Squat by Peter Medeiros
ALL BREANNA WANTED was to cash her paycheck. Even on a good day, this wasn’t easy. The First Station Heve Bank and Trust’s Central Branch had a narrow entrance corridor, so she had to scoot through sideways to begin with. And that Friday, she scooted through only to discover there had been a robbery that morning and the bank was closed for business. She hadn’t realized she’d walked through dozens of flashing blue lights and knocked over several police barricades on her way in. She had to apologize to several detectives crouched over a blood slick and scoot back out.
It wasn’t just the size of Brenna’s powerful lower body that was a problem. Her engineered soldiers’ eyes were also a pain. There were frequent, vivid, distracting meteor showers on Oro-5, and the soldiers designed by the Sol Consortium for the Oro campaign had eyes (and brains) that slipped over repetitive, unimportant stimuli. Some guerrilla lumbers out from behind an outcropping with a laser rifle? Brenna locked right on, hyper-focused. But a meteor shower, a flock of birds, blinking lights? For all intents and purposes, she didn’t see them. Squats like Brenna weren’t allowed a driver’s license on Station Heve; the stop signs were all equipped with flashing red lights that sped up during high-traffic commute times, to call for extra caution. Brenna took the rail.
The ride home from the bank was predictably depressing. Brenna gripped her uncashed check, worrying the paper until it was wrinkled and translucent A bad habit. She stared through the check and saw again Battle of the Yellow Citadel. She was first in the Oronian bunker, clearing the way ahead with a few well-placed grenades. After the battle, Ary and Lupe had carried her out on their shoulders, cheering, though Lupe said he would have been first in if a round in the shoulder hadn’t slowed him down. Maybe next time, she always said, though her smile betrayed what she really thought.
Now she couldn’t take out money for dinner. Brenna knew it was the robbery—not her body, not anything wrong with her—that threw this wrench in the machinery of her day. But knowing didn’t help.
On the rail, two boys a few seats from Brenna loudly discussed the pros and cons of females with thick legs, clearly for her benefit. “I mean, I like a round woman,” one said, “but there’s limits, right? It’s like, sometimes a guy wants to be on bottom. That’d break a dude’s pelvis! Grind it right down to dust, hear me?”
She thought about telling him she was in law enforcement. It wouldn’t be a complete lie; she worked at Central Dispatch.
Brenna remembered vividly orange sky of Oro-5. She recalled the satisfying crunch of an Oronian skull beneath her wide, round feet. She wondered how many kicks it would take her to actually grind these kids to dust. Replace the kids with Oronian warriors, and it was the kind of competition she and the other squats would engage in all the time. How many can you take down today? Think any of you can clear that barricade in one jump? I’ve got a jar beneath my cot with seventy-five teeth I pried from Oronian war iguana, how many you got? How many kicks—?
When one of the boys got up and smacked the side of Brenna’s leg—“Hot damn! It’s hard as a rock!”—she spun around and sent him sprawling with a reverse fan kick to the side of his head. She followed him to the ground, foot planted on his gut.
“I was perfect there,” she said, echoing what all the squats were told during basic: You’re perfectly designed to conquer this world. “The way you talk, you think you know what conquest is. You think you know… ”
“I’m sorry,” the kid sniveled. Then, seemingly contradicting himself, “But you can’t ignore… I mean, why… I’m sorry… ”
Brenna felt her weight shift slightly forward, further onto the foot on the kid’s chest. Something crunched. The boy began screaming and wouldn’t let up. His friend ran to the end of the train and sat down, shaking. People were backing up, moving their children behind them, stowing personal electronics beneath their seats. Someone said something about PTSD-crazies. Someone else yelled for the conductor. Brenna only meant to scare him, didn’t mean to break any bones.
A veteran from the Sol Consortium’s campaign on Cleo-3 stood up, obviously thinking about intervening. He was tall, blue, amphibious; slim gills pulsed along his neck in a way Brenna found fleetingly erotic. Brenna thought, If I was born just a few years earlier, during the Cleo Wars, I would look like that. She was keenly aware of the other soldier’s stare, the stares of everyone on the train, worse than the glint of sunlight off a scope that meant you were about to come under fire.
Brenna gingerly took her foot off the crying teenager. Free from her weight, the kid rolled over and vomited on the floor of the train. Brenna squinted at the kid’s barf, checking for blood. He saw her look and crab-walked away, terrified. Brenna glimpsed herself in the window of the train. Even in the specially tailored, baggy cargo pains she wore everywhere, the rocky musculature of her thighs strained against the fabric, her hips nearly double the circumference of her waist. When she first came to Heve Station, the supposedly normal gravity had made her feel so light she’d thought she would float away like a balloon. Now she wished she could.
She got off the next station and walked home. The rail was just a time-saver. Squats never got tired. Not from walking, anyway.
♦ ♦ ♦
Home was a cheap flat in a Central-level housing cube populated primarily by public servants. Brenna turned up the RealGrav even before she flicked on the lights. She sighed immensely when the floor pulled her down into a familiar half-crouch. Her hips slipped from their upper slots into her lower action joints with a satisfying pop, the way they were supposed to after an airdrop on Oro.
It was why Brenna had moved to Heve Station after the war. Technically, she was still the proud owner of a tiny homestead on Oro-5. Everyone who fought in the war got one. Brenna had never seen hers, except in the interactive virtual tour. Nothing for her there. Doctors said if she moved to one of the inner colonies, or even Old Earth, her designer thighs—each twice as big around as her torso, made for combat on a grav-heavy world—would atrophy, no matter how much she hit the gym. But every room on Heve had its own adjustable RealGrav generator.
Brenna slept standing up. Every morning she woke half-expecting to see the rolling muddy hills, the liquid orange sky of Oro-5. She kept her eyes closed for a moment and let herself believe it, felt her wide feet into the ground. Sometimes she wondered why she’d left, if she missed it so much. Then she thought of Canus and Lupe and Ary, and she remembered. It took them so long to bleed out. She’d always wondered if it had something to do with the squats’ thighs, if they had more blood to lose than other people. She wondered what her platoon would think of her now. She used to be first up every hill, fearless under fire, smiling down at a scar in her armor when a stray round tagged her. Now she had spent two years working a job she only endured because she hated to have people looking at her. A job where the only competition had to do with metrics, calls resolved per minute.
Brenna did not get to sleep that night. Her mobile buzzed and shook on her dresser as she settled into a restful crouch. It was Laren, another squat and the only living person Brenna called a friend. They worked together at Central Dispatch, where they fielded reports for middle seven hubs of Heve Station, some half a million residents and two thousand police officers.
“Oh, honey,” Laren said, “it is crazy down here. You heard about the robbery?”
“Yeah,” Brenna said, “at the Central Branch… ”
“Oh, no, there’s been another on Deck Three! They’re saying it happened inside of a few hours! It’s a spree, girl. You can imagine how it is up here.”
Brenna could indeed imagine it. “Everybody with a backpack and a funny-looking hat is a banker robber, huh?”
“Uh-huh. I already had a kid trying to turn in both his parents. Lines are all tied up. Can you get over here?”
“Laren, I’ve had a lousy day… ”
“And I’d love to hear all about it, Brenna, but we could use the extra hands! And ears!” When Brenna was silent Laren continued, “What’s this? Do I hear a squat with a job to do, and she’s standing around hesitating? You standing there thinking about it?”
This was part of a speech Laren liked to give when she saw Brenna getting down on herself. Laren’s philosophy was that squats had a major advantage over fullborn folks, beyond the obvious genetic engineering that let them kick over a mid-size hovercraft: squats never hesitated. Other people didn’t know what they could do, Laren said. So they pause at crosswalks, in conversation, when they’re stepping through the same door as someone else. But a squat knows exactly what she is capable of. Brenna spent long hours walking around Heve’s less-populated lower levels; she didn’t spend much time around other people, and couldn’t say if this hesitation Laren discussed was really so ubiquitous. But she remembered what it was like, being certain of your every move. She still felt it sometimes. Her neighbors were used to it, but people on the street stopped and gasped when she jumped the 10.3 meters from the ground level up to her apartment’s balcony. She knew the distance effortlessly and exactly, and she never doubted she could make it. The average Oronian war iguana, after all, was 9.8 meters at the shoulder. And it typically went better if you stuck a landing on the head, knocking off the rider.
“Still pondering, squat?” Laren said. “Still mulling it over? Turning it around? C’mon, already!”
Brenna had to admit that when Laren put it like this, as all but a concrete order, it made the decision easier. Brenna had been on Heve two years, and had paid Consortium taxes for the first time a few months ago. She had spent hours staring at the forms without filling them out, struggling to imagine how her money flowed into the system of public services. It wasn’t that Brenna found the math difficult, and she could have gone to the Vet’s Center and asked someone to help her file if she did. But the numbers didn’t feel real, not like the numbers of war: ammunition spent, minutes until evacuation, casualties. None of the tax forms felt like they there in front of her. Not the way a gun did.
Or, for that matter, the phones at Dispatch.
“I’ll be right there,” Brenna said.
“That’s my girl,” said Laren. “See you in the trenches.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Laren wasn’t kidding: the lines were off the hook, the average wait time before a call got picked up hovering around two minutes. This figure was displayed on a wide LED screen above the individual cubes out on the work floor. When it went above a minute, the time started flashing to let the operators know they should hurry along calls that didn’t seem like true emergencies. The worse the waiting time got, the harder it was for Brenna to pay attention.
Brenna listened to a lot of obviously bogus reports, people certain they had identified the day’s now-infamous double bank-robber. “I’m sure it’s my neighbor,” one man told her. “I see him coming and going and he just seems… like the kinda guy who would walk into a bank and plug a ton of people, you know?” When Brenna asked the caller if he had seen the man with an illegal firearm, or perhaps moving sacks stuffed with money, he only replied, “Well, no. But he’s got wings, yeah? He’s a, whaddayacallit, a beaker. One of the Consortium rangers they got out on New Penglai. Can’t trust ’em.” Brenna closed her eyes and muted her mic as the man ranted into her ear about how genetically engineered soldiers were well and good for fighting on distant planets, but they simply weren’t suited for life on a busy space station. “Nothing personal, of course,” the caller added after about every sentence he spoke.
Work wasn’t usually so bad. Brenna usually arrived early and left late, which didn’t leave her much time for futile agonizing over her place in the universe, figuratively or literally. And no one at work looked at her designer thighs. Sitting in her pod, her basketball-thick legs tucked under the desk and out of sight, you’d think she was fullborn, nine months in the womb and everything. Some of her coworkers didn’t even know she was a veteran.
Laren knew. Laren had been deployed in (and engineered for) Oro-5’s Deep South, so she couldn’t really hide it. She had a layer of sub-dermal plates beneath her honey-colored skin and a glassy nictitating membrane that still slipped up over her eyes when she was annoyed or agitated. Protection from the dust storms that ravaged Oro’s whole southern hemisphere every autumn.
Over lunch, Brenna told Laren about the kid she almost killed on the rail, her feelings of painful visibility. She tried to make these feelings sound like a recent development, rather than the status quo for the last two years of her life.
“I say you got nothing to be ashamed of,” Laren said. “You should be a teacher. You gave that boy exactly what he need, I say: discipline.”
“Oh, sure,” Brenna said. “Teaching. Two years and I haven’t learned how to shop for groceries without clearing off waist-high shelves as I walk by. I wouldn’t trust myself around the station’s youth.” She was on the third of four roast beef sandwiches. Brenna’s hairdresser once told her she was jealous how much she could eat and still maintain her little waistline. Brenna had laughed. How to convey the way a pound and a half of meat every meal becomes a chore?
Laren gulped more of her protein shake and said, “Well, we know more about the world than whoever they got raising bank robbers, I know that. Okay, maybe there are limits on what’s available for us. Like I said, we squats know our limits. What you need ain’t a teacher but a tutor, one-on-one attention. And I’m the one to provide it! Come out with me tonight.”
“I don’t know… ”
“Brenna, class is in session! C’mon, it’s been a while. And after the day we’re having? We deserve to cut loose a lil’.”
“Right,” said Brenna. “Look, about tonight. The first bank that got hit, that was my bank. I couldn’t cash my paycheck. So it looks like I can’t come out… ” Secretly, Brenna was a relieved she had an excuse. Laren managed to make her physique work for her, she had some kind of radar that locked onto the one guy in any club who was genuinely attracted to their engineered physiology but didn’t want to talk about it. Brenna, meanwhile, either received the kind of amused disgust like the kids on the rail had shown, or else she drew a bunch of fetish freaks pawing at her thighs.Do you mind if I just touch them? they said. She was sick of correcting them: Touch me. You’re asking to touchme. It didn’t help that after a few drinks, she saw herself in unspoken competition with Laren, in a game where everyone but her knew the rules. Oro-5 had not prepared for her losing.
“Oh, Brenna!” Laren cried. She blinked and the deep hazel of her eyes went cloudy. Protected. “That’s awful! I say, just be grateful you weren’t there when it happened. Didn’t you hear? Whoever did it killed everybody at both banks. Guards and tellers and people just standing around.”
Brenna wondered how Laren let herself get worked up by stuff like this. Surely she had seen worse firsthand during the war. “They didn’t catch the guy?”
Laren finished her drink and tossed the empty bucket into a nearby trashcan. “He wiped the tapes. And everybody he killed? Execution-style. Point-blank.” She shuffled forward in her chair until her knees bumped Brenna’s. “I spoke with Detective Huang about it, and he said none of the security people even drew their pistols. No idea how it happened. I say it was ex-military. Must have been. Remember all the creepy special-ops guys? Maybe they finally managed to work the kinks of out the chameleon troops.”
Brenna was instantly exhausted. “Just what we need. More attention. If you see Huang, maybe keep that idea to yourself?”
Laren blinked with both sets of eyelids. “You really don’t watch the news, do you? I say you have to keep abreast of current events. They’re already saying it was probably an Oronian.”
Brenna said, “Laren, you know I hate it when they call us that. There aren’t any Oronians here. We didn’t take the land warrants. We’re not from Oro-5.”
“We’re not from anywhere,” said Laren. “Do you prefer ‘squat?’ We’re the same height as everybody else!”
“You’re right,” Brenna sighed. “It’s just the proportion that confuses people.”
That confusion, at least, was something Brenna could relate to. She had read somewhere that veteran squats made up a significant voting bloc on Heve Station. But if that was the case, how come she so rarely saw anyone like her and Laren? It was hard for her to imagine others like herself, equally scared of being seen, crouched in narrow apartments with the RealGrav turned as high as it goes, wondering where on Oro-5 they left their wits, their bravery; but remembering vividly where they left their friends.
For the rest of their break, Laren kept at Brenna, trying to convince her to come out. Maybe next time, Brenna replied. Maybe.
♦ ♦ ♦
A minor hull breach on one of the upper levels caused a new surge of calls right before Brenna’s second shift was supposed to end. The leak was contained and no one was injured, but people were angry and nervous about the bank robber on the loose and unidentified, so they were in a mood to dial the police and complain. Most of them seemed disappointed when they dialed the emergency line and Brenna told them, no, they could not speak with the Chief. Because he was probably in bed.
When Brenna left work for the second time in one 24-hour Old Earth day, it was nearly about the time banks would be opening up again. With no way to cash her paycheck, no money for food, and a hold on her library card from too many late fees, Brenna decided she may as well go for a stroll down to Deck Seven, where the Lower Hub Branch of Heve Station Bank and Trust was located. Brenna liked to stroll, at least during those hours too early or too late for crowds to part before her like a school of fish before a shark. The humming life of the massive space station was hard to conceive of in its immensity, but it made sense when Brenna got it under her feet, drinking in the confines of her choosing.
Normally Brenna ran into a few other wanderers. Sometimes a shape in a ragged cloak would dart at her from out of a corner, only to stop when they took in her large legs and slink back from where they’d been hiding. Once one of these figures had the same figure as her, another squat. Brenna had wanted to ask him how he got there, a common thief. But she held her tongue to the roof of her mouth; it had grown dry and sluggish, as though she had marched a long way.
Tonight she was lucky, and she met no one on her meandering path to the bank. She figured the general panic from the bank robberies kept people at home. Even other criminals.
What Brenna liked most about Heve Station was all the walls. The labyrinthine corridors of the space station colony. Cramped loading docks, mazes of metal transport crates abandoned by defunct shipping companies. The occasional body. The foolish and desperate would sometimes try to break into those old abandoned containers from Heve’s heyday as a major mining colony, hoping to find iridium or one of the other precious metals harvested from nearby asteroids, processed on Heve, and shipped to any number of the major Consortium planets. Roving security droids, abandoned by the same extinct mining operations and running on the last dregs of backup energy, shot anyone who tried it. Whenever that happened, a message was automatically sent to Emergency Services, but Brenna knew firsthand that cops and EMTs ignored ‘pick-ups.’ The security ‘bots always confirmed their kills before the message got sent. Let somebody else clean up that mess, they said.
The station’s mazes were nothing like the wide, dusty plains of Oro. Brenna enjoyed the corners, the way you couldn’t see more than twenty meters in any direction. The claustrophobia of station life. Everything immediate, right ahead of you.
So she was surprised when she finally arrived at the Deck Seven, emerging from a winding ramp into the relatively open, village-like hub. Stacked apartments. Crowded cafés. Gambling dens with crooked geometric lights. She blinked against the flashing lights near an intersection, finding it hard to focus on any one thing. Across from her she saw massive red signage pointing the way to Mandy’s Diner, known for its “Old Earth-style” cooking. Brenna ate there exactly once. The food was greasy and inedible.
As she approached Deck Seven’s main square, she prepared herself for the ordeal of pushing through a crowd, mumbling apologies as she inevitably knocked people over with her wide, sculpted legs. But it never happened.
Brenna let her eyes sink to the floor. She hadn’t noticed it before, but the cool metal floor of the square was littered with people. They were pressed to the ground, twitching feebly in an effort to get up. Spasmodic, repetitive motions; she hadn’t even registered their presence. Hey eyes had slid right over them.
She noticed something else: her legs were fully engaged, her hips sunk into their action slots. The gravity had gone up. She had been so alone, lost in her own thoughts as she wandered the sloping corridors between levels, she hadn’t noticed them engage. It was supposed to be a fairly unobtrusive shift, after all, natural and thoughtless as breathing. Now that she realized her legs were engaged, however, a memory unfurled like an explosion in her mind: Ary lost one of her legs to an Oronian iguana, pick-up was six minutes out. Ary was trying to speak, to tell her something, and Brenna could almost imagine her friend wasn’t in pain, that’s how important it seemed. Brenna tried to pinch the femoral artery, but nothing she could do staunched the blood. Before she died Brenna thought she heard Ary whisper one word, either “bye” or “sky,” either utterance without meaning.
Brenna shook the memory and crouched down next to a tall man with his nose squashed against the ground. A soft felt cap lay an inch from his head, flat as the blade from an ampu-scalpel. She said, “You can’t get up, can you? Something must be wrong with the RealGrav. If my legs are engaged, it’s got to be, what, four-five gees.” As far as Brenna could see, she was the only person on her feet. “Must be affecting the whole deck… ”
The man’s mouth was locked open, drooling on the ground. He couldn’t even move his lips. He wasn’t built for this sort of pressure. But his eyes flicked slowly from Brenna’s face to a building behind her. Urgent. Desperate.
Brenna turned around and saw the Lower Deck Seven’s Heve Station Bank & Trust. Through the wide glass windows she watched a man in orange-brown camouflage loading bulky tan sacks onto a hovercart suspended about waist-height. The figure was wrapped head to toe in desert camouflage, and his face was covered by a dark gray tactical mask, but even from a distance she could tell his thighs were like tree-trunks. Wide Earth tree trunks, which she’d only ever seen in movies. The trees of Oro-5 grew in bunches, tall and thin, and only in coastal regions.
Her thighs humming with familiar exertion under the heavy gravity, Brenna ran in a crouch to the open door of the bank, doing her best not to crush any of the prone people beneath her feet. The robber’s a squat, she thought , like me. He must have hacked the RealGrav in the Central Bank. That’s how why nobody could stop him. At Central, he killed all those witnesses so the police couldn’t figure out what happened and update the security on the station’s RealGrav controls. But after his last two stunts, he must have shut down this whole level just to be safe…
Brenna saw an R-57 Rail Runner HMG strapped to the hovercraft, along with an extra canister of ammunition. She glanced back at the crowd in the square and rubbed her knee. What if they guy planned to pull this stunt again on another station? He couldn’t plan on killing everybody here, could he?
She remembered the crazy dares, the exhilaration, the bizarre pride and excitement she had felt before friends started dying. Yes, she thought, he could.
She watched the robber lift the gun off the hovercart. He flicked the safety and the gun primed itself with a high-pitched whine like a dog that knows it’s about to get kicked.
Brenna couldn’t close the distance in time, no way. Even if she had her mobile with her so she could call station security—she didn’t—the guy was about to start executing people. Right now.
Brenna walked into the bank with her hands up. Hello, she thought, this is Central Dispatch. She was the voice of reason on the other end of the phone, the person who was going to get you help. She had all kinds of scripts internalized for crises situations. The training hadn’t been easy for Brenna; she grew frustrated when people wouldn’t listen to her simple instructions, never mind if they were scalded or bleeding or otherwise vocal but dying. And even if she could bring to mind all her standard lines, nothing that quite fit this. She settled on one of the generic ones and began somewhere in the middle: “I need you to keep calm.”
The robber whirled around, gun-first. “Who the hell are you?”
Brenna wasn’t great at talking with people other than Laren, not in person. She pulled out bits of the script, almost at random. “Look, just breathe, okay? Help will be there soon. I’m right here. You’re doing fine.”
“Apply pressure to the wound.” Shit. Okay, she had to think of something else.
The robber’s head tilted slightly downward. “Didn’t think I’d find another squat here.” The gun relaxed in his grip too. “Guess it makes sense, though. Don’t know why so many of us take the little ‘homesteads.’ Expected to be the new labor force on Oro.” He shook his head. “Couldn’t pay us enough to make up for it all. Friggin’ tricks, to keep us away from the press. Our of sight, out of mind! Am I right, sister?”
Please stay on the line. Keep talking so I know you’re still with me. “Yeah,” said Brenna. “I actually came to Heve Station because of the RealGrav… and I see you found a way to, uh… ”
“Wind it way up!” The robber chuckled. With the hand that wasn’t on the gun, he reached into a chest pocket and withdrew what looked like a pair of mobiles held together with a mess of green wires. “Great, isn’t it? Reminds me of Oro. The good parts. You know, you remember.”
“Yeah, I do.” Brenna paused. She edged a step backwards, hoping to draw him out of the bank, maybe away from all these people squashed to the ground. “Even when you lost, you knew it wasn’t your fault. Because you had your team. Because we were perfectly adapted to the planet. It was like, ‘If I die today, I was made to die today.’ If I die here—”
“Exactly!” cried the squat. “And don’t take another step. I don’t want to kill one of my sisters. Like you said, living here, dying here, it’s… pointless. What I’m taking doesn’t even begin to cover the true losses, the real cost. But it’s a start. It’s something.”
“We weren’t made to kill civilians,” Brenna pointed out. She stumbled over the word made, but went on, “Not like this. And when it’s hard enough trying to fit in. Hard enough when they expect us to go crazy and start jumping up onto buildings.”
“How would they know it was a squat?” He laughed like Brenna had embarked on a joke but forgot the punch line, a sorry laugh. “I don’t leave anybody to tell the tale! But I didn’t count on another squat. That’s what makes us special, I think. Designed so particularly, and we can still surprise people. Doesn’t matter now. I’ve got all I need, and a little shuttle waiting to get me out of this can.”
“They’ll shoot you down the second you clear the hanger.” Even as she said it, Brenna realized her mistake. She’d been walking by herself for almost an hour before she came to the square. Not another soul in sight. It wasn’t fear that had kept people inside. “It’s the whole station, isn’t it? You got into the main interface, and the RealGrav is like this all over.”
“You’re smart,” said the robber. “I am too. See? Full of surprises.”
The masked squat hopped onto the overflowing hovercart and quickly adjusted its settings, then pressed several buttons on the control in his hand. Brenna felt something she’d never felt before: the weight of gravity overcame the strength in her legs. She went down to her knees, then her hands, barely able to keep herself from going flat. Around her, prone civies who had only wanted to open an account or make a deposit gave a last gasp of air. Fullborns with no engineering couldn’t even draw breath in this kind of gravity. They’d be dead in minutes.
Brenna saw the robber on his knees too. He’d put down his gun and was steering the hovercart, which still glided smoothly a meter off the ground, past her and towards the door. He was weighed down to the cart, and he couldn’t operate his rail gun. But the enhanced gravity wasn’t enough to stop him from thumbing the cart’s controls and making an escape. Over his shoulder he cried, “This isn’t the dignified and bloody exit I’d hoped to make, but that’s what I get, not taking into account other squats. Common mistake, huh? Farewell, sister!”
Brenna grimaced. That squat wasn’t a soldier anymore; he was a murderer. What she hated more than his crime was the way she envied him the gun on his cart; the way he had given in to an impulse she felt chase rings around her own heart, landing and lifting off like a restless insect: the need to simplify, to bring the world into focus by parsing it down to a to-do list. In a sense, Brenna did it herself to get through each day, a lesser version of what this criminal had done. At some point he must have decided he could not conceive of a world without a mission, that he could not endure life beneath the constant scrutiny of people who did not understand his body, let alone what he had survived. Brenna knew that in a sense she had come close to making such a decision, and she hated him for it.
Brenna planted her hands on her knees and strained. She rolled back onto her huge round heels, her knees tucked up against her breasts.
She couldn’t walk, not without bending over, grasping her shin, and dragging each foot forward one at a time. By then the robber would have made it to whatever ship he planned to use for his getaway.
So Brenna jumped.
She hesitated only long enough to register that she didn’t know for sure if she could make it, not in this gravity, wound up even greater than Oro’s. She strained with all her might, left the ground, and thought, I really hate this guy.
Brenna had hoped to turn in the air and kick the hovercart with her feet, but she miscalculated and shouldered it instead. She landed heavily, cracking a rib and shattering a tooth. She spit viscous red onto a prone man’s chest. “Sorry,” she murmured.
Out of the corner of her eye, Brenna watched the hovercart glide, free of friction, out the bank’s door and above the bodies on the square. Her leap had knocked it off balance, and now the cart shook and rattled as it sped towards Mandy’s Diner.
The cart struck the restaurant hard and flipped forward, smacking into the building squat-side first. The robber hit the wall with as much force as if Brenna had shouldered him there, no energy lost. Stuck to the ground, Brenna was too tired even to cringe when she heard the sloppy crunch of flesh between metal. Bad luck for him. It would take a whole team of maintenance men hours of scrubbing to clean up that mess.
“Maybe next time,” she whispered.
♦ ♦ ♦
Brenna was able to scoot along the ground and over to the crash site, Brenna managed to salvage the robber’s rigged remote control. And just in time: a lot of people had passed out and were blue in the face, but nobody was so far gone they couldn’t be saved with some hasty CPR. For once Brenna was on the other side of a call to Central Dispatch. It took a while for the call to get picked up, probably because everybody on the station wanted to report a malfunction with the RealGrav. Brenna became perhaps a little more sympathetic towards her disgruntled callers. She also got a special commendation from the Station Council. She was also banned for life from Mandy’s Diner.
A month later Brenna and Laren visited the shooting range.
“Old time’s sake?” Laren asked. “Doesn’t seem like you.” When Brenna told her about all that happened, Laren had hugged her, almost viciously, and promised to bake Brenna comfort food for a week. Which Brenna viewed as a kind of karmic trade-off, because she had been banned from Mandy’s Diner for life.
“New time’s sake,” Brenna corrected her friend.
Earlier that day, Brenna had talked to Detective Huang, who knew the guard on duty, and made sure they’d have the place to themselves. Before they got started, Brenna leapt to the end of the range. She strung up festive, blinking lights all around the paper targets.
Laren threw her safety goggles across the room in protest. “Brenna, what are you doing? We can’t, you know, register stuff around that sort of thing. Blinky-flashy-monotonous-whatever. We’re gonna be all over the place.”
Brenna came back to their end of the lane and primed her gun. It whined like a hungry animal in her hands. She settled into her shooter’s stance, muscled legs set wide apart, and sighted down the barrel. “Huang said that after the robbery last month, I’m in good with the captain. I’m thinking about getting some training, getting out from behind the phone.”
“You want to join the force?” Laren asked. “Why now?”
Brenna could not quite say why, except that since she stopped the robbery on Deck Seven it was easier to see herself living beyond the present moment. She decided she might have an easier time filing her Consortium taxes if she knew the money was, in a way, coming back to her. At least, this was the answer she gave Laren.
“But you don’t have a license!” said Laren. “And it’s already a tight squeeze in those cruisers!”
“I think I’m a bad squat, Laren. I’m losing my grip on one of those things you said makes us special.”
“I’m not sure exactly what I can do anymore. But I’d like to find out.”
“Well,” Laren said. “I guess I can get used to target practice again. So long as we make it a competition.”
“I was thinking the exact same thing.” Brenna sighted down her pistol. “I have studying when we’re done here. But drinks after?”
She squeezed the trigger. The bullet struck a hand’s width outside the target, a black silhouette of a man. The next one would be closer.
About the Author
PETER MEDEIROS teaches composition at Emerson College, practices Kung Fu in Davis Square, and writes fiction and poetry over copious amounts of coffee at Diesel Café in Somerville, Massachusetts. His work is forthcoming in Mirror Dance, and has been recently featured in Spark: A Creative Anthology (Volume IV), Strange Horizons, SQ Magazine, and Bastion Magazine.