Cassie guided May down one of the hallways that led to an emergency exit. Although the halls were supposed to be kept clear, the beam of her flashlight played over mounds of trash, and the reek of urine made her long to not have a nose. Doc said people could become used to any smell, but at times like this she was skeptical.
She was glad to reach the exit, where she tapped on the door and waited. After a moment, there was an answering tap on the other side and she shoved the door open and stepped into the sunshine with May at her heels.
“Took you long enough,” said Julilla. She hardly looked herself, dressed in ordinary civilian clothes instead of guard fatigues, and wearing three of May’s plastic-shard necklaces. “Don’t you dare say I look good.”
“Okay.” Cassie stifled a smile and adjusted her bracelets. Dressing like fanatical customers of May’s enterprise was fun, but she worried it might have disadvantages. She patted the colorful, glass-spangled purse slung over her shoulder and felt the reassuring bulge of her can of bear repellent. She hoped her bracelets wouldn’t snag on something if she had to grab it quickly.
“Come on.” Julilla gave a jerk of her chin. “No one saw you come out of the hotel, so we should be clear.”
They headed toward the shop via the less commonly-used streets. May and Cassie walked together in front, with Julilla lagging behind, watching for shadows in broken shop windows and keeping her hand on the pistol at her belt.
“I had really hoped Mundo would take on this project,” May said as they walked. “He’s got that whole alliance thing, so it’s not like he can’t find the manpower.”
“He’s worried for Nisha,” Cassie said. “She’s having strange symptoms, which makes it a bad time to piss off the Pharms, if the mission fails and our people get caught.”
May waved a hand in disgust. “He doesn’t care about babies. He just thinks having one proves his manhood. And it’s not like he doesn’t have other girlfriends. I’ve heard how he treats Nisha. He’s using her as an excuse.”
Out of a doorway, a thin and dirty dog limped up to them, teats swollen. She paused a few feet away and put her head down in a submissive gesture, whining.
“Poor thing,” Cassie said. “She’s hungry.”
Julilla drew her pistol. “So are we.”
“No.” Cassie put a hand on her wrist. “Can’t you see she’s nursing? She’s got puppies.” When that didn’t move her, she added, “If those puppies grow up, that’s more dogs for us to eat in the winter.”
Julilla put the gun away. “Maybe we should build a kennel and raise some.”
Cassie acknowledged that this would be a good idea and suggested they ask Mundo to put it to a vote. Then, since they had nothing to offer the dog, she shooed it away.
“So if we’re able to get into the lab,” Cassie said as they continued on, “I wonder if those papers will even be there. Or the laptop. What if all the data is on a server?”
“True,” May said. “The only thing we know for sure is that we’ll learn nothing if we don’t try.”
“I hope if we get anything, it makes sense. It would suck to go to all that trouble only to find Doc can’t understand any of it.”
“I’ll be able to read it if he can’t.” At Cassie’s questioning look, May added, “I had pushy parents. They wanted me to be a great scientist and did everything they could to make it possible.”
“But that still—”
“I’ve won national awards and Ivy League scholarships. I entered college at sixteen.” By now May was turning red underneath her makeup. “Funny thing was that all I really wanted to do was art. I’ve never been happier than since the Telo. I’m finally free.”
Cassie thought of her own ordered world and the loving parents who had encouraged her dream of being a conservationist. “Nice to hear it was good for someone.”
“So if we find something, I’ll be able to read it, even if it’s technical.” May tried to catch Cassie’s eye. “But I was very clear with Mundo and Alex. I’m not turning back into a scientist. I’ll explain anything Doc can’t figure out, but that’s it. I’m only in this to make sure I can have peace to keep doing my art.”
“You don’t care that this could mean the difference between doing art for another year or another sixty years?”
“I don’t believe in that ‘rebuild the world’ crap. If we cure the Telo and start holding elections, working jobs we hate and paying taxes, who cares if we get a few extra decades? Better to have a year of heaven on earth than sixty years of hell.”
Julilla had been ignoring their conversation, but now she silenced them. “Trouble,” she said, as three young men separated themselves from the shadows of a loading dock and emerged into the street. The rest of their group moved to the curb, but made no other move for the moment.
“Nice day,” said the oldest of the boys. He looked each of the girls up and down. “Where you headed?”
Julilla stepped out in front. “None of your damn business.”
One of the other boys, dressed in a filthy cop uniform and with mirrored glasses hiding his eyes, pressed his face close to hers. “Everything’s our business on this street, bitch. Now where—”
“Off your street, if you’ll get out of our goddamn way.”
The first boy swiped at Julilla, and Cassie fumbled for her bear repellant. Before she could get it out of her bag, May shouted. A blade flew past her and embedded itself in the cop’s throat. While he scrabbled at his neck, the other two boys stared in confusion.
“Run!” Julilla said, and the girls took off down the street. For a moment, the boys were too startled to follow, then Cassie heard shouts, hurried footsteps, and then nothing but the pounding of her own feet and the panting of May and Julilla beside her.
When they got to the end of the block, they turned onto a larger street in neutral territory. Here they paused to catch their breath in front of the looted remains of a bank.
“That was a close one,” Julilla said, trying to regain her cool.
“Good job with the knife,” Cassie told May. “Where’d you learn to do that?”
“I didn’t,” May said. “It was that girl in black. Didn’t you see her?”
Cassie and Julilla shook their heads.
“While you were arguing with those bastards, a girl and guy dressed in black came out of a building across the street. They saw what was happening and the girl threw a knife.”
Julilla considered. “Are you sure? She’s impressive.”
“I wonder if we can recruit her,” Cassie said.
“If she’s that good, she doesn’t need our protection,” Julilla pointed out. “But I wouldn’t mind finding out who she is and if she gives lessons.”
May rolled her eyes. “Can we just hurry up and get back to my place? I’m beginning to wish I’d never headed out the door.”
“After what happened this morning, I’m surprised you want to go back,” Julilla said, keeping her pistol unholstered as they began walking again. “You should take Mundo up on his offer. Or find some other group for protection. It’s obvious the Pharms don’t think you’re valuable enough to give you what you need to be safe.”
May disagreed. “I like my independence. If I joined a group, I’d be spending most of my time on chores. No thanks.”
“But isn’t that what you do now, making aspirin and menthol for the Pharms?” Cassie asked.
May looked away and changed the subject. “Think you can take a look at the box cooker you gave me? One of the guys who raided me this morning kicked it and bent a reflector panel.”
“Yeah,” Cassie said. “No problem.”