Wheat stalks hissed over my head, scribbling across the narrow strip of heat-bleached afternoon sky. The arms of Tower Two whirled ahead, reflecting glaring dazzles of blue-white light. The stalks whispered, “Unhappy. Unhappy.”
I yanked up my skirts and hurried on to the tower to meet David. I had to get back before Marda and the children awoke from the nap I’d talked her into. As the tower grew above me, the wings beckoned urgently. I could feel the tremor humming through me now, jittering along my strung nerves.
I caught myself looking over my shoulder, stopping to crouch almost in the old Setharian stance, raking the stems with my eyes. Feeling the charged, defensive readiness run through me.
I shook my head impatiently and strode across the clearing, past a bulky tool chest near the open door of the tower’s control room. I glanced back once more, still uneasy, then shook it off and hurried down the steps, blinking to adjust my eyes to the swimming lights flung by the spin of the rod. “David?”
“Hey, Ruth, over here!” A thin voice shouted over the roar of the rods and humming tremor. “What do you think, huh?”
He sat on the floor in front of an open panel—Cybernetic Access Only—surrounded by wires and scattered tools and strange gadgets. He held the terminal clip of an insulated line running across the floor to the seismic panels. He attached it to a metal box that sprouted short leads and a wild assortment of lights, buttons, and dials, then grinned and waved a current probe at me. I almost expected him to attach a clip to his wiry springs of hair and light up the gleaming spectacles as indicators for his contraption.
I sat beside him among the clutter. “So this is it? That box lets you talk to the console?”
“Box! This is my personalized bypass activator!” He gave me an indignant look. “See, if I hook into the display screen for the seismic indicators, I can get the signals spelled out. It’s really easier using the console, so you can use voice mode, but I’ve got this set up so’s I can input with a letter-code system. Like this.”
He tapped buttons on the box and the seismic screen scrolled in lighted letters: See, Antie?
“A-u,” I corrected absently, staring at the screen.
He gave me a disgusted look but couldn’t help asking with obvious pride, “So what do you think?”
“David, it’s terrific! I’m impressed.” I smiled at him. “Do you think you could find out some things for me?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking about that disc of yours, and we’d really have to be at the console . . .” He pursed his lips.
“No, that’s out. Marda doesn’t want you associating with either the console or me.”
He shrugged. “I can get through some gates with this.” He patted the box.
“Gates? What are these gates you keep talking about?”
“Uhn-uh. First you gotta talk. We’re partners, remember?” He raised his two fingers for the spacer handshake. “You gotta tell me what’s going on.”
I touched my two fingers to his. It was funny, but I found I wanted to tell the kid as badly as he wanted to hear it. So I told him. About the cyberserf, the wild card, Officer Hodge’s warning about the Healing, the wheat blight, my accounts, and the subtly disturbing presence of contraplan gadgets, including his handmade book. I hesitated before telling him about the Founder loop, afraid that might be too much of a shock, but he finally wormed it out of me.
He shrugged and gave me a quizzical look. “Well, what’s the big deal about that? Stands to reason the cybers’d be some sort of energy field, right? Why would they bother with electronic interfaces if they were alive on their own?” The lenses gleamed as he leaned closer in excitement. “Jeez, just think what it must’ve been like to live back then! Being able to learn what you wanted and do things! So what’re we gonna do about it?”
I touched the wiry tangles of hair. “I’m not sure, kid.” He certainly didn’t seem perturbed about the Taboo notion of change and a past so different from our changeless present. Maybe that was what the word history had meant. I wouldn’t disturb him with my own doubts and fears. But I couldn’t shake a vague uneasiness that jittered through me like the tremor hum, urging me to take some undefined action. Like maybe burrow into some deep hole in the earth where the cybers would never find me. Like play dead.
But that was what they wanted, apparently. I blew out a breath. “Let’s try to find out some things, okay?”
David was eager to show off his contraption. He demonstrated how to bore loopholes through the console-Matron’s gates to access data loops. But we couldn’t get through a high-level blocking gate to information about my credit accounts. And, as David explained with an incomprehensible spill of jargon, any contact with offworld consoles was impossible. He wanted to go try the box and my wild card together on his console, but I firmly vetoed that, so he tried a run of what he called event-chain correlations on the happenings at my farm. He shook his head finally, muttered, “Weird data array,” and showed me the fragments that were all he could retrieve: Crop Blight Attempt Failed and Field Agent’s Recommendation Superceded and File Closure Executed.
I didn’t like the look of that last message as it scrolled in lighted letters across the seismic display screen.
David unfolded his legs to stand, scratching his head. “Dang it, if I had time I could work on building one of those virus programs the book talked about. But I’m gonna try something else I spotted in there. If I bridge . . .” He bent over to rummage through the scattered tools. “Shoot, left my cutters outside in the tool chest. Be right back.” He dashed up the stairs into the bright afternoon.
My uneasiness had blossomed into a case of screaming nerves, understandable considering the data I’d just seen. I rose and paced restlessly, lights flashing across me from the rod, tremor roaring through me.
And it was getting late. I had to get back to the house. I paused to eye David’s paraphernalia one more time and crouched to touch my fingers lightly to the buttons, wishing I could program some charm of safekeeping for him. I shook my head and poked a restless finger through the scattered components, my hand closing absently around the handle of a metal probe. I stood, fingering its sharp point, feeling the wooden handle fit comfortably into my palm.
I toyed with the tool, feeling its satisfying heft, as I climbed the stairs. “Hey, David, maybe we’d better try again tomorrow. We don’t want to be caught out in—”
I emerged from the dim shaft into the blaze of sunshine. “David?” I blinked as nervousness swelled into a swamping wave of urgency, assaulting my senses with the heat, the bright, swimming dust, and a low growl coming from somewhere. A flush of timbra tingled through my nerves to answer it.
Something dropped with a sound of metal against metal. “Sheba? Hey, Ruth . . . ?” David stumbled against the tool chest, his voice trembling on the edge of fear.
I blinked again and focused on his thin body sketched against the bright gleam of wheat, his outstretched arm shaking.
“Hey, Sheba! What’s got into you? Easy, girl!” His voice cracked.
The escalation of the timbra state was rushing through me now, images etched in separate lightning flashes of clarity. The downrushing gleam of a sail arm. The knobbed metal foot of the tower leg. Hot blue sky behind wheat stalks subsiding from violent shaking. A cloud of dust swirling. An angrily switching, tufted tail.
The big cat crouched a few paces from David, tail twitching aggressively, legs rippling tensed muscle, a low growl swelling into unmistakable threat.
My hand tightened reflexively on the sharp tool. “David! Back up slowly, don’t make any sudden moves.”
David’s white face swung toward me, lenses flashing in the sun. “But, Ruth, what’s wrong with her?”
The pardil growled again and edged forward, belly low, eyes fixed on David, their amber hot with the sight of the kill. He looked back at her, took a hoarse, sobbing breath, and began to step backward. The cat’s tail twitched faster, the wind shifted in the stalks, and I could see the ferial crouched, ready to spring from its limb onto the gizu-doe.
“That’s it, David, back up. Come on.” I edged closer to him. gripping the inadequate tool.
“No! Ruth, no!”
A sudden tawny blur of motion. A glimpse of a dark ring encircling the furry neck. Light glinting on sharp fangs. The big cat leaped.
David went down and suddenly there were only huge claws and the tumbling limbs of the boy in clouds of dust. A terrified scream and a snarl. Blinding sun caught thin metal as I sprang instinctively forward.
Adrenaline and reflexes, molten fire filling my veins. A growl, a savage cry—from whose throat?—a splash of red, fur under my hands, tripping in twisted skirts, then a scream, my own, and tearing pain down my leg. Then anger, fury at those murderous amber eyes, devouring rage at the winking amber lights of the console. Power surged through my arms, and there was only stabbing, stabbing at those eyes, screams filling my ears, bright blood, red, by the thorns, so much red. The screaming, forever and insane, so much red, the weight, heavy, twitching on me. I’d forgotten there would be so much blood. Pain and red darkness.
Empty blackness. No, wait, something pounding, knocking . . . Whose footsteps down those corridors? No, my heart. Dull throb. Pain. Where? My leg. Heavy. Hard to breathe. From somewhere, quiet sobbing.
I opened my eyes to hot blue overhead. The smell of dusty fur, my tongue meeting a sticky salt smear on my face. Weight on me, suffocating. And that sobbing, somewhere.
“David!” I dragged in a breath. “David, you all right?”
A gasp. The weight on me shifted slightly. “Ruth! I can’t move it. Holy Founder, Ruth!”
David’s face popped into my field of vision, streaked with blood and tears, one side of the wiry hair matted with more blood. Somehow his spectacles were still crookedly in place, one lens cracked. “Ruth, are you alive?”
Laughter of relief bubbled up and was cut short in a wheeze beneath the weight. “Kid,” I choked, “I hope this isn’t Heaven.”
An uncertain smile split his tragic face.
“Oooph . . . You okay, David?” I located my arms and pushed against the hot, dead mass of the pard.
“Me! Yeah, I think . . . but all that blood on you! I thought . . . I didn’t . . . Why would Sheba . . . ?” His voice rose and cracked.
“Okay, David.” I wheezed, “It’s okay. Just help me push.”
I pushed as David pulled upward on the head and front legs of the pard. I wiggled free, drenched with more blood. I crawled forward, took a deep breath, and looked at the cat. One eye was a red, viscous pulp, the handle of the probe still protruding from it.
I sat back and groaned, looking numbly at the long, ragged gash down my leg that dripped blood into the dust.
David’s eyes widened farther in shock, and he sank onto the ground beside me. “Oh the Founder your leg Ruth—” He was chalky white, teeth chattering as he held his arms wrapped tightly around himself, staring at my leg.
“David!” Sudden anxiety sharpened my voice, and I forgot my leg. “David, are you okay?”
He didn’t answer, only hugged himself and stared. Dizziness and a red mist before my eyes as I pushed him gently back and pulled away the bloody, shredded shirt. A gush of blood from the deep rip across his ribs and down his hip. “Damn them! By the blood and thorns, those cursed cybers . . .” I swore in a tender lullaby of a voice as I tore my skirt apart to bind up the awful wound. “By the stars, I’ll tear them all apart.”
I touched his hot forehead when I was done. “I’ve got to run for help, David. No moving now. It’s against the code for spacer hunters. You’ve just been initiated.”
I didn’t know if he heard. I limped across the clearing, past the dead pardil, then stopped and turned back to crouch stiffly beside it. Groping through the fur on its neck, my hands closed around the smooth strap. I yanked it loose and stared at the seamless bubble of opaque plasmeld formed into it. I stuffed it into my pocket. I hurried down the track, reciting every curse from every world I could remember, damning the cybers to the worst torments I could muster. It became a cyclic litany that pulled me on a finely drawn wire of pain to the house.
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