The next day I plugged in my film library for the first time in months. I had to believe Spanner about the hole in the pattern; that was her job. My job was to create a short commercial that would be indistinguishable from the real thing; one that would persuade the rich to part with their money—and do it fast enough for us to get off the air, get the money out of the account, and disappear before net security could work out that their signal had even been piggybacked.
What would work best, I had decided, was an appeal based on charity to older people, those Tom’s age or thereabouts.
Those born before 1960 had the hardest time adjusting to change. They were the ones who would suddenly stop in the middle of the street as if they had vertigo when some shopwindow flared and called out, or get that haunted, bewildered look when the PIDA readers changed again, or the newstanks swapped to a different format.
It was a very specific expression: hollow-cheeked, eyes darting, looking for somewhere to hide. I had seen that same look on the faces of war refugees, or the foreign-speaking parents of native-speaking children. Older people were immigrants in their own country. They had not been born to the idea of rapid change, not like us.
I needed a thirty-second feature—but the real punch had to be in the first eight of those seconds. I needed to know what was going on in the world of commercial net entertainment.
I took breakfast into the living room and ate while I flipped through the offerings: a two-hour docudrama about a woman and her child fending off urban predators in a burned-out Sydney tenement; a lot of breathy pseudonews; an interactive version of The Thirty-Nine Steps. I watched that one for a while, fascinated at how the original film was utterly destroyed by turning it into a game, then finally settled down to a modern version of Shakespeare’s Othello. I only needed to watch about twenty minutes to see how visual fashions had changed in the months since I had left Spanner.
What seemed to be in favor was a kind of neomodernism, a fascination for details and emphasis on texture. What I had in my library would not be good enough. Oh, there were some tricks I could play: I could redigitize chunks of it, in effect reshooting frames to give the footage a “live” feel, enabling me to make the pans slower than the original, the focuses more lingering. But I would need to do some recording of my own. For that I would need a model.
I sipped at my tea. Maybe Tom would be interested.
I turned the screen off and stared out of the window. The sky looked the same today as it might have done a hundred years ago, or a thousand, or fifty thousand. I wondered what it must have been like to grow up in a community that stayed more or less the same, from birth to death. To be able to reach ten, or twenty-five, or fifty, and think, There, I’m not going to learn any more. I know enough to live my life.
Magyar stayed out of my way for the next few days, but I caught her eyeing me speculatively once or twice and knew that this was merely an undeclared truce; she had not given up. With the systems back up and the two extra bodies, it was almost relaxing.
I whistled as I transferred the figures on the board to a slate.
Paolo came into the readout station. “What does that readout there mean?”
“I thought you were trimming back the rushes on forty.”
“All done.” I looked. They were. He pointed to the green numbers again. “What does that measure?”
His limbs were still stiff, still carefully nowhere near touching me, but the expressionless mask that usually curtained his face had parted, just a little. It was like watching an anemone uncurl and expose its mouth, delicate and beautiful. “Nitrogen. In various forms.”
“What’s the difference between the kinds?”
It would have been so easy to shrug, profess ignorance, and just go about our work routine, anonymous and safe, but he was leaning forward, peering, reaching out to touch. He might never ask for something so simple, so hard to give, again. And if those tentacles tightened once more they might never loosen. So I pointed. “Nitrites, free nitrogen, ammonia. Then various subdivisions. But they’re not as important.”
“Show me again. More slowly.” I did. He nodded after each one. His lips moved as he repeated the names to himself.
“Paolo, do you want to learn?”
He shrugged guardedly. “Sure.”
I had thought his eyes were soft, but they weren’t. They were hard, like the thick brown ice that collects over muddy puddles, the kind you think you can see through until you really look. I don’t trust you, those eyes said. I’ve been played with before.
I shrugged back. “The more you know, the easier life is. I can teach you, if you like.” I hoped I could, anyway. I had been the youngest child, smallest sibling; always the student, never the teacher.
I think he knew I didn’t feel as casual as I looked; he wasn’t stupid. But maybe it was the fact that I was willing to pretend that made him decide to take the risk. He nodded.
“After the break, then.” When Magyar took her own rest.
After the break I took him into the concrete bunker. I pointed to the red button Magyar had used a few weeks ago, feeling a little self-conscious.
“I can’t slide back the floor to show you just how much water is pouring in here every minute, but believe me, four and a half million gallons a day is a lot.”
The numbers obviously meant nothing to him. You can do this, I told myself. “Try to imagine a hose as big around as a pregnant woman squirting green or orange water polluted with all kinds of dangerous and unpleasant guck at high pressure into an empty swimming pool. When the pool reaches a certain depth, the water starts to pour out the other end, so eventually you get the water roaring out the other side as fast as it pours in. Now imagine that it’s an enchanted pool, that somehow during its time in there, the water is changed from stuff that will kill you to clear, clean, crystal drinking water, and that water goes straight into the mains, where old men and little children drink it from the tap. It might not sound like much, but there are two things to remember. The water in that fat hose never, ever stops. And, most important, we—you and me and Cel and Kinnis and Magyar and all the others—are the magic. If we screw up or stop working, people die.”
Shock, in Paolo, was a strange turning of his arms and a blank cast to his face. I watched him struggle with the idea of all that responsibility. “But what about the machines, the failsafes?”
“They work well enough, most of the time. But if the systems go down again, or if someone misreads the alarms, or there’s an aberration so momentary that the sensors miss it at the influent point, then it’s up to us. And that’s just assuming that the problem is something the designers have anticipated. And that it’s accidental.”
“Sabotaged,” He blinked. “How could someone sabotage this place?”
“Any number of ways, but the best place would be right at the beginning—close the whole train down.”
“Right here.” I pointed at the floor, which shook very slightly with the vibration of the water flowing beneath us.
“Put something big or lethal in there and, assuming the systems catch it in time, they’ll close everything down. If they don’t catch it at once, then the contamination will go on through to the whole of the primary sector and pollute four or five million gallons. And then there’s human error.” I showed him the spigot, the initial test readouts—all automated—the various lights that indicated what bacteria and algae were currently being used, their estimated biomass and suggested nutrients. “Depending on what’s coming in, we add biomass, or change it, or decrease nutrients. So if we get an influx of something nasty that kills selected strains, we can re-add. Or if some strain is struggling, we can add preferred nutrients or decrease the nutrients of the strain that’s proliferating too much and suffocating the desired strain. The initial readouts here, and then the ones I give to Magyar, determine what amount of which strain is needed.”
I led him out of the concrete bunker. “It’s important to understand the general principles.” I stopped by trough forty-one. “Looks like the gravel here needs reraking. You start at that side.” We pulled on our masks and got to work. I waited until we had both established our rhythms. “What did you learn from the orientation video?”
He pulled himself straight, as though this was a school test.
“Keep working. Magyar won’t be on her break forever.”
“Oh. Well, undifferentiated waste comes in there,” he pointed with his chin back to the bunker, “where it’s churned up to mix the solid waste into the liquid. Then the slurry is split into eighty treatment streams and piped into the troughs. That’s where bacteria change some of the more poisonous nitrogen compounds into less poisonous ones.”
I was impressed. “You picked up a lot from the orientation video. But the troughs do more than start the denitrification process. They also begin the biodegradation of some of the other substances. Go on.”
“The surface water is siphoned off to the next stage, to those big tanks, the transparent ones, where it’s busy and noisy and hot.”
“The silos are kept at over forty degrees Celsius—forty-four to be exact—for the mesophilic bacteria that do all the work at that stage.” It felt good to talk about species after so long. “And the water’s kept in violent motion—spiral jet mixers, coarse bubble diffusers—to eliminate stagnation and prevent liquid stratification, always likely with heated water. And it helps to keep those solids suspended.”
He pulled down his mask to get more air. It was hard to work and talk and get enough oxygen through the filters all at the same time. “You know a lot.” Faintly challenging. His look around—at the rakes, the troughs, the stinking brown smear on my plasthene-coated thigh—was clear. If you know so much, how come you shovel shit like the rest of us?
I was not in the mood to play games. “You don’t know me, or why I’m here. I don’t know you. But I’ve decided to trust you, anyway. And you can learn from me.” I needed him to trust me. I needed to help him. I needed, just this once, to feel good about myself.
My bluntness disconcerted him. He raked away at the gravel for a while. I was content to just do my work, too, and let him think.
Eventually, he stopped. I stopped, too, and waited. “I thought that water treatment was all about separating the sludge from the liquid. But…” He shrugged, and I noticed again how graceful he was, but how that grace stopped short of his arms and legs. A vague memory of some hotel room and Katerine on the screen scooted almost within reach, then disappeared.
“That’s the way it used to work, when the solids were going to be buried or just spread around in fields to dry and decompose as best they could and be carted out to sea in barges. Here, they’re actually used. Once at the tertiary stage and beyond, the algae, moss, and duckweed use the nutrients in the sludge. The moss is taken away and recycled for the heavy metals consolidated in it, but the algae and duckweed are eaten by snails and zoo-plankton. The snails are harvested and added to the next stage—where they’re eaten by the bass and tilapia and minnows. The fish add to the solid waste, of course, but in a form readily used by the lilies. Except in the primary sector, where the air scrubbers take out some of the more toxic gases, everything that’s produced is used to increase production of something else. That’s the beauty of-” I broke off and pulled my mask back up. Magyar was heading our way.
Her stride was stiff and fast, and even from here I could see the muscles in her jaw clenching and unclenching. My PIDA might be safe, but something had obviously happened to make Magyar very, very angry. I steeled myself, but Magyar walked right past. Her rage radiated from her like heat. I wasn’t the only one who had noticed. Kinnis looked over from his trough and shrugged elaborately. I wondered what was going on.
I spent the rest of the shift alternately looking over my shoulder and telling Paolo about the delicate ecological balance of the plant.
“The snails and the plankton reproduce at a rate directly proportional to the amount of algae available, but the zoo-plankton is far more susceptible to metals than the diatoms, so the proportions are constantly in flux. The algae have to be monitored very carefully, and in conjunction with the moss and metal uptake.”
It was a beautiful system. Every time I arrived at the pseudo-Victorian monstrosity that was this building, I was amazed that such a pile of metal and stone and glass and electricity could facilitate such a miracle: fish and flowers and shrubs from sewage and deadly chemicals. Sometimes I wasn’t ashamed of my family and how they earned their money.
I might be doing a low-grade job, but what I had said to Paolo was true: We made a difference. And it didn’t have to be just in the general sense. By taking the risk of talking to Paolo, even just a little, I was making a difference to him and his life, teaching him things that he could use or take with him wherever he went. Seeing the change in his face, those unguarded moments, made a difference to me, too. It made me feel as though I was doing something worthwhile. I hadn’t felt that way for a long time.
The only smudge on the horizon was Magyar. I wondered what had happened to anger her so much. My PIDA was safe. Spanner had fixed it. Hadn’t she? But if Magyar was as smart as I thought, then no matter how my PIDA matched my height, weight and DNA, she would know I wasn’t Sal Bird, aged twenty-five, the line-worker grunt from Immingham. She would keep checking, keep digging. And a PIDA could not protect me against a personal call to Bird’s last job site, a chat with the supervisor…
If I could just explain to Magyar what the job meant to me. Tell her about Paolo, how good I felt to be teaching him. How much easier life would be for me, for all of us, if we just let down our guards a little and talked, helped each other. Maybe I should try trusting her the way Paolo was trusting me.
I waited for her outside. Fog condensed on the street-lights and dripped onto the pavement. Even here in the city, the night smelled of autumn: damp leaves mulching, wood smoke, wool coats slightly musty from six months in the closet. Ten minutes became twenty, then half an hour.
Then suddenly she was through the gates and five paces away, fog billowing around her.
She whirled, pulling her hands out of her pockets. “Bird! What are you doing here?” We stood ten feet apart. The fog made everything feel enclosed, quieted, unreal. She put her hands back in her pockets.
“I want to talk to you.” My voice was steady. How odd.
“It’s too cold to stand around. You can talk while we walk.” She set off, obviously not caring whether I walked with her or not. She walked fast, with big strides. Her shoes were soled with some soft, absorbent material; I felt as though I were watching a film with the sound turned off
Try it, I told myself. Just try. “You seemed angry. Earlier.”
“I just thought we could clear the air between us.” It sounded lame. She seemed to think so, anyway. She snorted. This was a mistake. “It’s just… Look, you were angry-”
“I still am, Bird.”
But the anger did not seem to be directed at me. “Is something wrong at the plant?”
She stopped abruptly, swung to face me. “Now why should I want to tell you?”
I felt a bit bolder. “Because it might affect me and everyone else who works on the night shift. I don’t like surprises.”
“You don’t like surprises? What a shame. I don’t much like being lied to, by you or anyone else. You want to know what’s wrong with the plant? Then go to your bosses and get them to tell you what’s going on.”
“I can’t. I’m not who you think I am.” And I was stupid for thinking I could have achieved anything, risking myself like this.
“I know you’re not Sal Bird.”
“I’m the only Sal Bird there is,”
She waited, hands clenching and unclenching in her pockets, but when it became obvious I wasn’t going to tell her any more, she walked away.
* * *
The woman on the screen had dark brown hair cut in a sharp, shoulder-length line. “Spanner? Ellen. Sorry we missed your birthday. Thought you might like-”
A woman who knew when Spanner’s birthday was. With brown hair. Lore hesitated, then sat before the video pickup and touched a button. The woman on the screen frowned.
“Who are you?”
“Lore.” She remembered to make the word slippery, in her new accent. They stared at each other a minute. Dyed brown hair, dyed red hair.
“No wonder we haven’t heard from her for a while.” Ellen smiled. It was an open smile, genuine, and Lore immediately liked her. “I was calling to invite Spanner for a drink. A belated celebration. You’ll both come?”
They looked at each other some more. Lore wondered what Ellen saw. She almost asked her. Instead, she nodded.
“The Polar Bear, then.”
“Who is it?” Spanner came through from the shower, drinking coffee, no towel.
“One moment,” Lore said to Ellen, and turned off the video pickup. “It’s Ellen,” she told Spanner.
Spanner motioned Lore aside, slid into the chair. Lore was not surprised when she turned the video back on. “Hey. Did I hear something about a drinks”
“You did.” Ellen grinned, looked Spanner up and down. “You seem in the pink.”
They both laughed, and Lore felt like a child left out of a grown-up joke.
“We’ll expect both of you,” Ellen said, and the screen went gray.
“Who’s ‘we’?” Lore asked.
“Ellen and Ruth.”
“The PIDA picker?”
“The same. Maybe some others.”
“I feel like I’ll be presented for inspection.”
Spanner shrugged. “You know how it is. People always want to check out who you’re with.”
People, not friends. “Business?”
“Dilettantes. Ex-dilettantes at that.”
Later, in the Polar Bear, as she sat at a table with Ellen and Ruth, and Billy and Ann, Lore thought she must have imagined the edge of disdain in Spanner’s words.
Spanner was in high gear, drinking hard and dragging the others along in her slipstream. She smiled at Ellen and Ruth, bought them drinks until their cheeks were red and their eyes sparkled, until. they laughed out loud and their bodies moved more freely. She drew the normally surly Billy into the circle until his pinched face relaxed and he stopped looking at everyone sideways; she listened attentively until Ann stopped punctuating all her sentences with a nervous laugh. Spanner’s energy pulled them all together, made them relax and feel good.
Lore found herself being sucked in, despite herself; felt Spanner’s attention like a small sun. She wanted to turn her face to that warmth, bask in it.
The late evening turned to midnight, then one. Ellen and Ruth made vague motions toward leaving, but Spanner waved them to sit down again and ordered another round. She made some joke about enjoying life while you can, even when you had joined the ranks of the faceless employed, and everyone laughed. And in that unguarded moment Lore saw Spanner’s expression change.
It was a subtle thing: the raised eyebrows that had been full of concern and interest were now canted just differently enough for Lore to reread them as sardonic—contemptuous, even. She glanced around the table, caught Ruth’s face, and realized that Ruth knew: Spanner was scoring at them for joining the sheep; for no longer living on their wits; for being soft. She looked away, studied her beer.
* * *
It was a bright, sunny morning, cold in the metallic-tasting breeze but warm where the sun bounced off sandstone and pavement. I stopped in one of those sun traps on the way back from the shops and enjoyed the warmth while I could. It felt like a moment, a bubble stolen from the summer, as though maybe while someone had been away for July and August with their windows closed, the sun had heated their room, made it warm and round and smelling of dust and hot carpet, and then the flat owner had returned from a long holiday and opened the window and let out this last, little bit of sunshine. I didn’t want to go back to my flat and be alone all day.
I knocked on Tom Wilson’s door. “I bought some Lapsang souchong.”
“You’d best come in, then.” His eyes were bright, but he walked stiffly. “Sit down, sit down. The kettle’s boiled.” I sat while he fussed with trays and teapots and cups. His slippers shuffled as he carried everything carefully to the window-side table. I poured. “Now, then. What’s on your mind?”
“I need your help.”
He smiled. “Well, that’s gratifying.”
“What I want you to do isn’t exactly legal. That is, what I want you to do, here, wouldn’t break any laws, technically, especially if you said you didn’t know what it was all about-”
“You’re planning to get caught?”
“No.” I wished he wouldn’t yank me to a standstill like that.
“Glad to hear it. Is what you want to do dangerous?”
“Not physically, no.”
“Who will it hurt?”
Not Will it hurt anyone? but Who. He wasn’t smiling, exactly, but his sandy-gray eyebrows were slightly raised, and the deep lines in his cheeks were deeper. “Some people’s pride. A few very rich people who get their kick out of patronizing the poor, and the executives in charge of net security.”
“And who will it benefit?”
For one wild moment I wanted to treat him like a father confessor, pour out my whole life—the kidnap, the years with Spanner, the trouble I was in and how this might, once and for all, get me out, but then I realized I was looking for forgiveness, absolution. “Me. It will benefit me, and a friend, and you. If you decide to help.”
“Then tell me more.”
“Spanner and I are going to piggyback the net signal with a thirty-second commercial of our own. No one will know that it’s not genuine.” I told him about Stella, the fashions of the rich Almsgivers. “So we put our signal out there and these ghouls send money, which gets electronically shunted up, down, and sideways and pops out in the form of anonymous debits which we then take and spend. End of story, except that we need some footage we can’t get from the library. We… I need to film you.”
“Nice to be needed. But as you can see,” he gestured at his swollen knuckles, “I can’t always get out and about. Could you film it here?”
I nodded. “And I can doctor the disk, make it look as though I shot through a zoom—maybe through a window or something, without your knowledge. Just in case.”
“Good enough. What sort of things will I have to do?”
“The main thrust is going to be about how the elderly are feeling bemused by the world. I want to show how things have moved too fast for some.”
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
“Um,” I said, noncommittally.
“You don’t agree?” His hand shook a little as he put down his teacup. “Rape, murder, torture, it’s all been done before. Loneliness, joy, love—been around for thousands of years. Clothes are different, but there’s always been fashion. Food is different, but there’s always been taste and fads. Oh, there may be new ways to read books these days, there’s the net instead of radio and these silly PIDAs instead of a good leather wallet, but people don’t change. Not really.” He laughed. “The expression on your face! Live a few more years and you’ll find out. Nothing really changes.”
“But how did you feel when your money no longer worked and you had to get a PIDA?”
He shrugged. “It was twelve years ago. I was a bit uncertain at first: What if something went wrong in a computer and my account got tied up? How would I pay the rent then? But after a month or two I liked it. No more rushing to the bank. No more filling out bills. Everything’s so easy.”
“For some,” I said. “I heard a story once about when the book reader first came out, a young man gave one to his grandfather. He turned it on, pulled up a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, and showed grandfather how to change the pages. Granddad said, ‘Thank you very much.’ The younger man left him happily reading. A year later, when he went back to visit, the young man found his grandfather reading the same book. ‘Wonderful thing, this reader,’.the old man said, ‘but I wish they’d brought out some different stories.’ The old man had no idea that there were nearly twenty thousand different books on that disk. That he could have bought hundreds of other disks, or simply downloaded others—anything at all—from the net. He was used to a book being immutable. The fact that the words on each side of the ‘page’ changed didn’t make a difference: this was To Kill a Mockingbird, so how could it be anything else?”
We looked at each other thoughtfully.
“Anyway,” I said, “that’s what I want to look at. And don’t worry about acting. All I want is some standard shots of you sitting, walking, talking, reading, eating. My programs can change your expression and put you in the street or whatever. I’ll give you ten percent of my cut.”
“When do you want to start?”
“How about now?”