The warning whistle scattered them. More than a dozen went in all directions. Cusser suddenly scooped Bit up and tossed her into the air. She grabbed for the rail and caught it. She scrambled over and prayed for the big boy who had slowed his own run and lessened his own chances of escape to help one who couldn't get far enough fast enough to be missed by the sniffers. She didn't think of it as praying. She just wanted something to help him for helping her so hard that she squeezed her eyes shut and begged for him to be safe. There was 'no way' for a street brat to get up where she was so she was safe from the 'scripters this time. She huddled in the corner of the dilapidated second story porch and prayed for Cusser. Bit didn't know she was four when she swore that if the 'scripters caught Cusser she'd find him and break him out someday.
The conscription robots stunned and loaded two thousand two hundred four on Plodder in five days. They were sorted by size and sex. Post pubescent males spent three days in collection and were sent to the front. Post pubescent females were sent to the nurseries. Pre-pubescents of both sexes were sent to labor farms. The work made them stronger and the food they produced kept those who were on the front and in the nurseries alive. The ones on the front fought and died and the ones in the nurseries bore more to work on the farms and be sent to nurseries and the front to bear and die. Two thousand weren't many for a world to give and if anyone had wanted them they wouldn't have been on the streets of the condemned districts. The conscription robots moved on to another of the contract worlds. They wouldn't return to Plodder for twelve years. By then, the toddlers who were too young to conscript would be ready. There were always some who survived.
Bit gathered babies. She knew where the hole into the food stores was. Cusser had taught all the smart little ones. The bomb shelters no one had ever used were the source of life for the small children. The 'dults in the walled cities didn't remember they existed. When Cusser didn't come, Bit knew the 'scripters had gotten him. When nobody came but the babies she had found, she knew she was the big kid who had to teach. It didn't take her long to figure out how to get the screen turned on. She started teaching that day. She didn't know many words yet, but she knew all the letters and how they sounded. Pretty soon some of the babies would learn to sing the letter song and she'd need lots more words when they got big enough to understand the sounds of the letter song and the letters on the screen were reading when you put them together.
The mayor of Plan City Four walked through the walled section of the city and discussed the obvious success of the conscription robots with other personages in environmental suits. One joked the city was liable to have to pay taxes in twelve years and all laughed. They were rather in a race to see which of the planned cities would. It would mean there was no poverty and no population growth. No one knew quite how the "ruin rats" survived, but all knew why there were always some to be collected by the conscription robots. Some people didn't follow the plan. They didn't wait for government approval to have a child. The fact some never received that approval was never mentioned. If they had been true contributors to the city, they would have. The mayor and his chosen had six. The fact that meant four could have none was too obvious to mention. The population control computer selected who would have children by the proven value of the genetic donors. Those who had them anyway "dumped" them in the walled area of the city. It was aggravating, but it did keep the city from paying taxes to sup-port the war. One day the conscription robots would find nothing, then they could raze the deteriorating structures and build the park that had been planned more than three hundred years before.
The war was fought on four worlds. They hadn't signed the contract to provide support in money or conscripts and had, of course, become the battlegrounds. War was fought by humans. It was the way to assure it didn't escalate. The two battle computers that moved humans and supplies had kept the dispute between two alliances of worlds from destroying a large chunk of human civilization. All thought it very civilized, except the young boys who were given weapons and told to kill the boys dyed the other color or be killed. No human knew the battle computers raised humans to fight the war on farms. No human knew the war could not end. No non-conscripted human knew anything about the war at all. The twenty-six planets that 'fought' it were shunned by the rest of the human species. Zero population growth was essential on them because they could not leave their worlds.
No communication with other human sectors was allowed by the battle computers. The war could not be allowed to escalate. No human knew the battle computers had extrapolated that to mean neither side could ever win and the war was maintained at steady state. No human on twenty-six worlds knew there were hundreds of human worlds. Someday one of the battle computers would cease to function. The remaining one would then control both sides of the war. When it ceased to function, the war would end. The humans who had built the two computers were long dead. Few remembered they had touted their great success and predicted the computers, ships and conscription robots would need no maintenance for five hundred years.
Bit saw the group of 'dults and closed the hole quick. She was pretty sure she had all the babies inside. She didn't remember any who weren't there. She'd counted, but she didn't know if forty-three was the right number. She did know she'd have to go along the wall and see if any babies had been put over it every night and morning. Cusser had taught all the smart little ones that too. She couldn't go out to check the walls yet so she started teaching the babies to wash and comb their hair. She was very pleased when two of them knew what to do with the comb. She would take one with her when she checked the walls at night and one when she checked them in the morning. She knew how to take care of tiny babies. Cusser had taught that too. But he hadn't come to the hole and that meant the 'scripters had got him. He had been her teacher. She'd get somebody for taking her teacher.
Plan City Four was in a mild climatic region. All the planned cities were. On Plodder, all cities always had been. The rest of the world was blistering desert, frozen desert or ocean. Plodder didn't have continents in temperate regions. The three continents were one equatorial and two polar. The cities were all in the north and south sub-tropical regions of the equatorial continent. It had been seeded with life or it would have none. If it hadn't been between two much more attractive worlds, no one would have bothered.
Plan City One still had a space port, though it wasn't used much. People there still monitored the huge machines that poured the essentials for life into the air. The museum with the preserved bit of the original dome still brought tourists to the city and people still sold them chips from it. None of the tourists opened the sealed souvenir cases and they wouldn't have been able to tell the plexi in them hadn't been made nearly a thousand years ago if they had. Four years after the conscription robots 'cleaned' Plodder, Bit met someone from there. He was called Tapper. They met when they both pulled the same reference from the library.
Tapper had been biggest in his place after the robots had gone through too. He was bigger than Bit. He'd known more than she had and his words on the screen said he was proud to know a kid as smart as her. Neither had known the kids inside the walls of the various cities could talk to each other though. They started trying to find out if there were others. When they found the kid who was biggest in each of the eight cities, they pooled their knowledge and really began to learn.
They decided Bit was the youngest. They were sure Tapper was the smartest. He got from the library file, they all knew somebody had set up for them a long time ago, into the gov computer records and started changing things. They all had read how the world worked and all of them had ideas about how it should be changed. Bit was the one with the idea they liked most. The population control computer noted "narrowing genetic base" and everybody started getting approval to have one child each. The number of babies being lowered over the walls started going down fast. They still got a few, but they weren't all scared they were going to run out of baby stuff before the ones they already had got big enough not to need it anymore.
The most successful people on Plodder were upset. They weren't being given the traditional acknowledgement of their contributions to their cities. Large homes built in expectations of large families weren't needed. They were actually being refused a third child between two people. They demanded a check of the records and were stunned. The population control computers gave them exactly the data they requested. And, according to the data, all eight cities were on the verge of severe inbreeding because the small group who held power in each were the ones who had been given approval to have children too long.
None thought to ask the computers the period of time on which the data was based. Telling the computers to project two thousand years then enter the result as current data had been very simple and probably least likely to be noticed. Tapper had said so when he did it. He was right.
Puddle, from Plan City Six, located the old construction robot storage sites in a file. Bit checked the one in her area and reported the bots were being maintained. Tapper found the maintenance program and they all helped change it. Construction bots started dismantling buildings that were about to fall and repairing a few worth the trouble. Children dug tunnels from the bomb shelters to rennovated buildings and up through the floors. They carefully built "seals '' for their tunnels at both ends. The first thing a child was taught was not to run into the old bomb shelters when the warning the robots were coming was sounded. They started hunting for how the first who had taught it had known. They found a letter.
There had been a group of people who didn't like the plans for "getting rid of the population problem" by building a wall around subsidized housing and letting the conscription robots take everyone inside it. One had climbed over the wall in each city after the first sweep to take care of the children who had been left alone when their parents were taken. They had passed the knowledge of the bomb shelters that had been stocked for the families of the powerful. They'd told the children not to try to shelter in them because the conscription robots activated sensors in them. They'd hidden in them only once. The powerful hadn't wanted anyone to know they had built the shelters and so had not had them checked when the upper floors of the buildings were sealed. It was when they read the letter that they learned the robots had at first only taken adults.
Children taught each other. Survival depended on how much they could learn in the time they had before the next conscription. When they'd learned enough, they began to build again. Construction bots were reprogrammed and ships began to take shape inside old buildings. They had four years left to build them and they'd be very primitive, but they would take them off Plodder and get them to the space station that had once been a busy construction dock. The last thing they did was dismantle the construction bots. They needed their power units for their ships.
The children ran for the ship. Bit's team carried the computer and comm system from the shelter. Other teams carried food. Tapper had messaged the conscription ships were landing and they would lift as soon as the bots left their ships. They had been living in their ship in expectation of them. The rest would follow as soon as flyers were seen. The object was to get the bots as far from their ships as possible. Their programming was limited and they would ignore a ship lifting to collect people. Plan City Four was second on their itinerary.
The lookout whistled shrilly and scrambled down. She ran into the ship and slammed the hatch. They wouldn't know if they'd built well enough until they tried to lift off and then left the atmosphere. Eight ships built by children with limited resources would rise to carry them to freedom or they would die. Bit softly said, "Cusser, I'm coming to get you." and hit the anti-gravity switch. She whooped when the ship suddenly lifted free of the hollow shell of the building and into the air. She pointed it at where the station was that time of day and hit thrust. When the boost hit and the ship held together, she breathed.
Eight ships made it to the station. They were all very proud of themselves and all knew it was a miracle. They needed another and got to work on it fast. They had to get the station, at least in the area they had docked, warm and filled with air. Then they had to get to the monitors and get them to answer negative to a query by the conscription ships when asked if unauthorized personnel had docked. They didn't have much time.
Bit ran for it. The station was warming, but it was a long way from warm. At least running kept her from freezing. She'd taken skin off when she'd cycled the hatch, but it said air on the other side and the skin on her fingers was of minor importance. She whooped, dove through a closing hatch and got on the comp in front of her. She entered docking approval for eight ships and reopened security hatches. Tapper had tricked the program just long enough.
Bit checked the station systems as best she could and decided they had enough power and air for the sections they needed. She backed up Tapper's emergency override with commands from the central station and checked the temp. It was warming, but air temp was not wall temp and it would be awhile before surfaces thawed. She was gritting her teeth and the comp control pads would be a bloody mess when the bits of her fingers that were freezing to them thawed. Running steps and a voice made her heart leap, but she kept working.
"You've got to be Bit. Where are we?"
"Officially docked and I think it says we've got the air and power we need. Tapper?"
"That's me. You've left enough meat on those pads. Let me contribute some of mine."
She just looked at the hand and arm that reached around her. They were huge. She moved out of the way so he could get his left hand on the pads too and just stood and stared at him. He was the biggest person she'd ever seen. His hair was white and he had a full beard the same color. She knew he was older than she was, but it hadn't registered that he was an adult. She suddenly realized she probably was too. She'd started her cycles and that meant woman. He'd helped her find the info in the library that kept them from scaring her silly. She'd known they would come someday long before they'd begun and that they'd probably hurt the first few times. They had and she didn't like them, but they hadn't scared her. She worked to get her mind working again, but still popped out with a stupid question.
"Why is your hair white?"
"Always was. Hair white, skin white, eyes about no color, but I don't ALWAYS fry in the sun and my eyes aren't pink so I'm not albino. I've wondered if the conscription bots decided I was and skipped me last time, but I want to think it was because I dove into a hole in a street and about stayed under water for two days. Took me about twenty to get the smell off. A lot of water ran in that hole and none of it ran out. Seeped out, but didn't run out. Stale and slimey with algae, but it was warm and hid me. We're online and official. You did good. You got us logged just in time. The record reports a query one point six seconds after you got us covered. We all made it. Over a thousand of us and they didn't get a one. And we didn't lose a ship. We did it! WE DID IT!!"
Bit got most of what he said, but it wasn't easy. They talked different.
Nobody had to watch the station from the center once they got it running. They had all the warning signals working if something went wrong and there were comps all over on it that they could get to if it needed fixing. Tapper told her she was a little thing and she said she knew some of the kids were getting bigger than she was, but she hadn't thought of herself as being little. He said he knew he was big because he was a lot bigger than some of the older kids when the 'scripters had come before.
They hunted for the sign that meant an aid kit on their way back and Tapper bandaged her bloody fingers, then his own while they walked. She told him it was nice not to have to work so hard ignoring how much they hurt. He laughed and she liked it. His voice was real low and made her feel sort of shivery. She figured that was because they were both adults and biology. They all knew about biology. It was why people had babies they couldn't keep.
The other six big kids were waiting for them in the place they'd picked to meet close to the ship docking places. All the ship hatches were open, of course. They didn't have stored air or cyclers and they needed what was in the station. Tapper sprayed healing agent and bandaged more fingers. They hadn't been able to wait for the hatches to get warm either. They all talked different and had to work to understand each other, but as long as nobody got too excited they did pretty well. None of them had realized that several hundred years of separation would cause kids in each place to develop accents. They sang each other the letter song and laughed because it didn't sound like they were singing they same thing.
One thousand three hundred and twenty-four children 'dressed' in rags slowly moved into the section of the space station that had once been a busy construction and transshipment point. They slowly brought the whole station online and, as it filled with air and warmed, explored it. Several partial bolts of cloth found on a shelf in what had once been a fabric trader's shop were a delight and boys and girls who had wrapped rags around them because "people wear clothes" reinvented the kilt. Bit was one of five girls who needed a bandeau for support, but all the little girls copied them and the little boys copied the big boys who needed support elsewhere.
Children brought everything they found back to the section where they had docked their ships. There was much more than they really expected. Tapper said it was probably stuff people thought wasn't worth the cost of moving. Bit said no one said anything about it because the city planners didn't want anybody to go to the station to see what was there. All agreed both were probably right.
The kids wanted to stay on the station, but they knew they couldn't. It belonged to Plodder and, sooner or later, the conscription robots would come to it. They found what they really needed in a small office on the opposite side of the station. Every child picked one of the disks to study. When a kid passed all six of the sample tests on the disk he or she had chosen, the title was awarded and work begun.
The station was closed off as sections were stripped and ships were equipped. It took them two and a half years, but they built twenty ships. Three were quite large, but most were made for about twenty kids. Then Loops figured out a way to shield and arm them and they spent another half year doing that. They loaded the ships and went to find the place where Cusser had been taken.
Bit was nineteen and captain of a ship. She knew she was a captain. Tapper knew he was about twenty-five and commander of a fleet. And that he was in love with Bit. He also knew she wouldn't love anyone until she had found the boy, man, she had promised to find when he'd tossed her up out of the range of the sensors of the conscription bots. One thousand three hundred twenty-four, who still thought of themselves as children, set out to end a war that had been going on for more than three centuries.
Thirty ships waited for forty. They had to be empty of kids before they destroyed them. They'd followed them from one world to another. They were getting low on supplies, but no one complained. Every kid on every ship would have chosen starvation if it was necessary to destroy the robot conscription ships.
Cusser looked at the new boys and sighed. They were scared and hungry. He led them to the food troughs. They always got two days before the bots drove them out of the big pens to kill or die. He gathered them around him after they'd eaten and explained that they couldn't just not fight because anyone who didn't was picked up by the bots and dumped in a cycler, in pieces. He was just finishing explaining that and starting on how to use and take care of their weapons when something strange happened.
Bit dove her ship in to distract the robot defenses and Tapper got a clean shot at the complex. Loop took the ship on her tail and they all got ready for another run. Then the complex blew and they whooped and got as many of the ships as fast as they could. Tapper's idea that the other complex they'd seen housed another battle comp and it would take over was proved right in a hurry, but there weren't many ships left by then and they finished them off quickly. Loops' shields had worked. They raced for the other complex. Somewhere there were real fighter ships and the comp would be getting them back to defend it as fast as possible.
Cusser yelled to shoot the bots and boys who had followed his orders without question for a half dozen years followed them without question again. The massed fire of hundreds of small weapons overwhelmed the defenses of the racing bots. The battle comp got very busy. It sent instructions to the bots herding the other troops to deal with the rebellious ones who had destroyed forty field units. The other troops broke out of their compound and followed. They met the other army, but they were shooting at the bots, not them, and they decided to help.
A woman in a nursery made a sudden decision something was going on when bots started leaving the area. She rammed a pair of shears into the control panel of a watch bot and a dozen others copied fast. The bots were slow to respond and more were disabled fast. Five women died, but the bots on their nursery were all gone. Every woman not heavily pregnant ran through the door that only bots had ever gone through before and were suddenly outside and under a blue sky. They were also in lower gravity than in the nursery. Four of them boosted one to the top of the high wall and she was over. It didn't take her long to figure out how to get the wall down. She yelled for everyone to take cover and sent the heavy transport she found straight into it.
Children on a farm watched all the bots headed away fast and ran after them. They had hand implements and a small girl found out the bots were slow when she used her rake and it toppled intead of just lifting on a-grav. Children whooped and took the bots apart. They weren't living and it didn't hurt, but it made them feel good to pull them apart as they had children who were not cooperative.
The children on the farms, young men on the battlefields and women in the nurseries would never know they had saved all of them when they had decided to destroy the bots instead of just letting them go. The battle comp had been clearing valuable units to implement the destruction of the four worlds. That was the command both comps had been given to prevent the other side from attaining a victory. Thirty ships destroyed a second computer and communication complex in space and several thousand gunships just shut down. They didn't stop, of course, but they were no longer a threat. They were just drifting debris headed for the same point in space.
Three ships went down to the world that had once been beautiful and had been drowned in the blood of innocents. Bit was the only one who walked out of a ship. She smiled at the kid who stared at her and told him she was looking for a boy called Cusser. The boy with blue skin asked if she was the one who had made the bots go crazy so they could destroy them. She grinned and said she'd had help. The boy ran over the ridge behind him and she sat down on the pad in front of the hatch of her ship to wait.
Cusser listened to the message the blues had passed to the reds and started walking. It took him more than a half day to get to the pads where three ships had landed. The whole time he walked, he wondered. A woman had asked for him by name. He discounted everything said about her but that she was a woman. Any woman would be "the most beautiful person who ever spoke a word" to a kid whose dreams were of women and whose reality was fighting to stay alive amongst several thousand other boys who were punished for touching another and dismembered for masturbating because "war required passion" and they were not allowed to "waste" it.
He smiled when he thought about it. That had been the first thing most of the boys did. There were a lot of very sticky lumps of metal scattered around. He climbed the ridge and decided the blue might not have been that far off when he saw the woman sitting in the shade cast by the ship. Then she saw him.
"I don't know... Bit?"
"Oh, Cusser, it took so long to come get you I was afraid you'd be dead."
"You came to... get me?"
"I said I would the day you tossed me up to catch that rail and the sniffers didn't find me."
"And you... ended the war to do it."
"I had a lot of help."