Boy From the County Hell
by Maya Tawi
Stay on the other side of the road 'cause you can never tell
We've a thirst like a gang of devils, we're the boys from the County Hell
-The Pogues, "Boys From the County Hell"
I took one look at the Dragans' computer system and exclaimed, "Hey, a pony! Is it my birthday already?"
Needless to say, they ignored me. They'd gotten pretty good at it, having done so all day without so much as a potty break, and usually I can manage to piss anyone off, so these guys were more superhuman than most. At this point our little field trip was a welcome change of pace.
The Ubers'd left me strapped to the op table for what felt like days but was probably only one or two, long enough for mind-numbing fear to morph into mind-numbing boredom. Long enough, I supposed, for whatever they'd done to my neck to heal, though what version of the word "heal" they were using, I wasn't sure; it still throbbed, just not as badly as before, and there was a strange echo of the throbbing at the base of my brain that I wasn't entirely comfortable with. The rest of the situation, of course, being Duvet City, only with sadistic, bug-ugly pseudo-hunks instead of soft fluffy white things.
But I digress.
I still didn't know what the hell the brand-spanking-new implant was supposed to do. The first time I'd tried to touch it they'd cuffed my hands behind my back. All I knew was, I wanted it out.
And now, oddly enough, they were marching me directly into the central command center for the entire base.
I could only assume they had a damn good reason. Then again, with Dragans, you never can tell.
Meanwhile, I, as is my wont, was attempting to inject some much-needed levity into the situation. It didn't seem likely to catch on, but I decided to give it one more shot, 'cause winners never quit. Neither do losers, incidentally; they just get beaten. Then they run away. I was working on that last part.
"Listen, guys," I said, as they uncuffed me, manhandled me into a seat, and secured my wrists to the chair's arms with electronic restraints. "Just 'cause you got me a nice prezzie, I don't want you expecting any special favors- hey, what the hell-"
Which was about as far as I got before the long, wicked-looking, disturbingly phallic metal jack plunged into the back of my neck.
Then I screamed, and the world exploded.
It was like my mind just shattered, and a whole new world came flooding in through the cracks. All of a sudden I wasn't on Earth anymore; I was hurtling through space, surrounded by brightly glowing data streams like undiscovered planets, like my own private universe, and
i ride a wave like water, rushing face-first through the current i almost feel the spray and then
i'm in a room
(windowless cubic coffin )
but the walls are flawed
and i find a seam and press down and
and the world comes flooding back
data like galaxies
infinite and i
(i i i i I I)
I know what makes everything tick.
tethered to a chair slumped down mouth open eyes closed enemy watching and I
(come join me)
loose the tether and
(kid in an candy store)
press the button.
so many doors with so many locks and i i I
(be free with me)
This is my world and now
everything vanished, and I was back in the cold, sterile room that was suddenly far too dingy and small.
For a moment I just felt utterly, absolutely bereft. Then I blinked, and suddenly there was a Niet in front of me, one I'd never seen before, hands pressed to his ears and face contorted in agony. He was yelling something, and
(The jack was clutched in one of his fists. My new implant ached in sympathy for its loss)
as I rubbed my own ears I realized I could hear.
"-what you did! Make it stop!"
I stared at him for another bemused moment. Then I kicked him in the face and vaulted out of the chair.
That was when I stumbled over the first corpse.
The walls and floor of the computer room were scorched in almost regular patterns; the three Dragans that had originally been with me were all dead. From the look of things, the internal defenses had fired, yet somehow both my chair and the equipment had escaped unscathed.
The dead were all Uber. The live one was regaining his feet and unholstering his gun. I ran.
To my surprise, no one tried to stop me.
I ran through corridor after identical corridor with only one thought in my mind: out. Alarms were wailing ceaselessly, and beneath them was the intermittent, nearly-audible hum of an ultrasonic squeal; that was why the Niet had been holding his ears. Had I set that off? I couldn't remember. Apparently I'd unlocked the chair restraints and fired the defenses, but I had no idea how; I just had vague impressions of ultimate power, knowing exactly how to manipulate it, and-
Footsteps. I ducked around a corner and into a hidden alcove, and then had to do so again half a dozen times after that. Everyone seemed to be running somewhere and yelling something, and it was a fair bet they all had guns. All I had was the biological imperative to save my own skinny yet undeniably attractive ass.
That and a flash, a memory-
I'd changed something; torn down the barriers, let everything flood together-
Apparently, here on Earth, that translated into open doors. All the prisoners were loose.
I wished them luck. Then I wished me luck even more. Again with the biological imperative.
Through it all I just kept running. I had some vague idea of the base layout from my raids with Brendan and Isaac, back before we started dying and we abruptly realized just how serious things had become; I wasn't sure exactly where I was headed, but there was a sense of rightness about it, of getting closer to fresh air and open spaces and the relative safety of street-rat territory, of a landscape I knew. Then suddenly I rounded a corner and there it was: a reinforced metal door, standing open at an almost jaunty angle, a neat and nicely-wrapped contradiction, inviting a last mad dash to freedom-
And then an Uber stepped out in front of me, and I skidded to a stop.
His teeth were gritted against the continuous high-pitched shrilling. It didn't stop him aiming his gun.
"You," he growled, stepping forward.
I danced back nervously; behind him, through the open door, daylight beckoned like an oncoming train. Now I could see the two other Niets struggling to force the door closed. They weren't getting very far.
The first one stepped forward again, arming the gun with a frighteningly real whining sound. The sound of inevitability.
"You did this."
"Me? No!" I tried to laugh; it sounded like a high-pitched, strangled choke. "How could I've done anything? Look at me! I'm just a kludge, for God's sake- really young- really short-"
My back hit the wall. The Dragan kept coming.
"Well then," he said, his voice as harsh, as deceptively smooth, as ground glass, "guess I should just put you out of your misery."
I turned my head and squeezed my eyes shut, and heard myself whimper.
Three gunshots rang out, in quick succession. I held my breath and waited to die.
Then I waited to bleed.
Then I cracked an eye open, really confused.
And just like an angel from heaven, there was Beka Valentine- except an angel wouldn't have been gesturing quite as frantically as she was, nor would she have been holding a huge smoking gun. Not to mention an angel definitely wouldn't have known the kind of words she was currently screaming at me.
"Man, Beka," I said muzzily. "You kiss your mother with that mouth?"
"Move your ass, Seamus," she growled, grabbing my arm and towing.
I followed all too willingly. She was carrying one of my shrillers; she'd used my toys to put the Nietzscheans on the run, and bizarrely, that touched me more than anything else. Anything aside from the incredible life-saving rescue, I mean.
On our way out the door I spotted Psycho Bobby, crouching behind a nearby wall and dispatching bullets like the morning post. He didn't look too happy. Psycho Bobby never did.
Then we were running along the dusty road, for once free of Dragan guards- probably all busy at the base- and then we were tumbling into the waiting Maru, and I gasped, "Why'd you come back? Not that I'm complaining- I mean, I'm definitely not complaining- but why didn't you just go?"
Beka didn't say anything for a moment; she was bent almost double, trying to catch her breath. Then she turned and fixed me with her steely, ice-blue stare.
"I owed you, Seamus," she said simply. "I always pay my debts."
I wasn't quite ready to deal with that concept yet, sprawled on the floor as I was, still dazed by my abrupt return to the sharp edges and the harsh sights and sounds of reality; I just said, "Huh," and filed it away for future contemplation. Then I sat up to watch Psycho Bobby running up the road, laying down covering fire back the way he'd come.
"What happened, anyway?" Beka asked as she busily flipped switches on the control panel, presumably preparing the ship for launch. "How'd you get out?"
I glanced back at her, feeling a dark smile spreading across my face.
"They turned me loose on the computer system."
She turned to stare at me. "They what?"
"Hey, no one ever said the Dragans were smart."
Psycho Bobby was coming up on the ship now; he raised one of my shrillers to his lips and blew, and the last of his pursuers fell back, clutching their ears. I felt a deep twinge of annoyance. I'd wanted Beka's lips on my whistle and no one else's.
Then Bobby was in the Maru, and Beka vaulted into the back with me and then stopped short, catching sight of my new fashion accessory for the first time. "What did they do to you?" she demanded, suddenly suspicious.
Self-consciously I raised a hand to my neck. It was throbbing like a fresh burn, like a gaping hole, and I could all too easily imagine the blood pouring out of it, but the implant was still there and my fingers came away clean.
"What," Beka began again, and I could read her next thought before it even passed her lips, almost before she thought it herself. I could be a borg, a walking time bomb; the Ubers could've implanted any number of nasty surprises in me. But they weren't that smart. Were they?
I opened my mouth to reassure her, and then the Maru's engines flared to life and the ship started to shake, and I hit the deck again.
Beka's mouth found my ear; I must've looked like a wild animal, all manic and clawing at the air. "Atmosphere escape!" she yelled, directly into my eardrum. "Hang on to me!"
"All right," I agreed cheerfully, and hung.
She wrapped her fingers in my hair and yanked, and we were molded into the floor.
For about ten seconds Beka and I were pressed to the metal by some invisible giant hand, stuck to each other like Krazy Glue, and then all of a sudden we were floating in midair. And then what I could only assume were the artificial gravs kicked in, and we hit the floor again.
"Oww." I sat up, grabbing at my head, and winced. "I've been hit by a convoy. Didja have to grab me like that?"
"I believe that's my line," Beka said ominously. She was on her feet already, tucking her flight suit back into some semblance of array. "Lookee, no touchee, Seamus. And what the hell do you put in your hair?"
I grinned at her apologetically. "Sorry, boss. I just-"
And then it was Bobby's turn to bellow from the flight seat, "Hold on!"
I lunged for a nearby railing and did my best to wrap myself around it as the ship dove. Beka, I noticed, was gripping a beam on the ceiling, her lean muscles tensed like she was a racehorse straining at the bit.
"How many?" she called.
A few clicks, then, "Three, coming up from behind. Another on its way to intercept."
Beka smiled grimly. "Nose dive, hang left, and move your ass over."
This, I understood a moment later, was Beka Valentine in action.
She vaulted into the pilot's seat, somehow moving gracefully in time to the jerky motions of the ship, and slid up to the controls. She wasn't just Beka Bobby's girlfriend anymore, or Beka the tough chick with the kinky wardrobe and the kitsch fetish, or even Beka my savior.
She was Beka, fucking amazing spaceship pilot.
Remember everything I said about loving her? Triple that. Competence is so hot.
I watched for a few more seconds, open-mouthed with awe, as she played the Maru like a well-worn guitar, like an old familiar lover, deftly sliding the ship away from Niet missiles and ships and assorted other large pointy things determined to kill us all. And then I couldn't watch anymore.
I was still conscious for Beka's jubilant whoop and the jolting transfer into what could only be slipstream.
Then I blacked out.
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight | Epilogue