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Authors: J. Patrick Black

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BOOK: Ninth City Burning
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Ghalo has appeared at the top of the stairs leading into the Office of the Prefect, wielding a loudspeaker to order us inside. “I would sooner trust him to a pack of hungry dogs,” I say to Torro.

I turn my back on him and go to join my codesmen. One at a time, we pass through the building's gaping threshold and present our identification to a man seated inside, who ushers us to stand single file in a long, twisting line. I am pondering what might have happened had I simply thrown my identifying card from the back of the truck on the ride here when from behind me someone screams, and I know without looking that it is Baby. He has been refused admittance, just as Torro predicted, and while Mama stands helpless outside, he thrashes wildly at anyone who tries to lay a hand on him. I am able to scold him quiet, but I am terrified of what will happen once Mama and I are locked inside, and he locked out.

“Hello there,” someone says behind me. “You must be Naomi.” I turn and find myself looking into the face of a slim, green-eyed girl. “My name is Camareen. My friend Torro told me about you.” Her voice is soft, with a faint music to it. “Your brother can stay with me if he wants. I'm supervising the line, so he'll be able to see you the whole time.” She smiles down at Baby. “Would you like that?”

I am about to tell this Camareen just what she can do with her offer when Baby nods shyly and extends his hand for her to take. Together, they walk to a place outside the ropes bounding the line of children, Baby still tense and frowning but his terror gone. The companionship of a pretty girl has gone a long way toward mending his fears. I, meanwhile, am singled out as a truant and compelled back into line, this time nearer the front. Baby and Camareen have fallen into conversation, and though Ghalo accosts them, intending to learn why Baby is not in line, the girl's smile deflects him as easily as waxed cotton does rain. By small degrees, I move toward the far end of the room, and though I search the line for Mama, I do not see her again before the door there opens, and I am ushered inside.

THIRTEEN

NAOMI

T
he room beyond seems unaccountably large for its sparse furnishing of a small rug and desk and two men. One, bald on top with bushy chops and sleepless eyes, reclines behind the desk, turning a small card over in his hands. “Come in, then,” he says, rasping somewhat. “Naomi, is it? Have a seat, Naomi, this won't take long.”

I sit as requested, noting as I do the other figure standing over the weary-eyed man's shoulder. Though tall and regal in bearing, he is younger than I at first imagined, perhaps not much older than Rae. With this thought comes a pang of hurt that hardens quickly into anger, a hardening that must show in my face because the young man has begun to regard me more closely, as though trying to decide where he has seen me before.

“My name is Reggidel,” says the older man, offering the card, which I suspect bears my citizen's identity, to his compatriot, who examines it with interest. “This is Vinneas. We both work for the censors of the Ninth Principate. We just want to ask you a few questions, then you can go.”

These are my enemies, tricksters and cheats and scoundrels. If Rae were here, she would have them begging for mercy inside of a minute, and I resolve to come as close as I can. I hitch on my armor and glare at them as I would misbehaving children.

Reggidel, meanwhile, has reached behind his desk and produced a wooden case about twice the length of a man's forearm. When he opens it toward me, I see it is filled with several dozen small metals disks. Each is identical to the others, quicksilver lenses small enough to fit in my palm, and yet one, situated unremarkably near the center, is strangely fascinating. I reach for it, unthinking, surprised by the faint tingle of its surface. Its weight as I hold it in my hand seems less physical than sentimental.

“Thank you, Naomi,” Reggidel says, closing the case. “You can keep that if you'd like.”

It is only then that I recall Torro's warning, not to do what these people want, and realize with a flash of fear that I have done precisely that. I drop the lens like something turned suddenly hot; it lands, spinning, on the table between us and goes on turning far longer than the force of its fall should warrant. “No,” I say to Reggidel. “Take it back.”

“Hold on to it, in case you change your mind.” I have amused Reggidel, if his grin is any indication. “Only one more thing, then we're finished.”

He takes out a second case, smaller than the first. The articles inside are far more familiar in appearance than the silver disks: all relics of the type found in long-abandoned places, the ruined cities and settlements scattered up and down the continent. My people collect them for trade in the townships, where they are known to fetch steep prices. This is the largest collection I have yet seen. It is arranged according to no scheme in particular, fine jewelry and delicate machines of ancient design displayed alongside broken cups and scraps of dirty paper.

“Does anything there interest you, Naomi?” Reggidel asks. “You can pick them up if you like. Go ahead.”

In truth, one item in particular does seem fascinating: a pair of old horn-rimmed spectacles. The lenses are gone, the frame cracked, but I have an unaccountable desire to try them on. Instead, I force my hands into my lap and keep them there. I will not give myself away a second time. I say to Reggidel, “I have no use for your trash.”

He looks into my eyes then, and I hold his gaze until he sits back, still wearing his grin. “Well, Naomi, it looks like we're in luck. How would you like to go on a little trip with us?”

“I will not go anywhere with you,” I inform him. “If you have nothing more to say to me, then let me leave.”

“That's your choice, I suppose, but hear me out first.” He has retrieved the metal disk from its place on the table and begun twirling it between his fingers. “You see, Naomi, I have a feeling you may be a very special girl, and I'm hoping you'll give me the chance to prove I'm right. The trouble is, this place isn't equipped for the sort of test we have in mind.”

“And what sort of ‘special girl' do you imagine I am?” I ask, putting as much contempt into the question as I am able.

“Unfortunately, I can't tell you that just yet. Our little experiment here isn't nearly as conclusive as we'd like, but that can't be helped. If it turns out you're not what we're looking for, we can have you back here by tomorrow. If you are, we will ask that you accompany us to our city. No more settlement school, no work detail when you turn fifteen. You'll train to be an officer of the Principate.”

“I thank you for your offer,” I say, all ice, “but I have had enough plush promises from men of your type. If you are finished, I would like to leave.”

Reggidel frowns. “Odd. Usually children can't get out of this place fast enough.”

“Censor,” the boy Vinneas says, “I don't think this young lady was raised in Settlement 225. It would explain why she's never registered, even though she's twelve years old.” He hands my identification card back to Reggidel. “You aren't from around here, are you, Naomi?” he asks, and I am surprised to hear him speaking my native tongue. “You're one of the people who call themselves Autumn Walkers.”

I nod, dazed. I have never heard my language from one of these townspeople. His accent is strange, but the words are spoken well enough.

“How did you come to be a citizen of Settlement 225?”

“We were tricked,” I say. “My coda came here fleeing the winter and hostile tribes. We were offered shelter, but it seems being pressed into service in your Legion is the price of hospitality.”

Vinneas appears both angered and embarrassed by my story, a reaction that nearly makes me like him, until I think this, too, may be some ruse.

“It sounds like the Prefect here made Naomi and her people citizens so they would be included in the draft,” he says to Reggidel in their township language. “It must have been just after the Principate introduced the new quotas.”

Reggidel chuckles with grim amusement. “I'm sorry to hear that,” he says. “Looks like those jokers really screwed us on this one.”

“Something that might have been avoided if we didn't put such a high premium on ignorance,” Vinneas answers, his air that of a man making a point in some ongoing dispute.

Reggidel doesn't reply, merely flips the silver disk once more and pockets it. “The problem, Naomi,” he says, “is that we can't take you with us
unless you want to go. Oh, I suppose it would be
possible
to bring you along against your will, but it wouldn't be in our interest. Our Legion has plenty of conscripts, but people like you need to be volunteers.”

His talk of conscripts and volunteers has reminded me again of my coda, of all those waiting to be drafted, and the others, shot and beaten and bound and carried off to some unknown punishment. I think of Rae and what she would do in my place. “I will make you an offer,” I say to Reggidel. “In the room behind me are my mother and brother and other friends dear to me, all brought to be part of your draft. More were taken prisoner on orders of your man Ghalo, who is a liar and a villain. You will ensure that all of these people are released from your draft and every law of this place, and have food and shelter enough to live out the winter in comfort. In the spring, they will be given whatever supplies they require and safe passage from this township. Do that, and I will go wherever you ask.”

“Well, Naomi, I'm not sure I can make that kind of promise.” Reggidel's mouth has twisted into something half grin, half grimace. “The people here won't be too pleased about our interfering with the way they govern their settlement. We might just try a few others from your—what did you call it? Coda? Maybe one of them will have what we need, along with a little better sense. I've heard the settlement schools aren't exactly pleasant, but at least you'll be able to look forward to working at the factories sixteen hours a day, nine days a week.”

I am reminded of the children here, of their slurs and hurled stones, and wonder what sort of life could have bred such meanness. “You have a notion that I am special. Tell me how special.”

“If we're right about you, and you really were interested in those glasses there,” Vinneas says. “Approximately one in fifteen million.” He turns a broad smile on me, and I gather I did not hide my interest quite so well as I imagined. “Give or take a few million.”

I regard Reggidel evenly. “If you are willing to make that gamble, sir, you have my blessing.”

“You smug little shit,” Reggidel says, glaring balefully at Vinneas. “Whose side are you on?”

“As I understand things, we're all on the same side,” Vinneas replies, still smiling.

The comment draws a rueful chuckle from Reggidel. “Right you are,” he grumbles, as though this is not the first time such words have passed between them. He gives me one more long look, then heaves an exaggerated sigh, throws up his hands in resignation, and closes his case of curios with a slam. “You win, Naomi. It's a deal.”

FOURTEEN

TORRO

W
e all get together in the fourth-floor common room to watch the draft on telecast. Mersh has a room right on fourth, so he gets there early and saves a couch, just lying across it like the big dumb log he is while he's waiting for the rest of us, and then we all squeeze together, Camareen and Hexi and Isslyn in the middle, all locking arms, and me and Mersh squashed on the sides. Spammers shows up last, and he doesn't sit with us, just leans against the wall with his head back, looking real tired. I guess he thinks it's dumb to squeeze onto one couch when there's so much other space. Fourth has the smallest common room in the dorm, and the viewer is kind of crappy, so there aren't that many people here. That's how we wanted it, though. If one of us is going to get called up, we don't want to be packed in with everyone down on first and second.

Right at 1800, the viewer flicks on, and there's Ghalo, sort of blurry and crackly, but definitely Ghalo. Camareen's hand closes around mine, and her fingers are freezing. Her hands can be pretty cold sometimes, but this is different. They're like ice.

Old Ghalo doesn't waste any time. He gets right into drawing the numbers, reading off each one real slow, one digit at a time. The sound in here is pretty good, so we can hear him all right, and I close my eyes and listen, trying real hard not to think about how after tomorrow, I might never see Camareen again.

I'm not a total idiot. It's not like I think Camareen and me will be together forever or anything. We've each got like thirty more years of drafts ahead, and it's pretty definite one of us will get called up eventually. I just want a little more time with her. It doesn't even have to be that long. In a few years, we'll all get moved into double rooms instead of the quads you
get just out of school, and Camareen and me want to apply for a place together. And then pretty soon we'll need to start having some babies because every citizen is supposed to have at least two by the time we turn twenty-five. It's sort of like another quota. Most people are pretty unhappy about it, especially the girls, who have to do all the uncomfortable stuff, but Camareen says she doesn't mind as long as it's with me. So if I get called up in ten years, I think I could probably stand it. Or five, maybe. Just not now. Not today. But there isn't anything I can do to stop it. Ghalo just keeps reading off the digits, one after another, all steady and whatnot like a dripping faucet.

Every time Ghalo starts out with a digit that matches one of ours, Camareen squeezes my hand a little. One number actually comes pretty close. The first six digits are the same as Camareen's, and it's like my whole body fills up with cement. My stomach, my lungs, everything. But then digit seven is different, and I don't think I've ever been so relieved in my life. I'm just relieved as anything.

The telecast only lasts about ten minutes, but I'd rather do ten straight shifts at the factory than sit through those ten minutes again, I really would. Finally, Ghalo reads the last number and starts doing his usual speech, telling everyone who got called up to be at the Shipping Station by 0900 tomorrow, but you can hardly hear him because everyone's started like laughing and cheering and whatnot. Camareen hugs me hard and kisses my cheek, and everyone's doing something like that. I even see a few people I don't really like all that much, and we just grin at each other like we're all the best friends in the world.

But then Camareen says my name, and she sounds scared, like really scared. For a second I think maybe I didn't hear one of the numbers, like maybe she got called up after all, but then I see Hexi at the other end of the couch. She's got both hands over her mouth, and tears just rolling down her cheeks like crazy. Isslyn, who's sitting next to her, is rubbing her shoulder and saying, “Hexi? Hexi?” but it's like Hexi doesn't even hear her. Then Hexi starts making this sound, sort of halfway between a hiccup and a scream, and it just gets louder and louder. I start to get pretty scared because Hexi really sounds like she's choking, and she won't say anything or look at us, even though Camareen and Isslyn have both put their arms around her.

Mersh and me, we just stand there like complete morons. I start to think
about like what if she runs, just tries to make it past the fences or hides out in a factory basement or something. I imagine Hexi holed up in some storage room, with us bringing her food and everything, even though I know it'd never work. Ghalo's always going on about how no one escapes the draft. The settlement marshals find you no matter what.

Suddenly, from across the room, there's this awful screeching sound, and everyone looks, even Hexi. It's Spammers, dragging a metal chair across the floor. The noise is just terrible, but Spams doesn't seem to care. He plonks the chair right in front of Hexi and sits down. He's got a little satchel with him, and from inside he takes a bottle of yellowy liquid and sets it down with a clink.

“This is some shit, Hex,” he says, looking Hexi right in the eyes. He sounds real serious. Spammers is always joking about everything, but he sounds real serious now. “You may be just a number to those lousy Prips, but we love you, got it? We love you, Hex, and we're gonna send you off right.” He pulls a stack of little glass cups from his satchel and pours two from the bottle. “I was saving this for something special,” he says and offers one glass to Hexi. “You're it.”

Hexi just sort of looks at him, like he's a talking dog or something. For a minute, I think she's going to start scream-hiccupping again, but then she grabs the glass and downs it. She wipes her mouth, kind of wincing, and holds out the glass again. “How about one more?”

We all get pretty drunk after that. It turns out Spammers has bottles of aquavee hidden like all over the dorm, and when he realized Hexi'd been called up, he ducked out and grabbed one. The aquavee isn't that great, like it really burns your throat and tastes like crap, but no one complains. Aquavee is real hard to get, and expensive. When we finish the first bottle, Spams gets us a second, and a third. Other kids who'd stayed in the common room after the telecast go and find plastic cups, and pretty soon word gets around that someone up on fourth is giving out aquavee, and people just start stopping by. Some we know, but most are people we've never even talked to. Spammers doesn't care if they're total strangers. He just goes on pouring drinks.

One of the people who shows up later is this guy Gemt. He's one guy I really hate. I can't stand him. He works at the Prefect Building with Camareen, but everybody knows he only got the job because his father is the Sub-Prefect of Production. Ghalo, that is. And yeah, it's not supposed
to matter who your parents are. You don't live with them or anything, or even see them that often. We're all one big family in Settlement 225, old Qu likes to say. So when a total moron like Gemt gets a sweet office job and Spammers, who's approximately a million times smarter, ends up in the factories, it's supposed to be some big co
in
cidence that the total moron's father happens to be like the second biggest big shot in the entire settlement. The part that really drives me crazy, though, is that Gemt actually thinks he
earned
his job. He's always talking about how hard he worked in school, just studying all the time when he could have been out having fun, like the rest of us would all be at the Prefect Building, too, if we'd only thought to
try
. It makes me crazy. Every time I see the kid, I want to punch him in the face.

Camareen thinks I'm too hard on Gemt. “You should give him a chance,” she'll say sometimes. “Gemt has it rough in his own way. It's not easy being the son of someone everyone hates as much as people hate Ghalo.” And maybe she's right, but I don't feel like giving Gemt a chance tonight, that's for sure. So when he starts coming our way, I decide to let Camareen talk to him and go sit with Spammers. He's back in his spot by the wall, sitting cross-legged with like his fifth bottle of aquavee. He starts to pour before I even hold out my glass, and I barely catch the aquavee before it splashes onto the floor.

“We must be guzzling down your whole supply,” I say to Spammers.

He raises his glass in a little toast. “There are more important things, right?”

“Yeah.” I don't know if Hexi's just forgotten her number got called or what, but she looks like she's having the best night of her life, and it's all thanks to Spammers. He was the only one who got that there was no point trying to convince her everything was going to be fine because it wasn't. “That was real nice what you did, Spams. For Hexi, I mean.”

“We've only got one Hexi. Had to make it count.” He pours himself another drink, splashing aquavee over the glass. “And hey, I wanted a proper send-off, too.”

“What do you mean?” I ask. I don't get an answer, though, because he's busy emptying his glass in one go. “Spams, what are you talking about?”

“I'm going, too,” he says, all casual, like it's no big deal. “They got me on demerits.”

Demerits are supposed to discourage people from “damaging or
diminishing the common good of the settlement,” as they say. Anytime you do something wrong or break the rules, like if you steal or start a fight, or you show up to work late or in a messy uniform, you get stuck with a certain number of demerits based on how bad whatever you did was. If you've got too many demerits when the draft comes around, you get called up automatically. They just take your number and put it right at the top of the list.

“They nabbed me building a still. You know, to make aquavee,” Spammers says. “It wasn't working yet, but they said it
constituted clear intent toward criminal activity
. Demerits out the ass.” He kind of leers at his glass. “Too bad. My stuff would have been way better than this crap.”

I think I'd fall over if I wasn't already sitting on the floor. “When?”

“About two weeks ago. I might have been able to work them off, the demerits, I mean, if I'd had all year like I thought. But then the draft came along and, you know.”

Yeah, I know. You can erase demerits by doing things that are good for the settlement, things like getting an “excellent” on your performance reviews or volunteering to clean up trash or like writing a patriotic song or whatever. Just being an all-around great citizen of old S-225. Everyone ends up with a few demerits now and then, but we're always sure to get rid of them before the draft. Except this time, no one knew the draft was coming.

“Say the still was part mine,” I tell Spams. “Say I was helping you. Maybe that would get you under the limit.”

“Awful nice of you, boyo, but they'd never go for it. And even if they did, it wouldn't help. It'd just be both of us off to the Front.”

I just sort of lean back against the wall. I can't think of anything to say.

“Listen, kid,” Spammers says, “do me a favor and don't tell anyone about me getting called up. It's all right for Hexi, people all crying over her and everything, but I don't think I could take it. All right?”

“All right, Spams. Pour me another drink, will you?”

“Will do, boyo. Will do.”

We're there all night, the six of us. No one says it, but I think we've got this idea that as long as we stay together, none of us will have to leave. It's dumb, I know, but anyway, it's how I feel. Even after the aquavee runs out, and everybody else starts wandering off to bed, we stay behind, sometimes not even talking, just sitting together. Later on, Hexi starts like cuddling
up to Spams, and I wonder what he's going to do about it. Girls have about zero appeal to old Spammers, something even Hexi knows, but it's also common knowledge she's been after him for years, and tonight's a special occasion, so maybe Spams'll make an exception or whatever. But, eventually, Hex just falls asleep on his shoulder, and Spams announces he's going to go put her to bed. She won't find out he got called up, too, until tomorrow, when they both show up at the Shipping Station. I get this idea that I want to go with them, like to say good-bye, but that's not allowed. So when Spammers picks Hexi up and carries her off, I know it's the last time I'll see either of them. I want to say something else to Spammers, but I promised I wouldn't let anyone know about him getting called up, so we just sort of nod to each other, and that's it.

Isslyn goes next, and Mersh has turned back into a big dumb log, just snoring away on the couch. Camareen's roommates are gone for the night, so we leave for her place, one building over. Outside, it's just getting light, and between the pink sky and the cold air and Camareen warm against me, I actually feel happy. I don't want to feel that way, but I do.

BOOK: Ninth City Burning
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