Sunshine, p.23
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       Sunshine, p.23

           Robin McKinley
 
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Chapter 23

 

  So I glanced through my cosmail to make sure I wasn't missing anything important. The usual globenet come-ons: a ride on the space bus for only a hundred squillion blinks and the soul of your firstborn child. A plastic surgeon who guaranteed to make you look like Princess Helga or your money back. And your face back too? I wondered. Learn spellcasting at home in your spare time, earn zillions, and live forever. I'd always assumed the living forever was out of the same scam as the earning zillions. I wondered how old Yolande was - how old her master was. I doubted it was four hundred years.

  I answered a few cosmails. My presence in various Other zones had faded in the last five months. I could have given definite answers to some of the pet topics (Has a human, once captured, ever escaped from a vampire? Have a human and a vampire ever had a conversation on any kind of equal terms? Have a human and a vampire ever had any conversation and parted with the human still alive? - Barring some of the media stuff, although another pet topic was whether any of the vampire interviews were real). I had no desire to do so. But it had only been since my first contact with Other-space that it had occurred to me perhaps it would be a good idea to continue to pretend that Cinnamon - my ether name for seven years - was an ordinary woman who hadn't had anything surprising happen to her lately.

  When I came out of the closet it was barely twilight. I thought sunset was never coming. This might be the first day of my life I'd ever wanted darkness to come sooner. I always wanted daylight to last longer. I had a lot more trouble getting up at four a. m. in winter when it was still going to be dark for hours than in summer when it would be glimmering toward dawn by the time I got to Charlie's.

  I took a cup of chamomile tea out on the balcony and waited, feeling the darkness falling as if it were something landing on my skin.

  I heard him coming this time. I don't know why I thought of it as hearing, when it had nothing to do with my ears. I didn't see any shadows moving among the other shadows of the garden either, although I knew he was there. But it was more like hearing than it was like anything else, like seeing in the dark is more like seeing than it is like anything else.

  "The way here has grown in complexity," he said.

  "Oh - ah?" I said. "Oh. That will be Yolande's new wards. SOF has set up some tickers and I don't know what all. "

  "Tickers," said Con.

  "You know," I said. "You must know. SOF uses them - they record any Others that come near them. Tick tick, back at HQ where they're watching the monitors. "

  "I have not had much contact with SOF. "

  The Lone Ranger of vampires. Did that make me Tonto? "Whatever. The point is SOF thinks they're protecting me. So I asked Yolande to disarm any SOF snoopers that would notice you. "

  "Yolande. "

  "My landlady. "

  "You have told her about me?"

  I snorted. "She told me. Turns out she's known all along. And she's a wardskeeper. She's real useful to have on your side. "

  Con was silent. I felt sympathetic. I wouldn't have liked the idea that he'd brought a friend into our business either. I was so keyed up that I didn't think about our disastrous last meeting till I'd already taken his hand, and then it was too late. He came back from wherever he'd been, presumably thinking about having another human foisted on him, and looked at me. His fingers curled around mine. I had a Senssurround Dolby flash of The Ten Seconds That Didn't Go Anywhere, but I hit the mental censor button and it went poof.

  "Listen," I said, although it was even less like listening than the nonsound of him moving toward me had been like listening. It was strangely easier too, doing it with him, showing him my new road map rather than trying to figure it out myself. He knew the language and the landscape. I had a great idea: next time Pat called me in to SOF for a little more technical mayhem, I'd bring Con. "Hi, I'd like you to meet my helpful vampire friend. Don't worry, my landlady is a retired - mostly retired - wardskeeper, and she says he's okay. " Sure. Speaking of having more humans foisted. Pat would take some foisting.

  But I stared into Con's green eyes, and aligned myself, or him, like you might take someone's shoulders and turn them round so they're facing the right direction, like you might point at a map once you've told your companion, see, it's those mountains you see right over there. . .

  For a very nasty moment I thought I'd somehow managed to remake the live contact. That we weren't looking at a map of those mountains, but had been transported there, and the tigers were closing in. I jerked back, but Con's hand held me, and the jerk was like the click-over of the kaleidoscope, and the colored bits fell into a new arrangement.

  It was weirdly something like looking through an aquarium at a lot of fish. The fish were whizzing around like crazy - cannonball fish - but I could see them individually, a little, and they did look like distinct and specific little whizzings-around instead of like chaos. This was interesting, although it didn't really get me any farther; they were still moving too fast for me to track a pattern or make my way among them. But this wasn't as sick-making - or as terrifying - to watch or to think about. Presumably this was a good thing. But I remembered the quality of the terror, and wasn't sure that not being terrified was wise or sane.

  What we were looking for was behind the whizzing things. And that was still just as sick-making, just as terrifying. I didn't like this animated three-dimensional map. Here be dragons. Much worse than any dragon, which are pretty straightforward - and straightforwardly alive - creatures that merely suffer that little character defect about liking to eat human flesh. Here be horrors indescribable. I barely sensed the dreadful loom of it - the differentiation of it from its manic pinball machine guard system - before I was repelled, repulsed, hurled away more violently than Con had thrown me the other night. . . except it was Con, this time, who caught me.

  I was flopped against him, his arm round my waist, my ear pressed to his silent chest. I grabbed at his other arm, steadied myself, balanced again on my own feet, which seemed very small and very far away. "Have I given us away? Con, was that live?" The world still spun. If there had been anything in my stomach but tea (the muffins were a long time ago) it might have come up. As it was, the tea sloshed vindictively a few times and subsided. The chain burned round my throat.

  "No," said Con. "My Sunshine, you must learn moderation. This is not an enemy you can defeat by rushing his front gate. "

  I made a little choking noise that might have been third cousin twice removed to a laugh. "I had no intention of anything resembling gate-crashing. I thought I was just looking. Except it wasn't, um, looking. "

  "No," said Con. I could feel him thinking. "If you were a new - one of us - there are things I could teach you. I do not think I can teach a human these things. "

  I sighed. "I believe you. Like seeing in the dark probably doesn't bother you because you don't spend a lot of time seeing in the light, right?"

  "I am sorry. "

  As partners we left a lot to be desired. "Was that him?"

  Con's eyes blazed briefly. Vampire eyes catching sight of their chosen prey. Don't look. "Yes. "

  "Can you - can you track him any better from what I - sort of - showed you?"

  Con's face arranged itself in one of its invisible-to-the-naked-human-eye almost-expressions. I guessed this one was irony. Note: existence of vampire irony. "I am not sure. It is certainly a signal we want to take heed of. How we take heed without jeopardizing ourselves unnecessarily I do not yet know. Remember that was not live, as you put it. It was only your memory - your exegesis - of what you saw. "

  I shivered.

  "I believe you were in less danger, even last night, than you may fear. What this is is a little like. . . what are those machines with the strange radiance, which attract insects to their deaths?"

  "Zappers? Bug zappers. Bug flies in - zap. "

  "You were zapped. The machine does not register the - bug. It merely zaps. I use these zappers als
o. "

  "Vampires don't use bug zappers?" I said, interested. There's nothing like an immediate death threat to make you crave a little superficial distraction. I'd observed this phenomenon before. "All that hanging around out of doors after dark you guys do?"

  "No. "

  "Wrong kind of blood?"

  "Vampires do not - er - register on insect radar. "

  "Oh. " At last: a really good reason to want to be a vampire. I was one of those people you invite on your picnic or your hiking expedition, because the bugs will all crowd around me and leave everyone else alone.

  Sunshine, get a grip. "Um. This isn't the first time I've been. . . well, let me tell you the rest of it. " I did. "So last night was the third time and the worst. You don't think he might be using a sort of fancy zapper that says, 'Hey, boss, this bug keeps coming back'?"

  "I think I will ask you not to go near that place again for the time being. Even if this Pat asks you to try. "

  "It's not Pat I'm so worried about," I said. "It's the goddess of pain. "

  "Ah. " His expressionlessness took an ominous cast.

  "Con," I said nervously.

  His gaze came back from wherever it had been and he looked at me. "No," he said. I didn't ask what "no" meant. Vampires are a little like burglars, okay? If a bright, determined vampire really wants to get into your house, he's going to do it, and the best alarm system in the world and the electric moat and the sixteen genetically enhanced Rottweilers and the wards and the charms and the little household godlets blessed by the priests or pontifexes of the religion of your choice, and spellcast by the best sorcerers money can buy, aren't going to stop him. Or her. You really don't want to piss a vampire off, because it's a lot harder having all that plastic surgery and the hemo treatment to change your blood chemistry than it is to sell your house and go live in a small cabin with nothing in it to steal. Also, the hemo treatment not only costs a bomb, occasionally it kills you, although at least two of the global council members have had it done twice that anybody knows about, and are still here.

  The usual, which is to say, expensive, drastic options aren't available to coffeehouse bakers. Having realized that my being alive geared Bo up, Con wasn't my best choice, he was my only choice.

  But the problem with having a nonhuman as your ally was that a nonhuman might not be, you know, very sentimental about the odd human life here and there. Especially not a vampire nonhuman about a human who shows signs of reading the mind of the vampire's human ally. And fair is fair. I wasn't very sentimental about vampires as a group either, was I?

  "I can say no to the goddess if I have to," I said, perhaps a little more loudly than necessary.

  "I am certain you can, Sunshine," said Con.

  He was gone a moment later. I didn't exactly see him go, but I didn't-hear him moving away from me, and didn't-see the shadow among the other shadows, after he was gone. I didn't pay a lot of attention, however, because I was preoccupied with the feeling on my mouth, as if he had kissed me before he left.

  More horrible grisly marking time, wondering what was going on. Wondering what is going on behind my back, wondering what is about to leap out of the shadows at me. At my worst I could begin wondering if I'd imagined Con. Well, he was the part that didn't fit the pattern, wasn't he? Nice, helpful, if somewhat unreassuring-looking, vampire. Puhleez.

  There was enough to remind me there was something going on - starting with the scar on my breast and moving through seeing in the dark and the spontaneous combustion of pillows and ending, perhaps with the fact that there didn't ever not seem to be some SOF or other at Charlie's now, and that any time I walked in or out of the door whoever-it-was's eyes fixed themselves on me. For a while I'd made a point of coming in by the side door any time the coffeehouse was open, but I decided this was making a bigger issue of something I couldn't do anything about, so on days I was feeling hardy I went through the front. Let 'em stare. It had taken Aimil's remark to make me notice that Mrs. Bialosky was occupying her table more than usual. But she'd nominated herself as one of my protectors in one very practical way: some mangled version of recent events meant that we still had gapers coming in to check out if I had three heads or spoke in tongues. They didn't stay long if Mrs. Bialosky rumbled them. Which kindly took the onus off our staff, which if they weren't getting as tired of my notoriety as I was, had every right to.

  But it was all too much, and my overworked and exhausted brain started looking for things to call imaginary. Con was such a perfect choice. I sometimes felt if I could get rid of Con I could be rid of all the rest of it - Bo, my heritage and weird talents, SOF's suffocating interest, the lot. I knew it wasn't true. But. . .

  I did have one nice surprise. One afternoon I came out of the bakery and discovered someone unfamiliar sitting at Mrs. Bialosky's table, and with whom Mrs. B was in deep conversation. I couldn't resist this, so I slid along behind the counter to get a look without walking up to the table and staring: not that my subterfuge worked, because Mrs. B immediately raised her head and looked back at me. But this made the other person turn to look at what Mrs. B was looking at. She broke into a smile when she saw me: it was Maud. I hadn't registered till then that there was a large plate on the table between them that presently contained a light sprinkling of crumbs and one single remaining Killer Zebra.

  One of these mornings at four-thirty a. m. I was expecting to find a SOF lurking on a street corner too, and the fact that I didn't see one didn't convince me there wasn't one there somewhere. Pat had made an official offer to have me escorted to and from home, which I didn't let him finish before I refused. Other than that I hadn't seen much of him: damage control with the goddess, I assumed. I was interested myself that my desire for autonomy was still stronger than my fear of what might or was about to happen. My unfavoritest corner, when I arrived at Charlie's before dawn, wasn't the nearest one, where Mandelbaum met the main road, but across the square, at the mouth of one of the littlest and darkest alleys of Old Town. I pretended to fish for my keys and then made a big pantomime fuss about choosing the right one every morning as I scanned for shadows that didn't lie right. Shadows never lay right in that corner. I always felt watched, these days. It was just a question of watched by whom. Or what.

  After I opened the door and went in, I relocked the door behind me before I turned off the alarm system. Used to be I didn't bother to relock the door. I'd asked Charlie to program an extra few seconds' delay to the bell so I could. He'd looked at me worriedly, but he'd done it. And he hadn't asked any questions. He wasn't going to say the "v" word if I wasn't.

  We don't have a state-of-the-art alarm system at Charlie's - we can't afford it - but this is one of the ways having SOF friends is useful, and we do have some funny little gizmos that tell you if anything has been disturbed. Nothing went on being disturbed, except my mental state.

  I was pulling maple cornbread out of the ovens at about eight one morning when Mary came in to say Theo wanted a word. I thought about it. "Okay," I said. "Time I had a break, I guess. "

  Theo sidled in like the reluctant bearer of unwelcome news. My private bakery kettle was beginning to hiss and burble. "Tea?"

  He shook his head.

  "Cornbread?"

  He brightened immediately. I was as bad as Paulie, really, despite how long I'd been doing this. Someone wants to eat my food, they're automatically my friend. Someone who doesn't want to eat my food, they automatically aren't. This is an awkward attitude if you hang out a lot with a vampire.

  Theo was an old enough hand in the kitchen - my kitchen anyway - to know to approach something fresh out of the oven with caution. He took the whacked-off still-squodgy-with-baking end of a loaf of maple cornbread gingerly and watched happily as the approximately quarter-pound of butter he put on it melted through. He would lick the plate when he was done. This was one of the advantages of eating out back: table manners weren't required. I'd been known to lick plates myself. Once
when I was teasing Kyoko about him, I mentioned he was a plate-licker. She looked briefly interested "Oh? Maybe he's human after all. " Then she shook her head. "Nah. He's SOF. " This was in hindsight a better joke than I'd realized.

  "You'd better get it over with," I said, after he'd finished licking the plate.

  He sighed. "Pat would like to see you this afternoon. "

  I'd decided in the predawn darkness of the morning after I'd met the goddess what I was going to say the next time Pat wanted to talk to me. "It won't do him any good. Something burned out the other night. I burned out. I woke up the next morning with a piece missing. It's still missing. "

  He looked surprised, worried, then thoughtful. Then, to my great surprise, hopeful. "He'll still want to see you. "

  "Why are you looking so pleased?"

  He hesitated. "The goddess wants to take over. Take you over. She says it's because Pat destroyed government property, that he's bungled, that she wants to clean up the mess, that you're to be sent back where you came from after she's sure no security has been breached, that it was all glang anyway. But it's really because she's pissed off that someone may have thought of something or discovered something before she did. Something that might be important - something she might be able to use. "

  "And you think Pat'll think that merely blowing out the county HQ's com system on a bad call is better than the goddess finding out maybe it's a good call?"

  "Yeah. "

  I thought of her walking-nuclear-reactor aura. "If I wasn't afraid of the goddess already, I would be now. "

  He smiled. It was a rickety sort of smile. "You don't know half - You don't want to know half. You want my advice, you stick to suckers. When do you get off today? Pat'll come by just before. "

  "Three," I said. His eyes were wandering to the muffin racks. There were bran raisin and oatmeal applesauce allspice waiting to go into the cases up front. "Have one for the road," I said.

  "Thanks," he said. He took two.

  Pat drifted in at a few minutes to three. I now knew that it would take a lot to make him look short of sleep, and he looked short of sleep. He looked worse than short of sleep. He raised hollow eyes and said, "Hey, Sunshine. "

  "You look like hell," I said. I was scraping out the last baking tin. Our Albion crowd would have to be really hungry today to get through this lot. And I'd made my special cream-cheese sauce to go with the triple-ginger gingerbread. I'd long felt that gingerbread, while excellent in itself, was still essentially an excuse to eat the sauce, so I'd always made twice as much per portion as the original recipe called for. Then it turned out that some of our customers were even more crazed than I was, so I'd started making three times as much, and we served it in little sauceboats. You got purists occasionally that didn't want any sauce, but the slack was taken up somehow.

  "Thanks," he said.

  "What's happening?"

  He shrugged. His shoulder must be better. Maybe blue-demon blood made you heal fast too. "What Theo told you. "

  "You look like you've been let out of the dungeon. I thought thumbscrews were passe. "

  "The goddess doesn't need thumbscrews. She just looks at you and you feel your brains melting. "

  I thought of the other night. "I believe you. "

  "Theo says you've lost it. "

  "Yeah. I'm safe from the goddess. No brains left to melt. "

  "No one is ever safe from the goddess. " The Pat I knew surfaced and he gave me a familiar look: shrewd, humorous, no nonsense. "How lost do you suppose it is?"

  I pulled off my apron and untied my hair. "Lost enough for now. If I replace a fuse and the system starts working again, I'll let you know. "

  "Maybe you're just tired," said Pat.

  "Maybe," I said amiably.

  Pat ran his hand through what there was of his hair. "I don't like it when you agree with me, Sunshine. It's not your style. What aren't you telling me?"

  "That I'm relieved not to have to try again," I said.

  I knew he bought it: he sagged, suddenly looking smaller and older. I felt a fierce pang of guilt, but I reminded myself that he believed that the only good vampire was a staked, beheaded, and burned vampire. Briefly and wistfully I considered a scenario where Con and I had a SOF team with us when we. . . whatever. . . but I recognized this as a fantasy, like a scenario where the goddess of pain retired from SOF and opened a day care center.

  "You look like a man who needs caffeine," I said. "I'll grab us something from the counter and meet you outside. Do you want privacy or comfort?" Comfort meant the nice little tables out front, overlooking the square and Mrs. Bialosky's flower bed, still doing its stuff with chrysanthemums and asters this late in the year.

  "Privacy," he said.

  He was sitting at one of the unsteady tables in the grim little courtyard behind the coffeehouse that by never doing anything with we could continue to avoid opening to customers. You got used to the roar of the kitchen fans and Mom had a couple of tough little evergreen shrubs in pots that could survive the cooking fumes. Pat and I didn't talk about anything much after all. He drank the coffee and engulfed the various buns and other edible objects I'd brought, but absentmindedly, like a refueling procedure. The fact that he didn't argue with me about trying again, about trying to find out the extent of the burnout - about whether or not there really was a burnout - made me feel more guilty.

  Silence fell. Pat stared into nothing. "I'm sorry," I said.

  He looked at me. "I believe you," he said. He stood up. "I'm not sure I believe the rest of it, but I believe you're sorry about it. " He paused. "Makes my life easier in some ways. " Another gleam of the normal Pat as he said: "Maybe by the time you've decided you're not burned out any more the goddess will have found someone else to crucify. "

  I didn't say anything. He rubbed both hands through his hair this time, and added, "I didn't say this. But watch your back, Sunshine. " Then he left.

  Mel wandered out a few minutes after Pat had left. I was staring into my teacup. I'd forgotten to bring a sieve out, so there were tea leaves in the bottom of it, but I couldn't read them. "You look like a woman who needs a good laugh," he said. "Have you heard the one about the were-pigeon and the streetcleaner?"

 

 

 
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