Thursday, September 20, 2007

Chapter one: So Who Died?

It was true night when the buzzer sounded, but the clock day had already begun. A storm far down below lit the clouds with lightning that occasionally flickered through the translucent floor and walls of my room. Then the thunder would punctuate, with a dim rumbling that sounded as if the hidden planet was trying to clear its throat.

Despite the adversities of sound and the nightmares, I still tried to sleep. But the buzzer sounded again and I gave up ignoring it, so I pushed to my feet and stumbled to the door. The comm button glowed a dim red and I pressed it twice before I remembered that the light and the buzzer were the only thing that worked. On my third motion I tried to punch it through the bloon's flexible wall. Then I yelled through the door, "Comm's broken. You'll have to speak up!"

"Ed Honlin?" came a voice through the bloon portal. "I'm looking for Ed Honlin."

I debated lying, but he'd probably only come back later. "You got him," I said. "Who's asking?"

"My name is Calvin Lee," he told me. "I'm with Sky City Police." He hesitated, then added in a quieter voice that barely made it through the membrane, "Homicide."

"Who died?" I asked.

"May I come in please?" he responded. "I'd rather not yell through your door."

Fair enough, I thought. Everyone along the corridor had already gotten an earful. As if any of them would care. I flipzipped the door and the bloonskin peeled back to reveal a slim Asian holding a flashlight in the nearly dark hall. I beckoned and he entered.

He was shorter than I am, but then, most people are. Medium height for Calvin Lee, then, say about 165 centimeters. Dark hair, Asian eyes and face. He looked nearly pure ethnic, which meant that he was probably third generation Venus born, at least. He was only about twenty five, by my estimation, but I might be shaving a couple of years because he looked like an eager beaver type. It didn't seem likely that he was using the anti-aging drugs yet, anyway.

His light was in my eyes, so I snapped a chembulb and a pale green light expanded hesitantly into the room. Lee switched off his light and looked around for a seat.

"No chairs," I told him. "Not much of anything, in fact."

A storm far down below lit the clouds with lightning that occasionally flickered through the translucent floor and walls of my room. Then the thunder would punctuate, with a dim rumbling that sounded as if the hidden planet was trying to clear its throat.


He looked around the room with obvious dismay. Hell, what did he expect from the cheapest digs in Darkunder? No furniture, my bedding against the one wall and my clothes tossed against the other. Any excess baggage and my landlady would charge a weight fee. The toilet and shower were down the hall in a live bloon where the waste would do some good.

"So who died?" I asked again.

"Sheila Mason," he answered. He looked around the room again and started to say something, then stopped.

I felt my scowl get deeper. "Sheila?" I let that sink in. I shook my head trying to force a picture of her face up from the depths of memory. All I could get was a glimpse of her eyes, the sound of her voice, how she'd been clumsy in zero G during the long sail from Luna.

"Damn," I said. "I haven't seen Sheila in months." I thought back. "Hell, it's been more like four years. Why me? Why tell me about it?"

"You're given as a contact on her Ident bracelet," Calvin Lee told me. "We need someone to identify the body."

I sighed. "We came across on the same ship," I told him, by way of explanation. "She must have put me on the ID and never thought to pick a replacement." I sighed again. "What time is it?"

"7615," he said, looking at his watch. I worked only during lighttime, so I had maybe 20 hours before my next shift.

"Wait in the hall while I dress," I told him.


A few minutes later we walked down the hall, through the two zippered doors, and climbed into his waiting motor squid. Calvin left a man's weight worth of ballast on the dock; it would go onto the next taxi that dropped off a passenger. The police squid had running lights, so as we pulled away from the hotel I got another exterior shot of the joint. Pretty it was not. It looked a lot like an inflatable Christmas tree with sausages attached to it. That's what bloons are, after all, just giant gas bags usually shaped like sausages. The live ones are green and have hair coming out the bottom, but there's not many live bloons in the shadow of Sky City. So we live in bare corpses. Well, what do you expect at these prices?

"You shipped with Miss Mason four years ago?" Lee asked, more to make conversation than anything else I suppose. Or maybe it was just to act like a proper policeman.

"Yeah," I told him. "Lunar sunship. It took ten months. Everybody lives in everybody else's pocket on a sunship."

He nodded. "Why did you immigrate to Venus?" he asked.

I looked at him. "Ever been to Luna?" He shook his head.

"Then the answer would make no sense to you," I told him. "Let's just say I got underfed up." He smiled faintly at my faint joke.

"What do you do for a living?" he asked. I snorted. He was prying now.

"This and that," I said, the standard Under answer. He didn't like it.

"What did you do on Luna?"

"I was a cop."
Every so often a shaft of light comes through Sky City's dark underbelly, visible evidence that one can move up in the world.

That shut him up for a while and I watched the scenery. The lowest level of Sky City proper is mostly warehouse space and there aren't many avenues to get inside, at least not easily or legally. So it's all a dim, uneven expanse of faintly glowing bloons, lit by whatever interior light escapes during the forty-eight hour Venus night. Every so often a shaft of light comes through Sky City's dark underbelly, visible evidence that one can move up in the world. Calvin aimed the bloon toward one of these. As soon as we ascended, we entered the artificial light provided on the avenues of Sky City. It still wasn't much to look at, just lumpy walls of bloons connected cheek by jowl; one bloon exterior looks pretty much like any other, except maybe for deluxe house bloons or the giants in the warehouse sections. When I'd first arrived on Venus I'd compared the City to a chemical refinery, or a giant abstract sculpture, with thin tubes connecting bulbous shapes in clusters and sheets, but eventually I realized that all comparisons were useless. Sky City looked like Sky City, and like nothing else in the solar system.

In the planned parts of the City you can see for kilometers out along the transport avenues filled with taxi squids and barge bloons. Since the avenues are all one-way, every bit of traffic that we could see was migrating toward the hub, the Skyhook itself and the Maze that surrounds it.

The Maze is the part of the City that first grew up after the Hook came down; there was no thought to control it for the first few years. By the time that Skyhook realized they had to regulate, people had staked claims, made alliances, and more or less grandfathered themselves into a permanent setup. From then on, growth had been managed by restricting tethering privileges and power connections, but the first anarchic patterns were now permanent, a three dimensional twisting canyon of connected and interlocked bloons, sometimes with only a squid's worth of alley space between the walls.

The Maze gets more regular when you get to the Center clusters, where the Hook owns most of the real estate outright. Lee aimed the squid toward a docking near Center 2, about a klick from the main Hook entrances and near the City Offices. The sight of Police Headquarters must have caused Lee's detective habits to kick in, because he started asking questions again.

"How well did you know her?" he asked me. "How well did you know Sheila Mason?"

"We weren't lovers and we weren't related," I said. "Anything else is gossip. A Luna-Venus trip is long and it's dull. You learn a lot about the other passengers, because everybody talks from having nothing else to do. When the trip is over, you do your best to forget about it. At least I did."

"She thought enough of you to put you on her ID," he said. "How well have you forgotten?"

"Mighty damn well," I said truthfully, as I tried again to picture Sheila's face.

"I'm surprised at that attitude from an ex-policeman," he said.

"That's right," I said sharply. "Ex-policeman. I like the ex- part a lot.

He shrugged and began docking the squid. I'd been doing a lot of bloon piloting lately, most of it free sail, but some of it motorized. The police squid was a fancier rig than I was used to. It had eight fans and a prow snout that made docking a dream. Lee just slid the prow into a hitch depression and the velcro lined up and grabbed practically by itself. He cut the engines and we entered Sky City.

The seals were rubber tight; the airlock walls showed not even a hint of excess CO2 blue from the air outside. I've been though some that were damn near sapphire, where you reach for a breath bubble by force of habit. But this was Sky City, after all, where CO2 shock is declassè.

Once we got through the lock, Lee slid his Ident tag into the City gate and pressed his thumb to the lit sensor square. Then he punched a couple of buttons.

"Your turn," he said to me.

One of the reasons I seldom come to the City is that I hate the damn Gates. They're too much like the checkpoints on Luna. The distaste must have shown on my face. Ah, screw it, I thought, and gave it my middle finger instead of my thumb.

That works too, but it takes a little longer. The gate hesitated, then beeped. Calvin Lee and I both entered Sky City and the official jurisdiction of Skyhook.

"Had your fill of regimentation already?" he asked, suppressing a smirk.

"What the hell do you know about it?" I asked. I imagine I snarled the words a bit.

He looked at me sideways. "Look," he said. "You can cut the crap now. You've made the point. You've got a one note song so you don't have to deal with this except as a once-over-lightly. Fine. Just look at the body, make the ID and we'll send your barnacle butt back to shadowville."

I started to flip back at him, then closed my mouth. What's the use, and he was right besides. Just get it over with.

By clock time it was mid-afternoon and the corridors of police headquarters were fairly crowded by Venus standards, which is to say we'd meet someone about every twenty paces. "The morgue's below," he said and pointed to a ladder.

It was cold down below, for obvious reasons. Keep them fresh, if you can. The police morgue was a small room, without much in it, three zip bags on inflatable cots. I looked around and couldn't help asking, "What's the City murder rate?"

"Maybe one a week, usually a knifing in a bar fight. There's three of us part time in homicide."

I shook my head and did the arithmetic. Five million people, one murder per week. Murder rate of one per hundred thousand per year. Luna has 20 million people and a homicide rate of 5 per hundred thousand. When I'd worked homicide we had 15 full time detectives and we were always short.

"We had a mass killing about 4 years ago, just after I joined the force," he said. His face clouded. "A guy went nuts and lit off a butane tank in a factory bloon. Blew out the wall and killed the lot of them. It was wall to wall down here for days."

He stopped, apparently startled at the recollection and his telling of it. He blinked and pointed at one of the body bags.

"There she is," he said.

He zipped back the bag and I caught that first whiff of recent death. He motioned me over to look at the body.

I'd been wondering how I'd react. The first few times you look at a corpse, especially a violent death, it's a shock. Then that initial horror fades and soon enough only the bad ones get through the jaded crust. Finally images of death lose all emotional impact and intensity and it all goes flat as a washed out print. After that, it's just a matter of getting used to the smell.

Sheila was a good test of how much armor I retained, because she'd been cut up pretty badly, and I'd known her personally. Her face finally clicked in my memory; a jigsaw puzzle of ruined features and distant recollection.

"It's Sheila," I said.

He nodded and spoke into a recorder. "Mr. Honlin has made a positive identification of the body of Sheila Mason. Date stamp now please."

He sighed, another task out of the way. "The body was found two days ago, stuffed in a waste shaft just up from the warehouse level. It was found by complete accident; her corpse turned wrong on the way down and snagged. There's a constant downdraft maintained on the waste shafts to keep the methane from building up at the top. It's to keep the smells confined, also. A sensor registered a loss of air flow and when a worker went to check the obstruction, there she was."

He made a face. "Must have made his day -- the worker I mean." He shook his head, then continued.

"She was on a visitor's visa from some small farm and light craft cluster down south. We've already notified them.

"There's a lot of bars near where she was found, some of them with some pretty rough trade. Our current guess is that she got picked up by someone who wound up not liking her very much. Maybe she said 'no' at the wrong time, or 'yes' in the wrong tone of voice."

I looked at the body again. No autopsy yet, and her clothing still hung in tatters from the multiple slash lines. The body hadn't been in the waste tube for very long; there wasn't much extraneous material on her clothing. "Who's your coroner?" I asked him.

"We time share with public health and two of the ex-im companies." I looked at him and he shrugged. "Once a week is not a full time posting," he said, by way of explanation.

I made a face. A quarter-time slot split up four or five ways, most likely farmed out to an insurance autopsy clinic. Might as well cut them open with a pen knife for a bridge club to look at. That would get you as much information as insurance autopsy clowns.

"Official cause of death?" I asked.

He looked at me like I was nuts. "She's been cut to ribbons," he said.

"Her corpse was cut to ribbons," I told him. "At least an hour after she died. Where's the blood?"

He looked again and scowled. "Maybe..." he started, then stopped. "I don't know. There should be more blood though, shouldn't there?"

"Not really," I said, and continued rattling off the obvious. "Corpses don't bleed much. There's a trace of pooling in the legs and feet, but nowhere else. Not much mottle in the torso, so she died standing up. No obvious pooling in her hands, so she may have had her hands above her head when she died, and for a while thereafter."

I took her hand and looked carefully. It had been cut, but the cuts weren't right for defense wounds. No bleeding there, either.
There should be more blood though, shouldn't there?

"Faint chaffing and bruising of the wrists, mostly obscured by the superficial knife wounds. She was probably bound at the wrists with soft cuffs."

I looked at Lee and stabbed him with my eyes.

"Faint but characteristic burns on the genitals, breasts, lips, and corners of the eyes. She was wired up and then tortured. Most likely, she died of shock. Too much pain can do that, especially if you enhance the pain with the right drugs. So her torturers weren't good enough to parcel it out slowly, or they were impatient. Or both. The body was then mutilated to hide the traces, but they did it badly, so again, they're not top notch. Then they dumped her and she got found. Mistake number three. Or maybe just bad luck."

I closed my eyes so I wouldn't have to look at Calvin Lee, so I wouldn't have to see the horror on his face as he realized what I was saying. It wouldn't take long for him to begin to wonder how it was that I could recognize the marks on Sheila's body and what that might say about me. There was a familiar ringing sensation in my ears. Familiar to me, anyway.

"Take me home now," I said. "I want no part of this."

Next Chapter

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