by Catherine Wells
Rath van Dorn groaned and rubbed at eyes that were sore and red, his long brown fingers prying grit from the dry corners. Damn, but he wanted to be out walking the floors, the grounds, the drill site—anywhere he could be in motion! But no, he’d been put on desk duty, so here he was processing reports. How the hell did they expect him to concentrate on reports when his wife was missing? Had been missing for weeks. He tried to calculate how many, but he couldn’t remember what day of the week this was.
He had expected to be part of the search. He was a Senior Security Officer, after all, with three years in the Military Police before he signed on with Halstaadt Security. He’d been trained in search techniques. But he’d been sidelined as too close to the situation. A suspect, that meant. The husband was always the first suspect. He’d been on-shift, though, when Lakshmi disappeared—first monitoring CCTV in the admin building with another officer, then at his desk writing a report, also under CCTV, so they’d had to give up that notion pretty fast. What excuse did they have now?
He glanced up as Winky slipped into his office, barefooted like all its kind, but clad in a Company jumpsuit. “Clear skies and fresh fruit,” it said in a reedy voice.
“Soft rain and dry sleeping.” Rath wiped the report from his desktop, standard procedure for when an alien was present. Although technically, he was the alien and Winky the native, and frankly, Parsans were the most innocuous species on this planet, right down to and including the algae growing in the sewage treatment ponds. But Osminog Company had dozens of mining operations in as many star systems, and the same policies and procedures applied at them all. “What is it, Winky?”
The Parsan shifted uneasily, and a ripple ran through its auburn hair. The chamelioid Parsans did that sometimes when they were nervous: let a feature ripple as though adjusting it to a closer approximation of human form. Rath gave his head an impatient shake, though his own curling black hair did not ripple. He was too tired to deal with Parsan niceties. “Just say it, Winky.”
“Supervisor Brown wishes to speak with you.”
Was that all. “Did he say why?”
Winky blinked several times, a gesture Rath had learned to interpret as an attempt to distance itself from a situation. “No, sir.” Don’t shoot the messenger.
Rath lurched forward in his chair, the taste of bile in his throat. Oh, God, was Lakshmi dead, had they found—No. No, Arte wouldn’t have sent for Rath, he’d have come himself and brought a counselor. A stab of anger locked Rath’s jaw as he realized what it had to be. It was Matisse, she was behind this. He’d seen the new Site Administrator earlier in the hallway, and she’d done a quick turn into a side corridor as though avoiding him—He launched from his chair and strode past Winky, down the hall, and into the supe’s office.
Artemis Brown rose as Rath entered. He was a big man, blunted by age but still solid. He eyed Rath carefully. “Jesus, Rath, you look like death warmed over.”
“Are you surprised?”
Arte’s broad shoulders slumped. “No. No, of course not. But—hell, can’t the medics give you something to help you sleep, at least?”
“I can’t take meds, I have a child to care for. I have to hear her cry.” Nissa was barely six months old, not yet sleeping through the night.
Stymied, Arte looked away, reaching down to straighten a holoframe on his desk. “Well, sit down. We need to talk.”
Again Arte ran his appraising eye over Rath, lips compressed beneath his bushy gray mustache. “Okay, have it your way.” His concession reinforced Rath’s suspicion. Arte ran a finger around the console on his desk, tapped it once, then looked Rath in the eye. “You’re not going to like this, and I don’t blame you. But we’re closing the case. We have to.”
Bristling, Rath came to his full height and bored into Arte with molten lava eyes. “You mean you’ve been instructed to.” Damn Matisse with her sugar-coated drawl and her titanium gaze.
Arte’s eyes sparked. “I don’t need instruction to know when we’re beat! I don’t know what happened to your wife, Rath, I may never know, but I know one damned thing: we tried everything to find her. We’ve exhausted our options, used all our resources—”
“All you can spare.”
“What resources do you see that we haven’t poured into this search?” Arte’s color rose with the pitch of his voice. “We’ve gone building to building, we’ve covered every inch of the drill site and pits, we’ve talked to anyone who might have seen something—What else do you think we can do?”
“You can ask the Parsans to let us fly drones.”
“Damn it, Rath, you know they won’t let us do that, what with their paranoia about flying things! And we don’t need drones to cover the Zone, I told you we—”
“You can petition to search outside the Zone.”
Arte sucked in breath. Humans were restricted to the Terran Zone of Parsa on penalty of expulsion. “You know we can’t go out there, and neither could she. The Parsans would have dumped her back in a heartbeat, and probably fined the Company to boot.”
“Not if they didn’t know.” Original pictures from orbit, taken before the Parsans objected to such surveillance, showed thick stands of jungle to the west, beyond the blackened borders of the Zone, alien vegetation climbing twenty-five meters into the sulfur-hued sky. “You think they know everything that goes on out there? They’re not mystics, they don’t have any intuition that triggers the moment a human sets foot outside the Terran Zone—”
“They do a damn good imitation!”
Rath lunged forward. “They don’t know!”
by Meg Pontecorvo
Emilia glimpsed them, rising far out in the bay, as she hurried from her car to the beach. A million blue bursts, like Fourth-of-July sparklers. Was she too late? She paused, panting, at the back of the crowd and tightened the baby sling holding Jeremy to her chest. Patches of blue, intermittently flickering, lit the shore. Through gaps in the crowd, she saw the source at the tideline: enormous clumps of tiny firefly squid. Native to Japanese waters, they were now massing in Monterey, breeding, and washing ashore to die. She had to get close.
Shifting Jeremy’s weight to her hip, she rummaged in her hoodie pocket for her Research Institute badge, found it, and began waving it. “Aquarium business. Let me through, please.”
A few people stepped aside, but a bunch of frat boys stayed put, attention fixed on the cell phones they held above their heads. Emilia looked up, and a flash blinded her. She blinked, refocused on the waterline’s glow, and stepped forward, jostling a guy’s elbow as he lowered his phone.
“Hey, watch it,” he said, intent on the screen.
I’m trying, you jerk. She bumped him as she passed, on purpose this time, with her mommy bag full of video equipment. Jeremy whimpered, then launched into an ear-splitting wail. “You tell him, pumpkin,” she whispered, and the crowd parted like the Red Sea, giving her a clear view of the dying squid and the Monterey Bay Research Institute scientists crouched over them. Dr. Vijay Dalvi, facing the water, stood behind them.
Emilia caught her breath, then halted at the line of emergency cones separating the crowd from the scientists. Dalvi hadn’t called her. She was only a post-doc, but cephalopod communication was her specialty. This kind of anomaly—Japanese squid in Monterey Bay?—should warrant the whole team—the Squid Squad, they called themselves. Wasn’t she one of them? How long had they been there?
If Jeremy hadn’t kept her up past midnight, she wouldn’t even be here at all. Hearing the text alert, she had grabbed her phone from the nightstand and gaped at the video clip—an in-coming tide flecked with blue. “Happening now!” read the caption, courtesy Joe Olsen, aquarium events manager. “Firefly Squid! Marina Beach!”
No time to reply. She dressed, grabbed Jeremy, stuffed her personal video equipment in with the supply bag’s diapers, wipes, and rice crackers, and drove headlong to the beach, thrilled that she might be the first, maybe the only, researcher there.
Instead, she was likely the last. Staring at Dalvi, she tensed, adrenalin surging. A second later, Jeremy let forth an angry shriek. She tried to relax her grip on him, but he shrieked again and wriggled against the sling. Were all children of single mothers so fine-tuned, from such an early age, for guilt inducement?
As his shrieks escalated into sobs, the people behind her backed away. Dalvi turned. Even out here, he appeared suave and self-possessed. His khaki coat looked like it had been ironed, and his slacks, despite being tucked into knee-high, waterproof boots, still bore their center creases. Noticing her, he nodded, lips pressed into a stern smile, and she was aware of how unprofessional she must look: a slobbering eleven-month-old at her chest, her braid lopsided and wispy, a tripod sticking out of the floppy bag dotted with tiny lambs leaping over candy-pink hearts. Steeling herself, she forced a return smile and strode over to Dalvi.
“When did they surface?” she said.
“Around two hours ago. At least, that’s when I first saw them.”
Of course. His condo overlooked the bay. He was probably the first from the aquarium to notice—and notify everyone but her.
Jeremy’s sobs quickened—she must have tensed again—and she jounced him against her shoulder.
“I didn’t want to disturb you.” His expression softened. “I remember how little sleep Gita and I got with Ravi.” He shoved a hand in his coat pocket, drew out his phone, and shrugged. “But I’m glad you’re here.” He nodded at her tripod. “We need better-than-cell-phone footage. Comparison of the flash rates of bay swarms with those washing ashore.”
“Will do,” she said, massaging Jeremy’s back.
“But not from here.” He gestured toward the north end of the beach. “You need to get the shore and bay squid in the same frames.”
Without giving her a chance to comment, Dalvi turned back to the other researchers. Engrossed with taking samples, they hadn’t greeted her—though Jeremy was making enough noise that they must have noticed her arrival.
She hesitated, torn between the need to talk shop and the impulse to flee.
Then Jeremy started to hyperventilate, and she retreated northward to where Joe, surrounded by a knot of gawkers, was setting up a cone circle around a knee-high mound of squid. She waved her badge and crossed through the cones. A few cell phones flashed, and she hunched over Jeremy, whispering reassurance. His sobs quieted to sniffles.
She smoothed his hair and turned to Joe, whose face and blond goatee appeared pale blue from the glow. “What are they doing here?”
He gave her a funny look. “Breeding?”
“Not the squid. All these people. It’s 3:00 a.m.”
“No idea. Maybe tourists, from the Wharf bars? Or night owl locals?” He cocked his head and grinned. His teeth shone blue.
If she were in a decent mood, Emilia would have teased him. Instead, she glanced at the cones. “Good to see that Dalvi asked you to set a perimeter.”
“Sort of. To keep people from touching the squid. But he also said not to keep them from snapping photos.”
Emilia nodded. Dalvi would want word spread on social media. A savvy team-leader, he was constantly competing for funding—and losing to marine mammal and sea otter specialists. Squid didn’t gain points for cuteness—even tiny ones that glowed like fireflies.
Joe bent and wiggled his fingers at Jeremy. Out in the bay, patches of blue brightened and began to spread. Another swarm was surfacing. She had to set up.
“Listen, I’m going up a dune to get a clear shot. Can you do me a favor and tell these people to stop flashing?”