“The difference,” said Detective Shawn Trenton, “between successful people and unsuccessful people is in your definition of success.”
The argument had matured to this point. When someone is shamed as a loser, defence is necessary as a default.
Trenton had lost his apartment from unpaid rent. He had the money, he simply had forgotten to pay it. In New York Sea Canyons, this was not unheard of. Direct debits were rare, one-nighter pods in the high rises were so cheap, and most were connected to the Metaverse, so who the hell went home anyway? Homes were squalid, usually solitary affairs. People rarely lived together in the same place anymore.
“You know something, Seymour,” smirked Trenton, “I was too busy in a virtual orgy to give a shit about my flat, so what the hell…Do I look like it matters to me? All it means is I’m gonna save some money now.”
“You certainly have a rep for not giving a shit, Detective,” scoffed Seymour Shelly, one of the few people in the watery cityscape who could say that without losing teeth but he was, after all, his long-suffering beat partner. They didn’t exactly like each other, but they did rely on each other. It was the unsaid agreement of mutual survival that kept them close on missions for the Food Crimes Department.
They were gliding up 34th street in their electric cop cruiser, the wake behind the boat unzipping the water perfectly behind them. Trenton always felt a historical pride at the way Manhattan had adapted to rising sea levels, the infrastructure just holding out. It was sparsely populated but not completely abandoned. Some major cities, like London, had been overwhelmed by the sudden rising ocean levels but New York had a certain inbred resilience and innovated, to overcome. The streets were waterways, the skyscrapers spawned jetties, the American Venice, the media called it, just like they called Hong Kong, the Chinese Venice and Paris the French Venice. Venice may well have been the first water city but that novelty was a long, long time ago.
They were responding to a call-out, a trusted informant had snitched on a gang responsible for a seaweed farm heist. The gang’s submarine was spotted in the under levels of New York Sea Canyon’s less used underwater suburbs. Trenton knew the gang well from previous tussles but this time he and his partner had no real backup, out alone in the murky waters of a flooded ancient city. They did, at least, have the right to use lethal force whenever they deemed necessary, with complete protection against Internal Affairs. It was a perk of venturing into hostile places, afforded to them by the State laws.
Trenton took a long vape, much to the disapproval of his partner, the cherry flavoured smoke spiralling in the wind.
Macy’s passed by, the half of the store above the waterline now populated with just two salespeople and only a handful of underweight, dowdy customers, courtesy of a tourist barge moored at the ramshackle jetty. Doors had been fitted mid building and just the name Macy’s and its legacy seemed to make it a worthwhile destination for some, who often had to risk life and limb to reach the iconic retail building. The place was more a museum with only a few shop-branded items in the gift shop, and an understocked sushi café for a bite to eat. It was a feat of adaption that many of the buildings could remain in their original context of shops and hotels and banks. The Canyons, as many called the city for short, was a remanent, a ghost of its former self, before the ocean rose and the climate changed so dramatically.
The cruiser hummed up the canal and passed a huge black monolithic skyscraper of glass, powering toward the sky-piercing Chrysler building.
“Just over there,” croaked Trenton, pointing to a side street where all the buildings look deserted, rotting in states of decay. There was rubbish bobbing on the surface of the water, plastic barrels, food wrappers, a thousand manmade objects creating rafts of debris that the boat would find hard to navigate. Areas of built-up debris could be an indication, that people were nearby.
“This is where they were spotted slowing their sub,” he said, “so my guess is the stash will be somewhere around here, bundled into a derelict basement maybe. We’ll have to get suited up and get in the water. No other way. We’ll go together building by building. It will take longer than splitting up but it’s too dangerous to go it alone. These guys are serious, they call themselves The Brotherhood – they are literally prepared to die for each other. Don’t bother with a warning of any kind if you see one armed. Shoot on sight.”
Shelly nodded. It was time to earn their bonus. They both peeled off their jackets, jumpers and trousers and pulled on the wetsuits, boots and gloves. Their firearms were waterproof but they checked the clips were full and the safety catches were off. The water looked black and uninviting. Every cop who responded to calls in the Canyons knew that the day they entered the water might be their last. It was the wild west in waterways like this, too many hiding places, not enough law enforcement.
Climbing down the small ladder on the back of the boat, they glided into the cool salt water that bubbled with grime when they disturbed its surface. Checking that their breathers were working, everything seemed okay, so they dived down, under the raft of abandoned trash, propelling toward the bottom to street level. Trenton flicked on his torch and the beam caught the hidden remnants of a lost world, the tall streetlights, the faded crossings, and shells of old buses, things no longer of use and left to nature to investigate. There were only a few fish, but they darted and played with the strong beams of light as something new, beautiful and bright in their gloomy kingdom.
Straight away, Shelly spotted the sub on the bottom, parked and anchored in the water above a subway street entrance. Of course, the subways provided a perfect hideout, a labyrinth of tunnels and caves to hide away, to stash the loot.
With a hand signal, Shelly checked Trenton was good to carry on into the darkness of the subway entrance. Trenton responded by taking his gun out and dropping gradually into the space where steps led down into the ground. It felt instinctively like a trap, underwater jobs always did. There could well have been someone in the sub but they would not try to enter it, getting up close and personal too early might allow for a communication to a team close to the seaweed. Surprise meant everything. The cops’ task was simple enough, they would shoot any perps guarding the seaweed, tag the bundles, and only then could they justify scheduling a police collection barge to retrieve the haul. This was policing now, shoot first, ask questions later, get help much later.
The dark tunnel engulfed them as they slowly swam deeper into the city’s underground spaces. They could each listen to their loud breathing, their pounding heartbeats and the intermittent release of bubbles that bounded and clung to the subway ceiling above them. The water was like brine, unclean, flecked with particles of plastic, bits of bits, the shed skin and dust of a trillion plastic products.
To their relief, the tunnel opened into what looked like an air pocket, a cavernous one. They broke the surface, and it was instantly obvious this was the hideout, the entrance point to some criminal lair. There was dim lighting, so they switched off their torches and tucked them into their utility belts. No one was around, which was a relief, they were far too vulnerable in the water, and easy targets as they dragged themselves up onto the makeshift decking.
Carefully placing the breathing apparatus and lightweight tanks onto the deck, they crouched low and took in the scene, adjusting to the new light levels.
“Who knew?” whispered Shelly. “This place looks like it could be big enough for some kind of HQ. Maybe we should go back and report it?”
“No way, we get the job done. I don’t want to be here any longer than I need to be. Keep your gun handy, we have to find that harvest. People are counting on it.”
Food was the most precious commodity on Earth. Half the citizens of the world were starving to death, so its value and the crimes around it became inevitable.
There hadn’t been farm animals since 2070, fertile land for growing crops was limited to a few rare pockets of good soil and artificial fields in special warehouses. Pre the changes there were close to eighty billion mouths to feed and that was just the livestock. It had all collapsed. Hardy vegetables, clean meat and sea plants became the daily diet for those still managing to eek a living out in the remains of the civilised world.
“Look, doors, over there!” said Shelly. He also noticed ceiling vents and fans. This was quite the operation, less a discovered deserted air pocket, more an engineered marvel.
“This may well be bigger than we thought,” said Trenton. He had always presumed the underworld operations pivoted around scavenging, ad hoc, seldom planned opportunist smash and grabs. This place, whatever it was, had been adapted carefully, skilfully. There would have been architects involved.
They stayed low and crept over to the two large doors hinged at the end of the pontoon in tall subway walls. They were not part of the original subway design. The water was as smooth as a metal sheet beside them on the walkway.
Trenton nodded to Shelly in readiness and slowly pushed open the doors.
They froze in shock.
It resembled a wide, tall hallway, evolved from a major subway station platform. There were so many adaptions and changes to the original space it had become something else. It was a place that demanded crowds, and sure enough, crowds were there, hidden, a forgotten civilisation underwater, underground, in the deepest of holes in a dying world.
In the sprawling room were busy throngs of people, moving in all directions; men pacing, women chatting and children playing and chasing each other in figures of eight, distracted by joy. It took a second before they all looked toward the now wide-open doors, and the two dripping wet characters standing in its opening. It was clear that a threat had arrived unannounced, like hawks had landed with wings wide, upon a hapless den of mice.
Some of the men had sidearms in holsters but apart from that, it could have been an average day in a city park. There was no sense of threat or criminal organising, of schemes and skulduggery, just a bunch of average people, all just passing the time of day.
“Freeze!” shouted Shelly.
It became a mute request.
Trenton was good to his word and stood by his policy of shoot-first. He opened fire on the crowd, picking off the men one by one.
They span on their feet before falling, blood jets arcing upward, spraying out and over those closest to them.
Some of the women held up their hands, screaming and pleading, the children immediately wailing with them, rushing to their sides like birds retreating to the familiar safety of nests. A few started running and some seemed glued to the spot, paralysed by terror. One woman stood firmly, but not in fear. She had the poise of a leader, she had a sense about her of earned power. It was a defiance, she stared at the shooter with judgement and without blinking, despite the bullets searing past her ears.
“Dad!” screamed a young girl, running over to a man who was twitching with fresh bullet holes on the flooring. He outstretched a hand but it slipped out of hers with the lubricant of blood.
Shelly had seen combat in the outer shanty towns, he had even killed a couple of thugs who stood in his way a year back, but this felt different. It felt wrong.
“Hold up, stop!” he screeched at Trenton, who threw him back a glance of rage.
“Get into the fight!” yelled Trenton, scathing with disbelief at his partner.
The bullets were now picking off some of the women who had run toward them, trying to shield their children from the line of fire. A thick, blunt sensation of conscience crept into Shelly’s mind. Trenton’s gun had a long clip with thirty bullets and two spare clips in his belt. Hot smoke was puffing out of the nozzle with each discharged round.
Shelly did something he never thought he’d ever do. He grabbed Trenton’s arm and forced it down, so the weapon popped off a round into the wooden planks, sparing another victim.
“What the hell!? What are you doing? You want a court-martial, Shelly!” he grunted. There was bloodlust in his eyes. He was as a wild dog, in the zen of perfect, undiluted slaughter.
“These are just people! This is not a gang! Just people! Can’t you tell?”
The pause cost a valuable second, broke the onslaught’s momentum.
A broad-set, hobbling man, with a long white beard and a robe, sensed an opportunity, the only chance to act, and raised his non-lethal weapon, which he held with both hands and aimed at the two cops. It was a sticky net gun, a device that doormen used to use on drunks fighting in nightclubs, back in the day. The glue-soaked net smacked into the cops, wrapped them into a ball and rolled them along the ground a good ten feet. Winded, bundled and immobilised, they lay stunned on the decking.
Before Trenton or Shelly had a chance to twist their heads and look up, another man had walked over to them purposefully with a stare of pure hate in his eyes.
“Now it’s your turn, mother fu….” But before they could hear the end of the sentence, a rifle butt came down hard and blunt on each of their skulls. A shroud of silence and blackness swallowed their senses whole.
There is a fine line between being rendered unconscious and being permanently maimed or killed after a trauma to the head. It was a line they both navigated, but the agony in regaining consciousness was tremendous. By the time light and sound began to flicker back for Trenton, he realised he was still entangled and glued into the net, in a ball of limbs with his blacked-out partner. The glue was itchy and uncomfortable, pulling on the skin of his hands and face, fixing the criss-cross netting firmly over his nose and lips.
“Better let me out, scum. Back-up will be here soon, and if you try anything, you’ll be tortured before you’re killed…That’s a promise.”
The lean, bony woman he had noticed standing defiant in the shooting, was now swaying side to side in agitation in front of Trenton. She had a stern, weathered face – which told him she didn’t take any shit. She had lived a life that had engrained truths into lines around her eyes and jawline. Her clothes were dowdy, grey and old. There was a whiff of body odour about her and her hair was shaven in a close crop on her head. That was fairly normal on account of hygiene and lice infestations, even in the waterlands – it was the filth of litter that drew them. Something told him he needed to be careful with what he said next, but it was never his style. She was ahead of him anyway.
“You cops don’t have any back-up,” she said, like he was an idiot for suggesting otherwise, “You’re out here alone…”
Behind her was a pile of bodies stacked up into a bloody mound of boots and arms and blank soulless eyes. Around the rigour mortis hillock, there was a circle of sobbing children, crying hard, their pain palpable, like small, weak valves overpowered from high pressure.
She continued as Trenton tried to adjust his position and sit up.
“You came for our food and you killed our brothers and sisters…Why? Why bother with such a small haul. It will barely feed a hundred people for a month. It doesn’t make sense?”
“It’s not yours. You’re thieves. The Brotherhood are killers and steal from the farmers, those farmers work hard to make a living?”
“I want to understand you, to understand, why? These people are not criminals, they’re just poor and hungry…”
“Listen,” grunted Trenton, unmoved, “Crime is crime. I don’t care about your reasons.”
Her lip curled, it was disgust.
“Let me show you… Crime…”
She was holding a long rusty bolt cutter loosely in one hand. Trenton was tough, but he was still human. He flinched as she approached, wriggling like a maggot under the shadow of a beak, struggling to push himself back. As he waited for the pain to be inflicted, he realised she was using the bolt cutters to slice through the glued netting, she was releasing him. For a second his instinct for fight returned but either side of her were armed men and behind them an angry mob, besides, he could hardly move for the mess of net still clinging to his wetsuit.
People, lots of people, were staring at him with spite in their eyes. Many lives had been ruined by his protocols of violence. He was almost in awe of their restraint not to tear him limb from limb right there. He had not counted on there being whole families down in the underworld, but it didn’t matter, thieves were thieves and killers were killers. He was well aware of the reputation of The Brotherhood. No one knew much about them, no one had ever gotten close enough to really understand what they were really doing, their movements and whereabouts, the only thing that was common knowledge was knowing that if you got in their way, they were ruthless.
Several hands intervened and separated Shelly from Trenton. They began peeling off the net pieces and applying a dissolving agent to the globular strands that had restrained them so effectively. With the help of some smelling salts and a slap around the cheek, Shelly began to regain consciousness too, groaning and mumbling incoherently.
He noticed them take more care with Shelly, the cop whose restraint may have saved lives. Trenton knew he was the villain of the piece, that much was clear.
“Get up and follow me…” she commanded him. As betrayed as he felt by his partner, he instinctively felt it wrong to leave Shelly alone with them, but with the gun barrels aimed his way, what could he do but comply?
They walked in procession in a tunnel trailing further through the subway with loosely strung together lighting. The air was cool, it made for a welcome change to the usual heat of the world above. His senses were more alert than ever, sharply focused on his own mortality.
Someone walked by them, then another, there were hordes of wanderers down there in the depths under the Canyons. They were walking with purpose to places unknown, or sitting in corners, huddled in grubby dens fashioned from sheets and crates. Finally, another large open room, this time with stalls and benches and crying babies cradled by women in rags.
A queue of dishevelled people of all shapes and ages, snaked untidily around the corner to a table manned by Brotherhood goons. They were what Trenton had expected in the first place, large, ugly brutes with knives and pistols, with thick beards and dead eyes. No doubt, they were the thieves who stole the harvest, the ones from the sub.
“What’s this?” Trenton asked.
“What does it look like?” she said.
The people at the head of the queue were doubling back from the table, in their arms, each of them clutched a stiff bundle of seaweed.
“You’re feeding them…”
“That’s right. We don’t profit from the food. We eat it. Is that a crime, to eat?”
“It’s not your food… You didn’t pay for it.”
“It’s seaweed. It wasn’t invented by farmers, it’s just food, so that’s what we use it for. We can’t pay for it. We’re broke and we’d die without it, so we take it.”
Trenton cut to the chase.
“How many of you are there?” he barked, as if he was interrogating her.
She smiled serenely, happy to answer the question.
“More than above ground in this State… You understand? This is the real world now. Everyone down here made a decision, the decision not to die. We’re not like your people anymore. We don’t have your money, we don’t have your laws, we just have each other. We are networked all over the old subways under the Canyons. Money is why the world flooded, it’s why they told us we were worthless. You’re not the first cops to find us, but they’ve never killed innocent people on sight. I guess it had to happen one day. I’ve kind of been expecting you.”
With that came a long silence. Trenton watched as different people joined the queue, some carrying buckets, some limping and shivering, some spitting at his feet when they passed by.
He felt scared for the first time in years of living dangerously. He could feel the weight of time, could sense it growing in density, crushing him. Down in the dark, a new society had grown, a strong one, defying the cruel indifference to the destitute, that defined the world above.
To confirm his fears, there was a single gunshot behind them. It made him flinch, showed the chink in his armour. It echoed across the subway spaces, it felt finite and awful to hear. The woman stroked her shaven head to comfort herself. She did not thrive on violence, it was something she had just grown with and accepted, like you can’t stop heavy rain, or a tiger feeding, it was part of the way.
Trenton realised, as did they all, that the shot had ended Shelly’s life. His partner had been executed. That kindness, almost tenderness, releasing him from the netting, was just a temporary moment, like gently leading a calf to its slaughter.
“It’s time,” she said. “You didn’t give us a choice, so we can’t take the risk.”
“Hell… If I were in your shoes, I’d do the same. It’s a shitty world anyway, I guess losing my apartment was an omen today. I’m gonna die for some crappy seaweed harvest, I could have guessed it would all end this way… But, you know, I don’t want to die…”
It was all he could manage to say.
“Nobody does…” she said and gave him a long, heavy second, to prepare.
The next gunshot rang out like a burst of defined anger, like the last word in an argument. It was done.
The people in the queue took in the grizzly sight for a few difficult seconds as the body was rolled into the water, and despite their horror, they knew they were safe.