Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 09 

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 counter-revolutionary 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 seccie 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 re-establishing 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.