Sunday, September 23, 2007

Chapter two: But nine years ago it all goes blank…

Previous Chapter

I bought a couple of bottles at the hotel bar, and rented a vid player. I drank, trying desperately to get drunk, and not succeeding, but that went with the territory. I watched cartoons through the night, yelling at the coyote to forget Acme and strangle the damn bird. The coyote had about as much success with the bird as I had with the bottle. None of my neighbors had the nerve to complain. Finally I fell asleep.

There were dreams, just as I expected. There are always the dreams. In them, the air was dry, things fell slowly, and the faceless screams made me want to open the door and embrace the silent vacuum night.

I awoke with a penitence hangover, and went to work without bothering to bathe or shave. So I'd wallow in my own stench all day. Who'd care?

The City had hit the dawn by then, but underneath was barely more than twilight. Sky City extended for more than forty klicks in any direction from the Hook at an average thickness of five hundred meters, comprised by living and formerly living bloons. No light made it down through the floating City itself, and the City's shadow darkened the clouds below. Sometimes it's lighter at night, when the storms light the clouds and the thunder growls at us.

When I got down to the bloon docking area of my hotel, somebody was yelling at Joey.

Joey is some distant cousin of Madame Fumio, the owner of the hotel where I live, and she brought him to her place to take care of him after the accident that left his parents dead and left him the way he was. I've never gotten the details, but they were in a bloon that lost its lift in a pretty catastrophic manner and it dropped way down into the pressure and heat. Joey didn't quite die from the CO2 shock, but the anoxia and heat damaged his brain, and when he was rescued they pulled the bloon up a little too quickly and he wound up crippled with the bends. He was maybe eight or nine at the time, and his joints never grew right after the damage, so he walks with a limp, and he'll never have any more intellect than he had at the time of the accident. But Madame Fumio loves him more than all her play-boys put together, and Joey's smile is worth seeing, worth working for. It seems always to be a grateful smile, grateful to be alive despite everything that's been taken from him. I think he sleeps soundly at night.
I watched cartoons through the night, yelling at the coyote to forget Acme and strangle the damn bird.

Now this guy was yelling at Joey, something about his bags should be there, and how he had an important meeting that he was going to miss, the usual sort of crap. If the meeting was so important, why was this guy staying at a cheap joint in Darkunder? His back was to me as he was yammering, so I could see Joey's face and it looked hurt and confused. It was a good bet that whatever the screw up had been wasn't Joey's fault, because Joey is plenty competent within his limits, and he knows not to exceed them. So I reached out and tapped the guy on the shoulder. Maybe I tapped a little hard. The guy stopped in mid-sentence and turned around, still angry and ready to lay into anybody else who got in his way.

But I'm a big guy, and that morning I probably didn't look like somebody who likes to get yelled at, what with my day's growth of beard, uncombed hair, and rumpled clothing. I probably looked annoyed, as well. I don't like it when people give Joey a hard time.

But I was polite. "What seems to be the problem?" I asked.

He tried to keep his anger going. "I've got an appointment this morning in the City," he snarled. "I'm running late and my bags were supposed to be loaded and ready to go. If they've been lost, I'll..."

I cut him off. "I'm sure your bags are at the front desk or at the bell station," I told him. "Joey's job is the bloons, not bags."

He tried to haul himself up to full height, and maybe he did, but he was still shorter than me by several centimeters. "What business is it of yours?" he demanded.

"Please go back inside and ask for your baggage," I said, ignoring his question. I noticed that my voice had a kind of grating quality to it. "And please try to be more polite in the future, especially to Joey." I put one fist in the other hand and cracked my knuckles, which sounded especially loud that morning. Maybe even threatening.

"Ptah!" he snarled and pushed past me toward the portal that led back to the lobby. He nearly tripped when I moved out of his way so fast that he never touched me. It doesn't look fast when you move that way, either. The sensei who first taught it to me could move like drifting smoke, and he was about as easy to grab.

When he was out of sight, Joey said, "Thanks, Mr. Honlin."

"Call me Ed, Joey," I told him, just like I always do. He still always calls me Mr. Honlin, though. Maybe it's a joke for us by now.

"You might want to go and get an air runner ready for me," I told him. That way he wouldn't be there when the guy came back out. "I'll watch things here."

He smiled at me again; he certainly knew why I was doing it. He may have the mind of an eight year old, but he's a bright eight year old.

"Okay, Mr. Honlin," he said. "That guy was checking out, anyway."

"I don't think he'll be back, either," I told him, and he smiled again.

While Joey was getting a bloon ready for me, a bellhop, named George came out, followed by Mr. Courteous. I glowered a bit at him as his bags were being loaded onto a taxi, and I helped George pull the ballast to compensate for the weight change. Then I smiled as the guy got into the squid. "Hurry back," I told him, but I let my lip curl into a faint sneer and he avoided my gaze.

After he left, I tipped George, because Mr. Courteous certainly hadn't. "Give you a hard time?" I asked him.

"Not really," he told me. "He asked me who you were though."

I grinned. "What did you tell him?"

"That Madame F hired you as a bouncer after you'd gotten kicked out of the City for multiple assault charges, what else?" he told me.

I laughed. "You should have told him I was an axe murderer," I said. "Really put the fear of God into him."

"Oh, I think you already did that just fine," he said with a grin.

Then Joey called out to me and I went to the bloon to start an air run.


Since bloons can't photosynthesize without light, breathable air has to be ferried to the Shadow City below the City of Light above. That was my job at Madame Fumio's, or part of it anyway: bringing air to Darkunder. Sometimes there would be a bit of stealthy choreography, and an air carrier bloon would illegally dock at an underside City tether. By law, all goods into and out of Sky City paid a tariff to Skyhook Authority and the City Government. In practice, some of the trade came "up through the floor," with a jumpered City gate and a bribed guard.
The sensei who first taught it to me could move like drifting smoke, and he was about as easy to grab.

That day I just shuttled O2 bloons for recharging the air supply in free floating shadow clusters like my hotel. Take a one-man wind rider and drop down below the main clusters and send a drag line even further down. Tack on the drag line and cut across the planetary jet to the north. Pop up, pick up an O2 bloon from one of the herders just beyond the edge of the City, then repeat the process in reverse.

It's light at the edge of the City, of course, so there's a photo-rhythm to oxy-running, dark to light, light to dark. The free bloons and tethered clusters that exist below the City go from dark gray to silver and green as the ambient light gets stronger. Near the edge of the City, the population of live bloons increases, and the long tendril roots below them become lush and luxurious, but there aren't very many such habitats; even untethered bloons have to have permits anywhere near Sky City, and too much habitation down below would interfere with transport.

Beyond the City and further down into the clouds, there are even a fair number of free bloons, those without inhabitants, and there are semi-wild herds of green oxy-bloons, those with pure O2 inside. Those get rounded up by the herders who supply the extra air needs of the City and the dark underside of it. Most air runners started out as bloon herders, and how well you get along with the herders affects a runner's profit by quite a bit. I get along with them pretty well. They're a closed-mouth, standoffish lot, and birds of a feather know when to give each other plenty of room.

That day, I took a double shift, twenty straight hours of the dance of light and dark, twenty hours of trying to beat my imagination into submission. Freesailing is nearly mindless physical labor, hauling lines up and down, climbing around inside and sometimes even outside the bloon, setting the airfoils and watching for snags. It's work that is usually good for shutting off the mind and sometimes even bringing dreamless sleep at the end of a shift. But that wasn't going to happen this time. At the end of the second shift the dream screams still echoed in my ears even though I was still awake. The night ahead promised to be long and vicious.

Calvin Lee was waiting in my room when I returned. I was almost glad to see him. Anything but trying to go to sleep.

"No door lock," he said, glancing up from a portable comm unit that he had on his lap. Except for the faint leakage from outside, the light from the screen was the only light in the room.

"You get what you pay for," I told him. "Wait here, I'll be back."

I went down the hall and took a full ten liter shower, shaved and put on fresher clothes. Lee was still there when I got back, still sitting in an inflatable chair he'd brought with him, still fussing with a keyboard and looking at the comm screen.

"Did you bring two?" I asked. "Chairs, I mean. I don't care about the gadgets." He shook his head. I shrugged and sat on the floor. I was used to it.

"So?" I asked him.

"We tweaked a coroner up in Anchorage, and he did the full autopsy. You were right, or near enough. The coroner wasn't sure about the actual cause of death; he said some things about dehydration, neurosensitizing drugs, and he wasn't sure how much electrical shock was used, but he had no doubt that she'd died during torture. But that's not news to you, right?"

I made an appropriate noise and he continued. "I also commed Luna for your service record. It's a very good record. Superb, in fact. Would you like to see it?"

I grunted something noncommittal that he took for an assent. Or maybe he just wanted to show me his toy. He turned it around so I could see the screen. It was a full bore computational comm unit with a holorez screen that could do three-D if it had to. They were common as dirt on Luna, but not many on Venus had one, or had the need for one, either. But the holorez was wasted; it was only showing text at the moment, text that I knew moderately well. I'd seen my own record a few times, after all.

"So here we have where you joined the Luna Security Force," Calvin said, "Your first couple of years, the Speaker's Park incident, a couple of commendations, and a group award to your unit for consultation during the rewrite of the manual for crowd control. That was about the time you placed second in the Division unarmed combat competition." He looked at me as if he expected me to say something. I didn't.

He shrugged and started in again. "Then a transfer to Homicide, more commendations, a very high clearance and conviction rate, then some shared time with Drugs and Vice with that big raid on the drug lab in Clavius. You were also teaching an Academy course in hand-weapons techniques during that time. Did you ever sleep?" By this time it was obvious that he was consciously trying to provoke me. It was almost working.

"But nine years ago it all goes blank," he said. "Watch this." He tapped a key, the screen showed a date, then just a string of garbage symbols. "That's encrypted," he said ruefully, "And it usually means that there's a court ordered scramble put on someone's record, usually for legal reasons. Like somebody did some jail time that was later rescinded, or pardoned off. But I asked one of our higher ups and he did some checking. We have a few people who can get a peak at some of the first levels of file encryption--don't tell anybody I told you. Anyway, our guy told me off the record that your record seems to be just encrypted noise. You're under a double blackout. Your record for that period has been completely wiped; there's nothing left to get at. That's LunaGov security procedure. Very high level. Very no questions asked."
"You were also teaching an Academy course in hand-weapons techniques during that time. Did you ever sleep?"

I'd made it obvious that I wasn't going to say anything unless he asked me directly. He blanked the screen and the room went dark. He'd brought a lamp with him this time and he switched it on. He looked at me with something like an apology on his face. He really wasn't very good at this. "Can you tell me about it?" he asked.

I thought about that, thinking of all the different meanings of that question. "I'm not a Luna cop, any more, if that's what you mean. Legally, LunaGov has no direct power on Venus, though I guess they have a lot of slick with Skyhook. But hell, that doesn't cut much, and legally you have no authority outside of Sky City, even. So you're asking off the record, man to man, is that it?"

He nodded. "It's your call," he said. "Man to man."

"Man to man," I said with what was probably a nasty look on my face, "I don't talk about it and I won't talk about it. I didn't like it, which is no real secret, but other than that I refuse to say. I've put it in a box, and I don't open that box."

His lips thinned. "Shit," he said quietly. "You don't make it easy, do you?"

I shrugged. "It isn't easy and I can't make it that way."

He got to his feet and began to pace. "Okay. A review," he said. "I come to you with an ordinary slash murder ID and you tell me that it's actually some sort of torture thing, like out of freak books and old vids. Then you walk. I check and find out just enough to confirm that you probably know what you're talking about and this is, indeed, one ugly can of worms we've peeped. You may have an idea of what this is about, but you don't want to talk about it."

He turned to glare at me. "I should have slapped you with a witness writ before you got to the gate. If I had the authority, I'd yank you now. You've left me high and dry, damn you! Don't you care even a little bit about nailing the bastard or bastards who did this to Sheila Mason? She thought enough of you to list you as quasi-kin. Does that burned-out- asshole attitude of yours go all the way to the bone?"

The silence stretched for what seemed like minutes. Downside in the distance I heard the rumble of an late morning storm.
"…I've put it in a box, and I don't open that box."

"No," I heard myself say. I sighed as I realized what I was about to do.

"I said I wouldn't break Luna security." I told him. "I won't tell you how and why I know the things I know. That's the way it is and that's the way it has to be."

I looked him dead on, and wondered how good he was in a tight spot and I wondered if that might be important sometime.

"But I didn't say I wouldn't help you," I told him. "You want to catch the assholes who did that to Sheila, count me in."

Next Chapter

No comments: