We found the slave at the foot of the scree, face down in waist-high bracken still alive and not a scratch on her except where Cally’s dart had embedded itself in her shoulder. She was gripping the bracken stems so tightly we had to prise her fingers open to make her let go. I looked back up the precipice she’d careered down seconds before – a five metre sheer drop to a scree of broken basalt that swept down a further one hundred metres or so at a forty five degree angle to the bank of a boulder-strewn stream. Near the top, jagged-edged slabs of rock jutted out of the scree, making it hard to pick out a path with your eye even if you took your time. Lower down, brambles and bridal creeper made it impossible.
When we saw her shoot out from the forest and fling herself over the cliff we thought we’d lost her. It was suicidal. Cally had beamed off a dart anyway, which had expended most of its power in pursuit of her. She ran like a hare, twisting right and left and we’d all thought it had missed her, but here she was. it had connected and injected both godbot and immobilising drug.
Mandi jetted a purplish foam of rapidly vapourising disinfectant/deodeant along her length, kicked her over onto her back and sprayed the front. Then he dragged a handful of her hair out of the way and found the chip on her shoulder. 170-22. According to the register, that was good. Big bounty. Cally put her into a smilksuit while I entered the data and Threadgold, who kept looking back up the scree and laughing, still fighting for breath (because he’d been running) kept shouting: ‘She fffflllllleeeeewwww! Like a biiiiiird! Sssssheeeee never touched the ground at aaaaaaaalllllll! She flew, she fucking ffflllleeewwwwwww!’
I went down to the stream, unwrapped a Sucky and sat down to suck it. Mandi and later Cally came down to do the same. Threadgold joined us later when he’d finished letting off steam. (For 21st century readers, a Sucky is a long-lasting jujube, soft or firm, in a range of flavours and colours, impregnated with euphoriants, tranquilisers and a balance of minerals and vitamins. Originally a harmless substitute for tobacco, but sucked in the mouth instead of smoked and there’s no residue. it is about the shape and size of a human thumb, and can get creative…)
Cally was a quiet guy. Good looking in a raven-haired, deep-set eyed, smouldering way. He dressed like a bodgie, with vivid scarlet and iridescent mid-blue flashing through the pearl-edged slashes in his polished pewter battle jacket. He kept his technology up to date and blaring. He was a keen lad, always on his toes, never still for long, loving every minute of it, however rough things got. He had my respect.
To be honest he intrigued me. The slaves fascinated him, and sometimes I used to half-think he resembled them a bit. It was the way he tracked. He was one of the best. He had a reputation. He was like an animal, or like one of them. They hunt like dingoes. He’d pick up a trail quicker than anyone, and stay with it to the end. Nothing would shake him – bad weather, rough country, it was all the same to Cally. He used every sensor our truck had, and a few more on his belt that it didn’t have, biosensors so sensitive they could find every snake with its eggs under the ground and tell you how many eggs and what kind of snake, the stage of development of wrens in the eggs in their nests in the bushes, and the position of every fish and tadpole in the streams and waterholes for a 100k around. They were his own sensoria, and they cost him a fortune; but bounty hunting was more than a job for Cally. It was his life.
His dedication impressed me. When he had a trail he was total attention, intense, alert, his eyes everywhere, he could keep it up for hours, keeping us all going when we were ready to give up, showing us the data that only he could read, insisting that we were too close now to stop, then in for the capture.
And then back to normal, a flittering grin of achievement on his face, a Sucky in his mouth, like now. He was leaning back against a rock watching the water. ‘Be dark before we can get it back up to the truck,’ he said. ‘Even if we carry it up there ourselves.’ Ferals were all ‘it’ to Cally. His voice was soft, slow, diffident.
Mandi shifted his big body round to look at her. They’d brought her down to the bank and left her in the shadow of a boulder. He glanced up the scree and said, ‘That won’t be easy in the dark. Maybe we should start now before she comes round.’ He was the one for the job. Mandi was our strong man, a huge muscle-bound giant in figure-hugging Lincoln Green emblazoned with the logo of the HERCULARIUM gymnasium, which his wife used to run (still does, I think). They were both body-builders. He scanned the scree for an easy way up. There wasn’t one. ‘Do you think she’ll fight?’
Cally gave a faint laugh but didn’t answer. He’d been thorough. The slave was bound and gagged with about a kilometer of flextic and smilk and was also shackled hands and feet with plasteel and chained to a tree. Obviously he thought she’d fight. She was anyway already recovering from the drug. Carrying her dead weight up that scree would have been difficult enough. It would be nigh on impossible with her struggling.
This area was zoned ‘Unreclaimed’, so our remos were malfunctioning, and that ruled out summoning a float from the truck, which would have floated her up on a cushion of negatium. She’d have to be lifted up and carried, which would be risky in this terrain in the failing light. In matters of human safety, team-leaders should always avoid taking risks, however slight. So I gave an order to leave her where she was until morning, when we’d be rested and she’d be able to walk.
I felt edgy this far from the truck. Even though it couldn’t guarantee us contact with *H*U*G* this far into an Unreclaimed Zone, it represented safety for me and my crew. Not that the ferals were likely to attack. They knew where we were, and who we had in the truck and this one down here, and they knew how well-defended that truck was, even with us down here. Nothing could get near us without tickling Cally’s sensitive array of whiskers and hyper-smart alarm system. Without a key-whisle, no one could approach the truck. That truck was protected by AngelSword Premium Plus – enough said. But I needed to keep that truck within sight. I sent Threadgold back up to bring it closer to the cliff’s edge, inching it forward till we could see the high white fins and front windscreen from where we waited down below.
There always seemed to me to be something not quite right about Threadgold. Teddy, we used to call him. He was young, not yet thirty, yellow-haired, earnest enough looking if you could get him to be serious, but wild and rough, and he had… grandiose ambitions. We were too tame for him. He wanted to put together a team of his own that’d take some serious risks. There was bounty out there, he kept saying. Not just three or four this trip, two or three the next. A good team could go in there with the right equipment and muster the lot. ‘There’s millions of the cunts,’ he’d say. ‘What’s HUG doing that we don’t go in and round them all up?’
‘That’d be a lot of money,’ Cally once said.
‘Yeah, but it’s not the money. It’s what you could do with ’em.’ Teddy did this kind of grin, like bared teeth, like Howler Sangfrid in The Killers on MONOPTION 9.5, SafetyNet 1100. I hated that show, and never watched it. I hated that actor who played Howler Sangfrid (can’t remember his name). Cruel bastard. It mightn’t have meant anything that Teddy looked like that. He was probably only joking, but it used to worry me.
Anyway, he seemed harmless: all bragging and skite. You could never get him to tell you what he’d do with a couple of million feral humans, or what he thought HUG should do with them all – even if there were that many, which I didn’t believe. They were all in inaccessible wilderness, within the Dangerous to Deadly radiation zone, and even those that survived the radiation and the waves of infection and mutant viruses that that radiation causes would be too sickly to breed. And with those high levels of radiation and contagion, no team leader would dare to ask HUG’s permission to take a team of his or her fellow humans in there. Weren’t we after all dragging this lot out in order to save them from the slow deterioration of body and mind leading to dementia, delusionality and death that anyone living in the danger zones face?
But Threadgold was irrepressible, and sometimes his high spirits took him dangerously close to hysteria. When he laughed it sounded as if he was crying, great hacking, retching sobs like someone seeing a really terrifying ghost coming relentlessly at him, something out of a nightmare, coming to strangle him. Anyway, he reminded me of a recurring nightmare i suffered from when i was a little boy. And that was his happy laugh.
I won’t say I didn’t feel affection for him. He was an affable boy and had become like a sort of son to me after a few trips. Your team is your family, and you care about each other. But I was just thinking about him now and then, and I’d mentioned one or two fears I had about him to MONOPS – just a sentence or two in with my routine report.
Mandi and I kept an eye on the slave as her struggles strengthened. ‘Slave’ is their word, of course, the ferals’ word for it, their protest, and yeah, it’s true, that’s what they are when we catch them. They get a *H*U*G* control insert, aka a godbot, which, well, virtually robotises them, so that *H*U*G* can up-load, like, uh, programs to them, to pattern them into desirable behaviours – like they do with difficult school children these days. Colloquially they are called ferals, but *H*U*G* classifies them as delinquent and a danger to the rest of us. So we round them up. And yeah, they’re god-botted and given something to do, forced to earn a living, contribute to the quality of the life of the community.
As the paralysis from the drug wears off, body rhythms tend to become erratic and there’s a slight but real risk of heart failure. 170-22 was starting to suck air, so we monitored her metabolism on Mandi’s wrist-top while the sun went down. After a while her random muscle spasms gave way to more or less voluntary struggling, an indication that the danger was over. Even then it took her a long time to realise that she’d been captured. She kept arching up her back, unable to lift her head, and sliding her hobbled feet across the ground. Finally she stopped and went limp and lay still again until the blare of the truck’s warning device, which Threadgold sounded for laughs as he drove it up to the edge of the cliff high up above, roused her again as if from sleep. With a savage animal growl that might have come from a thylacine, she gave one mighty struggle that almost brought her to her feet and fell back with a thump that winded her. She lay flat on her back wheezing, head lolling feebly, eyes wide and unfocused.
We went back up to meet the truck along a broken but mostly walkable pathway that Threadgold had pioneered on his way up, only a little way downstream and we floated some gear down to the stream-bank. Cally fed the slave the regulation ration from a soft fat syringe pushed into her mouth and held there with a tight gag. Most of them try to hunger strike, and it’s not worth your license to let them. The law assures them of a certain standard of treatment and I never break those laws. I’m a humane man.
Three balanced meals a day, warmth, physical comfort, radiation protection, muscular stimulation in lieu of exercise, six hours forced sleep, hourly entertainment from the rehabilitation and corrective programming people, 24/7 pleasurosaurus binaural envirovibes with subliminals, and good quality appropriately medicated air to breathe: she would have them all up there in the truck, all plugged in and cathetered up along with the others we’d caught so far. Sensors in their restraints streamed medical data continually to sincerely concerned welfare officers in Addle-Aid.
Cally talked to her for his own amusement in what he tried to pass off as her own language, the a-rhythmic Lingwish, which was an ancient language, spoken throughout this land before the Decimation, though it died out after a while when MONOPS invented HUG. No doubt it was, as they said, a degenerate form of a Pre-Dee language, the one still spoken by the majority of free-born ferals in the southern Unreclaimed zones.
Cally was the only one of us who knew any at all. He used to like rattling off a few weird sounding gargles at them in Lingwish and chuckling, in a low, sardonic tone. They never answered, even when they weren’t gagged as this one was, against biting, but some of them stared at him and seemed shocked to hear him speaking it, or maybe it was the things he said, though he pretended it was all trivial. After all, I thought it likely that his version of their language was incomprehensible to them.