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All at Once: Excerpt of the Novel

I step onto a wide stone platform surrounded by water and lie on my stomach to peer down over the edge. At my approach, tiny fish scatter like drops of colored light; crabs pause, wary, then scuttle along the sides of the basin, stuffing their mouths as fast as they can with alternate pincers. After a while, a kind of brown finger wriggles out from the shadows. Another one emerges, then two more, and finally the bulbous body of an octopus comes into view. It skims along until the water is too shallow then starts to walk, using its tentacles as legs. When the water gets deeper it pushes off against the sandy bottom to glide, once more, just beneath the surface. It circles round and round my platform.

aao cover

My back begins to prickle, and I realize I’ll be burnt to a crisp if I don’t find shelter pretty soonthe ocean breeze masks the sun’s virulence.

Standing up makes me momentarily dizzy. The tide has gone out, uncovering rocks studded with barnacles or slick with thick green hair. I head back toward the flat sand and continue walking, looking for a place to rest. I’ve just about resigned myself to the idea of a plastic chair, when I spot a barraca that’s not open for business. The beach in front of it is empty, the small structure shuttered; its thatched roof casts a nice, wide stripe of shade onto the sand. Gratefully, I set up camp, taking out the water and crackers I brought, spreading out my towel to sit on, and leaning against the barraca wall with the empty backpack in between for cushioning. A sigh of relief.

The ocean is now more white than blue. At the horizon, a wavering smudge might be a cruise ship or an oil rig. The great mass of water is barely disturbed by shifting waves, fretful and sluggish like a dog settling down to sleep. There’s an occasional bloom of white spray when a wave breaks against rock; wisps of cloud trail across the sky. I yawn, lie down on the towel, and close my eyes.

Now the landscape is reduced to the rustle of wind in the palm thatch, the faint piping of a distant bird, and the dull roar of the ocean. I stretch my arms and let them flop back down. Rolling my head slowly from side to side to loosen the tension in my neck, I notice that this movement causes the pitch of the ocean to vary ever so slightly. Intrigued, I try it a few more times, just to make sure.

There’s a lesson in that, I reflect: reality changes according to your viewpoint. I roll my head once more from side to side then lie still again, listening to the tiny, ceaseless fluctuations within the monotone.

An insect lands on my footwithout opening my eyes I flex my toe to chase it away, and realize that the gesture produced an infinitesimal shift in the ocean sound. Bizarre! I can understand the position of my head influencing what I hear, but the position of my toe?

I clench my right hand into a fist: that, too, makes a difference. More astonishing still is the fact that it affects the sound in my left ear, the one further from the shore. By concentrating hard, I can now hear the rumble of the ocean on one side and its transposition on the other. There’s also a third noise that flutters below the first two and seems connected to them, though I can’t tell where it’s coming from.

Recalling the conversation with Velma, I wonder if this experiment will have any effect on my brain waves. Focusing on all three sounds simultaneously is difficult; I decide it’s not worth the effort. They’re probably feeding into my brain whether I’m actively listening or notwho knows, they might make something interesting happen. I let myself relax againexcept for the fist.

With relaxation comes awareness of a number of other sensations: the pulsating redness of my eyelids, the lumpy sand beneath me, the caress of a passing breeze, drowsiness. Disconnected visions begin to play out in my mind: I’m drifting off.

And then, it happens. I’m whisked away at great speed in a direction that feels like up, though there are no visual reference pointshigher and higher and higher, until it seems that the Earth must be thousands of miles below. At the same time I’m being subjected to a suffocating pressure, as though I were a liquid undergoing distillation. My brain is being squeezed, hard; the vertiginous ascent and contraction stretch it like taffy: thin, thinnerto my horror, I realize my mind’s about to snap. It’s impossible to withstand the pressure: in a matter of moments I’ll be either dead or insane.

Suddenly something wrenches me off course; it feels like the controls are being handed over. There’s a lurch, and I stop speeding toward annihilation.

A space opens up. Where I am now, I can’t guess, but I’m extraordinarily relieved to be hereanywhere. And it is still me, though apparently I’ve become pure consciousness: I can see, but I don’t have a body. I’m entirely surrounded by a light-gray fuzzy texture bristling with minute, almost invisible spikes, like snail antennae, shooting out and back in. It’s odd, seemingly devoid of any kind of informationa bit repulsive. Fear begins to mount in me once more, fear that I’ll be stuck in this alien, unpleasant environment forever. I try to conceive of some way to escape, but there’s nothing on which to gain purchase. Desperate, I send out a silent plea for help to no one in particular: “Get me out of here!”

Instantly, my surroundings reconfigure themselves. I’m hovering above a semitransparent structure consisting of vaults and corridors. I’m too far away to be able to tell what the spaces contain; I wonder if I can wish myself closer, just as I wished myself out of the bristly gray texture. The thought operates like a remote control, and I immediately ”zoom in” to one of the units. It turns out to be nothing more than a cell, a box subdivided by dozens of vertical lines. When I zoom in further, each of the straight lines thickens into the semblance of a manila folder; each folder has a small tab with a label on it.

I pick one at random: its label is printed with today’s date, and a time, 08:30. The adjacent folders on the left bear the same date, with the time progressing incrementally from one to the next, from left to right: 08:27, 08:28, 08:29. On the other side: 08:31, 08:32, etc. I turn my attention back to the first folder and will it to open.

A vivid three-dimensional scene unfolds. The small brown octopus glides through the water; I catch the pungent scent of decayed fish and hear the smack of waves nearby. The only sense missing seems to be that of touch: I see my hands on the rock but can’t feel its rough surface.

I attempt a zoom out, and I lift off, viewing myself from above, only I’m not controlling my speed very well: within moments I’ve risen so high that miles of coastline stretch out below me. It’s spectacular, exhilaratinguntil the sudden concern that I might stay lost above Salvador or come down in an unfamiliar place yanks me out of that scenario and back in front of the closed folder.

I contemplate the endless archives. At the thought that each one might represent a single minute of my life, a mixture of glee and dread begins to bubble in me. Seeking confirmation, I move a few compartments over to the left and choose a folder whose date corresponds to yesterday evening, 19:00. Sure enough, it opens onto Veronica’s earnest face, repeating her speech to me last night in the kitchen. As she starts in listing my positive attributes I become queasy, and command the folder to close.

Now that there’s no doubt about the mechanism, I have to satisfy my curiosity and find out whether my future is also recorded here. Scanning the folders to the right of where I first started, several compartments over, I find tomorrow’s date. I pick a random time: 02:20.

Inside the folder is . . . another face, in extreme close-up and slow motion. Bruno. Although the image is very dark I can make out the pores of the skin, the flecks of dandruff at the hairline, the liquid curve of a wide-open eye. Why is his face moving in that odd way? Slow zoom outand a shock that takes my virtual breath away. Bruno and I are kissing, voluptuously absorbed in each other, writhing on top of a bed in a sparsely furnished room I’ve never seen before. Adding to the strangeness of the scene is the complete absence of tactile sensation. Aghast, I recoil as if I’d stumbled, literally stumbled, upon strangers in the throes of passion. The scene vanishes quickly, replaced once more by the endless rows of files.

Although I don’t have a body in this place, my mind and emotions seem to function much as they usually do. Confusion takes hold, embarrassment, desire. Was the kiss real, or will it be? Or do the archives also display elements of fantasy, of mere possibility? Intuitively I feel that what I’ve seen will come to pass, but the thrill of having that unexpected bit of my future disclosed is quickly buried in an avalanche of questions. Is this entire structure filled with moments from my life? Can I watch my own death? Is everyone’s life on file? By spying on the future, would I change it? Could I bet on the races, play the winning lottery number, become a millionaire? The situation echoes so many sci-fi scenarios whose outcomes I’ve forgotten. If this place does register the lives of other people, then it must be something like the akashic records of Hindu mythology, a kind of cosmic warehouse of information on everything that ever did and will exist in the world.

A twinge of fear interrupts my speculations: Where is my body? Is it still where I left it? How is it faring without me? I know I should try to get back, but I don’t want to leave before finding out whether this place is just a storage area, or if there’s more. How can I get an overview of the whole thing? An analogy comes to mind. “Home page,” I command silently. “Site map.”

With a sigh, the space around me begins to simultaneously contract and recede. Before, the rows of vaults stretched endlessly away on all sides; now, outer boundaries come into view, set against a lilac-colored background. The archives continue to shrink until they’re about the size of a postage stamp. Letters wink on above the small square: records. More squares slide in and distribute themselves on the background. Their labels read: groups, chat, encyclopedia, projects, contacts.

Suddenly the whole purple field takes on a gelatinous consistency, shivers, and bursts into a crowd scene so realistic I’m not sure whether these are actual people surging toward me or holographic animations. The six labeled squares remain visible, almost eclipsed by the swirl of clothes and limbs and faces of the rapidly approaching multitude. Oddly, there’s no sound accompanying the scene, although the people, of all sizes and shapes and ethnic descriptions, appear to be talking and laughing.

As they approach I feel the urge to back away, even though I can tell now they’re not real — I’m relieved when they come to a stop. They watch me with friendly, mischievous expressions; then all at once they close their eyes tightly. Some of them put extra dramatic effort into scrunching up their faces and lifting their shoulders toward their ears to heighten the effect. Without warning, though their mouths remain closed, the silence is shattered by a roar, dozens of voices joining in a single word: “OU-TER-NET!”

All the eyes reopen. The people give each other high fives, smile and nod and wave at me. Then they turn, start back in the direction from which they came, and evaporate on the way. Only the six little squares are left, sitting calmly on their purple background.

So this is it! I’ve managed to log on to the Outernet! If I were in my body, I’d do a little dance. Which reminds me: it’s definitely time to go. Let’s hope the wishing method works. I formulate the thought clearly: Return To My Body.

Instantly the bristling gray field encloses me again, as well as a high, piercing sound, a thin whine; then there’s a jolt and the sensation of falling. The whine becomes a buzz, the buzz slowly dissociates into blips, billions of blips that bounce up into the buzz and back down. With every bounce they lose momentum, finally coagulating and forming larger lumps of sound. The spaces between these lumps grow increasingly small until they disappear altogether and the now-continuous soundscape becomes recognizable as the ambient noise of the beach, the muted roar of the ocean dotted with occasional birdcalls. The spiky gray texture has burned off to the effervescent orange of sunshine playing on my closed eyelids.

 Barely do I have time to be reassured by the familiar sensations, however, before I become aware of one that is strange, disagreeable. Something is hemming me in, a great suffocating weight pressing me from all sides. Adrenaline floods in at the horrifying thought that someone might be lying on top of me. Should I keep my eyes closed? Could there be an advantage to pretending I haven’t woken up?

I open one eye just the tiniest bit — imperceptibly, I hope. To my astonishment — and enormous relief — I find there’s nothing at all on me. I can see the sand, a piece of sea, the line of my own shoulder. Yet I still feel like I’m being crushed.

Then I understand: the pressure is coming from my own body. It’s the aftereffect of having been a free-floating consciousness, then plunging down into the density of flesh. Turning my attention to my breathing helps me regain a sense of spaciousness, and after a few in and out breaths the discomfort mostly disappears.

The sun is now almost directly overhead and the patch of shade I was lying in has shrunken away from me. I’m not sure how long I’ve been here. I sit up, take a swallow of warm water from my bottle, pack away my possessions, and stiffly get to my feet. I’m worried I might be seriously sunburned and my impulse is to get off the beach as fast as possible. Even those plastic umbrellas don’t seem as if they could provide more than an illusion of shade.

Before setting off I spend a few moments looking at the ocean through the shimmering heat, a little sad that I’ve hardly made contact with it. A quick dip would be just the thing to get me reinvigorated for the trip home, I decide. Since I’m wearing my bathing suit under my clothes I just strip off my T-shirt and shorts and walk down to the shore.

Swimming is out of the question: the waves are powerful here, and jagged rocks poke through the surface. I find a small sandy inlet and stand knee-deep in the water. There’s a reef a few yards out against which the waves break, spending most of their fury before rushing toward me; I lower my head into the charging foam and get a scalpful of sand. The froth leaves clusters of bubbles on my skin, a tiny convex rainbow in each one. As the waves retreat they carve out hollows beneath my feet, fusing me to the beach. My head empties of everything but the rhythm of the waves, the caress of foam and water, the taste of salt, the swell of larger breakers farther out to sea, and the tranquil horizon beyond.

Eventually, though, the fear of sunburn becomes insistent and I know I must leave. How long has it been — ten minutes, twenty? Such a brief time, yet I’m at ease in my body again. I start back down the beach with my towel draped over my shoulders, humming a tune. Feeling a little strange, as well, since I’m purposely not thinking about my voyage to the Outernet: the entire stunning, complex experience remains huddled just at the edge of awareness, waiting to be summoned. Instinct ordains that I let my mind rest for a while, at least as long as it takes to get back downtown. Hotel hunting will have to wait for another day.

So I retrace my steps, get on a bus, find a seat, and space out. I’m staring vacantly at the passing scenery, when there’s a screech and the bus swerves and comes to a sudden halt. We’re not at a designated stop but on the grassy shoulder of a major six-lane thoroughfare. The doors open and two police officers board, dressed in the standard brown and tan uniform with berets, bulletproof vests, and thigh-holsters. Their guns are drawn. Immediately my heart starts to race, but as I look around I see that no one else is startled; in fact, they all seem to know what to do even before the officers issue instructions. All the men, young and old, get off the bus. The women reach for their purses or bags, put them on their laps or the closest seat, and open them up. I follow their example. One policeman has stayed on the bus and makes his way down the aisle, giving most of the handbags and bags a cursory look, searching others thoroughly. Meanwhile, I see out the window that the men have been made to line up and place their hands high up on one side of the bus, spreading their legs wide. They’re being patted down by one officer while the other stands watch with his gun at the ready. The men waiting their turn have their hands clasped behind their backs. Will anyone make a dash for it? Will anyone get shot? My attention is diverted by the officer approaching to inspect my backpack: he hefts it, glances at me, then moves on. The men climb back on the bus, take their seats; when everyone has returned and the officer has left, the bus resumes its route. I remain chilled by images I’d only seen in movies and on TV shows, by the indisputable authority of a gun, the message that those in charge may do anything they please.

Tired, when we finally pull up at the bus terminal, and hungry, I buy a fried chicken patty and a juice. I’ll go to the hotel, take a shower and change clothes, then go over to Bruno and Veronica’s place. I’m anxious to tell them about my experience.

The sour-faced clerk slides my key over the counter in the shadowy reception area, and as I climb the stairs I find myself daydreaming once again about moving out of here — with the difference that now I have an actual destination in mind. How wonderful it will be to live near that beach, to visit the tide pools every day, observing the changing colors of sea and sky at dawn and dusk! Lost in these images, it takes me a moment to register the fact that the door to my room is ajar. Did I leave it open? Highly unlikely, though I can’t be positive. A maid, perhaps? But there’s never been any sign of anyone coming in to clean before now. I push the door open the rest of the way and flick on the light.

The bed has been upended, the contents of my suitcase strewn about; in the tiny bathroom my few toiletries have been destroyed, the lotions smeared on every available surface along with something that looks suspiciously like feces. All the papers I had seem to have been either torn, wadded up, or stuffed into the toilet. My handbag is lying on the bureau, empty, the items that were in it scattered on the floor, including travelers’ checks and a substantial number of U.S. dollar bills.

Where’s my passport? It had been in the handbag. My heart sinks. I search feverishly and finally spot it peeking out from under the bed frame. Relief gives way to dismay once I pick it up and find that it’s been mutilated: the pages are torn, the picture heavily scratched and half gouged out.

I run downstairs, skid to a halt in front of the clerk, signal frantically for him to follow me. At the door to the room he stands surveying the disaster, his reaction phlegmatic. Crossing his arms, he pulls his mouth down at the corners and nods his head slowly up and down, up and down. I wait for him to say something, but he just turns and makes as if to shuffle off down the hall.

I explode. “Hey!” I shout. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?” I grab his polyester sleeve and drag him back, pulling him into the room with me. Still holding onto him, I reach for my dictionary on the floor. Then I realize I need both hands in order to use the book, so I plant myself in the doorway to prevent him from taking off. Leafing frantically through the pages, I locate the words I lack and shout them at him as I find them. “You! Você! Você é . . . responsible! Responsável! Aqui! Você . . . você deve . . . visto . . . ouvido alguém!” ”You must have seen someone, heard someone!“ His solemn stare infuriates me all the more. Você vai pagar!” ”You will pay!“ I shriek, waving my tattered passport in front of his face. Then I have to resort to the dictionary again. Chama! Chama polícia!”

That’s the best I can manage. I’m panting, mired in frustration. I want to see him cringe before the vehemence of my rage, stammer an apology or spring into action, but all he does is ask: “Polícia?” A slight frown, the cocking of the head to one side, lips pressed together, eyes vague as though contemplating the possibilities: his expression clearly conveys, “I don’t think I’d do that if I were you.”

His lack of prompt compliance almost gets me shouting again, but then I stop to think. He’s right. Do I really want to involve myself in interrogations and investigations with renegade cops like Stiff and Banger? I’m in their precinct, so it’s quite likely I’d be dealing with them. And something else dawns on me: perhaps this seemingly witless fellow is trying to give me a hint. Perhaps he was aware of what was happening, but was unable to intervene — if the perpetrators were the police, this would make sense. It would also explain why the money was left ostentatiously lying around: this was not an ordinary break-in and robbery but a deliberate assault against me, a message. But why?

I look up how to say “not yet” in the dictionary, and tell the man: “Polícia, ainda não.” I step away from the door to let him exit and stand there pondering the matter, trying to decide on a course of action. I was going to go see Bruno and Veronica anyway — it would be best to ask their opinion before doing anything.

A skinny girl with a broom and a bucket appears and starts to unblock the toilet. I’m anxious to get going, so once she’s finished in the bathroom I tell her to leave the rest to me; I take a shower, get dressed, gather up the money and put it in my backpack along with what’s left of my passport. The mangled papers and jumbled clothing I’ll deal with later.

On the way to Rua do Travesso I pass an Internet place; spontaneously, I decide to backtrack and go in. I’m in no mood to check e-mail but I figure there must be a site for the American Consulate that will provide directions and information on replacing my passport, so I can start to work on that as soon as possible.

I haven’t been to this particular “café” before and head toward the counter to find out if I can just get online or have to pay first. The attendant, a woman in her twenties with squarish, black-framed glasses, is in the middle of a heated argument with a customer. It sounds like she’s explaining the same thing over and over again; the man is growing increasingly irate. Eventually she starts to lose her patience, too, and they end up having an all-out shouting match. I’m about to give up and leave, when the customer storms out. The young woman turns to me with a sigh.

“Internet?” I ask her. “Pago depois?” ”Do I pay afterward?”

She sighs again. “Tem permissão?”

Faced with my confused stare, and having caught my accent, she translates: “Have permission?”

“Permission?” I repeat. “To use the Internet? I mean, para usar internete?”

The woman rolls her eyes and comes out from behind the counter, motioning for me to sit down at one of the computers. Leaning over me, she types in a password, then a few words in a browser. Within seconds an English-language news page opens up before me with the headline: “Internet Access Worldwide Restricted to Bearers of Government Clearance Card.”

What the . . . ? Disbelief and outrage course through me as I scan the article: ”stringent security measures,” “thwarting terrorist hackers,” “centralized list,” “upon presentation of government-issued Clearance Card.”

The woman has been standing back watching my reaction as I read — it must be obvious that I’m not in possession of a Clearance Card. The article is extremely brief and I want to know a lot of other things, like would she be able to get more information about this for me, and how do I apply for a card, and is this situation permanent? The idea of carrying on the conversation in pidgin English and Portuguese exhausts me, however, and I think, once again, that Veronica and Bruno will be able to enlighten me more swiftly and efficiently. In my haste to be on my way again, I forget all about the American Consulate and the passport question.

Walking quickly, I reach Rua do Travesso in under ten minutes. From a distance I see someone loitering near the door of number 239; coming closer, I realize to my dismay that it’s the policeman Stiff, observing my approach. I don’t quite have the gall to pass him without breaking stride, so I pause with my hand on the door frame and affect a pleasant smile. Boa tarde,” I say — ”Good afternoon.”

Stiff does not return the smile. “Miss,” he says, “did I not suggest you to stay away from here?”

I screw up my face as though I were either trying to remember his warning or admitting my mistake. Thereupon, I attempt to proceed into the building, but he stops me: “Just one minute please. May I see your identification?”

My ruined passport. If I show it to him there will be questions that may lead to a more lengthy interaction. Tourists are told to have proper ID on them at all times; I wonder if I’ll get in trouble if I pretend not to have any.

“Oh,” I exclaim sorrowfully. “I believe I left my passport at the hotel.”

He scowls. “Miss, you must carry your identification with you always. I suggest you to return to your hotel and collect your document.”

Now I’m impatient. Maybe if I assume the stereotypical North American attitude of entitlement, treating what he’s saying as kindly advice rather than the command it’s intended as, I can get by him.

“Thank you so much!” I bestow a large grin upon him, taking advantage of his momentary astonishment to breeze past and disappear up the stairs. An angry shout — “Ei!” — but no footsteps pursue me. I imagine he’s planning to deal with me on my way out.

The door to the apartment is open. I enter cautiously, half-expecting a scene of destruction similar to the one at the hotel, but the large front room looks much as it usually does. If anything, it seems a little emptier. Muffled sounds reach my ears; I follow them to one of the bedrooms off the hall. Veronica is kneeling on the floor, hurriedly transferring items of clothing from a bureau into a suitcase. When she notices me she stops for a moment and gives me a worried half-smile.

“What are you doing? Are you going somewhere?” I ask.

She resumes packing and starts to talk as she does so. “I’m so glad you’re here. We didn’t know when we would see you again. We hadn’t planned to leave, but now something has come up.”

“Is it anything to do with that policeman downstairs?”

“Oh, is one still there, then? Oh dear. Yes, he’s definitely here because of us. As a matter of fact there should be more of them coming along shortly. We managed to convince them — but just barely — that they would be better off with a search warrant, so they went to dig up something.”

“And you’re going away when?”

“Before they come back, we hope,” answers Bruno, who has materialized noiselessly behind me, his arms piled high with papers. He dumps them into the suitcase then gives me a big hug. “So good to see you. We have not seen you in so long! I am sorry we do not have any time to talk right now.”

Veronica snaps the suitcase shut, stands up. “You have the food, yes?” she asks him.

“In the small bag, by the door. Everything is ready.”

“But I have to talk to you two!” I cry out. “Where are you going? When will you be back?”

They seem surprised by the urgency in my voice. Veronica comes toward me, holding the suitcase. “I’m sorry, we can’t tell you the answers to either of those questions. We don’t know when we’ll be back, and as far as where we’re going, I’m afraid it’s not safe to tell you.”

“You don’t trust me?” I’m hurt.

“It is not a question of that, Jo,” Bruno says soothingly. “There are circumstances under which anyone can be forced to tell what they know.”

“Let’s go, Bruno.” Veronica’s voice is tense. “Josephine, I do so wish we had more time, but if we don’t go now we might not make it. They’ll be back at any moment.”

“But I got on the Outernet! And my hotel room was wrecked and my passport was destroyed! And I want to know why the Internet is restricted!”

They both freeze, staring at me.

“You got on the Outernet?” Bruno asks. His mouth stays open after he speaks.

“Bruno, we have to go now.” Veronica is desperate.

“Come with us,” Bruno says, lifting a hand to my shoulder.

We hear noise coming from the direction of the front door. Veronica shoves past me, lugging the suitcase, and hurries down the hall toward the kitchen. Bruno moves to follow her but tightens his grip on my shoulder. “Come,” he repeats, tugging at me.

We hasten after Veronica, who has passed through the kitchen and disappeared down the back stairwell. Bruno locks the kitchen door after we pass through. “This will stop them for a second,” he mutters.

We clatter down the worn wooden steps. I’m wondering how far we’ll get — surely the cops know there’s a back entrance. Instead of exiting to the street, however, we descend into what must be a basement. There’s no light, only the sound of Veronica’s swiftly retreating footsteps ahead of us.

“Hold on to my shirt,” Bruno says, and I grasp the soft cotton of his T-shirt. The cloth has enough give that I can stay right behind him without stepping on his heels. I don’t understand how Veronica and he manage to move so quickly in the pitch-darkness, speeding down the long tunnels, around corners, and up and down short staircases without bumping into a single thing.

“We practiced,” Bruno says,  as if reading my mind.

Far, far behind us we hear shouts, banging, sharp cracks of what might be gunshot. To my immense relief, the farther we go the fainter these become, until the only sounds accompanying us are those of our own footsteps. My eyes have become accustomed to the darkness enough so that I can make out edges and contours and feel less dependent on Bruno’s shirt to avoid wiping out. Some of the corridors are lined with shelves or stacks of boxes; others are just empty tunnels of hard-packed earth. Occasionally we pass a series of closed doors, a staircase or another passage branching off. The adrenaline is wearing off and I’m starting to feel tired but I don’t dare slow down or interrupt our progress by asking questions.

Finally, we climb a long flight of steps toward a horizontal strip of light. Veronica reaches the door first and opens it.

We’re released into the soft air and slanting sunlight of late afternoon, in a nondescript dead-end alley; a pigeon eyes us nervously while demolishing a crust of bread. Bruno gives me an encouraging smile and pats me on the back a couple of times. Veronica purses her lips then looks toward the end of the alleyway where it intersects with another street. The sound of a motor approaches; a car rolls into view. Before I can even get a glimpse of the driver, Veronica whips around in a panic. She says something to Bruno very fast in Portuguese and he grabs me and presses my face up against his chest, almost smothering me.

“Hey!” I protest, struggling.

His other arm encircles me tightly but gently; he whispers: “Wait, please, we will explain everything in a minute.”

Having managed to free my nose and mouth so that I can at least breathe, I let myself relax into his embrace, which is, after all, what it is. I’d never felt the entire length of his body against mine; it’s warm, delicious. Is it possible that slight hardness down there is an erection? A pleasurable shiver runs through me as I remember the kiss and wonder whether it will really come to pass.

Meanwhile, it sounds as if Veronica has unlatched the suitcase and is rummaging through it. The car engine has shut off and I can’t hear anything more from that direction. Of course, one of my ears is smashed up against Bruno’s ribs and the sound of his heart, beating rather quickly, is louder than anything else.

I sense Veronica near us now; Bruno’s hold loosens a bit, there’s some mumbling, then a piece of cloth is fitted over my eyes and tied behind my head by Veronica’s cool, deft fingers. She steps away and Bruno lets go of me, though he keeps a hand on my waist.

“It’s for your protection as well as ours,” Veronica says. “We’re going to take a car ride and it will be better for you not to know where we’re going.”

I don’t reply. I’ve understood that I’m now a part of something much more serious than I’d previously realized; I feel like a child, limp in Bruno and Veronica’s hands, submitting to their greater wisdom. We walk to the car. I get put in the back seat next to Veronica, wondering if she engineered it this way so I won’t be next to Bruno. The two of them exchange friendly greetings in Portuguese with the driver, a woman; she starts the engine and we move off amid a torrent of talk too rapid for me to follow. I can tell that stories are being exchanged, opinions offered — all in a tone I find strangely lighthearted under the circumstances. They sound as if they’re enjoying the adventure.

I, on the other hand, am becoming increasingly apathetic; the improvised hood is causing me to sink into a kind of torpor. Or perhaps it’s a combination of the sun I absorbed on the beach, the dizzying journey to the Outernet, the shock of my wrecked possessions, and the adrenaline of the long subterranean flight. I doze off, awaken briefly to realize I’ve drooled a little on the musty plush of the seat back, then sink into a deep sleep.

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