Read Dreamfall Online

Authors: Joan D. Vinge

Dreamfall (page 3)

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I searched for a menu, suddenly wondering whether you couldn’teven get something to eat here if you couldn’t read minds.

“Can I help you?”

I jumped. Someone was standing at my elbow, looking down at me.I wasn’t sure whether he’d come up behind me without my knowing it or whetherhe’d teleported here to my side. My Gift wouldn’t tell me, any more than itwould tell me who he was or what he wanted from me. I took a long look at himand decided he must be the owner.

“Can I help you?” he asked again, in Standard, and the soft,lilting way he formed the words hardened just a little.

I realized that everyone in the room was looking at mg now.The looks weren’t friendly. “Some food—?” The words sounded flat and foreign asthey came out of my mouth.

His face closed as if I’d insulted him, as if he wascontrolling himself with an effort. “I don’t know who you are,” he said veryquietly. “I don’t care what you are. But I’m telling you now, either stop whatyou’re doing or get out.”

“I’m not doing anything—” I said.

Something caught me by the back of my jacket and hauled meup. “Get out,” he said, “you damned pervert.” Something shoved me from behind.It didn’t feel like his hand.

He didn’t have to use his psi on me again. My own panicdrove me out the door and into the darkness.God, they knew .... They knewwhat I was.

Out in the street someone caught my arm. I turned, my handfisting. My eyes registered the slack face, the vacant stare of a burnout. TheHydran mouthed words so slurred I couldn’t tell whether they were even in alanguage I knew.

Swearing, I jerked free and moved or, not caring where Iwent, as long as it was away from there.

By the time my head had cleared enough so I realized what I’ddone, I was lost. There had been signs, some way of backtracking, when I’d leftthe eatery. There were no signs of any kind that I recognized, now. There wasno street lighting either, and Refuge’s single moon hadn’t risen yet. If therewere any shops they were closed and unmarked. The only lights I could see werehigh up, unreachable, probably the lights of private homes. The building herewere just tall enough to keep me from using the bridge to guide me back where I’dcome from.

No one else seemed to be on the street now. I felt morerelief than frustration as I realized how alone I was, because I couldn’t haveasked for help now if I’d been bleeding to death.

I swore under my breath. I’d lived most of my life in aplace where knowing the streets meant survival; and now I was lost. There weren’teven any maps of Freaktown in Tau’s public access; even my databand couldn’ttell me where I was, or how to get out of here. Why the hell had I even come tothis place, just to prove what I’d always known ... that no one had ever wantedme, that there was nowhere I’d ever belonged?

I started back the way I’d come, head down and shouldershunched, shivering with cold and praying I’d make the right combination ofturns to get my miserable ass out of there before curfew.

At last I saw the bridge lights, somewhere in the distanceup ahead; heard the sound of human voices moving toward me. I turned anothercorner, breaking into a jog—slammed into someone running, so hard that wealmost went down together.

A woman’s voice cried out as my hands caught her fallingbody. I felt something drive into my brain like a knife of thought. My mindblocked her instinctively at the same moment that I realized she was holding achild in her arms.

She cried out again—shock, fury—as my mind turnedback her attack She gasped out words in a language I didn’t know, and all thewhile I kept shouting, “It’s all right, I won’t hurt you, it’s all right!”trying to make her listen and understand. “What’s wrong? Do you need help—?”

She stopped struggling, as if my words had finallypenetrated. Suddenly her body went limp in my grasp. The child trapped betweenus didn’t make a sound as the woman collapsed against me, panting. I felt herbody’s fever heat even through my clothing.

She looked up at me then, and I finally saw her face: A fey,green-eyed Hydran face, golden-skinned, framed by a wild tangle of pale hair ....A face out of a dream, every alien, haunted line of it; and yet every curve andplane was somehow as familiar as the face of a lost lover.

“I ... I know you?” I whispered, frozen in the glare ofimpossible prescience. “How—?” A trapdoor opened under my thoughts, and I fellthrough—

The woman made a small sound, almost a whimper, of disbelief.One hand rose, tentatively, to touch my face.(Nasheirtah ...?)shebreathed. (You. You—) Her expression became equal parts wonder and terror,mirroring my own, as I slowly raised my hands to touch her face.

(Anything ...) I murmured as my entire life telescoped intothat single moment’s contact. (Anything at all.)

(Always. Forever ...) Her eyes filled with tears, her handdropped away. (Nasheirtah—)

“What—?” I whispered, uncomprehending.

She looked down suddenly, as if my eyes were a searchlight. “Helpme,” she said, in perfect Standard, but with her voice just barely undercontrol. “Please help me—they want to take my child!” She looked over hershoulder. Light-echoes danced across building fronts in the distance down thestreet.

“Who does?” I asked.

“They do!” she cried, shaking her head at me, with a lookthat was half desperation and half incomprehension. “The Humans—”

And in the depths of her green eyes, their black slit pupilswide open to the faintest hope of light, I saw another midnight:AnotherHydran woman and her child ... light-years away, a lifetime ago—with noone they could turn to, no one to save them from that Oldcity alley where theirworld was ending in blood and pain ....

“Please—” she said, and pressed something into my open hand.

My fingers spasmed shut. I nodded, not looking at it, andlet her go. She disappeared down a side street I hadn’t even noticed.

I stood frozen a few heartbeats longer, with my stupefiedmind trying to follow her into the night and my body begging me to get it outof there. And then suddenly the ones who’d been after her were in front of me,shouting; I saw lights, I saw weapons—I ran like hell.

Behind me I heard someone bellow, “Corporate Security!”

Shit—I ran faster.

Lights appeared ahead of me, dropping out of the sky, as aCorpSec cruiser landed in the street.

Before I could even slow down something invisible slammedinto me like a tidal wave, and I drowned ....

Three

I opened my eyes again to the blinding glare of aninterrogation room. I squinted them shut. “Shit,” I said. But that wasn’t whatcame out of my mouth. The sound that came out of my mouth was completelyunintelligible.

My face hurt, because I must have fallen on it. My hair hadcome loose from its clip; it was full of dirt and getting into my eyes. Everynerve ending in my body was sparking like a live wire as the stunshock woreoff.

But that wasn’t what was wrong with my mouth: They’d druggedme with nephase—flypaper for freaks. I knew without feeling for one that therewas a drugderm on my neck, put there by the Corpses to short-circuit my psi, ifI’d still had any psi ability that I could use. I remembered the nausea, theslurred speech: the simulated brain damage. I tried to reach up, to make surethere really was a patch on my throat—

I couldn’t move my arms. Either one. I looked down, saw mybody held prisoner in a hard metal seat, my arms strapped to the chair arms. Istared at my hands, feeling panic abscess inside me.

Don’t lose control .... Don’t.I took a long, slowbreath and made myself look up.

Half a dozen Corpses were waiting there, as if they had allthe time, and patience, in the world.

“Where is he?”

I looked at the one who’d spoken. Borosage, his data-patchesread. He was a District Administrator, from the flash that showed on his helmetand uniform sleeve. He looked like a real bottom-feeder. These were the CorpsesI knew, not the kind who wore dress uniforms to corporate receptions. TheseCorpses were wearing riot gear: dressed for business, their real business==which had always been making the existence of street rats like me even moreimpossible than it already was.

Borosage was massive and heavy; his body was starting to goto fat, as if he’d been promoted to a level where he didn’t have to give a damnanymore. But there was nothing soft in his eyes. They were bleak andtreacherous, like rotten ice. A gleaming artificial dome covered the left halfof his skull; blunt fingers of alloy circled his eye socket and disappearedinto his skull, as if some alien parasite had sunk neural taps into his brain.

I couldn’t imagine what kind of injury would leave him aliveand leave him looking like that. Maybe he’d had it done on purpose, to scarethe living shit out of his prisoners. I looked down as he caught me staring;looked at his hands. His knuckles had more scar tissue on them than mine did. Iknew how they’d gotten that way. They scared me a lot more than his face did.

I looked away from his hands with an effort, down at thedata-band on my wrist, the undeniable proof that I was a citizen of the Human Federation,and not some nameless piece of meat. “I want a legal advisory link,” I said.

What came out of my mouth was more unintelligible sludge.The Corpses laughed. I took another slow breath, my hands clenching. “Want. A.Legal.”

The laughter got louder. Borosage closed the space betweenus in one step. He held his fist in front of my face. “You want advice, youHydran fuck? My advice to you is, answer the questions, because it’s going toget harder to talk every time you don’t.”

“Not Hydran! Regishurred ... ci’zen,” I said; spitsplattered his fist. “I. Got. Rights.”

“You can inscribe your rights on the head of a pin this sideof the river, freak.’)

“Databan’—!” My arm jerked against the restraint. Cold sweatwas soaking through my shirt.

He took a step back; his hand dropped to his side. I let outthe breath I was holding as he looked down. His face twisted. He poked my databand,and it beeped; pulled on it until I swore. “This is yours—?” he said finally,looking hard at my face, at my eyes. ‘Are you trying to tell me you’re human?”

I nodded, my jaw muscles aching as I waited for hisexpression to change.

He looked at the others. His grin split open. “What do youthink, Fahd?” He jerked his head at the lieutenant leaning against the door. “Thisprisoner claims he’s a registered citizen Got the databand to prove it.”

Fahd peered at me. “You know, in this light he almost lookshuman.” He moved closer. “The eyes could be a cosmo job, if he’s one of thoseperverts.” He smirked. “Except I’ve never seen anyone but a freak talk that wayafter we put the patch on him.”

“Exactly my point.” Borosage looked back at me again, andhis grin soured. “So what is it, boy? Are you mixed blood? A ‘breed?” He ran athick finger along my jaw. “You do look like a ‘breed .... “

I tried not to listen to what they said after that, about mymother, my father, about whores and gang rapes and how no decent person wouldlet a thing like me live .... I sat motionless, breathing the stagnantoverheated air, until they ran out of ideas.

And then Borosage freed my wrist—the one that wore the databand.Disbelief leaped like a fish inside me.

He didn’t free the other hand. “Look at you,” he said,picking at my sleeve. “Dressed up like a Gentleman of the Board. Wearing adataband. Trying to pass. Who did you think would believe it? Did you think wewould? ... You know what I think, freak?” he said to me, holding my hand. “Ithink you stole that databand.” He jerked my arm forward, and one of the otherCorpses handed him a descrambler.

I swore silently. [‘d had one of those, once. A descramblercould access the personal code of a databand in less time than it took theowner to remember it. It was about as illegal as everything else that washappening to me right now. I watched a run of data flow across the digitaldisplay, and then suddenly the datafeed stopped. It flashed no access, thesymbols so clear that even I could see them.

Borosage swore, this time. I started to breathe again; glad,not for the first time, that I wore a thumb-lock on my deebee. Unless I thumbedit in the right spot, the only way it would come off my wrist was if somebodycut off my hand. I’d bought myself some extra security, because I knew how easythe regular locks were to descramble.

“What did you do to jam this?” Borosage shoved my hand intomy face.

“Mine—!” I said, and then, looking down, “Phone fun’shun!”The function light didn’t go on—the processors didn’t recognize my voice.Borosage made a disgusted noise, as if I’d just proved that the band wasstolen. I tried to see what time it was. I didn’t get the chance, &s hestrapped my hand down again.

I told myself that someone had to be wondering where I was.They could trace me as long as I still had the databand on. Someone would comeafter me. I just had to hold everything together long enough so that thesebastards didn’t maim me before it happened.

Borosage’s scarred hand caught me by the jaw. “You know you’rein real trouble no\w, freak. The sooner you tell us everything you know, thesooner I’ll think about letting you make a call, or even take a piss.” He letgo of me, with a twist of his hand that made me grunt as it hurt my bruisedface. “Where’s the boy?”

“What. Boy?” I mumbled. I braced myself as his open palmcame at me, but that didn’t make it hurt less when it hit my face. My headslammed against the seatback. I tasted blood; felt it leak from the corner ofmy mouth.

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