After the marsupial disappeared, Wes and Daisy sat staring each other. “Listen, Daisy,” Wes started to say, in a tone she already knew well.
“Don’t say it,” she said, She gave him a lingering stare, and he shrank back.
Mercifully, there was a chime from the network. Before either could speak, a voice came through: “This is Dhahka Kaaan.” The screens stationed throughout the apartment all showed the head and ruffed neck of a great and decidedly ugly bird.
Wes scrambled to dress, though the video was supposed to be strictly one way. “Thank you for calling,” Daisy said. Wes repeated her greeting. “We are honored.”
The bird bobbed its head in acknowledgement. “The honor is surely mine… You may recall, we met some time ago.”
“I was informed there was a disturbance in your living unit this morning,” Kaan said. Wes glanced apprehensively at the air vent. The body of a eurypterid was still visible. “It appears you gave assistance to a Quarantine agent injured by a dangerous invasive organism. It was also noted, you did not report the incident to other tenants or news outlets. Your discretion is appreciated. You can expect a decontamination crew to arrive shortly. It appears they will be able to retrieve the… specimen… without entering your quarters, but there could be some further disruption if you remain in the unit.”
The bird shuffled papers. There was a glimpse of a mechanical pincer on the last fold of its wing, equivalent to the wrist. “Now, at that time we met, I was impressed with your performance,” he said. “Since then, both of you have greatly improved, enough that you have been due for a further reward. Your pairing seems to suit you. In fact, I had a word with several superiors who wanted to place you in separate departments.”
“We appreciate that,” Wes said guardedly.
“In recognition of your performance, as well as the current situation, I am giving you both the day off. A Level 3 recreation credit has been placed on both your accounts, so you will be free to spend the time as you please.”
“Thank you, elevated one.”
The bird clacked its beak in pleasure. “There is one more, minor thing,” he said. “I understand you worked on an assignment for the Power & Utilities administration, and I would like to have your analysis reviewed, purely for quality, of course. Could you, perhaps, send the files to my secretary?...”
“Sure,” Wes said. He made a few taps on his wrist organizer. “Already done.”
“Thank you,” the bird said. “Fair skies.” The image winked out.
“Well,” Wes said, “what do you want to do with a whole day off?” But Daisy only stared intently at the screen.
…And in his office, Dhahka cut off the feed as Daisy stared directly into his camera.
* * *
While many had maintained the tower known as the Deck was purely an exercise in vanity, it was undeniably pragmatic in design. This showed especially in its higher tiers. The buttresses ended by the 200th floor, and the core tower began to taper soon after, but less than a twelfth of its height was given over to apace without occupied floors. This was a flanged hyberboloid spire that looked like an ornament from below, often referred to as the Mace. In fact, the structure was almost 100 meters high and big enough for a small shopping plaza, a dozen living units, and a restaurant called Mile High, which fell short of that mark by over 150 meters. The rest of its space was given over to the rest of the building’s automated systems: communications equipment, atmosphere processors, harmonic dampers, and a maze of air shafts that included a number of wind turbines. It was in this penultimate labyrinth that the marsupial called No-Hands found his quarry, and soon found it necessary to beat a retreat.
He loped down the shaft at close to top speed, which made the lag of his prosthetic right lag more pronounced. His lip peeled pack in something between a sneer and a snarl. The short snout looked more like that of an ape than a marsupial, but nobody who saw the sharp canines and saw-edged molars would have doubted that he was a possum. From behind came the clattering and clicking of his pursuer, a male eurypterid smaller but faster than the female he was sure was somewhere nearby. He rounded a corner and paused to fire three short bursts from his broomhandle machine pistol, then he ran on.
The next intersection consisted of a cross shaft that came down from directly above, and another that ended in a second drop a few meters away. The strong air currents staggered the marsupial, but he pressed onward. He turned again and fired with a second, larger magazine as the eurypterid rounded the corner. One volley drew a spray of watery gore from one of its spiked secondary appendages, and a second wholly severed its right front leg. That was enough to send the creature slamming into the wall. He used the opportunity to turn the gun sideways and fire the rest of the magazine in a steady traverse across the creature’s carapace. The volley ripped apart a cluster of compound eyes, buying him seconds at most. He rounded another corner, only to immediately turn back. As he retreated, the metal shook with the thudding footsteps of the female. He took aim again at the recovering male, just as a third creature dropped down from almost directly overhead.
He jumped just as the creature slammed down, and landed on top of the carapace. He planted his artificial leg on a pair of eyes in the center and fired the huge barrel concealed within. The creature flipped over in convulsive thrashing, throwing him down the shorter cross passage. “Five!” he cried out. He halted himself short of the brink by scraping the metal with his mechanical hand, and then lunged forward as the wounded male rushed after him. He came inside the reach of the pincers, the only reason he was not torn to pieces immediately, but secondary appendages slashed at him. He caught one of them in his mechanical hand and barely deflected it from his face. Even as he struggled, he thrust the pistol between the poisoned inner palps and fired the full magazine directly into the mouth, until the carapace split from the impacts. The creature’s tail swung forward, even as its body skidded to a halt. No-Hands rolled aside, leaving his weapon behind, and narrowly ducked as the tail passed again. “Four!”
He sprang up with his stockless double barrel, roughly the caliber of a .22 pistol. Before he could advance, the carcass of the other male began to move. The female was pushing it toward him. He fired both barrels, shredding the carcass, but his shot merely bounced off the female’s mineralized carapace. He sheathed the gun over his shoulder as he climbed on top of the still-twitching carcass, then twisted a pin on his mechanical hand. The three metal digits retracted, revealing a circular socket. He reached into his jacket, and pulled out a slender harpoon. He affixed the harpoon and fired up with a dull chunk, just as the carcass dropped over the edge.
The female stopped with its pincers and part of the carapace hanging over the edge. It had sensed an opponent perhaps too strong to oppose by brute strength, and now it sought for some sign of its adversary, using smell and sound more than its compound eyes. However, these senses were dominated by the rush of air, the roar of machinery, and the spilled gore that slicked the metal underfoot. Still, it sensed a presence and reared up. That was when No-Hands dropped down, slamming into the carapace. He fired both barrels of the shotgun and swung away on the cable that threaded through his mechanical hand. The creature lunged forward, narrowly missing the marsupial. It belatedly scrambled to keep from sliding over the edge, and that was when the adversary swung in again, slamming its body to one side. One leg slipped over the edge, and then another, and the rest was quick and inevitable.
There was a short buzz, and the marsupial looked down as he swung, at a huge turbine fan whirling 10 meters below. The ducts echoed with his cry, “Three!” Then another, louder “HA!”
* * *
Wes and Daisy ended up going on a monorail around the city, which took about an hour. They got off at the northernmost stop, for the complex for Immigration And Quarantine. The Immigration building itself reminded Wes of a whistle, except for its entryway, which loomed like the bow of an enormous ship. He watched Daisy as she examined the building. She turned away after a few moments, her face virtually blank.
The tallest building in the complex was a nearly conical, mirror-bright building 720 meters tall, with a series of ring-shaped decks along its height. They took an elevator to one of the middle observation decks, high enough to see past the edge of the plateau that held the city. In the immediate outskirts were acres of orchards and hydroponics tanks, most bearing the name and familiar stylized figure of Farmer Bob, dotted by modular housing and much more expensive wood-and-brick units. Beyond that was a barren, almost blasted plateau, and beyond that, a rocky desert studded with twisted columns of rock. That made Daisy shudder, and they caught the next train back.
On the return trip, Wes found Daisy gazing at him. He smiled, but remained silent. Abruptly, more than usual, she said, “I’m attached to you.”
He paused, “Okay. Thanks. I guess, I am too.”
She sighed. “No it’s not like… Look, where I come from, we had a leader, like, a long time ago, who wanted women to be liberated. One of the things they say he did was propose more… precise language. So, we don’t say `I love you,’ we talk about degrees. First is appreciation, then affection, then attachment. When we say we’re attached to each other, that’s about the same.”
“Huh,” Wes said. “I guess that makes sense.”
“Yeah?” Daisy said. “More than saying the same thing to your wife that you do about ice cream?” He laughed at that.
When they returned to the Deck, they continued the day wandering a shopping plaza that filled the first five levels. They ducked into a theater that showed King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and came out laughing. Later, they stopped at an automated kiosk that churned out toy figures. Daisy ordered a set of astronauts, each 15 cm high, which Wes examined as they took the elevator back to their room. They watched more videos, while repeatedly debating making love. It was Wes who finally suggested, “Why don’t we go to the Mile High?”
“No way we’d get in,” Daisy said, snuggled under his arm. “Still, it would be fun to go up there…”
Wes thought to call the restaurant. On the second try, he got through. “Why yes,” the staffer said, “your reservations are in order. You can be seated as soon as you arrive.”
The pair looks at each other and said in unison, “Kaan.”
* * *
It was mid-afternoon when the creature called El Diablo Sin Mano Derecho, aka No-Hands, emerged into the Deck’s highest and most select shopping plaza, 1.3 km above the street. It was a circle 24 meters in span, with a single golden-leafed tree in the center, lined with small shops, kiosks and carts. The generally well-to-do shoppers looked at him with surprise, but only backed away when they saw the grime, filth, and multiple bloodstains that covered his clothes and body. He walked right up to a vendor that was selling 20 cm pizzas out of a cart and called out, “I am an agent of your government with a Level 5 credit. I have sustained injuries hunting a dangerous organism. I require sustenance. Provide for me, please, and you will be compensated.”
The merchant promptly moved to close down the cart. The marsupial bared his teeth and said, “Food! Now!”
He managed to carry the pizza on one arm as he walked up to an automated fabrication kiosk, of a type used mainly for jewelry. “Security Override, authorization A. invicta,” he said. There was a chime that indicated acceptance. “Access schematic Panzerfaust 30. Print two copies on 1-to-3 scale, with 1/4th scale grip modification. Substitute incendiary warhead for one specimen. Confirm time to completion.”
An androgynous voice answered, “Your order will be completed in… 85 to 90 minutes. Would you like to have your items delivered to your residence?”
His mane bristled, but he nodded. “I will wait,” he said. Then he walked back to the edge of the planter, sat down, and began tearing at the pizza.