1 The Gift of the Sea
The waves pressed against the shore, the water deep green and cold as the air that kissed Ruby's face. She frowned at the setting sun, her arms crossed in her thin coat against the wind. The water smelled of salt and sewage, the kind of odor that passed through the nostrils and into the mouth so she could taste it with every breath, sliding down her throat, thick and heavy. Harvey, the small time parts smuggler she dealt with had stiffed her on the sell of a few high quality gears she'd pinched from her last employer's house and now Ruby didn't know what else to do.
"He's probably half way to Liberty by now on the money he made from it. And I'm on my way to the clink," she mumbled pulling her scarf over her face. They had been very good gears. Not that she blamed him. She wanted out of Gaudium too. Everyone did.
She stared down the beach, not sure why she had come at all. Too cold, there was no one to pick from, no one to scam with card games. Just a few gulls picking at the trash that some bored kids had thrown into the sand before beating it back to the city proper for the day.
Something glittered in the corner of her eye and she turned, frowning. A coin, she thought as she started to move towards it. She stopped inches from it, the mystery half buried in the sand.
"Oh my stars, it's an automotin," she whispered at the sight of it's broken body. Something had torn it off at the waist but its worth was clear to Ruby's eyes. "I can still strip most of the important parts," a smile spreading to her face, "maybe get enough to pay for my freedom if I can unload it fast."
She dropped down, swinging her bag around and pulling out her tools. Breaking open the bronze body work of the machine, she began to pull the cogs and gears out of it, dropping them into a small sack. Her fingers worked quickly, unscrewing bolts and and pulling belts free, emptying out the chamber of the chest in moments before sawing open the bot's head, for the sensors and eyes there.
She grimaced and pulled her hand away from the hole she had made. Thick, sticky slime poured from it. Something from the water, she thought, wiping her hands clean on her pants. "Whatever it is, money is money."
Gritting her teeth she eased the hole wider, more of the thick liquid pouring out, black in the failing light. Groaning she reached inside, her fingers felt as if she had dipped them into animal fat. The mystery substance coated every gear, every connection.
The sensors won't be worth much, not with this all over them but who cares, I'll wipe them down, sell them for what I can, she thought as her trained fingers found their target and twisted them free. These she wrapped in a cloth, setting them aside. "It stinks," she said as she dove in for another.
She moved quickly, her fingers knew their work and in short order the automotin was an empty husk of metal, light enough for the waves to move it.
Too bad about the caprice, she thought standing. But I can't haul that back with me.
She stepped away from her work, her foot sinking on something hard. She looked down and screamed, falling back on the beach.
The lifeless eyes of a corpse, fat with bloat from the ocean, it's skin gray green in the failing light stared back at her. She looked up, the tide coming in brought more, she could see their bodies bobbing on the waves with other things. Crates and bags.
She breathed hard and looked closer at the body. His shirt bore an emblem. "SS Cloudraker," she read as she looked up at the rest of the cargo and the dead that were coming to the shore in the last bits of sunlight.
"An airship crash," she breathed out. "I have to get out of here, the cops will be coming soon!" she said as she turned, pushing herself up from the sand. She stopped, something else catching her eye. The body held something in his other hand.
She crawled over the sand, reaching for what he in death clutched at. Her hands closed over a small box. Are those jewels, she thought as she peered at it, attempting to pull it from the dead man's hand. She tugged at it gently for a few tries before sighing she yanked, pulling at it with all her strength where it finally let go, bits of his skin coming with it. Must have caught on the edges or something, she thought as she shoved it in her bag.
The other bodies were beginning to reach the shore. A woman with long hair, half her face missing. A leg and there an arm. What happened, she thought, staring horrified at the scene that played before her. Another automotin, this one in one piece washed up next to a crate. Something had ripped open it's metal chest and more of the black ooze, this time with sea water, seeped from the hole.
Too much for Ruby, she shook her head, leaving it behind. Quickly she moved back up the beach. She took the wooden steps back to the pier and pulling her cap over her eyes, hunkered down, crossing the deserted boardwalk back to the trolley station.
Full night finally arriving, she shivered under the flickering street lamp. Maybe coming out here wasn't such a whim after all, she thought patting her bag, the thought of a bit of coin in her purse almost enough to make her forget the look of the man in the water.
The trolley came slowly and shivering she stepped on, using the last of her money to pay the fare. The driver nodded and she took a seat as they rumbled down the tracks back into the city. Signs of life began to reappear. She clutched the bag to her stomach as more riders, off from work, began to board.
"What's that smell?" one woman asked as she took a seat near Ruby.
"Hey Bosco! She's talking about you!" a laborer shouted to his friends, the group erupting in laughter.
Ruby sniffed at herself. That goo, she cursed as she slid closer to the window. Soon the car filled enough with workers that it wasn't clear where the smell was coming from. Still, Ruby's skin crawled and the uneasy feeling of being found out filled her. I'll burn these clothes, she thought frowning. Maybe I'll make enough to replace them, get a new coat too.
Safely away, she went over the haul in her mind, tallying what she had pulled and what she estimated what she could get for it in the quick sale. She needed to unload it all, they'd know that someone had stripped the automotin and would start looking for who did it. Best to get its parts circulating before they had time to pin it back to her.
The trolley slowed and she stepped off in her neighborhood. Old Mag nodded at her from the window and she waved back. Hunched over, she walked back to her apartment through the trash strewn streets. Lights streamed through the windows of the low rundown homes, laughter coming through the walls to her ears.
She reached her own building, opening the door and stopping on the landing, the sound of banging coming down the stairs.
"Ruby Myers! Open up! It's the police!" the voice called.
She turned to leave as another office in full uniform, the silver buttons bright like stars against the dark jacket, stepped through the door.
"You there! We're looking for someone, come here," he said.
"Yes officer," she responded, stepping forward, her stomach twisting.