ICE & RAIN
"You wanted to talk to me?"
Lise looked up from the paperwork scattered across her desk. "Yes, thank you for stopping by, Lenatta. Please close the door and sit down." There was something remote and formal in her manner. Breathing deeply in an effort to keep anxiety from showing in her nager, Lenatta did as the channel asked. Her mind wanted to generate theories about why she'd been summoned, but she stilled it ruthlessly, and also kept herself from blurting out questions that might reveal more than she wanted to. She could wait, and let Lise tell her what this was all about.
"Have you given any more thought to applying for Donor's training? Because there is a deadline coming up. If you want to reconsider, now would be a good time. Otherwise you'd be looking at a six-month wait before the beginning of the next session."
"Lise, thank you for telling me about that, but I've already decided it's not what I want. I told you that last fall. I'm happy with what I'm doing now."
"I wouldn't bring the subject up at all, but just lately there is something… disturbing, and provocative, about your nager."
Surely Lise was zlinning something that most Simes wouldn't pick up. She was unusually sensitive. Lenatta envisioned her selyn field as a milky white glow around herself, cooling and concealing her like an envelope of mist. "How's this?"
"Unexceptionable," Lise said dryly. "But you keep slipping. I don't know what's causing this, but your Zheng K'ai doesn't seem to be controlling it. Perhaps you'd do better with a more traditional training program." She stood up, and leaned across the desk, hyperconscious and focused on Lenatta in an imitation of hard need that made goose bumps rise up on Lenatta's arms. Without dropping this pose, she added, "The occasional transfer would probably help, as well."
This was too much. She was expected to avoid provoking Simes, and it seemed to her that it was reasonable to expect the same courtesy from them. "Do you want me to go and find Margi or Kenjo for you?"
Lise backed off and rested one hip on her desk, suddenly looking deceptively innocuous, like a Gen with tentacles. "I'm afraid that was a test, Lenatta, and you didn't pass. I'm going to have to restrict you from any further activities on the disjunction ward until and unless you can get this under control. You should probably stay away from the dispensary, as well."
Lenatta felt her anger rising and made no effort to control it. In fact, she projected it at Lise, knowing that she could not affect the channel the way she would have been able to do to a renSime. Lise wilted a little under this nageric barrage but did not break eye contact.
"I'm sorry. But the welfare of our most vulnerable patients has to be my first priority."
Lenatta left the room, knowing that anything she said in her current state would probably be something she'd regret later. She walked out the front door of the Center and found a table on the patio of the little café across the boulevard. It was still chilly enough that she had the patio to herself, but before long a waitress came out to ask what she would like. She just ordered tea, knowing that she was too upset to eat anything.
She couldn't go back into the Center until she had calmed down, gotten control over herself. She wanted to go someplace private and meditate long and hard on her reaction to Lise's pronouncement, but it was the middle of the workday and she didn't think that she ought to be going off to indulge in private histrionics when she had accounts to catch up on.
Had she really blasted Lise deliberately with her rage? She would have to apologize for that. But as she sat there with her tea and her temper rapidly cooling, she began to realize that she would have to find another job. She'd been playing with the idea that perhaps she could go over to Scheduling while Maurie was on her lunch break, and somehow conceal the fact that she had skipped a donation. But it just wasn't practical to work at a Sime Center while getting involved in the kind of illegal activity that she was now committed to. Someone would catch on.
Lise had made it easier for her, really, by putting a stop to her teaching on the ward. That would have been hard to walk away from. Now that she was calmer, she realized that the classes would not have to end. That had been the wellspring of her over-reaction; the thought that she would be letting down her students. But she could continue tutoring Keeshore, and he could lead the juncts in their practice sessions. This was a role that Zheng K'ai tradition reserved for Inner Circle members, but Keeshore had gotten far enough in his Donor's training that he could have qualified for that before ever taking a single lesson from Lenatta.
She would have to spend the next week getting the accounts into shape for the person who would take over from her. She didn't want to leave a mess like the woman who'd handled the patient records in the disjunction ward, but she could not go back to work after her transfer with Dav. Lise would be able to tell what she'd been up to, she was suddenly sure. So she had to get everything in order before then. Another thorny problem occurred to her. She ought to give Lise some kind of advance notice that she was quitting, but the channel would want to know why, and she could be very persistent. This was something she would have to think over when she had more privacy, and time. In the meantime, she had a lot of work to do at the office. Swallowing the last of her tea, she got up to go back inside the Center.
When Lenatta walked into the Center the following Wednesday morning, she was absorbed in her own thoughts. She noticed that people were standing in the hall in small groups, talking excitedly, but continued past them toward her office. She didn't really care what local scandal had caused this unusual behavior. The only things that mattered to her were getting the accounts all in order and properly indexed, and figuring out how to tell Lise that she was quitting. And her planned rendezvous with Dav, of course, now only four days away. But she couldn't allow herself to think about that here.
Maurie, from the Scheduling department, called out to Lenatta as she passed. "Did you hear? There was a bomb."
She stopped walking. "What?"
"Somebody blew up part of the medical wing about an hour ago. I was here early, and we all had to go across the street. It was freezing cold. They only just now let us back in."
Without waiting to hear any more, Lenatta headed deeper into the building. She had to know if Garrett was all right. The guards at the security checkpoint that divided the Simetown side of the building from the Shaygo side knew her by sight. Sometimes she passed through a half-dozen times in the course of her workday. But they would not let her past, and they were unable or unwilling to tell her if anyone had been hurt.
From her office, she called Garrett's extension, but it was busy. She walked back down the hall to the Gen side entrance, overhearing snatches of conversation, Distect terrorists and the whole side of the building and like a thunderclap.
Out on the street, she took a bus to the Wharf Gate, where she was admitted without any fuss. Whatever had happened at the Center, business continued as usual. She took another bus and got off less that a quarter-mile from her office, as the crow flies.
There was scaffolding set up on the west corner of the building, over by the disjunction ward, but nobody was on it. And there was a gaping hole where a small and supposedly shatterproof window had been. She believed it had been the window to Drusilla's cell, and immediately she thought of Dav and all his questions. She couldn't even recall quite what she had told him. Maybe he had nothing to do with any of this, but somehow she felt certain that he did. She'd gotten this feeling of inner certainty about other things, and sometimes it had turned out that she was mistaken, but not often. So much for not blowing things up, though she seemed to recall he'd qualified it with some term like 'usually', come to think of it.
There was a guard at the entrance, and he told her that the Center was closed except to medical emergencies and Simes with transfer appointments. Her best nageric charm could not even convince him to carry a message. Having seen the damage, she was pretty sure Garrett would not have been hurt unless he were in Drusilla's cell at the time of the explosion. But she wanted to be sure.
She went around to his office window, and could see that he was sitting at his desk talking on the phone. Now that she knew he was all right, there was no reason not to go back around to her office and get to work. But instead, she focused her attention on him until he looked up and saw her. He held a finger up to indicate that she should wait, and then talked for awhile longer before disappearing from her view. Moments after that, he was calling to her from the entrance. A mischievous impulse led her to wink at the guard as she passed.
"I'm glad to see you. You probably heard about what happened. It's been a hell of a morning. I don't suppose you feel like rubbing my back for awhile."
She put an arm around him. "Anytime, anywhere."
He turned out his office light but did not close the curtains. Picking up the phone and dialing an internal line, he said to his secretary, "Try and see if you can hold my calls for a bit, Darla. Depending on who it is. I trust your judgement on that." He sat down, and she stood behind him and began gently massaging his shoulders. "How much have you heard about it?"
"That Distect girl, Drusilla, did she get away?"
"Gone. If they were going to catch her, it would have had to be right away. She and her friends are probably miles away by now. They'll be someone else's problem for awhile."
"Do the police think they got out of Simetown?"
"I think they must have. Don't tell this to any nervous Gens, but there are ways of getting in and out of here that don't involve a checkpoint. I even know of one or two myself, though I've never had occasion to use them. That feels really good. Are you coming over tonight?"
"Sure, if you want me to. Garrett, there's something I ought to tell you. I'm quitting my job here. I haven't figured out how to tell Lise."
"I suppose this has to do with her locking you out of the disjunction ward. You might want to give it a little time. I want you to know, I told her that you have never caused any problems on the ward. I'll talk to her again if you're willing to hold off on any final decision about this."
"It's not just that. I've been doing the accounting work for awhile, and maybe it's time for me to move on to something else. I've been playing around with different ideas for a program I'd like to start for kids from poor neighborhoods. I keep thinking of Sephin. He shouldn't have been so scared to come up to the front door of the Center that he ended up going into changeover in that alley. And supposing he had been Gen? He'd probably still be skulking around out there right now, looking for trouble."
"The Center already has an outreach program. I'm sure you've seen those big trucks with the Tecton seal painted on the side. Those aren't just used for changeovers and other emergencies, you know. A couple of times a week, they send one into the worst areas, taking donations and giving changeover training to any kids they can get their hands on. Maybe you could get involved in that."
She wasn't ready to tell him the other reason she couldn't go on working for the Tecton. "Right now I'm playing with a lot of different ideas. But I think it might be time for me to try something on my own. You taking me out to dinner tonight?"
"Gens. All they ever think about is food." He leaned back against her, and she put her arms around his shoulders. "Of course I will. Where do you want to go?"
The next day was her day off work, and she was close enough to being caught up on her paperwork to devote the time to her own project. She caught the Shoreline Avenue bus and rode it past the Warf, into an area she'd never seen before. South of the Simetown wall, there was a notorious stretch known as the Entertainment District. She didn't plan to get off the bus there. Looking out the window as she rode through this, she was a little disappointed to see a quiet street lined with businesses that mostly looked closed. There were a few people walking along, looking tired and disheveled. From the reputation the area had, she'd half-expected to see a violent assault, or at least a woman dressed in the scanty attire of a prostitute. Of course, it was early in the day, not even noon.
She'd spent most of the morning on the telephone, in a frustrating effort to get Sephin's in-Territory phone number. She had a dozen or so brief notes he had sent her, so she knew where to find him. But she had to deal with the vagaries of a patched-together phone system that used technologies that weren't always compatible, leading to odd buzzing noises and broken connections, and operators whose English was only a little less rudimentary than her own Simelan. But eventually, she got through.
Sephin had sounded surprised to hear from her, but happy. As they talked, she'd realized how little she knew about his background. She had assumed he was a homeless child living in downtown alleys like the one where she had found him, but it turned out that he'd grown up in an area south of Simetown known as the Underside, and he recommended that she talk to his mother. "She likes helping people. The kind of thing you're talking about, doing something for kids like I used to be, she'd really be into that. We don't have a phone at home, but I can give you the one where she works."
She was able to connect with Sephin's mother, Freyda, on the first try. She felt a little awkward at first, calling someone she had never met. But Freyda had a warmth and openness that came across even over the telephone.
"Lenatta! Of course, Sephin has told us all about you." How could he have, she wondered—he didn't know that much about her, did he? She hoped she hadn't made a mistake in renewing the contact. But he wasn't Lise's patient any more. And Lenatta did not plan to spend much longer taking the channel's orders herself.
She explained what she had in mind, to the extent that she's worked out the details—it was still a little fuzzy in her mind. Perhaps Freyda could help her refine her ideas a little. Less than an hour later, she found herself on the bus. Freyda had warned her not to get off the bus for any reason in the Entertainment District, but had told her she'd be safe enough at the Underside stop where the bus route terminated.
As the bus continued to the west, paralleling the Simetown wall, they approached the Shaygo River, which ran on a southeasterly course to empty into the lake a few miles away. Now Lenatta saw a number of buildings that looked like small manufacturing plants, boxy and ugly. Some of these looked deserted, while others had plumes of smoke rising from their chimneys.
Then there were houses, most of which looked old and ill-cared for. Lenatta had heard the Underside described as a collection of makeshift shanties, but these were houses that predated the enclosure of Simetown twenty years earlier. Many were boarded up. Some had been burned and not demolished. Others appeared to be occupied. Some of these were painted in bizarre colors, hot pink with green trim in one case, and one house had a yard decorated with a deliberate-looking collection of junk that was piled in a way that seemed to possess some logic that she couldn't quite decipher before they had gone past. And then the bus was stopping in front of a motley collection of little businesses, which seemed to huddle beneath the high wall that was twice the height of any of the buildings.
She joined a half-dozen or so people getting off the bus, some of whom gave her a sideways glance as if they knew she did not belong here. She stood on the side of the street, looking around and feeling a little uncomfortable. One of the stores had a bright yellow Sime Territory sign on the door and she moved toward that, wishing Freyda had been more specific about where they were to meet.
"Scuse me. You must be Lenatta." The woman walking toward her was short and round-faced, with a brilliant smile that made Lenatta think immediately of the internal sunlight technique that she and Ava liked to practice on each other. She had observed that all of the s'dho taught by Zheng K'ai tradition were routinely performed by people who'd never heard of the art. The training was a matter of being aware of what you were doing, and learning those s'dho that did not come naturally to the individual practitioner.
"I was just about to head home for some lunch. I'm starving. I got the rest of the day off work, and I grabbed a couple of things on my way out." She gestured at one of the stores, which had hand-painted signs in the window advertising food. "I hope you're hungry. I was just planning on sandwiches, that's why I needed to pick up some bread. There's plenty of everything else we need at the house." Freyda carried a cloth bag in one hand, and swung it in a low arc as she led Lenatta down a street that was only nominally paved. Most of the houses here were better-kept than the ones along the bus route. They were big, luxurious-looking places, for the most part, but something about them gave the impression that their upkeep had been done by amateur hands with more time and enthusiasm than money or materials.
"I got to tell you something, Lenatta. I don't mean to embarrass you, but I really got to thank you for keeping my boy from killing anyone. I could smack him. I raised him to know to call the Center if something like that happened. He knows he can come to the store and use the phone for something like that. But he was skipping school, running around downtown. I hate to think of where that could have got him."
"They told me it would have been better if I could have gotten him to a channel." Lenatta was embarrassed, but she wasn't sure if Freyda understood the reasons.
"I had a cousin who died at one of those disjunction camps. Whatever trouble Sephin might get into because you're a Gen, it can't be as bad as that. I honestly don't know what I'd do if some Sime came running at me like that. I like to hope I'd have the sense to do what you did, and just stand my ground and let them take what they need." She rested a hand on Lenatta's shoulder as they walked. There was something deeply personal in the contact, like and yet unlike what she'd felt when Dav had done the same thing. In this case, the intimacy was neither sexual nor nageric, but purely emotional. It was not something Lenatta would normally have expected, or welcomed, except with family or close friends. But it did not make her uncomfortable. Zheng K'ai had sensitized her to the spiritual contact implicit in casual touch, and she knew how to prevent spiritual contamination from strangers who invaded her personal space. The technique was called closing the borders and prevented the contact from being anything more than physical. It did not even occur to her to use this with Freyda.
They had passed only a dozen or so houses when they came into sight of the Shaygo River, and Freyda turned to walk across the lawn of a large house that looked to be in fine repair, certainly a far cry from the hovel cobbled together out of packing crates that Lenatta had been expecting when she'd set out from home earlier that morning. The door was not locked, and Freyda opened it and motioned for Lenatta to step inside.
Inside, it was dimly lit and filthy. It took Lenatta a moment to adapt to the darkness and adjust her expectations once again. Rubbish lay everywhere, the furniture looked as if it had been salvaged from a garbage heap, and the place stank with a variety of odors. Cat urine seemed predominant, along with a melange of other aromas that Lenatta did not care to try to identify. She tried to breathe shallowly and through her mouth. "Place is a bit of a mess," Freyda commented in a cheerfully dismissive tone.
Lenatta did not have to think of a diplomatic reply, because just then two small children came running into the room, both trying to talk at the same time. Dirt smeared their faces and both had long, uncombed hair. Lenatta could not guess their gender. It was apparent from the cacophony that they had some disagreement. While Freyda was trying to sort this out, three older children came into the room. The eldest, who looked about fourteen, had a slender grace about her that set off certain alarm bells for Lenatta, bells that were half a matter of knowledge and half instinct.
"These ain't all mine. Therese and Lexi here are my brother's." She laid hands on two of the children's heads to indicate which ones she meant. "Megga and Rik-Rik are mine, though. My babysitter here is my late husband's youngest sister, Neddie."
"Hi, Neddie. Have you been tested for establishment lately?" The girl did not reply, just gave Lenatta a look that said plainer than words, and just who the hell are you?
"She ain't established, and we don't expect she's going to. She has got that look about her, hasn't she. Neddie, honey, have these kids had anything to eat?"
"Good girl. Can you get them cleaned up a little and take them down to play by the river so we can get some peace and quiet here? I'm gonna pay you extra for all this, of course."
Neddie nodded and herded the children down a hallway, all of them talking at once and raising their voices to be heard over the din. Freyda led Lenatta in the other direction. "Neddie's a big help. I'll be sorry to lose her, but don't you worry, I've had a talk with her and she'll handle herself better than Sephin did. She knows at least a half-dozen places to find a phone, and she doesn't go running all over the place like he used to."
In the kitchen, a cloud of tiny fruit flies hovered over an overflowing waste can, and every surface seemed to be crusted with unidentifiable smears that were probably organic in nature. The handles of drawers and the cooler compartment displayed black, grimy handprints. A roughly oval area on one of the counter had been cleaned so that it gleamed a tired white, but surrounding it were more food stains. Freyda opened a window and waved at the cloud of flies, then started taking things out of the cooler and placing them carefully on the clean part of the counter. "Gotta get this place cleaned up one of these days," she muttered, and this time she looked to Lenatta for a reaction. Lenatta noticed that three cats had come into the room and were circling hopefully around their feet. She bent to pet one. "I always wanted a cat, but my dad is allergic. What are their names?"
"This is Smokey and I call the striped one Tiger, though the kids are always fighting about what to name them. I generally just call them by their looks. They come and go, but we've had that big one for awhile. We call him Fat Boy." She gave the animal an affectionate nudge with her foot and threw him a scrap of meat, which he snapped up with a warning growl at the others. "You ain't one of those vegetarians, are you?"
"No." Lenatta was not sure if she could manage to eat anything. She had caught a glimpse inside the cooler, and it didn't look any better in there. Yet she had a feeling that there was no way to avoid eating without giving offense. Also, despite the revolting smell coming from the garbage, she was hungry and the things Freyda had arrayed on the counter looked wholesome enough.
"Good, I don't see that any Gen has any excuse for being one of them. Nature intended us to eat meat, otherwise it would make us sick, wouldn't it?" As she made the sandwiches she kept tossing bits of meat to the waiting cats. After awhile they stopped fighting over the scraps. Smokey wandered off and Tiger began to clean its feet, purring, eyes half closed in contentment. Only Fat Boy continued to look hopefully up at Freyda. "You like sweet tea? I sure hope so, Neddie always makes it with so much honey it settles to the bottom of the jar."
"Sounds good." Freyda took some mismatched glasses from a cupboard, examining several before she found two that met her approval. She filled the glasses and handed them both to Lenatta. "I'll get the sandwiches. Let's go sit in the living room."
Back in the front room, Lenatta moved some papers off an upholstered chair and sat down, feeling it sink alarmingly beneath her. She set the papers on a table, and Freyda set one of the sandwiches on top of those. "There ya go, just move some stuff out of the way and make yourself right at home." Freyda bit into her own sandwich.
The stench coming from the chair she was sitting in was overpowering, a combination of cat piss and decay. Lenatta sipped at her cold tea, which was delicious, then set the glass down and picked up the sandwich. Surely Freyda and her family ate here every day, and it hadn't killed them. She could remember visiting friends of her parents who had explicit erotic art displayed prominently in their home. She'd been warned in advance to pretend there was nothing unusual about it, and she did the same thing now. The sandwich smelled good, and helped blot out the other odors in the room. She took a bite, hunger and revulsion fighting for control of her stomach. Fat Boy had followed them into the room and was looking imploringly at her.
"So exactly what is it you're hoping to do here for the kids? I wasn't clear on the details from when we talked on the phone."
The problem was, Lenatta wasn't sure herself what she had in mind. She had various ideas, but was not quite sure how they would all fit together.
"First, I guess I should find out what programs are already in place. Is there some kind of community center?"
"Not the kind you'd care to go into. There's a couple of places where different clubs meet. I wouldn't get mixed up in that if I were you. People here take care of each other, but it's more on a personal basis. Somebody in the government tries to do some bright thing to help us out every now and then, and it's usually more trouble than it's worth. But say, that community center idea, I've had that thought before. There's a building near where I work that would be perfect. We'd just have to get some money to fix it up. But you said you might be able to help with that?"
Lenatta, her mouth full, nodded.
"Because that would be a really good thing. Way it works down here is, if you've got family or someone who cares about you, you'll get taken care of if you get sick or anything. Problem is, there are some who haven't got anybody. I try to do what I can for them, and I know other people who do the same. But if we had a central location to plan all that kind of stuff from… another thing, you work up at that Sime Center, right? I never been there. They send the truck down here for donation and to test the kids. But what we really need is our own mini-center, like they got up by the factories north of town. Maybe not full-time, but if we get that building set up and post signs, I bet the channel and his helpers would want to hang around a little longer if there was someplace they could relax and brew up some of that awful tea they like to drink…"
As they talked, the smell faded from Lenatta's awareness, but when they finished eating and went back outside, the fresh air was a delight. They retraced their path to the tiny downtown, where Freyda peered through the streaked windows of a boarded-up storefront with a huge padlock on the door. "Now this is what I had in mind. Think we could do something with this?"
Lenatta cupped a hand over her eyes and leaned close to peer through the glass, seeing bare floors and walls that needed painting. Something made her scalp prickle. "I think maybe we could."
"I got the key from old man Riccard so we could have a look inside." She jerked a thumb at the store Lenatta had noticed before, the one with the Sime Territory sign. Other signs advertised clothes, pots and pans, and selyn batteries.
"People don't mind about him putting that sign up?" It was the kind of thing that was accepted in the better neighborhoods, but Lenatta had heard about problems when people had tried to do this in the rougher parts of Shaygo, such as the area where the Lodge was located.
"Oh, he's a little crazy on the subject. Ain't too many Simes gonna come down here, why would they? Once in awhile, one that's got family in the neighborhood. I don't think he's had one in there the whole time since he put them signs up. I'm gonna post my house, though, if Sephin can ever get approved to come and visit."
After a struggle with the rusty lock, she pushed the door open, and Lenatta followed her inside. The smell inside was musty and they found themselves in a small room that served as an antechamber to the hall that led deeper into the building. Freyda pulled a hand light from a pocket and led her back into a bewildering maze of tiny rooms. The light was weak and cast only a finger's-width of true illumination. Lenatta counted at least a dozen small rooms before their tour terminated in a large open area. Here, it was easier to see because there were windows, facing an empty lot behind the row of stores. There was a door leading to the outside, but it had been broken and boarded over.
Freyda had used the term perfect. Lenatta was getting a strong feeling about this place, and she thought it was exactly the right word. "Who owns the place, that Riccard you mentioned?"
"I got no idea. No more than I know who owns the place I live in, for that matter." Freyda threw her head back and laughed, showing a mouthful of bad teeth with a few gaps between them. "We'd just have to ask around and make sure nobody else had any ideas for the place, but I think I would've heard. We don't stand much on ceremony, down here."
Lenatta ran her hand over a wall. She closed her eyes, and she could feel a pattern starting to form. Freyda was part of it, as was the building, and at the very core of it was Lenatta herself.
Read Chapter Five
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