by R.J. Astruc
They camp near the place Deek killed the vagrant. XVI finds an old tarpaulin amongst the urban detritus that litters the building site, and strings it up using a coil of cabling and the struts of an old airship. It won’t keep out the wind but it’ll keep out the rain, and also maybe hide them from the security scanners that patrol the skies. Not bad, XVI thinks. Not bad for a shelter made out of the shit that other people don’t want.
When the shelter is up she crawls underneath it and curls her thin body against Deek’s flabby warmth. He still smells like blood and sweat and dead-things.
“This ain’t gonna be for long, boi,” she says. “Jus’ til things die down.”
Deek nods and touches his heavy fists against his forehead. XVI doesn’t shudder. But maybe, she thinks, maybe I should.
Sometimes she looks at him and sees a weapon.
In the darkness of that first night she touches his soft belly, his wide hips. Touches him with love. Remembering that without him she wouldn’t have the money: ninety five credits from the suit’s wallet, and another sixteen from the vagrant.
Remembering that without him she’d never have been able to elude the psychics working on the compound’s outer gates, or the scanners that monitor the gates of the undercity.
Deek might be her brother, but XVI isn’t sure. The tests have messed up her memory. He doesn’t look like her brother, though, with his wide plain face, his mouth like compressed and rubbery sausages.
He weeps in his sleep.
XVI doesn’t know if that’s good or bad. XVI doesn’t know if it means anything at all.
Later the security scanners do a sweep. XVI, half-awake, sees the spotlight racing across the rubble toward their shelter… and then across the shelter itself and on.
No pause, she thinks. They won’t be coming back.
The next day they walk. Deek’s eyes are glassyblank and she has to guide him through the undercity crowds, her hands directing his hips. The scanners pass above, and every time XVI hears their familiar whirr she goes stiff and silent. A reflex: she’s expecting the worst. But can the scanners really see them? she wonders. Or rather, see the absence of them, the great psychic black spot that is Deek and his fractured mind?
She buys Deek lunch in a su-su shop: two bowls of protein-rich soup. She’s read somewhere that’s what astronauts eat in space.
“What’d they do to you, baby?” she asks, holding his hand across the table. “Why’re you like this?”
Deek struggles. “They put a light in my head.”
He picks at the scar that circles his temples. He makes XVI think of the lab-dogs and lab-cats she once saw in the compound’s animal testing section. Mad little fuckers, all of them, mouth-frothing, biting their own feet. Artificially-engineered prions chewing tunnels through their brain meat. XVI remembers saying: They ought to be put out of their misery.
XVI notices that the woman on the table next to them has a nose bleed.
She says, pulling him to his feet, “You ‘member me, yeah, Deek? We grew up same place, you’n’me.”
“Same mom,” says Deek uncertainly. Then: “She sold us.”
“Ev’rybody got to eat, boi. Mebbe she figured the compound was a better bet than that shithole in Cheapside.”
He vomits twice in the next hour. Once outside a railway station. The second time by the glass frontage of a posh cafe. People inside stare and point, horrified. Their expensive dinners?honeyed new-fruits, organic meat, imported protein?are left untouched, pushed aside.
“Baby, baby,” XVI says, riding the wave of Deek’s lurching shoulders. “Baby, it’s okay…”
But that’s a lie: nothing is okay, everything is wrong. She can feel the sickness in him building. She moves to kiss him but then Deek puts his fist through the cafe window and screams words that aren’t words at all… and then there’s a black spot in XVI’s memory… and then they’re running and XVI remembers blood, not where it came from or what happened to produce it, just the colour, livid and brilliant and terrible.
“Fifteen inches of snow in Klondike,” says Deek, panting beside her. “Closures on highways 4, 7 and 29. Rug up if you plan to go out.”
It takes XVI a few minutes to realise that he’s picking up satellite broadcasts.
“Oh Deek,” she says, almost fondly.
She’s already decided that she’s going to have to ditch him. He’s insane. He’s a liability.
He could get them both killed.
She leaves him in west Cheapside. She finds him shelter: a filthy grey honeycomb of a derelict skyrise, its north-facing facade fallen to rubble, only the internal walls remaining like a little girl’s dollhouse. She tells him: wait, and he does, in the dust and dirt like a dog, a mad lab-dog.
The next day XVI finds work. Slave labour wages, doing slave labour. She loses three fingernails on a threshing machine and cries out in pain each time. By the time the day’s done her knuckles feel warped and out of joint, and her eyes won’t focus right. She’s walking home before she realises she doesn’t have a home to walk to.
In a seedy undercity bar she gets drunk and listens to the localgods brag about theft and brutality. Thugs, all of them, skinny and tattooed and strung-out. The way they swagger makes XVI think of the ungainly movements of children’s puppets. They drink cheap beer and talk loudly about ‘big takes’ and ‘fuckin’ the man’ and ‘blowin’ brains’. They complain about security systems: the scanners and the psychics.
They talk about how they’d heard some scientist types were working on a psychic blocker. A psychic blocker for your mind. A way to get around the scanners forever. A way to live under the radar for real. But that’s probably science fiction, they tell each other.
Science fuckin’ fiction.
XVI checks her pockets.
She’s got forty-five credits left.
She thinks: Maybe out here I do need a weapon.
Deek’s waiting for her when she comes back.
He’s dirty and lab-dog crazy, but he still smiles when she takes his hand.