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Jon Moore

Lobo settled us in low orbit among a cluster of corporate comm satellites, where we’d be invisible to anyone not looking specifically for us.

“Assuming all the children are on the same drug as the one on the med table,” Lobo said, “they are nominally conscious but functionally not present.”

“Are they likely to remember what happened?”

“At most vaguely. That said, as the drug wears off, they will be increasingly likely to remember what is happening to them—which means they may well recall some of the time inside me.”

“So you recommend we knock them out until we can release them?”

“Yes,” Lobo said. “Then, even if anyone questions them later, they will have a simple and clear reason for knowing nothing. To protect both them and us, it’s the only reasonable course of action.”

It still felt like abuse, and the kids had suffered enough, but I had to agree with him. “Okay,” I said.

“I’ll have doses ready in the med room in five minutes,” Lobo said.

While he was preparing them, I showered quickly and changed clothes. No signs remained of the bullet wounds. My deal with Lobo was that he not monitor the small room that I used as my quarters, so I kept that knowledge to myself.

Administering the sedative to the children took only a few minutes, by which point Lobo was filling his front space with displays and holos from Studio.

Everyone Lobo had contacted had gotten in on the action. The police in Dardan, a city near Privus and also the home of Lydia and Tasson Chang, had managed to be first on the scene and taken everyone inside Privus into custody for questioning. A small fleet of newstainment ships had landed only minutes after the Dardan cops. They were broadcasting nonstop coverage of what was now the hottest event on any feed. Guesses at the identities of some of the guests sped through the data networks, as did questions about the locations of the kids. The host was one of the first to be identified, because he proved to be the head of the Central Coalition council that oversaw the government of a planet one jump from here.

All three planetary coalitions agreed in minutes to commission a joint investigative task force to look into the appalling incident.

No one had yet identified the kids, but we had to assume they would.

Thinking of them reminded me that I had to contact Chang.

“Lobo, mute everything, and connect me to Lydia Chang. Audio only. Let her comm know it’s me.”

Her voice filled Lobo’s front room half a minute later. “Mr. Moore?” She sounded sleepy.

“Yes. I’m sorry I woke you.”

“You didn’t,” she said. “A friend did, to show me the news. Was Tasson one of those children? Is he all right?”

“Yes, he was, and yes, he’s fine.”

“Why haven’t you brought him to me?”

I hesitated. Like so many other parts of this mission, I hadn’t planned this conversation. “The more I tell you, the more I put you at risk. Let me just say that to rescue Tasson and the other children, our team didn’t exactly play by the rules.”

“I don’t care about all that,” she said. “I just want my boy back.”

“I understand, and I’ll bring him to you. I have to care, though, about how we do it, because I can’t afford to have the police trying to arrest us for saving those kids.” I paused. “I told you I would save him for you, and I did. Please give me a little time to deliver him to you safely.”

“How much time?” Her voice cracked.

“Before the end of the day, you’ll have him.”

“Can I talk to him now?” Tears thickened her words.

“Unfortunately, no. They drugged him—not just him, all the kids—and it’s going to take some time for that stuff to wear off.” I hated lying to her, but she was clearly scared, and I needed her cooperation.

“But he’s going to be fine?”

“Yes, absolutely. A member of our team is a doctor, and he’s checked them all. Tasson will be fine.”

This time, she paused before she spoke. Half a minute of dead air filled the space around me. “You need to understand something, Mr. Moore: If you’re planning to do something bad with my Tasson, I will find a way to hunt you down. I won’t have people handing him around like some trophy.”

Anger jolted my nerves. I wanted to scream at her that I had risked my life to save these kids, that I understood firsthand what it was like to be abused, that I would never do anything to hurt them, but instead I took a deep breath and said, as calmly as I could manage, “You don’t need to threaten me, Lydia. Nor do you need to pay me. I said I would rescue him—all of them—and I did. I will return him to you. All I’m asking is that you give me a little time so I can do it safely.”

Another pause, and this time when she spoke, her voice was exhausted. “I’m sorry, Mr. Moore. I appreciate all you’ve done. It’s just…do you have children?”

“No,” I said.

“Well, you’re young, so you have plenty of time.”

Thanks to the nanomachines, I haven’t aged in any way that I can tell since I was twenty-eight. So, even though I’m a hundred and fifty-seven years old now, I probably still could have children—if I could afford for anyone to learn that I don’t age, that I’m the only human alive with nanomachines in his cells.

No, I’d never have children.

“…your own,” she said, “you’ll understand how I’m feeling.” I’d missed something, but I didn’t need her to repeat whatever it was. “So when can I expect you?”

“Sometime after early morning,” I said, “though I don’t yet know exactly when. I need you to do one more thing before then, though.”


“Lobo,” I said over the machine frequency, “are there SleepSafes in Dardan?”

“Of course,” Lobo said. “One is not far from her, and another is on the northern tip of the city, near the water. That chain is in every major city on almost every human world. Paranoia is universal.”

“Mr. Moore,” she said, “did you hear me?”

“Yes. Sorry. I was thinking. I want you to go to the SleepSafe hotel on the northern edge of the city, near the ocean.”

“I can’t afford to stay at one of those.”

“We’ll work it out,” I said. “Don’t tell anyone you’re going. Leave immediately. Take multiple taxis.”

“I don’t have the money for that,” she said.

“She does now,” Lobo said over the machine frequency. “I deposited enough for the room, food, and taxi fares into her account. Should anyone examine her accounts, she won a newstainment contest. That cover won’t hold up under close scrutiny, at least not yet, but I’m working on it.”

“How did you do that?” I said, again over the machine frequency.

“Isn’t it enough that I did?” Lobo said. “What’s wrong with having a few tricks up our sleeves—mine being strictly metaphorical, of course?”

I shook my head. Now was not the time to pursue this. “Lydia, check your wallet. Your contest victory means that you now have the money you need.”

A pause. “That’s amazing? How did you do that?” Another pause. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to repay you. Are you sure?”

“Yes,” I said, “I’m sure. Don’t worry about it. What I need you to do now is leave. Right away. Take a taxi west, then one south, then northeast, west again, and finally north and to the hotel.”

“So no one follows me?” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “Please. Go now. Enjoy the hotel. Take your comm. I’ll contact you later on it.”

“And you’ll bring him to me today?”

“Today,” I said. “I promise.”

“Okay. Thank you again.”

She terminated the call.

“Can you get us in position to monitor the area around the SleepSafe?” I said aloud.

“Yes,” Lobo said, “in a while.”

SleepSafe specialized in temporary rooms for both the paranoid and those who really were being hunted. Each was a nondescript building constructed like a fortress. They allowed no weapons inside and had no surveillance in their buildings. The outside of each was covered with cameras and sensors. Any guest in any room could tune into any or all of them, so it was easy to learn if anyone was watching the place. You could not, however, see or hear the other guests as they entered or left the hotel; software blanked out that part of every feed. Each hotel contained multiple escape chutes that led from panels beside each bed to exits that would appear only when they opened to discharge a guest. The exits were never in the hotel itself. Instead, they were built into nearby buildings. The parts of the chutes that connected to the beds moved in the walls, so even if you knew what room someone was in, you couldn’t know for sure where the person would exit. If whoever was chasing you had somehow managed to find out where every exit was and had a big enough team to cover all of them, then they could catch you leaving, but that almost never happened.

Chang would be safe in this hotel for the short time we needed her out of reach from the police and the newstainment teams.

I yawned. “What time is it?” I said.

“Past midnight and into the next day,” Lobo said. “We need to stay here for at least another six hours, maybe more, so the morning feeds can play with this story and then move on to whatever next passes for news around here. You should sleep.”

He was right. There was nothing else I could do. I hated being useless, but I’ve also learned that when on a mission, always eat, sleep, and use the bathroom when you can. You never know when you’ll get the next chance to do any of them.

“Okay,” I said. “Don’t let me sleep too long.”

“As if you could,” Lobo said.

I chuckled. Live for over five years with anyone, even a dumb machine and most certainly Lobo, and they can’t help but know a fair amount about your habits.

I grabbed a fish sandwich and some water from our stores, wolfed them down, and stretched out on my cot. I fell asleep instantly.

Unfortunately, I dreamed.

Fragments of scenes from my past, some accurate, some exaggerated, seized my mind and shook me. Each faded into the next so quickly I felt as if waves of pain after pain after pain were breaking on me, pushing me under, drowning me.

A young boy, Manu Chang, stared trustingly at me as I led him into danger. Images washed over his face. Swirling clouds of gas. Lobo roaring in. Guards firing rifles. Manu screaming for help, and I couldn’t find him or Jack, the man to whom I’d entrusted him.

Benny, who was first a friend, and then the one who trained me to kill, and finally, at the end, my friend again and my savior, perched on a rock ledge above me, screaming at me from his cart, pushing me harder and harder. One boy tackled me, forcing me face first into the sand. Another jumped on my back, pinning my arms. Benny screamed as they hit me that I had to fight back to save myself, but they were my friends, and I didn’t want to hurt them, I didn’t want to hurt them any more.

Those same boys falling to the guards of the shuttle we were hijacking, each wearing a stunned expression as if unable to believe that this was no longer training, that he really was dying.

A boy, Nagy, tall and emaciated from living with rebels in the jungle, infected with the violence he’d seen and done as a soldier when he was still a young teenager. He rushed a column of armed troops, brandishing a branch as if it were a weapon. The soldiers fired into his body, killing him instantly. His only friend, a young, smaller boy I knew only as Bony, screaming and crying and watching as he lost the one person he believed cared about him.

Leading a squad of my fellow Saw soldiers into a clearing in the middle of a village on Nana’s Curse, seeing the bodies of more than a dozen dead children spread here and there like so much trash, all of them cut, broken, bleeding.

I screamed at the scenes to stop and sat upright, soaked in sweat, as I came awake in a rush. My jaw ached with the effort of stopping myself from screaming. So many children, so much senseless death and suffering, and I’d been unable to stop it. I’d managed to get Manu and Bony to groups that promised to protect them, but that was it; the others died, and I had been unable to do anything to save them.

Lobo wondered why we had to keep going, keep trying, keep doing our best to save every child we could. Nothing would bring back those I’d lost, but I could do my best to stop any more from suffering. The need shoved me forward faster and harder than the wind from the sandsurfer’s motor had taken me across the desert far below. If I could save enough of them, stop those using children as soldiers, stop the abusers, the kidnappers, the defilers—stop them all, then maybe one day it would be enough, enough to balance my failures. Enough to let me sleep and not dream, not remember.

I had to try. If Lobo didn’t understand, he could either support me or leave. No one else had to walk this path with me. I’d been alone for the vast majority of my many decades of life, and I was fully prepared to be alone again, if that’s what it took.

I stood and shook my head to clear it. I started doing slow squats, a twenty-count down on the way down, all the way down until I was sitting as low as I could, and then another twenty-count back up. Repeat. Over and over. Easy at first, then my legs feeling it, eventually burning, sweat rolling off me, my eyes open but seeing nothing, just the count and, finally, the pain, the freeing pain filling me.

I have no idea how long I did them nor how many times I squatted, but eventually I switched to push-ups. A five-count down, almost but not quite touching the floor, and a five-count up. Over and over, not even trying to count them, my body a machine that ultimately brought me again the shaking and the pain that consumed me, filled me, cleansed me.

When I finally could do no more, I stopped, rolled over for a few seconds, and stood. I showered for a long time as I used hot water to relax my muscles. The nanomachines would return them to normal soon enough, but for now I enjoyed the feeling of physical fatigue and hard work. As I relaxed, I focused again on the tasks at hand: returning Tasson to his mother, and getting the other children to their families.

I dressed, grabbed two more of the fish sandwiches and some water, and headed up front.

“Okay,” I said into the air, “I’m ready to talk.”

“I shall broadcast the news to the stars,” Lobo said.

I ignored him. “Here’s what I’m thinking we should do about Tasson and then the others,” I said.

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