I have been a very, very busy man for a very, very long time now, it seems.
I’m writing this in a hotel room in London, on the final night of a business trip. And I had a little bit of extra time, and suddenly I felt the urge. So I looked up some potential opening sentences I’d stored, and came upon this one by my dear friend Mika Loponen: “In the hours before dawn, the Tesla sharks took two of the refugees, as was their way.”
This was not as topical when he originally suggested it, back in April, 2014.
In the hours before dawn, the Tesla sharks took two of the refugees, as was their way.
We stood at the railing and watched the oily water churn, bursts of bright light in the deep. The refugees barely reacted – there’d been a moment of panic when the sharks struck, but now that they’d dragged their victims into the deep, the survivors settled back down on their rafts. They huddled together for warmth, too weak to do much else. Debris from the demolished raft floated in the water.
“Shit,” I said to no one in particular. We listened to the waves crashing against the Platform’s legs.
Finally, Habid spat into the water, the thick loogie arcing over the railing and plummeting down for twenty meters. He adjusted his cap. “Those poor fuckers are all dead,” he said. “C’mon, let’s get some breakfast.”
Breakfast. Sweaty shoulder to sweaty shoulder in the packed canteen. Watery porridge again. A strip of vat-grown meat they called bacon, indistinguishable from what they called steak – nothing like bacon or steak, but it wasn’t bad. A hard roll you had to soak in your tea. And real eggs; enough chickens to keep those coming. The eggs tasted vaguely of fish. Chickens will eat just about anything.
I caught fish on my days off, sometimes. They were misshapen and didn’t struggle too much. Opening them up, they tended to have weird, gray-white lumps growing inside. Sometimes the organs in there were so fragile you could smear them with a finger. The goo left an oily residue on your skin that was hard to wash off. All the colors of the rainbow. But the chickens didn’t mind.
They fed some chickens corn, or something else like that. Wheat, maybe. Rye. Something like that. Those eggs didn’t find their way down to us, any more than corn did. They still grew crops on land. Harvest always cost lives. They said they had choppers ready to airlift the crews if any Spawn showed up. They said.
Big price tag on that corn. That wheat.
We worked a double shift on the moisture collection rigging, Habid calling the shots, shouting orders with a voice that got hoarser as the day grew long.
Around noon, a pirate scout skiff got too close. They don’t do shit during the day, but Esmeralda was in her nest, covering the South approach; took the top of a raider’s head off with a single shot, the cough of her rifle almost lost in the wind. Scared the rest off.
She didn’t need to do it. But it’d make them think twice. They wouldn’t try against the Platform; too high, too well guarded. But the refugees were floating down there, easy pickings.
In the afternoon, a pack of Razorwings took an interest. We had to abandon the rigging in a hurry. I got tangled up in cables. One of them got close, opened up my arm; didn’t feel a thing until I saw the blood. Habid pulled me to cover. I bit down hard as Habid slopped on the antiseptic, then put on the skinspray.
“Gonna be okay,” he said. “You got lucky, man. Coulda been an artery.”
I still worked the rest of my shift. Habid said I could sit it out, he’d clear it. But I saw the Supervisor up there, eyes on us. Habid’s pull only went so far. And a lot of the rigging was now sliced up.
One of the refugees was standing on the raft, leaning against the mast. Raising his hands to us. Yelling. You couldn’t hear him over the wind. But we knew what he was saying.
Skin and bones. Dying on that raft. Asking us to help. All we could do was stare.
“We can’t help you,” Habid yelled down. “We’re full up here. We don’t have the room.”
The man pleaded.
“Gotta take it up with Management,” Habid yelled. There was no way the man heard him. “Ain’t up to us.”
The Supervisor let off an angry blast from his air horn. Enough gawking. Get that rigging fixed.
Yeah. On it, boss.
I didn’t sleep a lot during the night. My arm gave me trouble.
Shortly before next dawn, the Tesla sharks took three. The wind had died. We smelled ozone and burning hair.
One of the rafts was now empty.
There was a lump on the raft. It moved. And we heard a wail. A luminescent fin circled the raft. In its light, I saw a tiny arm.
Habid saw it, too.
“Motherfucker,” he said. “Motherfucker, cocksucker.”
He dropped his cap on the deck, and then he was over the railing. For a moment, complete silence.
Then Habid hit the water hard. The oily surface churned with rage and lightning. He came up splashing and gasping, went right for the raft, swum for his life.
Then chaos. Everybody screamed. Somehow, I found the rope. I threw it down, watched it spiral into the water.
Habid made it to the raft, scrambled on it. Wood splintered behind him, fifty rows of stainless steel chomping. Habid reached for the bundle. And the raft flipped.
Water churned. Light exploded in the deep. Somewhere, Habid twitched and bled. Surely.
Then the rope went taut in my hands.
“Help,” I screamed. And I pulled. We all pulled, and the rope came up.
And Habid came up with it, the rope wrapped around an arm, the other arm wrapped around a screaming bundle.
Habid clambered over the railing. He slumped on the deck, cradled the hysterical baby. A boy, I saw. A skinny little baby boy.
“Management ain’t gonna like that,” I said.
Somebody handed Habid his cap. He pulled it on his head, adjusted it, got the brim right. He spat on the deck. It glistened in all the colors of the rainbow.
He adjusted the baby in his arms, held it close. The baby looked up at him, went quiet.
“Fuck Management,” Habid said.
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