Coming up from a numbpatch is always the same. Like dawn, a thin crack of gray at the very edge of the world, the nanos getting the signal to bring you back online. You don’t ever dream in that black bleakness. Still, sometimes, on the very thin razor margin between chem-induced haze and the hurtful clarity of waking, a brief burst of REM gets through.
Sliding across gritty concrete on my knees, the knifeblade dulled so it didn’t flash under the assault of neon, drag against the blade as it parted flesh. Sudden hot reek of gutsplit as I dropped the fucker looking to dust me, a wave of projectile ammo overhead — Sixty Bill’s cadre were cleaning an avenue, and getting me caught in the crossfire was just a bonus. Which was why I’d picked this route across the top edge of the Sixty’s territory, if I went fast enough the flying bullets would stitch a line into the rooftop behind me.
Unfortunately, a couple runners thought they’d drop me en route and take the cargo. Pounds and pounds of sugar-vox weighing me down, ready to be turned into caprasan when I got to the dropoff. The caprasan would be sold in smidges for hard credit or untraceable bit, getting the corporate drones high as shit and letting them forget for a few minutes the drudgery of being owned.
On my feet now, skipping sideways, two more runners closing in from my right and the pick-pock-pock of projectiles on my heels, and one of the runners had a shockstick. It sputtered in the gloaming, a bright stuttering-white flash, probably how Sixty’s crew were tracking us all, and I took the only way out — over the side of the building, freefall, tumbling and hoping the heavy-duty spincotton awning was still where it had been a day ago when I scoped the route.
Hit hard, it gave resiliently, and my weak little warmbody curled around itself and pushed off, kinetic energy transferred, just enough force—
Hit, _hard, breaking glass and blood flying as I rolled, too high on adrenaline and motion to feel the sutures I’d need later. The fat payday at the end of my route had a slice taken off for medical — by the time I made it to the dropoff I’d lost a lot of blood — but it wasn’t bad at all._
Still, it wasn’t quite enough. It never was.
The lase-sutures were barely in before I realized what I had to do. They stung, but I turned down the expensive shot of torvane to block the pain and limped home. Had to face up to it: I was getting slow, and by the time I saved up enough, the growing flesh-anchor in my womb would be more expensive to get rid of than even the best runner in the City could afford.
That night, heart in my mouth and dried blood still crackling in my clothes, I started planning.
Smell of smoke — a campfire, not the carcinogen reek of civilization. I lay very still, scanning through systems, collating. Warmbodies have hangovers, agents have the aftermath of numbpatches. Tested fingers and toes, scanned for anything implanted while I was out. Everything the way it should be, organ functions tiptop, nanos buzzing about their business.
Buffered heartbeat. An unfamiliar rasping. Charring — no, meat cooking. Fat dripping from flesh, spattering in open flames. A tuneless whistle, air pushed out through lips, occasionally following the track of a pop ditty or two popular in-City a few weeks ago.
The consideration that I could lunge across the fire and damage him swam into view. I considered it, set it aside. Scanning revealed we were far away from anything even approximating a township. The water table had risen even more, and I could barely catch a thrumming of worms in the distance.
He’d taken me out of Carsona. Great.
Everything seemed to be functioning properly. I pushed myself up on my elbows. He must have taken the numbpatch off a good half-hour ago. It takes a while for it to flush out of your system when the nanos are groggy.
How long was I out? Fortunately, numbpatches don’t interfere with chrono. Twelve hours, give or take. The rock here was still crumbling sandstone, but it exhaled a bit of leftover moisture. The humidity had plummeted, barometric pressure was back to what it had been before the rain swept through, and the furnace glow of a bloody sunset was dying in the west. It wasn’t quite a cave, the ceiling only halfway covering a sandy floor scattered with chunks of fallen rock. Still, the remaining bits of it scanned solid enough.
The urge to yawn rose up, was ruthlessly repressed. A stupid warmbody habit, I had all the oxygen I needed.
Sam crouched on the other side of a small fire, staring at the small skinned animal on a makeshift spit. His hair had bleached itself out under the fierce assault of sun, but his skin had darkened to drag in all the solar it could. Hunched down like that, he looked uncomfortably like Geoff. Males lack the hip width to really be comfortable in that position; they always look like incorrectly folded origami.
“You’re probably furious,” he said, quietly.
Gee, how could you guess? I pushed myself up to my feet. The nanos began system-flushing numbing-waste, tuning muscles and organs back into a well-ordered symphony instead of a dozing beast. Stretched my arms out, tested my legs. “Slip anything under my skin?”
“It’s a facilitator’s job to care for the agent, and to keep the agent from slipping off the psychological rails.” Chapter and verse. He blinked, thermascanning the meat. “You need calories.”
I could have had solar if you hadn’t numbed me. Useless. A more thorough scan of the area turned up a few fourpads, tucked around a fold of stone and cropping at spiny succulents. My gear was in a neat pile, and the angle of the shadows gave me a rough idea of where Carsona would be. “See you.”
“Where are you headed?”
“What the fuck for, Jess? I just got you out of there.”
“Thanks.” I couldn’t have sounded any less grateful if I’d tried. “By the time I get back there the place will be crawling, which is just what I wanted. If you stay out of the way you might even learn something.”
He was quick. Glanced up at me, bleached eyes narrowed slightly. “What did you do?”
“Used their uplink to throw a few hack-bombs. Everyone who has an interest in my kid is going to rub elbows and confuse each other.”
A thoughtful nod. “Except whoever took him. Not your usual delicate touch, Jess.”
When dealing with idiots, any blunt instrument will do. I swallowed the urge to tell him to go fuck himself, stretched a little more, and headed for my gear.
“Will you stop? You need calories. Whoever took the kid is long gone. Let’s make sure you don’t join him.”
“Touching.” Peeling aside canvas and leather flaps, I dug in the bags. At top speed, I could probably make Carsona before dawn. The whole place would probably be alive with dug-in hostiles.
“Look, I got you involved in this. I’ll get you out, but you have to stop—”
The look I gave him shut him up so quickly he probably almost lost a chunk of his self-healing tongue. “You have two choices, Sammy Facilitator. Help, or get gone. Both are dependent upon you getting rid of the idea that you’re in control of anything to do with me or my kid.”
Maybe he decided discretion would get him further than fucking with me, because he studied the meat over the fire as if it had just started twitching again. My weapons seemed fine, the holsters didn’t appear to have any telltales in them. Fully suited, I took a deep breath, weighing the advisability of taking a fourpad.
I could move faster, for longer, without.
In the middle of that decision, an odd sound fuzzed through my aurals. Long and drawn-out, a high ululating cry a few klicks to the southwest.
Another answered from due north. I sniffed, cautiously, but the wind was wrong. At the very edge of scanrange, weird shadows made no sense until I realized Sam had brought me to the end of the desert. There were trees in the distance, or something so like them it made no difference.
The cries rose and fell, a harmony too harsh for warmbody throats. The spikes and valleys separated into unique voices. Whatever they were, they were singing.
“Do you know what that is?” He pulled the meat off the fire. “Can you guess?”
Pebbles shifting, sand moving. I tensed, but it wasn’t Sam. I crouched, compressing myself, ready to spring. What the fuck is that? I hear movement, but nothing—
More long trilling cries, long drawn-out cathedrals of rough melody that tried to raise the fine hairs all over me. Autonomic control tightened, and the picture flashed inside my head. Shaggy shoulders, long snouts, ivory teeth, and expressive eyes ringed with gold, reflecting oddly at night.
Even in-City, we had dogs. They even howl. But everything outside the walls is stronger. Sharper. Unfiltered.
“Wolves,” I breathed. I’m actually hearing wolves. Fairytales, myths, and fables were coming out of the walls.
The stealthy sounds intensified, but I wasn’t ready for it. It resolved out of the leaping shadows at the edge of the firelight, and for a split second I thought it was one of them. A shaggy four-legged shape, bonecracking jaws and padded feet, long swaying fur — all the implementation in the world can’t erase an atavistic thrill when another hunter shows its teeth.
But it wasn’t a wolf. Dusk swirled away, the hard sharp points diamond stars glittering around a strengthening bone-colored moon, and I thought the numbing had come back because all the strength ran out of my arms and legs. For the first time since I’d been dumped out of a restraint vat to try my new, incredibly strong, incredibly resilient limbs, I staggered.
He threw himself into my arms. “Abbymom! Abbymom! Mom! Mom!” Piercing cries, but I couldn’t answer. I didn’t have the breath.
“I woke up!” All but bubbling with excitement. “I woke up and you weren’t there, and I thought—”
“I went to check on…” I had to ease up, I was squeezing him too tightly. “All our gear was there, Geoff! How the hell did you wander off?”
“I didn’t. I was below, it’s the first time it happened. They…” A quick flicker of his tongue, wetting pale lips. He needed fluids soon. “Well, they helped. Told me you didn’t know.”
“They?” I shook my head when he opened his mouth to explain, and I couldn’t stop smoothing his cheeks, touching his dark hair. Sand all over him, and you could tell he hadn’t bathed — a healthy heat-haze hung on him, filling my receptors with absolute proof he was alive, and whole, and safe. “No. Listen to me. You could have been hurt. You could have been killed.”
“I was fine.” The scar on his chin quivered a little. “I just went below.”
“Want something to eat?” Sam hadn’t moved. Still crouched on the other side of the small fire, he was very pointedly not studying us. As if he wouldn’t be gulping in all sorts of information through his panoptics and scans anyway.
“Sure.” Geoff glanced at me, the question evident in those wide dark eyes. I shrugged, and made my fingers loosen on his arms.
He’s taller. Had he grown since we’d left the City, and I was just seeing it now after an absence? Or was it that he’d grown since New Vega? The shape of his face seemed… different, too. Cheekbones higher, eyes a little smaller, his shoulders subtly changed. Broader, maybe. I began brushing the sand away from him as he shuddered and turned like a fourpad, my fingers testing the little bits of grit.
Below ground. Of course. It makes sense, that’s why they didn’t carry the shocktroopers out. All those stories. They were locked away in the dusty regions of pre-implementation memory, when the entire world was a warmbody’s confusion instead of the clarity of implemented senses and intake feeds.
Just like the whispers about the Collective, those silver-eyed cyborgs without an agent’s freedom of will. Some of the old stories called them borrg, a word nobody knew the meaning of anymore.
I yanked him forward again, hugged him as hard as I could without hurting him. Still so fragile. Thin bones, an un-implemented skull.
But the shocktroopers were tough. If I can keep him alive long enough, will he be?
Alive and free. One was no good without the other. Or was that greedy of me?
The silent weight of Sam’s presence killed whatever I would have said. A facilitator might think he was seeing a weakness. A vulnerability. Something to exploit.
I wasn’t about to confirm as much.
I finally was able to hold the kid at arm’s length, scanning him one more time just to make sure. “You could have been hurt. You could have been killed.” My throat felt dry, even though there was no reason for the sensation. “I shouldn’t have left you.”
“They told me where to find you.” He was smiling, those pearly, perfect teeth gleaming as full dark descended. “And listen, they’re happy.”
Wolfsong rose again, a net of wild spunglass howling. What did they live on, out here? Probably the brothers and sisters of the small once-furry thing roasting on Sam’s fire. “Did you go through the township? Did anyone see you?” The thought of him wandering right where I threw a bunch of hackbombs and brought down all sorts of attention made everything inside me feel like it was crawling into a different configuration.
“I traveled at night. Stayed away from the lights and the people. Not safe. The worms, well, they have tracks. Like roads. I followed those.” He shook his head, twice. A slight movement, like he wanted to hug me, but I kept my arms straight and stiff. Get him back into routine, he’s still just a kid. And Sam’s watching.
“Good. Get some fresh clothes, the gear’s right there. Then it’s time to eat.”
He nodded, his face firming up. Darted another glance at Sam, who stared at the fire like it contained a Control directive.
“Don’t worry.” Softly, just barely audible. “He’s on our side for now. The instant he isn’t, I’ll kill him again. And he’ll stay dead.”
“I can hear you,” Sam replied, mildly. “Come on, kid, if we leave this any longer it’ll burn. Consider me your guardian angel, now.”
It was absurd… but it did make me feel better.
We rode abreast, fourpads chuffing a little among themselves, my own carefully between Sam’s and Geoff’s. A blurry inkstain on the horizon drew no closer no matter how we plodded, and Geoff swayed in the saddle. I decided I didn’t want to question him any further until we were alone, and Sam didn’t ask any questions.
Wise of him.
Geoff didn’t ask where we were going, and neither did I. If Sam was leading us into a trap, well, it would hardly be worse than going back to Carsona. The locals there were about to get an influx of City types, and maybe it would do some of them a little good. Hard bitcoin would shower down, because even agents liked to eat.
So did other things. Maybe it would balance out the throat-ripping shocktroops.
After an hour of steady motion, I decided it was time. “Sam.”
“Hm?” He kept his fourpad a little further away from mine than absolutely necessary. Also wise of him.
“The shocktroopers. Second-gens.”
“Yeah.” He scrubbed at his face with one stiff-bladed hand, as if weary. The faint amount of gold stubble rasping against his palm was intentional. “Helixes packed with anything they could scrape from your boy there.”
“They had to find the right recessives. Otherwise the packing slagged the experiments. The holy grail would be a breeding female, but they haven’t figured that out yet.”
“A breeding…” I glanced at Geoff, who looked supremely unconcerned. “Military applications, of course. But—”
“It’s not just military.” Sam took a deep breath. “It’s evolution. Paxton was one of ours.”
What? “An agent did this? I thought corporations wouldn’t take implemented scientists.” At least, one carrying implants that weren’t done in their own bays, under close supervision.
“Not Agency. One of us. Nikor’s.”
“Do you realize how ridiculous you sound?”
“Stranger than fiction,” he muttered. “Do you ever wonder what the Agency’s long-term plan is?”
I shrugged, knowing he’d catch the movement on panoptics. “Settled for just surviving, Sammy.”
“One of these days I’ll tell you my actual name.”
“Don’t care.” I urged my fourpad closer to Geoff’s. He swayed even more, a tired little boy, and it was a moment’s work to lift him onto my fourpad, settling him in front of me and grabbing his beast’s reins. “Shhh, kiddo. Rest.”
“They said you were looking for me.” Slow and sleepy, Geoff slumped against me. My autonomics finally settled, their subroutines nice and even. “Sorry, Abbymom.”
“It’s all right. Just glad you’re safe.” I didn’t ask who told him that. Worms or wolves or whatever, it didn’t matter at the moment, especially with another pair of ears around. I settled for arranging the reins again, breathing in the smell concentrated at the top of his head — dust and boy, and that faint astringency. Almost caustic, a familiar echo of gray rings and rotating teeth. “Rest.”
“Shit.” Sam’s subvocal grumble disturbed his fourpad, but he shifted with the beast’s motion. “You really like this kid. Is that it?”
“Long-term plan.” I kept it barely audible. It really only took a moment or two to fit the pieces together. “To profit from implementation as long as possible.”
“Not quite.” Sam sighed. “Imagine everyone on the planet, even the Wasters, with a basic level of implementation. Immortality for a price. That’s been their game ever since the first nano breakthrough in ‘48. They’re close to doing it, too. Clouds of nanos released, self-replicating, merging with human tissue and—”
“More fairytales.” I swiped at lank hair against my forehead. My thermal signature spread out, covering Geoff’s. “Didn’t they have holoshows about this?”
“Jess, we’re going to get exactly nowhere if you keep that up.”
“We’re already nowhere.” I pointed at the horizon. “Been nowhere since Egress. Don’t mind it.”
“How did you swing Egress? I can’t figure it out.”
A good agent never has just one card. I scanned the surroundings again. I was almost beginning to believe my kid was safe.
Sam sighed. “Anyway, they’re close to completion, but there’s an unexpected kink in the works. That kid. Paxton did something, and Nikor sent people to bring him and the kid in. Someone else jumped first. Paxton ended up dead, the kid got moved—”
“Doctor Pax,” Geoff piped up, helpfully. “I remember him. He was nice. He wasn’t like you, though. Cyborg.”
I wished I could see Sam’s expression. Would he wince at the word? We prefer implemented. The other, well, it means mindlessness.
The Collective. I wonder… Not enough data to tell.
“Do you remember what happened to him?” Sam, soft and cajoling.
I gave Geoff a warning squeeze, and he lapsed into silence, becoming boneless against me.
“The kid got moved,” I supplied, “and you decided to send me after him, gambling that I’d feel like I was in over my head and come crying to you for some kind of help.”
“The Agency sent a kill order through. It was lucky I was in rotation. I picked you because I thought… well, you were always my favorite, Jess.”
“You keep saying that.” I patted Geoff’s arm, smoothed his hair. “So Nikor owns you.” If I could believe in… what Geoff was, I could believe someone had dusted off the name of Nikor’s Rebellion. Maybe there were even unicorns or holotrolls out there somewhere.
Or even Zion, that shining free city.
A long silence, swallowed up by the desert night, the fourpads breathing clouds of steam, their footfalls in a steady jog-jangle rhythm.
“What does your fairytale want with my kid?”
“We still don’t know how Paxton did it. If we can decode him, even if the Agency goes ahead with Omega we’ll have recourse. Kid rejects nanos wholesale, and there’s got to be a way to replicate it, pack the helixes with his durability. Imagine, no more cancer, no more slag mutations, no more of the Agency having a lock on living and breathing in-City. You think the corporations own everything? Didn’t you get the memo about who owns them?”
My arms tightened fractionally.
Sam continued. “The only reason that kid’s still alive is because CoreTech hid what they were doing. Agency used Niful as catspaw to nab him, since Operations wanted to study him before they liquidated, and Control found out and sent through the kill order. You were a bare twenty minutes ahead of a capture team from Control’s research side. Turf wars, you have no idea about the sodding turf wars.” A shake of his pale head. “The only place you’re going to be safe now is—”
“Spare me.” I smoothed Geoff’s hair again, stroking away sand and a thin crusting reflexive chemtesting gave me that familiar profile on. Something damp had smeared the grit against the strands, then dried. _Look at those lovely peptides. _“Paxton was either from out-City or he had Egress license. Which was it?”
“He had black-card clearance. Full Egress whenever he… why?”
Huh. “Where are you headed?”
“Last communication told me to head into the Vines. We’ll be picked up.”
Not sure I want to be “picked up.” But I let it go, for one very basic reason.
It’s always good to have a little cannon fodder around.
Of course even a desert would have a suburb full of greenery. Which might make the sand-glare the Ring, with its own stacked-stone skyscrapers and aristocracy. Except in-City, the aristocracy is never that threadbare.
Or are they? Maybe the true aristocracy rumbles under the sand, just like it moves invisibly through a City’s human tides. A corporation gets to a certain size, and it stops behaving like a “group” and starts being a crowd — an organism with a mind of its own. A sort of basement sentience fills its tentacles, and there’s no going back.
“I’ve seen maps.” Sam frowned at steaming mass. “But… ugh.”
A carpet of already-wilting wildflowers, briefly blossoming after the rains, unraveled a discreet distance from a steep slope. Looking up, the first thing you noticed was a mist, exhaling in loops and fringes from a mass of inchoate, sinuous shapes.
The Vines. They don’t move, they only seem to when the wind ruffles the thready masses at the tops of their snakelike stalks. Brown creepers loop crazily between them, encasing the trunks in a web like a spinwool sweater — cut one knot, and the entire thing unravels. Further up the slope the… trees, I guess you had to call them, started to grow taller. The jagged demarcation was the same in either direction — wilting flowers petering out, a narrow strip of darker sand, probably mixed with a soil stratum underneath, thin-fingering vines clawing at the beginnings of soil. Then the shrubs, growing mathematically taller as they receded from the killing heat of the desert pan.
A shy, secretive breeze slid past us, the desert breathing into the Vines. I sniffed deeply, testing.
That much greenery meant moisture. The fourpads snorted, a little unhappily, so I swung down from the saddle. I toed the dark sand and realized the creepers were secreting a chemical cocktail to keep any desert vegetation a comfortable distance away. Thick drops of clear moisture collect on the undersides of the fingering vines, and it soaks into the sand to prepare it further for the greenery to spread itself.
I glanced up at Geoff, who looked a little sallow in the moonlight. The greenery would mean more mammals, maybe even some large ones to whet his thirst. So far we hadn’t had to sacrifice a fourpad… but it was close.
I suppressed a sigh. Remounted with a creak, and eyed Sam. He wasn’t keeping a tight lid on his autonomics, or on his mouth. Maybe he thought I’d trust him if he chattered, or if I could hear his buffered pulse loud and clear.
In any case, he said there was a township a few days into the Vines. Once we got there, he would ping for pickup, whether by his fairytale or by the Agency didn’t matter. Since Carsona would be crawling with those hunting Geoff, all I had to do slip us both free of Sam at the right time, and let them chase their tails and his, too.
My handler probably mistook my look for interest, or for needing direction. “There should be a path a little north of here.”
I nodded. Geoff’s face was a white dish. He asked no questions. I didn’t know whether to be happy about that.
I pointed my fourpad north, and Geoff’s followed.
Two hours later, we plunged into the night under the Vines, lit only by faint fungal phosphorescence. The fourpads didn’t like it, and neither did I.
We went anyway.