Sunsets are slow in the Waste.
The naked godtouched child takes the crinkled chits from the supplicant's hand and casts them up into the air. She watches them float down, then reach the hot groundwind and rise spiraling upwards, the nano in them reflecting sunlight like so many fluorescent butterflies. Red lilacs sway in the distance as silent elders in trench coats lean on their waru spears and watch the chits fly.
The first one touches the ground only twenty meters away. The crowd gasps in dismay. Then a second and a third chit fall. The woman who has bought the chits blanches as one by one her dreams collapse into the caked iron-red dirt.
Denise looks at the evil omen and spits in disgust. Her vision contradicts it. Suddenly inspired, she runs towards the chits, shouting, kicking them up with the dirt and spreading them towards the horizon. The crowd cranes to see the dust cloud coalesce and rise with the hot air. She comes back panting, coughing up dust and exertion.
"Your son is safe," she tells the old woman. "Kicked him to life, like the dust." The woman cries in relief and Denise looks up into the rim, her pupils contracting and her eyes narrowing into thin slits to protect her pink irises from the naked sunlight.
She knows the rim is not a place at all, only the image created by the dissipating effect of the city's magnetics as they cease to condense the haze. The haze is meant to protect the city from UV and ionic radiation. Out here in the Waste, it is thin, only visible at sunset and sundown when light shines off it diagonally. The rim spreads across the horizon and makes up a good tenth of the sky. In-city, the rim is only a thin slice of light concealed behind the tall buildings.
She knows the sky in the city is a cool grey, not the dirty blue of the Waste.
She knows so many things she shouldn't. It's the hum, the godtouch that has told her all of this. Sometimes she knows if someone is alive or dead, sometimes she can tell if the clans will raid their dirty village. Most of the time she doesn't understand what she hears.
The supplicant takes her home and feeds her bio-rich nanotrash. It's good, much better than she gets at home. Sometimes the nano she eats is so full of metal that her insides churn and she has trouble defecating. Most of the people she knows have red-rimmed irises from copper poisoning. They all know everything in the Waste is toxic, but a person's got to eat.
Denise chews slowly, giving her intestines an easier job of digesting the leathery material. When she's finished, she rolls in the mud for sunscreen and goes home.
She skips around the trash and avoids militia boys with chrome lasguns and rank tattoos. Godtouched or not, she doesn't stand a chance if they choose to pick a fight. A woman with a sharp grey stiletto knife and close-range pulse frowns at her. Denise sings a stupid ditty and runs randomly, flapping her arms up and down to show she's godtouched. The woman retreats into the shade, like a sword into its sheath, and Denise knows the truce is fragile. The god has shown her this by the way the woman moved, her eyes darting as she held the knife. Denise cocks her ears and even walks around in circles trying to hear more, but the hum is silent now. Frustrated, she kicks a black jumping grassroach, and runs the rest of the way home.
Mother fidgets on the porch, waiting for her strange child, for formal sunset. The light gets stronger as the sun lowers towards the rim. In a few minutes, it will shine directly through the unprotected gap in the horizon. It can blind eyes through closed lids and burn skin in seconds. She sighs in relief when she sees her daughter, shoves her into the shanty, and seals the door behind them.
As darkness surrounds them, she lets herself grimace. She still hates herself for believing the in-city grey-faces who told her they would help her have a perfect child. Denise sits by her side, silent as always. The girl hardly ever speaks and when she does, she says strange and frightening things or makes meaningless noises. Is her daughter truly godtouched? That thought is also part of the sunset ritual. Each day she gives herself a different answer. They eat in silence, old habit directing the older woman's chopsticks in the dark. The woman thinks of Denise's strange eyes, pink as the nasal nanobot spray she took to conceive her. Her daughter can see in the dark and is probably looking at her right now with a vacant expression. Hubris! Unnatural! She hugs her daughter tightly, wondering how she'll survive when the girl is gone.
When the hour passes, Denise gets up to open the door. Her mother thinks of stopping her; it's foolish to risk exposure so soon, but she is tired of worrying and, anyway, Denise always seems to know when the sun has completely disappeared below the rim. The sky beyond the door is dark blue and the rim is a vivid red arc crouching over the horizon.
Denise takes her mother's hand and directs her towards the path. The woman allows herself to be pulled along, reluctant to argue with her autistic daughter. Behind them, a jaundiced crescent shines through the rim.
A stranger is coming towards them. He is obviously in-city. He drives a hybrid skid on its wheels, and wears several layers of nanoflesh that have not been enough to protect him from sunburn. His skin is red and windscarred. Nanoflesh is rare in the waste; he carries more wealth on his body than the girl has seen in her life. When he arrives at the porch, he asks for Denise's mother. He speaks quickly, and the girl ignores his furtive glances as she gazes into the Waste with an empty look.
"Go inside, Denise," her mother tells her.
When she hears them walk off into the night, she takes out the junk radio she's fixed, and listens. At first she hears only static, but the hum loves electronic trash and soon it's translating the rasping for her. They know each other, this grey man and her mother. She's been expecting him, perhaps not today, but sometime.
"I've come for her," the stranger says. His voice is gruff; he doesn't know how to deal with Waste people.
"Have you?" says her mother, curt and wistful.
"We will give her a good education. She will be happy."
"Ya. So young . . ." Denise can imagine her mother looking back towards the shanty, worry wrinkles creasing her windscarred brow.
"We have to train them when they are young, you must understand."
"Understand," she replies, and even the stranger can hear her contempt.
"Missus, you signed a contract!" The stranger doesn't know her mother as Denise does. Reminding her of a contract is unnecessary; she has already given in to him.
"The contract!" She whistles. "You give me your 'bots and you turn my child into that and now you want to take her away? I should make you keep your contract! You said she'd be perfect!"
"She is," replies the stranger. "She just needs education, psychological support, good food and medical care. We want what's best for her, missus." He sounds vaguely uncomfortable. "She can come back when she is older."
The woman's laugh turns into a coughing fit and she spits up phlegm.
"Nobody comes back to the Waste! Don't try to lie to me, just take her, take her . . ." she whispers under her breath. Back in the metalloplastic hut, Denise can imagine the hurt in her eyes.
As they head back, Denise hides her radio and prepares. She takes a red scarf and uses it to tie her large plastic doll around her chest with the warding knot that women use to carry real babies. She removes a bakelite tile and takes out the shard of glass that's hidden there. She wraps one end in a dirty cloth to make a makeshift handle and puts it inside the cocoon between her and her baby. Then she sits on the floor, waiting.
Her mother is not surprised to see Denise ready. Her child may be retarded, but she knows things that are hidden from normal people. She kisses the girl on her dirty hair and helps her up into the stranger's skid. The man seems embarrassed about the situation, possibly even guilty. He coughs a lot from the toxic dust. He is grey and soft, like a baby whose mother is afraid to take him out into the sun.
The skid rolls off into the distance, away from the hut, away from the town and towards the neon city lights. They drive for a long time. Denise sits silently in the back, memorizing the man's hands on the controls, listening to his heartbeat and his uneasy conscience, smelling his sweat rotting in the metallic air.
As they approach the city, the haze gets thicker; it shimmers in the skid lights and makes her skin feel wet and sticky. She has trouble breathing. She coughs and coughs but the haze will not leave her lungs. The thin sliver of glass bites into her skin and she stifles a cry. The man stops the skid and gives her a nanodust inhaler.
"It's all right, that always happens the first time. Afterwards you get used to it. You'll see, you'll be okay."
Denise breathes the nanodust in deeply, really hating the man for the first time. They are in the transition zone and it is completely dark. They have passed several farms; there is topsoil here and the haze is thick enough to protect crops from radiation. Once, she's even seen a small animal move in front of the skid lights.
In the distance, she sees the city lights beckon them like so many fireflies. Looking back, she can still see a few stars through the narrowing rim. There will be no stars in the city; the gods have told her that.
"Are there fireflies in the city?" she asks.
"No, but there will be candy, nice clothes, and people like you to play with." What does he mean, people like her? She has always been with people like her. She sighs, she knows he won't let her go, but she jumps to the ground anyway and sprints off into the darkness.
The man swears, runs after her and catches her only a few meters away from the skid in spite of his stiff heavy boots. Denise has had time to prepare. Before setting off, she's readied the sharpened glass, and when the man's arms surround her, she twists in his embrace and sinks the improvised stiletto into the soft flesh under his jaw and up into his brain. His sweat acts as a lubricant and her movement is fluid. He crumples towards her, gushing warm liquid onto her face and chest, and it takes all her strength to push him away. He falls heavily, his breath rasping, then gurgling before it finally stops. It makes the girl's skin crawl. She waits for the blood on her skin to cool before taking his pulse to make sure he is dead. Then she takes off his clothes and scrapes the nanoflesh off his skin. It is very valuable. She wraps it up into a bundle with her doll and the sharp glass, gets into the skid, and turns back home.
Her mother will be happy to see her. She can sell the skid and buy a small farm in the transition zone, somewhere with clean water and semi-fertile land. They will never really leave the Waste.
Denise drives the skid slowly, meandering among the bushes, sniffing at the wet earth. No matter; dawn is hours away.
She turns off the headlights—a waste of perfectly good batteries. They cannot compete with all those shining stars.