About Meeting the Girl (From Laws of Space/Added Content)
The Laws of Space: A Novel By Tyler Wood
Chapter 1: Drinking and Vaporized Humans
He stood in the alleyway, cast partially in shadow, watching them rush by. His frame was covered by a tattered cloak as the sun descended and the air chilled. A few defunct souls noticed but none would approach; no one approached anybody here. Only his piercing eyes could be seen by the Hopers and the Breathers as they made their way back to the Doms; he cut a rather menacing figure, scarf over the face, bottle dangling by gloved fingers. The little ones scurried along the sides of the thoroughfare, probably anxious to avoid anyone, most of all the specter in half-light.
It was vexing to see a person drinking in public, though it wasn’t against one of the Laws. Strange is all, whispered one of the Breathers. He didn’t mind their mutterings, not right now. Another pull from the bottle. It spilled and soaked through the scarf, prompting self-mockery and laughter from the alley man. The sound of it was foreign, foreign as him, an unwanted candle amidst murk and gloom. Pull it down, then drink. The mistake was the product of distraction and weariness. Then came a subtle self-reminder that he was there by choice. This was his spot, day after day, for months now.
A Spacer lived just across the way and over a large hill, behind walls that would never have to be used, behind fences left from the time before. Most of the people walking by were aware, knew to keep their distance and then some. You couldn’t know when a Spacer might move; your proximity chip might call out late or simply be defective, so you had to be careful. The alleyway was far enough. That’s why he was there, watching, drinking. In truth, unlike the hapless masses traipsing across his field of vision, most of the time he enjoyed himself.
The man turned his face from the thoroughfare a moment, pulling down the wet fabric so as not to repeat his foolishness. It tasted like venom and kicked like fire. For a moment the good life begged back. As the alcohol burned its way down his insides he peeked at his left palm. A digital imprint imbedded in the skin read Minus Seven Credits. “Is that all,” he smiled, once again covering his face to turn back to the languid, plodding crowd. Some looked haggard, some pale, some ill-used and all underfed. This was the worst section of City Five, and City Five was the most forsaken of what remained. It didn’t make sense to put one of them here, adjacent this sad, broken highway. It was probably a neophyte or one that was on the way out—that’s how things worked.
The sun was nearing the horizon, making it hard to see clear across the way. He could hear two little ones yelling in the distance—exactly what he was afraid of. Setting the bottle down, he stepped carefully into the crowd, keeping distance from those around him. There were so many. Meandering through the river of Hopers and Breathers, he struggled to source the tiny voices. “Sorry, sorry,” he repeated, hands raised, trying to seem as innocuous as possible. Most of them shied away; he was a moving statue imposing itself against a stream of the frail and weak.
At long last he spotted the kids in the failing light. They were roughly thirty yards away, yelping about some food, each tugging on an end of a tough loaf of bread. Oh God. “Boys!” he screamed, speeding up his pace, continuing to avoid contact.
“Stay out of it,” brayed the one with his back turned to him.
“Stay out of it,” echoed the other. They hadn’t noticed, but in their fracas they had made their way outside of the designated safe path.
“I’ll leave you be gents, but my signal says you’re too close. That’s a Spacer up there, right over that hill. Have you been tested?”
“Stay out of it,” said the one farthest away, yanking on the bread. His adversary didn’t let go. Momentum was taking them closer every second.
“Have you been tested?” he repeated.
“I have,” snapped the one farthest away.
“Dammit,” he screamed, diving for the kid he could reach, clattering onto broken concrete. It was too late for the other one—in a breath there was nothing left of the little body but ash and dust. The boy he saved wriggled wildly in his arms. No one was allowed to touch the untested. They had no chips, after all, no protection. He looked up for a moment. Sky Eyes.
“Boy,” he said, shoving the struggling youngster a safer distance away. “Why didn’t you listen? You see what’s happened?”
“Who cares? I got the bread. Stay out of it.”
Still sitting on the pavement, the man eyed the intractable urchin slinking into the crowd, holding up his loaf like a trophy. He turned back to the pile of ash, cursing himself and mourning the life he failed to save. Killed by hunger and an unknowing Spacer. For a moment he wondered after the lives he might have taken.
Rising up, he dusted off, not knowing how much was dust and how much was, well…
“Hey,” said one of the Hopers. It was one of many now surrounding him. A crowd had congregated.
“It is. You were right,” said another. Breathers and Hopers alike began to point and mumble in their disbelief, their amazement. The dead child was of little consequence. The man was news.
He needed a drink more than ever. Licking his lips, he realized the scarf had fallen. They knew. Annoyed but not afraid, he shrugged his shoulders. The crowd wouldn’t hurt him, couldn’t. No one dared break the Laws.
“By all that’s—you’re right,” said a jagged faced Breather. The mumbles grew louder. “You don’t forget the most famous face in the world. That there is Alder Tate.”
Chapter 2: Lice, Good Conversation, etc.
“Did you see the report?”
“Terrible, just terrible.”
“Down with the rabble. So filthy.”
“I know. I saw.”
“Alder. Alder Tate.”
“I saw that on my Worldview. Sky Eyes recorded it.”
“He’ll be dead.”
“Within a week.”
“The disease. The air.”
“Dead for sure.”
“Just imagine the lice.”
“Dead. Likely murdered. Miscreants. Thieves. Banditry.”
“Just imagine the smell.”
“Can you imagine?”
“It’s disgusting. Who does he think he is?”
“Not the Alder Tate we knew.”
“You know I admired him once.”
“As anyone. And handsome. That face. Strong jaw, big blue eyes…”
“You can’t trust anybody.”
“He actually touched the child. I almost did once when my number fell.”
“You poor thing. The thought I could be next gives me fits.”
“I know. It’s disgusting. At least it’s one less person.”
“Administrator signing off.”
“Yes. Be mindful of your thoughts.”
“Just thinking about it, you could get a fever.”
“No sense taking chances.”
“Detoxify. Surely a necessity.”
“Mind your Space.
“Mind your Space.”
“Very well. Mind your Space. Administrator signing off.”
Chapter 3: Teaching—A Biohazard
It was simply her time. For the lucky it never came, for others it came more than once; her number had fallen. The Laws stated she be tasked with a group of dirty, uncouth Charges for a period of one month. It was not punishment; your number fell at random, based on a complex algorithm. Plucked from a life of health, isolation, productivity and achievement, here she was.
Educational Facility 25.
It was punishment.
She was counting.
Looking at her Charges through a protective biohazard helmet, a mixture of suppressed memories flooded her cerebral cortex. She’d been one of them, after all. Everyone started from the same place in the Five Cities. After Continuation all were brought here for rearing, raising, and learning.
“Children, settle in. We have much to cover today.” The unruly youngsters ceased fighting and prattling, slumping into their desks. It was healthy and good to facilitate pugnacious physical interfacing. Years of study showed that only through genuine conflict interaction could the little ones truly learn to loath each other. It was a way of getting it out of their systems, before the System.
Hers was a decent bunch, petulant and bitter, but there was much more to teach. This group, like every other, shared the same birthday; in two weeks they would be 8 years old and the Test would be administered. Chips would be implanted.
“What will we be learning today, Susa Burke, L9?” asked a little one. Despite the contrarian sentimentality of the class, they had a level of reverence for their instructor. She was a Level Nine Spacer, after all. There were only ten levels, and nobody got that high, save the Administrator.
“Today we will be discussing your upcoming birthdays.” The clear plastic of her visor started to fog; just thinking about the Test made her sweat. More memories came, a patchwork of images and emotions playing in her head. Susa couldn’t remember taking the Test but recalled the fear that surrounded it.
“Where does the chip go?” asked Lucie, one of the brighter charges. Susa believed she would do well, but it was hard to predict the ways of the System.
“Lucie, you know where.” The instructor patted her right shoulder with two gloved fingers.
“Can we see yours?”
“Now, you know that’s not possible; if I took off this suit for even a moment I could be contaminated.”
“Contaminated. We’re not contaminated. We don’t have suits.” It was Kiernan, by far the most truculent of all her Charges. He questioned everything and nettled everyone in his path, even Susa with her Level Nine. She should have despised the little creature but she harbored an ironic fondness for the tiny snipe.
“Enough, Kiernan. Let’s try to get through the day without anymore outbursts. You can argue and fight, bite and scratch to your heart’s content. Just save it for later. This is my time.”
For seven hours, the Charges listened and took notes about what was to come. The Test was a flawless predictor of human potential, able to solidly place a person in their appropriate caste. Of course, the Test was not the end. One could be granted more or less Space based on their service and devotion to the good of the System from that day forward. She only had to use the example of the disgustingly famous Alder Tate to illustrate the point; Susa had watched that incident the day before her arrival at EF 25. After a fall of such magnitude, it was only a matter of time before he made news.
“In closing, what are your fundamental Laws?” she asked.
STAY OUT OF IT. MIND YOUR SPACE. TO TOUCH IS TO DIE.
“Good. Now run along. Tomorrow is another day.”
After dismissal, Susa made her way through the backdoor of the classroom. The building was quite large, shaped like a barracks, with three distinct areas. She taught in the common area, where the children were free to roam and scrap after classes broke. The center section was the decontamination and preparation area, solely used by whatever Spacer was in service. Past that was the largest section, a sterilized, hermetically sealed chamber. This was and would be Susa Burke’s home for the next fifteen days.
Finally cleansed, she entered her quarters and took her first deep breath of the day. Despite all the precautions, despite her untrammeled character, she was terrified. Go wash your face. Calm down. Susa did as her thoughts commanded, but the tension kept rising. It’s natural. It will all be over soon. A slight buzz in her left palm as it read BP—RECOMMEND CALM AGENTS.
“No kidding,” she said, staring into the mirror. A look at herself usually dissuaded anxiety. She’d been told she was perfect for Continuation. Hundreds of suitors had tried to break her Space, but all had been rebuffed. Lying down, the thought of her Charges precluded any peace. Am I frightened for them? Susa wasn’t supposed to care, but she knew the System and knew what was coming. Ninety-five percent of the little ones would be Regulars, given nothing but their personal Space for the rest of their lives. Forced to live alongside people, and people are the enemy. Theirs would be an existence of mindless toil, producing goods for the other five percent, those lucky enough to be named Spacers.
Susa Burke, L9 tossed and turned that night at EF 25. In that facility alone, she was one of five hundred Spacers teaching in their own barracks. Hundreds if not thousands of facilities just like it were online all over the Five Cities. She wondered if any of her kind were experiencing the same emotions, the same doubts. Another buzz. RECOMMEND SLEEP AGENT.
“Fine!” she yelled, pressing her right thumb over the message. The chip deactivated her natural melatonin inhibitor and her eyes began to droop. Susa felt cowardly, using her body’s own chemistry to avoid the questions. More pictures swirled in her consciousness but they were done in by the chemicals. Damn you, she whispered, her last words of the day. They were meant for one person in particular.
Chapter 4: Three Men and a Bunch of Other Crap
Alder Tate sat in the center of the square amongst the other members of his designated Dom, surrounded on all sides by like-for-like hovels that housed the Regulars. The day had been long and hard at the mech factory, pressing buttons and moving materials into place for electric MFGs to do their work. Despite the normal tedium and exhaustion, most of his fellow residents were there as well; the square had the Dom’s only Worldview, a community screen one hundred feet square.
“What is?” Alder asked. He was staring at his hands. They were beginning to resemble his companion’s.
“Uh, look around guy. You go from the heights of isolated glory and safety to find… whatever the Space you wanted to find.”
“People. A person. Something. It’s hard to describe. Alone is hard.”
“Yeah, you’ve mentioned it. Every time you do, it makes less sense. Look at you now. For a Regular you seem to have a lot of Space. Only me and this moron will come near your broke ass.”
“Shut up, Merchant.”
“You shut up, Webb. I’m not a moron.”
“Both of you take it easy,” Alder said. The pair sat on either side of him, but as he looked around he realized Webb’s point. Though the majority of the common area was densely packed, the three of them were surrounded by a thirty-foot perimeter of nothing. Merchant and Webb were more affected by it than Alder. He was used to having a wide berth.
“What’s on tonight?” asked Lerner Merchant, L1.
“The same mindless drivel that’s on every night. Some pathetic attempt at storytelling, further inculcating the minds of these sycophantic no-accounts with the opiate of stupidity,” answered Travers Webb, L2. “Then a boring series of pictures with names, reprobates like this guy who have fallen from Space to live amongst the hateful, self-hating, and hated.” Webb worked at the communications center of City Five, and though assigned only to menial tasks, he’d managed to pick up on the nuances of Worldview programming.
“I have no idea what you just said, but I’m sure it was mean,” said Lerner. Alder smiled and gave up on the grime stuck to his fingers, looking over at Travers. The things he said, the way he said them—the guy didn’t sound the way a Regular was supposed to sound. He was sharp, sharper than any Spacer he had ever conversed with. Travers was an angular, stubble-faced redheaded man of 30, the first to discover Alder’s identity nearly a month ago. He told no one, save his hovelmate Lerner. Travers and Lerner stored the secret, faithfully, perhaps selfishly. It was a heck of a secret. After having his picture plastered on every Worldview in the Five Cities, everybody wanted a chance to mock and deride Alder. Tate accorded their confidence as something positive; not that they really knew—theirs was not a world that ran on positives.
“There’s the Administrator,” finished Lerner, taking a puff from a cut-rate cigarette. He didn’t bother to look at his palm; Lerner was a Breather and wouldn’t let the cost stop him from his favorite habit.
“Administrator,” gritted Alder. “Clement Pope, L10, in charge of the Five Cities.”
“Could have been you,” said Lerner, looking crookedly at him. His face was all innocence, pudgy and wide-eyed. Hair regularly fell down around his little mouth, igniting when he tried to light his smokes. It happened at such a clip Lerner was known at work and at the Dom for his fragrance; a mixture of burnt hair and coal residue. He was a shovel man; had been since his eighth birthday.
“If what you say is true,” added Webb, wiping dust from his cropped hair. “And frankly I wish it were—I’m getting tired of seeing that ugly face look at our ugly faces. If I’m to be the subject of his schadenfreude, the least he could do is not be so squirrely. What’s with the hair grease? You people had hair grease?” Again, Lerner wasn’t following.
“We had anything we wanted,” answered the former Spacer. He stood up to stretch his legs and to pat the dirt off his pants. There was only the one pair and the cotton was becoming increasingly threadbare. His movement drew the surrounding Regulars’ attention away from the Worldview but he paid them no mind.
“Go back to your show, you rapacious ingrates!” yelled Webb, sensing the rumblings of the Breathers and Hopers. “Sit back down, man. You’re going to have to acclimate to sitting on concrete. It’s all we got around here.”
“Never sat in a chair before,” said Lerner, finishing his smoke.
“Hey, don’t say things like that around the aristocrat. He’s bound to get depressed.”
“It’s okay,” Alder said, settling back down. “I chose this life, after all.”
“And one day you can explain why. I mean, I know you’re a genius, but you can boil it down for me in Regular’s terms. Once that happens I’ll use hand gestures so Merchant here can understand.”
Travers talked tough toward Lerner, but Alder knew there was something else in it. Webb’s care and concern for his hovelmate was transparent enough, though the simple shovelhand was mostly blind to it. Other people weren’t so bad; this simple sentiment was becoming less opaque to them, but to those watching it was like the three were playing in radioactive waste.
When Webb first stumbled on Alder, the once great man was drunk, supine, face uncovered in the middle of a seldom visited alley near the Doms. Out of sheer curiosity he revived him, dragging him back to his hovel without anyone noticing. Lerner found out when he woke the next morning and saw the body of the most famous Space Waster in history passed out on the floor. It started as awkwardness and probing, almost infantile interactions. Now it was good nature, ribbing and fellowship. These ways were not part of the common practice, something lost since the time before, but they were in fact friends. They conversed regularly, these disparate men, about all manner of things. It festered in the minds of their fellow Dom residents, especially now that Alder’s identity was out: Why can’t they just shut up? What are they talking about? Aren’t they afraid? Don’t they hate each other? I hate them.
Tate started to respond to Travers’s previous question, but shut his mouth at the site of the Administrator. Clement Pope. By Space, it really is him. Seeing the face made it real, though he’d known about Pope’s appointment for weeks.
“That’s right,” Webb said, rubbing his fledgling chin hairs in recognition. “You haven’t had the pleasure yet.”
“Not like this.” Alder had seen that face for twenty-five years, had seen it up close and personal, but nothing could prepare him for 10,000 square feet of the guy. Travers was right; he did look squirrely—like a huge oily squirrel. The face imposed itself over all; every tooth was a monolith, every nose hair a nightmare.
As Administrator Pope officiously droned his administrative points, Tate found himself fixated. It was the Face of Humanity. He scanned around, looking at his fellow Regulars. They too were fixated, but not in the same way. In the desolate dark of night the light projected off of the Worldview was the light they bathed themselves in. How could they not despise themselves? They think this squirrel is the zenith, some queer confluence of all that is within them.
He stopped scanning, turning back to the giant squirrel who now was clearing his sweaty, cadaverous throat.
“It is a bit irregular, but since the official mandates and news items have been seen to, I’d like to make a personal statement. I’ve asked a woman, uh, and she’s agreed—to let me enter her Space.” The Administrator was growing pink with joy—Alder grew red—the Regulars grew excited. “As is the custom, it is only virtuous for the Administrator to be known and known of, that is, what they called Fame in the time before…” Pope cleared his throat again, reading out of some extant rulebook written long ago. “But if the Administrator is to become Spacemate with another for the purposes of Continuation, or, for other purposes, it is customary that the partner should become known as well.” Even Alder was confused by the syntax, but he got the thrust. “Her name is Susa Burke, L9, an ingenious engineer and important producer in our society who I have been acquainted with for some time.”
Lerner, sitting cross-legged to the right of Tate, was confused again. “Hey, isn’t that the one…” Before he could properly finish Alder was falling backward.
The most famous man in the world had fainted from the news. Travers and Lerner went to grab him out of some long deactivated instinct but couldn’t; if they touched him and he wasn’t conscious to press his palm, they’d be vaporized.
Alder hit the dirty pavement like a downed landmark.
A Regular soul overwhelmed by a squirrel.
Chapter 5: The Hydroponic Blues
Clement Pope woke up the next day feeling strained. He rose from his hypoallergenic bed and set his pale manicured feet upon antibacterial stained marble. His legs didn’t seem to want to move. It was stress, had to be stress. His left palm wasn’t recommending any inhibitors or enhancers, so it had to be a creation of the mind. Pope leaned forward and steered his way down a small set of stairs to an elevator. He hit the button for the second floor, home to his kitchen and workout facility. Breakfast will set me right, he thought, still enfeebled.
Fresh fruit and toast were waiting for him when he arrived; hot coffee was being poured. The room’s Worldview came on as he sat down at the table—another sterile, safe environment. Like all Spacers, Pope’s chores, cooking, cleaning, gardening, etc., were all done by special mechs. Everything he needed in his home, a fifty-acre sphere constructed out of impenetrable glass panels, was simply requested via the System and delivered within twenty-four hours. All it took was a scan of the left palm. Credits were deducted for every purchase, but that was no worry to a man of his value. Of course, anything coming into the sphere was first decontaminated in a clean room that separated him from the outside world. Some Spacers preferred to have a house and adjoining grounds where they could go traipsing about, but Clement felt no need for that sort of nonsense. When he was elected as Administrator, the first thing he did was completely encase himself in the fifty acres of Space the Office allowed. The dome was set upon a hill overlooking City Five to the east—it could be seen by everyone. He’d even heard reports of his Shangri-La being spotted at night by City Four, forty miles southwest.
Safety and vistas weren’t buoying his mood at present. The last thing he wanted was to see that infernal city or for it to see him. “Set to private,” he groaned, picking a cereal flake from his teeth. On command the entire massive structure turned black, fully tinted to the outside world. The sunlight too was kept out, but the artificials were synched to come on at the same command. “She won’t be pissed,” he said, admitting the problem and denying it in a single statement.
Finished with breakfast, the Administrator decided to dress and ride down to the first floor. Among other things, it was the level where all the fresh produce he enjoyed was farmed. Pope liked to check on the tomatoes, to see how they were coming in. No Regular could ever hope to see a tomato; even for a Spacer they were a dalliance. Pope enjoyed that, even more than he enjoyed eating them.
On one of the steel catwalks of his artificial farm he came across the tomato section and stopped. Some were ripe and ready to perform their function; others needed a little more time. “She won’t be pissed,” he said again, leaning almost close enough to touch his prized hydroponic delicacies. Suddenly the insecurity overwhelmed him. He even forgot to look at his palm. She is ready, isn’t she? Sure, I didn’t tell her about the announcement, but I thought it would be a surprise when she finished her month. Oh God, what if she hates it, hates the fact that I told the whole world without her being able to see it? Why do they ban Worldviews at the EFs anyway? Stupid. I need to change that. I think I have the power. How could she be mad? I have the power.
Finally the scales fell from his eyes. Clement Pope realized he’d been locked onto fruit for a while, staring at fruit just short of fruition. Oh God, I think she’s going to be pissed.
Chapter 6: Intestines and Fortitude
“Can you tell me why I’m stealing baby food?” She was dropping bottles as dirt and rocks flew all around them, the product of a missile strike from one of the Sky Eyes; it was too close for anything resembling comfort.
“To hell with it, the tunnels are just ahead.” They were running wildly, the four of them, changing course every few steps to confuse the drone above.
“Great,” she said, letting go of the glass bottles, readying herself for the next blast. “This is really productive.” I should have stayed home today.
“Here it is, twenty meters straight on,” the leader said, following a beacon as he swiftly negotiated the crags and the mines around his feet. They called him Walsh, an appellation bestowed by their boss. Approaching the metal hatch he felt dread. Storms always seemed to hit worst when land was sighted; it seemed he remembered that from one of the books. Lifting the heavy portal he yelled for his people to double time it. One hand held it ajar while the other was raised over his brow, looking for the mindless hunter riding in the yellow firmament.
“Great mission, boss,” she said, making herself small enough to drop straight down to the tunnels. It was ten feet in the dark, but she was experienced and didn’t feel like staying any longer than necessary. Hitting the bottom hard, she rolled, waiting for the next one down.
“Are you kidding me, Blake? The ladder? You’re gonna get them killed. Just jump, I’ll catch your fat ass.” She pressed on her torch to make it easier for him; he let go, falling clumsily in the muck of the tunnel.
“Thanks a lot, Addie.”
“Yeah well you’re a big boy. Now get out of the way.” She looked up into the blinding light of the opening. “Let’s go!”
From the aperture above Walsh could see the Sky Eye readying itself for another launch. He spurred his last man on, knowing the time was up. “Come on, Charlie!”
“Coming boss!” He could barely get the words out. Charlie was laboring from a deep gash he caught on the wall coming back over. The pain was overwhelming his senses; the boy wasn’t thinking of anything else.
Fifteen feet was as close as he’d get. Reeling from the wound, Charlie tripped a mine and in a breath was nothing but his parts. The explosion rocked Walsh back for a moment; the leader was stung by knives of sand, rock and bits of bone. He crawled to the hatch and closed it behind him. The dark and silence were sudden against the windswept tumult he’d left behind.
“Where’s Charlie?” Blake asked, still wiping off his trousers.
“Here he is,” Addie said, handing him a sampling of seared intestines that had made its way down the shaft. Blake vomited forthwith. She left him to it and shined her torch up at Walsh making his way down the ladder. “Well I’m really glad we did this. Yeah, I’m satisfied. We got nothing of value, almost got killed, and Charlie’s in pieces. Good stuff. Well conceived and executed—is that a way to put it?”
As Addie carried on, Blake continued gagging. Charlie’s intestines, along with the mission, were things that happened. It wasn’t that Addie didn’t care—she cared too much, maybe. She just didn’t believe. Beliefs could give you hope, or they could make you puke.
Walsh was a believer, subject to emotion, but as he descended the ladder toward the base of the dank labyrinth, he directed the loss inward. His soul was puking, so to speak—Charlie had begged him to come along, though Addie had warned against it. She shined the torch at his boots as they hit the tunnel floor. “Come on, let’s move out. We’ve got eight miles to the first checkpoint.” Walsh marched by Addie and Blake like they were columns, paying no mind to anything but the journey back.
“So that’s it?” Addie screamed. It echoed down the tunnel for what seemed miles. She was the only one who could get away with rank subordination toward Walsh. He was, after all, militia commander of all the Ones Between. She got away with it because hers was also an important family—and in her brash way she was seldom wrong. The man in charge stopped walking but did not turn, knowing she deserved an answer.
“I’m sorry about Charlie, he was a good lad. It was his choice.”
“He was too stupid to make choices. I warned you about this.” Addie’s tone was still brazen, her voice hot with breath.
“You did—I know you did.” He seemed moved but would not manifest it, shining his light forward into the gloomy darkness that would serve as their path. Walsh was a leader, looking forward because he had to. Forward to the checkpoint. Forward to home, to regroup. Forward until he could get to Alder Tate.
“Alder Tate,” Addie mumbled, pushing Blake ahead to follow the boss. She was intractable, vivid, wild as ever. “Hope this moron is worth it.”
Me too, thought Walsh, bearing down on his teeth. Me too.
Chapter 7: Between the Other Ones
“I’m so excited.”
“Oh me too.”
“Yes, a smart match, precautions taken.”
“Thank you, I think it’s the right time.”
“She’ll have a welcome homecoming from that awful place.”
“Yes. Awful place. Can’t even remember being there.”
“Everything seems to be in order. Everything.”
“Well, there have been reports from Sky Eyes. I get L8 access.”
“Yeah we know, you’re an eight. I’ve seen the same things.”
“What are you again?”
“He’s a L7, like me. No need to rub it in our faces.”
“Oh don’t use that expression, it’s disgusting. But like he said—”
“Well they’ve picked up on some troubling things. The pictures…”
“Hey everybody, sorry I’m late. What are we talking about?”
“Late as usual. Do you even want to be apart of this club?”
“Of course—I’m just late a lot, give me a break for Space’s sake.”
“Anyway, we were talking about them.”
“Oh you mean—”
“Yea. The Ones Between. It seems like more and more every year.”
“They say that every year. What could they do? They have nothing.”
“I don’t know. It upsets me. What if they breach the cities?”
“That’ll never happen. A few raids here and there. They’re primitive.”
“Dying young, I mean, they must. And weak. How could they live well?”
“Impossible. There’s nothing of import out there. I’m L9. I’d know.”
“Anyway. Stop carrying on. Administrator, I have some work, but…”
“Oh yes, thanks again. I’ll pass along the message to Susa.”
“Susa. So smart is that one. Couldn’t do better. If there’s a child...”
“Oh it’ll have the highest test in history.”
“How could it not? Not that it’s your problem.”
“Well, thanks very much. It’s for the Continuation, that’s first.”
“The Continuation of course. That’s why you’re in the big chair.”
“Yes, the big chair. You’ve filled it well. No frills, just business.”
“Well, I hate to interrupt, but what about the Ones Between?
“Minimize your communications block on your Worldviews.”
“What is it?”
“Just look. What were they doing?”
“It appears to be Cities One and Four. Sky Eyes took one out.”
“Why not the rest already? Oh this is just not acceptable.”
“Mind your space people.”
Chapter 8: One Glove
Susa Burke was in serious need of calming agents. The message never seemed to go away. She was wearing a glove on her left hand to cover it up; sometimes that was the only way to get on with things. No doubt there would be hundreds if not thousands of messages waiting on her Worldviews when she got back home—she almost didn’t want to go back. When she first arrived at EF 25, the Spacer was heavy with dread and apathy. Now, waiting for her transport back home, the burden remained, albeit from a different source.
It was a strange scene to behold. There were hundreds of Spacers lined up all around her, columns and rows of uncomfortable creatures. The arrival and departure of an educational facility was a singular event (hopefully) in the life of her kind. In no other circumstance were they forced to be so close; their proximity chips had to be powered down to do the work of training Charges. Though brief, the experience was a stark view into the world of the 95%. She resolved herself to create a better system when she got back home. No one should have to go through this.
A hover shuttle took off in the distance, taking another back to whatever reclusive nest they came from. The process was slow; one at a time, one at a time. At the sound of a bell they all took two steps, some to the right, some left, some forward. It was the way of things. Finding her new spot, she stood as still as possible. The Spacers in her midst tried to do the same, but Susa noticed them fidgeting about, trying their utmost to avoid invisible malevolent microbes and pathogens. It was almost comical, exposing the unexposed to the world, the world left behind by the people from before.
While others wrestled the unseen, Susa stood relatively still. Many of them were looking at her, for they knew what she knew. Her body was the rigid subject of a strange voyeurism. No doubt their Charges had told them the same news as hers told her. The Administrator’s announcement was giving Susa her first sense of Fame. It was disquieting, disgusting, disruptive. She looked down at her palm again, unable to circumvent the habit. Though it was covered she could see a faint red light—no doubt more Calming Agents. She ignored the light and thought about thicker gloves.
Another shuttle took off, this one louder than the last. She was getting farther along in the cue, and each departure meant more unease. Susa Burke, L9, was actually apprehensive about leaving. Yes, she had agreed to the match with Clement Pope, but his reckless public message formed thorns in her heart. Pope was ideal, of course, the only Level 10 on the planet. Their progeny would no doubt be a great benefit to the Continuation. Susa knew this was all that mattered—still, the thought of them being Spacemates was unnerving. Would they have to spend a lot of time together, live together even? There were Laws for almost everything in the Five Cities, but very few governing the process of Space Breaking and… whatever went along with it.
Another shuttle. She moved up once again in the cue, looking up at the acrid xanthic sky as it made room for another Spacer’s path. Here, in the heart of the city, the air was filth—seemingly all the way to the stratosphere. On the outskirts of each metropolis, where the higher level Spacers lived, the yellow gave way to more azure tones. Another shuttle. She was getting close.
Susa gave herself heart, thinking of her estate, the gardens, the blue sky wrapped around it. Back home she would feel better. She had to. It was an honor to be with the Administrator. He was obviously better than the countless suitors of the past—he had the credits, after all. He was suitable, more worthy, and theirs would be a dutiful and worthy offering to the Continuation.
Finally, her shuttle. She stepped on and turned back to look at her peers. They looked skittish, like MFGs with bad wiring. Susa was well rid of them. If anything, she would miss the Charges—their restive natures, the meanness, the willingness to soak up the Laws. She had done her duty, gotten them to the Test. Strangely, none of the ones she predicted made it to Spacer status. She thought little of it—as the Shuttle took off she thought only of the day of her own Test.
Hers was an auspicious birthday: Susa’s class was only the second in history to have three Charges score L9s. That class included mostly idiots; it just happened to include Clement, herself, and yes, everyone’s favorite, Alder Tate.
Chapter 9: Strolling Through Graveyards
“You’re telling me you blew a million credits?” Lerner Merchant asked. He was baffled, mouth ajar. He couldn’t believe Alder had been so negligent with his gifts. Lerner wouldn’t admit to it but he didn’t even understand the concept of a million.
“Yeah, it took a lot of work, if you want the truth,” Alder said, strolling along. It was a thing now—his strolling—having come to the realization that walking was a gift, a pleasure. Tate strolled while Merchant and Webb walked beside him, through some abandoned section of City Five. They were shadowed by a teenager, a girl around fifteen who had become fascinated with the three men’s interactions. They didn’t know her name; in fact she had never spoken a word to them. The girl had short brown hair, cut at strange angles. Like most in City Five, she was skinny and small. Unlike most, she had a glint of joy in her wide eyes.
Alder didn’t mind the girl a bit.
Lerner thought she was suitable for Continuation, but that was nothing new.
Travers appeared to loathe her. Whether it was bravado or real, Alder couldn’t quite tell.
They stopped for a minute and Alder got low and quiet.
“Oh no—he’s doing that thing again,” Webb moaned. “What exactly are you doing down there?”
He was studying a building, a unique structure for the area. It was once steel and concrete; now it more resembled punched out papier-mâché. “I’m imagining. You know, filling in the blanks, the glass, the glean—the thing it was intended to be.”
“Yeah well I guess that makes sense. You were an engineer, or whatever.” Webb shrugged and looked back at the girl with his thin, discerning eyes. “What’s she doing? It’s like a stray cat or something.”
Alder stood back up. He was still imposing next to his friends, but his robust frame was beginning to slacken due to the reduced diet.
That and the strolling everywhere.
“I believe it’s nothing more than healthy curiosity,” he said, smiling at Webb.
“What is, Alder?” Lerner asked. He always tried to stay current in the conversation, whether he understood or not.
“Curiosity. It’s the thing that makes her follow us. The thing that makes me study that building. The thing that makes Webb question her motives. The thing that makes you want to know all the answers. Curiosity. Everyone’s got it. Nothing wrong with it at all I’d say.”
“So what’s so curious about that old building, Alder?” Lerner asked.
“Oh… nothing and everything, I suppose.” He kept staring at it, like an old friend recognized from long ago.
“Tate—I think you might sympathize with the building. You seem to know nothing… and everything.” Travers was pleased with himself for the jibe.
“Maybe, Webb.” Nothing could break his concentration. “But look around, fellas. This whole section—this is a graveyard of terrible greatness. Everything here came from the time before. People just like us built this, just to tear it down.” Tate finally removed his gaze and began to stroll again.
“Hey.” Something had addled Travers. “You can call them people, but they weren’t like us. You call them creators and destroyers, I think maybe if you’re going to define them, you might want to stick with the latter. We survive, despite everything they did. We are evolved, and despite everything I say about this twisted-ass life, at least it’s life.” It was the first time Webb had ever cut hard words with Tate. He paused, calming slightly. “Hell man, we don’t even know anything about them. Like you said, it’s all just a graveyard. You can’t get a sense of a man or woman by standing over a tombstone, last I checked.”
“You’re right,” Tate said. “Maybe you’re right.” The jocund countenance was gone, silenced by what hit like hard truth.
Webb was sorry. That countenance was what made Alder so unique—though it frustrated him, stopping it was not his intent.
The fallen Spacer moved along the street, just walking now.
“Hey,” Webb called, running up beside his companion. Merchant followed and the girl trailed him in turn. “I didn’t mean to rile up like that.”
“No, it’s okay. You made a great point. Sometimes you’re too smart for me, I think.”
“Yeah right. Don’t play with a simple L2’s emotions.”
“L2, L9, L5. The more time I spend down here, the less significant those numbers seem. One thing, though. You said you couldn’t get a sense of a man or woman…”
“Yeah, yeah, I remember.”
“Maybe when I look around places like these, I’m just reading epitaphs.”
Webb laughed. “Bastard. You always finish with a good one. I’d embrace you if it wasn’t weird and also life threatening.” Alder flashed a straight-toothed smile back at his companion, happy in the moment.
“Guys. We better get back soon. Tomorrow’s a work day.” It was Lerner, culling them out of their exchange.
Soon they started back to the Doms. It was late and they were a long way from home. Lerner mentioned that he’d never been so close to the border before. None of them had. They increased their speed to get back in time for curfew when Webb stopped. “You notice something?”
“The girl. She’s gone. Must be the first time in days she’s left us alone.”
“Maybe she went ahead,” Lerner said, doing his best.
“I think we would’ve seen her backside sprinting away from us, you knucklehead.”
“She’ll be fine, I think, but we better keep moving. Around that corner to the right and then it’s a straight shot back to the Doms.”
They sped up again, but only briefly. Making the turn they were met by five men standing in their path. They were big like Alder, and none of them seemed to be in a hurry. Webb couldn’t define them except to say Trouble.
Before they could turn from danger, all three were being grabbed from behind. In their conscious lives they’d never once been handled. The sensation was insuperable—they were pitiable children in the grips of their captors. Some attempt to fight was made but they had the coordination of desert dwellers coping with ocean breakers. Why weren’t the villains getting vaporized? This was a serious problem.
“You’re coming with us.” It was a female voice—that was all Alder could make out. Bags were put on their heads and they were thrown into some sort of cart. The three men were buffeted against the walls of the machine as it began to move. Fear gripped them the same; it was all too much. Bound at the wrists, heads covered, chained to the cart floor, they bounced to the rhythm of the broken street.
“Tate, you there?” It was Travers muffled voice calling from beneath the bag.
“Yeah. I uh—”
Before he could finish his companion cut him off, screaming. “I knew this strolling bullshit was going to catch up with me!”
Chapter 10: Stepp Into My Office
“Come on, then! Step right up and get some! Come on, what are you waiting for, Space? That’ll be the day, no—step right up and get what you can while you can get it. You there, you there, why deny yourself the pleasures of life when they are set before you today? Just a few credits and you can float away. We got booze, and if you’re feeling saucy, we’ve got inhibitors and chemical enhancers that’ll make you feel like Spacer of the Month, even if it’s only a few hours!” The people laughed—as much as Regulars could, anyway.
The sales pitch was coming from the chapped lips of the sometimes vaunted and sometimes hated Mr. Stepp. As evidenced by the throng of Breathers vying for his wares, Mr. Stepp was the greatest purveyor of all things suspect in City Five. He had started his business in the very spot he now stood: It was some kind of bunker, left from the time before, between two Doms and down far enough to evade the always lurking mechs and Sky Eyes. Mr. Stepp had no idea what it used to be, but now it was his—a way to get rich, a way up the credit chain and into real Space of his own. Mr. Stepp was a true Hoper.
“Where do you get all this stuff?” yelled one of the Breathers in the crowded “store.” Mr. Stepp, separated from his clientele by a slipshod glass counter, cleared his grizzled throat for a retort.
“If I told you that, I’d be out of business. What do you take me for, an idiot?” Stepp hated people the way everybody else did, but having to sell—to feign genial affectations, he’d come to a keener understanding of the dark side of man and the need to get away from it. “Now, you buying or what? Twenty credits. Come on, people waiting.” He eyed the Breather, an insolent rube with a pocked face and freckles, knowing it was a sure thing.
“Okay,” answered the rube, running his hand over the credit scanner. Stepp punched twenty into the keypad beside the square section of the contraption and then scanned his own hand over it. This was the only method for transacting business between Regulars. The machine itself was worth more than the store and everybody in it, save Mr. Stepp. To have a scanner meant you were a power broker in the world of the Regulars; anytime people needed to trade credits or services outside of City Five’s purview, they had to use one. It was why Stepp had it chained to a thirty-pound weight behind the counter. Usually the old were the only ones with enough credit to purchase one of the coveted contraptions; Stepp was no exception, age wise. Everything above his shoulders was monochrome gray, save a bent red nose and failing black teeth that came out during transaction time.
Though he looked like he’d recently climbed out of a sarcophagus, Mr. Stepp was sharp enough to get the best of almost anyone. Besides, his stuff sold itself.
It was almost time for curfew when he announced he was closing up. Though of course he couldn’t push the Breathers out of his bunker, they fled at the dint of his brackish voice. Soon I’ll be out of this hellhole, where I belong. Once the crowd had scurried away he peeked at the clock and began placing his sundries into an old sturdy safe hidden underneath the counter. The old man was spry, having made another killing. He started humming a tune, dreaming of retirement—a real retirement. Stepp checked his palm and smiled his black smile. He saw his obscured reflection through the grime of the glass countertop—his face looked like the opening of a cave. Never mind, he thought. I’ll get that seen to when I make Spacer.
Spit polishing the glass with a shirt sleeve, he heard someone coming down the brittle steps to the bunker door. “Closed!” he yelled, continuing with his polishing. It didn’t make sense to focus on that one spot of the counter; the bunker was a veritable cesspool. Again he started humming but someone started knocking on the rusty bunker metal and wouldn’t stop. “I won’t open, you go on pounding. Mind your Space you degenerate!”
“It’s me, Mr. Stepp. Please let me in. Please.”
With surprising quickness Stepp was around his counter, opening the door. The new arrival wasn’t a customer. It was Tate’s stray cat. “What’s this?” he asked. “You’re bleeding. How did this happen?”
“I was following them like you said, easy as can be.”
“Please, please let me have some of the good stuff before I have to be back for curfew.”
“Never mind that. Now you tell me, what happened?”
“I don’t know, they were walking around, doing nothing like always. Then I heard some machine, sounded like nothing I’d ever heard.” The stray was rubbing the back of her head; it was starting to ooze puss.
“And then this,” she said, showing Stepp her bloody hand. Something hit me… I don’t know, I woke up and came straight here.”
“That’s okay, I’ll be fine—just give me some stuff.”
“Not you, you witless— What’s going on! This isn’t good. Get out of here, girl. Go on!”
“But the stuff.”
“No stuff. Now get.” The girl made a desperate face and pattered out and up the steps. The old man fiddled at his argentine hair. It had almost been a good day. As he closed the bunker door his saggy shoulders sagged some more. What am I going to tell the Administrator?
Chapter 11: Susa’s Place and Susa’s Pad
Susa Burke was an unquestionably adroit engineer. Her status as L9 had been solidified owing to her hundreds of improvements, inventions, and designs implemented all over City Five. Every new breakthrough, every flaw corrected fed her confidence and her credit score. Why then, as of late, were so many of her production facilities underperforming? She couldn’t understand—now days into vetting out the systems, and no closer to finding a solution.
Staring at schematics and worker production charts, Susa started nodding off. Her left hand was most assuredly blinking RECOMMEND SLEEP AGENTS, but she didn’t know for sure—the glove over her left hand was now a permanent fixture. She walked out of her workshop and into one of her estate’s ten bathrooms, seeking the Medicine Pad. From the vanity she pulled out what seemed to be a regular drawer, only this one was covered and secured with a lock. Susa was agitated, fumbling with the key before managing to open the cover. Inside, there it was, an ingenious contraption made from a finely engineered carbon polymer. She took off her glove and sure enough: RECOMMEND SLEEP AGENTS. Rolling her eyes, she placed her hand on the Pad. While it scanned her print she cycled through a list of options until she found what was necessary. With her right thumb she pressed the screen over ADRENALINE ENHANCER and immediately felt a surge of energy.
After locking up and sliding the device back into its place, she felt a bit of shame—that was normal. Medicine Pads were frowned upon in the Five Cities, as they were only used to countermand what one’s own body chemistry recommended. Many a Spacer had fallen victim to the Pad, overdosing on usually benign and beneficial substances found at low levels in the body. It was an incredibly expensive habit—the enhancer Susa had just self-administered cost four thousand credits—more than most Regulars could dream of in a lifetime.
Full of gusto but not much brain power, Susa found herself back in the workshop, rushing through footage of one of the factories on her Worldview. Her MFGs (Manufacturing and Fabrication Gadgets) were running true, the conveyors were steady and stable, and the workers… Wait a minute, she said. The workers. She changed camera views. This factory, which produced high end furniture for upper-crust Spacers, was very familiar. She had designed it from the floor up; it was a form of entertainment for her—watching a creation performing at its utmost. Even some of the Regulars wore familiar faces. She scanned to catch one such face, and there it was.
He was Smiling! Not working, not head down, not eyes tasked, but Smiling! Finally it was clear. The people at this facility were not functioning at the average output level (AOL). She started digging through, logs, data sheets, more video—it was the damn workers. You had to factor in occasional anomalies, but this—this was a trend. A bad one. Something outside her power to correct.
The good news, if one could call it that, was Susa had found her problem. The Administrator would have to be informed, another reason to be apprehensive about tomorrow’s physical meeting. She let the worry brush past; for now—sleep. In an instant the adrenaline boost seemed a bad idea; forgetting that it had provided her with the zest for discovery, she cried, “Damn Medicine Pad!”
Chapter 12: Alder’s Bout With Crack
“Alright you Spacer scum, hit me then! I said hit me!”
What was he saying? Alder didn’t understand at all—he was replete with disorientation. Geez it’s bright. Blinding, almost.
“Come on, you’re the big shot, I’m right here in front of you. I’ll let you have the first crack!”
First crack? What’s a crack? Geez it’s bright. I wish they’d put the bag back on my head. Alder still couldn’t see much of anything, but he could tell from the din in his ears that he was in and amongst a great many onlookers. Noises of all kinds—loud, disdainful, celebratory, he couldn’t distinguish—came from all angles. He tried to bypass the sensory overload with his intellect but it was too much.
These people weren’t much like people.
Gradually his eyes adjusted to the onslaught of sun. He looked up to see a blue sky—beautiful beyond words. He looked down to see a shaggy, hulking man—ugly beyond adjectives. “I’m sorry, by crack, are you intimating that I strike you, good sir?” Tate was doing his best under the circumstances.
“Can you believe this guy?” asked the man, stepping about playfully and looking around at the others. By now it was clear to Alder that he was the subject of the group’s mockery. It didn’t happen often, but he was getting mad.
“I’d love to crack you, my friend, but I’m not a suicide case.”
“What?” the man asked. The question was followed by more foreign noises from the surrounding herd. “Wake up, big time. You’re not in City Five, your Laws don’t apply here, and I’m not some chipped slave.” Apparently the beastly man was done conversing, as he delivered a menacing left to Alder’s midsection. Tate took to his knees, looking at his palm, then at his assailant—nothing.
“Well then,” he grimaced. “You can’t imagine how long I’ve wanted to try this.” Alder rose up and threw the first punch of all his thirty-three years. Not exactly pugilistic, the brute easily sidestepped and shot a straight right hand to Alder’s face. It was enough to lay him out but not enough to put him to sleep. Spread eagle, he coughed on pain and blood. The spinning sky was all he had. So blue. So blue.
“Alright partner, let’s get you up. You’ve been summoned.” It was a female voice, the one he heard during their abduction. “Partner, can you move? Help me out a little bit. Bob’s just having some fun with you.” Blinking rapidly he looked over to see who was talking. It was a girl. A beautiful one, at that. The sky and the girl—and being beaten to death.
“What is that incessant noise coming from those people?” he asked her, struggling to sit up.
“What do you mean, partner? Come on, we don’t have all day.”
He moved listlessly to his feet, peering through the crowd at his surroundings. “That noise. It smacks of pleasure, but only exasperated pleasure.”
“It’s called laughter, Mr. Tate. “They’re laughing at you—at your expense.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Yeah well you’ll get used to it. Welcome to… never mind. Just come with me and I promise no one else will give you any more beatings for at least five minutes.” This seemed a very fair proposal—Alder followed the girl through the obloquies of the crowd and out the other side. After thirty or so paces he stopped. The noise and pain had abated enough for him to admire his surroundings. A field, grass, mountains, air. “You’re the Ones Between, aren’t you? Is this your home? It sure is something.” The girl turned sharply to answer, clearly amused. The bright sun played with her long brown hair, turning it lighter and darker as she moved back to him. She was strong, full figured, but very much in keeping with the lovely surroundings. The girl. Her hair. Her eyes. The Sky—
“Partner, wipe that grin off. No, we don’t live here. We come out and play sometimes, but your Sky Eyes mean we stay underground for the most part. There’s another patrol coming in an hour, so let’s move.”
“Okay. I’ll go with you. Just tell me your name. I’m Alder Tate.”
“Alder Tate. You say that like it’s supposed to mean more than it does.” She wished it didn’t. “Let’s go.”
He stood still and firm, trying to gain some small victory in the confusion. She looked him over and sighed in frustration. His sandy hair was a mess, his face was bleeding, but there was something about him—dignity, kindness, good cheekbones—whatever it was, she didn’t have time for him or his idiotic Spacer ways. “My name’s Addie. Adelyne. We good, partner?”
“Nice to meet you Addie,” he said, walking on ahead as if he knew where to go. For ten minutes Alder tried to engage further but was met only with annoyed silence. After a spell he resigned himself to following along, admiring the swishing hair and shapely form before his squinting eyes. Coming to the side of a gentle hill, Addie brushed aside some growth to reveal a metal door sunk into the earth. She knocked three times and Alder heard a tired latch turn. “You ready, partner?”