It's raining so hard when we land outside of Doylestown that the showboat's servos whine and beep as Pandemonium's dilapidated hulk, half the size of a carriage house, settles in the waterlogged ground.
I'm having a quick beer before the gig when we touch down. Glasses clink and tinkle. Harry, our keyboardist, does double duty (we all wear at least two hats) behind the bar. Pandemonium shudders once or twice. Harry shoots me a worried look while steadying a wobbling bottle. The engines cut off.
"I know, I know." I hold up my palm. I'd like to blame Fil's piloting, but I can't. "It's that goddamn number three turbine again." The repair budget is maybe sufficient to change a flashlight's batteries, but something's going to have to be done about Three. The longer we wait, the longer the downtime will be, and the more likely some other showboat will take advantage of our situation.
Take a couple of double-wide trailers made out of composites, jam them together and slice them in half along their width. To this main cabin (which can be partitioned off after shows to provide sleeping cubbies) add modular seats and tables, a postage stamp stage, a pair of small heads, and a cramped galley. Add a lower level with engines, computers, and fuel tanks; and an upper one with a crawlspace for storage and a navigation bubble. Bolt on fold-away solar cells, two pairs of outboard turbines and landing gear. It can't fly high or fast, but the advantage of that is that it supplies its own advertising. You always know when a showboat is coming.
There are a number of "shows" like Pandemonium traveling circuits throughout the Lower 48. Ours comprises northeast Pennsylvania and South Jersey, with occasional gigs maybe as far north as Poughkeepsie or Scranton, as far west as Harrisburg, and south down to Baltimore. We're the biggest - which is good, and the oldest - which isn't so good, at least in terms of maintenance. It's a lot of mileage and a lot of fuel, the quality of which can be suspect unless you know who you're dealing with.
Even then it isn't smart to take anything for granted.
When we're in Doylestown, which is like three times a year, we pay to park on this land or in some other fallow field on the Cox property. Mr. Cox gets a fee and the locals get a couple nights of music and dancing.
Our lights smear the night, illuminating vistas of wet grass. A crushed-gravel road glimmers off to the west where buckboards will lumber in from the main road. Within an hour the area will be churned to mud by hooves and buckboard wheels.
Harry scowls at the rivulets drooling down the windows. "No one'll come out in this weather."
I raise my mug. "Yeah, they will. It's been the rainiest April on record and these people need the blues."
Showboats like ours are their only source of live entertainment. Outside of the cities, where the Dominion's fundamentalist grip is looser, increasingly rigorous laws have shut down a lot of clubs and bars. The Net is so tightly monitored that porn is almost unknown, and the only movies that get streamed anymore are no better than PG, so live music has made a comeback aboard peripatetic showboats like ours. The locals get drunk, raise hell, and forget their problems for a little while.
"They need 'em pretty damn bad if they're coming to hear us."
"Yeah, well. If we didn't have Cassie to wow 'em, you might be right." True: we aren't fit to back up a B.B. King or an Eric Clapton but we have moments, most of them courtesy of Cassie, who can sound like Janis Joplin even through her mask, when she puts her mind to it.
"Whelp, Pandemonium has come to Bucks County." I salute Harry, drain my mug, and head down to Purgatory, the control cubicle outside of Hell, the engine compartment.
I get busy checking power reserves and worrying a little. We're down to 45 percent and we need sunshine on the converters now, but the weather report says no, there'll be more rain. That limits us to two more stops. Maybe. Then we're grounded until the clouds clear.
Fil sticks his head in the maintenance shack. "Yo, Chip. Starboard rear turb's running rough." Like I don't know this. He gives me his lift-lip frown that looks like a sneer and always puts my back up. "Can you check it out before the first show." Couched as a question, see you, but no interrogation mark at the end.
"Sure, Fil." The turb's running rough because the injectors have to be recalibrated for low-quality fuel, because that's all that's available anymore. It's a nightmare trying to comply with clean-air regs these days. I long to bitch about the repair problems but I need this job. I have a daughter back home I have to support, talented enough to get into Berklee or maybe even the Lunar Philharmonic. But Marianne, seventeen and stubborn, refuses to even consider my Big Dream of her going to Luna. She barely leaves town since her mother died two summers ago. And whenever she goes out of the house, she wears Emily's mask in tribute. So... the Moon? Yeah.
My wife, Emily, endured Gender Specific Syndrome for nearly five years. It started, as it always does, with the telltale pockmarks on her face, then dug its evil way from poor Emily's skin into her muscles, blood and bone. I did the right thing for the wrong reason. I left both my job with the Environmental Protection Task Force and Rowan, the woman I loved there, to take care of my failing wife and our daughter. I plowed fields, planted tat soy and edamame, kept us fed and clothed - and together. Gave up a piece of my heart for Emily's peace of mind. I'd do it again.
But as soon as we laid her to rest, I asked to return to my old field agent job with EpTef. With the economy in shreds, good jobs are hard to find and great ones impossible. I hadn't been in touch with Rowan, but she was destined for greater things than field agent, so I was certain she'd been promoted to regional supervisor at least. Even so, I'm on the waiting list and moving up the line for a recall. As soon as Marianne got old enough to demonstrate that she could care for herself without the neighbors looking in every day or two, I signed on with Pandemonium. The money's not easy and not huge, but if you're smart you bank most of it and live small. Which is what I've done. Soon as this season's over, Marianne will be off to school and I'll go back to the farm. I'll keep up to speed on the drums, though - just in case.
I started playing in school but gave up after Emily got sick. When Pandemonium came along I saw Harry and company were using a drum machine. Anyone who's ever played a real kit, of course, points and laughs at that. So I dusted off my Premiers, polished the Zildjians, and worked hard to get my chops back.
Meanwhile, there's this problem with the turbines that needs tending to. I know the thing's running rough but Fil wants the impossible. The boat's held together by duct tape and Fil's bad IOUs. It's been both his livelihood and lair for over fifteen years; you'd think he'd spare a little coin for proper replacement parts.
I ooze into the engine compartment, the stinking bilges of Hell. It's so crammed with equipment, a bigger jamoke couldn't fit in. By now, though, I've had enough experience slithering around that I can make most adjustments by feel.
The sleeping cubicles offer no privacy, so every once in awhile Cassie and I slide through Purgatory and squeeze into Hell. We have some fun, and in the afterglow she likes to listen to me talk about music. I'm not sure what she sees in me. We have music in common, of course, and we both lost family to GSS. She wears the mask in honor of her sister. Hers is black silk. Her eyes, glowing with lust, her naked lips more erotic somehow than her bare face...
That gets me as hot as the engines, but right now I have to keep my mind on business. I open up the turbine and go rooting around. Sure enough, a bearing's about ready to go. Easy to diagnose; hard to fix. In fact, I can't. I don't have the tools or space to take the thing apart.
I call Fil on the intercom. "We don't have a spare. There's no place to buy one in Doylestown."
"Goddammit, I don't want to have to send someone ahead to Philly." Bucks has been solid farmland since the food wars, and although there's plenty of farm equipment around, none use jet turbines. There's a lot of prejudice against any sort of high-level tech around here. "If we wait until tomorrow, can we get there the way it is? Hell, even as far as Warrington would be good. The old airbase oughta have parts or a repair bay."
"Probably, but I can't guarantee we'd make it. If the thing borks out while we're airborne, well..."
More, and more lurid, cursing. "All right. Let me see who I can send."
I have just enough time before the show to check all the other systems and writhe out of Hell. I grab a grungy towel, scrub my face, and head for my locker at a run.
By the rumble of voices and a few quick B, G, A notes I can tell that the locals are filing in and the band is tuning up onstage. I don't even have time for a shower or a call to Marianne. While Harry vamps on the keys and Andros weaves a bass line around him, I quick douse myself with cologne to cover up the smell of my sweat and wriggle into a black tee shirt. I ghost up behind my kit, push power to the Alesis module, and climb aboard.
It's a full house, fifty at the tables and another half dozen or so at the bar. That's good. I'm feeling fine, ready to play.
The opener is "So What," which is pretty damn appropriate in my opinion, so a grin works its way out of my face as we take the song for a walk and get fresh with it.
Cassie comes onstage for the second number, "Fly Me to the Moon," which also makes me smile, but the smile fades when I think of my kid. Nothing would make me prouder than for her to be up there, but I won't live vicariously... she can do what she wants.
There is a scattering of women out there, many masked even here in the boonies. Figure about 3.5 billion infected women worldwide, with some hundreds of millions more masking in solidarity. Most of the audience, though, is male. They eye Cassie like she was prime rib.
I'm watching Cassie's ass while she sings. She always stands smack in front of my kit, and I never know, and don't care, if it's because she's deliberately giving me a view of the lower thirty-six or if she just needs my kick drum to help her keep on beat. Either one is okay by me.
Tonight, though, I have a lot on my mind that isn't her tail. I Papa Jo through my solo bars, at one point pounding out a complex bass beat while I lay my sticks down on the floor tom and pick up the rhythm with my hands, doing rippidy-tappidy tabla-esque finger rolls on the snare and even banging subtle rim-shot boings off the left tom, the head of which I keep particularly tight for high treble response. I'm showing off, sure, but the playing-with-my-hands thing always draws applause. I'm self-taught but I've always had a feel for the beat and what's around it. Midway through I pick up a stick with my left hand, spin it, and tap it on the snare's rim while using my right fingers to clatter through a little riff. Tabla, stick, rappity tippity tap.
By the second set, most of the patrons are halfway bombed. I start noticing a funny sort of acetone smell and I wonder if Andros's amp is heating up a wire somewhere or if someone's left a plastic cup too near a candle. Or - no. It better not be.
Toward the end of the set, Andros takes a solo and I foot-step my high-hat, chik chik chik, along with him on the upbeats, leaning over toward Harry. "You smell anything?" Chik chik ka-chik.
He sniffs. "Uh, yeah, actually. Smells like..." He gives me a sick sort of look. "Jet fuel?"
"Oh fuck." Have we sprung a leak? If so, we're in trouble. Big trouble.
It gets worse. Some yobbo blunders in from the rain looking semi-drowned. Knife in hand he heads straight for Fil, teeth gleaming in a snarl through his beard. My gut tells me yeah, it's a leak, and this guy sniffed the spill outside, saw it leaking out of the showboat and knew it meant death to everything living in the soil. So he's taking his grievance directly to Fil.
"You son of a bitch!"
Fil's no pussy. He yanks a taser out of his pocket, drops into a crouch. "Hey Rube!" he yells. The old carny cry for help. We stop playing in mid-lick. Before I can spider out from behind the drums, an EpTef agent steps through the door.
The room goes dead silent. Even the local with the blade freezes. The agent's in full hazmat gear. First lieutenant, by the three green stripes on the government-issue iBand hiding her eyes.
Knife-guy palms the blade, fades into the crowd. The agent walks slowly toward Fil, who has gone so pale that his face looks lunar. "Sir, you are in violation of regional environmental statutes." The muffling mouthpiece makes the agent's voice sound even more chilling. A ground swell of rumbling rises from the farmers. Violation of regional environmental statutes are words they do not like to hear, ever. I see knife-guy whispering urgently to some other farmers. They're sniffing - they know it's a fuel spill.
"Hey, hold on, officer. I run a clean club," Fil weasel whines. "We always comply with all local regs. I get daily updates; you can check the logs."
"You can check the ground." She marches Fil out the door, the farmers at their heels, the rest of us bringing up the rear. Show's over for tonight. The rain is letting up. As soon as I step outside the chemical stink gets much, much sharper, and my heart craters.
The EpTef agent points to the pool of sludge under the boat. She doesn't have to say anything.
Fil rounds on me. "Chip! How could this happen?"
I slink back into the shadows. How? Because he cheaps out on maintenance and bribes officials so they stamp his papers for the baksheesh. Because, though I do my best to clean up after his messes for the little extra bit of coin he slips me, I'm too wedded to this gig to report him and lose my salary. Now, a seal has popped or some duct tape has worn through, and here we are. Looks like our entire reserve tank of jet fuel is on the ground, all low-viscosity stuff, soluble to a high degree.
I don't know what the soil composition is around here - mostly silt loams, I'm sure - but there's a huge micro-system of organisms in the ground. Quintillions. And we're liable for every single microbe.
The farmers, without exception sun-browned and burly, are cursing us. I can't blame them. With each passing instant the swill soaks deeper into the soil, killing untold billions of micro- and macro-organisms and rendering the parcel useless for years. The water table's probably 80 inches down, but this stuff will get there soon.
And there's a stream nearby.
Not good. Very not good.
A couple of the locals lose their patience and round on Fil.
The EpTef agent sees this and holds up her hands. "Simmer down, everyone. I don't want to have to use my taser." She points to her vehicle, an SUV-sized Kuanyin, a standout next to the farmers' drays and buggies even without the agency's acid-green stripe insignia running from hood to trunk. "Leave your contact info with the AI on board. We'll compensate you all the best we can."
"What about him?" A bristly-haired man hocks at Fil's feet.
"He's under arrest." The agent unholsters her sticky gun and discharges a track pellet onto Fil's thigh. "You're safer in custody," she warns Fil before aiming her taser at the spitting man.
"Damn," Cassie says quietly behind me. "Do you think she can hold them off?"
"EpTef agents don't wear sidearms for show," I reassure her.
It's true. Reluctantly, snarling threats and promising vengeance, they move off to record their IDs and complaints with the AI, before grumbling on to their buggies and phaetons and carriages.
"Who is in charge of systems here?" The agent points to me. "You?"
I feel the bolus of supper rising in my throat. I nod. Fil has already ID'd me after all. I don't need to see her iBand's data feed to know that the toxic plume leaching into the ground has already made it through the saturated soil down to the stream across the field. Years of rendering unto Demeter what is Demeter's gives me the dirtsense I need.
Plus my own time with the agency.
"Yeah. That'd be me."
She cocks her head. "Step into the light, sir."
When I do, she takes my measure for excruciatingly long seconds. I'm bracing for the reading of my rights, but instead she says, "Show me your setup."
I take her down to Hell.
In the narrow corridor leading to the maintenance ops center she says: "Chip."
It doesn't register at first; I am too wrought with anxiety.
I halt at the door to Hell, turn around. The agent's helmet comes off.
"Rowan." My throat closes, my eyes sting. Of all the ways I'd imagined seeing her again....
Her eyes hold me captive, paralyze my tongue.
"I'm sorry about Emily. Your wife." Without the helmet muffling her speech her voice is soft, but her look no less fierce.
"I... never stopped thinking about you. Never."
"Then why?" She frowns more deeply. "Why just leave without saying anything? Even a quick goodbye?"
"Emily was sick... and you were married, I had no right...."
"You could have offered me the option. We could have talked. That marriage wasn't so great." She pauses. "It's over now."
I tuck her into my arms, inhale her familiar scent. Cassie is a million miles away from me now, except as a sort of light way back in my mind. I'll have to deal with that. "Could we... talk now?"
She frees herself, grips my arms, scans my face as if to read my heart. "What do you think? Jeez, Chip, I stayed in the field because it was what I knew. You leaving, it was such a jolt - I couldn't even think about admin work."
"And here we are." I smile a little.
She gives a sniff and a nod at the same time.
I open my mouth to say something that will lead us into a future but am staggered by a jolt worse than any landing, punctuated with a sickening crump.
Screams and shouts and curses through the ceiling.
We go wide-eyed at each other. She snaps the iBand down and we whip around to the door. I feel old reflexes slide into place. Before we take one step, another concussion hits us, closer. The floor bucks, walls snap and crack - somewhere in Hell, amid pipes and wires wound dense as capillaries, some infarction blows out.
Rowan gets to the door a fraction of a second before me, and catches a spout of flaming fluid blasting through the wall.
She twists like a matchstick and goes down. I scream her name; the scent of her roasting engulfs me and I spit it out. Burning drops splash on me and I fight the urge to let them take me with her.
Rowan! But she's dead, broken and burned.
I burn - inside and out. I'm caught up in licks of pain from the flaming fuel as if it were hellish music, an improvisation orchestrated by Death.
Pandemonium shakes, breaks around me. Darkness and smoke. I sweep up Rowan's iBand, set it to night vision. Feinting and sprinting, I syncopate my moves against the shudders as though I am in the gut of something dying to puke me out. Somehow I get up and out into the air, leaping the flaming pool of fuel scorching my clothes, and behind me Pandemonium burns, burns, clouds of sparks boiling into the sky.
As I roll in the grass in my smoldering clothes, Fil, that crazy bastard, escapes the mob and runs into his doomed nightclub. In a few moments, Pandemonium's engines kick on. The boat shudders, starts lifting. The turbines scream. Fil pilots the limping boat off to the east, away from the crowd. Flaming fuel pours down from a dozen leaks. It's a bonfire in a glass elevator.
The only safe place is inside the Kuanyin. Praying EpTef never deleted my DNA records I sprint to it, lick my thumb and slide it across the car's lock sensor. The door unfolds like an angel's wing.
"ID confirmed," says the car as I slide in, watching in horror through the windshield as Pandemonium staggers away. The side door closes: chump. This cuts off the cries of onlookers and the scream of dying turbines. Smoke from my own smoldering clothes eddies in the cockpit's air. "Agent, you have not logged in for twenty-six months, three weeks-"
I ignore its blather. I can't see Cassie or the crew, any one of whom could have been clobbered by flaming debris. Cassie! Jesus Christ, I've got to get her out of there.
Air conditioning woofs on. Cool, sweet air flows over my scorched skin. I shiver.
"Instructions?" says the car. It's a tied-back AI, so it can't act autonomously.
"We need to get up to the boat and check for survivors."
"Chance of success is very low. I advise you to wait for backup."
I roll my eyes, having forgotten how by-the-book the damn things can be. "There's no time for that."
"You will be of no service if you injure yourself or die. Not advised."
"Suck a rope. We're gonna do it anyway." I looked at the datachop in my left field of vision. I see this AI is designated Bitts. Cute. "But backup's a good idea, Bitts; get some here before that fire spreads!"
Pandemonium drifts, blazing, some hundred feet up, maybe a tenth of a mile east. Away from the cultivated fields.
The cheap bastard turns out to be a hero in the crunch. Way to go, Fil. I bite my lip.
"Manual control please, uh, Bitts."
I slide my hands into the gauntlets, goose the controls, and I'm back on the job. Agent Giacomo "Chip" Holland. Turbines roaring, the Kuanyin bolts up off the wet ground.
After so long, it feels good, feels right, even with Rowan dead and Pandemonium dying. You do what you can in the face of defeat.
We Forcers kept things going after Breakdown, kept the local supply chains running and people fed, cleaned up. We neutralized abandoned hazmat sites. We helped bring Japan back online. Proudest day of my life, when I graduated from the Academy wearing the Black and Green; and the luckiest day, when I was partnered with Rowan.
We worked well together and played even better. We fell in love. If Emily hadn't gotten ill...
I'm closing in on Pandemonium, which is tilting and teetering, flaming pieces spinning off into the night.
Someone staggers onto the gangway, clothes aflame. "Harry!" I shout as if he could hear me. "Harry!" He plunges out. The nightclub, relived of his weight, jolts up a little.
"Get us in closer!"
"It is extremely danger-"
"Get us in!" All I can picture is Cassie in that doorway instead of Harry, and I start sweating despite the cool cabin air.
I look and I look and I can't spot Cassie. I'm within thirty feet of the wavering dirigible that is Pandemonium and I know it can't last long.
The car's proximity alarm blares. I blink furiously at its icon and the shriek cuts off.
The showboat explodes.
I float in a pearly glow that obscures nearby white-clad figures. Gentle classical music. Bach's cello suite number 5 in C minor, which I love.
I'm riding on the Sarabande when the pain wells up like a deep organ chord and I groan, making a pretty good job of it past the obstruction in my throat.
A white figure approaches. I blink and she resolves into a nurse. So I am not really floating, I'm in a gel bed, and flying only on painkillers.
"Welcome back," she murmurs. "Deep breath, now. Exhale." She slides the tube out.
I croak, "How long?"
"You've been in an isolation ICU for three days. Drink this."
The bed sheet is tented over me. I look down and see my flesh tattooed in raw patches, glazed over with anti-burn goop, my forearm cocooned in gauze, my thigh elevated in an open sling, a swath of abraded flesh, speckled with blood, fringed with dead skin. Pandemonium explodes again, the horror inscribed in my mind far more painful than the wounds to my body.
"The others?" I manage.
"Eleven people were admitted."
"How many of those survived?"
But she won't tell me. All she'll do is take my hand.
I swallow and it feels like knives. All those deaths. It's partly my fault, for not standing up to Fil. Who at least was a hero at the end, damn him, when it all could have been prevented if he'd just listened to me. The melancholy music underscores my mood. The music. I look past the nurse to the opaque membrane protecting me. I make out the silhouette of a girl. A girl with a cello.
My throat aches with the effort not to cry. "Can't she come in?"
The nurse smiles, pats my hand. "For a moment."
I hear her instructing Marianne that she can only stay five minutes at a time, and she needs to put on a gown and gloves every time she enters my pod.
My girl comes through the port and I lose it.
"Dad, I'm so glad to see you," she sobs. "Are you in a lot of pain?"
"You just erased it, sweetheart. I feel a million percent better." Through a scrim of tears, I drink in Marianne's sweet face... her face.
"Hey. Your mask!"
She smiles the way she used to, when she was a little girl clutching a bunch of wildflowers behind her back. "They don't allow masks on Luna."
She smiles a grown-up grin and I know she's going to be fine. Better than fine. Great.
"You know your mother would have been as proud as I am."
We're both teary-eyed again. I hold her gloved hand until the nurse steps in. "Time's up," she tells Marianne. "But you can come back in an hour."
"Honey, would you play a while for me again?"
"Sure thing, Dad." She blows me a kiss. "Oh, I almost forgot." She retrieves an envelope from her pocket. "This came for you."
Who the hell gets physical mail anymore? Then I see the acid-green logo on the envelope. I wait until Marianne resumes playing before I read the notice from EfTef about a field agent position having just opened up in the Bucks BioRegion. My heart twists. Rowan. Fresh tears join the ones filling my eyes. Cassie. I hold on to the warm lilt of Marianne's cello and wonder how it will sound on the Moon.