Year's Best Science Fiction, 25th Ed.
New writer David Moles has sold fiction to Asimov's Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Polyphony, Strange Horizons, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Say, Flytrap, and elsewhere. He coedited with Jay Lake, 2004's well-received "retro-pulp" anthology All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories, as well as coediting with Susan Marie Groppi the original anthology Twenty Epics. He's had stories in our Twenty-second, Twenty-third, and Twenty-fourth Annual Collections.
In the vivid and fast-paced story that follows, he takes us to a world of living, floating islands in the sky, to teach us the uncomfortable lesson that you're never safe from predation no matter how big you are. Or from your own past, either.
Bianca Nazario stands at the end of the world.
The firmament above is as blue as the summer skies of her childhood, mirrored in the waters of la caldera; but where the skies she remembers were bounded by mountains, here on Sky there is no real horizon, only a line of white cloud. The white line shades into a diffuse grayish fog that, as Bianca looks down, grows progressively murkier, until the sky directly below is thoroughly dark and opaque.
She remembers what Dinh told her about the ways Sky could kill her. With a large enough parachute, Bianca imagines, she could fall for hours, drifting through the layered clouds, before finding her end in heat or pressure or the jaws of some monstrous denizen of the deep air.
If this should go wrong, Bianca cannot imagine a better way to die.
Bianca works her way out a few hundred meters along the base of one of Encantada's ventral fins, stopping when the dry red dirt beneath her feet begins to give way to scarred gray flesh. She takes a last look around: at the pall of smoke obscuring thezaratán's tree-lined dorsal ridge, at the fin she stands on, curving out and down to its delicate-looking tip, kilometers away. Then she knots her scarf around her skirted ankles and shrugs into the paraballoon harness, still warm from the bungalow's fabricators. As the harness tightens itself around her, she takes a deep breath, filling her lungs. The wind from the burning camp smells of wood smoke and pine resin, enough to overwhelm the taint of blood from the killing ground.
Blessed Virgin, she prays, be my witness: this is no suicide.
This is a prayer for a miracle.
She leans forward.
2. THE FLYING ARCHIPELAGO
The boatlike anemopter that Valadez had sent for them had a cruising speed of just less than the speed of sound, which in this part of Sky's atmosphere meant about nine hundred kilometers per hour. The speed, Bianca thought, might have been calculated to bring home the true size of Sky, the impossible immensity of it. It had taken the better part of their first day's travel for the anemopter's point of departure, the ten-kilometer, billion-ton vacuum balloon Transient Meridian, to drop from sight--the dwindling golden droplet disappearing, not over the horizon, but into the haze. From that Bianca estimated that the bowl of clouds visible through the subtle blurring of the anemopter's static fields covered an area about the size of North America.
She heard a plastic clattering on the deck behind her and turned to see one of the anemopter's crew, a globular, brown-furred alien with a collection of arms like furry snakes, each arm tipped with a mouth or a round and curious eye. The firija were low-gravity creatures; the ones Bianca had seen on her passage from Earth had tumbled joyously through the Caliph of Baghdad's inner-ring spaces like so many radially symmetrical monkeys. The three aboard the anemopter, in Sky's heavier gravity, had to make do with spindly-legged walking machines. There was a droop in their arms that was both comical and melancholy.
"Come forward," this one told Bianca in fractured Arabic, its voice like an ensemble of reed pipes. She thought it was the one that called itself Ismaíl. "Make see archipelago."
She followed it forward to the anemopter's rounded prow. The naturalist, Erasmus Fry, was already there, resting his elbows on the rail, looking down.
"Pictures don't do them justice, do they?" he said.
Bianca went to the rail and followed the naturalist's gaze. She did her best to maintain a certain stiff formality around Fry; from their first meeting aboard Transient Meridian she'd had the idea that it might not be good to let him get too familiar. But when she saw what Fry was looking at, the mask slipped for a moment; she couldn't help a sharp, quick intake of breath.
Fry chuckled. "To stand on the back of one," he said, "to stand in a valley and look up at the hills and know that the ground under your feet is supported by the bones of a living creature--there's nothing else like it." He shook his head.
At this altitude they were above all but the highest-flying of the thousands of beasts that made up Septentrionalis Archipelago. Bianca's eyes tried to make the herd (or flock, or school) of zaratánes into other things: a chain of islands, yes, if she concentrated on the colors, the greens and browns of forests and plains, the grays and whites of the snowy highlands; a fleet of ships, perhaps, if she instead focused on the individual shapes, the keel ridges, the long, translucent fins, ribbed like Chinese sails.
The zaratánes of the archipelago were more different from one another than the members of a flock of birds or a pod of whales, but still there was a symmetry, a regularity of form, the basic anatomical plan--equal parts fish and mountain--repeated throughout, in fractal detail from the great old shape of Zaratán Finisterra, a hundred kilometers along the dorsal ridge, down to the merely hill-sized bodies of the nameless younger beasts. When she took in the archipelago as a whole, it was impossible for Bianca not to see the zaratánes as living things.
"Nothing else like it," Fry repeated.
Bianca turned reluctantly from the view to look at Fry. The naturalist spoke Spanish with a flawless Miami accent, courtesy, he'd said, of a Consilium language module. Bianca was finding it hard to judge the ages of extrañados, particularly the men, but in Fry's case she thought he might be ten years older than Bianca's own forty, and unwilling to admit it--or ten years younger, and in the habit of treating himself very badly. On her journey here she'd met cyborgs and foreigners and artificial intelligences and several sorts of alien--some familiar, at least from media coverage of the hajj, and some strange--but the extrañados bothered her the most. It was hard to come to terms with the idea of humans born off Earth, humans who had never been to Earth or even seen it; humans who often had no interest in it.
"Why did you leave here, Mr. Fry?" she asked.
Fry laughed. "Because I didn't want to spend the rest of my life out here." With a hand, he swept the horizon. "Stuck on some godforsaken floating island for years on end, with no one but researchers and feral refugees to talk to, nowhere to go for fun but some slum of a balloon station, nothing but a thousand kilometers of air between you and Hell?" He laughed again. "You'd leave, too, Nazario, believe me."
"Maybe I would," Bianca said. "But you're back."
"I'm here for the money," Fry said. "Just like you."
Bianca smiled and said nothing.
"You know," Fry said after a little while, "they have to kill the zaratánes to take them out of here." He looked at Bianca and smiled, in a way that was probably meant to be ghoulish. "There's no atmosphere ship big enough to lift a zaratán in one piece--even a small one. The poachers deflate them--gut them--flatten them out and roll them up. And even then, they throw out almost everything but the skin and bones."
"Strange," Bianca mused. Her mask was back in place. "There was a packet of material on the zaratánes with my contract; I watched most of it on the voyage. According to the packet, the Consilium considers the zaratánes a protected species."
Fry looked uneasy. Now it was Bianca's turn to chuckle.
"Don't worry, Mr. Fry," she said. "I may not know exactly what it is Mr. Valadez is paying me to do, but I've never had any illusion that it was legal."
Behind her, the firija made a fluting noise that might have been laughter.
3. THE STEEL BIRD
When Bianca was a girl, the mosque of Punta Aguila was the most prominent feature in the view from her fourth-floor window, a sixteenth-century structure of tensegrity cables and soaring catenary curves, its spreading white wings vaguely--but only vaguely--recalling the bird that gave the city its name. The automation that controlled the tension of the cables and adjusted the mosque's wings to match the shifting winds was hidden within the cables themselves, and was very old. Once, after the hurricane in the time of Bianca's grandfather, it had needed adjusting, and the old men of the ayuntamiento had been forced to send for extrañado technicians, at an expense so great that the jizyah of Bianca's time was still paying for it.
But Bianca rarely thought of that. Instead she would spend long hours surreptitiously sketching those white wings, calculating the weight of the structure and the tension of the cables, wondering what it would take to make the steel bird fly.
Bianca's father could probably have told her, but she never dared to ask. Raúl Nazario de Arenas was an aeronautical engineer, like the seven generations before him, and flight was the Nazarios' fortune; fully a third of the aircraft that plied the skies over the Rio Pícaro were types designed by Raúl or his father or his wife's father, on contract to the great moro trading and manufacturing families that were Punta Aguila's truly wealthy.
Because he worked for other men, and because he was a Christian, Raúl Nazario would never be as wealthy as the men who employed him, but his profession was an ancient and honorable one, providing his family with a more than comfortable living. If Raúl Nazario de Arenas thought of the mosque at all, it was only to mutter about the jizyah from time to time--but never loudly, because the Nazarios, like the other Christians of Punta Aguila, however valued, however ancient their roots, knew that they lived there only on sufferance.
But Bianca would sketch the aircraft, too, the swift gliders and lumbering flying boats and stately dirigibles, and these drawings she did not have to hide; in fact for many years her father would encourage her, explaining this and that aspect of their construction, gently correcting errors of proportion and balance in Bianca's drawings; would let her listen in while he taught the family profession to her brothers, Jesús the older, Pablo the younger.
This lasted until shortly before Bianca's quinceañera, when Jesús changed his name to Walíd and married a moro's daughter, and Bianca's mother delivered a lecture concerning the difference between what was proper for a child and what was proper for a young Christian woman with hopes of one day making a good marriage.
It was only a handful of years later that Bianca's father died, leaving a teenaged Pablo at the helm of his engineering business; and only Bianca's invisible assistance and the pity of a few old clients had kept contracts and money coming into the Nazario household.
By the time Pablo was old enough to think he could run the business himself, old enough to marry the daughter of a musical instrument-maker from Tierra Ceniza, their mother was dead, Bianca was thirty, and even if her dowry had been half her father's business, there was not a Christian man in Rio Pícaro who wanted it, or her.
And then one day Pablo told her about the extrañado contract that had been brought to the ayuntamiento, a contract that the ayuntamiento and the Guild hadtogether forbidden the Christian engineers of Punta Aguila to bid on--a contract for a Spanish-speaking aeronautical engineer to travel a very long way from Rio Pícaro and be paid a very large sum of money indeed.
Three months later Bianca was in Quito, boarding an elevator car. In her valise was a bootleg copy of her father's engineering system, and a contract with the factor of a starship called the Caliph of Baghdad, for passage to Sky.
4. THE KILLING GROUND
The anemopter's destination was a zaratán called Encantada, smaller than the giant Finisterra but still nearly forty kilometers from nose to tail, and eight thousand meters from gray-white keel to forested crest. From a distance of a hundred kilometers, Encantada was like a forested mountain rising from a desert plain, the clear air under its keel as dreamlike as a mirage. On her pocket system, Bianca called up pictures from Sky's network of the alpine ecology that covered the hills and valleys of Encantada's flanks: hardy grasses and small warm-blooded creatures and tall evergreens with spreading branches, reminding her of the pines and redwoods in the mountains west of Rio Pícaro.
For the last century or so Encantada had been keeping company with Zaratán Finisterra, holding its position above the larger beast's eastern flank. No one, apparently, knew the reason. Fry being the expert, Bianca had expected him to at least have a theory. He didn't even seem interested in the question.
"They're beasts, Nazario," he said. "They don't do things for reasons. We only call them animals and not plants because they bleed when we cut them."
They were passing over Finisterra's southern slopes. Looking down, Bianca saw brighter, warmer greens, more shades than she could count, more than she had known existed, the green threaded through with bright ribbons of silver water. She saw the anemopter's shadow, a dark oblong that rode the slopes and ridges, ringed by brightness--the faint reflection of Sky's sun behind them.
And just before the shadow entered the larger darkness that was the shadow of Encantada, Bianca watched it ride over something else: a flat green space carved out of the jungle, a suspiciously geometric collection of shapes that could only be buildings, the smudge of chimney smoke.
"Fry--" she started to say.
Then the village, if that's what it was, was gone, hidden behind the next ridge.
"What?" said Fry.
"I saw--I thought I saw--"
"People?" asked Fry. "You probably did."
"But I thought Sky didn't have any native sentients. Who are they?"
"Humans, mostly," Fry said. "Savages. Refugees. Drug farmers. Five generations of escaped criminals, and their kids, and their kids." The naturalist shrugged. "Once in a while, if the Consilium's looking for somebody in particular, the wardens might stage a raid, just for show. The rest of the time, the wardens fly their dope, screw their women ... and otherwise leave them alone."
"But where do they come from?" Bianca asked.
"Everywhere," Fry said with another shrug. "Humans have been in this part ofspace for a long, long time. This is one of those places people end up, you know? People with nowhere else to go. People who can't fall any farther."
Bianca shook her head and said nothing.
The poacher camp on Encantada's eastern slope was invisible until they were almost upon it, hidden from the wardens' satellite eyes by layers of projected camouflage. Close up, the illusion seemed flat, its artificiality obvious, but it was still not until the anemopter passed through the projection that the camp itself could be seen: a clear-cut swath a kilometer wide and three times as long, stretching from the lower slopes of Encantada's dorsal ridge down to the edge of the zaratán's clifflike flank. Near the edge, at one corner, there was a small cluster of prefabricated bungalows; but at first it seemed to Bianca that most of the space was wasted.
Then she saw the red churned into the brown mud of the cleared strip, saw the way the shape of the terrain suggested the imprint of a gigantic, elongated body.
The open space was for killing.
"Sky is very poor, Miss Nazario," said Valadez, over his shoulder.
The poacher boss looked to be about fifty, stocky, his hair still black and his olive skin well-tanned but pocked with tiny scars. His Spanish was a dialect Bianca had never heard before, strange and lush, its vowels rich, its hs breathy as Bianca's js, its js warm and liquid as the ys of an Argentine. When he said, Fuck your mother--and already, in the hour or so Bianca had been in the camp, she had heard him say it several times, though never yet to her--the madre came out madri.
About half of the poachers were human, but Valadez seemed to be the only one who spoke Spanish natively; the rest used Sky's dialect of bazaar Arabic. Valadez spoke that as well, better than Bianca did, but she had the sense that he'd learned it late in life. If he had a first name, he was keeping it to himself.
"There are things on Sky that people want," Valadez went on. "But the people of Sky have nothing of interest to anybody. The companies that mine the deep air pay some royalties. But mostly what people live on here is Consilium handouts."
The four of them--Bianca, Fry, and the firija, Ismaíl, who as well as being an anemopter pilot seemed to be Valadez's servant or business partner or bodyguard, or perhaps all three--were climbing the ridge above the poachers' camp. Below them workers, some human, some firija, a handful of other species, were setting up equipment: mobile machines that looked like they belonged on a construction site, pipes and cylindrical tanks reminiscent of a brewery or a refinery.
"I'm changing that, Miss Nazario." Valadez glanced over his shoulder at Bianca. "Off-world, there are people--like Ismaíl's people here"--he waved at the firija--"who like the idea of living on a floating island, and have the money to pay for one." He swept an arm, taking in the camp, the busy teams of workers. "With that money, I take boys out of the shantytowns of Sky's balloon stations and elevator gondolas. I give them tools, and teach them to kill beasts.
"To stop me--since they can't be bothered to do it themselves--the Consilium takes the same boys, gives them guns, and teaches them to kill men."
The poacher stopped and turned to face Bianca, jamming his hands into the pockets of his coat.
"Tell me, Miss Nazario--is one worse than the other?"
"I'm not here to judge you, Mr. Valadez," said Bianca. "I'm here to do a job."
Valadez smiled. "So you are."
He turned and continued up the slope. Bianca and the firija followed, Fry trailing behind. The path switchbacked through unfamiliar trees, dark, stunted, waxy-needled; these gave way to taller varieties, including some that Bianca would have sworn were ordinary pines and firs. She breathed deeply, enjoying the alpine breeze after the crowds-and-machines reek of Transient Meridian's teeming slums, the canned air of ships and anemopters.
"It smells just like home," she remarked. "Why is that?"
No one answered.
The ridge leveled off. They came out into a cleared space, overlooking the camp. Spread out below them Bianca saw the airfield, the globular tanks and pipes of the poachers' little industrial plant, the bungalows in the distance--and, in between, the red-brown earth of the killing ground, stretching out to the cliff edge and the bases of the nearest translucent fins.
"This is a good spot," Valadez declared. "Should be a good view from up here."
"A view of what?" said Fry.
The poacher didn't answer. He waved to Ismaíl, and the firija took a small folding stool out of a pocket, snapping it into shape with a flick of sinuous arms and setting it down behind him. Valadez sat.
After a moment, the answer to Fry's question came up over the edge.
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 zaratánes 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 station-keeping 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 downthe 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 thebeast, 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 earthmoving 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 zaratánes. 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 zaratánes 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 zaratánes 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 zaratánes 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 shehad 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."
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 Finisterranballoon, 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 reasons 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.
"¿Hola?" 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; posthuman, probably, maybe even postsingularity. 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 zaratánes 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 zaratánes 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 zaratánes?" 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. Shesaw 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 autogenerated 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 itsblueprints 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 preflight 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.
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'regoing. 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 backstreets 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 warden's recorded voice was everywhere and nowhere, repeating its list of instructions and demands.
"Not anymore, 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 surefooted 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 earthmoving equipment used to push the offal of the gutted zaratánes 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 atmospherebefore 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.
"Hola," she says.
"Hola," the boy answers. "¿Cómo te llamas? ¿Es éste 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 zaratánes. 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 zaratánes 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.
THE YEAR'S BEST SCIENCE FICTION: TWENTY-FIFTH ANNUAL COLLECTION. Copyright © 2008 by Gardner Dozois. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.