The message about the new feeder came while Lori Fisher was trying to get her brother, Ben, to eat his breakfast.
“This is what you said you wanted,” Lori said, putting the toast down in front of him.
Ben, seven years old and blessed with a complexion that made him look perfectly tanned, while Lori herself just looked sallow, glared at Lori and let out a put-upon breath as he pushed the toast away. “I said toast. I didn’t say toast with butter!”
“Toast implies butter, though. Toast comes with butter,” Lori said, and then she looked down as her phone buzzed.
Handler: New feeder. Taxi will pick you up.
“I didn’t want the butter part!” Ben insisted, playing angrily with a Lego figure on their large and cluttered kitchen table as the toast sat uneaten in front of him. “I just wanted the toast part!”
“Okay, but the butter is on the toast already. I can’t take it off.
Can you eat it just today for me?” Lori gave her brother a hopeful smile, then looked down at the phone again and tapped in a response.
Lori: I was going shopping with Jenn.
Handler: Sorry. And client wants to consult.
“No! I only want to eat what I said I wanted to eat, and that was toast, and not toast with butter!”
Lori looked at the clock on the microwave of their small kitchen. It read 7:17, which meant it was actually 8:21 because she had never reset it after the time change in the spring, and it had been four minutes slow before that. The ferry came by at eight thirty every weekday to take Ben to day care, and while the schedule wasn’t quite as strict during the summer as it was when she was trying to get Ben to school, Lori still got dirty looks from the day-care people if she brought him in late.
The plan had been shopping with a friend, partially school supplies for Ben and partially a new back-to-school outfit for her. Instead today would be spent dealing with feeders . . . assuming Ben ever left.
“Ben, we are almost out of time.”
His eyes brightened, and he pointed above Lori’s shoulder at the sign that hung over the sink. “ ‘Our family might get there late!’ ” he read.
“ ‘But we’ll get there together,’ ” Lori finished without looking back at the stupid sign, which had an overloaded car covered with luggage and a bike and a surfboard, “and that doesn’t mean we can miss the ferry!”
Ben was dressed and was even wearing an appropriate pair of shorts and T-shirt instead of the long-sleeved shirt and heavy
sweatpants he’d put on the last time she let him dress himself. He still had to brush his teeth, though. The time it would take to make toast again and convince Ben that it was in fact new unbuttered toast was not time they could spare.
Ben saw her look at the clock, then saw her look at him, and changed his expression from angry to pleading. “I would eat a granola bar?”
Lori sighed. “Superfast?”
“Superfast,” Ben said immediately.
“And a banana,” she added as she reached up into the pantry over the fridge and grabbed a granola bar.
“I will eat a banana if you open it for me.”
Lori tossed him the granola bar, grabbed a banana from the bunch on the counter by the fridge, and peeled it for him. “Deal, little guy,” she said, and put it on the plate next to the awful, terrible buttered toast, which she grabbed for herself. “Superfast. I have to go to work, so I’m going to get dressed. Brush your teeth as soon as you’re done, all right?”
Ben was already chewing on the granola bar, and nodded as he read a page from a comic that had come free with one of his Lego sets and coincidentally included characters from a lot of other Lego sets available for purchase.
Lori’s bedroom was down the hall from her brother’s. She pulled off the long nightshirt she’d slept in and tapped another message at Handler while hunting for a clean bra.
Lori: Consult on-site or over phone?
Handler: Mainly phone, but on-site possible. Grown-up clothes, plz.
She scarfed the toast, pulled on dark gray slacks and boots she could move in, found a bra, and tugged it on. “You still
eating?” she called back out into the kitchen.
“You promised me superfast,” she called with a note of warning in her voice, and pulled on a purple blouse that looked like it was silk but was in fact a high-quality stain-resistant polyester. The outfit made her look like she was in her early twenties instead of sixteen.
“The banana had a dark spot on it!” Ben called back from the kitchen.
Lori glanced at her phone: 8:25. “Okay, leave the rest of the banana and brush your teeth.”
She heard the sound of the electric toothbrush while she pulled her dark hair back into a ponytail and put on just enough makeup to look like an adult—a bit of eyeliner to accent the big dark eyes she shared with her brother, some blush on her cheeks, lip gloss that didn’t actively work against the purple blouse.
It was 8:27. “Shoes on,” she called, and grabbed her wallet and keys.
Ben came out of the hallway with a handful of Legos. “I just remembered, today we’re supposed to bring—”
“No time,” Lori said, cutting him off.
Ben’s face screwed up into a knot of misery. “It’s not fair! You always want me to go fast, and I never go fast enough, and if I don’t bring it, I’ll be the only kid at day care who didn’t bring a Show and Share toy, and . . .”
Lori sighed again and looked at the microwave clock, which now read 7:24 and meant8:28. “Fast, please?”
Ben grabbed the rest of his Legos, shoved them into his backpack, and got his shoes on with remarkable speed. One minute later, she was hustling him out the apartment door, down the
stairs, and out onto the sidewalk, where other children were already waiting. Most of them had long pants. A few had sweatshirts.
Lori looked at Ben in his T-shirt and shorts, and then at the overcast sky, and then at the ferry already puttering up the canal toward their stop. “Are you gonna be warm enough?”
“Okay, but it’s a little cooler than I—”
“I’m fine,” Ben said again, as though Lori were the biggest idiot in the world, and Lori let it drop.
The ferry was a stubby boat with old rubber tires hanging from its sides and “Santa Dymphna Eastern” stenciled in above the waterline. Its horn blasted once as it navigated the tricky final turn—their street had been narrow before the rising water turned Santa Dymphna into a canal city—and pulled to a stop at the dock.
“Have a great day,” Lori said as they joined the line of people boarding. “Good listening and good attitude, right?”
“Right. Love you.” Ben hugged her. “Can you pick me up right after day care today?”
“I’ve got work, so go to day care, and we’ll see if I can get you early.” Lori returned the hug, then stepped back and waved as the ferry pulled away. Ben was already chatting with another kid, probably about Legos.
The ferry puttered down the canal, reached the old corner intersection, and chugged carefully through a turn better suited to cars than boats.
Then it was gone, and Lori dug out her phone.
Lori: You know I hate consults.
Handler: S’why it’s called a job, kid. Let’s go kill some monsters.
Handler: Least you’re not missing school for this, right?
Handler: Get it done fast, maybe you can still hang with Jenn in aft.
Lori sighed, then switched over to contacts and found “Vickers, J.” She dialed.
Jenn picked up before the second ring. “What’s up, Lorelei?”
“Hey, Jenn. I just got a consult job, and it’s a rush. They need it this morning.”
“Your consult job sucks,” Jenn said in a disgusted but supportive way, and Lori smiled despite herself. “Front Row’s sale is today only!”
“What if we go in the afternoon?” Lori asked as a public ferry came to the dock. She hurried toward it. “Consult might go quick.”
“Sounds like a plan. You’re going back to school fashionable this year, Fisher. No cop-outs. This is the year the boys notice you on the very first day.”
“Sounds good.” Lori rolled her eyes. “I’ll talk to you later, Jenn.”
By agreement with Handler, the private taxi would pick Lori up in a public location halfway across Santa Dee, to avoid any possibility of feeders tracing her location back home. Lori hung up and hopped onto the public ferry that would take her there, flashing her monthly card at the driver and searching for a free seat inside. They were all taken at this time in the morning, with commuters in business clothes holding briefcases and phones. Most of the kids Lori’s age were either at work already or sleeping in because it was summer. Lori sighed and found a good spot to lean against the railing on the deck as the ferry chugged into motion.
She watched the buildings go past, the salt-spray smell mixing with the sweet vanilla scent of the ferry’s fuel. This boat had
been converted, unlike the old one that took Ben to day care, which still ran on gasoline. The water below the railing churned with the ferry’s passage, but the clear water farther away was gray-green, catching the light of the cloudy sky overhead. Below the sidewalks, Lori saw the lower stories of the old buildings, the ground level before the water rose. They were mostly covered with seaweed now. Here and there, Lori saw the telltale golden glimmer of the miracoral shining from a wall near the floor of the canal.
“I hear they’re encouraging more growth through the canals,” said someone standing nearby. Lori looked over and saw a bearded man in a blue business suit looking down at the miracoral, like she had been. “Maybe engineering a new, hardier strain. If they can get more of Santa Dee energy independent, they can export energy to the mainland.”
“And then we all get rich?” Lori asked.
The man smiled and shrugged. “That’s the hope. More miracoral, less need for oil, anyway.”
The man’s beard was neatly trimmed, and he stood with the easy grace of someone who had lived in Santa Dee long enough to get his sea legs. “It’s lucky that scientists came up with it right as the water rose,” Lori said.
“Luck, or preparation?” the man asked, and shrugged again.
“You mean that the scientists who invented the miracoral might have known the water was going to rise?” Lori added.
And just like always, the man’s face went blank, and he said the same thing they always said. “Guess it was just one of those things.”
“Okay, but why?” Lori pressed. “Why did the water rise?”
“Guess it was just one of those things,” the man said. The casual tone was exactly the same as the first time he’d said it. It could have been a looped recording.
He turned away from her and looked at his phone, seemingly forgetting she existed. A moment later, Lori’s phone buzzed.
Handler: Ever get tired of doing that?
Lori: It’s weird.
Handler: Lots of things are weird, kid.
Lori got off the ferry at a downtown stop, grabbed a coffee, and waited until a small private taxi pulled up at the dock. A thin dark-skinned man poked his head out of the cab. “Angler Consulting?”
“That’s me!” Lori poured the rest of her coffee into the trash, then tossed the cup into a recycling bin. The last time she’d drunk coffee while wearing a nice outfit, the taxi had hit a wave, and she’d dumped it all over herself.
The driver gave her a hand as she climbed down into the cab. The taxi itself was dark and sleek, and the cab was clean, with leather-backed seats that cupped her body like the ones in nice cars on the mainland. “Any bags, ma’am?” the driver asked. From his accent, she guessed that he was from Africa.
“No, thank you.” Lori flashed him a smile. “You can just call me Angler.”
“Okay, ma’am,” the driver said, smiling back, and settled into his seat. “Just a few minutes to the Lake Foundation shipping center.”
Lori assumed that was where they were supposed to be going. “Great.”
The taxi pulled out, zipping around a ferry. Lori caught a vanilla-scented whiff of a new engine as they pulled around a corner.
“Very busy, the shipping center,” the driver said. “All the
traffic, all day. Even for me, and this is not a cargo ship.”
“Lot of people coming in and out?” Lori asked.
“Very much.” He eased around another corner, muscled the taxi ahead of someone’s private boat, and pulled into open water that had once been a large plaza or other low area with no buildings. He opened up the throttle a little, and Lori bounced in her seat as the taxi cut through another boat’s wake. “Oh, they have contact information for you.” He passed her back a card, only half looking at the chaotic wave of boats zipping through the choppy water.
Lori took the card and pulled her phone out again. “Thanks. You’re really good on the water.”
“I drove on rivers back home.” He smiled, caught the sweet spot of another boat’s wake, and eased into a groove. “When my family moved out here, I heard there were good jobs for drivers.”
Lori’s phone buzzed in her hand.
Handler: And here we go.
She ignored it. “So why did the water rise, anyway?” she asked. “Did you hear a different explanation back in—”
“Guess it was just one of those things,” he said, and turned back to the front as Lori’s phone buzzed.
Handler: You happy now?
The connection setup was easy enough. Lori joined the private network, popped her earpiece free from her phone, and hooked it over her left ear. She heard a crackle as it came to life. “Hello?”
“Hello, is this Angler Consulting?” came a friendly woman’s voice that sounded like it was coming over a speakerphone. “This is Diane Tucker with the Lake Foundation.”
“You can call me Angler,” Lori said. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Oh, you too, Miss Angler!” Diane Tucker with the Lake Foundation said with a lot of enthusiasm. “I tell you, we are so grateful to have you here. This is not the kind of thing we’re used to dealing with at all.”
“That’s how it goes with most people,” Lori said, trying to sound reassuring. “Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
“Well, it started with some of our workers disappearing a few days ago.” Beneath the voice, Lori heard the sound of paper rustling, as though Tucker was turning pages. “Several of them, from the cargo dock. Our security people investigated, and they said it was nothing to worry about, and then the security people refused to leave. All they’ll say is that they’d like to stay. It’s been a few days now, and, well, it just doesn’t make sense. I . . . So that’s when I decided to get in touch with Angler Consulting.”
Tucker’s voice went flat on the last sentence. Lori noticed that people tended to react to questions about how they’d gotten Angler Consulting’s number the same way they reacted to questions about why the water had risen. She knew for a fact Angler Consulting wasn’t listed on the web.
“Well, we’re here now to help,” Lori said as the taxi pulled off into narrow canals again. They were headed toward the western edge of Santa Dee, where all the cargo ships docked, circling around the island to avoid disturbing the great miracoral reefs in the shallow waters between Santa Dee’s eastern edge and the mainland. “How do the security people sound? Did it sound like they’d been drugged, or . . . ?” Or brainwashed or mind controlled, Lori didn’t add.
“Not really, Miss Angler. I mean, they sounded happy. They all just sounded very happy.”
“Okay, but . . . they sounded happy about refusing to leave the
cargo docks?” Lori looked down at her phone and typed, “Shells or puppets?”
“Well, that does sound odd, now that you say it like that,” Tucker said, just as Lori’s phone buzzed.
Handler: Money’s on shells. Puppets wouldn’t have blown cover that easily.
“All right, Ms. Tucker, we’re going to go in and take a look,” Lori said. “As soon as we have any information, we will get right back in touch with you.” Her phone buzzed as she said it.
Handler: Oh yeah, btw.
“Oh, I was told you’d have a channel open the whole time,” Tucker said.
Lori glared down at her phone while saying, “Of course, I’m so sorry, I’ll be happy to keep you on the line while we take care of this.”
“Thanks so much,” Tucker said apologetically. “I know it’s a pain, but my boss, Ms. Lake, really wasn’t sure about bringing in outside consultants.”
“We totally understand,” Lori said. “It’s not a problem at all.”
Lori: I hate you so much.
Handler: If it helps, we’re getting paid a LOT.
Lori: It does, actually.
The taxi pulled out of the canals of Santa Dee into open water. Looking out through the window, Lori saw the water go dark as it deepened beneath them. The taxi turned hard to starboard, and the driver opened up the throttle. Ahead, Lori saw the massive wharfs where shipping freighters brought Santa Dee everything it needed to survive.
They docked at a wharf that was empty but for them. Lori saw corrugated steel cargo containers stacked on huge pallets, but everything was still.
“Here we are, ma’am,” said the driver, and opened the cab. He started to get out, and Lori waved him back.
“I’m fine, thanks. You go ahead, and have a great day,” she said, and stepped out. She looked back. “Stay safe.”
The driver nodded and smiled, then closed the cab. A moment later, the taxi hummed to life and pulled away from the dock, leaving white water and the scent of vanilla behind it.
“All right, Miss Tucker,” Lori said, “let’s see what we’re dealing with.”
The dockyard was silent as she walked. She kept her steps light, the heels of her boots barely making a sound on the concrete. She slid her phone into her pocket. If Handler had anything else that needed saying, Lori would’ve heard it already.
“Do you see anything yet?” Tucker asked in Lori’s ear, which really helped Lori stay focused and stealthy.
“Not yet,” Lori said, still keeping her steps light. “You wouldn’t happen to have security cameras for the area, would you?”
“Oh, yes! Yes, I do. Here, I’ll call them up, and I’ll be able to watch everything.” Lori heard the sound of fingers clacking on a keyboard. “Here we go. There you are, clear as day. I can see you walking toward the cargo containers.”
“Great,” Lori said. “That’s great, you being able to see me and everything. That’s perfect.”
Her phone buzzed twice in her pants pocket, a special double buzz that Handler used for “No” when Lori was on a job and needed her hands free.
“Wait,” said Tucker. “Something happened to the cameras. How odd. They were working just fine until—”
“That happens a lot in cases like these,” Lori said. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Without warning, a voice came over the dockyard loudspeaker.
“Heyyyyyyyy,” said someone who sounded about Lori’s age. “Heyyy hi how’s it going?”
Well, it knew Lori was here.
“Hey so it is supergreat that you’re here,” said the voice, light and breezy and flirty and feminine. “Supergreat and not a problem at all for either of us, neither of us is in any danger right now, especially you.”
“Do you see anything?” Tucker asked over the earpiece.
“Give me just a sec, Miss Tucker,” Lori said brightly, and began to run.
“Hey so listen,” the voice came over the loudspeaker, “do you want to hang out, because I have some friends here who would love to hang out, all of us just hanging out and getting relaxed and not doing anything harmful to each other, and I don’t suggest this to like everyone, but you seem superchill, so if you want to hang out, just find some of my friends, and they’ll bring you to me and not hurt you at all.”
Lori came around a corner formed by a stack of cargo containers and found what was left of one of the security guards.
He’d been a tall, thin man before the feeder had killed him. He was a tall, puffy shell of a man now, his body expanded grossly under his uniform, green-tinged skin visible where his blue shirt strained against the buttons. His pants and shirtsleeves looked
like they’d been filled with great thick pool noodles, perfect cylinders that bent like an old rubber doll. His face was a swollen parody of itself, leaking green gas from the mouth and nostrils.
“Hhhhhhey,” the shell said with more breath than he needed, coughing out with more of the green gas, and as he raised the gun in his hand, Lori moved.
She sidestepped the gun, checked his wrist to stop him from tracking the motion, and punched him in the face as he fired past her.
“Oh my god!” Tucker yelled in Lori’s earpiece.
The shell’s face sprayed green gas where Lori’s punch had connected, and she slammed a chop into his hand, sending the gun clanging to the concrete, and then kicked him in his puffy cylinder of a knee, twisting the arm to send him sprawling. She came down on him knee first, another impact that spat puffs of green gas out from between the buttons of his shirt, and then punched again and again.
“Was that a gun?” Tucker shouted.
Finally, something gave, and the body hissed, then sank and yielded underneath her as though it were an air mattress whose cap had come off. She rolled off as it deflated beneath her, trying not to breathe the gas, and the skin itself flaked and crumbled as green cloud ate through it, and then there was nothing but an empty security uniform lying on the ground with a dark little smudge where the head had been.
“Miss Angler, say something!” said Tucker, which was nowhere near as important as the “Hhhhhey” Lori heard from right behind her, along with the sound of another gun’s safety flipping off.
She felt Handler pull her, and for a moment, she was—
Pretend for a moment that you’re looking down at a microbe smeared on a microscope plate. The microbe has lived its entire
life stuck between those two planes of glass. As far as it’s concerned, there’s no up or down. Everything in its world is forward, backward, left, or right. Pretend that you took away the top slide, got an eyedropper, and put a tiny liquid blob of something the microbe would find interesting right in front of it.
What would that be like to the microbe? It never thought to look up—it never thought of much at all, really, being a microbe. As far as it’s concerned, that little blob of something interesting just magically appeared in front of it out of nowhere. Maybe it moves forward to eat it, since “eat it” is the primary mode of interaction microbes have going for them. You don’t want that to happen, though, so you take the eyedropper, suck the little liquid blob up, and lift the eyedropper away. Then, just to mess with the microbe a little, you dab the eyedropper behind the microbe and squirt the little interesting thing back out onto the plate.
For you, this is trivially easy, albeit still more trouble than most people would go to in order to play a prank on something that lives on a microscope plate. But for the microbe, what has just happened is an impossibility. There’s no up in its world. There’s no frame of reference for what it just saw. To the best of its knowledge, the interesting thing just vanished, and then reappeared, impossibly, behind it.
Now let’s say you’re the microbe.
—somewhere else, and then she was back, herself again, behind the second shell as it fired at the spot where she had been. She kicked him in the back of the knee, grabbed his collar as he fell, and slammed the heel of her palm into the base of his skull once, twice. He tried to point the gun back behind him, and Lori got hold of his chin and jaw and twisted, and she heard the crunch of what used to be bone and then a whoosh as the neck
snapped, and her hands stung as the gas slid through them.
She stepped back as the increasingly empty uniform crumpled to the ground. Her skin felt clammy, and everything was a little brighter than it should be. That happened when Handler pulled her to another place. It took her a bit to fit back in again.
“Miss Angler, are you there?”
“Yes,” Lori said. Her voice sounded wrong in her ears. “I’m here. The guards are dead.” The words were cold, but that was normal, too, when Handler pulled her.
The wisps of gas were trailing back around a corner, and Lori followed them. She no longer tried to be stealthy. It knew she was here.
“Heyyyyyyyyyy hi again hello,” came the girl’s voice over the loudspeaker, “I am superglad you weren’t killed by those guys who I don’t even know how they got in here, and it’s clear that you are more than strong enough to deal with anything you run into, so there’s no reason for you not to come forward and see me and we can get to know each other, because you’re already so close, and you’re not dating anybody, I can tell that, it’s this funny thing I can do, like a party trick, and you and I can be the party, and I can be that thing you don’t have in your life, because I bet you’re pretty lonely, right, aren’t you, I mean if you didn’t want to be with me, why would you be here?”
Lori felt herself coming back. The heels of her boots clacked on the concrete with each bold stride as she came down the path between two rows of corrugated steel cargo containers.
“It’s a feeder,” she said to Tucker. “It lures them in, and then does something that hollows them out and leaves the shells to help it get more prey.”
“What are you talking about?” Tucker asked, her voice high-pitched and loud in Lori’s ear. “This is like a monster? You’re
saying there’s some kind of, of, of monster in our shipping yard? There are no such things as monsters!”
“Then why did you hire me to come take care of it?” Lori snapped.
“I . . .” Tucker paused, the idea slipping through her brain. “I can’t actually remember. But why would a monster be in our shipping yard?”
Lori blinked. That was a good question, actually.
Then something rapped on the corrugated steel of the cargo container next to her, and she dove to the side, hands coming up ready.
There was nothing.
The bang came again.
It was coming from inside one of the containers.
“Is that you?” Lori asked.
“Noooooooo?” came the voice over the loudspeaker.
“Is what me?” Tucker asked.
Lori’s phone buzzed twice in her pocket.
“Tucker,” Lori said, “something is banging inside one of the containers. It’s . . .” She looked over at it, one of the few standing on its own. The others were all dark red or yellow, but the one that something was banging inside was black, with no logo and no numbers on the side. “It’s an unmarked black shipping container. The feeder says it isn’t her.”
“The feeder says . . . ?”
“Okay, but she’s—it’s been pretty honest so far, for one of them,” Lori said, which made feeders sound a whole lot nicer than they in fact were, “so do you know anything about this black shipping container?”
Keyboard keys clacked in Lori’s earpiece.
“I don’t . . . hmmm.” Tucker paused. “I’m going to contact Ms. Lake. She might know about it.”
Lori looked at the container, and then up at the loudspeaker.
“Soooooo you’re still coming, riiiiight?” the voice came over the loudspeaker. “I was getting all bored here by myself, and I know you’re lonely, and there’s a part of you that thinks you don’t deserve to be with somebody, that it’s better for you to be alone, but you know that’s not true, right, we all deserve someone, and you deserve me, and you can just come and find me and we will be together and it will be so beautiful and wonderful and not dangerous for you at all, I promise.”
It didn’t seem like the feeder was in the container. Something else was, and that was bad, but whatever the thing in the container was, it was probably better dealt with after Lori had taken care of the feeder.
Stepping quietly again, back to herself as the last echoes of Handler pulling her faded, she came around the corner, stalked down a lane of containers, and found the clearing.
And there it was.
The concrete had been corroded away, leaving a black-edged pit that opened to the dark water below. And hunched over the edge of the pit was a mass of slick glowing tentacles that—
a beautiful woman, her skin pale as moonlight, facing away from Lori with her dress sliding down so that the muscles and bones of her sexy back played under her skin, and her hair tumbled down in a cascade of shimmering black, and Lori could just see the bare edge of her face, and if Lori just came closer, she’d be able to see her perfectly, and it would be so worth it to see such
—almost looked like a human form when they coiled a certain way and blinked their strange lights.
Lori walked forward.
“Oh, hey, you can actually see me,” the feeder said. Its voice was still coming from the loudspeaker, which hardly seemed necessary anymore.
“And you can read minds,” Lori said, still walking forward. “Messing with the loudspeaker, so maybe you do things with electricity, and that includes reading how the neurons in my brain fire?”
“I can’t help people find true love unless I can read their desires,” the feeder said, “and as a magical creature who travels the world helping people find love, that’s totally something that it makes sense that I need to do, and wow you don’t even believe that a little bit, and most of you just thinks that’s a dumb idea because you know about feeders, but there’s a tiny part of you that just thinks no magical love-creature would ever come to you, because you don’t deserve anyone, and that is so tragic and sad that even though I was okay yes going to eat you before, feeling someone who is this down on herself makes me think that today, just this once, I should try to use my powers for good, and maybe in the process learn a valuable lesson—”
“Is there anything,” Lori cut in, “coming from my brain that makes you think I am in any way believing this?”
“No, but that’s all right,” said the feeder, “because even though you’re really actually pretty good at this whole not-believing-me thing, you are still coming closer, and that’s all that matters, because all of this, the talk and the pheromones I’m pumping into the air and the hallucinatory lights and the mild manipulation of your nervous system to adjust what you see—”
“It’s all a lure,” Lori said, taking the last few steps toward the feeder.
“Right, that is supergood thinking for a human, but see once you’re here, all I have to do is this—”
A tentacle snaked up and coiled around Lori’s arm.
Lori smiled through the sudden pain of whatever venomous ichor stung her wrist. “Okay, but did you ever wonder what the perfect lure for one of you things would look like?”
Pretend you took that microbe on the plate, dabbed something interesting in front of it, and then, as it oozed forward in its own primitive way, pretend you bit down into the plate. Feel the glass crunch and crackle beneath your jaws along with the wriggling whispers of the little microbe who only now realizes what is happening to it, caught by an enemy it never saw coming because it came from a dimension for which the little microbe has no frame of reference. Pretend you are that enemy, no, not an enemy, that hunter, and that you are grinding the glass away as the juices of your maw begin to digest the still-struggling microbe that thrashes, speared on your jaws. Pretend you drag the microbe down into depths it cannot even imagine because the direction has no meaning for it, and that it will vanish forever from that little plate.
Pretend that this is how you feed.
The fangs came out of nowhere as they always did, spearing through the feeder as they clamped down. The loudspeakers shrieked and the tentacles flailed, but the great fangs, sprouting from nothing in an oblong elongated fashion that made Lori’s eyes water to look at them, held firm, and after a few frantic wriggling moments, the tentacles went still.
“When you think about it,” Lori said, “the perfect lure for one of you would be something that looked human, wouldn’t it.”
The jaws receded without losing hold of their prey, pulling up or away or somewhere that made them look as though they were getting farther away without actually moving backward. The feeder, still pinned, went with them.
In a moment Lori was alone on the dockyard, still massaging her stinging wrist. It was red and puffy where the tentacles had touched her. If she’d been a real person, her internal organs would probably be liquefying already, but she healed quickly from just about any injury, and attacks from the feeders themselves could barely scratch her.
And that was why, however nice Handler was in the little texts, Lori never made the mistake of thinking of it as a person.
“Hey, Tucker, good news,” Lori said, hoping that maybe Tucker hadn’t been listening to all of what Lori had been saying for the last little bit. “Your feeder is all taken care of.” With the feeder itself gone, the residual evidence would slide out of this world as well, and once Lori and Handler had gotten paid, even Tucker would probably forget any of this had happened. “You’ll want to have a team clean the area thoroughly in case there are traces of whatever toxins it was using, but most of the danger is over.”
“I’m so very glad to hear it,” said a low, smoky voice that was in no way Tucker’s. “Tia Lake. Thank you so much for all your help.”
“Oh,” Lori said, connecting Lake to Lake Foundation in her head. “It’s nice to meet you in person. Is Ms. Tucker—”
“This is hardly personal,” said Lake with a little laugh. “What do we call you again?”
“You can . . . Angler,” Lori said. “From Angler Consul—”
“But what is your first name?”
Lori’s phone buzzed twice.
No kidding, she thought, and then realized that she was already opening her mouth to answer, and she thought of ten different names, but her mouth couldn’t work the words.
Susan, Samantha, Sarah, Sally, Lee, Laura Laurie Lori Lori LoriLoriLori
Something in her twisted, and at last, pulling her phone from her pocket with her wrist still stinging, she said, “I’m not supposed to use my name,” and that at least she could get out. “There are privacy concerns.”
“Of course, dear, how very prudent,” Lake said reassuringly. “Now, speaking of privacy, you asked about that container, the black one. Have you opened it?”
“No,” Lori said, but now I have to, and her mouth opened like it wanted to say the words. She clapped her free hand over her lips and looked at her phone in desperation. Past all of the No texts that a double buzz from Handler signified, she saw a new note.
Handler: You can’t lie to her?
“That’s good, dear,” Lake said. “In that case, we have nothing to worry about. The taxi should be there for you shortly.”
“I hope you’re satisfied with our services,” Lori blurted on autopilot, because this was what she always said, and it was true even, “and if you ever run into any trouble like this in the future, please consider using Angler Consulting again.”
“I will, dear, I absolutely will,” said Lake, and Lori pulled her earpiece away, turned it off, and began typing furiously into her phone.
Lori: What is this?
Handler: No idea! Why can’t you lie?
Lori: You have no idea?
Lori: YOU have no idea.
Handler: Kk, stay calm, don’t freak out.
Lori: I am not freaking out. I am justifiably concerned.
Handler: All right, you can lie to me, at least. Good to know!
Lori: Did the jellyfish thing hit me with truth serum?
Handler: Nope. That was a sihuanaba. Your basic sexy-lure feeder.
Handler: Some people say it has a horse head, tho. Kinda makes you wonder.
Handler: We can figure out what’s going on once you’re out of here.
Lori left the pit where the feeder had been. She started walking back toward the dock, where the taxi would be waiting. Her wrist was almost back to normal already, with just a few little red bumps to mark where the tentacle had grabbed her.
She saw the black shipping container.
There were a lot of things Lori didn’t know. Most of them were things she didn’t want to know, the little blessings still lurking in the shadows next to the pile of horrible awful things she did know.
Her phone buzzed.
If she looked down at it, she’d see whatever it was that Handler wanted her to know. An order, for example, like, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t open the container, that’s a terrible idea.
Handler was always very nice to her. It told jokes and gave her friendly grief and reminded her when Ben needed to take his pills in the morning. It didn’t hurt Lori at all.
But she bet if she’d asked those shells that had once been security guards, they’d have said that the sihuanaba was very nice to them, too.
Lori wasn’t entirely sure she could do something Handler had told her not to do. She thought of her mouth working
soundlessly, trying to talk to Lake, but nothing coming out, like her lips and tongue and vocal cords weren’t even hers to begin with. Could Handler do that? If it did, would she even remember it later?
She didn’t look at her phone.
She ran to the black cargo container, flipped the latch, and slid the bolt loose. The door opened with a low creak.
A handful of teenagers blinked at Lori from the darkness inside. They were all locked in restraints, more restraints than normal people would ever need, straitjackets and handcuffs and straps that kept them locked into their chairs.
The nearest one, a boy with light brown skin and dreadlocks and eyes that glittered in the dark of the shipping container, had somehow gotten part of one hand free from his restraints, although the rest of him was still strapped into his chair. The container wall behind him was dented. His fingers twitched as he saw her.
“Hi!” said the pretty blond girl behind him. “I’m Maya, it’s great to meet you!”
“I’m not here,” Lori said. She stepped over to dreadlocks boy, grabbed one of the straps, undid the latch, and pulled it free. “I wasn’t here, I’m not here, you never saw me.”
“Is she hypnotizing us,” the blond girl named Maya asked another girl with a warm tan complexion and bright green hair, “or is she supposed to be invisible?” The girl with the green hair shrugged.
“Hey, Not-Here, I’m Shawn,” said the white guy to her left with a little grin. He was pulling against his restraints. “If you could maybe undo my strap as well while you’re not here . . . ?” From his voice, she thought he was from the South, maybe Georgia or the little bits of Florida that were still left.
Lori stepped over and undid the straps on his chair as well.
Dreadlocks boy was pulling himself free. She was already regretting this. Five teenagers—Maya, green-haired girl, dreadlocks boy, Shawn-from-Georgia-or-Florida, and a small, dark-skinned boy Lori thought might be Filipino—all in a shipping container at a site that already had a feeder and whatever was going on with Tia Lake.
“Okay, you can get yourself out the rest of the way,” Lori said, and stepped back. “And help the others.”
“I’m on it,” Shawn said, still grinning. “Thanks for the not-help. Tapper, you pop Hawk, and I’ll get the girls.”
“I’m actually good,” said Maya, and slid her fingers out from where the straps crisscrossed under her chin. “I’m flexible.” She waved at Lori.
“Why did you not do that earlier?” the girl with the green hair demanded.
“Well, the door was latched shut from the other side, so . . . ?”
“I was never here, okay?” Lori said again.
Then she ran to the dock.
The taxi was already waiting for her when she got there. It was the same driver, and he smiled and helped her into the cab, ma’aming her as he did.
Lori settled into her seat, smiled, and asked him to go. She didn’t look at her phone. She didn’t look back to the dockyard. She didn’t look at anything.
“Yes, ma’am. She’s aboard now,” the driver said, and Lori froze.
The taxi exploded, a big greasy fireball that spat shards of metal and fiberglass into the water and across the dock, leaving only smoke and charred debris floating in the flaming wreckage.
Cold and clammy from Handler’s pull, Lori watched the flames die on the water, now a hundred meters away, from the safety of the cargo containers.
Lori: Can she find me
Handler: Lot of dummy accts. Will take time.
Lori: She finds me she finds ben
Lori: How long
Handler: Hard to say.
Lori: How long
Handler: Three-ish days.
It was Monday morning.
Lori came around the corner of the black shipping container. The kids inside were still pulling free and helping each other.
“Hey,” she said. “I have to destroy the Lake Foundation before Thursday, and I need your help.”