Dead boys kept falling from the sky.
Inspector Abijah Olivia picked her way through the detritus of the latest crash. Chunk of torso here. A webbed swatch of heat shielding there. She kept her hands stuffed in her pockets as she toed at the wreckage, idly guessing which bits of flesh had come from which part of which boy. G-forces tended to obliterate bodies. Turned them back into meat. It made incidents like this difficult to process, even when they were local.
“Not you again,” said Garda Katya Sobrija. On the hill behind her, the yellow lights of a single garda ambulatory unit blinked lazily in the morning haze. This far south, they only had three or four hours of daylight this time of year, and the garda would want to make the most of it. Even lazy ones like Katya. It wasn’t often they beat Abijah to a scene that interested her. Three other gardai moved methodically through the wreckage in the field, jabbing at the remains with long canes; to what end, Abijah had no idea. Morbid curiosity, maybe. She saw no medical or forensic crash specialists on site.
“Got sent to do a retrieval,” Abijah said. “Boy on this barge had a package for a client.”
“Wasted day for you, then,” Katya said. “There’s at least a dozen dead boys here, all horked up into hunks of meat. Good luck sorting through this shit.”
“Maybe so. He has some identifiers.” Abijah flicked her wrist, offering up the relevant paperwork, which bloomed from the interface written into her skin.
Katya grimaced but accepted the link between their interfaces and downloaded the information packet. “You fucking cunt.”
Abijah shrugged and let Katya digest the official order releasing the boy’s remains and personal articles, if any, into Abijah’s care.
“Off-world cases are garda cases,” Katya said. “Can’t believe somebody is fucking with this one, again.”
“Yeah, this is the third transport that didn’t make it planetside in as many months.”
Abijah had heard reports of it but hadn’t kept up on the final count. “Somebody shooting them down? Malfunctions?”
“The investigation is ongoing.”
“I see. So, you have no idea.”
“I never fuck,” Abijah said, halting a few steps from a charred bit of flesh still clinging to a jagged yellowish bone. A wrist? Elbow? Who could say? “Not without permission.” She crouched in the churned mud, peering at the flesh. She took a stylus from her coat pocket and poked at the flesh, turning it over to see if there was any marked skin on the other side.
“Another order from a rich dip,” Katya said, eyelids flickering as she reviewed the data cloud privately streamed onto her retinas. She snorted, blinked away the data. “Why is it you’re always doing business with fallen capitalists?”
“They’re the only ones willing to pay my fee,” Abijah said. No telltale marking on the flesh. She straightened and frowned at the mess of churned mud, flesh, and scrap metals littering the crushed turf of the field. The air smelled of burnt meat and seared grass.
“I have money on a dumb kid doing it,” Katya said. “There’s some kind of civil war up there, the boys say. Maybe this was payback from one side to another.”
“I don’t like them bringing their conflicts down here,” Abijah said.
“Nobody does. But here we are. You done? I have a team coming to catalog these pieces.”
“Bill the medical examiner to my account. Save the public a few notes.”
Katya snorted and trudged back through the mud to the ambulatory unit.
Abijah brought up her wrist; an overlay of the entire crash site unfolded above her arm, in miniature. She activated the GPS identifier her client had given her to track the case the boy was carrying. In the absence of any official recording devices or beacons on these rusty old hulks ferrying cheap labor down from the skies, private clients getting goods smuggled in from off-world used their own private trackers. A blinking green light on the projection led her to the edge of the smoldering field.
The ground beneath her feet surged upward like a wave. A hunk of siding from the craft towered above her, dripping mucus, like the gooey ribs of some great leviathan. She removed her stylus and poked into the ground until she felt resistance. Dug up the relic beneath.
A smooth case, about as wide as a hatbox, deep as a can of rum. The case was linked to a length of chain, which she pulled. The ground vomited up the other end: it was attached to a metal cuff, which still bore the meaty, semi-recognizable wrist and most of the hand. Also attached to the wrist was a communications fob, a piece of alien tech the sky boys often used to talk to each other.
Abijah pocketed the fob and yanked up the case—only to have it fall open in her hands, the locking mechanism broken or busted open. Inside, the case was empty.
“Fuck,” Abijah muttered. Her client wasn’t going to be pleased. Better to be the bearer of bad news now than later.
She used her interface to call up Zoya vo Neberissy and waited until Zoya’s plump, seemingly pore-less face dominated her vision, then she blinked the image back to her left eye only and set her right eye to record the scene in front of her.
“Good and bad news, Ambassador,” Abijah said, holding up the empty case.
Zoya gasped. A hand fluttered to her prim mouth. Zoya, like most of Abijah’s private clients, was loosely related to the founding families and had gotten herself a cozy job as island ambassador to one of the many murky and varied counties on the continent. While the founders had most of their wealth repatriated centuries before, they had found ways to continue sucking wealth from the public via government stipends and allowances to maintain their properties as “historical points of common interest.” Aside from factories, the little fiefdoms run by founding family members used most of the cheap labor from the sky boys. Fewer taxes. Less paperwork.
“This is a travesty,” Zoya said. “No survivors?”
“Not one. It’s possible your carrier never bothered to pack the goods. Also possible some scavenger got out here before I did and nicked it.” What she did not say was that the possibility of a true scavenger getting to the case before her or the gardai was slim. If someone took something from the case before either arrived, it was someone waiting for this shuttle to fall. Someone who knew it was coming down.
“I want you to look into who took down that transport,” Zoya said.
Abijah sighed and closed the case. “I don’t do espionage. I’ll give you the case and a recording of the scene—”
“You do murder. This was a murder.”
“It’s off-world murder. Better for the gardai to take it.”
“I’m asking you to perform an informal inquiry. Doesn’t need to be good enough to get to a court. Only enough to be definitive in your trained eyes.”
“I hire you for your expertise.”
“If I found out who or how this shuttle went down, and you put a hit on someone—”
“I would never do something so garish. I barter in information, Abijah. Your services help me obtain that. Someone wanted me mortally wounded. They killed those boys to achieve it.”
“You think maybe not everything was about you? Maybe there was a malfunction. Maybe some kid had an affair with a politician and she scuttled the nav. Lots of variables.”
“I don’t believe in coincidence.”
“You must find life needlessly exhausting, then.”
“The cargo that boy carried belonged to me. Find the cargo, and find out who did this to me.”
“Who are your enemies, Ambassador?”
“Too many to name. But the ones who would do this? This is personal fuckery. This is close. Family, perhaps. A former lover.”
“What exactly was the boy carrying for you?”
“I don’t see how that’s relevant.”
“It would give me an idea of what I’m looking for.”
“It was … highly prized protein.”
Abijah turned that over. It wasn’t the most bizarre thing a founding family member had said to her, but it was up there. “Protein?”
“Cattle, to be precise.”
“Cattle? Like … cows, bison?”
“Prized steak. Red meat. Nearly two kilos.”
“Beef? You think this whole shuttle of boys was blown up for a couple of… steaks?
“Highly prized! This was key to a dinner I was to host for Feast of Saint Liya-Mahrem. This is a personal attack—”
“You couldn’t… serve a salad?”
“Salad is for poor people.”
Abijah stopped recording the scene and took a long breath. Stared at the sky. Her job would be great if it wasn’t for the fucking clients.
“Ambassador,” Abijah said, “I admit I don’t give two shits about your steak. But I do consider boys human. I’ll agree to look into it, for that.”
“Good, good. You have no idea how much I will lose face for this. For—”
“For failing to be a successful capitalist? Throw some vat protein in a stew and call it steak. They won’t know the difference.”
“I assure you, they will. This attack was meant to ruin me, Inspector. Find out who did this.”
Abijah tapped her wrist. “Sure … Ambassador.”
She made to close the call, but Zoya said, “You think me petty, Inspector, but consider this: who else on this planet would even care if a bunch of not-people burned up over some barren field? I’m doing them all a great service.”
It was four days until the feast of Saint Liya-Mahrem, which also coincided with the darkest day of the year this far south on the island. It meant Abijah stepped off the trolley at the corner well past dark. Smoked lanterns lit the street, their ghostly light playing across the cobbled stones like querulous wraiths. The pub below Abijah’s apartment emitted a steady stream of patrons. When it got dark, a certain set of the city drank, fucked, and slept, not necessarily in that order – until Breakup early in the new year.
Abijah mounted the rickety steps along the side of the row house. Below, a couple moaned, and the distinct sound of someone vomiting enough liquor to fill a small pool echoed in the narrow alley. She pushed gratefully into her apartment, only to see Pats lounging on the divan, one leg hooked over the armrest, munching on a pincered grab of crisps. The ring and pinkie fingers on her left hand both ended cleanly at the knuckle. She was taller than Abijah, no longer fit, but still thin and ropey, mainly due to her recreational use of amphetamines she should have given up after the war office stopped prescribing them.
“You drunk?” Abijah asked, pulling off her coat and hanging it next to the warm stone oven-stove that connected her apartment to the pub below, heating both.
“Not yet,” Pats said. “You?” She was riveted by a game show streaming on the primary viewing screen.
“Still hungover.” Abijah flopped onto the divan next to Pats. “You get the data I sent you on the case? About that communicator fob? Wondering what we can get off it.”
“Yeah, I don’t do alien tech.” Pats laughed at some quip on the screen, then tilted her head at Abijah. “You didn’t say one of the kids was here.”
“Sorry, bit of a surprise to me too. She just showed up yesterday. Put her in the spare room. She here?”
“Went out for fucking and drinking. Thought your exes had all the kids? All those big schools on the continent.”
“Oldest is of age, can come and go when she wants.”
“Fuck, time keeps on ticking. How the fuck old is she?”
“She passed exams. Fifteen? Sixteen? Something like that.” Abijah rubbed her eyes.
“What’s this one called?” Pats said. “I get them all confused. You have like a billion of them.”
“I have four kids, Pats.”
The door rattled, and a tall, lanky young woman walked in, shrouded in a stylish long coat with an asymmetrical cut that was all the rage on the continent. Abijah had gotten an earful about the coat already when she made a passing comment about the fashion of colonizers.
“This is Marjani, Pats,” Abijah said. “You remember Pats, Maj?”
“No one calls me Maj anymore.” Marjani shrugged out of her coat. Her hair, too, was cut in an asymmetric style that made her head look like a pencil.
“Right,” Abijah said. She got up and went to the cold box to get a vodka soda.
“And yes,” Marjani said, crossing the living area to the spare bedroom, “I remember your drunk, dishonorably discharged, war criminal friend Pats.”
“You say the sweetest things,” Pats said. “You mother Savida must have added the war criminal part. Maurille, the other one, she always liked me. How drunk are you?”
“I only drink tea.”
Marjani shut the door to the spare bedroom behind her with a great thump.
Abijah cracked open her vodka soda and took a long drink, chugging half of it before coming up for air. What a fucking day. “Hey, Pats. If you can’t help with the tech—”
“Yeah, yeah,” Pats said, pushing up from the divan. “You have anything else for me?”
“Maybe later. Gonna try Popsy for the tech.”
“Don’t you owe her money?”
Pats stuffed the rest of the crisps into her coat pocket and clomped to the door, spilling caked mud across the floor with each step. “Good to see you, Majori,” Pats yelled.
Marjani opened the door a slit. “Marjani,” Marjani said.
“Marjani, Petti, Luk, Dalani, you’re all the same, you continent girls.” Pats rolled her eyes and hummed a little tune—the game show theme song—as she made her way down the outer stairway.
Abijah closed and locked the door behind her. Checked the locking mechanism for the hundredth time. How Pats was still able to get in no matter how many times Abijah changed the locking type was one of Pats’ many hidden talents.
Marjani peered out from the bedroom and frowned. “I thought you weren’t working with Pats anymore? Didn’t she steal from you? Run your cycle into the river one time?”
“She’s an independent contractor, not a partner. You have fun out there?”
“What do you care?”
“Did you eat anything?
“Goodnight, then,” Abijah said, crossing back to the divan and finishing the vodka soda. The nattering heads of a game show on the main projection screen made her head hurt. Or maybe that was just her daughter.
“You are bad at everything,” Marjani said.
Abijah accessed the house interface and blinked to change the projection to a soothing white mountain scape. “I’m visiting the medical examiner tomorrow,” Abijah said, “to go over a case. Anything you need from the shops?”
“I have my own ration card and allowance now,” Marjani said.
“Want to watch a program? Whatever you want? Want a vodka soda?”
“I only drink tea!” Marjani slammed the door again.
Abijah sank gratefully into the divan. She would never understand children. Especially not her own. At fifteen, Abijah had already been through twelve weeks of military training. At fifteen, she had already killed at least forty people. Looking back, it would have been a lot nicer to be fifteen and drinking tea in a nice coat. Even if it was as a student of the fucking enemy.
She closed her eyes.
Pats met her outside the medical examiner’s office the next day. It was still dark and would be until nearly midday. She carried a small box of pastries. Her hair hung loose and greasy; Abijah wondered when she’d last washed it.
“How’d you know I’d be here?” Abijah said, pulling a fist-sized croissant from the box.
They entered the dingy foyer together. Signed in with their biometric data at the front desk.
“Scene doesn’t add up for me,” Abijah said as they made their way down the echoing hall. “No accident, for sure, but it wasn’t an onboard bomb. I’ve seen those enough. This was an airstrike, I bet.”
“From down here?” Pats said. She whistled, low. “Boys with access to bombs is my idea of a good time, but not everybody’s.”
“I suppose one of their ships could have fired on it, but we’d have registered discharge from up there. Those shuttles are all monitored. This client wants me to dig into a lot of dirty planetside business that I don’t think I want in on.”
“So, say no? Why don’t you ever say no?”
“I gotta eat.”
“You have a pension. That’s enough to eat. And maybe get laid.”
“I have four kids, Pats.”
Abijah opened the door into the morgue and grimaced at the smell of death, and at the yeasty stink of the bacterial compounds meant to irradiate that smell. Two stone slabs bore lumps of flesh that had been arranged like a series of puzzle pieces, each nearly approximating half of a body. Abijah found boys disconcerting at the best of times; bodies like corpses soaked in brine, moist and bloodless. Their ears and noses seemed comically large, and while the youngest could pass for girls of some other phenotype, as they aged, they hardly grew—up or out. Their voices all sounded wrong. And they did not last many years planetside. The work, the gravity, the radiation—who knew? But they were not particularly hardy. Perhaps that was why their people kept sending them planetside. They were too useless up in the colony ships. Expendable. These sad remains were made sadder still, knowing the flesh would likely be ground up and turned into fish food, making them marginally more useful in death than they had been in life.
The medical examiner turned from where she stood at the great stone sink, and Abijah caught her breath. “Bataya?”
Wiry little Bataya made her way to the table, her fringe swept back away from her face, slender fingers neatly manicured as if picking up an electric scalpel all day were the sort of bloodless work performed by an office mail carrier.
Abijah removed her hat and clutched it with both hands, instinctually.
“Pastry?” Pats said, extending the box to Bataya.
Bataya surveyed the contents and shook her head. “No, thank you.”
“I … wasn’t expecting you,” Abijah said. “Where’s Jules?”
“We heard you got marrrrriiiiiiiiied,” Pats said. “Years ago, right, Abijah? Two years ago.” She leaned toward Bataya. “Not that Abijah has been counting.”
“I called it off,” Bataya said, not meeting either of their looks. “I’ve been practicing on the continent.”
“Ah, the continent,” Abijah said. “Of course.” The fucking continent.
“Jules was kind enough to step in.” Bataya rested both hands on the stone slab. “I see you are paying for the public query on this incident, Abijah. That seems unusually kind, so I assume it is for a client.”
“It is,” Abijah said.
Pats sat down in a chair near the door, resting the box of pastries on her crossed knee. “This old soldier here was real kind once,” she said, jabbing her three left fingers at Abijah. “This one time we were cut off from our squad, up in those mountains in the northern continent, six continental units all ringing us in, and Jeezmo here gives me her last can of accelerant so I didn’t have to eat cold snake. Real team player.”
“Why don’t you meet me back in the pub?” Abijah said. “I’m seeing Popsy next. Put a drink on my tab.”
“Say no more,” Pats said, and left them, licking her fingers each in turn and giving Abijah a wink as the door closed.
“So, what do you need to know?” Bataya said.
“You ever get that certificate in combat yoga?”
Bataya’s narrow mouth turned up at the corners, just a hint, but enough. “I did. And advanced reiki.”
“Congratulations,” Abijah said. She nodded to the body pieces. “I’d like your professional opinion, based on the evidence, about whether this shuttle was blown up by an onboard bomb or an airstrike.”
Bataya knit her brows and frowned over the corpses. “Well, I can make inferences, but nothing that would hold up if you were to pursue criminal—”
“You know I won’t. Nobody will, for aliens. Boys at that.”
“Then, based on the way these bodies have been impacted… I’d have to say it was most likely a force acting on them from outside.”
“No bad re-entry?”
“Not enough char for that. There would have been even less to examine here.”
“An onboard bomb …?”
“Similar issue. You would see overpressure damage to the lungs, ears, the gut, and fragmentation injuries—caused by shrapnel and other flying debris penetrating the body. And again, many thermal injuries to skin, lungs, and the like. But a burst, an external projectile …” She nodded to a slab piled with bits of wreckage. “That creates unique capture marks on wreckage, and on pieces embedded in the wreckage. I’m not a forensic tech anthropologist, but you could conduct a trace analysis on the physical wreckage that will show residues related to whatever impacted the shuttle.”
“So, I need to hire a forensic tech anthropologist?”
“If you—your client—had the funds, or the desire to know for certain. But I pulled wreckage out of these bodies. I’ve seen the marks. If you asked my certainty on an external projectile, I’d say, eighty percent probability. To you, but not under oath.”
“Understood. Thanks, Bataya.” Abijah pulled her hat back on and turned to go, hesitated. “I know maybe I’ve—”
“Don’t,” Bataya said. “Some other time. Not … now.”
“All right.” Abijah left her in the morgue, her palms still sweaty, and put in a call to Zoya to catch her up on the latest.
“It was most likely a strike from the ground,” Abijah said. Zoya’s face filled her left eye. Zoya sat beside a small pond that rippled softly. Occasionally, the great gaping maws of fish as long as Abijah’s arm appeared in the mop of plant matter that rippled on the surface like an antique rug. A yellow bloom from a frond in the water seemed to be emitting a steady stream of mayflies, their wings shimmering in the low light. “I did find a communicator nearby,” Abijah continued. “I’m having a contact look at it. Maybe we can figure out who he was contacting down here and get more information from them.”
“Good, Inspector. Thank you,” Zoya said, and Abijah prepared herself because whenever a founding family member thanked her for some job she’d gone above and beyond on, they asked another impossible task of her. “These boys were bound for one of my factories.”
Abijah grimaced. Of course, they were. “That would have been good to know.”
“I didn’t think it was relevant. But if this truly was a strike, as you can see, it was, again, most certainly against me and my interests.”
Zoya gave her the address.
“Let me see what I can do,” Abijah said. “I want to follow up on this tech lead first.”
Fuck, what now? Abijah thought, but merely waited, brows raised.
“My factory manufactures chemical bursts, you understand? Projectiles meant to keep us safe. From aliens in space.”
“Of course it does,” Abijah said, and ended the call.
Abijah had lunch at a nearby café catering to the afternoon drink crowd coming out from the adjacent government buildings. She never could keep regular meal hours; it was a wonder she ate once a day, let alone the four or five meals that seemed to clutter up everyone else’s social calendar. From the cold metal seat under an awning that kept off a spate of hail, she spotted two continental peace officers strolling languidly down the opposite side of the street, their long coats touching the heels of their stout boots, their uniform shaved heads and shoulder pads giving them all the appearance of one body, many faces. She had shot, punched in, or cracked open many a face like theirs during the war. To see them on the streets now still turned her stomach.
She finished her cold toast and tuna and caught a trolley back to the pub.
Pats was already inside and had shed her coat; the oven-stove kept the place piping hot. The pub owner, Maliki, wore suspenders over a sleeveless undershirt, showing off her brawny, tattooed arms.
“Look at you,” Maliki said. “When Pats said you’d pay for her drink, I knew you’d be in here asking for a favor.”
“Not from you,” Abijah said. “Need to see Popsy.”
“You think she just sits around waiting for jobs?”
“Yes,” Abijah said.
Maliki rolled her eyes. “Go on back then, but I want pay for the drink now. No IOUs!”
“Sure, give me a minute,” Abijah said, pulling off her hat as she went into the backroom where Popsy’s workshop lay. Popsy, Maliki’s kid, bore a huge monocle over one eye, surgically implanted. She stood over a veritable loom of disembodied interfaces that spurted green organic vistas and shimmering red torture chambers. She glanced back at Abijah with her big, magnified brown eye, and squinted. Her hair was bright purple, swept back from her brow into a great, shocking fan soldered into place with glue or gel or saints knew what.
“Hey, Popsy. I have some alien tech I need you to decode.”
“Great. Up to date on your bar tab?”
“Sure. I’ve gotten better at that. And I gave you that favor I owed you, too, that girl with the flaming hair? How’d that go?”
“None of your business. Give it here.” Popsy didn’t offer her wrist but her open hand. Popsy knew six different kinds of alien specs.
Abijah dropped the communicator fob into her palm.
Popsy examined it with her massive surgically implanted lens. “Boy stuff, huh? Pretty primitive. What you want out of it?”
“Need to know who he contacted here.”
“Could really use it today.”
“I could use a new hoverboard today. Ain’t going to happen.”
“How about I owe you a hoverboard?”
“Your IOUs sit for months. I can get one myself by then.”
“Then I’ll owe you another favor.
Popsy heaved a sigh. “Go have a drink. Give me thirty minutes.”
Popsy waved her away.
Abijah sat with Pats and bided her time over a bartered drink. Maliki softened when Abijah paid half her tab through her interface with some of the funds Zoya had fronted her.
When Popsy called them back, Pats came with Abijah.
“We have two calls that came in back-to-back,” Popsy said, “after three days of nothing. These last two.” Popsy pointed at a map projection of the city. “The first was to this factory, here. A munitions company owned by Zoya—”
“Yeah, I know that one,” Abijah said. “You get a recording?”
“Sorry, only the pattern he called. This dead tech is really primitive, like I said.”
“And the other?” Abijah asked.
“Here,” Popsy said, pointing to a blank spot past the city center, deep into swampland. “Immediately after ending the first, too fast to dial a pattern, so I think—”
“What, he paging dino-crocs?” Pats said.
“If it has a communicator, yeah,” Popsy said. “That’s where the signal came from. That was the second, and final, call. I believe it.”
“Why a second call?” Abijah said. “Let’s say the first is to tell someone he’s coming. Is the second … What?”
Popsy put her hands on her hips. “Would you stop blathering and listen? It’s possible it was a rerun.”
“What the hell is that?” Pats said.
“It’s like a tracking or recording program. Every call made from the fob is recorded and then rebroadcast once ended, to a second fob. You wouldn’t know it was happening unless you opened up the guts of the fob and went through the physical call history. And I doubt your carrier was a spy or some shit.”
“If I know it went to someone in the factory, great,” Abijah said, “but how do I narrow that down?”
Popsy steepled her fingers. “You find somebody else with a communicator like this one. C’mon, I’m no inspector, but that’s pretty obvi.”
“That whole factory is teeming with boys,” Abijah said. “They’ll all have one.”
“Sounds like a tough job,” Popsy said, turning off the aerial map. She offered her wrist. “Data download?”
Abijah accepted the data transfer.
“I mean,” Popsy said, “you’re an inspector. Inspect, right?”
“Yeah,” Pats said, “just inspect, Jeezmo.”
“Thanks for the confidence,” Abijah said and turned to leave.
“Don’t forget!” Popsy called. “You owe me a favor!”
“Should I look for purple-haired women?”
Popsy’s complexion darkened further. “Don’t be foolish. One needs a companion that coordinates, not a twin. You are so old, Abijah.”
“Her billion daughters think the same thing,” Pats said, and cackled.
The factories across the planet all relied on off-world labor. Those born planetside enjoyed all the benefits of being real people, benefits not afforded to laborers who were expected to return to the glorified tin cans from whence they’d come once their work was finished. Of course, for many boys, the work was never done. They sent resources back to their tin cans until they died. Unable to reproduce with anyone on planet, each was a single genetic line ending neatly at the end of his life.
Abijah spent far too much time in factories; they were the primary problem areas, because of the problematic labor, and the problematic people who administered it. People like Zoya.
Zoya gave her access to the personal barracks for the boys she employed at the factory, but there were six dozen of them, far too many for her and Pats to get through in an afternoon. Instead, Abijah spent some time interviewing the five foremen: two local women and three men from the sky. They all purported to know nothing of communicators among the staff – illicit or otherwise.
“No one wants to contact home unless they’ve got something to send back,” said one of the local women as Pats emptied out a few of the boys’ lockers.
Another foreman, one of the boys, piped up from the back, “Maybe somebody called the desk, you know? Called the factory floor manager.”
“We’ll check into that,” Abijah said, turning on him. “Where’s your locker?”
The kid blanched but led her there.
Abijah rummaged through it, pulling out a spare jumpsuit, mud-caked boots, a factory-issued knife that appeared to have never been used, a bar of soap, three chewed-up styluses, and six empty vodka-and-sodas. It was like going through her locker at home. Something bothered her about that, and it wasn’t just the drinking on the job. It was like the boy tried too hard to look like a mess. She tapped the sides of the locker and checked behind it, but no luck.
“Let’s hit the other address,” Abijah said. “See where the call was duped to.” She pointedly didn’t look at the foreman.
“I can squeeze them a little, Jeezmo,” Pats said.
“I’ve seen you squeeze,” Abijah said. “Let’s not.” She pressed her palm into her pocket, ensuring the communicator was still there.
Getting transport out to the edge of town was difficult. Nobody wanted to pedal them out, and the solar vehicles weren’t free until several hours after cold dark descended. Abijah sat in the back of a solar-cycle-pulled rickshaw with Pats, both shivering in their long coats as they motored out past the city limits and into the swampy outskirts.
Their driver left them at a divot of a pathway marker at the side of the road. Abijah was thankful for her coat and her boots, then. Pats grumbled for the first hundred paces but then began to wax on about their time during the war.
“You remember when we had those big electric guns?” Pats said, her boots squelching in the mud as Abijah tried to triangulate their position based on the communication coordinates Popsy had given them. “Loved those fucking guns.”
“They’d fry us half as much as the enemy,” Abijah said.
“That was half the fun.”
A quarter-hour later, they stood in front of a rundown derelict, partially buried in the swampy ground. A single orange light beamed from a loosely secured doorway. A hedge of bulrush seemed to be transforming into snakes, little tongues flickering from the heads, tasting the air.
Abijah nodded at Pats, and they flanked the door. Abijah grabbed the edge of the metal masking the entrance and pulled it away, discarding it.
Just as Pats darted in, a boy leapt out, so fast and unexpectedly that he knocked Pats down into the mud. She made a choking sound. He took off like a startled animal, pale legs pumping like pistons.
“Stop!” Abijah said. “Gardai!”
She wasn’t a garda, not at all, but it sometimes worked.
It didn’t work.
“Fucking little shit,” Pats said, spitting mud, and clawed her way up. She bolted after him, surprisingly spry. It had been a long time since Abijah saw Pats in pursuit.
Abijah ran after her, only to catch her foot on a loose root and go over. “Alive, Pats!” she yelled because it was worth reminding her.
She managed to get back up, but pain shot up her left ankle, slowing her down. She followed the sounds of fleeing and pursuit: slap of wet branches, squelch of mud and whisper of massive leaves. A knot of movement to her right resolved itself into a giant reptile, eight paces long, wound about a tree and peering down at her with slitted green eyes. An adult from the hedge, possibly. She regretted not bringing sixteen electric guns, or more.
“Shit!” Pats yelled, far ahead.
Abijah stumbled faster, grabbing tree trunks for support, cursing her fucked-up ankle. It was the same one she had twisted when Maurille, her first wife, had gone into labor, and the war department had called Abijah out of the field, though she hadn’t requested leave. She had twisted her left ankle in the blasted trough left behind after the sappers had been through, and it was never the same. Weaker, more prone to injury. When she arrived home, Maurille had already given birth to Marjani and named her: Marjani Olivia Savedra. Abijah held the perfect little bundle in her arms, marveling at the tiny nose, the little fingers—a human in miniature—while her ankle throbbed and swelled, never to fully recover.
“It’s like having another arm just … walking around out there,” Maurille had told her of the child, laughing at the absurdity of it, but her eyes were certain, serious. “It’s like a piece of me is out there now, walking and talking … forever out of my control. We are responsible for a little person, Abijah.”
Abijah landed in a clearing and nearly went over into the black, roiling depths of swampy water that wended its way between what appeared to be an infinite number of trees.
“He fell in!” Pats said, pointing at a rapidly disappearing figure a few paces from the shore. “He’s in!”
“Goddammit, Pats, you’re always killing witnesses.”
“Witnesses are always stupid!”
They spent half an hour trying to fish him out—too long, it turned out. But they got him before the reptiles did. Abijah attempted to revive the boy, but he was gone.
Abijah made Pats carry him, and they walked back to the derelict. Inside, a squatter’s camp, a communicator with a key matching the one that Popsy had traced there, and—most importantly, to Abijah’s employer—a half-eaten steak on a plate, near the oven-stove.
“What the fuck went on here?” Abijah muttered.
“Good job, Jeezmo!” Pats said, tearing off a piece of steak.
“Leave that be until I record it,” Abijah said and called Zoya.
Then, she made the call she really didn’t want to make.
She called fucking Katya.
“There were definitely at least two more here,” Katya said, hands on her thick hips, surveying the derelict. “We’ll track down the other two. Looks like some kind of terrorist cell. Gonna be hard—no, impossible—to find the one giving the orders with this boy dead, though.” She looked pointedly at Pats.
Pats chewed on the end of a cattail. “Want you to know that I resent being sober for all this.”
“They keep these cells tight,” Katya said. “Boys must have been tracing that fob on your carrier. Maybe others, too. Question is, why him? But we’ll figure that out. Guess you’ll get paid for your big job, though, right? While I get more fucking paperwork. What did she have you retrieve, anyway? Family jewels? National treasure? Hope it was worth it.”
“It was a job,” Abijah said. “I do mine. You do yours.”
“Fuck you, goodnight.”
One of the garda Abijah knew gave them a ride back to town. Small favors, she figured. Abijah kept turning the communicator fob over and over in her fingers, deep in thought. The boy had put out calls three days before the shuttle launch, none duped. But the one he called in on the day of the crash … sometime in those three days, they had started tracking him. Somebody knew he was coming. Zoya, sure, but investigating her own crime—while not the first time Abijah had been asked to do something like that—seemed like too much effort for someone like Zoya. What was the connection between the boy and the factory? Certainly, someone at the factory was supplying the terrorists for aerial bursts, to shoot down shuttles. But she had yet to find the threads linking them all.
When they arrived at the apartment, Pats wanted to come in and decompress, but Abijah used Marjani as an excuse.
“She doesn’t like you much,” Abijah explained as she got out of the vehicle.
“Sounds like you’re … projecting. That’s what therapy says, right?”
Abijah left Pats in the cab and walked up the long tail of the stairs to her apartment. It felt strangely like walking up the stairs to a noose. She unlocked the door.
Marjani had something boiling on the stove. Hot water? Tea? She wore loose trousers and some blousy pajama top that put Abijah in mind of a burlesque dancer. She could practically hear Popsy telling her how old she was.
“How did the job go?” Marjani asked.
“It’s done.” Abijah hung up her hat. “I just can’t understand, all those folks up there sending their kids down here to die.”
Marjani sniffed. “Why is it strange,” she said, “them tossing their kids down here? You practically abandoned us, and it was certainly easier for you to visit us than it is for those aliens to visit their kids.”
“After the divorce, your mothers—”
“Before the divorce,” Marjani said, rounding on her. “You were never around. The first time I remember seeing you, I was four years old.”
“I saw you before that, when you were a baby.” Her ankle throbbed.
“My first memory is you pushing in the door, hauling that ugly black rucksack with you.”
“Yeah, well, I was around. Sometimes. Even if you don’t remember it. It was a long war.”
“You’re so selfish.”
“I’m selfish?” Abijah said, suddenly exhausted, and done with her daughter’s continental, self-centered shit. “Did you ever think I was trying to protect you from my life? From being like me? How would that have gone, with me living on the continent, watching you get indoctrinated by the people I fought for half my fucking life? How would that go, them knowing one of your mothers was an enemy soldier?”
“Fuck treaties! You think treaties matter? Open your eyes! Look at how they cleared out the gardai two years ago and put boots on our streets! They were just looking for an excuse, a loophole, to send their own troops in here and replace all of our security forces with theirs. Peace and order? That’s what they bill it as. The war wasn’t that long ago, Maj. I know that. The people on the continent know that. And it’s possible that with me living under that roof with you, my resentment for all that shit around me would have become your resentment, and then who would you be? Another one of the losers, with a heart full of hate. And it wouldn’t just be them you hated. You’d hate yourself. And eventually, you’d learn to hate me.”
“I see you have it all figured out.”
“Here’s how it would go,” Abijah said, dropping her voice, going cold. She placed her hands on the counter. Leaned toward her daughter. “Two women would come to your boarding house. Shaved heads. Big boots. Faces so much the same you couldn’t pick them out of a recording after. They’d sit you down and ask about your fucking mother. What do you think of your mother?”
“And I’d say I hated her!”
“And when did you last see your mother?”
Marjani’s gaze was flinty. She fairly trembled with rage. Behind her, the boiling water sent clouds of steam into the air. “Today was the last time I ever saw my mother.”
“And you know what they’ll say? They will say, that’s good, kid. That’s excellent. We’re glad you hate your mother. Now get the fuck out and go your merry way.” She swept her arm out, gesturing to the dirty apartment, the empty cans of vodka soda, Pats’s dirty coat—when had she left that there?—the grime-smeared counter. “You don’t need my fucking baggage. You deserved … you deserve a life on the continent without it.
“All I wanted was a mother—”
“You have two!”
“You know what I mean!”
“Sometimes the best thing a shitty mother can do is leave,” Abijah said, and when she said it out loud, something in her chest seemed to break. She caught her breath, realizing she had missed something obvious, back at the factory. Something she should have seen and understood. She grabbed at the fob in her pocket.
“Well, you’ve been a good shitty mother, then,” Marjani said.
“I have to go,” Abijah said.
“Holy Saint Lucretia, are you fucking serious?”
Abijah grabbed her hat and fled.
Abijah stood above the factory floor, next to the boy foreman whose locker she had riffled through. He looked tired. She imagined she did too. Abijah pressed the call button on the fob, redialing the coordinates for the first call it had made here at the factory.
The boy beside her stiffened. “Excuse me,” he said, “I need to—”
“You should come with me,” Abijah said and led him into one of the cramped meeting rooms. She patted him down and came up with the communicator fob, tucked into his sock.
“You his brother? Father?” Abijah said, pulling a can of vodka soda from her pocket and placing it on the table in front of him. “He wanted to come planetside, looking for you. I have a feeling you weren’t happy about that.”
“I’m his mother,” the boy said, and that gave Abijah pause. She supposed they did all look alike, after all. “I told him not to come. I didn’t trace his communicator. That was the team. They traced several on that transport.”
“Does Zoya know she employs terrorists?”
“It’s … not like that. There’s something going on up there which is far more complicated than any of you—”
“So, you’re just … blowing each other up? Three shuttles in as many months? What the fuck?”
“He took that job to get passage.”
“And died for it.”
“He knew passage was dangerous!”
“You think of yourself as a boy, a woman? Something else?”
“A mother,” she said. “My name is Dosia.”
“He didn’t know you were the one blowing up shuttles, did he? Didn’t think you were connected at all.”
“He wasn’t supposed to come.”
“When did you know he had?”
Dosia wiped her palms on her tunic and looked away. Outside the meeting room, Zoya arrived with three other women who had the whiff of security about them. Abijah raised her hand, urging them to give her time.
Dosia’s left hand trembled as she said, “That night, when I checked my messages. He sent it when he was about to go into atmospheric entry, when coms go dark. Even if I’d have seen it earlier… it would have been too late.”
“I don’t know what the issue is with all of you up there,” Abijah said, “but you know I have to turn you in. We don’t need your war following you down here.”
“Just our labor, right?” Dosia spat. A film of tears made her eyes glisten. “You think you can exploit our bodies without any consequence? That is a fool’s dream. A tyrant’s dream. The people on the continent have that dream about you, you know.”
“It’s another thing entirely.”
“Someday you will wake from that dream.”
Abijah lifted her wrist to call open her display, but Dosia grabbed her hand. “Please,” she said. “There’s no need for this. Who’s to know? Give me clemency. Mercy. I’ve already lost a son. Grant me this boon, as one mother to another.”
“We are not the same mothers,” Abijah said and pulled her wrist away.
“Cyrek,” Dosia said. “He wasn’t a boy, some boy. He was my boy. His name was Cyrek.”
“You should have thought of that before you started blowing them up,” Abijah said, and she called Katya, even knowing how much she was about to get cussed out by doing so. She would rather the gardai take Dosia than Zoya. Zoya would disappear Dosia. With the gardai, there might be a life of hard labor.
When the gardai came for Dosia, Zoya entered the meeting room, gliding in like some ethereal force—and perhaps she was. All former capitalists were, certainly. It’s what gave them their power.
“Exceptional job,” Zoya said, taking her wrist as the gardai hustled Dosia out. Her fingers were soft, as expected. “I will tell everyone I know how… thorough you are.”
“And you are so …. ruthless. The line about how you aren’t the same mothers?” She covered her mouth with her hand and tittered. “Incredible! Better than any programming.”
Abijah gently pulled her wrist from Zoya’s grasp. “I guess.”
Zoya lowered her voice. “You could make far more if you just—”
“No, thank you,” Abijah said. “I have to go home. My daughter, you understand?”
“Oh, of course!”
The one thing Zoya could not argue about. Not now. Not after … this.
“I hope you find something else to serve your guests, for the feast,” Abijah said.
Zoya waved her hand, tittering again. “Oh, of course. You know … there’s so much … flesh, on offer right now. Have you tasted an alien?”
Abijah took the trolley home. The dark was deep. The cold was enough to make her tremble, but it was not absolute.
On arrival, she knew immediately that her daughter was no longer there. A lack of a certain scent in the air: the perfume of the continent, the leather of some expensive beast. She collapsed into the divan, face-first, too tired even to fish around for a vodka soda.
The sound at the door, she knew, was not her daughter, but Pats, because Pats was the only one she knew with nothing else to do. And also, when Pats picked the lock, it was very loud.
“I’m tired, Pats,” she said, still face-first in the divan.
“It’s all right,” Pats said, and Abijah felt the heavy weight of Pat’s coat over her. “There’s some good shows on, Jeezmo.”
The flickering of the projection screen. The inane, soothing banter of idiots on the local programming.
“You have kids, Pats?” Abijah mumbled into the upholstery.
“Fuck no … Oh, maybe. Sort of. It’s overrated.”
“It’s like having a limb out there, walking and talking.”
“Get me some crisps. And a vodka soda.”
Abijah raised her head to the projection. The programming was unfamiliar, something from the continent. That’s how they would get them, eventually, the same way every colonial did: the kids, the culture.
Pats shoved a vodka soda into her hand.
She opened it. The show went on.