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6. THE CITY OF THE DEAD
The anemopter that brought Bianca and Fry over the ridge took them back. Fry was silent, hunched, his elbows on his knees, staring at nothing. What fear or guilt was going through his mind, Bianca couldn't guess.
After a little while she stopped watching him. She thought about the Finisterran balloon, so simple, so fragile, making her father's wood-and-silk craft look as sophisticated as the Lupita Jeréz. She took out her pocket system, sketched a simple globe and basket, then erased them.
Make want fly very bad, Ismaíl the firija had said. Why?
Bianca undid the erasure, bringing her sketch back. She drew the spherical balloon out into a blunt torpedo, round at the nose, tapering to a point behind. Added fins. An arrangement of pulleys and levers, allowing them to be controlled from the basket. A propeller, powered by—she had to think for a little while—by an alcohol-fueled engine, carved from zaratán bones.…
The anemopter was landing. Bianca sighed and again erased the design.
The firija guard outside Edith Dinh's bungalow didn't seem to speak Arabic or Spanish, or for that matter any human language at all. Bianca wondered if the choice was deliberate, the guard chosen by Valadez as a way of keeping a kind of solitary confinement.
Or was the guard Valadez's choice at all? she wondered suddenly. Looking at the meter-long weapon cradled in the alien's furred arms, she shivered.
Then she squared her shoulders and approached the bungalow. Wordlessly, she waved the valise she was carrying, as if by it her reason for being there were made customary and obvious.
The alien said something in its own fluting language—whether a reply to her, or a request for instructions from some unseen listener, Bianca couldn't tell. Either those instructions were to let her pass, apparently, or by being seen in Valadez's company she had acquired some sort of reflected authority; because the firija lifted its weapon and, as the bungalow's outer door slid open, motioned for her to enter. The inner door was already open.
"¿Hóla?" Bianca called out, tentatively. Immediately she felt like an idiot.
But the answer came:
The interior layout of the bungalow was the same as Bianca's. The voice came from the sitting room. Bianca found Dinh there, still wearing the clothes she‘d had on when they found her, sitting with her knees drawn up, staring out the east window into the sky. The east was dark with rain clouds, and far below, Bianca could see flashes of lightning.
"Salaam aleikum," said Bianca, taking refuge in the formality of the Arabic.
"Aleikum as-salaam," Dinh replied. She glanced briefly at Bianca and looked away; then looked back again. In a Spanish that was somewhere between Valadez's strange accent and the mechanical fluency of Fry's language module, she said: "You're not from Finisterra."
"No," said Bianca, giving up on the Arabic. "I'm from Rio Pícaro—from Earth. My name is Nazario, Bianca Nazario y Arenas."
Dinh stood up. There was an awkward moment, where Bianca was not sure whether to bow or curtsey or give Dinh her hand. She settled for proffering the valise.
"I brought you some things," she said. "Clothes, toiletries."
Dinh looked surprised. "Thanks," she said, taking the valise and looking inside.
"Are they feeding you? I could bring you some food."
"The kitchen still works," said Dinh. She held up a white packet. "And these?"
"Sanitary napkins," said Bianca.
"Sanitary…?" Color rose to Dinh's face. "Oh. That's all right. I've got implants." She dropped the packet back in the valise and closed it.
Bianca looked away, feeling her own cheeks blush in turn. Damned extrañados, she thought. "I'd better—" be going, she started to say.
"Please—" said Dinh.
The older woman and the younger stood there for a moment, looking at each other. Bianca suddenly wondered what impulse had brought her here, whether curiosity or Christian charity or simply a moment of loneliness, weakness. Of course she'd had to stop Valadez from killing the girl, but this was clearly a mistake.
"Sit," Dinh said. "Let me get you something. Tea. Coffee."
"I—All right." Bianca sat, slowly, perching on the edge of one of the too-soft extrañado couches. "Coffee," she said.
The coffee was very dark, sweeter than Bianca liked it, flavored with something like condensed milk. She was glad to have it, regardless, glad to have something to look at and something to occupy her hands.
"You don't look like a poacher," Dinh said.
"I'm an aeronautical engineer," Bianca said. "I'm doing some work for them." She looked down at her coffee, took a sip, and looked up. "What about you? Fry said you're a biologist of some kind. What were you doing in that balloon?"
She couldn't tell whether the mention of Fry's name had registered, but Dinh's mouth went thin. She glanced out the west window.
Bianca followed her glance and saw the guard, slumped in its walker, watching the two women with one eye each. She wondered again whether Valadez was really running things, and then whether the firija's ignorance of human language was real or feigned—and whether, even if it was real, someone less ignorant might be watching and listening, unseen.
Then she shook her head and looked back at Dinh, waiting.
"Finisterra's falling," Dinh said eventually. "Dying, maybe. It's too big; it's losing lift. It's fallen more than fifty meters in the last year alone."
"That doesn't make sense," Bianca said. "The lift-to-weight ratio of an aerostat depends on the ratio of volume to surface area. A larger zaratán should be more efficient, not less. And even if it does lose lift, it should only fall until it reaches a new equilibrium."
"It's not a machine," Dinh said. "It's a living creature."
Bianca shrugged. "Maybe it's old age, then," she said. "Everything has to die sometime."
"Not like this," Dinh said. She set down her coffee and turned to face Bianca fully. "Look. We don't know who built Sky, or how long ago, but it's obviously artificial. A gas giant with a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere? That doesn't happen. And the Earthlike biology—the zaratánes are DNA-based, did you know that? The whole place is astronomically unlikely; if the Phenomenological Service had its way, they'd just quarantine the entire system, and damn Sky and everybody on it.
"The archipelago ecology is as artificial as everything else. Whoever designed it must have been very good; post-human, probably, maybe even post-singularity. It's a robust equilibrium, full of feedback mechanisms, ways to correct itself. But we, us ordinary humans and human-equivalents, we've"—she made a helpless gesture—"fucked it up. You know why Encantada's stayed here so long? Breeding, that's why…or maybe ‘pollination' would be a better way to put it.…"
She looked over at Bianca.
"The death of an old zaratán like Finisterra should be balanced by the birth of dozens, hundreds. But you, those bastards you work for, you've killed them all."
Bianca let the implication of complicity slide. "All right, then," she said. "Let's hear your plan."
"Your plan," Bianca repeated. "For Finisterra. How are you going to save it?"
Dinh stared at her for a moment, then shook her head. "I can't," she said. She stood up and went to the east window. Beyond the sheet of rain that now poured down the window, the sky was deep mauve shading to indigo, relieved only by the lightning that sparked in the deep and played across the fins of the distant zaratanes of the archipelago's outer reaches. Dinh put her palm flat against the diamond pane.
"I can't save Finisterra," she said quietly. "I just want to stop you hijos de puta from doing this again."
Now Bianca was stung. "Hija de puta, yourself," she said. "You're killing them, too. Killing them and making balloons out of them, how is that better?"
Dinh turned back. "One zaratán the size of the one they're slaughtering out there right now would keep the Finisterrans in balloons for a hundred years," she said. "The only way to save the archipelago is to make the zaratanes more valuable alive than dead—and the only value a live zaratán has, on Sky, is as living space."
"You're trying to get the Finisterrans to colonize the other zaratanes?" Bianca asked. "But why should they? What's in it for them?"
"I told you," Dinh said. "Finisterra's dying." She looked out the window, down into the depths of the storm, both hands pressed against the glass. "Do you know how falling into Sky kills you, Bianca? First, there's the pressure. On the slopes of Finisterra, where the people live, it's a little more than a thousand millibars. Five kilometers down, under Finisterra's keel, it's double that. At two thousand millibars you can still breathe the air. At three thousand, nitrogen narcosis sets in—‘rapture of the deep,' they used to call it. At four thousand, the partial pressure of oxygen alone is enough to make your lungs bleed."
She stepped away from the window and looked at Bianca.
"But you'll never live to suffer that," she said. "Because of the heat. Every thousand meters the average temperature rises six or seven degrees. Here it's about fifteen. Under Finisterra's keel it's closer to fifty. Twenty kilometers down, the air is hot enough to boil water."
Bianca met her gaze steadily. "I can think of worse ways to die," she said.
"There are seventeen thousand people on Finisterra," said Dinh. "Men, women, children, old people. There's a town—they call it the Lost City, la ciudad perdida. Some of the families on Finisterra can trace their roots back six generations." She gave a little laugh, with no humor in it. "They should call it la ciudad muerta. They're the walking dead, all seventeen thousand of them. Even though no one alive on Finisterra today will live to see it die. Already the crops are starting to fail. Already more old men and old women die every summer, as the summers get hotter and drier. The children of the children who are born today will have to move up into the hills as it gets too hot to grow crops on the lower slopes; but the soil isn't as rich up there, so many of those crops will fail, too. And their children's children…won't live to be old enough to have children of their own."
"Surely someone will rescue them before then," Bianca said.
"Who?" Dinh asked. "The Consilium? Where would they put them? The vacuum balloon stations and the elevator gondolas are already overcrowded. As far as the rest of Sky is concerned, the Finisterrans are ‘malcontents' and ‘criminal elements.' Who's going to take them in?"
"Then Valadez is doing them a favor," Bianca said.
Dinh started. "Emmanuel Valadez is running your operation?"
"It's not my operation," Bianca said, trying to keep her voice level. "And I didn't ask his first name."
Dinh fell into the window seat. "Of course it would be," she said. "Who else would they…." She trailed off, looking out the west window, toward the killing ground.
Then, suddenly, she turned back to Bianca.
"What do you mean, doing them a favor?" she said.
"Finisterra," Bianca said. "He's poaching Finisterra."
Dinh stared at her. "My God, Bianca! What about the people?"
"What about them?" asked Bianca. "They'd be better off somewhere else—you said that yourself."
"And what makes you think Valadez will evacuate them?"
"He's a thief, not a mass murderer."
Dinh gave her a withering look. "He is a murderer, Bianca. His father was a warden, his mother was the wife of the alcalde of Ciudad Perdida. He killed his own stepfather, two uncles, and three brothers. They were going to execute him—throw him over the edge—but a warden airboat picked him up. He spent two years with them, then killed his sergeant and three other wardens, stole their ship and sold it for a ticket off-world. He's probably the most wanted man on Sky."
She shook her head and, unexpectedly, gave Bianca a small smile.
"You didn't know any of that when you took the job, did you?"
Her voice was full of pity. It showed on her face as well, and suddenly Bianca couldn't stand to look at it. She got up and went to the east window. The rain was lighter now, the lightning less frequent.
She thought back to her simulations, her plans for lifting Finisterra up into the waiting embrace of the skyhook: the gasbags swelling, the zaratán lifting, first slowly and then with increasing speed, toward the upper reaches of Sky's atmosphere. But now her inner vision was not the ghost-shape of a projection but a living image—trees cracking in the cold, water freezing, blood boiling from the ground in a million, million tiny hemorrhages.
She saw her mother's house in Punta Aguila—her sister-in-law's house, now: saw its windows rimed with frost, the trees in the courtyard gone brown and sere. She saw the Mercado de los Maculados beneath a blackening sky, the awnings whipped away by a thin wind, ice-cold, bone-dry.
He killed that Finisterran balloonist, she thought. He was ready to kill Dinh. He's capable of murder.
Then she shook her head.
Killing one person, or two, to cover up a crime, was murder, she thought. Killing seventeen thousand people by deliberate asphyxiation—men, women, and children—wasn't murder, it was genocide.
She took her cup of coffee from the table, took a sip and put it down again.
"Thank you for the coffee," she said. She turned to go.
"How can you just let him do this?" Dinh demanded. "How can you help him do this?"
Bianca turned on her. Dinh was on her feet; her fists were clenched, and she was shaking. Bianca stared her down, her face as cold and blank as she could make it. She waited until Dinh turned away, throwing herself into a chair, staring out the window.
"I saved your life," Bianca told her. "That was more than I needed to do. Even if I did believe that Valadez meant to kill every person on Finisterra, which I don't, that wouldn't make it my problem."
Dinh turned farther away.
"Listen to me," Bianca said, "because I'm only going to explain this once."
She waited until Dinh, involuntarily, turned back to face her.
"This job is my one chance," Bianca said. "This job is what I'm here to do. I'm not here to save the world. Saving the world is a luxury for spoiled extrañado children like you and Fry. It's a luxury I don't have."
She went to the door, and knocked on the window to signal the firija guard.
"I'll get you out of here if I can," she added, over her shoulder. "But that's all I can do. I'm sorry."
Dinh hadn't moved.
As the firija opened the door, Bianca heard Dinh stir.
"Erasmus Fry?" she asked. "The naturalist?"
"That's right." Bianca glanced back, and saw Dinh looking out the window again.
"I'd like to see him," Dinh said.
"I'll let him know," said Bianca.
The guard closed the door behind her.
7. THE FACE IN THE MIRROR
Lightning still played along Encantada's dorsal ridge, but here on the eastern edge the storm had passed. A clean, electric smell was in the air, relief from the stink of the killing ground. Bianca returned to her own bungalow through rain that had died to a drizzle.
She called Fry.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Miss Dinh," Bianca said. "She wants to see you."
There was silence on the other end. Then:
"You told her I was here?"
"Sorry," Bianca said insincerely. "It just slipped out."
"You knew her better than you told Valadez, didn't you," she said.
She heard Fry sigh. "Yes."
"She seemed upset," Bianca said. "You should go see her."
Fry sighed again, but said nothing.
"I've got work to do," Bianca said. "I'll talk to you later."
She ended the call.
She was supposed to make a presentation tomorrow, to Valadez and some of the poachers' crew bosses, talking about what they would be doing to Finisterra. It was mostly done; the outline was straightforward, and the visuals could be auto-generated from the design files. She opened the projection file and poked at it for a little while, but found it hard to concentrate.
Suddenly to Bianca her clothes smelled of death, of Dinh's dead companion and the slaughtered zaratán and the death she'd spared Dinh from and the eventual deaths of all the marooned Finisterrans. She stripped them off and threw them in the recycler; bathed, washed her hair, changed into a nightgown.
They should call it la ciudad muerta.
Even though no one who's alive on Finisterra today will live to see it die.
She turned off the light, Dinh's words echoing in her head, and tried to sleep. But she couldn't; she couldn't stop thinking. Thinking about what it felt like to be forced to live on, when all you had to look forward to was death.
She knew that feeling very well.
What Bianca had on Pablo's wife Mélia, the instrument-maker's daughter, was ten years of age and a surreptitious technical education. What Mélia had on Bianca was a keen sense of territory and the experience of growing up in a house full of sisters. Bianca continued to live in the house after Mélia moved in, even though it was Mélia's house now, and continued, without credit, to help her brother with the work that came in. But she retreated over the years, step by step, until the line was drawn at the door of the fourth-floor room that had been hers ever since she was a girl; and she buried herself in her blueprints and her calculations, and tried to pretend she didn't know what was happening.
And then there was the day she met her other sister-in-law. Her moro sister-in-law. In the Mercado de los Maculados, where the aliens and the extrañados came to sell their trinkets and their medicines. A dispensation from the ayuntamiento had recently opened it to Christians.
Zahra al-Halim, a successful architect, took Bianca to her home, where Bianca ate caramels and drank blackberry tea and saw her older brother for the first time in more than twenty years, and tried very hard to call him Walíd and not Jesús. Here was a world that could be hers, too, she sensed, if she wanted it. But like Jesús/Walíd, she would have to give up her old world to have it. Even if she remained a Christian she would never see the inside of a church again. And she would still never be accepted by the engineers' guild.
She went back to the Nazario house that evening, ignoring the barbed questions from Mélia about how she had spent her day; she went back to her room, with its blueprints and its models, and the furnishings she'd had all her life. She tried for a little while to work, but was unable to muster the concentration she needed to interface with the system.
Instead she found herself looking into the mirror.
And looking into the mirror Bianca focused not on the fragile trapped shapes of the flying machines tacked to the wall behind her, spread out and pinned down like so many chloroformed butterflies, but on her own tired face, the stray wisps of dry, brittle hair, the lines that years of captivity had made across her forehead and around her eyes. And, meeting those eyes, it seemed to Bianca that she was looking not into the mirror but down through the years of her future, a long, straight, narrow corridor without doors or branches, and that the eyes she was meeting at the end of it were the eyes of Death, her own, su propria Muerte, personal, personified.
Bianca got out of bed, turned on the lights. She picked up her pocket system. She wondered if she should call the wardens.
Instead she unerased, yet again, the sketch she'd made earlier of the simple alcohol-powered dirigible. She used the Nazario family automation to fill it out with diagrams and renderings, lists of materials, building instructions, maintenance and pre-flight checklists.
It wasn't much, but it was better than Dinh's balloon.
Now she needed a way for Dinh to get it to the Finisterrans.
For that—thinking as she did so that there was some justice in it—she turned back to the system Valadez had given her. This was the sort of work the extrañado automation was made for, no constraints other than those imposed by function, every trick of exotic technology available to be used. It was a matter of minutes for Bianca to sketch out her design; an hour or so to refine it, to trim away the unnecessary pieces until what remained was small enough to fit in the valise she'd left with Dinh. The only difficult part was getting the design automation to talk to the bungalow's fabricator, which was meant for clothes and furniture and domestic utensils. Eventually she had to use her pocket system to go out on Sky's local net—hoping as she did so that Valadez didn't have anyone monitoring her—and spend her own funds to contract the conversion out to a consulting service, somewhere out on one of the elevator gondolas.
Eventually she got it done, though. The fabricator spit out a neat package, which Bianca stuffed under the bed. Tomorrow she could get the valise back and smuggle the package to Dinh, along with the dirigible designs.
But first she had a presentation to make to Valadez. She wondered what motivated him. Nothing so simple as money—she was sure of that, even if she had trouble believing he was the monster Dinh had painted him to be. Was it revenge he was after? Revenge on his family, revenge on his homeland?
That struck Bianca a little too close to home.
She sighed and turned out the lights.
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Copyright © 1998–2008 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide