I was surprised when Magyar somehow managed to get hold of a combination of handheld and portable PDs. She piled them up on the gangway and called the section, some twenty-odd men and women, together.
“You already know that the computer’s down. It’s going to stay down for at least a day. Systems want to dump the whole program, plus backups, to make sure there aren’t any other viruses. Meanwhile, these are handheld detectors. I’ll want readings every half hour-”
“There won’t be time!” a red-haired man called. He worked two troughs down from me. He was flexing his right arm, over and over, testing his new neoprene and webbing elbow support, making it creak. His name was Kinnis.
“Shut up and let me finish. And try to keep still while I’m talking to you.” The creaking noise stopped. “I’m not asking you to read every single trough every half hour—I only want readings from one trough per person. But make sure it’s the same trough, and make sure it’s from the middle. We want an idea of changes, got that? Good. Questions?”
“How long are we going to be doing this?”
“As long as it takes. Systems say they can’t guarantee they’ll have everything clean and back up in less than three days, but you know how much they overcompensate. It might only take a day. There again, it might not.”
“But how do these things work?” Kinnis asked, looking dubiously at the pile of equipment.
“Ask Bird. She seems to be an expert.” They all turned to look at me. I felt my blanket of anonymity evaporating, but it was my own fault. I managed to nod. What did Magyar suspect? Next time I would keep my mouth shut.
A big, rawboned woman called Cel looked at her waterproof watch, and said in a Jamaican accent, “We’ve another six hours of the shift to go tonight.”
“Yes,” agreed Magyar, “and those holding tanks have to be pumped out as well, so let’s not waste any more of it, shall we?” She strode off, leaving the workers to look at each other, then back to me.
I shrugged, picked up one of the smaller handheld PDs. “This is a photoionization device. It’s calibrated in parts per billion The bigger ones there, the portables, are in parts per trillion. They’re heavy, so maybe we can take it in turns.”
“I don’t mind heavy,” Kinnis said.
“You wouldn’t,” Cel said. “What do they measure?”
“Volatile organics. Totals only, I’m afraid.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad.” Kinnis picked up a portable, hefted it. “Easy.” He frowned, turning it around, looking at the case. “There’s no jack. How do you input the readings to Magyar’s master board?”
“You don’t. They’re old. The readings will have to be input manually.” They looked at me in disgust, as though it were my fault. “I know.” The job was hard enough without the extra work. I hesitated. I was no longer anonymous; I might as well be liked. “Look, seeing as I’m already familiar with these things, why don’t I come round the first time or two and collect your readings? It’ll save you some time.”
Cel looked at me suspiciously, as though trying to figure out what possible advantage I could gain from this. Then she nodded reluctantly.
I spent the next hour trotting from trough to trough, collecting readouts. Once I had everything, I saw we had a problem. The source of the problem was obvious. The solution wasn’t. If I called Magyar and explained, she would have even more reason to suspect me. Would Sal Bird have been able to work out what was going on—and if she had, would she have cared? I didn’t know. But if I ignored it, the whole system would gradually fall out of sync, and that could lead to danger for other workers in other sections.
I called Magyar. “Can you come down here?”
“I’m in a meeting with Hepple, Bird. Can it wait?”
I leaned against the readout console, trying to rest my legs a little. “Not for too long.”
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” She was. “This better be good.”
I handed her the record slate. “Take a look.”
Magyar glanced over them, frowned. “Lower than I expected.” Her skin stretched tight over high cheekbones when she narrowed her eyes. “How come you’re checking up on them?”
What would Sal Bird say? “I just thought it would save time if I went and collected the data, rather than everyone coming to the control center, one after another.” And it meant someone was on top of the subtle changes, minute to minute. Someone had to be. The dangers here were real. I thought about Hepple happily releasing our stream into the mains and what could have happened if there’d been a spill while Magyar had been debating whether or not to close down for a few minutes.
Magyar moved her shoulders, easing tension. “You think there’s something wrong with the PDs?”
I should have said I didn’t know, let her figure it out, but I didn’t know how long that would take, and I couldn’t bear to see a system fail due to simple ignorance. “No. Just the way people are using them. The highest concentration of airborne volatiles is at the center of the trough. Where the water is deepest.”
Magyar understood at once. “And those soft bastards don’t want to get wet.”
“You can’t blame them,” I said tiredly.
“Yes, I can.”
All of a sudden, I saw how young-looking that stretched skin was, how her anger covered vulnerability. She didn’t know what to do. I felt sorry for her. “If you wanted, I could probably come up with a formula to calculate the real concentrations, assuming they all go to about eight feet out.”
The muscles around Magyar’s eyes and mouth tightened even more. She looked as though maybe her ancestors had ridden horses on the Mongol steppes. “That won’t be necessary.” She looked at her watch. “I’ll talk to you about this later.”
Stupid. That was so stupid. Why was I risking myself like this?
I never much enjoyed the forty-five minutes midway through the night when, by law, the section took a break. I managed by being amiable and guarded to those I could not avoid, and then taking a chair out of the way, near the screen showing the tape loop of fish. Watching the endless play of light on water, the dance of angelfish and eel, was the only time I allowed myself to indulge in memories of the past. The tape reminded me of the reefs of Belize, where I had swum at fifteen. I could ignore the sweat and the stink as twenty-some people stripped their skinnies to the waist to free their hands to eat.
Usually I was left alone to eat the food I brought with me, while the rest of the shift complained about work, argued about the net channel, and played rough, incomprehensible practical jokes on each other. This time, Magyar was waiting for us.
“Turn that thing off,” she said. “You people get paid to do a job. I’m paid to make sure you do. Sometimes both our jobs are easier than others. Now is one of the hard times. I’ve been looking over the readings you’ve given me in the last two hours, and they’re no good.” There were groans and one or two angry protests. “Oh, be quiet. If you’d walked those extra few feet into the middle of the troughs as you were supposed to then I wouldn’t have to say all this.” She looked at them one by one. “I’ve requisitioned chest-highs instead of the thigh waders, but they won’t be available until tomorrow. I’ve also asked for hazard pay for the whole of this shift.” There were a few smiles at that. “Don’t get your hopes up. You know management.”
Now the smiles were knowing. I could not help admiring the way Magyar manipulated her audience.
“One more thing, people. From now until the program is back online, I’ll be checking readings personally, at random. Anyone who is more than five percent out will be fired on the spot. Now get back out there and do your job.”
The workload, which had been hard and dirty, became almost unbearable. When we stripped and showered at the end of the shift, there was a lot of muttering about taking sick days. I just kept my head down and tried not to think about the fact that I seemed to be the only one there who really knew anything about the system.
My dreams were bad that night. Long, tangled images of plastic sheets and blood, and lying on my stomach, face in a pillow, choking while whoever was on top of me humped up and down and breathed in my ear. I woke up drenched in sweat, tight and heavy with need.
I knew if I tried to do something about that need it would fade away into mocking memories of Spanner holding up the vial of oily drug and laughing.
I got to work a few minutes early. The computer was still down but there had been no emergencies during the afternoon.
When we were dressing for the shift, Magyar and two new men came into the locker room. One was wizened and bowlegged but seemed spry enough. He flashed a grin at the shift. The other one was just a teenager, with jet black hair and brown eyes. Something about the way he held himself, a strange mix of ramrod back and careless limbs, bothered me.
“This is Nathan Meisener”—the older man nodded—“and Paolo Cruz. I made Hepple pull his finger out on those vacancies. I thought you might appreciate the help.”
There were one or two laughs but I wanted to yell at everyone: You think two extra people will make a difference if a fireball rips through here? Kinnis slapped Meisener on the back and Cel called out, “Hope you can swim,” as she pulled on her waders.
“Right, people. Time to get to work.” They began to file past Magyar. For all her apparent joviality, I could tell by the flush in her cheeks and line of her jaw that she was angry about something. Magyar pulled aside Kinnis and then me before we could walk past. “Kinnis, you take Meisener here. He has some experience, but it was a while back.” She watched as Meisener followed Kinnis down the corridor. I could feel the other one, the teenager, looking at me. “Cruz, you’ll be following Bird around for a day or two. She knows a lot more about the way things work around here than you might think.”
It was impossible to miss the bite behind those words. I did not like that. Was she suspicious enough yet to backcheck Bird’s records? As if I didn’t have enough to worry about.
I shepherded the new man ahead of me and felt Magyar’s hard, bright eyes boring into my back all the way down the corridor. Paolo, though he must have noticed, said nothing.
During the next couple of hours, as I showed him the ropes, pointed out that his back support had the over-shoulder cross straps for a reason, he hardly spoke at all. Something about him still bothered me. I watched him as he walked out into the trough, PD held at waist level.
“Not the talkative type, is he?” Cel said from behind me.
“Not like that Meisener. Talking a mile a minute.” She lifted the PD she was holding. “How do you reset these things again?” I showed her. Cel clipped the PD to her belt, then nodded at Paolo, waist-deep in the water. “Let me know if you need me to take him off your hands for a while.”
I was surprised at her friendliness. “Thanks. I might.”
“New ones are always a pain.” She looked at me assessingly. “Usually, anyhow.” She waved, and moved off back to her own troughs. I returned my attention to Paolo.
Water sloshed as he strode another couple of feet deeper. I had watched several people taking their readings by now, and the one thing they all had in common was the gingerly way they walked through the polluted wastes. I did it myself. It was not just the possibility of overbalancing; you never knew what you were about to step on, or through. It was hard not to imagine the floating feces or lumps of glutinous matter, the variety of things, organic and nonorganic, that people flushed down their toilets or that wriggled their own way through the municipal drains. It did not matter that your legs were protected by a double layer of polyurethane and plasthene; you could still feel the slimy things that bumped against you.
Paolo waded to the edge of the trough, seemingly unconcerned by what he might be treading on. He held out the PD. I waved it away. “Just read them out, it’s quicker.”
He did. Every fourth or fifth word, I caught an accent; not the softened consonants of Castilian, or the nasal vowels of Central American Spanish. Something else. Like the way he waded through the foul water unconcerned, it felt as though it should be familiar, and it bothered me. I shook my head at my own imagination.
“You want me to stop?” He was looking at me. anxiously.
“No. You’re doing fine.”
When he finished with the readings, I held out my gloved hand to help haul him out of the trough. He pretended not to see it, and climbed out unaided. I could tell by the hunch of his shoulders that he was embarrassed about deliberately avoiding my hand, and wondered why. I did not ask.
I watched Paolo on and off until the break, and it was when I was handing him the scrape, a short metal tool for unclogging the rake tines, that I realized he had not refused my help—he had refused my touch. Oh, he was very adept, graceful even, but he always made sure his hand never touched mine, or my foot his, when we were thigh-deep in the water, me holding back the bulrushes for him to clip the heads.
While I finished up the rushes I sent him back into the trough to do the next reading, and this time, when he waded out to the edge, I made sure I held out the clipper handle for him to grab. He accepted without hesitation. His smile was warm and very young-looking, completely at odds with the message sent by his stiff, almost disdainful body language.
That stiffness reminded me of something, but when I tried to remember, all I could conjure up was a vague memory of Katerine, years ago, grinning in triumph at something on the net. That was it. I went back to work.
Magyar was waiting for us again in the breakroom. Kinnis. turned off the net without being asked.
Magyar smiled, but it was not pleasant. “Some of you will be pleased to hear that, as of twenty hours today, all personnel on this shift who spend time in the water, which is to say all of you, will wear masks and full-body barrier protection at all times. As mandated by Health and Safety regulations. You never know when we could get an unexpected visit from an inspector.” She looked directly at me and it wasn’t hard to tell she was angry. I had a bad feeling I knew why.
“Some of you, of course, will not be pleased at the cost, which will come out of your next salary credit, and all of you will no doubt be annoyed at the reduction in productivity and subsequent reduction in salary, But blame that on those that make the rules and regulations.” Her voice was husky with anger. She looked at me again, and I understood: she thought she was preempting me. She thought I was a Health and Safety inspector. She was implementing these changes, to save her job. No wonder she was angry. Productivity would go down, and soon Hepple would be on her back. And she blamed me. “Questions?”
No one was about to ask her questions when she was in this kind of mood.
“Well, then. I’ll expect you back on shift, with masks, in exactly-” She looked at her watch. “-forty-two minutes.”
On her way out, she gave me a tight, matte-eyed nod. It was impossible to mistake the direct challenge. Cel noticed, and turned, puzzled. I managed to shrug and look surprised, but underneath my skinny I was slippery with sweat.
“Why’s she got it in for you?” Kinnis asked, but he looked wary, as though wondering if talking to me was a mistake.
“No idea.” My heart felt cold and dense and suddenly I wondered if my accent sounded right, if the quick, liquid syllables were thickening, if just by listening to me everyone would know who I was. I felt dizzy and horribly exposed. At least Magyar hadn’t actually checked my records yet, or I wouldn’t still be here. But it was only a matter of time. I had to get Spanner to speed things up. I fumbled my way to my locker.and took out my food, trying to seem unconcerned. My hands were shaking. I needed to sit down.
Paolo was already sitting near the fish screen. I sat next to him, but not too close. I said nothing for a moment, not trusting my voice. He sat quietly, watching the screen. He was not eating.
“Here.” I held out half my food, then remembered and put it on the table next to him instead. “You can bring enough for two tomorrow.”
“There is a cafeteria, but you have to scrub down and change before they’ll let you in. And the food takes a long time and costs a lot. And it’s full of executives and supervisors who’ll stare at you like you’re a bug.”
“Thank you.” He bit into the sandwich hungrily. I made a mental note to bring food tomorrow, anyway. He looked as though he needed to eat as much as he could afford to buy.
Kinnis and Meisener sat down opposite us. They must have decided it was safe to talk to me, after all. “So, Paolo, where’re you from?”
“I’ve lived here since I was two years old.” The words themselves were neutral enough, but I could hear the tension behind them. He didn’t want to say any more.
Kinnis opened his mouth to ask another question, but Meisener was already talking.
“I was born here, but I’ve not spent much time in the city the last twenty years,” he said. “Been all over the world. Army for a while, then mechanic for EnSyTec. Went everywhere. Then I got fed up of traveling, wanted to settle down, have kids, Took a job in Sarajevo, working the sewage lines. Got married.”
“You have any kids, then?” Kinnis asked, forgetting Paolo.
“Two.” And then they were pulling out pictures, talking about their children.
Paolo seemed to enjoy being included in their conversation without having to contribute. I was left to wonder how to deal with Magyar.
When I got home that night the message light was blinking on my screen. I hit PLAY before I took my jacket off; maybe it was Ruth and Ellen, inviting me round.
It was Spanner. “Hyn and Zimmer will be at the Polar Bear tomorrow night. Meet me there.”
It turned itself off. I had not realized how much I’d been hoping for Ruth to call. I sat by the blank screen for a long time, listening to the deep, three-in-the-morning quiet.
I woke several times during the night, my heart beating too fast, wondering whether I should call the regional Health and Safety Council about Hedon Road.
* * *
Lore followed Spanner down the dark stairwell and into the warm night. She kept her eyes down, fixed on Spanner’s feet, refusing to look at the emptiness of outside. The wet asphalt sparkled in the sodium streetlights. She managed to get to the bar across the road without sweating too much.
The Polar Bear was dim and warm and no one looked up when they entered.
Lore had never been in a place like it. The casual bars and open-air cafes of Europe, the restaurants of Australia and tea rooms of India had not prepared her for this fecund, dark place, rich with the fruity scents of beer and layered with muted conversation. The wooden floors and bar surface were highly polished; the bar itself bellied out in biscuit-colored porcelain molded with grapes and leaves and bottles.
“It looks pregnant,” she said, fascinated, wanting to go up and touch it, but Spanner was walking toward a table in the corner, and she followed.
An elderly couple were already seated. Spanner pulled out a chair. “This is Lore.”
“I’m Hyn and he’s Zimmer, but don’t worry if you get us mixed up, a lot of people do.”
Spanner went to the bar to get the drinks and Lore was left at the table with a man and a woman who looked like dried tobacco leaves with berries for eyes. Hyn and Zimmer. These were the people who knew something about locks.
They seemed utterly at home in this setting, but Lore suspected they might blend as easily with the woods as this urban nightscape. She wondered if they were brother and sister, or whether they had just grown to resemble each other in the bizarre way of some couples. She searched for something to say. Her early training, the endless meetings with local and national dignitaries, took over. “It’s an unusual name, the Polar Bear.”
“Legend has it that a polar bear escaped from the zoo three hundred years ago, and was shot on this site.” Zimmer sipped his dark brown beer. They seemed to find her amusing.
“What do you do?”
Zimmer laughed, a robust bouncing laugh that surprised Lore. “We’re fences, my dear. And very good ones. And you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t worry. Spanner will soon fix that.”
Spanner will fix that… She looked at her tiny, faraway image in the mirror behind the bar and touched her red hair.
Spanner came back with beer. “Make it last. After this we’re heading uptown. You’ll need a clear head. Time to start paying me back.”
Lore discovered that they worked well as a team. One would smile and take a drink to a table near a small group. The other watched from the bar. The rich, confident people found in the bars Spanner chose could not resist a woman on her own, whether from bad intent or the best of motives.
“Come sit with us,” one would say, if it was Lore’s turn to sit by them, and offer her a drink, which she always took. And she would talk, and then maybe get hysterical with laughter, or cry, whichever would get the most attention, and perhaps spin them a story about being down on her luck, which was easy to do, with her accent and her bearing, and then Spanner would slide up behind them while they were fussing with handkerchiefs or orders for more drinks, and take one slate, or two. Rich people, Spanner said—and it seemed to be true—always left their slates in their jacket pockets, jackets that they hung over the backs of their chairs as though no one would dare to steal anything of theirs. Which, probably, no one had before. After all, what good was a slate to someone else? And after a while Lore would recover, and thank them decorously, and leave. She and Spanner would leap on the nearest slide or, if it was after two or three in the morning, swing onto the carapace of a beetling freighter, clutching hold of the emergency door release with their right hands—keeping their left hands, their PIDAs, shielded from the antenna on the top, because if the tiny beetle brain of a freighter sensed a human aboard, it would stop dead in its tracks. Freighters could be dangerous, but Spanner—and soon Lore—knew all the routes, all the stops, all the timetables.
Sometimes they would giggle uproariously, especially when it had been Spanner doing the poor-wee-thing-all-alone, because as they slid through the deserted city she would recount at the top of her lungs the outrageous stories she had spun for the rich and gullible victims.
Sometimes, if it had been dangerous work, or the alarm had gone out just minutes after they had left the bar and they had had to run, leap from one freighter to another, they would open a bottle of champagne at home and watch the pale liquid fizz like their adrenaline-rushing blood, and they would laugh again, and drink, and tear off each other’s clothes and fuck like wild animals on a pile of slippery gray slates.
It seemed to Lore on nights like this that she had had no other life before right now, here, every pore open to the wild night’s feel, every follicle attuned to changes in the air, every taste bud and nerve cell hot and fluttering. She knew that sometimes Spanner made money from other people’s suffering, but she did not have to see that, and she had suffered, too. Everyone suffered. It was just a question of making sure she was using them, and not the other way around. She would not be fooled again, not the way Oster had fooled her. Never again. And in the middle of sex she would look up at Spanner moving over her and wonder if those half-closed eyes were laying the newstank images of a naked, weeping Lore on top of the real Lore.
On nights like that, too, when Lore slept she often dreamed of being back in the bar, only now when she cried for these strangers it was for good reason, and she would wake up sweating in the hollow of the brightly colored quilt, remembering Tok, or Crablegs; her mother; Stella screaming in the fountain; and she would wonder which parts of her life were real.
Sometimes, Spanner still went out on her own. Lore pressed her face against the glass, watching until Spanner was out of sight, and wondered where she went. Although it was getting easier to go out with Spanner at night, she still did not have the courage to do it on her own. And when they were out, it was Spanner who dealt with the world. Lore hid behind her: not literally, of course, but behind a cloud of aloof silence. It had always worked when she was a child, a van de Oest. It never occurred to her that it might not work now, when no one knew or cared who she was. Spanner had snapped at her a couple of times to not stand up so bloody straight, she was drawing attention. So she learned how to move like Spanner, alert and upright, but withdrawn, ready and wary. She learned how to slide together the beginning and ending of her words, to cut out the crystal pronunciation of her childhood. She gradually learned to become someone else, someone who recognized the thin, hungry face in the mirror, the red hair and naked vulva. But she still never went out into the open on her own.
There was nothing specific of which she was afraid, just… everything, as though the world were a gelatinous beast that would fall upon her and suffocate her. The open spaces, the feeling that her back was naked, that people could see through her clothes; that someone would recognize her as that heiress who was kidnapped three or four months ago. And her heart would kick under her ribs, and the muscles behind her jaw and in her throat would tighten as though someone had a thick, soft ribbon around her neck and was pulling very, very slowly.
On good days, she managed to get out into the garden. The hard part was getting past the front door. She would put her hand to the wood, and suddenly think, Have I got my gloves? And so she would check her coat pockets. Yes. She had her gloves. She would open the door a crack, think, Are my roots showing? and have to close it again, go to the bathroom and check her hair. And then she would have to stand by the door, breathing deep, telling herself it was only a few seconds on the street. Only a few seconds. Sometimes she hated herself for this fear. But then, if it was a good day, she would rip open the door in a rush and shut it and run down the steps, into the passageway, through the wooden gate that now had a new, shiny lock and a bolt she could push from the inside, and she would be safe.
Sometimes she spent hours in the garden, breaking concrete with a pick, hauling it into the barrow, sorting the bricks by hand into two piles: one to throw away, one to keep to make a raised flower bed. Many of the weeds she left alone. They had fought to be there; she wasn’t going to be the one to pull them out. Besides, they were green and growing, and most of them would flower in spring and summer.
Today she took a spade and started turning over the hard dirt. She leaned her weight into the spade, enjoying the way the steel bit into the black dirt, trying hard not to slice any worms.
Something rustled in the undergrowth by the west wall.
Lore went still. Listened. Nothing. She must have imagined it. She bent to her digging. Heard it again.
She put her spade down carefully, not wanting to startle whatever it was, but when she got near the tangle of weeds and dead wood and what looked like it might once have been a bicycle frame, there was a flurry of movement. She squatted down, peered under the foliage. An eye gleamed, and a tail lashed in the shadows. A cat.
They stared at each other. The cat was not pretty. Its ribs were showing, and one eye was closed, probably missing altogether. She could smell its breath, a thick, hot stink as though it had been chewing on dead things.
Lore backed away carefully. It needed feeding, that was obvious, but if she left now, would it ever come back? And if it did, did she really want the responsibility of caring for a verminous, ill animal? It was probably dying. And if she went inside to get food, she would have to come out again. Run the gauntlet twice in one day.
The cat was pushed as far back against the wall as it could get. It hissed, hissed again. Its upper right canine was missing. Maybe it was old, and had come here to die. It moved its head back and forth, looking for a way past Lore.
She wondered what was in the kitchen that a cat might like to eat, and visions of the poor starved thing wolfing down cold rice, or scraps of two-day-old sushi or beans, trying to lick its whiskers afterward, made her sigh. Now she would have to feed it.
She brought out two saucers, one with raw egg, the other with defrosted ground veal. The cat was gone. She put the dishes down in the undergrowth anyway, and went back to her spade. She did not see the cat again that afternoon.
When it got dark, she went out one more time. The plates were empty. She smiled.
She watched the net but there was never anything about her kidnapping, no stories about bodies. Not surprising. She was old news: she had been taken at the end of August and it was now December. What was unusual was the absence of information about the van de Oests. Nothing.
She scanned the business then environmental sections—still nothing. It did not make sense.
And then one day, on the news, there were her father and Tok, standing shoulder to shoulder by the fountain at Ratnapida. Tok, she noticed, was taller than her father now.
“We know she’s out there somewhere,” Oster was saying, “and we want her to come home.”
Tok, circles under his eyes and a broken air to his stance, nodded. “Please,” he said directly to the camera, “Lore, come home. It’s… Everything’s sorted out.” He looked utterly defeated.
Four months ago, Tok, with just a few breathless sentences about why Stella had killed herself, had destroyed the image Lore had built of Oster over the years. She had loved her father; she had thought he loved her. But he was a monster. It had all been a lie. And now Tok—Tok, her brother, Stella’s twin—was siding with him, telling her to come home, it was all sorted out. She did not understand.
Although she and Spanner slept together, although she might owe her life to Spanner, Lore knew instinctively that letting Spanner see chinks in her armor was dangerous. So the afternoon Spanner called from the kitchen that they had run out of bread, and suggested that Lore go to the market because they needed some other things, too, Lore knew she would have to go, would have to conceal her fear and saunter casually out into the daylight on her own.
The day was thinly overcast. The clouds spread the light into an eye-aching blanket that made her wince. It was colder than it looked. Her breath, coming in great panicky gusts, froze like gauzy sheets in front of her face. She wished she had worn a hat. She did not go back for one; she knew she would not be able to leave again.
The market sign flashed three hundred yards away. Lore started walking. If she kept her eyes on the s she would be all right. She crossed at the ceramic safeway she and Spanner always used when going to the Polar Bear. Safe territory. Known. But then she was walking north along the pavement and people were walking in front of her and across her path and toward her. There was nowhere she could look where they would not be able to see her face. She walked faster.
The market was strange: small, but with that cavernous feel of tight-margin enterprise. She picked up a basket and wandered down the first aisle, trying hard to not look as bewildered as she felt. To look vulnerable was to be vulnerable. It was all bar codes and machine voices calling out prices as her basket passed. The only people she saw were shoppers.
She picked up a head of lettuce and turned it in her hand. There was dirt on the underside. She put it back on the piles of lettuces picked up another. They were all dirty. She chose one that seemed less grubby than the others, and moved on to the carrots. It was peculiar to see them all lined up on their sides and tied together in bunches. On the rare occasions she had shopped in the past, the vegetable section in Auckland had been a series of gleaming white vats, where the lettuces and dwarf radicchio, the spinach and bok choy grew hydroponically, right there in front of you. If you wanted something, you picked it yourself. You knew it was fresh, you knew where it had been, where it had come from. These vegetables seemed… dead. Not like real vegetables at all. Where had they been grown, and how? And how did you get them clean?
She laid the carrots alongside the lettuce. The aisles did not seem very well organized. After she had walked up and down them all twice, she found the bread next to the entrance.
She joined the lines at the checkout, realized that the woman in front of her, and the man next to her in another line, both had their vegetables in plastic bags. She wondered if they brought the bags with them. The line was the worst part. People in front of her, beside her, behind her, breathing her air, all comfortable, assured, confident through having undergone this simple procedure a hundred times, a thousand times. Natives in this particular stratum of culture. In a strange country, all Lore would have to do was smile and shrug, and say loudly in English or Dutch or French that she did not understand what she should do: foreigners were allowed to make mistakes. Natives were not.
She moved one step closer to the checkout. The woman in front of her turned casually, nodded, looked at her basket, turned back to the front. Lore almost panicked and threw down her bread and vegetables. Did normal people only buy vegetables and bread? Would the woman think she was strange because her things were not in plastic bags?
In her imagination that one casual glance became a searching stare, the nod a sharp gesture of condemnation.
Was it her hair? Her clothes? But then the woman was checking her goods through the scanner, V-handing her PIDA into the metal-and-ceramic jaws of the debit counter, packing her things—canned goods mostly—into a plastic string bag and leaving. The scanner bleeped at her softly. “Next customer, please. Next customer, please.”
Lore waved her lettuce and carrots and bread through the scanner one by one, as she had seen the woman do. Then she stuck the V of her hand into the debit counter. It clicked green. The man behind her cleared his throat impatiently. She scooped her things up and walked quickly out of the door. Eyes followed her as she almost ran back down Springbank, across the safeway.
Spanner was working when she got back, frowning over a pile of slates. Lore’s hands shook as she put the lettuce in the refrigerator. It was two days before she went back out into the garden.
One day Spanner came home around noon and announced that they would go to the park. To Lore’s relief, they took back streets and cut-throughs and crossed the long-abandoned railway line to enter the park from the side.
Pearson Park was a pocket-sized patch of green in the middle of the west side of the city. Once, it had been part of the estate of some rich Victorian family. The statues they had erected at the jubilee of Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Empress of India, remained untouched. Victoria herself, her white marble jowls turning slightly green with moss—like the shadow of a beard—graced a plinth in the rose garden. Albert, Prince Consort, lorded it over the pond and its score of mallards and moorhens and muddy-looking geese. Most of the birds were now asleep on the tiny island, head under wing, or begging scraps of bread or rice from the few hardy souls, well-wrapped against the cold, who were eating lunch away from the office. An oak tree, probably not much younger than the statues, Lore thought, had been half pulled up, pushed sideways, and trained to grow across the pond: a gnarled, moss-slippery bridge. Its roots were dug like long, bony fingers into the asphalt of the path.
“You’ll be warm where we’re going,” Spanner said. She led Lore around the pond toward a Victorian conservatory, all white wood and glass greenhouse, with clouds in every shade of gray scudding along its panes. Lore followed Spanner past the little window where a bored employee sold seedlings and saplings, and inside.
It was like walking into a line of hanging laundry, still hot and wet and smelling of earth and sunshine and fresh rain. She felt as though she had stepped through a mirror into another world, where the ash and charcoal, the grim mercury and zinc and lithium vanished into the living colors of the tropics. A bird shrieked. The light was bright, and reflected from the vivid orange of half fruits at the bottom of the aviary cages, on the flash of a purple-throated hummingbird, on huge, blowsy red flowers.
“Heliconia…” Lore said, in wonder, and lifted her face to smell. The ceiling was three stories high, and the whole space was lush with greenery.
“How the hell did you know that?”
“I’ve been in the jungle. Before.” Before all this.
She felt suddenly that her carapace had been ripped off, like a shiny scab, and she was open, raw and pink, to everything: the brilliant sherbet green of a parakeet’s tail; to a dozen variations on brown—leaf mold, dead moss, peat, bark, beetles; to the crunch of their feet on the gravel paths that wound between the vines and palms and trailers that spanned the fifty or sixty feet from loam to glass ceiling. It was these plants that seemed to interest Spanner.
Spanner stopped in front of an enormous green tower with trailing aerial roots and leaves that were fringed and full of natural holes. Lore tilted her head up, up, and was lost in the soaring spindle-weave of foliage, the tracery of different greens overhead, the architectural density of it all, like a great, Gothic cathedral.
She wondered why Spanner had brought her here.
“Monstera deliciosa, that’s its Latin name,” Spanner said. “The people who first brought it back from the jungle called it the fruit salad plant, because that’s what the fruit tastes like.” Her face was tilted up at forty-five degrees, and Lore could imagine her tramping through the tropics, braving unknown hazards to collect specimens, just to say she’d been there, a new place. But there were no more new places. Lore suddenly thought of Stella. Her sister and Spanner were very alike. They were the people who suffered because they were made for exploring the edges, pushing the boundaries. But the only boundaries left were inside.
She wanted to ask Spanner why she was letting down her barriers. Why now? She asked, instead: “Where does it come from?”
Spanner shrugged. “Nowhere, now, except hothouses.” She lifted up her face again. “I’ve been coming here for six years, watching for fruit. I wonder what they’d really taste like—what kind of fruit salad? Once I dreamt I found a pineapple as big as a barrel on the floor. When I ate a bit, it tasted like strawberries.” Her smile twisted at the last minute. “Imagine calling something that grows fruit salad a cheese plant.”
Later, as they walked the half mile home, coats wrapped tight against the winter chill, Lore silent and waiting, Spanner suddenly said, “It’s my birthday tomorrow.”
Lore looked at Spanner’s inwardly focused eyes and knew it would be pointless to ask her how old she was.
When they got back to the flat, Lore took off her jacket and went into the kitchen to make coffee. When it was done, she headed back to the living room but paused in the doorway. Spanner, still in her coat, was staring into empty space. Lore had never seen her look so vulnerable. She didn’t think she had made a sound, but Spanner’s gaze came back to the room, and focused on her. “I’m going out.”
“What?” Spanner’s voice was harsh.
Lore looked at the cup in her hand. “Nothing.”
“Don’t wait up.”
Lore stood where she was until the front door closed; then she went back into the kitchen and carefully poured Spanner’s coffee down the drain. After a moment, she poured her own away, too.
Moving slowly, numbly, trying not to think, not to let in the pictures of Stella and Spanner, their loneliness—no, their emptiness—she picked up her coat. She buttoned it deliberately.
Don’t think about it, she told herself again, only this time it was the outside she was trying not to think about, the big wide world full of open sky and strangers who might take a casual look at her, then look again, then open their mouths to shout, to point… She opened the door and headed back to the conservatory.
It was four in the morning and all the lights in the flat were off when Spanner got back. Lore heard the chink of a bottle against the wall. “Put the light on before you kill yourself,” she called. Then she got out of bed and watched from the doorway as Spanner tugged off her jacket, tripped over the rug, saw the four-foot cheese plant, and stopped.
Lore walked barefoot into the living room. “Happy birthday.”
Spanner started to cry. Lore held her.
* * *
When the shift finally ended I was almost glad I had to go to the Polar Bear to meet Spanner. At least while I was worrying about her and my PIDA, about Magyar checking up on Bird’s records, I wouldn’t be sweating over the score of things that could go wrong at the plant.
Outside it was cold and clear. Winter was coming. When I got to the Polar Bear my face was red and my hands tingled with cold. Hyn and Zimmer were already there, with Spanner. I got myself a drink before sitting down. I took off my jacket and nodded at them.
Zimmer nodded back. “Spanner tells me what you want. We don’t get requests like that very often.”
“It’s rare,” Hyn agreed.
“And we don’t know of anyone who’s holding what you need.”
“But you could find out,” Spanner said.
“Oh, yes,” Hyn said, “but do you really want us to?” I took a sip of my beer. It was cool and nutty. “They’re not the kind of people it’s wise to know.”
Spanner laughed. “Nor am I. Nor are you, not really.” No one said anything about me.
Hyn and Zimmer looked at each other. They seemed troubled. “Do you really need this equipment?”
Zimmer touched my wrist with one brown gnarled finger. “And you?” His eyes looked more like berries than ever, and still bright, but older somehow.
I nodded reluctantly. “Yes.”
Hyn sighed. “Then we’ll do it. But it’ll be expensive.” We all knew she was talking about more than money.
Hyn shrugged, looked at Zimmer. “Fifteen thousands. Maybe more.”
That was more than I had expected. “I’m not-”
“We’ll get the money.”
I looked at her. “Spanner, I don’t-”
“We’ll have the money,” Spanner repeated to Hyn and Zimmer. “Just let us know when and where, and you’ll have it.”
I had never seen them look so unhappy, but they nodded and stood. They left their unfinished drinks on the table.
Hyn and Zimmer were scared, but danger was just an adventure to Spanner. It put her in a good mood. We sipped at our beer in silence. This was not the only kind of danger I was in. If Magyar decided to use some budget on a backcheck of Bird’s record, she would see straightaway that I knew more than I had a right to. And then she might be able to justify a deeper search. And that meant she would find out Bird had died a while ago. And then I was in real trouble. Might as well take advantage of Spanner’s good mood.
“I changed my mind about the PIDA records. I need that information substituting as soon as possible.”
Silence again. This time it lengthened until I couldn’t bear it any longer. “Where will you get the money?”
“Does it matter?”
No, not really. I already knew.
When I got back to my flat, the air seemed stale and lifeless. There was no message from Ruth.
I heated soup, glad of the machine sounds and the occasional soft pop as the liquid bubbled. I ate slowly.
Once the bowl was empty and washed, I had to face the silent, empty flat.
I could sleep, of course, but then what would I do in the morning? I sat in front of the screen, checked to make sure that a power hit had not wiped out any message that might have been left. I drummed my fingers on the desk, then pulled up my projects file.
When I first left Spanner I had spent days at the keyboard, inputting all I could remember about the Kirghizi project, then triple-copied the file, and extrapolated from each: one was the perfect scenario, with no setbacks of any kind; one involved random minor difficulties—a failing of one of Marley’s bugs, the occasional breakage of the UV pipeline; the third was the catastrophe file—every breakdown, human, environmental, and mechanical, that I could envisage. It was the one I played with most. It usually reached the point of no return after about three months simulated time—two hours realtime. When that happened I wiped it back to the point where I had left it, nearly three years ago.
Tonight, when I pulled up the digital image of the pipeline stretched like a blazing crystal snake across the desert, I knew that was not what I wanted to see.
I changed the image to night, the perspective to the view a small nocturnal rodent might have from the desert floor. The ceramic support pylons and the vitrine troughs became huge, menacing. I darkened the sky to an eerie indigo-black, brought out the stars. Northern constellations burned like specks of magnesium. Better. I added cloud cover. The smeary, milky hint of a moon. I wondered what it would be like to sit out there, with the water overhead hissing endlessly. I wondered if a small rodent might mistake the hissing for the rasp of scale against sand, run terrified into the night from a snake that was not there. The whole world changed if you just altered your perspective a little.
I shook my head. For all I knew, the pipelines could lie like a broken dinosaur skeleton, crashed onto the sand, dry as dust, the victim of some interethnic conflict or other.
For the hundredth time I contemplated, then rejected, calling up information on the project from the net. There was always the possibility of someone smart—my family, or the kidnappers—having a trace out for that kind of inquiry. I had no doubt that they were still looking for me.
I turned the screen off and went to the fridge. I pulled a beer free of the four-pack, then changed my mind and dragged the whole thing from the fridge.
One of the reasons I had taken this flat was because the livingroom window opened outward onto the fire escape. From the fire escape, I could get to the roof. It was an old building, with a complicated roofline. There was one place, near the middle chimney stack—which had been blocked off years ago and served now to vent gas appliances—where the roofs rose in steep pitches on either side and I could lie on my back, face to the sky, hidden from the world. I had built six big planters up there, and filled them with dirt. One of these days I would get around to planting something in them.
That was where I took my beer.
Every city has a different-colored sky. In Amsterdam, the only city I had known until I was five, it had been gray-blue, a particular low-country Protestant shade that spoke of cheeses and oil paintings and grassy dikes. On Ratnapida it had been like light, clear glass. This city’s sky made me ache. It could have been so beautiful: full of reflected river light and that soft, clear ambience that you only get near a northern sea. But the city glow stained the atmosphere like a muddy footprint.
I propped myself up by the chimney stack and opened the first can. The beer tasted cold and bitter, like the winter-morning frost I used to scrape from the old iron railings outside the family home in Amsterdam. The night was very clear. It was freezing up here. I shuddered, forced myself to drink down more frost and iron. Halfway down the can, I started to warm up.
About five miles away I could see the twinkling night lights of the bridge—the largest single-span suspension bridge in the world. And the owners were still in debt, even thirty years after opening it to paying tragic. They always would be. There weren’t that many private cars anymore, and the local government had negotiated an annual fee for the slides that crossed and recrossed the river. The national government, of course, and ultimately the taxpayer were the big losers: the government had fronted the money, the contractors had spent it, and now the taxpayers were paying again, this time in local taxes for the slides.
I crumpled my can, opened another.
Corruption. It all stank of corruption. As did anything connected with any kind of government. There were layers upon layers upon layers. I thought about Kirghizia: the minister for labor and the commissar of the treasury whom I had wined and dined and eventually bought off. All so van de Oest Enterprises could make more money.
But that wasn’t strictly true. It would also benefit the Kirghizians in the end, They would have clean water again. I sucked at the can. It was empty already. The third one was difficult to open. My hands were cold. I looked out at the bridge. Maybe the builders had told themselves that the local people would benefit in the end—after all, they would now be free to travel straight across the huge river instead of detouring fifty miles or more. But no one had asked the people. It had all been decided by those who met over white linen and Hashing crystal, who chatted over the wine and shook hands over coffee And took home hundreds, thousands, millions. And probably slept tranquilly every night.
I remembered the woman, the city executive who had taken Spanner and me to her flat in her private car; the heat; the film; what we had done… Local government. She hadn’t been hurting for money. I wonder if she even knew how corrupt she was.
Did I know how corrupt I was? What did “corrupt” mean, anyways? I had never set out to hurt anyone, but I was wearing the PIDA of a dead woman. Bird was now nothing more than a plume of greasy smoke easing up into the night sky and being torn apart by the wind. I wondered what Sal Bird, aged twenty-five, had been like. Whether she had loved or been loved. If she liked her food, or smoked. What her favorite films had been. Whether she shouted out loud when she came. I wondered if anyone had grieved for Sal Bird.
I wondered if anyone had grieved for the man I had killed. I didn’t even know his name. And he had been kind to me, in his way. I remembered his eyes as he knew I was going to kill him. I pushed that thought away.
I wondered if anyone grieved for me.
So, was I corrupt? I had killed a man. I was hiding from my family and living a lie. And everyone I met shied away from me. Ruth. Now Magyar. Everyone except Spanner.
When I was finishing the fourth can, I realized I was standing at the edge of the roof. My toes poked over the gutter. One more step. No more Sal Bird, aged twenty-five. No more fear about being found out; no more worries about dangerous people coming looking for me or Spanner; no more responsibility, feeling like I was the thin human wall between an unsuspecting city and an accident waiting to happen. It could all just stop. Here. Now. After all, Frances Lorien van de Oest had died a long time ago.
Dawn was breaking.
I stepped carefully back from the edge.