Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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New Columbia

(Part 1 of 3)

by J. B. Hogan


BimHills

1.

Platt Meeler was so high on chalkwater and ginweed that Ari Blanque, who barely came up to the big Somecop's shoulders and was a good fifty pounds lighter, had to guide him through the shining glass and concrete alleyways of Redsinthe on Bimhills' lower east side. It was only a little after four in the afternoon, but the sky over Bimhills was so sooty dark it could have passed for early evening. All the rad shops and fill bars back on Westfeel Boulevard, Bimhills' main drag out of which Ari had just pulled Platt, were lit up like the Vegas strip Ari had once seen in a film when he was just a smalltad still going to the Booker.

Those were the days, before the first Great Invert, before the Decades of Sand, when there had been a world beyond Bimhills, beyond Ebon and Meshica -- one stretching into the unknown reaches of the forbidden Outworld. Out where it was rumored the flesh eaters lived, animal-like men who preyed on anyone foolish enough to stray there.

Puffing for breath, Ari led Platt away from the entropic tug of Westfeel Boulevard and towards Platt's romspeed vehicle, avoiding a pack of five Fulljohns smacking wads of Day's Hash and whipping long night sticks around like they were members of some obscene, synchronized headbashing team, which they were. Ari pushed Platt against the wall at the end of the smoggy but spotless alley until the FJs passed by, then lurched out onto Beatty Street, the weight of the big Somecop nearly knocking him to the ground.

"Damn it, Platt, wake up," Ari groaned uselessly at his barely conscious friend. Platt mumbled something about getting more women, the spittle in his mouth and throat bubbling the words into mostly unintelligible sounds. "Yeah," Ari laughed under his heavy load, "you're really ready for more women all right."

Ari finally pushed, shoved, and cajoled big Platt down Beatty Street to where it intersected with Gates by the simpark. They had left Platt's car on Gates, in charge of a sturch whom Ari paid too much, while they stormed the plezone out on Westfeel. Luckily, the smalltad sturch actually did watch the car and he helped Ari dump Platt into the rider's side of the two-wheel drive romspeed. Ari never could understand why a Somecop would want anything but a four-wheel drive. He couldn't count the times his 4-Rom had saved him from marauding Ebons, Tokus, and even FJs when he'd gotten too chalked or ginned out on the fringes of Bimhills.

Finding himself an empty bench by a nearby simtree, Ari overpaid the sturch again and when the kid left took out a fat ginweed, fired it up and leaned back casually puffing. Ginweed was okay to smoke but nicsmokes were against the law. You could do time for that. Time in the vats. The vats, where the nastiest Erads watched over the slimiest outcits. Even the toughest outwatch or outguard had it tough in the vats. Everybody did time in the vats, even Ari had done six months for street criss-cross but you did your best to stay out. The vats were crawling with prees and flakes and zoners. The prees liked it and they liked new young meat best of all. Ari had found out the hard way. Halfway through his ginweed he cringed at the memory. The prees and the others could keep it.

Ari liked it out here with the rad shops and the fill bars. He was a plezone kind of guy and he knew it. The vats weren't for him. And lately there was rumored to be a new kind of vatter. Something called a radcit. They got their name from being outcits who used Erad tactics in the vat and outside. Ari had never seen a radcit but he was afraid of them. It was said they wanted to turn Bimhills upside down and that some had been past Long Wound to the Outworld. They talked about outcits and cits, Fulljohns and Somecops, even outwatchers and outguards, as being the same and they dared talk about fighting back against the Erads and Shadpols. They also talked about a place called New Columbia that was beyond the Outworld. Thinking of it scared Ari and threatened to ruin his ginweed zone, so he tried to concentrate on his surroundings.

The simpark was covered above the tops of the simtrees, some thirty feet above the ground, by camouflage netting stretched tautly over the entire area of the small park. It was there to protect you from the blazing sun that burned down and through you on those occasional days when the air was somehow clear enough to let those unblocked ultra violet rays shoot down onto the planet without absorption. The simpark in that way was like an outdoor shade house, those refuges for midcits and highcits, people like Ari, to escape to on sun days. Up in the simtrees, Ari could see several kinds of birds and even a couple of squirrels, all poised as if in motion, all sims like everything in the park. Ari liked to zone in simparks -- they were so quiet and tranquil. He liked sim things in general. They were silent and motionless and clean. Safe. They didn't mess with your zone.

The only thing messing with Ari's zone was the heat. Despite the shade provided by the simpark it was still very hot and Ari was sweating heavily. He decided to do another ginweed so he wouldn't notice the heat and sweat. If you got far enough into the zone, you either got to where you didn't care about how you felt or you actually began to like it, no matter how uncomfortable you might have felt before. Ari wanted to get that far into the zone.

Halfway through the second ginweed, just as he was about to go fully into his zone, he heard a sound that jerked him back towards his senses. It was a sound that terrified all but the most powerful of high cits: the startling, clapping noise of Erad body leather. Ari crushed his ginweed out on the side of the bench and sat up alertly.

They were coming into the park from the street to Ari's left. Four of them: big, muscled, ugly, arrogant, brutish -- classic Erads. Ari never looked them in the face, few people did; they were all just Erads to him. Duplicates of each other. You stayed out of their way. They had full Pol power and took advantage of it. They made life and death judgments on the street. It was easier, and cleaner, than taking some foolish outcit to the Bench and wasting highcit time and money. Ari sat perfectly still but kept them in his peripheral vision.

The Erads, accompanied by a smaller, obviously far less potent, but still dangerous Fulljohn, were dragging two apparent crazer outcits -- one a smallish late teenage boy, the other a pretty but bruised young woman -- across the synthetic grass and concrete slabs of the park.

"Press on, scum," the biggest of the Erads, a particularly vile individual, said, "move through."

The other Erads bashed on the outcits to punctuate the big one's words. The boy stumbled forward and fell; the girl cried out. Another of the Erads, this one wearing very shiny leather, Ari noted, grabbed the girl by the hair and gave it a sharp tug to shut her up.

Ari had become so caught up in the little scene, trying hard to act like he wasn't watching it, that he failed to notice that the FJ with the Erads had broken off from the group and walked away. Suddenly, he was standing right beside Ari.

"Nice day, cit," the FJ said casually, his voice shocking Ari so much that Ari actually gave a start.

"Hmm?" he mumbled, not looking up.

Theoretically, Eradicators, or Erads, and Fulljohns, the regular police, as well as all the other varieties of privatized security forces, collectively known as the "silver," who kept Bimhills' streets safe and comfortable, were supposed to kowtow to well off, high-ranking citizens, highcits, like Ari. But it was never an especially good idea to become the center of an Erad or Fulljohn's attention anyway. They were too autonomous and too arbitrary to take for granted -- ever. That was one thing Ari had learned -- and he hadn't needed the Booker, from where he had somehow managed to graduate several years before, to tell him about it either.

"I know you," the FJ said, not unpleasantly, "don't I?"

"I don't think so," Ari said, still not looking up. His pleasure zone had been completely wrecked and now his nerve endings were tingling. The simpark looked stupid and plastic now, false, not calm and peaceful. Not restful. Damn these fools, he said to himself, then to the FJ: "Do you want to see an IDflick?"

"No," the FJ said, "I know you. You're highcit. It's OK."

"You know me?" Ari asked incredulously, finally looking up at the FJ.

The FJ was young, about Ari's age, medium height, a little thin, but very muscular. There was something about the not fully vicious blue eyes and the shock of red hair that was familiar to Ari.

"I know you from the Booker," the FJ said.

"We went to Booker together?" Ari asked.

"No," the FJ said, almost smiling, "I was sanpure. Before I was picked for Somecop. I used to clean the Booker. I saw you a lot."

"Now you're Fulljohn," Ari said, his attention drawn back to the center of the simpark where the Erads had stood the boy and girl up side by side near a simtree.

The boy's face was bloodied and bruised and the girl's clothes were torn half off, exposing most of her left breast. The Erads laughed crazily, occasionally taking turns at hitting the boy or fondling the girl, who slapped them away each time to a new round of laughter.

"Now I'm a Fulljohn," the red headed ex-sanpure confirmed.

Ari barely heard, he was fully engrossed watching the outcit girl defend herself. She was really remarkably pretty. Ari wondered why he'd never seen her or the boy before, and how they had become outcast citizens.

"Who are those people?" he asked the FJ. "What have they done?"

"They're radcits. Radicals. Rebels. I don't know the boy," the FJ answered, "but the girl is Kara Felt. You must know her. She was highcit. From your area."

"My area?" Ari wondered, looking at the girl more carefully.

When he did, she looked over at him. For the briefest of moments their eyes met across the concrete of the simpark and Ari saw a flash of recognition in the girl's eyes. Was it a plea for help? A challenge? Ari quickly looked away, afraid of what the girl might have seen in his eyes. Afraid of what he might have inadvertently expressed. When he looked at her again, she did not reciprocate.

"A real looker, ey?" the FJ said quietly by Ari's ear.

"Yes," Ari agreed, not looking at the girl, "a real looker."

"A looker from the old booker, huh?" the FJ snickered. Ari looked at the young man without understanding. "Get it," the FJ repeated, "she's a real looker from the old booker, ha, ha."

Ari tried to laugh but could only muster a weak smile. The FJ guffawed at his own joke. Ari wished that he had stopped at any other place on the planet than here just now. He'd rather face the outguards of Toku or Ebon than be in this simpark with this pack of Erads and the miserable rebel boy and girl. Kara Felt, he thought, I don't remember her at all. How could I not. She...

"Hey, watch it," the FJ suddenly yelled, jerking Ari back into the immediate reality. "Look out."

Frightened, Ari cringed down on the bench as the FJ pulled out his laser-mounted pistol and leaped past him. In the center of the park, the rebel boy was trying to escape. He had somehow broken free from the Erads and was stumbling away from them, reeling in the general direction of Ari and the fast moving FJ.

Fast as the FJ was, however, the Erads were faster. Before the FJ could shoot, two of the Erads opened fire on the rebel boy. With a deafening explosion, the Erad in shining leather, the commander of the group, a scar faced Lt. Rankin, according to the name tag blazoned above the left breast pocket of his uniform, let loose with his L-12, a laser powered, automatic 12-gauge shotgun. Simultaneously, Lt. Rankin's massive second in command, a Sgt. Cage, fired his DC-40 assault rifle in single shot mode.

The rebel boy was torn apart. By a millisecond, Lt. Rankin's 12-gauge rounds hit the boy first, blowing huge holes in his chest and right thigh. But before the boy could fall, shots from Sgt. Cage's .40 caliber weapon hit him once, twice, three times in the lower stomach area almost cutting the rebel youth in half. To the sound of Erad laughter and the girl's cries, the boy fell dead on the concrete floor of the park, blood draining from his limp, motionless body. Ari sat rigidly, stunned.

In that moment just after the killing, however, while the Erads admired their handiwork and Ari stared at it in shock, the FJ strayed too close to the rebel girl Kara. Spinning loose from the Erad who no longer held her tightly enough, Kara kicked out at the FJ and connected with his gun hand, knocking his weapon into the air. The lasermag pistol spun across the park, crashing onto the concrete and sliding right up to Ari's feet.

"Grab it," the girl Kara cried out, "help me, cit, shoot the bastards."

For a moment that seemed like an eternity, Ari looked down at the weapon. He and it seemed suspended in time and space, outside the realm of the other events transpiring in the park. In his trance, Ari did not see Lt. Rankin and Sgt. Cage turn their weapons on him, nor did he see the FJ and the other Erads once again corral and restrain Kara. For Ari, all the world was his little space in the park and this moment of concentration on the weapon by his feet.

He considered his options: grab the weapon and try to free the girl, an act that would certainly lead to his own death; attempt to flee himself, a move the Erads might misinterpret and gun him down before he took two steps anyway; or leave it alone, do nothing, stay uninvolved. As Ari made his choice, he raised his head and looked across the park at Kara.

"Take it," she cried again, "help me!"

Ari sighed deeply and began to form some sort of verbal response. But before he could, he saw movement at the edge of the simpark behind Kara. There seemed to be a figure there, perhaps more than one, lurking just beyond the rebel girl behind a wall of real shrubs that ringed the rear of the simpark. Mesmerized by the movement, Ari only heard as noise the yells of Lt. Rankin and Sgt. Cage.

"Hand it over, citizen," Sgt. Cage growled, aiming his DC-40 at Ari's head.

"He's highcit," the FJ yelled at Sgt. Cage.

"High citizen, then," Sgt. Cage corrected, "hand it over whoever you are. Or die."

"Easy, sergeant," Lt. Rankin said, "he's going to do it. Right, highcit? Just stay still, we'll get the weapon, don't move."

"Don't move," Ari mumbled, catching Lt. Rankin's last words. "Don't...move."

But as Lt. Rankin hustled to retrieve the loose pistol and as Kara released a string of oaths aimed at Ari, an explosion of light suddenly filled the park. In a transfixing display, the simpark was immediately, totally enveloped in sparkling, flashing colored lights.

Ari could see nothing but the lights. But he heard the footsteps of several people rushing into the simpark and he heard bursts of wild gunfire and small, loud explosions nearby. If he could have seen and understood what he saw, Ari would have been witness to a rebel rescue attack.

Under cover of the sparkle lights, five rebels had leapt from hiding places beyond the simpark and, wearing wraparound infrared goggles to see past the sparkle explosion, unleashed a barrage of lasermag pistol and exploding-tip arrow fire at the surprised Erads and FJ. Two Erads fell dead before Lt. Rankin and the others could extract their own infrared lenses and begin to return accurate fire. By the time they had, the rebels had wounded the red headed FJ and were making off with the girl, Kara Felt.

"Stop them," Ari heard Lt. Rankin cry out, but the battle had already been won.

There were several more quick bursts of gunfire and then the little simpark was quiet again. Frozen with dread, Ari sat stock still, waiting for what he didn't know. But at least now there was no more gunfire. In a few moments the sparkle lights began to fade out and the shapes of the simpark formed again. When at last he could see clearly again, Ari made out the bodies of the two dead Erads and two dead rebels, including the boy who had been killed before the attack. Between Ari and the dead rebel boy, the red headed FJ rolled back and forth on the floor of the simpark, groaning and holding his left shoulder.

Ari watched the FJ flipping back and forth and something like compassion began to awaken in him. He even began considering the possibility of helping the wounded man. He tried to picture what he would do but no clear image came to mind. The Booker never covered rebel attacks and it didn't teach First Aid. Then, as Ari began to tire of his internal dilemma, two healthy FJs pulled up in a camo romspeed and solved it for him. They hopped out of their vehicle and casually dragged the red headed FJ off -- presumably, Ari guessed, to the nearest morpher.

Moments later, in a miraculously short time it seemed, Ari found himself alone in the simpark. The rebels were gone, the Erads were gone, the wounded FJ gone. There were no signs of the dead, neither Erad nor rebel. It occurred to Ari that maybe all the chalkwater and ginweed he had consumed in the last few hours was causing him to hallucinate.

That's it, he tried to convince himself, I just got into a bad zone. That's all. There were no Erads, no FJ, no rebels. No killings. Only a very disturbing, very real hallucination. With a sigh and his zone completely gone, Ari decided to head back to Platt's romspeed and drive his Somecop buddy home. He stood up, stretched and started to walk off. Then he saw it.

There was blood all over the park. Blood where he had hoped he had imagined the rebel boy being shot, blood where the FJ and the Erads had been when he last saw them, blood all over the place. He knelt beside a pool of it. Touched it cautiously with his fingertips. It was blood all right. Real blood. It wasn't an hallucination. The whole horrible scene had been real.

Involuntarily, Ari shuddered from head to toe. Shaking as if he'd taken a sudden chill, like that time years ago, when he was just a tad and there had been this strange storm with an even stranger cold wind, Ari hugged his arms against his chest to get warm. Then looking around for leftover Erads or Full Johns, he darted from the park to the relative safety of Platt's vehicle. The big Somecop was sleeping blissfully in the rider's side just like Ari had left him. With a deep sigh of relief, Ari cranked up the romspeed, bolted out into the street and raced toward his home.

2.

A light, burning rain drifted down over Bimhills causing little puffs of dust to rise from the dead soil near the corridor linking Bimhills with Toku to the north and Ebon to the south. Ari drove his four-wheel drive romspeed recklessly fast across the rolling no man's land several miles outside Bimhills proper. Platt Meeler bounced around in the rider's seat, slopping chalkwater over himself and the floor of the romspeed. Ari was one of the best romspeed jockeys in the region and he loved to take his supercharged vehicle out into the semi-risky area bordering the trade corridor that linked all of the world known to the cits of Bimhills.

As it had been laid out for them at the Booker, the world was divided into very distinct ethnic enclaves. To the north was Toku -- oriental, industrial, a usually dependable trading partner for Bimhills. Toku was an extension of what had once been called the Pacific Rim. They provided most of the technology for Bimhills and elsewhere, as well as a steady supply of women for the thriving plezones of their southern neighbors.

Bimhills itself was primarily a consumer society, its currency based on dwindling but priceless fossil fuels, recycled technology, and an ages-old tradition of skillful bartering. Nearly as rich as Toku, Bimhills provided its high citizens, labeled so by birth or economic success, an impressive array of physical pleasures to keep them satisfied and disinterested in the activities of the ruling Interzonal Monetary Council.

The IMC took care of the regular and low citizens as well but their cooperation was less necessary than that of the highcits and therefore less rewarded. For those not willing to follow the rules there were the Somecops, the Fulljohns, and for instant, lethal judgements -- the Erads. From time to time a small opposition would arise, but they seldom grew beyond a few disgruntled members. Most Bimhills cits were simply too zoned to care. And therefore easy to manage.

Ebon, on the other hand, presented Bimhills with certain problems. A thriving drug trade existed between the shadpols of Bimhills and the matriarchal suppliers of Ebon. After the great penal cleansings of the third and fourth decades of the new century, the matriarchy had arisen by necessity from the anarchic ruins of male depopulated Ebon. The shadpols of Bimhills needed Ebon's drugs to keep the citizens quiet and docile and the Ebon matriarchs needed currency of whatever kind -- coin, foodstuffs, technology -- to maintain their power among the devastation that Ebon had devolved into. Except for the highly disciplined but few-membered cult, the Panmus, the surviving males in Ebon were for the most part freelancers -- crashing into weakly defended areas of Bimhills to pillage what they could. Despite official protests from Bimhills, the matriarchs did little to discourage the Ebon outlaw raids -- they needed the males for repopulation -- and so a tension existed between the rich northern zone and its embattled southern neighbor.

Ebon got the majority of their raw drugs from the region to its east -- Meshica. Meshica had been fenced out during the immigration wars, a decades-long conflict that settled little except to further isolate the Meshicans behind a twelve-foot high, radioactive fence. There were some breaches in the fence, but the price for knocking it down had been so high that Meshican leaders, called Cardenistas, had de-emphasized the effort and led their people to focus on refining crude fossil fuels and the farming of food and drug crops which were then sold for distribution on the corridor, mostly to Bimhills and Toku entrepreneurs. It had been a collective process and a very lucrative one for the Meshicans.

Past Meshica was Long Wound, the last refuge of the indigenous peoples. Completely independent and self-sufficient, Long Wound served the other zones as a buffer between them and the truly uncivilized chaos that lay beyond in the region known as the Outworld. In the Outworld all vestiges of traditional society had completely broken down. Outguards, armed patrols working for the IMC and guarding the corridors between the zones, were in the Outworld as apt to be as crazed as the berserkers who made the Outworld the completely mad, imminently dangerous place it was. Those poor souls who did stray, accidentally or otherwise, into the Outworld were seldom seen again.

For most citizens of the other zones, the term Outworld was synonymous with instant, horrifying death. There were rumors, none confirmed, that if you could make it past the Outworld there was another zone, a zone of myth and legend called New Columbia -- a place of real trees and real grass, of clean rivers, a place of safety, where the destruction of the third and fourth decades had not reached, where a person could be free, where people lived together by choice, where you could be happy.

But Ari knew little of this and cared even less as he raced his romspeed on the fringes of the Toku-Bimhills corridor. He was only interested in speed and the adrenalin rush of teasing unwary outguard teams, which he regularly did -- successfully. Clouds of dust followed his machine as he tore around, spinning donuts and burning U's. He sped by the remains of an old concrete-channeled river that once ran through the heart of the entire region.

The concave walls were now broken in many places, barely standing in others, and were often covered in strange, bold graffiti that Ari paid little attention to and wouldn't have understood if he had. Most of the graffiti was random outbursts by zoned out young cits like Ari -- crude remarks about sex and other plezone pleasures -- but among them were other messages, political messages. Messages, that if Ari had understood them, revealed an underbelly to Bimhills, one that was not content to spend its collective life in a ginweed or chalkwater zone, one that saw something wrong with the highly controlled excesses of Bimhills, one that opposed the IMC and -- according to the sprayings on the concrete walls of the old river bed -- wanted to alter or abolish it. Free Bimhills, these political messages cried out from the gray walls. Unity among the Zones. Down with the IMC.

To Ari, these messages were nothing more than a dark blur in his peripheral vision as he steered the romspeed and the zoned out Platt Meeler towards the far northwest corner of the Bimhills zone where Ari knew their presence would draw out an outguard team. Sure enough, as if on cue, ahead and to the left of Ari's speeding vehicle, an outguard romspeed emerged from behind a break in the corridor. With a squeal of glee, Ari sped up, drove right at the outguards.

"Hey," Platt grunted from his nearly catatonic zone, "what's that?"

"Outguards," Ari laughed, "watch this."

Ari aimed his romspeed right for the outguard vehicle and hammered down the accelerator. The outguards, not sure what the cit vehicle was up to yet, kept coming, though at a much slower speed. Giggling happily, Ari charged directly at them. As the vehicles neared each other, Ari could see the identification markings on the outguard vehicle -- TB37. A tandem Toku/Bimhills team, among the elite.

Ari laughed happily and pushed the romspeed to top end, steering it at the outguard vehicle in what now must have seemed to its occupants to be a suicide run. A game of chicken by a no doubt pampered, zoned out, crazed cit. Then, just as the two vehicles were about to collide, when Ari could see the look of fear and anger on the faces of the outguards, the two corridor monitors wheeled away to the left, letting Ari roar by. With dust and rocks flying, Ari spun his romspeed back around for another run at the outguards.

"Damn, Ari," Platt cried out, "you almost got us killed, man. We'll get busted for messin' with outguards. You always act like a berserker in this rom, man, what is it? Mellow out and let's get the crap out of here."

"Relax," Ari said with a condescending sneer for his buddy, "you act like a little tad girl half the time. Take some a hit of mindrest and lay off the chalkwater. Buck up."

"Here they come again," Platt said between taking tabs of mindrest, a strong sedative used to soothe the jangled nerves of uptight highcits, "here come the outguards."

But Ari was way ahead of Platt, he was gunning the romspeed at a hard intercept angle and was bearing down on the outguard vehicle.

"I'm going to splash these dudes into the next zone," he yelled above the racing engine noise. Ari always ran his romspeed at such high RPMs that the normally quiet machine sounded like a 12-wheeler delivering cement for repairing breaks in the corridor.

"We're gonna crash," Platt cried as the two romspeeds hurtled toward each other. "Oh, crap."

But again, at the last moment, the outguards cut away, letting Ari roar by, victorious for the moment.

"What useless sacks," Ari said, whirling the romspeed back around to face the outguards, "what weenies. This time I'll run 'em right back into the corridor. What a pair of tads."

"They're not moving," Platt said, pointing to the immobile outguard vehicle. "They're gonna shoot us."

"Calm down, Platt," Ari chastised his friend, "they can't do that. I'm a highcit. Only an Erad..."

"What's that," Platt squawked, watching an antenna-like mechanism slowly rise up from the roof of the outguard romspeed. "It's a death ray."

"Shut up, Platt," Ari laughed, "there's no such thing."

"They're gonna zap us, man."

"Dumb ass zone wreckers," Ari growled, "this is it. Strap up, Platt. We're goin' at 'em."

"Oh, sweet Outworld," Platt moaned, "we're going X and out."

Over Platt's whining, Ari gunned the romspeed and charged the outguards. He had no idea what he was going to do but he was the best romspeed driver in the zone and wasn't about to let a couple of two bit outguards show him up. No way. He accelerated and drove right at them. Their vehicle got nearer and nearer and yet they didn't move. Ari pressed on wildly with Platt watching through cracks in the fingers he held over his eyes. The big Somecop whimpered like a child. Then, no more than thirty yards from the outguard vehicle, there was a brief orange flash from the antenna-like contraption on their roof and Ari's vehicle sputtered, stalled, lurched to a stop just fifteen feet from the outguards.

"Shit," Ari cursed, "what the blasted fire."

"What happened?" Platt asked, lowering his hands. "Are we still alive?"

"They scrambled the rom drive somehow," Ari surmised, "must be their first run with it. Damn."

"They're getting out," Platt said, sliding down in the seat.

"Dork technos. Got the drop on me," Ari complained as the outguards approached the romspeed, one on either side.

"Show 'em your highcit IDflick, man," Platt told Ari, "hurry, show 'em."

"Yeah, yeah," Ari said, "I'll show the stupid thing."

The Toku outguard came up on Ari's side and tapped on the window. Ari slowly looked over. The outguard signaled for him to lower the window.

"Fun's over, cit," he told Ari when the window was down, "let's go."

3.

Ari and Platt sat on tall-backed wooden benches to the judge's left in the courtroom. Across from them, on another set of benches, were a dozen or so defendants, all cit or lowcit, awaiting their turn before the judge. All legal cases in Bimhills were settled by judges; juries had been a thing of the past for decades, well before Ari and Platt were born.

The IMC High Session, the universal council with power over all of the regional IMCs, had decided that citizen participation, even that of highcits, was counterproductive and unnecessary. Judges were selected carefully by each regions's IMC and they carried out the letter of IMC law almost to a fault.

The judge presiding over this day's cases was a short, fat, balding little man nearly swallowed up by his formal black and red robes. Ari, who outside his romspeed had again become meek and disinterested in things in general, watched the judge with a kind of glassy-eyed detachment. He hardly noticed the little man's nameplate, proclaiming him to be Vance Reneaux, High Judge.

To the right of Platt, who sat so still he was barely noticeable -- which was in fact his goal -- were the two outguards Ari had played chicken with out by the corridor. The guards stood at attention, eyes glued straight ahead except for occasional foul looks they aimed at Platt or Ari or both. They were clearly hoping the judge would come down hard on these berserking plezoners.

A few months in the vat would take care of the younger, soft one, they had conjectured; the Somecop being too stupid or too zoned for vat time to make an impression on. The young one, though, would be prime Grade A for the sickos and flakes in the vat. They'd chew him up and spit him out. The outguards' hopes for Ari's sentence would have to wait a while, however, as the judge had to pass sentence on two or three cases before Ari's. First up was a simple nicsmoke case.

The lowcit accused of nicsmoking was a scrawny, pock-marked kid, not much more than a smalltad really, obviously a lowcit booker dropout -- which meant he was on a fast track to nowhere, either some kind of subsistence sanpure job or time in the vats. The judge, with a nod from the kid's Free Chaser defender, rapped his gavel down and pronounced sentence.

"Five years in the West Corridor Vat," he said loud enough to cause the rats behind the woodwork at the back of the rotting courtroom to scurry away, "put him with the lifers and the rebel scum. Next case!"

The scrawny lowcit was dragged off by court Fulljohns, who shortened the convicted kid's wails with a few well-placed kidney punches. The Free Chaser followed behind, giggling at the spectacle, happy to be out of the oppressive, claustrophobic room.

Next on the court docket was an older woman, scraggle-toothed and dirty -- another subsistence level lowcit. She was accused of selling bread from a street corner near one of the lowcit subzones. She was represented by her Citfriend, a still youngish woman with enough residual physical appeal to sway the fat little judge's opinions. Leering at the Citfriend's tight fitting jacket, the judge motioned for her to approach the bench.

"That's a very becoming jacket, Citfriend," the judge drooled, "very tight, very full."

"Yes, your honor," the pretty Citfriend replied.

"Does it unbutton?" the judge asked, glassy-eyed.

The Citfriend slowly unbuttoned her jacket, the judge opening and closing his fat fingers in anticipation of each button that was loosened. When the jacket was open, the Citfriend managed a smile and pulled the jacket back so that the judge could admire the see-through blouse she wore with no undergarments.

"Come closer," the judge whispered hoarsely. The Citfriend moved up directly in front of the bench. The judge reached out with both hands and began rubbing the woman's breasts. "Will you be at the interzonal legal luncheon tonight, my dear?"

"Yes, sir," the Citfriend answered, making no effort to resist the judge's continued fondling of her breasts.

"Good," the judge said softly, voice cracking. "So very good." He continued caressing the Citfriend's chest for several moments more, then, apparently satisfied, stopped. The woman buttoned up her jacket and stepped back.

"One year," the judge announced with a leering smile for the Citfriend, "commuted to supervision by this skilled and charming representative of our poor downtrodden lowcits."

"Thank you, your honor," the Citfriend said demurely. "Your wisdom is matched only by your great compassion and concern for our citizenry."

"Next!" the judge called out with a final lecherous smile on his swollen face for the Citfriend.

The pretty representative led off the old woman, who mumbled into her teeth something about good luck and light sentences. The same Free Chaser who had stood up with the scrawny nicsmoker, led the next defendant, a burly, lowcit working man before the judge.

"What's this one about," the judge grumbled, annoyed at having to look at the ugly Free Chaser instead of a pretty Citfriend.

"Street criss-cross, sir," the Free Chaser said meekly. "It should be next on your agenda."

"Don't tell me what's on my agenda, you sack," the judge snapped, rifling through a pile of papers before him on the bench.

"Sorry, sir," the Free Chaser apologized.

"Sorry, sir," the judge mimicked. The Free Chaser coughed and looked away. "Got anything to say for yourself, cit?" the judge gruffly asked the working man. The big man took a deep breath, thought about a response, started to give it -- but the judge cut him off.

"No, huh? Well, I've got something to say: two years. Case closed. Next."

The Free Chaser led the burly worker off, both of them too stunned to even react. The little judge chuckled to himself and looked over his agenda.

"One more and I'm closing up shop," he announced generally to the courtroom. A few sighs and groans were heard but a harsh look from the judge restored silence. "What are you two here for," he growled over at Ari and Platt, "having sex in the street? Smoking more than your quota of ginweed? Huh? Well speak up. Do you have a Chaser?"

"Uh," Platt grunted.

"You shut up," the judge told him. Platt shut up. "You talk, boy."

"Me, Sir?" Ari asked.

"Who else?"

"We brought them in, your honor," the Toku outguard volunteered. "Reckless endangerment in a romspeed. Violating interzonal neutral space, code 18...."

"Stop," the judge ordered, holding up his left hand. "You're not Chasers, you're outguards. I've got the charges right here, keep quiet."

"Yes, sir," the Toku outguard said.

"You're highcit, boy?" the judge asked Ari.

"Yes, sir," Ari answered.

"Been here before?"

"For criss-cross, sir."

"Did I give you time?"

"Six months vat time."

"Very lenient."

"Yes, sir."

"What do you think I ought to do to you this time?" Ari shrugged his shoulders. "How does a year sound to you?"

"It, uh -- ," Ari began. The outguards winked at each other.

"One year it is, then," the judge said.

He began collecting his materials to leave. The outguards slapped hands. The judge looked over at them.

"Of probation," he added, to Ari and Platt's great joy, "for the both of them."

"Damn," the Toku outguard muttered.

"What's that?" the judge asked, turning towards the outguards.

"Nothing, sir," both men quickly replied. "Nothing at all."

"Good," the judge said, "I've got a date for the luncheon and I don't want to be late. Court adjourned. Get out, all of you."

Without looking back, the judge stormed out of the room. The courtroom crowd began to filter out, Ari and Platt hanging back, laughing and celebrating their good luck. As they neared the double doors at the front of the courtroom, the outguards moved up alongside them, one on either side.

"You got lucky today, cit," the talkative Toku outguard said to Ari, "I catch you again out there and there won't be anything left of you to bring up before these idiot judges. You understand me?"

Ari tried to laugh the threat off, but the outguard put a sharp, metal-studded black leather glove up against his throat. Ari turned his head to avoid the studded spikes and when he did he involuntarily gasped. Across the courtroom, standing by one wall in a poorly lit corner was the rebel who had initiated the simpark attack on the Erads.

Suddenly the outguards and the year's probation were forgotten. Ari felt a sinking feeling in his stomach and a chill ran down his spine. They were brazen these rebels, these radcits. Right in the courtroom, with outguards, FJs and Somecops everywhere. And the rebel was looking right at Ari. And smiling?

Ari kept watching as the rebel stepped away from the wall and into the light. The Toku outguard had continued his threats in Ari's ear but Ari couldn't hear them, he was locked in on the rebel. The man moved quickly towards the door but paused for the briefest of seconds, and nodded knowingly, familiarly to Ari. A nod of acknowledgment, of complicity. And then, before Ari could react, refuse to recognize that nod, do anything, he was out the door and gone.

"Just one more time," the Toku outguard hissed next to Ari's head while the Bimhills outguard pushed Platt towards the doors, "and you'll live to regret it."

"Yeah, yeah," Ari blurted out, turning to face the Toku outguard, surprising even himself with such a sudden outbust of aggressiveness, "and if I ever go out there again I'll put your puny romcycles into the corridor wall. Judge said probation, you lose, we're gone. C'mon, Platt."

And leaving the shocked outguards immobile at the doors, Ari and his goodcit hustled out of the courtroom into the blue haze perpetually blanketing Bimhills.

4.

On a rare, nearly clear day, the white-yellow sun above Bimhills shone brilliantly, causing Ari and the occasional fellow pedestrian to squint against its power. Even for midday in Bimhills the streets and sidewalks were lifeless, reflecting the real and decreed need to obey Reg. 2973. When the sun's unfiltered rays got past IMC-specified Level 12, so direct they would blister the unprotected skin in fifteen minutes, Bimhills cits logically and legally had to seek shelter.

Ari spotted a Shade House and crossed the glistening street to find refuge from the oppressive heat and scorching rays. Opening the door, he felt a knee-weakening blast of chilled air and heard the complaints of cits annoyed by the intrusion of light and heat into the cool, dark interior of the building. Ari quickly closed the door behind him and waited just inside until his eyes adjusted.

When he could see in the diminished light of the Shade House, Ari noted that the place wasn't nearly as crowded as he had expected and he easily found a big, unoccupied chair. The chair was cool and relaxing, made of a pressed foam that provided both support and comfort. As Ari leaned forward to press a yellow button on the front of the chair and reduce the chair's vibrating impulses, a female host appeared. The chair slowed its vibrations to a mild rocking motion and Ari wiped his brow with a clean handkerchief he pulled from the back pocket of his white cotton jumpsuit.

"What's it to be, cit?" the hostess asked, moving close enough so that Ari could see her full breasts swaying appealingly beneath the threadbare T-shirt she wore above a pair of the shortest shorts that even Ari, a true denizen of Fill Bars and Shade Houses, had ever seen.

"What's for havin'?" he smiled, cupping one of the girl's perfect breasts in his right hand and lifting it as if he were measuring its weight.

"I could put out your fire for you, if you're in a sexin' mood," she offered. Ari patted her on the behind but didn't respond. "Also got some new mind sparkle, clean and direct from the labs. Or the regular chalkwater and ginweed."

"Give me the regular," Ari said, detaching his hands from the girl's body. "Large chalkwater, two ginweeds."

"Be right back," the hostess said, winking flirtatiously.

"See to it," Ari said, swiping at the girl's receding backside and missing.

Laughing to himself, Ari leaned back in the chair and checked out the rest of the Shade House. Among the sparse crowd were a few ex-vatters, vile looking guys lurking in the vibrating chairs or in small booths toward the back of the house, and several couples discreetly seated in the corners for maximum privacy.

Ari knew that scene, he'd come to Shade Houses many times seeking a quiet, out of the way place to meet a woman he wasn't supposed to be with. Closing his eyes at the memory of his last conquest, the mate of one of his old learners at the booker, Ari breathed deeply and relaxed.

"Excuse me, sir," the hostess said, snapping Ari out of his reverie a few moments later, "here's your order." The girl set the large glass of chalkwater on a table in front of Ari and handed him two ginweed joints.

"Thank you," he said, handing the hostess his highcit ration card, which had just been renewed with several thousand chits worth of credit on it. "Give yourself twenty credits."

The girl showed her appreciation, after registering the bill and tip on the credit changer she carried on her hip, by leaning forward and pressing her breasts against Ari's face. She rubbed them back and forth slowly, simultaneously reaching down and massaging his inner thigh. Ari leaned forward to kiss her, but the girl pulled back with a laugh.

"Maybe another time, handsome," she said, brushing her hand over Ari's crotch. "I'll see you again."

"Yet bet you will," Ari told her.

The girl winked again and left to attend to one of the men in back who kept waving at her annoyingly. Ari thought about having Platt roust the guy out when he, Platt, and E.P., the oddball techno freak who worked on and souped up Ari's romspeeds, got to the Shade House as Ari expected them to any time now.

E.P. had built a descrambler for Ari, one that would block the new outguard invention that had killed his machine out by the corridor and got him and Platt put on probation. With E.P.'s new device, Ari would again have the edge on the corridor outguards and he couldn't wait to try it out. Platt and E.P. were bringing the updated romspeed to Ari, who in turn had brought a special book of chits for E.P.

About halfway through the chalkwater, with most of one ginweed smoked, Ari heard the Shade House front door open and his two goodcits came in from the harsh, glaring light of the outdoors.

"There he is," Platt said, when his and E.P.'s eyes had adjusted to the Shade House darkness. "Hey, Ari." Ari waved his friends over.

"Slide a couple of chairs up," he said, "and get something to drink and smoke."

The hostess helped Platt and E.P. move a couple of empty chairs up by Ari, then left and brought out their orders.

"Well?" Ari asked when the girl had gone again.

"You're set," E.P. told him, "on the honor of Electro Pirate himself."

"It worked in E.P.'s garage, Ari," Platt confirmed, "we aimed a swiped outguard scrambler right at it. E.P.'s thing blocked it dead. Engine ran like a mind sparkle dream."

"Great," Ari said, reaching his chit payment across to E.P. "Thanks, as usual."

"Mine," E.P. tapped his chest in reciprocity, "my pleasure."

"It's outside and ready," Platt told Ari, "ready to run those outguards to the wall."

"Cool," Ari smiled, lifting his chalkwater to toast with E.P. and Platt. The three of them clicked their glasses sharply together. "Another round?"

"I got to bail, cits," E.P. explained, "lots of techno work a-waiting. No time for plezonin'."

"Always time," Ari contradicted.

"I gotta burst, too," Platt said. "Somecop shift."

"What a couple of weenies you two are," Ari derided his friends. "Stick around, this waitbabe is burning hot." "

"No can do, cit," E.P. said, eyeing the hostess hungrily, "I got work to do. Gotta back off the poon."

"No way," Ari snorted, "nothing beats poon." E.P. shrugged his shoulders.

"We got to go," Platt repeated, "it's a long way from this hole to work. C'mon, E.P."

"Okay," Ari said, "but tomorrow -- we go full plezoning, day and night."

"Full plezoning, citizen," E.P. laughed, slapping hands with Ari. "I'll get my work done tonight, we'll melt down Redsinthe, top to bottom."

"Now you're talkin'," Ari said.

"We're dust," E.P. said, standing up, "free floating molecule memories."

"What crap," Platt said with a laugh. But he also rose to go. Ari stayed seated.

"Tomorrow," he said.

"Tomorrow," Platt and E.P. echoed.

Ari watched his goodcits leave, averting his eyes from the glaring sun when they went through the door. After they left, he signaled for the hostess and for several minutes they amused themselves by openly fondling each other. When they were on the verge of doing the "foul deed," as Ari recalled one of his ridiculous learners at the booker refer to it, the hostess pulled away, flicking Ari in the crotch with a well-aimed finger. Ari laughed and grabbed himself. The hostess kissed him once more, very roughly, then disappeared into some dark recess of the room. Ari noticed she'd managed to lift another fifty chits from him for her troubles and he found that highly amusing.

When it became evident that the hostess wouldn't be returning for awhile, Ari turned his attention to getting really zoned. He had ordered another tall chalkwater and two more ginweeds and when he finished those he was so out of it he could barely move. He closed his eyes and dreamed of racing his romspeed by the corridor and of sexually charged encounters, real and imagined, he'd had with women during his waking and zoned hours.

Sometimes he wasn't sure which women had been flesh and blood, and which had only been a creation of his drug addled brain. It occurred to him that it didn't really matter much. The dreams were as intense to him as actual, real life experiences. It all felt good, and feeling good was what Ari had always been about.

"Feeling good, ey, cit?" a male voice suddenly asked Ari. Ari kept his eyes closed, unconcerned, waiting for what this voice -- which he assumed was in his own head -- would say next.

"He's completely zoned," another voice, a feminine voice, interjected.

Ari liked this voice. He was sure this was going to turn into a good sex dream. He sighed deeply and let his head fall back. But it hit something hard, metallic. That wasn't a good part of the dream.

"Slap his ass awake," the woman's voice said.

Ari didn't like the sound of that too much. His sex dreams were always mild and gentle. Not harsh and physically rough.

"Wake up, little highcit," the male voice spoke again.

Ari didn't like that voice now either. This was turning into a bad dream. Ari breathed deeply and opened his eyes to stop it.

"Well, well, he's alive," the female voice said sarcastically. Ari squinted his eyes to try and focus on the speaker.

"Who are you? What do you want?" he asked.

"Oh, no, cit," the male said, "we do the asking. You do the quiet thing."

"Leave me alone," Ari complained, trying unsuccessfully to get up from the chair, "you're jammin' up my zone."

"Oh, we're jamming up his zone," the man said, making a production out of pretending to care, then pushing something very hard and clearly made of metal against the side of Ari's head. "Why don't you just relax, cit, and shut the hell up."

Ari tried to turn his head away from the feel of the metal, obvious now even to him that it was a gun, but the girl pushed his face back to the front. Ari closed his eyes briefly and tried to concentrate. When he opened them again, they focused clearly on his surroundings.

"What do you want?" he asked.

The man stepped up closer to the front of the chair where Ari could see him. Ari's eyes widened.

"That's right, cit," the man said, "we've seen each other before."

"The simpark," Ari said softly, the memory coming back clearly, "and at the bench. You're rebels."

Ari stirred as if to jump up but he was too slow and the rebels too fast. They pinched him tight against the chair and he felt metal against his ribs on both sides.

"I think I should just waste this retread of a plezonin' bastard myself," the woman gruffly whispered.

"Now, now," the man said calmly, "no need for a scene. He'll come along quietly, won't you, cit?"

"He's nothing but a doped up dunghill," the woman said, "he was that way as a kid in the booker for crap's sake."

"You -- know...," Ari began, unable to resist looking at the woman. She held a long barrel lasermag against his right rib cage. "Kara! You're Kara Felt."

"No shit, genius," Kara said, shaking her head, "I'm surprised that pickled brain of yours remembers anything at all."

"The Erads had you. You escaped. You're still bruised." Kara ran a hand over the remaining dark spots on her otherwise lovely face. "We were at booker together. Now you're a rebel. You're both rebels."

"Stand up, Einstein," the man said, nudging Ari on his other side. "The two of you can have a booker reunion later. Now get up and walk out of here with us. Nice and easy."

Casually, Kara and the rebel leader led Ari through the dark aisles of the Shade House and back outside. It was extraordinarily hot and bright on the street. One of the realities of Shade House days, which the rebels knew perfectly well, was that even though it was unlawful to be out in these dangerous conditions only a handful of the most crazed Erads would be foolish enough to be out trying to enforce the law. Shade House days, if you protected yourself well enough, were perfect days to pull off raids and robberies. And kidnappings.

Kara and the rebel leader immediately pulled out dark sunglasses and large hats from interior pockets of their light tan jumpsuits and applied a thick layer of sunblock on their faces from a tube Kara produced. They made sure their jumpsuits covered every inch of their bodies and that the flaps on their big, bush hats fell over their shoulders to protect the back of the neck. Each then put on thin, skin colored gloves. When they were fully protected, the rebel leader looked over at Ari, whose face, hands, and neck were already reddening.

"You don't have any protection from this, cit?" he asked.

"I drove my romspeed down," Ari said, immediately wishing he hadn't. But the rebels already knew that anyway.

"Yes, we saw it," the rebel leader said, "it's just a few blocks up. You still should have worn no-sun gear."

"Stop fussing over this useless zoner, Severn," Kara said harshly, "who cares if he's protected. He's a highcit sack. I say we snag him, dust him, and dump him. He's shit."

"Easy, Kara," Severn counseled, "you're taking all this too personally. Mr. Blanque is an upstanding high citizen. I'm sure he's more than willing to cooperate with us. Isn't that right?"

"Yes," Ari said, shaking his head up and down.

"The punkass sat right there in the simpark and watched the Erads kill little Freedy."

"He's not a warrior, Kara. He's a highcit. He's never been taught to see the other side of things, right?"

"Right," Ari quickly agreed. Kara sneered and put her lasermag against the side of his head.

"I'd still like to ice him," she said.

"He's good for highcit ID, for chits, and for his hot romspeed. Correct, citizen? And he's a really good jockey. I scoped him make two outguards look like smalltads out by the corridor."

"You saw that?" Ari asked.

"We like you, highcit," Severn said, "we've been scoping you for awhile."

"I hate to break up your little romance," Kara said dryly, "there's the romspeed."

"Okay," Severn said, "now cit, you -- oh, hell, I left a DC clip back in the Shade House."

"Forget it," Kara said, "we don't have time to go back. They may be tracing us now."

"No," Severn said, "no traces, nothing left behind. I'll be back in seconds. Stay here."

"Get in," Kara ordered Ari, when Severn had jogged back towards the Shade House. Ari opened the romspeed and slid into the driver's seat. Kara sat beside him, her weapon trained on his upper torso.

"That wasn't very smart," Ari dared venture a moment later, "leaving his clip back at the Shade House. What kind of rebels are you?"

"Shut up, butthead," Kara told him, "or you'll find out."

"What's one DC clip? Is it worth getting captured for?"

"Zip it, dork," Kara growled, "or you'll find out."

"What does DC stand for anyway?" Kara lifted her lasermag and put it against Ari's temple.

"It stands for dead citizen," she said coldly. "Any more questions?"

"N...no, no," Ari said. "No more questions."

5.

"Understood," Erad Lt. Rankin said into a wall phone at a substation on the edge of the Redsinthe sector in Bimhills. "Copied and understood." Then he signaled for thick-armed Sgt. Cage.

"Sir," Sgt. Cage said, presenting himself sharply in front of the lieutenant.

"We have a situation, sergeant," Lt. Rankin explained. "Corridor fliers. Rebels. Radcits. Probably the same bunch that jumped us in the simpark." Sgt. Cage's eyes opened wide.

"We been lookin' for them, sir," he said in a tone almost sexual in its anticipation. "It's, uh, uh....."

"Serendipitous?" Lt. Rankin suggested.

"I don't know what that means, sir."

"Lucky. Our good luck," Lt. Rankin told the heavy-bodied sergeant.

"Yes, sir! Our good luck. When do we leave?"

"IMC Rep Alexander is on his way. He'll brief us on the parameters of the mission."

"Yes, sir," Cage spat out, unable to conceal his distaste for IMC bureaucratic types.

Even though they paid their considerable salaries, Erads like Sgt. Cage and Lt. Rankin had no use for their shadpol bosses and were barely able to restrain their hostility towards them. Nothing appealed to an Erad more than those occasional times when a shadpol was dropped from favor and it was the Erads' job to stalk and eliminate the offending former power broker. It did one's heart good to see them groveling right before you put a DC-40 round right between their eyes. Chickens they were, scared of their own shadows. Erads loved to bring them down.

"Well, gentlemen," IMC Rep Alexander said to Lt. Rankin and Sgt. Cage when he arrived at the substation some minutes later, "we have a situation here."

"Yes, sir," Lt. Rankin said over the surly silence of Sgt. Cage. "We have a situation."

"Fliers," Alexander again repeated what the Erads already knew. "Radcits. Rebels." Sgt. Cage looked away and spat on the substation floor. Alexander pretended like he didn't notice.

"That is what we've been informed of, sir," Lt. Rankin said.

The scrawny, intense Rep looked the two Erads over for signs of incipient insubordination. Alexander had been around long enough, had gotten his skinny butt into enough "situations" to know that Erads fed on signs of indecision, weakness. If you didn't keep a hard, tight rein on these men, they would turn the tables on you, shadpol or not, and chew you up and spit you out. He also knew how to reward their loyalty: extra chit books, new weapons and vehicles, plenty of credit at special Erad plezone bars where no outsider dared stray.

Erads killed people for a living and sharp shadpols like the fiery-eyed Alexander never let himself forget it. The Erads, though few of them understood it -- thankfully for the shadpols -- were in fact the power behind the power. They kept the cits in check. Stopped budding rebellions, cleaned up after failed and successful coups. Wise shadpols made sure that the personal needs of these powerful enforcers were met and exceeded as much as possible.

"The rebels must be dealt with appropriately," Alexander said, running a bony hand through his thinning, greenish-tinted blonde hair.

"Eliminated, sir?" Lt. Rankin asked, assuming as usual that this was simply a political and legal formality.

Supposedly, Erads had to have permission to "eliminate" cits, but that was a technical issue, one seldom pursued with much conviction or enthusiasm. But Lt. Rankin was a veteran of the force and he followed the traditional ways still.

"Are we to terminate them?" Sgt. Cage managed a snorting chuckle.

"If it was up to me, lieutenant," Alexander said, briefly glancing at Cage then focusing on Lt. Rankin, "I would have you kill them all."

"Yes, sir," Lt. Rankin said. Sgt. Cage nodded his approbation.

"Rebellion must be stamped out," Alexander went on, his eyes flaring red, his face mottling, "wherever it tries to get a foothold. Our zone is a perfect zone. We don't need malcontents fouling it up."

"Yeah," Cage agreed, shaking his head up and down vigorously. Alexander gave the sergeant a withering look that halted the big man in his celebratory tracks.

"The radcits have to be wiped from all zones. No matter what the costs."

"They've taken a highcit, too, sir," Lt. Rankin felt compelled to say, for he had once been a highcit himself. Years ago, before the "accident" that had brought him down. "You would still take them all out, even at the cost of the highcits lif...."

"At whatever cost," Alexander spit out to the Erads' mild surprise. "No prisoners would be my policy. I'd let you boys do your jobs. But...."

"But?" Lt. Rankin prompted.

"But it's not up to me," Alexander frowned, "the interzonal IMC council has decreed that this pack of lowcit slime is to live. They want them unharmed."

"Unharmed?" Lt. Rankin said, lifting a finger to ensure that Sgt. Cage, a former lowcit, didn't take umbrage at the shadpols offhand remark.

"Yes, damn it, can't you hear? Unharmed. Untouched. You're to get a pack of your people together and trail the rebels. Not kill them. You're not trying to catch them; we want their camp. We want to learn how they access New Columbia and then we can snuff them out once and for all."

"New Columbia?" Sgt. Cage said dumbfounded.

Everyone talked about New Columbia, but it was supposed to be a made up place. Now the IMC representative had spoken about it as if it were a proven fact.

"Yes, you simcit," Alexander growled at Cage, "New Columbia. Now I suggest the two of you get your pack together and get out on the corridor."

"Do I choose my own people, sir?" Lt. Rankin asked.

"Except for two," Alexander said, "the IMC has two men picked out for you to take along."

"May I ask who they are, sir?"

"It doesn't matter to me. I don't know them. One's a Fulljohn, I believe, the other a Somecop. A couple of lightweights, but with information on the highcit and the rebels. You can use them to identify our quarry."

"And then?"

"And then do as you please. I don't imagine you'd need them after they've served their purpose."

Cage snickered as he and Lt. Rankin popped to attention at a sign from Alexander that he was leaving.

"A final word," the shadpol said quietly to the two Erads, "keep this in utmost secrecy. Do the job. Do it right and the reward will take care of itself."

"Yes, sir," Lt. Rankin said, snapping a salute to the shadpol rep.

"Thank you, sir," Sgt. Cage added. Alexander gave him a look of pure disgust and then turned and stalked away. "I hope that bastard drops someday," Cage said when the IMC rep was gone. "I want to be the one that DC-40s him."

"It's your call if he does," Lt. Rankin said with a cold laugh. "He'll have it coming."

"It gets me rigid just thinkin' about it," Cage sneered. "I cain't hardly wait."

6.

The Bimhills corridor, like its northern counterpart running through Toku, was a twelve-foot high concrete wall rising up imposingly on either side of the wide highway linking the zones to one another. If twelve feet of smooth, hard concrete wasn't enough to discourage travelers from making unauthorized exits from the corridor, perhaps the barbed and concertina wire, interspersed with jagged shards of filthy glass, that covered the three feet wide top of the walls would do the trick.

Amazingly, though infrequently some crazed out cit, probably out of his head on mind sparkle or chalkwater, would try to scale those uninviting walls. Invariably, the citizen became target practice for the outguards who patrolled the corridor; and if the outguards didn't act fast enough, the cit would be a walking bullseye for some musclebound, DC-40 firing Erad looking to dust someone just for the fun of it.

But mostly the corridors were simply traffic lanes, busy avenues connecting the zones; thoroughfares for the heavy trading of vegetables, meat, technology, especially romspeed drive chips and vehicles from Toku, guns, drugs, fuel -- all the things that kept any society going. On any given day, tons of products and consumables passed between its walls.

There were romspeeds, electronic gear, and weapons from Toku in the north, to be sold and distributed all the way out to Long Wound. From Bimhills: money, guns, and pleasures -- carnal and otherwise. Out of Ebon, where the wall was frequently and dangerously breeched, came lab produced drugs, personal protectors, and women for all pocketbooks and proclivities. Meshica, where the concrete of the wall gave way to a ten foot high chain link fence, produced the meat and vegetables, the refined fuel for vehicles, and when needed, a large and ready pool of inexpensive labor.

Beyond Meshica was Long Wound, and here the corridor was no longer a physical thing. The highway kept on alright, but there was no wall or fence around it. Yet the corridor was safer here than anywhere else. The outguards of Long Wound needed no physical barrier, they patrolled it with a vigilance that was virtually unseen yet powerfully effective. You could drive the Long Wound corridor for hours and never see one of their outguards, but the moment they were needed, two or more -- sometimes as many as a dozen -- would appear within moments to calmly, but firmly, deal with the situation.

Past Long Wound was the Outworld. There was no corridor in the Outworld. When you left Long Wound heading east into the desolation of this barren land, you were on your own. There was some trade between Long Wound and the outworlders but it was for essentials only and the ten or so miles on either side of the border between the two zones was a kind of buffer zone, a DMZ of sorts, separating the last vestiges of what went for civilization from the anarchy of the Outworld.

The Outworld was filled with berserkers, ex-vatters and zoners -- the jettisoned refuse of the other zones. Out here you fended for yourself. Only a complete nutcase or someone desperate to escape certain death at the hands of the Erads would likely pass this far. To go into any zone other than your own was always a very risky proposition: to enter the Outworld was to take your life in your hands.

"Try anything stupid," Severn warned Ari as the two of them and Kara Felt sped through Bimhills in Ari's romspeed, "and your life won't be worth a plug chit, even if you do have highcit passage on the corridor."

Severn punctuated his threat by leaning forward in the back seat and laying his pistol style DC-40 on Ari's shoulder. In the rider's seat across from Ari, Kara trained her lasermag on Ari's crotch. Ari winced involuntarily. Kara smiled and adjusted the sight farther down Ari's leg.

"Thank you," Ari said, still feeling the cold metal of Severn's DC-40 against his neck.

"You're welcome," Kara laughed maliciously.

Ari glanced over at her. Her face was still marked from the beating she had taken from the Erads that day in the simpark, but otherwise was apparently no worse for the wear. The brown and bluish bruises did not detract from her good looks in the least. In fact, Ari thought, they might have even enhanced them -- in the way that they did certain plezone bar hostesses. Whatever, she was prettier than ever, it was just too bad she was so hostile and holding that weapon so dangerously close to his package. He was thinking she might be a good one-night mate if they had met under different circumstances.

"Watch out," Kara yelled at Ari suddenly, reaching for the wheel. Ari jerked his head back to the front and easily maneuvered around a slower romspeed that had pulled out in front of them. "Keep your eyes ahead, where they belong," Kara said, smirking.

Ari wanted to try a smile on her, but she had pushed the barrel of her weapon against his ribs and that had a definitely negative impact on his desire to flirt with the pretty radcit.

"He really can drive these things as advertised," Severn commented from the back. "Very impressive reflexes."

"That was nothing," Ari said, sounding arrogant and overly confident considering his current circumstances, "I can do that blindfolded."

"If you don't watch where we're going," Kara said, "that's how you'll get to do it, you cocky shitcit."

Ari checked Kara out again quickly, making sure his gaze didn't linger too long. This girl would probably shoot him while he was driving she was so crazy, he figured. But, man, what a looker. A real looker from the old booker, the redheaded FJ's comment that day in the simpark came back to him.

"So where are we going?" Ari dared to ask.

"You piece of....," Kara began.

"Take it easy, Kara," Severn told her, "the highcit's no fool. He's going to help us and not be any trouble at all, are you, Mr. Ari Blanque?"

"Chillin' down and freezin' out," Ari said, imitating a line he'd heard an Ebon outguard use once when he'd strayed down along the Bimhills-Ebon frontier. Kara laughed and shook her head.

"You're an idiot," she said.

Ari wondered if that was meant to be a put down or not. He had seen something in the radcit girl's eyes, something about the way she looked at him.

"Maybe," he smiled at her. "But I'll be better at steering if I know the map we're following."

"Oh, brother," Kara said, shaking her head. This silly highcit was trying to impress her with what he thought was a knowledge of interzonal slang. He'd picked up a couple of phrases, but they were already out of date. What a nitwit.

"The cit is right," Severn concluded in his deep, authoritative, and slightly dramatic voice, "he will do better if he knows where we're planning to go."

"I doubt it," Kara said.

"No, I would," Ari said, hoping he sounded earnest and forthright. Kara shook her head again.

"It hardly takes a genius," she commented. "Any fool would know."

"The corridor," Ari pronounced, not looking over at Kara.

"Case closed," she said, removing her pistol from his ribs.

"Case closed?" Ari asked, making eye contact with Severn in the rear view mirror.

"Just drive, cit," Severn said, leaning back in the seat, his face gone now from Ari's mirror.

"Oh," Ari said, getting Kara's joke at his expense.

"Hell fire," she muttered, "what a ridiculous, stoned out, plezoner." Ari started to turn towards Kara and defend himself.

"Drive," Severn said, the tone of his voice carrying the clear message that he was used to giving orders without getting any squawk back in return.

"Sure," Ari said hurriedly, "sure."

He kept his eyes straight ahead then and concentrated on driving. Severn laid his head against the top of the back seat and closed his eyes. Kara fussed with the barrel of her lasermag and kept checking Ari out. The romspeed whistled through the crowded streets of Bimhills.

7.

"I don't like having to take those two, lieutenant," square-jawed Sgt. Cage said, nodding his close-cropped head at the assembled platoon of men across the room from the two veteran Erads. All but two of the group standing at ease by one back wall wore the unmistakable leathers of the Erads. "Can't we dump 'em somewhere?"

"You heard the IMC Rep, Sgt. Cage," Lt. Rankin said, not unsympathetically, "he ordered we use them."

"What a pile of shadpol crap."

"They do the payin', we do the slayin'," Lt. Rankin quoted what the Erads thought was a very pithy, witty saying. Sgt. Cage managed a rough smile.

"So which of those idiots is which?" he grumbled. Lt. Rankin checked the personnel list on the clipboard he held.

"The redheaded one is Darden, the FJ. He was the one shot in the shoulder during the rebel raid at the simpark."

"Oh, yeah," Cage grunted, "I remember. Nearly jammed up the whole thing."

"The Rep thinks because he went to the same school as the kidnapped highcit, this Ari Blanque character, that he can be of some use to us."

"I doubt it," Sgt. Cage said. "We know what the highcit looks like, what else is there to know?"

"We're stuck with him for now," Lt. Rankin said with a shrug.

"Yeah, so who's the clod in the rent-a-Somecop uniform?" Cage asked, laughing.

"Best friend of the Blanque guy," Lt. Rankin explained. "Platt Meeler. He was passed out on chalkwater and ginweed in their romspeed when the simpark thing went down."

"Naturally," Cage sniffed, shaking his head. "What a couple of useless sacks to drag along, slowing us up, fouling up the mission."

"Oh, they won't do that," Lt. Rankin promised the sergeant, "they interfere one time, that's all they get. Then they're yours." Sgt. Cage nodded appreciatively. "If they make it to the first Ebon gateway, I figure it'll be a miracle. They won't last. We won't have to worry about them long."

"Good," Sgt. Cage said coldly, "dump the baggage as soon as we can. That's the way I like it."

"So do I," Lt. Rankin concurred, "so do I. Now, sergeant, form them up for the mission briefing."

"Yes, sir," Cage said, popping a salute that Lt. Rankin lazily returned. "On the double."

Sgt. Cage called the platoon to attention smartly and then marched them into a briefing room at the back of the substation, the redheaded FJ and the heavy Somecop looking more than a little confused and nervous. When the men were seated, Lt. Rankin came in for the briefing.

Looking the men over, Lt. Rankin did a quick head count. A dozen, including the FJ and the SC and not counting himself and Cage. Fourteen all together. Hell, he thought, that's enough to bring the IMC Inner Council, the High Session, down from its lofty, shadowy perch. It was no wonder the ruling class were called shadpols; except for their front men, like Alexander, who did the dirty work out in the real world. The true shadpols, the big ones, remained permanently hidden in the dark and secretive shadows of the IMC. Nobody really knew who ran the IMC. And it was meant to be that way. How could anybody overturn, overthrow, a power structure that they couldn't see, that was impossible to find?

Shaking the thoughts of the IMC and shadpols in general out of his head, Lt. Rankin again focused on his men. Without the two who didn't belong, it was a very good group. All of the Erads were already known to him and Sgt. Cage. They were from Lt. Rankin's brother's company and included Tom, the brother, as well as Bead Rankin, Tom's son and Lt. Rankin's favorite nephew. Both the brother and the nephew were younger, thinner versions of Lt. Rankin, right down to the acne-scarred faces. Formed from the same deadly Erad mold. The rest of the troop were your garden variety Erads. Big, tough, strong -- lethal. Lt. Rankin was pleased with them, knew they resented the presence of the two intruders just as he and Sgt. Cage did.

"All right," Lt. Rankin barked out to his men, "listen up, and listen up good. This is a special mission. Different than most you've done. This is a no shooter." The Erad platoon groaned as one. "I know, I know," the lieutenant sympathized with them, "no shooting to an Erad is like no fresh meat for pervs in the vat."

The men laughed loudly. They'd all done vat watch and knew how the pervs salivated over new boy vatters. It disgusted and stimulated the Erads. Such talk made Darden and Platt squirm in their seats.

"But we have our orders," Lt. Rankin went on when the troop had settled down. "This is tracking only, chasing. Chasing after some fliers. You'll get the specific details later. We track, we may be asked to capture, but we are not to kill." The troop groaned again. Lt. Rankin held up a hand to silence them. "Enough, you understand the orders, do I make myself perfectly clear?"

"Yes, sir," a couple of Erads said without enthusiasm.

"I don't believe the lieutenant heard you," Sgt. Cage snarled at them.

"Sir, yes, sir!" the platoon roared in unison. Darden and Platt joining with such energy a couple of the Erads turned to look at them.

"More like it," Sgt. Cage said, staring down the dragalongs.

They looked away from the sergeant and fell silent. They might not be Erads themselves, but they weren't idiots either. They knew it would be a constant hell for them being with these elite killers and they were just trying to feel their way through it all, to lessen the likelihood of direct confrontation with their "fellow" officers. To keep from getting themselves killed by their supposedly own people, much less the radcit rebels they were going to chase.

In the pause after Cage spoke, Darden exchanged a quick look of solidarity with Platt. They'd better stick together, it might be the only hope they would have of coming back from this mission alive. Lt. Rankin cleared his throat to speak again and the room fell stone silent. The Erad leader's voice carried across the room like a small cannon shot.

"We are authorized, however," he explained, "to eliminate any interference with our prime mission. Any interference, from anyone, anytime, anywhere."

"Yeah," a couple of the Erads cheered. "More like it." Lt. Rankin held up a hand to quiet them.

"All right, troops," he commanded, "now get your gear stowed and squared away. We have to be set to go at a moment's notice. We get the call, we go. Now jump to it."

"Yes, sir," the Erads responded together, rising from their chairs, then moving quickly out in formation. Platt and Darden were left temporarily by themselves in the briefing room looking lost and a little scared. Sgt. Cage sidled up next to them, looking his most ferocious.

"Move it, " he snarled, "get your butts out there with the other men and get ready to go. Now, bust it."

"Y..yes, sir," the two outsiders stammered, hurrying to get out of the room and away from the two Erad leaders. "We..we're going."

"Hustle it up," Cage repeated, jabbing a finger in the direction of the door. Darden and Platt raced out of the room.

"What a couple of piss ants," Lt. Rankin said, coming up beside Sgt. Cage. "Useless pieces of crap. They'll never last."

"Probably won't make the corridor," Cage sniffed.

"They'll be lucky to make it out of the briefing center if we don't go in there and keep our men under control," Lt. Rankin advised his top sergeant with a laugh.

"Let 'em stew for a couple of minutes, lieutenant," Cage said, "it'll be good for 'em. Give 'em a taste of the real world." Lt. Rankin thought about it for a minute.

"Give them five, sergeant," he said, "then go rescue them and get the troop ready."

"Yes, sir," Cage said happily, saluting Lt. Rankin. "Five and out."

Lt. Rankin returned the salute, then spun and walked away leaving Sgt. Cage standing in the middle of the room smiling vacantly.

Ebon

8.

"Take the next gateway, cit," Severn told Ari, nuzzling the barrel of his DC-40 against the back of Ari's neck, "and don't try to lose the romspeed in back of us either."

Ari glanced in the rear view at the romspeed he'd seen suddenly veer in behind him a few clicks back. He had hoped they were outguards come to rescue him but Severn had burst that bubble for him. Somewhere within Ari was the seed of an impulse to blow that other romspeed off the corridor. He knew he could do it. He could tell from looking at the vehicle in the mirror and from the maneuverings of its driver as that unseen person struggled to stay up even when Ari was basically just cruising.

These people might be rebels, radcits -- even killers, as they were -- but they were abject rookies when it came to matching up romspeed knowledge and skill with Ari. And they wouldn't know about the outguard scramblers and, for sure, knew nothing about the descrambler E.P. had put on Ari's machine. That could be Ari's ace in the hole. He would use it if he had the chance. One let up on their part, he thought, and he could lose their rebel tail and draw out an outguard rescue party in a flash. Just one break, he thought, stopped, again became acutely aware of the external world. Severn had cocked his DC-40 right by Ari's ear.

"Slow up, cit," Severn commanded, the cold steel of his weapon against the side of Ari's face, "g up."

"They're still behind us," Kara said, turning to check on the trailing rebel vehicle.

"Nice and easy through the checkpoint," Severn said near the back of Ari's head. The muscles alongside Ari's neck involuntarily tightened.

"Relax," Kara laughed at his discomfort. "Play this right and everything will be fine."

"S..sure," Ari managed to say, the flash of cockiness he had felt behind the wheel dissipating in the harsh glare of reality.

For the first time, he realized -- in a way maybe that going without ginweed or chalkwater long enough to let your brain clear up a bit -- in that way he realized he was a kidnapping victim, a pawn in some rebel/IMC game he had no way of fathoming, a hostage in a potentially deadly corridor run.

Because, his clearing mind understood, there could be no mistake about it, what they were doing now, he and the rebels, what they were making him do was exactly what the killer Erads waited for, lived for. Radcits or outcits on the run. They ate that up. It was a chance to purge the zone of lowlifes, to dust a few crazers. Realizing that scared Ari and he almost came into the gateway too fast. Severn responded by whacking the DC-40 against the side of Ari's face, cutting his ear.

"Ow," Ari cried out, grabbing his ear and grimacing at the sight of fresh blood on his fingers. "How can I drive if you're goin' to bash me?"

"Sorry," Severn said, sounding oddly as if he meant it. Ari shook his head. Kara dug around in her bags and came out with a handkerchief.

"Here," she said quietly, her voice calming Ari some, "let me clean that up." She dabbed the cloth against Ari's ear.

"Ouch," he complained.

"Don't be a baby," Kara chastised him.

Ari glanced over at her and was surprised to see her smiling at him. It was a confusing smile for Ari, simultaneously attracting and repelling him. On the one hand she was a beautiful woman -- brave, strong, and seemingly, not always a rigid radcit hardass. But on the other hand, she was still a rebel, his kidnapper, his possible executioner.

It occurred to Ari -- perhaps for the first time in his life -- that despite his highcit status he was to a large extent nothing but a walking target for the potentially lethal forces that swirled around and behind the zones. Forces that sometimes, like they had with the Erads at the simpark and then as they had with the rebels in the Shade House and now in Ari's own romspeed, materialized into a real, palpable threat -- one that could in an instant become the instrument of your death.

There were crazed Somecops like Platt, FJs like the redheaded kid, loose cannon outguards like the ones who tried to vat him, vicious killers like the Erads, and now berserker rebels poking guns into the side of his face and forcing him to fly the corridor like a deposed shadpol trying to escape from the long arms of the IMC -- arms that included every one of these lasermag, DC-40 toting packs of loonies from the Platt Meelers of the world all the way to this pretty young killer in the seat beside him.

When he thought of it that way, Ari didn't see a whit of difference between them. He only knew he wanted to stay alive. He wasn't so sure how he would do that given his current precarious situation, but he told himself he would do whatever he had to. Outguard, FJ, Somecop, Erad or rebel, as long as he was driving his own romspeed he had a chance and he would play whatever hand was getting ready to be dealt to him with all the cunning he could muster. There were too many plezones to hit yet, too many mates to. . . .

"Hey, hey," Severn snapped Ari out of his new found emphasis on self-preservation with a bop on the cut ear, "snap to it. Here comes a gatekeeper. Play it cool."

"Yeah," Ari grunted, rubbing the sore ear, but not finding any blood on his fingers this time. He felt Kara's weapon against his side, hidden from view under a light jacket she had lain over her arm. Ari watched the gatekeeper approach calmly. He even took time to look around the gateway itself.

He and his rebel abductors were in the highcit lane, meaning once the gatekeeper saw Ari's IDflick, the rest of the security check was perfunctory at best. One obvious reason why these radcit fliers had stolen Ari and his vehicle. Plus the fact that he had nearly unlimited fuel credits and more chits than a lowcit saw in a year. And, of course, one of the best vehicles and a record of having shown he knew how to handle it.

Over to their right, Ari saw the trailing romspeed pull into one of the commercial lanes in the gateway. So that was their ploy. Just big boys running produce or dope or guns between zones. Probably fitted out with fake IDs for that scene -- lowcits working for the man. Security was tighter, but speeded up to get the goods through. Fuel was scarcer and weaker, further reducing their ability to match Ari and they were not authorized to buy guns or drugs at gateway rad shops or fill bars. Another advantage for Ari and, simultaneously, another reason for the rebels to use him and keep him alive.

Across the lanes to his right, on the outside of the gateway, Ari saw several outguards hanging together beside their vehicles. They held their helmets in their hands and struck postures of cockiness and bravado, hips stuck out to one side, free hands poised on shell-belted lasermags. Ari wasn't sure, but thought he might have recognized at least the Toku outguard who had caught and tried to vat him before. When Ari checked again, thinking he might signal to the outguard, he was no longer there.

Turning his attention back to the left, Ari saw a building that housed a gateway combination rad shop and fill bar. With proper ID, a highcit or other privileged citizen could buy a limited amount of food, drugs, and weapons from a limited supply of such items in these places. Ari assumed that once past gateway security, the rebels holding him would demand he buy weapons and ammunition for them.

It was a reasonable assumption, but for Ari a surprising one, given the short history he had of thinking in this manner. For a moment he longed for a simpark and the forgetfulness of a huge glass of chalkwater and about a dozen ginweed smokes. This longing was shortlived. The gatekeeper was rapping on Ari's window. Maybe he'd been rapping a long time, maybe Severn and Kara had been cursing Ari, demanding that he respond to the gatekeeper. Maybe he heard Kara cock the weapon she again held against his ribs.

"Let the window down, cit," the muffled gatekeeper's voice insisted between raps.

Ari thought the man's voice sounded as if it were coming to him from deep underwater. He turned his head slowly to look at the gatekeeper. The man's face was red. Ari lowered the window.

"ID," the gatekeeper ordered, motioning toward himself with an index finger.

Ari flipped down the visor above the steering wheel and pulled out his IDflick card. The gatekeeper took it, slowly checked it front and back. Then he turned back to one of several ID readers stationed alongside the edge of the gateway lane and ran the IDflick through it.

This will zap them, Ari thought, assuming his abduction would already be on record and that, incompetent and surly as they were, a pack of outguards would shortly surround the romspeed and get him out of this absurd radcit kidnapping. He hated outguards on principle but he knew he could always figure a way out of trouble with them. With these radcit crazers, he didn't have a clue. They might be like the supposed flesh eaters in the Outworld -- completely berserk and eager to kill at any second. At least outguards were still corralled to some degree by the law and the murky shadpols.

"Checks out fine, sir," the gatekeeper ruined Ari's dream of immediate rescue, "you're clean highcit. Power, palatables, plezone props right up ahead on the left. Thank you for using our gateway, highcit, pleasure doing business. Have a safe journey. Come see us again."

"Sure," Ari grumbled, feeling Kara pull the weapon away from his side. Ari pressed a button by the door and the window closed quickly and silently.

"Very good, cit," Kara told him, "that gatekeeper was properly impressed with your status. Was downright polite, for a stupid two-bit, semi-Full John."

"Yes," Severn agreed from the back, "very good. You did well, Mr. Romspeed Jockey. Taking you along is going to turn out to be a very good thing. Good idea, Kara."

Ari turned his head to look at the rebel girl. She met his gaze and held it. A snake, Ari thought, fighting his physical attraction for Kara. Deadly. A killer. They're using me to escape the zone and meet up with their berserker rebel friends. Why didn't that ID scan pick me up as missing? Crap. Use my ID. Use my highcit freedom. My chits. My credit. For guns? Dope? Fuel? For what else?

Severn nudged Ari in the shoulder from behind and signaled with his hand towards the rad shop/fill bar. Ari pulled up when the traffic moved ahead. He brought the romspeed up next to the fuel stop, adroitly maneuvering the vehicle -- the skill with which he did so lost on his rebel captors -- equidistant between the juice recharger and the fuel pump. Now what, he thought?

"Now what?" he said.

"Stay with jockey boy, Kara," Severn said, "and make sure he doesn't mess up the refueling. I'm going to go inside and get some gear."

"Take the IDflick," Kara reminded Severn, poking Ari with her weapon. Ari reached up to the visor for the IDflick and handed it back to Severn.

"Thanks, cit," he laughed, opening his door, "you're very kind." Ari sighed, still hearing Severn's sarcastic laughter after the rebel had slammed the romspeed door and headed off for the gateway rad shop.

"Don't take it so personally, cit," Kara told Ari after they had sat in silence for several moments. "We kind of like you. You're a great romspeed driver. We've watched you."

"I can see how much you care," Ari sniffed.

"Oh, poor cit," Kara said dramatically, "did we interrupt your plezoning and break into your little high? We're so sorry. There are only thousands of cits suffering all over the zones so that you can happily destroy your body and your brain -- whatever of each there still is."

"Why me?" Ari asked, turning to look Kara in the face. She smiled disarmingly at him.

"Why not? It had to be someone. Why not you? I told you not to take it personally."

"Not take it personally? Not take it. . . ."

"Listen. Just relax. Severn'll be back soon and we'll be on our way."

"Where are we going?"

"Huh uh," Kara said, wagging a finger at Ari. "We'll tell you when you need to know."

"Well, if it's on down the corridor," Ari summoned up the courage to say, "you better tell that other bunch to stick close if they can or I'll dust 'em."

"My, my," Kara said, giving Ari a lengthy onceover. Maybe this highcit had some hidden talents, she thought, maybe he hadn't completely wasted himself on the innumerable fleshly pleasures in the haunts of Redsinthe he so often frequented. And degenerated or not, he was still young -- and pretty handsome, too.

"Who are those people in the other vehicle anyway?" Ari asked. "Where did they come from? How many of you people are there?"

"So many questions," Kara answered with a flirtatious smile, "so little of your business." Ari looked away from the pretty rebel girl, again confused by her reaction to him and by his to her. "You'll know who they are in good time," she said, this time without sarcasm or irony.

Ari was silent. Kara looked around the interior of the vehicle. Her eyes came to rest on the descrambler. She'd not seen anything like that in a romspeed before. She figured it was some speed enhancer given Ari's reputation and she said as much to him.

"Uh, it's nothing," Ari lied, "just a Toku design that never made it."

"Oh," Kara said, nodding as if she understood.

There was another long, awkward silence with Ari and Kara trying to act like they weren't sizing each other up. Kara finally spoke again.

"You don't really remember me, do you? From the booker, I mean."

Ari looked at her, tried to imagine how he could not have noticed a girl so pretty.

"I'm not sure."

"It's okay, you don't have to pretend. If you don't remember me, you don't remember me."

"I zoned a lot then."

"Like you don't zone now?"

"Were you younger than me?"

"I was one level back."

"Well, that's it. I never saw you."

"I saw you every day. You always smiled at me."

"I did?"

"Yes, you . . .," Kara began, but was interrupted suddenly by Severn's return.

The rebel leader opened the door behind Ari and hopped back in the vehicle. He was carrying several bags of supplies -- food, drinks, some boxes of ammo Ari saw flash in one of the bags Severn jostled as he climbed in. Severn saw Ari looking back and the rebel smiled broadly.

"Nice IDflick, cit," he said, taking the card out of his shirt pocket for a moment and pointing it at Ari. Ari moved as if to reach back for the ID card but Severn casually repocketed it.

"Yes," Ari said, turning back towards the front of the vehicle, "very nice." Severn gave a sly look to the back of Ari's head. Ari caught a glimpse of it in the rear view mirror.

"What were you two yappin' about?" Severn asked, putting some of the sacks on the floorboard and leaving one beside him on the back seat. "I saw your jaws moving like you were a couple of land sharks."

"Nothing," Kara said, reaching back and poking around in the sack on the back seat. She pulled out a plastic bottle of purified water. "We weren't talking about anything. This water must have cost a pretty penny, at one of these gateways."

"On the cit," Severn gave Kara a big smile. She turned away and joined Ari in looking out the front window. "And nothing might be interesting to me, Kara."

"We were talking about failed Toku designs, that's all," Kara said, worrying Ari that she would cause Severn to notice the descrambler.

Ari wanted that to stay his little secret. It might somehow turn out to be his escape from these radcits. But Severn didn't notice the descrambler, mentioning Toku and a romspeed design in one breath made him, like anyone, interested in these vehicles, immediately think of the rumor about exploding romchips in some, maybe all, Toku produced romspeeds.

"You know," Severn said, telling Ari nothing he hadn't been hearing since he was a kid but which seemed like hot news to the rebel leader, "these Toku babies supposedly are built to explode on certain mileages. You heard that?"

"I heard it," Ari said.

"Just a rumor," Kara put in.

"No," Severn disagreed, "I've heard of at least two or three of these that have gone up at a preset mileage deal."

"Sounds like a load of bull to me," Kara said.

"45,086," Ari said, turning to look at Severn.

"Right. And some at 60,845."

"45,086," Kara asked, looking from Ari to Severn with a frown, "60,845? What? What does that mean?"

"It means," Ari began to explain, "that some Toku romspeeds, maybe a lot of them, even most of them, have a mileage preset built into the motor chip."

"Yeah," Kara said, "so?"

"So," Ari looked at her confidently, glad for the moment to have anything over the rebel girl, "it means that...."

"Shut up," Severn cut in brusquely. "Clam up and drive. Get us out to the corridor. Move it."

Kara quickly faced forward in the vehicle, her rebel training and instincts instantly putting her back into alert mode. She held her lasermag by her side and checked the gateway area for signs of trouble.

"We've been here too long," Severn said by way of explanation for his sudden shift from conversational to cautionary mode. "Head us back out to the corridor."

"Good idea," Kara said, glancing at Ari who put the romspeed in gear and pulled out into the traffic heading back to the corridor. He noticed the tailing rebel vehicle across the way also pull out and head for the corridor reentry lanes. As Ari guided the romspeed towards the south exit marked Ebon, the other rebel vehicle cut over and pulled in behind him.

I could blow them away right here, he thought, sizing up a gap in the traffic at the Ebon entrance to the corridor, and leave them behind one of these produce trucks smelling rotten vegetables. One quick jog to the right, a left, and.... But just as Ari's fantasy reached its peak, the trailing rebel vehicle of a sudden broke off, sped towards the left and the entrance to the corridor leading back to Bimhills.

"What the...," Ari blurted out before catching himself. He saw Severn's smiling face in the rear view mirror.

"Another little surprise for you, ey, cit?" Severn smirked.

Ari looked briefly at Kara, who kept up her vigil of the world external to their vehicle.

"They were just our escort out here to the gateway," Severn explained, making eye contact with Ari in the rear view mirror. "It won't hurt for you to know that. They were just along in case something went south at the gateway. Just a little back up. You understand the need for back up, don't you, cit?"

"I guess," Ari said, not understanding.

He had to slow the romspeed just as they were about to get back on the corridor when two big trucks cut in front of him. He was looking for a way to get past the trucks when the back door opposite Severn opened and a tall, bearded black man in a camouflage fatigue outfit climbed into the car, plopped down in the backseat and pulled the door shut.

"Bobby S?" Kara asked, whirling to face the newcomer. Ari tried to divide his time between looking at the road ahead and at the uniformed man taking up space in the rear view mirror.

"Yes," Severn responded to Kara's question. "This is Bobby S."

"That's me," the black man said, with a big, insincere smile. "Bobby S. at your service."

9.

Most Erads were culled from the ranks of burly, lowcit working men, but Lt. Rankin was different. He'd been born a highcit and lived a life of thoughtless indulgence and decadence much like Ari, until he'd been caught nicsmoking and fornicating with the mate of an unforgiving member of the IMC High Inner Council. Highcit or nocit, Lt. Rankin was vatted on the spot. But he was stronger than the average highcit and the maximum vat they sent him to didn't scare or break him, it just made him tougher.

After a few years on ice, a sympathetic vatguard helped recruit him for the Erads -- those most elite of all Bimhill's many types of police. And he was well suited for it. He was tall, muscular, and powerful. And he had something a lot of the Erads didn't -- intelligence. That made him an even more dangerous Erad because he understood why he was killing outcits on the street -- and it didn't bother him.

In time, as much a matter of personal safety (Erads had been known to kill their own in order to advance in rank and privilege) as of family togetherness, Lt. Rankin recruited his nephew Bead for the force and then the boy's father, Tom, the lieutenant's brother. With those two on board and with steady, loyal Sgt. Cage at his side, Lt. Rankin had one of the best known and most feared Erad units in the zone.

At face value, however, the current mission, as laid down IMC Rep Alexander, would do little to enhance the fearsome of Rankin's group. With the redheaded FJ and the bulky Somecop tagging along and the order not to kill, things were going against the basic Erad grain. Rankin would have to take care of that little problem, and soon. In the meantime, he had to interrogate the gateway guard, the one who had reported seeing the romspeed jockey who looked like the Bimhills highcit kidnapped by the rebels.

"Yes, sir," the nervous gatekeeper confirmed Ari's ID to Lt. Rankin, "that's him. His hair is longer now and more blond, but that's the highcit from the romspeed."

The gatekeeper was completely intimidated by Lt. Rankin's imperial presence. Lt. Rankin knew it. He was used to this kind of reaction from the non-Erads of the world. From crazer Outworld outguards to members of the ruling class, everybody was afraid of an Erad and those like the lieutenant and his band were the most terrifying of all. He smiled and pocketed the picture of Ari.

"Did you happen to see who else was in the vehicle with him?" Lt. Rankin asked the weak-kneed gatekeeper who felt like he was in first level getting an ass chewing from his teacher.

"There was a man and a girl -- a young woman," the gatekeeper said in a quavering voice.

"And?"

"And?"

"What did they look like, son? The man and the girl?"

"Uh, the girl was -- pretty, I think. Shorter hair, light brown maybe."

"Did she look bruised around the face?"

"I..I couldn't see that well, sir. She was on the other side of the driver."

"Alright. What about the man?"

"He was tall, medium body, short dark hair. He got out and went into the rad shop. Bought some stuff and came back. Then I got busy."

"I'm sure you did," Lt. Rankin said, the disdain he felt for the gatekeeper palpable in his voice. "How about the vehicle? Did you notice it before you got so 'busy'?"

"Yes, sir," the gatekeeper answered quickly, "it was a 4-rom, gray, a dull gray, big antenna, four door, thick dirt tires."

"Did it have an ID number?"

"I missed it, sir."

"Never mind, we can get that elsewhere. Anything else you noticed in between your many tasks here?"

"Uh, uh."

"For example, did they go back out on the corridor?"

"Yes, sir, they did."

"Which way?" The gatekeeper pointed south. Toward Ebon. "Is that all?"

"Well, sir, maybe something." Lt. Rankin motioned with his right hand for the gatekeeper to continue. "I think somebody may have jumped into that vehicle as they were getting back on the corridor."

"What?" Lt. Rankin roared. "Who? Who jumped in? Man? Woman? What?"

"A man, sir, a black man?"

"You're asking me?"

"No, no. It was. It was a black man."

"And you didn't stop them, gatekeeper? That didn't look funny to you?"

"We were really busy just then, sir, I didn't, uh...."

"Forget it," Lt. Rankin snorted.

"But, sir, I..uh...."

"Relax, cit," Lt. Rankin stopped the gatekeeper. "Calm down. This is enough."

"Oh, thank you, sir," the gatekeeper gushed his appreciation. Any contact with Erads could end very badly; the gatekeeper might be getting out of this one alive -- a major success.

"In the future," Lt. Rankin counseled the gatekeeper, "I would advise you to be more observant, more vigilant."

"Oh, yes, sir, I will, sir" the gatekeeper vowed. "I definitely will."

"See to it that you do," Lt. Rankin said, turning and walking back towards the group of Erads that had accompanied him to the gateway. The gatekeeper stood rooted to his position, watching the Erad walking away. He released a deep breath of air.

"You can count on me, sir," he called after Lt. Rankin. "Any time. If you need anything, just call on...."

Lt. Rankin held up his right arm without looking back at the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper shut up and hurriedly turned back to his gateway duties. A scrawny, balding little cit in an underpowered all electric car had pulled up and was trying to show his IDflick.

"Move on, move on," the gatekeeper barked at the little cit. "Get this piece of crap out of the way. Move it along."

He looked up to see if the Erad commander had seen the tough way he handled the scrawny cit, but the Erads were gone. They had already left the area.

10.

Severn didn't trust Bobby S. even as far as he could throw him, as he recalled how an old saying went. Bobby S. was a well-known black mercenary, a Bmerc in the current lingo, and he had a well earned reputation for lethal efficiency and for working exclusively for the highest bidder. Severn had promised Bobby enough chits to buy a new romspeed if he would help lead them through Ebon's dangerous streets, but he knew perfectly well the Bmerc would sell the whole pack of them out to Erads, the IMC, or anybody else, if a higher offer were presented.

The key was to stay high bidder until Bobby's services were no longer needed. After that, everyone went their separate ways -- with no guarantee that five minutes after he stopped guiding them through Ebon, Bobby S. might not be hunting them in the Meshican zone. Bobby S. was a true mercenary, the only side he took was the money side. Period.

Kara might be uncomfortable with that, and God knew what the useless highcit romspeed jockey might be thinking -- he was sure checking Bobby S. out a lot in the rear view mirror -- but as for Severn he liked the mercenary arrangement. It was all for currency, a simple exchange. No long term tie-ups, no ideology to run aground on, a cleaner kind of wreckage left behind.

"So, Bobby," Severn said, handing a bottle of plain alcohol, clear gin that he had picked up back at the gateway rad shop, over to the Bmerc, "how's Queen Mary these days? You still her main jammer?"

Bobby S. took a huge drink out of the bottle of gin and winked at Kara in the front seat. She glanced over at Ari who was watching Bobby with awe in the mirror. Kara shook her head. Men, she thought, same old baloney year after year. Nothing changes.

"Naw, man," Bobby S. answered Severn, after wiping some stray gin off his mouth with a dirty uniform sleeve.

Ari wondered why that uniform wasn't a dead giveaway to the Erads and other types of law running around -- bands of Fulljohns, stray Somecops. Then he remembered the Bmercs had special status in the zones. It was more like a badge than a bullseye. It was an emblem of the profession.

"I ain't with her no more," Bobby S. went on after another big gulp of gin, "I work for Mother T now."

"Mother Theresa?" Kara asked.

"That's right, young princess," Bobby S. addressed Kara, mocking the formal tone men like himself used, men who had done time as breeders for the matriarchal warlords like Queen Mary and Mother Theresa who ruled Ebon after the vast depopulation of the zone's males during the penal cleansings of the 30s, when they addressed young women of breeding age.

"Mother Theresa. The biggest, meanest, most lovin' Mama in the Ebon zone. And it's a good thing for you cits that I do work for her. You'd be ate up if you tried to come through here on your own. Yes, sirs and young princess, chewed up and spit out. Like bad lettuce from Meshica."

"I suspect," Severn commented, "that you would be in just about the same state if Queen Mary got a hold of you again."

"You're right there," Bobby S. admitted. "The Queen do not like to lose a man, any man. Especially she don't want to lose Bobby S. Bobby S., the Bmerc. Hardest ass on the corridor."

While Bobby S. boasted, Severn gave him a thorough once over. Bmerc, breeder, renowned guide and killer. Had done time in the vats in both Bimhills and Meshica. With facial and other scars to prove it. Bozas they called the vats in Meshica, for reasons none of the occupants of Ari's romspeed understood. Bobby S. had been in them all.

He was tall, wiry, muscles as hard as rocks, taut like knots. His thin face, punctuated by misleadingly sleepy-looking brown eyes, was covered in a scraggly, matted beard turning gray around the sides of the chin and on the temples. Originally he had had a thin nose, but now it was wider and flatter from being broken in the many scuffles mercs, of whatever ethnicity, got into. When he smiled, he showed a row of large white teeth made memorable by an occasional gap where one had been extracted, another knocked out. He had big hands and a slow way about him that was completely deceiving.

"Who are these other cits?" he asked when he had finished talking himself up. "They with you, Sev?"

"This is Kara Felt," Severn introduced the young rebel girl, "one of our very best operatives. She just had an unfortunate run in with a bad pack of Erads. Luckily, we managed to get her out but lost a young boy that was with Kara and took a couple of casualties in the process."

"Erad trouble is the worst trouble," Bobby S. said sympathetically, reaching forward to snap the first two fingers of his right hand with Kara's in one of Ebon's lesser known greetings.

Ari was suitably impressed that Kara knew how to return the greeting. She had clearly experienced many things Ari knew nothing of.

"You lucky to get away with your body parts still together, young princess," Bobby S. added, shaking his head. "Ooee, Erads is nasty jammers. They put a hole in you and then step in it and laugh. Bobby S. stays clear of the Erads. He ain't no fool."

"That's what we heard," Kara said, smiling at Bobby S.

He liked the way this girl looked and acted. Short, nicely cut brown hair, sweet smile, and pretty light green eyes. Strong jawline, high cheekbones like a Long Wounder and a firm, full mouth perfect for kissing. Bobby S. liked what he saw. Kara turned back to the front under the Bmerc's steady gaze.

"So who's the jockey up there? Who is this speedy little gamecit?" Bobby S. asked, turning his attention away from the back of Kara's head and her thin lovely neck.

"That's Ari, Ari Blanque," Severn explained, "he, uh, volunteered to accompany us on this run. Be our driver. He's a top notch romspeed jock, a talent discovered by and not lost on our rebel leadership. He's also highcit and very generous."

"Oh," Bobby S. said with a big smile, "generous is he? Maybe he'd want to make old Bobby a gift of this here machine when you all come back through Ebon, huh?"

"N. . . not even, cit," Ari managed to squeak out to the reflection of Bobby S. in the rear view mirror. "This is my whole world. I live for this machine."

"Or die for it," Bobby S. said threateningly, squinting at Ari in the mirror. Ari gulped. Bobby S. broke into a big laugh. "Don't worry, young cit, I'm just fun...."

"Hey," Kara suddenly yelled, at the same time hitting Ari in the arm to get his attention back onto the corridor and out of the rear view mirror, "watch out! Look ahead up there, it's an outguard team and they look like they're going to cross over onto our side of the corridor. Speed this piece of crap up."

Ari jammed the gas pedal down, but the outguard vehicle had already crossed over the corridor median and was turning against traffic to face them.

"Shit," Bobby S. cursed, pulling a vicious looking short barreled, L-12 pump shotgun from somewhere beneath his clothing.

He hammered a round into the chamber and rested the weapon between the two front seats. Hearing the metallic action of the L-12 cocking almost caused Ari to lose control of his bowels but the challenge of the approaching outguard team kept him too occupied to completely lose his cool.

Vehicles behind and to the side of Ari automatically dropped back at the sight of the outguard machine now idling ahead on the corridor and aimed against the normal flow of traffic. Ari slowed some but he was so used to dueling with outguards that his instinctive reaction was to consider a course of evasive action. He had played this high speed game so many times that its nuances and skills were virtually second nature to him. He throttled back and let his romspeed roll to a rumbling stop.

"What you doin', jockey boy," Bobby S. hissed in Ari's ear, "you tryin' to get us dusted by the silver?"

"Chill out, Bmerc brother," Ari said, thinking he was cool.

Despite the danger they faced, Kara looked away from Ari in embarrassment. Bobby S. frowned and shook his head. Severn put his weapon alongside Ari's temple.

"Now's the time to show us how well you can jockey these things, cit," the rebel said threateningly, near the back of Ari's head, "or maybe you want this to end right here. Is that what you want, plezone boy? No more ginweed, no more jammin' shade house girls?"

Ari briefly considered both possibilities -- neither seemed particularly good. He also considered playing a trick on his captors: letting the outguards catch them. He might somehow get away if he did that, maybe. Just as he was imagining the outguards saving him, one of them leaned out the window of their vehicle and fired a tracer flare warning shot. It exploded just to the left of Ari's side of the romspeed, kicking up orange-yellow sparks off the concrete and hurling bits of concrete against the side of the vehicle. Without thinking, Ari shoved his vehicle in gear and made a straight run for the outguard vehicle.

"What the hell are you doing?" Severn cried out.

Kara pointed her lasermag at Ari's ribs again. Ari felt like a target at one of those citfairs that used to come around Bimhills when he was a tad. The kind you paid three chits for three shots from a CO2 gun at some scarred up outcit who was locked onto a revolving metal wheel with nothing but metal glasses, a leather mask and a hard leather cup over his privates to protect him from the wild marksmanship of Bimhills' elite and spoiled offspring.

Ari shuddered at the memory and increased his speed. The outguards began to react now, the one on the rider's side fired two more warning shots then pulled himself all the way back in the vehicle as Ari approached them at apparent ramming speed.

"What are you doing, you crazy shitcit," Bobby S. howled. "You gonna kill us all."

"I know what I'm doing," Ari yelled back, completely focused on the outguard vehicle.

Sweat popped out on Severn's forehead and he pulled his weapon back away from Ari's head. Kara divided her time between quick checks of the oncoming vehicle and the maniacal profile Ari presented to her as he drove them on at a mad clip towards the outguards.

"What is that?" Kara yelled, seeing a large antenna suddenly appear on the roof of the outguard vehicle.

"Oh, hell," Bobby S. exclaimed.

Severn just looked confused. He'd been with the rebels too long to be up on the latest corridor technology. Like Kara, he wasn't sure what was happening. Ari smiled to himself, again considered letting the outguards take him. The scrambler they were activating would be the perfect excuse, a legitimate reason to give up. It would kill the engine. Maybe the rebels would lose their cool and Ari could bolt out and leave his fate up to the outguards. That was hardly a cheery thought. They were a lot better than Erads, but you would hardly want one as your best friend.

"No funny stuff," Kara said, eliminating the escape fantasy. Ari wondered if she knew about the scrambler. No way, it was too new.

Continuing on full tilt, Ari reached his right hand towards the descrambler switch on his dash. He would try to hit it just as the flash of the outguard scrambler was released. Then with his engine still running he would win the game of chicken with the outguards, like he always did, and blow by them before they could react.

Out here by Ebon, and the further on you went it was said, the gateways and the outguards got more and more scarce until they ended all together at the outworld. Ari had seldom been this far from Bimhills before but he could see that the structured control of his home zone rapidly vanished as you fled from it.

"That thing is turning towards us," Kara cried, seeing the outguard scrambler antenna hone in on their romspeed. "It's going to fire."

The orange flash came so quickly it nearly scrambled Ari's engine chip even though he flipped the switch on his descrambler with remarkable speed. The romspeed jerked momentarily, lurched forward, then kicked back in again. In the general panic after the outguard firing, only Bobby S. had seen Ari flip the descrambler; now the Bmerc watched with admiration from the back seat as Ari hit the romspeed overdrive -- a fossil fuel afterburner -- and the rebel band shot past the outguards, leaving them stunned and immobile in the center of the corridor.

Ari looked back in the rear view mirror, saw the other vehicles on the corridor move up and past the outguards as well -- were they acting in support of the escaping romspeed? He laughed to think so. Whether in support or not, the other vehicles provided Ari with an even greater edge and he had soon left all signs of the confrontation far in the distance.

Back in Bimhills, Ari thought, or by Toku, other outguards would be in pursuit almost immediately, but out here on the corridor there were so few outguards and they were so far apart that there was little chance of another intercept group. At least not immediately. It was both the blessing and the curse of the outlying regions of the corridor: there was less and less law, but conversely less and less restriction. You had to be prepared for whatever might come up out here. That's why Severn had contracted with Bobby S. He was the man for this kind of run. And right now he was a pretty excited man.

"Whooee," he exclaimed, slapping the back of Ari's headrest, "what a jammin' jock, man. You left those OGs back there with their cranks in their mitts. You got ever'thing on this baby. Hot engine, afterburner, descrambler!"

Ari couldn't hide his surprise that Bobby S. understood about the descrambler. He actually turned around to look at the remarkable Bmerc.

"Hey," Kara yelled, "keep your eyes on the road. You berserk, cit?"

Ari concentrated again on driving but wasn't able to hide a big smile. Until the feel of metal from Severn's DC-40 assault pistol removed any remaining humor from the situation.

"You sneaky little piece of highcit shit," Severn said through clenched teeth, his pistol poking against Ari's ear. "I ought to waste you right now and drive this jammin' thing myself. Holding out on us like that. What were you gonna do, use that thing to escape from us, huh? Was that it?"

"Chill out, Sev," Bobby S. laughed, reaching over and moving the rebel's weapon slowly away from Ari's head, "the cit was just showin' off. Havin' a good time, right jockey boy?"

Ari smiled broadly in the rear view mirror. Severn drew back his DC-40 and leaned against the seat with an annoyed frown for Bobby S. and Ari. Ari glanced over at Kara to see if she'd heard Bobby S. use the phrase she'd hassled Ari about using before. She returned Ari's glance but it was tinged with mock disgust and, Ari was sure, an underlying hint of sexuality and promise. Ari tapped the steering wheel light-heartedly and sped them on down the corridor.

11.

Lt. Rankin had pulled his brother Tom, his nephew Bead, and Sgt. Cage off to one side of the Erad outstation near the Ebon corridor to brief them on the latest communique from IMC Rep Alexander.

"Close that door will you, Bead?" he asked his favorite among brother Tom's considerable brood of children.

Bead was the oldest son, a strong, obedient boy. He followed orders to a T. He was brave and skillful, just the kind of man -- as were his father Tom and the ferocious Sgt. Cage -- to have with you, especially on a mission like the one they were on now, with the IMC pulling all the strings and making their task all the more difficult and dangerous.

"Yes, uncle, I mean, yes, lieutenant, sir," Bead said in his chopped tone military way. He pulled the door to and stood with his back against it, his father on his right, Sgt. Cage to his left.

Sgt. Cage, of course, could have been the poster boy for an Erad recruitment campaign. Gigantic, loyal, vicious, not too bright. He had all the qualities Erad commanders were looking for in their field troops. Cage had a spotless record in the field. Dozens of missions, dozens of kills. And none of it ever seemed to bother the brutish non-com. But it had not always been that way for Cage.

When Cage was a child, living with his family in their dilapidated dwelling on Bimhills' far east working class subzone, he had been different. He had had less brutish feelings, more sympathy for the world around him. But his old man, a machinist at some foul, forsaken plant hidden in the underbelly of Bimhills that helped keep it running properly for the benefit and satisfaction of its highcits in particular, had begun early to beat those feelings and that sympathy out of the boy Cage.

Drunk every night, the old man brutalized his wife, Cage's sickly, terrorized mother, and when the boy would try to intervene the old man would howl at him like a raging beast and pound the child into submission. When Cage was about nine, he never really knew how old he actually was since his family was illiterate and kept no records, the boy -- who was already showing signs of the eventual large size he would grow into -- became enamored of the only naturally existing wild animals left in Bimhills: pigeons. The boy began capturing, caging, and raising them. All hidden from the father.

But then one day the father discovered the pathetic little coop that Cage kept his half dozen scraggly birds in and in front of the boy snapped the heads off the birds one by one with his huge, dirty machinist's hands. Cage attacked his father, screaming and crying, and the old man beat the boy unconscious. After that Cage changed, became mean, started beating up other kids, laying traps for the old man. At eleven, Cage was sent to a junior, reform vat and the young boy never saw his family again.

He grew huge in the reform vat -- and tough and mean and lethally dangerous. A vatguard, as so often happened, recruited him for the law, first as a vatguard then a Fulljohn. But Cage was too vicious for the FJs and eventually he was spotted by Erad recruiters and brought into their ranks.

Cage felt like he had found home again and the Erads were his family. He quickly worked his way up the ranks to sergeant through a series of efficiently lethal assignments. Now he had been with Lt. Rankin for a couple of years and the lieutenant was like a father to him. The one he never really had. He was completely loyal to Lt. Rankin and the lieutenant knew it and appreciated it. He treated Cage nearly as if the burly sergeant were an equal to Rankin's own brother Tom and nephew Bead.

"All right, boys," Lt. Rankin addressed his core team with a smile, "a few spoils from the IMC."

Lt. Rankin was known for generously spreading war trophies among his men, especially his base unit, which for some time now had been Tom, Bead, and Cage. He would give lesser items out to the other Erads but core team would definitely be given the better spoils. It was how the Erad system worked; it kept the men happy. And a happy Erad, as the promo put it, is the last Erad you'll see.

"For you, sergeant," he said, handing Cage a specially made .45 caliber personal protection handgun the big sergeant had spotted during one of their recent raids.

The semi-automatic weapon, a handcrafted version of the old army .45 from an earlier time, was excellently made, a real prize. Cage cradled it like a baby, swung it around, aimed it at a door, a wall, a picture of Grand IMC Rep Hart that was displayed prominently at the front of the room.

Lt. Rankin laughed at Cage's joy, at the big man's simple approach to life -- which was that anyone other than an Erad was barely worth the cost of the bullet that would terminate their non-Erad life force. Grand IMC Rep Hart was no different to Cage than the rebels they were chasing, or the feeble FJ and Somecop they had had to drag along on this mission. Lt. Rankin patted Cage on the shoulder and reached back into a bag he held to find prizes for Tom and Bead.

"Thank you, lieutenant," Cage finally said, so wrapped up in his new toy he had nearly forgotten his Erad bearing.

"My pleasure, sergeant," Lt. Rankin told him with a smile.

Cage happily went back to aiming his .45 at imaginary enemies threatening the very existence of the noble Erad brotherhood.

Lt. Rankin gave his brother a slender, eight-inch serrated blade, killing knife with his name and rank engraved on the handle. It was of the finest hard metal available and had an edge pre-sharpened so fine it could cut hairs, sheets of paper on edge or the thick muscles and tendons of out of control citizens. It was an extraordinarily lethal hand weapon and Tom appreciated its quality and utility. For the boy, the lieutenant produced a trophy -- of sorts. It was a nose-flattened bullet encased in a two-inch thick circle of glass. The inscription read: Bead Rankin, 10/25/75, Kill 1.

"The first kill," Bead smiled happily, shaking his uncle's and his father's hands. "I thought the bullet was lost. Thank you, uncle."

"We kept it hid long enough for you to give up on it," Lt. Rankin told his nephew, "figured we'd surprise you better this way."

"Oh, yes," Bead said humbly, "this is great. I can't wait to show mother."

"It will go well with your collection at home," his father suggested, "this makes the perfect center piece."

"How many is it now?" Lt. Rankin asked Bead, the pride he felt in his nephew readily apparent.

"Twelve, no, thirteen," Bead answered, "counting that outcit the other night in Redsinthe."

"A baker's dozen," Tom smiled, even more proud of his son than his brother was.

"Yes," Lt. Rankin said, slapping the shoulders of the three other men, "a good baker's dozen. Ha, ha."

"Shootin', and stickin', and bullets," Cage said with a far away look in his eyes, "what more could you want?" The Rankin men laughed heartily at the sergeant's heartfelt summation. Cage was indeed the ultimate Erad warrior.

"Okay, men," Lt. Rankin told the others when the merriment had subsided, "now here's where the mission stands up to this moment."

The three Erad comrades closed ranks on their leader. The lieutenant went on.

"We've all done several cross-zone ops before; we know the dangers. The pack, except for the two dead weights we've been ordered to carry along, is tough and prepared. We won't have a problem. But the twist as you all know is that we're not the aggressors here. This is more of a tracking mission. The rebels are on a run, and IMC Rep Alexander thinks they're headed for their base camp somewhere probably beyond Ebon."

"Tracking them through the uncivilized zones could get difficult," Tom Rankin interjected, "if we have to engage hostiles, we could lose the track."

"You're right, Tom," Lt. Rankin told his brother, "and that's where we have an edge."

"An edge?" Bead asked.

"Yes," the lieutenant explained, "we've got a mole."

"Somebody with them?" Cage wondered.

"Correct," Lt. Rankin nodded. "When possible, our agent will feed info back through phones or radio transmissions. If worse comes to worse the agent has a transmitter."

"Do we know who our man is?" Tom Rankin asked.

"We don't even know if it is a man," his older brother answered. "We just know our agent is in."

"If we lose the agent and the transmitter?" Cage questioned.

"You know the drill, sergeant," Lt. Rankin said, "Erads react to whatever situation arises. That's our job."

"Yes, sir," Cage said.

"Okay," Lt. Rankin went on, "obviously the rebels are going to have to go through Ebon and with the breeches in the wall, they may not make it out anyway."

"Queen Mary and Mother Theresa," Cage said, rubbing his chin, "and their armies."

"Exactly," Lt. Rankin said.

"Are we supposed to help them make it?" Tom Rankin asked.

"That, too," his older bother confirmed with a resigned shrug. "If we can. But not if it puts us in a position we can't get out of. We'll keep our distance, track the rebels, and try to stay out of the way of the matriarchal armies."

"What if they do get them, I mean the mat..matri....," Bead began.

"Matriarchal armies," his father finished for him.

"Yes," Bead said smiling, "that."

"We'll keep a low profile," Lt. Rankin said, "use the surprise element. If the rebels need help to escape and it won't endanger any of us -- except for the dead wood we're carrying for the IMC -- then we'll provide limited help. But we need to remain undetected. This is a covert action."

The men laughed at Lt. Rankin's reference to the tag along FJ and Somecop, but understood the serious and potentially lethal ramifications of the current officially unrecognized assignment. They were in outzones on their own. They had only themselves to depend on. They understood that. That was the point of being an Erad. At least the inner core of the pack, the Rankins and Sgt. Cage, had complete confidence and trust in one another. They had all done it before. It was a tough assignment, but it was what they lived for. When Lt. Rankin called them to attention before returning to the rest of the pack, his brother, nephew, and loyal Sgt. Cage snapped to with pride and alacrity.

"All right, men," Lt. Rankin said as he dismissed them, "let's go get it done."

"Yes, sir," the men called out with gusto, "yes, sir."

12.

Ari cruised along the deserted corridor wondering a little why none of the outguards they had passed since the earlier confrontation seemed to take an interest in them. If he'd been more aware of things or less absorbed in Bobby S.' string of colorful stories about narrow escapes and wondrous deeds through the outlying zones, Ari might even have become suspicious at the lack of official concern over the flight of a group of dangerous rebel kidnappers. In fact, Ari never consciously considered the danger he and his "companions" were in until Bobby S. shocked them all with a tossaway comment.

"What did you say?" Kara asked, glancing at Ari as she turned to look back at the Bmerc. Kara's tone caused Ari to listen more critically to what was being said.

"I was just saying," Bobby explained, "word is there's an Erad team tailing you all."

"How did you hear that?" Kara demanded. Bobby S. shrugged.

"I got my sources."

"Why would Erads follow us?" Severn asked. "They kill; they don't tail."

"That doesn't make sense," Kara said, turning her back to Severn and Bobby S.

Although she tried to appear unconcerned, Ari saw a look of fear -- perhaps dread -- momentarily cross her pretty features. She looked at him briefly, but it was not a friendly look. Ari concentrated on the road ahead.

"You seem pretty well informed for a free roaming Bmerc," Severn said to Bobby S. "You got other hot news for us? Anything we should know about?"

"I know you need to get to the other side of Ebon," Bobby S. responded. "And I know you won't get there without me."

"Possibly," Severn said, noticing a visible tightening of Kara's neck muscles as the young rebel woman stiffened in the seat in front of him, "possibly."

"No possibly about it," Bobby S. laughed, "a done deal. No Bobby S., your deal is done. Get it?"

The Bmerc laughed uproariously at his little joke. Ari smiled at Bobby S. in the rear view mirror; he got a real kick out of the tough, flamboyant Bmerc. Severn and Kara seemed rather less amused.

"So tell us more," Severn said, grimfaced. Bobby S. winked at Ari in the rear view mirror but got serious.

"I don't know where you people plan to go but I know you have to get at least to Meshica."

"At least," Severn confirmed coldly.

"And I know who your contact is. I'm going to take you to him." Kara turned back around to look at Bobby S.

"And who is our contact in Meshica," she asked with more than a hint of sarcasm, "another Bmerc like you?" Bobby S. ignored the little dig.

"Not at all, young princess," he said, "he's Meshican. A real radcit, a Cardenista in fact. He's been a guide in Meshica for years. A good man. You'll find he...."

"Whoa," Ari cried out suddenly, slowing the romspeed dramatically, "look up ahead. Look at that!"

"Oh, hell," Severn groaned, "damn. The corridor is completely down. Stop this thing, Blanque, stop!"

"Cool it," Ari shot back, way ahead of the rebels, "I got it covered."

And like the topnotch romjockey he was, Ari did have it covered. He brought the romspeed to a gentle stop directly in front of a six hundred meter gash in the corridor. The road was totally gone, now no more than a deep pockmarked scar of dirt, holes, and jagged chunks of the concrete wall that had been intended to fence trouble out, not create it. Even Ari's romspeed couldn't cross this obstacle.

"Hell," Kara said, "what crap."

"Not good," Bobby S. corroborated. Kara turned on the Bmerc.

"You know so much, how come you didn't know the corridor was down here? Or did you?"

"No, missy," Bobby S. defended himself, "I swear I didn't know. This must have just happened."

Severn observed the rubble before them. It had obviously been there for some time. There were weeds already growing in some of the muddy areas.

"No it didn't," he said quietly. Kara looked at him and drew her lasermag.

"Let me dust him, Severn," she pleaded, "the lyin' piece of shit." And to Bobby S.: "I ought to clean you."

"Easy now, young sister," Bobby S. said, no humor left in his voice or face, "we have to stick together. Now for sure." He pointed off to the left of their position. "This here over here is the Panmus' sector. Stickin' with Bobby S. is your only chance now. Understand?"

"Panmus?" Ari asked, looking back at Bobby S. "What are Panmus?"

"Panmus have the only male sector in Ebon," Bobby S. explained. "They are their own men. Independent. Dedicated. Religious. They don't take bull from anybody. No mothers, no queens, no rebels, no Bimhills highcits. Especially no Bimhills highcits." Ari swallowed hard. "Little jockey brother, they survived the penal cleansing, as your IMC jammers called it. Genocide they call it. And they vowed no one would ever do that to them again. They are armed and they are very dangerous."

"That's a wonderful story," Kara said, shaking her head at Ari's wide-eyed reaction to Bobby S.' brief history of the Panmus, "so how do you propose we avoid these people, these men?"

"I can do it, little sister," Bobby S. smiled confidently at Kara, "just leave it up to old Bobby S. You pay the chits, I'll do the job."

"I'm touched by your loyalty," Kara said.

"Loyalty is money," Bobby S. said, "and money is loyalty."

"You're getting paid, and plenty," Severn said. "So what's our next step? This is your game."

"Hang with me," Bobby S. said. Then to Ari: "Young jock, how's the juice level on this 4 by?" Ari checked his power gauge and the afterburner meter.

"Over half on power, or a little more. But probably only enough fossil for one more afterblast, if we need it."

"We may," Bobby S. said turning back to Severn. "Food? Water?"

"Enough for a couple of days," Severn answered, "longer if we ration."

"Start rationing right now," Bobby S. said.

"Where are we going?" Kara asked. "How do we get out of here?"

Bobby S. patted Ari on the shoulder. Ari looked back at him in the mirror. Bobby S. was smiling. Ari couldn't help but like the guy. He could tell the Bmerc knew what he was doing. With him on your side you had a chance.

"Young jock," Bobby S. said, "back this baby up a bit. See that hole in the fence over away from the wall?"

"Yes," Ari said, slowly backing up the romspeed.

"Through there we go across a field and into the back streets of the Panmus subzone. After that, you follow my directions to the letter and we'll slide right by these brothers. I know a fuel and food dump in the interzone between the Panmus and the two women's zones. We get there, we got a chance to find our way back to the corridor. You ready?"

"Say the word," Ari told Bobby S. "I'm the jock for the job."

"Yes, you are," Bobby S. said, smiling at Severn and then at Kara who was looking back at him.

She and Severn exchanged concerned looks. Ari kept backing the romspeed until he was parallel to the broken fence Bobby S. had pointed out. He looked in the rear view mirror in anticipation. Bobby S. winked at him.

"Word!" the Bmerc cried.

Ari slammed the romspeed in gear, made a hard turn and shot through the hole in the fence. The romspeed bounced and rattled across the untended field beyond.

"Holy crap," Kara exclaimed.

Severn grabbed the seat and held on. Bobby S. laughed loudly and slapped his hands together happily. Ari drove through the field like a madman possessed.

13.

IMC Rep Alexander paced nervously in front of Grand IMC Rep Hart's long oak desk. Hart watched his head of Defense and Covert Operations with a scowl on his decadence-bloated face. Hart, whose frowning visage adorned the walls of all official buildings in Bimhills and in interzonal areas across the region, was the nominal leader of the powerful Inner Council of the IMC.

Chosen by his colleagues in the High Session, as much by arm-twisting coercion as by merit or general respect, Hart ruled with as iron a hand as his profligate lifestyle would allow. Rumors of Hart's proclivities -- a penchant for extremely young mates, of either sex; a mammoth appetite for the trappings of power: several new romspeeds each year; a huge opulent home protected by dozens of specially assigned Erads; and a legendary thirst for clear gin -- he was said to consume a quart a day -- these rumors had given Hart a reputation through the zones that bordered on the mythic.

Tie his overzealous use of Bimhills' Erad force against a cowering, submissive populace and you had the latest in a long line of IMC strong men -- demagogues, tin horn dictators, personal and public bullies. And yet, as many in the zones knew, for all of Hart's power and for all the power of the IMC and its Inner Council, they were just a shadow politician front for a more ominous, more hidden, more powerful shadpol force.

In Toku, this force was called the Fujinju -- a predatory, lethal, unseen organization with the true power over, under, and through the zone. In Bimhills, the equivalent organization had no name. But it was there just the same. And it was just as strong. It was the real power behind the world. Momentarily flashing on all this, Grand Rep Hart suddenly became angry, felt an overwhelming urge to exert his authority.

"Stop that idiotic pacing," he yelled at Alexander. "You're driving me crazy. Stand still, you ignoramus." Alexander froze in his tracks. "Out with it. Out with whatever incompetence you've managed to 'achieve' this time."

Alexander coated the bitter taste of swallowing his not inconsiderable pride with a grimly satisfactory image of his bloated superior being buggered, shat upon and shot repeatedly in the head by a pack of huge, faceless Erads.

"Yes, sir, Grand Representative Hart, sir," he heard himself say. Alexander's stomach rolled and burned, and his eyes and head hurt. But his face reflected none of it. It was a passionless mask. The only face for Hart -- if you expected to last long. Hart waved his hands impatiently at Alexander.

"Speak," Hart said. Alexander controlled an urge to bark like a dog.

"I, uh, we are concerned, sir," he said out loud, "about the rebel fliers."

"Concerned?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, why? Talk."

"We've lost direct contact with them, sir."

"This is unexpected? You knew they'd be crossing zones. You know Ebon is in chaos. Why the sudden concern? You've got people at their back, don't you? Hell, you assured me you had someone inside. Isn't that so, Representative Alexander?"

"That is true, sir, but...."

"But my shadpol ass, Alexander. What do you people need to do a job, a battalion of elite Erads for God's sake?"

"No, sir."

"Don't you have a tracking device on your mole, Alexander? You didn't forget that did you?"

"We do have a sensor, sir."

"Then what's the problem?"

"The problem, sir," Alexander explained, his voice icy and laden with irony, "is that Intelligence failed to notify us of a major breech in the Ebon corridor."

"Intelligence failed to notify you? That's rather odd since you're the head of Defense and Covert Operations, wouldn't you say, Representative?"

"Sir, I do not command Intelligence."

Nor respect, Hart thought, almost laughing out loud at Alexander's unintentionally humorous reply had his annoyance with his Defense Chief not been so strong. Hart loved his position of power, but his inferiors like Alexander frequently bored and irritated him. Next to him they were weak, small, puny. They disgusted him.

"That's obvious," Hart sneered at Alexander. Alexander didn't respond. "Well, man," Hart went on angrily, "what do you intend to do about it?"

"Sir, the rebels have vanished into the Panmus subzone of Ebon. We do have the sensor trail, but it is weak and erratic. I know I don't have to tell you how bad that area is."

"No," Hart said bluntly, "you don't."

"And beyond the Panmus, sir, the women warlords."

"Mother Theresa and Queen Mary."

"Exactly, sir."

"Two amazon, killer ex-lovers on the prowl for male breeders."

"Perhaps a bit overstated," Alexander dared say, seeing what looked like excitement in Hart's eyes at the thought of the two women warlords.

Queen Mary, when she was still just a soldier in Mother Theresa's army, had fallen into Hart's hands when he had been a subrep like Alexander was now. There were rumors about Hart and Queen Mary, nee Mary Jones: that they had shared quarters even when he had essentially been her warden. Nothing was ever proven. She had eventually disappeared back into Ebon, reemerging a few years later as the primary rival to her old boss and also former lover, the potent Mother Theresa.

"Perhaps," Hart said, his calm tone surprising Alexander, "but I suspect things could get pretty interesting for our little group of fliers."

"Not too interesting, we shouldn't hope, sir," Alexander said. "Our goal is to track them to the rebel base camp after all, no?"

"Yes," Hart said, focusing again on the rebel "situation." "Trail them to their main camp and destroy it. Cut off their lifeline to the outworld."

"Or to New Columbia."

"Just a rumor, Alexander, you know that."

"It may be, sir, but it's as good as fact to their followers. It's their utopia. Their hope. It's a very dangerous idea."

"Hogwash," Hart snorted.

"Whatever you say, sir. At the very least we need to keep on them through the outworld."

"If that is where they're going. Am I going to have to personally run this mission for you, Alexander?"

"No, sir."

"Has your Erad pack vanished on you, too? You do still have contact with them, don't you?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then what's the problem?"

"I was concerned, sir, I wanted to brief you. That's all."

"And cover your backside."

Alexander didn't react to Hart's needling. He knew if the mission failed he stood a good chance of demotion. One demotion was bad, two worse, three perhaps fatal. The shadpol drop was often very rapid, with terminal consequences. The same Erads he now commanded might one day be the instrument of his death. And very willing instruments at that. The bastards lived for the shadpol drop. Inwardly he cursed himself for having even come to see Hart. It had been a mistake. Now all he could do was buck up and cut his losses.

"Yes, sir," Alexander said, filling his voice with an instantly manufactured false confidence. He was quite good at that. It had gotten him past a lot of difficult spots.

"Good," Hart said, his short fuse snuffed out by Alexander's properly authoritative tone. Strength, whether of act, word, or tone of voice was what Hart understood, respected. "Your concern is duly noted. Now get out of here and do your job. Cut the rebel line, destroy their camp, their movement. That's your job. Simple, no?"

"Simple," Alexander echoed his boss, "yes, sir. Quite simple indeed."

"Leave me," Hart said, ending the meeting with the flick of a fat wrist.

Alexander snapped his heels together, did an about face and headed for the door. Before he was halfway across the room, Hart had pulled a bottle of clear gin from a desk drawer and unscrewed the cap. Alexander heard the sound of metal twisting against glass but he didn't dare turn around. Hart took a massive slug of the odorless, powerful liquor and spit half of it out in a stream aimed in the general direction of Alexander's retreating figure.

14.

Because of Bobby S.'s knowledge of the area and his skill as a guide, along with Ari's remarkable driving ability, the fleeing rebel band managed to navigate their way through the Panmus territory unscathed. They dodged sporadic gunfire, some of it aimed at them, avoided burning wrecks and occasional explosions, maneuvered -- thanks to Ari -- through the shelled out, urban devastation that was the Panmus subzone. When they reached the border of the matriarch-controlled primary zone of Ebon, they silently celebrated.

Much danger lay ahead, but the Panmus subzone was perhaps the darkest, most forgotten, least hopeful place in all the zones. For the small group of fliers, especially Ari, it was a great place to be away from. Pausing briefly on a deserted street just beyond the Panmus subzone, the runners took a collective deep breath -- except for Bobby S. who watched the others with something like a twinkle in his eye -- and gathered their wits about them.

"How we doin' for fuel," Bobby S. asked Ari. "Ey, jockey boy?"

"We need both kinds," Ari said, checking his gauges. "Juice and gas."

"Where in the world do we find fuel or anything else around here?" Kara asked Bobby S.

"That's why you got Bobby S. with you, young princess. I know where we can get it all."

"Excellent!" Ari said, suitably impressed. Bobby S. laughed and slapped Ari on the shoulder.

"You betchum, white driver," the Bmerc said with a big smile. Kara rolled her eyes at Ari, then looked away.

"How far to this place you know," Severn asked Bobby S.

Bobby S. noticed the hint of a funny sound in Severn's voice. A hint of fear. Severn had become nearly silent during their run through the Panmus subzone and when he spoke he sounded quieter, less confident, less like a tough rebel leader. Bobby S. had seen this happen to a lot of men, and some women. The further they got from their own zone, no matter how bad that zone might be, the more timid they became, more cautious. He assumed that that was what was happening to Severn now. He was just a little out of balance being a good ways from the structured world of Bimhills. At least that was how Bobby S. summed up the situation, given how little he really knew about Severn.

Severn, or someone purporting to be him, had gotten Bobby S. on the interzone line and proposed the guide gig for the fliers. Bobby S. had faxed his picture and stats across the zone to Bimhills along with his price. He had been surprised at the lack of haggling over that, especially by rebels -- who always had a tough time coming up with money and materiel. But this Severn hadn't paused for a second. He had hired Bobby S. on the spot. And he didn't fax his picture, or anything else, back to Bobby S.

But the Bmerc was used to that. Most of his work was clandestine. For one side or the other. Or for drug, gun, food runners. Fuel jobs were big, too. That's why he knew where everything was in just about every corner of every zone. It was a dangerous vocation -- it could turn on you at any second -- but Bobby S. liked it. Most of the time he was free of the common restraints on the cits of any zone and he was comfortable most anywhere, unlike this rebel leader Severn, who looked like he was moving towards edginess.

"Cool, brother," Bobby S. told him, "it's only a few blocks from here. Take a right up there by that intersection with the burnt Somecop vehicle on the corner," he instructed Ari. "It's just a little ways from there."

"Good," Severn said slowly, precisely, sensing the Bmerc's awareness of his, Severn's, discomfort.

"Cripes," Kara said, as Ari made the right turn, "this zone is completely burnt out."

"Neglect, little sister," Bobby S. said seriously, "decades of neglect and disuse. This was once a breathing, living place. People lived here, good people. People fighting to stay alive; fighting for their children's lives."

"What happened?" Ari asked, truly interested to know.

"Another time, young jockey," Bobby S. said with a sad smile, "another time. Left at the next corner." Ari made the corner. "That's it up ahead. Over to the right."

"I don't know," Severn said, looking worried.

"Looks deserted to me," Kara added.

"Try it, jockey boy," Bobby S. told Ari.

"We need fuel," Ari said catching Severn's eye in the corner of the rear view mirror.

"Do it quick," Severn instructed him. Ari maneuvered the romspeed off the road and onto the driveway leading up to the fuel stop. It did look deserted.

"I don't see anybody," Ari said, pulling the vehicle up to an electrical system recharger in front of the dark, main building at the stop.

A sign over the building declared this stop to be Best Charge, The Peoples' Choice. Ari wondered in what century this had been the best anything and anyone's choice at all. Last choice maybe. That would have been more apt at least.

"This smells," Kara said.

"Easy, princess," Bobby S. said.

"I don't see anybody," Ari repeated, feeling the tension inside the vehicle rising with each passing moment.

"They don't come out," Bobby S. said calmly, "until they can tell who you are and if you look like you can pay. Keep your weapons where they can see them but don't wave 'em around. We don't want a firefight just over fuel and maybe some grub."

"No," Ari agreed with Bobby S. wholeheartedly, "we don't want that." Bobby S. patted him reassuringly on the shoulder.

"Shut the engine down, my jockey man," Bobby S. told Ari. "It's a sign of good faith."

"Got ya," Ari said. He shut the romspeed motor off.

"Come on, young princess," Bobby S. said to Kara, "let's go find the fuel stop brothers."

"I've got to piss," Severn told Ari when Kara and Bobby S. had gotten out of the romspeed and walked over to the fuel stop office.

"Yeah," Ari said absentmindedly. He was watching two large, armed men appear from a side repair bay and approach Kara and Bobby S.

"Don't think about running," Severn warned Ari. "You wouldn't get two blocks in this zone. And I'll be watching you anyway."

"Uh-huh," Ari grunted.

The big men and Bobby S. appeared to be negotiating a deal. Bobby S. was very animated, arms waving back and forth. The two big men alternately laughed and scowled at the Bmerc. They didn't seem to notice Kara was even there. Ari looked over at his side mirror and watched Severn walking towards a doorless outhouse standing alone and rundown to one side of the fuel stop.

When he looked back up, Kara and Bobby S. were signaling for him to get out and refuel. One of the big brothers came over, unlocked the electric recharger and a standard fuel pump beside it. The big man took several steps backward and stood there watching Ari, keeping his weapon pointed towards the young romjockey. Ari cranked up the electric charger and happened to look over to his left to see Severn come right back out of the toilet and go around the side of the building nearest the road.

Shrugging, Ari hooked the charger to his vehicle and flipped the power switch. In a matter of seconds, the romspeed was recharged to capacity. Ari unhooked the power cables from his vehicle and prepared to refuel the afterburner system. When he looked up from his work, he noticed that both the big brothers were gone and so were Bobby S. and Kara. He could see part of Severn around the side of the outhouse where he stood in front of what looked like an old fashioned phone stall attached to the side of the building.

Ari remembered seeing a picture of one of these back in the booker. And that memory made him think of Kara who, to Ari's relief, reappeared just then with Bobby S. They had their arms full of sacks of provisions, which was also a relief to Ari since with the passage of time and the emptying of the drugs from his system he had begun to develop a considerable appetite. Funny, he thought, I don't remember being very hungry before. Smiling to himself, Ari finished the refueling and hung the fossil fuel handle back on the pump.

"Food, little brother," Bobby S. said with a big grin, as he and Kara reached the romspeed, "plenty food."

"What's so funny?" Kara asked, seeing the last vestiges of Ari's little smile still on his lips.

"Nothing," Ari said, "I'm just getting hungry is all."

"That's funny?" Kara said, shaking her head. This highcit is a peculiar one, she thought.

"Where's the man?" Bobby S. asked, opening a back door and tossing the sacks of food inside. "Where's Severn?" Ari nodded towards the outhouse.

Around the side of the outhouse, Severn was beating the receiver against the side of the stall.

"Damn you," he growled at the ancient equipment, "you stupid crap-infested...."

Suddenly he froze. About six inches from the right side of his head he could peripherally see several metal barrels pointed right at him. Turning ever so slowly, he looked at the holders of those weapons. They were four young women, all wearing gray fatigues with a red and gold crown emblazoned over their left breasts.

"Not a peep," the largest of the four, a muscular girl with two stripes on either sleeve warned Severn.

"Not a peep," Severn agreed.

Slowly, at the prodding of the young women, he turned and walked back around the outhouse towards the others waiting at the fuel stop.

"Hey," Bobby S. yelled when he saw Severn come towards them followed by the female escort.

Bobby S. and Kara quickly cocked their weapons and aimed them at the approaching party. Ari stood stock still, only moving his eyes to look at Severn and the women who halted at the sound of the loading weapons. Two of them held Severn, the other two isolated one on one with Bobby S. and Kara. Bobby S. pointed a finger at the women.

"Step aside, young princesses, we are just passing through. No need for this."

Kara fidgeted back and forth, shifting her weapon from one woman soldier to the other. Severn acted like he was going to speak, but one of the women clapped a hand over his mouth.

"Easy. Go easy," Kara yelled. "Let our man go. We're just moving through. There's no...."

"There's no reason for anyone to get wasted here," a woman's voice boomed from behind Kara. Bobby S. and Ari nearly jumped out of their skins. Kara stood rigid as a pole.

"Mother T," Bobby S. said, voice going all warm and friendly.

The big woman, Mother Theresa herself, stepped up to where Ari and Kara could also see her. She winked at Bobby S. and motioned for several of a dozen or more women accompanying her to disarm Kara and the Bmerc.

"Don't harm that boy in front," Mother Theresa said, pointing at Ari, "he's lookin' kind of cute."

Ari managed a feeble smile. Two pretty soldiers surrounded and frisked him, then stood by with their weapons aimed at his crotch.

"You lowcit bastard," Kara cried at Bobby S. after the soldiers had disarmed her. "You set us up. You led us right into a trap. You filthy...."

"Easy, little sister princess," Bobby S. said, raising his arms in the air, "be cool. These are my people. This is my mistress. Calm down and we'll be alright."

"Bobby S.," Mother Theresa said, shaking her head, "you are so full of it. But adorable still. Young white soldier," the mother then said to Kara, "please come with me and my girls. You, too, Bobby S. And don't forget cutie-pie there."

"We're at your service, my liege," Bobby S. said, bowing. Mother Theresa laughed happily.

"You soldiers over there take this handsome boy and that other man in their vehicle and follow us," she ordered her troops.

"Yes, ma'am," the soldier with two stripes said, saluting Mother Theresa. "Get in," she told Severn, pushing the rebel leader towards Ari's romspeed.

One of the pretty soldiers with Ari signaled for him to get behind the wheel. She slid in on the rider's side, her weapon trained on Ari.

"Ari Blanque," Ari said, foolishly trying to introduce himself.

"Shut up, man," the two-stripe soldier snapped at him from the back seat where she and another soldier had Severn sandwiched between them. "Just drive this piece of crap and follow Mother Theresa."

"Yes, ma'am," Ari said smartly. The girl beside him smiled.

"What a bunch of shit," Severn grumbled.

"Shut up," the two-striper told him, "or I'll bash your stupid pumpkin in."

Severn gave the girl a nasty scowl but he shut up. Ari started the romspeed and followed Mother Theresa's entourage like he was told.

15.

Mother Theresa's Headquarters, or the MHQ as her soldiers called it, was actually a huge warehouse inside a barricaded compound that once had been a junkyard. Mother Theresa and her troops salvaged the place, made it a nearly impregnable fortress against the assaults of other matriarchs like Queen Mary, the ever hostile Panmus, and the occasional Erad or Fulljohn action -- most typically a guerrilla attack by special Erad teams sent to destroy Mother T and her fuel, food, and drug empire. For over fifteen years, no one had been successful in doing so.

Besides the MHQ, the compound consisted of a large aluminum covered Quonset hut housing a highly profitable drug lab; a multilevel food storage building with several months of stockpiled foods and fresh water; an array of camouflaged fuel tanks and two electrical recharger units; and five dormitory-style barracks at the back of the compound where the women soldiers were housed. All of the buildings in the compound, except the barracks, were watched by heavily armed guards, three of whom had been assigned to escort Kara to a private audience with Mother Theresa herself.

"Don't blame this on Bobby S., soldier girl," the stocky matriarch said after she had offered Kara a glass of homemade wine which the young rebel declined. "We found you on our own. That car thing you were riding in has been the talk of the zone. That pretty boy can sure drive. Does he know how to drive anything else?" Kara ignored Mother T's knowing wink and happy laughter. "You do know what I'm talking about, don't you, honey?"

"I know," Kara said, averting her eyes from the matriarch who sat in an elevated, high-backed wooden chair that could pass for a throne of sorts.

"Oh, yes. I forgot. You girls in the other zones got all the men you need. A pretty man here, a pretty man there, it don't mean nothin' to you at all."

The guards around Kara smirked. The closest to her, the two-striper who now wore a fatigue shirt the name tag on which identified her as Trooper Gabriel, gave her an approving once over. Kara could feel the trooper's eyes on her but kept looking straight ahead at the great matriarch.

"Sugar," Mother T said, "you need to cool it a skosh. We're all women here, all soldiers. You're in no danger. You're welcome with us. And you brought us three men, including my wayward Bobby S. We're in your debt. Would you like one of our breeders for the night? We always have a few fresh and ready to go."

"No," Kara said, trying to hide her surprise, even shock, at this first hand confirmation of what she had always believed was just a rumor about Ebon. "No. I don't think so."

"Maybe jockey boy is her private stock," Trooper Gabriel suggested to the snickering delight of the other two guards.

"Is that right, soldier?" Mother T asked, frowning at the guards who immediately became serious again. "The jockey boy is your personal stash?"

"N...no, ma'am," Kara replied, coloring against her will. Mother T raised an eyebrow. "He's just a highcit zoner we got to drive for us."

"Don't be BSin' old Mother T," the matriarch said, wagging a finger at Kara. "We're not ignoramuses here. We know you snatched that boy for a corridor fly to your rebel camp."

"Geez," Kara said, shaking her head, "who doesn't know about us?"

"What do you mean, soldier girl?" Mother T wondered.

"Your precious Bobby S. told us we were being shadowed. Shadowed by Erads."

"Erads!" Mother T exclaimed. "Shadowing rebels into our zone? What the hell is that about?"

"Shall we bring in Bobby S., Mother?" Trooper Gabriel asked.

"Yes," Mother T said, nodding her head. "And the other two with him as well. A little confab. That will be good."

Trooper Gabriel nodded to her two subordinates and they hurried off to get the men.

"You been with the rebels long, young sister?" Mother T asked when the soldiers had gone.

"Long enough," Kara answered curtly.

"Listen, honey," Mother T said, leaning forward confidentially, "you can drop the surly act. You're not a prisoner here. All women are free, and soldiers, among us. We are all sisters, sisters together."

"What about the men?" Kara asked.

"Breeders for pleasure," Mother T said.

"And for children," Trooper Gabriel added.

"I didn't see any children," Kara said. "Where are the children?"

"Never you mind about that," Mother T said. "They're safe. We see to our children."

"Are the men safe, too," Kara asked. "Where do you keep them?"

"They are well taken care of, honey," Mother T said. "They have their own quarters. They live very well here."

"Can they leave if they want?" Kara questioned the matriarch.

"Each person controls their own destiny," Mother T responded. "Each makes their own choice."

"They're lucky to be breeders," Trooper Gabriel said. "They eat good. They're safe. They have all the pleasure they want."

"Except freedom," Kara said.

"Enough, enough," Mother T said, weary of the discussion. "Men are for breeding. Don't fret about it, soldier girl. There are many good things in Mother T's zone. Forget the men. We have good food, good drink, plenty of fuel. We are armed and strong. And we can always use another sister. You could stay with us, join our army. Be one of us. Would you like that?"

Kara thought about that for a few moments. She figured she'd better come up with a good answer or the heavy matriarch might suddenly change from friendly benefactor to deadly enemy. From offering the cooing sounds of a dove of peace to the sharp bite of a lethal black widow.

"I had considered...," Kara began a weak reply.

Fortunately for her, it was interrupted by the loud entry into the MHQ of the returning soldiers and the three men. The group approached Mother T's throne, five sets of shoes slapping loudly on the hard wood floor of the MHQ. The soldiers halted the men a few paces behind Kara and Trooper Gabriel. After a moment, Mother Theresa motioned for the men to come forward. The two guards brusquely pushed them past Kara and Trooper Gabriel.

Severn tripped and nearly fell, but caught himself against one of the guards and in righting himself tried to wrestle her weapon away. But the other guard and Trooper Gabriel quickly surrounded the rebel leader, weapons cocked and aimed at his head. With a snarl, Severn released the first guard and her weapon. The guards pushed him back to the front of the room in front of Mother T. She was laughing and shaking her head.

"A frisky one," Mother T said, "I think I feel love comin' on."

She laughed again and slapped her knees. Severn turned his head away, catching Kara's eye with a withering stare. She shrugged her shoulders. Severn turned back around to face the matriarch.

"You are a specimen, aren't you?" the big woman asked with a lascivious wink. Severn sneered at her. Mother T waved her hand as if to dismiss his tiring belligerence. "Bobby S.," she addressed the Bmerc, "this young soldier girl here tells me there's an Erad pack out there somewhere looking for these people."

"I heard so, my sweet Mama T," Bobby S. said, his ingratiating charm practically filling the vast room. Mother T wagged a finger at him.

"Don't you be tryin' to get on my good side, you no count bad boy. I can't never keep you here long as I intend to, you rascal. Come here, you devil, give mama some sugar."

Bobby S. dutifully did as he was told. The soldiers, used to the Bmerc's privileged position with the matriarch, made no special moves to protect their leader. Mother T squeezed Bobby S. Tight, pinching his butt and then, when she released him, leaving one hand to linger on his crotch. The Bmerc leaned over and kissed Mother T's cheek. She swatted his rear and pushed him away.

"Now tell me, boy, about these Erads. Mama don't like bullshit and she likes Erads a whole lot less. What you know, baby?"

"Only what I hear in the air."

"Uh, huh. And what would that be?"

"My rebel clients here have drawn the attention of a special Erad pack. It ain't clear why, but they're back there. Somewhere."

Kara and Severn exchanged looks again and for Kara it seemed that at that moment she understood perfectly well why Erads would have been sent after them. She wished she could somehow tell Severn, if he hadn't already guessed himself.

"Erads always come up in your face," Mother T said. "It ain't like them to hold back."

"No," Bobby S. agreed.

"Gabriel," Mother T addressed her main guard, "get some people on this by morning. I want to know where the Erads are and what they want. Understood?"

"Yes, ma'am," the trooper said, clicking the heels of her military boots.

"And what about you, handsome boy," Mother T said to Ari, shifting her attention completely off the Erad problem. "I know you ain't one of these vicious rebels, but who are you?" Ari managed a small smile for the matriarch. "Are you a white mercenary that got unlucky?"

"No," he said meekly.

"Ma'am," Trooper Gabriel corrected Ari.

"No, ma'am," he hurried to add.

"No?" Mother T asked. "Then what do you do, baby? Are you a weapons man? Naw, you're too pretty for that. You sure you ain't just a pleasure breeder." All the women, save Kara, laughed.

"He's a drivin' fool, Mother T," Bobby S. said. "Tremendous. Maybe the best I ever seen."

"Oh, my," Mother T said, waving a hand in pretended awe, "mercy me. A drivin' fool. Is that what you are?"

"I drive pretty well, ma'am," Ari answered, checking his answer with Trooper Gabriel. She nodded.

"Mama, I tell ya," Bobby S. began to tell the story of the recent corridor confrontation, "this young fellow took these outguards. . . ."

"Enough, enough," Mother T cut Bobby S. off, "I'm convinced. I believe. So these rebel folk snatched good lookin' to be their driver. Very impressive. And now it's all done. You at Mama's place now. This rebel man and my Bobby S. The rebel girl and her boy jockey. Boy, you're a double captive now." Mother T and her guards got another good chuckle over that. "Now enough of this. We got people on the Erad situation, it's time to have some fun. Gabriel, I want this, uh, Severn fellow and my Bobby S. cleaned up and brought to my quarters. I'm feeling a powerful lovin' comin' on."

"Yes, Mother T," Gabriel said.

"And you soldier girls can choose straws for the jockey boy -- that is, if our new sister hasn't laid claim to him already."

"No," Kara blurted out, then more calmly: "No, no, he's not mine."

Ari gave her a look mingling fear and disappointment but Kara bowed her head and didn't see it. Trooper Gabriel and the other soldiers rounded up the men to hustle them off to the breeder's quarters. Mother T stood up, clapped twice for two attendants who rushed to lead the matriarch away from her throne.

Kara stood there quietly while the room emptied. After a moment or two of indecision, she left the MHQ and headed off to her barracks. She didn't yet know what to make of the new situation, but she knew that they -- at least Severn and Bobby S., she didn't want to think about the cute highcit right now -- had to get away from this upside down, female military world. And with the men kept under lock and key, if they were to escape it was probably pretty much going to be up to her to pull it off.

Nothing presented itself immediately, as far as breaking out went, but she knew she would think of something. With luck and a certain knack of her own, she'd escaped vats, traps, and even Erads. And here the women didn't even guard her, treated her like one of their own.

That would be her edge, she thought confidently as she reached her building and went in, my ace in the hole, our way out of this male breeder prison. This kind of place might be okay for Queen Mary and Mother T and Trooper Gabriel -- and their breeder men like the slippery Bobby S. -- but it was just a barrier to her and Severn. An obstacle in the path of the rebellion.

She went into her room and sat down on the bed with a sigh. All that Severn had told her so far was that they had information, information that was vital to the success of the rebel cause. Information that had to be delivered to the highest ranking rebel leaders, whoever they might be and wherever they might be in hiding.

Kara stood and walked to a large window at the back of her room. Through the dusty panes she could see the quonset hut used to produce the drugs that brought in so many chits for Mother T's empire. Trooper Gabriel and another soldier appeared at the back of the drug lab next to one side wall of the compound. Then another soldier came out and positioned herself by the door. The women talked for a moment, then Gabriel and the soldier who came out with her walked off in the direction of the MHQ.

So that's where the breeder quarters are, Kara surmised. In back of the drug lab. Perfect. During the day, have the men work at making every kind of mind altering and mood changing chemical in the known zones, breed them at night. And where were the children? Were there none? Did Mother T sell them off? Bothersome questions. But secondary to the task at hand. Escape was Kara's focus. She would put her mind to it. She would get it done.

She turned away from the window. On a small desk across the room were writing paper and some pens. Crossing the room purposefully, Kara grabbed a folding chair, slid it up to the desk and sat down. First things first, she told herself, taking a piece of paper and finding a pen that worked. Step one, as she had learned from her rebel mentors, know your immediate surroundings -- ways in, ways out. With a renewed sense of mission she started phase one of her escape plan -- drawing a detailed map of Mother Theresa's compound.

16.

"What you think they're going to do with us?" the lanky, redheaded FullJohn, Darden, asked Platt Meeler during a rare moment when the Erads left the two dragalongs alone.

"X us out, I figure," Platt said gruffly. "What do you think?"

"Easy, man," Darden tried to placate the big Somecop, "I'm not the opcit here."

"Yeah?"

"It's these leathers, not me."

"Yeah," Platt eased up some, "they've put me in a major outzone, too. You got the right ground."

"No sweat," Darden smiled, glad the thick-fisted Somecop was just feeling testy like he was. Being with Erads was bound to shake anybody's insides loose. Even other kinds of police and security, collectively called "silver," like themselves. He told Platt as much.

"On the level," Platt agreed. "But what's there for it? We so much as move and these berserkers will clean us."

"Without doubt," Darden said, "and I still don't know why they drug us along."

"Me neither," Platt said.

"Cogit on it. What do we share between us?" Darden asked.

"I never seen you before they drug us off together," Platt said, scratching his stubbly chin.

"Same here."

"You run in Redsinthe? The plezone?" Platt asked.

"No, I got a steady bedmate" Darden explained. "I hang under her roof."

"You a weapons jock"

"Only for work."

"Hmmh."

"What about you?" Darden shifted the questions onto Platt. "Besides lasermags, chalkweed, and fastmates, what do you do? We've never worked together?"

"No."

"There's got to be common turf."

"Uh....," Platt strained his not terribly sharp mind to think. Darden stood up and checked on the Erads. Luckily, they were still out of sight.

"Check it," he suddenly said, snapping his fingers, "how about the law? You been before the bench lately? Been jacked for crisscross or nic?"

"No....," Platt began, then remembered. "Yeah, I have. Had to face the bench. Just back some."

"What for?" Darden asked. "What did you do?"

"Nothin'," Platt answered, getting a hangdog look. "I didn't do nothin'."

"Well," Darden said, knowing full well the arbitrariness of Bimhills law. "That happens."

"Yeah," Platt said, "you know how it runs."

"Mal," Darden said.

"Mal," Platt echoed. "And we had this judge, a fat little perv, man, he was claspin' on the citfriend right before us. Really lockin' on her front, catch me?"

"The citfriend was your chaser?" Darden wondered.

"No, no, an old bag before us."

"Oh."

"Damned old perv robe."

"Yeah, I hear that," Darden said, "but why were you there? You were up before, no, not for some cit you jammed up, right?"

"Oh, yeah, yeah," Platt redirected his straying mind. Darden looked around again nervously. You never knew when the Erads would come back. Even with their protective leathers, they could sometimes sneak right up on you. Platt went on. "We were up for outzone jockeying."

"Outzone jockeying, you?" Darden quizzed. "Oh, you said we. Who was we?"

"Yeah, it was we. Me and a goodcit of mine. We hung out lots."

"What's the cit's name? Maybe I heard of him."

"Ari," Platt said.

"Ari?" Darden questioned. "Ari Blanque?"

"Straight up," Platt said, surprised. "That's my man, Ari."

"We were bookermates," Darden explained to the uncomprehending Somecop. "Way back."

"But I still don't figure the hook between us," Platt said. "I mean the Erads and all."

"The rebel attack in the simpark," Darden said out loud to himself, snapping his fingers, "of course. They got us for ID."

"ID?" Platt wondered. "Of who?"

"Your goodcit," Darden told him. "Don't you get it? We're being drug along for positive ID of Ari."

"Where is he? Where are we going?"

"When did you last see him?"

Platt pondered for a moment.

"Some back."

"I don't know much and the Erads don't want us to know anything at all, but I heard your citfriend was copped by rebel fliers."

"What?"

"Copped by rebel fliers. On a run down the corridor." The idea finally began to sink in for Platt.

"He's highcit. They want us to point him out so they don't dust him?"

"Seems probable. Except they gotta have ID on him, they...."

"What?" Platt asked, Darden's pause making the big SC uncomfortable. It looked like something else had occurred to the FJ. "What?"

"Maybe we're just bait or something," Darden speculated. "We don't know what they're doing or why they want us. The whole thing is starting to stink. Whatever they brought us for -- ID, bait, or whatever -- as soon as it's done, we're done. Zapped. Xed out. We gotta bust out, cit."

"No shit," Platt said, the fear in Darden's eyes affecting him as well. "How?"

"I don't know," Darden shook his head. "But we're just like vatters here with these Erad mothers. They hate us. They'll off us as soon as we've served their purpose. Whatever that is. Or even before knowin' these bastards."

"I want to spring Ari from the radcits," Platt declared.

"Bad idea," Darden told him. "We better come up with a way to spring ourselves first."

"We get out, we're goin' for Ari straightaway," Platt said firmly, stepping towards Darden. The FJ had to look up at the big SC.

"Take it easy, cit," he said calmly, holding up a hand. "We're same cits here. I'm square with you." Platt backed off.

"You got any ideas for gettin' loose?" he asked. Darden put an index finger to his own lips. Platt listened, heard the slapping sounds of Erad leather approaching. "What do we do?" he whispered.

"Next free space we get," Darden whispered, "we come up with an exit scheme. Dig?"

"Dig," Platt concurred, stepping back from Darden.

Darden quickly moved away from Platt. Suddenly, a frowning Sgt. Cage stalked up to the young men.

"What's up here?" he snarled at the two dragalongs. Neither Darden nor Platt looked at the Erad. "Well get your foul asses in gear," Cage bellowed, "we're movin' out."

"Y..yes, sir," Darden said, grabbing his things and hurrying past Cage.

"You," Cage snapped at Platt, "double time it!"

Platt took his time, picked up his pack and then walked slowly towards Cage. The tough Erad stared at him, arms tensed as if ready to attack. Platt raised his head and the two men locked glares. Cage jabbed a thumb in the air.

"Move it," he commanded.

"I'm goin'," Platt said, still staring Cage down. "I'm goin'."

17.

"Don't they teach you anything in those bookers of yours, cit?" Bobby S. asked Ari rhetorically.

The Bmerc and the doubly captive romjockey sat opposite each other at a stained wooden table in the center of a quonset hut where the female soldiers had brought them after the audience with Mother Theresa. While Bobby S. was giving Ari a quick history of Ebon, Severn hung by a small window acting disinterested. Ari made no such pretense, the Bmerc and his stories fascinated the young highcit.

"I didn't pay much mind," he told Bobby S., "you know what I mean?"

"Well, young jockey cit, the reason we're where we are right now is that back when the zones hadn't completely separated out, the Grand IMC Shadasses decided the vats was way too full of skin cits like myself. There was too many of us and it cost too many chits to keep us all up. They held us like dogs and fed us like rats but it was still too much. They didn't want to pay the measly chits it cost to keep us breathing."

"Were you there? Were you in the vat then?" Ari asked. Severn turned towards them from the window and answered for Bobby S.

"Hardly. He isn't old enough to have been in the vats then." Ari looked disappointedly at Bobby S.

"Part true," the Bmerc corrected Severn. "Too young for an IMC Max Security vat, but already in a sturch vat."

"A sturch vat?" Ari asked. "There were sturch vats?"

"For skin cits," Bobby S. told him. "For the Ebon zone and for Meshica."

"Bull," Severn said to the window he again looked out of, "just mindsparkle memory."

"No, sir," Bobby S. insisted calmly, "dead true."

"So then the men were zapped," Ari said.

"Yes," Bobby S. went on, "nearly all in the vats were Xed out. Then the women got strong. Women like Queen Mary and Mother T. But before them, years before. Other powerful women."

"What were their names?" Ari wondered.

"Don't remember so good," Bobby S. said. "Seems like it was like now, Queen this, Mother that. Same stuff. They got the power and took to keepin' breeders. Except for the Panmus. They get one of them every now and then but overall the Panmus keep to their own small zone."

"You been with both Mother T and this Queen Mary?" Ari asked. "What's that like?"

"You're a prisoner," Severn said from his lookout post, "like right now. You like that, highcit? You like the bull this Bmerc is feeding you?" Bobby S. started to stand up. "Come on," Severn said turning towards the table again. "You and all your crap." Bobby S. considered a response momentarily, then eased back in his chair.

"You just scared Mother T gonna plezone your butt to death, rebel man," he told Severn, laughing.

Ari didn't laugh much, the thought of Mother T's bulk on his own body scaring him too much to find the idea amusing.

"Crap," Severn said, turning back to the window. He saw Trooper Gabriel and two of her soldiers walking briskly their way. He glanced over at Bobby S. and Ari, but decided not to say anything.

"One thing I know, young cit," Bobby S. continued for Ari's edification, "when Queen Mary hears about us there'll be big trouble around here." Severn sniffed loudly. Bobby S. ignored him.

"Man, I wish I could get to my romspeed," Ari said, "we could grab Kara and get out of here before they do anything to us."

"I'm looking at it right now," Severn said without turning to face Ari. "You should make a run for it."

"Don't listen to him, little brother," Bobby S. told Ari. "It's self death. On the spot. You don't want to do that for nobody. Especially not for a mate you're warm for."

"I..I'm not warm for her," Ari began a stuttering denial. "I never said that. She's just...."

"She's just what?" Trooper Gabriel said catching Ari and Bobby S. completely off guard as she and her two soldiers burst into the room.

"N..n..nothing," Ari truly stuttered this time.

Good looking or not, Trooper Gabriel was armed, dangerous and clearly used to being in charge. She walked directly up to Ari, her soldiers staying back in defensive positions by the door. Bobby S. looked over at Severn, his cold gaze communicating annoyance at the rebel leader for letting him and the jockey boy get taken by surprise. Severn gave a little shrug of his shoulders. Bobby S. made a mental note to never trust Severn again, for anything.

"Stand up," Gabriel told Ari and Bobby S. "You," she motioned to the Bmerc, "move over by that one there by the window."

"Severn," the rebel identified himself to Trooper Gabriel. She waved him off and moved up very close to Ari.

"You look tasty," she said, her chest nearly touching Ari's.

Ari breathed deeply. The clarity with which he was beginning to see the world now that he had been completely drug free for the first time since he was a kid, made him timid and self-conscious. Both were new feelings for him, at least when it came to women. Trooper Gabriel's strength and close physical proximity caused him to feel shy and uncomfortable. She pursued the advantage.

"Are you taken by the soldier Kara?" she asked brusquely, touching the collar of Ari's shirt. He looked down to avoid her probing eye contact.

"No," he said to his shoes. Gabriel put her hand under his chin and lifted his head up.

"Don't you like what you see?" she asked with a smile. "Aren't you Bimhills highcits used to all the pleasure you can take? Jammin', chalkwater, gettin' stiff with your day's hash. That's how it is in the highcit zone, ey, pretty boy?"

Ari looked to Bobby S. and Severn for guidance. Severn shook his head in disgust. Bobby S. nodded, an almost imperceptible signal to remain calm, to play it smooth.

"Yes," Ari told Gabriel.

"Yes?" she laughed. "Yes, you are used to pleasure or, yes, you like what you see?"

"Both," Ari said softly. "Both."

"That's more like it," Gabriel said, tugging Ari to her. There was an awkward moment during which she reached down between Ari's legs. He gasped. "Take those other two," Gabriel told her soldiers without looking away from Ari. "Take them to Mother T, she got a powerful love comin' on and she'll need both of 'em tonight."

The soldiers and Bobby S. snickered; Severn sneered his disapproval but no one paid him any mind.

"C'mon, rebel bad boy," Bobby S. made fun of Severn to the amusement of the women soldiers, "your momma's calling."

"Shove it," Severn said, redfaced.

"Better save that," Bobby S. laughed, "you gonna need all your strength for Mother T. She don't like weenie breeders. You be ready or she'll chew you up and spit you out."

"Quiet," Gabriel commanded forcefully, momentarily facing the soldiers and the two grousing males. "Get them out," she added, jerking a thumb towards the door, "now."

"Yes, sister soldier," the guards said, herding Severn and Bobby S. towards the front door with the barrels of their weapons. The men went without resistance.

"Over there," Gabriel ordered Ari, when they were alone in the room, "on the sofa."

"On the sofa?" Ari asked.

"On the sofa."

Ari did as he was told. Trooper Gabriel walked to the front door and locked it. She laid her weapons on the table where Ari and Bobby S. had been sitting. Then she approached Ari, unbuttoning her uniform blouse as she walked. He watched her coming towards him with a mixture of fear and excitement. When she reached the sofa and was standing over him, Gabriel removed her blouse. Ari instinctively reached for her smooth, round breasts. They were dark brown, melon-shaped and firm. He rubbed the hard nipples, stroked the full sides. Gabriel groaned. Ari ventured to kiss her stomach just below the breasts.

"Lay down," she commanded, voice throaty and sensual. "Take your pants off." Ari did as ordered, Gabriel hurrying him along. She pulled at his belt, unfastened his pants and reached within. "You're mine, boy," she said, stroking Ari.

"Yes," he whispered, shocked that while he was making love to this Ebon beauty the image of Kara kept flashing through his mind.

It was all too confusing to him. The withdrawal from his drug high zone, the kidnapping, Kara, this Ebon world. Then Trooper Gabriel mounted him from above, riding up and down, and Ari did what all good Bimhills highcits did best: he gave himself completely over to the pleasure of instant physical gratification. The future with all its entanglements and complications would just have to wait. All that existed, all that mattered, was the instant of pleasure, the sensual moment, the now.

18.

As a provisionally accepted sister soldier, Kara had access to most areas of Mother T's compound. She stayed in the regular soldiers' barracks, attended general meetings, and was allowed to roam around pretty much at her own discretion. As days, then a week, and more days passed, Kara took advantage of her freedom to familiarize herself with the compound.

She discovered where they hid Ari's romspeed, learned how to operate the fuel supply equipment, found where the food stuffs were stored. She generally acquainted herself with anything that might help in an escape attempt, including all entryways and exits to the fortified compound, one of which she learned of by accident, seeing Trooper Gabriel use it to make a clandestine, late night drug run. Kara was all set to go should the opportunity arise. As for the men, she wasn't so sure.

Bobby S. was impossible to read; Kara couldn't tell any difference in his behavior whether he was running free in the zones or held prisoner for the sexual gratification of Mother T. Ari and Severn, on the other hand, had settled too comfortably into their new breeder lifestyle. Their early qualms had apparently faded under the steady mating they performed; Ari with Trooper Gabriel, Severn with the great matriarch herself.

The men were eating well, gaining weight, and -- in Kara's opinion -- acting docile and foolish. They laughed all the time and spent their days in the breeders' quarters lounging about and playing cards. Using her status among the other women, Kara visited the men in their barracks, trying to jolt them out of their new found lethargy born of excess pleasure.

"Do you remember at all what this run is about?" she demanded of Severn early one sooty morning during their second week of captivity. Bobby S. hustled out of the area to avoid the inevitable sermon he knew was coming from the rebel girl.

"Take it easy, Kara," Ari answered for Severn, tossing a card down on the table.

"Shut your hole, you jammin' butthead," Kara exploded. "I wasn't talking to you."

Ari shut up, but chafed inside. He didn't like Kara's attitude at all here at Mother T's. She acted like she was in charge of everything. But she wasn't. He didn't think it was so bad living in the compound. It could get boring, but the food was good and Trooper Gabriel made sure she extinguished his personal fires on a daily basis. It was sure better than running down the corridor on a rebel fly. You bet it was.

"What's the deal, Kara?" Severn asked over Ari's sulking.

"I believe," Kara said, her sarcasm as thick as the foul air over Ebon, "we had a mission before you two ignoramuses became jammin' slaves here. We are captives, you know. Or don't you remember?"

"You kidnapped me," Ari reminded Kara, "in case you don't remember. I don't see why I...."

"I told you to shut the hell up, jockey boy," Kara yelled at Ari, her face reddening with anger. "If you couldn't drive that romspeed so well I'd leave you here anyway. You deserve to be a slave; you're such an igno sturch. Maybe we should just leave you. I can drive that thing. We don't need you."

"Cool it," Severn said, for once playing the peacemaker.

He stepped between Kara and Ari and tried to put his arm on Kara's shoulder but she jerked free and shoved him away. Severn held his hands up to indicate he wouldn't touch her again. Kara turned away.

"You gotta take it easy, Kara," Severn spoke to Kara's tense back. "I haven't forgotten what the run is for. I haven't forgotten the mission."

Kara let out a deep breath, her shoulders relaxed some. She turned around to face Severn.

"You could have fooled me," she said, "all I see is a couple of men acting like fools over steady mating. Is that all you want? Him," she pointed at Ari, "that thing over there I can understand. But we have a mission, Severn, people are depending on us. We can't get off the track."

"I know, I know," Severn tried to mollify her. "You're right. I'll hone in again. Maybe I've become lazy. Stopped thinking about our true mission."

"What is your 'true' mission," Ari chimed in, giving Kara a wicked little grin.

She doubled up her fists and moved towards him. Severn physically intervened.

"Easy, easy," he said, "forget him, forget...."

Severn's words were cut off in mid-sentence by a loud sound from outside. Then another.

"What the hell?" Kara said, her question lingering unanswered in the sudden quiet inside the room. The two rebels and their captive held still then, not moving, waiting to identify the sounds they heard.

"Grenades," Severn cried after another explosive sound boomed across the compound. "Somebody's blowin' off grenades."

With their rebel training and experience, Kara and Severn instinctively ducked low and ran towards the door. Before they could reach it, however, a wild-eyed Bobby S. came crashing in.

"What's going on?" Kara yelled at him.

Bobby S. brushed past her to his living area on one side of the barracks. He grabbed his pack of belongings, stuffed some things in the bag and turned to go. Kara and Severn stood in his way.

"What?" Bobby S. asked.

"You tell us," Severn said. "What's up?"

"Queen Mary," Bobby S. answered. "Queen Mary heard about us new breeders and she's coming to get us. I don't know about you rebels, but one matriarch is all old Bobby S. can take in such a short time. I'm sailin' out." Severn grabbed him by the shirt and held him.

"We had an arrangement. You're not going anywhere without us."

Bobby S. knocked Severn's grip loose with two well placed forearm shivvers. Severn stood back, he and Kara poised to jump Bobby S.

"Easy, cits," Bobby S. said, producing a small caliber lasermag pistol from his bag. He pointed it back and forth from Severn to Kara. They froze, as rooted to the floor as the terrified Ari was to his chair. "We all get out of here alive, I'll still be your man, but Bobby S. looks out for number one, all the time. You people come or stay, don't make no difference to me."

Bobby S. made for the door but before he reached it, it slammed open again and a sister soldier ran into the room. Caught in mid-stride, Bobby S. found himself staring down the barrel of the soldier's DC-40.

"Drop it," she ordered the Bmerc. "Now!" Bobby S. reluctantly let his pistol drop to the floor. "You two," the soldier motioned to Ari and Severn, "get over with him by the wall."

Ari and Severn hustled over by Bobby S., the three of them huddled together side by side, their agitation barely under control.

"Don't move a muscle," the soldier warned them. Then to Kara: "Pick up that lasermag, sister. Do it." Kara hurried towards the weapon. "Easy," the soldier told her. Kara slowly picked up the weapon. "Hand it to me." Kara reached it out butt first to the soldier.

"Take her, Kara," Severn cried out. "Get us out of here."

"Take her down, princess," Bobby S. exhorted Kara.

Ari didn't move. Severn leaned forward as if he would attack. Kara gave the weapon to the soldier.

"A real sister," the soldier said.

"Damn it," Severn cursed.

"Move out," the soldier told her prisoners, "hurry."

She moved around behind the men, but as she did small arms fire erupted again and several explosions rocked the building. In the confusion of sound and flying dust, Ari bolted forward. He threw himself at the soldier wildly, tripping as he ran, falling against her legs. Surprised, the soldier dropped the lasermag pistol. In a heartbeat, Bobby S. retrieved it and put a round squarely into the soldier's forehead. She rocked backwards, fell sideways, landed on top of Ari. Severn grabbed the dead soldier's DC-40 and headed for the door, Bobby S. by his side. Kara held back, working to pull Ari from under the soldier's body.

"Hurry up," Severn called from the door, "get his butt in gear or leave him."

"Follow me...," Bobby S. began just as another of Mother T's soldiers barged through the door.

This one had no chance. She took a lasermag round in the chest from Bobby S. and Severn nearly cut her in half with two blasts from the DC-40. The soldier fell at the door, part in, part out of the building. Her own DC-40 clattered across the floor and Kara, having freed Ari, quickly retrieved it.

"Okay," she said, dragging Ari along by the arm, "bust it."

Outside all hell was breaking loose. Queen Mary's forces had breached part of the compound wall. There were isolated fire fights breaking out all around the compound and explosions shook buildings and shattered windows. The captive band, with Kara now at its head, raced through the combat, ducking and diving to avoid being hit.

"Over there," Kara yelled above the din, "the romspeed is locked up in that building by the fuel dump."

"How do we bail if we can't even get to it?" Severn hollered back,

"Trust me," Kara told him, "trust me."

"I do," Bobby said.

"Me, too," Ari seconded.

"C'mon," Kara motioned to Ari, then told the other men, "cover us."

"You got it, young princess," Bobby S. said.

"Go," Severn said.

He and the Bmerc laid down covering fire in all directions and followed Kara and Ari towards the fuel dump. Barely slowing up, Kara blew the lock off the building housing the romspeed and she and Ari disappeared inside. Bobby S. and Severn hid as best they could on either side of the partially opened doors of the building. Moments later Bobby S. and Severn cheered when the doors of the building burst open and Kara and Ari emerged in the romspeed.

"Get in," Kara shouted through the open rider's window. Bobby S. and Severn leaped into the vehicle, slamming the doors shut behind them.

"Now what?" Severn yelled from the back seat.

"Relax," Kara told him. "Ari, see that place on the wall across the compound? It looks like a line down the wall?"

"Y..yeah."

"Aim right for it."

"Aim right for it?"

"Just go. Go."

Against his will and better judgement, Ari put the juice to the romspeed and the vehicle shot straight out across the compound towards the place Kara had indicated.

"I hope you know what you're doing, little sister," Bobby S. cried.

As the vehicle sped nearer and nearer to the compound wall, Bobby S. and Severn pinned to the back seat with dread, Kara leaned out her window and leveled the DC-40 at it.

"What the ...," Severn said.

"We gonna ram that mother?" Bobby S. asked the wind rushing by his face.

"Stop this frappin' thing," Severn screamed at Ari, who was driving like the wall ahead of them was an outguard duo he could make chicken out. "We're going to crash into the wall. What's the matter with you?"

Kara's DC-40 answered Severn's and Bobby S.' questions. She fired two rapid bursts, both of them hitting a barely visible knob beside the line in the wall she had pointed out. With a metallic grind, the wall began to move, open outward.

"Holy shit," Bobby S. exclaimed.

"We're still going to hit it," Severn shouted, as the romspeed roared towards the opening.

Ari eased off the juice slightly and steered towards the widening gap in the wall. Only a driver of his skill could have had any chance of making it through the narrow space available and under the circumstance. And Ari didn't quite make it either. With a painful screech, the rider's side of the romspeed scraped against the metal wall, putting dents all along the side of the vehicle and tearing off the back fender.

But the vehicle made it out of the compound, bouncing out into the street and swerving wildly from side to side. Ari sped up and fought to regain control. Just as he nearly did, a grenade went off across the road to his left, causing him to swerve back to the right. Jerked from its moorings, the back left door popped open and an off balance Bobby S. was thrown out onto the concrete.

"Stop," Kara yelled at Ari. "Stop, Bobby S. fell out."

"Go, go," Severn countered her. "Screw him."

Ari could do neither. He was battling to control the romspeed as it rocked back and forth and spun from side to side.

"Oh, hell," Ari said breathlessly, slowing the romspeed. "Oh, shit."

"I see Gabriel," Kara cried out, as Ari managed to right the vehicle. "And there's Bobby S., he's running away from the compound...oh, my God."

Ari braked the romspeed and checked the scene in his rear view mirror. Trooper Gabriel and a handful of her soldiers were in the street by the compound gate where the rebels had broken out. Ari saw the fleeting image of Bobby S. hustling towards a shelled out factory building across from Mother T's compound. Then he saw the explosion. It was big enough to have been a mortar from somewhere or perhaps Trooper Gabriel and her people had fired several grenades at once. Either way it appeared to hit right where Bobby S. had been running. The fliers heard the explosion as if it were right beside them and then a huge cloud of smoke and dust rose into the air where the Bmerc had been. Ari turned with Kara and Severn to better see, but there was no sign of movement after the air cleared. And there was no sign of Bobby S.

"Jam it," Ari said, "he got it."

"Forget it," Severn said coldly, grabbing Ari and pushing him around to face the road. "He's gone. Drive, sturchboy, drive."

"Damn you, Severn," Kara said, taking a last look at Trooper Gabriel and her soldiers pinned down now in a firefight with a platoon of Queen Mary's people.

"Damn you," Severn countered, "you hated his guts. You wanted to kill him yourself."

"He was our way out of here," Kara screamed back, "what the hell do we do now?"

"Shut up," Severn told her. "We run for it. We got no choice." Then seeing a contingent of Queen Mary's troops moving to block the road ahead, he yelled at Ari: "Push it, highcit jock. Hammer it or we're dead."

"I'm hammerin'. I'm hammerin'." Ari yelled back.

"Frappin' sack of crap," Kara cursed under her breath, not sure she meant Severn, or Bobby S., or Ari, or the whole jammin' world. "What a frappin' sack."

####

Lt. Rankin and the Erad pack had been watching Mother T's compound for two days when one of the scouts picked up night time movements in the near vicinity. Using a special infrared scope, the scout reported build-ups to the front and sides of the matriarchal compound.

On the morning of the raid, Rankin's battle sense told him combat was imminent and he split the men into two groups, one on either side of the compound, a block or so back from the area, to provide cover should the rebel fliers somehow find a way to escape. A part of him hoped they wouldn't, IMC mole be damned, because Erads playing a supportive role didn't set well with him or his men. And the combat he expected could be advantageous -- he could use it to waste the two igno dragalongs the ever-interfering IMC had stuck him with.

On the morning of the attack, when the Erads knew what the people in the compound didn't seem to -- that they were in immediate peril -- Lt. Rankin took his brother Tom, Sgt. Cage, and a few of the other men and took up positions in back of an area south and west of a secret exit they'd seen Mother T's people use. He sent Bead, the rest of the men, and the two dragalongs to the opposite end of the compound and told them to stay out of sight, provide necessary cover, and if the opportunity arose, Bead was to personally eliminate the two non-Erads. Bead laughed and saluted Rankin smartly. The boy was bound to be a great Erad. He took pride in his work. He enjoyed it.

When the shooting started, Lt. Rankin moved his people into firing positions but they kept out of sight. Erads were well known for their prowess in fighting but when the circumstances called for it, they could be prudent as well. Lt. Rankin indicated to his men that they were to stay put for the time being, wait to see if the rebels found their way out.

A quarter of an hour into the assault on the compound, a scout left behind in a decaying two story building saw the rebels tear across the compound in Ari's romspeed. He signaled to the main group and then hurried to join them as the pack moved up to new hiding places across the street from Queen Mary's attacking troops.

Lt. Rankin maintained the cease-fire until he saw the rebels' Bmerc guide fall out of the careening romspeed and disappear in a blinding explosion. The lieutenant watched a small group of Mother T's troops, who had apparently been chasing the fleeing rebels, fight their way slowly back into the compound under withering fire from the main group of Queen Mary's attackers. He still held the cease-fire until the romspeed was almost to the Erad position.

Lt. Rankin's confirmation that the rebels they sought were in the fleeing romspeed came from a source only he knew about. Unknown even to his brother Tom and Sgt. Cage, the lieutenant carried a small tracking mechanism with a red flasher activated by a similar one carried by the rebel mole. As the rebels approached the Erad position, Lt. Rankin saw the tracker begin to rapidly blink red and he knew absolutely that the IMC agent was in the highcit jockey's souped up romspeed.

Patiently, Lt. Rankin held the group's fire until a platoon-sized force of attacking troops emerged from behind the remains of what appeared to have once been a church or small school. When they began to zero in on the vehicle, Rankin gave his signal to fire. And fire the Erads did -- DC-40's, slug-loaded L-12's, grenades, intermittent disposable hand-held rockets.

Caught off guard, several of Queen Mary's soldiers fell in the first Erad barrage and when the initial firing continued unabated, more fell and those left dashed for cover. In a hell storm of weapons fire, the Erads accomplished their mission: the rebel romspeed shot through the confusion of whistling metal and rolling smoke to disappear around a distant corner and out of danger from the dueling matriarchies.

Lt. Rankin called for a cease-fire. The Erads slowly pulled back from their offensive posts and regrouped several blocks away from the battle scene. Excited and happy, they laughed and slapped each other on the back. Until the lieutenant did a head count. Two men missing. The two dragalongs. They had used the battle to get away as well. Sgt. Cage was particularly livid over their escape.

"Those frappin' chickens," he growled to the company, "I'll track the jammers down myself and X 'em out."

Lt. Rankin patted the big killer on the shoulder.

"Don't sweat the small stuff," he said with a chuckle, "those igno jammers won't last the night. Remember where we are. Ebon. If the fat old women don't get 'em and turn 'em into weenie breeder mate slaves, then the Panmus will get 'em. And you know what they'll do. They'll skin their frappin' butts and leave 'em for the wild dogs to eat."

"Oh, yeah," Cage said, slowly getting Lt. Rankin's drift, "yeah, skin 'em alive."

"Skin 'em," the other Erads chanted. "Skin 'em alive."

CONTINUED NEXT MONTH


© 2009 J. B. Hogan

Bio: J. B. Hogan's e-book Near Love Stories is currently available online at Cervena Barva Press. 55 of Mr. Hogan's stories and over 40 of his poems have been published in various journals including Gloom Cupboard, Word Catalyst, Aphelion, Istanbul Literary Review, Cynic Online Magazine, Admit 2, Every Day Poets, Ranfurly Review, and Dead Mule. (His recent Aphelion fiction appearances include Door Gunner and The Last One, December 2008.) J.B. lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

E-mail: J. B. Hogan

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