Whereas Leanna had begun her explorations with turns to the right, she now concentrates on left turns, diligently mapping her way through the section just to the west of her room.
During her second outing, she bumps into the animals. Cows. Pigs. Chickens. Goats. Mountain goats (Dall Sheep). More conventional sheep, both with white and black faces. Birds. Thousands of types of birds, but all with feathers she's allergic to. And horses.
She gravitates to the horses, of course.
"Oh, hello. Who are you?"
"Leanna. And you?"
I wonder if all these weird names, unlike any last names I've ever heard, are like a nom de plume, or CB handle... I'll have to ask Mason. At least his is a name I can recognize as such...
"Er... I don't see many outsiders, and the animals don't care. I'm not sure when I shaved last." He rubs his whiskers as if that were where her eyes were focused.
"Is that an Arabian I see over there?"
"Sure is, and what a honey he is."
"Yup. Every animal here is of the finest bloodlines of their type. We do parallel breeding in case of world-wide catastrophe. We could replenish sound breeding stock in most food and companion animal categories. We'd like to add the wildlife to it, but at the current funding level, we're stretched pretty thin as it is."
"What's the name of your project? I'm sure I would have heard of such a worthy undertaking."
Kenstrom's eyes grow wide, and he almost puts his hand over his mouth, his astonishment is so genuine. "I've got to get back to work. I'm understaffed." Turning abruptly, he disappears.
Calling after his retreating form, Leanna shouts, "May I groom the stallion? I wouldn't mind working with such a magnificent animal."
"Suit yourself. Tack and equipment is off to the left there in that recessed alcove."
And he is gone. Boy, when I spook them, I do a thorough job of it. Her lips press together in extreme disgust. What did I say? I can't think of anything that should have been offensive... Maybe because I made him feel self-conscious for not being clean-shaven...
As she thinks, she enters the alcove and sorts through the dandy brushes for just the right firmness to cleanse, but not traumatize, a soft-haired Arabian's skin . After a delightful hour, she leaves, feeling pleasantly rumpled and dirty, just retracing her route instead of hunting out a new way home. When she arrives, she passes a man intently reading in one of the frequent recessed enclaves, resting easily on a stone, or maybe a pseudo-stone bench. Leanna cannot quite decide.
As she keys her deadbolt, she is startled when the reader hails her. "Oh, I say, Miss, I'm the computer technician come to put you back on line."
"Back... huh, well, I..." She tries to slip inside without admitting him, but he's very smooth, and avoids an awkward bumping, arriving inside just as she's out of position to slam it. She does succeed in shutting it, leaving him blocking the doorway into the bathroom. As she stares at him, his nose wrinkles.
Well, it's a cinch HE'S not a horse person! Sternly, she tries to keep a smile from quirking about her lips.
Tipping his head alertly, he exaggerates the movement of his nose.
She suppresses a snort of humor.
"Yes," he thinks, subvocalizing so Granton will be included. "She's reacting to my response to her smell." Aloud, he continues, "Horse? Is that fresh horse I smell?"
"Yes. I thought I could beat it home and into the shower before I came across anyone, but you were too quick for me." Her gaze goes over his shoulder, into the room beyond him.
"Oh, I seem to be blocking your bathroom door." He starts toward the living room, and she automatically responds by moving closer to the outside door, as he had hoped . "Where'd you find a horse around here? Or did you store some fresh manure somewhere so you could visit it?"
His silly sally is rewarded with an outright laugh of delight. "I really don't know where I was for sure. I just get in the need of exercise, pick a likely direction, and take off. Sometimes it takes me HOURS and HOURS to find my way back to somewhere I recognize."
He watches her eyes as she says this. Subvocalizing again as he thinks, he asks, "You getting her half of this conversation, Granton?"
"Clear as a bell."
"Good. Does she seem genuine to you?"
"Too soon to tell. Carry on."
Aloud, he says, "Well, I'll go see to your computer while you, ah, ah, do whatever." He sidles out of the doorway into the living room, stopping abruptly when he catches what he is pretending is the first sight of her Mac. "What the? That's not one of ours! What is that?"
Guiltily, she says, "My Mac. I had it brought out of storage and hooked it up. I hated the way that other one operated, and it didn't have anything on it that I needed for my work. I write . My four novels and all my poems, all my research notes, the family business web page, everything is on my G-4."
"That thing's an antique, you know? What if it breaks down?"
"Oh, he knows how much I depend on him. He'd never do that to me!"
He gets the feeling that she is only half teasing. "I haven't seen a Mac since I was a kid. May I play while you clean up? I promise not to hurt him."
"I'm sorry you came to fix the other one. I disabled it to have something to hook the Mac up to, and room on the counter for it." She's standing behind him, still fully clothed.
"Ah, well, you can't order from that one. How are you getting your food."
He hears Granton's comment, "What friends? She only talks to Macon and Ethan. Surely they can't be feeding three on their allotment."
"They must be pretty GOOD friends. The computers are strictly rationed. That's one reason you don't see obese people around here. Everyone's vitals are monitored each time they make their requisitions." As he talks, he's pulled the company computer away from the wall. "Oh, my GOD! You can't hook stuff up like that! It could start a fire, electrocute someone, short out the entire network! How'd you ever get that done, anyway, and live to tell the tale?"
"I don't remember. I just DID it. Very carefully." She's near tears.
Looking at her face in the mirror behind the computer, he meets her eyes. "I'm sorry I shouted. But you really, really scared me. If you'd died, just think what would happen!"
"I can't imagine. What would happen? People die. Nobody gets out alive..." Her eyes hold his. He carefully examines their grayness, noting flecks of hazel in them. Finally he looks away.
"Let me see if I can convert a program to run on yours. And work up a safety shield... Go take your bath. I'll be at it a while." Without so much as a by-your-leave, he sits down and boots up her computer, quickly accessing the main files and pulling across a program kernel to convert to her OS. "9.2? OS 9.2? That went out, ah, in 2002? 2003? When did Apple first switch to X? Ancient history here." He's not really addressing her, but just mumbling to himself.
Leanna watches him for a bit, then retires to the shower, which is LONG and HOT. When she emerges, he's still at it, his hair pleasantly rumpled, his cuffs pushed back.
"You remind me of my dad. He'd get all involved in some mechanical thing like that, put his tongue out just like that, and miss meals, not even hear or see other people. He was tops with any kind of machine. People, now, were something else. He always expected them to be perfect. Noble. Hardworking. Honest. The whole schemer. Nobody could possibly measure up."
Feeling guilty, he meets her eyes. "Well, I guess I DO stick to the task to a fault," letting his hands drop from the keyboard.
Excusing herself, she has him lean back as she pulls out the drawer right in front of him, fishing out clean undies and socks. Looking into the mirror, she smiles a sickly smile at him. He gives her a cheerful, reassuring glance via the mirror, then puts his hands back on the keyboard.
"Granton, she's terribly SHY. She just turned beat red fishing her underpants out of a drawer in front of me. No wonder Bruel blew it. She's sweet, too . Macon's pushing her too hard, I bet. I think she probably DOES like him, or she wouldn't take it."
"I've got the room monitor turned on. I saw. How's it look for her computer?"
"Her wiring job is sound... I could use a tech who could do what she did without shutting off the system, blowing it up, or electrocuting herself."
"Request denied at this time, but I'll keep it in mind. She scared the tarnation out of Kenstrom in the barn earlier. He let slip something he shouldn't have. I'm wondering how bright she is... I don't want her getting a hint of our real purpose before we know what we're planning to do with her. Hold on! I may have to get you back here! Someone's in Arizona... after something there, in the four corners area."
"I'll tell her I need some more parts to build a shield. I'm bringing her computer in." He shuts off and stands.
Leanna comes out of the bathroom with her hair all combed down around her elbows and waist, all curly and kinky. Cleten can't take his eyes off her. "You sure look, ah, you... " Blinking his eyes rapidly, he ends, "I have to go back for more shielding to protect your cable. Please don't do anything on it, or put anything in that corner until I can get back here and fix it." Grabbing the disabled computer, he heads toward the door, realizing too late that if he doesn't let her get out of there, he can't get through with his burden. Holding it in front of him, he moves for the handle. His arm brushes her breast with the gentlest of touches, but the static electricity that jumps from him to her and vice versa nearly makes him drop the computer.
"Oh, here, let me get the door for you." Turning, she swings it open, but he bumps into her again before he can escape out the door. "I'll be back as soon as I can," he reiterates as he leaves.
For the next week, while waiting for Cleten to return, Leanna follows his advice and does not boot up her computer. She goes every day instead to the stable and plays with the stallion, finally cornering Kenstrom long enough to get permission to ride him. Following the cows out one morning after their milking, she finds herself in a valley she calls "Shangri-la" for its beauty and perfection.
Gradually, Kenstrom becomes comfortable enough to converse with her a bit. "Where'd you learn to ride?"
"Well, I'm no show rider like my little sister, Pina, but I've groomed and tacked for her in International competition, so I know my way around a dandy brush. I'm an advanced rider, but nothing fancy or pretty to look at. I generally did the training on the young ones and the basic schooling, but Pina is the real horsewoman in the family. I prefer to just hop on bareback and take a jaunt down a pleasant trail or through a forest. We did a lot of horseback vacations when we were teenagers, even though mom never rode. Oh, once, I got her to SIT on a broken down kindly old broodmare. She made me back up and take a picture so she'd have PROOF. To show to whom, she'd never say..."
He won't talk to her about himself, or the facilities, after that first day, but at least the haunted tenseness is gone. The third day, as she returns to her room, Cleten is again reading in his alcove, a pouch at his feet. "Shielding," he greets her, then installs it with alacrity. "Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. Something came up in my regular job, and I had to suspend the service call work for a while. I hope you've been able to keep yourself occupied while I was tied up."
"Oh, don't give it another thought."
"Will you let me treat you to a supper in one of the clubs?"
"Clubs? Like the canteen in Section D?"
Roaring with laughter as if she'd just come up with the funniest thing he'd ever heard, he wipes his eyes, and says, "Oh, you just HAVE to let me take you to a 'real' eatery. Canteen... That was too rich. Who've you been dating, anyway? Really a cheapskate, I'd say."
"How will you get around the computerized restrictions on people's rations so they don't become obese?"
"The rich meals are limited, but not extinguished. Will you come?”
“I don’t even know your name.”
“Oh, since I knew yours, ah… it just sort of slipped my mind. I’m Cleten.” He holds out his hand as though just being introduced for the first time.
“How do you do?”
“I don’t know, yet. That depends on your answer.”
With a large smile, she relents. “Okay. I just have to see how the other half live.”
“I've rethought my comment. If you weren't accessing your ration, maybe D’s canteen was all the computer would allow.. I never thought about trying to feed two off one person's allotment, or three off two, etc."
"Thinking back on it, I bet I was being fed using two people's... not just one. I'll be sure to thank them. I had no idea about the system. When they found out, they just took care of it, instead of making waves."
"Well. SOMEONE reported your computer as down. I don't go on walk-arounds drumming up business, you know."
With a friendly smile, he moves toward the door. "Tonight at 7:30? Maybe we can take in the Friday Frolics afterward."
"Will I have to perform?"
"Perform? Well, you can if you'd like to. Anyone may, but nobody is forced to."
Last updated 6/8/06 (milking,) 5/28/06 (reversed old and kindly, wouldn't to won't) 11/9/04.
Word count: 2410
Reading Level: 4.0