Boston Harbour. September 16, 2001.
There are police on the quay. They amble on slow patrol, panning the wall of freighters, checking critically through binoculars the drivers of Zodiacs and dinghies cutting across the calm, steely surface leaving trails of spume in their wakes. The bubbles roil, anxious to return to equilibrium.
A Navy helicopter beats up above, its shadow flashing over the docks. The police take off their caps to watch, turning to track the great mechanical insect's progress across the cloudy sky. Its rippling shadow wavers in the faces of the glass office towers.
While the police rubberneck a girl shimmies along the stack of boxcars behind them. Her sneakers squeak on the damp metal, but nothing can be heard over the throb of the helicopter rotor. She glances at them through strands of dirty blonde hair, grimaces, then continues to work her way along the boxcar top.
The helicopter sweeps off into the distance, its voice turning tinny as it fades. The police loop back into the next leg of their patrol, thumbs hooked in their belts. The girl is gone.
With a grunt she lands on all fours on the slick metal floor of a container ship loading bay. The paint is baby blue and peeling away from bubbles of rust. Overhead, through the hatch, the loading crane swivels back to shore, its swinging maw empty.
The deckhands wander back. They hear nothing but a curious squeak of rubber sole as the girl flits out of sight. "Okay," calls the Portuguese foreman as he consults a clipboard, "I want this hatch closed. We got luxury cars with a hundred kinds of goddamn bells and whistles in C bay, so I need all the companionways sealed, too, or the insurer's gonna freak."
The foreman leaves. When he is out of sight the deckhands sit down on the protruding edge of the portside bulkhead and slip out packs of cigarettes. Disposable lighters snick. They stretch and grunt with satisfaction, dragging appreciatively on the smokes. "Shit," says one. "We work too hard. When we gonna be millionaires, Vargo?"
"Shit," agrees the other. "I'll buy this frigging boat, man. I'll frigging own it."
They smoke. The metal walls shudder, and then they hear a distant clank and clang. The container ship is unmooring. Soon, they will be underway. "Vargo, man -- we're gonna get away with it, right? I mean, everything's fine, ain't it?"
Vargo nods without looking over. "It's all good, Tammer. Relax." He jumps as the horn blares topside. The engines grumble, making the puddles on the loading bay floor dance. "Shit," says Vargo. "We'd better get up there, or Jesus'll vice our nuts."
"Did you see where I put my smokes?"
"Stop dicking around. Get those hatches dogged, Tammer. Come on!"
"But, Vargo --"
"That's Jesus on the frigging radio now, man."
The deckhands hurry to their duties and then jog deeper into the cargo bay, checking companionways as they go. Their escaping footfalls are lost under the increasing volume of the engines.
The girl slips out from her hiding spot, tucks the stolen pack of cigarettes into her patched and worn knapsack, then carefully follows the deckhands away from the light of the loading hatch. She puts her knapsack over her head as she passes through a stream of dripping water, then finds herself surrounded by looming stacks of steel isocontainers tethered to the deck by chains. She proceeds along the narrow gap between them, straining her eyes against the increasing gloom to avoid tripping over the chains.
She comes to a wider alley between sets of stacks. She crouches by the corner of a container to watch Vargo and Tammer exit via a double-wide companionway at the end of the alley, Vargo's radio squelching between bouts of Portuguese profanity. "Jesus -- we're coming, we're coming," says Vargo as they bar the door behind them.
The engines settle into a steady drone. Water drips. The cargo bay now seems darker and quieter than it has any right to be.
She takes a breath, then walks out into the alley, wandering its length as far as the light penetrates in search of a nook where she might curl up undisturbed for the duration of the journey. She notices that she is leaving a trail of dirty wet footprints, swears, then backtracks and uses her sweater to wipe them out.
It is as she is shuffling backward, erasing her own path, that she sees a second set of dirty wet footprints on the scratch-hatched metal deck. She stops and straightens, panning her sight in a circle. On all sides she sees nothing but the silhouetted towers of isocontainer stacks sixty feet high.
A chain clanks. She swings her head around.
She's not alone.
"...Hello?" she whispers.
A voice a row over calls, "I think I heard something this way!"
She dashes out of the alley and squeezes herself into a narrow crack between two stacks, heart pounding. Two figures draw nearer, sweeping the crevices with flashlights. "I don't see nothing, man. You're frigging paranoid."
"But there were footprints, Vargo."
"They're probably yours, dumbass."
"I'm thinking somebody's onto us, man. This is bad."
"You're a pussy, Tammer. Now shut up and let's get some chow."
She remains squished in the narrow gap for many long moments after the deckhands have left again. She works to slow her breathing, but it makes her throat tickle and she wants to cough. Her chest aches. She needs a cigarette.
The dark cargo bay rolls gently back and forth on the waves. The stacks creak. The chains sway. A thousand tiny noises surface over the engine's bed of constant growling.
She slips out a smoke, lights it, drags. She makes a face. "Ugh," she groans. "Menthol."
She shakes her head and exhales. "Just my luck."
She is grabbed from behind. A wide hand is clamped over her mouth, and she is yanked off balance. She cries out into the restraining hand and then yelps when she hits the deck hard, her hip barked painfully against the steel corner of an isocontainer.
She bites the hand. It withdraws with a startled grunt.
She turns around, staggers to her feet, swings her knapsack in a wide, protective arc. When she swings it again it impacts against someone. Miniature punk-band buttons fly off in all directions, clinking as they bounce. "Oof!" gasps her attacker, stumbling back into a wall of containers.
A pause. They can hear each other's ragged breath.
"I've got a gun," she hisses into the shadows.
"I've got a gun," she says again, "and it's pointed at your balls!"
A wheeze. A chuckle. "No you don't, girl." Another grunt as he stands, a new patch of darker darkness rising up before her. "And even if you did, you're as blind as I am in here."
His voice is gravelly and low, and it is heavily accented. "Are you a terrorist?" she manages to croak.
He chuckles again. "Nah. I'm a stowaway."
She chews her lip fretfully, then lets her shoulders drop a bit. "Me too." She sighs. "So what's going on here? Are you going to rape and murder me or are we going to be pals?"
"Pals. I'm too tired for anything else. Okay?"
"Suits me fine."
He nods. "What's your name?"
"Lallo. I know a place we can camp out. Are you good for some climbing?"
She follows the sounds of him to a metal ladder set into a tall vertical groove at one end of a container stack. They clamber upward, taking their time on the moisture-slick rungs. Flakes of rust drip down from his heels. Dalia keeps her eyes on her own hands and feet. A weak light begins to grow from up above -- a sliver of sunlight coming through some unseen hatch or seam. As the ship sways the light drifts back and forth, waxing and waning, making the fuzzy shadows of her grubby hands slide.
At the top of the stack is a cramped space before the hold's ceiling. The light coming through the slats of a salt-corroded vent lends the space a milky, surreal glow. Dalia is able to see that her companion's, squat, bulky body is wrapped in layers of filthy rags. Some of them are burnt at the edges, and when he moves he exudes the stink of old fire. He tosses aside two sacks and then bends over to pry open a small hatch on the top of the container. "Go on, girl," he says, gesturing with his hooded head.
She crawls past him and lets herself through the hatch. She lands on the hood of a car, the suspension squeaking from the impact. A second later Lallo lands next to her, his feet denting the hood rudely. He leans over the windshield and wrenches open the sunroof.
"You're pretty strong," she remarks breathlessly.
"Oh, sure," he agrees, then flexes his bloody palm. There's a gash from the sunroof's edge across it.
He shrugs, looking at the wound critically. "Forget about it. I'm a good healer."
They worm inside the vehicle through the sunroof. Lallo stands on the seats and reaches out to retrieve his sacks, then tosses them down in the rear footwell. As he lowers himself back into the car the feeble light crosses his face; Dalia suppresses a gasp, startled by his gnarled ugliness. She also sees something familiar: the hardness that comes from a long time rambling. Whatever else Lallo may be, he's not altogether different from her.
He opens the neck of one of the sacks and rummages around inside. Something squelches. "What's that?" asks Dalia.
"Food," he says. Dalia's mouth begins instantly to salivate.
He offers over the sack. She peers inside, then wrinkles her nose. It contains a squished lump of old fast food remains, brown apple cores and half-eaten sandwiches. "Ugh," she says, pushing the sack away. "I can't believe how totally bad that smells. You fish that crap out of a dumpster?"
"Oh yeah," he confirms, a handful of cold, broken French fries disappearing into his hood. He chomps loudly and wetly. "Not bad, if you're hungry enough."
Dalia grimaces, then glances over at the footwell. "What's in that one?"
Lallo pauses from his chewing. "Nothing to eat. Just a head."
She blinks. "What?"
Lallo helps himself to another handful of nondescript sludge. "A head," he repeats, then stuffs his mouth. "Just leave him be, girl."
"You've got a motherflippin' head in that bag?"
He nods mutely as he chews. She studies a narrow swath of his face visible beneath the hem of the hood: he isn't just hard, he's unbelievably weathered, the skin a crosshatched and deeply rutted landscape of scars and wrinkles. He looks like a ghoul.
"Oh, Mary finger me in hell," Dalia whispers, drawing back from him. "You are going to rape and murder me."
He sniffs. "Nah."
"I'm stowed away with a psycho."
"I'm not so bad, once you get to know me."
"You've got somebody's head in a bag!"
Lallo waves dismissively. "Don't worry about him, girl. He's fine. Look." He fishes the sack out of the footwell, loosens the neck, sticks his head inside and asks, "S'alright?" to which he replies back to himself in a muffled tone, "S'alright." Then he looks up and grins, blocky, yellowed teeth splitting his monstrous face.
Dalia stares at him in horror, then blinks and shakes her head. "You're just messing with me, right? You think this is funny?"
He shrugs philosophically. "Everything's at least a little bit funny."
"Jeefus Crust," she breathes. "What the hell are you?"
"Tired," he declares, knocking both sacks aside and then shifting to lie out across the backseat. Dalia squirms out of his way, curling up with her knapsack in the front.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm taking a nap," he says, tugging his hood over his eyes. He then lifts his head briefly and fixes her with a wry look. "You promise not to rape and murder me in my sleep?"
She nods silently. Within seconds he's snoring.
She waits as long as she dares and then begins to quietly slink out of her seat, intent on putting as much distance between herself and this freak as possible. She pauses while trying to hoist up through the sunroof, however, as her empty stomach growls loudly. She looks back down at the sack of garbage in the footwell. The thought of it doesn't seem so bad now.
She decides to take a few choice bits for herself but loses control once she discovers an almost entirely intact chicken wrap and its smell is insufficiently abhorent to dent her swelling appetite. She consumes it in three bites, then begins digging through the sack for a comparable find. She comes up with half a hot dog and a sealed plastic envelope of plum sauce. She dips the former into the latter and eats it greedily.
As she chews her gaze wanders over to the second sack.
She decides, after mulling it over, that there must be a reason for Lallo's attempts to put her off looking inside. The sack is dry and unstained, and it doesn't smell rotten. It's hard for her to believe it could actually contain a head. As the moments pass she becomes more and more convinced that it contains instead some form of treasure. Money, perhaps, or even drugs. Possibly a weapon.
She steels herself, then leans into the backseat and loosens the neck of the sack. Carefully, she draws back one of the edges. In the feeble light she has no idea what she's uncovering until the contents shift, rolling against her hand, grazing her with leather-like skin.
She squeals and launches herself backward, hitting her shoulder on the dashboard. "Oh my shit," she hisses to herself, fighting not to retch. She wipes her hand on the driver's seat, lips pursed. "I gotta get out of here."
She has worked her way out of the isocontainer and is dangling one sneaker over the ladder when she hears movement from below. A flashlight beams sweeps through the narrow gaps between stacks. Voices mutter.
Dalia reverses her course, then hovers uncertainly on the cool, steel top of the container. "Damn," she says, eyes wide.
She decides to wait them out.
She closes her heavy eyelids. Her breathing slows. In moments, Dalia is dreaming...
She rockets upright, banging her head on the cargo bay ceiling. "Crap!"
It's darker now. There is no more light coming through the vent. It's colder, too. She feels and hears the rag-wrapped form of Lallo shift on the container beside her. As her senses crystallize she can also detect the sounds of Vargo and Tammer moving around below. "I found one of my smokes, Vargo. I told you, somebody took them off me. There's someone in here. Somebody frigging extra, man."
Their voices dim as they search a further aisle. Lallo shakes his head slowly. "Those sailor guys, they're running a plot. Complicates things for us. Watching too closely."
"Don't take this the wrong way, but your breath redefines rank."
"We have bigger worries, girl. Come now, back into the motor-car."
They squeeze through the sunroof one at a time. Lallo drops into the backseat again while Dalia climbs into the front, turned around and hanging off the headrest to face his shadowed hood. "What're we gonna do?" she asks.
"Sit tight, keep quiet," says Lallo. "Stay sharp."
Dalia yawns involuntarily. "Is it like the middle of the night or what?"
"I totally won't be able to stay awake, dude. I'm wiped. Can't we put on some music or something?"
"You want to sing?"
"I mean the radio. Couldn't we put it on just really quietly?"
"Yeah, dipshit, we're in a car, right? Cars have radios." She leans over to the dashboard and presses some buttons but to no effect. "H'mm," she says, furrowing her brow. She feels through the glove box but finds no keys. Then she mumbles, "Wait!" She paws at the the driver's side foldable sunscreen. Behind it she discovers a small electronic fob sealed in a plastic sleeve with a loose watch battery. "Ah-ha, keyless entry," she declares, tearing open the plastic with her teeth. She fits the battery into the fob and clicks it closed, then fumbles along the steering column until she finds the activation button.
She presses it lightly. The dashboard and gauges illuminate. Dalia fiddles with the controls until the speakers begin to emit the tweet and thump of popular music. Next she turns on the heater. Warm air blows from the vents. She leans back into her leather chair and props her shoes up on the steering wheel. "Now this is stowing away."
She reaches up and stabs on the cabin light, then gasps as Lallo's face is fully revealed in the rearview mirror.
He looks down. "I know I'm ugly."
She turns around to face him. "What happened to you, man?"
"I'm old," he says shortly. "You'll look this bad too, one day."
"But -- you're like burned."
"Oh sure," he agrees, not meeting her eye. "Lots of scars."
"No, not scars," she insists. She takes a breath, then reaches out and touches his face with her bare fingers. His eyes widen but he does not resist. She turns his face forcibly toward the light. "These blisters...that's new. I mean, there's pus and shit. It's pretty gross, actually. You should look after that."
He cocks his head and touches his own face, his rough fingers grazing hers. "I was in New York," he says quietly. "There was a lot of fire. I hadn't noticed getting hurt. Sometimes that happens to me when I'm busy."
"You were in New York?"
"Like, when it actually happened?"
"So you...you were there there."
She swallows heavily. "Did you do it?"
He squints. "Hah?"
"Did you fuck up the World Trade shit, Lallo?"
He shakes his head, frowning. "Me? Nah. That was crazy Mohammedeans, I think. I just saw my chance and I took it."
"Your chance to what?"
He gestures over at the dark footwell. "To seize the head."
Dalia's mouth goes dry. "Did you kill that guy?"
"Why isn't there any blood?"
She pauses, looking down at the sack again. "It's like a mummy or something? Like, petrified and shit?"
Lallo considers this. "Sort of."
"So why do you have it? You're gonna sell it to some rich collector, right?"
Lallo shakes his head. "I want to ask him some questions."
Dalia purses her lips dubiously. "What kind of questions do you ask a petrified head? I mean, how could it even answer you?"
"That's the problem," nods Lallo seriously. "He won't say anything now. I think he needs to be galvanized somehow. I'm not sure. I'll worry about that after we land at New Scotland."
Dalia leans back and lights up a cigarette. "Why do you talk like that?"
"Like, what does galvanize mean, and where the hell is New Scotland?"
"Don't you go to school, girl?"
She offers him a raw laugh, too old for her years, as she exhales a cloud of smoke. "Are you retarded? Look at me, Lallo. I'm a fucking filthy brat. I usually screw for my bed. I'm eating garbage while I'm stowing away in a goddamn car barge because I'm an illegal fucking alien and they've closed the fucking borders. And you think I go to school?"
He snorts. "You should think about looking into maps. They're very handy. But I don't mind telling you: this ship is heading for New Scotland, to dock at the port of Halifax. Once I'm there I'll find a way to wake up the head."
She drags on her smoke, watching him over her fingers. "So then I guess you're gonna steal yourself a galvatron or whatever?"
"He needs power. I know which wires to connect. I read about it."
Dalia raises her brow. "So it needs electricity, hey?"
"Yeah, electricity -- galvanic force -- what have you. I get confused by all the new words. I'm no head mechanic."
Lallo seems stricken when Dalia bursts out laughing at this. "You're motherflippin' unreal, man," she gasps between bouts. "A head mechanic? New Scotland?" She squints at him, smirking. "You know I'm pretty sure the survey party you sent ahead to learn about the language and customs of Planet Earth screwed up large. You sound like a total dork."
"I'm not from space," he says in a small voice. "I'm from Spain."
He's startled as this sets Dalia off into a fresh explosion of laughter. She coughs, a tear running down one cheek. "Lallo, you slay me. You've got to be just about the strangest freak I've ever met, and I'm including Greenwich Village in that. Seriously, what the fuck?" She leans forward and cups her hard face in one palm, looking in that moment almost child-like. "What's your story, dude?"
"It's long," he says shortly.
She bats her eyes, the lashes lumpy with old mascara. "I ain't going nowhere. Captive audience."
He looks at her for a moment, then smiles bleakly. "You're okay," he decides. "But I don't want you laughing at me anymore. I'll keep my biography private, okay?"
"I won't laugh at you."
"You just laughed at me twice in a row."
"Oh my shit, are your feelings hurt?"
"You're a big softie, aren't you? Jeefus Crust. You can't fool me. You're all bark and no bite. You're the goddamn cowardly lion. You're gonna cry now because some stupid bitchy girl giggled at you."
"I'm not going to cry."
"Just got something in your eye, hey? Whatever, dude."
They sit in silence for a moment. Dalia stabs out her smoke in the pristine ashtray and then cracks her knuckles. "Okay I'm sorry," she says quickly. "Don't even listen to me. I'm always like that. But the thing is, I don't think you have to wait to talk to your head."
Lallo looks over. "Hah?"
"We're sitting in a car. It's got a battery. It's running the radio right now."
Lallo's heavy brow rises. "Maybe it's not enough though, I think."
Dalia smiles and gestures broadly. "How many cars are in this box, man? It's hard to tell in the dark, but there's gotta be at least six. I could wire them up together. I know how."
He smiles. "You do?"
"I used to steal cars," she explains, opening the door beside her and sliding out. She sidles along the narrow rails on which the vehicle sits, working her way around to the front. She feels along the grille in the dark. "I don't know where the catch is for the hood. You see it in there?"
Lallo straightens out of the backseat and moves along the opposite side of the car. With a sudden, vicious motion he jabs the tips of one hand into the gap at the end of the hood, then grunts as he deforms the metal. The catch breaks, and the hood opens with a sad creak.
"I don't care how good a healer you are," breathes Dalia. "That's gotta hurt."
He snorts. "Nah. This hand is phoney. Steel fingertips."
"What happened to your old hand?"
He shrugs. "Came off."
Dalia looks over at his shape in the dark, but he offers nothing more. She flicks her Bic and holds the flame over the engine. "Here we go," she says, tapping on the battery. "We need to get this thing out of here. You got a screwdriver attachment for that fake hand?"
"Don't sound like that. I'm just screwing around. Don't worry -- I got a knife we can use."
In the end they elect to leave that battery on place, using it to power the headlamps to illuminate the inside of the isocontainer as they work to extract the batteries from the other vehicles. Once removed, Lallo arranges them in a line across the dented hood of the first car and then Dalia dumps down an armful of torn-free wiring and begins to industriously connect it. She mumbles something around the pocket-knife in her mouth.
"I'm saying can you turn up the radio a bit?"
"I spin the little knob, right?"
"The one that says vol, uh-huh."
He does as he is told, frowning as he returns. "It's too loud. Those crooked sailor guys are going to hear."
"It's Cherry Nuk-Nuk. It's supposed to be loud."
"What's a Cherry Nuk-Nuk?"
"She's a she, dude. Only happens to be the world's most famous Inuit pop singer...kind of like how you're the world's most totally out of it guy. You live under a rock?"
He hesitates bashfully.
"Crap," says Dalia. "I didn't mean to make fun. It's just that everybody knows who Cherry Nuk-Nuk is, you know?"
Lallo says nothing.
Dalia looks up. "Okay. Bring on the head."
He places the sack on the hood, loosens the neck, and then lets the sides drop. He does so with such strange reverence that it would seem almost dignified and ritualistic if he hadn't been forced to scramble to catch the head before it rolled off. "Whoops."
The light from the headlamps reflects off Dalia's stained T-shirt, casting a soft glow on the head as Lallo gingerly steadies it before her. She studies it as she manages the bundle of wires, gaze lingering over the whorled and wrinkled skin puckered around gashes, the empty black holes of the eye sockets, the slit nostrils of the subtle nose, the oddly relaxed mouth filled with little glittering teeth...
The neck has been severed crudely, its stump dangling with small, hair-like fibres. Dalia frowns. "What the crap? I don't...I don't know where the leads are. It's all...fuzzy."
"Just jam them in."
"That ain't how electricity works, Lallo."
"It doesn't matter. Let him figure it out."
Dalia pauses, her hands shrinking back from the neck. "What do you mean?"
"He's alive, girl."
She shivers. "But it's...it's just a machine. Right? It's a thing."
"Oh sure," agrees Lallo in a quiet voice. "But it's one of those robot guys. Dead clever. Damned stubborn."
Dalia moves back, sneakers squeaking on the edge of the metal rail. "It's a robot? Like a Sony dog?"
Lallo grunts ambiguously. "Shove in those wires, will you?"
Dalia hovers uncertainly for a moment, then purses her lips and plunges the bundle of wires into the base of the severed neck. She steps back. Lallo leans in closer. Both of them hold their breath. Something quietly crackles. Dalia smells ozone. A flash of sparks make her jump. Lallo catches her before she tumbles backward.
"I think we just shorted it out," she decides.
"No," whispers a new voice.
Dalia freezes, gooseflesh spreading across her shoulders. She feels even Lallo stir uneasily. Something inside the head begins to quietly hum. A mechanism ticks. Instinctively she grabs Lallo's arm for comfort, loosening her grip slightly as she feels its unresponsive, metallic weight. In light of the situation she reconsiders her assessment of Lallo: perhaps he has less in common with someone like herself, and more in common with an object like the one stirring before them. The lips flex, making an odd, paper-like noise.
The airy, small, discomfitingly inhuman voice sounds again: "What...is...the...year?"
Dalia finds she cannot speak. Lallo raises his chin as he replies, "Two thousand something."
"Two thousand and one," Dalia manages to croak as addendum.
The head's lips twitch again. "Not...yet," it says. The mouth goes slack. The ticking stops. The hum begins to cycle down to silence.
"Oh no you don't," growls Lallo. He reaches forward and knocks the head roughly. "Wake up! Wake up, you!"
"Crap," gasps Dalia, "just leave it alone!"
Lallo shakes the head and bangs it down on the hood. "Hey, robot guy! We're not done yet!"
The head stirs. Lallo withdraws his paws, breathing heavily through his wide nose. The head speaks only a single word, this time at half the volume of its previous utterances: "...Dying."
"Tell us how to fix you!"
"My every act...is corrosive to history. Let me go."
"Never, robot. I've read the Jamijama. I know who you are." He pauses significantly, gazing down at the head with narrowed eyes. He whispers, "Jeremiah."
The head jerks in place. "Who...?" is all it is capable of articulating.
Lallo straightens to his full, squat height. "I am Lallo Long," he declares, hands on his hips, expression fierce. "And I have fought my way through more shit than any god has a right to ask. I don't know why, and I don't know how, but I know I'm a part of something wrong. And you have the answers I need. You can tell me; you will tell me. I have slain Og, Jababirat Commander of the Nephilim Armies, and I have slain Zeus himself -- I pulled the beard from his face. Don't you think a monster like me can find a way to punish even you, robot?"
Dalia draws back from him, eyes wide. "Lallo, man..."
He surges forward and seizes the head, crushing it between his hands. Something cracks. Dust rains down from the stump. Lallo's face contorts with emotion as he bellows, "Tell us! Tell us how to fix you! Tell us what you need!"
Dalia punches him in the shoulder, crying out as her knuckles hit hard plastic. "Stop!" she shrieks. "You're killing it!"
Lallo drops the head. It bounces on the hood, lolls to one side, comes to a slow halt. Lallo covers his face and turns away, his shoulders heaving. Dalia stares at him, quaking.
They both look over as the head speaks again. "Clay."
Lallo blinks. "Hah?"
"Feed me..." whispers the head. "Feed me clay...and graphite."
Dalia licks her dry lips. "That's what you need, to get fixed? You want to eat?"
The head shudders. "Put them...in my mouth."
The hum dies. The ticking stops. The head goes still. Dalia reaches over to the battery of batteries and touches two wires together experimentally. Nothing happens. "Totally drained," she announces. "It sucked every one of them dry."
Lallo grunts. "We'll move to another container. We'll get more batteries." He looks sideways at Dalia, his brown eyes softer than she'd been able to appreciate before. "Will you help me?"
He grins. "You're okay, girl."
Together they climb out through the hatch on the top of the isocontainer. A flat, dull yellow light is beginning to creep through the vent: morning is coming. They clamber across the gap to the next stack. Lallo takes a breath and then breaks the cover off its hatch. He looks inside and then rears back suddenly.
"What is it?" asks Dalia.
He furrows his brow. "People."
He gestures at the hatch. Dalia looks over its edge. The faint yellow light glimmers on several sets of eyeballs looking back up at her. She can smell sweat and urine. She moves back from the hatch. "Are they stowaways, too?"
Lallo shrugs. "Let's ask." He puts his face to the hole. "Are you stowaway guys, or what?" He pauses, then, listening to a reply, and then responds with a mealy-mouthed string of guttural language.
"What the hell was that?"
"Arabic," says Lallo. "They're Arabs."
"You speak Arabic?"
"Oh, sure. Don't you?" He cocks his head as he listens to more muttering from down below inside the isocontainer. "They think we're police guys. Ha, ha. Makes them scared. Can you smell it?"
"Holy crap, Lallo. They could be terrorists! Real terrorists."
He shakes his head. "Nah. I know the look of huddled masses when I see them. They're sneaking into the Canadian Dominion, just like you and me."
"Why are you leaving?"
She considers this. "Well, I don't have no passport, and they're cracking down everywhere about ID. My buddy's friend started telling me about how it's gonna get worse. He was saying it wasn't gonna stop until it gets to Big Brother. He said..." She paused, looking directly at Lallo. "He said the most freedom we would ever know was last week, and it's all down hill from here...because of what happened." She wipes at her nose carelessly and shrugs. "He sort of started freaking me out, so I decided to bail before it all goes to shit. I'm not even a citizen, right? So I'm going back to Canada rather than take my chances in a flipped-out America."
Lallo nods. "Them too, I figure. Bad time to be an illegal Arab in America. Your friend is right. The witch hunts -- they're only starting. I've seen this kind of panic before."
Dalia crawls further from the hatch, then lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper: "So you really think it was batshit-insane towelheads that hijacked the planes?"
"Probably. I've come across rumours. They have a network, trade instructions hidden in pictures. Whatever. Small-time stuff."
"Small-time stuff? Are you shitting me? They practically destroyed Manhattan, Lallo!"
He shrugs. "That's trivial compared to the mud I wade in."
"I almost believe you, and it's freaking me out."
"You don't think I'm...batshit-insane?"
She smirks. "Man, you got the Terminator's head in a bag! I mean, that means you're either like a special effects puppet genius or you're...or you're actually up to your eyeballs in some way-messed, fucking serious-ass, shit."
He looks at her for a moment, then drops his gaze. "Okay. So know we know why the sailor guys are so jumpy about the cargo. They know we're in here, and they're afraid we'll jeopardize the run. It's customs on the landing side they'll be worried about, and we should be too."
"So what are we gonna do?"
He nods back at the hatch. "We'll go in with them."
"You're messing with me."
"It kills two birds: we avoid a confrontation with the sailors, and we parasite on their plan to get this bunch landed." He starts to squirm toward the edge back to their original isocontainer. "Let's get our things. Move, girl!"
Dalia hesitates. "Why don't we just go in at the end, stay in the cars for now?"
"We might be found. Come on, let's move."
"But it's totally rank in there, man! It's nasty."
Lallo's eyes narrow. "If they can do it, you can do it. The trip is short."
"Short? It's like twenty more hours, at least!"
Lallo shrugs. "I don't wear a watch. Besides, I've crossed the Atlantic in steerage. You want a long stinky voyage? That, girl, is a long stinky voyage. This is nothing."
"What, did you come over on the Mayflower or something?" she retorts with a snort.
He nods. "Bloody Pilgrims. Always whining."
She rolls her eyes. "Oh, fuck off."
His face hardens. "You have quite a mouth on you, girl."
"Yeah, I bet in your day women had to speak proper or get the beats."
"In my day," he replies heavily, "women never spoke in front of men at all." Softly he says, "They only sang."
"Oh yeah? When was your day?"
"When talking was new."
He turns away abruptly and scrambles across the gap to the next isocontainer. After a moment Dalia follows him, uncertain how to feel. She smokes the last of the Menthol cigarettes while watching him gather up the head and her knapsack. He shoulders past her on the way out.
"Don't be pissy," she calls after him. "Damn it," she adds, and then follows. "Look, I'm sorry. I'm just kind of a bitch. Don't take it personally, man. I can't help it."
He pauses at the edge of the gap. "Too old a bitch to learn new tricks, are you?"
She grinds out her smoke. "I'm like twenty-two, Lallo."
He nods, mouth tight. "So smarten up. You're young and plastic. There's nothing you 'can't help' -- if you're sure in your purpose."
She looks up at him, her expression open. "I don't really have a purpose," she confesses, her voice uncharacteristically earnest. "I just kind of ramble. I go some place, meet some people, and then when I've screwed things up too much I move on. I just try to have fun, I guess."
Lallo chuckles, and he takes a deep breath. "Yeah, I know all about that. And then one day, when you tire of it -- and you will, girl, you will -- what will you be left with? What will be your life when you're done being distracted from it?"
She raises her chin defiantly. "Memories of good times, man. That's all anybody's got."
He shakes his head firmly. "No. No, that isn't all. Some people have work. Some people are building something."
"What are you building, Lallo?"
"I'm not building. I'm wrecking. I'm wrecking something someone else built."
Dalia frowns. "What did they build?"
He thumps his chest. "Me."
They drop inside the next isocontainer. The startled occupants draw back, the shadows of their ranks suddenly dotted with drifting blue circles of light. Dalia squints at them, then blinks as her eyes adjust to the gloom. She and Lallo are being feebly illuminated by a ring of Indiglo watch faces.
A few phrases are exchanges in Arabic. Lallo then nudges Dalia. "These guys are okay. Say hello."
"They speak English."
"Then why were you talking Arabic with them?"
He shrugs. "It's a more beautiful language. Why chew cud when you can eat dates?" He clears his throat when he sees her blank look. "You know, so the saying goes. Or went, maybe. Talking changes so fast."
Dalia nods stiffly, then turns to face the others. "Hi," she offers. "My name is Dalia."
The group greets her. They have milkcrates to sit on and bedrolls for sleeping. A bucket in the corner behind a drooping curtain of privacy appears to be the washroom. The people sprawl between lumps of luggage. There are men, women, children -- and even a cat in a scuffed veterinary cage. Dalia has never sen a muzzled cat before. Its fur is blue, its eyes flitting nervously.
They are invited to sit. Lallo settles in among a group of older men and begins chatting in Arabic. Dalia finds a milkcrate near a cluster of younger women. They greet her, their voices a medley of familiar eastern seaboard American accents. "Where're you from?" Dalia asks in wonder.
Dalia smiles awkwardly. "I'm guess I'm an idiot. I thought you'd all be from like Arabia or something."
"I was born in Lebanon," says one girl, nodding. "But we came here when I was two, because of the war."
"But you don't have no papers?"
She shakes her head. "There were difficulties. Where are you from, Dalia?"
"Alberta. Like, out west."
"That's the one."
This causes considerable excitement. They all want to know what it's like up north. "I won't bullshit you," says Dalia. "The winter sucks hard. Get ready to freeze your tits off."
The girls explode into laughter, their eyes wide and scandalized. The container is immediately filled by the sounds of harsh shushing from the older adults. "This is not playtime!" grumbles a bearded man beside Lallo.
The girls titter more quietly, covering their mouths with their hands.
The men replace the lid to the hatch, one standing on a tower of milkcrates while the others shine their Indiglo watches at the ceiling. Morsels of food are shared -- bottled water and potato chips and trail mix -- and then the travellers settle in to sleep. Dalia finds herself curling up next to Lallo who is, in such bewildering circumstances, at least comparatively familiar. In the dark she whispers with affection, "You're not going to rape and murder me in my sleep, are you?"
He sniffs. "Nah. You're okay, girl, but you're getting your blood. I can smell it."
She frowns. "What?"
"Bad luck," mutters Lallo, rolling over and tugging his hood down over his face.
"You really know how to charm a girl, Lallo."
Dalia falls instantly, and dreamlessly, asleep.
They are rudely awakened. Someone is pounding on the isocontainer. Outside, some people are yelling, others crying out. In the distance, muffled outside the ship, sirens wail. The hatch is thrown open from without. A man in uniform dangles inside and sweeps a flashlight through the compartment, then shouts, "Out! Out! Out!"
They're lined up inside the cargo bay. Other groups are being pulled from neighbouring stacks. An Arabic interpreter echoes every bark from the uniformed border guards as they instruct everyone to stand in rows, fingers laced on top of their heads, no speaking. When one of them strides past her row Dalia cries out, "I'm Canadian! I got a birth certificate in my knapsack, man! I'm Canadian!"
He ignores her.
She knows she's utterly boned. Clutching her knapsack, she blinks and twitches her face to keep tears back. Her throat works. She desperately craves a cigarette.
The people around her are shaking or sobbing. They're even more boned than she is.
For maybe the first time in her life, this matters to Dalia. Her heart squirms. She looks around quickly, her breathing quickening. There must be some way to make all this stop...
Lallo drops from the ceiling with an animal howl.
He lands on a trio of Coast Guard serviceman, knocking them to the ground and then using them as a platform from which to claim the high ground from those who rush in to contain him. In a blink they are flying across the bay, hitting the deck and going limp, skidding to a stop like ragdolls. "Holy crap!" cries Dalia, dodging a felled guard.
Lallo grabs a gun from another uniformed agent and throws it over his shoulder. His wide-eyed, crazed face meets the crowd of quaking rows. "Run, you cows -- run!"
Dalia is running. Everyone is running. Lallo is running in their midst, pouncing on obstacles like a lion. Women scream, men bellow, children cry. The riot bursts out onto the open deck, pouring through and disrupting the heretofore orderly lines of handcuffed deckhands being processed by police between looming stacks of more isocontainers. The charge staggers to a stop as tear-gas canisters hit the deck with a series of loud clanks. The aliens stampede away from the roiling front of smoke.
"Lallo!" screams Dalia, turning in place. "Lallo!"
She finds him by the aftcastle, struggling with a dozen or more uniformed men with riot gear. He roars as they smack at him with batons, thrusting him toward the gunwhale rail with their transparent shields. He's boned, Dalia decides -- he's utterly, utterly boned.
He drops his sacks as he staggers back against the rail, protecting his face.
Dalia knows there is nothing she can do for him. All hell has broken loose: all she can do is look out for number one. She feels the familiar, heady juice of opportunism rising in her gorge. Before she recognizes that she's made any decision at all she's picked up both sacks and jumped overboard.
(If all else fails, grab the goods and bail.)
The sun is up.
Dalia lies on the beach next to a pile of her own vomit. Gulls squawk overhead. She's only a few kilometers inharbour from the seized container ship; if she turns her head she can still see the winking red lights of the police cruisers in the distance. Red and white Coast Guard vessels cut back and forth through the waters, picking up stragglers.
Across a massive green bridge a line of cars crawls, normal people in rush-hour, on their way to start normal days. Beyond, the city of Halifax.
"Jeefus Crust," she mutters, blinking sand out of her eyes.
She tries not to think of Lallo. She tries not to think of what she's stolen from him, too, until one of the sacks shifts. She looks over at it, the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end. "Clay..." whispers a faint, faint voice. "I smell...clay."
And so this is how Dalia's first day back in Canada begins: the sky rosy, the sun a golden eye, the purple shadows long, Dalia kneeling on the beach digging for clay. She cups the shavings of dense, dark material in her hands to ferry them to the head, and then carefully deposits her findings in its mouth.
The head chews.
She wishes she had a cigarette. Her belly croaks and gurgles with hunger. The harbour waters have left her feeling oily and gross. None the less, she mulls over only a single concern:
"So..." she says to the head, the bronze sunlight glinting off its strange, leathery skin. "How're we gonna get your ass galvinized, guy?"