The compost lorry clattered through the early morning streets of Nike like a smelly avalanche, causing many a sleeping citizen to duck deeper under their covers in self-defense.
From his position in the lorry’s bed, Gideon wished he could do the same.
As it was, he was holding onto the side of the vehicle with his right hand, and clamping his left against the plasma burn over his ribs, all while trying not to inhale the varying degrees of rot infusing the air around him.
Every so often, the lorry would make a turn, and a gust of fresh air would slap him in the face with invigorating clarity, but then the buildings would rise on either side, and the air would thicken with decay, and he would again commence breathing through his clenched teeth.
He figured they’d passed through no fewer than three of Nike’s wedge-shaped districts when a broken cobble in the road sent the entire lorry jumping. Several unidentifiable former foodstuffs landed atop Gideon, leaving him with little hope that he could avoid sepsis.
“Do you even know how to drive this thing?” he yelled forward at the same time the vehicle came to a jerking halt, sending an aged cantaloupe (and very nearly Gideon) splatting to the cobbles.
Unused steam vented from the chimney at the top of the cab, the right-hand door popped open, and a dark-haired midget came out. “You say something?” Mia asked, grinning up at the muck-covered Gideon. “You look like you could use another bath.”
“I asked if you could drive—never mind.” He shook his head and started to climb out, only to be knocked back into the rubbish by a giddily swooping Elvis, who’d trailed the vehicle the entire way. “Ouch,” Gideon said, then rubbed cheeks with the draco, who’d come to rest atop a mound of rotting greens to hiss his concern at his person.
“He was worried,” Mia said.
“So was I.” Gideon offered the draco one more gentle stroke before gritting his teeth and hauling himself out of the muck. “So should you be,” he added, landing next to her and tapping his right shoulder, where Elvis immediately came to rest, talons lightly pricking through the fabric of Gideon’s shirt. “The cops won’t be long tracking down a stolen compost lorry.”
“I know, that’s why I drove it here,” she said, pointing to her right, and Gideon looked in that direction.
In the monochrome of Nike’s misty dawn, he could barely make out what he was seeing.
What first came to mind were the blocks his sergeant’s daughter had used to play with. She’d build these monstrous structures, and then knock them over, laughing like a hyena as they went tumbling.
The buildings in front of him reminded him very much of those blocks… after the fall.
“Where is here?” he asked, following her as she headed into what had to be a condemned neighborhood.
“Lower Cadbury, or what’s left of it, after the forty-seven bombings. Best get moving,” she prompted as he seemed hesitant. “It’s perfectly safe, and the coppers won’t go in past the first two blocks.”
“Because they don’t have a death wish.”
“The suns are never bright enough for you.” She sighed.
At that Gideon had to laugh, then he hissed.
“Oy!” She poked at his side, apparently only just noticing what was going on under all the decayed vegetables. “You’re hurt!”
“Ow,” he said pointedly, and she dropped the poking finger. “One of the officers had a jumpy trigger finger.”
“The coppers put that beating on you, as well?”
“No. Look, it’s not so bad, if I can get clean.”
“Not sure there’s enough water in the Avon for that,” Mia said doubtfully, but started to lead the way.
Gideon took one step after her, then froze. “She took it!”
“What?” Mia, already several steps ahead, looked back.
“That murdering wasp took my coat!” he said, before realization of the loss hit him like a ton of Lower Cadbury’s bricks, and suddenly he felt unable to take another step.
“What wasp?” Mia started back. “Gideon?”
On his shoulder, Elvis began to croon anxiously.
In the distance, he could hear the approaching wail of the police force’s transports.
And still Gideon didn’t move—couldn’t—as a kind of fugue settled over him.
—wrong with you?”
At Dani’s question, Gideon looked up from the careful study of his hands, spliced by shadows from the barred window.
The two were seated on opposite sides of a table in the visitors’ pen of the Epsilon base brig.
Gideon was scheduled to ‘ship out to the Morton Barrens the next morning.
He hadn’t meant to look up, because seeing her only made it worse. The truth was, he’d have preferred not to take her visit at all, but not only was that too much the coward’s way, disappearing without a word would only drive her to dig into the Nasa incident, and Gideon couldn’t let that happen. If she started digging, he had no doubt Rand would know, and then he’d follow through on his threat against her.
“You mean, beyond six dead soldiers and a life sentence in the Barrens? Not a thing.” The tone, deliberately dismissive, didn’t faze her, but then, it wouldn’t. She was, and always had been, the strongest person he knew.
“Yes,” she said, leaning on the table between them, the table to which he’d been shackled, “beyond that. Gideon,” she whispered when he didn’t respond, “no one who knows you believes you’re responsible for this.“
“No one,” she overrode him, “believes you were deserting, much less selling intel to the enemy.”
“I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t.” He let a hint of disdain slide through. “What else would anyone expect from—how did it go in the officer’s mess? A jumped-up thief with no respect for military tradition, and less right to command than a stunted draco?”
“Fine.” She sat back. “Colonel Singh thinks you’re capable of it, but I know better.”
“You think you—”
“I know you,” she cut in again. “I know you didn’t desert. I know you didn’t betray the Corps. I know you did not cause the deaths of those soldiers.”
“But I did,” he said, looking her dead in the eye. “Everything that happened in Nasa happened because of me.” Which was the truth, even if it wasn’t the entire truth.
Dani just stared.
“This is who I am,” he insisted. “And who I am was never going to be worth your—I was never a good bet,” he fell back on the oldest of their arguments, the one she could never win, because Gideon could never quite convince himself he deserved Dani’s love.
“So what you’re saying—about you, about us, about all of this…” She gestured at the table, the shackles, the bars on the window “…is ‘I told you so.’”
“I’m saying it’s time you stopped looking for what isn’t there.”
It came out more harshly than he’d expected, but from the glittering in her eyes—of tears or fury, or both—it seemed finally to have done the trick, because she didn’t come back with another argument.
Instead she looked away, towards the windows, through which the last rays of the suns were beaming, cheerily ignorant of the petty human tragedies playing out on the planet below.
“I guess you’re right,” she said at last, rising from her chair and turning away, still without looking at him. “I guess I expected the man I loved would have more fight in him.”
Gideon said nothing.
“Guess I was wrong,” she said at last.
Gideon waited until, without another word or glance, she’d departed.
“Guess you were,” he said to the empty air in front of him.
“Hellooo,” Mia waved her hands in front of Gideon’s face. “We gotta scarp.”
“You’ve got to scarp,” he said, slumping against the remains of a gray stone wall. “I think I’m done.”
She blinked, then stared. “What?”
“I said, I think—no, I am—done. Listen,” he held up his bloodied right hand, the left still pressed to the seeping wound in his side, “it was bad enough when it was just Rand after me, except it wasn’t Rand, or not only Rand, because Celia was always there, playing me. Playing him, too, I guess,” he rambled, barely aware of Mia, watching him the way one would watch a dog with the first hints of foam at its mouth. “The black swan who betrayed them all.”
“Played the cops, just now,” he said. “Played them so well they’re looking at me for Rand’s murder.”
She stayed where she was, watching. “Did you do it?”
“No. But I can’t prove that.” Any more than he could prove his innocence at Nasa. Rand—no, Celia—no, Odile—was just that good.
“I don’t care what the filth thinks.” Mia gave a shadow of her usual shrug. “I’m not sure I even care if you did for the bugger, I just care you’re honest with me.” She started to turn again.
“Mia.” She stopped, but didn’t look back. “I’m not kidding. I’m done.” She remained still, shoulders slumping in the tunic, which he now saw had a new tear in it. “You should get going,” he said, but it was like talking to a wall, or himself, age thirteen. “Dammit, Mia—”
“What?” She spun around to face him, her hands flying out in exasperation. “What? What d’you want from me? A pat on the back? A handkerchief? What?”
“So this wasp of yours…” She cut him off with a two-handed wave. “She put them mangy twins after you, and had Nahmin dope you, and set you up for a killin’?”
Gideon, watching the dodger the way he’d watch a grenade with a popped tab, nodded.
“She did all that, and now you’re all ‘boo-swarmin’-hoo, she has my coat’—”
“I don’t believe I used those exact—”
“—so you’re done?” The hands, which had been continuing to flap in exasperation, dropped to her sides. “That’s not done. That’s quitting!”
“But all right. Fine. Quit. Be done.” She shoved her hands in her pockets and glared with enough disdain he almost couldn’t see the disappointment. “Done and dusted, and rotting inna nick because if you can’t be bothered to get your own back from some fancy-pants upper-comber risto wasp—”
“Did I mention she’s a fancy-pants upper-comber risto wasp spy?”
“Fancy-pants upper-comber risto wasp spy,” Mia amended, “then what good are you?” Then she paused.
She looked at him. “Did you just say spy?”
He opened his mouth to answer, but didn’t get a chance because just then, from somewhere nearby, they both heard a cry for help.
A cry that was suddenly truncated, as if the one calling had been violently silenced.
“That way,” Gideon said, pushing himself off the wall and racing past Mia. Elvis was already airborne, flapping his way deeper into the bombed-out tenements.
“We’re not done with this,” Mia called, but Gideon, with his long legs, was outpacing her, as if he hadn’t just been beaten, shot, and jumped off a window ledge.
She put on a burst of speed, and caught up just in time to see Gideon flying at a large, mean-looking tough. He tackled the bastard so hard, they both went rolling over a pile of street rubble where, after they landed, all Mia could see of the fight was the odd fist, elbow, or shoulder.
The entire scene was punctuated by the odd grunt, curse, or screech—that last courtesy of Elvis, who was circling wildly above the fight.
Figuring Gideon had things under control, she turned to a young man who, from his prone position and ghost-pale face, was the one who’d called for help, and offered him a hand up. “You okay there, mate?”
“I… Yes. I think.” The youth patted himself absently, as if making sure all his parts were still there. “I hope he doesn’t hurt Wendell. That would only make it worse.”
Mia looked at him—his jaw was already starting to swell—then at the slumping tenements that made up Lower Cadbury. “It could get worse?”
From behind the pile of rubble, a rough tenor shriek was followed by a significant thud, and then silence.
Seconds later, Gideon’s head popped up from behind the wreckage. “Everyone all right here?”
“And I think it just did,” the young man concluded.