THE PRICE OF ENTANGLEMENT
Oh crap! Jo thought, and cautiously extended a gloved hand out from under the convenience store’s awning. It was pouring rain again, and there was no way she was going out into it untested.
She left her hand out in the downpour for several seconds, watching the drops collect and roll off the worn, slightly ragged leather glove. Nothing, not even on the metal ornamentation.
“Careful miss Jo, a rain’s come up!” the old man called from behind the counter back in the shop. She glanced back at him and smiled; old Fred had been looking out for her and her friends for as long as she could remember.
“I caught it, no worries. Doesn’t look like its acidic this time! I should be okay.”
“Haven’t seen you with an umbrella these last few weeks. Somethin’ happen to the one you bought last year?” Fred’s memory for sales he’d made was nothing short of uncanny. Jo would sometimes stop by to visit for no reason other than to test his recall.
“Yeah, it got a bit busted up,” she said, eyeing a stack of umbrellas not far from the counter. “I’d been meaning to get a new one. I guess now’s as good a time as any.” She shifted a bag of groceries in her hand and dug around in her pockets. Money was a little tight these days; she needed work, and she needed it pretty soon. Finding her credit chit, she pulled it out and checked the balance.
Ugh, she thought with a mental sigh. It was doable, but her Gran had better not ask for any special meals for the next week or so. Canned pork ‘n beans and spaghetti were going to be their staple for the next while.
“Yeah, okay. I’ll take this one,” she said, picking out a heavy black leather one that should stand up to the worst the weather could dish out. Assuming I don’t have to club anyone with this one, she thought.
Fred grinned. “You sure do like the heavier ones. Can’t blame you, wouldn’t be caught in the open without one m’self. Should last a good ten years at least though! Can’t imagine what you do with ‘em to keep needin’ new ones all the time.” He took her credit chit and rang through the purchase.
He was exaggerating, though not by much, she had to admit. She had broken more than a few of the things over the years, and that was just the umbrellas. Dolesham had been a wonderful place once, her Gran insisted, back when he was a young man and the town had been a proper town, not an overgrown satellite extension of the city of Holdswaine.
It wasn’t such a bad place now, she thought. Sure, there were some unsavory types around, and once in a while they got a little rough and had to be taught to keep their hands to themselves. That was true everywhere though, and most folk were perfectly fine. She’d never run into anyone she couldn’t run away from, or clock a good one if it came to that.
“I’d better get on my way Fred, Gran’ll be wondering where dinner is if I’m not back soon! Thanks, catch you next time.”
“You be careful now, Jo,” he said, as he always did, and waved as she darted off into the dark streets.
The cloud cover made it difficult to tell what time it was by sight; Jo checked her phone and grimaced. It was getting on toward 6pm; her Gran would be worrying soon. Assuming, of course, that he was going to remember who she was today. Unfortunately that was not always a safe assumption to make.
She checked the grocery bag she carried; canned tomato soup, crackers, some sort of artificial cheese spread, a loaf of bread that the manufacturer claimed was whole wheat, but she was convinced was 90% sawdust—it was bare bones, low quality fare, but the it was the best she could afford until business picked up.
She stood under the awning and opened the umbrella as the rain poured down in sheets; it was picking up. That was bad; even if it wasn’t strongly acidic, it would make it hard to see anything. Even in a relatively safe area like Dolesham, situational awareness was a survival trait. Anything that hindered that was to be avoided.
The streets seemed pretty clear other than the rain; she couldn’t decide whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. She was running home, unless she had to splurge on a cab, but even as cheap as they were she’d prefer to avoid the expense. Clear streets meant she’d be able to see trouble before it arrived, but also meant it could find her more easily.
She glanced back into the shop; the warm light inside was inviting, but she couldn’t wait it out. Her Gran would need her soon. With a sigh of regret, she lifted the umbrella over her head and headed down the street.
It was a good half-hour jog for her, but they didn’t live in the most convenient part of town. As the rain got heavier and heavier, she considered her options. She could signal for a cab; one of the large, warm and dry automated vehicles would be by in moments to pick her up. But it would cost. She was sorely tempted, and found herself fingering her phone in anticipation of sending the signal before she’d jogged for more than five minutes. Reluctantly she pocketed the device again. Last recourse, Jo, last recourse, she scolded herself.
She was a couple of long blocks away from the store; she recognized the intersection she was at by the massive crumbling ruin of the old Dolesham central rail station. She could turn down the street that ran alongside it and get home quicker, but she hesitated, undecided. That way was the way she thought of as the bad route home; she was probably safer going that way; she was certainly less likely to run into people, anyway; but that was because the area had a reputation. It made people uneasy.
The wind picked up and threw spray in her face right under the umbrella, which was nearly yanked out of her hand. She shivered and cursed as a trickle of water found its way down through the neck of her heavy green fake leather jacket. Far ahead on the regular route, she saw the lights of cars traveling the wide streets, the street lights, spaced so much more frequently than they were out where she stood, even a few people moving around as she was.
She grimaced as the water made its way down under her clothes. She could cut probably five minutes off her trip. She really didn’t like the route, but another wind-thrown spray plastered her dark hair to her face and made her spit it out; she turned down the darker road, following the chain link fence that enclosed the old train yard, eyes longing for the lost light already.
Not many cars traveled here. The roads were bad, cracked and potholed and un-upgraded; they existed much as they had back at the start of the millennium, before road works crews began seeding the asphalt with programmable smart chips to aid navigation systems with meta-data about road conditions.
Almost every car on the road these days was self-driving, and while they could navigate these old roads perfectly well, they preferentially avoided them in favor of smart-roads unless there were specific reasons not to.
Jo kept to the broken old sidewalk, moving at a slow jog so as not to lose her footing. She’d have to call a cab if she hurt herself.
She passed beyond the train yard fence and tightened her lips in a grimace; this was the part of the route she had never liked. The skeletal remains of an old, old ironworks stood silent sentry over the road. Rusted girders rose to the sky, visible against the glowing lights of the twilight city in the distance.
For generations, people had said this place was haunted. One of her strongest memories of her parents had been an incident when she was a kid; she’d been out playing with friends. They’d gone down a street they never played on. Jo’s father had been furious; she was never, ever to go down that way again.
Years later her Gran had told her about the ironworks and how it was haunted. By then she’d heard all the schoolyard stories, even had friends who swore they’d gone there after dark, but nobody she knew had seen anything. Nobody but Gran anyway; he insisted that he’d seen a blue glowing ghost walking the site when he was a young man. By then he was already showing signs of dementia, so Jo didn’t believe a word of it, but she couldn’t help herself; it felt creepy just being near the place.
She’d only walked this way a few times in her life, all of them starting from her late teens, and she’d never seen anything. As she had then, she found herself keeping half an eye out for any telltale blue glows, but aside from glowing neon on the tall buildings downtown, she saw nothing.
When she crossed what she thought of as the invisible line, she let out a sigh of relief, though the uneasiness stayed with her the rest of the way down the street. The release of tension when she reached the intersection that led to her street was like someone had been pressing a finger into the small of her back, and then suddenly it was gone.
It was simply amazing what a difference a small threshold could make. One street put the fear of the unknown coursing through your nervous system, while the next washes it all away with calm reassurance.
The street she lived on with her Gran wasn’t the nicest in the city, wasn’t even the nicest in Dolesham by a long shot, but she felt like she’d crossed into paradise just by crossing that invisible line. The rain continued to pour down, dampening her clothes, but it had stopped dampening her spirits.
Jo lived in a tiny two-storey, two bedroom house with a narrow, creaky staircase. She’d bought it with the small amount her parents had left her after they passed. It was a nice enough place; sure, there was no front yard, and the back was maybe a little bigger than your average tablet computer, but it was hers as long as she could keep paying for it.
She set aside the momentary thoughts of keeping up the payments as she took the steps up to the front door and let herself in, shaking the umbrella clear of rain. “Gran?” she called, locking the door securely behind her with a click of the key fob. “Gran, I’m back! I’ll get dinner on. You must be getting hungry by now; sorry I took so long!”
“It’s about time,” her Gran’s grumpy voice called from upstairs. “It’s supposed to rain soon. This is no time of year for young women to be out in the rain, you hear me?”
“It’s already raining, Gran, has been for a while,” she said with a sigh as she hung up her soaked jacket and kicked her runners into the closet. She stepped in a puddle and grimaced.
“’Course it is,” he called back. “It’s supposed to rain soon.”
“I’ll have dinner ready in a while, Gran,” she replied with a half-smile. He at least sounded like he knew who she was, or at the very least he remembered that he didn’t live alone. That was something.
She stepped into the kitchen and the overhead lights flicked on at her presence. She opened the tin of soup and prepared it for heating on the stove top, then put the rest of her haul away.
She sat at the kitchen table with a tired sigh of relief. The groceries had taken far too little time to put away; she really did need money again, soon. She pulled her phone out to review her options; her email app opened up, appearing to float above the surface of the device in 3D as she read over the display.
No email; that was unfortunate. Sometimes she’d pull it up to find several prospective jobs waiting for her. Oh well. So much for the easy way. She pulled up her client list, gesturing this way and that to send the little 3D representations of each back and forth in her field of view as she considered her options.
Sal was usually a good bet; she was technologically ... well, awkward, and Jo made frequent trips to see her whenever her friend ran into problems she could take care of. She was pretty good at run of the mill stuff like app conflicts, OS updates, and even grounding certain devices—the current term in vogue for enabling people to run otherwise unauthorized apps on a device, or even getting access to the raw hardware underneath the vendor-supplied operating system.
She stared at the little holo of Sal thoughtfully and nodded. “Note, call Sal tomorrow.” There was a musical chime acknowledging her request, and she went back to flipping through her entries.
Sal would be a good start—if she had a problem Jo could handle. She frowned over the display. None of her other clients were regular enough. That was pretty much the whole problem. She might be able to scrounge up some courier work, but the pay was crap. She’d need a lot of it to make enough.
She sighed again—she seemed to be doing that a lot lately—and slipped the phone back into her pocket. A shuffling from the front of the house preceded her Gran. “Smells good, what is it?” he asked with a voice somewhere between a rasp and a wheeze.
“Tomato soup,” she said, getting back to her feet and stirring it.
“You still usin’ that relic?” he groused, pointing at the stove. “What’s wrong with the microwave?”
She rolled her eyes. Always with the microwave. “It tastes better from the stove, Gran, even you’ve said so yourself.” And he had, but it never stopped him complaining. He’d been part of the first generation to grow up in the age of microwave cooking, and in his earlier days, he’d done all his cooking with the thing. Jo mostly used it to reheat stuff, not cook stuff, and even for reheating something, she’d often throw it in the oven or on a burner.
“Bah, suit yourself. I’m hungry now, though. How much longer?” He slowly lowered himself into a chair.
“It’s almost ready, just another minute.”
“If you’d nuked it, it’d be done by now.”
She frowned. “Gran, really,” she complained. She could never quite suppress a shiver when someone, usually an elderly person, used that bit of slang. It hadn’t aged well after the nuclear strike near the national border a little over a decade before.
“You know what I mean,” he groused, opening the old microwave. “Where’s my soup?”
“It’s still in the pot on the stove, Gran, give it a minute.” She stirred the pot, wondering what pot she was going to have to stir to bring up the opportunities she needed.