Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
All Offers Considered
Penelope Lemon was a person of great decision and precision. Being among those who look ready for a formal dinner within five minutes of waking up and an early riser besides, Penelope Lemon was also among those whose disposition is eminently suited to the type of workplace encouraged by large corporations. So it was that Penelope Lemon found herself working quietly and steadily up the rungs of her engineering firm, among the always shrinking number of her colleagues who had managed to do so in one organization. Her passion for precision and efficiency was legendary, and her friends liked to tease her that she must be working on the perfect filing system in which everything was labelled and everything had its place. How surprised they would have been to learn she was working on the perfect antithesis of such a thing. Penelope Lemon's spare, tidy apartment, a pleasantly precise twenty-seven minutes walk from her workplace, had been an unexpected find, a real treasure. While she wouldn't dream of resting on her laurels, Penelope was in "sensibly comfortable circumstances." It all seemed so ideal. There was just one problem.
Penelope Lemon was bored.
The great puzzle was, having identified the issue and determined that it was not something like a cold or flu that would pass, Penelope wasn't certain what to do about it. She had a busy social life of sorts, a reasonable number of hobbies. Unfortunately, these facts didn't help much with the contents of her job, which like that of her remaining colleagues, paradoxically became less varied and challenging even as there was more work spread among fewer people. Work that despite its monotony gave her an ever greater sense of unease.
One day Penelope sat at the well-worn table in the lunch room, waiting for the kettle to boil for tea. It was a small room, cut off from any light from the outdoors except for what might reach it via a meeting room and two strategically opened doors. The floor had been replaced the previous spring, which while necessary, had not resulted in an overall improvement to the room's atmosphere. Penelope found herself staring at the flooring, a new-age linoleum of some kind, oddly lumpy. It had to be the most violently ugly floor covering Penelope had ever seen, and she had become something of a connoisseur for practical reasons. The uglier a floor was, the more likely she was to trip on it because ugly so often meant uneven. Shaking herself free from the orderly awfulness of the flooring, Penelope returned her attention to the newspaper.
Someone else had already absconded with most of the interesting sections, leaving the business section and several sheets from the classified ads. Penelope picked up the business section, hoping to at least read the latest acceptable workplace comic. Her lips thinned when she found the comic had been excised with a pair of scissors. "Asshole." Penelope bit out in the tinny silence of the lunch room. She flipped the page, and stopped short at yet another article that triggered her unease. It was artfully buried on a back page among garish advertisements, but there it was, recounting this week's back orders. The list used to be short, maybe ten or twelve things, silly ones. Like galoshes for instance, when it never rained in the city. Now, the list ran to several columns in the small type usually reserved for the stocks and bonds. The kettle finally whistled, so Penelope turned her attention to the teapot.
Penelope carefully pushed down the teapot lid over the steaming water and considered the tattered remains of the newspaper. Normally she wouldn't take any sections of it at all, let alone the pathetic bits sitting on the table. But this time, perhaps in a subconscious effort to shake her nagging sense of boredom and unease, she scooped up the few sheets from the classified ads in one hand and took up her tea pot in the other. If nothing else, it would be interesting to see if the missing parts of the classifieds included the job listings.
Back at her desk, Penelope discovered to her chagrin that she had pages not from the classifieds, but from the personal ads. Sighing, she was about to throw the pages in her recycling bin when one ad in particular caught her eye.
"Desperate in 'Burbs, lonely housewife looking for relief from boring, humdrum life. All offers considered."
In spite of herself, Penelope laughed. Switch "housewife" for "mid-level civil engineer" and "downtown" for "'burbs" and she could have posted the same ad. Well, it hardly mattered. A personal ad certainly wouldn't fix anything. She wasn't sure why, but Penelope had the unpleasant feeling that the sense of wrong she felt was more than boredom. Somehow the long back order list had finally forced her to face up to this. Shaking herself and setting aside the newspaper pages, Penelope returned to her materials stress analysis. Boring as a routine analysis of this type was, it was also vital to the safety and integrity of the building. Plus, she was being ridiculous. The ever-present juxtaposition of tedium and necessity clearly had her nerves playing tricks.
That had to be the reason. Being fed up, Penelope decided. Otherwise, how could the wretched personal ad of a bored and lonely housewife be so thoroughly distracting her? It was nonsense. There were days Penelope disliked her tendency towards "stick in the mud" status, but answering a personal ad was not the way out. Twenty minutes later, the analysis had ground to a halt as Penelope found herself mentally writing and rewriting her response to the ad.
"Oh for pity's sake!" she burst out. "Fine, fine, I must need to get it out of my system. Practically speaking, there's no way I'll get an answer." So Penelope saved her work, grabbed a pen and a pad of engineering paper, and settled herself to compose a reply.
"Also Desperate, lonely civil engineer looking for relief from boring, humdrum life. Meet me at Martian landing, Thursday 1900 for the purpose of escape."
Penelope stared at her missive for several long moments, caught between a desire to screw up the sheet of paper and throw it away or try again. The "Martian landing" was a real place, a designated area with a centrepiece post-modern sculpture that looked like suited aliens from The War of the Worlds stalking the hapless people who had only gone there for some sun and a nice picnic. The sculpture wasn't intended to imply such things.
"What the hell? Why not?" Mind made up, Penelope tore off the sheet and stuffed it in her pocket. Later that night, seated at her glass-topped desk at home with another pot of tea to her left and a neat pile of travel guides for various Mediterranean countries on her right, she pulled up the newspaper's personal ads section on her computer and typed up her answering ad. For a moment, her earlier resolution wavered. Did she really want to do this? Penelope took a deep breath. Was she decisive or not? The rephrase made the question easy to answer. She brought her finger firmly down on the enter key.
"Decisive." she declared, and turned her attention to one of the guidebooks.
"Tig! Tig! You around?" a sandy-haired, middle-aged man hurried through the front door of his house, nearly forgetting to close it. Nearly, but not quite. Dumping his coat and briefcase on the hall table and kicking vaguely at the door with one heel, he frowned and began shrugging off his suit jacket and struggling out of his tie. "Tig! Tig! For heaven's sake, where are you?" His tee-time was in less than forty minutes, and it would be to his advantage to be early.
"Yes, yes, here I am. I was in the garden." Tig met her husband at the bottom of the stairs, him running down them after putting on a golf shirt and different shoes, her reluctantly pulling off her gloves. Gardening was the one activity she could depend on to absorb her attention. "Is there something wrong?"
"What? Wrong? No, no." her husband frowned, trying to remember why he was irritated or what he had wanted. "Look, I need a sandwich, can't you fix something? I can't be late for this tee-time."
"Ah hah, the other woman!" Tig teased, mock flipping her braid over one shoulder and batting her eyelashes. Unfortunately, her husband rarely appreciated her sense of humour, and seemed oblivious to the gentle unease this instance expressed.
"Honestly Tig, I don't know what you mean. I've no time for such nonsense. Sandwich?"
Tig's lips thinned, and she turned and marched to the kitchen. She didn't think her husband was having an affair at all, unless devoting all his energy to his advertising sales job counted. Opening the fridge door to pull out ingredients for his sandwich, Tig had to admit to herself that she rather wished he would do something fabulously disruptive to their marriage like that. They were friendly enough to each other, everything very civil. He wanted a permanent housekeeper who could be trotted out when required at office functions. Beyond those details he was hardly interested, except in making sure to perform his "husbandly obligations." Tig was anything but fond of those, and was relieved he made no real complaint about their childlessness. In an unnerving sort of way, it could be called the perfect marriage, from a deeply cynical perspective. Except for the "husbandly obligations" which of course demanded "wifely obligations."
"Just wrap it up for me, will you Tig? There's a dear."
They had been married nearly fifteen years. In that period, Tig had, very much against her husband's wishes because he disliked the housekeeping being disrupted, been taking courses at the local community college, and then the university. Her husband couldn't see the point and so had insisted this "professional studenting" stop – and learned very quickly it was better for Tig to have something intellectually stimulating to fill part of her time. Without it, the housekeeping became disrupted indeed as Tig dissolved into a pit of depressed misery. So he had agreed to her continuing to go to school as, "that's cheaper than a shrink." And all other evidence of her interests beyond him and the house were banished to the garage. It was unheated, which he felt sure would cure the university nonsense as soon as winter came. It didn't, so he cut off the money, and put it all out of his mind. He resented her spending his money.
For her part, Tig had not been thwarted. Instead, she had a second day job, as she wryly put it to her next door neighbour, June. And she went to university, where she gradually completed a bachelor's and then a master's degree in chemistry. She had picked it on a whim, and stuck with it through the mathematics because it didn't feel like a stretch to say that what she studied involved recipes. June loved the description of what she assumed were cooking classes. "You're so arch, Tig!"
The cover chemistry indirectly provided allowed Tig to keep the peace in her home. It was hard, though. Mathematical competency proudly acquired, Tig heartily resented having to pretend she had improved her skill at flipping omelettes rather than developed several interesting though not terribly useful non-inorganic chemicals of alarming smell and appalling colours. Useless though they apparently were, Tig loved that she had created them. But then the dreaded day came when she was finished her program, and the last papers were submitted, and there was nothing else she could do without more money, and the ability to actually work on her studies openly. And she had collapsed in desperate tears in the garden, where June found her.
June, bless her soul, was clueless. Her immediate diagnosis of the problem was "lack of babies." So she bundled Tig into her own kitchen to have a "heart to heart talk" – really a sort of long, rambling lecture to which Tig was expressly prevented from contributing – about how a wife had certain duties to her husband, and they did not stop at keeping a clean house and a nicely laid table. After fifteen years of a near-perfect marriage, the clear issue was Tig's failure to produce any offspring. Perhaps, June suggested, it was time to see someone about her issues responding to her husband? Tig had agreed it was time to make a change. June had beamed and clapped her hands. "Just think how happy you'll be, once you have that little bundle of joy at home!"
Having escaped the strange, otherworldly atmosphere of June's kitchen, Tig had returned to her own, determined to make a change. Just not the change June had in mind. Before her husband got home to leave the front door wide open while he rushed to get ready for his latest assignation with the golf course, Tig had written and submitted a personal ad. It was short, blunt, and to the point.
"Desperate in 'Burbs, lonely housewife looking for relief from boring, humdrum life. All offers considered."
Staring at the two slices of bread in front of her, Tig bit her lip. What to put in this lousy sandwich so she could get her bland husband out of the house and she could check the results of her ad?
"Chop chop, Tig!" her husband shouted, voice rising in irritation. A loud clattering heralded the transfer of his golf clubs to the car. He had meant to load them up first thing in the morning, and forgotten.
Later Tig never could say what led her to do what she did next. For some reason, instead of inspiring her with mild irritation, her husband's impatient shouting inspired a cold rage. Flipping her braid back over her shoulder, Tig slapped peanut butter on one slice, mustard and lettuce on the other, stuck them together and wrapped it all in wax paper. He'd never open the package anyway.
"Here you are, dear." Whenever she said such things to her husband, Tig always had the skin crawling sensation she was somehow channeling June.
"Good, good. Faster next time, all right Tig? Should be home by seven, have coffee on won't you? I need to work after this." Then he was out the door and breezing down the street in his car with the trunk flapping as he drove away. It was as if he was allergic to closing doors, even the doors protecting his precious golf clubs.
Shaking her head, Tig sighed and turned to walk back into the house. She had run out to call and warn her husband of the peril to his golf clubs, and then thought better of it. He never took reminders well.
Tig pulled the door shut behind her, and collected his coat and briefcase to deposit in his home office. Then collected his shirt, tie, and loafers from the trail they made up the stairs to their bedroom. Then reduced the bedroom back to order after the whirlwind her husband had produced in order to extract a golf shirt from the closet, to notice too late the neatly pressed shirt laid out ready for him on the bed. Then she cleaned up the bathroom – how had he managed to mess it up so thoroughly without taking a shower? Then she returned to the kitchen and put away the sandwich things, before turning to the expensive coffee maker. Her husband loved it, and insisted it should make Tig so happy, having such an amazing appliance.
"Are you quite serious?" she asked him when he said this to her. It was too stereotypical, too cliché. Waiting for his answer, she surreptitiously pinched herself. This had to be a dream. Men didn't actually think like that, surely?
"Of course I am. What sensible woman doesn't appreciate decent household appliances?" her husband sniffed.
"Thank god I'm not sensible." Tig muttered.
"What's that Tig?" her husband had asked loudly, in the voice he used when he wanted her to stop talking and act more like a Stepford wife. He used it a lot.
"Nothing, dear." Tig had answered, and tried very hard to smile. It shouldn't have surprised her when she found she hated the coffee machine. What she did now she could never explain either. Setting the great, silver, glistening monstrosity up was quite easy. Set the timer, fill the hopper and the reservoir. It took awhile to fill the reservoir because of the ridiculous design of its top. The sequence of actions tended to put Tig into a sort of waking sleep, a peaceful, pleasant state. A frightening, dangerously alluring state. On her worst days, Tig would catch herself drifting into it, tempted to stay in it rather than face her humdrum existence.
"The hell with humdrum." Instead of coffee she dumped half a bag of her husband's preferred snack food – California pistachios, unshelled because he enjoyed snapping apart the halves between the knuckles of his thick fingers – where the coffee beans usually went, and left the reservoir half full. Then she returned to the computer, where she logged her ever-forgetful husband out, and logged herself in to check the responses to her personal ad.
It neither surprised nor disturbed her to see a whole pile of responses from men with evidently unsavoury intentions. Tig had anticipated them. Admittedly she hadn't anticipated so many, and one batch of twenty-seven seemed to be all from the same person. "Weird." Tig shook her head.
Nearly an hour later, Tig began to feel frantic. "What'll I do if there are no good offers?" The coffee maker began to make the whirring noises preparatory to turning on and decimating the pistachios. For three days nothing good had shown up, even stretching the definition of "good" until it snapped. This was day four. This was Thursday. Another night in this house was impossible. Unthinkable. An unheard of catastrophe. Tig began to sweat. And then she saw it.
"Also Desperate, lonely civil engineer looking for relief from boring, humdrum life. Meet me at Martian landing, Thursday 1900 for the purpose of escape." Today was Thursday. It was six o'clock – no, six-fifteen.
"Martian landing?" Tig blurted in bewilderment. "Martian landing? Dear god, I had no idea so many lunatics answered personal ads!" Then, "Wait, I know where that is! And anyway, if this person really does expect to take off in a flying saucer, how can it be worse than this?" She froze. A sound from the front of the house. After several long moments, Tig gasped in relief. The coffee maker had crashed. She ran and restarted it. The irony of a coffee maker so advanced as to include a computer and therefore so advanced as to crash for unclear reasons, could not be measured.
The coffee maker set to reboot and begin again with the pistachios, Tig returned to the computer in her husband's office. She tipped her head to one side. Pulled up a special window that her husband felt sure she couldn't possibly know how to use. "DEL C:\\*.-*" she typed, and hit the enter key, feeling a great bubble of glee in her chest. Making sure the command ran, Tig formatted the drive using a system disk, turned the machine off, and left the office.
Tig pulled the door shut behind her, and collected her coat and a medium-sized duffle bag from its inconspicuous place beside the dryer in the laundry room. Then she collected the trail of gardening tools and debris from the bed of lettuce to the back door. Then reduced all of that to serried order in the backyard shed and the shiny garbage can. Then she paid one last visit to the garage, emptied and swept once the last chemistry experiment was done. Then she walked to the bottom of the stairs, to do what? Tig stared up the stairs for a long time, duffel hitched up on her shoulder, comfortably dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, jean jacket and stolid hiking boots. Too much for the garden, of course. Perfect for the world. Taking a deep breath, she stepped out the front door, twisting the inside knob to set the lock. Paused on the threshold, she took the house key out of her pocket. Pulled the door shut, and set the bolt. Then she walked down the sidewalk, dropped the key down the sewer grating, and headed for the Martian landing.
She was back in the lunch room, and this time there was no newspaper at all. Penelope sighed, and peered in the glass bowl of teabags culled from the few meetings that included "hospitality," which generally meant poorly made coffee, teabags, and at best a carafe of coffee-tasting luke-warm water. No decent flavours today, which meant Penelope was gravely out of luck, as her own tin of teabags was empty. Disappointed but not ready to return to her grey office closest to one of the exit doors on the floor, Penelope carefully washed out her teapot. She even heated water to give it a serious scrub with the newest member of the collection of pot scrubbers. This was usually a Friday activity, and so after drying off the teapot Penelope would ordinarily have set it the cupboard to wait until Monday. Today, she took the cleaned out teapot with her.
Back at her office, Penelope glanced at the clock. It was forty minutes after 1400. It was Thursday. 1900 felt forever away. Penelope stretched, first up with a glance at the drop ceiling, then both arms straight out on each side, where she could almost touch each wall. Her leather briefcase sat on one end of her desk, her teapot beside it. There were no other personal items in the office as staff got moved around too often for that, and word in the corridors was they were being moved to a cubicle-only building in a few months. There wasn't even a calendar; all items that could be replaced by a utility on the office computers were banned. Several of Penelope's colleagues relished their jobs as "cubicle police" who tore down illegal items. Last week they had shredded someone's baby pictures, and the furious, weeping engineer had resigned on the spot. Thankfully, his partner had arrived very quickly to take him home, her eyes flashing with rage, and so the formidable the manager swallowed his obnoxious lecture about banned items and nearly his tongue with it.
Penelope looked around the room again before turning her attention to the computer. One of the IT administrators had been by to meddle with something, and had forgotten to shut down the program they were using, merely logging out. Unable to resist, Penelope keyed in one of the default administrator user names and a password. They loved show tunes down in IT. Still, she never expected it to work. So Penelope Lemon was surprised indeed when the IT tools started up and revealed to her every aspect of her virtual life within the company.
Momentarily breathless, Penelope sat very still. Then it all became clear. She had not a moment to lose. The IT folks did not expect her to know a thing about their work, which was helpful. Unless she had somehow picked an administrator user name for someone working today, however, by rights they should notice her very quickly. Closing her office door, Penelope sat down and began typing furiously. Satisfied the scripts would do what she wanted, she ran them and waited.
Within seven point four minutes, the scripts were done. In less than two minutes Penelope had verified her deletions, and set a special program whose job was to report back as it deleted strategic items in the back ups to run. She collected her papers, including everything in her recycling bin – all together only about two hundred sheets, and put them in her briefcase. The back ups of concern to her only ran back twelve years. By nineteen minutes after 1500, Penelope Lemon's entire existence at the company had vanished, as far as the computers were concerned. Certainly there would still be some papers around. Nothing easily pulled together or coherent, though. She logged out, and tried to log back in as herself. The system firmly rejected her.
Picking up her briefcase and tea pot, Penelope Lemon walked out of the building and straight to her apartment. A new bounce in her step reduced the travel time by a full twelve minutes.
Once home she made a few arrangements with the property management service. Then she shredded all the papers from her former job, and sent them down the recycling chute. Walking back to her bedroom, she extracted the one bright splash of colour in her plain apartment from the closet: a great carpet bag that she hauled about with startling ease. Then she made a series of efficient choices from the items in her closet and changed into sturdy jeans, sneakers, a silk blouse, and a jean jacket. It surprised her the jacket still fit, it being a piece of nostalgia kept from her university days. Putting aside her dangling earrings for studs, Penelope remade the bed with fresh sheets and threw the others down the laundry chute, then emptied the compostables down their chute. There was no other trash.
In the living room she packed up her laptop and its accoutrements, then all her writing materials, finishing with four selected travel guides. The others she sent down the recycling chute. The clock on the stove read 5:36. It had always irritated Penelope that it had no 24-hour setting. Flipping off all the lights, Penelope paused in the doorway. "How strange." she murmured as she realized for the first time that her apartment was almost as devoid of her presence as her office. Comfortably hefting the carpet bag onto her shoulder by its strap, Penelope Lemon shut the door and locked it. Then she turned firmly on her heel, comfortable sneakers squeaking a little, and strode down the hall and out the door without looking back, her teapot in its soft travel bag bouncing lightly against the carpet bag where it hung from a carrier ring.
A pair of perfectly matched police officers walked in bored tandem in a broad, irregular loop around the park popularly known as the Martian landing. The two people – any onlooker would be hard-pressed to assign them a gender if asked, unless "police" was one of the allowed choices – bore such a resemblance to life-size versions of dolls marketed to boys that even the local hotdog seller who saw them every day caught himself looking for a brand name stamp on the back of their left shoulder or calf. Enough starch was pressed into the two officers' uniforms for the pleats and hems to stay razor-sharp unless it rained. As the two officers knew all too well, what made them look like escapees from a movie also gave them terrible raw spots in the most sensitive places. They took the first turn of a new loop, glancing at themselves briefly in a store window to check their regulation haircuts for stray hairs. There never were any.
Nor was there ever anything exciting happening at the Martian landing, a name the two officers never used simply because they didn't know it. This was Patrol Area 51, a name guaranteed to reduce their dispatcher to helpless giggles every time he had to repeat it on the radio. Jones, who always walked on the inside of their patrol-loop, found this intensely irritating. Smith, who always walked on the outside of their patrol-loop, dismissed the giggling as mere evidence of the dispatcher's probable difficulties with Tourette's syndrome. Jones felt strongly that Occam's razor demanded a simpler explanation. Smith felt equally strongly that razors were inanimate and could have no say in the matter. These two were after all, intensely literal individuals, which made them perfect for Patrol Area 51. The sculpture at the centre of the park seemed "to draw weirdos like a giant magnet" according to the local paper, not without reason. So the unflappable, literalistic reporting of Smith and Jones was of the greatest help when something unusual had the temerity to happen in Patrol Area 51.
The park had once been much larger, until rezoning allowed the skyscrapers and twenty-floor above ground parkades to creep right up to the edges of the grassy plateau that once defined the centrepiece of the park, an old-fashioned bandstand. The plateau was now as smooth and well-groomed as a golf-course fairway with a few strategically placed bushes and trees to break up the line of sight. At the edges of the former bandstand a scattering of benches began, most of them with the peculiar extra armrest set in the middle to prevent the homeless from sleeping on them. Somehow each day more and more of those extra armrests went missing without Smith and Jones noticing their removal. At the very centre of what had once been a bandstand stood a sculpture for the general visitor's edification.
An onlooker would first observe a large, bulbous object rather off-centre, with an irregular rent torn in its side. Stretching out of the tear was a long, jointed leg with pincer claws at the end. Second, a creature with three of these pincer legs, one still inside the bulbous object, and two clinging to its outside. Third, a scattering of the curious three-legged creatures, now revealed in their grotesque, ten metre-high glory scuttling away from the bulbous object. At the very last moment, and far too late for the intentions of the sculptors, a placard on a stand informed the onlooker of the sculpture's name: VIRUS.
The hotdog seller yawned, then chuckled when he overheard a man shouting into his cellphone, "No, not there! Come over here to the Martian crash landing, you know, with the creepy-crawlies..." Smith and Jones began another circuit, which would last precisely twenty-two minutes and during which they would turn their heads neither left nor right. The hotdog seller yawned again, and winked at a young woman who moved briskly to one of the benches, openly carrying a sharp hacksaw and a can of oil.
Despite the encroaching tall structures around it, the sunlight could still reach the park, and it did so in a way more typical of carefully cropped postcards, except for when the light was directly overhead, or when it was overcast. Otherwise, a gorgeous golden glow suffused the area, making a stronger magnet for people on picnics than the rather hideous sculpture at its centre was for people of obsessively strange ideas. The hotdog seller got to watch the surreal arrival of the park's visitors nearly every day as they emerged from between the tall buildings and out of the electronic gates in the parkades. People would arrive in ones and twos, then threes and fives. Very rarely a group of six or so. If people had arrived by climbing up out of the manholes and gratings behind the buildings, the hotdog seller wouldn't have turned an eyelash, putting it down to people finding a more direct route. Now, if Smith and Jones switched places, that would be a surprise...
Penelope Lemon glanced nervously at her watch. There were still seventeen minutes to go, she was in plenty of time. Taking a deep breath, she braced herself for the shock of sudden daylight after her long walk through the skyscrapers. They were so many and so tall now, Penelope couldn't blink away the optical illusion they created. Somehow they no longer seemed to scrape the sky but to reach towards each other and block it. Giving herself a shake to dislodge such nonsense, Penelope marched briskly on, her well-packed carpet bag jouncing lightly against her right thigh. She knew just where to wait.
The special spot she had in mind was a bench with the best view of the uncanny rent in the virus sculpture. One of the creatures extending a leg out into the world was at just the right height to hang things from, and Penelope took advantage of this to keep her bag dry. At this time of day such precautions were necessary, as the underground sprinkler system clicked on and began to spray at regular intervals throughout the park. Smith and Jones began reflexively walking even further from the park edge proper than usual, protecting their uniforms and pristine boots. Penelope pulled a travel guide to the city out of her bag, and began to flip through it.
The well-thumbed pages slid easily through her fingers, but Penelope hardly saw them. Instead her mind returned to the strange sights she had seen on her way to the park. Living downtown she did get to see her fair share of unusual people and things. These went beyond her fair share. Not so much people, except for there being perpetually fewer of them. More so machines. The metro maps no longer lit up automatically at a human footstep within two metres of them, for example. Or the neatly decapitated security cameras, hundreds of them. Even the few old-fashioned silver bubbles had been shattered and their cameras decapitated. With not a sign of any shattered glass to be found. Then there were the newspaper kiosks, all emptied with their doors hanging open. Penelope's accustomed complacent sense the world was ordinary fell apart completely when she finally noticed something else: posters. Seriously old-fashioned ones, the type printed on ordinary paper and put up using brushes dipped in paste. Put up, in this case, by the police, who couldn't use the usual projectors built into the missing security cameras. Each poster said the same thing.
WARNING: Security cameras disabled. Use area at own risk.
Tig chewed her lip unhappily. As it turned out, knowing where and what "Martian landing" meant and getting there were two very different tasks. With only just about twenty minutes left to get there, matters were dire. How did she know the civil engineer would wait? Did civil engineers have some kind of generally identifying characteristic she would recognize this person by? What if the park was beyond bloody huge? What if...
Pulling herself up short, Tig took a deep breath. These were just nerves. The real question was, how was she going to get to the park on time, when she had just arrived at the edge of the strange wasteland of tall skyscrapers surrounding it? Tipping her head upwards, Tig wondered how an area she knew had no "ceiling" still struck her as cavernous. The books at school all talked about the sun in the sky, and the stars and the moon at night. She wondered idly what they looked like.
Luckily a metro map was close by, so Tig hurried up to it, brushing the touch screen to wake it up.
For a moment the screen produced rolling black bars instead of anything sensible, then a menu of options. Tig brushed these away impatiently to have a look at the area map. Much to her frustration, the street directions to the park were all convoluted and full of right angle bends that took a person at something like a drifting acute angle to the eventual destination. It looked as if the point was to make the park barely accessible. Tig dragged her fingers through her newly cut hair, and for lack of any better ideas zoomed the map some more. To her surprise, the image didn't collapse into bleary pixels. Instead, she could now see details on the level of sidewalks and gratings. And the view controls had sprouted a new option, "Level." So Tig tapped it. Now her options were "sky," "street," or "pipes." Feeling the hairs on the back of her neck stand up with excitement, Tig selected "pipes." The new map highlighted the nearest manhole cover to the metro map, and a path through the underground running practically straight to the park. The giant conduit from the storm intake at the north end of the city to the effluent ponds at the south end enforced one minor deviation.
Fifteen minutes. "After all, why not?" Tig asked aloud. There were no police around, in fact, nobody around at all. Someone had decapitated all the security cameras as well, in fact Tig had noticed decapitated security cameras everywhere. It gave her the creeps, to realise there had been so many. Well, the additional benefit of their loss was she could take to the pipes without worrying about other people pestering her about it, and make her meeting on time. The manhole cover was far lighter than she expected, and Tig climbed far enough down to verify there were no pools of muck to throw her duffel into before she tossed it down. Unseen overhead, the metro map timed out, ran rolling black bars for a few seconds, then displayed a garish "Welcome!" sign.
Pulling the manhole cover back into place, Tig swarmed down the ladder and pulled a flashlight out of her pocket. Then she pulled a hat out of her duffel bag, a lovely, broad rimmed wool number that could be crushed and spring back into shape or your money back guaranteed. Her husband had bought this one by mail order, then angrily thrown it out when it didn't fit. Tig grinned broadly as she began jogging through the pipes. Even though she had retrieved all manner of good things from her husband's trash, she wasn't going to miss dealing with it.
The manhole cover rolled like a trap door in a pinball game before Tig caught its edge and lifted it successfully out of the way. Then she tossed her duffel out onto the street and climbed out after it.
Eerily, there was no sign of anyone. Just more decapitated security cameras – in her mind Tig had begun to refer to them as insecurity cameras, she felt so much better with them gone – and dazed metro maps cycling at random between rolling bars and blurbs of colour that occasionally seemed so much like faces they made Tig jump. Hurrying towards the narrow opening between a building labelled far above her head "Corp." with the rest of its name out of sight and a parking tower, she sighed in relief. Not only was she going to be on time, the creepy face-like blobs weren't anything sinister, just bad renderings of the mayor's "welcome" photo. Whenever she saw good renderings of the photo, Tig always laughed herself into stitches. The mayor looked so exactly like a caricatured refugee from the bad days of co-opted disco music, including the heavy gold chain, hairy chest peeking out of his open collar, thinning and greased back hair, and one of those inexplicable "trust me" smiles everyone knew had the added message of "I only have one sexually transmitted disease! really! Not a deadly one!"
Not having Penelope's experience with these buildings, Tig was astounded by the incredible racket her solid hiking boots made as she hurried along. If she stretched out both her arms and hands to either side, they would nearly have touched the walls. It felt like the dreadful buildings were falling on her, which made now a bad time to discover she was perhaps claustrophobic. And then she burst out into the park itself, momentarily blinded by the sudden light.
For a moment Tig stood absolutely still, afraid something had gone wrong with her eyes. But no, here it was at last in the flesh so to speak, the Martian landing lit up with a Blake-ian golden light. A very few people were scattered around, basking in the grass mostly, except for a young woman sawing away at the middle arm of a new-style park bench, and a hotdog vendor who was intently watching a pair of martinets as they sashayed back and forth around the spray ranges of the sprinkler system. Adjusted to the light, Tig walked on towards the sculpture, noting someone had hung a carpet bag from one of its components. On her way she walked by several people, who behaved precisely as if she were invisible. This held true even when she tripped over one gentleman while staring openly at another who due to proximity at least should have said hello.
"Nobody officially notices anybody else here, not even the police." A chestnut-haired woman with a stylish page-boy haircut helped Tig up. They were dressed alike, but Tig was struck by the other woman's crisp, pressed demeanour. Her turquoise silk shirt shimmered in the afternoon sunlight, and even her sneakers looked brushed. Tig fought down the urge to dig a comb out of her pocket and recomb her hair, jamming her hat back on her head instead.
"Bored housewife?" If it hadn't been for Tig's anomalous behaviour showing she was no regular at this park, Penelope wouldn't have chanced helping her up. If she was honest, she didn't like to admit that she had expected someone out of one of the ancient sitcoms. Shoulder-length hair with a perm at the end, a calf-length skirt and pressed blouse with a ribbon fastening. Something like a librarian in the picture books Penelope had read as a child, without the black-rimmed glasses and the mouse apparently permanently attached to her hand. She really hadn't expected this curious woman with short dark hair greying at the temples apparently equipped for a hiking trip. Curiously enough, the other woman was wearing a t-shirt aggressively declaring, "What are you looking at?"
"Yes, I am. Or, at least, I was." Tig hesitated awkwardly. "I mean, this meeting doesn't match the bored housewife profile. Consistent with turning a new leaf, all that." She drew herself up to her full height and took a deep breath. "Just to confirm?"
"Hmm, oh yes, quite. Civil engineer, that's me – I think I'd like to stick with losing the bored part, for the time being." The idea of not being a civil engineer actually frightened her, and if just the idea frightened her, well, Penelope realized. This woman was by far the braver than her. "Sorry, I think that might have been a bone-headed thing to say. I plead engineer?" Startlingly, the other woman laughed, a good long laugh from her diaphragm. The sound of it just unusual enough to almost draw other people out of their pretence of seeing and hearing no others but themselves.
"It was a little bone-headed, I think. I've never heard anyone plead engineer before!"
"Old university joke, I used to think. Then reality encroached, alas." Penelope felt herself smiling, something she so rarely did it felt a bit strange. "Lemon, Penelope Lemon."
"Tig – er, good heavens, what is my last name?" Pausing in mid near-handshake, Tig frowned. It was truly ridiculous, all she could come up with were her husband's last name, and her father's, but those hardly signified. "Izard. Tig Izard." She had loved writing her name in cursive as a child, taking dizzy joy in the swooping loops and that always rare letter in her language, "z."
"Haven't used it in awhile?" Penelope asked sympathetically. Here was an unexpected place of similarity.
"No, more's the pity. Not since my early school days." When the elementary school chemistry class' task was to make esters smelling like various fruits. Bananas and raspberries, mostly. Somehow, with all the will and care in the world, the results all smelt something like rubbing alcohol.
"Hah! No time like the present to get it in fettle again, isn't it?" Penelope beamed like she hadn't since engineering school, which she had loved, despite the persistent strangeness of instructors calling her "Bates." One day a male classmate with difficulties around the word "no" had asked her, while holding her against the wall by one shoulder and attempting to grind himself on her hip, whether her father's name was Norman. It so happened the answer to the question was yes. Something about her tone when she answered the question shifted her classmate's demeanour. His eyes got huge and white rimmed, and he backed away in a hurry.
"Yes, quite." This time they both laughed. "I don't know much about this park, yet somehow I think we can't have a real conversation here, unless of course, sounding like a pair of upper-class twits counts as real conversation." Tig found herself glancing around, wondering how they could leave unobtrusively. Despite the lack of cameras and the mechanical-looking police officers, the park did have an odd, panopticon-type feel.
"You're right – this is a genuine dead zone though, no recording or listening devices for blocks, unless you count Smith and Jones over there."
"Is that what they're called?" Tig asked curiously. "Not Black and White?"
"No, no, Smith and Jones, I happened to be close enough to read their badges once. They're real, complaining about chafing the day I saw their badges, too." Penelope grabbed her carpet bag. "I had no idea there were such police anymore! And those hats, real vintage, those!"
"Ah hah, an antiquary, not an engineer." teased Tig. Fair enough too, she hadn't heard of a flesh and blood police officer in these parts pretty much ever.
"Better, an informed antiquary!" Penelope stepped closer, so they could speak quietly without anyone watching their lips move. "There are benefits to being a civil engineer. One of them is knowing about unusual exits. Have a look to your left, closer to the – the – well, that thing." Motioning to the metal blob with its escaping microbes with her chin.
Fascinated, Tig followed Penelope's instructions, and saw, to her utter delight, a manhole. Which meant access to the pipes level, which meant... "Dear god! We can get straight out of the city from here!" Her mind's eye conjured up the path straight from the metro map: follow the storm conduit north.
"Exactly. Shall we?" Finally, they finished shaking hands, hauled up the manhole, and in less time than it takes to tell it, had vanished from the city as completely as real chickens.
Even as they climbed down, some distance away by foot and a mag-train ride, a sandy-haired man wept with rage on discovering a coffee machine overrun with ground up pistachios with their shells, and a shorter distance in almost the opposite direction bewildered engineers tried to convince their manager that one of them was missing. "How can that be true?" the manager asked. "This person isn't in the system. If they existed they would be."
For his part, the sandy-haired man took more decisive action. He marched straight down the block to his local police officers, Black and White. As promised by the little notice incised on their charge station, they duly reappeared twelve minutes after the hour. "Some thief has stolen my wife and ruined my coffee maker!" he shouted at Black and White.
"Sir, would you like to register a complaint?" Black asked. Or at least, played back that particular recording.
"Yes, yes, of course I do. About my coffee maker, and my wife."
"Sir?" Tig's husband drew his hand down his face, hard, listening with satisfaction to the faint, wet, slapping sound of his lips popping back against his teeth. Better to be human, than one of this lot. Try again. "My wife is missing, and my coffee maker, you should see it!"
"Missing person," interrupted White. The algorithm for that was quite clear. "Name of missing person and duration of their absence, sir?"
"What? Yes, of course. Look, my wife's name is Tig, Tig Littlejohn. I, I don't know how long she's been missing, minutes, hours? Must be hours, she'd never destroy the coffee maker, she loves it!" Fully steamed up now, he began describing the damage. "The grinder is done in, full of pistachio butter and jammed with shells. Worse, the oil has run into the works –"
"I beg your pardon sir," Black interrupted this time. "Missing person, name Tig Littlejohn?"
"Yes, of course, that's what I said!"
"There is no such person in the system." White declared sonorously. "Problematic signifier, Tig."
"Oh, is that all?" Tig's husband frowned. Was Tig short for something? Couldn't be, then it had to be a nickname, hadn't it? He silently wracked his brains. It wasn't like the old days, when an official formally read out the names of a couple before signing off their marriage license. Could it be he had never heard it? "Um, er," he coughed. "Can't you look up my address then?" He could remember that.
"Sir, please confirm address." White rapped out. Tig's husband did. "Registration violation, dwelling is authorized for only one occupant." Tig's husband blanched. He was always forgetting things. Always.
"Perhaps, sir, a misunderstanding." The recording sounded really strange, emanating from the screen set between Black's false lips. "Unregistered adult female occupants must be duly paid according to the legally designated rate under Section 5.92. The length of said occupant's residency being limited to seventeen hours."
"Oh." Tig's husband swallowed several times, struggling against the bile rising in his throat. If this misunderstanding got out, the damage to him as a businessman, to his public relations expenses. "Yes, of course, a misunderstanding. It's just – the coffee machine, it's a Westinghouse, imported."
"Damage to a prized heirloom can be distressing." White played inanely, its weird immobile face leaning towards Tig's husband, who backed up in a hurry. There was something deeply disturbing about White's indifference to the splash of bird shit across its face, even if it was to be expected.
"There is no such person in the system as Tig Littlejohn." added Black.
"No." Tig's husband agreed weakly. Any person not in the system did not exist. Any person in the system did exist; their existence came from the system. This was the way of the world. The way of the city. A more uncomfortable thought tickled the edges of Tig's husband's mind: what if it wasn't the way of the world?
"May I recommend a repair service, sir?" White chirruped.
They kept quiet, and out of sight, just under a sort of metal ledge. Penelope's best guess was it represented the remnants of an old time electric transformer, the kind that had been removed after the last huge flood, because they liked to explode on immersion in water. Anyway, it came in handy. The police weren't dangerous these days, just inconveniences. The block's Black and White marched on in their syncopated way, and Penelope found herself wishing the mechanical engineers had tried to make their gait reminiscent of something more graceful than train pistons. She was about to whisper to Tig about it when she realized Tig was white as a sheet.
"My husband," Tig forced herself to take a slow, deep breath. "There's no way he ever registered me as an occupant of his house. Either he'll have forgotten, or refused to do it because of the cost – more than an undergraduate degree in chemistry!"
"So you've no permit card for beyond your block?" Penelope asked. Tig nodded. Not having a permit card to go someplace else stood as item one on the "apprehensible items" list programmed into every pair of Black and Whites.
"Makes it harder for the wives to escape." Tig peered upwards, and sucked in a sharp breath. Black and White were thumping almost on top of them now, their weird, parti-coloured faces throwing off flashes of light. These two must have come almost straight from the factory, polished to a shine as they were, their joints moving noiselessly, not a squeak or a groan. One of them reached out, and now it was clear their charging station must be very close by. Tig watched the hand, transfixed.
"It's okay," Penelope mouthed. "Inert on the charging station." Leaning closer so she could finish breathing the words in Tig's ear. "Must be just to our left. We'll hear their feet clap tight to the magnetic plate."
It seemed like hours to Tig, but she well knew it was less than a minute before the tell-tale syncopated "clank-thwap" sounds marked the ascent of Black and White into their charge station.
"Let's get out of here – they'll be no trouble once we've got to the slums." Penelope whispered, and Tig nodded.
They had run as quietly as they could for nearly half an hour before they felt comfortable enough to take a rest. It seemed as good a moment as any to take stock. Tig peered in her duffel and chewed her lip. She had very little food, just nutritional supplements really, and maybe a litre of water. And money, ironically she had a decent amount of that.
"Wow!" Penelope said quietly, glancing at the solid roll of bills Tig had jammed in among some energy bars.
"It's not much, but enough I think, to get out of the city." Stretching her legs, Tig frowned ahead, considering the bluish glow in the distance corresponding to another street grating. "Will it be good anywhere else?"
Penelope barely suppressed a snort. "Not half! Anybody who can has other connections outside the city, just in case. The currency here is little more than kindling other places. Or, well, at least it was until they started making it from plastic." Her companion nodded thoughtfully.
"All right. Ironically I was the one who forgot about not having a better permit card. Though," she frowned, "be damned if I know where to get even a counterfeit orange diamond now." An "orange diamond" wasn't even the best the best permit card to have, though oddly enough it was the nicest looking of the various cards out there. It happened to have the minimum amount of allowed travel distance on it to reach the slums, which got closer every year despite every effort of the local government. Closer to the people who counted in the city, where they lived in closely managed towers and commuted in personal cars to closely managed workplaces.
"Me either. I picked up a purple square so I could attend a business meeting, but it just about got me in trouble, it was in such poor shape. My contact said they're all like that now, he thinks the permit cards aren't being printed anymore. Only men and the few permitted singles are allowed to have them these days, it seems." Penelope folded her arms unconsciously, the premier gesture of defence against the mechanical police. If they couldn't get at your wrists, they couldn't cuff you, and if they couldn't cuff you, you could still run. If you weren't a man or one of those lucky enough to be part of the singletons, the non-male adults not allowed to breed to keep the population down, you had to know such things. Children could be arrested for having no permit card even if they were with their parents, even if they were boys.
"Wouldn't surprise me." muttered Tig. "It seems we may as well spend all this then," picking up the roll. "After all, it'll be useless outside."
"Best thing would be to pick up more food and water, I've got even less than you, and it's still at least another two day's walk to get out. Wait, we have to camp down here too." Penelope frowned, finally having found her own stash of bills.
"Ah, I anticipated that, at least for me." Tig blushed a little. "I've got a sleeping bag and pad, washing supplies even."
"Hmmm," Penelope began making a mental list. She hadn't thought of those things, or even about details like what to do about the call of nature. It was getting to be the time for it too, an uncomfortable sensation in her gut warned her. For a moment the sheer number of tasks overwhelmed her. This did not correspond to the sort of thing you could read in the ephemerals. "Okay, I think sense has reasserted itself for me," she chuckled. "I am being reminded of the necessity for a certain type of porcelain facility as well, but I wouldn't want to head up top just for that."
"And you think dropping our drawers here is a better idea?" Tig asked drily. Drily, though she was hard-pressed not to laugh.
"No, no!" Penelope blushed furiously. "The people who work down here don't do that, it isn't allowed, otherwise it would be filthy. There are cabinets, narrow ones you have to stand in."
"Like in the library of Babel?" blurted Tig, looking around herself. The idea made the seemingly endless corridors and conduits of the pipes with all their regularity look sinister.
"Sort of, in a sideways sort of way." Penelope sighed. "I had a work experience term down here, hence my knowledge. I never liked the damn things, but at least they're biased towards women's anatomy instead of men's."
"Really? You do realize what that means?" Tig asked.
"Do I?" Tig's words sounded so close to a rhetorical question, Penelope wasn't certain what a correct response was.
"I wasn't being rhetorical." Tig smiled again. "It means the vast majority of pipes workers must be at minimum, people whose genitals don't conform to a penis sort of shape." She looked around. "Seems oddly symbolic, somehow, especially considering the obsession with containment." Each pipe and conduit was sheathed, and labelled with a tag explaining how many sheathes there were and what each was for. The largest pipes had the most protection, including anchoring rings so large Tig and Penelope had to climb over their feet as if they were small cliffs.
"The city must be clean." Penelope intoned, imitating the hollow tones of the person who really controlled the city, the public works manager. He – it was always a man – managed the sewers, the gas and wiring conduits, the police, and the hospitals. The current manager's proudest achievement were the new automatons that scooped up the dead and dying and whisked them away before they could contaminate the city. His second proudest achievement were the sweeper-bots continuously hoovering up trash and recyclables. Thanks to him, it looked as if a person could literally eat off the street, though the attempt to do so was an apprehensible offence. Eating in public was strictly prohibited. "Honestly, what were we thinking, creating this place?"
In the end they had pooled their money and worked out how much to spend on camping gear and food. Nobody cared about permit cards in the slums, so Tig could suss out the camping gear, and Penelope could hurry off to collect their groceries. At first Penelope had bridled at the idea of doing the "shopping" until Tig pointed out her husband had always picked up the groceries, and her own forays to camping stores were a piece of amazing luck. There had been three camping superstores in her immediate neighbourhood. For her part Tig had been a bit offended, but now she was beginning to understand Penelope's mystified air in response to her. Penelope had literally never seen or heard a real, live wife before. Designated singletons were forbidden access of any kind to real wives, and so all they knew of them came from the ancient video programs and children's books. In those media, wives had freedoms Tigs could hardly conceive of. They could take trains, for instance, and walk beyond the megablock they had been born in even if they hadn't married outside of it. They could do mundane things like drop the kids at school and pick up groceries. Or absurd things like spend hours at beauty parlours, although Tig simply could not fathom what those places were, and she wasn't sure they were based on anything real. She had gotten her haircut contraband, the way practically everything your husband didn't provide had to be gotten.
Shaking her head to chase away the strange things Penelope described to her, Tig climbed carefully out of yet another manhole, this one in the alley behind an open air camping gear bazar. When it came to the slums, it had been her turn to be the irritating one to her companion. "Alas, it seems turn about is non-optional fair play." she had sighed ruefully to Penelope, who had finally laughed. Penelope hadn't let herself laugh long. Tig wondered about that. Still, she was putting two and two together.
Penelope hurried on down Blue Chicken Street, dodging children on bicycles and adults with arms full of tall stacks of packages, grimacing a bit. Her legs were complaining about their unaccustomed day's work. It was such a relief to be home, though she wasn't staying. The "slums" were designated wrecks in the city, denied all public funding, private loans, or any sort of city service. The city council had even withdrawn the police, the last of whom were a pair of battered Black and Whites full of dents and rust. The local kids had made a past time of knocking the wretched things over, as these were older Black and Whites, with wheels instead of legs. The security cameras and other such gear all removed, collected, and taken away. The expectation was, the slums would atrophy and whither away due to all the services, money, and crime control they lacked. They would become dirty, and with dirt went ruin. Once the process was over, the mayor would send in the bulldozers to push all the garbage out and away, and the city would be rebuilt there, its cancerous growth firmly excised.
Instead, the slums flourished. Within weeks an alternative exchange system was in place, different communities sorted out how to prevent and deal with crime, and work arounds for sewer and wiring already started. The slums were rough places to live, and dangerous. Yet Penelope felt safer there than anywhere in the city. She didn't have to worry about gangs of young, rich men looking for "stray" women to inflict themselves on, for one thing. It helped she didn't have to wear the designation badge. It was an open secret the purpose of the badge was to make the wearer a target. No badges here, though. No cards. And no gangs, though at one time gangs were the primary street runners. They retreated with the rest of the city, in it though not of it as they were.
Penelope paused just outside the food market, gazing upwards. The skyscrapers were even sparser here than in her childhood now, ruthlessly scavenged for materials, only their lower five floors or so left in place with the former top floor now set up as roof top patios with awnings against the sun and the weird, stinky fog that sometimes happened instead of rain. She could just see a few odd spots in the sky that reminded her inexplicably of giant, dying stadium lights that showed up the odd bare girder and a former skyscraper sign. She could just see its wire frame in the half light, reading "Kathar Corp., We keep you clean."
Yes, she wondered. What had anybody been thinking, creating this place?
Given a choice in the matter, Tig would never admit it. She wouldn't. Not that it would have done her any good, because it was obvious she was enjoying herself enormously. After some observation she realized the lack of price tags meant you had to haggle. This horrified her, until she tried it. Now she was having a roaring time, and when Penelope saw what she had managed to score, Tig knew the engineer would be beside herself. The biggest challenge would be keeping it all in repair, especially if Penelope conformed to the "awful with physical tools" engineer stereotype. However, Tig figured if she didn't fit a housewife stereotype, why should Penelope fit an engineer stereotype?
By the time Tig had hauled their new gear down into the pipes, including her best finds, Tig was beyond hungry and exhausted. She sat on the edge of the street, her legs dangling in the orifice left behind by the open manhole, and looked up. The skyline was so different here, no skyscrapers really, and few street lamps. For the first time in her life, Tig gazed in wonder at what she had expected to be a riot of stars, spilling across the sky in streams and random dashes. But there was nothing. Just a dreary brownish purple sky with what looked like a row of dying giant lightbulbs to the west. Tig felt this couldn't be true and her astonished brain must be playing tricks.
"Wretched, aren't they?" An old man pushing a hotdog trolley paused beside her, looking up himself. "I forget sometimes, the real reason the public works manager ordered this place abandoned. They'll never come back, you know. Thanks for reminding me." He smiled.
"Oh, you're very welcome." Tig hesitated. Was it a good idea to keep talking with this person?
"No need to look so worried. We've a code here. No giving away or hindering the folks who are getting out. We respect 'em, because they've got the guts to really leave. Not like us, wastin' away here." He leaned on the trolley, giving a packet of squished buns a shove to put them away from his elbow.
"If this is wasting away, and what goes on in the city is flourishing, something is wrong with the world." Tig could hardly believe it. In the past twelve hours she had felt more alive than she had in her whole life.
"Well, there's more than one way to it. Most of us who stay, we're foolish, hoping our families'll come out, or maybe take us back, 'stead of leaving us here. So we don't set roots. Others, they want to keep trading with the city, feel the black market is a good living."
"So it is, so it is. See, as long as we stay dependent on the city, we waste away." Satisfied with the wisdom he had imparted, the old man stood up and went off, pushing his rattling hotdog trolley.
"I don't get it." muttered Tig. "How does this place depend on the city? Not even the camping equipment comes from inside! Everybody knows that even though nobody is allowed to say it."
"My mother calls it a psychological dependence, instead of a practical one. Do you usually sit out like this, Tig?" Penelope asked curiously. She had managed to bring the food from the taxi – which was a young man riding a bike with a cargo box welded to it – and stack it up beside the other woman, who was oblivious and lost in thought.
"No, of course not. There's no direct access to the pipes level in the suburbs, makes it..."
"...harder for the wives to escape." Penelope chimed in.
"Precisely. What have you brought? I'm famished!"
"An all manner of real food, including some ready-made, I'm not up for rigging a pseudo-stove tonight." Penelope pushed her hair back behind her ears and rubbed her hands on her jeans, cursing when her hair fell right back into her eyes.
"You know, I've some string, you can try tying your hair back a little." Tig suggested gently. After their long day, Penelope looked creased and dingy compared to her usual precisely pressed and ordered self. Though next to Tig, who leaned to the wrinkled and tousled anyway, she still looked like a model.
Once Penelope's hair was reduced back to some sort of order, they began relaying the groceries down into the pipes, the dying giant lightbulbs flickering noticeably as they got dimmer as they finished. Then at last they retreated back into the pipes, closing the manhole behind them regretfully. So close to freedom, it made no sense to take a chance now.
Penelope had indeed been beside herself. She had declared Tig's purchase of the four wheeled vehicle crazy, even if it was pedal-driven. Tig countered that Penelope had picked up far too many groceries for them to carry everything on their backs, and the cargo box was just what they needed. Things had nearly devolved into an argument because Penelope strenuously objected to stepping outside of their agreed on plan. "What use is it if we don't follow it?" she snapped angrily. "What use is it if it keeps us from implementing better ideas?" Tig snapped back.
"Plans keep us safe!"
"Dammit Penelope, this isn't a bridge or a skyscraper! There predictability is important but if we're too predictable here we'll never get out!" Despite Tig's best efforts tears began to leak out of the corners of her eyes. In the half light Penelope couldn't see them, but she could hear the upset in Tig's voice.
"Go on Tig, don't be upset, I just – there is no order or structure in this, it's freaking me out!" Penelope tried to straighten out her blouse and jacket, giving up in frustration. "That's why I don't live out here, even though it's so much safer here, in the slums." Even her antifile system was only safe because she could turn it off.
"Penelope, that's fucked up." Tig said with unexpected intensity of her own. "The city was made by people with just that attitude."
"I know, I know, and it's eating the ones who stay alive. If you ask anybody they'll tell you, 'we thought this was what we wanted.' I know what they mean." Penelope pulled a handkerchief out of her pocked and spread it on top of a pipe at good seating level before settling herself on it. "When you set it out as a plan, it looks like it should work, especially because the founders all self-selected, they came here willingly."
"The founders, huh?" Tig had only heard about them. By now, she and Penelope had pedalled far from the last manhole, watching for the symbols marking a rest station for pipe maintenance crews. They weren't locked, so they would have no trouble getting in, and Penelope had tracked down several solid rubber door wedges to wedge the doors shut from the inside. "If a door won't open easily, it's not worth trying to get it open as another station is only ten minutes walk or so away." she had explained.
So here they were at last, with the door wedges jammed in and the buggy parked in front of the door just in case. They wouldn't need their tents, though they would need their sleeping bags and any padding they could arrange. The bare metal alcoves for sleeping in were literal holes in the wall, with a length of recycled chain link fence bolted in on three sides about two feet off the floor. A pretty unprepossessing sort of mattress, though not near so bad as Tig had expected from Penelope's fastidious descriptions. The cabinet for washing and excreting was in working order too, and spotless.
"Don't flush until you're outside the cabinet," Penelope warned. "Nobody has ever been able to satisfy themselves the suction couldn't do you a damage."
Absurd as the warning struck her, when Tig got a good look at the alcove in the beam of her flashlight, she had to agree with the precaution. Playing the light along the walls in puzzlement, she turned and did it again, this time around the rest of the room.
"No room lights, it's all bring your own stuff, though there are outlets for charging equipment and the rest – under the beds, that's why they're so high." As she spoke, Penelope set the table in the middle of the room, another example of metal recycling. Bolted to the floor, the table seemed to have started life as a pair of old hollow front doors, the standard kind used throughout the suburbs. The square insets were cunningly repurposed as places to set dishes.
"Can we use the outlets? Is it safe?" Tig didn't want to get caught. The stories she saw on the television were too frightening.
"Of course. Nobody monitors the outlets that closely, it's impractical." Penelope paused in arranging a lamp in the precise centre of the table. "The risk would be far greater if we were in the real city, and above ground, where they can use the security cameras and the dogs. It would take a lot of money to bribe enough people to track you down here, and even then "down here" doesn't mean down here, not to the pipes." She set out condiments in precise order, then rearranged them for symmetry. "Do you think your husband would come after you?"
Tig leaned back against the wall beside the cabinet, idly counting the alcoves to make time. Wow, ten of them. "No," she answered at last. "He's too cheap, when push comes to shove. And I have no reason to resurface anywhere a camera could catch me. It won't feel safe until we're well away from here all the same. Not trying to be awful, Penelope, but nobody cares what happens to a designated woman, she's considered useless unless she picks up a trade of some kind, as you have. Do you know what happens to those who don't?"
"I have a bad feeling about the probable answer." Penelope pursed her lips and continued setting out the camp dishes. She didn't want to hear it. The city was boring, perfectly safe. Not the sort of prison Tig kept talking about. It was a good place!
Taking a deep breath, Tig forged on. "Those who don't, are given a new designation. The cleaning automatons use the security cameras to find them. Then they tranquilize them and take them away." She watched Penelope's shoulders tense. Well, well. Here was one who knew, and didn't want to know. "They get taken to the hospital, where they're killed by lethal injection. Useless mouths." The lantern light was bright enough, she turned off her flashlight. "It doesn't happen to designated men nearly as often, since so few of them are ever designated. The rest of the women, we're a necessity for the city, to keep it from dying out, even though we're polluted. But it's okay, because we can be rationalized, made precise. Remade, into dirt that has a place."
Penelope stood silent with her back to Tig, head down.
"Penelope, this isn't a game. If I get caught, I'll be taken to the hospital. They'll make the best of it by harvesting my eggs, then they'll kill me. If they connect you to me, they'll kill you too, for helping a wife escape instead of raising a hue and cry, or reporting my personal ad. These are the wages of total order." Setting down her flashlight, Tig set her hand on Penelope's shoulder. "I'm very sorry. It's hard to understand, especially when we're all kept so carefully apart and ignorant – ignorant about utterly different things, even."
"Order should be beautiful." Penelope said sadly. "This is horrible. But, most people are happy!" She turned to face Tig.
"Maybe. I don't know. Most people don't know anything else, after all."
"You don't know anything else."
"Nor you, but we're both unhappy here all the same." Penelope nodded sobrely.
"You're right." She pulled a folded sheet of paper from her pocket. It was her favourite building, in plan view. She loved its symmetry, how it's angles flowed in even ranks down the page. The edifice was finished last year, and opened with fanfare. Watching the opening ceremonies on television, Penelope had yearned to see it, walk around inside it for real. An act as thoroughly forbidden to the designated as helping a wife escape. "Would they really harvest your eggs?"
"Absolutely." Tig declared. "Reuse, recycle, and salvage whatever you can. That one's right up there with 'the city must be clean.'"
"Could they have done that to mine?" Penelope had been sterilized barely four years after puberty. There had been more than one reason to designate her.
"It's all too likely." Tig squeezed her hand. "Come on, let's decimate this ready-made stuff you brought, I'm about to keel over."
Together they laid out the food containers, and Tig's mouth watered. None of this smelt anything like the weird lumps filling the sealed compartments of the readi-meals at home. And none of it looked anything like it either. "The city wasn't supposed to be like this. It wasn't supposed to be any person's prison." Penelope sounded puzzled now, not angry. Not angry yet.
"Yes, and there's the trick, in the person. The definition of 'person' is utterly precise." Tig picked up one container. "This is?"
"Ginger beef, most of this is what used to be called Chinese food. It isn't really, but if chosen well it's actually quite filling." Penelope couldn't repress a smile as Tig began to fill her plate. "You might want to take it easy, real food can give you indigestion."
"I'm not that unworldly. If I hadn't found a way to get real food years ago, I would have starved to death. My husband insisted he should eat first until he was full. A power trip, of course, but it saved me from a lot of wretched stuff. So who were the founders? Do you know?"
"Not really. Nobody does. The most I've ever learned is they were refugees who didn't want to stay in other places. They were being persecuted for their religion, and their 'keen desire for orderly lives.'" Filling up her fork with almond chicken, Penelope paused. "I've always wondered what it could have been, their religion."
Stretched out comfortably in her sleeping bag after her turn showering in the cabinet, Tig had to admit to herself that it would be tempting to stay in the pipes. The idea was impractical to say the least, yet this was the most well-fed and comfortable she had been in her life. Penelope was tapping away on her laptop in the opposite alcove, two or three other gadgets of hers besides plugged in under the bed. From where she lay, Tig felt sure one was a flashlight, another a very old camera, and the possible third, she wasn't sure. She tried to imagine what other places were like, but all she could see in her mind's eye were the images from the television. None of that could be real, most of it was computer generated. Did those images correspond to anything real at all? Tig drifted peacefully to sleep.
Penelope paused in her typing to look over at Tig, who was out like a light. Tig's concerns about being found in the pipes had bothered her enough to engage in a bit of old-fashioned cracking to see if they were in proximity to any work. She glanced down at the modem and nudged it a little to knock the loose wire back into place. With any luck besides bad, maybe she could resolder it soon. It looked like they wouldn't meet anyone, although it would be better to get out of the pipes and across the border as soon as possible. In her heart of hearts, Penelope had no idea what happened to rogue designates. She doubted it was any nicer than what happened to escaped wives.
Shutting down her electronics and packing them up, Penelope puzzled over that. Nothing in her social studies textbooks or any other textbooks at school talked about what happened to wives, or designates, or men, or children, or really anybody. All the books were about useful things, chemistry, physics, economics, anatomy even. No history, though, or geography. Nothing like that. Just the thin book she had been given post-op when they sterilized her, about the Founders who fled religious persecution to create this city on a hill, safe from all dangers, where good people could be free. Every person in the city was free.
She still wasn't sure why they gave her the booklet.
She wasn't free. Tig wasn't. So were they persons or not?
"Hang on a second, are you crazy?" Not the best opening conversational gambit, Penelope knew, but a night of mostly mulling over what Tig had told her and rereading the city laws had neutered her customary reserve. "Posting a personal ad of the kind you did is..."
"A very serious offense, according to the city bylaws, yes." Tig agreed calmly. Not so long ago she would have been having panic attacks over this very issue. She could remember the moment when she got over it: the moment when she got her first look at June's kitchen, on the day when June had decided to take her in hand and sort her out. June had absolutely succeeded. Just not in the way she had intended.
"The cleaners could have descended on your house and taken you to be executed at the hospital!" Penelope exploded in outrage, nearly knocking over her tea pot, which was waiting to be filled with hot water on the edge of boiling on the surprisingly effective spirit stove.
"Yes, and no. Yes, in that this is what is supposed to happen. No, in that I was not registered to any address under my own name – they have no way to find me unless I give myself away as anomalous, Penelope. Water's boiling." The engineer frowned but went to take care of the tea pot, the familiar gestures calming her nerves even in this deeply unfamiliar place.
Courtesy of Tig's decision to buy the pedal-vehicle, they were making excellent time. Excellent time in spite of the deteriorating state of the pipe system now they were so far from even the slums. Not that the pipes were in bad shape, they were in a wonderful state of repair. The tunnels were in a terrible state, most of them just cracked and weeping concrete interrupted by the pipes and their cladding of hefty steel mesh cages. The city had stopped expanding long ago, and so the final stages of tunnel building had stopped too. At least the floors were fairly level and not too obstructed by debris. Both women dreaded debris piles which they didn't dare move for fear of making their trail more obvious.
In contrast to the tunnels, the work crew rest stations were fully serviced, much to Tig's chagrin, her hopes for an old-fashioned outhouse like in the ephemerals dashed. "I'm willing to suffer the smell if only not to be terrified of having my guts turned inside out!" she moaned sadly when they reached their sleeping station for their last night under the city. "How is it they could be bothered to set this up but not finish the tunnel?" Tig added as she pushed the rubber doorstops in place and rolled the vehicle in front of the door.
"These rest stations are mass-produced. They're sent out on forklifts. Just drop them on a levelled space, hook up their pipes and connectors, and away you go. They could be quite good homes in their own way, if implemented differently." Pausing in her work pulling out their gear for the night, Penelope looked around, her gaze almost dreamy. "Think of it, you could design it with windows and put it above ground, of course – and design the floors so that you could wash them down by running a bucket of water over one end and letting the soapy water run out a drain at the other end..."
"Spoken like a true single woman." chuckled Tig, winking as she steeled herself to face the dreaded toilet cabinet. It wasn't that bad, she supposed, except for how weird it was to do one's business standing up. For some business this arrangement was much better, but for other business it was a real problem – Tig had found a work around, thank heavens, or it could have been far worse. Setting her flashlight in a small sconce by the tiny mirror, Tig frowned up at the shower head, then gave it a thump with the heel of one hand. It didn't produce dust or rusty goop, an encouraging sign. They had had to move on before they planned at least once when the water supply had turned out to be bad.
Finished her tasks, Penelope hoisted herself up onto one of the bunks and sat cross-legged, leaning back against the cool metal wall. They had been ascending since around noon, so the wall was coolish and dry, instead of the weird, damp heat of the lower levels. Hearing Tig squawk as she struggled with the shower in the cabinet, Penelope chuckled. She had no doubt her companion found the cabinets unpleasant, yet Tig had a real knack for dealing with them.
Chuckles fading, Penelope frowned. In spite of herself, she wondered what was happening at the office. Wondered if her manager remembered her at all. Probably not, his endless obsession was with designing golf courses. She had seen his office once, a strange room set up with a projector and white sheets on three walls, with his desk set up in front of the fourth. Fascinated, Penelope had stayed just out of sight around the corner from the room, wondering what the projector could possibly be about. By rights and sense she should have retreated – this sort of set up was strongly associated with the worst sort of ephemerals, the kind even the city hierarchy had finally banned as their production was too destructive. Remarkably, Penelope needn't have worried. Her manager soon appeared from wherever he had been, and without bothering to shut the door to his office, flipped the lights off and the projector on, revealing that he had made his office into a golf course simulator. He pulled a set of golf clubs closer to him, selected a driver and replaced the golf ball on the tee in front of his feet, pausing to admire the near-invisible tether between the ball and its perch. Penelope had left just as the head of his golf club reached the top of its arc over his head.
She had to concede, it was a pretty impressive simulator, even with the door open. If she hadn't known what she was looking at, it would have fooled her. And in fact, this was what Penelope was puzzling over as she sat on the segment of chain link fence in her chosen bunk.
Tomorrow morning, she and Tig would exit the city for good, so long as they kept their nerve. This struck Penelope as quite likely. What was bothering her now, was an inconsistency she had never noticed before. She had watched her fair share of ephemerals. They were mostly conventional things made on a very few themes with apparently only four different endings. The scripts were recognizably cut and paste creations, and it was sometimes quite amusing to hear a line from a slapstick comedy repurposed in a more serious drama. The scenes and locations were conventional too, each one combining a certain sort of scenery and weather. The inconsistency had to do with the weather. The ephemerals had weather, and the city didn't. No rain, no clouds, no wind. No summer, no winter, no fall. No spring. Just a steady state known as an optimum. Each day was the same: eleven hours of daylight, eleven hours of night, and an hour transition between each. Nobody was supposed to notice the fog, which sometimes reached the city from the slums.
Even the Martian landing, with its beautiful golden sunlight, had no gentle breezes to complete its idyll. Going outside hardly felt different from being inside, yet windows were made without any way to open them, and all buildings had sliding entrance and exit doors that opened and closed automatically. Any attempt to prop them open was an apprehensible offence. Penelope kept trying to shake the feeling, yet it insisted on growing on her. The feeling that somehow, the city was all indoors, in a sort of giant bubble. How this could truly be possible boggled her mind. She could imagine several ways to achieve it, but the whole idea was crazy, a ridiculous effort, and for what? What could the founders have been fleeing from, to go to such an extreme?
Penelope sighed hard. Her head was starting to hurt.
"Trying to imagine what's outside again?" Tig asked sympathetically. She had been wondering herself, and a little worried Penelope's black market connections to the outside would turn out to be some kind of bizarre charade put on by the city council. Silly as this worry was – she knew as well as Penelope did that practically all goods and materials came from outside of the city – it bothered her anyway.
"Not exactly. I'm trying to understand what outside could actually mean."
"What it could mean?"
"Yes. After all, if we take the ephemerals seriously, as strange a thing as that is to do, we've been living all this time in a completely controlled environment. Practically speaking, we have no idea what weather is, or how to cope with it."
"You're – taking the ephemerals seriously?" Tig asked worriedly. Had she managed to throw her lot in with a lunatic after all?
"Only to a limited extent, don't worry. Just about the weather. The ephemerals are conventional and lousy, but some of their conventions are based on facts, in a distant sort of way." Shifting a little, Penelope found herself smiling again. "I don't believe there is any such thing as men in broad-rimmed hats with bits of metal bolted to their ankles who throw rings onto the heads of fast-moving motor-bike riders."
Tig burst out laughing. "I can imagine what could be outside, but I can't imagine what could possibly be the original of those guys. Those triangular flags they wear around their necks are almost as strange as those things on their ankles."
The whirring sound of the Black and Tans echoed down the corridor, making Tig and Penelope wince. They were out of sight and totally silent themselves, with their hands pressed over their ears in an effort to reduce the racket they were suffering. The Black and Tans were carefully designed as deterrent devices, equipped with noisemakers and all-terrain wheels. The barking and yelping of their companion guard dogs began to sound faintly, and at last the dogs and the Black and Tans came over a small ridge. The dogs gambolled over the ridge in a sort of wriggling pile, while their mechanical companions rolled slowly on far behind them. They looked like small tanks with heads in place of the more usual gun turrets. Mechanical heads of course, with the customary speaker-mouth and parti-coloured facial paint job. The head had four faces so that the cameras looking out of the eyes covered a complete panorama.
"Let me tell you, I don't want a thing to do with that." Tig ground out as the Black and Tan finally moved out of ear shot.
"Too right. We need some kind of ear protection, or we'll never get by it or its compatriots. And we need to wait until that one comes back to know what their patrol circuit time is." Pulling another sheet of paper from her jacket pocket, Penelope spread it out across the handlebars in front of her. This was her most illegal piece of paper, a map of the border checkpoint she and Tig were approaching.
The map showed an elaborate gate, approached by a track similar to what the city trains ran on, though much bigger. Dotted lines showed the patrol paths of the Black and Tans, of which there were only twenty-three in this sector. Another slightly irregular line corresponding to roughly three kilometres away from where they were sat between the gates and the ends of the tunnel system some five kilometres behind them. This line worried Penelope a great deal. On one hand the Black and Tans never seemed to cross it. On the other, "it" could be considerably more than a limit marker. For all she or Tig could tell, it was an electrified barrier or worse. The tracks crossed it, and possibly the huge spoil piles they had been riding between at speed were clear of it.
"I don't like to wait, the patrol paths are so close together here." sighed Tig.
"I know, but this is the only Black and Tan we have to actually cross paths with, thank goodness. It's better to be sure about its speed. I'm not sure they're like the Black and Whites. Maybe they can actually chase us. They have the wheels for it."
"True," Tig frowned, glancing around them. The spoil pile they were hidden behind made a wide crescent, chunks of clinker and other rocky looking debris shoved together haphazardly. Similar piles were everywhere, and the areas in between were levelled and smoothed except for the worn in tracks of the Black and Tans. The tracks of their vehicle stood out starkly. "I can't help but wonder if they're mostly for show, in their own way. I mean, how much of what keeps us in the city is what we believe and what we fear, as opposed to what we know happens to people who try to get out?"
"I don't know. I've never heard of anybody getting caught trying to leave. Just of designates getting picked up for trying to form relationships, and hue and cry being raised to recapture wives."
The unholy wail of the Black and Tan became just audible again, and even as Penelope noted the time, Tig began looking frantically through their gear, trying to find something, anything, to save her suffering eardrums. "Why didn't I buy earplugs?" she moaned.
"Lack of information?" Penelope suggested unhelpfully, and suffered a rather venomous glare for her trouble. "I'll just calculate this out, then." she muttered. The process of working out trajectories and times took enough attention she lost track of what Tig was up to, until she noticed a distinct smell of melting wax. "What are you doing?"
"Saving our ears." Tig answered firmly. "We have wax courtesy of my emergency candles and," Tig held up her hand when Penelope opened her mouth to protest. "I have this lovely chemical here, which will keep the wax soft enough to be workable once it's cool. They'll smell violently of coconut, but the earplugs should keep the Black and Tans from causing our brains to run out of our ears."
"Lovely chemical?" Penelope asked in a wondering tone.
"Yes, I quite like this one." Tig beamed. "So useful, edible even, in a condiment sort of way. What did you find out?"
Penelope almost forgot to answer, being distracted by the question of what possible food could have Tig's lovely chemical applied as a condiment. "It'll be a near thing, I'm afraid. Worse yet, I don't know what we'll do about the gate."
"Knock it down if we have to. What other choice do we have?"
It didn't take them long to pack up and get moving again, ears stopped up with Tig's earplugs, which did reek of coconut. Penelope didn't like to complain, but her head was nearly swimming with it, especially since they were pedalling hard, though not as fast as they could go. By now, according to Penelope's elaborate chronometer, it was two o'clock in the afternoon, yet the light was unchanged and the only wind was that created by their own speed. And ahead of them they could finally see the gate, it's black, rectangular bulk differentiating it from the ever-present spoil piles. And the eerie sight of the edge of what they had always been told was the sky, stopping abruptly against something the colour of the stuff in the spoil piles.
Then, without warning, they saw the meaning of the irregular line on Penelope's contraband map.
A lattice of silver wire laid on the ground, extending far into the distance on either side of their path, with only the tracks crossing over it. "Over" being literally the case, the tracks ran over a sort of bridge. This suggested the wire was not a trivial obstacle. The trouble was, the ground was sloping downhill, and the approaching whirr of the Black and Tan in the sector had led the women to pedal even harder. All of which meant they were now travelling too fast for a sudden change of direction or stop to be safe. A crash or fall would do plenty of damage, even on the levelled ground, and they were threading their way between spoil piles in much closer proximity to each other. The Black and Tan was visible to their left, trundling along its rut.
To make matters worse, the closer they got to the wire, the rougher the ground became until Tig felt sure her teeth were rattling out, and Penelope yelped when she accidentally bit her tongue. Forced to focus on their now ever-increasing speed because the slope seemed to have no end, they hardly noticed it when they flew over the wire lattice, and didn't make the connection between that event and the sudden shift from endless whirring to an appalling shrieking siren by the Black and Tan. Their speed did them the favour of keeping them moving even though they involuntarily froze for a moment at the new sound.
"What's the new racket for?" Penelope shouted at Tig, but of course Tig couldn't hear her.
The gate loomed over them now, a great metal-clad edifice built up out of hunks of dark rock reminiscent of the stuff in the slag piles behind them. Great courses of rock slabs held together with concrete stretched up in tiers like giant steps, both straight ahead and at the sides. The result looked like a very shallow pyramid, its trapezoidal outline meshing with what looked like a cliff, itself part of what ran into the sky. At the centre were two giant doors, and unbelievably they were swivelling open on great hinges.
Disinclined to look a gift horse in the mouth, Penelope and Tig pedalled harder and drove through the still small opening, running as close to the tracks as they could to make it through, only to do a hurried swerve away when they saw what was coming down the tracks. Thankfully they made it out of the way safely as the train barrelled along in near complete silence, or so it seemed with their ears full of wax and shocked by the heinous noise produced by at least the Black and Tan they had seen. Hundreds of container cars roared by them, apparently unmarked, usually giant boxes, less often giant cylinders.
It could have been hours, it could have been minutes. At last the train vanished through the gate, and the doors swung shut. On the other side, the doors remained visible, but the rest of the gate seemed to have vanished. Instead, the doors stood in the side of a great, sloping hillside covered in yellow-green vegetation. A crisp, cool breeze ruffled Penelope's hair, though at least the mid-afternoon Sun was warm.
"What are those white things in the sky?" Penelope wondered aloud.
"Clouds, I read it in a book at university." Tig could hardly take her eyes off them, as overawed as her friend. Climbing off their trusty vehicle, Tig turned around slowly. "Wow, this is one big room."
"Tig, this is no room." Penelope shook her head in wonder. "This is the world."
Well, perhaps her words had been ill-chosen. Penelope winced and fanned Tig some more, hoping her friend would come to soon. A few moments after Penelope's words, and after several slow turns on one heel staring around herself, Tig's eyes had rolled up in her head and she had fallen flat on her face as if pole-axed. Thankfully the vegetation was reasonably springy, or Tig's nose wouldn't have faired so well. The cool breeze was picking up too, making Penelope shiver. Frowning with worry, she pulled out the sleeping bags and an extra sweater for herself, then carefully manoeuvred Tig on top of one sleeping bag and covered her with the other before beginning to chafe the older woman's hands gently between her own.
"Come on Tig, you're stubborn and tough as all get out. Wake up now."
"Bugger waking up." Tig mumbled irritably. Still, she opened her eyes and put a hand to her head. "How did I get on the ground?"
"I do not faint."
"Ordinarily I'm sure you don't, but this isn't ordinary after all." Penelope insisted gently. Tig pushed herself up carefully into a sitting position, and looked at their sleeping bags in confusion. "It's been a little while, I was worried you'd get cold."
"Well." Tig took a deep breath. "Suppose I should have anticipated that, being as I've never been out of my own block until not even a week ago when I met you."
"Your husband is from the same block?" Penelope handed Tig a bottle of water, which the other woman drank thirstily. Maybe dehydration had contributed to the fainting spell, Penelope considered, making a mental note to keep better track of that detail.
"Yes, it's very common. It's cheaper than trying to import a wife or move, and anyway men don't have any reason to leave their block since they own the houses." Pulling her knees up under her chin, Tig thought the circumstances of her marriage over, wondering what to explain, if anything. "So I almost never needed another permit card, at least for short trips. All I had to do was know the circuit times for the local Black and Whites, presto."
Penelope nodded, idly tearing strips from her contraband map. Noticing Tig looking askance at the action she shrugged. "It's not as if we're going back, and it'll be good kindling. I've always wanted to make a real fire. Maybe we should find some place to camp for the night, and then move on?"
"Yes, but to where, there's a question." Feeling less wobbly in the knees, Tig climbed to her feet and began folding up the sleeping bags again.
"To start with, we may as well follow the tracks. There must be a place at the other end of them."
"Of course, but those tracks go back the way we came. What if the people at the other end actually have something to do with the city?" Tig folded her arms, and Penelope handed her another sweater.
"It seems to me that once we find the place at the end of the tracks, we should be able to find out how to get to other places one way or the other. It mayn't be a city or settlement of any sort at all, it could just be a depot of some kind where goods are transferred. I didn't notice windows on the train we met."
"Penelope, there is no possible way we could have noticed any windows on that train because we were busy trying not to die at any second." Tig answered tartly. "Well, anyway, let's be getting on then."
And so they did, pedalling away from the gate after sharing one of Tig's energy bars. Neither woman was very hungry, and now the shock had worn off a little they both wanted time to think. They were sore and tired, but the insistent need to get away from the city drove them on until they heard a strange sound combining a hiss with a grinding rumble. Hunkering down behind an outcrop reminiscent of the stone making up the gate, Tig and Penelope watched as another train came swishing down the tracks, not exactly noiseless though surprisingly quiet. Penelope had recovered another gadget from her carpet bag, a set of fine binoculars, focussing them ahead.
"No windows, not even lights I don't think." Dusk was falling, so lights should have been more than noticeable.
"Let's have a look." answered Tig, taking the binoculars. "Dear god Penelope, you need spectacles!" After a bit of fiddling, Tig's view became crisp again, and she could see the train for herself. The engine did indeed have no windows, or apparently any doors. The binoculars were very good, strong enough to pick out the edges of the soldered and riveted plates forming the engine's sides, the radiator pipes, even a round panel Tig considered a probable fuel tank cover. Yet no windows, no doors. A thin tail of exhaust streamed backwards over the engine, apparently emanating straight from its top, no smoke stack or pipe. Behind the engine came the cargo cars, unmarked just as before. She handed the binoculars back to Penelope, who rebelliously muttered she did not need spectacles, and went back to observing the train.
Leaving her friend to indulge her love of machines, Tig walked a little distance away, stretching her sore legs. Probably she should still have felt dizzy and overwhelmed at being "in the big room" as she found herself calling it. When she thought back to June's kitchen however, her sense of unease in the face of the unknown dropped down to little more than the equivalent of an intermittent itch.
Tig had developed the skill of hearing a lecture without paying too much attention to it from having a boorish husband, and thankfully she could still apply it even with a head clogged from weeping. Heaven knew she needed it in June's kitchen. She had expected an ordinary sort of kitchen, one not so far removed from her own, with the usual appliances, a kitchen table, and probably the flowery borders and so forth she couldn't stand. So it had been more than disorienting to see the real thing.
The usual appliances were there, absolutely. Every one of them bashed and pitted as if they were systematically beaten with a shovel or a rake on a regular basis. This meant every fancy enamel coating was scratched, chipped, and pitted. The floor was scored too, not in the usual way cheap wood laminates got marked up by daily use, but as if someone had taken forks and knives to it. The cupboards were no better off, and except for a clock set to ten in the morning which ticked steadily, the hands twitching yet not moving, the walls were bare of pictures, flowers, anything. Except batches of tick marks. Little groups of four, with a line run across them diagonally, tidier at around shoulder level, progressively more untidy and hectic looking from there. And they were in different colours, black in one layer, white in another, green, red. The only light besides what shone in through the windows came from a bare bulb in the ceiling, with the remains of a glass fixture around it.
Tig had never been so absolutely terrified in all her life. In fact, sitting there on a chair with half of its back ripped off and the foam spilling out, Tig realized she had never really been afraid before. When June dismissed her and sent her back out the kitchen door, Tig forced herself to walk away demurely even though she had wanted to rush into the garden and give loud thanks for having escaped alive. Only much later did Tig realize she had never heard or seen June's husband.