Ruth and Ellen owned a tiny house in a row of sixteen, all painted bright, primary colors. They faced what had once been a brickyard. The yard had closed down unexpectedly four weeks after they had signed the mortgage, making their home instantly worth thousands more. The yard, Ellen told me as she took my coat, was being converted into a seed nursery by one of the big garden-center chains.
Ruth showed me the living room—small, but with ingenious shelving—then led me into the big kitchen. Ellen followed but said nothing.
There was a bathroom extension, compact and rather chilly, and a back door that led out onto several square feet of concrete.
“We’re going to turn it into a patio or something, but we need to get the inside of the house fixed up first.”
“It looks fine to me.” And it did: clean, bright, open.
“You should have seen it before. Upstairs is still a bit of a mess.”
Ellen handed me a big glass of cold white wine. I drank it as I followed Ruth to look around upstairs. Ellen filled it again for me when we came down.
We sat in the bay window of the living room, at an old table with scarred legs covered with a cheerful cloth. Handmade stained-glass shades colored the lamplight, dimming it enough, so that I could barely see the thin patches in the chenille curtains. The room felt warm and vibrant and jewel-like, and I wondered if they knew how much I envied them.
Ellen brought in soup. We started to eat. I did not know what to say. I had hurt these two a while ago, yet here I was, eating their food.
I cleared my throat, waved my spoon at the walls. “Do you think these colors would suit my flat?”
“Tell us what it’s like.” There were rich shadows under Ruth’s cheekbones, along her jaw.
“Empty. I mean, bare. Long and narrow, low ceiling. Strange angles at the roof and corners.” My soup was gone. I refilled my wineglass, just to have something to do with my hands. “A high window, but wide. From my bed it looks like the horizon a long, long way off.” That surprised me, but they weren’t giving me funny looks. I was encouraged. “In the late afternoon and early morning, the light slants in and sort of washes the walls. Sometimes it’s like stumbling out of a dark tent to desert sunshine, to sand stretching away in the distance.” I held my wineglass up until the light turned it gold. “I want the air to feel as though it’s this color. Sunshine on sand.” I felt very pleased with myself. “Yes. A sort of sandy peachy color.”
Ruth got up and went to the bookshelf that ran along the long wall over the couch. She brought back an old book of photographs. We pushed aside glasses and bowls.
“How about this?” Dunes, blue sky. Camel prints into the horizon. “Or this?” Sunset, sand the color of orange and caramel. “If you find the right color, they’ll match it for you.”
Ellen brought back a tray with two covered dishes and we had to set the book aside. We spent a moment spooning things onto our plates: some kind of spicy vegetable casserole, with roasted potatoes and baked parsnip and carrots.
I tasted the parsnips cautiously. They were light, sweet like fresh pastry. “These are good.” We ate quietly, looked at some more pictures. Ellen said nothing much. I drank steadily.
“Thank you,” I said, and gestured to my empty plate, the book of photographs. “I’m grateful.”
Ellen leaned back in her chair. “You should be.” Ruth shot her a look but she ignored it. “I’ll be honest. I didn’t want you to come. What you did was unforgivable, except that I did a few things I’m not very proud of while I was with Spanner. She has that effect on people.”
“She didn’t exactly hold a gun to my head.” I wondered why I was defending Spanner. Or maybe I was defending myself; I wasn’t a child to be told what to do. At least not anymore.
Ruth was utterly still. Ellen seemed to be waiting for something. Something from me. I emptied the wine bottle into my glass, took a hefty swallow. “How did you meet Spanner?”
“In a bar,” Ellen said. “She was playing pool. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. You know how she is.” Oh yes. “She was losing. Not very gracefully.” I could imagine: the glint in her eyes, hair thrown back, anger flushing her cheeks, her strides around the table getting more and more like the stalk of some hunting animal. “One thing led to another.” She picked up a fresh wine bottle and gestured at Ruth’s glass.
“That’s the third bottle.”
Ruth sighed and pushed her glass across the table. I was getting drunk, but I nodded when it was my turn. Ellen filled her own last.
“So, how about you, Lore? How did you meet Spanner?”
I thought about how to answer, because the question wasn’t only How did you meet her? but Who are you, where are you from? They didn’t need to tell me their backgrounds, because they were Ruth-and-Ellen and Ellen-and-Ruth. Their coupledom said We’re nice people, otherwise we wouldn’t have lived together so long, wouldn’t be capable of love. But I had lived for over two years with a woman they both stepped around very carefully, which made me suspect in itself; and now I was alone. They wanted a pedigree, a provenance, a way of knowing what to expect in the future. I understood it and resented it at the same time.
“I was naked and bleeding, left for dead in the city center. She found me.” I didn’t look at them. “She took me-” I swallowed; I had nearly said home. “She took me back to her flat on Springbank. I had to stay with her because I couldn’t use my real name, For fear my parents… for fear…” Even though I knew what they must be assuming, this felt too close to the truth for comfort. “Anyway, I was a babe in the woods. I had no idea how to support myself. Spanner showed me how.” Now I met their eyes. “And, yes, I did some things I’m not proud of. You don’t know the half of it.”
“But you didn’t know any better,” Ruth said, trying to excuse me, trying to make everything all right.
“Yes, I did. I think I always did. Just as I’m sure Ellen there knew at the time. We can tell ourselves that we had to, we had no choice, until we’re blue in the face, but how many days did I starve while I tried to find other ways to make money? None. I had food, shelter, access to the net. I didn’t need to do those things.” I wanted her to understand. Poor Ruth, or lucky Ruth, who had never had to look inside herself and face what stared back.
“But you mustn’t feel guilty.”
“Why mustn’t I? I am guilty. But you know what bothers me? I don’t feel guilty. Not really. Sometimes I feel this heavy weight in the pit of my stomach, but it’s more like an acknowledgment of stupidity than guilt. I was so stupid.”
“And young,” Ellen said.
I hadn’t looked at it quite that way, maybe because I hadn’t felt young since I was about seven years old. “You might be right. But I knew, all those nights when I lay awake, trying not to think about what I had just done that evening, or afternoon, or morning, I knew that what I was doing was wrong. Oh, most of the time I didn’t care that I hurt others-”
“Not even us?”
It would be easy to lie. I sighed. “Not even you. I was more concerned with how low I must have sunk to do that, what it meant for me, not how you felt. I’m sorry.”
Ruth touched my hand briefly.
“I wonder if Spanner would have corrupted me if I’d spent more than five weeks with her,” Ellen said thoughtfully.
“She didn’t corrupt me;” She had just showed me what was there, pointed me inward to all the seams and twisted paths. “That’s something you can only do to yourself.” It was hot. I was thirsty, but I didn’t want to get up in the middle of this to get a glass of water, not until they understood. I drank more wine. “We all have wounds. We all get hurt. But self-pity, lack of courage, leads to a sort of… mortification of the soul. Corruption. And then it takes more courage, costs more pain, to clean it up afterward.”
I drank more cold wine, thought about the heat in Belize, how I had been cool in my hotel room, cool and unconcerned about the fate of those people in Caracas.
“I was in the jungle once. I lay on my back in the middle of a clearing while insects crawled over my hands and under the small of my back, and looked up. Up through the endless greenery.” I spoke slowly, remembering. “The jungle isn’t just one place, you know—it’s a dozen, all in layers. And the animals and insects of each layer are utterly oblivious to what’s above them, or below. They don’t even know anything outside their world exists. So I lay there, covered in bugs, and tried to imagine what the world looks like to the white hawks and harpy eagles soaring over the canopy hunting for their food—troops of howler and spider monkeys. A green carpet, maybe. Something flat, anyway. They float about up there and have no idea that lower down ant-eaters ramble about, clinging with their prehensile tails to thin tree trunks, leaning down and licking out termites from the high-up nests. Sloths live there, too.”
I had seen them, fur slimed with algae, hanging upside down, creeping from bough to bough. “Did you know that the sloth’s claws are so well adapted to hanging upside down that if it fell off, to the forest floor, it would die because it couldn’t crawl away from predators?” I had been born to soar above the canopy, oblivious. But humans were adaptable, weren’t they? “The eagles don’t know the sloths and anteaters are there. The sloths and anteaters don’t know that underneath them are other layers. Little, quick things that flit from bloom to bloom, like bees and hummingbirds. And kinkajous and geckos and insects. All scampering about, oblivious.” The layers I had seen that day were endless. “The bottom layer is the forest floor. Big things, slow-moving. Heavy. Jaguars, herds of peccaries, tapirs. Where things squeal and run.” Bright crunch of blood. Shrill screams. “Layer after layer, each separate, each teeming with life…”
They were looking at me oddly.
“Don’t you see? Everything works in layers: jungles, cities, people. Each layer has its predator and prey, its network of ally and foe, safe place and trap. Its own ecosystem. You have to get to know the land.” I wondered if I was making sense. “We don’t always know what we’re getting into. And we don’t always know how to get out. We can’t understand everything. We each have a niche.” I remembered Paolo, saying, I’m nothing, a nobody. I thought of Spanner, her amusement when I had suggested a job: Now, why would I want a job? “If we fall out of it, like the sloth, we’re not equipped. We can die. Others can see it happening, but they can’t help. They can’t climb down the tree and help us back up. We have to do it ourselves.” I was crying. I couldn’t seem to stop.
* * *
Interest in the porn films lasted until early summer, but then their money began to dry up again. They swapped their PIDAs often—though her middle name always remained Lore—but their stock began to dwindle, and there were no more PIDAs from Ruth, and no more money to get them elsewhere. Hyn and Zimmer stayed out of sight, and Spanner went out more and more often on her own. She came back restless and irritable. One evening after they ate, she stood behind Lore’s chair and rubbed her shoulders.
“We’re going out tonight to meet some new friends. Wear that black thing I bought you before Christmas. The dress.” She went into the bathroom, and Lore heard the click as she opened up the cabinet, the chink as she dropped the tiny glass vial into her pocket with her razor.
It was a warm night, and Lore’s dress clung to her body. Her shoulders and neck felt exposed as they rode the slide to the bar. It was a new place, built only a year or two ago on a patch of land that had been a park until the city ran out of money. Inside, it was all rounded angles and glass just a little too thick to see through. The floor was some kind of clay tile. There was no bar, just table service, and the clientele had the tight, jerky look of people who were on display, or desperately wanted to be. Their nervousness was catching. For the first time since Lore had known her, Spanner—her hair up in a twist, wearing a formal tunic—did not order beer. Lore followed her lead and got a cold vodka cocktail. It felt peculiar to be wearing a black dress and sipping a cocktail.
The ceiling was mobile and made of glass, thick chunks tinted aquamarine and azure, indigo and electric green that moved slowly, occasionally showing Lore sliding reflections of another table, her own hand, the floor.
“They’re here.” Spanner stood up and waved.
Afterward, when Lore thought about that evening, she was sure Spanner had introduced them all, but she could never remember their names. The man was in his early forties, in cotton trousers and soft shirt. He was tall, and stooped all the time, though Lore was not sure if that was from habit or because he was uncomfortable. The woman was a little younger, late thirties, and plainly excited. She smiled a lot. Her hair was thick, black and glossy, about shoulder length. They bought another round of drinks. Lore noticed that, like herself and Spanner, they paid with anonymous debit cards.
Spanner, as she could so easily when she made the effort, was charming them, telling tales of riding the freighters at night for no charge, of the more colorful regulars at the Polar Bear, of the night she and Lore had tried to burn their own front door in the fireplace, only to find out it was definitely noncombustible. They ordered another round, then another. The waitress seemed to be always at their table with a tray of frosting, clear drinks. Each time, the couple paid.
The woman talked about her job. She did not say what she did, exactly, but hinted that she worked for the executive branch of the city council. “Very dull,” she said, but her coy smile suggested it might be anything but.
There were rings on every finger of her right hand. They flashed and sparkled as she talked, tapping neatly manicured nails on the tabletop. She leaned forward. Lore could feel the heat of the woman’s skin on her own bare arm. The man hardly spoke.
Lore’s glass was empty. So were the others. “Shall we have another?”
“Well, no,” the woman said, suddenly diffident. Lore was watching her hand again. It had been a while since she had seen such expensively manicured nails. “I could do with something to eat. Perhaps you would both like to join us?”
“We’d love to,” Spanner said. Lore nodded. She had no choice, not really. She knew what was happening.
“And then perhaps a film afterward.”
Outside, the night was very immediate. The man mis-stepped in the doorway and swayed. The woman laughed and slid one arm through his, another through Lore’s. “We probably all need support.”
Instead of heading for the slide pole, the woman stopped by a small black car. Lore realized she was not surprised. “Yours?”
The woman nodded. “We’re here,” she told the car. Lore heard the locks click back. There was one driver’s seat on the right-hand side, and three other seats arranged in a triangle. “Take us home,” the woman said once they were all inside, “and let’s have some privacy.” The windows polarized to black. The man sat in the driver’s seat but appeared to go to sleep.
The drive took twenty minutes. Lore had no idea in which direction they were going. In the close quarters of the vehicle, Lore could smell the woman’s perfume, a surprisingly light fragrance, one she found familiar. She wondered if this woman had ever attended one of the low-voiced dinners with family representatives, where crystal flashed and deals were made between one course and the next. Crystal, Lore thought fuzzily, like silverware, reflected a distorted version of reality. Look in a spoon or into the bottom of a glass and what looked back at you was swollen and grotesque.
The car pulled into a driveway. The wheels crunched on old-fashioned gravel. It was too dark to see the apartment building as they were led inside, but Lore got the impression it was big. She smelled the close greenery of a formal shrubbery; a brick wall enclosed the courtyard.
Food was already laid out on the low table in the living room. They sat down, Lore and Spanner on the outside leather couch, the woman and man on chairs opposite each other. They ate and talked. The man seemed almost not to be there. Gradually they stopped paying attention to him. There was icy, sparkling wine, dry as carbon dioxide.
Then the food was gone, and the woman was pushing the table aside. Her cheeks were flushed. Even in her thin dress, Lore was hot. Spanner looked serene and detached, untroubled by the heat.
“The film now?” the woman asked, ignoring the man. Lore, pleasantly heavy-eyed, nodded. Whatever the woman wanted: she was paying. Or Lore assumed she was.
The screen unfolded from the ceiling, opposite the couch. The woman dimmed the lights.
There were no titles, and the music was lush and eerie. Figures walked and ran and whirled in various locations—beach, moor, desert—and Lore began to wish she had not had so much to drink. She could not make sense of anything.
“I’m a little warm,” she said.
“I would rather keep the temperature as it is,” the woman said softly.
“Why don’t you just unbutton your dress if you’re uncomfortable?” Spanner asked. “I’m sure no one will mind.” She raised her eyebrows at the man and the woman. The man was staring at the carpet. The woman shook her head.
“No, please go ahead. Make yourself comfortable. No one minds a bit of flesh if you don’t.” And she turned back to the screen.
It felt like a suffocating dream. This was it. Spanner, and the woman, wanted her to take her clothes off: She wanted to jump up and scream, demand to know if anyone else would be naked. I have been naked too much! But she knew she would not do that. This time she had a choice.
On the screen, the characters were talking, then eating breakfast. Half of them were not wearing clothes. The scene changed, and one woman was lifting a teenage boy onto what looked like an altar.
“Unbutton your dress,” Spanner whispered. “I won’t let either of them touch you, or take pictures.”
The woman was watching the screen, rapt. As Lore watched, the woman took off her jacket and laid it aside, not glancing back at the couch The man seemed to be asleep.
They needed the money, and it was just a dress. In a dream, Lore unbuttoned her dress and pulled it down to her waist. She sat back in the couch. The leather was cool against her naked back. On the screen, the woman was positioning herself over the naked teenager, and the onlooking audience—or chorus, or whatever they were—were touching each other slowly. The heat, the alcohol, the film all made Lore feel as though she were under water. A trickle of sweat rolled down between her breasts.
“You still hot?” Spanner asked. “Why don’t you take the dress off?”
“Aren’t you hot?”
“No.” Spanner smiled. “Come here.” She held out her arm. Lore slid over next to her. “It’ll be fine. Just take the dress off.” Spanner kissed her on the forehead, stroked her neck. “It’s dark in here anyway.”
Lore shook her head, trying to clear it, and wondered when the drug would start to work, when she would stop caring. The heat decided her. She stood up, pulled off the dress, then her underwear, and dropped them on the carpet. The woman turned briefly, nodded, then turned back to the screen. Lore snuggled back next to Spanner. Spanner had said she would protect her.
Spanner turned, smiled, ran a finger under her chin, then turned back to the screen.
As if being naked had freed something, all of a sudden Lore could smell the shampoo in Spanner’s hair, the musk of her skin. She kissed her neck below the ear. Spanner’s hand, resting on Lore’s shoulder, began to stroke her neck absently. The woman was still watching the screen, Lore laughed quietly and slipped her hand under Spanner’s tunic.
“Kiss me,” Lore whispered. Spanner turned away from the screen. “Kiss me,” she said again.
Spanner put her hands on both sides of Lore’s face and kissed her very, very gently. “More…” Spanner did it again. Her lips were like fruit, soft and ripe and very slightly moist. Lore leaned forward, pushing, wanting Spanner to kiss her harder, wanting to feel the warmth of Spanner’s body. Her breath was harsh and rapid.
“Sshh, quietly.” Spanner glanced over significantly at the rest of the room. The man was asleep. The woman was still watching the film. She would notice nothing if they kept very quiet. It was a game.
Spanner turned to face Lore, stroked her shoulders and upper arms, across her throat and the top of her chest. Lore tried to sit up, so that the stroking hands would brush her breasts. Spanner smiled and put a finger to her lips. Then she unbuttoned her tunic. Lore climbed right up onto the couch and reached for her. Spanner held up her hand: no. Lore sat still, knees hunched under her chin. The leather was warm now, and soft, like skin. Her hairless vulva felt swollen and slippery. Spanner stood up, got off the couch carefully, slowly, so that the woman would not see them in her peripheral vision. She got back on the couch behind Lore. Hard nipples rubbed Lore’s back below her shoulder blades. A hand came around and cupped one of Lore’s breasts.
“Ah.” Lore was moving now, unable to keep still. Her belly was full of lava and blood ran thick and heavy under her skin, making her feel slow and liquid.
“Yes,” whispered Spanner, “yes. Oh soon, soon.” Her hand was running down Lore’s ribs now, cupping her hip-bone, running back up to her breasts. Then it began to move slowly, very slowly down the center of her body. It held her stomach, pressed. On the screen, bizarre images of red and purple flowers shimmered; the music was rising to a deafening crescendo.
Spanner had both arms around her now, both hands moving rhythmically over her body, belly, flank, thigh, inside her thigh, back to her belly, over and over, “Please, Spanner. Oh, please,” and Lore no longer cared whether or not the woman heard, no longer cared whether or not she saw. She writhed in Spanner’s arms, trying to thrust herself onto Spanner, any part of Spanner, just so that she could feel hot, live skin between her legs. And the room was thick with her own smell, sweat and need and sex, and Spanner’s, and she wanted to spin inside her need forever, without touching, but now Spanner was urging her, turning her to face the back of the couch, belly against the leather, breasts over the top, legs apart. She heard the soft zzt of Spanner’s zipper and felt breath on the back of her neck, Spanner’s thigh pushing between her own. She arched backward, trying to make the connection, but then Spanner’s hand came around the front to dip slowly, teasingly, through her labia. “Ah…” She shuddered. “Please Spanner, oh please.” But Spanner was positioning herself, wet and hot against Lore’s moving buttocks, and suddenly the couch cushion sagged to one side as the woman, naked from the waist down, climbed onto the couch. She touched Lore’s hair with one hand. The other was between her own thighs. She was looking at Spanner.
“Now,” she said, and Spanner slid her finger deep inside Lore and Lore’s muscles were clamping down around it, she was straining, humping, and Spanner was gasping behind her, pulling herself up and down, leaving hot, wet trails, and the woman was flushing deep deep red and laughing and crying out and their triple need tore up inside Lore, right up into her guts until she screamed and every muscle in her body went rigid and she slid sideways onto the cushions, Spanner still inside her.
It was still hot. The man snored gently. The screen was blank.
* * *
The hardest part of the shift for me was always half an hour after the break, when there were still nearly four hours to go and my blood sugar was low. Today, I felt restless and tense and hot. At the readout station I pushed the hair off my face with the back of one hand and just hoped there was nothing toxic on my glove. Hepple, though he was keeping a low profile since Magyar had hinted I was a Health and Safety spy, was still demanding hourly readings.
The readings were normal, absolutely normal, but something nagged at me. Maybe it was just the fact of Hepple’s demands, but something seemed not quite right. I checked everything I could think of, even the enzyme levels and secondary by-products like dichloroethylene. Everything on the button. It must be the heat making me tense. I waited for my neck muscles to relax. They didn’t.
I missed Paolo, wondered what he was doing now, but it wasn’t that. I was waiting for something to happen. I just didn’t know what, or why.
I downloaded the latest results onto a slate and went to find Hepple. He was in his glass office.
Instead of motioning me to put the slate on his desk, he reached for it immediately. He was looking the numbers over thoroughly when I left.
Maybe he was expecting something, too.
I went back to trough forty-one, decided to replace some of the rushes, just because I was restless, then changed my mind and went back to the readout station and checked the monitors. Everything was fine. So why wasn’t I happy about it? Think. Start at the beginning. The plant and equipment itself? Everything seemed in order. The influent? No. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with the bugs, either; they were standard tried-and-true van de Oest series. Guaranteed, as long as they were supplied with…
And then I remembered. The puddles, the truck, the driver calling, “Sorry about that!” The logo: BioSystems.
I swore, ran a sample on the bug food. Took down one of the slates and after a few minutes’ fiddling managed to access some old records. Compared the two. Just as I thought. I picked up the phone. “Magyar, I need to talk to you.”
“What’s happened?” Even over the line I could hear her tension. She was waiting for something, too.
“Just get here.”
I felt savage. If Hepple had appeared right then I think I would have kicked him until he bled. Four million gallons a day, straight into the city’s mains, and he was risking it all for the sake of shaving half a percent from the plant’s operating costs.
Magyar arrived, breathless. “Tell me.”
“Hepple. Stupid bastard.” I was so angry I could hardly speak. “The bug food. Hepple bought the cheap stuff. Generics.”
The folds around her eyes seemed to swell slightly, making her eyes look smaller. “How bad is that?”
“Right now, not very, but I don’t know how long it will stay that way. I can try adjust the nutrients by hand until we can replace it. The system should catch any big swings—ones that are within known parameters, anyway—but the van de Oest proprietary nutrients have got to be restored.”
“How much time do we have”
“Hard to tell. These bugs are genetically designed to fail without exactly the right ingredients, but given the mixture of microbes and varying substrates available here, I couldn’t begin to predict when or what form that failure will take.”
“But you’re sure they’ll fail.”
A beat of silence. “Give me your best estimate of how much time we’ve got.”
“A week? It depends on what we get down the line.” All it would take, was one big spill… “I can’t believe Hepple’s done this.”
“Oh, he’s probably got some very plausible-sounding reasons.” She sounded vicious.
“Then you’ll need to go over his head.”
“Try hard. Meanwhile…” I started pulling down all the slates, feeling about on the shelf. Empty.
“If it’s the manual you’re looking for, I’ve got it. Oh, don’t look so surprised. I knew Hepple was up to something. I just didn’t know what. I decided to prepare for disaster.”
I felt foolish for underestimating her.
She read my expression and gave me a tight, amused look. “What do you know about emergency and evacuation procedures here?”
“Not much.” Which is why I’d wanted to take another look at that manual.
“We’ve got just about enough sets of emergency escape breathing apparatus, if you include the SCBAs and the moon suits. But I haven’t had the chance to check them and find out if they’re properly maintained. And I don’t know how many of the shift know how to use them. Which is why I need you. I don’t know who you are, or why you’re here, but I’ll use you if I can.”
I took the manual home. There were two messages waiting. The first was from Ruth; she was smiling. “Hope you enjoyed the dinner the other day. Let us know when and we’ll come and help you redecorate.”
The second was Spanner: “It’s just before midnight. I’m on my way out. I should have the money we need by morning. I’ll call you.”
I ate, and opened the manual at random. I would not worry about Spanner and I would not feel guilty that it was her taking the risks. I would not.
After an hour or so, I pushed the manual aside. Rules and regulations were not enough to distract me from how Spanner might be earning the money for our scam. She chose to take the risks, I told myself. It was she who had suggested the scam in the first place. I was doing my part, too.
Maybe she was back already, safe. I called. No reply.
I turned on the edit box. Tom appeared on the screen. If I wasn’t going to get any sleep, I might as well do something useful.
At six in the morning I was playing the short video of Tom over and over again, obsessively. I called Spanner’s number for the tenth time. Nothing. I ran the video again. By the magic of digital imaging, Tom stood at a slide pole, looking bewildered; faced the image of his bank-account representative and wept; threw a book against the wall in frustration. Text drifted across the pictures: You can help. Send money now. The account numbers would be inserted later, when I got them from Spanner.
I tried her number again.
I had started out taking notes: shave a frame here, a pan there; add a zoom focus and fade. Now I was just watching, over and over.
It was after seven. This time when there was no reply from Spanner, I knew there was something wrong.
There were no lights shining around Spanner’s door seal; no reply to my knock. I tried the handle. It swung open.
No reply. I went in.
No one in the living room. I put my head in the bathroom, the bedroom, the kitchen, and stopped abruptly.
She was standing very still by the kitchen counter, profile to the window. “I was worried to death! Why didn’t you-”
She turned her head very, very slowly.
“Oh, dear god.” She tried to smile and I felt my face stiffen in shock. I reached out to hold her, support her, but stopped short of touching her; She was standing rigidly and her face was a grayish, doughy color. Pain. Pain would do that.
“Is the medic’s number on your system? No, don’t try to nod. Just… just blink if the answer’s yes.” She blinked. I raced into the living room, punched in his number. It was his service. I told him to get here right away, then, worried I might be garbling my words in shock, told him everything all over again. I ran back into the kitchen. Spanner was still standing there, helpless.
“Don’t worry, I won’t touch you. Do you need to lie down?” She blinked twice,
I couldn’t touch her. She wouldn’t lie down. She couldn’t seem to talk. We stared at each other. Her breathing was stertorous. I smiled. I didn’t know what else to do.
“You’ll be fine. The medic’s on his way. He’s very good. But you know that. Remember how he fixed me? You’ll be fine.”
I don’t know how long I kept up that inane chatter, but when the medic banged on the door my throat was beginning to feel sore. I didn’t dare take my eyes off Spanner. “In here!” I called. “The door’s open.”
He came in in a blast of cold air and had his coat off before I could even say hello. “Tetany,” he said to no one in particular. “Saw that in a horse, once.” A horse? “It’s the pain.” He had his bag open. “Have you tried to touch her’.”
“Any idea where she hurts?”
“Can you talk?” he asked Spanner. She blinked twice.
“That means no.”
He grinned at me over his shoulder, and it occurred to me that he thought we were some kind of comedy act. No. And she says no, too. My legs started to shake.
He held up a spray hypo.
He looked at me, raised his eyebrow. “Allergic?”
“Yes. I mean, no. I am, but she isn’t.” He waited patiently. This is not the past! “No, I’m sorry. It’s all right. She’s not allergic.”
He reached up to touch Spanner’s shoulder, but she inched visibly so he sprayed it into her left buttock instead. “Watch.”
She began to shudder like a dog, and sweat. Her breathing came in great gasps.
“Help me get her to the bed.”
Between us, we shepherded Spanner into the bedroom.
“She won’t want to lie down.” She balked at the bed. “I can give her one more shot, but it’ll put her out. Can you authorize payment?” I nodded. He squirted the stuff into her right buttock this time. “Catch her!”
She fell as I imagined a robot might: arms and legs stiff and not swinging quite right.
“We need to get her clothes off.”
I think the worst thing was that I couldn’t see anything wrong: no burns or cuts or rashes. No bruises or welts. Nothing.
We had her clothes off and he was palpating this and that, bending knees, thumping her chest, nodding to himself.
“She’ll need watching for twenty-four hours.” He laid out six hypos. “Painkillers and antibiotics. One every four hours. Then I’ll come back.” He had pulled on his coat, held out his reader for me to V-hand, and was opening the door before I realized he hadn’t told me anything.
“What’s wrong? What’s happened to her?”
“All her limbs have been dislocated and then snapped back in. Several times. She’s the second person I’ve seen with this in three days.”
“There’s some maniac out there who seems to get their kicks from hurting people severely. I’m tempted to ignore my Hippocratic Oath and report this to the police. Oh, your friend there will be fine, if she rests, and if no infection sets in, but people like the one she met up with last night shouldn’t be allowed to go free.”
I was taken by a sudden, low impulse to tell him I don’t live here! I don’t do this kind of thing! I’m not like her! but I had, once. And I had been, no matter how unknowingly or unwillingly, complicit in this.
“How long will she need to stay in bed?”
“Up to her. The danger of spontaneous redislocation and infection should be past in about forty-eight hours.” He nodded once, shortly, and left. I felt terribly ashamed.
At four that afternoon, Spanner woke up and managed to drink some water.
“Go home.” Raspy, but perfectly clear.
“The medic said-”
“Just go away.”
“You shouldn’t be left alone.”
“What about. That job. Of yours.”
“I’m not going anywhere while you need me.”
“I don’t want you. In my flat. You left it once. I won’t have you staying. Here. Out of pity. Go away.”
“Go away.” Her eyes were so wide that white showed all the way around the irises. She meant it.
“There are four hypos left. I’ll set the system to wake you every four hours. You must use them. The medic says there’s danger of infection. He’s coming back tomorrow morning. I’ll lock the door behind me, just the mechanical lock, and give him a message about where the key is.”
Silence, apart from her breathing. “I got the money.”
“I don’t care about the money!”
“I do. I earned every. Single. Penny.” Her face was. gray again. “Shit. Shit. Hurts.”
I wondered if she had laughed and come while he had been popping out her joints. I turned away, swallowing bile.
She laughed, very softly, so as not to shake her arms or legs. “You never could. Face reality. Go on. Go back to your job. Earn your. Respectable money. But don’t forget. Me and you. Have a bargain.”
“I’ll call you when-”
“Don’t. I’ll call you. When it’s time. About ten days.”
Tom was leaving the building just as I got back. He asked me something about the fake ad I was making, then peered at me.
“You look terrible.”
“I’m fine.” I tried to smile and push past him.
He grabbed my arm. “Leave him,” he said bluntly. “Or her. Find someone who’ll care about you.”
“I’m fine,” I repeated tiredly. “I need to get some rest before work.”
He sighed and let me go.
I called Ruth and Ellen’s. Both out. No forwarding, as usual. “This is Lore. Spanner’s hurt. She won’t let me help her. She might let you, Ellen.” I told her where I had left the key. “Please. Help her.”
I went on shift that day as though everything were fine. Nothing happened. The readings kept showing normal. It was easier to concentrate on the job than to think about Spanner and her pain.
The next day, and the day after that, I went to each equipment locker on my list and tested oxygen tanks, meters, foam canisters. The moon suits, the level-A protective gear, were good quality stuff flashproof as well as fitted with two-stage regulators. The battery’ telltales were green when I tested them, and the radios were in working order.
“Everything so far is in surprisingly good shape,” I told Magyar.
“Good. Keep checking.”
I made sure that the EEBA by the readout console was working, then checked the portable eye showers, the emergency lockdown valves, the reverse pumps. There was fresh oil on one of the pump works. I rubbed it thoughtfully between finger and thumb. The oil felt strange, almost tacky, on the plasthene gloves. After I’d checked the exits and the sprinkler system I called Magyar again. “I’m puzzled.”
“You surprise me, Bird.”
I ignored that. “I found fresh oil on one of the pumps.”
“Good. Or isn’t it?”
“It’s just puzzling. None of the maintenance logs indicate any attention in the last few months. But I find all the batteries are charged, all the pumps freshly greased, all the air tanks full. That last is especially unusual. A good snort of O, works well on a hangover.”
She caught on fast. “Then who’s been topping everything up?”
“I was hoping you could tell me that.” But I was more interested in why than who. Someone was making sure the emergency gear was in good condition. Whoever it was knew enough to understand we might be heading for trouble. “Who here knows how to use all this stuff?”
“I doubt if anyone does. I can use the moon suits, but the others haven’t clapped eyes on an EEBA since their orientation video, assuming they were shown it, or bothered to watch it if they were.”
“They need to learn.”
“Training will mean a drop in productivity. Hepple won’t authorize it.” A moment of silence.
“If you’re thinking of asking them to stay behind on a voluntary basis, they won’t like it.”
“But they’ll do it.” She looked offscreen at her watch. “Still twenty-five minutes of break left. Lots of time to spread the good news.”
I was right: they didn’t like it.
“Why?” demanded Cel.
“First reduced productivity pay because of the masks,” grumbled Meisener. “Now this.”
Kinnis just looked surly. “I don’t understand.”
Cel folded her arms. “We’re already shorthanded, worked half to death. I think we need a good reason to go along with this as well.”
“How about this,” Magyar said pleasantly. “One week from today there will be a test of emergency procedure know-how. All personnel who fail will be dismissed without notice and without pay in lieu. Good enough?”
Kinnis sighed. “What’s the pass rate?”
“I’ll be fair. Anyone who attends all sessions and spells their name right passes. Lessons start tomorrow. Enjoy the rest of your break.”
I was beginning to appreciate Magyar more and more.