Through Fire – Snippet 16

He blinked at me, in utter confusion. Then gulped and turned very red. This might have been the effect of interacting with a woman, or at least with a woman outside of an official framework. Or it might have been that he wasn’t good at personal interaction with any human being. He swallowed hard and said, “Down the street. Turn right at the clock. It’s the first building on the right.”

I thanked him and wandered down the street, with my hands in the pockets of my borrowed outfit, trying to look casual and at home. It came home to me that my looks were a real problem. Men stared at me. The more subtle of them tried not to gawk directly or at least not to stare. But the younger just looked. Women looked too, often with some malice.

The men and women all seemed to be in some form of uniform, which might be the other reason they stared at me: because I wasn’t. Also, I started wondering about something else. I’d noticed in my time in Liberte, and when interacting with people from Olympus and other seacities or territories, that they all had slightly different gestures, slightly different ways of standing, slightly different ways of holding themselves up. Which is to say, they would have stuck out as different, as strangers in Eden. I remembered when I’d first met Kit’s wife, who’d been raised on Earth, and how odd her every gesture, her way of moving seemed.

Eden is a small place. Sure, some professions — my own old profession as a navigator of darkships which came to Earth orbit to harvest powerpods, for instance — had their own slang, and their own way of behaving. But that was conscious and by choice, and not something you learned from birth to identify as the normal way to do things.

I started worrying long before I reached the bank. If I stuck out like a sore thumb everywhere I went, would there be any point in going back to Liberte? They could identify me, track me, arrest me, kill me or use me as a hostage.

In the back of my mind, I heard Lucius say “It’s a suicide mission.” I didn’t want to commit suicide. For one, my committing suicide would not help Simon. I needed to go in, fit in, bring him out.

Right then and there it seemed impossible.

The coward in me — and I’m not really a coward, I think, but there is a coward in my mind, one who tries to convince me to take the easy way every time — whispered that I should just stay here and let Liberte take care of itself. After all, I’d escaped with my life.

But it was not that easy. Year after year, I’d wonder if I could have saved Simon, and feel like I should have. It was no use telling myself it would have done no good. If I didn’t try it, I couldn’t be sure.

Like that, I was standing in front of the bank. It had never occurred to me to fear that it might be one with employees, because the only bank I’d seen was the one where Simon had taken me, when he’d established my account. And I wasn’t even sure if it normally had human employees, or if it was an exception made for him.

In any case, I must have feared it at the back of my mind, because I felt perceptible relief when I entered the swinging glass doors and found myself in a broad, polished white ceramite lobby, surrounded by row upon row of teller booths.

This was one step up from the place where you either pushed in your thumb or your credgem. The booths were usually controlled, ten to one operator, which meant they could handle more complex operations than simply withdrawing or depositing credits.

A lucky break since it had just occurred to me I needed to do some fancy financial work. If I didn’t, if I left my money in an account in Liberte, then sooner or later the revolutionaries would find a way to broach the accounts. It was an unfailing habit of revolutionaries to take the property of those they deemed had offended them. If Lucius Keeva was telling the truth, even the Usaians had taken most of his home for their headquarters.

I let that thought go, as right then the Usaian movement was the least of my concerns. Instead, I advanced to the nearest empty booth, and closed the door behind me. I checked that the door opened several times before closing it and locking it.

One thing was to lock myself in a small room of my own volition; another and completely different to allow someone else to lock me in. One of them was unpleasant, the other was crazy-making. In fact, part of the reason I had decided to stay on Earth had been that. I couldn’t stand the idea of being locked in a vehicle, alone, stranded months’ travel away from the nearest source of help. It had been fine before. But now I was aware of what it might mean.

And besides, I was tired of the ever-perpetual pressure to remarry –what good was it? Navigators married pilots. I knew every one of the single cats between my class and the current one, and I didn’t want to marry any of them. None of them would, as Len had, be able to look past my peculiarities, at my real self. If they even knew of my peculiarities. And I didn’t feel like explaining to anyone else that, yes, I was different. For one, you never knew how people would react. Look at my foster parents, who had never gotten over what I was.

So I’d had my choice between being locked in a small space with someone or alone, but it was still locked, and still away from all help, medical or otherwise.

And, yes, I do have issues that have come home carrying issues in arms. Why else would anyone run away from home to an entirely new planet?

I checked the lock on the booth door again, found it opened when I pushed it, and decided to sit down. The booth had controls, automatic, which turned on a holo of the operator, and allowed the operator to see me. I looked at the panel in front of me, for a moment, and realized that any attempt at accessing my account and getting anonymous gems off the machine, would show my face to someone at the other end.

There are times when my enhancements are useful. Beyond just being Jarl Ingemar’s clone, I had another bioengineered advantage. The world in which I’d been born enhanced those they intended as pilots or navigators of energy collecting darkships, so that the team — I wondered when the tradition of their being married had come in — had a good chance of coming back alive.

Pilots — my late husband as well as my “brother” Kit — were enhanced with eyes that allowed them to see in the dark and which gave them the nickname of “Cats” and navigators, like myself, were designed with … mechanical intuition. Electronic intuition too. There were few machines I couldn’t understand after a look. I had sense of direction, and a superhuman memory too, but right then what I needed was the mechanical ability.

I lifted the panel on the machine, gingerly, lest an alarm would sound. Found the anti-vandalism alarm as, by instinct and some knowledge of similar mechanisms, I lifted the lid of the machine and disabled it with my little finger slipped beneath the panel, then lifted the panel fully, braced should another alarm ring, and should I be trapped in here. I had my story all ready, should that happen. I’d tell them I thought the machine malfunctioned, and I was trying to fix it. It’s amazing what people will believe when said by a young woman who has mastered the art of looking innocent, or even a close approximation, as I had.

But no alarms sounded, and I supposed it was because no money transfers could take place from this machine without the intervention of the human operator, so even if you managed to break into the machine and sabotage it, you’d gain nothing.

At any rate I didn’t want to sabotage it. I just wanted to confuse it, enough that anyone operating the machine wouldn’t be able to give an accurate description of my features to anyone asking. Look, I wasn’t doing anything illegal. The money had been given to me, and it was in an account in my name, but I suspected there was more communication between Olympus and Liberte than anyone on either side would like to admit to, and when I got my money out and changed it to a portable, non-identifiable format, I didn’t want word to go ahead of me to Liberte to warn them to look out for a redhead who looked thus and so. Not the least because most people would recognize me on description.

So I tampered with the visual intake circuits just enough that the picture would waver and flicker and tremble, more or less constantly.