Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 08

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 seccie 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 non-existent 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 non-existent itch with non-existent 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 non-existent, 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 — 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 seccie part of the town and due to substandard construction/corrupt business practices/overcrowding/whatever there had been considerable loss of life.