‘Watch it with the lysobleach,’ Sharmi said. ‘They only issue us a coupla truckloads a month. And put that gum away.’ Sharmi thumped Jiro’s back with a hand like a shovel. Jiro gasped. ‘I swallowed it!’
‘Good, then I don’t need to report you and dock you three months’ pay. You do know how to use a grapple gun?’ She waved at the long black cylinder with the compressed air canister on one end and the magnetic grapple sticking out of the other. Jiro looked up at the six-hundred-metre-high statue that stood in the vault of ManCorp Headquarters. Glassy tiles the colour of tranquil seas stretched away in all directions. She felt exposed, like an ant on a dinner plate. This was her first assignment venturing into hanyo-space in the six months since Jiro had joined ManCorp. Till now, all her cleanup work had been in the service areas hidden away in the curtainwalls and backstairs of the gigantic office building.
ManCorp was the biggest corporation in Man City, and this was the holy of holies, the atrium built by the Man with the takings from his first mega movie. It was three am and the golden hour had begun, the frantic time of cleaning and polishing before the hanyo places would be out of bounds again, and the servitors would retire to their spaces concealed like wiring and sewage and all the other ugly, shameful, necessary things. The Man loomed above her, a poem in synthetic marble, his expression cold yet cruel, acquisitive yet aloof, the way his fans liked to remember him. ‘They shoulda painted his eyeballs red,’ Sharmi grunted as she hefted a grapple gun. ‘Most of them hanyos have greeny-browy-purply patches in their eyes, not real red, actually. We call them fire-eyes to flatter them, but the Man, he always had pure red in his eye-whites.’ Sharmi nodded. ‘He was a real hanyo.’
‘It that why they called him the Red Devil?’ Jiro fielded the grapple gun Sharmi tossed at her.
‘Hah. You’re too young to have seen him in Antarctica’s a Cold Bitch. The look in his eyes when he kills Sophia!’ Sharmi primed her gun with a hiss of compressed air. ‘Chilling.’
‘Sophia? I thought his love was called Fiona in the movie?’
‘That was her assumed name. She was a feminazi trying to blow up the oil well. He finds out and kills her, and then when the well gets cut off by the blizzard he has to gather the other girls and keep them warm.’ Sharmi sighed. ‘I wouldn’t have minded a little warming from old Red Eyes.’
Jiro tried to copy Sharmi’s actions. She was tempted to confess that the poster of The Man holding the limp body of the beautiful traitor had clung to its thumbtacks on Jiro’s wall way past high school and into Cleaner Training, but she’d lost it when she was hired by the sewage plant. Lots of illusions had died since then. But Sharmi was known to be tricky. Best not to open up to her too incautiously.
Jiro fumbled with her outsize gloves, cursing. ‘Why does all our stuff fit so badly?’
Sharmi grunted a laugh. ‘Coz it’s all made for larger hands and feet, wider chests, differently designed bottoms.’ She gave Jiro a sly, sidelong look. ‘Once upon a time, long before things got this fucked up, men did dirty jobs just like us. Before the boys started dying.’ She raised the grapple gun to her shoulder and sighted through the sniper scope at one of the shiny knobs at the junctions of the structural members that made up the roof. ‘These guns are controlled, by the way, if I lose one it’s the Factory Shells for me. Hah, I’ll tell you something funny. If you ask for new kit now it’s just like this, man stuff. I think they want us to feel unwelcome. Like the guys will be back any day now.’ She wheezed a laugh. ‘And it’s been nearly thirty years.’
With a pop and a clang Sharmi’s magnetic grapple, trailing its tether, mated with the ceiling knob. Jiro’s followed a moment later. She joysticked her harness and shot upwards with a cry of surprise. ‘Hey!’ Sharmi called. ‘Rocket Queen, come back here.’
‘Sorry.’ Jiro jerked to a stop and hung in the air. Sharmi came up more smoothly, grinning. They floated upwards, their equipment pods uncoiling from the floor and following them. At last their feet made contact with the statue’s broad marble shoulder.
Sharmi turned her back on Jiro and started scrubbing the frozen waves of the statue’s hair. Jiro thought of the stories she’d heard about her senior partner. Sharmi was wrinkled and ugly yet she acted like she had a pair stashed away in a janitor’s locker somewhere. Like she knew a secret code that made sense of all the shit around her. Jiro found it disconcerting, but also exciting. She herself had never quite been able to break the rules, not even when everyone around her assured her it was safe. Surely ‘safety’ depended on chance and luck, because everyone knew that the Bully Boys were supposed to be watching. How far could you trust them to neglect their duty? ‘Enough with the wet dreams!’ Sharmi snapped over her shoulder. ‘Get round to the other side and do his right profile. The Man’s waiting.’
‘Sorry.’ Jiro let herself swing out and around to the other shoulder. She gingerly took her brush and began applying the lysobleach to a curl of the statue’s hair. It looked like a wave of frozen milk, softly blue in the muted working lights, inviting her hands to touch it, but she daren’t take off her gloves. She took the spraynet and foamed the patch with neutraliser for a few seconds, turning her face away from the acrid fumes. Then with her abrascrub she polished till the stone gleamed. She could hear Sharmi grunting and muttering her way around to the face, taking a swipe at the patrician nose: ‘Huh huh huh big fucking stone man, boss’s built a boasting post, size of a fucking volcano, not a thought for who’s going to polish the inside of the goddamn bastard’s nostrils. Look at me, I’m a fucking hanyo’s booger ball...Hey! Look at this.’ Sharmi chuckled. ‘Come down to the old guy’s mouth, I’ll show you something freaky.’
Jiro came down to the statue’s mouth in a series of jerks to the tune of Sharmi’s cursing. The ‘something’ was a fine blue-black powder in the groove between the statue’s gate-like incisors. Sharmi touched a finger and inspected it under her lenses. ‘Spydust. That’s rare.’
‘What is it?’
‘A kind of swarm-built nanocamera. Probably Hasgod Corp, by the looks of it, or PanStatVeritas. They’re always trying to scoop us. This dust is dead; the live stuff always chameleons to match its surroundings.’
‘How do I get rid of it?’
Sharmi tossed her a canister. ‘Spray.’
She pressed the nozzle. Green sparks began snapping at her out of the air. She dropped the canister in panic, it swooped and clanged into the magnetic tether inches from her foot.
‘Hehhh. Nanodust Shorter. Oh yeah, it does that sometimes. Lucky for you I already took a sample for the techies. Rub something like that out without sampling it and they’ll think you’re a spy doing a coverup.’
Panic squeezed Jiro’s heart. ‘I ain’t no spy. I swear it. Just because I came from...’
‘Relax. I’m just kidding.’ Sharmi jetted off again, her large bulk swinging ponderously as the tether adjusted its angle of tilt. In grim silence Jiro winched herself up to do the forehead. She worked her way around the right eyebrow, looked down and was momentarily disoriented by a cave that seemed to open before her swinging feet. The eyeball had a round space scooped out in the centre, big enough to stand up in. Then she realised that from ground level the statue had looked as if it had pupils in its eyes, and the effect had been created by the shadows in these hollows. She could see the cave had collected drifts of dust. She stepped onto its lip and unclipped her tether, grimacing as the gulf behind her seemed to nip at her heels. As she pulled a brush from her belt a dark shape blocked the dim radiance from outside. ‘It’s okay, I can clean this on my own,’ Jiro said, her heart sinking. She’d been planning to sit in silence by herself for a minute, but Sharmi wasn’t having it. Jiro turned and was surprised by the furtive look on Sharmi’s face. ‘Never mind that,’ Sharmi whispered, and held out a hand. On her palm were two square red pills, each the size of a little fingernail and worked with a curly P in threadlike white icing. Jiro clamped a hand over her own mouth and stared at Sharmi with round eyes. ‘You can’t be serious. Here?’
‘I thought you said the first rule is: the cameras are always on.’
‘At this time of night? The Corpsec Bully Boys will all be fake-jackpotting to a Babelion video, most like. Why would they look at us when they’ve got her?’ Sharmi put a pill into Jiro’s hand. ‘Relax. This is the only place the cameras can’t see. I checked. And I’m not polishing this bastard’s stony ass without some help.’
This ritual stinks of a test, Jiro thought as she dry-swallowed her pill and grimaced as it burned all the way down. Sharmi did likewise. They quickly lay flat: they knew with P they didn’t want to be standing when it burst. Then there was a moment when the universe bulged like a heart filling with blood. Jiro moaned as the statue’s stone brain settled on her chest like a feeding python. The world was pulling her down for being too high, it wanted to smash her open on the virgin seagreen floor at the statue’s feet. Oh no! Jiro wanted to yell, we’re going to make a mess! but she couldn’t unlock her teeth to get the words out. Sharmi’s hand flopped over Jiro’s belly, trying convulsively to hold her down. ‘Don’t...fight,’ she gritted, and then the world righted itself and wafted them away on the breeze.
Oh oh oh, said Jiro feeling white cotton flutter against her bare legs. Sharmi raised silk to her lips. Jiro’s hair hung over her shoulder like a midnight waterfall. Sharmi’s curls were pure white, worked into bunches with beads and threads. She stretched her neck and shoulders and the shiver of pleasure became the first step of a dance under the moonlit trees. With delicate footsteps she began to trace a circle, but at the third step her companion jumped up and snatched her from the cliff. ‘Careful,’ she said, ‘the visuals are rather strong tonight. Don’t go anywhere near the edge, it’s more slippery than glass.’
‘Oh, the osmials are starting. I smell coffee. Real coffee, not the woodpunk they give us.’
‘I smell rhubarb.’
‘What the hell’s rhubarb?’
‘It’s a kind of synthetic red pudding my folks loved.’
Sharmi’s face twisted. ‘Oh that’s right, you had folks. Well I had folks too. Hell, I nearly had a husband. I bet you never saw your dad after you were three. Or littler.’
‘My dad left before I was born.’
‘Figures. Guess he figured it all out in time.’
‘Shhhh, moist earth and plum cake.’ Jiro wrapped her crochet shawl around her, but it was starting to go thin in the centre. Sharmi stroked the watered black silk of her kimono. ‘Aniseed.’
‘What the hell’s aniseed?’
‘It’s a class 13 flavouring. Reminds me of my ma’s cough lozenges.’ The kimono was liquefying and flowing away in an inky river. The crochet shawl followed it like cream. A dark red aural chord vibrated in their inmost hollows. Every pocket in their bodies became a cello searching for its wolf note. Sharmi held herself like an accordion, cradling her fingerboards of ribs, and Jiro stretched upon the ice-smooth stone and held herself like a guitar, all attentive curves and focus. And then they sang, in pure silver voices, notes that fluttered from their mouths and circled into patches of audible sunlight. There was a bright C floating there, and a D like polished bronze, a pewter, brass and nickel harmony on E and a silver A. They lined up like comets and whirled, up and down the gravity well, throwing plumes of radiance after them with the sun’s hot locomotive breath.
‘Oh god I gotta sit up,’ gasped Sharmi. ‘This shit’s pushing me through the floor.’ She crouched and wrapped her elbows round her knees. Jiro raised her head. They laughed, weakly, like line-crossing marathon runners looking for a tree to hold. Jiro cupped Sharmi’s cheek in her hand. Sharmi scooted backwards. ‘Hey,’ she growled. ‘I don’t do none of that shit.’
‘Sorry, sorry, just thought you needed...you know.’
‘Bullshit. Want to man-fuck me, stupid feminine bitch? Huh? Just coz I look like a truck now? You see these hands? That’s thirty years of shoveling hanyo shit. They were like fucking lilies before that. I once had a boyfriend, you know? Back in 2030, before the war and the labour laws and the Human Resource Collections. That’s more than you’ve ever dreamed of, you little wanker. I bet you went to a boyless school and cut out pictures from magazines to cream yourself over. Every little dick was a fucking rockstar to you, coz you never knew any better.’
‘No. I know about the old times.’
‘But you didn’t live them, did you? My dad was dumb as shit but he got a good job coz he was a hanyo. My boyfriend was a Head of Sales. They rose coz they were boys and they were unfeeling bastards coz they were hanyos, but they still worried about their shit like everyone else. Then things got worse and worse till the Sweep happened, and all the hanyos left. They took all the good stuff with them, the cedar boardrooms, the war councils, the parliaments, coz Sonny Boy always gets the farm even if he’s a red-eyed freak, and then he invites all the farm boys to his party.’
‘So? That’s ancient history,’ Jiro sighed. ‘My dad the scumball has three penthouses and a personal staff of thousands, and he ain’t never coming back.’
‘Yeah, what’s the point of blaming them? Each year less and less of them are getting born.’ Sharmi licked her lips. ‘Maybe one day they’ll die out altogether.’
‘No chance,’ Jiro threw her gloves into a corner. ‘They’ll see us dead first.’ She knuckled her eyesockets. ‘And you know what? We haven’t a fucking clue how to run the world without em. The day he didn’t come home, me and mom were making lasagna. He was signing the papers on his new life while we were waiting for the microwave to ping.’
‘Heh. Hehhhh. Don’t worry, we’re all in this shit coz we came out of the same asshole. Have a drink from my thermos; careful, it’s hot.’
Jiro wiped her mouth. Sharmi capped the flask. ‘Get up. We have a lot of statue to clean and not much time.’ She scooped up Jiro’s gloves and dropped them in her lap, then pulled her own gloves on and reached out cautiously into the blue light for her tether. Jiro spread her fingers over her face. Sharmi came back and jogged her with a foot. ‘Get the fuck up. Put your gloves on. If we don’t finish this fucking hanyo’s wet massage by sunup we are dead. Move it.’ Jiro scraped the tears from her cheeks and scrambled to get ready. They jetted out, separated and raised their brushes to the brooding stone.