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“Tal Renner,” the prim, mechanical voice of the proctor announced.

Tal stood up from the self-adjusting, body-forming memory plastic chair he’d been planted in for over an hour and made his way toward the counter where the woman stood, pristine and statuesque in her perfectly-tailored business suit and genetically engineered physique. She was tall and utterly fit. While her beauty would be such that it would have reduced any of their ancestors to a quivering puddle of hormones, it was so blasé in this day and age to be genetically adjusted that she was, at best, average when compared to the other occupants of the room. Certainly, she was dressed in such a way as to enhance her beauty in subtle and understated ways, not flaunting it so much as suggesting it to the beholder. If anything, she had that attractiveness that can only be seen in a person who was utterly confident, knowing that they held all the cards and had a lifetime of experiences to back their play.

He hated her.

Maybe hate was a harsh word. It certainly felt harsh as it rolled around in his head, eyes fixed on her stern visage. Her bright green eyes were fixed on him as he moved across the waiting room, her powder-pink, almost-bordering-on-grey hair fixed in a tight bun at the back of her head. She looked at him over the rims of a pair of half-framed glasses that completed the stereotypical overbearing librarian look, despite the fact that she was as unlikely to actually need vision correction as anyone else in the Conglomerate. Genetic engineering had long since removed the need for any such appliances, for most people. It was more likely that the spectacles were for aesthetics, or a computer display, relaying information about her job duties, and the world around her.

Information such as his test score.

Tal moved up to the desk, his tall, lanky form slouched over slightly, his blonde hair unwashed but too short to look like he’d been neglecting it. His blue eyes at last met hers as he came to a stop, hands buried in his pockets to prevent them from wringing nervously in anticipation. The small room had a dozen other young men and women in it, all sitting anxiously, waiting for their turn to receive news as to how their futures were about to change. The stark white space was jarring in its bright cleanliness. The soft, white light abolishing all shadows and the faint smell of mild disinfectant lingering in the air, testament to the regular cleanings the room likely received.

“That’s me,” he said to the woman. “Tal Renner.”

She continued to eye him, not so much as twitching the corners of her lips in hint as to her expectation.

He stared at her for a moment before realizing what it was she wanted from him.

“Shit, sorry,” he said, extracting his right hand from his pocket and waiving the back of it over the vaguely square, illuminated pad on the counter. A beeping sound as sharp as the woman’s features sounded out, confirming that the computer had read his identity chip and she nodded as the information scrolled across the inside of her dark-framed spectacles.

“Mr. Renner,” she began, her voice lilting in a pitch-perfect tone that would have made any career singer jealous. Coming from her though, it felt more like a gunshot to the face. “Your results indicate that, while you have a staggeringly high IQ, acuity, and ability to learn, you are not well suited, socially, to our team. Aegis Online thanks you for your interest in working with us and wishes you good luck in your future endeavors.”

Gobsmacked, Tal took half a step back from the counter, narrowing his eyes at her. The words she’d uttered, while sensical, refused to click into place in his mind. Socially suited? He turned and looked over the room full of waiting people, most of whom quickly looked away as his eyes moved past them, trying not to get caught looking at the poor schlub who’d just been smacked down from any chance at a decent standing in life. They were all engineered in some way. All of them. Five-hundred years ago, maybe one in a million people would be born with half of the beauty, brains, and ambition of any one of them, but now, all it took was a few thousand credits and a trip to the local natal lab to insure a child was the paragon of human potential. Just like everyone else. Nowhere did he see anyone with less than the ideal, beautiful appearance of a person who could only get that way through science.

Then there was him. His parents couldn’t afford it, true. Even if they could though, they wouldn’t have done it. Sure, they had the usual sweep for genetic disease markers done, but that was standard practice. It cost less, after all, to clean up an unborn infant’s health problems than it did to deal with them in a developed citizen.

Although, he suspected the truth was even more insipid than the cost of the health care versus the in-utero adjustments. The truth was that it cost the Conglomerate more in lost productivity to have their workers in hospital than it did to cure them of such illnesses before they were born.

The real reason his parents hadn’t done it though, was because they believed that nature should, to large extent, be given leave to take its own course. A course that was currently leading him away from a decent career with a major corporation. True, it was only an internship, but if he couldn’t get in the door for that, even with the rest of his test results going right to the top of the scale, then an actual position there would be out of the question.

“So,” he looked back at the woman, pushing his hands as deeply into his pockets as they could go in order to prevent himself from gesturing angrily with them, “I’m not good enough to work at Aegis because I’m not as tweaked as these people?” He jerked his head over his shoulder toward the rest of the room.

“You have been judged on your individual merits, Mr. Renner,” the woman responded cooly. “Anything else would be unfair. You just won’t fit in here and we feel that interpersonal synergy is of paramount importance to the functionality of our team.”

“I won’t fit in?” he growled. “How can you possibly know that based upon a practical skill evaluation?”

“Your mandatory blood sample has yielded a psychological profile that we find to be not in keeping with the general direction in which Aegis Online is currently headed, Mr. Renner. I assure you, it is not personal.”

“Feels pretty damn personal,” he chuffed. “Fine, whatever. What about the server room or something in R&D? I love science and math. There have to be places where interpersonal compatibilities aren’t an issue, right?” He forced a calm that he did not feel into his voice, hoping it would appear as if he could be what they wanted.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Renner,” she said. “It isn’t my decision to make, and if I’m honest, I could not, in good conscious, recommend you for a position with the company if it was. Please, have a nice day, and thank you for your time.” She smiled at him then, a beautiful gesture that turned her already attractive face into an advertisement for, well, anything. But it failed to reach her eyes and made Tal a bit sick to his stomach at its hollowness. Shifting her attention from him, she announced the next applicant’s name as if Tal was no longer standing there in front of her. “Serah Ibanez.”

Tal shrank back from the woman, scanning the room again. Once more, the faces of other curious teens snapped back to their own space, pretending to read from their own computers or play their games. Anything to avoid meeting the eyes of the misanthrope in the room. A young woman stood up and looked at him for a brief moment, her eyes quickly flitting to the woman behind the counter, then back to him, as if trying to plot a course that would end in her acceptance speech and not get her too close to the failure. Shaking his head, Tal took a deep breath and propelled himself toward the door on his long legs, making sure to pass in close proximity to the maximum number of other candidates as he could on the way out of the waiting room.

The test hadn’t even been difficult.

—————

The trip back out of the building was short, Aegis Online made sure to keep any non-corporate people as close to the street as possible, presenting visitors with their own short hallway that led directly to the waiting room and offered no additional access to the facility. The corridor was filled with propaganda about Aegis Online and everything the company was doing to make humanity, and its citizens, better. Images of beautiful people doing amazing things abounded on the wall displays, depicting engineers and scientists building gadgets and operating lab equipment. Men and women in suits, presenting groundbreaking new ideas to rooms full of equally beautiful people, ready to make decisions about the future of humanity. Aegis Online was famous for having interest in almost every aspect of technology, from weapons, to ships, and through computers and small household appliances. They had made their beginnings in the world of online gaming generations ago, but had long since branched out into  just about everything else.

The models in the images were all smiling happily. Full of exuberance and energy for the many challenges that lay ahead of them. Laughing at him as he moved past them.

Shaking his head, he moved toward the exit, stopping when he reached it to look at the last image in the corridor. There was depicted a man and a woman, wearing bright, shiny combat armor, and sporting the most high-tech weapons he suspected Aegis Online had in their patent portfolio. The pair stood heroically on some alien planet with a group of equally-impressive figures behind them and a large ship floating in the air above them. The image carried with it an air of urgency and adventure, and the caption read simply, “Paving the way for the future of humanity.”

The Colonial Marines had always been where he wanted to be, but they didn’t take just anyone. Not for the good jobs, anyway. Which was why he was there, at Aegis Online, applying for an internship. Having history with the company and documented proficiency in relevant tasks would have ensured him a position on special teams. He was already near the top of his class in academics since entering his final year of Conglomerate-mandated education. He headed four social clubs and was in the top ten on the cross-country running team at his school. With graduation mere days away, he was looking at a rather harsh introduction to the world a lot sooner than he was going to be able to comfortably handle it.

He knew his parents would never kick him out. They loved him and wanted to make sure he had everything he needed in life. It was he who wanted to move on though. His brother and sister would only benefit from his not being a drain on their relatively meager resources. He loved them all dearly and wanted the best for all of them.

Tal’s eyes shifted from the image of the Marines on the display down to his hands. Spreading his three fingers and one thumb out wide, he shook his head. It wasn’t really a birth defect, if a doctor was consulted on the matter. Somewhere in his parent’s past, one of their relatively close ancestors had undergone genetic modification and bits of it had crept into the germline of their DNA. That meant that the alterations could be passed on to offspring, and even if it wasn’t, it still slept in the family’s genetic code, waiting for just the right confluence of events to manifest itself. In his case, it had skipped his parents and landed squarely on him.

Fortunately, none of his siblings had expressed any such mutations, so their places in society were much more likely to be desirable ones.

For him, however, things were not looking good. None of the major corporations, for which he was eminently qualified to work, would accept him as an employee once they got a look at his DNA. While it wasn’t strictly legal to discriminate against a person for such things, it was easy enough to make up other, much more nebulous, unprovable reasons to deny a person an opportunity. Even the corporate military forces wouldn’t accept him without a sponsorship from their associated corporations, which he could not get if they would not give him even an unpaid internship.

The sad part was that nearly everyone had genetic tweaks. It was all but expected and nearly the sort of thing that would create ridicule in young people who identified a peer that hadn’t been adjusted in some way. An IQ boost here, a metabolism tweak there. Everyone was beautiful, smart, and healthy. All over human space, people were expressing themselves through genetic engineering, growing horns, fangs, tails, even functioning wings. But if someone wanted to work for the Conglomerate directly, the company would not accept of anyone with obvious, outward signs of genetic tampering. Of course, you had to be smart, beautiful, and healthy, but you would never openly admit to having got that way through science. It simply wasn’t done.

Sighing, he shook his head, jammed his deformed hands back into his pockets and slipped out the automatic door onto the street outside. The light of the sun shone down through the massive dome that covered the city of Tranquility, clouds drifting lazily beneath the transparent armor that kept the atmosphere in place for the city’s residents. Shifting his eyes from the clouds in the sky to the faint shadows they cast on the ground, Tal wondered if the sad note the sight struck in the pit of his stomach was something people in other habitats, ones without the size and volume to allow such environmental features to occur, ever felt.

One such shadow, on the opposite side of the street from him, surrounded a trio of people at the mouth of an alley. One of them was a young man wearing normal street clothes and a heavy pack slung across his back and the other two were Aegis Online security officers, resplendent in their corporate uniforms and guns on their thighs.

Their heated discussion revolved around the officers getting a look in the man’s pack. He swore he had nothing of value or legal concern, telling them they didn’t have any right to search him without cause, or a warrant, but his knowledge of legal rights only seemed to annoy and egg them on. The two officers flanked the young man, standing at just the right angles to prevent him running from them, unless he chose to turn down the alley which, after an obviously animated exchange, he did.

One of the Aegis personnel pushed the  young man on the shoulder, saying something to him that Tal couldn’t hear due to the noise of a passing truck, and by the time the vehicle had passed and he could see the scene again, the guards were chasing him down the alley at a sprint. As he watched, one of the guards looked over his shoulder, seeking signs of pursuit. The look on his face was one of ill intent, and as he looked back where he was going, his hand withdrew the large handgun from his thigh holster.

Tal clenched his jaw, watching the scene. His need to never let bullies get away with it twinged as the situation played itself out in front of him. Drawing his hands from his pockets again, he looked at his abnormal digits and visions of his childhood around “normal” kids in the schoolyard played themselves out in his memories. He wasn’t the only one who had obvious genetic tweaks, but many others carried the benefit of looking scary. Horns, teeth, bony, armored knuckles or joints, any number of other things that, on balance, gave their owners a tactical advantage in any average schoolyard bullying scenario.

Then there had been Tal, with his missing digits. Not nearly enough to make him amazing, or frightening, but still different enough to warrant singling out and persecuting. That was why he took to the cross-country and academic teams so readily. On the cross-country team, he could knuckle under and just run away from the competition, just like he’d grown up doing on the playground. The academic kids gave him less trouble, being more accepting of physical differences when the minds attached to them could keep up with, or exceed their own. Plus, he could better keep his deformity out of their perception.

Years of running away and being bullied had impressed upon him one thing more than any other though. As he’d matured into a young man, he’d developed a severe lack of tolerance for bullies. In his junior and senior years, he’d spent more time chatting with the dean about life, the universe, and everything than he had in his classes some weeks, because his over-developed sense of justice for the little person had landed him in an increasing number of fights. Less for his own self-esteem of late, however, because he had long since found his own worth and carved out his own place in the social strata. But the new kids. The young kids. They needed to know that bullies could be stood up to, that the little guy could come out on top. His parents hated it, but they grudgingly accepted it, not having any other real course of action aside from putting him out on the street, which they would never do.

It was that over-developed sense of justice that propelled him forward. Seeing the stranger being bullied by authority figures would have been enough, but the fact that the bullies bore the plumage of the company that had just turned him out for no reason other than his hands looking a little different put it over the top for him. With barely a glance at traffic, he sprinted across the street and down the alley after the trio, his years as a runner for his school closing the distance between himself and the others at a steady pace, and his years of scrapping with bullies preparing him for what was likely going to be a rough encounter.

The alley was clean and clear for as long as it was in view of the street, but it soon took a turn to one side and quickly became a corridor filled with refuse and too-dark shadows that could easily conceal any number of dangers. As he ran toward the trio, the stink of refuse, sickening sweet, with an edge of decay, tickled Tal’s nose. Moving with every ounce of haste he could muster, Tal called up his computer interface and set it to record through the camera in his comm link. Waiving off the interface, he named the link in his ear so the camera could get a good view of whatever he was looking at and skidded to a halt a few paces behind the others. They were so focused on one another that they gave no indication of having noticed him.

The guards caught up with the man with the pack, knocking him to the ground, and the one with his weapon drawn shot him in the lower leg with no apparent provocation aside from him having run away. The shot was quiet, obviously an electromagnetic accelerator set to low velocity mode to conceal the sound. Tal had fired a few at the range with his father and he knew that, while the projectiles were small, they would still do significant damage to a person’s muscles and tissue, even in low velocity mode.

“That’s what you get for running from us, smartass,” the man with the gun shouted down at the wounded figure.

“Now, give us your pack, or we’ll finish you off and leave you in one of these dumpsters with all the other garbage, damn Dissident,” his friend announced, securing in Tal’s mind the difference between science perfecting the form and function of the human body, and the human mind. While these jerks were definitely physical specimens, anything they appeared to have gained as a result of their designed physiques had clearly been subtracted from their personalities, and any moral guiding compasses they may have had.

“It’s just food,” the man on the ground said, holding up his hands defensively, “for my family.” His voice was edged with panic and pain, but his eyes darted around the alley, looking for anything that might help. They fell almost immediately on Tal, but strangely, did not linger on him for more than a heartbeat. Instead, the man turned his attention back to the armed officers and raised his hands farther, wincing against the pain in his leg as he moved.

“Well, that’s just too bad,” the man with the gun said.

“Because if you don’t have anything of value, then you aren’t really worth much, are you?” the other said, drawing his own gun and moving the selector switch to low velocity mode.

“And Dissidents who aren’t worth much don’t live very long lives, do they?” the first man finished.

“Look,” the wounded man said, slowly pulling the pack from his back and making sure to keep his hands where they could see them as he moved. Both guards trained their weapons on him, fingers twitching over the triggers as he did so, but they did not fire.

Opening the top of the pack, he slowly tilted it forward so everyone, including Tal, could see its contents. A variety of different food items were piled up in the pack, mostly things that required a lot of land or special environmental conditions to produce. Tal saw a couple fruits of some kind, a few cans with labels Tal couldn’t read from his distance, but which looked like normal foodstuffs to him. Beneath it all was what looked like a vacuum-packed ham.

“See?” the man pleaded, his eyes coming to rest on Tal again and locking with his own. “Nothing but food.”

“Sucks to be you,” the guard that had shot him sounded off. “Good thing you’re just a Dissident scumbag then. Nobody to miss you but your scumbag friends in the sewers.”

“And no piles of paperwork to do for shooting you, either,” the other chimed in.

The man’s eyes searched Tal’s, imploring him to do something. Of course, Tal had already made up his mind. The obvious bullying had been enough for that to happen, but knowing that it was taking place for no reason other than the target’s point of origin, his upbringing, got Tal’s blood boiling.

With little thought as to what it was, Tal stooped down and fished a long, solid piece of refuse from the garbage pile nearest him. It was a longish beam of some sort of composite material that might have once lived life as the end of a shelving unit or some kind of coat or towel rack. He didn’t know, nor did he care. All he cared about was putting a stop to the atrocity that was occurring right before his eyes. Taking a step forward, he drew the makeshift weapon back, tightening his grip and swinging the lever like a bat at the back of the closest of the guards.

The impact was solid, having come from behind, and the guard yelped in surprised shock and pain, doubling over and dropping his weapon to the ground. His companion swung his weapon to the side, quickly finding Tal in his sights and shouting, “Who the hell are you? Drop the weapon and get on your knees!”

The downed guard groaned in pain, hands and arms splayed across the pavement, his weapon mere inches from one hand, but he didn’t appear to have the wherewithal to go after it. The weapon was, unfortunately, too far from Tal to be of much use, not that he was actually thinking of picking it up. In fact, he wasn’t doing a great deal of thinking at all. If he’d actually been thinking, he would have quietly crept away from the scene and not gotten himself involved. If he’d been thinking, he would have never followed the group down the alley in the first place.

If he’d been thinking, he’d have just gone and got the job on the docks, like his parents had suggested.

Instead, he was there, in a rubbish-filled dark alley, a hundred paces from the whole world knowing what was going on, yet so far away that it might as well have been a parsec of empty space.

Instead, he found himself standing face-to-face with an angry corporate guard who had a wounded partner, a demonstrated lack of respect for private citizens, and a loaded gun pointed at his chest.

All of a sudden, a crappy job on the docks was sounding pretty good to Tal.

—————

It all happened at once. A single, instant explosion of sound, movement, light, and pain. Looking down the barrel of the gun, Tal felt a sudden resurgence of logic tear through him. With an abruptness that suggested he truly had no idea how the lever had appeared there, his hands released their grip on the bar, dropping it with a clatter. Raising his hands to show that he had no intention of acting out further, he was about to speak when a sharp bang echoed off the enclosed space of the alley and the guard staggered to the side. An instant later, a second electric thwip sound issued forth, and Tal felt a burning sensation in his left arm. Mimicking the staggering of the guard, Tal clasped his right hand to his wounded limb and gaped at the guard, who was busy dropping to his knees, a rapidly-growing patch of red darkening his chest. A heartbeat later, he fell forward with a loud thump and lay still.

Shifting his suddenly bleary gaze to the wounded man on the ground, Tal saw him still lying there, his leg bleeding, and a smoking gun in his hands.

“Shit, sorry,” the man hissed. Setting the gun on the ground near him, he waved Tal over, adding, “Come here, let me patch you up.”

It wasn’t intentional or even a conscious thought that had Tal moving toward the man. He wasn’t cognizant of it happening until he was kneeling before him, watching his apparently deft hands pull a few small supplies from external pockets on his pack. He held up a small, silver, gun-shaped device for Tal to see and said, “This is a protein patch dispenser. It will stop the bleeding, but it’s going to hurt, and I need to look at the wound first to make sure nothing vital is damaged, okay?”

Tal nodded dumbly, allowing the stranger to yank him forward a bit harshly and fiddle with his shirt. A moment later, a searing icicle of pain lanced through his arm and up his shoulder. He tried to shrink back from the source of the pain but the man’s grip was strong and held him in place. Instead, he opted to just curse, “Ouch! Did you stick your finger in there?”

“Yeah, sorry, checking for pieces of the bullet. Looks like it went clean through though. I think you got lucky.” As he spoke, the man picked up the patch gun and jabbed the nozzle end into Tal’s wound with no aplomb whatsoever, holding him in place when he instinctively tried to shrink away again. “Almost there, kid. Hang on a sec.”

Tal blinked at the man, shaking his head. “Who are you?”

“Just this guy, you know?” he replied.

“And you’re really just buying groceries?” Tal asked, trying to ignore the desire to shudder childishly at the feeling of the thick paste that was being injected into his suddenly more-porous-than-usual upper arm. It did its job though, cutting off the bleeding and anesthetizing the wound track. The pain lessened with every hammering heartbeat.

“I was today,” the man shrugged. “It’s never good to waste a trip, you know. So I pick up a few in-demand items before I head back out after a job. Here, this is for the pain.”

As he spoke, the man produced a small injector and, grabbing Tal’s arm, pressed it against his skin and pushed the button. Their eyes met for a second and Tal thought he saw something there. Something sad, maybe? Concern for the future?

Tal groaned. What used to be his future, as bleak and unappetizing as it was shaping up to be, had just been flushed down the waste disposal on the belief that it had been to protect an innocent man. Suddenly, that wasn’t what had happened at all, and he was watching his future change to one of misery and constant running right before his eyes.

“Dammit,” he cursed, shoulders slouching.

“It’s okay, kid,” the man attempted to assuage his fears. “You did what you thought was right, and I wouldn’t be alive if you hadn’t.” As he spoke, the man rolled up his leg to get access to his own bullet wound.

Tal hadn’t realized that he’d been released, and looked down at his shoulder to see a strangely colored lump sticking out of his fresh, new bullet wound. It looked like some form of colossal zit, waiting to be popped, framed by the dark red, still wet blood on his arm and shirt. “Yeah, and look what it got me. Accessory to murder of a Conglomerate Employee. I’ll be lucky to get a quick death when they convict me.”

“Not true,” the man said, jamming the protein patch gun into his own bullet wound. Gritting his teeth to bite back the pain of the activity, he pulled the trigger and winced as the wound track filled with thick, spongy goop.

“What?” Tal looked at him.

“Think about it,” the man shrugged. “That one’s dead, so he isn’t telling anyone what happened, and this one never saw you. If you leave now, nobody but us will know what happened, and I am sure as heck not going to tell anyone.”

“Neither will I, I swear!” Tal blubbered, hope for the future returning in a sudden rush.

“But I will,” the second guard groaned. The pair looked toward the voice and watched as the man pressed a few controls on his holographic wrist computer. “In fact, I just did,” he added, reaching for his gun as he rolled up onto his side to face them with it.

The stranger acted at the same time, picking up his own gun and bringing it to bear as the guard moved. Tal’s hands reflexively moved to his ears to drown out the noise he knew was coming. A second later, two shots rang out, one loud and crisp, the explosion of a shaped charge with a bullet embedded in it, and the other quiet and electric, the sound of an electromagnetic rail accelerator moving a slug of metal. An eerie quiet followed the cacophony, and Tal slowly opened his eyes, not realizing that he’d closed them, looking at the guard who was sporting a neat little hole in his forehead, right between his eyes.

“Should have checked the other guy,” the stranger’s voice panted, thin and dry.

Tal looked toward him, after a monumental effort to tear his eyes from the horror of the dead man whose hollow eyes were still fixed on him. The stranger’s breathing was quick and shallow, coming in micro-gasps that Tal was all too familiar with from watching entirely too many action videos in his spare time. There was a patch of red on his right breast, growing larger by the second, and a trickle of blood trailed from the corner of his mouth.

“Always check the other guy … ” he coughed, eyes closing in sudden agony.

“I’m calling an ambulance,” Tal said, reaching for his wrist computer.

“No, it’s too late. Be dead before they get here,” the man gasped.

“You don’t know that,” Tal said. “How could you possibly know that?”

“Can feel it … ” he said, a shuddering cough wracking his body. “Bullet’s in my lung. Besides, the hospital won’t treat me. I’m not a citizen.”

“That’s crap,” Tal spat. “There has to be somewhere — ”

“No time,” the man said, fumbling at his pocket uselessly. His eyes locked on Tal’s, asking him to help.

Gently moving his hand away, Tal reached into the pocket on the man’s thigh and felt around until the smooth, faceted surface of a data crystal fell into his fingers. Retrieving the thing, he showed it to the dying man, eyes questioning and panic rising up his spine at the sound of a siren echoing down the alley. Looking over his shoulder quickly, the panic settled a bit when the siren began growing fainter again.

“Take it,” the man coughed, blood staining his lips. He pressed the crystal into Tal’s hands, enfolding his own over them weakly. “Take it to Romeo … Ceres. Tell him Horatio sent it … Tell him I did what he asked and to let my family go … ”

“I can’t go to Ceres,” Tal protested. “My family — ” Horatio’s words slipped past him for a moment as his own problems piled up inside his head.

“Do it, or you’re dead,” the man interrupted him, a violent cough preventing him from finishing. Recovering his breath for a moment he added, “Sorry, kid.”

Tal blinked in confusion, processing the threat for a moment before he said, “What are you talking about?”

Then it occurred to him. The extra shot. Looking down at the mega-zit on his upper arm, with the little red spot from the injection underneath it, a shudder rolled through him. Field dressing kits contained painkillers, antibiotics, proteins, everything the body needed to get someone moving again and out of danger to locate real medical assistance. In his panic, he hadn’t thought twice about the painkiller the man had given him after the patch. But then the look in his eyes flashed through Tal’s mind. “What did you do?” he gasped, clutching at his arm.

Shaking his head, the dying man pushed the crystal toward Tal. “Like I said … sorry.”

“What did you inject me with?” Tal shrank back, falling on the pavement and looking around wild-eyed. “What the hell did you do to me? I was only trying to help!”

“I know … Needed … Insurance … Romeo has my wife and kid. If this doesn’t get delivered he’ll … ” He coughed. “They’re nanites. You’ve got two weeks … My family has one … ”

Clotted blood covered the man’s face and his shirt was slick and wet with it. Tal could smell the coppery tang of it in the air. It did little to make him feel sympathy for the dying man, however. It made him feel tiny, insignificant, and afraid, knowing that death was looming over this stranger, and he suddenly felt like it was deserved, no matter what sob story he poured out about his family. He was watching him die and could do nothing to prevent it. But under the circumstances, would he? Even if he could?

Ceres? He’d never been off Luna before. He wasn’t even finished with school. How could he be expected to go halfway across the Sol system to deliver something to a person he’d never met in a place he’d never been? What about his family? Certainly, with the threat of microscopic assassins swimming around in his bloodstream, his family would understand him not being home for dinner.

Shaking his head, he balled his fist up around the data crystal, glaring at the dying man, “I almost died for you, not even knowing who you are, yet you poisoned me without a second thought, even before you were shot to death.”

“Sorry, kid,” the man coughed again, blood spattering his lips and causing Tal to shrink farther away. “My wife and kid are more important to me than some entitled kid from Luna …  Welcome to the real world. It’s harsh out here but … ”

“Hey, you!” a stern voice shouted from behind him, cutting off the man’s monologue.

Spinning around to search for the origin of the sound, Tal slipped on the pavement and fell backward onto the man, who coughed again. His body sat bolt upright as Tal’s landed on it, allowing his arms to wrap around Tal and hold them together long enough for him to whisper in Tal’s ear, “Take it to Romeo. Tell him Horatio sent it, and he’ll disable the nanites and pay you what he owes me … ”

As the dying gasp filled his ears, Tal saw an armed man wearing a similar security uniform to the dead ones on the ground around him. His gun was pointed at Tal and it seemed clear there would be little chance in explaining the situation to him in any way that would end well for Tal. “Put your hands where I can see them!” he shouted.

Tal froze. Every fiber of his being was screaming out at him to get out of there. Telling him to run away as fast as he could and not stop until he was miles away. But fear paralyzed his body as if he was stuck in some kind of nightmare, the armed man stalking toward him, weapon pointed at his head. Holding his hands up in complacence, he opened his mouth to speak, but a shot rang out, stopping him short.

The shot exploded next to his head, filling his ear with a loud ringing that washed out everything else. The new guard staggered back, but kept his feet, his weapon dipping down to his waist and his free hand clutching at the opposite shoulder.

“Run!” the dying man wheezed, slumping against Tal’s back as the last vestiges of life leaked from his body with the word.

That was all Tal needed to get over his paralyzation. He lurched forward, pushing off with his feet into a dead sprint toward the wounded guard. The stranger slumped to the ground behind him, but Tal couldn’t stop to think, or even acknowledge the fact. He had to get clear of the situation and there was no time to waste. If the newcomer recovered his wits before he could get clear, then he would probably be dead in minutes.

Charging the man, Tal watched as his gun rose once more, although the limb supporting it looked weak and shaky, a patch of crimson staining the sleeve of his uniform from beneath his other hand. He should have stopped or turned or tried to find cover, but panic, fear, and a rising sense of anger at the utter absurdity of the situation drove him forward instead. The gun raised, Tal drew nearer, propelled by his strong, runner’s legs. Another electric sizzle sounded off just as Tal’s shoulder drove into the guard’s body at a full sprint.

He didn’t know if the shot hit him or not. He didn’t feel it, but he wasn’t sure he’d have felt anything with the gallons of adrenalin coursing through his system. He barely even felt the weight of the man folding over his back as they collided. He thought he might have heard a loud popping noise that may have been one or more bones breaking in one of their bodies, but he wasn’t about to stop and sort out whose it was. Instead, he spun under the weight of the man, shoving him to the side and spinning around the rest of the way to face back toward the entrance to the dead-end alley. Without looking back to see if the guard had fallen, or was trying to shoot at him again, he just barreled on, slipping around the corner and charging ahead as if the guard’s bullets were in hot pursuit.

 

Chapter 2