For two days I stay in Ethie’s house, watching the storm news on my handy and doing my best to stay out of the way as her brood goes about their daily rituals of cleaning, foraging for credit on the network, and arguing over whose turn it is to use the wall screen in the living room. Streets in the upper and middle districts turn into rivers. In the lower districts, whole blocks are flooded as the pumps fail to keep up with the unceasing torrent of water. The secure districts close their gates to try and hold back the roiling water and the flood of refugees that are driven ahead of the filthy waves. Numbers are difficult to come by, thanks in part to the heavy winds preventing drones from flying, but most estimates place the death toll at over twenty people drowned or struck by debris.
Ethie spends most of the day sitting at her kitchen table, sucking down an endless chain of marijuana cigarettes and reading old interactive romances on her battered eper. I consider trying to chat with her, just to while the hours away, but the first time I try she looks at me with unfocused eyes and says, “Unless you’re looking to screw me or offering to get Koffee, you might as well bugger off.”
I get the message. I wander up to the second floor, tell one of the gold miners to go refill Ethie’s Koffee pot, and take possession of one of the bean bags. This is as good a place as any to whether the storm and check on the lines that I’ve left trawling.
George’s direct line is dead. I send a few messages in the direction of her network, hoping that she is still alive to receive them. George and Miriam have been living out there at the edge of city territory long enough to know how to take care of themselves, but this storm is shaping up to be the worst since I moved to the city and I can’t help worrying for the safety of George and her brood of misfit children. I don’t especially worry about Miriam, mainly because she’s so mean that she’s just spit in the devil’s eye and get a free pass back to life just to keep her out of hell.
Schuster isn’t answering her phone or responding to messages. If I know her, she’s taken the storm as license to scurry off to the deepest layers of her lair and work on one of her projects that fuses art with illegal hardware. I’m not worried about her. That bunker she lives in was built during the second Cold War to protect their most powerful intercontinental missiles. She’ll be safe, but I can’t help wishing that I could get through to her, just to hear her voice.
Javier is similarly unresponsive at first, but after a few minutes he gets back to me over a text chat. For an instant I think of requesting a video link, just to talk to someone who’s remotely my age and versed in the dark intricacies of our world, but I think better of it. The kids might be upset if they catch a glimpse of his gaunt, spidery form on my screen.
“You have anything for me?” I send.
“Void,” he responds.
“Void? Are you backing out on our deal?” I reply.
“No. Void. Empty. Nothing there. Your subject has gone dark.” His reply comes back so rapidly that it makes his machine gun vocal delivery seem slow in comparison.
I work my jaw for a moment, trying to figure what he can mean. I’ve got an uncomfortable feeling that I know exactly what he is talking about. “Do you mean you can’t find her?”
“Does not exist. All external tracers are gone. Nothing left but what I kept isolated here. Your girl’s gone ghost.”
That’s all I can get out of him. No matter how much I prod, we always come back around to the same roadblock, until finally he closes the chat and stops responding to my messages.
It shouldn’t surprise me. If Darby’s contact at the hotel is anything to go by, the girl already wiped an entire distributed database to erase all digital evidence of our presence in the hotel and overrode fire suppression systems to muddle any physical evidence. And she did all that in less time than it usually takes me to get out of bed in the morning.
I think of the way Pierce flinched when I said his name. The way she spoke so deferentially of that human filth to whom she owed her entire existence in the city and who she still thought of as her only chance to bring her family to safety. I wonder if her family will even survive this storm. Pierce never said where they were outside the city. If they’re holed up in one of the smaller trading posts along the highway, they might be safe. There’s still enough commerce between bastions that anyone willing to pay the road barons or carry a Fed marker is usually safe enough.
But if they’re in the mire, there’s no telling what will happen to them.
I consider messaging Darby, but even if the worm deigned to respond to me, there’s little useful that he could do at this point. Whatever the girl is, escaped experiment, undersized genius, rogue psychic, whatever, I don’t think that there is anything Darby can do to stop her now.
And so I wait.
I join Ethie’s kids in mining for gold in the virtual mountains. I help Ophelia make dinner and sit, silently, watching Ethie burn through a whole pack of cigarettes, convincing myself that I’m not smoking with her because it’s all second hand. I fall onto the sofa amid a cloud of yellow spores and catch myself giggling at the antics of the animated characters in an interactive video that the kids are playing, even as I swear to myself that I am not stoned. To either side of the screen, rain hammers the windows like the tapping fingernails of an angry giant. I ignore him and stumble back into the kitchen to refill my lungs on Ethie’s smoke, telling myself the blissful lie that I am merely going to refill my water glass.
She hands me a cigarette.
“What are you going to do with yourself when the storm clears?” she asks me.
I scowl at the cigarette, working the narrow tube brown back and forth through my fingertips, feeling the rough texture of the faux natural paper and the pressure of the rolled leaves contained within.
“I don’t exactly have a plan.”
“Everyone needs a plan, Talbot.”
I tap the cigarette against the cracked formica tabletop and shake my head. “I don’t need a plan. I’ve been drifting just fine for a while now. Got decent credit and a nice stash of chits stored away.”
“I’ve been watching you these last two days. You’re content to sit here,” Ethie mutters, lighting another cigarette for herself. “Content to let time pass you by.”
I’m still holding mine, unsure what to do with it. Somewhere, deep in the recesses of my mind, there’s a memory of period of six months or so when I smoked two, maybe three tobacco cigarettes a day so I would have an excuse to listen to the conversations of the guards on a caravan I traveled with. I picked up a few tips on mire survival from those smoke breaks, as well as an anxiety that I would develop sudden, terminal lung cancer which lasted for nearly five years.
Ultimately, I lay the cigarette on the table beside Ethie’s ash tray and settle, unstably, into the chair across from her. “I don’t see you going anywhere fast.”
She fixes me with eyes that would make the roughest customer at Tamar’s shrivel up and back away from the stage with his hands in his pockets. “I’ve paid my dues. Been taking care of kids since before you were a hard-on in your pappy’s pants. Made it through the deluge, corporatization, and the plague without losing a single one of my brood, and I don’t need some young hothead coming in here and questioning my methods.”
The second hand smoke has me fuzzy headed, but I know enough to not bite back at her. Instead, I crack a wide smile and deflect. “I’ll be our of your hair soon enough, Ethie. Once the storm passes I’m going to head for a contact’s place. Hopefully they’ll be able to fill in the gaps in what I know about your latest foundling.”
“And after that? You’re a smart boy, Tal. You ever going to start your own pleasure house? Or incorporate this little side business you run?”
“Now why would I go and do that kind of thing? I’m happy enough, Ethie.”
She snorts, puffing a cloud of bittersweet smoke into my face. I inhale through my nose, slowly. The little demons of chemical reactions work their way into my system and I lean back in the chair.
Anyone who knows me can tell that I am a wreck. I barely even try to hide that fact anymore. I’m already too busy keeping a cover on my taste for pummeling sleazy boyfriends in the face or cutting the throats of abusive pimps. Talbot Liu has been a complete wreck since… well, it’d be easy to trace it back to Red Easter, or the Seth incident, or any number of other specific events in my long and demoralizing life, but the simple truth is that I’ve been a walking train wreck for most of my life.
“You’re a mess, Talbot. You need some sort of direction to your life, and I don’t think you’re going to find it in doing freebee search and rescue jobs.”
“I’m not working for free, Ethie. Remember, you offered to pay me in sex and taxi tokens.”
That, at least, elicits a cackle from her papery lips. She leans forward across the table and plants a dry, thoroughly unpleasant kiss on my cheek, then sits back and regards me with a gleam in her eye. “I meant for you to take payment from my kid what runs a pleasure house in the fifth, but if you want a romp I’m game. Maybe I can shag some sense into you.”
I chuckle and shake my head. “Thanks, Ethie but I think I’m good.”
“Your loss, kid.”