The faint buzz of the equipment in the dormitory slackened for a moment, then resumed. Across the aisle, Lidra, long used to the noise and its fluctuations, was still snoring; but Vance, sitting sleepless at the head of his bed, propped against the wall in a precarious balance, couldn't make himself ignore it. Six months in this pit of starak wasn't yet long enough for mind-numbing routine to have taken over his mind, let alone replaced despair. The others assured him that it did happen, and with their collective example, he had to assume it was true. That still didn't help him sleep on his off time, and it didn't make the work any easier. These three hours between his two shifts were always the hardest; it was the middle of the night, and once he'd checked the news through the infonet, he couldn't find anything to do. He supposed he could always watch the vids, like Torria did most of her waking hours, but that made him restless, and pacing would wear him out about as much as not pacing. Lately, the sight of any mobile, non-kinetic person seemed to make him want to run, which frightened him by being the exact opposite of what he had felt upon first arriving at the station. They told him that would pass too, and this change he actually wanted.
What he really wanted, what he believed they all wanted, was freedom. Not to get outthat much, he had already realized, was impossible. You couldn't get out the door with your harness still on, and getting it off, with or without actual touching, meant breaking the contacts of the neckband and setting off the alarm. And the shock. The farther the contacts got from each other, the more powerful the jolt, and somehow the bastards at the Board of Research had found a way to keep kinetics able to feel everythingespecially painbut unable to move. A wide enough opening to get the thing off brought unconsciousness, and then you were back where you started because the officials would be there before you came to. The areas of the station that kinetics were allowed to wander were limited, for just that reason. The Board of Research didn't want to hurt the power sources for their translocation 'porter stations, but they knew exactly how much love the kinetics bore their involuntary employer.
So there wasn't much chance of getting out, or of being able to fit back into society if he managed it somehow. Now, he only wanted to be able to choose his work hours and location, to be trusted to sit in the dormitory or in the vid room, or even sleep without the monitor plug on his harness attached to the wall. He wanted to be able to change clothes without having to worry about all the wires and plugs getting caught, to be able to wear something besides the ugly gray regulation coveralls and boots the Board provided. For a while he had wanted to be assigned someplace with a girl about his age, but being here had changed his mind. The Board could move workers at any time, for any reason, and anyone he got to know might be gone to him forever. That, and the chances of finding anyone new enough to the 'porter trade not to have become prickly and tough like Lidra, or hollow like Torria, were slim. Addic was friendly enough for a worker, but he was a man; and the shifts he and Vance worked were far from conducive to conversation or real friendship, as they rarely crossed paths when they were both awake. And Addic was old, at least twice as old as Torria, who was almost twice Vance's fifteen years. He had almost forgotten that there was anything else but the work; he never even spoke of what would happen when he grew too frail to continue, probably because the Board people never did either, and he was certain of why. Vance wondered, more often as time went on, whether that was the only freedom any of them had to look forward to.
An unfamiliar chime from the announcement system startled him into a reflexive jump. "Emergency generators activated. All workers please be on alert," said the director's voice, as Lidra's snore cut off with a buzz-saw rip. "Repeat, all workers are on alert." A power failure, he realized. He had been briefed on this, but he hadn't yet experienced the procedure. With less power available, if traffic increased before the supply was restored, one or more of the off-shift workers would need to be called in to pick up the slack. Here in the sleepy suburbs of the city, it wasn't likely, but alert was alert.
"Raska skrat," mumbled Lidra, not getting up. "What the skrak happened for an alert?"
"Power failure," Vance answered. "They turned on the generator."
"Raska skrat," Lidra repeated, and the drawer under her bed opened. "You better bundle up too," she said, as her extra blanket floated out of the drawer, unfolded in the air, and draped itself across her bed. "They turn off the heat to us first."
"Not surprising." Vance followed her example with his own blanket, but set it down, still folded, at the foot of the bed. He wondered how she could lose track of everything else about the outside world, but still know what season it was.
"They'll probably call you in first," Lidra continued. "Better get your sweater or something before they do."
Yes, mother, Vance thought, then felt sorry. His mother had never been like that; she had reminded him about things like sweaters when he was younger, but assumed as time went on that he knew what he was getting into. Lidra had never had children, so she mothered Vance and fretted over Torria instead. The Board, though it encouraged most of its kinetics to at least try to have children, had specifically asked her not to. She understood why; the birth defects that had made her a born kinetic were too risky to pass on, and it was unlikely that she would survive the experience. That last was probably more important to the Board, who were likely to be more concerned with losing a worker than with possibly gaining one. He got out the sweatergray and ugly, just like everything elseanyway, but didn't put it on.
The announcement system chimed again, this time with a tone Vance recognized. "Worker two, please report to auxiliary station one. Worker two, report to auxiliary station one." That was Lidra, he realized; they were ranked by seniority. He expected another curse, but there was none. Instead, she obediently folded back her blankets and started getting ready.
"Could've sworn they'd tap you first," she said, sitting up and swinging her half-sized, twisted legs over the edge of the bed. "Seeing as how you're up next."
"Not for another hour," said Vance. "Maybe they think I still need rest."
"Oh, come on," Lidra scoffed as her coverall and short, regulation-cut hair straightened themselves. "It isn't as if you do anything on the ten-one shift."
"They probably want someone who doesn't need extra amplification," he thought aloud. "And that's you and Addic."
"Yeah, that's probably it," Lidra agreed, for once not needling him about being what she considered a failure. "Never had that situation before." She unfastened her monitor plug and coiled the wire around her shoulder, putting the end between her teeth instead of using the loop on the neckband for that purpose. Then she leaned over and dropped onto her hands, holding herself upright with her Power as she walked upside-down toward the door.
"Good luck," said Vance, not knowing why.
"'hankk," said Lidra around the wire. The door lock beeped in response to her voice, indicating that she had authorization to leave the room, and the door opened. She walked out, and it closed.
Vance couldn't remember having been truly alone in this place for a long time. Having at least one other person around had become standard, though the other person was usually either asleep, lost to the vids, or guarding him. He had thought he missed solitude, but as the seconds added up to minutes, he realized how comforting someone else's presence really was. It wasn't Lidra he missed, but the connection to something else living and breathing that wouldn't shrink back at the sight of him. It was suddenly no wonder that the larger 'porter stations were so often called sexpits; everyone was reaching out to touch what they could, in the ways that were left to them.
"Worker three, please report to auxiliary station two," said the announcement system. "Worker three, report to auxiliary station two." Vance stared at the speaker, wondering what was going on. He had never heard of having two extra workers on the job, even with lowered power. At sun-three, painfully early in the morning for most people, almost no one was going anywhere. What could be increasing the load at this hour?
The room seemed to tremble, and a rumbling noise passed through the building. Alarms on the four sets of monitoring equipment sent cascades of dissonant notes through the room, and Vance pressed his hands to his ears while trying to deactivate the noise as fast as he could. The switches were easy enough to manipulate with his Power, even from his seat against the wall. If only three had been disturbed, he wouldn't have been able to do anything; the motion-sensing capabilities had been designed to detect not only tampering but also orchestrated movements by the workers. Since only three could be in the room at once, movement on all four was assumed to be a fluke, and the devices could be reset. The shaking hadn't felt like an earthquake, but more like . . . an explosion?
The equipment successfully silenced, Vance tapped his own console with the code for a request to access the news vid. Maybe he could find out what was going on. When the screen blinked "DENIED" in dim blue letters, he realized that the feed had probably been cut when the power went. In all likelihood, nets access had been cut as well, but he tried that code anyway.
And the door opened.
He barely had time to register that "DENIED" was blinking again before realizing that the person coming into the room wasn't any of the officials from the station. It was a small blonde woman, not much older than he was, wearing form-fitting black clothing and a wide, studded belt. She glanced around the room, then raised one hand to her lips. "Last one," she said, her voice quietly musical. "Cut it."
Seconds later, the lights went out and stayed out. As Vance was realizing just how much trouble he might be in, the stranger's grinning face suddenly appeared in an upward fan of light. "Hi," she said.
"Who are you?" asked Vance, trying simultaneously to figure out what was going on and to remember if he'd seen her before.
"A friend," she answered. "Call me Agera. Do you want to get out of here?"
"That's imp" he began, then realized that it might not be impossible after all. With the power off, the monitors couldn't tell that he wasn't where he was supposed to be, the doors couldn't lock him in, and the exit alarms couldn't go off. The harness was still charged, but passing out was a small price to pay for the specter of freedom, and anyway it wouldn't summon guards once it was off the premises. If he could get off the premises. "How did you get in?"
"Later," said Agera, checking something in her non-flashlight hand. "You people can walk like normal, right?"
"Mostly," said Vance, fear cutting into his excitement.
"I . . . I'm a fluke," he admitted. "I got full severing but I should have only had partial." He could have explained further, but she seemed to be about brevity.
"Skrat. You can walk though, right?"
"Yeah." If it meant getting out, he would walk until he dropped.
"Then get a sweater or something and follow me," Agera instructed, and switched off the light. Vance bit off a protest that he couldn't see her when he realized that the emergency glowstripes in the hall were bright enough to make out most of her silhouette. As he pulled the sweater closer, she turned to leave the room, and he saw a shape at the small of her back that made him catch his breath. So that was how she had gotten in. He wondered, as the sweater went over his head, how many of the officials she must have shot. Then he was on his feet, and there was little room for anything but concentration. Full severing meant he had to put out just enough extra effort to stay upright that it was taxing instead of being almost reflexive. If he hadn't been a sort of prodigy, he might have gotten off with partial, like Torria, and remained able to move his entire upper body instead of just being able to breathe and nod. The Board had never apologized, but it hadn't taken him long to stop expecting it.
Outside the door, the glowstripes lit the lower half of the hall just enough to see. Agera, thankfully, had waited for him to get out of the dormitory, and once he was out the door, she started off in a direction that would take them nowhere near the exit. Vance almost called to her before remembering that there might be officials around. Instead, he freed enough of his attention to pull at her hair, and as he had hoped, she turned back and caught up. "What?" she whispered.
"That's the wrong way," he said, as softly as he knew how. With the drain on his strength, it wasn't hard.
"Trust me," she said, blue eyes almost glowing in the dim light. He decided to do that.
The path they took went past the vid room and a supply closet, then turned a corner toward the third auxiliary station. Agera stopped at the corner, hand reaching to the gun at her back, and peered around while Vance leaned against the wall. He wasn't really tired yet, but he might need to conserve his energy. When she disappeared around the corner, he followed, and nearly stopped again.
There was a hole in the wall opposite the station. Bits of plaster and wood were visible in the glowstripe light, and the smell of char and fireworks hung in the air. Two officials, very still, lay sprawled on the hall floor. A dark stain on the tile spread out from beneath them; as he looked at it, he noticed small footprints leading away from it, rapidly fading into the hall behind him. Agera was stepping over the bodies when a noise from the other end of the corridor sent her kneeling in the rubble and motioning to Vance to do the same. He couldn't drop as quickly or as efficiently as she had, and by the time he had figured out how to balance, she was standing again, and he could see two shapes approaching. One of them was unnaturally short and appeared to be upside down. Agera motioned to him to stand again, which he did, awkwardly, and then followed her out through the hole. He could hear Lidra and the other person stepping around the mess behind him, and then he was through.
They were in the main part of the station, at one end. Vance could see the main doors, a rectangle of moonlit darkness in the glowstriped black of the station. Glowing lines on the floor marked out waiting lines and 'porter grate edges for the various routes he and the others had used to translocate people and goods from one place to another. The place was deserted, and the wind from outside knifed in through the open doors, creeping straight through his sweater. Lidra, coming up next to him, would probably say later how she had told him so, and he had to admit that he was going to have to thank her.
Lidra's companion was consulting with Agera farther toward the center of the building. There seemed to be a large object on the floor just on the near side of dead center, and a third person he could barely make out was standing guard over it, holding a much larger gun than Agera's. As he watched, Agera walked silently over to the guard and handed himher?something, then returned. "You two go on with Savris," she said to Vance and Lidra, indicating the person who had escorted Lidra. "The other two will be along and so will we. Do what he says, you'll be fine." Vance thought of asking whether she was so certain Addic and Torria would really leave, then saw Savris making for the doors with Lidra behind him, and followed.
Outside, Vance reflexively wrapped his arms close for warmth. It wasn't snowing, and probably wouldn't, at least for a few days; there were no clouds, and the stars seemed brighter than the last time he had seen them. In a moment, he realized that it wasn't just because that time had been six months ago, but also because the streetlights on the surrounding sidewalks were off. Windows were lit here and there, but the only other interruption of the dark was a strange flickering light coming from behind the group. Vance kept his eyes on the sky as he turned to look toward it, not wanting to lose any of the incredible night view. These people might be caught tomorrow, or any day in the future, and the workers returned to their duties. He was going to make the most of this freedom while he had it.
At first it looked as though clouds were approaching from the direction of the city center. Then he realized that it was smoke, and the flickering was fire. Several fires, from the multiple columns of illuminated smoke. He watched, stunned, until someone pulled at his sweater. "Get away from the building," said an unfamiliar male voice that had to be Savris. "You two can stare at the sky from across the street." Two? Vance looked around and saw Lidra sitting on the ground not far from him, gazing upward with a beatific expression. A moment later, she sighed and got up, following Vance and Savris farther away.
"What's happening?" Vance asked when they stopped, against the wall of a building, where they could see the station and the fires behind it.
Savris sighed. "I can't really explain," he said. "At least, not fully, not fast. Basically, we found out that the government was making plans to go to other countries on other continents and either take over or make them into protectorates. And they were going to bring kinetics back here to do your job with you until they could institute the system over there." He watched the station in the silence; another group of people was leaving it, approaching their position. "We couldn't let them do that."
"Butwhy us?" asked Vance, letting himself sink slowly down the wall to the ground. His sweater caught, and he yanked it back down. "Why get us out?"
"Yeah, wouldn't that make them need to find even more workers?" added Lidra.
Savris said nothing. The approaching people came close enough to be identified as Torria, Agera, the rescuer with the huge gun, and a total stranger. "Where's Addic?" Vance couldn't help asking.
"The old man?" asked Agera, as Torria took a seat on the ground. "He didn't want to come." She exchanged glances with Savris, and something in them started Vance worrying.
"But he was so close to retiring," Lidra protested.
"I know," said Agera. "I think he knew. This is better." She glanced back toward the station. "Come on, stupid," she said under her breath.
Everything slid together into a cold knot. Vance looked at the fires, the deserted station, the armed, black-clothed strangers, and knew. In minutes or seconds, the station would be on fire too, with a louder explosion than had made the hole in the wall. Addic was still in the building, having chosen to end his career on his own terms. He looked up at Agera and knew she was thinking the same thing.
Someone came running out of the station, arms waving, and the rescuers jumped into action. "Quick, that way," Agera instructed, pointing along the wall of the building they were leaning against, still farther from the station. Vance dragged himself upright, the headache hitting immediately this time, and went along with the rest. The strangers in black tried to hurry their charges, but there was a limit to kinetics' Power, and most of them had reached it. Just as Vance realized that he was falling hopelessly behind, someone threw an arm around his shoulders and pushed him forward. He didn't ask who it was; he didn't have the energy. They struggled back to the group and made it to the recessed doorway of the building seconds before the explosion.
It was louder than the alarms had been, and shook the ground. Vance, too spent to regain his balance, fell against the person behind him. The air flashed white, then yellow, and faded to red. Torria struggled forward through the crush, reaching back toward whatever was left of the building, keening a sound like an unending sob. Agera tried to grab her and was slapped across the face; Vance, with an odd feeling of rage, grabbed Torria's ankle, and she fell. A second roar split the night air, and bits of debris rained horizontally past. When the brief fall of litter stopped, Savris and the one with the gun ran out after Torria, who had kept crawling out into the street. She tripped them both and moved forward.
"Give it up," Agera called, her voice eerily loud in the post-bomb silence. "That was all of it. She'll be fine." She turned to Vance and Lidra. "What's wrong with her?" she asked.
Vance made an I-don't-know face, but Lidra said, "It was all she had. She would have wanted to stay there if she knew what was going on."
"She lost hope," said Agera, looking out at where a wailing Torria had collapsed.
"It grows back," said Lidra gruffly. "Damn fast too."
Vance got up and ventured out, and saw immediately that the burning wreck of the station wasn't the only new fire. Glowing smoke rose from other points near and far, and he looked his question at Agera, already knowing the answer.
"All of them," she said quietly. Her eyes were watering, and it wasn't from the smoke. "All twenty-two in Vioda. The main station went right after we got here. They knew what they were dying for, all six of them. They volunteered."
"Addic," said Lidra.
"If we'd known," said the other rescuer. "We didn't plan to move out by 'porter from the substations."
Six. More than worked at this station. How many others were like Addic, preferring the certainty of death to the possibility of freedom? Vance couldn't seem to make his voice work. "The other cities," he managed.
"Later," Agera told him. "We have to get some distance. How long are you good for?"
"I don't know," said Lidra. "I don't mind being carried."
"There's a place not far from here," said Agera. "We can stay there until you can move again, maybe find warmer clothes, or some things to help." Savris and his helpmeet were coming back toward the niche, supporting Torria between them. "Sound like it'll work?"
"Sure," said Lidra, and Vance nodded. He didn't ask how far "not far" was; they would get there. It might be truly light outside, but it would happen. Lidra was right, he thought; hope did grow back. Or maybe his just hadn't had far to grow. Either way, it was there, somewhere behind the headache he knew would follow him for days. The farther they got from the burning station, the warmer the night felt.
Copyright © 2001 by Katherine Foreman.