“I told you, a wolf’s head can still bite.”
— Lady Iboshi_, Princess Mononoke_
I thought derailing — or just plain getting off — a sealed train in the middle of the Waste would be difficult, but not impossible. Otherwise I might have been reduced to commandeering a corporate thopter somehow, and though “agent” means “theoretically almost-invulnerable,” the idea of a crash from that height, smoking and twisted wreckage, and being tracked by other thopters while on foot and carrying a maybe-damaged kid wasn’t pleasant in the least. As it was, all I had to worry about was when to start moving, and how to keep said kid from being splattered all over the landscape when we leapt from something going as fast as an interCity magtrain.
Geoff dozed next to me, rosy-cheeked even in the dimness, canned air soughing over us both. This close, the pearly glimmer of his teeth was even more startlingly alien. They were shaped differently, like his cheekbones, and the thick vertical scar on his chin looked surgical.
Still, our costumes were pretty perfect — Geoff’s ratty parka too big for him, a blue, long-sleeved Static Rebe T-shirt, dungarees, and judicious amounts of stat tape reinforcing his boots; me in a tailored plasleather jacket with plenty of pockets and jeans just a little too designer to be plebe but not designer enough to be corporate power. We sat quietly, the very picture of single mother locked into low-level corporate servitude by her Special Needs brat but smart and vicious enough to both keep the kid and qualify for travel privileges. The observant onlooker would think courier, and if they were innocent, that would be the end of it.
If they weren’t, they’d be looking for my cargo. Funny how this was my protective coloration — courier was how I’d started out, long ago, a runner dodging bullets and static-bolt ammo in the Projekts.
Before I was implemented. Before I was agent.
Our five fellow passengers hadn’t moved much since the train jolted out through stat-veiled clockwork gates and into the inimical wasteland outside the cities. Cannibals, flesh-eating plants, and radioactive sludge creating massive hideous beasts were supposed to be the reasons for sealing every Egress Train. Some quasi-rebels — creeping in corners, holding muttered meetings in fauxsmoke-filled bars — inside the Cities whispered that if we knew what was really outside the walls, we wouldn’t stay in the perpetual twilight, under smoggy UV-domed skies with the weight of every breath owned by one corporation or another.
We were going to take our chances. I was just hoping Geoff could live off any mammal, or that we’d find enough cannibals for him to get what he needed. The prospect of radiation poisoning worried me, but there was only so much I could do about it.
The subroutines over my autonomics kept clamping down, and I had to pop another one over my glandular balance to stop the cortisol and adrenaline from swamping me. It wasn’t a good time to start getting jitters, only two and a half hours out of the gate. I kept turning everything over inside my head, searching for the missing piece.
It bothered me. No, not Barlowe’s body hanging from a railprobe — that fell under the rubric of “necessary casualty,” not to mention “insurance.” It was a cleaner death than any corporation or the Agency would have given him, too.
Also on the did-not-bother-me list: pieces of my handler dumped in a vat of caustic sludge. They would fish Sam out, clean him up, and he’d have a lot of explaining to do, both to the Agency and to the corporation looking to reclaim Geoff. Unless Sam had a helluva good story and a reason to use it, the Agency would start digging; in a little while they would come after me to recoup their investment in my implementations, or to just-plain-Dismiss me.
It was only a matter of time, but I’d take all I could get. That didn’t bother me either. Well, not much.
No, what bothered me was the house I’d found Geoff in. His white bedroom too bare, and the corporate bodyguards acting as “parents” too neglectful. On the other hand, the kid was… different. His facial structure was off by a few millimeters, or maybe it was his expression. That scar on his chin, the set of his thin shoulders, and his eerie stillness made normals… uncomfortable. Like the other kids at his school, although they could have been responding to his general air of disrepair. Kids can smell when one of their own is already weak.
Humans: perfect predators before they’re socialized, I guess. Then they mostly get old and tired.
But not always.
The kid twitched, waking from his doze. “Abby?”
It’s an okay name, I told myself, wishing I hadn’t given it to him. I was stuck with it now. “What?”
“Where are we going?”
You didn’t ask earlier. “Out.”
He still hadn’t left go of my right hand. No longer tentative, he sometimes squeezed, and I surprised myself by squeezing back, but very gently. Such a small hand, and he was running warm now. Slightly above 38C, as if he had a low-grade fever. His galvanic skin response was fine, though, and the rest of him seemed okay to my scans, despite its slight differences from warmbody norms. They weren’t obvious differences. Whoever had designed him had done a good job.
“Then where?” he whispered. Big dark eyes, like a holo of a genegrown puppy on an advert for candies or skinshield.
I was about to tell him I didn’t know, that I’d figure something out, when the train lurched crazily. Stress-harmonics went up into ultrasonic, sending a spike of pain through my head before a filter dropped into place over that intake channel, and my arm was a bar of solid steel diagonally across Geoff’s chest, bracing him into the seat as I dug my heels in against sudden deceleration. The train had stopped, but everything inside it was still going.
Physics is a bitch. Geoff folded forward around my arm, just like a spider flicked into a static seal-field. At least he wasn’t in freefall across the carriage, but if he ended up with whiplash or internal bleeding I was going to have to get creative with my field-medical training.
The back of the carriage lifted high, the car behind us doing its best to keep humming along the tracks. Squeals of tortured metal, crunching and snapping, a sharp stink from the lavatory right behind us. Geoff’s piping little cry as air was forced out of his lungs, but I’d already broken the force of the deceleration enough for him to stay put, clinging to his seat, and was on my feet as the entire carriage tilted crazily. The stress-sounds were highest along one of the welded seams, and the buckling floor had popped up one end of a bench seat. A quick strike to break the back free, then my fingers curled around the horizontal support bar under the cushions, the patient bearer of so many asses, now torn free with a shriek lost in the general chaos. Crumpled bodies — someone had lost control of their bowels, the common warmbody response to sudden trauma.
Everyone shits when death comes calling. Except agents, because the colony of nanos we carry is too efficient at stripping anything we ingest of any nutritive value and using every scrap.
Move. Now I had a metal bar that would have to serve as both tool and weapon. I arrived in front of Geoff, who flinched at my sudden blinking through space too fast for warmbody eyes to track — but his gaze had stayed unerringly on me all through the split-seconds, with more-than-human accuracy. Perched up in our seats, now high on a buckled mountain of metal, he had wrapped his arms around his middle and stared. I hefted the bar experimentally as a sliver of rancid golden light speared the dim red-lit hell that had been a train carriage hauling a sparse contingent of losers from one City-warren to the next.
Yet another reason I’d chosen the seats back here — any sudden magtrain problem of enough severity tends to accordion the cars, and they bust like overripe stathydroponic fruit.
Screaming. The distant rumbling of explosions — a fuel core had been breached, by the sound of it. I filtered that out, because under the chaos was another noise — the snap-crackle of static-bolt rifles, the pop and ping of projectile ammo from handhelds.
Looked like I was saved the trouble of derailing or bursting a welded seam. Now I was a lone agent with a chunk of subpar metal and a big-eyed kid to protect.
I got to work.
Dust. More screaming, and a narrow band-frequency around us was suddenly alive with commchatter. I popped a subroutine on that intake feed, standard record-and-flag, and swung the bar one last time. The warmbodies largely didn’t know what hit them. Dazed by the sudden crash, some with broken bones, I caved in their skulls like grapes popping. Splatters of blood and brain matter, glints as chips fell free — two of them were standard-issue implemented, probably secretaries with subvocals and recording capability. I had to tear the throatboxes out of both, just to make sure.
Geoff, trembling, clung to his tilted-forward seat even though a tide of nasty blue chemwash flooded downhill from the lavatories. At least the organic matter wasn’t crawling with bacteria, but the smell was horrific. I hopped up the few still-bolted seats to avoid the slippery bits just as shadows filled the crack torn in the side of the car.
Shit. Thought I had more time. “Come on,” I mouthed, and Geoff scrambled to obey. He went on my back, arms and legs locking around me, and I had to adjust his grip around my throat a little ungently. It was hard to turn my head, but I’d switched to panoptics anyway. The shaking going through him was worrisome.
So was the idea that he might think I’d’ve been coming up the car to pop his skull, too, instead of just cleaning up anyone who could possibly remember us. It would be a natural response on his part.
The irony of expecting a natural response from this corp-created kid wasn’t lost on me, but I had no time to think about it, because the sputter and hiss of stat-fueled cutters sent a red spike through all my intakes, and my skin roughened before I brought the response back down to precombat levels, saving all energy for a sudden burst of frenetic motion. The crack widened, superheated metal singing as it separated, widening the hole.
“Six.” Geoff’s hot breath on my ear, under my tangled dark hair. “I can hear them.”
I didn’t waste respiration telling him I did too, and that he’d missed one. Six heartbeats, popping along high and hard, none of them implemented beyond some basic combat reinforcement — and shoddy, sloppy work of it, too, if my ears weren’t deceiving me.
The seventh pulse was as steady and calm as my own, and semi-buffered as well.
It was another agent.
The first place a sweep team looks is down. Inescapable human habit, searching the ground you’re going to be stepping on. Besides, the crack in the side of the train, added to the slope created when the car behind us wedged underneath this one, made it logical to assume everything would be jumbled at the bottom. The last thing they probably expected was an agent clinging to the ceiling, wedged in a tangle of metal and tough fabric netting that had disgorged its cargo of baggage onto the floor in the first jolt. Most of the injuries to our fellow passengers had been from those sudden missiles.
Well, except for the ones I’d inflicted.
I dropped into the middle of them and broke two immediately, swinging the bar laterally to crush ribs and get them out of the way. A snap-kick to the leader’s knee to put him down — he reeked of dominance and cheap harsh liquor, his head a mass of wild dark sand-grimed hair stuck with feathers and bits of circuit wire glinting as he dropped. Smears of some kind of paint on their faces, red and chalk-white, their gear bits and bobs cobbled together — looked scavenged — and I was revising my initial dread that they were a capture team sent from in-City.
Get them down, where’s that fucking agent? Where? You don’t strike where you think we might be, or where you expect us to be — you have to anticipate, outthink, and hit where we are.
In this case, though, my opponent was slow and sloppy. Of course, tagging along with train-hunting cannibals in the Waste might do that to you. And only semi-buffered? Maybe an older implementation?
Thud. On the roof. An instinctive leap to get the high ground, or part of a plan? No time, I was already past the clot of warmbodies dead or breathing, with their piecemeal implements and augments. The metal in my hands was too soft to crack an agent’s reinforced ribcage, and there was no way I could cause enough internal damage to put him down quickly enough. So, that left just one option.
The glare burst through my eyes, scoring into my skull as I burst out and took my first breath of non-mineralized, unsmoggy out-City air. Geoff let out a high piping fear-cry but I was already twisting, one hand curled around a support strut and the rest of my body whipping as force transferred, the kid’s arms and legs clamping down and cutting off my oxygen as he struggled to stay aboard. Blinded, clumsy because of the extra weight and the need to go less-than-quarter-speed because otherwise he’d be flung off into space, it was with more luck than skill that I gained my feet on the crumpled, steaming metal lid of the car. Whirling, my bootheels scraping for purchase, and the shock of a blow to my belly — dammit, he hit me, too slow — as I rammed into the other agent.
You get even a bar of soft metal moving quickly enough, and you can pierce the weaker spots alongside the throatbox. Crunching, levering the bar as the other agent screamed — high male noise, spray of blood laced with silver motes of nanos very much like my own — and a sudden loss of blood pressure from the shiv dragged across my stomach threatened to drop me before I could wrench the other agent’s head off his reinforced neck, shearing the cervicals just right. The feedback squeal cut out and I crumpled, my shredded midriff a hot bar of pain. Coughing, a burst of fluid from my abused lungs and stomach, the nanos swarming and patching. Damage critical but there was the sunlight nailing us to the top of the roof, flooding my suddenly darkening skin with the power needed for repair. Geoff screaming some more and I tumbled off the roof with the other agent’s head in my fist, dangling bits of meat and reinforced cervical structures. The body was still thumping around up top, nerves scrabbling blindly against the shock. The nanos would seal everything up and keep it in stasis until the cervicals got within reach of each other, then they would meld and he’d be good as new.
At least, until the nanos exhausted every molecule of nutriment stored in his body, or the body ran out of solar charge.
Right now, though, I swung the head, cracking one of the remaining warmbodies across his un-reinforced skull. Burst of brain and blood and bone, the gloom of the car interior just as stunning as the nuclear glow outside. Geoff tumbled free of my back, still screeching, and I had seconds to deal with the last two ambulatory attackers.
Plenty of time.
Two cracks and soft thumps, and the only sound was the leader’s heavy desperate breathing as he scrabbled for his pistol, an antique projectile number. I knocked it away with a clatter, probably breaking his finger in the process, and crouched, dangling the agent’s head — heavy, a hell of a flail — from my left hand, my fist wrapped in long dark hair with scratchy circuit wire threaded through. Adornment, that perennial human need, ranking right after food and shelter. “Geoff?”
“Bright,” the kid gasped, but he didn’t sound any worse than just-breathless. “Couldn’t hold on. Sorry.”
“It’s all right. Come here.”
The leader swore at me, vile anatomically-impossible terms in an accent far away from City Spanics. A drawl tangled and tainted his vocals, and I kept the record-and-flag going. It would be helpful to talk like the locals, a lesson left over from agent training.
Geoff crept painfully up the slick, tilted flooring. “What are you going to do?” Hitching and unsteady, as if he feared punishment. The leader swore at me again, adrenaline and pain soaking his glandular wash.
I sighed. My own hormonal balance had spiked up for combat, and it was more difficult than I liked to bring it down. The commchatter had faded into the crackle of live lines open but nobody talking. A seven-man team to derail a train? It didn’t seem credible, but then, they had an agent.
Operative word there, had. If not for the sudden flood of solar, and the fact that I was a flex liquidator and knew just the right angle and force to apply to shear even reinforced cervicals, had might have been my operative word too.
“You.” I waved the head a little, to get the leader’s attention. “Any more in your team? Anyone outside?”
He spat at me. The wad of thick phlegm splatted against my cheek, and the reflexive chemtesting in my skin didn’t catch the expected tang. None of the markers of Adison’s ketosis, the body rebelling at eating human proteins.
Huh. Might not be a cannibal. In any case, the sudden lack of commchatter told me we were clear enough.
I turned my head slightly so my panoptics, adjusted now to both the golden hammerlight outside and the red emergency-lit dimness in here, could take in Geoff. His hair was a wild mess, but he looked otherwise all right. He blinked several times, and under the various nasty smells collected in this little car, the copper of blood suddenly became noticeable.
“How bad are you hurt?”
“Not bad. Abby, Mom… I’m… I’m thirsty.” Whispered, barely audible under the leader’s fresh ranting tumble of obscenities.
I dropped the head and darted forward, breaking the leader’s right arm, then braced myself and lifted him by the throat. Applied just enough pressure to the carotid, and the sudden blissful silence was a balm. “I know, kid. I left this one alive for you. He’s disease-free, come and get it.”
Geoff crept forward, a stray’s cringing.
“It’s okay,” I soothed. “It’s just fine, kiddo. Come on.” Just get it over with, please. “What did they feed you before?”
“Cloned.” He cleared his throat, then came the small sound of the scar on his chin separating and his jaw distending, familiar from Barlowe’s suspended home in the Cirquit. The unconscious body I held twitched a little as Geoff sank his teeth in, and the gulping began.
He drank his fill.
The cars in front of us were crumpled against red rock rising on either side of a gorge, tall spiny plants and other crowding succulents clinging in the cracks and a merciless pale-blue sky overhead. A pall of thick greasy fuelcore smoke lifted from the very head of the train, the engine shredded to a fare-thee-well. I wondered how they did it until I smelled the caustic reek of altahan, probably mixed up from City sludge and outlying refuse dumps. Spark a fuse as a magtrain thunders down a track, judging the few seconds of lead time it needed to develop just right, and you had a reaction that would shatter fuelcores as it broke the sound barrier.
Now why didn’t I think of that? Oh well.
The cars behind us had few survivors, and they were stunned and easily taken care of.
No witnesses, and nothing to slow us down.
I scavenged medkits and clothing while keeping an ear tuned. The driver AI could have been crippled into losing contact, or down here in a gully all the attackers had to do was sabotage one relay station right before they hit the tracks and the train might show up as malfunctioning instead of dead and opened like a can of protein shake. I dragged the entry team’s bodies out, weighing the advisability of just making them vanish, while Geoff huddled in the malodorous car.
In the end, though, I decided distance was better than taking the time to leave a mystery. When I slid back in through the hole in the side of the car, I found the boy rocking back and forth on a seat that had wedged itself against the wall, hugging himself.
“Here. We’ll wrap you up.” I shrugged out of the pack and looked for a dry spot to set the pile of clothing I carried. The attackers had some usable gear — piecemeal and scavenged like everything else they carried, but the agent didn’t have any Agency kit. I didn’t quite like that, but if it meant they weren’t a capture team I could live with it. Besides, if he was only partially buffered, he was almost certainly older. Nowadays the buffering adapted to every new field it encountered, except plas.
Always excepting the plas.
“It’s so bright.” He shuddered, hugging himself. “It wasn’t like that at home.”
“Cities have UV domes. The statrepellers fuel them. You okay?”
“I… I think so. You killed them all.”
“I did.” I held up pair of UV-block goggles taken from the smallest of the attackers. With a little modification, they would fit his kid-sized head. “Think you can wear these?”
“Why did you kill them?”
It surprised me. Asking why. He’d asked about Barlowe, too.
“No witnesses, no deadweight. I can’t haul survivors around, and can’t leave them for questioning. Not that the Agency won’t suspect, especially when they… anyway, the more ambiguity, the better.”
“Deadweight.” He still hugged himself, and his eyes were cat-gleams in the dark. “Are you… am I deadweight too?”
Maybe he didn’t even know what he was wondering. Maybe he didn’t want to say it out loud. “Of course not. You’re my kid, Geoff.” And I want to live.
That seemed to reassure him. At least, he stopped shaking so badly. I waited, impatience ticking under my skin, while he absorbed this. “So… you are my mom?”
Oh, for fucksake. “I am now. Come on, we need to get out of here. Sooner or later they’ll send thopters to check this piece of track. We need to be far away when that happens.”
Jump to: Chapter Two
About the Author
Lili Saintcrow was born in New Mexico (which probably explains everything, given the nuclear testing) and spent her childhood bouncing around the world as a military brat. She fell in love with writing in second grade and has done it obsessively ever since. She currently resides in the rainy Pacific Northwest with her children, dogs, cat, and assorted other strays, including a metric ton of books holding her house together. You can find her at lilithsaintcrow.com/, on Twitter at @lilithsaintcrow and on Facebook.