A rumble sounded in the distance, a single boom chased by echoes.
Cassatt looked up from her gruel.
“Storm?” Diderot asked from across the table.
“Demolition,” Cassatt said.
“Sounded far off.”
“Far off demolition then.”
“What’s CE blowing up out there?”
Cassatt rested her cheek on her fist. “Themselves, I hope.”
The Common Enemy won the war against humanity a hundred fifty years ago and had been demolishing things ever since: monuments, playgrounds, anything and everything they declared a societal excess. They threw it all into shredders and turned the resulting mush into functional, unbeautiful things like benches and tables and the brownish-grey bowl between Cassatt’s elbows. Phoenix, her home, a city in the middle of the desert, the epitome of unsustainable, once spanned four hundred square miles; CE had shrunk it to a few city blocks. In six months it would be gone completely.
“You hear that boom?” Cassatt’s father, Cosimo, asked loudly. He sat next to Diderot, hands atop the cane between his legs. Heavy bags sagged beneath his pale eyes, a thick hoary beard covered his chin, and a rat’s nest of thinning hair crowned his head.
“It’s demolition, Dad,” Cassatt said just as loud.
“It’s Moshiah,” the old man replied. “He fights for us.”
Cassatt sighed. “Could be, Dad. Could be.”
“You don’t think?”
“Moshiah’s just a dream,” Cassatt said, “solace for the sedentary, cooked up by people who’d rather receive deliverance than achieve it.”
“Ah, but before one can achieve, she must believe.”
“If you say so.” She couldn’t help but sound patronizing.
“I do say so,” he said, pumping his cane like a piston, clacking its tip upon the concrete floor. “Not everything can be spelled out in numbers and equations. Numbers and equations don’t hold any meaning. And there can be no truth without meaning…”
Cassatt let him ramble. She sometimes found it hard to believe he was once an important man: a fighter in the armed rebellions, a conspirator in the resistance, even a ladies’ man (before Cassatt’s late mother tamed him). Now he only talked about Moshiah, when capable of talking at all. Before long, he trailed off and his eyes glassed over as his mind drifted away. His outbursts sapped him and were followed by deep plunges into vapidity.
“You shouldn’t egg him on,” Diderot said, holding a spoonful of gruel patiently before Cosimo’s lips. He towered over the old man, hand steady as a surgeon’s, his skin a dark, dark brown—almost black. “He needs his strength.”
“For what? Playing checkers with the other fuddy-duddies?”
Diderot gave her a piercing glance with his bright blue eyes. Bright eyes and an even brighter mind. He said her father’s senility was creeping in fast, shredding his memories, turning his mind to mush. And he said the degeneration would continue irreversibly till the old man’s brain forgot how to hold his bladder and bowels, draw his breath and pump his heart. A pitiful ending for Cosimo, rebel conspirator.
But Cassatt had a hard time letting the Moshiah subject slide. She’d been arguing with her father about it long before he lost his mind, and he wasn’t the only one who believed. Phoenix’ citizens had been counting on Moshiah to deliver them from The Common Enemy for three generations now. How many more would pass before they wised up? No amount of hope, or hate for CE, or love for her father could make Cassatt believe in magical saviors. If people wanted change, they needed to take action.
She looked out across dwelling 4C’s common room. The place looked like a prison chow hall: fellow residents ate their gruel at long tables that lined the room row after row; they all wore the same boxy, sandy-brown shirts and pants, uniforms issued by The Common Enemy. The common room spanned the entire ground floor, open to Phoenix’ streets on three sides, supported by a dozen square, concrete columns. Evening poured orange through the openings between the columns. Today was the summer solstice, and as residents finished their meals they ventured out into the streets to enjoy the longest day of the year before the sunset curfew. Instead of playing, they should have been planning trouble.
Like Cassatt. She was always ready for action: public graffiti, snipping power cables, clogging shitters, anything that inconvenienced The Common Enemy. Mischief didn’t change much, but she made a lot of it, and every little bit helped. At seventeen years old, she’d already served more Penances than most citizens would in a lifetime, maybe more than her troublemaking father. Not that Penances could slow her down.
Jakic showed up an hour later (and an hour late), casually sliding in on Cassatt’s right as if he were on time. A shaggy mop of thick black hair curled down over his ears. Stubble like rebar jutted from his olive face. He gave off an overwhelming air of confidence and a slight odor of sweat.
“Sapiens,” he said with a sarcastic smile.
Diderot nodded. “Jack.”
“Well,” Cassatt said, “we’re waiting. Out with it.”
Jakic ran his hand along Cassatt’s thigh; she pushed it discretely away. “6D is cleared out,” he said, “ready for the wrecking ball.”
“So soon?” Diderot asked. “Wasn’t scheduled till next week.”
“CE’s getting faster at this demolition thing. All about efficiency.”
“At this rate we’ll be in California before the next solstice.”
“Probably. And here’s another prediction: CE never demos without a final Inspection, right? And it’s been a while since they came through here. With 6D just around the corner, how much you want to bet…”
“They’ll inspect the whole block,” Diderot said.
“Surpri-ise.” Jakic smiled again—not because he was glad for an Inspection, but because he liked coming across as someone in the know.
Cassatt knew what Diderot’s reaction would be before he opened his mouth. “The rendezvous is off,” he said.
“Like hell it is,” she said back. “Quarter day out, quarter day in, I’ll be back before roll call.”
Jakic rubbed his hand over his stubble, stifling a grin. “I don’t know, Cassatt. Cutting it awful close.”
“Maybe if you’d show up on time. And when did you start listening to Diderot?”
In the days of the resistance, the biannual rendezvous had served as the pivotal smuggling route to rogues living outside the city, free from CE control. Nowadays, there wasn’t much to smuggle, but the rendezvous survived as a sort of solstice tradition. To Cassatt, it was sacred, a symbolic act of defiance; she made it a point to break every CE rule she could, and sneaking outside city limits was a big one. An imminent Inspection simply upped the stakes, daring her all the more.
“I know the rendezvous is important to you,” Diderot said, “but it’s a serious Penance if you get caught.”
Cassatt waved it away.
“How many have you served this year?” he asked.
Three, she thought, but who’s counting?
“Three,” Jakic said.
Cassatt punched him in the arm.
“The rendezvous’ secret has kept for fifty years,” Diderot reminded her.
Cassatt spread her hands. “And Phoenix will be gone before the next solstice, so nothing lost.” She didn’t know why she was arguing; nothing they said could keep her from going. She put her palms on the table. “Thanks for wasting an hour of my time, Jack. I love a challenge.”
Jakic put his hand on her thigh before she could stand, but this time he pressed firmly down. “Funny thing happened to me today,” he said. Cassatt tried to push the hand away, but he kept it planted, insisting she’d want to hear what he was about to say. “I’m cruising 6D,” he continued, “one last look around before the wrecking ball swings, and I run into this old guy. Hands down, oldest dude in Phoenix. He brings me in close,”—and Jakic leaned in for effect—“real close, and goes: In the mattress. Hobbles off, doesn’t look back. Weird, right? But there’s his bed, no one around paying me any mind, so I take a look. Find this split in the seam, right along the top. I reach in. Who wants to guess what I find?”
Jakic’s story had yet to impress Cassatt. “I don’t know, Jack,” she said. “Machete.”
“Machete?” Jakic laughed, giving her thigh a little caress. “Got to love this girl. No, not a machete. Wish it were a machete.”
Cassatt slapped his hand away.
Diderot tapped his fingertips on the table. “They were in the mattress, so something soft. Kerchief?” That was Diderot, always using that big bright brain of his.
“Warmer. Cozz, you want a shot?”
Cosimo didn’t even acknowledge Jakic’s presence.
Jakic shrugged, then leaned in closer and waited for Cassatt and Diderot to do the same. “Paintings,” he said, barely above a whisper.
The moment of silence lasted so long it was almost reverential.
A kerchief would have been a pretty little souvenir, a rare but comparatively inconsequential square of humanity’s past. A machete, well, Cassatt could dream up all sorts of uses for that. Though, practically speaking, a single machete couldn’t rally a rebellion so was probably more trouble than it was worth. Paintings were somewhere in between. Not long after The Common Enemy outlawed weapons, they confiscated things like paintings. Paintings had an unpredictable sort of power: they could bring a kerchief to the eye or put a machete in the hand. That some had actually survived was a small miracle—no one at the table would have guessed paintings, not even her pipedreaming father.
Jakic basked in the silence, thoroughly self-satisfied; this time he’d actually earned it. Cassatt almost wished his hand was back on her thigh.
Even levelheaded Diderot had goose bumps. “Get a good look at them?” he asked.
“Didn’t want to risk it,” Jakic said. “Just slipped them into my shirt.”
Cassatt’s eyes bulged. “And did what with them?”
Jakic flashed a sly smile. “Came straight here, of course.”
Reaching out slowly, Cassatt touched Jakic’s stomach. Sure enough, a stiffer layer of fabric hid beneath his shirt. Typical Jack: ballsy S.O.B.
“When’s the last time we actually had something to smuggle?” Cassatt wondered.
“Nine years?” Jakic guessed. “Maybe ten. Long before your time. Photographs. Some old lady’s ancestors. Had a dog in one of them.”
Diderot nodded and stared off like Cosimo, lost in recollection. “I remember the woman better,” he said. “Lonely. The way she looked at the photographs, the way her trembling fingers clutched them, you’d have thought she was handing over her own children.”
“She was,” Cassatt said. “Those pictures were probably the only family she had. But better to part with them than let CE destroy them.” Cassatt pressed her pointer finger down into the tabletop. “The rendezvous is definitely on.”
“Cassatt…” Diderot started, but she wasn’t hearing any of it:
“Ten years since we had something to smuggle. Ten years we kept the lines open for the off-chance we’d actually need them. And here on the last rendezvous ever, you want to call it off because of a schedule conflict? No way. No way I’m letting them end up in the shredder.”
Diderot showed her his palms, a gesture of submission.
She tugged at Jakic’s sleeve. “Come on. I want to get a look at these things.”