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Authors: Pauline Baird Jones

core punch

Core Punch
An Uneasy Future
Pauline Baird Jones
Introduction

S
pinning
off
The Big Uneasy Series
and with a guest appearance from
Project Enterprise….

Welcome to…An Uneasy Future 1.0:

Core Punch

A Baker & Ban!drn Adventure

A kiss may be all they have life expectancy for.

When an intergalactic cop exchange program serves up an alien partner for NONPD Detective Violet Baker, she can't help wishing the handsome alien would be a little less Joe Friday about keeping the pleasure out of their business. Yeah, he's kind of purple and she can't pronounce his name to save her life, but he's almost the only guy in the New Orleans New police department that she's not related to.

Dzholh “Joe” Ban!drn has come a long way hunting the evil that has infiltrated Vi's floating city. When he meets his charming partner, he discovers another reason to stamp out evil. If only he wasn't keeping so many secrets from her….

When an epic hurricane heads their way, they are sent dirt side to New Orleans Old (NOO) on a rescue mission. But murder and sabotage strand them in the heart of the raging storm.

As they fight for their lives, Joe realizes that the evil he's hunting is actually hunting them….

W
hat others have
to say about the
Project Enterprise
series:

“Action is the name of the game as a feisty and hard-hitting heroine rises to the challenge in this rousing space adventure.” 
RT Book Reviews
about
The Key

“Time paradoxes run amok in this extraordinarily complex tale. Amongst the densely packed and mind-bending action, there's also some welcome humor. A spectacular ride!”
RT Book Reviews
about
Girl Gone Nova

What other have to say about the
Big Uneasy
series:


Grinning and loving it,
Relatively Risky
by creative talent Pauline Baird Jones is a hoot!” 
Single Titles

“With just the right amount of detail, Jones hits it out of the park and leaves readers wanting more…”
A Girl and Her Kindle
 about
Relatively Risky

A Caution

(
D
on't try
this at home. Or in a storm. In your fiction, however…)

Core punching means entering the heart of a storm. This puts you at high risk from hail and tornadoes.

You might skid, crash, or be gravely injured.

You might die.

1

H
is partner liked
to call it the Big
Un
easy and Dzholh—Joe—Ban!drn decided Violet Baker had a point. New Orleans was more often uneasy than it was easy. Joe studied said city while his partner, at the controls of the police skimmer, adjusted their course so they'd skim beneath, and avoid tangling with, the water umbilical. In his travels, he had seen floating cities on other planets. Cities that spun, orbited, and hid when threatened. Prettier cities. Why did this one feel special in its unease?

That they'd managed to raise so much of the old city, grafting on much that was new without a loss of its larger-than-life personality, was a feat he'd have deemed not worth the effort if he hadn't seen it, if he hadn't lived in it these past six months. Was it familiarity that made the old city seem valuable or was it the incoming hurricane?

Wu Tamika Felipe was—according to the news vids—the biggest storm to close in on the city since Chen, the storm that had almost wiped the original city off the map some fifty Earth years ago. Chen had been the catalyst to save what was left by raising it. Officially, dirt side was called New Orleans Old or NOO and the new city was New Orleans New or NON. To the locals, it was still the Big Easy or Nawlins.

Joe could understand why any city that endured severe flooding had been lifted up and out of the danger zones once the technology became available from his people. Most Garradians preferred a dirt side landfall, particularly after a prolonged time in space, so he found it puzzling that most of the major US cities and many European ones had followed suit. Even some of the smaller concentrations of population had opted for raising or had moved up into the lifted cities in the years that followed.

I believe it was a combination of something called the Green Movement and a fear of overcrowding and overwhelming the food sources,
his nanite, Lurch, commented inside his head.

You believe?
It was unlike the venerable nanite to be less than certain.

There is a lack of factual data. A problem that occurs when scientists consider their science settled.

Lurch had existed long enough to observe much science come unsettled. It was possible that this storm might unsettle the notion that floating cities were preferable to dirt side living. WTF would be the first trial-by-hurricane for the technology and, most particularly, for the ancient parts of the floating city. Not that the dirt side remains of the old city would fare well during the incoming storm. The storm surge would be, according to the experts, unprecedented.

Lurch snorted, the action registering as mild gastric distress for Joe. He could not blame the nanite for the snort.
Unprecedented
had experienced much usage in the news vids since the storm hit category five status. One might conclude that there had never been a category five storm, i.e., without precedent. Only most broadcasts had been detailing with considerable relish all the previous category five storms. Including the destructive force of Cat 5 Chen.

Apparently there are those who do not know the meaning of unprecedented.

It was a valid conclusion based on available evidence. Though the lack of understanding was not endemic. Those who did understand the meaning of unprecedented had made efforts to educate vidcasters through all means available to them. The public mockery had not changed anything that he had observed. Perhaps it was like trying to turn a meteor? Velocity, once achieved, being hard to redirect?

Perhaps you can create an equation for it after the storm?

The mental nudge was deserved, Joe acknowledged, though he doubted the storm's passing would provide much quiet reflection, if the pre-storm briefings taking place around the city were any indication. Those in charge of managing the city were optimistic in their public statements. But private briefings showed awareness of the incoming ass kicking—Baker's succinct summing up following several hours of briefings. His partner-in-crime-solving had no difficulty being direct.

Detective Baker has expanded your vocabulary.

Joe felt the nanite's approval of said expansion. Joe did not point out that his vocabulary was more than adequate or that it had already been expanded to include millions of alien languages when the nanite moved into his head. One did not tell a nanite what it already knew.

But you weren't using any of my additions.

At least Lurch did not call them upgrades.

Joe had learned much from the homicide detective in the past six months, an education that extended beyond expletives, he would have noted if it did not already know this, too. Baker was an excellent law enforcer and a good detective. And unlike many of the Earthlings he encountered, she also smelled quite good. This was desirable since he often shared the confines of a skimmer with her. And bad since he often shared the confines of a skimmer with her. Her pleasing scent could be a bit distracting. Also in the distracting column was her habit of tonal humming and rhythmic shifting, something she called “seat dancing” to music only she could hear, which she'd been doing while Joe reflected.

“I hope this doesn't take too long,” the detective in question, or rather in reflection, muttered, breaking off her humming and dancing. She handled the aging skimmer confidently as they curved into the shadow cast by the hovering city.

Joe murmured agreement even though agreement was contextually obvious. Of course they needed to expedite their transit. They'd dropped down from NON in the relative calm between two feeder bands. Neither of them had any desire to be dirt side when the next feeder band arrived, or if the stalled hurricane decided to start moving again. He had learned during his six months in this place that Baker's people mistook silent agreement for inattention. Hence the silence-filling murmur.

Despite the imperatives of time and storm, he looked forward to dirt beneath his feet again, though
green side
might be a more appropriate description. Other than the ribbon of the river cutting through, there was only green to be seen in every direction. If green had been the goal of the Green Movement, they could legitimately claim success. Almost one could believe the area looked like it had when the first explorers arrived. Except amidst the green—and coated in it—were the remnants of the long abandoned city. The occasional chunk of moss and vine covered formerly high-rising overpasses popping up here, and over there one could pick out an irregular course of abandoned streetlights wrapped in the green vines that had moved in when men went up. Between the old lights, grasses pushed against chunks of broken asphalt. Lines of trees wound through the landscape, possibly marking old transit lanes and remnants of parks, because naturally the trees couldn't be raised. In the “preserved” section, there were a few actual buildings visible, though preservation didn't include de-vining them, Joe noted. The only places where efforts had been made to contain out-of-control nature were the ancient cemeteries, which was somewhat ironic, now that he considered it. They were small, isolated squares and irregular rectangles dotting the tangle that was NOO.

Little cities of the dead
,
the locals call them
.

The crypts did have the look of buildings, the impression increasing as the skimmer dropped down just shy of the tops of the trees edging what had once been St. Charles. Did he see the glint of the tracks from the streetcar line? Or did his mind conjure it because he knew they must be there? Did the shadow of the floating city trace patterns onto the ground, or highlight things already there? It still perplexed him that the raised city had been patterned as much as possible on the original. The upper city even followed the curves of the river below, though there was no visible purpose in preserving the old boundary. Now there were more transit bridges crossing the “river” than had been present back then, because one did not have to build or pay for them, but not nearly as much as there legitimately could have been over the essentially empty space. To the north of the city, a faux Lake Pontchartrain remained a recreational zone for pleasure skimmers and gliders. Like the river, transit bridges were limited and controlled. “River traffic” was also restricted to approved vessels, such as those transporting goods and materials and passenger ferries.

They did not wish their city to change.

Joe could understand the resistance to change. The desire to keep things as they were. The willingness to do what one must to save that which mattered the most. But this desire to preserve might be coming back to haunt them now with the storm coming. The newer buildings should weather the storm adequately, or so the city leaders hoped, but there was an undercurrent of concern about Cat 5 wind impact on the old structures. Much was made in the news vids about the longevity of these structures, but lifting had subjected them to stresses unforeseen by the people who constructed them.

“Okay, let's fire up the sensors and make sure our dirt-siders are where they were. And pray the idiot thing works today.”

Joe attempted activation—though minus the prayer. The habit of praying over technology puzzled him. His people had their gods, but they were, as far as he knew, indifferent to technology working or not working. He did as requested, his gaze glancing off Vi—Baker. Joe had permission to call her Vi both inside and outside his head—the NONPD was as informal and random as the city they protected—and he did so when formality would draw more attention than it deflected. But inside his own head he tried to keep it impersonal and professional. With less than stellar results. Even a glimpse of her profile ignited a duality of responses. A queer delight at the sight of her and surprise at that delight. Perhaps it was her lack of perfection that intrigued him? His people had engineered pretty faces into near ordinariness. Vi's—the name slipped through his guard—people had begun genetic engineering some time back, but he did not think her parents had availed themselves of the service. Her imperfections were a delight in a sea of the bland perfect. Her height fell somewhat below the standard considered optimal, and the variations of her female form fell into the slight range. That she was not “well endowed” seemed to cause her annoyance on occasion, but Joe found her shape pleasing. Her voice was clear and agreeable, with just a touch of a husky undertone when she hummed or sang or was tired. The nose tipped up a bit and one side of her upper lip was a tiny bit crooked. He decided it added to the dangerous charm of her smile.

Her most unusual feature was her eyes. They were violet, like her name, and intense, intelligent. They were also uncomfortably piercing. He'd seen hardened criminals shift in discomfort from the full force of her gaze. At times such as this—he tried to think of a proper description—but it was difficult. She was as unique as her city. If one looked in her eyes in an attempt to parse, one lost the, um, plot. Her gaze was a weapon of mass distraction.

He'd seen even hardened criminals become dazed, confess to crimes, or propose marriage. This amused him less than it did Vi—Baker. One criminal, a member of an organized crime family, had had the effrontery to ask her out to dinner during an interrogation session last month.

She'd looked amused. “Brave of you, Afoniki.”

She did have many relatives within the ranks of the NONPD.

“Is that a yes?” Afoniki had persisted.

Vi had laughed. “You have a death wish, bubba.”

Vi called everyone bubba.

Except you.

Lurch was correct. Sometimes he wondered why. At their first meeting, he'd introduced himself and held out his hand in the approved Earth manner, well in control of faculties and body temperature until he caught the full force of her gaze. Vi—Baker he reminded himself firmly—had blinked. Twice. His heart had stuttered once, then again when her hand slid into his like it belonged there. It seemed like her lips tried to form his name. And then…

“Nice to meet you, Joe,” she'd said instead, with a cheeky grin that disrupted his heart rhythm once more.

The name Joe had stuck like glue. So had the heart arrhythmia. But only when he was around Vi—Baker.

Vi—Baker gave the sensor what she liked to call a love tap—it was not a tap he'd have linked to love, though he would not have been averse—he clamped down on the thought. The screen flickered once, then again, and finally began to boot up. There were better, more reliable systems widely available, thanks to their trade agreements with Joe's people, but the NONPD seemed to live in a permanent state of financial crisis.

“Why are there—” a slight pause while he edited out Earthlings and replaced it with, “—citizens lingering on the surface when they must have been made aware of the danger some days ago?” He'd seen vids of transports evacuating humans from the surface over the last several days, when WTF's storm track had indicated an intention to not only place the city on the wet side, but perhaps send the eye in for a visit.

“There are a lot of reasons why people cling to dirt,” she said, giving the sensor another love tap, one that made the screen flicker again, but it did begin scanning the surface. “According to my Paw Paw, it goes back to the Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau. She's supposed to protect the city. The fact that she hasn't always come through…well, we can forgive and forget. And we believe it won't happen until it does because we are the city that care forgot.”

She flashed him a quick grin. Joe fought his way through the force of her smile. Finally managed to produce a question. “And the other reasons?”

“There are fears that if they leave they won't be allowed back.”

Joe frowned. “But there are many dirt side industries.”

“Oh, the farmers and fishermen aren't worried about getting back, but the Corps quit doing much maintenance on the old levees, maybe thirty years ago? So the river is creeping in, changing course, taking back land.” She frowned, the expression as intriguing as her grin. “The thing is, some people don't actually work down there. They live there because it's who they are, that's how it's always been and always will be.”

“It will not always be if they die down there,” Joe pointed out, though it felt both obvious and unnecessary. And how did they live if they didn't work?

They live off the land.

“Logic doesn't always trump emotion. Or tradition.” Her lips pursed a bit wryly.

He wondered why the wry.

She's a Baker,
Lurch pointed out, with its own version of wry. It felt much like an internal itch between his shoulders.

Joe considered this, adding up the many—make that very many—Bakers who served in the NONPD, including their Captain.

Do you think she did not wish to be a police officer?

The idea interested him. He had not planned on this law enforcement side trip. But he could not be sorry. His gaze drifted toward her once more. Her shoulders began to twitch. Not quite seat dancing, but heading that way. Since they were in the skimmer, he knew she was listening to music through her gear. Though that was officially discouraged, it wasn't outright banned because this was NON. One might as well ban crawfish or
beignets.

Or letting the good times roll…

Her dance stopped when the scan finished. “Looks like we got four dirt-siders to collect—wait—what the—”

“It is a cold spot.” Joe mentally echoed her surprise.

“Cold spot?” She gave a tiny shake. “Not possible. The heat's been building in for days ahead of the storm. It's so freaking humid, I almost bought diving gear on my way to work today.”

Vi—Baker had made this threat many times since summer arrived. She also claimed he'd grow gills if he stayed long enough. Almost he believed her.

“Malfunction?” She gave him a hopeful look.

Joe considered this and shook his head. If all the spots had rendered cold—but they hadn't. “Unlikely.”

She muttered something that could have been a curse. “Can you get me co-ords? We'll have to check it out.”

“Should we not perform our primary mission first?”

“Our cold spot is in the old city. If the feeder bands keep dumping water like they have been, it's more likely to be under water before we can get back. It fills up fast in a normal rain, now that no one is pumping the water out. And we're assuming our dirt-siders will cooperate with their rescue.”

It made sense to secure the body, if it was a body, that lacked the ability to be uncooperative. “Should I report our course change?” He asked because he was supposed to, not because he believed she'd agree.

“That will take longer than checking it out.”

Vi often stated that forgiveness was easier to receive than permission. She was most skilled at getting forgiven.

She adjusted course and speed, then eased the skimmer lower. The fact that Resources Management hadn't upgraded their regular craft to a more adept emergency transport told him all he needed to know about the priority of this assignment. Or the risk assessment. Vi had seemed annoyed about it, but had shrugged it off pretty fast.

With so many relatives in positions of authority, I suspect the detective has learned to be pragmatic about her assignments,
Lurch noted.

The venerable nanite often hovered between wry and pragmatic, and this thought was no exception. It was, perhaps, a function of living longer than human memory, not to mention its dependence on humans for survival.

We all depend on something for survival.

“Let's buzz the spot first,” she said, “maybe we won't have to stop.”

Joe attempted to activate their lower vid recorder, but it did not cooperate, even with the application of multiple love taps. Vi muttered something unflattering about its progenitors.

“Side vids are working,” he said.

“Okay, I'm going to make a low pass with a high bank angle and see if can get something on those side vids for you to look at.”

It was a move with some risk. The big storm was pushing a strong wind ahead of it. The trees were dense in the area, and the wind created turbulence over the trees. He saw a break and realized it was one of the little cities of the dead. Their cold spot must be in or near it. There was less plant congestion around it, which might help.

“Let's see if this piece of excrement has anything left,” she muttered, adjusting her bank angle. “Let me know if you see it on the vid. I'm only going to try this once.”

He watched the vid as they flashed past. He stopped the recording, zoomed in on the object.

“Well?”

“It is a body,” he said reluctantly. It could not be alive and be that cold, so the conclusion was acceptable, despite lack of confirmation. “Inside the cemetery enclosure.”

“Dead in a dead space. Someone has a sense of humor.” Vi keyed in a query on possible landing sites, while the skimmer made a wide, slow turn to bring them back over the area. “Looks like we don't have a good place to land inside. It's against regs anyway. Only unrestricted access through the walls is on this side here.” She tapped the screen. “Like furthest from frosty that we can get. Great. I'll go for that lawn in front of our gate. At least I hope that's a lawn and not a ship sucking swamp.”

She finished her turn, reducing altitude as she brought the skimmer down as gently as was possible with an aging, in-atmosphere craft descending through a turbulent atmosphere. Which was to say, a most bumpy ride, concluding abruptly when a down draft thumped them against the spongy ground.

“Sorry about that,” she flashed him a wry grin, then looked out the front viewer. “Let's hope it didn't shake loose something that we'll need later.”

It was a legitimate concern. The craft seemed to shed functionality almost daily.

She pulled up weather data and studied it. “WTF is still stalled. That's odd. I don't remember Nash predicting the storm to stall this long.”

Nash Roberts V was a weathercaster with a cult-like following that Joe found inexplicable. He had not been around long enough to verify Roberts' accuracy, but the locals swore he could do more with something called a whiteboard and a marker than all the fancy tech currently available. Joe didn't comment on her comment because he'd learned one didn't. You could mess with many things in NON, but you didn't mess with Nash.

“A stall is good for us. We should be able to what we gotta well before things get dicey here.”

Joe opened the hatch and looked out. The lawn—was that the correct word for the narrow expanse of dense grasses severely outnumbered by weeds?—was very wet. He lowered one booted foot, hoping it would eventually find solid ground down there. His foot sank to the ankle before it did.

This used to be a street or you might have sunk up to your armpits.

He brought his other foot down. When it also encountered support, he stood. From this vantage, he noted water flowing sluggishly through the weeds and grass. According to their weather data, it was too early for the storm surge. Had the rainfall caused this? It was difficult for him to process that much water falling from the sky. On the other hand, NOO was a steadily subsiding bowl, and as Vi had noted, no one tried to drain it anymore. As uncomfortable as their emergency gear was in the dense heat, he was glad for it. The flooding had most likely displaced the predatory animals that existed down here, though some were amphibious in nature, so perhaps they were emboldened more than displaced.

I believe poisonous snakes can swim,
Lurch confirmed with specious innocence.
And the fire ant problem has exploded since humans moved up.

But wouldn't the water disperse the ants?

They form into balls to survive.
It paused.
You do not want to accidentally penetrate one. Even your suit will not provide adequate protection.

Joe look uneasily around, wondering if the nanite was playing with him. Would his Glock 3000 stun them or anger them?

Vi had also clambered out. She tested the ground with her boots. “There's a kind of drop-off here. Watch your step. And for fire ant balls. You do not want to set them loose in the water while we're in it.”

Joe felt a glow of virtue from the nanite. Why did it always have to be right?

She scowled at the chest-high wall of the cemetery. “Looks like that's our access point over there.” She pointed at a breech in the wall. Moving with care, she headed for the rear of the skimmer and pounded the hatch control with her fist. It opened with its customary reluctance.

“Sure hope the body bag has recharged.”

Like the rest of the skimmer, the charging mechanism had an uncertain functionality. He helped her extract the bag and then secured their CSI kit. Vi—he realized he'd forgotten to keep it formal, but gave it up because it was too hot—locked it down and input the cords into the body bag's guidance system. He tossed the CSI kit on top, then she sent it on ahead of them.

“Hope it makes it,” she said, philosophically, watching it rise over the wall, then cut across the top of the crypts. “Can you imagine what a pain it must have been to carry bodies out of, or into, places like this?”

He made a noncommittal sound. He did not have to imagine. He knew. “I hope we do not find out.”

“No kidding.” She bounced on her toes a bit, looking around with a dubious expression. “Who on earth would want to live on dirt? It's so dirty.”

“Not all dirt is so moisture laden,” he pointed out, amused. The upper city was not what he would deem clean, though its clock was about to cleaned—yet another Vi phrase that he found to be obscurely apt.

“I suppose not.” She turned back to the hatch and extracted two dark bags with loose straps attached to them. He arched an inquiring brow. “Our 72'r kits,” she said, showing him how to slide the straps over his shoulders so that it rested uncomfortably on his back.

“What is a 72'r kit?”

“No clue,” she said, “but we have to carry them when we are not in official transport and are at emergency status. Regs.”

Regs was the end to any and all arguments, he'd learned. It trumped understanding and logic.

According to historical records,
Lurch told him,
it contains emergency supplies designed to sustain a single human for seventy-two hours. It also has additional emergency materials. I can provide a list of what is supposed to be contained in them….

Unnecessary.
Joe tried shifting it to a less uncomfortable position. And failed.

“Has anyone opened one?” Joe asked. “Looked inside?”

“Not in my memory.”

Since she was well into her 20s, possibly closing on her 30s, this was a bit disturbing. How sustainable would the supplies actually be? On the positive side, if they hadn't been opened or used in her memory, they were unlikely to require them.

Vi made a disgusted sound, tugged at the neck of her emergency rig. “Could it get any hotter?”

The first time she'd asked this he'd attempted to answer it. Now he knew better. Though in his experience so far, the answer was always yes.

“If Captain Uncle thinks this is going to freak me out, he can think again.”

“You suspect this is what you call a prank?”

“With my relatives, I always assume it's a possibility.” She checked her portable unit, gave it a love tap. “We'd better get moving or our body bag will
crapeau
out without us.”

Getting moving, they quickly learned, was easier said than accomplished. A couple of feet from the skimmer, the hard surface ended. Each step was a journey down into knee high water, then a tug-of-war with the sucking mud created by that water to extract their boots. Even the heavy grasses did not assist their progress as much as they should have. Their bulky storm gear added to their navigation difficulties, though he was not ungrateful for the protection it afforded as Lurch indicated plant forms that stung and others that caused painful itching and skin disruptions. He conceded that Vi had a point. Dirt side, while attractive, was unappealing as a place to live. Amazing that humans had endured it as long as they had.

Ahead of them, the cemetery looked even more like a miniature city. Stone walls made a sort of beachhead against a sea of glistening green. When the gate was reached, they found more hard surface beneath the grass, though it was not even in its disposition, lending itself to the additional concern of face-planting.

Old sidewalks, I would postulate. Even when they were widely used, they were somewhat inconsistent to navigate.

Inconsistent?

The city tended to sink in an uneven manner. It was built on a swamp
and continues to sink even now.

Oh.
What was it about this spot that had attracted their attention in the first instance?

The river. The water was their transit.

This dead city, in its way, was as interesting as the floating one. The cemetery had once been surrounded by something somewhat similar to the city above, so it would have had pedestrian paths, these uneven sidewalks.

“Are there vids of when the city was here?” he asked, surprised to realize he'd voiced the question aloud.

“Yeah” She half frowned. “My Paw Paw likes watching old vids, prefers something called spaghetti westerns, but he also likes seeing the city how it used to be, too. I can ask him for a list, if you'd like.”

“I would like,” he said, surprised that he meant it. It would have made this trip more interesting if he could imagine how it had been, had been able to “see” that old city here as they moved around.

Once through the narrow gate, the height of the grass diminished some, Joe noticed, and the ratio of grass to weeds modified to a ratio better for the grasses.

“The Catholic Church tries to maintain the cemeteries,” Vi said, as if he'd asked. “They still own them, you know. Looks like they mow the grass every now and again.”

Lurch could have provided much information on the NOO cemeteries, but it did not seem necessary to the circumstances, and Joe found info dumps distracting when not need-to-know. In any case, Vi provide more than sufficient distraction. He noticed she looked from right to left as she walked along the narrow row between the crypts, her walk lacking its usual determined grace, though that was the fault of the mud and heavy boots. He would not have minded the distraction she provided if she did not also boost the heat factor. He tugged at the neck of his gear. The intense humidity compounded his discomfort, and their gear provided no way for natural cooling to occur.

“Do you seek something…” The cold spot had to be some distance off.

“We have some family history here, or I think it was here. Just wondered if I'd see
the
crypt, but the carvings are so faded, there's no way to tell. If I'd known I was coming here, I'd have downloaded a map.” She paused and looked back at him.


The
crypt?” Joe asked.

“Oh, this ancestor of ours wasn't buried here.”

Joe blinked. “So
the
crypt is where this ancestor
wasn't
buried?”

“Yeah.”

He considered asking for additional clarification, but his last attempt had not gone well. There were many things, he'd learned, that failed to bridge his alien divide.

She looked around her. “Weird ass place. Our Voodoo Queen is supposed to be buried here, you know. Wish we had time to put some
gris-gris
on her tomb.”

Her grin almost knocked him back a step. He had to smile back. It would have been rude not to, but he felt uncomfortable when she didn't immediately resume her progress toward the cold spot.

“You have a nice smile, Joe.” She tipped her head to one side. “You should let it out to play more often.”

A nice smile? Was that a good thing? Nice felt lukewarm. Though there was little luke about his present warmth.

Lurch seemed to sigh.
Yes, my friend, it is a good thing.

“I will endeavor to do so,” he said, wishing he could match her casual tone. Something in her expression changed though he could not isolate and identify what. His smile faltered. She distracted him when he didn't look at her. Looking increased her distraction factor exponentially and tended to cause a rise in internal temperature, one easily noted by Lurch. Though it tried to respect Joe's privacy, it could not help but notice physiological reactions to outside stimuli. Or be amused by them, which tended to increase the effect. It was unprofessional of Joe to be distracted by her.

As Baker had said to a crime scene tech recently, “Eyes forward, Stigson. We're not here to get hot and bothered.”

Stigson had kept his eyes forward, but heat and bother were inevitable with or without the personal aspect, thanks to the climate in this place. The heat index should have been sufficient excuse to the nanite when Joe experienced his temperature variations, but Lurch seemed able to parse which variation was caused by heat and what was caused by heated.

He glanced—casually he hoped, though feared he failed—to one side, then the other. “It is most quiet here.”

And then it became more than a distraction from looking at Vi. It
was
quiet. Too quiet? The hairs on the back of his neck lifted. Or tried to. Sweat and the heavy suit kept them down, but it felt as if they lifted. The feeling of something ominous was most marked. And easily explained by the approaching storm.

“Even nature is getting out ahead of WTF.” She grinned once more.

This grin was different, more like the ones others used when using the storm's acronym. He had wondered, but not asked. According to Lurch, explained jokes were no longer humorous.

Perhaps she sensed his confusion for she added, “The Hurricane Naming Board got so caught up in being politically correct, they forgot to check the initials before they released the name into the wild. Once it was out, there was no taking it back.”

This did not help as much as she'd perhaps hoped, so Lurch supplied the translation and further explanation, enough that Joe found that not all jokes lost humor upon explanation. He smiled involuntarily and got caught in her intent gaze once more. The air shifted and the wind picked up, reminding them that WTF was incoming and it was no joke.

Vi started a bit. “We should hurry.” She yanked a booted foot out of the mud. “Try to hurry.”

Did she look regretful? Or did he hope she did? It was not as if they had a future together. He was not sure he would have a future. Even his past had become murky, since Lurch moved into his head and launched him on this crazy quest.

Their progress resumed. It seemed harder to walk in the lanes than it had in the tall grasses, possibly because their boots sank deeper into the mud. These paths must have degraded more than those outside the walls, or they had been constructed differently. Some crypts were bordered by low fences almost obscured by weeds or grasses, others bumped up against the path. All were covered in green moss and black mildew, some were also covered in heavy vines. On many he could see outlines of names, but most were obscured despite the attempted upkeep. There was no question that their surroundings added to the growing sense of incoming trouble.

“Shouldn't be far now—” Vi stopped abruptly. “
What
the—”

Joe had a feeling she meant this in the actual meaning of WTF, not the storm name, despite the cutoff at the end. It didn't take the sight of the hovering body bag for Joe to know they had arrived at their crime scene. All he had to do was watch Vi switch to detective mode. She rolled her shoulders, and he knew her gaze would narrow and turn laser sharp. She had the best technology that the NONPD could afford, but her eyes, her brain were, in Joe's opinion worth more than all the tech.

Except me.

Of course,
Joe agreed, though he wondered. Was it possible to know too much? So much one lost the ability to follow intuition?

That is why I have you.

I lack Vi's flair.

You lack experience. The ability to go with your gut. But you are learning.

Would he learn in time? Joe grabbed the kit off the body bag and initiated deployment to secure their scene. The electronic grid would protect the integrity of the scene, though “integrity” did not seem indicated in their present circumstances. The bag launched, tracking toward the body. Once centered over it, it “taped” their scene, the name a relic of a different time, according to Lurch. Then it released a variety of collection probes, including a vid module that would create the 3D scan of the crime scene. Within a minute, all possible portable non-naturally occurring materials had been collected by tiny drones, tagged and secured to the underside of the body bag. The red electronic tape turned gold, an indication that they could now enter their scene. He activated protective hand and face gear. As though it was not already hot enough.

At this point, they did not know a crime had been committed, well, other than the illegal body dump, he reminded himself, though without much hope. At least the tech would enable them to secure what evidence had survived the rain and wind before the storm drenched the scene again. He checked the time, then the storm's progress on his portable tech. Ran the numbers. It must be an illusion that the dark clouds looked closer than the tech showed them to be. The wind had increased, though without cooling anything. It flowed past, weighted with water and heat.

Vi activated her crime scene gear and followed him through the tape where she crouched by the body.

“This guy did not die in his sleep.”

It was true the eyes retained a look of horror that was not comfortable to see. Joe's headset produced a list of just-collected debris. He was not sorry for the distraction from looking at those eyes. The only thing of interest was something called a Royal Crown Cola bottle. And a banana spider. The bot shouldn't have grabbed the spider, though the malfunction did not surprise him. And he was happy not to have to share space with the large arachnid. He looked around and spied the shredded remains of a huge web tucked under the crypt's overhang. There was not much other debris from the scene and little that appeared related to their corpse. The dead man huddled between two small columns as if he'd been sitting on one of the three steps leading to the imposing crypt, and then died, rolling onto his back, with his knees drawn up to his chest. He wore trousers, but his upper torso appeared to be bare. Joe touched one leg. Pushed on it. It gave a little, but was still somewhat frozen to his bare chest. That would explain why he'd shown as a cold spot. The intense heat would boost the contrast.

“Looks like someone emptied their freezer,” Vi murmured.

“Emptied the freezer?” Joe felt some disquiet. And much confusion. The corpse wasn't solidly frozen, but it hadn't shown up on the sensors prior to their leaving District Headquarters. It had to have been dumped between their last scan and the activation of their sensor on approach. Perhaps a window of fifteen minutes? But the partial thaw indicated it had been here longer. Or been allowed to partially defrost prior to dumping?

“In the early days, soon after the city was raised, the bad guys experienced problems getting rid of inconvenient corpses.”

Joe blinked, thinking through this “problem.” He frowned. “They used to bury them.” His brow cleared. “But soil is not deep in the raised city.” Weight issues. The raised city boasted hologram trees because the soil lacked the depth for real ones—a move that had initially been very unpopular until the cost was totaled up and presented to the taxpayers of the time. The cobblestone paths in the French Quarter were also simulated.

“They used to freeze stiffs until they could dump them down here, but that was before we had better sensors. I haven't heard of a freezer dump for a long time.” She frowned, considering. “Years.”

He noted she did not use the words “good” or “effective” to characterize the “better” sensors. He'd have called them barely adequate, but there were higher priorities. He frowned. “Perhaps they hoped to capitalize on the confusion prior to the storm's arrival?”

“Then they seriously mistimed it. No confusion yet.” There was a beep indicating an identity match. Vi's frown deepened. “He's a dirt-sider. A squatter.”

Like those they'd been sent to collect.

“Perhaps he expired and other dirt-siders were fearful the death would cause them problems?” Joe offered the idea without much conviction.

“If they wanted to hide a body, they wouldn't freeze him. That preserves a body. If they wanted to hide him, they'd bury him. Bodies decompose fast in this heat, plus the critters would help them out. Anyway, I doubt a squatter would have access to a freezer. The power grid is patchy down here, especially around the NOO airport where they squat. They only maintain power around industrial areas and farms.” She shook her head.

“Then someone wanted this body found intact.” It was the only logical conclusion.

She sighed. “We'll need to notify HQ, but let's bag this bad boy first, get it back to the skimmer before our power runs out.”

Using her portable unit, she maneuvered the bag until it hovered just above the body. “Pray we have enough power,” she muttered. She punched a button and a web shot out on either side, slithering out of sight under the corpse. When the webs had connected, the body was lifted until it was snug against the bag platform. Vi rotated the bag, so that body rested on top of the platform. This brought the underside of the body into view. The bare back was covered with round pockmarks in an almost regular pattern.

“What the—” Vi began and once again stopped. She stepped close and examined the marks.

Joe couldn't move. He wanted to move. To flee. His body felt as cold as the corpse. But Lurch had locked him down.

Get under control.
Lurch's voice was sharp in his head.

He could breathe, but that was all. He looked down until he was sure he had his expression under control, the one part of him Lurch couldn't help.
I am.

“Curious,” Vi touched one of the marks with a gloved hand. “It almost looks like something burned its way out.” Her frown deepened. “I wonder—”

It took two tries for him to get the words out. “You wonder?”

“Do you remember Calvino's murder?” Joe shook his head. “It happened around the time you arrived, or maybe before? I forget. We didn't handle it. Was Federal because Calvino was a big deal in his crime family.”

“I don't recall that,” Joe said, his throat dry.

“It was kept pretty quiet, because no wanted a copycat, or so they said. A mini turf war erupted right after, too, which sort of took over the news. I only heard about it because my cousin was on the task force. What he described, it might have been this.” She touched one of the spots with her gloved hand. “Curious. I can see why this MO freaked them out.”

I missed it.
Lurch sounded chagrined.

You had to search with care.
Why—?
Joe didn't finish the question. He was not sure what to ask.

It is tired of waiting. So it takes advantage of the storm to test us. Testing
you
for signs of me.

They—
he
had tried to be careful. Lurch was always careful. Joe thought he had been, too.

You have been careful. Hence the test.
Lurch's tone modified to almost amused.
If it has been dirt side all this time, it might be frustrated enough to make a mistake.

Joe had expected to feel relieved when it made its move. He could not resist a glance at the approaching storm.

It always had a flair for the dramatic.

2

J
oe looked almost
as stiff as their stiff, but Vi already knew he was a bit parsimonious with, well, everything. He was the total opposite of “Big Easy” NON, while still managing to be adorable. At their first meeting, she deduced he was not demonstrative because she was, you know, a detective. He nailed dead pan and mainlined sober. Was the quintessential Joe Friday—both the vintage and the many remakes. That's why she'd tagged him Joe, though she hadn't meant to say it out loud. At least she hadn't called him ET. She had tried to wrap her tongue around his real name. It hadn't wrapped and her throat made a sound like Maw Maw's cat hacking up a hairball. So when he didn't complain about the Joe moniker—and the Garradians didn't cut off diplomatic relations over it—she let it ride.

It was how she rolled. Though periodically Captain Uncle tried to break her of her rolling habit. It was his job, she supposed. Because he was an uncle and not just a captain, she used her Look on him when he tried too hard. Sometimes she had to boost it with the innocent modification, but she tried to wield that power with care. Not that Captain Uncle would ever fall in love with her, but a captain with scrambled brains wasn't good for anyone. She didn't know why her Look worked, with or without the modification. Was glad it did, because it had gotten her out of some sticky situations. And some interesting proposals.

Well, it worked with one notable exception.

She studied that exception. Who was studying their stiff like it held the secrets to the universe. For him, it might. He was that smart. For her, she just wished their stupid emergency gear wasn't hiding his butt. His rear view was one of the few bright spots in a typical crime scene. Or an atypical one.

Which this seemed to be.

She sighed. If she'd ever imagined that she'd be dirt side in a moldy, muddy graveyard with a purple alien, a weird-ass corpse, and an epic hurricane incoming, she'd have called the mind shrinks to have a chat.

She studied what she could see of Joe's profile. His skin wasn't
so
purple. It was more of a hint than an actual tint—just enough to make him a hit at Mardi Gras. The rest of him was a hit any time. The Garradians were known for being real pretty, and Joe was
not
the exception, even in a post-genetic-modification world. Dang. Broad shoulders. Lean hips. Vid star features. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Awesome brain box. Not a relative. That was huge. In addition to Captain Uncle, she was related to about eighty percent of the NONPD. Not that not being not-related to Joe had benefitted her as much she would have liked. If she hit on him and it didn't go well, it
might
cause the intergalactic incident she'd managed to avoid to date. An intergalactic incident would make Sunday dinners at Grand Maw Maw's tense. On the other hand, dating ET would totally boost her cred with the cousins. Easier thought than done. She had no clue what he did with his off hours, which was sad. A detective should always have a clue.

And a detective should know better than to end up this deep in the mud. If the dirt-siders wanted to take on WTF, who was she to deny them their God-given right to be stupid in the face of the unprecedented precedented? Or would that be the precedented unprecedented? She was worse at grammar than she was at math. And she sucked at mud. Which sucked. Literally and figuratively. WTF wasn't here yet and she was sick of it, too.

Time was, according to Grand Paw Paw, when everyone had believed that man caused all the weather problems. Vi'd call it extreme hubris, but her generation had bought into the “man had solved all the weather problems” line of bull. Seemed hubris was catching. And everyone did know—or should know—pride went before the fall. She looked up at her city. Thinking falling thoughts was probably bad
juju
right now. She tried to redirect the thoughts, but it wasn't easy with Maw Maw Nature preparing to pull their pride out from under them. Vi could almost hear her cackling with glee.

She rose, feeling the increase in the wind tugging at her. She released her visor, hoping it would cool something off. It didn't. She frowned at the horizon. “That looks worse than the radar says it should be.”

“We should return to the skimmer.” Joe rose, too, his expression back in the “Friday” zone.

As if Nature's Maw Maw heard him, the wind kicked up some more and the black clouds began to curve in tight, like she was pinging on them.

“Yeah.” Vi nodded, just in case the word wasn't agreement enough.

Being Joe, he didn't hesitate, retracting their crime scene tech as fast as it would let him. Storm aside, if they lingered too much longer, their body bag might run out of power. She did not want to haul it all the way back to the skimmer. Talk about old school. She took a last look at her crime scene, not happy it was gonna get drenched. She'd never liked relying wholly on tech, especially their
crapeau
tech. Would have liked to do her own search. But Maw Maw N and her pet storm were setting the pace today. That she felt their hot breath on her neck was a totally correct metaphor—something she tried to avoid at her crime scenes if at all possible.

Joe dropped the kit on the bag next to the corpse. In its current configuration, the corpse didn't take up that much room. She'd eyed it a bit wistfully. There was room for her to hop a ride, but it had never liked heavy lifting. Ouch. She tried to avoid linking herself with the words “heavy” in a sentence, but it was just that kind of day. She keyed in the return command and the bag rose, making the turn toward their skimmer. It sputtered a bit, but kept going. For now.

Without speaking they started back, though out of necessity, their path was less direct than the body bag's, since they had to stick to the paths. Was it her imagination that the mud seemed deeper on the return? Each sucking step seemed harder than than the last, draining both energy and breath. It let WTF gain on them, too. She glanced at Joe. Something was bothering him. She knew him well enough to know that, though she didn't know what or why he didn't tell her. He was a puzzle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in whatever was more mysterious than an enigma. She needed to quit wishing he'd do something, and then she needed to find a guy to kiss. Even if he asked her out, which did not seem likely, what was the point? The exchange program would end, he'd go home. People did. Especially alien people. She'd heard they considered Earth a kind of slum part of the Milky Way. On the rude side, considering how much the guys from their galaxy seemed to like alien-earth-girls match-ups dot com.

Their dragging, slogging struggle made their shoulders brush together. Well, their emergency gear brushed together. How sad was it that she liked it? The narrow paths of the creepy cemetery were hardly a romantic venue by any definition, but a girl had to work with what she had. Even if she wasn't exactly getting anything for all her work. Except tired. Dang, dirt was hard work. Why did anyone want to live on dirt? It was infused with gravity. And dirt. They had gravity up in the city, but it wasn't so sticky.

Normally she'd be mulling their crime, wondering the whys, wherefores and hows. Today she was worried about finishing what they'd been sent to do and getting the
crapeau
topside again. Would they have time to collect their dirt-siders and get back before the bad stuff hit? Short answer? No clue. If she looked at tech, she thought, sure, they had plenty of time. Then she looked at the clouds looming to the west….

Their skimmer was not rated for anything over 50 mph, nor was it rated for high altitude flying. Probably wasn't rated for low altitudes either. The piece of
crapeau
. She didn't know how it would fare sitting out the feeder band in the mud either. Thanks to the news vids, she knew more about the storm surge than she had two weeks ago. It had been reported on more as a curiosity than a concern, though, since no one was supposed to be down here when it arrived. Even though the water seemed higher going back, this couldn't be surge, not when WTF was stalled off shore.

She tried to pick up the pace, but the mud and water conspired against her. To add insult to misery, it began to rain again. She dropped her face shield. Almost she asked Joe if he thought it seemed worse, but he had the same data she did. Either the data was wrong, or she was wrong. Since this was her first hurricane, she was going with she was wrong. Even though her eyes disputed the data stream. What, she thought she was smarter than the sensors? Than the radar?

“Hope our dirt-siders don't give us any problems,” she muttered. Why hadn't anyone spotted them sooner? Captain Uncle had been really not happy she and Joe were the only ones he could send down. He'd muttered some words that would have had Grand Maw Maw grabbing her bar of soap. He'd given her both a Captain and an Uncle look, the one that meant, get your butt back up here ASAP. Funny how guys never quite got over worrying about girls….

Based on data at the time, though, it had seemed more annoying than risky. But the rate the wind was picking up—they might find out exactly how well their aging skimmer handled in bad weather. She peered through the blurry face shield. Had the bag made it over the last wall—

It shuddered and drifted out of sight. Was gonna guess that was a no. She muttered some of the same words as Captain Uncle. With some difficulty they altered direction.

“Assuming we can get to our dirt-siders, I suppose we won't be allowed to,” he paused, “subdue them?”

Joe tended to be pragmatic about individual rights, one of the many cultural differences she'd been briefed on prior to being assigned as his partner. He'd been briefed on their laws and procedures or he wouldn't have asked the question. She gave it some thought. Technically they were only supposed to set their Glocks to stun when all others options failed. The standard for use was high when there were cameras everywhere, including the inevitable personal devices with advanced recording capability. But dirt-siders tended to be anti-tech. And the sensors had limited capabilities that did not include high-res video. They might get a pass on lowering the standard a bit.

She caught sight of the body bag, resting crookedly on a crypt just inside the wall. She might be getting annoyed enough by the sight to stun a dirt-sider who was slow to cooperate. She grabbed one end of the body bag, Joe grabbed the other, and they pushed up. Her boots retaliated by sinking deeper in the mud. Suddenly she had a new understanding of the term “dead weight.”

“Let's see how much they weigh before we stun them,” she advised.

T
he rain flowed
like a river out of the foreboding sky, reducing visibility to maybe a meter—it was hard to tell with it running down her protective visor—as they wrestled the loaded body bag into the rear of the skimmer. The wind had picked up, pelting them with bits of leaves and twigs, and water swirled around their knees, turning the ground around the skimmer into even more of a mire than when they'd landed. WTF seemed determined to justify its name.

Vi'd seen rain. NON had rain. It had always had rain. Raising it didn't get it out of the rain. Probably brought it closer to the rain. But she'd never seen this kind of rain. She tossed her 72'r kit in the back, leaned against the skimmer to catch her breath, while Joe shed his pack. Man, if it was this bad this far from the eye wall, they needed to make sure they were well up before it got any closer. She hit the hatch control with her elbow. She might have been thinking a few more Grand Maw Maw not-approved words. It took its time lowering. When the hatch locked in place, she headed for the cockpit, leaning into the wind and using the maintenance grips along the side to steady herself in the high water. She clambered over the vestigial wings, glad to be out of the water for that few seconds. The specter of fire ants and other nasty stuff hung over her as she fumbled for the side hatch control.

When it opened, wind and rain rushed in with her. She subsided into her sling with relief. Water cascaded off her and her gear, forming small pools on the floor. Of course, this hatch also took its time locking back in place. The wind and rain were worse from Joe's side, and it was a relief when his hatch locked down. If auto-dry had worked, she'd have used it. It didn't, so she dug out the towel she kept in her personal cubby and wiped off her face shield. When the towel was too wet to do any good, she tossed it back and retracted the visor. Muttering some more words Grand Maw Maw wouldn't have liked. Another time she might have been worried that she knew so many. Since she didn't have time, she retracted hand protection, then applied her attention to the skimmer controls. Time to find out how screwed they were.

Technically, based on the skimmer's specs, they were “fine.” The skimmer supposedly had all kinds of emergency tech, such as instruments-only flying and wind stabilization, oh, and emergency boost. Most of it had died long before the skimmer was gifted to Vi upon her promotion to homicide detective. The aging skimmer was the NONPD's version of a hazing. You did your time, didn't whine, did good work, and you got assigned something that actually worked fifty percent of the time. That was about as good as it got with their budget.

And based on the weather data her portable tech was picking up from the under-city data bouncers, they were also “fine” where the storm was concerned. In fact, it shouldn't be raining yet. She studied the sheets of water flowing off the view screen.

“Do you get the feeling our data isn't updating right?” she muttered, wondering why she was surprised something had gone wrong with this hunk of junk. She'd blame the skimmer slamming to the dirt, but their data had to have been off before that to be this off now.

Joe, working on powering up the skimmer, shot her a look that was almost human. “Yes.”

Vi sighed. She hated being such a girl, but… “I think we'd better call for pickup. This piece of
crapeau
isn't rated for flying in this kind of wind.” Assuming they had a clue what kind of wind it was. Captain Uncle would be pissed she hadn't told him about the course correction. They weren't close enough for her to use her get-out-of-trouble Look on him. And if the wind kept banging stuff into them, well, that wouldn't go well either.