LITTLE BROTHER'S WORLD
Little Brother had learned two very firm rules in his years of scavenging through the garbage piles of Alor City’s dump--first you grabbed anything edible before the valuables, and second, you never talked to the garbage.
They were simple rules of survival and not hard to remember, even for an orphan without a home or lineage. But this morning it was his bad luck to be present when a piece of garbage spoke to him.
“Haaalp!” said something two-legged, two-armed, very dirty and rather smelly.
Little Brother stepped around the tied-up, still alive garbage, looking for fresh chunks of food. Not that he was picky or inclined to complain about his fate. It was just that fresh was often tastier, and he’d learned it rarely upset his stomach. Not that such as he had ever had the opportunity to cultivate a refined digestion. He almost grinned at his wit. But it was too early to play the game of humor.
“Help me!” said the garbage more firmly, glaring at him with two indignant brown eyes.
“No.” As soon as he said it he knew he’d done a stupido, something non-survival. His Fence would have beat him silly for such foolishness, but Little Brother had not yet eaten breakfast, and a day and a night without food dims one’s common sense.
“Help!” yelled the garbage in a querulous voice full of outrage at his common sense decision not to get involved with talking garbage and other people’s business. “You can’t just leave me here to die!”
You don’t talk to garbage. That was the sensible rule followed by every self-respecting Scavenger who prowled the aromatic, horizon-wide pile of offal that Alor City chose to toss away, far from its clean streets, shiny towers and rich citizens who never spoke to Little Brother. So he did his best to keep his anger down and picked with both hands through the garbage pile, searching for food scraps less than a week old. But garbage not yet dead can be nasty. This garbage kicked him as he passed by.
“Ouch!” He glared at the garbage. Its brown face held two eyes that looked at him from under a pile of spiky orange hair, the expression wild and frantic. That was his second mistake . . . making eye contact with the garbage.
“Please help me?”
His stomach rumbled. A fruit peel gleamed yellowly. Breakfast! Little Brother grabbed for it, stuffed the peel into his mouth, and rocked slowly on his bare heels as the pleasures of taste shook his young body. With eyes closed, but ears open and alert for Scavengers bigger than himself, he heard the garbage struggle against its bonds.
“Nope,” he mumbled after swallowing the fruit peel. He felt contrary this morning. And his shin hurt.
“Why not!” screamed the garbage in a high, shrill voice.
He snapped open his eyes and scanned the vicinity, looking for older Scavengers who might demand a Service fee for his breakfast. Under the pale yellow glow of all three moons, the garbage piles shone like a scatter of mistral jewels. A faded blue sky arced overhead. And even though the sun had just risen, its white disk had not yet warmed the towering heaps. So far, no one had found Little Brother’s scavenging place. It would have been a fine lucky day—if not for the talking garbage.
“You’re garbage,” he said finally, turning away as he sighted a fresher dump of pure organic refuse.
“No . . . I’m . . . not! I’m a person!”
He headed for the fresh dump. “No you’re not,” he said, feeling irritated at the disruption of his morning food hunt. “You’re just garbage.”
Little Brother turned his back on the talking garbage and bent down over the fresh pile, picking through it carefully, wishing good luck didn’t always occur with bad luck. But it served him right for talking to the garbage. And arguing on an empty stomach had never been his talent. Being a good Lookout was his Talent. In between rare Lookout jobs, he made a living by hawking what he scavenged on the streets of Alor City’s outer districts, selling garbage for whatever valuta someone chose to offer. Or selling it to his Fence. Sometimes he even made three kronars in one day. Those were the times he took a bath at the public bathouse and visited Lady Melinda’s for a smoke, a drink and a massage. Her other clients sought more expensive services. Until recently, he had been too young to be interested in anything more than a full belly and a warm place to sleep at night.
The garbage’s stunned silence did not last, unfortunately. “But, but . . . help me! Please!” Then it began crying.
That’s when he should have run away at top speed. Garbage that talks like a person and cries like a baby is definitely bad luck. But the crying reminded him of his early years at Mother Warm’s place, and he hesitated in leaving.
“Why should I help you? You’re garbage. Someone tied you up and dumped you out here for a reason.” Maybe logic would make it shut up. “And I’m not about to second guess my betters.”
The garbage sniffled, blinked wet eyes and glared at him. “Untie me, sir.”
The voice was young, as young as he, but it spoke like a Fence—as if accustomed to authority over others. He had a bad feeling now. “No!” Little Brother turned away, scanning the garbage horizon for any edibles before he left this cursed locale.
“I’ll pay you well.”
He bent down and snagged a large chunk of clean bread, amazed at such luck. Usually, the garbage sorters got the prime stuff before he saw it. “Don’t see no kronars hanging around your neck,” he said absently, then tried stuffing the entire bread chunk into his mouth. No luck. Teeth got in the way.
“My family’s rich,” whined the garbage.
“All garbage lies.” There. It was a truism well known among Fences, Fighters, Lurkers and Schemers, and even homeless Scavengers knew the truth of that bit of smartness.
“No I don’t!”
A chill shook him as distant voices sounded beyond the nearest ridgline of yellow-brown garbage. This place was mostly commercial waste, but sometimes the sorters didn’t drive their garbage trucks all the way in to the Recycling Station, where the heat from burning garbage made for warm places in the winter. That is, if you were tough enough to fight off other claimants. Little Brother was good with his fists, his feet and his head, and he’d learned a lot in fourteen years, but he didn’t mass the weight of older Scavengers. Let alone full grown Commoners like his Fence. Time to go. Time to run. Time to hide away with his chunk of fresh clean bread.
“Don’t leave me!” wailed the garbage.
He glanced back. The garbage was sitting upright, as best it could with bound legs and arms tied behind its back. It wore torn, dirty brown coveralls, something that looked almost as recycled as his own pants and pullover shirt. Rich family indeed! The voices sounded nearer, and harsher. Yaz? Was that Yaz his enemy coming? He trembled for a moment, remembering the last beating. Oh, why did the Church visit such bad luck on such unimportant persons as he?
“Please?” The garbage had heard the voices too and its brown eyes were wide with fear. He didn’t blame it. Soon, it would be dead garbage. Sighing, he turned away.
“My name’s Sally.”
Oh, no. The last time anyone had shared a True Name with him had been the day he’d been kicked out of Mother Warm’s house, the one place he’d dared call Home. She’d been the last person who’d ever done something for him without asking for money or a favor in return. That had been eight years ago, just after his sixth Life Day, and it was not a memory he’d wanted to recall. Damn this garbage! He turned back, grabbed up a glass fragment from the ground, and ran toward it.
“Don’t hurt me!”
He slashed at the ropes binding its feet. “Stand up. Quick!” But first the garbage passed its bound hands under its bare feet so the hands were in front. Then it stood, swaying unsteadily. Under the sleeveless coveralls, two small mounds showed on its chest. A female and a Pube. Double bad luck. He turned to make his escape.
“Don’t leave me here!”
Did The Church of The Flesh have a special curse reserved just for him? He would have shaken a fist at the faded blue sky, but he was too busy grabbing the bound hands of the garbage and pulling her after him.
“Run. Run fast and keep up with me, or I leave you to Yaz.”
“Yaz?” She ran beside him.
“Yaz likes to beat garbage . . . before he eats it.”
She ran faster. Even for a pubescent female too young to work at Lady Melinda’s, this garbage could run. Almost as fast as he.
They made it over the garbage ridgeline before the other Scavengers chanced upon them.
Little Brother did not slow down and dive for a bolthole, as was his usual habit. Female Pubes had a distinctive body odor, and anyone who scavenged had a good nose. Only distance would protect him, and her.
Long minutes later, after leaving the commercial waste sector, taking a short cut through the piled-up gray steel hulls of air cars destined for the Smelter that shared the perimeter of the Alor City garbage dump with the Recycling Plant, and after dodging down long rows of wood waste and weed piles, she pulled him to a stop, wheezing loudly, her brown face now pinker under the dirt and the grime, though you could tell the skin was a natural brown. Like all Commoners. Only the Breeds paid attention to skin color, and chose a particular one for a day, a month, a lifetime. But life had different rules for Breeds, and he wasn’t even a full-fledged Commoner. At least he wasn’t talking garbage. He waited until the Sally caught her breath.
“You aren’t breathing hard,” she said, glancing around the towering rows of wood waste and weeds, piled in alternating layers of green, dark brown, and red-barked something he’d never seen around the District.
It was probably waste stuff from a garden factory that sold exclusively to Breeds. They could afford to keep plants just for looking. Commoners ate plants. He didn’t care. He just wanted to get his chunk of bread to a safe hiding place where he could eat it without being rousted by some Scavenger bigger and meaner than he. His Fence had always said he should cultivate a mean streak, but Little Brother’s heart wasn’t in it. He realized that failing every time he saw someone beat up one of Lady Melinda’s females, and wished he could stop it. Not that he could. Or had taken leave of his senses. But still he wished he could. He’d never make Fence status, let alone Fighter. Maybe all he could ever be good at was being a top Lookout, while others raided the storehouses and the small shops that lacked good security systems. A hot humid wind pushed by them, laden with rotting aromas that reminded him a fruit peel was not much for a growing stomach.
“You don’t talk much,” said the Sally.
He tugged on her bound wrists and headed for a place lying not far from here. “Not much to talk about.”
Behind him, she yelped sharply. He glanced back quickly, looked down, and saw that her feet were bleeding. More bad luck. He looked up, meeting her wet brown eyes. “You a Bleeder?”
“No!” She shook her head harshly. “I heal after being cut. I told you my family was rich.”
Little Brother turned around and trudged on through the piled-up garbage. Maybe so. Maybe not. Bleeders were more frequent among Commoners, since it took money to pay the genedocs to fix you up so your blood would clot. It took even more money to fix the geneflesh error before the person was born. But only Breeds were rich enough for that. Commoners made do with whatever they’d been born with. If they were a Bleeder and bled a lot, they either died young, or owed their lives to someone who’d paid a genedoc for an genetransfer to put back some clotting factor. If you were rich enough, you could even pay for fast wound healing and total resistance to disease. Fighters who made it big sometimes did that, he’d heard. But he’d never heard of talking garbage, garbage that was female and a Pube, being rich enough to buy itself any kind of genedoc work. Course, he’d never been stupido enough to talk to garbage before today.
“Please stop a moment,” said the Sally, pulling back against his grip.
They were almost at the hideaway. “Why?”
“I need to wrap something around my feet to keep them from bleeding more.”
He almost laughed. “Thought you said you weren’t a Bleeder?”
“I’m not!” He heard the pain under her tough talk. Maybe being tough was why she’d lasted until sunrise, after whoever dumped her had gone off. “But it could get infected.”
That stopped him and made him look back at her. She stood there, nearly as tall as he, a pair of brown eyes in a brown face under a thatch of wild orange hair that spiked in all directions, acting more . . . more important than any Scavenger he knew other than Yaz, and almost as proud as Maurice, his Fence. Looking well fed yet slim, and still possessing all her fingers and toes, she seemed out of place with the rest of the garbage. After eight years spent roaming Alor City’s garbage dump, Little Brother knew it well and he’d seen many strange things, including talking garbage and animals that acted like people. Never had he seen a tough-talking female Pube who acted as if the world owed her something. It went against everything he knew about life, Alor City, and the garbage dump. In his world, you never got something for nothing, and everyone always tried to get the better part of any deal. The standard rules.
Like “don’t talk to garbage” he reminded himself wryly, cursing again his bad luck. Fingering the bread chunk, he took a bite of it, chewed as the Sally watched, swallowed hard, and then stuffed the remaining bread inside his pants. She watched his hands intently, almost as if she expected him to share his breakfast with her. What a crazy piece of garbage this Pube was! Maybe crazy enough to be telling the truth, whatever that was.
“Your family really rich?”
Her eyes widened. “Yes. Oh yes. We’re very, very rich. We have our own emoticat and—”
“Shut up!” he said harshly, turning away and pulling hard on her bound wrists, hard enough to make her yelp from more than cut feet.
“Easy,” she wailed. “What did I say wrong?”
“Shut up.” The Sally quieted and they ran through towering trash piles.
Moments later they stopped in front of his hideaway, a dark tunnel that led into a high mound of industrial wallboard, stuff that looked like wood, but was nearly as strong as steel. It could be recycled, which was why they were so close to the Recycling Plant that Little Brother could see its smokestacks and hear the crunch of its crushers. He also smelled its distinctive aroma, the odor made by burning air car insulation. A thing some Fences called rubber, whatever that was. He bent down, pulling her into the tunnel with him.
“What did I say wrong?” she wailed again as they crawled into the darkness.
He sighed. “No one rich enough to own a genegineered emoticat would ever throw away a prime Pube like you!” he yelled back at her. There. He felt better.
She started crying again, her voice sounding nearly hopeless.
Little Brother crawled further into the darkness, knowing his way well, able to tell by feel whether someone else had found his hideaway since his last stopover. Fingers felt for fresh trash. He sniffed for people odor. He listened for snoring sounds, or the rumble of an empty stomach as someone waited in the darkness to knock him silly and take his bread chunk from him. If he were lucky.
He sensed only the coldness of an unlighted, unheated tunnel that wound its way deep through piled-up wallboard. Smelled only the usual stench of Alor City’s garbage dump. And heard merely the muffled crunch of the Recycling Plant crushers outside, along with the hiss of escaping steam from somewhere far away. Probably the cogeneration boilers at the Plant were leaking a little. Robots weren’t as good as people mechs at repairing complicated machines. Course, people cost more than robots. Standard rule of commerce. Rich Breeds owned personal Servants, his Fence Maurice had his own personal cook, and he, Little Brother, served as Lookout for any Lurker who cared to test some shop’s security system. It was the way of the world.
Serve, and you ate. Don’t serve, and you either starved or died young. A few people got a different fate, he knew. He would not say the word. It was a cursed word.
Geef, he thought, feeling rebellious. The Genome Factory was the place every Commoner feared and the Breeds stayed away from. Even Emperor Solanius Sextus the Twenty-Sixth had never visited the Geef, so he’d been told by those older and wiser than he. He was not about to be even more stupido than he had been and say the word aloud. Rumor had it that the Geef heard you when you spoke its name. And he had no reason to draw its attention. Not he, Little Brother. He had enough trouble already in his life.
They reached the sleep room at the end of the tunnel, a round place that echoed louder than the tunnel, so even in the dark you knew you were there. If you hadn’t felt its stony floor first. Down here, at the end of his tunnel, he was below the wallboard level, below dirt level even, sitting atop bare rock. Maybe the same rock that made up the Purple Mountains. He didn’t know. He’d never traveled outside of Alor City, and no one he knew had ever been to the Purple Mountains. But he could imagine it. Better than thinking about the Geef or wondering where Mother Warm might be, assuming she was still alive.
“I’m hungry,” sniffled the Sally.
In the darkness, Little Brother turned his head toward her voice. She sat opposite him, near the hole in the wall that was the tunnel entrance. The escape hole behind his back was unknown to her, of course, and since it was covered with a sheet of wallboard she could not smell its dank air nor hear a strange echo from inside it. No one knew about his bolthole, and precious few had ever visited his hideaway. Except for her. The talking garbage.
“I’m hungry too.” He brought the half-loaf of bread up to his nose and smelled its fresh-baked aroma, reveling in it, letting his senses swirl with the ecstasy of fresh bread, of food that was clean and didn’t smell strange. It was one of the few luxuries he could afford, smelling his food before he ate it.
“Please?” she said, trying hard not to whimper.
He sighed. She was not as scared as before, when she’d lied to him about her family. Not smart. Being scared had kept him alive in the Yoshiwara District. It had served him well the last time he’d heard a True Name. And it had even saved him from Yaz this morning, though he’d committed two stupidos in a row. Talking to garbage, and making eye contact with garbage. Now he’d brought it home. What to do?
“Those who serve . . . eat,” he said quietly, quoting Maurice. His Fence was a very smart man, for a person with only one eye, a club foot and a greasy mustache that always smelled of his last meal.
The Sally held silent a moment, then spoke softly. “What kind of service . . . do you want?”
“You probably aren’t even trained for the massage trade, are you?”
She sniffled again. “Of course not! I’m educated. I had my own robot tutor. My family—”
“Shut up,” he said, tired of hearing lies and fantasies. “You’re probably just a Pube who saw too much at some place like Lady Melinda’s, and it was easier to just dump you. Killing people takes talent.”
In the darkness, he heard her swallow. “Have you ever killed someone?”
Had he? It was hard to recall some memories. Some things he remembered clearly, sharply, like faces and names and deals and routes to the best scavenging grounds in the Dump. Maurice had once said he had the talent to be a Schemer, but he hadn’t believed the older man. Fences lie, often. Otherwise, how else could they buy low and sell high? And he doubted a Schemer had ever come from the Dump. Anyway, he had no GeneCode tatoo, and that was that.
“Maybe I have,” he said very cautiously.
She sat up straighter in the darkness, already acting as if she were in charge. “That’s not an answer. That’s—”
“Service gets you food.”
She didn’t speak for long moments. Moments he spent smelling the sweet aroma of the fresh bread, turning over in his mind the image of much food, a full stomach, a warm bed that did not make him itch, and a place safe enough he could really relax, could let down his automatic sleepguard and forget about listening for scrapes in the darkness. Silly to think that way. People who didn’t sleep with one eye open didn’t live long in the Dump or in his neighborhood. And Yaz was a persistent enemy. Someday soon, he’d have to kill the older Scavenger. Either that, or starve—at best.
“I didn’t see anything, you know,” she said low and angry-like.
She moved in the darkness, scuffing against the pieces of paperboard that partly covered the rocky floor. “What you said before, about that Lady Melinda. I didn’t see anything. I was asleep in my bed at home. Then I woke up out here. In the darkness.”
Maybe so. Maybe not. “Service gets you food,” he repeated.
Minutes passed. “I’ll do what you want,” she said finally.
“Good.” Little Brother took a bite of the bread, chewed it slowly, let it get real wet from his mouth juices, then even more slowly, he swallowed. Regretfully almost, as if his tongue rebelled at releasing such a wonderful taste. She gasped as the odor finally reached her nose. Hmmm. If she was just now smelling the bread she sure wasn’t from around these parts.
“What kind of service?” she said intently, sounding older than he’d first thought, maybe fifteen years old. Not much younger than Holly, who worked for Melinda.
It stumped him. While he knew what the older customers of Lady Melinda did with Melinda’s girls, and had often watched with deep curiosity, he’d never thought to imitate what he saw. It took energy to be so physically active, and energy required food. Empty stomachs weren’t much good at romance. That’s what Lady Melinda’s girls called what they did. Romance. It was a nonsense word, carrying only an image of frenzied physicality. He was too hungry to waste energy on something he’d never done before. What if he did it wrong? What if the Pube Sally didn’t know what to do either? Better to settle for something simple.
“Rub my neck,” he said, lowering his voice and imitating Maurice’s confident manner. But she chuckled, spoiling it all.
“Is that your normal voice?” Sally said, sounding anything but hungry, alone, abandoned, and without food, water, money or future prospects.
Anger filled him. But only briefly, then it ebbed away. Anger took energy too, and anyway, he’d always had a hard time holding a grudge. That’s why he could get along with Maurice the Fence, who had too many enemies and who changed cooks once a month, to avoid being poisoned. Little Brother didn’t mind the bruises the Fence gave him now and then, nor the low valuta rate for whatever he scavenged. For the man had saved his life, once, long ago. And Maurice smiled at him sometimes, with his one good eye. He even let him listen to the fancy music box the Fence kept on a wall shelf behind his desk. Little Brother recalled that everything else in Maurice’s office seemed dingy, worn, and of dubious value.
Maurice did not wish to lose much if someone robbed him. But the music box he kept, and displayed openly. It was the Fence’s way of telling visitors that he was high class, educated enough to deal with high-Coded Commoners. And important enough to deal with the household Servants of Breeds. Commoners who lived in Breed households always paid attention to things of value, things of hand-wrought beauty that could not easily be produced by a machine factory or a robot. It was easy to make most things, easier still to make too many babies, but the work of a skilled craftsman, now that was rare and valuable.
“What’s your name?” Sally said anxiously, perhaps worried by his musing silence and his distance from her.
“Rub my neck.” He scooted over to sit in front of her, pulling along a scrap of paperboard to sit on. The rock was cold and damp. He prefered to sleep in dry clothes, when he had a choice.
Her hands felt cool on his neck. But also clumsy. Her wrists still were bound in the rope of whomever had dumped her. She paused, waiting for him to do something.
Should he set her free? If she were unbound, would she strangle him in his sleep? Would she bash in his head with a rock? Assuming she could find one. Maybe she would just scratch his eyes out and leave him there, blind and bleeding in the darkness. Some Commoners wouldn’t have thought twice about doing just that, and Yaz for sure would do worse when he found Little Brother. He temporized.
“Maybe we should have a fire. So you can see to work.”
“Whatever you say.”
In the darkness, she smiled. There was no sound or light, but he just knew she smiled, even though her cut feet must pain her, her stomach rumbled worse than his, and she must have had less sleep than he—fighting off Garbage Dump rabrats keeps you awake at night. He scrabbled around, found the heatstick where he’d last left it, struck it against the stone floor, and touched the guttering yellow flame to some dry pieces of paperboard. They made a flaming yellow pile in the middle of his sleephole, a pile of heat that warmed his face and made him stretch bare feet toward its warmth. Looking sideways, he caught her watching.
“Work!” he said, then cut the rope binding her wrists, using the piece of glass he’d used to free her feet. The glass shard was a good tool, and he’d learned long ago to never toss away good tools.
The Sally rubbed her wrists, looked down at her bloody feet, rubbed them against the legs of her coveralls even though most of the blood was dry—she wasn’t a Bleeder after all—and looked back at him. Moving slowly, as if she thought he would jump on her, she leaned forward, dirty palms outstretched and fingers held together. Sheesh.
“A good masseuse spreads the fingers and kneads them into the muscle of neck and back,” he said in a singsong voice, as if he talked to a child too young to walk and thus run away from thieving Lurkers.
“Like this?” She poked stiff fingers into his neck.
“Ouch!” Before he could slap back at her, she changed moods and began squeezing his neck. Trying to massage.
She had some native talent but had clearly never before done massage. Her fingers kept missing the places where muscle fibers overlapped other muscle groups, going cross-grain in a way that partly counteracted the relaxation effect of a good massage.
“Hey!” he groused. “Easier. Go slower. And work with the grain of the muscles.”
“Like this?” She slowed her kneading of his neck muscles, then moved down to the top of his shoulders. The cold fingers left his bare skin and rubbed through the thin cloth of his shirt. For some reason, he wished her skin had not stopped touching his skin.
“How much longer do I massage?” she asked, her voice weak and tired-sounding.
Blast. A hungry masseuse rarely gives good massages. At least she hadn’t tried to strangle him. He offered back the chunk of bread.
“One bite. The rest is for lunch.”
Since Little Brother held onto the bread chunk with fingers of steel, she lifted up his wrist to her mouth. He looked over his shoulder, watching her face.
Maurice said to always watch a person when they eat, that when someone eats they are most vulnerable, most off guard, most truthfull. In the firelight, this Sally looked like a rich Commoner girl, despite the dirty brown face and spiky orange hair. And she acted a little older than Pube start. Definitely fifteen years old.
The Sally’s eyes closed tight as she bit into his bread chunk. Tears seeped out from under her eyelids, as if she were in pain. Being a Scavenger, Little Brother recognized the sudden spasm of mouth juice glands as her tongue tasted food after too long an absence. She was no different than he, leastwise in how she ate and how her stomach rumbled with the hunger-emptiness.
Her arms were still outstretched, holding onto his wrist. That’s when he saw it—her GeneCode tatoo! He trembled suddenly.
A bread chunk came loose from the piece he still held. She sat back, cheeks bulging with the largest chunk of bread her narrow mouth could manage, and opened her eyes. “Whassa’ matter?” she mumbled past the crusty bread.
In the flickering yellow light of the paperboard fire, Little Brother lowered his remaining bread and just stared at her right wrist. The fire’s light burned lower now and was already dimming. He’d lit the fire so he could watch her eyes before he offered her food. The eyes often gave away one’s intent to do violence. The body you could train to be steel calm, but the eyes always showed the violence hunger. This, though, he hadn’t expected.
“Your wrist,” he muttered, nodding at it, his body still trembling. “There’s a GeneCode tatoo on it.”
She lowered her wrists into her lap, stared at him, glanced down at the bluish numbers of the tatoo, then back to him, her cheeks still bulging. “Yup.” She chewed slowly, as if aware it would be long hours before either of them ate again. “So?”
Little Brother held out his own wrists. Both of them. Neither showed a tatoo.
In the flickering half-light, her eyes widened abruptly. “Noo—” she swallowed hard, chewed again. “Uh, no Cooode!” she said past mangled bread.
In Little Brother’s short life, every person he’d met had some kind of GeneCode tatoo on their right wrist. Every Commoner had the usual six digits and two letter coding for the genomic batch that represented the broad pattern of their lineage, even a lineage so poor and so uneducated that they worked at jobs robots could do better and cheaper. Formal Clans, of which some were Commoners, had extra digits and extra letters. The Breeds . . . the Breeds had the longest GeneCode tatoo of anyone. It ran to sixteen digits and five letters, spelling out in meticulous detail the inborn or bred-in talents of that particular fetus-person, its predetermined height and weight, its gender, the skin color choice, the hair color choice, the exotic talents like empath or Total Memory Recall, any speeded-up reflexes, the intelligence ranking, and the career or craft niche that Breeds assigned to each other. So Maurice had patiently taught Little Brother, with suitable blows from his fists to reinforce the memorization. He learned quickly and could recite from memory everything Maurice had taught him. After all, a Fence was only as good as his Scavengers.
Little Brother had never met another person without a tatoo. And neither had Yaz, which was one reason he hunted after someone younger than himself. But neither of them had ever seen a Breed. Not in the Dump. Even in the Yoshiwara District, only Breed Servants visited.
The right wrist of Sally bore sixteen digits, five letters and a icon image that he’d never seen on shop walls, on air cars, on the corner talkscreens, no where. He reached out and rubbed her wrist, hard.
“Ouch!” she yelped. “Stop that.”
The tatoo didn’t rub off. “Shut up.”
He spit on his fingers and rubbed her wrist again.
No change. Little Brother looked up, catching her eyes on him.
Did she see more than just a skinny, fourteen year-old kid with broken fingernails, short black hair, and a defiant look guaranteed to bring him trouble? Did she mind that he smelled like the Dump, rarely took a bath, and probably looked like the kind of person her parents had warned her to avoid?
Sally looked at him as if . . . as if he were someone to feel sorry for.
“You’re garbage!” he screamed at her.
Shock filled her face, then the paperboard fire died out, leaving them in a cold darkness with a long hungry day yet to pass.
“No . . . I’m . . . not!” she said firmly through perfect white teeth, teeth that would never have cavities, never have inflamed gums, never wake you up at night with dull aches, genengineered teeth that ground against each other as solidly as the crushers outside ground up the recycled garbage of Alor City.
He turned away from her, still trembling, and more scared than he’d ever been in his life. She heard him change position. Her hand felt warm against his neck.
“What’s your name?”
“Scavengers don’t have Names!” he hissed.
She moved closer to his back, but not to attack. “You helped me. You saved my life. You fed me when you didn’t have to. I want to call you by your name. Please?”
It was the longest statement she’d made since he’d found her an hour ago. Or was it two hours? Hard to say. Time passes differently when you’re always hungry. He gave in. “Little Brother.”
“Little Brother what?” she said casually, as if every person, every Commoner had three, four, more Names.
Her girl smell flooded over him, stronger even than the sweet aroma of fresh bread. Sally’s sweat didn’t smell sour, like that of most people he ran into. She must take baths often, he thought idly, mind running gear-stripped and free of control.
“Why are you upset with me, Little Brother?”
He almost sobbed. He didn’t. He hadn’t cried since . . . since he’d last seen Mother Warm. “Your tatoo. You’re a Breed.”’
“I said my family was rich,” Sally said casually, as if every day the clouds touched the ground, and rain fell upwards.
“I thought you were Commoner rich.”
She sniffed. “We hire Commoners to clean our skyhouse.”
All too likely. Probably all too true. Which left him with a real problem. What do you do when you are rich beyond your dreams, and dare not tell anyone?
That was his problem now. If he showed up on the streets of the District with her, with her damned blue tatoo declaring to one and all she was a Breed, Little Brother would not live past the first block of apartment housing. Some Fighter would kill him and steal her away. Then a Fence would buy the girl from the Fighter. Then a Schemer would buy her from the Fence, and probably kill the Fence in the bargain, since it was heresy of the highest order for Breeds to mix with Commoners. At least, that’s what The Church of The Flesh said. Your destiny is fixed by your genetic code. Your duty is to accept your destiny. The Breeds interpret that destiny. The Emperor rules the secular world. And the Church preaches the Word of Flesh to all people, including the Emperor.
So said the streetcorner preachers. He’d never been inside a church. They charged for admission. And Little Brother didn’t like giving up kronars for something he couldn’t eat.
“Are you my curse?” he asked Sally the Breed.
“Wha-what?” She sounded honestly confused.
“Are you my curse? Emilene the Fortuneteller once read my palm and foretold that I would be afflicted by a Curse of monumental size.” Little Brother shrugged in the darkness, feeling cold, alone, and cursed. “Of course, she died not long afterward. Poisoned, I think. Some customers don’t like bad fortunes.”
“I don’t think so. I hope not.” Sally swallowed, then touched him again on the neck. He wished she’d stop doing that. It made it hard to think, to plan ahead, to search among the things he’d learned for an answer to something that had no answer—“How does a poor man cash in illegal riches?”
That would stump even the best Gamblers. And he’d never had kronars to spare for the lessons taught by Gamblers.
His head hurt with the struggle to think his way out of a trap with no entry and no exit. And Sally the Breed was no help. She was, in fact, a curse. A living curse. Someone he could not cash in for the riches contained in her genetic breeding code without losing his life, and yet, she came from a rich family. Why had she been dumped in the garbage piles of Alor City? Who hated her bad enough to do that? And did her parents know she was missing?
Come to think of it, were her parents even alive?
Whoever had dumped her may have done so in haste, too hurried with escape to finish a high-risk job of assassination.
Maurice’s words spoke in his mind. "There are only three things Commoners do to Breeds—make money off of them while in Service, steal from them, or kill them." Little Brother had heard that killing was part of some strange game called politica, a game played by the Breeds among themselves. They had rules that forbid a Breed from killing another Breed. But no rule forbade Commoners from doing that. Assuming a Commoner was desperate enough to take on such a risky job.
He sighed in the darkness as the world weighed him down.
“Massage?” offered Sally the Breed, moving closer to him in the darkness.
“I guess so. Yeah.”
The warmth of her hands on his neck relaxed tense muscles. This time, she seemed to have learned a little about massage. She didn’t cross-knead as much as before. And her bodyheat warmed his cave-dark hideaway, making him feel even more relaxed.
For a time, they lived.
But Scavengers are known for their short life spans.
Maybe it was time for him to change professions. Perhaps Maurice would accept him as an apprentice Fence. Maybe so. Maybe not.
The thought of becoming a Gambler, someone who played the odds no matter what the GeneCode tatoo said they should be, that thought entered his mind just once . . . to be dismissed quickly and replaced by a mouthful of cold bread.
Food he could count on. It wouldn’t fail to nourish him, and it never betrayed a friend.
Somehow, he suspected the future would be empty of friends.
Copyright retained by T. Jackson King 2009