Future PerfectBy Ika
I look at my watch. It says nine twenty-five, and I think Oh God, I'm still alive.
I light my tab, pull the smoke in, open my lungs. The lovely chemicals rinse my brain clear and clean again. I remember to drop my shoulders, almost-painful. The lifer girls are talking quietly, laughing less quietly. Oh you are awful. What are you eating tonight? Where did you get that shirt? Oh you wouldn't. Oh you were right. Oh no he shouldn't talk to you like that. Oh I'd have done the same. Oh do you like it? Their eyes flick over walls, posters, me, with the same lack of curiosity. The seams of their shirts or tunics fall precisely straight down their sides and their hair falls to their shoulders, so smooth it shines, straight to the ears and then in little smooth waves, each hair curling in the same direction to the same degree.
And they say cloning's banned.
I'm labour pool. This week my job is in Morsa. They're a mining corp with extensive interests in various planets, the names of which I forget as soon as I've copied them out. There's been some tech fuck-up: I don't know the details, but what it means is that the numbers that have to go into the forms are too long to fit in the number of boxes on the forms. That means that the computers can't either fill the forms in or read the forms once they've been filled in. That means they've had to get me in from labour pool to fill the forms in with a pen. I guess there's someone else from labour pool in another department reading the forms and putting them into a computer. It couldn't be more pointless. It's like an insult.
The noise widening out of the opening door warns me something is going on, but still I nearly fall over the boxes stacked in the lobby. I grab something to steady myself. The something turns out (as it pushes me away onto the floor) to be a trooper.
I reorient myself as I stand up. Today there are two main and separate rows. One: a woman trying to move into Vizna's partment; Vizna refusing to leave because she hasn't been notified of the shuffle and doesn't know where she's moving to Two: troopers moving the furniture out of the lobby; Barra and Jod having a go at them.
"No, of course I damn well don't - hello Della - but where are my children supposed to sleep, you stupid bloody...Can you believe this, Della?"
"Of course I can. I'll miss you."
"I'm not going anywhere!"
"Of course you're not."
Vizna's face is a map of her four children, her shitty life. The other woman's face mirrors hers. The troopers' faces are vizored; they mirror us.
"What's going on?" I say, moving to row number two.
"Just go to your partment, please."
"I can't get in my partment, there's a couch against the door. Why are you taking this furniture away?"
"Just don't you fucking start," he mutters. Louder: "Right. I'm going to say this once more, loud and slow, and I will not repeat it again. This space, as you all know perfectly fucking well, is not designated social and it is unsafe to obstruct the exit routes. All right? Now just let me do my job and clear this junk away, and pay your fines like good little citizens and I won't have to start getting physical with anyone."
"I've told you," says Jod, "it's not our responsibility, it belongs to Sten Fegredo and it's going to be moved to his new partment next week."
"Yeah? Well, tell him from us we've done him a favour. This piece of crap isn't worth the moval fees." He kicks the couch, which sways for a second and then sags in on itself down the middle as if to protect itself. I nod regretfully. He's right, as it goes: it strains credulity that anyone would pay good credits to get that pile of green creaks across the level.
The troopers cart the couch out of the main door.
"Bastards," Jod says cheerfully. "Do you want to come in for a drink?"
I shake my head. "I'm tired, Jod, thanks. See you later, maybe?"
"Yeah," he says. "Bring your own cushion."
I've done around a thousand jobs. I've hated all of them.
Nineteen exactly. The music starts, the room shrinks to the size of my vizscreen. I take a sip of tea, a breath of smoke. On the screen, Space Command headquarters. Pursuit ships form and break formation and form up again, shooting; cruisers explode. I settle into it.
I light my tab, pull the smoke in, open my lungs.
Lona walks in when I'm on my third drag, gives a little aren't-we-naughty smile, sits at right angles to me, lights up.
"You're labour pool, aren't you? What's your name?"
"Della," I say, resenting her.
She nods. "How do you get in? Tram?"
"Oh weren't they awful today?"
She falls silent for a bit, glancing uneasily at me, then away. I wish she wasn't here.
"Do you think?" I ask.
"Oh definitely," Lona says, waving her cigarette for emphasis. The smoke trails her hand. "Didn't you see the way he looked at her, right at the end of the episode?"
"Hmmm," I say.
"Vinanna's a healthy young woman," she says seriously. "She hasn't had anyone in her life since Devid."
"But she's married to Space Command."
"Oh so she says. But it's not the same, is it? Anyway, the sparks that were flying between them!"
"They were arguing," I point out.
"Oh but that just shows how much they can get to each other," she says and sighs. "My sister and her husband were just the same when they met."
I'm filling in forms. I have no idea what they say, they're encrypted. The girl beside me is on the comm.
Yes I love you. You'd better not... Promise? Yes, I'll do it in my refresh break. Promise you won't? Last time you... Do you? I love you too. About seventeen. No, not today. All right, I'll see you then.
She breaks the link. Men, she says, smiling past me, past this room. More trouble than they're worth. Yes, I agree, not smiling.
This will be where my life will have changed. Eleven-five. I lean against the wall and suck in the first drag. The space is about five feet square, a little awkward channel between two buildings. It narrows perceptibly when someone else comes out. Big bloke, all shoulders and hair. He stands against the opposite wall, shakes a cigarette out of his packet, pats at his pockets for a bit.
"Have you got a light?" His accent surprises me. I pass him a lighter. He lights his tab, passes it back.
"I haven't seen you here before," he says.
He nods. "What's your name?"
"Della," I say, resenting him.
"I'm Roj Blake," he says.
I'm so pleased to know that. Because all I have in my head is slots for forenames I'll never use again.
"So where have you travelled from?"
"Level four." I keep my voice as flat as possible.
"Oh," he says. "The trams that way are awful, aren't they?" And my total incredulity must be on my face, because he adds: "I have some friends on that level. Have you ever been to the Three Arrows?"
"No." And I'm not going with you.
"How are you enjoying it here?" he asks.
"It's fine." There is a sort of placidity about him that I am finding very irritating: as if he has always been standing in this two-foot square between high walls, and always would be, as if all places were alike to him, just a backdrop for his presence and his tickly-brown voice. I feel boxed in with him, all the more because he doesn't seem to notice that this space is far too small for him: his elbow brushes the wall every time he raises his hand to his mouth. I feel bullied.
Nineteen exactly. The music starts. I curl further onto myself. On the screen Major Vinanna's arm goes back in a precise arc, her muscles tense, she throws the grenade. Rebels cry out, stagger, fall. She jumps back from the smoke. She's so good at this, like an athlete. It fascinates me.
Her colonel bollocks her, but he smiles at her in an off-the-record way as she leaves his office. She smiles to herself and the whole screen, the whole room, my life, fills with light.
There's a knock at my door. I ignore it, stitch myself further into the viz (Section Leader Mortane has been posted to the Outer Worlds; his girlfriend is crying). The second knock pulls me out, back into the room. I get off the bed, sighing.
"Oh. Hello, Jod."
He pokes his head round the door, sees the cases, grins sympathetically and says: "Us too. This weekend, right?"
"Yep," I say, smiling back but hanging on to the door.
"Oh well. It was nice while it lasted. Where are they shuffling you to?"
"One-Mu. We had three months in Seventeen-Q a year or so back, though, it was okay. I remember it because the furniture was better than usual. The bookscreens had lots of memory."
"The woman before Vizna was from the one-greeks. She said it was a pit, but that was years ago. And it might have been a different end from Mu. I don't remember."
On the viz something explodes. I look round to see what it was. Jod's eyes follow mine. "Shit," he says, "sorry, Della, I forgot it was that time. I'll leave you to it. Do you want to go for a drink tomorrow, down the block?"
"That'd be nice."
"All right. Enjoy your viz. Knock for us tomorrow night."
I lean against the wall of the empty smoke box, dangling my whole body limp from the nape of my neck, chewing gulps and gobs of smoke. Blake comes in, says "Hello, Della." I suspect I am supposed to be impressed.
He falls silent, smokes in quick grabs, shuffling the cigarette from fore/ middle fingers to thumb/forefinger as he raises it to his mouth. He looks pissed off. I warm to him slightly.
"Bad day?" I say.
He shakes his head, meaning yes. "The petty bureaucracy in this corp... I filled a form in incorrectly and the whole metals requisition has to be redone from the beginning." His voice scalds. He sighs. "I've heard that in Morsa - have you ever worked for Morsa?"
"Um." I think for a minute before I remember. "Yes. Last week."
"How is it there?"
"I don't remember... They have a smoke room in the building. And better coffee."
"Well," he says. "That's something, I suppose."
"Oh, wait," I say. "It's a mess."
"Really? No better than here?"
I take a drag on my cigarette. "I was there because there was a tech fuck-up," I say. "I never found out the details, but what it meant was that the numbers that had to go into the forms were..."
Fifteen-nine. The girl beside me pushes the off button on the comm so hard I'm surprised it doesn't break.
"Can you believe it," she says. "If I talked like that about his parents I'd never hear the end of it. My mother's coming to visit on Inday my father's on a week post to Mars and she gets lonely and he says Can't we get out of it. Can you believe it. Honestly I don't know why I put up with him." I haven't said anything. She looks at me. "Have you got anyone then?"
"No," I say.
"Aaah," she says vaguely, "never mind plenty of time." Her eyes have focussed past me now, making her face look slack and distant. She says past my left shoulder: "Tez you won't believe what my Derril just said to me."
Twenty-twenty. Barra and Jod and I are in the block bar, Forty-Zed.
"How was your viz?" asks Barra.
"Exciting," I say. "Vinanna's going to be promoted."
I don't know if they think I can't see the look they give each other. But they smile at me, so it's okay.
"Why do you like her so much?" asks Jod, and I answer.
"...I don't know. I suppose she gets all the good story lines. She's such a good actress..."
Jod grins. "I like her tits, myself."
Ten-forty-three. I realize that I did exactly this same job three months ago.
Eleven-ten. Blake and I are in the smoke box.
"How long are you going to be with us?"
"Is that usual?"
"Yes, unless you're being moved off labour pool to job-for-life."
"Oh? Would you like that?"
"Yes, I can see that labour pool would give you a lot more freedom."
Idiot. "It's not that. You need intensive retraining to switch."
"Ah," he says, and goes still. "And that wouldn't be pleasant? Stupid question. I've never heard of retraining that was."
We are sitting on our pillows in the hallway, drinking tea because everyone is quietly saving their booze rations for the shuffle party tomorrow night. Petra has left her door open and her viz is tuned to a music channel, softening all the voices into harmony, almost drowning the ten-minute lobbyserv announcement (This space is not designated social. Please return to your partments for the convenience of your blockmates. Thank you).
I am talking to Etta.
"Oh, the worst," she is saying. "One of the ones where they say here's your station Vix will show you everything you need to know and walk off."
"They're all the same, lifers," I say.
"Tell me about it. And they treat us like shit. I'd like to see them dropped in a new corp for a week, maybe they'd realize that it's not bloody self-evident that the toilets are on the next floor up and through three sets of doors."
"So wasn't this Vix any help?"
"Oh, Della, worst of the bloody lot. Wouldn't last a minute outside Dascorp. Like it was a law of the universe that req forms are filed by date and in forms are filed by colour. Lucky for her, really, not having to think, cos she only had about a quarter of her brain on the job. She's getting married in a couple of weeks. Fuck, everyone in the bloody section was engaged or married or registering for a kid. So of course I was subhuman cos I'm single."
I screw my face up sympathetically. "What about that man you met at Amcorp?"
She rolls her eyes. "Oh, Della, story of my life. Yet another one who doesn't know the difference between labour pool and consort pool. And he was so handsome, too..." She shakes herself, goes on. "What about you? You keep landing all the mining corps. Must be a few good ones there."
"Ah," I say deprecatingly. "They're all the same, lifers."
"Yeah. Lucky Barra, eh, landing the only man in labour pool."
"Not the only one."
"Feels like it sometimes," she says, looking around. "Oh, well. Maybe next week."
"Our five minutes of freedom," I say to Blake. He smiles at me.
"Five minutes?" he says. "You're lucky."
I've done around a thousand jobs. I've hated all of them. But at least I've never hated my job for more than a week.
Eleven-fifteen. I'm putting my cigarette out, feeling obscurely as if I've missed out on something, when Blake comes into the smoke box.
"It's your last day today, isn't it?"
"Listen. A few of my friends are meeting this weekend, in the Three Arrows. You might find some of them interesting."
"I'm being shuffled tomorrow."
"The day after. Inday."
"I'll be busy," I say.
"Seventeen-thirty," he says as I leave.
Ten-fifteen. Barra and Jod and I are at the tram station with our trolleys full of cases full of clothes and bits and pieces.
My tram's announced. We hug and say "Miss you." It's just tradition in labour pool, but I might really miss them: I liked them. Without them we wouldn't have had the illegal couch. I'll remember that about Forty-Zed, the two weeks of nightly hallway parties.
I get on the tram, sit on my cases on my trolley, look at the viz, get off the tram. It's only two blocks walk to Seventeen-Q. I thumb the main door, find partment seven, thumb the door, walk in.
Jod was right, it's nice. The bed's firm, the viz is huge, the bookscreen - unscratched, uncracked - is still attached to its chain. The washroom is clean. Even the beakers and plates in the cupboard-washer by the ration machine are clean I wonder if this is the labour-pool version of a promotion.
I finesse my trolley into the space between the bed and the table, stand on the bed to put my clothes into the cupboard above. I put my stone jewellery box on the table, my bits and pieces in the washroom, collapse the trolley, shove it and the cases under the bed, and get myself a cup of tea from the machine.
I'm in the laundry room with Ventner and Rax. They're twentynothing and they make me tired: their tone, their pace, their energy, high high high. They're smart as paint, like the whole block: scrubbed and new and clean. I feel scruffy and clumsy, wedged in between two dry units. They stand against the opposite wall, facing me, three feet away. Rax is dark, Ventner is fair. The light is bright. They look like an ad.
"Where are you working next week?" Rax asks me.
"Vitec," I say.
"That's mining, isn't it?" asks Ventner. "Rax, didn't you work there last month?"
"Ooooh yes, so I did!"
This is very exciting for them.
"What's it like?" I ask, though I know what it's like. It's like Avtec and Admin Sector One and Admin Sector Four and Morsa and all bloody thousand of them, give or take.
"Well," says Rax importantly, brushing a tress of hair out of her eyes and leaning forward. "Oh, but I mustn't say anything bad about them, must I, Vent? Not in the laundry room," and they laugh. Some sort of block joke?
"The woman who was here before you," says Ventner.
"Mad," says Rax.
"Completely mad," Ventner corrects her.
"Mensec took her away!" says Rax. Her dark dark eyes are huge, her mouth open with a child's half-guilty, excited shock. "It was Inday. I saw it."
"I didn't," says Ventner regretfully. "I had my door shut. I never heard anything."
"She was screaming all sorts of things. Mad things. She said they had spy cameras in the laundry room and they'd recorded everything she did and they were trying to poison her with the ration machine. Completely mad."
"She used to cook her own food," Ventner took up the story. "She had a little heater and she used to save up and every Outaday she'd buy bits of food on the Alpha levels."
"I always knew there was something funny about her. Didn't I say, Ven?"
"You did. I remember. When I first got here."
They turn their beautiful faces towards me in stereo. It's slightly unnerving. Rax is about to speak again when the dry units chime and she hurries to empty them, passing armfuls of clothes to Ventner and my three tunicsuits to me.
"Thank you," says the dry unit. "Please remember that this space is not designated social. Be courteous and keep it free for other users."
Ventner wrinkles her nose. "Spoil our fun," she says playfully. "Better go. See you soon, Della!"
They scamper off. I lean against the wall of the empty room and light a cigarette, watching their selfconscious little bodies disappear and shaking my head, thinking Was I ever that obedient? Even when I was twenty, before I knew my way around?
I'd like to see Jod and Barra, but there's nothing I can do about that.
I wonder about that woman, the one that was there before me. What sent her mad, had her screaming about routine surveillance and poison? Was it that she was too obedient, or not obedient enough?
I'll never find out from those girls. Too young to realize that mad doesn't cover everything, past present and future. It would be like asking What do you mean, blue? What do you mean, female?
I shiver a little as I stub my tab out and walk back to my clean partment, my scrubbed painted partment; my haunted partment.
I am lying on the bed, flexing my toes to catch the covers up in them, relaxing them, looking at the blank viz. The room is silent. Nothing is happening.
I am trying to decide whether to meet Blake and his friends. It's hard to decide because I have no idea what will happen if I go. Perhaps they want to talk about how much they hate their corp. Or something more important and dangerous, the feeling I get from Blake, how much they hate the Administration? Perhaps they want to hear about conditions in labour pool so that they can send an authorized complaint through Demobureau to the High Council. Perhaps they want to hear about the inferior coffee at Morsa.
I think I like the feeling I get from the perhapses, from the way they line up and up.
Perhaps they want to tell me that there are hidden cameras in the laundry room and that someone is poisoning my food.
Perhaps I will believe them.
I'm on a tram.
I must be mad.
Perhaps I don't have to be mad.
There are five people around this small table in this crowded, noisy room. All of us are smoking. No-one is talking. Four people looking at me anxiously, intently. Smoke rises in five separate plumes, then wavers, jitters, and swirls into a patterned cloud above our heads.
Blake comes back from the bar with a tray of drinks, distributes them, then sits down beside me and lights up. The intent feeling breaks up a little, stirs, re-forms around Blake. He smiles.
"Della works for labour pool," he tells them. "I met her at work last week. I thought she might be interested in coming along today."
Opposite me, Blethyn stubs her cigarette out with quick, dismissive little jabs. "Look, Roj," she says, "this is damn well not on. Not you," she adds quickly, dismissively, in my direction. "We agreed we were going to discuss certain private matters today."
I feel the perhapses flickering through and past me. Perhaps this, perhaps that. Probably Blethyn and Blake are lovers and probably lifers wish they didn't have to hate their job for more than a week and probably that's all there is to this.
"I decided it was important for you and Della to meet each other," says Blake. He has that Alpha trick of bullying you by sounding more relaxed than you. I've seen it before.
"You - Oh, all right. But I'll have this out with you later, Roj, don't you worry." She glares at him malevolently, thumps herself back in her chair, and without looking flicks a cigarette out of her pack and to her lips in a perfect half-circle. This is where I will have fallen in love.
"Oh, I believe you," says Blake easily, and she gives him a quarter of a smile. He returns it to her, turns to me. "How did your shuffle go, Della?"
"What's a shuffle?" asks Richie.
"Moving," I say. He looks at me blankly. He's a tallish-thin man, handsome in an ugly sort of way. I try again. "Every month or two you get rotated to a different block. Three of us from my old block got shuffled yesterday."
"All to the same place?" asks Blethyn.
"No," I say. "You never get two shuffled to the same place, unless they're registered or married." Lifers. Don't know they're born.
"That's barbaric," she says. She throws herself back in her chair and stares round the table. She is so vivid; all her little movements, her strong emphases and underlinings, are like explosions. "Blake? Did you know about this?"
"I had my suspicions," he said.
"About what?" I say.
"Are you able to stay in touch with old blockmates?" he asks instead of answering me.
I wrinkle my nose. "Not really. If you put your mind to it, maybe, but... mostly we don't." I suddenly remember Kai, my friend from the three-greeks, waving to me as she walked backwards out of the main door, pulling her trolley, and how sad I felt.
I am a little warmed, a little drunk. Blake and Richie are talking quietly together about places to buy food. Blethyn leans in towards me to say, "Fourday night. A few of us are meeting. We'd like you to come."
I look at her. Her eyes are hazel and clear and looking at me very closely.
"It's outside," she goes on. "We can get you out and back safely, but it's illegal. Is that going to be a problem for you?"
Perhaps they are dissidents. Perhaps they are Security agents.
"No," I say.
I thumb out of the main door and walk to the tram station. I stand all the way to Grain on level one. Richie is waiting for me by Exit Four. He puts his thin arms around me, kisses me quickly on the lips. We walk with our arms round each other to the corridor division at Five-Zed. Then he stops, suddenly, so that our hips bump awkwardly. He puts his arms round me again, gently manoeuvres me against the wall. I feel him looking at his watch behind my head as he puts his face close to mine. It would look as if we were kissing. "Now," he whispers, and we let go of one another and duck through the exit door.
He smiles at me, a little self-consciously, as we walk down the corridor. "Sorry about that," he says. "You have to time it carefully so it doesn't show up too obviously on the monitors."
"You warned me," I say. "Richie, what goes on at these meetings?"
"Talking," he says.
"Well, obviously, but what about?"
He shrugs. "Our lives. Our sex lives, our work... You'll see."
I feel obscurely disappointed and think of the smoke room at Morsa: Oh you were quite right. Oh he shouldn't have. Oh it was only fifty credits, but thank you. But why would we have to go outside for that?
Outside is a screaming horror. Torrents of water further than the eye can see; strange, clinging matter underfoot - I have to pull my foot out of it at every step. And the infinite bareness above and the strange empty smell of the air and the dark. I barely notice that I am leaning very close in against Richie for shelter until we reach the tunnels. It has taken five minutes by my watch.
Bare concrete and proper bright lighting feels like coming home. I start breathing again and pull away from Richie, a little embarrassed.
"It gets easier," he says. "I was worse, my first time out."
We walk to a big space with columns. There are ten or so people already gathered there. Not Blake. We sit down in the circle: Richie introduces me to everyone. Everyone nods quietly. We sit quietly.
Suddenly a woman click-stamps in, hurls herself backwards against the wall by the door, pushes off it with her heel and spins a little to face us, bounces, and gives an enormous sigh. She's littlish, sturdy, with a long half-escaping plait of greying hair and a strong, knobbly face. It's Blethyn.
"The trams this time of night are deadly," she announces. "I've had hell's own time getting here. Who's got a cigarette?"
Someone throws her a packet. She catches it and, without looking, flicks a cigarette in a perfect half-arc out of the packet to her lips.
"All right," she says after the first long drag. "Let's get started. Frin, we didn't have time for you last week, you'd better start."
She is instantaneously cross-legged on the floor, smoking savagely and staring at Frin, who stands up.
Richie was right; she talks about her life, her sex life, her work life. Her whole life.
"When I was seven, I tested in the upper Beta range in the first round of stage ones. They hauled me off to see the edu psych and the manager. The eppo put me in a chair and told me these were standard tests to see how I responded to new situations and how I'd handle the stress if I shifted grade. I pissed myself on the third session in that chair with those pictures in my head, and he smiled - not at me, at the world, for proving him right. The manager talked meaninglessly at me. I just remember him looking at me through the screen round his desk. Oh, he was desperate... I had bad dreams for a fortnight about a starving beastie that wanted to eat me. I was just a little kid.
"Well, and so by the second round of stage ones I was in the lower-Beta range, and by stage two I was safely back in Gamma."
"I spend - a lot, maybe about half - my salary on clothes, makeup, cosmetics. The prices are very high. And it costs me time as well. I spend... I suppose about an hour every morning and every evening on it. And the hairdresser twice a week. I do my own nails, it saves a bit of money. Oh, and shopping for clothes, even just getting to the retail levels from the residential levels. That takes a lot of time...
"What? I'm a Beta.
"...I don't know. I just couldn't - There just doesn't seem to be any alternative. Oh, I know, maybe for you, Blethyn, people like you, but...
"What? You *know* what I mean by that."
"It was a bad year for all of us.
"I'd always known I was queer - deev, I would have said - but it took me a long time to act on it. I've talked about that before. The time I'm talking about now, I'd been with Maria for two years. I went over to her partment one Fourday night... We'd tried to get housed together once but the office seemed to be a bit too interested in why we wanted to live together, so we backed off, and I got a partment about six blocks from hers.
"God, but that was a bad year to be queer. I knew it, we all knew it. People were vanishing. Someone I'd known vaguely hadn't been around for months, and then someone else told me she'd shown up - married. That word, to us, at that time - married - it was like dead, only worse. Yeah, the proverbial fate worse than death.
"So I went over to Maria's partment and the door had... it had been kicked in, or blasted, or something, it was twisted and broken. Savage. And you know what the security's like on Level Nine, they must have... And I couldn't stop thinking about the force, the level of force they must have used, and what that would do to a human body. To me.
"I never understood quite... They got about half my circle that year. We worked out that Lania had been the first, and then her lover, her lover's last ex, her last ex, a domino pattern. And then they stopped. Suddenly. Maria was in the last group they did. I don't know why. Budget? Did they have a quota? Or had they reached someone whose mind was too important to break?
"Yes, I saw her again. It was at a work party; she worked for Entsec and they'd been liaising with our sec for something. She was... Well, she was with a man, of course, and she was smiling and perfect. She wasn't attractive any more, whatever it was in her I'd loved had long gone, of course. But what I noticed was - it's hard to explain. Everything she said was in response to something he said, and it always sounded - oh, right, appropriate, genuine - but, um, there was no continuity across what she said, no thread, no sense of a person behind what she was saying. She was like a woman designed by a committee.
"Hmm? Well, how do you think I felt?"
Twenty-two-forty. Blethyn has come to sit beside me.
"You're Della," she says. "You're the reason we started late today."
"Yes," I mutter.
"It's okay. It's very important we don't vary our usual patterns too quickly. They monitor the viz, you know. I'm just surprised we haven't had a Space Force Five addict before. Do you want a cigarette?"
She gives the pack a little shake with a flick of her wrist and one-two cigarettes fall half-out, one a little more than another, like a middle and ring finger. I take the middle finger, light up.
"Why do you watch it?" she goes on.
I feel adrift. Everyone who has spoken tonight has had so many and thens and becauses and therefores, things that they love or hate, things they know, in patterns with the whole world. Information that starts somewhere and goes somewhere, joining with other information on its way, and growing.
"I don't know," I say.
"All right, who do you like best?"
She smiles past me, at something I don't recognize. "There you go," she says, and taps the ash quickly, dismissively, from her cigarette.
"What do you mean?"
This is where I will have realized.
"Obvious. You fancy her."
"No," I say. I blink and in that moment of darkness pictures go clickclickclick across my eyelids, through my body: my heart stops as Vinanna turns to look at me from the screen, my skin tears itself away from me with loss as Kai walks out of the door in Three-Xi, my stomach drops as Blethyn flicks a cigarette in a perfect half-circle to her lips. The pictures judder, shake, hit the right speed, stop being fragments, and settle themselves into a moving picture of my life, and this is where the tense of my life will have changed from the vivid or historic present to the narrative perfect. "Yes," I said.
"No, Blethyn," said Blake, "I can't agree. That kind of division is exactly what the Freedom Party should be resisting."
"Yeah, yeah," said Blethyn impatiently, shifting her weight onto her right side and tucking her left knee up. She hugged it against her chest as she spoke. "After the revolution - " she was one of the few in the Party who didn't capitalize the word when they spoke - "all men will be free to think and speak."
Blake winced slightly, acknowledging her point. Blethyn went on:
"But in the meantime, there's still these women, with their embarrassing messy female problems, and having your lot take over the floor at see-ar with your speeches about how the sex divide is an illusion isn't helping anyone. We need a women-only group. I'm sorry if that threatens you."
"Ouch," said Blake good-humouredly. "All right, I can see - "
Tarrant had been shifting uncomfortably on the floor for a while, and now he interrupted: "What we need is to stop wasting our time on this discussion and move on to talking about what we're going to do. Give them their group, Blake, and let's get on with it."
"Give us?" said Blethyn.
"Oh, for pity's sake," muttered Tarrant.
That was about an hour into one of the regular Wedgeday planning meetings. I was sitting quietly, listening; I still wasn't used to the way a bitter half-hour argument could spring up from a single word, while plans for meetings and actions, started passionately, suddenly found themselves carried rapidly and quietly, with the fewest words possible, into completion.
I wasn't used to Outside yet, either. The wind in the tunnels changed direction from time to time, or blew down two corridors simultaneously and made tiny whirlwinds where it met itself, carrying our echoing voices into places we couldn't see, making them into noise. Nothing in the Dome was like this. I was giddy with the rhythm of it, the clash and fray.
And, of course, all the time I was falling in love with Blethyn; or realizing that I'd fallen in love with her the first time I'd seen her.
But still, the first time she kissed me I thought the world had ended. In a good way.
That wasn't until later, but it was at the end of that meeting that she nodded me over to her. I was flattered: we dispersed three or four at a time, and to be in the last group with Blethyn and Blake was a mark of honour, a kind of promotion. There wasn't supposed to be a hierarchy in the Freedom Party - though Blake was tacitly exempted from that rule - but we were all so used to thinking in terms of grades, rewards, honours, vertical levels, that it was unavoidable. T here had been an argument about that the week before.
I sat down with Blethyn between me and Blake on one side, Richie between me and Blake on the other, reaching across to accept a cigarette from Blake this time. Blethyn tapped ash into the circle between us, stared at me, and said: "What do you think about an all-woman group, Della?"
"I like mixed groups better."
"Where I work - "
"I thought you were labour pool?" said Richie.
"Oh," I said. "It's always the same. Wherever I work, I mean. The men are invisible, but they're central. The women spend their time working for the bosses and talking about their boyfriends. I like seeing women and men together, somewhere where the women aren't just doing as they're told."
"Oh, well," said Blethyn, throwing my words away with a yes-of-course toss of her shoulders. "We'll have mixed groups too. Look, Della, this is top secret, but we need your help."
"With the women's group?"
Blethyn looked at Blake. "No," he answered. "With something else."
I slid the cabinet door open and my vision skidded. A thousand neatly stacked and ordered data cubes; nothing I hadn't seen before, but this time it was like looking down from a great height.
I'd done perhaps a thousand jobs. I'd come in, felt out the shape of the job I was doing that week, shaped myself to fill it, then left untouched, without consequences, with barely the memory of what I'd done in any particular week.
This was the thousand-and-first job. This time I would leave with something.
I shook my head to clear my eyes, and scanned the titles of the cubes. Unfortunately, there wasn't one marked Security: Weak Spots, so I took the three with the blandest or most unrevealing titles and went back to my desk.
Two hours later and I hadn't got anywhere, either with the official job Richie had wangled me, or with the attempt to find plans and security specs. And I was raging for a cigarette.
I leaned over towards the woman at the next desk. "Is there a smoke room in the building?"
"No," she said briefly, not taking her eyes off the screen. "And you're not allowed to smoke at the front, either. There's an area round at the back where the smokers go. Don't forget to card out."
I sighed to myself, shoved the datacubes under a pile of printouts, stood up, and started guessing my way through the corridors to the back of the building.
I lit my tab, pulled the smoke in, opened my lungs. The lovely chemicals rinsed my brain clear and clean again. I remembered to drop my shoulders, tense and almost-painful, and looked round.
There were two troopers in the area with me: helmets under their arms, smoking foul-smelling filterless tabs.
Troopers, I thought automatically, they get everywhere. What's to guard? Stationery?
And then I thought: No.
I was sitting with Blake, Asta and Blake's lover Willon in the Three Arrows. We were waiting for Blethyn before I reported on what I'd picked up from Mensec about the layout and security at MDTC IV.
"I'm interested in the criteria for recruitment into labour pool," Blake said to me. "I've asked Richie to do some digging on it, but he needed some information. How old were you when you were streamed?"
"Thirteen," I replied. "After the Stage Fives."
"Hmmm," he said. "Promising. Five is the dissident screening stage."
"How do you know?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Because it took all my family's ingenuity - and a year offworld - to get me out of going to a rehab edu centre at thirteen."
"I thought they screened for dissidence at birth. Isn't it genetic?"
"Like moral deviance?" said Blethyn. I hadn't seen her come in, and now she was sitting down beside me. She smiled at me, almost shyly, and lit up a cigarette.
"Point taken," I said.
"Well," said Blake, "now we're all here, Della, you can start."
I glowed. "I didn't get much from the computers, beyond a straightforward ground plan," I began, "but there's a back way in that's not shown on the plans."
The air got a little tighter. Everyone leaned in a little.
"It's off a side corridor on twelve-R. There's locks, but they're all internal - quite flimsy. There's a little scrap of space that looks like it just got left over when they rebuilt the MD treatment centre, but they're using it as a smoke area now."
"You do have eventful cigarette breaks, Della," Blake murmured.
I made a face at him and carried on. "Every time I go out there, there's a guard or two having a tab as well. I get the feeling they're pretty slack on security, apart from round the main entrances."
"That's fantastic," said Asta. "Now - " she looked round - "all we have to worry about is convincing the rest of the Party."
"Hmm," said Willon glumly, and "You mean Tarrant," said Blake with that easy smile.
"And the rest," said Blethyn.
"I'll get the drinks," I said.
By curfew, we were all exhausted. Blake and Willon barely smiled as they left the bar - Asta had left a little earlier (she had further to go).
I finished the last half-sip of my drink and nodded to Blethyn. "Right," I said, beginning to move out round the table, bent into a Z-shape. "I'll see you at the meeting on Wedgeday, then?"
She caught my sleeve. "Della," she said, "what the hell is your problem?"
I blinked at her. I honestly didn't know what she meant.
"If you're regretting what happened last night, then tell me, damn it. Don't just act like it never happened!"
"Oh," I said slowly, sitting down again. "Um... Of course I'm not regretting it. Why would you think that?"
She stared at me. "Because you're... It seems you think nothing's changed between us."
"Changed?" I asked, bewildered. "I'm sorry, Blethyn, I'm confused."
"Obviously," she muttered.
"You mean - Hold on. Do you mean you want to sleep with me again?"
"You didn't say."
"I didn't think I needed to! It was great, and I like you. Why wouldn't I want to do it again?"
"Well, because..." I said, and then I stopped, and remembered she was a lifer.
I grinned at her. "Lifers. Don't know they're born."
"Nothing. Just that the whole arrangement of your life doesn't change every week or so."
"Oh," she said, and most of the exasperation cleared from her face. "Well, not this arrangement. I hope."
"I hope not too." My whole body was a smile. "Now you'd better go home before you get picked up on curfew violation."
She leaned in and kissed me chastely on the cheek; my body liquefied in instant lust.
"I can't agree," said Tarrant. "If we're to gain any popular support at all, we have to be seen to be focussing on basic human rights."
Beside me, Blethyn quivered and inhaled, getting ready to start shouting. I put a hand on her thigh, caught her eye, put my finger to my lips, reminding her that she'd agreed that Blake should handle this debate.
"Sex is a basic human right," said Blake from the platform, calm, amused.
"Psych treatment" ("Mindrape," muttered Blethyn) "for moral deviants - " ("Queers") " - is not an issue that will unite people. Even within the Freedom Party, it's only the fringe elements" ("Tarrant, you little shit") "that care about it."
"I'm surprised you describe me that way, Tarrant," said Blake. "As far as I'm concerned, the moral deviation treatment centre is as valid a target as the political rehabilitation centres were." His voice still scalded, his mouth corroding the lies and dissolving them: moral deviation treatment, political rehabilitation. "The right to integrity of mind and body is fundamental to what we stand for."
"No," said Tarrant. "I'm sorry, Blake, but I can't support this. And I'm sure - "
"Move for a vote," someone called.
"Seconded," said Blethyn.
Twenty-one in favour; six against. Just enough.
"All right," said Blake, and there was nothing in his voice of the hours and the fear and the desperation we'd spent preparing for this meeting. "That's settled then. Bran?"
Foster nodded, getting up and moving towards the platform. As he began to talk about the situation off-planet, Blethyn sagged against me and Blake caught Willon's eye and smiled.
Blethyn and I were velcroed together in bed. We were side by side, so not much was touching, but every pore in my skin was still connected to every pore in hers in an invisible pattern. The viz murmured soothingly in the background. It was an Inday, about sixteen-hundred.
"Do you want a cup of tea?" said Blethyn.
"Chance'd be a fine thing," I said.
"I can get you one," she said.
"There's no rationmachine in this place," I pointed out. Far too easy to track back; these deev hotels were secure.
"They've got water and leaves and heat downstairs."
I put my other arm and leg round her and fitted myself into her curves, kissing her collarbone, hard under soft skin. "You'd have to go downstairs," I said.
She put her cigarette out, stretching under me towards the table. "So I would," she said and half-turned closer into me.
"All right?" she murmured.
"A little. I just hope this works. I hate what they're doing there, I hate it. I saw some of the files and it was just..."
She started to rub my back. "I know. But it's all gone smoothly so far: you found us a way in, Richie's working on a way to disable the locks, Tarrant and his manly-men haven't managed to sabotage the whole plan..."
I sighed. "I know. But I'm taking it this one personally. After what Asta told us. And. And, I couldn't bear to forget you."
She laughed. "You know, it's more usual to say I couldn't bear to lose you."
"I could bear that," I said, "if I had to. But since I met - since I joined - well, recently - things have been... permanent. Continuous." I looked at her. "For life."
She looked away. "They always were," she said. "Even in labour pool. Those bastards took every precaution to stop you seeing it, but you did in the end."
Oh, I thought. Maybe some things aren't as continuous as I'd like.
Instead of asking her, I rolled off the bed. "I'll go and get that tea," I said. I was still restless. Even thinking about the MDTC made me shivery, and Blake's back-and-safe call was late: he was at a meeting to plan the raid. I wasn't there because we'd decided I should keep a low profile, my labour pool near-invisibility being suddenly useful; Blethyn wasn't there because, despite the Party's lack of hierarchy, only one of the three Bs (Blake, Blethyn, Bran) went on each raid. Just in case.
I hopped from foot to foot in the chilly kitchen, feeling the last of the love-making heat drain from my body, waiting for water to boil, hoping that walking away from the portacomm in the bedroom would have made it ring, hoping that Blethyn would meet my eyes when I went back in.
Things were permanent now, however long they lasted, and that made everything so much more complicated. I suddenly missed my old life, when wondering what would happen next meant waiting till nineteen-hundred and the Space Force Five credits; when it was a happy, tightening anticipation, not this drifting nausea, this feeling of being pegged into umpteen circuits at once and waiting for one of them to explode.
At least the kettle had boiled without disaster. I made the tea and carried it back up to the bedroom, where Blethyn didn't meet my eye because she was sitting up hunched in the bed, hugging her knees and staring at the viz.
The viz was saying "... has given himself up for voluntary re-education following..."
I stared at the screen.
It was Blake.
"Fuck," I said, and started getting dressed.
"I can't believe it," she said. "I can't believe Tarrant would..."
"Blethyn? Are you crying?"
She pulled a finger across the skin below her eye and looked at it. "Yes," she said.
"Well," I said. I was standing in the doorway. "Are you coming?"
"On to the next thing."
"You're just going to walk away...?"
"It's what I'm good at," I said. "I want you to come with me," I said.
"We should wait here. Call Bran. Find out what happened."
I stared at her. "Blethyn," I began, and she looked at me for the first time since I'd come back into the room and, all of a sudden, smiled.
"Don't know I'm born, right?"
She got out of bed and came to join me.
"All right," she said. "We'll walk away, for now. See if we can get off-world. But Della - One day, we're coming back."
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