J. A. Howe
Cherryn woke up groaning, in the small crowded stall. She could already hear other people moving: the low mutter of early morning clogged her ears; the sink hissed as someone used it. In the stall next door, her brother Shale flushed the toilet before he went to bed, in a cot just like this one. He worked the night shift at the landing pad, located near the banks of the gulch.
"Cherryn! Come on, you'll be late!" her sister Anise called through the door. She rolled over and got up, careful not to bang her head on the toilet that sat right next to her cot. Yeah, yeah. All Anise wanted was to get to the cot herself; Anise worked the night shift too.
"Coming!" she roared through the door and was out in minutes. The hallway was full of people bedding down for the morning, people tripping over people, people arguing about it. Someone who'd found a cozy spot in a corner of the stairs glared at her; Cherryn's family was lucky to have acquired space in a bathroom. With the money they made from charging people to use their facilities, they were fairly well off, all considering. She passed a guy sitting in a corner, his eyes glazed as he listened to the morning news from the enet chip in his head. He was intently staring into space. She shivered and moved on.
She stomped upward, listening to the reports of the morning: electricity was out in the third floor, please stay away from the elevator. Someone's baby was missing on the twelfth: if you see a small black-haired chica of about ten months, please alert the People.
Blablalblalblalblablablabla, she thought, stomping up the stairs.
Half the people on this floor or any other wouldn't hear this news report; they were all too hooked in to their enet chips. They talked on palm phones, gabbing about what they were doing, where they were going, instant to instant. They sat in corners and sent their thoughts to friends and family around the world via the enet chip. They argued with the air, seemingly, while in reality they were talking to other people via an ear hookup.
Everything was connected to the enet these days, the Earth Network. Everything and everyone was - everyone except Cherryn. Her family didn't believe in the enet, thought it was more important to be "real people and not cyborgs". She'd had to go through years of teasing in school because of that.
The nutri rooms were four more flights away. Her thin figure moved up to them easily, skirting around more bodies, more piles of flesh and sewn rags. Nutri, the stuff that kept them all alive now, that all civilized people used. Nutri, the stuff that was, like everything else, controlled by a site on the enet.
Cherryn knew that food shortages ten years ago had led to first rationing, then the discovery of nutri, the vitamin-packed stuff that kept you going. She knew that with the spreading craze about Mad Cow and the plague of salmonella, people had begun to depend more and more on the IV food - the worldwide drought of eight years before had made it more important than ever. Rather than risk starvation from another depression, some people had begun to switch totally to the supplement. It was easily made, cheaply processed. And as enet hookups became more popular, the idea of nutri as a full supplement became more plausible, more likely to happen.
Within a small amount of time after that, the nutri became what "civilized" people used. There were too many people now to feed the other way, had been the last faint argument - that was before the fighting began. Before the overcrowding - her grandfather used to tell about quiet, empty streets and places where you could see the stars at night - that had been. Before the last battles. Before the paranoia.
She plugged herself in at the office. Every person now had a nutri plug, a catheter that was inserted at birth in every hospital, so that the nutri could pour into that person's system during work hours. That her parents hadn't been able to get away from; even they thought that nutri was "civilized" as opposed to eating with your mouth. Because it was clean, it was efficient. A second tube even removed waste from your body so that no one even had to "go to the bathroom" like they used to, two decades ago; now, you disposed of the biodegradable bag before you went to bed, down the toilet tube which sent it to a compost pile; people did still grow flowers.
Cherryn's job was to keep track of peoples' nutri tubes by day. She made sure that everyone was getting the proper amount, to keep track of their health so that they were getting the proper type too. Just enough of this and that.
She hated it.
She had to sit all day, to do this, watching a damned computer screen rattle off numbers, in a tight little cubby. There were no windows here, nothing but the damned computer. Every so often someone would have a problem and that would be announced, so that the nutri amount and quality would be adjusted. That was about the extent of excitement to this job which paid just a little over minimum wage ($9/hr). The government directly took that income out of your weekly paycheck, so you ended up with maybe a few pennies for yourself. With that, you could perhaps scrounge enough to buy new clothing or shoes, or rent a horse so that you and some of the family could ride for the day over the long bridge to the other side, where Ravenloom City loomed haughty and beautiful yet impossible to live within due to bubonic plague outbursts of this past year. Or maybe, just maybe you could gather enough together to buy passage on one of the ships that took off and landed constantly at the landing pad near the gorge, off into space where supposedly life was easier and less crowded.
Cherryn preferred the people of the gulch. As soon as she left work that night, that was where she went.
The setting sun glowed over the western bank of the gulch, turning the buildings there first orange, then the ruddy red of blood. Fitting, Cherryn thought, crossing the road near the landing pad. Not far away was the chain fence around the outer buildings of this huge structure: according to her brother, who worked a sensor shift there, some of those buildings were used for desanitizing people so that they didn't bring unnecessary germs in and out to and from space, some were used for accustoming people to the environment here with gravity and food training. And there were others that were simply used as hotels, where people stayed if they were only visiting for a few days. She watched the lights begin to glow in the field, somewhere out there in the distance, as she headed down the narrow path into the gulch.
You could smell the scent of the gulch from a distance, up the ragged, twisty little path, but it wasn't a bad smell necessarily. The scent of the building where she had lived her entire crowded existence was that of sweat and smoke, dirt and the accumulated detergents and cleaning agents that flowed through the building every week, the scent of babies and of people making love, of hormones and menstruation, and occasional filth that was quickly swept away by even more powerfully scented anesthetics.
The scent of the gulch, however, was the scent of food, real food that they ate with teeth and gums that didn't bleed and that were white or pale yellowish. It was the scent of fresh dirt and clean grass, of smoky engines that some people down here used to heat their homes in cooler times. It was the scent of clothing and the water of the River Loamline, a thin river only twenty feet wide, and she'd never known before that water could have a scent at all.
She came down into the gulch, sliding on stones that skipped away before her dustily. Before her glimmered the lights of lanterns and fires lit in front of the stone and brick and scavenged wood shelter houses of this place, the tents and the abandoned things called trucks and campers and cars. She heard joking and laughter from somewhere up ahead, and someone was singing, and someone was arguing.
People in Harthaven didn't do that, she thought. Oh, they became angry and happy just like these folk, but there was something much more alive about these. The folk of the gulch expressed their feelings, didn't worry as much about bothering the neighbors as her people did - perhaps they were too tired to do so. Somehow, these people didn't get that tired.
"Hey, chica, where you coming from?" She whirled.
"Cherryn!" a young girl about her age raced up, accosting the guy who'd come up to her first. Cute, with an earring. He brushed a lanky dark lock away, as the caller promptly flung herself into Cherryn's arms "Oh, you came, you came!" The scent of her humanity swept over Cherryn: a combination of dirt and sweat and the food that they chewed down here, that made their breath sour and their bodies plump. Little arms gave her a chubby squeeze.
"As I said I'd do," Cherryn smiled at her. "Georgia, dear, it was only a week."
"Oh, but so long, so long," the younger girl pouted, then brightened. "You have come to live at last?"
"No, not yet." She cast a look over to the young man, who was still standing there, leaning on a lamppost watching them with a casual air. "Who's he?"
"Ohhh, that's Ernie," her young friend giggled. "He thinks he's all special 'cause he got in a job up at the pad." She snorted, pointing up the gulch toward where the lights glowed more brightly now.
"Name's Eduardo Vincente Garcia," he bowed gallantly to Cherryn, who nodded. "Or you could call me 'Él Cid.'"
This brought more laughter from the girl. "Oh, El Cid of the garbage can!" she crowed. "Just yesterday, the funniest thing - he was trying to impress Yolanda Verez, and he almost drowned in the river! Came out sopping..." He gave her a dirty look.
Cherryn, for the sake of peace, tried her best to keep from laughing too hard herself. "Well, that must have been a sight!" she grinned, nudging her smaller friend. "So, you swim?"
He scowled. "Of course. The brave swim the river!"
"I always wondered what it was like," she said honestly. "I've never seen you down here."
"I'm from farther upriver," he nodded with his head. "I am a cousin of - this." He pointed disdainfully at Georgia, who'd calmed a bit.
She grinned, unperturbed. "Ohhhh, yes. His mama's brought him here to find a BRIDE." This brought another fit of giggles. "You should have seen his face when he saw Olivia!"
Cherryn could see him tensing but he didn't respond to it. "So anyway," she said to change the subject, "what's digs?"
"Georgia says you aren't from here?"
"No," she agreed. "I live up near the landing pad, actually. My brother works there." I didn't know that they were letting people cross the border, she thought. Cherryn herself had used a Red Cross relief road to get down here; technically it was illegal for someone of Harthaven to be down in this region.
"Heard of someone looking for a worker," he said, as if he could tell what she was thinking. "Actually, they've come down here before looking for people." Probably pay them half price, too, Cherryn thought angrily. But then again, did the people of the gulch need money anyway? "I start your Tuesday."
"Is good," she smiled. "I hope you like it." Georgia, walking with them, pointed.
"C'mon! Let's go to my granddad's place!"
This was a bus community. There were a few of them down here. Each community was made up of four abandoned buses, set to form a square. One edge was left open, and guarded; the rest had been cemented together. Sometimes, people had built extensions onto the inner end of this odd formation, and once Cherryn had even seen little extra homes built onto the tops of some of the buses.
Georgia's grandfather lived in an old yellowish one with faded paint on the outside. Cherryn had met him before several times. He, unlike many of the natives of the gulch, didn't have a problem with people from "the lands where people don't eat"; hence her easy friendship with young Georgia. He kept trying to convince her to try real food. The scent of the dripping burger, though, around which flies swarmed and which was full of gooey cheeses and other things she didn't understand, had made her nauseous first time she tried. Georgia's grandfather, unoffended, had eaten it himself.
The plump man welcomed her happily this time, though a few customers of his eating place scowled. "Hey, it's my little chica! How thin you are!" he cried, jumping from around the counter. "We were thinking you'd forgotten us." From farther up, his wife Emelda smiled thinly and went back to wiping cups, as he gave Cherryn a greasy hug.
"Hello," she said. "No, I hadn't forgotten. Work got in the way."
"Ah, I keep telling you, Cherry hon, you could have a much better life down here," he wagged a finger at her. "Such a pretty, but so stressed! But you have the voice of angels! A crime, such a crime to lock you up in a bodega like that up there," he scowled for a minute. "Like my grandson here - he wants to work in such nonsense too, now! Wants to go to this space thing someday, he says to me," the old man scoffed. "What is the use of this? Eh? What about helping your family to grow and prosper? What about clean happiness? No offense, Cherryn, but this place where you live, it is not nice."
She'd learned long ago not to take insult at anything old Gerard said about Cambridge, so she only smiled. "Oh, he'll be all right," she said. "He swims, doesn't he?"
"Like any good river boy, yes, he does," the grandfather said proudly. "He has passed all the tests of manhood now. Hey - Cherry, I have an idea. Maybe you could marry him, and then you could both live here with me!"
"Yes, yes!" cried little Georgia, jumping up and down excitedly. "Then we could play tag all the time!"
Ernie scowled. "I marry when I wish, I said!"
"Oh, listen to him; such a progressionist," Gerard rolled his eyes. "But seriously, Cherry, there is dangerous weather coming. You should be returning to your home soon!"
She listened to that. The gorge people, living out in the elements as they did, generally knew what they were talking about when they predicted bad or good weather. And so Cherryn took her leave of the little household and headed homeward, to her own place back up in the city.
Up here, after scrambling her way along the brink of the crag for a bit, she joined the streets just as rain began to sprinkle down. Cherryn scented ozone in the air, mingled with the dust and dirt of the town as she wandered down the gently sloping hill. Someone was humming in a doorway off to her left, near the landing pad.
She passed the giant bushes of Liney Road, and turned off to her own building by which time it was raining a bit hard. "By Allah's nose, take a bath once in a bit!" someone called as she moved up the stairs to her own home.
"Where were you?" her mother stood, hands on hips, glowering in the doorway of their section of the bathroom. "With those under-things again, no doubt. You smell."
"So I was told," Cherryn glared back. "My decision if I want to go down there, mais non?" Others in the room were watching, listening. It was impossible not to be heard here: arguing, rutting, groaning in pain. And arguments were rare, becuse of that; people liked privacy and peace. "Right?" she challenged her mother again.
"Maybe," the older woman pursed her lips. "It isn't good, though. Not good for you, not good for us."
Cherryn's mother leaned closer, picked at her shirt with a distasteful look. "They have dirt, they have - INSECTS. They're not clean, for goodness' sake! And they don't even use nutri, like civilized people. No, they have to MASH that disgusting stuff, entre teeth that should have been nice and soft long ago! It's revolting, Cherryn! Revolting! Clean yourself at once!"
Cherryn shoved her way past her and went to the sink, began pouring chlorinated water over her head, her hands. "I don't like their nutritional habits any more than you," she shrugged. "But I do like them as people."
She's terrified I'll leave, Cherryn thought. Leave and go down there... Some people did, she knew. She could go anywhere if she wanted, not just the gulch or Ravenloom City.
"I've just found a new job," her mother sighed. "I'll be at the hospital now - we can all move in there by the end of the week. You could work with survival units, since you like the grotto folk so much..."
Cherryn whirled on her. "¡No comprendes!" she cried. "All the Red Cross units want to do is change people, alter them so that they're like us! They have a right to live their own lives!"
"Certainly, but - but this is better," said her mother slowly, as Cherryn dried herself. "This is better."
In bed that night, curled in the thin bunk next to the toilet seat, Cherryn scowled to herself, listening to the neighbors two stalls down humming as their enet connection flowed information into their brain, as some others who'd bought space to sleep under the sink that week started to snore. Was it better up here in the city? Her family lived in such cramped conditions that you couldn't move half the time, dealing with "responsibilities to society" that really weren't too important at all. She wondered what it was like to know your true parents, to not simply be fostered off immediately at birth, given to a family that didn't already have children, or who wanted more, so that every family would have someone to care for, and every family would be nuclear. She wondered what it would be like to not have a job...
She was awakened not far into the night by screaming. A smell of smoke hung about the room. "Mom? Dad?" She jolted herself out of bed, flung open the door to her stall. "Hello?"
People were screaming in the hallway. Burning, something was burning... "GET BACK!!" her brother howled suddenly appearing out of nowhere and thrusting her away from the door as a soft explosion happened. Panting, he held her under the sink.
"What's going on?" she asked, terrified. There was a cut on his shoulder, and the blood seeped through the fabric of his clothes. "Where's Anise? Where's the parents?"
"Here, here," panted her father, appearing in the doorway at a stagger. He crawled into the small area with them. "It's madness out there!"
"What's going ON?"
"The enet short-circuited," he said, wiping at a cut on his knee. "People are going insane! I had a stallshaker of a time getting here - this pendejo grabbed me in the hallway, babbling in three languages at once!"
Cherrn stared at him. Her father never swore, normally. "It's the plugs," her brother explained. "They're misfiring - people's brains just can't handle that! I passed three who were being fried inside out, steam literally coming out of their ears."
"That's - that's just not possible," she said faintly.
Her father snorted. "You weren't alive when they were still doing electroshock therapy to people. C'est vrai, chica. Very, very possible."
Cherryn remembered the charred smell from earlier, the smoke. She knew about the enet. Everyone was fitted with a plug from birth so that they would all be connected to the Earth Network. If you hooked up, you could get contact with information from all over the globe, one of her friends at work who had it told her. But Cherryn's parents didn't believe in the enet, had never hooked in, and had kept their children from doing so also. She shivered, thinking what a close call that had been.
"What will we do?"
"We should get out of here, for one thing," her sister Anise grumbled. "It's mayhem - people are dying out there! We need to get away before we're attacked by someone."
Cherryn saw her parents looking at one another, uncertainly. Her own heart pounded. Would someone actually do that? "The grotto wouldn't have this problem," she offered slowly. "They - their children aren't born in hospitals, so they wouldn't have the hookup. Hey - it's - it'd be better than this, right?" There was yelling outside, the scream of death. Someone's pleas for help.
Her mother scowled at mention of the grotto, but she knew that Cherryn was right. "Surely the landing pad would be all right...." She looked tentatively at Shale, who shook his head.
"Just as much a madhouse out there - maybe even more," he said. "They're going crazy; the entire place works on computers that are all inter hooked to the enet. No craft are allowed in or out of the place, they're saying, and some people were already starting to protest when I left. That place'll be civil war soon; they're holding everyone who's from off the planet. Or at least they're trying to..."
"Then I guess we have no choice," Cherryn's father said. He looked pale, worried.
Cherryn thought of Ernie as she and her family picked their way out through the corridor, abandoning their calm, crowded cell in the bathroom. As they passed the last stall, the one historically made for people with disabilties, Cherryn finally found the source of the smell and the smoke from earlier: a charred body, still convulsing, lay in a stall doorway. The person's hands were clenched in near-death, eyes bulging from the head, which was charring literally inside out. Cherryn shuddered and turned away. She heard Anise retching. Her brother looked sick. "Vamonos," her mother said grimly.
It seemed to take forever to get out of that building. Out in the hallway was indeed mayhem: people were piled everywhere in the throes of the shaking fits. Those who could still walk were running to and fro, babbling, screaming in strange languages, attacking each other, going to the bathroom in the hallway. Some sat in corners or against the walls, staring into space or shaking uncertainly. A few groups like Cherryn's were slinking about with as much care as possible, just trying to get out alive - she watched someone throttling a young man by the stairwell, screaming that he had ruined the nation with his dirty tricks and turnings. Another grabbed onto Anise three floors farther down, intently quoting Shakespeare at her until Anise punched him and ran away.
"Green baby, white falls over the mother of the little critter in noman's land with PICKLES, for crying out loud!" he yelled after her, before someone else came up to him and started hollering that he'd better keep quiet, or the building would fall down. "But I wanna sleep THURSDAY!!!"
They passed a group of people madly having sex, a few feet away from him. Tearing off their clothes, tearing at each other. Scratching, biting, howling, screaming. Dying. Someone stood over them, intoning an exorcism spell from an old religion that didn't exist anymore and pouring nutri over their flowing bodies. "Amonos, green baby quiet with scissors, beat salomonlyquite gone…"
"Oh, oh, oh…"
"YOU CAN'T TAKE MY BABY!!!"
"What's the matter with a little congeniality?"
"Four days, and seven thirty nights of science.."
"Por todos los dias, I walked with the snowman crying… CRYING, dammit!"
"Adeste, fideles, laete triumphatum…"
"Quite rabble with the waxy baby!" someone leered.
Down in the road, there was equal chaos. A few buildings were beginning to smoke out, and some people who had seeped out into the streets ran about screaming. Cherryn almost tripped on someone up ahead who'd just fallen, taken over by the convulsions.
It seemed to take an eternity for them to cross the street, to turn a corner and then another. People ran by them laughing madly, their eyes rolling. People collapsed shaking in the street, in the rain. People screamed, burst into tears, tried to climb under bushes and up the side of buildings with bleeding hands. And the longer that her family walked, the more people that they saw fall down at last, trapped in the convulsions that they now knew meant the end.
Cherryn's mother shivered but she didn't say a word. Cherryn herself wondered what it felt like to die this way, so hard, out on the cold, wet stone, in front of everyone. She wondered if people even knew that embarrassment anymore, once their minds were in such a strange state.
"Pizza forever!" someone outside the landing pad screamed, in the throes of an argument with regards to whether there were demons or not. The woman's companion in this loud discussion was occupied by trying to chew off his hand, which he said was dirty and dangerous.
"Want a piece?" he asked Shale as they came by, and offered the young man a bloody fingernail.
"N - no, no thanks," Shale managed to shake it away, moving toward the other side of the street. Looking up Cherryn saw that some of the landing out further westward was burning. She could hear screams floating up from there on the wind.
At last they came all the way around, up the hill to the little gorge path. Shakily, the group stopped there a while to regain their composure. As soon as Cherryn sat down, she felt like she was going to fall over: all the energy in her seemed to just flow away, leaving her light-headed. The rest of her family looked a little blurry, but from what she could tell, they were in similar condition to herself. Slowly, they lay down on the ground, by this time not caring that they were only maybe fifteen feet away from the world gone mad.
After a while, Cherryn found herself, on the ground, and sat up a little. Her parents were holding each other tightly; both were pale, her mother was sobbing fearfully. Her sister was lying prone still, staring up into the stormy sky. She looked out toward the city and saw that lights were going out there, going brown: they too ran on the enet. Everything did. She shivered again as the world she knew went slowly dark.
"What - will happen to them?" Cherrn asked slowly, pointing toward the place from which they'd just escaped. "They're dying - why doesn't anyone help?" She tried to fight that thought down, that no one was coming to help, that they were trapped like this, but she couldn't. She had to voice her fears. To her, her voice sounded like a little child's right then.
"Probably they're too occupied with the problem in their own areas," her brother ventured, shaking his head. "What I wouldn't give for a comp seat now." Shale, strong and quiet, sat hunched on the ground now with the rest of them, just like them a prisoner of fate, not the hero she'd always looked up to. He looked wistfully back at the landing pad, as Cherryn tried not to imagine more cities like this, full of instant maniacs.
"Your brain is an electrical carrier," her father said, his voice trembling. "They - they don't know what they're doing, Cherryn. They - their minds are misfiring right now. They'll shut down soon, like the others we saw… I wouldn't be surprised if the hospitals CAN't do anything; they are completely hooked up."
Cherryn did not point out that their mother had just tried to get a job there, that if she had, she'd surely have been lost too. She could tell by the shaking woman's posture that she'd already thought of it. A scream rang through the distance and the scent of blood floated up to them on the hillock. Cherryn felt sick.
"We need to get out of here," her father said, rousing Anise who got up slowly. "We aren't fully away yet - we need to get as far as we can, before some of the - those people come near us."
Slowly, they moved into the gorge path and headed down. Cherryn drew a breath as she saw normality down there. At least something was stable, she thought. There were the lights appearing now, down below: those comforting lights, that only a little while ago had been happiness for her. There was the singing. There was - fighting.
As they came down the side of the gorge, Cherryn's family could hear a ruckus between what sounded like a few of the gorge people and some Harthaven folk who'd thought like her own family that it was better to remove themselves from the mess before they were hurt. "Come on," her father said, "let's get away from this."
Quickly they moved on, down toward the river, toward a bare patch near one of the dumpsters. The rain was coming down again, and in the sky lights flashed every so often. Anise shivered but Shale squeezed her arm. "It's lightning," he said. "Doesn't come down this far to the ground."
With some stones and rubble that they found near the smelly dumpster, Cherryn's family made a tentative shelter for the night. And trying to ignore the noise and the rain and their fear and sweat and the general dicomfort, they slept uneasily, piled in a close ball, less for warmth than for security, to make sure that everyone was still there, that no one would disappear in the night. Several times that night Cherryn heard various members of her family burst into the uncontrollable sobbing of stark fear, felt the shaking commence again. Once or twice, she guessed that it was she herself doing it, but her mind was so dazed that it didn't record the action properly. Later she would only remember that night in vague pictures, like an old movie that had been played till its film was furry with age.
In the morning, while Shale and Anise worked with their father to build up the shelter to be more stable, and their mother taped up the walls, Cherryn who knew the area went to look for her friends, not to mention other refugees. At least, this was the excuse she gave: really, she wanted to get away from her family, from any reminder of the previous night's horrors. Her family, working silent and grimly on the shelter, wasn't helping. Sobs still broke out every so often in the intense quiet, but mostly they worked like cyborgs, numb, dead-like. She had to get away, find some semblance of normality.
She found some other refugees not half a mile away near the cliff edge, gathered in and around a formerly abandoned group of trucks. Cherryn refrained from telling them the reason for the trucks' abandonment: a small outlier of the plague from Ravenloom City over the water, that had attacked some of the gorge two years before. She decided they'd had enough bad news - besides, the people of the gorge, before deciding to leave the formerly infested areas alone, had dumped them full of soaps and cleaners, to be rid of the rat and flea carriers. So who knew if they'd catch it at all? Another gathering she discovered living in a hostile environment farther down, but maintaining their own by the river. She moved on quickly.
She found her old friends at Gerald's place. The man with the weapon who guarded the entrance looked relieved when he saw her. It was Georgia's uncle. "Madre de Dios, I thought you were another of - those," he spat in the direction of the nearest refugee camp. "Bad news, they are."
"Why?" Cherryn asked, startled.
The man tapped his balding head. " Loco, infermo," he said, scowling. "They've the devil chip in them: one last night, he tried to burn down Travidio's house over there." He pointed to the half ruins of a charred stone construction, at which people were scurrying about. "We do not mind your folk, Cherrinita, but this - this is bad magic!"
It's the enet chip they're talking about, she realized and felt sick again. That family must be only half hooked up. Did all the members know what was going to happen to them? "They - they won't be here long," she told him. "It will kill them eventually."
"Hopefully, before we do!"
She shivered at all this talk of death and murder, and went inside. Gerard looked pale and sad: Ernie had died in the first wave of insanity up in the pad, he said. "My poor little boy. My poor, poor little boy..."
"Killed by YOUR technology!" hissed a woman who must have been Ernie's mother from a corner, at Cherryn. She was plump and old, wrapped in a brightly colored head cloth, a dot on her forehead.
"Erica!" Gerard pounded his fist on the bar. "This is not the time! It was not Cherryn's technology: I have told you, daughter of mine, her family does not use that! Be polite."
Erica glowered at Cherryn, but subsided. "I'm very sorry," Cherryn said to her quietly. "He is right though. We don't - but what is this about a family near here who does?" she looked at Gerard.
The old man sighed. "So we heard also. The stories about this net - we do not know much about it, but - "
Quickly, Cherryn told him all she knew about the shutdown, what was happening to people who had the chip in them. "I guess they'll all burn out like that before long," she said. Ernie's mother looked disgusted.
"Tragedy," Gerard shook his head. "This is bad, this is very bad. It was good of your family to come down here, though. Now you will be safe! Let us know if you need anything."
She smiled. "Sure, thank you."
The Red Cross cyborgs appeared a couple of days later. By this time, those who had been able to get out of the buildings had done so, and a fair-sized community of them were living down in the gulch, whether the people there liked it or not. As Cherryn had predicted, though, the family near Gerard's little complex had "burned out" fast - within days there was little left of them, and a few other families disappeared similarly. The Red Cross moved about, trying to convince them that the buildings had been cleaned and cleared, that there was no problem anymore, but only two of the refugee groups listened.
Cherryn's family did not, to her own relief. They were all adjusting to settling in here; her mother and sister and father were looking a lot less pale and she felt better every day. In this calmer, more jovial environment, it was hard to feel anxious for long. They'd even been to two night parties of the gulch people. "No," her father said, as he paused in assisting her mother and brother to tack down some better roofing that Gerald had helped them get hold of, "we will not move." The shelter was looking much better now: it had four walls at last, built of heavy cartons of plastic, with cement bricks for the raised floor and long steel beams that were tacked across these on the inside, before metal sheeting was added. The metal, aluminum, had been easy to find once they'd known where to look: abandoned scrapyards of the landing pad were full of stuff that the people of the gulch constantly used for just such a purpose.
"But you won't have food," protested the worker, standing there in his cheap white suit, very clean and organized. "We can only give you a small supply of nutri. What will you live on - mouth food?" He said the word in a dramatic whisper, as if trying to horrify them.
"Perhaps," Cherryn's mother said dryly from up at the top of the little house. She looked too thin, Cherryn thought; this had been hardest on her. "This is not your business. Though I will say this: if you people were fool enough to provide the dangerous hookup in the first place, don't you owe those of us who've survived more than that?" With the hammer which she was clumsily using, she indicated the small tank of nutri that he'd brought.
The Red Cross man frowned. "There - there are many more that survived than yourself, Ma'am," he said and ducked as she threw a shingle at his departing head.
The fact of it was, there really weren't that many more, Cherryn found when she ventured up into the city with her sister two days later. Wandering into the building in which they used to live, they found it practically empty compared to the intense crowding of before. They saw no women at all. "Where are they?" Cherryn asked a thin young man who was lounging in a corridor with five others - a very vast, open space, she thought.
"Up at the hospitals, being shot through," he said, using the street word for the in-vitro process that made people pregnant. "My wife, my sister, my daughter - everyone." He gave them a strange look. "How'd you miss the roundup?"
"Oh - we were out in the landing pad," Anise lied.
"Ah, I heard they had finally opened up that again," he nodded knowingly. "Quite a mess."
"Yes," she nodded.
"That's why the lights are on low and all," one of his companions put in. "Nobody around to do the work. Most people have been rerouted to the most essential stuff, like nutri processing work. It's even worse because the women will be gone for nine more months - we'll be in chaos till then," he scowled.
"Mm, only good thing's that there's more room," remarked another, stretching his legs. "Person can move about without bumping into thirty bodies in the hallway."
"It was good pay for a while," the first one had to admit. "Cleaning up the bodies - after that disaster, oh yeah, that was good pay. Red Cross gave twice what I usually get doing electrical work! If I wanted to now, I could go off on one of those ships too."
"You and all the others," his friend scowled. "That's the other problem," he said to the women. "Some of the families beat it out fast when they saw what was happening - those who didn't head down to the gulch rats headed for the landing pad fast as it opened, said they wanted off the world. And believe me, they took 'em - landing pad's in just as bad a crisis, actively looking for people to get themselves back up working again.
"They say they've even started taking gulch rats, though I dunno if I believe that. Blech. Filthy eaters! But whatever it is, they're gone now, all gone." He sighed. "Hell, I've even thought of doing it myself, but I kind of like this building. Grows on you, it does."
"Yes, I guess so," Cherryn nodded. "Well, we should be off - to the hospital, you know, since they - they need people."
"Mm, yeah," the men nodded knowingly.
She shivered down in the stairwell. "I'm not going," Anise said. "They can't round me up without my consent."
"'For the good of the people,'" Cherryn droned. "Isn't that what we were taught when we were kids?"
"Yes, but... I don't know, it just doesn't seem right somehow."
"No, it doesn't," Cherryn agreed, shivering again. "All the same, we should stay out of here for a while, then; people will wonder why we aren't with the others at the hospital."
Crerryn wondered what they did with the bodies. She could still remember all those people convulsing in the hallway, her first glimpse of their neighbor, charred in his own doorway, probably caught in a desperate attempt to escape - from what, she couldn't guess. Did they burn them? Did they bury them? For a moment, just a moment, she wished that she did have an enet hookup, so that she could find out the news.
She hadn't been pregnant yet; women started to go to the hospital at about age twenty-two, just after the age of adulthood. She wondered what it was like there, with all the cyborg assistants and the Red Cross workers. She knew that the only reason that they hadn't been pestered more by the Red Cross was because of the shutdown; of course all human workers for that esteemed group had been hooked up, and so of course they had lost all of them. So now they too must be working on only half power.
Bad idea, the enet, she thought as she and her sister clambered down the hill heading toward their new home. For a minute again, she regretted that she'd never had a hookup to her plug, and then that sensation was gone: after all, she wouldn't be here now, would she? She wouldn't be alive.
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