This story is also available on PDF. Enjoy.

BUTTERSCOTCH by Ethan M Gibney

 

Headlights cast long, slowly shifting shadows along the narrow street. Inside the few windows that haven't been boarded up, things stir. Sometimes it's a curtain reacting to a wind that isn't there, sometimes it's a person that should have moved out of the Ash District a long time ago.

Blood drips from Octavia Dunbar's lip onto the hole in her pants, where it just gets mixed up in with that wound. She wipes her mouth with her sleeve.

The pickup grumbles along the cracked streets, just barely making it between the narrow buildings. This part of town is a skeleton, and Octavia Dunbar can tell from the air that she isn't supposed to be here. But she has a job to do.

Ash burned down a handful of decades ago, and nobody tried to rebuild. Not sure why - some people said the government wouldn't let them, others said it was just better to look forward. Either way, the town of New Babylon moved on, expanding north along the waterfront. Mostly, Ash got left behind.

Octavia pulls the truck around a corner. The intersections are wide enough, the streets are a rat warren of tight one-ways and short roads that never got named. Octavia’s mom used to talk about Ash, said this part of town wasn’t built. It grew.

Ahead - lights. Octavia quickly shuts off her own, and turns off the truck. It could just be nothing, but there's nobody that's supposed to see her here, and she can’t afford to get spotted early.

The lights grow, getting brighter against the building they're hitting, until a truck the size of a baby U-Haul comes into view. It's moving slow, but before long it crosses the path without noticing her.

There's no need to wait, but she gives it a full minute before she starts the truck again. She passes the time trying not to think about how much her leg hurts, and trying not to remember how much blood you have to lose before things go dark.

It takes another half-hour to make it to the handful of warehouses and factories that make up the southern tip of New Babylon. They're in a cramped space between Ash, the forest, and the river. The stacks don’t smoke anymore, but if you look close at the shadows, this place is still well alive.

The city proper is far enough away that these buildings make for great hideouts. Police don't wander north of town, and the only people that live out here do it for the same reason the dealers do - the quiet. They send out a patrol car to check the buildings out once a month or so, but it's easy to spot a black-and-white from the rooftops, call in, and have a criminal empire disappear by the time the cop can get there.

This is why Octavia brought her own truck.

She parks a ways down from her target, so she can approach on foot.

The last thing she does before opening the door is radio in to dispatch. Anticipating the next few minutes, she gives them the only things she can predict - officer down, and a location. Tosses in "shots fired" for good measure. She unclasps her badge, leaves it on the passenger seat, and climbs out of the truck.

Sharp pain shoots through her body - she should not have started with the bad leg. It takes focus, but she manages to stand up straight, jaw locked tight so she doesn't make a sound.

The air, even this far from the factory, is sweet, smells of butterscotch. It may not make sense, but it explains why the woman in the e-mails kept calling it that - "Butterscotch", as if it's supposed to mean something to Octavia.

She grabs her backpack from the truck, and a pipe from an abandoned home improvement project. It feels right in her hand - heavy enough to make someone think twice about meeting it, but still quiet.

And she starts walking to the warehouse.

Octavia keeps close to the buildings, and watches the rooftops - they probably don't have any watchers this close, but it pays to make sure. She'll approach from the waterfront side, so anybody on the main road won't notice her.

When she gets the warehouse in view, a guard is carrying a medium trash bag. They've found two of these already, she knows exactly what's in it. The guard walks right up to the waterfront and tosses the bag in the river. It flows down a few hundred feet, the guard goes back inside.

The bag catches on some junk down near her, but Octavia can't make herself go to it. She's losing blood, and she already knows what's inside it. The memory of the first one, and the charred thing inside it, is still strong enough. She doesn't need another shot of that sensation.

Behind the warehouse, a guard stands at the bottom of some stairs. He's staring off at the water, with a handgun at his side, not moving, lit by an orange fluorescent on the wall.

She moves as quickly as she can without risking making noise, so that by the time he sees her she's less than five feet away. The guy turns, and Octavia immediately forgets what she planned to say.

The guard's face is older than she expects, early sixties probably. Shaggy hair and plaid shirt. But his eyes are wrong. Even in this low-rent light, she can tell that his actual eyes are completely gone - replaced by rough stone spheres, painted a bright yellow, that don't quite fit in his head. One is a little too large, the other is a little too small and rattles when he moves.

This qualifies as freaky. But before she can think through it, he lifts his gun and pulls back the hammer. She connects the pipe with his wrist, he drops the gun, she hits him in the leg. He crumbles to the ground - she's ready to hit him once more to silence him, but he just stares upward at the sky, without a sound. Doesn't even try to stand.

She holds the stance a moment, but she did a poor job figuring how much energy this would take, and she drops the pipe to the ground, leans on it. She can't ignore her leg now, it's a constant dull throb at the back of her mind, getting louder and louder.

She starts up the stairs, taking her time.

At the top, there's a door. The smell of butterscotch is stronger here. Inside, another guard is just standing in an office, his back to her, staring at another door, metal covered with cracked red paint. She sets the pipe down as quiet as possible, steps up behind him.

Just before she can reach him, she realizes there's a mirror in front of him - he sees her through stone eyes. Since none of his buddies are six-foot black women, he starts to turn. Octavia grabs him hard, holding his throat as tight as she can without breaking anything. Quietly, she lowers him to the ground, then lays there a minute catching her breath.

This one's young - not even twenty, probably. The stones in his eyes are a murkier color than the other guard's

In the brighter light of this room, Octavia looks down at her leg, and...yeah. It's bad. That is more of her own blood than a person is generally supposed to see, and it trails out the door and down the stairs.

With a grunt, she heaves herself up to her feet and makes her way through the door, into the body of the warehouse.

In here, the stench is sudden, like a wall of sound. A sickly sweetness like too much kettle-corn. She covers her nose with her arm, but it doesn't do any good, so she drops it.

The building has a narrow walkway around an open space. There's no one on the walkway, so she gets to her knees and looks over the edge of the handrailing, exposing as little of herself as possible.

The letters she exchanged with "Sarah", an apparent expert in this sort of thing, had described what the room (‘lair’, Sarah said) would probably look like, and she was right.

The place is dominated by a series of circles in red, with designs that look like characters from old languages. Two workers scribble new glyphs in the circles. Along the east wall, a dozen cages the size of medium dog carriers. Four occupied - one for each missing child that hasn't turned up dead.

In one corner, fiddling with an old book, a man. Lean, pale, shabby blonde hair, and wearing a dirty, orange, three-piece suit.

This, then, would be Butterscotch.

She takes off the backpack, undoes the straps, pulls from her pocket a wadded up sheet of paper - the last e-mail from Sarah. No phone service out here, and she doesn’t trust her ability to memorize, so she printed it out. She reads it for the three-hundredth time, and starts to pull bottles from her backpack.

Glass soda bottles, full of a mix of ginger ale, herbs, and harder-to-find ingredients, sealed with saran wrap and a rubber band. She throws them.

Throwing the bottles takes effort, and they fly clumsily. But the flight isn’t the important part - the impact is. Each lands hard. Five of them shatter, the other remaining stubbornly intact. They begin to react with the air around them (‘aether’, Sarah said) and plumes of yellow smoke fill the room.

The letter said the stuff was harmless to humans. Octavia covers her mouth and nose anyway.

At first, there's no sound. Then, something not quite like music. No instruments she knows, no vocalizations, but the sound is beautiful. She loses herself in it, briefly, and realizes she's crying.

She wipes away the tears, shakes her head, and pulls herself onto her feet. In the space of seconds, the smoke has focused into a column where the man in the suit had been standing. The two workers are on the ground, asleep. Her first instinct is to tend to the caged children, who she can hear waking up. But first, the man in the suit.

The column of smoke is resolving itself, becoming clear like glass. Inside, the man in the orange suit is gone, replaced by...well, something. It looks like a skin of smoke stretched too tight over a metal frame. The shape shifts, she can’t figure out what it looks like, but it never looks like something safe. And it's alive. It's pounding at the wall of the column, making the motions of shouting. But instead of screaming, all Octavia can hear is that music.

She considers addressing the thing - Butterscotch. Considers saying something witty, a joke to herself and no one else. But her leg hurts and she's tired and she needs to check on those children, so she opens up the printed e-mail again, and begins to read the words.

They are words - they're made of letters from the alphabet she uses every day, and apart from a few strange letter pairings, they're easily spoken. But she doesn't recognize them as language - the words stick in her throat, and it feels like her mouth is full of fuzz.

With each word, Butterscotch (‘the daemon’, Sarah said) gets angrier, and the music gets louder, harder to define.

Then, as she finishes the last word, the thing is gone. The column of smoke-glass disappears, and so does the daemon from inside. It doesn’t not fade or spark or shimmer, it just...goes. The circles on the ground catch fire, then burn quickly away. The two men on the ground start screaming in pain, clutching at their eyes. Octavia thinks she can hear sirens from somewhere - distant, but closing in.

Octavia goes to help the children.

 

2016 Sep 09