|janecarnall (janecarnall) wrote,|
@ 2009-08-03 20:35:00
In The Mouth Of The Wolf: Part 6
It's 1.35 in the morning, my time, though in Montreal (where I am right now) it's 8:35 in the evening. I am beyond exhausted, but I'm posting, because I am too tired to think of a good reason for breaking my word. (Written in Edinburgh, revised transAtlantic, revisions reviewed in Shoshanna's living room, posted via her Internet.)
The previous stories in this series (my Keptverse) began with The Games (six parts) and continued with The Network (one part), The Players (seven parts), The Gambler (seven parts), The Pieces (seven parts), and End-Game (5 parts).
There are parts one two, three, four, and five of "In the Mouth of the Wolf", the sixth and final section of this story.
The story may be regarded as fanfic set in poisontaster's Keptverse. There is a species of cast list here.
The car was on I-90 now, and the city came in sight: Stephanie stared at it without thinking for a moment, as Emma said, voice shaking, “What's that?”
The city skyline was broken. Stephanie blinked and rubbed at her eyes. The smoke was breaking up the skyline. It looked wrong because of the smoke, the long black tail sweeping over the city. She went on staring.
It had been made entirely of mirrors, angled to reflect the light. At sunset it glowed like a torch: at night, it gave back the city lights in luminous extravagance: on sunny days it glittered and in the rainlight it shone like a pearl. Stephanie had stopped to look at it a thousand times: she had thought it was the most beautiful building in the world since she was a little girl, and even now …
… it was gone. The thick smoke smeared across the sky where it had been.
“Look,” Bo said. She sounded almost dazed. “It's gone. It's really gone.”
The last thing Deputy Marshal Gerard did was take all four of them into the long room he called the armoury, and get Tam to shoot at a paper target with two different guns. He wouldn't let either Emma or Stephanie herself touch the guns, but he let Bo try to use one of the ones Tam had shot with. She didn't seem to do very well, but it didn't look difficult. The ammunition was kept in heavy cardboard cartons. Gerard had pointed them out to Emma and Stephanie. “Carry all you can.”
The last they saw of Gerard, he was being helped by his slave into the passenger seat of a plain white van. He didn't say goodbye to them. The slave drove the van out the gates, which opened automatically and closed behind them.
“I wonder why they didn't let us have the van,” Emma said. “We could have fitted a lot more in.”
The van was the one that had shown up outside her parents house, all that time ago. Last Sunday. Tam and Bo, hooded and cuffed like parcels, had been stuffed into the back of it. Stephanie glanced at Emma.
She was one of the popular girls: rich and pretty and always dressed right. She was seldom unkind and her body slave was the best-looking one in the school. She always turned in her classwork on time and got regular As. You couldn't imagine her saying anything controversial. She never had, not ever, to Stephanie's knowledge, until last week when she'd asked Stephanie out for coffee and told her that her two slaves were in love with each other, and she was going to help them run away together. All in a breathless, slightly amused voice, that made it all sound like a joke.
Stephanie had never imagined Emma weeping out loud that Bo hated her, Tam hated her, her mom and dad's slaves hated her. It hardly seemed possible that Emma had said that – would ever say anything like that, or cry that she wanted her dad, or stop crying only when Bo comforted her. She wasn't that kind of person. The marks of hard crying were still on her face, even if she sounded just like usual.
Deputy Gerard didn't want Tam and Bo to have to get into the van again. Stephanie understood that.
The trunk of the car was packed to the brim with foodstuff from the kitchen, and a carton of medical-looking stuff that Bo and Tam had collected. “Can you find this church, Tam?” Emma asked.
“Yes, Miss Emma,” Tam said. “The car has a navigation system.” She opened the back door of the car and Emma and Stephanie fitted themselves in, the ammunition boxes piled between them with a couple of blankets from one of the upstairs beds thrown over them. But she got into the passenger seat: Bo got in on the driver's side.
“I didn't know you could drive, Bo,” Emma said.
“Ben taught me.” Bo's voice sounded odd, Stephanie considered: both constricted and filled with some unexpected, inexplicable emotion. “My name's Beatrice.”
Emma opened her mouth, as if to say – as Stephanie certainly wanted to say – “No, it's not”. Emma's girl Bo had never been called Beatrice.
Stephanie caught Emma's eye, and Emma closed her mouth again, slowly, looking forward as if warily: Bo and Tam had guns and could drive and weren't wearing collars and maybe the tall slave had taken their chips out... and they were all dressed funny, in slops that an owner might have provided for an unregarded slave to wear. If someone stopped the car, would they know Emma and Stephanie were free, and Bo and Tam were slaves?
Were Bo and Tam really slaves any more? Stephanie's father owned three slaves, which Stephanie knew was the legal minimum for his income and house size, and treated them well. Harry cooked and Mary cleaned and Sue gardened and did typing and filing, and none of them had ever gone hungry or been whipped. They didn't hate anyone. Dad would pay them wages if they were free.
The smoke from the city skyline, where the Commerce building had been, looked as if it were painted on the sky. “It's gone,” Bo said. “It's really gone.”
“Yes,” Tam said. She was tapping at the navigation system. “We need to keep straight on here. The nav route takes us three blocks from Commerce, and we don't want to go there.” Her voice never changed much: but underneath the calm Stephanie thought she heard the same unexpected, inexplicable emotion, between anger and joy.
“It's gone,” Bo said again. “Yes, I see,” she added, and the car didn't turn: they were sweeping on down I-90 at the speed limit, and Stephanie found she was getting a crick in her neck staring at the broken skyline where the Commerce building had stood. Stephanie turned to rest her neck, to take her eyes away, and saw Tam's face in the mirror: her lips were parted in a strange hard grin that showed her teeth.
Stephanie reached out and took Emma's hand, feeling cold fingers curl round hers. She had been in a cell for hours without water, getting angrier and more frightened as the time went by, thirsty and hungry and angry but knowing it was a tactic, they would have to come back with water.
This wasn't the cell. This was the real world, breaking.
Stephanie wasn't sure where they were: somewhere over on the south side of Chicago. Bo parked the car next to the only other one in the paved area next to the church. It felt odd to be outside again: it felt odd to be standing and walking, just as if everything was normal, with Emma – with Tam and Bo.
A man came out of the church – a priest: he was wearing ordinary clothes but he had a white collar on. Stephanie swallowed, trying to think of something to say, but Bo had already stepped forward. “We're runaways. Can we come in?”
“Yes, but you'll have to leave your guns outside,” the priest said, in so normal a voice that Stephanie could almost have hugged him. “Are you all armed? You'll all have to put your guns down before you can come in.”
The church and the parish house were already crowded. Neither Emma nor Stephanie seemed to have a chance to explain that they weren't really runaways, and no one seemed to care: people helped unload the car, all but the guns and ammunition, and Bo drove it away with someone from the church, but came back again in a short while. Tam was in the priest's office; Bo went in to join her. A man had given Emma and Stephanie mugs of instant coffee, heavily sweetened: they sat together on a bench, and drank the coffee, and gradually Emma stopped shaking.
“We should find a phone,” Stephanie said quietly, when Emma's hand felt warm again. She hadn't really been thinking much about her family – there was too much else going on – but when she did: “I don't even know if my parents are in jail.” It hadn't occurred to her till just now.
“I don't think so,” Emma whispered back. “I think they'd have to put my dad in jail too, aiding and abetting, and they couldn't do that.” She stopped. Her voice came out awkwardly. “Steffy, I'm sorry I got you into this, okay?” She wasn't looking at Stephanie.
“Okay,” Stephanie said, after a moment when she wasn't sure whether to laugh or to cry. She thought her own voice came out awkwardly, too. She wasn't as confident as Emma that her father's being nearly a Lord would make any difference to how her own parents got treated, but it wasn't worth arguing with Emma about. “Just imagine, all this could be happening and we wouldn't know what was going on.”
Emma gave her a look and a choked gulp of laughter. They both buried their faces in their coffee mugs, trying to make themselves stop: when someone noticed – the man who had given them the coffee – they tried to stop and sit up straight, but he didn't seem to mind.
“Feeling better? What are you called, kids?”
“Emma” – “Stephanie,” they both said, almost simultaneously.
He looked at them. “Okay,” he said. “Would you two like to help out in the kitchen?”
The basement was partly kitchen, partly eating space – there were tables and benches round the wall. There was no phone. A TV in one corner of the room seemed to be set to a music channel: the sound was on low.
Making sandwiches was trickier than Stephanie had thought.Dan was chopping vegetables for soup, and the other two people in the kitchen were wiping dishes and sorting cutlery. There were big loaves of sliced bread – the date on the wrapper was, she realised with a little calculation, today's date, if today was still Wednesday. There was meat and cheese in big lumps, and lettuce and onions, and big tubs of margarine and peanut butter and red jelly. She and Emma got it all out on the table as Dan directed, looking at each other: Stephanie had made sandwiches, when Harry was busy, but to eat right away, never to stack up and keep. Emma probably never had done even that.
“All right,” someone new said. Dan looked up and said gladly “Mary Beth!”
She was Sue's sort of age, probably in her fifties, big and brisk. She swapped hellos with the other adults, and said to Emma and Stephanie, “So you two are making sandwiches? Let's see, we'll want to run the cheese through the grater – and you can slice spam, can't you? I'll shred lettuce. The onions go through after the cheese, on the number 3 setting – ”
She had an oddly calming effect: the task seemed less monumental as she organised it. When they started to put the sandwiches together, she made easily twice the number Stephanie could, and hers looked tidier, more like proper sandwiches: Stephanie's tended to stagger. Each sandwich had to have two slices of either meat or cheese, and some shredded lettuce and onion but not too much, and the margarine had to be spread out to the edge of each slice. After a while Mary Beth put Emma to make peanut butter sandwiches with the red jelly: they looked easier, but Emma was still just as slow as Stephanie. She talked as she worked, casual and easy, and it was a while (spread margarine, place a slice of meat, second slice with corners overlapping, a bit of lettuce and onion, put the two slices of bread together, cut the sandwich in half, stack) Stephanie realised she was asking questions, and Emma and Stephanie were answering them. It must be obvious by now that neither of them were runaways.
When the sound from the TV changed, it was to something so familiar Stephanie hardly registered it at first: the CNN theme tune.
“News,” Dan said, and dropped the spoon he was stirring the soup with and ran: Mary Beth stopped mid-question, and followed him; the other two, Laurie and Jon, had stopped preparing the tables and were staring at the TV.
The newscaster wasn't anyone Stephanie recognised, and she didn't look well-groomed. Her voice didn't sound like a newscaster's, either: too excited.
“Today the President of the United States of North America signed an executive order declaring all slaves in USNA to be free natural-born citizens.”
No one in the room was a slave; but Stephanie got the same kind of feeling from the four adults as she had got from Tam and Bo. Nobody said anything, but she was conscious suddenly of being no part of them; they were leaning forward, eyes fixed on the screen, almost holding their breath.
“In response to the President's Executive Order, the Department of Commerce declared itself in rebellion against the USNA government and attempted to take control of state governments throughout the USNA, making illegal use of military force against USNA citizens. This rebellion by Commerce – ” The newscaster sounded so odd, saying that, so triumphant, almost – “is being strongly put down, but in twenty-three states Commerce still holds some control.” Below here, state names were streaming past, each one either in blue (“US Government in control”) or in jagged red (“Still under threat by Commerce” the tag lines ran). Illinois was blue. “If you are in a Commerce-controlled state, you are advised to stay indoors if possible and remain calm. Any persons you formerly owned are now free, but your obligation to feed and house them remains. Congress is in session: keep tuned to this channel for further information. In liberated states, state news will follow in half an hour. In all liberated states the state Congress and governor, and the fire, police, and ambulance services are no longer answerable to the Department of Commerce, and at least one state-wide broadcaster is able to freely provide information. Commerce is still active in military operations in some liberated states. Repeat: stay indoors, remain calm. Former slaves are protected by law as free citizens, but may not be denied food and shelter by their former owners. Broadcasts will be made at a state level calling for help with emergency services. The President asks everyone to remain calm at this extraordinary juncture in our nation's history.”
“I bet they don't show us a photo of the President,” Mary Beth said. She glanced round. “Guys: we still need dinner in an hour.”
Dan grabbed her in a hug. “Mary Beth!”
And all the adults in the room were suddenly laughing and crying and hugging each other and exclaiming. Even Mary Beth, though she had seemed the calmest person, was crying: not extravagantly, but as if she could not stop it: even when she went back to the table and was putting sandwiches together, she still had tears running down her face as if there was a tap she could not stop.
“They can come home now,” she said, not quite as if she was talking to Stephanie. “All the children who were sold. They can come home.”