He lived in a room with no windows. Whether that was why it was cheaper, he didn’t really know. He walked outside while it was light, still noticing the things that were different. When it got dark, he started drinking. After midnight, he looked for a fight. Because of this, he went to a different bar every evening. He didn’t care about that. It was a big city, and he avoided having preferences.
His clothes were accidental acquisitions of no significance. Trainers, jeans, T-shirts. They did not attract attention. He used them until they wore out. Then something else would turn up. He changed his hair the same way, to fit his circumstances, not attached to any style. It was difficult to even say what colour it was. It wasn’t possible to describe his face with any certainty. That it would have changed was the only thing you could be sure of.
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 was 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. 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.
The stranger approached. “Mind if I sit here?”
“Why not?” The accent was smooth, educated, transatlantic. Forgettable. This man takes care not to be remembered. The stranger decided that they had made the right choice.
She was always tired. Nights half awake and half asleep, straining her ears for a noise, any noise, in the unnaturally silent city. Days putting the data into spreadsheets. Tiny boxes, completed; endlessly replaced with another empty box. Evenings staring glassily at another box, reflecting her infinitely.
There was nothing that 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. Had coffee always been so disgustingly gelatinous? Or had it gone wrong, like everything else?
She returned her gaze to the screen just in time to see it go blank. Lunchtime. Universally imposed. Pulling on her cardigan, she dully observed the greying cuff of the shirt through a hole in the sleeve. Her chair pushed in, she followed the others down to the canteen.
No choice. There had been a time when you could eat what you wanted, skip lunch, go shopping, have ice cream in the park.The new Level Four 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. She supposed she was one of the lucky ones. But being lucky and being happy didn’t seem to be the same thing.
“Erm… Hi? Sorry, I’m new here, I don’t know how to work the…” He gestured to the turnstiles. She was unsettled by having her thoughts interrupted, and unsettled more by someone new. There was never someone new. He had some sort of temporary pass, a card one. The barcode wasn’t printed straight. Holding her own card over the scanner, she gestured him to go through. She hoped he would go away. He made her conscious of the hole in her cardigan, the bitterness in her mouth and her mind.
She scanned her pass quickly over the exit turnstile and then back in again. It was a termination offence to be caught without your pass. Being human, they forgot them all the time. And they covered for each other, being human. He was waiting when she walked through. She kept her head down, but he fell into step beside her. Nervousness she could understand. But he didn’t seem nervous. His eyes glittered. He’s excited, she thought. A rusty impulse to solve a puzzle. To solve a person.
The stranger talked to the man, carefully casual, listening and watching. He was impressed. The man was bland, mildly affable. Northerners had a precarious position in Federate society, obviously, but he projected a convincing dull shadiness. If you didn’t know the truth, you’d think he was a minor credit card fraudster or an unlucky card sharp. And congratulate yourself for having been smart enough to see through him. He had been an excellent operative. The stranger could see why.
“And would you be interested if I could throw some work your way, Mr Jackson?” The man showed no surprise at hearing his real name.
“No, I don’t think I would, thanks.” He smiled absently, with no discomfort.
“You might be surprised at what we can give you.”
“I don’t need money from you. I get by.” A slight flicker of disgust. The stranger recognised this tiny crack as his opportunity. He would be able to use it. But first, he would explain the job.
“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’ve got it. 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 heard the professional curiosity behind the quiet words with quiet excitement of his own.
“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.” He wasn’t asking. He knew exactly how it worked. “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 his hand shook slightly with the effort and he reached for his drink.
“We weren’t naive enough to think you’d come back for money. You know how the regeneration process works?”
For the first time, the man looked confused. His glass jerked, slapping the last centimetres of beer against the side in a wave of foam.
“As much as anyone who’s not a scientist. But regeneration’s only funded for Level Ones. Is there a Level One in La Ciudad?”
“Regeneration’s not part of the job, Alex. It’s what you’d get in return.”