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The Canary in the Coalmine called Cassandra

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Rain on rusted tin roofs in a pre-morning haze. Dead grass and dead vehicles littering little yards where garbage fires gutter fitfully, puddles awash in the low red bias glow of adjacent districts leaking over the parapets.

Home for Noé Abraham wasn't much. What had been a "zero asset man's refuge," this narrow strip of land under the elevated rail lines heading into Central from the ammo dumps - devoid of services and therefore citizenship and its associated subscription costs - was now, if possible, even worse a place for a man in his forties. Past his physical prime, more gray than brown in his beard, a young former prostitute he called Angola his partner, a baby named Ty his son, a corrugated metal shack with a mechanic's toolkit and a mattress his home.

In fact, it was for the birds.

The Corvids had come to roost, bribing the train operators to throw ordnance over the side in transit. Ever ramping up for their glorious revolution.

Angola was shaking his shoulder, rousing him from sleep.


The baby was asleep between them, mud red eyes shut in their sockets. What was wrong?


"What!?" He hissed. "Is it flooding?"

"Cassandra. It's on."

Noé had no idea how the Corvids got the Canary. A ubiquitous sight in "restless" districts, Canary agravs were tall, roughly cylindrical flyers propped awkwardly on tire struts that could have been nothing other than a design retrofit. An odd "bill" protruded from their fore amid multi-spectrum spotlights, serving as its primary control surface. They hovered in the black nights above Solo Nobre, Great Leader's omnipresent eyes and mouth immanentized in the sky. At some point the Corvids had acquired it. Retrofitted it. If you stripped out the comms package, the ECM and the sensor array, it turned out you could mount artillery on it - as Corvids would always do. But they had yet to pull the plug on the BBS connection - that was too valuable - and as Noé peered through his window at the shack which hid the Canary, he could tell someone had left the hatch open. Something on the BBS interface was blinking phosphorescent white in a dreamlike world of pooling blood. Noé knew this because he was the one the Corvids had pressed into working on Cassandra. He was the one who had named it - for he had been a history teacher like any other; a prophet unheeded.

In a moment, Noé was up, putting his clothes on. Angola was doing the same. Marvelously, Ty stayed asleep. As he dressed, he kept his eyes on the window. No signs of movement; no strobing shadows across the huddled yard which separated them from the agrav, their bundle of ramshackle structures erected against the district wall like so much flotsam.

Under the bed was a knife. Noé took it. Corvids viewed him as one of their own, but the BBS link was jealously guarded. Angola, her brown cheeks fierce in the night's glow, her tough, lithe body tense underneath her underwear, was coming with him, scooping Ty swiftly and expertly in her arms. The baby cried. Noé told himself how often the baby had cried in the night before. No one would care. Please saints, let no one care. Difficult words eked from a nonbeliever scraping for light in the dark.

Noé made his way across the yard, slipped in the doorway of the shed where the Canary slept, tangled in hardline data connections, power cables, and ammunition belts. The door was indeed open. The BBS display within the spacious compartment was luminous.

Behaving as one who might still think himself in a dream, Noé crept within to glimpse at what so bothered his woman. The readout was in the clear, written in a tongue he had studied:


Not for the first time, Noé felt like he was not a man, but a character on a stage, written already, tracing a path grooved in ink or coal. He ripped himself away from such fantasies. Tonight he, and Angola, and Ty, and Cassandra would very likely live or die together. And he knew all too well - he could try to run, but those who ran were the enemies of all. Those who stayed died... and sometimes lived. Noé had a choice to make - quickly. There, at the bottom, the line read:


Angola's eyes met Noé's, but she didn't wait for him to say anything before slowly, dreadfully reaching out - without breaking his stare - finding the door handle (Canaries had a full-blown door on the side - the hatch was up top), and closing it. Shut in the metal tomb, Noé felt trapped and safe simultaneously. The dim blue of the BBS display's cathode ray tube replaced the red glow of the night outside, illuminating the crew bay; a little bossed metal stage comprised of two leather seats on swivels, surrounded by banks of controls - most ripped out and replaced with ersatz targeting computers and autoloader configuration switchboards. Noe's mind absently fell on the smoke projector switches he'd been instructed to install only yesterday; the toolbox below the console where most of his tools still resided...

"What's a Brigador?" Angola whispered, searching Noé's eyes for the knowledge of past things she knew he had. Noé had told her many stories about Novo Solo before Great Leader. He hadn't told her about Brigadors.

"Amateur mercenaries dressed up as revolutionaries," Noé heard himself say. "Wolves in sheep's clothing. The SNC is back for Solo Nobre, but the big guns are stopping them from landing. Great Leader's purchases from the Spacers and his military spending make them think twice about landing far-side and marching over. Not cost-effective. They want to pay citizens to do it for them. In the past, they paid citizens to kill each other, to try to stop the revolution." It felt like recital of a history lesson, only it wasn't history yet.

Angola looked like she was trying to find fault in what he said. Noé was a former historian and cut rate mechanic. Noé was only a man on the margins; a nobody like her. He could not know these things before anyone else. But Angola was too level-headed to let prejudices get in the way of rational thought - he knew that if he stayed silent, she would eventually swallow the pill, however foul.

Eventually the tenor of her silence changed. The tension in her shoulders relaxed and she broke his gaze, eyes falling to her hands tight around the baby. This was despair.

"Perhaps the Corvids are hacking the BBS," she said plaintively.

Noé ignored it. "We are not taking this contract."

Angola nodded. Tears were forming on her cheeks, falling on Ty.

"We are not getting ourselves killed if the Corvids want to have their revolution."

She nodded again.

"And we are not going to run to the Novo Exército do Povo."

Angola looked up, fire in her eyes. "Don't bring my life and Ty's into the balance with your stupid politics, Noé," she hissed. "We can't stay here. We need help. If this is really fucking happening, we need help. You gonna take the Saints away from me, color them corporate slaves no better than the rest of us, and then say nobody alive can save us either? That you're some kind of God, Noé?"

That last was intended to sting him, and he knew she wouldn't have done it unless she really felt cornered. Truthfully, neither of them was sure the baby was his, although their relations were carnal enough. Noé felt like an uncle more than anything else toward Ty, and Angola knew it. Her natural distrust sometimes led her to test his devotion; suspicious of any man's claims to altruism. When the world closed in on Angola, she would test the floor under her for signs of weakness - she would jump without a second thought if she found anything. Noé knew. And though he truly was weak in so many ways, it was not the time to show any of that. Like he had done when he first met her, Noé was going to make himself into a lie in order to save her. But first, a little truth.

"The NEP is not going to take us. Even if they could, there's no guarantee they will even survive the next few days. Angola, if this is real, much of Solo Nobre is going to burn down."

Angola said nothing. She raised her eyes to him again, but this time it was the same way she'd looked at him when she had come to his door almost a year ago now, accusing him of fatherhood, holding the baby out in front of her. He wondered if she still thought that had convinced him. They had never discussed it, but her accusing stare had been a plea for help. It was now. She wanted him to tell her what they were going to do.

"We are going to hide, just like we are now. We are not going to get involved."

The two of them froze. Voices and footsteps from somewhere nearby, outside Cassandra, filtered faintly through the anti-spall fibermesh walls of their little doom closet. Noé's gaze flashed to the door lock - it was secure. Almost as soon, he heard someone try the latch from the outside, muttering something indecipherable.

"Angola," he whispered, "the switch behind you labeled 'PVS' - flip it."

She found the switch and toggled it, bringing a series of panels flashing to life in the same blue glow of the BBS, bathing the interior of the Cassandra in light that made it seem like a nocturnal aquarium display. Each was for a camera, covering the full 360 degrees of visibility the agrav enjoyed in remarkably high monochrome definition on a grid to the right of the pilot's seat where Angola was, between the two of them and directly right of the door. The man outside, his head blown grotesquely out of proportion to his body by the fisheye lens, was Carlos, one of the Corvid squatters - and a better one, if Noé was honest with himself. Not caught up in the revolution: quiet, level, and good at what he did, which was train tank crews in the legions they were cooking up out there, past the gates. A loyal Corvid, but not one who would string you up as a loyalist the moment he sniffed lack of revolutionary zeal in the wind. Behind him was Zaya, a rope kid pilot.

To anyone familiar with Corvid culture, little more needed to be said about Zaya. Only crazies would be willing to strap themselves into a massively overpowered agrav twin-engine with a seat - and then put guns on that and ride them into street fights with NEP patrols. She wore Giancarlo-style double glasses in the style of her hero - cheap abrasively-colored frames without any lens in them, the part of her face behind these totems a spray-painted cyan halo around piercing black eyes. A cultist, as Noé thought of her. She had a pistol in her hand, but she also looked drunk.

"They can't get to us before we get out of here," Noé said as calmly as he could. "Let's talk to them, let them know what we've seen - broadcast it on the terminal we're connected to out there..." he trailed off as he swiveled in his seat to face the BBS keyboard, punching in the commands he'd used to troubleshoot the cranky onboard main processing unit with Carlos only a few days ago. "It's the button right next to the headset wire jack." Noé heard Angola put the headset on. Good, he thought. Let's ease into this.

"Hi Carlos..." she faltered as Ty cried, and Angola lost her cool for a moment. In the camera view, Carlos froze, stopped trying the door as he processed what was going on.

"Angola? Open the door." He didn't even sound angry, only worried; perplexed.

"...look at the terminal readout, Carlos" Noé added. Carlos looked over his shoulder. An old man, his eyesight was bad from long, dark work in the mines. He stumbled over to read it. Zaya approached from behind, mumbling - vibrating, even. Not drunk, Noé realized as she got closer. Amphetamines. Even in the monochrome blue of the camera, the sight of her black hair streaked in rain and engine grease, her crow wing tattoos a stain on each shoulder, her movements reminded him of a predatory animal. Raised without parents in the Deads, so the story went. Hunted bear-dogs outside the walls with a lance. Noé doubted that last part, but the emotional truth of it was undeniable.

Zaya's eyes focused on the terminal screen, looking over Carlos with all of her dagger-thin two meter frame, turned with a jerk, and left, her back fading into the shadows of the shacks and rain as she headed for the garage they'd dug under the district wall's foundation.

"Come out of there, Noé," Carlos said slowly once he had finished. "If what this says is true, we need to get that skidmark Travis and his grease stain Yasmin in those seats; there's something we need a look-see at."

Noé could tell Carlos didn't believe a word of it, but he thought Noé and Angola might believe it enough to run with his bird - something he didn't want. Noé didn't have time for the games.

"I'm taking Cassandra, Carlos, but I'm not taking that contract. I want you to know that."

There was yelling, pounding on the exterior. What Carlos did after it was said didn't much matter to Noé. Angola's look did. Her body, normally fluid and solid all at once, silk stretched over a titanium frame, looked suddenly awkward and unimposing in the pilot's seat. Never called tall, she looked almost childlike now, except for her accusing eyes and the way her arms covered Ty. Noé knew he had to push her before fear overcame - not judgment, because Noé knew he himself was acting on instinct...

"I'm in here with you, Angola," he began; "I know how this rust bucket works, but you need to be the pilot. You have the reflexes, you have the eyes for it. I can tell you what to do, but I need to work the subsystems for you over here - neither of us has a jack; we'll work together."

"You're killing us," she said, her affect flat - but she thrust Ty into Noé's arms. This was Angola's way of agreement when she was afraid of failure - this way, if anything bad happened, it was all on Noé. The baby cried and struggled; it never liked him; could sense the difference. Noé didn't have time to address either of them, so he gripped the baby tight to make sure it didn't fall out of his grasp when they took off, and he took Angola by the shoulder.

"Everybody I ever studied was already dead, Angola. It was how they got there that mattered."

She turned from him with a sigh and focused on the controls, her eyes scanning for something that would make sense.

"The collective lever is by your left hand. It takes us up and down. The system power control is mine," he explained, and as he did, turned the knob that initialized the Cassandra's primary powerplant and control systems. Carlos' banging outside stopped.

Angola shuddered, but Noé continued slowly, as calmly as he could - telling himself this was the same as any maintenance check flight, wishing on the graves of the founders he had a smoke.

"Raise the collective, and watch that meter over there; don't get us above 200 meters."

"Why?" Angola asked, easing the collective up with all the evident apprehension of someone trying to lift a sleeping infant.

As she did, Noé fed the agrav plates their subsystem power and addressed some harmonics calibration issues he knew would be there, causing a wobble that would make any maneuvers more complex than this impossible. A low bass hum with a high thin companion warble emanated from the floor into the crew cabin. Noé listened to the hum more than the readouts on his control panel as he made adjustments; thought about how to break it to her.

"Above 200 meters, the automated flak towers kill us."


"That's not going to happen; I won't let it. I control the agrav plates. Just... be careful. The altimeter's over there."

The Canary rose, cables outside snapping off like so much cobweb. Sparks illuminated the workshop and Carlos' retreating form on the cameras. Noé raced to bring the shields online, knowing the main capacitor had been coughing up maintenance codes to his diagnostic screens ever since he'd started working on Cassandra months ago. The shields came on though, cracking and fizzing. Angola squinted, rolled her tongue over her teeth. Noé could feel it too - like the ionized air thunderstorms produced, only magnified until it made your bones itch.

"Cristo Maria e los Santos!" Angola swore in the old tongue, "what is that?"

"Hardshields," Noé intoned. "Brace for impact, but just keep pulling up on that collective."

Angola was good at powering through things. When Cassandra hit the roof of the workshop - a thin joke of corrugated sheet metal and rough-hewn wood beams - she barely flinched as the structure gave way around her like eggshell. The sound was terrific, the screeching of metal on metal and ceramic ablative skin, but then Cassandra was through, and all was silent except for Ty's frightened mewling. Below, the workshop collapsed into the hole they had risen out of, spewing rust-red dust in a cloud around them and out through the doors and windows along the ground.

Noé fumbled for the thin headphones of the set operator and put them on, scanned quickly through the frequencies like he was doing a spot check on the radio. In a way it was a blessing in disguise Cassandra had its comms package stripped out, because he doubted he'd have known how to use most of it anyway - probably would have ended up broadcasting himself on a government channel somehow The radio left was just a commercial transmitter. Its frequencies were full of normal traffic. If it wasn't for the fact his entire family was flying a hot upgunned reconnaissance vehicle in protected NEP railway, one could be forgiven for thinking this one more early morning night among many during the rainy season.

Then Noé remembered the guns.

All one had to do was look up. In the crew bay itself, forming a hump in the ceiling between Angola and Noé, a panel had been removed to reveal the massive breech and cradle apparatus of a cannon the Corvids had affixed through the front of the Cassandra. Stamps on the breech read "Autocannon, Mk II, 76mm. HE, SS-HEAT, HEDP, HESH, WP." A simple set of three gravity-fed ammunition trays were set into the rear wall of the crew compartment where the old stun laser fire control system had been; there were four green rounds, three orange rounds, and two rounds in the last bay - one white, one black - each hastily spray-painted their respective colors. Noé hadn't the faintest clue what any of them were.

Directly behind his seat was a maintenance access panel for the engine that represented one of the few relatively clear surfaces in the crew bay. Ingeniously, the handles for this hatch also constituted the first few steps of a ladder that proceeded upward into a tunnel in the ceiling terminating in a small turret with button-able slit viewports in all directions atop the Canary chassis. Noé had never actually been up there; that had been Carlos' work area since he was the weapons expert. He needed to see what it held.

"What's our altitude?"

Angola glanced over.

"Twenty six meters." The awkward wheels of the Cassandra would be well above most of the hovels and wrecks in the field below. Noé locked-in the agrav plates with the flip of two emergency switches he knew about, typically used by trained crews, he guessed, to recover from uncontrolled descents when pilots were incapacitated. These would watch the ground distance directly under the vehicle and adjust agrav power as needed to maintain that gap.

"I've set us stuck at 26, then," Noé told Angola. "Ease off the collective and nudge up that scrolling wheel at its top; that's the throttle. The cyclic is that joystick on your right; it does the turning. Get a feel for it, but let's get going."

Now he climbed up, carefully cradling Ty in his right arm as he went. One of the faults of the Canary design, as far as Noé was concerned, was its stupidly high profile and the resulting distance between the turret cupola and the crew compartment. Had the Design Bureau forgotten all sense when making what it considered an air unit for non-frontline work?

In any event, once up top, there was about a meter and a half of space below his feet, which simply rested in stirrups inset in the access tunnel he had ascended, his seat a cramped affair surrounded by still-included spotting optics and the controls system for a weapon he did recognize - the "Disco" seven megawatt laser. This was a good sign. Noé didn't know much about weapons, but he still remembered the news reports that had circulated on Parade Days years ago when Great Leader had first acquired these old Spacer weapons. If rumors were to be believed, a potent weapon, despite its small collimator. The battery readout on it was 100%. A spot-welded rifle stock jutted out from the turret wall behind the barrel of the weapon, cables dangling freely into crevices unseen, and a holographic targeting system installed atop a rail that looked decently-sighted, inviting Noé's shoulder into it, his one hand feeling the trigger's resistance while the other, with Ty carefully balanced on his lap, found the turret slew controls, rotating him at a decent clip.

To the rear, he saw Zaya's rope kid coming in fast in the gloom, its agrav plates glowing like cold hell reflected in the pilot's goggles, fixed as a big cat's might be on their prize.

Instinctively, Noé squeezed the trigger. A cold shiver in the base of his brain stem was terrified nothing would happen, that a safety or some other critical preparation would be forgot, but immediately a multifingered stream of light, blue like the ghosts of childhood dreams, materialized in the space between Cassandra and Zaya's rope kid agrav, boiling off so much rain between them that a cloud of steam formed instantly. When it cleared moments later, Zaya was nowhere to be seen.

"Noé, what was that?"

Noé had no idea. Had he just vaporized someone? Shouldn't there have been a stricken vehicle careening to the ground, or an explosion?

There was an explosion. It came from behind him - somewhere to the fore of their vehicle - a white flash followed by a wave of heat and an orange fireball. Particulate matter washed over the Cassandra's hull, pattering and skittering. Noé slewed his turret back to the front, taking his hand off the gun to press it against the struggling infant's body, holding it in place. Zaya's rope kid was there, shooting off ahead of them with sparks erupting from its top right near where Zaya herself sat. That was, surprisingly, the least interesting thing to behold. Instead, Noé's stare fixed on the gutted concrete walls enclosing what had once been a power substation tower the Corvid camp had been siphoning power off of. In its place, revealed by a ragged hole in the concrete several meters across, was a blackened tangle of wires and structural steel. The glow from over the district walls, at least in their vicinity, was flickering out.

Noé did not respect the authorities in Solo Nobre. Nor did he abide, necessarily, by notions of social responsibilities and contracts when such concepts were tainted by the corrosive nature of the oppressive state. Books had taught him contempt for things like these, long since internalized and calcified in his heart. The scale of what had just been perpetrated, however, made him forget that high-minded conceit. Unwarranted guilt by association gnawed at him; the self-incriminating fear of child whose disciplinarian father was out of the room when the crime was committed. The fault falls on whoever is there when justice is meted out. Knowing all this did little to help abate the remorse.

"I shot Zaya with the laser up here," he shouted down to Angola, "I thought she was trying to kill us. She was blowing up the power station instead; she's taken the contract."

For a moment there was silence. Noé would have been impatient with Angola for hesitating, but he was still fighting the urge to flee. Both of them knew the nearest gate in the district walls was ahead, where Zaya had been going. Staying on the tracks and heading back toward the other gate, further out by the city limits, was some twenty kilometers distant. In the time it took to get there the Corvids would have certainly found them - or, if they didn't have bigger problems by then, the NEP security post's soldiers, heading up the track to see who'd bombed their power station.

"We're gonna go over the wall," Angola announced, her mind obviously following a similar thread. "We can sneak over without reaching 200 meters... and I want to stay away from the gates."

Noé began climbing back down into the crew bay, terrified as he was to leave the Cassandra without another pair of eyes on the horizon with Zaya out there, wreaking havoc with whatever insane artillery she'd managed to weld to her hotrod on who knows what else. As he went he held Ty close to his chest; the poor infant's screams were coughs now; the heart beating palpably against his own breast. Thought was not coming to Noé easily. Which way to go; which wall to go over? He wasn't sure he remembered what was over the walls, not precisely... Angola could tell he was debating it.

"We just need to get higher; once we see where we're at, then we'll make the decision," she told him.

Noé nodded. The need to move was as much a block to logical thinking as anything else. Do, the mind screamed, you're a sitting duck.

Carefully, they adjusted the emergency altitude switches and rose again, just a few meters higher - the district walls themselves were only some 33 meters here. Their cameras panned past the train tracks, then momentarily blurred as the city skyline came into view. The rain was abating, and the cameras focused themselves quickly, offering a view Noé and Angola had seen before only mediated through other screens.

On the one side a gated community sprawled, all green grass and imported trees manicured like a golf course (perhaps it was a golf course - Noé hadn't paid attention to historical sports). Beyond the immaculate, invariant clay tiled roofs of estates, hovering over broad, well-lit avenues and beyond the far district wall which enclosed that absurd diorama, a darkness swept. Noé knew it was a finger of the Solo Nobre bay, but in the night it was little more than a blankness, an erasure that ceased where the far shore began, leading up into the neon-lit industrial parks and suburbs and from there, to countrysides still more distant.

On the other side the districts of the Outer Core leading into Central rose. A billion pink and red points of light, dotted with yellow ribbons and blue festoons here and there where signage loomed over the canopy of the city, the vehicle lights moving as lava might through cracks in the basalt firmament. Noé was always reminded of a glowering ember, or alien coral reefs luminescing as well they might under the unexplored ocean waves of Novo Solo; this human construction only a refraction of what had already been done here. It repulsed him.

And yet, fish hid in reefs.

"We'll lose followers in those narrow streets," he told Angola. But Cassandra didn't move.

Things were starting to happen fast, now. Across the skyline, from wherever the lights were dimmer on the ground, lime-green flares were shooting into the sky.

The color was close enough that Noé could guess what it meant, especially tracing their smoky trails back to their origins in the poorer neighborhoods. The sensor panel in front of him was reading noise from outside that Noé didn't hear, so he flipped the switch to patch in the outside mic. Raid sirens were wailing somewhere distant in the city, more revving up nearby even as he listened.

"Angola, flip that switch next to your headset labeled 'external patch'."

Angola did as she was told and heard the sound as well.

"Are you trying to scare the shit out of me? I already know what's happening." She flipped the switch back off.

"You do? One step ahead of me."

"Not what I meant..." Angola gritted out through clenched teeth.

Noé scanned the nearest buildings. There – one of the taller structures in the middle of the block was a communications tower of some description, larger than most such in the city, in fact. Its spindly cage rose above the rest of the city around it and offered a platform they could power down on and hopefully look like any other parked loyalist vehicle. And

"Head for that tower over there, with the communications dishes on it. Let's see if we can hide inside it and listen in on what else is going on."

Angola pushed Cassandra over the wall, gliding smoothly and directly toward the tower. A loudspeaker from somewhere nearby crackled to life, tinny and almost inaudible to her crew:

"NEP vehicle, identify yourself."

Angola, to her credit, did the right thing and kept moving forward at the same pace. Noé scanned the feeds but saw nothing in the green monochrome of the street below, so he toggled to thermals.

There. An NEP patrol bike, troubadour class. Those could be armed; this one had some kind of low-caliber machine gun mounted on it. The officer atop it was watching them intently, revving his engine.

"Halt, or we will fire on you!"

"Noé..." Angola started.

Noé dropped the altitude, and the Cassandra plummeted into the street below. Massive suspensions on the overbuilt tires strained as the 22-ton vehicle came crashing to the pavement, kicking up dust from the road all around the Cassandra. Ground cars jumped on their wheels and one parked inexplicably in the middle of the street, abandoned, disappeared under their front treads as the agrav's forward momentum dragged it down the street. Tracers flickered green in the dust cloud as the police came to the logical conclusion about what was going on. A few found their mark.

Fuck, Noé!" Angola screamed, "Bring us back up! Get us out..."

The air was forced from her lungs as he pushed the altitude adjuster back up and her death grip on the collective rocketed them back into the air. He topped them off at ten meters - enough to stay hidden between the buildings. Signs and wires crisscrossed their path at this level, but he knew Cassandra could brush it all aside, military spec as she was.

"Down that street over there," he wheezed, pointing at one of the feeds ahead. Angola obeyed.

Something passed big behind them in the air, leaving a contrail in the dust cloud. The treadbike, just getting started in its pursuit, vaporized in a flash, petrol fires splashing across the pavement in all directions in their rear view cameras.

"That wasn't us." Angola said flatly. "Tell me you didn't just kill an NEP."

"No," Noé confirmed - he didn't have to think very hard about who had. "But get yourself ready, because we might have to very soon."

As Cassandra pushed through the urban forest, Angola taking periodic turns to throw pursuit off their track, Noé took his shirt off and fashioned a sling around his torso with it, fitting Ty into it like a hammock. Then he took a look at the 76mm and figured out how to load one of the green shells and close the breech on it.

"Figure out how to shoot that thing. It's going to have a reticle when you toggle that switch over there, and the trigger we put on the cyclic where your index finger is if you slide it up. The hat on top under that lid is going to make the cradle adjustments so you can actually hit what you're going for."

Angola glanced down at her hand on the cyclic, thumbed gingerly over the hat and the firing trigger. Noé knew she studied fast - everyone from the street did. Remembering it when the shit hit the fan was another story, but there was nothing to be done about that now.

"I'm going up to man that laser again. I've got Ty secured a little better."

Then they turned a corner and flew right over a throng of several hundred dazed looking people in yellow raincoats, huddled around what Noé realized could only be the district's police station.

Noé shook his head - though perhaps it was more of a shudder - and forced himself up the ladder. Yellow raincoats were as old as the colony ships and they marked the surrender and suffering of the innocent in every war and whose faces from past lives might he see staring up at the killing machine he crewed over them? His sister's? Noé clenched his eyes shut and bit his lip until it bled. No sense going there. No sense - no sense. But below, Angola was not yet afraid of ghosts.

"Popping our smokes" she yelled in a way he knew she'd hit upon something to fight with; tones of anger and happiness married in her voice. He hadn't told her about those switches...

A sound like bubble wrap crushed all at once told Noé she'd flipped all the switches. Smoke canisters careened in every direction their projector tubes had randomly been bent to during their installation; jets of white cloud bounced off building walls and stabbed into the crowd below, turning the intersection into chaos immediately. Flashlights from below strobed through the haze in a crazed rush for every perimeter, joined by sporadic small arms fire from the police that had up until that point been organizing the crowd, no doubt waiting for Great Leader to tell them what to make of the evil portents closing in all around them. If Angola had wanted to sow confusion to throw pursuit off their trail... Noé almost slapped himself. Of course. Angola might not be experienced in every way, but in others she swam like a sewer fish through shit.

Through all, the Cassandra piled on the speed. Before they were clear of the smoke, Noé felt the inertia in his body pull him hard to the left, then to the right again - when they came out into the darkened street there were raincoats flashing lights everywhere below, in every direction. The comm tower was nowhere to be seen. Angola might be simply running for the sake of it, which practically speaking, wasn't a bad idea. It was up to him to keep a leveler head and find the comm tower they were after.

He slewed his turret in a circle, hunting the claustrophobic horizon of the rooftops for the spire of the comm tower - there, and miraculously closer than before. Now to reorient and bring his mustang pilot to heel.

"Whoa Angola, no one's on us. Tower's up on our right; take the next intersection and go straight until you get to the far district wall."

No response, but none needed. The agrav lithely made the turn, throwing Noé and his charge against his shoulder again, and straightened out. They sped past another treadbike pair busy corralling citizens below; their vehicle a blurred silhouette against the red-gray grain of the starless sky, aglow with ghostfire that the old might recall with fear and the young conjure from stories.

Noé's own hair stood up at himself and what he was doing. At the end of the street the comm tower grew in their rush to it, and the Cassandra jerked as Angola lost control for a brief moment to raise the flight ceiling controls he had previously been at, then reached back to handle the collective.

The Cassandra lurched up, slowed, and came to rest on the maintenance platform halfway up the tower's structure, a landing just large enough to fit the whole of the vehicle within the open structure of the tower. It groaned under the weight, but held to specs Noé guessed it had by looking at it. He told Angola to turn off the engine and power down, and after a few tense moments this too was accomplished, and they perched, another gargoyle adorning the walled city. Through every viewport in the turret, Noé saw the lights of vehicles tracing the streets below, and more ominously, saw flashes of what might be lightning out from behind buildings here and there afar, though the air was still. But the baby Ty was also still, and sleeping - exhausted - and nothing eyes could tell him suggested they were noticed.

Temporary escape could only evince a grimace from Noé, though. One could hide within a target only for so long.

A target, a hideaway, and a window with a view to what in the seven hells was going on. It was a moment's work for Noé to slide down the ladder, hand over the baby to a stony Angola, pop the hatch, jump down onto the maintenance platform of the tower, and find the terminal to the city BBS. The adapter plate in the side of the terminal was still there - and Cassandra had what was missing. The old mechanic went back into the Cassandra, sweating profusely with hurry in the muggy atmosphere which hung dead and cloying about them. Rummaging, he found the spare extension cable stowed in one of the tool cabinets in the cabin, yanked it from its spool, clambered back out, and screwed one head into the terminal, the other into the side of the Cassandra after removing the frayed remainder of the previous cable, which they'd had to pull free of on their ascent from the Corvid hideout.

Back in the cabin with the door safely shut, Angola lit a cigarette she'd somehow procured and Noé leaned over the blue screen of the terminal once again. The BBS menu was of course swamped with many posts copying or commenting - mostly hasty, brash disinformation from the government - on the Brigador Contract, as it was apparently being referred to. Noé knew about the contract. He wanted to find out what else was going on.

Only a few posts from the government far below the first menu screen were unrelated; one appeared to be governmental but upon inspection turned out to be someone posting apparently incoherent ASCII soup followed by the line "The ANTIpodes of Eixo lies in bLOoD but u can hitch a starry ride there." The only implication Noé could draw was that the government was clearly not totally in control of its networks tonight, so he tabbed on to the next post down, which was a message concerning a Spacer kill squad apparently captured in Central. Apparently the NEP badly wanted someone to know, because the mere admission Spacers could be on Novo Solo, let alone anywhere in Solo Nobre - let alone running around in Central - was a severe departure from the Official Narrative. Noé tabbed on. The third and final message before the previous days' was a rote notice to allow trains outbound from the city but halt all inbound traffic regardless of purpose. So someone thought it was worth running, or at least hedging their bets. The city felt more like a trap all the time.

"What is it?" Angola asked, reading over his shoulder. She was not the most literate, so he had been scanning much faster than she could keep up. Thoughts raced through Noé; calculations on this woman he sat beside. How well did he know her? He dumped the output to local storage and shut the terminal screen off.

"What was that?" she repeated around her cigarette. "Who's winning?"

"The government's on its back foot but still standing and putting up some kind of fight; I don't know how much or how well. It seems like there are problems everywhere in the city and we're sure to find gates closed - or open for the wrong reasons - everywhere we could go."

"I don't want to stay here. We have to keep moving."

"That's a good feeling; I agree with it. I just don't know where to point you."

A distant blast like dynamite going off in an immense cavern interrupted them - the starboard video feed showed an orbital gun on the horizon firing up into the sky; something neither of them had seen or thought they would ever see. Dust quickly obscured the gun on the horizon. The tower trembled slightly. Angola forgot to take a drag on her cigarette. Noé interrupted the reverie to refocus their minds on something of a scale they could manage; bugs needed to focus on bug problems; not the boot coming down on them they were helpless to prevent.

"I can still try to take a look at the radio; that's also accessible if I climb out and switch terminals on our cable, but I won't know how to descramble it, so unless someone's broadcasting clear we won't learn much beyond what the volume of traffic looks like."

It wasn't clear that Angola understood him, so Noé went to open the door without her reply. As he did, however, she spoke up.

"Was the contract still posted?"

Noé forced himself not to pause or give the question credence.

"The government says it's a ruse."

"Then you know it's real," she replied, and exhaled all her smoke at once.

Noé broke her gaze and went to the radio terminal, trying to focus on something that made sense to him; something productive, but everything was scrambled, ciphered beyond recognition. There was plenty of traffic, but it was all noise, anything related to them a star's glow lost against the background radiation of a government going nova.

With a real security clearance, Noé knew he might be able to pull information about whether certain gates were open or shut in the city, giving him some insight into where the fighting between Corvids, brigadors, and NEP might be heaviest. Without that, the BBS and radio were of little use.

Noé's inclination was to turn the city into a machine in his mind and imagine how it might fail; if one thought of the Corvids as a high pressure explosion coursing through the fuel of the poorer areas, they would break through the gates and the sewers into the places that offered them the most room to expand - the freeways and train yards would be a natural conduit for any large group trying to go anywhere in the city - and they'd want to go to Central, to decapitate despots and ravage their oppressors. The roads would get them there, at least to the walls, but the roads would also be choked with another, secondary explosion - the refugees.

Corvids were willing to crush just about any individual under the juggernaut of their glorious revolution, but even they generally understood the need to keep from massacring innocents in order to maintain the facade of a moral high ground. There'd be a few nuts here and there, but by and large they would be slowed - and their fanaticism wouldn't allow that. They'd branch out into the surrounding areas from there, pillaging. And at some point, the NEP would get their conscripts organized enough to mount some kind of concerted effort to put this fire out - likely with overwhelming, indiscriminate firepower. Wherever that went down, Noé and his family needed to be far away.

Walking to the edge of the comm tower platform, Noé looked to the city streets a few hundred feet below. Groups were exchanging small arms fire somewhere to the east of the district, near the gate, and yellow raincoats with bobbing flashlights streamed in clumps and lines away from there, seemingly having abandoned any notion of organizing for evacuation at the regional police office. It would only be a matter of time before the first NEP heavies arrived, or the Corvids - and then both would be here, and they'd start to tear this district to the ground. It was far too close to the poorer zones and the upper-class at the same time; a veritable no-man's land for class warfare. Give it a few weeks' time, and if no one had clearly emerged the victor, the flattened, colossal wreck of turf here would stretch far and wide, studded with spikes sporting the skulls of traitors. To Noé, the nightmare superimposed itself over the slick monotone concrete of the city below in full, awful color.

The urge to run was overcome only by the suffocating feeling they were trapped in a cage, however large, descending into a lightless anoxic chasm.

Yet if eyes could not see whither they were headed, ears could hear. Noé's suddenly trained on a sound nearby, coming from an unknown source. A mechanical, low, reverberating growl - and almost familiar.

Noé's brain snapped to - it was heavy mech engine - something like a Touro. Far too close, never mind he couldn't see where it came from - Noé ran back to the Cassandra. Inside, Angola was still staring at the screen, rocking Ty gently. Noé shut the door loudly enough to startle the child, which sent a scowl across Angola's face.

"Psss! Don't do that!"

Noé ignored this, turning on the engine controls he was responsible for, taking the child back into his sling, and climbing up to the turret seat.

"Get that engine turned on, but keep the running lights completely off, Angola," he said, then remembered she wouldn't know where those toggles were. "Under the forward view screen, yellow capped switches - put them all down. And patch in external audio again."

The reason didn't need explanation - Angola knew this all meant imminent danger.

"I didn't see anyone come up on us in our video feeds..."

"Because you were busy looking at that damned contract. I heard a big engine nearby; we're not sticking around to find out whose."

"I didn't take it!"

Noé strapped in and got his finger on the laser's trigger. A quick rotation of the turret confirmed there was nothing as big as a Touro in any direction - he did spot a shield truck of some sort moving up through the streets a few blocks away, but this was absolutely not the source of the noise. Then he felt a big shield power on nearby.

"Angola, move!"

The Canary launched out of the comm tower at high speed. Angola shrieked.

"Behind us!"

Noé's turret whipped to face rear just in time to see the tower disintegrate in a shower of metal shards and concrete dust. Through this curtain, like a monstrous stage magician, a heavy mech emerged with a sloped top made mostly from cooling vents and gun barrels, pursuing them with long, loping strides. A Mantis; one of the new NEP designs. Where in the sainted heavens had it come from?

"Shields, Angola!"

The shields came up just as a pair of red lines drew themselves through the air between the mech and Cassandra, exploding against their shields with a snap like digitized lightning. Those would be the "Little Chickens," Noé realized; the nom de guerre for some of the latest lorenz-force weaponry to come out of the NEP design bureaus, and among the deadliest in the colonies. He fired back, his blue laser light playing over the immense shield face of the foe, but he knew his defenses would come down first. Whoever wanted them dead had nothing but the best. The pilot wouldn't make many mistakes. They'd have been trusted not to.

Then the Mantis lurched to the side; struck on its flank by a meteor that had come down one of the streets - someone from that NEP shield tank's group, probably. Friendly fire? But before the behemoth could triangulate its tormentor, another round struck it, popping its shields. The twin little chickens started up in full fury, perforating entire neighborhoods as the pilot returned fire. Smoke grenades popped in all directions.

Noé stopped firing; no sense in reminding anyone of his continued existence.

"Angola, find somewhere to go. Let's get out of here."

But Angola didn't. Without slowing or diverting their path, she rotated the Cassandra so that it was backing up, its finned nose pointed right at the Mantis. Noé heard her harness buckle snap open. Then the 76mm receiver slammed shut. Angola had seen Carlos cycle that gun before, when it was installed. Panic filled Noé.

"Aim high -" was all he managed to get out before Angola fired.

The shot wasn't difficult - perhaps two hundred meters - and the 76mm's trajectory was murderously flat. The round hit the Mantis in between its legs in a puff of smoke, spreading itself all over the armored gear housing as though inert for one stomach-churning moment before detonating. The housing scattered off in every direction, revealing the clockwork of the mech underneath - unscathed. Noé trained his laser on this and fired again, molten metal slag dripping away under the heat. The great legs ground to a halt. The chassis turned.

Angola wasn't at her seat; the Canary drifted slightly to the left in a lazy arc. The twin barrels of the Galinhas, red hot eyes gazing down at them, began to fire again. Noé's hand instinctively left the trigger to cover his baby boy helplessly against the onslaught.

Then a burst of something from down the block found the side of the Mantis, and rapped against it in a quick succession of solid hits. Nothing else seemed to happen, but the guns immediately fell silent. It struck Noé how odd it was an NEP soldier would have demolished a tower to kill them... unless whoever this was wasn't NEP - at least not anymore.

Another round slammed home below.

"It's dead, Angola!" She fired anyway. This time the round was HE; it knocked the battered mech onto its back, fascia blackened by fire.

“Fuck you! Fuck you, Fuck you!" Angola screamed.

The cabin was silent for a moment, but Angola turned the Cassandra back around and sped into a side street to hide.

"We could have just left him."

Noé was surprised by Angola's response - a sob through clenched teeth.

"He was another Brigador for sure, Noé."

Noé said nothing; it seemed like she would go on.

"There will be more."

Again he did not reply. It began to come out.

"It's not like your history. There's a bonus on casualties. On people."

"On buildings, Noé."

"On houses and stores."

"On Corvids and Spacers and the NEP."

Of course she could only know this if she had taken the contract. Rage built up inside Noé, but Angola shrieked hysterically, jolting him immediately out of it. She was losing the self-control typical of the street child, utterly terrified and coming off adrenaline. Someone had to remain cool. It felt lonely in their little agrav.

"Say something, if you know what to say! They want it all dead, Noé - all of Solo Nobre. Where does that fit in anywhere in your forbidden books?"

That was different than what he had expected. Surely the corporation would have wanted something from Solo Nobre... but what could it provide them? He had always believed it was the people - the workforce, always the historical source of power in any state system since time immemorial. On dark nights sometimes he worried Great Leader's propaganda vids were not entirely unhinged - maybe they wanted the natural resources at Solo Nobre's disposal; the accumulated capital the city itself represented. But now, plainly, they wanted to burn it all. No winners, either; no franchise puppeteering to explain it. Noé realized Angola had uncovered something he'd been blind to: the SNC just wanted Solo Nobre out of the way so they could start again, clean slate. Whatever it was, they didn’t want the people or the city, even if they weren’t willing to glass it in nuclear fire. Just the real estate.

Hiding had been the plan. Hiding would get them killed; just so much collateral. The nightmare: Noé would have to fight.

"You said you hadn't taken the contract." He couldn't help it.

"Not in my heart, Noé," Angola sobbed. Ty woke to his mother's pain and joined in. Noé smelled shit in his diaper. It would have to wait. "I wanted to know what they'd get, you know. What they're after. And the only thing they can even give is a ticket off-world, because they want to send everything else to the seven hells. Now you have to tell me - are you gonna help me get us that ticket and save our baby boy?" She yelled it through tears, over the infant's wails.

That meant there was a spaceport in their future... something unhinged stirred in Noé. He knew he wasn't doing the contract. The dirty truth at the bottom of his soul was he couldn't - even for the lives of his woman and this baby. The muddy red eyes in the little one cradled on him stared up and he feared finding accusation in them; couldn't meet the stare of an infant.

"Where's the nearest spaceport?" It felt like a lie to say, though it was only a question.

But while Angola wracked her memories of tricks past, Noé's mind raced into the ground. Almost subconscious, subterranean... like the memories of his father passed down, come back from two kilometers underground to haunt him.

Perhaps even now he was standing over his father's grave - that was the trouble with mineshafts and superstition - they ran under the living city, separate save for the ghosts that shuttled between them.

"Old Cascais" Angola blurted out suddenly. "The nearest spaceport is in Old Cascais. Behind a blast wall at the end of the office block there. Hasn't been used in years, but I've been through a maintenance door to the other side. There's a tug sitting on the launchpad."

Situated in a small valley with natural rock walls, Noé remembered, though that hadn't stopped the city planners from insanely building their own district walls within them, as per regulation. One of the first spaceports built... and ore hauling train tracks that led to... where? Blackness.

"OK," Noé said mechanically. "Fly us straight there. Maybe no one will have got the district's Orbital guns yet, and we can get the easiest contract of them all. If not, there's plenty hunting nearby."

Angola knew the ways streets connected to each other in Solo Nobre better than Noé ever would, so he let her figure that out. Neither did he jump back down from the turret to man what remained of the Cassandra's sensor arrays and recalibrate its shielding. Not yet - too much thinking to do, and too much flux to do it in without getting himself involved. That was something Noé liked about history: it could be frozen - the primary sources, anyway - and one could move around it, prod it, like a chess board half-shadowed, but amenable to peering. The present, on the other hand, invaded one's thoughts, intruded on postulates and threw them to the ground, helpless before the terror of indeterminacy.

Noé opened the viewports in his turret, letting in the streetlights wash over his face like waves, the gunfire and grunt of engines in the streets a rolling storm front. The air's wet touch was gone, leaving the heat and ozone and dry rubble dust. The historian himself was still. These were necessary distractions; justifications for his eyes and ears. The mind reeled on and far ahead.

It seemed bizarre and dreamlike that he was spending what were in all probability his last hours alive inside a jury-rigged war machine, even if he had seen this all before. What must Angola be thinking? In Angola's mind they would be off-planet in a few short hours, or doomed. What would she do to escape that doom? Noé forced himself to recall her tears and denial. If it had been any different he would have had her set him down on a rooftop somewhere, washed his hands. That certainty was dissolved by those tears; she might still want him to do what she couldn't for herself, because of the baby. It wasn't easy for her because he had told her stories for so long.

That was the moral weight of the historian; the storyteller - eventually, people you loved would make decisions based on your stories. Noé was at peace with this problem, at least. No human could take leave of stories - not even spacers.

Noé dwelt on that thought. Perhaps even spacers least of all... so long as cultures survived, their narratives grew more twisted and elaborate and self-justifying. Spacer culture was in fact only the attenuated end of a very long branch, insulated against outside argument in vacuum-sealed créches. And they might be there at the spaceport, he figured. Invisible, deadly as sharks come up at night out of the deep ocean to hunt the shallow reef for terrestrial prey. Thermal vision systems might spot them if they were on the move, but if they were there, they wouldn't be. They'd be waiting in hides because that was the story; they were hunters to themselves. Not in groups, and not in defense of anything in particular; they might even have let some Corvids or NEP through if they were hunting for bigger sport... like brigadors. That would certainly be cost-effective for the SNC.

Ahead, something like a dull flare lofted above the skyline, a glowing orb describing a lazy parabola. It disappeared again behind the rooftops, and a white flash strobed from where it had fallen. The streetlights flickered out. Immediately, they were rushing through a pitch-black tunnel through which Noé could see nothing, except at regular intervals the cross streets vivisected a district full of insanity, flashlights of the unfortunates milling in every direction, vehicles frantically changing position to avoid newly imagined threats bearing down on them.

Noé climbed back down into the main crew compartment and strapped himself in. He brought the thermal vision system back up and dropped their shields. Angola tensed as if to say, tell me what the hells you're thinking, but she didn't want to wake the baby.

"That'll be Zaya. She's been targeting the power stations because she wants the job done so she can get to the spaceport, too. Doing what the SNC wants will get her that, but we haven't done any work... yet. We'll want to follow her closely."

"And the shields?" Angola asked in a low voice.

"For the SNC to have the spaceport under their control, they'll need to have neutralized the district's NEP compliment, but with the gates up nobody terrestrial was getting in without a fight. They'll have used Spacers, and spacers will be better at seeing shield signatures than we will be at finding them. We don't want to be seen, but we want Zaya to light them up like a star."

Angola nodded and kept the Cassandra on its heading.

"We're headed right for the gate, but she had to detour to hit those power stations. We'll hunker down over there -" Angola pointed ahead on the camera screens, and Noé saw she referred to a pile of shipping containers stacked to the side of the gate (which was indeed down) in a fenced loading yard, "and wait. That rope kid won't take long."

Noé waited until they were over the fence so as not to destroy it and reveal their passage before he dialed their agrav plates down and let the ludicrous Canary tires roll to a stop behind the pile of cargo. The brief lull granted a moment to peer past the gate into the highway beyond. It extended beyond the range of the thermal vision; only a few refugees, bright little smudges on their screens, skittered off into the vanishing point.

Then the rope kid flew past them, not ten meters above the road. Buttoned down as they were, Angola and Noé barely saw the vehicle pass on their camera feeds, but he caught a glimpse of the rider - the woman was crouched low in her seat to streamline her profile like a racer. Zaya was going places fast. No time to notice 22 ton homemade death closets on wheels barely concealed scant meters away.

Almost like a trained team, Noé brought their plates back online, dialing them in to their accustomed height limit while Angola got them on the tail of their faster target.

"You said you wanted to light her up; go shoot at her in your turret; she's either got no shields left, or turned hers off too," Angola advised. Right. Noé practically leapt up to his gun. Once the woman put her mind to something, her approach demanded appreciation. All efficiency and killer instinct, without a hint of doubt.

The range on Zaya's agrav was rapidly growing, so he wasted no time in squeezing off a few shots. They went wide or didn't reach her, but they didn't go unnoticed. The air immediately wrinkled in a vague sphere around the agrav - shields up - and something slung beneath its chassis inverted its position, displaying a barrel of improbably enormous caliber pointed back at them.

"Swerve!" Noé shouted, and Cassandra jolted sideways, its nimble attitude adjustment plates coming in supremely handy in the adrenaline soaked hands of its young pilot: almost too fast to see, a red-hot bowling ball launched at them from Zaya's gun flew past, cratering the pavement and tossing raincoats like confetti behind them. The deaths didn't even register in Noé's consciousness.

"She's saying something over open comms," Angola reported. "Didn't catch it, but didn't sound very nice." The underslung bowling apparatus switched back to its original forward-pointing configuration and Zaya poured on the speed, leaving them well behind. Noé jumped back down - his legs were beginning to feel the strain of all this - and switched off thermals, since the highway lights were on a different circuit and still lit. He could see her take the ramp off up ahead - toward Old Cascais.

"That happens, too, in dreams," Noé whispered to himself. But by now he was no longer concerned about whether this was real; his words were only a prayer he could be wrong. For once the zero asset man's plans were proceeding exactly as predicted, which was almost more terrifying than if they had simply failed, like everything else in his life up to this point.

They followed the rope kid onto the ramp, and the medians turned to flower beds under the street lights as they raced on. Ahead, a gas station nestled against a gated community's walls glowed neon. Zaya zoomed off to the left, delving deeper into the district without any apparent interest directed toward her. Cassandra followed, Angola hugging the district walls and their floodlights out.

Nothing in the neighborhood looked touched; a parking lot across from the gas station was empty save a few cars here and there, their windows all intact, glassy under the sodium lights like a museum display after hours. Ahead, Zaya swerved again, crossing the path of the gated community's main entrance.

In an instant, the rope kid was transfixed by multiple blue beams which snapped onto its chassis, beatifying it at lightspeed. In the next instant, the road ahead was showered with the molten droplets of what had once been Zaya.

What happened next blurred in Noé's memory - everything past Zaya's death to the spaceport unfolded in a continuous, atomic mnemonic; an indivisible experience silent in recollection because utterly deafening in actuality; a continual roar of guns, engines, collapsing buildings, and the screams of infants which lost meaning and faded in the slipstream like any notion of time or thought. A nightmare.

Who had spoken when Zaya died? Noé could not recall. Cassandra turned nimbly away from the scene of her death and careened back toward the gas station as though chased by invisible demons. He'd lased the gas station - wasn't that depraved? How could that have been him? At the time it seemed logical; a simple escape. He had no memory of pressing the trigger; nor a single word to justify himself.

It went up, taking the neighborhood wall behind it with it, a fiery plume which formed a door into the rest of the remembrance in Noé's mind. The Cassandra passed through the flames. Its shields on now, it crashed through trees into a park - something like a soccer field, but littered with what he could only now recall as golf carts. Over it loomed a far concealment hedge and another wall, trapping them once more - but towering above that, one of the Orbital guns.

They'd blown up the gun and its volatile ammunition stores to get through that - and on the other side, as the panic walls shot up from their recesses in the road surfaces, closing off their line of advance yet again, they'd found themselves in the midst of an NEP force recon patrol. Perhaps a hundred infantry, a dozen Mongoose powersuits, a few "Fork" leg units, a Scarab support vehicle, and - Noé was sure he'd remember this until he died - one of those massive Tinkers with the twin main guns bringing up the rear. The bastard.

Fighting commenced immediately. With one round in the chamber when they had come through, Angola had fired point blank into the nearest Fork, explosively disassembling it. Infantry lasgun fire sprayed the air, so they had dropped down, crushing a few under their chassis, sliding across the asphalt - too far! - into the glacis plate of the Tinker. Its long gun barrels pinned to one side of their Canary, it popped smoke in all directions and began backing up; Noé had re-energized the antigravity plates to claw for altitude, hoping the guns couldn't climb fast enough.

Not enough. The tank had hit them dead-on, one of the shells popping their shields to let the other through, detonating some reactive armor the Corvids had welded there and exploding itself. All the video feeds on their right side had gone out. Cassandra ducked down a side alley that miraculously seemed to open up at their side then, leading them into a dense urban block, weaving through high rises as the Tinker's guns chased them, hammering the buildings apart, its chassis ripping through any detritus on the street, inexorable.

Noé remembered suddenly feeling oddly unconcerned by the monster tank; where had the other Fork gone? The Cassandra came out of the commercial block and over some wide gauge train tracks; the absence of the customary panic walls here at the safety fencing around them made all the stranger by the sight of another orbital gun tower - and without remembering how, Noé's laser turret had slewed left, to their blind spot, catching the Fork in his sights. It fired first and missed, so the Canary's laser chopped up its shields - just in time for its main gun to send the orbital gun up in a massive ball of fire. The fork disappeared in Noé's memory then - caught in the blast, the Cassandra had been thrown through the safety fencing on the far side of the tracks, coming down with power knocked out and ripping through a semi truck in a parking lot, dead in the water.

Onward came the Tinker. The memory was timeless, silent as ever. The guns fired, somehow missed. Maybe something to do with the dust of all the rubble, the flames everywhere, or the twisted pile of metal the stricken Canary had nested in. But to make sure, it would run them over. Noé knew this; that was old hat for NEP tread heads - turn the dissidents into zippers under their tracks. Wash their remains down the sewer drains. Down into the earth, with his father.

They had not died. Angola had done something below, and the Cassandra sprang into the air as the Tinker closed within a few dozen meters of their position, shedding sheet metal and car parts as it rose far above the gun elevation of the tank, which simply stopped. The Canary turned to fire - but needed ammunition in its gun. The laser practically useless against the tank, Noé dropped down to assist; loaded the last green shell. No sooner had the action eaten the round than Angola had fired. The explosion shattered one of the Tinker's guns, but the tank only backed up, firing more smoke canisters to retreat into.

Not a sound: Noé remembered the vibration of its horn echoing in the streets, furious.

The sweaty feel of his fingers on Angola's shoulder - was it from the bedroom the night before, or had it actually happened then? Noé remembered the monochrome light of their little death closet on their skin, in the beads of sweat rolling between his fingers. Imploring her. Angola turned away. They would not pursue; they would flee. They would live.

This almost killed them. Crossing the street, the Canary slipped behind an apartment block, putting as much between itself and the general location of the enemy as it could. Ahead, however, an opening in the buildings appeared; a plaza with a huge statue of Great Leader in it stretched between them and the safety of the next row of apartments. In the nightmare, time dilated. They crossed - and the Tinker did not miss.

The tank crew had backed up to the street which terminated in the plaza; waiting, guessing what the Cassandra was here for; that they would have to come back this way. The shell holed the laser turret - mercifully, it was some kind of nonexplosive round. Shattered metal fragments sprouted from Noé's shoulders and head like some kind of grotesque window garden grown in time lapse. Something sliced Angola's right eye and cheek open instantly, baptizing the infant Ty in its vitreous liquid - but no blood. Noé would never forget.

The Cassandra spun from the force of the strike, but Angola's hands were still on the controls - she probably didn't even know she was half blind yet. She was acquiring the Tinker in her sights, so it was simple - load the next round. There were only two left - black and white. Noé chose black. Reached over to steady Angola's hand.

The shot was taken as the Cassandra drifted behind the apartment building, so there would only ever be a glimpse of their kill, but the round placed true in the middle of its glacis plate - a flash of light and a puff of smoke - and the tank simply stopped moving in the middle of the road.

Noé was still wiping the blood out of his eyes and picking tiny metal daggers from his scalp, dreading the feel of brain tissue, when he felt the Cassandra stop moving. In the forward camera sat the Tug on its launchpad, running lights on, helm viewports occupied by shadowy figures he could not make out.

Now for the final, mad deceit.

Angola plainly wanted to do something; she was half out of her seat, leaning toward the Cassandra's door, her other hand dialing down the agrav plates as she'd seen Noé do until their fat tires rest on the launchpad surface, going through the motions to get this all over with, like rape. It was obvious the pain of her injuries was starting to affect her. She went to open the door, but Noé's hand was on her shoulder.

"Ty," he intoned. "Give him to me before you go out there."

Before Angola could reply, another voice – cold, low resolution, inhuman – emanated from the space tug.

"Congratulations, Brigador. Your current off-world earnings will be transmitted to you." The voice paused.

"While SNC operations are underway on this planet, you may be... eligible for further opportunities. If, however, you require immediate medical attention, you may terminate your contract and exit your vehicle to consult with our shipboard experts for a nominal fee, to be followed by a flight off-world."

"Something's wrong with my sight..." she began, pulling away.

Noé's fingers pressed into her shoulder, reminding and restraining her.

"Ty, Angola. Give him to me, and go get help. I don't trust them far enough. When I see that you’re taken care of, then we'll come out, too."

She made eye contact with him, such as she could. Two characters on a stage, under an isolated spotlight, watched for plays of emotion under bloodstained brows.

Did she guess? Noé knew she didn't. She wasn't stupid; it wasn't like she didn't know him; know he'd never give up his principles completely. She was just hollowed out, looking for hope where she'd previously found it - like a ghost returning to a plate of food it was eating when its reckoning had come. Lips moved, but they could not partake. Her brain probably knew, but it shielded her from that knowledge. She unwrapped Ty from her bosom and handed him over. Noé bound the boy to himself, sat back in the pilot's seat, and gazed into those mud red eyes. If there was accusation or accolade there, he didn’t see it, which was best.

The door opened for Angola, and she stepped outside, then closed it behind her. Noé watched for a few seconds on the cameras to ensure she was moving toward the tug under her own power, putting up a convincing act. Bathed in the yellow of that great ship's running lights, she was made a silhouette of anyone. Noé got up and went to the 76mm cannon's last shell - the white one.

No matter what this ammunition was, he doubted it would make it through the reentry-shielded hull of the tug. Very little would. But that was not what he'd have to do, because when Angola approached, the door would open.

And it did.

And Noé loaded the shell.

There were figures - all black and anonymous to Noé - in that bright doorway at the side of the ship where the hull swung down to form an embarking ramp. And when Noé adjusted the gun's aim, the clever watchers in the ship took note, and the little men scrambled as the ramp began to reverse - far too slow. He fired. The shell burst inside the tug, a flash of pure white that spilled angrily everywhere within, sparking, furious, and caustic. The white phosphorus round.

The door closed, but the ship burned in its own atmosphere, cooking . Angola sat on the tarmac, limp, unsurprised, as the control room's windows at the top of the ship filled with smoke and the little bodies inside writhed, choking, and fell.

And now there was no reason for anyone to come here anymore.

Noé gathered her up - for she was too weak now even to hate him - and took her back to the Cassandra, which flew away down the train tracks.

These it followed, its running lights off, its frame low to the ground, until it came to a diversion in the track, which it took, and this declined into the ground. Those who had gone before that night had cast aside the barrier stones laid there once the old coal mine had been used up, and Cassandra followed them into absolute night.

This was as close as his father ever had to a tomb. Noé took a few turns in the vaulted, empty halls, past cowering forms in yellow rain jackets, and set his vessel down to wait for the owners of the ground over his head to finish what they had begun. He got out of the Cassandra and started walking, carrying his baby and holding Angola's hand, her eye no detraction here.

No one chased very long after zero asset men; there was nothing to take. And that was all the leverage remaining to keep what he most valued.