Rakkel wondered just how wise it was, following this shark woman across the market.
It wasn't that she was a shark. Rakkel hadn't a speciesist cell in xir body, or so xe assumed about xirself. It was... well, it was basically everything else about the woman. And the situation. And the particulars of the environment around xir.
Of course, xe'd been happy enough to go walking off into a strange city with Welton, but he'd been different. Hadn't he? Or maybe Rakkel just lacked common sense when it came to following strangers around.
It had occured to Rakkel that the shark woman had agreed to buy the rings before asking their price. Was that strange? The whole matter of buying and selling still qualified as an unfamiliar landscape of its own, as far as Rakkel was concerned. There was something exciting about it all - it made for a peculiar sort of game, the rules of which mostly weren't concretely defined, and the strategies for which Rakkel still hadn't even begun to grasp but in a vague, shadowy sort of way. Stepping into the marketplace was like stepping into a sports arena, or - ah, this was it - like stepping onto the board of an enormous board game, and becoming one of its pieces.
Rakkel's gut told xir that this shark woman would soon turn out to be one of the players who, to veer the metaphor off into a different lane for a moment, had her initials on all the high score tables. And she'd bought all of Rakkel's rings. Literally all of them. For a price she hadn't asked, and which Rakkel had made up on the spot anyway. And Rakkel, noob player that xe was, didn't have anything to package them in and was about to give away xir picnic blanket for free, which would leave xir without anything to sell xir goods on. Except, possibly, xir lap? But xe didn't have any goods left, either, so maybe it was okay? Had this woman just made a move that forced xir out of the game? All of a sudden, xe felt shockingly, pathetically stupid. Like xe'd only begun to catch a glimpse of what this thing was, just before it was too late to continue with it.
Xe hoped 200 monies per ring would at least be enough to get the AR device back - xe had low hopes that it would actually be fixed instead of just broken in a more complicated way, but xe preferred having it to not having it - and to pay for at least a couple of nights at the hostel and, ideally, to buy a meal or two. And xe hoped that this woman would, in fact, pay xir, and not drag xir into a dark corner and harvest xir organs for the black market or something. Which would be a pity, after Salmidon had so courteously passed on the opportunity to do so earlier. And then, once xe'd paid off xir expenses, xe'd... be back where xe started, but without the rings. Or the picnic blanket. And xir bike was still broken, if nobody'd stolen it yet.
Xe really wasn't playing this game well at all, xe realized. If only there were a tutorial level somewhere.
"I've been here before," xe said, looking up and suddenly realizing. "I remember that stall with the rainbow fish lights."
The woman said nothing, just kept walking. Rakkel had been staring at her tail as they walked. It swayed hypnotically behind her. The tip of the caudal fin seemed a beckoning finger with every swish. It'd been hard to take xir attention off it. But sure enough, while xe hadn't been looking, they'd come to the same place in the same tube where the same black curtain with a neon blue shark on it hung in front of the same tiny, grungy side-tube.
"How convenient," Rakkel added. Xe stared at the shark symbol but voiced none of xir tangled, confused suspicions.
Xe'd been reluctant to follow Welton in there, and that was just Welton. Following this shark woman filled xir with all kinds of forboding shivers. But xe ducked under the curtain after her anyway.
Welton decided to make himself scarce for a little while, and started walking in a random direction, away from Doople's meat shop, the truck, and the strange man who'd called him a demon.
Three blocks later, his molten anger had cooled down and now sat in his stomach like a misshapen lump of iron. Probably it was pig iron. He certainly felt brittle enough.
Petty revenge, of course, had not made him feel better. At all. It had made him feel worse. No matter how much Havid stood as a mockery of his very identity.
But underneath that guilt, a different guilt lurked.
He found his steps curving back around toward the marketplace. Where he'd left Rakkel.
They passed the sparkling curtain of fiber optic cables that led to Salmidon's caves.
They passed several other side-passages, also. They passed curtains, and hatches, and a wooden door with white paint on it, and a staircase going up, and a ladder leading downward. Everything was lit only by a series of little plastic LED diffuser disks adhered to the walls - the cheapest possible lightbulbs short of just using the LEDs bare. And then they went around a bend, and instead of those dim, cheap lights, there were bare LEDs after all, but red ones. The red light drained all other color away and made Rakkel unaccountably sleepy.
"What is this?" asked Rakkel, "a darkroom?"
"It's nighttime in the cages," explained the woman.
She didn't answer.
At the end of this hallway, a few steps led up to another door, this one reflective steel. It reminded Rakkel of the industrial refrigerator in Doople's shop. The woman unlocked it with a key.
On the other side, everything was cleaner. Stepping through after the woman, xe found xirself in a wider, taller, squarer hallway with bare walls, bright lights, and even a very matter-of-fact carpet covered in a simple design of gray and black rectangles.
"Where exactly are we going?" asked Rakkel. Xe still wondered if xe should turn and run. Although this looked less like the sort of place where xe might have xir organs extracted.
The shark woman who'd hung back as Rakkel stepped forward, shut the door behind them and turned a key in the lock.
Unless this was one of those really high-class organ extraction facilities, where they harvested organs for extremely important people who demanded sophisticated things like operating rooms that had actually been sterilized, and organs packed for storage in something more reliable than a picnic cooler full of ice.
"These are my offices," explained the woman. "I think you've guessed by now that I've brought you here for more than just payment. But you're in no danger, I promise." She patted xir head between the ears in a condescending fashion. "I have an offer for you, I think."
"I haven't decided yet exactly. I'm assessing you as we go."
"Assessing me for what?"
"Suitability," she said. "Come. There's a more comfortable room over here." She led Rakkel past several glass doors though which Rakkel could see offices and meeting rooms, all dark and with the chairs set upside down on the tables. Some of the chair bottoms had dust on them.
"Nobody uses these rooms?" asked Rakkel.
"Not yet, no. In here." The woman led Rakkel through another door into another room. This one was indeed more comfortable than the others. It had an L-shaped sofa in the old style, a low table, and a countertop beneath some white cabinets which held a coffepot and some little cardboard boxes full of tea bags.
"Would you like some tea?" asked the shark woman.
"No thank you," said Rakkel. After all, why make it too easy for her to drug xir?
"Suit yourself. I won't have any either." She sat down on the sofa and patted the cushion next to her, indicating Rakkel should sit there. Instead, Rakkel pulled up a chair. Xe wouldn't have wanted to sit right next to the woman anyway, but her thick, fishy tail took up half the sofa all on its own, and xe especially didn't want to sit on that.
"I'm pretty sure I'm not interested," xe said. "Whatever it is you're going to propose. I just want my money, if you're really going to give it to me."
"Oh, I never go back on a deal," she said. "Though I admit I brought you here under slightly false pretenses - we don't use physical coins here in Forash. But I'll set you up with an account."
"You don't use 'hard currency'? Then why did you say...?"
"I thought you were probably from out of town. I wanted to find out how much you knew. Bold of you, to try to sell something in the marketplace without even knowing what money we use here." Her tone had a note of sarcasm in it.
"Foolish, you mean," said Rakkel. "But sometimes the best way to learn is to try things."
"Ah. That's certainly true enough. Hmm. This changes my estimation of you slightly, in fact. I knew you were bold and ambitious. Now I know you're at least not as thoughtless as you first seemed."
This was true. Rakkel was having a thought at that very moment, which was that this was completely insane and xe needed to get out of there.
"Look," xe said, "I don't really care what you think of me. Can we just get this over with, whatever it is we're doing here? Tell me what you want from me already."
"Like I said, I'm still deciding exactly. But it's something along the lines of a job offer. I could use someone who's bold, ambitious, and not entirely thoughtless. I just haven't decided what job. You thought on your feet well enough, too, under the circumstances. Hmm."
"I'm not interested," xe said.
"Don't turn me down until you've heard what the job is!"
"You just said you don't even know what the job is."
"I have a few things in mind," the woman said. "All of them are interesting. And I can pay quite well."
"You haven't paid me anything yet," said Rakkel. "Or even told me your name."
"Oh? I suppose I haven't, have I? You can call me Mme. Flore," she said, putting an accent on the last syllable.
"'Madame' is a title," said Mme. Flore, "and it's 'Flor-eh,' not 'Flor-a.'"
"Okay," said Rakkel. "I'm Rakkel."
"Good. Then that takes care of that."
"Between the payment and your name," said Rakkel, "I'd rather have the payment, though."
"All in good time. Tell me, Rakkel, how long have you had a bio mod?"
Rakkel blinked. "Practically my whole life," xe said. "Why? How long have you had yours?"
"So you're accustomed to your body. Good. Some of the jobs I have in mind for you involve a component of physicality. New mods are clumsy sometimes."
"Is that why you came up to me in the market?" asked Rakkel. "Because I'm a lemur?"
"I like to keep an eye on all the newcomers," she said, "but yes, that did draw my attention. There are very few of us around here, after all. It takes an unusual sort of person to change their body so dramatically. Unusual people are often worth getting to know."
"I guess so," said Rakkel. Xe felt xe'd met nothing but unusual people since arriving in town, present company included, and only some of them had been worth it. Present company excluded.
"Tell you what," said Mme. Flore, "let's take first things first and get you that account. Come with me." She stood up again.
"Where are we going now?"
"I have a terminal upstairs. We'll get your account set up. Do you have an AR device?"
Rakkel wasn't sure how to answer that question. "Do I need one?" xe asked.
"You'll want one, if you don't. They're becoming increasingly popular around here. Otherwise, you'll have to do transactions at terminals. This isn't like the old days when you could have handfuls of computers to carry around in your pockets, and they'd talk to each other through thin air. But AR devices can do it optically, of course. You just have to sync them with your home terminal at the end of the day."
"That does sound more convenient," said Rakkel, who didn't have a home terminal either.
Mme. Flore led xir out the door and up another set of stairs to a second hallway, and down this hallway to a little blue sliding door, which she slid open to reveal a sleek, black-plated computer terminal which plugged into the wall via a dozen multi-colored cables. She turned it on, then double-clicked an icon.
"Go ahead and sit down here," said Mme. Flore. "Follow the instructions on the screen. You do know how to use one of these, don't you?"
"Good. It'll ask you some questions. Give it your name and a private password, which of course you'll keep secret. It wants an email address, too - I have one you can use for this. Shows how old the system's been around, doesn't it? Back when it was built, those were still commonplace, ha ha."
"I have an email address," said Rakkel.
"You do? Really? Within the city of Forash's computer network?"
"Yeah. Well, not exactly. We had mainline access back home. My email account is good everywhere - at least, everywhere that isn't totally isolated. It should work here too."
"Really?" Mme. Flore looked utterly disconcerted, which clearly wasn't an expression sharks had been built for, or possibly Mme. Flore either. "Are you sure? I didn't think that was even still possible. Are you sure you wouldn't rather use mine?"
"Might as well use my own, right?" Xe turned back to the screen and started typing. Out of the corner of xir eye, xe saw Mme. Flore watch xir hands intensely. Probably surprised at xir ability to touch-type.
Rakkel remembered the computer back home. It'd been a hand-crank unit, jury-rigged to an old bicycle and then to a solar-backed battery bank alongside that, upgraded repeatedly with old parts xir parents and other members of xir community had scavenged or traded for, and tethered to a satellite dish that could, on a clear day, get a ping back from several of the major telecommunications satellites that still flew. It lived on a very small bench under the rear window of the rearmost car of the Trolley, surrounded by hanging plants (though none so close that they'd pose a risk of dripping on it when watered,) and Rakkel had spent many happy days of xir youth playing with it.
So, yes, xe could touch-type.
That terminal hadn't had a mouse, and this one did. Xe wasn't sure how to use it. Xe didn't seem to need it for anything, though, so xe didn't worry about it.
"Can just anyone set up an account?" xe asked as xe filled out the boxes.
Mme. Flore hesitated. "Most people go to city hall," she said.
"But you don't?"
"It's not strictly necessary."
Right, thought Rakkel, so that's not too dodgy-sounding or anything. Xe had an increasing hunch that part of the point of having xir do this here, under Mme. Flore's supervision, was so that Mme. Flore could steal or manipulate xir account somehow. But apparently, xe could go down to city hall at some point and set up a real account there. Just so long as xe could transfer the money over without too much fuss.
"Okay," xe said, "I've done it. Now what?"
"Now I'll pay your 200 credits per ring. How many of them were there again?"
I still have them, thought Rakkel. She made me carry them, and I wrapped them up in my blanket and put it back in my messenger bag. Surely she isn't going to give me the credits without asking for me to hand them over?
"Eleven," said Rakkel.
"Are you sure? I thought I saw twelve."
"Oh - yes, that's right, there are twelve," said Rakkel. "I forgot," xe lied. Xe wasn't sure what xe was testing the woman for. If she'd gone along with the number Rakkel had given, would that mean she was dishonest? Or that she genuinely hadn't counted them? Or that she was too embarassed to correct Rakkel? Probably not that last one. She didn't seem like the sort for that.
"So that's two hundred apiece, times twelve..." She looked questioningly at Rakkel.
"Two thousand, three hundred total," said Rakkel immediately.
Mme. Flore hesitated. "You're testing my honesty, aren't you?" she asked. "I admire you for it. In fact, I admire you so much, I'll give you a bonus." She did something with the mouse and a new window appeared on the screen. Rakkel watched her type in "5000".
"I thought you were the one testing me," said Rakkel. "By asking me to do the math for you."
"Yes. Is this not life? We all test each other in a thousand different ways, with every word, every glance, every facet of body language. You and I know this better than most: Our very appearance is a test. One of the first things I noticed about you, in fact, is how you reacted when you suddenly looked up to see the big, toothy mouth of a shark bearing down on you from above. So I test you, and you test me, and we get to know each other that much better. Although," she added as an afterthought, "given that this is a job interview, we might both expect for the testing to be more explicit and more deliberate than usual."
"A job interview? Really?"
"In fact, I tell a lie. The interview is over. I've already hired you."
"I haven't agreed to anything," said Rakkel.
"And I haven't decided exactly what I want to do with you, either," said Mme. Flore, "so I'm putting you on retainer. See that number I typed on the terminal?"
"It's quite a large 'bonus' for making a deliberate mistake with my arithmetic," said Rakkel.
"Especially compared to how much the rings are really worth- no, I tell another lie. They are fine craftsmanship. Presented in better context, they might truly fetch the price you asked. Spread out on a rough picnic blanket as though you threw them down on the ground in disgust, I don't think you could convince anyone to pay you a tenth of that, whatever they might deserve.
"But I digress," she said. "The number on this screen is your retainer fee. I will continue paying it daily until I have decided what I want to do with you, at which point we can renegotiate."
"What do you expect me to do until then?"
"Nothing in particular. Stay in town, be available when I want to speak with you."
"And what if I leave?"
"Then I'll stop paying it." She shrugged her slender, gray shoulders.
"That's awfully generous of you," said Rakkel. "Extremely generous. Astoundingly generous."
"So I'm generous. Is that a problem?"
"I haven't actually done anything impressive," said Rakkel. Except, xe thought, refrain from running screaming from the room.
"You will do, though," said the woman. "You have a touch of destiny about you."
"Right," said Rakkel. "Destiny. Of course. Are we done here yet?"
"We are. And don't worry, I'm not offended. You're still new in town. Perhaps you don't even understand how much this amount of credit is worth yet. You'll have plenty of time to figure it out before I call on you again."
"Right," said Rakkel again. "Of course." Xe began walking back to the stairs. Mme. Flore followed at a close distance.
They made it down the lower hallway to the door that led back out into the tunnel. Mme. Flore unlocked it. "I'll contact you in person when I'm ready for you," she said. "You'll forgive me if I don't escort you back to the market tubes. It's not complicated, though. Just keep going, turn once when the tunnel turns, and keep going again. Don't go in any of the side corridors."
"What's down them, anyway?" Rakkel asked, curious despite xir strong desire to get out of there and quickly.
"Tenants," said Mme. Flore. "Please don't disturb their privacy."
"You called them 'the cages' before?"
"I did," said Mme. Flore. She said nothing more.
None of this satisfied Rakkel's curiosity, but clearly it would have to do. Xe stepped through the door and started to descend the short staircase.
"Wait just a moment," said Mme. Flore. "Aren't you forgetting something?"
Rakkel looked up.
"The rings," said Mme. Flore. "You still have them."
"Oh," said Rakkel. "Of course." Xe took the rings out of the messenger bag and handed them over, still in the blanket.
Mme. Flore smiled with all her serrated teeth, took the blanket, and stepped back through the door. The lock clicked after a moment.