Before we knew it the late summer sun was threatening to rise up and glow all over our parade. It was time to get back.
“How was I tonight?” I asked.
Cheza touched my face. “It doesn’t matter how you were, it just matters that you were, if that makes any sense.” She took my hand again and we began the walk home to Fairchild. “But you did just fine, stud.” We reached the outstretched arms of the lantillo tree and Cheza waved her hand out in front of her for the thin wire of the ladder. She cursed to herself, put her hands on her hips, and looked again. “It’s gone,” she said. “How could it—“
Light exploded everywhere. The glide bikes of the Truant Force shot up though the trees and hovered over us, their fall guns drawn. More bikes. They fanned out and flanked us. I wanted to run, I did, but there was nowhere to go—they were everywhere. Cheza tried to make a break for it but the tru-blues corralled us into a tight circle and threw out their shocknets. An instant later, they were on top of us.
These new eyes were really something. I was so tired, but the morning sunlight seemed to burrow through my eyelids. It wouldn’t allow me sleep. Cheza and I were in the back of a transport sandwiched between a pair of helmeted tru-blues. Cull was in front of us with another sensor I didn’t recognize piloting the tranny. We zoomed around awhile until the cramped streets widened and the tall buildings shortened and there was nothing left outside the window but high grass and sky.
I opened my eyes a squint and whispered to Cheza, “What are they going to do with us?” Cull threw me a hard look and gave one of the tru-blues a nod. The officer swatted me across the cheek with his dumb club and my jaw immediately locked up. The pain was ferocious. I looked to Cheza again, who was sobbing now.
“It’s the treatment,” she mouthed. “The age treatment.”
My heart was in freefall. I wasn’t savvy to the pertinents of the age treatment but, by the look on Cheza’s face, it wasn’t good. When we finally stopped, a large orange and black building was stretched out over the land in front of us, emitting a purring sound, like a sleeping tiger. I could hear the echo of waves slapping against rock in the distance. The tru-blues pushed us forward and Cheza and I shuffled to the doorway in our magbonds. We were met inside by more tru-blues and an odor so supremely heavy and foul I couldn’t accurately describe it. Cull and the other sensor, an elderly man with empty eyes, escorted us down a strip of floor to a collection of several small, dark pools of liquid. They held me there while Cull instructed the tru-blues to deactivate Cheza’s bonds and walk her out to the edge of the farthest pool.
“I’m at least partially to blame for this, Ms. Gregory,” the sensor said. “I warned you many times—too many times I’m afraid—because I can see now that they were nothing more than empty threats to you.” He stood beside the older sensor. “I’ve always been quite fond of you. We all were. You can’t say we haven’t been fair.”
“Sure I can. You haven’t been fair,” she told them. “There, see, I said it.”
Cull bowed his head. “That’s our Cheza, defiant to the last. How very resistant of you, Study Gregory. What do you think your father would say if he were here?”
She shrugged. “I guess he’d understand.”
He pointed to me. “And will this boy’s fulls understand as well? Will they be as forgiving? Perhaps you’d like to explain it to them—explain how you’ve corrupted their son, recruited him to join the ranks of your fellow delinquents.”
“I wasn’t recruiting anyone,” she said. “I like him.”
“Of course you do, just like the others.”
“No, he’s not like the others.”
“So there have been others?”
Cheza stammered. “You know there has been, but it’s different with him.” She craned her neck to look at me. “Don’t listen to him, Tig, you’re different. I’m different when I’m with you. You can feel that, can’t you?”
The tru-blue yanked her head forward.
“I’m sure you made them all believe that they were special, Ms. Gregory. That’s the key to the indoctrination.”
Her eyes began to well up again. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, I only wanted to share something with another human being. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, I just wanted to have some fun.” The tears came freely now.