Read The Churn Online

Authors: James S.A. Corey

The Churn


An Expanse Novella

James S. A. Corey

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Burton was a small, thin, dark-skinned man. He wore immaculately tailored suits, and kept the thick black curls of his hair and the small beard on his chin neatly groomed. That he worked in criminal enterprises said more about the world than about his character. With more opportunities, a more prestigious education, and a few influential dorm mates at upper university, he could have joined the ranks of transplanetary corporate executives with offices at Luna and Mars, Ceres Station and Ganymede. Instead, a few neighborhoods at the drowned edges of Baltimore answered to him. An organization of a dozen lieutenants, a couple hundred street-level thugs and knee-breakers, a scattering of drug cooks, identity hackers, dirty cops, and arms dealers followed his dictates. And a class of perhaps a thousand professional victims—junkies, whores, vandals, unregistered children, and others in possession of disposable lives—looked up to him as he might look up at Luna: an icon of power and wealth glowing across an impassable void. A fact of nature.

Burton's misfortune was to be born where and when he was, in a city of scars and vice, in an age when the division in the popular mind was between living on government-funded basic support or having an actual profession and money of your own. To go from an unregistered birth such as his to having any power and status at all was an achievement as profound as it was invisible. To the men and women he owned, the fact that he had risen up from among the lowest of the low was not an invitation but a statement of his strength and improbability, mythical as the seagull that flew to the moon. Burton himself never thought about it, but that he had managed what he did meant only that it was possible. Anyone who had not had his determination, ruthlessness, and luck deserved pretty much whatever shit he handed to them. It didn't make him sympathetic when someone stepped out of line.

“He…what?” Burton said

“Shot him,” Oestra said, looking at the table. Around them, the sounds of the diner made a white noise that was like privacy.

“Shot. Him.”

“Yeah. Austin was talking about how he was good for the money, and how he just needed a few more days. Before he could finish, Timmy took that shitty homemade shotgun of his and—” Oestra made a shooting motion with two fingers and a thumb, the movement turning seamlessly into a shrug: a single gesture of violence and apology. Burton leaned back in his chair and looked over at Erich as if to say,
I think your puppy peed on my rug

Erich had recommended Timmy, had vouched for him, and so was responsible if things went wrong. It felt like they were going very wrong. Erich leaned forward, resting on his good elbow, hiding his fear with forced casualness. His bad arm, the left, was no longer than a six-year-old's and scarred badly at the joints. His disfigurement was the result of a beating he'd suffered as a child. It wasn't a fact that he'd shared with Burton, nor would he mention it now, though it did figure into the calculations that were his life. As did Timmy.

“He had a reason,” Erich said.

“He did?” Burton said, raising his eyebrows with feigned patience. “And what was it?”

Erich's stomach knotted. His bad hand closed in a tiny fist. He saw the hardness in Burton's eyes, and it reminded him that even with his knowledge, even with his skills, there were others who could fake identity records. Others who could fake DNA profiles. Others who could do for Burton what he did. He was expendable. It was the message Burton meant him to take.

“I don't know,” he said. “But I've known Timmy since forever, yeah? He doesn't do anything unless there's a reason.”

“Well,” Burton replied, pulling the word out to two syllables. “If it's since
, I guess that makes it all right.”

“Just, you know, if he did that, he did it for something.”

Oestra scratched his arm, scowling to hide the relief he felt at Burton's focus turning to Erich. “I got him in the storage room.”

Burton stood up, pushing back his chair with the backs of his knees. The waitress made a point not to look at the three as they moved across the room and out though the doors marked
, Burton and then Oestra and Erich limping at the back. She didn't even start cleaning the table until she was sure they were gone.

The storage room was claustrophobic to begin with and lined with boxes, making it even smaller. Cream-colored degradable storage boxes with flat green adhesive readouts on the side that listed what they contained and whether the cheap, disposable sensors in the foam had detected rot and corruption. The table in the cramped open space at the center was pressed particleboard, as much glue as wood. Timmy sat at it, the LED fixture overhead throwing the shadow of his brow down into his eyes. He was barely halfway into his second decade of life, but the red-brown hair was already receding from his forehead. He was strong, tall, and had an unnerving capacity for stillness. He looked up when the three men came in, dividing his smile equally among his childhood friend, the professional thug he'd just disappointed, and the thin, well-dressed man who controlled everything important in his life.

“Hey,” Timmy said to any of them.

Erich moved to sit at the table, saw that Oestra and Burton were standing motionless, and pulled back. If Timmy noticed, he didn't say anything.

“I hear that you killed Austin,” Burton said.

“Yeah,” Timmy said. The empty smile changed not at all.

Burton pulled out the chair opposite Timmy and sat. Oestra and Erich carefully didn't look at each other or at Burton. The object of all their attention, Timmy waited amiably for whatever came next.

“You care to tell me why you did that?” Burton asked.

“It's what you said to do,” Timmy said.

“That man owed me money. I told you to get whatever you could from him. This was your tryout, little man. This was your game. Now, how do you go from what I actually
to what you

“I got whatever I could get,” Timmy replied. There was no fear in his voice or his expression, and it left Burton with the sense he was talking to an idiot. “I couldn't get money out of that guy. He didn't have any. If he had, he'd have given it to you. Only thing you were getting from him was a way to make sure everyone else pays you on time. So I took that instead.”



“You're positive—you're
—that Austin wouldn't have gotten my money?”

“I don't mean to second-guess why anybody gave it to him in the first place,” Timmy said, “but that guy never met a dollar he didn't snort, shoot, or drink away.”

“So you thought it through, and you came to the conclusion that the wise and right thing to do was escalate this little visit from a collection run to a murder?”

Timmy's head tilted a degree. “Didn't spent a lot of time thinking about it. Water's wet. Sky's up. Austin gets you more dead than alive. Kind of obvious.”

Burton went silent. Oestra and Erich didn't look at him. Burton rubbed his hands together, the hiss of palm against palm the loudest noise in the room. Timmy scratched his leg and waited, neither patient nor impatient. Erich felt a growing nausea and the certainty that he was about to watch an old friend and protector die in front of him. His stunted hand opened and closed and he tried not to swallow. When Burton smiled his small, amused smile, the only one who saw it was Timmy, and if he understood it, he didn't react.

“Why don't you wait here, little man,” Burton said.

“Arright,” Timmy said, and Burton was already walking out the door.

Out in the café, the lunch rush had started. The booths and tables were filled, and a crowd loitered in the doorway, scowling at the waitresses, the diners who had gotten tables before them, and the empty place reserved for Burton and whoever he chose to have near him. As soon as he took his chair, the waitress came over, her eyebrows raised, as if he were a new customer. He waved her away. There was something about sitting at an empty table in full view of hungry men and women that Burton enjoyed.
What you want, I can take or I can leave
, it said.
All I want is to keep your options for myself
. Erich and Oestra sat.

“That boy,” Burton said, letting the words take on an affected drawl, “is some piece of work.”

“Yeah,” Oestra said.

“He's good at what he does,” Erich said. “He'll get better.”

Burton was quiet for a long moment. A man at the front door pointed an angry finger toward Burton's table, demanding something of the waitress. She took the stranger's hand and pushed it down. The angry man left. Burton watched him go. If he didn't know any better, this wasn't the place for him.

“Erich, I don't think I can take your friend off his probation period. Not with this. Not yet.”

Erich nodded, the urge to speak for Timmy and the fear of losing Burton's fickle forgiveness warring in his throat. Oestra was the one to break the silence.

“You want to give him another job?” The words carried a weight of incredulity measured to the gram.

“The right job,” Burton said. “Right one for now, anyway. You say he watched out for you, growing up?”

“He did,” Erich said.

“Let him do that, then. Timmy's going to be your personal bodyguard on your next job. Keep you out of trouble. See if you can keep him out of trouble too. At least do better than Oey did with him, right?” Burton said and laughed. A moment later Oestra laughed too, only a little sourly. Erich couldn't manage much more than a sick, relieved grin.

“I'll tell him,” he said. “I'll take care of it.”

“Do,” Burton said, smiling. An awkward moment later, Erich got up, head bobbing like a bird's with gratitude and discomfort. Burton and Oestra watched him limp back toward the storage room. Oestra sighed.

“I don't know why you're cultivating that freak,” Burton's lieutenant said.

“He's off the grid and he cooks good identity docs,” Burton said. “I like having someone who can't be traced keeping my name clean.”

“I don't mean the cripple. I mean the other one. Seriously, there's something wrong with that kid.”

“I think he's got potential.”

“Potential for what?”

“Exactly,” Burton said. “Okay, so tell me the rest. What's going on out there?”

Oestra hoisted his eyebrows and hunched forward, elbows on the table. The kids running unlicensed games by the waterfront weren't coming up with the usual take. One of the brothels had been hit by an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant syphilis; one of the youngest boys, a five-year-old, had it in his eyes. Burton's neighbor to the north—an Earthbound branch of the Loca Griega—were seeing raids on their drug manufacturing houses. Burton listened with his eyelids at half-mast. Individually, no one event mattered much, but put together, they were the first few fat raindrops in a coming storm. Oestra knew it too.

By the time the lunch rush ended, the booths and tables filling and emptying in the systole and diastole of the day's vast urban heart, Burton's mind was on a dozen other things. Erich and Timmy and the death of a small-time deadbeat weren't forgotten, but no particular importance was put on them either. That was what it meant to be Burton: those things that could rise up to fill a small person's whole horizon were only small parts of his view. He was the boss, the big-picture man. Like Baltimore itself, he

*  *  *

Time had not been kind to the city. Its coastline was a ruin of drowned buildings kept from salvage by a complexity of rights, jurisdictions, regulations, and apathy until the rising sea had all but reclaimed them for its own. The Urban Arcology movement had peaked there a decade or two before the technology existed to make its dreams of vast, sustainable structures a reality. It had left a wall seven miles long and twenty stories high of decaying hope and structural resin that reached from the beltway to Lake Montebello. At the street level, electric networks laced the roadways, powering and guiding the vehicles that could use them. Sparrows Island stood out in the waves like a widow watching the sea for a ship that would never come home, and Federal Hill scowled back at the city across shallow, filthy water, emperor of its own abandoned land.

Everywhere, all through the city, space was at a premium. Extended families lived in decaying apartments designed for half as many. Men and women who couldn't escape the cramped space spent their days at the screens of their terminals, watching newsfeeds and dramas and pornography and living on the textured protein and enriched rice of basic. For most, their forays into crime were halfhearted, milquetoast affairs—a backroom brewer making weak, unregulated beer; a few kids stealing a neighbor's clothes or breaking their furniture; a band of scavengers with scrounged tools harvesting metal from the buried infrastructure of the city that had been. Baltimore was Earth writ small, crowded and bored. Its citizens were caught between the dismal life of basic and the barriers of class, race, and opportunity, vicious competition and limited resources, that kept all but the most driven from a profession and actual currency. The dictates of the regional administration in Chicago filtered down to the streets slowly, and the local powers might be weaker than the government, but they were also closer, the gravities of law and lawlessness finding their balance point somewhere just north of Lansdowne.

Time had not been kind to Lydia either. She wasn't one of the unregistered, but very little of what was important in her life appeared in the government records. There, she was a name—not Lydia—and an address where she had never lived. Her real home was four rooms on the fifth floor of a minor arcology looking out over the harbor. Her real work was keeping track of inventory for Liev, one of Burton's lieutenants. Before that, she had been his lover. Before that, she had been a whore in his stable. Before that, she had been someone else who she could hardly remember anymore. When she was alone, and she was often alone, the narrative she told herself was of how lucky she was. She'd escaped basic, she'd had dear friends and mentors when she was working, she'd been able to retire up in the ad hoc structure of the city's underworld. Many, many people hadn't been anywhere near as fortunate as she had been. She was growing old, yes. There was gray in her hair now. Lines at the corners of her eyes, the first faint liver spots on the backs of her hands. She told herself they were the evidence of her success. Too many of her friends had never had them. Never would. Her life had been a patchwork of love and violence, and the overlap was vast.

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