Taril felt a sneeze coming at the worst possible time.
The target saw him, jumped up and screamed. Bloody mould, he thought, pulling away from the pink-infested wall.
The floating ball of light, which he had been about to swipe from the air near her shoulder, returned to her body and was reabsorbed.
The girl scowled. She was about his own age with a cloud of black hair around her sharp face. Her right hand was still on her inner left forearm, a pinch-mark raging red and hurt.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, moving away from him along the narrow balcony and bumping against the chair that now lay on its back.
From inside he could hear the hum of an air filter, and someone wheezing.. He knew those sounds. He had hated them, but after his father died, he missed them.
“My mistake,” he said, aiming for a brisk tone that turned out to be ill-matched to his awkward position straddling the fire escape beside the balcony.
All through the small streets below he had followed the girl, tracking the glimmering edge of light that surrounded her. It had taken him months to be able to see those thin shining rims, which clung only to those people who could produce tlochkl. And it was many more months before Lankie allowed him to gather his first one.
That was dozens of tlochkl ago. But now, instead of escaping with the prize, he had been spotted. He had never been spotted before.
Taril stared at the sore on her arm. He reminded himself that it wasn’t his job to work out what was wrong with his targets, only to collect the precious resource that came from them in their moments of distress. His job was just to grab the tlochkl in the few seconds when it hovered before returning to their body.
“I’ll be going,” he mumbled.
As he disentangled himself from the railing, Taril glanced down at the letter she had been writing. It lay on a small desk beside the fire escape, half-covering some photocopied maps of the city. A bunch of crumpled pages lay alongside. The letter was addressed to Ms Tinda Craydon, who Taril recognised as the CEO and family heir of Craycorp, the company that controlled most of the city’s infrastructure. He felt a flare of anger and squinted to read the neat handwriting.
“Emphysema,” it read. “Mould…Knowledge of the likely health impacts of using the material…Social responsibility to those suffering”.
Not likely, he thought.
It was signed “Linda Talrethe”.
He was about to swing back down when she spoke, calling him back.
“Wait! Before you go. What was it you were about to grab? Something…glowing.”
He had struggled for half a year under Lankie’s fierce discipline before he could see the tlochkl. He was annoyed that this untrained girl could see them. He chose not to answer, but instead threw a question back to her, pointing at the letter.
“So, you know what they do? Craycorp?”
She glanced down at the letter, noticed some error visible only to her, and scrunched the paper into a ball. Her right hand hovered back towards her left forearm, plucking at the red mark. Taril could tell that if he wasn’t here, she’d be pinching hard.
“Everyone knows,” she replied, lifting her chin. “But only some people care enough to do something.”
Taril, in turn, felt the need to boast.
“What if you could do something, actually take something back from them, not just write letters?”
Linda paused. What she really wanted was to be able to keep her mother, Elena, at home.
When the City Nurse was there on her monthly visit yesterday, she said Elena would have to go into hospital next week. The portable air filter they were renting was not keeping Elena’s oxygen up, and the big hospital one would be better. But the hospital was over on the other side of town, and the Craycorp chokepoints between here and there would cost Linda half their weekly income.
She couldn’t bear to see her mother only once a week.
Linda knew that Rainy, the Craycorp Princess (as the press referred to her), had a hospital-grade filter in her home and a private nurse to come every day. Rainy would never have to bother with the chokepoints that her family was using to strangle the city and drain its inhabitants of money, while building more toxic apartment blocks further and further out.
Linda imagined all over again making Craycorp pay for some of what they’d taken from her mum: Elena’s work as a botanist-explorer, her adventures in the mountains. Linda thought about the achievements they couldn’t take from Elena: her discovery of the little leafy spargus, the base for the medicine that, even now, was still the best treatment for the mould-illness that was debilitating her, along with thousands of others in the city. The best, but nowhere near good enough.
Taril saw the longing on her face and faltered. What was he doing? Lankie and Carl had taught him the rules of tlochkl-collecting: never the same target twice, never cause the distress, never expose the work.
“Never mind,” he said quickly. And then, with a glance at the inside room, “Good luck.”
He swung down the stairs, landed on the platform below, and ran.
Linda’s heart lurched in one excited beat while she considered, and then she yelled out.
“Mr Rundern? Will you look in on Mum?” Linda called to the inner hallway that led to the other apartment on their floor.
“Sure, will do!” Mr Rundern’s muffled voice came back.
“Mum, I’m going out!”
A low bell sounded in her mother’s room, giving her permission. Elena’s lungs were preoccupied with the struggle for breath, but she was still caring for Linda. She made sure Linda knew that.
Linda caught up with Taril just before the chokepoint to the riverside walkway.
“Okay, I’m in,” she said, ignoring his hasty exit a moment before. “Where are we going?”
“East Quay,” Taril replied, quaking inside at his recklessness. Maybe he could lose Linda along the way. At the same time, he noticed how neatly her fast pace fitted with his.
Since coming to live with Lankie and Carl after his dad died, there had never been anyone Taril’s own age around. He didn’t go to school anymore, and the secrets of their work meant it was hard to make friends among the loose groups of teenagers who bounced around the Quays. Not only because he wasn’t allowed to tell, but because he knew they wouldn’t understand. Like butterflies, they lived for the single bright stretch of their lives, gathering whatever pleasure they could. Until now, he had never met someone his own age who was trying to change things.
Taril led Linda towards the chokepoint that would let them through to the riverside walkway, and allow them to avoid the narrow, unpredictable alleys. Maybe she wouldn’t have enough credit, he hoped, and he’d have to go on alone. Lankie and Carl made sure he always had plenty of credit on his token. The last thing they needed was attention at a chokepoint.
The chokepoint fees had been miniscule at first, just a cent or two per entry, barely noticeable. Gradually they had been increased. The chokepoints were installed first at arcades and shopping malls, but soon they were locking people out of parks, libraries, playgrounds. At the beginning, people thought they could sneak through behind the person who had paid, but many people were crushed this way by the merciless gates. People quickly learnt.
This chokepoint was one of the more expensive ones: twenty credits, about the same as a bag of the nut-meal cakes that Linda’s mother liked. She pulled Taril aside, into a tall building with a shiny lobby and lifts.
“I know another way,” she said, pushing the button for the third floor. When the lift doors opened onto a narrow hallway, Linda paused to wait for Taril, then moved forward, careful not to touch the pink mould growing on the cheap grey composite of the wall. Taril pulled a cloth up across his nose and mouth.
They walked past a door marked “Herbological Society”, and on into a large boardroom that looked out over dirty roofs.
“My mother used to bring me to meetings here,” Linda said. “She found this shortcut.”
Linda opened the window and stepped down onto the dusty metal of the neighbouring building’s roof.
“I don’t think she ever even planned to use it herself,” Linda continued. “It’s just that she can’t resist a puzzle.”
She reached a hand up to help Taril down.
“Who is this?”
A loud voice called from the end of the apartment hidden above the cool storage room of the East Quay Minimart.
A tall, muscular woman rose quickly and was standing over them before Linda could think to speak. Her smooth brown cheekbones and silver hair gleamed in the light from the high window, while her eyes and mouth were shaded.
“Lankie. Don’t scare the girl,” said a soft voice, coming closer more slowly.
There was a gentle sweeping of fabric with every second step as a slender man came to join them. His eyes held Linda respectfully but without yielding as he and the woman waited for an answer.
“This is Linda; she makes tlochkl – and she can see them,” Taril blurted out. “Without any training!”
“She saw you,” said the woman, Lankie, coming further forward into the light. “You were not careful enough.”
“She knows about Craycorp; she’s on our side,” Taril said, his voice trailing off.
“The boy’s lonely,” said the man in his soft voice. “We knew this was a risk,”
“Cells are small for a reason, Carl,” said Lankie. “We are the only cell working with tlochkl; imagine if they lost us.”
“I can help you. I already got the Health Commission to fine Craycorp. I want to see what you’re doing with the tlochkl.”
Lankie listened with pursed lips and curious eyes. Taril watched her take a deep breath in and out.
Lankie and Carl took the pouch carefully from Taril and shook its contents into a wide bowl. Five glowing patches of air, that was all. But Lankie and Carl stroked them, delicately pulled at them, and as they grew, began to weave together the threads of light they were coaxing out of them.
Only their hands moved, but it seemed to take extreme effort. From time to time each of them exclaimed with pain or exertion, Lankie with a deep growl and Carl in a soft almost-whisper.
Once they finished there was a small grey disk lying in the bottom of the bowl. It looked like hardly anything at all. Linda watched their faces but they didn’t seem disappointed, just exhausted.
Taril reached his hand out and Carl moved to hold it back.
“The glove,” he reminded Taril.
Taril put on a silvery grey woven glove, picked up the disk and placed it in the pouch.
“Go now,” Lankie said, her back turned as she placed the bowl back on a high shelf.
Taril shot a questioning look at Carl, who gestured for them both to go.
The streets were full of office workers, children and folks of all kinds, cheerful at the week’s end. The westernmost chokepoint to the arcade was slowly letting people in, but large groups sat nearby, with no hope of entering, their tokens probably too low, or their records blemished.
Taril and Linda joined the line casually, angling their faces away from the cameras above the chokepoint. As they approached, Taril slipped his glove on and reached into the pouch. Linda moved slightly away from the sullen-looking disk.
When it was his turn, Taril held the disk up to the reader; there was a buzzing crunch and the gates jerked open and stuck there. One beat of their hearts later, an alarm sounded in time with a red malfunction light. By then the crowd was already pushing in, whispers rippling back through the masses to reach even the despondent ones, who rose uncertainly and moved forward.
People were still cautious at the gates, even though the metal arms were gaping wide. At the point where they would get crushed if the gates closed, they scurried forward. But the gates stayed open, and the people poured through.
Taril and Linda watched from the corner. Taril peeled off the glove and stuffed it deep in his pocket. The twinkling lights and pinging chimes of the arcade bubbled over with extra voices. Taril smiled proudly at Linda. She noticed the freckles across the shining brown of his cheek, the small crinkle at the bridge of his nose.
She weighed it up. Such a small victory compared to the vast injustices that she tracked in her research and agitated against in her letters.
What did it matter, really, that these extra hundred people got to go into the arcade, and Craycorp didn’t get those tiny extra drips of credit, which were just molecules in the toxic cloud of transactions that corroded their city every day? And yet, it was tangible, it was a real benefit and a real hurt.
It changed something, even if it was a small something.
They walked back a different way, avoiding two chokepoints. Just past the Timpany Bridge, a little triangle of grass and a tiny playground caught the last light of the day.
Two girls younger than them tried their tokens and got a buzzing reject tone. They turned away to sit again on the gutter, where they drew in the dust with sticks and the litter blew up against their ankles before they flicked it on down the street.
The pink mould on the building nearby seemed to glow and one of the girls coughed routinely, as if it was no more unusual than breathing.
Linda looked at Taril and he shrugged and looked away. He knew already. What they’d done, what Taril had risked himself to do, gathering those five tlochkl, and Lankie and Carl exhausting themselves making the disk – it was so much less than what was needed.
The frustration of it burned in Linda’s chest. She ground her teeth and, without thinking, she reached across her body to the tender spot, the skin already broken, where she would sometimes pinch, to focus on something else.
There had to be a better way. This was pathetic. She looked at Taril, who seemed to be at peace with all this wrongness. She ground her teeth even harder and her mind raced, spinning and whirring to unlock some better arsenal.
As she stood frowning in the street, a tlochkl rose from her shoulder, its little light moving meekly, exploring its way out of her body. In the dusk, it was even clearer than it had been on her balcony that afternoon. Taril carefully gestured to it, and in that moment, it was natural. He glanced at her face, asking her permission to take it.
Linda nodded, fascinated and still. Quickly Taril opened his pouch, cupped his hand through the air and scooped the tlochkl inside, grinning at Linda.
They walked away quickly, in case someone had seen, but Linda’s legs suddenly felt heavy. Her whirring brain slowed down. She was trying to think of some way to increase the impact of the disks, something to do with her maps, but her mind had no traction; it kept slipping.
She shook her head and rubbed her eyes.
“Taril, did you ever notice them…changing, the people, after you took the tlochkl from them?”
Taril looked quickly at her, worried.
“No. Oh, but once. A shopkeeper. Later…he was leaning over, resting his head on the counter. Do you think…?”
There was a silence as Linda trudged next to him, head hanging. She was quiet so long that Taril thought perhaps she had forgotten they were talking.
“What’s it like?” he prompted.
Her head snapped back up, eyes refocusing.
“What? Oh. It’s like having the flu, or if you haven’t slept for days.”
Her voice was flat and dull.
“Do you think it happens to everyone?” Taril asked.
He felt uneasy. He had never thought that taking the tlochkl would hurt the people who’d emitted them.
“You should ask Carl and Lankie,” Linda mumbled.
Taril’s discomfort grew. They had never told him much about the tlochkl, just how to gather them and how to protect himself with the glove when handling the disk. And why they had to disable the chokepoints: so people can go where they want, and to stop Craycorp getting richer from the damage they were causing to the city.
But, Taril thought, if the people who he got the tlochkl from had to suffer for it… He corrected himself: suffer twice over, since it was their distress that made them produce the tlochkl in the first place. Then…
Linda stumbled beside him, struggling to recall her mother’s teachings about city plants and their uses. Taril held her up by one elbow.
“Do you know where any millocam grows near here?” she asked. “Or heartsrest?”
He looked blank.
“Some grassland? An empty lot?” she asked, her voice so weak it was almost a whisper.
Taril led Linda to a block where a community hall had been demolished, and through a hole in the chain-link fence. She steadied herself with one hand on a pile of rubble while she bent to gather some of the little white and blue flowers that were only just visible in the dusk.
It took them a long time to get back to the apartment above the Minimart.. When they did, Linda dropped the flowers on the table and sat with her head on her arms. Taril put some water on to boil and paced. When Lankie and Carl came in, Linda rolled her head sideways to look.
“How did it go?” Carl asked.
Taril ignored his question.
“Is this normal?” he demanded of Lankie in an urgent tone, gesturing at Linda. “I took a tlochkl from her on the way back and now she can hardly move. She can hardly speak! Will she be okay?”
“I can speak,” Linda grunted, her mouth pressed against her arm. She shook her head and lifted it, said more clearly, “I’ll be fine.”
She stood unsteadily and began to walk around the table towards the kettle. Carl intercepted her and brought her chair to where she stood, urging her to sit again.
Carl lifted the cup, sniffed the flowers and looked at Linda briefly with surprise. He poured the hot water in and placed the cup in front of her. Through the haze, she noticed small white scars criss-crossed all the way up his forearm.
“Just wait a bit for it to cool,” he said.
Lankie sat at the table and pressed her fingertips to her forehead, rubbing as if to coax out some useful thoughts or plans.
“Sit down,” she said to Taril. “She’ll be alright in a while. And those herbs might help; I don’t know them.”
“Does this happen to everyone we take tlochkl from?” Taril asked.
“More or less,” Lankie said, with a deliberate calm. “They usually recover in a day or so. Unless there’s something else wrong with them.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“There were factions, in the old days,” Lankie said. “It was bad. People hurt each other – all kinds of ways, including tlochkl. We had to come to a settlement. Rules. Tlochkl-harvesting was not to be used as a weapon.”
“Once we’d settled it, I left the committee to start this cell. Carl came with me. We take the tlochkl but never from the same person twice; we keep it small. That’s why we took you on, Taril. Because we could train you from scratch, make sure we did it right.”
Her voice softened. “You’ve done everything we asked.”
This was as close to praise as Taril had ever got from Lankie.
Lankie looked at Linda and her gaze grew tender.
“I’m sorry. Is it bad?”
“I’m okay now,” Linda said, and paused. “I’d do it again.”
Lankie stared at her in surprise.
Taril interrupted. “It is bad. We have to stop!”
“It’s worth it,” Lankie said. “It’s working.”
“But that’s the problem,” Linda said. “It’s not doing enough.”
All their heads turned to Linda. Taril felt a pang of jealousy as he saw how Lankie and Carl looked at her, but he could see what they saw. Even debilitated as she was, her ambition was obvious. Carl put his arm around Taril.
“We could train you too,” Lankie offered to Linda.
Taril saw how Lankie just had to make one last pitch before giving in and letting Linda take a share of the leadership.
“With your help we can gather more tlochkl, hit more chokepoints..”
“No,” said Linda firmly. “I’ve got a better idea.”
Two months later, standing outside her apartment, Linda looked up at the sky and rubbed her forearm. The sore was healed now, and when she felt like pinching, she tried to remember to rub instead. Carl said that had helped him.
A few small eddies of pink dust swirled up high between the buildings but beyond that the blue was clear. She had closed the windows before she left, so it was okay. Opening them daily helped to clear the mould spores that grew inside, but if the windows were left open too long, these dust eddies would get in, which was almost as bad.
They had to be careful. Elena was a little better, but still unwell. The City Nurse had said she could stay at home instead of going into the hospital, as long as she had medical care at home. Knowing they couldn’t afford the private health service (a Craycorp subsidiary), the nurse had asked about other options: a friend, a family member with medical training?
Linda remembered Carl telling her that he had been a nurse before his back got too bad, before he teamed up with Lankie. Now he was coming every couple of days to check on Elena, for free. The City Nurse had signed off on it, and even brought a high-grade air filter for Elena to use, a few days each month.
Carl was up there right now, lying on the floor and reading Elena an article on anti-mould surfactants, while Elena gently rocked a heat-pack on his lower back with her feet as she sat on the couch. Elena made the sweet-smelling heat-packs for Carl from the herbs that Taril and Linda gathered according to her instructions.
Linda hummed as she walked back the long way, past the little green triangle of a playground where Taril had taken a tlochkl from her all those weeks ago. The gate swung open now, and someone had tied ribbons to it, which waved prettily in the light breeze. It clanged softly against the fence, making a ringing sound that reminded Linda of her mother’s bell.
She hadn’t even thought of this park when she designed the new system. The system didn’t target single chokepoints – it took out the nodes that controlled whole regions of the city. Linda found the nodes by using the maps she had worked on for years to build the case against Craycorp, tracking their construction sites against cases of mould-illness. It turned out that Craycorp built a node at the exact centre of each new development zone. Linda still dreamed of exposing them in a giant class action lawsuit of people affected like her mum, but in the meantime the maps were perfect for locating the nodes. Locating them and destroying them, Linda thought with satisfaction.
Now that he no longer went out hunting for tlochkl, Taril discovered he was even more skilful at recruiting and looking after the volunteer tlochkl-producers. They had hundreds of tlochkl coming in, enough to break a major node almost every week. In region after region across the city, the parks and libraries were filling with people. People who talked and organised, working out who could volunteer and who could look after them when they were recovering from having tlochkl taken.
From the window above the supermarket, Taril waved at Linda and made a face at her. She smiled back and watched as he slipped down inside from the sill and closed the ledger book. Only one person had withdrawn this week, Mx Franklyn down the street, whose diabetes had gotten worse.
“Only for a couple of months,” they said apologetically.
“Of course,” Taril had said. “It’s fine; we have lots of others.”
It was true. Fifteen new people had signed up just this week, wanting to contribute their tlochkl. Word spread quickly and people were excited to see whole areas of the city opening up. They wanted to be part of it.
Taril had a knack for talking with them calmly about the effects. He made sure they knew it was okay to stop if they were getting tired, or if it was upsetting their family.
Lankie helped him with the volunteers, and Taril sometimes caught her watching him with pride. She left the talking to him, but she was the one who handed them the little bags of dried millocam and heartsrest along with the pouches to collect their tlochkl.
“I think we can hit the southwest node tomorrow,” Linda said, smiling as she entered the apartment. “Our biggest one yet..”
She joined Taril at the window, and together they looked out at the city, all that remained to be unlocked, all the damage they could heal.