J. A. Howe
Cherryn sat in the uncomfortable but fuctional chair behind the terminal as she had been doing for days. Training had been so dehumanizingly repetitive that time itself had become little more than a soft blur of minutes and she had lost count even of them. As always, the terminal had a single question for her the moment that it detected her weight upon the hard surface of the platform that the company called chairs.
Her fingers tied themselves into knots from memory. 'Ch' she began. She felt the searing heat of a million phantom eyes watching her as she backed the cursor up and typed 'Rainbow.' It was her first mistake on the job and Cherryn, now Rainbow Gallagher, knew that one mistake could be the end of her life. Just one real person asking the right questions and the cops would find her. Worse, the Nutri people would have her if she was ever caught.
There were tales of people eating other people in the past. Is that what will happen eventually to all of these, Cherryn - no, Rainbow, she corrected herself - thought as she stared up and down the rows. Fluorescent lighting, used because it was cheaper, reflected on the rows of bodies in stasis. Her manager Helen told them all as trainees four months before that these were Hopefuls. They were people who’d been frozen days or years before in hopes of revival someday when medicine had come so far. Some were dead, some not. To Cherryn the Rainbow they were just lumps of meat.
…But she needed the job. Rainbow Gallagher - so said the records - needed a place to hide for a while, and this was as good as any. She found a grim sort of irony in her new station, anyway: who better to serve the dead than someone who’d committed murder? She could see Larry’s face in that of every wide-eyed corpse she checked each day. Sometimes at night, she’d wake in a cold sweat seeing him as clearly as she saw them, his rotting body reaching out for her.
“Don’t be too quiet; blend in,” those were the words of someone she’d run into on the way here who’d helped her get this job. Another site worker; she could tell by the patches on his clothes. So she worked at hanging out every so often with other employees, going to the stripper parties on the odd weekend. Making friends. Just not good ones.
They couldn’t afford Nutri down here on Black Worm’s south end. Rotting fruit, half-gone that was what you got. In this town, nobody who grew stuff used chemicals for fear they’d be poisoned ones. Rainbow wondered what Dara used.
She’d been back once to the house with the tree. The dark woman had looked her over. “Well, you’re gaining weight in a way,” was her cryptic greeting. Before she’d plied Rainbow with her own food.
Tonight there was to be a party; someone had blown up the temple downtown during a riot over the lack of food. Nutri had been putting the pressure on the towns nearby to buy its product, and the local governments were therefore trying even harder than before to enforce Plugging In. Rainbow had heard that the Non-Believers had taken advantage of this to destroy the building.
“So how’s block 98?” her coworker Edida called.
“Two misprints,” said Rainbow. That was what they called the rotten ones, the “definitely dead.” Officially they were left on the books and family members - descendants in some cases - were left to believe that their great-great somebody was still as beautiful as Evita in her casket (which was in fact what they called the live sleepers, the frozen ones). Unfortunately, she knew, the wasting bodies were removed and sold on the black market. She didn’t want to know where. Rainbow had stopped eating meat down here thanks to a certain rumor.
Edida looked at her mischievously, knowing the deal. “Your find, your cash,” she said.
“Thanks, no, I’m a vegetarian,” Cherryn said trying to joke about it.
The other woman laughed. “Rainbow, sometimes you’re too snooty for your own good. Whatever, good night.”
“’Night.” She went to clear out.
Gulping air, Cherryn made it up to Dara’s house that evening. The stars were very pale over this town, as if it contained a sort of sickness.
“Hard day?” Bronte, back for a visit, said. “Having fun with corpses, Rainbow?”
“Blech.” Cherryn entered, and for a little while she could feel relaxed, like she wasn’t walking on bits of glass.
A lady wearing tight pants came up to her later on, while she was trading dirty jokes with a guy from the circus who juggled glass balls. “So I hear you’re good with a knife,” she said. Cherryn felt her heart rate go up.
“Maybe,” she said as casually as she could. The woman was looking her up and down.
“You aren’t mutated, though… a spy? Central Intelligence?”
Cherryn shrugged. “Rainbow Gallagher,” she said and held out her hand, deciding to play along for a bit. She tried to remember the posture of the gangs downtown. “I know fifty ways to maim you with this hair pin, so don’t fuck with me.” She leaned close to the woman who blanched and turned quickly away.
“How charming,” said Rick the juggler when the woman had gone. “Trying to build a reputation as a killer?”
Oh, if you only knew, she thought. “Who said I was only trying?”
He pulled a small, glimmering ball out from behind her ear. “Rainbow, my dear, you are amazing. A beautiful and deadly lady - like white oleander.” He handed her the ball.
It was crystal, somehow made to shimmer in many colors - like a rainbow, she laughed to herself. “Lovely.”
“Clever, stupid but clever,” Dara said, appearing next to Rainbow. Rick bowed and made an exit with a wink. “Do you know who that was?”
“No, the woman. FBI, girl, if that means anything.”
“Federal Bureau of Incompetence?” asked Bronte, grinning behind her.
Dara shot her a look. “She’s an assassin, actually. Comes here sometimes looking for recruits.”
“Right now, though, she’s in town for a different reason. Escorting the body of the President of NutriCorp to the freezers downtown. To make sure he arrives there safely.”
Cherryn’s eyes widened. “But he’s dead…” She knew what would happen to that body. “I have to go.”
Dara grabbed her shoulders. “You go near that body and you’ll be taken, kid. Let it go where all the dead ones do,” she said. “It’s a trap.”
“If she’s there to protect it, I’m going to be there to make sure it goes there,” said Rainbow.
Dara looked at her for a moment thoughtfully. “You are changing. All right, go then.”
She dashed off, knowing she was being followed.
Down among the corpses, she found quiet. “Hey, you aren’t on this shift.”
“I’m filling in for somebody,” she called, dashing up the corridor to the comp room. His name, his name… She pulled on plastic gloves and threw her cloak over her head. She felt thankful now that the outside was all black. “Not yet here, huh, Larry?” For a moment she had a vision of chopping the corpse into pieces as they did, and then somehow adding those chunks into the Nutri itself back in town, right at headquarters. “Not practical,” she said to herself in disgust. “What am I doing, anyway?”
Living, she reminded herself.
What if I took him and sold him myself? No, too bold, she couldn’t do that either. She frowned, poking at the computer. Her eye caught the clock: 4AM, he’d be there soon. Deliveries came at dawn and dusk. She could imagine the elaborate funeral his family had had for him.
Footsteps plunked down the hallway. “Hey! You there - FBI, official business.”
“Good for you,” said Rainbow, not turning. To the left she noticed Jade, her friend the site worker. Sent by Dara or here by chance, she wondered.
“Step away careful, from that station.”
She wondered if the freeze mechanisms in the database, used for when she had to take out an Evita for medical care, were up and running. You could freeze a whole room… No, too risky, she thought.
The woman was coming up closer behind her. “So what’s the price on me?” Rainbow asked changing tactics.
“Freeze!” said the FBI and she laughed in spite of herself, feeling calm all of a sudden.
“Yes, that’s what this place is for,” she said.
“Hey, chica, put down the gun, ¿eh?” Jade said.
The woman whirled. “You!”
Cherryn looked over at him and saw the detonator in his pocket for once, the tattoo of one of the local gangs. “Bomb threat,” he grinned. “We were told to take out this building.”
“Okay, put the bomb down carefully…”
She saw the woman’s eyes darting as she sought exits. She heard the door to outside open, footsteps. That would be the morning crew coming. With the latest entries. “We could freeze her,” Jade said.
“I thought of that, but how would we get out?”
The woman was still wondering what to do, Rainbow could tell. She would probably pounce on one of them soon, once she thought they were off guard. She really didn’t want more blood on her hands. Out in the corridor Rainbow heard the dollies they used to transport bodies. She could always run…
When she was younger, she used to play a game called “I see” with the other kids in the building. Someone would say something they’d spotted, and try to describe it to the others. This would be passed down the group of kids in exact wording till it reached the end. The last kid then had to try and repeat what it was they heard that the first one had seen. It was always different from the original sighting though, she recalled. I see her getting shot, she thought. I see the building blowing up. Wouldn’t it be funny if it did so, just at this moment? But Dara had connections with all the local gangs and Rainbow knew that she could report attacks to those who would need to know.
“You know what they do to corpses down here, ¿hermana? He’ll be lunch meat in an hour.”
Rainbow stopped dead. “¿Que? What did you say?”
“New owner of Nutri wants to make sure that he’s dead. I’m supposed to bring the head back to be sure.”
Under-corrupt corruption, thought Rainbow. “Who owns Nutri now?”
“Dwarves, basically, and a fringe pocket of people who work there. Led by some
Rainbow frowned. So the Dwarves' plan had been screwed, she thought. “And me?”
“If you’re good, and let me do my job, girl, I won’t kill you.”
Suddenly Cherryn the Rainbow laughed. It was all too ridiculous. The woman clearly
didn’t know who she was. “Okay…"
That was when the FBI person made her move, shooting just as Rainbow ducked.
Idiotic to believe her, she thought, cursing herself as Jade gave a yell and smoke filled the room. “Come on!” he said. They dashed down the hall.
For the first time Cherryn heard sirens outside. Her throat closed; they had surrounded
the building. She and Jade jumped into a dark supply closet.
“Non, mi amor, you aren’t,” he said and hit a hall torch. Yelling and footsteps mingled
outside. “Vamos.” He led her through an air duct.
“Won’t they be looking up here?”
“Sure, that’s the point. I have my hombres downstairs ready to rumble.”
Rainbow stopped, looked back at him in the shadows. “What are you running from?”
“No site worker asks that, baby. Keep moving.”
“Why are you helping me?”
“Because you did what you did and maybe someone’s going to finish the job someday.”
“I want him dead - destroyed,” she said between clenched teeth.
“Don’t worry about it, he’s pizza by now - empty casket came in this morning.”
An empty casket?
“Block 55, I think,” Jade grinned. “Todas las personas con dinero, you know.”
“We can get there through here?”
“That’s where we’re headed, baby.”
It was cold. She could feel hypothermia setting in as she heard the shouting, the
fighting, the sizzle of more gas bombs dimly and more dimly as her brain went quiet and she
collapsed in the tank meant for her enemy.
When she was let out, it took a while to recognize Bronte. The merchant slapped her to
clear the shock. The building was half in ruins, half burning. Rainbow took a morbid delight in
the thought that the woman was in there somewhere in the rubble, as she herself climbed out
tired and dirty.
“Dammit don’t you ever die?” Cherryn said wearily and started when she saw that it
was Jade. “You fuck…”
“Good cover, isn’t it?” he asked. “NutriCorp will pay nice for you.”
“If they can get me,” she laughed all of a sudden and flung her cloak in his face. The
multitude of colors whirled across his field of vision as he fought with the fabric, and she and
Bronte dashed the other way. Rainbow circled around him from the back and punched him in
the spine, tearing her cloak off him at last. She turned away and threw up as Bronte shot him
with his own gun.
“Nice work,” said the merchant and grabbed her hand, ditching the weapon.
In a daze, Rainbow let herself be led at a run towards the park farther up town.
There, she collapsed in one of the public bathrooms feeling dizzy and threw up again.
“Part of that’s hypothermia. You were in there a while,” said Bronte.
“I don’t know who’s who anymore, who to trust,” Rainbow eyed her suspiciously.
The other woman laughed.
“I’m just a bootlegger, sweetheart.” She gave Rainbow a damp kerchief for her
face. “Sure, I could make a bundle bringing you in, but I’d be dead myself not long after. No
sense to it, ¿sabes?”
“Oh, as long as there’s that…”
Bronte kissed her cheek again. “You lay low here awhile, hon. Dara already
knows where you’ll be, and - here.” She gave Rainbow a small band. “Anyone asks, you’re a
site worker. Where you go from here is your business.” She turned and disappeared into the
rubble of the nearby temple.
Cherryn the Rainbow stayed in the ruins wandering about for some days. She
played “I see” with herself as she spotted cops and gang members, and some of the rich.
Next day she laughed; couldn’t help it. Someone had stuck the head of the man
from NutriCorp on a post in the park. “So there,” she said and spat in his death-pale face as
crows picked at his eyes. “Rainbow Gallagher says so there.” And, whirling her cloak around
herself, she turned her back on him and walked away.
(C)2004 All Rights Reserved