During the day, the canopy turned everything below into aqueous green shimmer that didn’t raise blistering welts on Geoff’s skin. He avoided the faint specks and columns of unfiltered sunshine, and I caught him holding his hands out in the green glow more than once, marveling at the shadows rippling.
There was enough in the light to capture a bit of solar, and an agent can live on even poisonous greenery if she has to. It wasn’t necessary, the solar was enough. The edge of the Vines is scattered with small townships, a necklace of stragglers living in moss-covered shacks — but we avoided those.
Steam and constant dripping from the canopy made it humid as a Bonnell tank, and the condensation on every surface encouraged thin traceries of green scum to spread in filigreed waves. Before long, anything you didn’t scrub or waterproof turned slimy, then almost-dry as the moss thickened, its deep restful green hiding slightly caustic root-drippings. Slow creatures hung from the canopy, their fur festooned with matted colonies of plant and insect matter; the avians had bright thickly oiled feathers and deafening screeches. The slow hanging carpets — Sam called them pilosas — carried a slew of noisome toxins in their flesh, which probably explained why they hadn’t been hunted out of existence.
There were other things, though. Mammals both small and large, reptiles quick and slow, and the warmbodies eking out whatever living they could out here.
The first few townships were corporate; we faded back into the greenery and bypassed them after a battery of cautious scans. No linkups, though they all had steadily-pinging drop beacons. Safe below the canopy, Sam and I still heard the thrumming of thopters and the swish of silver-needle droppers and eyes.
It bothered me, until I realized it would only take one bandit with a cobbled-together stat-cannon — or even a plasma cannon stolen from somewhere — to bring down most thopters or needles the Cities could send out. Transports are too big to bring down with just one stat-cannon, large enough to have their own defense systems too.
At least there was no shortage of fluids for my kid.
The first was a wild porcine, large enough to give me some trouble but the breaking of its ribs took most of the fight out of it. Geoff drank quickly, flushing as I watched, his throat moving as I held the bulky thing up by its hind legs against a tree-trunk as large around as a slagshack. Sam watched, his face the same expressionless mask it had been in-City, which was a relief.
It took a while, but Geoff finished like a good little boy and stepped back, wiping at his mouth. A hot sheen over his dark gaze, and it wasn’t just imagination or wishful thinking.
He was taller. His face was changing, settling against the bones differently. Instead of the pale, scrawny eight-ish kid he’d been in-City, he looked like a twelve-year-old runner. Lean and quick, just on the edge of adolescence, a shadow of adult knowledge far back in his dark gaze. His hair was no longer City-lank, but a halo of springy dark waves. The scar on his chin flushed, a ribbon of crimson, and he blinked a couple times, his cheeks pooching a little as if it was going to come back up.
“You all right?” I held the dead bulk of the porcine by its cracking back legs. There is a definite change in a body when life is finally gone. The thing’s labored breathing had shuddered to a stop some time ago, and the rest of nerve-death shuddered through it in decreasing waves..
“Tastes…” He shook his head a little. “Spicy, almost. Wild. They fight, you know. All the animals do.”
“Yeah.” I braced myself, heaved at the inert bulk; it rolled down a slight slope alive with those tangled creepers and knobby dark roots. More bones snapped as it rolled. We could have eaten some of it, but it wasn’t worth the effort of carrying it around. Not while there was solar coming through the treetops. “Living means fighting.”
“Always?” Wiping at his mouth again, as if the blood burned.
“Not always.” I shrugged. “But close enough.”
He swayed forward, like he did after every large feeding, and I held him. Sam kept watching, that blank green-tinted mask. He could have been a statue left to rot here in the Vines, his hair fading into greening brass instead of wheat, his hands loose and easy, the fourpads behind him rustling nervously in the foliage. They seemed to be able to graze on the smaller bushes just fine, and I was almost certain there were herds of them — or something similar — passing through the jumble at night. Scat and scrapes against the tough creeper-roots, certainly herbivore, not hooved like the porcines or scythe-clawed like the fluid, tree-climbing felines.
Maybe next I should catch him one of those. I breathed into his hair, he hugged me as hard as his frail little arms could.
Sam still stared. I stared back, sap and condensation turning my hair to matted strings hanging in my face. Go ahead. Start chattering. Tell me we’ll make contact soon. Act like you’re not lost.
Insects buzzed and chattered. The birds, used to us by now, had resumed their deafening chorus. Cataloging all the species would be enough to keep even an agent busy for years. As it was, I had a record going constantly. All that data might be good for something later.
You never know.
“I don’t like it.” Geoff’s breath was a hot spot in the middle of my soaked shirt. “Why can’t we have a house?”
Like that’s any insurance. But that wasn’t anything to tell a kid. “We do have one.” I stroked his hair. The moss slid right off the coarse strands, easily shed. “It’s the entire world, kiddo. You and me.”
“You and me,” he repeated. At least he didn’t sound doubtful about that. “I used to watch the holos and think about being, you know. One of them.”
“That’s what holos are supposed to do.” I didn’t want to let him go, but he wriggled a bit. So I released him, brushed away moss, straightened the sleeves of his Static Rebe T-shirt — now stained with sap, the spincotton developing pinpoint holes as it rotted under the constant high humidity. “Make you want something different than what you’ve got.”
“Isn’t that good?” The pooching in his cheeks went away, his color smoothed out. With his eyes half-lidded he was a sleepy kid again. “He says there’s a rebellion. That means wanting what you haven’t got, right?”
“It can.” I turned back to the patiently waiting fourpads, one of them chewing a mouthful of cud and fresh greens with an abstract expression. Their tough, clawed feet adapted well to the damp, and they were looking glossy and sleek. “More often, it means someone else wants to be on top of the pyramid, and that’s it.”
“Cynic.” Sam offered me the reins. “There are altruists in the world, Jess.”
“Yeah. They usually die first.” I watched Geoff swing himself up in the saddle. “Don’t facilitators study history?”
“Extensively.” He waited until I was in the saddle before climbing aboard his own fourpad. “We’re close now. Shouldn’t be more than another couple days.”
“So you do have a destination.”
“We’re going to Zion.”
Wonderful. Why didn’t you say so? We’ll fly on multicolored thopters and eat all the soya cream and not get sick. I didn’t even bother to ask. It would probably end up being another fairytale.
Except by now, I was uncomfortably certain Sam was telling the unvarnished truth.
The light drained away sharply, darkness falling like a City district during shutoff. None of the desert’s long dusk, none of the furious glory of red and gold to the west. I didn’t think I’d miss it… but I did. I even missed the rumblegrumble of worms in the distance, the desiccation of the oven-hot wind, and the sense that you could see trouble coming a long distance away.
False comfort, maybe, but better than nothing.
More than once — as Sam started a recalcitrant fire in the evening, coaxing the spatters of amber sap into burning enough to dry out vines and other small bits of combustible matter — I was startled into a grim amusement. Two agents carrying implementation worth tidy piles of bitcoin hard or flex, a kid worth everything to several corporations, and an outlay of resources from the Agency that rivaled the perpetual hunting-down of rogue elements to erase, and here we were, huddled around a miserable fire for an hour or so before scattering to sleep in the treetops. At least, I slept high up. Geoff, well…
It’s quiet, he told me softly. It’s nice and dark. You should try it.
Seeing him sink through the roots, the earth opening to receive his slight body, everything scrabbling over the top to seamlessly hide him, even the leafmulch and vines thick around as my legs — now I knew exactly how the shocktroopers had hidden. I couldn’t figure out if I should call it focused telekinesis or just… magic. Either was equally likely, and equally frustrating for an agent.
It almost made me wish I’d stayed in Carsona to witness the tangle when everyone and their brother descended to find Geoff and instead stumbled across CoreTech’s free-range second-gens. They were probably still sorting out the mess. With the security force depleted, it would look like someone had deliberately hit a corporate town to provoke a response. My intentionally clumsy hacking, tripping alarms everywhere, would only muddy the waters.
It hadn’t all been ham-fisted. For instance, I’d managed to slide my way into a restricted CapTech section, figuring that a mining corp would have maps of the areas surrounding not only its own satellite townships, but also its competitors’. And lo, I had hit what they used to call paydirt, there and in a couple other corporations. It didn’t matter so much that I had burned a couple of carefully-nurtured access dumps — the whole point of the hacking was to point fingers at the Agency where possible, and at competitors for every single corp whose data I went tripping through.
As a result, I knew we were about a day and a half away from a suspiciously blank part of every map I could have cracked my way into even with Agency clearance.
And that was interesting.
“Hey, kid.” Sam had taken to beaming at Geoff, a development I watched narrowly but let take its course. “Want to help me nurse this?”
Geoff glanced at me for approval, and I shrugged.
“The sap burns,” he said finally, settling just out of Sam’s reach.
“Resinous. Smells good when it burns, too. Can I ask you something?”
I busied myself with the gear. Facilitators, always poking and prying.
“I suppose.” Geoff, laconic as an agent.
“Do you like her?” A sudden movement, pointing at me. Probably to gauge whether the kid would flinch.
He didn’t, just gave Sam a level look, tossing a thin stick into the wan flames. It sent up a thin ribbon of white smoke, and Geoff’s flushed mouth was now a subtle curve.
“She’s my mom.” Quietly, as if daring the other agent to disagree.
“So that’s a yes, huh? She takes care of you, kisses you goodnight, all that happy holo stuff. Right?”
“Yeah.” Geoff’s gaze slid away, towards the fire. “You’re wondering if this will burn me.”
“I know.” Now Geoff even sounded amused. “You could try while I was sleeping. Or maybe not.”
“You think she’d stop me?”
What the hell did Sam think he was doing? The strings inside me tightened, tightened a little more. The packs were going to rot right through and split unless I could find a better waterproofing than the resin dripping from the treetops. It was amazing the whole Vines didn’t go up like a candle, but so much moisture in the air — where did it all come from? The tree-things breathed vapor daily.
“She’d kill you again. Even though she likes you.”
I don’t like him. He’s just useful, and until I have a better idea, it’s good to have a little cannon fodder. Still, it was… nice, maybe? To have a piece of the familiar around.
Familiar is dangerous though. It slows you down, dulls a sharp blade. I smeared more resin on the bottom of the packs, ignoring the tingle along my skin as the nanos moved to neutralize essential oils and various thought-provoking compounds in it. Geoff didn’t seem to mind the stuff, just wiping it off his skin.
“Maybe she likes both of us. Maybe she’s just keeping you alive to sell you. Ever think of that?”
Maybe a facilitator just couldn’t see anything good without wanting to piss all over it. Or maybe he thought driving a wedge between me and the kid would serve him later on. Who knew?
I can tell you what Sam didn’t expect, though.
Geoff froze for a long moment, the crackling of flames finally taking hold on the damp wood. Later, replaying the event, I would decide that the fire had leapt a bit, then flattened in front of Geoff before he moved.
“You take that back!” the kid yelled, and launched himself across the campfire.
He hit Sam squarely, and actually knocked the facilitator over backward. I dropped the saddlepack, coiled myself, and blurred across the intervening space, but not before a wild flail of arms and legs windmilling around had managed to connect a few times.
Normally a warmbody wouldn’t be able to even touch an agent. But by the time I pulled Geoff away, his teeth champing together with heavy sounds like the thumping of a railgun a City district away, the scar on his chin separating to give the jaw more room to morph and his limbs blurring in ways no warmbody’s should, Sam was actually bleeding.
“Enough.” I hauled Geoff back, and it took more force than I liked. They were both deadly silent, and I almost tossed the kid into a tree just to get him away in case this had given Sam the opening he wanted all along.
Instead, the facilitator stayed down, limbs splayed crookedly, his pale gaze distant as he watched me pin Geoff’s wildly moving arms and drag him back. The contusions on Sam’s cheeks vanished swiftly, nanos doing their duty by their host. A few shallow slices sealed themselves away, the silver motes in the black blood — sunlight had retreated, and blood always looks black at night — burrowing back in through the skin once they’d finished repair work.
I held Geoff until he went limp, his breath coming in harsh gasps. “You take that back!” he screamed, and if nobody knew we were in the forest, that would probably change in the next few minutes, because the dusk cacophony stilled. A bubble of silence expanded in the Vines, like those first few hushed moments we had slipped through a tangle of those heavy, rough-skinned tentacles and found ourselves in the mist.
“Let him go.” Sam didn’t move. He just lay there, a discarded toy. “Let’s see if he really means it.”
That spurred Geoff to fresh motion, but my arms tightened. He was strong.
Too strong. _Agent-_strong.
What is this kid going to grow up into? A shocktrooper, maybe, snarling and blurring through space as he ripped the throats out of fragile little warmbodies? They hadn’t just taken the blood.
No, they’d bathed in it.
“That is enough.” My tone cut through Geoff’s struggles, and he went limp. The silence thickened, like a respite tank or the moment on a rooftop before the firing starts, just after you realize someone’s anticipated the route you thought was safe. “He’s a facilitator, Geoff. That means he wants to find out what’s inside your head so he can make you do what he wants. Stop making it easy for him.”
“I think she’s serious,” Sam piped up.
“Shut up.” I didn’t bother looking at him. “It’s just like at the institute, kid. Watching you in that fishbowl, waiting for a reaction. Don’t give him one.”
“You gonna teach him to clamp his autonomics, Jess? A nice happy family, just you and a bloodsucking experiment? How long is it going to be before you can’t control him and he starts eating slaggers whole?”
Geoff tensed. I didn’t move. His hair tickled my nose. His pulse was fluttering wings, the little flicking jewel-toned avians whose sharp beaks probed the vibrant, scentless flowers halfway up the trunks where the sunlight intensified. Moving so fast they blurred.
My grip gentled. I stroked Geoff’s hair with my chin, once, twice.
“Nikor can teach him what he is. How to control himself.” Sam’s tongue flicked over his lips, and I found myself wishing the sap would override his nanos and poison the fuck out of him. “Where he came from. Who he—”
“Keep going.” I didn’t have to work to sound tired. “Go ahead.”
That shut him up. Geoff’s pulse smoothed out, dropped. His breathing still came jagged and harsh, but after a few moments I couldn’t hear his heartbeat at all.
Great. I nodded, as if he’d done something expected. “Good job, sweetheart.” My arms eased even more. If he went for Sam again, I wasn’t going to restrain him. “Put a little more on the fire, we don’t want it to go out.”
He swallowed, audibly. Sam didn’t move, watching with bright avid interest. I ignored it.
There’s only so much you can allow cannon fodder.
“Jess.” Sam, subvocalizing. “He’s not your kid.”
The fuck he’s not, I thought, but I let it go. That seemed to finish up Sam’s attempt at pushing Geoff to show more of whatever interesting new talents he was developing, and while my kid stared hotly at the facilitator when he eventually hauled himself up and brushed himself off, he didn’t make another move to jump him.
The next evening, we rode into Zion.
“Smith?” Sam shook his head. “All this time? Sam Smith?”
“Like I said. Alliterative.” My fourpad, kept carefully between theirs, snorted a counterpoint to the word.
“Names are important.” I stretched my back a little, tightening a muscular algorithm. Damn beasts would wreck a warmbody riding them, why were they so common out here? “Until they’re not.”
“That why the kid calls you Abby?”
“No.” I squinted at the canopy overhead. Thinning out, and there was no doubt that we were getting close to civilization — or what passed for it out here. That blank space on the map.
There were other blank spaces on the continent, too. It was enough to make a girl think. I knew the world was round, and I knew there were other landmasses out there.
The maps that would show me those either didn’t exist, or were under heavily encrypted lock and key… or they didn’t matter. It was an article of faith that the Gene Wars had rendered much of the planet uninhabitable, at least by warmbodies. Spores in the air, bioweapons lurking in the soil, mutations drifting and curdling everywhere, just waiting to creep into your own body and start causing trouble.
It had also been an article of faith that the Waste would kill you as soon as you stepped outside City walls, and if it didn’t the radiation or the cannibals would. The corporation townships were supposed to be only for criminals and rejects, City castoffs who worked hard and died young. And yet there were warmbodies all over the place who had never seen the inside of a City, eking out a living. Even the cannibals had a rough approximation of societal rules, and traded for items they couldn’t make or scavenge.
It had never made sense to me in-City, but I’d been too busy thinking about other things. Now, outside, it still didn’t make any sense, but I had to figure it out posthaste.
Somewhere, there had to be a hidden corner where someone wouldn’t be hunting down this kid. I just had to find it.
Of course, Sam would ask me why. Didn’t matter.
“You’ve noticed he’s growing.” Sam peered past me as Geoff’s fourpad picked its delicate way along an approximation of a path. “And he’s showing signs.”
I stared past the tuft of hair atop my fourpad’s bobbing head. Signs of what? A useless question.
I slept below… they sing, you know.
What else would he end up being able to do? He was already much stronger than a warmbody should be, and faster, too. As fast as those second-gens?
Would he heal like them?
The Vines took its regular evening breath, the feathery canopy rustling, mist and steam curling between trunks and trashwood. The tree-things here were tall but relatively spindly, and the choking underbrush told me this part had been clearcut not too long ago as such things went. Added to that, the tangle of animal paths and guesswork we’d been following had turned into a reasonably well-traveled track, and there was ionization at the edges of my sensing range. Very little in the way of thopter or needle sounds overhead, and I didn’t hear a pinging for drops.
Of course, in a blank spot…
What the hell is that?
A shimmer crackled to life between the trunks and hanging vines. It wasn’t stat, it wasn’t plasma, it wasn’t lectric.
Geoff pulled his fourpad to a halt, because I’d done the same. “Mom?”
“You see that?” I beckoned a little, and his fourpad stepped back. By this time, Geoff only needed to give the beast a slight indication of which direction to step and it obeyed willingly, its hair festooned with moss that didn’t seem to bother it.
“Not exactly. Feel it.” Geoff’s eyes were round, gleaming in the failing dusk. “Something’s wrong.”
“Nope.” Sam’s teeth showed, a wide white smile. “That’s just Zion. There’s geothermals all through the Vines, and this one’s large enough to power a Trapp core and turbines. You’re looking at a Trapp field.”
I had to ping a blue-section scan on the shimmer in front of me, and it returned a spiky energy signature I never thought I’d ever see in person. “Huh.”
“Is it safe?” Geoff made an inquiring movement with his dark, bushy head. “I don’t feel good. Something’s wrong.”
“I don’t feel good either.” I eyed Sam. “When were you going to share this news?”
“Couldn’t be sure we’d all get here.” His tone plainly shouted especially in one piece. “And…”
“And, um, I’m not supposed to have brought you here.” He shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. “I was supposed to take you to a pickup point out in the flats. Transport was supposed to be waiting. But it’s the damndest thing, Jess. I can’t raise my contact even through emergency methods. And it feels hinky. Remember TakedaCorp and the shitfest that turned into?”
It’s not like I can forget. My pulse tried to speed up, a subroutine clamped down. The shimmer in the air taunted me. The TakedaCorp pressure had gone sideways in a big way. I knew what it was like to be parted out and dropped into corrosive sludge.
And after all, it had been Sam who’d fished me out.
Of course, this could be a facilitator’s game. I could be expected to feel some loyalty, right? That’s what he wanted.
“I didn’t want you to worry.” He touched his heels to his fourpad’s sides, and the beast moved forward. They slid through the shimmerfield with a brief fluorescing, man and fourpad limned like digital echoes.
I exhaled sharply, and Geoff watched me. Waiting for direction.
Our supplies were low. I could turn the fourpads loose and carry Geoff, swinging from tree to tree. Shimmy up into the canopy to get a solar charge while he slept safely below during the day. He could live off the porcines here handily.
They are closely related to humans, you know.
“Abbymom?” Tentative. “He could be telling the truth.”
“How do you know?” But I shook my head. It was pretty much useless to start questioning now. “We might as well go on in.”
Geoff kneed his fourpad forward, and I was about to follow, when the silence bloomed all around me and every instinctive hackle on me bristled.
That was when they hit me, knocking me right through the shimmer.
The second-gens could live on the bigger mammals as well. And if Geoff could find me, of course his cousins could, too.