Gerard Mouras very deliberately did not finger the zigzag scar on his left cheek. He had started out in Oklahoma, but the Land-Sea War had been fought on the coasts. So he had come to decadent California and now resided, in the peacetime that must follow all wars no matter how outré, in debauched San Francisco. After all: how ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm…
The heat absorbed by the tarmac of the DMV parking lot was being scoured away by an early afternoon wind moist with gathering fog. You smelled the sea in this city; or Gerard did, anyway. It was a common enough post-traumatic symptom for wet-warfare soldiers who’d returned to Colorado, to Tennessee, to the most landlocked places they could find.
Gerard Mouras, however, didn’t mind the briny scent, or at least didn’t object to it, in much the same way he didn’t now touch his cheek’s scar. San Francisco was a lively city, and he had even sampled a little of its debauchery. Maybe more than a little.
Still, one had to make a living. He had only been a soldier for the duration. This was the work he’d done in Oklahoma, so now he did it here, sensibly.
His next appointed applicant showed up on time. Skwids weren’t usually good with clocks, with sun-measured hours. Gerard, determinedly fair and even generous, made a note of the punctuality on his clipboard. He was holding his pen very tightly.
The adolescent was nervous. One who hadn’t engaged in wet-war combat might not notice the telltales, the bunchings and suppressed wrigglings, the subtle pigment changes. Gerard exchanged greetings with the applicant. He spoke in neutral tones.
“Gooba-mooba-rooooba,” said the teenager when they’d both gotten into the car. Water sloshed inside its helmet, and the salty odor which arose from its body was quite sharp and familiar. It was wearing a many-sleeved T-shirt (well, not a T, actually) with a heavy metal band’s name on it.
“Yes,” Gerard answered, carefully bland, “just follow my instructions.” He would do nothing to exacerbate the youth’s nervousness. That wouldn’t be fair.
The Skwid, like all Skwids, bore a certain Cthulhuvian semblance, though not enough to get the Lovecraft estate riled up. There were, apparently, only so many ways a sea monster could look.
At that moment Gerard’s scar started to itch, fierce, maddening, burning. It was enough to make his left eye begin to water. But he didn’t dare lift a hand to scratch it, knowing that to touch his old wound would be a figurative and literal mistake. The tip of a coral spear had carved him during the Battle of the Golden Gate, when the Skwids in their land-suits had stormed, dripping and genocidal, out of the Pacific. (And, in a coordinated effort, the Atlantic and Indian and so on. On that day the war ceased to be nuclear subs versus baroque magma pods, and became hand-to-…well, you couldn’t say hand, could you?) To finger his war wound now, here, in these close quarters, would be disastrous. Gerard wasn’t sure how exactly he would react. But it would be ugly, of that he was sure.
With knuckles white on his clipboard, he blinked and blinked the eye. This Skwid teen wasn’t to blame for anything. Its progenitors were the ones who had decided to end their long anonymity, to rise from the deepest bottom-muck, to climb from the pressure and cold, to punish the filthy creatures of the surface who had waged centuries of environmental warfare against the oceanic kingdoms.
No, this kid had nothing to do with it. A new generation. With new ideas. Eager to sustain the peace, to integrate, even. Gerard Mouras for his part would not stand in the way of that reconciliation.
His zigzag scar, of a sudden, ceased to itch.
“Okay,” he said from the passenger seat. “Uh…” A first hesitation, but he continued, as coolly impartial as before, “Tentacles at ten and two.”
“Booba-looba-shooooba,” bubbled the Skwid avidly inside its helmet and gripped the steering wheel with sucker-pads, just as instructed.
©Eric Del Carlo
Eric Del Carlo’s fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Futurismic, Necrotic Tissue, Brain Harvest, Talebones, and many other publications. He is the coauthor, with Robert Asprin, of the Wartorn fantasy novels published by Ace Books. More info is at ericdelcarlo.com.
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