by Susan Brassfield Cogan © 2003

The alien disk felt alive, embedded in the palm of his hand. Brax leaned outside the bar ignoring the disk and fighting off sleep. The MPs could nab him any second for this attempt to consort with aliens. He was street rat from Merlin's Gate and he knew he should not be in the alien quarter so close to the space port. He didn't care. He'd been told there was an Atharian who could help him get rid of the disk. If Brax happened to find the Atharian who had put it there, he'd kill him. Brax hadn't slept much in the last two days. He'd be happy to kill almost anybody.

Finally, the right Atharian reeled out the door of the bar, a boozer who got kicked off his ship for being a pain in the ass. Brax grabbed him and dragged him into the nearest alley. The Atharian was too drunk to put up much of a fight. When they were out of sight, behind an enormous trash bin, Brax pinned the alien against the wall and held up the palm of his hand.

"Tell me how to dig this out," he said.

The Atharian's face, entirely covered by his silver bio suit, stretched. Brax thought maybe it was a smile. "You got it. It's got you."

"It's alive, isn't it?"

"Not really. You'd call it robots."

"Robots?" Brax's belly contracted with sudden fear.

"Tiny invisible robots. Nanotech. They invade your entire body and eat you alive." The Atharian threw back his head and laughed.

Brax couldn't breathe for a second. The last two nights he had dreamed of ants devouring him from the inside out. He would awake, his throat torn from screaming, and run through the night streets until he collapsed.

He smashed his fist into the alien's face. That felt good. The Atharian didn't stop laughing. He slid down the wall and curled up on the ground, guffawing, with blood oozing through a small tear in his bio suit. Brax prepared to kick him in the ribs.

"Hold it, you rat bastard," said a growl from behind him. Brax whirled. An MP. Dugan, who had always hated him and had even sent him to the Pit once. Dugan's mean snake eyes glittered with enjoyment.

Brax looked around. This was a blind alley. He hadn't thought of escape. Brax tried to run past him. It didn't work. Dugan grabbed his wrist as he ran by and jerked him into a prisoner hold.

"Well, I finally got you," Dugan hissed into his ear. "Out of bounds in the alien quarter and illegal mas-tech in your hand." He held up Brax's hand with the damning alien thing embedded in the palm. "That's good for the rest of your life in the Pit," he sneered.

Something crashed against the back of Dugan's head. It didn't knock him out, but he lost his grip on Brax and fell to his knees. The Atharian stood there with a piece of broken board in his hand. "Pay attention to your dreams," he said. "Let them have you." Blood was oozing down his chin, spoiling the silver suit. "They'll say words to you. Listen to them."

Brax didn't thank him. He wanted to punch him again, but didn't have time for that. He ran. Before long he heard Dugan's growl calling for him to halt.

Brax's nest wasn't far. He always found places to stay in the abandoned buildings that ringed the space port. There was little beauty in his life except for watching the breathtaking glory of a ship falling through the atmosphere, antigravs glowing brilliant blue against the midnight sky.

Up ahead was a steam vent he used to get into the locked and boarded up building. Dugan was not far behind and going to see him drop into it, but that didn't matter. Once down in the belly of the building, he had a hundred places to hide.

About halfway down the chute, a jagged piece of plating caught his pants. The heavy canvass caught and held.

"Shit," he whispered. He tried to grab something, but the walls of the chute were smooth. He lay there a while listening for Dugan. He could hear the MP pounding in the distance, trying to get into the building. Brax was beyond a bend in the chute so he couldn't be seen from the street. This might be the best place to hide.

After a while, silence. To his horror, he realized sleep was stalking him. He opened his eyes wide and blinked. He rubbed his face.

The ants invaded his mind. He fought hard, but they found him. Found all the deep places where he hid his fears and his long-withered hopes. "Let them have you," whispered a laughing voice.

Then he saw them, drifting like sparkling dust motes though his bloodstream. The disk in his hand was manufacturing them by the billions. He saw them saturating every fiber, every cell, every strand of hair. Defeated, part of him withdrew into a tiny corner, no bigger than a spark. Then dreams overtook him. Dreams of flying, of the Pit. They spoke words to him--Lift and Push, Hush and Clarity.

A noise above woke him and he realized he'd been in real sleep. He looked at his hand. It was too dark to see more than a faint silver glow from the disk in his palm. "Lift" he whispered. He slid upward toward the mouth of the chute. When the edge was in reach he pulled himself out.

Dugan stood there with his back to Brax. "Clarity," Brax whispered. Dugan turned at the word and looked all around. Then he shrugged and walked toward Brax who stepped aside. Dugan crawled into the mouth of the chute and slid down. He howled when he caught on the jagged piece of plating.

Brax smiled and looked up. A ship was descending, high in the atmosphere like a bright morning star.

x x x

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