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Running Water for L.A.

Written by Eric Witchey
Illustrated by Lee Kuruganti

Most days, Ron liked everything about the run towing cargo bags full of glacial pure water from Juneau to Los Angeles. Sure, he had some bad days when country tunes and vids couldn't break his "wish the ex hadn't been such a witch" melancholy.


Days like that, he just routed passive sonar into the big speakers behind his con chair, flipped up the gain, and listened to the whale song.

Sometimes he and the grays migrated together. They knew him and Miss Melba, his long-haul sub, and he knew most of them.

It was a good life, but it was one of the bad days.

Him and Miss Melba were a hundred meters deep and south-bound over the continental shelf off the south coast of Oregon. They were pulling twenty-five million gallons of glacial pure in a ballasted, zero-buoyancy raft of mil-gal bladders. Those bladders stretched out behind Miss Melba like strings of big black pillows suspended in the emerald wets of the icy Pacific.

He'd lost a couple of buoyancy compensators, so the bladder skins of fresh water were riding a little high. Every now and then, swells from a surface squall tugged them round a bit.

Jerks on the tow lines reminded him of making the same run with Alicia before she split with his life savings to party in warmer waters.

Since then, Miss Melba was his job, his home, and his lover all wrapped up in a cold green blanket of ocean filled with life and mystery. She wasn't a pretty vacation sub. She was a working girl with two seats and a wrap-around console inside a translucite bubble mounted on a steel-box sleeper with a galley, a freshwater head, and two cabins. She had side-box ballast tanks, skids, manipulating arms, and the whole shebang was slapped onto two, three-meter long impeller tubes running off a Craig harmonic disrupter. She was rated to 300 meters, and she'd gone deeper than four twice: once off the coast of Japan running from the sushi cops and once off British Columbia running from water thieves.

Even in rough weather, Melba was easier on a man than Ali had ever been.

Things ran smooth with Ali some times— just long enough to get a man relaxed. Then, wham! No warning. She'd yank on one of his heart-lines, whip him around, and make him hate her and everything else God put on the good, green earth.

Then she'd get her screws all torqued up at him like it was all his fault. She'd head aft and lock herself in with the internet and her chat friends.

Yeah, freaking right they were just friends.

Miss Melba bucked against a cable, and Ron opened her up a little to compensate. She pulled the line tight and got the load under control.

Melba had power. Oh, yeah. When he put the hammer down, a tiny stream of seawater poured into the Craig drive box. The harmonic disruptor sliced and diced molecules. Melba burned the hydrogen to drive her screws. The oxygen either vented into the sea or topped off the air tanks.

If he really cut her loose, Melba's disruptor could turn out enough pull to drag Alaska herself to the tip of Baja and back in a week.

Of course, the rest of the sub wouldn't hold up under the stress of acceleration or the load on the tow lines.

He'd never do that to Miss Melba. She'd always been good to him.

More power didn't quite do it. The swells tugged on Melba again.

Ali came back to fill his head.

Jackie Chan on the vid wasn't cutting it. Merle's music was a no-go. He even tried filling his brain with lusty thinking about Miss Shanna, an L.A. Coasty cop he fancied had a shine on for him. Didn't work. Not even her dark, darling eyes and satin Miximex skin could smooth the muscles in his neck and clear the stormy memories from his head.

Every time a swell pulled deep, the lines zipped, and he was back in brain combat with the ex.

It was April, and the girl whales were north-bound, all mommies or romanced up, and happy. He opened up the sonar and put his friends on the speakers.

They didn't let him down. Whale song filled the sub, eerie and up and down and past the stretch of the ear.

Ron punched in another twenty meters of deep, hoping to bring the bladders down away from the surface swells to smooth out the ride. He shut off his interior lights, locked in his course, and reclined the con couch to let the song of life in the dark deep wash over him.

A man-made sound broke him from a doze.

He pulled his chair up and scanned the dark water like he might see something.


Just a luminous dot here or there, the yellow-green telltales of finny folk eating each other and chasing tail.

He laughed at himself.

The whales were still singing, but there was something new in the song.

He reached for the console to turn on the translator.

Hand halfway to the keyboard, he remembered that Ali had taken it so she could talk to dolphins in the Caribbean. He never replaced it because he liked believing the whales were singing to him. He just didn't really want to know if there was some whale gang war or spelling bee going on out there. It took the mystery out of the ocean.

Besides, he had himself enough reminders of Ali.

The metal-on-metal whack-a-clang came again— definitely not whale song.

One metallic whack in the dark is maybe a plate buckling on a wreck. Two whacks is maybe current action on plates or barrels and garbage.

Three times a-whammo? That's a pattern.

Ron clicked on the cabin lights. He checked course, speed, depth, and coordinates. All good. On course and at speed.

Kang. Kang. Kang.

Three in a row. Maybe an offshore drilling crew.

Three more with long pauses between.

Three short. Three long. Three short.


"She-it!" he said to the whales.

He spun off a tether anchor from Melba's aft. Hooked the bladder harness to it. Locked in the GPS numbers, and left his load for pickup after he'd finished investigating the S.O.S. A body couldn't be too careful in these waters.

He cruised a wide circle to triangulate, then he brought Miss Melba down in a spiral over the edge of the continental shelf.

The metallic cry for help continued until he was near-bout two-k off course. At ten meters off the bottom, he flicked on his exterior floods.

The world was gray, black, and green. A bright-orange cargo container was down on its side in a field of silt and feathery tubeworms.

Storms washed containers off surface freighters all the time. Hell, he and Melba had salvaged a few when loads were scarce. Wasn't all that uncommon. Wasn't so odd that it sank, either. Likely full of metally stuff like China-made silverware or Jappo-electrics.

That it was popping out an S.O.S. was pretty much off the scale of things he and Melba had run into— and that was saying something for a sea trucker.

The S.O.S. stopped.

He hovered in close and used one of his front-end manipulators to hook a hoist ring on the container. He reversed Melba's screws and put the hammer down hard. The harmonic disrupter split molecules. Melba purged her ballast tanks. Her screws spun up hot and whined in their tubes. The container shifted and dragged. When it broke free, Melba headed for the surface fast and ass-end first.

On the surface, the weather had cleared a bit, but seas was still rough. He kept the screws running to keep Melba up under the load. He climbed out the hatch and hooked himself to a line. He pulled some bolt cutters from the toolbox, cut the locks on the container, and broke water-tight seals.

He half expected a box full of water and half-dead Asians. That happened sometimes. One or two of those lost boxes lucked out and floated ashore before it was a box of corpses.

He didn't expect the box to be a quarter-full of ball bearings, neither did he expect the woman that was out cold and buried up to her tits in steel balls.

One look told him two things. First, he'd found somebody else's trouble. Second, she'd clean up to be a kick-ass looker.

Water was slopping into the open container, and Ron figured if it swamped there was enough ball bearings in there to drag the box, the balls, the woman, Miss Melba, and him straight back to the silt and tubeworms.

He dug the woman out of the bearings and dragged her to Miss Melba. Once on board, he cast off the container.

The ocean wrapped it up and swallowed deep.

Safe and submerged, he got the unconscious woman into Alisa's old seat. She was a mess, but she was breathing.

He strapped an oxygen mask on her and tried to wipe some of the ball-bearing grease off her cheeks. Gently, he slipped a few strands of her nape-cut, blond hair out from under the mask. Her soaked green-silk dress looked like body paint with a dragon tattooed on the belly. Her red-lacquered nails said she was anything but a stowaway.

Somebody had put her in that box and sunk her.

Wasn't much he could do for her until he got to L.A. He punched up a GPS lock on the bladders and got under way.

An hour later, Miss Melba was hooked back up to her load, spinning screws, and pushing near thirty knots to make up lost time. Folks in L.A. got all uppity and tight if they didn't get their water on time. He didn't want Shanna coming out looking for him in her nasty little gunboat. Water was a big deal to desert cities.

Ron glanced at his passenger. She was awake and looking back at him from dark brown eyes. She wrapped long, elegant fingers around her mask and pulled it away from her face. "You heard me?"

Ron nodded and put a little Merle on the speakers.

"Thanks," she said. "I thought I was dead."

"Almost," he said. "It was a real close thing. If Melba hadn't heard your banging, you would be."

"Melba? Your wife?"

"My sub. Not married." Ron turned Merle down a notch so he could hear his passenger better.

"I knew the S.O.S. was a long shot." She twisted around to put the mask in the pouch on the back of her seat.

Ron couldn't help looking a little deeper into her dress than his momma would've approved of.

She caught him looking, and she laughed. It was a light, relieved laugh. It was so different from Ali, from her humiliating cackle of blame.

Ron laughed too.

"Been in the water a while?" she asked.

"Maybe a little too long."

"At least you have good taste in music," she said.

"You like Merle?"

"Love him," she said. "Is there a head?"

"Aft and port." He watched her free her legs from the seat. "Help yourself to whatever's back there. My ex left some stuff in stowage under the deck plates in the head. Might fit you."

"Thanks," she said, and she disappeared aft.

Ron smiled and patted Miss Melba's console. "Well, girl, that's the prettiest salvage we've ever seen."

"I heard that," the woman said from the head. "What's your name, trucker?"

"Ron. This here is Miss Melba you're riding in. You?"

"Call me Lou," she said. "Everybody who isn't trying to kill me calls me Lou."

"Somebody that don't call you Lou put you in that box?"

"I'm an escort," she said.

The head's door opened. Ron twisted in his seat and craned his neck. "Whoa, Lou! Ali never filled out them coveralls like that."

Barefoot and smiling, she slipped into the second seat. Her hair was pulled back into a tight, blond, stubbed ponytail, and it made her face longer and her eyes brighter.

Ron realized he was thinking some pretty tall tales about the maybes of this woman called Lou.

"Thank you, Ron."

A little embarrassed, he reined in his mental seahorses and checked his heading and speed.

"I was hired by a Singapore captain," she said. "It was supposed to be me on his arm at a company deck party in Seattle. Apparently, in Singapore, an escort does things for the guests that I wouldn't do."

Ron kept his experience with escorts in Seattle and the things they did and didn't do to himself. He waited for her to fill in the blanks. One thing Ali had taught him was how to wait for the rest of a story, even in a squall— especially in a squall.

"They locked me in the head and got under way. They pulled me out and were setting up to do pretty much what they wanted whether I wanted to or not."

Her voice was low, and Ron thought he heard a quiver in it. An image of whales chasing each other in Baja swam into his mind. He squinted into the ocean's darkness to rid himself of the images.

"The storm came up fast," she said. "They all had to do things. They locked me in that box." She put a hand on his arm. Her nails creased his skin. She said, "Ron, if you and Melba hadn't heard me . . ."

He patted her hand and looked into her eyes. Maybe his tall-tale wishing wasn't so tall. "It's okay now, Lou. You're safe with me and Melba."

The tow cables jerked.

"Whoa! Steady, girl!" Ron set the dive planes to get under the surface swells. "It's okay," he said. "Storm must have come up again. We'll go a little deeper, then I'll put her on auto, and we can talk."

The cable snapped tight again. Melba's screws whined and cavitated. Ron felt the loss in momentum. "Strap in," he said.

"I'm fine," she said.

Ron turned to his passenger. She held a little, twenty-five caliber pistol leveled at his head.

"I won't even ask where you hid it," he said.

She smiled.

"Water pirate?" he asked.

She nodded.


She smiled and unzipped the front of her suit to show a little more cleavage. "Kept your eyes off the console while my trawler netted the skins."

Ron punched the stop button on the CD player. Merle went quiet. Melba shuddered.

"Feather your screws, trucker," she said.

Her voice and the pistol left no room for questions. He disengaged the disrupter from the screws.

A big, buck male in a red drysuit appeared outside the bubble. He smiled and rolled a bit. Round, black eyes took in the situation in Melba's bubble. He nodded once, and Lou's smile spread across her face the way fire crawls along a line of gasoline.

Ron had seen that same smoldering smile on Ali's face when she tried to explain about her internet guy in the British Virgin Islands.

"Freaking lazy, pretty boys!" Ron said.

Lou poked him with the gun. "Play nice, trucker, and you only lose Melba and the cargo. Play stupid, and Bo and me and the boys on the trawler take it all and you go in a ball bearing box."

"So much for a woman's laugh and the passion of lacquered nails."

"Maybe in your dreams, trucker." She laughed. This time, it was Ali's laugh all over again. His belly burned with humiliation. The humiliation became anger, and the anger grew into a cold rage.

He glared at Lou.

Lou made eyes at the man outside.

The man's eyes laughed at Ron. The pirate flipped his fins and headed for air.

The trawler pulled Melba toward the surface.

He was just a blamed, dim-witted fool if he was gonna let a woman and a pretty boy pirate take Melba away from him. He'd die before he lost his living to that combination. He tightened his seat harness.

He knew that pirate boy would be back. He'd seen it in those glassy, black eyes. Too much curiosity. That man's pleasure wasn't in the money. It was in messing with people.

He came back and rolled slow and lazy outside Melba's bubble. Lou cooed and smiled.

Ron grabbed Lou's gun hand. He leveraged against his seat harness and pulled hard. Lou came up out of her seat and over his lap. He doubled her arm back and peeled the gun out of her hand. He grabbed her ponytail and tossed her back into the second seat.

"Shoulda' buckled up when I told you," he said.

"Screw you," Lou said. "The nets are hauling you up, and there's nothing you can do about it. When you hit surface, they'll cut me out of this sardine can if they have to. More likely, Bo will just put a pneumatic hammer against your hull and burst your bubble."

"Bo? That your rubber-suit boy?" He looked outside. The dark of the deep was giving way to the green of near-surface water. The boyfriend was gone.

Melba broke surface next to an old trawler— American, from the look of her, a rust bucket refitted for thieving and salvage. She had Craig Disruptor drive screws and winches that could pull ten miles of drag hooks and nets across a hundred miles of ocean, ripping up ocean floor and catching any crap that turned up.

If he opened his harmonic disruptor to as much water as it could gulp, Melba would give a good fight, but in the end she'd lose against that monster and her winches. She'd just tear herself apart trying to save him.

Men raced along the rails of the trawler.

Bo directed the action from the surface alongside.

Ron waved the gun at Lou. "You're going out first."

"Give me the gun," she said. "Bo might let you live."


Lou zipped up her cleavage and climbed out of the second seat. She headed for the ladder to the hatch. From Melba's console, Ron popped the lock bolts. Lou opened the hatch. Before she was out, he was up the ladder with his face almost up her rear. He fired a shot up out of the hatch.

Men jumped away.

Shoulder to her butt, he shoved Lou up as hard as he could, launching her into the air, past surprised deck hands, and into the sea.

Fast, Ron pulled the hatch shut and locked her down.

He jumped from the ladder, dropped the gun in the pouch behind his seat, and hit the con chair. "Come on, Melba, baby. I got a plan, and we got work to do."

Lou and Bo thrashed in the green water beyond the bubble.

Ron waved, smiled, and put on Merle. He blew the emergency release on the tow lines and set the skins free so he and Melba could be little quicker.

Outside Melba's bubble, Lou had managed get a hold on Bo's neck. With her free hand, she flipped Ron off. The rage in the man's eyes made it clear he wished he had his hands on Ron's neck.

Merle sang, and Ron and Melba dove to twenty meters. "Don't worry, Melba," he said, "This won't hurt much."

Moving full-tilt-boogie and hoping for momentum, he opened up the disruptor box to the ocean and jettisoned it.

He figured that little Craiger would try to eat the whole ocean for about a minute before it choked to death.

Sure as Merle can sing, the little harmonic disrupter started splitting up molecules, putting hydrogen over here and oxygen over there.

Of course, here and there was open ocean under an aging trawler.

The ocean exploded into a boiling storm of hydrogen foam and oxygen froth. Water turned white for fifty meters in every direction.

The trawler, no longer supported by liquid, dropped into the white hole in the ocean.

For a glorious moment, tangled in white clouds and splashes of green water, Ron saw the trawler tumbling, the skins twisting, and Lou, her crew, and her Bo all scrambling to get clear of a losing proposition.

Merle sang.

Ron crowed.

Melba tumbled and sank like everything else caught in the foam storm.

The deep is silent and dark, and it stayed that way for the lost trawler Stolen Springs.

Melba, however, with empty ballast tanks and no disrupter, was a bubble. To the sweet voice of Merle, she danced her way to the surface and popped up into the light of day.

Ron leaned back in his con chair and smiled at blue skies. Not far away, a twenty-five-mil-gal skin of glacial pure bobbed to the surface— a black, rubber whale too buoyant to stay trapped on the ocean floor. The skin was all tangled in torn up netting, and strapped up on its side was a struggling man wearing a bright red suit and dipping himself in and out of the swells and sputtering up foam every time he came up. Clinging to nets on the skin a little higher up was Lou and a few of her deep-dunked mess of dipped-ratfinks.


Now there was a sight and a blessing. L.A. would pay some fine coin for a crew of pirates.

Ron tapped Melba's console to fire up his own S.O.S.— the real deal, this time.

The other twenty-four skins stayed down, likely still tangled in the trawler's lines, and that was fine. Ron knew where they were, and they were salvage now. For that matter, so was that whole pirate trawler. The good Lord only knew what was onboard that scow tucked away in cargo containers and holds.

He patted Melba's console. "Good, girl," he said.

Pretty much like he figured, L.A. had missed its water and got its screws torqued up. His S.O.S. brought them to him. Low and black and all bristly with guns, the nasty little coasty boat came looking for him pretty quick. It took them just long enough for him and the skin to drift a bit and accidentally lose the coordinates of the wreck.

Melba's radio cackled a bit, then a fine-sounding, smooth female voice came across. "Ron, that you and Melba's bubble?"

He had to smile a bit. "Shanna, my dear," he said, "Your voice is finer than whale song and sweeter than Merle."

"Sweet talk isn't going to get you far. I don't see my water."

"I have a present for you and yours. Water pirates all wrapped in nets on a bladder. Train your saucy little eyes about twenty degrees off your starboard."

The radio crackled for a few breaths, then she was back. "Aw, Ron. I underestimated you. You do know how to make a girl all giggly and weak in the knees."

He laughed. He guessed he did at that.

Insurance would cover the loss. Shanna would spin his part real pretty for the suits in L.A.. Everybody would be happy.

Him and Melba would go back to work. With the salvage on the trawler and the glacial pure, he'd pay off Melba's new drive. And hey, while Melba was having her nip-and-tuck spa days in dry dock, well, there was some time to kill. He was thinking maybe it'd do him good to engage in a little police investigation.

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