“Nothing” by Charles Payseur

No one gets in trouble for nothing. Mum used to say that at me all the time when I’d come in hot with the tinboots on my heels. She would cross her arms and ask what I had done. And I would say, because it was as true as I could be and keep a whole hide, that I’d done nothing. And she’d give that sigh like she was looking through me and say those seven little words.

They’re lies, though. I don’t think my mum did a bad thing in her life, and it didn’t save her when the cops came gliding along the zip lines on their crisp metal shoes and shot up the laundromat she’d been standing in. There had been a tip that drugs were falling out of the place like rain over the upper levels, and the damned tinboots hadn’t missed a step. Rumor was the place was full of guns and some hot frags and dopers so why bother with subtlety, only they crossed a line somewhere and ended up at the wrong place, so instead of a den of slime they came down like a hammer on Mum and a family of four cleaning their underthings.

I’m standing in the belly of a sub-line bin, standing because things like seats have long ago been stripped out of the lowly sub-lines. There aren’t even rails unless you’re big and lucky and that’s where the picks are waiting anyway, or the scanners with small pads that will lift the money right from your cards. So I’m standing, legs braced, ready in case a sudden jolt sends me leaning into someone else, which is why the pervs hang out along the walls, hoping to get a feel.

I get to Big Dive without having to pull a knife, though, and I’m out of that bin the second the doors open and racing through the narrow confines to Holly’s. Hol’s the Ring of the area, the boss, the brains that keeps the lowlies like me alive and running. I’ve been on snatches for the last week, managed to bank big at a few half-hoity hotels where the bag boys would take their eyes off cases of snobs they didn’t like long enough for me to slip in and relieve them of some key trophies. I run in the front door and Hol’s where she always is, behind an honest desk like this was a reception area.

Around her, though, are the rest of the lot, Madge and Pie, Looper and Cut1, Cut2, and Cut3, and Mad Mumbles. Mumbles is raving as usual, voice like a bagpipe and just as intelligible.

“Nothing, they say,” Mumbles mumbles. “Nothing in and nothing out and nothing all the way between. And they wonder, I bet, why we take their leavings and try to choke them with it. Maybe if something in then something out and not all this nothing, nothing, nothing all over.”

The others aren’t paying mind but look up when I’m in. Hol waits as I cross and put the small stack of cards on the desk, prepaid little darlings that we always deal in. She eyes me suspicious like and leans forward, reading the amounts on the cards. As soon as she does the math she’s smiling.

“That’s what I like to see, Non,” she says, and I’m beaming at the others. “Just what I expect from one of my best.”

One of nothing,” I say, pouting. “The best. One and only.”

“In that case,” she says, leaning back, “you up for another job?”

I’ve been hoping for some time down for a while, but the way she set me up I can’t say no. Besides, maybe I’m liking the way the others are all dismay and shame at what might be a coming promotion. I nod, and Hol hands me an address.

“Guy needs a runner,” she says. “Told him I have the best, and looks like I was right.”

“Just a running?” I say and quick memorize the address and then crumple it, drop it on the floor. “Won’t take but a moment, then.”

I’ll be mighty when I return, I know, and that’s something. Or, at the slimmest, not nothing.

“Just be sure to collect payment,” Hol says. “Guy’s a bit of a nutter, but loaded full of wealth. Some political whack-a-mole. Get it done and there’s a two-day pleasure dock for you.”

I keep the excited yell from exploding from my mouth, but I beam all the same and turn to the others and give a wink and then am gone out the door and back into the endless twists of Big Dive. A two-day in the pleasure docks is extravagant, more than Holly ever offers. Means the job is sketch at best, but also that she wants to show she glories good work, and I’ve been working hard. Still, a two-day in the lavish pleasure docks, it’s something I’ve fantasized about since turning sixteen last year and being officially of age.

I race the runs of Big Dive, staying away from the darkest streets and territories that Holly doesn’t deal with. Most places it’s all understood who can be touched and who is above. It’s life in Big Dive, in all the lower levels. Maybe upside, where they say the rains never stop, it’s different. Maybe there there’s no need for hand signs and brands that say who you run for, but I’ve never been topside, never even saw the sky but in the adverts at the half-hoity boutiques and clothiers.

The address turns out to be a track den, a place with nothing but screens showing bot races and crawler races and human races and every other sort of race. Not a nice place, filled with jittering chance junkies, but the security is tops. I hand over my knife at the door and let myself be patted down by a woman looks could break me in half on her knee. Still, good to know they’re thorough, and then I’m inside and flashing the brand on my shoulder, knowing that anyone looking for me would know to look for Hol’s mark.

It takes only a moment for a tall guy to slide over. I’m half-shocked at how nice his clothes are, a full white suit and tie and hat that look untouched by the dirt of Big Dive. He wears glasses low on his nose like he doesn’t need them to see and I’m guessing they’re really tech, because even as he approaches me he seems distracted by something else. He’s full hoity, full dangerous because people like that only come down to Big Dive to play at illegals.

“You the runner?” he asks, eyes staring at me through his tech. I nod, not really wanting to talk. He doesn’t smell right, doesn’t walk like one accustomed to the crowd, like he’s just drugged himself to be able to stand the wash of everyone around him. I want to bolt but am feeling too good from Hol’s trust and from the promise of my two-day to cut out.

“Are you familiar with the Severance Concession?” The way he says it takes me a few blinks to realize he means Mercy. But I remember from back when Mum would talk about it that it’s called the Severance Concession to some. It’s charity, or just about, a place where everyone goes to collect their Mercy, their help from the government. Part of the treaty back before I was little to make the powers that be pay for losing the Last Great War.

I nod again. Everyone knows Mercy, needs the extra credit to float, to mention nothing about the medicine, the contraceptives, the vaccines. Without it Big Dive would be a roil with trouble so dark even the gangs wouldn’t be able to cut out of it. The man smiles at just the corners of his mouth, and I wish I could shove a knife into his gut to make it stop but I’m afraid it wouldn’t do a thing, that he’d just smile a bit brighter.

“I need a package delivered there,” he says. “Most urgent. It’s electronic. I need you to swipe it directly into the main terminal. That should do it.” I hold out my hand, but he waits. “Repeat what I told you.”

“I’m to take your package to the main terminal of . . . the Severance Concession and swipe it in.”

“Just so,” he says, and pulls out a small electronic pad, a storage device most like. Bulky, too, which is sketch from the start, but I just keep my hand there while he gives me the device. “Nothing to it.” And that smile inches up a tick.

I wait then, hand still out, knowing that Holly would flip and cancel my two-day if I blow it about payment. The man looks at me like he was expecting me to forget, then reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small stack of cards.

“They’re locked until the job is verified complete,” he says, which is as much to say it’s up to him if we get paid.

I could argue, and Hol will be pissing blood if it turns out that he’s pulling a con, but he looks like the money isn’t the deal, like he could care less. I don’t bother counting the cards, just shove it all into my pocket and head back to the door to retrieve my knife. I don’t look back but I can feel his eyes on me the whole way until I’m clear of the track den and then I’m running as fast as my legs will carry.

Mercy’s always a press, any time of day. Lots of the people in Big Dive and other districts in the lower levels don’t have much in the way of work, not since the Last Great War wrecked so much. And we all know that the government wouldn’t have agreed to Mercy at all if it hadn’t been demanded by the treaty. Losing a war had a way of putting the powers that be behind an eight ball, and they were quick to try and prove that the abuses of the past were in the past. Of course, it doesn’t mean they liked it.

So each person has a day and hour that they have to arrive to collect their Mercy. Miss it, and miss your cards and meds for that week. No exceptions for work, for sickness, for anything. And the powers that be are always trying to make it more difficult, to make it so that more people can’t qualify. But all the same Mercy is always full, and I’m pushing my way to the center, to the main terminal. To my side a family of six is huddled, a girl about the age I was when my mum died standing watch over everyone else. She’s fierce, eyes threatening knives at anyone who lingers, but I can see the slight shake of her hands. I know it.

A blink later and she’s gone and I’m getting ready. But something doesn’t feel right. The man in white, the job in general, it all stinks. He can’t have business in Mercy, not someone like him. It’s only meant for the lowlies, and he was definitely not lowly. I start asking myself why he’d ask a delivery at Mercy, and none of the answers are good. And even now I can see tinboots lurking, watching the crowd. There seems more than normal, and all of them looking around as if waiting for something.

The more I wait the more I know I need numbers on the situation, hard data. It’s like I can taste the man in white’s disdain for me, so sure he is that I’ll just run the job and get the money. But there are some things not even Hol would want me messing with. If not for Mercy . . . well, I know things are bad, but they could be a lot worse.

I cut out, bringing the tech with me. Late is still done, I tell myself, knowing that the man and that Hol would be screaming red death at me but not caring. I’ve never been the best at listening. I skip a few ways over to Dana’s, knowing that if anyone can shed clear on this, it’s her. Dana’s a whiz, a hack, a tech fiend. She can crack anything, and all I want to know is what the man gave me. If it’s safe, or even a little crooked, fine, I’ll go ahead with the run, but something tells me I need to check.

She’s sitting just inside of her little storefront when I skid to a halt, the proximity of the tinboots giving my step a little extra go. The shop looks all junk and it is, just stuff from long ago that people might use to line a bookshelf to look posh. It’s a front for her real talent, which is information.

“What’s got the wind in you today?” Dana asks, and I set down the tech on the table beside her. Normally we’d haggle cards, but she owes me for a job a few months back and I cash in.

“Need to know what this does,” I say. I hope it’s just a snatch or a skim. Something like that, the government would inquire and poke around but would still have to shell out to us lowlies, write it off. Dana looks at the tech and shrugs, takes it and sets it up on her scanner. She brings up a screen and things are moving on it. Her eyes go wide.

“Where’d you get this little devil?” she asks, and I can tell it’s not a skim.

“Job that didn’t feel right,” I say, and Dana nods.

“Well, small wonder. This . . . thing is chaos in a bottle. Takes information and screws it up to the eyeballs. No rhyme or reason. Can’t even see the con. Pro stuff. Government, if I had to guess.”

“Government?” I squeak, and I remember what Hol said about the guy being political. That wrinkles things. “What would the government do with something like that?”

“Insert it into an organization they didn’t like, probably. Zaps names and dates and everything else so that it would take months to fix.”

I gape. Months? With something the size of Mercy, with how little the powers that be cared about it working, it would be longer yet. And the lower levels cut off from their last lifeline. . . . I shudder, then swear up and down the wall. Means I can’t set it loose in Mercy. Means no cards, no glory, and no two-day. I’ll need to tell Hol about it, warn her about the guy, tell her to put the word out. I take the cards from my pocket.

“Any way to get these unlocked?” I ask, handing them over. “A quarter of it’s yours if you can.”

Dana laughs, and that’s when the first hail of bullets tears through the door and the wall, blazing through the merchandise and the furniture and Dana and everything. Somehow I’m standing in the middle of it, untouched for the moment. Everything pauses for one red second, and then I’m grabbing the tech and shoving it into my pocket and running speeder-fast to the back.

Tinboots are through the bullet-riddled door just as I’m into the alley, and I can hear them calling for surrender, hands in the air, everything you never do because it would just mean ending up like Dana anyway.

My mantra as I run is I hope they didn’t cover the back, and for once it pays, because as I bolt into the thin corridors behind the stores I don’t see them. Probably burst right through the front without bothering caution, all tinboot rash and angry. Serves me, though I can’t shake the sight of Dana falling in a haze of red. Another blink and I’m lost enough to be safe, feet taking me by feel back toward Big Dive and Holly. She’ll know what to do, because this has to be about the tech, about that man. No way Dana was big fish enough to warrant what fell on her.

I almost run into a tinboot standing at a checkpoint as I crash out from the thin-ways and into a main street. I swear three shades of black over it and slow down. Cutting back would just make me look sketch, and I’m pretty sure even if they have a description of me it won’t help them. Skin somewhere between dark and light, hair black, clothes nothing to speak of. There’s so many of me walking around I’m sometimes surprised I can keep us apart. I approach the checkpoint and the tinboots look me over and demand ID. I pull a fake out and smile wide, the way that makes me invisible, and they look at me a moment, then wave me on.

Maybe if they had tech like politico-man I’d have worried, because then they could have had my name with a scan, but there’s some benefit to the powers that be treating tinboots only a step better than the lowlies. They had to be kept hungry to be kept mean, and they were some of the meanest around.

I still take longer getting back to Hol’s than I should. After the first checkpoint I make sure I don’t pass through a second, and even as I put Dana’s behind me the tinboots don’t thin. The thought worries me, because they can’t be everywhere. If they’re here, looking for me, then they might know where I’m going. It puts more wind in my step.

As I get close I run through what I’m going to say, lay it all down so that when Hol’s looking death at me I’ll have some defense. But then I’m standing within sight of the door and I see the smoke, the two ranks of tinboots standing in the street. There are bodies there too, not all of them wearing gleaming metal shoes, though there are those as well.

The Cuts are all lined up, burly bodies like sacks of meat now, identifiable because of their size. Others being dragged from inside are harder to tell, but I can’t suppress the squeaking sob that breaks through my mouth. And then I see a flash of white and recognize politico-man from the track den. He’s there, leading the tinboots, gazing out over the death he has wrought. My eyes bulge and of course he looks my way, sees me standing there. Of course he recognizes me instant-like and smiles with just the corners of his mouth. And of course he points in my direction and a dozen tinboots raise their weapons.

It’s not like the street’s empty. There’s a small gathering to see the carnage. But the tinboots don’t seem to care, and I’m stuck as I hear the crack of their guns. But the moment I think I’m dead, as I watch the crowd surge back at the violence, I’m airborne and there are hands on my shoulders. I’m pulled into a thin-way, look up to see Mumbles staring at me.

“Be nothing now,” Mumbles says, and shoves me farther from the street, though I can see he’s not moving. “Be nothing and get away, and show them what it means.”

Then he’s running back out with a look of lucid purpose, the first time I’ve ever seen it on him, and I’m running the other way.

There are tunnels that lead into the maintenance ways near Hol’s, though I doubt any friendlies managed to get to them. If the tinboots moved like at Dana’s then everyone is dead and I’m probably one step from joining them. I slip into the narrow vent, secure the grate behind me to leave no trace, and scurry into the darkness.

It’s all wrong. Politco-man had to know there was a chance that I wouldn’t do it, that I’d cut out. He must have been watching, or had the tinboots watching, and called the kill the moment I cut out of Mercy. Or maybe this was the plan all along. He’s here too fast, probably covering, erasing his part so that he can try again with something else. He’s trying to make me nothing that will threaten him. But I’m used to being nothing. I can work with that.

What’s even more clear is that he wants to start a war in the lower levels, wants an excuse to come down like a hammer, crush everything. I don’t follow politics, never had to because we don’t get a choice or voice down here anyway. But there must be big things at work topside. Whoever politico-man represents, it’s death for me and mine.

Then there’s Mumbles’s voice. Show them what it means to be nothing. Rosy, but how? Even if I knew, there’s little I can do. I stop moving long enough to sit and search my pockets. Just the tech. I stare at it. Maybe if I could get it somewhere I could hurt him. If I knew his bank, or his party, or his anything. But he wouldn’t have anything to do with the lower levels, and there’s no way of me rising up.

I curse the walls blue and back and want to crush the thing, destroy it. But it’s too fine a trophy to throw away. I have nothing else. My entire life is gone but for this small thing. I stare at it. I can always go to a news-pile, someone who might be interested, but it would be crushed before it could flourish. No way to prove it came from above. Just a trail of bodies. The tinboots would just shut it all down, probably kill anyone I told.

I stop, light cracking me clear in the head. Inspiration. I shove the tech back in my pocket and get crawling, a destination now bright in my mind. It takes time, because no one really moves through the maintenance ways, because no one should have to. But I pick my way closer and closer until I’m sliding out of a vent and into an empty thin-way. I stroll out into the main corridor as if I’m picking up milk for Mum. Only she’s dead, and Hol’s dead, and all my friends are dead. We were nothing, just stains to be washed away, but I’ll make them pay for it.

I drop the tech into a small bin and keep on walking. I make it to the other side of the street and tuck my hands in my pockets and I wait. The street is swarming with tinboots. And of course, as their main station for Big Dive is right in front of me. The bin is a drop for information. A careful cop would take the tech out of it and scan it in an isolated system, make sure it was clean. But I’ve heard enough tinboots grumble to know that they don’t have the time or tech for that.

They’ll grab it and scan it, thinking it’s just some sort of local dirt, maybe a tip about a skim, but instead they’ll see their screen go funny like I saw at Dana’s. And then all the screens in the station will go funny. There’s a shout from inside the station and tinboots are starting to run.

Let them eat that. Let them get a taste of nothing. Court dates and prisoner transfers, warrants and who knows what else. Pay orders, definitely, and benefits. Tinboot vacation days. Everything fragged. Months. I smile. They’ll be frothing, biting mad, and as much as the powers that be will try to convince them that this was a terrorist thing or a lowly thing, someone will find out where the tech came from. And maybe then the tinboots will be angry enough to bite the hand that feeds them their scraps.

The station is roiling, and a tinboot walking by stops at seeing me.

“What you smiling at?” he asks, a threat, and in a moment I’ll walk off and disappear. But for now my smile lingers.

“Nothing,” I say.

Charles Payseur currently resides in the icy reaches of Wisconsin, where his partner, good cheese, and craft beer get him through the long winters. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at Nightmare magazine, Lightspeed magazine’s Queers Destroy Science Fiction!, and Strange Horizons, among others. When not busily writing and reading, he runs a home for his own wayward thoughts on stories at Quick Sip Reviews. He can be found gushing about his favorite stories on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo.

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