Authors: Nancy Kress
Fiction by Nancy Kress
An Alien Light
The Prince of Morning Bells
The Golden Grove
The White Pipes
Trinity and Other Stories
Beggars in Spain
The Aliens of Earth
Beggars and Choosers
Oaths and Miracles
Nano Comes to Clifford Falls
Steal Across the Sky
(as Anna Kendall)
Dark Mist Rising
(as Anna Kendall)
Before the Fall, After the Fall, During the Fall
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Copyright © Nancy Kress, 2012
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For Leslie Howle, friend to so many writers
ALL THE OTHER
girls were better dressed and prettier than she was.
Was dress going to matter? Was prettiness? Of course it was—it always did. But how much, here and now? What were the interviewers looking for anyway?
No clues in the room, which was a bare, ugly concrete square in a warehouse close to the waterfront. It wasn’t even warm. Outside, homeless huddled against the east side of the building, out of the March wind. Inside, rows of hard wooden chairs overflowed with a few hundred girls. The chairs faced two doors, one labeled
, one blank. Two uniformed guards flanked the uncommunicative door, their faces as blank and hard as its wood.
Amy turned to the girl on her right, a tall blonde in skinny black jeans and a red pea coat. The coat looked warm. “May I borrow a comb?”
“Sorry.” The blonde didn’t even turn to look at her, but a sneer curled her bottom lip.
Amy fought down her temper. Maybe the blonde was right. Amy could have lice, or even worse, considering the diseases loose in the city. She shouldn’t have asked.
She rose and made her way to the ladies’ room, carefully picking her way between the rows of tightly packed chairs, trying not to put her ratty sneakers onto polished boots, four-inch heels, red flats with perky bows, and—were those a pair of vintage Manolos? So many girls here to interview! And probably none of them as desperate as she was.
Oh, Gran, what are we going to do if I don’t get this job?
The bathroom, packed with girls, was even colder than the waiting room. Maybe that was a good thing—no one lingered in the stalls, or even in front of the fly-specked and flaking mirrors. Amy smoothed her hair with her fingers, splashed cold water under her eyes, and straightened her green sweater, the nicest thing she had left. Actually, the nicest thing Kaylie had left. Her sister had been asleep when Amy left the apartment at four a.m. to take the bus here, which was a good thing because Kaylie would have thrown a royal fit about lending the sweater. It was nearly noon and Amy’s stomach rumbled with hunger. Dammit, why hadn’t she brought a sandwich! And a comb.
“Here,” a voice said to her left, “borrow mine.”
The girl who held out a comb was even taller than the blonde, and breathtakingly beautiful. Long black hair, smooth and shiny as glass, and legs that seemed the length of a football field. Amy blinked, said thanks, and wondered why she thought she had a chance at this job. Or any other.
“What’s your number?” the girl asked.
“One hundred twenty-three.”
“Catchy.” She sang, “And a
!” and did a graceful little dance step.
Amy laughed. “What’s yours?”
“One sixty-eight. No music there. Why don’t you tease the top just a little? Here, let me.” She took the comb from Amy, deftly teased an underlayer of hair, combed the rest over it, and stuck a hairpin at a strategic angle on one temple. Instantly Amy’s hair, honey-colored but thick and unwieldy, looked better.
“Hey, thank you!”
“Don’t mention it. But you better go, One Two Three—they were up to number one eleven when I came in here.”
Amy held out her hand. “I’m Amy Kent.”
No one was named Violet, and even if they were, Amy had never seen anyone less like that shy, delicate flower. This Amazon radiated confidence and charm. Amy said, “Good luck, Violet.”
“Good luck, One Two Three.”
Someone had taken her chair. Amy leaned against the wall for another hour, shivering and hungry, until a PA system boomed, “Number one hundred twenty-three,” and she walked toward the wooden door.
Just like a bakery. Take a number and be served. Or be served up.
It didn’t matter. She would take this job, if she could get it. They had to have the money. Gran was dying.
* * *
Beyond the wooden door was a short corridor fitted with an X-ray machine. Amy walked through it, knowing it was viewing everything on her for every possible kind of weapon. The next machine blew air at her, sniffing for explosives. After that, she pressed her fingers onto an ink pad and waited while a computer matched her fingerprints to those in a database somewhere. Amy dipped her fingers in the cleansing wash and dried them carefully. She couldn’t get ink on Kaylie’s sweater, the last decent thing either of them owned.
Finally, after another long, shivering wait—couldn’t these people afford to heat their buildings?—a green light went on over the door at the far end of the corridor, a lock audibly clicked, and Amy pushed open the door and stepped through.
Into another world.
In the moment it took for her eyes to adjust to the soft light after the fluorescent glare of the waiting room and corridor, she got a phantom, sharp and clear in her mind as they always were: a maze of red velvet trees, with something radiating cold at its hidden center. After a searing moment the phantom dissipated, as they always did. In its place was the kind of room she’d seen only in the movies, with apricot silk walls and a herringbone-parquet floor. Three men and a woman sat in leather chairs grouped around a small marble table. The woman gestured toward a fifth chair. “Please sit down, my dear.”
Amy sat. The chair was warm, the room was warm, the woman was warm, with kind eyes in a middle-aged face. She was dressed in camel-colored pants and silk blouse, with a cashmere vest in a deeper brown. Two of the men, one gray-haired and one bald, wore dark, expensive suits that made Amy even more aware of her old sneakers and faded jeans. The third male, African-American and far younger than the others, wore jeans and a black leather jacket, but even these made Kaylie’s silk sweater look shabby. Well, so what? Amy was here to apply for a job, not to fit into their moneyed world. She made herself smile. “Hello. I’m Amy Kent.”
“Yes, you are,” the woman said, making a comic little moue and holding up her tablet, which, of course, held all the information from the application Amy had filled out seven hours ago. “Tell us about yourself, Amy.”
Tell them what? They already knew she was sixteen, lived at an address none of them would be caught dead anywhere near, and had finished short-form high school. They could see from her clothing that she hadn’t had the money for a full-term school, the kind that prepared you for college, let alone for college itself.
Sell yourself, Amy. That’s what you do on a job interview
“Well, I graduated third in my class, and I did especially well in math, my favorite subject. I’m a very hard worker. One of my teachers said he’d never seen such a persistent student, even for things that don’t come easy to me.”
“What doesn’t come easy to you, Amy?” the woman asked.
Damn, why had she said that? On a job interview you were supposed to talk about your strengths, not your weaknesses. But she answered honestly. “I’m not good at music. Totally talentless, I’m afraid, and there was a breadth requirement at school to learn a song on the virtual keyboard. It took me weeks to learn a song, and even then my two hands weren’t completely coordinated.” She smiled, hoping to seem charmingly self-deprecatory. “But I’m good at other things that involve hand-eye coordination.”
“Was it about your keyboard playing that the teacher praised you for persistence?”
“What was the song you learned to play?”
Why were they asking her so much about this? If the job involved music, she was already disqualified. “It was ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’”
“I see,” the woman said. The gray-haired man smiled faintly. “What non-school talents do you have, Amy?”
“I have a good eye for clothing.” Not that she could afford any of it. “And I play chess.”
“Chess? How well?”
“I used to have a United States Chess Federation rating of 1900.” Would that mean anything to any of them? She couldn’t tell.
“You said ‘used to have.’ What is your rating now?”
“I don’t know. I had to drop out of competition.”
“And why was that?”
“I couldn’t afford the dues.” She stared directly at the woman, who probably could afford anything she wanted, let alone the paltry amount that the Chess Federation demanded.
The young black man in the leather jacket, clearly bored, pulled out a tablet and bent over it. All Amy could see was the top of his head, with thick brown hair that needed cutting. The bald man said, “Do you have any athletic skills?”
“I did gymnastics, years ago.” A lifetime ago, when Gran had been well and so had the United States economy.
“Can you still do a backflip?”
She stared at him. A backflip? What
this job? But the supercilious amusement in his half-smile riled her. She got out of the deep, cushiony chair, walked away from the furniture, and did a backflip and two cartwheels across the parquet floor.
Immediately she felt like a fool.
“Thank you, Amy,” the woman said, with no change in her kindly, poised tone. “You may sit down again.”
As Amy sat, she caught the glance exchanged among the three older adults—the young man hadn’t even looked up from his tablet—but she had no idea what their glances meant. The woman leaned forward. “We’d like to give you some tests now.”
“Yes. Simple things, I’m sure you’ll do well.” From a compartment in the arm of her chair she drew a tablet and handed it to Amy. “Just sit there and work on them for a few minutes.”
The tablet was a Li 6000, the newest and best Chinese tech. Amy had never even held one before, only seen them on TV. When Gran still had TV. The tablet felt sleek and light in her hand, yet with the right apps it could move satellites in orbit. Her thumb found the On button.
“Go ahead, dear,” the woman said. All four interviewers watched her closely.
A home screen appeared, with one icon: a pencil and little blue test booklet of the kind last used fifty years ago. Amy smiled. The icon brought up a written paragraph followed by questions. Amy scanned them: reading comprehension, very basic stuff. She read the paragraph, spoke her answers, and tackled a series of increasingly difficult paragraphs, followed by math questions, also increasing in difficulty. The “few minutes” became twenty. The three adults never took their eyes off her, which was unnerving.
Then the questions grew weird.
“If you saw a child being beaten by two older teenagers on a deserted street, what would you do?”
“Call 911,” Amy said, although she herself had neither phone nor tablet. Both pawned, like everything else.
“What if, instead of a child, the victim were a ragged and diseased homeless person?”
“Your tablet has died.”
“I guess . . . scream for someone to help.”
“No one comes. The child—let’s say it is a child—is writhing and crying in pain.”
“I would pretend to call 911, very loudly—the thugs don’t know my tablet has died. I’d also yell that I was taking pictures to identify them. Then I would run like hell. I’m very fast, and I could probably reach a store or other people before they caught up to me. And they’d have left the child.”
“They do catch you, grab your tablet, and try to smash it.”
“I’d let them have the tablet. The point is to save the child, not my tablet.”
“What is your favorite color?”
“What did you eat for breakfast this morning?”
“I didn’t.” What
“I wasn’t hungry,” Amy said, just as her stomach growled loud enough to echo.
It was the final insult. “Look,” Amy said to the interviewers, “I don’t mean to be rude, but before I answer any more personal questions, I’d like the chance to ask one. What exactly is this job?”
The kind-faced woman said, “What did you hear about the job, Amy? And how?”
“I overheard two girls mention it yesterday. On the bus.” She didn’t add that she’d only been on the bus because she’d taken Gran to the free clinic again, where again they had done nothing for her. Gran couldn’t possibly walk that far. On the bus she’d fallen asleep and Amy had cradled her with one arm and listened for anything to distract herself.
“Did the girls on the bus say what company was hiring?”
“Only that you’re a TV station.”
“And were you hoping for an on-air job?”
“No.” That had never crossed her mind. What, as a weather girl or something? Then she had another thought. “This isn’t a porno station, is it?”
The bald man laughed. The woman said, “No, dear. We’re TLN.”
Amy was stunned. Taunton Life Network was the edgy, upstart station that in the last five years had surpassed even NBC and Fox in the ratings. Couldn’t TLN afford to hire experienced personnel for any position they wanted, on- or off-air? And what was with the tacky, barely heated concrete waiting room?
She rose. “I think I’m in the wrong place.”
“Maybe not, dear. We’re looking for a hardworking, intelligent, physically fit girl to fill a new job, with union pay and full medical benefits. And I promise you there is no porn involved.”