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Tussig could not see either of the other two techs. He toyed briefly with the idea of running, but his body still felt clumsy. His toes tingled.
Bryce looked at him. "Better?"
Tussig drank more water. Clean, supplemented, not like the distilled fluid they got from Raja can's processor which usually left the particular source flavor behind even if all the pathogens and toxins were flensed.
From where he sat, Tussig could see the dispenser.
The big wall mounted unit now supported a brand new lockout on its ancient delivery ports, like a crystalline growth on its eroded and cracked face. Tussig never understood why no one had cut off its supply of raw material at the source. He blamed those nameless someones for his buddle's current trouble, since if they had done their job and made sure the dispenser lacked anything with which to make food base, fabric, or pathic treatments, then no one would have been forced to come down here to roust them. But all that happened was a tech-this one, Bryce-had come every few days to put a new seal on it. Rather than solve the problem, he compounded it. Now the buddle not only faced trespa.s.sing charges, but property damage and civil nuisance charges.
"You should've left," Bryce said. "Didn't figure you'd stay so d.a.m.n long." He fixed Tussig with an unhappy stare. "I said you'd gone-twice. If they don't dismiss me for false reporting, they'll demerit me for being an idiot."
Tussig kept silent. He looked from Bryce to the dispenser to his unconscious buddle coes and sipped at the clean water.
"What were you going to do," Bryce asked, "set up a dom here or something?" He shook his head. "Bad timing. Nine Rivers doesn't want you anymore. You should've left with the new migration last month."
Tussig stared at Bryce. "We-" He coughed. Bryce frowned at him. Tussig drank and tried again. "We were. We came late."
Bryce snorted. "Word's been round for over a year. What did you do, take the scenic route?"
"We-" Tussig looked down. After another swallow of water, he handed the canteen back to Bryce. "What are you going to do to us?"
"Don't know. We just have to remove you from the site." Bryce took a drink, then waved the canteen to include the whole factory. "Port's expanding. All this is going to be leveled and new launch pits dug out. Probably all this will be customs houses, hotels, shops." He let his arm drop and shook his head. "Imagine. Hm."
Tussig tried to envision the changes Bryce suggested, gazing around at the neglect and decay and picturing in his mind new structures and a broad field of blast pits for shuttles and- - and started crying, sudden gulping sobs shaking his frame. Bryce watched him, a dismayed expression on his face, then, awkwardly, put a hand on Tussig's shoulder.
"Hey," he said.
Tussig calmed down, uncertain why he felt so totally frightened. Bryce's hand felt pleasant on his shoulder, rea.s.suring, almost parental.
"Where you all from?" Bryce asked.
"Millispa," Tussig said. He sniffed. "Had a barge once. Lost it."
"Barge. You were invested, then. Why-"
"Freelance. Never registered."
"Ah. Unregistered, no insurance. So no barge, no home."
"We heard about the migration and voted to try. But the Millispa River's near the other side of the world. Long road on foot, begging rides, working freight along the way. Near the Mana.s.sa, we started coming into one separatist township after another. Last one didn't seem so bad-Suber's Cove."
"Heard of it. Reform Returnist, isn't it?"
"Didn't know that when we stopped. We did all right at first, selling Kess's woodcarvings and Pelu's polymer sculpture. Raja can said we should've figured what they were by what they asked for, but we were hungry. Stayed too long. Kess carved one of her eros pieces and the mayor found out. We still had two hundred klicks to Charic. By the time we arrived, the migration was over, they weren't taking any more."
"So you ended up here."
"The dispenser still worked," Tussig said, as if that fact alone excused them and put the blame for their situation on Bryce.
He almost smiled. "They never shut off outlets like that, just on the chance they might build new on a site. We never figured anybody could Jimmy one of our new seals, though."
"You never figured on Raja can."
Tussig wiped his nose with the back of his hand and wiped that on his pants. He studied the tattoos on Bryce's head.
"What are those for?" Tussig asked. "You some kind of renunciate?"
Bryce laughed. "You're smart for a nid, aren't you? Yeah, I used to be. Gave it up."
Bryce shook his head. At first, Tussig thought he would not answer. But then he said, "We were all about balance. Everything you do has to even out in the long run, so the universe can keep a rock steady course on into the future. That's what they taught, anyway. Lot of vacuum. I left when I realized how impossible it was. For me, for anyone. And who's to say the universe wants to be balanced? For all we know..." He glanced at Tussig and looked mildly embarra.s.sed. "It didn't make sense to me anymore."
Tussig nodded as if he understood. "What are you going to do with us?" he asked again.
"Don't know. We were just supposed to evict you."
"f.u.c.ken nid! Stop!"
From one of the gangways, Raja can sprinted into the alcove. He skidded to a halt when he saw Tussig. Tussig opened his mouth, thinking to warn him, when one of the techs came charging out in Raja can's wake.
The tech collided with Raja can and they tumbled forward, slamming to the ground in a heap. Raja can immediately began twisting and writhing and almost scrambled from the tech's grip. The tech-Tussig could not see which one-clawed at Rajacan's togs. Raja can drew up a leg and snapped it into the tech's sealed helmet. The tech paused, stunned, and Raja can managed to get to his feet.
Bryce stood, reaching for his sidearm. Raja can looked frantic, momentarily frightened.
The dazed tech stood. Tussig saw the rock he held just as he brought his arm up. He bashed Raja can in the side of the head. Raja can collapsed. A few moments later, blood flowed from within his hairline, covering his face.
"d.a.m.n!" Bryce yelled. He stepped forward.
The tech drew a weapon.
"Don't you dare aim that thing at me, Sidge," Bryce said, pointing at the stunner.
The tech-Sidge-staggered back a couple of steps. Bryce took another step forward and Sidge shot him.
Tussig had never seen anyone hit by a stunner before. Bryce seized up as if about to have a fit, and then flopped to the polycrete, muscles utterly relaxed, consciousness gone.
"s.h.i.t," Sidge said. A hand went to the collar and Sidge's helmet retracted.
The woman. Her face was angry, confused. She still seemed rattled by Raja-can's blow. She shook her head and approached Bryce, holding the stunner out as though afraid he would get up. When he did not move, she looked at Tussig. She regarded him narrowly for several seconds, then shrugged and went to Raja-can.
"Are they all dead?" Tussig asked, and immediately felt stupid and afraid.
Sidge looked at the others laid out. "No," she said, her voice surprisingly even. "Just stunned." She frowned at him. "You were at the extreme range. Charge wasn't as bad. Not that you know what that means..."
She rolled Raja-can over. His eyes gazed skyward, unseeing.
Sidge glanced over her shoulder, then holstered the stunner. She still moved cautiously, with a degree of uncertainty. She started patting Raja-can's body, searching.
Tussig wondered where the third tech was. He had seemed to be the leader. If he came back now and saw this, maybe Sidge would be disciplined. Maybe, with two useless people-one stunned, the other untrustworthy-he would let the buddle go. They might have time then to leave.
But without Raja-can.
Tussig watched Sidge's hands move over the lifeless body of what used to be Tussig's prime par, the head of the buddle, the man who had kept them centered, optimistic, and moving. Maybe, he puzzled, the stunner had numbed more than just his body, because he could not quite connect what he saw with anything he felt. The blow Sidge had struck had startled him, but now he seemed unable to react. There was a slow chill beginning to course through him, but that seemed a poor excuse for actual feeling.
We're nids, he thought, we don't have feelings. It follows ... we don't have anything else, not even ident.i.ties, that's what it means, after all, NID, No ID, no access, no stipend, no path, no facts, no life, just bodies no one knows what to do with, excess bioma.s.s with brains too big to be pets, too small to be dangerous, nuisances...
Tussig had heard all these things said, spoken around pathetic campfires and in disused structures where a few of them gathered from time to time to pa.s.s what they had of goods and aid and news to each other. He was uncertain he knew what the words meant, but suddenly they implied much more than they ever had before.
But why is she searching his pockets? he wondered. Doesn't she know we have nothing?
Where is the third one?
Tussig looked at Bryce. His stunner lay nearby.
We could start freeriding, Tussig thought, and turned to see if any of the port could be seen from here. No, only more walls, broken or useless, supporting nothing. But this would be port one day, according to Bryce, which is why Raja-can lay dead now. The nids had to go. Squatters.
Freeriders... the idea carried a romantic patina... they told stories of the freeriders, nids like themselves who hopped aboard shuttles and caught rides on starships. They were more myth than reality, according to Raja-can, but even he had grudgingly admitted that some truth adhered to the stories. All you needed was a kit and a breather and the tech on your back to survive the transfer upwell to the waiting ships and then the luck to hide out in cargo or some corner of engineering. Tussig had even heard of freeriders who carried along a change of fine clothes and slipped into pa.s.senger sections of luxury liners and rode from star to star in comfort, sleeping on a good bed, and thumbing their noses at the invested, living on the fringe of overlooked credit and- And Raja-can was probably right, they were all myth and madness, exaggerations based on a few reckless coes who might have managed it once or twice, but hardly as a lifestyle.
Raja-can had been right about a great deal. But he had never known he would die so soon. None of them had and now Tussig knew how wrong Raja-can could be.
Sidge shifted her position to more easily dig in Raja-can's pants, turning her back to Tussig.
The idea came as clear and clean as Bryce's water. Tussig got to his feet and stepped silently over Bryce. In a smooth motion, he swept up the stunner, walked up behind Sidge.
She began to stand. Tussig placed the stunner against the back of her head and pulled the trigger.
It was shockingly loud.
Her skull seemed to expand. She lunged forward, over Raja-can, and landed, face down, with an ugly slap.
Tussig squatted before her and gingerly raised her head by the hair. Her eyes bulged hugely and her tongue jutted. Blood ran freely from her nose. He released her and let her head smack the ground.
He tossed the stunner back over by Bryce and sat there, thinking.
He thought: I'm twelve years old and I've just killed someone.
He thought: I have nothing anyone can take from me anymore.
He thought: I'm terrified.
The rest of the buddle came to before Bryce did. As each one woke up and remembered what had happened, they saw Raja-can and the dead tech, and each one reacted differently.
Shimmer checked Raja-can's pulse, then looked at Tussig, eyes wide and terrified. The other sibs, all younger than Tussig, started to cry until Shimmer hissed at them. Kess gathered them to her, holding them.
"You?" Shimmer asked Tussig, tapping the tech on the back.
He nodded, unwilling to speak.
Shimmer shook his head. "Bad." He looked at the others, all watching, huddled together, waiting for Shimmer to tell them what to do. He wiped at his head and scowled at the blood.
"Got to a.s.sume Fera got away," Shimmer said. He sighed. "We can't have law after us, Tussig. Not this way. They ignore us mostly, but this..." He shook his head again, eyes sad, then turned toward the others. "Get the tent, gather our possibles. We're moving."
"Shimmer," Kess said, "we can't leave Tussig-"
"We can't have law after us!" Shimmer hissed. "We got them to think about. And it seems I'm prime par now."
"So the first thing you do is abandon someone?"
"A murderer, Kess. Think!"
She shook her head, but lapsed into silence.
"All right then," Shimmer said. "Move."
Tussig watched his sibs react. Within a couple of minutes they had found the chamo tent, decloaked it, and broke it down. Packs were gathered, the tent folded into its pouch, and camp, such as it had been, was struck.
"You're young," Shimmer told Tussig. "That counts for mercy."
Tussig watched his place in the buddle eliminated and thought: I have even less now.
Shimmer organized the buddle quickly, gave Tussig a last, pained look, and then led them out of the factory. Kess did not look back.
It took another ten minutes for Bryce to revive. He sat up, groaning, and held his head in his hands for a time. When he looked up, color leached from his face.
"f.u.c.k," he breathed, scrambling forward. He checked Sidge quickly, then Raja-can, and sat back. He glanced at Tussig, eyes wide, then searched for his weapon. He crawled to it and grabbed it, then stood. He aimed it first at Tussig, then at Sidge. Finally, he holstered it and looked around.
"Where the h.e.l.l is Ridel?"
Tussig shrugged when Bryce looked at him.
"You stay here," Bryce said as he walked toward the gangway.
Tussig considered running off while Bryce was gone, but it seemed pointless. His fear had blended with a profound ambivalence, a strange mix of hopeless euphoria and desperate anger that kept him fixed in place.
Bryce was gone for less than five minutes. When he returned, he looked furious. Tussig recognized the tight set of his jaw, the muscle working it between ear and mandible, the coldness in his eyes. He had seen that look in others and it had never meant anything but trouble.
"Come on," Bryce said, grabbing Tussig's arm and pulling him to his feet.
"The other tech?" Tussig asked.
"Dead. Maybe Sidge, maybe this one. Come on."
Bryce walked him out of the ruined factory, setting a quick pace. He said nothing till they reached the old road that ran alongside the abandoned compound. A transport waited there. Bryce touched the panel on its side and the hatch unsealed and opened.