(An Edward Morrison chapter)
In Edward’s dream, a child was crying. It sounded like Sean, but Edward could not see him. Dark men were crowding around him, but as much as he fought them off, he couldn’t find Sean.
Edward awoke. The door of the cabin was open and the blood-red stain of dusk could be seen dying slowly in the west. The boy he had called Sean was lying where he had left him, while another small boy stood over him and poked him with a piece of steel. Sean was making whimpering, puppy-like noises.
“Hey kid, stop.” The boy continued. “I said, lay off!” Edward shouted. He grabbed the kid by the back of the neck and threw him towards the door just as Hinsen walked in. Hinsen shoved the now screaming boy out the door with his foot.
“You ready to work? Sun’s down,” he said.
“What about the robot and the boy?” Edward asked.
“They’ll be okay here. Just come along.”
Screams of laughter and inhuman shrieks came from outside the cottage. Fires were blazing, up and down the street and by the nearest, men were rolling on the ground, convulsing and laughing until they were gasping with the effort. Still more were passing around a filthy rag soaked from a glass bottle. In turns, they took deep, shuddering breaths with the rag pressed to their nose. Edward caught the caustic scent of Trill, the cheapest, quickest path to total oblivion of the mind.
“You want some?” Hinsen asked casually. “You might want some, for the work.” Edward shook his head.
They ate a quick bowl of thin soup and Hinsen put them single file, ten men in all, and led them out into the darkness beyond the slums. Most of the other men were high on Trill and the dead lands around them echoed with the sound of their bestial laughter. They walked for over a mile before Hinsen’s flashlight illuminated a deserted country manor set among a stand of overgrown oak. The windows were smashed and the door gaped like a dead and rotten mouth.
“Everyone take a bucket,” Hinsen said. “Once everyone’s buckets are full, we go back, not before. Don’t stop working until all the buckets are full. Now go.”
Edward approached the door. Away from the glare of the flashlight, he could see a dull red glow coming from inside. He had seen it once before and the sight of it here made the breath catch in his throat. This was no ordinary search and salvage.
“Get going, Squid.”
“That’s chren in there, isn’t it?” Edward said. Chren was radioactive mold carried by irradiated bats. Besides attracting chinch bugs and a host of other radioactive vermin, the spores could burrow into a person’s lungs, slowly burning them from the inside out.
“So? The faster you work, the faster you’ll get out,” Hinsen said.
“You said search and salvage, you never said anything about chren mining,” Edward said. “It wouldn’t be worth a year of beef and bacon to go into that house.”
Hinsen drew a gun from his pocket in one swift movement. “You owe me for the food you ate, Squid. You’re going in.”
Some of the other men had already gone in, but the rest stopped to see what would happen. “You know, I didn’t choose the name Squid,” Edward said softly. “I was given it, by the good people of Free Frall. Do you know why? They said it was like I had eight hands, like I was everywhere at once!”
Edward slipped to the side and kicked up, trying to kick the gun out of Hinsen’s hand. His foot hit the wrist, but Hinsen held onto the gun. It was evidently not loaded, since Hinsen swiveled it around, brandishing it like a club, and tried to smash Edward’s face with it. Edward dodged to the side and slammed the heel of his hand up into Hinsen’s face. He felt the nose break and blood gush down his arm in a sudden warm flood. Grabbing Hinsen’s face with his huge hand, Edward thrust him backwards and hurled him to the ground. He heard a crack as Hinsen’s head impacted with the rock-hard soil.
The sudden silence was broken by a manic guffaw from one of the men. Then the rest joined in, as if seeing their employer beaten to death was the funniest thing they had ever seen. Edward took the gun and left without a backward glance.
When he got back to the town, the house was deserted and Droog and the boy were gone. He asked around, but no one had seen them or would say where they had gone. He cursed and threatened them, but it was hopeless.
The Squid was alone again. He did not need the little ‘Munculus bot, Droog, but he was valuable and had already been a huge help on the road to Cambridge. The boy, he tried not to worry about. He had not wanted to bring him anyway, he told himself. But then, the dream of Sean crying came back to him—a memory that still chilled his heart after years of hard and bitter toil. The Sean from long ago whom he had sworn to protect. The Sean who—
Edward started to hurry through the streets. He shouldn’t have called the boy Sean. He shouldn’t have given him a name at all. Now he knew he had to find him and make sure he was okay.