Ethie doesn’t want me here.
If that wasn’t communicated by her ignoring my pounding at the door for at least five minutes, the sentiment is made abundantly clear by the shotgun barrel that greets me when the door finally opens a crack.
I duck instinctively, driving my left hand up to push the barrel out of my face and slamming my shoulder into the door. The ancient chain lock snaps and the door slams inward, accompanied by a sodden gust of wind and rain, and one rather angry man. A couple quick twists, jabs, and pulls later and I am standing in Ethie’s cramped foyer, pointing an ancient pump action shotgun into the face of a teenaged girl.
“That’s no way to greet a friend,” I say, glowering at her over the sights of the weapon.
“You ain’t wanted here,” she snaps, eyes flashing defiance. This is a kid who’s seen the business end of a weapon before, maybe even seen what happens when one of these things goes off. “You can get out now or Security will have you for breaking and entering.”
“Ethie!” I shout, shouldering past the girl. Three more children dart across my path and affix themselves to my legs like restraining clamps on an illegally parked car. “Ethie, call off your attack dogs.”
“Nobody asked for you to come around here, Talbot Liu,” Ethie calls back.
I turn towards the sound and, dragging the three children behind me like so many ball chains, find Ethie sitting at the chipped formica table in the kitchen. The space is at least as ancient as Ethie and twice as decrepit. Nicotine and cooking oil smoke have saturated the ceiling and formed a patina on the faded brass chandelier that is unlikely to come off without an acid bath. Sitting in her natural environ, Ethie doesn’t so much look shriveled as comfortable, like a hermit crab shrunken into its favorite shell. She’s leaning on her elbows, looking at me with hooded eyes as she draws deeply from a marijuana cigarette. Judging by the battered sheet of eper and the overflowing black plastic ashtray that sit on the table in front of her, she’s been sitting here for a long while.
Her voice sounds like sheets of sandpaper rubbing together and an intermittent stream of smoke rises from her lips as she asks, “Did you break my door?”
The girl tries to shout some sort of exaggeration about the damage, but I ignore her and silently trudge forward to the formica tabletop, hauling the smaller children with me.
“If I wanted you here I would have invited you, but seeing as you’re here…” she trails off and waves the cigarette butt at the chair across the table.
I fix her with a scowl, then look down meaningfully at the three kids who are still screaming and clutching ineffectually at my legs. Standing there, holding the shotgun awkwardly across my chest so the clamoring children cannot reach it, I feel something like a pioneer of old might have as he strode across a river ford while keeping his powder dry.
“Get off, ya little buggers,” Ethie drawls. When the kids stay affixed, she half rises, leaning across the table and gesturing with her cigarette. “Davos, Hammett, and Trent, you don’t get off Mr. Liu’s leg’s you’ll be on bread and protein spread for a week. Now bug off to your room.”
My new appendages detach themselves and, with some mutters of protest, leave the kitchen.
“That good enough?” she asks, settling back into her chair.
“I’m still not happy about this,” I say, proffering the shotgun. I step up to the table and deftly open the breech, ejecting an orange shell which clatters to the tabletop and nearly lands in Ethie’s ashtray. The gun might be old and lacking a proper monitor, but at least she’s using legal ammunition. Not that I care about the legalities of how she kills a home invader, but with all the trouble piling up around me of late the last thing I need contact with an unlicensed firearm. I pump the gun rapidly, ejecting eight more shells before the magazine is clear, then slam the emptied weapon down on the tabletop.
Ethie watches me impassively.
When I’m done she shrugs and parks her cigarette in the corner of her mouth.
“You’re upset about the shotgun.”
“Just a little.”
“I didn’t even take the safety off,” the girl says. I glance over my shoulder and see her still leaning against the doorway.
“That doesn’t help your case. If you’re going to put a gun in someone’s face, you out to be ready to pull the trigger,” I snap back.
“I could have.”
I look back to Ethie and jerk my head towards the teenage girl. “This one fall out of her crib too many times or do you make a habit of raising dimwits?”
“Shut up, Ophelia. Go check that the others are playing nice in the other side.”
The girl throws me a haughty look then hurls herself around the corner and stomps away.
“I thought you ran a tighter ship than this,” I say, pulling out the chair opposite Ethie and setting down on it, crossing my arms so my fingers don’t touch the table.
“The older ones mostly have it managed. I’ve been doing this long enough that I know how to handle a houseful.”
“And those darlings at the door?” I ask.
Ethie stabs the remnants of her cigarette into the ash tray and begins to slowly, methodically grind it down into the pile of ash and discarded butts. She fixes me with a cold, flat expression, her brown eyes peering out like a pair of plugged pennies stuck into a withered potato. I let her stew until she is ready to talk. I’m already soaked to the skin and have no plan on leaving this house for the next two days at least, so I’m not in any kind of hurry. Seconds tick by, drawing into a couple of minutes as we sit opposite one another. Somewhere in the house children are arguing, a video game is being played, and at least two video programs are being watched. Outside, the wind howls beneath the eaves and blows sheets of rain against the windows.
“Don’t be angry,” she says, eventually.
“I’ll decide how I feel, thank you, but you can be sure that I’ll remain level headed.”
“Suppose that’s the most I can ask for.” She pulls another cigarette from the pack and lights it with a brass Zippo extracted from the breast pocket of her blouse. She takes a long drag, then offers the cigarette to me. “Want a pull? It’s good quality, better than I can usually afford. There’s a new hydroponic lab over in west seventh. One of my kids is a QC tech over there. Uses his employee discount to get me packs of this brand what usually gets sold to hoity types. “
“I did alright by him. Managed to keep most of that crop out of prison.” She raises a penciled eyebrow and waves the cigarette in my direction again.
I shake my head. “I don’t smoke.”
“Got some cookies over on the counter.”
I stand and pull my sodden coat off then hang it on the back of my chair. I reach into an inner pocket and pull out the little blister pack that has been my companion ever since I left medical lockdown. I settle back onto the chair and brush away the shotgun shells, clearing the space between us before I set the blister pack down.
“We got some of that too, probably. Not street legal without a prescription, but I got enough kids with the attention deficit that nobody’s going to miss a pill here and there.”
“It isn’t speed,” I say, chuckling.
“What’s your poison then?” she asks, cigarette balanced between her lips as she reaches for the pill.
I put out a hand to cover the pill. “You might call it my talisman. My reminder of what I once was.”
Ethie’s voice takes on a gleeful tone as she asks me, “You were a junkie?” She thinks that she’s found my weak point. The crack in my armor that might give her some leverage over me. I can’t blame her. Nobody would claim that life in the city is worse than life in the mire, but there’s a degree of connivery necessary for survival in here that even a new coast reaver would admire.
“No. I overdosed on prescription anxiety medication one time. It just happened to be the wrong time and it was bad enough that I lost my job over it.”
“And what does any of this have to do with me?” Ethie sighs, her patience obviously growing thin as her cigarette grows shorter.
“I’ve had this pill with me ever since. I keep it to remind myself that there is always another way. That if this gets too hard I don’t have to give up and kill myself. I can sit down in a dark room, swallow this pill, and everything will be alright.”
“Why not just take the pill and be done with it? Ain’t nobody in this town going to give you grief over medicating. Half the bloody corps in this city have pharma divisions.”
“Because I need it as an escape. I need to know that there is someplace else for me to go. Most people have got this life or the mire to choose from. Beyond that, there’s not a lot of escapes besides alcohol or death. Me, I can always sit down and look at this little blister pack. I can think about the pill inside and the feeling that I know it will give me, maybe more important the feelings I know it will take away.”
I pick up the pill and tuck it away again in my jacket pocket. “I’m going to be staying here through the storm.”
“Mighty presumptuous of you.”
I snatch one of the shotgun shells from the table and set it down between us, where the pill had been a moment before.
She nods. “Right. Supposed you have a point there.”
“You greet all your visitors like that?”
“Only those what come knocking at dusk on a stormy night. And then…” she trails off, fixating on her cigarette.
“And then, what?”
“Well, there’s this small matter of how you’re not the first unwelcome visitor we’ve had today.”
The familiar hand grips my windpipe, squeezing tightly and threatening to tie my insides up into knots. The daemon whispers in my ear, prompting me to check the shadowy corners of the kitchen for any sign of the the Vakha crew. I lean forward and tap the shell insistently on the tabletop, looking fixedly at Ethie as I try to pin down her roving, dilated eyes. “Are they still here?”
“Here? Naw, Talbot, I would never do that to you. Might let my kids blow your head off with a shotgun for showing up unannounced, but I’d never sell you out. Not how we do things around here. We all little mice living in the shadow of the big cat. I rat you out to the corps, next I know Youth Services is on my doorstep wanting to count heads.”
“Then what happened? And when?”
“Dude came around late this morning. “
“About my height. Muscles. Implant, probably over his left ear. Really slick, but gives you the creeps.”
“Sounds like him.”
“How many implants?”
“No. How many guys came to the door.”
“Just the one.”
“What’d he say?”
“Seemed to think I might know where to find Meg. Said she was his daughter. I’ll tell you though, he didn’t seem the daddy type.”
“He isn’t,” I mutter, and I begin to toy with the shotgun shells, stacking them up in neat rows and towers atop the battered Formica. There has to be a way to find out who this woman, Iris, Vakha called her, is. Maybe I can feed Javier what little I’ve learned and he can tap into an identity database.
“You find anything about her?” Ethie asks, after some time.
“Some. Think I found her, but she got away.”
“And who’s this fake daddy?”
“Him? Some corporate fixer. You just keep to your story about the girl running away and you should be safe, but I don’t think you’re going to have to worry about her anymore. She seems capable of taking care of herself?”
“And what about Youth Services?”
“I’ll keep poking around, but I’m guessing that whatever corp daddy worked for will be scrubbing the YS records clean as soon as they can. To you she’s a lost girl who might be an embarrassment. To them, she’s an asset that’s gone rogue.”
“Rogue? You’re talking like she’s some kinda… killer robot.”
I eye Ethie and, after a long pause, toss her a shrug. “That might be closer to the truth than you’d like to know.”
That clams her up. We sit in silence for a while as she finishes her cigarette, eyes staring vaguely into the nothing over my right shoulder. My own gaze flicks around the kitchen which, despite decades of hard use giving it a permanent layer of baked-on grime, is quite clean. Plates and cups are stacked in racks along the counter. The pots and pans on the stove have been washed in preparation for the next meal. Ethie knows how to keep her house in order despite, or perhaps because of, the army of children hidden within.
“If you’re going to be staying, we might as well find you a place to sleep,” Ethie growls. She stubs out her cigarette and pushes herself to her feet. “Follow me then. We can make room for you on the living room sofa.”
“I’d like to see the girl’s room, while I’m here.”
“That’s no problem, not that it’ll tell you anything. She had her own bed and a footlocker in the girls’ room. Didn’t leave anything behind.”
I pull my jacket from the chair back and follow Ethie out of the kitchen, leaving a pool of water beneath the chair where I had sat. There’s a family room across the entryway from the kitchen, with at least five young kids sprawled across a worn orange area rug and several more piled onto the deflated green sofa, all staring at the wall screen. I look away from the domestic scene to find that Ethie is already half way up the narrow steps leading to the second floor. I hurry to follow her, feeling the worn steps bend and creak beneath me.
The second floor is primarily occupied by a common area that seems equally concerned with work and play. Piles of worn board games cover tables, stacks of paperback books with brightly colored spines guard the walls, and several bag chairs are scattered across the space, each occupied by at least one child. Four doorways lead off the common space, each standing vacant to reveal the minimally private bedrooms beyond. Wedged in between the doors are plank and cinderblock tables, each supporting an array of several computer screens. Two teenagers are moving between the machines, pausing at each to tap a screen or type a command before moving on to the next.
Pausing, I squint at the screens and recognize several popular network role playing games.
“Are you… gold farming?” I ask, surprised.
“You got a problem with it?” Ethie replies without breaking her shuffling gait.
I follow as she mounts the steps to the third floor. “Not as such. Just surprised.”
“Folks pay good credit for a well leveled character. There’s some will pay for somebody else to keep their castle stocked with raw goods and weapons, so I put the kids on it.”
“Not so much as taking in orphans, but it pays for the game accounts with enough left over that the little ones don’t have to ask me for spending money. Not that it keeps them from trying, but whenever they get to greedy I just tell them to go work in the mines.” She cackles at her own joke, then tuns and starts up a narrow staircase to the third floor.
I join in her laughter, thinking back to Georgia’s children working the old landfill mine in the foothills outside of town. I wonder whether they have found shelter from the storm, and whether the rains will uncover any especially valuable scraps of technology or, god forbid, some particularly voracious strain of super bacteria. Ethie’s kids have nothing to complain about compared to Georgia’s, and even they have an easy life compared to the scavengers and reavers out in the mire.
“You ever think back to what it was like before?” I ask as I follow Ethie up the stairs.
“Tal, I’m nearly on three times your age. Don’t go asking me about the good old days. For the most part, they sucked.”
“I don’t know. I can remember a time when we didn’t have to keep up our viral loads to protect ourselves from the scraps of old bioweapons. Seems that when I was a kid there were more churches and fewer people starving out in the mire.”
“Don’t go painting it all with glitter dust, Tal.” We reach the top of the steps and pause at the landing beneath the low, angled ceilings. Rain hammers down on the roof just above our heads, so I have to lean close to hear Ethie continue. “Humans ain’t never been much to write home about. That’s why they thought up religion way back in the day, but even then we kept killing either other over petty shit for most of history. Just so happens that you were born just in time to live through the single worst slaughter.”
I look around the brightly lit space. We’re standing in a long, narrow room at the top floor of the house. There are toys scattered across the floor and bunk beds set against the slanted walls. One of the walls is covered in a brightly colored mural of mashed together and overlapping children’s art. Kids are already asleep in three of the beds.
“This her room? The girl, I mean.”
“Her, and others. We put her up in that bunk over there,” she says, pointing at a bunk on the right side, all the way back in the far corner.
There’s a scream from down below, a child in distress. I turn to look for trouble, but Ethie doesn’t even move. A second later another child’s voice, perhaps a little older, joining in.
“Don’t pay them no mind,” Ethie grunts. She starts moving across the floor. “The older ones will solve it and all of them know that I’ll put them on rations if they act up too bad.”
“That how you keep your thumb on all these kids? Controlling their food supply.”
“Locks on the cupboards?”
“Only the ones in my bedroom. Can’t have the tots getting into my drugs. I just regiment them all. Trick I learned back in the day. The kids do all their own shopping and most of the cooking. I control how much credit they have. They know that I’ll drop them down to half the Fed’s basic allowance if they act up, a quarter if they don’t shape up after that. Works most of the time and gives them some responsibility.”
She stops in front of a bed and points at the upper bunk. “This was her’s, for what time she was with us.”
I move closer and examine the bedcovers. They’re neatly folded. The pillow is centered at the head of the mattress. I glance around at the other beds and confirm my suspicion. “You don’t force them to make their beds.”
“No. Plenty of other work needs doing around here. I let them keep their beds however they like.”
“What about this one? Did you make the bed?”
“I don’t have the energy to go around making beds for all these kids. They get an inspection twice a day to make sure they’re keeping the rooms clean and then I leave the particulars up to the older ones. Teaches them leadership.”
“I’m sure it does,” I mutter, turning back to the bed. I climb up the ladder and look at the bed again, then lean forward, trying unsuccessfully to not drip water all over the thin blanket. There’s nothing under the pillow, so I peel back the blanket and sheet to see if the girl left anything behind.
Nothing. The bed is as clean as if it had been freshly made with newly washed sheets.
Now, there’s a thought.
“You have a laundry in the house? Seem you must with all these kids.”
“Yeah, what’s that got to do with anything?”
I climb down and move towards the staircase. “Maybe nothing.”
“You’re lying. I’ve raised enough kids that I can tell when a youngster is playing games with the truth.”
“Ethie, I’m nearly fifty.”
“Don’t mean you ain’t a youngster. Back in my day it was people your age who stirred up such a fuss about corporatization and special economic zones and such nonsense. World might not be in the state it is if they’d left well enough alone.” She shuffles up to stand mere inches from me and looks up, her wrinkled face searching mine. “You haven’t found her yet, but you’ve stirred things up, haven’t you?”
“You might say that.”
“And she isn’t coming back.”
I shake my head and lay a hand on Ethie’s shoulder, feeling the frail bones beneath her thin flower print shirt. Her hard old eyes go a bit watery then. “She isn’t dead, is she? You can tell me if she is. I don’t really believe that killer robot shit.”
“No,” I say, shaking my head and squeezing her shoulder. “She’s most definitely still alive.”
“And you’ve seen her.”
“Yeah. Seen her, and talked to her.”
“Will she be alright?”
I squeeze Ethie’s shoulder, then turn towards the steps. “I’ve got a feeling that she’ll be just fine. The rest of us, I’m not so sure, but I think your little girl is going to be safe. Now,” I hold up my still dripping coat, “about your laundry.”