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Tal’s running stopped half a block from the alley. His mind was torn, trying to force him to keep running, to get away as fast as possible but at the same time, he knew that running would attract attention. Attention was not his friend at the moment, so he forced his primal instincts to the back of his brain and focused on working the problem. Raising his wrist, he pulled up the holographic interface for his computer, hoping to plot a course to somewhere that would allow him to get off the moon without getting captured and hauled in for questioning, and an inevitable death by nanite assassins two weeks hence.

A few quick manipulations of the hard light interface told him exactly where he was. What he needed was a clear idea of where he should be headed. The obvious way off the moon was via Tranquility’s spaceport or the shipyards where cargo entered the city from all over the solar system. However, those areas would also be heavily patrolled and the first places that the authorities would look for him once they were in pursuit, assuming they weren’t already. Fortunately, his father’s work on the shipyard docks meant that the family had a few friends and connections there. People who could probably tell him other ways to get away undetected.

Switching to his contacts, he pulled up the contact card for Bill Schwimmer, a co-worker of his father and a friend who had been over a few times a week for as long as Tal could remember. The man was gruff, outspoken against the Conglomerate regime, and knowledgeable about Tranquility in the same way as any diligent public servant would be. Pressing the call button, he slipped his comm link into his ear and tried not to jump for joy when Bill’s face appeared on his display. “Mr. Schwimmer, thank goodness.”

“Tal, what’s up, kiddo?” Bill’s dark features curled into a happy grin at the sight of Tal on the other end of the connection.

“I think I’m in trouble, Mr. Schwimmer. Aegis Online is after me. I have something they want and if I don’t get it out of Tranquility soon, I’ll probably be dead before I get another chance at it.”

“What the hell have you got into, Tal?” Bill’s smile vanished and he started trying to look over Tal’s shoulder via the video link.

“I — ” Tal tried to think of a way to explain the situation, but words failed him utterly. “I don’t know. All I know is I need to get to the Dregs as soon as possible, and I was hoping you could tell me how to make it happen without getting picked up by the Conglom.”

Bill shook his head, running thick, calloused fingers through his short-cropped, black hair. “Tal, if you’re in trouble, you are endangering me and my family just by calling us. They’re going to track this call.”

Tracking. Crap. They had a dozen ways to track him without him being stupid. He needed to take care of a few things. Looking around the street, he spied another alley and started heading that direction, keeping an eye on pedestrians and traffic as he tried to keep the conversation going. “I’m sorry, Mr. Schwimmer. I’ll let you go. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.” He put on his best “I’m sorry” look as he spoke, laying on the puppy eyes.

“Dammit,” Bill spat, sighing in resignation. “All right, look. There are smuggler’s dens all around the rim of the crater. Look for a dive bar as close to the wall as you can find. There are lots of old and private hangars scattered around the rim as well, so people can use them to come and go with minimal interference from the Conglom. Try the North endow the city, you shouldn’t have much trouble finding a pilot with a ship and a lack of scruples out there. Convincing them to take you with them might be a problem though.”

“Thanks, Mr. Schwimmer. Sorry to involve you in this.”

“Don’t worry, kiddo. But when they contact me, I’m going to tell them I told you off and never to call me again.”

“I guess that’s fair,” Tal tried not to let the tears of painful realization slip from his eyes. His life was quickly moving out of his control and every single comfort he’d ever known was evaporating like water in vacuum.

“What should I tell your folks?”

“Tell them I love them, and that I didn’t do it. I’m going to get this sorted out and then I’ll be able to see them again.”

“I will.”

“Thank you,” a tear slipped past his defenses despite his Herculean efforts to prevent it.

“Don’t sweat it. Be careful, Tal. And don’t call me again until whatever this is is over and done with.”

The line went dead an instant later and another tear streaked down Tal’s face as it did so. “No time for that,” he croaked, pulling a spare data crystal from his pocket and jamming it into his wrist computer. He was across the street and mere feet from the alley, so his time was limited. He had to start taking steps to prevent being tracked before he could escape.

Modern electronics were more amazing than any layperson on the street truly realized. Less than a century ago, he could have just shut the device off, or pulled out the batteries. But now, with the advent of vacuum power cells and ubiquitous network coverage, there was no way to truly shut off a consumer computer. Most people didn’t even realize that when they turned off their devices, they weren’t truly off. They were just in low power mode so they wouldn’t make noise and couldn’t be used. But they were still on. Still connected. Unlimited power meant there was no need to conserve battery power, and no need to make the power cells removable or replaceable. Hence, any off-the-shelf computer could be located at any time, whether it was on or not. And once a person set up a device for personal use, it became a beacon to their location, no matter where they were in Conglomerate facilities or ships.

He had to get rid of it if he wanted to disappear, but he needed to save not only his personal data, but the recording he’d made of what had happened in the alley as well. A few swipes and taps had his computer data, preferences, and the video — his only evidence of what had happened — copied to the crystal, which he removed from the computer and pocketed, then pulled the device from his wrist and scanned the street.

Eyeing a garbage vehicle leaving the alley, Tal turned down the narrow corridor and, as casually as possible, tossed his computer in the back of the vehicle as it passed him on its way back out into the street. He had no idea how long it would take them to track the device down, but he needed to get some other stuff done in order to cover his escape before they found his computer and retraced the vehicle’s route. The next bit, he wasn’t looking forward to.

Dodging around a corner into a shadowed alcove, Tal pulled a little pen knife from his pocket and clicked the narrow blade open. Clenching the implement between his teeth, he pulled off his shirt and tossed it over his shoulder, retrieving the knife and holding up his right hand, fingers spread wide. Angling it so that it caught a shaft of light from the rest of the alley, Tal squinted, trying to detect the little bio-chip beneath the surface of his skin. It was tiny. Smaller than a grain of rice. It linked him to his identity, his money, his family, everything in the world that was tracked by the computers of the Conglomerate. And it could give him away in an instant if he passed too close to a scanner, walked through a doorway, got on a bus or a train, or a thousand other everyday activities.

In short, it had to go.

Wincing as the blade bit into his flesh, it occurred to him that, had he listened to his parents and just gone down to the docks for work, he wouldn’t have to be digging a computer chip out of his hand after calling a family friend who worked the docks to find out how to get off the moon, away from the very corporation that he had forsaken work on the docks to try and make a future with. Nothing like a bit of gallows humor to lighten the mood while performing surgery on oneself.

“Ha!” he almost shouted when he felt the little chip between his bloodied fingers and extracted it from the bleeding wound across the back of his hand. Tossing the thing to the ground, he crushed it with the heel of his shoe, then tore a strip off his bloodied shirt to wrap around his bleeding hand a few times. Wiping the blood from his pen knife, he closed it and shoved it back into his pocket, before retrieving his cross-country shirt from his book bag and pulled it on.

Rifling through the pockets on his bag, he pulled out the few odds and ends that were small enough to carry, and wouldn’t give him away to the authorities. A thin necklace with a little clay star dangling from it that his sister had given him for his birthday, a nice multi-tool his dad had given him when he turned fifteen, and a handful of data crystals. The rest went into a nearby dumpster, bag and all, before he set off down the alley at a trot, putting as much distance as possible between himself and the discarded personal items as fast as he could. Finally, he slowed to a casual walk and turned onto the sidewalk once more, heading north toward the crater’s wall.

A few miles later, Tal stopped at a public computer kiosk and quickly scanned the news to see if anything about the incident had come up in the last hour. What he saw when he opened the news feed was something more of a shock than he was expecting.

“Oh, hell!” he spat, looking at the computer displays floating in the air around him. His heart sank when he saw a picture of him, on the ground, with the stranger slumped against his back and two dead Aegis Online security guards sprawled around them, pools of blood thick and scarlet on the ground beneath their bodies.

He could smell the coppery tang of the blood still, just looking at the image. Although it was probably enhanced by the tang of his own blood soaked into his torn shirt from the wound on his hand. Looking down farther in the alert, he saw that they had his name listed, plain as day. The headline read, “Troubled teen turned down for internship for scholastic reasons by Aegis Online, goes on rampage, killing three and wounding one. Still at large.”

A rising sense of anger began to creep into his awareness, as he closed down the computer displays and headed off again, trying to put more distance between himself and the electronic targets that had once connected him to the world. The bastards were lying as boldly as if they ran the whole world and no one could ever challenge them. Academic reasons? He had better grades than most of the engineered kids in his school. Killing people? At worst, he was guilty of battery, but the video he’d recorded would likely prove to anyone that he acted rightly under the circumstances.

What he needed to do was get the evidence to someone who could do something about his situation. After making copies to set aside for when the inevitable betrayal came around. If he had the ability to leverage whomever he eventually dealt with, they would be much more likely to stick to an agreed-upon resolution. If their news release was anything to go on, it didn’t look like trust was a concept he could rely on ever again. He’d been betrayed by everyone he’d met in the past hour and it had cost him his career, his future, and his family already.

Clearly, he would have to rethink his policies on interpersonal relations going forward.

Without his communications equipment, he had no ready means to access information, connect with people, or find out if his family was safe. He had no idea how to get out of the trouble he suddenly found himself in. He had no access to any of his money, what little of it he had in his account, without his electronics, or his ID chip at the point of sale. All he had were the few things on him, most of which had little or no intrinsic value, and Bill’s suggestion that he look for dive bars along the North rim of the city to go on.

Thoughts of all the places he could be caught, all the ways he could be tracked, and all the horrible things Aegis Online would do to him if they caught him, whirled through his mind like a sickening miasma of terrible dreams, chipping away at his confidence. He tried to think of some way, any way, that he could get clear of the situation, but that just led to him thinking about how the unknown number of killer robots swimming around in his veins were just as likely to end his journey as any run-in with the Conglomerate.

If he went to the authorities and tried to explain himself, he might get lucky about the mess in the alley, although that seemed unlikely, but the nanites were a death sentence that he wasn’t sure just anyone could handle for him. He might get the one person in a hundred that had the best interest of a citizen in mind, rather than some corporate agenda, or their own personal climb up the social ladder. Sure, they could be trusted to stop Dissident threats or put out fires. They even caught the occasional thief or other minor criminal. But a cop-killing teenager? The majority of them probably wouldn’t give it a second thought before beating him to the point that he couldn’t speak, then feeding him to the court of public opinion. Everyone loved to see a Dissident get what was coming to them on the net. He knew, because until just an hour ago, he had loved it too. Now, he was Dissident scum.

He needed a plan. Being on the run, however, was something of a new experience for him. He didn’t know the first thing about surviving off the grid. A grid that was so extensive that it updated a person’s medical records every time they used the toilet. No computer. No communication. No money. No knowledge of the situation. No hope.

He needed help.

Taking another random turn, perhaps his fifth or sixth since he’d used the public computer kiosk, his hand drifted to his pocket and dipped inside. The hard edges of two little storage crystals touched his fingertips and he picked them up, rolling them over in his hand thoughtfully, as he considered his precious few options. Romeo seemed to be his only real option. He’d seen documentaries about killer nanites and how they worked. There were hundreds of varieties, all of which were highly illegal, of course, but they all had one thing in common. They were almost impossible to defeat before they fulfilled their mission, or were properly deactivated by some external control. They were tamper resistant, fault tolerant, potentially self replicating, hardened against EMP attacks, and usually programmed to destroy their host in the event that they were tampered with anyway.

So, if Horatio meant what he said, then Romeo had whatever device was necessary to deactivate the nanites. Which meant Romeo was his first and best bet to surviving long enough to try to get clear of this mess. But Romeo was on Ceres, and Tal had no way to get there. No legitimate ship went from Conglomerate space to Ceres. That was Dissident territory. A no-man’s land that no law-abiding citizen would dare attempt to access. The Conglomerate didn’t even officially acknowledge that there were people there, even though it was all but common knowledge that was were the Dissidents lived. Every attempt was made to dissuade discussion of the planetoid and its inhabitants even now that Earth had been opened back up to colonization and the Conglomerate was quickly losing political power to the new government.

Tal’s thoughts continued to meander as he kept moving, picking his way along the road, making the occasional random turn and even doubling back on his path once or twice, all the while headed north toward the rim. His runner’s body was used to the motion of muscles, putting one foot in front of the other over and over, then beating out a cadence against the ground and carrying him ever forward. They had a motto on his cross-country team: “No way out but through.” The motto echoed in his mind as he crossed ten, then fifteen miles from where he’d started his escape. His body barely registered the exertion at a walking pace.

The buildings grew shorter as he continued northward, the blue sky fading away to reveal the structure of the dome that held it in, as it arched closer and closer to the crater wall that was the edge of the enclosed city. The day rolled on into night and the street lights struggled to compensate, either from years of disrepair that far out in the slums, or from intentional sabotage done to keep the streets as dark as possible for the doing of misdeeds with minimal interruptions. Bill’s voice echoed in his head: Look for dive bars near old hangars.

Pressing forward into the growing darkness, Tal’s thoughts were interrupted by the far-off sound of singing. It was a chorus of perhaps half a dozen voices, with no apparent instrumental accompaniment, save for a single, resonating drum, pounding out a staccato to underpin the melody. They blended together so completely though, that he couldn’t really tell how many there were, but he couldn’t help but move toward the sound to try to find out.

Essequibo River is the king of rivers all,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

Essequibo River is the king of rivers all,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

Somebody, oh, Johnny, somebody, oh,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

It was a lilting alto voice, probably female, that sung the leading lines, and was quickly followed up by the chorus of other perfectly attuned voices for the chorus. Moving toward the music, Tal came into sight of a smallish building, nestled between two larger structures that loomed over it like thugs waiting to steal its lunch money.

Essequibo captain is the king of captains all,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

Essequibo captain is the king of captains all,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

Somebody, oh, Johnny, somebody, oh,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

Moving closer, he could hear the dull murmur of conversation underpinning the narrative of the song, but it was evident that the singers, whoever they were, were commanding the majority of the people in the building. A building which, as he drew nearer, identified itself as  Leonidas’s Last Stand, via a flickering, faded holographic sign over its one crooked door.

Essequibo sailor is the king of sailors all,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

Essequibo sailor is the king of sailors all,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

Somebody, oh, Johnny, somebody, oh,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

Moving up to the door, Tal pulled the hinged panel open a bit, taking a moment to fully appreciate the reality of a hinged, manual door in the middle of one of the most technologically advanced cities in the system. He then peeked through the gap into the building’s interior. The light inside was muted and warm, with a few bright spots of harsh white light thrown on a stage made of what appeared to be old shipping containers in one corner of the room. There were close to one hundred people in the large room, all sitting around tables, nursing drinks, and watching the figures on the stage, a dull rumble of occasional conversations rippling through them every once in awhile.

Essequibo bosun is the king of bosuns all,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

Essequibo bosun is the king of bosuns all,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

Somebody, oh, Johnny, somebody, oh,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

The room smelled of long-ago spilled beer and the freshly sour sweat of hard labor, mixed with the overbearing odor of greasy food cooked short-order style on a screaming hot, flat griddle. Adding to the assault on his sense of smell was the overpowering stench of some cheap deodorizing agent that heaped its own stink atop the other olfactory assaults, rather than offsetting any of them.

On the stage, which appeared to be quite solid and well-used, despite its make-shift construction, was a group of four people, three women and one man, singing with what looked like absolute passion for their endeavor. The four of them belted out each chord with perfect harmony, as the man attacked the drum using little more than his fingertips. The music they made filled the room to overflowing with warmth and energy that suffused the space like a security blanket and made everything feel just a little bit better in Tal’s mind.

Essequibo Judy is the queen of Judies all,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

Essequibo Judy is the queen of Judies all,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

Somebody, oh, Johnny, somebody, oh,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

Tal drew himself through the door, standing just inside and watching the performance, which despite the attractiveness of all four singers, had little to do with dancing, or any other visual art. They simply captivated nearly every person in the room with the power of their song, drawing them in and holding them prisoner in a cell made of aural love and the sweaty odor of hard work being swept away by drinks, food, and music.

Essequibo River is the king of rivers all,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

Essequibo River is the king of rivers all,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

Somebody, oh, Johnny, somebody, oh,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

Looking around as the music washed over him, Tal saw that the low murmurs he was hearing were coming from the corners of the room, where people were quietly conducting business under the veil of privacy that the music afforded them. The room’s population was not exactly what he was expecting though. Rather than the burly, hardened, road-weary, thug-like individuals that the buildings flanking the bar resembled, the place was filled with, for the most part, regular folks. Sure, most of them looked a little tougher or a little wiser than an average person in the city might, but there was the same variety of faces, genders, heights, weights, and more. There were some people with tattoos and some without, and some with genetic or cybernetic modifications, and some without. In short, it was just a regular place of business, with regular people in it.

Somebody, oh, Johnny, somebody, oh,

Buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody, oh.

When the song stopped and the singers’ total control of those paying attention to them began to ebb away, the entire room slowly turned to look toward the door and the new person standing there.

They all turned to look at Tal.