The Collective had been in power for nearly five hundred years now, and as a result, their favored had enjoyed a period of tremendous prosperity—all while the ranks of the downtrodden grew, and the Outland slums where they barely eked out survival continued to extend further and further out. According to everything Tana had read, it went against the very core of what Sergeant Barent believed in. In fact, it was that exact type of disparity that drove him to become the Great Betrayer in the first place.
Tana’s eyes drifted over to the bookcase where Barent’s collected treatises rested on the top shelf. It was an original compilation—contemporaneous with his life—not the newly edited versions put out by the Collective. It was the most valuable thing Tana had ever stolen, but she’d vowed to never part with it.
Tana had read and understood every word, imagining a society that might have been. But Sergeant Barent died in the final battle of the Pardon War, and his promise of an egalitarian society had perished right along with him.
Barent’s elaborate tomb filled the video screen now, drawing Tana’s attention back to the broadcast. The Collective had spared no expense while building the tremendous monument to the fallen leader, and they celebrated his victory every year with speeches and elaborate displays. But Tana knew it was more to extol their own power than it was to revere Barent’s memory. And while they sang his praises to all who would listen, in practice, the Collective debased everything Sergeant Barent had fought for, systematically corrupting his legacy with their oppressive policies. They’d twisted his dream into a mockery of the pro-populace society Barent had so staunchly championed. Things were no better now than before the Pardon War, and in fact, they were much, much worse. Well…unless you were a part of the Collective, of course, or one of their wealthy sycophants.
Tana had seen enough.
“Screen off,” she said. “Auto-defense initiate at full charge.” The defgun beeped twice to acknowledge the instructions.
Tana stretched out on the sofa and closed her eyes tightly, reaching under the cushion to feel for her handgun. She found it nestled next to one of her daggers—right where it should be.
“Set motion alarms.” Tana yawned, and then she tucked her head into a deep fold between the cushion and the back of the couch and began drifting off to sleep.
With all of the festivities tomorrow, it might be a great time to pull a job,
Then I’ll really have a reason to celebrate Sergeant Barent’s Day.
Tana woke with a stiff neck and a pounding headache, to say nothing of a stomach in complete revolt. She knew it would give her no peace until it was sated with food, and came to the unwelcome realization that she needed to get up.
She pushed herself off the cushion and swung her legs down to the floor, placing her face in her hands, and using her long, delicate fingers to rub the sleep from her eyes. The defgun pivoted at the movement, and its barrel made a high-pitched whine as it spun and locked into place. But the lethal machine quickly identified her, and then returned to its slow and lazy patrol around the apartment.
As Tana rose to her feet, she slowly stretched her back, pressing her arms far overhead to push out the kinks that had set in overnight.
A poor night’s rest,
she thought. But Tana knew how lucky she was to sleep in relative peace. So many in the city, especially the downtrodden, could never relax their guard. They had to remain forever vigilant to protect what precious little they had—to protect their very lives—living in constant fear that someone even more desperate than themselves might come along and try to take their meager possessions. And many of them were trying to do it without so much as a solid roof over their heads—to say nothing of electricity or running water.
Those living in Le’sant’s two inner circles commonly referred to the downtrodden as criminals, going so far as to extend that epithet to the children and innocents among them as well. And even here in the much poorer Common Ring—the penultimate circle of Le’sant, and the last stop before reaching the Outland—many thought the downtrodden weren’t merely a symptom of Le’sant’s problems.
Most of the city’s crimes were attributed to them, whether legitimately or not, and the common mindset was that
needed to be done. Not about the abject poverty that drove those poor souls to such acts of desperation, or through a concerted effort to improve their circumstances and bring them into the greater fold of humanity. No, the larger part of Le’sant’s population believed that the downtrodden simply must be brought to heel. It was the best way to control the growing crime problem, or so the common theory went. Tana thought the belief was not only ridiculous, but rather hypocritical coming from a society founded by convicts.
She heard a commotion and turned around to gaze out through the reinforced window. Down in the street below, Tana saw a small group of people already lining up for the best spots to watch the parade.
She strode over to the nook and tried to locate something to eat, but Tana never really kept much food around. Who did? But she hoped that maybe this time she’d get lucky, and find something missed during previous foraging attempts. When a brief search through the empty cabinets turned up nothing, Tana decided to head out to a restaurant and get a proper meal. It was a holiday, after all. Why not splurge?
She closed her eyes and then rapidly squeezed them twice, mimicking a blink. This triggered Tana’s embedded link, granting her access to Le’sant's citywide datanet. When she opened her eyes again, a translucent display filled Tana’s vision, and using eye movements alone she called up the local eateries to see which ones had food today.
she thought to herself, scrolling through the listings.
food, was always a constrained resource in Le’sant’s outer rings—an expensive luxury that most couldn’t afford, including Tana. The majority of the population was forced to content themselves with the Nutriall distributed by the government. It was a generic and tasteless food that kept you alive, but little else.
Most on the outer rings didn’t even give food a second thought; eating was just a necessary part of living, not an experience to be relished. But there were some, like Tana, who had sampled real food, and understood that it was something to be enjoyed. Of course, in her case, Tana developed that appreciation by stealing food as an added bonus—while thieving in the richer parts of town.
As she sifted through the modest menus of those restaurants that actually had something to offer, an incoming call popped up on the display. It was her old friend, Sri. But she—
Tana answered it.
“Sri? I thought you were still in prison.”
“I was. But I just got out.”
The image from the public terminal wasn’t the best, but Tana could tell that Sri looked healthy…so much better than the last time she’d seen her.
“But I thought you were supposed to be in for another two years.”
“Don’t sound so disappointed, Tana. I scored an early release. They’re pardoning some of the non-violent offenders in celebration of the holiday.”
“I’m not disappointed, Sri, just surprised. The Collective has never done anything like that before.”
“From what I understand, Tana, it wasn’t the Collective. It was the Wardens.”
“The Wardens?” Tana repeated, confused.
“My exact reaction as well.” Sri laughed.
Tana thought. The Wardens rarely—if ever—interfered in such minor affairs. They provided security for Collective representatives, and guarded the Tomb of the Great Betrayer—along with other clandestine responsibilities that people could only speculate about. Why would they involve themselves in something so trivial?
The display wavered as Tana shrugged the mystery off, speculating that it was probably just some new initiative by the Wardens to honor Barent. But whatever the reason, it was good to have Sri back. She had been a good friend—and for a time, even more—but Sri had struggled with a habitual drug problem that pervaded every aspect of her life. The disease made her do hurtful, careless things, and eventually led to Sri’s capture by the police. The irony was that she had finally cleaned herself up by the time they arrested her.
That was nearly two years ago, and Tana had missed Sri dearly. Because despite all of her faults, she was the closest thing to family Tana had.
“Where are you now?” Tana asked her.
“One block from your apartment.”
“Great. Then I’ll meet you out front and we’ll go get something to eat. My treat.”
“Well in that case, how could I refuse?”
“See you in five minutes.”
Tana quickly located a restaurant that had live fish and pinged in a reservation. A deposit automatically shifted from her account to theirs—to ensure that she would show, and to guarantee the meal. It was far more than she’d intended to spend, but this was cause for celebration.
Tana blinked the interface away and then freshened up before heading out the door—setting the defgun to auto-patrol, and locking the apartment up behind her.
Sri is out.
And with all the money coming in from the ceremonial set, maybe it really is time to move to the Middle District. Maybe, just maybe, things are finally starting to go my way.
They smiled as they saw each other in the street, running the last few meters to clasp one another warmly. The embrace lingered, and when Tana finally leaned back she ran her fingers through Sri’s golden-blonde hair, staring into her eyes.
“I can’t believe you’re really here,” she said.
“No one is more surprised about it than I am,” Sri replied.
“Do you have any idea why they let you out?”
“Only what they told me…about it being part of the celebration. The Wardens just said it was to honor Sergeant Barent, like that somehow explained everything. It was all pretty strange, actually, and even the prison guards seemed surprised by the Wardens’ visit. But to be honest, I didn’t hang around long enough to ask any questions.”
“I don’t blame you.”
Tana pulled Sri’s chin up and gave her a kiss. “I’ve missed you.”
Sri grabbed Tana’s hands and held onto them tightly. “I’ve missed you, too.”
They stood speechless for a moment, gazing at each other as pedestrians moved past them in both directions—a few squeezed into vacant spots on the curb behind them to wait for the parade.
Although they’d been apart for two years, Tana easily recalled the good times they’d shared in the past. If anything, the separation had only intensified her feelings—anticipation and longing pushing Tana’s affection for Sri to greater heights. But she also remembered the bad times, the drugs, and the frequent betrayals. And Tana used
memories to quell the strong flow of emotions—to maintain a modicum of composure and distance. If anything was to become of this—if she and Sri were to rebuild their previous relationship—it would be slowly, if at all.
But for now, they would be friends again.
“Come on,” Tana said. “Let’s go get something to eat and catch up.”
But as they turned to walk away, a black armored personnel carrier skidded to a halt in the street right next to them. The side of the APC pivoted upward, and then four heavily armed soldiers leapt out, leveling their weapons at the pair. The people waiting for the parade scattered—abandoning the prize spots they’d fought so hard for without a second thought. And within just a few seconds, only Tana and Sri remained on the sidewalk. Tana looked past the guns and saw the uniforms.
“Hands up!” one of them shouted.
Tana and Sri complied instantly, and then two of the Wardens stepped forward—pressing self-adhering scatter-patches against the temples of both women.
“I don’t have a datalink,” Sri said. “They removed it in jail wh—”
“Quiet,” the Warden nearest her said.
He grabbed Sri’s hands and fastened them together in restraints behind her back—as another Warden did the same to Tana. Tana noted that their actions were brusque and efficient, yet not abusive like the police often were.
“What is this all about?” she asked.
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
The Wardens led Tana and Sri over to the APC and gently placed them down on the floor inside the vehicle. Then all four soldiers jumped in as well, dropping onto bench seats mounted to the thickly armored walls. The large door automatically swung closed behind them—latching with a loud clank—and then they sped off down the road. As the APC accelerated away, Tana looked out through the front window and saw people starting to come back out of hiding.
“I was stupid enough to think you actually served the people,” she said angrily. “And now you’re snatching innocent citizens off the streets?”
The Wardens ignored her and continued to stare straight ahead, saying nothing. Sri was also silent during the short ride, and Tana could see the fear set deep into her face. She was already convinced that she was going back to prison, and Tana had every reason to believe that she’d be joining Sri this time. One question still remained, though… Why? But when the APC finally slid to a halt and the door opened up again, Tana saw where they were and it all began to make sense.
The Wardens hefted the pair up and pushed them outside, guiding them straight across the sidewalk and into the building. There wasn’t enough space for everyone in the small room so two of the Wardens remained outside.
“You son of a bitch!” Tana yelled. “You sold me out.”
Cobin was standing behind the counter, as usual, but this time he was not alone—the old fence was flanked by two men Tana had never seen before. She could tell by the insignia on his cloak that one of them was a high-ranking officer in the Wardens; the black armor underneath was a dead giveaway as well. But the other man wore civilian clothing, with no outward clues to his identity. He wasn’t stocky and imposing like the Warden, but he still bore himself like someone of great importance. The man’s strong voice reinforced the impression that he was someone to be taken seriously.