SQUEEZING BOTH SIDES OF THE STONE


By:
J.A.Howe

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"Merde, that's the fourth one this hour," Cherryn complained, swatting a fly away. In the dry heat of late autumn, she and the others of her neighborhood were camped out within the shade of the bus complex where Gerald and Gerard held court with all their grandchildren, cousins and other relatives. Beyond the rows of makeshift shacks and hovels where these people lived their hard lives was the river Loamline. It was only a trickle of brown right now in these months of drought. As in ancient Egypt, the people of the river waited for rain and conserved their crops.

The radio went back to music and she heard someone break into song in the bus above, humming on his siesta. "Hey Chica, what do you expect?" Shale, her brother, said. "This is what they wish for the world: their progress." He spat the word as if it were a dirty taste in his mouth.

"Agh, progress," growled old Gerald. "It is said the ships have a hard time out there--trade's bad. So what else can they do but try to push their product, eh?"

Shale had obviously supplied this information. He worked up at the landing base on the top of the hill, on the edge of Harthaven. "Trade with whom?" she asked, thinking of her sister Anise, who'd gone back to join them a few months ago. Them. Us and Them: always came down to that, didn't it? What if you had family who were Them? What then, did you call The Other Side? She wondered what Anise was doing now.

"China. Russia. The Euro Republic. They say, '¿If you have this trouble with your own people and this product'--sabes--'how could they trust you?' ¿Sensible, eh?" To the other countries of the world, then, she thought, all of us, hooked up or not, mutant or whole, diseased or anesthetized like the soldiers in the lower suburbs, are all Them.

The storm that had brought Cherryn and her family here had had repercussions around the country. Before this, they themselves had been "Hookups," working nine to five and getting their daily doses of Nutri without argument in the huge building where they had lived up in Harthaven. Their lives had been saved that night by the simple fact that they had not used net implants.

The world enet connection was also connected irreversibly to Nutri; if you were plugged into the enet then you were on a Nutri hookup. One needed the other, and so most of the world was plugged in and dependent on both of them. A very small minority, however, had decided to not get the plug-ins, and it was these people who had survived the danger that night. Now, because of the fear caused by that storm, many more Americans had "unplugged" themselves, like Cherryn's family.

"Too bad for them, I guess," she shrugged. "It's a dangerous fad; we all knew that."

"Yes but the price, eh?" the old man said.

Cherryn found it ironic that people in the rest of the world had centered on Nutri as their scapegoat for now, and not the much more dangerous enet. Probably, she thought, they found it easier to discount a food fad than to get rid of a computer connection they'd used for years. The enet had been around from before Nutri, she knew.

"Lies, all lies," Shale said firmly, grimly. "I'm going up to the base tomorrow on a mission." He put stress on the last word. "Me and some of the thieves."

They looked at him, shadow and light dancing across his face. His father looked very serious. "Well, you're an adult, you make your decisions." Cherryn knew that Shale went at times with the thieves on raids, not always for food. Sometimes he went up into Harthaven where they used to live, and he never talked about what he did but she heard.

A few days later, Shale destroyed a radio that was playing yet more Nutri commercials than ever. Cherryn couldn't say that she blamed him, exactly.

"It's okay to be a Ground Feeder, to live in the dirt and eat the dirt and the muck," the latest ad had been saying. "For real democracy, we need all types. That's what makes us special. Just remember as you dine on your grub-filled fruit and oily, greasy meat that you are making your body sick. You increase your risk of heart attack and cancer with every meal, your risk of stroke and bad breath every time that muck enters your system. Try Nutri instead: Just once and you'll be so in sunshine. It's so much better for you, say no to chewing...."

There had been reports lately that two of the computer companies that helped with hookups and net patches had declared bankruptcy, citing losses. Nutri people with new families or upcoming births were protesting. They wanted their children to have the same net access they did. But nobody wanted another freak accident like the one of the early summer. City funding had already poured into "making sure" that the local Hookups were "safe as possible." There had been an Awareness Day just the week before, up in town.

In the searing heat of that year, few crops blossomed and came to fruition. Some blamed the newcomers. Cherryn and her family got a few dark looks. But they were basically accepted, and she and the others toiled by day at the gardens, and went searching for grubs that could give some protein. A few went up into the city in desperation, looking for the only food they could find. These disappeared. Cherryn dreamed of them writhing in strange agony of pleasure as the first Nutri dose sizzled through their veins, then screaming, burning to death from the insides from electric shock during a storm.

The radio began blaring ads that were obviously geared toward the river people: get Nutri now and you'll be saved, they seemed to say in a roundabout way. The radio spoke of "global warming," a phrase that hadn't been heard in decades. "Leading science officials say this trend can only continue," Cherryn and the others were told as they sat around their small fires by night. "Soon growing things on this earth will be impossible." A ball of fire in the sky, she thought. The world is burning up from inside out.

She knew who the "specialists" were. Readers, people scattered around the country who picked out news and information of various sorts from the worldwide net for various clients. They emailed what they found all over the country, and the world. She'd had a thought when she was younger of becoming a Reader, though she didn't know how or where to start. Rumor had it that Readers often never moved from one place; that they sat in a room all alone, growing steadily in size on Nutri tubes until it finally killed them and their net hookup went dead. She used to have nightmares when younger that the Hookups never died even when the bodies did, and someone hacking accidentally to that site would come across a dead body--staring, staring.

During a perilously hot day in late November, the storm finally burst above them. Older folk and those with rheumatic problems had been predicting it all day. Down flooded a torrent of rain. Lighting lashed across the sky in its fury. Shale had disappeared again a few days before, and she firmly kept her mind off the thought that he might be up there.

Cherryn dozed a little, dreaming of flames rising and swooshing over everything she knew. A few times she woke up and was certain she could see moving water. "Cherryn!" cried Georgia, tugging at her, and she woke fully to see that the river was rising. It was heading for their homes.

"¡Vamonos!" Shale yelled, appearing out of nowhere, as Cherryn and Georgia dashed outside of the bus circle in horror. He raced up the hill toward the burning base, many people following. There was mucky soot on his face and his clothes, she saw, in the flickering light. "Come on, Cherryn!" Shadowy figures could be seen up there as they tried to put out the fire--every time they succeeded in one spot, flames would bloom in another.

"Are you loco?" she cried. He grabbed her had. "What have you done?"

"Trust me!" He waved to the others and her family who were catching up. A group of the thieves had gathered with him. "Trust me," he repeated more quietly, looking intensely into Cherryn's eyes.

They raced uphill in the torrent, dragging what small possessions they had. It was hotter up here, near to the fire. Cherryn prayed that no sparks would fly towards them. She tried not to picture her sister caught in that fire, screaming for help. She tried instead to imagine her up in space somewhere, on one of the stations.

Eventually, they reached a hole in the hillside rimmed in metal and set in brick. Cherryn wondered why this was the only place around that the river where people hadn't plundered. "In there."

They stayed near the tunnel entrance that night, listening to the flames and the rising water. Several people, had opted to go the other way, towards the city or the bridge for safety. Others still, like Gerald, had refused to leave the homes where they'd lived all their lives.

In the morning when Cherryn poked her head out of the hole, she found the newly charged river only ten feet away, lapping hungrily at its new shore. A sorry-looking scrap of a bird pecked in the muddy dirt. The water gleamed in the sun. It sparkled at them as if to make fun of the people. "I've never seen this," said Georgia's grandfather Gerard quietly, leaning on his cane. "But I heard that long ago, this river used to be so big and wide. Maybe we were only supposed to have a short lease." Gerard looked very pale and tired. Cherryn could not even see the golden tops of the bus compound where the old man used to live with his brother and their huge family.

She looked up to the city and saw the base half in a rubble. She found herself unable to say a word. Some of the more optimistic were saying that when the water came down at last, they'd have a booming crop. But with what, she wondered.

"…In local news, the river Loamline has flooded and its refugees are pouring in by the thousands, having lost their homes and food source perhaps for good. Death tolls in that area are well over six thousand, from drowning and the fire at the base. The state health department warns people to stay away from the waters, as they are very likely carrying disease from all the dead 'Ground Feeders.' The governor has yet again put a bill to the House for the burning of the ancient bridge here, to prevent contact with possible dangers across the river...."

Cherryn tuned it out after a while. Beside her Shale was fuming. "Trying to prevent contact! There's no threat up there; they hate the Nutri nuts. They're trying to prevent US from going over there to safety; that way we can only go into their city." Cherryn shivered at the thought of the plague town and having to go there but she saw his point.

"It'll be worse there now anyway, y'know," one of the thieves remarked. "Half that city is swamp and islands by now. If they're not dead now they soon will be, so."

"Si," Shale fumed, "and the guards are on the bridge, preventing us from going to take over."

She could see them in full up there, pacing back and forth, moving in the sun. Now what, Cherryn thought. There had to be a clean section still somewhere in that town. The radio still advertised vacation spots over there at times. Come see the ancient shipwreck, camp out on the islands, come use the airport's VR travel bay, where you can go anywhere you want and wake up in the same place you started.

"Well," said the thief, "so we go with our option after all, so." He nodded up the corridor, into the dark. Shale was nodding.

"This is why you brought us here?" Cherryn stared at him. She'd seen him a few times but couldn't recall his name.

"We use this road all the time, Chica," the thief said. "Eso es el verdito, y'know. Got it? We do that, so."

Georgia's grandfather nodded thoughtfully. Georgia herself sat back, trying to look tough. "Seems to be the only choice, though I don't like it much." The plague was everywhere over there as well as the rampant White Dwarf gangs running all over the place. And the rich folk, if there were still any over there, would certainly not want a bunch of refugees from the river gulch in their town. But the river people had no other option.

The darkness wasn't complete, thankfully. Small lights blinked along the corridor in places. Further ahead, Shale told Cherryn, near to the dwellings of the underground ones, were larger lights. "They're pale like stars," he told Cherryn when she asked what these people were really like. "They don't really spend all their time underground y'know, most of them spend a good time above in little communities and use these tunnels for stealing from other towns. They're always fighting amongst each other; there's never enough food. Very little grows over there, you see. But the real underground people, the ones who live down here for good, they're like ghosts and nobody knows what they eat. Maybe each other." Georgia shivered.

Slosh; Slosh. Down here it stank, badly, of various disgusting things. Dumping grounds, thought Cherryn. The sound of water, from overhead and under their feet, gave the place a claustrophobic feel.

"I'll be glad to get out of here," muttered Cherryn's mother, disdainfully. "It's so--dirty."

"Dirt's where life came from," Georgia remarked. " ¿ Y pues, who knows what we find up there?" A whistle came from somewhere overhead and they started forward again crawling up a ladder to a hole in the ceiling. Cherryn squinted, then stared, as she came out again into the sunshine and her eyes adjusted to a whole new world.

The remnants of trees, many rotting logs by now, stood all along the riverside. A few saplings and pale, weaker old trees had poked themselves in between these, and she saw the desperate holdouts of a few ancient gardens. Up ahead was the village they must have been heading for: this consisted of a few blank little buildings with cracked glass windows, where junk piled around and blankets flapped in the inconsistent breeze. The faded remains of old signs hung above some doorways along this belt. She saw a few shacks built along the flat rooftops. Somehow, in the wreckage, she found a strange, sad beauty, and knew that once this must have been a mighty city.

But the most lovely part of it all to Cherryn was the buildings in the distance beyond the muck. They were as tall as the sky, reaching in a rectangular or carved stonepattern for the clouds that were reflected in what windows remained. One of her favorite sights from across the river had once been the sunset, flickering gold, then red, across their surfaces, before nightfall. Within tangible distance they were even more amazing. So this was Ravenloom, she thought. Yes, I could learn to love it here.

The scouts came back a few days later, with strange reports. A small village had been seen farther down the river and more inland, from far off, in and especially dry place. Someone had spotted signs of a different group even farther north, towards the scrapers Cherryn had admired, but of them, the thieves knew little. All three scouts reported that the swamps had grown larger down here. The rich folks' section had moved to beyond the scrapers that Cherryn had seen, up in the drier side of town. They had supposedly once had a hold on an area where the land stuck out over the water farther up the river, but this was now an island.

"Then, there could be something in the water after all," remarked Cherryn's father. "Imagine the governor being right!"

"Mosquito sickness, they say," Shale told him. "They've had such things before, here."

"Mosquito sickness," Cherryn said.

"They bite you, you catch fever, burn up like the sand, and then you die."

"Oh."

"There's another one when you bleed to death, out of all the openings of your body, but it's the wrong time of year," one of the thieves said. The other thieves nodded solemnly.

"I'd choose the Dwarves over that," someone remarked. Cherryn shivered. "If people are dying down here..." There was a spate of curses in Spanglish.

"This is plague town, people die everywhere," Cherryn reflected.

"Yes," Shale agreed. "Wherever you go here, you find danger. The Dwarves don't like anyone not mutated among them; they're mutated from drinking the water over this way. Be careful about that, and where you go. It's mostly deserted down here, and there are few and weak peoples scattered. What you'll really find is people in strange places hiding from the Dwarves and hating each other.

"We should head for the island," he continued; "they'd have abandoned it by now, being afraid of the water. They're very afraid of water over here," he said knowingly. Several thieves nodded in agreement.

The people took a vote. Most opted to move inland, despite the aforementioned danger. They were more concerned about the mosquito death and whatever else was in this area's seamy, oily-looking water. Lesser of two evils, thought Cherryn. "Is compromise," remarked Gerard placidly. "We head inland for a while; if conditions still are not good and we can find better proof that they have actually abandoned the island, then we will go that way." Shale fumed, but gave in. Several of the thieves were sent out on a longer scouting mission.

"You miss that Nutri stuff?" Georgia asked as she sat next to Cherryn a few days later. "Was it really so good?"

"No and no," Cherryn replied emphatically. They were both very thin from lack of food: no one had yet dared to try eating anything that grew wild here, and the thieves were only just now out in search if something. Cherryn wondered where they went, if not to one of the villages. "You've heard tales; well most people hooked to such are also hooked to the enet, and when that goes..." She shuddered.

"I'm sorry, Chica," she said.

"No, it's all right. I used to like it when I was a kid, before you know any better. I didn't know any other way to live." She looked longingly at the buildings in the distance, so close and yet so far. "You really think they're dangerous?"

"I'd bet a whole chicken," Georgia said solemnly. She took to heart everything that the thieves and her elders said, that one.

But still Cherryn walked, like she always had. Cherryn had a compulsion to explore. It was what had brought her to the river people in the first place. She knew that if she hadn't gone there, she'd have gone to space. It didn't matter how she got there, she'd have stowed away somehow if the controllers on the pad wouldn't let her on a ship legally. Sometimes she'd even thought of just setting out into the unknown country, across America that was closed in on itself so much that you rarely heard news from other towns, other lives.

Inexorably her compulsion was now drawing her nearer to the blank, high towers. It was so quiet here on this side of the river. Even her own folk were more subdued over here, except the children who raced about their new building with the total glee of the young. As for the rest, they kept to themselves here, each family in its own rooms, some taking in a whole chunk of one hall or another for their own. Cherryn could at times hear her own footsteps echoing here. She liked it better outside, where she could see her towers. The inside of the building reminded her a bit too much of circumstances over in Harthaven. But the towers were like nothing that cold place could ever produce. So she went on and every day she drew nearer.

There was death, plenty of it, on this side of the river. Cherryn knew the stench well enough by now. Once while out in the evening, she'd even seen a group of skeletal forms with extended bellies and hollow eyes burning their dead in a large bonfire.

But there was also life here, perverted though it might be. Slanted trees and withering flames grasped and strangled one another in a fight for survival that was often futile. Birds still nested in this region, their eggs a new target for children on the hunt for food, and she heard frogs in the swamp, a rarity back on the other riverside. Some building had been almost entirely taken over by cockroaches and rats who fought in packs for supremacy, eating each other when there was nothing else.

There was also Nutri. That was what peaked Cherryn's interest after two months' living here, half the time camping outside the building on the cool steps despite her family worrying for her safety. Wandering one day in a cool rain, Cherryn had come across a track area and followed the metal rails for a long while, till she stopped at a familiar smell that jogged her own hungry stomach. Coming closer, past a giant field, she found a dumpsite half filled with old cans of Nutri. They were stacked haphazardly among the rest of the rubble; Cherryn remembered hearing of the plague riots and their devastation. She had never heard that there was Nutri here though.

The others were shocked when they heard as well. "What if that's what caused the plague in the first place?" Cherryn's father had suggested. All were horrified by the thought. Of course humans were tested on, but...

"We should find out how safe it is to live here, really," said old Gerard. "¿Sabes? Is dangerous, we move. ¿Eh?" The rest nodded in agreement. Cherryn's father, who'd been testing the waters around the region where they were living now, frowned thoughtfully.

"How many cans are there, that's what we need to find out," he said. They had camped up here on the basis of his finding generally neutral ground. "They should be counted, and then the water in that region tested, before we make a decision."

"Ay, why not just go!" cried Shale in irritation, throwing up his arms. "Garbage of any type is dangerous; we know already Nutri junk is dangerous. So we go towards the areas where the richies are, where it's bound to be safer."

"But that island, it is in the middle of a river where many died," said Gerard quietly.

"Yes, dear, it's liable to be dirty," said their mother.

"Why don't we go and count the cans?" Cherryn asked to pacify him. Shale grimaced but agreed for the sake of peace.

And so, they headed farther into the city to see if there wasn't a better explanation. Shale and Cherryn didn't go alone. Irene and Magyar, of the thieves, went along both for protection and--just in case. When they came over here, they told her, they always traveled in groups of at least three due to the danger of the Dwarves. It was rare for someone to die over here they said but it did happen.

They had been walking for several hours when suddenly they heard a roar from a small distance behind. Cherryn and the others whirled to see dust clouds. "White Dwarfs," hissed Magyar. "We have to find shelter. NOW. Vamonos, like."

"But they're far off," Cherryn protested and then saw how fast the machines they rode were going.

"RUN!"

But it was too late; a half circle formed about them quickly. This was made up mostly of people whose bodies were hidden in long cloths. Some, however, rode naked on the roaring machines, others half dressed. Their bodies were stunted and warped. Some had giant tumors in various places on them, while others were missing body parts entirely. There was a man with one eye and only half an arm who leered at Cherryn.

The large director of the group, wide as a rock, stepped out toward them. His forehead protruded over his brows, and he had a double cleft in his chin. "You I 'memba," he growled at Irene, whose eyes narrowed. "Figh' f' foof."

"No fight," Irene said slowly. "We only want to pass." Cherryn was eyeballing the giant machine that was parked nearby on the tracks: old and rusty, its pockmarked sides might be useful for hiding. The Dwarves rode around them, preventing the group from going far.

"Why you heah? Sis is our wan'. We toddu was' time ge' off." He moved forward menacingly.

"We're looking for something," Cherryn said before anyone else could. She pointed back towards the field, to the barrels. "More of that."

"Yik," he said eyes narrowing. "You wan' buyu in wronk place."

"Buy?"

"Yes, we want to buy," Shale put in quickly and the leader frowned, looking them up and down. Finally the Dwarf shrugged and signaled to his own people.

They roared up the road through the dead houses. At one point, Cherryn spotted a village in the distance. It was fairly large in size. "What do they live on?" she mused.

"Tube stuff!" howled the Dwarf with whom she was riding, who'd heard her. "What else is there, here, you know," she grinned.

"Tube stuff? You mean they eat Nutri?"

"'Course! What else? And sometimes then they contribute to our clan." The Dwarf grinned. "Changes 'em, you know. Changes their brats. Don't want 'em anymore after that… huh. Sometimes it just makes 'em sick--like, so."

The plague. It does start the plague here, Cherryn thought: people became sick as the stuff was being perfected, because they got the working product. "But--surely now that they have the stuff right, well, better Nutri if nothing else," she ventured which set the Dwarves all around her to roaring.

"Why would he give them that? What would they pay for it with? Nah, there's plenty scraps."

Scraps. Bad Nutri. Stocks of it all around the town, Cherryn thought, feeling sick. So the people here would never be well again, would probably die from who knew what. She shivered. Not even the Red Cross cyborgs came here; this was noted down as a biohazard zone, only not destroyed because people still lived in the area. She'd have to get back and warn her family, the river people. This land was not safe. She caught Irene's eye and saw agreement from farther off.

"We bring you in," barked the leader and she looked up to see a huge building towering over them: it was all of glass and metal and stone, this structure. Fumes leaking from a nearby pond reflected in stained glass windows. The door was thick and wooden. The Dwarves parked at a respectful distance in the small garden of fake plastic and ceramic plants.

Inside the lobby were a hundred terminals, no a thousand, where people were getting their daily feed. Many were done up to an amazing degree with makeup all over their faces and arms and nails, with tattoo pictures on their extremities, wearing silks and cloths of amazing print and design. They all had a certain glazed look to their eyes as they wallowed in the Nutri daze. The Dwarfs danced around them, laughing and cackling, picking out jewelry to steal, limbs to pinch. "You see? Lifeless, for at least an hour. A real gourmet feast!"

"Who are they?" Cherryn said, horrified.

"Rich," snorted Irene knowingly. The Dwarf nearest them, Cherryn's rider, nodded.

"Ya-huh. They all live here, take transports around the country, special ones not for site workers you know. They do stupid things, unnecessary things for life. They build that garden out there when the Nutri dumps destroyed the plants," she said and her eyes glittered. "They used to be bigger those gardens." Cherryn shuddered.

The others meanwhile had centered in upon a young man. He was very thin, a stick figure almost, you could see the bones in places. Scars and rashes covered his body almost fully, where it wasn't covered by rich clothing. One hand and both of his ears were overlarge in size. "C'mon, Larry," they laughed, tugging at him. Cherryn saw his ears had many piercings, an interesting contrast to the shirt and slacks he wore.

"Who's that?"

"Larry," the Dwarf rolled her eyes.

"He's an addik," the leader told Cherryn. He stood watching the group leaning on a thick cane, one leg twisted. "Fucka loves 'at s'uff. We've try ge' 'im off it loss, nevva made it, no."

"And they let him--get a dose?"

Cherryn's rider laughed. "He works here, so of course he can." She grinned knowingly at her. "Don't tell me I don't know that's why you're here too."

Was this the only real food this side of the river?

"We're not" Shale said coolly, coming up to stand by her. "We'd just as well see the place fry."

The female Dwarf turned her grin on the younger man. "Good enough, come along." The leader whistled to the others, who let poor Larry alone to his lolling and trooped after, up into the elevator.

"Welcome to Nurti Corp," chimed a female voice.

A man came to see them. He was formally dressed in rich clothes with unbelievable sheen. "Welcome," he said, "I understand you want to blow up the building."

"Fucking Ay-Eyes," muttered the Dwarf beside Cherryn and blew a socket. In a shower of sparks the person disappeared. Cherryn's heart jumped. She knew of holograms, but had never seen one.

Sliding doors opened and another man came out, looking furious. "Every time, you blow security system, mess up code things! You do this, we do not like. I TELL you, no do that!"

"'S annoyin'," said the leader. "Pete, we go' customahs f' you." Cherryn felt uneasy again as she and her companions were eyed. She could feel her brother right behind her, tensing.

"H'yh. Not bad," said the man Pete. "Is for hallway, I thinks. You know swim?" he asked Cherryn flopping his arms ridiculously. She shook her head. "Ah, well, no mermaid. Still, is good." He nodded. "Four pay, you get stock option."

The leader o the Dwarves bowed. "Ha' fun, gu's." Magyar made a fist at him but the leader only laughed and went off with the others.

That was how Cherryn ended up working once more for Nutri Corp. She was a live model, the fad these days among rich folk, or so she learned in no time at all. During the day she'd portray paintings and sculpture, with an hour break for lunch. Her day of grueling immobility began at five. She was not allowed to mingle with the people for whom she posed.

She could, however hang out with the lower folk. So she met Larry who when he was not drugged on Nutri worked on the building electricity. He was a nice guy for a Dwarf, as Irene put it. "We were trying to find out about the stuff, not get trapped," Cherryn said and Shale nodded. They'd find a way out, he said. He was working in the bays, setting up people to be "pumped" at regular intervals. Magyar and Irene worked in the mixing department.

"Patience, girl," he said. "We have to scope out the situation."

They lived by night and on off days--because even here, they respected the laws that said you had to have vacation days--in the huge complex Cherryn had seen from afar when she first approached the tower. It was a shack village like the old one across the river, but different: the people here had a sort of communal dump all organized where they got parts and pieces to make the things they needed. Some were very intricate: sculptures of metals and glass, lovely clothes of rags and paper. Though many of them worked at Nutri Corp, few were actually hooked on the stuff, as the Dwarves had indicated. They mostly lived on weak plants grown in their small gardens and the hundred tons of dried milk someone swiped from the Nutri base occasionally. The Dwarves too, Cherryn learned, stole for these people and they sometimes would stay within their village.

"Why work there?" she asked Larry one evening as they wandered down in the silent town. It must have been such a place, this city, Cherryn thought. Sometimes she worried about her family but Irene and Magyar had said that it wasn't unusual for a thieves' mission to last for over a month maybe more: the thieves there would tell them so.

An empty highway swung overhead, looping in the air on pillars like a mythological beast writhing. "Why?" He asked, leaning against one of them, picking at an earlobe. The ring in it jingled against another piercing. "Something to do."

She sighed. "How many people over here are hooked to the enet?"

"Oh, the rich ones are, mostly. There are a few contraband computers out there in the village. Real physical comps I mean."

"I used to work on one, back where I came from."

"You used to be hooked up. It's not hard to tell, you know. We know where you're from. When we had that storm last year, and we heard about the deaths--there were a few here too--heh heh--we knew there'd be a few smart ones. And that your thieves would bring some over here when the river flooded. They know too." He nodded in the direction of the huge Nutri building.

"And they keep us here hoping some of us will turn back to their product?"

He snorted. "We've been told since then to keep an eye out for any of you, yeah. Not to harm you." He shrugged. "Addicts," he grinned dryly, "are the easiest to pull back in."

"You work here so you can get your fix, they say."

"Uh-huh. Oh, look, there it is." He crossed himself at that moment as a sound was heard in the distance. Finally, whistling smooth as water down the road overhead there came a vehicle. It was similar to the one near where Cherryn and the others had met the Dwarves first. But this one moved without tracks, upon smoothly rolling wheels. Larry stood in a reverent silence until it had passed. Cherryn saw there were people inside. He sighed. "Wish I could."

"What was that?"

"Site workers. They go all over the country doing odd jobs for the government: artists, like you, heights workers--that's checking for alien signals and watching the sky for dangerous objects--then there's reader jobs. Archaeology, digging up bones. Most of them aren't hooked up at all, like you; they carry their own little comps, they're the ones who ran away, didn't want to be tied down. The government decided they must be useful for something, so they gave them these jobs."

Readers. Cherryn thought of her old childhood wish. "And here I thought readers only stayed in one place."

"Some do," he said derisively. "No freedom, all hooked up. I've seen them; we get called for firemen's work at times. Stuck up in a room forever. We usually leave 'em; it's better for them that way. When you've been a Hookup all your life, you know…"

Cherryn grimaced, feeling sick, and changed the subject back to the site workers and their bus. "I wonder where it stops."

He laughed at her. "Not here. Local law against that; no site work in this town." He said the last wistfully.

"Controlled by Nutri Corp," she guessed.

"Uh-huh."

"You saw site workers huh?" Irene said later on. She didn't seem impressed.

"You already knew about them."

"¿Que mas da? They can't come in here--yet."

"Yet?"

"Things change, Chica," Irene's eyes glittered. Shale had disappeared only the day before to go look for his island; Irene and Magyar were still around. Cherryn wished that she were home with her family; she didn't have the heart for these thieves' missions that hid something a bit more intense.

The radio that night blared in the village. "Confirmation that the blaze two months ago at the base was an internal job. The police are not naming suspects, but say to be on the lookout for anyone who looks suspicious. Police Chief Ron Vogren is quoted as remarking that 'it might be a river job done for vengeance. There are several known terrorist groups linked to the river people; those poor folk are very angry.' The cost estimate for rebuilding the base is close to ten thousand dollars; in the meantime ships have been reverted to Solomon Port down in Kaewooten Kunanga and supplies bused in, risking the dangers of the highways…"

Cherryn, who'd been sleepily mending a rug, poked her head out the door of the shack where she lived for the moment, to see the partiers, when she heard the cheering that announcement caused. Of course her brother was among them. She went back inside just as he appeared on a box and began to yell about something; she didn't want to know.

A few days later, Cherryn moved. "Special commission," said her dressers. She wouldn't miss sitting cramped all day in the art booth of the Nutri accounting office. Watching people look like zombies as they tuned in and out of the enet, typing and yelling quotes and commands to the air. When she asked where, all they would say was "Upstairs."

Upstairs were the offices of the boss, the old man who was head of the company. He did what all day, she wondered. She had horrible thoughts of having to keep pose while he, some huge slob, sat all the time in a Nutri daze, drool dripping down his face.

The room where she was put was pretty. Cherryn sat as a portrait in the left wall from the door. The man who came in was neither a slob nor drooling. It was Larry.

"Aw, there are no real cameras up here anymore," he said. "It's okay."

"You." She should have known, of course; the great Nutri addict was its promoter.

"At the moment, yeah. I didn't start it, no, but I play the part when it's needed. Most of the time I'm just lucky he was a crazy old recluse."

"Was."

"Was," he repeated cheerfully. "We killed him a while ago. You know who he was? This guy went to war and lost his internals; I guess they were partly burned away by acid or some damage like that. Bio war crap. He didn't come back fit enough for implants or anything, so they took out all they could and connected his esophagus to his stomach and he half died trying to eat. That's why he created Nutri, so he wouldn't have to."

She could tell he admired the man by the tone of his voice. "So now all this is yours?"

"Has been for four years, yeah. I'll have to give it up soon though," he added wistfully.

"When the other Dwarves find out?"

"No, no," he laughed. "Wow, you people over the river are blind and dumb. We've been at this awhile, trying to take the company down. How many lives have been screwed because of them? You should come listen to our singer some night, hear him tell the tale, give the lists."

"That storm last year was very helpful. Nutri's already screwed, going much faster than we thought. Now all we have to do is finish it off. Pow."

"But what about the people living now? The ones still on it? You'll still kill hundreds, thousands doing it this way," she protested. "What about those who are hooked up to the enet and have to be fed?" Her beloved readers, a childhood half myth to which she clung.

"Nobody has to live that way," he told her though he himself seemed only half convinced. "It's wrong."

She felt revulsion then just as she had once felt revulsion for the Red Cross people who came all the time to try and convince them that Nutri was the way to go. Us and Them, she thought.

"This is wrong," she said to him. "Telling people what to do? You should listen to yourselves. Back over there, on the other side, we used to have the Red Cross people come constantly to tell us we weren't living healthily that we'd die. The radio ads said so all the time."

"I know. I helped make some of them," he shrugged. "It's a scam."

"No THIS is a scam! You're going to kill others, innocent people, because they don't believe the way you do? You should have been satisfied with killing the head guy. HIM I guess you could consider at fault. Those people had nothing to do with your mutation or the deaths."

"They promote it."

"They know no other way to live! They believe they're right just as strongly as you believe that you are. Let it go. Let some other jerk take over here."

"And let's all live in peace," he sneered. "You know your sister was killed by them? When they put the first dose in, she keeled over--and--"

"How do you know that?" she asked, trying to keep her wits.

"You kidding? We check on everyone who's hooked up. Everybody, every baby. Nobody gets by."

That was when Cherryn lost control, and she hit him full force, screaming. "My sister was NOT hooked up to the enet! None of us were, you asshole! And I am not going to let you kill all those people!" Every word was punctuated by her hitting him against the floor. Cherryn wrenched free at last and dashed out of the room.

She ran down deep into the heart of the village nearby. People out looking through the dump for new equipment pieces watched her go by without batting an eye. Around here it wasn't uncommon to see folk running from a White Dwarf, even in her eighteenth-century dress that ripped as she ran full force. Or from Nutri Corp, for that matter.

Cherryn ran till there was nothing left in her, and found at last that she was down by the river. The bridge to the other town was a mile south of here; she could see that it was blocked off, that packages and military people swarmed over its length. She sat down among the rotting trees and cried. The jewels of her outfit flashed in the sun.

Irene found her that night. Cherryn was sitting silent watching the river go by, glistening and full, wondering how many had died in its flood. "You killed him," were the first words out of her mouth. "You killed him, you know that? The news has been full of it, they blame the death on the Dwarves, of course, because they didn't know about the plan. They just put in a new CEO, not one of us."

"One of us?" Cherryn repeated. "So you think you're a Dwarf now? But you know they look down on anybody who's not a mutant. Is this why we stayed out here?"

"They worked with us," Irene said stubbornly. "They were going to help us."

"Help you?"

"Help us get to that island. Dammit, Shale said you were better than this."

"I don't doubt it." Her brother doing stuff like this somehow didn't surprise Cherryn, not at all.

"But Larry was alive when I left."

"He's dead now."

"Yes, you said that," Cherryn said dully. "I guess I'm a real hero as far as the Nutri nuts are concerned."

"You're' just as bad as them. I should have known better than to trust a former Hookup." She got up then and Cherryn heard her footsteps fade away into the distance.

Cherryn sat by the riverside for a long time that night, watching stars come out. She didn't care if the Dwarves came to kill her in vengeance, but none did. She knew that she wouldn't be safe over here now, though. Well, she'd go look in the morning for better shelter. Somewhere near the swamp. Where Dwarves' bikes couldn't go.

Around midnight, the people of Cambridge blew up the bridge. Cherryn watched its flames dancing towards the heavens, shadows moving a month them as section after section of the old, old structure fell. Chunks thunked noisily into the rushing river now somewhat receded over the past few months to about half what it had been after the storm. Us and Them, Cherryn thought sadly. What if the thieves had had this planned all along, had taken the opportunity of the flood to convince the people to move while it looked like it wouldn't ever go down, so that they could further their agenda over here with a larger force? In days to come, Nutri Corp would be powerful again, whatever the thieves' plan, the Dwarves' mission, had been. Stocks would jump; scandal always did things like that, she knew. The Dwarves would be looking for her by then. But Cherryn, like the bridge, would be long gone.







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