Science Fiction & Fantasy

Hawk by Steven Brust

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Fiction

The Sweet Spot

“I’m gonna visit Dad.” Matt is curled in the passenger seat of their antique minivan, scowling as offworlders tromp and slither past their front bumper. Shooting a glance at Ruthie through long, pretty eyelashes, he flips down the visor to check the mirror.

“Dad’s dead, Matt. He can’t see your haircut.”

“Want to come?” Falsely casual.

“Can’t.” She throws the word through the driver’s-side door; she’s outside, waving merchandise: soda, water bottles, scented strips of leather and fur. “I have to pay off Security.”

“You could trust Romano with that. You do it for him often enough.”

“I could get a job in a feeler bar too,” she snaps . . . then regrets it. So much for vowing to be more patient.

Matt gives up on finger-combing his curls. Coaxing a battery out of their aging solar charger, he checks the readout. “Did you use this?”

Ruthie winces. “An old lady paid me forty for half a charge. Her son just died.”

A flat glare.

“Forty, Matt.”

“So you get forty, I get half a visit with the old man.”

“With an answering machine.” He can dress it up all he likes, but the battery is just juice for an interactive video of their father. “Waste of credit, waste of time.”

“You suck, Ruth.” He edges out of the van, stomping off to the cemetery.

Ruthie reins in an urge to beg forgiveness. It’s done; she’ll grovel later. Instead, she climbs into the van, thumbing the air conditioning and leaning into the vent.

Since they came to Kauai, her fantasies have been about winter. Deep breath, in through the nose, out through the teeth. As cool air chills her sinuses, she imagines snow melting through her mittens.

She mimes packing a snowball, rolling it across an unbroken plain of white. She barely has the bottom ring of a snow fort built when someone raps on the window.

It’s Sam, a.k.a. Security, leering down her shirt through the tinted glass.

Ruthie shuts off the air conditioning, grabs the weekly payoff, and slides out into the balmy fist of the Hawaiian afternoon.

Sam is a spotty-faced redhead whose scarred right eye socket bulges with a cut-rate offworld prosthetic. Blue gel shot through with veins pulses at her, fronted by a lens that has the fluted edges of a poker chip.

“Morning, Ruth.” Onion breath ruffles her hair.

“Hi.” She holds out the weekly bribe.

He pockets it without counting. “We gotta talk. Inside?”

She shakes her head. “Graveyard. I’ll have Romano watch the van.”

“Please. You think I want a piece of your skinny ass?”

She shrugs. Not all the women on Vender’s Row pay their bribes in cash. Besides, she doesn’t want that onion smell in the car. “Gotta stretch my legs.”

He’s not thrilled, she can tell, but he follows her through the converted golf course to the high point of the cliff.

It’s a scenic viewpoint, postcard perfect: ocean glittering silver-blue under swirled, fragile clouds. An anti-aircraft platform, purple-black in color and shaped like a rosebud, drifts lazily among the cirrus wisps, guarding the Kauai channel and the offworlders’ undersea military base there.

A hundred feet down, the aliens are splashing around the beach at the foot of the cliff, exuberant as children. They are kids, pretty much—barely grown, they were yanked from the seas of their homeworld to help the Democratic Army in its war against the Fiends.

“I never see anyone but you up here,” Sam says. “Gawking at squid makes it hard to forget the war.”

Ruthie leans on a sand-colored boulder. Below, the offworlder soldiers wrestle, dunking each other, spitting water and tootling, churning up the Pacific as they tangle themselves into knots and then slip free. “Is that possible, forgetting the war?”

“Who the fuck knows. Hey, want an apple?”

“In exchange for what?”

“My treat.” He holds out the gleaming red fruit and Ruthie can’t help but snatch it. It’s tart enough to make her pucker, and she nearly moans at the first bite.

“So . . .” Sam glances around. “Army’s decided to put in another databank for the graveyard.”

Ruthie catches a dribble of apple juice on her chin, licking it off her thumb. “More storage . . . the Democratic Army expects more casualties?”

“Lot more. Fiends have been cleaning their clocks.”

“What’s that to do with me and Matt?”

“They’re not digging up the green for no mausoleum.”

“They’re putting it in the parking lot?” The fruit in her mouth becomes rubber; she fights to swallow. “How big?”

“Arches, plaques, statues, flowers—the whole nine.”

“The entire parking lot?”

“Half,” he says. “I’m giving twenty vendors their walking papers.”

Yet another crypt. She can already see it, a square, depressing monument to the endless grind of this war. The Fiends—Friends of Liberation, they call themselves—have been making headway in their drive to secure the whole planet.

“Kabuva’s gonna have to send even more of them,” she says, indicating the squid on the beach.

“Yeah. That’ll happen,” Sam grunts.

“We’re never gonna beat them at this rate.”

“It’s cute, Ruthie, your belief in the great Demo cause. But I ain’t here to debate strategy.”

“You’re right. Matt and I can pay more, if you give us a chance. There’ll be fewer vendors, less competition, more mourners. Can we stay?”

“Well . . .” Sam drawls, fake eye pulsing, snaggled teeth peeping out from under the skirt of his loose upper lip. “That depends.”

***

The graveyard greens are lined with mosaic paths made of slate tiles. Each tile is inscribed with the name and signature of a Demo soldier, along with their mourning catalog code. Twining over the immaculate fairways, the paths lead to curls of hedge and stone walled alcoves, nooks constructed to offer privacy to visitors.

Near an erstwhile sandtrap is a bench and an interactive obelisk. Ruthie pulls up its menu and lets it eat five of their hard-earned bank credits to pay for power. There’s a jack for a battery—it’s cheaper to bring your own juice—but she only needs a minute.

Fog machines belch out mist and a micro-projector starts up, projecting an image of Daddy within the fog. He’s young, the invincible father she remembers from childhood, and Matt has apparently set his defaults so he’s proportionately big. She has to look up, way up, because she only comes to his thigh.

The giant face brightens as Daddy looks down. “You’re starting to look like your mother,” it says. “How old—”

“I’m looking for Matthew,” she interrupts. “I thought this was your spot.”

Dad scratches his non-existent beard, buying time as, elsewhere, computers process her statement. “Your brother’s not on the system, Ruth.”

“Since when?”

“Twelve days, ten hours, six minutes.”

She sinks to the edge of the sand trap and buries her face in her hands. Okay, don’t be stupid, don’t be a baby. Where you been going, Matt? Little lying bastard . . .

The ghost shifts, sitting. “Shit day, kid?”

She remembers the phone call when he asked her that. She was in school . . . she’d failed an art exam. Through a teary haze she sees him flicker, resetting. He resolves on a chair near the obelisk, older now, normal sized. He’s playing his guitar.

That does it . . . she melts down completely. Dad plays rock songs under the tree, burning cash Ruthie can’t afford while she cries and cries.

When she’s stopped carrying on like a diva, he tilts his head: “Want to talk about it?”

“You’re an answering machine,” she says. “Cobbled-together phone conversations, vidblog entries . . .”

“If you prefer, I’ll direct you to my physical remains.”

Remains. A dust-proof tube containing a DNA sample, buried under the slate tile that bears his name. “I’d prefer to talk to Matt.”

“Sorry, hon. I don’t know where your brother is.”

She glares at the illusion. “We’re losing our parking spot. No spot, no money. No money, no food. You get that? Matt told you how we live?”

“Yes.”

It hurts to look at him, but the tears have carried her back to a hot, achy place where she can function.

“Sam will let us stay, but there’s strings.”

She can’t go on. Demo Intelligence has to be monitoring these conversations, combing transcripts for damaging admissions. Exploiting people’s grief. She can’t tell him Sam’s joined the Fiends. “Anyway, bribe’s going up.”

“Can you pay more?” Daddy asks.

“That’s the question, isn’t it?”

***

Matt turns up after midnight, slipping through the side door and delicately arranging his skin and bones onto their mattress. She doesn’t bother pretending to be asleep. He wouldn’t be fooled; they’ve lived this way too long.

“Where were you? I went to the sandtrap.”

“It’s a big boneyard, Ruth.”

She pinches him. “You haven’t been online all week.”

He lights up. “You talked to Dad?”

“Where were you?”

He bites his lip. “I’m seeing someone.”

“Oh.” A flare of unease, somewhere in her marrow.

“Yeah, ‘oh.’ You want to know who?”

“Someone I won’t like, I guess, or you’d have told me. But human.”

“Yeah, human. I don’t do squid, Ruth. It’s Holly Scott.”

“Oh.” Holly’s a Democratic war veteran, like Sam. She’s royalty here on the Row—lives in a real camper, sells water and battery charges. She runs a good patter on the human and offworlder marks alike; her wares sell well.

She’s old—thirty at least, twice Matt’s age.

“That’s all you have to say? No lecture on fucking the competition?”

He’s spoiling for a fight, but Ruthie doesn’t have one in her. “If I was that much of a bitch last time you had a girlfriend, I’m sorry.”

“If?” He morphs from mad to scared. “No. You’ve been drafted, haven’t you?”

“Worse.” She laughs weakly. “Sam’s with the Fiends.”

“So? We knew there had to be a few on the Row.”

“They want us to sing, Mattie.”

That gets his attention—his eyes widen, and he lets out a peep.

“He called it a project,” she tells him. “We sing, it draws the squid off Fry Beach. Fiends want to plant a bomb there.”

“We’re a diversion?”

“I guess.”

He sits, toppling a stack of soda cans. “No way.”

“Half the parking lot’s getting demolished. Sam says we can keep our spot—”

“I am not helping those bastards commit murder.”

“You think I want to?”

“You’re considering it, aren’t you?”

“Where we gonna go? We got a good thing here . . .”

“I remember what a good thing is, Ruthie, and this isn’t it.”

“You ungrateful shit. We’re eating, aren’t we?”

“You’d rather kill people than go hungry?”

“Hungrier?” But now Ruthie’s ashamed of herself. She fumbles for his hand. “We’ll offer more money.”

With that, the resistance vanishes. Matt presses his forehead against hers, and they don’t say any more.

***

Next morning they pull out all the stops, hustle-hustle, sell-sell-sell. Ruthie does a tune-up on the van, fills the fuel tank, changes the oil. Matt trades their heavy goods for lightweight stuff: touchables, music files, things they can hawk at any roadside. By dinner the van is ready to move. They have a few weeks of water and protein mallows laid by, just in case.

They’re discreet, but the Row talks. Sam shows, a disappointed expression on his narrow face. “You pissing on my offer, then?”

Ruthie lets him into the van. Steady voice, she thinks, don’t quaver. “We’ll pay more to keep our spot—”

“Did I ask for more money?”

“We can’t sing,” Matt says.

“Can’t?” Sam’s gelatinous eye rolls in his direction, its false iris cycling wide.

“Take the payment, Sam, okay?” Ruthie pleads.

“No.” Sam holds up both hands, making an “L” with his left finger and thumb, mirroring the gesture with his right hand so that his prosthetic leers at them through a rectangular space the size of a photoprint.

“What’s that?” Ruthie says.

“Making sure I’m in the now,” he says. “Kids, this is the moment when we become Friendly.”

Matt puts up a hand. “There’s no attitude here.”

“No scam,” Ruthie agrees. “We’ll pay more, or go.”

“It’s just singing’s impossible.”

“And I’m—we’re sorry.”

“Gee,” says Sam. “Can’t I change your mind?”

The back of her hand tingles. Itches. Pinches. A tiny silver dot pimples up from under the skin behind her thumb.

She looks up, horrified, locking on Sam’s flinty, half-alien gaze. Her flesh, around the metallic pinprick, is heating up. There are other itches now, too, a scattering of discomfort across her body.

“The apple you gave me . . .”

Sam smirks.

“What’s happening?” Matt asks.

The dot behind her thumb begins to smoke. The burn’s a candleflame at first—and that’s bad enough—but the fiery seed is getting bigger, glowing like the cherry of a lit cigarette, frying more skin by the second.

“Ruthie?”

Another of the itches, above her navel, goes hot.

Matt catches her as she doubles over. She can’t squelch a growl of pain. Wasp-heat in her temple, the stink of scorching hair, makes her gag.

Matt is screaming now.

No, she thinks, he’s hurting Mattie too. She tries to lift herself off the van floor, to fight back.

Sam is laughing.

And Matt’s not hurt, she realizes. It’s worse—he’s begging. “Stop, you win, we’ll do it, don’t hurt her.”

Tears stream down Ruthie’s face—crying again, second time in two days, she thinks—as Sam grabs her hair. “That true, Ruth? You’ll sing for us?”

“Yeah,” she manages.

The seeds cool off, forming blisters.

“Saturday, dinnertime, at the Atlanta monument.” Sam nudges her with a toe; she has his pants leg fisted in her hands. “Sing for at least an hour. Don’t try running off—we’re listening, we’ll know.”

He steps over her to the door, patting a furious Matt on the head.

“Sam . . .”

He turns, and she finds herself wanting to cringe, like a whipped dog. “We’ll need our stuff.”

“That so?”

“She’s right.” Matt says. “It was in storage in Koloa. Masks, instruments, sound system. Can you find it?”

“We can find anything.” With that, Sam steps back out onto the parking lot.

Matt slams the door, throws the locks, and flicks the a/c on full. He yanks out their first aid kit, rummaging. “What do we do?” he asks, sounding like a little boy.

Shakily, Ruthie knots her fingers together in an approximation of a Kabuva tentacle knot. “Practice,” she says, but the sign she makes is different; it’s the squid word for deception.

***

“Isshy taught us the Kabuva folk songs back when he and Dad were living together,” Matt says. He’s standing beyond the bedroom door of Holly’s camper. Ruthie is stretched out on the bed.

“Your dad had a sugar squiddy?” Holly pokes Ruth’s shoulder with a stubby finger; she’s using bootlegged med equipment to locate the fireseeds.

Ruthie nods. “By the time I was ten, we were a bona fide novelty act.”

“Human kids who sing squid. I can see it.” Holly’s apparent lack of judgment annoys her. She wonders if this is playacting, if Matt already told Holly their secrets.

“Dancing monkeys, they called us,” he says.

“Found another one.” Holly eases the point of her knife into Ruthie’s shoulder. “Over soon. Just breathe.”

Matt keeps talking. “Isshy got on the wrong side of his superiors and got reassigned to The Sponge.” He means the massive undersea installation the squid built in the middle of the Kauai channel. “Dad got drafted into the Demo Army. We moved here to live with a cousin, who got Dusted.”

“Okay, doll, I got all the seeds. You doing okay?”

“Thanks, Holly.” Ruthie reaches for her clothes.

“And now the Fiends want you to sing so they can crisp some calamari?”

“That’s their plan, yeah.”

“You want my opinion?”

“What, for free?” Ruthie says.

“Do as they tell you.”

“Don’t joke, Holly,” Matt says.

“So not joking.”

“But—you fought with the squid against them.”

Holly steps out into her kitchenette, where she can see them both. “Democrats are losing the war. The squid’ll give up on us.”

“Holly, come on! What the Fiends want—it’s terrorism.”

“I don’t want to cross the playground, Matt, I don’t. But in another few years, Fiends’ll invade the U.S. After that . . .”

“After that, what?”

“It’ll take years. But Earth’s gonna be all Fiend, all the time. They’re gonna crawl over the whole map and eject every offworlder they find.”

“There’s gotta be some chance.”

She shook her head. “Make some Friends, Matt. They’re psycho, but they’ll be running things.”

“Switch sides? You wouldn’t do that.” He runs a finger down her face, stunned. Ruthie wonders: does he love her?

“This whole war’s going in the squatter—”

“We aren’t murderers, Holly.”

“It’s not like they’re asking you to kill people.”

“It is like that. Isshy was a mother to us.”

“Squid momma left you here, grafting,” Holly says. “For that you defy the Fiends?”

“We’re not doing it,” Ruthie says. “We just haven’t figured out how to screw them yet.”

Her brother’s fingers come together, unconsciously expressing relief. Ruthie immediately feels better. Mattie’s on board, she’s still in charge. How hard can fooling Sam be? Being a Fiend doesn’t make him smart.

“Thanks for patching me up, Holly,” she says, then forces herself to add: “You two should get in some time together while you can. We may have to run for it.”

Matt catches her arm. “You won’t decide anything without me?”

“I figure something out, I’ll text you.”

With that, she heads for the beach path, vying with other scrabblers to sell touchables to the squid heading down to the water. She sells fake fur, fruit leather, perfumed gel, acting like everything’s okay.

Squid are blind, their senses based in taste, smell, and touch—preferably all three at once. They’ll stick a tentacle into any stinky moist thing they can find. Even the poorest scrabblers out here are wearing protective masks over their eyes and mouths.

Of course they’ll pay you to take the masks off, to let them ramble their tentacles over your mouth and eyes, better yet into your pants. Every so often, a fry goes into the bushes with one of the vendors, bringing ’em back well-paid and covered in suckermarks.

Ruthie’s not up for that, but she leaves her burned hand unbandaged, offering a taste of her blood.

It’s over an hour before she gets what she’s hoping for—a squid whose mantle veins go green with compassion when it tastes her wound. A bleeding heart.

Ruthie’s fingers form the sign for help as the stranger’s tentacle slithers over her . . . and before it can pull away, she passes it a KabuBraille note she’s been coding, surreptitiously, this whole time.

It recoils, vanishing into the crowd. Ruthie starts coding another strip, hoping for another chance.

At sundown, she goes back to the sand trap. Dad is older when she boots him up: older, uniformed, hollow-eyed. “You look more like your mother every day.”

“I need to get Matt somewhere safe,” she says. “If Isshy boots you, will you tell him?”

“Isshy rarely—”

“I’m trying to get him a message.”

More beard-scratching: it’s processing again. “I know you’re unhappy about Isshy and me . . .

She winces. “Stop. Play guitar—”

“It was love, you know—” He freezes.

Like Matt and Holly? Her face burns. “I’m over it, Dad. I’m sorry they broke you up.”

The personality simulator is so good sometimes—he looked surprised, even grateful.

Steel up. Squash that rush of emotion. Ruthie’s about to walk off when Dad starts strumming. She sinks to the grass, fixing her eyes on the anti-aircraft platform over the Sponge, the glimpse of ocean through the trees.

***

That evening Sam turns up with their old music trunk.

“You owe me back rent on that locker,” he says. “Fifty, due after the concert.”

“Yeah, yeah.” They shut themselves in the van and Ruthie restrings her minicello. Matt warms up, warbling soprano Kabuva laments.

As they sing, they flash squid signs back and forth, piecing together a conversation the Fiend listening devices won’t pick up. Ruthie tells him she’s trying to contact Isshy.

Matt digs in his pocket for a balled-up sheet of seapaper. Ruthie runs a hand over the Kabubraille quickly; it is an advertisement for their concert.

Where? she signs.

All over the Island. Throwing back his head, Matt lets out a string of notes, all too high and atonal to sound musical to human ears. It is one of the squids’ favorites, a howl of despair about leaving Mother Sea for faraway, violent shores. Disaffected soldiers went nuts over it.

Ruthie joins in, again fighting tears. She never liked this piece; what’s wrong with her?

When the song ends, she turns away, hiding her brimming eyes. “Let’s take a break—do some planning.”

“You’re the planner.” Sour. Talk about disaffected . . .

“I meant . . . wanna talk song order?”

“Up to you.”

She fumbles the minicello, which feels small. Her hands have grown. “Matt, you’re the one told Sam we’d do the dancing monkey on Saturday.”

“I should’ve let him burn you to a crisp?”

Ruthie’s stomach burns. She was stupid; she took candy from a stranger. “Fine, everything’s my fault.”

“Any song order is okay,” he sighs. “Shits, I’m already tired of this.”

“We ended up getting drafted after all, Matt.”

“Just not by the side we thought?”

“At least our so-called friends are winning,” she says, for the benefit of the listening Fiends.

“Now there’s a silver lining.” He smiles weakly, signing: Are we gonna be okay?

In response, Ruthie plucks through the opening notes of a Kabuva folk song. Its first line translates, roughly, to: “All we can do is hope.”

***

Next day she is emptying out the minivan’s squatter when two goons whisk her off to the cemetery. It’s just as she imagined in her wildest paranoid dreams: there’s a secret door within the mausoleum, then a long elevator ride down to dull, fluorescent-lit Demo offices.

The air is stale but cold—air-conditioned. Heavenly.

Matt is already there. “I told them everything,” he blurts.

“It’s okay—”

“Hurry up.” Her abductor, a lanky blond Amazon in a Democratic Army uniform, cuts them off. “We can’t have the Fiends noticing you’re gone.”

They’re marched to a squalid concrete box that smells of body fluids. An interrogation room? Ruth tenses . . .

Then Matt cries out like a baby. Isshy is here.

Her brother hurls himself across the room, burying his face in the slime of Isshy’s mantle, keening in Kabuva. Ruthie feels herself glancing askance at their captor. The woman’s disgust is obvious.

That makes it easier. When Isshy extends a tentacle, Ruthie takes it without hesitation, pressing her knuckles into the gelatinous flesh of her father’s one-time lover, then transferring a tentacle to her armpit so he can taste her.

“You’re here to get us away?” she asks, hating that she sounds like a little kid.

Isshy’s cap tightens, puckering.

Matt pulls his face out of the slimy hug. “Isshy?”

“I am getting immigration permits for you.”

“Immigrate to where? Canada?” Her legs quake with almost sexual longing. Snow, she thinks. Cold.

“You’ve betrayed the Fiends, child. There’s nowhere on Earth we can hide you.”

“The Sponge, then?” Matt asks. “With you?”

The soldier grunts. “To a refugee city on Kabuva.”

“Offworld?” Living away from Earth, on a wholly squid planet . . . Ruthie tries to imagine it.

“With you?” Matt repeats.

Isshy signs regret. “My term of service was extended. But Earthtown is a good place. It’s on Blighted Sea.”

Extended service: Isshy is buying their freedom with another tour. Ruthie shoves guilt aside; he got them into this, after all. “Can we leave right away?”

Matt startles. His face darkens.

“Or what, Mattie? Stay and die?”

“Can’t we go to the Sponge?”

The alien caresses Matt’s neck. “It’s not allowed, spawn. We’ve been infiltrated, twice—humans have been banned from the base.”

“I never heard that.”

“It’s classified,” snarls the Demo officer. “Don’t leak it. And before you go thinking there’s some choice in this for you, let me lay this out. You do the concert for the Fiends, then you go to Kabuva. That’s the deal.”

Ruthie’s jaw drops. “You want us to sing?”

“You’re bait, child.” Isshy is white now—angry. “They hope to catch the Fiends booby-trapping Fry Beach.”

“Pardon me for trying to save some of your people, Sir. Fry Beach has state-of-the-art defenses, kids. If we find out how the Fiends plan to crack its security . . .”

“We can’t go back out there.” Ruthie says. “If they realize we’ve reported them, Mattie and I are dust.”

“Life’s a gamble. You sing, we bag ’em, you go to Kabuva.”

“Or we stay and the Fiends kill us?” Ruthie says.

“Pretty much. We done here?” the woman asks.

She looks at Matt. “What do you think?”

“I think if there was any real choice, you wouldn’t ask my opinion.”

“Matthew,” Isshy says, reproachful. “Your sister is doing her best.”

Her brother turns red.

“Say your goodbyes.” The woman mimes scrubbing her hands, as if they’re dirty. “I gotta get the boy out of here.”

“Leave Matt,” says Ruthie. “I’ll go first.”

“He’s been missing longer.” She takes obvious pleasure in peeling Matt out of Isshy’s grip. “We’re taking you out near your favorite obelisk, son; far as the Fiends know, you’ve been visiting Daddy.”

Matt clings to the outstretched tentacle until she has bundled him out of reach. Then he’s gone, and Ruthie’s alone with Isshy.

“Thanks for helping us.”

“Child. There was never any question.”

“We have to run all the way to your homeworld?”

Tentacles spiral in distress. “Our attempt to help your government is falling into disgrace at home; the number of casualties is catastrophic.”

“You never lose. When you show up, the Fiends always retreat.”

“Ruth, it may be years yet before we leave. But leave we will. In defeat, I fear. You, Matthew—anyone close to us—you won’t be safe. Everyone with sense is getting their loved ones to Earthtown.”

“Your pets?”

“I hoped you weren’t angry with me anymore, spawn.”

“Isshy, we’re in the shits now because of you and Dad.”

“I can’t change the past,” he says. “But this could be a better life. Do you want to spend your days jammed in a car, starving?”

“I want my goddamn father back,” she says sulkily.

He fluffs his cap. “I wish that, too.”

***

She spends the evening atop her cliff, watching the fry gambol in the tide. Dozing with her back against a tree, she dreams of being on the run with Matt. Her brother is a baby again, easily transported, too young to balk or argue. They hide in a blizzard, amid curtains of freezing snow. Ruthie feels safe, invisible, in control.

When she wakes, Matt is beside her, watching the sunrise. Light spills gold over the water; peach and magenta clouds unfurl, like streamers, across the sky.

His eye falls on one of her burns.

“Don’t worry about me,” she says, irked.

“Cast iron maiden.” It is something Dad called her, before he went away.

“It wouldn’t hurt you to steel up a little.”

“Get cold,” he says.

“Life hasn’t been getting easier.”

“Cut off human contact. Dump my lover without so much as a ‘do you mind, dear?’ Yeah, that’s an answer.”

Tears spring to her eyes. Her fingers twist, of their own accord, into a Kabuva sign: hurtful, unfair.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean—” He reaches out.

She slaps his hand away. One of us has to have a hard shell, she thinks. You can’t be an open wound all the time.

“I screw up, Mattie,” she says instead. “I don’t ask your opinion enough. But this mess—I didn’t make it.”

He forms a clumsy chain of signs. We should run.

Which is ridiculous. Instead of saying so, she signs: How?

Matt opens a bottle of water and takes a long, slow gulp. “Something terrible’s going to happen,” he says, in his clear, light voice and Ruthie feels her stomach dropping into a pit.

***

Detonate a Dust bomb on a windless day, and it will expand in a sphere before falling downward. The nanotech weapon disassembles everything it touches. If it falls straight down, touching bare ground, the crater it makes will form a hemisphere.

The Atlanta monument, like so many from this war, reflects this reality. Its focus is a copper-lined crater, big enough to stand in and half-filled with offerings: flowers, stuffed animals, photos of the dead. Carved into its rim are images of the city in various eras, artists’ renderings of famous citizens and heroes from the Democratic Army. The Fiends reduced Atlanta to atoms.

It is a creepy place to stage a concert.

Ruthie and Matt set up their backstage in a nearby grove of magnolia trees, pitching a small tent and unpacking their gear: the electronic synthmasks that play their backup music, the minicello, and two mesh sheaths woven from strips of seaweed. It has been years since they performed, and Ruthie’s sheath is a bit short. But they still fit; neither of them has gained much weight since the so-called good days.

Squid start arriving before they are set up, flowing up from the beach, arriving in flitters, in buses from the barracks in Koloa. First there’s a half a dozen of them, then thirty, then fifty.

Sam breezes into the tent, leering. “Ready for the big day, kiddies? Where’s your donation bowl? You’re supposed to be singing for money.”

“We are singing for money,” she says. “How long do you need to do your thing? An hour?”

“That should do. I expect a cut, you know.”

She goes through the motions of haggling. Finally she says, “I need to dress.”

His plastic eye pulses. “Go ahead.”

“Get out, pervert,” Matt says, and to her relief he does. “You okay, Ruth?”

“No. I’m a big bag of emotion.”

“It’s not a bad thing.”

“Bad timing,” she says.

“It’s always a bad time,” her little brother says.

Wrestling with grief and fear, she peers outside.

In the time it has taken to play out the little farce with Sam, the audience has swelled. Hundreds of squid are out there, setting up seawater sprinklers, lying on kelp mats and each other. They smell of overripe seafood, and they are passing things around—touchables, food, scent packs, drugs. Vendors from the Row hawk goods avidly from the sidelines.

Disturbed, Ruthie wrings out the brine in her dress, slithering into the mummy-wrap of seaweed strips. She swallows a pill called Hot Flash that will send her sweat glands into overdrive, then tests the microphone and display screen within her singing mask. Her hair goes into a ponytail; then she slicks it against her neck with gel.

The waiting squid are hooting a tune, their flute-like voices tootling in the meadow. It is a song about death—that’s all the fry seem to sing anymore—and it brings up the gooseflesh on her burned arms.

“Lament to Blighted Sea,” says Matt. He is in his sheath, ready but for his mask. “You think we’ll get to Kabuva?”

“Don’t see why not,” she lies, then surprises herself by hugging him. “If anything happens, we meet on the cliff.”

“The high spot.” With a half-smile, he pulls his mask over his face. She does likewise, adjusting her mic.

Tech check. The words appear just above her eyes.

A-OK, she texts back.

“Let’s do this,” Mattie says aloud.

They emerge from the tent, hand in hand, and the cacophony of singing toots turns into a one-pitch whistle. Matt steps up to the lip of the Atlanta monument. The weeds on his legs and arms flutter in the breeze, carrying scents to their audience.

Ruthie is almost too stunned to move. There must be a thousand of them. How did the Fiends do it? She sees officers here and there, trying to disperse the crowd, only to get slapped down by a dozen hostile fry.

Bad morale, she thinks.

Mattie is letting go with a piercing high note. She activates the synthesized accompaniment coded into her mask, and the air fills with a clatter of shells and stones in surf.

Don’t let your mind wander onstage. Daddy’s voice, so deeply internalized it feels real. She boots the minicello, playing tones and chirps as her brother works his way into the song. It is a bloody-minded kid’s chant about newborn squid drifting below the skin of the sea, yanking birds down from the surface, devouring them.

The listeners are mottling, their caps turning beige and coral as they relax. Ruthie remembers opening with this same piece in dozens of clubs across America. Daddy intertwined with Isshy at the water’s edge, Scotch and soda in his hand. A sick and twisted family, sure, but a happy one. Isshy believed they’d win the war. Matt loved it all so much . . .

They finish singing the birdhunter piece and warble through a transition. Maybe we can do this in Earthtown, Ruthie muses, be dancing monkeys on Kabuva.

Concentrate, her dead father’s voice admonishes.

Another platoon of squid wriggles over Vendor’s Row as Matt begins a piece about pressure hallucinations—squid hear ghosts when they swim at too great a depth. Ruthie opens her throat, pouring out accompaniment. The words are grim, but the alien harmonies ring true.

They segue into “Mad Moon,” a more patriotic piece, and the audience pales.

Ruthie brings the song order up on her mask display, deleting several numbers. She switches the rah-rah stuff with bleaker material, and texts the revised list to her brother. Matt nods without breaking a beat. He cuts the last chorus of “Mad Moon” and starts an awful ballad about two doomed lovers who get poached out on a rock in the sun, because the tide refuses to come ashore and save them.

Yeah, they love that one. Morbid fucking aliens.

The crowd gets ever more dense. A few officers go through the motions of trying to curb their wayward troops, while clearly enjoying the show. The stick-in-the-muds have been dragged to the middle of the mosh, entrapped, their protests drowned out. The crowd is singing along, so loudly that Ruthie’s mask vibrates against her cheekbones.

A thousand squid, she thinks. Why sabotage Fry Beach when they could just drop a dust bomb right here . . .

Her skin crawls. She misses a note. Matt, lost in song, doesn’t notice.

We have time, Ruthie thinks. Sam’s only ten feet away . . . if a bomb’s going off, he’ll get clear.

We have to get them away, she texts. THIS is the trap.

Matt doesn’t answer; his eyes must be shut.

Dropping notes left and right, Ruthie calls up a menu of folk songs coded into the synthesizer. There used to be some old “Follow the Leader” things, pieces they rarely played in clubs but . . . here. Matt knows this one.

First, they’ll need to get these soldiers up. Watching Sam fearfully, she waits for the end of their current number, then wrenches her minicello through the opening of a jig called “Jump and Fly.”

Matt jerks in surprise . . . then he starts in on the intro as smoothly as if they’d planned it.

We’re the trap? He finally responds. U think?

Yes. Lead them to the beach.

A creeping chill on her neck makes Ruthie glance back.

It’s too late. The fog generators in the graveyard are all running, pouring out an opaque, rolling cloud. Behind them, the ground is crawling with shadows.

So much for finesse. Ruthie stops playing. The crowd, which was beginning to dance, devolves into confusion.

“Run!” Ruthie screams, even as she hears the phut of the first grenade launcher.

Hundreds of the fry react, surging away from each other at shocking speed. Unarmed, out of armor, they can only flee as the first grenades pop overhead, coffee-colored Dust spreading in the air like bursts of fireworks before smearing into a deadly, downward-drifting haze. Squid who are fully enveloped by the brown wind vanish in a puff. Others lose body parts: caps, heads, tentacles.

The shrieking starts.

Grabbing Matt’s hand, Ruthie runs crossways between the approaching Fiends and the roiling, panicked offworlders. She drags her brother toward the cliff. A mumble, an undertone, follows: She is praying. In Kabuva.

Fry surge onto the beach path, fleeing for the ocean and safety. Others charge unarmed into a row of flamethrowers at the front of the Fiend line—with predictable results. One cluster hurls fry over the wall of fire, up and into the oncoming wave of human guerillas. It is an acrobatic trick Ruthie saw performed in the same clubs where she sang as a child. The flying squid vanish into the graveyard, disappearing into the cloud of smoke and artificial fog. Human screams spread where they land.

One freaked-out squid slides toward them, whistling, and Ruth’s idiot brother tries to jump in front of her. She yanks him to ground, shouting the word for “Ally” in Kabuva. A line of old-fashioned bullets chops through the alien before she finds out if it heard her.

“Stop!” Matt yells. But Ruthie scrambles up, mulishly using her greater strength to force him to the high ground. If they can get around the Fiends, they might escape before the Sponge orders a strike on the whole cemetery.

“Ruthie!”

“All we can do now is get away!” The words run in her head: getaway, get away, git way. But Mattie breaks free, leaving her with a handful of seaweed rags as he pounces on half of a dead Fiend holding a grenade launcher.

Phut! He fires at the edge of the cliff. A Dust grenade digs out the edge, excavating a crater ten feet deep. He promptly fires two more, creating a scalloped incline within the rock, a crude slide, a new escape route to the beach.

Squid start pouring through the gap, making for the ocean. They don’t wait for the Dust to settle, and so they bleed and lose tentacles as they flee.

Ruthie makes a grab for the launcher. “Someone’s gonna mistake you for a target.”

“Let ’em.” His face is wet. Stupid, over-sensitive . . .

He still needs her.

“You’ve done your good deed; now come on!” A grenade detonates nearby and they flee uphill. The high point of the cliff is in sight; they’re clearing the Fiend line . . . almost at the rear. No chance to get to the van from here, the van’s gone. She must write it off as she has written off her parents, an education, an ordinary life.

All Ruthie has left is her brother.

A Fiend comes up the path, methodically firing into the crowd of squid escaping down Matt’s improvised slide.

It’s Holly. Ruthie feels it before she truly recognizes the other woman. Holly has decided that she needs a Friend or two.

Their eyes meet, and Holly’s lips move. Shouting Matt’s name, but he can’t hear it over the battle noise.

Stay quiet. He’ll never know who was behind them. Damned cougar—Matt doesn’t need her. Run for it, force the squid to send them to Kabuva. He’ll never know.

It is an easy choice, the kind she’s been making on his behalf for years.

Instead, Ruthie tugs his arm. Points.

Matt turns. Looks. Sees that his supposed girlfriend is in on the squid slaughter.

Ducking a flying piece of monolith, Matt sprints back. He and Holly converge, crouch with their heads close. She reaches for Matt’s hand . . .

Ruthie clutches her chest. Will he take it? If Mattie leaves her, who is she supposed to be?

The ground turns to jelly underfoot.

There’s an awful, impossible light, a glow on the horizon. A torch thrusts up from the ocean, burning white-hot to the clouds. It bulges, grows fat, frying the anti-aircraft platform to ash. And now the sound is coming too, a clatter and shriek, something tearing that was never meant to be torn, louder, louder. The sound bites like a saw into her skull.

On the battlefield, everyone—human and offworlder—freezes, staring in the direction of Oahu.

It’s the Sponge, it has to be the Sponge, and how could the Fiends touch that? How could there ever be the slightest possibility of them being powerful enough to destroy an undersea squid—

Suddenly everything on the battlefield is after Ruthie.

No, she realizes, they aren’t running toward me. They’re fleeing to the high ground, like mice. That’s right, there’ll be a shockwave, won’t there?

“Matthew,” Ruthie shouts, before a scorching wind lifts her off her feet, ripping her mask off, flipping her ass over tea kettle through the air.

***

When she awakes, she is soaked, sore, and draped on a delicate arch of rock formed by the cliff’s edge and the lip of a dust crater. She raises herself to hands and knees, pulling her seaweed mini-skirt over her ass and staring around.

Water has battered the graveyard, making pools of its many Dust craters. Seawater, she guesses, thrown by the explosion. The rush of water doused the Fiends’ flamethrowers, giving the squid an edge in the battle—the offworlders seem to be winning now. Drowned and strangled humans litter the ground, along with Dust-proof tubes containing human DNA samples—coffin tubes—that jut up from the murk of the one-time golf course.

There is no sign of Matt or Holly.

Everything’s quiet, Ruthie realizes. The battle is continuing in total silence.

“Actually, spawn, I think you’ve gone deaf.” The words are Kabuva. Dad and Isshy are with her, flickering in the fog.

Isshy is right. She cannot hear a thing.

Her eyes find a column of black smoke rising in the east, where the Sponge was. “Isshy’s dead then,” she says and it is a surprise how much that hurts.

“Is he?” Dad says.

“I must be,” the squid says. “Child’s right. Nothing could survive that.”

“You’re hallucinations,” she says slowly. “The baby . . . I would know if Matt was dead, wouldn’t I?”

“Oh yes,” Dad says. “You would know. He’s alive—oh, wait, there’s his body.”

She screams, curling up in the crater.

“That’s not him, Ruth,” Isshy says, in that annoyingly gentle voice. “Jacob, you’re upsetting her.”

Is it or isn’t it? She crawls to the gristle lying face down in the bloody sand.

“What did I tell you, child?”

It is a stranger. He is lying atop an old machine gun. An extra cartridge of bullets is taped to his fist.

Ruthie crouches by the body, takes a breath, makes a snowball. She can see it, just as she sees Dad and Isshy loitering beside her. She tosses it into the pond, but there is no splash, no ripples.

Write it off, she thinks. The van, Isshy, escape, even my sanity. But not Matt. Never Mattie.

All around her, the skirmish continues, a disorderly cut and thrust. Down the cliff path, her intended route of escape, is a squad of Demo soldiers and armed squid, trotting up to join the fight. A trio of Fiends has set up an ambush for them. They’ve hidden behind a toppled cenotaph and are making ready to Dust the upcoming squad.

“What now?” Dad asks. “Dive into the fray looking for your brother?”

“What chance would she have?” Isshy replies. “One side or the other is bound to shoot her.”

“He’s right. Hon, you can’t start looking until the dust settles. Pardon the pun.”

“And you can’t help your brother if you’re dead.”

“Shut up!” She covers her deaf ears.

“She should go to ground. Wait this out.”

“Sure,” Dad says, “And end up a prisoner of whichever side wins?”

“You’ve been drafted after all, Ruth,” Isshy tells her. “Pick a side and go with it.”

“The Fiends killed us,” Dad reminds her. “They made you do the concert. Sam fed you fireseeds. Isn’t that him over there, directing that ambush team?”

“The Fiends are winning the war,” Isshy disagrees. “Her best chance for finding Matt might be to get Friendly. Holly thought so.”

Is it that simple? Take up the gun, join the ambush? Start killing the Demos, or start killing squid?

“Hon,” Dad says.

“Shut up,” she says. “You’re a hallucination.” She looks from one parent to the other, Dad with his guitar and reproachful eyes, Isshy pale-blue with understanding. Who would Matt pick?

Impossible to say. His mom’s a squid, his lover’s a Fiend.

But she does know who she’d most like to kill.

“Ruth,” argues Isshy. “The Fiends are winning. Your best chance to get offworld died with me. Forget the Democratic cause and join that ambush. Pick the winning team.”

“They’re not winning this battle, are they?” Dad counters. “She doesn’t get off the cliff, today, she doesn’t get to look for anyone.”

Daddy’s right. And the squid might be grateful if she pitches in; the Fiends just regard it as their due.

She pries the clip of ammo off the corpse and slithers up to the lip of the dust crater. She takes careful aim at the center of Sam’s back, the sweet spot, as he prepares to slaughter the contingent of Demos and squid coming up from below.

“Ashes to ashes,” she murmurs—and it is so weird not to be able to hear her voice, or even the pop pop pop of the gun as she signs up for the Demo cause, pulling the trigger and sending her alleged brethren to oblivion.

© 2012 A. M. Dellamonica

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A.M. Dellamonica

A.M. DellamonicaA.M. Dellamonica’s has published short fiction in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Strange Horizons, Tor.com and over thirty other magazines and anthologies. Her first novel, urban fantasy INDIGO SPRINGS, won the 2010 Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic; a sequel, BLUE MAGIC, will be released by Tor in April, 2012. A resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, Dellamonica’s home online is at www.alyxdellamonica.com. She teaches writing through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

2 Responses »

  1. Wouldn’t it be great if the United Nations sent hit teams instead of peacekeeping forces to war-torn areas whose sole mission would be to seek and eliminate tyrants, dictators, warlords, warmongers, demagogues, and any or all people in power who espouse genocide and engage in wars of conquest? Imagine if the League of Nations had sent a hit team to get Adolf Hitler as soon as he annexed Austria! Of course the Germans might have gotten angry enough to start World War II, but think of the big difference this time: No Adolf Hitler to lead them down the path of insanity. Am just kidding, folks!

    • Hitler was a symptom of the problem, not the cause. Hit squads would not have solved the problem, they would only have exacerbated it. The enemy always has the form of a hydra, more heads arise for every one that you cut off.

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