She smiled and patted her lap as if to say, “Come have a seat, small-one.”
It reminded him of when her lap was one of the only places tears could be vanquished. He squatted in front of her instead, glanced over his shoulder at his two small-ones huddled in front of the Beamer for heat before turning his gaze back to her. He placed one gloved hand on her wrinkled cheek.
He whispered, “You aren’t fooling me, Gran. I know you’ve been spitten’ red for weeks. The Crud isn’t easy to hide. How long?”
Hazel cast her eyes to the floor. “Three moon cycles.”
Sebastian’s jaw tightened as he held the words he wanted to say. Every minute after three moons was borrowed. The pain had to be unbearable. Survival mode kicked in as he clicked through the streaming treatment options in his Head-Card.
There weren’t any…None legal, anyways.
“Sebastian, stop it. I don’t need saving. It’s the aches you can’t see that rattle these old bones.” Hazel held a tattered cloth to her mouth as she wheezed and sputtered. When the episode ended she folded it as fast as her knarled knuckles would allow, but not before sprinkles of crimson showed on the rag in the Beamer’s light.
“But it’s the Eve. I can’t lose you on the Eve, Gran. It’s not right. I know a guy down in the Gut that can fix you up. It will cost Beamer fuel, but I think I’ve enough credits to make it happen.” He looked at the cool-crystal already formed on the window, and then to the small-ones and gulped.
“Nonsense. I’ll not have it. Those small-ones need the heat if they’re going to make it, and where would they be if you were locked out of the City? They already lost their Ma and I’m going Home as soon as the good Lord will have me.” Hazel tugged the blanket tighter around her and closed her eyes. “I’m nearly ready. You have to know that.”
Sebastian swallowed the lump and rubbed his eyes with his sleeve. “Then let me get you something to say goodbye. Anything, Gran, just name it.”
Hazel’s eyes opened with a sparkle. “I never thought you’d ask. I want a baby for the Eve.”
In thirty years of life, Sebastian had broken nearly ever law passed down by the Brothers. But never had he gone as far as to challenge the Edit of Word. That was the quickest way to get an instant dose of Crud in your Head-Card. In thirty years of life, his Gran had never asked him to break the law of the Brothers. But now she acted as if her life depended upon it.
Cool-crystal crusted his eyebrows as he skulked through the Gut, staying in the skeletal shadows of what used to be the main City. The stench of decaying bodies and overflowing garbage burned his throat almost as much as the cold air, but this was the only place the Head-Card couldn’t track and the only place to find the baby Gran wanted.
Words were dangerous, so he kept silent as two Gut-Sluts wearing invisible-thermal slunk from their dark crannies. The advert for the suits touted, “The body you always wanted. No one will know what is warm underneath.” The word invisible was a stretch considering what was seen was a holo.
Sebastian held his card scan in his white knuckled right hand and a Taze-4-All in the left. He kept moving, even as they came close enough for him to smell the Crud of a thousand dead wafting in waves from their suits.
“Hey, Daddy, ten credits will get you an hour. Just slide your card scan right here.” A tall blond giggled and jiggled her chest. The thermal had a slider installed in the crevice of unnatural lumps.
Sebastian wrinkled his nose and returned his eyes forward.
The short, red-haired woman jumped in front of him and held up her hand. She snapped her fingers and a white card appeared. “Don’t be like that, Daddy. We’re clean. See? We’ve been checked by the Brothers. Our Head-Card is cleaned every week. Fifteen credits gets you an hour with us both.”
Gran was running out of time. Sebastian ignored the Gut-Sluts and began to jog. The invisible-thermals gave the illusion of young, firm and lovely, but probably hid 400 pounds of nasty—each. After thirty yards he turned to see if they were chasing him. They were gone.
The light of a sec-bot scanned the street for curfew breakers and Sebastian ducked into the deep shadow of an old Buckstars coffee shop. If they caught him they’d swipe all of his credits. The Brothers called it cleansing, yet sanctioned and profited from all forms of unsavory dealings in the Gut. Sebastian shook his head and counted the sec-bot’s scan strobes…28, 29, and 30. He waited another minute before moving on.
Green haze poured onto the street twenty yards ahead from a VR parlor and Sebastian turned right to avoid any VR-Junkies hanging at the entrance. They were worse than the Gut-Sluts, never knowing which was the world and which was the game. Their minds couldn’t grasp that fifty years ago the Brothers came to power to restore harmony to humanity.
Sebastian shook his head again and snorted at the absurdity as he rounded the corner. He looked from side to side as the strong smell of garlic filled the air. His heart raced with a surge of adrenaline.
A blunt object hit his head so hard he lost his footing and fell to his knees. The Taze-4-all flew from his hand but he held tight to his card scan. The wind left him as he was struck from behind. Snow crammed up his nostril and softened the impact of his head with the road. Heaviness rested on his back and warm liquid poured over his face from the gash on his forehead. Sebastian lay there. The Guidos weren’t playing games and would just as soon slit your throat as shake your hand.
“Do you want to die today?”
Sebastian’s eyes bulged as the feminine voice hit his ears. A boney knee lifted and slammed into his back three times. Something cracked, but he stayed down. Warm garlic breath hit his ear as the weight on him shifted.
“I said, do you want to die today?”
Sebastian steadied his voice and whispered the code. “Only on the moon cycle of the Brothers’ death and only after I’ve danced on their bones.”
The sharp pain remained even though the weight lifted from his back. A small hand reached down and offered Sebastian a lift to his feet. She stood to the middle of his chest and wore the all-black Guido uniform.
“Good. I didn’t want to kill a sack of bones. Doesn’t look good on my rep.”
Words were dangerous, so he nodded.
“Do you have the credits Rico requires?” The woman held out a portable slider.
Sebastian swiped his card scan and watched the digital display subtract credits from his account. It would be a cold Eve without the Beamer fuel but as long as Gran had her last wish, he wouldn’t complain.
The woman pulled a small package wrapped in brown paper from the inside of her black trench. She hesitated. “It’s only the part with the baby. That’s what Rico agreed, right?”
“Yes. That’s what I asked for. Why?” Sebastian reached for the thin package.
The woman held it. “Because once people have it, they want the whole thing. I want to make sure you don’t get your thermal in a bunch and go reporting the Guidos to the Brothers. If you did, I’d make that,” she pointed to the gash on his head, “look like a paper cut.”
Sebastian nodded as the woman let go. He stuffed the package into his thermal and turned home. As he walked the miles he could feel eyes on him, but he ignored the uneasy feeling.
Hazel hacked long and hard. Crimson soaked the cloth in her hands.
Sebastian stood between her and the small-ones so they wouldn’t be afraid. When she recovered, he placed the present in her lap.
Her hands shook as she pulled back the brown paper to reveal a book bound in animal skin. A small giggle escaped her lips as she caressed the worn cover and ran her finger along gold inlaid letters.
“You did it, Sebastian. The Brothers outlawed the baby when they did the Edit of Word. I can’t read it; my eyes are too far gone. Would you grant me one last request? I need all of you to hear it so these bones can rest.” She held out the book. “Please?”
Sebastian took the book in his hands. The cover seemed to hold enough warmth to chase away the cold-crystal. He mimicked his Gran and traced the words. “In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee…”
A deep sigh interrupted Sebastian, followed by complete silence.
Gran’s eyes were closed, a smile etched on her face, but her chest no longer rattled labored breaths.