Posters were going up all along Beetlebrass Street that morning. Some enterprising sergeant had put the city’s street children to work, paying them perhaps in haepennies to dash along its undulating cobblestones and paste writs of requisition across every storefront. Ustuus Creeg stopped to retrieve a loose one before the wind took it. Save the last bite for Private Cly it read, referencing the bashful soldier shown accepting a slice of pie from a pretty girl. The dictate below was still legible, ordering a tenth of every household’s organic intake reserved for military seizure, and offering examples such as breadcrusts, fruit cores, soup bones, anything nutrient-rich.
Ustuus balled the paper in his knotty fist. It didn’t matter who ruled the city of Sabot; the taking never ended. All he wanted was for the drownéd coup to end. As long as it continued, the government would keep confiscating the scraps of every meal to fuel the gut-engines of its zooefacted war machines. To most, breadcrusts were garbage. To one starving, that last bite was everything.
His belly rumbled like an idling engine.
He obeyed and moved on.
Though it would have been a hovel amongst the mansions uptown, the Peshtodi house was perhaps the finest in the Tarfort District. Its door was always open, always a scrum of hungry bodies shouldering out and in, its dining room crammed with long benches like the hall of some bygone chieftan-king, a humidity of steam and spice clotting the air.
It was a near-dead tradition, the Neighborhood Kitchen, where anyone hungry could stop in, day or night, to escape the weather and enjoy a hot meal. Only Kashaya “Mama” Peshtodi had kept it alive into this young era of industry, asking nothing in return but a heartfelt thank-you, perhaps a favor if one felt so inclined, and one always did.
It was this latter addendum that had scuttled Ustuus’s heart to the floor of his belly.
He squeezed inside to find Mama Peshtodi at her range of flaming pots and pans—a small, plump, dark woman of indeterminate years, her hair pulled back from her face into a black raincloud, her forearms gloved in flour. She laughed as she served that morning’s guests, filling their bowls as generously as the Giver Sea herself and greeting them by name. Ustuus, as he did every morning before going to work, joined the line to receive his meal, and she greeted him with her usual g’morning dear while she ladled out his basketfish stew. Her fingers touched his beneath the bowl and left floury prints.
He accepted the food with eyes downcast and squeezed into the nearest table to eat. It was delicious, as always. Ustuus adored her cooking more than that of his own late wife. Fishfat and sea-chili and squeezed citrus intermingling to mask the bitterness of obligation. Savory and salty on a tongue that would have been grateful for hardtack.
Halfway to through the bowl an elbow prodded his ribs. Ustuus froze as the diner beside leaned over to murmur, “Mama wants a word.”
Ustuus’s belly twisted itself into a knot that would not admit a morsel. He finished his meal anyway, never-minding the ache in his guts. When Mama Peshtodi asked a word, you gave her as many as she wanted.
She smiled when he returned his bowl. “Come here a moment Ustuus,” she said, leading him into her parlor. Her husband, Albrin, sat by the window, glowering over the edge of a newspaper. Ustuus had never heard the man speak. The scars on his massive knuckles probably satisfied most inquiries.
“What trying times these are, with this ugly coup business,” Mama Peshtodi remarked. “Flecter folks versus Staymer folks. Brother savaging brother. Sabot ripping itself to pieces. How’s that little lad of yours? Denly, aye?”
Ustuus had never forgiven himself for letting that name slip. Of course, that had been before he’d known the price of eating from her kitchen. “I heard you wanted a word.”
Her smile pierced her ample cheeks. “As I said, we’re in trying times. A woman must work so hard to feed all her friends in the neighborhood. Sometimes she can’t help but rely on the kindness of others. Sometimes, even though it shames her, she’s got to ask a favor.”
Ustuus knew what to say. “Let me do something for you, Mama Peshtodi.”
“What a lovely young man you are.” She stood on her toes to pluck a crumb of something from his moustache. “Do you know Unkillable Grimsby, who lives down the way?”
How could he not? Deltweth Grimsby was the boss of the Tarfellows, the biggest of Sabot’s gangs, and had been for sixty-some years, surviving everything his rivals could muster. Many of his footsoldiers were his own grandkids, raised hard and ruthless.
“I had me a constable in here the other day. He was keen to do me a favor too, at least after my Albrin helped him realize it. Boy let it slip to me that Old Unkillable is a Flecterist on the sly. I’d never have figured him as politically inclined, but they caught him disseminating rebel propaganda, so, as you may expect, that’s earned him a house-call coming from the Blackout Boys. And when I heard that, why, I thought of my friend and neighbor, professional housepainter Ustuus Creeg.”
Ustuus watched the seconds hand spin around the clock above the door. He’d be late to work if he didn’t get a move on. Each tick was a rasp on his nerve, a threatening tap on a delicate life. “Please just tell me what you want from me.”
Mama Peshtodi’s eyes flared like coals. “Old Unkillable’s slapped off the wrong folks this time. They’re taking him tomorrow night; you be there after they do. Everyone knows the bastard keeps a map of every cache he’s got in the city. A lifetime of ill-gotten gains, jealously hoarded. Bring me that treasure map before his own lads get it, and it’ll be a favor done. Without those doubloons, why, I fear I shan’t be able to keep my kitchen open. Not for everyone, at least.” Her gaze never broke from his, and from over his shoulder, Ustuus heard the newspaper crumple between Albrin’s powerful hands.
He had no time to let the silence fester.
“I’ll do it.” There was no other choice. He’d known this day was coming. “Just... I’m not... this sort of man, Mama. I want to live right and peacefully, is all.”
“I know you do, dear. That’s why I got you something.” Mama Peshtodi rummaged through her apron’s pockets and then folded Ustuus’s fingers over something small and cold and sharp. “In case you run into any... trouble.”
Ustuus squeezed her gift into his fist, hoping in vain to crush down to nothing. “You can count on me, Mama.”
Mama Peshtodi patted his shoulder. “The two great feet of War and Politics stomp over all, while us little people scuttle below. We must work together to avoid being crushed. I know you’re with me, Ustuus. I know you won’t let me down.”
Ustuus arrived at Günner & Blough’s Professional Housepainters a minute past late to his shift, his throat sore and his armpits dripping. The foreman luckily took no notice, and Ustuus had hardly caught his breath before he and his partner Vagn were back on the road to their first assignment, rattling along in a company herczécar whose tired old heart-engine sounded ready to give out at any moment.
The blood was still sticky when they arrived at the house. Ustuus found it first on the inside doorknob, where it dripped and slashed its way towards a sunburst against the opposite wall. “Blackout Boys gettin’ sloppy,” Vagn muttered, pushing past with the cart of paints and plasters into the kitchen. “Gonna be here the whole drownéd day.”
Ustuus scoured the halls for bloodstains, pail and sponge in hand. He’d never been here before, but it was easy to tell who’d called it home. The framed pictures upon the mantle described a family of two parents, a son and a daughter. The toys cluttering the upstairs bedroom suggested a self-sacrificing love, judging by the threadbare state of the mother’s wardrobe. Four plates had been set at the table, where the blood was festooned most thickly. The pot of thin seafood soup on the stovetop was growing cold. Each room told a fragment of a story.
His job was to silence them.
“You heard the news, yeah?”
He and Vagn worked side by side to slice the paper off the walls. Two heaps of the stuff already filled the sacks at their feet. “They say the Third Battalion got bushwhacked by Flecter’s at Butcher’s Creek,” Vagn went on. “Six hundred fighters, and he had them scampering up and down those hills for dear life. Don’t tell nobody I said nothing, but I’m startin’ to think Flecter might take this thing.”
“It’ll be Staymer,” Ustuus muttered.
Vagn looked up at him quizzically. “How do you figure, Mister Creeg?” Vagn, a younger man grown burly lugging cargo until the war effort commandeered the port, did a lot of talking, a lot of boasting, but not a lot of thinking.
“Because we’re his,” Ustuus replied. “For all the back and forth, never once has it been a question if his men can come to your house at night and take away your family. Have you ever once felt like that wasn’t true?”
Vagn pinched his lips and glanced at his feet.
It hadn’t surprised a soul when Louhinia Staymer appointed her son Brugan the next Quartermaster of Sabot. She’d gone from a Quartermaster’s silent wife to a silent widow, to a silent ruler, and anyone who could say how she’d done it had been made dead. That sort, Ustuss knew, didn’t let go of power—they swallowed it and passed it on through blood.
That wasn’t to say it made folks happy either. People called it the coup for ease of reference, Ustuus among them, but in truth it was a war from the first shot fired, which was from an assassin’s gun into Brugan Staymer’s gut. Harald Flecter, speaking for a coalition of generals, had claimed responsibility, and declared that power should be returned to the populace. Brugan Staymer, as silent as his mother, made no statement of his own and had returned fire with the terrible force of his military.
Sabot’s youth might wonder who between the two would win, but Ustuus never doubted Staymer, for if that youth did wonder, it was always in a whisper.
The killing would continue, both abroad and at home. Where Brugan Staymer’s informants smelled Flecterist sympathy, the Blackout Boys were sure to come knocking. Ustuus shivered at the thought.
Day or night, it mattered none; no respite from fear was permitted by law. They would arrive as randomly and inescapably as a heart attack and depart just as swiftly, propelled by a dispassionate efficiency. And for Brugan Staymer, it was not enough to disappear his dissidents, as his mother commonly had. His administration required the total subordination of reality itself. Those who were taken were not just gone, they had never been, which was where Günner & Blough’s Professional Housepainters came in.
The terms of their government contract were exacting. Ustuus had memorized them in his bones. Every article of clothing, along with any toys, photographs, and heirlooms, was to be disposed of in the nearby River Bile, that fetid water their unwitting accomplice. Gold was to be set aside; all valuables belonged to the state, and theft was an offense not worth the risk. With the house barren, Ustuus’s penultimate chore was to dig the bullets from the walls and plaster over the holes. This time, the Blackout Boys had been careful and left none behind.
Lastly, they were to slather the house in a coat of colorless paint, each room, floor to ceiling. When they were through it would be a white-sided hollowness, all evidence of its Former Individuals lovingly erased. The only untouchable impressions would remain locked by behind tongues frightened into silence. Filling in holes, painting over scuffs, wringing blood from a sponge until the water ran clear; this was Ustuus’s living: unhappening the lives of others.
“Another perfect Brugan Box,” Vagn remarked afterwards, as they packed back into the herczécar. Though they could not afford to be caught hoarding jewelry, not all that was valuable was precious. Vagn liked to collect spoons. He’d stowed half a dozen down his bootlegs. Ustuus thought that morbid, though he was no better. He’d turned the pantry out and filled his boots with dried sweetfigs. The foreman would think only to inspect their work satchels, and neither would report the other’s harmless transgressions so long as they both looked the other way. It felt like stealing crumbs from a giant’s picnic.
Ustuus climbed into the pilot’s cab but kept his hand off the starting switch. “Vagn, I need your help with something.”
“Sure, alright. What is it, Mister Creeg?”
Vagn was solid. Worked hard. Ustuus already regretted saying anything. “The foreman don’t ken it yet, but there’s going to be an assignment tomorrow night. I’m fixing to be on the job, and I’d like to have you with me. Stay with me at the office for the night shift. Even if nothing comes up, it’ll be a favor done.”
Vagn’s brow crumpled. “Sounds like some murky business, if you don’t me saying.”
“Might be,” Ustuus admitted. “You still box at the Cannonball Club?”
Vagn grinned and made his biceps dance. “Every Thassersday night.”
Ustuus glanced back at the house. “Shit. We forgot one thing.” He pointed, and Vagn hopped from the vehicle to pry the nameplate off the front door. Ustuus glanced it over, sighed, and tossed it into the back of the ‘car with the other river-bound things. Shouldn’t have looked, he scolded himself. The government would take anything, no matter how small—a crumb, a life, an existence.
“There you are, Private Cly,” Ustuus muttered as they drove away. “The last bite.”
It was darkening when Ustuus clocked out. Half a league of aimless streets divided him from his flat in the heap of tenements called the Crumbling. The herczécar belonged to Günner & Blough’s. He was not allowed to drive it home. He could have shelled out five haepennies for a ride on a public galvapede, but no. Best save his coinage for more dire needs. His own two feet worked for free, and besides, the arrhythmic churning of a galvapede’s many legs made him nauseous. Or so he insisted to himself.
Up five flights of creaking stairs he climbed to collect his son. Katirja, the girl who took care of him during the day, answered the door in her housecoat, her hair knotted up for bed.
“You’re supposed to be watching him,” Ustuus said.
“Ain’t you supposed to be here sooner than now?” she retorted with a sneer. “Your boy’s conked too. Wait here, I’ll fetch him.”
She returned minutes later guiding a knackered Denly by the hand. “There,” she said, and held out her hand to be paid. “Three tipels then.”
Ustuus frowned. “We agreed on two.”
“Aye, we did. But a girl with a husband in the war has got to take care of herself. Lookin’ after someone else’s pups is a luxury, ain’t it? I ain’t the fuckin’ Giver Sea, what can milk pearls from my teats.”
Katirja couldn’t have been seventeen by his estimation. A War Wife, bedded on the eve of deployment and then left to fend for herself. Even odds her husband never came home again.
“Two and a half,” Ustuus said.
She knew she had him over a barrel. That he couldn’t trust anyone else with Denly. He paid her in haepennies and pulled his son close. “You feed him?”
“Ask him your own drownéd self,” Katirja said, and shut the door.
Ustuus carried Denly back to their flat another two floors up. By then the boy was awake enough to eat what Ustuus set at the table for him. “I don’t like sweetfigs,” Denly complained, watching Ustuus peel off their thorny outer hulls.
He’d have liked to pilfer a tin of beans, but that wouldn’t fit down his boots. “Well, I like them even less,” Ustuus countered, “which is why they’re all for you.”
“I guess that’s fair,” Denly glumly conceded. He’d turn five in the winter, but he had brains in him that most men ten times his age were sorely lacking. He would tear through school once he reached that age. Assuming Ustuus could afford it.
But those were tomorrow’s worries. Today had plenty. “Eat up now,” Ustuus said, ruffling his fingers through Denly’s dense locks. His son had a good head of hair on him; that meant he was eating right, and Ustuus could be proud of that. “Get big and strong, so one day you can make your old man eat the sweetfigs.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Denly replied, mortally offended.
Ustuus laughed so hard his chest hurt. He’d waited all day for the chance.
The life that Ustuus had cobbled together for he and his son was balanced upon three crooked legs: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. One set of all three was a tall order in the slums of Sabot, let alone two. He’d worked out a system, a survival machine, and maintained its components with the devotion others saved for worship. Breakfast for himself at Mama Peshtodi’s, then a free lunch at the company canteen. For supper he’d subsist off whatever Denly didn’t finish, which was hardly ever much. This freed up enough coin to pay Katirja to feed Denly during the day and to put a meal in him before bed. Like any machine, it performed its function so long as all its gears were in place.
Remove one, however, and everything would fall apart.
Once Denly could show him a spotless plate, Ustuus took him to his bed and read him a story from Astelchus’s Book of Fables, the one about the Picaroon Queen and the Wyrm-‘O-The-Moon. There was no time left in the day for more. “I hope I see you tomorrow,” Denly said, his lips the last part of him still awake. The next sound he made was a soft snore.
The night draped down hard upon Ustuus, its silence leaden, claustrophobic. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he’d stop being such a miserly fool and pay the drownéd galvapede fare. Too few hours had he with his boy to fritter them away on Sabot’s streets. A son ought not to wonder if he’d see his father every day. Maybe he’d let Denly hold the book and start to teach him how to read. Maybe they’d walk down to the Garsmouth Street Night Market to ogle the queer fishes that were for sale. Then he winced, remembering the task that lay before him, that he could not afford to shirk. The tomorrow after next then, he promised his son with a kiss to Denly’s cheek.
Tomorrow’s tomorrow for sure.
With Denly sound asleep, Ustuus crept over to his own bed to examine Mama Peshtodi’s gift under his gas lamp. He hadn’t dared look at it outside of these four walls, but he’d felt its outline through his trousers, and known.
The heart of Sabotine technology was flesh. The science of zooefaction had stuck a prybar in the cycle of natural selection and retrofitted life with purpose. Boiling blood, not steam, drove the pistons of this new industrial epoch. The thing on his bedside table was an outlawed and truly devious piece of biological engineering. It resembled the spiraling shell of a cone snail. Indeed, it had been derived from that blueprint. Its poison was not as literal but no less deadly. When inserted into the ear canal and stroked just so, the drip of toxin it secreted would numb the center of the brain that connected the human face with the word human. Two eyes, a nose, and a mouth would cease to constitute a person.
In case you run into any trouble, she’d said.
It was called a Garwulf Switch, and it made men into monsters.
Ustuus observed the motions of his workday from three feet behind his body. He’d never taken a good look at himself. What was he? A fathom of working-class muscle, aye. Muscle going soft, his bones eroding in the blowing years. His hands knew the texture of blood, but had they spilled a drop? No, not a one. This body of his wanted peace. To do its work and quietly rust away. It was not the tool for monkeying with gangland politics.
He’d pled his case to Mama Peshtodi earlier that morning. “Is there nothing else I can do? I’m good with my hands, Mama. I can paint your house if you want. Fix something up for you. Whatever you want.”
She had stabbed her ladle into its pot like a knife into a chest. “What I want is to eat, same as you. Do you think this here bounty of the sea comes from nothing? You think I’ve no appetite myself?”
The wall of muscle named Albrin had manhandled him into the other room, where Mama Peshtodi was free to unsheathe her teeth. “There’s no surviving on favors forever, Ustuus,” she’d growled, her fingernail between his ribs. “All this giving I do depends on folks giving back, and with the coup on, its only getting harder every day. I want to do more than tread water. I want to thrive, not just survive. Do this for me and I’ll keep your belly full. Run, and I’ll cut it out of you. Raise me up, or I drag you down with me, like the Taker Sea herself. Understand?”
Ustuus could only nod.
“Then get the map.” Her eyes could have turned steaming broth to ice.
Take pride, he’d told himself later. No bigger fool will ever come through her door. He’d known her game from the start, and yet. Everyone knew how Mama Peshtodi kept her pantry stocked. One ate at her table knowing that sooner or later, she asked everyone a favor. A favor to be done with a smile, unless one wished to have their knees smashed to pieces. His mistake had been thinking that later would never come.
The call came in an hour short of midnight, right when Ustuus had begun to hope it never would. A squall blundered in from the sea not long after, pie-eyed on brine, to batter the city with saltwater fists. The herczécar itself shivered as it slogged up the hairpin slopes towards their destination, the downpour seeping through its steel carapace to bite at Ustuus and Vagn inside. Ustuus would be amazed if the poor thing didn’t catch cold and get put down before week’s end.
A bone-rattling drone like the humming of some giant wasp scudded low overhead. Blue-green lights swam like drowned spirits through the rain. Ustuus glimpsed a thorax suspended on bulbous flight-sacs, a black-garbed figure manning the controls, before the aeropolzat banked up over the rooftops and slipped out of view.
“Reckon that’s the last anyone’ll see of Old Unkillable.” Vagn contorted to watch the aeropolzat go. Ustuus said nothing, only shivered in time with the herczécar. Vagn had not felt that cold shadow slither over them—the war against sedition taking a colossal step over their insignificant strivings below. This time it had ignored them, having other foes to crush. Next time, it might not.
The Garwulf Switch burned like ice against Ustuus’s thigh.
Unkillable Grimsby made his home in the heart of Tarfort, where modern tenements clung like brick burls to ancient black battlements. The Blackout Boys had left the lights on; the highest window of the four-story townhouse smoldered through the liquid evening. Ustuus parked the herczécar in the shelter of the alley opposite, and Vagn brought their cart in through the unlatched front door.
“So, we’re looking for something, aye? That’s what this is about then?”
“No,” Ustuus said. “All we’re doing is our job. One more Brugan Box. But if you should happen to come across anything interest, don’t hesitate to shout it out. You ken?”
Vagn returned a snappy salute, and the two set to work.
The late Deltweth Grimsby had been a man of humble tastes. His carpets were threadbare, his curtains thoroughly moth-holed, his wallpaper peeling in long curls like sunburnt skin. His ill-gotten wealth must have gone into his hidden trove, hoarded for an unknown purpose never to be fulfilled. Ustuus found no trace of blood on the first or second floors. Might be Grimsby had been taken for interrogation. Either way he was dead, whether in truth or practicality.
With Vagn working downstairs, Ustuus went in search of the map. Where would a man so paranoid as to be called Unkillable conceal the key to his fortune? Nowhere so obvious as the false bottom of a drawer, though Ustuus checked for that anyway. With a prybar he tore out the baseboards, the sconces, anything inconvenient for a burglar. The only holes to be found were for mice.
His search led him to the fourth floor—the master bedroom, where Grimsby’s sheets had been strewn about the room. Ustuus turned the bed over, turned the wardrobe out on the floor. The nightstand concealed a Kraumtausser-brand double-action toothgun with a full mandible of twelve sharp incisors but nothing more. The zooefacted firearm hadn’t helped Grimsby, and it wouldn’t help Ustuus either.
He pawed the sweat off his neck. Where had the bastard stowed the drownéd thing? He and Vagn didn’t have all day. By the Giver Sea, they didn’t even have all night. He could be sacked if the place weren’t wiped in time. Loss would trigger loss: of his home, of his future. The survival machine would irreparably collapse, and as for Denly...
Pinned between obligations, Ustuus could not breathe.
A jag of light sliced through his worries. Ustuus tripped over to the window and squinted through the curtains. A second herczécar had pulled up across the street, its eyelights blazing a queasy green. Ustuus’s heart began to play a marching beat as three wet shadows filed out of the zooefacted vehicle and converged on the house.
“Mister Creeg?” Vagn called out. “I think someone’s at the door.”
Ustuus raised his voice to warn him, and what came instead was the roar of a gunshot.
His hands clamped themselves over his mouth to trap the scream that would have brought death on him too. For a moment he envisioned Vagn’s earnest features brightly imposed against the darkness of his mind—he hadn’t known him long, but Vagn had been a hard worker, eager to please—and then, just as quickly, that image began to fade, Ustuus’s subconscious hurling unnecessary luggage overboard. He cursed himself for his own callousness even as his thoughts turned away towards the matter of survival.
The next sound he heard was boots on the stairs.
With nowhere to turn, Ustuus crammed his bulk into the wardrobe and held the door shut. He watched through the crack, with breath held in his chest, as a youth in the red tatters of a Tarfellow came into the room. His forearms had been tattooed tar-black from fingertips up past the elbows; from one hand dangled a glinting half-moon stained red—a gutting knife for slitting the innards out of fish.
“You find him?” asked a voice from downstairs.
Ustuus feared they meant him until the black-handed man spoke up. “Granddad Grim ain’t here. Bastards really done it. Taker Sea drown ‘em all. They finally got Old Unkillable.”
Aye, he’s gone. There’s nothing for you here. Get in your ‘car and go.
“Mum’ll be crushed,” the man downstairs said.
Black-hand turned, his brow furrowed to a point. A shaven head and scarified lips gave him the semblance of a skull. That corpse’s gaze swept past the wardrobe, and Ustuus felt the ripple of death swimming by.
“Let’s cheer her up then, brother,” Black-hand said with a dawning grin. “How early’s too early to read the will?”
Ustuus feared to so much as blink as Black-hand ransacked the room, presumably on the hunt for that same drownéd treasure map. It occurred to him only then that the two men didn’t know he was there, had not heard Vagn call up to him. Vagn’s death had not been entirely pointless, then; it had bought Ustuus a few extra moments of life.
Moments that were almost used up. It was only a matter of seconds before Black-hand examined the wardrobe. Time seemed to slow to a sadistic crawl to watch Ustuus sweat. The Taker Sea, in her cruel generosity, had blessed him with two choices, to flee or fight, and he’d squandered the former already.
Far too late, Ustuus recalled the weapon in the bedstand. And what good would it do him anyway? He’d never struck a blow in anger. He didn’t know the art. He’d shouldered through life with his eyes to the ground lest the city take notice and snap him up. Yet it noticed him now.
And once it had him, it would leave Denly a seal pup alone in a hungry sea.
Something in his subconscious took a hold of his frantic thoughts and bent them, snapped them, like fingers, towards Mama Peshtodi’s gift. Ustuus dug out the Garwulf Switch and held it to his eye. In the dark of the wardrobe, its nacreous white shell shone like an ill star. His only guide home.
This body of his wanted only peace. It had no killing edge. But like any blunt tool, it could crack a skull when swung hard enough. And though he could not imagine taking another human life, even he could swat a wasp before it stung.
It strained his arm, this leaden choice to become monstrous. But he made it. The Garwulf Switch screwed neatly into his ear. The venom, when it came, bled like icewater through his head.
Tomorrow’s tomorrow for sure.
A creature with all-black hands swung the wardrobe open, and Ustuus hammered four knuckles into the brittle bone between its eyes. The thing reeled backwards, blood jetting out of its face like a squeezed tomato. Ustuus’s stomach convulsed—its features were uncannily like his own, and so much more horrific for it. He stowed his revulsion and charged, slamming the creature onto the cot that Grimsby had called a bed, which collapsed beneath the weight.
Ustuus had no art for fighting, only instinct, a wolf in the brain, and it was loose. He came down upon the creature with fists whirling, battering its mandible shut whenever it tried to cry out. He locked his hands air-tight around the creature’s throat and hardly felt anything when it struck him with its knife and carved away a peeling of cheek. Some emotion approximating terror flooded its alien eyes, and Ustuus’s blood frothed in animal glee.
The creature arched its knee into Ustuus’s groin. The pain pierced his adrenalin mania and forced him to relinquish his death-grip. Whatever the thing was, it faced the same choice he had, to fight or flee, and in the heat of the moment, it chose the latter. It was two steps towards the door when Ustuus rose, hooked its neck in the crook of his arm, and stumbled back against the wall with the creature on top of him.
The sound of the blood stampeding through his skull, the creature angry spluttering, the knocking of their boots against the floor, all of it spiraled together in Ustuus’s head into a high-pitched whine. The flailing knife scored his arm, his nose, the dulled pain only goading him to end it quickly. His free hand scrabbled across the nightstand, found the toothgun’s weighty grip.
Three blows to the side of its temple, and the black-handed creature went limp.
“—gulls take your giblets, Beor. You fixing to wake the drownéd neighborhood?”
A second creature appeared on the stairs outside. Ustuus met its gaze and froze. It reacted first. The toothgun on its belt seemed to melt like quicksilver into its hand. Three shots pounded all their sound into the same flat ringing; three hammer-blows struck Ustuus in the chest, but not three teeth. The dead muscle and bone of the creature draped over him had absorbed that lethal ivory like a suit of armor.
Everything in Ustuus’s vision was in shades of red. To the animal within him, the toothgun in his hand was as primal a weapon as a jagged stone. His heart flexed, his finger contracted, and metabolically catapulted teeth bit holes in the walls, the door, the rafters. A single, red spot welled up on the creature’s cheek. The lips below it continued to move, struggling to sputter out some final thought, until they at last realized the futility and fell still. The body collapsed like a doll packed with sand.
Ustuus inhaled for the first time in what felt like years—in, then raggedly out—and remembered there had been three of them. Wait, three of who? His skull suddenly felt too cramped. The bedroom swayed like a ship at sea. He could have sworn he’d seen three men entering the house. But then, where had these monsters come from?
Ustuus stood dizzily. His memories were unraveling like rope into contradictions, but he was still in danger; that much was clear. He stumbled to the door. The stairs were empty but dark at the bottom. Whoever—or whatever—was down there would have heard the commotion, and they’d be smarter than to bumble into a gunfight. They would be waiting for him to come creeping out, and they’d be waiting with a loaded fang.
The stairs were a deathtrap. Instead, Ustuus turned to the window. The downspout outside was rusted along its length but seemed securely fastened to the brick. He had not the time for another idea. With the gun stuffed down his trousers he shimmied down the pipe, praying for the Giver Sea to bless him with strength.
The moment his boots touched cobblestone, the lights came back on inside. Through the open door he saw Vagn’s body splayed out like a pelt and, standing over him, a creature with arms blackened down to the fingertips. Ustuus’s hand moved faster than his thoughts, raising Grimsby’s gun and squeezing off a handful of blind incisors into the house. The creature ducked for cover, and that was opportunity enough to turn tail and run.
The company herczécar awaited him in the alley across the street. He all but flew the distance as hot enamel slugs sang past his ears. Through the pelting he rain he could swear he glimpsed Denly in the back of the cab, urging him on through the rear window.
Ustuus dove inside the herczécar, pulled the door shut, and shoved the starting switch into its socket. A synaptic jolt to its stunted notochord shocked it awake; it shuddered, pistons hauling on zooefacted muscles, its heart-engine thrumming up horsepower. I’m on my way, Denly, Ustuus thought, stomping the spur-plate into the floor.
The herczécar lurched forward half a fathom and then died with a cough.
His giddy heart plummeted like a thing harpooned.
Footfalls on cobblestones. The creature ran up to the pilot’s side window and discharged its gun in three small explosions. Then—
A wet, shearing sound—slickened bone grinding on gunmetal.
Ustuus opened his eyes.
The black-handed thing gawped at its own toothgun, dumbfounded to find its mandible empty as an old man’s and Ustuus alive. Ballistic fangs had bit deep into the dashboard, the leather seat, the window behind him, but missed him entirely.
Ustuus aimed his toothgun at the creature’s chest, but before he could squeeze the trigger, a fist as solid and black as a cannonball nearly tore his head off his neck and smashed his thoughts to smithereens. Ustuus fell back into the passenger’s seat with hardly the wits to keep hold of his weapon. The pilot’s side door flew open, and clammy hands seized him by the feet. Ustuus could not fight back as the creature dragged him out into the alley.
The electric pain of his tailbone cracking against the street shocked the sense back into him. He swung blindly, struck something— a chin by the grunt it elicited—and received a ringing blow in return. A grit-studded bootheel ground his gun-hand into the side of the ‘car, but still his stubborn fingers refused to give it up.
The creature stepped back for another stomp, and in that moment Ustuus lunged, hooking two fingers under its beltbuckle and pulling it into the snout of his toothgun. To Ustuus’s rattled mind it was the weapon’s shout, more than the tooth, that scorched skin and tore through muscle, that deafening, convincing, perforating boom.
The creature hit the alley wall and skidded down onto its haunches, while Ustuus’s skull bounced back against the herczécar. The Garwulf Switch came unplugged from his ear and fell between the cobblestones.
With that release, that slow drip interrupted, came clarity. The blood sheeting down his lips. The lingering tremor in his gun hand. The moaning of gut-shot man across from him. Ustuus took it all in like a virgin to life, all at once. He choked on a scream, coughed instead, and bent double to heave up all the nothing in his belly.
His memory was immune to the switch’s poison. The Tarfellow in the bedroom with bruises ‘round his throat like a black choker; his brother, dead on the floor with a tooth in his brain—when Ustuus closed his eyes, he could see them in perfect clarity—boys, not monsters, boys—and knew that he forever would. He’d killed them, and they would remain in him like dye between glass.
“Please,” a weak voice rasped; Ustuus reflexively jabbed his gun at the sound. Blood pulsed from between the Tarfellow’s clenched fingers. Peering fearfully out from between the scars and the stubble was a little boy pleading for his life. The echo of someone’s son. Ustuus found himself utterly and terribly lucid, his inner animal asleep. Whatever he did next would be his choice alone. There would be no other self to catch the spray of blood.
“Don’t,” the Tarfellow begged. A plea for mercy. A promise of harmlessness. I’m not a threat anymore, that one word said. This time I mean it.
Ustuus wished he could believe him.
The lights in Mama Peshtodi’s front hall came on, and from the top of the stairs, she let out a shriek. Albrin came barreling onto the landing behind her in his underclothes, a sawed-off scattergun comically small in his brawny hands. Ustuus remained where he was, in the chair beside the window at the bottom of the stairs, shards of glass about his feet. From that range the scattergun might not kill, and the toothgun he had trained on them still had a molar or two left in the can.
“I broke a window,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’ll fix it.”
Mama Peshtodi set her jaw. “What do you think you’re doing, Ustuus Creeg?”
Blood dripped off his chin, staining the table before him. His brain bobbed on choppy waters, but his aim stayed steady. “I remember when there were Neighborhood Kitchens all over,” he said. “They were different, then. There wasn’t nothing attached. Just folks helping folks as best they could. Do you remember how that was? Aye, it’s hard out there. But I think we make it harder too.”
Albrin raised the sawed-off. Mama Peshtodi placed her hand on his arm to stay him a moment yet. “You look something a dog spat out. What happened?”
Ustuus laughed, though it came out half a sob. He licked his lips. Tasted salt and iron both. Like a tool used for the wrong job, he’d been ruined in some internal way he hadn’t even begun to comprehend.
“The short of it is I ain’t got your map, Mama. I’m sorry.”
“Well nothing ain’t what I asked for, is it? You’d best get your bleeding arse back—”
“No, Mama,” Ustuus interjected. “I won’t do that. I searched that house from top to bottom, two times over. If your map was there, it’s long gone now. Maybe it was never there at all and no-one will ever find Grimsby’s gold.” He dipped his free hand into his pocket and slapped the Garwulf Switch on the table. “Either way, you ain’t going to get what you want. You just ain’t. And I’m real sorry for it.”
A blister of silence swelled between them. Mama Peshtodi, defiant of his weapon, trod further down the stairs. In the wavering lamplight she seemed older than the morning had presented her. She’d concealed tired eyes beneath grease and flour makeup. Her unbound hair was veined with gray. It must have taken strength to present strength throughout so much of the day.
“I love you, Mama,” Ustuus said. “Honest. You’re the reason I can feed my boy. I do want to do you a favor. I’d love to paint your house. I saw your stoop has got some rot. I could fix that, if it’d make you happy. But if all you want’s a treasure map, well I can’t help that. I can’t raise you up, Mama. But we can keep each-other afloat. Ain’t that how it’s supposed to be?”
She came to sit with him at the window table. She glanced once at his gun and then put her herself in front of it. ”What do you suppose is a fair wage for a sturdy new stoop?” she demanded. “We talking haepennies, tipels, doubloons?” A heat had bled into her voice. Ustuus heard scorn caked over mounting desperation. “What is the best you can do for me worth? Is it worth a drownéd fucking thing?”
“Probably not,” Ustuus said truthfully. “I could do that forever and never get rich.”
Mama Peshtodi nodded to herself, then reached past his gun and took the Garwulf Switch. She turned it over between her fingers, studying, perhaps, the choice that he had made in the street outside. The other, unkind him that could have come in through her window.
Ustuus watched tears well up around her eyes. Her taut jaw trembled as if struggling to hold on to something; an aspiration perhaps, that was slipping away. For all she’d put him through, he wished there was something he could say. It shouldn’t be so hard, Ustuus felt, for a little person to reach for a little dream, like hers. If he knew anything though, it was that there was nothing that was too small for the city to take away. No meager fortune, no dignity. All one could do then was try to desire something smaller, and love the hand that gave it.
“This old house does need a new coat of paint,” she admitted at last, in a small voice. “Albrin can’t get up there the way his knees are. You can do that for me?”
“Yes Mama. I’ll fix your window too. Whatever you need. I’m good for it.”
Mama Peshtodi swallowed, then sighed in utter defeat. “All right, then. I’d like that. Thank you, Ustuus.”
He let the gun tumble from his fingers, and an anchor’s weight fell off his arm. “Can I come in for breakfast tomorrow?”
She could not look him in the eyes, but she reached out and squeezed his fingers.
“Sure, dear. I’d miss you if you didn’t.”
Ustuus let her fetch some rum to disinfect his wounds and bandages to bind them. She offered to fry him up an oilcake to take for the walk home, but he feared to impose. He felt ashamed to have pulled her out of bed. He did let her usher him to the door, and the goodbyes they exchanged were not unkind.
The galvapedes wouldn’t be awake and running for an hour yet. It would be a walk back to the office then. Time, at least, to think on how to explain away his injuries, his lack of Vagn. It was true the herczécar had died; they’d find it where he’d abandoned it. Vagn had run off and not come back. Perhaps he’d turn up later. As for Ustuus’s wounds, he’d simply tripped down the stairs; the foreman would not care enough to dig deeper. And if they looked, they’d find Grimsby’s house a perfect Brugan Box, spotless from top to bottom, not a drop of blood out of place.
As ever, the River Bile had been a perfect accomplice. It could swallow a herczécar whole and not ask what was inside it.
In the eyes of Günner & Blough he’d done his job. He would be fine. Work would wear away the stains upon his soul, and tomorrow he would eat before his shift.
At the intersection of Bouleswille and Cod Street, Ustuus glanced back at Mama Peshtodi’s before it turned out of view.
On softly droning flight-sacs the aeropolzat descended. Its simian hands anchored its buoyant frame to a lamppost, and from the hatch in its underbelly emerged a black-garbed procession, who entered the house through its latched front door with the ease of specters come to shepherd away the dead. It happened so smoothly, with such calibrated efficiency, that Ustuus could not be sure it was real until he blinked and the aeropolzat was still there.
A tremble began in his hands and traveled to his heart. His breath razored through him. This was dangerous for him to see, and so his panicked subconscious decided that he would not see it. His feet turned him about and marched him into the nearest alley, where he took off his vest, wadded it into a ball, and screamed into it until his throat tore.
In due time Ustuus returned to the offices of Günner & Blough’s. He reported his lies, and the foreman accepted them. The crew were shorthanded that night with a new assignment just in, and so Ustuus volunteered like a good employee should. They gave him a new herczécar, a new partner whom he’d never met, and sent him straightaway to Mama Peshtodi’s Neighborhood Kitchen.
Blood was the language of empty houses. Mama Peshtodi’s house spoke tersely but effectively. There was but one spatter against the parlor wall, which ended cleanly in the outline of a body. What it said was that one person had been shot here, and the other, close beside the first, had begged for their life.
Ustuus acknowledged the house’s dying words, swallowed something cold and unsettling they had stirred in him, and then fetched a sponge to scrub them away.
I had me a constable in here the other day, you know, Mama Peshtodi had said. He was keen to do me a favor too. Ustuus wondered if that was really all the constable had needed. A single brush with the law. A tiny mosquito, nibbling on Staymer’s lumbering beast. With just that, the government had become aware of her activities and had decided dispassionately, bureaucratically, to crush her. The fact of which was even now diffusing into the soapy water of his bucket.
Dawn would find a more orderly Sabot. A house where a criminal had never lived and a government who still did not kill its people, much less people who had never existed. The truth would run pink and then clear.
Ustuus moved next into the kitchen. He walked quietly between the long, empty tables, ran his fingers over the cold lip of a soup pot where dust would soon accrue. The house echoed his every step as if starving for sound. It had never been so quiet there. At every hour the room had been raucous with conversation, with gossip, the clatter of forks and knives, the kind of laughter that boomed from full bellies. Mama Peshtodi had perverted the Neighborhood Kitchen, had forced charity to turn a profit, but it had still been the last of what it was. A place that pulled people together to eat, to rest and be warm, to be close in a city that preferred its citizens alone.
And now it was gone.
Private Cly had claimed Ustuus’s very last bite.
Ustuus left that room to his new partner and went upstairs to dismantle Mama Peshtodi’s bedroom. Her pillows jingled as he stripped apart the bed—a queer sound for feathers to make. As it happened, she’d sewn a dozen gold doubloons into the lining. He checked the underside of her mattress and found a line of stitches there. His knife disgorged a whole litter of doubloons.
All told, Mama Peshtodi had hidden nearly fifty doubloons throughout her bedroom. If he had to guess, it was all the coin she had that hadn’t been invested in her kitchen and its cycle of favors. A tidy sum for a queen of the slums.
A treasure trove for one like him.
Ustuus filled his palms with coin, marveling and despairing. It was enough to keep Denly fed for months. If fifty doubloons were all the cost of bringing the kitchen back to life, he’d have gladly paid it. It was a power of the impoverished to stretch gold like taffy, but sooner or later it ran out. Kindness, on the other hand, gave birth to kindness and was therefore infinite.
It was too late now. There was no morsel too small for the city to seize. All Ustuus could do now was all he could ever do: want something smaller, and love the hand that gave it.
“Thank you Mama Peshtodi,” he whispered as he packed his boots with gold.
Ustuus would have liked to remain and remember. To absorb memories before they drowned in the quiet. But the sooner this job was done, the sooner he could go home. The sooner he could hold Denly and find something to eat.
In this lost house of plenty, his belly rumbled.
He obeyed and moved on.