Stars, those faraway nuclear fires you never see through a city’s statveiling, glittered on velvet blackness. Our tiny noises, fourpad paws shushing along sandy rock and the creak of saddles, were lost in the breathing of the wind. The Waste was a vast creature, and us just tiny motes caught in its passages.
Geoff didn’t ask where we were going. It was just as well. I might have answered somewhere nobody can find us, and he was probably smart enough to know that wasn’t a real answer.
At least we had a plasma cannon now, and some other useful bits of kit. Either facilitators traveled light, or Sam hadn’t brought a lot of Agency hardware with him. Which was thought-provoking, if I’d had the urge to think about even more than was already crowding my brain inside its lovely almost-invulnerable case. Those silver-eyed agents —where had I heard something about them? It had to have been during my runner days; one of the dubious benefits of implementation is a steel trap of memory. Very little escapes, once we have time to track it down.
We stopped late; dawn was almost up before I found a suitable cave. Geoff picketed the fourpads, talking to them in a low whistle with tongue-clicks, maybe his own version of subaudible. The beasts liked him, tolerated me, and outright balked at going near worms.
Which was fine, I didn’t want to get too close to the massive gray blind-snouted things either. They didn’t even follow the veins of water under the sand — in fact, they seemed to actively avoid anything that could be interpreted as moisture. It was a puzzle.
“Mom?” Geoff, holding the canteens. “They’re almost empty.”
“I’ll set up the maker.” I crouched next to the fire, feeding it small wisps of drought-stricken grasslike stems. The fourpads produced pellets that could be burned, though using them to cook seemed incredibly unsanitary even if I could thermascan the edibles.
At least Sam’s gear had included a sturdy little watermaker. I wouldn’t have to worry about Geoff dying of dehydration.
Just hunger, maybe. Or that deeper thirst.
Geoff straightened. “I can do it.” A little anxiously.
I nodded. It would be good for him to be familiar with that basic tech. “Go ahead, then.” Just don’t break it. I decided that would be an unhelpful thing to say. Stared at the tiny flames, willing them to live.
He dug in the packs, his dark hair wildly mussed and standing in stiff, soft spikes. It wasn’t just my imagination — the Waste definitely agreed with him. Was he taller? It looked like it.
How had that happened? I frowned, feeding another small handful of dried grass into the flames. I didn’t know the growth rates for kids his age. When would he reach maturity? When he did, would he be a little more durable?
It wasn’t likely to happen soon enough to do me any good, really.
Come on. Do something productive, agent. “Geoff? What do you remember, about the institute?”
He settled down, his back to the pile of packs and gear, opening up the watermaker’s curved plascine case. Frowned a little at the components inside. “What do I do first?”
“Take out the base and tap the red button. That’ll start the statfield to clear any dust out of there.”
“Oh yeah. Okay.” But his frown deepened a little. “The institute. My room had toys. It was a big round room — a globe, sort of. Plasilca, so they could observe. Lots of doctors. None of them were like me, or like you.”
“Like me? Implemented?”
“Yeah. They were all regular.” He fitted the shine-black cylinder into the base, remembering to hold them a little ways apart for a few seconds so the statfield could repel any foreign bits. “They fed me cloned, ah, blood. Sometimes it had other stuff in it. Caffa, synthsucrose, alliums. Skin tests too, for UV, caustics, all sorts of stuff. Kept asking me about my dreams, what I remembered.”
“What you remembered?”
“From Before.” He peered at the top of the watermaker, setting the tubes correctly without any help.
“Before the institute?”
“Yeah. I never remembered much, though. Bright light. Being hungry. Lots of noise.”
Did he remember being born? Or decanted, or whatever? Or… “So… at the institute, they must have had badges. A logo. Do you remember that?”
“Oh yeah. It was an eye, with stuff shooting out of it. White and black.”
Most likely CoreTech. But they’re strictly weapons and information, they don’t do genengineering. Or at least, I didn’t think they did. “Huh.”
“I didn’t have parents, like kids on the holos did. I wondered about that, until I figured out it meant they’d made me, like they made other things. I would watch and try to figure out…” He bit his lip, concentrating on aligning the top correctly. “When I woke up and the badges were different and I had to go to school, I thought maybe they’d found my parents.”
It was enough to make me wish I had a cushy inRing job, enough to pay for a highly trained therapist. He’d need one. It might even be best for the kid to go back to his original owners — at least they’d given him toys.
The fire solidified, just enough fuel to keep the reaction going.
I could tell you the composition of the rock around here, where water was hidden underneath it, I could test the atmosphere, live off solar, kill the deadliest things in the Cities — other agents — without qualm.
What I couldn’t do, though, was pretty much anything Geoff might need to, well, turn out a reasonably well-adjusted adult. If there was such a thing in the world we’d been given.
I really didn’t think this through. Wondering if I was worse than the corporations fighting over him — if Sam really was banking on me not being able to kill a kid and looking to get Geoff out of the City…
He should’ve told me as much, dammit. “I’m sorry,” I said, quietly, to the fire.
“Why? Now I have a mom.” He grinned, shaking his hair back. It was such an open, unguarded expression something inside me cracked a little. “You even kiss me goodnight. It’s good.”
Except I’m probably going to die, and maybe you with me. Or they’ll snap you up and keep experimenting on you. “I just, you know. Worry. About…” Pulled myself up short. There was no reason to add to the things he’d worry about, too.
“Yeah, I know. I think I put this together right.” He examined the watermaker critically. “Wanna check?”
“I’m sure it’s fine. I can set it out in an hour or so to charge.” Not to mention sit beside it, my skin darkening, and gulp at all the solar I could get. I added more chips to the fire. Maybe it was a waste, I didn’t need the heat. Did he? “Are you hungry?”
A shake of that shaggy head. “Not thirsty either. I just wanna sleep.”
“Go ahead. We should be okay here.”
Flickering shadows turned his face into an older boy’s, for a bare second. “Why do they still want me?”
Not sure. “Could be a lot of reasons. So far we have three other players in the game.”
“There’s the original corporation — sounds like CoreTech — and then there’s NifulCorp. Then there’s the Agency. They survive by having a lock on implementation. You’re a direct challenge to that monopoly.”
“What about him?”
It took me a second to follow the mental leap. “Oh, Sam? Not sure which one of them he’s playing for.”
“And what about you?”
“You were Agency, right?”
“Was, yeah.” Not anymore. I doubt they’d have me back. I’m a losing investment. I’m unreliable.
“Then I wasn’t anymore.”
I’m a bit hazy on that myself. I stared at the fire some more, as if there was an answer hidden in the space between fuel and reaction. I never told another soul, from my corpclone parents to my fellow runners or other Agency trainees, about the clinic or the bundle of cells scraped out of me, probably sold to bring a little more profit in for the medical staff.
It didn’t belong to them. It was mine, it was private, and I kept it that way, even when they asked, over and over again, why I wanted to be implemented. Why I was volunteering.
The Agency was a way out. And now that the kid was asking, it made me squirm a little inside, thinking that maybe I’d looked at him and seen a way out, too. I was a good flex liquidator, fast on my feet and efficient, but sooner or later even Agency jobs got…
Boring. When you’re practically indestructible, you end up just going through the motions. Nothing matters. It’s all the same.
Geoff needed an answer, and he was waiting on one. I took a deep breath. No reason to tell him I didn’t fucking know why I’d done it, but once I’d lowered the rifle in the bare, security-locked NifulCorp house he’d been stashed in, it was too late. I was in, and when you’re in, the only way through is to put your head down, your betrisq chips in, and finish the game.
I heard my own sigh, and couldn’t tell what was going to fall out of my mouth until it happened. “Because you need me.”
He carried the watermaker, stepping gingerly on sandgrit rock. Settled beside me, close enough for his warmth to meet mine. After a few seconds, he leaned into me as well, his small shoulder against my upper arm.
“I’m glad you found me,” he said, quietly.
“Me too.” I surprised myself again.
Because I actually meant it, and I slid my arm around him. It felt natural to tighten it just a little, to give him a gentle hug.
It did not, however, stop the way my brain inside its knockproof container kept running lightly over all the players in the game, because I couldn’t figure out which side — or sides— Sam was kicking the ball for.
I’d left his head and his body in a room together. It was only a matter of time. And why had I done so, really?
Because even though I could have brought his head with me, I suspected he was eventually more helpful to Geoff alive, no matter which side he was on. I was hoping I was right.
Dusk fell in great purple veils, finding us already moving. The water table was rising, which meant the worms rose closer to the surface as a matter of course, and the big gray blunt-snouted monstrosities seemed to be hungry.
It made little sense, really — what did they live on? The tiny burrowing things in the sand? If they did, or if they lived on the sand itself, why did they rise and snap at anything crossing the surface?
Maybe they were just cranky.
The fourpads plodded along. As the water table rose, so did more of the succulent greenery. Which meant more mammalian life. Catching them for Geoff to drain was getting easier. At least we hadn’t had to sacrifice a fourpad yet.
While I rode, I tinkered with a stat-coil and two or three PanCorp circuits. Plascannon knocked the nanos right out of even a buffered agent, there wasn’t a way to reroute that sort of flux. Something about the resonances temporarily made your own flesh repel the tiny things that made near-immortality possible. The less implemented you were, the more you stood a chance of surviving plas — for a few seconds, at least, before slipping into shock from the roasting, your bodily systems shutting down one by one.
Quick death or horrified numb descent into blackness. Which was worse?
No way to buffer it. Hard to dodge plascannon balls, they tend to seek out their targets. Moving just made a disturbance that pulled them along, freezing let them home in on you as well. Discharging a cannon inside a City was a good way to make every corporation that held a share of the place get a vested interest in Dismissing you, because the Agency played hardball with anyone taking their investments out that way.
None of the corporations wanted to piss the Agency off that openly.
It was a puzzle. The best tech minds couldn’t solve it, and me cobbling spare bits together wasn’t going to uncover anything new. Still, it was something to keep my hands occupied. Maybe I was deconstructing under the stress of aimless running.
I hoped not.
A crackle at the edge of scanrange jerked my head up. It wasn’t a worm.
“Mom?” Geoff, his fourpad crowding mine. Neither of the beasts were uneasy yet.
“You hear that?”
He cocked his head. His eyes reflected the dusk differently than a warmbody’s, and those stiff spikes of hair bounced a little. “Not really. I just… feel something. It itches.”
“Yeah. Like it itched before you showed up. I knew something was going to happen.”
“Where precisely does it itch?” Now there was a question I never thought I’d ask anyone, ever.
Well, at least it’s not localized itching. I don’t know if antibiotics will work on you. “Huh.” The crackling resolved into fuzzy static, rising and falling.
Commchatter. None of it with encryption-spikes. The bands were sloppy, too, not tightly disciplined. A blurring buzz throbbed at the lowest end of my audible intakes.
What the hell is that? Hm.
A few moments later, I had the answer.
“Skimmers.” I checked the sky — the last fading dregs of sunlight swirling down the western drain. The rocks were too far behind us for hiding. The sound jagged in and out of the edges of my range, not quite randomly. “A hunting party.”
“Are they after us?” Anxiously crowding his fourpad even closer, as if that would solve the problem if they were.
“Don’t think so. Probably cannibals, though.”
He shuddered, and I might have laughed, only it wasn’t very nice laughter. It wasn’t helpful, either. He needed me calm and steady.
He glanced fearfully around, though they were nowhere near. “Are we… are they…”
“No. This time, if they come for us, I’ll fight.”
“What do I do?”
“Stay out of the way.”
“Why didn’t you fight before?”
“It wasn’t efficient.”
“Oh.” He relaxed a little bit. “I thought… you weren’t afraid of them?”
Not very. I searched for a way to explain it. “Fear’s a natural response, Geoff. It’ll keep you alive, make you sharper. Until it doesn’t.”
“Then, you put it away.”
“How do you do that?” Brightly interested, his head up and his nostrils flaring as he sniffed the wind. “Ions. And something else?”
“Fuelcore dumpoff, the wind’s right to start smelling it now. If there was one way to put the fear away, kiddo, someone would make a mint off selling it.”
“I smell something else.”
I took a deep lungful, in snuffles to pass maximum air over every sensing cell, organic or otherwise. Most of taste is smell, and even warmbodies get more information than they can possibly process in every breath.
They just don’t pay attention.
“And?” I prompted.
“Green.” He nodded, then snuffled just like I had. A pleased smile showed the white tips of his teeth, and I realized with a jolt that he was taller. By a good inch. “I think it’s going to rain.”
“Huh.” I tried the air again.
No hint of petichor. Just the same dry wind, nutmeg tang of baked sand, scorched rock, fuelcore dumpoff, ions…
The thrumming resolved into five engine noises. Definitely skimmers, and their comchatter was full of slanging Spanics, crackles, and obscenities that would burn your ears off if you let them.
“Hm?” I closed my eyes as the fourpad picked its way along. It might be nice to have a skimmer, but Geoff couldn’t drink from one of those machines in a pinch. Locking their commchannels gave me a better handle on location, especially since skimmers are incredibly loud.
“How do you shut off being afraid?”
“That’s the secret,” I told him. “You don’t. You just make up your mind to do, no matter how scared you are.”
“It’s harder than it sounds. Looks like they’re not going to come near us, they’re chasing something else.”
A slight sound — his hair shifting. He’d tilted his head even further, probably aiming his dominant ear to try and catch something, anything out of his warmbody range. He stiffened in the saddle. “I know what they’re chasing.”
“Do you.” I didn’t even try to sound convinced.
“A worm. Only they don’t know something.”
“What don’t they know?”
“They don’t know that it can see them.”
“They don’t have eyes.”
“He doesn’t need them.”
“Because I’ve told him where they are and what they’re doing.”
My eyelids flew open. Geoff’s were closed, and he swayed on the back of his fourpad with loose, uncanny grace. Dark falls swiftly out in the desert; one by one, the stars were glimmering into life. It was a good thing moonlight didn’t give Geoff any problems, its UV content was negligible.
If it’s the UV that gives him trouble. “How have you told him?”
“They sing. Inside. You just sing back.”
“Okay.” I didn’t bother arguing. I just kept building my map of their hunting pattern. Five jackasses on skimmers weren’t a huge danger in and of themselves, but the chance that one of them would paste my fragile warmbody kid with a stray lucky shot was unacceptably high.
The skimmers veered again, just at the edge of my range. The commchatter was alive with excitement, rough words and male bonding. When they get together in packs, they urge each other on. If you want someone who hunts alone, make sure they have ovaries.
Boys always like to show off too much.
We plodded on for a while. Geoff half-asleep in the saddle. He hummed, a low wandering melody I didn’t recognize, but I was busy keeping tabs on the skimmers. They looped a little closer, slid away.
I had almost relaxed when the comms dissolved into a welter of feedback squeals. It almost jarred me out of my own saddle. I yanked on the reins, bringing the fourpad to a halt.
It lasted ten minutes, all told. One comm crackled with desperate sobbing breaths before a final squeal of tortured metal ending on a crunching snap.
Geoff’s humming dwindled. His fourpad stood obediently next to mine. After a full sixty seconds, his eyes opened sleepily. He blinked. “Are we stopping?”
My throat seemed dry, though it wasn’t. Purely psychological. “Not yet.” I coughed, slightly. Another tell. It would have given Sam a pause, probably unsure if I was displaying to provoke or mislead — or honestly reacting to an uncomfortable thought. “Can I ask you something, Geoff?”
“Sure.” Heartbeat, respiration, all going along normally. Warmbodies didn’t have that kind of control over the autonomics. You needed implementation for that.
Or did you?
“What else do you hear singing?”
“Some things.” A yawn half-swallowed the last word. You wouldn’t think he’d spent all day sleeping. “Big dogs. They sort of croon. The worms are all squealy-y. There’s small things, they get sleepy when it’s too hot or too cold, but sometimes you can hear them going sssss.” A hiss between his teeth. “You don’t have a song, but sometimes people do.”
“I don’t have a song?”
“Not one I can hear.” Did he sound suspicious? Frightened? Or just tired?
He was only a kid.
“Hm.” I gathered my reins. “The water’s rising even more. We should see actual green in a while.”
“That’d be nice. It’s going to rain, Abbymom.”
“Sure.” You know, Geoff, I think I’m starting to believe you.
Stripped to the waist in the glare of sunlight, my skin burnished ebony to suck in all the solar it could, I had plenty of time for thinking. No fourpads for this, they were in a small outcropping of rocks several klicks south. With Geoff sleeping so deeply he almost didn’t seem to be breathing, it was safe enough. Still, better to do this quickly.
So I ran.
I’ve spent most of my life running, one way or another. Mostly along rooftops, gauging routes and ducking when I had to, out-thinking, always a few steps ahead. It was often so laughably easy. The world is a ki-fait board, but everyone’s playing chong-qi, a ridiculous little child’s game that always ends the same way. When it wasn’t easy it was stupid, and when it wasn’t either it was boring to fight it. Much better to just retreat and let them boil in their own vat of genetrash.
Running shook everything loose. Loping along, not fast and not slow, a comfortable pace at about three-quarters. You never showed your speed if you could help it. Or your strength.
Or anything else.
Of course, implementation meant not-fast-not-slow was still a blur to warmbodies. The sun showered me with free energy, powering tireless muscles and reinforced bone, flushing my nanos with strength. On the sand, leaping at random, rolling sometimes — going down, shoulder to back and the world turning over, up in a shower of dry particles worn into powder by the wind and the same sun that filled me with crackling force.
You were always my favorite, Jess.
I never asked why he gave me that name. He never asked why I called him Sam Smith. Meets in restaurants, alleys, occasionally in seamless, perfumed corporate highrises. Always the same. Never a blip, just passing the message along, telling me what the Agency wanted from me since the first brief meeting at headquarters — the very same black cube I’d presented myself at for testing.
Six years ago, when I was still new to an agent’s speed and strength. Fresh off the implementation line and upgraded to the max, sold into slavery by my own hand. They didn’t call it slavery nowadays, but I knew what it was.
It’s impossible not to.
Hullo, Sam had said, his bleached-gray irises piercing but not overly striking. He looked just like every other corpclone, his costume carefully chosen and his every move correct. Looks like we’ll be working together. Here’s a list of drops. Commit it too memory and then get creative with destroying it.
My own instant almost-dislike, squelched ruthlessly. Creativity is not my problem, sir.
A long, considering look. Call me something else, will you?
Then he was gone. I scanned the paper. Easy drops, none of them difficult. Maybe he was watching to see what I’d do, or maybe the Agency was.
So I popped the paper into my mouth, chewed, and swallowed, and that was that.
My stride lengthened. There was a trembling underground I didn’t like. Tuning my ears to echolocation meant I’d have to filter out all sorts of other input.
What I really wanted to do was think.
So, I ran.
They sing, you know.
You even kiss me goodnight.
Bright light. It was cold.
What had they made? Or…
Made, or found? What if…
He’s my kid. I’m the last person to steal him, dammit. Mine.
A corporation getting hold him again might be good for him, until he didn’t earn out. Wasn’t that what he said, looking at a cyborg pointing a rifle directly at him — a cyborg who had just killed his two caretakers? Or his protectors, his jailers — whatever they were.
I’m an investment. I guess I’m not earning out.
I slowed, slightly. There were rumbles under the sand I didn’t like. Acid in a digestive system would be uncomfortable, but I was fairly confident of my ability to burst free of even the massive worms east of here. I could be the last meal one of them would ever eat.
That will slow you down. Be efficient, agent.
The only thing is, there’s something you can never escape. It matches you pace for pace, it breathes with you, it moves with you. There’s no outrunning it.
I made it up a shallow rise, kicking up great gouts of sand. The rumbling under my feet sent tiny flakes of it up and down, small rocks from below popping free of the surface like water spattered across a hot impulsion coil.
Wreckage scattered across a depression in the sand. The hole was shallow, shaped by displacement. Four or five skimmers, flung in twisted bits, scarred with either acid or something caustic. The sand was glazed — I rolled and came up again, the back of my hand numb where it touched the creeping opalescent trail. Some form of analgesic, maybe — psychoactive compounds in it, the nanos perking up to analyze and neutralize.
Isn’t that a useful little chemical mixup. Nice molecular chain. Wouldja look at those peptides.
The long, shimmering trail looped for miles. The worm had burst up through the sand, wrecking the group of skimmers. Not only that, but it had chased its pursuers, now on foot. Maybe the skimmers had irritated it, so it struck at the metal contraptions first?
Or maybe it had someone singing a little song about what to do with the insects buzzing overhead. What do you think, agent?
I leapt atop one of the piles of wreckage. Settled instantly into an agent’s immobility, the eerie stillness you learn not to use when you’re around warmbodies. Out here, it just made you a rock.
Would it be so bad, to turn into one? No struggle, no striving, no protecting fragile, breakable things—
It broke over the rise, the great gray snout rising from rivulets of sand greased with that opalescent sheen. A blunt, eyeless head, its mouth with circular rows of serrated, backward-pointing, milky teeth.
The smell was familiar. I inhaled sharply, no need for chuffing to distinguish one thread of scent-molecules from another. Not with the thing so reeking-close and streaking closer.
It humped along the surface with oily, terrifying speed and drew itself up, foot after foot of ringed gray flesh. The sun striped it with steam — was the UV damaging it? Or was it just moisture loss from the oven of daylight, hammering us both flat in this cup full of shattered metal?
Only rags of the bodies left. Probably ate them. Might eat the skimmers too, look at those teeth.
Closer. Closer yet. Roaring. It exhaled all over me, and I saw those teeth actually moving. Revolving, ready to grind anything it could into a pulp.
That mouth looked downright painful. And it could take me in one gulp. Still, when you are very small and facing something very large, maneuverability counts. I had already calculated its trajectory.
Noise like an Egress Train crashing as it roared, the sound fuzzing across several different bandwidths. A jolt. I went flying, already tucking and rolling, skidding on the slimy residue still not dried by the heat. Tumbling, sand spuming, and the thing went over me, its bulk more sensed than seen, more felt than heard. Like taking a drop off a roof, knowing the wave of flying projectiles from the rival druglord’s cannon mounts was a breath behind you, you’d done everything you could and the next few moments you just relaxed and fell. You’d done all your planning, judged all your distances, and now it was time to see.
Adrenaline against my tongue, bright copper. Sand and more of that goop showered down on me, small rocks, crystalline bits, tiny glittering things.
It could have swallowed me, I suppose. It was fast enough. But instead, the worm went right over, and dove deep. The thunder of its passage faded, leaving me standing in the middle of a skimmer junkyard, rolled in sand and slimed, and breathlessly laughing.
I reached the rocks after noon, checked the fourpads — happily chewing on those succulents, now growing larger and larger the more southwest we tended. More plant life probably meant more refugees and castoffs from the Cities — or more Cities themselves, squatting like toads on resource veins—
There was the sleeping-roll, the light blanket. The packs he liked to rest his back against. The scent of my dusty little boy all over the material, and watermaker, put together perfectly, set right by my own spot across the ring of stones containing ashes of the morning’s fire.
“Geoff?” Even as I said it, I knew he wasn’t eliminating in the back of the cave, or curled in a dark corner.
He was, quite simply, gone.