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Bianca had not thought much at all about the killing of a zaratán, and when she had thought of it she had imagined something like the harpooning of a whale in ancient times, the great beast fleeing, pursued by the tiny harassing shapes of boats, gored by harpoons, sounding again and again, all the strength bleeding out of the beast until there was nothing left for it to do but wallow gasping on the surface and expire, noble and tragic. Now Bianca realized that for all their great size, the zaratanes were far weaker than any whale, far less able to fight or to escape or even—she sincerely hoped—to understand what was happening to them.
There was nothing noble about the way the nameless zaratán died. Anemopters landed men and aliens with drilling tools at the base of each hundred-meter fin, to bore through soil and scale and living flesh and cut the connecting nerves that controlled them. This took about fifteen minutes; and to Bianca there seemed to be something obscene in the way the paralyzed fins hung there afterward, lifeless and limp. Thus crippled, the beast was pushed and pulled by aerial tugs—awkward machines, stubby and cylindrical, converted from the stationkeeping engines of vacuum balloons like Transient Meridian—into position over Encantada's killing ground. Then the drilling teams moved in again, to the places marked for them ahead of time by seismic sensors and ultrasound, cutting this time through bone as well as flesh, to find the zaratán's brain.
When the charges the drilling teams had planted went off, a ripple went through the zaratán's body, a slow-motion convulsion that took nearly a minute to travel down the body's long axis, as the news of death passed from synapse to synapse; and Bianca saw flocks of birds started from the trees along the zaratán's back as if by an earthquake, which in a way she supposed this was. The carcass immediately began to pitch downward, the nose dropping—the result, Bianca realized, of sphincters relaxing one by one, all along the zaratán's length, venting hydrogen from the ballonets.
Then the forward edge of the keel fin hit the ground and crumpled, and the whole length of the dead beast, a hundred thousand tons of it, crashed down into the field; and even at that distance Bianca could hear the cracking of gargantuan bones.
She shivered, and glanced at her pocket system. The whole process, she was amazed to see, had taken less than half an hour.
"That's this trip paid for, whatever else happens," said Valadez. He turned to Bianca. "Mostly, though, I thought you should see this. Have you guessed yet what it is I'm paying you to do, Miss Nazario?"
Bianca shook her head. "Clearly you don't need an aeronautical engineer to do what you've just done." She looked down at the killing ground, where men and aliens and machines were already climbing over the zaratán's carcass, uprooting trees, peeling back skin and soil in great strips like bleeding boulevards. A wind had come up, blowing from the killing ground across the camp, bringing with it a smell that Bianca associated with butcher shops.
An engineering problem, she reminded herself, as she turned her back on the scene and faced Valadez. That's all this is.
"How are you going to get it out of here?" she asked.
"Cargo-lifter," said Valadez. "The Lupita Jeréz. A supply ship, diverted from one of the balloon stations."
The alien, Ismaíl, said: "Like fly anemopter make transatmospheric." The same fluting voice and broken Arabic. "Lifter plenty payload mass limit, but fly got make have packaging. Packaging for got make platform have stable." On the word packaging the firija's arms made an expressive gesture, like rolling something up into a bundle and tying it.
Bianca nodded hesitantly, hoping she understood. "And so you can only take the small ones," she said. "Right? Because there's only one place on Sky you'll find a stable platform that size: on the back of another zaratán."
"You have the problem in a nutshell, Miss Nazario," said Valadez. "Now, how would you solve it? How would you bag, say, Encantada here? How would you bag Finisterra?"
Fry said: "You want to take one alive?" His face was even more pale than usual. Bianca noticed that he, too, had turned his back to the killing ground.
Valadez was still looking at Bianca, expectantly.
"He doesn't want it alive, Mr. Fry," she said, watching the poacher. "He wants it dead—but intact. You could take even Finisterra apart, and lift it piece by piece, but you'd need a thousand cargo-lifters to do it."
"I've got another ship," he said. "Built for deep mining, outfitted as a mobile elevator station. Counterweighted. The ship itself isn't rated for atmosphere, but if you can get one of the big ones to the edge of space, we'll lower the skyhook, catch the beast, and catapult it into orbit. The buyer's arranged an FTL tug to take it from there."
Bianca made herself look back at the killing ground. The workers were freeing the bones, lifting them with aerial cranes and feeding them into the plant; for cleaning and preservation, she supposed. She turned back to Valadez.
"We should be able to do that, if the zaratán's body will stand up to the low pressure," she said. "But why go to all this trouble? I've seen the balloon stations. I've seen what you people can do with materials. How hard can it be to make an imitation zaratán?"
Valadez glanced at Ismaíl. The walker was facing the killing ground, but two of the alien's many eyes were watching the sky—and two more were watching Valadez. The poacher looked back at Bianca.
"An imitation's one thing, Miss Nazario; the real thing is something else. And worth a lot more, to the right buyer." He looked away again; not at Ismaíl this time, but up the slope, through the trees. "Besides," he added, "in this case I've got my own reasons."
"Ship come," Ismaíl announced.
Bianca looked and saw more of the firija's eyes turning upward. She followed their gaze. At first she saw only empty sky. Then the air around the descending Lupita Jeréz boiled into contrails, outlining the invisible ovoid shape of the ship's lifting fields.
"Time to get to work," said Valadez.
Bianca glanced toward the killing ground. A pink fog was rising to cover the work of the flensing crews.
The air was full of blood.
5. THE AERONAUTS
Valadez's workers cleaned the nameless zaratán's bones one by one; they tanned the hide, and rolled it into bundles for loading aboard the Lupita Jeréz. That job, grotesque though it was, was the cleanest part of the work. What occupied most of the workers was the disposal of the unwanted parts, a much dirtier and more arduous job. Exotic internal organs the size of houses; tendons like braided, knotted bridge cables; ballonets large enough, each of them, to lift an ordinary dirigible; and hectares and hectares of pale, dead flesh. The poachers piled up the mess with earth-moving machines and shoveled it off the edge of the killing ground, a rain of offal falling into the clouds in a mist of blood, manna for the ecology of the deep air. They sprayed the killing ground with antiseptics, and the cool air helped to slow decay a little, but by the fourth day the butcher-shop smell had nonetheless given way to something worse.
Bianca's bungalow was one of the farthest out, only a few dozen meters from Encantada's edge, where the wind blew in from the open eastern sky, and she could turn her back on the slaughter to look out into clear air, dotted with the small, distant shapes of younger zaratanes. Even here, though, a kilometer and more upwind of the killing ground, the air carried a taint of spoiled meat. The sky was full of insects and scavenger birds, and there were always vermin underfoot.
Bianca spent most of her time indoors, where the air was filtered and the wet industrial sounds of the work muted. The bungalow was outfitted with all the mechanisms the extrañados used to make themselves comfortable, but while in the course of her journey Bianca had learned to operate these, she made little use of them. Besides her traveling chest—a gift from her older brother's wife, which served as armoire, desk, dresser, and drafting table—the only furnishings were a woven carpet in the Lagos Grandes style, a hard little bed, and a single wooden chair, not very different from the ones in her room in Punta Aguila. Of course those had been handmade, and these were simulations provided by the bungalow's machines.
The rest of the room was given over to the projected spaces of Bianca's engineering work. The tools Valadez had given her were slick and fast and factory-fresh, the state of somebody's art, somewhere; but what Bianca mostly found herself using was her pocket system's crippled copy of the Nazario family automation.
The system Bianca's father used to use, to calculate stresses in fabric and metal and wood, to model the flow of air over wings and the variation of pressure and temperature through gasbags, was six centuries old, a slow, patient, reliable thing that dated from before the founding of the London Caliphate. It had aged along with the family, grown used to their quirks and to the strange demands of aviation in Rio Pícaro. Bianca's version of it, limited though it was, at least didn't balk at control surfaces supported by muscle and bone, at curves not aerodynamically smooth but fractally complex with grasses and trees and hanging vines. If the zaratanes had been machines, they would have been marvels of engineering, with their internal networks of gasbags and ballonets, their reservoir-sized ballast bladders full of collected rainwater, their great delicate fins. The zaratanes were beyond the poachers' systems' stubborn, narrow-minded comprehension; for all their speed and flash, the systems sulked like spoiled children whenever Bianca tried to use them to do something their designers had not expected her to do.
Which she was doing, all the time. She was working out how to draw up Leviathan with a hook.
Bianca started. She had yet to grow used to these extrañado telephones that never rang, but only spoke to her out of the air, or perhaps out of her own head.
"Mr. Valadez," she said, after a moment.
"Whatever you're doing, drop it," said Valadez's voice. "You and Fry. I'm sending a 'mopter for you."
"I'm working," said Bianca. "I don't know what Fry's doing."
"This is work," said Valadez. "Five minutes."
A change in the quality of the silence told Bianca that Valadez had hung up. She sighed; then stood, stretched, and started to braid her hair.
The anemopter brought them up over the dorsal ridge, passing between two of the great translucent fins. At this altitude, Encantada's body was clear of vegetation; Bianca looked down on hectares of wind-blasted gray hide, dusted lightly with snow. They passed within a few hundred meters of one of the huge spars that anchored the after fin's leading edge: a kilometers-high pillar of flesh, teardrop in cross-section and at least a hundred meters thick. The trailing edge of the next fin, by contrast, flashed by in an instant. Bianca had only a brief impression of a silk-supple membrane, veined with red, clear as dirty glass.
"What do you think he wants?" Fry asked.
"I don't know." She nodded her head toward the firija behind them at the steering console. "Did you ask the pilot?"
"I tried," Fry said. "Doesn't speak Arabic."
Bianca shrugged. "I suppose we'll find out soon enough."
Then they were coming down again, down the western slope. In front of Bianca was the dorsal ridge of Zaratán Finisterra. Twenty kilometers away and blue with haze, it nonetheless rose until it seemed to cover a third of the sky.
Bianca looked out at it, wondering again what kept Encantada and Finisterra so close; but then the view was taken away and they were coming down between the trees, into a shady, ivy-filled creekbed somewhere not far from Encantada's western edge. There was another anemopter already there, and a pair of aerial tugs—and a whitish mass that dwarfed all of these, sheets and ribbons of pale material hanging from the branches and draped over the ivy, folds of it damming the little stream.
With an audible splash, the anemopter set down, the ramps lowered, and Bianca stepped off into cold ankle-deep water that made her glad of her knee-high boots. Fry followed, gingerly.
"You!" called Valadez, pointing at Fry from the deck of the other anemopter. "Come here. Miss Nazario—I'd like you to have a look at that balloon."
Valadez gestured impatiently downstream. Suddenly Bianca saw the white material for the shredded, deflated gasbag it was; and saw, too, that there was a basket attached to it, lying on its side, partially submerged in the middle of the stream. Ismaíl was standing over it, waving.
Bianca splashed over to the basket. It actually was a basket, two meters across and a meter and a half high, woven from strips of something like bamboo or rattan. The gasbag—this was obvious, once Bianca saw it up close—had been made from one of the ballonets of a zaratán, a zaratán younger and smaller even than the one Bianca had seen killed; it had been tanned, but inexpertly, and by someone without access to the sort of industrial equipment the poachers used.
Bianca wondered about the way the gasbag was torn up. The tissues of the zaratánes, she knew, were very strong. A hydrogen explosion?
"Make want fly got very bad," Ismaíl commented, as Bianca came around to the open side of the basket.
"They certainly did," she said.
In the basket there were only some wool blankets and some empty leather waterbags, probably used both for drinking water and for ballast. The lines used to control the vent flaps were all tangled together, and tangled, too, with the lines that secured the gasbag to the basket, but Bianca could guess how they had worked. No stove. It seemed to have been a pure hydrogen balloon; and why not, she thought, with all the hydrogen anyone could want free from the nearest zaratán's vent valves?
"Where did it come from?" she asked.
Ismaíl rippled his arms in a way that Bianca guessed was meant to be an imitation of a human shrug. One of his eyes glanced downstream.
Bianca fingered the material of the basket: tough, woody fiber. Tropical, from a climate warmer than Encantada's. She followed Ismaíl's glance. The trees hid the western horizon, but she knew, if she could see beyond them, what would be there.
Aloud, she said: "Finisterra."
She splashed back to the anemopters. Valadez's hatch was open.
"I'm telling you," Fry was saying, "I don't know her!"
"Fuck off, Fry," Valadez said as Bianca stepped into the cabin. "Look at her ID."
The her in question was a young woman with short black hair and sallow skin, wearing tan off-world cottons like Fry's under a colorful homespun serape; and at first Bianca was not sure the woman was alive, because the man next to her on Valadez's floor, also in homespun, was clearly dead, his eyes half-lidded, his olive skin gone muddy gray.
The contents of their pockets were spread out on a low table. As Bianca was taking in the scene, Fry bent down and picked up a Consilium-style ID tag.
"‘Edith Dinh,'" he read. He tossed the tag back and looked at Valadez. "So?"
"‘Edith Dinh, Consilium Ethnological Service,'" Valadez growled. "Issued Shawwal '43. You were here with the Ecological Service from Rajab '42 to Muharram '46. Look again!"
Fry turned away.
"All right!" he said. "Maybe—maybe I met her once or twice."
"So," said Valadez. "Now we're getting somewhere. Who the hell is she? And what's she doing here?"
"She's…." Fry glanced at the woman and then quickly looked away. "I don't know. I think she was a population biologist or something. There was a group working with the, you know, the natives—"
"There aren't any natives on Sky," said Valadez. He prodded the dead man with the toe of his boot. "You mean these cabrónes?"
Fry nodded. "They had this ‘sustainable development' program going—farming, forestry. Teaching them how to live on Finisterra without killing it."
Valadez looked skeptical. "If the Consilium wanted to stop them from killing Finisterra, why didn't they just send in the wardens?"
"Interdepartmental politics. The zaratanes were EcoServ's responsibility; the n-—I mean, the inhabitants were EthServ's." Fry shrugged. "You know the wardens. They'd have taken bribes from anyone who could afford it and shot the rest."
"Damn right I know the wardens." Valadez scowled. "So instead EthServ sent in these do-gooders to teach them to make balloons?"
Fry shook his head. "I don't know anything about that."
"Miss Nazario? Tell me about that balloon."
"It's a hydrogen balloon, I think. Probably filled from some zaratán's external vents." She shrugged. "It looks like the sort of thing I'd expect someone living out here to build, if that's what you mean."
"But," Bianca added, "I can't tell you why it crashed."
Valadez snorted. "I don't need you to tell me that," he said. "It crashed because we shot it down." Pitching his voice for the anemopter's communication system, he called out: "Ismaíl!"
Bianca tried to keep the shock from showing on her face, and after a moment she had regained her composure. You knew they were criminals when you took their money, she told herself.
The firija's eyes came around the edge of the doorway.
"Tell the tug crews to pack that thing up," said Valadez. "Every piece, every scrap. Pack it up and drop it into clear air."
The alien's walking machine clambered into the cabin. Its legs bent briefly, making a little bob like a curtsey.
"Yes." Ismaíl gestured at the bodies of the dead man and the unconscious woman. Several of the firija's eyes met Valadez's. "These two what do?" he asked.
"Them, too," said Valadez. "Lash them into the basket."
The firija made another bob and started to bend down to pick them up.
Bianca looked down at the two bodies, both of them, the dead man and the unconscious woman, looking small and thin and vulnerable. She glanced at Fry, whose eyes were fixed on the floor, his lips pressed together in a thin line.
Then she looked over at Valadez, who was methodically sweeping the balloonists' effects into a pile, as if neither Bianca nor Fry was present.
"No," she said.
Ismaíl stopped and straightened up.
"What?" said Valadez.
"No," Bianca repeated.
"You want her bringing the wardens down on us?" Valadez demanded.
"That's murder, Mr. Valadez," Bianca said. "I won't be a party to it."
The poacher's eyes narrowed. He gestured at the dead man.
"You're already an accessory," he said.
"After the fact," Bianca replied evenly. She kept her eyes on Valadez.
The poacher looked at the ceiling. "Fuck your mother," he muttered. He looked down at the two bodies, and at Ismaíl, and then over at Bianca. He sighed heavily.
"All right," he said to the firija. "Take the live one back to the camp. Secure a bungalow, one of the ones out by the edge"—he glanced at Bianca—"and lock her in it. Okay?"
"Okay," said Ismaíl. "Dead one what do?"
Valadez looked at Bianca again. "The dead one," he said, "goes in the basket."
Bianca looked at the dead man again, wondering what bravery or madness had brought him aboard that fragile balloon, and wondering what he would have thought if he had known that the voyage would end this way, with his body tumbling down into the deep air. She supposed he must have known there was a chance of it.
After a moment, she nodded, once.
"Right," said Valadez. "Now get back to work, damn it."
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Copyright © 1998–2008 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide