"That's right," she said, "When they ask, tell them Maria sent you."
Her companion nodded. "Right."
'Maria' looked at her, pity slopping around in her heart but not, she hoped, spilling from her eyes. Carrie's skin was sallow, and last week a tooth had fallen out. Both of them were pretty sure she had scurvy, but she couldn't get a job and all the food stamps were good for were discounted processed items denatured of almost any kind of nutritional value, like to eating cardboard with artificial flavor. Fruits and vegetables were expensive, what with the winter that had stayed winter through spring and then come back with a vengeance in the early autumn. And as for dietary supplements, well ... those were controlled substances, these days. Maria couldn't remember what the pretext was, and wasn't sure it mattered. Everyone knew the real reason, by now.
Carrie's eyes were dull with hunger, the spark that had once danced in them dimmed to an ember. Noting this, Maria leaned in and said, "Tell me the passphrase again."
"'The Light of Heaven shines from Logic.'"
"'The Light of Heaven shines from Logos.'"
"Good. Don't forget it." She didn't know whether or not they'd show leniency if Carrie messed up the passphrase. She was so far gone, on the edge of delerium ... possibly they'd forgive her. That was no reason at all, though, not to try and see to it that she remembered it as well as possible.
All Carry needed, she thought, was vitamins. With those to supplement the carbohydrate diet the state kept her on, she might just pull through to summer, if there was to be a summer. Perhaps they'd have a tea of some kind, as they'd given her, or maybe just some proper herbs to sprinkle over her food.
"What's logos?" Carrie asked.
Maria sighed. "It's ... um, 'word', I think, in Latin or Greek or something."
"Oh, so like the Word of God or something like that?"
"Something like that." Maria knew that wasn't right, exactly, but wasn't clear on the details herself and didn't feel like getting into a theological exegesis with a woman so sick she'd barely been able to get out of bed this morning.
She'd chosen Carrie the way Steven had come to her. He hadn't waited for her approach, but had identified her as someone in need of real medical attention and, discretely, approached her himself. He hadn't more than vaguely alluded to his real purpose until they'd met at a small club, a place where the music could be guaranteed to drown out any hope of someone's cell overhearing them, and whispered his instructions in her ear. She'd gone the very next day.
Well, Carrie was in no shape to go to a music club. But she was sick, and it would be no strange thing if her friend visited to minister to her. And if that friend had recently had a cancer scare, well, it was within the accepted parameters of human coping behaviour that she'd be skittish of the unwelcome device that had no doubt caused it and taken to leaving it at home, or (more recently) carrying it in a case lined with lead foil. Though she wasn't sure; with the case she might be deviating outside accepted parameters and beginning to trigger the Watcher's unpredictable paranoia.
So she'd come over around noon, carefully left Carrie's cell next to a speaker blaring something rockabilly from her mp3 collection, and sat close beside her as she stroked her friend's hair and murmured directions into her ear that might save her life.
That was how they solved the distribution problem, Maria figured. Rather than selling to the highest bidder and letting the Market do it's work for them, they relied on their own customer's judgment to direct those most in need in their direction, and thereby moved a limited supply of herbal medications and dietary supplements grown in extreme secrecy under desperate circumstances to the people most desperately in need.
She'd wondered what they called themselves. Some time after her visit she'd asked Steven. "Dunno," he'd shrugged. "I think of them as the Underground Herbalists, but that's just me."
Funny; she'd never have thought to ask what her dealer called his organization, back in the day when she had money and time for things like drugs. She wouldn't even have assumed he had a name, and frankly would have been a little frightened to find out he had, because that meant you weren't just dealing with your friendly neighborhood pusher but ultimately with a gang, and that was a whole different kind of ugly. And while you might know that ultimately it was a gang that your hydro was coming from, your discerning middle class pothead preferred to keep at least a couple of middlemen between herself and the ultimate origin.
Whoever these people were, she felt, they weren't a gang. Oh, there were similarities, sure; and if the one basement shop she'd been in was anything to judge by, there were elements of the criminal underclass that had thrown in with them ... but they weren't in charge. She couldn't see real crooks getting into a business whose 'profits' were the goodwill and favors of anyone who happened to survive what they'd come to have treated. No, they were clearly in a subordinate role for ... what, exactly? How were they being paid? In medicine?
Well, that wasn't so ridiculous, when you thought of it. Not these days. Those men had families too, and a supply of natural medications and nutritional supplementation would go a long way to ensuring those families would survive the winter.
Carrie shifted, and grimaced. Her hand moved down to rub her knee. "Can you go for me?" She asked. "I know you just spent all that time telling me the directions, but my knee's really been hurting today."
Maria frowned. "Can I have a look at it?" Seeing the hesitation in her gaze, Maria leaned over and lifted Carrie's skirt up. Her knee was swollen and read. Internal bleeding, she judged. She'd heard somewhere that the joints did that, in the late stages. At any rate it didn't look like she'd get very far on that knee, not even in the pleasantest weather. Let alone the raging snowstorm that had kicked up just after she'd arrived: the howling wind outside was driving snowflakes at a hundred kilometres an hour, according to the news. They got to be like little shuriken at that speed. Every one of them cut into the skin before it melted, abrading just a little of it off. You'd notice even one hitting your skin, but in this weather they'd hit you by the million.
People died in those storms. First there were the unlucky ones, the ones who didn't find shelter until too late, simultaneously cut to pieces and frozen solid. Then there was the aftermath, with downed powerlines and roads closed by massive snow-drifts and toppled trees and sometimes lamp-posts. Things didn't get back on their feet with the speed they used to, and every time one of these storms hit a few more froze to death.
"Sure, I'll go for you," Maria said, gingerly replacing the skirt. "But I'll wait until the snowicane blows over first, OK?"
"Absolutely not!" Carry said, shocked. "I want you to go now! Now, now, now!" She teased, her expression entirely genuine. Then she burst out laughing, and for a moment Carrie's old self returned, the Carrie of happier times who went clubbing and rock-climbing and worried about makeup and boys and her resume.
Maria giggled along with her, and they were plunged into darkness as the music cut out. Around them they heard nothing but the thin scream of the wind, and for a moment they were both blind.
"Oh, damnit...." Maria started, involuntarily.
"I thought that might happen." Carrie tried to sit up, failed and dropped back down into her chair. "Listen, I've got some big quilts and some candles I've been saving up. Maybe if we throw the quilts over us, and sit with a candle or two between us we can keep warm. It'll be like an igloo made from cushions and blankets."
"That's a wonderfully awful idea, hun," said Maria, smiling. "We'll set fire to the place and burn to death."
"At least we'll die warm."
"And that's why I said, 'wonderfully'," Maria returned, rummaging in her capacious shoulder-bag. It took her a time, in the darkness, but finally she held up a small LED finger-light and turned it on, bathing the room in a soft luminesnce that was just enough to see by. She stood up. "So," she said, "Where did you say those quilts were?"