LUNCH WITH THE GIRLS
Stealing a glance at the model of a blue whale suspended in the lobby, Malila avoided the packs of ululating children, E3 couples looking for secluded spots, and the state nannies.
One child, who had to be less than six years old, had unfastened himself from the harness and made a break for the worn marble steps. A nanny, brightly painted in a cheerful abstract, wheels smoking, cut him off before he gained the tactical advantage of the first step. The young malefactor was gripped, none too gently, and brought stumbling back to his place.
As they neared, Malila heard the nanny above the noise.
“Janes Brigham Cherbourg, you have violated field trip rule number three. You have brought shame on Créche Alinsky 188 … and you have made me very … disenchanted … with your behavior.” The rest of the machine’s remonstrations were lost in the bustle, but Janes Cherbourg did, indeed, appear penitent.
Malila entered the restaurant, and the gabbling of the children subsided.
Malila had first met her friends while they had all been crèchies. They each knew more embarrassing details about the others’ lives than bore consideration. The table Hecate had reserved for them was delightful. Delicate gilt chairs surrounded expanses of white linen and shining silver. Nearby a string quartet played some Dutilleux. Exuberant vines wound around lattices along several of the walls, burdened with pale trumpet-shaped flowers that perfumed the whole room. Malila was the first to arrive, but she did not have to wait long.
Two of her friends appeared together: blonde Alexandra in her well-tailored academia-blue suit and Hecate in her government gray. Only after they had been seated did Lucy sweep in with a dramatic dark-red cloak, arriving with her glad exclamations and pointed accusations of neglect.
Lucy was still holding forth when their final component arrived; Tiffany, trotting with her head down, her long white coat fluttering behind her, always came last.
“Now we can all breathe. All present and accounted for! It has been so very long … six months? I was worried you all had forgotten me!” said Lucy, throwing back the red cloak and making as credible an imitation of neglected virtue as the small stage allowed.
“You don’t fool us, Luscena! You have been the one that always has to sleep to noon and uses the ‘I have a matinee’ excuse, aren’t you?” said Alexandra, smiling.
Before Lucy could respond, Tiffany cut in. “Alex, don’t! That is just going to get you the ‘I am merely a pawn of my craft … a victim of my artistic genius’ soliloquy, you know.”
Luscena opened her mouth briefly and closed it to peals of laughter.
Attentive waiters arrived and passed them elegant menus. Having already decided on the filet de sole au citron vert herself, Malila listened with plagiarized interest to her friends’ choices and indecisions.
“Everything looks so good! I love the fettuccine here … but I’ll just have the garden salad,” said Tiffany Collins, to Malila’s right.
Malila suppressed a smile, thinking her friend was on yet one more diet. Tiffany had auburn hair and was dressed in a pale shade of her league’s green. She seemed even more professionally preoccupied than usual. As children, while Malila and Luscena had been egging each other on, Tiffany had been the one to mollify juvenile rage at imagined insults.
In contrast to Tiffany’s soft and melodious voice, Lucy’s projected to the corners of the room. Lucy used her talents well. Malila was pleased for her. As Luscena Kristòf, a rising star of the legitimate theater, she had just won accolades in the revival of Memoir of a Protégé.
Lucy, who was on Tiffany’s right, ordered an herb omelet and a glass of wine without consulting the menu and immediately started her own interrogations.
“Alexandra, my love, I understand you are on the Art Task Force for this year? Are you going to fund the New-Artist Grants better? Phillipa—you know, Phillipa Dvorak—actually had to wait tables last year to make ends meet while she was staging her new thing. What’s it called, Malila? I know you remember.”
Before Malila could answer that she did not remember, the quicksilver of Luscena’s interrogations had moved on to complaining about the woeful delays in the scheduling of aesthetic surgical procedures.
“It’s not like this is vanity, Tiffany. I need my breast augmentation, you know. It is a necessity for my craft. After all, our bodies are our …” said Luscena, unwisely pausing for dramatic effect, allowing her companions to say in unison, and with choreographed dramatic poses. “… instruments. They are the brushes we use to paint art on the canvas of the stage!”
The women, absent Luscena, dissolved again into peals of laughter.
Tiffany, a health care provider, hurried on. “But, Lucy, the boob jobs are handled in turn. I have nothing to do with scheduling, honest.” Tiffany, compassionate and hardworking, even if not the most astute, served her profession well, a young and vital population needing little medical care other than obligatory immunizations, euthanasia for the chronically ill, and plastic surgery. Tiffany was always authentically distressed at Lucy’s dilemmas.
The waiter took the rest of the orders while Luscena pouted. By the time the food arrived, she apparently had forgiven everyone for their plebian attitudes and was delivering a convoluted tale that appeared to be merely an occasion for the flinging forth of Names.
Finally reaching a stopping point, Luscena paused to attack her omelet. “Fathercock! It’s cold.”
“Don’t be crude, dear Lucy. It’s only cold because you talk so much … and we all want to hear every word you have to say, my love,” responded Alexandra at Malila’s left.
Malila laughed with the rest. Alexandra O’Brian had her own ways of grabbing attention. While very young, the other four children had adopted her when they’d fathomed the vicious wit she could deploy for the general welfare. Then cripplingly shy, Alexandra had been too timid to bend a breakable rule. She’d found her remedy in academia. After gaining a BA, MA, and two PhDs (theology and political science) at Yal-Vard, she had assumed the Sharpton Chair of Practical Democracy at Nyork City University in 73.
“You should talk, Alex. I see you on the ’nets more than I see Gordon,” Malila inserted.
Alexandra smiled her trademark smile and patted Malila’s hand. “Just trying to do my little part for the Unity when I’m asked.” Malila always wondered who did the asking but admired the liberties it brought Alexandra. Malila self-consciously ran a hand through her short, straight black hair.
With her blonde shoulder-length hair, smooth brow, and large blue eyes, Alexandra always radiated a sincerity politicians lusted to emulate. More than once, she had turned down an offer to join the government, saying she could never make the hard choices that governing required. The solemn woman to her left understood.
Hecate Hester Jones was in government. She was medium: average height, medium-brown, and medium build. She and Malila had arrived at Unity Crèche Maddow #213 within days of each other, both “illegals,” children raised by private citizens before being discovered.
Usually finding it difficult to break into the torrents of words issuing forth from Luscena and Alexandra, Hecate was satisfied to dabble in the back eddies of their conversations. Today she was even more withdrawn, Malila noted, but while arranging the luncheon yesterday, Hecate had been animated, even excited. The contrast disturbed her.
Malila’s O-A, usually quiescent during meetings, came to life.
A hunt, concluding with the harvesting of two large male Movasi whales has been announced. The successful hunter has been identified as Second Lieutenant Malila E. Chiu, of the DUFS Battalion Thirty-Two, hunting in a sea avatar designed and built by the Unity forces with consultation with CORE Inc.
Very good, Edie.
#ED# Send the CORE address to everyone at the table.
The combination of sights, sounds, and gustatory sensations rose up to overwhelm each of the others. Faces became fixed, eyes dilated, and hands carrying glasses of wine froze before returning to the table. No one spoke. After a moment, Malila played it for herself as well.
Once more breaking through the plume of blood to surprise the huge Movasi, her sea avatar attacked. She luxuriated again in the sharp metallic smell-taste of blood as she passed through it. She sensed the juddering thrill as her beak sliced along the smooth green flank.
Mesmerized by what their inner senses were witnessing, all the young women paused. Luscena was the first to react.
“Father me, Mally! You are a fecking celebrity! How marvelous! Isn’t that exciting?”
“And what a thrill to be able to use the best equipment the Unity has to offer,” added Alexandra.
Tiffany turned a little pale but said, “Excellent hunting, Mally! That is going to fill a lot of dinner plates. You are so brave!”
“How could you be so courageous, Mally? Those monsters were three times bigger than you, at the very least, and there were two of them!” said Luscena.
“So much blood, Mally. I had no idea they were so big,” murmured Hecate at the last.
“That is going to get you a birth certificate for sure, my love!” continued Luscena.
“Do you think so?” Malila said.
“Absolutely. I got a birth certificate last month just for appearing at the Equinox rallies. You’re a shoo-in, without a doubt,” said Alexandra.
The comment took Malila by surprise. Birth certificates entitled the holder to the use of a state-owned breeder. She had never met one, nor did she wish to. They were gross, slow-moving puddles of flesh, Sapped—drugged to eliminate higher brain functions—and maintained for reproduction alone.
Another citizen with another birth certificate typically provided the other half of the genome. After that, all the messy business of selection, implantation, gestation, and birthing would be the duty of the Department of Reproductive Services. After its birth, caring for the child until it was at least E4 would be a crèche responsibility. Malila could put “certified parent of a child” on her résumé, and others would notice. The Unity was serious about its assertion that all production, even reproduction, belonged to the state.
“Who is going to be the father, Malila?” asked Tiffany.
“Don’t be crude and sexist, Tiff. She hasn’t even got the thing yet,” Alexandra said.
“I’m not being sexist. She wants to have the chance of having a boy or a girl, doesn’t she? You need sperm for that.”
“They can always substitute a stock Y chrome. It’s in the contract,” Alexandra said.
“Believe me, you don’t want any of the stock Ys out there. Get a Y from someone who is actually using his!” replied Tiffany.
“So who is it going to be, Mally?” asked Luscena.
“Oh, you know …” said Malila, waving her hand in the air equivocally. In truth, she had hardly thought about it. None of her current patrons had ever expressed an interest in breeding. As a career move, the “parent” designation was desirable, but the idea of meeting a person in the future who had somehow been part of your own body was repulsive.
“Whatever you do, don’t you go and use Oui-Donors. It’s just too crass,” added Luscena.
“I promise I’ll have your approval before the dirty deed is done. Satisfied?”
The conversation drifted to Luscena’s new project, her first as a director, for the revival of The Cadre’s Triumph.
“That one has been out of production for maybe eight years, Luscena, dear. What makes you think you can resuscitate that old story?” asked Alexandra.
“Well, the censors might let you change some of the text—you know, make it more modern,” said Hecate. Conversation stopped as all eyes went to Hecate. She usually did not have much to say about the theater.
“I didn’t know you had this self-destructive streak. Bibberty James tried that in 66, and see where it got him,” Alexandra replied and then smiled.
“Bibberty is so yesterday, my dear. He had no patrons deserving of his talent. This is going to be bold, new, untried. All I need are patrons and donors,” said Luscena.
“I just read the original script of Triumph. What we think is the canon has already changed a lot compared to the original. I think you’ve a shot at getting it through, Lucy,” Hecate said quietly. “I mean, they can’t say that changes have never been done before,” she added quickly, looking down at her mostly untouched fettuccine.
In the silence that descended, Tiffany asked quietly, “How did you know it was the original?”
“It was in a paper book, an old book.”
“When did you start dealing in contraband, love?” Alexandra smiled.
Smiling back, Hecate said, “Nothing so exotic, Alex. You know Victor; he likes it when I tell him stories while we are in bed. He got me special permission to go to an old book warehouse. Lots of old data dumps but also books on actual paper. This one was published in 2060 CE; that’s AU 8!”
“Father me, Heccy. It seems you have a real conquest there.” Tiffany smiled quickly. It was an old joke among them. Victor and Hecate had been together for ages. This time Hecate took the comment at face value.
“You think? I just think Victor’s a lonely man who will retire in eighteen months. Everyone he grew up with has already been denounced or retired,” returned Hecate.
There was an uncomfortable silence until the waiters circulated some very good khat tea.
After everyone had finished, on cue Luscena rose, shrieking as she looked at her watch. Her personal skimmer was announced a second later. She swept out in a characteristic welter of air-kisses, insincere promises, and dubious threats.
The magic broken, Alexandra and Tiffany left, heads together, discussing some professional controversy. Hecate lingered.
Malila was pleased; Hecate deserved her undivided attention. The two women walked arm in arm into the lobby, stopping under the model of the blue whale. Malila took Hecate’s hand to stop her, turning her around and looking into her solemn face.
“Heccy, you haven’t said three words to me today. Tell me what’s wrong?”
“Oh, Mally, it’s work. Talk about a fathering screwup.”
Malila’s heart sank. “It’s always work with you, Heccy.”
Hecate gave a wan smile. “This is my first S22 posting, and I want to do everything perfectly!”
Malila took both her hands in her own. Hecate’s hands were moist and cold. “Tell me what is wrong. You hardly ate anything. What has happened?”
Hecate looked down, away from the eyes of her friend, before looking back into her face.
“The numbers don’t add up, and no one seems to care! A storm wiped out the maize harvest in Lankster in June, and we lost the krill farms off Negzed when the nets let loose. Fatherfecking workers! They let the nets rot in the water. It will be years before we build up the effusion again.”
“Oh Heccy, you must be terribly disappointed!”
“On top of that, the algae plantation at Rawlee has been contaminated somehow, and the whole facility has to be shut down, flushed, and restarted. Even without that, our production has gone down the last three years, and no one knows why. We are going to have eight million tonnes less food this winter.”
“Oh my. How do you think they will make it up?”
“They can’t make up the difference this year. If they slaughtered all the animals, we’d still have a shortfall. Fathering feckers …”
Malila let Hecate run on, though most of it was lost on her. Malila had no idea what an effusion was. What she did know was that her friend was in pain. Hecate had always felt things more than Malila. It had been one of Malila’s unspoken delights as a child to hold a crying Hecate and feel the other child’s sobs dissolve in her arms.
This time Hecate looked up, her eyes bright but tearless. “I asked my supervisor, Undersecretary Rice, what the Unity was going to do, but she just smiled and said not to worry, that they’d make up the difference in the wheat harvest … But that’s crazy. It’s already in! The protein profile is all wrong …”
“Heccy, Heccy, it’s not your fault! No one can blame you. You are just doing your job. Someone will fix it once they know about it. Besides, I just added two whales to the larder, now didn’t I?” Malila laughed.
Malila sensed Hecate’s body stiffen.
“You don’t understand, Mally! Whales are gone! People are going to die this winter, and the government knows it already. They aren’t going to do anything!” Hecate stepped back, her stricken eyes seeming to hold Malila in their crosshairs.
“I’m sure the Solons know their business,” Malila started in her most consoling voice, but she stopped at Hecate’s scathing look at mention of the Solons, the ultimate rulers of the Unity.
Pity swept briefly across Hecate’s face just before her professional mask clicked into place.
“Yes, of course, the Solons … I’m sure all will be well.” Hecate faded into the distance even as Malila held her hands.
Hecate disengaged herself and pantomimed looking at her watch, continuing without hesitation, “Oh … look at the time! I should have been back at the department ages ago. Bye-bye, Malila. This was fun. We should do this more often. Bye for now.”
Hecate turned, pushed through the doors, and almost ran down the stone steps under the scarred facade and out into the street.
Malila looked up into the serene gaze of the blue whale as the gray light of the city filtered down from the high windows above.
Troubled, Malila threaded her way back along the maze of beltways and returned to her quarters. The Unity was everything that she knew. She prided herself in how her daily labors furthered the goals and the welfare of her country. Hecate and the Unity were almost coequals in Malila’s universe. It was inconceivable they would not coincide.
What did Hecate mean by saying the whales were gone?
How should I know, frak? I don’t understand it. Do you?
Um, there are those messages, Lieutenant.
I’m not going to deal with that in the middle of a beltway, frak. Don’t talk until I get home.
Malila exited the beltway at the Bedsty Plaza. She half-listened to the street argot she heard in passing. She was finding it an incessant trial to incorporate each day’s new words that came and went from the deluge of inside jokes, comm’net comedian catchphrases, and hand gestures. It was like riding a tiger.
She had seen a tiger once—malevolent, solitary, and huge—at the People’s Biodominium. The huge dome in Bronkz had once been a venue for sporting events but was now filled with all the improbable animals the Unity had been wise enough to exterminate since its rise. Those remaining specimens were maintained as a cautionary tale about the chaos of the outlands. As an additional mission, they demonstrated useful Unity animals: dogs, cats, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. It was important, her teachers told her, to know the animals in the food chain, whatever that meant.
After her first visit to the Biodominium, while still an E2, the animals had terrorized her dreams for weeks thereafter. Huge bears with scythe-like talons and slavering jaws had awoken her night after night. Wolves’ eyes had gleamed out of the darkness of her nightmares. Massive bison had trampled her in her sleep. She no longer went to the Biodominium.
Actually, she was professionally familiar with the dogs and horses. DUFS patrols used dogs. Nothing on foot escaped those beasts, all drool and teeth. Malila did not like them; the feeling was mutual.
DUFS used horses for crowd control. Last year Malila had done her six-month stint in a mounted troop. Her thighs ached at the memory.
Finally back to her apartment building, Malila took the ascender, stepped through the portal into her quarters, and then reconnected her O-A to the CORE.
Disconnection had not been an option with her first implant; it was always there to monitor her health and well-being. As an E1, when she had gotten it, she had been allowed to buy ThiZ, “the hallmark of a good society,” or so Matron had said at the time. It was supposed to “produce dissociative and paradoxical endotactic emotions,” whatever that might mean. It had been wonderful. For the first time in her life, she had not felt afraid.
Malila had only received the second implant, her O-A, when she’d started cadet training for the DUFS as an E4, ten years old. A slight flick of her eyes and a touching by her mind to a place in her thoughts was all it took to reconnect. It had taken her weeks to learn how to do that the first time.
Learn was an inadequate word. The implant had learned her as much as she’d learned it. They called it questing. It was like looking at the surface of a pond. She could see life reflected from the surface, but also she could see through it, move her mind through it, to another reality refracted on the other side. Her O-A was as much a part of her as her own skin. In a way, it was her skin, she thought. Questing now was second nature, and she barely noticed the differences between reality and the interface except in the subliminal way one sorts out reflections in a world of glass and mirrors.
Okay, Edie, I can deal with the messages now.
#ED# Dump the advertisements. Keep all personal notes sorted into those from patrons, superior officers, and inferior officers. Show me the important message now.
“… damage was presumed to have occurred due to nonfunctionality in electrical-signal distant-sensing devices (ESDSD/25.1-D through 37.7-A), which appears to some observers, due to the stereotypical repetition of the event, to be nonaccidental in nature …”
Sunprairie was down—again.
She had been a young cadet when the Unity had voted to stop patrolling the outlands. The area was, properly speaking, a part of the territory inherited from the old republic, but it was unprofitable, undeveloped, and barren.
In place of armed patrols, the Unity had established a network of listening posts hundreds of kilometers within the outlands to detect any challenge to the rule of order. At her posting, earlier in the year, Malila had accepted the common wisdom that the job of maintaining the station was a nuisance assignment.
It was supposed to require little of her attention. The actual work was supposed to be done by warrant officers as avatars (OAAs)—their personalities transmitted into real-world mechanisms—accompanied by a squad of Sapp-treated criminals, certified recycled neuroablated (CRNA) troopers. It was supposed to be a foolproof, unglamorous, but risk-free job for a newly minted second lieutenant. It was supposed to be fair.
Sunprairie had been anything but fair. Twice before, she had sent repair teams. Each time the OAA had found the pulse cannon depleted, the door blown, and random sabotage disabling the sensors. When retaken, the stations had been deserted. CRNAs had scoured the area within twenty klicks with no results.
If the ’net commentators singled her out for criticism, her short list of patrons would fade away. Demotion and denunciation would follow. Unless she wanted to commit professional suicide, she could not even suggest that the Unity’s strategy was faulty, the station design flawed, or the technology defective.
Malila shook herself. It was too early for her ThiZ. The feeling of elation and self-actualization she got from ThiZ was enough to make her … not dependent … not that. ThiZ enlarged life.
She popped the little yellow pill unconsciously, without looking for a glass of water.
What’s the matter with these knuckle-dragging savages? They hadn’t challenged the listening posts for a decade. Sunprairie was the most distant station, farther west even than Lake Mishygun. What did they want?
Find strategic motives for attacking a fortified location.
“Attacks on fortified sites are for the following motives: (1) the site is valuable or contains value that will be obtained or destroyed by occupation, (2) the site itself will become valuable after occupation or because of its occupation, or (3) occupation of the site will cause others to value it or bring value to it.” Analects of Admiral Wescon.
Edie, do you know how silly that sounds? The savages just cut some wires and threw some paint around, like a bunch of crèchies!
Just following orders, squilch. Do you want more examples? Sergeant Hallux has some sayings about assaulting ladies’ citadels of virtue …
Not the same, frak. Let me think.
Edie, nonsentient, bordering on silly, was still a good mental grindstone for Malila.
The Unity wasn’t getting very much from Sunprairie, but neither were the savages. In the prior two raids, they had not stolen as much as a length of cable. The stations had no value, contained no value, offered no value. Sunprairie hadn’t detected any outlander occupation since it had been built.
Sunprairie had failed in its mission and was now consuming Unity resources.
And when she thought of it, there was her answer! Malila almost looked around to see if her thoughts had been overheard.
The solution was simplicity itself.