There’s something up with the fishies. They know it, and Keel knows it, and they know he knows it, and that’s enough to make a copper nervous. One of them stares at him with a fixed smile and a wide black eye, and he resists the urge to swallow. He gives it a professionally blank stare. It doesn’t look away, but they don’t really get eye contact anyway.
Keel risks a glance down the street, looking for a friendly face. It’s just him out here. Stupid, stupid, stupid. They know there’s a problem, but they don’t want to look aggressive, so they just send one guy. Not enough to do anything, but just enough to get killed. Keel has a brief, vivid mental vision of a fish, buffeted by sonar and surrounded by dark shapes, swimming as fast as it can toward a sheer rock face. He swallows.
The pod’s lingering across the street. The big bull’s standing by the street light, watching him intently. The arms aren’t right, they’re something custom. Twelve fingers, and big-ass solenoids in the elbows and shoulders. The rest of the pod, looks like adolescents, maybe five or six (probably second generation) are hanging back, not paying much attention. One of them is listening to his iPod. No, he can see the edges of mammary slits through a gap in the exoskeleton. Her iPod. Probably an audio book, because they don’t like music. At least, not music that makes sense to anyone else. The others are playing a half-hearted game of basketball, with the hoops about twice as high as normal. They’re waiting for something.
The bull’s fingers ripple, and his mouth opens fractionally, revealing a line of razor-edged teeth. If a human did it, it’d be a threatening gesture. As it is, Keel still thinks it’s a threatening gesture, but he can’t prove anything. Not that they have to try very hard. An adult bull dolphin is six feet tall, three hundred pounds, and mostly muscle by weight. Strap a big suspension exoskeleton to its back, and bolt some big mechanical arms and legs onto it, and you’ve got yourself a half-ton tank with a ground speed of about thirty miles an hour and the ability to pull your head clean off. No wonder the army sunk so much money into them. Too bad they don’t take orders from anyone who can’t kick their ass. Which leads back to his current predicament.
The bull’s moving. The rest of the pod suddenly starts paying attention. The earbuds come out, and the basketball hits the backboard and bounces slowly into the street. The bull slides away from the light and his legs unfold. He ambles leisurely across the street without even checking for traffic, and approaches Keel. Keels’ fingers twitch for his sidearm, but he resists the (probably suicidal) urge. He glances up and down the street again. No backup. No humans at all, actually. This is one of their neighborhoods. The closed windows hide empty rooms and salt water tanks and freezers full of racks and racks of fish. He is going to die here, and there are going to be no witnesses.
The whole pod is staring now, heads cocked sideways for a better look. He must be a little out of sonar range. The bull reaches him, and turns his head straight on. Keel gets an uncomfortable, fuzzy feeling in his teeth and his bones and the pin in his hip. He doesn’t shudder, but he wants too. There’s no need for that, it can see him. It’s just showing off. They think clothes are funny. Bastard’s probably checking his colon for tumors. He stares into its chest, revealed by a gap in the exoskeleton. Well, his helmet’s got a camera in it. If this ever makes the official record, he’s not going down in history as the one who started the race war. He does it by the book.
“Can I help you, sir?”
The head swings sideways, so the eye can watch him, and the fuzzy feeling goes away. It’s close enough that he can feel the humidity wafting off the mister. Liquid beads on his skin and around its eyes. It opens its mouth and a load of surgically modified vocal cords conspire to croak out in a quiet, pinched voice, smelling of fish,
He glances down at his watch.
“Three forty three, PM, sir.”
The bull doesn’t blink. The other members of the pod look… well, they’re smiling. But, they’re always smiling. The body language says this is making them nervous. The female who was listening to her iPod breaks off and begins to slowly approach. With the curved exoskeleton and all the little legs, they really do look almost crablike. He’s not much comforted. The females are not a lot nicer. If they think you’re a threat, they’ll kill you without hesitation. He looks back at the bull.
“Anything else I can help you with, sir?”
“Whatcha doing. Copper?”
“Clarence Bixby. The English teacher. You know, he probably taught at your school. He was murdered right here two days ago. Someone pulled his lungs out.”
He watches the bull’s eye carefully, and gets the disconcerting impression that the bull’s doing the same thing to him. They know who did it. Well, of course they know who did it. It happened in broad daylight. The bull wants to know how much he knows. Keel puts on his best poker face. The female’s getting closer. On a whim, he takes a stupid risk.
“It’s a strange crime, killing someone like that. You know, it takes a lot of power to pull someone’s rib cage open. I wouldn’t think a man could do it. We must have a body builder around here I haven’t see. Say. You wouldn’t happen to know anyone strong enough to snap a man’s rib cage open with their bare hands, would you? You know anyone like that around here?”
The bull’s mouth opens. People think they smile, but they don’t. They bare their teeth. He starts to meander sideways. Flanking him. Oh god, this is going to get ugly. The apes were fine. He was okay with the apes. They only did four, and they had the decency to shoot them when things got out of hand. The fishies are another story. Why did they do so damn many? Didn’t they think? Didn’t they stop and ask what was going to happen to all their uplifted cetaceans when the money ran out? Who on earth thought it was a good idea to give intelligence and tools to predatory pack carnivores with a history of sexual assault?
The bull leans in, mouth open, and Keel’s hand drifts towards his sidearm. If it draws fast enough, he can put a round into the computer core in its forehead. He just has to aim for the scar. The shot probably won’t kill it, but it’ll confuse it. If Keel runs, he might just be able to get into a human neighborhood before the pod catches up with him. The male’s fingers uncurl, and his arm pulls back. Another arm catches his. It’s slimmer than the male’s bulky black limbs. Sort of sleek. Looks like the human arm as designed by Apple.
The bull turns. The female whistles and clicks urgently at him. Keel licks his lips. The bull snorts at her and jerks his arm. She holds on and trills back. Keel take a glance at her. She’s been hurt. The arms are new, and it looks like there are some fresh cuts around the sockets. Someone took a knife to her power cables, and wasn’t careful about it. Keel looks closer. She’s got abdominal bruising around the genital slits. She’s still arguing with the bull, and Keel looks at his arms. They’re new, too, but the plating on the fingertips is cracked and scratched. They look expensive, and there’s not a lot of employment for six foot tall cyborg dolphins. Not an impulse buy, then. She’s still holding his hand. Keel’s brain is still running, filing away the evidence in little mental boxes. That isn’t how they kill. They bite your head off. It’s just instinct. If you pull someone’s lungs out, it’s because you want them to suffer.
Keel’s brain is still running, but he isn’t really listening. He’s following the argument. He has a suspicion his neck depends on it. The male appears to be losing. After another minute, he retreats slowly across the street, being dragged by the female, making soothing noises. She makes eye contact with him for a moment. The male shoots an unreadable glance his way. Then they turn away. Keel decides, at this point, that he isn’t paid enough for this. He walks slowly around the corner, and then he books it.
When he gets home after being chewed out, debriefed and then chewed out again, he sits down with a cup of coffee and looks out of his apartment window. A fishie is loading a couch into somebody’s truck on the street below. It lifts it like its nothing. He leans back in his chair, and rubs his face. He doesn’t know what to do, and is pretty sure he’s not the right one to be making these calls. All he is sure of is that he’s very, very happy they never thought to uplift whales.
After thinking about it for a long time, Keel comes to a decision. He picks up the phone.