KELVIN WILSON stood on the scarred metal deck as the Island Princess powered away from the Southside Dock and turned toward the mainland. The rumble of the ship’s mag-drive engines vibrated up through the soles of his work boots and rattled along the rusting steel chains under his fingers. Bone-deep weariness mixed with evening breeze, pulling his eyes into slits.
Ahead, wispy clouds gathered on the horizon, back-lit by the setting sun, ablaze in incandescent crimsons and yellows. Two state-of-the-art, long-haul freight dirigibles floated as black silhouettes above their mooring docks on the city’s west side. One of the dirigibles carried an LED billboard that read, “Orbital Colonies – Find Your Future.” Kel let his gaze fall away. It wasn’t his future.
A stranger leaned on the railing two paces to Kel’s right and stared toward their destination – New Jax, Florida, in the Southern Alliance, on the Norte-Americano continent. In bygone glory days, Florida had been part of the United States, but those days were ancient, fossil-fueled history.
The ship’s automated system crackled from loudspeakers hung from the bridge. “The current time is sixteen fifty-four. Current temperature is thirty-four degrees Celsius. Current speed is seven point seven-two meters per second. Land-side ETA is thirty-eight minutes.”
“Thirty-nine point eight-seven,” Kel said to no one in particular.
The man stared over his shoulder at Kel in a silent mix of curiosity and sneer.
Kel ignored him. In truth, his new-found mathematical ability spooked him more than a little. He’d experienced few changes in his life that were for the better. People weren’t supposed to start getting smarter for no reason, and he was certain he’d been getting smarter for the past six months – along with other, more subtle changes.
The man returned his attention to the marsh they crossed. A respectable few moments later, he turned and made his way across the gently swaying deck to the passenger compartment, mumbling something about elastic straps for aluminum-foil hats, leaving Kel alone on the bow.
Hot wind whipped through his hair as the boat moved across the marsh on its sixteen-kilometer crossing of the St. Johns from Jackson’s Island toward the 103rd Street Landing dock. Despite the wind and spray, he preferred the open breeze to the interior of the ferry, where between three hundred fifty and four hundred other have-nots and left-behinds rode in the stuffy, cramped, passenger section toward the mainland.
Kel sniffed. A muted change rode toward him on the wind The air carried the far-off promise of cooler temperatures. Tomorrow, maybe the day after, he thought, there would be a storm, sure as the sunset. He hoped it would herald winter’s relief from the relentless heat.
Kel had half a mind to abandon dinner with Troy and head straight home. He’d allowed his friend to talk him into staying too long at the dog track last night, and he’d paid for it at work. He’d barely managed to drag himself through the day. His legs felt as though he was walking hip-deep in mud and all things equal, Kel would have been satisfied to grab some take-out, flop on his couch, and catch some screen.
“Lentamente, pass me the money in your pockets and you get off the barco alive, punta.”
Something sharp jabbed against the small of his back. An uncomfortable, ice-on-skin prickle washed over him, like stepping into an over-cooled building on a sweaty day.
His eyelids popped open and his muscles stiffened. Breath caught in his throat and his mouth went dry as his fingers tightened around the links of the chain railing. “Please, don’t.” He shook his head, switching to the combination Spanish-English-Creole that had worked its way from the Miami plague zone up the center of the state and taken root over the last hundred years. “No haga, por favor.”
Leaving the shallow, island-side marsh, the boat churned into the open channel that had been the St. Johns River a hundred years ago. Angling into a course change, the Princess caught a rogue wave blown up by the sunset breezes. Its bow thrust into the air like a huge roller coaster, shoving them toward the sky. Kel leaned forward, knees bent, flowing with the boat’s movement the way he’d learned as a kid on Troy’s parents’ ketch.
Without realizing he’d done it, he calculated the amplitude of the wave from the angle of the deck and the time the bow had risen. He moved away from the blade that scraped across his lightweight jacket, spun on the balls of his feet with more agility than he thought he had and faced his attacker.
The owner of the voice looked no more than fifteen or sixteen. A shock of black hair poked from under a tattered, lightweight, hooded jacket. His lifeless eyes, set in thin, hairless face stared at Kel with an expression that was harder than the deck and colder than the surrounding water.
The bow dived toward the brackish river, trying to drop away from their boots and throwing them off balance. Surprise widened the robber’s eyes and opened his mouth as his footing disappeared. An audible gasp punctuated the moment of weightlessness as the ferry dropped toward the water below. The blade moved to the side when he lost his balance. Kel’s own feet strained for contact with the metal as the sudden weightlessness tried to send his gut into his chest. His one-handed grip on the chain helped him stay in contact with the deck and his bent knees kept him upright as the bow slammed into the water, throwing up a wall of spray.
The force of the thief’s upscale running shoes slamming into the deck buckled his knees and cast him forward. With a sharp, exhaled, “Meidrda!” he stumbled toward the bow. Kel stepped to his left as the hooded man reached for the chain with his free hand, trying to regain his equilibrium and advantage. Realization that a simple armed robbery was spiraling out of control flashed into the young man’s eyes. Determination formed his lips into a tight snarl. The blade glinted crimson in the evening light as it started a path that would bring it point-first into Kel’s stomach.
Kel’s disbelieving gaze latched onto the knife as its projected arc formed into a solid-looking ribbon leading to his abdomen. As he braced himself, adrenaline surged through him. A shiver sluiced down his spine and through his arms and legs, so sharp and electric, he was sure it crackled. He gasped at the sensation.
Around him the world changed.
The knife’s movement slowed until it was an easy matter for him to step out of its path, allowing the deadly steel and the hand holding it to pass by. Kel released his grip on the safety chain. He reached out, grasped the thief’s wrist, and pulled. The young man lurched toward the bow, surreal and slow, as if the air he moved through were suddenly molasses-thick.
Understanding crept over the young man’s face. The spray hung in mid-air around them, the glint off the droplets frozen as they tunneled through. The slow-motion momentum of the ferry crashing into the waves and the resulting loss of balance bent Kel’s adversary over the safety chain at his waist.
The fingers of Kel’s free hand found his opponent’s belt where his faded denim shorts hung low around his hips, exposing gray and purple paisley underwear. In one silky movement, he lifted the young man up and over the safety chain and released his grip. The thief disappeared over the edge of the ferry’s deck toward the violent water below.
As the implications of his actions sank in, Kel stood alone on the bow of the ferry, grabbing his breath in gulps as everything around him returned to normal speed. His hand found the safety chain. Turning, he looked over his shoulder. He was alone on the deck. He glanced up to the bridge. Empty. The A.I. that controlled the ancient ferry was buried deep in the ship’s bowels, in constant contact with the docking facility on both shorelines, the GPS satellites above, and all the surrounding boat traffic on the marsh. No one had witnessed what happened.
With his stomach twisting around itself, Kel leaned over the chain and vomited into the grim, frothy turbulence sliding under the ferry. He sank to the deck, his knees landing hard on the metal surface. His left hand gripped the safety chain with savage ferocity while his right found the upright steel post where the chain was attached. Again and again, coils of nausea tightened his stomach.
Kel remained kneeling on the deck with his head thrust between the chains, his shoulder braced against the steel post until the thrumming of the ferry’s motors changed pitch, signaling they were nearing the mainland shallows on the other side of the river. He stood slowly and wiped the sour remnants of stomach acid and saliva from his mouth with the back of his hand. His throat burned. His knees shook and his vision blurred as he headed toward the passenger compartment.
He entered one of the bathrooms, turned on the cold water, and rinsed his mouth, then his face, and ran his fingers through his wind-blown brown hair. He glanced around. The towel rack was missing, the cover of the electric hand-dryer next to it on the wall hung bent to the side, revealing where the motor had been stolen. “Great,” he spat, and wiped his face with the sleeve of his jacket. His reflection in the bathroom mirror looked pale, even in the fluorescent light. His brown eyes looked glazed, giving him the appearance of something caught in headlights on a dark country road. He regarded this unfamiliar reflection that stared back at him.
“What the hell have you done?” His voice was a cracked whisper. His gaze dropped to the wash basin. “I’ll tell you what you did. You threw that dipshit kid over the side, into the river, and right under the ferry.” A shudder rippled through him as he visualized his opponent tumbling through the water, the ship’s corroded keel shredding clothes and skin in its passing. He eyed his face again in the mirror. He looked ready to pass out. “What should I do now, go to the P.E.S.?” He shook his head. “No. Police and Safety won’t even fill in the blanks on a form for something like this.” He stood silent for a minute. With a sigh, Kel turned and opened the door and walked out of the bathroom on shaking knees.
Guilt turned every stray glance into an accusation as he moved through the passenger section in a daze. Kel settled into an empty seat and wrapped his arms around his chest, trying not to shiver against the feeble air-con chilling the perspiration on his skin.
There was another change in pitch from the engines as the ferry approached the 103rd Street dock. The onboard auto-nav spoke to the dockside software, and the systems agreed on the best approach. At the appropriate moment, the ferry’s engines slid into neutral, then reversed, holding the Princess at about ten meters from the dock. Its magnetic grapples fired, sending a faint shudder through the deck, and landed against the steel alloy receivers imbedded in the seawall with a solid thud. As the engines idled, the Princess winched itself up to the waiting dock.
Shuffling off the ferry with the rest of the passengers, Kel eyed the crowd as he made his way up the 103rd Street ramp past the seawall on knees that threatened to turn to gel. Ignoring the congestion of the main taxi-pod platform where most of the other passengers waited, he continued on, sparing an occasional glance over his shoulder. He forced himself to breathe in slow and deliberate movements, timed to his steps to keep from hyperventilating. He swiped a hand over his face, wiping sweat onto his shirt.
He crossed into the warehouse section and turned away from the cleaned-up-for-tourists 103rd Street. Food carts smoked and hissed in the alleys, the scents of frying oil and fermented fish hanging in the air. Strung above them between the buildings, colorful tarpaulins that protected the vendors from the mid-day sun fluttered in the evening breeze. He headed for a less-used station a few blocks off the main street. Rounding a corner, he found a fight in progress in the intersection at the far end of the block.
A small, tight knot of wired-out skinheads had succumbed to the unrelenting heat and antagonized an equal number of intoxicated dock workers out of a bar and into monkey-violence. One skinhead already lay unmoving on the fused sand surface in the middle of the intersection. The rest of the uncoordinated figures kicked and swung badly aimed punches at each other while a small group of alcohol-fueled onlookers shouted encouragement to both sides. It was a common enough occurrence in this part of town, but Kel still shook his head at the senselessness of it. He edged past the crowd, trying to get as far away as possible before the Police and Safety drones showed up and put their stun clubs to work. He wanted nothing to do with the police, especially after the incident on the ferry’s bow.
A few blocks further on, he ignored the smell of stale urine as he ascended the stairs to the taxi-pod platform. Layers of graffiti covering the curved translucent roof over the platform cast a latticework of shadows on walls and the chipped surface under his feet. He slid his credit card into the payment slot and touched the thumbprint reader.
Spending the credits for a taxi-pod every day was the only cost-effective way to get back and forth from where he lived in the center of town to the ferry dock. The price of parking close to the river had become prohibitive and driving over the toll bridge to the island every day was out of the question, even if he could find an affordable, regularly available parking space. Roving gangs of street urchins on either side of the marsh who could strip a car to bare bones in forty minutes kept most commuters on the ferries and in the taxi-pods.
A pod moved silently down the stand-by track into position. The blue and white carbon fiber door slid open and he climbed inside and dropped into one of the two seats. As he let his head relax against the smooth plastic, tears trickled from the corners of his closed eyes. It was just over six kilometers from the aging ferry dock, past the 295 Levee to the downtown section of New Jax — too far to walk in the heat, especially as weak as he was.
“Downtown.” He leaned to the microphone and spoke as clearly as he could, still shaking all over.
“Address?” returned the metallic voice of the pod.
Kel took a steadying breath. “Pub One-Oh-One.” He leaned into the seat as the pod lifted on its magnetic cushion. It accelerated up to the open space between other pods speeding along on the single round steel overhead track that led downtown. Below him, the Roosevelt Levee undulated its way to either horizon, protecting some of the low-lying areas not yet underwater.
Gliding silently twenty meters above the city at an easy hundred klicks an hour, Kel savored the cool air in the pod. He scrubbed his hands over his eyes and tried to calm down. Okay, he thought, it was unusual to be robbed on the ferry because it carried what tourist trade there was to the mainland side, and local organized crime didn’t want the heat. If the kid was from out-of-town, he might not have known about the unspoken rule. If he was local, he might’ve ignored it for a quick buck. Either way, he would’ve disappeared as soon as the local Yakuza caught wind of it, but it still made Kel feel like worm shit. He’d been in a few fights, self-defense-type stuff, but he’d never had to really hurt anyone before. The other possibility poured ice water into Kel’s veins. The kid might have been someone’s relative who got a pass for a job or two, in which case some really bad people would be wondering what happened. He shook the thought off.
What had Kel stumped was the sequence of events. Rather, the speed at which they’d taken place. From the first movement of the knife in his direction, everything around him had slowed to a crawl. He’d heard of similar responses to adrenaline, but had never before experienced anything like it himself. It left him feeling like electricity ran in his veins. He noticed that the fatigue he’d been feeling all day had drained away. He shook his head as his memory replayed the vision of the kid’s shoes disappearing over the ferry’s bow.
Within a few minutes, Kel’s pod slipped off the main track, slowing as it neared his destination. The hodgepodge of stucco-over-shotcrete buildings that was New Jax had erupted to the west of the decaying and boarded up structures of the original city, abandoned when sea levels increased enough to cause the St. Johns River to overflow its banks. Rising tides had claimed much of the low-lying sections of Old Jacksonville that the Atlantic Ocean had missed, turning the once smoothly flowing St. Johns behind him into the stagnant marsh it was now.
Kel stepped out of the pod onto the pre-stressed ferrocrete surface and the pod door closed quietly behind him. He moved down from the platform, sidestepping trash strewn next to an recycling bin that lay on its side on the cracked sidewalk. He made his way past the discarded detritus of dashed hopes and the husks of a couple of cars, stripped for parts and abandoned, walking the six blocks to the pub where he had met Troy for dinner and a beer every Tuesday evening for five years.
Fading light merged the lengthening shadows across the front of Pub 101 as Kel passed several businesses on the opposite side of the street. The roll-down steel shutters were covered in years of posters, advertisements, and graffiti. Unlike most other places in the area, 101 qualified as a pub and not a dive because it served decent food and maintained a micro brewery on the premises, lending it a level of class. Two huge, shatterproof picture windows stood behind standard safety bars, allowing passers-by an easy view of the merriment within. The pub’s neon sign was lit in flamboyant green and red, and a carefully lettered whiteboard stood adjacent to the entrance proclaiming the day’s specials and prices.
A gray figure lurking in the shadows leaned against a wall and watched the pub from an alley across the street. Kel barely noticed the man as he walked past. It never occurred to him that the eyes darting left and right from under a brow of silver piercings belonged to anything more than a street-ghost zoned on Bliss or Turbo, or that the long black coat was all wrong for the December heat.
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