In the darkened chamber, all voices lowered to a hushed whisper. Giggles and snickers were stifled as a soft light flickered into being at one end of the vast room. Suddenly, it leapt into a vast flame, orange light flashing over the assembled faces. As it calmed, only a single visage remained clearly illuminated - that of a stately, well-groomed man with a beard. He gave a warm smile as he dipped the torch low, towards the first row of people. One by one, each of them held up a small candle and, taking the fire from the torch-bearer, they passed the flame on to the persons seated behind them. Soon, tiny flickers illuminated the chamber like a sea of fireflies. The torch-bearer set his brand into a steel cradle, and turned back to the audience.
"There are two flames that we of the Bede Academy have to bestow upon this year's graduating class," he says. "The first is the wealth of knowledge that has been kept alive throughout generations of turmoil by your ancestors and mine. The second flame is the result of that knowledge, and it is infinitely brighter than the first. If everyone has had enough of this medieval nonsense?"
He clapped his hands, and the wall behind him began to brighten. With a smooth, calculated regularity designed to proceed only as rapidly as the adjustment of the human eye, the blank blackness melted away towards the corners of the room as the wall, actually a window, let in the light from outside. The assembled crowd beheld the view of a sprawling city, tall buildings spread out in clusters along roads that wound through grassy, tree-lined walkways. Small, light transports zipped through the air, carrying people from one end of the city to another, all piloted by computers in constant communication with one another, avoiding not only collision, but anything like a close call. The bustle was all in the sky; on the shady lanes below, the people strolled, without hurry - some just went a little faster than others. In the distance, several very tall, shimmering loops of steel soared two hundred feet into the sky, studded with rungs like enormous, twisted ladders; bits of green were barely visible on the closest of these enormous, skyward farms, designed to maximize yields while conserving horizontal space. It was a clean place, orderly, and though the city was large with a great sense of vigor and energy, its clusters of mighty buildings were spread out enough to avoid swallowing the viewer.
"This," resumed the head of the Bede Academy, "is the second flame, infinitely brighter for the survival of the first. Gateshire, one of the last few pillars of civilization left on this planet. This is the legacy you will inherit and advance with the knowledge you have acquired in this Academy. The two are joined; neither is possible without the other any longer." The academician paused, smiling. A twinkle came into his eye. "I have often heard Gateshire referred to as a civilization unto itself, separate even from its sister cities. But this is not quite the case..."
Down among the crowd - composed entirely of the venerable headmaster's soon-to-be-graduating class - several groans were suppressed with extreme difficulty. Several mouthed along with the well-worn speech, crossing their eyes as they silently spoke about civilization as an ideal rather than material accomplishment, at the sacrifices of their ancestors when world order collapsed, at the difficult decision the founders of Gateshire had faced in cutting themselves off from the rest of the world to maintain their own security and prosperity. To a generation that had never known anything besides that same security, it became a subject of little enough import.
Surrounded by this jesting sat a student who, though smiling pleasantly, resisted the urge to join in the laugh. Ricana Wellhouse took careful notes on the proceedings, stylus flying over the glowing screen of the note-tablet in her skirted lap. She also wore a snug white t-shirt, a black jacket with her school's seal on the right breast, and a pair of black, knee-high boots. In addition to being a part of the soon-to-be-graduating class, she was also the senior reporter for the Bede Chronicle, the Academy’s newspaper. With the journalist’s critical eye, she couldn’t help but note down the student body’s reaction to hearing the well-worn speech of their superior. She could almost feel his eyes burning into her from the stage as she wrote, the same look he had given her across his desk in their many meetings about her articles.
Honestly, Ricana, she mused, thin lips pursing to keep back laughter, you can hardly go a single edition without doing something to earn a reprimand.
Almost as if spurred on by the sight of Ricana to address the subject, the headmaster cut swiftly to a point that typically arrived a bit later in the speech. He pointed out to the distant horizon – or what was visible before it. All the students knew what it was; constantly present yet rarely discussed. Beyond the tall buildings, the flying cars guided by Autoflocking software, beyond the soaring, vital Stratofarms - Ricana's gaze lingered on these for a moment, troubled - and beyond even the slight sprawl of small houses of those who could afford to live outside the sometimes-claustrophobic city proper. From here, it looked like a simple grey bar, above which the sun rose and below which it set every day. It was what set Gateshire apart from the rest of the world, insurmountable from without… or within.
“Now,” the headmaster said, “I grew up in Gateshire, the same as all of you. I know how confining those walls can feel to young people, eager to explore and test boundaries.” Ricana lifted her eyes, expecting to meet those of the speaker; but he had turned elsewhere. “But I have been beyond them. I accompanied my father on one of the last diplomatic missions to the people on the outside, when I was just a boy. And I can tell you, those mighty, sentient walls of ours are liberating. They free us from chaos, anarchy and ruin. They free us from futile toil and crippling fear. And, most importantly, they free us from those people trapped in the world beyond, for whom these horrors are a way of life in which they would have us, too, sinking and suffering with them all.”
Now he smiled warmly once again, gently bringing the students back into the comforting familiarity of their history. “What heroes, then, were our forefathers, to erect these walls and keep the light of civilization burning above the maelstrom of anarchy! You, approaching graduates, are about to join your ranks to theirs and keep this ship afloat. I salute you!”
* * *
“What a load. Do they actually believe this stuff?”
The merchant inhaled hard on his sniffly nose, and swallowed loudly. The woman who had asked the question rolled her eyes. He smiled again, showing grimy teeth, many of them replaced with plastic synthetics that formed a totally unconvincing contrast to his unwashed naturals.
“They don’t have a choice,” he said, voice distorted by his blocked sinuses, “This is what they’re taught from birth. From what I’ve read of it, it’s basically true. Just not the whole truth, ya follow me?”
“Yeah, for sure,” the woman closed the text file that she had been reading – a pirated history book from within a walled city – on her dusty, banged-up nano-reader. The splotchy, incomplete picture, caused by at least a fourth of the nanites having been lost, zipped back into her bulky wrist-mounted device. The light that projected the picture onto the nanites’ reflective bodies shut off as well.
“So, what ya think?” the merchant said, spreading his arms about his booth. “I got docs on anything you want. Including upper echelon stuff – government orders from Gateshire. Stuff they’ll put a bounty on your head for having. Make me an offer.”
The woman pursed her full lips, pierced in a snakebite with two super-thin rings. "I'm good thanks," she said.
The merchant's smile fell. "What, was it the bounty thing? Come on, they'll never find out!"
"I ain't worried about it, friend," the woman said, punching the merchant on the arm and smiling. "I've already got a bounty on my head."
The merchant chuckled. "Don't we all?"
The woman turned away, flipping a hood up over her bright orange hair. She wore it long on the right side of her head, with the left side shaven except for a small, straight lock before her ear. She came up no higher than the shoulders of the motley crowd that clogged the aisles of the bazaar, but none jostled her. Aside from her hooded shirt and the bulky, homemade electronic gauntlets and boots that hung on her small frame, she also wore snug, shiny black tights, thin but super-durable, beneath a denim skirt and a green tank top. Oh her shoulders was a roughed-up vest, with a back patch bearing the letters "CW" formed by a circuitboard design. Beneath this was another patch, ragged and worn, reading "Green River Commune - Anarchy. Ecology. Individualism." around a central seal, depicting a wide, calm river.
She had grown up in a part of history that the texts had left out. The failure of the governments had been a source of panic to most - but a sigh of relief to others. Many returned to the land to survive, retaining all the knowledge and technology they would need to keep the powerful at bay and ensure their own freedom. They gathered at the edges of the slowly-expanding desert that had once been the most fertile land in the world, and sought to live sustainably.They sold food to the wealthy, barricaded behind their walls, in return for protection against those who chose not to rely on themselves, but to raid and steal.
Until the people behind the walls developed their own synthetic food sources, grown on high, soaring towers, and didn't need those in the eco-communes anymore. As usual, the promises of the powerful proved empty, and the people on the land suffered through long, deadly wars against the hordes of nomadic Rovers, until they developed ways to defend themselves.
As she approached the center of the bazaar, a low beeping in one of several rings that lined her ears brought her out of her history review. Her bright green eyes scanned the marketplace, but she never halted or turned her head around. One hand went to her belt to adjust her shirt, and pressed a button specifically placed there to decieve prying eyes. From one of her lip rings, a tiny nano-display appeared before her eyes, nearly invisible to observers; it was a radar, with seven tiny green blips positioned around the central blip - her. She scowled.
"In the middle of the marketplace, you dirty sons of - "
Perfectly coordinated, six men, dressed like ordinary bazaar riffraff, emerged from cover to form a circle around the woman. Each withdrew a weapon from within his ragged coat, and pointed it directly at their victim. Another person, a woman, waited outside the circle. All looked grim and serious, their eyes hidden behind sunglasses.
One of the men said, "Furrow Hollander. Put up your hands."
She spat in the dirt. "Get out of my way."
"You will not receive another warning. Put up your hands and surrender."
"You won't receive one either. Go tell your owners in Gateshire to get bent."
"Alicia," one said to the woman beyond the circle, "Take her."
Before any of the assailants could move, Furrow pointed her bulky gauntlets at the ground and fired a massive shockwave that knocked everything within fifty feet - people, animals, seller stalls - to the ground. Before the attackers could recover, a small, silver ball hit the ground at Furrow's feet, and began buzzing.
"Have fun on the scrap heap, you freaks," she said, and then blasted upward on repulsor jets built into her boots.
The silver ball exploded in a sharp, loud burst of electromagnetic energy, consuming the attackers in a buzzing cloud. The human countenances of all seven instantly vaporized as the layer of nanobots disguising them was disabled, revealing the robotic bodies beneath. The attackers collapsed in a useless, dead heap in the marketplace.
Furrow landed somewhat awkwardly, brushing her orange hair from her face. The other occupants of the bazaar glared at her as they rose to their feet, thwacking their various electronic devices that had also been fried by Furrow's electromagnetic pulse grenade.
"Sorry about your comms, everyone," Furrow said, straightening her jacket. She kicked at the bodies of the automatons. "Take these Wallie autothugs as payment."
Furrow turned to leave the bazaar. One of the scavengers, pouring over the disabled robot that had been Alicia, shouted "Thanks a lot, Circuit Witch!"
"Don't mention it, friend," Furrow said. She threw up her hood, and began the long walk back home to Green River.
* * *
After the conclusion of the ceremony, students, faculty, and guests of the school mingled in the untinted daylight coming through the enormous windows. Ricana, brushing her straight, bright red hair from her eyes, spotted a tall, erect figure in the dress of a high official, his face beset by the grey hair and deepening lines of middle age. She knew him at once, and, readying her notepad, managed to shove her way over to where he conversed with the school headmaster.
The latter figure, turning away from what Ricana knew from experience must be a sycophantic conversation, froze when he saw her bright red hair bounce into position beside him. He greeted her through gritted teeth, a look of concentrated hate beaming in his eyes. His voice was high with laughter and far too pleasant to be earnest.
"Ms. Wellhouse, what on earth are YOU doing here?" he said, clapping her quite roughly on the back. "Shouldn't you be... anywhere else, at all, right now?"
"No sir Mr. Schollins," Ricana said, eyes beaming as she adopted her own fake warmth to match his, "I'm in exactly the right place to ask a few questions for the Bede Chronicle - if that's alright with you, Councilman Grady?"
The middle-aged official smiled, his salt-and-pepper moustache curling up into an expression of patience rather than pleasantry. "Why of course, my dear. Are you one of the coming graduates this year?"
"Yes sir. And believe me, there's no one our esteemed headmaster is more excited to see depart the hallowed halls of this school," Ricana quipped, readying her notepad. "Okay, are you ready, sir?"
The Councilman merely gave an encouraging nod.
"Great. Councilman Grady, what was the reason for declaring a No Fly Zone in the Stratofarm district last week?"
Grady's eyebrows shot up; he had clearly been expecting to be asked for a comment on the impending graduation. The headmaster froze, looking pale.
"This is for the Bede Chronicle, is it?" Grady said, voice low and full of gravel.
"Yes sir," Ricana said. Grady did not reply for a moment, as though expecting Ricana to explain herself. She did not. At last, he delivered an answer.
"As stated in the official press release," Grady said, "The No-Fly Zone has been imposed due to a potential glitch in the Autoflocking software that guides the city's public and personal transports"
Ricana's face screwed up. "But if the software may have a glitch, why is the No Fly Zone only imposed in one district? Couldn't a glitch cause trouble anywhere in the city?"
"Ms. Wellhouse, please go find your parents, or friends," headmaster Schollins said, whispering to her, "or perhaps a hole to fall into."
"Again, as per the official statement," Grady said, gaining confidence as he hid behind official language, "the glitch involved the Autoflocking system failing to consistently recognize the Stratofarms as obstacles. Plentiful though our own surplus may be, we cannot afford to jeopardize it by risking a transport colliding with our crops. Now, if you'll excuse me."
Grady pushed past, shooting a deadly look at the headmaster; Ricana leapt after him, undeterred.
"Councilman Grady, can you respond to rumors that the Stratofarm harvest for next quarter may be in danger of falling short?"
"Ricana!" the headmaster hissed.
Grady turned, without stopping. "It's alright, Mr. Schollins," he said. "Ms. Wellhouse," he emphasized, as though telling Ricana he would remember the name. "I did just refer to our surplus as plentiful, didn't !?" With that, he left.
The headmaster fixed a gaze on Ricana like a shark on a seal. He was about to go in for the kill, when someone else stepped in front of him.
"Ricana!" The voice was deep but soft, and belonged to a tall, blonde fellow built like a tank, with a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye. Ricana couldn't help return the smile when she saw the headmaster vanish behind the imposing figure.
"Hey, Dad," she said, giving his sturdy frame a hug. "Did you like the ceremony?"
"It was fine, I suppose, if you enjoy watching men patting themselves on the back for the achievements of their children," the big fellow said, with a raised eyebrow. "Is there to be any kind of reception?"
"Yes, but I'm not going," Ricana said. "I've got a story to work on."
Her father's face sank a bit. "Come now, that story will be there tomorrow, Ricana."
Ricana returned her father's look, with slight sadness; she hadn't the slightest clue where her journalistic instinct had come from; the Wellhouses, far back as could be recalled, were doctors or health experts. Her father, the big fellow before her, wielded delicate surgical instruments in his bulky hands with an incredible practiced grace. Ricana's older sister, Meri, had just entered her studies to follow the family tradition. No one in the family could quite relate to the willowy girl that lived to track down answers. She'd often wished her interests would have taken her to healing, just so she could fit in better. But as she gazed out the tinted windows, at the looming loops of the stratofarms, with not a single transport buzzing near their upper reaches, she felt the call of truth take hold, and stopped wavering.
"The story is definitely going to be there tomorrow," Ricana said, "that's what I'm afraid of."
* * *
A soft whirring sound ran low across the cracked earth of a centuries-fallow farmland. Soft, aquamarine-tinted headlights cut through the darkness, fixed onto the front of a sleek, swift single-passenger craft. The machine hovered with hardly an unstable rattle over the withered earth, carrying a passenger clad in bulky boots and gauntlets, the black visor of her helmet concealing her face. As she raced along the desiccated landscape toward more fertile regions, her bike played an old recording of Iron Maiden's "Number of the Beast."
Cresting a ridge, she swooped her bike down beneath some stunted trees clinging to life in the waste. Under this cover, she was moving quickly when a blast of air rocked the canopy above. A huge bulk of machinery, all but its most necessary of lights switched off, zoomed through the air mere feet from the treetops. The sound of its engines blocked out the music, and put a ringing into the rider's ears at once.
The bike halted at once, the rider throwing her helmet off. Furrow Hollander swore, planting her hands over her ears. She watched the aircraft - a moderate-sized cruiser - hover into position and land on an adjacent field, its movements certain and fluid. A professional pilot.
Furrow swore again. Wallies, she thought, recognizing the model of the ship as belonging to the inhabitants of a walled city. What are they doing way out here?
Furrow grabbed her helmet and steered her bike toward the next escarpment in this series of rolling, fallow hills. She was glad she did so; opening a compartment in its side, the ship signaled, with an incredibly bright light, in the direction from which Furrow had just traveled. The faint tint of aquamarine lit up the night like the sun; if Furrow hadn't had her autotint visor, she would have been seeing spots.
For all the knowledge they purport to have saved, Furrow thought, they sure have forgotten how to be inconspicuous.
Furrow halted her bike and hid it near some brambly foliage, then lay on her belly on the edge of the escarpment. From here she had a perfect view not only of the ship, but of the region to which it had signaled. Furrow frowned; she had come back from a bazaar in the empty, unclaimed wastes. No matter whose attention the ship was trying to get, it wouldn't be good news.
Furrow hit a button on her right gauntlet, and a small scope appeared. In it she saw the hatch of the aircraft opening, and several figures walking down the ramp. They hailed someone in the distance, and Furrow moved her scope to see a motley band of raggedly-dressed men and women ride into the field on their ramshackle hovercraft.
Rovers! Furrow thought, her eyes widening. Rough and illiterate, often brutal, these bands of nomads roamed the empty wastes that had once been the breadbasket of the world, surviving off the spoils of raids against settled peoples or each other. Many of them traded slaves, and thus were not even allowed to set up shop at bazaars in close proximity to cities or communes. Their meeting with men from a walled city - Gateshire, Furrow suspected - was a dire omen indeed.
Furrow turned on a remote listening device in her earring; it was easily detectable, but the danger would be worth it if it meant finding out what was going on here. She settled down and watched through the scope, as a man from the airship shook hands with a woman from the nomads.
"Miscrea," said the man from the airship, "Your first shipment, as promised."
"Hellion Horde sure appreciates it, Councilman," replied the nomad leader to the official. Miscrea was a woman in her mid-30s, with silver hinting at the temples of her black mane. Fierce grey eyes peered out from a hood adjoined to her ragamuffin clothing and body armor. She was surrounded by a band whose barbarian aspect matched her own, but who lacked the visible dignity and will of their leader. "Thanks very much, Grady."
* * *
"By Glories!" Ricana whispered, with her hand clamped over her mouth. She sat in an empty private room of the aircraft, staring out at the scene below and listening through the smallest openable window she could find. Sneaking into Councilman Grady's ship and being taken outside of the walls of Gateshire for the first time in her life had been unbelievable and terrifying enough; only a select few ever left at all, and those carefully chosen dignitaries or soldiers. But now, watching one of her city's leaders cutting a deal with the barbaric nomads she had grown up fearing - and they had to be rovers; Ricana had never seen people who dressed so... slovenly! - this was the stuff of dreams, too bizarre to believe.
What does this mean? she thought. What could we possibly need from the rovers? We have everything in Gateshire, everything we could ever -
She stopped, and remembered the very reason for her being here. Her mind had flown wide during the journey, at the very idea of being where she was. It all came back to her; the story in her paper about the no-fly-zones around the Stratofarms, the Councilman's own evasive answers about the "plentiful surplus." But she had no way of proving her suspicions... yet.
The speakers had moved off from the window to inspect the merchandise being carted off the aircraft. Ricana realized that may be the key to the whole deal; better to move now, while almost the entire crew was off of the ship.
Maybe it will help to know exactly what WE'RE giving THEM. As quietly as possible, Ricana snuck out of the room, and crept down the hall of the ship toward the cargo hold, trying not to think of how much trouble she would get into if she were caught.
* * *
Furrow bit her pierced lip, hard; she just managed to hold back from making it bleed. What she was hearing in her transmitter went beyond worst-case-scenario for her people in the communes. What the city-dwellers and rovers were discussing wasn't just a raid; it was enslavement.
"Where exactly are we kicking this off?" Miscrea, leader of the rovers, asked Grady.
"It would be wise to strike the larger communes first," Grady said, "picking off the smallest villages first would only alert the more powerful entities. With our air support, you won't have any trouble crushing the ground resistance. I would strongly recommend Proudhon or Green River for the first attacks."
Green River! Furrow nearly swore aloud. Her home, under attack by rovers and Wallies alike... she was so mad, in fact, that she failed to heed a warning blip from her personal radar, until a shadow loomed above her.
"Furrow Hollander," said a voice in a familiar, inhumanly-even tone. "Put your hands above your head and do not resist."
Furrow's eyes went wide. The rader ring flashed before her, revealing ten patrolling droids having outflanked her and cut her off from her bike at the top of the escarpment. Her heart pounded; there would be no clean get-away.
Still, she turned a smile to the droids behind her. "Come on, you clowns have gotta know me better than that by now."
She fired the repulsors in her gauntlets to take her backward, knocking three of her assailants to the ground. Up on all fours, she reached to her belt an unclipped an EMP grenade.
As it turned out, however, they did know her better this time. The collective AI of the Gateshire drones, however, had preserved the memory of their comrades' defeat earlier that day; this trick would not work a second time. Another female droid appeared, and opened her coat to reveal her body lined with a dazzling array of gadgets. One of them, at her shoulder, lifted and fired a sticky substance that hit its mark right on Furrow's hand, sticking it - and the armed EMP grenade - to her hip.
"Not good," Furrow lamented. She blasted off with her boot repulsors, trying to get as close to the largest group of drones as possible; the EMP would take out all of her equipment as well, so she had to at least thin the herd she'd have to deal with afterward.
The grenade opened and shot its burst of bolts, sizzling nine of the drones, as well as every gadget Furrow wore on her body. The feeling of the bolts against her skin was none too pleasant either - tailor-made as they were to electronics, they certainly didn't help human flesh either. Furrow collapsed in a heap, wincing with pain.
"It came from up there!" a shout rang out below, and several of the rover craft made their way up toward the escarpment, their occupants whooping and hollering all the way. Furrow began crawling toward her bike, which she estimated had been safely outside the EMP blast. Unfortunately, so had something else.
With lightning rapidity, small, flying droids, buzzing like fist-sized silver wasps, swooped in around Furrow. They dragged behind them straps of tight, shimmering black rubber-latex, a chemically-reinforced variety that was nearly strong as steel. The straps wrapped over Furrow's hands, feet and mouth independently, made a couple of passes, and commenced dragging her backward, into the waiting arms of the female drone. Its female human nanolayer exterior vanished, revealing its true body; a cold silver skeleton, to which the black straps of latex were attached. The drone lifted Furrow up against its redoubtable structure, securing her hands together in a monoglove, and her feet up against her backside. More straps bound her thighs and calves together, and yet another stretched over her belly. She mumbled against the skintight gag, straining once in defeat, before the rovers were upon her with their jeers.
* * *
A few short minutes later, the drone rolled up the ramp of the airship, still holding Furrow in its stretchy, inescapable grip. Behind it trailed Councilman Grady of Gateshire and Miscrea, leader of the Hellion Horde of Rovers. Each went flanked by a couple of personal guards who eyed one another with a wariness born of lifelong suspicion and enmity. The drone stopped in a corner, turning around so that its bound and gagged hostage could glare into the faces of her captors.
"Furrow Hollander," Councilman Grady said, reading from a nanoscreen, "Circuit Witch, Green River Commune. Bounty, 750,000 marks." He closed the screen, and smiled at her. "You're quite the catch."
"Fmmk mmf," Furrow mumbled.
Grady ignored her. "I hope, for your sake, that you didn't hear much of our conversation. But we'll find out what you know back in Gateshire, and make sure it doesn't leave the prison walls. Nothing that goes in there ever has."
Grady turned to leave. Miscrea, however, stepped up closer to the prisoner, giving her a cock-eyed look.
"You look familiar, Circuit Witch," the rover said. She reached out a rough, dirty hand, and ran the thumb over Furrow's strapped mouth. "I can't quite place you. But... I guess it don't matter now." She gave Furrow a couple of encouraging smacks on the cheek, eliciting a growl from the bound woman. Then she, too, left the ship, while Grady and the other city-dwellers departed for the upper chambers. The ramp closed, and the airship lifted off.
Furrow hung her head in fuming silence, cursing herself for being so stupid. She strained and stretched at the strips of latex; they gave, but only just enough to infuriate her further. Her home was going to need her more than ever, and she would be rotting in a prison. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying desperately to remember the schematics for the Gateshire Binder Drones - for whatever good it would do her, with her hands, feet and mouth completely encased in tight, shimmering latex. There was no way to escape.
Then, a voice from the piles of cargo: "Um.... hi?"
Furrow looked up, stunned, to see a tall, skinny girl with bright red hair, wearing what could only have been the uniform of a Wallie school. She looked pale, with wide eyes and nervous, wringing hands. Furrow squinted at the girl from over her gag, wondering what on earth she was doing here.
"Are you one of the Rovers?" she ventured, biting her lip.
"Mm-mm." Furrow shook her head, the light playing off the black strip on her mouth.
"Are you from one of the eco-communes, then?"
Furrow nodded, trying to shift her body so the girl could see the "Green River Commune" patch on her vest. The drone held her too fast. Furrow tipped her face up at the girl, mmphing to try to get her to remove the gag. The girl didn't move closer.
Instead, she moved one of her delicate, thin-fingered hands over to an open crate, from which she lifted a light, but deadly rifle.The electric weapon wasn't charged yet, but the girl seemed afraid to touch it. Seeing those gentle hands, unaccustomed to toil or conflict, holding a weapon, filled Furrow with a strange kind of pity that she had never felt before; she realized the girl was emerging from naivete, realizing some horrible truth she hadn't wanted to know.
"They're trading them weapons," she said, looking back at Furrow with fear in her eyes. "My city is giving weapons to the Rovers, so they'll attack the communes. They want to force your people to give up their harvests, because ours are failing. That's it, isn't it?"
Furrow hadn't known about the crops failing in Gateshire, but it sure put the last piece - motivation - into the puzzle she had been trying to assemble. She nodded, scowling.
"I didn't know," the girl said, with a tear falling down her cheek. "I swear it, no one knows. If they did, there'd be an uproar. I promise."
"Gmt me mmt mf hmrm!" Furrow said, struggling more.
The girl licked her lips; stowing away was bad enough, but releasing a prisoner would certainly be considered a crime. Furrow rolled her eyes.
"Can I just unstrap your mouth first?"
"Plmmse," Furrow said, moving her head forward. The girl lifted up shaking hands to the edge of Furrow's gag. Her mouth itched to speak.
"Step away from the prisoner," the drone said, scooting backward a few inches. "You do not have the authority to release her bonds."
Furrow scowled beneath the gag. Shifting her body again, she tried to turn her hip up at the girl, and nodded downward. When the girl followed her gaze, Furrow tried to shake the row of small, spherical EMP grenades, still dangling from her belt. She mmphed at them.
The girl seemed sharp enough to get the meaning, but was unfortunately unfamiliar with the gadgets. "Do they explode?"
"Mm-mm," Furrow shook her head emphatically, and nodded backward at the drone. "E-M-P," she tried to say, straining against the gag. "Mnlm hmrts mmchmnes."
The girl didn't seem to understand. But she came forward, reaching out slowly - as though trying to evade the detection of the drone, which was not possible - and grabbed one of the grenades off of Furrow's belt.
The drone lurched back again, but the grenade had come off in her hand. "Ricana Wellhouse, your actions have been logged to the hive mind. Security has been alerted. Place your hands above your head and do not resist apprehension."
"By Glories!" the girl said, a hand going to her mouth. "What have I done?"
Furrow mmphed, her face growing red with anger, trying to tell her to press the button on the grenade. The girl was petrified, tears streaming down her face.
The girl looked down at the device in her hands; that was all the provocation the drone needed. It rotated 180 degrees, and launched six more straps out of its back. They wrapped around Ricana quick as lightning, binding the screaming, frightened girl just as they had Furrow - covering her mouth, wrapping her hands together from elbow to fingertip, and binding her legs in a folded-up position. The robot reeled her in, and held wrapped another latex strap over her midsection.
Furrow growled in frustration, kicking afresh at her bonds. The drone was more unbalanced now with a second prisoner. Sobs wracked the girl's, and hence the robot's frame as she writhed against her captivity. Furrow turned over her shoulder, still mmphing at her companion.
"Prmss thm bmttmn! Hmrrm!"
The girl seemed to wake up a moment. She looked over her shoulder and down, as though trying to see her own hands where they were wrapped in the shiny black straps. Her hand, still holding the grenade, had actually given her enough room to maneuver her fingers, and to drop the sphere out the bottom of the straps. She hesitated.
"Wmll I bm mkmy?" she mmphed at Furrow.
"Ymm'll bm fmne, I prmmise! Jmst hmrrm!"
The girl squinted her eyes shut, sobbed once more, and then pressed the button. Furrow heard the sphere hit the metal deck, and braced herself.
For the second time that day, Furrow felt the jolt of the EMP grenade as the cloud of bolts enveloped both her and her errant savior. The girl at her back stiffened, crying out - more in terror than real pain. It didn't feel great, but the device has been specifically fine-tuned - by Furrow herself - to be essentially harmless to human flesh. In a flash, the drone powered down, and both Furrow and the Gateshire girl dropped to the ground.
They were still wrapped up in yards of clinging latex, but at least they weren't attached to the drone anymore. The bigger problem was that security would be there in less than a minute. Furrow worked at her bonds furiously, finally getting some around her hands to slip.Then, she realized the biggest problem wasn't security.
The ship lurched, and she felt a sickening dip in her stomach. Cargo crates began sliding toward one side of the craft. Furrow braced herself as she, too, tumbled toward the right side of the cargo hold.
The EMP blast had made contact with the circuitry running through the walls and floor, and disabled the entire aircraft in mid-flight.
Straining with all the might her small body possessed, Furrow pulled her arms free from the encasing latex, and tugged her leg bonds violently away. The girl still struggled in her bondage. Furrow, grabbing a blade from one of the nearby crates, cut away at her companion's arm binder, and then finally removed her gag.
"Security might not be coming now, but I think we're out of the frying pan and - hell, you know. Come on." Furrow helped Ricana release her leg bonds, then pulled her to her feet, still gagged. The girl groped at the trailing bands of latex, while trying to maintain her footing as the craft continued its slow, inexorable roll sideways.
On the way up from the cargo hold, the two women encountered the limp forms of three drones - disabled by the EMP - and, further on, two human guards, who appeared to have been thrown headlong into a wall when the ship tilted, knocking them unconscious. Furrow grabbed a rifle from one and moved on, Ricana close behind.
At the bridge, three guards spotted them as they advanced. Too quick for the eye, Furrow zapped all three in succession with high-impact bolts of concentrated energy, rendering them all inert. She kicked the door open to the bridge, and raced to the controls.
"Where's Councilman Grady?" Ricana asked, finally free from her gag. Almost as soon as she had spoken, a sleek, silver craft zoomed out from beneath the bridge windows, curving away from the failing airship.
"I think you have your answer," Furrow said. "The escape craft must have been inside a Faraday cage to protect it from EMP attacks. At least they came prepared. What's your name?"
"Ricana," the girl said, bracing herself against the pilot seats. "Yours?"
"Furrow," she replied, sitting down and going quickly over the controls. "You're from Gateshire, right?"
"Yeah," she said. "What about you?"
"Green River Commune. Tried to show you a few minutes ago, since telling wasn't really an option for me at the time." Furrow found what she was looking for on the controls, and began working on it at once. "I know we just got out of a mess of straps, but you may want to buckle in to the seat. I'm trying something I only know about from looking at the blueprints of this thing."
Ricana sat down. "You have blueprints of Gateshire technology? On the outside?"
Furrow said, with a chuckle, "This morning I was looking at the history books you and your school-buddies learn from. What a riot. Here we go!"
Furrow pulled on a huge lever, with all her might; the muscles in her small arms tensed up hard, fingers gripping like vises. From below came a mighty KA-THUNK on either side of the airship. Ricana turned round to look out the windows, and beheld two huge steel wings - which the craft hadn't needed when flying under its own power - having extended at the throw of the lever. Furrow pulled back hard on the manual control wheel, and the craft arced up out of the freefall, at least temporarily, to begin gliding at nearly ground level. Furrow managed to keep the thing from crashing outright for another few miles, before she finally let it down as gently as possible - still scraping uncontrollably across the wasted landscape - and put the flight of her abduction to a halt. The Circuit Witch unbuckled at once, and grabbed her rifle.
Furrow thought a moment. "We were headed towards Gateshire, no doubt, but that turn we took at high altitude probably put us a little closer to home - for me, at least."
There was no reply. Furrow looked at Ricana, observing the girl had stopped in the middle of unbuckling her seat belt. The look on her face was one of inner panic.
"Hey, come on! We've gotta get moving before those guards wake up!" Furrow said.
"That drone logged my actions to the hive mind. When I tried to release you," Ricana said, sobbing. "When I get back to Gateshire, they're going to arrest me. Throw me in prison! By Glories, what have I done to my life?" The girl fell into tears.
Furrow sneered, having little patience for mourning a life lived in a glass prison. She reached over and unfastened Ricana's seat belt, then lifted the girl up to her feet by one arm. To her surprise, she found Ricana was taller than she was. She slapped the teenager on the back.
"If that's what they'll do, then we need to get you out of here before a search party comes for the ship," Furrow said. "Or worse, if rovers get here first. I owe you bigtime for the save, kid. You might have saved my entire commune. The way I see it, I've got to keep you out of their prison. Come on."
Furrow led Ricana out of the ship, and around the back of the craft. She let out a satisfied "Aha!" when she found a hatch for emergency supplies. A sinister laugh followed this when, inside the compartment, there was a hoverbike with room enough for two, safely tucked inside a Faraday cage to prevent EMP attacks. Furrow had it out and running in no time. She climbed on, and turned to Ricana. Once again, the girl stood frozen on the verge of tears.
"Where will I go out here?" Ricana asked. "What will I do?"
"You'll go anywhere," Furrow said, putting her arms out to the empty horizon, where the morning sun rose, "and do anything, that you want."
Ricana followed the Circuit Witch's gesture across the landscape. In spite of herself, she felt a tiny smile take hold, and a wave of excitement - maybe fear - wash over her.
"No walls, huh?" Ricana said.
"You got it," Furrow said. She patted the bike seat behind her. Ricana climbed on, and together they sped off towards a better place.