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Blindfold

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2019 год
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CHAPTER (#ulink_b9a1d519-095b-56b7-9711-2213a485b90f)

5 (#ulink_b9a1d519-095b-56b7-9711-2213a485b90f)

i

Dreaded anticipation made the evening pass with all the speed of a rock eroding. Troy whiled away the hours trying to concentrate on a new painting, his second of the evening. He would have to wait until it was late enough to slip into the slumber-quieted city and fix the stupid mistake he had made.

Before this mess, he had eagerly anticipated a relaxing few hours of experimenting with his new paints—carmine and burnt sienna—but now the thrill was soured. He managed to paint a coppery crimson sunset with a storm rolling in; the orange-gold rays streamed across a lush imaginary landscape sometime centuries in the future, when tall cities spread like monuments across the face of Atlas, where forests grew wild rather than trapped in rigid rectangles of conditioned soil.

But Troy felt distanced from his art, preoccupied with thoughts of dire consequences for his clumsy and unforgivable clerical mistake. He got the perspectives all wrong so that the cities were foreshortened, and the people were far too tall. The rays from the painted sunset streaked out at an astronomically impossible angle.

Terror gnawed at him. What if he got caught keying in the revised manifest schedule when he went back to the warehouse? The sol-pols would haul him off to the brig in Guild Headquarters, and he’d probably be exiled back to the Mining District. Cren would undoubtedly fire him if Troy simply apologized and tried to rectify the glitch in the light of day—though this one was far more easily fixed than his previous mistake of swapping shipments. Cren would also fire him if Troy said nothing and the manifest error wasn’t fixed. His choices seemed to funnel to this single option.

On the other hand, it was only marginally likely that someone would discover him out on the streets at this late hour. Logic continued to hammer at his brain, though his emotions were not entirely convinced. Troy shivered.

The viewplate in his living room buzzed with an incoming call. Troy jumped, leaving a trail of reddish ochre across his fresh painting. With a rueful smile he realized he might have to paint that into a meteor flashing down.

Another wash of panic brought pinpricks of cold sweat showering out of his skin as the viewplate buzzed again. Who could be calling him at this hour? Had Cren discovered Troy’s error after all, working late? Were the sol-pols giving him sufficient fair warning to pack a few belongings before they marched him off to prison? Was an arrest done that way? Troy didn’t know. He had never needed to worry about the sol-pols before.

Pale and frightened, he tapped the Receive button on the viewplate—and was astonished to see the image of his family sitting in the common room in their small communal dwelling. He laughed with relief as he realized this was the day of their weekly communication.

“Look, Rambra,” Troy’s mother said, “he’s actually glad to see us. That’s a pleasant change.”

“Must be up to something,” his father said gruffly in an attempt at humor.

Behind his parents he saw his little sister Rissbeth flaunting a new dress. Rissbeth had devoted her life to demonstrating that Troy was her natural enemy, and had done everything in her power to be his complete opposite. His older sister, Leisa, looked at him fondly. He missed her very much.

“Are you surviving in the big city?” his mother Dama asked. “How is your job? Do you have new friends yet?”

“I’m doing my best, Mother,” he answered. Always the same questions. He knew what was next.

“Have you signed up for one of the matching services? You need to be married. You are old enough. Leisa is pregnant. Did we tell you that last week?”

“Yes, you told me that last week, Mother. I’m very proud of her.”

Rambra said, “I hope that’s not the only set of grandchildren we’re going to get.” Out of view behind her parents, little Rissbeth tossed her head in challenge, as if to show Troy that she was willing to do her duty to have children.

“I haven’t signed up for the matching services yet. I haven’t had time.”

“Time?” his mother said. “What could be more important? People will think there’s something wrong with you. Isn’t there a stigma attached to single people, those who don’t have large families?”

“I’ll survive,” Troy said. “I just moved here. Starting a family isn’t my highest priority. It’s only been three weeks.”

“You need your own children,” Dama insisted. “You simply can’t understand until you have your own.”

Troy sighed. “Yes, and if I don’t have children, the gene pool will immediately begin to deterioriate, thereby leading to the ultimate extinction of the human race.”

“Oh, Troy, you’re being such a fatalist!” Dama said in alarm.

“If I’m going to be a fatalist, I may as well do it right.” Behind his mother, he could hear Leisa laughing.

His mother huffed. “See the way he treats us?” she said. “We’ve placed our hopes in you, Troy. Your father worked very hard to get you this opportunity. We have faith that you’ll pay us back, find a place for us in First Landing. Keep us in your thoughts.”

“I will. Thank you for calling, Mother, but it’s very late here. We’re in a different time zone, and I have lots of work yet to do.”

“Oh! We forgot about the time change again,” she said. “We should write ourselves a note on the calendar.”

“Keep working hard,” his father said. “Let us know when you get a promotion—and if there’s room for us to move there.” Rambra chuckled, but Troy knew that he wasn’t entirely joking. “We’re counting on you!”

Troy signed off, and the viewplate filled with static, then turned a dull, cooling gray. His heart sank.

Still a few more hours until it was time for him to go.

ii

When Troy peeked out the window in his apartment, he saw rain still sprinkling down, so he chose a dark slicker from the closet. The fabric was too thin to keep him warm, but it had been lacquered with waterproofing resin. His mother had made it for him before he moved to the city. Troy wrapped it around himself, took two deep breaths to buck up his courage, then slipped out into the quiet, lonely night.

He tried to appear casual, not nervous or impatient as he hurried down the puddle-strewn streets. He stopped at a stand, where he purchased a cup of a watery brown liquid the vendor called coffee. The cup steamed in the cool night, and Troy slurped it as he walked in a haphazard path, trying not to look as if he was heading toward the holding warehouse.

Just going out for a walk; Troy thought, imagining a confrontation with a night shift sol-pol. Couldn’t sleep. Needed to stretch my legs. Oh, I’m not supposed to be outside this late? Sorry, I’m new here in the city. From the Mining Districts. Ever been there?

He muttered the excuses over and over to himself, but First Landing seemed to be sleeping comfortably. He wasn’t sure if he had ever been awake so late, but dozing was the last thing on his mind. Even the sol-pols must be huddled under awnings or in shelters from the drizzle.

His nose was cold and numb. By the time he finally reached the low warehouse, he was sniffling repeatedly. The building was dark except for a few small lights left burning to comfort the animals.

With a gulp to squelch second thoughts, Troy slid his access card through the reader. The door popped open to admit him. When Cren had given him his own access card, the responsibility made Troy feel tall and important. He had actually called his family to brag about it—and now just days later, he was abusing the privilege, sneaking in to alter records. Once again, it didn’t seem like a good idea—but he convinced himself otherwise, wringing his hands as if he could squeeze out more courage.

He had to do this to keep his job, to keep his family’s hopes alive, to deny Cren an excuse to fire him (this week at least). It would all be over in a few minutes, just a series of quick keystrokes.

The warehouse was dim, but he picked his way over to his own cubicle, needing nothing more than the peripheral glows from the emergency lights. He flicked on his computer terminal, and the screen’s glow helped him see.

One of the water buffalo calves began a repetitive lowing as if it were a machine that needed repairs. The pitiable noise made Troy lose his concentration several times, until he finally succeeded in calling up the receipt file for the day’s shipment from the Platform.

Troy withdrew the crumpled piece of paper, the last sheet of the manifest he had found in his pocket. He scanned the erroneous file and erased it completely, then re-input all the items from the manifest so that every entry showed the same clock record. It didn’t take long. Troy felt pleased that he was able to eliminate the error; no one would know the difference. The Platform would get the appropriate amount of supplies, and old Sondheim wouldn’t complain about being shortchanged. Missing supplies received from the previous day’s shipment would not go astray, as had happened before, and Troy would not be reprimanded. He had saved his job.

He keyed in the last entries and sighed. The water buffalo bellowed again, louder this time, startling him. He sat up and sniffed the air, smelling something odd: wetness, a metallic scent … like hot copper. The calf lowed another time, as if confused as to why Troy didn’t rush over and investigate. He wanted to run back home—but something wasn’t right here. The back of his neck prickled.

Reluctantly, he flicked on one of the floor level lights, hoping not to attract attention from any patrolling street guards. He shuffled around the cubicles and headed toward the back of the warehouse where the animals were kept.

One of the water buffalo cages was empty. Had he lost a calf, too? He wondered how he would explain that. It was the first, most ridiculous thought to enter his mind.

Then he saw the dead man lying on the concrete floor, sprawled in an ocean of blood. It reminded him of the crimson sunset he had painted just that evening using his new pigments.

Troy stumbled forward. His legs felt like bars of iron as he plodded forward, gawking down in the low slanted light. He fixated on the blood. He couldn’t believe there was so much blood.

A bloody plastic wrapper lay across the dead man’s chest along with two sky-blue capsules. Veritas. Troy had seen that substance only a few times in his weeks here. But no shipments of Veritas had come down from the Platform that afternoon. And every capsule of the Truthsayers’ drug was supposed to be kept under tight control, heavily guarded until its delivery to Guild Headquarters.

Troy stared down, his eyes wide and dry, but he did not recognize the victim. The man’s eyes were glassy, his short hair dark and streaked with gray. The thick blood still oozed, pulled by gravity into a spreading pool around the man’s chest. A long stab wound had sliced into the ribs….

Bright lights came on inside the warehouse like flashes from a supernova. Suddenly Troy realized he had been screaming and shouting. His mind was so numb he couldn’t understand what was going on. He found himself bending over the body, moaning, his hands trembling.

Blood—there was so much blood! Did the human body even have that much blood?

Four armed sol-pols rushed in, dripping rain from outside. Upon seeing Troy, the body, and the blood, they leveled their weapons at him. “Don’t move,” one said. “You can’t get away.”

Troy stopped, blinking down at his hands. What were they shouting at him for? He had stopped screaming. His throat was so raw that when he spoke, his voice was hoarse and damaged.

“I didn’t. I didn’t—not me.”

The sol-pols approached him cautiously, rifles ready. When they saw he had no apparent weapon, they grabbed his arms, twisted them behind his back and applied the bonds.

“Uh, wait,” Troy said. “I didn’t kill him.” Terror and shock made him feel sluggish. He couldn’t think straight.

One of the sol-pols groaned, “Don’t tell me you’re going to waste a Truthsayer’s time on this?”

“I didn’t kill anybody,” Troy said. “I’m innocent.”

“Aren’t we all?” the guard said.
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