Science Fiction & Fantasy

Hawk by Steven Brust

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Fiction

Lifeline

Lifeline by Jonathan Olfert (illustration by Galen Dara)

The day I meet my Lifeline is hot and dry, even for New Dakar. Dust chokes the air and filters the red sun to a washed-out orange that slathers its paint onto the road and the walls. Sand rolls across the pavement. A wind curls into the open front of the teahouse. I sit just inside. The wind washes over me and drops its load of grit across my face. I forsake the balcony in favor of a wall at my back. What little I have, I have it because I make that my rule. I see everything coming, and I leave myself nowhere to run. I don’t anticipate running, but I’ve known people whose Lifelines turned out to be sociopaths. Or just everyday enemies.

I pray this one isn’t, but even an enemy would be something.

Lifeline, Inc. set up the meet for me. It gave me a name, nothing more: Gereth. Gereth is late, and I wonder where he lives, what train or rickshaw he’s taking, or whether he lives close enough to walk. I just got off the phone with Tay. She said the blues took down a truck full of guns on the expressway to downtown New Dakar. Her brother runs a truck like that. Maybe Tay will need a shoulder to cry on tonight. I’m not her type, chromosomally speaking, but a girl can dream.

Either way, if my Lifeline is taking the expressway, he may not make it past the Dallaire exit. Traffic backs up in the low lanes, the domain of internal combustion and rubber tires and sixteen cars crammed side by side. Things get bad enough, a shootout or something—and I wonder how familiar those truck drivers were with their cargo—things get bad enough, and you’ll see: even the high air-lanes, the ones full of shiny things, they’ll back up too. Some Norwester drivers will risk taking stray lead through the Suspension, but enough won’t. They get jittery, floating overhead, and it feels like the silver river is about to flood its banks and drop on you like the rain we haven’t had in years.

I’ve got my back to the teahouse’s side wall, and the waiter steps into the corner of my eye from the kitchen. He approaches. I’m still looking outside. “Can I take your order?”

That’s polite, and it feels like he’s mocking me. There’s no menu. Old men loaf around another table, but you can find the same old men and the same table in any teahouse, upscale or down. Their teacups match. Maybe this place costs more than I think. Lifeline, Inc. picks their meeting points to be socially and financially neutral, a rough middle point between the two participants. My pulse quickens. It’s entirely possible that my Lifeline has money. “Just some water for now, thanks. I’m waiting for someone.” Why not. “And make it spring. None of this recycled.”

I’m still not looking at him, not full on. His eyebrows quiver, but he’s good. I haven’t tasted spring water in years. On the other hand, I spent this much on the clothes, the taxicab, and the afternoon off work at the factory. Even if my Lifeline turns out to be as poor as me, I can afford a glass of water from somewhere other than the waiter’s bladder by way of an EverFilter. “And some ice. Spring.” As far as I can tell, I sound nonchalant, but not like I’m trying to sound nonchalant.

“That will take a moment.”

“I can wait.” I still haven’t looked at him. I think if I do, he’ll see that I don’t feel like I belong in a restaurant of any kind. I want to make an impression on my guest. My Lifeline.

The waiter makes the right noises. As he turns away to serve another table, a man steps up onto the patio. My back goes stiff, and my sari bunches up between my spine and my chair. I know this is him—not with the half-mystical recognition some Lifelines feel at first glance, but because he looks lost. He has a couple decades on me and more than a couple pounds. His skin is too red; he’s not used to the sun, and he didn’t plan well. His clothes are pure Norwester. I’m amazed he walked; he must have parked nearby, a car with Suspension and a really good burglar alarm.

He takes off his hat and steps under the awning. His eyes flick around the teahouse. The corners tighten as he takes in the old men, all of whom are watching him. I can see him wondering if this is a trap. Wouldn’t be the first time a Lifeline appointment went bad, for whatever reason. One point of connection isn’t good enough when you’re sewing or hammering nails: You can turn the pieces every which way. A piece of thread connects me to this man. Where it goes from there is up to him, me, and everyone around us.

His eyes settle on mine and lock. He approaches, hat in hand. “Excuse me,” he says. He’s muting his uptown accent on purpose. “Are you Habiba?”

That he’s a Norwester is an unpleasant surprise; I’ve lost friends to uptown indenture, workhouses and the blues, but this man is a person like any other. He’s my connection to really any other kind of life. He’s rich. A well-connected Lifeline can be exactly that. A mentor, a sponsor, a business partner, a friend. I smile and mean it. “And you’re Gereth.”

The Norwester takes a seat opposite me. The tabletop is scuffed but intact, the chairs don’t creak, and yet he’s wondering where to put his hands, his elbows. I wonder if he’s ever come this far south. “I almost didn’t accept, you know. I mean, my life is fairly prosaic, but I don’t feel some great gaping need. I have friends, a wife, children—” His eyes catch mine again, with the vaguest hint of a question, the tiniest flicker of apprehension. I know some people treat the Lifeline service as a way to meet potential partners, and here I am, a relatively attractive female meeting alone with a man.

“You’re not looking for anything,” I say, completing his thought.

“Exactly.”

“And I’m not bait, Gereth—I’m gay.” I grin. “No interest in seducing you for your money.” I applied because it doesn’t cost anything unless your Lifeline agrees to meet, and then you split the bill. The technology didn’t used to be this cheap. And I could really, really use a change. Any change.

He chuckles and relaxes. The waiter reappears, too quickly for my ice cubes to be made from anything other than recycled water. He smells a large tip. The Norwester doesn’t look at him either. “Give me the tea,” says Gereth. “The one you brew around here. The good stuff.”

“Right away, sir.” The waiter vanishes.

“I heard about this tea,” says my Lifeline. “How it keeps mosquitoes away. To do that uptown, I’d need to raid half a pharmacy and sleep with a net.”

I laugh. “You’re fidgeting. Are you still nervous?”

“Well, I don’t really know. I mean . . . nobody knows what this is supposed to be, right? The Buddhists and the Mormons have their take on it, my friend is a physicist, and my daughter smokes so much FedDope that her opinion makes about as much sense as theirs. And there you are, all calm and collected, like you’ve met your Lifeline a dozen times.”

I sip the water. I can only describe it in terms of what it’s not. What’s the opposite of flat, recycled, chemical, choked by outgassing pipes? This water is like new life. “I don’t think it works that way. One to one, you know? You’re my only Lifeline, I’m your only one. I think I’m just curious. I didn’t expect you to be a—” I gesture at his clothes. He looks down and realizes that his wardrobe is a poor fit for this neighborhood.

“With a name like Gereth?”

“Plenty of people down here name their kids things like that. But yeah—if you want to just let this pass, y’know, let this go, no harm done.” He’d paid his half already, after all. “My dad met his Lifeline, hasn’t spoken to him in twenty years. His job didn’t let him associate with people like us.” And I already know I’ll catch all kinds of grief for my Lifeline being a Norwester. Grief, and requests for help, usually too heart wrenching to decline. I can live without that.

He frowns. “Point taken. But let’s see where this goes. Um, let’s see. I’m a fairly minor policy writer at the Department of Energy. Got a wife, two kids—here.” He takes out his wallet and shows me a picture. Some rich people swear by 3D, but in my mind you can’t beat a flat photograph. I’m charmed to see a man from uptown carrying something that cost less than a yuan to print, and treasuring it. His wife is thin, with tightly curled hair. She looks quite a bit like me, if you imagine her with darker skin. The necklace she’s wearing, I couldn’t buy with a month’s wages. The children are well-fed adolescent boys. One is biologically theirs, at a guess. The other boy’s features are sharper, his build heavier, his skin darker. I remember about ten or twelve years back, when adoption was the newest social responsibility craze in uptown. Regulations were amended, and our orphanages cleared out. School crowding went down. I got to learn to read.

“Your son—he looks familiar.”

“We took him from an orphanage a few districts from here, when he was two.” Gereth’s eyes soften, and a smile plays around his lips. “The deworming was a nightmare, but we never looked back.” I blink. It sounds like he’s talking about a dog—but I know how bad our orphanages can get. I wonder if he decided to adopt for compassion’s sake or society’s. “He didn’t even know he was adopted until he was seven or eight. Ah, thank you.” The waiter has returned. Gereth takes a sip of the tea and pauses.

“May I get you anything else, sir?”

“The tea I asked for. I wanted the good tea.”

“This is the good tea, sir. This is the Norwester tea.”

“This is Sansiphor—I could brew this in my kitchen.” Gereth sets the teacup down on the saucer with finality. “Get me the other tea, the kind that keeps mosquitoes away.”

“I’m sorry, sir. We don’t carry that tea anymore. This tea is better. It’s the—”

“The Norwester tea, yes.” Gereth sighed. “I was hoping for something a bit more authentic.”

The waiter smiles. He has won. Tracking down the other tea would have taken him into the hot sun for an indeterminate length of time. The customer is grudgingly satisfied, and the waiter may still get his tip. “Anything else, sir?”

“Chicken salad sandwich, light on the mayo, black pepper, bit of cucumber.”

The smile vanishes. I know he will be running from store to store in the area, looking for chicken salad, mayonnaise and cucumber. A place like this might have one or two, but those aren’t common ingredients around here. Gereth is oblivious. “Very good, sir.” The waiter leaves, and Gereth grins at me.

“So, Habiba—tell me about yourself.”

I’m a little indignant, a little bored, and still a bit curious. I don’t want to talk about myself. I could tell him about the factory, or raising my sister, or the string of girls I’ve loved and lost. I could tell him about the singing lessons. Instead, what comes out is—

“The blues got my friend’s brother today with a truck-full of weapons.”

I take a slug of the water. It’s still cold, but the ice cubes have become oblong, like pills. I swallow some by accident, but I’m used to swallowing FedDope. Not the same grade as what his daughter takes, no doubt, but enough to dull the job, the heat, and the sirens at night. Since the government gives it out for free, I take it. I’m clean right now, since night before last. I wanted to come at this with a clear head. Gereth rocks back in his chair; his hand finds the teacup and he drinks mechanically. “Your friend’s brother is . . .” He glances at the table of old men.

“He’s Freedom Brotherhood, yeah. Probably won’t be happy that my Lifeline is a Norwester. Or maybe he will.” Suddenly I’m on the absent waiter’s side, running store to store with him, begging for chicken salad to feed the man who might tip well. That’s all in my head, but the resentment is real. “I mean, whatever this connection is, it could be good, it could be bad. Could mean we knew each other before we were born, could mean we’re destined to end up with each other, could mean we’re supposed to be the best of enemies. All the machine said is—there’s a connection. Anyone can be your friend, or your enemy. Tay’s brother would look at this and say, I’m meant to be your nemesis. Or the mechanism of your defeat.” I smirk, and suddenly I’m enjoying his discomfort. I’m also enjoying showing off a hard-won vocabulary. He gulps the tea. “But don’t take it personally. These old men, they could be my friends, they could be my enemies. You want to be my friend? Let me tell you about myself.”

Then I lay it all out: the factory, the one-room school, the secondhand palmtop that doesn’t grip my skin properly, the nights on the street when I get off work and the bus doesn’t run. The money troubles, the gunfire. My friends selling their bodies, either as hookers or bit by bit to the organ choppers.

And it’s not enough. I can never tell this man enough for him to understand me. He’s scared. The old men are catching the edges of this, and they’re angry. Maybe angry at Gereth for being here, maybe angry at me for breaking some kind of code of silence. They glower and drink their tea, and stop pretending not to listen. It’s possible they think I’m begging.

Maybe I am.

“So maybe you weren’t looking for anything, Gereth. I was looking for someone—anyone—who could make my life a little less like it is. A friend, an enemy, a lover, whatever. Escapism.”

I grind to a halt. I don’t realize how long I’ve been talking until the waiter steps up. For the first time I look straight at him. His top button is undone, and sweat stains his belly and armpits. I’m fairly sure these are recent developments. He’s breathing hard, but his tray holds a perfect chicken salad sandwich. “Your sandwich, sir,” he says.

Gereth ignores him, and after a moment the waiter deposits the sandwich in front of him and stalks away. “You wanted your Lifeline to be something to hold onto? That’s a bit of a dream, Habiba. It’s like you want someone else to share responsibility for your life on a whim.” He’s afraid of the old men, and he’s afraid of me, but now it’s his turn to be a little bored.

“You knew my name and you knew we averaged out to this neighborhood. You expected anything else?”

“I expected—I don’t know, I expected to feel a connection. My friends who used the Lifeline machine, they felt it when they met their Lifelines. My mother’s Lifeline had been dead for a week when she used the machine, and she felt something at the grave. I used to think it was wishful thinking, but now here you are, Habiba, here you are wanting to feel something at least as badly as my friends ever did, and you’re not feeling it any more than I am.”

“And you know how I feel?”

“Yes, I think I do. Nothing ‘intuitive’ or ‘metaphysical’ or ‘telepathic’ or whatever—” He gestured mockingly with both raised hands, index fingers extended, hands shaking back and forth. “Nothing like that. But what’s to keep me from understanding you?”

“I don’t understand you, Gereth.”

“Yes, well, you’re young. I’ve taken some psychology. I don’t think it’s hard to learn to understand the world.”

“Are you going to eat that?”

He blinks and looks down at the sandwich. The lettuce leaf is beginning to wilt. The heat is melting the mayonnaise, sending oily drips down the side of the bread. His hesitation is all the answer I need. I reach over and grab the sandwich. His hand snaps out and closes around my wrist. He’s fast—too fast even for a man who spends his time on tennis and squash. Muscle-memory chips, perhaps.

Chairs grate against the floor. The old men are standing up. “I have this,” I snap at them. Gereth misunderstands and pulls, drawing me over my edge of the table. The water glass shatters on the floor. Lukewarm water splashes my bare feet. Gereth blinks at the noise and lets go, and I settle back into my seat. The old men snarl in forgotten languages and sit down too. Gereth, I realize, was the only person sitting down.

I take a bite of the chicken salad. “This is delicious,” I say with my mouth full. “Look what I was willing to do for fresh cucumbers, soft bread, and meat that wasn’t grown in a vat. Nothing to hold onto, need to rely on myself. I don’t like doing that, but you gave me no choice. How could I ever count on a man who thinks he knows me after twenty minutes? This, right here, is why I don’t go with men.” It’s not. I’ve never been attracted to men, but right now I can use the ammunition. “Or at least not Norwester men.” I cram half the sandwich into my mouth and grin at him.

Silence falls in the teahouse.

“For this, I drove all the way down here? So I can watch a little brown girl talk with her mouth full?” Gereth snorts and pushed back his chair. He throws a bill on the table—enough to cover everything and more. For that much money, he could probably have me. He walks onto the balcony, and now that his back is turned I see the outline of a gun inside his jacket, in the small of his back.

“You came here carrying?”

He turns back in the sunlight. To him, I must be sitting in darkness, inscrutable. “You can never be too careful, my friends said.”

“Wise friends. If they were a bit wiser they would have told you to keep your back to the wall. You don’t know which way the wind blows around here.” I look around. Between the old men and the waiter, and maybe me, enough people have hurt in their eyes that Gereth clued in. New Dakar isn’t Greater Arabia or United Tennessee—I don’t have to cover my head or let a male relative speak for me—but the old men remember that you don’t grab a woman who doesn’t want to be grabbed. You don’t bring a gun when you go meet her. You don’t talk about deworming their grandchildren, and you especially don’t do any of those things when you’re a Norwester who’s wandered far from uptown. “You know, I might have figured out part of why we’re Lifelines.”

“And what’s that?”

“So I can walk you to your car and so you can get home to your family in one piece.”

The stakes finally dawn on him as he looks into the darkened teahouse. His hand shifts towards the gun, but he thinks better of it. “If that’s all my Lifeline’s good for this time, it’s a lot.”

“It’s only good once.”

“That might be a shame.”

“Well, I’ll remember the chicken salad.” I stuff the rest of the sandwich into my mouth and join him on the balcony. “Where’d you park?” I say.

I have friends that can kill the locators on any car made in the last twenty years. I’ve always wanted to drive. Stealing my Lifeline’s car might be the gateway to a whole new life. He’s a Norwester. He’ll never come back here, and I’ll never go uptown. Maybe that’s the way it should be. We don’t want him here. He didn’t eat the sandwich. It’s the straw and the camel—that’s the way Norwesters are with us. They ask so much, and we give until it hurts, and they think so little of it. They’re never satisfied with our best. Even the enormous tip is an insult of sorts, a rich man showing off to the little people. The waiter would probably help me carjack Gereth.

But on the other hand, I make that happen and every other possibility dries up.

“Sir, you forgot your receipt.”

Gereth turns, and the waiter discharges a KovalevSauer PCL-42 set to automatic fire. A good, simple gun, made in the last days of Federated Europe—or it could be one of Guangdong’s endless clones. The waiter is no hardened fighter, no trained revolutionary, but for this he could join the Brotherhood or the Brown Sons, no questions asked. He points at Gereth and sprays, and I lurch aside. A slug creases my thigh, biting through my sari. I stay on my feet. Gereth isn’t so lucky.

Everyone you meet could be your enemy. Or your friend.

I kneel beside him. I’m not overcome with emotion; I’ve seen people die before. I brush aside his hands and pull the wallet from his pocket. For the moment I ignore the cash. I’m looking for something else.

I hold the family picture above his face where he can see it, and use my other hand to shield his eyes from the sun. “You took one of ours,” I say. “Sure, you gave him a home, food, taught him to read an’ all—but you still took one of ours and made him one of yours.” Now I let him grab the picture. His hands are shaking, weak. He can’t speak. “You take what you like from us, but it’s never good enough. Your son won’t ever measure up, will he? I’ve known kids who come back, adopted uptown and dropped off down here as soon as a new fad hits. And you wouldn’t have liked the tea. Good thing you can buy the pharmacy.”

It’s hard for me to remember my anger as I watch him die in the street. Now I take his car keys and the cash from the wallet. The bills are patented RenminBucks from Tsien Industries, high-value corporate-backed currency. With this minor policy writer’s billfold I could buy half the teahouse.

“Thanks for being reliable, Gereth.”

I stand and leave Gereth in the dirt. The waiter is standing there, shaking with rage and adrenaline, the KovalevSauer’s barrel half-raised and smoking. I don’t know if he lost someone to the blues or to uptown indenture. Nearly everyone has. I don’t know him, and I don’t know why he did it, but he’s standing in for all of us. We’re all fools to hope for something better from the Norwesters, collectively or individually. But we hope anyways, and then they step on us and don’t even notice. Gereth talked to me like an equal, but actions are what count.

“I want to talk to your manager.”

© 2013 Jonathan Olfert.

Jonathan Olfert

Jonathan OlfertJonathan Olfert studies political science and international relations at Carleton University, Ottawa. His research focuses on how non-Western forces shape events in Africa and the former Soviet Union through networks of revolution and human trafficking. He studied creative writing under Bruce Wayne Jorgensen, karate under Sensei Terry Olfert, and astrophysics under the mistaken assumption that he enjoyed calculus. He recently convinced an opera singer to accept a 250-year-old diamond ring. His influences include Ursula Le Guin, Antonio Gramsci, Steven Erikson and Flannery O’Connor. He is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with troubling leftist tendencies. His first novel, a dark fantasy involving mental illness, gods’ conspiracies, revolution and the forces of entropy, has achieved its third draft.

3 Responses »

  1. “Lifeline” reminds me of the revolutionary rhetoric and the ideologues of the 60s and 70s. Are they back in style?

    • Yes, that sort of thing is still popular in a good few places in western Africa to this day. I was definitely thinking about those places and people when I wrote it. “Lifeline” is a day-in-the-life snapshot of radicalization in progress. Good catch.

  2. yeah Li – go figure, right (read the news much?)

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