Cassie examined the gray, watery substance that was supposed to be breakfast.
“Take it or leave it,” Eleven said.
She accepted a bowl and waited while Leila got hers. As they sought a quiet banquette by the window, she thought back to the breakfast Sandra gave her the morning she went to the twins’ loft with Julilla. Dealing with poor rations had been bad before, but knowing she could be having eggs or a Twinkie was almost unbearable. She stirred the contents of her bowl and wondered if the rumbling of her stomach deserved such an insult. She had just decided to have a taste when a shadow blocked the light.
“This seat taken?” David slid onto the banquette next to Leila without waiting for an answer.
Galahad met Cassie’s eyes with an uncertain smile.
Cassie scooted over to make room but affected indifference.
“Late forage today?” Leila asked.
David shook his head. “Alex needed the shuttle. Something about this Pharm-Obit conspiracy you people are so excited about.”
“Why didn’t you go with the Thespians like the other time?” Leila swirled the small bit of cereal in her bowl. “The food they’re serving us is crap.”
“I was game. It’s this guy who said no.” David waved a hand in Galahad’s direction. “He says the Thespians are ‘too dramatic’ and he’s ‘not in the mood.’”
Galahad pushed his untouched bowl away. “I’m not up for anyone’s theatrics today. Doesn’t mean you can’t go.”
“Nah. This way I have an excuse to spend the day lying around doing nothing.”
“That doesn’t sound very productive,” Cassie said.
David sat a little straighter. “Does every day have to be productive? You’re as bad as Sir Galahad, here.” He leaned across the table. “Listen, I’m more productive in a single day of risking my ass on the streets than half the brats around here are in an entire month. We’ve got a whole group of parasites living off the supplies I steal, and what do they ever do for me? Or for anyone else? They spend all day whining about the goddamn Telo and trying to avoid doing chores or even getting so much as a basic education.” He sat back. “I’ve earned a day of rest.”
“Of course you have,” Galahad said. “We all work hard to contribute.”
“I don’t,” Leila said brightly. “I’m lazy.” She gave David a sidelong glance.
“You weren’t when you were with me last night,” he told her.
Before Cassie could steer the conversation in a new direction, Julilla strode up to their table looking grim. “Zach is sick. Looks like Telo.”
The little group exchanged glances. Zach was only seventeen, which was young for a Telo victim, but they had seen it happen before.
“I’ve been asked to take over his duties for the day, but that means someone has to take a package to May. Sid made some kind of generator thing so she can run her science equipment.” Julilla met Cassie’s eyes. “I was wondering if you could deliver it for me.”
Before she could answer, Galahad butted in. “No way. It’s too dangerous for a girl out there alone.”
“And if we send a guy, the Pharms will be on to us for sure. We have to send a girl, unless you want to put on a dress and make like you’re in the market for charm bracelets.”
“I’ll go.” Cassie said, ignoring Galahad’s stare. “Where’s the package and when do I need to take it?”
“Sid has it in his storeroom. And the sooner you can leave, the better.”
Cassie made to get up, but Galahad grabbed her arm. “I’ll go with you.”
“We’ll all go,” Leila said. “May has some new designs I want to check out.” She flashed David an excited smile. “And maybe we can go to the park afterwards. It’ll be fun.”
David scowled in disgust. “You’re crazy if you think I’m spending my day looking at a bunch of girly doo-dads and hanging out in a park like a pre-Telo tourist. I said it was going to be a day of rest and that’s what it’ll be.”
“Please?” Leila put her hand on his.
“No. You go and have a good time.” He stood up. “I’m going back to bed since breakfast sucks and lunch will probably be no better. Join me when you get back. I’ll be saving you a spot.”
To everyone’s surprise, David gave her a kiss before walking away.
“Well?” Julilla said. “Is it decided? Because if it is, we’re wasting time.”
* * *
The streets were unusually empty, other than for some Pharm vendors, a few teens sleeping off a night of drinking, and a knot of children gathered around a wild-haired pre-teen making an impassioned speech about the need to “unify and organize.”
They found the jewelry store neat and in order, with May idly arranging earrings in a display case. She smiled at the little group and her gaze fell on the bulging canvas bag slung over Cassie’s shoulder. “Always nice to see some friendly faces.”
Before Cassie could explain their errand, Leila rushed the display case and pressed her nose against the glass. “Is this the new series? They’re beautiful.”
Cassie peered over her shoulder. The earrings, charms and pendants were made of oddly-shaped bits of mirror, their edges warped by acid and darkened with smoke. Each was etched in the center with a design or picture, some black and delicate like webs, others bold and colorful with reds, blues and greens. Lying on their bed of black velvet, they sparkled like stars in the pale glow of one of May’s chemical light orbs.
“This series is pretty special,” May said. “I’ve been working on it for a long time but didn’t want to put anything out until I had enough that if girls told their friends, there would be some for them, too.”
“That’s good sales strategy,” Galahad said. “But have you thought about doing actual marketing? You know, like maybe loan pieces to girls who’ll show them off to other girls who will come and buy?”
May considered. “That might not be a bad idea. I’ll need to think about it.” Her attention returned to Cassie’s bag, her eyes bright with expectation. “Is that my generator?”
Cassie set the bag on the counter and took out the converted automobile alternator. While May read Sid’s instructions, Cassie examined the gadget, which had some extra modifications, including an attachment that Cassie couldn’t immediately see the use of.
“To hook up to a bicycle or cranking device,” May said. “All on its own, something like this is fine for running a fan or charging some batteries, but my centrifuge and autoclave need a steady source of power while they’re in use.”
Cassie nodded. “He also says whenever you can get him some ammonia, he’ll make you a small refrigerator. He found some plans and says they’re pretty simple.”
“The forage team has been told to keep an eye out for ammonia, too,” said Galahad from where he had been holding the display case door so Leila could try on a bracelet. “If we find some before you do, we’ll let you know.”
“Looks like I’ll have a proper lab in no time,” May said. “I swore I wasn’t going to get back into science. Funny how things change.”
“As long as things change for the good,” Galahad said. “We have to keep going forward.”
“Until we die,” Leila said. She slipped a pair of earrings into her ears and peered in a mirror.
“I don’t know how good a change this is going to be,” May said. “I want to die with a paintbrush in my hand, not a test tube.”
“Cassie?” Galahad turned to her. “Am I the only optimist in a room full of cynical females?”
The notion that he counted on her to keep up a brave front inspired Cassie to speak more confidently than she might have. “Everybody dies. What matters is how we live in the meantime.”