Pet Noir, p.1Katharine Kerr
Polar City Blues
Copyright © 1990 Katharine Kerr
Book View Café
June 14, 2011
Hagar’s enormous sun sets in an opalescent haze, the sky brindled a metallic red-orange that seems insultingly gaudy, as if a cheap holopix director were designing an alien sky. As the red fades into an offensive little-girl pink, the real show begins above Polar City. The northern lights crackle, hang long waves of rainbow over the skyline that resembles nothing so much as egg-cartons set on end, and at times wash the high gantries of the space-port in purple and silver. Although most of the inhabitants (just getting out of bed, checking their kids or their incubating eggs, brushing their teeth or washing their beaks) ignore them, tonight Police Corporal Baskin Ward stops on his downtown beat and leans against the blue plastocrete wall of the public library to watch the sky. He has a lot to think over, and it is very hot, as it always is in Polar City. In an hour or so, the town will come alive, but he wants to take it easy so he’ll be fit for the sergeant’s exam on the morrow. If he passes, he’ll be able to marry the woman he’s loved for three years, a clerk/comp-op over in Traffic Control who wants, as he does, two children and a transfer off this God-damn low-tech desert world with the continually gaudy sky. If he does well as a sergeant, he’ll be able to request posting to Sarah, his home planet, a world of rains and jungles—if, of course, he passes the exam in the first place.
The blue arc street lamps wink on, floating in their maglev field some twenty feet above the pale gray sidewalks and the shiny black movebelts that flow beside them. The Civic Center Plaza in front of him is empty except for a woman hurrying across, her high-heeled boots echoing and slapping on the rammed earth tiles, the sound competing with the endless snap of magnetism in the sky above. In a little while, office workers and bureaucrats will pour in from the underground condos rimming the city proper. Ward hopes for an easy beat. Most likely it’ll be a few drunks and more than a few dreamdusters, all to be lectured, ticketed, and entered into the rehab computer via the terminal on his belt, while the most exciting arrest is likely to be a pick-pocket. Basically, Ward is there to be seen in his kelly-green uniform with its imposing gold braid and shiny silver stun-gun, a visible symbol of the Republic’s power to protect and punish.
He settles his cap, peels himself off the library wall, and steps onto the movebelt that runs across the plaza toward City Hall, a enormous black basalt building as glum as a tombstone. In the center of the plaza is a roughly-defined square bordered by holm oaks. Just as the belt carries Ward inside this square, some unseen worker far below the surface turns on the public hologram in the center. A tall fountain snaps into being, the illusionary water spraying in dead silence for a minute before the hiss-and-splash tape goes on. When the ion generator joins in, Ward can almost believe that it’s cooler near the fountain. He steps off the belt and ambles over to the real railing that keeps kids, lizlets, and pets out of the imaginary water. In the middle of the big white plastocrete pool, he sees his first drunk or druggie of the night, lying half-hidden in the murk of the illusion.
“Okay, amigo, need a little help, huh?”
As Ward wades through the holo, he’s irrationally irritated that his legs stay dry and thus hot. The doper never even moves, merely waits, lying on his back with his hands folded over his chest. Then Ward sees the stain, more black than red in the arc light, spreading over the whiteness.
Ward kneels down fast, reaching for his combox. He sees that he’s dealing with a male carli, about five feet tall, even skinnier than most of his species, the three fingers on each hand like long twigs and tufted with pale gray fur. The dark gray fur visible on his face, arms, and neck is dull and matted. His eyes are wide open; the skin-flaps around each ear, fully extended and rigid; his thin slit of a mouth, shut tight. Since Ward knows carli ways, he realizes that these particular facial expressions indicate a certain mild surprise and nothing more. The victim must have suspected nothing, seen no danger coming, until the exact moment that someone slashed his throat open to the spine.
“Since he’s a carli, sir, he got to be part of the Confederation embassy.”
“Safe enough bet, Ward.”
Chief Al Bates, an enormous, burly man whose skin is so dark that it glitters with bluish highlights, and his corporal, about half his size and on the pale side, stand off to one side of the plaza and watch the ’grammers and techs swarming around the corpse. Since the fountain has been shut off, they can see the body clearly, dressed in luxurious blue robes of natural fiber. On its left wrist is a multi-function chrono with a solid gold band, its expensive presence eliminating a nice routine robbery-with-bodily-harm. Although the chief wants to find a simple motive—unpaid gambling debts, say, or an affair with some other carli’s female—deep in his heart he suspects that politics lies at the root of this killing, simply because major crimes on Hagar almost always have something to do with politics. Just six blocks to the west of them stands the embassy of the powerful Interstellar Confederation; eight blocks to the east, that of the enormous Coreward Alliance. Polar City Hall, seat of the provincial administration of this portion of the pitifully small Republic (seven inhabited planets in four systems, two asteroid belts, and a couple of minable moons), stands symbolically in between, caught, as the citizens like to say, between the Cons and the Lies. This joke is not meant kindly.
By now the office workers are arriving, popping up like sandworms out of the metro exits, and of course, they stop to gawk. Without waiting for orders Ward trots away to keep them moving—a good officer, in the chief’s estimation, and one worthy of a set of sergeant’s stripes. He also sees the Vulture Detail weaving through the crowd—a medic and two body techs, with a maglev platform bobbing along after them. Bates wonders why the killers left the body in the middle of the plaza, especially in the fountain, a damn strange place to dump a corpse. Perhaps the killers were new to Polar City and didn’t know about the fountain? Perhaps they were deliberately insulting the dead man? The carli are extremely touchy about the disposal of their corpses. He reminds himself to access a databank on carli burial customs to see if water might be a source of ritual pollution.
“It looks horrible, chief.”
“Jeez! Mulligan!” Bates swirls around, his stun-gun half-drawn before he catches himself. “Will you stop creeping up on me like that? One of these nights you’re going to get a skull full of shock waves.”
Mulligan merely smiles his open, boyish grin, one of the things that the chief particularly dislikes about him. Although Bates is willing to admit that a free society should tolerate psychics, and that indeed, the Republic often finds them useful, he has never felt at ease around psionic jocks and particularly not around Mulligan. Tonight Mulligan looks even messier than usual, all skinny six feet of him dressed only in a pair of filthy white walking-shorts and a green shirt open to the waist, both of them much too large. His hair though permanently shaggy is temporarily turquoise blue, a color that clashes with the bright red, mandatory ‘p’ tattooed on his left jaw, just beside the ear. (While the Republic tolerates psychics, it also brands them to protect its other citizens.) In the street lights, his eyes glare like a reptile’s—reflective gold contact lenses, the chief notes in disgust. He cannot quite stop himself from thinking that after all, white people, los Blancos, are mostly this way, out of touch with hard reality, caught up in some faked image of themselves. Then he feels ashamed of himself for lapsing into old prejudices.
“Can I help?” Mulligan waves vaguely at the corpse.
“What do you want the bucks for? Dreamdust?”
“Never use the stuff. How abo
Bates snorts in skepticism, then hesitates, thinking. Mulligan has the virtue of being right there on the scene, and early, before whatever vibrations it is that psychics read have weakened or even dissipated completely.
“Yeah, sure. Follow me.”
Mulligan trots meekly behind as the chief shoves his way through the crowd to the coroner’s techmen around the corpse. They are just loading the gray-shrouded bundle onto the maglev platform.
“Got a registered psychic here,” Bates says. “So hold off moving him for a moment.”
Obligingly the techmen let the corpse fall back onto the fountain floor. Mulligan kneels down, slumps back onto his heels, then holds his long-fingered pale hands out over the body. For a moment he sits quietly, while one techman gets out a recorder and primes it to catch whatever he says and the other corpse-handler gets himself a pinch of chewing spice out of his shirt pocket. Then Mulligan goes rigid, his head snapping back, his back arching, and howls once, a high-pitched shriek of pain. One techman swallows his spice and rushes away to puke it back up in the privacy of the gutter. The other, who is apparently more familiar with psionic techniques, flicks on the recorder and yawns. Bates hunkers down close.
“What do you see?”
His mouth half-open, Mulligan turns his head to look the chief’s way. Because of the reflective contacts, it’s some moments before the chief realizes that something is badly wrong, that Mulligan’s acting blind, that he’s desperately trying to force out a few words and to raise his hands. When Bates grabs him, he howls again, but this time he sounds like he’s choking. For all his big-bellied bulk, the chief can move fast when he has to. Dragging Mulligan with him he jumps to his feet and leaps back. The result appears to be exactly the same as dragging someone away from an electrical shock. At first Mulligan spasms, then faints in the chief’s arms. Turquoise sweat streaks down his face.
“Medic!” Bates’s voice booms over the murmurs of the gawking crowd. “Get me a medic! Pronto!”
Mulligan wakes up on an examining table in a cubicle down at Polar City Emergency Center. The bright pink walls are stained along the baseboard by the urine of two different species, and the smell of disinfectant makes his dry throat constrict further. A strong overhead light stabs his eyes. When he tries to roll over onto his stomach, the pain in his head makes him moan aloud. In one corner of the room is a sink: water if he can only reach it. His legs and shoulders ache so badly that he doubts if he can. For some minutes he lies perfectly still and tries to remember what sent him to the hospital. The only thing he can think of is that he was knocked down by an errant skimmer or even by some hobbyist on an antique bicycle. He can remember walking across a street to talk to Chief Bates; then nothing.
From out in the corridor he hears footsteps, big, shuffling, slapping footsteps, and another mind touches his.
Okay little brother, Nunks now. My home>safe my home>safe my home>safe.
Tears form in Mulligan’s eyes. When he goes to wipe them on his sleeve, he realizes that someone has taken out his contacts. He finds this infuriating for a reason he can’t verbalize to himself. A soothing warmth touches his mind.
At that the door opens, and Nunks pads in. Seven feet tall, vaguely hominoid in that he has two legs, two arms, and a head all coming off a central torso, he is wearing a pair of striped black and white overalls, cut off at the knee, over his thick coat of curly gray fur, but as always, he’s barefoot. Bluish fur covers his skull, which is bifurcate: that is, it looks as if he has two wedge-shaped skulls, each striped with a pinkish ear-strip, that join in the middle lump of bone and flesh, about the size of a baseball, where his perfectly round mouth and three eyes reside. He gets Mulligan a plastic cup of water, helps him drink it, then lays one huge, bare-palmed hand on Mulligan’s forehead. The pain disappears.
Cureblock it? Mulligan asks.
Block. Not-know cure.
Go home> Lacey know? Buddy know?
Go home> Nunks nods in a firm, paternal manner. Find nurseman, go not-here>
The nurse, however, finds them, slamming into the room as if he expects to find Nunks murdering his patient. His dark brown face is set in grim lines. In one hand he carries a com-cube; in the other, a typer.
“Okay, white boy,” he snaps at Mulligan. “Does your...ah...friend speak Merrkan?”
“He no speak anything, but he, like, understands Merrkan.”
“Well, you no should be in here,” this last addressed to Nunks. “Who let you in, anyway?”
Nunks regards him with two of his large, green eyes for a long moment; then he steps forward and raises one hand.
“You no should be in here! Hey, what are you doing? Dunt touch me, you jerk! Dunt...”
The moment Nunks’ hand reaches his forehead, the nurse smiles, sighs, and falls unconscious to the floor.
Little brother walknot walk?
Not walk. Mulligan lets some of his body pain flow outward.
With a wince, Nunks acknowledges that he understands.
Little brother mindshroudnot mindshroud?
When Nunks picks him up, Mulligan wraps his arms around Nunks neck and lets his friend carry him like a child. They link minds, then send out a vast and misleading amount of pure signal that acts as a virtual screen of invisibility as they go down the hall. Past the gray and silver triage station, where four sentients in white coats are standing around gossiping, through the crowded lobby, outside to the plaza and down to the robocab stand—no one notices them go by; no one says a word to stop them, not even when they have to wait a good five minutes for an empty cab to swing their way. Although Nunks can open the door and get Mulligan into the seat, Mulligan has to punch in the co-ordinates of Porttown, because Nunks’ fingers are too broad. The effort leaves him gasping.
Porttown proper begins about two miles from Civic Center where First Avenue dead-ends into the customs building, and that’s where the robocab stops to let them off, because its programming forbids it to go any deeper into the neighborhood. By then, Mulligan’s muscles have relaxed enough that he can stumble along provided Nunks keeps one arm around him for support. They amble down D Street, past the gray plastocrete facades, the pawnshops and the cheap hotels, the drunks in doorways and the dream-dusters sprawled openly on the sidewalk. Every now and then a tired whore calls down a bad joke from a window, or a Fleetman in full uniform staggers past on his or her way to the skyport after a night of liberty. Twice they are followed by lizzie gangs, but not only is Nunks very large, he is also broadcasting a psychic projection of danger and hostility that makes all the passers-by instinctively feel that he’s a bad sentient to cross. After a block or two, the gangs fade away.
They’re within sight of the port gates when they turn down an alley that dead-ends against the side of a faux-brick warehouse that takes up the entire city block. It sports slide-up cargo doors and a loading dock, but the doors are padlocked and rusty, the windows painted over, the dock heaped with wind-blown trash. At one corner is an ordinary door and a faded, three-dee block sign that reads “A to Z Enterprises.” Mulligan doubts if the sign ever fooled anyone but the occasional Outworlder who had the ill luck to wander this way, because the set-up was never truly intend to deceive. Rather, it announces to the authorities that Lacey is willing to pretend that she’s trying to make them believe she runs a legitimate business, so that the authorities can go on pretending that they’ve been fooled. On Hagar, there are proper ways of doing things.
When Nunks presses his palm into the autolock, the door slides back with a clogged groan. Just stepping inside makes Mulligan feel better. What looks like a solid block’s worth of warehouse from the outside is in fact a hollow shell, only one room or corridor thick. Inside blooms a garden, green row after green row of fruits, vines, and veg
At night, under the ever-shifting colors of the northern lights, the garden seems to breathe as the iridescent shadows flicker and swell. As they make their way carefully between two rows of grayish-green bread ferns, Mulligan notices a young woman standing in a spill of light from an open doorway behind her. About sixteen, she’s a lovely child, small and slender with her bleached white hair, just frosted with purple, setting off the perfect smooth darkness of her skin. One side of her face, however, is bruised as purple as her hair, and even in the bad light he can see red marks on her neck that are about the size and shape of fingertips.
Big brother? New girl/Lacey friend/live here?
When she sees them the girl ducks back into her room and slams the door. Mulligan hears old-fashioned bolts being shot and the rattle of a chain for good measure. Feeling her fear takes his mind off his own physical pain long enough for him to struggle up the outside stairway to the second floor. Nunks shoves open the heavy door at the top and half-carries him into a corridor purring with air conditioners. About ten feet along Lacey’s door stands open, and he can hear her husky voice snapping with anger.
“Listen, panchito. I told you that if you want to stay here, you have to follow the rules. Rule One: when Nunks gives an order about the gardens, you obey him. Get it?”
Pet Noir by Katharine Kerr / Science Fiction / Fantasy / Mystery & Detective have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes