When Michael left the clinic, night still drowned the street, thick and warm, like the spirit of some tropical ocean ghosting in the rain. Inside, Jaya was teaching her newborn to nurse, while Sheo arranged their journey home.
Michael paused on the clinic's veranda, listening to cocks crowing the unseen dawn and the musical patter of rain.
A headlight cruised the street. It hesitated just before the clinic, then it slid into the pull-out. Diffuse light from the clinic windows glinted on the narrow, beetle-shell chassis of a zip, painted pink and looking hardly large enough to hold a man. Powered by hydrogen fuel cells, its engine ran silent, so that its arrival was marked only by tire noise. Rain dashed through the beam of its dim headlight. The aerodynamic canopy rose a few inches. A boy of perhaps twelve or thirteen years peeked out, fixing Michael with a hopeful look.
Michael shook his head slightly. He hated to disappoint such an intrepid entrepreneur, up so early to find the fares that would pay off the loan on his zip, but his feelings were running high and he couldn't think of squeezing himself into the zip's stuffy little shell.
The boy shrugged, closed the canopy, and pulled away.
A cow lowed, and a rat scurried across the street. Michael hesitated, reminded that he was a stranger in this place. Still, he was not alone. His right index finger curled, to tap a point on the palm of his data glove. A green ready light came on in the corner of his shades. "Send voice mail to the Terrace," he whispered. A mike on his earpiece picked up the command. "Start: Jaya and Sheo are the proud parents of a beautiful and impatient little girl
He found himself smiling as he described the birth for their circle of friends. Then he touched his gloved palm again, sending the message to the Terrace.
Warm rain enfolded him as he stepped off the veranda, soaking his hair and transforming his silk shirt into a transparent film. The silk was artificial, spun in a local factory financed by Global Shear. Other grants had gone out to farmers and small business owners all over the district, but could it ever be enough?
Jaya's daughter had been born into a world of nearly eight billion people. A billion of them lived in India alone. Michael tried to imagine the scale of it, but he could not. We are a river, flooding the world. Inevitably remaking it.
A glyph blinked on in the corner of his shades, surrounded by a pink query circle. Michael recognized the symbol of the Terrace and smiled. "Link."
"Michael!" Etsuko's soft, clipped English laughed in his ear. "I guess you are a surrogate father now!"
"That's right, old man," Ryan chipped in, his Australian voice loud and bold. "You do have some images for us? Flash them."
"Archived," Michael said. "Sorry. Sort it out later, okay?"
"First-timer," Ryan chided.
Etsuko asked, "Where are you now?"
"Walking?" she echoed. "Isn't that dangerous?"
"Ah," Ryan scoffed. "He's a company bigwig now, with his own eye in the sky following after him."
Michael groaned. "I keep forgetting about that." Global Shear had assigned him a permanent guard in the form of a mini-drone aircraft with a wingspan the length of his arm. Powered by solar cells and a lightweight battery system that could get it through the night, it tracked his movements, ever-poised to raise an alarm should anything go wrong.
"We're bored in our little cubbies," Ryan said. "Give us the scene."
Bored? If Ryan got bored, it was only on weekends, before the Asian markets opened. During the rest of the week he traded currencies under contract for a large Australian firm.
Etsuko worked in the calmer environment of a California-based multinational specializing in online education. She staffed the East Asian shift, so her workday often began in the warm, hazy afternoons of Santa Barbara.
Michael's day ran well behind theirsa fact Ryan tended to forget. He tapped his glove, activating the cameras on his shades. Pan left to right: one- and two-story stucco and plastic dwellings loomed out of the darkness, squeezing against the rain-splattered street. A bicycle trundled past, its rider hidden beneath an umbrella, two squawking chickens strapped to the handlebars. From a few blocks away, the screech of wet brakes.
The video feed uploaded over cellular links. On the Terrace, Ryan would seem to be sitting at a patio table in the shade of a pepper tree, sipping java in mild morning sunlight, fenced in by the dense foliage of a mature garden, or perhaps gazing out over a seascape with a hint of salt tang in the air. Whatever environment was running, half of it had now vanished, replaced by Michael's input.
"God!" Ryan said, and Michael could hear his feet hit the floor. "It's still night thereand it's pouring."
"It's grand, isn't it?" Michael asked. He slicked his hair back, tasting the water on his lips. Precious water, falling like a blessing timed by forgotten gods. Rain had been absent for the two weeks he'd been in-country. As his census teams inventoried the tiny farms surrounding Four Villages, they faced farmers more and more anxious over the success of this season's crop of rice or peanuts, and increasingly unwilling to speak to the officials responsible for confirming their landholdings and setting their taxes. "The rain will help," Michael said firmly. Rain would ease everyone's mood, and in the long run even the most recalcitrant farmers would see that their interests were the same as Global Shear's.
A stray breeze puffed from an alley, carrying the dilute but distinct scent of an open sewer. Global Shear was responsible for developing infrastructure, overseeing environmental restoration, encouraging private credit, and enhancing agricultural extension servicesall popular activities. But they were also the tax collector, and fairness demanded a thorough inventory of the district's landholdings, along with a clarification of boundaries and ownershipall the while smoothing the ruffled feathers of displaced local officials.
(Diplomacy, Karen Hampton would say, is a grim necessity.)
So were creative solutions. More than one company official had lobbied for a policy that would encourage family farms to merge into larger agricultural concerns so they could practice economies of scale, but such schemes didn't take into consideration the dense population.
Michael talked it over with Ryan and Etsuko as he made his way through the waking neighborhoods. "Hand labor still makes sense, for now. Replace the thousands of laborers with machines, and where will the laborers find work?"
At first glance, the sheer numbers of people seemed an intractable problem, but the truth lay deeper. When warfare and ethnic strife were kept at bay, birth rates plummeted. Four Villages was no exception. The town itself was an accident of geography, grown up fast and ugly from the melding of what had once been four separate hamlets. Most of the women here were having only two or three children.
Or was it two or three boys? Michael promised himself he would examine the statistics when he went into the office later in the day.
Lights were coming on in the houses, and the smell of cooking gruel drifted out into the street. "It's more than birth control," Etsuko was saying. "It's education, economic independence, a sense of confidence in the future
"Sure," Ryan agreed. "That and coveting your neighbor's success."
Michael burst out laughing. There was plenty of inspiration for the ambitious in Four Villages. On every street, affluent homes huddled next to shacks. Electric lights spilled from some windows, while others held the soft gleam of candles. A mixed neighborhood like this was a robust placein sharp contrast to the cankerous hearts of the original villages, where ancient buildings housed either fundamentalist Hindus or fundamentalist Moslems who still went about life as they had for centuries: in grinding poverty, practicing and defending their faith in settings that barely tolerated the presence of a Global Shear census taker.
The warm rain slackened as Michael turned onto a muddy lane scarred by zip tires. His residence was third on the righta large house owned by Global Shear, its white-washed face abutting the street. The house was built around an enclosed courtyard, where a neglected garden faced a long, lingering death.
As Michael approached, the old house detected his presence and a welcoming light switched on. It illuminated the alcoveand a large, bundled object huddled against the heavy double doors.
"Hello," Ryan said. "What's this?"
Etsuko hissed sharply. "Michael, be careful."
He stopped in the middle of the lane, his instincts made wary by antiterrorism training. He tried to see the anonymous object as some cloth-wrapped package stashed by a passing street merchant, perhaps to protect it from the rain. He tried to see it as trash.
Then the bundle stirred, faded cloth sliding aside as a head lifted, turned, and the face of a little girl blinked at him, dark eyes wide with confusion and fear.
"It's a kid," Ryan said. "Christ, look at her face. Somebody's punched her around."
Instead, Michael looked away from the bruises on her cheeks, wanting to believe they were only shadows. Gray mud streaked her black hair. A nose ring glinted silver. Her sari looked as if it had been purple once. Now it was a lifeless gray. Michael guessed her to be no more than thirteen years old.
The girl's right arm slid into view. No rings and no bracelets adorned that arm. It was a fleshless bone covered in light brown skin, so very thin there did not seem to be enough muscle mass even to raise that fragile hand. Nevertheless, she pressed it against the wall. She tried to stand, but her limbs would not be controlled, her balance was absent. Michael had once seen a dog taken by an epileptic seizure. The will to move existed, but it only reached the muscles in fits and starts. It was the same with this girl. After several seconds, she sank back to the alcove's tiled floor. She bowed her head. She pulled her sari up to cover her face while Michael stood in the street, gaping, trying to find some precedent in his world for her sudden appearance, clueless what to do.
He told himself it was a dream. How was he supposed to get into his house?
Etsuko's voice was tense: "Michael, I am searching for a local emergency number."
Ryan: "Haven't you got one on file, mate?"
"Corporate security," Michael said stiffly. "That's all. Etsuko?"
"I am contacting the police."
"Don't," Ryan said. "This isn't the silicon coast. If the cops could help, she would have gone to them."
Michael stared at the girl. For Christ's sake, he was a businessman, not a charity worker, and it had already been a long, sleepless night. Let this be a dream.
The girl tried again to get to her feet. Again, she slid back to the ground.
"Jesus, Michael," Ryan said. "Are you just going to stand there? Mate, you've got to do something."
Michael's conscience screamed the same thing, yet still he didn't move. "What can I do?"
Some dark voice whispered that he could walk away, get breakfast in town, go straight to the office, give the girl a chance to disappear.
"Call corporate security," Etsuko said crisply. "They will help. They will get you inside."
"Bloody hell," Ryan said. "Boosting her to the next street over won't help her."
"He's not Mother Teresa."
"You could try calling a neighbor, mate."
Michael shook his head. "No, I don't think so." Tragedy was too common here. Sympathy wore thin. Just yesterday he had seen motherly Mrs. Shastri brandishing a heavy stick as she chased a beggar out of the lane.
Michael sighed. She was only a little girl. Still, in her presence, he sensed again the ghostly inundation of chaos. "Witnesses," he muttered. "Ryan, Etsukorecord everything, because you're my witnesses. Got it?" He fervently hoped the spy plane was active overhead.
The girl cringed as he approached. It was a tiny gesture, but startling. "Hey," Michael said. "I won't hurt you." He knelt beside her. Gently, he lifted her sari away from her face.
"The dirty bastards," Ryan muttered.
The girl's cheeks were dark with bruises. Her sari was soaked and she was shivering. Next door, Mrs. Shastri shouted at the servant who cooked for the family. Michael tensed. He didn't want the old gossip to see this girl. "Come inside," he said softly.
"That's it, mate," Ryan encouraged him. "It's the right thing to do."
The confused look in the girl's eyes told him she did not understand.
The Shastri dog took that moment to run into the street, a tiny, white-furred terror bouncing on short legs, yapping a fierce challenge. "Watch out, mate!" Ryan cried. "Attack from the rear."
The girl gasped. The rat-dog took encouragement from that. It charged at Michael, its jaws snapping as it darted about, working up the nerve to bite.
Michael didn't think that would take long. Operating in survival mode now, he yelled at the house to open up. The triple bolts slipped in a simultaneous click, then the doors swung back. He launched a kick at the rat-dog. Then he lifted the girlshe weighed so little!and stumbled with her into the house. As the doors closed, he heard Mrs. Shastri calling sweetly to her little terror.
· · · · ·
Ryan was laughing. "Very smooth, mate. You're a hero."
Soft lights had come on in the house, falling across new carpet, designer furnishings, and walls paneled in rich faux-teak. The air was dry and cool, almost sterile. "Welcome home, Mr. Fielding," the house said in its motherly voice. "You have five messages."
Michael stood just inside the doors, his shoulders heaving, more with panic than exertion. Looking down at the girl, he found she had fainted, gone limp in his arms. Oh, this looked just great, didn't it? Avaricious foreign businessman kidnaps helpless girl. The local tabloids could churn a million hits out of a headline like that. Christ.
"Now you're committed," Etsuko said. "You must take care of her."
"Yeah." Michael carried the girl into the living room, where he laid her down on the western-style couch
hoping she didn't have lice.
She looked so fragile. Tiny and breakable, as if her bones were thin glass copies of real bones, melting away in the heat of an inner fire. Her skin felt hot and her sari was covered in mud. The drawstring of a heavy cloth pouch was looped around her wrist. Michael slipped the pouch off and teased it open, feeling like a lout for abusing her privacy, feeling stupid for feeling like a lout. After all, he'd brought her into his house at no little risk to himself and she was helpless and he needed to know who she was, where she came from, and who to call. There had to be someone he could call.
He scowled at the contents of the pouch.
"What is it?" Etsuko asked.
Well, not dirt exactly. More like a dark, loose humus smelling of garden shops and greenhouses.
"If that's her idea of a valuable," Ryan muttered. "She really is in a bad way." Michael closed the pouch, leaving it by the French doors that opened onto the neglected courtyard.
"Michael, I've got to take off for a while," Ryan said. "I've got an appointment that can't wait."
"Sure. Etsuko? I know you have work to do too. The house can record."
"You are sure?" she asked. "I can stay awhile."
"No, it's all right."
The link to the Terrace closed.
Michael looked at the girl. Her sari had fallen away, exposing her shoulders, her arms, her bruised face. Her skin was prickling, purpling in the air-conditioning. Of courseher clothes were soaked. He was wet, too. The chill air bit at his skin. He headed for the bedroom.
Stripping off his silk shirt, he pitched it into a laundry basket. Then he opened a linen chest at the foot of the bed and pulled out a clean blanket. He used it to cover the girl, who was muttering now, though she didn't wake.
Next, Michael started some tea in the kitchen. The power meter was low, but the sun would be up soon. Even with the rain, the rooftop tiles would quickly recharge the house batteries, so there was no need to conserve. He pulled some leftover samosas out of the refrigerator. He heated some soup.
Sitting on a stool, he watched the soup spin in the microwave. He was thirty-two years old, one of the youngest managers in charge of a major district contract.
So start thinking, doofus.
"Hey," he said softly. "I could call the clinic."
With curled fingers, Michael tapped a trigger point on his data glove. He was tempted to ask for Jaya, but he was not going to bother her, not now. So he asked for the midwife who had seemed so relieved when Jaya had not rejected her baby girl.
After a few minutes a woman's voice came on the line. "Hello?" Suspicion and fear huddled in that one brief word. Her tone didn't change when Michael told her about the girl.
"This is a charity case, sir. You need to call a charity." She gave him the number of an organization.
Michael called the charity. Another woman answered. She listened to his story and blessed him, while Michael begged her to come pick the girl up. He would cover the cost of her care. Just return her to her family. Please?
"Mr. Fielding, given the circumstances in which this girl was found, it's likely she has no family."
"But she must have come from somewhere."
"Surely. But please understand. A girl like this has most likely been cast out of her home for
infidelity, or sterility. These things happen, even in better neighborhoods."
Michael did not think this girl came from a better neighborhood. "Can you care for her then?"
"Sadly, no. We have no beds left. We would have to tend her on the street. Please understand, her circumstance is not unusual."
The microwave finished. Michael stared at it, fervently wishing the sun would rise, wanting to see light seep through the peach-colored blinds. "What's to become of her?"
"That is in the hands of God."
The woman promised to call around to other agencies. In the meantime, she would send someone over to check on the girl. Michael reminded her he would be more than willing to pay for the girl's care. She thanked him and linked off.
He slipped off his shades and peeled off the data glove. He sat on the stool, trying to visualize where this might go. He could not. He could not see even ten minutes ahead.
At least the soup was warm. He placed the bowl on a tray, along with a spoon, then he zapped the samosas for a few seconds to warm them. They came out soggy, instead of the crisp, fried pastry they had once been, but he put them alongside the soup anyway. Then he carried the whole to the living room, where the girl was sitting up, looking around with a dazed expression. Her eyes went wide when she saw him.
Michael was suddenly conscious of his bare chest, bronzy skin over health club muscles. He suffered a devastating suspicion that he was communicating inaccurate innuendoes. Christ. He set the tray down on the low table fronting the couch, spilling a little of the soup. The girl pulled the blanket up to her chin. "For you," Michael said, his cheeks heating with a despairing flush. Then he hurried to the bedroom and got out a shirt.
When he looked again, the girl was sitting on the floor, holding the soup bowl in her delicate hands, drinking from the rim, her eyes closed, as if she were privileged to taste some nectar of the gods. Michael felt a rush of relief, thinking maybe, maybe he'd gotten it right. Then his gaze fell on the sofa, and he shuddered at what Mrs. Nandy, the cleaning lady, would say about those streaks of gray mud ground into the upholstery.