A special gift for friends and fans! The following is an excerpt from the upcoming PQR, a piece of speculative fiction being planned as a three-part Kindle exclusive. © Lori Berhon, All Rights Reserved
PQR: The Bride
Oskar had assured her that the petition would be accepted. She trusted him, of course; she was trusting him with her life; but it was difficult not to worry. There was significant risk in applying. Common wisdom held that a tag was logged in dBanks if you came within a yard of an IMB broker. There was nothing illegal in doing this, but the data continued to feed and if you held down a relatively good shift—a 3-day-6 in one of the better Houses, for example, or a staff position with a Patron family—it would be a black mark against you. You could lose everything and gain nothing. She’d considered that possibility, tried to imagine herself shiftless and scrambling for survival off-grid. Even if all went well, she would find herself in a foreign land, bound for life—or for the number of years stipulated by that country’s laws—to a stranger, and isolated by a language and customs that would be completely unknown until she was submerged in them.
Once she tapped ‘submit,’ she panicked to the point that she was unable to breathe.
The agitation subsided by the next morning, as it always did once you came to terms with the worst that could happen. All that remained was the waiting.
The nano-second you’re accepted, they lock onto your chip: your shifts are cancelled, your unit marked for reassignment, your movements more tightly monitored. In anticipation of this, she went to the Roost to say goodbye.
Granted the rare privilege of spending the night on a pallet of blankets in the greatroom, she stayed from one day into the next. For many of those hours, she worked at Griselda’s side, helping with meals and other now-familiar chores. In the morning, she set out a rising, enjoying the calm that always came with kneading dough. A wave of love washed over her, to feel that she was leaving them these loaves she would never eat. She was glad that Gris had encouraged her to write her memory book over these past years; this too would stay behind, joining the others in the secret library.
All the members of the eating club knew that she’d petitioned for emigration. They came to be with her, no matter how few hours they had to spare. Even Charm sacrificed precious sleep time from the middle of a 2-day-12 to drag herself out to Queens for a final hug. They posed with her for pictures. She tried not to cry, not wanting her face to be red and puckered; she wanted them to remember her as happy, as she wanted to remember them. This was the last time she would see their faces. Once gone, a Bride can never return to visit the Federated States. She wouldn’t even have these pictures unless Oskar managed to scramble the files and hide them in his com device; a Bride was allowed to take neither device nor papers. She moved from person to person, placing her hands on their shoulders, staring into their eyes, trying hard to memorize every bone and every crooked smile.
Her goodbye to Griselda was especially tearful. She gathered the old woman in her arms, afraid of squeezing too hard, aware of the birdlike fragility of great age.
“Be brave.” Shining with joy, Gris kissed her forehead like a mother, blessing her. “You’ll have the life we remember, that everyone dreams of. You must live for us all.”
It made a hole in her heart, to think she would never see this old woman again.
Back at the unit, she fell into her pod, exhausted enough that she actually slept.
She awoke with the sun. Her feed showed a flashing alert. Oskar had been right. So quickly her petition had been approved, departure set, instructions forwarded by readme. Why had she doubted for a minute? Greater New York would lose nothing by her leaving. Demographically, she was on the shady side of maximum productivity. If anything, there was a surfeit of others waiting to fill her slots. She’d paid off her creche and had a reasonable—merely reasonable, not remotely ostentatious—balance of credits, even after they applied their outrageous processing fee for a dBanks search that a five-year-old could have performed in less than a quarter hour.
She was officially a non-person and she was free to go. But she was not free to take anything with her. Oskar had warned her of this; a Bride left the Federated States with nothing but the clothes on her back—not even a carry bag.
She was afraid they might even confiscate the family rings and had planned, rather than wearing them, to sew them to her tunic as decoratively as possible. There were other things she couldn’t bear to leave behind. Understanding this, Caleb said yesterday to put the most important of them in a single bag. He’d promised, making a formal vow that would have been funny if he hadn’t been so solemn about it, that once he got to Kowloon he would find a way to smuggle the bag out to her. It might take years, but she believed he would make it happen. She would have been proud to have a son like Caleb. He hadn’t even been embarrassed when, tears rolling down her face, she’d thrown her arms around him and kissed him.
She went slowly through her belongings, touching everything, bidding goodbye to most of it. She didn’t have much; none of them did. Everything was precious. She decided that if something made her think of someone else, she it would leave it for that person. Her bedding and eating utensils, for example; Caleb would be glad to have them for himself when he moved to Kowloon. She would leave him her warm sweater, too. Charm and she had the same size foot; that took care of her boots. The easiest part, to her surprise, was selecting what to take. If she touched it and couldn’t bear to let it go, it had to either be worn or somehow fitted into that one case. Her uniforms could be sold at a floater, and the scrip used for Gris. The same applied to other belongings that had no obvious heir; everyone would be happy with that. She wrote out labels, using a few sheets of Roost-made rag, and tied them or tacked them down with a few stitches. She was leaving behind every single person that she knew; she would at least leave them with something to remember her by.
Looking at the piles and bundles, with their brave little labels, she felt as if she were attending her own memorial. Is this what it felt like, when you decided to log out? But she wasn’t logging out. She would never have to face that horrible decision. Oskar had given her another option. She was moving on.
Still, there was a little death in saying goodbye to everything she’d ever known. She decided to take a last walk around the city. There wasn’t time to go back to the neighborhood where she’d been born, but she could take a final look at some of her special places. She sat in the park for nearly an hour, memorizing the trees and the lines of the buildings above them. From there, she walked to the Metropolitan Museum. If she’d had but one more day, she would have spent all of it there. With only this bit of afternoon, all she could do was dart from one favorite exhibit to another for a quick stare and a whispered goodbye. Nearly blinded by tears, she ran down the steps. Stumbling to the crossing, her heel caught in the broken cobbles that surrounded the old trees, and she fell. As she pushed herself upright, her eye caught a small chunk of stone in the dirt. She slipped it into her pocket. She would tack it onto her tunic as well and wear a piece of the city of her birth to her new home.
For some reason, this lifted her spirits. Resolutely turning her back on the Museum, she set off towards the best stores in New York. She had work to do.
In planning her departure, she’d immediately realized that off-grid currency would have no value outside the State and had brought it all to the Roost—all the scrip she’d accumulated at floaters and the barter chits in her name—and divided it among her friends. She’d expected, however, to cash in her on-grid account for whatever medium of exchange they used in her future home. It came as a shock this morning, to learn it was illegal for her to exchange Federated credits for foreign currency. She’d lived carefully, squirreling away funds against the time when she could no longer hold a shift. It was a laughable amount in Patron terms; but to her it was sizable, enough to have lasted a good six or seven years in a 1-room-3, even longer in a 2-room-7. It would have been a solid comfort to have something of her own in her new life, but the government coolly refused it. Nor could she benefit her friends by transferring her credits to another person’s account. When her records were purged from dBanks, whatever balance was left, those credits she’d worked so hard for, would fall into the State’s coffers.
The only thing she was allowed to do before her feed was cut off was spend them. The arbitrary meanness of this statute made her angry, and anger always had a bracing effect. The State most likely didn’t expect a plod to be able to spend that much in a single day. She would see about that. There must be plenty of useful expensive things that she could buy.
Some things were easy. Fonteyn had a sister who’d ended up down in Baltimore. They hadn’t seen one another in the flesh for nearly a decade, because neither had two consecutive down days and the cost of a single-day round-trip ticket was cripplingly high. Then there was Midori’s keyboard. It was inevitable that the Music Box would start to cut the aging singer’s shifts in another year or two; but with a keyboard of her own, she’d be able to make up the gap by working shebeens. The best was Jonah’s new glide. Just imaging his face when he saw the gift chit on his feed was enough to raise the best kind of smile.
Other gifts were less exciting but equally useful, like the winter sleep sacks for the members of the deck, who lived in a drafty tower. When she ran out of things that people needed, she bought things that they could sell or trade high, things like pharmaceuticals, and genuine coffee and tea.
It was tempting to buy ridiculous things, just to use up every credit. Instead, she decided to give herself an experience that she’d never had in her life and, after today, could never possibly have again: she bought a ticket to a Broadway show. It was silly, of course, old fashioned and touristy; but it was something New York had once-upon-a-time been famous for. Perhaps, in her new home, someone would ask if she’d ever seen one; now she would be able to say yes. She was glad she’d done the traditional Commencement trip to Disney; they were certain to ask about that. The show actually reminded her of Disney. It had bright colors, and bright music that seemed somehow familiar. The story made very little sense, but there were some funny bits and the love story ended happily. Mostly, there was something oddly exciting in knowing that the performers were only a few feet away, breathing the same air that you were breathing; so different from watching a vid on a com screen.
The experience left her a little dizzy. She ambled slowly up Broadway, the lights and the spads and the city crowds brushing against her skin. At the edge of the park, she paused to admire the golden necklace of streetlights against the trees, and the gleaming white of the old monuments. She would never see this again. Hating to leave the street, she walked toward Lincoln Center. The buildings were emptying out after the evening performances, so she kept to the shadows. She knew too many people who might be working here tonight; she couldn’t bear the thought of speaking to any of them.
Her roommates must have guessed this. The unit was empty when she returned. Both were off shift; they must have made other sleeping arrangements for tonight. She was lonely but grateful.
She took a shower. Her hair wasn’t dirty, but she washed it. It seemed like the right thing to do. She made a cup of spruce tea in the mug that would soon be Marin’s. She shifted the piles of belongings from her mattress to the table in the center of the room, making room so that she could climb into her pod for the last time. When she’d first arrived, it had been so alien to her; funny how much it felt like home to her now. She tucked up her legs and switched on the com screen to check that all the receipts from today’s shopping had registered. This was her confirmation that the gift chits had gone out and the vendors would complete the transaction. Her account still held more credits than she would have liked to leave, but she was satisfied with what she’d accomplished.
She didn’t need to set the alarm; it had already been set for her. She would write her goodbye messages now, while her feed was still active.
She never slept. When the dawn light found the windows, she was still sitting on her mattress with the mug in her hands. She’d had three or four cups of tea. About an hour before, she’d eaten a nutrition bar. She stared around the room, seeing it again for the first time. She stood carefully and walked to the window. The strawberry bed would be sprouting soon. She wouldn’t be here to taste the fruit. She looked out across the little park to the opposite tower. No one was stirring anywhere. It was an odd time of day, an hour when people were either sound asleep or well into a shift. The silence was enormous, but comfortable. When the alarm buzzed, she jumped and nearly dropped the mug.
Time then. She washed and dried the mug, then tucked in the label that said ‘Marin’ and placed it on the table. She folded up her bed things and added them to Caleb’s pile. She used the facilities for the last time.
She dressed as carefully as she’d dressed for the first day of any shift, then made a final inspection of the room. Everything was accounted for.
She was grateful that they chose to knock; they didn’t seem the type to think they ought to. There were two of them, both large men with stony faces. Nervously fondling the little rock on her tunic collar, she handed over her toiletries case for inspection.
They brought her, in a closed car, like a dangerous criminal, to a transition facility. She never saw the building from outside, to know how large it was or whether it had windows. There were no windows in the room to which she was brought. It was stark and painted a disheartening shade of green. A woman awaited her there, asked her to strip and examined her for contraband. She was handed a green coverall and slippers. Her own clothes, they said, would be returned before she left; she assumed they would be examined for contraband as well.
The next room was painted the same sickly green, and contained a hooded contraption she hadn’t seen since the day of her Fledging. On that day, a friendly operator had smiled reassuringly. Today, the man in the medical whites pointed with a curt nod. She sat and extended her arm under the hood, palm up.
She felt the cold bite of the anesthetic spray, followed by a prolonged tugging sensation. The tugging done, her arm flopped numbly down on the table. She waited for the second spray, but there was none.
The medic frowned at her. “You’re done,” he said. “You can go.”
Slowly, she withdrew her arm. There was piece of what seemed to be thin cloth against her wrist, a few flecks of blood seeping through. “Where’s the neuskin?” she wondered.
He had a grating laugh. “It’s stitched tight enough,” he said. “It’ll heal. And you’ll have something to remember us by.”
The female guard returned and led her to a small room that held nothing but a cot, a shelf-like table and a com screen. The walls, to her relief, were white. The guard showed her how to operate the vid feed by touch, then left.
The feed had abundant entertainment, but no news or communications access. The scrolling readme advised that her personal account on dBanks had been purged as thoroughly as if she’d died. She would be here for seventy-two hours until her flight left. She was now, she realized, effectively gone.
It was horribly lonely without a com. She would have been glad of anyone, even crazy Jocasta, even the indifferent bouncer from the Ansonia. She sat in front of the screen, switching from feed to feed, trying to distract herself. Stories older than the Dissolution, sports she’d never followed, celebrities she’d never heard of, a documentary about some kind of extinct bird. Her eyes glazed over, but still she watched.
She only knew that time had passed when the attendant brought the tray. It was always the same youngish man with bad skin. He looked at her curiously, but did not speak; it was not permitted.
When the com screen failed her, she sat on the bed with her eyes closed, reviewing her memories, trying hard to preserve certain fleeting images and conversations. She trusted Caleb, but she knew it might be a long time before he could so much as attempt to fulfill the promise he’d made. Even then, it might not be within his power to succeed. She might never receive her bag. She might be left with nothing but what she could carry in her head.
On what she realized only then was the final evening, the door opened to admit someone else. It was Oskar.
For a second, she was so happy. “I thought I wouldn’t see you until tomorrow!” Then her heart sank to the floor and the bile rose up in her throat. This could not be good. Was her visa being cancelled? What would happen to her?
His smile was not wide, but it reached encouragingly to his eyes. He gave her a tentative hug. “I am only here for a few minutes. As we cannot travel together, they have kindly allowed me to come to wish you bon voyage.”
It was the ‘kindly’ that reminded her that someone was likely listening to this conversation. “I don’t understand,” she said quietly. To fulfill his agency contract, Oskar had to make a final pass through Greater Atlanta before returning home. To his home. It had been many years since she’d been in Atlanta. She’d been looking forward to being there with him.
“Brides must fly directly to the country of sponsorship. I was not aware of this ruling. There was no need…” He shrugged, looking embarrassed. “I will arrange for someone to meet you. From the agency. And take care of you until I follow.”
“Yes, of course.” She nodded brightly. “It’ll only be a month.” In a place where she knew no one and didn’t speak the language. “That’ll be fine.”
“I have brought you a gift.” He held out a bundle of black cloth. “You can wear it over whatever else you plan to wear,” he explained.
Puzzled, she took it from him. It felt heaver than it had looked.
“Turn it the other way,” he grinned. “Inside out.”
She did as he said. The black fabric became a dazzling coat of many colors.
“Griselda made it for you.”
“She must have been working on this since I left. It must have taken her every hour. It’s beautiful!” It wasn’t, but it was fabulous, a patchwork of odd colors and textures that should never have been brought together: a triangle of printed yellow cotton, next to a strip of green satin ribbon; a stained white square embroidered with a pink hoop-skirted girl.
“I am to say that it is a memory book.”
She looked closely. A swatch from Caleb’s bandanna. Ribbon from Fonteyn’s dancing slippers. A piece of one of Griselda’s ancient tea towels. Something from everyone. And on the plainer patches, people’s names, signed ‘with love.’ She started to cry. Oskar moved closer, so that she might lean against him if she wanted or needed to. He allowed her tears, gently stroking her back until she was drained. “Will you see her again before you leave?” she asked. “Gris, I mean?”
“Tell her…” She couldn’t continue.
“Thank you,” he supplied.
“No.” She shook her head. “Just say that I promise to remember.”
It was another sleepless night. She lay on the cot beneath Griselda’s coat, trying to imagine where her friends were at that moment. She sent out loving thoughts, hoping that somehow the others might feel them.
She breakfasted on tea—real tea, she noticed—an egg, new bread and fresh fruit. They must want her to leave with a good impression of the Federated States. As promised, her attendant had also brought back her clothes.
She’d chosen to leave in her good boots and a decent pair of black legs, with the tunic she’d kept for special. She was relieved to find the little piece of rock and her rings still tacked to her collar. She tied her oldest apron over this, the one too shabby to be worth the effort of trading. She’d studded it with the pins and badges accumulated in childhood, and with those representing her training credentials and years of service; these, she observed with a craven pang of gratitude, were being allowed to her as well. Finally, she slipped on Griselda’s coat, an odd garment over an odd combination of garments, all within the letter of the law.
And yet, she was not allowed to carry so much as a toothbrush in her pocket. She folded the ugly green coverall neatly and placed it on the table beside the modest collection of toiletries that would accompany her no further. She sat on the edge of the cot, careful of her coat, and waited for her escorts to arrive.
She had never flown across an ocean before.