“How would you know if I look right or not?” I challenged Frank, under my breath. I knew he was right, but I wanted him to explain it to me. If he didn’t understand it, then we would probably never look right.
I continued stumbling for a couple steps as Frank refused to allow me to come to equilibrium, but fortunately, I didn’t fall over.
“It’s difficult to describe. It’s your command of your personal space around you. Not because of your odor or your appearance. The other homeless can sense it too, and they mostly don’t care much what you look or smell like. When you approach them, people look at you sooner than they do at other homeless, and react to your presence sooner. Humans might not be really good at mathematical analysis on average, but most humans are really good at sensing threat, and even the way you are now, you make people nervous. They can see the threat in you.”
Good, Frank was getting much better at people watching. “Any idea what we can do to fix that?”
“Yea, a few ideas. Most of which you aren’t going to appreciate.”
“As long as you can reverse it very quickly, Frank, and as long as you can keep me from being at distracting pain levels, I’m willing to listen.” This was spoken under my breath, while coughing into my left glove, with my right hand hauling the Red Ryder wagon.
“OK, that eliminates missing limbs. Wasn’t too keen on those myself. The easiest for me to manage long term, which will not look strange, will be things modeled after real human conditions. Arthritis, for example, or multiple sclerosis. We can’t really use something like a hypothermic look for too long, because anyone our size going into hypothermia won’t live long, but it might be handy to give the appearance of hypothermia from time to time. Blue lips in the soup kitchen line. Blue tinge to the hands and clumsiness when we remove gloves by a fire. Osteoporosis might fit for an elderly man our size and weight, but we’re not giving the impression of being elderly, just middle aged and in poor health.”
“What about kerosene, gasoline, etc.? Doesn’t that cause nerve damage?”
“Yes, but if we try to pretend that you are that ill from drinking hydrocarbons, you won’t be able to move around much. We probably want to reduce the frequency of hydrocarbon intake anyway. A normal human our size can’t survive long with as much as we’ve been drinking. We’ll need to start showing serious symptoms of hydrocarbon poisoning soon, or anyone watching closely will pick up on the fact that we’re not as ill as we should be.”
“Won’t hurt my feelings any to drink less of the stuff.”
“I think that the best bet would be to start giving you symptoms of gout. Perhaps some visible bruising to make it seem as if you fall down regularly, and that would explain some hesitancy in movement while still letting you be mobile now and then if you have to be. We don’t want to completely blow our cover doing something that we shouldn’t be able to do. I like the idea of gout and bruising, because I can make them real if a doctor gives us a typical examination for them, and both of them will cause a human to be careful and in pain when moving casually, but not prevent them from moving quickly at need. At least at the levels that I’m considering.”
“Thing is that if you make them real enough to fool people, I’m either going to have to feel them like I should if I really suffered from them, or you’re going to have to help a lot. I really don’t want to feel like that. I want to be able to see what’s going on around me, and pay attention.”
“That’s one of the things that we need to keep you from doing so much, actually. Watching your surroundings closely is a signal to others that you are aware of your surroundings, and energetic enough that fight or flight is possible.”
“Hrm.” He had me there. The seriously ill and depressed really didn’t typically watch their surroundings as well as healthier persons did. At the same time I really didn’t want to feel as bad as I looked.
“Also, I don’t really have a sense of how you would move when chronically ill. That’s never been an issue with us. I can surely pretend this body is ill and in poor condition better than you but it might still be subtly off.”
“I’d be willing to meet you part way, Frank, but only when we are alone and there’s little or no chance of threat. At those times, if you want to make me occasionally feel as bad as I look, so you can understand better how I will move and react when feeling that way, just let me know and we can ‘practice.’ I really don’t want to do it very much though, I don’t want to deal with all the mental issues that chronic pain can bring.”
We stopped talking to ourselves and ‘recovered’ from our stumble, then finished walking across the ‘you-pull-it’ auto yard to the section where the small scale recycling took place. Quite a few homeless came here with recyclables and deposit return items. The fellow who owned the place had a soft spot in his heart for us. There was always strong coffee and plenty of sugar and cream, though he had to give it to us. He’d lost too many coffee pots and had too many messes created by palsied, weak hands to let us do the coffee ourselves. He almost always had some stale donuts or still-edible fruits too far past their prime to sell, courtesy of some of the grocery stores and bakeries. Occasionally there would be other foodstuffs that were past their shelf-life but still fine to eat. Expired cereals, snack cakes, bread, etc. He didn’t make any money from what we brought him, not enough to justify the time he put into helping us. During the holidays, he usually managed to get a small spread put together with some local churches. We were treated with respect. The only thing that would make him angry was begging from his other customers. The ‘no begging’ rule was enforced by the homeless themselves, mostly nonviolently – and never violently in the junkyard.
After collecting my little bit of money, I accepted a cup of coffee gratefully. It was hot, really sweet, and very light-colored but strong. Plenty of sugar and cream. I like my coffee with coffee, but I knew my own appearance and I could see the owner’s concern. He handed me a couple of soft chewable vitamins too, the ones that were like candy. I felt guilty acting like this in front of the guy, and making him feel the pity I knew he felt for me. It probably actually enhanced my act, as I had a hard time thanking him. He just nodded back.
I walked a few feet away and sat on a beat up old chair, nursing the coffee and screwing up the courage to tell Frank to turn on the pain for the walk to the convenience store. I made sure to fumble and spill the last bits of coffee, and struggle to get it cleaned up, making a little bit of a production out of it for the other homeless to see, but not asking for help. Never ask for help. I didn’t want to be drawn in or draw anyone to me, I wanted to seem apart, and weak.
By the time I was done drinking, spilling, then cleaning up the coffee, the sun was starting to hit the trees on the horizon. Sundown would be soon, and I should be back to the bridge by then. With Frank’s help I walked out of the place, a few stumbles here and there. When we hit the road and started walking towards the convenience store closest to the bridge, I told Frank to make me feel like I was trying to look, and I immediately regretted it. I tried to be stoic and mostly ignore it for a while, but that didn’t work, so I started to figure out how to move my body so that the pains weren’t as severe. Eventually I adopted a painful limping walk with a bit of a shuffle. Not really slow, but an irregular gait that was slower and more deliberate than before.
Frank was satisfied with my performance, erased the pain, and took over, duplicating my walking gait. We had a bit of a conversation about other positions and conditions where he would want to sample my reaction to the pain. Sitting and standing, laying down, etc. We would do a few more things tonight. Conversation went back to the owner of the junkyard, and how he was able to do so much with so little.
I had already had a few moments discussion with Frank about how we were going to set up a small charity and set this guy up, and others like him, with small stipends to support their charity efforts. Money was really no issue with us. After we became part of the Agency, we did careful studies of natural gemstones, they were really easy. Some easier than others. Diamonds were extremely easy for Frank. A five carat ‘natural’ diamond was worth anywhere from a small car to a small house, and Frank could make one from a few pieces of charcoal in about an hour. Making bigger diamonds was no harder, but took longer and they would draw a lot more notice. Five carats was about as large as we could get away with on anything resembling a consistent basis, without drawing too much attention on the large carat diamond market. We usually did smaller cut stones, or larger uncut ones.
What constantly irked both of us was that there was so much more we could do if we could come out into the open. Frank’s capacity to manufacture medicines alone could change the world. Literally. Frank by himself could manufacture thousands of gallons of prescription medicines per day, of any complexity desired, with his biofactory at the Agency. That wasn’t even considering his ability to assess pathogens of all sorts. But we didn’t dare. Much. After we went overseas and saw a few nasty epidemics, Frank tailored a few cold viruses to give permanent immunity to cholera and a few other killer diseases. Not even the Agency knew. Yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of the tech weenies in the biosciences suspected it and eventually proved it. Doing so little when we could potentially do so much was so damn frustrating. We were both actually a bit jealous of the junkyard owner in a small way – he was able to give on par with his ability.
We finished our slow walk to the convenience store closest to the bridge and bought the cheapest bottle of wine and forty-three cents worth of kerosene in our half gallon plastic gas can. Kerosene was cheaper than low octane unleaded today. When we got back to the bridge, I found a place a bit away from the others, and slowly drank the wine bottle down, leaning against a bridge pillar, facing away from the rest, minding my own business and pretending to drink myself to sleep. When I finished the wine, I pretended to be severely drunk, and spilled most of the kerosene trying to pour it into the wine bottle. I tried to look aggrieved, and bashed the gas can against the pillar next to us in an apparent drunken fit. This succeeded in damaging the container so it wouldn’t hold liquids any longer. Then I drank down what little kerosene was in the wine bottle.
Several of the others looked over at me from their little fires and shook their heads. I never joined them. I rarely spoke to them. When the street punks came around, I would gather together with the rest of the homeless and pick up a couple rocks, but nothing had come of those encounters yet. A couple of the homeless were day laborers who were in fair shape and carried weapons up to and including two pistols between the six of them who could credibly fight. When the weather got really cold, things would change. More and more homeless would seek out the shelters, fewer would gather where they could have safety in numbers. The punks would grow braver and there would be robberies and beatings. I would never stay in a shelter though, pretending to have severe claustrophobia which would keep me from staying inside long. I had a suspicion that street punks and thugs might be somehow related to the homeless disappearances. Someone had to collect the weakest homeless. Someone who wouldn’t look out of place doing it. Cold weather wasn’t far off.
That would be my last kerosene in any significant amount. Buying a new gas can would be more expensive than getting a second bottle of wine, so that’s what I would do. If I happened to have the “good” fortune of getting another container that the gas stations would let me pump fuel into, I’d see that it got a similar fate. Frank was going to make my apparent health start to fade pretty quickly anyway. I’d be a good target.
“Tomorrow morning’s going to hurt Bob,” Frank warned, “so be ready for it. I’ll be waking you up by turning on your pain sensitivity and slowly dialing it up to normal.”
Frank then put me to sleep and collapsed me on my side, for all appearances a small, tired, crumpled, malnourished man.
The next morning was horrendous.
Frank kept me mostly quiet because I shouldn’t have the energy to be making the noises my body wanted me to make. He did let me curse and groan a bit. The pain was everywhere. Hangover, hips, knees, lower back, right shoulder, upper back and neck. Pretty much everything hurt. Standing up to go use the restroom was an iron-clad bitch, it took me three tries to reach my feet. I was extremely stiff and my muscles kept trying to cramp up, occasionally succeeding.
“You weren’t kidding” I puffed, out of breath and leaning against a bridge pillar as I pissed down an embankment that led to some train tracks.
“Warned you. But this is what we need. You don’t have to live it every day, or even every hour, but I need to see it to copy it. I’ve already noticed a shift in how the others regard you, very rapid. You are now acting a lot more ‘normal’ to them for someone in your apparent condition.”
“How fast could I get back into fighting shape?” I mumble.
“A couple seconds. Nothing is really wrong with you except some cosmetics. If we get forced into a medical environment I can make it all real long enough to be examined.”
I slowly stumbled up the hill to where my wagon and bags of stuff were. Then, hauling my trusty, rusty Red Ryder wagon behind me, I painfully limped out from underneath the bridge into the early morning fog. I took a different route than I had the day before. Not only did this let me collect recyclables in areas I hadn’t already picked over, it also let me learn the area and the people.
I spent my time wandering through the alleys and streets, learning the area surreptitiously, taking a couple beatings without real resistance from some punks that found me in the wrong place at the wrong time. Frank let them ‘hurt’ me a bit, but not too much. Once, after a knife was drawn, I panicked and ‘tried to run’, smacking my head against a fire escape ladder that had been pulled down to head height and jammed that way. This let me pretend to knock myself out cold, which, in turn, let them rifle my pockets, finding nothing. The second time it happened, I just pretended to faint. I left a fat shiner across my forehead in case the rumor got around how I ran and knocked myself out.
It was about noon when Frank hissed in my mind. “I smell juice. It’s not ours.”
I simply muttered one word. “Careful.” Then I started paying close attention to every single person, every corner, every window and door as we slowly walked around picking up recyclables. Nothing out of the ordinary.
“We can’t search here not for long. Not in daylight. Not without acting suspicious”
“Gotta get back to the bridge before dark and stay there.” I muttered “Can rest a bit I guess.”
I leaned up against a telephone pole and stretched a bit, Frank was making my stretches appear to be intermittently painful and pleasurable. I heard and felt the popping of joints. Frank was putting on a pretty good show. As they walked by, a few people looked at me in disgust, a few just stayed away from me. Mothers carefully kept themselves between me and their young children. All of that was pretty much normal when you looked and smelled like we did and get too close to ‘normal’ people.
“I still smell it. It’s close”
“No, don’t think so.”
That’s when I noticed the cap moving on the other side of a set of steps from us. Someone was sitting there, drinking occasionally from a bottle. As soon as my eyes registered him, I felt Frank start thinking, hard, probably doing atmosphere calculations, blah, blah, blah, and proving that the guy wasn’t the source of the juice.
“That’s him. The one on the other side of the steps drinking is the source of juice smell.”
I stretched a bit more, with Frank supplying the noises and facial expressions to properly accompany what I wasn’t actually feeling. Then I put one hand behind my back and pretended to rub at an ache as I flexed my neck back and forth, carefully not looking directly at the guy, but carefully not looking away too obviously either. Finally, after taking a deep breath and blowing it out like I had something to do that I really would rather not do, I turned a bit, and walked away.
“Careful retreat, start coming down here in different nearby areas on different days, see what we can find?”
I blinked once as we walked away, scanning for bottles, cans, and other recyclables I could get some money for, trying to make sense of what we had just seen.
Unknown source of hyper-oxygenated synthetic adrenaline. Begin tracking human movement patterns and wind patterns in immediate area. Density of scent indicates source within thirty feet, if scent is sourced from a unit with similar characteristics to this unit.
Air patterns and scent density patterns appear to indicate that a human leaning against a nearby wooden pole with suspended communication and power wires is the source of the scent. A drinking motion from the bottle allows better visual angles and a new observation is possible. The human which seems to be the source of the scent is injured and in poor health. All beings capable of generating hyper-oxygenated synthetic adrenaline have the ability to regenerate rapidly. Recalibration does not change the anomalous result. This unit’s olfactory capability must be malfunctioning. After calculating the potential benefits and drawbacks of engaging under assumption that detected unit is an enemy, a decision is reached. Caution must be maintained. After the potentially dangerous unit is out of visual range, this unit stands and signals. Another friendly unit leaves a nearby structure and begins watching the road. This unit returns to base, in order to make a report and have olfactory systems calibrated.