Soft Edges

WRITTEN BY
Elizabeth Bear

ILLUSTRATED BY
Priscilla Kim

The storm surge retreated over the course of Thursday afternoon. Carmen found the body Friday around lunchtime. After that, she didn’t want her ham and cheese sandwich any more.

Very few people who have just found a body feel lucky, but she knew she was lucky. She had only found the one corpse. It hadn’t been a bad storm, by modern standards, but dozens of people were still missing from the hurricane. This would not be the only victim to turn up in the Mesh. If she were unfortunate, it would not even be the only one in her sector.

She put that thought away. At least this person had died in the storm, she told herself. It wasn’t as if anybody had done it. There wouldn’t be media outcries and demands that somebody pay.

Carmen called the paramedics. The paramedics called the police. The police called the medical examiner.

Carmen, standing on the embankment above (she had not gone close, which she felt was a perfectly sensible response to a bloated, drowned body) felt her stomach flip and turn over, and the creep of anxiety in her gut.

The medical examiner called a homicide detective, and Carmen calmed herself enough to call her boss. She let them know that she wouldn’t be making it back to the office that evening.

“Sure,” she was saying into her phone, as a round detective of medium height, with slim braids over their shoulders and a shield worn pendant on a cord–walked over. “I’ll finish the walk-through inspection before dark, if I have time, and get you a report by tomorrow. Right, gotta go. The cops are here.”

She hung up just as the detective stopped in front of her. That dark rose pantsuit was cut so well that Carmen felt envy. Since when did cops wear pink? The identification badge read Q. Gross: a great name for a homicide detective.

Gross—what did the Q stand for?—extended their hand. “You’re the engineer?”

Carmen shook it. “Carmen Ortega, she.”

“Quinn Gross,” the detective said. “Also she.”

“I wish I could say it was a pleasure to meet you.” The cop had a serious personal charisma that upset Carmen’s expectations of immediate dislike. She’s still a servant of the prison-industrial machine, Carmen reminded herself. That she’s a charming person doesn’t mean that she’s a good one.

A flicker of a smile curved Quinn Gross’s lips. “Tell me about this thing.”

Her gesture took in the wide bay and estuary beyond the walkway, the water still roiled brown and flecked with debris.

“The mesh?” Carmen walked to the safety wall and looked over. The body had been covered. People in blue jumpsuits stood around in varying attitudes of boredom and irritation. One—in a gray suit—looked up at Carmen and Quinn and frowned.

Quinn waved. Carmen thought that was probably the M.E., because whoever it was looked back down, head shaking.

“Do you need to go down there?”

“In a minute.” Quinn pulled out a tiny recorder with the air of one licking their pencil. “Tell me about the mesh. It’s an artificial wetland?”

“It’s more of an engineered wetland,” Carmen said. “Artificial suggests that it’s all manmade, and plenty of those plants you see down there and the animals doinking around volunteered for the job. We just provided them with a habitat. It’s called soft edge tech; it’s a way of making the transition zone between sea and land more durable and absorbent.”

“So it soaks up storm surge.”

“And everyday erosion, yes. So this walkway and those houses right there stay here, and don’t wash into the rising sea.”

“Is it possible that the victim would have washed up that far onto the shore? Or do you think she would have had to come from the top?”

“It’s a she?” Carmen asked. The swollen condition of the body had not made gender evident.

“Superficially,” Quinn said. “It’s hard to ask their pronouns. We’ll find out from the family.”

Carmen shied away from answering, from helping this detective send somebody to jail. But she was also a scientist, and the urge to explain her work was irresistible.

“Where she’s caught, those are dunes. A broad-cell polymer webwork filled up with sand and planted with dune grass and beach plums and so forth. Lower down, that’s the wetland. So yes, she could have washed up that far—see where the sea stopped rising? There’s the mark on those trees. And if she had been thrown off the wall here, she probably would have washed away. So the body came from somewhere else and the storm surge deposited it where it is.”

Quinn’s gesture took in the green polymer lattices festooned with sea wrack along the water’s edge. “What’s all that stuff for?”

“The rising sea can’t be stopped, but its force can be shifted.”

“You’re using judo on the ocean.”

“I suppose we are.”

Down below, the medical examiner looked up again and waved to Quinn impatiently. “I’d better go down,” Quinn said. “They want to bring the body up. One city employee to another, I can reach you through the department of public works?”

She was gone before Carmen could answer.

Or ask what it was about the body that had made the medical examiner call for a detective, but Carmen didn’t realize that until later, when the ceiling over her bed was staring her down.

#

After four days, Carmen made herself stop searching for news coverage on the murder. Becoming obsessed with a slow-breaking story wouldn’t help an overworked, underpaid public servant get her job done.

Her work was tracking the progress of the mesh as it built itself—reclaimed scrap of microplastic by reclaimed scrap of microplastic—along the edge of the bay. Supporting it. Protecting people. Building habitat for animals. Regreening sequestered carbon, and that too helped the warming world weather its changes.

On the seventh day, Carmen looked up from her spreadsheets to find Quinn lounging against the doorframe, watching her.

“How’d you get in here?” Carmen blurted, aware as the words left her mouth how weird—how guilty—they made her sound.

“I’m a city employee too.” Quinn’s intent gaze never wavered, a frank inspection that left Carmen feeling awkward and self-conscious. “I came to ask your help with some forensics stuff, actually.”

“Aren’t I a suspect?”

Quinn’s head tilted. “Should you be?”

“…no? I just thought… Isn’t the person who finds the body always a suspect?”

“You’ve been watching too many CSI shows.” Quinn walked into the office, moving as easily as she spoke. She shut the door behind her, glancing at Carmen for permission. “Not when the body is a floater washed up at the soft edge, and the person who found it is an engineer performing her assigned duties. Unless you knew her, of course.”

“Has her name been released and I missed it?” Carmen called up a search bar. Her mouth twisted. She made herself close it again. I must not develop unproductive obsessions. I must not develop unproductive obsessions. I must not develop—

“Not yet,” Quinn said, following Carmen’s gesture to a chair. She sat and crossed her legs.

“Is it still not suspicious if the engineer in question is an expert on tide patterns?”

“Do you want to be a suspect?”

Carmen put the heel of her hand to her forehead and laughed ruefully. “No?”

“Then stop making the case for it.” Quinn uncrossed her legs and leaned forward, elbows on her knees, making the coat of her beautifully cut dove-colored suit flare.

Carmen lifted her chin and decided to get it out in the open. “This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of a violent crime.”

“I know,” Quinn said. “I looked you up. You were cleared.”

“Cops don’t usually care about things like that.”

Quinn smiled. “You spent six months in jail awaiting trial. I understand why you automatically hated me, now.”

Carmen decided not to dignify that with an answer and shut her half-open mouth very quietly. “Nobody should go to jail,” she said, instead.

“You and I will have to differ on that one,” Quinn said. “I’m sorry to say, this is probably a sexual homicide.”

“Sexual—” Those were not words Carmen would usually put together.

“Serial killer,” Quinn said tiredly. “Or about to become one. We need at least three bodies before we can call the FBI.”

Carmen bit her lip. She was, she knew, flailing.

“What do you know about—” Quinn looked down at her handheld “—identifying the provenance of microplastics and seawater?”

“I literally wrote the book on it.” Carmen swiveled her chair away from her computer and leaned her elbows on the blotter. Relief welled through her. This was something she knew how to deal with. Not like… sexual homicide. Not like the possibility of sending somebody else to jail.

Quinn said, “Is there anything you can do to help us catch the killer? Can you tell me based on, maybe, tide charts and trace evidence on the body where she might have gone into the water?”

“I can probably rule a lot of places out. The mesh filters microplastics and reprocesses it to manufacture more soft edge, so if there’s a lot of microplastics in her clothes, she didn’t drown near our tech perimeter.”

“I have samples extracted from the victim’s lungs,” Quinn said. “Would you look at them for me?”

“You have to understand,” Carmen said carefully, “that I am utterly opposed to prisons on an ethical and logical level. I think they’re a terrible idea that harms society and creates more crime.”

“Sure,” Quinn said, disarmingly. “You’re probably right. But that terrible solution is the best solution I know of to keeping violent habitual offenders from re-offending, and I have a degree in criminal justice. So. Will you help?”

“I shouldn’t.”

“But?”

“The science might be interesting,” Carmen said.

From Quinn’s wry expression, Carmen understood that Quinn, too, felt the inescapable urge to know and reveal the truth. The detective was also a kind of scientist, testing hypotheses and collecting data. The urge to find out was the strongest motivator of all.

Carmen sat back. “Wait. If she drowned, why did the first responders call homicide?”

“Her hands,” Quinn said levelly, “were wired together behind her back.”

Carmen breathed the worst swear she could think of. Quinn observed with interest, and nodded.

“I won’t be able to help you,” Carmen said, forcing a smile.

#

The samples reeked. Carmen could only assume the funk was from decomposing lung tissue. Cadaverine, putrescine. She left the vials to settle overnight, eyedroppered the dregs, centrifuged them, and separated the layers onto slides. She reclosed the vials and got the cover slips in place as fast as possible before bending over the microscope. That done, she searched databases and squinted at enlarged pollutant concentration maps until her head felt as if it were being squeezed in a vise.

At eight PM, she drank two cups of terrible coffee with cocoa mix stirred in, instead of eating dinner. Then she started searching through the saved feeds of site monitoring stations north and west of the city. Past the soft edge, outside the current spread of the mesh. There was too much pollution in the water for the victim to have been dumped—to have been drowned—in the reclaimed area. But the mesh was growing. And where the mesh was going to be, Carmen’s colleagues had placed weather stations, and pollution stations, and all kinds of equipment to produce a picture of environmental conditions before and after remediation.

Carmen ran algorithm after algorithm, until she matched the unreclaimed plastics and pollutants in the victim’s lungs with the plastics and pollutants along a particular stretch of waterfront. There were observation stations dotted along the coast there. Some of them recorded video.

Two hours and thirteen minutes into her search, she found the footage.

She knew where the victim had gone into the water. She knew the license plate of the car that had brought the killer and the victim to that fateful place. She had some not-very-clear footage of the killer who had thrown the bound victim down an embankment into the river that must then have carried her into the sea.

A balloon drone had captured the whole thing, and saved the images into its relentless optical memory.

I can’t, she thought.

But there was that image, of the bound woman—alive, struggling—being hurled off the bank to die in the cold, muddy water below.

It wasn’t proving who the murderer might be that bothered her. It was what might happen afterward. What certainly would happen, if they were charged.

That stink from the vials still came through the scent of artificial honeysuckle after three hand-washings.

“No perfumes of Araby,” Carmen muttered, and went to scrub again, telling herself that the clinging stench was not a metaphor.

#

In the morning, she was still trying to decide whether to call Quinn and what to tell her when Quinn, again, appeared at her door. Carmen jumped in her seat when the other woman leaned around the frame.

Quinn looked at her curiously. “Maybe you are the killer after all.”

“Maybe you’re a ghost who keeps materializing.”

Quinn shrugged, lower lip stuck out, her head bobbing to one side. “I know I haven’t given you enough time—”

“You have,” Carmen said.

Quinn looked at her. Looked again, frowning. Held out a hand. “Let’s get a cup of coffee,” she said.

#

Carmen led the way to the small kitchen where Quinn sniffed the coffee pot, said, “I’m buying,” and brought Carmen back through the corridors and the lobby to a small café across the street. When they were settled with cappuccinos and biscotti, Quinn leaned her elbows on the red check tablecloth and said, “You don’t like cops.”

Carmen swizzled her cookie in the coffee to give herself an excuse to look down. “I like you just fine. It’s your job I have problems with.”

“To be frank with you,” Quinn admitted, “most days I agree. But somebody has to do it, and if I’m doing it I know who’s making the choice about whether or not to be an asshole, and I have some influence over them.”

Carmen laughed in spite of herself. “I’m having a moral crisis, Quinn. I think I know who did it.”

“All by yourself? Fantastic. We’re going to put you on retainer.”

“Well, not exactly who did it. I know how to find out who did it.”

Quinn sipped her coffee. “So what’s the crisis about?”

“What I told you,” Carmen said. “Prisons are evil.”

“Necessary evil.”

“No.”

Quinn tapped her cookie on the rim of her cup. “You just want to let murderers and rapists go?”

“I want to change society so that people are supported and connected. So that murderers and rapists don’t… just don’t occur.”

Quinn guffawed. “That’s not human nature. How many rich assholes ought to go to jail? They have plenty of support and they still do crimes.”

Carmen’s laugh was much more bitter than the coffee. “How many rich assholes actually do go to jail? When was the last time you perp-walked a banker, Quinn?”

Quinn looked down. “I’m a murder cop.”

“So if murders didn’t happen you’d be out of a job.”

“Happily so,” Quinn admitted. “That dog won’t hunt, Pollyanna.”

Carmen stared at her. Maybe she could try a different approach. “Have you ever murdered anybody?”

“Of course not.”

“Aren’t you human?”

Quinn snorted. “My ex-wife might disagree, but… I’m human. Okay, then: committing violent crimes is damaged human nature. Selfish human nature. Predatory human nature. You just want to turn the predators loose to harm anybody they choose? What are you going to do with all of the murderers we have already? You can’t prevent those people from growing up awful. What about all of their victims and their trauma response? What about protecting society?”

“Punishment isn’t a deterrent. A punitive justice system doesn’t cut down on crime, because it doesn’t address the root causes of crime. It just creates more criminals down the line. If you don’t want recidivists and more damaged generations you have to change your whole philosophy.”

“It’s not my philosophy.” Quinn bit a chunk out of her cookie and crunched in evident frustration. She slurped the last of her coffee. Fortified, she went on. “My first priority is keeping innocent people safe and protecting the fabric of society.”

“So is mine. I think one day, prisons as we understand them will be considered as barbaric as the iron maiden, as roasting people on a spit.”

“That sounds great.” Quinn picked her teeth with a thumbnail. “What’s the action plan?”

Carmen said, “Change the world.”

Quinn tossed her cup at the recycler without looking. As if guided by an angel’s hand, it went in. The detective lifted her eyes and appealed to some invisible authority. “The last anarchist here needs to lay off the weed and fellow-feeling.”

“I am not an anarchist!” Carmen protested. “I just believe in a collaborative government rather than a punitive one. If you want people to feel invested in the system you have to give them access to it and power over it.”

“There will always be assholes,” Quinn said, “Please tell me what you have on this asshole so I can stop him from immediately being an asshole again.”

Carmen picked up a sugar packet and began fiddling with it.

Quinn said, “I could mention that not telling me, now, is withholding evidence.”

Really? “Conscientious objectors have gone to jail for their principles before.”

“It’s obstruction of justice.”

“You gonna arrest me?” Carmen wondered if she could get a martyr thing going. BRAVE SCIENTIST DEFIES COPS, RISKS JAIL ON PRINCIPLE. SERIAL KILLER ON THE LOOSE.

No. That last part would not endear her to anybody.

It didn’t endear her to her.

Quinn held her challenging gaze for a moment. “No,” she said at last, without looking down. “I’m going to beg you. Tell me what you know. Let justice take its course. The person who did this will kill again.”

He would. Carmen knew it. She hadn’t slept the night before. Every time she closed her eyes, images of the struggling, stumbling victim and the killer shoving her along the embankment had returned. Carmen could imagine too well what it would feel like: wire cutting your wrists, the sickening plummet, the icy disorienting splash–

The futile struggle. The pain of water filling your lungs.

Carmen pushed her coffee away.

“Whatever I do here is not the right thing,” Carmen said. “The right thing to do cannot be reached from where we’re standing. We have to build a bridge from here to the right thing before we can touch it.”

“You need a place to stand before you can build a bridge. What you’re suggesting is just not practical. There’s no path.” Quinn shook her head. “Some people,” she said definitely, “are just plain mean.”

“That’s what they said about addressing climate destabilization, too,” Carmen said. “Too hard. Not practical. But here I am. And an unstable climate contributes to social stresses and antisocial behavior. So if we can mitigate one, why not the other?”

Quinn crossed her arms and cocked a shoulder against the wall. “Okay. What would be the right thing?”

“To save the world,” said Carmen. “And all the people in it.”

“You’re saving lives if you put this guy away.”

“In the short run,” Carmen agreed. “In the long run, I’m reinforcing a system that ruins and sacrifices far more lives.”

“You’ve got yourself some kind of bullshit ethical trolley problem there.”

“I’m already compromising my principles.”

“All we have is expedience and approximations. All we ever have. Would it make you feel better if I got the prosecutor to subpoena whatever information you have? It wouldn’t be your fault, then.”

It seemed like a genuine, friendly offer of help. She realized with a shock that Quinn was sincere. That she didn’t agree with Carmen—she probably thought Carmen was an idiot—but that she also respected Carmen’s right to make those choices, even when they annoyed the hell out of her.

Carmen shook her head but didn’t argue. God help me, she thought. She stood up. “I have to go.”

She reached into her pocket and pulled out the thumb drive nestled there. She held it out to Quinn. Quinn took it gently, watching Carmen’s face as if observing some shy animal.

“I won’t testify,” Carmen said.

“Okay. I can’t speak for the DA. But that’s more than fair.” Quinn tilted her head to one side. A rose-gilt earring flashed. “I hope someday you realize that you’re a hero.”

Carmen folded her arms across her chest and squeezed herself as tightly as she dared. “There are no heroes in a tragedy.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. She is a Hugo, Sturgeon, and Campbell Award-winning author of over 30 novels and 100 short stories. Her most recent books are Ancestral Night and The Red-Stained Wings. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Scott Lynch.