My recorder sits on the edge of the coffee table. I snap my fingers twice, then listen to Day’s voice over and over. What face matches up to this voice? I try to imagine how Day looks. Young and athletic, probably, and lean from years on the streets. The voice sounds so crackled and distorted from the speakers that there are parts I can’t understand.
“Hear that, Ollie?” I whisper. Ollie snores a little and rubs his head against my hand. “That’s our guy. And I’m going to get him.”
I fall asleep with Day’s words ringing in my ears.
I’m in the Lake sector, watching the strengthening daylight paint the churning waterwheels and turbines gold. A layer of smoke hovers perpetually over the water’s edge. Farther across the lake I can see downtown Los Angeles sitting right next to the shore. A street policeman approaches and tells me to stop loitering, to keep moving. I nod wordlessly and continue along the shore.
From a distance, I blend in completely with those walking around me. My half-sleeve collared shirt came from a thrift emporium at the border between Lake and Winter. My trousers are torn and smeared with dirt—my boots’ leather is flaking off. I’m very careful about the type of knot I use to tie my shoelaces. It’s a simple Rose knot, something any worker would use. I’ve pulled my hair back into a tight, high ponytail. I wear a newsboy cap over it.
Day’s pendant necklace sits snugly in my pocket.
I can’t believe how filthy the streets are here. Probably even worse than the dilapidated outskirts of Los Angeles. The ground sits low against the water (not unlike the other poor sectors, which all seem to look the same), so that whenever there’s a storm, the lake probably floods all the streets lining the shore with dirty, sewage-contaminated water. Every building is faded, crumbling, and pockmarked—except, of course, the police headquarters. People walk around trash piled against the walls as if it isn’t even there. Flies and stray dogs linger near the garbage—as do some people. I crinkle my nose at the smell (smoky lanterns, grease, sewage). Then I stop, realizing that if I’m to pass as a Lake citizen, I should pretend to be used to the stench.
Several men grin at me as I pass by. One even calls out to me. I ignore them and keep going. What a bunch of cons, men who had barely passed their Trials. I wonder if I can catch the plague from these people, even though I’m vaccinated. Who knows where they’ve been.
Then I stop myself. Metias had told me never to judge the poor like that. Well, he’s a better person than I am, I think bitterly.
The tiny microphone inside my cheek vibrates a little. Then a faint sound comes from my earpiece. “Ms. Iparis.” Thomas’s voice comes out as a tiny hum that only I can hear. “Everything working?”
“Yup,” I murmur. The little microphone picks up my throat’s vibrations. “In central Lake now. I’m going dark for a bit.”
“Got it,” Thomas says, and his side falls silent.
I make a clicking sound with my tongue to turn off my microphone.
I spend most of this first morning pretending to dig around in the garbage bins. From the other beggars I hear stories about plague victims, which areas the police seem most nervous about, and which have started to recover. They talk about the best places to find food, the best places to find fresh water. The best places to hide during hurricanes. Some of the beggars look too young to have even taken the Trial. The youngest ones talk about their parents or how to pickpocket a soldier.
But no one talks about Day.
The hours drag on into evening, then night. When I find a quiet alley to rest in, with a few other beggars already asleep in the garbage bins, I curl into a dark corner and click my microphone on. Then I take out Day’s pendant necklace from my pocket, holding it up slightly so I can study its smooth bumps.
“Calling it a night,” I murmur. My throat barely vibrates.
My hearing piece crackles faintly with static. “Ms. Iparis?” Thomas says. “Any luck today?”
“Nope, no luck. I’ll try some public places tomorrow.”
“Okay. We’ll have people over here twenty-four seven.”
By “people over here twenty-four seven,” I know Thomas means he’s the only one there, listening for me. “Thanks,” I whisper. “Going dark.” I click my microphone off. My stomach rumbles. I pull out a slice of chicken I found in the back of a café’s kitchen and force myself to munch on it, ignoring the slime of cold grease. If I need to live like a Lake citizen, I’ll have to eat like one. Maybe I should get a job, I think. The idea makes me snort a little.
When I finally fall asleep, I have a bad dream, and Metias is in it.
I find nothing substantial the next day, or the day after that. My hair grows tangled and dull in the heat and smoke, and dirt has started to coat my face. When I look at my reflection in the lake, I realize that I look exactly like a street beggar now. Everything feels dirty. On the fourth day, I make my way to the rim of Lake and Blueridge and decide to spend my time wandering through the bars.
That’s when something happens. I stumble into a Skiz fight.
THE RULES FOR WATCHING—AND BETTING ON—a Skiz fight are simple enough.
1. You pick who you think will win.
2. You bet on that person.
That’s about it. The only problem that comes up is when you’re too infamous to risk placing a public bet and possibly getting picked up by the police.
This afternoon I’m crouched behind the chimney of a crumbling, one-story warehouse. From here I can see the crowd of people gathered in the abandoned building next door. I’m even close enough to make out some of their conversations.