approx 85,000 words
Abode of War
Well, I'll be damned. As if these kids could rule the world with no sense of history. Chiu's dry political analysis won't prepare our prototypes for diddly, but the introverted misanthropes running this circus are convinced he lends "analytical balance" to my "more esoteric approach." What runny, unfathomable glop! But it's straight from the camel's mouth, and I can't correct Admin's myopia (they're not my students, after all). So, my esteemed colleague will take over instruction of Early Twenty-First Century next month, and I'll be relegated to polishing the marble busts of our "less politically relevant" ancestors.
What idiocy. All this is, I am fairly sure, a subtle indication that conservative influence over Kalam Administration is growing. I, being what I am, will gradually be deprived of my influence in this project (and my job?). I suspect I'll be treading the icy waters of religious pedantry for a long time to come, I just hope the kids get through this unscathed.
Headcapture Entry 22:7:15:15:08
Dr. Gem Merryl
General Advisor, Arts and Humanities
Special Projects Division, Kalam Biotechnical Research
Jezz crawled out of the tunnel toward the sharp white edge of the dump wall's shadow. He was breathing hard, fighting the urge to run back to safety. It was a response programmed into him, he knew, and the frenetic warding signals from Kalam beckoned to his subconscious through layers of interfering static: return, return, they said. Still, there he was, the farthest he'd ever been from home.
"Three meters," he whispered to himself. Crossing that distance would make him an outlaw, bar him from the promised paradise of New Earth, and relieve him of a responsibility that had spawned guilt and repulsion in him from the beginning. Three meters....
Jezz shut off his visor and pulled his leg free from where it had sunk knee-deep in caustic muck. His survsuit, which had started out a desert camouflage of beiges and browns, was now coated uniformly with the grey-green sludge. He shuffled forward, the sound of his heart overbearing the noise from his communications hardware.
"Stick to that mud, kid." It was a flat, droning command over CVR audio.
Jezz froze. How? How'd they find me? He'd canceled his trace frequencies, disconnected all datalinks to Kalam -- surely his progenitors couldn't have tracked him. But who, then? He remained still, waiting.
"Just be good and play dead," the voice suggested, "I don't want a fight here." The transmission was loud and crisp, from nearby, but it's filtered tone conveyed no emotion. It was, however, using strange idioms, and ignoring Kalam protocol.
He looked out over the grim basin of sewage, searching the shadows of other tunnel outlets for the source of the broadcast. The Sun smashed off exposed concrete and clay, forcing every unlit crevice into impenetrable night. As far as Jezz knew, the waste plant was automated, with no habitable zones for kilometers in all directions. He debated briefly whether to transmit a reply, decided that if this wasn't Kaffara, he might as well pretend innocence.
"Complying," he said aloud, and lay motionless on his stomach.
"Spread eagle," said the voice.
Jezz didn't understand. "What do you mean?"
"Do a Da Vinci, kid. Arms and legs splayed out wide."
A Da Vinci? Familiar name -- an Encyc search might have revealed what it meant. But he wasn't in Kalam anymore. Stuck with my own meager brain now.
He spread his limbs.
"Good. Now stay put or I'll fry your ass."
Again, the person's choice of words was odd, like a Litvid from the twenties. Perhaps this wasn't a person at all, but the bored, dry humor of some long dead Sentrol programmer. Belatedly, he realized that had he left his visor on, most of the mystery would be solved.
Using his CVR, Jezz queried locally on a Standard Courier frequency. Neither hextalk nor trimcode produced a response -- if this was a robot, it was broken. "Sentrol?" he tried out of the corner of his mouth. The sewer mud was creeping slowly up the side of his face, stinging his skin with cool toxics. The hours he'd spent wallowing around in it didn't take the edge of its acrid reek this close up. "Sentrol?" he said again.
No reply until, a moment later, a large pair of grey boots blocked his view of the concrete basin.
"Who are you, and how the hell did you get here?" Spoken aloud, the tone was high, gruff, all business. Jezz was sure it was a woman -- or at least not a robot -- and tried to twist his head up for a confirming glance.
"Uh-uh," she said, pushing his skull back into the mud with the tip of something hard and cold. "Talk."
He lay silent for as long as he dared, searching for plausible lies. He hadn't imagined anyone but Kaffara troops ever finding him, and he smirked wryly at his own ignorance. In the end he settled on something radically short of the truth.
"I'm trying to find a way back to Kalam," he said.
"Yeah? Keep it coming."
Strange syntax again. "I traced the grid for this sewer branch via an Ithphage in Encyc's data underlayment, after that --"
"Whoa, whoa. Cut the compujargon. I want to know how you got here from Kalam. Op-sledge? Rayglider? And don't forget your bio."
"I want to know what kind of teenage boys they let romp around in this shit."
He needed to stall her, obtain more information. "I should get out of this stuff," he wagered, and held his breath.
"Maybe, but the way you're dressed it'd be worse out in the sunlight. If you want to get up sooner, talk faster."
Did people really live out here? "All right," he said, diving into a lie. "My name is Jezz, and I run metal extraction waldos in the sludge drifts...."
* * *
"So you were cut off when the tunnel collapsed?" she asked, pouring him another drought of clear, fresh water. When she handed him the mug, her blue eyes bore into his like beams of coherent light.
"Yes, exactly. Thank you," he said, grateful for the drink. Jezz avoided her gaze, carefully taking in the strange living space around him. It was a dead-end branch of pipe, capped off from the flow of waste at one end, stretching about fifteen meters back away from a spill channel. Three meters wide, it easily accommodated the odd assortment of tech gear, furniture, trinkets, and artwork--or what Jezz supposed to be artwork--the woman had collected during her stay. "And when I called for help," he continued, "the relay kept deferring me to auto."
"The automated database. It's usually just for simple informational questions, but when the dispatcher gets overloaded--"
"They route you to machines," she interrupted, a sneer of disgust creasing her features.
Jezz reflected that she wasn't really all that old, she just hadn't done any of the genorefresh treatments. It had shocked him at first -- the long, greying hair; creases around mouth and eyes; hands swollen at the knuckles and rough as rust -- but through the wear he saw a woman more energetic and alert than most Kalamites half her age. Attractive, even. Though she appeared to share none of Jezz's own Afro-Asian heritage, she was confident, self-assured; in his experience that was rare for an Anglo.
She had introduced herself as Lida as she pulled him out of the mud. He couldn't wait to start asking her some questions, but for now he had a lie to maintain.
"So you accessed this, uh, encyclopedia for blueprints of the tunnels," she said.
"Encyc, correct. Then I was cut off somehow."
She nodded slowly, lips pursing at some hidden realization. Jezz hoped she wasn't guessing the truth, but how could she?
"So, how long have you lived here?" Jezz asked, a little too quickly.
"Long time," she replied, looking around her home.
"You live here alone?"
Lida's eyes narrowed on him. "Yep. Had a couple of cats way back, but they died of TB." She rose from her stool and walked to a large, black metal cabinet. "You hungry?"
He was famished. "Yes, a little." How had she survived here? She looked fit, not too thin, and her grey paraForce survsuit -- complete with elaborate Visor and metacyclers -- shined like new. Where do her supplies come from? And where did she get that A98 assault pistol? The pistol was VVP technology, able to deliver a continuous flow of lethal polymer slugs in any shape, size or velocity desired. With some discomfort he watched the weapon dangle loosely, casually from its shoulder holster.
Lida emptied a small, freeze-dried packet into a bowl, added water and stirred. "Hope you're not a meat-eater," she said.
"No, I don't think I've ever tasted meat, although it's difficult to discern what's being fed you --" he cut himself off.
"Doesn't Kalam engineer it anymore?" Lida asked.
"I'm sure Kalam Admin personnel can acquire it, but it's probably imported." The casual exchange -- he thought it perhaps meant to put him at ease -- reminded Jezz that he had left Kalam without much of a plan, without any clear idea of how he would survive. He accepted the bowl of rehydrated food with a knot of worry growing in his stomach. "Thank you again," he said through his first mouthful. "This is really gracious of you."
"Uh-huh," she said, smirking.
Jezz focused nervously on his meal. It tasted a little like asparagus and beans, looked like pale oatmeal.
"Even more so," she added with a grin, "because I don't believe a word you've said."
"Uh, well --"
"It doesn't matter, kid." She waved away any attempt at explanation. "I think you're all right. But one thing's clear: you don't want to go back to Kalam."
"Actually, I --"
"Don't bother. You don't have a comset so you must be hardwired, which means you know we've been cut off from Kalam signals for over an hour."
It was true, nothing but timid VLF from Lida's gear greeted his CVR, and beyond that only the lazy crackle of random particles. "We're shielded in here," he said matter-of-factly.
"Right. And I've heard what that usually does to Kalamites, especially young ones like you: panic, disorientation, dementia. You were relieved when we got out of range."
Jezz didn't excuse himself, he wanted to see where she took the situation. "Okay," he said. "I don't really want to go back to Kalam."
"But you have no idea what to do."
"I had to get out," he said cautiously. "I can't tell you why right now, but that was my plan, and it worked. I'll think of another one."
"And another pathetic lie? Kid, this is reality, not some recall stim. They told you it wasn't habitable outside the periphery, right? That the only local settlement was in Kalam? Well, that's bullshit. Millions of us claw out a living in the desert, some even trade with Eurocorp, West-Hem, and others." Lida pulled something from her pocket: a slim, crumply stick wrapped in thin paper. She pressed one end against an exposed arcpad in her suit and a thin, wobbly line of smoke drifted up from its tip.
"You mean," Jezz said, "there are people living like this everywhere?"
Lida laughed. "No, kid. Not like this." She sucked on the stick for a minute and jetted a smoky sigh at him. "In the Ritz. Cool-aired apartments with running water, gardens, young nubile women laying around naked." She paused to take in his surprise, seemed satisfied by it. "Yep. Real wealth. Of course, retroviruses and drug-resistant bacteria still keep the population down."
"What is that?" Jezz gestured to the smoldering paper.
"This? Shit, kid, haven't you ever seen a cigarette?"
He shook his head.
Lida shrugged, took another puff, and went on. "It's a nasty habit. Anyway, I live here by choice. What I do out isn't your business, so you can't stay long."
"I wasn't intending --"
"Fine. I just wanted to make things clear. I'm curious about one thing. What's a teenage waldo-operator doing with hyperextensions? I thought only councilors and emissaries got rigged like that -- in Kalam, anyway."
Jezz touched his head reflexively. "I've had it since I was a kid. Lot's of people my age have internal comware." But usually not organic, not CVR technology.
"You finished with that?" she asked.
"This? Oh, yes. Thank you."
She took his empty bowl and returned to the cabinet. "Uh-huh. So you have a decent biosheild, too?"
His MECshell armor, an invisible barrier between his body and a world of undesirable molecules, was the most advanced in existence, but she didn't have to know that. "Uh...yes, I guess so."
She nodded. "Just don't let on you carry that stuff, or you're dead as sheep," she said. "That's straight from Mohammed."
"Good tech is major bucks outside Kalam, so they'd just rip you off and leave you screaming."
Jezz swallowed and reached for his mug. He assumed she meant his equipment was worth a large amount of credit, and wondered if he'd have to learn her brand of outsider jargon to survive.
"So...can you tell me where to go?" he asked meekly. The whole affair made him tense and insecure. What had he gotten himself into?
"You sure you don't want to go back?" she asked, drilling him again with her blue eyes.
"I can't, not now. I'd be worse off there." Jezz felt cold darkness reaching for him.
Lida sat down across from him again. "You know, it's gonna be tough out there, really bad for the first few months."
"No naked women lying around?" His attempt at humor won a broad flash of teeth.
"Good. That's good. Keep it up and you might make it --" Lida unexpectedly sprang to her feet, drew her pistol and ran toward the spillway. "Stay here kid," she hissed, and disappeared around the corner.
Jezz's mouth hung open, about to ask what was wrong but mumbling instead, "You sure move fast."
A moment later she was back.
"Come on, we're splitting."
"Ass in gear, on the road, moving out, got it?"
"What's wrong?" But she had grabbed a backpack from a corner of her nest and was already jogging away.
"Later. Come on, stay close," she whispered.
Jezz gathered his wits and ran after her.
* * *
A quick sprint down the spillway, then running through an endless series of turns, branch-offs, ladders and crawl spaces, until, at the end of his breath, they came out on a broad cement platform within what looked to be a natural cavern. The sharp stench of sewage was replaced with a metallic, earthy odor.
"Keep your Visor dimmed, we don't want to attract any sewer rats," Lida said. She seemed barely winded.
He turned down his visor's intensity so only their own body heat lit the immediate area. He didn't ask what she meant by "sewer rats," but assumed it was another euphemism for "things unpleasant."
"Ready for anything?" she asked jovially.
"Can you tell me what we're running from?"
"Kalam Kaffara. They tracked you -- or that's my guess -- so you must be worth something."
Jezz felt his knees turn to hot wax. "Oh, no...."
"Yep. Raygliders, troopers, even a copter. So when I get you out of this, you're going to tell me what they want, right?"
And what it was worth to her? He wondered. "Um --"
"Or maybe you should tell me now?"
There was the slightest peep from Jezz's CVR, an interruption in the smooth pink noise that had accompanied his freedom. Kalam Kaffara? "We have to go," Jezz whispered.
"Oh, I know that. I just want to know why."
Jezz looked around the platform, wondering if he could find his way out alone. He strongly suspected he couldn't. Make a stand? With what? This was the kind of choice he'd be making a lot of from now on, he surmised.
"What if I can't do that?" he said.
"Then I guess we'd better get moving."
Relief rolled over him as Lida turned and lowered herself over the edge of the platform. "Down here," she said. He followed.
The ladder led to a heavily corroded hatch in the side of the platform.
"Help me with this," she said. They worked the latch till it gave with an echoing pop, then clambered into the dark opening. Jezz watched Lida's supple body twist and flex as she shut the hatch behind them. Something like desire warmed him.
"Whispering in here carries better," she said. "We'll be able to comlink in a while." The papery reverberations defined a long, narrow corridor leading away into blackness.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
"To market, kid. Into town."
* * *
The miles of intersecting corridors were perfectly uniform, defying the most rigorous memory, but Lida never hesitated, rarely slowed. It was exhausting, and reminded Jezz of the field training he'd received in Kalam. His genetic twin, Mich, had refused to subject himself to the grueling daily ritual, and had ended up in a reprog isolation tank as reward. Jezz shook off the chilling memory.
As they walked or jogged the narrows halls, he caught glimpses of iridescent access panels, scurrying rodents the size of small dogs, and streaks and puddles of oily water -- all opaque outlines of grey and white through his visor. The sound of their footsteps echoed in muffled counterpoint to every movement, accompanied by the occasional hiss of startled rats. An organic rotting smell permeated the cold air.
After four or five hours, they came upon a stairway leading up toward hints of daylight several flights above.
"Visor off," she said, removing her own.
"Okay. We're going to stay comlinked from here on out. I want you to stay close, and not say a word to anyone. Got it?"
"Is this really a city?"
"A little village compared to Kalam, but yeah. Oh, one more thing --" She pulled a comset from her backpack. "I want you to wear this like its your own."
"I'm not sure I know how --"
"Not use it, just wear it. Let's go."
He affixed the narrow strips of black metal to his forehead and jaw, and they started up the stairs.
"Oh," she turned back to him, "and don't look at anyone. Eyes on the ground."
"Look at the ground," he repeated.
They began their assent, stepping carefully up slippery, mossy ledges. Gradually the light brightened, and Jezz could vaguely hear the distant whoosh and whir of vehicles passing overhead. He was, he thought excitedly, about to begin a new life, one where he could shape his own destiny.
Suddenly Jezz's CVR exploded with emergency signals, a uniform broadcast on nearly all frequencies -- then a cacophony of coded high-speed military bursts overtook the slower traffic. Jezz was so stunned he didn't realize Lida was propelling him back down the stairs. He looked up to see her lips forming words, but the noise --
A blast of white light engulfed everything around them. A thundering boom hurled Jezz against concrete, crushing his left arm under him, slamming his head with a dull crack. He struggled to stay conscious, reactivated his visor to map a chaos of rubble and tangled metal. The wobbly scan revealed Lida sprawled angularly nearby, umoving. He tried to get up, but a hot, rushing wind was sucking all the air out of his lungs. He clutched after the O-tube tucked into his survsuit collar, fumbled with it, almost had it in his mouth....
* * *
Jezz awoke on his side, staring at the Lida's dim form as she squatted over her backpack. There was more natural light now, sifting down a dusty, ragged shaft overhead. She was fondling some fist-sized piece of equipment; a cigarette smoldered between her lips.
Jezz cleared his throat and tried to sit up. Fell back with a cry of pain.
Besides the fiery agony ramming through his left arm, he was shocked to discover his feet and arms tightly bound.
"Decided to live?" asked Lida, turning to him.
Jezz tried to stay calm. "Why am I tied up?"
"Well, I suppose because you have no where to go. Martown is nuked to cinders, and until I know what happened, I'm holding you responsible." Her face was bruised badly on one side, and a gash on her chin glistened. A drained, angry expression hardened her features.
"Me? How could I--"
"I don't know otherwise, do I?" she interrupted, her voice harsh. "Besides, one senseless act deserves another." And she turned back to her task.
Jezz diluted his confusion the best he could and began carefully framing what he knew he would eventually have to say. Would she believe him? Beyond that, why would Kalam nuke a town on his account? It didn't make any sense, and his arm throbbed past his attempts at reason so he let the question go.
"Lida?" he said.
"Uh-Huh," she replied, not looking at him.
"I'm not human. Not exactly."
She didn't turn, didn't acknowledge his revelation.
Should he go on?
"Seems like they got a warning, at least," she said, gesturing to the device in her hands. "I sorted through the broadcast traffic in my log, and Martown was already mobilized. And --" She looked meaningfully at him. "-- Kalam Kaffara called their brilliant military maneuver a 'plague vector elimination.' Know anything about that?"
Maybe, thought Jezz, hoping he was wrong. He wondered about those who'd perished in the city above, whether Lida had friends or family among them. "I'll tell you what I know," he began. He took a shaky breath. "My genome is programmed for constant refresh, comparing itself to a synthetic template engineered in Kalam." Jezz paused for her reaction, but her face was blank. He went on. "I'm a prototype for a new kind of animal that can survive in our disrupted ecosystem."
Lida closed her eyes, rubbed her temples. "A prototype, right. How many of you are there?"
"We're not cloned. Diversity is essential, so we --" he paused, shaking off memories of the playground, the opdorm, the laughter and deception. "Anyway, there are thousands of us. All of us are kept my age --or thereabouts -- until we're ready. I've been a biological seventeen for a few years now."
"Ready for repopulating the Earth, is that it?"
"Yes," he said.
"And the plague?"
Jezz looked away. "Part of the plan is to eliminate any competition with our species."
"And whose wonderful plan is this?"
"Kalam Admin. Ah. I suppose you and the other lost boys and girls are carriers, then."
Jezz nodded. "It's not active yet, though. Besides, my bioshield would block it. I don't know why they --"
"You little fucking snot! What the hell were you doing?" Lida stood and limped stiffly toward him through the rubble, threw her cigarette on the ground. "Thought you could run away from your own miserable fucking flesh? Huh? That Kalam would just forget you? Little plague-carrier goes his merry fucking way?"
Jezz searched his aching head for words. "They couldn't know what happened to me, I covered my trace --"
"Or maybe your escape is just a piece of the bigger picture?" she interrupted. "Is that it?" She pulled her A98 and leveled it at his head. "Is that it?"
"No, wait Lida--"
"Give me a good reason, kid, because I don't have anything left to lose." She meant it.
"I didn't even know there was anyone out here!" Jezz pleaded. "I thought the virus was for Kalam population, don't you see? I was trying to get away, to hide. I didn't want to be part of it."
"If that's the best you can do," she said, "I guess you're dead."
Hot blood exploded through chest and limbs as terror stalked him. "Wait! I can save you from the plague!"
Lida blinked, a worried expression tightening her features. "That's worth something," she mumbled dryly. "Keep talking."
Jezz grappled with a dearth of possibilities, finally settling on the least misleading. "If we can locate a genorefresh facility, I think your tissue could be modified using part of my template. You'd look younger, be resistant to the plague."
Lida's chuckle was bitter. "Quick way to win my heart, kid, but the only refreshers within a thousand klics just got nuked. Besides, we probably absorbed a healthy dose of gamma ourselves." She lowered the weapon. "Shit. This is really, really fucked."
"If there were a way, your replacement DNA would be resistant to radiation, too," he said dully.
"There's not a way," she responded in kind.
Despair threatened to extinguish his thoughts altogether, when the obvious occurred to him. "We could...go back."
"I could, deary, and I already thought of that. Nope, they found my place for sure--probably trashed it."
"No, I mean to Kalam. I know someone who could help us there."
Lida shot him a disbelieving look, let it linger on him till he squirmed with embarrassment. Then she covered her eyes and shook her head. She sat heavily, took a deep breath, and holstered the gun. "Into Kalam..." she said, strained.
"One of my teachers, a civilian --" he began, but saw a tear gliding over Lida's bruised cheek.
"I don't have a damn thing left," she said. "Not a damned thing."
"Lida, I'm sorry...." Words. He wanted to explain, to somehow reach across the chasm between them, touch this person he had hurt. "If --"
"Can it," she said sharply. "Tell me your plan. Then I'll decide what to do with you."
* * * * * * * *