Chapter 1

~

Tuesday, September 11, 2108

I should have arrived in the daytime, thought Klale ruefully, staring into the inky darkness beyond the lone streetlight at the end of the Pender Street Wharf. But she’d had no idea that downtown streets would be deserted at ten-thirty at night or so damned dark!

A raindrop splashed on her head, leaking cold rivulets through her hair onto her scalp, then two more followed in quick succession. Klale sighed and started rooting in her duffel bag for her rain cape. Just what she needed, solleks snass—a thunderstorm.

It would have been smarter to catch a ferry from Nanaimo to Vancouver tomorrow, but the free ride on “Urchin” had seemed just too good to pass up. And she’d asked to be dropped off on the island of Downtown, despite the crew’s warnings, because she hadn’t wanted to be caught wandering Vancouver streets after curfew and interrogated by some petty Watch patroller who’d want to know why she wasn’t staying at a Fisher hostel. Downtown lay outside of Guild law and had no Watch to bother Klale. Unfortunately, it hadn’t any street lights either.

Well, there had to be a bright side, she told herself. Surely heavy rain would keep beggars and bludgers inside….

From the direction of the wharf she heard footsteps.

Klale tensed, heart pounding, then caught sight of the Harbour Patrol Officer. Ten minutes ago the officious woman had irritated her. Now she felt a wave of relief.

“Evening, Captain,” she called out.

The officer looked at Klale and changed course to meet her.

“Evening.”  The dark haired officer summoned up a smile, though it didn’t meet her eyes. “Guild hostels are all over in Vancouver.”

“I’m looking for a public hostel,” said Klale firmly.

“Uh huh. Really left your Guild, eh?”

“Sure. It’s not the twenty-first century any more, you know. People move around. I’ll find another one,” she said, hoping she sounded a hell of a lot more confident than she felt. Seven hundred kilometers up the coast her plan had seemed simple. But now she had the sinking feeling it wouldn’t be anywhere near that easy.

“Walking?”

“Yeah,” said Klale wondering what the alternative might be. Did Downtown have buses?  Cabs?  Abruptly she wished she’d spent more of the trip doing research. Or any of it.

“I’m going to Granville Street. Come along if you want.”

“Sure, thanks,” said Klale, too relieved to care about the officer’s ungracious manner.

As she shouldered her duffel bag and stepped out to follow the Patroller, the downpour started in earnest. Klale pulled the hood of the rain cape low over her eyes and hurried forward, grateful that she wasn’t alone. The street was inky dark, there were no signs, and anyway it took most of her concentration just keeping her feet under her. She couldn’t see pot holes until she splashed into them. In these eerie surroundings all the stories she’d heard about Downtown started coming back to her: roamers who’d kill Citizens for a phone, packs of rabid dogs, street gangs….

Something glowed blue in a recess between two buildings. Klale turned to look and found herself staring into the biolumed faces of three gang members with half shaved, half furred heads. Ghost Shadows. She’d seen pix of them on the net. Grotesque blue lumed skin-art spilled from their eyes, noses, and ears. They were leaning against a wall smoking, and Klale caught the distinctive tobacco/marijuana scent of Fireweed. They straightened and looked her way.

Alarmed, she hurried forward. The captain stopped suddenly, then spoke over her shoulder, pointing to her right.

“There’s hostels over there,” she announced. “I’m going the other way. Good night.”

There was an ominous undertone of satisfaction in her voice. Klale stood frozen in disbelief for a crucial instant as the officer strode off, then she started after the woman yelling:  “Hey, you can’t leave me here!”

The captain didn’t stop or turn. She stepped into deep shadows beside a building, then her footsteps ceased. Klale, stumbling blindly behind, stopped to listen. She heard a click, then two seconds later, a bang, and she realized with sudden horror that she’d heard a door shutting. Too late, she remembered the light on her phone and shone it ahead. There was a door there, all right. And it was locked.

She turned, heart pounding, and realized that she’d made another mistake. Bobbing blue glows were homing in on her light. She flicked it off and hurried away, trying to make no noise, but the Ghost Shadows followed. One ran ahead much faster than she dared run in the dark, and then stopped, blocking Klale’s path while two others came up behind. She had to halt. The man in front shone a dazzling light in her face for a few seconds, then flicked it off and Klale cursed silently. She hadn’t closed her eyes fast enough. She was temporarily blinded.

“Where you think you’re going, Zitty bitch?”

“To a hostel,” she said flatly, trying to keep fear out of her voice and posture. She was unarmed and outnumbered, and could only pray that they didn’t want to bludge her.

“This is Kung Lok territory. Lo fahn gotta pay toll. You paid your toll, dzo gai?”  The Shadows laughed unpleasantly while the first man reached over and grabbed her chin. Klale forced herself not to duck or flinch from his stinking breath, knowing she’d be seized from behind. For the first time it occurred to her that she might be raped.

“Normally we charge fifty, but for you we give a special deal, eh?”

One of his eyes was hidden behind a night lens; the other shone ferally, its red iris contrasting with the corpse blue horror art crawling on his face. Klale tensed, centering herself. If she got in a couple of fast, hard blows they might decide she was too much trouble. Then, abruptly, the man holding Klale’s chin looked over her shoulder, let go, and stepped back, reaching under his coat. The gang members on either side spun and Klale heard heavy steps crunch directly behind her. There was a frozen pause in which she could hear her own ragged breathing and the spatter of rain on her hood. Then the gang leader motioned and the Ghost Shadows backed away a few paces, turned and walked up the street.

Klale drew a deep breath and swung around, starting to say “thank you”, then the air stopped in her throat. A gigantic figure towered over her, silhouetted against a faint, distant glow from the waterfront. She had a sudden urgent sense of menace and froze, gripped by the fear that running might trigger an attack reflex—like running from a bear. When the figure abruptly moved she flinched, but the man stepped past her, and she suddenly realized he was walking away. He was leaving her, too!

“Hey!”

Without thinking she grabbed his arm. The giant man whirled, throwing her off roughly, and she stumbled back, heart pounding as she caught a glimpse of a distorted, skull-like face and twisted ear. What in the hell?!

Maybe she was better off with the Ghost Shadows…. No!

She took a breath and shouted over the rain.

“Sir, can you take me to a hostel?  Please!”

He stood like a massive statue, utterly unresponsive, so Klale repeated herself, this time gesturing with shaking hands although she doubted he could see in the dark.

Abruptly the man turned and strode off. Had he understood? wondered Klale desperately. She hesitated a second, then ran after him, muttering to herself:  “Please don’t be going some place worse than this!”

The roaring rainstorm seemed to have swallowed any trace of light and drowned all but muffled bytes of sound. Klale caught only snatches of distant shouts, a baby wailing, and one chilling scream. Within seconds she was completely lost. The huge man plunged into a twisting alley and then another and she followed, jogging to keep up with his long stride. He picked his way surely around potholes and piles of debris, but she tripped several times and nearly fell. After the second stumble she closed the gap between them, realizing that if she fell she might lose him utterly.

Klale smelled smoke, then passed a doorway where a small group of men huddled over a tiny flame. They’d lit a fire for heat or cooking, she realized with a tiny shock. And there must be hundreds more illicit fires fouling the air Downtown. The shabby men looked at her companion, then quickly turned away.

Finally, they rounded another corner and Klale caught sight of a big red K shining dimly through the rain. She gasped in relief. Everybody on the coast knew about the KlonDyke. Its giant red K, perched atop the ruins of a rotary restaurant, was a Vancouver landmark. And the bar’s erotic floor shows were popular on CoastNet—especially with bored Fishers on long winter runs. She stumbled forward, warm tears of relief flowing into the cold rain on her cheeks.

A little to her surprise, the big man headed for the KlonDyke’s main doors and strode inside. Klale, who had fallen behind, got only an impression of a sweeping dark serape before he vanished. She paused for a second, despite the rain, to stare at the antique neon sign over the door. It read “Ladies and Escorts”, and a new lume sign below it announced:

The KlonDyke, Est. 2068
Visible weapons will be confiscated
Absolutely no plugs, pimps or missionaries

Klale walked up red-carpeted steps and double doors swung open releasing a familiar tumult of voices, music and the smell of warm food, old beer and Fireweed. She took a few paces inside, then slid her duffel bag off her aching shoulder. Behind her, the doors drifted silently shut.

A vast room stretched into dimness, three levels curving around a stage on which a jazzmer group played. The audience sat in a mayhem of battered, mismatched furniture—tables, desks and chairs gleaned from abandoned office towers. In contrast, the long bar beside the stage gleamed with antique polished wood, brass rails and tall, mirror-backed shelves.

Klale dug in her pocket with cold stiff fingers, pulling out a fistful of bronze and silver coins, worn almost smooth with age. As a parting present Urchin’s crew had given her thirty cash dollars in loonies, toonies, beavers and eagles, and until she could sort out her banking problems, it was all she had. She hefted her bag again and approached the bar doubtfully. Hell, even the worst bars up the coast refused cash. But a sign posted on the till read: “Cash Sales Minimum $10.”

Relieved, she joined the short line-up, studying the pix on the walls as she waited. They were oil paintings of nude women, clumsily executed. Well, the Klondike Gold Rush wasn’t remembered for its art, she thought, grinning to herself. Her grin faded when her order totaled $24 cash. Hell, she knew cash wasn’t worth much, but this seemed outrageous. She would have to nurse her beer. And as for a hostel….

Well, no point worrying about it now. She grabbed her platter in one hand, and a mug in the other, and surveyed the jumble of tables for a seat. On the far side of the room the patrons were almost all women, many sitting arm-in-arm, and some with children. Directly opposite the stage in a railed-off section sat groups of men wearing ensilk suits—probably the gangsters the ‘Dyke was so famous for. The people nearest Klale were mostly Guild. Some looked like dockers just off shift while others were dressed like tourists in neat casuals, with stylish phones hanging from their necks or clipped to sweaters. Lots of plastic here, thought Klale, wondering grimly whether the rest of the city was this expensive.

A couple rose from seats near the stage and Klale hurried over to nab their delaminating office desk. She sat on an ancient creaky chair, pushed aside dirty glasses and sampled her meal. The beer slid cool and rich over her tongue, the spicy chili tasted of real meat, and the pompommes were perfect—slices of potato and apple deep-fried to an even, golden brown. She blew on one and bit in, reveling in the crisp salty exterior and the burst of hot sweetness inside.

She was digging into the chili when she realized that the chatter around her had hushed, except for one loud, angry voice.

“What’d you say, turd?  You wanna tell everyone?”

She turned. A big group of men and women sat nearby around several tables. They wore long hair in queues cinched back with silver insignia clips. Harbour Patrol officers. Some were in uniform. A big Patroller stood, hands on hips, staring belligerently at two thin sullen Guildless men. One looked anxious to leave, but the other turned and faced the Patroller, speaking with an American accent so heavy that Klale had to strain to understand.

“I said:  KNOW WHAT YOU CALL A PORT PIG TEN METERS UNDER WATER?”

Silence fell across the bar and Klale saw customers turning around in alarm.

“A CLEAN-UP!”

Another Patroller, burly and red-faced, jumped up, grabbed the man’s arm, and twisted it behind his back.

“You wanna slag the Patrol, dogshit, I’ll show ya funny!”

He was drunk, realized Klale with alarm. She watched, frozen with shock, as he shoved the Guildless man to the floor. Even after her encounter with the Captain she could hardly believe she was seeing Patrollers behave like this. She looked around the tables, then felt a jolt of horror as she recognized the Captain who had just abandoned her on the street. The woman sat with her arms crossed watching the altercation with narrowed eyes.

“Lick it, dogshit!  LICK IT!” the big Patroller was yelling.

Klale saw a small Afroid woman stride over from behind the bar, glaring and waving her arms in a “stop” gesture. Where are the bouncers? Klale wondered, scanning the crowd, then she spotted two muscular women in yellow shirts hurrying from the other side of the room.

Her eyes were on the bouncers when the fight started so she didn’t see the first blow. When she looked back, the two flots were trying to escape. Other Patrollers leaped up to block them, shoving furniture roughly out of the way.

A blue-uniformed pair of buttocks slammed against Klale’s desk, shooting her meal onto the floor and toppling her chair. Klale rolled as she fell and bounced up, furious. She grabbed her bowl off the floor, scooped up spilled chili, then spotted the Patrol Captain. With a red flash of rage she flung the scalding mess straight at her. The captain screeched. Patrollers whirled to stare at Klale.

“Oh, shit,” she thought in sudden panic. This wasn’t Prince Rupert where a third of the bar were Fishers. She was alone and there must be fifteen Patrollers.

The captain frantically swiped gobs of chili off her face, then looked at Klale with dawning recognition. Klale edged back, eyes locked with half a dozen angry Patrollers. Behind them, she saw the little bartender wave at her to back off. No smog! thought Klale desperately, but a pack of tables and spectators blocked her retreat. The captain lunged at Klale, slipped in the chili and lurched into a table, swearing.

Now! thought Klale. Run!  She started to turn, then saw a fist slam into the bartender from behind, spilling the small woman to the floor. Klale reacted automatically, reversing direction and leaping straight past the captain. She landed an elbow in the surprised officer’s stomach as she dove past to the bartender, who was on her knees gasping for air. When Klale grabbed her arm, she struggled.

“Hey!  Friend!  I’m helping you!” yelled Klale.

The woman quit resisting and Klale gripped her arm firmly, towing her towards a large desk. A heavy boot kicked out, but Klale yanked hard and the bartender skidded across the tiles out of reach. She pushed the woman under the desk well and scooted after her, feeling a flash of exultation.

Things were improving. A defensible position and twice the odds—two against fifteen.

The bartender was still panting for air, but she turned, braced herself, and kicked out. Klale caught a flash of steel on the bottom of her boot as it smacked into an ankle, then heard a satisfying bellow. Good idea, thought Klale. She positioned her right workboot and looked for a target, but abruptly the desk above her heaved. Klale grabbed and tried to hold it down, but expert hands caught her shirt and dragged her up, then pinned her arms painfully behind her. A Patroller grabbed the bartender’s boots and hauled her out upside-down. Behind him Klale saw a livid, chili-streaked face.

Klale was just feeling the first edges of panic when something whistled past her face and hit the man holding the bartender. He jerked backwards, dropping the bartender as he clutched his shoulder, then spun to look beyond Klale. His face slackened in terror. The grip on Klale’s arms released suddenly and she staggered forward, then whirled.

Striding straight at them was a genuine tong enforcer, over two meters tall and massively built, with a shaved head, mask-like altered features, and a wide, puckered scar running down over one grotesquely burned ear. A Chinese character had been seared into his forehead with a branding iron. Customers scrambled out of his path. The wounded Patroller gazed around with panic-stricken eyes as his comrades melted away. Blood rained from his shoulders, spattering the floor.

He’s going to be killed! Klale thought, backing off a few steps as the sick realization hit her that bar fights here didn’t end with bruises and contusions. Then a muscular woman in a yellow shirt ran between the Patroller and the enforcer and threw up her arms.

“FREEZE!” she bellowed. “Everyone freeze, NOW!”  She made a slashing gesture at the enforcer.

Christ, she’s got guts, thought Klale. The bouncer was big, but the enforcer towered a head over her and his narrowed eyes were fixed on the wounded Patroller. Then Klale felt cold shock of recognition. This was the huge man she had followed to the bar!

The bartender staggered up from the floor, gesturing urgently. If the bouncer seemed small in front of the enforcer, the bartender looked like a midget, but the giant glanced at her, then halted. For just an instant the bouncer looked extremely relieved. Then she turned and viewed the Patrollers.

“Who’s the ranking officer?”

Those were the right words. The Patrollers glowered, but the chili-stained captain stepped forward.

“Captain Dhillon, you have one minute to get your people the hell out of this bar. That means every member of the Harbour Patrol, in uniform or not.”

Klale could barely hear the reply, spoken in a cold, furious voice.

“Mica’s wounded.”

“We’ll med him and pass him out to you. Now get out!”

Klale couldn’t see the captain’s face, but remembering the livid expression well enough she stepped back several paces into a knot of other customers, hoping to escape notice. Several seconds stretched out, then the captain turned and beckoned her comrades.

Several were limping. Three were unconscious and had to be carried to the exit. Klale was surprised at that, then remembered hearing the hiss of knockout spray when the bouncers arrived.

When she looked back at the scene of the fight, bouncers had stripped off the wounded Patroller’s shirt and were spraying disinfectant/sealing foam on his shoulder. Klale couldn’t see the flots. The head bouncer stood watching, hands on hips, then she strode to the bar, bent down, and searched along the front of the polished wood until she found what she was looking for. She needed both hands to yank it out, and when she handed it to the enforcer Klale realized that it was a mol-edged throwing knife. It had been hurled with enough force to slice right through the Patroller’s shoulder and sink into the bar up to its hilt. Klale blanched. She’d used molecular-edge knives on fish boats, but she hated handling them. They were too damned dangerous. Knowing that one had flown past her face made her stomach twist.

The enforcer wiped his blade on a bar cloth and resheathed it. When he turned, people again hurried to clear his path. Klale stared at the brand on his forehead. Why would anyone….?  Then it hit her with another sick shock. The enforcer must be a slave. She’d heard stories of slavery among the Guildless, of course, but somehow she’d never really believed them.

As the enforcer strode to the back of the room, murmurs of conversation rose. Music resumed and patrons took their seats. Klale walked back to her overturned desk and stared at the mess on the floor, starting to shake with the aftermath of adrenalin on an empty stomach. She knew she was lucky to be alive, but all she could think was that she didn’t have enough cash for another meal, never mind for a place to stay. She knelt to wipe beer and chili off her duffel bag, tears stinging in her eyes.

“Excuse me.”

The voice had spoken twice, Klale realized abruptly. She looked up with apprehension. A well dressed Guild man peered down at her in friendly concern.

“Are you all right, Citizen?”

“Fine,” muttered Klale, clearing her throat, “thank you, sir. The only casualty was my dinner.”

The man held out his hand. He had dark good looks and curly hair, but something about his eyes hinted that he was older than his age appearance. Forty at least, she guessed.

“Cedar de Groot, City Services Guild. My friends and I sit over there. We’d be pleased if you’d share our hospitality.”

“Klale Renhardt, Fisher,” she returned, wiping her hand awkwardly on her work pants, and standing to accept his handshake. “Thank you for your kindness, Citizen,” she said automatically, looking where he pointed. About a dozen men and women sat around two long tables. Most were middle aged and casually dressed, Guild-style. Several smiled in her direction. They looked like neighbors back home. She hesitated.

“Honestly, I’m very grateful, Mister de Groot, but…”

“Please call me Cedar. First-naming is a custom Downtown, you know. And we’re all friends here at the ‘Dyke. Believe it or not there are hardly ever any fights—I mean, that’s the first one I’ve seen.”

Klale shrugged ruefully. “I attract mayhem.”

“Oh, it had nothing to do with you,” said de Groot earnestly. “There’s been bad smog on the harbor lately and people are still taxed about it, but Captain Dhillon’s a pyro Captain and…”  Then it seemed to occur to him for the first time that Klale might have been joking. He peered at her, then produced a nervous chuckle. “Must be your lucky night.”

Klale smiled some more, but sighed inwardly. Another thick sense of humor. Still, there was no way in hell she was going back outside. She picked up her bag and followed him.

“This is the Wooden Boat Club,” he said proudly, then began introductions. Klale shook hands a dozen more times, keeping careful track of names and Guilds. No other Fishers, thank gods. De Groot pulled over a chair and wedged it in next to a lean old man with deep wrinkles and laugh creases around his eyes who introduced himself as “Ron McCaskill, City Services retired, and you look like you could use a drink, my dear.”

McCaskill’s hair was bleached white with age and his fingers felt old and knobby, but his shake was firm and Klale saw genuine warmth in his faded-blue eyes.

“Up coast we always say a real welcome is one you can drink,” she told him, sitting down.

McCaskill laughed. De Groot looked around for a server. Several were cleaning up the overturned tables. De Groot waved at them, then stood up and called out.

“Toni!”

A woman turned and Klale recognized the small bartender from the fight. As she walked over Klale saw she was a light-skinned Afroid, with graying, close-cropped hair and a handsome, authoritative face. She looked about fifty—probably her true age since people Downtown surely couldn’t afford juvving treatments. She wore art on her left cheek and upper arms. Smears of blood were drying on her hands and leather vest, but she seemed unhurt.

“Toni, we were so worried about you!”

De Groot rushed at her with outstretched arms and Klale saw a flicker of distaste cross the bartender’s face.

“I’m just fine, Cedar.”  She removed herself from his hug. “None of you got hurt, did you?  Ron?”

“Fine, dear. But Miz Renhardt lost her meal.”

Toni focused on Klale with sudden recognition, and stepped forward, hand extended.

“Thank you for your help, Citizen—I’m debted to you.”  She gave a rueful sigh. “I’m sorry it was necessary. I should know better than to walk into a brawl.”

“Uh… so should I,” Klale admitted, shaking hands.

“Well, on behalf of the KlonDyke, I’d like to apologize for the disturbance,” said Toni briskly. We’ll certainly replace your meal. Can I get you anything else?”

“A job,” said Klale impulsively.

Toni’s eyebrows rose and Klale flushed a little, but held the woman’s sharp gaze. She needed money to live on, and she wouldn’t get it from her Guild—not any more. She expected Toni to ask if she was joking, but the bartender just gave a small nod.

“You’ll have to talk to the boss tomorrow. Now, you had a pint of NarAle and what?”

“Chili.”  She grinned. “I gave mine to the captain.”

Toni didn’t return the smile. She eyed Klale gravely.

“Defiling a Revised Sikh with pork is a serious insult. I wouldn’t take it lightly.”

“Oh….”

That hadn’t occurred to Klale. Not that she regretted insulting someone who’d nearly got her killed, but it was yet another jar of dislocation. Even people that looked familiar, like the Harbour Patrol, were alien here. And when Toni turned to go back to the bar she got another small shock.

A bald patch shaped like a rose had been etched into Toni’s short, curly hair with follicle suppressant. Inside it, a scarlet rose was drawn on her skull, and below the rose a dollar-sized skull leaked two luminescent drops of blood down the back of her neck. The blood glistened wetly, seeming to flow with Toni’s movements. Was the bartender a wirehead?  But the sign outside prohibited neural plugs. Was this a souvenir, then?

Klale sat down uneasily, wondering why in hell she’d asked for a job. She wasn’t this desperate. Not yet.

“I’m sure she’s not devout,” said de Groot.

“What?” said Klale blankly.

“Captain Dhillon. After all, she does come into the bar. She wouldn’t hold anything against you. She’s a fine woman, very fine.”

Like hell, thought Klale, but she held her tongue.

“She’s my Vice President on the Free Vancouver League, you know. Have you heard of the League?”

“Something to do with the Maglev proposal, isn’t it?” Klale said, trying to remember what she’d heard about the railway. Promoters wanted to run a track from Vancouver through Seattle and Portland to Sacramento, where it would meet Train Americas with links as far south as Santiago. The power costs alone of operating such a line seemed wildly improbable to Klale, but the proposal was serious.

“We’re opposing the Maglev, of course!  If they open up easy travel it’ll undercut local markets and ruin our Guilds, not to mention the plague vectors!”

Klale nodded. Her own mother had died in an epidemic and de Groot was old enough to remember the pandemics.

“Here.”  He reached out and Klale noticed a pile of leaflets on the table. He handed her one. It was from “Farmers for Better Food.”

“Cheap imports may sound tempting but they threaten your health. The Husbandry Guild guarantees you top bio-enhanced fresh food and medicinals. Don’t risk your family’s health on natural or contaminated products from foreign grows. Eat the best, and support your neighbors as we support you!  Call your Guild exec today and tell them NO!”

Prominent on the bottom of the document was the logo of the Free Vancouver League.

De Groot was still talking.

“… and Vancouver’s recovering because we’re independent!  But selling our city—our whole coast—to a lot of…” he spat the word out, “businessmen, is taking us back to what ruined the whole planet.”

“Enough!” interrupted a burly, glowering woman across the table. Klale mentally paged back through the introductions. Sage Hendry, an artisan from Construction Trades. “This is the Wooden Boat Club and we’re here to talk about boats!”

De Groot frowned.

“Come on Sage, don’t be like that!  This is important. And you’ve got to stop closing your eyes about….”

The woman slammed down her glass.

“SCUT IT, DE GROOT!  You’ve been spewing your Freevie politics at us for weeks and I’ve had it!  If you want to stay here, talk boats!  If you don’t want to talk boats, take yourself and your bloody pamphlets to another table!”

Klale stared open-mouthed at the woman’s public rudeness. In Prince Rupert, accusing another Citizen of politics was inviting Guild censure, or at least a fight. De Groot sputtered, red-faced. Klale edged her chair backwards.

Then old Mr. McCaskill stood up and put his hand gently on De Groot’s shoulder.

“Come on, Cedar. Let me buy you a drink at the bar.”

“This is my club, too!  I don’t see anybody else being told what they can say!”

But McCaskill had de Groot’s arm in a firm grip, and his voice carried authority.

“Let’s give everyone a chance to unruffle, eh?”

They belonged to the same Guild, remembered Klale. Of course in a city as big as Vancouver that might not mean much, but there couldn’t be many elders McCaskill’s age. As they walked away, de Groot still protesting plaintively, an awkward silence fell at the table. Klale wondered if she should leave, too; then her meal arrived.

Perhaps out of embarrassment, the remaining club members became very friendly and plunged into boat talk, apparently assuming that a Fisher would be fascinated. All of them owned wooden boats, they explained, and Sage built baidarkas. De Groot and three others had shares in a schooner. Ron McCaskill—and this even caused Klale’s eyebrows to rise—owned an original clinkerbuilt skiff, its two-century-old wood lovingly enzyme-preserved.

Klale listened and tried to look interested. As far as she was concerned, a boat was a thing she worked on which was cold and uncomfortable in winter, hot and uncomfortable in summer, and inevitably broke down at the most inconvenient or dangerous time. But she asked a few polite questions, and the group eagerly aired their favorite stories. Klale had expected city people to be snobbish, but their casual acceptance relaxed her. The beer didn’t hurt either.

Eventually, the floor show rescued her from a discussion of bilge pumps, and Klale discovered that the crowd was there for Amateur Night auditions, rated by live and CoastNet response. Many performers were very polished, building portfolios in hopes of breaking into the notoriously high-gated Entertainment Guild. And most of their numbers were erotic, ranging from suggestive to explicit, with one live sex act between two women.

Klale found the sex act intriguing at first because she’d never seen anyone try to orgasm in 6/8 time, but she quickly grew bored and studied the audience instead. It did appear that the Harbour Patrol’s behavior was exceptional. The crowd was vocal but more sedate than many fisher/logger pubs at home. At least two-thirds of the audience was women, she noticed. She wondered if it made any difference.

“I believe I promised you a drink,” said a quiet voice near Klale’s shoulder, and she looked up into Mr. McCaskill’s disarming smile. The old gentleman set two pints down and pulled up a chair. Klale smiled her thanks, then leaned over, keeping her voice low.

“How is Mister de Groot?”

“Upset, but he’s found some friends to talk to. He asked me to apologize to you for that little parliament.”

“Well it was… interesting. Are manners in Vancouver always this, uh, relaxed?”

Unexpectedly, McCaskill frowned.

“Not in Vancouver, but Downtown isn’t Guild country and when Citizens come here they often behave… well, less courteously than they would at home.”  He sighed, then looked over at Klale. “I’m ashamed to say that my grandson was in that brawl earlier tonight. He’s about your age, just joined the Harbour Patrol. I was hoping a Patrol hitch would do him good, level him out…”

He trailed off somberly and Klale cast around for a less awkward topic.

“Uh, nice show.”

McCaskill’s expression lightened.

“How do you like the dancers?” he asked.

Klale had caught the subtle twinkle in his eye and made a show of studying the stage thoughtfully before she answered.

“Drab. Seen better in Rupert.”

McCaskill grinned. But Klale had spoken loudly and across the table Sage Hendry swiveled in her chair to give Klale an indignant glare.

“Better vampers in Prince Rupert?  You must be fogging. Who, for instance?”

“Me!” said Klale impulsively. She folded her arms and leaned back in her chair.

“Uh huh.”  Sage folded her arms, too. They were very big arms and not fat, noticed Klale suddenly. “Then why don’t you show us, girl?  It’s a slow night. I’m sure they can find a slot.”

Beside Klale, Mr. McCaskill was chuckling, his face creased into deep wrinkles around keen blue eyes. Klale couldn’t back down in front of those eyes.

“Taken!” she said. She reached for her phone. “Where do I sign up?”

“Stage door,” said Sage, smirking as she pointed.

“Strat.”

Klale put her phone away, rose, and marched over to the indicated door, feeling a ridiculous grin of exhilaration stretch across her face. It had been ages since she’d done something this tilted—since before her father’s death. And she wasn’t in Rupert any more. She didn’t care if she made a cret of herself. She was free.

To her surprise, the stage manager slotted her for the end of the current set. Klale logged in and selected music on the stagehand panel. Many Guild bars had banned the piece she wanted, but she wasn’t surprised to find that the ‘Dyke would play it. Then she took a hurried inventory of her clothes. She was wearing a long-sleeved workshirt, a pair of scrubbies, and work boots, all clean but stained and smelling faintly of fish boats. Most of the working Guilds wore clothes like that, so with a few props she could pass for a fisher, forester, or builder. Or a docker, she thought with sudden inspiration. She went back into the bar and looked around for the nearest table of dockers, then walked over and asked them for a tool belt and hat. They handed the items over, apparently too surprised to refuse.

Backstage again, Klale joined a glittering herd of biolumed, sequined and feathered dancers. They stared openly at her dockers’ gear, so she batted her eyes and wiggled a hip at them, winning a few giggles. Then she concentrated on trying to remember the act she’d done over a year ago.

Her cue came much too soon, and she felt a queasy lurch of nerves. She pulled on her Cowichan sweater, tucked her hair under the Longshore touque and pulled it low on her forehead, and then took a deep breath and swaggered onto stage. Her boots clumped loudly in the hush and she heard some murmurs in the audience. With her broad face and bulky clothes Klale looked like a man, and it wasn’t hard to appear tired, sweaty, and a bit drunk. Luckily, under the hot glare of stage lights, she couldn’t see the faces staring at her. The music hadn’t started, so she stopped in the middle of the stage, wiped the back of her hand across her nose, hoisted her pants, scratched her crotch and spat. She heard a couple of chuckles, then the first booming chords of the song. She whipped off her hat and yelled with the opening chorus:

“FUCK THE GUILD!”

The pounding party tune picked up Klale’s feet. She stomped in pantomimed rage, shook her fist, and sang with the chorus:

Don’t want no rules!
Don’t want no tools!
Don’t want no walls!
Don’t want no Halls!
Fuck the Guild!

On the last word Klale jumped with both feet. Her boots smacked down resoundingly, then skidded on the slick stage. She managed to save herself by turning the skid into a spin and then shrugged her heavy sweater off her shoulders—not a moment too soon because she was roasting. She twirled the sweater by one arm and whacked it against the floor, more or less in time with the verse:

Gonna hit that long dusty road
Turn my back on the town and walk on to the stars
Gonna sing and love and build and play
My own song, my own way

The audience began clapping in time. Great!  Just what Klale had hoped for. She tore off her work shirt next and flung it down in mock disgust, then she tugged off her boots and tossed them. They careened over the edge of the stage and she winced, expecting a crash or a scream.

Not your slave
Chained womb to grave
Won’t toil and bleed
For my ancestors’ greed
Fuck the Guild!

Pulling off her pants and dancing at the same time was difficult and she had no trouble looking ridiculous. But she managed to extricate herself, then pranced along the stage edge, vamping the audience in her Guild issue bio-therm underwear. She’d lost the last of her nervousness and cavorted with delight, buoyed by the throbbing music.

Abruptly she realized that she was running out of tune. Oops. This was as far as she’d stripped at the Prince Rupert Amateur Benefit Show, in front of glowering Guild execs and cheering youngers. As the final chorus began, she wiggled her ass at the audience, stepped out of her shorts, and swung them around her head. Then she peeled her bandeau off, dropped it, and danced a tattoo on top. She threw her arms in the air and spun with one foot on the underwear, catching a glimpse of herself in the mirrored stage backdrop. Her square-built, muscular body gleamed white, except for the dark Fisher’s tan on her face and lower arms, and the wild tangle of red hair flying around her head. Damn, she’d forgotten to comb it.

No more fears!
No more walls!
Time to choose!
Time to leave!
A new world to build
Fuck the Guild!

At the last bars, she threw out her arms, and bowed, laughing, panting, and exuberantly naked except for her navy wool socks.