The story I posted last week, it continues. Usual caveats about first time I've done this, rough draft, please be nice, yadda-yadda-any more whining I haven't thought of yet-cakes.
The story I posted last week, it continues. Usual caveats about first time I've done this, rough draft, please be nice, yadda-yadda-any more whining I haven't thought of yet-cakes.
A couple years after I’d been dumped into it, our crib finally got around to busting through the Admin blocks on the Net. In theory, only the employeds who could afford it had access to a crude one-way digisat feed, maybe basic email if they were cleared. Theoretically. In practice, once you’d managed to scoff the right equipment plus keep somebody’s woman’s cousin the mech nerf happy for long enough, you had access to…well, with our nerf, mostly a bunch of old-skool comic scans.
I kind of liked him, actually; when anyone tried to look over his shoulder he reverted to an interestingly impenetrable haxxor patois, and insisted on calling himself Destro despite being the one guy in the gang I could probably have gotten decent odds against in a takedown. In the event, all I had to do was sit quiet and let him tell me how Iron Fist could jam Usagi Yojimbo anytime anywhere, and eventually he let me off to look at the news feed while he went to collect some more equipment.
With fingers that could barely type for trembling with excitement, I dug into the google engine. Poked in my own name – I had some hazy idea of an official search, albeit a bit baffled by the concept of ‘milk cartons’. Literally held my breath as the results scrolled down the screen…a lot of them. More than I’d expected. I cliked at random.
…oh. Not about me.
I cliked some more. Not me at all. Except as the son of Professor Reyes, noted astroengineering spert…killed tragically in a tragic shuttle accident. Tragic, wasn’t it? Lots and lots of analysis, assigning blame, ‘where did we go wrong?’ et cetera. It was especially tragic, they all concluded, because she had left behind her esteemed husband, Raphael Ramos, head of R&D at Quattro Corp…oh, and her son, Joshua, age ten. Raphael Ramos was unavailable for comment…seemed he’d disappeared rather suddenly, to take a new post at Quattro’s interests on Earth. He and his son were off to start their new life, free of memories…
I sat for awhile after that, staring at a suddenly totally meaningless screen. Earth. He’d told everyone he was taking me to Earth with him…just like in the stories. Like David Copperfield, like Jane Eyre. Even like Oliver Twist…The inevitable reunion scene, the happy ending.
And here I was, all the time. Trapped. Forever. Thinking away…
Things began to swim insistently through the surface numbness; other realities I hadn’t had time, or inclination, to process up to now. My father had hated me…no, not hated. Didn’t want me…why? It’s not like I took up a lot of space or anything…Watched me…nervous. I made him nervous. Well, hey, I made a lot of people nervous. Which was even more stupid…unless…
My head came up. I took a closer look at the article, reread something I’d skimmed past too quickly before. ‘Said Denis Lysander, CEO of Quattro…’
Lysander. He hadn’t been nervous around me. Had in fact been…interested. Of course, adults were good at being interested, that was just the way they got through the day, like asking each other how they were. “And how did we do in school today?”
Still…The CEO of the planet’s biggest megacorp was interested in me. What I could do. But my father, his loyal flunky, was afraid. And not a week later, loyal flunky’s wife – my mother – had had a tragic accident.
I heard rustling sounds behind me. Quickly I pulled up a google on Lysander. That list was long…and detailed. Quattro had its paws on a whole lot of cred, apparently. Manufacturing, mech development…bioresearch. Genetic modifications…on plants and animals, of course. Not people. Even the most dedicated of rule-twisters couldn’t get around the bio-laws…could they?...
I paused mid-rationalization, because it wasn’t working. Rumours of illicit surgeries had been swirling around sports for a long time. So-called augs were common enough on the City streets – I could personally vouch for guys with more muscle, more speed than seemed human.
But nothing more imaginative than that…and that’s where it all just broke down totally, over my imagination. Two seconds past realising exactly what happened when I let it run away with me, and here I was again. Seriously, starring in my own meta-thriller would probably require that I’d been given the ability to bend reality or something. All I did was…remember things. What the hell did anyone have to be afraid of? You’d think I would’ve been installed in a nice cozy corner of a Quattro lab a long time ago…
…then again, I almost had been, hadn’t I? My mother had died, and my father had fled…somewhere…and Lysander had come for me. Only – maybe I’d been putting some of this together subconsciously even then. So I got away. Or at least, became an Unreg. Same thing. Got lost in the teeming millions. Maybe he couldn’t really even try and find me now without calling attention to…
Destro returned right about then, and I had to devote everything I had to the Aquaman-vs-Namor struggle to prevent him from checking my history logs too closely. But later, curled up in my basement corner, I lay awake thinking things over. It had become too strong a habit, thinking.
So I tossed back and forth between melodramatic and not, for a long while. How to find out – I slammed into a dead end. Toyed with the idea of trying to find my father – maybe stowing away on a shuttle to Earth, or something - but finally gave it up. Which stuck me…I put my head under my filthy blanket and cried, again, for the first time since that first night. It was the closest thing to a happy ending I had left.
A few months later, I was scuttling home on a blandly grey midautumn night – they let me go out on my own, now, at least when there wasn’t too much at stake. This wasn’t much, just payment for somebody’s favour. Anyway, I’d decided to try a new way back, just for…variety, I guess. There was too much going on along my usual route. Too many lights.
Come to take a closer look…there was a light on in the side way I had ducked down, too. Which of course meant I should’ve ducked the hell back out of there…not crept closer. Then closer, when I realised what it was. A shop window…a tech shop. At this end? No securiplex curtain down, either. I peered through a shabby clutter highly reminiscent of Destro’s lab….assuming he’d suddenly acquired every single piece of mech he’d ever yapped to the hoods about. The light was coming from one of the terminal screen. A Net terminal. Logged on.
Well. That was something I hadn’t seen since – well, since our link had broken down, not too long after –
OK, so I said thinking was a habit, I didn’t say what kind. All I know is, I was suddenly just as desperate to get at that connexion as any chem addict. So much so that I convinced myself over the protesting emptiness of the shopfront that anyway, it couldn’t hurt to check, could it? My hand went to the door; lo and behold, it turned. Heart slopping into my throat, I eased myself in and began to pick as noiselessly as I could through the mess…
“Uh, hello? Anybody her – unghh!”
I just barely managed to stop myself falling over onto a pile of motherboards. Mostly from complete and total disbelief. No lights had gone off, no sirens blared…but somehow a thick durasteel cable had come snaking out of the pile and now had my ankle in a vise grip. It looked like something out of a third-rate sci-fi vid - the kind where the villain’s trap explodes as soon as the hero tries to pull it off. Because this was so obviously the mech shop front for World Domination, or something. I glared wildly around at all the non-cutting-tool mech -
A light suddenly zapped into my eyes. Two figures burst out of the back office door I hadn’t noticed. Both kinda smallish, actually…and neither, to my intense relief, armed. Apparently the ancient protection for kids and fools had kicked in just in time. I was able to register one wiry middle-aged man and one stocky boy about my age just before the kid grabbed at my arm and flung it into the air, like a trophy.
“Ha!” he crowed. “Tolyal it’d work, Sooley!” To prove his total mastery of the dangerous criminal underworld, he swept my arm behind my back and jammed me forward with it, toward his – boss? “Promised you, dint I?”
“You did, my friend...” Whatever his rank, the older guy was clearly the less easily impressed of the partnership. “…The trouble is, you promised me a big fish. Not little minnows.” He stepped closer in, studying me with what seemed to be genuine interest. After a pause that had his sidekick nearly dancing with impatience, he asked, “What’s your name, minnow?”
Dumb question, I thought. Deserved a dumb answer…”Josh - ow!”
The kid had actually kicked me in the trapped shin. “You answer Mr. Suleimain right or you answer me, boy!”
“Tek!” Suleimain cut the word off like a whipcrack. “It isn’t necessary. I do not doubt that…Josh…has received your point fully, yes?”
“Yessir,” I said in the shards of my nice-well-meaning-kid voice. “I wasn’t meaning any harm…saw the light on. I wanted…” My eyes travelled over to the open terminal in spite of myself. Suleimain’s followed…then went past, into the middle distance, until he seemed to be considering the universe at large.
“Minnows run, bigger fish follow,” Tek muttered implacably.
That snapped Suleiman – whom I now had no doubt was in charge of the whole setup – right out of it. “No…no. I do not think so, not this time. Let him go.”
“Do as I say. If there are consequences…well, there is no doubt now you can handle them, yes?”
Good thing I had an excuse to look down, just about then. The only thing that was keeping my face straight was the weight of Suleimain’s eyes…but incredibly, when I looked up from the ankle operation, he was smiling back at me.
“That terminal is well worth a look,” he said slowly. “Worth more than I think you understand. A boy who knew its worth would not, I think, walk into such a trap so easily. So I let you go...but I do not forget. Neither do you, yes?”
I swallowed hard. “Nosir…” Waited, past the klunk of the vise dropping free. He didn’t say anything else, though. Just kept smiling pleasantly. Tek glared. I got out of there.
I’d come to what I figured was a pretty fair compromise with myself: think about whatever you like - just don’t think about options, and you never have to acknowledge that you don’t have any. Simple…except now it seemed one of us wasn’t playing fair after all. I was horrified to discover just how easily my defenses shattered. Over the next days, as I slogged through the next rounds, that terminal haunted me like a reopened wound.
Finally myself and I decided that since I didn’t have any options anyway, checking that shop out again wouldn’t…actually…hurt anything seriously. Maybe I could apologise, make myself useful somehow, then maybe – maybe what I really needed to do was to turn around and finish the errand I’d been given.
Too late. As I turned off the main street I ran flat into Tek, coming the other way. Joy.
“Well, now…” He didn’t seem particularly guarded now; in fact he positively sauntered towards me. “You saved me some good time today, boy. I was just on my way to pick you up.”
“Do tell,” I countered. Not Shakespeare, but still…in broad daylight, I felt a lot surer of my ground. After all, I wasn’t the one who’d come up with such an idiotic trap in the first place. Besides which I was just now noticing that he was about a head shorter than I was. “And who are you, again?”
He spit on his knuckles – by way of showing me he hadn’t figured I was worth coming armed – but he didn’t put them down. Instead they sprang out clawlike and grabbed me by the collar -
Oh, for the love of –
The grip got tighter. “What’s so funny? You callin me…”
“G-damned Batman. Not Flash.”
“You be crazy.”
“Nope. Check the scan.”
Silence, for a long moment. Then finally he shoved me off. “I got better things to check on…” Watched scornfully as I stumbled backwards and swiped at my chin. “…listnen to a noob who thinks this Batman’s his like great-uncle or somethin.”
And…somehow I completely ignored my massive flashing laseite cue to just leave him to it. I’ve wondered, sometimes, what would’ve happened if I hadn’t.
Maybe nothing different. Because he wasn’t moving out of my way, either. For a few more moments we both just stood there, considering each other.
“How’d’yal ken what’s in the scans, anyway?” he asked finally.
I shrugged. “I read.”
“Yeah…you read. I read too. Yal be amazed, how popular reading is. That ain’t what I asked.” His eyes narrowed. “Most of the noobs, they’re the ones don’t care bout reading. They just maybe care bout knowin their names. What’s your name?”
I told him…and was totally unprepared to see faint recognition in his face.
“Ramos…OK, here’s something I remember, now. Tolyal I read - I read the net feed, right? A few years ago, I was reading it then. There was an accident, a shuttle blew up. On the feed for weeks, I read it all, I wanna ken the trouble with the mech. Biggie lady proff cacked. Somewhere in there, they said the name Ramos…husband and son, they said. Joshua, they might’ve said. When they start sayin that, the good mech stuff’s run out, I stopped reading.”
“Now there’s a story, right?” He was stepping forward again, watching me too closely. “Contestant no.1, yal wanna fill the audience in?”
Not particularly, no.
“Yeah,” he mused into my silence. “Little Joshua boy fall from the heavens above, I bet that’s a tale to tell. Maybe…hey…” Speculation lit the dark face. “You got a reward out on you, by any chance…?”
“– Now, what’s funny?”
I just shook my head. The notion that my crib might’ve actually been better off just taking me back home was something I was beyond translating, at the moment. “Forget it, man. Everybody else has.”
“Uh-huh. You remember, though, don’t you, Joshua boy? – “
“Josh,” I told him evenly, “will do fine.”
He didn’t miss a beat. I realised that I’d stopped expecting that he would.
“OK, Josh. You remember, and you talk. Three years, is it? And you still talk.” He swung around, contemplating a torn poster flapping against the durabrick…then swung back.
“You talk to your hoods like that? Yeah…” He grabbed at me again. Missed. Again with the eye-narrowing. “Yeah, maybe you do, maybe you don’t. But maybe I gotta give Sooley more credit.”
I thought about the way the old man had sized me up. “Not if he thinks there’s a reward out on me, you don't."
“Naw, naw, man. Sooley, he kens the real. You know who Mama Christmas be?”
On quick reflection, I did. She ran one of the pleasure places up on what was called the town side, a kind of dividing line with the employeds’ end. One of our hoods had tried to keep hold of one of her women past the due date, once, and come back looking like the back end of a flivver met a...I grinned in spite of myself. In the two seconds before the implications set in, anyway.
He nodded sagely, at which of the concepts I had no idea. “Yeah. Well, Sooley’s her big man, you low? He gives her what she needs, so she keeps him long and she listens. That’s the real. So now he says you what he needs, she says she takes you under.”
Uh-huh. And here I thought I’d given up being surprised by anything… “Y’know, it sounds great, tell Sooley thanks, but I’d really hate to break up such a beautiful relationship. You finished now?”
“Naw, man!” I didn’t think he actually needed to look that amused, but whatever. “You talk, but you don’t know much. Mama C, she about the girls. I’m the one she took under long time passin, since a sweet little baby maybe, and I don’t get nothing in that house…less I talk up the sweet, but she don’t know that. Sooley, he’s the mech. Supplies her, supplies that whole end. Even a lot of employeds. He’s the one says he wants you, in the shop. Why he cares, you ask him, not me. I’m just the messenger man. He tells me to tell you, say the word and he’ll fix it with your crib.”
My turn to eye him sceptically. He wasn’t talking about a polite transfer of papers. “The last time he saw me, he was rescuing me from his shop. From you, actually.”
“I know. And I din’t say I be giving hands to this. But Sooley…” He shrugged. “Maybe you remember too much, you get?”
Yeah, maybe he had a point. Also maybe I was a bit dazzled just by the idea of having a choice at all. At any rate, I stopped thinking right about then and didn’t start up again until a couple days later, when Tek, plus a big husky he was seriously enjoying ordering around, escorted me into the living quarters at Mama Christmas’.
Outside of my imagination, I didn’t anyway have any reference at all for what this was. The rooms I’d just been through, the ones the public saw, they were the public’s idea of a pleasure palace; mostly cheap plush and glitter. This was…opulent. Real. I was swamped by a wave of happy-ending so strong I actually had to stop for some seconds to fight it off before I could follow Tek inside. These people made no habit of succouring orphans and widows, that got a lot clearer when I did make it in. Everyplace I looked were intricate tasteful harmonies just itching to be shattered by a fourteen-year-old.
The husky took up a respectful position by the door. Tek, on the other hand, went strolling right on across the glossy floors as if he were expecting a date, not his…boss? Guardian? OK, so the not-thinking thing, bad idea. I glanced back at the door; got a bored nod. After one last irresolute look from myself to the room, I followed instructions.
As we were passing by a chair a blue shape flowed out, as if the silk on the cushions had suddenly come to life and dropped to the floor…meowing imperiously all the way. A Terran cat…It made one familiar pass around Tek’s ankles, then stalked over and pinned me with wide green eyes. I’ve always kind of liked cats, especially when they’re not the yappy little complication-increasing dogs I was expecting, so I gave in and scritched him behind the ear. Y’know, “Hello kitty, hello Toby-cat, how are-“
“Whatd you call him?”
“Sorry?” Tek was giving me a close approximation of the look he’d worn when we first met, only now with new improved suspicion. I mean, it wasn't like the thing was wearing a diamond collar, or anything.
“That cat,” he said slowly, ‘his name is –“
“Tsar Tobias of
Oh. Toby. The hell...? I stared at Tek, who was still staring back…