Sample: Boil 2
“Bear with me,” I spoke to my companion. I struggled to manage the bulky life-sustaining apparatus. “This is something of a puzzle. No money, they’ll be looking for us, and I’ll need a lab if I’m to fix you up.”
My hard shoes sloshed through the shallow puddles, and the water flowed in through the gaps between sole and shoe, laces and the tongue.
“First option would be to suborn myself, put myself in league to some back-alley flesh peddler. I imagine it would be someone like the man who bought your injured body and patched you into the thinking machine.”
He didn’t reply. Couldn’t. I added, “Don’t worry. That’s not an option. Too easy to wind up someone’s Igor, and I won’t speak of what happens when one is a young lady.”
It was cold, and I was wet, and I was getting colder and wetter. The rain was supposed to clean the city, but it felt more like it was stirring up the noxiousness that had been content to lay flat against the ground. A coppery smell, with traces of offal and sweat. It was thick enough in the air that I could taste it in my mouth, as if it crept down past my nasal cavities and reached the back of my tongue.
The droplets of moisture that bounced back from every raindrop formed a kind of mist that highlighted the edges and tops of roofs and lamps.
“First priority,” I said, “Is finding shelter. You won’t handle the cold very well, like that. Not with the shock to your mind and body so recent. Trust me, sir. Give me all of your faith, relax.”
The stroke of God’s hand, I thought. The original meaning of the term, dating back to the year sixteen-hundred or so. For ‘thinking machines’, the lack of stimulus and motor function would inevitably lead to a critical failure in the brain, with internal bleeding and permanent damage. Depending on how heavily the brains were crosswired, how blood supply was shared, and the complexity of the machine, the stroke could impact others, if not the entire grid.
The chances would increase with stress and fear. It wouldn’t do me any good if my one ally in this were touched by God’s hand, so to speak. I needed him calm.
Doctors had started lobotomizing the thinking machine operators, maintaining only the necessary functions for counting or theory.
It was more ethical. It wasn’t an option for me.
It was also telling, I noted, that my partner here hadn’t been treated. Was it a question of the short time he’d been in the company of the others, or had he been working on something else? It could be as innocuous as the attempted writing of a great play by machine, where any limitations in the brains would impact the piece. It could be a part of a larger project.
The question was, what did a back-alley doctor need with a thinking machine?
There were too many uncertainties, here, yet I needed help. I needed to reach out to somebody, but an honest gentleman would turn me into the authorities. A dishonest man would sell me out.
The men and women I saw in the shadows weren’t quite ordinary. The men had thick, broad chests and muscular arms, the women had wide hips and narrow waists, many well past the point of exaggeration. Here and there, someone had eyes that caught the light in a funny way, like a dog or a cat might. I couldn’t be sure if they were looking at me, noting the young woman with the head, mechanical heart and jars of blood.
Injections and surgical alterations were available for pennies if one was willing to sacrifice quality or accept a side effect or two. Those side effects might be hair that grew in thicker, a hardness in the abdomen where an organ had swelled and would remain swelled, a hunger pang for a particular food or at a particular time, to sate something that had been added or taken away.
Horror stories circulated among students in the University, of poorly done reconstructions and alterations. A mother who ate her child, a man who went too far in reconstructing himself and began dismantling people in a mindless, automatic urge to add to himself.
Maybe they were true. Probably true, I mentally revised the statement. There was bound to be some note of truth to them. Those, however, were the exceptions. If I objectively separated myself from the student’s mindset, the real horror stories were the most common ones. The things that ran rampant, in the midst of all this, with thousands of people handing over hard earned money for better bodies, only to pay a price after the fact.
There was the fact that people sought it out. The University didn’t need to manipulate or leverage anything to make it happen. They provided a path to changing one’s body, mind or overall physiology, and the people gladly took that road. All the University needed to do was leave the door open.
All of these things required maintenance. Chemicals or surgery that altered the body or the brain often needed to be touched up from time to time, issues corrected.
The question was, who required the most maintenance, while wanting the least attention from the authorities?
I made my way down the road, glad to put as much distance between myself and the station as possible. I was soaked, through and through, and my arms were aching where the life support device was digging through my sleeves. My wet stockings squished in my soaked shoes, and Dolores was clutching my upper arm tightly to leech warmth from me, until it almost hurt.
“I know where we need to go,” I said. But we need a little luck on top of that.
I took a winding path through the city. Part of my reason was to lose the trail, the other was out of a lack of familiarity with the area.
I saw some individuals that were dressed poorly, a little dirtier than most, boys and girls who might not have had homes to return to, one chimerical creation that had gotten loose at some point in the past and was now devouring trash in the ditch. I was moving in the right direction.
Cities were organisms, with a heartbeat of their own. Everything was built with some manner of chaotic logic. Almost always, a city was founded on water. The first buildings that went down went down near the nearest, clearest source of drinking water, and things unfolded from there. Roads served as the concourses by which resources were distributed, as veins carried blood, hormones and nutrients.
The most essential buildings were the first to be established. Homes, facilities, churches, essential businesses. Less essential businesses would follow, then the least essential.
It should have made sense. In an ideal world, it would have. It didn’t. Perhaps the theory didn’t apply quite so accurately as I’d hoped. Perhaps I was making a grave error in judgement, in terms of how I classified this type of business.
I knocked, and a tense moment passed.
“Play dead,” I said. “Better if they don’t think you have a brain, for the time being.”
There was no way for him to answer, so I had to trust he could hear.
Even on the outside steps, I could feel the force of the foosteps inside. The door opened with such force that the lantern that hung outside swayed. The tallow flame within cast light through the red-tinted glass, making the light around us dance briefly.
A brute of a man stood opposite me. He had an underbite, his bad teeth spaced apart, his brow heavy. He was broad shouldered, hamfisted, a caricature of a man. He was dressed neat, with a collared shirt and silk vest, his hair parted. Maybe it was meant to speak to the class of the establishment, or a way of downplaying his appearance. Instead, it seemed to draw attention to the things that were wrong.
I’d lucked out. Whether that was good or bad luck remained to be seen.
“I have a proposition,” I said.
“We don’t serve women here,” he said. He looked me up and down, unashamed. “And you’re a bother to work with. No.”
“Not that,” I said. “Not either of those things.”
“If you’re selling that, I don’t want it.”
“Not that either,” I said. “I need a room.”
“No space,” he said. “And no reason to give you a room anyways.”
“Room, board, and a few things” I said, “In exchange, you have free use of my services. I was a student at the University, a scientist in training. I have skills.”
“I know people, I can get whatever you’re offering already.”
“For free? In a timely fashion?” I asked.
“Not free,” he said, frowning. “For room, board, and whatever else you’re asking for, and no doubt my silence. On a good night, having one more room helps business plenty, and I have enough secrets to keep.”
“I understand,” I said. “You took a regimen of the Balfour formula?”
“Little lady,” he said, and his deep voice had a dangerous note to it, “I recommend you find another place to get dry.”
My voice caught, forcing me to stop and swallow the lump in my throat before I could try again. I wanted to sound confident, but I wasn’t good at it. I fell back on what I knew, instead. “Done right, the Balfour formula makes you strong, promotes masculine features, builds muscle. Just the sort of thing a… service provider like yourself needs to keep customers in check and employees in line. Done wrong, it induces gigantism and acromegaly. The pituitary dumps hormones into the body. You grow, and if it’s done very badly, you don’t stop growing. Eventually, the heart gives out. It’s not hard to figure out.”
“You know your babble. Good for you. Find another place to hide you. If I find you sleeping on my stoop, I’ll kick you. Don’t think I won’t.”
“Balfour’s formula makes you more impulsive. You’re an adolescent boy at the height of a hormone surge, all the time. You want… company, you’re always a touch drunk, you want to fight more than you did. Some people like it. At first. Few enjoy it. Not five years after the fact, when the body still hasn’t reached an equilibrium.”
“Give the girl an apple,” he said. “Three years.”
“I knew because of your teeth. When you grow too fast, and the growth plates shift to that extent, your teeth shift position. Your body can’t grow like that without getting the materials from somewhere, and your teeth are one of those places. An infected tooth leeches calcium from the bone, and a damaged bone can leech calcium from the teeth. I can look at it, and I can figure it’s been about three years.”
“Mmm hmm,” he said.
“It would have been excruciating, growing so quickly, so fast. Your posture is suffering, this late in the day, which makes me think you haven’t stopped growing. Your hands will hurt, making even holding something painful, the tissues must well. The teeth bother you more than anything, I’m sure, since you’ll be endlessly hungry but the teeth are falling apart.”
“Everyone has problems,” he said.
I continued, almost unable to help myself. “You haven’t had them fixed. You’re spending the money elsewhere. My guess? Someone offered you the Balfour regimen, there were side effects, and now you’re still going back to them for regular care, to keep your heart going, to get calcium, and to get pain relief. Anyone that works for you goes to him too, because it’s convenient.”
“And… you’re under his thumb. Maybe he’s said no other doctor would know the ins and outs of your body like he does. Or he’s said other scary things. If you were going to look for help despite that, the nature of your business means you don’t want people looking at it too hard. I’m offering you a way out.”
He folded his arms, glowering at me. “You’re saying he lied? I could go to any doctor, and the care I get would be just as good?”
“No. He’s right. Any other care, it wouldn’t be as good as the care you get from a doctor who knows the full case history. One of the best tools we have are the living ratios. Charts and scales we memorize, or try to memorize. Constants and patterns, across medicine and biology. The more he knows about you, the better he can put the pieces into place, intuitively knowing the measures and doses required to fix you… except he’s the one that broke you in the first place, isn’t he?”
“I just finished a year working on a project built on bone and enamel. Give me one month and some things to start, and I’ll give you new teeth. Give me a few months, and I’ll fix your jaw. For as long as you keep me, I can help with the pain. On demand, with no having to wait until this other doctor can make the time.”
“I am already irritated with you, little lady. You’re giving me the patter I might expect from a snake oil salesman, you woke me up early enough I won’t be able to go back to sleep. You want to overturn my unpleasant but tolerable life. The idea of spending any more time with you is making me want to hit something.”
He’s considering the idea, then? “I had a roommate. I know how to be quiet and stay out of the way. I’d prefer it, working in peace, when I’m not working for your benefit.”
He glowered at me, briefly chewing his lips, before looking away. He sighed, heavily.
When he finally spoke, he said, “Room, you eat what they cook. What do you need, for supplies?”
“Surgical implements, but I’ll make do with kitchen knives. I need a voltaic horse, alive or dead, but it’s going to die, so dead is probably more convenient, cheaper. A table with a flat surface and a chair, a bed, a hot bath and a change of clothes. Once I have that, I can manage on my own.”
“The horse will be expensive.”
“I’m suspicious you could buy a voltaic horse every two months with what you’re paying the other Doctor.”
He turned to step back into the foyer, leaving the door open. I took it as an invitation to follow.
I felt a thrill of victory. I might not be able to navigate the unfamiliar parts of a city with ease, but I knew my science.
If the streets had smelled like blood and sweat, the interior had a trace odor of other, baser things.
“Stay,” he said, as we reached the sitting room. Velvet-covered chairs and loveseats littered the area, and a small bar stood in one corner, unoccupied.
Three women, my age, reclined in the open space. I knew them, in a manner of speaking.
‘Daisy’ was blonde, conventionally attractive with a wasp waist, though she wore a bathrobe.
Both ‘Violets’, by contrast, were brunette, more slender, with a smattering of freckles on their faces. The freckles varied slightly in intensity and placement, but the shape of their faces and their bodies were the same. One might have been a year or two younger than the other.
Mass produced people, also known as centuplets, despite the fact that there were more than a hundred of each.
I found a flat space near the fireplace and set my companion down. The artificial blood pump first, then the head.
“Who’s he?” Violet asked. Coy, mischievous, but Violets were. They were also perpetually active, which might have explained why the two Violets were awake so early.
“Leave them alone,” Daisy said, before taking another puff of the cigarette. I knew Daisy was more businesslike.
“Who are you, miss?” Violet two echoed her sister, smiling a little, in a way that reached the corners of her eyes. Deliberately annoying Daisy.
“She,” the master of the house said, as he appeared in the entryway, “Has no identity. She does not exist, you do not mention her to anyone. You ignore her, unless it’s an emergency. She receives breakfast and dinner. If there is a dispute, you win, she loses. While she is here, the bedroom at the far end of the hallway is off limits.”
“Yes, sir,” the centuplets chimed, in unison. Practiced.
“I understand,” I said.
“You leave them be. I paid a pretty penny for them, and I won’t have you spoiling them. They’re trained, domesticated, know everything they need to know. Disturb my business in the slightest, and this arrangement is done.”
“I intend to stay out of your way,” I said.
“You’re dripping water on my hardwood. Come. Your room.”
I went, leaving the head behind to warm up.
He’d laid out a change of clothes, as well as sheets. As rooms went, it was smaller than my room at the University. Worse, the smell I’d noticed in the house was thicker here.
It was a place of business, after all, for those ladies of the night.
Still, I couldn’t be too picky. He had a reason to stay out of people’s way, to avoid the authorities.
“I’m Lacy, so you know,” I said, giving a false name.
“Linus Gibson,” he replied. “If there is trouble and you are discovered, I will say I thought you were a student that was renting this space and working from here, instead of the University. I will be shocked and appalled to know you are not legitimate, and I will do everything I can to ensure I get no blame. I can play stupid, and I will. You understand?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Where is your head?”
“The head? I left it by the fireplace.”
“If I’m supposed to ignore you, I won’t have your things lying about. Collect it.”
“If I could leave it, just before I get my own fire going-” I gestured at the little stove. “It’s cold, and there could be brain-”
He gave me a hard look.
“I’ll go get him,” I said. “Can I briefly collect your bellows, while I do? You’ll have them back before lunch.”
The hard look intensified. I could imagine the thoughts running through his mind.
“I expect them back in working order. I’m going to try to rest, and you’re to be silent. You’ll have the other things you need tonight or tomorrow.”
I hurried off, to grab the head. Bending down and reaching, I could feel my arms and back ache with the irritation of hauling it this far. I made my way back to the bedroom, almost tripping with the awkward burden of head, machine and bellows, and then closed the door.
Using only my hands, no tools available, I dismantled the least essential aspects of the machine, the cosmetic and the convenient things that made it so it could be carried.
The heard stared, silent, as I rigged the bellows to the series of brass gears. It was moving slower, with the extra pull. Was it too slow? Less oxygen would have a negative effect, given this was already close to a minimum.
The hardest aspect was rigging the bellows to the base of the neck, where a cap of metal had been screwed into place. There were openings, but the tube was the wrong size. I settled for a scrap of cloth from the tie at my collar, to block the difference, wadding it in.
“I’m Genevieve Fray,” I introduced myself to the head.
The heart and the attached mechanism raised the upper half of the bellows, then slowly moved them down. Air moved through his throat and mouth, a long exhalation.
“Will,” he wheezed. “Will Howell.”
I took advantage of the gear’s upswing, the slow raise of the bellow’s arm. “Do you need anything, Will? Are you hurt? Cold?”
“Thirsty,” he said. He sounded more like a little boy than a man. “I’m parched.”
Of course. There wasn’t anything hooked up to provide hydration. It was a temporary rig.
“I can put something together. I’ll need to find if there are any empty jars in the pantry.”
“No. I can wait,” he said. He sounded out of sorts.
Well, he was a disembodied head, it couldn’t have been easy.
“Putting water in your mouth wouldn’t help,” I said. “There isn’t a place for it to go. I’ll need to prepare something soon. A checklist.”
“You’re really one of them. Good god.”
“Yes, how else did you think I would give you a new body?” I asked. I waited for him to respond. With him breathing this way, it would be too easy to dominate the conversation.
“N-never understood it. I left home for three years, came back…” he paused, waiting for the bellows to come down again, he used the delay to close his eyes, hard, as if shutting out the world. “…everything was different. The academy is five times the size, people…”
I needed a working relationship with him. I was patient, giving him the voice he likely hadn’t had since he was thrown from the rooftop. I stepped over to the fire, to start it.
“…are stranger. There are monsters, people with horns, skin as white as alabaster, and people treat them as if they were commonplace.”
Everything was already in place in the fireplace, no doubt for a girl expecting a customer. I started it, then stood and approached Will. “These strange things are commonplace, now. Where did you go for those three years?”
“Detroit. Engineering, Learning to work with hard sciences. Not so…” his voice pitched high as he tried to rush the last words out before the air stopped.
I reached out, moving the arm away, raised and lowered the bellows myself. My hand ran over the rest of the machine, checking. Blood was forcibly oxygenated by natural intake and bacteria cultures, no doubt.
“Not so glamorous… as you lot. As the wet sciences… Frowned on.”
I turned the head around, and then began changing into the drier clothes.
His voice had a different tone to it as he spoke. Hollow, and not the hollowness of a lungless man speaking. “Came home with my partner, saw my father… He had been very traditional, but he had mailed me and told me he had two stitch servants.”
“Yes. He saw my hair, was upset when I… told him I had changed the color.”
I looked at his dark hair.
“He said I have someone else’s hair now.”
“Different genetics. You had someone change the color by changing your own code.”
“It was inexpensive, easier and less messy than applying bootblack. It was a lark, my friend and business partner… Hudson…”
He paused, and it wasn’t because he was waiting for air.
His voice cracked when he spoke, “N-not my friend, I suppose. Hudson pushed… me to do it. Couldn’t undo it and get home… in time. Decided to brave it. I was wrong.”
“I am no longer my father’s son… not in blood, he said… even if I changed my hair back, it wouldn’t be the same hair I was born with… someone else’s blond hair.”
“He kicked you out?”
Again, the hollowness. It was hard to listen to, enough that I felt uncomfortable, fidgety. “Yes. I went with Hudson… brought money I had saved, to help with his business and pay my way… he used the money for the business, stole the rest and pushed… pushed me from the roof.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I finished dressing and turned the head back around. “Truly.”
“One of you did this to me.”
“One of us will fix it, given a chance,” I said, my voice serious. “I will fix it.”
He’d uttered one word, for a long breath of air.
“Why fix it? I need help.”
“Why break out? Why all this? I heard them talking… They would have released you.”
“Would they? I’m not so sure. We get locked up for a time, without access to tools, while they check on us. A lot of upper class men, several upper class ladies. People from families with money. Families they cannot readily offend. But they put a lot into us. I do not think all of us go home. Letting too many go with their knowledge intact, it makes for competition.”
“What happens, then?”
“They give us drugs, to keep us going. Ox, stimulants, depressants, narcotics. Free access. If a student dies, it’s their fault, for neglecting ratios and vital numbers. The family receives condolences, and they do not speak of it to friends. An accident. Perhaps the ones that are smart enough to be problematic and too disloyal to work for the University meet accidents, perhaps they use those drugs to lure us back in, while asking if we want a different role, working for the University in a different capacity, dangling the bait of returning, continuing our work. Perhaps there are other means,” I said.
I met his eyes. They were green, framed by a brow that was furrowed in concern.
“Don’t believe it. They wouldn’t… They can’t.”
“It’s all chemicals,” I said. “They get the body used to it, then take it away, and the body suffers, the mind craves. Simple, really. Except someone like me? They wouldn’t waste drugs. If they realized my family didn’t have money or influence to spare any longer, that my father is dead, my mother in the care of her brother, they wouldn’t be kind to me. They’re vast, you understand? The united Universities have an influence so broad the government couldn’t hope to touch them. I can’t help but wonder if I wouldn’t become a part of a thinking machine like you were.”
I could see the fear and pain on his expression. Loss.
Again, I thought of the ‘stroke of god’s hand’. I had to be gentler, until he had a full body, a way to release the pain and stress that was building up inside him.
“Unlike you, I wouldn’t have had any chance of escape, no hope of getting a body and eventually buying a vat-grown body made from my own cells. You can regain everything you’ve lost. Help me, and I’ll help you in turn.”
“You want revenge, too?” Will asked me.
“Yes. No. I… I want to answer them.”
The restlessness was too much. I stood abruptly from the bed. I made my way to the window and threw it open. The rain made tiny droplets on my skin and the nightie I wore, but the fresh air was nice, especially with the thick atmosphere in the room. Cold, but the house was warmer. They were perhaps starting up the stoves in the kitchen.
“What did you notice when you returned to the city?” I asked. “Are they good? The changes you saw?”
“It’s… God, no,” he said. “L- look at me!”
His voice had pitched higher, but he couldn’t manage more volume.
I stayed calm, hoping the attitude would convey itself to him somehow, as I might act with a strange beast in the laboratories back at the University. I shut the window. “I know. Besides yourself?”
“We’re making ourselves into monsters, desecrating the dead… All in the name of vanity and greed.”
“And a share of desperation,” I added. “A drive to keep up and compete with others who are doing the same.”
“Yes. Everything I see, it scares me a little more… Just now, back there… the identical women.”
“The centuplets, the ladies of the gardens, whatever term you want to use. Non-people, no rights by law, as they have no mother or father.”
His voice broke a little, “They’re terrifying. God, I had no idea, the first times I saw them, but to hear them speak, out of earshot?”
“I know. I do. I didn’t like it, but I told myself that it could be better, Will. That it would find its balance. I lived by the pragmatism my parents instilled in me, weighing the options every time I thought about using chemicals to get ahead, and always deciding to play it safe, to take the slow and steady road. I chose to be the turtle, and I lost to the rabbits.”
“I’m not sure I understand… I’m confused. About everything.”
“I think I was telling myself that if I could play it safe, if I could do things the right way, without compromising, then it was acceptable, there was hope. But I was betrayed, like you were, by a roommate, possibly by others. They spoiled my project, and I can imagine any number of things where they have tricked and sabotaged me. Ox never did much for me. I wonder now if they stole it or diluted it, to set me back, or because they wanted more than their ration.”
I stopped, hearing sounds elsewhere in the house. If Linus was going to go find out if someone was looking for me, now would be a time. But the creaks of the floorboards were too soft to be Linus.
“You’re answering this?” Will asked me.
Distracted, I tried to return my mind to the thrust of my argument. “I’m.. looking at the system like I look at Linus, out there. The owner of this… establishment. Things have grown too fast, and they’re on the brink of coming apart. The growth is draining on essential resources, just to sustain itself, it’s ultimately conflicting with itself. Here, everywhere the Universities are cropping up. Something needs to respond to it. There isn’t anything to keep it in check.”
“One person, against that?”
“No. Two people,” I said. “Two people and Dolores, here.”
I worked Dolores free of my sleeve, then held her close to my body to warm her.
“Two people and a small monster.”
“And more, Will, if we can manage it. I want to raise questions, in the public’s eye, because I know they’re aware of what’s going on, that they’re getting shortchanged in this bargain. I know they’re scared. I want to rally people against the University, get people angry. To give the University a reason to slow down, to hold back.”
I could see the doubt on his face.
“There’s a lot of room for this to go wrong. I know. I’m not a fool, William Howell. But what’s the alternative? We let the University keep growing? Until it touches everything, more than it already does, and then we watch it die and take everything with it? We wait for one critical mistake to be made, and a plague takes us all?”
“They’ve assured us that there are counter….” Will said. “Measures, from the moment the first person raised the idea… Even before I left for my studies.”
“They’re lying,” I said. “Or they’re wrong. I’ve been there. I didn’t study disease, specifically, but I saw. I could describe the safeguards they use, and how a disease could spread despite them. Give me two hours, and I’ll explain it all.”
“That’s not- no,” he said. “I’m thinking maybe you’re crazy. Maybe you’re lying, to get this vendetta going.”
But I could see the note of fear on his face.
One person, with a seed of doubt. Six hundred and seventy thousand, five hundred and ninety-nine to go.
“I’m confused,” he said, again.
“You lost everything,” I said. “I understand that.”
He blinked, hard. I respected him by looking away.
“I think I need to wait…” he said. “To think about it. I’m not in…”
His voice broke, an odd sound combined with the faint whoosh of the bellows.
“…the right frame of mind,” he finished.
“We have time to discuss it, to lay plans,” I said. “I promised you a body. That’s going to take two or three weeks to put together, if not longer. It depends on how quickly we get the materials. I should unhook this from your heart, reduce strain on the device, unless you have something more to say?”
“No. I’m tired. I need to sleep. Somehow.”
“Me too. Let me get you your water, I’ll hook it up.”
I crept down the hall and begged a large mason jar from a Lily that had roused and was going about her routine. An Eastern woman, by appearance, she was American by dialect. Prim, proper, demure. I liked Lilies, I got along with them.
I collected two metal cans, mitts to hold them, boiled water for one, and a length of rubber hose. Lily was accommodating in showing me where things were, in the midst of preparing breakfast.
Accommodating on the surface.
It didn’t take long to hook up the water.
“What… would happen if you hadn’t helped me?” he asked.
“They would have interrogated you.”
“They would have no use for you. Who spends the time and money giving you a proper body again, Will? Do you truly believe a good samaritan would have stepped forward and offered a solution?”
“If we’d met in different circumstances… I don’t know.”
“What of this circumstance?” he asked.
“I don’t function well alone. I like to feel like I’m a part of something. There’s a strength in that. Humans are social creatures. I had my family, and then I had the University… and I was facing the prospect of having nobody at all.”
“So you take me? I don’t know you,” he said.
“I don’t know you either, Will Howell. But that’s okay. So long as we’re allies in this, it’s okay if you disagree with me. Having a wall to bounce ideas off of can help with brainstorming. My best project was a collaborative work.”
I indicated Dolores’ can of water.
“And you’re moving on to… convince the people to join your side? Going to war against the University?”
“Revolution, not war,” I said. “Changing perspectives about what’s going on. Stirring people to act.”
“Perspective is the only difference between revolution… and rebellion.”
“Are we allies in this, Will? Can you see where I’m coming from?”
“You’re convincing me,” he said. “But Hudson convinced me too, and I see where that led me.”
“I want a partner, Will, not a subordinate. Not a slave. Tell me how you want to approach this, I’ll respect your decision.”
“I- I have doubts, Miss… I’m tired. I’ve forgotten.”
“Miss Fray. But I’ll face my doubts on my own, and decide if they need to be shared. I think I’ll have enough time to think and do nothing else.”
“I’ll give you a body in short order, Will.”
“I know. Thank you. For now, do as you wish. Don’t…” he paused. His voice had dropped a touch in volume when he continued, “Don’t worry about me.”
“If I may do as I wish, then, can I ask how you want to sleep? May I pick you up?”
“Yes?” he made it a question.
I answered through action. I checked the fire, then retreated to the bed, careful of the cords and tubes. I moved a pillow, so he had a place to rest, and laid him down, before lying down beside him and pulling the covers up.
When we had settled, his head rested in the crook between my bosom and the pillow.
“Tell me if you object,” I murmured. “I thought perhaps a little human contact would help.”
Dolores splashed in the narrow confines of her can.
Will hadn’t responded. His eyes were closed. He looked a touch more at ease.
Not necessarily asleep, but it was hard to tell, when he didn’t breathe.
I needed information, to find this ‘Hudson’, and the man who had turned him into this.
I also needed information on other fronts. The officers would be upset, after I’d sedated their guards and fled with a witness for another crime, but I wouldn’t be a threat. Ex-students living in the periphery of the city wasn’t so unusual.
The moment I started working against the University, however, I’d have enemies. They would start looking for me in earnest.
I needed information before I could find a key point for a dramatic strike against them, or a subtle maneuver that might set them back.
What means did I have? Gossip? Too unreliable. Infiltrating the University? Suicidal. Could I go to a private investigator?
Possible. A safe, sensible route.
A route that needed funds, before anything else. I needed the information, I needed reputation, and a thumb on the pulse of the community. I needed to be in a position to deliver a grave blow in a sensitive area.
I was patient, I could wait, to let it happen, but I’d leave too much room for failure if I tried to achieve it as a sequence. If one step failed, every step that followed would fail in turn. Without funds, we’d lack information, without information we wouldn’t know where to strike, and without a successful, attention-grabbing form of attack against the established order, we wouldn’t be able to build reputation.
I needed to achieve all of these things together. I needed to help Will.
What I wouldn’t give for a dose of Ox. A diluted dose, a placebo, to help the ideas click…
Then I felt the piece fall into place. An idea, turned around.
“Hey. Will,” I murmured, half asleep. “How would you like to become a private investigator?”