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Authors: Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Tags: #Detective and Mystery Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Fiction

Masterminds (2 page)

BOOK: Masterminds
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Claudio didn’t understand this. He didn’t understand any of it. There were four years between him and Alonso, and sometimes that four years was pretty big. Like now. Alonso wasn’t saying something.

“What are you going to tell Daddy?” Claudio asked.

“I’m going to tell him I’ll go with the Wygnin,” Alonso said. “Maybe he’ll change his mind.”

“About what?” Claudio asked.

“Using the guns,” Alonso said. “Now get out.”

He held the door. Claudio knew better than to argue with his older brother, but he didn’t get it. If Daddy was going to shoot the Wygnin, then why would Alonso try to go with them? Mommy said Wygnin broke children and never gave them back. Mommy said it was the perfect punishment, and Daddy had goofed up really bad, but not to worry. The lawyers would protect them.

“What about the lawyers?” Claudio asked.

“They lost,” Alonso said. “If you don’t go, I’ll kick your stupid little butt from here to Valhalla Basin.”

Alonso wouldn’t say that if he didn’t mean it. He always kicked Claudio’s butt when Claudio got in his way.

“I want to stay,” Claudio said, but he was crawling over the blankets toward the door.

“No, you don’t,” Alonso said. He looked over his shoulder.

Mommy was sobbing. She was saying, “No, don’t, honey. There’s got to be another way. There’s got to—”

Her voice just broke off, followed by a big crash.

“Get the hell out of here,” Alonso hissed. He kicked open the secret side door—the one that led directly outside.

“What happened?” Claudio asked.

Alonso looked over his shoulder again. “I’ll…tell you later, okay? Get out now.”

Then he pushed Claudio, and Claudio tumbled toward the door, the jamb scratching his palms. He landed on the grass Daddy had been so proud of—
Real Earth Grass!
Daddy had said with pride, after it started growing.

Alonso closed the door behind him, and Claudio couldn’t even see its edges. That was the beauty of the room, but it meant that if Claudio went back in, he would have to go in through the front door, and there was something wrong in the house. Something wrong with that crash, something in Mommy’s voice he’d never heard before.

Besides, Alonso said he’d kick Claudio’s butt if Claudio didn’t go to that building. Claudio would tell them he wasn’t the firstborn, and maybe they’d understand, and then they’d come back with him to the house.

Claudio ran, crushing the grass Daddy was so proud of, into the trees that Daddy had special-grown as a barrier against the other houses in the neighborhood.

The building, old and dusty and built long before Claudio was born, didn’t look like it fit in. It was two blocks away, but Alonso said it got built when the secret room got built, back when people thought the Earth Alliance was abandoning Earth.

Claudio didn’t know what that meant, but Alonso did, and that was good enough right now.

Claudio thought he heard a scream, then thought that wasn’t possible, thought nobody screamed except when they were playing.

Only this didn’t sound like an in-fun scream. It sounded like a really scared scream.

It sounded like Alonso.

Claudio ran as fast as he could, and tried not to hear the wail that came from his house.

That was Daddy. Claudio knew it was Daddy.

And then the wail stopped.

But Claudio kept running.

Because Alonso told him to.

 

 

 

 

FIFTY-FOUR YEARS AGO

 

 

 

 

THREE

 

 

PEARL BROOKS SET
down her school-issued tablet, and opened the refrigerator. Nothing. No money until the end of the month. They were out of fresh food, unless Pearl gave up some of her stash.

Mom couldn’t work at her real job any more, not when they were on the run like this. And Mom’s corporation didn’t have Disappearance services.

The corporation is a nonprofit, sweetheart
, Mom would say, like that explained everything.
Disappearance services aren’t ethical
.

Neither was running, and living in tiny crap-ass apartments that had low-level refrigerators that didn’t even say when food was close to spoiling. Mom had cried when the expensive, local-grown eggs they’d been doling out spoiled before they could use the last of them.

Pearl hadn’t even known that eggs could spoil.

The breakfast dishes were still crowded around the sink. Even if Mom could afford a bot, she wouldn’t get one—
too risky
, she said. She believed bots collected information, and maybe she was right. It was tough enough to find an apartment whose super didn’t care if the in-house network worked or not. And the place was a mess—one bedroom (for both of them), a living room that wasn’t big enough for living, and a kitchen so small the table had to be moved out if anyone wanted to cook.

Not that they wanted to cook. But they had no choice. Take-out was too expensive.

The only good thing about the apartment was the roof access. A side door, a few stairs, an almost-room-sized landing, and then the door to the flat space that overlooked this part of Injar.

Pearl liked the view. It was unusual. She’d grown up in Valhalla Basin, where everything was the same. But here, at a crossroads at the edge of the Earth Alliance, the neighborhoods had no regulation at all. She wasn’t even sure if the dome had sections.

She could tell, just from glancing at the other rooftops, which buildings were built when. Different heights, different materials making the colors change from roof to roof, sometimes from floor to floor. Some buildings had add-ons, so they went from the dark gray of ancient permaplastic to the light gray of nanowallboard to the pale white of the latest building materials. Of course, those added-on buildings always looked like they were about to tumble over.

Maybe she would go up to the roof and do her homework. The days when she could do half her work on her links were long gone, and the school-issued tablet she had only worked half the time. She spent most of her homework time trying to log onto the school’s public network.

She hadn’t realized how good she had it, back when Mom worked for that nonprofit, Humans United. Back then, Pearl thought the two of them had no money.

Now that Mom was fighting for jobs in wealthy neighborhoods where people paid a premium for human-served goods that could easily be distributed by bots, Pearl was learning what “no money” really meant.

She looked at the tablet, then decided against bringing it. The day had been particularly hard. She was smart—she
knew
she was smart—but the kids were mean. They made fun of her clothes and her lack of links and her hair, and the fact she couldn’t network fast in class. Today, they’d been particularly nasty about the fact that she had worn the same black pants just two days before.

She sighed, and pulled open the door to the hallway. Since Mom wasn’t in the apartment, and didn’t have a shift, she was probably on the roof. Maybe they could talk a little. Maybe Pearl could convince her this time that Pearl needed a job too. Just part time.

Pearl pulled open the door to the roof, then blinked as a waft of foul-smelling air hit her. It smelled like someone had vomited in the stairwell. Vomited and lost control of their bowels.

Pearl had never smelled anything quite like that before.

There were a lot of poor people in this building, and she knew for a fact that some of them had life-threatening illnesses. Not catchable by her or Mom, since they both had had all kinds of preventative medical enhancements back in the good old days.

Which gave Pearl an obligation to check out anything bad—at least, that was what Mom would have said.

Better us than anyone else
, Mom would say,
because we can’t get sick from it and so many others can
.

Like the two of them had a responsibility to the entire universe or something.

Pearl put a hand over her mouth and nose, and ventured into the stairwell.

“Hey!” she yelled. “Everyone okay up there?”

She half expected to hear Mom’s voice floating back down toward her, saying she had it handled, but no one answered her.

Pearl took another step inside, then froze. Mom’s too-tight black shoe sat like a sentry on the first stair. Mom only had one pair of shoes left, the pair that never had links in the first place. Mom hated the shoes, but couldn’t afford another pair, and she certainly wouldn’t take them off here.

Pearl’s heart started pounding. The stench made her stomach turn.

“Mom?” Pearl asked, her voice echoing in the stairwell.

She took another step up, then stopped when she saw black fluid dripping down the stairs.

And brown skin draped along a railing.

And one naked foot with calluses along the outside of the big toe—from too-tight shoes.

Pearl took one more step, saw the other foot, unattached to an ankle but with the shoe still on.

“Mom?” Pearl said, voice trembling, not because she was calling her mom anymore. No.

It was a realization, an understanding, a loss.

Pearl turned away, swallowing hard to keep her own lunch down.

She knew what she was seeing. She knew. Mom hadn’t hid any of it, not ever, even showing her holos of Disty Vengeance Killings. Allowed by Earth Alliance law.

Allowed.

Pearl had been prepared for the mess, but not the smell.

And not Mom.

Pearl had somehow managed never to associate those images with what could happen to Mom.

What had happened to Mom.

While Pearl had been in school, thinking she’d had a bad day.

She had had no idea how bad it actually was.

Until now.

 

 

 

 

NOW

 

 

 

 

FOUR

 

 

MILES FLINT ATE
some of the jasmine rice and chicken thing that Talia had reheated. He sat at the table in the kitchen of the United Domes of the Moon Security Office, marveling at the cleanliness of the room. Apparently, Talia had cleaned it after her appointment with the idiot at the Armstrong Comfort Center, a man who was so bigoted against clones that Flint actually feared for Talia’s safety when he realized what was going on.

Talia got a lime drink out of the refrigerator, and poured it into a cup with ice. Something had changed since that morning’s meeting with the therapist. Even though the therapist had been alarmed at her responses to his questions on clones, he had apparently said something that snapped Talia back to her old self.

Flint had no doubt that she would still have issues. He had always been amazed that she was so level-headed, considering all that had happened to her. She had lost her mother, discovered she had a father, and found out she was a clone, all in the same few days.

Then she had come with him to the Moon, settled in, and lived through Anniversary Day and, almost two weeks ago, the Peyti Crisis. During the Peyti Crisis, she had actually watched people she knew die—including a boy that she had some kind of relationship with. Flint never understood what kind, or how they really felt about each other, and given what Talia had told him, he wasn’t sure she knew either.

“Can I start helping with the investigation?” Talia asked as she sat down. “I’m better now.”

He didn’t want to discourage her by saying that no one got better in the space of a morning. He didn’t want trivialize her breakthrough.

As he contemplated what his response should be, she added, “I can’t go back to school. All the schools are closed. If I can’t go to your office, then I’m going to have to stay here during the day, and everyone’s running around trying to stop the next attack or figure out what happened or find the perpetrators, and I’m sitting alone in a room feeling sorry for myself. Noelle looks like someone hit her with a truck, and she’s still working. Rudra lost her boyfriend and she’s still working. I haven’t lost anyone, and everyone thinks I’m a mess.”

Flint looked at her. Her copper-colored skin darkened as she realized what she had said. She tugged at her curls, so like his, then bit her lower lip.

“I’m
better
,” Talia said as if she heard what he thought rather than his silence. “I
am
, and I need to keep busy, because if I don’t, then maybe I will fall apart. Again.”

Flint was having trouble thinking of what to say. After all, he had tried to get her involved just a few days ago, and she couldn’t hold a coherent thought. Right now, she had energy, but he wasn’t sure how long that would last.

Still, she had a valid point. She needed something to exercise her mind.

“All right,” he said. “There’s a lot of information that we need to filter through, and some of it is buried in places so encrypted and difficult to access that it takes time to break in even for someone like me.”

BOOK: Masterminds
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