“Then you know why we must do this.” She sensed an opening, and pressed it. “The Trust is soft, and corrupt. It is not their fault. They are too young, too new, to govern with any sort of adequacy. The Collective will bring the order so sadly lacking in this world.”
The Inventive’s response took a long time coming. Then--
“Order.” His voice was grim. “Yes. I’ve seen the way the Collective brings order. Promises… empty words. Confinement disguised as opportunity. The Trust only puts people in a prison. The Collective lets them build their own.”
“Another idea of which you have a particular understanding.”
He looked up sharply at the mocking confidence in her tone; then gave a slow nod.
“Yes.” Conrad blinked. “I… am not strong. I realize this.”
“Then let us be your strength.” Miss Vene placed a hand atop the barrier. “You know it is the best way. You must. Otherwise, why would you still be here?”
“A question I keep asking myself.” He picked up the screwdriver again and attacked the twisted metal in his lap with a grunt.
“And what do you reply?”
Silence. Miss Vene’s smile deepened.
“I know why you stay.” Her other hand reached into the mesh bag at her side. “You stay because there is nothing else left for you. In here… you can forget. At least, for a little while.”
She pulled something out of the bag and passed it over the wall.
Conrad’s expression was a mask, at first; but the barrier proved a flimsy one. An unnerving fever shone in his eyes as his human hand reached for the bottle. The other, as it had done since she entered, lay still in his lap.
“It helps; doesn’t it, Inventive?” Miss Vene watched him uncork the bottle, raising it to his lips with determined purpose. “To erase the memories? …The pain?”
Each sentence was punctuated by a swallow. It took a couple more before Conrad was ready to answer.
“No.” His breaths came ragged as air replaced gin. The bottle remained close, clutched to his chest. “…It makes it worse.”
She could not help a laugh, altogether too merry for the situation. “But you seem to look forward to my daily presents… if not my daily presence. Why should you desire such a thing?”
“Because I deserve no less.”
There was a limit to how much self-loathing could be packed into a few words. This sentence sped past it with ease.
Miss Vene shrugged off the sentiment with as much ease. “That is as may be. What you feel you deserve is for you to decide. What you truly deserve is an entirely different matter.”
“And who decides that?” He shook his head. “No, never mind. Rhetorical question.”
A dimple touched her cheek. “You already know the answer. You really are beginning to understand.”
“Oh… I understand.” Conrad paused to indulge another, fairly efficient, round of drinking. When the now-rather-more-empty gin again lowered, his eyes were beginning to lose focus. “Not too hard to catch on. The Collective. That’s the answer to everything. Isn’t it?”
“A better answer than you will find in that bottle.”
His lips twisted. “I doubt that very much, Miss Vene.”
She shrugged again. “Ah, well. It is of no concern.”
“No concern?” Skepticism flavored his voice. “You really don’t care if I keep this up?”
“No.” Her own tone brushed off the idea. “The only action of importance at this time is for you to continue your work. Since the drink appears to be of no particular impediment, I see no reason for you to discontinue that either. I… apologize if you had hopes of disrupting our plans.”
Accented as it was by a light, pleased, laugh, the last sentence left no doubt as to its true meaning. The Inventive bowed his head.
“Would that I were clever enough to think of such a thing.” He gazed down at the gin reflectively. “Would that I were strong enough to carry it out.”
“Never fear.” The soothing words curled about his ears. “The Collective protects the weak…as long as they remain loyal. Continue your work. Make no mistakes. You will be remembered, and rewarded, when all is at an end.”
He squinted up a moment, his lips moving in silent repetition of her speech; then he laughed. The Inventive actually laughed, not the dry bark of before, but a laugh of genuine amusement. It discomfited her, though she could not say why.
“Watch what you say, Miss Vene,” Conrad went on. “You may just find you speak the truth.”
Something tickled the edge of the sentence. Something hating, and hollow.
“Funny thing about walls.” The Inventive was the sort who became verbose under the influence of drink. “People like to build them. And, after some time, they like to break them down again. Problem is…” He took another gulp of gin; then set the bottle on the floor. Unconsciously, his living hand took up the abandoned project and continued working at it.
“Problem is, when people go to break down the wall, they tend to forget to ask themselves a very important question.”
There was a long pause. If Miss Vene had more familiarity with Conrad, she might not have thought about it twice. If she had been less unnerved, she might also have been wise enough to keep silent.
Next Week: Keeping Silent is for Wussies