizing her up.

“True.  I’ve read things here and there.  You supposedly possess one of the highest IQs in the world.  However, you strike me as a kind of dichotomy.  You’re bright, there’s no denying that, but revealing this to me,” he paused and looked around.  “That strikes me as more then a little rash on your part, especially considering that we’ve only met once before.”

Serina chuckled.  Her eyes sparkled in the light of the newly risen moon.  “I suppose that shall be my downfall one day.  I believe in the basic goodness of people, and what I keep in this room is much too beautiful to remain hidden.  Besides, I’m quite sure you couldn’t turn me in even if you wanted to.”

Archer nodded once in deference.  She was good.  He couldn’t turn her in; the fact was that what he did for a living was just as illegal as keeping a stash of blasphemous objects.  She had the upper hand, coming from a family that was favored by those in power.  He moved over towards the telescope, allowing her to position the eyepiece for him.  He leaned down and looked inside.

“Wow,” he breathed as he observed the silver stars splattered across the black sky.  There was a gaseous red cloud wrapped around some of the twinkling specks.  It was gorgeous.

“It’s really quite amazing to think of how small we are in the grand scheme of things,” Serina said.

Archer looked at her as he straightened up again.  She was staring up at one of the skylights.  Her dress sparkled faintly and her pale skin seemed to glow with an inner radiance.  For a moment, she looked like some ethereal being from ancient mythology, once revered and now forgotten.  Her dark blue eyes wandered back to his.  A smile still lit her small heart-shaped face.

Archer never remembered who made the first move.  Time didn’t seem to follow logic in her secret room.  One minute they were gazing deeply at each other and the next they were locked in a passionate kiss.

As they made love against one of the bookcases, a long extinguished light within Archer sparked once again.  He’d forgotten how good it felt to be touched by a lover, to be liberated from oppressive restrictions.  For the first time in years, he felt truly alive.

“You’re in late.”

Archer skidded to a halt at the front of the door to his apartment, which was actually a hotel room.  After the Event, only a few hotels survived.  They were converted into apartments for the lower income citizens.  Archer glanced down the hall at his neighbor.  Brian stood just inside his open door, tossing a small yellow yo-yo down and letting it wind back up.  Brian had one of the best poker faces Archer had ever seen.  Like everyone who had to work or live on the Outside, he never smiled.

“They’re upping security patrols apparently.  The streets are crawling with uniforms.  Can’t remember the last time I had to flash my papers so much,” Archer replied easily as he fished his keys out of one of the pockets of his dark green cargo pants.  “Don’t you usually play cards with Mae and Snatch?”

“Both working jobs.  Mae’s out of town, Snatch has building duties,” Brian said.  “Business is hard to come by lately.”

“Hadn’t noticed,” Archer said as he put his backpack down and unzipped it.

“Doesn’t surprise me.  That standoffish nature of yours appeals to the big players,” Brian said.  “You’re probably the only smuggler who gets jobs without any sweet talking or mingling.”

“I don’t like crowds anymore than the façades one inevitably encounters within them,” Archer answered as he dug through the contents of his bag, finally finding what he was looking for.  “Here’s the stuff you asked for.”

He stood up and handed Brian a small brown box.  Brian looked surprised as he took it and opened the top, whistling softly as he examined the things inside.

“Aspirin and pearls, don’t see these much anymore,” he commented.

“I was also able to get the baseball cards.  They’re at the bottom,” Archer said.  Brian let out a soft laugh and shook is head.

“I suppose this is why you’re the crème de la crème of smugglers.”

Archer shrugged.  “I just know where to look.”

Brian nodded his head as he closed the box again and slid it inside his room.  He straightened up again and approached Archer, reaching into his back pocket and retrieving his wallet.  He pulled out a few twenties, which Archer accepted without counting.  He and Brian often gave each other discounts, a small token of appreciation for frequent favors.  Brian put his wallet back in his pocket.

“You’re flushed,” Brian observed with a frown, tossing the yo-yo down again.  One of the dull lights in the wall sconces flickered twice.

“Maybe you didn’t hear the whole ‘running and avoiding uniforms’ explanation,” Archer said as he pulled his keys out of his pocket and jammed one in the lock.

“Even so, can’t remember ever seeing you flushed before,” Brian continued as he leaned against the wall, watching Archer unlock his door.  “Where’d you run from?”

“A client’s,” Archer answered shortly.  Brian nodded.  Smugglers had an unwritten code about customer confidentiality.

“You gotta invest in some kind of holster or something,” Brian remarked, nodding to the Heckler & Koch USP tucked in the back of Archer’s pants.  “They really don’t like our type carrying concealed weapons.”

“There are a lot of things I probably need to invest in,” Archer shrugged as he twisted the key, listening to the deadbolt slide open.  His mind drifted back to the soft fabric of Serina’s dress.  Her smooth flesh had felt amazingly like the velvety petals of a blooming lily.

“Found out why there’s a sudden influx of desperates,” Brian said as he rolled his yoyo down and up again.  Archer opened the door and looked back at his neighbor.

“New virus?” Archer guessed.

“New virus,” Brian confirmed.  “This one only targets children under fifteen apparently.  All I heard today was ‘My daughter’s dying, please’ or ‘My son, he’s sick’.  They’re a nuisance.”

“Damn,” Archer groaned quietly as he rubbed his brow in frustration.  He hated dealing with desperates.  Cold indifference was a vital part of survival for smugglers.

“They’ve upped security at the hospitals, both on the Outside and in the Utopian Areas,” Brian continued.  “Medicine is going to be hard to come by for a while.”

“Can’t have us infringing on their profits,” Archer mused bitterly.

Brian nodded.  “That and they’re trying to lure out Resistance members.  Blasted do-gooders.”

Archer smiled thinly, drumming his fingers on the doorframe.  The Resistance strove to help the unfortunate on the Outside.  They procured food, clean water, and even medication and charged nothing for it.  For their efforts, Resistance members were branded a heretic group.  On his daily trek past the Square, Archer witnessed supposedly guilty people burned, flayed, thrown into vats of boiling oil, and quartered, all while still alive.  The loud cheers of the crowds could never quite drown out the screaming.

“One of my sources on the day shift told me that one of the Hartwells is a Resistance member,” Brian continued as he tossed his yo-yo down again.  “The daughter.  Oh hell, what’s her name? Cecilia, Sissy…”

Archer felt his entire body stiffen as he struggled to stay calm.  His mouth dried out and it was only through sheer willpower that he was able to keep drumming his fingers on the doorframe.

Brian snapped his fingers when he caught the yo-yo again.  “Serina, that’s it.  According to my sources, her name was given up during an interrogation.  Now that’s something Daddy’s going to have a bit of trouble getting her out of.  Of course, that’s if he wants to.  Rumor has it that she tends to stand out in all those high society circles.”

Archer grimaced and shook his head.  “Rich people, huh?”

“Yeah,” Brian replied as he caught his yo-yo one last time.  “Well, I’m going to turn in for the night.  I’ve got a long day tomorrow.  Don’t suppose you’d be free to help me with a pick up?”

Archer shrugged.  “I’ve got nothing going on until noon.”

“Great.  I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

Archer nodded and stepped into his own apartment, shutting the door behind him.  He frowned as he tried to figure out exactly when Serina had broken his at-arms-length rule.  Life had been much simpler when he just hadn’t cared.

The final time they met, she seemed only slightly surprised by his sudden appearance.  A little more then a week had past since their last encounter.  He sat at the table where she mapped out the stars, tilted back in a wooden chair with his feet up on the table.  His eyes were hidden behind dark sunglasses.

“Archer, I was wondering when our paths would cross again,” she said warmly.  “How on Earth did you get in here?”

“Are you aware that the beadle of this Utopian Area suspects you of being a Resistance member?” Archer asked bluntly.  There was an alien feeling inside him, something similar to the emotion of anger.

Serina’s brow furrowed, though her face didn’t lose any of its friendliness.  “Oh?”

“Dammit, Serina!” Archer snapped, struggling to keep his voice soft.  “Do you have any idea how serious that is? Have you seen what they do to Resistance members? I thought you were smart.”

He stood up and began pacing the floor, agitated.  Serina moved over towards the table and rested her slight weight against it, unbothered by his anxiety.

“You haven’t asked whether or not I was guilty of the charges,” she observed softly as she watched him.  Archer paused and looked at her.

“Are you?” he asked.  Part of him already knew the answer, had known since their first interaction.  He was good at reading people and could usually tell someone’s secrets within seconds of meeting them.  She crossed her arms over her chest, tilting her head slightly.

“I do help the Resistance, but I don’t see that as a crime,” she finally admitted.  Archer let out a bark of laughter and ran his hands through his short sandy hair as he shook his head, not believing his ears.  She obviously had no idea just how bad the world was.

“Serina, it doesn’t matter what is and isn’t a crime in your view.  It’s unimportant.  What they believe, that’s what’s important,” Archer explained.  “Don’t think a last name will grant you some kind of immunity.”

“Pardon me for correcting you, but what the individual believes is very important,” Serina said.  “There was a time when we cared about each other, when we had rights.  I can’t sit idly by and watch innocent people condemned for no reason.  I won’t watch the world become a place where we have to apologize for being different.  I will not be told what I can and cannot think or believe.  I will not allow my life to be dictated by faceless powers reading from some old archaic book of nonsense.  I’ve watched people that I loved arrested and murdered for no reason other then they were who they were and I won’t do nothing.”

She gestured towards the gun Archer kept in the back of his pants.  “And I won’t resort to using one of those either.  Violence has never achieved anything.”

Archer sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.  “It’s not that simple…”

“Actually it is,” Serina interrupted.  “It just doesn’t seem like it when you’re scared for your life.”

“Being scared is what keeps you alive,” Archer snapped.

“It all depends on your definition of alive,” Serina argued, unaffected by his tone.

Archer tried to read her expression.  She looked completely calm, but there was something in her eyes; she was hiding something.

She held his gaze briefly.  Without saying anything, she stood up and walked around the table to one of the shorter bookcases.  She picked up a thick brown book, opened it, and removed a folded sheet of paper before replacing the book back on the shelf.  She handed the paper to Archer, who took it from her delicate fingers.

“I’ve known they’ve suspected me for more then a week,” Serina explained as Archer looked at the paper.

“An acceptance letter to the School,” he muttered dully, recognizing the crest in the upper left corner.  The sight of the snake wound about a staff and devouring some kind of large rodent-like creature made him feel sick to his stomach.  He ran a hand over his face.  Long repressed memories flashed through his mind, threatening to make him physically ill.  He shook his head once.

“You can’t go,” he stated as he looked back at her.  She sat down in one of her small chairs.  He was beginning to get annoyed with her unflappable attitude.

“I haven’t got much of a choice, Archer,” she said quietly.

“Yes, you do,” he insisted.  “I can pull some strings, get in touch with contacts that owe me favors, and have you out of here within an hour.”

Serina shook her head.  “They’ll go after my brother.  I won’t have him or anyone else suffering for my actions.”

“Then call him.  I can get you both out,” Archer said as though it were obvious, glancing towards the window.  He was already sorting through options and creating a strategy.

“Archer…”

“Why do you insist on martyring yourself?!” he snapped in frustration.  “Serina, you have no idea what they do to shape shifters in those places.  They’ll destroy you.  I’d choose execution over going back…”

Archer stopped, refusing to go on.  He’d already revealed too much.  She had to understand, though.  He had to make her see just what kind of trouble she was in, even if it meant losing her forever.  He existed better alone anyway.

Serina was staring at him.  He sighed, reaching up and removing his sunglasses.  He blinked once, revealing his glowing eyes for the first time.  He kept them concealed for the simple fact that they revealed him for the monster that he was.  He was an experiment, a shape shifter heavily modified to be a superior weapon.  They’d been created to end war, and after that had been achieved, there was no longer any purpose for their existence.

Shape shifters were being hunted down like animals, destroyed on sight.  The public was exposed to unending propaganda against them.  They were modern monsters and people were terrified of them.  Inevitably, their fear had turned into brutal violence and hatred.

Serina didn’t recoil.  She looked at Archer for a moment before slowly rising from her seat and approaching him.  He took a step back and looked away from her, ashamedly.  He normally had lenses that he put in his eyes to hide the glow, but he’d been in such a rush that he’d forgotten them.  Luckily, he always kept a pair of sunglasses on him. Just in case.
Archer was startled when he felt gentle hands slide up his face.  He allowed her to turn his face back towards her.  She smiled, leaned forward, and gently kissed him.  When she pulled away, she kept her forehead rested against his for a minute.

“I accept the consequences of my actions,” she murmured, opening her eyes and looking into his.  “I was hoping that you could do one favor for me though.”

Archer swallowed and nodded his head.  If he couldn’t talk her out of it, he’d at least carry out a last request.

Serina’s favor took Archer almost three days to complete.  He had to meet with one Resistance member who instructed him to hand off a small package to another one.  The job had gone off without a hitch.  Experiments were nothing if not adaptable.  The package was already late, and Archer found himself actually hoping that Serina could save at least one more life.

When he returned back to the Utopian Area, he found that Serina had already been taken away.  That hadn’t really shocked him.  The leaders of Utopian Areas were quite efficient when it came to doing away with undesirables.

He arrived back at the hotel and jogged up the stairs to his room.  He was surprised to see Brian sitting in an old wooden rocking chair just inside his own room.  The chair creaked softly with the gentle forward and backward motion.

“Covered for you, like you asked,” Brian stated before Archer could even ask, tossing his neighbor a large goldenrod envelope.  “That’s your take.”

“Thank you,” Archer murmured.

“So did you hear that they took the Hartwell girl to the School?” Brian mentioned, looking around to make sure they were alone before leaning forward.  “Word on the street is her parents exchanged her for status assurance.”

Archer looked over at his neighbor.  There were always rumors of higher end parents trading their children for status.  Archer wouldn’t put it past Richard Hartwell to take such an action.

Brian leaned back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head.  “Guess we won’t hear from her again.”

“Suppose not,” Archer replied indifferently, fishing his keys out of his pocket.

“Shame.  She was kind of a looker,” Brian sighed, looking to Archer.  “You’ve done business with Hartwell before.  You ever meet her?”

Archer shrugged as he twisted the key in the lock.  “Once or twice.”

Brian leaned forward again, interested.  “And…? What was she like?”

Archer paused, smiling slightly after a moment.  “She was nice.”

Brian chuckled.  “Careful, Archer.  Talk like that will get you accused of heresy.”

“Do you think I’m a heretic, Brian?” Archer asked sarcastically.

“Aren’t all smugglers?” Brian joked.

“Until they need us, anyway,” Archer replied as he opened his door.

“Oh, I almost forgot.  Something came for you the day after you left,” Brian said.  Archer waited as he disappeared inside his room.  He was expecting a few packages, so he didn’t think much of it, until Brian re-emerged with a large white box with a red bow.  One look at it told Archer that it wasn’t any of the goods he was expecting.  He thanked Brian as he took the heavy box from him.  He glanced at the label, reading his address.  There was no return address.

“Who dropped it off?” Archer asked, trying not to sound paranoid.  Brian shrugged and scratched the back of his head.

“Regular delivery guy.  Why? Who’s it from?”

“Never mind.  Thank you for covering and for the package,” Archer replied.  “I owe you one.”

“You owe me several,” Brian corrected as he went back to his room.  “And I will eventually collect.”

Archer rolled his eyes and entered his own room.  He carefully laid the large box down on his table.  After a quick examination, using all his senses, Archer concluded that it wasn’t a bomb or poison or anything else potentially harmful.  He retrieved a pair of latex gloves from the stand by the door, pulling them on.  He untied the red bow that was wrapped around the box and peeled back the clear tape, lifting the flaps of the box.

Inside was Serina’s telescope.  On top of it was a short note written in her elegant hand:

Archer,

Our paths will cross again some day.
Until then, we still have the heavens.

-Serina

Lauren Jankowski lives in Illinois with her dogs and cats.  She enjoys writing, reading, music, philosophy, and art. This is her first published story.