Sunshine, p.15
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       Sunshine, p.15

           Robin McKinley
 
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Chapter 15

 

  Aimil stared at me, visibly puzzled. "What happened - ? Since the - the other night all of Old Town knows you were in some kind of trouble with suckers, those two days you went missing last spring - and a lot of us were already wondering. What else could it have been?"

  Right. What else could it have been?

  "It could have been a rogue demon," I said obstinately.

  Aimil sighed. "Not very likely. A lot of partbloods can spot other partbloods, right? I haven't got Pat's gift for that. But a fullblood demon - if you'd been held by rogues, I'd've known it. Like cat hair on your shirt. So would whoever from SOF interviewed you have known it. SOF wouldn't have assigned someone to interview you who wouldn't have known it. "

  "And Jocasta's good," said Pat. "Even better than me. "

  "Good" wasn't the adjective I'd've chosen for my experience of that interview, but I let it pass.

  "So would a lot of other people who come into Charlie's have known it," Aimil continued. "Haven't you noticed - well, like that Mrs. Bialosky hardly lets you out of her sight these days?"

  "Mrs. Bialosky is a Were," I said.

  "Yeah. And her sense of smell is real good," said Pat.

  "She's another undercover SOF, I suppose," I said.

  Pat laughed. "SOF couldn't hold her," he said.

  She and Yolande should get together, I thought, but I didn't say it out loud. If SOF had no reason to look into my landlady I wasn't going to suggest it to them. If Pat thought she was a siddhartha, all the better.

  And if they already had looked, I didn't want to know.

  Jesse said gently, "You know there's such a thing as friends as well as colleagues and neighbors, don't you?"

  I had my mouth open to say, "Sure, and you'd've been hanging around Charlie's watching me with at least four eyes a day if I'd just been some poor mug that got mixed up in something ickily Other, right?" And then I closed it again, because I realized that the answer was yes. They might not have been watching me so intensely, and they might not have been watching me in the hopes that whatever had happened might lead them to something they could use without reference to a continuing and uninterrupted supply of cinnamon rolls, but they would have been watching me. Because that was what SOF was for - in theory the first and most important thing it was for - to keep our citizens safe. And SOF for all its faults took that pretty seriously. I sighed. "So, how about that cup of tea? And then maybe you'll finally tell me why you wanted me to meet Aimil here. "

  Pat spun his combox around so the screen faced Aimil. She sat down and tapped herself in, and the screen cleared to the globenet symbol. I averted my eyes. Since I'd started seeing in the dark I couldn't look at any comscreen for long, TV, net, personal, GameDeluxe (not my territory, but Kenny had an amazing one), whatever. Brrrr. Vertigo wasn't in it, although migraine came close. At least I wasn't wasting subscription fees on Otherwatch and Beware by not having gone near my combox lately.

  I could tell, however, watching out of my peripheral vision, that Aimil was calling up lists of mailsaves. She chose a list, hit a button, and mailtext blocks appeared. I felt an almost physical jolt, and reached out to steady myself on the back of her chair.

  "Aah," said Pat, watching me.

  "What" I said nastily. I don't like surprises. Especially this kind of surprise, and this was my second since I came through the front door of SOF HQ.

  Aimil said, studying the screen, "I save anything that - well, that I guess comes from an Other, right? That feels funny. That's what these guys pay me for. There are a lot of us doing it - we don't know who each other are of course but I doubt we're all librarians - and when some nettag is making a lot of us jumpy, SOF tries to find out more about who's - or what's - behind it. Jesse asked me to separate off some tags that are on SOF's active list that I personally think feel like vampires rather than something else, and. . . "

  "We wondered if any of them might mean something to you, you know, locationally," said Jesse.

  Locationally? I thought irrelevantly. Is this the same English I speak?

  "After what happened the other night," said Jesse. "The way you knew where it was even though it was too far away for you to, er, hear, in the usual way. Or see. What made you jump when Aimil opened her mailsave list?"

  I shook my head. "Presumably I'm reacting to what you want me to be reacting to, yes," I said. "But whether it's going to be anything but a sensation like putting your finger in an electric socket I don't know. "

  "Try it," said Jesse.

  Aimil stood up from the chair and I sat down, trying to examine myself for signs that my evil gene was waking up. This would be a logical moment for it, I felt, and probably quite a practical one too, from the perspective of lingering final moments of philanthropic sanity. Jesse and Pat would be trained in hand-to-hand, and even amok, and thor as hell with the muscles you get if you bash The Blob into trays of cinnamon rolls every morning, I should be a pushover for a couple of veteran SOF field agents.

  The screen glowed at me balefully. I shut my eyes. Nothing was happening. My body went on breathing quietly, waiting for me to ask it to do something. "What do I do?"

  "If you hit next," Aimil said, "you go to the next message. "

  I opened my eyes long enough to find the NEXT button. I could look at the keyboard. I glanced at the screen. The words there wriggled. I didn't like it but it didn't say "vampire" to me either. I hit NEXT.

  More wriggly words. Ugh. Nothing else though. I hit NEXT.

  And the next NEXT.

  There was an odd building-up of internal pressure that I couldn't quite put down either to trying to look while not looking at a comscreen that was longing to give me a lightning-bolt-thunder-roll odin-bloody headache or to the knowledge that I was surrounded by SOFs avidly waiting for me to do something. Or that I was waiting to pop into Incredible Hulk mode and try to eat somebody. So I could guess that my shady rapport, affinity, Global Navigational Pinpoint Precision Positioning Device (patent pending), or whatever, was acknowledging the presence of vampires somewhere out there behind the screen, but - so?

  Next. Next. Next. I was sweating.

  I realized what the pressure was. Expectation. I was getting close.

  Close to what?

  Next.

  HERE.

  I snapped my eyes closed and flung myself back in the chair, which rolled several feet away from the desk till it hit the corner of a table pushed against the wall. An unhandily stacked heap of paper spilled off onto the floor with a swoosh.

  I got up, shakily, keeping my eyes averted from the screen. I could feel the beating of the HERE. I turned my head back and forth as if I was standing in a field looking for a landmark. No. Not there. I moved round a quarter turn, and waited to reorient the HERE. No. I moved another quarter turn. . . almost. An eighth turn back. No. An eighth turn forward, then another eighth. Yes. HERE.

  I raised an arm. "That way. Now turn whatever it is off, because it's making me sick. "

  Aimil dived for it, and the screen went blank.

  I sat down.

  "Well, well, well," said Pat. The satisfaction in his voice made me suddenly very angry, but I felt too tired and sick to tell him so. I closed my eyes.

  I opened them again a minute later. Steam from a cup of hot tea was caressing my face. I accepted the cup. Caffeine was my friend. I wasn't sure if I had any other friends in that room or not.

  The Special Other Forces exist to control, defeat, neutralize, or exterminate all Other threat to humans. That was easy and straightforward, and as a human it sounded - had sounded - pretty good to me, although at the same time I'd had a problem with the politics of anything Other denned as bad, which seemed to be the unofficial SOF motto. Now I was learning that in fact SOF was - apparently - full of partbloods, maybe fullbloods, and presumably Weres, and was clandestinely sympathetic to the registry dodgers.

  It should have c
heered me up. If I was a partblood myself, I was a partblood among partbloods. I should be eager to cooperate with my own little group of SOFs.

  Who hated vampires. All vampires. By definition. Who hated and targeted vampires because they believed that vampires were not merely making everybody's lives more dangerous, but their own lives harder, their lives as good, socially well-adjusted and well-disposed part-demons or demons, as Weres who only needed a night off once a month. If it wasn't for vampires (so Pat's theory went) the humans would probably repeal the laws that automatically prevented anyone with Other blood from enjoying full human rights.

  The theory was probably right.

  Not to mention the less-than-a-hundred-years-before-we-all-go-under-the-dark thing.

  It wasn't only that seeing in the dark creeped me out because it came from a vampire. It was that it made me permanently, relentlessly, continuously conscious of being connected to. . . vampireness.

  I do not know what I have given you tonight. I do not know what you have given me.

  I was aware of it standing motionless outdoors at noon on a sunny day. Even the absence of shadow is a kind of shadow. You may not know that but I do. I did now. I wondered if this was anything like the dare-I-say usual realization of partbloodedness: knowing that you are - and are not - human, but angrily, frustratedly believing that this didn't make you any less of a. . .

  A what, exactly? A human? A person? An individual? A rational creature?

  Remind me that you are a rational creature.

  I wished I could ask somebody. But nobody was part vampire, it wasn't possible. Whatever I was, that wasn't it. Was it. Was it?

  Drink your tea, Sunshine, and stop thinking. Thinking is not your strong suit.

  There was something else that was bothering me about all this, but I couldn't get that far yet. I didn't have to. Where I was was far enough to feel nomad about.

  "Feeling better?" said Pat.

  "No," I said.

  "Do you know what you were pointing at?"

  "No," I said. I looked up, along the line I had indicated, and thought about which way the SOF building lay and where I thought I was in it. I'd probably been pointing west, something like west. That wasn't a big help; west was where all the deserted factories were, where the worst of the urban bad spots were. Nobody lived out that way now; as the population slowly began to recover from the Voodoo Wars, rather than trying to reclaim any of that area, new malls and office blocks and housing developments were going up in the south and east and - also avoiding the lake and its bad spots - curling around eventually (avoiding druggie nirvana) up to the north. The reason anybody was trying to salvage Chesterfield was because it was south. In twenty or thirty years we and the next town to the south, Piscataweh, would probably be one big city. Unless we all went under the dark early.

  The western end of New Arcadia isn't entirely deserted; it has some rather murky small businesses scattered around and some clubs the police keep closing down that open again a day or a week later. Sometimes they reopen briefly somewhere else, sometimes they don't bother to pretend to move. It is the western end of town where gangs of mostly human, mostly teenage boys go to play chicken and look for vampires. It is also a popular area for squatters, although the attrition by death rate is pretty severe. A lot of the murky small businesses that manage to hold on there cater to squatters who can't afford to pay for housing, but if they want to stay alive have to pay for some warding. There are two kinds of cheap wards: the ones that don't work, and the ones that mess with what for want of a better phrase I'm going to call black magic. Which gives you the idea. The homeless are better off sleeping in the gutters in Old Town, but I admit that for Old Town's sake it's a good thing most of them don't.

  It didn't take a combox or a kick in the head to tell anyone in New Arcadia that if they were looking for suckers to look west.

  "I was pointing west," I said grudgingly. "Big deal. "

  "We don't know if it's a big deal yet or not," said Pat reasonably. "We won't know till we drive you out there. "

  "No," I said.

  "It might be, for example," Pat continued unfazed, "that it isn't the west of New Arcadia at all; it could be somewhere a lot farther away - Springfield, Lucknow, Manchester. " Manchester had a rep as a vampire city. "The globenet is the globenet; you never know where a specific piece of cosmail has come from. "

  "Unless you're SOF, and you track it down," I said.

  There was a little silence. Jesse sighed. "It's not that easy. I mean, tracing something off the net is never easy - "

  "There are all those boring laws about privacy," I said.

  " - which even SOF has to make an effort to break," said Pat.

  " - but a lot of the usual rules of, um, physics, don't work quite the same with Others as with humans," Jesse continued.

  Yeah, I thought. How does a hundred-and-eighty-pound man turn into a ninety-pound wolf? Where does the leftover ninety go? Does he park it in the umbrella stand overnight?

  "Geography and vampires is one of the worst. Where they are and where we are often doesn't seem to, uh, relate. "

  Vampire senses are different from human in a number of ways. . . It is not the distance that is crucial, but the uniformity. . . . Evidently this worked in both, um, directions. Einstein was wrong. I wondered if it was too late to give my skeggy old physics teacher a bad day.

  "So even if we got a good read off a cosmail that we were sure was lobbed by a sucker we still might not know any more than we did before we wasted some of SOF's tax blinks cracking it. We can use all the help we can get. "

  "Which I think I said to you already not long ago," added Pat. "You might also keep in mind that the guys who don't want to be found usually have the edge on us guys who want to find them. Even the human ones, and they're usually easier. Sunshine, give us a break. We're not trying to ruin your life for fun, you know. "

  I stared into the bottom of my mug. Not Jesse or Pat's fault that I was bound to a vampire. I didn't think they'd be real open to the idea of making an exception for him. I wasn't happy about it myself. But I could hardly tell Pat that the reason SOF was so full of covert partbloods now made me feel worse, not better.

  I was getting to a pretty bad place if I was beginning to wonder if maybe going bonkers and having to be bagged for my own good might be my best choice.

  What if what I had pointed toward was Con?

  No. The answer came almost at once. No. What I had pointed toward was something. . . something in itself sick-making, antithetical to humans. To anything warm and breathing. Betrayal would be a different sort of sick. I was sure.

  I was pretty sure.

  A human shouldn't be able to think in terms of betraying a vampire. It didn't work. Like those nonsense sentences they used to wake you up when you are supposed to be learning a foreign language. I eat the hat of my uncle. I sit upon the cat of my aunt. Depends on the cat of course.

  It didn't work, like being able to see in the dark didn't work. The bottom of my mug was in shadow. I hadn't drunk the last swallow because it had a fine dust of tea leaves in it. Even they threw shadows, tiny shadows within the shadow, floating in the shadowy dark liquid. "Okay," I said.

  It might have been Bo I'd found. That I'd felt through the globe-net. That was about as sick-making a thought as I could have. Bo, that Con was supposed to be finding so we could go spoke his wheel before he spoked ours. Again. Permanently.

  "Then you'll come with us?"

  I thought about it. There wasn't much to think. "I have to be back at six," I said.

  "You got it," said Pat.

  It was just Pat and Jesse and me. Aimil went back to the library. When we awkwardly said good-bye, her face was full of bright shadows I couldn't read. I looked at her, trying to resettle her in my mind as a partblood and a SOF. Did it take that much effort? I didn't know. It was taking me a lot of effort to be whatever I now was.

&n
bsp; While Pat did some shifting-papers-around things and Jesse disappeared for a few minutes I moved over to the sunlight falling through the gray window of Pat's office. The sunlight felt thin, but it was sunlight. SOF windows were all gray because of the proofglass: proof against bullets, firebombs, kamikaze Weres, glass- and steel-cutting demon talons, spells, charms, almost everything but an armored division with howitzers. Proofglass had only come on the market about ten years ago, just after the Wars, which might have been a little less fatal if it had been invented a few years earlier. All high-risk businesses and the military and most other government departments, plus a lot of paranoids, both the kind with real enemies and the other kind, now had proofglass in their windows and their vehicles. Proofglass upgrader was a popular new career among young magic handlers. You didn't have to be a magic handler to get hired as an upgrader, but you'd probably live longer.

  Nobody had figured out how to make it less gray though. Gray and depressing, like being in jail. Hadn't they done studies that humans really need sunlight? Not just light. Sunlight. And all humans, not just me. I hoped Charlie's wasn't going to have to put in proof-glass.

  I hoped I was still human.

  Pat drove and put me in the front seat with him. "Can you still feel - whatever?"

  I thought about it. Reluctantly. I poked around for that feeling of Here. I found it. It was like finding a dead rat in your living room. A large dead rat. "Yes," I said.

  "West?"

  "Yes. "

 
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