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QMC

                                     Queen Mab Courtesy

                             Bruce C Davis

Chapter 1

It was the pigeons that awakened me. A flock of them roosted just outside the basement window I had crawled through the night before to get out of a cold rain. The gentle cooing had lulled me to sleep and tempered the fitful dreams that kept me tossing and turning all night. They scattered with a thundering of wings as the C.O.P.S units started their first sweep. I must have been tired or slow that morning because I was only halfway out the window when the first C.O.P. crashed through the door. I glanced back as I swung one leg over the sill and got a foot planted in the alley outside. The silver dome of the Sweeper’s CPU housing gleamed in a shaft of sunlight filtering down through the grimy upper windows of the old department store basement. It scrambled forward on six multi-jointed legs that supported a heavy padded manipulator arm and a rear detention cage. It was fast and agile, but not too bright. It climbed easily over the piles of debris that littered the floor and managed to get a grip on my boot. I could feel the insistent pressure of its padded steel manipulator as it tried to draw me back through the window.

"Allow me to assist you, sir," it said in its best let-us-reason-together voice.

Having learned from hard experience that one cannot reason with a machine, I slipped off the boot and rolled out into the alley. The Sweeper reached through the window with its manipulator but I dodged out of reach behind a recycling collection bin. My foot skidded on a patch of pigeon shit and I went down just as the padded steel claw passed over my head. Despite the nasty slickness that now coated the bottom of my sock, I made a mental note to be especially nice to pigeons for the next few days.

The manipulator flexed back and gripped the worn sill of the window. It strained to lift the Sweeper off of the basement floor; a fully equipped C.O.P. Sweeper unit weighs in at about 300 kilos, not exactly a lightweight despite its speed and mobility. The worn wooden framing collapsed and the Sweeper fell heavily back to the concrete below. I didn't wait around for its next attempt to climb out the window. It would have alerted its backup units by now anyway. I had to move.

The alley was still deep in shadows, the early morning sun lighting only the north wall. The cool air, still damp with last night's rain, smelled of wet concrete and rotting vegetables. The Public Works cleaning servos in this sector were busy enough with the main streets; the alleys got washed down only once a week or so. This one ran east to west between State and Wabash. I could hear the rumble of a C.O.P.S. hovercraft to the east, over on Wabash so I headed toward the State Street end.

For once things seemed to be going my way. The weekend Farmers Market was gearing up and the State Street Mall was full of Normies eager for their fresh fruit fix. I used my size, or rather my lack of it, to disappear into the crowd. The market was one of the few truly crowded places allowed to exist in the city. Several hundred produce stalls jammed the Mall from Washington down to Jackson and roving vendors with carts milled up and down through the crowd hawking their wares. It was all perfectly safe and sanitized for the Normies, but it gave them the illusion of a spontaneous shopping experience. Most of the farmers were shills for the big corporate farms downstate, paid performers who shucked and jived as they pushed the cream of their employer's crops (at premium prices, of course). The roving vendors were the genuine article, although even they were carefully licensed and monitored by the Department of Public Safety. Serious shopping for a Normie meant a trip to the VR Mall. Still, some liked the illusion of old fashioned browsing through real goods. The Farmers Markets scattered around the city filled that need. 

This was the old town section of the Loop. The block long department stores had been restored to their mid-20th century appearance even though they had long since been converted to upscale offices and gentrified apartments. I wormed my way deeper into the center of the throng. The crowd kept the hovercraft stuck above Washington, so I only had to watch for the foot patrol units. I stopped for a moment to catch my breath, going with the flow as the taller crowd milled about. The view from where I stood was limited to a below-the-belt perspective, not the best way to size up a middle-aged Normie. But I figured it would keep the C.O.P.S. infrared and optical recognition circuits from picking my mug out of the background. 

Now, I don't blame the Normie housewife for not seeing me. I don't even mind her stomping on my bare toes. But she didn't have to scream when she looked down and saw what she had stepped on. I seem to have that effect on nice white ladies from up the lake. Her scream attracted the C.O.P.S. and I was off and running again. I pushed my way through the crowd. They bleated and complained as I kicked and shoved, trying to clear a path. That attracted even more attention and the C.O.P.S. began to zero in on the disturbance.

I stumbled into a clear spot, one of those spontaneous openings that occur in the random mingling of masses of people. At the edge of the clearing a roving vendor pushed a large produce cart filled with watermelons. The vendor was as surprised to see me pop out of the crowd as I was to stumble into the old bicycle wheels that held up his cart. His momentum carried him forward and one of the wheels rolled over my still smarting toes. I let out a yell and said some words that violated several public decency ordinances. That was enough to pinpoint my location.

"Halt," the flat mechanical voice of the C.O.P. Arrest unit rang out, no pretense of reasonableness in it. "Stand where you are. You are in violation of City Ordinance 127/81. You will stand by for arrest and processing."

I turned to run and found my sock stuck under the wheel of the watermelon cart. I suppose I should have slipped out of the sock, but I'd already lost a boot and these were my only socks without holes. Besides, I'd been pushed around since I woke up and hadn't even had breakfast yet. I reached out and pushed on the rim of the wheel. I only wanted to move it aside and retrieve my sock. Instead, the rusted cotter pin that held the wheel to the axle broke. The vendor pushed again on the cart, trying to get out of the way of the approaching Arrest unit. The wheel wobbled a bit, and then fell off. The cart went down hard on its side. The thin wooden frame shattered and watermelons tumbled onto the pavement. Rolling green instruments of chaos and destruction sent Normies skidding and sliding to the ground in a jumble of arms and legs and sticky pink juice. I rolled under the remains of the cart and took off running again.   

I had only taken a few steps before I was scooped up and deposited head first into a warm box. Actually, it was a downright hot box and I was about to say so when a thick hand clamped across my mouth and a voice whispered in my ear, "Keep quiet. The heat will confuse their infrared sensors."

I had enough sense to lay low. I tucked my knees up to my chin and tried to ease the pressure on my back as it pressed into the hot aluminum side of my refuge. The heat was stifling. In a few seconds, I was gasping for air and wet to the skin with sweat. The space was tight. I felt the beginnings of my usual panic at being confined but the threat of the C.O.P.S. outside held it in check. The box had wheels; I could feel it moving and thumping gently over irregularities in the pavement. A cry of "Chestnuts" from my unseen benefactor and the crinkling of small paper bags under my back solved the minor mystery of where I was hidden.

My discomfort grew. I could feel my heartbeat increase. My mind began to lose focus as my muscles cried out with the need to move right now. Just as I was about to pop the lid for a breath of air, C.O.P.S. or no C.O.P.S., a mechanical voice boomed off of the walls of my box.

"Halt, Citizen," it said. "This unit requests your assistance."

"Certainly, Officer," said the chestnut man. "How can I help?"

"This unit is seeking a fugitive who was last detected moving in this direction. This unit requests your assistance in locating said fugitive under section 12, article 41 of the criminal code. Failure to comply may result in arrest and detention."

The Computer Operated Patrol System Arrest unit was properly thorough in its request and in its thinly veiled threat. I held my breath waiting for the answer, ready to spring and run.

"A fugitive? What's this fugitive look like?" asked the chestnut vendor.

"This unit seeks a male youth of dark coloring and dark curly hair of medium length. Height: approximately one meter. Weight: approximately 40 kilograms. Last seen wearing a dark blue jacket and tan work coverall, one dark ankle length boot with serrated rubber sole and one red stocking. The fugitive has the typical facial characteristics of Viral Hyperteloric Dwarfism. He is tentatively identified as Horacio Guzman, citizenship rating DP. A warrant has been filed with the Municipal Database requesting his arrest and detention."

"A Denver Dwarf with one shoe on and one shoe off?" The vendor chuckled. "No, I'd certainly remember a sight like that. What's he wanted for? Murder? Armed robbery? Public ugliness?" The vendor burst into a loud belly laugh.

"The fugitive is wanted by the Department of Human Services for unlawful welfare evasion." the mech intoned solemnly, “Your amusement is a serious breach of proper citizenship norms. Have you seen the person this unit seeks?"

"No. No" answered the vendor. "I have not seen such a person" He controlled his laughter with some effort and went on, "Please excuse my lack of decorum."

"Your name, identification card, and vendor's license, please"

"Charlemagne Sleazer, license BTL224-576. But my friends just call me Charlie," answered the chestnut man.

There was a brief pause as the C.O.P unit checked the DNA fingerprint bonded to Citizen Sleazer's ID card and accessed the municipal database for his records. Then it said, "Very well, sir. Your license and records are in order, although you are reminded that your municipal water bill is due today. This unit thanks you for your cooperation."

Charlie exhaled audibly as the mech moved off into the crowd. The box began moving again and the crowd noise lessened. The lid popped open admitting a breath of cooler air. My first sight of Charlie was of his right hand. A remarkable hand, thick and meaty with a twisted middle finger.

"Keep your head down," he murmured as the hand rummaged in the bags of chestnuts and picked up two. "There may be more of them about. Let me check it out."

The hand withdrew and I could hear him moving away. He left the lid open, so at least I had some air and could see the sky. My panic subsided to mere apprehension. I picked up a bag of nuts to give myself something to do and distract my mind from my confinement. I had eaten two or three when I heard him return.

"OK, you can come out now." he said softly.

I raised my head and took a deep breath of cool air. I turned my head slightly from side to side in the manner of my kind in order to get a full view of his face. With a broad brow, high cheekbones and deeply pockmarked skin, it could not be called a good-looking face. It would have been rather sinister if not for the good humor in the black eyes and the gentle voice.

"Not very big, are you?" he said, grinning suddenly.

"No, and my eyes are too far apart and my nose is too flat and I have a weak jaw and am obviously mentally defective. And you are possibly the ugliest person next to myself that I have ever seen. Any other comments?" I pulled myself out of the box and dropped to the ground. Charlie said nothing.

"Well," I huffed. "I'd like nothing better than to stand here and trade insults with a talking ape but I've got places to go. Thanks for dumping me in that rolling oven of yours. I can't think of when I've had a better time."

I stalked off as defiantly as I could in one boot. I know, I know; that was no way to talk to someone who had just helped me out of a tight spot. I was even less fond of the city welfare homes than of Charlie's oven. But he shouldn't have mentioned my size. I'm the only one with that privilege.

I was born in Denver just after the Plague. That simple statement has defined and constricted my life for as long as I can remember. Of course, to anyone who sees me on the street, the time and place of my birth are immediately obvious. But even mentioning the Plague causes most people form an image of me. An image tinged with pity, perhaps, or sometimes revulsion, but always the same picture.

It's called Viral Hyperteloric Dwarfism Syndrome, VHDS for short. Denver Dwarf or Fish-Eye Dwarf or just plain Spud to the masses. My eyes are set wide and bulge almost beyond my ears. Aside from the obvious aesthetic handicap (the current correct term for ugly), it makes it difficult for me to see anything directly in front of me. I tend to swing my head from side to side slightly to get my visual fields to overlap and create a bit of depth perception. Half of us were born profoundly retarded. Those of us who can learn to dress ourselves and use the toilet are saddled with a grab bag of learning disabilities. With undersized jaws and stubby legs, we’re the poster children of tragic disability. We tend to get locked into the role. I spent most of my early years listening to the taunts of Normie children and the oh-so-concerned assessments of Normie doctors and social workers who looked out for my 'special needs' while condemning me to the tender mercies of the city welfare homes and their dead end vocational training. I wasn't about to hang around and listen to some Normie with a major case of the uglies tell me I was too short.

The sun was warm for early fall. The rain had blown through just before dawn and the sidewalks steamed slightly as they heated up. My sock was still slick with pigeon shit, my shirt was soaked with sweat from the heat of Charlie's oven and a pounding headache behind my right eye caused me to wince with each heartbeat. A headache started whenever I got angry, which is to say, just about every day. I hobbled along, fuming and muttering, for about three blocks before I noticed that he was still behind me. I stopped and glared. It was one of my best looks, guaranteed to frighten housewives and give children nightmares. Charlie just grinned.

"Well?" I sneered, "You got something to say?"

"Where are you going?" he asked. "The mechs are still around and you're not exactly invisible out here." he gestured. I realized we were standing on the pedestrian overpass above New Lake Shore Drive, a place I usually avoided, especially when the C.O.P.S. were sweeping the Loop. The city rose like a gleaming wall to the west. The lake was an endless blue blanket to the east that lapped at the thin green swath of Grant Park. Between the city and the park, twelve lanes of endless traffic flowed under perfect computer guidance up and down New Lakeshore Drive. All in all, a very exposed place for a desperate criminal like myself.

"Maybe I'm going to jump. What's it to you." I demanded, madder than ever.

"Ah, but suicide's not permitted in our obsessively safe society. If a C.O.P. hears you talking like that, you'll be detained as a threat to your own safety." Charlie was still grinning at some private joke.

"So? What's it to you?" I shouted.

"You still haven't answered the central question, Horatio," he said. His voice changed to a deeper almost reverent tone. " 'To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. To die, to sleep no more, and by a sleep to say we end the heartaches and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished'."

He chuckled and looked at me expectantly. For the first time I really saw him: an absolutely absurd old man quoting from a play not one Normie in a hundred would recognize. And all the while standing above a river of them rushing home to their VR game shows and soap operas in nonpolluting government-certified-safe computer controlled cars. I choked. I sputtered. Something burst inside me and blew away the anger. I laughed. Charlie joined in with a deep belly laugh.

After a while we managed to control ourselves. Despite the risk, I stood in the middle of the overpass looking down on the rushing river of traffic. Even then, only a few minutes after our first meeting, I felt safe in Charlie's shadow. Not that I would have admitted needing anything like protection or safety at that point in my life. I watched the brightly colored cars whizzing beneath our feet, all moving smoothly in their appointed lanes, all properly spaced for maximum safety and efficiency. My face grew hot again. I stood on my toes and spat over the barrier onto the roadway below.

Charlie looked down at me with a slight smile on his face. "Come on," he said. "We need to get you out of sight for a while."

"We?" I asked.

He just nodded and pointed back the way we had come. The C.O.P.S. hovercraft was turning the corner onto Michigan, continuing the sweep of the Loop, looking for Blanks and Transients. I tried to duck behind the hotbox but Charlie just waved me on across the overpass.

" 'Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.'" he said, quoting again. We walked steadily, careful not to run or look too hurried. Just a couple of Citizens going about their legitimate, productive and certified safe business.

Grant Park was not crowded this early in the morning. A few joggers and exercise freaks puffed along on the lakefront paths. The fountain was off and a cleaning servo hummed busily as it scraped algae from the collecting basin under the ornate spouts. Charlie looked a bit out of place, pushing a vendors cart with no one around to buy his wares, but it didn't seem to worry him. He was, after all, a fully franchised Citizen and had every right to walk wherever he chose. I scurried along beside him, trying not to be too obvious about keeping him between the hovercraft and me. The sun climbed higher, drying my damp shirt and warming the chill of sweat and fear that still lingered.

Charlie parked his cart under a tree near the broad steps that led down to the waterfront. The quay here had once been part of the old Chicago Yacht Club. The club buildings had been condemned and taken over by Parks and Rec before I was born. Now the city ran the place as an elderly day care and recreation center. The Seasoned Citizens who spent their days here were kept away from the water lest one of them decide to take a long walk off one of the short piers that remained from the yachting days. Few of them were about at this time of day. Those that looked down from the dayroom windows watched us with the blank stares of seasoned inmates.

We walked north along the quay until it ended in a high wall. The wall was part of the breakwater that jutted out into Lake Michigan to the east. Its western end merged with the retaining wall that supported New Lake Shore Drive in its sweep northward toward the rich Normie suburbs. Under the shadow of the elevated highway was an access gate for the storm drains that ran west to the Chicago River. The gate was locked, of course. The heavy steel bars fitted almost seamlessly into a thick concrete lip all around the opening. A palm reader was set into the wall next to the gate. Just below the reader was an interface port for the maintenance servos to plug into to download their work programs.

Charlie pulled a small oblong box out of the pocket of his coveralls. He pointed it at the interface port and tapped a code into a small keyboard on the top of the box. The gate slid back with a squeal of metal on concrete.

"Are you crazy?" I shouted. "An open gate will light up every C.O.P. alarm circuit from here to Wilmette."

"Not if it's an authorized inspection," said Charlie, sliding the box back into his pocket. He pulled a disc the size of my palm out of the same pocket and tossed it on my general direction. I bobbled it once, but managed to catch it before it hit the ground. Charlie grunted as if I had passed some sort of test. "I once did a courtesy for a civil engineer on the Public Works planning committee. He gave me the access codes for the storm drain maintenance gates in return. It makes it easier to get around town without attracting attention," he said.

"The disc is a directional homer. Set the city grid coordinates of the location you wish in the LED display and it will guide you there. Follow the red arrow on the display. It will change directions when it wants you to turn. If you take a wrong turn, the disc will vibrate," he paused for a second. I nodded my understanding and he went on, "This tunnel runs west as far as the river. There are side tunnels every 50 meters or so. Take the third tunnel to the left. Go about 800 meters to the end of that tunnel. There will be a series of pipes along the wall to the right. Behind the smallest pipe, near the bottom, is a handle. Pull up on the handle and you'll release a ladder from the access port at street level."

"Wait a minute, Chuck," I said. "You don't expect me to go in there."

"Desperate situations ‘by desperate appliance are remedied, or else not at all'", said Charlie in his quotation voice again. "It's either this or you take your chances in the Loop with the Sweepers. And, by the way, my friends call me Charlie."

  "Yeah, that's nice," I said. "Guys like me, we got no friends, OK, Chuckster? And I'm still not going in there."

  "Suit yourself," he said, shrugging his shoulders. He turned and began to walk away.

"Wait!" I called, looking dubiously at the open gate. "How am I supposed to find my way in there? I got no light."

"I have no light," Charlie corrected, "Here, take this one." He reached into that magic pocket of his and pulled out a cheap button flash, the kind they give away in the arcades when you win ten credits on a VR game. It clipped itself to the button of my jacket when Charlie touched it there. It cast a pale greenish light ahead of me. These flashes usually lasted about 30 minutes after they were activated. I hoped I wouldn't have too far to walk.

"What are you, some kind grammar police or something," I grumbled as he clipped the flash to me. "What do you care how I talk? And why are you always quoting Shakespeare? If you ask me, you've got a few circuits scrambled."

"The fact that you recognize Shakespeare when you hear him quoted shows that you know how to speak properly. Your current situation is no excuse for sloppy thinking or speaking," said Charlie. "When you reach the ladder, climb up to street level. The access port is in a blind alley. Go west to the entrance of the alley. Turn right and enter the first building. It's a three flat. My place is on the first floor, number 2. The disc also carries the lock code. It will open the door. Make yourself at home. I have business here in the Loop, but I should be home before dusk."

"What's in this for you?" I asked. "Is this your weekly Help-the-Handicapped fix? Nobody gets something for nothing, so what's this going to cost me?"

"Let's just say that I hate to see wasted potential," said Charlie. "Don't worry. If and when I ask for payment, it won't be too difficult for you. And don't think this is some kind of kinky sexual bondage thing. You're not my type. Now get along. I have other souls to save."

His wry smile told me that he was only half joking. I stepped through the gate into the drain. The metal grating slid smoothly shut behind me, the snick of the lock sounding disconcertingly final. I looked back through the bars at Charlie. He waved cheerily and walked away toward the quay, whistling a complicated tune with lots of trills and sliding notes. I tried to swallow my fear but my mouth was too dry. I started putting one foot in front of the other. Just doing that helped a little, as did the cold water that quickly soaked through my sock and chilled my toes. Despite being small, I have never liked tight spaces. Tight dark spaces were even higher on my list of things to be avoided.

The feeble light of the button flash only went so far. My view was limited to the meter or so directly in front of my nose. Everything looked pale and washed out, like the world on a moonlit night. Down the center of the drain trickled a thin stream of water, flowing in the same direction that I walked, toward the river. If I planted my feet on either side of the trickle I could walk on dry concrete. After a while, though, the unnatural gait became tiring. I gave up and splashed through the water, my sock becoming wetter with each step. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, some of my initial fear subsided. I wasn't happy, but at least the pounding in my head eased a bit as my heart stopped trying to climb out of my chest.

By the time I reached the third side tunnel I was almost calm. The walk had taken all of fifteen minutes and I figured I had plenty of light left in the flash for the rest of the trip. The disc in my hand vibrated slightly as I almost walked past my turn. I looked at the LED display and, sure enough, the arrow now pointed to the left. This tunnel was smaller than the main drain. Charlie would have had to walk almost doubled over at the waist to get through. The concrete ceiling barely brushed the curls on the top of my head. I took a step into the tunnel, then froze, the fear rising up from its hiding place somewhere deep inside me. From the darkness in front of me came a dry rustling sound like dead leaves driven before the wind, like winter bare trees waving in a cold breeze. Like dry bones rattling on a concrete floor? I put my hands out and pressed against the sides of the narrow tunnel, certain that they were drawing closer around me. I sobbed and pushed back with all my strength.

    

          • Chapter 2
  • I was four years old again, standing in the vacant lands near our house in the suburbs of Denver, dry powdery snow almost up to my waist. A cold wind stung my face as I peeked out from the hood of my parka. I hated the hood. It covered my eyes when it was up, forcing me to turn my head to one side so I could see out. After a while, the position became tiring and gave me a stiff neck. Ice crystals swirled in the wind under a low gray sky that promised more snow. I shuffled forward, the legs of my snow pants rubbing together with a happy musical tone. I rushed toward a clump of children playing on a pile of rubble in the middle of a vacant lot.
  • Our house was at the edge of a cleared zone. During the Plague, five years earlier, wide swathes of suburban homes had been burned, dynamited or bulldozed as buffers around quarantine areas. The vacant lands left behind afterwards virtually ringed the city as a wide no-mans-land. Rebuilding was slow. The population was less than half what it had been before the outbreak and it would be many years before some of the cleared zones saw people again.

    Of course, as a child I knew nothing of this. The wide empty lots near my house were simply there, an open landscape that was my personal playground. The winding suburban streets wove through bulldozed fields broken by occasional piles of rubble pushed up to 10 meters high in some places. Usually I played alone or with one of the nearly feral dogs that ran through the old neighborhood looking vainly for a home that was no longer there. Few people still lived outside the city and fewer children were to be found so far from schools and care centers. So when the high pitch voices of potential playmates reached me across the snowy field, I had begged my mother to let me go out. She had reluctantly agreed, fearful of something I couldn't comprehend.

    I pushed through the deep snow, staying on the paved road as much as I could. There were snow filled holes both deep and shallow in the lots were houses had stood. A few cold falls on my face had taught me to avoid walking there. The playing children didn't notice me approaching at first. One of them, about my size, stood apart watching the others climb the rubble pile. He turned as I approached, eyeing me through the gap between his knitted cap and a thick scarf that covered his mouth and nose.

    "Can I play?" I asked, staggering in the deep snow for a second as I reached his side.

    "Sure," he said. "My name is Seth. What's yours?"

    "Tito," I said. "It's really Horacio, but my Dad calls me Tito."

    "My Dad calls me Bear sometimes, but I like Seth better. We're playing King of the Hill, but I never get to be King 'cause I'm the littlest."

    "I'm almost five," I said.

    "Me, too," said Seth. He pointed to the top of the rubble pile where several older children pushed and shoved one another, trying to stay on the top. One boy, hatless, wrestled two smaller children to the ground and they slid, laughing down the slope. "That's my cousin Jack. He's ten. He's bigger than any of my brothers and sisters." Seth leaned closer and said in a lower tone, "Sometimes he's mean to me."

    I nodded, eager to be agreeable to my new friend.

    "Say," said Seth. "Maybe you and me could push Jack down the hill. Then we'd be King."

    "OK," I said.

    "Come on," Seth tugged my arm and we ran toward the rubble pile, shrieking happily. We charged up the snow-covered mound, slipping and sliding until we reached the top. Jack was waiting for us. He swept Seth aside with a wave of his arm. Seth rolled down the hill, shouting and laughing. I managed to get a grip on Jack's leg. At first he laughed and jerked his leg from side to side trying to shake me loose. I got a hand hooked on the back pocket of his blue jeans and hung on. He started to get frustrated, then angry at not being able to easily brush off a kid half his size. He kicked more savagely and grabbed at my hands, trying to pry them loose. I wrapped my legs around his and held on grimly. Jack caught his foot on a rock, slipped and went down. We slid and rolled down the hill. Snow went up my nose and down my neck. I didn't care. I laughed all the way down. We landed in a tangle of arms and legs. Jack pushed me away and jumped to his feet. Seth ran up laughing. The other three children, Seth's brothers and sister, gathered around us.

    "We got you!" laughed Seth.

    "Did not!" shouted Jack. "He cheated! He tripped me!"

    "We're the Kings! We're the Kings!" shouted Seth.

    "You shut up!" said Jack. "Who's he anyway? Who said he could play?"

    "His name's Tito," said Seth. "He's my friend."

    "Tito. What kind of stupid name is that?" said Jack.

    "It's not stupid!" I said.

    "It is stupid. And you're stupid. How come you got your head all twisted around in that hood?"

      "So I can see good," I said, my voice breaking.

    "So take off the hood," sneered Jack.

    "No!" I twisted away as he reached out and grabbed the loose fabric on top of my head. As I pulled away the hood slid off and the cold wind stung my eyes.

    Jack gasped as he saw my face. The others fell silent, staring.

    "He's a freak!" hooted Jack.

    "I am not!" Hot tears of anger and frustration welled up in my eyes.

    "Look, he's crying. He's a freak and a crybaby!" howled Jack. "He's a bug-eyed baby!"

    "I am not," I said, my stinging eyes tearing even more. I swung my head back and forth to better see Jacks face. He broke out in peals of laughter.

      "Bug-eyed baby, what you gonna do," he chanted. "Cry for your mama, boo hoo hoo!"

    The others took up the chant and repeated it over and over, dancing around me. I shook my head, trying to clear my eyes and face them down, but they kept moving. I caught sight of Seth through my right eye. He stood still, staring at me. Then his face darkened and he began chanting and dancing around with the rest of them. I felt a sinking in my chest that I had never known before that moment, but would come to know well in later years. The first betrayal is always the hardest and least forgotten. I stopped trying to see them. I stood in the center of the ring, head down, not crying or shouting back any longer, feeling empty and alone.

    Soon Jack tired of the chant. As ringleader, he must have felt some obligation to keep me reacting to them. He stepped up very close to me and grabbed a handful of my hair. Jerking my head up he thrust his face close to mine.

    "What's the matter, baby? Don't you want to play?"

    I couldn't see him well. His face was right in front of my nose in my blind spot. His breath smelled of chocolate and sour milk. At that moment, I felt a bursting sensation in the pit of my stomach. I shook my hair free and lowered my head. I screamed and rushed into him, burying the top of my head in the pit of his stomach. He went down clutching at my shoulders. I swung my fists in short chopping arcs, pummeling his back but not connecting with any solid blows. After a second or two, Jack recovered his breath and managed to get a foot planted on the ground. He heaved me off. I rolled into the snow face down and he was on me, screaming and crying. He leaped to his feet and began kicking me in the back and ribs. I tried to stand, but he landed a heavy blow on the back of my neck and drove back down into the snow. The other children moved away. Seth whimpered and covered his eyes. I tried to roll away. I covered my exposed eyes as his feet sought out the soft places of my stomach and groin. I rolled farther away. The snow slowed him down a bit and the kicks lost some of their force. I kept rolling, not seeing or caring where as long as it was away from Jack. Then the solid ground gave way beneath me and I fell into frigid darkness, snow and dirt and chunks of rotted concrete raining on top of me.

    I fell onto what felt like a pile of dry sticks on a concrete floor. Part of the ceiling came down with me landing on my back and legs, keeping me pinned to the floor. A wan light filtered through the hole I had made. I could hear Jack's voice above me shouting, "Let's get out of here!" I managed to clear the snow away from my face and looked up toward the light. I tried to stand but found my legs all but immobilized by the snow and debris. I pushed myself up on mittened hands, struggling to free my legs and get out. My hands slipped on something hard and dry and rounded, like a small log. I went down again, striking my chin on the concrete floor. I shut my eyes tight against the stinging pain, determined not to cry. I opened them after a second and stared into the empty eye sockets of a grinning skull.

    There were five of them, two big and three little, huddled together against the wall a few inches from were I lay. They were probably already dead by the time the quarantine teams bulldozed the house. With half a million bodies to deal with, the teams had been more concerned with the speed than with identifying this little family group. Many of the filled in basements in this area probably contained similar tragedies. Looking back, the scene may have been quite touching under different circumstances. But at four going on five, my only ideas about death had been shaped by my Nana Guzman's stories of the taotaomona, the vengeful spirits of the dead that haunted the jungle on her native Guam. The Chamorro people still retained a powerful aversion to death that a thriving modern society had done little to change. Nana had lived with us until my fourth birthday and had told me many stories, some scary, some not, about the island where my father had been born. The taotaomona stories came flooding back in a rush as I realized that sticks on which I lay were actually somebody's leg bones. I screamed and struggled to pull my legs free. The bones shifted around, skittering across the concrete floor, dislodging other bones with a dry rattling sound. I shrieked in the high keening tones of childhood panic. My screams echoed off of the walls of the cellar, reflecting my fear back at me, sending new waves of panic through me.

    I don't know how long I struggled there, although it was probably less than a minute by my father's account. My next memory is of being grasped by the hood of my parka and lifted out of the darkness into the gray overcast that now seemed bright. My father was there, holding me tightly as I struggled, my mind still trapped in the cellar. At my mother's insistence, he had followed me to make sure I was all right, although he had been too far away to save me from Jack's beating. He held me until my panic subsided, then lifted me to his shoulder and we walked slowly home. As if by agreement, we never told Mom about my fall into the cellar. She was distressed enough by the sight of my bruises. And from then on, it was my father who came to my room to check on me before he went to bed and sat up with me when nightmares disturbed my sleep. Until one day he didn't come home and Mom and I were left alone with the nightmares.

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    So, there I stood, pressing against the concrete, feeling four years old all over again, waiting for the taotaomona to get me. The dry scraping sound grew closer. I forced my eyes open, fighting to control the rising panic. A gleam of metal flashed into sight at the limit of my little circle of light. I screamed and shrank back against the wall as six metallic legs scuttled toward me. I tried to climb the tunnel wall for a second, still convinced that the end was at hand. My feet slipped and I slid to my knees.

    The maintenance servo needed no lights to find its way through the tunnels. Its programming directed it to check for cracks in the walls that could lead to messy and inefficient leaks if not promptly repaired. It took no notice of me. Debris in the tunnel was to be reported of course, but cleaning and clearance were not part of its assigned tasking. It slapped a marker on my leg and scuttled past me, turning west up the main tunnel. The dry scraping of its metallic feet receded as it continued on its way toward the river.

    I peeled the marker off of my leg and stuck in to the wall. I doubted the cleaning servos were clever enough to report me to the C.O.P.S. but I still didn't want to have them following me around. Still shaking with the afterglow of panic, I hurried down the tunnel. The button flash cast a dim bubble of light around me that was no comfort against the now fresh memories of Nana Guzman and her stories. I was running so fast that I almost bashed my head into the wall at the end of the tunnel. I leaned against it for a moment, catching my breath.

    The handle was just where Charlie said it would be. I had a bad moment when it didn't move at my first tug, but I planted my feet and pulled harder. The handle gave way suddenly with a squeal of metal on metal and light flooded in as the access port opened above me. The chain link ladder unrolled from the spool just under the now open port and almost hit me as it came down. It swayed a bit more than I liked as I scrambled up, but I wasn't about to complain to the Public Works Department about their design choice. I climbed out onto the pavement of the alley and slammed the port shut behind me, just in case the taotaomona really were following me.

    The narrow alley seemed bright and airy after the darkness of the tunnel. The buildings here on the fringes of the Loop were less self-consciously quaint and more grimy and functional. The alley ended at a blank wall that was the backside of one of those block long condo developments that were supposed to look like a restored tenement. Retro-poverty chic was the style of the facade, but the back wall made no pretense at being anything other than a fortress protecting its upscale inhabitants from the gritty reality just one block south.

    I walked the 30 or so meters to the street and peeked cautiously out. The block was deserted. There was a small park across the street, but it was empty. The sidewalks were clean, as all municipal sidewalks are, but there was a sense of fatigue and despair about them. The buildings that lined the block were of a uniform three-story height. They looked down on the street with darkly curtained windows that seemed to turn inward rather than out toward the world. The few storefronts that occupied the first floors of some of the buildings were deserted. Commerce was a distant memory in this neighborhood.

    Charlie's apartment was easy to find. It was the only one on the first floor with a door. The others were derelict. The door opened with a touch of the disc and I went in. Many years ago, this type of apartment had been called a Pullman. A long corridor stretched from a small entry foyer in the front to a large kitchen at the rear. All the other rooms opened to the left off of the corridor. The door closed automatically behind me and the lock snicked home. I tried to open it again but it wouldn't budge. It seemed that I was locked in until Charlie came home. The lights came on as I started down the hallway. The floor was honest wood, well worn but gleaming with polish. I felt a slight tingling on the back of my neck as I walked toward the first doorway along the left wall. From my time in lock-up, I recognized a security scan when I felt one. Not exactly a common feature in your basic three flat. Curious, I looked around for the scan projector, but couldn't find one. Concealed security systems weren't exactly illegal, but they weren't generally available either. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say.

    The large front room looked out on the street through a bay window hung with thin curtains. The furniture was Spartan, functional without frills or embellishments. The far wall was nearly filled with a large painting. At first I thought it was another one of those programmable liquid crystal displays that have become standard features in Normie homes. (Fine art on demand. Just select your favorite artist and painting, or browse through the handy menu on the remote interface. Change pictures to suit your mood or let the display take you on a virtual tour of the worlds greatest museums.) I walked over to check it out. It was the real thing, a canvas and paint original. At first glance the scene was a stormy seascape seen by moonlight, a study in blue and indigo and white foam. Up close, the roiling sea resolved into a sea of faces. Each was distinct and detailed. Each blended into the greater whole to form the wider seascape. Some of the faces were at rest, others in the throes of deep emotion. All in all, a unique and compelling piece of work. The artist's signature was a red slash in the lower corner, Seamus Murphy.

    Something was not adding up here. This was not the apartment of a grubby chestnut vendor. The security scanner alone cost more than most Normies made in a year. This painting was an accomplished work of mature art. Although I didn't recognize the painter, Mom had dragged me through the art museum in Denver enough times that I knew quality when I saw it. Even the furniture, which seemed spare at first glance, was of top quality; real wood and leather, not cheap simulations.

    In the wall to the right, there was a door leading to the next room. I opened it. I stood in the threshold and gaped. The room was full of books. Genuine print and paper books jammed onto floor to ceiling shelves that lined three walls. Stacks of books as tall as me made neat piles on the floor. More books in one place than I had seen since Mom died. My mother had been considered eccentric because she kept books in a large glass fronted case in our living room and actually read them rather just calling up what she wanted from a netlink. If she was eccentric, Charlie was totally bonkers.

    I caught my breath and entered the second room. There were two other doors. One to the right clearly led to the hallway. The second, straight ahead, was set in the middle of the wall and, although closed, promised to lead to the next room. Next to that door was a desk of cherry wood that held a standard home netlink, keyboard and VR headset. I tried the door. It was locked, but the simple deadbolt gave way with some minor jimmying from the shim I keep in my pocket for just such occasions. (Who says you can't learn a profitable trade in the welfare homes?)

    More surprises! The door opened into a medium sized closet, about two meters deep and half as wide. It was crammed with bioelectronic gear. There were several racks of raw biochips, a half dozen industrial sized data storage bottles, three C.O.P. CPU modules still in the packing foam and a full body interface suit. All restricted gear. Nobody outside the Department of Public Safety was even supposed to wear a C.O.P. interface suit, much less have one in their apartment. I backed out quickly and slammed the door. This was no longer funny. Whoever Charlie was, he was into some serious shit. And serious shit carries serious jail time. I already had one warrant out on me. I didn't need to get involved with.... what? I didn't know and didn't care. I wanted out.

     

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