The Greatest Shade
By Bryan Wein
Bryan Wein lives and works in New York City. Some of his free time is spent trying and failing to write a novel. The Greatest Shade was first published June 2013 on Silver Blade Magazine.
* * *
David Dressen had lost track of how long he’d been at the Vauxhall by the time old Orvar came staggering over to his table. Dressen could smell the formaldehyde from the neoprene wetsuit the man wore out on the ice. He also caught a whiff of gin.
“Does Malanga really let you get away with drinking on the job?” he asked.
“You think my bosses pile into an ice breaker and come wandering the floes to check? Hell, they’re drunker than we are half the time.” Orvar put his rack of chips on the table and sank into the vacant seat beside Dressen. “Forget them. Can you believe Reconciliation’s almost here?”
Everyone at the table murmured their disbelief. Dressen sighed. The last thing he wanted was to discuss Reconciliation.
“If you’d told me even ten years ago that Mars would be on the verge of reopening contact with Earth, after all that bloodshed, I’d have laughed in your face,” Orvar said. “And now look at us. My dad’s probably twisting in his grave.”
Dressen tilted back the last of his whiskey and set the glass down heavily on the zinc furnish of the card table. “Didn’t your father drown out in the polar sea?”
Orvar laughed. “So he did. Well, then his frozen corpse is scaring the hell out of some fishes on the sea bottom. And don’t start in on how there’s only plankton down there, Dressen. You don’t see me being a stickler for updates on your case. Closing in on a decade you’ve been at it now, right?”
“Only seven years,” mumbled Dressen as he squinted at his cards. He was almost blind in his right eye, and his left was so sensitive to light that he kept his shades on at all times, even indoors. The bloodsuckers that ran the Vauxhall kept the glow lamps dimmed and the windows shuttered, but Dressen wore his glasses here nonetheless. He liked to pretend they added to his mystique.
He waved over the nearest waitress, a young woman whose unlined face and cheerful smile suggested that she had not worked here long. “I’ll have an Olympus Mons with a splash of vermouth,” he told her, pressing a worn red chip into her palm. She gave him a little grin as she turned to leave. Unbidden, another woman’s face rose in his mind, one that looked remarkably similar, albeit a bit more heart shaped, with less pronounced cheekbones and a sharper nose. The face of the woman Dressen had spent the past seven years scouring northern Mars for without success.
The gaunt dealer coughed politely, then louder when Dressen did not react. He gestured with needle-marked fingers and rasped, “Just cause you’re in no hurry doesn’t mean the rest of us aren’t.”
Dressen scowled and flung his cards into the muck. He could still remember when he first came to Capricorn City. He’d been treated like royalty back then, one of the famed heroes of the rebellion that won Mars its independence. It had been three years before he’d been able to buy a shot. But with enough time even the greatest reputations withered away, something he had learned all too well. Now even opiate addicts like this dealer talked down to him. Dressen slumped in his chair, trying to find a position where his back didn’t ache. After twenty-odd hours that was as fruitless as everything else in his life.
Orvar pushed a heap of chips forward with rough hands still white from his shift out on the ice. “You ever wonder if you’ll face any repercussions once Isolation ends?”
“It’s been thirty years. I’m sure they’ve forgotten all about me.”
Orvar nodded absently, his flinty eyes intent on the player across from him. His opponent, a rattled youth who’d been losing money all night, shoved the last of his chips into the middle. The throng of railbirds went quiet with anticipation as Orvar studied the young fellow. Probably just a rich kid from the south, Dressen thought, who chased a bad gambling habit up here to Capricorn, to the bitter end.
The waitress brought Dressen his drink. He sipped it quickly, grimacing at the bitter taste of cheap vodka. He wished he could still afford the vintage stuff from Earth. Dressen breathed heavily into his drink, churning the dregs into an amber froth. Then he glanced up at the expectant faces of the railbirds. With the right amount of alcohol, he felt a certain affinity for the haggard degenerates who crowded the card tables of the Vauxhall. But most of the time they just repulsed him.
Orvar matched the kid’s wager and flipped over the winning cards. The sight of them sent the kid rocking back in his chair. The railbirds applauded as he stumbled away, their faces aglow with vicarious success. Dressen was amusing himself with watching them when he locked eyes with a young, unsmiling Oriental man. Dressen wondered what he was doing there. He hadn’t seen an Oriental in the Vauxhall in weeks, not since tensions started rising between the east and west sides.
Stacking the chips with his beefy fingers, Orvar said, “It’s those damn lictors’ fault. We elected them to govern for us. But you can bet, when Reconciliation comes a week from now and the lictors get replaced by the provisional government, they won’t be going home empty-handed. You know what I mean?” he asked, nudging Dressen with a bony elbow.
“How can you not have an opinion? You really just come here to gamble?”
Dressen shrugged. He came here to whittle away the hours, but he had a hard enough time admitting that to himself.
The Oriental kid took the now empty seat at their table. No one said anything, but he drew more than his share of curious glances. He carried a mahogany cane; when he rested it against the side of the table, its knob protruded from above the green felt, an expertly crafted silver wolf, no doubt imported at enormous cost from Earth or maybe Ganymede before Isolation. The scent of soap and what Dressen guessed might be perfume clung to him the way most men here stank of alcohol and ammonium.
Orvar nodded to himself, his long, thin face reminding Dressen of a descending ice pick. “Those immigrants will put us all out of work, see if they don’t. But I’m forgetting who I’m talking to. The only man who can fail at his job for seven years and still get paid.”
Dressen did not reply. The man had a point. Dressen had been hired by a larger detective agency in the south to find Ashley Flood, the missing daughter of a wealthy farmer from the midlands. He’d followed a thousand leads into the ground in his search for her. He had rented skiffs that took him out into the far reaches of the polar sea. Twice he’d hired guides to escort him to the lawless outposts in the desert. He had wandered down a thousand Capricorn streets to no avail.
But his employers never grew impatient with him. Each month they transferred hefty sums into his account. During their monthly briefings, they scarcely ever chastised him for his failings. At first, he had attributed it to his reputation, but as the years slipped by he had simply accepted his good fortune. Nowadays he scarcely looked for Ashley at all. It was easier to gamble.
Except the new kid was making even that impossible. He didn’t say a word, just kept throwing sidelong glances at Dressen when he thought he wasn’t looking. When Dressen could bear it no longer, he shoved his chair back, flicked one of his last chips to the dealer, and headed for the exits. The glaring sunlight spilling through the sliding doors provided a painful reminder that it was morning. Again. He’d been here upwards of thirty hours. From the huge throngs that still crowded around the tables, he’d never have guessed. At least he wasn’t alone. A lot of men, rough men, shared his appetite for games of chance. Many of them were skipping their shifts out on the ice to be here. He didn’t blame them. Life was hard in Capricorn. Even with the near constant dark of winter behind them, the days were short and bitterly cold. The Vauxhall might reek of alcohol and unwashed men, but it was warm and full of life.
Dressen felt depressed as he stepped into the blinding sunshine. Almost immediately the light proved too much for his weak eyes. He threw up an arm over his face and leaned against the cold, yellow plaster of the Vauxhall. When his eyes began to adjust, he checked his pocket to make sure he had his sound amplifier. You couldn’t be too careful these days.
At that moment, the Oriental kid came limping through the electric doors. “Excuse me,” he said as he reached into the folds of his pocket and removed a gas mask. “Are you Dave Dressen?”
Flurries of black dust swept down the unpaved street, kicked up from the desert plains far to the east, and stung the exposed skin at Dressen’s face and ankles. Grimacing, he said, “I don’t do autographs or pictures anymore, if that’s what you’re after.”
“I’m not,” the boy said, looping the straps of his gas mask over his head. “Actually, I disagree quite strongly with your role in Mars’ history. I’m a Conciliator, you see. My name’s Xiao Tian Lang.”
The name meant nothing to Dressen. “That’s a sentiment I’d keep to myself if I were you. Maybe you’re new to the east side, but people here tend to dislike the idea of having their jobs stolen by immigrants. And these days even the sight of an Oriental’s likely to inflame them.”
“I’m not here to discuss politics with you, though I do find it amusing that you use the term ‘Oriental’ to describe my ethnicity when it hasn’t been applicable for centuries. The reason I spent the past three hours in that filthy casino is because I’m interested in your work.”
“You are searching for a Miss Ashley Flood, are you not?”
“Oh. Yeah, I am,” he said. It had been a long time since he’d thought of his search for Ashley as work. If anything, the hunt had become a nuisance, a source of shame that only surfaced on the rare occasions when he strayed from the Vauxhall too long.
“I have evidence that might help you locate her.”
“I bet you do,” Dressen said sarcastically. “What did you find? The address of a former lover? The name of a hotel she stayed at in Capricorn? Maybe what she was doing out in the plains? I’ve gotten a thousand tips. They never lead anywhere.”
“This one might,” the boy said as he produced a crumpled newspaper and handed it to Dressen.
Dressen unraveled it and blinked until the blurred characters came into focus. He held an obituary notice for a woman named Lily Flood; she had died three weeks ago at the age of 107, leaving behind four children, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
“Lily Flood’s her grandmother. What’s the point?”
“If you’d read the names of her descendants carefully, you’d have seen that no Ashley is listed. According to my source, that’s because she doesn’t exist.”
Already reeling from too much alcohol and sunlight, Dressen could only shake his head. “That’s impossible. My employers gave me a detailed biographical profile of her. Hell, I interviewed her brother half a decade ago.”
“She didn’t have a brother. I believe her identity was misrepresented to you, Mr. Dressen.”
“Do you know how much I’ve been paid to investigate her disappearance?”
Before Tian Lang could reply, a thunderous explosion sent him sprawling onto the steel sidewalk. A few hundred meters down the street, flames had engulfed a row house. Bits of aluminum and silvery-white nickel smoked on the sidewalks and in the black dust of the street. An old man trembled amongst the fragments, screaming and clutching his face. Tian Lang rose clumsily, both hands wrapped around his cane.
“What was that?” he gasped. Tian Lang’s gas mask was dangling from his neck, leaving his face naked and strangely vulnerable in the billowing dust.
The force of the explosion had flattened Dressen against the side of the Vauxhall, and he slowly peeled his limbs from the cold plaster. “That’s life in Capricorn, boy.”
“Should we go help him?” the kid asked, his eyes fixed on the white smoke that poured out of the building’s charred skeleton.
“Somebody will come by later.”
“Somebody? That man’s going to bleed out on the pavement.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“He’s going to bleed out in the dust. It doesn’t matter. Give me one good reason why someone would bother to contact you with this information.”
The boy seemed torn between helping the injured man and not letting Dressen walk away unconvinced. “I’m a student in the south, in Cancer, but I help organize pro-Reconciliation demonstrations and write political commentary on the Net sometimes.”
“To be honest, I don’t know what my source’s reasons were for bringing this to me. But my father is Xiao Bi An. He owns-”
Dressen interrupted him. “I know who he is. He owns the Malanga Corporation, making him one of the most powerful men on Mars.” He sighed and ran a dusty hand over his cropped head. “I don’t know if I believe you or not, but I’ll meet your source. Just not today. I need to sleep.”
“It’s not even noon!”
They made plans to meet along the southern promenade of the Bridge the next morning. Then Dressen stumbled home, drunk on alcohol, fatigue, and the lingering thrills of the Vauxhall. Before he turned the corner, he glanced back at the distant house that still sat smoking and crackling like a cooking pan left untended. Tian Lang was stumping toward the wounded man, but he was alone. No one else had come.
The next morning Dressen smacked his hand against the water sensor three times before the shower finally gurgled to life. A few seconds later the fluorescent tube overhead came on as well, thanks to some problem with the circuitry. Dressen cursed and dimmed the light with blind, groping fingers.
When he opened his eyes, he could see his naked reflection in the mirror. He shuddered. Some narcissistic bastard had lined the wall of his shower with a full-length mirror. Dressen sometimes wondered whether the mirror was to blame for his dislike of showering. It wasn’t just the extra flab that dismayed him. He’d gained quite a paunch in Capricorn, to be sure, but the changes went past that. In the mirror, he could see the deep furrows left by a thousand improbable and soul-crushing defeats at the card table. Shadows encircled his eyes, deep purple bags that lent him a haunted appearance he was only too thankful to hide behind his shades. Dressen hit the soap dispenser, but it was empty. Probably had been for months. Thin lines of congealed soap ran down the wall beneath it. He scraped them with his fingernails and rubbed the white flecks over his arms and neck. How had he come to this?
Dressen left for the Bridge early in case he ran into a demonstration. Firearms had been banned for years, so he grabbed his stub-nosed sound amplifier and slipped it into his trouser pocket. He fitted his earpiece into his left ear and muttered a brief prayer the battery would hold up. His old gas mask lay in the corner, but he left it there; he was too old to worry about trifles like overexposure to carbon dioxide.
But there was no denying that the atmosphere was going to hell. Theories abounded as to why the artificial atmosphere was finally failing after three hundred years. Some said certain Earth-backed interests were intentionally emitting pollutants to destabilize it. Others claimed it was inevitable, given the lack of abundant oxygen-producing vegetation. Dressen doubted he’d live long enough for it to matter.
The streets were dangerous enough. More than a few ruffians were out on the corners, faces shrouded by masks, hefting steel bars, ice picks, wrenches. Dressen even saw a fat man with a beam cutter slung over his shoulder. Dressen couldn’t imagine how he’d acquired it. Such items were the prized property of Malanga, the corporation which monitored ice concentrations in the polar sea and operated the Grand Canal.
Many of the men recognized Dressen, nodding at him and bidding him good morning as he passed. Dressen felt absurdly glad. At least in these quarters his reputation remained intact. He wondered whether the bombing he’d witnessed yesterday had gotten everyone riled up. Something sure had. Six days until contact reopened and Mars’ second largest city was on the verge of civil war. You could see signs of it everywhere. Wary faces pressed against every window. Newscasts filled with demagoguery. Shopkeepers outfitting their storefronts with iron bars and electrical cables ahead of the inevitable riots. Food had been running low in Capricorn for weeks as merchants grew increasingly reluctant to ship their wares up north for fear of the violence. The floating gardens that drifted throughout the city could hardly produce enough to accommodate the demand.
So it fell to the churches to tend to the masses. They had risen to the occasion. Seeing the recent famine as an opportunity to attract new converts, the Yoruba and Christian branches had transformed their churches into makeshift soup kitchens. For the price of a sermon, you could get a pretty decent meal at them, provided you were willing to wait. This Dressen knew all too well. He often ate at a local Catholic church when he was between paychecks. He’d been raised Catholic and still wore a silver crucifix in remembrance of his dead mother, but that didn’t make him feel any less humiliated when he filed into line behind a bunch of beggars and alcoholics.
The lines were especially long that morning. Dressen had to skirt queues that stretched for half a dozen blocks on his way to the Bridge. Even the Zoroastrians had managed to draw quite a following, he noted with a wry smile. He soon reached the cobbled walkway that bordered the Grand Canal. Fed by the cold waters of the polar sea, the canal flowed due south, irrigating the farms of the midlands and nourishing the parks of Cancer, the capital. The shimmering waters before him were responsible for a hundred miracles on Mars. None here though, Dressen reflected. He had never seen so much as a blade of grass in Capricorn that wasn’t encased behind a thick sheet of glass.
But for all the canal’s beauty, it was the Bridge that truly captured his attention. A massive granite structure that spanned the length of the canal, the Bridge was a city unto itself; its multicolored buildings and spires loomed four and five times higher than the hunched aluminum dwellings that dotted the east and west sides of Capricorn. Throngs of people, many fleeing the recent violence, filled its wide streets. Red uniformed officers marched amongst them, carrying stun guns that sparkled with bluish light.
Dressen made his way through the press of passersby until he found the little restaurant where Tian Lang waited. The boy sat with his cane in his lap, sipping on some milky white drink. He smiled when Dressen entered.
“I’m glad you made it. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Yeah, what’re you having?”
“Horchata. Would you like one?” Dressen caught the sweet aroma of almonds and coconut. Artificial flavors, of course. You couldn’t find specialty items like those in Capricorn nowadays. Hell, you probably couldn’t find them in Cancer either, given what the recent atmospheric fluctuations were doing to crops in the midlands.
He wrinkled his nose. “God, no.” He looked at the barista behind the counter and gestured at the deserted bar. “I’ll have a Valles Marineris. Make it a double and put a little vermouth in it.”
Tian Lang shook his head. “On second thought, we need to leave now. Adewale’s expecting us.”
Dressen doubted this immensely. “Adewale?”
“My contact. And I’ve only ever spoken with him via the Net, so your guess is as good as mine.”
They left the coffee shop and set off down the bustling street. Dressen kept a slow pace for the boy, who had trouble navigating the swollen crowds. “You always use that cane?”
“Am I that clumsy?” the boy smiled, showing better humor than Dressen expected. “No. A year ago I was at a pro-Reconciliation rally in Cancer when things got out of control. Riot police charged the protestors and people began to run. I fell and was almost trampled to death. If I was on Earth, the doctors could have fixed my leg, but we don’t have the proper equipment.”
Dressen nodded. “That’s a nice cane though. Does the wolf have any significance?”
“It was a gift from my father. In Mandarin, my name means wolf howling at the heavens.”
“Doesn’t sound like a traditional Oriental name.”
“My father cares little for tradition. He had something of a wayward upbringing and wanted me to follow in his footsteps. I’m supposed to take over his company someday, but only after a rebellious youth spent getting in and out of trouble, strange as that sounds.”
“Have you been obliging him?”
Tian Lang smiled wistfully. “No, I’m afraid not. I had some regrettable experiences with drugs during my first few years in Cancer, but no problems since then. I’m rather boring now, apart from my involvement in the Reconciliation Movement. And if there’s one thing my father despises, it’s Reconciliation.”
“So are you two estranged?”
“To a degree. He still pays for my education, but we rarely speak. I doubt he even knows I’m in Capricorn.”
They left the main thoroughfare for a side street that was still terribly crowded. Red uniformed men were everywhere. Tian Lang gestured at one of them with his cane.
“Why don’t you see more of those guards on the east side?”
“You really don’t talk to your dad much, do you? His company runs security for both the east and west sides, or it’s contracted to. With all the violence lately, it’s hard to say Malanga runs anything now. These red uniformed men work for the lictors in Cancer, for the government. They don’t leave the Bridge.”
“Why don’t the lictors assume responsibility for the whole city?”
“They don’t have the influence. The Bridge is a neutral zone, under the lictors’ direct authority, but the rest of Capricorn functions as a more or less free city. The lictors might have been democratically elected, but they don’t rule much outside of the capital. You don’t really appreciate that until you get out of Cancer, but anarchy is Mars’ true ruler. For the next week anyway.”
Tian Lang’s source lived in a basement apartment tucked beneath a hashish shop. When they rang at the door, Dressen noticed small black globes lining the underside of the lintel and felt uneasy. The last time he’d seen such precautions, he had been interviewing an arms dealer on the west side.
The man who opened the door was tall, slender, and dark-skinned, with bloodshot eyes and a heap of greasy dreadlocks adorned with pink ribbons. “Xiao Tian Lang,” he said, bowing low. He extended a small, almost dainty hand to Dressen. “Mr. Dressen,” he said, his tone flavored with what might have been amusement or pity. “My name is Adewale Akogonnaye. I’ve been observing your progress on the Flood case for some time now.”
“Progress is a kind way to describe it.”
“Indeed it is, but we’ll discuss that later. Please come in.”
Adewale’s quarters were dimly lit, to Dressen’s relief. A luminescent layout of the Milky Way Galaxy clung to the ceiling. On the near wall hung a hand-drawn map of old Earth. It was curiously incomplete along the margins, with only some strange lettering to represent the missing continents. “Here there be lions,” Tian Lang read aloud. “Lions? Shouldn’t it say dragons?”
“Anyone who thinks that is a slave to superstition and if there’s one thing I despise, it’s superstitious fools.”
“Oh,” Tian Lang said quietly. He backed away from the map.
Adewale led them over to a computer rig, replete with half a dozen monitors, that he’d set up on an aluminum table pushed against the far wall. Vials of blue and red pills lay scattered across the tabletop. Dressen recognized them as synthetic opioids.
“You keep those here for anyone to see?”
“I have a few clients coming by later.”
“You knew I was a detective. What if I’d been with the local police?”
Adewale smiled broadly, revealing two rows of huge yellowed teeth. “You’re no more a detective than I am. You’d never have been hired for this case if you were. You really think the people paying you want you to succeed?”
Dressen’s lip curled. He looked significantly at the pills spread across the table, but said nothing.
“While I boot up my rig, take a look at this,” Adewale said. He handed Dressen a dust stained newspaper. It contained a list of Mars’ concessions as part of Reconciliation.
“I’m familiar with the terms of Reconciliation,” he said with more than a trace of irritation.
“One requirement is that Mars must surrender its heavy weapon caches to Earth.”
“Then you’re aware that’s behind a lot of the tensions in Capricorn. People feel betrayed by the lictors. They’re supposed to be looking after our interests, but now we’re hamstrung if Earth decides to scrap the treaties and invade.”
Tian Lang began to protest, but Adewale silenced him with a gesture. “I’m not saying I agree, I’m just trying to provide a little background for Mr. Dressen, whose extended stays in casinos may have prevented him from keeping up with current events. In order to be sure Mars held up its end, Earth sent a number of weapons inspectors to investigate potential arms caches. Your Ashley Flood was one such inspector.”
Dressen shook his head in bewilderment. “That’s impossible,” he said. “It’s been seven years since Ashley vanished; negotiations with Earth began less than three years ago. How can there be any correlation?”
“From what I hear, certain lictors opened secret talks with Earth almost a decade ago.”
Dressen’s bloodshot eyes widened beneath his dark glasses. “Those are some wild claims you’re making. If they were ever substantiated, people would be clamoring for blood. How do you know this?”
“I’ve been intercepting transmissions from the government offices here in Capricorn for years.”
“You’re telling me this apartment has a Net connection? I thought the lictors banned private access thirty years ago, when Earth pulled the satellites.”
“Why do you think I live on the Bridge, if not to steal the signal from the municipal buildings? Here, you need to read this transmission,” Adewale said, motioning at a monitor. The screen showed instructions to an unemployed engineer to masquerade as Garth Flood. The man was to arrange a meeting with David Dressen and relay information listed below. Dressen went cold. Some phrases had been repeated to him verbatim over the course of their interview. So he truly had been set up.
Dressen’s eyes hurt from staring at the brightly lit screen. He pulled off his shades and rubbed his eyes as the sheer pointlessness of the last seven years washed over him. He’d known he’d wasted them, what with the countless hours of drinking and smoking and whoring. But even in his darkest moments he’d been able to assuage his guilt with the knowledge that he was investigating the disappearance and likely murder of an innocent girl. Now didn’t know what to feel. He couldn’t imagine what came next. Besides a drink, he thought with equal parts humor and despair.
“It’s very persuasive, isn’t it?” Tian Lang asked Dressen, who could not bring himself to respond. “Show Dressen the timeline.”
Adewale made no response. He was focused on another monitor; this one showed only black and white schematics of a massive spaceship, and as his hands flickered over the keyboard, the lines of the ship rose and fell like waves.
“Adewale, the timeline?”
Adewale shook his mass of dreadlocks as though awakening from a dream. He flipped open one of the little red vials, popped two pills in his mouth, and washed them down with flowerwater. Then he activated another screen. On it he summoned up a detailed map of Capricorn, the polar sea, and the surrounding desert. A series of teal arrows began to traverse the region, from Capricorn to the polar sea, to half a dozen locations out in the desert, and then back to Capricorn. Then a second grid appeared, this one composed of dotted crimson lines; the red lines overlapped the teal ones until near the end of the route, at which point the red line terminated just north of Capricorn.
“The teal grid represents Ms. Flood’s planned itinerary, the one she’d arranged with her inspection team. The crimson line shows her actual route, insofar as I’ve been able to piece it together from personal contacts, video surveillance, and Net messages.”
“You will notice, Mr. Dressen,” Tian Lang added. “That the actual route ends after Ms. Flood reaches an address on the shores of the polar sea.”
Dressen nodded, but could not bring himself to meet the kid’s eyes. This drug dealer had put together an infinitely better reconstruction of Ashley’s last days than Dressen himself had managed to do in seven years. Assuming it was accurate, of course, but for all his quirks, the man seemed extraordinarily competent. And Dressen had more than a few regrettable habits of his own. He spied a fridge on the kitchen counter, blue vapor pouring through its opened doors. Not much chance an opiate dealer drank alcohol, but he went over to inspect it anyways.
“Mr. Dressen? Are you paying attention?”
“Yes, of course,” he said, taking what he hoped was a surreptitious look at the fridge’s contents. No luck. “So what’s the significance of that point of divergence?”
Tian Lang glared at him. “You should be taking this more seriously. That point happens to be the headquarters of Malanga. My father’s corporation.” He leaned in closer. “I wouldn’t be surprised to find that my father has a hand in all this.”
Dressen raised his eyebrows.
“Don’t lose sight of the bigger issue here,” Adewale warned. “If your girl was killed, then she must have stumbled across something she wasn’t meant to see. And that means someone up in Capricorn has been stockpiling a lot of illegal weapons ahead of Reconciliation, weapons that could end up killing thousands of people and maybe even ignite another conflict between Earth and Mars.”
Dressen could only shake his head. Tian Lang tore a page from a nearby notebook and began jotting down a rough approximation of the maps.
Dressen turned to Adewale, whose attention had already begun to wane, or so Dressen judged from the spaceship diagrams that filled every monitor. “If you don’t mind me asking, why are you helping us? I mean, I’m getting paid. The kid’s a diehard Conciliator. Why do you care?”
Adewale gave him a look of disdain. “I don’t care at all about your case. I am interested only in its implications. I don’t need to tell you that Mars has grown stagnant these past thirty years. If anything, we are regressing; the atmosphere’s a mess, technology’s failing, living conditions are scarcely better than they were during the colonial era.”
Adewale rose to his feet and gestured at the ceiling, his voice growing more impassioned as he went. “Human ingenuity should be aimed at preparing colony ships for expansion into the adjacent systems, searching out habitable worlds. But we hamstring ourselves with factionalism and petty grievances. Instead of looking forward, we dredge up obsolete terms from the past, lictors and archons and all the rest. We name our cities in a dead language. And yes, these are trivial things, but they are symptomatic of a much larger problem. I believe the disappearance of your missing girl was intentionally covered up by the very men and women who are paralyzing our society for their own interests. And I intend to see them gone from power.”
Slowly, as if remembering he was not alone, he shifted his gaze from the glimmering map of the galaxy to his guests. “You’re going to run into difficulty as your investigation continues. The kid’s ties to Malanga should see you through there without trouble, but out in the desert you’re liable to run into drug runners, pirates, death cults, and worse. I’ve contacted a few associates of mine to see you through.”
“That’s not something I’m worried about.”
Adewale’s fingers drummed the aluminum table. “It should. That little noise amplifier you’re holding is a puissant enough thing in the streets, with all the arms restrictions, but you’ll find that when it’s pitted against rail guns and flechette pistols it will seem a good deal less reassuring.”
A harsh banging at the front door interrupted him. Adewale frowned and with a few keystrokes brought up surveillance footage of the hallway. Three men in grey jackets clustered around the doorway. The tallest of them was smashing the butt of his lightstick against the doorframe.
“Is that the police?”
“You see any red uniforms?” Adewale replied curtly as his fingers flew across the keys. The glow lamps along the walls dimmed, as did the luminescence on the ceiling. “Those men could be with anyone.”
Dressen had a hard time believing they were in serious danger. Tian Lang seemed to share that view.
“This is ridiculous,” he said as the battering at the door continued. “I’ll just go explain to them who I am and put a stop to this.”
“I wouldn’t advise that,” said Adewale as he rummaged through one of his drawers.
Tian Lang tapped the access panel and cleared his throat as the door slid open. Before he could utter a word the lightstick caught him across the shoulder, crackling blue. Dressen heard a short cry of pain as Tian Lang buckled and fell, his cane giving way beneath him.
The other two men stepped into the room, holding what Dressen guessed were antiquated nail guns. Dressen lifted his hands in a halfhearted gesture of surrender.
“Shut up and hand over that little sound pistol we know you’re holding,” one of them said. “This gun’s aimed at your head, and even with iron sights, I won’t miss.”
“Good thing I keep little of worth up there.” When this elicited no reaction, he switched up his approach. “Listen, I’m David Dressen. You know, the hero of Ares Plaza.”
“You recognize him?” asked the man to his comrade. He shook his head.
“How can you not know me?” complained Dressen, lifting his glasses to show his face. “Remember, thirty years ago in Cancer, I was the one who took out that riot squad.”
The man with the lightstick pushed the others aside. He had high cheekbones, a sharp nose, and would have been very handsome were it not for a bad harelip that extended from the corner of his upper lip to his nostril. The scar there rippled when he spoke. “Yeah, I’ve heard of you,” he said. “I hear you’re a degenerate gambler now. You know, there’s only one cure for that.”
“Oh yeah, what’s that?” Dressen asked as he reached into his pocket. His fingers closed around the noise amplifier.
The man swung his lightstick in a lazy arc that caught Dressen full in the chest. As electricity coursed through his body, Dressen could feel his heart freezing, then slamming repeatedly into his chest. He slumped to the floor amid loud shouting and the tinkling sound of shattered glass, and then he found he could no longer breathe.
Dressen woke to the strange sensation of metal shifting on his skin. A robed figure leaned over him, adjusting three shiny metal patches on his chest. Thin wires looped from them into a cylindrical, glowing device in the man’s hand. When the man stepped back, Dressen was overcome by the hard pinkish light of sunset that came streaming in through the window and forced his eyes shut.
“I’d recommend keeping your eyes closed and holding a deep breath for the next minute,” the man said.
Dressen jerked uncontrollably as the device gave off a low whine. Tremors wracked his body and then gradually subsided. He opened his eyes to see the man thumbing a button on the device. The green patches on Dressen’s chest retracted silently back into the machine.
“I’d hoped to finish while you were still unconscious, but it makes no real difference. You were showing symptoms of arrhythmia and Xiao Xiansheng wanted to have it corrected immediately.”
Dressen’s head throbbed from alcohol withdrawal and about ten thousand more jolts of electricity than he was accustomed to receiving. “Who’s Mr. Xiao?”
“I am,” said a high-pitched, melodious voice. Dressen craned his neck to see a man sitting behind an enormous steel desk on the far side of the room. Dressen shook his head. He’d thought he was reclining in a hospital ward, but he appeared to be in a richly furnished study.
“I could scarcely believe my eyes when Uther brought you in with my son,” said Mr. Xiao. “I have looked forward to meeting you for a long time. I was hoping you might be persuaded to sign your hologram.”
Mr. Xiao tapped his ear. “Speak up, my hearing’s not so good.”
“What do you mean my hologram?”
With the wave of his hand, Mr. Xiao indicated the rows of holograms that lined both walls of the study. In one corner hung a three dimensional representation of Dressen as he had looked thirty years ago. Dressen stared at his sharp, angular nose, restless blond hair, and horizon eyes not yet dulled by years of darkness and whiskey.
“I have all the heroes of the Revolution on these walls,” Mr. Xiao said proudly. As he spoke, the physician placed the rest of his equipment inside a velvet case and left.
Dressen threw on his shirt that lay neatly folded on the floor beside him and stumbled unsteadily over to the bank of windows that lined one wall. Beyond them sprawled the frozen blue waters of the polar sea, its ice floes shimmering in the sunset. He wondered if old Orvar was out there even now.
“What you see is the lifeblood of Mars, Mr. Dressen. Without it, without my company, the fertile midlands would return to desert and all seven hundred million residents of Mars would slowly perish. Even Cancer would be overcome in time. We keep Mars alive. I keep Mars alive. And in a few short days, all my efforts will have been for nothing.”
“You’re speaking about Reconciliation, I presume?”
“Reconciliation,” said Mr. Xiao, injecting the word with thick venom. He picked up a jade figurine from his desk and rubbed his thumb across its worn, pocked surface. “A misnomer if there ever was one. Honest men and women secured Mars’ liberation thirty years ago. Those insidious lictors have undone all their sacrifices, and for what? Higher balances in their already swollen accounts? Access to the anti-senescence drugs that will be prohibitively expensive for the common people? But I digress. The reason I directed my physician to see to you before my wayward son is because I understand he’s fallen in with you and I wanted us to have a private chat before this becomes a scene.”
At that moment a tall man dressed in grey body armor appeared at the door. Dressen recognized the man from Adewale’s apartment, the one with the bad harelip.
Oblivious to Dressen’s presence, the man said, “Sir, we totaled thirty-seven targets tonight. I think we can safely double that-.”
“I have a guest, Uther,” Mr. Xiao said tersely.
Uther did a double take. Then his lips twisted into an expression of pure loathing.
Dressen smiled coldly. “I’ve been enjoying Mr. Xiao’s hospitality. If you don’t mind me asking, what happened to Adewale?”
The man said nothing.
“My apologies,” Mr. Xiao said. “I requested that he bring my son in for questioning with all haste. My staff can be a tad overzealous at times.”
“Like when he almost killed me?”
“That was a grievous error on my part,” said Mr. Xiao. “Although that man, Adewale, murdered two of my men when no real harm was intended. So forgive me if I do not reek of pity.” He turned toward Uther. “I will debrief you later. If you could retrieve my son, I would be most appreciative.”
Layers of hatred and rage bunched together on the man’s face as he stalked out of the room.
Mr. Xiao leaned toward Dressen. “So, I understand you’re investigating the case of a Ms. Flood. I met with her in the last days before her disappearance.”
“You spoke with her?” Dressen asked, his voice sharpening with interest.
“Yes, of course. Surely you’ve gleaned that much.”
“All I know is that something she learned here led her to change her itinerary.”
“Ms. Flood interviewed me briefly. She expressed her concerns about certain warehouses on the west side. I did my best to allay her suspicions, but the sad truth, as I told Ms. Flood, is that my company is hardly capable of monitoring all the goods that pass through this thriving metropolis of ours.”
“So what did you tell her?”
Mr. Xiao placed the jade figurine on the coarse steel of his desk with a strange reverence. “I advised that she speak with Song Tai Ruan.”
“The de facto head of the west side?”
“Yes. A very clever man, Tai Ruan. Perhaps the most clever in all of Capricorn. Besides me, of course. Song Tai Ruan has been stockpiling weapons for years in preparation for a possible escalation in tensions between the east and west sides. If you’ve been following the recent news reports, the number of people wounded or killed from the east side is nearly triple that of those from the west. A striking coincidence, would you not agree?”
“So you’re saying it was Tai Ruan who she went to see next?”
Mr. Xiao nodded. “I’m afraid so. This Ms. Flood was a smart girl. Too attractive by half, and lacking certain social graces, but I suspect that may all have been part of her guise. I believe she puzzled out the truth from Tai Ruan and met a quick end as a result. The man has more than a few ways to permanently dispose of unwanted, ah, problems.” He cleared his throat. “Now, I would like to speak with my son in private, Mr. Dressen. I wish you luck in your search, though I don’t approve of my son assisting you. His trimester begins next week and he should be back in Cancer, not wandering Capricorn’s hazardous streets.”
Dressen nodded. He passed Tian Lang on his way out. “Wait for me,” Tian Lang mouthed as he limped into his father’s study, defiance and anxiety mingled on his face.
Dressen idled away the next twenty minutes in a waiting room, reading over a brochure on Malanga’s stringent safety protocols. He thought of old Orvar drunk out on the ice and chuckled.
“How’d the reunion go?” he asked Tian Lang when the kid finally came limping down the stairwell.
“About as well as you’d expect. He got angry when I said I wasn’t leaving till the case was solved.”
“No, it’s fine. We haven’t had a civil talk since I was twelve. In the end, I think I might have swayed him. He gave me a few west side addresses to check out.”
“Really?” Dressen asked. “When I talked with him, he seemed oddly insistent that I leave you out of this.”
“He was at first, but I made it clear I had no intention of returning to Cancer until after this was resolved. Speaking of which, I want to investigate those locations my father gave me tonight.”
Dressen smiled. “Not a chance. This old body of mine’s suffered enough for one day.”
“Do you think another drinking binge at the Vauxhall will improve that?”
Dressen had the good grace to blush. “Don’t push me kid.”
“Can’t you see that whoever killed Miss Flood was stockpiling weapons to use against Earth and all the immigrants that are going to arrive in less than a week? If we can find her killer, we can alert the authorities, maybe put a stop to a guerrilla war that will claim thousands of lives.”
“What authorities?’ Dressen asked. “You think the lictors will do anything?”
Tian Lang did not back down. “They will mobilize their soldiers if needed. They won’t let anything derail Reconciliation.”
Dressen shrugged. He gave Tian Lang his contact information and promised to call the following day. There was nothing more to be said, so he just walked away.
Someone was rubbing Dressen’s arm. Bewildered, he opened his eyes and almost fell from his seat as the green felt of the card table seemed to lurch toward him.
“Your move, sir,” said the splotchy-faced dealer. Dressen cast a wary glance at his small pile of chips. He ran a hand over them. They felt sticky and smelled of whiskey. In the dim recesses of his mind, they had been far more numerous. He’d made a mansion out of them for his amusement, but he couldn’t say whether he’d finished it. Now everything was spinning and his head felt much the same way his heart had yesterday. Was it yesterday? He shuddered.
“What happened to me?” he asked the man beside him.
The man clapped him on the shoulder with a three-fingered hand. “A great deal of alcohol,” he said. “I’ve been here since yesterday morning and you were curled up like a baby around one of the toilets in the men’s room, or so I hear. You rallied a few hours ago, took this seat here. We’ve had this conversation before, but you seem a bit more sober now, so maybe you’ll remember this time.”
The room was a haze of shadows that stretched and grew whenever he moved his head. Dressen stayed very still, trying to gather himself. Then nausea overtook him and he vomited, to the amusement of the railbirds who laughed and pointed at him mockingly. Someone took him by the shoulder and helped him to a plush leather couch near the entrance.
“My chips,” he slurred.
“I’ve got them.”
Dressen froze. He recognized that voice, that undercurrent of disapproval. He rotated his head a few centimeters to his left, unwilling to risk another bout of nausea. Tian Lang’s unsmiling expression swam into view. Dressen let his head flop back onto the cushion.
“Why haven’t you answered my calls?”
“My earpiece . . .” Dressen tried. He rubbed his eyes with the base of his palm. “Battery’s dead.” Then he felt fingers digging into his left ear. He jerked away too late.
Tian Lang held up the earpiece, inspected it a moment, then tossed it onto the couch and said, “You turned it off. You said you’d call the next day.”
“Still . . . It’s still Tuesday.”
“No, it’s Friday. Have you truly been here all this time? Reconciliation’s less than two days away. We were going to investigate those addresses on the west side that my father gave me. Don’t you understand how important this is? We could avert another war.”
Dressen nodded almost imperceptibly, before his head fell back once more and this time he said nothing. Before long he began to snore and Tian Lang threw up his arms in disgust.
When Dressen woke, Tian Lang sat beside him, examining the map he’d drawn in Adewale’s apartment. Dressen groaned. His head ached, but he could feel himself sobering up a little. “How long was I out?”
“Four hours and twenty four minutes,” Tian Lang replied without lifting his gaze from the notebook. “Can we please leave now?”
“In a minute,” Dressen said. He ordered a hazelnut coffee and drank it slowly. When he finished, he turned to Tian Lang. “You know,” he said slowly. “The people who hired me gave me these photographs of Ashley. Only a few, and all they show is her face.” He laughed humorlessly and sifted through his pockets till he found it. He passed it to Tian Lang. “They probably wanted to conceal the fact that the photos were taken back on Earth. But there’s this one picture where it’s just her face and neck against a cloudy sky. The sun’s full in her face, making her brown eyes look radiant, like there’s a thousand constellations of stars in them. Her mouth is open like she’s shouting. But there’s so much humor in her face you can tell she’s not upset. That’s the image of her I see the most. I see it when I leave the card table, when I close my eyes. You know, if I didn’t, I think I would gladly walk away from this. But I can’t escape it, and my stupid conscience will eat away at me if I let it go. I’d like to be able to tell her family, tell whoever took that photograph, how she died. Tell them the truth.” He paused for a long while. “Or maybe the whole photo was doctored and I’m just a sucker.”
“We can find her family. I know she’s probably dead, but we’ll be able to tell them what became of her.”
“Yeah. But maybe even that doesn’t mean that much to me. I rarely think about her family, to be honest. It’s all just for me. I’d feel free, from everything, really, if I could just solve it. I’d have an excuse to leave Capricorn, return to Cancer, maybe get away from the gambling and the drinking. Maybe take on a new case.” He laughed. “But now that Reconciliation’s almost here, I’ll probably wind up dead some night. Retribution for my actions during the rebellion.” He felt nauseous just thinking about it. “Maybe you should let me stay here.”
“How can you say that?” the boy asked, his voice tinged with outrage. “Are you really that selfish?”
Dressen looked at him sadly. “Are you? What are your motives for throwing away your studies and coming here? It’s not all just high minded principles with you, is it? You’re trying to show up your dad, I expect. Do you think solving this will put him in his place? Make him respect you? Let me tell you something. Men like that don’t ever change kid. Even if we do succeed, it won’t make any difference to him.”
He knew he’d struck a nerve when Tian Lang did not respond. It didn’t take Dressen long to feel bad. “Alright, let’s go. I suppose I’d like to be remembered for more than what I did one afternoon thirty years ago.”
Tian Lang did not reply for a few minutes. When he spoke again, his voice was scarcely more than a whisper. “You know, I really do care about learning the truth. My father is only part of why I’m here, but I get your point and I’m sorry for insinuating that you were selfish.”
“Oh, I am. And don’t worry, you’re going to be just fine kid. You’ve got a long ways to go before you’re stuck like me.”
They caught a rotorcab outside the Vauxhall. Dressen regarded the rusted vessel warily. He’d piloted a few tilt rotors himself back in his youth. Even then they had a tendency to malfunction. Nowadays they were death traps, but that didn’t stop him from climbing inside. The boy told the driver to take them to 3303 Jintian Lu. Then the rotors began to thrum and the rotorcab pitched up and into the night.
Dressen always felt like a stranger when he visited the west side. Though the buildings relied on the same prefabricated aluminum frames as their counterparts on the east side, they looked nothing alike. Here thin wood paneling adorned the building facades in nostalgic homage to their ancestral towns. Fluorescent Chinese characters shone brightly on the walls of restaurants and tea shops. Gorgeously wrought temples rose from the centers of the roundabouts, decorated with jade, ivory, and other precious stones, their surfaces a liquid shimmer in the ruddy light of the glow lamps.
The tilt rotor dropped them off at a tea shop. Haggard old men sat at the long aluminum tables, playing cards and devouring the soup-filled dumplings colloquially known as xiaolongbao.
“This is ridiculous,” Dressen complained as they piled into a booth. “What are we going to do, ask the owner to casually open up his basement to a pair of strangers?”
A creased newspaper lay on the table. Tian Lang took it and began to read the latest accounts of violence in Capricorn. Dressen couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten and went up to the counter. He ordered some green tea and two racks of xiaolongbao from an older woman with short, dark hair. She handed him a porcelain cup of steaming tea and extended two fingers to indicate how long he would need to wait for the dumplings.
“I don’t see an alternative to being honest with the proprietor,” Tian Lang said once Dressen had returned. Then he froze, his mouth agape in a way that made him look even younger than his twenty years. “Do you know who that is?” he whispered, nudging his shoulder forward as though he dared not extend a hand.
Dressen saw only the older woman who had taken his order. She had piercing amber eyes and strange markings on one cheek where the skin had burned away and not wholly healed. Despite that, she was a very handsome woman who moved as lithely as a cat through the narrow confines of the kitchen. Dressen shook his head.
“That’s Chang Bei Ning. The widow Chang.”
“The woman who led all those hijackings on the Grand Canal?”
“Yes, originally it was her husband’s crew, but he drowned when one of their vessels collided with a trading ship. She carried on raiding ships for years before retiring. Last I heard she’d fled to some refuge out in the plains, but clearly not.”
A loud rapping on the aluminum counter made them both start. A tray of steaming dumplings sat there; the widow Chang was already retreating into the kitchens. Dressen kept his head down as he collected his tray and carried it back to the table. Dressen thought Tian Lang was right, though he had only a vague recollection of the widow Chang from old newscasts. Her gang had taken advantage of the power vacuum that emerged after Isolation. Unable to hire adequate protection, merchant vessels sailing the Grand Canal had been vulnerable to marauders and pirates. The widow Chang’s crew had been the most notorious of them all. Her hijackers would overcome the often hapless crews with ease and escape within minutes. Then they would detonate charges at vulnerable points along the Grand Canal, creating enormous spillways that their slender hybrid crafts could ride for tens of kilometers before activating their treads and returning to their desert hideouts. Dressen could not recall the circumstances that led to her retirement.
He bit into one of the dumplings. The boiling, fragrant liquid inside sprayed all over his clothes, face, and glasses. Cursing, he wiped them on his dark coat, blinking away the tears that welled up from the dim green light of the tea shop. Then he spotted a folded piece of paper tucked beneath the little saucer of soy sauce on his tray. He unfolded the stained paper to find an inscription in Mandarin.
He passed the note to Tian Lang, who read it aloud. “A mutual friend of Adewale Akogonnaye requests our presence in the back alley.” They exchanged a long look.
Outside, a slender alleyway curved along the left side of the tea shop. Dozens of nylon cables stretched overhead, encumbered by drying clothes and bedding. They wandered down the forking alley until it emptied into a hollow between the buildings. A little garden flourished there, dappled silver with moonlight. Dressen’s weak eyes made out a few sickly banana trees and a layering of thick grass surrounding a crumbling porcelain fountain.
A warped wooden door swung open on its hinges. Through it stepped the widow Chang, her movements smooth and precise.
Tian Lang asked her a question in Mandarin. She responded in heavily accented, but quite discernible English. “Your friend Adewale is recuperating in a hospital on the west side. He is doing well.”
“What happened to him?”
“Someone shot him with a nail gun. Were you not present?”
Embarrassed, Tian Lang scratched his head. “We’d already been, ah, overcome.”
Dressen could almost taste the scorn in her words. “Adewale used a revolver to kill two of the intruders. He is a difficult man to kill. But you did not come here to speak of him.”
“No,” Tian Lang said. “We need you to open up your basement and the rest of your property for our inspection.”
“On whose authority?”
Tian Lang’s look of indecision might as well have screamed that they had none. Before it became unmistakable, Dressen interrupted. “The lictors of Cancer sent me here. There is no higher authority.” Then he grinned. “Well, I suppose you’ve been pissing on their authority for decades, so you might not share that view.”
“We’re looking for a missing woman who may have been buried on the premises,” Tian Lang added.
Dressen winced. Subtlety was not one of the kid’s strengths.
The widow Chang turned away from them and pressed a long finger against her ear. She nodded her head a few times, muttered something inaudible, and then gestured at them. She led them to a corner of the garden where the shadows pooled. She pried up one of the heavy ornamental stones and dragged it onto the cool grass. A narrow tunnel flecked with red light lay beneath it, curving in the direction of the tea shop. Without waiting for a reaction, the widow Chang dropped the three meters down onto the rusted steel flooring and disappeared from view.
Recognizing the difficulty the fall would pose for Tian Lang, Dressen went first. The kid tossed down his cane and then froze on the edge of the hole, bracing himself with both hands as he slowly lowered himself over the side. Dressen tried his best to catch him, but he’d never been strong, even before the drinking, and they both collapsed to the ground. Dressen rose smiling ruefully, helped the kid up, and risked a quick look at the widow Chang. She was close by, for the tunnel did not stretch very far, but she showed no sign of having seen. Dressen rubbed his thinning scalp, grateful that he’d been spared at least one indignity on the day.
Then he whipped his head back. Beyond the widow Chang was a massive underground garden. Bright heat lamps hung from the ceiling, suffusing the room in a sweltering glow. Dressen took off his glasses in wonder and immediately regretted it. The fluorescence seared his vision and ignited what felt like a thousand migraines behind his eyes.
Head throbbing, he replaced his glasses and followed the widow Chang past long rows of green plants. She swept her arm about the room with palpable indifference. “If weapons were the object of your search, you see we have none.”
Tian Lang seemed equally astonished, but he gathered himself enough to say, “This is a terrarium. These are illegal. ”
“They are frowned upon, as I understand it.”
“No, they’re highly illegal.”
“A law that cannot be enforced means nothing. Do you expect the lictors to send troopers here to regulate a terrarium when they can scarcely maintain control of the capital?”
“So what is the purpose of this place?” asked Dressen lightly.
“Contingency plans in case of food shortages. Tai Ruan ordered this one and many others built decades ago.”
“A cautious man, Song Tai Ruan,” Dressen said, wiping the sweat from his forehead. “We were hoping to speak with him.”
“What more must you see? The weapon stores, the atomized launchers and chemical weapons you sought are clearly not here.”
Tian Lang had gone limping down the broad aisles, inspecting the strangely colored leaves that flattened against the glass walls like the outstretched hands of despairing prisoners. He paused in front of a purple flowered plant full of vines that reminded Dressen of the orchids that grew in Ares Plaza in Cancer.
“You say these plants are for agricultural purposes?”
The widow Chang’s face grew masklike. “Primarily.”
“What about this one here?” Tian Lang waved his cane at the plant. “I recognize it from biology classes. It’s harmless enough normally, but if you spray it with a saline solution, its leaves grow rigid and its buds emit a toxin strong enough to contaminate a thousand liters of water.”
“Just contingencies, right?” asked Dressen.
“Of course.” She held a finger to her earpiece again and abruptly walked away.
“You do know why these are illegal, don’t you?” asked Tian Lang.
Dressen shook his head.
Tian Lang gave him a look of wonder and pity. “It’s been one of the underlying principles of Martian colonization since the beginning, not to repeat ancient mistakes. That’s why you never see animals on Mars. Even the plankton that fills the polar sea was barely allowed, though everyone agrees now that it’s an essential part of maintaining the atmosphere. There are too many examples throughout history where a new organism is introduced to a foreign climate and takes over.”
“Sounds like we’re about to repeat that mistake.”
“With Reconciliation,” Dressen said with a smile. “All those immigrants.”
Tian Lang frowned, but before he could say anything the widow Chang returned.
“Song Tai Ruan will see you now,” she said. She tapped the control panel near the door, and Dressen turned to see a thin ladder unfolding from the tunnel wall. “Make your way up. I will be along presently.”
Tian Lang went first, grumbling about this era’s lack of appreciation for the handicapped. The widow Chang stood before one of the workbenches he’d noticed earlier. She fitted a large metallic sleeve over her left arm. It unfolded down the middle, and she seized a few of the plants Tian Lang had pointed out earlier and tossed them inside. Then she strode back toward them, her face darkening when she realized he’d seen her.
“Up the ladder,” she snapped.
Chang drove them to a sprawling, rust-scoured tenement on the western outskirts of Capricorn. Traditional Chinese characters glowed green on the walls. From the diamond shaped windows leaked a livid red light. A knot of ten or twelve old men with graying hair sat outside. Tian Lang spoke with them while the widow Chang went inside. After a brief conversation, he turned to Dressen. “They say they’ve never heard of a Song Tai Ruan.”
“You Orientals are a cautious bunch, eh?”
Tian Lang shrugged. “I’ve studied Song Tai Ruan in school. He came to power during the rebellion by preaching neutrality. It worked. The Orientals got through it mostly unscathed.”
“So you’re saying he isn’t behind all those bombings on the east side?”
“All I’m saying is that guerilla warfare goes against his modus operandi. It doesn’t fit.”
The widow Chang soon returned, as unsmiling as ever. She guided them through a welter of sloping corridors to a black door at the end of a hallway. A banner of flaming crimson hung above it, stitched with Mandarin characters.
“What do those mean?”
“The sky is high and the emperor is very far away,” Tian Lang said, shrugging.
The widow Chang led them into an austere room with a bare cement floor, two shelves full of books, and little else. Torches lined the far wall, guttering in their primitive sconces. A hulking mound of a man who must have been Song Tai Ruan sat on a bamboo cot in the center of the room. He had saggy jowls, an ashy beard, and red rimmed eyes that suggested he’d suffered his share of sleepless nights recently. He wore the long orange robes so popular in the monasteries out in the plains and his shadow seemed enormous.
“Would you care for anything to drink?” he asked in a gravelly tone.
Tian Lang requested tea and gave Dressen a significant look. Dressen wavered under the force of his gaze, weighed his options, and decided he didn’t care. “I’ll take the strongest drink you’ve got.”
Unblinking, Tai Ruan motioned at a young woman who stood in the doorway. Then he rose ponderously, like a granite statue groaning to life. He took a teapot in the shape of a monstrous elephant and filled two cups with apple scented tea. He extended one gracefully to Tian Lang and kept the other for himself.
“Is this that famous apple cinnamon tea from those old canal towns north of Shanghai?”
Song Tai Ruan nodded his great head like a crumbling mountain. “We honor our ancestors through these small reminders of the past. Nothing good can come from losing touch with our roots. The last thirty years of Isolation stand in solemn witness to that.”
“So what does it mean that on the eve of Reconciliation, Capricorn’s going to hell?” Dressen asked, realizing too late that this was not the place to be flippant.
Laughter shook loose like phlegm from Tai Ruan’s beefy throat. “Perhaps that some people do not wish to be saved. I see you wear a crucifix. You are a Christian?”
Dressen inclined his head. “Non-practicing, though.”
“Then you know very well what it is to let salvation lie untouched at your fingertips. But to the matter at hand. I assume you believe me responsible for the violence on the east side?”
Tian Lang spoke up. “There were three attacks last night alone. Seven people dead in an electrical fire down in the tenements along the Grand Canal, fourteen from phosphorous grenades lobbed into a Szechuan restaurant. Sixteen drowned when a houseboat foundered off the Grand Canal. Singed marks along the bottom suggest a beam cutter was used. A lot of people died last night. It’s hard to believe they weren’t retaliatory strikes from your people.” Upon hearing these words, Dressen felt a nagging sensation that he was missing something.
“My advisors have yet to identify a likely perpetrator. But believe me when I say that I have no wish to feed the smoldering flames that threaten to engulf our city. I have ordered nothing besides a mobilizing of our local guard. And yet, I have awoken each of the past five mornings to the news that more people on both the east and west sides have been injured or killed. So what do I make of this?”
Apparently drained by his brief time on his feet, Tai Ruan sank onto the bamboo cot. He rested his gnarled, hoary hands on his knees. Crudely tattooed characters curled up his forearms. “Do I think rogue agents have the ability to carry out these attacks? No. Do I think the lictors in Cancer are likely to be responsible? No, they have too much to gain from Reconciliation. As things stand, your father is the most likely culprit, Tian Lang.”
To Dressen’s surprise, Tian Lang looked far from outraged. In fact, a low smirk creased his boyish features and he gave a conspiratorial nod. Dressen decided to point out the obvious. “You know, we spoke with him recently, and he pinned the blame on you.”
Tai Ruan smiled. “I am not surprised.”
Dressen suddenly realized what had been bothering him earlier. “Wait. How many people died on the west side last night?”
Tian Lang did some quick calculations. “Thirty-seven altogether.”
“Last night your father’s man Uther interrupted us while we were speaking. He said he’d gotten thirty-seven targets. He must have meant people.”
Tai Ruan smiled sadly. “Tian Lang’s father and I were allies during the rebellion, bound by our mutual concern for Capricorn. But he’s lost sight of that in the intervening years, and much more, I’m afraid. He certainly has the resources and the drive to carry out the attacks. I am ashamed to admit I cannot challenge him directly. His security forces would easily overcome whatever feeble resistance I could muster. But there may be another way. As I understand it, you are searching for a missing woman named Ashley Flood. Is this true?”
“I also spoke with her. Xiao Bi An warned her that I kept heavy weapons caches scattered throughout the city. I showed her the secrets I have buried throughout the city and so won her trust. Then I directed her to Xiao Bi An’s own hiding spots, the ones he used during the rebellion.”
“Where are they?”
“Scattered across the polar sea. I can direct you to one of them, a monitoring station I told Miss Flood about seven years ago.” Tai Ruan crooked his finger at the young woman who lingered at the doorway. She entered and hesitantly thrust a small bottle of baijiu, a foul Chinese liquor, into Dressen’s arms. “Qing ni wen Chang furen lai ba.” Tai Ruan turned back toward Tian Lang and Dressen. “Miss Chang will see you safely brought to the station. We stand on the precipice of a better Mars. Don’t lose sight of that, whatever these next few days bring.”
When he walked outside, Dressen could scarcely believe his eyes. A skimmer sat idling on the cracked streets outside the tenement. It was only a six-seater, hardly impressive compared to some of the ones he’d flown in his youth, but such crafts were extraordinarily rare nowadays. They relied on fusion reactors that nobody left on Mars could recharge or replicate. Tai Ruan must have paid a fortune to acquire this one. They would probably need it before the end. Tilt rotors would be too noticeable; the skimmers relied on close contact with the ground to function, and so would be much harder to detect. Dressen couldn’t resist climbing into the front seat and running his hands over the controls. Vehicles had always intrigued him. They’d been the reason he’d pursued a career as a pilot in his youth. He glanced up at the stars. It was still dark enough that he could probably pilot the skimmer himself if need be. He ran his hands lovingly over the control panel.
His pleasant reverie was cut short by the cool voice of the widow Chang. “What do you think you’re doing?”
She stood at the door, her thin frame blotting out the red light from the tenement windows. Dressen shrank back in his seat and began contorting his body to join Tian Lang in the back. The cramped confines of the skimmer made this an agonizingly slow process, and by the time he was sitting up straight, a look of sheer bemusement had replaced the widow Chang’s normally grim features.
When she activated the skimmer’s engine, its thrusters rattled as though they hadn’t been ignited since the colonization era. Which, Dressen reflected, might well be the case. But they still worked. Growling and shaking, the skimmer tore down the deserted street and in moments they were out of Capricorn and into the desert.
They sped across a fractured landscape where great slabs of black rock conjoined at strange angles. Far overhead, Phobos and Deimos loomed brighter than Dressen could ever remember. He realized that their star ports were back in operation, awaiting the first trickles of immigrants that would no doubt begin tomorrow, the harbingers of the long awaited flood of Reconciliation. But for all their light, the desert wastes north of Capricorn seemed as dark and inhospitable as ever.
Dressen shivered beneath the synthetic wool coat and neoprene suit he’d been given by Song Tai Ruan prior to their departure. Temperatures ranged from freezing to life-threatening out on the polar sea, as Orvar and many other ice cutters could attest, and taking a small craft, even a skimmer, out on the waters was immensely dangerous.
He nudged Tian Lang and gestured out at the pitch black dunes. “You know, before Mars was settled, these plains were albedo formations. These sands were white as dried bone. That was the problem, because you need heat to create atmosphere, and white sand doesn’t trap a whole lot of heat. So they took massive amounts of ammonium nitrate from the moons and spread them all across the northern deserts in order to increase heat absorption from the sunlight. That’s one of the main ways they got the artificial atmosphere working.”
Tian Lang smiled. “Yes, I know. That’s Martian geology 101, believe it or not.”
“Oh,” Dressen said. “I probably should have guessed that.” He paused. “Do I figure in any of those textbooks? I always wondered if my name was one of those big, bold-faced terms that students had to memorize.”
Tian Lang laughed. “No, but you do warrant a few footnotes.”
“What did you do?” asked the widow Chang.
Dressen had told the story so many times that its rhythms came to him as easily as the Christian prayers he said in Mass as a child. In many ways, it was the story of his life, or at least the only story people ever cared to hear.
“When I was young, I piloted a thresher, one of those big ones with the huge turbines they use out in the midlands to scatter seeds and fertilizer. As irrigation improved in the midlands, most thresher pilots found themselves out of a job, but I wound up in Cancer, helping maintain Ares Plaza and a few other parks. During the height of the rebellion, about twenty thousand protestors went marching on Ares Plaza. The government called in the riot squad and things got ugly fast. Protestors were firing rail guns and throwing dry ice bombs along with whatever else they could find. The riot squad countered with sound amplifiers. Way I understand it, a good portion of the rioters lost their hearing permanently that day, that’s how bad it was.”
“My dad was in that crowd,” Tian Lang said. “That’s why he’s nearly deaf.”
Dressen nodded. “So I was working that day, trying to fertilize a grassy plot along the margins of the riots, when I realized just how badly outnumbered the riot squad was by all the protestors. And, you know, I’d always sympathized with the independence movement, so I brought the thresher in low, right over the riot squad. Now there were about five, six hundred of them, all clad in that black armor which made the dry ice bombs about as dangerous as snowballs. I activated the turbines, throttled them up to full-bore, and started swerving left and right. You’ve got to realize, those blades can attain speeds upwards of a hundred thousand rotations per second. The force they generate would shock you. Well, they sure stunned the guards that day. They got blown away like chaff. Their weapons went skittering down the pavement. Most of them ended up in the hands of the protestors.”
“Was it dangerous?”
“You better believe it. The thresher’s whole underside was scored and nicked by rubber bullets and electric bolts, but I was lucky, you see. Because they were in riot mode, they didn’t have any heavy weaponry. And you know the rest of the story. The protestors swarmed the riot squad, overpowered them, and flooded the government district. I’m sure you’ve seen that iconic picture of the protestors flooding up the steps of the embassy, tearing down the sun and stars banner of Earth and replacing it with the orange plain of Mars. That’s my legacy.” He grinned wryly and leaned toward the widow Chang. “What’s yours, again?”
She did not reply.
His grin fading a little, Dressen shrugged and watched the heaps of black rock flash by. He always presented himself in a good light when he told the story, but the truth was very different. Dressen had never had any especially strong political convictions, and the day of the riots he’d been innocently going about his work when a poorly aimed dry ice bomb smashed against his windshield. The frozen smoke reduced his visibility to about five meters, making him lose control of the thresher. Only the wildest chance had led him to not only survive, but fly directly over the riot squad. The truth was that he could just as easily have swept away the protestors and become a hero for Earth. Of course, he’d kept all that quiet in the aftermath of the riots, when he was lauded as one of the champions of the rebellion. He’d turned that into a lucrative speaking career and a brief (albeit not terribly successful) stint as a detective. The only meaningful case of his career was his current one, the one that had driven him here to the edge of the polar sea and sapped him of whatever promise he’d once held.
The skimmer floated up a steep rise. The shallows of the polar sea glimmered blue in the distance. Steam poured off the waters from the submerged reactors scattered along the sea bottom. Dressen felt very grateful the skimmer was enclosed. Powerful winds battered the small craft as it drifted across the waters. Overhead, the sky was beginning to lighten, tingeing the darkness with a faint pink that made Dressen cover his face with his arm.
“So what made you stop flying?” Tian Lang asked.
“You know the nuclear reactor that detonated on the slopes of the Olympus Mons?”
“Well, at the end of the rebellion, the newly appointed lictors wanted to take control of key infrastructure. I volunteered to pilot the team that took control of the nuclear reactor on Olympus Mons. There was only a skeleton guard on duty that night, and the soldiers I flew in took control real easy. Only it was jury-rigged it to blow if the facility was compromised. I could hear my men yelling in my headset, and I almost got out of range. But like the fool I am, I turned to watch the detonation.” Dressen’s voice was hoarse with regret. “It was the greatest light I’d ever seen. And then the greatest shade.”
They reached the monitoring station by mid-morning. Dressen felt uneasy just looking at it. Balanced precariously on massive steel beams that rose from the sea floor, the platform leaned crookedly to port, so much so that waves lapped against the girders. The widow Chang ignited the skimmer’s thrusters when they drew near, sending the craft soaring up onto the platform.
Dressen felt bitterly cold as soon as he stepped onto the windblown deck. Freezing spray lashed his face and drenched him within moments. Tian Lang’s cane had trouble finding purchase on the soaked metal, and at last Dressen gave him his arm. Chang tried the console on what appeared to be the only door, but to no one’s surprise it was dead. Unflappable as ever, she produced a slender bundle from her coat pocket and wedged it against the bottom. She took one step back. The package began to hiss and burn white. Dressen heard the crackling sound of iron melting. Then, the widow Chang crouched low and threw her shoulder against the door. The door peeled away from the bottom like a drape being swished aside.
Tian Lang sighed as he tossed his cane through the little aperture and slid forward. Dressen followed on his hands and knees. He felt unspeakably grateful to be out of the wind. Once inside, the widow Chang began to fiddle with the mess of gears and knobs that occupied one side of the dark, narrow room they’d entered. A shadowy corridor extending from the far side of the room was the only exit Dressen could see. He followed it a little ways before it led to a creaky stairwell he dared not descend in the darkness.
“I wish we had Adewale here,” he reflected as the widow Chang searched for the power switch. She found it after a few minutes, bathing the room in red and yellow light.
“Look for the surveillance footage,” she barked at Tian Lang, who had been massaging his leg. He jumped, and immediately began stumping through the facility in search of it.
Finding himself alone with the widow Chang, Dressen couldn’t repress his curiosity. “If you don’t mind me asking, why are you helping us? No offense, but I haven’t heard much about you that suggests you care a whole lot about Mars or its people.”
“I respect Song Tai Ruan and Adewale Akogonnaye. They are the only reason I am here.”
“So you really don’t care about learning the truth, or getting justice for Ashley?”
“Is that her name? I did not know, nor do I care. I have never cared about principles or the general wellbeing of my people, Mr. Dressen. I care solely for my friends, and the shape of my life has left me with precious few of those. But for them, I would do anything.”
Dressen nodded thoughtfully. “I suppose I can relate to that. I’m much the same, in my own way. Though I’m not sure what it says about me that the only person I care about is almost certainly dead, and my motives there are suspect at best.”
The widow Chang’s cool gaze seemed to thaw for a moment. “You seem to care about the boy a little.” She paused and almost said something more, but the words froze in her mouth as the distant whine of an engine grew audible. She hastened to the ruined door and peered out. “Men are coming in that motorboat. Grey-coated men. Three of them. You and the boy need to hide yourselves.”
She tossed her overcoat onto the table. Dressen saw that the mysterious bulky sleeve from earlier still encased her left arm. It opened along a seam, revealing a row of little green plants rooted in dark soil. She tapped a button on the side, and a faint mist covered the drooping plants. Almost immediately, the leaves came to life, stiffening and gaining a shiny reddish tinge that had been completely absent moments before.
“Not just for agricultural purposes, I take it,” Dressen said. She did not reply.
“I found it,” Tian Lang’s muffled voice sounded from the corridor. He limped around the corner clutching a pair of discs.
“We’re past that now.”
Metal boots clanged their way across the platform. Hushed voices conferred and then someone said, “Make sure no harm comes to Dressen or the kid. Kill the other one.”
The widow Chang’s smile curved like a scimitar across her face. Dressen leveled his sound amplifier. Tian Lang looked queasy as he brandished his cane. They crouched behind an aluminum table, their anxious breaths mingling in the cold air.
A white beam sheared off the top of the door. Then a man wearing a grey coat jumped over the charred wreckage, a black rifle in his hands. Dressen dialed up the setting on his amplifier and clenched the trigger. The man threw his hands over his ears, the rifle clattering to the floor. Then he lost his footing and collapsed, twitching violently.
There was a thirty second pause, and then someone flung a shiny cylindrical object into the room. The whole room flashed red and Dressen heard the crackling of gunfire. By the time he could discern shapes again, he and Tian Lang lay on their backs. Two men with rifles stood over them. The widow Chang was nowhere to be found.
Uther took off his black mask and chuckled as he inspected the sound amplifier before tossing it aside. Tian Lang groaned. His gloved fingers were wrapped around his stomach. Black blood oozed between them. Uther cursed when he saw. “You’ll be fine, kid. We’ll get you to a doctor real fast.” Then the third man, the one Dressen had shot, staggered to his feet. He moaned as he massaged his ears. Uther lifted Dressen bodily to his feet, kicked his legs apart, and searched his pockets. “Not even a bottle of whiskey? I’m disappointed in you.”
Dressen’s smile soured a little. “I had a bottle of baijiu. I’m not sure what happened to it. Anyways, Adewale sends his regards,” he said.
“Is he here? Thermal readings showed there were three of you, so don’t bother lying. I was hoping to see him again.”
“Sorry, he’s resting comfortably back home. But I suspect our new companion will introduce herself before long,” Dressen said.
Uther laughed, his harelip twisting hideously in the harsh glare. “You brought a woman here? Don’t tell me it was to provide security.”
Two projectiles came whirring from the far side of the room. Uther’s comrade instantly clasped his fingers to his neck. They came away bloody, holding a slender red leaf with edges sharp as blades. Before he could utter a word, he slipped, grabbed at the table for support, and fell heavily. The second leaf buried itself in Uther’s thick coat. He swung his rifle toward the corridor. Electric bullets sprayed the wall, flickering blue as they ricocheted off the metal. Then, realizing the rifle was set to stun, Uther flicked a lever and immediately the discharge turned white.
But by then the widow Chang had vanished. Uther motioned at his fellow soldier to investigate. The man crept into the corridor warily, and though Dressen half expected him to be ambushed, he soon returned. He held up his hands and shrugged. Then there was a flicker of motion at the ruined door. Dressen blinked. Surely the widow Chang couldn’t have looped around so fast. Then she dove through the entranceway, rolling into a somersault and hurling two more leaves. One embedded itself just beneath the eye of the tall man. Whatever poison laced its edges took immediate effect; the man screamed and dropped to the floor. The second leaf that had been aimed at Uther nicked the side of his rifle and went wide.
He held the rifle at his hip, spraying wildly at the darting woman who dove and lunged from table to table, trailed by a blur of white fire. At last she charged up one of the tables and leapt toward him, a short, curved blade in one hand. She struck down with the knife even as he tilted the rifle upwards and fired. They collapsed together, remaining still for such a long time that Dressen thought both were dead. Then, slowly, Uther shuddered and pushed the widow Chang off him. Her thin coat was burned straight through in two places. Dressen’s heart sank.
“So,” Uther said as he grabbed his rifle. “Where were we?” Then, as though he’d been stung, he grabbed at his neck. Dressen saw a long, thin scar sweeping across his throat. “Oh no,” Uther said, his voice faltering.
“Looks like a pretty shallow cut to me,” Dressen said regretfully.
His eyes wide with alarm, Uther could only shake his head. “Not-not for me. I have hemophilia. Christ, I better not die from a scratch like this.” There was a long silence. “We need to hurry now. You’re both coming with me. Dressen first.” Uther marched Dressen out to the ice breaker he’d anchored off the platform. Dressen shivered as the howling winds tore at his naked face and hands. Uther pinioned Dressen’s hands with a spool of razor-wire and told him not to move.
But when he reentered the station, Dressen could hear cursing from inside. “That bitch, I swear to God I’ll kill her. How . . .” When he emerged, red-faced and furious, he was empty-handed.
Dressen smiled. The widow Chang had lived up to her reputation. There was no chance Uther would pursue her and the boy down that stairwell in the darkness, not alone.
“I don’t know what you’re smiling about,” Uther said as he climbed into the boat, one hand clamped around his cut that had already begun to ooze blood. “The physicians back at headquarters will take care of this just fine. I wish I could say the same for you and your friends. Even the boy took a pretty severe hit to the stomach. I’m not sure he’ll make it.”
“You better hope he does,” Dressen replied coldly. “His father might have something to say about it otherwise.”
Uther glowered at him, then turned the boat around and aimed it toward the distant spires of Malanga’s headquarters.
Dressen drew a lot of stares from the guards and receptionists as Uther marched him through the facility at gunpoint. Uther brushed past Xiao Bi An’s secretary, opened the door, and shoved him inside. He followed close behind, closing the door abruptly behind him.
Xiao Xiansheng sat behind his desk, leafing through the contents of a thin folder. He looked up from them and frowned. “Where is my son?”
“I wasn’t able to bring him in. He escaped with some woman who might well have some bio-augmentations. I truly don’t know how else to explain it.” Uther applied some pressure to the gauze bandage he’d secured around his neck during their trip back.
“Is he alive?’
Uther scowled. “Yes, he’s alive. His injury was not life-threatening.” He shot Dressen a warning look.
“So, as I understand it, you went with two men to apprehend a drunk and a cripple. And, for the second time in as many days, you return to me without the men. And this time you have failed to bring me my son as well, though he can scarcely walk. Get out.
“But sir!” Uther protested.
“See to your wound. I wouldn’t want you dying on account of a little scratch.”
Once he’d gone, Mr. Xiao bade Dressen sit on the same couch where he’d woken up five days earlier. “So, have you uncovered the truth of what befell Miss Flood?”
Dressen began to shake his head. Then he stopped. “You killed her.”
“Just so. I’d been stockpiling artillery and other heavy weapons for years in case Earth attempted to invade. One of the largest caches was stored in the support legs of the monitoring station you visited today. Miss Flood was an extraordinary investigator. She discovered it. I felt truly sorry for having to order her death, but I could not risk her reporting back to the authorities.”
“To the lictors?”
“What do I care about the lictors? My sole concern was that she would inform her superiors on Earth. At the time, I was afraid of being discovered. Seven years ago Reconciliation seemed impossible. I felt confident I could stop it.”
“Only you failed.”
“Yes. I bribed lictors, assassinated pro-Reconciliation leaders, promoted my own candidates. None of it was enough.”
“The fact that Mars is on the verge of collapsing may have something to do with it.”
“Collapsing?” Mr. Xiao laughed incredulously. “It is only now that we have become truly free. We have the chance to determine our own destiny. But like the prodigal son from that old Christian parable, we are returning humbled and cowed to our father, to Earth.”
“You believe in Christianity?”
“I believe in Mars, Mr. Dressen. No more, no less. I want my son to live in a Mars which is not beholden to corporations and greedy leaders. A Mars of free hearts.”
“Your own son despises the prospect of Isolation. Hell, he became crippled in a pro-Reconciliation rally. And the only reason his injury can’t be healed is because our technology, your technology, has regressed. Who are you to make that decision for him?”
Mr. Xiao moved from behind his desk, but he did not stand. For the first time, Dressen realized the old man was bound to a wheelchair. “I know well what it is to be a cripple. I was born with horrifically twisted feet. I could fix them surgically if I chose, but I have accepted my limitations. My feet are a symbol of Mars, Mr. Dressen, warts and all. I endure them because I know we all must suffer to secure a brighter future.”
“Well, Reconciliation’s almost here. The first transport ships should be arriving by daybreak tomorrow. Is this what you’d envisioned?”
“No. If I must be frank, nothing has unfolded the way I foresaw. I am left with no other choice, but to rely on you, humiliating as that is.”
“You’re relying on me?”
“Yes. I need you to publicly admit that you have solved your case, that you have found me responsible for Ashley Flood’s death, and that you have uncovered massive arms caches as part of your search.”
Bewildered, Dressen could only shake his head. “Why don’t you do it yourself?”
“I will, but at this late hour such accusations will reek of desperation. You still command respect both here and on Earth. As an objective third party, you will lend credibility to my claims. You may find it hard to believe, but most people remain unaware that you are a drunk and a degenerate gambler.”
“Not for lack of trying,” Dressen said offhandedly.
“That’s why the lictors hired you. And yes, it was the lictors who ultimately chose you to investigate Miss Flood’s disappearance, even though they engaged a detective agency to contact you in their stead. They knew if they hired a lower-profile individual they would risk seeming indifferent, thereby angering Earth. But if the case was solved and a well-connected individual or corporation was behind Ms. Flood’s death, that might hinder negotiations with Earth as well. But you, you’re incompetent. You’re a degenerate and an addict. And you’ve been everything they could have asked for. Only now, as fate would have it, I need the case solved. And I need you to do it.”
Mr. Xiao slid a laminated folder across the table. Dressen picked it up and leafed through it, only to look away in disgust. The folder contained high resolution photographs of Miss Flood’s corpse.
“I had the photos taken in case I ever needed to frame someone for her death. As it turns out, I will be using them to affirm my own guilt. So here’s what you are going to do. When you leave here, you will call up three newspapers in Capricorn and one in Cancer, and tell them everything you’ve learned. You’ll even hand over these lurid photos as proof.”
“That should be enough. The knowledge that the head of the Malanga Corporation is stockpiling weapons should inspire enough fear to delay Reconciliation for months, if not longer. That will provide me with the time to make the delay indefinite.”
“Why didn’t you tell me all this from the beginning?”
“I was unsure of your loyalties. I took considerable measures to learn the truth, believe me.”
“Did you pay Orvar to ask me those questions?”
“Him and others. Your man Orvar leapt at the chance to earn a little more money to throw away at the card tables. But to be honest, I had hoped that you would solve the case yourself, and then go public with your discoveries of your own accord. That would have saved us all a great deal of trouble. But you wasted so much time, and precious little now remains. Will you do as I ask?”
“Why would I help a man like you? You’re no better than the corporations you’re so afraid of replacing you. Hell, I see now that you’re the one behind all the violence in Capricorn, staging bombings on east side and west side alike just to make the place seem more destabilized, maybe scare off Earth from restoring contact. All those innocent lives . . .”
Mr. Xiao adopted a look of such wounded dignity that Dressen wanted to punch him. “I feel for each of them as if they were my own son.”
“I’ve seen how you treat your son. That means less than nothing.”
“Let’s be honest, Mr. Dressen. You are broke. With your case ending, there will be no more money. Should you call the press conference as I ask, I will see to it that you receive a substantial stipend for all the rest of your days, enough to ensure you never run out of funds to play in your Vauxhall. Yes,” he smiled. “I know where you spend all your time. I was the one who fed the information to that man Adewale in the first place, because I knew he’d funnel it to my son, and that my son would in turn engage your services. I have manipulated you at every step, Mr. Dressen, and you’ve been quite obliging, so please don’t do anything rash now.”
Dressen picked up the folder slowly, as though drunk with regret, and stood. He owed nothing to the girl. He owed nothing to anyone, now, and that was the way he preferred it. The holograms that lined Mr. Xiao’s wall drew his attention, all those cheerful faces, and even his own in the corner, with his bright smile and wide eyes. What had happened? Nothing, he realized. Nothing had happened, because he’d never been a hero, only a pretender and a fool his whole life. A victim of circumstance. He couldn’t change that now. “Yes,” he told Mr. Xiao quietly. “Yes. I’ll do as you ask.” He turned to leave.
“Mr. Dressen,” Mr. Xiao called from behind him. Dressen stopped. “You forgot to sign your hologram.”
An electric car was waiting for him outside. The driver asked Dressen where he wanted to go and he said home without thinking. But when he got there and unscrewed a bottle of whiskey, he realized he couldn’t go to sleep just yet. Slipping the bottle into his pocket, he left and began to wander the streets. They were quiet and strangely empty. Dressen scarcely watched where he was going, his eyes intent on the vault of stars overhead.
Then his earpiece began to buzz. He held a finger to it. The voice that crackled from the speaker was that of Tian Lang. “Dressen, are you doing okay?”
“I’m just fine, kid,” he said. “How are you?”
“I’m cooped up in a hospital on the west side. I took a stinger to my left side, but I’m going to be okay. It might be a few weeks before I’m up and running again. What happened with my father?”
“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Dressen said. “I’m glad you’re alright. You’re an awful fighter, but you’ve got some heart.”
Tian Lang laughed. “Good night.”
Dressen strolled down the darkened streets, feeling oddly numb. A massive garden came floating overhead, trailing its leafy tendrils, and Dressen stepped onto the sidewalk to avoid being soaked by the sprinklers. He looked up to see that he was only meters from the Vauxhall. Perhaps he should have guessed he would wind up here. He walked over to the entrance. Then he hesitated. He wondered, absurdly, what Tian Lang would think if he knew where he was. Then he wondered what had befallen the widow Chang, and cursed himself for not asking.
The doors to the Vauxhall slid open. The roaring of drunken laughter and a gust of heat greeted Dressen like a long lost brother. He froze there, watching the dealers and the card players and all the spectators. He ran his hands through his coat pockets, groping for the whiskey. His fingers brushed the cold silver crucifix that hung around his neck. Then he smiled and looked up.
Countless arcs of white light lanced toward Phobos and Deimos, which burned like reborn stars in the night sky. Beacons of change. Who was he to determine the fate of Mars, to determine whether Reconciliation came or not? He was an old man who’d squandered most of his life. He’d give the photos to Tian Lang, to do with as he chose. Let the future generations decide. Dressen raised the whiskey bottle to his lips and took a long swallow. Then he turned away from the warmth of the Vauxhall and set off towards home, his way lit by the incandescence of the night.
Tags: Bryan Wein, Science Fiction