The man lived in a room with no windows. Whether that was why it was cheaper, he didn’t know. He walked outside while it was light, still noticing the things that were different. When it got dark, he started drinking. He changed bars every evening. He didn’t care about that. It was a big city, and he avoided having preferences.
His clothes had no significance to him. He used them until they wore out. Then something else would turn up. He changed his hair the same way, to fit his circumstances. It was difficult to even say what colour it was. It wasn’t possible to describe his face with any certainty.
He wasn’t tall. His shoulders and hips were narrow, a strength that was stronger for being compressed. Movements economical, always a sense of something held in reserve. He hunched into solidity when he walked through doors; as if the world could surprise you like a sudden gust of wind.
He dealt his words sparingly. Each one landed with the softness and insistence of a cat’s paw kneading a thigh, never letting you forget that it has claws. He was as unpredictable as a cat too: sometimes gentle; sometimes cruel. Chaos passed the time. There seemed more time now, without her. If he thought about it, it made him unhappy. He didn’t think about it.
He seemed relaxed that evening, as the stranger approached him. Beer, not whisky; drinking slowly. Turning the pages of a paperback with the corners smudged to velvet curves. Eyes vague, without the glitter that meant trouble, if you knew him. But he hadn’t let that happen for a long time.
“Mind if I sit down?”
“Why not?” The man’s accent was smooth, educated. Deliberately forgettable. She decided that she had made the right choice.
The stranger began to talk, carefully casual. The man was bland and appeared affable. Northerners had a precarious position in Federate society, obviously, and he used the dull shadiness they usually showed as camouflage. If you didn’t know the truth, you’d think he was one of the many minor fraudsters or unlucky card sharps scrabbling for scraps across the border. And congratulate yourself for having been smart enough to see through him. He had had a reputation as an excellent operative. Now that she had met him, the stranger could see why.
“Would you be interested if I could throw some work your way, Mr Jackson?” The man showed no surprise at hearing the stranger say his name.
“No, I don’t think I would, thanks.” He smiled coolly.
“You might be surprised at what we can give you.”
“I don’t need money from you.”
The stranger ignored him and continued. “We’re having some trouble in the Reservations. Uprisings. Co-ordinated ones. Nothing we can’t handle but it’s inconvenient. Intelligence has pinned it down to a refugee revolutionary group managing coded data exchange through some tech set-up in an apartment block in La Ciudad. I don’t need to know the details, so I don’t.”
“If they left the Deadlands looking for a better place, they didn’t find it.”
“You understand. Even if diplomatic relations with the Federation weren’t at an all-time low, Federate police wouldn’t go in there to solve our problems. They can’t get in to solve their own. But you could.”
“And what would I do if I did?” The stranger hoped there was suppressed curiosity behind the words, although she couldn’t hear any.
“There’d be contamination of the water supply to the block. Cholera probably, or typhus. Happens occasionally. No reason to think it was anything to do with us.”
“The whole block’s supply. Federates with nothing to do with this would die. Anything more targeted would attract too much attention… You found me. You know who I was. You must know why I’m here. How could you think I’d agree to this?” He spoke calmly, but he was reaching for his drink.
“We knew you wouldn’t come back for money. You know how the regeneration process works?”
For the first time, the man looked confused. His hand jerked, slapping the last centimetres of beer against the side of the glass in a wave of foam.
“As much as anyone who’s not a scientist. But regeneration’s only funded for Level One. Is there a Level One in La Ciudad?”
“Regeneration’s not part of the job, Alex. It’s what you’d get in return.”
She always felt tired. Days putting data into spreadsheets. Tiny boxes, completed; endlessly replaced with another empty box. Evenings staring glassily at another box, reflecting her infinitely. There was nothing she wanted to think about.
Her eyes dropped to her coffee. It looked greasy. Blobs of oils swirled across the surface, prompting a wave of nausea. Lisa returned her gaze to the screen just in time to see it go blank. Lunchtime.
She left her glasses in front of the monitor. Pulling her cardigan around her, she noticed the shirt’s greying cuff through a hole in the sleeve. As she went down to the canteen behind the others, she clipped her thick, dark hair up more firmly as it uncoiled again. She counted the steps down, in time with the tapping of her heels. Still 24. There had been a time when you could eat what you wanted, skip lunch, go shopping, have ice cream in the park. The new contracts insisted that they stick to a regimented diet. Optimise health. Prevent obesity. Limit the burden on the provided healthcare providers. Medicals. DNA swabs. Drugs testing.
“Erm… Hi? Sorry, I’m new here, I don’t know how to work the…”
The man pointed towards the turnstiles with his identity card, the lanyard looped around his fingers. Holding her own card over the scanner, she gestured him to go through. She hoped he would go away. She didn’t want company. He made her conscious of the hole in her cardigan, the bitterness in her mouth and in her mind. But he was waiting on the other side. His head tilted slightly towards her. It made him look younger than before. And very attractive. His eyes glittered. ¡Hostias! He’s excited, she thought. A rusty impulse to solve a puzzle. To solve a person.