In Company Town by Madeline Ashby, New Arcadia is a city-sized oil rig off the coast of the Canadian Maritimes, now owned by one very wealthy, powerful, byzantine family: Lynch Ltd. But a series of interconnected murders threatens the city’s stability and heightens the unease of a rig turning over. Hwa is of the few people in her community to forgo bio-engineered enhancements. As such, she’s the last truly organic person left on the rig–making her doubly an outsider, as well as a neglected daughter and bodyguard extraordinaire.
In the end, will Hwa decide to save the people of a town that can’t be saved, or save herself?
Hwa wondered if today was the day she would finally get to finish that sorry son of a bitch once and for all. She checked her watch. Eileen was officially late. She pinged. Waited. No answer. The client had paid for another tier of service, one where a bodyguard would keep a discreet distance. That tier was only for clients with trusted status. In Hwa’s experience, that trust could be a mistake. If the tower had recognized her face, Belle du Jour would have pinged the client and told him to finish up because she was on her way. But the towers never saw her face. And neither did some of the clients’ filters. That was part of her value to the organization. They simply didn’t see her coming until it was too late.
She checked the hallway. Just a few stragglers: kids on their way to school, jostling each other at the elevators. No big guys. No roughnecks. No riggers. Nobody who would give her trouble if she was already in the process of making it for Eileen’s client. Ideal conditions.
Hwa spoke into her watch: “Belle, my safecall is late; proceeding to contact.”
There was a pause. “Keep us posted! Good luck!”
Hwa stood up, checked the hall again, and knocked on the door. Inside there was giggling, and a muffled, “I told you so!” Hwa rolled her eyes. The hallway was almost empty, now.
“It’s okay, Mr. Moliter,” she said to the door. “Nobody’s gonna see you.”
The door jerked open so fast he had to have been waiting for her. All these years later, he was still a pallid, fishlike man, with a weird gawping mouth and almost colourless eyes. He was short, and he acted like it. This morning was no exception.
“How dare you say my name out here?” he hissed. “What if somebody’s parents heard you? What if—” He blinked. She watched the filters fall away from his eyes. He saw the stain. He recognized Hwa. He shut up.
Hwa plastered a smile across her face. “Hi, Mr. Moliter,” she said in her cheeriest cute-half-Korean-girl voice. “How’s the eye?”
The old scar across his right eyebrow twitched. He swallowed. Then he gathered some dignity by closing his robe and standing a little straighter. “It’s fine,” he said. “Doesn’t bother me at all.”
“That’s real good to hear. So they reattached the retina and everything, huh?”
Moliter licked his thin, raw lips. The man was dumb as a pike and twice as mean. He watched Hwa with one side of his face as he directed his voice into the apartment. “Eileen! Time to go!”
Eileen was still giggling. She bounced out of the apartment and made an I’m sorry face at Hwa. She looked fine: rich red hair in place, eyeliner expertly winged, no bruises, no funny walking, no tears in her stockings. She even squeezed Moliter’s hand.
“I had a great time,” Eileen said.
“Yeah. Great. Bye.”
“The United Sex Workers of Canada thank you for your business, Mr. Moliter.”
He slammed the door in her face.
Eileen turned to say something, but Hwa was already talking to her watch. “Belle, my safecall is accounted for. I’m taking her home, now.”
“Good job!” the watch said. “Have a nice day!”
“Thank you for knocking.” Eileen threaded one perfumed arm through Hwa’s. “Can we mug up? I’d die for real coffee.”
“Teachers can’t afford the good stuff, eh?”
“I have fucked teachers with much nicer coffee. Hell, I’ve fucked tutors with better taste.” Eileen squeezed her arm. “Please? Can we stop? There’s a good spot on my floor.”
Eileen cocked her head to the side and closed her eyes. There was an audible crunch in her neck. “Ugh. I’ve had that all night.”
They hustled into the elevator, and Eileen leaned against the glass. The massive blades of the windmill whirling outside cast her in shadow briefly, and then revealed her again. On and on, dark and light, as the blades of the mill cut and cut and cut through the veil of morning mist.
“Busy night?” Eileen asked.
Hwa shrugged. “Not too.”
“People are just saving their money,” Eileen said. “New sheriff in town, and all that.”
“It’ll be fine.”
Hwa hoped she sounded more certain than she felt. She honestly had no idea what the Lynch family would decide once they took ownership of New Arcadia. They could invite another agency in to encourage competition and bring down the hourly rates, or change up the fee-for-service model. Or they could be uptight about it and fire the agency, send all the sex workers scurrying back into massage parlours or whatever it was they used to pretend they did for money. And, of course, they could just shut the whole rig down, and watch the bottom fall out of every other business in the city once the roughnecks left. Lynch was still a privately held corporation. They didn’t have to release any policy statements on the subject of their sexual broad-mindedness or their employment strategy or anything else that might concern the town they had just bought. Not until they chose to bring the hammer down.
She tried to smile. “Hey, if we have to move, at least you won’t have to fuck that fish-faced asshole again.”
Eileen rolled her eyes. “Sacred Heart of Christ, Hwa, he’s not that bad.”
Most of the other people in the elevator were pretending not to overhear them. A mother took her children out of the elevator on the next floor. Only a rigger was left. He stared openly at Eileen, blinking only when she adjusted her dress. Hwa watched him do this three different times before the doors chimed for Eileen’s floor.
Eileen pressed the hold button. She stood at the open doors. “What’s the problem?”
“This guy’s the problem.” Hwa jammed her thumb and all her fingers into the salivary glands under the rigger’s greasy jaw. He swung for her and missed badly. She was probably nothing but a blur in his vision. “He’s got a staring problem, and I don’t like it.”
“Fuck you,” the rigger managed to choke out.
“No, fuck you, creepshot. She didn’t give you permission to take those pictures. Eileen, take his face and send it to Belle.”
Eileen nodded. “Done.”
Hwa pressed his throat so hard she held his Adam’s apple in her fingers. “Good. Now we know your face. So we’ll know if you ever make a date. Which means that if I ever catch you acting up with one of our workers, I’ll shave your balls with a cheese grater.”
He spat in her face. Hwa let him go. She ushered Eileen out of the elevator. When the doors closed, they watched each other for a moment. Eileen laughed first. Then they were laughing together. Eileen wiped Hwa’s face and hooked her arm into Hwa’s again. “Itching for a fight, were you?”
“Always am, when I see that asshole.” Hwa flexed her fingers. “Moliter, I mean.”
“You know, you could go back to school. I asked him.”
Hwa pulled up short in the middle of the elevator court. “What?”
“Moliter. I asked him. I asked if you could go back and finish. I know it was a few years ago, but he said you—”
“You talked about me? During your appointment?”
“Well, not during.… But after.”
Hwa’s wrist squeezed. She checked it. The message was marked urgent. It was from her union rep’s personal account. Her immediate presence was requested.
“No time for coffee,” she said.
Underneath all the bird shit and salt scars, the architecture of the docking platform was still grand: huge arches left over from some other investor’s future, all straight and white and minimalist. Now they were a dingy grey, like most everything else on the rig. People stretched a long way down the catwalks leading up to the platform. Most of them were young. They had the uniform builds of state-sponsored genetic tailoring. Nothing fancy, just the bare minimum Ottawa had finally guaranteed. They were recent hires, Hwa guessed, angry about the sale of the town and their sudden uncertainty within it. They looked like they’d stayed up all night. Thin grease filmed their foreheads, and they were all sharing droppers with each other.
“You want?” one of them asked. She was a very pale girl with a bald head and a huge mandala spanning her gleaming skull. It glowed and pulsed along with her heartbeat, barely visible. The whole bioluminescent inkjob trend really didn’t work for white people. Not enough contrast.
“Going to the handoff?”
“Hadn’t planned on it.” Hwa watched the other girl’s eyes carefully. No nervous flickering gaze. She obviously couldn’t see Hwa’s true face. But her friends could. Their gazes kept landing on it and then flicking away, as though to make sure that the stain was still there, that it wasn’t a trick. It made sense. The bald girl had the inkjob. She obviously liked herself better augmented.
“I just don’t think Lynch is the best solution for this community,” the bald girl said. “You know they’re just gonna flip it. Just take this whole town apart and sell it for scrap. That’s what they’ve been doing with every other rig-burg they buy.”
“They might.” Hwa leaned over the rail. The early September sun was already hot at this early hour. She yearned for winter, when no one would look twice at her long sleeves.
“Doesn’t that, like, concern you?”
“They wouldn’t have bought this place if they didn’t think of it as an asset.” Hwa watched the maglev slide into place above them. It, too, came from somebody else’s future: a smooth fibreglass one where every machine looked a bit like a dolphin. “I’ll worry about it more when they make some kind of announcement.”
“But we have a chance to influence them right now!” the girl said. She blinked furiously in Hwa’s direction. Then she did it again. Four times, with an earnest stare at the end.
“She doesn’t have any eyes,” one of the girl’s friends said. He winced just looking at Hwa. “You have to show her something … real.”
“What? Really? No way.” The girl closed her eyes tightly, waited a beat, and then opened them again. When she did, her mouth fell open. Her hand raised to cover it. She had seen Hwa’s true face, without any Mind Your Manners filters. Now she couldn’t help but stare. “Oh,” she said, finally.
She knew Hwa was poor, now. She knew that whatever test might have warned Sunny about the baby she was carrying had been either ignored or unfinished. She knew that Sunny hadn’t thrown her embryo in the CRISPR drawer and looked at what came out. What she didn’t know was that the only reason she could see Hwa’s face at all was that Sunny had missed the province’s new twelve-week cutoff and had to keep her. That Sunny had even talked about giving her up, until the girl behind the desk at the agency’s adoption arm talked her out of it. Because nobody would want Hwa. Not unedited. Not with a face like that. Not with Sturge-Weber, and its associated potential for blindness and seizures and Christ knew what else. Not when they could just buy a better baby somewhere else, one that came pre-edited and perfect. So Sunny should just try and be a good mother. After all, she obviously loved her little boy—the one she’d brought out to this city, this tower of flame and poison floating on a dead ocean—so very much. She just needed to try harder with Hwa. Really. The love would come. Eventually. Maybe.
“No,” Hwa said. “It doesn’t hurt.”
Nail stood waiting for her in the elevator court at the base of Tower Three.
“Morning,” she said, as he guided her to the private elevator that would take them to her union rep’s headquarters. Nail didn’t answer. He had given his voice to Mistress Séverine; he spoke only when allowed to. It took a bit of getting used to. The first few times they’d met it was awkward. Now Hwa just considered him a good listener.
Nail had to duck his head as they entered the elevator. As they descended, so did the temperature. Hwa kept her eyes averted from the numbers above the door as they changed. She hated to think of all that water pressing in above them. Finally the elevator came to a stop, and the red light in the ceiling turned vibrantly green.
Nail spun the winch on the door. When it swung open, the smell of burnt sugar and saddle soap wafted through. They entered a circular space walled almost entirely in glass save for the door behind them. The space was completely underwater. Through the glass, the black waters of the Atlantic and whatever inhabited them were plainly visible. Right now, what inhabited them was a man in a breathesuit. He stood chained inside a shark cage.
“Oh, good, Hwa.” Mistress Séverine stood up. She wore a white silk robe that gleamed and rippled as she crossed the room to shake Hwa’s hand. Her grip was as ferociously strong as ever. Hwa could still feel the power in her hands through Séverine’s leather gloves.
“Please sit. Nail, please bring another place setting. You will eat, won’t you?”
Nail disappeared into another room before Hwa could protest. She almost called out to him that he didn’t have to go to any extra trouble for her, but the kitchen door clanged shut behind him and she swallowed her words.
“Hwa, do sit. Please. And ignore the man in the cage. One of his neural implants started malfunctioning during his third tour of duty. He has asked me to help him reexperience fear. The process requires our complete disregard.”
Hwa found her seat on a low white sofa. Mistress Séverine resumed her club chair, which sat quite a bit higher. Hwa understood that the arrangement of the furniture was made to make clients feel like supplicants, but it was annoying for everyday business. She hunched forward.
“Don’t slouch, Hwa.”
She sat up straighter. “Yes, ma’am.”
“And take that hair out of your face. I like seeing people when I speak to them.”
Hwa tried to secure the left parting of her hair behind her ear. When she met Séverine’s gaze, the older woman smiled. “That’s better.” She turned her gaze to the kitchen door, and out walked Nail and Rusty, bearing a silver tea set and a tower of pastries on their respective trays. The men set each tray down silently and stood, staring at Séverine.
“Rusty, please tell Hwa about her breakfast.”
Rusty was Nail’s opposite: short where the other man was tall, talkative and not silent, gingery blond and not dark. He gestured at each item as he described it. “Good morning. For breakfast you have Earl Grey tea, steamed egg custard with smoked salmon, laminated croissants with bakeapple filling, and goat’s milk yogurt topped with blueberry-verbena compote.”
Séverine began removing her gloves. “Thank you, Rusty. The two of you may leave. I’ll ring for you when we’re finished here.”
Both men bowed, and took their leave. Hwa reached for the teapot, but Séverine shooed her hand away. “I’ll pour. You may begin assembling your plate. The tongs are just there.”
The china Séverine favoured was so thin Hwa could perceive light through it. The sight of her own grubby fingers on it made her wince. She grabbed one of everything and waited for Séverine to finish pouring. Then she waited as the other woman took her time putting together her plate, unrolling her napkin, and choosing her cutlery. She weighed her spoon in her hand thoughtfully, as though evaluating a weapon.
“I have work for you today, Hwa.” Her spoon slid into the custard and along the edge of the ramekin to bring up a steaming lump of yellow flecked with pink. “Rusty and Nail are going to the handoff, and I want you to escort them.”
Hwa swallowed her yogurt. She had never been to the new platform. After the Old Rig exploded, the town had voted to build another. But it hadn’t come cheap. It was part of why all the other companies were pulling out, and how Lynch could buy the town so cheap. What remained of the old platform waved halfheartedly from beneath the waterlike a veteran waggling a stump at passersby. Whenever her train swerved over it, she made sure not to look. If the dead caught you looking, they might start looking back.
“I understand if it’s difficult for you.”
“It’s not difficult.” Hwa plunged her spoon into the savoury custard with a bit too much force.
“And for this job, it will be necessary for you to escort the boys at a distance. Be as unobtrusive as possible.”
Hwa frowned. “Wait a second.” She hunched over her knees, slouching be damned. “You want me to spy—”
“Oh, hush. I’m not asking you to do anything untoward. Just follow them and make sure they’re safe, as with any other job.” Séverine watched Hwa over the rim of her teacup. “This town is changing, Hwa. My boys want to see that change happen. But I’ve already watched my share of train wrecks.”
The new platform afforded good views of the other towers and their windmills. There was her tower, Tower One, the oldest and most decrepit with grimy capsule windows jutting out at pixel intervals, and Tower Two, all glass bubbles and greenery piled like a stack of river rocks, and Tower Three, made of biocrete and healing polymers, Tower Four, gleaming black with solar paint, and Tower Five, so far out on the ocean that it was easy to forget it was even there. It had been designed by algorithm, and its louvers shifted constantly, like a bird fluffing its feathers up against the cold. Occasionally this meant getting a sudden blinding flash of glare when the train zipped past it, or when a water taxi approached its base. Hwa’s old Municipal History teacher said the designers referred to the towers by their respective inspirations: Metabolist, Viridian, Synth, Bentham, and Emergent. There was an extra credit test question on it, once. Mr. Ballard wrote her a nice note with a smiley face in the margin when she got it right. Now she couldn’t seem to get rid of that little factoid.
She watched Rusty and Nail milling through the crowd. Rusty kept shading his eyes. Nail stood stoically, eyes narrowed to the sun, seemingly unperturbed. He’d remembered to turn his eyes on, apparently.
From the sky, she heard the guttural churn of a chopper homing in on the platform. It bore the Lynch logo. As one, the crowd surged closer to the stage. Rusty and Nail must have moved with them, because she saw no sign of them at the edges of the crowd.
Then the explosions started.
They began as a high whistle. Then a bang. Firecrackers, maybe. Acid green smoke rose above the crowd. Some people fell to the ground. Others ran. Someone ran past Hwa and knocked her down. She rolled over into a crouch and called out: “Rusty!”
Maybe Rusty and Nail had fallen down, too. She couldn’t see through the rush of legs and green smoke. The smoke itself was thickening, spreading, moving as if by design. A group of people stood under the centre of the cloud, moving their hands like old people doing tai chi, shaping the smoke. It wasn’t smoke at all, then. Nano-mist. Hwa zipped the collar of her jacket over her mouth. In the shadow cast by the mist, Hwa saw the pulsing glow of a mandala tattoo.
The kids from the platform. They had done this. From her crouching position, Hwa saw them deploy a swarm of flies that projected words against the mist: TAKE BACK YOUR TOWN. LYNCH THE LYNCHES.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Hwa muttered. “Talk about low-hanging fruit. Rusty! Rusty, can you hear me?”
She stood up. Maybe they had run away. She hoped they had run away. Far away. Already, she heard sirens. NAPS saucers buzzed low across the sky. What was she going to tell Séverine? She had to find them. She needed higher ground. Through the veil of green fog, she caught a glimpse of the caution-yellow stairways she knew led up toward the refinery.
She ran as though she were running away, far to the edge of the crowd, keeping her head down, ducking behind a waste bin as the first wave of NAPS officers in riot gear washed across the platform. After they passed, she made for the gate to the staircase. It was locked with only a rusting sign and a corroded chain. She kicked it open and started climbing.
From the first tier of the catwalks, she saw only the fog. It was rising, now, and she pushed on and up another tier. From that second tier, she saw the fringes of crowd. NAPS kettling the crowd. People already squid-tied to each other. She looked for Rusty’s hair next to Nail’s tall body. Nothing. She kept running.
On the stairs to the third tier, she saw the man with the rifle.
He paced the refinery catwalks high above the fray. As Hwa watched, he paused and began examining the rifle. Hefting it in his hands. Peering down the scope. The gun was illegal on the platform; since the fall of the Old Rig there were laws against projectiles and explosives and all the other things that could cause a pillar of fire to vaporize a crew of roughnecks like tobacco leaves. Not that that mattered, in this long and terrible moment. What mattered was that he could shoot into the crowd. What mattered was her promise to protect two men in that crowd.
The chopper was louder, now. Closer. Who was he with? The riot cops? The protesters? Was he going to shoot the Lynches, or was he going to shoot into the crowd? Maybe he’d had his eyes done. Probably. He would be sharper than she was. Faster. The only thing she had going for her was the ability to surprise him.
She felt the air whumping on her sternum as the chopper hovered, seemingly unwilling to land. It was hard to swallow. From behind a girder, she watched as the man rested his rifle on the railing. His eyes remained on the chopper. He snapped open a shoulder rest on the rifle. She gauged the length of the catwalk. She had fifteen feet by three, with a four-foot clearance on the railing. All her kicks would have to be three-and four-pointers aimed at the head. Steel grate, no purchase for her feet. The man was six feet tall or just under it. She would have to jump to make up the difference.
Well, that was one way of surprising him.
When he reached into his pocket, she rushed him. He must have felt or heard her feet clanging across the steel, because he looked up: blue eyes, ginger hair, deep lines, mouth open. He gripped the rifle and swung it toward her; it was the opening she needed. She batted the business end of the weapon and pushed it down and away, then turned around as though to run. Her navel met her spine, her right knee met her chest, and her left foot pivoted to rise. Her body became a pendulum. Her eyes met his just before her heel crunched into his nose: he looked oddly hurt, as though he were confused at this sudden imposition of violence, at the rudeness of it. And then he was really and truly hurt, and bleeding everywhere.
Hwa grabbed for the gun. He wouldn’t let it go. Well-trained; he didn’t grab for his broken nose. Blind and bleeding, he gripped the gun crosswise with both hands and shoved it at her face. She had to bounce backward. His head jerked; he was listening for her feet on the steel. Hwa yanked the gun toward herself anyway. He refused to let go.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he said through the blood.
“You won’t,” Hwa said, and ducked under the gun to plant her right leg behind his left and throw her weight at his thighs. He tumbled backward and then she was on him, locking her ankles behind his waist and squeezing her thighs together hard. She heard the air leave him in a rush.
“Jesus,” he hissed.
“Give up.” She stared hard into his eyes and slowly curled the gun up to her. His shoulders rose with it. Her arms were trembling, but so were his. They shook and rattled together over the gun. She breathed through her teeth. “Let go.”
His hands fell away. Suddenly she was a million pounds lighter. Her body snapped up, towered over him, the gun absurdly huge and awkward against her chest. Hwa watched his gaze flick over her shoulder. She turned. Above them, against the hazy blue of the sky, was thin silver disc. A flying saucer. As she watched, a single laser painted her skin.
Beneath her, the man shouted: “No, wait, stop, don’t—”
Then the pain started.
Copyright © 2016 by Madeline Ashby