Unease had moved into the Baltimore Habitation District. It became the awkward neighbor lurking in every shadow, acknowledged by cautious vigilance and knowing glances among the locals, but never challenged aloud.
Maya let her feet dangle, legs through the bars of the patio deck railing. Seven stories down, the Nons gathered on the street in front of her building in Block 13, the eighth straight day of protests. As if the Authority would care what non-Citizens thought. Every two minutes, a blue four-fanned Authority drone glided by below, sweeping its sensor ball over the crowd, a .50 caliber machine gun serving as a one-size-fits-all approach to every problem from murder to pickpocketing.
Puffs of steam rose from portable cookers, the occasional sniff of chicken, beef, or rat teasing her nose, a too-short reprieve from the moldy smell of a dying city. A man in a tattered olive-drab long-coat brandished a sign demanding ‘Dignity for Nons’ at a passing e-car. She waved at him, but the man didn’t see her.
In the week following the video transmission, the roaring inspiration Maya had stirred in so many that seemed to ignite the world―or at least the Eastern Seaboard―had given way to small pockets of protestors and a quiet, seething tension.
Motivating all those people to stand up to the Authority had been frightening, but she’d do it again. No advertisement she’d ever recorded for Ascendant had ever made her feel so… warm inside. Selling expensive drugs, many with dangerous side effects, had given her a comfortable, if not hollow, life. Selling a demand for justice and respect had given her a sense of satisfaction and hope, but it also came with fear. She’d made herself a target, but someone had to stand up to Vanessa Oman, even if that someone was only nine years old.
Genna had been on edge at first, but with no sign of retaliation by now, she’d calmed. Maya had expected the Brigade to whisk her off somewhere to hide as soon as her message ended, but no one had made a move or even discussed it. She couldn’t tell if the Brigade didn’t expect retaliation, or if they didn’t care since she had nothing more to offer them. Fortunate, then, that neither Ascendant nor the Authority came looking for her.
But how long would that last?
Sarah, sitting to her right, leaned forward to watch the people below, pressing her forehead against the bars. Her waist-long hair went wherever the wind sent it, a wild tangle of red. The toga-like dress she’d made from an old curtain hung loose on her body, smears of dirt and scrapes visible here and there where skin showed between wraps or through tears in the fabric.
Since the video transmission, the girl had been quieter than usual, and insistent on being at her side―whenever she didn’t need to tend to her father. Maya scowled to herself at the thought of a child having to take care of an adult. True, Sarah had her by two years, but an eleven-year-old remained a kid. The man wasn’t helpless. He’d lost an arm in the war, but he had a cybernetic replacement. His random angry outbursts at the games he watched frightened her, but thus far, he’d kept his rage focused on the players. The man had never once raised his voice at either of them.
She frowned at a stain on her friend’s ‘dress.’ He needs to buy her some real clothes.
“I’ll just get robbed again,” muttered Sarah.
“Huh?” Maya blinked.
Sarah twisted her head enough to make eye contact. “I see how you’re looking at me. You’re making that pity face again.”
“Sorry.” Maya studied her lap, feeling guilty for having a shirt, pants, and sneakers.
She’d left her shoes by the bed, not wanting her friends to feel bad. Few kids out in the Hab had shoes, their parents unable to afford what Foz, the man who operated the nearest store, charged for things they’d grow out of so fast. Her friend Emily’s father, Doctor Chang, went to the Sanctuary Zone often enough. That girl had shoes but didn’t like them, since ‘faeries don’t wear shoes.’ Sarah’s father could get her stuff, he just didn’t. Pick’s older sister couldn’t go to the Sanc, but the boy hardly cared about the quality of his clothing. Book, the old man who looked after Anton and Marcus, traveled to the Sanc every so often―probably why the twins always had new-looking stuff to wear.
Maya sighed. She didn’t really need shoes inside the building anyway, and it didn’t seem likely she’d be going outside any time soon.
“The dosers won’t steal this.” Sarah fussed with the old, yellowed fabric. “I do miss my camo pants.”
“Ask your dad to get you some clothes,” said Maya, leaning back.
Sarah shrugged one shoulder. “He won’t go to the Sanc. Doesn’t trust the Authority at the checkpoint. He thinks they’ll either send him back to Korea or shoot him. Sometimes he doesn’t realize the war’s over.” She gazed down, fighting sniffles. “I mean… he said no one officially declared the war over. The soldiers decided to go home on their own. Even the bad guys. He believes he’ll get called a deserter and be arrested.”
“Sorry.” Maya put an arm around her.
“It’s okay.” Sarah wiped her eyes. “He doesn’t forget me. When he sees me, he remembers he’s back home… and then he teaches me survival stuff.”
“I still think he should buy you real clothes.” Maya examined one of the safety pins holding the curtain in the general shape of a dress. “I’ll ask Mom to―”
“Don’t.” Sarah gave her a worried look. “Genna doesn’t have to take care of me. I’m okay.”
Maya opened her mouth to insist but bit off a squeal of fright as a large Authority drone zoomed around the corner, blasting them with a strong downdraft. Sarah clamped her hands over her ears in protest of the loud fans, cringing as the machine flew within a few feet of them and raced off to the right, red and blue lights flashing. Her dress tore in the fierce gale, exposing her right shoulder.
Sarah, shivering, put a hand on Maya’s arm. “Shouldn’t you be hiding or something? Isn’t Vanessa going to come after you?”
“You’re so pale.” Maya held her friend’s hand. “You’re not sick, are you?”
“No. I just had a bath.” Sarah smiled and stuck her tongue out. “You’re too dark.”
“Am not.” Maya stared at their interlaced fingers, alternating bands of rich caramel brown and cream white.
“I’m teasing. It doesn’t matter.” Sarah fixed her dress and reattached the safety pin in a different spot.
Maya bit her lip, half smiling. “Well, being too pale can mean someone’s sick.”
“Don’t wanna talk about it?”
Sarah leaned forward again to watch the protestors down on the street. “I asked if you should hide, and you changed the subject.”
“Like you changed the subject about clothes.” Maya poked her in the side.
“Yeah.” Sarah’s knuckles whitened on the bars of the patio railing as another drone cruised by two floors down. She let off a sigh of relief and slouched when it kept going.
Maya examined her hands. “I used to be jealous of Vanessa. I wanted to look like her. I hated being light. I… thought it’s why she didn’t like me.”
“It wasn’t.” Maya shook her head. “She ordered me like a pizza.”
“What’s a pizza?” Sarah raised an eyebrow.
“You don’t know what a pizza is?” Maya gasped. “It’s so good.”
“No. I’ve never been in the Sanc,” said Sarah, sounding blasé.
“It’s food that you order from a terminal, and someone brings it to your house. Mostly, it’s a big round flat piece of bread with sauce and cheese on it, but you can get like a hundred different things put on it. You pick the options you want, they put it together, and they bring it to you.”
Sarah gave her a pitying look. “I know what cheese is.”
The girl who’d never had pizza felt sorry for her. Out here, Sarah was happy to have food at all. She barely had clothes. Maya thought of her former home, the huge walk-in closet with dozens of outfits, most of which she couldn’t stand and had only worn once for a commercial. The Hydra had offered a limitless supply of nutritious―if not bland―meals. Until she’d decided to stay with Genna, her only worry about food had been what type, never if there’d be any.
She looked down and picked at her fingernails, tightness building in her throat. Her life up until recently had been safe. Sarah had never known safety. A year ago, dosers had robbed her at gunpoint, stealing the clothes straight off her back so they could sell them and get high. Maya’s biggest worry had been whether or not her mother would make time to talk to her. Her bio mother, Vanessa, had caused much of this misery, and Maya, by smiling for the cameras, had helped.
Glum, Maya bowed her head. Two tears jumped from her chin, plummeting toward the crowd seventy feet below. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was like this out here.”
“Hey, don’t.” Sarah pressed a weak punch into her shoulder. “You’re nothing like that woman. I know you’re not since you don’t want to go back to that nice home.” She grinned. “You really don’t miss it.”
A feeling that had started at guilt became anger toward Vanessa. All those fancy things in that penthouse had never been hers; she’d been simply another possession. Nothing about that place triggered even the smallest bit of regret. For all its wealth, it had no soul. “No. I don’t miss it, but I still think your father should get you real clothes.”
Sarah pulled her wild hair away from her face while offering a noncommittal shrug. “It’s okay. He needs his beer. We get food from the VA, and the rent is covered.”
“You need clothes. He doesn’t need to drink.”
Sarah tensed as another drone glided by. Once the whirr of its fans faded into the background noise, she relaxed. “He needs it. When he doesn’t have any, he’s umm. He’s different.”
“Sarah…” Maya squeezed her hand.
“No, not like that.” She huffed and slouched. “When he hasn’t had any beer, he gets creeped out by everything. Super nervous, jumps at every little noise. Thinks the Koreans are watching him. I hate it when he’s like that. It’s okay if he buys beer. I’ll get real clothes when I’m not going to outgrow them. Foz doesn’t charge too much for adult stuff.”
Maya sighed. “You could at least get a big T-shirt and make a dress out of that instead of a curtain that’s falling apart.”
“We should go inside before you get seen.”
“It’s fine.” Maya swung her feet back and forth, still staring down at the protestors. “I don’t think they’ll do anything. The Authority hasn’t arrested Vanessa, and it’s been over a week. They’re not going to. She will say it’s all fake, and no one will believe us.”
Sarah rubbed Maya’s back. “You’ve given everyone hope. People were like zombies before, but now they’re alive. They believed your mo―I mean Vanessa owned the Authority. She’s gotta be angry.”
“It would cost more to come after me than it would be worth.” Maya pulled her head away from the bars and sighed at her friend. “What would she do? Make an example of a little kid? That’s just bad PR. She’d much rather I disappear and be forgotten. All she cares about is money.”
Maya looked down. Night after night of waiting in that apartment for her mother to come home, hoping she’d spend some time together that didn’t involve business, flooded her mind. Vanessa hadn’t ever been ‘stuck late’ at work; she didn’t want to see her. She never had.
The memory of that woman’s face on the screen in that rathole where the mercenaries had kept her captive filled her mind. Even she couldn’t tell if her ‘mother’ had been bluffing or serious. Go ahead and kill her. I’ll make another one.
Maya covered her face with her hands and sobbed.
“Hey.” Sarah pulled her legs up and wrapped herself around Maya from behind. “Forget that horrible woman. Your mother is right inside.”
“Yeah.” Maya sniffled, wiping at her face, though the tears refused to stop.
She scrambled to her feet, hauled the patio door open, and darted into the apartment, racing across the bedroom, down the hall, and into the living room where Genna sat on the couch. The woman barely got her hands away from the disassembled rifle on the coffee table before Maya leapt into her, face buried against her shoulder.
The sofa smelled of old, damp sneakers mixed with the stink of gun cleaner. A few breaths into sobbing, the chemical scratched at her throat and made her cough.
“Baby, what’s wrong?” Genna wrapped her in a firm hug.
Maya clung to the feeling of being wanted, of having a real mother. Nothing she’d had inside her Sanctuary Zone penthouse made her feel as good as being able to cling to a mother. Vanessa had barely tolerated holding her hand for photos; she couldn’t remember ever daring to attempt an embrace. “Mom.”
“Somethin’ give you a scare?”
Maya shook her head. “No.”
The patio door slid closed with a soft thump.
“Well, what’s wrong then?”
“I…” She sniffled and smiled. “I’m being silly. We were talking about Vanessa and how she didn’t want me.”
Genna kissed her atop the head. “Put that sorry excuse for a person outta your mind.”
Sarah padded in and sat beside them. Maya squirmed around to face her.
“Sorry for making you sad,” said Sarah.
“I made myself sad.” Maya leaned her head on Genna’s shoulder. “I’m okay now.”
Sarah glanced at the table. “Is that a FN-Sabre?”
“Almost.” Genna chuckled. “M-17R2. Basically a Sabre though. The only real difference is in the ammo feed mechanism. I think we stole it from them.”
“Oh wow,” whispered Sarah. “That’s the same kind of rifle Dad carried in the war. He said he wished they’d issued the Sabres since the firing contact didn’t scum up so much.”
“Yeah, they went cheap all right.” Genna ran her hand over Maya’s hair, making her smile. “Replaced that sucker first thing. Electronics are all custom work. And why do you know so much about guns?”
“The Dad is getting her ready for the next war,” said Maya.
Sarah frowned. “Not the next one. The one that’s still happening.”
“Your father’s unit saw some bad times.” Genna sighed.
“Yes. He’s lucky to be alive.” Sarah repositioned a safety pin on her left hip, moving it to a less frayed patch of fabric. “Missile strike wiped out his camp when he was on a scouting mission.”
Maya shimmied off her mom’s lap and sat between them. “Did Barnes have any good news?”
“Such as?” Genna leaned forward and picked up a rifle piece, which she worked at with a toothbrush.
“Why hasn’t anything changed? Ascendant is still there. All we did is make people protest.” Maya raised her arms for emphasis and let them drop in her lap.
“Well, the Authority has moved in more officers from other cities to try and prove that Ascendant don’t own them. Could be all for show, but I been hearin’ whispers that they cleanin’ house inside first.”
“Anton and Marcus said they got surprised by a blueberry and he wasn’t a complete shit to them,” said Sarah.
“Were they doin’ anything wrong at the time?” asked Genna.
Sarah scowled. “Yeah, being Nons.” She pointed at her cheek. “They don’t need a reason.”
“I wonder if they fired him.” Maya clenched her hands into fists, thinking of the blueberry who’d hit Sarah with his rifle.
“Maybe they made him clean all the toilets,” said Sarah with a grin.
“Almost time to eat,” said Genna. “You’re welcome to join us, Sarah. Your father too if he wants.”
“I should check on him anyway.” Sarah slid off the couch and stood. “He didn’t eat this morning.”
Genna reached out and grabbed her hand as she walked by. “He keeps doin’ that, you best be tellin’ Doc.”
“I will.” Sarah nodded, smiled, and hurried out the door.
Maya picked at the few traces of polish left on her toenails, battling a moment of guilt at her old closet of unwanted shoes. Not that tiny high heels would’ve done her much good in the Habitation District. The desperate dosers who’d steal the clothes off the backs of the unwary or the defenseless probably wouldn’t even bother… no one would buy them out here. Maybe if the Authority changed, they’d do something about people who’d rob street kids for a handful of NuCoin. She scowled at the floor.
“What are you thinkin’ about now, baby?” asked Genna. “That glare’s gonna light the rug on fire.”
“I’m mad at the punks who took Sarah’s clothes, and her father. He won’t get her any. Wastes his money on beer, and she doesn’t mind. She’s wearing a curtain she found upstairs.”
“That girl’s a saint.” Genna snapped a small, black piece into a larger section of the rifle with a click. “Takes care o’ that man like a live-in nurse.”
“I thought we were going to change things. The way everyone cheered, it sounded like the whole world was on our side. How can people just not care that Vanessa’s setting Fade loose on purpose?” Maya slapped her hands on the cushions beside her knees, creating dust clouds. “She’s killing people to make money.”
“It’ll take time.” Genna set the rifle down and put an arm around Maya, pulling her close. “Most people out there, they ain’t so afraid of the Brigade anymore. They know we’re on their side now. And Authority does too. Even Citizens are startin’ to resent being under the gun all the time, them armed drones always whizzin’ around overhead.”
“They need to arrest Vanessa for killing people. The Authority’s supposed to protect us, not treat us like prisoners.”
“Wasn’t easy after the war ended. What little we had left of a government barely held on to itself. Shit, the Eastern Commonwealth States is all we got. You know, before the war, ‘state’ meant a whole big patch of land, not just a Sanctuary Zone?”
“Yes.” Maya fell into the same rote recitation she’d given the e-learn back in the penthouse. “Eastern Commonwealth States consist of New York, Boston, Trenton, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, DC, Richmond, Charlotte, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Miami.”
Genna patted her on the head. “Yep, though Pitts never quite made up their mind if they’re in or just allied. But as long as the Authority can keep all the citizens afraid of what’s out in the wildlands, people be willin’ to put up with a whole lot of badness in exchange for protection. S’long as they think what’s out there is worse than what they’ve got inside, the Authority is in control.” She kept fussing with Maya’s hair.
“When you found me, you wanted to kill that Authority pilot… aren’t there a lot of veterans?”
Genna’s jaw tightened. She kept quiet for a moment, stroking her fingers through Maya’s hair in a repetitive gesture. “Some, yeah. Lot of ’em are sellouts. Doin’ whatever Ascendant wants, not carin’ ’bout the oaths they swore. No better’n traitors. The ones here in Baltimore, they a special kinda bad. Was a time I wanted ta kill every damn last one of ’em.” Her expression remained intense, the kind of face she’d give someone seconds before punches began flying, though silent tears wet her cheek.
“Are you crying because I made you think of Sam?”
“A bit.” Genna glanced down at her, expression softening. “You said ‘found you,’ not ‘broke inta your home and kidnapped you.’”
Maya shook her head. “Nope. This evil woman kept a little girl prisoner all alone in a tower, and made her smile and dance for people. You saved her.”
“You…” Genna looked about ready to burst into tears but wound up laughing. “I guess that’s one way ta put it.”
“Are people here afraid of the wildlands? The AuthNet said that bad people live out there. Cannibals and murderers, and even some old military robots.”
“I’m sure they make it sound a lot worse than it is.” Genna pulled Maya back into her lap and held her with both arms. “They wanna keep everyone scared. Authority drones still watch over the Habitation District. ’Course, I doubt anyone from the wildlands would bother with us. It ain’t like they say out there. Bunch of small towns mostly, anarchists, independents, farmers. Yeah, bandits sometimes, but ain’t nowhere near like they tell everyone.”
“What about killer robots?” Maya held her arms out and mimicked a robot walk.
Genna laughed. “I suppose there could be a few of the KT3s left out there, but the war’s over. No one to fix ’em up.”
“Why did people let Ascendant take over?” Maya leaned her head back, snuggling.
“Not sure what you read on that computer you had, but no one really ‘won’ the war. After a time, everyone realized there wasn’t much left to fight over. Command on both sides had been more or less wiped out. Soldiers decided to stop shooting at each other. Eventually, we all went home. Hell, the truck I took back to the airfield on my way here had a dozen NoKos on it. Two months before that, we’d have killed each other for wearin’ the wrong uniform. On that truck, we all just a bunch o’ poor people couldn’t believe what our idiot leaders did.”
“NoKo? Is that North Korean?”
Genna patted her back. “Yeah. After the war, people wanted order, and they didn’t care who wound up in charge as long as someone kept things together.”
“Before I left the Sanctuary Zone, I didn’t really understand the war. It felt like a story.”
“Yeah. All things considered, we got a lot more tech left here than I ever expected. A few major cities soaked up people and kinda put themselves back together, but not everyone wanted a government back. People who live in the wildlands decided ta try somethin’ different.”
“I want something different too.” Maya fidgeted with her shirt. “Citizens have too much and Nons don’t have enough.”
“Now that is something to work on. Smart as you are, I’m sure you’ll fix it someday.”
Maya pondered the idea, daydreaming about a future where the poor weren’t so desperate, and the Vanessa Omans of the world didn’t treat people like crap for not having money. “We proved she is evil. Why is she still there?”
“Brigade has people inside the Authority, and Harlowe’s heard some good things. Ascendant’s scrambling to save themselves. I’m sure that bitch is doing everything she can to keep control. She’d have to be a damn fool to drop Fade on anyone, at least for a while. I hope a long while. You at least helped shine a light on that roach.”
Maya shivered. “I don’t like roaches. We should step on it.” She cast a nervous glance around the floor.
“Oh, we will. We hurt them good, but we ain’t done yet. And you”―Genna tickled at Maya’s sides, making her squeal―“need ta stop worryin’ about everything. All you gotta do now is be a kid. This ain’t your fight.”
Sarah laughed, scooting out of reach as Maya squirmed and grabbed for the attacking fingers, giggling. After a few minutes of tickle war, she lay flat on the couch, winded and grinning. It didn’t matter that she’d gone from the luxury of a Sanctuary Zone penthouse to the bleakness of a crumbling apartment building in the Habitation District.
She had a real mother.