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8. THE PROFESSIONALS
By morning the storm had passed and the sky was blue again, but the inside of Valadez's bungalow was dark, to display the presenters' projections to better advantage. Chairs for Valadez and the human crew bosses were arranged in a rough semicircle; with them were the aliens whose anatomy permitted them to sit down. Ismaíl and the other firija stood in the back, their curled arms and the spindly legs of their machines making their silhouettes look, to Bianca, incongruously like those of potted plants.
Then the fronds stirred, suddenly menacing. Bianca shivered. Who was really in charge?
No time to worry about that now. She straightened up and took out her pocket system.
"In a moment," she began, pitching her voice to carry to the back of the room, "Mr. Fry will be going over the zaratán's metabolic processes and our plans to stimulate the internal production of hydrogen. What I'm going to be talking about is the engineering work required to make that extra hydrogen do what we need it to do."
Bianca's pocket system projected the shape of a hundred-kilometer zaratán, not Finisterra or any other particular individual but rather an archetype, a sort of Platonic ideal. Points of pink light brightened all across the projected zaratán's back, each indicating the position of a sphincter that would have to be cut out and replaced with a mechanical valve.
"Our primary concern during the preparation phase has to be these external vents. However, we also need to consider the internal trim and ballast valves.…"
As she went on, outlining the implants and grafts, surgeries and mutilations needed to turn a living zaratán into an animatronic corpse, a part of her was amazed at her own presumption, amazed at the strong, confident, professional tone she was taking.
It was almost as if she were a real engineer.
The presentation came to a close. Bianca drew in a deep breath, trying to maintain her veneer of professionalism. This part wasn't in her outline.
"And then, finally, there is the matter of evacuation," she said.
In the back of the room, Ismaíl stirred. "Evacuation?" he asked—the first word anyone had uttered through the whole presentation.
Bianca cleared her throat. Red stars appeared along the imaginary zaratán's southeastern edge, approximating the locations of Ciudad Perdida and the smaller Finisterran villages.
"Finisterra has a population of between fifteen and twenty thousand, most of them concentrated in these settlements here," she began. "Using a ship the size of the Lupita Jeréz, it should take roughly—"
"Not your problem, Miss Nazario." Valadez waved a hand. "In any case, there won't be any evacuations."
Bianca looked at him, appalled; and it must have shown on her face because Valadez laughed.
"Don't look at me like that, Miss Nazario. We'll set up field domes over Ciudad Perdida and the central pueblos, to tide them over till we get them where they're going. If they keep their heads they should be fine." He laughed again. "Fucking hell," he said, shaking his head. "What did you think this was about? You didn't think we were going to kill twenty thousand people, did you?"
Bianca didn't answer. She shut the projection off and sat down, putting her pocket system away. Her heart was racing.
"Right," said Valadez. "Nice presentation, Miss Nazario. Mr. Fry?"
Fry stood up. "Okay," he said. "Let me—" He patted his pockets. "I, ah, I think I must have left my system in my bungalow."
"We'll wait," he said.
The dark room was silent. Bianca tried to take slow, deep breaths. Mother of God, she thought, thank you for not letting me do anything stupid.
In the next moment she doubted herself. Dinh had been so sure. How could Bianca know whether Valadez was telling the truth?
There was no way to know, she decided. She'd just have to wait and see.
Fry came back in, breathless.
"Ah, it wasn't—"
The voice that interrupted him was loud enough that at first it was hardly recognizable as a voice; it was only a wall of sound, seeming to come from the air itself, bazaar-Arabic words echoing and reechoing endlessly across the camp.
"THIS IS AN ILLEGAL ENCAMPMENT," it said. "ALL PERSONNEL IN THE ENCAMPMENT WILL ASSEMBLE ON OPEN GROUND AND SURRENDER TO THE PARK WARDENS IN AN ORDERLY FASHION. ANY PERSONS CARRYING WEAPONS WILL BE PRESUMED TO BE RESISTING ARREST AND WILL BE DEALT WITH ACCORDINGLY. ANY VEHICLE ATTEMPTING TO LEAVE THE ENCAMPMENT WILL BE DESTROYED. YOU HAVE FIVE MINUTES TO COMPLY."
The announcement repeated itself: first in the fluting language of the firija, then in Miami Spanish, then as a series of projected alien glyphs, logograms and semagrams. Then the Arabic started again.
"Fuck your mother," said Valadez grimly.
All around Bianca, poachers were gathering weapons. In the back of the room, the firija were having what looked like an argument, arms waving, voices raised in a hooting, atonal cacophony.
"What do we do?" Fry shouted, over the wardens' announcement.
"Get out of here," said Valadez.
"Make fight!" said Ismaíl, turning several eyes from the firija discussion.
"Isn't that resisting arrest?" asked Bianca.
Valadez laughed harshly. "Not shooting back isn't going to save you," he said. "The wardens aren't the Phenomenological Service. They're not civilized Caliphate cops. Killed while resisting arrest is what they're all about. Believe me—I used to be one."
Taking a surprisingly small gun from inside his jacket, he kicked open the door and was gone.
Around the Lupita Jeréz was a milling knot of people, human and otherwise, some hurrying to finish the loading, others simply fighting to get aboard.
Something large and dark—and fast—passed over the camp, and there was a white flash from the cargo-lifter, and screams.
In the wake of the dark thing came a sudden sensation of heaviness, as if the flank of Encantada were the deck of a ship riding a rogue wave, leaping up beneath Bianca's feet. Her knees buckled and she was thrown to the ground, pressed into the grass by twice, three times her normal weight.
The feeling passed as quickly as the wardens' dark vehicle. Ismaíl, whose walker had kept its footing, helped Bianca up.
"What was that?" Bianca demanded, bruises making her wince as she tried to brush the dirt and grass from her skirts.
"Antigravity ship," Ismaíl said. "Same principle like starship wave propagation drive."
"Antigravity?" Bianca stared after the ship, but it was already gone, over Encantada's dorsal ridge. "If you coños have antigravity, then why in God's name have we been sitting here playing with catapults and balloons?"
"Make very expensive," said Ismaíl. "Minus two suns exotic mass, same like starship." The firija waved two of its free eyes. "Why do? Plenty got cheap way to fly."
Bianca realized that despite the remarks Valadez had made on the poverty of Sky, she had been thinking of all extrañados and aliens—with their ships and machines, their familiar way with sciences that in Rio Pícaro were barely more than a whisper of forbidden things hidden behind the walls of the rich moros' palaces—as wealthy, and powerful, and free. Now, feeling like a fool for not having understood sooner, she realized that between the power of the Consilium and people like Valadez there was a gap as wide as, if not wider than, the gap between those rich moros and the most petty Ali Baba in the back streets of Punta Aguila.
She glanced toward the airfield. Aerial tugs were lifting off; anemopters were blurring into motion. But as she watched, one of the tugs opened up into a ball of green fire. An anemopter made it as far as the killing ground before being hit by something that made its static fields crawl briefly with purple lightnings and then collapse, as the craft's material body crashed down in an explosion of earth.
And all the while the wardens' recorded voice was everywhere and nowhere, repeating its list of instructions and demands.
"Not any more, we don't," Bianca said to Ismaíl. "We'd better run."
The firija raised its gun. "First got kill prisoner."
But Ismaíl was already moving, the mechanical legs of the walker sure-footed on the broken ground, taking long, swift strides, no longer comical but frighteningly full of purpose.
Bianca struggled after the firija but quickly fell behind. The surface of the killing ground was rutted and scarred, torn by the earth-moving equipment used to push the offal of the gutted zaratanes over the edge. Bianca supposed grasses had covered it once, but now there was just mud and old blood. Only the certainty that going back would be as bad as going forward kept Bianca moving, slipping and stumbling in reeking muck that was sometimes ankle-deep.
By the time she got to Dinh's bungalow, Ismaíl was already gone. The door was ajar.
Maybe the wardens rescued her, Bianca thought; but she couldn't make herself believe it.
She went inside, moving slowly.
No answer; not that Bianca had really expected any.
She found her in the kitchen, face down, feet toward the door as if she had been shot while trying to run, or hide. From three meters away Bianca could see the neat, black, fist-sized hole in the small of Dinh's back. She felt no need to get closer.
Fry's pocket system was on the floor in the living room, as Bianca had known it would be.
"You should have waited," Bianca said to the empty room. "You should have trusted me."
She found her valise in Dinh's bedroom and emptied the contents onto the bed. Dinh did not seem to have touched any of them.
Bianca's eyes stung with tears. She glanced again at Fry's system. He'd left it on purpose, Bianca realized; she'd underestimated him. Perhaps he had been a better person than she herself, all along.
She looked one more time at the body lying on the kitchen floor.
"No, you shouldn't," she said then. "You shouldn't have trusted me at all."
Then she went back to her own bungalow and took the package out from under the bed.
A hundred meters, two hundred, five hundred—Bianca falls, the wind whipping at her clothes, and the hanging vegetation that covers Encantada's flanks is a green-brown blur, going gray as it thins, as the zaratán's body curves away from her. She blinks away the tears brought on by the rushing wind and tries to focus on the monitor panel of the harness. She took it from an off-the-shelf emergency parachute design; surely, she thinks, it must be set to open automatically at some point? But the wind speed indicator is the only one that makes sense; the others—altitude, attitude, rate of descent—are cycling through nonsense in three languages, baffled by the instruments' inability to find solid ground anywhere below.
Then Bianca falls out of Encantada's shadow into the sun, and before she can consciously form the thought her hand has grasped the emergency handle of the harness and pulled, convulsively; and the glassy fabric of the paraballoon is billowing out above her, rippling like water, and the harness is tugging at her, gently but firmly, smart threads reeling themselves quickly out and then slowly in again on their tiny spinnerets.
After a moment, she catches her breath. She is no longer falling, but flying.
She wipes the tears from her eyes. To the west, the slopes of Finisterra are bright and impossibly detailed in the low-angle sunlight, a million trees casting a million tiny shadows through the morning's rapidly dissipating mist.
She looks up, out through the nearly invisible curve of the paraballoon, and sees that Encantada is burning. She watches it for a long time.
The air grows warmer, and more damp, too. With a start, Bianca realizes she is falling below Finisterra's edge. When she designed the paraballoon, Bianca intended for Dinh to fall as far as she safely could, dropping deep into Sky's atmosphere before firing up the reverse Maxwell pumps, to heat the air in the balloon and lift her back to Finisterra; but it does not look as if there is any danger of pursuit now, from either the poachers or the wardens. Bianca starts the pumps and the paraballoon slows, then begins to ascend.
As the prevailing wind carries her inland, over a riot of tropical green, and in the distance Bianca sees the smoke rising from the chimneys of Ciudad Perdida, Bianca glances up again at the burning shape of Encantada. She wonders whether she'll ever know if Valadez was telling the truth.
Abruptly the jungle below her opens up, and Bianca is flying over cultivated fields, and people are looking up at her in wonder. Without thinking, she has cut the power to the pumps and opened the parachute valve at the top of the balloon.
She lands hard, hobbled by the scarf still tied around her ankles, and rolls, the paraballoon harness freeing itself automatically in obedience to its original programming. She pulls the scarf loose and stands up, shaking out her torn, stained skirt. Children are already running toward her across the field.
Savages, Fry said. Refugees. Bianca wonders if all of them speak Valadez's odd Spanish. She tries to gather her scraps of Arabic, but is suddenly unable to remember anything beyond Salaam alaikum.
The children—six, eight, ten of them—falter as they approach, stopping five or ten meters away.
Salaam alaikum, Bianca rehearses silently. Alaikum as-salaam. She takes a deep breath.
The boldest of the children, a stick-legged boy of eight or ten, takes a few steps closer. He has curly black hair and sun-browned skin, and the brightly colored shirt and shorts he is wearing were probably made by an autofactory on one of the elevator gondolas or vacuum balloon stations, six or seven owners ago. He looks like her brother Pablo, in the old days, before Jesús left.
Trying not to look too threatening, Bianca meets his dark eyes.
"Hóla," she says.
"Hóla," the boy answers. "¿Cómo te llamas? ¿Es este su globo?"
Bianca straightens her back.
"Yes, it's my balloon," she says. "And you may call me Señora Nazario."
"If the balloon's yours," the boy asks, undaunted, "will you let me fly in it?"
Bianca looks out into the eastern sky, dotted with distant zaratanes. There is a vision in her mind, a vision that she thinks maybe Edith Dinh saw: the skies of Sky more crowded than the skies over Rio Pícaro, Septentrionalis Archipelago alive with the bright shapes of dirigibles and gliders, those nameless zaratanes out there no longer uncharted shoals but comforting and familiar landmarks.
She turns to look at the rapidly collapsing paraballoon, and wonders how much work it would take to inflate it again. She takes out her pocket system and checks it: the design for the hand-built dirigible is still there, and the family automation too.
This isn't what she wanted, when she set out from home; but she is still a Nazario, and still an engineer.
She puts the system away and turns back to the boy.
"I have a better idea," she says. "How would you like a balloon of your very own?"
The boy breaks into a smile.
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Copyright © 1998–2008 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide