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about the author…
I’ve always loved speculative fiction. That’s the fancy name for stories that involve lasers, or swords, or in the very best stories, laser-swords. So as a kid, I decided to try writing it. And it went really badly.
A few decades later, after a short stint as a science reference librarian, I’m a stay-at-home dad who answers urgent questions like ‘When’s lunch?’ and ‘Can you find my stuff for me?’ It’s not really much different then helping the undergrads back at the University, but it can wear thin at times. In an effort to save my sanity, and avoid housework, I’ve returned to writing.
I think it’s going better, this time.
about the narrator…
Roberto lives in Portland, Oregon. By day he works as a community college student advocate and recruiter. By night he geeks out on all things fantasy and science fiction, comic books and board games. He produces and co-hosts “A Pod of Casts: The Game of Thrones Podcast” ( http://apodofcasts.com/ ) and is a proud monthly supporter of all “Escape Artists” productions. Roberto is a father of four younglings being raised in The Ways of The Force and is married to Barbara, his Sun and Stars. Personal Website: robertosuarez.me
Saints, Beasts, and Zombies
By Gary Kloster
The kids ambushed me on the west side of the camp, near a line of abandoned latrines. Every time they hit me I gasped for breath, and sucked in the reek of old shit.
“Worthless. Everything you got.” A kick thumped into my ribs, driven by lazy contempt, not bone-cracking rage. “Why do you only bring toys here, gringo? You want the little girls to play with you? Or do you like the little boys better?”
The boy bared his teeth at me, lips twisted by an old scar, and his gang laughed. A dozen dirty little scarecrows, the youngest maybe ten, the oldest maybe fifteen. Gangs like this crept around the edges of the Minchin Refugee Camp like feral dogs, fearful, curious.
I’d watched them, boys choking on machismo and desperation, making fun of the peacekeepers as they passed. Listened to them taunt the girls. I’d hated seeing how this place wasted them, turned them small and stupid and angry.
Now, face down and hurting in the dirt far from the center of the camp and the protection of the peacekeepers, I just hated them.
“You come back, you better bring something better than toys. Or we won’t be so nice.” One more kick, and I managed to roll enough so that it caught me on the shoulder and not the head.
They walked away, laughing. They had my coat, my cell phone, and my satchel full of Qbooks. The phone was a burner, with less than an hour left to it. The coat was cheap, but I’d miss it on the walk back through the Andean night. The Qbooks, though…
Their loss hurt me more than the kicks to the ribs.
Maybe one of them would keep one. Stare at the tablet’s cheap screen and wonder about the symbols that danced across it. He might listen to it, play with it, and learn. Learn to read and write, learn math, science, languages. Maybe he would learn enough to escape this place and grow into a man wise enough to change the world, and end the need for camps like this once and for all.
“Or maybe you should get yourself checked for brain damage, Raul,” I muttered as I slowly pushed myself up out of the dust. “Because I think you’re starting to hallucinate.”
“What the hell happened to you?”
“Twelve stitches and a tetanus booster.” I sat at my desk, counting out the ibuprofens the clinic had given me, setting up for an uncomfortable night.
“Before that, Raul.” Grace shifted, leaning back and frowning. The motion made my eyes flick to the glowing image of her face centered in our chat window. She’d cut her dark hair, going back to the short style that she’d favored before she married Mark. A style I’d always preferred, but Mark had liked it long.
Marriage counseling must not be going well.
“Got rolled by some kids. No big deal.” I tapped at my keyboard, opening up the status windows on my Qbooks. Numbers danced, charts flowed, colorful distractions from her face.
“How many stitches does it take to make a big deal?”
“Christ, Grace, I got mugged.” My head still pounded, despite the clinics drugs, and I wasn’t feeling very diplomatic. “It happens, third world or first. Why don’t you stop pretending to be my– my mother and tell me why you called?”
Grace stared at me, dark eyes unreadable, and I wondered if she knew the word that I had swallowed. Probably. I stared at my columns of numbers and tried to lose myself in their familiar misery.
“I’m calling about the email you left yesterday. The one asking me for money.”
“Shit,” I muttered and straightened up in my chair, looked at her and tried to smile. Wished that I had changed my shirt into something more formal, less stained with dirt and blood. “Yes. I was-”
“Wanting money,” Grace cut me off. She ran a hand through that short hair, staring off into the darkness of her study. For the first time, I noticed the boxes stacked up behind her, the shadows that filled her empty shelves instead of books. Noticed too the absence of rings on her fingers. “I can’t do it, Raul. Not now. I asked Mark for a divorce two days ago.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, almost a whisper.
“No you’re not,” she said back, her voice just as quiet.
I looked from the screen, avoiding the image of her eyes, stared down at my filthy hands until my computer chimed quietly. A text chat request, and my fingers slid across my touch pad to kill it. Then I noticed the name, beast696.
Everything always comes at once, I thought, and tapped the window open.
beast696- Santo Raul! Heard you almost got yourself martyred today!
The Beast, after almost two weeks of silence. My fingers tapped the keys, just as Grace began to speak again.
“That isn’t what this is about. The money. It’s just, with the divorce coming, my lawyer-” she trailed off, her hand scrubbing through her hair again, as if searching for the length she had lost. “I just can’t do it.”
Raul@FindingGenius- No martyrdom for me. Just
a little banged up. Where you been?
“Your lawyer said no?” I said. I flipped through screens until I’d pulled up the tracking program I’d paid a hacker friend of mine to create, after it had become obvious that my security chops were too meager to capture Beast. “Why?”
“She seems to think that if I send large amounts of money to an ex-boyfriend in the middle of my divorce, it might look bad.”
beast696- Busy, Santo, busy.
Raul@FindingGenius- Did you look at those math lectures I sent you?
Beast696- Some. Got distracted though by something else on that site.
Raul@FindingGenius- Let me guess. The crypto?
“You’re giving to a charity, Grace. Not a person.” I activated the tracker and it started to bounce through the net, hunting for the Qbook that Beast was using, trying to grab its locational data. The little computers were meant to be easy to find, hard to tamper with, but Beast had hacked his into submission.
“You are that stupid charity, Raul. Finding Genius is you, a camper van, a crate of Qbooks, and a martyr complex.”
beast696- Crypto is cool, Santo. Very money.
Raul@FindingGenius- Money’s not everything, Beast.
beast696- I thought you were fighting ignorance, Santo. Not promoting it.
“Martyr complex?” The ghosts of a thousand old arguments drifted through those words, waiting. “Is that what you think this is? These kids need me.”
“They need you, Raul?” Grace leaned back from her camera, became a silhouette against the gray Seattle skies that filled the windows of her study. “They don’t know you. You’re just another interfering anglo trying to tell them how to run their lives.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit, Raul. You’re not from there. You’re grandma left Bolivia when she was five. The only thing you know about those people is what you read on Wikipedia.”
“I’ve been here two years, Grace. I know them now.”
“Christ, has it been two years?” she said. “Right. You left right before the wedding.”
Raul@FindingGenius- Don’t go black hat on me, Beast.
That’s not the world you belong in.
696- So what is? Your shitty school in La Paz?
“That’s not why I left.”
Grace stared at me, silent.
“It wasn’t. That company-”
“You mean the one we started?”
“It was a mistake.” I rubbed a finger across the stitches sewn neatly over my eyebrow and winced. “Using the Qbooks to haul kids in for the highest bidder isn’t right. That company turned us into zombies, Grace. Ransacking the world, looking for big fat brains to eat.”
“We’re saving kids, Raul. Finding them in the slums and bringing them in, giving them the best education money can buy. They’ll change the world. That’s what you said, what you wanted.”
“What I wanted.” Had I ever known what I wanted? “We were, you are, snatching kids out of the places their genius is needed most and selling them off to corporations for exploitation. Saving kids. Damn it, you wrote those awful contracts that we tricked those kids into signing. Zombie pimps, trafficking IQ’s instead of ass.”
“Jesus, why do I even try?” Grace said. “Finding Genius was your idea to start with. That’s why you got to keep the damn name.”
“Yeah, my idea. But you and Mark made it profitable.”
“Mark, I– Shit, now I can’t even keep you straight, you both piss me off so much.” Her eyes flashed at me, dagger sharp even over the link. So beautiful, and part of me wanted so much to say sorry. It felt years too late for that, though.
“So. No money.”
Grace stared at me, and the anger in her eyes dulled to exhausted pain. “No Raul. No more money. No more time. No more me.”
The chat window went black, her face gone, just an afterimage when I shut my eyes.
“God damn,” I whispered into the silence. Then the tracking program beeped, and I opened my eyes.
beast696- I don’t need school, Santo Raul. I need
beast696- It might not be everything, but it’s enough
to get me out of here.
The tracking program had opened up a map and dropped a pin into the location it had found.
“Shit,” I said dully, staring at it.
Raul@FindingGenius- Sorry. I’m here.
beast696- Your tracker done?
beast696- So where am I?
beast696- Where’s that?
Raul@FindingGenius- Canada. You didn’t do the geography lessons.
beast696- Too busy learning security protocols.
Raul@FindingGenius- You’re too smart for this place, Beast. Let me help you. The school in La Paz is a good place. Why won’t you let me help you?
beast696- Because you’re asking too much for something I don’t want, Santo.
beast696- Stay away from those bad boys and stay safe. Okay?
Two weeks later, I sat at my desk in suit coat and dress shirt, tie and fleece pants, hoping to hell my shivering didn’t show over the link.
“So far, Finding Genius has distributed almost a thousand Qbooks through the villages and refugee camps of southwestern Bolivia. Each of those tablets is a chance for a child to learn, and a chance for us to find children who might someday change the world. Already, we’ve located a number of children who might become the next Galileo, Curie, or Einstein.”
I kept a smile on my face, resisted the impulse to scratch at the maddening itch of my almost healed stitches. “Well, we’ve had some successes–”
“Three.” The man from the Gates Foundation leaned back in his chair, frowning at me. “I see three children that have been sent to La Paz by your program in two years.”
“Well, genius isn’t something–”
“Two of them have returned to the camps already.”
I gave up and swiped a sleeve across my forehead, scratching my itch. “They’re children. They missed their parents. I’m sure–”
“Uh-huh.” The man sighed, turned in his chair. “There’s already a UN program that uses tablets for rural education.”
“Qbooks are better,” I said. “And that program makes no effort to search out gifted students.”
“No. I hear there are private entities that do that.”
I shut my teeth on a retort, knowing it wouldn’t help. “Look, I know there are other worthy causes. But this area needs our help right now. The lithium war between Bolivia and Chile may have only lasted a week, but the armistice after has run for over three years. These people have been driven from their homes just so we can have batteries. We owe them something.”
“We owe everyone we can help whatever we can give, Mr. Hastings. But the Gates foundation is committed to giving where it can do the most good. And I’m afraid your program just hasn’t proven itself. I’m sorry. Best of luck elsewhere.” The window winked to black.
Elsewhere. I jerked my tie off and cursed. All my elsewheres had been used up long ago, and now—
My computer chimed.
“I’m really not in the mood for your shit today, Beast,” I said, looking at the text request. My finger hovered over the screen, ready to tap the window closed. “Damn it,” I muttered, and tapped it open instead.
beast696- santo you there ineed
Raul@FindingGenius- Beast, I’m here. What
beast696- get me please, come here, now, i
A new window flashed open on my screen, the tracking program suddenly springing to life. Trumpets rolled through the speakers, and a bulls-eye drew itself over a satellite image. Camp Minchin, cinderblock buildings and trailers and tents and shacks made of plastic sheeting and scrap. In the middle of it a red pin fell, marking a trailer half-overgrown with blue tarp.
The Beast’s lair, at last, right here, so close.
Raul@FindingGenius- Beast, are you in trouble?
Raul@FindingGenius- I’m coming.
The trailer door, dented and peeling, shuddered under my hand.
I pulled my new coat closed, trying to block the wind coming down from the mountains, but my shaking had nothing to do with the cold. What the hell was I sticking my neck into, here, alone? What the hell was I going to do if no one answered my knock? What the hell was I going to do if they did?
I should have talked to the peacekeepers. They wouldn’t have wanted to come out into the cold night, looking for a boy whose name I didn’t even know, but I should have—
The door jerked open.
A woman, sharp bones wrapped in wrinkles, eyes of cutting glass, glared at me. “What?” The word, Quechua, not Spanish, was spat out like acid.
“Child. Book. Where?” I stumbled over the language, gave up and switched to Spanish. “I’m looking for a boy with one of these.” I held up a Qbook. “Have you…”
The woman glared at me silently, then shut the door.
I stared at the blank metal and cursed, raised my hand and pounded on it, the noise echoing over the low growl of radios and the low moan of the wind. I pounded until the door jerked suddenly open again, then I stumbled back, almost falling.
The boy stepped out, red eyes flashing at me over a mouth twisted into a sneer by his scar. He wore my old coat, and in his hand he held a Qbook, worn with use, painted with markers. “You gave her this.”
A set up. An ambush. I shook, afraid and angry and tired, but my voice came out steady. “Who?”
The boy took a step closer, his too-big eyes feral with rage. “My sister. The Beast.” The boy stared down at the Qbook in his hand, his face stone except for the scar.
“Grandmother hated her, always playing with this. Wanted her to do real work.” His hands clenched on the thin tablet. “She took it away from her, when she sold her.”
“To be a maid in El Alto, that’s what those men said.” The boy stared at me, eyes burning. “That’s a fucking lie, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Traffickers. I stared at the bright flowers and crude faces that covered the Qbook. They hit the camp, sometimes, looking for girls to run to… anywhere. “Goddamn it. The peacekeepers—”
“Let them in.”
Bribed, and damn it the boy was probably right and I’d have no idea who was in on it, but what the hell was I going to do? My hand spasmed around my phone. “Did you see the car they took?”
“Did you get—”
The boy held out the Qbook. On its rain spattered screen, a series of letters and numbers glowed. A license.
“Can you get her, Santos? Can you save her?” His eyes searched mine, and I could finally see the despair hiding behind all that rage.
“I’m going to try.”
“You’d better,” the boy whispered, his words barely breaking the sound of the rain. “You’d better.”
“Raul.” Grace, in her office, and there were boxes there too, crowding the desk around her. “I told you. No more—”
“I’m sending you something,” I interrupted. My fingers flew across the keyboard, dumping Beast’s file to her. Her eyes scanned her computer’s screen, started to come back to me, then stopped.
“How old is he? She?”
“She’s twelve, thirteen, I’m not sure. All I really know is that she maxed out the Qbooks intellect profiles. She’s the best I’ve ever found, Grace, and she’s obsessed with computers.”
Grace’s eyes narrowed, hard focused. “So why haven’t you scooped her up?”
“She’s been dodging me, until today. When her grandmother sold her to some traffickers.”
“Wait. Shit, what?” Grace’s eyes flashed at me. “Why the hell are you calling me about this?”
“Our– Your company.” I stared at the boxes around her, then focused on her face. “You and Mark. I know you’ve arranged extractions, gotten kids out of bad situations before. You have money, contacts. I told you to stay out of Bolivia, but–”
“We have contacts in that area,” she said, and we stared at each other, silent.
“Call them,” I said.
“Raul. Christ.” She stared down at her boxes. “I just told Mark I was quitting. Told him your idiocy had gotten to me. Now you want me to—” She broke off, sighed. “Twelve. Shit.” She stared at me, eyes small and sharp on my screen.
“I’ll talk to him. But there’ll be a price, Raul.”
“I’ll pay it.”
“No you won’t,” she said. “Your Beast will.”
My hands clenched over the keys. “I—”
“Have nothing Mark wants. Not anymore.”
Damn her. Damn me. My hands opened. “Whatever. Just help me save her.”
The road to El Alto was rutted and worn. That made it easy to angle my van across it, looking like it was stuck axel deep in a pothole.
“They’re coming,” a voice rumbled in my ear, Spanish brutalized by a thick Australian accent. I had no idea where Grace had dug up this merry little band of mercenaries, and didn’t want to. The fact that she could do it so quickly was a clear signal that the company had spun to a whole new level of insanity after I had left. Damn me though, it was useful now.
“You sure it’s them?”
“Right time and place, according to the info we bought. You’ll have to check the plate.”
“Okay,” I muttered into the headset, listening to a truck engine getting closer. I watched headlights swing around a curve, stared blind into them and waved my hands, stepping out of the way. With a lurch, the truck slid to a stop and I stepped forward, trying to see through the light.
“You hang that piece of junk?”
“Yeah,” I said, forcing myself to walk closer, blocking their headlights with a hand. “Can you give me a pull? I’ve got a chain.”
“Yeah, but do you have cash?”
Another voice, and laughter, and I was close enough to see the license now.
“It’s them,” I whispered in English, and the driver’s door was opening, a dark figure stepping out.
“What?” the truck driver asked, then he shifted, head turning toward the sound of boots crunching through the dust, and there was a pop.
With a strangled grunt, the driver fell. He thrashed in the dust, a black taser dart clinging to his chest like a vicious electric tick. Then the truck lurched at me.
I jerked myself to the side, barely dodging the rusty bumper, stopped myself from diving away and grabbed instead at the door that was flopping open as the truck bounced forward.
In the cab, the other man twisted, trying to get himself centered behind the wheel while he pulled something up off the seat beside him.
I ducked without thinking, heard a crack like fireworks and suddenly glass was falling, the broken shards of the window tapping like hail down on me. Almost lost in the echoes of the gunshot came another neat pop.
Big hands grabbed me and shoved me away from the door. The Australian blasted by and jerked the twitching man out of the truck and slid in, stopping it. The rest of his squad was there then, slipping out of the darkness like ghosts. They surrounded the truck, opening doors and flashing guns, and wrenched another man out of the back, zip tying his hands behind him.
Behind the last trafficker, five girls straggled out into the night, silent and shaking.
I reached into my coat and pulled out the Qbook, the bright colors marked on it glowing in the headlights. “Beast?”
She wore a Yankees t-shirt, dirty jeans, and in her face I could see a dim echo of her brothers.
“Santo,” she said, and took her computer from my hand and curled around it, clutching it close.
When I finally turned my computer back on, Grace was waiting for me.
“Raul, goddamit, where are you?”
She glared out of the screen at me, looking almost as rough as I did, and no one had been shooting at her.
Maybe I should have answered my phone.
“La Paz. Safe.”
“Safe,” she said. “You couldn’t have texted me that hours ago?”
“Your Australian did.”
“My Australian told me that the job was done, and that you had driven off with a van full of girls. That’s all I’ve known,” she eyes slipped, checking her computers clock, “for three hours.”
Three hours. For a second, I wondered what the mercenaries had done with the traffickers, than I decided I didn’t care. “I had to drive here and find Maria and get the girls settled.”
“Who the hell’s Maria?”
“Social worker from the school I work with.” And a damned good one. I’d rousted her from a date and settled five girls on her, and she’d had them showered, dressed, fed and settled around her apartment before I had time to stammer out my story.
“Okay,” Grace sighed. “That wasn’t completely idiotic. You still there?”
“I’m in my van, parked outside. I—” Laughter echoed somewhere on the street, people going home from the bars, and I trembled, still feeling the aftershocks of adrenalin. “I’m not sure what to do.”
“So what’s new?”
I looked away, stared out at the city night and caught sight of a skinny wraith hunched over something on the steps that lead up to Maria’s building. I popped open the door and called out, “Beast.”
She looked up, stood and walked to the van. Short and scrawny, she barely looked the thirteen she claimed.
“What are you doing?”
“That woman told me to sleep. I don’t want to.” She clutched her Qbook to her chest, defiant.
“Get in,” I said, picked up my phone and snapped a quick text to Maria. On my screen, Grace tilted her head, tracking the girl’s movement past the camera.
“Grace, Beast.” I repeated the introduction in Spanish, but the girl ignored me, settling into my narrow cot with her computer.
She had refused to give me any other name.
Grace focused again on me. “Have you talked to her yet?”
“Do it. We need her to sign a contract, and we need permission from her guardians. Will that be a problem?”
I thought of that old woman, the angry eyes of her grandson. Sold her. “No. Not with a little money.”
“Good. We need to get her out before any of this shit gets noticed.” Over the speakers came the click of her fingers, dancing across keys. “I’m sending you all the papers you’ll need, including her contract.”
The computer pinged, the file popping into existence, but I was watching Grace. “I thought you were quitting.”
“I was. Because of you. But Mark…” She stopped typing and looked past her computer, past me. “I promised him another six months. So we could manage the transition better.”
“So he could convince you to stay,” I said.
“That was part of his price, wasn’t it? For tonight?”
“Yes,” she said again, running a hand through her short hair, and it was my turn to look away.
“You used to be together,” Beast said, curled on my bed.
“A long time ago.”
“Mmmm.” The girl held up her tablet, turned its screen to me. “Is this the contract she wants me to sign?”
Beast had gotten the file from some watchdog group’s expose on the company I had started and its practices. I could see logo at the top of the screen, the familiar first lines. “Looks like.”
She flipped the screen back towards her and danced her fingers across it. “Not so money. Twenty-first century slavery, that’s what all the comments say.” She stared at me through her ragged hair. “Am I going to get sold again, Santos? Twice in one day?”
“No.” What would it cost me? Would Mark demand I come back and work off what I owed the company for this? I felt the phosphors of Grace’s face, burning behind me.
No. He wouldn’t want me back.
It didn’t matter. I’d figure out a way. I wasn’t going to make the Beast pay for her life. “You don’t have to sign that. You can stay—”
“Stay? Here? Or with my family?” Her eyes looked just like her brothers, when they were filled with rage. “I don’t want to go back to them, Santo. Or that shithole camp. I want to go to the world you come from, with things and money and choice.” She tapped her Qbook’s screen. “I want this deal, without being screwed.”
“What’s she saying?”
Grace’s question pulled the Beast’s eyes off me, to the screen. When she spoke, her transition from Spanish to English was almost flawless. “What I’m saying is that your contract is shit. I want something money.”
“Whoa, young lady.” Grace waved her hand. “I can’t—”
“Don’t talk to me about it,” Beast said. “Talk to my agent.”
I blinked at her. “What?”
“The football boys, from the camps. They get agents, when the scouts from Europe come. Why not me?”
Her head dropped, her fingers flashing across her screen. Behind me, my computer chimed, and in the window beside Grace’s face the girl’s words appeared.
beast696- Do you really want to help me, Santos?
beast696- Then why don’t you ever listen to me? Why haven’t you ever tried to find out what I want?
“I—“ I started, then stopped. I’d never asked her what she wanted, yes, but… “You’re thirteen.”
She didn’t bother to look up as she typed.
beast696- I’m me. This is my life, not yours. So who’s life are you trying to save, anyway?
I stared at the skinny girl, the stickered, battered, markered Qbook cradled in her hands, and my stomach lurched. “Yours,” I said, and for maybe the first damned time I thought about what that might mean. “Okay. Just one thing. Can you call me your advocate, instead of agent?”
Her eyes flicked up, gleaming with reflected light. “You work for me, Santos, really work for me, and I’ll call you whatever you want.”
“Raul, what the hell is this?”
Grace’s voice carried the lawyerly grate of whetstone on steel, but that didn’t shake me. I’d dropped into this country two years ago, nursing my wounded pride, convinced I could save these kids, save the world, just by showing up. But I’d never asked Beast what she wanted, never asked any of the kids that. I’d never really considered that, not when I was the brain eating zombie, and not when I was trying to play the saint.
“This?” I said. I turned back to my computer, fingers tapping keys, and I pulled up a copy of Grace’s contract onto my screen. “This is round one. First thing, citizenship. Or a green card, maybe a visa, if it’s good enough, but something besides that revocable piece of crap that you hold over these kids heads.”
“Christ, you’re serious, aren’t you?” Grace was pissed, and goddamn it felt good to see her looking at me with something besides disappointed resignation.
“Damn right,” I said, skimming the contract, tapping out notes. “You better wake up Mark, he’s going to have to be in on this.”
“Perfect,” Grace snapped. “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing, Raul?”
I stopped typing and stared into the camera. “Same thing I’ve been doing ever since we met.” I pointed behind me, at the scrawny girl curled around her tablet. “Trying to save the world. One genius at a time.”