Authors: Gregg Vann
It was a good assumption,
Because we’ve been damn lucky to get this far.
Barent pulled his hood down lower as they moved through the gate, hiding both his face and the unusual color of his skin from the dense crowd of people. It ended up being a prudent move, because the Outland beggars quickly swarmed all over them. Despite his attempts at concealment, Barent’s size still drew a great deal of attention. But no one expected the return of the Great Betrayer, so the downtrodden pressing in against them hadn’t guessed his identity…yet. Barent knew they had to get out of sight soon, though, or that might change.
As they continued marching forward without any hint of stopping or slowing down—trudging ever deeper into the Outland—the crowd finally realized that the pair weren’t offering up any work or money and began to dissipate.
“Every step we take I see even greater poverty,” Barent said to Tana. “With so much wealth in the other parts of the city, how can this place exist?”
“Because everyone just ignores it and hopes it’ll go away,” she replied. “Since it doesn’t affect them personally, most of the people in Le’sant don’t care enough to do anything about the Outland. Hell, if the Collective thought they could get away with it, they’d probably institute population control here, and shrink the number of downtrodden that way. But they know that was one of the primary things that started the Pardon War so they stop just short of it. They do limit Nutriall rations, though. So the number of children you have has no bearing on the amount of food you receive at government stations. Unless you have the money to feed the kids yourself, which is tough to do when there are no jobs, you divvy up what food you’re personally allotted and all starve equally. The only bright spot is that if a child somehow makes it to fifteen, they’re eligible to apply for their own ration card.”
Barent shook his head in disgust. “Things aren’t as bad as they were before the Pardon War, they’re even worse.”
“I wasn’t there so I can’t know for sure,” Tana said. “But I always thought that was probably true.”
there,” Barent snapped. “And you can take my word for it, this is worse.”
“If it makes you feel any better, Sergeant,” Tana replied calmly, trying to defuse Barent’s anger, “as soon as I got out of here, and had enough money to make it in the Common Ring, I gave my ration card to a mother with three children. For whatever that’s worth.”
“I think it’s worth a lot, Tana,” Barent replied. “And I’m sure she did too.”
Tana looked uncomfortable with the praise. “Yeah, well…follow me. We need to get you off the street, and I kinda know someone here.”
Barent nodded agreement, and then resumed gazing out at the abject squalor as they moved further into the Outland. The people and their living conditions seemed oddly familiar to him, and then Barent suddenly realized why—he’d witnessed similar scenes back on Earth in the aftermath of the wars. To see the same thing here so many years after the Pardon War was disheartening, and Barent wondered to himself if things ever
change for the better.
Sometimes the afflictions of poverty seem like the most powerful forces in the universe
, he mused.
Barent quickly shrugged off the comparisons to Earth, and the ghastly memories that had prompted them. He didn’t want to think about the wars…not now.
He trailed behind Tana as she ducked between two shacks, obviously cobbled together from discarded materials. And as they passed by the open doorways Barent noticed that both had dirt floors. They emerged on the other side into what appeared to be a different section of the Outland—although the maze-like alleyways here were almost indistinguishable from the others they’d seen. This particular path had a partially frozen stream of urine flowing down the center of it, and as they stepped over the filthy sludge Barent noticed his breath for the first time, realizing it was appreciably colder in this section of the city.
“There are no environmental controls here?” he asked Tana. “No thermal vent-taps?”
“Nothing,” she replied. “The only heat they get is what leaks out from the city proper, or from what they can burn. Don’t tell me you’re cold.”
“Not at all. I was genetically altered to resist the climate, remember? But these people—”
“These people freeze to death if they’re not careful,” Tana said, a little more harshly that she’d intended. But she could tell from Barent’s face that he understood her frustration.
They came to a halt in front of a small dwelling, loosely fastened together out of wood and metal scrap. To Barent it looked just like any of the other run-down structures in the alleyway, but Tana seemed to recognize it. She pushed aside the tattered cloth draped over the doorway and went inside. Barent followed her in.
“Who the fuck are you?” the occupant snarled.
He was young, but his dirty brown hair was already thinning. The man’s sunken eyes shifted from alarm to recognition when he saw Tana, and he gave her a broad smile. Barent noticed that nearly all of his teeth were gone.
“Tana, baby. Where’s Sri? Is she looking for something special this time around or just the usual? I heard she got out yesterday.”
Tana punched the man in the chest and knocked the wind out of him, and then she kicked him in the groin and he went down.
“Hello, Yali,” she said cheerfully. “We need a place to hide out for a couple of days, and you’re going to provide it.”
Yali clasped his groin with both hands and struggled to catch his breath. “Of course, Tana. Of course…anything you want, baby.”
She kicked him hard in the stomach. “Don’t call me,
Barent looked on in amusement, occasionally glancing out through the doorway to make sure no one else was approaching the shack.
“Who is this person,” he asked Tana.
“He was Sri’s dealer. I had to come here a few times to get drugs for her when she was
and refused to get help.” Tana glared down at Yali with unmasked hate in her eyes and he tried to slide further away from her. “And a few other times when he poisoned her with bad junk. Those times, I kicked his ass.”
“I only wanted to help Sri out,” Yali protested.
Tana scowled at him and he threw both hands up defensively. “Please…don’t hit me anymore. Just tell me what Sri needs. I’ll even give it to you for free if you’ll just take it and leave.”
“Sri doesn’t need anything, Yali. She’s dead.”
The man’s eyes went wide with fear. “It wasn’t me, Tana. I didn’t give her anyth—”
“Relax, Yali. If I thought you were responsible you’d already be dead. Like I said, we just need a place to hide.”
“Do you really think you can trust him to keep his mouth shut?” Barent asked.
“Not at all. In fact, if he thought he could get a halfway decent meal for selling us out, he would. Which is exactly why he won’t leave this shack until we do.”
“Who the hell
that?” Yali asked.
“His name is mister
none of your fucking business
,” Tana replied. Then she gave him a look that implied any other questions would be answered with her foot.
Yali struggled to stand back up and then rubbed his chest. “Whatever. Just make yourselves at home…apparently.”
“Keep an eye on him for a little while,” Barent said. “I want to go have a look around.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Tana asked.
“I’ll be fine.”
Tana walked over to a small bed sitting in the corner and snatched the sheet off of it. Then she wadded it up into a ball and threw it to Barent. “Here, wrap that around you. You stick out like a sore thumb around here. And try to stoop down a little bit, too.”
Barent shook the sheet out vigorously before spreading it across his shoulders. “God knows what’s still clinging to this thing.”
“Hey!” Yali shouted.
“Shut up,” Tana said, then she turned back to Barent. “Don’t get lost Ba—uh, baby.”
Barent chuckled inwardly at the way she’d caught herself—refraining from saying his name in front of Yali to keep Barent’s identity a secret.
,” he replied.
Barent left the shack and began retracing his steps, making his way back to what served as the main thoroughfare for the Outland. He stooped and slouched as Tana had recommended, and the effort not only made him appear smaller, but feeble as well. But when Barent looked around he realized he was the only one faking it. There were thousands of frail and sickly people milling about this part of the city—most of them buried under dirty and mismatched shreds of clothing, and all of them just trying to stay warm…and alive.
There were very few proper buildings in the Outland, and Barent couldn’t believe the contrast between the gleaming skyscrapers at the center of the city, and the poorly constructed shacks he found here. Most of them were unfit for animals, much less human beings. But even more troubling was the disparity in the lives of the people—the overabundance of wealth in the interior, compared to the hardscrabble fight for existence he was witnessing now. Barent felt his anger rising again. The area where Tana lived was bad enough, but this…
Everyone in Le’sant appeared thin to Barent, yet they still seemed healthy. But that wasn’t the case with the downtrodden. Their cheeks were sunken and their eyes hollow—physical manifestations reflecting the emptiness of their lives. And Barent could see the underlying bones in every piece of exposed flesh. Though most of the downtrodden wore gloves, he noticed that many of the fingers were empty—tied back out of the way so they didn’t flap around as the people went on with their daily lives. Barent suspected the missing digits had probably been lost to frostbite.
And then there were the children.
They were all too small, too sickly.
And too close to death.
After an hour of wandering around Barent had seen enough, and as he spun around abruptly to head back to Yali’s he nearly trampled a child.
“I… I’m sorry,” the little boy stammered.
Barent heard the fear in his voice.
“It’s not your fault, son,” he replied, trying to reassure the panicked child that everything was going to be okay. “I should have been more careful.”
Barent remembered that he was still wearing the same clothing he’d had on during that fateful meeting with Corporal Ennis—he must have cryoed him in it shortly after faking his death. He smiled as he patted down one of his jacket pockets, and then Barent reached underneath the sheet and pulled out a field ration bar.
Right where I left it
, he thought to himself.
Five hundred years ago.
He opened it up and stuffed the wrapper back into his pocket, making sure there would be no trace of him after he’d gone, and then Barent leaned down and gave the bar to the child. As the boy sniffed it, taking a hesitant bite to test the bar out, Barent pulled the sheet from around his shoulders and draped it over the boy.
“There you go.”
“Th— Thanks. But what do you want from me?” the child asked suspiciously.
“Nothing,” Barent replied.
The little boy gave him a halting smile, as if he were almost unfamiliar with the gesture, and then he saw his mother nearby and called out to her. Barent ducked back into an alley while the child was distracted.
he thought to himself.
This is even worse than before.
Why the hell did we even bother with the Pardon War?
But then Barent peeked back out from the alley, watching the mother’s face as the little boy offered her some of the ration bar. And then he showed off his new sheet and his mother smiled. A real smile, full of hope.
All because of a fucking nutrient bar and a lice-ridden sheet.
And then it dawned on Barent
they’d fought and died all those years ago. For friends and family, and freedom from the unequal treatment that allowed slums like the Outland to exist in the first place. How was it fair for one man to live in a penthouse suite that was big enough to house twenty people comfortably, while these poor souls had to freeze to death in makeshift hovels—fighting over scraps of fabric for warmth, and eating garbage just to survive?
And that’s what truly drove him, Barent realized. Fairness, plain and simple. Hours ago he’d wondered what he might do in this age—an era where he didn’t belong. But now he knew.
Sergeant Barent would do what he’d always done. What he’d been trained to do.
He would fight.
And this time…
He would finish what he started.
Tana threw the tattered cloth covering the doorway aside and ran into the shack. “They’re here,” she said breathlessly. “The police and military both. They’re coming in from all directions…searching every square inch of the Outland. I don’t know how we can escape them.”
They’d been hiding out at Yali’s for almost two days, and Tana had used that time to bring Barent up to date on recent history, teaching him about modern Le’sant and the Collective. She’d also ventured back into the Common Ring twice, gathering what information she could about the search for them. The Collective were actively looking for Tana, and offering a substantial reward for her capture. But she wasn’t surprised—if they knew about the Wardens in her apartment, then they also knew that Tana was somehow involved in Barent’s disappearance. The Collective were a lot of things, and most of them bad, but they weren’t stupid. There was no mention of Sergeant Barent anywhere, though. They were clearly trying to keep his existence a secret—assuming that when they located Tana they’d find the Great Betrayer as well.
“I thought you said it would be a while before they came this far out,” Barent said.
“There’s no way they could have already searched the Central and Middle districts, much less the entire Common Ring. They must somehow know we’re here.”
Barent flashed a look at Yali but they hadn’t let him out of their sights. As much as he probably wanted to, Yali couldn’t have betrayed them. “We need to leave,” Barent said.