You expect to lose a few toes to the wet-rot during a contract. Not a single contractor offers hazard pay for getting three of them shot off. I wish I could tell you I took it like a tough guy, but the truth is I howled like a baby sea lion. The deeper truth is, most of my howl of agony had nothing to do with the fearsome pain of taking a zipshot bolt to the wee-wee-wee piggies. It had a hell of a lot more to do with the fact that my ex-wife was on the trigger end of that transaction.
Darla and I didn’t start off as fire and ice. She was a fisherman’s daughter, a naive hick with hair that never dried and a sweet voice that sang songs no one else could remember. I thought bringing her along on a couple of contracts would be good for her, toughen her up a little. But the open water did more than that; it changed her. I didn’t begrudge her taking up a contract of her own, and I didn’t really mind when she was promoted to captain of our skiff ahead of me.
The part I minded was her sleeping with the steward and throwing me overboard when I caught her in the act. That, and when she shot off my toes.
What I should have realized about her—about us—was that everything was an escalation. We never came out even. I thought the sabotage I pulled on her shipment of bio-d made us square for the whole infidelity/abandonment thing. Then she goes and cripples me. I started wondering if she meant to take the toes or if I climbed that jacob’s ladder just a hair faster than she expected. Like maybe she was aiming for my heart.
I like to think the term “watering hole” came from a place not too different than the one I was in the last time I saw Darla. It was some Omega refinery’s backdoor steep-liquor joint. Clear plastic tubes ran along the back wall, siphoning illegal al from the Float’s main tap at the end of the bar. Inside, the algae-rich water glowed green like some cartoonist’s idea of radioactivity. It might have livened the place up, if not for the permanent six inch water table and the general rusty filth otherwise. It was like this beautiful, verdant arm of color in a sloppy, dull brown turd.
The Float went by the name Farrington, originally a research lab for Omega. It might have even been landside at one point, but it had long since been drifted. Any founding research personnel were either dead or too old to carry on the mission. But someone kept the Omega working, and Farrington did well enough as a refueling depot. That meant Bucs and contractors rubbing elbows, when they weren’t throwing them at each other’s teeth.
It’s not like us contractors begrudge the Bucs their survival instincts. You do what you gotta do. Same as us. We aren’t the law, we just represent a faction that still values order over chaos. If not for their stubborn, ignoble hardline, I’d wager two-thirds of them would be right there on the ‘tract skiffs with us. But that line put us at odds, and we made volatile drinking partners.
My first mate Miyako was slurring her speech, which meant she was about two more shots away from telling the story of how I got the limp, when my ex walked in.
Darla stood there in the doorway, pretty as you please, zipguns on her birthing hips and that god-forsaken fire dancing in her eyes. She gave me enough time to finish my drink before she drew and put a fist-sized hole in the grated steel bar where I had been sitting a second earlier. I stayed low along the barstools, hoping the occupied tables rowed in front would hold her next shot until I could get to some cover that might not melt under those bolt-slingers of hers. I heard her laughing as I sprinted behind a few unhappy Buc gangs who didn’t like being intentionally put in the line of fire.
The main tap pulled the al from the photobioreactors under the Float’s surface. It was made of puncture-proof alloy to prevent hijacks—sort of comical considering the siphon tubes—but I hoped it would stop a couple of cluster bolts long enough for me to get my lighter charged. I felt bad for Ko, but I was also sick of her telling the story. I splashed my way around the far side of the tap tube and got my back up against it. It was narrow back there as I hoped so I got my feet up on the wall and suspended myself, listening to the mad laughter of my ex in between hollow bangs of the bolts against the far side. I pried the lighter out of my pocket with cold, shivering fingers, noticing the missing toes on my left foot were itching like crazy. I twisted the dial and urged the charger to work faster as it whined its way up.
Darla came into sight, swapping an empty clip. There was a beat before I dropped the device, long enough for me to flash her a smile. She slackened as she watched the charged pulse generator fall. By the time she stopped dancing and the smell hit me, I wasn’t smiling anymore.
Contractors in the al business like to harp on dry mass factor: the percentage of usable biomass when the moisture it lives inside is drained. The thing I learned that day as I saw Darla’s body fall into the murky water, as my heart drained of its blood, is that my dry mass factor is zero. That two-timing pain in my ass was all that made me useful. Give or take a couple of toes.