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This Machine




John pressed himself against the wall, watching the elevator bull stalking amongst the offworld cargo pods.

He was enormous—clearly a GENtleman. Probably didn't have as much myostatin in his whole body as John had in his little finger.

John's old Ma hadn't believed in poking around with genetic code. Hadn't even prevented John's colorblindness. If the Good Lord saw fit that John never know whether he was biting into a Red Delicious or a Granny Smith, that was good enough for her.

He clutched the violin case to his side and counted under his breath as the bull disappeared from view behind an elevator car, then hurried forward.

He didn't make a sound—one of the few advantages of bare feet.

As he half-ran, half-traipsed between the cars, he saw the broad back of the bull further down the aisle, not yet turned around to march back this way. The last thing John saw of him as he darted between two cars was the big man starting to turn—half a second later, he'd have been spotted.

He squeezed his eyes shut and fought to control his breathing. More likely than not, the GENtleman had had been spliced up to have super-senses, too; the Bosses didn't have to settle for a basic laborer model if they wanted a purpose-built sentry. Breathe too loud and the big man would be on him in an instant.

He dug in his pocket and produced a scryer, which he held up to one eye.

The Elevator cars had all been sealed prior to bringing them into the yard, of course; couldn't risk stowaways eating into company profits. However, this one looked old enough that at some point, someone had probably had the time to crack it.

The scryer flitted through spectra until it found a cipher someone had imprinted on the hull just above the capacitive keypad. To a Company sniffer, it would look like just a random pattern of stress micro-pores, but when you had the right cipher keys from the right folks...

He tapped in the code and the side of the car slid silently open. Thankfully the mechanisms were in good enough working order that there was no screech or grating sound for the bull to hear. He hit the 'close' button and darted inside just before the doors snapped shut.

It took a moment before he realized what he was seeing. He tapped the scryer back to visible spectrum, and the tangle of magnetic field lines resolved into a tiny, faintly glowing orange dot.

He sighed, dropped his violin case and rucksack, and sank down to a seated position against the door, letting his muscles untense.

"There's a bull less than 50 feet away," John said, "If you shoot me, he'll hear it. Even through these walls."

The little glowing vial of tritium wavered in the darkness.

"I'm not a Company man," John said, "Just a Dutchman with a lot of miles to put behind me."

The gun sight did not disappear, but a voice came from the darkness, bearing a note of distrust. "A Dutchman? Sorry if that's not comforting."

John crossed his legs under himself and placed his hands on his knees. "Well, now, friend. I'm guessing that makes you either a Boss who had his fingers a little too deep in the kitty or a Scab. And if you're a Scab who's sneaking offworld, we've got no quarrel. And if you're a Boss...well, you'd better squeeze that trigger right now, and you'd better not miss."

There was silence for a while, during which time John focused on the pretty little figure-eight the tritium sight was weaving in the darkness. Finally, his companion said, "I still don't trust you."

"Fine with me."

They sat there for what felt like a couple of hours in complete darkness before John heard what he'd been listening for. A tiny click through the metal floor. He tensed to move, and as soon as the elevator car lurched he dove to the side—an instant before the other passenger yelped in surprise and the gun went off.

"I'm Sorry!" The Scab wailed, "I just—it startled me!"

John's limbs tingled with adrenaline from the near-miss. "Rule number one with guns, friend—keep your finger off the trigger until you're goddamn ready to shoot."

The car was moving steadily now, presumably toward the elevator.

"You're not dead?"

"Not quite," John grumbled, sitting back up. "For god's sake, put that thing away. Next time you shoot at me, you might hit by accident."

He fished around in his rucksack and brought out a Holo he'd swiped from a restaurant. He activated it and the Lilliputian projection of a well-endowed waitress started reading off the lunch specials. In the glow of the projection he saw his companion for the first time—a young woman, 20s, probably. Definitely a Scab. Blue skin, no hair, beige jumpsuit.

He did his best to give her a smile, then fiddled with the Holo until he found the speaker and jammed a pencil through it.

In the silence that followed, he sat back against the wall and sized her up.

She was still holding the gun, but it wasn't pointed at him anymore. She was looking at him with open suspicion.

"My name's John," he said, "John Dutch, if you like. What's yours?"

She scowled. "Three-Seven-Niner."

He kicked himself. Of course; Scabs were born in Company vats. They didn't get names. "Is that what you want me to call you?”

“No. I don't know. I'm trying not to be a number anymore.”

"What did your friends call you?"

She hesitated. "Niner."

“What about Nina, then?"

She looked at him in surprise, but nodded.

"Well, Nina, we've got a long time to get to know each other, and I haven't slept in 36 hours. Mind if I get some shut-eye?"

She shook her head mutely.

John slid the violin case under his head as he lay down. "You can leave the Holo on if you like. I'd say it's got enough batteries to make it to Earth."

* * * * *

He didn't know how much later it was when he awoke, but the gravity was lessening. They were reaching the top of the elevator.

Nina was staring around, wide-eyed. "What's happening?" she whispered.

"We're reaching Aeresynchronous orbit," John said, "The top of the elevator. Pretty soon we'll be weightless."

"It feels so strange," Nina said, flapping her arms up and down in the lighter gravity.

"Well it'll be back soon. With a vengeance. We'll be accelerating at a speed the pilots like, and they're Earthlings. We'll weigh more than twice as much as we did on Mars."

Nina stared at him in alarm "How is that possible?"

John shrugged. "A bunch of physics stuff. Guess they don't really give you guys a lot of education, huh?"

Nina scowled. "How long are we going to be in here? I'm hungry. And you stink."

John pondered whether it would be worth the effort to feel insulted and decided against it. "With the current phase angle and at 1g, probably only about 3 days."

Her eyes widened. "But that’s 9 meals! We'll die!"

John waved a dismissive hand. "Settle down. People don't starve in 3 days. And lucky for you, I even brought enough water and CO2 sequestration for both of us."

He tossed her a bottle and cracked one of the scrubber cans.

She eyed the bottle suspiciously. "This says it's cough syrup."

"Well, sorry, I'm fresh out of crystal decanters. It's water."

She set it aside without drinking.

"Why do they call you Dutchmen?"

John paused, his own bottle (motor oil) halfway to his lips. "They don't have some fun propaganda explanation for that in the factories?"

She shook her head.

John took a sip of water and considered his words. "Well...we're the folks with the wooden shoes."

"You don't have any shoes."

He nodded. "In a literal sense, that is entirely correct. But...see, before linguistic standardization, there was a language called French, and their word for wooden shoe was sabot. They had a word for people who wore wooden shoes, too."

Nina took a sip of her own water, not taking her eyes of him "And what was that?"

"Saboteur."

Her brow furrowed for a moment, then realization dawned. "Why am I not surprised. It's a game to you, isn't it? Clever codenames and matter-annihilating machines and giving the bosses a black eye."

"You don't think they deserve it?"

She looked straight at him. "I had friends in Water Reclamation West."

John went still and dropped his gaze. "I'm sorry," he said, "we had it timed to go off that night, when the plant was empty. Someone must have found it and set it off early trying to disarm it."

She snorted. "I might not know much about space ships, but I do know about machines. The only way it would go off from somebody tampering with it is if you designed it that way."

John said nothing.

"But what do you care? A couple dozen Scabs die, all the better. Force the bosses to pay real, human workers."

"That's not how it is."

"That's how it looks to me," she said, and reached over to shut off the Holo.

* * * * *




The press of 1g was stifling. After weeks on Mars, it made John feel like an old man, weak and tired and sick.

He could hear Nina gasping. It was worse for her. She'd never felt Earth gravity. After a while the dismal, oppressive darkness became too much and he dug through his pack for a distraction. He pulled out his harmonica and played a long, slow, ancient tune. He could hear Nina sitting up as he picked out the melody, forcing his tired lungs to slide into the steady rhythm.

As the last notes faded away, he sang out softly,


"There are women of many descriptions

In this queer world, as everyone knows.

Some are living in beautiful mansions,

And are wearing the finest of clothes.

There are blue-blooded queens and princesses,

Who have charms made of diamonds and pearl;

But the only and thoroughbred lady

Is the Rebel Girl.

Yes, her hands may be hardened from labor,

And her dress may not be very fine;

But a heart in her bosom is beating

That is true to her class and her kind.

And the bosses in terror are trembling

As her spite and defiance she'll hurl;

And I’m proud to fight for freedom

With the Rebel Girl."

In the vaccuum left by his voice, he heard Nina crying.

"Sorry," he said, "I didn't mean—"

"I've never heard anything like that," she whispered. "In the factory…I’ve never heard a song that was sad before. How do you make it sad even before the words? How can it sound like an emotion?”

“I suppose it’s a hopeful song, really,” he said, “But I play it in a minor key that makes it sound kinda sad, I guess. It’s interesting, I’ve always wondered if a minor key would sound sad to someone who’d never heard it before, or if it’s just how we’re taught…I guess you’re living proof.”

“It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.”

John ran his fingers over his harmonica. "Thanks. Reckon you'll hear better on Earth, though. Wind instruments have never been my strongsuit.”

* * * * *

When the air in the container started getting harsh in his lungs, John turned the Holo back on for light and got another CO2 scrubber out of his bag. He poured the crystals out on the floor so they'd work as efficiently as possible.

"I've never been this hungry," Nina murmured.

John looked over at her. "Sorry. I didn't have money for food. Just air and water."

She sat up groggily.

"How were you planning to make it, anyway?" he said. "A gun and the clothes on your back?"

She looked away and didn't say anything.

John was just about to turn the Holo off when she said, "It wasn't my plan."

John gazed at the little chipper woman mouthing the Lunch specials wordlessly on an infinite loop. "Whose was it?"

"Eight-Seven-Three's."

"You were friends?"

Nina shook her head. "He was my husband."

John's eyebrows rose in bemusement. "Husband? I thought you guys didn't—I thought the Company—"

"What? You thought that because I've got peas for ovaries and the Company burned the lust out of my genetic code that I can't fall in love?"

John noticed for the first time a ring of bare copper wire curled around her finger.

"He was brilliant. Smarter than the Bosses. He got us out. Got a gun, food, water, the location of this car, the code for the door..."

She shook her head. "You think you're the only ones fighting the Bosses. You stupid Dutchmen, fighting for “Human” Rights. He had a contact on Earth, someone helping escaped clones. They were going to give us dark brown tattoos to cover our blue skin, hair implants so we would look like you."

John stared at her. He tried to imagine her looking...human. "What happened to Eight-Seven-Three?"

Nina shook her head. "Some guards spotted us heading toward the elevator. Big ones. The ones with their genes altered to make them strong. Eight-Seven-Three gave me the gun and suitcase and told me to run."

John bit his lip.

"I dropped the suitcase to run faster. I had the gun—I could've helped—but I didn't. I just ran."

"If you'd shot them," John said, "a hundred more would've been there in 30 seconds. Neither of you would have made it out."

Nina stared at her beige slippers. "Is it true there are no clones on Earth?"

"Yep. Not allowed. Not unless there's a major upset in the Board of Directors election coming up."

"Just humans," Nina said.

"Some have genetic modifications," John said, "But they're not clones."

"Sounds like a paradise for you," Nina said, "No Scabs. Just good, Human labor."

"It's not that you're not...human that we don't like," John said, wondering if he could really continue to think of this girl as anything but human, "It's that you're free. Free labor, I mean. 'Permanently Indentured'. It hurts everyone who's not at the top. Makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. The poorest freemen are hurt more by slavery than anyone other than the slaves."

"I want you to blow it up," Nina said quietly.

"What?"

"The Earth. The whole goddamn planet. All the Bosses' Bosses. Blow it up. Take your machines and destroy it all."

John drummed his fingers on the battered violin case. "If I thought it would help," he said, "I might."

* * * * *

John awoke to the feeling of rapidly becoming weightless. Nina was likewise awake, and he gazed with some apprehension at the scrubber crystals he'd thoughtlessly poured out, now floating weightless about them. Thankfully, the stale air implied that enough of the lithium hydroxide had converted to lithium carbonate that they shouldn't run the risk of chemical burns if an errant crystal collided with clammy skin.

"Brace yourself," he said, "Gravity'll come back as soon as they wallow this behemoth around to point in the opposite direction. We're at the halfway point in the journey."

Nina groaned. "Only halfway?"

"'Fraid so." John checked his cracked watch-face. "We've been speeding up this whole time, so we're going about...twelve thousand kilometerstwice the diameter of Mars, give or take—every second. Gotta spill all that speed again so we don't blow straight past Earth...or smash into it hard enough to renovate the entire Eastern Seaboard."

Sure enough, a few moments later, they sank back to the floor, empty bottles and lithium carbonate crystals settling down around them. The only person who seemed unfazed by the experience was the luminescent waitress, though she seemed to have gotten stuck on a loop mouthing "Cricket Steak" over and over again.

"Why are you going to Earth?" Nina asked after a while.

John just shrugged.

"Have you been there before?"

He nodded. "Born and raised there."

"Where?"

"Reno. In Nevada."

No more questions seemed forthcoming, so he turned the Holo back off.

"There's the Board of Directors election coming up," Nina said in the darkness.

"Yep."

She was quiet for so long he was sure she'd fallen asleep when she said, "I recognize the MIDI profile of that instrument. It's a harmonica, right? You play very nicely."

"Thanks, Nina."

"And that other case—that’s made for a violin. But why would a Dutchman on the run carry harmonica and a violin that he doesn't even play?

The hairs on the back of John's neck prickled.

"If something happens to Chairman Truman and Sorenson takes over, it'll mean some major changes for the Company. Eight-Seven-Three told me all about that."

"Yes...I suppose it would."

Nina sighed. "I hope whatever's in that violin case...you play it for the Chairman."

John drummed his fingers on its scuffed surface. “The Chairman’s a hard person to reach,” he said, “but my bet is, if I can get this machine within, say, a dozen yards of him…it'll do its job.”

* * * * *

"Ho. Ly. Shit. Nina, look at this."

Trevor burst into the room and turned on Nina's Holo.

"Trevor—what the hell?"

She'd just been examining her hair implants in the mirror. They were growing out well, still little more than stubble, but thick and dark and setting off her no-longer-blue skin quite nicely.

Trevor gestured wordlessly to the news.

"—return to our breaking story. Chairman Truman has issued a statement tonight after the killing of this man, John Delacroix, who approached him with a violin case at the convention meeting earlier this evening."

Nina stared at the Holo. No...it couldn't be true...he couldn't have failed.

"Delacroix was the famous First Violin of the venerable San Francisco Philharmonic until his disappearance six years ago, as well as the heir to the Delacroix fortune. Though Truman's aides claim he appeared disheveled and possibly dangerous prior to his death at the hands of security officials, he and his family did have a standing invitation to the event, and it was revealed that he was carrying nothing other than his priceless violin, which has also been missing since his disappearance."

Nina couldn't believe her ears. Nothing the news anchor was saying made any sense.

"With this scandal, the populist Sorenson is expected to have an easy victory at tomorrow's election."

"Truman's done for!" Trevor squealed happily, "Can't believe I'm saying it, but thank god for that crazy rich asshole!”

"He was right," Nina said.

Trevor glanced at her. "What?"

The Holo was showing a picture of John's violin. Scratched into the surface was the name Woodie Guthrie and the phrase This Machine has Killed 10 Fascists.

"It did its job."


Tinfoil Haberdashery is a writer, inventor and cartographer.

"The Rebel Girl" was written by Joe Hill, 1915.

www.ShepherdCartography.com

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