The woman isn’t dead. She’s sprawled across Paysandú Station’s cracked tile where she collapsed in a heap, the strike from the electristic still sparking across her back. Her bag skids to a halt a half meter from the alcove where I cower. It could have been me. It should have been me.
The station’s traffic flows around her, steps over her. A few humans give her a glance; the Dua try not to look. From the dank alcove, I watch her waist rise, fall; her limbs twitch, then settle. The drone—round, silver—hovers several meters above her. Taunting.
Something dark careens across the cracked tile floor. A human male appears to have kicked the back of the woman’s head, hard. I step forward, my fists doubled.
“Are you crazy?” My sister’s breath cools the back of my neck. Her fingers tighten, her nails dig into my forearm. She jerks me back. “It’s still up there.”
I shake her off as I realize it was the Dua’s dark head covering. Wispy white hair spills across the tile, and I run my hand absently through my own. “I can take out a drone.” She digs her fingernails deeper into my skin. “We can’t just leave her out there, Eisa.”
“It’s too late anyway,” she whispers. I hear the Authority bots first, a steady, metallic thunk, thunk, thunk. Two stop at the woman. One positions as sentry; its sienna eyes glow behind a dark helmet. The other bends, emitting a low whine, retrieves the tattered bag, then lifts the Dua in its subarms. Its hands curve around her wrists and ankles.
The Dua’s thin legs dangle as her head lolls back. Eisa gasps beside me. “Goddamn,” I whisper. “A child. Why?”
“They get scared.” Eisa loosens her grip and retreats to the stone wall at the alcove’s rear. Her blue eyes glisten. “Mama always told them. Humans know humans. They say it’s like this in all the cities.” She shivers, pulls her arms across her chest, wraps her hands around her shoulders. The last time I saw her, she was a child herself, standing very close to this same spot. Her face was blotchy and red from crying, and when I’d waved goodbye from the train, she’d buried her face against our mother’s shoulder. Mother’s eyes never left mine.
Now that she’s grown, Eisa’s face is like my mother’s. Elegant and open.
“Where do they go?”
Eisa shrugs. “These days, we can get most registries to Caracas, but the Station there can’t get them anywhere else, so we’ve been trying Montevideo.” She nods toward the backpack around my shoulders. “That registry didn’t come cheap.”
And you’re definitely cutting the line is unspoken, but I know it’s there. Hundreds of Dua wait for forged registries to a dwindling number of Republic of SoAm stations, bound for the American peninsula, maybe Morocco. Somewhere OnyxCorp isn’t.
“A child,” I repeat.
“Yes.” Eisa retrieves a drugstic from her pocket. She flicks it on and takes a light drag. “Imagine what they’ll do to you.” She breathes out a soft vapor cloud that encircles her head.
“They have to catch me first.” My voice sounds less confident than I intend.
She scoffs. “Caen. They’re looking all over for you. And you just waltz right in to the one place they know—”
“Our mother was killed.” Eisa looks at me as if I’ve struck her. I breathe in and almost choke on the station’s dank air. Synthohol, anxiety, a protein packet, nanosynthetic hair, fear, burning fossil fuel, anger. Dua and human and machine, a miasma of confusion and uncertainty. It’s my second trip to Paysandú Station in so many days, but only today do I see how everything has changed in those eleven years. I glance at the holographic signage above B Platform, a projection of a grinning human couple. Copy scrolls over their faces in bright red and black letters: OnyxCorp. From the Earth to the moon, making your journey to perfection complete. The woman’s toothy smirk spreads through perfectly generated red lips, her rounded features in sharp contrast to the man’s chiseled jaw and high cheekbones. Travelers walking beneath the hologram might imagine they could touch the woman’s hair as it flutters down toward the causeway floor. OnyxCorp. Generating perfection. The image fades until only the black O logo fills the screen.
“She knew you’d come back. She always believed, wouldn’t let anyone say otherwise.” Eisa takes another drag. “But you should never have come back, brother.”
“I suddenly had business here.”
“Not anymore.” She juts a thumb behind her, toward the bot standing at C Platform. “If they find you here, we’re all as good as dead.”
I’ve seen this bot type before. Subarms, armored torso, electristic at the ready. The mechanisms that attach its round head to its body are surprisingly vulnerable if you dare to get close enough. Or don’t have a choice. “It’s a Level 1, or a Level 2. You said they’re all here, in the station? I count six bots.”
“Level whatever. They’re all lethal. There were dozens here during the strike, but after–” Her voice wavers. “You can’t take down six bots, brother.”
“By myself, no. But there are hundreds—”
“We’ve tried that.” Her voice breaks, and suddenly she sinks to the ground. Her hand shakes as she brings the drugstic to her mouth.
“I’m sorry.” I settle on the broken tile beside her and pull her to me. “It shouldn’t have gone that way. If I’d been here—”
“It wouldn’t have made a difference. They’re making a move, Caen. We need to make ours. Montevideo is still using reclamation crews. They won’t realize how old the registry is until you’re long gone. From there, you can—”
“I know, I know. Find Lee Chou.” I pull her closer. She is solid, strong. But she is afraid. “If they’re starting to purge the small cities now, more will need to get out of what’s left of SoAm. You need help. Now that Mama’s gone. I should stay.”
She scoffs. “You wouldn’t last a week. And they’d take down everyone in Paysandú to get to you.” Another drone buzzes overhead. The station’s lights glint against it, and Eisa ducks her head instinctively. “You really want to help?” She scrambles to her feet. “Get out of here. Fulfill this destiny of yours.” She spits out the word. “Take that,” she says, pointing to the pack lying in the corner, “to the moon. Find our people. Like Mama said.”
I suppress an eye roll as I get to my feet. “You can’t seriously believe that old story.” I glance at the bot. No change. Its electristic emits a sienna pulse as it charges. “I don’t believe it.”
“Of course I don’t believe it. My brother, the only Dua who can save us all? It’s ludicrous.” She crosses her arms over her chest. “But if you stay here, you’ll die. And they’ll have their prize. Get out of SoAm. Hell, go to the moon. Maybe it’s all true.”
“Vagabonders. Original moon settlers. The fairy tales Mother told us at night.”
“Some tales are based in truth. Maybe this one is one of those.” She dusts off the seat of her threadbare trousers, and for a moment she looks exactly like Mama. Before Mama was the Paysandú Station manager. Before she had the lives of countless Dua children, their mothers and fathers, in her hands. Their dreams of a better life hers to fulfill if she can.
How many dreams had she foregone? Did she have any of her own?
I run a hand over my face. Hot as hell today. Hot and wet and close. “You’re scared. I get it. This,” I say, gesturing to the bustling station beyond our hiding place, “is scary. But it’s real. OnyxCorp is real, something we can fight, together. The Vagabonders—”
“You owe me.” The sharpness in her voice is Mama’s as well. I look down at the broken tiled floor. Tiny weeds and moss push their way through crevices created through time, neglect, apathy. “You haven’t seen it like it is here. You’ve been out there, in the places no one wants to go. You saw how OnyxCorp is working them, drugging them, keeping them under control. Where do you think those Dua are coming from? They’re gathering us up like never before. They’re realizing what we are, what we can do, Caen. And they’re scared. You know what they’re willing to do when they’re scared.” She grabs the pack and thrusts it toward me. “There’s some unfinished business on that digiscreen.”
Sighing, I take the bag, sling its strap over my shoulder. Its contents bounce gently across my back. My mother’s digiscreen, an artifact from a different time, a keeper of secrets. “Come with me.”
Eisa shakes her head. “Someone has to keep the station going. Maybe get a few more out—”
“You’ve done enough. We’ve done enough.”
Her arms are suddenly around me. I’m never going to see her again. My chest tightens.
“You are the wanderer, brother.”
“A Vagabonder?” My voice is harder than I mean. She pulls away and brushes her hand across her cheeks.
“Maybe. Probably not. Either way, what do we have to lose?” She cups my face between her palms. “I really missed you, big brother. Seeing you, though—” She shakes her head, releases me. “You’re going to miss your transport.”
I glance at the registry interface to my right, maybe ten meters away. Its electronic face glows faintly behind rushing silhouettes of men, women, and children. The bot across the causeway still hasn’t moved.
“I’m coming back for you.” I swallow against the lump in my throat. I hold her gaze. Our father’s azure eyes, our mother’s face.
“She always said this was what you were meant for.” She meets my eyes. “Go find our people. Make this right.”