The Human Engine Waits

BY:
JA Howe



The coastline ate her up and stuck her skin together, making Cherryn real. She pulled her cloak blanket around herself, hiding the riot of colors that made up her Rainbow self: Rainbow Gallagher, the famous murderer. She was wanted by both the government and the powerful NutriCorp people. She even had her own TV show - when the producers could find her.

All she really wanted, whether Cherryn or Rainbow, was to be left alone, however, and so far she'd gotten her wish for a while. Cherryn hadn't seen any TV, NutriCorp, White Dwarfs, or even site workers in more than a month. She welcomed the quiet.

She'd found this region via the site strap on her wrist, where information constantly spooled. The site workers had a few places like this. They were safe places, havens where the workers could hide out for a while if need be. Dara's house had been one such place. But Dara's house wouldn't be safe for Cherryn the Rainbow for a good while; too many people had seen her there.

The half-abandoned coastal town was full of mutants who refused to join with the Dwarves, some Pures who were hiding from the law, and other people who reminded Cherryn of her river folk. They tended to avoid the dead houses and buildings for fear of an old plague; most people here lived on old trains, in fact. There were a few towns like this on the north coast, and the residents commuted back and forth with written letters to and from those folk who had built shacks beside the dead houses. Cherryn was learning to write. It was coming back into style, she'd seen on the site band.

"Message for you," Jamy, one of the local mutants, called to her as a car slowed into the station. "You can read, right? I can never remember…."

"Bien sur. I just never picked up a scribbler. Everyone where I came from knows reading."

Jamy gave her the envelope and plunked back into the train. You never asked about people here, and you never volunteered information if you knew the goods.

Cherryn, more reticent than most on a good day, was therefore not surprised. For a moment her thoughts went to Dara who must have heard rumors of Cherryn's location, or maybe her family still lived. But the paper, folded and over-written many times in this era when comp use was still more common, was from a senator.

"I am not sure what to call you. Many wild tales abound in this country, where you are legendary. But I also hear that you do not wish to be famous.

"I have a plan that will help you to disappear. You will be pardoned, have no fear of that. All you must do is pretend to be dead, and then to leave this world never to return. I will make you a hero if you do so.

"If you agree to these terms, please come to the black car of train no: 6 974W23/04.

"Sincerely

Senator Marshall Devons."

* * *

Days later, after much thought, Cherryn boarded the train. "The enet says you are trying to become Leader," she said.

The enet was different than what it had been; after the crash of a few years before people were more and more loath to have the implant. Carry-on comps or desktoppers were back in fashion again, where before they'd only been backups. But you could still get what information you needed.

The genial man with red hair smiled. "Actually, I'm going to bring back the real Presidency," he said.

"Can't be done. People lost faith in that office decades ago."

"We still have puppet Presidents," he said. "You are as smart as rumors tell, I see. You are doubtless wondering why I'd make this offer."

Cherryn shrugged. "It's an offer that you cannot really make."

"What if I could? I've done some checking. NutriCorp is out of popularity. The enet is going back to an older form, that people consider safer. Now is the time for us to take back our country!"

"You don't need me for that."

"Yes I do - Cherryn - Rainbow, whatever your name really is - don't you see that you started this revolution? You, Cherryn, a real hero of the people because of what you did. You shook up NutriCorp, and made people question it for the first time in ages.

"Unfortunately, you have to take the fall. The people need a martyr, my dear." He saw Cherryn's hand tighten on her knife and said hurriedly "I don't mean now…."

"What exactly do you mean?"

"As I said in my letter, if you agree to let me make you a martyr, you get a free pass to space."

"Dead, that doesn't do me too well."

"We're going to the NutriCorp region, we're going to stage a death."

That made her laugh. "You have no idea of the danger of it. You think that you'll become President by doing that? The current government and Nutri both want me dead. Really dead. And that means anyone else around. If you try this, Senator, they'll turn it around on you faster than fast, make themselves heroes and become powerful again. Rebels, they'll call us. I've seen it."

"I have friends."

She shook her head. "No one you know could help you against that."

* * *

Inexorably, Cherryn moved through life and the world, and she had a couple lovers. She had one small incident with the TV people or at least an almost incident. They were filming the Dwarves, a dangerous job since the biker mutants hated them. And one day a camera man came close to Cherryn's small home. She was living in the so-called plague towns, moving every so often out of habit. But she stayed in the area because few people came here. When the TV worker caught a glimpse of her rushing for her house after the Dwarves came, she was sure she was a goner, till the Dwarf ran him down and grabbed her.

Cherryn recalled what it was like being caught by the Dwarves before, and it hadn't been pleasant then either. They smelled - a different odor than rotting bodies in her house and the ones near her, but this one was a sweaty, leathery odor. Asking what they'd do to her was futile. The Dwarves were owned by NutriCorp and she'd killed one of their own.

"There she goes, folks; we're live with the White Dwarves, probably the most dangerous group in the country, who have just captured Cherryn 'the Rainbow' Gallagher! As you probably know, Cherryn's a dangerous criminal - will they band together? Will they kill her? Tune in…. Hey, Una, I'm running out of film…."

"Stop followin'!"

There goes a brain cell, the thought as another head exploded. They rode on through to the sparse woods passing one of the trains of the area. A high rusted bridge hung far overhead, twisting into the distance. The marshes on the north side of the city were ahead. That was where the Dwarves stopped.

Mentally, she counted her captors and knew she couldn't take them all down, even with what few weapons she had. Here there were no trees to climb either, no houses in which to hide. Cherryn stared out over the marshes at the crumbling towers of the corrupt city that was ruled by NutriCorp, as her captor gripped her. There was really only one possibility, so she did it.

The Dwarf screamed unintelligibly and fell over, clutching himself as she dove. Cherryn, having lived on the river for so long and visiting before that, knew how to swim, even though this was much deeper than she was used to.

Why do I keep trying to survive? she wondered, as she sank deep into the muck of the swamp, listening to the Dwarves shouting and trying to shoot at her. But they would not enter the marsh that was full of Nutri waste; the Dwarves knew what was in there and guessed what might be.

Her arms and legs ached by the time she hit semi-dry ground. Cherryn looked back but didn't see any sign of the Dwarves. They had probably moved on to try and catch her on the other side. She grinned and stomped dripping off toward the woods.

Cherryn's small fire a few hours later roasted a spindly rabbit with three eyes. She thought about how much she hated the Nutri people and how many enemies she had. She decided she didn't care. She finished her meat and threw the bones into the fire, where the ashes smelled. Slowly, she straightened up.

"Come closer slowly," she said to the person she'd just heard behind her.

"Coming."

She knew the voice but not the person who appeared. It was her brother, Shale, emaciated and missing one arm. This took her a few seconds to register. Cherryn wasn't sure what to do.

He crouched down across the ashes from her. "Our family's gone," he said. "After the murder - todos. All were captured, tortured, killed."

"So now you're here to kill me, non?"

"For a long time I thought I would, if I ever found you. Pero, it isn't worth it anymore."

"Good to know."

He looked at her carefully. "I'd heard you were different. You are. You're hard now."

"Side effect of being chased, hunted down, fear for your life, and so on." Cherryn got up. "Got to go now." She picked up her cloak and brushed out the dirt that she could. "Good people back that way," she pointed the way she'd come. "Believe it or not, some still do exist."

"Where are you going?"

"Through the sewers. I'm going to stow on a ship, go find Anise, our sister. At least to know she's alive."

"I could turn you in."

Cherryn looked him right in the eye, her knife out in seconds. "You'd be dead long before that, ¿sabes? ¿Comprendes?" He gulped at the weapon that was right on his throat.

Shale nodded fast and backed away, scrabbling in the dirt. "You aren't the sister I remember."

She put the knife away. "Keep going that way. Pretty soon you'll run into some TV people. They'll love to hear from you. Brother of the famous outlaw."

She turned and disappeared into the wood, such as it was, heading for a sewer entrance she knew must be there. The trip across to her old city of Harthaven reminded her of that original journey.

* * *

The Senator's people were covering the port, and so were a bunch of TV folk. Cherryn had been hiding out here for some time, in the abandoned shacks of the river people. Some homes had been uncovered once the old flood had come down again. But it hadn't come down too far, and a real river looked like it was going to stay. Cherryn mourned the past, but she was going to leave if it killed her. It probably would, too, she thought.

"Figured I'd find you here," said Senator Devons, appearing beside her on the hill where she was picking up bits of shell. "You're trying to figure out how to get away from them. I offered a way for you to do it."

"I didn't accept."

He smiled wryly. "You know, I'd have loved to have you working for me."

"A murderer? An outlaw? What - are you hitting on me now?"

"National hero, my dear. You know what I promised you."

"Too many people hate me. There is no way you can make that promise legally. Listen - I think you'll make a good Leader. But I'm sorry I'm going to miss your attempt."

"You're tough." He looked at her thoughtfully. "Good luck."

"You aren't going to try and stop me?"

"No, my people are though. Half of them are corrupt."

"You expected something else?" Cherryn laughed, crushing a snail shell in her palm. She looked back at him, straight into her eyes like she'd looked at her brother. "Let me tell you something, Senator. Everyone is corrupt these days. Everyone has an agenda."

"Sure," he said, looking right back. "Listen - if I escort you up there…. I'll make you that deal one more time."

"No chance."

"Really. Just wrap your cloak around you," he said coming a little closer to her. Before she could say anything more he muttered "Sorry," and that was all she got from earth.

* * *

"…And so ends a reign of terror, from the government to its most potent killer in ages!" cried the new President to his people. "I give you this promise: my government - our government - will never allow such horrors to happen. We have all suffered enough, for too long - it is long time that we take back our country, build it up to what it once was! No more terror, no more internal horrors! I promise you…."

There was no White House for him to sit in; that had been bombed five years before during a terror attack. There was no real Seat; he traveled on a specially made site worker bus, with them, whereas the puppet leader had simply hidden somewhere deep in the ruins of DC, protected by more powerful forces like the Nutri goons and the Dwarves. Devons, on the other hand, was a man of the people. He was popular with the masses. The site workers thought he was ridiculous, though he tried to suck up to them. The White Dwarves thought he was pathetic, though they were secretly jealous that he'd gotten to Rainbow Gallagher, the great murderer, before they could.

"… I hope you can all understand that I cannot even have her body remain on Earth. It must be a new era, the tragedies of the past decades must be removed completely. So begins a time of better jobs, of better housing conditions…. I have been out among you folk and I have seen the crammed living conditions, the tired masses… I promise you a better life, the good old America!"

Far away, in a casket, slept one of a million cryos that were headed for Mars. As far as the earth was concerned, Cherryn the Rainbow Gallagher was dead.











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