My offworlder allies don't trust me.
Squid, we call them, though their home planet is named Kabuva. They're twelve feet in length from top to tip, see, with bullet-shaped caps that pull tight over a spaghetti of tentacles. When they bell out these caps, they look less like calamari and more like giant umbrellas. The Brits used to call them 'brollies,' as a matter of fact, back before England was annihilated.
All the players in this game have nicknames. The other human army wrangling for control of Earth calls itself the Friends of Liberation. Pompous, right? We've shortened it to Fiends.
As for us, the squid-sponsored Democratic Army, we're the Dems. "It's either Dems or us," the Fiends say. Bad pun; they end up taking over the world, they'll probably outlaw laughing.
It's just after dawn on a sunny July morning and I'm humping through East Los Angeles with a squad of ten heavily armed and overtired squid fry. Squid-squad, get it? Hence the song. How many Fiends can a squid-squad squash?
It doesn't help that squid armor is silly looking--essentially an upside-down mussel shell that hooks to their bullet-shaped caps. When the going gets hot, they yank in their tentacles and seal the carapace tight, firing weapons from inside the all-but-impregnable canister. Once sealed in, though, they can barely move.
The newest fry teedle along on the tips of their tentacles, shell all but shut. Vets tend to leave it half-open, on the grounds that the carapace sensors don't work for shit.
We're here today because Intelligence has designated this neighborhood so thoroughly infiltrated by Fiends that there's no way to tell the bad guys from non-combatants. An evac order's gone out, and now we're one of the squads going block to block ensuring each house, shop and low-rise is empty. Behind us floats a demolition ship, hanging just over the rooftops like a big blimpy starfish. Every time we give the all-clear on a building, the ship glides in and starts dusting the structure to nothingness.
Once this whole area is flattened, the squid will compile a few dozen skyscrapers for the humans who lived here. These buildings will be wired, so that any Fiendish conversations go straight to Kabuva Intelligence. The general idea is neighborhood Fiends will have to move elsewhere. . . those that do will be tagged as probable hostiles and rounded up for interrogation.
Bluto, on point, goes rigid and the squad snaps to alertness. He rips an apartment door off its hinges.
"Cantil?" The unit commander, Loot, caresses the back of my neck; this is his idea of a nudge.
"Anyone in there?" I call, first in American and then in Spanish. The amplifier built into my facemask makes my voice come out officious and strident, anything but reassuring. "It's okay. Come out and you won't be harmed."
The response is a pepper of bullets from antique machine guns, and the squad barges in happily. I wait in the hall. Loot's a good guy, as squid go; he doesn't expect me to pitch in when they're beating on probable civilians.
Screams, thumps, punches. The firing stops. I inhale a dense reek of gunpowder. Ah, the good old days.
Soon enough they're hauling out the troublemakers: a mother and son maybe, both netted like trout. The boy is unconscious; livid sucker marks show he's been throttled. The woman is shrieking.
Loot asks: "What is she saying?"
I tilt up my mask, taking the opportunity to poke a stick of gum into my mouth, and kneel beside her. "Ma'am? Nobody's going to hurt you. We need to evacuate-"
"We ain't leaving!" she yells.
I turn to Loot. "She doesn't want to leave her home. I doubt she's a Fiend."
"We'll see." A bloom of mildew-pink within his cap betrays irritation. "We are falling behind the other teams."
The others are probably doing cursory checks. Plenty of squid are fed up with being unable to tell Fiends from allies. If a few stubborn humans get dusted with their houses, they probably figure it's a bonus. Loot's more conscientious. . . and his family connections mean he can get away with it.
Now the woman bellows in sudden rage, glaring past my legs at a squid I've dubbed Gollum. He's lingering over the trussed-up son, poking a tentacle into the boy's mouth, getting a taste of him.
I vault over her, shoving the offworlder's carapace. "Cut it out."
Loot kills the fight before it can begin, bringing Gollum to heel. Then he orders Squiggly to haul the prisoners back to the evacuation team, effectively reducing our strength by ten percent. More, really--Squiggly's worth three of Gollum.
"Your son'll be okay," I tell the woman. "I can see he's breathing."
Her reply doesn't require translation; every squid in California knows 'Fuck you, traitor,' when they hear it. I let the words glide over my skin, light as the rush of sweat raining down my face.
"Building is empty," Loot reports. We pull out, and the floater drifts in to demolish the low-rise.
"The strip mall next?" I ask.
"Yes," he says, and we move out. "Tell me something, Cantil?"
"This city lies on a major fault line, does it not? Wouldn't it make sense to take the population inland?"
"You saying your fancy nano-built condos can't handle the occasional earthquake, Lieutenant?"
Gollum smacks me, accidentally-on-purpose, for dissing Kabuva architecture. Loot flicks him back into line.
"Of course they can. But if the land's unstable--"
"You can't just uproot all of L.A."
"You could build somewhere tectonically stable--house everyone in a tenth of the land area," throws in Bluto.
It's a fight not to sigh. You wouldn't believe how offworlders can go on and fucking on about urban sprawl. "People like to live near the beach."
That gets a ripple of amusement from the platoon. As far as these guys are concerned, humans can't swim. Take a squid to a dive shop, he'd probably laugh himself into a stroke.
Mmmm, interesting thought. I file it away, cracking out a fresh stick of gum before I close up my mask.
At the strip mall we check a liquor store and a magazine shop. Both are empty, eminently dustable. Troops poke into a third, bored. All routine until there's a flash and a series of whumps--modified car airbags, from the sound. Three squid race out of the shop. A black cloud follows: toner from photocopiers, almost certainly. The stuff gets everywhere, burns their skin, infiltrates their delicate gills.
"Why didn't you say there was a print shop?" Loot, furious, hitches two tentacles into my armpits and takes a full taste of me.
"I didn’t' know!" My pulse goes haywire as he hoists me to my tiptoes. "It says Office Furnishings."
He runs a tentacle around my forearm, checking blood pressure, suspicious. I wait, chewing my gum furiously and trying to get my breath under control. When they're calm they're decent lie detectors, but you never know when a squid might decide you're stringing him along, not because you are but just because he's upset.
Calm. Focus on concrete things. I watch the remainder of the squad heading back into the shop. They come out a minute later carrying what's left of Harpo, webbing up the dead fry in grim silence. My runaway heart slows as the wounded lift him gently and start limping to the rear.
"Down to half strength now," Kramer grumbles.
"Pull back." Loot still hasn't let go. "We'll dust the retail block."
Bluto asks: "We're moving on to the single family dwellings?"
"Perhaps." He shakes me. "Are there signs, Cantil? What do they say?"
"People don't put signs on their houses. Numbers, names, sometimes, but--" I glance ahead. The other squads' demolition ships are fifteen to twenty blocks ahead of us.
"What about that?" He unfurls an anger-white tentacle, pointing. Definitely worked up now, not so keen to believe the copy shop thing's not my fault.
I swallow. "It's an old 'For Sale' sign--the owners tried to sell the house."
"Beware of dog," I translate. "Look, pick any house. Any street. I'll go in first."
"And lead us into a trap?"
"You've seen my file, Loot." I press my facemask against his armor, glaring into his cap. Sweat flows off me, soaking the sticky tentacles holding me up. "You know I hate everything Fiendish."
Gollum scoffs. "Easy to say."
"You want me to take point? I'll take point. Fuck, you can take my vest off. Pick the house, Loot, send me in."
No response. I let fury take over, popping catches on my protective vest. "I'll go naked, how's that?"
"Wait." Finally releasing me, Loot knots a couple tentacles in a ritual gesture of apology and presses them against my shoulder.
"Cantil in front works for me," Gollum snarls.
Ignoring him, Loot says: "Let's move on."
Five houses into the next block, we find a family chained to the pipes in their basement.
There are four of them: mama, papa, grandma, a daughter who's maybe twelve. They're white, old Euro from the looks of them. This probably isn't the first time they've been displaced.
The old woman shrieks in a foreign tongue.
"What is she saying?"
"Not sure--I think they might be Greek."
"You don't speak Greek?" Bluto asks, accusingly. As if, you know, I'm a moron.
"American, Spanish, Mandarin, French, and Kabuva."
This gets me the usual response. "But Greek's just another Euro dialect, isn't it?"
Sighing, I try the girl. "Come on, honey, you must've been born here. Speak American? Habla Espanol?"
She does a burrow into Mama's leg.
"We'll cut them free," decides Loot. "Apply taser patches." Gollum gleefully presses the patches against the back of each human's neck.
"One wrong move, we zap you into a coma," he warns. I make gestures, trying to get the idea across via charades. Granny waves her Evil eye pendant oh so theatrically. The squid, forced to crowd together in the low ceilinged basement, are nevertheless relaxing their guard. It's cooler out here than in the sun.
Only Loot remains sharp.
Toady shoves Papa away from the end of the pipe, brandishing a mini-saw. Meanwhile, Bluto unrolls the first body restraint, his tentacles roiling fluidly as he flaps the net out like a rug.
The mini-saw bites into the pipe, sending up a stream of sparks. Whole family starts wailing and shrieking; you'd think they were being murdered.
Loot turns to me in exasperation.
"Sorry," I say. "It's all Greek to me."
Just then Toady's saw breaks through the pipes. Gas belches out. Loot reacts quickly, jerking Bluto and Gollum away from the billow of white fog.
The gas is high-end stuff, no improvised boobytrap this time. Toady and Kramer collapse like punctured balloons. Granny and the girl fall atop them as Loot hits the tasers.
Mama and Papa Fiend must have ditched the taser patches somehow. They're loose, armed and firing.
Quarters are close. Bodies, human and offworlder, are surging everywhere. I'm drawing a bead on Papa when four Fiends in sensor-clouding capes drop out of the T-bar ceiling. Gollum clamps his shell shut, a hair too late. The caped human drives a firespike into the carapace before it locks. A woosh of heat--the smell of grilled seafood fills the air.
Nerve gas and flame spikes, I think. This little operation is well-funded.
I'm aiming at a caped Fiend when I feel a flamespike against the nape of my neck.
"Guns down." It's Mama Fiend, speaking American.
"She's telling us to surrender," I say.
Loot and Bluto grope at each other, tentacles twining in the squid equivalent of non-verbal communication.
"Now," Mama says, "Or I burn your head off."
"Come on, they're going to waste me." I stare across the room at Loot. He's a good enough guy, in his way, but we're not the same species. He'll clamp his armor and take his chances. It's what they do, every time.
But no. Flesh darkening with frustration and fear, they surrender.
"What now?" I ask, feeling oddly giddy. She thumps me upside the head, just a warning, no real damage. Loot, bless his weird offworlder heart, fluffs his cap protectively.
"It'll be all right," he tells me. "Tell her she has three minutes before our back-up takes the roof off this dwelling."
Before I can translate, we hear the whump of surface-to-air packets. A high-pitched shriek and a thunderclap follow; a few seconds later, the ground shakes. Upstairs, windows shatter.
"That'd be your air support biting dirt," explains Mama Fiend unnecessarily.
Loot's strange, moist skin mottles in an unreadable roil of emotions. "Tell her we'll send missiles."
"He says they'll bomb you from orbit."
"They aren't going to dust their own people," Mama Fiend says. Her pals are gleefully using the squad's own restraints to bind the surviving squid onto wheeled palettes. One of them is setting up a webcam, pointing it at Loot's face as they wrench off his mussel shell and the hydrator that keeps his skin moist.
"It seems Intel was right for a change," he says calmly.
"A new-hatched fry could see this neighborhood really is Fiendish. What do you suppose their plan is?"
I shrug. "We're alive, so Command can't bomb."
"We're bait," he agrees. "They'll draw the other squads back to rescue us."
"Into a trap." I nod. This street lies at the bottom of a gently rising wave of cookie-cutter houses. If Fiends are dug in all along the hill, the slaughter will be unthinkable. "It'll be kill at will."
Flashes of blue-white fury bloom across his translucent, helpless body, but what can he do? It's all been very neatly planned.
"It won't work," he says finally. "We'll lose a few squads here but you'll all die."
You. A bit of a chill.
"Tell them," he says, and I realize he just wants me to pass the word along.
"What's he saying?" asks Mama Fiend.
I let out a long breath. "Basically? They rock, we suck, we're all gonna die."
Mama laughs. "Let him know we don't need a traitor on-hand to translate his bullshit."
Loot fluffs again--probably caught the word 'traitor.' "Tell them you're a prisoner, Cantil. Say we forced you to help us."
Poor guy. Impulsively, I knot my bony fingers into a sign of friendship, then press both hands into the flesh of his webbed-up tentacle, giving him a last taste of my damp palms and dirty fingers. "Thanks for everything, Loot."
"Come on." Mama Fiend drags me toward the door, leaving her minions to watch the hostages.
He bellows in fractured American as we disappear down the hall. "Don't hurt! Not hurt! Cantil!"
But Cantil is flaking away, all but gone. He was never more than a false skin and it is good to finally shed him.
Mama Fiend, whose name is Debra Notting, hits a remote on an antique iPod. The basement fills with the sound of me shrieking in agony. We pass through an old bedroom, where a redheaded girl is pouring two pints of blood--mine, donated a couple months back--onto a stained mattress.
Deb points at my shoes. I slip them off, along with my sweat-stained socks, and kick them into a corner. There won't be a body, but there's a lot of my DNA in here now. Given the way Dust can obliterate a person from existence, you can never know for sure if someone's alive or dead.
"Spit your gum onto the floor?" the girl suggests.
"Can't--it's laced with drugs," I reply, undertone.
Beyond the bedroom is a squalid john whose tub is full of broken tile. A crude tunnel has been hacked into its wall; we head down and then east for two hundred feet, coming up in another basement. The battle wranglers are here, crouched in a sensor-proof tent, peering into portable datascreens and murmuring orders into headsets. The others are tracking the incoming squid squads as they head back to rescue Loot and his fry.
"Demolition ships are clearing off," reports one old man.
"Told you, Deb," I say. "They're too pricey to risk when we've got surface-to-air."
"What happened with the ship we hit?" she asks.
"Four survivors, pinned down in the Hamiltons' backyard," a wrangler answers.
"The squid receiving video of their captured platoon?"
"Affirmative." He tilts a screen and we see Loot and the others, bound tightly onto the pallets, taser-patched and already drying out. I make myself smile. It's always important at this point to look solid, loyal.
The mental shift of gears is harder this time.
"One squad's almost back to Sycamore Drive," a wrangler reports. "Permission to fire?"
"No," Deb says. "Wait until they're closer. We're wasting five hundred troops here. To make it worth the blood, we need to draw in and kill as many as we can. I want lots of bait, well-placed bait."
"They'll deploy," I say. It took me months of careful maneuvering to get onto Loot's squad. Months of minty chewing gum that made me sweat like a pig and smell ever so faintly sweet. Months of shooting Friends and telling dumb Dem jokes and worrying that Kabuva Intel would figure out I'd been behind the bloodbath last year in Altanta. "The Lieutenant's mother will throw half the West Coast Command in here if she thinks it'll get Loot back."
"You sez," Debra replies, but she's smiling.
"Been right so far, haven't I?"
"No," she says.
"No? I brought him right here, on time."
"Yeah." She taps the screen. "You also said he'd sell you out."
It's true. Loot came through, unlike all the other squid I've so carefully betrayed. My voice, when I answer, is steady: "Kid's an idealist, the real deal. Had to happen eventually, I guess."
"Almost a shame we're gonna kill him, huh?"
She's watching me carefully.
"Almost," I agree. If I do feel a pang, if the game is suddenly less fun than it used to be, how's she going to know? I'm a serpent. I lie.
"Okay." She smiles. "Time you scrambled. I'm sure you've got a hot date with a new identity."
"I'm going after the spaceport in Tulsa," I say. There's no harm in telling. Everyone in the room took slow poison as soon as my squad passed the copy shop. The squid will overrun this position eventually--there's no avoiding that. But they won't be interrogating anyone but grunts.
She draws back the cover on another tunnel. "This one leads to the sewers. There's a truck waiting."
"Thanks." Still barefoot, I ease onto the ladder.
To my surprise, Deb gives me a hug before I can go. "Thanks for setting the stage."
"Make a good show of it," I reply, squeezing back. For a second, the hard tissue of her muscles feel strange. Almost alien.
Letting me go, she salutes.
Then she turns back to her work and I start down the ladder, leaving my friends and enemies together, locked in the endless dance of mutual annihilation.
This story originally appeared in Fast Forward 1.