Back at the Box Office, Jean Paltron steepled her fingers. She knew she had to make two calls and fast. Her first call was to her Inside Man. He was her only hired reporter, and he was the only man allowed into Pureside, as set aside by the terms of the Divide. Reporting was hardly the word for it anymore.
Her conversation with him ran more as a series of questions punctuated by terse one word answers:
“Where are you?”
“Have you seen the EIU?”
“Can you get it done?”
“When will you have it by?”
And the occasional outburst.
“I needed it yesterday, Ros, you sandbagging little shit!”
“If you don't get this, we could lose everything! All of it!”
And of the course the minor indecency.
“Oh, I am going to fuck your brains out.”
Her second call was one she was not looking forward to. She had only met with this person once before, under much more benign circumstances, surprisingly. She was calling Baldsmith, the editor at the Herald. For all intensive purposes, the two of them were the only people on the planet who ever spoke across Divide lines.
“Well if it isn’t Jean Paltron,” Baldsmith oozed fattily. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“Oh don’t be so pedestrian, Harold,” Paltron snapped. “You really are a poor Christian.”
“Oh my, cutting words from the she-devil herself. Or, is that still not gender neutral enough for you? Tell me, do you progressive pedants still insist on ignoring the appendages that differentiate us?”
“Let’s not pretend your appendage is so differentiable, Harold. We both can attest to that being false.”
Baldsmith cleared his throat, and shifted the frame of his family an inch to the left. “I presume this is a secure line.”
“As secure as it can be for centuries-old technology, dear Harold. Now where we – “
“I believe you were just about to tell me what it is you want.” He picked the words like guitar strings.
“Oh, yes, I like how you say that. What I want." Her lips curled deliciously around the words. "I’ll cut to the chase. I want access to your man. Your Outside Man.”
Baldsmith spewed vitriolic man-spittle onto the frame in front of him; his pounding fist sent it clattering to the floor. “Oh Jean!” He burst into giant heaves of demonstrative laughter. “Jean! Jean! Jean!”
Paltron sat silently, her lips a patient line drawn tight across her face.
With showmanlike awe and wonder, Harold continued, “I mean, Jean! What do you mean? What could you possibly mean, Jean? Has it truly come to this? Are you so forlorn in the wake of such a devastatingly perfect catastrophe, this amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? And are you feeling so Outside of it, so utterly helpless to see or do anything, that it’s really come to this? This? Calling me? I mean, this is it, madam. You’re sunk!”
It was Paltron's turn to clear her throat now. She settled back in her chair. “It's so good to hear you excited, Harold. It must be rare, as you can hardly contain yourself!" She gave an obnoxiously debonair laugh. "And you should be excited, Harold, you know why? Because your life is about to change. You're about to do a bad thing and you're about to do it for me, your arch nemesis. You're about to feel more controlled by a woman than you've ever felt before – and that's including our little ménage. I know you’ll do all this, Harold, and I can tell you precisely why.”
“Oh really," he nearly chortled with delight. "This should be good.”
“Oh you of little mind," she clucked, "Of course it's good. And dead simple.” She paused seductively. “If you don't do as I say, Mrs. Betty Baldsmith will promptly be receiving a telegram – or whatever you use over there to relay news nowadays – with all the details of our lurid little affair, down to the last mole on your back. All the world will know how little of a Christian man you really are.” Then with a twist of the dagger. “You fucking whore.”
Harold sputtered and gassed. “You – you – you wouldn’t. You'd incriminate yourself! You wouldn't!"
"That's true." Paltron dusted the sleeve of her jacket. "It would make me look bad. Then again, what do I care what Pures think?"
"You – you – you fucking WHORE!”
“Original." She snapped her sleeve straight. "I’ll give you two hours to send me your man’s details. Don’t be late, Harold baby.” She dropped the connection. With an arch of her back and a slight stretch of her neck, she resteepled her fingers. That went well enough. Looks like that benign encounter on Baldsmith’s desk would pay off in spades after all.
MB Davis stared in disbelief over Jimmy’s shoulder. No matter how many times they replayed the feeds, the truth was undeniable. Their ground units’ vision cut out as soon as they entered the tunnel. A Class 1 SDZ? What was she looking at here?
“Ma’am?” Jimmy finally dared, after an eternity of silence. “Outsiders?”
“The only way they could have an SDZ that advanced is if…” Her voice trailed off as she thought better of it. “Back to scanning, Saguto.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Jimmy took a deep breath, disappointed by her lack of divulgence. What was so special about an SDZ? They'd been developed pre-Divide, hadn’t they? He wished he'd paid more attention in history.
MB Davis walked back to the tower and made eye contact with Charlie, the Chief MB. He nodded in recognition and gestured the rest of the Motherboard over. Just then, Davis felt a vibration at her hip. She paused, careful not to draw any attention to herself, and glanced discreetly down. Dammit.
“What is it, Davis?” MB Charlie called over, as the other MB’s drew near. “Did you find something?”
She had to think fast, change course. “No sir, I was just anticipating the hourly report.”
“Ah. It isn't time yet. Still twenty minutes til the next one.” The other MB’s slowed and turned back towards their Monitors. “Had me going for a second,” MB Charlie said tiredly, “Thought you had something.”
“Hey, don’t apologize, Davis. Just keep it up – we’ll find something." He sidled up in front of her. "How’s Saguto doing? Lot of talk been going around about his talent as a Monitor.”
“Very well sir. He’s extracted more than 400 Pures – top in class, high mark potential.”
“Excellent. Good call pulling him up.”
“Thank you sir.”
MB Charlie nodded and turned back towards the tower. Davis’s buzzer suddenly vibrated again – she froze, sure MB Charlie had heard it. She watched to see if he'd turn. It buzzed again. What was he thinking?! Three times in five minutes? Did he want her to lose her head? She glanced swiftly around the Atrium and when she was certain that nobody was looking, slipped out between the curtained entrance.
Jimmy, only half scanning, but 200% listening, turned to catch the curtain as it fell quietly back into place. Where was MB Davis going? And why didn’t she tell Chief MB about the SDZ?
In a tiny nearby corridor, MB Davis quickly pulled out the buzzer – it was an archaic device Baldsmith forced her to carry but until this point had never used. Four messages marquised across the screen:
“WHERE R U”
“YOU’VE BEEN COMPROMISED”
She looked up with a start. Compromised? How could that even be? She looked down at the timestamps on the messages. The first message had come in two hours ago – how had she missed it? She must have gotten caught up in the Pure spotting.
There was no time to lose. She tucked the buzzer back in its holster and slid quietly out into the great hall. She had five minutes to get out of the building before security would be on her.