by

Eric Del Carlo
illustration by Darryl Knickrehm © 2013
No surprise when the trespass alert flashed in my little hermetic frost-box in the Embarcadero station. I only ever go out on one kind of call. I handle every non-violent detail involving a pre-ev in San Francisco. There are only 653 of us, untouched by that special evolution, who are left in San Fran, and in a sense I am caretaker to every one.

The details overtook my screen, but I was already getting my gear, moving as fast as my age and weight would allow. My office is tiny, but it's only ever me in here, bored, waiting. The other officers in the department don't need or want--or even have the ability--to breathe the cooled, oxygenated, carefully doctored air.

I exited through my office airlock, a familiar and welcome urgency having taken hold. My mask was on but not quite fitted, and I was still slathering fresh cloaking-salve on my hands, cheeks and forehead. So I was hurrying and fumbling, and I'm hardly spry anymore; I collided with a Newt in the corridor outside my office.

My hands touched the Newt’s flesh—slick, cool, textured. Like brushing a snake just emerged from an autumn lake. At least these beings are humanoid in shape. Normally I don’t make physical contact with them, and if I do, I control my reaction. But I was already thinking past this moment, to the trespass call, and I recoiled. I probably grimaced too, but the mask thankfully hid it.

"Sorry."

I wasn't even outside the station and the air was already laboring my lungs, forcing a rapid pulse in my veins.

"It's okay, Lubrano. You on a call? You want somebody to drive you?"

The Newt, a fellow officer named Sussman, stood there offering his help in a way that didn't allow me to just dismiss him. He was quite unlike me, and not just in age and weight. He was...other. is skin was differently pigmented, a kind of feverish greenish purple. There were also changes to the limbs, which jointed peculiarly. The torso was oddly proportioned, accommodating as it did the wholly remade bellows of the lungs, not to mention the slew of rejiggered organs which handled the new blood.

And the head--the shape of the skull, the face...

Yet his eyes looked unnervingly human. My “human. Pre-ev human.

I said, "Sure. Let's go."

Outside, surrounded by the workaday buzz of the city, the odor and pressure of the air immediately increased. Even through the elaborate filters clinging to my doughy face like a colony of black plastic lampreys, I tasted detergent and copper shavings. The temperature was crushing, a soupy heaviness that made me think about every stride I was taking across the parking lot.

Sussmann was younger, and not a pre-ev. Newts like him had been designed for such an atmosphere. This was of course his natural environment. I dumped myself into the passenger seat while he activated the car, his every movement focused and energetic. There was something regulation about everything he did. Hell, he even put his hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel. His appearance had that same disciplined quality as his actions—uniform scrupulously tidy, brass badge gleaming. It felt like a mockery of my own rather slovenly appearance.

“Ready?” he asked, tone courteous, even defferential.

It was hard not to take his politeness as distant contempt. “Just go—“ I bit back the last word, the direct address part, realizing I’d almost called him “Newt” to his face. Strange, though, that the expression “pre-ev” with its vaguely derogatory overtones is fair game. Annoyed, I repeated firmly, “Just go, Sussman.”

The first forced-evolution generation were dubbed New Terrans by the gene wizards who created them. That was where Newt comes from; and turning that to Lizard was inevitable and maybe just a bit childish on our part. Especially since, structurally, they look more like humans than reptiles. But like human isn’t human.

Sussmann drove us out of the lot, toward the foot of Market Street, and turned left at the seawall. Like a circulatory system, the city was in motion around us, its inhabitants on foot and in vehicles moving freely through an environment that perfectly suited them.

Sussman glanced over with a respectful nod.

I was old, and he was new. He was what I and the other 653 pre-evs in San Francisco had chosen not to become. That used to fill me with pride; right now I just felt left behind.

He smiled at me. I looked away. The mountain-like range of the old Financial District's buildings loomed on our left against the iridescently bilious sky.

"I've always wanted to go on one of these." Sussman sat forward, craning his neck for a better view, as if he could make their destination appear sooner. Somehow his excitement felt belittling. This call meant trouble for a pre-ev, for one of my 653.

I blinked behind the tight lenses that sealed in my eyes. My eyelashes brushed the plastic. "How's that?"

He cut around the street closures without consulting the vehicle's grid. "A call like this," he said. "One of yours."

He spoke with absolute normalcy, colloquial speech, no strange modulations--a perfectly ordinary pre-ev voice coming out of that strange living shape.

I was only getting the usual shallow sips of air that the filters could provide, which added a little constrictive panic to every intake. The heat was baking me in my clothes. "Listen, Sussmann--"

He looked over long enough to flash me a grin. Like the eyes, the lips were normal, and the grin seemed dismayingly human. "Lubrano. Hey, don't worry. I don't think I'm suddenly your partner. You've got a helluva lot of seniority on me, for one thing." He snapped out a bright little laugh. "It's just that, well... your work fascinates me, if you want to know the truth."

My jaw tightened. Suddenly all my smoldering anger felt justified. “Because I deal with pre-evs?” I couldn’t say “Newt,” but I did my best to turn the other term into a slur—since that was what the word felt like to me sometimes.

Sussman’s eager-beaver grin vanished. Even more gratifying, he stared intently at the road ahead. I wondered if he was blushing or doing whatever his kind did.

I sank back in the unit's passenger seat and watched the half-decayed, half-rebuilt street scape unfold ahead of us.

We arrived, and I saw it. Stretching across the Bay where it connected to the gelatinous Pacific, a great creaking monster, a remnant, eaten away by the excoriating wind: the bridge.






I left Sussmann in the cruiser behind the row of empty weather-stripped toll booths on the bridge, stepped through one of the gaps in the chain-link fence, and walked out onto the span.

The wind churned, pulling swaths of toxic cotton candy across the sky. Steel groaned. Cables had snapped over the years, and those left twanged in the gusts. Patches of kaleidoscopic fungal-glowing weeds had taken root, and the deserted roadbed shifted under my feet. The concrete was turning to powder. Ahead, the two towers of the Golden Gate soared, both rusted monoliths.

I couldn't move with speed, and every step brought new pain... I labored along, uncomfortably aware that my age and deteriorating physique would have had me huffing and sweating even if the environment still suited a pre-ev. I stared at my hands, worried that the brutal sunlight was causing the cloaking-salve to bubble on my knuckles. My eyes stung. I swallowed and grimaced, an ugly aftertaste in my mouth.

The woman leaned on a guardrail in the middle of the bridge. I paused, stared at her, then looked back down, focusing on my footing. There were holes big enough for me to fall through.

She was masked, of course, and wore a long gray coat. She stood near the westward rail, up on what was the pedestrian walkway when the bridge still operated. No one ever looks out at the sea on occasions like this; they all face toward the Bay and the city. It's always been that way.

She was watching me like she'd been expecting me--waiting on me, even. There were two categories jumpers fell into. But everyone who does something like this thinks they've got a unique reason. They don't.

I halted, holding out my badge. Unlike Sussman, I don’t wear a uniform.

Her eyes narrowed behind her mask's lenses. Creases stretched toward her temples.

"Look at you." She gestured toward me, voice even, tight, carrying over the wind and the groaning metal of the structure.

"Look at me.” I smiled, but she would only see it in my eyes. I didn't talk in that androidic cop-speak, like the Newt. I just spoke to people these days.

"You're not a fucking Lizard."

"No, I'm not." Now I knew which of those groups she belonged to. The other one was the ruers, those who lamented the past sins against the biosphere, reliving each poisoned detail of humankind's destruction of its habitat. Those ones are a real drag. This woman was angry. That gave her a little juice.

She lifted a knobby chin, half-hidden by the dangling filters. Her posture was regal. Then her gaze went past me, intent, and I glanced, wondering if she was playing a game. She wasn’t. Suddenly Sussman wasn’t in the back of my mind anymore. He was literally behind me, hanging back several dozen yards but close enough that the woman could see who—and what—he was.

“I told him to stay in the car,” I said, letting irritation into my voice, holding back a deeper anger. I didn’t need his interference. But maybe more than that, I felt that I and this woman deserved a kind of species-exclusive privacy. No Newts invited.

I turned back to her, afraid that his presence would tip whatever balance this perilous situation held.

She spoke in a matter-of-fact tone. "I didn't know there were any human cops left.”

I put away the badge "Just me."

"Just you." She offered a nod that suggested a bow, which added to her regal bearing. The railing had fallen away where she was standing. She was two strides from the drop.

"That must be fun. Cheek to jowl--or whatever--with the Lizards all day." A tiny shudder moved her shoulders.

"I can take it or leave it."

"You were sent because I'm a human." Her tone suggested scorn, contempt.

"I handle these types of calls."

"These types...?" she said, like I'd affronted her.

"Any nonviolent incidents that involve pre-evs." I didn't make it any kind of apology.

Having her angry was better than despondent. I maintained my outward calm, almost a casualness, but of course I was heavily invested in this. A wiry desperateness quivered in me, making me want to flex my hands repeatedly. I held back, aware of Sussman’s scrutiny.

The gusts caught the tails of her coat every few seconds. Beyond the drop-off the Bay swirled sluggishly with recombined algal forms, virtually a brand new primordial ooze out of which Christ knew what was going to eventually emerge. But it was still effectively water, and hitting it from this height would have the time-honored effect.

"How about telling me your name?" I shrugged, to make the question casual.

"Shouldn't you be telling me yours?"

"You want to know?" Every extra sentence I could get out of her was good.

"I'm Johanna. Johanna Hibbs. You'll need that for your report or whatever."

"There doesn't have to be a report. Nothing drastic at least. Trespassing. Big deal. Not even a fine." I didn’t point out that this was a lot of hassle on my part for “no big deal.” She knew that. I leaned a little forward, like I might take an accidental step her way, but her eyes lit up behind the lenses and I stayed put.

"None of this should be fenced off anyway." She gestured, her arm long and sweeping, taking in the whole span. Her gesture and eyes stopped over my shoulder.

For a few seconds my awareness had slipped. Now I turned, not just to glance. I glared at Lizard boy, still back there. I’d have to shout an order, and didn’t want to raise my voice. It was okay if she was angry, but I needed to project calm. Still, I made a sharp wave. Sussman didn’t move. Maybe he thought he was doing something essential, backing me up.

“You can’t make him go away,” she said. I heard the deeper meaning in her statement.

I needed to get her off the topic.

"The bridge isn't safe."

"Safe? What actually is?” She didn’t gesture this time, just looked out over the city. Nothing was safe in this world, not for a pre-ev.

She turned back. “This Bridge. My great-grandfather worked on it. The fucking Lizards should be restoring it, like they're rebuilding everything else." This last sentence she aimed past me, addressing Sussman, who was probably too far off to hear it.

The Newts wouldn't repair the bridge, I knew. They would take it down and put up something new, made of the resistant alloys and other materials compatible with the current environment. I glanced north, at the bleached burnt hills of Marin. They would reconnect the Bay Area. And, eventually-the whole world.

That thought, the idea of a general rebuilding, softened something in me. It didn’t cancel my anger—justified or not-toward all the Newts, but at least I wasn’t so annoyed anymore at Sussman’s presence at the scene.

"You still haven't told me your name," she said.

"It's Ziggy Lubrano."

"Are you widowed?" She lowered her head, but it wasn’t a regal bow this time. Now she just looked too tired to hold her head up.

"Everybody's widowed. Everybody's lost somebody, lots of somebodies." I didn't waste time wondering who hers were and wasn’t about to start talking about my own. With 653 pre-evs left in the city there were no biographies free of tragedy.

"I wish you could take that mask off. I bet you're handsome." She had moved nearer to the rail-less edge, somehow without seeming to have taken a step in that direction.

I laughed. "I'm not. I'm a fat old man. But I can take you to my office and show you what I look like. I've got great air there. I also have a bottle of whiskey. None of that chlorophyll-mash stuff either. Honest to Jesus whiskey." I had no such bottle, but we could cross that bridge when we got to it. So to speak.

She drew herself up to her full imperial height. Her long hair trailed out behind her like the train on a gown of state. I would have liked to have seen her face too, right at that moment.

"The Lizards can have it all! Goddamn them…” She said the first part of that to Sussman, and made it loud and furious. The last bit was for me, because I would understand it. She spoke those words softly.

Our conversation had ended.

She turned, and she moved. She glared at me, at Sussman, and then at neither of us.

I lurched forward, reached the edge in time to see the green thick foamy splash.

I stood. I had the image of her. It was almost palpable. I felt I could reach out, caress her face, and that face wore no mask. It was a pre-ev face, a human—as I still understood the word—face. My anger came back. But it was mostly directed at myself. I thought about the bridge, like I was grabbing desperate hold of it as an idea. The bridge was a monument to the effort of the pre-evs of long ago, of humanity, when the sky and sea were blue, and sunshine wasn't the enemy of human flesh. Or, perhaps it was just an expanse of steel and concrete, a stretch of junked metal, an artifact of no lasting value.

I was too old to still be doing this, but retirement would have taken away my only, my final function. Who else would make the effort? Johanna Hibbs had been expecting a Lizard in a police uniform, and she would have only said a variation on her last words, then jumped anyway. I had given her the chance for a closing dialogue, a final instance of human to human contact.

My eyes hurt. My lungs were throbbing. I had a long walk back to the car, and I started in on it, ignoring Sussman as I passed him. He followed a moment later. I’ll give him credit; he didn’t try to talk to me.






I took the passenger seat, logged on to the unit's dashboard. Johanna Hibbs lived at the North Beach Habitat.

When Sussman got in, I said in a cold commanding voice, “We’re stopping at North Beach on the way back to the Embarcadero. I know the director there.”

Johanna wouldn't have family, but there would be people who deserved to hear the news in person.

Her picture on the screen was as uncomplimentary as ID photos always have been.

Carcinogens, mutagens, industrial contaminants, hydrogen cyanide, clapped-out ozone, CO2 overkill, methane. I hadn't lied to Johanna. Everyone was widowed. The masks and filters and scrubbers and air-locked habitats do so much-just so much.

"I'm sorry you couldn't talk her out of it." Sussman had been sitting silently. Now he looked at me with a strange light in those human eyes.

I let out a breath that rattled around inside my mask. "Yeah, well. It's hard to give them a reason not to." I glanced out at the derelict toll plaza, at the photonegative sky, at the air so dense I could actually see it moving past the vehicle.

"Did you help her, Lubrano?"

Johanna Hibbs' image was still on the screen. With fingers shiny with cloaking-salve I shut off the dashboard with a sharp snap.

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” He had seen what had happened.

“I mean,” he said with a gentle, placating movement of his hand, “did you…help her?”

He cared. I saw it on his face, even as alien as its configurations were to me. It was, I realized, an empathetic light in his eyes. I was speechless.

But the Newt had asked his question.

Quietly I said, "It was a better death than it would’ve been otherwise. Yeah, I guess I helped.”

“I’m glad.”

He reached out and turned the dash back on. "She jumped from about here, wouldn’t you say?" he asked, just as sensitively, indicating the map he’d called up.

"Yes.”

“Perhaps we can recover her body."

I looked at the map, nonplussed. "How? The department doesn't have any boats."

"I'll contact the trawlers. They know the currents. They might know where to look. Before she washes up."

I looked over at him, levelly now. Johanna hated them. Of course she did. It was easy to, for us. They were a constant shock to our cultural system. The world had changed drastically, terribly. That was one thing. But to see ourselves, our species being altered...

Sussmann made a fast series of direct radio calls. Afterward, he went to start the car, but I held up a hand. This silence belonged to me, and it was a while before I said, “Running into you outside my office today — that was no coincidence, was it?”

He looked away. Again I wondered if he was blushing. “No.”

“You really are curious about my kind.” I could have given that statement an ugly accusatory edge, but I didn’t.

“Yes. But it’s more than that. I…respect your seniority.”

This wasn’t just a young officer, I realized. Sussman was a rookie, eager but unsure, looking for any way to become a better cop. That was admirable.

He finally activated the unit's electric motor. "So, North Beach Habitat."

"Right." I reached for my seat belt.

"After," Sussmann said, "after work, I mean--you want to go get a drink? Someplace you'd like to go, I mean. I can be the one to wear the mask, is what I'm saying."

He wasn't looking at me; instead, staring fixedly ahead as the cruiser idled. One thumb tapped the steering wheel nervously.

“Let's go finish up this job first."



© 2013 Eric Del Carlos



Eric Del Carlo's short fiction has appeared in Asimov's, Strange Horizons, Redstone Science Fiction, Shimmer and many other venues. He has authored a number of novels, including the Wartorn fantasy series with Robert Asprin. Most recently, White Cat Publishing has accepted a heartfelt urban fantasy novel which he co-wrote with his father, Vic Del Carlo. It is entitled The Golden Gate Is Empty. For more information or contact check out ericdelcarlo.com or find the author's Facebook page.
 




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