A Few Good Men

9781451638882

A Few Good Men

Book I of Earth’s Revolution

 

 

 

The Monster

 

 

 

 

Carry Me To the Water

 

The world celebrates great prison breaks.  The French territories still commemorate the day in which the dreaded Bastille burst open before the righteous fury of the peasantry and disgorged into the light of day the innocent, the aggrieved, the tortured and the oppressed.

They forget that every time a prison is opened, it also disgorges, amid the righteous and innocent, the con artists, the rapists, the murderers and the monsters.

Monsters like me.

My name is Lucius Dante Maximilian Keeva, Luce to my friends, though I killed the last one of those fourteen years ago.

I was born the son of Good Man Keeva, one of fifty men who control the immense territory and wealth of Earth between them, and have for the last three hundred years.  As good as a prince.

But for the last fourteen years, my domain had been a cell, six by ten, with a cot attached to the wall, a fresher in the opposite corner that served to have a sort of vibro-wash and clean one’s clothes, and to take care of the other necessities of the body, all in one.  At the foot of my bed there was a dispenser through which a self-opening can of food and a container of drink came through every so often.  I thought it happened three times a day, but I couldn’t swear to it.

I couldn’t see daylight from my cell.  But cans arrived three times for each period they kept my lights turned on, so I considered that a day.  And I kept count by saving one of the cans and scratching it on the side with the lid.  Three hundred and sixty five days made a year with the usual adjustment.  And I had fourteen of those to the day when freedom came, unexpected and terrible.

It wasn’t strictly true that I hadn’t seen another human being in fourteen years.  Once, in the middle of the second year, I’d got very ill.  Who knows how, unless the food was contaminated. I’d caught an infection that wouldn’t let go and wouldn’t be healed by any of the usual means.  They transferred me to a secure hospital ward for two weeks.  A very secure ward, with robots as caretakers and doctors who saw me only remotely, at least after I regained conscience.  I retained a vague memory of having been touched while only semi-conscious.  Touched by human hands.

But after I became conscious only mechanicals touched me.  Still through the window, made of transparent dimatough – I know, I tried to break it – I could see people coming and going.  Men and women walking around, free, under the sun or the rain.  I remembered them very clearly, each of their expressions, their clothes, their movements.  I’d spent years remembering and making sure I didn’t forget that there were real, live people out there.  Even if I was as good as buried alive.

Twice more I’d been hospitalized, when I’d tried to commit suicide.  And one of those times I’d been attended by humans, while they sewed the open cut on my face, from having got the cot to drop on my head.  I remembered that touch too.  Because down here, in the artificial light or the dark, it was easy to imagine there was nothing else.  Nothing but me, all alone in the world forever.

A world and a monster.  Forever.

Fourteen years after my arrival in Never-Never, I was exercising.  I’d found that just lying around and sleeping made it difficult to sleep and all too easy to stay up all through the time my lights were off, thinking of ghosts.  I’d tried that for three years.  Now I exercised.

I partitioned my day, so that in the morning – or right after the lights went on and I ate the first can of food – I cleaned myself, removed my beard with the cream provided, vibroed my one, faded yellow body suit, thrice replaced, but still much worn and now tight,  and put it on, because it gave me the illusion I was still part of the world of living humans, and that someone, somehow, might see me and care how I looked.

Then I sat down and used the gem reader some kind soul had slipped into my cell through the food dispenser almost at the beginning of my captivity.  I used it through gems totaling about five hours, and then the second food ration was dispensed.  And then I exercised.

Back when I was the pampered heir of Olympus Seacity, I’d been provided with exercise machines, and hired trainers.  Turned out you could do just as good a job, or perhaps better, using your body as a counter weight and resistence.  If you had five hours and nothing else to do.

Oh, I used my bed in exercises too.  It used to fold up, but since I’d almost managed to kill myself by getting the bed to fall on my upturned face, they’d fixed it so it was permanently attached to the wall, permanently down, and couldn’t fall.  Not even when a man who must be six seven and close to three hundred pounds – I had no way of weighing or measuring myself – suspended himself from it, over and over and over again.

I had my palms spread flat on the bed – at about the level of my pelvis – and was using my arm strength to push down on it and pull myself up, till my feet left the floor completely for a count of twenty, then down, then up again.  I was on my hundredth rep of the day, counting aloud: fifteen, sixteen, seventeen–

Boom.

Boom is not the way to write it down.  It was like a boom a crash and a woosh, all in one, deafeningly loud.

I let go and found myself cowering under my bunk, my back flat against the cold, smooth wall, my head bent, my arms around my knees.  Instinctive.  It is instinct to try to make yourself small and unobtrusive.  Not that I was ever either.

My mind ran through what could have caused the boom.

The first thought was that it was impossible.  Had to be.  There was no way – no possible way – that there could be that type of explosion anywhere near me.

The prison which had been my home for so long was called Never-Never because it was the safest, best guarded and most absolutely secure prison in the history of mankind.  It was impossible there had been an explosion there.  And if there were, it would do nothing but drown all the prisoners, because as I remembered from when I’d been transported here in the dark of night, Never-Never was under water, sealed into the base of a seacity.  Most people didn’t even know it existed.

Yet there were other noises from outside.  Noises I wasn’t used to hearing.  Normal prison noises – cherished as random diversions from an otherwise monotonously ordered day – were distant conversations, too distant to hear the words, and sometimes the sound of muffled footsteps walking by, outside my door.  Sometimes, rarely, there was a scream, perhaps as a new victim was dragged down to this antiseptic isolation.  Unlike prisoners of an older era, we didn’t even have rats as consolation.

Now the screams came one after the other.  There were drumbeats of running feet.  An odd sound scared me, for a moment, until I realized it was laughter.  And then there was… singing?

My mind raced, making my heart race, and not all the will power in the world could bring me out from under my cot.  Until I saw the water.

At first it showed as a filmy sheen, under my door.  I blinked at it.  Sweat stung my eyes, and I was sure that it was a mirage.  Although Never-Never was under the ocean, I hadn’t seen water except in my drink dispenser for fourteen years.  The fresher was strictly vibration only.  At a guess long before I’d been brought here, some clever soul had filled up the waste disposal hole with cans, by keeping five or ten of them, stopped up the space under the door, perhaps with the blanket – then filled the cell with fresher water.

Now the only way to commit suicide by drowning would have been to block the hole, stop up the crevice under the door, then piss enough.  Supposing drink hadn’t been controlled, I didn’t think even I could muster enough desperation for that.

So when the water first came in, it took me moments to believe it – dozens of minutes of my staring in disbelief, while it crept under the door, in increasing quantities, till it lapped at my bare feet, cold and wet.  I put out a finger, dipped it in the water and tasted it.  Sea water.  There was a hole in the prison.  A hole that let in seawater.  I reacted.

Or rather, my body reacted, which means it did something stupid, as bodies will when you’re not paying attention to them.  I jumped up, cracking my head – hard – on the cot, then bent again and scrambled out from under the cot, on my hands and knees, splashing in what had to be, now, two inches of water.

My heart beat hard, and my throat was trying to close in panic.  Never-Never was completely under water, even if the entrance was up above the water line, a narrow, well-guarded hole on a Seacity floor.  The explosion could not have been at the main entrance, or no water would be coming in.  That meant it had to be in an underwater wall, somewhere.

Never-Never had seven levels.  Seven circles of hell.  I was on the sixth down.  If I understood the organization properly, and it was entirely possible I didn’t, this level housed the most dangerous prisoners.  The level below me contained only torture cells.

I’d been taken to them for two days when I’d first come to Never-Never.  I’d never understood what exactly they wanted to know or what they thought torture would accomplish.  Maybe they just liked hearing me scream.

I tried to remember exactly how long it had been from boom to water under my door.  The water was now up to my ankles, and I couldn’t think clearly.  It felt like the explosion had simultaneously taken place several years ago and only a heartbeat away.  But the water was now above my calves, which meant the hole had to be nearby.

Someone would come, I told myself, swallowing, imagining the cell filling with water to the ceiling, drowning me.  They’d come before I was floating lifeless.  They’d never let me commit suicide, and they weren’t about to let me die now.

Yes, I’d tried to commit suicide before, but you need to work yourself up to a certain pitch of despair for that.  I wasn’t there now.  I had a brand new data gem, slipped in yesterday’s otherwise empty mid day food can.  It claimed to be ancient novels, from the twentieth century.  Thirty of them.  I hadn’t even looked at the gem at all.  I’d been saving it, reading my old gems: history and science, music and language, and saving the new one like a rare treat.  New ones came in seldom and irregularly.  I’d gladly forego a meal a day for a gem, but I never got that.  This was the first new gem in three months.  And now I’d die without reading one word of it.

I lurched towards my cot again.  I kept the gem reader – a cheap, tiny unit of the sort you used to be able to buy for a couple of cents anywhere – and the gems in the crevice between bed and wall.  Not exactly hidden.  Either the cell was wired for sound and sight – and it probably was or else, how could they stop all my suicide attempts in time? – and they didn’t care I had it, or else it wasn’t and they didn’t know.  No one ever came in to inspect, so no one would find it otherwise.  But I kept it there so it wouldn’t fall and break.  The gems were my only connection to other humans: to their words, their minds, their thoughts.  If I lost them, I would quickly lose whatever grip I retained on reality.

Perhaps I had, I thought, as I grabbed the gems and the reader, and wrapped the whole thing, tightly, in my coverlet.  Perhaps this was all an hallucination.  The coverlet ripped easily but I’d found in the past, when I’d spilled drink on it, that it was completely impermeable.  Like water proof paper.  I was thinking that neither gems nor reader were designed to be exposed to salt water.  And if I broke them, new ones might not be provided.

Though they had to come from someone within the system, they couldn’t be exactly official, or else they’d not be sent inside otherwise empty food cans.

I wrapped the whole as tightly as I could, ripping the coverlet and tying it over itself.  The torn strips weren’t sturdy enough to hang oneself with, but they worked for this.  I slipped the packet inside my suit.  The water was now up to my knees.

Splashing, I drew myself up to my cot and stood on it, my hands on the ceiling for balance.  That would keep me safer longer and give someone time to rescue me.

They would come.  They had to come.  After all my clever attempts at killing myself, they weren’t going to let me die like this.

A voice screamed something outside the door.  No, wait, sang.  Then there was…

A flash of sound and light that glared through the hole in my door where the lock used to be.  I blinked.

When I opened my eyes again, the door was open, and above the ripple caused by the door opening, standing on a broom – a little anti-grav wand, forbidden for transportation in all civilized lands – was the most unlikely angel of deliverance I’d ever seen.

 

 

 

Setting All The Captives Free

 

Angels shouldn’t have faces that looked like the result of an industrial accident – perhaps an encounter with a giant cheese grater – one of their shoulders shouldn’t be hunched on itself, and the entire left side of their body shouldn’t droop and sag as though the muscles and bones holding it had been semi-liquified.

They shouldn’t have a only a few straggles of long brown hair, that looked like the rest had been plucked by a blind man wielding tweezers.

And – mark me, I’m not an expert on theology, but I’m still fairly sure of this – angels should not, under any circumstances, be singing Women of Syracuse at the top of their voices, while standing on a broom.

Women of Syracuse was a listing of the acts supposedly performed by these willing ladies for varying quantities of money, and, let me tell you, some of them were so inventive that even I found them odd-sounding.  I’m quite sure, for instance, one’s ear is not built for that.

I blinked stupidly.  My savior gave me the sweetest smile I’d ever seen, despite its necessarily lopsided nature.  He waved cheerily, and moved on, still standing on the broom, even as it sped on.  Of course — I thought — angels could stand on brooms.  They could fly, so if they lost the broom it wouldn’t be a big deal.

And then I realized that the door was open and that the water level was still climbing, slowly, very slowly.

I jumped from my cot, and the water was just below my knees as I half ran, half lurched out.

My rescuer was moving from cell door to cell door, as the women of Syracuse found ever more unlikely things to do to their gentlemen friends.  His burner flashed at intervals.  Yells and strange inhuman-sounding laughs echoed somewhere.

The hallway had  grav wells at either end.  As usual, one would be rigged to go up, the other to go down.  Water was pouring in a torrent through the downward one.  And I was going to the upward one.

I ran towards it, then stopped just short of the grav well field.

In my mind, Ben’s voice came, clear as day, That broomer will free the people on this level, but what about the poor bastards in the cells below?  And in my mind, Ben crossed his arms and looked his most stern.

So, Ben has been dead for fourteen years and really shouldn’t be talking to me like that.  But this never seemed to matter to him and anyway, whether he talked to me or not was a matter between myself and him and none of anyone else’s business, right?  What’s a minor insanity between friends?

I can’t, I told him.  See the way that water is pouring?  The anti-grav wells are actually pulling the water downward as fast as possible.  Down there, the water will be up to my neck.  And I’m tall.  If anyone was there, they’ll be dead for sure.  Now or soon enough.

Yeah.  Think about that, he said.  Think about the soon enough.

And I did, though I didn’t want to.  I remembered being down there, strapped to a chair, or strapped to the wall, while they did unspeakable things to my body with instruments no sane human could even conceive of, much less use.  And then I imagined water pouring in, and not being able to escape, not being able to swim, while the water climbed, climbed, climbed.

It’s none of my business, I said.  I am a murderer.  A monster.

In my mind, Ben’s mouth twitched with the beginning of a smile, and his dark eyes wrinkled slightly in amusement.  Now, Luce, he said.

Which just goes to show you the damn bastard didn’t play fair.  He never did.  Even dead fourteen years, dead at my hand for fourteen years, the stubborn cuss insisted on thinking the best of me.  And now, as always, I couldn’t disappoint him.  Death would be easier.

My body didn’t want to want to go to the lower levels.  Bodies aren’t stupid.  They know their business is survival.  I tried to overpower it with my mind, but the body would have won.  Except the mind had Ben on its side, and even my body wasn’t able to resist the irresistible force of his belief in my non-existent goodness.

I lurched around, unsteadily, against the shrieks from my body that I should save myself, and ran to the grav well.  I dropped through it, water pouring down with me, soaking my hair and clothes, and hopefully leaving the gem reader dry.  Hopefully.  Because when I was caught, I wanted my damn gems.

And if I just did this, Ben assured me, I wouldn’t have the ghosts of the dumb bastards down here keeping him company in my head.  That was incentive enough.

There were four cells down here.  I remembered that from when they’d dragged me down there to torture.  The nearer one was open – the door hanging on one side and blown on the other.

On the water here up to my chest, someone was floating face down, a middle aged, well dressed man.  I splashed over and turned him face up, then let go.  First, he was Good Man Raine.  Second, there was a burner hole in the middle of his forehead.  The Good Man Raine was dead.  The man who’d first sent Ben and I to jail.  My mind couldn’t process it, and neither could Ben’s ghost, who frowned, distractedly but said nothing.

The next cell was still locked, and it occurred to me, belatedly, I didn’t have a burner.  He’ll have it, Ben said.  Obviously talking about the corpse.  Remember all the bastards have burners on them at all times, for self-defense.

I told him he could search the corpse himself, but he only smiled at me in that irritating way he did when he reminded me he had no more existence than any other figment of my imagination.  All I can say is that my imagination must be against me.

Trotting back against water resistence was not as easy as it seemed, and I had to swim to get a good grip on the late, departed Good Man Raine.  I might never have found the burner in time, if I hadn’t got lucky.  It was strapped under his pant leg, to his all too cold ankle.  I grabbed it and sploshed back to the first cell.

Using a burner under water is always a crap shoot.  You shoot and if it’s a cheap burner, it won’t even produce a beam.  If it’s a slightly better burner, it will sort of work and shock you right back through the water.  But this must have been one of the solid state ones, equipped with a laser for underwater work, because it beamed, white and hot and true, and burned the lock right out.  And then nothing happened.  The door didn’t spring inward.

The water pressure is holding it, Ben said.  You’ll have to kick it in.

Ghosts have absolutely no sense of reality. Probably comes from not existing.  To kick something under water is about as easy as to kick something in low grav – an experience I remembered from an all-too brief visit to Circum where some areas were kept at half-g.

You had to get a good hold on something.  All I could get was a sort of hold on the door frame.  Fortunately I’d spent the last fourteen years exercising insanely.

I got hold of the frame, and kicked at the door with both feet.  It opened enough to let the water flow out some and then it opened fully.

The occupant of this cell was beyond human cares.  He was strapped to a chair, and floating, chair and all.  And if he wasn’t dead, he should be.  I was no more prepared to give him regen for his eyes or to stop the blood spreading in billows in the water around him, than I was to fly.  And if he wasn’t dead, he’d be in minutes, one way or another.  He was unconscious, so there was no suffering I must stop as I’d once stopped Ben’s.

I turned and swam back to the next cell where I burned the lock, kicked the door in.  And found myself assaulted by a madman, wrapping his hands around my neck, in what seemed like a creditable attempt at strangling me.

A good slug with the back of the burner would have cold cocked him, but then I’d have to save him.  So, instead, as he scrambled for a good hold on my neck, hampered by my hand in the way, I hauled back and slapped him hard across the face, then took advantage of his confusion to point him towards the upward gravwell.  “That way,” I said.  “Go.”

It was iffy whether he would, but he shook his head, then turned and swam that way.  Leaving me to swim to the last closed cell and repeat the door-opening procedure.

This time I faced a young man, probably twenty two or so, the age I’d been when they’d brought me here.  Actually, he looked a lot as I had at that age, with smoothly cut hair – though his was brown – and, from what was visible of his sleeve, wearing a high quality suit.  And he was clinging desperately, with an expression of terror in his eyes, to the light fixture directly above where they normally strapped prisoners to the wall.  His head was tilted back to keep his nose above water.

He stared at me as though seeing a vision of perfect horror, which I probably was.  Don’t know.  I had been fourteen years without a mirror.  I pulled myself up so I could talk and said, “Come on!”

And he tilted his head back more and spoke, the words intercut by chattering teeth.  “I can- can’t.  Ca-can’t swim.”

Damn.  Yeah, I could go and leave him here to drown.  He was going to slow me down, and frankly I had to leave fast.  The few inches of air up there would soon be closed off by water, but I couldn’t leave him here to die.  I just couldn’t.  Ben wouldn’t ever let me hear the end of it, and worse, he might acquire a buddy with brown hair and chattering teeth.

I must have expressed myself loudly and profanely.  You spend too much time alone, you forget that there are thoughts that shouldn’t be expressed aloud.  My companion looked even more terrified and tried to shrink from me.

“Don’t be stupid,” I said.  “Try to breathe when your head is above water, because I can’t promise it will always be.”  And I grabbed him by the back of his suit.  Expensive material ought to hold.

Then I took a deep breath, and plunged my own head under for faster speed towing him.  I hadn’t swam at all in more than fourteen years, and certainly hadn’t swam towing someone.  Halfway through the hallway, I surfaced to breathe.  My charge, white as a sheet, seemed to be managing to keep his own head in the air by treading water.  Good.  I plunged under and dragged him again.

All the way to the anti-grav well, which sucked us all the way to the upper floor.

The well was of course slightly dislocated from the well on the next level, so you wouldn’t accidentally go all the way up.  So we stumbled off the well field, sideways, and into the field of the next well, having no more than time to register that the water here was up to our knees.  Then up again, and the water up above our ankles.  Then up again, and the water covered our feet.  I stared at the other grav well at the end of the corridor, ignoring the people swarming around.

There were broomers everywhere, some of them women.  And there were fights going on between broomers and guards and, in a couple of instances, prisoners.  But I just looked at the downward gravwell at the end and determined that no water was falling down through that.  That meant there was no water in the level above.  So the hole had to be on this level, right?  The hole was my chance at escaping. I wasn’t about to try to leave through the main entrance.  I wasn’t that stupid.

A quick look to see where the hole would be, brought an even quicker decision that it would be on the side where there were more broomers and fewer guards.  Stood to reason, since guards were pouring in from above.

I grabbed my charge’s wrist and pulled him in the direction where there were more broomers, and I told him, my voice little more than an exasperated puff – it’s not easy running and towing a full grown man, even if he’s smaller than you, “Come this way, ignore the broomers.”

He hesitated a moment, then followed me. I was coming to terms, as he splashed behind me, with the thought that I’d have to tow the kid behind me no matter how far the surface was.  Couldn’t leave him here.  He seemed about as capable of survival as the drowned baby rat he resembled.  Twenty one or twenty two or around there, certainly not as much as twenty five.  His face was too rounded and soft for that,  and his skin seemed smooth and flawless like a girl’s.  And he could be my son.  Well, he could have been if I’d ever done anything that could have lead to a son.  And I didn’t think so, not even when drunk out of my mind.

But he could have been.  And I was the adult here, which meant he was my responsibility.  What kind of species would we be, if adults didn’t take the responsibility for juveniles?

Your father’s species? Ben said in my mind, which only goes to show you that ghosts don’t get out of breath or tired, no matter if the head that they’re haunting feels as though it would very much like to have a good bout of unconsciousness.

I ran down the hallway towards where I hoped the source of the water was.  First there were ever increasing numbers of broomers, all of whom ignored us.  If I’d had a little more breath, I’d have slugged one and stolen his broom to pull us to the surface.  Except I was fairly sure I owed my freedom to them, and I refused to slug my saviors.  Monster I might be, but there were limits.

Then there were no more broomers, as they were all behind me, and I could see the hole – a jagged tear in the wall of Never-Never, through which water poured.  And one of the mysteries was solved for me, because someone had slapped a man-hole underwater seal on the opening.  Because it wasn’t precisely the same shape as the opening, it allowed water to rush in around the edges.  But it wasn’t the torrent it would have been, had the hole been fully open.  Which explained why even the lower level wasn’t fully filled.

I turned to the kid behind me.  “Take a deep breath.  I don’t know how far down we are, but the broomers came that way, so it can’t be too far.”  I neglected to tell him that the broomers had brooms to tow them down, and therefore would have traveled much faster than any swimmer could.  “I’ll take you to the surface.”

But even as I heard him draw breath, a man came through the membrane, then another.  I jumped back and – this shows you how ghost-bullied I was – stood in front of the young man, as my mind realized that these men in stylish, dark suits, who clipped their brooms to their belts with military precision as they landed on this side of the membrane were not your average broomers.

In fact, they were a paramilitary unit, and only one of those deployed with brooms, so they could target problem spots in no time.

They were almost mythical, only I’d seen them once before.  Scrubbers.  The Good Men secret service of last resort.

 

 

 

Out Of Hell

            Scrubbers weren’t spies and they aren’t exactly a military force.  What they were was the Good Men’s ultimate weapon in opinion control.  Whenever an incident occurred which might cause public opinion to go out of control, Scrubbers were sent in to deal with it.

Their normal approach was killing everyone and making the bodies disappear.  If you were really, really lucky, you might have some DNA and a few scuffle marks left when they were done.  Theirs was the only avocation in which disposal of dozens of bodies wasn’t rare or incidental but a core part of their mission.

I’d met them before, once.  I’d escaped with my life, barely.  Ben and I might be the only ones of their targets to ever do so.

But Ben and I had ended up in jail.  That led to all the rest.

Now, my blood ran cold, and my entire body seemed to tighten in a knot.  I’d escaped that one time, but this was death.  Death for me, death for the kid I’d rescued, death for the broomers who’d set us free.  Nothing would be found of us.

And then I lost my mind.  Or at least my mind let my body spring free.

I can’t explain my capacity to move really fast, and I’ve never found any reference to this from anyone else, not even in the copious literature and history gems someone had snuck to me in the depths of Never-Never.  For a long time, I’d thought it was illusory, but both in the last incident with the Scrubbers and in the many incidents that Ben and I had been involved in in our first year in a common jail, I’d found that my ability was in fact true and it could be summed up as this: When in danger or great fear I could sometimes move at a speed above normal humans.  Fast enough above normal humans that I could win against great odds.

There were six men, which was the limits of even my ability, particularly since the front one was drawing a burner, no doubt to cut us down.  And I didn’t want to kill.  I didn’t want any more deaths on my conscience, but I also didn’t want to die.  And I couldn’t let them kill the kid.

I sprang.  Kicking the gun from his hands, I punched him hard enough to shove his nose in, then flung myself sideways towards his burner because it was easier than drawing mine.  I must have moved at a speed that his comrades found hard to perceive, since their burner fire followed me down, but didn’t quite catch up with me.  I heard the kid give a sort of gasp, and hoped it wasn’t loud enough to call attention to him.

And then I was flat on my belly, with the gun in my hand, and cutting down the Scrubbers in a long, continuous scything.  It was like a scythe running through their middle, too.  A very large scythe.  I didn’t even have time to set the controls on the burner and it wasn’t set to heat, but only to the penetration where it works like a blade.  Bodies fell, cut in half.  Which was good, because they were wearing the large oxygen tanks people use when they will take brooms underwater, where the mere oxygen concentrator on the broom won’t be enough.  And if I’d hit them with heat-burn, depending on what the tanks were made of, I’d have either blown us all up or ended up with a lovely rocket effect.  But it poured out blood and guts in plentiful supply.

The kid must have been shocked enough by the sight that he didn’t move.  Which was bad, because the last of the Scrubbers jumped, before the beam reached him, and got behind the kid, his burner to the kid’s temple.  “Surrender your burner or your son gets it.”

And damn it, I didn’t have time to argue genealogy, any more than I had time to set the burner to burn, instead of cut.  So, instead I removed my fingers from the trigger for a moment, aimed it at the man’s head, faster than his eye would be able to follow or – I hoped – his hand react to, and I shot him neatly in the middle of the forehead.

It was the equivalent of running a sharp, lance-long needle, through the middle of his head.  Blood and brains erupted, then poured.  He spasmed once.  Fortunately his hand moved from position at the kid’s temple, so the shot went straight down the hallway.  Someone screamed down there.

But I was already reacting.  Reacting to the falling Scrubber, reacting to the kid’s turning very pale, and his eyes trying to roll up into his head, as the blood of the scrubber poured over him.  Good thing we were about to go out and into sea water, right?  It would get rid of most of the evidence.

I sprang, and pulled the corpse away from the living boy, administered a calculated slap to the kid, and told him, “Buck up.  We don’t have time for nonsense.”

All I can say is that he must have been raised by as strict a man as my father.  His reaction to the slap and the voice of command was to come fully awake immediately, steadying himself.  “You–” he said, his voice unsteady.  “You killed them all.”

“Yeah, kid,” I said.  “I’m a murderer.  Why else do you think I’m in Never-Never?”  As I spoke, I was unhooking the broom from the dead Scrubber’s belt, and cracking the shell over the remote sensing-and-controlling unit, but not over the unit that transmitted the ignore codes.

To explain: every government broom – or military broom – came equipped with a unit that would allow your superiors to call you in, or at least bring the broom in if needed, as well as allow them to tell where you were at all times.  There was another and separate unit – and I only knew this from having taken these brooms apart – that simply broadcast a code which told local authorities to ignore this broom.

Broom riding was illegal in every seacity and every continental territory, but it was routinely used by two sorts of people other than illegal broomers: people escaping flyers that were about to crash, and police or agents of the Good Men.  The first type of broom had a beacon that called for the authorities to help.  The second had a hush-up-ignore code.  This code was generic.  It wouldn’t identify the broom, just let local authorities know that as far as the Good Men were concerned, it would be better for everyone to pretend the broom wasn’t really there.

I left that in place, because I’m not stupid, but I crushed the locator and remote with the butt of the burner.  I could do a prettier job, I could.  Given tools.  But I didn’t have tools.  And I wanted the kid out of here and safe.

“Have you ever ridden a broom?” I asked.

He looked at me as if I’d asked him if he’d ever drunk the blood of a newly killed infant.  “No!” Probably outraged at the idea of doing something illegal.

“Do you know how to?” I asked, and then realized how stupid I was being.  Of course he knew how to.  Every kid old enough to drive a flyer – which in most places was around fourteen – was required to learn how to ride a broom, since it might be his only escape from a crash, and his only hope of getting to civilization again, depending on whether he was flying over a wild zone or the sea.

“Uh… I learned… I mean…”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Look, this broom is a little more powerful than the rescue ones.”  I fumbled with the nearest dead Scrubber, and got the mask and the oxygen tank.  I strapped the tank to the kid’s back.  “You can go higher.  And faster.  I don’t know how far you need to go.  I want you to put this on.”  I handed him the mask and goggles.  “And I want you to hold onto the broom for dear life, and aim it up out of the water.  Then stabilize and try to get to the nearest landmass or seacity where you’ll be safe.”

“I have friends in every–”

“Good for you.”  I left him holding the broom and the mask and goggles, and stripped the Scrubber who had held the kid hostage.  He was the only one with an intact suit, since I had cut the others in half.  Damn it.  I had to learn to plan better.  At least the kid wasn’t wearing a prisoner’s uniform.

I was, and I was also barefoot.  Which meant I had to have the suit.  “I don’t have a suit you can use, kid,” I said.  “So just try to land on whatever seacity this is located in, if you truly think that there is someone who will take you in here.”

“We have people in every seacity,” he said.  Right.  From his expensive suit, he was probably a merchant’s whelp, and they did tend to have vast and interlinked families.

“Good,” I said, as I slipped the suit on, zipped, and turned my attention to the other brooms.  The suit fit like a tourniquet and the seams were close to splitting.  The dead Scrubber had been tall and well built but I’d always been outsized and now was even more so.  No matter.  I wasn’t likely to sire any kids anyhow.

I realized the kid was still there, staring at me, as I crushed the locator and control unit on the first broom.  “Why are you still here?” I asked him.  “Scram.  Go.  Make yourself safe.”

He blinked at me, as I grabbed a second broom and beat its locator out of it, then clipped it to my suit.  “What are you waiting for?” I asked him.

“You… saved my life.”

“Oh.  And?”  I hoped he didn’t think this made me responsible for him forever.

“My… my name is John Jefferson.”

“Ah.  Good for you.”  I beat the brain out of the sixth and final broom, clipped all but one of them – besides the one the kid had – to my suit.  Unless things on the outside had changed completely in the last fifteen years, brooms like this, with the chip disabled, were worth their weight in poppy juice, and little less in more complex designer compounds.

The kid hesitated one more second, as I collected burners and clipped them to my belt or slipped them into as many pockets as I could.  Burners, too, made good trade coin, besides being good to keep you alive.

He put the mask and goggles on, slowly, looking at me in appraisal.  Then he lifted his hand, his thumb and forefinger held in a circle, the other fingers up in that moment solving for me the puzzle of what a nice boy like him was doing in a joint like Never-Never.

The gesture was the benediction of the Usaians, a religious sect that seems to have its roots in a mythologizing of the old country that used to occupy much of the North American territories.  I’d learned a lot about that country in the gems my unknown benefactor had provided.

Without giving me time to react, the kid faced the membrane and turned the broom on.  He punched through the membrane with force, allowing a little water in, and left me to wonder if Usaians reproduced by fission.  They seemed to be everywhere if one looked carefully enough, but their strange brand of earnestly honorable behavior couldn’t possibly appeal to mates, could it?  Not that I claimed to be an expert in the tastes of women.

The entire incident, subduing the Scrubbers and getting the kid out of there couldn’t have taken me more than five minutes.  My muscles ached in the way they did when my super-fast mode had been activated and was starting to subside.  There was a good chance what had confused the kid was that I’d talked too fast also.  Sometimes I wasn’t aware of it.

I hesitated for a second considering whether to shout to the broomers and warn them more Scrubbers might come, then realized I was being an idiot.  Chances were that the authorities would give Scrubbers a little time to clean up a problem this size.  A glance down the hall told me broomers were now going up the anti-grav well to the next level, a lot of prisoners with them.

Strength to their burner arm, Ben said in my head, and for once he was only echoing what I thought.

I put on the mask and the goggles, grabbed one of the brooms, activated it, and punched through the membrane into freezing ocean water.

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