He didn’t complain, even when the sunlight worked through the wrappings and raised blistering weals on pale skin. He would have gone until he dropped from the fourpad’s broad back and cracked his head on a rock if I hadn’t been paying attention.
We weren’t far enough away, not by a long shot. Tracking the would-be train robbers to their supplies turned out to be child’s play, and the shaggy creatures with broad padded feet they must have ridden were docile enough. All sorts of usable gear hanging off each big, hairy, smelly beast, ropes to keep them tethered, and their long split-lipped faces and mournful veiled dark eyes familiar from holos and old books escaped into dusty forgotten corners. Basic literacy was about all public edu could give you; if a corporation wanted more they’d train you, and most Projekts kids dropped out early.
But drop out of school didn’t mean stop paying attention, because even a poor kid from the Projekts can figure out that staying brainsharp keeps you going a lot longer than expensive augments or xaco-laced protein shakes. Most runners freelancing for the drug lords don’t survive past eighteen. You found another line of work or you died, it was that simple.
If Geoff needed more… fluids… we’d have to see if any mammal would do. At least these potential meals carried their own weight.
Geoff swayed atop his fourpad when we stopped, and I landed with an ungraceful thud. Riding the beasts was bad enough, between the awkward motion and the constant refining of muscular algorithms, but it was probably the heat that sapped him.
Or the multiple traumas of the last couple days. Death, destruction, fearing for his own survival, and come to think of it, I wasn’t a cuddly type.
Agents never are.
He half-fell into my arms; I hugged him close despite the heat. “Shit. Why didn’t you say something?”
“Deadweight,” he murmured through chapped lips.
Towers of rock broke the sandy, simmering soil all around us, and the thick spine-quivering plants massed wherever there was shade didn’t look welcoming. Nevertheless, my area scan picked up all sorts of interesting movements out of the sunglare. There was life here, burrowing deep to escape the suffocating temperatures. A deeper scan, my eyes closed while other senses sent out concentric rings of awareness, came up with a couple options, none of them very good.
Still, there were shallow caves in the rock towers. One of them was large enough to shade us and the fourpads, who wandered over to the jagged, spike-leaved plants and began cropping at them enthusiastically. As soon as we were in the relatively cooler shade, Geoff perked up a little, and one of the full-sloshing canteens that held water instead of eyewatering-strong, clear alcohol held to his mouth produced a response. He drank — but not greedily, without gulping, and behind the shield of the goggles his eyes were half-lidded.
“That’s right,” I found myself saying. “It’s okay, kid. Next time say something, okay?”
He didn’t reply. I propped him against the sandstone wall, carefully, and unwrapped his head. That was when I saw the blisters. Huh.
“You’re probably sensitive to UV,” I continued. Why was I blathering like an idiot instead of getting the fourpads situated? “Stay here, and drink some more water, but slowly.” I unbuckled the goggles and loosened his scarf, and he nodded, dozily. The blisters and rashes were already shrinking, the flush in his cheeks from his… meal… smoothing them away.
Thought-provoking. That kind of healing without implementation, without the nanos, was impossible. It was why we had nanos to begin with. Everything about Geoff flew in the face of the science that had built me.
Well, maybe not built me, but certainly remade me. I’d been a perfect candidate for implementation, all my measurements smack dab in the middle of optimal ranges, but I might have died a runner’s death at seventeen except for the bad luck getting caught by a flashgang of rival runners at the station between Cheska and the edge of the Projekts.
Shake it off, agent. After all, we were outside the Cities now.
I want to escape, I’d said, pointing a rifle at a big-eyed kid I’d been told to kill. And here we were. The persistent feeling of missing something, of some vital piece of the puzzle invisible from my angle, was too nagging to be nervousness. Maybe I was sloppy, one shock after another overwhelming even an agent’s flexibility and capacity.
I hoped not.
I had to figure out how to keep the fourpads from running off, and make sure they would stay out of the sun. They were eating the spiny bushes down to nubs, and seemed just fine. With that done, I could turn my attention to preparing the cave for the next few hours. Once dusk hit, we’d have to move again.
Except Geoff was asleep, curled on his side with his thumb in his mouth, as if he was five instead of eight. I crouched for a little while on the other side of the cavern, watching.
I’m an investment, he’d told me, calmly. I guess I’m not earning out. It wasn’t so much hearing it in a kid’s clear little voice, because by his age I’d known all about profit and loss and investments too. When the corporations own everything, it’s a lesson you get early, and deep.
It was suddenly hearing how wrong it sounded.
Maybe I was having an ethics crisis, but if anything in my psych profile had pointed toward that kind of handicap the Agency would have Dismissed me early, either with an explosive switch implanted somewhere in the standard agent upgrades or the old-fashioned way, like the head stuffed in one of the saddlebags. Finding a good place to drop it off was lower on my list of priorities than keeping my kid alive.
He needed rest.
I sighed, my internals dialed into the red for no good reason at all. My hormone balance was wonky, and even with the flush of solar — the nanos turning my skin into one giant mouth greedily gulping at that nuclear shower of free energy — I felt… tired.
Empty. I never thought I’d miss the whitenoise of hovers and statrepellers, the constant heaving background surfroar of crowds shuffling along, tenements stacked high with cubes rented per week or month, the buzzing of holo adverts and the blinking of LED displays enticing you to spend, spend, spend. The waves of stat-bolts and flying ammo passing overhead, the subliminal hum of chatter on every band that could possibly hold it, most of it encrypted, the noise as machines underground cycled through recycling water and organic matter into different forms to keep the warren full of ants seething along.
Out here, there was only the sound of the wind, a faint breeze that did more harm than good, because water loss would turn you into dried meat before long. The fourpads could pinch their nostrils shut and lid their eyes, they didn’t seem to be in too much danger of dehydration if they could eat the greenery.
So this was the Waste, and we were alone.
I took a few deep breaths, my hormone balance evening out slowly, and got back to the job of ensuring our survival.
Geoff woke with a jerk when the fire crackled. Dusk proved to be the best time to hunt, since things started waking up, and I was pleasantly surprised by the Waste not being a radioactive hell stripped bare of everything that could support life. Not a lot of water, but the spiny bushes had long flat leaves buried under the spikes that the fourpads sucked on, and those were full of moisture. The other succulents were good for that too, except for some purple ones the fourpads avoided; testing the helixes showed me the cute little tempting buttons were full of alkaloid poisons.
It beggared belief how anything could live out here, but there it was. Three little furry things had gotten too close to my inhuman stillness, thinking me a part of the landscape, and paid for it with swift neck-cracking death. They were soft, brown-furred, and had long high pointed ears, and I was irrationally glad Geoff hadn’t seen me gutting them. At least I knew to get the offal out and away, mostly because I’d read a comic once about the aftermath of the Sidon Incident and the Gene Wars sweeping the entire planet’s surface. Sometimes people said there were leftovers from that time living in the wastelands along with the cannibals, and that they’d saved John Nikor however-many years ago when he’d busted out of CranCorp’s City-chain to the east and started the whole settlements-and-townships thing.
Of course I’d thought about it. Who hasn’t heard of Zion, and Nikor’s Rebellion? Zion can be anything you want it to be, when you’re tired of corporations bleeding you dry. You believe in someone, somewhere, who isn’t bought and sold.
Someone who isn’t owned.
Geoff stretched, yawning, and pushed himself up to sit. The fire painted his face a warm gold, and the static cells I’d rigged across the cave’s entrance crackled the smoke into a fine ash that drifted down in bursts as it collected. The little animals roasting in our tiny blaze were probably going to be charred outside and raw inside, but they were better than nothing.
“Abby?” He swallowed, hard. “Mom?”
“I’m here.” I pointed for the back of the cave. “If you need to eliminate do it there. Things get active here after dark.” Last thing you need is to get bitten on the ass by something venomous.
“Oh.” He rubbed at his eyes, and for a moment I was years in the past, back in the City, looking out a grime-darkened window at the points of light in other windows, hearing the waves of flying ammunition go overhead as wars were fought for rooftop vantages. My hand over my belly, below my umbilical dimple, fingers tensing to dig in slightly. I wasn’t showing yet, but I knew. And I knew what I had to do.
Was that why I hadn’t killed Geoff? That was the original job, even if Sam hadn’t thought I would actually do it. My handler had passed it off as a directive from Control, from the Agency itself, and he’d gone an interesting shade of pale when I told him it was a confirmed kill.
Didn’t matter now, did it.
The kid sat up, staring at me as if I’d been rumbling in subvocal, too low for warmbody ears to hear. I came back to myself with a start, blinking. “What?”
“It smells good.” He pointed at the spitted things, fat crackling as it dropped into the fire. “Are they… for eating?”
“Yeah.” I remembered the house I’d taken him from, and the red smell of spaghetti sauce. “You can eat solid food, right?”
“Oh, yeah. It doesn’t have to be… the other. Though that’s good. I always felt hungry.” He hugged his knees, and it wasn’t my imagination. He was looking a lot healthier than he had. No longer as gaunt, and the essential difference in his face wouldn’t be so noticeable if I could get enough calories into him. Calories, or… the other.
I nodded, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to be sitting here in the Waste talking about his liquid nutrition. “That house. Where I found you. They were your parents?”
He shrugged. “Dunno. I barely knew them.”
Well, that__‘s__ odd. “How long were you there?”
“Month or so, maybe. Before that, it was the institute.” He hunched down, making himself even smaller. “They all had a design on their coats. Then one day, I woke up and there was a different design, and I was supposed to go to school.”
Now that was interesting. His semi-neglected state made more sense now, and my brain chewed lightly at the implications.
Thermascan told me the meat was safe enough now, nothing likely to be still wriggling in it. “You know how to eat these?” For a subject change, it was a good one.
“No.” Hunching even further, those big dark eyes holes into a frightened animal.
“Neither do I.” I got the spits situated, and dug in the gear for eating utensils that might possibly work. “We’ll learn together.”
That seemed to ease him. At least, he scuttled forward to help, and he was the one who figured out how to crack the bones and suck nutrient-rich marrow out. His teeth were strong and sharp, no sign of the baby fangs he’d displayed while… drinking.
“Abbymom?” Tentatively, licking his greasy fingers to clean them.
“Hm?” The calories were welcome, even if I could live off solar. No need to make the nanos work any harder than necessary. The little guys want to survive, and they do a damn good job of keeping an agent together, and some agents are pretty cavalier, using “almost-invulnerable” as an excuse for being sloppy.
Not me. The easier I make it for the nanos, the more efficiently they keep me functioning at peak. I suspected I’d need every erg of their help sooner rather than later.
Geoff forged onward, stealing little glances at me. “You’re cyborg, right? But you’re not one of them.”
“The… corporation. The scientists. Doctors, bodyguards. Them.” A shadow of a snarl, much too old for his young face. “The ones in charge.”
I don’t blame you for feeling that way, kid. I took a deep breath. “I’m implemented pretty thoroughly, what they call a flexible liquidator. I worked for the Agency — those big black mirror-boxes you see all over the City.” I paused. “Now I don’t.”
The firelight leapt and danced, painting shadows on the cave walls. All the tech that had created both of us, and it ended up sitting here in the rocks, eating scorched meat from over a fire.
“Because I didn’t want to liquidate you.” What the hell’s that? My scans were picking up disturbing activity. Not thopters, that was good; but like every good thing, it had a sting hidden in its ass. I cocked my head, sorting out the impressions, and was hard put not to sigh. “Now listen to me very carefully, Geoff. This might be unpleasant.”
I let them think they’d caught me sleeping, and they knocked me on the skull to make sure. Fortunately my reinforced braincase is more than adequate to most occasions.
The hardest part was feigning limp unconsciousness. Big men and small, a few women too, all in tattered odds and ends bleached by the harsh conditions. The females reeked twice as badly as the males, probably a survival tactic. They joked about how heavy I was, and cuffed Geoff once or twice, but he didn’t resist, and they simply tied his hands together and set him on one of the pack beasts, with my body slung over in front of him. He kept patting at me, his hands a soft sweating metronome, as we rode through darkness and chill.
The desert had grown cold. Sandy soil creaked and shuddered underfoot, far-off rumblings moving through as the swarm of predators bore their prizes away. The fourpads were hooted over, the gear pawed through. One or two of the men fiddled with my trousers but decided not to go further since the nanos were pumping out pheromone mist through my skin to wilt any carnal urges. I could have just shut off with a trace subroutine running to wake me when it was over, but the thought of the kid seeing that was just…
Well, I didn’t want to. Subtlety was called for.
If any among them were halfway intelligent, they would have thought the absence of celebratory rape a little odd. Fortunately, they were scavengers and bottom feeders, and one of the hallmarks of Adison’s ketosis is the fogging of higher cognitive functions.
They probably thought they caught us completely unaware, despite stinking to high heaven, all filthy with sweat and other crustings — dirt, dried blood, eliminations, rotting vegetable matter. I could have shut off my nose, but I needed all the information I could get. Unfortunately, they spoke in a weird gibberish, only faintly related to Spanics and loaded with too much grunting and slang for me to get more than a rudimentary sense of what was being said. Not that it mattered much, all I needed was that unmistakable breath of sickly-sweet ketosis-cloying on them to know that one thing about the Waste was true.
There were cannibals after all.
They tossed my body into the same cage as Geoff with a final hurrah and a few sickening chuckles, while firelight painted the night. It was a camp the size of a village, tucked in a network of caves about ten and a half klicks from where they found us. Grease-ruddy glow painted soot-smeared edges, and there was a throbbing of drums that could give you a headache. The barred door slammed shut — wooden, probably pretty sturdy if you weren’t implemented, and secured with a length of rusty flexcable most likely scavenged from a long-ago thopter crash — and our captors melted back into the main area of the caves to join the whooping and drumming
I sat up.
Geoff, crouching next to me, almost went over backwards. He was filthy — they’d rolled him in the sand a little.
It was child’s play to get the bindings off my wrists and ankles, then I worked on the messy, knotted rope around his thin wrists. He was trembling, and when I got his arms free, I did something I’d never even thought about before.
I gathered him up, pulling him into my lap, and held him. The shaking eased bit by bit, and he whispered that name over and over again.
“Shhh,” I said into his hair. “It’s okay. It’s all right. I told you, didn’t I? They have a use for us.”
“Abbymom… Abbymom…” He moaned a little, a trapped, despairing sound.
Shit, this kid is going to be fucked up. If he survives. If _we survive._ I caught myself nuzzling him, breathing against the top of his head where oils and heat concentrated a child’s scent-markers, and confusion swamped me for a second. What was I doing?
I’d never held a kid. I didn’t even think I’d ever want to, and considering some of the more arcane aspects of implementation, it’s pretty impossible for me to spawn now. I could play if I needed to, but I was a genetic dead end, and it had seemed a small price to pay at the time. A baby in the Projekts was a stone weighing you down; runners had to be light and fast.
I had been getting older, and slowing down. Also, skimming from shipments to pay for the dilate-and-cauterize had been a stupid but unavoidable move.
The gang of runners who’d caught me on that rainy night hadn’t been out for turf or blood. Temporarily bonded into a group by alcohol and hebrox, they’d been simply out for a little fun, and whichever one left me with a little growing anchor in my warmbody uterus probably didn’t even remember that rainy evening.
And later, the hole-in-the-wall hardcoin-only clinic, the “doctor” a reject from Ring medical practice, my feet in the cold stirrups and the bright white light in my eyes. It was at the end of the scraping and sealing, with the cramping swiftly receding and the doc glancing through my already-fading mediflex chart again, that salvation happened.
Look at those measurements. Right in the optimal range for implementation. Bet the black cubes would love to get their hands on you.
Just like that, a way out appeared, while I was chewing over and over what I was going to do when the druglord I was currently running for discovered my skimming. The cramps wore off completely an hour later and I scavenged homeless for a few days anywhere that wasn’t near Cirquit or the Projekts, mostly the edges of the Ring suburbs where I could crack a trash sealer or two and get some food. Then I’d hied myself to the biggest, shiniest black cube downtown, a sleek sharkfin rising even above the skyscrapers of the major megacorps, and presented myself as a candidate for implementation testing.
The back-alley abortionist was right. They took me.
Yet another irony: eight and a half years ago, I’d scraped a new life out of me and signed myself over to the Agency. Probably just as fetal-fish Geoff was swimming in a vat, or sealed into a warmbody carrier’s rented belly. Who knows how they’d created him?
I’m no kind of mother, dammit.
I didn’t quite have the heart to tell the shivering bundle in my arms. Instead, I found myself rocking back and forth a little, while the whooping in the main cave-chamber echoed and crested. The cannibals were celebrating. They’d probably seen the train wreck and picked it over pretty thoroughly during the hot afternoon, and no doubt Geoff and I had left tracks. Everything but a big blue-neon Cirquit sign pointing out the fact that there’d been survivors, and in their stupidity they probably hadn’t thought too deeply about the casualties. Probably dragged themselves all over the scene and had a feast, if Geoff and I were lucky.
I could have fought the ones who took us, and my first illogical thought had been to. Then tactical thinking took over — they would have a use for live survivors, because the fresher the meat the better, right? It served my purposes admirably. Their sloppiness would confuse our trail, possibly distract any pursuit, and now I had a much larger pool to draw gear and necessary information from.
All I had to do was wait. And hold my not-child, while my almost-invulnerable body performed an instinctive comforting movement older than civilization itself.
The drums didn’t fade until near dawn. A few of them had stumbled back to hoot at us in the cage, but the reek of fermentation on them was so strong they probably didn’t notice my hands were free. One pissed through the bars, laughing, and I smelled incipient kidney failure in the proteins leaking into the stream of urine. Added to the toothrot and the smoke, the fug of unwashed bodies and the distinctive odor of Adison’s ketosis, you had a stench so thick you could cut it with a plasticine spork.
Geoff huddled against me, dozing, but he stiffened when I stirred. I’d moved a little before then, of course, cycling through the muscles to keep them ready. Really truly freezing gives away the game, and one of the first things they teach you in agent training is how to pass for normal again. Always more efficient to pass; if the vast mass of sheep could pick us out of their ranks, they’d be wary. The Agency found out a long time ago that people do okay with the merest semblance of freedom, a polite fiction preferred over an uncomfortable truth. It’s why people stay in the Cities, it’s also why they say it’s possible to pay off your implementation debt. Most agents don’t really believe it, but the fact that someone cares enough to lie about it to save their feelings averts any real trouble.
The flexcable holding the door shut was rusted almost clear through, but it had some stretch left. I lifted the door slightly, slowly so the hinges didn’t have a chance to creak, and motioned Geoff through. He moved almost as quietly as I did, and in the gloom his eyes reflected oddly.
“Can you see?” I whispered, and he nodded.
Interesting. I slid out bit by bit, my concentration narrowing to a single small point. There was a slight crackle as I had to distend my left hip joint a bit, but it only took three and a half minutes before I could gently, gently ease the door shut, the stress-sounds from the cable’s stretching and releasing fading into a low hum of unhappy metal. I dropped down on all fours, shaking my head, strands of dark hair falling around my face as I breathed in, deeply, restoring function and letting the nanos work on the sore, stretched ligaments around my hip socket.
Geoff crouched next to me. His eyes were huge, the pupils more oval than circular. How had they passed him off as human? Especially around the prized alphas and betas in corporate schooling? So much about the whole damn thing didn’t add up. If my handler or the Agency wanted him extracted instead of liquidated, why hadn’t they told me so? Instead of clumsily carrot-and-sticking me — a fresh new untraceable identity if I took the job, Dismissal if I didn’t — when my psych profile clearly stated I didn’t work kid jobs? Nothing under eighteen, that was the one refusal I ever gave them. I’d performed every other job quietly, efficiently, and with a minimum of wasted resources.
Doesn’t matter now, does it. I unfolded myself, tested arms and legs. Everything working fine, nearly tiptop. Geoff crowded close, and I ruffled the coarse silk of his hair before I could stop myself.
I bent down, put my mouth close to his ear. “I’m going to work,” I whispered. “While I do, you need to stay where I put you and be quiet. I’ll come back to get you, and then we’ll leave. I know you’re tired, but we have to move, and you’ve had some sleep. Do you have to… to eliminate?”
He shook his head, his cheek bumping mine. The thought of those tiny, pearly, very sharp little fangs sent a weird zing down my reinforced spine.
“Do you need to drink?” Meaningful emphasis on the last word, so he couldn’t possibly miss my meaning.
Another shake of his head.
Three no s. I closed my eyes, running over the scans I’d taken when they carried me in, the layout of the cave complex and its inhabitants called up behind my eyelids as if I was preparing for a rooftop run, dodging statbolts and bullets, outthinking other runners who would just as soon drop you and collect payment for your cargo at the other end. Eyes that would turn you in, knives that would sink into your back — even inside an incorporated tribe of runners there’s not a lot of loyalty.
Only strength, and the instant yours fails, there’s always someone ready to step over your still-warm corpse. It was great training for Agency work.
Or even just for living.
When I opened my eyes, I found Geoff peering at what he could see of my face, his teeth sunk into his lower lip. They weren’t the distended fangs, but they still gleamed in the semi-darkness. The firelight wetly licking crusted, weeping walls had sunk to an emberglow.
I moved slightly, and he closed his eyes while I planted a kiss on his forehead. That seemed to work, because when I straightened, his expression had turned far more relaxed. He wasn’t shivering anymore, either.
“Okay,” I whispered. “Let’s go.”
By dawn we were far enough away. I chewed on a bar of freeze-dried from the train’s medikits — the idiots had dumped all their loot into a single pile, making it easy for me to take what I wanted. I’d burned through the solar and was operating from internal energy now, and that takes replenishing.
Just before Geoff and I had crept with our fourpads into the open air, the clamor had begun behind us, heavy toxic smoke filling up the lower caves — because the webbing I’d used to suspend nerve-blot canisters over the main fire had finally been eaten away by a judicious spray of cephannic acid easily extracted from a scavenged personal fuelcell. Add that to the leader of the monstrous hive — clearly marked by his habit of sleeping on a raised dais in front of the open fire, almost swallowed by a slumping pile of bones and tattered oddments — silently eviscerated, with plenty of his muscle mass as well as several bloodstained trinkets scattered around the bed of his grog-deadened third-in-command, and finish off with his second in command’s two closest subordinates killed too, and what did you get? A fine internecine rivalry that would keep them busy killing each other for quite a while.
Figuring out who’s who isn’t hard in that sort of tribal setting. You just look for who has what percentage of available resources, and rank them accordingly.
The chaos would muddy the waters of any pursuit, and our trail would be long cold if they even realized we were gone and not casualties of the melee.
It was a good bit of work, although not nearly the caliber of other turf wars I’ve started at the Agency’s behest. Not bad for thinking on my feet.
Geoff rode in front of me, both of us squeezed into the saddle; the second and third fourpads followed placidly. They seemed much happier with traveling during the cold and dark, only nervous when a thundering under the sandy soil began. It wasn’t a human commotion, but I didn’t care to know what it was.
It was there — with a sleeping child in front of me and rivers of stars overhead, the east paling and dew coalescing out of thin air — I was able to turn my resources to figuring out something that had bothered me all along.
…Woke up and the uniforms were different, and I was supposed to go to school.
NifulCorp was the badge on his school uniform. I’d assumed they were his creators, but perhaps that wasn’t necessarily so. The two warmbodies in the house with him were security, not parental figures. I hadn’t seen other monitors, but I’d been buffered and almost invisible as a matter of course, because a Ring suburb means security and you don’t get that without eyes watching every angle, whether videoscan or otherwise.
The Agency could have been contracted to steal the kid back for his original creators, but with his very existence a revolution that could kick implementation right in the teeth, well.
The only flaw in this chain of logic was my handler’s reaction when I said I’d killed the kid, just like he’d told me to do.
One thing was certain. I wasn’t the first person who had stolen Geoff.
I was, however, determined to be the last. The next step was to find somewhere to shelter him from the inferno of daylight.
The thunder drew closer, our fourpads suddenly sidling and making wary little chuffing sounds. My knees clamped down to keep my restive beast going the right direction, icy sand crackled underfoot, and I sighed.
Looked like something else was true about the Waste as well.
Jump to: Chapter Three
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.