[This is a short story I wrote in late 2008. I submitted it to an "End-of-the-World" science fiction anthology call-for-submissions in January 2009, but the editor rejected it because he wanted tales of physical disaster, not cultural disaster. I submitted it to another CFS for a sociological sci-fi primer, and it was accepted! -- but then the publication was cancelled on account of the depressed economy! Due to the way it played out, I retained my full publication rights, and I have decided to simply release this story for free (or for "promotional purposes," if you like) for everyone to enjoy. As always, feedback (public or private) is welcomed. I have backdated this post to when I submitted the story for publication.]
by Michael Bahr
- Northwestern Colorado, 2079 A.D. -
“My stim pills ain’t scoring, Gavin,” wheezed the 17-year-old boy.
“True that, Austin,” said his 18-year-old companion, gasping breaths as he trudged through freshly fallen snow.
Austin rattled his stim pill pack. “I got maybe eight or nine stim pills left. We’re a day away from the Cheyenne conduit already. We gonna run out of stim pills and starve to death? Will they find our loctags out here?”
Gavin’s brow furrowed, calculating. “I got more stim pills. We ain’t gonna be empty for three days. And you grip perfectly well that they can find your loctag anywhere.”
“But way out here, Gavin? The conduit…”
“Yes, Ace, they can find us,” snapped Gavin. “Even if we get way lost. We won’t starve to death. A search team from the Cheyenne conduit can walk just the same as us. They can find us, you grip me? Now shut up so I can think, man!”
Austin squinted into the whiteness of the forest ahead. “How much farther? My face is mega-cold.”
Gavin blinked into his visor and read the location schematics displayed for his eyes alone.
“Two-K ahead, if the cabin is still standing. This path used to be a road. It’s gonna turn west soon, and then we stay going forward and it ain’t much farther then. Pull up your hoodie, you girl!”
Austin shoved his friend. “Shut your hole, Gavin. My hood don’t cover my face!”
“Ain’t that a shame,” deadpanned Gavin.
Austin tugged at the neckline of his polyweave coveralls. Beneath the polyweave, his body enjoyed warm, dry comfort. Austin bristled at the chill wind against his cheeks, an intrusion upon his contentment that he never had to endure at home.
“C’mon, Gav. Let’s roll on back to the conduit.”
“No dice, Ace,” answered Gavin. “Beat it if you want to, but I gotta find this house. Listen to what the Board of Property told me last week.” Gavin blinked again into his visor and transmitted the message to Austin’s visor.
Austin listened through earbuds on the visor’s frame.
“Gavin Sellers, the Board of Property wishes you a happy-fun-safe 18th birthday. Today, you inherit property from your great-grandfather, Charles Kiffin. This property was held on your behalf by the State and includes land and a house. Your grandmother, Madison Kiffin Sellers, and your father, Tyler Sellers, have each allowed the probate period to elapse without taking possession of the property. Pursuant to State Law, Title 33, Chapter 5, Article 1, the property will revert to possession by the State if you allow the probate period to lapse a third and final time. Coordinates are shown on the attached map. Regards...”
Gavin shrugged. “I don’t grip that ‘probate’ stuff. That must be lawyer talk. I grip ‘forfeit’ when I hear it, though.”
The boys continued their march through deep green pines frosted in bright white.
“But Gavin, what do you care about a house so far away from the Cheyenne conduit you gotta walk for two days just to get there? And who wants some old hut when you got a homepod back in Denver?”
Gavin shrugged. “Dunno. Maybe it’s a dump and I’ll forfeit it like my dad did. The place ain’t got no dataport or we coulda spied it on a livelink. I just don’t wanna forfeit nothing without at least gripping what I’m forfeiting.”
“So just get a homepod,” said Austin.
“I’m 18, remember?” said Gavin. “I don’t get a homepod for free no more, and I gotta even pay for dataport access! Mega-lame! Even a small place that’s free is better than having to work a job to pay for a homepod. In fact, I heard if you got your own place you can stay there as long as you want without inspections.”
“No inspections?” cringed Austin. “What about messes? How you gonna clean messes without an inspector?”
“Dunno,” shrugged Gavin. “Clean it my own self, I suppose. Or maybe not! It sounds funny, but I always kinda wondered what it’d be like if there were no inspections.”
“But Gavin,” pled Austin, “with no inspections, when they gonna bring you any stim pills?”
Gavin nodded, plodding along through the woods.
“Maybe you make your own stim pills.”
“But Gavin,” started Austin, but Gavin cut him off.
“I know, Ace, I know. Only NutriCorp is allowed to make stim pills, and only inspectors are allowed to clean messes. I know. I just wonder, you grip me? I wonder what it was like before NutriCorp and before the inspectors and before the Boards and the Councils and everything else.”
Austin raised his eyebrow. “Well, that’s easy. You’d be hungry and dirty. You’re mega-dumb, Gav.”
A dragonfly buzzed by, hovering near Austin before disappearing into the trees.
“Oh, crunch!” exclaimed Austin.
“What is it? Are you safe?”
“Oh, crunch, Gavin! I ain’t safe! A giant bug almost got me!”
“Don’t move!” said Gavin.
“Is it still out there?” asked Austin.
Gavin peered around from beneath curly brown locks. “Nope. It’s gone.”
A squirrel descended from a tree to the right of the boys’ path and hopped off into the distance.
“An animal!” shrieked Austin.
“We ain’t got no shielding glass!” panicked Gavin. “We gotta run!”
The boys scrambled forward, spraying clumps of snow in every direction as their polyweave-clad legs and archspring-clad feet plunged again and again into the thick drifts.
“Just ahead!” shouted Gavin.
Austin did not answer, instead running forward with his hands covering his face. The two boys stopped short at the same time.
“My visor just went out,” said Austin.
Gavin tapped at his temple and blinked frantically. “My visor has power, but no data.”
Austin squinted into his visor and blinked. “Mine too, I guess. I thought it was out, but the command dock is still showing.”
“We’re too deep in the woods to get signal. If the house had a dataport, we would be on its channel by now.”
Austin whimpered. “How much further, Gav? This day sucks!”
“Man up, Nancy!” sneered Gavin. “Like me. I’m a man, and you will be soon. A man ain’t afraid of empty places. Let’s do this and then head on back to your homepod and play some Tri-Sport Tournament 8.”
“Yeah, man,” nodded Austin, sniffling against the cold.
Gavin removed his visor, blinked, and scanned the area around the boys.
“Crunch, it’s bright!”
Austin did the same and nodded. His close-cropped blond hair clung to his skull, streaked with perspiration, and his nose puffed deep and red.
Gavin smirked. “Last time I checked, it was 11:30. The sun is still high, so let’s hurry before those clouds to the east move in.”
Austin sighed. “I got fatigue. I got mega-fatigue.”
“Drop another stim pill. We walked a lot today. I think stim pills get used up if you’re doing stuff.”
Austin popped a stim pill in his mouth and swallowed it. “I hope you ain’t wrong, Gav.”
The path turned west, as Gavin expected, and the boys continued on a narrower track through the woods. At last, just before sunset, the dark bulk of a building emerged from the mist ahead.
“Mega-blast! You called it, Gavin! Sorry I doubted you, man!”
“Welcome to my property, Ace! Don’t that sound weird? ‘My property?’ Like I’m some kinda rich guy or something. Let us go inside before those clouds get any darker.”
The boys stepped around bushes and scrub and crossed the open yard before the house. Gavin climbed the steps to the front landing and walked into the solid wood of the front door with a brutal SMACK.
“Oh, crunch, Gavin!” gasped Austin. “Are you hurt?”
Gavin shook away dizziness. A red welt grew on his forehead.
“Only a little. What’s the problem with the door?”
Austin stepped forward tentatively, stopping a half-meter from the door, then a decimeter, then a few centimeters, and finally allowing his nose and hands to touch the cracking wood.
“It ain’t opening, Gavin! The door ain’t opening! Oh, man, wait. Is this place not allowed? Maybe the Board of Property gave you the wrong directions.”
Gavin bit his lip and concentrated. “I guess the door ain’t scoring because it’s offline or something. Look at this big bolt on the side. Maybe the door stays locked unless you remove it? We’ll try the windows. They’re old glass-style ones, like at the courthouse back in Denver. They open like cabinets.”
“Wow,” wondered Austin. “This place must be way old, from before we were born. This place was built before static pockets! I bet these old windows get some kinda cold at night!”
The boys found a window on the side of the house that swung open at Gavin’s tug.
“It’s way dark in there,” said Austin.
Gavin shrugged and climbed in. A cloud of dust burst into the air from the floor and sent Gavin into a fit of coughing.
“Gavin! Gavin!” panicked Austin. “Can you breathe? Is it bad air?”
“It’s all good,” croaked the older boy. Gavin waved dust away with his hands. “This place was empty too long, that’s all.”
Austin bit his lip and shifted from foot to foot.
Gavin coughed one last time and turned to the window. “You coming or you just gonna freeze right there?”
Austin’s face clenched with unease. “What if this place is not allowed?”
Gavin shrugged. “How could this place be not allowed if the Board of Property told me to come here?”
“But there is no dataport. What if we do something that’s not allowed? You said it yourself: they can find our loctags. We can still be in violation. No dataport, so we won’t know if anything here is not allowed! We could be in violation and not even know it!” Austin’s whimpering intensified until his voice broke.
Gavin quietly replied, “So let’s just not do anything that’s not allowed.”
Austin shook his head, crying. “But what if we do something that’s not allowed anyway?”
Gavin looked up. “It’s gonna snow, Ace. You can stay right there if you want, but I’m closing this window. I need to air out my polyweave. I’ve had it on since yesterday morning.”
Austin felt flakes of snow on his face. Finally, he snorted, wiped clean his eyes, and pulled himself over the window’s threshold.
Once their eyes adjusted to the darkness inside, the boys’ spirits brightened.
“Wow, Gavin! Your great-grandfather’s house is bigger inside than a homepod! You can’t tell so easy from the outside.”
“True!” Gavin smiled, exploring the cabin from room to room. “I don’t grip that junk,” he said, pointing to a rusted-out stove and doorless refrigerator, “but the rest of the place feels like home. Look, seats! And they’re wood, not plastic!”
Austin sat in a wooden chair. “Feels solid.”
Gavin zipped down his polyweave coveralls and hung them inside out on the back of a chair. He shivered in the chill of the house in only his underclothes.
“You see a climate panel?” asked Gavin, wrinkling his nose from the scent of his unwashed clothing and body.
“Ain’t no panels on the walls at all,” said Austin, “and it’s gotta be less than ten degrees in here. All’s I see on the walls are those tan-yellow rectangles near the doors.”
Gavin crossed the room to one of the rectangles and pushed on the part of it that stuck out slightly from the flat plane. The entire rectangle pivoted on a hinge, and an incandescent bulb mounted in the ceiling blazed to life.
“Score! Crunch, it’s so bright!” exclaimed Austin, shielding his eyes with his hand. “And it comes from a ball instead of a plate. Even the light is weird in this place!”
“I don’t see no panels, but I think this house is still online. Look,” pointed Gavin, gesturing into an open closet at a series of metal tubes and wires, “That’s a geotherm interface, right?”
“A what?” Austin asked.
“Oh yeah,” remembered Gavin, “You ain’t had physics class yet. That’s next year for you. Anyway, years ago, when we ran out of oil, we dug down into the ground to score heat energy.”
“But the ground is cold, Gav. How would you get heat energy out of it?”
Gavin shrugged. “Dunno. I don’t remember. The heat is deep down. I think the energy comes from the heat mixing with cold air from up here. Flux, or somesuch. I gripped it well enough to pass the test, but that’s all.”
“Wow, Gav. So this place is online. Very blast. Still, what does that matter when this place is way far from home?” asked Austin.
Gavin took a deep breath. “It’s ‘cause if you had enough stim pills, you could live in this house and not have to do a job! You could do whatever you wanted to do.”
“But not things that are not allowed. You wouldn’t want any violations,” insisted Austin.
“Oh, no way, Ace,” replied Gavin, but his eyes remained curious.
“Gavin, I got a bio need.” Austin squirmed in place.
“Let’s find the bioroom, then,” agreed Gavin.
The two finally learned to twist the bolts on doors to open them, and passed a closet and two bedrooms before opening a door to a room longer than a closet and with fixtures along its wall.
Gavin broke into a smile. “Recognize that? It don’t look much like the pisser in our homepods, but how could it be anything else?”
Austin pushed his friend aside and addressed the fixture.
Gavin scanned the rest of the bioroom. He pressed the buttons on the sink, but nothing happened. Finally, he twisted one of them and water gushed forth from the sink. The sound of rushing water stirred him to attention.
“Don’t take forever, Ace. I got a bio need too now.”
“Done.” Austin backed away and fooled with the sink, then opened and closed the wooden doors of the sink’s enclosure. “Still nothing, Gav. The bioroom works, but there are no sterile-sticks, no gelsnaps for your hair… no towels, even.”
“I noticed,” nodded the older boy. “People in the old times must have had rank breath and lame hairmakes. If they even cared about appearance at all.”
The boys emerged from their adventures in the bioroom to find the windows covered over in white.
“How long we been in here?” asked Austin.
“I ain’t got the time. My visor ain’t scoring, remember?” replied Gavin.
“It’s still daytime out, but darker,” said Austin.
Gavin twisted the bolt on the front door. The force of wind from outside pushed the door inward, landing a second blow on Gavin’s forehead. A grainy sheet of snow howled into the house, a frozen wave gusting behind it.
“Help me close it!” shouted Gavin.
Austin rushed to his friend’s side, and the two struggled until the door was shut once again.
“What now?” asked Austin.
Gavin breathed heavily. He scanned around the room, bright with the light from the “ball” on the ceiling and smelling deeply of wood. He remembered seeing thread-worn blankets on a shelf in one of the bedrooms.
“Now, we wait. I’m going to bed early. Sleeping in that polyweave bubble last night sucked. There were rocks on the ground under me.”
The next morning, Gavin swung open the side window to find that snow covered the house and enclosed the pair.
“What if the snow ain’t melted and we run out of stim pills?” asked Austin.
“Then we’ll dig out,” said Gavin. “If we don’t run around so much, our stim pills will last longer. Let’s rest today so we’ll only use one stim pill each. And there’s always our loctags, if all else fails.”
By noon, the boys ached with boredom.
“I wanna go home, Gavin.”
“I know, Austin. As soon as we can, we will.”
“Should we dig yet?” asked Austin.
“Listen,” said Gavin.
The boys fell silent and heard the howling drone of the wind. The sound droned on, subtly muted by the snowy shell around the house.
Gavin shook his head. “We gotta wait.”
Austin sniffed and nodded.
The boys found piping leading from the bioroom and from another water faucet in the main room near the mysterious appliances.
“Check out these markings,” said Austin.
Gavin squinted at the piping. “Cistern. I dunno that word.”
“Me either. It’s on pipes, though. Maybe Cistern is the corp that owns the water around here.”
Gavin smiled. “Hey, yeah! We used the bioroom, so we know this house has got water. Mega-smart, Ace. Not bad for a boy.”
Austin whined, “I’m only a year younger than you, Gav! I could hurt you mega-serious!”
“You’ve been workin’ up to that all week, Ace. You want to rumble? You taking your shot at me? If I crack you down, I ain’t in violation. I’m just defending.”
“It wouldn’t matter, because I’d win,” sulked Austin.
Gavin snorted. “Shut your face, Ace. You’re too much of a girl to start a rumble anyway. You couldn’t crack me.”
Austin waved off the subject. “Let’s keep searching this place. I want to find what we have to find to get out.”
Gavin nodded knowingly. “That’s what I thought. All right, then.”
The boys continued their exploration. Strange tools and implements filled the closets of the cabin, and a steel grating against a column of brick offered Gavin no clues to its function.
At last, Gavin shook his head. “I don’t grip it!” he cried to nobody in particular.
Austin returned from his inspection of the blankets in the bedroom closet. “What?”
Gavin’s nostrils flared. “Ain’t no stim pills, but except for that, you could live here! Everything you need to survive is here, and it’s all scoring! But there ain’t no dataport, so you’d have nothing to do and you’d die of boredom! It don’t make any sense!”
It was Austin’s turn to play the calm rejoinder. “So why dontcha just forfeit it, Gav? In a place like this, ain’t nothing to do except things that are not allowed. Good thing there ain’t no girls here, or we might be in violation already!”
“It ain’t that,” insisted Gavin. “If that was it, my father or my grandmother would have taken it and sold it. They refused to take this place at all. Something about my great-grandfather and the house he left behind was so bad they wouldn’t even take it for free.”
Austin trudged to the corner and kicked his foot casually against the wall. “This house sucks. No dataport and no stim pills.”
Gavin ran his hand through his brown curls. “True, Austin. As soon as the storm blows over, we’ll roll out of here.” He donned his polyweave coveralls.
Austin continued kicking at the corner, probing cracks in the wood and paneling, when suddenly his foot broke through the wall entirely.
“Gavin!” gaped the younger boy.
Dust clouded out of the hole in the wall while Austin gingerly removed his foot, avoiding the splinters.
Gavin crossed the room to the corner and squatted down next to Austin, peering into the hole. The two squinted and saw a glint of metal.
“Maybe it’s stim pills!” said Austin. Both boys’ mouths hung wide open in wonder as they pulled a long metal box out of the hidden compartment.
Gavin fumbled with the latches on the side of the box opposite the hinges, and finally the lid came loose. Austin pulled the lid away and set it aside.
“Books,” said Austin.
“Old ones,” nodded Gavin. “The paper is actually printed with ink, not pixeldye. These pages don’t change or update.”
“Mega-lame,” chuckled Austin.
The boys looked over the titles of the books. “Crime and Punishment.” “Paradise Lost.” “Atlas Shrugged.” “The Grapes of Wrath.” “Les Miserables.” “Animal Farm.” “The Satanic Verses.” “The Wealth of Nations.” “The Road to Serfdom.” The spine of the oldest-looking and most careworn book read, “King James Bible.”
“I never heard of these,” said Austin.
“I heard of this one,” said Gavin, pointing at the bible. “This book is not allowed.”
“Oh, yeah,” nodded Austin. “I remember that one too. That one’s been not allowed for a long time. Hey, Gav? What if all these books are not allowed?”
“It is possible,” agreed Gavin.
“Your great-grandfather was in violation!” gasped Austin.
Gavin paused, and then shook his head. “He’s long since dead. If the Council wants to punish him, good luck to them.”
Gavin felt a hand clutch his shoulder. Austin spoke barely above a whisper. “If this place is your property, then you are in violation. And there ain’t no make-up task out of this kind of violation. You gotta leave like your father and grandmother did.”
Gavin shivered despite the protection of his temperature-controlled polyweave.
“Please?” begged Austin. “For me? Let’s just leave. Let’s go home before we do something that is not allowed and we get stuck in violation.”
Gavin shook his head. “Can’t get through the storm.”
Austin sniffled, tears welling in his eyes. “Then can you just put the box back in the wall and forget about it?”
Gavin beheld the box, focusing on its contents with an intensity that belied his usual uncaring merriment.
“Good idea, Ace.”
The boys crawled over every inch of the interior of the house. They found more blankets, more strange tools and implements, and even a lever that would have opened the fireplace flue if they had known what that was. Instead, the fireplace remained shut, a book of matches sat untouched in plain sight on the mantel, and the two boys made a mighty mess that no inspector would ever see.
Dawn broke over the Colorado woods on the morning of the third day since the boys found the cabin, and the rays of light coming in the window woke Austin with a start.
“About time,” Austin said aloud to himself. “Mise well get going so I can check my messages before the day is out.”
Austin left the bedroom and emerged into the main living area, and froze suddenly in terror.
On the floor of the main room, with the open box and open books strewn about the floor, sat Gavin.
“What are you doing?” squealed Austin. “You are in violation!”
Gavin looked up from his book and caught Austin’s gaze with somber eyes.
“‘If I were told, love thy neighbor, what came of it? ... It came to tearing my coat in half to share with my neighbor and we both were left half naked ... Science now tells us, love yourself before all men, for everything in the world rests on self-interest.’“
Austin panted in panic. “Is... is that from the book?”
Gavin nodded. “I’m not sure I grip it, but somehow I know it’s right. I know it’s true. And not a ‘feeling’ kind of true, but a ‘thinking’ kind of true, like really gripping it tight.”
Austin shook his head. “I don’t grip it.”
Gavin turned to another open book. “In some places of poverty, one half the children born die before they are four years of age; in many places before they are seven; and in almost all places before they are nine or ten.”
“But what does that mean, Gavin? Why are the children dying? Does the book say? What’s a ‘poverty?’ Is it another country?”
Gavin shrugged, turning to another book. “‘The principle that the end justifies the means is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals. In collectivist ethics it becomes necessarily the supreme rule.’“
Austin’s head swam. “This is not good. This is not allowed! Listen to those words, Gavin! ‘The denial of all morals.’ I don’t grip what that book means, but you can’t deny morals or you’ll be in violation.”
Gavin held up his hand. “Relax, Ace. I’m not denying anything. I’m just reading.”
Austin trembled visibly, bracing himself against the silent oven. “But Gavin, these books teach you violations! They are not allowed!”
Gavin shook his head violently and rolled his eyes. “No. They ain’t teaching violations at all! They can’t be, because these books don’t even agree with one another! That means if one of ‘em was teaching violations, the others couldn’t all be.”
Austin wiped his nose and struggled for words. “But it’s all so horrible!”
Gavin nodded gently. “Yes, a lot of it is. Listen to this one. I don’t even grip half of it, but there’s no mistaking the general idea. Listen:
‘In the day thou eat’st, thou diest;
Death is the penalty imposed, beware,
And govern well thy appetite, lest Sin
Surprise thee, and her black attendant Death.’“
“Stop!” pled Austin.
“But it’s not all bad, Ace,” said Gavin. “Some of it is beautiful. So beautiful I have no words to describe it but to repeat the words themselves.” He picked up another book. “This page was marked, and someone underlined this part: ‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.’“
“Violations!” choked Austin. “You can’t say that! Old stuff about ‘God’ is definitely not allowed! That book is the most not-allowed book of them all!”
“Why not?” demanded Gavin.
“Well... because! You remember what they said in Social Studies. The followers of God tried to force everyone to live by the rules in that book!” Austin pointed at the King James Bible. “They tried to control America, so now God is not allowed!”
“But the book don’t say anything about that, Austin! All I keep seeing about God and this Jesus guy is ‘love one another’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘forgive your brother seventy times seven times.’ Does that sound like ‘forcing’ people to do bad things? Does that sound like trying to ‘control’ anybody?”
Austin grappled with the concepts. “But what if someone didn’t want to follow those rules? What did the followers of God do then?”
“No idea. But, wait a minute!” Gavin held up a finger and whirled to another book. “This other book says differently: ‘For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbors. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it.’ If the followers of God had really tried to control America, how would a book like this one exist?”
Austin’s mouth opened and closed, but no words came out. Finally, he shook his head and shrugged.
“Yeah, now you’re gripping my issue, Ace,” said Gavin, “the thing that’s got me pissed. I’m getting more than a little upset that I’m about to go on to college and I can’t grip every third word in books written over a century ago by people with less education than I have. Why do they know all this, but we can’t? Anyway, I grip ‘your life belongs to you’ well enough, and if that’s the truth, why is knowing the truth not allowed? And if that ain’t the truth, then why should anyone care whether we read it? Something isn’t scoring here, and I think these books might have the answers!”
“Just leave them!” urged Austin. “The storm is over. Put the books back into the box and put it into the wall and let’s forget we were ever here! What do you care about books and writings when we could be back at the homepod playing Tri-Sport Tournament 8?”
Gavin slammed the cover of his book shut. “What’s your problem, Austin? Don’t you grip what’s going on here? This is something very important! You may not care about it, but I do, and I ain’t gonna let this drop until I find out the answer!”
“Oh, yes you will, Gavin! You better drop this or else I’ll inform! You’re in violation!”
“So that’s how it is?” growled Gavin. “You’re going to inform on your best friend? Yesterday you wanted to rumble, and now this?” Gavin shook his head sadly. “All right, I guess. If that’s the way you want it.”
Austin turned to leave, but then stopped himself. “Wait a minute. What do you mean, ‘if that’s the way I want it?’“
Gavin shrugged and brushed dust from his hands. “If you inform on me, I’ll have to inform on you. You’re in more violation than I am. Fair is fair, Ace.”
“I ain’t in violation!” snapped Austin. “I ain’t the one doing things that are not allowed!”
“Aren’t you?” asked Gavin. “Who found the hole in the wall? You did. Who helped me pull the box out of the wall? You did. Who opened the lid? You did. I could never have read any books if you hadn’t done all that. That means if I’m in violation, it’s because you were in violation first!”
Austin’s face darkened. Tears of rage welled up in the corners of his eyes.
Gavin smiled, “You know it’s true, too, Ace, so you can’t deny it or you’ll fail the truth screening. You know that if you hadn’t kicked through that wall, none of this would have ever happened.”
Austin’s jaw clenched, his breathing became shallow, and his face and ears reddened.
“Sorry, Ace,” continued Gavin, looking out the window into the beauty of the pine forest, oblivious to Austin’s mask of fury. “I guess you’re just gonna have to help me bring these books back home and hide them, and you better never tell--”
Austin threw himself upon the older boy, slamming him to the ground. The two scuffled and fought, damaging nearby books with their wild kicking and thrashing.
Gavin landed fierce blows on Austin’s cheeks and shoulders, but Austin slowly and steadily wrested his hands toward Gavin’s neck. The older boy struck again and again, drawing blood from Austin’s face and arms, but Austin held clenched his jaw and tightened his grip around Gavin’s throat.
Finally, Gavin’s gasps for air choked off into silence, and his eyes rolled back in his head. Beneath Austin’s adrenaline-fueled grip, Gavin’s body became still.
Austin released his grip and fell back in shock. His arms trembled and his breath came in panting quickness. He half-crawled, half-staggered away from Gavin’s body, and finally sprawled on the floor, a book wedged under his back, drained of his burst of energy.
Later, after hours Austin could not measure, the younger boy sat up wearily and dropped a stim pill into his mouth. He refused to look toward the other side of the room. Toward Gavin’s body. Toward his best friend’s dead, murdered body.
Breath came quicker and quicker. Austin let fury well within him until crimson blotches stained his face. He lashed out at the other half of the house.
“Oh, crunch! You just had to do it, didn’t you!” Austin accused, still facing away from the body.
“You couldn’t just leave. I will not be in violation! I will not be taken away!”
Austin’s eyes widened and his face drained of color. “But... no!” he insisted. “It ain’t my fault! You made me do it! I ain’t in violation! You threatened me, Gavin! It’s your fault, not mine! But I threatened to rumble yesterday! Now this, and I… Oh, crunch! Oh, mega-mega-crunch!”
But Gavin did not answer.
The whine of the breeze through the pines echoed in the silence around the house, filling the building with a sound like breaking waves.
Austin gulped, his breaths coming faster and deeper. “That’s it!” he sniffed. “I’ll just tell them that you found the books, and that you attacked me when I said I would inform on you. Once they see the books, they’ll have to believe it!”
The younger boy blinked hard, tears flowing, and whimpered plaintively. “Oh, it’s no good! I’ll never pass a truth screening! I’ll be taken away! I never wanted any of this! I shouldn’t have even come here! I hate you, Gavin! I hate you so much!”
Austin turned toward the body and saw the betrayal frozen on Gavin’s face. A shock wave convulsed his body, and he retched, with nothing to empty from his stomach after subsisting on a diet of stim pills. Over and over again Austin retched, sending streams of spittle down the front of his chin and chest, until his knees gave out and he collapsed in a heap.
A ghastly whine built up in Austin’s lungs, building to a vile requiem of wailing guilt. Gazing up at the garish brightness of the incandescent bulb, Austin suddenly screamed at the top of his lungs. He screamed louder and louder, his eyes bleary with tears. Again and again he cried out in anguish, and then again even more, assailing the night through his hoarsening throat.
When Austin’s cries finally died out in a splutter of coughing and heaving, he stared up at the bulb in the throes of an uncontrollable tremor. After what seemed to him an eternity, Austin’s shaking died down, and with gulps and gasps his breathing slowed. Dizzy, exhausted, and numb, Austin finally fell asleep.
When Austin woke, it was dusk. The younger boy staggered to the rectangular toggle on the wall and activated the ball of light on the ceiling. He dragged himself to the scattered books around Gavin’s body and slumped to the floor.
“I’m sorry, Gavin. I’m so sorry.” Austin sobbed and sniffed, but he had no tears left to cry. His cheeks and eyelids festered with redness, raw from rubbing.
Austin took a book from the floor and turned it to the first page. His progress was slow, but the house was two days away from the Cheyenne conduit. They had to know that Gavin’s loctag was offline, now. They had to have known for hours. They could be a day away now.
Austin turned another page and struggled to put meaning to words that he had never been taught to know. A day away, Austin reminded himself. He had that much time, at least.
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