They did things by regulations now. And that meant two of them to load the kid’s body into the van, though he was so light she could have swung him in by one stiff little arm.
Lucille held the lantern higher as she waited, so the light rippled over the small corpse.
This was the second kid they’d picked up out of the alleys this week, and the fourth or fifth that month. Just another dirty urchin with clawing hands, his ragged cap lying on the cobbles beside him. No need for pity; no need for sorrow. She had a job to do.
She reached over, hooked the lantern onto the side of the van. It threw a circle of light onto the blank wall, so the tiles glowed back like eyes, and she could have sworn she was being watched.
The virus had twisted the boy’s bones, stretching his ribs as if he’d been chewed and spat out like gum. ‘Changed’ was what they called them, back at HQ. Vanload after vanload of changed bodies to be taken back for incineration.
Hank finished with the forms, and crouched down to take the kid’s ankles, folding his calloused hands gently around them. Lucille held the boy’s shoulders, so thin her nails scraped against the bones. She could tell from the contorted face that he hadn’t died easy.The smell of hot tin from the lantern filled her nostrils, driving out the sweet scent of the corpse.
Together, they loaded him onto the narrow rack, straightened out the limbs. His head tipped back, the open eyes staring into the black maw of the van. Hank pulled the straps tight about him, paused a moment to straighten out a twist in the fabric, so that it lay more comfortably against the unfeeling skin.
Another guy, she would have thought he was stalling, said something sharp. Instead, she stooped down, picked up the kid’s cap and laid it softly on his stomach. Then she picked up the newly issued box. The fastenings, still stiff to the fingers, opened with a sharp click.
“I’ll look after that,” Hank said. He pulled off his uniform cap, smoothed back his crinkled hair so the scent of his hair oil sprang out. “You get behind the wheel, get ready to go.”
“I’m okay,” she said.
“You’re the driver, so you should drive.” He put his hand out for the box.
She shook her head, hunched over the box, started to pull out the contents. She laid them down gently on the alley cobbles. Detonator, core, chemical pack.
“We take turns,” she said. “That’s what’s fair. You get in the van.”
“Sure, we take turns. It’s my turn,” he said, his hand still held out.
“Why should you risk getting yourself blown to pieces? You don’t even believe this works.” The final words came spitting out.
“That’s not the point,” he said, and then broke off, looking towards the front of the van.
A ruby glow was coming from the dashboard, lighting the van as if it was on fire. The signal for an urgent call-out.
“So I’ll get on with it and we’ll get out.” Lucille pulled the detonator out of its case. Smooth, glossy, surprisingly light.
“Put your gas mask on, at least.”
But it was harder to see the connections through the faceplate, and it was the connections that were dangerous, they’d been told. Jiggle the double wires. Hold back the connector. Push the lead wire forwards until… There was the faint snap as she pushed it too far, and it missed the target. She started again.
“Wait,” he said, suddenly, his head at an angle.
She paused, and then she heard it. A scuffling, coming from up above, and the clink of tile against tile. “There’s someone up there,” she said. “Breaking curfew.”
There was the sudden pattering of bare feet on tiles.
“Street kids,” Hank said, keeping his voice low. “Rest of his gang, most likely. Watching to see us pick him up.”
“Stupid children, putting themselves in danger,” she said. “That’s just like kids.”
“You’re not so old yourself, Lucille,” Hank said.
“I’m seventeen. That’s an adult.”
Hank didn’t reply, just tipped his head up to the narrow strip of night sky between the warehouses. “Get back,” he yelled. “Gas bomb. Get back.”
They waited a while, and all the time, the red of the urgent call-out glowed in the van, and the narrow wires were tight in her hands.
“They’re gone,” she said, finally, and Hank nodded.
Jiggle the wires. Hold the connector. Push the lead. She released them, and let out a long breath.
“Okay.” She shoved the mask over her head. Hank was already clambering easily up the high footplate into the van, and she clutched at her seat-back and hauled herself up. Through the stiff fabric of the mask, she could hear him slam his door.
Her uniform cap caught on the door frame, and clattered to the ground, her braided crown of pale hair suddenly exposed. Hank was swearing, gesturing to her to leave it.
Still time before the detonation. Drop down, grab for the cap.
The shiny peak gleamed from under the van. Still time. Reach across. Her rough breath echoed in her ears.
“Leave it,” Hank shouted.
Her fingers caught at it, drew it towards her. Her long legs scrambled against the footplate, and then up into the seat. She squirmed round, slamming her hand against the starter. Her feet found the pedals, pushed them down. She would swear she could hear the hissing of the detonator. The van lurched forward. The rickety skeleton of a fire escape loomed up in the headlamps. Hank grabbed at the wheel, the van swerved, and then the low boom of the bomb shuddered through the metal. Behind them, the alley was filling with disinfectant gas.
“There,” Lucille said, as they sped away. “Just like the manual.”
She pulled her mask off with one hand, and breathed in the familiar scent of the van, the mix of salt sweat and Hank’s hair oil, all overlaid with a tang of smoke that got at the back of the throat and stayed there. That was the smoke from the incinerators, and it got into the vans however much the garage girls scrubbed them.
Hank was laughing a little, and she looked across and grinned at him.
“Just like the manual,” he said.
He put his hand out to the communicator, but as he did so, its ruby light faded. He dropped his hand back with a surprised shrug.
“Transferred to someone else,” Lucille said.
She settled her cap back onto her head one-handed, feeling it solid and official on her crown. The van was smooth beneath her hands. She span the wheel sharply, turning them into a cross street, and the load in the back of the van slid from one side to another with a series of soft thudding noises.
The light flickered and returned, this time glowing a warm amber.
Hank leaned over the communicator again, flicked the switch, and the teleprinter jammered into life, spitting out a long coil of Morse.
He caught up the paper spiral, reading it as it came out. “Single adult, uptown central code.”
“Sure.” It was an easy drive, twenty minutes at the most. Head uptown, load the body, be back at Central HQ well before curfew ended. If they got back quick enough, there might be something decent left in the canteen. She put her foot down a little.
“Bellefort Mansions, Merrier Street, off Broadway,” Hank said, transferring the Morse letter by letter onto their jobs sheet. He paused, checking back against the ticker tape, and then wrote the address down. “The name’s a funny one. Miss Bethesda. But… does that sound familiar to you?”
“No,” Lucille said.
“It’ll come to me,” he said, and went back to writing.
“So you’ve changed your mind about the sanitising bombs?” she said.
“Why bring that up again? You know what I think.” The street lamps sent bars of light running across the clipboard.
“It’s decontaminating the city,” Lucille said. “That’s our job. We don’t decontaminate properly, people catch the virus. Simple as that.”
“It’s quite a coincidence. Election coming up, and they suddenly have us setting off bombs in the streets,” he said.
“You make everything about politics,” she said. “You really think the tech guys design these things just on the Mayor’s whim?” She jerked her head up to the plaque above the windscreen. The city crest, the words ‘To Serve and Save’, the portrait of the Mayor.
“They didn’t have to design them,” he said. “They’re left over from the war, from the trenches. I remember the smell… Chemical bombs. That’s what they’re telling you to set off. And those kids up there…”
She glanced over at him, saw the tired wrinkles around his eyes. “The Hygiene Controllers have been using ones like this for years to disinfect people’s apartments,” she said.
“The chemical formula’s different. Not as powerful.”
“How d’you know that, then?”
From the narrow side streets, the van emerged into a broad boulevard, past dark and silent fountains. The engine purred like soft, running water. In the glass-walled buildings, each window was shut tight against infection, and no-one would hear them passing.
Hank didn’t say anything, staring out of the window.
“Don’t you think it’s worth it?” she said, too loudly for the space. “Our job, everything we do. Controlling the virus.”
“I don’t know any more,” he said.
“Don’t know what? Of course it’s worth it. Fewer people are dying.”
There was a pause, and then he shrugged. “It says so in the papers.”
“We know there’s fewer people dying. We pick them up, don’t we? Incinerating bodies works. Quarantine works.”
His voice was sorry. “The doc doesn’t think so. He reckons…”
“I don’t believe what doctors say,” she said. “First they take all your savings, and then everyone dies anyway.”
Hank put his hand out, as though he was going to touch her shoulder, and she shrugged him away, hunching down over the wheel.
“You think too much,” she said.
The headlamps ran through the empty streets, reflecting back in the glazed tiles of the newer buildings, in the mirrored walls of the older ones. The cracked mirrors distorted everything, and gazing out from the windshield, Lucille saw her reflection coming towards her with a van half-formed, broken backed, like a body that had started to change.
On into the square, where the Hygiene Control Headquarters loomed to one side.
A sudden noise, like a shot.
The van span out of control, rushing towards the glass wall. The brakes had no effect. Lucille’s hands clutched around the wheel, desperately hauling it back towards the centre of the road. Gradually it slowed, came to a halt where the square gave way to the wide central boulevard.
Hank was muttering, one hand up against his slicked-back hair, but she couldn’t see any blood.
Lucille picked up the lantern again, turning it up, and climbed down to inspect the van. The front tyre was in shreds.
“Wheel’s blown,” she shouted up. “Get the kit out.”
Hank was already rooting around behind the seat back. “So much for a short shift,” she heard him mutter.
She peered down at the wheel, feeling the rubber with her rough fingers. It was shoddy work by the garage girls, if they’d let a patrol van out with worn tyres. The whole city’s safety depended on retrieving infected bodies quickly, before the virus could spread.
Hank climbed down, spanners in his hand, and started undoing the nuts, laying them carefully to one side. He pulled the tyre off, and Lucille handed him the spare.
“Miss Bethesda,” he said, suddenly. “I thought I recognised that name.” He looked up at Hygiene Control Headquarters, from where the Controllers kept the city safe and clean. “She’s a friend of the Mayor’s. Word is, she’s the Mayor’s girlfriend. Her name’s in all the gutter gossip rags.”
Lucille was lifting away the old tyre, ready to stash it in the back of the van. The lantern illuminated it, suddenly bright.
“Lucille,” Hank was saying. “This pick-up… it’s going to get political. Do you understand? We’ve got to act careful.”
She hardly heard his words. Because on the other side of the tyre, across from the tattered hole, was an iron spike, wedged deep into the rubber.