J. A. Howe
The bus picked Cherryn up just on the edge of the swamp, in the city where Nutri was and perhaps always would be located. Cherryn had been hiding there in the muck for a week, watching the bonfires of the sickly ones from a ways off, running when they got too close. Before that she’d been in an abandoned building full of the strangest shoes Cherryn had ever seen, in all colors and sizes, not practical like the ones she and everyone she knew wore, which they patched with duct tape and fixed when there was time. She didn’t like to think much farther back.
Larry’s words had inspired her to make this
particular move, now that she was on the run anyway. The awe in his
face as he and Cherryn had watched the bus travel by had remained an
indelible part of her memory, long after she couldn’t recall
what he looked like. This would be as good a way as any to escape,
It felt very strange to Cherryn to be moving with a different power than her own feet. She soon felt sick and hunched herself up in her seat, closing her eyes though that didn’t help either.
A hand on her shoulder made Cherryn look up again. "Oh, you have it bad," said the large, muscular woman who faced her now, swimming in Cherryn’s vision.
"Yeah, ev’y time," Cherryn said.
"Helps to not look straight out the window. What’s the destination?"
The woman nodded. Her skin was browned from the sun, her hair bleached till it was almost white. "C’mon, drink some." She offered Cherryn a tangy, tasty drink that bit at the tongue but went down smoothly. Within minutes, Cherryn had passed out.
When she awoke again, the bus was far from the city and they were rolling through more trees than Cherryn had ever seen. "Hey! Rainbow’s awake," she heard the tall woman say.
“C’mon down, Rainbow." She and a heavyset woman
were playing cards not far off.
Cherryn looked at her bright rags that were such a contrast to the worn and weather-beaten clothing of the site workers. Pants and shirts, some of them with vests, each had a symbol and pins sewed and stuck on them. She did not yet know that these had been put on the garb by other workers, as messages of varying types.
Cherryn moved slowly over toward the two women. "I’m Tank," said the tall woman, "and this is Vicky."
Vicky winked at Cherryn. "As in, Victoria’s Best-kept secret. I am a Virgin," she said proudly.
Tank leaned over the table and spoke more quietly. "We don’t use names here. So forget yours. There’s all types among us, but you’ll find we all follow that code. Wherever you eventyated, and whoever you was, she is like gone with that name."
"Yeah, you’re safe with us," said Vicky. "We’re all runaways, one way or another."
Cherryn wondered what they’d say if they knew just what she was running from.
Tank and Victoria spent much of that trip teaching Cherryn the ways of the site workers.
"You’ll get this com thing eventually; they always have extras at sites," said Tank. "That way you hear about like new site openings and gatherings of us workers – and protests, if you’re in that." She looked over at Vicky who grinned. "That’s where Vick and I are headed now. You might stick with us for the moment, till you know what you’re doing. You don’t have to participate, you can stay behind and we’ll find you."
That afternoon they passed by a giant landing port. It was larger than the one in Cambridge had been. "Solomon Port," muttered Tank beside her. "Ever been to space?"
"No, but I have a sister who – is up there."
Tank sighed. "Only way one of us will get there now is by prison load or detention craft. Not near enough money to buy self onto a cruiser, even to the moon."
"Somebody must go."
"Sure. Diplomats and government workers – not us lowly folks who’re tied on so that ‘nobody’s unemployed.’ Traders can go too, but have to be registered. And I’ve heard people who work the ports themselves can go up for vacation after a while."
"Don’t mind her; she’s obsessed," said Vicky.
"Why don’t you work at a port, then?" Cherryn said, ignoring her.
"Port workers have to be plugged in – Hooked up. I refuse that."
Vicky yawned; this was obviously a conversation
they’d had before.
The bus slowed to a stop as they came near the port. Vicky and Tank looked at Cherryn.
"Huh?" Before she knew it Cherryn found herself shoved into a small locker space under one of the seats. Footsteps and muffled words passed by. Her heart pounded. This was exactly what she was running from.
In a flash, it was over and Tank was hauling her out of there and they were moving again.
"Inspection; they’re looking for fugitives. Have to do it by law, though they don’t ever find anyone. Best if they don’t start a trend here, hm?"
Cherryn laughed shakily. "A - a fugitive…" She burst into tears.
"Here, drink this," Vicky said quickly, ducking Cherryn’s head down before the driver could see her sobbing. "You can’t."
"I’m a - fugitive," she moaned and passed out again.
This time when she woke up, she was still by the table. "Feel any better?" asked Tank. Cherryn shook her head.
"Shh," said the larger woman. "What you are is in shock." She exchanged a meaningful glance with Vicky.
Vicky took Cherryn’s head in her hands, made
her look at her. "We are going to the city of Black Worm. You
will get through this. Who you are is now gone. Remember that, or you
The town of Black Worm amazed Cherryn. Hills covered the landscape here, speckled and dotted in their turn by many small buildings of all pale colors. Scrapers such as the one where Cherryn was born burst up in unexpected areas among them, making for a dizzying view that looked like it was always moving. Many of the buildings of the city were antiques, their siding old and faded but resistant to time, while others were obviously newly carved. Heading down one hill into the town Cherryn saw few people actually outside; the bus passed a large mechanism that was moving slowly along the street collecting garbage, then sanding the walkway till it was almost spotless.
"Mostly readers and rich folk in this section," Vicky said. She sniffed. "It’s expensive to live near a Temple."
They got off a few blocks later, Tank and Vicky easily carrying large, compact bags. The empty street felt odd to Cherryn. "Are there any --?"
"--Hookups? Oh yeah. Main South has most of those, but they’re also dotted around in a few other pockets here. Careful how you go about; this town has a guard."
They passed by an elaborate fountain out of which poured ribbons in bright colors.
"You’ll see them sitting or camped out on the streets for the night. They pick up anyone who has no home, shove them down into South to be Hooked to the system. If the person’s causing trouble, they’re sent to Solomon instead for deplanetation. Can’t lock ‘em up here of course like they used to; UN law forbids it. Space is a nice loophole for cities like this one."
In the old City, though, that would never happen, she realized. NutriCorp was too interested in keeping test subjects for its product. The Dwarves were the police there. As for her original home, she recalled rumors of the space prisons but couldn’t recall a local army on the streets. Not even on that night when she and her family had had to run…
"We have to head this way," Tank was saying. Cherryn cleared her vision and focused on the city around them now. It was such a mix of old and new, she thought, such a mangled busy city unlike her own that had more structure, more of a specific day schedule that was obvious to see.
They stopped in front of one particular building. "There," said Vicky with disgust. "That’s the Believer temple."
It was an imposing structure, Cherryn thought. She knew of many varied religions that people around her had always practiced casually or intently, depending on their will. All that she knew of the Believers was that this particular cult had begun with the collapse of the Catholic Church two decades before. Believer temples were supposedly everything the Church had tried to hide for centuries: they were places to purge lusts of any type, so that out in the rest of the world you could be peaceful. You could commit murder in a Temple, it was said.
"We didn’t have any where I – started off last," Cherryn said.
"Huh. All you’d have heard was propaganda, then."
Cherryn shrugged. "It’s a religion, isn’t it? All of them have PR."
"Yeah, but I bet you haven’t heard of the Purity program." No, she hadn’t. Cherryn wondered as they went up yet another steep hill, how anyone could live here without constantly straining legs. Her own were starting to hurt from the unusual exercise. "See? By your silence I guess you don’t know."
They passed a building that, unlike the rest of the others, seemed full of people. It was brick and had several wings, with many doors and windows around and out of which kids Cherryn’s age were hanging, talking, eating, fighting. Some were plugged to one another by amps from the Enet hookup, while others were in chairs with wheels or wore splinter boards on their legs to walk.
"This is a school," said Vicky with that disgusted look. "Notice the kids you see. This is one of the few left in the country. History says that there used to be more, before the second Depression and then the invention of the ‘Net. This is a protected area of town, in case you were wondering. Don’t touch the barrier."
"Looks like you could just walk right in, doesn’t it?" said Tank. "But this town’s on alert – again. It happens a lot in some cities. I was out in Chicago during the beginning of one attack. Government had to put them under martial law for a while. Black Worm’s too poor for them to care much about, though."
"--So they say," said Vicky.
The house was two stories tall and a pale blue, with angles that seemed rounded and squarish all at the same time. Balconies rounded the structure and there was also a glassed-in extension where she saw many different plants growing. The door itself had been cut straight through a huge tree that stood right in front of the house. It was the largest tree Cherryn had ever seen.
The woman seated under the tree was equally amazing. Dark bodied, dark hair, dark eyed. She was plumper than most people Cherryn had seen with the exception of some of the site workers and so couldn’t have ever been Hooked Up; Nutri only gave you the essentials, no more. The river people however, who spent their days scrabbling for anything at all to eat, were even thinner. To Cherryn this apparition by the door seemed rich in a way the slobs at Nutri could never be. She in her red dress was vibrant with life.
"I was expecting Bronte," she said.
"We are here for the protest, not a shipment," said Vicky.
"I know, I was still expecting Bronte." The woman turned to Cherryn. “Hello.” She stood to take Cherryn's hand, “Dara.”
Cherryn hesitated. "Rainbow - uh - Gallagher."
"So I see. You’ll grow into it," Dara
said, a bit more kindly. "Come in, you three."
The inside of Dara’s house was fire and candle-lit. Soft couches lined the walls and cushions strayed over the floor like lazy puppies begging for a scratch. To the left was a stairway leading up into shadowy domain, to the right Cherryn could see a place full of random dishes and plates with a large stone-lined pit in its center and a smaller cove off to the side with a brass tub large enough to fit a person. Farther out Cherryn could see the entrance to the glass garden.
"Never seen a house before?" said Dara.
"No," Cherryn said. "I – have been on the road for ages."
The older woman nodded. "That was Vicky’s reaction when she saw this place, even though she grew up in a house."
"It wasn’t like this one," Vicky said. "We had electricity."
"Why don’t you?" asked Cherryn. Dara laughed.
"We were cut off, for various reasons. Had to make do."
Cherryn met Bronte later on: she was a tall pale woman with dark hair and green eyes. She was from Solomon Port, a trade merchant. Fresh fruit and vegetables for cash to pay off the local government and get a bit of protection, as Tank told Cherryn while the vehicle was being loaded. "She’ll go in to space and make hundreds on the stations and in the colonies."
"I thought stationers were growing their own food."
"They try, but there’s nothing like home-done Earth stuff. Most of the plants they grow up there have to be synthetic; there have been some bad problems with genetic engineering experiments. Caused a plague on McCallum’s station five years ago."
"So she’s bootlegging food? Why the need for it?"
"Local people hate her," said Vicky, "because she wouldn’t sell herself. Like me. I left when I was a little older than you are now, for the same reason. It’s safer out there than here, even with Dwarves."
“I don’t see--”
"She’s a Pure," said Tank. "No diseases in her worse than a cold. People like Vicky and Dara are about five percent now."
"Government’s trying to breed more,"
said Vicky with that disgusted look. "Families are tested
whenever they breed, and the kids are put into special programs once
they’re teens. Most towns have them, except the places with
Hookups. Rumor has it Hookups are poisoned anyway, something the
process does to you."
It must be the Nutri, Cherryn thought.
That night the protesters gathered downtown at the dark temple. Torches burned by its doors, casting eerie shadows on the ground. A man with a megaphone yelled for an hour, rousing the crowd who threw rotten fruits and meat at the building. Somebody had a keg of Nutri and poured it into the fountain. Other citizens came and fighting eventually started as a gas bomb flew through the air. Cherryn frowned.
"Poisoned veins, poisoned minds! Poisoned veins,
poisoned minds!" chanted the crowd.
The man with the megaphone made it past the gases, as more bombs were thrown. Little fires struck a small area of the park in back of them. "Do you know what happens in this hellhole?" he screamed, pointing to the Temple. "Do you know? What happened to the sons and daughters of those Purists? They burn them in here, if they aren’t found Pure! Destroying life! And then the others are forced to breed like animals, for the sake of their idea of normalcy! Are you a human being too? Sin fills this Temple, not Purity! Down with Purity, down with the Believers!"
Cherryn blocked her ears, coughing. The smoke was taking on different colors now, as the guy with the megaphone danced about, screaming, and the crowd chanted. The stench of the smoke mingled with the blander smell of spilled Nutri, and she felt sick. Sirens howled in the distance as the courtyard filled with more people, more fighting. Blood spilled.
In an odd way, it reminded her of the night of the storm a few years back now, when her
family had run. Pandemonium everywhere, people screaming. But they didn’t riot for the sake of rioting, like these folk; the people from Cambridge had gone crazy because their brains were being fried from the ‘Net crash.
Then again, this was the second protest that she’d
been indirectly involved in; she remembered very clearly the
attempted overthrow of NutriCorp. Cherryn shook her head. That was
long ago and far away by now, and Tank and Vicky were right; she
needed to forget it as much as possible if she wanted to stay alive.
The thought gave her chills.
Then again, staying alive out here among the fanatics from both sides seemed just as difficult. She ducked behind a large booth as another smoke bomb flew through the air. There she crouched for the remainder of the horrifying event, along with the body of a middle aged man who’d been bludgeoned with a stick. Tank finally found her there.
"Come on," she yelled in Cherryn’s ear after what seemed an hour or more. Together they dashed for the shadows as poisonous gases and the sound of sirens filled the air.
Those who made it back to Dara’s house were "detoxified," in the basement, with heavy antibiotic soap and injections, and made to drink a disgusting concoction, before they were allowed upstairs. Their clothing was soaked in turpentine and then burned, making the room stink. Cherryn watched her brilliant rags catch fire with a jump in her throat; they were the last reminder of her former life.
Tank put a hand on her shoulder. "Hey, don’t
worry about it. Has to be done every time; we told you about the
biowars. Best way to prevent sickness and death." Vicky had been
taken by the cops; Tank looked as sad as Cherryn felt.
She couldn’t sleep that night, finally wandered the house, a pale shroud in the sheer-like gown they’d given her for the moment. She passed by several groups of protesters talking quietly. Finally she went out to the garden to sit and found Dara there among her plants.
"You looked better in the rags," Dara said. A large orange cat jumped into Cherryn’s lap.
"That’s Oscar." Oscar liked to be petted.
"They told you about me, I guess. You know, I was around your age when I ran. First year of my life that the school started breeding exercises." Dara sat next to Cherryn.
"You’re lucky you didn’t have to do that, though you carry your own scars."
Cherryn felt a chill. "What makes you think that?"
"Spots on your arms, that special wasted look. It doesn’t matter much; I see a lot of former Hookups these days. People in fear for their lives, after the storm and the scandal. In this town they’re harder about dragging in miscreants, so I tend to send off escapees fast."
"The place I was before, it was more of your choice," Cherryn said, though she remembered the pressure of the Red Cross and the radio propaganda.
"This town’s under martial law. You don’t have any choice here, Rainbow."
"That’s not my name."
"I know. But it is now and you’d better remember that. It’s hard to run, I know. To change from who you were. I’ve seen it and I’ve done it.
"You don’t know much about Believers and the Pure system, I hear. But I do. I was a Pure myself. Parents got a nice stipend for putting me in one of their schools, getting me ready for Breeding. We were taught nothing in those schools except rudimentary learning. The rest was sex, how to get a partner, how to stay free of disease, how to kill a kid if you learned you were carrying an Impure and then later if you found that your teenager was one, and how dishonorable it was to copulate with someone who was themselves Impure.
"When I was ten we started exploring each other in class, for ‘preparation.’ And when we reached eighteen they celebrated. We were taken to the Temple downtown – Believers don’t have sex at home, you know. There we had a feast buffet. After that were the games.
"I won’t describe them all; one should suffice. We’d pick a partner and go off into rooms to have sex. Every fifteen minutes we’d change partners.
"I ran that night, hid till it was over, watching and listening in horror to something I knew couldn’t be right. Wasn’t long after that I found a small group of other deviants: we’d lock ourselves up in the library at night and read the things we were forbidden by day. Well, not actually forbidden – the Constitution still prevents that. But the Believers and the government get around that simply by non-teaching, or by teaching ignorance.
"Eventually we got bold and moved off campus, to this house. There was nothing to prevent it; legally we could go where we pleased. But there was pressure from our parents who had in turn been pressured. No breeding, no stipend. A few of us gave up and went back; two joined the site workers. My lover went crazy one night and drank detergent on his parents’ porch."
"You didn’t go to the protest tonight, though," Cherryn said.
"No, I didn’t. Just because I don’t believe in their way of life, doesn’t mean I’m going to riot about it. This house is my own version of a protest. Vicky’s different."
"Do you think she’ll come back?"
"Slim chance," said Dara. "I told you before, when you first came here, they’re constantly checking for deviants. Once they’ve figured out that she’s a Pure, they’ll probably try to keep her, brainwash her, breed her. Or they’ll make an example of her."
It’s more dangerous to fight, Cherryn thought. If that’s going to happen. Then again, she remembered running, running from Cambridge, running from the flood. Things were so different here, where people protested the way of things and yet could be killed for doing so.
And now she was in danger, because she had stopped
running for a few minutes, had done something very active. In a way,
she too was protesting when she
-- when she
-- when she…
"Do you know who I am?" Cherryn said nervously.
Dara shrugged. "I’ve seen all sorts come
here, criminal and non-criminal. It all depends on your definition of
what is right and wrong. You’ve killed someone; I can see that
it’s haunting you. But who am I to say it was the right or
wrong thing to do at the time? Nutri is crippled, no matter what
you’re now told on the radio. And whoever you once were is
gone." She got up and went to bed.
When Cherryn woke up next morning, curled around the cat in the greenhouse, she found herself covered in a blanket. It was black on one side, but it was trimmed in gold thread and the reverse side was checked in brilliant colors – a Rainbow.
Cherryn went looking for Tank in the house and instead ran into Dara. "Thanks for the blanket."
"Not mine," said Dara. "Word gets around; someone in the house decided you needed better decoration."
Cherryn flushed. "Well, thank them when you find them."
"Better than your original, anyway. Listen, you can’t stay here. Tank already left."
Dara nodded. "I told you, don’t stick around here too long. Pay attention: the cloak’s a worker warning. Cops are looking for a vicious criminal last seen in brilliant rags."
"But I only--"
"They say that she was involved in a plot to take NutriCorp down," continued Dara.
"Large reward for her arrest. If I were that person, I’d clear fast from anywhere she was hiding. They’re making her sound dangerous, and that always brings out the interesting cop laws. I wouldn’t be surprised if they went for a complete brain wipe and transport off planet, though Nutri sounds very interested in getting hold of her. And believe me, Nutri has a heavy sway even these days." She folded her arms and waited.
Cherryn gulped. "It was a message, you said. The blanket, n’est-ce pas?"
"Yes," Dara said. "Someone knows you, someone in the ranks, and you’ll be protected by them. You can also hide in a cloak."
But where could she hide, Cherryn wondered, feeling nauseous. She lost track of Dara’s talking as the older woman pressed a drink of something hot into her hands. "I - she could go offplanet," she finally said. "Hide with the traders?"
Dara smiled. "Good, you’re thinking again. But you aren’t yet used to being a fugitive. Yes, you’re a fugitive, get used to the word."
"Fugitive," Cherryn murmured to herself. She downed the rest of the cup. I’m a fugitive.
"You don’t try and hide with the traders, understand? Bronte’s out of port by now, for one thing. And anyway, that is the place that cops are likely to look for you. They’re not smart, they’ll be thinking you would run as far as you can. So don’t."
"Listen to me. Easiest place to hide is where they won’t suspect you to be hiding. Site workers know you now, and they won’t give you away. But it’s good to lay low for a little bit."
"You mean, hide here."
"Not in this house. But somewhere in this city, yes."
"Why are you so concerned about me?"
Dara shrugged. "Find a crowd, girl. Downtown somewhere. You have to learn to disappear."
"In this blanket?" Cherryn eyed her new acquisition.
"Rainbows fade away after a storm."
How easy is it to walk out into the world, when you have nothing and nothing to lose therefore? She left that day later on, heading nowhere, in the town she didn’t know.
Wondering how dangerous she really was. She didn’t want to think about what she’d done with the Nutri people, but then Dara’s words had reminded her of something. She realized that she’d thought she was right, just like the Believers and the protesters here thought they were right. Did the end justify the means, she wondered, or was it just one person’s way of changing their world? Was she right or wrong, after all?
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