I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me...
— Tennyson, Ulysses
"Hey Shepard," the older boy said. "Look."
She looked. The alley was dark, but there was movement. Two children. Small shadows against deeper ones.
"When you see anyone," the older boy said, "you clap, like this."
He clapped three times, twice quickly and then once more, after a pause. The echoes rang off the buildings and died in the city noise.
"That's it?" she said.
"That's it. And then we take care of it."
Below them there was a rattling of gunfire. She looked down in time to see two bodies falling, highlighted in the muzzleflash. A glimpse of a red cloth on the arms of the gunmen.
"You get more food the more you spot," the older boy said. "If you don't spot any we'll give you enough to keep you alive but you'll still be hungry. If no one comes, that's just tough luck. You got it?"
"Okay. Have fun."
She lay a long time on the edge of the rooftop dreaming of food. The orphanage where she had been for her early years had been understaffed and overcrowded but there had always been something to eat, though never quite enough. Soups with thin broth, the meat hoarded by firstcomers. Noodles. Lukewarm beans.
Even in the dark of the alley she could make out the contours of a dumpster and a pile of thickwalled trash bags. A smashed security camera hung from a frayed wire below the eaves. There were rats in the shadows, and other things, animals she did not yet know the names of. She watched them all the same.
A door opened somewhere distant. Clang of metal on stone, raised voices and someone calling for hush. "Through here," someone said, and she heard it.
The shadow of a head came around the corner. She could barely see over the edge as it was but she pulled back even further, hoping they couldn't see her.
"You're sure?" someone else said.
"Yeah. This way."
A boy stepped out from around the corner and so did another. After them came five more. They carried among them all manner of improvised weaponry: boards and chunks of masonry ripped from the insides of buildings, old tools once used for God knew what purposes, various bars and lengths of metal which they wielded like swords. And the one foremost among them carried slung across his chest a real rifle, wood and steel, nearly half as tall as he was himself.
The boy with the rifle swung the barrel up and forward and sighted clumsily along it. "You see anything?" he said.
"No," someone answered.
He let the rifle down so that it was again across his chest and fetched up a pair of binoculars from his side. All too late and all in vain. There was first a single gunshot and then several, and soon the alleyway was filled with all manner of screams such that even the gunshots were drowned in it. The boy had started firing the rifle and there were sparks flying off the dumpster and the windowframes about the alleyway, and smoke flooded in a cloud from where a trashbag had taken a shot and begun to smolder. There were screams in voices reedy thin with youth and there was smoke so thick she could barely see through it. A lone boy ran for the end of the alley dragging a trail of clear air behind him and then was shot through the head and killed outright. After that the gunfire stopped and there was a long and ringing silence as the gunmen picked their way among the dead.
"Good call," a girl shouted up to her.
She shifted where she lay. "Thanks," she called back.
"You're supposed to clap for as many people as there are."
"You catch any strays up there?"
"Do you want me to stay up here?"
"You got a few more hours. You didn't piss yourself, did you?"
"Good. Stay up there. We'll come get you when you're done."
She is seven years old, with bruisedark eyes and cheekbones so long and sharp they show like scars in the right light. Over them the skin is stretched and worn with hunger, and there are deep hollows where shadows gather even in sunlight. Bones, they call her. She responds to it like a given name.
The circumstances of her birth are a mystery even to her. The will of God delivered you to us, a nun had said to her once, in the orphanage. But she has no knowledge of father or mother or indeed of any kin, and in the orphanage she was known well for a certain character of silence. Even dead quiet she could turn the eyes of adults until they let her be, and it was in such a way that she found her way to the street.
The Sprawl stretches from Washington, D.C to somewhere north of Boston and encompasses in its scope both New York and Philadelphia. Its lowest streets gridlocked or abandoned, those that can afford them use skycars. Landing platforms sprout like mushrooms from skyscrapers and arcologies and the cars themselves are an omnipresent swarm overhead.
The Reds are upstarts in an old neighborhood. Tenth Street runs from what is now ocean to some distant and theoretical point but they have staked all of it as theirs and others do not take this lightly. None among them have any home or cause to speak of, and so they keep watch over their streets and defend them and theirs with a sharp and bloody fury.
"Bones," someone said, and she woke. Around her there was darkness and a heavy quiet.
"What is it?"
"Some of the Skulls are coming. We don't have much ammo, so they're getting everyone up to fight."
He handed her a hammer. It was heavy and something in it was rattling but she took it and sat up. Above her Finch's face was barely a shadow in the morning dark. "How many are there?" she said.
"We don't know. They think they killed the scouts on the street, no one's come to warn us of anything. The older boys are just telling everyone to get up and get a weapon."
He took a small knife out of his pocket and pried the blade free. It was an old and rusty thing with a stagbone handle and some time ago someone had used it and not cleaned it after. "They gave it to me just now," he said. "I didn't think they were going to give me a knife."
"You could give it to me."
"Do you think they'll ask for it back?"
"Quiet," someone said.
They crouched waiting in the alley and listened to the noise of the early morning. It was summer, and though she knew it would be hell soon the heat was not yet bad. There were pigeons in the eaves and on windowsills, and they murmured quietly in the rising light as if discussing the day to come.
Someone clapped five times overhead and then there was a gunshot. Finch let out a thin breath through his teeth. "They got him too," he said.
"At least five, though."
"Where do you think they'll come from?"
"Ninth. Through the other alley, the wide one. If they have a lot of people it'll be easier for them to get in."
"Quiet!" someone else said, and they were quiet.
She could hear a thunder of footsteps reflecting through the alleyways. There was a curse from somewhere, and then another voice spoke up, older. "South alley," it said. "From Ninth Street. Wait behind the corner."
They moved. A hand came down on her shoulder. "Bones," the older boy said. "Watch the east alley."
"If you see someone, don't clap, just yell. Loud as you can."
There was another gunshot, and she could feel his head turn above her. "Go," he said.
She went to the alley corner. In the east, through a thin strip between buildings, she could see light reflecting off the windows. Pale blue replacing the dark. When she looked back down to the street she could see shadows, but no movement. Then someone grabbed her roughly by the hair, and as she turned her head they drew a razor down her cheek and opened up the skin to the bone.
She bucked backward in pain and swung up hard with the hammer. The shock ran into her arm and there was a muted noise of small bones breaking. In front of her she saw two shadows move.
"OVER HERE!" she called out. "MORE OF THEM!"
The boy was bent down and was breathing in a heavy nasal way such that she could hear the blood in the back of his throat. Small dull noises of pain through shattered teeth. She would have swung at him again but her face was hot and wet and her mouth would not move when she tried to speak. As he rose she could barely focus through the pain. "Over here," she called again, weaker. The words were slurred. Split muscles in her cheeks, blood down her neck.
The boy was rising and then Finch was there, and he stabbed the boy in the stomach with the pocket knife. She went to her knees. The boy had gone to the ground himself and still Finch was driving the knife into his gut, poking tiny holes that barely bled. She pitched the hammer forward. Finch took it with barely a glance and raised it up and brought it down on the boy's head. The whole shape of the boy's skull deformed under the blow and there was blood halfway to crimson but still he was not dead.
Finch took up the knife again and crammed it into the boy's eyesocket. Beyond him others of the Reds had come and someone was firing into the alley. By some last instinct the boy's hand fluttered up to cover his newest wound. Finch struck a last blow with the nailpull of the hammer and then stood up. Fear on his face and also a spray of blood. The boy was still not dead.
The Reds lost ten. Three killed outright and seven more to bad wounds. There were few bandages among them, and those there were went to the older boys first. But they saved a bandage for her and it was the first soft thing she had felt in months, cloudy white and sticky with medigel. Even in pain she held it like a reverant.
"You have to put it on quick or it'll leave a scar," one of the older boys said. He took it from her hands and pressed it on hard and there was a flare of pain down all the way through her jaw. The others around her watched in silence.
"You warned us," the older boy said, still holding the bandage. There was a kind of tenderness in his hands. "We owe you for that." And Finch.
"She called it," Finch said. "I just killed him."
A chorus of low laughter rippled through the group. The older boy said something and a brace of knives was handed forward. Old blades in dark metal with leather grips cracked with age. No sheathes to speak of. Finch took his with a kind of hesitant hopefulness and she took hers without expression. A curious blank analysis behind her eyes. She looked up at the older boy without blinking, and before long he turned away.
After the fight she shaves her hair. It falls as if it has been waiting to fall. Finch and others comment, and some laugh, but she runs her fingers over the knifehandle--her knife, she thinks--and they are quiet.
She grows. From seven to nine she stays lookout, and her eyes catch the most. A runner in an alley two girls aiming a rifle from a window. The nervousness of a spy inside their ranks. They give her praise, always praise, but she goes back to the eaves, to the rooftops, back to her sliver of sky.
Somewhere above and far away, the Systems Alliance Parliament is formed. Names that will one day live in history books are given to the children who will bear them. It is the beginning of a new age and humanity rises to the task with zeal and newfound unity, and even those that resist this upstart species give grudging respect.
Still she grows. As she turns ten the Reds plant themselves in the ruins of an old library, stringing up hammocks from the rafters. At eleven she comes along on a soup kitchen raid and kills a cook going for a knife, opening his throat until his head lolls back between his shoulderblades.
They burn old books to heat the cans and open far more than they need. Nearly all among them full to the point of sickness. She takes only one can for herself and retreats to the furthest corner, watching in silence the flames on the library floor.
"Can you read?" Finch called up to her.
She was perched on the end of a high ladder with a book open in her hands. She looked down at him.
"What's the book?"
"I don't know."
She stepped lightly down the ladder and handed up the book with little ceremony.
"It says Ten-ny-son," Finch said.
The word TENNYSON was debossed in flaking gold on the green cover. He opened it. The year 1926 was printed in thin and faded type on the first page. Paperflakes fell as he paged further through.
"This isn't a story," he said. "I don't know what it is."
He turned through further. On the last pages there was a portrait etching covered in a fine translucent paper with TENNYSON written again beneath.
"Is that who wrote it?" she said.
"I think so."
She took the book back into her hands and laid it open flat in her palms. Pages fluttering like pigeonwings. More paperflakes came into the air and the spine made soft noises of strain from the sudden wear. All of a sudden a page lay open in front of her. 116.
"The older boys would know what this is," she said.
"They'll just toss it in the fire."
But she went anyway to where there were still fires on the old floor. Piles of ash were everywhere and everywhere too the remnants of bookcovers that had resisted the flames. Around one fire and one fire only the older boys were sitting and talking. There were cans open before them and rifles and pistols close to hand.
"What does this say?" she asked them, and held the book up.
They looked at her. There was an amused disbelief in their eyes at the insolence of one so young, but they knew her for something different than the others and it was this perhaps that persuaded them. One of the boys took the book with a curious gentleness.
"Tennyson," he said. "Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It's a book of poems."
"What does that mean?"
"Poems are like... like a different kind of story."
"That's not right, another older boy said. It's about the feeling. They're supposed to make you feel something."
"Right," the first one said. "It's not a story. It's a feeling."
"A feeling," she repeated.
The older boy let the book fall open and again it came to page 116. "The Charge of the Light Brigade," he said.
He read the first lines in a voice so low and so quiet she could not even make out a word and then he cleared his throat and read it louder. He read the whole thing and as he read something seemed to come into him that she had not seen before, a new steadiness and strength. In truth he was the only one among the Reds with any education. He was the oldest of them by far and if any among them could be called the leader it was he. He read, and the words echoed in the space such that others turned to listen. "Honour the Light Brigade," he read. "Noble six hundred."
She is twelve and then thirteen. There is a new sharpness in her features, an adolescent thinness in her coltish limbs but still no awkwardness or stumble in her step. She does not yet know the word grace but it is in her movements, and it is noticed. Those girls younger than she envy and fear her, and all watch her where she goes.
Her voice deepens to something that can hold command. She grows still taller.
"Turn around," the older boy said.
They were alone in a sideroom of the library. Around them were toppled shelves and high windows and a bare mattress where the older boy was lying.
"She turned," her back to him.
"Have you ever been with Finch?" he asked.
"Take off your shirt."
She took it off. There was bare scarred flesh underneath and nothing else. The older boy smiled.
She turned. No loss of hardness in her eyes nor any sense of modesty. She had pale skin and small high breasts and four short bonewhite scars over her ribs. Another single scar ran shallow from above her right hip to below the hem of her pants. The boy cocked his head.
"Where did you get that?"
He nodded. "Take off your pants."
She took them off. There was nothing underneath. The scar went wide across her outer thigh and sawed back inward. A precise series of smaller notches marked her upper left leg.
"Hmm," the older boy said, and rose to his feet.
She will not know for some many years yet the full gravity of that which she has borne. But there is a deep unsettledness in her that she cannot tame and which she will carry some small piece of forever.
"I don't want you to see Finch any more," the older boy said, some days later.
"I want to give you something."
He stretched naked on the mattress and she watched him. She was naked herself but for the blanket that covered her.
"Have you ever shot a gun before?" he said.
"Do you know how?"
"I've watched others do it."
He reached under the mattress and pulled out a pistol. There were rust spots on the deepblue finish of the frame but it was still one of the cleanest she had seen.
"This is a Colt," he said. It fires with gunpowder.
He pulled out the magazine and racked the slide with the pistol cocked sideways, and the ejected round flew in an arc that ended in the center of his palm. He held it out and she took it. Brass and lead and powder. A small and heavy thing.
"This can hold eight of those," he said. He locked back the slide and handed it to her.
She took it in her hands and slipped the single bullet into the chamber and racked the slide and raised the pistol and blew a neat and simple hole through the left orbit of the older boy's skull. There was a complete silence in her ears from the muzzleblast. Bloodspatter covered the mattress and the far wall and across her chest where the blanket had slipped.
She took the magazine and inserted it and raked the slide back with the edge of her hand. Then she put on her clothes and exited out the door.