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Authors: J. Patrick Black

Ninth City Burning (7 page)

BOOK: Ninth City Burning
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“Come on, everyone here steals. What do you think I could trade it for? Think I could get an en-text?”

“This is slander, and we'll have nothing to do with it,” Spammers says. “Implying theft is common or acceptable at this factory impugns the integrity of your fellow workers, our foremen, and the factory executives. Keep it up and I'm filing a grievance.” Spammers sounds pretty angry, even though everything he's saying is complete crap. I don't know anyone with like a lower opinion of the integrity of his fellow workers, and he's always making fun of people who file grievances. He says you're better off just farting at someone, for all the good grievances do. Mersh is probably thinking the same thing I am because he looks confused and a little mad.

“What you can trade it for is a trip to the Front,” I say. “I guess that's fine if you're planning on going anyway.”

You can just tell Mersh thought this sugar-beet thing would go over real different, like he'd be this big hero for stealing a stupid beet. He's so disappointed, even Spammers feels sorry for him. “Come on,” Spammers says.
“We can drop that turd of yours outside before our next shift, and no one will know the difference. What do you say?” He gets up and pats Mersh on the shoulder. “Only seven hours to go, and the first drink's on me!”

Mersh cheers up a little at that. I'm glad. He's really a good guy, but the things that come out of his mouth sometimes you wouldn't believe. Take this sugar beet, for instance. It's completely worthless unless you've got about a thousand more as well as a working sugar refinery, which Mersh ought to know because Spammers
at the stupid refinery. It's the sugar you really want. And what no one saw was that when Spammers got up from the table, he passed me a paper bag with about a kilo of the stuff inside, by the feel of it.

The others all have to go back for their second shift, but Hexi and me have been here since last night, and we're done for a while. “You coming back to the dorms?” Hexi asks as we're leaving the caf.

“No, I've got some things to do in town.”

“Oh well, say hi to Camareen for me.” The way Hexi says it, it's like she's caught me doing something sneaky. That sort of annoys me. Our friends all know about Camareen and me.

“I'll give her your warmest regards.” I'm just glad she doesn't try to come with me. I really do have some things to do, and Hexi can be bad for business.



n my way to the railbuses, I stop off at the factory store to get my new uniform. Factory workers are allowed one new uniform every sixty days. If you damage yours before then, you still get a new one, but you get demerits along with it. I always make sure mine rips on like day sixty-two or sixty-three. I know just where to tear it so it's eligible for replacement, but I do it along a seam, so it's easy to fix, too. The box waiting for me at the company store is a little heavier than it should be because there are about twenty slightly dented cans of herring inside.

Mersh wasn't really wrong when he said everybody steals. Really, everyone, from turds like me all the way up to the Prefect. People always put on this huge act of being like appalled and horrified whenever someone gets caught lifting from the factories or warehouses or whatever, but most people aren't really mad about it. In the end, you're only lifting from the Principate.

The Principate is the outfit running that big war and protecting us from our enemies and whatnot. Settlements like old 225 are supposed to send them all the food and supplies and soldiers they need and do it with a smile because without the Prips, we'd all get like marauded and killed. The Prips set quotas to make sure we're working hard and giving up everything we can spare, and we get to keep whatever's left over, Granite Shore does. But the thing is, whenever we beat our quotas, the quotas just go up. So we find ways to get a little for ourselves. Spammers lifts sugar. I dent cans, and my floor foreman, who's supposed to dispose of all the bad cans, he keeps them and gives me part of the haul. We'd all be in a lot of trouble if the wrong people found out, but Spammers and me only deal with the right people, meaning the ones who'd be just as screwed as us if we got caught.

Cranely is one of the right sorts of people. He works as a tailor in the
Town Center, but the basement of his shop is like a warehouse of everything from truck parts to canned peaches to shoe soles to dried pasta. Old Cranely is probably the biggest underground dealer in Granite Shore. Spammers and me have been working with him for years.

As soon as Cranely sees me hanging around the entrance to his shop, he starts closing up. It doesn't take long—the place is pretty empty anyway. We go downstairs, and he gets right to sewing up the torn seam in my jacket. He'd charge most people a few service credits for that sort of work, but he does my uniforms for free. It's all part of the deal, I guess. Spammers and me worked everything out with Cranely in advance, back when we first started at the factories, so he pretty much knows what I've brought and what he'll give me. We still haggle a little bit over the weight of the sugar, though, Cranely getting all outraged like I'm trying to lift from him. It's a form of endearment or something. If he were really mad, he'd get very quiet. That's when you want to back off about as fast as you can.

You don't want to mess with Cranely. You just don't. He's sort of an old guy, but there are stories about him that would give you nightmares. Supposedly, this one girl once ran off with his half of a trade, and like a day later, she just disappeared. All anyone ever found was a doll that looked just like her, lying in her bed. It had the same haircut and clothes and everything, just in miniature. And it turned out it was made from
clothes, and
hair. Her skin, too, I heard. The stories are all like that. Real gruesome stuff. But Spammers and me are on good terms with Cranely, and we intend to keep it that way.

For the sugar and the fish and my new uniform, which Cranely can alter and sell, I get a whole bunch of condensed milk and canned bread. The guards at the fences make little sandwiches out of that stuff during their night watch. They can't get enough of it. Spammers and me do real good business trading with them. We were sure to tell Cranely all about it, of course, and he doesn't mind missing out on what he'd make selling directly to the guards—he's too old to go running out to the fences at night anyway. We still give him a cut of the profit, though.

Cranely finishes with my jacket pretty quickly. Afterward, you can't even tell it was ripped. You really can't. “You've got that look today, boy,” Cranely says. “Got something else for me, haven't you?”

“I think you're going to give me a few more pages, Cranely old man. I can just about guarantee it.”

From my pocket I take a pair of glasses. They're not the sort of glasses they give you around here, if you're nearsighted or whatever. Uniform glasses are all thin black plastic, or maybe metal wire if you happen to be pretty important as well as nearsighted. These glasses are basically the same as normal ones, but they look totally different. They're sort of rounder and spotted yellow and brown. The hinges are all rusty, and the lenses are broken, but it doesn't matter to Cranely if the glasses aren't new.

“Where did you get these?” he asks.

“I get to keep a few secrets, right?”

He sort of laughs to himself, saying, “Indeed, indeed,” and turning the glasses over in his hands, looking real closely at them. I start to get nervous, like maybe these are just normal glasses. The bivvie girl who traded them to me said she found them deep in hellion territory, but maybe she just got them from some other settlement and like scuffed them up to look like they'd been lying at the bottom of some ruins somewhere. You can't trust those bivvies, not really. I mean, this girl seemed nice enough, but everyone says a bivvie is just a hellion who knows how to use a fork. It took me months to lift all the parts for that gun I traded her, and it would be just like me to end up with some sham artifact glasses. I can be a real sucker sometimes.

Finally, Cranely says, “Well, boy, looks like we have something here.” He's got his big, toothy smile on, like he always does when I bring him an artifact. I don't know what he does with them, just that he'll pay big for anything not made in the settlements. Cranely puts the glasses away and starts shuffling around his desk. “What was it we agreed? Four pages?”

“Seven.” Cranely isn't trying to swindle me. He's just being polite.

“Yes, yes. Seven pages. A fine memory you've got. Keep it sharp, that's my advice.” He gets out an envelope and hands it to me. Inside are seven folded pages. That's what I mean about old Cranely. He was always going to give me seven pages. He had them all ready.

I put the envelope into my satchel with about a third of the bread and milk. Spammers will be by later to pick up the rest. Cranely is still chuckling to himself as he unlocks the store to let me out. “You come by anything else like those glasses, you be sure and bring it here.”

“Nine pages, right?” I ask.

Old Cranely just loves that.

After I leave Cranely's, I head for the Square, just a few blocks away.
The whole place is pretty much empty this time of day, since mostly everyone is at work or asleep, but there are a few bureaucrats going in and out of the Office of the Prefect. It's like twice the size of any other building in the Square, and all brick and concrete, with these big tall steps. Real impressive stuff. The bureaucrats kind of look at me as I go up the stairs, like I'm the first factory worker they've ever seen.

The Prefect Building has these two huge staircases right inside the doors, but there are never very many people on the upper floors. Everyone is waiting in line to get into this other big room, where there are even more lines to wait in. That's why you don't see many workers here. We only get one day free every ten, and no one wants to spend it in some dumb line. But for a lot of bureaucrats, that's pretty much their job. Spammers worked awhile at the meat farms, and he said the bureaucrats here look just like pigs at the troughs. That's not so far off, I guess. You can see them all lined up on benches, waiting to talk to someone more important than they are. Talking to someone more important is basically like their food.

I wait in one line to fill out a grievance form, then wait in another line to hand it in. The guy at the window reads it and kind of smiles at me as he gives me my number, 732-00-5. Instead of going to wait on the benches, though, I duck into the hall. It's pretty quiet out there, and I just pace around a bit, listening to my footsteps.

After a while the door opens, and Camareen comes out. “Calling number 732-00-5,” she says, then she kisses me.

Camareen and me have been going together for about two years. She's the prettiest girl in the world. I know not everyone would think that. I mean, she's not busty like the girl in Mersh's poster, but I don't care. And anyway, the poster girl isn't real. That's one thing I don't get about Mersh. There are real girls all over the place, and he's obsessed with this girl on a poster. I don't know. Maybe I wouldn't feel that way if I didn't get to see Camareen all the time. She's got these green eyes that look like the ocean on a sunny day, like when you open your eyes underwater and there's sun shining down and you can't stop looking, even though it stings.

“Hi, Camareen.”

“And what exactly is
?” Camareen holds up my grievance form. She's a junior clerk for the Assistant Sub-Prefect of Production, and I filled out the boxes so the form would go right to her. It's pale green, the form, a very different green from her eyes, sort of like nauseated-looking. At the
bottom, where you're supposed to explain your grievance, it says, “Camareen works too much.”

“I have some real problems with the way things are run around here,” I say.

“I'm taking my ten-minute break now, how's that?”

“It's a start.” I wait for her to kiss me again, and while she's doing it, I take the envelope from my satchel. “So I guess I'll have to give you this now.”

She kind of goes still, then glares at me. “That better not be what I think it is.”

“You probably shouldn't think about it, then.”

When she sees what's inside, you can tell she's trying hard to stay mad. “You've got to stop doing this, Torro. There's a war on, in case you didn't notice, and we're all supposed to be doing our part.”

“Does that mean you don't want them?”

“Of course I want them, you idiot.” She's holding the pages now, and she looks like she's ready to cry. It always seems crazy the way dots and lines on a page can do that to her. She'd never let you know it, but Camareen is really sensitive as anything. “But there are better things you could be doing with your time.”

To see her now, though, I don't think there are. The pages I got from Cranely are supposed to be music. To me, the marks look a little like stick people sitting on some mostly empty bleachers, but Camareen can read them as easy as normal words. She plays with our settlement orchestra, even though she sort of hates the music. Prip music is just a lot of booming noise that makes you think of battles and whatnot. It's all about how we're part of this big struggle and how heroic we all are and everything. That sort of music really gets some people. Like during official concerts, you can always see bureaucrats just crying their eyes out. But Camareen hates it. The only reason she plays anything at all is because when she was little, she heard a song that wasn't Prip-approved. It was an old song. Artifact music. So when I found out Cranely had a book of old music, I knew I had to get it from him. He won't trade artifacts for anything except more artifacts, though. That's why I needed the glasses. He's been trading me the book seven pages at a time for a while now.

“So is it any good?” I ask.

Camareen is going through the pages, wiping her eyes with the cuff of her shirt. “Really, really good.”

“Sing one for me.”

She looks over her shoulder, toward the hallway door. “Not here. Later.”

“Just sing a little.” I know she will if I keep asking her.

She knows it, too. “All right, just a little.”

I don't get to hear the song, though, because just then the muster alarm goes off, so loud I wouldn't have heard her even if she'd screamed.

BOOK: Ninth City Burning
3.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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