At first, I thought the township was a worm.
We found out worms are mostly dormant at night. They’re big, and they move through the underground at will. They don’t scan as animal, vegetable, or mineral, and there’s a queer warping around them that could be anything from magnetic resonance to a stat-field precursor. They stay out in the open, where the sand is a sea. They don’t often venture into the rock-stacks, so if you have to cross an open bay or inlet, after dark is always best.
By this time we were used to the dust, the weird vegetation, the scorch and the freeze. I could see in infrared, Geoff was like a cat, and moving kept us warm during the long darkness. During daylight we holed up in rock-stacks, the tough-as-old-transports fourpads cropping at whatever spiny succulent vegetation could cling to their surfaces, surviving on dewfall and hidden veins of flat, horribly alkaline water. I could drink it to stave off fluid loss, but Geoff wasn’t so lucky.
Fortunately, the plants were full of moisture. Geoff wasn’t an herbivore, but that much food meant there were little prey animals around.
The problem was catching enough of them.
So when we crested a short rise and I saw the lights in the distance, a strange pulse shivering through cold air and throbbing into the subsonic, I immediately reached for the stat-rifle slung in its case on the saddle. Halted midway as commchatter fuzzed into existence at the very edge of my sensing range, and tasted the air. No breeze, but now that I knew to look for it there was trace ionization cropping up clear as a statfield’s signature.
“What is it?” Geoff whispered behind me, keeping below the sightline until I motioned him forward. He’d taken to riding on the fourpads pretty well, and even though his liquid nourishment was intermittent he looked… well, healthy. More like a kid and less like an alien.
Or maybe I was just getting used to him. “Supplies.”
“What kind?” Always full of questions, but he stayed well back.
“Looks like a settlement. Probably a township, can’t tell if it’s corporate or not yet.”
“Are you going to kill them too?”
“Only if I have to.” It would have bothered me, but I was too busy planning, the glucose uptake around my well-cushioned brain in its almost-indestructible case spiking nicely. “I can’t kill everyone we meet, Geoff.” Just most of them. “Come on up and take a look.”
He did, his fourpad gnawing a cud of half-digested material. Their digestive systems are interesting, meant to strip every bit of moisture and nutrition from pretty much anything they can chew. Almost as good as the nanos, I guess, adapting to survive. Where do you think the cybiologists got the ideas for implementation from? A natural law.
They just wanted it sped up a bit, that’s all.
We were down to the two fourpads we were riding. The other one had lasted a long time, but in the end, when it’s a pack animal or your kid, you make the only choice you can and you hope.
“You really can’t kill everyone we meet?” He sounded very dubious, and I almost winced.
“That was imprecise,” I told him. “I can if I have to. It just isn’t efficient. Now, we’re going to ride into that township before the worms twelve klicks to our east get any ideas. I think that subaudible thumping they’ve got going is a facsimile of a territorial call, to keep the worms away.”
“Worms.” He shivered, a flash of his teeth in the dark. Starlight played over his pale face, died in his inky hair. “You know they sing, right?”
_Sure they do, kid. _“Let’s go.”
I probably should have listened, but I was thinking about what I was going to do if it was a corporate town.
There was a statrepeller field, but it slid right over my skin with a tingle and I motioned Geoff through. He stepped through the shimmer and dust crackled away, the fourpads blowing out through their reopened nose-slits and sidling a little, dissatisfied. No security cordon, but the way the sand was disturbed just inside the field told me they patrolled fairly regularly. A group of twelve riding fourpads, not bad. Someone here was organized.
Geoff shook his head, twitching from the field. I forget, sometimes, what it was like to be unbuffered. “Tickles,” he said, and my mouth made a small movement, almost like it wanted to smile.
Cut it out, agent. Take a look around. Be very careful.
The buildings had their backs to us, glossy solarcatch panels lambent as they discharged spare oxygen; condensation ran down microchannels and probably was fed into filters underground. Cheap, robust tech, but probably the biggest investment anyone could make around here. There were skinny, needle-eye alleys between some of the leaning hulks; the main avenue ran north-south, which told me a lot.
The fourpads didn’t like it, but I got us squeezed through the largest of the alleys, every sense and channel open. By the time we stepped out onto the main thoroughfare, melting out of a convenient pool of moving shadow as the pulse of prem-torch light cycled down the street, I was pretty sure it wasn’t corporation property.
For one thing, the saloon we’d been edging along the southern wall of was rollicking like a thopter in a magnetic storm, which is normal even in corporate towns, but the woman with her face to the netting over a coop of rustling bundles of sleeping feathers didn’t have a monitor tag, and the man grunting as he stabbed her from behind with what he no doubt thought was his biggest weapon, to judge by the stream of obscenities he was pouring in her ear, wasn’t augmented at all. The woman gave every appearance of enjoying herself, but her pheromone balance shouted not aroused, thank you.
I didn’t think about what Geoff would make of that as we passed like ghosts — or at least, as much like ghosts as two shaggy beasts, an agent, and an eight-year-old genetically-engineered boy could be. I was too busy scanning the main thoroughfare.
Population: around 2,500, give or take. Lots of strangers, a lot of through-traffic. Garage at north end, saloon middle, slums south. Some agriculture evident, probably collectives who trade in barter, where is the tech — ah, junkyard there, that’s where all the security is. Attached to a convoy station, there’s an aquifer under here if that geo signature tells me anything. I pushed my fourpad’s nose away from my hair — the damn beast seemed to enjoy cropping at it, maybe thinking it a plant — and glanced up at Geoff, who was craning to get a better look at the loving couple further back the alley. I clicked my tongue, softly, to get his attention, shook my head. Don’t stare, kid.
He probably couldn’t help it. Those huge dark eyes in that pale little face, in a town where everyone was likely to be burned dark by UV, were giveaways. I’d have to see what their dry-goods depot would have in the way of bronze spray, and what I could trade for it.
I didn’t think they took flex bitcoin out here, even untraceable, and I wasn’t sure they’d take hard bitcoin either. That was City currency, and if this wasn’t a corporate town, well, they might work solely on barter.
All that could wait. I guessed where the livery would be, took a deep breath, and put on my bargaining face. I hoped it wouldn’t take too long.
I wanted a drink.
I hit the swinging doors just hard enough, and Geoff scurried in my wake. The saloon swallowed us with fauxsmoke and a healthy dose of another, harsher vapor I never thought I’d smell. Burning nicotiana, loaded with carcinogens and cut with something else nasal receptors identified as faintly soporific. The place served both ersatz and grain alcohol, and it looked like grain was the bigger seller.
Warmbodies are so fragile, you’d think they wouldn’t go straight back to the killing chemicals once they got out of the corp-owned warrens. On the other hand, I’d always wondered about grain alcohol.
The music, clunked and wheezed out by a shipwrecked hulk in the corner that appeared to be some sort of instrument, tinkled to a stop as a bespectacled, scruffy-bearded gent craned his neck to see the new arrival. The bar was three deep, a wide space in the middle of the building was crammed with warmbodies full of light, cheap augments doing something they might have called dancing, and most of the tables hosted men looking at greasy rectangles of paper stamped with corporate logos, circuit-chips in piles in front of them. Probably playing Betrisq.
Geoff peered around my hip, clinging to me. I wished he wouldn’t, any indication of weakness was not the best first impression. Not if you expected to avoid trouble later.
Still, the faces and voices were probably a shock after so long with just me to talk to, and whole nights spent with only six or seven words passed between us. When he wasn’t asking every damn question that tiptoed through his odd little head.
In here, be quiet. I do the talking. Clear? I was hoping I only had to say it once.
“For Chrissake, Cameron, you ain’t preachin’ tonight, play the synth!” someone yelled, in passable Spanics.
The synth-player scratched under his mended suspenders and shook his head, light glinting off his oculars — wire-rimmed reworked Trefware, durable but with a disturbing habit of fusing onto the bone. “Dios, forgive these sinners,” he all-but-screamed at the rooftop. “They know not what they do!”
“Who slipped him the booze?” The bartender was a slight woman with long dark hair and green-gem eyes, an expensive bit of implementation that probably wasn’t coded in pre-birth. If it was a vanity augment, she’d come down in the world afterward, because the rest of her was in layered oddments that almost managed to disguise the sheer amount of weaponry she was packing. “And you, goddammit, if you make any trouble in here I’ll cut your heart out. Keep playing, Cam.”
The preaching synth-player rambled off in a stream of something that sounded a lot like New Orthodox chanting, but the synth — if that’s what it was, the thing sounded like a spavined holo stuttering out a garbled advert — began to tinkle away through a ditty I’d never heard before. The rest of the crowd began to hum along in varying pitches. Apparently it was a popular tune.
Great. I had to elbow a bit to get up to the bar, Geoff clinging to my side like a runner’s satchel. You have to wear them high and tight if you expect to skate rooftops, but with his nose at bellybutton height for me he was too big to haul in a sling and too small to elbow on his own account.
The bartender watched this with a great deal of interest, her hands almost blurring as she mixed and dispensed. Her throat swelled a little — subvocal implant — and the arrangement of weapons handy behind the bar, camouflaged or not, was thought-provoking. She was well prepared for any drunken trouble.
An agent, though… not so much.
And she was handling the money without a looksee over her shoulder. Ah. Not just the bartender, then. “Evening.” I pitched my voice just loud enough to cut through the noise.
“Ain’t you polite,” she yelled, husky and amused. “What you want?”
“That’s Madam B to you, damn your City ass,” came the pert whipcrack of a reply. At the other end of the bar two men, both caked with dust and rancid grease, erupted into a shoving match. She paid it little mind. “Coy sent you?”
“Nope. Livery said you had rooms.”
“Livery’s got a damn sense of humor.” She sized me up again, and Geoff peeked over the top edge of the bar. I dropped my weight and threw a hip, and the man crowding in to see if he could get a handful of breast on my left stumbled back, losing his place at the bar. “You got hard bit?”
Cautious relief warred with nebulous unease inside me. “I do.”
“And what else?”
_Nothing you’ll subtract from me. _I gave her a sunny, feral smile. “A desire for peace and quiet.”
“Ha. Show me.” She slapped a shiny key fob down on the bar, I slapped down a round bit of circuit-etched hard currency, and she grinned at me, revealing implemented teeth filed to sharp points under those bright-green eyes. The teeth were only half as pointed as the intelligence moving around inside that warmbody skull, and if not for her metrics — I was cataloguing everyone around me out of habit — she would have had a shot at implementation. She was probably Waste bred and born, though, if her mane was any indication. It had none of the sleek lifelessness of hair that’s never seen real sunshine. And the Waste-bred weren’t allowed into Cities. The risk of a stray bit of mutation left over from the Wars laying waste to a City’s screened genetic pool was just too high.
That’s also why Egress trains are sealed. One of the official reasons, that is.
We exchanged the little bits of metal at the same instant, and I didn’t twitch when she spun the bitcoin and made it disappear. Which made her pupils dilate unsteadily for a moment, and that interest in her gaze sharpened, bright as a runner’s payday. “That your kid?” Her chin jerked down, indicating Geoff, who balanced on the brass rail some of the men rested one foot or another on.
My right hand ruffled Geoff’s hair without any conscious direction on my part. “Yes.”
“Don’t look a thing like you.” She studied him, studied me, and opened her mouth to ask another stupid question. My face changed slightly, my left cheek twitching by a single millimeter’s worth, and maybe she decided discretion was the better part of valor, because she shut her mouth. “The girls will love him. Hey, Skye!”
A tangle of arms and legs on the dance floor birthed a tall, lightly implemented woman, her breasts threatening to break free and run amok from the strips of leather she wore in place of a shirt and her long legs lost in a fluff of skirts that showed bits of unbronzed skin. She moved with a knifefighter’s supple grace, and the blades on her were plasilca — they carried a stat charge if you handled them right, were wicked sharp, and held an edge better than metal. Their habit of flexing during a fight meant you needed implemented reflexes to learn how to handle them right. The hair-thin arm scars she’d covered up with bronzer showed where she’d tried to swing them around as a warmbody. She was lucky, she hadn’t opened an artery, and when I scanned a little closer I found out her implements might be light, but they were quality work and her reflexes were probably at half-agent speed.
Even more interesting.
“This is Skyedawn,” the owner-bartender managed, over the noise. “She likes kids. Room Eight, Skye. Be nice.”
The woman rolled her eyes, her hands busily arranging the froth of skirts she wore — spincotton faded from repeated chemwashing and probably hung to air in the volcano of daylight. She cocked a hip and beckoned as another man stumbled for the bar, his mouth wide open and working under the brim of a hat studded with circuit wire and bits of bone probably from the little furry creatures we’d been living on as we traveled.
“MADAM B!” he roared. “I GOT CREDITS!”
“Oh, damn it all,” was the owner’s reply as she waved me away.
We followed the tall woman up the stairs, and that was how we arrived in Township Vega.
Geoff curled on his side in the bed, knees drawn up and face slack with exhaustion. The place had chem and waterwash, a luxury I wanted to spend at least a half hour in but settled for just a quick sluicing. Running our clothes through the ancient stat-cabinet got most of the crusted dust off; neither of us sweated like ordinary warmbodies. One more thing to be grateful for.
I tucked my damp hair behind my ears, smoothed the ancient, threadbare blankets over him. Below, the throbbing of crowd noise and tinkling of the synth merged into a heartbeat. The room was small, and the furnishings patched-together and handmade instead of machine mass-produced. If not for that, the shuttered window and the smell of fresh desert air working its way into every corner, it might have been a womblike little warren in the Projekts, the pulsewaves of flying ammo and the crackle of adverts on loop repeat providing the background instead.
I let out a long breath. Straightened, scanned him from top to toe. The longer we were out of the City, the more his scans changed. You could have mistaken him for a human kid before, if you just glanced, but now the shadows of the internal organs were…different.
He seemed okay, though. He blinked, slowly, those big dark eyes distant and the scar on his chin pale instead of flushed.
He’d need feeding soon.
“You thirsty?” I touched his hair again, smoothing the dark, rough silk. I’d trimmed it as well as I could a few days ago, with a pair of scissors found in the cannibals’ loot pile, and he looked far less unkempt.
He shook his head, his cheek soft against the rough linen pillowcase. “Not yet. Are we going to stay here?”
“Just for a little while.” I touched his temple. A non-implemented skull, so fragile. Thin bone, with no reinforcement. “We’re going to have to keep moving.”
“For how long?”
As long as we survive. “For a while. Don’t worry about that right now.”
“Okay.” He closed his eyes, snuggling into the pillow. “Abbymom?” A whisper, barely audible under the music downstairs.
“Hm?” I couldn’t stop stroking his hair.
“Will you kiss me goodnight?”
I hesitated. “Did they used to do that? At the institute?”
“I saw it on holos.” His own hesitation, a shadow of hurt on that transparent face. “You don’t have to.”
I bent and pressed my lips to his cheek. Plumper now, not so gaunt. The Waste agreed with him, I guess. “Goodnight, sweetheart.” The word felt odd. Not because I shouldn’t have said it, but because I’d never done so before. “I’ll be downstairs for a bit.” If I ever needed a drink, it’s now. The alcohol wouldn’t do anything, but the slight flush from metabolizing it sounded wonderfully soothing.
I passed my fingertips over the scanpad for the rickety metal tensor lamp standing on the small, indifferently painted nightstand. It dimmed, and when I pressed the second pad near the door the room became a dim cave. His breathing was already evening out and deepening.
I closed the door before I could say something even more absurd and headed downstairs.
The next day passed slowly, Geoff so deeply asleep he was barely breathing. I cycled through rest and REM, stretched out on the thin carpet. Even though they had statfields over every door and window, the sand still worked its way in. My hair would get full of grit, but that didn’t matter much.
The nanos can get rid of toxins and keep the body going virtually indefinitely. It’s the mind that needs sleep — the skullmeat itself or whatever consciousness nestles inside it, they haven’t been able to figure out. Even the nanos keeping fatigue poisons out of the brain didn’t halt the need.
The vulnerability of surcease is balanced by alarms and subroutines built in through both implementation and hypno-training. The hypno’s for when you’re a warmbody, to prep you for the transition. For some reason, agents don’t respond to hypno once implementation’s started. Your first dose of nanos cures you of subliminals.
Which is good. Who knows what mental Dismiss switches they’d put in you otherwise? Besides, it’d rob any agent of the required flexibility and moderately rebellious streak. You can’t think on your own or do creative problem-solving if you don’t have both.
There’s a lot of below-conscious thinking that goes on when you’re cycling. Most of the time, it’s where you do… well, not all the planning, but all the stuff that makes the planning possible, and a lot more effective.
Breathless-hot dusk settled over the township, the sun sinking. It was nice to not be hiding in a pile of rocks, and really nice to be able to get my full complement of cycles in without jerking into wakefulness every few hours as an animal scratched inside my scanrange. The noises of people around me were just comforting enough to lull, not a wrong breath, nothing out of place.
We’re social creatures. Even agents. What woke me was Geoff’s slight stirring, his padding into the bathroom to stand in the chemshower. When he was done, it was time to get some calories in him.
Grain alcohol is just as useless to me as ersatz, though the nanos like the carbs and give me a pleasant all-over flush metabolizing the poison. Agriculture out here depended on watermakers scavenged or leased from City corporations, but the end result was real bread, some of it from maize-mash. Plenty of fermentation byproducts in the starches to add vitamin value. Protein that wasn’t vat-grown — which meant there was some kind of system for raising and slaughtering large animals, good news for Geoff since we’d figured out his liquid nutrition didn’t necessarily have to be human. There was very little in the way of vegetables, but plenty of fruit harvested from the spiny plants fourpads liked so much. Their sweet, semisolid insides packed a great deal of nutriment in a small space.
Most of the warmbodies and heartbeats around me were female. The staff was all female, dancing girls who earned on the side in the usual way, the owner, even the three women who scrubbed floors, mopped, and collected laundry.
The man who had been torturing the synth last night shuffled in, yawning, just before full dark rose. Evening heat simmered off him as he shrugged out of a few long, loose layers, revealing a New Orthodox cassock underneath, its top unbuttoned a little to show a threadbare spincotton shirt and those much-mended red suspenders. One of the dancing girls brought him a bowl of stew, and he brightened considerably. He reeked of metabolized alcohol, staggering to a table not far from the shadowed corner I’d picked.
Skyedawn brought a tall, crooked plasilca glass flu of a pale, slopping fluid, setting it near Geoff’s bowl of corn mash and fruit. “Drink.”
A quick scan showed an emulsion, proteins and sugars and acids. Geoff peered at it, his nose wrinkling. “What’s in it?”
She stared at him for a long moment, a quick judgmental glance flickering my way. “Milk.”
“I’ve heard of that. It’s like calc tabs.” I relaxed slightly. “It’s safe, Geoff.”
He reached for the glass, tested it, and his expression went through several odd little shifts before settling on cautious approval.
“What do you say?” I prompted.
“Thank you,” he mumbled, looking back down at his bowl.
The tall woman’s judgment visibly shifted a few degrees. “He your kid?”
Why do you care? “Yes.” There was a block of salt on the table; you shaved off bits carefully with an eating implement or a weapon. I’d read about a time, far before the Wars, when it was used as currency, but out here they probably had vaults full of the stuff.
“Don’t look nothing like you.” She made a quick movement, and I almost twitched. She probably didn’t guess how close she came to choking on her own blood, but she just crouched, folding her arms on the table to put herself at Geoff’s level. “Cute. What’s your name, chiquito?”
He glanced at me, I nodded fractionally. “Geoff.”
“I know.” He took another drink. “This is Abbymom. She rescued me.”
“Rescued you, huh?”
_That’s enough. _“I’m sure the nice lady has work to do.” Calm and polite, but a warning nonetheless. Geoff looked back down into his bowl, but he didn’t turn pale or flinch.
Progress, I guess.
“I’m off.” Skyedawn’s teeth were implemented, reinforced for durability and in some cases replaced. Looked like the same work the owner had. Maybe there was a dentist in town. “Just making conversation. You come from City, don’t you.”
Is it that obvious? Of course it was.
I set my spoon down very carefully, heavy potmetal scrubbed free of tarnish and reasonably germ-free. “Convoy route passes through here. Lots of City people.” I didn’t try to mimic her accented Spanics, but when we next hit civilization anyone who heard me would swear I was from this little burg.
“Oh, sure. But convoy stays at the depot. Not many waltz right into Livery between arrivals.”
Just fishing, or more? No hint of anything in her autonomics, her pulse normal, her respiration even. Not even a stray dilation of her pupils to show a lie, nothing off in the chemicals tainting her sweat. I contented myself with a noncommittal noise.
She waited, but I didn’t react. When she unfolded herself, drawing up to her considerable height, it occurred to me that her bosom held no implementation. It was a natural wonder, so to speak.
“I’ll bring you some more nophala, Geoff,” she announced. “And if your Abbymom isn’t nice to you, all you have to do is tell us.”
Geoff gave her a long solemn look. His free hand crept across the table and touched mine, our fingers interlacing, and I didn’t move as she swung away, maybe satisfied, maybe not.
Instead, I watched the stat-veiled door, every inch of me suddenly pulled tight. There was something familiar in scanrange. A subroutine clamped over my autonomics, squeezing my pulse back down, copper adrenaline laid against my palate before the nanos started soaking it up, leaving just enough to prime me for action. I squeezed Geoff’s hand very gently, and freed my fingers, squashing the urge to reach for the rifle in my lap.
The door swung back and forth, its statrepeller field fluorescing — warmbodies wouldn’t see it, but when a buffered body moves through, the lumens spike-cycle predictably, and an agent watches that range as a matter of course.
Tall, wheat-haired, his eyes piercing gray. For some reason nanos won’t touch iris pigments, even though lots of other things are pretty plastic if you can get enough fuel for alterations. He stepped in, brushing fussily at his sleeves, in worn-down bleached-out clothing that managed to look halfway local, just like mine.
I was already on my feet, moving.
I could mark “ramming a lectric shivprobe through his chest and popping his Dismissal switches” as the last time I saw him, or “dumping pieces of his stripped and trussed-up body in a vat of caustic sludge.” Choices, choices. It was Sam, in the flesh, just walking in the front door as if this was a normal meet, him giving me the Agency’s marching orders. Winding me up and setting me in motion.
And if my handler had shown up here, who else could be not-so-far behind?
Jump to: Chapter Four
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.