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Children of the Dust by Catherine Asaro - Baen Books


Children of the Dust
Catherine Asaro


Statement: Major Bhaajan, Ret.

Pharaoh’s Army of the Skolian Imperialate

Imperial Space Command


In writing this statement, I’ve used language I didn’t know in my youth, as a girl in the Undercity. It would be difficult for me to give a full statement otherwise. However, I’ve done my best to stay true to the way I thought in those days. For spoken words, I’ve used the Undercity manner of speech. My hope is that these choices will present the most realistic record of the events, as I recall them, and so respond to the military inquiries about the community that lives hidden under the desert.

We were innocent in those years, the four of us, Dig, Jak, Gourd, and myself. I know it sounds odd for me to describe our group that way. Yes, we were a dust gang, dedicated to street fighting. We lived on the edge of poverty and considered petty theft an accomplishment. And yes, Dig’s mother led one of the most brutal drug cartels in the Undercity, a choice Dig hated. Violence, crime, and starvation defined our lives. Yet for all that, we had an innocence that those of us who have survived will never again know.

The members of our dust gang were the closest I had to kin, though none of us had a blood relation. Dig and I were like sisters, Gourd like a brother, and Jak—well, Jak. Saying what he meant to me is hard even now, nearly thirty years later. At the age of fifteen, I knew only that he and I had a lot to discover about each other. The four of us lived on the cusp of adulthood, not yet scarred beyond healing.

This is our history.



I

Kajada


We loved to run. We ran hard, we ran for the sheer pleasure of speed, and we ran to outpace the death grasping at our heels. We also worked out every day, with fists, kicks, and rolls, what we called the rough and tumble. We practiced hand-to-hand combat, learned new methods from established gangs, and tried out new ideas, all to defend our territory in the aqueducts. We had no rules, except to win however possible.

Why anyone called these underground ruins “aqueducts,” I had no idea, because no water had run through them for as long as anyone remembered, besides which, they were too large for aqueducts. They seemed more like empty canals that for some bizarre reason lay under the desert.

Today, Dig and I practiced in one of the canals. She aimed a kick at me and I dodged, then tucked into a roll so I could punch her in the knees. She went down and hit the ground hard.

“Drill that, Bhaaj,” she said.

I jumped up and smirked. “My win.”

She climbed to her feet, scowling. “Against me, yah. Not Jak.”

I had no idea why Jak hadn’t shown up for our workout. More and more lately, he disappeared, for hours, even days at a time. I worried about him, afraid for his life, but I couldn’t admit that. Fear made you weak, and weakness killed. It was safer to be angry.

The small lamp on my wrist gauntlet created a sphere of light around us, with darkness beyond. Powdery dirt covered our clothes. We both wore ragged trousers and muscle shirts. Our fight had stirred up a cloud of dust, mostly red, with glints of blue from traces of azurite. It floated in the air, gradually settling back onto the ground.

Dig threw her hair out of her face, and it fell down her back in a mane of wild black curls, exactly like mine. We never bothered to cut it, but I tied mine back when it annoyed me. Dig had more muscles and stood taller than most of the kids in other gangs. I’d passed her in height this year. You’d never guess she was two years older, seventeen to my fifteen. She had a gauntlet on her left wrist, and I wore them on both. Gourd had made the gauntlets using scraps of tech-mech he dug out of salvage dumps.

Dig wiped the back of her bare hand across her forehead. “Come with. Get water.”

I fell into step with her, striding along the canal, kicking up dust. I checked to make sure the panels on my gauntlets were in place, protecting the worn out tech. Some dust would still get into the workings, but not enough to ruin them. I hoped.

We called this canal Lizard Trap, for the small reptiles that scuttled through the dust. We claimed it, and we fought any other gang that challenged our claim. The ceiling was twenty meters high, and the width about fifteen meters. It was only a moderate sized canal two levels down from the top of the Undercity, but it was ours.

Dig went to one wall and grabbed a projection in the rock, then looked back at me. I strode over, reached for a handhold—and the race was on. We scrambled up, climbing fast. It took only seconds to reach the midwalk halfway up the canal from the ground to the ceiling. I hefted myself onto the path a few seconds after Dig, losing the race by less than a handspan. She jumped to her feet and watched me stand up. When she put her hands on her hips and grinned, I laughed. So. She may have lost our fight, but she’d won the race.

We jogged along the midwalk, side-by-side, with the drop to the canal on one side and a wall of rock on our other side. I felt good, strong and fit, ready to take on the world. That didn’t take away the hunger, violence, or constant fear of death we lived with in the Undercity, but today I felt ready to challenge it all. I still had my youth and optimism, even when faced with the unrelenting darkness of our lives.

Except . . .

Something inside of me felt unsettled. Restless. No matter how many fights we won, how many races we finished, how many foes we conquered, I couldn’t enjoy our successes. Something was missing, but I didn’t know what.


#


We found Gourd in the large cave where everyone in our circle slept. He was seated on the ground, leaning against the wall, with the parts of some boxy contraption scattered over the floor, which he’d swept clean of dust. Makeshift lamps he had designed shed light throughout the cave. I couldn’t tell what he was making, except the pieces looked worn out and broken. No matter. If Gourd put it together, it would work.

At sixteen, Gourd had more height than any of us, so big now that everyone in the aqueducts gave him a wide berth. Fortunately for the other gangs, he preferred fiddling with tech-mech to fighting. Gourd hung out with the cyber-riders, trading ideas and tech, but he never went over to their community. At heart he was a dust ganger. One of us.

Beyond Gourd, the six little dusters in our circle, ages two to nine, were gathered on a large rug, playing with rock toys. Top Deck, the father of the two-year-old girl, sat watching them, laughing when they clowned around, and making sure no one tried to eat their toy or stick someone else in the eye. He looked after the kids because he didn’t like to fight, and he had neither the interest nor the skill to join the cyber-riders. Nor did he want to become a drug punker, running product for Dig’s mother, Jadix Kajada, the crime boss who led the Kajada drug cartel.

Top Deck’s woman had worked for Kajada until she died, murdered by a drug punker who ran with the Vakaar cartel. I’d never seen Top Deck cry. None of us cried. But after living with him for years, I knew his tells. He still mourned his woman. He probably would forever. Well, fuck the cartels. Kajada and Vakaar didn’t only kill people with the product they sold, they murdered whenever it suited their purposes in their battle to control the Undercity drug trade. I hated them, which caused me problems, because Dig Kajada led my dust gang and I would give my life for her. Fortunately Dig didn’t like her mother much more than I did. She wanted nothing to do with the cartel. We were Dig’s people: Gourd, Jak, and myself.

Our dust gang protected Ketris and Byte, a pair of cyber-riders with two kids. Right now, they were out rummaging up salvaged tech-mech or trading for it on the black market while Top Deck looked after their little dusters. When Ketris and Byte weren’t busy being cyber-wizards or parents, they cooked for the rest of us. They were the senior members of our group, already in their mid-twenties. Top Deck was nineteen. We’d also taken in three orphans we rescued from starvation. All together, these people formed our circle. In return for protection and a secure place to call their own, they helped make our territory a home.

None of us in the dust gang had parents except Dig, and Jadix had no interest in being a mother. Dig’s father had died years ago from the Carnelian rash, one of the diseases that prowled the Undercity, turning the skin red and scaly, making its victims burn with heat. Even if anyone here had known how to take him to the city in the desert above, no facility there would have treated him. And so his life ended. We lived on the edge of death in the Undercity, with no hospitals or doctors, just what we could take care of ourselves or steal from the above-city.

From the City of Cries.

Supposedly Cries rose up from the desert in shining towers. Yah, right. I’d never seen it, only images Gourd showed me when he hacked the city meshes. Who were they crying for up there? I had no idea. Maybe they were unhappy because they couldn’t be us, down here in the cool aqueducts beneath the killing desert. I found it hard to believe the City of Cries existed. Sure, something was up there, but those glossy towers looked more like fantasies than reality.

I knelt next to Gourd. “Found this in salvage.” I pulled the bundle of quantum-optic fibers off my belt. “You want?”

“Yah, good.” Gourd took the bundle and nodded his thanks.

Dig went off to find a bottle of fresh water, one of our rarest commodities. I still had water in the thermo-sack on my belt, so I just wandered through the caves where we lived, pacing from one to the next. Natural geologic events had shaped these spaces as the ground buckled over the eons and poisonous water saturated with minerals dripped everywhere. The caves formed a maze around and below the ruins of the aqueducts. Top Deck had woven rugs to soften our living spaces. I didn’t understand how he created such beautiful things out of so little, but I liked the result. He also fashioned our utensils, plates, and bowls out of stone or from scraps of defunct tech-mech.

I felt edgy, pulled by the need to go—where? We lived here, scratching out a life of joy and grief, always running. I wanted to run somewhere. I longed to see new places, but I didn’t know what or where.

“Eh, Bhaajo,” a youth said, his deep voice as sensuous as sin.

I turned around. Jak was standing by the entrance to the cave, leaning his fifteen-year-old self against the wall, his arms crossed, his eyes half-closed. His black hair blended with the darkness, and unruly curls fell over his forehead into his eyes. He dressed in black, both his ripped trousers and his muscle shirt. A dagger as long as his lower arm glinted in a sheath on his belt. He pushed back his ragged hair, taunting me with the way his muscles rippled in that beautiful body.

“Eh.” I had nothing else to say. He’d vanished for an entire day, all eighty hours of it. It scared the blazes out of me. What if he had died? I couldn’t admit my fear, so instead I glowered at him.

Jak came over, slow and easy. I crossed my arms, making a barrier between us.

“Got dinner,” he said.

“Where?” I didn’t see any meal.

“Other place.”

I didn’t intend to go any other places with him. Just because he showed up looking as sexy as who knew what didn’t mean I forgave him. Not a chance.

Jak touched my cheek. “Looking good, Bhaaj. My wild warrior queen.”

I needed him to stop being so distracting. “Not today.”

His fingers trailed along my arm, making promises. “You sure?”

Damn, he smelled good, a combination of spices and the faintly aromatic scent of dust.

Maybe I could forgive him this one time.


#


Jak had first showed me the grotto when we were kids. He found it during one of his trips to explore the maze of caves that networked the canals. He had led me through a darkness so complete, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. A drop of water splattered on my nose.

Jak had flicked on his gauntlet light—and a wonderland sparkled into view. Light glittered through the crystalline formations around us, all created as mineral-laden water dripped over the eons, hardening into cones of rock that hung from the ceiling or rose from the ground, ringing a pool in the center of the grotto. In the light, the lacework of crystals shimmered, as if we had entered a place of magic. It was one of the best birthday gifts I ever received.

Today, we bathed together in the pool. We could never drink that mineral-laden liquid, not without poisoning ourselves, but we loved the rare feeling of being submerged in water. Afterward we went to our place behind the cones of rock. We pulled the tarp off the carpet we’d left there and curled together in its warmth. Holding each other, we made love in the sparkling light, lost in the passion that chased away the nightmares of our lives.

Later we dozed. Eventually I spoke drowsily. “Had dessert before dinner.”

Jak laughed, a deep, husky sound. “Yah. Good dessert.”

I sighed, content. After several moments, I remembered I was mad at him.

“Where go today?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Dice.”

I sat up, pulling on my shirt. “Stupid dice.” He did that more and more lately, visiting gambling dens with dangerous strangers.

“Dice may be stupid.” He grinned lazily. “But Jak smart.”

“Win?”

“Dice, a lot. Cards, a little.” He rummaged in his clothes, then sat up and opened his hand, showing me three pieces of sweet-chew. “For you.”

“You won candy?”

“This time.” He brought out three more pieces for himself. “Next time, credits.”

I popped one of the sweets into my mouth. It melted like a dream. I ate the other two, savoring them for as long as possible, but all too soon, we finished off his winnings. The candy only reminded me of my hunger.

“Got more?” I asked.

“Nahya.” He didn’t sound happy.

We could go to the Concourse to pinch some spice sticks. We’d have to walk up there, though, which would take a long time. If the cops caught us stealing food, they might put us in jail. I wasn’t hungry enough yet to go through all that trouble.

To distract my thoughts, I said, “So. Dice. What play?”

He brought out two dice, each an octahedron with a different number on each face, one through eight. “Play sum-rum.”

I squinted at him. “Sum what?”

Jak rolled the dice, throwing an eight and a two. “Add numbers. Get ten.” He offered the pieces to me. “Get more, you win. Drink rum. Get less or same, you lose. I get rum. Pass, and no one wins.”

I wasn’t impressed. “We got no rum here, win or lose.”

He laughed. “Yah. Go anyway.”

I tossed the dice, rolling a six and a three, for a sum of nine. So I lost. “Lucky for you.”

“Not luck,” Jak said. “I got ten. Only one third chance you win.”

“How know that?”

“Sixty-four ways to get any sum. Only twenty-one sums bigger than ten.” He grinned. “Odds not good for you.”

“Huh.” I didn’t see how he came up with the numbers so fast, but it made sense when I thought about it. “Good think.”

“Yah.” Jak faced off with me, his voice intent. “Someday, I’ll own the dice place.”

“Whose?” I couldn’t see anyone just giving him their gambling den.

“Mine!” He smacked his palms together. “Big den. Casino. The biggest.”

I squinted at him. “Why? No one here can gamble that big.”

“Not here, no.” He motioned upward. “They can. Above-city slicks.”

That made no sense. The above-city had zero interest in us, which was how we liked it. “Never work.”

“Will work.” His gaze never wavered. “Take from slicks and use for us. Hire from here. Pay in food, whatever people need. Even credit.”

“Not credit.” I didn’t know what to make of this idea. I’d never really understood the credits people in the above-city used to define their wealth. “Can’t see it. Can’t eat it.”

“Got to ken credit to ken above-city slicks.” Jak’s smile faded. “Got to read, too, for me to ken them. Teach me words, Bhaajo.”

I blinked. He always teased me for stealing time on the above-city meshes so I could learn to read and write. Not that I did it particularly well. Few of us bothered with such a useless skill. It didn’t teach you to fight better. Well, maybe it could help. I learned things searching through the city meshes. You could join something called the army and get paid to fight. I knew of no one in the Undercity who had actually done it, though. I couldn’t imagine anyone leaving our way of life for the bizarre culture of the above-city. Besides, it looked as if you could get killed in the army just as easily as here. In fact, it might be more dangerous there; we didn’t fight to kill, only to keep what was ours. We didn’t want our foes to die, because then we wouldn’t have anyone to compete against.

Right now, though, I would settle for dinner. I could no longer ignore the ache of hunger that had taken over my body. How long since my last real meal? Twenty hours? Thirty? I didn’t know.

I grabbed my clothes. “Need to eat.”

“Yah.” Jak started to dress as well. “Steak.”

“Got no steak.” We’d be lucky to filch dried fruit.

“Talk to Kajada. Get steak.”

“Like hell.” I couldn’t run dope for Dig’s mother, not even knowing that in return, she’d give us a meal from her stores, whatever we wanted. She and the Vakaar boss were the only ones with more than enough food.

“No punker runs,” I said. “Never.”

Jak just nodded, his gaze downcast. We’d lost friends to the garbage Jadix Kajada peddled. He didn’t like it any more than me or Dig, but he was always hungry now, growing fast. He craved meat.

“Talk to Dig,” I offered. Maybe she could sneak us into her mother’s storerooms so we could pinch dinner without Jadix knowing.

Jak’s grin came back. “Yah, Dig.” He scooped up his dice.

We left the grotto and headed back to the main canal of our territory.

“The above-city,” I said after a while. “Slicks there. Want to bust cartels.”

He shrugged. “Never catch cartels.”

Probably. Dig’s mother had cyber-riders working for her, hiding her operation from the above-city. Undercity riders could beat anything, even the glossy technology in the City of Cries.

“You start casino,” I said. “You got to hide, too.”

“Got me a cyber-wizard,” Jak said.

I knew he meant Gourd, but Gourd had chosen to be a ganger, not a rider. “He doesn’t want.”

Jak’s smile faded. “This is truth. Don’t got a casino, anyway.”

Not now. I knew Jak, though. If he wanted his casino, he’d make it happen even if it meant breaking every law in Cries.

Jak and I had met when we were three years old. Dig introduced us. Jak had no family, so she looked after him, keeping him away from the police nets. Every now and then the cops rounded up any dust rats they found sneaking out of the aqueducts and dumped them in the orphanage. It wasn’t how I ended up there; someone had left me at its door when I was only a few hours old, with a note saying my mother died giving me birth to me in the Undercity. That’s how I knew the City of Cries did actually exist; I’d spent the first three years of my life there, though I remembered almost nothing except that I’d hated it. The orphanage wasn’t a shining tower in a magical place; it felt cold and sterile. When Dig showed up, with her confident walk, five years old and so wise about the world, she seemed like a goddess. She even let me follow her around. Said she liked my fighting spirit.

Gods only know how a five-year-old could see spirit in a three-year-old, but then, Dig was no ordinary kid. She’d spent her short life learning to survive, pushed by her mother to take care of herself since the day she took her first step. She did whatever Jadix wanted because at that age you’d follow your parent in anything, if you were lucky enough to have one. When Dig got trapped at the orphanage, her mother didn’t even bother to claim her. She sent a drug punker to tell Dig she had to get back on her own. Dig figured out how in a few days, with maps the punker gave her. She took me with her, using a sewer system under the orphanage. We crawled through pipes until we reached the aqueducts. She ran to her mother, and Jadix told her she’d done a good job. That was it. No joy in seeing her, nothing. Then Jadix went back to running her cartel, ignoring her daughter just like always. Dig never showed her hurt, but even at my young age, I could tell she wanted to cry.

Maybe Jadix meant to harden Dig into a crime boss who could take over the cartel. Or maybe she just didn’t care. Dig never forgave her. By the time Dig was ten, her rebellion had come on full force. She already led our fledgling dust gang, so she decided to live with me, Jak, and Gourd. Ketris and Byte looked after us in those years, but everyone saw the leader in Dig. Soon she was laying claim to our territory, looking after us all, giving us the care she craved from Jadix.

We became her family.



II

Dust Fighters


“Here,” Dig muttered.

I followed her voice, aware of Jak at my side as we crept through the dark. We didn’t need to see; we knew every step of these canals. Passages networked the Undercity. Living here was an exercise in learning how to sense spaces you couldn’t see.

A light flared. After the blackness, it was painfully bright, but it was only a pen-tip Dig carried. As our eyes adjusted, the light went from a blaze to a dim glow. Dig lifted the pen-tip, revealing the cave we’d entered. Boxes filled it, cargo crates and other containers.

“We take,” Dig said.

“Jadix not know?” Jak asked.

“Not take much,” Dig told him. “Won’t notice.”

We explored the containers. I loaded my pack with dried fruit, a sack of grain, and canned food. Jak stuffed his with fresh vegetables and steak. Dig took soups and sandwich fixings, even a few sauces. We used stealth moves, staying as silent as we could manage. You could get killed for stealing from the cartels. We could argue Dig wasn’t pinching from her own mother, but given how she and Jadix got along—or didn’t—we couldn’t take chances, besides which, if someone didn’t recognize Dig, they might just shoot us.

Dig hefted her pack over her shoulder. “Full,” she said in a low voice.

“Yah.” Jak closed his pack.

“We go,” I agreed. I couldn’t carry any more.

Dig turned out her light and we soft-footed it toward the entrance of the cave. We were almost free and safe. Just a few more steps—

Light flared everywhere, coming from harsh lamps in the ceiling.

“Shit!” Dig broke into a run. “Go!”

We sprinted forward—and a trio of drug punkers stepped into view, blocking our way, two women and a man, all in their twenties, with tats covering their hardened biceps. One woman had a long scar from her ear to her chin. The man had a series of criss-crossing scars on his lower arms, a cartel affiliation maybe, or else some monster from Vakaar cartel had tortured him.

We froze, three adolescent kids facing three giants. The scarred woman and the man had both drawn their daggers, their blades glittering in the harsh light. The third woman held a carbine, probably a military weapon she’d traded for on the black market.

“Got trouble,” the woman with the scar told us. She tossed her dagger in the air, sending it spinning, and easily caught the handle. I had a shorter knife sheathed on my belt, but I made no attempt to draw the blade. I valued my life too much.

“So,” a gravelly voice said. “My own jan pinches my food.” A woman stepped out from behind the trio, taller, huskier, and more scarred than any of them. She looked old to me, her face weathered, with deeply etched lines. She was old, in her early thirties, terrifyingly so, as if life had ground her into something inhuman. She wore black trousers and a muscle shirt torn at the waist, revealing rock-hard abs. Her arms, all muscle, were bigger around than my legs. She could break any of us in two.

Dig’s gaze burned with defiance. “Got food, yah.”

Jadix approached her daughter. Close up, the resemblance was undeniable; at seventeen, Dig was a youthful version of Jadix, still full of spirit. Jadix walked around the three of us, taking her time. I stood frozen, wondering if I’d signed my death warrant. We should have gone to the Concourse. We couldn’t have pinched anything as good up there, but so what? As long as we hadn’t stolen too much, the worst we’d have suffered was having the cops catch us. They’d throw us back into the Undercity or make us spend the night in a Cries jail, but we’d still be alive.

Jadix came in front of us and stood with her fisted hands on her hips. “Bad move, Daughter.”

Ho! Jadix never called Dig her daughter. She said “jan” instead. Everyone did. It was why people called me Bhaajan. The daughter of Bhaaj: that was what the note said that my unknown rescuers had left with me at the orphanage. Jadix only said “daughter” when she was royally pissed.

Dig met her mother’s gaze, but kept her silence.

Jadix looked around at us. “Got to pay for food.”

Pah. She knew we had nothing to give her.

“Pay how?” Jak asked.

She considered him for too long, looking him up and down real slow. He just raised his eyebrows at her. Maybe he didn’t care how she stared, but I was ready to throttle her neck.

“Can think of ways for you,” Jadix told him.

“Keep hands off,” I ground out.

Jadix glanced at me. “Eh, Bhaaj. You ready to blow holes in the sky?”

Right. She knew I’d never seen a sky. “Fuck you,” I said. I was worse than stupid today.

“You, no.” She laughed, a harsh sound. “Him, maybe.”

“Not interested,” Jak said.

“Hmm.” She didn’t sound as if she cared a whit about his consent.

I stood with my fists clenched at my sides, straining to hold back. Gods, I wanted to bash her face. She was toying with us, enjoying herself while we sweated. If I attacked her, though, this got more serious, maybe even deadly. She would never let such a blatant challenge go unpunished. I held back, but it took every bit of self-control I possessed.

“We pay,” Dig told her mother, intervening before Jadix pushed me further. “Do punker runs.”

Jadix went over to her daughter. “Yah.” Her voice sounded like ice. “All of you.”

Damn it! I refused to run drugs. Dig had chosen the only smart answer, giving Jadix what she wanted. Being rock-headed instead of smart, I said, “Not do!”

Dig looked ready to thump me upside the head. All we had to do was agree to a few drug runs and Jadix would let us go. Dig jerked her chin in that way she did when she wanted me to shut up.

I ignored her. “No hack running,” I told Jadix.

“Got a mouth on you, girl.” Jadix tilted her head at Jak. “You take run or I take him.”

“Nahya.” I clenched my fists so hard, the fingernails cut into my skin. “He stays with me.”

Dig spoke quickly. “Not need them. I do their runs, too.”

Jadix snorted at her. “Quit protecting them.”

“Got better idea,” Jak said in his duskiest voice.

What the hell? We turned to him. Jak spoke to Jadix as if they were just two dusters hanging out in the canals. “Roll dice. Ten sum-rums. I win, I leave, payment done. You win, I stay, pay how you want.”

“Nahya!” I had no intention of letting Jak stay with anyone, especially not a crime boss who would do gods only knew what to my lover, my lover. I stepped forward. Jadix didn’t see because she was frowning at Jak, but he saw me behind her and shook his head, just the barest motion, urging me to stay put.

“Leave him alone.” Dig walked toward her mother.

Jadix swung around to her. “Shut up and stay put, or my punkers shoot your gang.”

Dig stopped, but she looked ready to incinerate Jadix with her furious gaze. Her mother knew how to press her buttons, using Dig’s loyalty to us against her.

Jadix glanced to Jak. “Got no dice.”

“Here.” Jak pulled out his dice and gave them to her. “Fair.”

Jadix snorted. “Yah, sure.” She motioned to the trio of guards watching us. The woman with the carbine came over to her.

Jadix handed her the dice. “They a cheat?”

The guard flicked a panel on her gauntlet and held the dice over it, turning the small octahedrons this way and that. Lights glittered on the panel. After a moment, she said, “Fair.”

“Get crate,” Jadix said.

Her punkers brought over a crate that stood at chest height, forming a flat surface where Jak and Jadix could throw dice. Jadix rolled first, getting a two and a three. “Pass,” she said.

That was it for round one. Neither of them had won.

Jak rolled the dice, getting six and a four, which gave him a ten for round two. “Go.”

Since Jak hadn’t passed, Jadix had to roll. She got a four and a five, for a sum of nine. Hah! She lost round two. She showed no reaction, just handed the dice back to Jak.

So they went, alternating turns. Jak’s forehead furrowed with his concentration as he did numbers in his head. In the end, he won four rounds, Jadix won two, and they passed on the rest. I exhaled, closing my eyes with relief, then snapped them open. Just because Jadix agreed to the bargain didn’t mean she’d keep her word. We waited to see what she would do.

Jadix handed him the dice. “Go on. Get out.” She motioned at his pack. “You keep. This time. I catch you pinching my food again, I let my punkers work you the hell over. Got it?”

“Got it,” Jak said.

Jadix glanced at Dig. “Come back tonight. For run.”

Dig nodded, her posture rigid.

“Go on,” Jadix told her. She motioned to Jak. “Both of you. Get out.”

“Bhaaj comes with,” Dig said.

“Bhaaj stays,” Jadix told her.

Dig lifted her chin. “Bhaaj my duster. Not leave without.”

“I stay,” I told Dig. “Figure out pay.” I had no idea if I could find a way to pay Jadix without doing a drug run, but I didn’t want Dig caught in the middle again. Always Jadix used me against her.

“You sure?” Dig asked me.

I made myself nod with confidence. “Sure. See after.”

“Bhaaj,” Jak said.

“Go!” I told them. “Stop bothering me.”

Neither seemed fooled by my bravado, but they couldn’t refuse without making me look bad. So they left, easing out past the guards. The punkers watched with impassive faces, but I got the feeling they enjoyed seeing Jadix play with us. Screw them.

“So.” Jadix walked over to me. “Pinch my food, don’t pay. No good, Bhaaj.”

“Pay some other way,” I said, ever hopeful.

“How?” she demanded. “Got nothing.”

That pretty much summed up my life. I owned nothing except a few useless trinkets with sentimental value. I did have a skill, though. “Good fight,” I told her. I could best even Dig, which wasn’t a claim many people could make.

Jadix waved her hand in dismissal. “Little jan can’t fight worth shit.”

Little? I was almost her height. I crossed my arms, making my muscles bulge, and scowled. “Fight you.”

“Me?” She actually laughed. “You die, then. Dig not forgive.”

She cared what Dig thought? I hadn’t expected that. She was right, though. If Jadix killed me, Dig would never forgive her. Mother and daughter would go to war.

Jadix indicated the guard with the scarred face. “Fight Mace. Fists only.”

Well, shit. The towering Mace looked like she could smash me into flat cakes. But I’d opened my big mouth, so now I had to put up my fists.

The punkers cleared a space for us. I took off my pack and set it behind a crate. Facing off with Mace, I watched her pace back and forth, trying to get a feel for her style. She lunged at me, and I dodged, but she caught my arm and swung me in an arc. I slammed into a crate stomach first and grunted with pain. Spinning around, I punched her hard in the torso, but she barely doubled up. I felt as if I’d hit a rock wall. She threw me against another crate. No finesse for this one; she just used raw power to toss me around.

I dodged, evading her meaty fists, and sprinted across the fight area. She turned, fast for her, but now I knew her weakness. She had power, sure, but I was faster. When she came at me, I danced out of her reach, then lunged in, aiming a punch for her head. She brought up her arms with her wrists crossed and I hit them instead. Not hard enough to stop this mammoth; she barely swayed as she grabbed me. We grappled, fists clenched on arms, until she threw me to the ground. I groaned as I hit the stone. With a grunt, I rolled over and climbed back to my feet.

So we went, back and forth. Mace pounded the bloody hell out of me. I could dart out of her reach sometimes, but I made no headway against her powerful fists. Nothing stopped her. We kept at it, again and again, until I could barely stay on my feet. I staggered from blow to blow, my left eye swelling up, my nose bleeding. Finally Mace slammed me to the ground so hard, I just lay there, unable to move. I heard her over me, coming in for the kill—

“Enough,” Jadix said.

For a moment, I lay still. Then I slowly pulled myself up to my hands and knees. After another moment, I climbed to my feet. My entire body hurt. I could barely see out of my left eye. Mace stood a few paces away. She didn’t look so great, either, with plenty of bruises and her muscle shirt half torn off her torso. She was still standing, though. She gave me just the barest nod, an indication of respect. I didn’t see why, given how miserably I’d lost.

I turned to Jadix, my arms hanging by my sides, my hair straggling into my face. I wanted to collapse, but I stayed on my feet, glaring with all the defiance I could muster.

Jadix glanced at her guards. “Go.”

The three of them left without a hint of concern about leaving me with Jadix. They didn’t even bother to glance back. Yah, I was real intimidating today. I felt like an idiot.

Jadix sat on one of the crates and motioned to another. “Sit.”

I sat where she pointed.

“Got moves,” Jadix said. “Good moves.”

I hadn’t expected praise. “Mace better.”

“Mace fights like shit.” Jadix snorted. “All punch, no brain. You got more skill. You get more training, no one beats you.”

I shrugged. “Like to fight.”

“Need good fighters for the cartel,” Jadix said. “Good pay. Food. Credits even, you want.”

I shook my head. “Won’t punk for cartel.”

“Who else you going to punk for, Bhaaj? This is all you got.”

I didn’t know which I hated more, her claim that working for her was the best I could achieve in my life or my fear that she was right.

“Go on.” Jadix motioned to my pack. “Take it. You earn. Get out of here.”

I stood up and limped to my loaded pack. It hurt like hell to bend over, but I grabbed it without a sound. Then I left the cave. I felt Jadix watching me, as if her gaze was boring into my bruised torso.

The rocky path outside wound away from the cave through stalagmites and stalactites that had grown until they joined together in columns. I staggered between them, biting the inside of my mouth to keep from moaning.

“Bhaaj!” The whispered call came from up ahead.

“Eh?” I squinted. “Dig?”

She and Jak came out from behind a column and ran toward me.

“Here.” Jak grabbed my pack. “I take.”

“Not need help,” I lied.

“Not helping,” Jak lied back. “Want food.”

On my left, Dig slid her arm around my waist. “We go home.”

Jak moved to my right side and slipped his arm around me, above Dig’s arm. I groaned as they pressed against my bruises, but I didn’t push them away. Without their help, I’d never make it home.


#


I slept an entire day, the full eighty hours. During the brief times I awoke, Jak, Dig, or Gourd tended to me. Dig put a bottle of water to my lips, and the liquid ran down my parched throat, clear and fresh. Jak brushed my hair back from my face, hovering, his dark eyes intense. When I moaned, he blew hack smoke into my face until my pain receded and darkness closed over me again.

Gourd changed my bandages, his large hands gentle. He snuck onto a medical site and read up on how to clean my wounds so I didn’t get an infection. Seemed a waste of fresh water, but he insisted. He read something about “nanomeds” in the body, but whatever that meant, I didn’t have them. I’d end up with some fine scars, good for my reputation, the dust ganger who stood up to Jadix Kajada. Yah, right. I was a fool. If I pushed Jadix too hard, even my link to her daughter wouldn’t keep me alive.

It hurt fiercely when they worked on me, but the next time Jak tried to blow smoke in my face, I grabbed his wrist. I’d seen too many people destroyed by hack, their lives alternating between the hours they spent doped up and their desperate pursuit of whatever they could steal to trade for more. I didn’t want to get caught in the deadening loop.

“Not need,” I said.

“Eh.” Jak put down his pipe. “Awake.”

“Maybe.” I sat up slowly, wincing from the bruises all over my body. Jak was sitting next to me, leaning on one hand, with one leg bent and his other arm resting on his knee.

“Look like hell,” he informed me.

“Yah, you too,” I growled. He actually looked good, really good, but I wouldn’t tell him that.

Jak just smiled. He knew me too well to be fooled.

We were on the midwalk of Lizard Trap. Across the canal, Top Deck and two kids were roasting meat over a fire. Farther down, three little dusters played with toss-jacks, laughing and arguing as they spun their game pieces. Ketris and Byte were nearby, singing in harmonies, no words, just vowels. Their voices filled the air.

Down on the floor of the canal, Dig and Gourd were practicing the rough and tumble, seeing if they could avoid blows by dropping to the ground for a roll. I’d always considered myself good at that technique, but Mace had bashed me anyway. Time to rethink my supposed expertise. Problem was, I needed training no one here could give me. I could search out older dusters in a more established gang, someone we didn’t consider our enemy, but I’d already learned most of what they could teach. Although Jadix had the best fighters in the Undercity, I had no intention of going to her. Her words were seared into my brain: Who else you going to punk for? This is all you got.

“Nahya,” I said, negating Jadix, my life, and the Undercity.

“Eh?” Jak regarded me with his sleepy look, his lashes half-lowered.

I glared at him. “Doped up?” I couldn’t bear to think of him chained to a habit.

“Nahya. Makes me lose at cards. Got better bliss anyway.” He pulled me into his arms and settled back against the wall. “Bhaaj bliss.”

I leaned my head against his. “Eh, so, Jako.” That was more talky than usual about my feelings, but I wanted him to know it mattered to me that he sat here, warm and solid. I fought an odd sensation, a wetness in my eyes. I smeared it away with my palm.

Jadix was wrong. This wasn’t all life had to offer us dust rats, the kids who lived in the ruins under Cries. It couldn’t be true.

Could it?



III

Ruins of the Ruby Empire


The whisper mill gave me the message. A fighter told her brother who told a girl in his dust gang who told one of the young fathers her gang protected who told a cyber-rider who told Gourd who told me:

Professor Orin was in the Foyer.

Spiral staircases carved from stone connected the levels of the Undercity. I took one up to the highest level, going around and around, and climbing in places where the stairs had collapsed. I came out at the top onto a wide path. A lamppost stood a few paces away, one of the few maintained down here by the above-city. It had a bronzed look, like antique metal, with a top that curled in a loop. A lamp hung from a loop by a chain. I flicked off my measly gauntlet light and walked toward the Foyer.

Supposedly the Foyer served as the exit from the aqueducts onto the Concourse. Of course we didn’t use the Foyer to leave the aqueducts. We had secret exits. We'd never be so stupid as to walk out there in plain view. The cops would throw us back into the aqueducts. Sure, the above-city slicks claimed the Concourse belonged to the Undercity, the highest level before you climbed out into the desert. Yah, right. Like anyone who worked on the Concourse actually lived in the aqueducts. The vendors, shop owners, merchants, restaurant chefs, jewelers, and everyone else up there, all those overfed, glitzy people came from the City of Cries.

Upscale people visited the Concourse. Tourists. Flush with credit to spend at the boutiques and cafes, they came for the thrill of danger in visiting the Undercity. Or so they thought. The Concourse was about as dangerous as a soppy noodle. Sure, dust rats ventured up there, to explore, eat, or pick pockets, but we could never walk freely on that great, bustling boulevard. The city couldn’t have its ritzy Concourse sullied by the presence of the people who actually lived in the Undercity.

I paused when I came to the final bend in the path that ended at the Foyer. Closing my eyes, I listened. Yah, someone was up there, fiddling with a holopad, it sounded like. That could be Orin.

I walked around the bend, and the Foyer came into view. It consisted of a single cave about fifteen paces across, with a ceiling higher than two of me stacked foot to shoulder. It formed a stone chamber hollowed by whatever water had run through here eons ago, creating holes, cracks, and cones of rock. No water ran today. For as long as we remembered, this cave had remained as dry as the desert above, what people called the Vanished Sea.

Across the cave, an archway opened into the Concourse. Light filtered from out there into the Foyer, revealing a man who had sat on a sawed-off stump of rock by the cave wall. Intent on his holopad, he didn’t notice me. I stood watching him. In some ways he looked old, maybe in his early thirties, except that people who lived that long had scars, weathered features, broken noses, and lined skin. This man seemed hale, hearty, and well fed, with a head of dark curls and a well-built physique.

Finally I said, “Eh.”

The man jumped to his feet and spun around. When he saw me, he relaxed. “Bhaaj! My greetings. How are you doing?”

It always amazed me how many words Orin used to say the simplest things. Instead of Eh, Bhaaj, which itself was talky with two words instead of one, he added all that extra stuff, like My greetings, as if that wasn’t obvious, or How are you doing? like I would actually tell him.

I walked over. “Come with?”

“I was hoping you’d have time.” He slid off his pack and took out a snap-bottle of water. “For you.”

I accepted the bottle and put it in my pack, which was much more worn and dusty than his.

“I brought some spice sticks, too,” he said. “If you’d like them.”

Yah! I loved spice sticks. I shrugged and said, “Maybe.”

He smiled, which was odd because we rarely did that, only when we trusted a person, or with small children or lovers. It had taken me a while, but I’d finally figured out that Orin meant it as an act of friendship. He pulled a bundle of spice sticks out of his pack, ten of them, and handed it to me.

I stowed the bundle in my pack. “Good sticks.”

With our bargain complete, we headed down into the Undercity.


#


I had no idea why Orin insulted himself by saying he was an “anthropologist.” I’d tried to explain why he should find another word, but he used it anyway. Even a three-syllable word could be a problem, maybe rude, depending on the context, or else a huge thing, like the name of our home, the aqueducts. Using a four-syllable word was like shouting. Some of my people considered it fitting that the official name for where we lived, Undercity, had four syllables. Others claimed it was two words, each with two syllables, under-city. Five syllables either meant an extreme insult or else you were too drunk to know what you were saying. When Orin claimed he was an anthropologist at the university, I just stared at him. I mean, really? It was too absurd.

As we walked together today, I thought of the first time he had come into the aqueducts, three years ago. I’d followed him in secret, intrigued by the way he explored niches in the walls. Then another dust gang tried to mug him for all that lovely food and tech-mech he carried. It pissed me off that they meddled with my new toy. I shouted at them from hiding places, running here and there, out of sight, throwing rocks and insults as if I were four dusters instead of one. They decided he wasn’t worth the trouble and ran off. All that noise from people he couldn’t see clearly alarmed Orin, but when it quieted down, he took a breath—and continued his trip into the Undercity. It impressed me. He had guts, especially for a pampered slick from the above-city. I followed him, using hidden spaces in the lacework of hidden passages that networked the aqueducts.

Orin knew I was there. He finally lured me out with a bottle of water and asked me to act as his guide. I’d never have taken charity, but this exchange of services I understood. The Undercity worked on bargains. After Orin left that day, I convinced Jak, Gourd, and Dig to help me protect him if he came again. Word of our patronage spread, and after that, people left Orin alone when he visited.

Today I showed him to a little cave where ancient pipes jutted out of the walls, broken and dusty. We sat on the ground, and while he cleaned dust off the pipes with his various brushes, I drank my fill of the water he’d brought.

“I think these conduits are even older than the last ones you showed me,” he said.

“Eh?” Sometimes I barely understood him. He claimed we spoke different “dialects” of the same language, whatever that meant, but it had taken me a while to get used to his heavy accent.

He tried to speak more normally. “Old pipes.”

Well, yah, of course they were old pipes.

Orin wasn’t fooled by my attempts to look as if I had no interest. He motioned around at the cave. “I’ll bet this was a maintenance room in the aqueducts, thousands of years ago.”

I frowned at all his unnecessary syllables. “Jibber.”

“It’s not gibberish.” He went back to dusting the pipes. “These ruins are a great treasure for Raylicon.”

And there was that. He continued to insist we lived on a planet called Raylicon. I didn’t really know what planet meant, but what the hell. I liked listening to him.

“Why treasure?” I asked.

He tapped the pipe. “Humans didn’t build these. They were here when our ancestors came.”

“Who build?”

“That’s the question.” He sat back and pulled a water bottle from his pack. “We don’t know.”

“You find out?”

“I’m trying.” He snapped open his bottle and took a swig of water. “Someone tried to terraform this planet, but we don’t know who did it or why.”

I squinted at him. “Tear form?”

“Terraform.” His voice always warmed when he talked about his work. “It means change the planet so people can live here. Except it failed. The planet is dying.”

“How dead?” If he meant the canals and ruins, they had never been alive as far as I knew.

“The air,” Orin said. “It’s losing oxygen. And the heat, the poisons in the biosphere, all of that, it kills people.”

The air seemed fine to me, fresh and cool. It circulated through vents in the aqueducts. The temperature always felt the same, perfectly fine down here in the Undercity, though it cooled off in the lowest levels. Poisons, yah, they killed, especially the water, with all its minerals and salt and who knew what else. Gourd built filters to clean it up, but we needed energy to run them, so we could only filter the water when our cyber-riders stole power from the above-city grids.

“Air not kill,” I told him. “Kajada and Vakaar kill.” It was the first time I’d mentioned the cartels to him, but after three years, I trusted him more than when we’d first met.

He stopped smiling. “You mean the drug dealers?”

“You know?” I hadn’t expected that.

“We hear rumors. The police try to crack down on them. Sometimes they succeed.”

Yah, right. I’d never seen anyone “crack down” on the cartels, Either that, or a lot went on in Cries that we didn’t hear about in the aqueducts. I knew only that the cops didn’t come here. We were experts at hiding and killing, and they knew it. We had a bargain: as long as we stayed in the aqueducts, they didn’t bother us. I didn’t know what happened in Cries, though. The cartels ran product up there, too, so maybe more went on than I thought. Or maybe the police had deals with the cartels. I had no idea. I wanted nothing to do with any of them.

I said only, “Maybe.”

Orin was watching me with that look of his, the one where he seemed upset. “Bhaaj.”

I waited for him to make his point. Maybe he liked to say my name because I’d let him know it. We gave our names in the aqueducts as rarely as we gave smiles, only to people we trusted.

When he didn’t add anything else, I said. “Eh?”

“You have bruises on your face.”

Well, yah. He had a habit of stating the obvious.

“Who beat you up?” Orin asked.

I had no intention of telling him about a fight where I’d made such a miserable showing. So I just took another swallow of water. It tasted good.

After a while, Orin exhaled and drank his own water. I took out a spice stick and crunched on it. Ah, I could eat a million of these. Softening toward him, I motioned with my stick at the ancient pipes around us. “How you know so much about these?”

He lowered his bottle. “I studied the ruins in school.”

“School what?”

“You sit in a room and learn things.” He considered me. “I guess you don’t have that here.”

“Teach myself.” Gourd helped by stealing access for me to the city education meshes.

“What about your parents?” Orin spoke carefully. “Do they hit you?”

I scowled at him and spit out the last bit of my spice stick.

“Bhaaj—”

“Nahya.” I wished I hadn’t spit out my stick. I’d rather eat it, even if Orin did annoy me. Then I remembered. I had more sticks! I took out a second and crunched on the end. I felt guilty then. Orin and I had a bargain: he gave me food and water, and I acted as his guide, which included answering questions about the Undercity. I always honored my bargains.

I touched my bruised cheek. “From fight. I lost.” After a pause, I added, “Mother dead. I kill.”

“What?” Orin gaped at me. “I don’t believe you are capable of that act.”

“My being born,” I clarified. “Killed her.”

Now he just looked sad. “Bhaaj, I’m so sorry.”

I had no idea what he meant. He’d done nothing, and even if he had, he shouldn’t be saying sorry, showing weakness. I hunched up my shoulders and didn’t look at him.

“What about your father?” Orin asked.

“Don’t know.” I glanced up. “No one knows.”

“I’m sorry.”

Again! He was starting to make me angry. “For what?

“That you don’t know your parents.”

“Most dusters don’t.” I couldn’t figure what he was about.

“Who takes care of you?”

“Me.”

“You used to look so young,” he said. “But you’ve changed this year. Grown. A lot. You don’t seem much like a child any more.”

Strange man. Sometimes he seemed so dense. Of course I was an adult. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I said nothing.

“How do you survive here? Are you alone?” He stopped. “No, wait, I’ve seen those other kids following us sometimes.”

He was doing it again, asking too much. I just looked at him.

“Are you in one of the cartel gangs?” he asked.

Cartel gangs? That made no sense. He hadn’t learned much in that school of his. Dust gangs had nothing to do with the cartels, and drug punkers had nothing to do with the dust gangs.

I just said, “Nahya.”

“How do you support yourself?”

I stood up. “Got to go.”

“Bhaaj, wait.” He took out another bottle of water and offered it to me. “Don’t go.”

I hesitated. Our circle could use the water. I sat down again, watching him warily. Then I took the bottle and put it in my pack.

After a moment, he said, “When I first notified the chair of the Anthropology Department that I intended to come here, he told me it wasn’t safe. Said I’d be mugged and probably murdered unless I took guards with me.

I didn’t know if he was making fun with “anthropology-department.” He didn’t look drunk, though, and he wasn’t smirking. The rest of what he said made sense. We didn’t like above-city intruders. He was a man and good-looking, so I doubted even the punkers would’ve killed him, but you never knew. For sure, someone would have beaten him up and taken his stuff. Whether they would have used his body in other ways, I didn’t know. Maybe. No matter. He had my protection now.

I said only, “Cops not come here.”

“Yes, I know.” He finished off his water. “I hired a security firm, and they sent an armed escort with me the first time I came. But I couldn’t find anything. No people we could see. The canals were empty. When I tried to investigate the ruins, people threw knives at us from hiding places. Someone shot at us, and someone else threw a flare bomb.” He shook his head. “My guards fired back, but they couldn’t see our attackers. I just hope they didn’t hurt anyone.”

So that had been Orin. We’d all heard about it in the whisper mill. Of course he couldn’t find anyone. We were experts at hiding, using hidden spaces in the walls, ceilings, and floor of the canals, and also tech-mech shrouds our cyber-riders built. It was one of the few times the gangs, punkers, and riders had worked together, all to rebuff the intruder in our world. He and his team had left fast.

“No one hurt,” I told him.

“You knew about it?”

I didn’t intend to reveal anything. So I just said, “You came back. Alone.”

He gave me a wry smile. “My colleagues told me I was insane. I hoped that if I presented a less threatening appearance, I might be more successful.”

He’d been right. I wondered why he was telling me this. He talked so much, with so many extra words, he made my head hurt, but I liked it anyway.

“Why tell this?” I asked.

“It’s just—I’ve been coming here for three years, and I’ve met almost no one except you. The police say mostly drug dealers live in the Undercity, also a few homeless.” He rubbed his chin. “That doesn’t seem right. I’m trained to understand human cultures. I may have seen only a few of your friends, but I can still tell. You have a full life here. A viable, functional community. And a lot more people live here than the government realizes.”

I froze. This was none of his business. We wanted Cries to ignore us. The less they bothered my people, the better. Whenever they came here, trying to “improve” things, they caused no end of trouble, like stealing our children for the orphanage, or “giving jobs” by forcing us to labor on water farms in the desert. They also pissed off the drug cartels, who made us all suffer when they got upset. Or they busted our cyber-riders, which meant we lost our tech wizards and mesh access.

I stood up to leave. Then I stopped. I had to respect my bargain with him. Gritting my teeth, I sat down again.

Orin spoke carefully. “All right. Let’s try something else. How about you ask me questions?”

That startled me out of my anger. “What?”

“About Cries. What would you like to know?”

What indeed. Although the images I’d seen of the City of Cries were probably fake, something was out there. Wait, I knew what I wanted to know. “Army.”

“You want to hear about the armed forces?”

“Yah. Fighters.”

“All right.” He went back to brushing dust off a pipe. “We have four branches of the armed services. Taken together, they are called Imperial Space Command, or ISC, the military of the Skolian Imperialate. The Imperial Fleet is the largest branch. The Advance Services Corps provide scouts for planetary landings and foot troops. The Jagernaut Forces are the elite star-fighter pilots. The Pharaoh's Army is the oldest branch of ISC. It’s primarily concerned with planetary warfare, but they also have deep space divisions.”

I scowled at him, wondering if he even knew what he was talking about. “Jibber.”

“Bhaaj, it’s not gibberish.

“Says nothing.”

Orin put down his brush. “Women and men serve in the military to protect their people.”

That made more sense. Like a dust gang. “Protect circle.”

“Yes, something like that.”

“Where armed forces?”

“A lot of places.” He motioned upward. “The City of Cries is a civilian government center, but the Pharaoh’s Army has a strong presence here. The House of Majda pretty much runs Cries, and they’re almost all in the army. The Matriarch of the House is one of the Joint Commanders of ISC, the General of the Pharaoh’s Army.”

Even I had heard of the Majdas. Royalty. They were so far above me, they had no impact on my life. Most of what he’d said went by me like a gust of air, but one idea stuck.

“Army protect?” I asked.

“That’s right.”

“Teach you fighting?”

“Yes. They do.” Orin watched me with obvious curiosity. “Are you thinking of enlisting?”

“What enlist?” I’d seen that word on the mesh site for the army.

“Join the military. Become a protector.”

I might have considered it, but I had no wealth, and above-city people did everything with the invisible nothings they called credits. Even if they paid you to fight, which I found hard to believe, they had to let you in first and that couldn’t be free. “Cost too much.”

“It doesn’t cost anything.”

“Is true? Pay you to fight?”

“That’s right. You would earn a salary as a private. More if you advance in the ranks.”

I squinted at him. “Private?”

“New soldier.”

“Soldier mean fighter?”

“That’s right.”

I was already a soldier then, one of the best among the dust gangs. Maybe this army could make me even better. It didn’t seem likely, though. They all must be above-city slicks, because I didn’t know anyone here who had “enlisted.” Everything about the above-city cost far, far too much. I knew I should forget about it, but I couldn’t hold back my curiosity.

“How much cost to join army?” I asked. “I give them food, water?”

“Bhaaj, listen.” Orin spoke intently. “You don’t pay anything. They pay you. They feed and house you, and offer medical benefits. They can provide an education if you don’t already have one. They teach you how to fight and then deploy you.”

I clenched my fist, suddenly angry. “No charity!” Three syllables. It should have five.

Charity?” He looked as if I’d just suggested he stand on his head and blow bubbles through his nose. “Do you understand what you would be offering them in return?”

“Nahya.” So far he had said nothing about my side of the bargain.

Orin spoke in a quiet voice. “Your life.”

Ho! Definitely not charity. But I understood. I offered the same here, protecting my circle. A thought came to me like a golden sphere of light around a lamppost. I could join the army, store up the food and water they paid me, bring it home, learn new ways to fight, and pound the bloody hell out of Jadix. Yah, that sounded good.

I nodded to Orin, pleased. “Enlist. Help circle.”

He didn’t look anywhere near as pleased. “If you enlist you can’t come back here, not for at least four years. That’s the minimum term of service.”

I squinted at him. “Eh?”

His gaze never wavered. “If you join the army, you have to go where they send you. You won’t stay on Raylicon. They’ll ship you to a base on some other world.”

I scowled at him. Was everyone from Cries this dense? “Can’t protect if not here.”

Orin pushed his hand through his hair, mussing up the dark locks. “You join the army to protect everyone in the Skolian Imperialate. Not just the Undercity.”

“Protect above-city?” Pah. What a dumb thought. They could protect themselves just fine, as long as they didn’t come here. Why would they need to? I knew nothing about them, other than bizarre views I’d seen on the mesh, those gleaming towers surrounded by sand in every direction, on and on, much too far to be possible. Rock formations stood beyond the city on one side, “mountains,” a giant wall that went up and up and up. It all looked silly, exaggerated to impossible proportions. Why would I want to protect people who made up so much stuff? I should forget this business about “enlisting.”

Shouldn’t I?


#


Gourd was sitting on his favorite rock stump in the main cavern where our circle lived. He had strewn his tech-mech stuff over several other stumps, including the big one he used as a worktable. He was tinkering with his water filtration system. His girlfriend sat on the ground, leaning against his leg, her head resting on his thigh, her eyes closed. She had a bottle of whiskey in one hand, her fingers clasped around its neck. The green glass reflected the lights Gourd had set up so he could see his work.

All of the little dusters were over by the far wall with Top Deck, Ketris, and Byte, feasting on the stores we’d taken from Jadix. Dig was pacing back and forth, on guard duty. Top Deck had finished his new tapestries and hung them on the walls. They glowed in rich colors, dark gold, blue, and green, far more beautiful than the pale imitations of Undercity work sold by vendors on the Concourse. As I walked inside, I dumped my pack with the water bottles onto the pile of other packs by the entrance.

Dig stalked over to me. “Jak where?”

I shrugged. “Screwing around.”

“No show for practice.”

He’d promised to spar with me, too, and he hadn’t showed up then, either. I scowled. “Dice.”

Dig smacked her right fist into her left palm. “Stupid.”

I wished he wouldn’t disappear all the time. I missed him. He couldn’t quit gambling any more than a hack user could stop smoking, Gourd’s girlfriend could stop drinking, or Gourd could stop playing the games he found on the Cries meshes. Nothing held Dig that way, but her mother wanted her to sell the shit that turned people into zombies, which was even worse. Dig told her no. She only agreed to help when the supplies Jadix gave in return helped our circle survive. Jadix Kajada was no fool. She knew Dig had a mind faster than the above-city authorities, faster than Hammer Vakaar, faster even than Jadix. Yah, Dig was smart—enough to know she didn’t want what her mother offered.

Jadix’s current project was to make me into a cartel fighter. Dig refused to help her, one of the many reasons Dig would forever have my loyalty, but I hated the way it put her in the middle. I didn’t see how to escape the future that lay ahead of us. Life was more agreeable when Jak was here, but he let the dice take him away. I almost wished he’d get his dream, that damn casino, because if he had to run it, the work might distract him enough that he stopped gambling himself.


#


“Bhaajo, wake up!”

I punched out, trying to get rid of the annoying person whispering at me.

My tormentor caught my hand and grunted. “You got muscle.”

“Jak?” I pulled away and sat up. I could just barely see him in the glow from a candle Gourd’s girlfriend had left burning across the cave. “Where go?”

“Nowhere.”

He must have had a bad night. Otherwise he’d boast about his wins. “How much lose?”

“Nothing.”

As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I realized he had a blotch on his face. Leaning closer, I saw a large bruise on his cheek. Someone had hit him. “Fight?”

He waved his hand in dismissal. “Said I cheated.”

“Did you?”

“No. Won cards fair this time.”

“This time?”

“Not important.”

“Is important! No cheating. They kill you.” It was a lot of words, but I wanted to make sure he understood their importance. I didn’t want him to die for some poker game. At least we were safe here. I looked around. I had a corner in the cave with a half wall of rock that gave me privacy. Across the main cave, Gourd stood by the entrance, taking his shift as the night guard.

Jak stretched out on the soft pile of rugs I used as a bed. “I sleep.” He smiled. “Maybe.”

I lay back down, but I didn’t want to make love. He expected me to carry on as if I hadn’t spent the entire day fearing he’d died. I lay on my back like a block of ice.

He jumped up again. “Got water?”

I swore under my breath and sat up. “Quiet. Wake people up.”

Jak paced across the cave and grabbed a bottle from our stores. He stood there, feet planted, his head tilted back as he drank, looking sexy as all hell in his black clothes, tight and torn, outlining his lean muscles. It pissed me off. He got away with stuff because people liked him. He made them laugh. He’d make me forget to be mad at him. It wasn’t right. I lay down and turned over, closing my eyes.

Footsteps rustled behind me. Familiar steps. I ignored them.

Jak lay down again and put his arms around my waist, pulling my back against his front. “Come on, Bhaajo.”

“Not call me that,” I growled.

He ran his finger down my side, under my muscle shirt, making my skin tingle. “Hmmm?”

I turned over in his arms, onto my back. He pushed up on his elbow and regarded me. “Look like goddess, Bhaaj. Wild goddess of war.”

Goddess of war, indeed. I couldn’t help but smile. “Defeat you, eh?”

He laughed and came down for a kiss.


#


Jak was gone when I woke up, off to gamble or jog the canals or do whatever he needed to calm his hyperactive self, and he deserved that four-syllable word. I paced by the entrance to the cave, taking my guard shift while everyone else ate breakfast. I couldn’t sit, couldn’t eat, couldn’t stop burning. Damn it, he always did this.

After breakfast, Gourd went with Dig to practice the rough and tumble. The kids played, Ketris watched them, Top Deck carved figurines of ancient warriors with swords, and Byte tended the sickly plants he kept in pots by the water filtration system. The pale stalks never grew right. They were supposed to survive in the dark, but they died too easily. Gourd’s girlfriend was slouched against one wall, dozing off her hangover. I wondered if she even rode the cyber waves anymore, or just mooched off us. I continued to pace, mad as a lizard on hot coals.

I sat down on the rock stump Gourd used for a chair and squinted at a rod he’d left on his table. When I tapped the rod, it unrolled into a blotched screen, silver in some places, dark in others.

“Eh?” I said, by way of greeting. The screen didn’t answer.

I poked at the screen for a while, until suddenly it lit up, or at least the silvery parts glowed. “My greetings,” it said. “Can I help you?”

Pah. Above-city tech. “Nahya,” I told it.

“I don’t understand your word,” it said. “Are you using the dialectical form of the negative adopted by the population living under the City of Cries?”

“Jibber,” I said.

“Do you have a question?”

“Yah.” What would I ask an above-city piece of stuff? “Where go? Army enlist.”

“Are you requesting directions to a metropolitan recruiting facility?”

I scowled. Was it making fun of me? Then again, it was above-city. They all jibbered.

“Need map,” I clarified.

A map appeared, floating in the air. Parts of it were gone, the sections above the dark blotches in the screen. I could still read it, though. A red line showed the way to a place marked by a red pyramid just like the symbols on the army mesh site. I memorized the map the way I’d memorized all the routes and levels in the aqueducts. It was easy.

“Would you like to print the map?” the screen asked.

“Nahya.” I tapped its edge the way I’d seen Gourd do when he finished working. The screen went dark and rolled back into a small rod. Huh. Weird. I got up and resumed pacing the cave.

Eventually Dig and Gourd returned. Dig looked less angry at the world. She worried about all of us, serious in her duties as our leader, but spending time with Gourd calmed her down.

“Want to practice?” Dig asked me.

I shook my head. “Need walk.”

“Go where?” Gourd asked.

I thought of Jak. How would he like it if I disappeared? I should make him sweat. “Enlist.”

Gourd smiled. “What?”

I didn’t actually know what I wanted, just that I felt angry, not only at Jak, but at the world. Maybe it wasn’t even anger. I felt pushed inside, and I couldn’t say why.

“Got to walk,” I said.

Dig nodded. “Go.”

So I left, headed some place, I didn’t know where.


#


I bypassed the Foyer. Instead, I followed hidden passages, tunnels so narrow I had to turn sideways in places to squeeze through. Eventually they took me into the walls of the lower Concourse. When I reached a narrow break in the tunnel, I slipped through it into the open.

A smoky haze surrounded me. I wrinkled my nose and squinted in the bright light. Only the dregs of the above-city merchants sold their goods here, so close to the aqueducts. Walking forward, I reached the back of a market stall, old and faded, built from canvas stretched on a framework. The aroma of meat sticks drenched in pizo sauce saturated the air. My mouth watered. I inched forward, into a narrow alley between two stalls. Crouching down, I hid behind the lower part of the stall and peered over the waist-high railing. Yah, there was a vendor, a hefty man roasting meat over a brazier. He had a row of meat sticks set up on his front counter. It didn’t look like he had sold any. Almost no one came down this far on the Concourse.

I crept along, hidden behind the lower portion of the stall. When I reached the front, I snaked my hand up and pinched a meat stick. Then I backed off, as silent as I’d come, until I was away from the stall. Standing up, I took a bite of my prize. Ah, bliss. Pizo sauce filled my mouth and the meat crunched like a dream. While I feasted, I walked a path hidden behind the stalls. I didn’t much like stealing; I preferred to earn my way through a good bargain. But it beat starving, especially if it left food for the kids we protected.

When I finished my pizo treat, I dropped the stick in a trash cruncher and set off, loping along behind the stalls. As I went farther up the Concourse, the haze cleared and my hidden path widened. The stalls were less faded here, and bright blue ribbons hung from poles at their sides. I could hear tourists on the main street chatting with the vendors. These merchants sold pots, tapestries, glassware, and handmade crafts supposedly from the Undercity. I would have laughed it if hadn’t been so annoying. These fakes couldn’t come close to matching the beauty of what someone like Top Deck created. Too bad no one from the Undercity could get a license to set up shop here.

I kept jogging.

The path became a cobbled street running behind the shops on my right. On my left, the wall of the Concourse rose up until it met the ceiling hundreds of meters above my head. The entire boulevard was underground, but it sloped upward, gradually climbing until at its end it was only a few meters below the desert. Supposedly. I rarely came this far up the Concourse, and I’d never been to its end. I heard people thronging the boulevard, all their talking and laughter, also bells and music. This far up, fancy boutiques and cafés lined the boulevard. My pulse jumped. I pretended it was from the strain of running uphill, but that was bullshit. I could run twice this fast up a slope twice as steep for twice as long and barely feel winded. I’d ventured to a new realm, a place where I would be shunned and turned away if the police caught me.

I kept jogging.

The cobblestone path turned into a street. The Concourse widened enough that on my left, instead of a wall, I was passing another row of shops tucked away from the road. A trio of people came out of a pottery shop, glanced up as I jogged toward them—and did a double-take. They backed up, watching avidly as I passed. I was so tense, I registered only their looks of terrified fascination. A real Undercity thug! Yah, right. The only danger was to me, if they called for help and the cops came looking for the dust ganger who’d invaded their fancy street.

Making a left at the next intersection, I ran down an alley until I reached the back of this second street of shops and the Concourse wall. I moved fast, putting as much distance between myself and the pottery people as possible.

I kept jogging.

The buildings on my right began to glow. Lights danced around their eaves, red and blue, shimmering. Signs described what the shop sold: bolts of cloth, walking shoes, jewelry, crystals. Holos of creatures with wings ran up and down the side of one building, singing. It was all so pretty, it hurt to see. I felt as if I were breaking, but I wasn’t sure why. So much light. And these were only the lesser shops, not the bigger, ritzier establishments on the main Concourse.

I kept jogging.

A woman and a man came down an alley on my right. Holos of water flowed down the walls of the buildings on either side of them, and a rushing noise filled the air. It sounded painfully beautiful, as if I should recognize the sound that went with falling water, though I’d never heard it before. The two people were chatting, but when they saw me approaching, they froze, staring. Then they spun around and ran in the other direction.

“For flaming sake,” I muttered. I wasn’t going to mug them. I just wanted out of here before all these pretty people called the authorities.

I was approaching a gate made from gold bars. Beyond it, an open area stretched out. I slowed to a stop at the gate. It reached from the ground to the ceiling, which was only about twenty meters high here. To have come all this way, venturing farther than I’d ever tried before, only to have this barrier stop me—no. I couldn’t stand the thought of having to retrace my steps back to the aqueducts, but any other route would take me out among the tourists, a risk I couldn’t take. Although I’d avoided being caught so far, my luck wouldn’t last if I ventured onto the main Concourse. Frustrated, I grabbed the bars—

The gate swung open.

Oh. It wasn’t locked. I’d assumed Cries built the gate to stop people like me. Now that I thought about it, that made no sense. We rarely came up this far. This silly gate just served as some arbitrary divider separating the boulevard from the open area beyond.

I walked past the open gate and closed it behind me. The large area I’d entered reminded me of the Foyer, but bigger, bright and shiny, not a rock in sight, just smooth walls made from blue material. Racks with scooters parked in them stood to my left. Images moved on the walls and showed people laughing, eating, or going to shops. Soft voices told me I wanted to buy “tickets” to “shows” or “clubs.” Pretty machines gleamed with so many colors I couldn’t see them all at once: red, blue, green, gold and more. One of them showed bottles, some with water, others with brown or blue or orange liquid. I stood there, dumbfounded, trying to make sense of the scene.

Voices filtered into my awareness, people talking in happy voices. Across the foyer, a wide set of stairs climbed upward. A group was coming down them, three girls and three boys. They looked like adults, like me and Jak and Dig and Gourd, but they didn’t seem old enough for their height. No scars, I realized. They were bright and clean and happy, wearing clothes too complicated for me to ken, with too many colors, blue and gold, white for flaming sake, clothes so clean, they seemed to glow. I stared at them, knowing I should hide, but too astounded to move.

As the group reached the bottom of the steps, one boy glanced around and caught sight of me. Even from so far away, I saw his eyes widen. He gasped and the entire group looked. They all froze like I’d turned them into stone or something.

The boy spoke. I had the impression he thought he was using a voice too quiet for me to hear, but after so many years of listening for every footstep and trickle of dust in the aqueducts, always alert for danger, I easily made out his words.

“Over there!” he hissed. “A gangster.”

“Gods almighty!” a girl whispered. “She looks ready to kill someone.”

“She’s so dirty,” another boy said.

What? I was not dirty. I cleaned in a grotto each day. Of course I had dust on my clothes; you couldn’t exist in the aqueducts without stirring up the stuff.

“I wonder if she can speak,” one of the girls said.

“They’re too stupid to speak,” a boy answered. “I’ve heard they aren’t really human.”

“Don’t make any sudden moves,” another girl cautioned. “She could go crazy. Just back away, slow and easy.”

They stepped away so carefully, it was funny, or it would have been if they hadn’t been pissing me off.

The third boy spoke more gently. “She’s gorgeous under all that dust.”

The last girl snorted. “Don’t go near her, hon. They have no sense of decency.”

Oh, drill that. I was tired of people acting like I was a monster. Maybe I should give them a scare. I pulled myself up, clenched my fists for good effect, and strode toward them.

“Ah!” The kids yelled and broke into a run, sprinting across the foyer. They ran under a large arch to my right, which I realized led out in to the main Concourse. I almost laughed, until I saw other people walking out there. Some glanced back when they heard the panicked kids.

Damn! I’d let down my guard. I had to get out of here before the cops came. This far up the Concourse, they’d probably take me to jail in Cries instead of chasing me back to the aqueducts. I ran to the steps, looking for the spaces that would let me through the staircase. Not a single break showed, no entrance to any hidden passages. The steps were ledges, wider than any I’d ever seen, straight and unbroken. I didn’t have time to figure it out, so I ran up them. They felt as solid as they looked, and nothing broke or shifted under me.

I reached a wide landing at the top and paused to heave in a breath. The ceiling here was only about twice my height. A large archway stood before me, filled with the oddest sight. Colored light. It rippled in pale colors, blue, silver, purple, white. I’d never seen a gate like this. Did it open or what? No time to ponder. If I was gone by the time the police arrived, they might think the yelling kids had made up the whole thing. I hoped. Taking a breath, I reached out to push open the gate.

My hand went through the shimmer.

“Ah!” I jerked back my arm. It returned in one piece, with no bad effects that I could see.

Go ahead, I told myself. Ahead. Not back.

I walked into the shimmer.

The glistening curtain felt like a thin film dragging along my bare arms. Then I was through—

Light hit me like a physical blow. So bright! I couldn’t absorb the view. Red, red, red everywhere, and blue above me. I couldn’t see it all together, not because anything blocked my view. I just couldn’t process it all. The world had gone insane.

Gradually I became aware of air. Someone was blowing against my face. Except I was alone. My hair blew back from my face, yet no one stood here making that happen. Hell, no one I knew could blow enough air to throw around my heavy curls this way.

I focused on the ground under my feet. It resembled the ground in the aqueducts, red with blue flecks, except this was all sand instead of dust. I lifted my gaze—

No. It couldn’t be. The ground went on forever. Forever. No walls rose up to define the space. Nothing, at least not until a long, long distance, so far away that it couldn’t be real. I tried to remember the word I’d learned when Gourd showed me images of the desert. Horizon. I was seeing the horizon. Beyond it, a blue wall rose up and up until it curved into a ceiling far over my head. I reached up, trying to touch it. My fingers didn’t even come close. Air blew against my arm. Wind! I felt wind, not a person blowing air. The blue above me—it was a sky. Gods almighty, it was true. The sky went on forever, so high you could never reach far enough to touch its endless blue.

Something was building in me, something powerful and strange. The desert, the sky, the wind, they stirred a hunger I couldn’t define, one that burned as bright as this impossible light.

I turned slowly. The archway stood behind me with its curtain of colors. It rose out of the ground as if it were a hill, like the mounds made by rock falls in the aqueducts. I kept turning, gazing at the desert. The horizon became mountains that reached into the sky. When I raised my head to look almost straight up, a disk of light seared my vision, too brilliant to look at. I lowered my gaze, still turning—

And I stopped.

To my right, a few meters away, the sky came to the ground. It lay there, blue and smooth, covering the desert, stretching out and out. Not forever, though. In the distance, beyond the blue, the towers of a city rose into the brilliant day, shining and impossible, reflecting the sky. No words I knew could do justice to that sight.

The City of Cries.

I’d never believed the holos. They were creations of artists who had nothing better to do than make up fantasy places that could never exist. Except the city did exist. It stood there with light pouring all around it towers, and it was real.

I stepped toward the blue that separated me from Cries. The red ground under my feet stayed firm. Good so far. I took another step. Still good. So I drew in a deep breath and strode forward. As I drew closer to the blue ground, the smooth surface resolved into what looked like stone. It wasn’t flush with the sand; four steps led up to it, bizarre ledges that stretched out on either side of where I stood.

I walked up the small staircase and stepped onto the blue surface. It felt solid.

“Eh,” I said. “Got sky under my feet.” It didn’t fit with anything I’d read about the sky, but then, I hadn’t read much.

So I walked across the sky, headed for Cries. The sky turned out to be blue rock. Or not rock, exactly, but some material that felt solid. My boots thudded on it. Kneeling down, I brushed my fingers across the surface. It felt smoother than anything in the aqueducts. I tilted my head back to see the sky above me. Same color. Standing up, I tried to touch it, but I still couldn’t reach high enough.

A thought came to me. Maybe the blue rock under my feet wasn’t part of the sky. I tried to remember what I’d read about Cries. It had a “plaza” on the outskirts of the city. Could this be it?

“Pretty,” I said.

I set off jogging toward the city.


#


The map I’d memorized placed the army center on this edge of Cries. In that sense, I had only a short distance to go.

In every other sense, it was the longest walk I’d ever taken.

I didn’t understand the City of Cries. Its buildings rose straight up with smooth sides, built from red stone with blue specks, or white stone, or glossy metals, or glass that reflected the sky. The city had a spare, sleek beauty. I became so overwhelmed with the fantastic sights, I no longer cared that I was walking in the open, on a boulevard at the edge of the city. If the cops came to get me, well, they came. My mind had no room left for fear. I didn’t belong here, and sooner or later someone would tell me to get out, but until that happened, I kept walking.

This far from the city center, a lot of space separated the buildings. From a distance, these structures had looked small compared to the rest of the city, but up close their true height became obvious. I set my hands against the wall of one and looked up. It reached to a height more than three times my own.

A hum sounded above me. I tilted my head back, bracing my hand on the wall so I wouldn’t get dizzy and fall over. A silver wedge flew in the sky. I watched it, squinting against the brightness of the day. The silver thing didn’t look anything like the flying reptiles I knew, little winged ruziks that whizzed through the aqueducts. This wedge glittered. I watched until it disappeared behind the towers. Then I pushed away from the wall and continued my walk.

The boulevard took me past courtyards and parks—parks—with green plants, lush and full. So much green. Rotating wheels close to the ground sprayed water over them. I didn’t understand how water could come out of little spinning machines.

Not many people were out. They watched when I passed them, but no one bothered me. Unlike on the Concourse, where everything was closer together and more intense, out here no one seemed to care who walked in the wide spaces under the endless sky. It was the middle of the eighty-hour day, so most people were probably asleep. I never thought about it in the aqueducts; we slept when we were tired. We did keep track of the day’s cycle, though, using Gourd’s tech. Mostly we slept once in the night, once at midday, and maybe a third time if we needed the rest.

I wasn’t tired. I felt so wound up, my mind spun with energy. I couldn’t have stopped even if a wall burst up from the ground and blocked my way. I’d have climbed over it, gone around, anything. I felt like I would burst with this huge emotion inside me, but I didn’t know what it meant or how to describe the feeling.

My sense of time got lost in all the open space, and I couldn’t have said how long it took to reach the army center. I knew when I found it, though. It looked the same as the image on the map, a low building with many windows. A green and gold holo glowed on its wall: The Pharaoh’s Army Career Center. A red pyramid shimmered next to it, probably for the Ruby Pharaoh.

I stopped in front of the building. Although a few people in the aqueducts built doors for the caves where they lived, mostly we used curtains, or strings of beads, or we hid our private spaces well enough that people couldn’t find us unless we invited them. Although I was pretty sure I’d reached the door, I didn’t know what to do.

“Do you wish to enter?” a voice asked.

Ho! I looked around, but saw no one. Well, Gourd’s screen had talked to me. Maybe doors talked in Cries.

I turned back to the door. “Enter. Yah.”

It slid to the side, retracting into the wall. Huh.

I walked into the Pharaoh’s Army Career Center. The place looked as boxy inside as outside. I’d entered a medium-sized room where a woman with dark hair sat at a counter. She dressed more sensibly than anyone else I’d seen in Cries, in a jumpsuit the colors of rock, all browns, grays, and dusty red. Yah, that was good. It would help her blend with her surroundings, not here, but outside, like camouflage. She had a screen rolled out on the counter, one brighter than Gourd’s, with no dark patches. Holos flickered above it. Relieved to see something I recognized, I walked to the counter.

The woman glanced up. When she saw me, she blinked.

“Eh,” I said.

“Uh, my greetings,” she said. “What can I do for you?”

“Enlist,” I said.

Until I spoke that word, I hadn’t thought through why I’d come here. But it had been in the back of my mind, never letting me relax. In that instant, as I looked at the woman, I realized that since I’d stepped out under the sky, I stopped feeling restless for the first time in I didn’t know how long, maybe years, maybe most of my life.

“You want to enlist in the army?” she asked.

“Yah.” I waited, wondering if I needed to do anything else, or if now I was in the army.

She pushed her hand through her hair. “Wait here please. I’ll get the recruiter.”


#


I wasn’t in the army yet. They had me do stuff. First they took me to a shower and asked me to clean up, so I wouldn’t get dust in their machines. I stripped and stood in the tall box while a spray misted over my body. I tasted the mist and it didn’t have the tang of poison water. It couldn’t be drinkable, though. They wouldn’t waste so much fresh water just to clean a person.

When I finished, I stepped out and found my clothes on the table in the small room, exactly where I’d left them, except they smelled and felt fresh. Someone had whacked the dust out of the cloth or maybe cleaned it in a mist-and-drying thing like the shower. Strange. I liked the way they felt against my skin, softer than normal. Not that I would admit that. Gourd would laugh, Dig would tell me to toughen up, and Jak would want to take them off. I smiled at that last thought and had to remind myself I was mad at him.

I looked around, wondering what to do. Dark panels stretched from the floor to ceiling on my right. As I turned toward them, they lit up, showing people. I walked over and waved my hand through a holo. It was an image in front of the panel, nothing real, but the people looked so alive. Three women and two men stood there, dressed in the camouflage jumpsuits everyone here wore. I liked that they weren’t smiling. Cries images showed people smiling too much, teeth white and bright, usually while voices told you to buy whatever the people held, or were doing, or whatever. These soldiers didn’t smile, at least not overtly. But they looked proud. Confident. Strong.

I walked to the next panel and another image activated, a woman in a jumpsuit. She stood with a handsome man in regular clothes and two kids, a girl and a boy. A voice spoke, but it wasn’t telling me how much I wanted to buy their clothes or their stuff. It talked about “wages” and “benefits.” After listening for a while, I figured out it was trying to sell me something too, the army in this case, but it sounded like the bargain they offered actually included things I might want, like a way to provide food and protection for my circle.

The third holo made me stare for a long time. It showed explosions, with people running and shooting guns. It wasn’t like any fight I’d seen before. Sure, we could blow things up in the Undercity, but no one was that stupid, at least not most of the time. Even a small explosion could bring down the walls. The ruins were built well, incredibly well, or so Orin told me. They’d lasted thousands of years and would probably last at least that much longer. They wouldn’t keep standing, though, unless we took care of them, and setting off freaking bombs didn’t qualify as care.

This battle had many explosions, many guns. The fighters used machines for weapons and transport, battling at a distance. I watched the scene replay over and over. Their guns were huge, powerful, seductive. And legal. I wanted this. But I wasn’t stupid. This recording was trying to make me feel that way. What struck me most about the soldiers, though, was one simple, ice-cold fact.

I had no idea who they were fighting.

If I went into this army, I would be a protector, yes, but not for the Undercity, or at least, not only them. I’d be protecting people I didn’t know against an enemy I didn’t understand. The people in the recording won their battle and stood together, weary, their uniforms muddy, but they held themselves with pride. They had won. A part of me responded with an intensity that took my breath. Yes! This was for me. Another part warned me to slow down. I didn’t ken this fight. I needed to know more.

I turned from the holo—and discovered a woman with red hair watching me.

“Eh,” I said.

“We’re ready to start your exams,” she said. “But you’re welcome to keep watching the recordings if you’d like.”

“I come with,” I said.

The recruiter took me to a room with tech-mech I didn’t recognize. The table where she sat me down had a screen like Gourd’s, except this was larger and had no dark patches. The woman tapped a code onto the screen, bringing up holos until she found what she wanted. She turned on what looked like a camera and then left me alone in the shiny room.

The screen asked questions. It wanted me to read and do math and talk about random things. It showed patterns or strings of numbers and asked what came next. That was easy. It projected three-dimensional figures, balls, blocks, and more, and wanted me to describe how they would look if they rotated. That was easy, too. We had to do that all the time in the aqueducts, especially if our lights went out. I liked it a lot less when the screen asked about my life, where I came from, how I felt about various subjects. How did I know how I felt? I didn’t answer those questions. So it asked about history and dead people I’d never heard of, about strange cities, places, and customs. A lot of it made no sense, like stoichiometry and kinematics. The questions went on an on, stretching my brain until my head hurt.

After all the talky-talky with the screen, two recruiters took me to a huge room they called the gym. They had me run, jump, push weights, do sit ups, pull ups, push ups, and any other type of up they could think of. That part I enjoyed. When I did a few kicks to warm up my legs, they got excited and asked what else I could do in fighting. A fellow in a jumpsuit sparred with me. I used rough and tumble moves he didn’t seem to recognize, but he had plenty of moves I’d never seen. He was fast and sharp and clever, and yah, I had to admit, he fought better than me. The entire time, he stayed as cool as ice. He did get angry once, when I rolled and punched him in the knees. I wasn’t sure why, but then, not a lot about these people made sense to me. I couldn’t understand everything they said, either. At least they didn’t ask me to talk as much as the screen had wanted.

Finally they sent me to take another shower. They seemed to think this was normal, to shower twice in a few hours, just because I’d exercised. This enlisting business continued to be strange.

I was intrigued.


#


Sergeant Corvin wore the same jumpsuit as everyone else here. He sat behind a large table, what he called his desk. I sat across from him. My chair felt soft and the seat moved, just slightly, but in the right way to ease my stiffness. That was so strange, it made me tense up more. It didn’t matter. I was too busy trying to follow Sergeant Corvin’s words. He talked a lot, and none of it sounded good.

“Your academics need work.” He was reading from a tablet. “You failed most of the exams. You read and write Skolian Flag at the level of a twelve-year-old.” He sounded surprised, as if he hadn’t expected even that much. I had no idea what he meant anyway. I’d never heard of Skolian Flag.

“You failed chemistry, biology, and physics,” he continued. “Your astronomy score was zero.” That didn’t seem to surprise him. Then he paused. “You almost passed geology. You also know some history and archeology.” He glanced at me. “You live under the city, don’t you? In the ruins.”

“Yah.” They kept asking me that.

He nodded as if this might explain why I almost passed geology, whatever geology meant. “Your math isn’t so bad, especially probability and statistics. You passed, not with flying colors, but still a pass.” He squinted as new holos flowed over his rectangle. “Holy shit. That can’t be right.”

I waited, wondering what else I had managed to fail.

He looked at me and spoke bluntly. “Did you cheat on the IQ tests?”

I had no idea what IQ meant, but I hadn’t cheated on their freaking tests. “Nahya.”

“I don’t understand what that means,” he said.

I tried to remember the way Orin spoke. “No. Not cheat.”

Corvin went back to his tablet, tapping its edges, bringing up new holos. “They monitored you the entire time.” He spoke as if he were talking to himself instead of me. “You didn’t have a chance to cheat.” He considered me. “According to this, you have an IQ in the top twelve percent of all people. The EI that tested you says your scores are probably even higher.”

“EI?”

“Evolving Intelligence. It thinks you didn’t fully understand the language it spoke or the tasks it wanted you to do.”

Well, I didn’t understand this sergeant, so his EI had a point. I waited to see what else he had to say.

He went back to reading. After a moment, he whistled. “I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise. I saw you down in the gym. But still. This is incredible. You’re clearly the most physically fit recruit to come through here in the three years I’ve worked this desk.”

“Like to run,” I said. “Fight.”

“You ought to join our track team. You’d smash the competition, especially in marathons.” He brought up a holo of me sparring with the other soldier. It played above his screen. “You could join an army tykado team, too. You don’t know the moves, but you’d probably learn fast. If you put in the work, you could earn a black belt.” When he got to the point where I punched the soldier in the knees, he gave me a sour look. “Assuming you can learn to fight fairly.”

That made no sense. “Fight never fair.” You did whatever you needed to survive.

Sergeant Corvin set down his tablet. “If you want to join the army, you’ll have to follow the same rules and regulations as everyone else.”

“I can do rules fine.” I used extra words to stress my point.

“You’ll also need to study. We require all recruits to pass secondary school exams.” He spoke carefully. “You’ll also need to learn to speak our language more fluently.”

What? I spoke fine. These people were the ones who didn’t know language. How they could use so many words to say so little baffled me. None of this sounded good. I hadn’t come to learn words.

“When fight?” I asked.

“You’ll train while you go to school. If you enlist, the army will pay for your education.”

I wasn’t sure what to say. I needed to think. “Not in army yet?”

“Not yet.”

A door slid open and the red-haired woman entered. Corvin glanced at her. “What’s wrong?”

She set another tablet in front of him. “We got the results of her medical exam. Look at this.

Corvin frowned at the tablet. “That can’t be right.”

“We did several checks.” She looked up at me. “Do you know your age?”

Of course I knew my age. “Fifteen.”

Corvin blew out a gust of air. “Well, shit in a chute, I’d never have guessed. You look older.”

I almost laughed. Good saying about the chute. I’d have to remember that one. I didn’t smile, though, because I didn’t know these people. “Fifteen bad?” I asked.

“You’re too young,” Corvin said. “You can’t enlist at fifteen, not even with parental consent.”

I stared at him. That was it? After everything they’d made me do, all I’d gone through to get here, the fears and uncertainty and terrifying beauty of the day, all they had to say was You can’t do it?

“Got no parents,” I told them. “I decide what I do.”

“I’m sorry.” He sounded like he meant it. “But we have no choice.”

I wanted to punch something. I would have hit the desk, but I didn’t want them to think even less of me than they already did. So I held back my anger.

The woman spoke quietly. “Young lady, if you still want to join the Pharaoh’s Army in a year, come back then. Although you can’t be deployed until you’re eighteen, legally you can commit when you’re sixteen. You’ll have to spend two more years in school, but you would need that anyway given your exam results. That means you’d be enlisting for six years instead of four.”

Corvin was frowning yet again. “If she doesn’t have parents, she should be in foster care, not living as a homeless kid under the city.”

Damn. One of the few things I remembered about the orphanage was the specter of foster care and labor camps looming in my future. I stood up. “I go now.”

“I don’t think a foster family would take her,” the woman was telling Corvin.

“Probably.” He looked worried. “A year from now, she could be dead from an overdose.”

“I don’t think so.” The woman tapped the tablet. “Look. She’s clean. We found traces of hack, but it looks more like exposure from her environment. Her body shows no history of drug abuse.”

Yah, talk about me like I’m not here. I headed for the door, which I hoped would move aside for me the way it did for everyone else. It snapped open like the membrane on a pond-clam, and I stalked into the hall outside.

It took only a moment to reach the room where I’d entered the building. I was a few paces from the outside door when the woman called from behind me. “Bhaajan, wait.”

I froze. I hated that they knew what to call me. When we gave our names in the aqueducts, we showed honor and trust to the person we told, and I wasn’t ready for that yet, not here. However, it had also been the first question the EI asked me, and it hadn’t let me continue without answering. So now these people knew: I was Bhaajan, daughter of Bhaaj.

I turned as the woman came up to me. She was breathing as if she’d been running. “Please, wait,” she said.

I scowled at her. “No foster.”

“I know.” She took a breath. “We wanted to say—come back in a year. We think the army could offer you a lot.” Her voice quieted. “It’s a way out, Bhaajan. The road to a new life.”

I was angry enough that I didn’t want to believe her. But something was stirring inside me, a feeling deep and big that had always been there. I wanted “out.” I wanted to be one of the soldiers I’d seen in those holo-panels. I could, if they’d give me a chance. I wanted to come back so much, it hurt.

I considered the woman, who hadn’t given me her name. I hadn’t earned it. I hadn’t earned Corvin’s, either, but however little he thought of me, he had done me the honor of giving it.

“Maybe come back,” I said.

I went out then, leaving the Pharaoh’s Army Career Center. I jogged through Cries under the endless blue sky, headed back to the Undercity.


#


I stood on the midwalk of the Lizard Trap canal. Torches set in the walls shed golden light and a faint haze over the scene. Jak, Gourd, and Dig were down in the canal, rough and tumbling with the dust gang that claimed the territory next to ours. Jak kept clowning around, bouncing on his toes, then pretending to lose his balance and flip over in the dust. Everyone laughed, all of them together, their voices like music.

On the midwalk across the canal, Top Deck, Ketris, and Byte sat with a group of adults from other circles, drinking and talking. Little dusters were playing below, many of them, running around, calling to each other. Farther down the opposite midwalk, a group of kids were singing. Their music filled the canal, echoing along its length. Another group of dusters, two girls and two boys about ten years old, were dancing not far from where the older gang members were working out. I knew those four; our gang was helping them train, just as when we were that age, older kids had trained us. Their dancing combined rough and tumble moves with rhythmic steps, all in time with the singers.

“Pretty,” I said. Pretty wasn’t the right word; that scene had a beauty beyond what I felt able to express. I could have stood all day, watching. My heart felt strange, as if it hurt. This was my home, or it would be for one more year, if I didn’t screw up or die before I turned sixteen.

Jak glanced up at the midwalk, then stopped and grinned. “Eh, Bhaaj!” he yelled.

Everyone turned, and then they were racing toward me. Laughing, I climbed down from the midwalk and ran toward them.

For now, I could rough and tumble, and get some dust back on my clothes.



IV

The Road Taken


Jak lay stretched out against me in the dark, his breathing quiet and steady. I knew he was awake. When I turned toward him, he pulled me into his arms, and we lay together in the night.

“Stay,” Jak whispered.

I closed my eyes, as if that could stop the tears that threatened to spill. “Only gone six years.”

“Six years. Forever.”

I hurt inside, even though I’d looked forward to this day for nearly a year. I’d learned so much after Gourd got me better access to the educational webs in Cries. I’d read and studied every day, preparing so I wouldn’t fail the exams this time. I’d also gone through the entire mesh site for the Pharaoh’s Army, memorizing every rule and regulation I could find.

“Come with me,” I said.

“Can’t. Die in army.”

“Not join. Just come.”

“Can’t leave,” he told me. “My home. Get casino.”

He had a dream, too. I couldn’t share it with him. I didn’t want to be a thug for his casino much more than I wanted to be a thug for the cartel. But ah, gods, I didn’t want to leave him, either.

Jadix Kajada didn’t want me to enlist. She never stopped trying to break my spirit, even if it meant beating me up herself, when I defied her in front of her drug punkers. It enraged Dig, especially when the punkers held her back while her mother pounded me. It was no good. As long as I stayed here, challenging Jadix, it put Dig in an impossible position. That Dig always defended me, without hesitation, told me volumes about her, all of it good, but I could never get past the crushing truth that someday, if this kept up, Jadix would have to kill either me or Dig. I couldn’t let that happen.

I had no idea how to tell Jak what I felt. So I said, “You start casino, cops break it.”

“Nahya.” He kissed my ear. “Use nano stuff to build. Put up fast, take down fast. Hide.”

I knew he meant the nanobot-doped composites that could remake an entire structure in minutes if you knew how to program them. He was right, it would make it possible for him to hide his gambling den here. The above-city slicks would come for the illegal games, but he’d control who played in his casino, all three syllables of it. Unfortunately, nanos like that cost more credits than either of us would ever see in a lifetime.

“No bargain big enough to get nanos,” I said.

“Wrong, Bhaajo. Win with dice.” He nuzzled my hair. “With cards.”

He had a point. If anyone could win that many credits, it was Jak. Everyone knew about him now. The whisper mill went wild with tales of his exploits. People loved him, as long as he didn’t gamble with them. His dice skill was legendary, and he could count cards so well that most poker dens wouldn’t let him play anymore.

“Need workers for casino,” I pointed out.

“Give jobs.” He laid his head next to mine. “Food for work. Water for tending bar. Mesh time for dealing cards. Take care of people. Our people.”

I understood. We’d all learned from Dig: you cared for the people you looked after, always, whether they were your circle or they worked for you. Jak’s dream was as vivid for him as mine was for me. I couldn’t ask him to come away. He would hate the life of an army spouse.

I’d never doubted Jak would give back to our people by taking from the wealthy in Cries, trading his vices for their silence about his activities. And yes, I knew now gambling wasn’t illegal everywhere, that the City of Cries was considered the most conservative government center in the Imperialate. But we lived here, not somewhere else, and gambling could become an addiction anywhere. Even if I found a way to make peace with it, I couldn’t turn back, not when I finally understood what lay beyond the Undercity. Wanderlust pulled me toward the stars. I couldn’t be what Jak wanted any more than he could come with me.

“Sorry,” I whispered. With that one word, I broke our unwritten laws. Never show vulnerability. I didn’t care. I held him in the night with tears on my face as we made love for the last time, the sweetest love I’d ever known. I’d never kissed another man, never touched anyone else in this way. I held him in the darkness and mourned a loss I had yet to know.


#


Gourd didn’t talk as he unrolled his mesh screen. He tapped the edges, and holos formed above it in a network of lines. “Cries mesh,” he said, staring at the image.

“Look at me,” I said.

He looked. “Eh, Bhaaj.”

“I send messages,” I promised. “For you, Dig, Jak. Everyone.”

He motioned toward the network. “Set up done. You send, we receive.”

“Good.” I would tell them about my adventures. After having read about the life of an army grunt, I knew it wouldn’t be that easy to send them messages from offworld, but I’d manage.

Gourd tapped his screen and a new holo replaced the network. This one showed a woman and a man with glittering black hair, red eyes, and elegant black clothes. Their alabaster faces were so perfect, they seemed like sculptures. Arrogance was written in every line of their features, as if they could dismiss the worth of all other humanity with a wave of the hand.

“Aristos,” I said. The title left a sour taste in my mouth.

“Fight them,” Gourd said.

“Not them. Their slaves.”

The first thing I’d done, after I left the recruiting center last year, was learn who I would fight if I returned on my sixteenth birthday. I had to know before I could enlist. I refused to fight for Jadix, and I wouldn’t fight for anyone else who asked me to go against the way I felt I had to live. Orin called it my moral code. I knew only that I had to find out more about these enemies.

So I learned about the Trader Aristos.

They called themselves the Eubian Concord. My people called them Traders because they based their economy on buying and selling people. Until last year, my world had consisted of a few hundred people in the Undercity and what little I saw of the Concourse. When I learned Raylicon was only one world in the Skolian Imperialate, a civilization that included nearly a trillion people across hundreds of worlds and habitats, at first I couldn’t understand. It took me months to absorb the impact. The Skolian Imperialate. I was a Skolian citizen.

The Trader Aristos ruled an empire twice the size of ours. Yet only about two thousand Aristos existed, a race of genetically altered narcissists obsessed with the “purity” of their bloodlines and their conviction that they—and only they—had worth. The rest of us were no more than products for sale, worthless except in what we could do for them. They owned over two trillion people. To them, the mere act of ownership exalted their slaves. They wanted to add my people to those ranks, all trillion of us.

I hadn’t believed it at first. Although I didn’t know the word propaganda when I started my search, I understood the idea. So I looked up speeches made by Aristos themselves. I read the translations provided by their scholars. And I learned the truth. Aristos were worse than what the Skolian government told us. Our military played down the danger, to keep people from panicking, but the news broadcasts were there for anyone willing to look for them.

Aristos believed they were gods and the rest of us were nothing. They made Jadix look like a sweet girl, but they did it with the appearance of ice-cold elegance. They committed genocide when people rebelled against their rule. I read about their “re-education” centers, their genetic experiments, their torture camps, and I threw up. I didn’t tell anyone. This holo of two Aristos, that was all I showed them. I told them the Aristos would enslave our people. That was enough. I never wanted them to know what truly lay out there, beyond the limitations of our self-contained world.

Gourd was watching my face. He spoke softly. “Stay strong.”

I forced myself to grin. “Always.”

He smiled, but it didn’t seem real. His eyes showed grief, not laughter. He put his hand on top of mine, his palm resting against my knuckles. “Be well, friend.”

My voice caught. “And you.”

I didn’t know if any of us would be well, but tomorrow, on my sixteenth birthday, the future waited.


#


A solitary lamppost cast light over the path to the Foyer. In the past year, I’d mapped out routes from here to the surface, finding the best ways to avoid tourists. I’d been lucky that first time. No cops sighted me. Since then, I’d practiced the route, just barely avoiding capture a few times, honing my choices until I could jog up the Concourse.

Yesterday, I’d done a final round of practice exams, using old tests I found on city and army mesh sites. I’d do better this time. Jak and I loved playing math games, and we’d searched out ways this year to get even better, especially anything that would help him win at dice or cards. I’d also learned what IQ meant, that many types existed, not just pattern recognition and spatial perception, but tests for creativity, problem solving, emotional and artistic intelligence, empathy and mental acuity. I still didn’t get the emotional tests, at least in relation to my own feelings. At a gut level, I understood how the people around me felt. It kept me alive, knowing how to judge how people would react and why, but I had no idea how to put that into words.

Last night I’d cleaned my best clothes and left them out to dry. This morning I bathed in the grotto. I combed my hair, even trimmed the locks that fell down my back. I understood now what would happen when I enlisted. I’d be shipped offworld, spend two years in school and training, and then be deployed to fight the Traders in a war waged by millions across distances of light years.

Today marked my sixteenth birthday. I’d said my good-byes. I was ready. And yet—I continued to stand here. Once I started, nothing would turn me back. But I had to take the first step.

I drew in a deep breath, then let it out. Yah. Time to go.

A woman spoke behind me. “Bhaaj.”

I turned around. Dig stood a few paces down the path. At eighteen, she had come into her prime, tall and powerful, a queen among the dust gangs.

I walked over to her. “Eh, Dig.”

She watched me with a fiery stare. “Not go.”

I met her gaze. “Got to go.”

“Why? This learning like slicks—it’s wrong, Bhaaj.”

“Education not wrong. Worth everything.”

Dig lifted her fist. “This is worth everything.” She opened her fist. “Read, write, sociology, astronomy—gives nothing.”

I stared at her. It wasn’t the comment itself that struck me; she’d never hid how much she disliked my studies. But she couldn’t be as dismissive as she claimed if she knew how to say words like sociology and astronomy. We didn’t even have concepts for those subjects in the aqueducts. Dig had to have learned about them herself, at least enough to use the words.

I didn’t know how to tell her what it meant to me, how I craved to know more, see more, travel more, to learn and learn and learn until my brain filled up and glowed.

“I like,” I said.

“Nahya.”

“Yah!” I stumbled over the ideas. “Like treasure. Every day, new, shining.” Gods, that sounded stupid. Shining. Right. “Makes me better.” I stopped, frustrated with my inability to explain.

She spoke flatly. “Betrayal.”

What could I say? I was leaving her, our home, all of it. That everyone had known for almost a year that this day would come made it no easier.

“You, me, always kin,” I said. “But with me gone, no more fights with Jadix.”

She spat to the side. “Fuck Jadix.”

“Kin.”

“Not the right way.” She struggled with her words. “If ever I have—little dusters—not same.”

I understood what she was trying to say. If she had children, she would care for and protect them as she did for all of us.

“Teach them,” I said.

Her gaze turned cold. “Teach them loyalty.”

I doubted she would ever forgive me for leaving. “Yah. Loyalty.” I took a breath. “Teach them to read, Dig. Let them learn everything, not just fighting.”

She looked at me.

I touched her hand, then pulled back, afraid to reveal my turmoil. “Be well, friend.”

For a long moment she said nothing. Then she turned and walked away.

I felt as if I were dying. But I’d made my decision. I walked in the other direction.

“Bhaaj.”

I stopped to look back. Dig was standing at the top of the spiral staircase that would take her down to the aqueducts. She lifted her hand. “Be well.”

I lifted my hand. “And you.”

Then I left, headed up to the City of Cries.



Conclusion:


The rest of my history is a matter of record. I enlisted on my sixteenth birthday. This time I passed my exams, including exceptional marks in mathematics. According to my IQ and aptitude tests, I showed a high analytic ability, particularly in problem solving, spatial perception, and self-determination. It took me less than a year to finish my schooling. I became an emancipated minor at seventeen and shipped out with my battalion. I climbed my way out of the enlisted ranks into officer candidate school, earned a university degree in engineering, and became a commissioned officer. I stayed in the military for twenty years, first as a lieutenant, then a captain, then a major. When I retired, I became a private investigator.

I wish I could say coming home to the Undercity was easy. It wasn’t. I had become a different person by then. But in the end I stayed, serving as the liaison between the Cries government and my people, working to improve conditions in the aqueducts without destroying our unique culture. I also work on retainer as a PI for the House of Majda. I can go places and talk to people that no one in their stratospheric circles can reach. I’m sometimes asked why I spend so much time in the Undercity when I have a penthouse in Cries. The aqueducts will always be my home, no matter how much wealth I accrue. I will give back and pay forward until the day comes when I can no longer walk the canals.

As to why I’ve been seen in the company of an Undercity kingpin, the crime boss whose casino has become an elusive legend, frequented by the glitterati of the empire—well, the narrative speaks for itself about Jak. Gourd is also still alive, using his engineering genius to provide fresh water, light, healthy food, and life to generations of children in the aqueducts.

And Dig. My sister.

History will list Dig Kajada as the most notorious cartel queen ever known in the Undercity. What those histories can’t tell you is why. To understand the legacy she left with her death, you need to understand Dig.

No one witnessed the attack that left Jadix Kajada dead from stab wounds, but I have no doubt Hammer Vakaar killed her. If the Vakaar cartel boss expected that murder to leave her with control of the Undercity, she fast discovered just how badly she had miscalculated. In Dig Kajada, Hammer faced an even more formidable rival, one who would never forgive her for murdering the one human being Dig most wanted to reach. In killing Jadix, Hammer robbed Dig of her chance to crack the uncaring monolith that was her mother.

After I enlisted, Dig no longer had to deal with the threat of my defiance against Jadix. It freed her to concentrate on trying to form a bond with her mother. Did she succeed? I doubt it. Jadix wasn’t capable of loving anyone. She had only one child, a mistake she’d never intended to make. She went through with the pregnancy because having a strong daughter made her look powerful, but she had no use for Dig beyond whatever benefit an heir could offer in her machinations to control the Undercity.

The same wasn’t true for Dig. If anything, she cared more than any of us. She swore we would have good lives no matter what it cost her, that we would know we were wanted. I never starved as a child, never suffered malnutrition, never lived alone with fear. If not for Dig, her mother would have probably killed my defiant self before I reached my sixteenth birthday. Dig did what she had to so the rest of us could have lives worth living, even if that meant she had to work for the cartel. She gave up her soul so the people she loved could thrive.

Under Dig’s leadership, the cartel grew even more powerful, reaching its tentacles to new markets in both the Undercity and Cries. It’s true, Dig was savvier and stronger than Jadix, but what made her more successful was that she knew how to lead, not through intimidation and cruelty, but in building the loyalty of the people who worked for her. Had life offered a different path—had someone done for Dig what she did for those of us in her circle—she could have become a great leader.

Instead she became a monster.

The broadcasts claim Dig and Hammer died in the war that exploded between Kajada and Vakaar. It’s true the battle was a culmination of generations of hatred between the two cartels, and it’s also true that Dig Kajada killed Hammer Vakaar. What the histories don’t say is this: Dig didn’t go to war because she wanted sole control of the drug trade. She took vengeance because Hammer had murdered her mother, and then years later her lover, the father of her four children. Dig gave her life to protect her children during the final battle of the cartel war.

And there lies the difference between her and Jadix.

Dig Kajada loved with a fierce intensity. She refused to let the drug trade touch her family. From the day her children were born, she separated them from the brutal truth of her life. She insisted they educate themselves, especially Digjan, her eldest. As Dig was dying, she told Digjan to follow in my footsteps. My path. She swore that if her daughter tried to take over the cartel, she would come back from the dead to stop her.

You’ve all seen Digjan. Her intent to enlist is on record, as is the army recommendation that she instead be considered for the Dieshan Military Academy that commissions Jagernauts, the fighter pilots of ISC. You’ve seen the exam scores that place her in the top tier of all DMA applicants, her remarkable spatial perception and situational awareness, her strength and athletic prowess. You’ve seen her clean bill of health. You’ve also seen the tests that show her neurological development is exceptionally well suited to the mental links required for Jagernaut pilots with their spacecraft. Digjan Kajada is a miracle—a brilliant, taciturn, honest, loyal, spectacular miracle.

I’ve been asked to give this statement to offer insight into why I am sponsoring Digjan’s application to DMA. Is it real? Could the daughter of Dig Kajada and the granddaughter of Jadix Kajada truly be this incredible young woman?

Yes.

Digjan is what Dig could have been, given a different life. Dig’s legacy will forever be the brutality of the cartel she inflicted on the Undercity and Cries. But she has another legacy you should know: myself, Jak, Gourd, our circle. Most of all, Digjan is her legacy.

The wounds inflicted by the cartels go back for more than a century. Let this new generation put an end to the grief that has plagued my people. I mourn Dig, but I lost her long before she died; it happened the day she took over the cartel. In her daughter, I see what the sister I knew could have become. Let the cycle of violence end with this generation.

If my record proves anything about officer candidates from the Undercity, it is that we can excel in Imperial Space Command. Digjan has the potential to go beyond anything I ever achieved. She could become a leader for all of our peoples, regardless of our origins.

Let us begin a new cycle, one of hope.


Sincerely,

Major Bhaajan, Ret.

Pharaoh’s Army of the Skolian Imperialate

Imperial Space Command


Copyright © 2017 Catherine Asaro


Two-time Nebula-award winner Catherine Asaro has an M.A. in physics and a Ph.D. in chemical physics from Harvard. A former ballet and jazz dancer, she founded the Mainly Jazz Dance program at Harvard and now teaches at the Caryl Maxwell Classical Ballet. “Children of the Dust” is a prequel to her Major Bhaajan series, which is set within her popular Skolian Empire, with Undercity and The Bronze Skies out now.


© 2017 Baen Publishing Enterprises