The Town on Blighted Sea
By A. M. Dellamonica
21 August 2006
Part 1 of 2
Ruthless moved with silent purpose, keeping to the shadows as she strode between the skyscrapers of Earthtown's expansion district. It was summer in the northern hemisphere of Kabuva, the air chill and dense but not frosty, the skunky musk of the sea a reminder that this wasn't home, this would never be home. Tumbler Moon was full, shining so brilliantly it might have been dawn rather than deepest night. She cursed its brightness as she walked, then reminded herself it could be worse: Mad Moon could be out too.
Arriving at Phoenix Avenue, she was relieved to find herself the only living creature on the ground. Nanocompiled towers rose around her, monolithic, smooth, and identical but for their height. Taking out a bootlegged scanner, Ruthless walked a quick circle in the middle of the unused intersection, checking for police transmissions. It registered a welcome concentration of signals, all bouncing around the occupied half of the refugee settlement.
The Kabu had over-estimated how many human exiles would make it to Refuge Island. They'd compiled Earthtown's skyscrapers with a figure of three million refugees in mind; only half that number actually escaped from Earth. So the squid sealed off the excess portion of the prefabricated city, deactivating the power and water grids, blocking the roads, and pulling out all but a handful of surveillance cameras.
According to her scanner, this was one of the surveillance dead zones—no cops nearby. Satisfied, Ruthless turned to a slashed plastic seal on the entrance of the building behind her. Pushing her way through the tear, she trotted up the stillborn escalators to the sixth floor. There another torn seal marked a door midway down the hall.
Ruthless crept to the door, rapping it with gloved fingers.
"Auntie?" Raviel's voice was duller than an hour ago—less fearful, more shocked. She had been right in the middle of a hot flash when he called, sweat pouring down her face and chest as her nephew's panic chilled her heart.
Auntie. She wondered when he'd last called her that. Before Exile?
"Open up, Rav."
The door scrolled aside in jerks, powered by muscle instead of hydraulics. Ruthless didn't help him, didn't touch anything even though she had gloved up and sprayed down before leaving her apartment.
She took in everything at once. The blood, the corpses—one human and female, one squid and male—the smell of puke and, most important, the lack of an immediate threat. Having established the parameters of the crisis, she focused on Rav. Pale and hollow-eyed, her brother's son reeked of vomit and was bleeding slightly from a gash above his collarbone. The Kabu had come within inches of cutting his throat. She counted a dozen bruises and sucker-hickeys, all minor.
Rav's white-blonde hair was matted with ink and other alien fluids. His left arm was gloved in Kabu blood, black from fingertips to shoulder.
"Figure you want me to turn myself in," he said, and Ruthless was pierced by the memory of his father wearing a similar expression. Forcing himself to be brave, she thought, just like Matt before the battle of Las Vegas. "It'll be easier if you come with me. Auntie? Can you?"
When Ruthless did not reply, he said, swallowing, "I can call now if . . . "
"No, honey." She shook her head. "We're not calling."
Rav's pale face flushed red, and his eyes welled. He reached out—but Ruthless stopped him with a gesture.
"Can you answer me a couple questions?"
She pointed at the dead woman. "The squid killed her?"
"Yes," he said.
"You killed him?"
A slow nod.
"You know either of them?"
"Not at all?"
Face pinching, Rav pointed at the woman. "She's a local feeler. Comes to the Rialto sometimes, but . . ."
"But you've never spoken."
"Just—" He mimed tearing a ticket. "Enjoy the show, ma'am."
"She likes . . . liked silent movies. Always came to see Buster Keaton."
"Okay, Rav. You followed them because . . ."
"I'm documenting the touchie-feelie trade."
"You're what?" She wasn't as good at masking her feelings as she used to be—her tone made Rav flinch. "Doc—you brought recording equipment with you?"
He pointed to a button-sized blotch near the ceiling.
"That's a camera?"
"Latest model. Fly-on-the-wall, they call it." He laughed humorlessly.
The thing clung to the wall a discreet distance from the gore. It was too small to be anything but short range. Glancing around the room, Ruthless saw a receiver lying on the blue backpack she'd got Rav for his last birthday.
"Jesus, Rav, you filmed the killings?"
"I shut it down after."
"Is it shut down now?" It came out a growl.
Rav's head snapped up. "Yes. It's off. You're not on camera, swear."
"Where's the feed cached?"
"In my data pantry at home."
"Using Ma's encryption protocols, yeah."
Ruthless drew in a slow breath. Elva knew her stuff: the feed would be safe.
Rav raised a shaking, blood-slimed hand to his face, as if to push back his hair. When he made contact he recoiled, staring at his blackened palm. "He was all the way down her throat. She was choking. I couldn't—"
"You had to help."
"I grabbed him . . . or he grabbed me. She was choking, all those arms—"
Ruthless nodded, remembering too well what it was like to wrestle an infuriated squid. They were bigger, and the tentacles made them seem stronger than they were. Not to mention slippery and fast.
"I overheard Ma once, telling her security boys you stuck your hand up a squid's mouth once in the war."
"I get the gist," Ruthless said, contemplating the corpses. Spatters, genetic evidence. Lot of cleanup here.
"She said you dug through to its brain with your fingers . . ." Rav continued, retching as he looked at his blood-gloved arm.
"You did the right thing, Rav."
Normally she'd be furious with Elva for letting the kid hear such a thing. Since it had apparently saved his ass, she silently blessed her sister-in-law's indiscretion.
"The right thing?"
She nodded, still thinking about cleanup. "You made it home from the playground, that's all that counts."
"Playground," he repeated, disbelieving.
"Huh—oh, sorry. Warspeak. It means—"
"I know it's warspeak."
"Means you didn't die."
"You've never . . . it makes you sound so old."
"Prehistoric." She looked back at the scene. "Gotta put your toys away, that's what we'd say about this."
He shuddered. "If I did the right thing and the feed proves it, why not tell?"
She shook her head. "Right or not, squid might still drown you. You killed one of them, just a fry from the looks of it . . ."
"He's a murderer!"
"It'll bring up old memories for them. Stuff about the war that the Kabu don't like to think about."
"That's a drowning offense now, making them remember?"
"It might be different one day, if we don't go back to Earth first. But change takes time and martyrs, Rav, and you are not getting sacrificed. Not for trying to save some poor feeler's life. Okay?"
Shuddering, he nodded.
"Now. I need you to take off the squid's hydration tank."
"He'll have a tank. To keep his skin moist." She pointed and he fumbled the metal canister out of the dead sentient's limp, bell-shaped cap.
"Hold it so I can see the controls—good. There's enough in there for you to clean up."
"Should I get in the shower?"
"No! We get your genes in the drains, it's all over. Strip off your clothes in that corner and use his water supply to hose off."
"I'll get blood and stuff on the floor."
"It's okay. For now, just make yourself presentable."
As Rav washed, she unpacked her cloak on the corridor floor, laying out an assortment of sprays and other nanotech she'd squirreled away in the years since Exile. It had taken time to make contacts in a Kabuva forensics lab. She'd wondered sometimes if she wasn't wasting her money. Surely she'd be headed home to Earth before she needed any of these toys.
But the months since the Setback—nobody who'd made it to Earthtown called it the defeat it was—had stretched to years, seventeen of them now.
"Um," said Rav, shaking drips from his fine white hair.
He nodded, blushing furiously, one newly-washed hand cupped over his groin.
Ruthless sprayed nanosols onto a towel and passed it over the threshold. "Here, dry off. Right. Now lay the towel on the floor like a rug and walk on it a couple times. Feet dry?"
"Leave the towel, step over that tentacle, and come out into the hallway."
Nude, her nephew looked young and vulnerable. As he stepped out of the crime scene she clasped his shoulder with her gloved hand, feeling the pressure in her chest ease at the contact. "It's gonna be okay, honey."
Swallowing, he nodded.
"Let's get that wound." The edges of the gash in his chest were already red—Kabu saliva was notoriously infectious. She patted it dry with an antibiotic wipe and hit him with two immune-boosters. Last she painted on a thin layer of puttied skin, blending the culture until the cut was concealed.
"I'll need to refresh this every day for at least a week. We don't want it to scar: it's too obvious it's a beak bite. In the meantime, you'll wear high-collared smocks so nobody sees it. Nobody sees this, Rav, you got me?"
"You sleeping with anyone?"
"No!" He flushed pink from forehead to toes.
"Good. Don't start until you're healed." Next she sprayed a thin mist up and down his body. Beading on his skin, it dispersed quickly, spreading like oil. "This'll die off in a day or so."
"It devours any dead skin cells you happen to be shedding; also hairs, sweat, tears, blood—anything that might leave trace. Squid forensics labs developed it to keep their investigators from contaminating crime scenes. Not that they cry tears, of course, this is a variant they developed for working with human cops . . ."
As she hoped, her patter soothed him, the matter-of-fact voice easing his nerves and the peculiarity of his nakedness.
"Where'd you get the spray?"
"Black market lab in Little Canada," she said, handing him a smock. "Here, get dressed. Watch the edges of that synthetic skin on your chest."
He took the clothes with visible relief. "You just keep stuff around for covering up crimes?"
"As a precaution."
"Against what? Everyone here fought alongside the Kabu. Why would anyone need to cover up a . . ."
"A justifiable homicide?"
He swallowed. "You used to be a cop. Used to solve this kind of thing."
"And now I work in an umbrella factory. Listen, sweetheart. You tried to save the girl. A nice thing to do . . . and killing the squid was purely fair play."
"You'd cover it up even if I'd murdered him. If I wasn't your nephew I'd be sunk."
"Sure, I suppose that's true."
"So really, whether I did the right thing or not is beside the point."
"You're gonna go killing squid for fun now?"
He glared. "It wasn't fun."
"I'm not trying to offend you, Rav. I know anger feels better than being scared or freaked out."
"Don't tell me what I'm feeling!"
"You can yell at me later if you need to, all you want, anytime you want, about anything you think I've done wrong."
She interrupted. "You'll have to yell at me, because as long as we're on Kabuva, you're never going to mention what happened here to another living soul. Ever, Rav."
He jerked the smock up over his hips, stretching the fabric, his hands trembling.
"Right now we have to get rid of the evidence. So I'm asking—do you need a pacifier, or can you hold it together?"
Rav frowned, confused, and she held up a patch
"I don't need drugs," he said.
"Good. Put on my cloak and remember to keep your face down in case there are fixed cameras."
"We're walking away? But my blood, and the bodies . . ."
"We'll come back and get rid of it all."
"How? All this . . . evidence."
"Dust it," Ruthless said, and Rav's face went so slack she might as well have pacified him. Head lowered, he shuffled after her as she headed down the hall.
The Kabu had interested themselves in Earth's civil war early on, throwing technology, medical aid, and eventually even soldiers into the Democratic Army's global fight against the fascist Friends of Liberation. In the end it cost the offworld sentients an uncountable fortune as well as the lives of over a million young squid . . . a million, that is, if one didn't count the conscripts who went home alive but just as thoroughly destroyed, body and soul, as their dusted kelpmates.
The Friends—Fiends, their enemies had called them—had alien backers too. Over the course of seventy grinding years they and their allies beat the Democratic/Squid alliance soundly. The Fiends devoured the world mile by bloody mile, starting in Asia and taking North America last of all.
The most terrible weapon of the war was dust, a nanotech agent that took everything in its path apart molecule by molecule. Equally useful for structural targets or as an anti-personnel weapon, dust erased its victims from existence. Direct hits left no trace. Nothing to bury, no DNA, just oddly sterile battlefields—overlapping craters filled with thin, rust-colored powder, sometimes edged with pieces of bodies. Arms, legs and heads, usually—it was the extremities that most often escaped the blast perimeters.
A child of the Setback, Rav had grown up dreading the very thought of dust. It was the bogeyman of his generation: go to sleep, kid, or the Fiends will come and dust you.
That threat hadn't kept him from pestering his mother and aunt for war stories: his fascination with the past was morbid and insatiable. Maybe now that will change, Ruthless thought, despite the guilty pang at her selfishness.
They arrived at the Rialto just after midnight, creeping in through a back door. "Go put on a smock that fits. Bring back the one you're wearing," Ruthless said.
"Before you go up, give me access to your pantry."
"Scan in and authorize me," she said, nudging him toward a terminal.
"What are you going to do?"
"Delete the feed and anything associated with it."
"I'll do that later."
"Just get your clothes."
"Fine." Scanning his thumb and keying in the authorization, Rav vanished upstairs to his room.
Ruthless found the right directory easily enough: it was packed with video feeds. Feeds of feeler pickups—half-smocked women and men lurking in building lobbies. Human-chauffeured cars cruising slowly to allow the squid riding in the water tank in back to extend their tentacles, tasting the wares on offer. Feeds of quickie feels—an old squid with two burned tentacles slowly removing a woman's mask, delicately tasting her lips and the corners of her eyes. A human male guiding a tentacle delicately over his groin as he drank some concoction that made him break out in a heavy sweat.
The same man showed up in the next feed too—he was working a tentacle in and around his ear. And another; he was putting on a breathing rig that would allow a client to probe his throat without suffocating him.
Blind as kittens, the Kabu were taste-oriented: with each other, they probed and suckled with abandon. Humans who dealt with them wore smocks that sealed off their crotches, wore masks to protect their faces. The squid were supposed to content themselves with the scent and taste of human feet, palms, and underarms, a prohibition that worked about as well as any other taboo.
Ruthless never saw the Kabu in her day-to-day life if she could avoid it. Masks made her claustrophobic. And even after so many years there was something about the memory of a tentacle draping over her wrist, of small suckers tasting her palm, that made her stomach turn.
She reached the most recent feed. It began with the duo she had seen dead in the apartment, arriving at the building on Phoenix Street. As the car drove away, the woman looked upward, just for a second, gazing into the greenish light of Tumbler Moon.
Following them inside, the camera dipped and hovered, seeking a good vantage point. By the time it was settled the woman had stripped, leaning back against a wall so the squid could taste her various scent zones.
Why had Rav wanted this, Ruthless wondered, feeling queasy as the tentacles explored the woman's body, poking at her ears, the corners of her eyes, eventually probing into her vagina and anus. It went bad quickly after that: the squid yanked her tongue, pulling with brutal force before sliding another tentacle down the woman's throat.
As she began to choke, Rav burst in.
Mother-bear rage built within Ruthless as her nephew and the squid collided, as its beak slashed open Rav's chest and the blood sprayed. Rav thrust his arm past its maw, digging for the sentient's vulnerable palate. With a convulsive jerk, he punched through the gelatinous flesh, squeezing brain. The squid thrashed and then went limp.
Heaving free, Rav crawled to the woman, drawing a bloodied tentacle out of her throat. He checked her pulse; he started CPR. Good boy, Ruthless thought, running the feed forward. He gave resuscitation a good solid try before collapsing, curling in a spreading puddle of black blood, vomiting and weeping. It was some time before he recovered and shut off the camera.
Ruthless deleted the files and poked through the data pantry, searching for copies. The old feeds had been backed up, but not this newest. Relieved, she wiped the backups, fished up a couple of Elva's most aggressive security programs, and set them to disassembling every trace of the deleted feeds.
Then, trotting down the hall, she peeked into the theater.
Her sister-in-law had come to Earthtown wearing one formal smock and nothing else. In the two suitcases permitted to each Exile—and in one of Rav's—Elva had stuffed movie feeds, hundreds of them: blockbusters and art films and cartoons and classics, any entertainment data she could get her hands on. She had marched straight off the ship and demanded to see the licensing bureau. Within a day she had a business charter, sole control over a large theater space, and an extra-large apartment that was attached to her place of business. She began showing movies around the clock . . . and people came.
Within a Kabuva week, Elva had bartered for all the necessities she had left behind—clothes, kitchen goods, books. Culture-shocked and dispossessed, the human refugees welcomed even the slightest glimpse of home.
Nowadays, the business ran strictly on cash. As always, the theater was jammed, every one of the two hundred seats filled and a lineup of homesick humans, most of them Ruthless's age, waiting to get in. They were watching an old Bollywood thing—Mangal Pandey, she thought. Many were slack-jawed, entranced. Some mumbled along, reading the English subtitles.
Ruthless allowed herself one glance at the screen, one intoxicating sight of horses and desert, of the familiar Earth sky. Then she tiptoed into Elva's office. With a bit of fiddling and one of her sprays, she was able to bust the lock on the safe, liberating a sheaf of movie passes.
"What are you doing here?" Elva's voice brought her round. "Where's Rav?"
Elva was a wealthy woman by Refuge standards, but years of hardship before Exile had made her frugal. She was wearing the plainest of gray smocks and an aging pair of leather boots. She kept her hair shaved in a buzz cut, red and silver bristles that did not quite hide the scar that ran down the side of her skull. She hoarded food and medicine, Rav said, against the day when they went home.
Her eyes were emeralds—sharp, green, hostile. They'd played together on a lot of battlefields, but they'd never quite been friends.
"Rav's upstairs," Ruthless said, and when Elva made a move in that direction she said, "Leave him be."
"What gives you the right to tell me what I can do in my own house?"
"Is he all right?"
"Is he in trouble?"
"He won't be for much longer."
"What's the game?"
"You wouldn't want me to say."
Elva glanced at the theater curtain.
"If you're calling your security guys to take me out of play . . ."
"You think I'm stupid enough to strongarm you, Ruthless?"
"I guess we'll see," she said pleasantly, but Elva didn't move. If she'd called on her dogs, she wasn't taking it back.
"Go back to work, Elva. Act normal. Rav'll be home by dawn."
"That's all? Show up, scare me shitless, rob me blind, and you're not going to tell me?"
"You're not going to ask again," Ruthless said. "Not here. Don't ask him either."
"It'll be best for everyone if you pretend you don't know he went out. Tell anyone who asks that he was in all night."
"What the fuck have you gotten him into?"
"You don't do as I say, Elva, the squid will come for him. If you don't do as I say, the squid will drown him. You're family, Elva, but he's blood. You mention tonight to him or anyone else, you give the police a reason to eavesdrop, you get my brother's son killed, I will give it out around town that you worked for the Fiends."
"Mobs don't care about the truth, Elva. You're a woman, you're wealthy, and you're something of a bitch. You're not liked and you know it. Now go back to work before your kid comes down and sees us arguing."
"I'm not arguing."
"Look, it's going to be okay," she said, and Elva punched her hard in the mouth.
Ruthless fell back against the desk. She'd forgotten about the hair-trigger temper.
"Don't you threaten me, Ruthie. He's my kid. You think blackmail—"
"It's bad, okay? He's in trouble and it's bad." She tasted blood in her mouth and, fleetingly, imagined hitting back. It had been years since they brawled . . . long enough she could almost imagine it would be fun. Instead, she said: "I shouldn't have said that. He's your kid. You'll keep quiet, I know that."
There was a light footfall on the stairs. "Auntie?"
Elva dashed at her eyes with the back of one clenched fist. "Don't lose. Whatever the game is—"
"I never lose." Jaw throbbing, she edged around Elva, slipping back into the hallway.
"Ruthless?" A hoarse whisper.
"Just Ruth, Rav," she sighed. "Okay?"
"One of your mom's goons thought I was a gatecrasher."
"He still alive?" The joke fell flat as his voice quavered.
"Killing suddenly not so funny, huh kid?"
"So what now?"
What indeed? Elva would need time to calm down, and Rav was too worked up to leave behind. And he was in the game now, anyway, wasn't he? Club rule number one: clean up your own toys.
She led him to a pedestrian walkway, grateful to see it was getting foggy. "Let's talk over the ways people get caught."
"They make phone calls and big bank transactions around the time of the crime."
"I called you."
"We'll work up a story for that. They confess to their lover or therapist a decade after the event; then the lover or therapist tells someone, who tells someone else, and the secret eventually finds its way to the cops. They write about it in their diaries. They stop trusting their playmates . . ."
"I was by myself, Ruthl—Ruth."
"Rav." She caught his gaze. "I can sink for this now, just like you can."
"Come on, we're on a clock."