The Town on Blighted Sea
By A. M. Dellamonica
28 August 2006
Part 2 of 2
They caught a highspeed to her home district, riding in silence to Beijing Avenue. Between the buildings, they could see the black sheet of the ocean whose Kabuva name, Vinvalomm, meant the Blighted Sea. The water was obscured at its beachward edges by rising banks of mist. The shadowy figures of shellfish collectors, human and squid both, moved like ghosts along its blue-tinged beaches.
Passing through a brightly-lit market, Rav and Ruthless watched the squid who'd come to buy Earthly delicacies—bean sprouts, beef tripe, silk. Shopping districts like this were mostly open at night, when the squids' suns couldn't dry out or fry their delicate skins.
Amid the loud chatter of the market, Rav murmured in her ear: "Can I ask you something?"
She glanced at her scanner, nodded. "You can ask."
"You weren't a Fiend. You were fighting the Fiends, right, just like the Kabu were?"
"How is it you ended up . . ."
"Killing squid with my bare hands?"
"You don't need to know—"
No, she thought, and when she opened her mouth to speak her whole body resisted—her jaw felt rusted shut. "The squid needed spies—loyal Demos who'd join the Fiends and report on what they were up to. Your father'd been taken prisoner; I figured I could look for him and gather intelligence all at once."
"You pretended to be an infiltrator?"
"You fought with them? I mean—on their side?"
"Yes. I shot Demos. I dusted squid."
"How could the Kabu trust you after that?"
"I was home free as long as I followed two rules: produced results and only killed conscripts, never officers."
Rav stumbled into a woman carrying a block of frozen fishmeat—few humans could afford to buy beef, or any of the other earthmeats they now grew for the squid as delicacies.
Ruthless couldn't help laughing. "Shocked, huh?"
He laced his fingers in a squiddish religious gesture, the symbol of reverence. "Kabu philosophy—the sanctity of water-based life . . ."
"They tossed away a million of their fry." Bitterness clawed her lungs; it was always a mistake, discussing this with kids. The words coughed out in spurts, like blood. "Easy for 'em to be sanctimonious now. A few years have passed, so they think . . . Rav? You okay?"
He had pressed a fist to his chest, right around the beak bite. "Hurts a bit, that's all. Did you ever want to stay? With the Fiends?"
She shook her head. "It felt good playing for the winning team, sometimes, but they really were bastards."
"Did you find my dad?"
"He'd died," she said, bracing herself for the inevitable flood of questions about that.
Instead, he looked thoughtful. "That's why we had to leave Earth. Because you betrayed the Fiends."
And because Elva's platoon killed thousands of them, including a Russian prince, with a good old-fashioned nuke one sunny morning in Chicago. But she nodded. "Fiends would've killed us all once they took over."
From the market they rode a service elevator up four hundred stories, emerging into the brain of a building engineering system that controlled four city blocks. There, encircled by monitors and compressors, they found a milk-pale man in his fifties. A giant with long gold-and-white hair, his smock was so worn that his flesh glinted through it at the knees.
"This is Cope," Ruthless said. "Cope, my nephew Rav."
"Name's short for Copenhagen." The man extended a grimy hand and Rav shook it gingerly.
"Copenhagen—like the snack?"
"Like the city," Cope said sharply.
"Where—" Rav began, but Ruthless cut him off before he could make it worse.
"Cope, I need grenades. Two, three if possible, thirty diameter dispersal, with timers."
Pale blue eyes gleamed. "Where's the playground?"
"Expansion district. It goes right, nobody should die."
"Mmmm," he said neutrally. "My expenses?"
She pulled out the sheaf she had taken from Elva's safe. "Movie passes."
Cope fingered through the wealth. "I could only get two grenades. Can you wait?"
"Figured." Tucking the passes into his tunic's waistband, Cope opened a panel under the HVAC monitor. He drew out an embroidered gold cushion, slipping it into a sleek plastic shopping bag. "Timers are wired in."
"This is plenty."
He gave her a faintly hungry glance before turning back to work. "Play safely, then."
She led Rav back out to the walkway, looking for all the world like a mother taking her son out for a late-night shop. Except . . . "Stop staring at the pillow like it's a bomb," she finally had to hiss.
"It is a—"
"Rav," she warned.
"He just had that lying around?"
"I gave him a heads-up after you called."
"I thought you said phone calls could tip off—"
"Who said I phoned?"
"Oh." He looked bewildered; Ruthless didn't bother to explain.
Back at the edge of the Expansion District, they slipped through the fences, heading for the crime scene. Dawn was maybe two hours away, and it was colder now. As they climbed the escalators, Ruthless saw Rav trying to imitate her way of walking, her soundless footsteps. Every third or fourth footfall he succeeded.
The scanner hummed against her thigh. She pulled Rav against her, spraying them both with a cooling mist and putting a finger to her lips. A roving monitor, she prayed, a random sweep. The spray would keep it from reading their body heat . . . if it wasn't looking too closely.
He shivered, obviously stressed and exhausted. Just a teenager, on the run . . . she remembered the feeling.
The scanner hummed again—they were clear.
"Ask you something?" she whispered as she let go.
"Why were you documenting the feelers? Of all the things about Exile . . ."
"You don't think the people back home will want to know?" he said, voice ironic.
"They'll be interested in anything that happened here. Why deviant squid?"
He shrugged. "Get something done? Expose the problem?"
"Come on, the cop's gone," she said.
He fell in behind her. "You knew feelers were vanishing?"
"And that nobody's doing anything?"
"You saying you wanted to catch that squid you killed?"
"No! It's . . . back Earthside, if problems got exposed, got into the news . . . people dealt with them."
"You've been watching too many of your mother's movies."
"Ruthless, the touchie squid—"
"You can't stop them. It's like any other kink. There'll always be squid wanting a taste of us. They're hardwired for it. Until we leave for home . . . "
Rav grabbed her arm, cursing in Kabuva.
"We're not going back to Earth."
"Of course we are."
They were in the corridor by now. The stink of death and human vomit darted out of the darkness, slyly, to meet them. Rav's face was wild. "Auntie. You're not one of those kelpheaded fossils who sits in Ma's theater all day reciting all the old movie lines."
"Dreaming of when we'll go back? It's no good. We're never going back to Earth."
"Rav, Fiendish rule can't last forever."
"Because it—" Uncertainty buffeted her. "They're . . . Rav, they're the bad guys."
"What about here and now? If someone makes a fuss about the feelers . . ."
"We are going home," she said. She was angry at him, her perfect little nephew who meant more to her than the universe. Even now, her chest hurt—strangely, sweetly—at the sight of him, at the sense of possession and protectiveness. Her brother's child.
Suddenly she wanted to break his neck.
"My home is here," Rav said. "I don't want it to be a hunting ground for perverted sentients."
She pushed past him to the door of the apartment, comforting herself with the solidity of the mess within. Two corpses. Evidence everywhere. A job that needed doing.
"Help me open this up, Rav." They gutted the pillow, sending a cloud of synthetic feathers all over the hall. Inside, two boxes, each the size and color of a brick, each with buttons and a pop-up screen.
Ruthless set one to time out thirty minutes, handing it to Rav. "Go inside. Set this deep under the squid."
"Won't it vaporize everything, no matter where we put it?"
"I want it out of sight." She didn't explain that this was in case anyone arrived before the blast. Grenades were easily defused.
The second charge was for the building entryway, in case either of them had left prints or other traces while going in and out. They jogged down, Rav watching the street as Ruthless set the second charge against a pillar.
"There's someone out there," he said.
Ruthless pulled him down, peering through a hole in the plastic sheet. An aquarium-equipped limousine was parked in the street, motor running. The driver, a human man, was exploring the intersection.
"Police?" whispered Rav.
She shook her head. "Squid's chauffeur. Come on, game's changed. Escape and evade."
She waited until the driver turned his back, then led Rav around the side of the building, darting from there to the next one.
When they'd put a couple blocks between them, Ruthless looked back. The driver had finally reached a decision, striding purposefully to the cut plastic membrane and entering the building. Rav's body jerked in the direction they had come, but she grabbed and held him.
"It's too late," she said. "Grenade's almost timed. By the time he gets up there, the whole apartment will be dust."
"If he hurries, he'll get dusted too."
"We could get back in time. Warn him."
"We warn him, Rav, you could drown."
"I don't want an innocent guy to die for me!"
"He's not innocent." She kept one eye on the building, talking slowly, wasting time. "That man has been driving your squid around Earthtown picking up feelers. Feelers who then vanished. Nobody's ever found a body, have they?"
"Thought you weren't following the story," he snapped.
"That supposedly innocent guy probably helped load the bodies into that very car, helped get rid of them—"
"You don't know for sure," Rav protested. "He could be a nice guy."
"Yeah," she agreed. "Or he could be a doctor. He could be a nun or the father of a newborn baby or the only grandson of the great General Hintegro. I still wouldn't give you up to keep him from getting dusted."
Tears welled in her nephew's eyes, spilling over his cheeks and spreading to oily nothingness as the nanosol consumed the evidence.
"We keep moving . . ." Ruthless began. Then a white-hot glow seeped through the sixth floor windows of the building.
She knew exactly what was happening. Dust was expanding from the grenade in a sphere, and everything it touched was disintegrating. The bodies and the barf—maybe the chauffeur too if his timing was bad—were already gone. Now the dust was eating a hole in the building.
"Come on," she said. "Blast'll bring the police."
Rav didn't stir.
Please, Ruthless thought. Don't make me hit you.
"He's okay," he said suddenly. The chauffeur threw himself onto the street, tangling with the plastic sheet and then falling clear. Gasping, he leaned against the building wall, wide-eyed with horror, fumbling for his phone and then staring at it blankly.
"Notice how he's not calling for help?" Ruthless said.
"Shut up." Rav scowled.
The building had a circular hole in it now, six floors up, the blackened area rotted like a cavity in a tooth. Perfect dispersal, Ruthless noted—game over, thanks Cope. Now to get the kid out of here before he did the math on the chauffeur's current position.
"Let's go," she said, but Rav was rooted in place.
"He's okay," he muttered, half to himself. The driver was weeping now, still collapsed against the building.
"No," she said, "he's doomed."
"Police are on their way," Ruthless said. "He can't dust his traces like we did. If the car does contain DNA from the missing feelers . . . well, once they know his boss was the deviant, they'll sink the guy to shut him up."
"What makes you so sure he knows?"
"He's not calling the cops, is he?"
"He's not running, either."
"But—" Rav began, and that was when the second grenade blew. A ground-level fireworks-bloom of sparks expanded in slowmo through the plastic. The driver's reflexes were good; he started to run as the sparks turned fire-orange and then brown, unmaking the building, taking a cookie-bite out of the street. The tower shuddered; the plastic tore up to the eighth or ninth floor as the structure beneath cracked. There was a sound of glass breaking.
The dustball reached the running driver. With a truncated scream, he vanished.
Rav sucked air, wide-eyed, like a baby warming up for a long shriek. Ruthless dragged him off the road, climbing up to a walkway.
"Come now or I pacify you," she said, and he stumbled forward, beginning to carry his own weight only gradually as she hauled him towards safety.
"Guess I really am in your stupid club now," he said, and his laugh was caustic. "We should've warned him."
"He was dead anyway."
"You're so sure."
"Innocent, guilty, he'd have been sunk. Rav, dust death is fast. He didn't know it was coming."
"He'd be alive if I'd turned myself in."
"He'd be in an interrogation chamber next door to you, agonizing over how long it would be before they tied a rock to his ankles and dragged him out to deep sea."
He wrenched free, refusing to speak until they were on a highspeed back to the Rialto. Crabcake Star was rising in the south. His arms were crossed, his eyes red and puffy.
I couldn't bear it if he came to hate me, Ruthless thought, not if . . .
"Rav," she said. "You say we're not going back."
"I'm not going," he said dully. "If I don't, Ma won't. But don't listen to me, what do I know?"
The highspeed docked, and as the automatic door opened she took a long whiff of the fog, inhaling the soothing breath of Tumblertide. "Your playmates feel the same way?"
She tried not to react. People her age never used that word anymore, not unless they meant Fiend.
"Yeah," he said, stepping onto the platform beside her. "Most of us figure we'll stay."
"Because you all grew up here."
"Kabuva's home for us, Ruth." He knotted his fingers together, approximating a squid gesture that meant safety, comfort, refuge. "You know what it's like to lose that."
He was all she had.
So. New game, new rules. She tossed her long-cherished dream of going home, cutting it away like a rotten limb and trying to ignore the pain, the sense of loss.
Back to the task at hand, she thought. "Rav, who knows you're making a documentary?"
"Ma. You. Some friends," he answered in a monotone.
"Jekkers, Clark, and Marion. Why?"
She scanned for surveillance once more before answering. "The limousine at the scene means police will probably tie the dust grenades to the feeler disappearances. They'll ID the missing squid and take a look at anyone connected to him, the driver, and the feeler trade."
"If people know I'm making a feed about the feelers, the cops will check me out," he said.
"Exactly. I'll prep you for interrogation, just in case. Maybe you can say you filmed a couple pickups as background for a bigger project."
"What bigger project?" He pressed his lips together.
"You tell me."
Rav stifled a yawn. "They won't come talk to me. Nobody knows what I've been shooting."
"You never told?"
"It seemed . . . unlucky. Stupid, right?"
Ruthless stretched out a hand, thinking to comfort him, but Rav stepped back, anger warring with misery on his pale face. Instead of chasing, she said: "Your father used to paint landscapes. He never let anyone see until they were finished. Unlucky, he said."
He blinked, surprised, and she was afraid she'd said the wrong thing. But finally Rav said: "I suppose you want me to give up shooting?"
"You have to stop documenting feelups, yeah. But if you dump your equipment and quit filming . . . that's a major behavior change, the sort of thing cops look for. Especially squid cops—they're very holistic."
"What am I supposed to do?" The anger was winning.
"Well, people know you're shooting something, so you'll have to get right to work on something else. As far as anyone knows, it's been the same project all along. But you'll need another topic."
"I'm not feeling real inspired."
He's going to torture himself over the chauffeur, Ruthless thought; he'll need close watching. And Elva's curiosity—there was that to consider too. She'd have to keep a watchful eye.
"What else isn't Earthtown talking about?" she said.
He looked at her blankly.
"You were doing this to get people talking, right? Rip off the scabs, heal some wounds, something along those lines?"
"You don't have to make it sound naive."
"Look, you said nobody talks about the feelers. What else do you think we should be talking about?"
"There's the war," he grunted. "What it was like to lose. What it was like to leave."
To lose. She nodded, thinking it through. "A lot of my playmates, the ones who survived the Setback and made it out, they're here."
"They won't talk to me. You saw that Cope guy. He thought I was kelpheaded."
"Well. I'm very persuasive."
He squinted at her in the morning light. "You'd do that?"
I'd do anything for you, kid, she thought, but it wasn't tactically sound to let him know that, was it? What she said was "Like you said, you're in the club now. People will sense it; it'll open doors. And I'll help."
"Okay." Rav gave her a faint, tired smile—his father's smile, Ruthless thought. Then he stopped walking. They had reached the rear entrance of Elva's movie theater. "That'd be . . . I could do that."
"It's a deal then—I'll call you tomorrow," Ruthless said. "Get some sleep, okay?"
"Thanks, Auntie." Ducking his head like a little boy, Rav tiptoed into the darkened theater and was gone.
"Last kid standing wins the game," Ruthless mumbled, turning east. Already considering ways to unlock the long-shut mouths of her playmates, she headed toward the fog-shrouded dawn, taking the beachward route home.