What else but a Renegade?

My birthday’s tomorrow. I think. Hell, it could be today. Yeonish, he’s suppose to remember that kind of shit. I don’t. He’s got the only working d-pad and we all depend on him for that kind of stuff. Yeonish has a grandfather who still has some job at the Department of Information. Some repair job none of the robos can do. Yet.

I’m going to be eighteen, I remember that much. Eighteen and ready to join the workforce. (snort) What a fuckin’ load that is. “Hey Yeonny, what year were you born?” Yeonish is two years older than me. He keeps his d-pad in a inside zippered pocket. His chem-dyed rust-colored hair is bunned back but he’s got this mesmerizing habit of tugging out strands and poking them back in. His skin is flawless. Well, not that skin—the scarred stuff on his back—but his face is smooth as shade-car leather.

“What the hell, Lorna. Don’t you know?”

Yeonish and me, we got this fake fight we do. This charade. It don’t fool no one.

“Yeonny, please.” I know the answer, but I like to play dumb, for him.

“Thirty.” He doesn’t even look up. He remembers everyone’s years. He could’a been one of those who kept at the heads-up lessons, learning until they could pass the robos’ tests. I guess he could always plead crazy. Smart bios can do that until they get too old.

“Right. Making it twenty thirty-two for me.” I watch Yeonish stretch the tightness across his shoulders. He looks at me sideways and I see the twitch of a smile. My eyes smile back.

I sigh, eighteen. I should be happy, right? Finally an adult. Thing is, eighteen is old. I joined this clan at thirteen. Cut my hair, got the tats, did the shade-car dodge, earned my place. But at eighteen, what do I have to look forward to? No work to be had. School’s only for those who test top five percent. Rest of us just, shit, we just exist.

Riss sits next to me. She’s scraping the crud from some metal circle with a star inside it. “We gonna steal the flour and shit to make a cake?” She holds up the emblem, said it came from an old car, one that still had a steering wheel. “This’ll make a gnarly tat. I could put one here and one right here.” She holds up the circle to the round of both shoulders.

I snatch it from her fingers, stand and hold it above my ass. “Or here. Star marks the spot.” Riss tries to grab it and I dance out of the way, holding it high. “The treasure on the map of Rissa.” I toss it back to her, my teasing having earned me a scowl from Yeonish.

“What goes into a cake, anyway?” Ty asks. He’s rummaging through his bulging pack, tools, wires, and wax-paper wrapped oddities spill onto the stack of pallets we use as furniture. There’s a couple of jars of spices he’s carried since he joined us last spring. Ty says he’s keeping them for later. “To make a special dish for all of us,” he threatens.

“We could jack onto one of the DoD vans headed up the valley.” Riss says.

“You mean head to one of the craft-towns?” Ty opens one of the spice jars, sniffs it hard. “They got real meat and green food, even rice, I heard. I could make a curry.”

I shake my head. “Don’t even dream, Ty. I swore I’d never return.”

My parents joined a craft-commune when I was ten. There are millions of them all across the planet now. If the Department of Equality gives you a stipend, you get to live in a city. But that’s only for folks smart enough or skilled enough. Us? We have to scrounge as we can. Or live off-network in a commune like it was the nineteenth century or something.

“I got an idea,” Yeonish says, pointing a thumb toward the coast. “There a robo-farm grows food-stuffs for the Cabal. They say nobody’s ever tried to sneak in, too many force-bots ‘n spy-bots. You get caught you disappear.”

“Nice, Yeonish. That’s some idea,” Ty says, his pack reassembled. “I say we find a distro and hope we get lucky. Maybe they got synth-cheese or choco-soy.”

At the thought of drinking another bottle of choco-soy I gag. “Damn Riss, why’d you have to mention a cake.” I’m antsy now. I rub the scab on my latest tat, the image of a hummingbird I saw once in a steep canyon. It was sucking on the flowers of a cactus. Living like nobody cared what it did, where it went. “When you ever even seen a real birthday cake?”

“Screw the cake, let’s hoof it down to the coast.” Yeonish doesn’t even wait for us. He just leaves.

I look up. It’s late afternoon, hot and dry in what is left of Santa Barbara. “We better tap Pulgas Clan for water before we go.”

Yeonish waits at the corner where the remnants of a bank once stood. The bricks are still there. But all the windows are just holes, hollow eyes staring at a world where money has no meaning. “And trade what?”

“Who said anything about trading?”

“Ah,” Yeonish replies. “Then we’ll need to fetch weapons.”

Ty looks nervous at this suggestion. “I could spare some coriander, I suppose.”

Riss pockets her circle-star. “Unless that’s something that goes in a birthday cake.”

“Yuck.” Ty sticks out his tongue.

“Come on, you guys.” I wrap my arm around Riss’ shoulder and explain what I believe goes in a cake.

We make our way down the grade toward the setting sun. Out over the horizon we watch a parade of Department of Delivery drones ferry goods up and down the coast. Our so-called world of plenty doesn’t have enough of anything these days. Not for the likes of us, anyway.

DALL-E is starting to suck at generating faces. I don’t recall them being so gawd-awfully mutated.

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