Sunlight dappled the abandoned dirt road, peering through the leaves of the stately trees. Wind whispered through the leaves, rattling them, and occasionally shaking loose an early faller from the brilliant mix of colors. The trees were just beginning to turn, with vivid yellow and red showing bright and startling against the array of greens.
Suddenly, the tranquility of the scene was shattered by a roar. A gleaming red ground vehicle, outlawed and antiquated but still possessed of great speed and beauty, raced along the lane, scattering leaves and flushing birds from the bushes. It screamed down the road, awakening memories of times long gone. Times when vehicles such as this were common, times when the people were free...
Up in one of the trees, an electronic Eye glared balefully at the scene, a red light indicating that it was transmitting the view of the crime in progress, as it should. Whether or not anyone was watching for the transmission in the distant cityplex was anyone's guess.
"Huh, check that out, Kief."
Kief looked up from his meal and smiled. The vidcaster was showing a view of the infamous Red Racer, the anti-social rebel who regularly made fools out of the Order. "Looks like he's at it again."
"Yeah. Wonder who he is?" His friend, Cole, stared up at the monitor with a distant look in his eyes, fork dangling forgotten in his hand. The red car on the screen roared down a deserted roadway, then disappeared from the camera's view.
"Huh, don't matter, now do it?"
Kief winced at the grating squeal of Vidder's voice. The screen shifted to show an Order representative, promising dire things in the future of the rebel.
"I mean," Vidder continued rapidly, sliding up to the bar and perching on a stool, "he is, uh, he is, like doomed, yes that he be." He waved his arms extravagantly, nearly taking out a nearby patron's drink.
"Settle down, turbo," Kief admonished.
"How so you think he's doomed, Vid?"
"He be way doomed, Cole-me-man. The Eyes, they be watching, and they be going to catch him, 'cause what he do be bad." The wiry little man drew out the vowel until it was nearly a separate word in itself.
"Bad, Vid? Why you say he's bad?" Kief glanced up at the vidcaster, but it had long since moved on to other news.
"Because he break the law, man." Vidder widened his faded blue eyes and nodded emphatically. "Breakin' the motor law, that he is. And ev'one know that breakin' the motor law is illeeeegal."
"Yeah, yeah, we know," Cole said impatiently. "Now why don't you just zip off, Vidder?"
Vidder raked a hand through his thinning, dirty-blond hair. "Zip off your own self, Cole-me-man. This be my off time."
"Yeah, and don't you have somewhere to be?" Kief nudged at Vidder. The little guy was okay, really, but a little of his company could go a long way.
"Huh. Me?" Vidder frowned, puzzled. "Not that I know."
"Excuse me," a new voice said. Startled, Kief looked up and met a pair of clear hazel eyes. "Is this person bothering you?"
"Uh..." Kief blinked rapidly and tried to pull his thoughts back together. "Not truly, he isn't. He's a friend. Kind of. But if he goes away, that frees up a spot for you."
Cole snickered. "Huh, right. But he was just leaving, wasn't he, Vidder?"
"Fine then, fine then. Got no place to go that I know, but I'll go be there, where nobody be trying getting rid of me." He grumbled and complained, but a cheery wink and small wave let them know he wasn't really upset.
Vidder had hardly left the seat when the newcomer slipped onto the stool. Kief realized that he was staring, and had been since the young man arrived, but he couldn't help himself.
"Hi," he said, hand clenched on the edge of the bar as an anchor to reality. "I'm Kief. You?"
"Name's Ry." He smiled and offered his hand. Kief took it, feeling a nearly electric shock at the contact. "You busy tonight?"
"Not really," Kief replied, retrieving his hand with considerable reluctance. The skin on his shoulders prickled, but he refused to turn around and see if the Eye was watching the interaction from his vantage point. "You sticking around?"
Ry had a very nice smile, Kief decided. He could feel an answering one spreading across his own face.
"Well, I'm not," Cole said loudly.
"Huh?" Kief finally broke his gaze away from Ry when his friend thumped his shoulder. "Cole? What's up?"
"I'm off. Can see when I'm not wanted, eh?" He grinned. "Be here tomorrow?"
"As usual," Kief said automatically. "You don't have to go, Cole."
"Huh. Man, I can see when the time is right for leaving, and that time would be now."
Kief shrugged. "Tomorrow, then."
Ry surreptitiously put a hand on Kief's knee. "He's right about one thing," he said in a low voice, as Cole merged into the Friday night crowd.
"Yeah? What's that?"
"The time is right for leaving. Join me?"
"You got it," Kief smiled.
He rose to follow Ry. This time, he couldn't prevent a reflexive glance at the Eye, but the man was focused on something else. Ry slipped quietly through the tables filled with people intent on squeezing as much joy as they were allowed from a Friday night. Kief followed, nerves alight with anticipation. The skin on his back crawled, insisting that the Eye was watching, was making a report even as he walked, was calling in backup people to question him for suspicious behavior...
But nothing happened. They reached the door of the rec facility with no incident. The corridor outside was nearly deserted. But above their heads, an electronic Eye glared red, faithfully recording every arrival and departure.
"This way," Ry said, turning downcorridor. Kief was startledthat was where the working districts lay. Had he misunderstood? But then Ry smiled at him again, and he followed.
"Lead on," Kief grinned. They went briskly down the corridor.
"It's all in the timing," Ry said, breaking the silence. He checked his wristcomp.
"Timing is the key. Where I go, don't hesitate to follow, okay?"
Now thoroughly mystified, Kief nodded. Ry slowed down, watching a connecting corridor ahead.
"Five. Four. Three. Two. And now"
Two Eyes appeared, marching around the corner. Kief glanced uneasily at the Eye symbol on their drab grey uniforms, wondering if there was any truth to the rumor that the patch itself was a recording device. The men looked them over sharply and moved on, brisk pace never faltering.
"Right on schedule," Ry whispered, with a satisfied smile, after they had passed. "C'mon, you'll like this."
Kief shrugged and followed. If nothing else came of this evening, at least it was becoming quite an adventure. Ry was looking at the wall now, pressing seemingly random spots. A door slid open, and Kief jumped back, startled.
"Whathow did you"
"Shh, I'll tell you later. Now come on." Ry ducked into the service corridor. Kief followed again, looking around with wide eyes. The door slid shut behind him, leaving them in a large, dimly lit corridor.
Pipes, ducts, and wires stretched overhead as far as the eye could see. Gray brick walls curved over them, watching the intruders. In the distance, the steady hum of machinery indicated that they weren't too far from one of the great air processors.
"Holy shit," Kief said, almost reverently. Ry chuckled.
"Better watch it, I might report you."
Kief smiled at him. "Somehow, I think you'd be in deeper trouble for breaking in here than I would for a little foul language."
Ry's eyes clouded. "Huh. Man, you've got that more right than you know. But it doesn't matter, 'cause they won't catch me. That's what's with the timingwe were recorded leaving the rec room, then we were spotted going towards the business district, which gives a proper alibi. Right place, right time. You know they turn most of the monitors off there after close of business."
"Yeah, they do. So we've got every reason to have vanished utterly. And these corridors aren't monitored at all. Still interested in being a bit illegal? Or was I reading you wrong?"
"Not at all," Kief said fervently. "I meanyes, of course I'm still interested, and no you weren't reading me wrong."
"Great," Ry smiled. Then he reached out and took Kief's hand, leading him down the service corridor towards the residential section. "Not much further, then."
"How do you know all this stuff?"
"Don't ask, okay? You probably don't want to know."
"Huh. If you say so. But I thought I knew a lot of tricks. I could never time the arrival of Eyes or open a service corridor, though."
"But you don't have to. That's what I'm here for."
Kief laughed. It made him feel good, knowing there were no Eyes watching every move he made. "So where are we going, then?"
"Somewhere illegal," Ry winked at him.
Kief laughed and gave it up. "Okay, you win. No more questions. But I'm curious as anything, here."
"I know. Maybe later, okay? If things work out."
Huh? Kief wondered what things there were to work out. What had started out as a simple chance for a little illicit fun was becoming more complex by the moment.
"Here." Ry stopped and pressed on the wall again. Kief had enough time to wonder where they were in the cityplex before the wall slid open to reveal a large room.
Kief ducked through the hidden doorway before it could close, then stared in wonder at the room. But he only caught a glimpse of the treasures within before the door closed, cutting off the light.
"Hang on a minute. Don't move, you might trip."
Kief heard Ry moving about surely in the dark, then there was a small flare of light when he struck a match. The tiny flame flickered, then steadied into the warm mellow glow of an antique oil lamp.
"By all the forgotten ancestors," Kief said, in awe. "Where did you get all this contraband?"
"Been collecting it all my life," Ry said, understandably proud. The room was like a vision of the past. Pictures on the wall, figurines, a shimmering burgundy blanket that was surely satin, candles, even an elegant stitched carpet on the floorit was all from the old days, the times before the wars. Printed books, the slender paper volumes once called magazines, electrical equipment that was recognizable as early forms of vidcasters and wristcomps, at least a dozen prints of live animals and fantastic scenery...
"Amazing. Simply amazing."
"Yeah. I like to think so." Ry busied himself lighting a pair of candles. Then he set them on a small table beside the low bed and straightened up, looking at Kief.
"So, uh, you're a collector, right?" Kief swallowed hard, suddenly very nervous. "Not, like, you know, bait."
Ry laughed. "I assure you, the last thing the Order would want me doing is what I'm doing right now. I collected all this over the years. It wasn't handed to me so I could lure attractive young men into my lair."
Kief smiled, somewhat reassured. Ry moved closer, put his hands on Kief's shoulders. "Besides," Ry continued, "do you really think they'd allow a trap to be set inside an unused store room? The bait usually infiltrates an, um, establishment."
"Wouldn't know," Kief started, then was interrupted by a kiss. A very nice kiss, warm and enticing.
"Enough talk, don't you think?" Ry murmured. Kief agreed distractedly, finally getting his hands on Ry. They moved together towards the bed, hands eagerly removing clothing as they went.
Afterwards, Kief started to detangle himself from the twisted sheets and Ry, but was stopped by urgent hands.
"Don't go," Ry said, pulling him back down. "You don't have to leave. There's still plenty of time."
Kief chuckled. "Okay, then, I'll stay. I'd rather be here anyway."
"Good." Ry ran a hand through Kief's hair. "You should let your hair grow longer. It'd look good on you."
"I wish. It's already as long as it can get without getting me in trouble. Can't have the Eyes watching me too closely, you know."
"They already are."
"What?" Kief shot bolt upright, heart pounding. The satin blanket slithered down into his lap.
"Hey, easy there," Ry tugged on him, trying to get him to lay down again. "I just meant they're watching you as much as they watch all of us, you know? Can't even take a piss without it being recorded on some monitor somewhere. Why? Got a guilty conscience?"
"Maybe." Kief relaxed back into Ry's arms, retrieving the blanket. "After all, sexual contact is illegal and immoral without proper approval." He almost wished he could tell the real reason behind his nervousness, but that was just too risky.
"Forms and paperwork and medical testing, and even then only allowed between married couples trying to reproduce... no thank you. I'll take the illegal variety any day."
Kief started to agree, but was sidetracked by Ry's hands and mouth, leading to a bit more illegal activity.
"Will I see you again?" Ry asked, watching Kief get dressed.
"Most definitely." Kief smiled, then was hit by a wave of uncertainty. "That is, if you want to?"
"Very much so. Can I find you at the same rec facility?"
"I'm there most weekends. You?"
"Never been to that one before, but I sure will go there now."
"Damn," Kief said, drinking in the sight of the naked young man on the rumpled bed.
"Just wishing I didn't have to go away now, that's all."
"Yeah." Ry stretched, yawning. "But I don't have to go just yet. You think you can make it back if I tell you when there'll be a patrol? Go out the door right after them?"
"Um..." Kief could feel his face heating. "How do I find the door? It all looks like a wall, to me."
"Oh, zip. I'd forgotten about that bit." Ry slid gracefully out of bed and into his clothing. "I'll show you. But then I'm going back to bed."
"Only if you dream of me," Kief grinned.
"Oh, I will," Ry promised. "Trust me, I will."
Returning to normal life the next morning was a distinct letdown. When the waking buzz sounded, it jolted him free of a dream of Ry. Kief smiled and stretched langorously, then rolled out of bed and got dressed.
The normal morning trek to work was accomplished in a pleasant haze. Sterile white walls passed by unnoticed. Masses of people shuffled by, quietly going about their daily lives, but all Kief saw was one face in memory. He made an effort to concentrate on his work, but only after his supervisor reprimanded him and offered to report him for hindering production. But how could he possibly concentrate on turbine engine repair when the world was such a wonderful place?
Shit. Reality intruded with a jolt on his way home. Kief shook his head free of last night's memories and focused on the Eye in front of him.
"Yes, sir." He hoped that sounded properly respectful. He wondered, as he always did, why the Eyes ever bothered askingcouldn't they see the number across his back, on his shoulder, on his front pocket? Maybe they thought they were being polite.
"You're on report. Take this to the Watchcenter by your quarters and receive your assignment."
Kief automatically accepted the little slip of paper and the Eye moved off, back to his post across the corridor. What'd I do now?
He checked the paper: improper attitude. Failure to correct behavior. Ignoring attempt to contact. All minor infractions, so at least he wasn't too far in the hot water. Probably they'd set him to watching the vid... again. He sighed and moved on down the corridor, making the attempt to modify his behavior to be socially acceptable. At least the Watchcenter was nearby. He could get the unpleasantness out of the way early and return to the rec facility. Maybe Ry would be there again tonight.
He reached the Watchcenter quickly and entered, as always feeling a stab of apprehension. True, he'd never been physically harmed in there, but so many others had. Not to mention the ever-present threat of erasure...
"Offense?" The bored Eye on duty asked. Wordlessly, Kief held out his citation. The Eye scanned it, entered some information in the comp, then jerked his head towards the vid cubicles. "C-4. Glory of the Order and Responsibility. And try to pay attention this time, okay?"
"Yes, sir," Kief muttered. Damn. Two of them. He'd been hoping for just one vid. He entered the cubicle, small and sterile white, with only a wallscreen and a hard bench.
He sat down, trying in vain to find a comfortable position, as the vid started playing.
"You're watching Glory of the Order," the soundtrack boomed, in case he didn't know that already. The highly partisan account of the wars started playing, emphasizing how dreadful the human condition had once been. Scenes of incredible violence, human beings living in conditions a sewer rat would shun, people living in sin and dying in poverty... this part of the video always made Kief wonder what it had really been like back then. He'd heard stories from his uncle that indicated the vid showed less than half of the truth.
Then the vid shifted to the wars themselves, showing how other countries lashed out at the rampant immorality and sin, and the response of the land whose name had been erased.
The United States of America, Kief thought defiantly. His uncle had made certain that he knew that name and knew what it stood for.
The bombs started dropping as the nameless country struck back. The vid showed devastation beyond imagining, and then... peace. The Order had arisen. According to the vid, the benevolent Order took over the nameless country, eradicating the wicked ways and bringing its people to morality and decency. This ended the wars, for now there was no reason for any other country to strike at the people of the Order.
Yeah, right. Kief held onto his talisman against the subliminal conditioning used in these cubiclesthe truth. His uncle had told him everything. The Order had risen from the ashes, true, but not from a defeated and demoralized country. While no one had used the world-killing capability of nuclear weapons, whole countries had still been destroyed. Even the United States had, for once, suffered significant damage. When the Order had first shown itself, it had seemed like such a good idea. Back then they had been a mere faction of the ruling government. But then they grew powerful enough and took over one metropolis after another, until they were the ruling government. Far from the quiet and bloodless takeover portrayed, where people welcomed the Order with open arms, all resistance was utterly crushed. Kief's own relatives, all except Robert and Kelly, had been erased. Robert had broken free entirely, living as a renegade and tolerated by the Order as long as he didn't cause any problems. Kelly had been too young to be on her own and had been taken into the Order. She had become Kief's great-grandmother, although she hadn't lived to meet him.
The vid showed the new cityplex constructed by the Order. Gone was the squalor of before, replaced by shining clean walls and corridors, filled with quiet, obedient people. Kief ground his teeth and wished they'd get on with it.
The vid ended, with the next one starting immediately afterwards. "Your Responsibility to the Order," announced the overloud voice.
Kief fumed inwardly through the vid. Somehow, this one always managed to infuriate him, and had ever since he'd discovered the vid cubicles were geared solely towards conditioning. At least it wasn't truly effective when the subject knew it was happening and was actively resisting it. He ignored the voice as much as he could manage, tuning out its droning commentary on how a proper citizen of the Order should act in his daily life. Instead, he wondered if he would see Ry again. He hoped so. Not like he'd ever had a real relationship before, beyond grabbing a quickie with the occasional interested guy, but Ry would definitely be a nice one to start with. He wondered if it would get better, if having sex more than once with the same person would get boring, or if it would let them learn better what the other liked. Then he almost laughed aloud at himself, plotting out future encounters with someone he'd only barely met. But he couldn't help it. Ry was fascinating, and he really wanted to get to know him better.
Finally, the vid ended. Kief rose and stretched, rubbing his numb behind, and tried to put a properly conditioned look on his face. Then he went out of the cubicle, nodded to the Eye, and went home to change out of his work coverall before heading for the rec facility and his dinner.
"Huh, where you been, Kief?" Cole greeted him as soon as he approached.
"Got nabbed by an Eye," he grumbled. "Wasn't walking right, or something like that." He sat down and entered his order into the barcomp.
"Shame shame," Cole teased, punching him lightly on the arm. "Someone was here looking for you."
"Oh?" Kief felt his heart lurch into his throat.
"Yeah. Same guy you went off with last night. Do I want to know?" Cole raised an eyebrow.
"Huh. No, that you don't." Kief sighed. "Was he going to be back?"
"That good, eh?" Cole grinned at him. "Said he won't be back. Busy until next Friday, but he'll clear things up and fix that soon, whatever that's supposed to mean."
Kief grinned. "Sounds good to me." His food arrived then, delivered by the rolling barbot. He groaned. "They got it wrong again, zip them all. Look, does this look like a burger to you?"
"Nopelooks like you got the synthetic sandwich again, just like the rest of us."
"Oh well. I'm too hungry to care." Kief tore into his meal, hoping the Eye in the corner hadn't noticed his earlier excitement. He could hardly believe Ry had been looking for him.
A week, though. Would he make it?
He did. Barely, with two write-ups and another reprimand, but Kief made it through the week. Friday evening found him in the rec facility, perched on a barstool and sipping at his synthetic drink, full of nutrients and guaranteed not to get anyone drunk ever. He tried to keep from looking around too obviously, but couldn't help it. Cole wasn't there. He'd found a girl that was willing to go on a nice legal date, which might even lead to something more later on. Even Vidder was elsewhere, doing ancestors only knew what. So he looked, searching faces anxiously, until he caught the Eye staring at him. Then he glued his eyes to his glass, fiddling with it and trying to keep himself occupied.
"Is this seat taken?"
"It is now," Kief said, looking up with a smile. Ry slid onto the stool beside him.
"I missed you last week." His tone was casual, but the dark tint to his eyes indicated that the words had more than one meaning. Kief swallowed hard.
"Me too. I mean, I missed you by a few minutes, here." His tongue felt tied in a knot. "Got your message, though."
"Good." Ry smiled. "Your friend seems like a nice person. Where's he at tonight?"
"Cole? He's gone to the vidhouse with a girl." Kief realized that he was staring again, but he couldn't tear his eyes away from Ry. He was so much better in person than in memory, with all the little details he'd almost forgotten plain to see. Like the way his eyes crinkled around the edges as if he was about to smile, and the way his hair tried to be wavy, even in the short cut required by law... not to mention the almost magnetic attraction nearly visible between the two of them.
"Too bad." Another double meaning. Kief chuckled. "Got plans?"
"Nope. Any ideas?"
Please say yes, please say yes...
Ry smiled slowly. "Arcade?"
"Huh?" Kief blinked. "I mean, sure."
Ry smiled. The look in his eyes promised more private fun later. "Come on, then. Bet you can't beat me at Tiles."
"Bet I can." Kief followed Ry across the rec facility to the side room which housed the few electronic games deemed morally acceptable by the Order. The Eye watched them all the way across the floor.
"Oops," Ry said loudly. "Looks like the game's full. We'll just have to wait."
Kief shot him a puzzled glance. Ry winked at him. What are you up to, you sneaky man?
Ry made a slight motion towards the ceiling. The electronic Eye panned from side to side slowly. "C'mere, found a seat."
He led the way again, around the gamers to a bench along the wall. Situated in an awkward spot between games, not quite in the corner, the bench was out of the Eye's view.
"Holy shit, man," Kief whispered. "You did it againit can't spot us here, can it."
"You've got it." Ry grinned. "We've got cover until the game frees up."
"Amazing." Kief glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then ran a hand lightly along Ry's thigh. "I really did miss you, you know. What did you do to me that night?"
"Shh," Ry breathed, leaning in closer. "They can still hear a mouse fart at thirty paces. Wait till the games are making noise."
"How do you know all this, anyway?" Kief dropped his voice until it was barely above a whisper.
"I told you, you don't really want to know just yet. As for what I did to you..." He chuckled. "That was nothing compared to what I've been wanting to do to you all week. And besides, I seem to remember you did your share of doing as well."
Kief felt a grin creeping across his face. "Yeah. More? Soon?"
"You got it." Kief checked the games. "Hey, Tiles is still full, but FlipIt is open. You game?"
"Huh. FlipIt, eh? You sure you want to play with someone as devious as me?"
"Of course I want to play with you, Ry," Kief said, all wide-eyed innocence. Ry nearly choked, trying not to laugh indecently loud.
"Come on, then, and play with me," he gasped, standing up.
Kief quickly checked for observers, then reached up and pinched lightly at Ry's rear. "Anything you say," he said innocently, when Ry spun around, sputtering. Kief grinned and rose, starting for the game.
"Oh, zip you, Kief. I'm going to play your pants off, and you know it."
Kief couldn't help licking his lips in anticipation. "Go ahead and blow me away, then."
Ry couldn't respond to that one. Kief snickered as Ry turned a very deep shade of red and sputtered helplessly.
"Your choice, friend," he said politely, indicating the game. "Red or blue? Personally, I think red looks quite well on you."
"Zip you," Ry gasped, around another batch of near-hysterical giggles. "I'm dying here, can't you see that? Any minute now, they'll be on me for having too much fun in public, or something."
"Huh. Okay, okay, I'll behave. Now will you choose already?"
Ry stepped up to the game and selected red, giving him control of the board. Kief groaned when he saw the layout Ry chose: an open diamond in the center. He hated that layout. Somehow, he always ended up getting defeated most humiliatingly on that one.
"I choose you," Ry whispered in his ear, when he moved in to make his first move. Kief twitched, causing the controller to move to the wrong square, leaving him with one out of place splotch instead of the two side by side he'd wanted in the corner.
"You lousy zip," he muttered, but couldn't keep a grin from spreading across his face no matter how hard he tried.
Later, much later, they lay twined together in a tangle of sweaty limbs. Kief stroked Ry's hair idly, enjoying the texture of the waves.
"Do you believe in love at first sight?" Ry asked.
"Huh. Never really thought about it. Might just as well ask if I believe in love, period."
"Okay, then." A laugh lurked just under the surface of the words. "Do you believe in love?"
Kief pushed himself into a semi-upright position, looking down at Ry. Hazel eyes, dark in the dim candlelight but still shining with an inner brilliance, blinked up at him. "I probably wouldn't know love if it bit me," he admitted. Then he leaned down and kissed Ry. "Honest lust, now, that I believe in."
The laugh bubbled free. "It's lust you're after, then? Well, I've got plenty of that to go around."
But the question sunk down into Kief's mind, past all his barriers and defenses and wariness, and nagged at him. "Do you believe in love, then?"
"Of course," Ry replied. "Love is what makes life worth living. Or at leastit will, if I ever find it."
Kief felt an unexpected pang at that. "Huh."
"Nothing. Just... huh." Kief struggled to put what he was feeling into words that didn't scare him or reek of commitment. "Don't look too hard, eh?"
"I won't," Ry promised solemnly.
"I never did this before," Kief said abruptly.
"Seen someone more than once. You know, not safe, and all."
"Huh." Ry snuggled closer. "Good, then."
"That you're willing to see me again. That's very good."
"Willing?" Kief laughed. "You're all I could think about. Got in trouble for it, too, 'cause I couldn't keep my mind on being a good little person."
"Huh. Same here. Got to fix that, eh?"
"I'll tell you how," Ry whispered, in a suggestive tone. Kief chuckled.
"How, then? Let's hear it."
"See more of each other. Do this way more often."
"Huh." Kief smiled. "Good idea. How and when?"
"How? Any way you want it."
"And I thought I had a dirty mind. I meant, how you want to go about seeing more of each other?"
"I'm cleared now on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights. You?"
"I'm all yours." A tiny thrill of fear ran down Kief's spine, warning him that those words were dangerous. He ignored it.
"I can hope," Ry whispered. Then he silenced Kief's unspoken question with a demanding kiss.
Sunday morning found Kief outside the perimeter, as usual. He wondered what Ry would say if he knew the identity of the Red Racer. Oh well, time enough to worry about that later, if there was a later. For now, he needed to worry about himselfwhat was wrong with him? Why did he want so badly for there to be a "later"? Huh. Just what he needed, a commitment. And a dangerous one, at that. Maybe his uncle would be able to give him some advice.
This time, the signal from the electronic Eye was noticed right away and an aircar was dispatched immediately. Eyes watched tensely from the perimeter watchstation as the aircar set an intercept course for the Red Racer. But the antisocialite evaded the Enforcers in the aircar with contemptuous ease, leaving the giant stranded by the edge of a river spanned by a narrow bridge.
Somewhere in the Watchroom, someone swore. Eyes looked at each other suspiciously, but no one admitted to the profanity.
"Well, gentlemen," the head of the Watch said, "looks like the Racer stays free again."
The Eye that had caught the initial report spoke up. "We'll get him. No doubt about that, we'll get him."
"Uncle Robert," Kief asked that evening, sitting in front of the crackling flames in the fireplace, "what's love?"
"Eh, you don't believe in asking the easy ones, do you, boy?"
Kief snuck a look at him to see if he minded the question. His uncle was a million miles away, smiling faintly.
"Love's a question never answered," Robert murmured.
"Huh?" Kief blinked.
"Just something I heard once, not sure where. Love, eh?" Robert sighed. "It's probably the best thing in the world. And I'd say it's the greatest crime of the Order that they've tried to eradicate love."
"It's more than just sex, isn't it." Kief leaned forward and grabbed the poker, stirring up the fire.
"Yes, boy. It's more than sex. It's... giving yourself to another person, belonging to them and liking it, doing anything just to make that person smile..."
"Were you ever in love?"
Robert smiled. "Yes. I loved my wife with all my heart. But she passed on before the wars, bless her soul. I'm grateful every day that she never had to see the world as it's become now."
"Huh." Kief thought about that for a minute. The wars had started over sixty five years ago. Love was so strong that it could reach across that many years and still affect an old man, surreptitiously wiping his eyes... huh. "Tell me about before the wars again?"
"Life was different then," his uncle started, the same as he always did. "This house sat on a working farm. We grew wheat, corn, and barley..."
Kief sat by the fire and dreamed, letting his uncle's words reconstruct a long gone world in his mind's eye. But the question of love still refused to go away.
The season wore on, not that the captive cityplex dwellers knew it. The wild countryside away from the perimeter chilled and darkened as the days progressed towards winter, bringing cold crisp nights and brilliant falling leaves.
Inside the cityplex, Kief wished he could share the days outside with Ry. He was beyond feeling scared now. All he wanted now was to be with Ry, to share everything with him. He wasn't sure if it was love he felt or not, but whatever it was felt good. And Ry felt it too, he could tell. The emotion shining in his eyes when they were together might be nameless, but it was strong.
Kief hurried down the corridor towards the rec facility on a Friday night, running later than usual. He'd gotten tagged yet again for inappropriate behaviorswearing at work, this time. He'd been set to degreasing the engine room floor, supposedly to make him think before he spoke. In reality, all the mindless labor did was make him swear all the more inventively in the privacy of his own head. If he missed Ry...
The Eye caught him inside the rec facility, too.
"Slow it, turbo," the Eye said, lifting his link to call in the infraction. "What's the rush?"
"He was trying to keep his word to meet me," Ry said, appearing from nowhere.
Kief shot a startled glance at him, both grateful and appalled. Did he want to get reported too? "Yeah, I was."
"Oh." The Eye hesitated, then set the link back down without completing the report. "No harm done, I guess. Just be more considerate in the future."
"Okay," Kief called over his shoulder, as Ry tugged him rapidly out of the room.
"Hope you weren't wanting to stay," Ry said softly, out in the corridor.
"Not particularly. I was just trying to get to you."
"Good." Ry lead the way quickly through the scant traffic of the corridor. "Where were you?"
"Got caught swearing at work. Sorry."
"Hey! It isn't funny!" Kief watched nervously for any sign of people while Ry pressed the hidden catches of the service access door. Then it was open, and they were safely inside. "I thought you'd give up waiting on me," he said, voice shaking with emotion, then wrapped his arms around Ry and buried his face in the other man's neck.
"I would never give up on you," Ry replied, just as intensely. "I"
"Nothing. Come on, we're still not entirely safe."
They raced each other for the hideout. Kief felt giddy with relief. Not only had Ry waited for him, but somehow he'd gotten off yet another report. This was shaping up to be a great evening.
I love you, he thought, trying the words on for size. Still utterly terrifying, but definitely a concept worth exploring.
The red car slewed to a halt, kicking up a tail of dust and barely avoiding impact with the front of the gleaming silver aircar. For a moment, nothing happened. Then the shield lowered on the aircar, allowing its occupants their first clear look at the elusive Red Racer.
Kief stared up at the Enforcers defiantly. They might have him, but he still had his pride. Then he got a good look at the pilot and his heart froze in his chest. Brown eyes locked with wide and startled hazel for a long moment.
Then Ry gave a short, sharp jerk of his head and closed his eyes. A heartbeat later, the aircar let loose an earsplitting shriek and dropped to the ground. Kief gawked at the sight, then hit the gas and sent the car screaming back the way he'd come.
Shit. Oh, shit.
The words formed a mindless refrain, echoing through Kief's head as he raced for safety. That had been Ry. No mistaking it, that was Ry.
Ry was an Eye.
Suddenly, everything made sense. He knew the Eyes had been watching him. Obviously. He knew the Enforcers were after him. Again, obviously. What better way to catch him than to use bait?
But he loves you, whispered a small voice inside his head.
"If he does, he's never said so, damn it all to erasure," he said aloud, as he pulled into his uncle's place. He put the car away rapidly, making sure it was entirely concealed. This was no time to get sloppy.
And what if it wasn't a setup? In that unlikely case, it was still betrayal. Ry should have said something. He was an Eye, damn him, one of Them.
Maybe his uncle would have some advice for him. Uncle Robert usually came through with something that put everything into perspective, why should this be any different?
But the pain inside suggested it would take more than good advice to fix things this time.
"Awright, what's wrong with you, boy?"
There was Uncle Robert now, waiting in the doorway to the hidden garage. Kief opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He coughed, then tried again. "Eyes. And Enforcers."
"They almost get you, or what? You look like you seen a ghost."
"My friend," he choked out. "My... best friend. An Eye."
"Oh, shit." His uncle humphed and shuffled. "Well, you'd better come in and sit down for a bit, boy."
At least I got the word usage correct, Kief thought inanely and followed Robert into the house.
"Sit, nephew," Robert said inside, gesturing towards one of the ancient wingback chairs. He busied himself adding wood to the fire, while Kief sank numbly into the chair.
"Now," his uncle said, after he was satisfied with the fire and had sat down himself. "Tell me. Who's this friend of yours?"
"Ry," he whispered. He cleared his throat and spoke louder. "His name's Ry. We met... six weeks ago? End of September, anyway."
"Not long after you started running the back roads," Robert nodded. "Go on."
"We... spend a lot of time together. Too much, maybe. Ican't explain. I like him. A lot."
"I gathered that already, son. Now tell me."
The caring tone of his uncle's voice nearly undid him. Kief had to take several deep breaths before he could continue. "He's one of Them. I didn't know. He was there. The pilot."
"The one that ran you down today?" Robert guessed shrewdly. Kief nodded. "And now you're thinking it's a setup."
Kief nodded again. "I should have known. Should have guessed. He knew too much. And the Eyes back down when he's around. He must have been hunting me down the whole time."
"Whoa, there, drop back a bit, boy. Tell me exactly what happened today."
"I was out on the road you call County Line. Going along just great, car doing beautifully. Then there was an aircar, one of the big ones, but I couldn't go too terrible fast, because of how holey the road is up there."
"Ain't no one to maintain it. No surprise it's got holes. Then what?"
"It was good. It was damn good. Got right up on me. In fact, it caught me- cut me off in between a dropoff, a massive pothole, and it. I nearly hit it. I stoppedcouldn't do a damn thing else. The shield dropped, and they could see me. I could see them. He was there." Kief swallowed hard. "Ry. My... friend. He was the pilot. He looked at me. I looked at him. He closed his eyes, then the aircar screamed and dropped dead on the ground. And I got out of there, what's it you say, lickity-shit?"
Robert snorted. "Lickity-split, boy. So. Your buddy, he flies this aircar after you, then finds out it's you and lets you get away. I got that right?"
"Kind of looks that way," Kief said cautiously. Put that way, it sounded like Ry hadn't known, hadn't set him up from the start.
"Boy, you got nothing to worry about, then," his uncle said with confidence. "Don't know what your friend was doing flying that thing, but that boy didn't set you up. Got it?"
"If you say so," Kief said. He wished he could be as certain as Uncle Robert.
"Remember what I told you about love, boy? Well, it works between friends, too. Especially good friends. You've got to trust in your friend. Give him a chance to speak for himself."
"I hope you're right."
"I know I'm right, boy. I didn't survive the end of the world 'cause I'm an idiot. Trust me. Trust him."
"You sent for me, sir?"
The agent stood rigidly at attention in front of the Director's desk. He'd never been called here before, but hopefully this wouldn't be the last time. Attention from the Director was a good thing, as long as it wasn't disciplinary.
"Yes. I understand you're on the Red Racer case?" The Director looked up from his comp, hazel eyes hard as malachite.
"Yes, sir." The Enforcer tensed up. Perhaps this wasn't as good as he'd thought. This was moving onto dangerous ground.
"What's your opinion of what happened with the aircar?"
"Permission to speak freely, sir?"
"Of course. Otherwise I wouldn't have asked."
"Deliberate, sir. Definitely deliberate." The agent held his breath.
"And your reasoning?"
"The mechanical failure that occured was in the hover suspension system. An experienced pilot would know exactly how to time it so the forward thrusters and the support fans shorted each other out, rather than holding the craft at hover. Approximately three point eight seconds of thrust, applied to both motivators while under the brake, would have the exact same effect as a random equipment failure."
"How did you know this?"
The Director tapped a finger against his cheek thoughtfully. "You're smart, agent," he said abruptly.
"Thank you, sir." The Enforcer relaxed a hair.
"I need you to do something for me. I think you're smart enough to be the right man for the job, no matter what others say. Will you accept?"
"May I ask what the job is, sir?"
"Yes or no," the Director snapped.
"Designation 719465. Name Ry. Watch him. I need to know his involvement with this Red Racer."
"But sir, he's" The agent stopped himself, afraid he'd already gone too far.
"My son. Yes, I'm aware of that, agent. Now do your duty. Any means necessary."
"Very well, sir." The Enforcer saluted respectfully, then left.
He was there. Kief felt his heart clench in his chest. But he concealed the reaction, burying his emotions behind a lifetime of control. He crossed the room just as he always did and picked up a drink at the bar. Then he walked calmlycalmlythrough the crowded tables until he reached Ry.
"Hey." Kief sat down, watching Ry warily.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Kief said, in a low, intense voice. He glanced at the Eye, who was watching a crowd of loud teenagers.
"I could say the same." Ry took a sip of his drink, outwardly calm. But his eyes betrayed him, as usualthey were dark and worried.
"Because I'm no threat to you." Kief could have kicked himself for the accusatory tone, but it was too late to stop the words.
"Again, I would say the same." Ry fidgeted with his glass. His gaze dropped to the table. "At least, not when I know it's you."
All the anger and uncertainty of the last week bubbled up inside Kief and threatened to break free. "As if you didn't know," he growled. "Don't sit there and try and pretend"
"Shh!" Ry glanced over to the Eye, who was watching them now, and gave a little wave. "Not here, okay? I'm not exactly in good shape with them myself right now."
"Where, then? Because I've got a lot to say to you, and I think you've got some explaining to do."
Ry shot him an enigmatic look, but nodded. "My place. It's about time we came clean to each other."
Kief leaned back a hair, suspicion written all over his face. "And it's not a trap?"
A vicious and nasty part of him was glad to see the flash of hurt in Ry's eyes. "Well, that's just a risk you're going to have to take, isn't it? If my word's not good enough, that is."
"Like you've got much room to talk, Mr. Collector," Kief muttered, but pushed back his chair and finished off his caff in a single gulp. "Let's go, then."
Kief shot the Eye a dirty look on the way out. The Eye reached for his link, then Ry caught his attention and shook his head. The Eye shrugged and let his hand fall short of the link and the report of antisocial behavior.
Kief reached the hallway and turned towards the business district. Ry let him go a few paces, then cleared his throat. Kief stopped and turned. "Well? Are you coming?"
"I said my place, didn't I?"
Kief blinked. "You didn't mean" and he jerked his head towards the hideout, unwilling to say anything more under the watchful electronic Eye.
"No. I meant my place. Coming?"
Kief nodded and followed when Ry resumed walking towards the residential section. He was surprised at how hard he was having to work to remain angry, in the face of Ry's calm. Not to mention the pain in his eyes... But he had to hold on, had to cling to the anger, because if he didn't then he was going to do something disgraceful, like beg for forgiveness or promise to never do it again.
They walked the corridors and rode the lifts in tense silence. Kief followed closely, wishing he dared reach for the reassurance of Ry's hand. But that just wouldn't do, so he tried to act like he went into the upper levels all the time. He couldn't help staring, though, or crowding in close to Ry when they went through the Eyes' common room. Somewhat to his surprise, Ry didn't stop there, but instead led him to yet another elevator. Up three more levels, then out into a similar common area, with slightly higher quality furnishings.
Where are we? Kief wanted to ask, but he kept his mouth shut and followed Ry out of the common room and into a lushly carpeted corridor. There he was glad he hadn't said anything, because he saw two men in uniform walking towards them. Dark green, almost black, with a single brown bar patch to indicate branch of service: Enforcers.
"Evening, Ry," the taller of the pair said.
"Hu, Jek," Ry nodded. "Good to see you. Going out?"
"Yeah, we're finally off duty. You hear about the plans for the weekend?"
"Hu," Ry shook his head reprovingly. "You forget, I'm hardly on the priviliged info list these days. You probably know more than I do."
"Huh. Weird, you being on the out." Hu looked at Kief, with a sly smile. "Company, eh?"
"Yeah, not that it's any of your concern. Job, remember?"
Job. Kief nearly blew his cover then and there, when blind, unthinking rage swept over him. Job?
Both other men laughed. "Yeah, whatever you say, Ry," Jek teased. "C'mon, let's get out of here, leave Ry to his duty."
Hu laughed again, then they left. Ry continued down the corridor, and Kief followed, still quivering with carefully supressed rage. When Ry stopped and pressed his palm to the plate of a door on the right, Kief went through the door, almost beyond caring whether or not it was a trap.
"Job?" he demanded, as soon as the door whispered shut. "You're just doing your job?"
"Shit." Ry sighed and ran a hand through his hair, rumpling it. "Somehow I knew you'd pick up on that. Have a seat, why don't you, and I'll explain."
Kief glanced at the room, still too mad to even see clearly. He received a confused impression of a good-sized public room with two or three seating units and a low table. He perched on the edge of a multiseat, hands alternately twisting at each other, gripping his knees, or picking at the seat cushion. "Well? Spit it out. I'm waiting."
Ry sank into a singleseat, rubbing his forehead. "I'm a pilot. Enforcer Special Ops unit, covert operations. Not the Eye you probably assumed." Then he looked up, an intense light in his eyes. "But I did not set you up. The Red Racer was never my assignment. I was just as surprised as you were that day."
"We'll get to that in a minute." Kief refused to be distracted by the intensity of those eyes. "Just then, you said this was part of your job. Spill it."
"Easiest way I could think of to get them to back off, okay? My job involves some odd things, when I'm not flying. They'll assume you're a contact. Well," and a fleeting half-smile crossed his face, "they'll assume I've brought you here for the night and am using work as a cover, but officially they'll see you as a contact."
"Huh." Kief drummed his fingers on his knee. "All right. That takes care of the job issue. Now why didn't you tell me?"
"No real reason to. Why? Would you have told me? Speaking of which, you should have told me." Ry shot him a disgusted look. "If I'd known, I would have gotten myself pulled from that duty shift. Last thing I was expecting was to run down my secret lover when I traded duties with someone calling in a favor."
"Yeah? And how do you think I felt about that one, huh? When that damn shield dropped and you were there." Kief just couldn't hold still anymore. He got up, pacing back and forth behind the multiseat. "I nearly died, right then and there. Was it all a set up?"
"Don't you listen?" Ry glared at him. "I just said I didn't know."
"And how am I supposed to believe you, hmm? How am I supposed to believe that you're not just going to turn me in?"
"You low-level bastard," Ry said, tension humming in his voice. He rose and stalked to intercept Kief, grabbing his shoulder and holding him in place. "You're supposed to believe it because I said it, zip you. And just in case you're wondering, I got reprimanded for letting you escape, seriously reprimanded. And I stuck to my story, even under the question, that I'd never seen you before, that it was a mechanical failure put that aircar on the ground. Now don't you think that says something about if you can trust me?"
Kief looked into the stormy eyes so close to his own. "Can I believe you?" he said coldly, even though his heart was screaming at him to just drop it and beg for forgiveness.
"Damn you," Ry whispered, flinching away with sudden pain. "If you can't believe me," he said more loudly, turning away and rubbing his forehead again. "If you can't bring yourself to believe that I care enough to tell you the truth. If you don't want" He broke off and took a deep breath. Then he looked at Kief, eyes glittering. "If you don't want to believe me, that's your choice. But if that's the case, you'd better just walk right out that door and never come back."
He turned away and went back to the singleseat, sitting down and holding his head with both hands, fingers knotted in his hair. Kief watched him, feeling suckerpunched. Leave? Memories flickered through his head, brief moments of passion and tenderness. The special closeness they'd felt with each other, the gleam of red highlights in Ry's hair brought out by candlelight, the feel of his hand, the taste of his lips... the joy shining in his eyes when they were together. The pain there now, pain that he had put there. The utter shock and disbelief when the shield had dropped.
And the aircar dropping dead to the ground, allowing the Red Racer to escape.
Slowly, quietly, Kief returned to the multiseat. He sat there silently, no longer angry, just numb, watching Ry.
"Are you going to trust me again?" Ry said in a low voice, not looking up.
"I'm still here, aren't I?" Kief sighed. "How is this going to work?"
"You'll have to trust me. That's all I can say. I don't want to lose you." Now he looked up at Kief. "What's it like?"
The roar of the engine, the willing response to his slightest movement, the squeal of the tires, the wind in his hair... "Magnificent," he said. "I can't describe it. It's probably something like flying, only more... more personal. More intense."
Ry smiled shyly. "I envy you. Even before I knew who the Racer was, I envied him the freedom."
"Huh." Kief shifted uncomfortably. "But you're an Enforcer. Special Ops, at that. You have more freedom than even the Eyes."
"No monitors, more leeway when it comes to the laws. That's it. It's true no one will question my bringing you here, but it's also true that I can't hold your hand in public without getting hauled in on a public indecency charge. Might get off easier than you would, but I'd still get hauled in."
"Huh. That reminds me. Why me?"
"Um," Ry shifted uncomfortably, looking anywhere but at Kief.
Kief felt a stab of apprehension. "Spit it out. Why me?"
"Okay. Remember when I said the Eyes already were watching you?"
Kief felt a chill all the way from his nose to his toes. "Yes."
"They were. As Special Ops, even just a pilot, I can check in on any covert work I choose, and, well..."
"Tell me already," Kief growled. He was getting a very uneasy feeling about this.
"I'd been asked to keep an eye on a new agent. First assignment, should have been something relatively easy, even though the Eyes didn't want to mess with itjust a couple youngish men showing distinct antisocial tendencies. You know, pushing the limits on hair and dress, occasional swearing or writeups for attitudereal easy task. So I dropped by that first night to check up on Vidder. That was the first time I saw you."
Kief was reassured by the look on Ry's face, as though he were remembering something infinitely wonderful.
"I chased off Vid, and, well," Ry shrugged and smiled. "You know the rest."
"Vidder's an agent." Kief shook his head. "That's hard to believe. Did you warn him off me and Cole, or what?"
"Kind of. I convinced him that there was nothing to report, that you were just ordinary young men and not antisocialites."
"So it was for real, right?" Kief suddenly needed the confirmation. "You weren't just playing with me, right? Not just something you do with all the antisocial young men you check out?"
"Kief," he said, shaking his head. "Sometimes I just can't believe you. Yes, it was for real. Still is, if you're still willing."
Kief swallowed hard against the sudden traitorous lump in his throat. "Of course I'm willing," he choked out.
"Oh? Then why are you over there, and I'm over here?" A wicked smile danced around the corners of Ry's mouth, chasing away some of the sadness.
"Because that's where you went," Kief replied, conquering the lump. Ry's smile widened and he moved from the singleseat to the multi.
"Remember when I asked you if you believed in love?" Ry reached out, laid a tentative hand on Kief's, where it rested on his knee.
"And I said I probably wouldn't know it if it bit me." He couldn't tear his eyes away from Ry's, so clear and shining with emotion.
"Well, I think you'd better learn to recognize it, because I love you."
Ry's hand slipped around to the back of Kief's head, pulling him in for a tender kiss. Kief reached for him hungrily. "I think I love you too," he whispered, feeling a thrill of combined terror and excitement at actually saying the words.
"Kief," his lover breathed, making the name into a caress. "Say you'll be mine, and let me be yours, always."
"Yes," Kief mumbled, kissing along Ry's neck. "Oh, yes. I'm yours. As long as you want me. I love you."
There, that time it hadn't been so hard to say. Ry kissed him deeply, then licked a wet trail down to his collarbone. Kief shivered with pleasure, then yipped in complete surprise when Ry bit him lightly. "Do you recognize it yet?"
"Okay! Okay! I believe in love!" Kief laughed, pretending to cringe away from Ry's teeth. Then he saw the last of the sadness leave Ry's eyes, replaced by the strong emotion that had to be love. "Ry..."
"Come in the bedroom," he invited. "It's more comfortable in there."
Kief followed his lover into the bedroom, undoing the fasteners on his coverall as he went. Inside, Ry turned on a dim light and finished undressing Kief, then peeled out of his own clothing and they sank to the bed together.
Something changed, that night. Afterwards, while Kief was dozing with Ry asleep in his arms, he tried to figure out what it was. He'd never felt anything like this before. Was this truly what it felt like to be in love, this shivery almost pain? He felt like he was going to burst. It was truly an unfamiliar sensation, to care so deeply about another human being in this overly-repressed world where sexual contact was illegal except under rigidly controlled circumstances. And worse yet, to feel this way over another man, rather than just taking a night of illicit pleasure and moving on... it was terrifying. It was exhilirating. It could get him years of rehab. But he didn't care, because nothing would make him give up this... love.
Ry shifted slightly with a sigh. Kief smoothed his hair back from his face, with a tender smile. This must be love. What else could possibly make him feel this way?
"Ry," he whispered. "Wake up a bit."
"Do I have to leave here now? Will you get in trouble?"
"Don't go," Ry replied, clutching at him. "Stay. 'sokay."
Kief sighed happily. "I love you."
Kief's last thought before sleep finally caught up to him was to wish he could spend every night like this.
"You really think this is going to work?"
The Enforcer straightened from the comp, shooting the Eye a disdainful look. "Just do your job, okay? Let me do mine. All you have to do is watch that tracer signal. I want to know the instant it changes."
"And what's the change signify?" The Eye frowned at the screen. True, it was his duty to watch the people, but this wasn't "the people" he was watching. The Director's son... he could be in trouble if word of this got out, and he wasn't entirely sure that the supercilious Special Ops man would back up his story if he wound up in front of the questioners.
"The signal will remain the same as long as the brat's in the cityplex. It'll change when he leaves the walls, and change again if he crosses the perimeter. Make sure you're on it at all times."
The Enforcer left. The Eye fiddled with his monitor for a moment, splitting the windows so it wasn't immediately obvious that one window showed the movements of a single red dot. Then he settled in to watch.
"Are you sure about this?" Ry eyed the slow-moving train dubiously.
"Positive." Kief waited tensely, tucked in his usual hiding spot and waiting for the exact right moment. The streamlined white engine hummed past, keeping to the slow pace demanded within the cityplex. "Do exactly as I do and you'll be fine."
"If you say so."
"Now!" Kief sprang forward, with a perfectly timed leap that brought him to the inspection platform. Ry followed on his heels, nearly crowding him off the tiny platform. The train was already beginning to pick up speed as its engine cleared the city walls. "Come on, no time to waste."
Kief climbed the maintenance ladder to the top of the car, fighting the sway of the train with the ease of long practice. He reached the curved top of the car and flattened himself out, using the rain grooves as handholds. He reached the safety of his usual perch and turned to offer Ry a hand, which he took willingly.
"You do this often?" Ry panted, wide-eyed, huddling up against Kief in the scant shelter of the retractable air deflector, where it covered the hatch made for loading liquids.
"Every week," Kief grinned at him. "Hang on tight, now, the train's about to get faster."
"As if I'd let go. You sure this is safe?"
"Of course it isn't safe. That's what makes it so fun."
"You have a twisted idea of tun," Ry shouted, through the increasing roar of the wind. Kief only grinned back and tightened his grip on the sealwheel. He loved riding the trains.
Of course, the first time he'd rode the train, he'd been terrified. But his mother had been there, showing him the tricks and where to get on and off, before she'd been erased. Kief closed his eyes for a moment, renewing his determination to never forget that Kel had once existed.
She'd been beautiful, his mother had, full of life and energy. She hadn't given in to the Order's demands for proper behavior. She'd defied them in every way that she could, even to forging approval for a child. Kief wondered again if they'd discovered that, if that was why his mother had disappeared from their home in the night and vanished utterly from all cityplex records. Or had it been something more? He hoped so. Even though he knew his mother had known the risks of what she did, he didn't like thinking she could have been erased because of him.
Up front, the hum of the turbine changed pitch. The train slowed gradually, coming up on the perimeter. Kief flexed his muscles, making sure he'd be ready to move once they cleared the fence.
"All the way under," he yelled, tucking himself as far as possible under the sheltering deflector. "They scan trains."
He could see Ry's lips move, a single word: shit. He pressed closer, trying to make himself as small as possible. Then the train slowed dramatically.
"Not much longer," Kief said, finding Ry's hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze. "After the scan, we get off the same way we got on, and then we're home free."
"Is it worth all this?"
"Come on, now, surely you're having fun?" Kief grinned. Then he saw the perimeter come into view. "Quiet now."
A red beam moved over the smooth white car, checking for anomalies. It couldn't spot them, however, tucked as they were under the air deflector. The beam moved on to the next car and the train rolled slowly beyond the thick perimeter wall.
"Let's go," Kief said. He scrambled along the top of the car, then reached the ladder and dropped to the platform again, Ry following nearly on his heels. Kief hesitated a moment at the edge, checking to see that his lover was watching, then jumped. He hit the ground, rolled twice, then stopped himself in time to see Ry take the plunge.
"You," Ry panted, when he'd stopped rolling, "are insane. Absolutely insane."
"Of course I am," Kief agreed cheerfully, offering Ry a hand up. "If I wasn't insane, then how could I dare to love an Enforcer?"
"Huh." Ry stood up and brushed himself off. The grass was brittle and dead, clinging stubbornly to both of them. But the sun shone overhead, in a deep blue autumn sky, and not even the perimeter looming over them could ruin the exhiliration of being free and outside on such a fine day. "I keep telling you, that's not my fault."
"What, that I love you?" Kief grinned wickedly and took a swipe at Ry's grassy hair.
"Nah, that I'm stuck being an Enforcer. I didn't have much choice in the matter. My father made me do it."
"Yeah, yeah, so you always say. But come on, now, we need to get out of here." Kief glanced at the train, still creeping past under the scanner. The end car was in sight. "Here, watch this."
The final car cleared the scanner and emerged from the wall. The scream of the turbines became abruptly audible. The whole train quivered, then shot off, picking up speed until it was a mere blur streaking across the countryside.
Ry's jaw fell. "We were on that?"
Kief chuckled. "It doesn't even go half that fast inside the wall. I've always wondered if I could stick to it all the way to Cityplex 2, but never quite dared to find out."
"Good choice," Ry said. He followed Kief across the track and down into a gully, where a small brook chattered. "You know, I've always wondered what it's like outside."
"But they let you out!" Kief was surprised. "I know they do. How else could you have caught me?"
"That's different." Ry stumbled on a rock. "Ouch! Damn things move!"
Kief chuckled. "Sorry, I shouldn't laugh. But yeah, they move, so be careful."
"Huh." Ry was quiet for a moment, concentrating on the rocks underfoot. "When I go outside, it's in an aircar. I've never really been out of one, free to trip on rocks or get grass stuck in my hair."
"Huh." Kief thought about that for a moment. He'd been coming outside for nearly fifteen years now, ever since his mother had shown him how to get out. Sometimes he forgot about the rest of the people, who had never been anywhere outside the cityplex walls, let alone out in the wild country beyond the perimeter.
"How far is this place, anyway?"
"Not very. It takes less than an hour to get there."
"You mean walking? Or including the train ride?"
Kief tried not to laugh at Ry's expression of dismay. "Total," he said, smiling. "Including the train."
"Good. Wonder how I'm going to explain it tomorrow when I'm stiff and sore from all this exercise shit?"
Kief did laugh at that. "You can always tell them I gave you a real workout... in the weight room, you perv!"
Ry smiled wickedly. The sun woke green lights in his eyes and sparkled in his hair, turning it nearly red. "But you know they already assume the worst of you."
"What, that I'm jumping in your bed to improve my situation?" Kief swatted at his lover, who caught his hand and brought it to his lips to nibble on the fingers. Kief shivered. "Stop that!"
"Why? There's no one to see." Ry's smile widened, and he squeezed Kief's hand. "No one!" he shouted unexpectedly, throwing out his arms and laughing. "There's no one to see! No one at all!"
"In that case," and Kief caught up Ry in his arms, kissing him enthusiastically.
"I love you," Ry said, when he could breathe again.
"I know." Kief smiled. "But we can't take too long getting there, or my uncle will worry."
"Does he know I'm coming?"
"Not that you'll be here today in particular, but he said it was okay for me to bring you, as long as you could be trusted."
"You know I can."
"If I didn't trust you, you wouldn't be here, believe me."
"Oh, I do. I do."
They followed the stream in silence for a while, working their way through a densely wooded area. Ry looked around constantly, full of wonder at seeing things he'd always dreamed of: trees, bushes, birds, flowers, even water flowing free on the surface of the planet.
"Up there," Kief said eventually, breaking the long silence.
"Where the trees end. That's the edge of my uncle's place. He says it used to be a farm, before the motor law."
"Will there be animals?"
"Some. Not many. It's hard to get breeding stock these days."
"Isn't he alone out here?"
Kief hesitated, a lifetime of caution urging him not to say anything. But he trusted Ry with his life. "No. There's others. Not many, but they're here. I've considered joining them before, but never had the guts."
"Oh. Maybe you'd better not tell me any more, then." Ry sighed. "I hate my job."
The trees gave way to the open land that used to be a grain field. Wheat still grew there wild, standing tall and yellowed in the autumn sun. The wind rippled it, sending shimmering waves through the stalks like a golden ocean. In the distance, a small house was visible, with a curl of smoke rising from the chimney.
"Looks just like a picture," Ry said, admiring the view.
"Huh. Guess it does, at that. Just remember now, my uncle's old, at least ninety, and he's used to being alone. He can be a bit cranky sometimes."
"I'll remember. Is that him there?"
Kief shaded his eyes. He could see someone moving around on the porch. "Must be. Can't think who else would be out here."
They set off through the fields and reached the house before too much longer. Kief saw his uncle get up from his rocker and felt a sharp stab of apprehension.
"'bout time you got here, boy," his uncle greeted him. "Been wondering where you was at."
"Sorry, Uncle Robert." Kief reached back and tugged Ry forward to stand by his side. "This is the friend I told you about. His name's Ry. And Ry, this is my Uncle Robert."
"Hello," Ry said, extending a hand. Robert ignored it.
"So you're one of Them, huh, boy?"
Ry's eyebrows went up at the fierce glare the old man gave him. "Yes, sir. But only by necessity."
"Necessity, my ass. You should break free of Them. Bunch of murdering cowards."
"Uncle," Kief said sharply.
"Quiet, boy! It's true. Where's your mother? Where's my brothers and sisters and all their children? Where's your freedom?"
"Sir," Ry said, "it's true that the Order destroyed an entire way of life. But I am not personally responsible for what happened, and I fight against it in every way I can. Otherwise I wouldn't be here."
Robert glared at him for a long moment. Ry returned his gaze calmly, not backing down. Suddenly the old man smiled and laughed, a small wheezing chuckle. "You'll do, that you will," Robert said. "You picked a good one, Kief."
"I know I did, Uncle." Kief smiled, relieved.
"You two... together?" Robert raised a bushy eyebrow.
"Yeah." Kief nodded warily.
"Thought so. Runs in the family, you know. Back before the wars, my older brother was that way."
"Huh." Kief wasn't sure what to say.
"Grab what happiness you can, kids, before the Order kills it all." Robert nodded emphatically. "Now, you don't want to hang about on such a fine day talking to an old man like me. Why don't you boys take the car out for a spin?"
"Really?" Ry all but danced with eagerness. "You'll let me in it?"
"'course. You're family now. Come see it."
Kief hung back, watching his uncle and his lover. Ry was full of questions, which Robert was more than willing to answer. He showed off the cleverly concealed garage and peeled back the cover on the car, revealing the gleaming red body.
"Ohhhhh," Ry sighed, touching the hood almost reverently. "What do you call it?"
"Back when such things mattered, she was a Chevy Camaro," Robert said proudly. "'course, I peeled the insignia off long ago, when that damned law passed."
"How is it that you made the car invisible to most of our sensors, anyway?" Ry asked eagerly. "I've always admired that trick, whatever it was. The only way we know that the Racer's out is if one of the outer-ring electronic Eyes happens to catch it. Nothing else will pick it up."
Robert glanced at Kief, who shrugged. He'd proven trustworthy so far, after all.
"It's her paint," the old man said, with a confidential air. "There used to be someone did special paint jobs, not entirely legal but highly effective. Would mix aluminum flecks in with the last two coats, which scrambles the hell out of cop radar. And there's a coating on her glass, toopolarized to allow in only certain of the sun's rays, and rippled just enough to scramble video cameras. Even back before the Eyes the authorities was getting way too nosy."
"That's nothing," Robert grinned. "You should see what I did to her fuel system. Thing gets purt near hundred miles to the gallon now."
"How did you manage that, anyway, Uncle? I've been taking her out for months now, and never needed to put gas in her."
Robert laughed again. "No need for all the emissions regulating bullshit anymore. No inspections to pass, no nosy mechanics saying I can't do that, no nothing. So I tweaked shit all around in there and increased the efficiency to where it always should have been, if not for all the damn controls. Now, you going to go, or not?"
The signal startled the Eye when it started beeping, after nearly three days of constant surveillance. He'd even linked the thing into his wristcomp, in case it changed while he was sleeping. At first, he was confused, but then he remembered and hit the link. "Signal's changed, sir," he reported.
"Good. Keep monitoring. I'll be right there."
No more than five minutes later, the Special Ops man was there. "Report, Eye."
"Subject has left the cityplex, traveling northwest along the freight line. Speed seems to indicate he's on the train itself."
"So that's how the little bastard's been doing it all these years," a new voice spoke up. Startled, the Eye turned and saw the Director. His heart nearly stopped. "Oh, relax, man. I know you've been monitoring my son. He's taken his antisocial tendencies too far now, and must be stopped."
"Yes, sir." The beep increased in pace as the train drew farther away from the cityplex.
"We'll have him today, sir," the Enforcer said confidently. "How do you want us to proceed?"
"Ready a team. This time, I want a darter and a heavy, you hear me? And I'm going on the heavy."
Both Eye and Enforcer blinked in surprise. The Director never left the perimeter.
"I'll take care of it, sir," the Enforcer promised.
"You'd better." The Director watched the red dot for a moment, then left.
The red Camaro roared down the abandoned road, keeping clear of the trees and racing instead across the gently rolling hills, away from any hidden electronic Eyes. Inside, Ry was laughing with sheer delight.
"You get to do this every week?"
"Yeah." Kief grinned. "Great, ain't it? Only problem is I can never go as far as I want to. Always have to turn back whenever the aircar shows."
"Not your fault. I know that now." Kief peered down the road, slowing down a bit. "Well, speak of the devil."
"Oh, just one of my uncle's sayings. Look, up aheadisn't that an aircar now?"
Ry leaned forward in his seat as the shape grew more distinct. "Yeah, but... shit!"
"What?" Kief slowed and flipped the car around, heading back for the farm and safety.
"That's a darter. This thing hasn't got a chance."
"What?" Kief floored the gas pedal, and the car fishtailed before getting a grip on the dirt road and accelerating smoothly. "A darter? What's that?"
"Intercept vehicle, made to catch pirates in the early days of the Order. It can make the trains look slow."
"That would probably explain why it's right there behind us, then," Kief said tensely. He could hardly believe the ease with which the streamlined silver shape had caught up to them. "Shit shit shit."
"How long till we reach the farm?" Ry twisted in his seat, watching their pursuer.
"We weren't out but maybe fifteen minutes. I don't know how they caught us so quick. But it's not far, especially since I'm going twice as fast now as when we headed out."
"Huh. Don't suppose you could go twice faster than that, could you?"
"I wish." Kief swerved to avoid a rock in the road, throwing Ry off balance. At this speed, a rock could prove fatal. "Sorry."
"'sawright, I always wanted to crash into a window in a speeding outlaw vehicle."
"Looks like all your dreams are coming true, today." There was a narrow bridge ahead, the one where he usually peeled off pursuit. The aircars were too wide to cross a single lane bridge. But this one refused to go awaythe darter was narrow enough to cross with ease.
Then he saw something ahead that shouldn't be there. "Hang on!" he yelled, then hit the brakes. The darter screamed past, pulling up in a tight turn to come back around and block his escape to the rear. "I don't believe this."
"What?" Ry let go of the seat back and turned around, face paling when he saw the gleaming metal monster in front of them. "By the free ancestors. They've brought out a heavy."
As if in reply to his comment, a port slid open to reveal the large muzzle of a laser cannon.
"Come out with your hands up," a voice blared over a loudspeaker.
"We're fucked," Kief said.
"Maybe not," Ry countered. "Let me out first."
He climbed slowly out of the vehicle, keeping his hands in view. "What's the meaning of this?" he shouted at the heavy. "Do you know who I am?"
The portal at the top of the pyramidal craft opened. "Yes, Ry," a man replied, emerging from the heavy. "We know exactly who you are."
"Father!" Ry gasped, face going a few shades paler. Kief groaned and hit his head on the steering wheel. The Director. That was the Cityplex Director up there, that Ry had just called his father, the man who answered only to the President of the Order.
Kief climbed out of the car, feeling utterly defeated. He wondered what was going to happen now. He went to the front of the car and stood beside Ry.
"I told you I'd deliver them to you, sir," a new voice called from behind. Kief glanced dully over his shoulder, then did a double take when he recognized Vidder. He looked and sounded completely different from the scraggly little runt Kief had known from the rec facility. Gone were the borderline illegal clothes and the inner-city accent, replaced by an Enforcer's uniform and clean diction.
"Good work, Vidder. Now what have you got to say for yourself, son?"
"How did you find me?"
"Don't you ever check the programming on your wristcomp?" Vidder sneered. Ry ignored him, focusing instead on his father.
"You led us right here, Ry," the Director smiled. It wasn't a particularly nice smile. "You think I didn't know what sort of unsavory company you've been keeping?"
Ry reached out and took Kief's hand.
"I've known about your antisocial activities for years, boy. But it wasn't until you got mixed up with this Red Racer that you had to be stopped."
Ry squeezed Kief's hand rapidly, urgently. Kief wondered at that, then Ry spoke again, releasing his hand. "My wristcomp, you said?" He looked at it, punching buttons and presumably running a check. Then he smiled. "Bet you don't know everything about my illegal activities after all, father."
He pushed a button. The darter behind them gave an ear-piercing squeal reminiscent of the other aircar Ry had killed and dropped to the ground.
Kief dove for the car and had the engine running before Ry had his door closed. He hit the gas, swerved around the grounded darter, and crossed the one lane bridge.
"Hold on!" he yelled, as a laser beam blasted a clump of turf up beside them. He started swerving, hoping that it would be harder to aim at an erratic target. Laser bolts exploded around them but never quite managed to strike home before he cleared the top of the valley.
"Can we make my uncle's place before that damned heavy?"
"Think so," Ry replied uneasily. "Um, I hate to say it, but..."
"I know. I might not have an uncle anymore." Kief clamped his jaw shut and concentrated grimly on driving. There was a smudge of smoke on the horizon, uncomfortably close to where his uncle's farm should be.
The farmhouse was in flames when they got there. The Camaro skidded to a halt in the yard, as close as Kief dared get. The two young men stared in horror at the destruction.
Kief almost missed hearing the call, numbed as he was by the sight in front of him.
"Hey! Open up!"
Ry gasped and nudged at him. Kief broke his eyes away from the burning farmhouse and saw his uncle.
"You're okay! You made it!" He opened the door and started to get out, but Robert shoved him back in.
"Take this," and he pitched a large canvas bag into the back seat. "It's food. And the car. Now get the hell out of here. Spare gas is in the trunk, same's always. I hear there's a free city somewhere out west."
"But what about you?"
"I'm okay. They came, but they couldn't find me. Always knew this would happen. Knew it when they took my family, knew they'd try to get me too. So I made a hideout. Now you take the car and go, or they'll have you sure."
"Go, damn you! Now!" Robert shut the door.
Kief rolled down the window. "Thank you, Uncle. You won't come with us?"
"Runnin' from the Order's for young men," he said gruffly. "Now would you get your arse off my property before yon aircar comes back and gets you for fair?"
Kief tried to say something, but the lump in his throat wouldn't let him. Instead, he waved, then sent the Camaro screaming out of the yard.
"Shit." Ry flopped back in his seat, limp with shock. "Guess there's no going back this time."
"Guess not. You okay with that?"
Kief sighed. "One regret. Wish they'd left Uncle Robert alone."
"Yeah. Where we headed?"
"West, I guess." Kief paused for a moment. "Ever see a free city?"
"You know I haven't. You?"
He found a road headed west and made the turn. "Shit!"
"What?" Ry jumped, looking for signs of pursuit.
"You've got a tracer on you."
"Easy enough to fix."
The bright late autumn sunlight shone down on the speeding car, catching and highlighting an object as it hurtled from a window. Then the car was gone, and the few remaining birds resumed singing in the naked trees.