Authors: Stuart J. Whitmore
This is a work of fiction. All names, places, characters, and other story elements are fictional. Any resemblance between any story element and any real place, product, event, or person, living or dead, is a coincidence.
You can do more with this story than you might realize. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. For complete details, view a copy of this license at:
In brief, you may copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format, and remix, transform, and build upon the material, for any purpose – even commercially – as long as you comply with the license terms. Those terms require you to give appropriate credit, indicate if changes were made, and – this is important – if you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you
distribute your contributions under the same license as the original.
© Copyright 2014 by Stuart J. Whitmore
Dedicated to Holly
Without her suggestion and encouragement
this story would not exist.
“You don’t want to go down there, Bunny,” Nongma said with a derisive laugh.
Bunierti scowled. “Call me Bunny again,” she snarled, “and you might wake up tomorrow with the last drops of your blood spattering onto the floor under your bunk.”
Nongma laughed again. “Sensitive, are we? You want to put up a tough front, but you’re nothing here. You haven’t earned the right to be treated as somebody yet. By the look of you, you never will. But hey, go on down there. You’ll walk in. You’ll disappear like the others. And me? Me, I’ll just be glad to be rid of you so quickly and cleanly.”
Bunierti stood up and pointedly turned her back on Nongma. “I don’t need to prove myself to scum like you.”
The other woman leapt up. In the span of a heartbeat, she had the sharp point of her collector pressed against the small of Bunierti’s back. “Call me scum again. Do it.”
Bunierti’s voice was flat as she answered, “Sit back down unless you want to die right here and right now, and let this be the last time you even think of threatening me.”
Instead of feeling the collector pull away, Bunierti felt a slight prick as the weapon pierced her uniform and jabbed into her skin. Swiftly and almost silently, Bunierti outmaneuvered Nongma, bringing the other woman down on her back with Bunierti straddling her. Nongma’s collector clattered to the tile floor, while Bunierti’s own collector jabbed forcefully under Nongma’s chin, just shy of drawing blood.
“Stop, please,” Nongma said through her teeth, her jaw moving only minimally.
“If I was going to kill you, you’d be dead right now,” Bunierti said with saccharine exaggeration. “And I know I’d get away with it, because I’m not street scum like you, and I can buy whatever lawyers I want. But I don’t want the hassle right now. So we’ll leave it at this, but don’t you ever forget that I spared you once and I already consider that one time too many. Understood?”
“Yeah,” Nongma assented after a moment.
“Nod your head when you say that,” Bunierti said, one corner of her lips turning up in a sneer.
Nongma hesitated and then complied. “Yeah,” she said, giving a slight nod. It was not slight enough. Bunierti’s collector punctured her skin, and a thin trickle of blood flowed down along the collector toward the microfunnel. A sample of Nongma’s blood was automatically collected, as they both knew would happen, and a large data set describing the events leading up to that moment were immediately sent wirelessly to the nearest infohub.
“I’m somebody, by the way,” Bunierti smirked as she stood up to let Nongma free. “And even if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t hesitate to go down to Sector W84-88D, your so-called ‘Wolf Block.’ Childish rumors are not going to scare me off. The only reason the prisoners down there get away with anything is the dereliction of duty by superstitious cretins like you.”
Nongma quickly stood, pressing the palm of one hand against her chin. She looked like she wanted to say something, but she remained silent and, after retrieving her collector, went to sit on her bunk. The room the two shared was small and spartan, offering the barest of comforts. Decorations were forbidden, as were excess comfort items. Technically, they were “at ease” in their room, unlike almost every moment spent out of it, but ease was a relative term. Bunierti knew real ease from her youth, and she looked forward to returning to it later. If she survived.
A harsh beep sounded in the room, alerting them to an incoming message. They both stood to face the screen by the door, snapping to attention before the display powered up. The woman on the screen was an animation, her appearance and her computer-rendered surroundings never changing. “Violation noted,” the animated woman intoned. “Section 4-C-120-R. Interpersonal violence between Upholders for purposes other than Upholding is prohibited. Your balances have each been reduced by the mandatory fine of five hundred marks. Nongma Darhi, your balance is now below zero. If you do not correct this before 23:30 today, you will be selected for extra duties to compensate for this discrepancy.” The display went dark, and the two women relaxed again.
“Bitch,” Nongma said under her breath.
“She’s just an animation,” Bunierti commented with a smirk, knowing the comment was actually addressed at her, and mentally daring Nongma to clarify.
Nongma scowled, but at first said nothing. “If you can buy whatever lawyers you need,” she finally spoke up, “why not just buy your way out of this service? I’ve heard that lots of rich kids do that.”
Bunierti snorted. “Yes, some of my so-called peers took that route, and every last one of them is lazy, weak, stupid, and unprincipled. Some of their parents did the same, and they think they’re accepted despite cheating their way out of service. Honorable people like my parents treat them politely when they must, but there is a gulf between the cheaters and the honorable that the cheaters never comprehend, and when the honorable are alone among themselves they do not speak kindly of the cheaters. So yes, I could have bought my way out of this service, but I am not lazy, I am not weak, I am not stupid, and I am most certainly not unprincipled.”
Nongma looked away. “Most certainly not,” she echoed quietly. After a moment she looked back at Bunierti. “I guess ‘street scum’ like me have much less complicated lives.”
“Undoubtedly,” Bunierti agreed with a roll of her eyes.
Silence fell between the two women, and Bunierti decided it was a good time to review her study materials. The testing imposed on Upholders was designed to lengthen their service as much as possible, but she knew she was smart and, while she would not cheat, she had no intention of serving any more than absolutely necessary to earn her pass out of Upholding and into the life of her choosing. Once settled on her bunk, Bunierti slid her infoscroll from its protective case and unfurled it to a comfortable width. A few gestures with her thumbs brought up the materials she needed to study for the next exam, and she immediately plunged her thoughts into the words and images on the scroll. At first she was vaguely aware that Nongma was watching her with obvious animosity, but she had plenty of practice ignoring the hateful stares of those less wealthy.
A siren blast moved both women to their feet. They weren’t startled, it was too common of an occurrence for that, but neither looked happy as they grabbed their armor. Despite their differences, Bunierti knew that Nongma’s thoughts were the same as hers at that moment. Not thoughts, really, but a mental ticking of a countdown timer. The repercussions for tardiness were severe and would be doled out equally, regardless of the Upholder’s background. At the same time, there was a vague curiosity about whether this was a drill or a real event. Most were drills, naturally, but she’d seen action in the relatively short span of her service so far and she was already racking up her count of kills, or “ultimate collections” as they were formally called.
When the two women left their quarters the door snapped shut and sealed itself automatically. The corridor was already full of other Upholders moving in orderly but rapid streams toward the deployment portals. Bunierti gave little thought to where Nongma would end up, for it was unlikely the two would be deployed to the same area. When it was her turn, she did a snappy about-face and stepped backward into the deployment pod, her limbs and head positioned correctly with drilled precision. The restraints clicked into place long before the glowing countdown timer in the pod reached zero.
The strong G force as the pod was launched brought Bunierti’s curiosity to the fore. Either there was some real urgency to the situation or she was going to be deployed farther away than normal. Either way, it could be a nice break from the routine. Despite her willingness to serve, she had to admit the routine grew dull quickly. When she arrived at her destination, her head-up display would light up and provide whatever information would be needed, but for now there was nothing to relieve either the darkness inside her pod nor her curiosity.
A red glow let Bunierti know that she was getting close. The light grew brighter and the color shifted toward daylight at a rate that was optimized to prepare her eyes for the destination lighting. Moments after it reached daylight level, the HUD in her helmet engaged, displaying a variety of things she might want to know. Ignoring the vital signs and similar monitors, she focused on the mission briefing. She barely had time to skim it before a sharp decrease in speed announced her arrival.
“Terrorist sympathizers,” she said to herself after verifying her radio was still on manual mute. “Probably some sign-waving scum. Would be more interesting if it was an actual terrorist.”
With guidance from her HUD, Bunierti moved out from her pod as soon as it opened. It took her less than a minute to arrive at the position that was designated for her. She could tell that she was part of a mesh perimeter, and she guessed from other details that they were protecting a high-ranking politician, probably a Senator. The surroundings looked residential, so she assumed they were surrounding the politician’s home. Bunierti switched her radio back to automatic and settled in to guard stance, using a combination of her own eyesight, worn sensors, and streaming data from area sensors to maximize her situational awareness.
Time seemed to drag. Alertness was maintained primarily through training, but vapor delivered through her armor’s breathing system ensured a steady, if slight, stream of stimulant to protect against fatigue or lack of self-discipline. The chemical added a faint metallic taste and smell to the filtered air, and Bunierti believed the rumors that it was intentionally unpleasant as another way of keeping Upholders alert.
About ninety minutes after arrival on the scene, Bunierti received the recall command. She turned promptly and headed back to the pod that would return her to her quarters. Around her she could see all but one of the Upholders doing the same. She slowed as the one stationary Upholder caught her attention. She continued moving toward her pod, but she stared in the direction of the unknown Upholder. This was clearly not regulation behavior, and that meant it was likely a threat.
“Non-responding Upholder,” Bunierti snapped, allowing her radio to enable itself. She wasn’t sure if any of the others around her had reported it, since they did not use an open channel, and she also knew that the on-scene Supervisor should already be aware of the anomaly, but it was their duty to report it and she was not about to fail that duty.
“Confirmed,” the response came promptly. “Continue recall with heightened awareness. Ultimate collection authorized for self-defense only.”
Bunierti continued on to her pod, keeping a close eye on the motionless figure. The situation did not change by the time she reached the pod, and she was soon racing back toward her quarters, curious but assuming she would never hear more about the problem. There were a few innocuous possibilities, but most likely the Upholder was intentionally disobeying. The price for doing so would be so severe that Bunierti assumed it could only be motivated either by politics or a death wish, neither of which she could fully comprehend. As the red glow began on the approach to her quarters, she briefly wondered if someone like Nongma, or even Nongma herself, would find Upholding so difficult that they would choose death over it. There was no guarantee that the Upholder who did not recall as ordered would be killed as a result, but it certainly set the stage for a suicidal gesture.