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POISONED CHALICE

Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2000.

by

Ian Irvine

February 1999

 

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3: Corrupt Flesh

 

I hauled myself up to my hideout
in the bridge, trying not to think about the dead man. I didn’t
think I could stand another night.

I went past the other valleys, ignoring
the occupants as they ignored me. All but the second last, where
the little baby was whimpering. The father was trying to spoon
tinned soup into it, without success. Once more I flooded everywhere.

‘It’s that funny lady again,’ said
a small girl’s voice.

I went red but the man did not look
up. I hurried by. Back at my own sleeping place I hesitated, and
the longer I stood there the more I knew that I could not go in.
After a day in the sun, the heat and the flies.

I retched over the side, and was
tempted to leap after it. I had lost the will to run. I was a monster.
Society was right to purge me, to make sure I did not pass on my
corrupted genes.

I headed back the other way. The
baby was still crying. In front of the little family group I stopped.
The man’s face was tortured.

‘I don’t know what to do!’ he cried.

I stood there, looking down at the
baby and the desperate father, and felt the milk running down my
belly.

‘I do,’ I said, and unbuttoned my
blouse.

You can’t imagine the conflicts I
felt, squatting there in that metal gully with the rusty iron criss-crossing
above me. I was still sore from giving birth. The baby pulled at
my breast. The two children stared at me as if I had dropped from
the sky. The father’s eyes kept sliding towards me then, when he
realised, flicking away again.

I felt useful for the first time
in my life. But I knew a terrible sadness, that the child was not
my own. Tomorrow I would be gone and never see it again. My baby
either.

‘It’s rude to stare, kids,’ he said,
but they were incapable of hearing him. ‘My name is Ben,’ he said
softly. He was handsome, with broad shoulders. He had a very soft
voice, and curly brown hair, and deep blue eyes. His voice was
what I most remembered, after. There were no lights or shadows
in it, so it was hard to distinguish the words, but it seemed kind.

‘I’m Aislyn.’ I put out my hand.
I immediately felt embarrassed, shaking hands while his baby sucked
at my breast.

He did not look down. He had a face
that must have been comfortable with laughter once. There was something
hiding in those brown eyes now.

‘Clara, Tom, shake hands with Aislyn.’

The children did so, very gravely.
I leaned back against the metal and closed my eyes. ‘I’m so tired,’
I said. I wasn’t but I had to block them out, disconnect them from
me. Coming to terms with the baby, where mine should be, took all
the emotional energy I had.

The child must have been starving,
the way it pulled at me. Oh, my lost little love. I felt hot tears
swelling under my eyelids.

‘She’s called Kirrily,’ said Ben.

‘Why is the lady crying?’ piped the
girl.

‘Hush!’ said the father.

‘She’s not as pretty as mummy, is
she?’

‘Clara!’ hissed Ben. ‘You’re being
very rude!’

‘Well, she’s not!’ Clara said defiantly.

I opened my eyes and let the tears
run out. ‘I’m sure no one is as pretty as your mother, Clara. What’s
her name?’

‘Her name is Katia,’ said the father,
then his eyes scrunched up, he broke down and wept. Soon Clara
and Tom were bawling too.

The baby lifted her head, gave a
couple of brief cries in sympathy, burped a mouthful of milk down
my front and fell asleep. I nudged her awake and gave her the other
breast, mainly to relieve my own discomfort. While she fed I closed
my eyes again, trying to block the crying out. Eventually I did
and, lulled by the rhythmic action of her mouth, drifted off to
sleep.

It was much later when I woke. It
was dark and the moon well up the sky. I was woken, I should say,
by the father taking the baby out of my arms and placing it in
a cardboard box lined with a blanket. The children were asleep
in their own blankets.

‘Thank you,’ Ben whispered. ‘She
was starving. I couldn’t get any formula.’

I couldn’t think of anything to say.

‘Would you like something to eat?’
he said.

I nodded then realised that he wouldn’t
see it in the darkness. ‘Yes, please!’

Ben spooned something out of a tin
onto rough chunks of bread and passed the plate across. ‘It’s tinned
beans!’

‘Sounds wonderful!’ I ate it bean
by bean, making it last.

We sat in silence. He must have been
wondering about me, as I was about him, but he did not ask. Perhaps
that was the etiquette of life on the streets.

‘What happened to their mother?’
I asked after a long interval.

He turned his head and the moonlight
caught one eye, a liquid flash. I knew he wanted to trust me, because
I had fed his baby. He shifted on his perch.

‘You don’t have to tell me your business,’
I said. I felt a desperate urge to confess. ‘But I’ll tell you
mine. I’m hiding from the Medical Inspector. I wasn’t game to have
my physical.’

He let out his breath in a whoosh.
‘They took blood when Katia was having the baby. They said everything
was all right. It was, with the other two. But two weeks later
they came for her. Last Friday. Bad genes! She sent me a message
over the net, to run with the children.’

‘Can’t you get a lawyer?’

He laughed mirthlessly. ‘Not for
this! I’m terrified. What if Katia does have bad genes? They’ll
take the kids as well.’

‘I think I have bad genes too,’ I
said. ‘Is she still alive?’

‘I don’t know. Term- the process
used to take months, but the new government has changed the law.
I’ve heard they sometimes terminate without allowing any appeal.
I’ve tried everything! My uncle, Sam, is an army general, but even
he can’t do anything. What can I do?’

Nothing! I thought. There’s nothing
anyone can do, not once they’ve got you.

The poor man went out in the morning
with his children. In the afternoon he came back, looking more
tormented. I limped over to Jeffie’s apartment, but he wouldn’t
talk to me – the woman always answered the bell, and after the
second time she cursed me over the speaker.

‘Come back again, you little slag,
and I’ll report you to the Medical Office!’

She must have, for the next day,
as soon as I turned the corner I saw someone watching from across
the street. My only hope was lost.

On the way home I realised that I
was looking forward to feeding the baby more than anything in my
entire life. Without me it would die. I liked Ben, and the children
too, though Clara and Tom were distant and never really accepted
me. They needed their mother too much.

Ben and I talked, in the dark, after
the children were sleeping. A computer engineer, he was constantly
at the keyboard of his PocketBook, trying to find out what had
happened to his wife. He routed his enquiries around the world,
through dozens of links, to disguise the trail.

‘My mother was good with computers,’
I said wistfully. ‘I wish I was.’

‘I can teach you, if you like. I’d
feel better about you feeding my baby then.’

‘But you feed me!’

‘That’s different. I have money,
but I can’t buy breast milk.’

We spent half that night working,
and every night after. I knew the basics of the net, of course
– it was a part of everyone’s lives. But he taught me the engineer’s
hidden codes that gave access to secret places, and about mole
programs that could burrow into computer systems, and how to find
the subversive sites that would be on the net one day and gone
the next. He showed me how to link in through networks long forgotten
– old signal lines buried beside highways and railway tracks, power
reticulation systems that were no longer used but had never been
dismanted, forgotten pay TV cables, and other ways no one thought
about any more.

I learned fast. I seemed to have
my mother’s skill with computers. I knew what he was searching
for so desperately – a corrupt doctor, one outside the system who
would do a private medical and fake reports for his children. I
wanted the same for myself.

One day, after I had been there about
three weeks, I came back with a bag of canned food and another
of vegetables to find him staring blankly at the rusting steel.
The children were playing down the far end of the gully. It hadn’t
taken them long to get used to their new home.

‘What’s the matter, Ben?’

He didn’t answer. The PocketBook
lay open beside him, its solar cells iridescent in the afternoon
light. The screen showed ‘The Stocks’, one of the most popular
sites on the net. Below an engraving of a semi-naked woman bent
over in a set of medieval stocks were a pair of scrollable lists.
One showed names, the other faces in haggard colour.

I typed Katia into the Searcher.
The lists spun like the dials of a gambling machine, then froze. Termination
List
flashed luridly at the top of the screen and a cartoon
below right showed a woman being led to a scaffold. In florid prose
I read,

Executed today
for the crime of genetic pollution, Katia Anders-Lofts (27) flaunted
her depravity in the most blatant way. This mincing socialite,
who had everything but sneered at the rule of law, led our stalwart
investigators in a dance across five states that lasted for three
weeks. Like a gangster moll who would stop at nothing to follow
her evil pursuits, she left three medical police dead in her
wake and another crippled and begging for a hero’s termination.
But valiant to the last, Officer Jungers .

‘Every word is a lie!’ Ben whispered
violently. ‘She was in hospital for two weeks after the birth,
with an infection. They ripped the drip out of her arm and dragged
her from her bed.’

The picture was a full length shot
of a slender, attractive woman with frosted silver hair and a faraway
look in her eye.

My eyes followed the page down. There
were several more paragraphs, which read like the most lurid gossip
magazines on the net. Below was a blow up of part of Katia’s face,
just nose, eyes and ears, as if looking through the horizontal
slot of a letter box, or a prison cell.

 

CLICK RIGHT EYE TO SEE CRIMINAL’S
DEATH AGONIES

CLICK LEFT EYE TO VIEW THE BODY

CLICK EITHER EAR TO HEAR HER LAST
WORDS

CLICK MOUTH TO LIST HER GENE CRIMES

VISITS TO THIS SITE TODAY  211,843

 

Nothing could be said. This was beyond
words. I took Ben’s hand, sitting beside him as the children played
down the back.

‘They’ll be after the kids next,’
he said listlessly.

‘Isn’t there anything you can do?
Can’t you change their identities?’

‘No! Those systems are too protected.
I’ve only one hope left.’

‘What?’

‘A lead on a rogue doctor who hates
the system. If I can find him .’

‘It’s a terrible risk. What if he’s
a stooge?’

‘What’s the alternative?’

 

He went downhill quickly after that.
Her death sucked the life out of him as a spider sucks outside
the inside of a fly. He looked much the same, he cared for his
children just as carefully, and he worked on his NetSearch night
and day with quiet desperation, but there seemed to be nothing
inside. As the days went by, and one fruitless lead followed another,
he practically gave up eating.

‘They’re closing in on us,’ he said
to me one night. His eyes looked as if they had been rubbed with
sandpaper. ‘I want you to go, now.’

‘I’m not going anywhere,’ I said.

‘Please, Aislyn.’

‘I’ve lost one baby, Ben. I can’t
lose another.’

‘Will you . look after her, and the
kids, if anything happens to me?’

‘I .’ I hesitated. I didn’t want
to make promises I couldn’t meet.

‘I know you’ve got no money. Take
this!’ He pulled a wad of notes out of his bag and stuffed it into
my hand.

‘I can’t take your money,’ I whispered.

‘You’re not. You’re minding it for
my children.’

I sat there with the money in my
hands. I didn’t know what to do. He went back to the net, taking
desperate risks now, staying on line far too long.

‘They’re tracing my links!’ he gasped.
He broke the connection. His hand was shaking.

‘How can you tell?’

He demonstrated his sentinel programs.
‘I’ve only three safe links left. When they’re gone, we’ve got
to run.’

He kept at it. ‘I feel so close,’
he said a while later. Later still, ‘Aislyn, I’ve found it!’

‘What?’

‘The way into the Medical Inspector’s
computers.’

‘What are you looking for?’

‘Tiny discrepancies between old files
and recent ones. Subtle differences that might indicate people’s
records have been falsified.’

‘Surely they check that themselves?’

‘All the time! In fact I wrote the
program for them. But I’m using a much more powerful subroutine.’

‘With this little handheld?’

‘It’s the best there is!’ I saw an
instant of boyish pride. ‘But their computers are doing all the
work. The PocketBook just downloads the results.’

‘How do you know their computers
aren’t watching what you’re doing?’

‘I’m pretty sure
they’re not. I wrote their system, and checked it only a few months
ago.’

Ben finally gave up and took the
older children for a walk. I sat in the afternoon sun, watching
data flow across the screen of the PocketBook. He appeared on the
other side of the yard, one child holding each hand. I stood up
and waved. As I did, a shiny metallic van drew up, like an armoured
car. The doors flew open and half a dozen officers leapt out. They
were dressed in red and black. Medical police! My heart crashed
in my chest as if they had come for me.

‘Halt!’ cried their captain. Her
troops pointed an array of weapons at the children, enough to quell
a minor riot.

A helicopter appeared overhead. Another
van raced into the yard, braked and skidded sideways across the
dirt. It had a satellite dish on the roof and NetNews
Live!
in huge red letters across each side. A big man got out,
already filming. A woman jumped out the other door and thrust a
mike at Tom’s face.

Tom screamed. Ben took him in his
arms. Clara clung to his other hand. I caught at a girder to stop
myself falling down. Ben seemed to be looking right at me. Was
it a message?

‘NetNews Live!’ I said urgently to
the PocketBook. ‘Channel scan.’

For once the Speech Recogniser worked.
The search went into the background. The news came up at once and
began scanning through dozens of channels. Ben’s face appeared,
filling the screen. He seemed to be looking right into my eyes.
‘Stop scan!’ I said.

‘Any last words, gene traitor?’ the
reporter screeched out of the speaker.

Ben closed his eyes and opened them
again. ‘We’re ordinary people, just like you,’ he said to the camera.

The chief of police elbowed the reporter
out of the way. ‘Where is the baby?’

Ben’s face crumpled. ‘She died, after
her mother was taken from the hospital.’ Then he looked up again,
as if saying, Here’s your
chance. It’s the best I can do. Save yourselves!

‘Liar!’ She rapped orders at her
troops. ‘Search the bridge and all around.’

Ben and the children were forced
through the back doors of the van. The doors slammed. I saw a shadow
behind one of the reflecting windows. There was nothing I could
do.

Snapping the PocketBook shut, I thrust
it into its bag. I lifted the sleeping baby. Where could I go that
they wouldn’t find me? There was nowhere to run to, with the helicopter
hovering above. I climbed up the steel framework and across into
the next valley.

Down the end, against the stonework
of the bridge abutment, there were spaces where someone small might
hide. I edged past the corpse, holding my breath. Nothing could
block out that smell. I squeezed sideways into the smallest space,
Kirrily held out after me. I bumped her head and she began to cry.

I put her on the breast, which took
a long while to calm her down. I heard the tramp of police coming
along the bridge structure, the rude interrogations, the cries
of the cardless hoboes as they were taken away. Boots clattered
in the valley next door. Two officers were talking.

‘This is where he hid,’ said one.
‘Must have been here weeks – look at all the empty cans!’

‘Give me your torch. My batteries
are flat!’

‘Don’t see no tins of baby formula,’
said the first again, sorting through our rubbish midden. ‘Maybe
it did die.’

‘You’re not paid to think! Keep looking!’

‘Hardly call what I get pay,’
grumbled the man at the rubbish pile.

‘Go and check up the end.’

He tramped up towards my hiding place.
I held my breath. The footsteps stopped not far away and I heard
him gagging.

‘What’s the matter?’ cried the other.

‘A dead man. A needle job!’

‘How dead?’

‘More than you want to know. Weeks!
Baby wouldn’t be in here.’

‘Check it anyway.’

His boots came crackling through
windblown leaves and papers. Kirrily pulled off me and looked around.
Her eyes screwed up. Don’t cry, or we’ll both die! I touched her
cheek with my fingertip and she took the breast again.

The guard stopped right at the wall,
shining his torch around. I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going
to fall down.

The torchlight disappeared, then
came back again. I could hear the man’s heavy breathing, even see
the hand holding the torch. I forced myself further into my crevice.
A sharp piece of metal dug into my back. The baby pulled off and
again its eyes screwed up. It took a long inward breath, prelude
to a scream. I put my hand over its mouth.

The light went away. The man called
out, ‘Nothing here!’ and headed back up the other end.

‘You sure?’ said the other, apparently
staying outside.

‘I know what my life is worth!’

The footsteps headed off. I took
my hand away and stroked Kirrily’s head. She gave a little cry
and went back to feeding.

In the confined space the smell was
awful, but I stayed where I was. I didn’t trust them to be gone.
My knees would hardly hold me up. Finally, after the baby slept,
I opened the PocketBook one-handed and checked NetNews. It showed
the officers forcing the last vagrant into the custody van. The
cameraman took lingering close-ups of Ben and the children through
the back doors. The doors slammed shut. The van drove off. The
NetNews van followed it, still filming.

I never saw Ben or the children again.
A week later their termination notices appeared on the net.

 

In the night I went back to our valley.
It felt so empty now. I ate a tin of something, I don’t know what,
and put the baby to bed in its cardboard box. In the middle of
the night I realised that the PocketBook was still on. I was about
to shut it down to preserve the solar charge when I saw an alert
flashing in the background.

I panicked. They must have traced
Ben’s link. But I touched the search window and there it was, the
result of the search.

Dr
Rogerio Crandy

44th Floor

The
Millennium Tower

There was also a suburban address
where he had his private consulting rooms. I memorised them both
and closed the program.

DELETE
ALL LINKS?
The PocketBook asked.

‘Yes!’ I said aloud.

DELETE
ALL TRACERS?

I deleted everything except Ben’s
programs. I don’t know why I kept them. I could never have reproduced
his search by myself.

I sat there for the rest of the night,
just staring out into the darkness. A day earlier and we would
all have had a chance. Now it was just me and the baby.

 

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