At half past one, Erin leaned back from her work and rubbed her eyes. She was tired, and she was sweating. Over the past few weeks, the heat had been increasing steadily, to the point where there were dehydration warnings blaring on every channel of the wire. She was thirsty, but she didn't want to waste her liquid ration for the day before she ate her midday meal. She licked her dry lips and tried to divert her mind.

Unfortunately, there was little to do but continue working on her equations—however, her mind refused to focus. She was well ahead of where the government expected her to be, so she preferred to relax. Were the day cooler, she would have gone down to the pond and dunked her head, but even that small oasis was drying up. Wiping at her forehead, she pushed from her desk and walked to the window, which was cocked open in the hopes that a breeze would bluster through.

Across the street, there was a man lying on his stomach. He wasn't moving, and there was shattered glass around his form. She shifted her gaze up and spotted a broken window and deduced what happened: he'd fallen out from the fourth floor. Erin ducked back and closed her eyes. He was hardly the first dead person she'd seen, especially after the regime change, but seeing death never got any easier.

She still recalled with painful clarity the first corpse she ever encountered. She was eight. She'd gone to deliver a pie to the crotchety neighbor, only to find the old woman face up, wide-eyed, and decaying. The woman had haunted her dreams for a year or two after, and Erin spent a few years in therapy dealing with her sudden mortal dread.

Even now, she sometimes feared that she'd die before she woke up and that nobody would find her until she'd all but rotted away. Her mother had suggested getting a roommate to have someone around in case of an accident, but she preferred her solitude. She didn't get along with most people, who found her a bit awkward. Either way, she wasn't going to allow another person into her living space just to avoid her fear of dying alone. She had convinced her mother it was just easier if someone called to check on her every day or two.

She returned to the window and checked outside once more; the way was clear, and she sighed with relief. She hadn't expected the street cleaners to be so timely, given the weather. Thanks to the drought, everyone in Manhattan was hungry, thirsty, and overworked. All they needed was a spot of rain, but the skies remained cloudless and the sun relentless.

Heading to the kitchen, she decided she'd put off lunch long enough. She pulled her bag of bread from atop the cooling unit and a jar of jam from within. Before she could properly slather a piece of bread with jam, there came a slamming on her door, followed by a quiet: "Dr. Gilbert? Are you in there?"

She sighed. Nobody but Abby or Patty ever came to visit her socially, which meant that whoever this was, their intentions were likely business. She hated dealing with other scientists who thought her work was wrong or wanted an argument. She undid four locks and opened the door.

If the woman before her was a scientist, she'd be very surprised. There was no requisite uniform and no personal identification badge just above the right breast. Instead, the woman wore striped suspenders, a white t-shirt, and hot pink shorts. Erin gaped.

"Can I help you?"

"Yes, I hope so." The woman sidled by. "Patty said you'd be cool if I came here."

"Patty… Tolan? That Patty?"

"Yes, that Patty. The best Patty. The only Patty." The woman whirled around. "I told her not to contact you. Can't let them know where I'm at."

Erin glanced out the door, wondering if she ought to run. She'd murderPatty if this person ended up being some sort of deranged killer. Not wanting to cause any upset, she said, "No, I suppose not."

"Close the door before someone sees me."

With one last, longing look cast at freedom, Erin did as she was told. She folded her arms and glowered at her uninvited guest, who flopped onto her sofa as if this were an everyday occurrence. Erin slapped the woman's dirty sneakers from atop her coffee table.

"Um, who are you?"

The woman kicked her shoes off and put her feet back up, as if the shoes were the problem. "Holtzmann."

"Just Holtzmann?"

"It's probably safer for us both if that's all you know."

Something large and sour lodged in Erin's throat. "Are you in trouble? Why would Patty send a criminal to me? What is going on?"

"I'm not a criminal," Holtzmann assured her, sitting up and holding out her hands. "I'm a nuclear engineer, who might have run into a teensy tiny problemwiththeBradleymob."

"The Bradley mob?" Erin hated the way her voice pitched up into a grating screech. "Are you trying to get us both killed?"

"Mostly trying not to die, actually."

Erin paced the room, unsure of what she should do next. She was harboring a fugitive, in a way. The actual government was inefficient and distracted, so powerful families stepped in to run the daily lives of the people. Messing with one of those families, the Bradleys in particular, was asking for an unfortunate accident. She ran a hand through her hair. She let this woman in, so she looked like she was part of this, even though she wasn't. No amount of begging and pleading would change an enforcer's mind.

"Do you have any idea what you've just done?"

Holtzmann stared at the ground for a moment as she answered: "I've dragged you right into the middle of a mess you didn't ask to be a part of. For that, I'm sorry."

"You're sorry."

"Yes."

"Well—"

"Before you get too angry, I think I should tell you what this is all about. There's a very specific reason Patty sent me here and not somewhere else. So… Will you hear me out?"

Erin squeezed her eyes shut and prayed for patience. "Yes."

She leans on the edge of her desk with her arms folded. She's going to have quite a talk with Patty, if she survives this. This strange woman–Holtzmann–seems to be in a world of trouble, none of which interests Erin in the slightest. Still, she's willing to listen. Whether she likes it or not, she's a part of this mess now, so she might as well know what it's about.

"I've been working on a government project. Like top-level, super secret stuff." Holtz reaches up and nervously toys with the dangling charm on her silver chain necklace. Jewelry isn't in vogue these days. Even when it was, Erin can't recall seeing something like that around anyone's neck. The charm is a hollow circle, and within dangles a 'U' with a screw through it; a screw plunges through the letter. Holtz's fingers tangle in the space where there is no metal.

"And?"

"And I found some information I shouldn't have . The head of the lab told me to forget I ever saw it, but I just can't do that." Holtz buries her head in her hands. "I needed to get it to someone who can help me fix everything."

"Everything?" Erin's brow furrows. There's a lot missing from Holtz's story, but the less she knows, the safer she might be. Then again, if the Bradley mob catches up with her, they won't believe her ignorance. They'll torture her for answers anyway. Whatever this secret is, Holtz must think it's more valuable than her life. Regardless of the danger, she needs to know more if Holtz expects her to help.

Getting quickly to her feet, Holtz goes to the window and gestures outside. "Everything."

"I still don't catch your meaning."

"Do you ever wonder why we haven't had rain in close to three decades?"

Erin shrugs. As a five-year-old, she'd stood outside in a downpour with her mouth open and her arms spread. Her mother hid under an umbrella a few yards away. She remembers the soft splatter of water on her cheeks and the security in her mother's smile. She doesn't know if that's the last time it rained, but it might as well have been. Since her childhood, there's been only a few, light showers, and they were never anywhere near her.

"I never thought about it before. I'm not a meteorologist."

"But you are an expert in your field. So am I." Holtz returns to the couch. "When I read through those files, I knew exactly what it meant. You would, too."

"Please, just tell me what's going on."

"The Bradley family is controlling the weather."

Erin stutters out a laugh. "That's ridiculous. Doing that would have massive ramifications–there would be planet-wide implications."

"Dr. Gilbert, I encourage you to look outside and ask yourself how much worse things have to get before you're willing to accept the truth."

"You're not joking." The half-smile that had previously tugged at her lips dies.

"I am not. The thing is, there was an alarm system on those files, so the mob figured out that someone at my lab had seen them. I fled."

"Your co-workers…"

"I know." Holtz grips her temples again and squeezes her eyes shut. When she speaks next, her voice is taut. "I don't want to think about it. But I know."

Erin grits her teeth. "Yet you came storming in here, knowing that I'll die, too."

"I don't want you to die! I want you to help. Please. I talked to Patty in secret, and she told me that you were an expert at particle physics. I can build just about anything, but I need someone to help with the theoretical portion. We can stop this heat. We can…" Holtz grimaces. She sighs and wipes her palms on her shorts. Her shoulders inch up toward her ears, and she looks out to the window. "Look, if you're not willing to help, I'll go."

"I didn't say I wouldn't help. You dragged me in on this, Holtzmann. I'm part of this, now." Erin straightens her blouse and stands a bit taller. "If they're really controlling the weather, we need to stop them."

Holtz brightens. "Really?"

The expression on Holtz's face is endearing. Erin fights the wave of affection that builds and shrugs. "They shouldn't be allowed to ruin the environment like this. The world needs water. Do you know how many species have gone extinct?"

"Not to mention the control they have over everyone."

"Oh. I hadn't thought about that."

"We're all so dependent on our rations, and why? Because water has become a commodity." Holtz laces her fingers and pushes her palms out, cracking her knuckles. "I think it's about time we brought it back."

This feels like an enormous responsibility. Erin squeezes the edge of the desk in a vain attempt to relieve some anxiety. She had her penchant for fidgeting schooled out of her, but sometimes, the urge is too strong. "What–what do you…?" She collects herself and tries again. "How can I help?"

"Do you have some paper?"

"I prefer to work on a whiteboard."

Holtz glances around. "Where is it, then?"

Erin returns to her desk and presses a small button hidden underneath. The wall behind her desk shifts and flips, revealing her real workspace. "I had this installed when I was working on a private matter some months ago. Nobody can see what I'm working on, or steal it away."

"I owe Patty big," Holtz mutters as she stands. "Can I erase this?"

"One moment." Erin searches in her drawers and retrieves a small imager, which she uses to capture all of her current work. "For later," she explains.

Holtz wipes the board clean and scrawls a number of different ideas and designs. She ends up standing atop the desk, but Erin doesn't comment. The whiteboard's contents are too fascinating for her to bother complaining about such a paltry detail. Erin rubs her chin and follows from one drawing to the next. When Holtz finishes, they both stand back and stare.

"This isn't going to be easy."

"No."

"Where are we going to get the parts?"

"I don't know, yet."

Erin sighs and nods. "Okay, well, it's a start."

Holtz grabs her hands and clutches them tightly; concern and appreciation shows blatantly on her face. "Thank you, Dr. Gilbert. I don't know where I would have gone if you'd shut your door in my face."

"You can call me Erin," she chokes out, the sudden contact making it difficult for her to breathe.

"Nice to meet you, Erin." Holtz kisses her knuckles and winks. "We're gonna make magic together, I just know it."

0000

Erin stares down at the limited rations and hesitates. Alone in the kitchen, she struggles with her current conundrum: her intake designation is for one person, yet there are two hungry people in her home. She listens to the grumble of her stomach and wants desperately to just eat the whole portion herself. After all, she doesn't owe Holtzmann anything–especially since Holtzmann dragged her into a life or death situation.

She steals a quick peek into the living room and watches Holtz shimmy along with a menial song playing from the wire. Unaware of her audience, Holtz rocks her head in time with the notes and knocks her hips back and forth. She uses a whiteboard marker as a microphone and sings out the final few lyrics before thrusting her fist out and dropping the marker to the ground. She wipes her forehead and drops to the couch. With deft fingers, she quickly returns her flopping hair to its original, tousled style.

Erin's heart thuds a bit quicker. She shouldn't let her heart make her mind's decisions. She needs this food. She doesn't need to feed this interloper. Logically, she knows this, but for whatever reason, she also needs Holtz to like her. Defeated by her traitorous emotions, she halves her sandwich and empties part the water bottle into a cup. Food in hand, she enters the living room with a halfhearted smile.

"Hungry?"

The look Holtz gives her is both searching and full of wonderment. "That's your food ration."

"Well, yes."

"You don't have to share."

"You have an alternative way of making sure you don't die of starvation?"

Holtz settles her hands atop her thighs and shrugs. Erin finds her gaze drawn to the pale skin of Holtz's knees. There's a scab on the left one, just barely healed over. Holtz's finger scratches lower and picks at the edge as her other foot bounces against the floor.

"I know some people?" she offers weakly. "And I usually keep some stuff in my pockets to munch on."

"Oh?"

Holtz digs into her shorts and withdraws a single peanut. Her smile fades. "Well, I normally have more than this."

"Would you like half a sandwich?"

"I'll figure something out, I promise."

Holtz takes the sandwich and the cup and nibbles on the edge. Erin sits at her desk, not touching her food just yet. When Holtz all but inhales her half, Erin looks down at her meal and sighs. She crosses the room again and shoves the other half into Holtz's hands.

"You haven't eaten in a while, have you?"

"Hard to get my ration when there are people looking for me." Holtz shrugs. "Are you sure? You won't get to eat anything at all."

"I can afford to miss one meal. Besides, I'll have my water, and we can split breakfast tomorrow. Then I'll call Patty and see if she can help us out with getting food."

"Think Patty'll really be able to help?"

"How well do you know Patty?"

"I met her a few years ago. Ran into her at the library, and had a good talk about the meaning of life. I think it's about fun, but she's all about the acquisition of knowledge."

"Then you ought to know that she's the one to talk to if you need to know something. She gave you my name, didn't she?"

"Yeah."

"She'll know how to get more food."

Later, as Erin lies in bed and stares at the ceiling, her stomach grumbles. She clasps her belly and rolls onto her side. She's grown used to small portions but not to having nothing at all. Although she doesn't regret her choice, she wishes that the world could be different. She supposes that's why Holtz is currently sleeping on her couch. They have the chance to fix things–a chance to bring back the rain.

Her mother used to have a garden. They used to have fresh cherry tomatoes on top of their salads, which she used to sneak onto her father's plate. She had helped her mother weed one summer, back before the sun could blister skin after only fifteen minutes of direct exposure. Her father had sprayed her with the hose, and her clothing had gotten muddy to the point that he had spent hours scrubbing the stains out.

She wonders if the soil will sustain a garden once they bring the rain back. She currently lives in an apartment, but she can imagine moving into a ranch-style home with a small backyard. She could plant tomatoes, like her mother. For a single, silly moment, she pictures Holtz there with her, spraying her with the hose. She banishes the absurd thought and closes her eyes a bit tighter.

She doesn't want to make any assumptions before they make any progress. She's gotten her hopes up too early before, and the resulting disappointment was crushing. No, she'll temper her enthusiasm with a harsh dose of reality. Even if they can return the weather to some semblance of the natural order, the negative effects will not be reversed overnight. Her dreams of a garden will stay dreams.

She rubs her forehead and flops onto her back once more. Sleep is proving to be very elusive, so she sits up and grimaces. Padding down the hallway, she shoves Holtz's feet from the couch and settles in. She gestures at the wire, which immediately floods the blank white wall directly ahead with moving images. Despite the movement and the sudden noise, Holtz snores quietly onward. Erin flips her finger down, and the image changes. Choosing a news report, she does her best to distract her racing brain. Part of her had hoped that Holtz would awaken so they could converse, yet she can't deny that she's more comfortable here on the couch, jammed next to Holtz, than alone in her bed.

Her hands move of their own volition, picking up one of Holtz's feet, which is hidden away in an oversized sock. They work the sock off and dig her fingers into the Holtz's sole. Holtz groans quietly, and Erin checks briefly to make sure she's still asleep. Massaging a stranger's foot is admittedly strange behavior, but the repetitive motions are relaxing. As long as Holtz snoozes through this, she sees no reason to stop. She'll never tell, and Holtz will never know.

Maybe she's just lonely, but she's growing attached to this stranger.

0000

"You're not going to like it."

Erin sighs. "I never do."

"You remember Jenn?" Patty stands in the hallway outside her apartment. From within comes sounds of rambunctious shouting; Patty's father and brother are there for a visit, which always leads to intense board game sessions. Erin is sorry to interrupt, but Patty seems grateful.

"With the mayor's office?"

"Yeah, her. She got pregnant about a month and a half ago."

Unsure of where this is leading, Erin tilts her head. "So?"

"So, the government is all about keeping the population up, so she's getting extra rations."

At first, Erin wonders if she's supposed to get pregnant to get more food from the government, but then she realizes Patty's true meaning. "Patty, I am not taking food from a pregnant woman."

Patty rolls her eyes. "I wouldn't ask you to. She miscarried a bit after, but she hasn't told the government. She's getting extra rations until her next mandated health appointment."

"Why would she give them to me?"

"She owes me a favor."

Erin stares for a moment, wondering just what Jenn did to incur this debt. However, Patty is less than forthcoming, so Erin lets the matter go. She ought to simply be grateful that there's hope. She hesitates when she realizes that in taking this favor, she'll owe Patty one as well. This is only fair, but she's not sure what she has that is of equal value.

"What do you want from me?"

Patty rocks back and folds her arms. "Our mutual friend told me what she's up to. I think it'd be pretty great." After a moment, Patty narrows her eyes and looks more intently at her. "For everyone."

"Oh."

"Yeah. I have to get back inside before they burn my place down over Pengology. James always thinks Dad is cheating. I'll have Jenn pay you a visit, okay?"

Erin hugs Patty suddenly. The taller woman welcomes the embrace and lifts her briefly off her feet. Her back cracks as Patty's grip tightens. "Thank you, Patty. So much."

Patty tousles her hair. "Just make sure our mutual friend doesn't let anything explode."

"I will." She watches Patty return inside with a small smile–Patty immediately reaches up to tug on her tight, brightly colored braids at the sounds of a heinous argument about in-game commerce and cheating.

Erin strolls away, hands tucked in her pockets. She hadn't expected Patty to have a solution so readily, but she supposes she shouldn't have underestimated her friend. Although Patty doesn't directly want anything back for the favor, she'll have to figure out some method of repayment. Patty works hard to help everyone and deserves something nice for her efforts.

As she steps onto the street, she pops her dark parasol open and hurries down the sidewalk. The oppressive heat makes the air appear to shimmer. By the time she returns home, her jumpsuit is drenched in sweat; she ignores Holtz in favor of hurrying to shower herself clean and change into a shirt that doesn't smell.

"I had an idea while you were out," Holtz calls through the bathroom door.

Erin grimaces when the water cuts out abruptly. Under the rationing system, showers only run for one minute and thirty seconds a day, which is usually just enough for one task. Two days ago, she had washed her hair. Today, she'd accomplished sudsing herself up. Feeling grimy, she reaches for her towel and rubs the leftover soap away. She wraps the towel around her body and pulls the door open.

"About what?"

Holtz is silent for a moment, her eyes openly traveling down Erin's body and then back up. "Oh."

"Holtz?"

"Ah, about the–the machine." Holtz gulps visibly and grins. "Get dressed, and we'll talk about it."

Erin tries not to focus on how warm she feels thanks to Holtz's appreciation of her form. She heads to her bedroom and pulls on a shirt. Nothing is truly clean–and won't be until the designated laundry day for her sect of the city. However, this shirt doesn't smell and isn't visibly soiled. The same goes for her undergarments and pajama pants.

When she enters the living room, she notes with some frustration that Holtz has disassembled her microwave. Her lips curl into a frown, and her hands find her hips. "What are you doing?"

"I needed some parts."

"So, you just ransacked my apartment?"

"I wouldn't say ransacked." Holtz thinks for a moment and offers, "I deliberately located an item from your kitchen."

"You know what I mean."

"Sorry." Erin got the distinct feeling that Holtz is no such thing. "I mean, how often do you even use this thing?"

Not often, Erin has to admit. Rather than do so aloud, she shifts the discussion elsewhere. "Patty figured out our problem. We'll have more food by the end of the day."

"That's fantastic. I need your beautiful brain operating at maximum efficiency."

Flustered by the praise, Erin flushes. Recalling that Holtz had something she wanted to talk about, she asks, "What's this idea you had?"

While Holtz launches into a long, rambling discussion of the way they can build their contraption, Erin loses herself in how passionately Holtz talks, from the animated gestures to the sparkling eyes. She realizes she's staring and purposely shifts her gaze to the scrap metal that was once her microwave. A lot of what Holtz says is a bit too technical for her, but she understands just enough that her mind is quickly clicking through the theoretical aspects that may come into play.

"I don't think that last part will necessarily function the way you expect it to."

Holtz shrugs. "This is why I need you. I have a lot of ideas, but I can't promise all of them are gems."

"No, this is good. I just have to think through the implications, and how they'd impact the functionality." Erin's mind clatters along, and she picks up a shiny scrap to fiddle with while she thinks.

Holtz grabs her ears and pulls her down, kissing the crown of her head. "Funderful, Dr. Gilbert. Truly funderful."

"Big on physical contact, huh?"

Holtz smirks. "I seem to recall an excellent foot rub last night that suggests you are, too."

"Wh-what? What are you even talking about?" Sweat abruptly breaks out at her temples, and it has nothing to do with the temperature.

"Don't be coy, Erin."

"I thought you were asleep." Mortified, Erin skitters back a few feet. "I–I must seem like the biggest creep ever."

Holtz flaps a hand and blows Erin a kiss. "I don't mind. You can touch me anywhere, anytime."

Erin's ears heat at the innuendo. "Oh, gosh."

Holtz winks playfully. "I mean it, babe."

0000

"The thing is," Holtz says around a mouthful of spaghetti, "that we live in a time and place that doesn't have space for normal people."

Erin nods. She's not one for these sorts of discussions, however, so she doesn't add her own thoughts. 'Normal' is not a term she cares for in any setting. Then, of course, there's the fact that almost every civilization has a privileged few who have a higher quality of life than most. She doesn't agree with using the weather as a means of oppression, but she also doesn't doubt that the controlling class would have simply found a different means.

Holtz dabs at her lips and continues, "Like, you can tell exactly what bullshit society values by where food is expended. Top of the ladder gets whatever they want."

"They're rationed, too," Erin offers weakly.

"Have you ever looked up how much they're rationed? It's definitely not a measly sandwich for dinner."

"I suppose not."

"They want to keep lower class citizens alive but not too strong–just enough, y'know, to keep everyone working. And they give a bit more food to pregnant women because with how fast people die these days, they can't let the population dip too low. If there aren't workers, then who'll do the work?

"Then there's the jobs that aren't deemed totally necessary. Have you seen how much they feed teachers? My little brother teaches elementary school, and sometimes, he passes out in class. He says the kids don't complain because they get to dick around–but think about that at a societal level. Whoever's at the top dishing out the food doesn't care if kids are educated because when those kids grow up, it's better if they're not thinking too hard about the tough problems."

Erin shifts uncomfortably. Years have transpired since her own lower education, and she hasn't given a single thought to elementary and middle schools since. There's a lot about the world that doesn't directly impact her or her work, and she feels a bit ashamed of her own ignorance.

Holtz ignores her silence and concludes: "So, that's why we have to do this. We can't have some sort of food oligopsony."

"They'll find some other way," Erin whispers, tentative.

"One battle at a time." Holtz places a hand on her knee and squeezes. "Not everyone is as fired up as I am, and that's okay."

"You know you could get arrested for talking the way you do."

"Good thing you're not going to tell on me, right? You don't seem like a snitch."

Erin titters and flushes. "No, of course not."

She clears their plates and places them in the sink for later. From atop the stove, she takes the now-cool pot of hot water in which she'd made the spaghetti and carefully drains the water into a pitcher. That pitcher is placed in the fridge until the next time she needs to boil noodles. She stands before the fridge a moment longer simply to feel the cool air.

Returning to the living room, she finds Holtz standing in front of the whiteboard, a hand on her chin scratching thoughtfully. She comes to rest beside the thinking woman and tilts her head.

"I just need another few days to nail down some of your ideas, and then we can figure out how to build it."

"I can build anything," Holtz promises, and Erin tacitly understands this is not boasting but just an accurate statement of skill.

"We'll need to find materials."

"I'd use one of my old contacts, but I bet they're being watched."

Erin frowns. "I can't use Patty again. We already owe her for the food."

"You could go dumpster diving."

"What? No way."

"Erin." A whine enters Holtz's tone, and she clasps her hands tightly in front of her chest. Her chin juts out, and her lower lip wobbles. "Pwease?"

"Stop that."

"C'mon. It's not as bad as you might think. I'm not talking about going through the dumpster behind a restaurant. The stuff I need'll come from a trash source that's a lot less rotten food and a lot more thrown-out computers and electronics equipment."

Hating that she's actually considering this, Erin huffs and struts to the window to look out at the street. A young woman walks along the sidewalk, parasol in one hand and the grubby fist of a small child in the other. Despite the heat, the child has most of their skin covered by cloth. The pair duck into every stoop they reach for a reprieve from the sun before continuing onward.

Erin has never planned on having children, despite her father's desire for grandchildren. They're cute enough, from a distance, but she's not exactly the sort of person who knows how to interact with a young person. That said, she's not heartless. She can't watch the pair struggle down the street, knowing she could make a difference, and remain apathetic. She grimaces and tugs on the end of her ponytail.

"Fine. I'll… I'll dumpster dive."

"That's my girl!" Holtz grips her shoulder and twirls about. There's a moment of hesitation, and they merely stare at one another while Holtz realizes what she said. "What I mean is–"

Erin removes her hand and pats it awkwardly. "It's okay. I get it. You were excited. We should get back to work."

"Right. Excited."

Because she turns around and marches to the desk, she misses the longing look Holtz gives her. She sits and grabs a red marker, the cap of which goes automatically between her teeth. Gnawing, she begins working through an intricate problem. The power output this device will require is higher than the usual power sources she's worked with. This doesn't make their solution impossible, but she needs to figure out a means of generating what they need–without causing a massive explosion.

When she breaks two hours later with a sore spine, Holtz is tinkering with the ruins of her microwave. She wants to say something, but her voice catches in her throat. After a moment, she heads to her bedroom for a bit of time to herself.

0000

She shoots a baleful glance at the dumpster. Holtz was right that there wasn't a bunch of disgusting garbage inside, but she feels so dirty. No matter what's inside, a garbage receptacle is not the cleanest place, nor the most hygienic. Her skin crawls as she considers all the grime she's come into contact with. She has a bag full of parts for her efforts but will not be able to luxuriate in a shower when she returns home.

She's just grateful the process only ate up two hours of her life. At least she has time to slink home and do her best to clean up. She's willing to waste her water allotment for lunch on wetting a washcloth, if just to mop up her armpits and lower back. Not to mention how filthy her hands feel. By the time she gets home, she's smelly. So smelly, in fact, that Holtz repels back two steps when she enters.

Adopting a sure smile, Holtz wrinkles her nose. "Did you get everything?"

"I got what I could fine," she replies, dropping the bag and shutting the door. "Not everybody knows what a Trans Imaging Modulator looks like. Maybe draw a picture next time."

"Oh, yes. The TIM."

"Sure." Erin grimaces. "But I did my best."

"That's all I can ask."

"If you're missing anything else, I'll go again tomorrow." Erin winces at the thought and prays fervently that Holtz has enough to get started.

Holtz touches her shoulder gently, and Erin tries not to lean in. Holtz is awfully kind, especially given her stink. "I didn't shower this morning. I know we've been trading off and on, but I figured you might need my water today."

Erin wants to kiss her. She even leans in a bit before freezing and clearing her throat. Instead, she nods appreciatively and disappears into the bathroom. For a moment, she stands stock still and lets her pounding heart slow down. Then, peeling off her clothing, she steps into the shower unit and presses the button to start the water. She immediately nabs the soap and washes the important areas. With the remainder of her time, she stands with her head tilted toward the shower head and lets the water pelt her face.

She wraps herself in her towel and dries off quickly.

"Erin?" Holtz raps at the door. "Did anyone happen to see you?"

Erin pauses. "I… I'm not sure. Maybe? Why?"

"There are some guys just standing around across the street."

"Maybe they're waiting for someone."

"Yeah, maybe."

Erin opens the door and steps out. She heads to the window in the living room and peers down at the street. The men standing under parasols across the street don't have the right posture for people casually waiting for a friend. In fact, they're rather rigid. One looks up at her window, and she flinches back.

"I might be a little paranoid," Holtz offers. "Seeing things that aren't there, y'know?"

"I might be, too. But if they are here for us, what do we do?"

Holtz rubs the back of her neck. "Are there any empty apartments in this complex?"

"Maybe? I don't know."

"Anything nearby, then?"

"I don't know." Her nerves jangle unpleasantly.

Holtz stares at the whiteboard for a moment and brightens. "Did you ever get anything else installed for privacy?"

"What do you mean?"

"Like a little hiding spot for secret things."

"I don't have secret things."

"Can I make one?"

Erin hesitates. "Well…"

"Remember that we don't have a lot of time. I promise I'll be quick and quiet. I just need somewhere small that I can hide if they come in looking for me. You can explain that your microwave broke, and you didn't have the credits to replace it. You went dumpster diving for electronics parts to fix it yourself."

Understanding this to be their best option, Erin nods slowly. "What do you need?"

"Empty your hamper. I'll need somewhere to hide debris until they're gone." Holtz scampers to the kitchen and strains to pull the fridge away from the wall.

Erin grabs her hamper and dumps the clothing out. When she enters the kitchen again, Holtz has already taken a knife and spoon to the space behind the fridge. Erin sweeps up dust and pieces of the wall as Holtz carves out a rounded alcove. It's not neat, and it's not pretty. But, Erin has to admit, it might just do the job. Holtz wipes dirt and sweat from her forehead.

"Good thing all the buildings have really gone to crap lately, huh? Can't imagine doing that to a real solid wall."

"I'm sorry I took the shower."

Holtz laughs and shrugs. "I don't mind getting sweaty for you, babe."

Erin's heart flutters as her cheeks heat. However, she's a bit tentative–she's come across people who talk and flirt as easily as Holtz does. "Can I ask you something?"

"Yeah, of course."

Taking a deep breath, Erin whispers, "Is it a joke to you? Flirting with me, I mean."

"I…"

"Because if it is, please stop."

Holtz nabs her hands and guides her to the couch. She sits, a little uncomfortable. For a few moments, all Holtz can do is fiddle with her fingers.

"It's not a joke."

"Then what is it?"

"You're very attractive. I like that about you." Holtz sighs. "At the same time, is this really the best time to try and woo a pretty woman? Probably not. So, it's not a joke. But…"

"But it's not real."

Holtz winces. "I don't like hearing you put it that way."

Erin nods twice, stiffly. Her chest feels heavy with anxiety, and she wishes she hadn't asked. "I'd appreciate it if you'd stop."

"If that's what you want…"

"It is."

"Then I can do that." Holtz averts her gaze and stands. "I never meant to upset you."

Erin manages a tight smile. "When I was in high school, a senior boy asked me out as a dare. Since then, I've had a hard time figuring out if someone is being honest or not. I just… I like to know where I stand with people."

"That's awful. What's his name? Do you want me to beat him up?"

"I think we're in enough trouble as it is, Holtz."

"When this is all over, you're telling me his name, and I'm paying him a visit."

Erin relaxes, feeling infinitely lighter. She likes Holtz, even if nothing is going to happen, and she loves that Holtz isn't going to toy with her.