“Garda,” by Kameron Hurley
Illustrated by Adrienne Valdes • Edited by Joel Cunningham
Lately, Inspector Abijah Olivia has found most of her answers at the bottom of a bottle. But when she takes a private contract to figure out why the bodies of dead young men keep washing up on the beaches of her colony world, a single golden button will tell her everything she needs to know—perhaps too much. The B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog presents an original short story by Hugo Award-winning author and essayist Kameron Hurley.
You can also download this story for free to read on your Nook app or device. Ebook cover design by Ardi Alspach.
By Kameron Hurley
Dead young men kept washing up on the crooked sandbar that abutted the black ruins of the palace on the pier. The body lying now at the feet of Inspector Abijah Olivia was positioned face down in the sharp black glass of the beach. Abijah wore heavy boots to protect her from the sand, but the body was not so lucky. Barefoot and mostly naked, thousands of tiny lacerations peppered its sallow grayish skin. Tattered remnants of black and gray clothing still clung to it in places, giving the impression that the corpse was an old, ancient fish that had fought throughout its ascent into the air, then was abandoned here in the ruin of some net. Its lower half lay at an awkward angle, as if the torso and legs had been twisted in opposite directions. Clumps of black hair still clung to the head, but Abijah noted two chunks of scalp missing just above the neck, as if the hair had been yanked so hard that it had come free. The great hooked-beak birds patrolling the coast could have done that after the body washed up, she supposed, hoping to snag the long hair for their nests. More answers would come from the medical examiner.
“Sorry catch, you are,” Abijah muttered, squatting next to the body. She poked at the left wrist with a stylus, pulling up a necklace of pink kelp to reveal a work tattoo. Like the other dead men she had seen on this sandbar, this young man appeared to have been employed at the wight factory upriver, which was run by the last of the operations that accepted off-world labor. Being off-world would account for the body’s tall, slender frame and weak bones. The twist to the lower body could have just as easily happened post-mortem, when the corpse hit the water. If he’d already been a corpse, at that point. One of the previous young men had actually drowned; the others had been dead hours before meeting the salty water.
The crunching of boots across the volcanic glass alerted Abijah to the arrival of what was most likely the garda assigned to the case. Abijah turned to see the woman duck beneath the webbing that secured the scene. She fixed Abijah with a wintry look. Abijah knew the stout little woman, all hips and ass, who shoveled toward the body like a rugby forward prop ready to hit the opposition at pace.
“You’re not assigned to this case,” Garda Katya Sobrija said. Behind her, the yellow lights of the garda ambulatory unit blinked muzzily through the mist. This far south, the sun never really set; this moody, yellow-ochre dusk was as dark as the island would ever get.
Abijah offered up her wrist, and a blooming insignia and the relevant signatures misted up from the interface written into her skin. “Not doing it for the garda,” Abijah said. “Private contract.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Katya said, pointing her fingers at the projection and accepting the data transfer. Her eyelids flickered as she reviewed the data privately, streamed onto her retinas. “Fuck’s sake.”
“The garda had three chances to solve this one,” Abijah said. “Now it goes private.”
“Provided somebody pays for it,” Katya said. “Who’s paying?”
“That’s confidential,” Abijah said. “You saw it’s been sealed.”
“Concerned citizen, huh?” Katya said, stuffing her fists against her waist. “Who else you working with?”
Abijah shrugged and gave a little smile. She turned her attention back to the body.
“Oh no, fuck,” Katya said, pulling at the cigarette case in the front pocket of her slick. “I have six complaints out against that—“
“She’ll be fine,” Abijah said. “She’s been sober a month.”
“And you?” Katya said, tapping out a cigarette.
“Gave it up,” Abijah said, “the way you gave up smoking last summer.”
Katya grimaced and popped off the tip of the cigarette to light it. “Simple pleasures,” she said.
“You’re contaminating the scene.”
“Not my scene anymore is it?” Katya said. “How’s Maurille and Savida?”
“Divorcing me,” Abijah said. “Said they were happier with each other.”
“Sorry to hear it. The kids?”
“Already on the continent for the exams,” Abijah said. She rose and tucked away her stylus. “Hold the scene for the medical examiner. Bill your time to the account.”
“This is the biggest shit,” Katya said.
“Definition of insanity is doing the same old thing, expecting a different result. You need fresh eyes on the case.”
“You don’t even know it’s connected to the other boys.”
Abijah snorted. “I don’t know if the sun will come up over that horizon today either,” she said, “but I can tell you that it’s pretty likely.” She crunched back across the sand, moving past Katya, and noticed a gleaming bit of detritus at the edge of a large, smooth hunk of volcanic glass. She stooped to pick up the object, and hooked it with her stylus. It was a gold-plated button stamped with a grinning round head fitted with a monocle. Abijah knew the farcical design immediately, because it was used on the all-weather coats issued to garda when they reached the Inspector level and above. She had one herself.
Abijah pulled out a bit of sticky evidence gum and gobbed it over the button, then slipped it into her pocket.
“What’s that?” Katya said, coming up behind her just as she hid the button from view.
“Bit of pretty flotsam,” Abijah said.
“You’re a terrible liar,” Katya said, and flicked her cigarette butt onto the glittering beach.
“Sorry about your pasties,” Pats said, chomping on the last two bites of something flaky with a gooey center as she pushed inside Abijah’s apartment door.
“Thanks for saving me some,” Abijah said.
Pats licked her fingers. She was missing the ring and pinkie fingers on her left hand, both ended cleanly at the knuckle. “Just making sure they aren’t poisoned,” Pats said. “I got your back. And your guts. Such as they are. Used to be my guts, some of them.”
“You get the files?”
“Sure,” Pats said. She set the pastry box on the divan and pulled a green folder from inside of her long black coat. Pats sank into the divan and put her muddy boots up on the rock table. She wet her fingers and opened the folder.
Abijah sat beside her. The folder contained several pages of sketches depicting the park and gardens nearest the local garda station.
“You’re getting better,” Abijah said, pulling out one of the slippery pages. The ink could be wiped away with a simple solvent and the pages reused.
Pats peeled back the inside front cover of the portfolio, revealing a double helix shaped strand of green code. She pulled it free and it floated up into the air, untangling itself.
Abijah set her interface to receive mode and downloaded the data before it self-destructed, breaking apart into a fine mist and blowing away under the strength of her breath. Abijah quickly streamed the data across her vision: case notes, snaps, crime scene recordings, reports, for all three of the previous murder cases for the off-worlders who had washed up on the sand bar.
“This everything?” Abijah asked.
“Everything stored in the general case file,” Pats said. “It hasn’t been secured. So, yeah, if there’s anything else related to the case that they’ve got, it’s not linked to these cases in the server. Always a chance there’s something buried in a file another some code name. But I just don’t get that anyone cares enough about these cases to go to the trouble.”
“Cause they’re off-world?”
“Sure,” Pats said, reaching forward to dig out another pastry. It oozed raspberry filling that glopped onto her fingers. “These are good.”
“Who left these?” Abijah said, pulling at the top of the box.
“They’re for Maurille,” Pats said, “from that bakery she sponsors.”
“Shit, Pats, I’m already on the outs with Maurille.”
“All the more reason to eat her pasties.” Pats grinned wolfishly. “When they kicking you out?” Her gaze moved to the tubs and plastic barrels half-full of Abijah’s belongings.
“Had the talk last week,” Abijah said.
“You didn’t sound surprised.”
“Been bad awhile.”
“What they tell you?”
Abijah popped open the top of the box and grabbed the last pastry; strawberry. Maurille’s favorite. “They told me I’m too emotionally unavailable,” Abijah said.
Pats guffawed and slapped her own knee. “That’s a great one! Youse hooked up during the war! They expect you to change?”
“Guess so,” Abijah said, and bit into the pastry. “You miss living on the continent?”
“Nah,” Pats said. “I live on a good disability pension.” She cocked her finger against her head. “Upside to being a nut. But I do miss the war.”
“You miss killing.”
“Eh, well, that too. Garda get touchy about that, way touchier than in the war, you know? Bad sports.” Pats stood and wiped her hands on her coat. “You let me know if you need anything else.”
Abijah dug into her pocket and pulled out the button in its clear webbing. “You take that to the medical examiner, have her look at it? She’s on your way home.”
“Sure,” Pats said, shrugging.
“Kids all worked at the same factory,” Abijah said, “judging by the tattoos. Can you confirm that, too?”
“Those reports should.”
“I need to know about this fourth one, though. Can you look into his family?”
“Aw, you always want me to do the messy people shit.”
“It’s because you’re so personable,” Abijah said.
“Blah, blah,” Pats said, and waved her fingers at her. “Ah, before I forget!” She reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a large copper-colored can of rum, then winked. “A divorce gift!”
“I’ll need a lot more of those,” Abijah said.
Pats grinned triumphantly and pulled a second can out of her other pocket and thunked it down on the table with satisfaction. “One for each spouse!” she crowed, and flounced out the door.
Abijah popped open the can before the door had closed and took a long drink. Private work had its benefits. Sobriety was not regulated, and certainly not expected, when someone hired her. Her window screen covered the entirety of one wall, though a large section on the far left was glitchy, which meant the beachy scene she had programmed into it appeared to have a massive black hole zig-zagging along the boardwalk through which tourists disappeared as they rambled out of the frame. She opened her interface and ordered up a wintry scene from the continent, something recorded in the Black Hills before the shelling of Solosia. Everything existed in some bio-digital memory these days, even the places long dead—countries, continents, starships, whole worlds, entire systems, so many one could get lost trying to count them, like trying to make a map of the stars from a starship heading out for the edges of a universe that was still expanding, stars blooming ahead and dying behind, endlessly.
She asked for one of her favorite curated news channels and watched the headlines streaming to the right of the projection. She could just as easily have played it all across her retinas, but when she was home she preferred to switch off. Boots on the table, drink in hand, she asked for the highlights of a few headlines about the case, mostly non-professional takes on the recent murder and the usual half dozen conspiracy theories from unhinged folk on the edges of the colony. To each their own, she supposed.
Abijah finished her first can of rum as the world began to grow more bearable at the edges. A persistent message tap-tapped at the edge of her vision, a little red arrow indicating a conferenced call from Maurille and Savida. She brooded on it a long moment, then popped open the other can and accepted the call. The safety notification asked her to confirm she was not currently mobile or operating any type of machinery. She checked “no” and her wives faces filled her vision.
Maurille and Savida projected an image of themselves that was certainly far removed from wherever they were currently holidaying on the continent. They both looked severe and buttoned up, as if expecting a business negotiation to break out at any moment. Maurille, tall and lean like an exceptionally well-bred tree, was older, her face softer now around the edges. Maurille and Abijah had married first, and Savida had come later, a slim woman a decade their junior whose fisher-family had supported her schooling in bio-environmentalism on the continent and then welcomed her back as a local government resource steward. Somehow the two of Abijah’s spouses grew more serious, brought together, no doubt, when Abijah had gone away to the war. When Abijah came back, maybe, there had been time to repair what the three of them had, but she hadn’t been ready back then. Wasn’t ready now.
“Are you drinking?” Maurille asked, softly concerned.
“Nah,” Abijah said, sipping her rum.
Savida made a face, because though Abijah had chosen a fine upstanding image of herself to project to them, they could certainly hear everything.
“We’re calling about the dog,” Maurille said.
“What dog?” Abijah said.
“There was a dog in the apartment,” Savida said, “when we came to get our overnight bags for the trip up. Did you get a dog?”
Abijah turned to look around the room; the motion of her head flipped the full-screen of the faces to the bottom left corner of one eye, letting her get a view of her actual surroundings instead of the projected ones. “No dog here,” Abijah said, but she got up anyway, sipping the rum as she did, and checked the two bedrooms, the closet, and the little balcony, just in case.
“No dog,” Abijah said. “No paw prints. Not even a shit.”
Maurille said, “It was quite clearly in the apartment.”
A knock came at the door. Distracted, Abijah wondered if Pats had come back to try and lick the inside of the pastry box. She opened the door, hoping for a distraction from her wives—and got a fist in her face.
The blow was so unexpected it took her right off her feet. She sat back hard on her ass, black spots juddering across her vision. The can of rum sailed off to her right and collided with the cold box in the kitchen. The call with her wives went dead; their faces disappeared. Her window blinked dark, and then lights cut. She had already pulled her blackout curtains, so she couldn’t see anything at all. She had time to note three figures advancing, one of them with a six-legged dog on a leash, before they swung the door into the hall shut, completing their cover.
Three against one was bad odds sober during a fair fight, let alone drunk while on the floor and parted from her interface. At least it solved the question about the dog. These folks had been casing her place earlier. Thank fuck they hadn’t touched Maurille or Savida.
They proceeded to beat the ever-loving shit out of Abijah. They wore heavy steel-toed boots that landed hard, savage blows to her chest and stomach and back. One mashed her in the face, dazing her. She wished, then, that she had finished the second can of rum, because she would have felt less and blacked out sooner. Instead, she went limp, letting them think she was down and out for good. The boots gave them away. This was a small town, and only garda wore boots like that.
As Abijah squinted at them through her one good eye, blood leaking down her face, one of her attackers opened the door, and in that slanted light from the hall she saw one of them, a squat figure, put her fists to her broad hips, and then self-consciously pat at her left breast pocket for a cigarette case.
“Little fucking weasel,” Abijah muttered, or tried to. Her face wouldn’t cooperate, which was just as well.
They gave her a couple more kicks, and then the combination of pain and drink finally took her away, mostly.
Abijah dragged herself into proper consciousness only to find she had a dry mouth and painfully empty stomach. She wanted to eat a whale. She gagged and heaved, but only drooled saliva onto the floor. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been out, because her curtains were still drawn and her interface still wasn’t back online. She crawled to the door and planted her hand in something soft and foul. Dog shit. The fucking dog had shit in her fucking apartment.
She snarled and flailed to her feet, fumbling her way to the wash room with her non-befouled hand. The lights were still off—nothing came on as she entered the room—but the water worked, and she scrubbed her hands and face clean. She put some painkillers in via fast-acting eye drops and pocketed a vial for later. They were prescription-only drugs, but she didn’t technically have her own prescription for them.
Abijah tripped the emergency generator, cycling the power back on, and tromped down the stairs to the pub to get a drink, because sometimes that’s the only thing that solved her problems. Certainly calling the garda to report being beat up by gardai wasn’t going to further her cause. The stiffness and pain bled out of her with ever step as the drugs did their work, fuzzying the edges of her discomfort until she felt tired more than anything else.
She pushed open the door to the pub and found the pub owner, Maliki, engaged in an engrossing game of some kind on her interface.
Abijah waved a hand at her and called out, breaking Maliki’s concentration. Maliki blinked and focused on her. “Where the fuck you been?” Maliki said. “Been trying your interface for an hour. Maurille called and said you cut out.”
“Need a reboot,” Abijah said. “Got a juicer in the back?”
“Sure, the kid’s back there. You in trouble with the law again?”
“Pour me a drink and I’ll tell you,” Abijah said.
“Pay your tab and I’ll pour a drink!” Maliki called after her, but Abijah was already through the heavy curtains into the sprawling muck of the back room. Maliki’s kid, Popsy, bore a huge monocle over one eye, surgically implanted more for show and shock value than practicality. Popsy sat hunched at a loom full of disembodied interfaces. She swung her massively magnified brown eye in Abijah’s direction. Her hair was bright green, shaved on both sides and curled up on top into delicate ringlets like a fancy sea anemone.
Abijah sat next to her on the skull of a whale and held out her blank arm. “Garda wipe,” she said.
Popsy clucked at her. “In deep already? Didn’t you take the case yesterday?”
“Always been popular with the garda. Bestest friends.”
Popsy rebooted her interface and got it blinking at her again. There were two messages already from her wives, one from Pats, and one from her client.
“Thanks,” Abijah said, blinking open the message from her client as she headed back out to the bar and initiating a call before it had even started replaying.
“You owe me another favor!” Popsy said.
“Sure!” Abijah said. “I’ll pretend I didn’t see all those illegal interfaces.”
Popsy spit at her.
Abijah settled up at the bar. She and Maliki were the only ones up. Her interface told her it was only three hours after dawn. Good a time as any, she supposed, and chugged the beer Maliki had left on the bar.
Rylka vo Morrissey dominated her vision as the call connected, and Abijah blinked her back to her left eye only. Rylka sat out in her garden in a little automatic chair, or was projecting herself that way, surrounded in white and red roses with little purple tongues and waspish petals. During very wet seasons, roses often bred wasps, which made them the sort of hobby only those with a lot of time and maybe some masochistic tendencies got into. In the garden behind her, Abijah glimpsed a few laborers’ heads bowed to the task of cutting back the roses and watering their little flickering tongues. Rylka, like most of the vo Morrisseys, had a degenerative condition caused by chemical bursts during the war that limited her mobility. Abijah had the same thing, from the same cause, the doctors all said, but it was curled up in her like a serpent, waiting for some external condition to trigger it, like a bomb waiting in her body.
“Your interface went down last night,” Rylka said. “Is everything all right?” She was young, slender and reed like, with bold features and a full mouth that lent her otherwise willowy appearance some gravitas.
“Got beat up by some garda,” Abijah said, “so your instincts were right. They’re certainly eager to keep me from finding anything out.”
Maliki reappeared with a cold pack and bashed it on the counter to activate it, then handed it over to Abijah. Abijah gratefully pressed it to her throbbing head.
“You’re continuing the search?” Rylka asked, and her eyes got all big and dewy. “I’d hate to think—“ Rylka was descended from some of the founding families. While terms like rich and wealth weren’t really in vogue out here where everyone was supposed to toil alongside each other and share in the world’s prosperity, she was certainly well insulated and… well-gifted by her colleagues in exchange for political favors. Abijah was counting on being well-gifted for her own services, too. Everybody needed a good word at the council when shit went down.
“Following up with the medical examiner today,” Abijah said.
Rylka let out her breath. “Good,” she said. “These deaths are worrying to me personally, and to the council. If they get the attention of the continent, we could very well find ourselves occupied by their police forces. Our garda should be able to handle this issue. My family has proudly served among the garda for generations, and I won’t have a small crop of bad actors open us up to injury from the continent.”
“If they come down here, it’ll be shit trying to get them to go back,” Abijah said. “I get it.”
“Thank you, Abijah,” Rylka said, and ended the call.
Abijah finished her beer and left a digital IOU on Maliki’s public message board.
She caught a trolley out front and took it up north toward the forensics and medical research buildings while reviewing the message from Pats.
“Confirmed the kid works up at the wight factory,” Pats said. “Meet you there after lunch. You’ll love the dirt I’ve got on the owner. Real piece of war work, that one.”
Abijah confirmed the post-lunch date and stepped off the trolley at the medical examiner’s building. She transferred her credentials to the desk, which was automated, and it admitted her into the building.
When she got upstairs, the medical examiner, Bataya, was waiting for her.
“How’s your sister?” Abijah said.
“Still annoyed you haven’t called,” Bataya said. “How are your wives?”
“Still in love with each other,” Abijah said. “What do you have for me?” She moved past Bataya and into the morgue. The young man’s body lay atop a grooved stone slab. Without the tatters of his clothes, he looked even more diminutive and sad, a shriveled flower. Abijah ran her hands under the protective glove sprayer and shook the film on her hands dry, then approached the edge of the table. He had already been cut open; just a small incision in the chest and on the inside of the thigh where he was pumped full of recording devices that traveled throughout his body taking recordings, tiny and mobile as his blood had been.
His face was lacerated; he had been lying on it when she last saw him.
“You must have his name,” Abijah said, “Pats verified where he was working.”
“Yes,” Bataya said, moving to the other side of the table. “Turns out this one didn’t drown either, just like the last one. He was dead of head trauma before being dumped.” Bataya was a small woman, nimble, with luxurious purple-black hair and faux gray eyes. She was studying for a certificate in combat yoga and advanced reiki; maybe she’d already earned them. It had been months since Abijah was last in here. They had only almost slept together once, or as Abijah had explained it to Pats, “We were going to have sex… but, then we decided not to.” And Abijah blamed that on the alcohol. Or perhaps her own fascination with what a woman trained in both reiki and combat yoga would be like in bed. She buttoned that thought back up.
“Did Pats give you the button?” Abijah asked.
“Yes,” Bataya said, and her mouth thinned, and Abijah wondered if she’d done something wrong. Bataya went over to the counter and fished out the button, which rested now in a glass dish. The evidence webbing had been removed from it. Bataya set it directly on top of the body’s chest.
“It’s a garda Inspector-class all-weather coat button,” Bataya said, “which I assume you knew. The rest—there’s no evidence on it. No fingerprints. No DNA. No unusual organic material. It’s possible this was just something washed up on the beach near the body.”
“How’d you know it was near the body? I didn’t tell you or Pats that.”
She smiled thinly. “Particles,” she said. “That beach has a very unique signature because of the burning of the palace. Lots of base metals, including mercury, after it got blown up during the war, settled into the sand there. It was toxic to swim there until twenty years ago.”
“So the body had these same particles, then?”
“Of course. I mean, it was found there.”
“Both sides, clothing too, I mean. Nothing out of the ordinary there? Let’s say the body had been dropped upriver, say, near the factory? Would it bear traces of other particles from its journey downriver that could help us identify where it came from?”
“I see,” she said, “well it did, yes. The fingernails tend to be good for that. No human DNA under them, but there was silt, and it’s not a match for the beach near the pier. That’s all glass. That beach is glass all the way up to the factory.”
“So the body was dumped no further south than the factory.”
“A reasonable conclusion. But that leaves a hundred kilometers of river.” She pursed her mouth. “I was getting to the silt under the nails, you know. But you started with that banter about the button.”
“Entirely my fault.”
“Just so,” she said, and sniffed.
“Any way to match the silt to a smaller patch of river?”
She sighed. “We can try, but you should know that the garda aren’t happy about me running these tests.”
“It’s a private contract,” Abijah said, “from Rylka vo Morrissey. They can be unhappy all they like, but the job is legitimate.”
“I’ve seen the order,” Bataya said, “or I wouldn’t have let you in.”
“It’s good to see you again too,” Abijah said.
“You didn’t have to call me,” Bataya said, “but you should have called my sister.”
“Drunk?” she suggested.
“That too. But… on a case, so.”
“On a case for a day,” Bataya said. “Sorry, you just… disappoint me a lot. All the time.”
“We’ll keep things professional, then. I promise.”
Bataya sighed. “I’ll buy you a drink.”
“One drink,” Abijah said. “But later. I’m meeting Pats at the factory to ask about the boys.”
“Boys,” Bataya said, shaking her head. “We had no word for such a thing, sixty years ago.”
“We did,” Abijah said, “it just wasn’t very polite.”
Pats waited outside the factory gate, chewing on betel nut leaves and scratching at what Abijah confirmed were mosquitos as she stepped off the trolley and onto the packed gravel of the factory road.
“You look like shit,” Pats said. “Garda?”
“Katya was with them,” Abijah said, “if you can believe that.”
“No shit? Cheeky weasel.”
“That’s what I said.”
Abijah presented her credentials at the gatehouse and asked to see the factory supervisor. There was a human attendant here, and she closed up the door and conferred with a superior for a few minutes before admitting them. Abijah fixed her with a grin, but the woman only glared at her.
Inside, they were met by one of the owner’s aids, maybe a secretary or a deputy, who warbled on the whole time as if they were there for a public investor tour.
“We employ over six hundred people here,” the little birdish woman said; she was approaching fifty, and she zoomed about in a little chair like Rylka vo Morrissey’s, no doubt afflicted by the same ailment. Nobody asked about injuries much, after the war. Not sober, anyway.
“All off-worlders?” Abijah asked.
“The floor workers, yes,” the woman said. Which meant most everybody. “Management and skilled labor are all local. You can see our public safety records. We abide by all treaties and accords. Getting placed here is considered a boon for off-worlders.”
“No doubt,” Abijah said, “when the alternative is living three thousand to every cramped can in the sky.”
“Certainly we provide them with many opportunities!” the woman said, and showed them into the factory owner’s office.
The desk was clear of all items except a single nameplate, which read “Ofram Fucking vom Amadson. One wall was projected with a view of the factory floor, a teeming morass of bio-machines and humanity merged to perform complex manufacturing tasks. The woman behind the desk blinked and rose as they entered, no doubt immersed in some real-time shooter on her interface. She was a top-heavy woman with razor cut hair died a bright red; the fringe was long and hung into her eyes. The haircut made her look young, but if Abijah had to guess, she’d say the woman was forty.
“You own the place?” Abijah said.
“Can we call you ‘fucking’?” Pats said, and that elicited the smallest moment of confusion for Ofram, who seemed to have momentarily forgotten about the nameplate.
“Ah,” Ofram said, giving a smile that was so obviously forced it hurt Abijah’s own pride to watch it. “The nameplate, yes. A joke from my mother. Can I help you? I read over your credentials. You’re looking into the death of the workers? A tragic case.”
Ofram didn’t invite them to sit, but Pats did anyway, and Abijah followed. She tracked the movement of the workers on the floor as she did. “You all made weapons here during the war,” she said. “What you make now?”
“Fertilizers, cleaning products,” Ofram said, settling into her own seat again. Behind her was a stretched canvas banded in several colors. Abijah couldn’t figure out the medium, but it seemed like a freshman effort.
“You play rugby?” Pats asked. She had brought out a little switchblade knife and was cleaning her fingernails with it.
“No,” Ofram said. “Did the boys play rugby?”
“We’re here about the latest one in particular,” Abijah said. “Name was—“ she glanced at Pats, realizing she never had gotten around to getting his name from Bataya. Shit, she was as bad as all of them.
“Sam Kine,” Pats said. “I have his little tin pod number here,” she tapped her head, “which I’m sure you used to tell his family he’s not coming back.”
“That’s correct,” Ofram said. “We were given permission to beam out that message.”
“And you’re getting a replacement sent down, then?” Abijah said.
“Per the treaty,” Ofram said, “yes. It’s protocol. There’s really nothing strange about it. The boys here get lonely and stupid. They don’t understand water. They never see much of it up there, and when they get here they get dangerous in it. Go paddling around, and the little fucks can’t swim, and they drown.”
“Three of the four didn’t drown,” Abijah said. “They were dead before they hit the water.”
“There are disagreement among the boys,” Ofram said. “They fight a lot in those cans up there. Hard to break them of it once they’re here in a civilized place.”
“I’ve told the gardai all of this,” Ofram said. “You can read it in the report.”
“Seems the kids would be happy here,” Abijah said, and her gaze moved again to the projection window. It immediately turned off, then flickered again and showed an image of a massive red cherry tree blowing in the breeze. Abijah raised her brows and regarded Ofram.
“They’re never satisfied,” Ofram said.
“That why you sell them out?” Pats said casually. “Got some reports that boys here get sold out for labor, the ones that don’t do what they’re told.”
“Where did you hear that?” Ofram said. “That’s against the treaty.”
Abijah cocked her head at Pats. “Where did you hear that?”
Pats shrugged, but a message pinged at the bottom left of Abijah’s vision, and she blinked it open. It was from Pats, and read, “Maliki hears the best shit at the bar. Listen more than you talk over there, lushie.”
Ofram leaned over her desk. “These people are trash,” she said. “You know what we called them when they first started coming here forty years ago, twenty years after those blasted space boats got stuck in orbit on the way to some exploded star? ‘Not-people.’”
“Then you understand.”
Ofram said, “These people, you call them, they’re aliens. Alien biology, alien urges, alien customs.”
“So that justifies their treatment?”
“What do you think?” Ofram said. “Dogs are tools. These boys are tools, too. Companion animals. They send us these ones because they’re useless to them. They don’t bear babies. They can’t feed babies. At best, they’re useful for brute labor, and that’s what we use them for too. Maybe it’s not us you should be questioning, but the sort of people that send their own down here to dig shit and die.”
“One last question.
“Quickly, now. This factory doesn’t run itself.”
Could have fooled me, Abijah thought. “You ever been a garda? Anyone in your family served civilian?”
“Certainly,” she said, “my grandmother was Inspector sixth class.”
“You have her coat?”
“The all-weather regulation coat everyone above Inspector gets. You have it?”
“Those have to be returned to the garda on retirement,” she said. “So no, I don’t expect so.”
“Not in any storage cellar somewhere? Maybe reported lost so a kid or a cousin could have it as a memento?”
“Not that I’m aware, no. Why?”
“Just tying up some loose ends.”
Abijah ended the interview, and Pats followed her out.
“That woman’s a piece of shit,” Pats said.
“You don’t know that Maliki’s information is good,” Abijah said. “If we ran every investigation on tips from the bar we’d have half the island in rehabilitation.”
“Let’s come back tonight,” Pats said, “when she gets off. Someone has the grandma’s coat. We soften her up, ransack her place for the coat. C’mon, what else are you doing tonight?”
Abijah thought about lean little Bataya, and combat yoga. She sighed. “Not a damn thing,” Abijah said. “But I’ll need a drink first.
Unsurprisingly, Ofram quit work early, heading out across the road to the trolley. Abijah waited in the shadow of the station in case Ofram slipped away from Pats, but Pats was an old hand at kidnapping, and Ofram was unprepared.
Pats pressed her switchblade directly behind Ofram’s left kidney and walked her back around the side of the factory to a rear entrance. Abijah had pulled up a schematic of the place and found a little abandoned room at the top of a rickety set of metal stairs. Abijah took up the rear, ensuring they weren’t followed as they tread across the catwalk that overlooked one of the abandoned factory floors. No doubt this wing had been used in the heyday of the factory when it manufactured the sort of weapons that had made toxins like the ones that were ticking away inside Abijah.
Pats sat Ofram down on a crate and pulled up another one in front of her.
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” Ofram said. She was sweating heavily. “You ask anyone here. Everything is regulation.”
Abijah leaned against the wall by the door. This one was up to Pats.
“Listen,” Pats said, “I don’t like the idea of you all dumping aliens in a river cause they won’t work themselves to death here. I’ve seen labor camps. Not a fan.”
“That’s not what this is,” Ofram said. “It’s all regulation. Public files! You can access it all right now.”
There was a banging outside on the catwalk. Abijah ducked out, quickly, to see what the noise was. One of the overhead lights had fallen and banged against the wall.
Behind her, Abijah heard Ofram make a break for it. She whirled around just as Ofram careened out the door, Pats hot on her heels.
“Little fuck!” Pats yelled. She ran with her switchblade out. Ofram was shrieking.
Abijah ran after them. Ofram tripped and stumbled onto the catwalk below them. Pats pinned her in on the other end. As Abijah rushed after them, Ofram pressed herself against the railing. The whole catwalk creaked and juddered.
“Don’t move!” Abijah yelled.
Ofram screamed. The railing gave way and Ofram tumbled, arms pin wheeling as she fell, her mouth a shocked, terrified O.
She hit the rock floor with a heavy, wet, thud like a melon.
Abijah rushed down the stairs to the musty floor and picked her way to Ofram, but it was a wasted effort. Ofram’s head was split clean open, blood pouring all around her. Abijah gazed up and saw Pats gazing over the broken railing, knife still out.
“Ah, well,” Pats said.
It wasn’t the first time an interrogation had gone wrong. Fuck, Abijah thought. “Clean it up,” Abijah said. “Don’t tell me anything more about it.”
“Thanks, Jeesmo. You’ve not gone totally soft,” Pats said.
Abijah grimaced at the old nickname. “Clean it the fuck up,” she said.
She didn’t start shaking until she reached the trolley station. Public contracts didn’t excuse her for murder, even an accidental one. She waited out by the trolley station until Pats was done, and they traveled back into town sitting side by side. Pats was animated and chatty, giddy about old times. The death and cleanup had no doubt reawakened her love of wet work.
“We all come back after they train us to get good at stuff,” Pats said. They were alone in the trolley car, but she knew better than to speak in specifics. “Then they tell you not to do it. Like telling you sex is great, sex is fun, have sex, and you have a lot of sex, and then they say, you know, stop. Just like that. Like, stop drinking water.”
“I need a drink,” Abijah said.
“Good call, Jeesmo,” Pats said, thumping her on the back.
“Don’t fucking call me that.”
“Those were good times, Jeesmo. Good, good times.”
They stopped along the way to Pats’s place and picked up four cans of rum apiece and cracked them open on the walk along the canal and down to Pats’s one-room garden flat. The door squeaked. The place smelled of mildew. Abijah was already good and tipsy when Pats yelled for the lights and Abijah found herself staring right at an Inspector-level all-weather coat slung over the tatty divan.
Abijah narrowed her eyes. She snatched the coat off the divan and dropped her bag of rum. She counted the buttons. And, there it was. A little tangle of synthetic thread was all that was left of the last button on the front of it.
“Where the fuck did you get this coat?” Abijah said.
“What?” Pats said, thunking her bag on the counter. “Fuck’s sake, Abijah, it’s mine. It’s regulation.”
“There’s a button missing!” Abijah said. She shook the coat at Pats.
Pats’s face got dark. A vein throbbed in her temple. “You think I murder little boys?” she said, “Helpless little alien boys? I’m not you, Jeesmo.”
“That was different! That was war! And this is your coat!”
“You have one just like it,” Pats said, low.
Abijah huffed out a long breath. Pats was crazy, nuttier than most, but Abijah was not a paragon of sanity either. War twisted people in fucked up ways. You were never quite the same, after. “You killed Ofram back there,” Abijah said. “How the fuck do I know what you’re capable of? I saw you murder little kids right in front of me.”
“Those kids who gave us glass mixed with ice?” Pats said. “Those cute little girls from the continent who set homemade traps that blew off my fingers and made you deaf in one ear for two years? Those sweet little things? It was a fucking war, Abijah!” Pats stormed over to her bedside table and dumped out the drawer. She grabbed something shiny from the pile of junk and threw it at Abijah’s head, hard.
Abijah ducked. The gold plated button bounced off the wall and landed heavily at her feet, the little round face with the monocle peered up at her, smiling broadly.
“Don’t forget that you’re no fucking saint, Jeesmo,” Pats said.
It was the last thing said by the enemy captive that Abijah had skinned alive, all those years ago during the war. “Geez… mo….” What the second word was going to be, none of them would ever know, but they had found it hysterical at the time. The whole squad had laughed about it for months, probably because they were sleep deprived and high as fuck at the time.
“Get the fuck out of my place,” Pats said.
Abijah stumbled outside. Her head throbbed. She needed another drink, soon, maybe all the drinks. Easy fucking case was going way too fucking wrong. She grabbed a trolley and took it uptown to Maliki’s bar. By the time she got there, she had a call from her client blinking at the edges of her eyes. She slid up to the bar like a drowning woman alongside a life raft, and ordered three shots of rum in quick succession. Popsy was behind the bar, and she served up the drinks without a word, only that one glaring eye, judging.
“Rough night?” Popsy said.
“Rough fucking life,” Abijah said. “What do you know about this story, that the factory workers are getting sold off for day work?”
“Sure,” Popsy said. “Mostly to hoity families, you know, folks that can’t get touched. They do it on the contractual day off, and after hours. Some of those kids do twenty hour days.”
“That’s shit,” Abijah said.
“But profitable,” Popsy said.
“Profitable enough to kill kids who wanted to blow it open?” Abijah said, and her client’s call was blinking still, shit, leave a fucking message…. And then Abijah sat straight up. She remembered the heads of the workers in the gardens, and vo Morrissey’s garda family.
“Fuck,” Abijah said, and fled the bar.
“Hey!” Popsy said. “You owe us three eggs for those!”
Rylka vo Morrissey lived up in the rolling hills that overlooked the black coast to the south and the factory to the north. The gardens grew densely, mostly food crops, as every tended garden had to give over eighty percent of its footprint to food production. The trolley line ended at the bottom of the hill, so Abijah had to trudge up by foot, as anyone without a licensed personal flying vehicle would have to do. It was a good way to reduce visitors. And prying eyes.
In truth, Abijah had taken this job without ever visiting Rylka’s sprawling estate. She was only allowed to live there because the grounds were technically publicly owned. She was listed as a “public caretaker.” When the people had taken back the land from private families and corporations hundreds of years ago, her family and a few others had held on this way, arguing that they were the perfect, most invested stewards of such lands. Many of them, like Rylka, could continue to build private empires beyond the walls.
Abijah had let Rylka know she was on her way with information vital to the case, so the big gates opened for her. There were no human attendants at the gates, and she saw no one as she approached, though the gardens were, as she had seen in so many projections, immaculate. They wouldn’t get that way without a lot of people working there, and according to Abijah’s quick search of the public employment database, Rylka’s estate provided her with only four publicly funded employees.
Rylka herself opened the door. She leaned on a sturdy wooden cane, and the smile she had for Abijah nearly made Abijah quit her resolve.
“What have you discovered?” Rylka said.
“Where’s the coat?” Abijah said.
Rylka cocked her head. “The coat? Are you cold?”
Abijah strode inside and went to the hall closet. She tore it open and went through the hanging garments. No, too easy. She wouldn’t keep it here. The whole house was massive, quiet, immaculate.
“What are you doing?” Rylka said, limping inside.
Abijah took the stairs two at a time, heading up to the master suite. She opened the door, prepared to overturn everything in the room. But there the coat hung, right there next to the head of the bed, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. And, of course, it was—they were all tied to the garda in some way on this little island.
She felt along the front of the coat. There was not one missing button but two, right up near where it would close over the breast, and one of the buttons on the cuff was gone, too. Abijah turned over the inside of the left coat sleeve and saw a single long, black hair curled upside of it, like something a nesting bird would retrieve from the head of a bloated body washed up on the beach.
Abijah heard Rylka on the steps. “You were a fool to keep the coat,” Abijah said.
Rylka limped into the doorway, casually holding an electric pistol ahead of her. “Not at all,” she said calmly. She settled into a chair near the doorway, gun trained on Abijah, and shifted into the chair with a little wince. “What better way to ensure you are left alone while carting around a body than to wear a garda coat?”
“But you weren’t the one wearing it.”
“Ofram was stupid,” Rylka said, “but loyal. She did as I asked in all things. Which, honestly, could also be said of you.”
“I don’t get it,” Abijah said. “Why hire me to dig into your own business, your own murders? You wanted to frame Pats and get me to turn her in? You must have known that wouldn’t happen.”
Rylka smiled thinly.
“Right,” Abijah said. “That wasn’t it, was it? You wanted us both implicated. With us out of the way and the garda already in your pocket there’s nobody on this island to investigate you and your little off-world labor camp. Nobody from the continent will come down here unless you get too wild, and you’re a long way yet from wild, aren’t you? Lots more time to exploit and murder boys.”
“All superior guesses,” she said. “I was told you were fairly good.”
“Then you should have dumped the coat.”
“Ofram was to come for it after one final job for me,” Rylka said. “You mucked up our plans to silence a few more choice voices.”
“And saved some kid’s life.”
Rylka waved the gun. “Life, life, life, that’s all anyone talks about. Life isn’t so special. They breed like parasites on the neighboring worlds and they toss all their filth out into the blackness in big cans bursting with human filth. They breed so many they don’t know what to do with them. There are people and not-people, and not-people have no place here.”
“The law doesn’t make that distinction anymore.” A call tapped its attention at the edges of Abijah’s vision. Maurille and Savida. Of course.
“Maybe it should,” Rylka said.
“You don’t make the law,” Abijah said. She twitched her fingers, opening and streaming the call.
“Not yet,” Rylka said, and raised the gun.
“Real-time,” Abijah said, and blinked her emergency broadcast code.
The gun went off just as Maurille and Savida’s faces popped up at the bottom left of her vision. Abijah had set the call to record what she saw, so what Maurille and Savida witnessed was Rylka vo Morrissey holding a still-glowing electric gun, her image juddering and twisting as Abijah flopped on the floor like a fish, jolted by electric current.
Abijah had time to note that both of her soon to be ex-wives were dressed in festive swimwear, like they were about to head out to some northern water festival. Maurille held a fruity drink in a bobonut shell, the top of it frothing over onto her fingers. Even in her distress, Abijah experienced a moment of longing and nostalgia. She and Maurille had loved those fucking drinks.
The wailing of the emergency sirens split her skull, then. Outside in the misty dusk, she saw the blaring of the garda first responder lights. Garda. Well, that wasn’t going to go well.
Rylka, her face triumphant and unaware that she was still being recorded, fired again.
The wedding announcement showed up in Abijah’s curated newsfeed alongside a headline about the Inspector General from the continent arriving on the island. It was only a matter of time, Abijah figured, for both of those things to come to pass. It was a welcome distraction from the divorce paperwork she had finished the day before.
“So Bataya’s getting married after all,” Pats said, setting a bowl of crisped yams into Abijah’s lap.
They sat on Abijah’s divan in her new apartment, facing a projection screen that was half the size of her last one, but less glitchy. No one was falling into a digital black hole. The newsfeed, sensing their interest based on eye contact, popped out the wedding announcement.
Abijah didn’t know the couple Bataya was marrying, but they looked like all right people. She maneuvered her bandaged hands around the bowl of crisped yams and levered it up to her face where she could catch one of the crispy little wafers with her tongue. She hadn’t been able to taste anything but metal for a week after the incident with the electric gun. Luckily Rylka had it on a low setting, or Abijah would be dead. Better still, Maurille and Savida had sent her public recording out to the police on the continent. For better or worse, those meddling little fucks on the continent were headed down to the island to clean out the gardai. Abijah’s feelings remained intensely mixed about that, especially knowing the shit the continent had bombed them with still stirred in her own guts.
Pats punched her gently in the arm. “Hey, you know, we’re alive for it, huh?”
“What, alive for the conquering of our country?”
“Eh,” Pats said. “We were already conquered in all but name. Treaties are shit. Ask the aliens about treaties and contracts. It was all in name only to make people feel better about giving up. At least it’s real now.”
“Going to be real blood,” Abijah said.
“Already real blood,” Pats said, popping one of the crisps into her mouth. “I like the new place.”
Abijah set the bowl between them and reached forward to cup her beer can in her hands. She worked to position her mouth in front of the straw.
“What you giving up for the feast of Saint Saladin?” Pats said.
“Drinking,” Abijah said, and finally got the straw in and slurped her beer.
“Good, good,” Pats said. “I’m giving up killing!”
“Turn off the news,” Abijah said, “and let’s watch something that doesn’t make a difference to anything.”
Pats changed the programming.
Kameron Hurley is the award-winning author of the novel The Stars Are Legion and the essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution. Her epic fantasy series, the Worldbreaker Saga, includes the novels The Mirror Empire, Empire Ascendant, and The Broken Heavens (forthcoming). Her first series, the God’s War trilogy (God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, earned her the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer and the Kitschy Award for Best Debut Novel. Hurley’s short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Year’s Best SF, The Lowest Heaven, and Meeting Infinity. She has also written for The Atlantic, Entertainment Weekly, LA Weekly, The Village Voice, Bitch Magazine, Huffington Post, and Locus Magazine. Her next book, Apocalypse Nyx, a short story collection set in the universe of the God’s War trilogy, is out on July17.