Read Dreamfall Online

Authors: Joan D. Vinge

Dreamfall (page 4)

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Kissindre touched my arm. I jerked away, startled. Shepulled her hand back.

I lifted my hand, because I hadn’t meant it that way, hadn’twanted her to stop touching me. Suddenly I wanted to feel her arms around me,her lips on my bruised mouth; not caring that it would hurt, not caring whatanyone thought. Just wanting to feel her against me, wanting her—

I took a deep breath, pulling myself together, and wiped mymouth again with the back of my hand. I realized finally that Ezra hadn’t comewith the rest of them. And I realized that I was almost as glad not to see himhere as I was glad to be free. Realizing it pissed me off, but that didn’t makeit a lie. “No wonder the FTA is investigating Tau for rights violations,” Imuttered, looking hard at Kissindre’s uncle.

He looked away, grimacing, but Sand said, “There was nothingillegal about what happened to you here.”

I stared at him. “What do you mean?”

“Under the Internal Security Act, anyone suspected of behaviorwhich threatens the corporate state can be detained, without any charges beingbrought against them, for indefinite two-year periods.”

I almost asked if he was serious; didn’t. It didn’t take amind reader to see that he didn’t have that kind of sense of humor.

“It’s been a part of virtually every combine charter,” Perrymeadesaid, as if he had to explain it, or excuse it, “since colonial days, on worldswith ... an indigenous population.”

“That doesn’t make it right,” I said. I glanced atKissindre.

She tried to meet my eyes; ended up looking away like her unclehad. She didn’t say anything. Nobody said anything.

“I think I’ll go back to the hotel now,” I said as theystood there, staring at me like they’d been put on hold. “You coming?” I askedKissindre, finally.

“I—Uncle Janos invited me to stay with his family tonight.”She glanced at him, back at me. “Why don’t you come home with us?”

“Yes, why don’t you? You’d be Very welcome,” Perrymeadesaid. He looked directly at me for the first time since we’d come out of thestation, &S if he’d finally thought of a way to save face.

DKEAMF:ALL / 5l

“I don’t think so.” I shook my head. I didn’t have thestomach for spending what was left of the night discussing race relations withpeople who’d be fined a hundred fifty credits for failing to recycle. Iwondered what the fine was for failing to keep your guests out of trouble ...or failing to treat them like human beings. “Thanks anyway,” I mumbled,realizing that what had come out of my swollen mouth said more than I’d meantit to.

“I really feel we need to discuss the ... situation here,the circumstances—” Perrymeade broke off, gestured toward the mod that had comedrifting down at some silent command of his. Tau’s logo showed on its sleek,curving side.

I shook my head. “Nothing to say.” I wasn’t sure whether Imeant them or me. The words sounded numb, the way my entire body felt now,except for the inside of my mouth. I probed a torn cheek with my bitten tongue,hurting myself.

“I’ll see you back to the hotel,fllsn—”Protz said, coming alive for the first time since I’d seen him in the doorwayof the interrogation room. He put his hand on me like he expected me to disappearagain.

I broke his hold, too roughly; saw Sand give me a look.

“I probably don’t need to tell you,” Sand said to me, “thatwe did not make any friends in there tonight.” He nodded at the CorporateSecurity station behind us. I was surprised to find myself included in hiswe.“It was regrettable. But I would be ... conservative, if I were you, aboutyour future activities while you remain in Riverton.”

I nodded, frowning.

“Then let me get you a taxi—” Protz insisted, treadingwater.

“I don’t need your help,” I said. I input the cab call on mydata-band, forcing them all to acknowledge that I had one, and the right to useit.

“It’s after curfew,” Protz said. “Be certain you go directlyto the hotel—”

“Fuck off,” I muttered, and he stiffened.

“Tomorrow we go out to the reefs.” Kissindre moved in betweenus, forcing me to look at her. I wasn’t sure if that was a promise, or just areminder because she thought I wasn’t tracking.

I nodded again, looked up into the night, searching thelight-washed darkness for my transportation. They all waited around me untilthe taxi arrived. I got in, not able to stop Protz from giving it instructionsbefore the door sealed. I slumped down in the seat and put my feet up as themod lifted, finally able to drop my guard, finally leaving it all behind.

I looked out and down as the taxi carried me over the silentcity. I thought about the good citizens of Riverton, all in their beds andsleeping because they’d been told to be, or pretending they were. I thoughtabout Oldcity, where I’d spent most of my life ... how it only really camealive at night. How I’d lived for the night, lived off it, survived because ofit. Night was when the tourists and the rich marks from upside in Quarro cameslumming, looking for things they couldn’t get in a place like Tau Riverton.Oldcity existed because Quarro was a Federal Trade District, neutral ground. Nosingle combine ran anything, or everything. You’d always find an Oldcitysomewhere inside a place like Quarro.

There was no Oldcity here; no room for deviance in a combine‘clave. Everything was safe and sane; clean, polite, healthy, and prosperous. Undercontrol. There was no unpunished crime down there in those streets, no illegaldrugs. No thieves or whores or refugees, no orphans raped in alleys, no onecoughing their guts up in public from a disease most people had forgotten thename of. No freaks.

The cab told me to get my feet off the upholstery. I put myfeet down, feeling the memory of Oldcity like the pain of a festered wound.They wanted everyone to believe that life in this place was better than in aplace like Quarro. That people were. But the rot was just better concealed. Irubbed my raw weeping face with my blistered hand, looking out at the brightdarkness of the night.

The mod let me off at the hotel entrance and reminded me notto forget anything. “Not a chance,” I said. I went in through the vaulted lobbyfilled with trees and flowering shrubs that looked a lot healthier than I did,let the lift carry me up inside the tower, walked the last few meters to my owndoor, all without having to look a single overly solicitous member of the humanstaff in the face.

The door read my databand and let me in. It closed again behindme, sealing me in, so that I was safe at last in a room that looked exactlylike every other room in this hotel. I wondered whether the rest of the teamhad gotten back from the reception. It didn’t really matter, because I barelyknew any of them except Ezra, and I didn’t like Ezra.

I collapsed on the bed, asked the housekeeping system forice and a first-aid kit. A flow-mural was seeping across the far wall: hypnoticforms in oozing black, the kind of art that could make you wake up in themorning wanting to slash your wrists without knowing why. I called on thethreedy, blotting it out.

I asked for the Independent News. They didn’t carry it here.I watched the replay of the Tau Late News flicker on instead, half listenedthrough a rogue’s gallery of people who’d been caught smuggling Poffi,littering, or leaving a public toilet without washing their hands.

There should have been something about the kidnapping. Therewasn’t. There was a short, empty piece on the arrival of the research team,though, with scenes of the party at the Aerie. It closed with a view of thecloud-reefs and a long shot of the cloud-whales themselves.

I reached for a headset and requested every visual thesystem had on file of the reefs and the cloud-whales. The room disappearedaround me as the mask fitted itself against my face. I canceled the sound,because I already knew anything a Tau voicefeed would have told me. For a fewminutes at least I could be somewhere I wanted to be: feeling the touch of thewind, looking out across view after view as each one carried me deeper into themystery my senses called beauty ....

Until at last the feed of images—the reef formations laidout on the green earth like offerings for the eye of God, the cloud-whalesblown like sunlit smoke across an azure sky—bled away into neural static. I laystill until the final phantom image had burned itself out of my nerve endings.

When the visions were gone, the memories of tonight werestill waiting.

I told myself fiercely to remember why I was here; rememberthat Kissindre Perrymeade had wanted me on her crew because I could do thiskind of interpretive work better than anyone else. I hadn’t come to Refuge toget myself arrested over in Freaktown, to humiliate myself or her, to make Tauregret they had asked us here to perform a task that for once wouldn’t bestrictly for their profit ....

I blew through the menu of other programming, trying to findsomething that would keep me from thinking, something that would stop the fistof my anger from bruising the walls of my chest—anger that I couldn’t forgetand couldn’t share and couldn’t make go away. Something to relieve my tensionso that I could sleep, so that I could face all those human faces tomorrow—allthose eyes with their round, perfectly normal pupils—and not tell them to go tohell.

There was nothing on the vid menu now but public serviceprogramming, production documentaries, and a random selection of the mindrotinteractives I could have spent hours lost in, and been perfectly happy, not solong ago .... Except that here the interactives began with a red censor logo,telling me they’d had the good parts cut out of them.

I jerked off the headset and threw it on the floor. Theheadset retracted into its slot at the bedside, drawn up by some invisiblehand. It clicked into place in the smooth line of the console, as if it wasmaking some kind of point about my personal habits. I ordered the wallscreen toblank and called on the music menu. It was just as stale. I lay back again onthe bed that was exactly warm and exactly comfortable enough, sucked on ice asI stared at the white, featureless ceiling.

I lay on the bed without moving for a long time. After awhile the room thought I’d gone to sleep, and turned off the lights. I barelynoticed, lost in the dark streets of memory, colliding again and again with theimage of a woman’s anguished face, her voice begging me to help her.Theywant to take my child .... But it hadn’t been her child.Political,they’dsaid.Radicals, dissidents.She’d been taking care of the child—aboy, they said it was a boy, couldn’t have been more than three or four.Whyhad she said that—why that, why to me ... ? She didn’t know me==couldn’t knowwhat those words would do, couldn’t know what had happened once, long &go,far away, to a woman like her, with a child like me ... the darkness, thescreams, and then the blinding end of everything. The darkness ... falling andfalling into the darkness.

Four

I woke up again sprawled across the same perfect bed in thesame perfect hotel room, just the way I’d left consciousness last night. My newclothes looked like I’d been mugged in them. I felt like I’d been mugged inthem.

Sunrise was pouring through the window, which had been awall last night, and the room was telling me courteously and endlessly to getmy butt out of bed. I shook my hair out of my eyes and checked the time. “Jeezu!”I muttered. In another five minutes the team was due to leave for the researchbase Tau had set up on the Hydran Homeland.

I rolled out of bed, realizing as I tried to stand up howhung-over I was. I stripped off my reception clothes, swearing at every bruiseI uncovered. Even naked, there was no escape from the bitter memory of lastnight. I hurled the wad of clothing across the room. Then I pulled on the worn tunicand denim pants, the heavy jacket and boots that were the only kind of clothingI’d owned, or needed, until yesterday. There was nothing I could do about thescabs on my face or the dirt in my hair. I knotted a kerchief around my headand hoped no one looked at me.

I started out of the room, still feeling queasy, steppedback inside long enough to stick on a detox patch and empty a handful ofcrushed crackers out of the pocket of my formal jacket. I stuffed the crackersinto my mouth and took the lift down.

I got out into the greenbelt square in front of the hotel onthe heels of Mapes, the team’s multisense spectroscopist. The rest of the teammembers were already there, eager to get their first view of the reefs. Ipulled on my gloves and nodded good morning, not too obviously out of breath. Acouple of the others looked at me twice, at the skid marks of last night allover my face. But they didn’t ask.

“Morning,” I said as Kissindre came up to me, dressed like Iwas now.

I saw her falter as she stopped by me. ‘Are you all right?”she asked, keeping it between the two of us, like the look she gave me as shetouched my arm.

I didn’t flinch away. “Sure,” I said. “Corporate Securityused to beat me up all the time.”

Her breath caught, and I realized, too late, that shethought I meant something by it.

“Just kidding,” I murmured, but she didn’t believe me. “I’mfine. Did they get the kidnapper?”

Her gaze flickered. “No. Cat ... that Hydran woman—was theremore to what happened than you told Sand last night?”

I wondered who’d told her to ask me that. “No.”

“Why did you leave the reception, then? Was it Ezra?”

“Give me more credit,” I said. I looked away, frowning, becauseher eyes wouldn’t leave me alone. “The Hydrans.”

She stood a moment without saying anything. Finally, carefully,she asked, “You mean, because you’re half Hydran ...?”

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