Five Good Things About Meghan Sheedy
By A.M. Dellamonica
21 April 2008
Part 1 of 2
The boys were playing dust attack again.
It was a way of dealing, Dinah knew, and she tried to ignore Aidan as he threw an imaginary grenade and then made a sprinkling motion over Jesse, a finger-waving shorthand that used to mean falling snow.
"Die, Fiend!" he shouted.
Shrieking, Jesse collapsed, writhing and flopping, apparently unable to quietly simulate complete dissolution of the molecular bonds that held his six-year-old body together.
"Both of you shush," she ordered, earning her the faintest of grateful glances from beneath Meg's unkempt copper bangs.
She poured five portions of cereal into cracked, mismatched bowls, moistening each with a half-cup of watered-down milk. Beside each bowl she set a quarter-piece of supplement wafer and a protein marshmallow. She was reaching for the spoons when the boys' game turned to a real battle.
She dove for a kid, pulling Aidan loose and holding his fists down. Meg ended up with Jesse.
"I'm not dead," Jesse bellowed.
"Don't get up when you're dusted, traitor."
"I'm not a Fiend either!"
"You're an asswipe."
"Enough," Dinah said. "Aidan, go to your room and write five things."
He jerked loose. "Mom, do I have to?"
"Listen to Dinah," Meg said, wiping Jesse's face and nudging him toward the table. Raising her voice, she called, "Everyone come eat!"
Meg's thirteen-year-old, Gwynne, appeared at once, cramming her marshmallow into her mouth before she was seated and helping herself to another. The mallows were the one thing they had plenty of.
"Elbows off the table," Meg barked, loading the baby into his highchair. Sneering at the back of her mother's turned head, Gwynne slouched back in her chair instead of forwards, sweeping her long hair over the scars on her cheek and neck.
A rare moment of near-quiet broke upon them, broken only by the clink of spoons.
"There's space in King Daycare again," Dinah said finally, earning a chilly glance. "If you go looking for work again, they'll take Ben."
Through a scowl and a mouthful of cereal, Meg said, "Humans have been banned from Kabu-sponsored construction sites."
"I didn't hear that."
"Doesn't mean it's not true."
"I didn't mean—I'm sorry. Want me to ask if there's anything in the Tank?"
"I am not mopping floors in that deathtrap."
"Whole city's a deathtrap," Gwynne muttered.
"Was I talking to you?" Meg asked sharply.
Gwynne was right, in Dinah's opinion, but like more and more of her thoughts lately, she kept it to herself.
Aidan reappeared, clutching a scrap of paper. "Jesse is cool," he read. "Jesse is neat. Jesse makes the bed. Jesse lent me his train. Jesse is fun. Okay, Mom?"
By way of assent, Meg waved at his chair. "City's rebuilding some residential districts over by Northgate. Human contractors, human sites. I'll look for work there."
"That won't pay much," Dinah said.
"Excuse me." Meg brought her spoon down with a sharp smack. "If you're content to be a bottom feeder that's fine, but I am an engineer and I'm going to work in my field."
Meg always had an explosive temper, but war had shortened her fuse. Fiendish bombardment of Seattle had left her widowed and homeless; she'd have been on the streets with Aidan and Gwynne if Dinah hadn't taken them in.
If the Democratic Army didn't start winning soon, it would only get worse. The Friends of Liberation—that was what the Fiends called themselves—had been pushing a slow invasion north from Mexico for the past decade. Drawing heavily on the support of offworlder allies, the Demos stopped the Fiends at the thirty-sixth parallel, in a cataclysmic battle that had taken out four million soldiers on both sides along with the Hoover Dam and most of Las Vegas. Since then the Fiends had been consolidating their hold on the Southeastern U.S. while pushing northward on the far western edge of the continent, conquering California and pushing ever-closer to Canada, where resistance was expected to be light.
If the Fiends do take Seattle, we'll have to run north. She kept the thought to herself. Meg would flame-broil her alive for mentioning defeat in front of the kids.
The two women had been together, one way or another, since childhood. Raised in a Kabu school for orphaned refugees, they'd grown from schoolgirls to mothers without so much as a disagreement. So it seemed now, anyway, when everything Dinah said earned a scorching comeback.
Meg always needed so much space, Dinah thought wistfully. All this enforced closeness, two women and four kids in a house with only three bedrooms . . .
A bang: Dinah leapt out of her chair, reaching for the boys. But it wasn't a bomb, just Meg slamming a cupboard door inches from her ear.
"I said: what do you think they should wear today?"
She swallowed. "Black—is there a dress code?"
"How should I know?"
"We could call the principal, what's his name . . ."
"Ted Arnold," Meg said.
"Whatever you choose should be fine," Dinah said. "Who's gonna complain?"
"Whatever I choose? You're not staying to help?"
"I have to go in for a couple hours." She tried to keep her expression bland; the last thing she could afford was to make Meg suspicious.
"Today? Dinah, of all days . . . "
"I have to be indispensable." Still standing near her sons she gulped her cereal directly from the bowl, then reached for her contact lens case.
"As if the exalted Chamon would fire his precious Dinah."
"Let's keep it that way." She popped in the other lens. "Meet you at the memorial, okay?"
"Fine." Meg flapped a hand in dismissal. "At least try to sneak me onto the housing list. Or find some produce."
"Right." Her temper finally frayed. "Make myself useful. Bringing in all the money at the risk of getting shot isn't enough."
Meg paled, freckles standing out on her milky cheeks. Choking back sobs, she walked out of the kitchen.
"She asked for it," Gwynne muttered, and Aidan jumped out of his chair. Grabbing his sister's bowl, he smashed it to the floor before following Meg down the hall.
Great, thought Dinah. Make me the bad guy.
She closed her eyes, thinking back to the Kabuva customs she had learned from the recluses. One: Meg's teaching the kids to sing. Two: she reads to them every night no matter how tired or crappy she's feeling.
"What are you doing?"
"Thinking of good things about your mother, Gwynne."
"She can sure pick a fight," the girl said.
"Are you saying you want to join me?"
Nose raised high, the girl made herself scarce. Dinah got a rag from the sink and began wiping up the shards of the cereal bowl. Three: Meg is honest about her emotions. And she's right about the vegetables.
She stalled on finding a fifth thing.
As she tossed the pieces of bowl she saw Ben straining to get out of his high chair. She plucked him free for a quick squirmy hug, reaching for Jesse with her other arm. For one precious moment it was just her and hers; then Ben squealed, threatening a meltdown. She set him down and he toddled anxiously down the hall after Meg.
"It's okay, Ma," Jesse said. Dry-eyed, she buried her face in his brown curls, drawing in the scent of cheap kid shampoo and trying to believe him.
To hear the Fiends tell it, the agenda of their invasion was simplicity itself—take over all of Earth, evict every last offworlder, and bring on the Utopia. They had united Asia behind this goal before Dinah was born. Wanting an independent Earth was easy to comprehend, making it a seductive idea. Funny thing, though, their fine talk of cleansing humanity of foreign contaminants didn't stop them from buying offworlder bombs. Oh, they pretended they were just scavenging ordnance from the Demos and their Kabu allies, but the numbers didn't track—anyone could see the Fiends had offworld sponsors just like the Demos. In Dinah's books, that made them hypocrites.
And they'd merrily assassinate anyone with Kabu ties.
Ordinary civilians survived by keeping their views quiet and their heads down. Others played the dangerous game of working for both sides. Anyone could be a Fiend. The doctor at the neighborhood clinic, a cab driver, your next-door neighbor. Even the nice Demo soldier who was allegedly fighting the Liberation could be a Fiend, protecting post offices and airports by day, planting dust grenades at night.
There were no good choices. Playing both sides was hazardous, to be sure, but so was risking that the Fiends would decide to 'punish' your family. And if they ever took Seattle, collaborators who didn't escape in time wouldn't have a chance.
All this meant that even though the Tank had given Dinah a precious dust-proof poncho, she had hacked it to pieces, lining her raincoat, gloves and boots with the shaggy beige material. The remaining shreds of the poncho were ragged enough to look scavenged. She had sewn them together in a wrap that she kept wound about her head and face.
This improvised shielding wouldn't save her from a direct hit, a bullet, or shrapnel. But if she was ever on the fringe of a dust blast, it might keep her alive.
The sun shone brightly as she headed out, making the jacket too hot, but she kept it zipped to her throat. Spring had come to Washington: tulips and daffodils were blooming in gardens, and half-starved children played in the curved surface of a crater where a subdivision had been, maybe six months before.
Dinah walked swiftly, pausing at each bus stop to glance back in case there was a bus coming. If she got caught between stops, she'd have to sprint—but it would be worth it, because she'd have time to see if anyone was selling vegetables. She had a shrink-wrapped box of marshmallows tucked into her bag; with the economy in the state it was, they were almost better than currency.
Out of morbid habit she looked toward downtown, with its increasingly tattered skyline. The only intact structure was the Tank. A gray monolithic shadow, three thousand feet high and obscured by artificially generated mist, it had been lowered into a gap left after bombs ruined the human-built skyscrapers. The Kabu had dusted their remains to nothing and lowered the Tank into the gap from orbit.
The bus turned up, shaving twenty minutes off her commute, and she found a vendor with radishes and carrots who was willing to swap for the protein marshmallows. She made the trade quickly, fighting paranoia, convinced passers-by were noting her every move.
Head down, avoiding eye contact with everyone, she pretended she was invisible as she walked the last few blocks to work.
The Tank was guarded by young, gray-skinned Kabu conscripts, twelve feet tall and bristling with weapons and scanners. They stood with their caps pulled down tightly, shielding their bodies and all but the tips of their tentacles from view. The pose formed the upright bullet profile that was the reason humans had nicknamed them "squid."
Lukewarm artificial rain drizzled down the hood of Dinah's raincoat, generated by misters at the top of the building. The moisture was better for the sentients' skin; they could do without it when they had to, but prolonged dryness often triggered a host of medical problems. The ground was pocked with bioluminescent slime, small mossy growths, and slippery rocks. The whole place smelled of rot and salt water.
Standing this close, she could see the profusion of algae and fungus growing on the outer skin of the Tank, blue and red blooms broken by small patches of green.
Dinah moved slowly past the guards, arms raised so their scanners could get a good look. She couldn't endure a second walk-through or a body search, not today.
"Morning," said a Kabu functionary, its accent mangling the simple greeting to something like "Mowee." The squid's cap billowed and stretched, momentarily forming a cup over her tentacles, an umbrella-shaped bowl whose insides were lined in thick ridges of gill tissue. The offworlder let her tentacles relax—the trunk of fleshy cords holding up her body rippled and spread outward in a many-pointed star, and as her cap sank lower she flipped it inside out, the flesh rolling up to form a bowl that caught the falling water of the artificial rainstorm.
"Morning," she answered as it hitched one tentacle into her armpit, using another to thrust a swab in the general direction of her face. Cotton dabbed at the inside of her cheek. With a perfunctory caress the offworlder released her, tossing the sample in a test tube and withdrawing its tentacles.
Dinah moved on to the lockers where she stashed her bags. Empty-handed, she entered the Tank proper, stripping off all her clothes. Nude but for her contact lenses, she passed through a final scanner into the locker room which contained her work uniform.
The uniform was a smock that left Dinah's underarms, throat, back, and lower legs exposed for the groping Kabu found necessary when interacting with other sentients. Everywhere else, thick fabric armored areas the offworlders were supposed to leave alone, absorbing tempting scents and obscuring the texture of the flesh beneath. The squid probed and tasted each other with abandon—every conversation looked like an orgy. It had been hard going to convince them that humans needed to keep their groins and faces strictly off limits . . . and to get humans to offer up their armpits, necks, and legs to constant tactile scrutiny.
Dinah pulled up her mask, shielding her face behind a layer of clear crystal before heading upTank to her office.
Like the smock, the Tank was imperfectly adapted for human-Kabu coexistence. Each room was dominated by a waist-high aquarium of salt water. Pools and pipes were structured so that water flowed continuously through the building: a squid could swim from top to bottom.
Aquariums lined every wall, leaving wading pools as floorspace in the middle for human staff.
Dinah was halfway to her desk when a gelatinous tentacle snagged her waist.
"You smell wretched," Chamon greeted her with a splash, her hand with another of his tentacles and rising up on the edge of the tank. His eyeless face was squinched in what she knew was an expression of surprise.
"A little stressed," she admitted reluctantly.
"You didn't have to come in today."
"I don't want to fall behind." She couldn't say she was hiding from Meg's too-observant eyes and keen intuition.
The offworlder knotted small tentacles in a sign of profound approval. "Your sense of duty is admirable."
If only, Dinah thought. Then she saw Chamon had stained his cap a deep indigo, and his tentacles were wrapped with golden wires, the Kabu equivalent of jewelry. "You're dressed up?"
"Of course." Chamon shifted his grip to her neck as she sat in front of a deep red bowl filled with colored liquid, bright swirls of minuscule oily beads. She steeled herself to ignore him and start work—then, just as her emotional armor was on, he slipped into the tank, jetting off.
The red bowl resolved into a datapool as she dipped her fingers into the fluid. Relaxing slightly, she brought up a long list of claims for compensation. Housing requests first—as Democratic allies, the Kabu were supposed to find housing for anyone their troops might have accidentally rendered homeless in the fighting.
Dinah's job was cross-referencing the claims with battle reports, rejecting anyone whose home might have been dusted by the Fiends. After that, Chamon would rule on whether the homeless humans were innocent Demo civilians or probable enemy spies.
She worked through the housing claims slowly, making them last before reluctantly moving on to requests from people who'd lost relatives in the fighting. The criteria were about the same: the Kabu only paid out when the dead or injured party was in the Democratic Army and died via friendly fire. Civilian casualties didn't rate; nor, of course, did any human suspected of Fiendish allegiances.
A lot of humans were tagged as suspicious, in part because there were so many Fiend infiltrators, but also because the Kabu budget wouldn't allow them to pay out on every legitimate claim.
Dinah kicked up her speed. Friendly fire claims usually came with video feeds, digital clips from security cameras and surveillance 'bots. Dinah had thought herself inured to watching them, but in the last week it had gotten tough again.
One image was especially ambiguous. Enhanced, its foreground was clear enough—the camera had zoomed in on the arc of a smoking shell as it dropped over the remains of the Public Market. Exploding soundlessly at a height of about fifty feet, it expanded like fireworks, perfectly spherical and sinking toward the ground.
Within the circle of light cast by the embers, people screamed and fled. A few produced ponchos, wrapped up, and crouched in corners, avoiding the running mob.
Everything the embers touched vanished in a puff of brown dust.
The camera homed in on a uniformed human man, perhaps twenty years old, who was too near the center of the still-spreading ball to get away. He threw himself under a parked truck, but the embers sank down inexorably, dissolving the vehicle in slow seconds. There was only enough dust left to eat through his clothes and half of his body. Instead of vanishing he flopped and screeched, just like Jesse this morning.
Jaw locked, Dinah ran the feed backwards. Was that a squid in the background of the shot? Was it carrying a grenade launcher?
The squid expected her to look hard before referring a file upward. By the time she'd complied, Dinah's stomach was hot and acidic, her eyes burning.
She moved on to miscellaneous claims: the Kabu were being blamed for various Internet service blackouts, two conscripts had overgroped—nice euphemism, she thought—a woman during a search for hostiles in a refugee camp, and someone's dachshund had run into the Tank perimeter and gotten fried. The usual.
She was almost done when a stranger stamped out of the conference room. Human, red-faced and moving fast, nearly slipping on the wet floor in his haste.
Chamon appeared as soon as the lift doors closed on him, cap flashing sorrowful color combinations as he draped a limb over Dinah's shoulders.
"I didn't know you were in conference," she said. Maybe this was why Chamon had stained his skin and bound his tentacles.
"Alas, yes." He dropped a dataglob onto her palm. Gelatinous but gristle-firm, the globs were translucent balls of protein, pea-sized—humans called them fish eggs. "Can you copy this?"
"Of course," she said, setting the glob in a shallow reproduction bath. "What's on it?"
"Basic biographical data on my visitor, Mr. Gill; I'm adding him to the Watch List. If the Friends of Liberation—what do you call them again?"
"Fiends," she said automatically. The glob fattened, its clear surface whitening like a barely-cooked egg as it elongated and pinched, transforming from a sphere to a peanut.
"Yes, Fiends. If they haven't already recruited him, they're sure to swim by soon."
"His brother vanished. I offered compensation."
'Vanished' usually meant a person who'd been abducted by an offworld biotech conglomerate. Dinah stirred the glob as it continued to divide. "Did he qualify for compensation?"
"No. I could never put a missing person on the friendly fire roster. But I have a discretionary fund for compassionate purposes."
"Oh." It was the first Dinah had heard of it. Discretionary fund, she thought. Money lying around. Meg homeless.
There was no chance Chamon would consider Dinah, an employee, as a candidate for that kind of largesse. And why should he? She had a roof over her head and her kids were alive. She wasn't even a widow: on paper, at least, Chris was listed as MIA, not dead.
She thought of the young Demo soldier dissolving on the street and her breath hitched. In war, even compassion had to be rationed. Most people had to solve their own problems.
"Mr. Gill refused the compensation offer," Chamon said, tasting the inside of her elbow. "Used a colloquial insult . . . blood money. He wants to prove someone within the Kabu Consultancy abducted his brother."
This was, in all likelihood, the truth. "So he'll go on the Watch List, the Fiends will approach him, and they'll all get busted and dusted?"
"I thought he would let me help him." Chamon rolled a tentacle over her shoulders, lashing the floor helplessly. "Stubborn, like all humans, swimming upstream . . ."
Dinah's mouth tightened. Her scent must have changed, too, because Chamon glided back a yard and raised five tentacles. "The man is determined and loves his brother deeply," he said, counting off two praises and knotting the first pair of tentacles. "He's seeking aid through the proper channels, and his motives are not financial."
Dinah risked a glance down at the dataglob, whose milky surfaces were clearing as the copying process ended. It had overbred; there were three instead of two. And Chamon wasn't touching her. She fished out the extra glob, hiding it in another of her desk's crannies before dropping the other two into a storage pool.
"Last, Gill is supporting his missing brother's family." Making a perfunctory star-knot of his five tentacles, Chamon reached for her again.
"If you want to help him," she said as the tentacle embraced her neck, "investigate his brother's disappearance."
"Stirring up silt won't save anyone," Chamon said absently. "Seas, Dinah, you're going to be late for the funeral. Want a ride?"
So he was going. She glanced at the clock, trying to contain her rising alarm. "I'll run. It's not that far."
"Don't be ridiculous, human. I've already called my driver."