Liquid

The roadway carries us southward along the outskirts of the city’s territory. There’s some risk that we’ll be spotted by border patrol here, but the security restrillect is more concerned with people trying to enter the city’s territory than those leaving it. The roads out here are a maze of flood lands and broken tar, but I’ve driven this route before, years ago, when George and I were scouring the mire south of the city for resources. On a sunny day the worn roads stretch away into the south hills like hastily penciled sketches across mottled green paper, their edges indistinct due to encroachment from CarbZu and new growth forest. In the aftermath of the hurricane, every low place has been flooded and all but the most intense plant tangles have been ripped away by the storm and strewn across the road like rotting green viscera.

After nearly an hour’s drive, we arrive at the abandoned aquarium at the south-east edge of the city’s sprawl. Forty years ago this was a thriving riverside arts district, only a fifteen minute highway jaunt from the city core, the heart of a new suburban sprawl. Then the realignment set in, and the flooding got worse, taking down vulnerable outlying districts like so many mud huts caught downstream of a broken dam. The highway was cut off when the river surged, turning a minor offshoot into a raging branch, which ripped down the overpass, cutting off the district’s direct link to the city. 

 There was talk of redeveloping this section of the city someday. Of constructing dykes and storm walls to protect it from the sprawling delta that the river was trying to make of itself here at the ragged edge of the mire. Of rebuilding the river crossing so people could again live out here in the suburbs, commuting to work on the freshly renewed highway.

That all ended with Red Easter. 

In the space of a month, it became clear that expansion was the last thing that the human race needed. Like so much of the world, the population of the city was slashed by half as the plague raced across the globe, carried by worshipers returning home from religious festivals in Israel, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia. A wildfire of death swept across the globe, burning up flesh like the wrath of god. By the time phage therapy and brutal quarantines had checked the plague’s spread, nobody was thinking about building new suburbs anymore.   

I guide the car on manual through stagnant water still flooding the parking lot outside the aquarium and park beneath the collapsing facade of the loading dock canopy. Tufts of thistle and nettle poke up from cracks in the asphalt and hungry green lines of CarbZu vines crawl up the rusted steel and crumbling concrete of the building.

“Boss said to meet them inside,” Glenn mutters, pushing his door open.

“Where’s his car?” I ask.

“You think Darby would be dumb enough to leave a car where it could be spotted by a drone patrol or marauders? It’s probably in the parking garage, or covered over with camouflage someplace on the far side.”

“There you go using names. You sure you’re cut out for a life of crime, because you seem set on getting yourself caught someday,” I say, climbing out of the car and glancing around for any sign that others are present. I wish I had a fleet of drones to search the building and set up a parameter, but my resources are rather more limited since the Feds dumped me. 

“Not like he’s going to be telling anyone what I said,” Glenn replies.

That comment elicits a muffled scream from Abaroa. He begins thrashing against his seat belt and howling some nonsense about abduction insurance paying us to release him. Too bad for him we aren’t after money. 

“Shut up,” Glenn snarls, slamming his palm on the roof. He hauls the rear passenger door open, then slams a fist into Abaroa’s stomach. “Make yourself useful and you might get out of this alive. Keep making trouble and I’ll zap you. And that’s just bad for all of us. Got it buddy? I don’t want to haul your seizing ass out of the car. You don’t want to make me do that, because hauling you puts me in a bad mood, then I have to take out that bad mood on your balls with a rusty wad of steel wool. We understand one another?”

Abaroa stops struggling, then nods his head. 

Interrogation is a delicate process, one which requires a balance of psychological and physical agony with a subtle manipulation of the subject’s psyche. Proper interrogation, of course. A brute like Glenn or Darby will often fall into the trap of believing that direct torture is the most effective method, simply because it is easy and gets you eighty percent of what you want about eighty percent of the time. The problem is exactly in that phrasing: You get what you want. 

Take the average human criminal and tell them that you are going to cut off a finger every ten minutes until they reveal the address where a terrorist cell is assembling a dirty bomb. The first assumption that you need to make is that you have the right person, which anybody who has worked in intelligence will tell you is not a guarantee. Humans are unpredictable creatures and you’d be surprised how many times the man you arrest outside a warehouse full of suicide vests was just there because his ancillary told him that a skilled pharmacook had a lab there. Meanwhile, that aid worker you allow past security because she has a pretty face and a bag full of nanite-infused bandages turns out to be wearing a shaped charge under her jacket. 

Getting back to our buddy who is about to enter the realm of digital manipulation: Turns out that (lucky you!) he actually is a terrorist. Unfortunately, he joined the movement more because his cousin died during a corporate annexation. He doesn’t really want to kill anyone, but he feels the need to lash out against the company that did his family wrong. So he keeps his lips tight, and you start loosening his fingertips from his hands. At this point, two things go suddenly, irreversibly wrong: First of all, you lose any chance of mister tenfingers working with you somewhere around the moment that you change his name to ninefingers. There are exceptions, but most people are more likely to be radicalized than turned by torture. Secondly, just about the time your tinsnips are getting their first taste of flesh, Eddie Mangledhands starts to think of how he can get you to stop hurting him, if only for an instant. If he know the full details of the plot you’re in luck, but considering that compartmentalized data structures were added to The Total Idiot’s Manual for Terrorism sometime in the last century, Johnny Shortfingers will probably just tell you the first address that comes to mind, which is more likely to be a curry shop in the midden than his favorite Build A Bomb factory.

Which is all to say that having Glenn along is useful as muscle, and if we pull this job off I won’t have to worry about Darby hassling Tamar, but I’m going to have to keep an eye on their methods. Glenn has got a violent streak as wide as the river and Darby enjoys inflicting agony all too much.

We guide Abaroa up the steps and in through the loading dock, not taking any special care to prevent him from stepping in animal droppings and puddles along the way. Once inside, I take the lead and guide the others through the warren of storage areas until we reach the former public displays. After the aquarium closed and this district fell to the deprivations of plague and overgrowth, the few remaining marine biologists and service employees did their best to ensure that the marine animals would not all die now that funding for the aquarium was gone. To that end, they transferred the majority of the salt water creatures to the gargantuan glass shark tank which occupies the center of the facility, and did their best to create a self-sustaining ecosystem. We pass a plaque, now tarnished with age and fringed with moss, which proclaims this to be the largest single-tank aquarium in the Americas with over 13 million gallons of salt water. Above the plaque rises the tank itself: Wrapped about with a double-helix of spiral staircases, the shark tank rises more than fifty feet from the ground floor to the fourth story access decks. The laminated glass is streaked and fogged with decades of grime on the outside, but one needs only wipe away the filth to see the schools of colorful fish swimming lazily above a bed of coral

The custodians of the tank are long gone, some killed defending the aquarium against looters, others drawn away from their passion for this facility by promises of work in corporate research labs and hydroponic farms. Still, this edifice to there aquarium’s former glory endures, the ecosystem remaining miraculously in a fragile balance. 

We ascend the spiral walkway to the first level, stepping carefully to avoid rank puddles and swaths of encroaching moss. The fish swimming behind the glass continue their patient dances. A suckerfish crawls along the wall of the tank, greedily harvesting algae which has grown on the interior. 

“I never knew this place existed,” Iris says, her voice hushed. “We thought about leasing the land from the council and building a facility, but it was judged too dangerous by the accountants. Better to just build a new smart building at the edge of the city than go to the cost of refurbishing.”

“We don’t have much use for places like this except to party. And if you’re going to party, hell, might as well use someplace closer to home, what say?” Glenn adds.

Abaroa just trudges along in resigned silence. Maybe because he has a hood over his face. Maybe because the whole being kidnapped and led to a torture session has put a damper on his nostalgia for the glorious past.

We walk a quarter of the way around the tank until we come to a tarnished bronze archway set against the side of the tank. The metal is decorated with all manner of sea creatures, with octopi, starfish, and whales rendered in abstract, unscaled form. Cutout letters along the top of the arch proclaim, “Enter the Kingdom of the Sea!” Beneath the archway, the curved glass of the tank bends inward, deforming to create a tunnel which dives into the heart of the artificial sea. The walls and ceiling of the tunnel are formed from curved glass which extends down below the flat glass floor panels to provide a fully encompassing view of the water on all sides. 

The tunnel extends into the heart of the aquarium tank, where a domed observation platform rests like a bubble trapped at the center of an ice cube. All around us swim fish, large and small, churning through the water in schools as they continue their lives, oblivious to the changes that have been wrought in the world outside their tank. Red branches of kelp drift lazily in the convection currents, their fronds nibbled at by smaller fish and shrimp. Below us rise the jagged green and yellow trees of a coral forest, shot through with sparks of orange and blue as fish dart through the colony. The only light in the dome comes from the skylight above the tank, filtered to an opalescent blue-green by the millions of gallons of water surrounding us.

Reaching the center of the room, I use cable ties to bind Abaroa’s ankles together, then push him down onto his knees and pull his arms back, binding them down to the ankle tie so he cannot stand. 

I stand in front of him, check that my mask is still in place, and pull the bag from his head. “Here’s the deal: We’re going to ask you some questions and you’re going to give the true answers. Not what you think we want to hear. True answers.”

He blinks in the soft light, looking around in apparent confusion. Then his closes his eyes and shakes his head defiantly. 

A sickly cackle of a laugh echoes through the chamber, followed by Darby’s derisive voice. “You’re a bloody fool, Talbot. Do you really expect to get answers by asking nicely?”

I turn away from Abaroa to see Darby emerging from the tunnel at the far end of the dome, accompanied by two more guards. He moves with the ease of a man long accustomed to his massive frame, his blue leather shoes stepping lightly across the glass floor despite the weight they bear.   

“You’ve got to learn to apply the right sort of pressure. To make your guest feel as though they would do anything, say anything, betray anyone just to make the pain stop. Isn’t that right, Ortiz?”

Abaroa’s eyes snap open and he glares at Darby. “Who the hell are you?”

“I am Darby.”

“Darby? What are you, a bloody race horse?”

Glenn slams a fist into Abaroa’s face, knocking him to the floor. He lands hard on his right shoulder and groans as blood begins to drip out his nose and onto the textured glass tiles. 

I wait. Breathing slowly, willing myself back from the precipice. In my mind I go through the motions of hammering my fist into the side of Glenn’s head, twisting the gun from his hand while he is stunned, then tripping him and putting a hollow point into his chest from three inches away. I rehearse the motions, judge the likelihood of a through and through shattering the floor and decide that the multiple layers of laminated glass must be sufficiently strong to handle one gunshot since there are no weight limits posted outside the tunnel.

Darby cackles and steps closer, applauding. “Good instinct, Glenn, but we do need to keep his jaw intact for the moment.” He pauses beside me and crosses his hands over his belly, studying the bleeding man on the floor. “Oh, Ortiz, I am going to enjoy the next few days. You can’t imagine the pain that I will put you through if you don’t tell us what we want.”

“After I’m finished,” Iris says, stepping up to the man and kneeling down to look into his eyes. “Do you recognize me, Ortiz?”

Abaroa’s eyes flicker open for an instant, then his face twists in recognition and his eyes lock onto Iris. 

“Yes. It’s me, Ortiz. You thought you’d killed me, but here I am.”

“Screw you,” he snaps. 

Iris laughs and shakes her head. She grabs Abaroa by the shoulder and deftly rocks him back up to his knees, then stands in front of him and caresses his face with a single fingertip. “You can’t stop me, Ortiz. You can’t take the future away from the people.”

“The people?” he tries to pull his face away from her, but Iris presses her palm against his cheek, the same palm which unfolded like a deadly flower to fire a slug into Vakha’s head. He struggles for an instant, then relaxes and glares at her defiantly. “The people don’t even exist anymore, Iris. Republics had their run, but you know Dunbar theory as well as I do. Societies simply cannot support group compassion at high populations. The realignment was inevitable. If the plague hadn’t come than a war would have.”

“I’m not here to argue with you.”

“Good, because you’ll be dead soon. My extraction team is already on its way.”

“Nice try,” I interject. “But you don’t have a signal.”

Abaroa tries to turn towards me, but Iris still holds his face with one hand, her fingers locked onto his cheek like a vice.

“Thirteen million gallons of sea water around us. Signal repeaters have been dead for at least ten years. You and your ancillary can call out all you want, but you’re not going to get any help.”

Abaroa scowls at Iris, standing there in her short little body with her eyes nearly level with his. He tries to pull his face away from her, but she keeps the fingers of her left hand pressed to his cheek, then smiles angelically as she pressed her right hand to the other side of his face. Frames of memory flash in my mind, interpolating the sight of Iris’s palm peeling open to reveal a gun barrel and hurling a slug into Vakha’s face with the curiously tender movements of her hands now. 

“I need you help, Ortiz. I need you to tell me the new codes for the YuriCo data vault.”

“Screw… you…” he replies, the worlds coming out slowly, dripping with deliberate distain. 

“Let my men have a minute with him,” Darby chimes in. He waves a hand and one of the newly arrived bodyguards steps forward and unfurls a rolled case containing a variety of implements. Darby lingers over his options for a moment, then plucks a pair of pliers from the case and holds them up to inspect like a fine jewel. He smiles, then proffers the pliers to Glenn and says, “Precisely one minute. I want to see how many fingernails Glenn can take in sixty seconds.”

In response, Iris sighs, shakes her head, and plunges the fingertips of her left hand into Araboa’s brainstem. 

Darby unleashes a stream of profanity and jumps back, dropping the pliers. Glenn and the other guards raise their guns and scurry to stand between their employer and the grisly operation. 

Reality stutters for an instant. In the space of a blink Glenn, Darby, and the other guards have rearranged themselves to stand in a tight group off to the right, were Darby can more easily watch the atrocity unfold. I rip the mask from my face and breathe deeply, smelling the blood and the salty water and the rust and the mold, fixating on those solid smells so I don’t drop into a dissociative state. The panic can wait. The daemon can hold its screams.

I move around to the left until I can see the back of Abaroa’s head, where the fingertips of Iris’s left hand have sprouted four sinuous metallic cables, which now plunge into the back of his head. Blood and spinal fluid drip from the cables as Abaroa’s bound limbs begin twitching, but Iris keeps his head steady in her grip as the probes do something inexplicably awful to his mind. 

“You know this was going to happen?” Darby snaps, looking at me with wide eyes. “This is the strangest method of torment I’ve ever seen.”

“Just keep calm. You’ll get your money and then we’ll be even,” I shoot back, unable to pull my eyes from Iris and her victim.

“Shit, Tally, I’ve got to know what she’s doing to him.” I begin to realize that Darby is less afraid than invigorated by the bizarre scene unfolding before him. “Man, whatever this is I’ve got to have it.”

I remain silent, focusing on the bizarre coupling taking place before me. Leave it to Darby to see a demonstration of cutting edge cyborgization and find in it the means to torture his debtors. I’ve done my share of cruelty in my line of work and there are surely people who would prefer that I listen to the daemon and off myself, but I can always count on Darby to be the villain in the shadows, making me look positively kind in comparison to his monstrosity. 

Abaroa lets out a scream that echoes from the walls, caroming down the passageways like a tsunami before reverberating back into the observation dome, then collapses like a deflated balloon. He sags against his bonds, back flexing until he rests in a sagging, squashed ovoid.

Iris turned away from the deflated body and looks up at me. “I’m done with him. If you want access to his accounts you should probably take his hands and eyes for biometrics.”

“That’s it?” Darby asks. “Don’t we need to, you know, get his passwords out of him? Extract the location of his data vault?”

“I have all I need. Talbot will give you the passwords you need to loot his accounts after we are safely out of here. Between that and his biometrics you should have everything you need.”

There’s a long moment as we stand in silence, looking at one another in the shifting underwater light. Iris smiles beatifically, seemingly unaffected by whatever horrors she has just inflected upon Ortiz Araboa. She’s a coiled spring. A perfect machine ready to attack with deadly precision. 

Glenn begins to fidget, his gun hand wavering as he clicks the pliers rapidly open and closed. His eyes twitch between Darby, me, and Abaroa, causing the twin lightning bolts on his face to ripple. 

“Patience…” Darby mutters, as if warning a snarling dog to remain at heel. 

“Do we have to kill him?” I ask, proffering the question in hopes of breaking the tension.

“Doesn’t sound like you,” Darby replies, his tone mocking. “Hell, Tally, way I remember it we first met because you cut up one of my soldiers.”

“Some of us do what it takes to survive, and some get off on pain. I’ll leave it to you to guess which of us is the sadist.”

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Iris says, stepping away from Araboa and flicking gore from the wires protruding from her fingers. I try to look away, but my eyes remain fixed on her hand as the probes retract into her fingertips like silvery tongues slipping back into serpentine mouths. “So long as YuriCo doesn’t get their claws on him in the next forty-eight hours.”

“I’ll leave him to you then,” I say, nodding towards Darby. I walk towards the tunnel we entered by, not bothering to look back as I call out, “You do what you want with him. When you’re finished, message me and I’ll send the account data.”

“We’re not done here,” Darby growls. 

He snaps his fingers and an instant later I feel a hand on my shoulder. A glance tells me that Glenn is the foolish guard dog who has leapt into action at his master’s command. 

The daemon laughs gleefully as it tells me that this will be the fight that kills me, but I ignore it and, seeming to surrender to Glenn’s pull, reposition my feet for maximum leverage. 

Then the tattooed henchman makes his final mistake: From the corner of my eye I see him raising his gun towards me.

Before he can bring it to bear I pivot around behind him, flick one of Schuster’s lovely ceramic knives from my left sleeve, and ram the blade into the back of Glenn’s neck with a backhanded strike. He goes limp, but before his body collapses, I step around his still vertical corpse, grab his gun arm, and use my blade as a lever to pivot the sack of meat that was so recently Glenn around to serve as a shield. I snag the gun from his limp fingers and aim over the ex-Glenn’s shoulder setting my sights on Darby. 

“That was quite unnecessary. Now, Tally, I’m going to have to kill you,” Darby growls from behind his remaining guards. 

Darby’s guards respond immediately, firing their pistols in my direction, but they strike only the corpse of their dead comrade. I fire back, striking one of the guards in the chest. He stumbles backward and bumps into Darby, who shoves him away. The guard hits the floor at Darby’s feet and his dying finger twitches, spitting a hollow point slug into the floor between us. The tempered glass panel stops the bullet, holds for an instant, then begins to shatter with a slow, music box tinkling sound as stress fractures spiderweb out from the center. 

Darby roars in anger and turns to run towards the exit, but slips in the spreading pool of blood pouring from his bodyguard’s chest, skids across the floor, and falls on his back only a few feet from his guard.   

Iris leaps from Ortiz’s side, her body arcing gracefully through the air before landing on Darby’s chest. As she lands, she bends down with the grace of dancer and plucks the gun from the fingers of his fallen guard, then kicks off into a backflip that tumbles her through to air to land nimbly beside me. In the instant that her feet touch the floor, Iris has already raised her gun arm and taken aim. Four times she pulls the trigger, stitching a line of bloody geysers up the chest of Darby’s remaining guard, who stumbles backwards, hits the far wall of the dome, and begins sliding down to rest on the floor. 

Darby grunts, rolling towards us as he scrabbles to right himself on the blood slick floor.  

Before I can react, Iris adjusts her aim and fires a final shot into the center of his face.

The echoes of violence reverberate through the observation dome for the space of seven heartbeats before Abaroa begins adding his own chorus of screams. I turn to look at him, still pivoting Glenn’s corpse on the tip-off my knife like a deathly stick puppet. We watch in silence as Abaroa continues to scream, his eyes fixed on the carnage splayed before him. I glance at Iris, then extract my blade from the back of Glenn’s neck and allow his corpse to fall at my feet. Iris drops her gun beside Glenn’s body and steps around the spreading pool of blood. 

She stands over Abaroa, closes her eyes, and tenses her frame as if preparing to dive into him. 

An instant later Ortiz Abaroa stops screaming and collapses onto the glass floor. A sickly odor fills the air as tendrils of smoke begin wafting up from char marks on his scalp and the back of his neck, his implants overloaded. 

Iris turns away from the carnage and walks out of the observation dome without a second glance. I follow in her wake as the marine life continues to swirl around us, unconcerned with the drama that has just played out in the midst of their preserved kingdom. 

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