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Chapter 7

The alley below was vacant, except for the usual piles of debris. Cary Condor removed her finger and let the curtain covering the window fall back in place. It was an old-style material curtain—a piece of decorated fabric—rather than a modern electronic screen. There was a screen in place also, and Cary flipped the switch to turn it back on.

“Are you really sure this is necessary?” she asked, as she turned away from the window. “It seems . . . pretty unsanitary.”

“The curtain?” Stephanie Moriarty looked up from the table where she was working at a portable computer. “You’d be surprised how effective a simple material block is to a lot of surveillance techniques. There’s more to the world than electrons. Besides, how is it any more unsanitary than everything else in this dump?”

Cary didn’t have a good answer for that, beyond I’m used to crappy clothes and bedding. So she shifted her objection to the curtain onto other grounds. “If somebody comes in here on a raid it’ll be a dead giveaway that we’re trying to hide something. Nobody in this day and age, not even in Mesa’s seccy quarters, uses antiques like this.”

“Oh, for—” Moriarty took a deep breath. “Cary, if ‘somebody’—and, gee whiz, who might that be other than security goons?—comes busting in here on a raid, explaining a curtain will be the least of our problems.”

There came a hoarse chuckle from the figure lying on a bed in one of the corners of the room. “Probably won’t be any kind of problem at all. On account of we’ll be in little bitty pieces two seconds after they come in. Both of you and what’s left of me.”

Karen Steve Williams raised her head from the pillow enough to gaze down at her legs. Her nonexistent legs, below the knees. “I try to look on the bright side. At least my damn feet would stop itching.”

Moriarty’s mouth twisted into a wry smile. “Be careful what you wish for. If your no-longer-there feet can still itch, how do you know that your no-longer-there body won’t itch too, once you’re dead?”

Karen chuckled again. “Talk about a fix! Spend all of eternity trying to scratch a nonexistent itch with nonexistent hands.”

Cary gave her two companions an exasperated look. She did not share their amusement with silly whimsies. “Once you’re dead, you’re dead. Not there. Your body isn’t nonexistent, you are. Itching is irrelevant. It’s like saying the color yellow won’t be in harmony any longer.”

“Spoilsport.” That came from Karen, whose head was back on the pillow and whose eyes were closed again. She didn’t have much energy these days. Cary didn’t think she’d live for many more weeks. The injuries the young woman had sustained making her escape—her hair-breadth, hair-raising, barely-in-the-nick-of-time escape—from Mesa’s security forces after the nuclear detonation at Green Pines had been horrible.

The amputated legs weren’t even the worst of it. Karen was also missing her spleen as well as one of her kidneys and most of her liver. And there’d been some damage to her brain, too. She sometimes had trouble talking and her vision was impaired.

More to get her mind off the depressing subject of Karen’s medical condition than out of any real interest, Cary moved toward the table where Stephanie was sitting. “Any news?” she asked.

Moriarty jabbed an accusatory finger at the computer screen. “This is official Mesan news, remember? Better known as the Fantasy Channel.”

Cary ignored the sarcastic remark and leaned over her comrade’s shoulder to get a better look at the screen. The portable computer was another antique. Its virtual screen expansion had collapsed a few weeks earlier so their view was limited to the screen’s physical dimensions. Which were all of twenty-five by fifteen centimeters. It was almost like looking through a keyhole.

Cary now knew what a keyhole was, because the small apartment they’d rented actually had one as a supplement to the usual security devices. There was no key, though, which didn’t matter since the lock was broken anyway. Their landlord, as shrewd and grasping as such people usually were in slums, had quickly gauged their level of desperation, divided it by his equally quick gauge of their resources, and provided them with the smallest and most rundown unit in his building for a price they could just barely afford.

At that, they’d been lucky. There’d been rumors of a robbery gone badly wrong in a nearby district just a day before they’d approached the landlord, and he’d assumed they were what was left of the criminal gang. It hadn’t occurred to him that their battered appearance and the two badly injured members of their party had anything to do with the Green Pines incident.

The one male in their four-person group, Firouz Howt, had died two days later. Since disposing of the body themselves would be very dangerous, they’d decided the landlord was the lesser risk. That assessment had proven correct. He’d disposed of the body for the value of the organs and tissues, and charged them nothing.

So, he’d seen the wounds that had finally taken Firouz’s life, and had had no trouble recognizing them as injuries sustained in a gunfight. The landlord had a couple of visible scars himself that showed he was no stranger to violence. But that had simply confirmed his supposition that they were criminals. And not very competent ones, so he wasn’t too nervous at having them around.

That had been just about the only good luck they’d had since Green Pines, but it had been enough to keep them alive. If they could somehow come up with the money, they might even be able to get Karen the medical treatments she needed to stay alive.

The landlord had offered to be of assistance there also, as what he called their “manager” but what he meant was their pimp. Cary and Stephanie had turned him down. Partly because the idea of becoming prostitutes was repellent, partly because it would be dangerous, but mostly—being honest—because they couldn’t possibly raise the sums necessary in that manner.

The news being carried on the channel Stephanie had turned to was the usual fare these days. Fifty percent, a relentless drumbeat on the ever-present danger of Audubon Ballroom terrorist activity; twenty percent, a relentless drumbeat on the also ever-present if not quite as fearsome danger of criminal activity; ten percent, bits and pieces involving official Mesan politics; ten percent, bits and pieces of galactic news. The remaining ten percent was distributed fairly evenly between quirky human interest stories, natural disasters—those were mostly of human origin given Mesa’s very mild climate; fires and such—and fashions.

Yes, fashions. Most of which could only be afforded by a tiny number of seccies.

Calling it “the Fantasy Channel,” therefore, was an exaggeration. If you set aside the barrages on so-called “terrorism,” anyway. Most of that was made up out of whole cloth. But the other half of the news wasn’t fabricated—although the Mesa authorities censored quite a bit of it. The problem wasn’t so much was what said as what was not said. You might be told, for instance—with perfect accuracy—that a given town had been subjected to flooding or an earthquake or some other natural disaster. What wouldn’t be mentioned was that the flood/earthquake/whatever had struck the seccy part of the town and due to substandard construction/corrupt business practices/overcrowding/whatever there had been considerable loss of life.

Again, like looking through a keyhole. The problem wasn’t so much the distortion in what you could see. Some distortion was there, certainly, but you could adjust for it. The big problem were all the things you couldn’t see because your field of vision was too limited.

Much better and less censored news was available on subscription channels. But those were quite expensive and restricted to full citizens.

What were they not being told by the news media? There was no way to know. Not, at least, without access to information coming from outside the Mesan loop—and that was simply not available to seccies such as themselves.

“They’re planning something, the bastards,” Stephanie half-muttered as she watched the newscasters. “They’re spending more time than usual hollering and screaming about the Ballroom. Way more time, in fact. It’s practically all they’re talking about lately.”

Cary frowned. She knew what Stephanie was getting at. Provocation was probably the oldest trick in the counterrevolutionary book—and, unfortunately, was often very effective. If the Mesan media outlets were bombarding the populace with warnings about the imminent threat of terrorist outrages, those outrages were sure to come—carried out not by the so-called terrorists but by agencies of the Mesan government.

It was an effective tactic in large part because it was so hard to argue against, especially when you had no access yourself to any mass media. Fine to say “people aren’t that dumb; they’ll see through it.” The historical record said otherwise. Over and again, throughout history, a lot of people had been that dumb.

“Nothing we can do about it,” she said, straightening up. “Except . . . Do you think we ought to suspend our regular check-ins for a while? Maybe a week?”

“No, don’t.” That came from Karen, lying on the bed. Cary hadn’t realized she was still awake.

“Why not?” asked Stephanie. “The odds against our check-ins turning up anything are close to astronomical anyway. So what’s the harm in suspending them for a while?”

Once a day, either Cary or Stephanie ventured outside the apartment to check one of the six dead drops they maintained in various places in the city. Four of them were in the seccy quarters. The other two were in heavily trafficked areas frequented by seccies on their way to work as servants in the citizen districts.

The drop locations had been set up by the Manticoran agent who’d called himself Angus Levigne when he’d been active on Mesa. Months had gone by since he and his odd-looking partner had left the planet—or gotten killed, they didn’t know which. The odds against Levigne or someone else using the sites to get in touch with them again were low, of course. Maybe not astronomically low, but pretty close. Still, since they had no other means of reestablishing contact with anyone from off-planet, they continued to maintain the routine checks.

Painfully, Karen levered herself up on one elbow. “I don’t care about the drop boxes—although we may as well check them while we’re out.”

“I ask again: why? We can get food and supplies a lot closer than the nearest of the drop sites, so why take the risk?”

Karen shook her head. “You’re not thinking far enough ahead. How much money do we have left?”

Cary was their treasurer, insofar as the term “treasure” wasn’t laughable. Official Keeper of the Piggy Bank would be a more accurate way of putting it.

“Not a lot.”

“Enough to pay the rent and buy food and supplies to keep us going for six more months?”

Cary took in a breath and puffed it out, swelling her cheeks. “Well. No. I figure we can go another two months for sure. Maybe up to three, if we ration really tightly.”

“About what I thought. We need to face facts squarely, folks.” Karen made as little waving motion with her hand, indicating her body. “I’m most likely going to be dead within three months.”

Stephanie started to protest but Karen talked over her. “Cut it out, Moriarty! Optimism and keeping our spirits up is one thing. Dumber’n a box of rocks is another. You know as well as I do that I’m not going to last much longer unless we can get me some pretty major medical treatment—and how are we going to pay for that when we’re as strapped as we are?”

Slowly, just as painfully as she’d raised herself up, Karen put her head back on the pillow and stared at the ceiling.

“When I die, two things happen. Or rather, one thing happens for sure and the other happens if we plan for it ahead of time. The thing that happens for sure is that the money we’ve got left will stretch further because you’ll only have to feed two people instead of three. The thing that might happen—if we make our preparations ahead of time—is that you two come into a lot more money. Well . . . a fair amount more, anyway. Enough to keep you going for half a year at least.”

Stephanie’s expression was skeptical, bordering on sarcastic. “And just how in God’s name do you think that’ll— Oh.”

The conclusion it had taken her half a sentence to reach had come to Cary almost immediately.

“Jesus, Karen,” she said.

“When did you get religion?” Karen said. “Although I guess I should aim that more at Stephanie, seeing as how she’s the one who claims to be the atheist here and you still cling to some shreds of your childhood faith. But I remind you that faith doesn’t think anything but the soul is eternal, so what does it matter what happens to my body after I’m gone? I don’t give a damn, myself.”

She raised her head again, just enough to give her two companions a ferocious glare. “What I do give a damn about is that I don’t want that chiseling scumbag landlord pocketing the money—which is what he did with Farouz’s remains. So when I die, keep it a secret from the shithead. Cut me up yourselves—the bathtub’s one of the few things in this dump that works—and freeze the parts. Then sell what you can.”

She sagged back down. Her voice was getting weaker. “But you have to plan for it. Go out there and find the market. You’ve got weeks to do it. You ought to turn up something.”

She was silent for a while. Then she said, very softly: “I’m so tired.” She was asleep within seconds.

Cary and Stephanie looked at each other. Neither of them said anything for perhaps a minute.

“I don’t think I can do it,” Stephanie finally said. Her eyes were tearing up. “I really don’t.”

Cary had known that already. Stephanie had her strengths—plenty of them—but despite the airs she sometimes put on she just wasn’t what you’d call “hard-boiled.” She was tough enough when dealing with enemies. But butcher a dead friend? She’d make a mess of the business before she gave up altogether.

“I’ll do it,” Cary said. “But only if we’ve found a buyer.”

There was silence again, for another minute. Then Stephanie sighed and got to her feet. “I guess that means I check the drop box today. And then . . .”

She raised her hands in a gesture that was half-despairing and half-aggravated. “Where the hell do I go to find a buyer for body parts? The only person we know who’d know is the shithead himself. And we can’t ask him.”

“We’ll figure out something,” Cary said. Trying her best to believe it.

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