(This is original fiction. You are welcome to link to it. If you quote it or cite it, give me credit. Marion)
(Here’s Part One.)
Hoang looks up for the cooktop where strips of meat sizzle. “Ru–” he says and I clock him across the temple with the schooner, beer spinning out in an arc, hitting the grill and erupting in bitter steam. I don’t want to hurt him, but I can’t have it look like he helped me. I pivot into the alcove where the two sinks wait and fall to my knees.
In one stroke I rip away the plastic covering. Earl was wrong. Pablo makes his living selling untaxed homebrew. There are five ways out of the bar, not four. I climb down the narrow ladder that hangs behind the water pipes, the briny, dead-fish smell of the harbor swirling up to greet me. The lower rungs are slimed with algae and seaweed. Four rungs from the bottom I stop, wrap one leg around the ladder and slide my hand along one of the supports until I find the small pack I stored there a month ago, right after I slipped Pablo a ruby the size of my little fingernail to help me out. I clamber the rest of the way down and drop onto the slippery black rocks. Ball kelp lies in coiled heaps like sleeping snakes. At the edge of the pier the black kayak rocks at the end of its taut line.
One thing about Earl. He recovers quickly.
I scramble over the rocks, climb into the kayak, slip it loose and launch, setting my feet against the foot braces. Two sharp strokes with the paddle and I’m out into the current. I grab the black poncho I’d stuffed in front of the seat and pull it on, flipping up the hood. Across the water, tied up next to the Shore Security boats, three yellow kayaks bob, commercial models, riding higher in the water, but more cumbersome. I need speed.
“Ruby!” His voice echoes over the water and I paddle faster. “You can’t get away!”
From the center of the channel I glance back over my shoulder as his feet come into view. I stroke. He drops, slips on the rocks and rights himself. “Don’t make me chase you!” He plunges into the water.
He’s a strong swimmer and he’s in full-on engagement-mode now, but so am I. I pull steadily at the water, right side, left side, right side, as he splashes behind me. Dr. Larsen doesn’t really understand what a gambler Earl is. He probably sent Earl in with a full team; four operatives including Earl, but Earl would have sent at least two of them on to Eureka or Lowell’s Port, because he’d want the hunt to be more sporting. And his “eyes” were on the kitchen door and the bathroom window, because the roof is the escape route he always prefers.
Right side, left side, right side. I’m pulling away from him. In about a minute he’s going to realize that swimming is not the answer. I focus on my breathing, leaning forward, stroking rapidly through the dark water.
The out-running tide sucks me along. I peer into the darkness, watching for the channel markers, slipping around the rippling bars of light cast down from the cliff side. I’ve practiced this run and I won’t ground myself, but with Earl’s night vision, I need to stay as dark as I can. I do not believe he would come after me without a trank in his pocket.
Earl called the harbor a dog-hole. He may have meant it as an insult but in fact that’s what it is; a narrow-mouthed inlet that opens up into a wide shallow bay. A pair of pylons looms against the dark, rising out of the water, the supports of the old highway bridge, which still spans the mouth of the harbor even though the highway on the south side crumbled into the ocean before my mother was born. Various Pacifican politicians talk about pulling down the bridge or salvaging it for scrap, but they never get around to it. I slide my hand down the strap of the pack and press a button mounted on the side.
Splashing behind me. Right side, left side, right side. I risk a glance. Earl liberated one of the commercial kayaks. He is paddling after me, upright, with even strokes. He’s not gaining on me, not yet.
Right side, left side, right side. I think about what he said, about the babies. I’d love to say I ran away from Dr. Larsen’s Special Program for Freaks, that I bailed on the PMF, because kidnapping children, blowing up buildings and killing people soured my stomach. Sadly, that wouldn’t be true. I didn’t care that we stole children and even blew up buildings in our own countries. I would have rolled over for Dr. Larsen and probably licked his hand for the privilege if he had let me stay with Earl. Instead, he paired me with Taggert. There were three girls in our class at the Institute. Taggert went after each of us, going for pain in the practice yard, working to get each of alone between drills. I was the one who could back him down. He had me on upper body strength but I was faster, more agile, and meaner. I knew what it would be like if I were paired with him. Just part of the program? Not part of mine.
“Ruby.” He isn’t even yelling. He doesn’t have to. He’s not that close but sound carries clearly across the water. Ahead of me, breakers crash on the jutting concrete breakwater.
“Ruby, come back. Stay with me.”
Black boulders fill the south side of the harbor mouth, chunks of the cliff side washed down over decades. With the tide spilling out, it’s a thrill ride. Once I clear the breakwater I need to leave the channel open. Right side, left side, left side now, aiming my craft through one of the gaps in the rocks just south of the main opening. The pale yellow safety lights on the abandoned bridge streak the barnacle-studded rocks, giving me barely enough light to see by.
I twist my torso, listing to port hard enough to wobble, as the trank dart smacks into the kayak’s black skin, quivering for a moment. Barely enough light for me is more than enough for Earl. I lean starboard, leveling out, and turn the kayak, skimming between the two boulders. The water lifts me, carries me through the hole, and slams me down into a trough.
“Ruby, you all right?” He doesn’t know if he hit me. “Where are you?”
The waves jostle me. I turn the boat, working hard, and watch as Earl, buoyant in his stolen yellow kayak, closes the distance. He scrapes one of the boulders and has to push off with his paddle. If I had to guess, I’d say he was exasperated.
“Is this a game to you?” he yells. Exasperated, and probably confused since I’ve turned to face him now. Out here in the rough ocean, I’m not running. I work to hold the kayak steady, out of the main channel. He pulls closer, driving his boat with short hard strokes. “Is this just a game?”
“Yeah, baby,” I say. The light on my pack begins to flash in a stuttering rhythm and I steer my kayak to starboard. The waves come faster now, higher and sharper. Earls struggles to maintain his balance as the submersible rises next to me.
Here’s one thing about Earl; he can move fast. He spins the kayak and is pulling away when the net explodes from the bow of the boat, enveloping him. He fights, reaching down for one of his knives, I’m sure, as I paddle closer to the vessel, but they are pulling him in faster than he can saw through the multi-filament metal and fiber blend. A hatch opens alongside me and someone tosses out a rope ladder. I slide into the cool water, swim two strokes and climb up into the hatch. Down in the loading bay, I stand by the door while Earl fights off the other mercenaries, until they sedate him.
The crew has got to be relieved. They’d gotten tired, waiting dark at the edge of the coastline for six days, since I’d confirmed that Larsen had finally sent Earl after me – and that, after months of laying the trail to guide him here.
You see, here’s one thing about Earl; he could have gone to Larsen, he could have fought for me, but he didn’t.
And here’s one thing about us, the freaks; there are others beside Peace Maintenance who like the idea of collecting freaks, and even growing their own. They do it the old-fashioned, mostly-illegal way, in labs, with test tubes and long narrow glass pipes, and they pay generously for good genetic material.
I walk over to Earl. The boys are strapping him onto a security gurney, liberated from one of Larsen’s projects, so I know it will hold. He is fighting the sedation. His golden hair is matted down against his skull, and his breath comes in little gasps. He looks at me. I kneel down and touch his hand. “Sweet dreams, Earl,” I say.
I stay at his side as the boat turns, purring, and starts up the coast for Denali.