io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “Last Stand of the E. 12th St. Pirates” by L.D. Lewis. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on LIGHTSPEED’s website. Enjoy!
STAND BACK DOORS CLOSING.
Dee heard the musical bing-bong of the departure warning between song transitions in her headphones, and watched as the heads of workers in line ahead of her lolled back in the universal why, God gesture of commuters everywhere.
There was only one freight car down the wall into the Flood District, and it was shared by all bulk service providers who came bearing gifts: maintenance workers, solar installers, grocery and package delivery, and the like. A bing-bong meant another fifteen-minute wait.
Dee thrummed her fingers along the handle of her hand cart and flicked through her manifest for the tenth time. Watertight boxes containing a week’s worth of snail mail for eighteen blocks of residents stacked to her chin. Bobby, her partner, stood behind her with another cart between them. She glanced back to find his mouth was moving quickly, the way it did when he was complaining. He’d only been on this route a little over a year compared to her ten, so his version of morning banter was still fuming over protocol.
Dee shrugged her sympathies and turned back around. She was just happy they made it in before Amazon.
The flooded part of the city stretched into the sea below them. Rooftops presented largely as rows of solar panels less impressive on dreary, overcast days like this. The only living green was on top of the buildings west of 17th—since tree-lined streets could no longer denote monied neighborhoods. The flood waters stopped receding the summer of 2025. There was no great catastrophe. Storm frequency had simply outpaced the plans developed to prevent it. We’d been promised a cinematic fate, drowned by a final wave, inevitable and big enough to name. The reality—that we could be undone by three inches of standing water in places no water should be—had largely registered as an affront and then became an opportunity. Rather than force resettlement on the residents who couldn’t or wouldn’t evacuate, the district had become an experiment in how to maintain infrastructure, a functioning society on top of an encroaching sea.
Dee and Bobby managed to squeeze into the next freight car wedged between a plucky greengrocer from a dry part of the city and an exhausted-looking FedEx driver with his own cart of heavy deliverables. The descent to the commercial docks was quick, accompanied by a series of pneumatic hisses and pleasant AI-voiced reminders to check sidearms for functionality and report any security concerns to the dock manager.
DOORS OPENING. STEP BACK TO ALLOW USERS TO EXIT BEFORE BOARDING.
The docks buzzed as personnel loaded and unloaded small company cargo vessels. Chatter mingled while Dee and Bobby carved a path to their slip where a pair of federal-blue USPS boats were anchored. Dee climbed aboard and lowered the ramp for Bobby to load their cargo. He was a burly young man with a neat beard and a joke for every occasion. Dee regarded him mostly as a nephew who played too much, but she was always happy to let him do the lifting while she strapped everything down.
“Morning, Andi,” Bobby called behind her.
Dee turned from her tangle of 550 cord to see a stern-looking woman approaching the slip in a salt-spattered windbreaker and glasses it must have been impossible to actually see out of. She was the dock manager and checked manifest paperwork for items requiring insurance. Too many and the delivery team would need added manpower for secured transport.
“It is that,” Andi replied, punching the screen of her tablet. “Any precious cargo?”
“Packages all standard.” Dee grunted, climbing back over the cases of mail to greet her on the dock.
“Anything going up past 17th?” Andi asked.
“Might want to get that done first.”
Dee was about to ask why when a helicopter passed loudly overhead. Andi pointed up at it.
“New builds getting shipments today.”
Shit, Dee thought. It was her turn to be exasperated. “Amazon?”
“Mm-hmm. They’re not playing with the pirates this time either. I’d clear out before dark. Hardware check.”
Bobby shifted his posture to point to the pistol holstered on his hip. The thing made Dee itch.
“What does that mean? ‘They’re not playing with the pirates this time?’” Dee asked.
“The Fed’s done letting any old thing happen here. They’re trying to bring in new money to keep the program going, so if an opportunity presents itself to clean up, private security’s got the green light to do it. There’s a briefing about it Monday. Check your docket.” Andi gave her a pointed look that said they’d been warned and handed Dee a stylus to sign the tablet before taking off.
Dee chewed her lip, watching boats drift from their moors into the lapping waters of South Street. She’d lived here once, and working her route was a lot like coming back home. She knew these people. And she knew the pirates. No one had cared about theft when this place was the new wild west, when laws regarding rights and property and enforcement were fluid while the new systems were put in place. She hated the way the luxury new builds were taking priority over the original residents, the way new money brought new surveillance and new penalties for people who couldn’t afford to pay them. If they could afford that, they could have afforded to leave.
Well, Dee thought, same as it ever was.
“We doing the west end first, then?” Bobby interrupted her thoughts.
“No, we’ve got people’s medications and stuff here that can’t wait. We’ll just be quick about it.” She paused in her preparations to take stock of Bobby relaxing against the side of the boat, thumbs hooked in his belt loops like a lazy cop absently drawing attention to his sidearm.
“Keep your hand off that thing,” she told him. “You’re not shooting anybody over here. You deliver the damn mail.”
Bobby chuckled. “Hey, if it comes down to me or them—”
“It’ll be you if I have to repeat myself.” Dee snapped back.
“Alright, Miss Lady, calm down.” He raised his hands in surrender but the impish smirk was still there. Dee threatened to kill him at least once a week but it was usually after lunch.
“I am calm. Just don’t make me toss your big behind overboard. I know you can’t swim,” Dee replied, chuckling at the visual in her mind as she started the engine.
“Shit, I can dog-paddle.” He winked.
Dee barked her laughter this time as Bobby nudged them away from the dock. She nodded at the captain of a bright lime grocery-bearing Shipt boat drifting by ahead of them as they cleared the block.
“Leave and go where?” June Watterson scoffed. She was one of the original residents of the Flood District, here through every inch of the transformation because her aging mother wouldn’t leave. Their third-story apartment was now effectively the ground floor. She stood in the doorway, dark skin illuminated by LEDs in the mesh-grated walkway that served as a sidewalk. They had the same conversation every time Dee stopped by. Things had gotten better but would inevitably get worse. Either way, when it came to evacuating, you’d have to have somewhere to go first.
“You know I don’t know,” Dee always responded, handing over the month’s bills and a carton of medications.
“Did you notice air traffic is picking up here?”
“Saw a chopper earlier. Dock manager said something about increased security coming in.”
“About time. I—”
“What you mean ‘about time?’” The elder Mrs. Watterson called angrily from inside. “You know they’re not coming to be any help to us. All they’re coming to do is harass these kids.”
June rolled her eyes and Dee tried not to laugh.
“How are you doing, Mrs. Watterson?” she called, glimpsing the small woman shucking newly delivered peas at their dining room table.
“I’m fine, baby, how are you? They doing things the same way on the other side of the wall?” Mrs. Watterson replied, much of the venom gone out of her tone.
“Nothing’s changed.” Dee replied.
“Nothing ever does.” Mrs. Watterson said.
Dee checked her watch and glanced at Bobby down in the boat, tapping away at his phone screen. It was nearing noon and they were moving a little slower than she’d hoped.
“Ladies, I have to get going. We’re supposed to clear out by nightfall,” she said.
“Take care, baby. We’ll see you next week,” Mrs. Watterson called.
Dee hesitated before taking on a conspiratorial tone as she turned back to June. “Hey I don’t know if Jay’s been around lately but… the security that’s coming in? They’re coming for pirates. There’s an Amazon shipment coming in tonight on the west side and they’re ready if he hits it.”
June’s lips tightened and alarm sparked briefly in her eyes before sputtering out into something like resignation. Then she nodded. Jay was her nephew. Dee had known him as a child, but he’d come of age on the low seas of the Flood District. With no streets to run and minimal resources to stay idle hands, he’d made quite a name for himself as the 12th Street Robin Hood.
“That boy…” June sighed. “I’ll make some calls. But you’ll probably see him out there before we do.”
“I’ll tell him to come home if I do.”
Dee gave her a quick hug before moving on down the block, pulling up her hood as a steady rain began to fall. The buildings were shorter, their first two stories hidden beneath murky water crusted with neon algal blooms. Retractable bridges connected buildings across street-canals, ready to be taken up a level should the water rise again. The streets were no wider now than they had been when cars used them, and it was a careful dance trying to navigate them all at the same time. Bobby followed beneath her in the boat.
Between the gentle rain and the lighted pathways, the sounds and scents of small but happy homes, this place on the edge of the world could be quaint. If only it could last.
She stepped into an apartment building near the top of 14th Street and knocked on a Mr. Carver’s door. She once lived in the two-story building next door but it was gone. She’d watched over the years as the water line crept up and swallowed it. Even the rooftop now disappeared beneath the vibrating surface of the water.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Carver,” she said cheerily when he opened the door. A wave of lemon and freshly worked timber followed behind him.
“Miss Dee! I could hardly tell it’s been a week already,” he said, rolling his wheelchair backward so she had space to put his packages in the hallway. The flat was an open, sprawling space with broad windows that once might have fetched a pretty penny. Music radiated from somewhere within and a row of handsome wooden chairs he’d built himself lined one of the walls.
“Does seem like time’s speeding up, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, though. You remember that big old oak out back?” he asked.
“I don’t think I ever had much use for clocks but I could tell time of day by that thing’s shadows.” He said wistfully, gazing out of one of the windows where there was now only an expanse of gray water. “I miss it. I miss trees.”
“There’s still trees on the dry side. You thought about moving over? I have a friend who could get you a good deal on workshop space.”
“Far enough away from the wall? You know it’s only a matter of time before that side looks like this side. I can’t afford to keep moving.”
Out in the hallway, music blared out of an open door a moment before being muffled again behind it. Dee leaned back out of the doorway to squint at a young man headed toward the exit.
“Jay?” she called. He turned around.
“Mr. Carver, I have to head out, but I’ll see you next week, okay?” she said quickly.
“Alright now, be safe.” Mr. Carver waved her off and she closed his door behind her.
“What’s up Miss Dee?” Jay smiled broadly and hugged her. He’d been a short, bobble-headed eight year-old once, but had grown into a handsome, athletic young man with an easy confidence and a boisterous intelligence. She could see him as a leader of a great many things in another time and place. Here, though, he was just a pirate.
“Nothing at all. You still being a menace?” Dee asked him.
“Never that,” he replied modestly, pulling out his phone and responding to messages buzzing on it.
Dee studied him. “I just saw June and your grandma. They haven’t seen you lately?”
“Nah, I’ve been busy. But I’ll make sure I drop by soon so they don’t worry.”
“Busy with what? Are you still taking things that don’t belong to you?”
Jay hesitated before putting his phone away, taking on the relaxed posture of someone who’d received more than a few lectures he was prepared to stand and take respectfully, even if he didn’t intend to absorb any of it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Jay, they’re protecting that shipment tonight. This… game you’ve been playing all these years, they’re ending it now. Cops are paying attention. Private security is paying attention. What you’re doing is bad for business and they will take you down for it. That’s how the story always goes. Think about your future.”
“The future?” Jay scoffed. “Where?”
Dee sighed. He was right. There was no using the future against kids these days. Not when everything seemed to be winding down.
“You’re right, that was stupid. I meant—”
“Miss Dee, that wall has everybody thinking what’s going on over here won’t come for them.” He pointed a suddenly angry finger toward the entrance and the wall beyond it. “But it will. That’s the only future. Anybody moving here by choice has missed the point. The only game on this side of town is taking what you can get and whatever money you can get for it to get yourself and your people as far away from the edge of the world as possible.”
“If you try and take that shipment tonight, there’s a high chance you and all your ‘people’ will die. Violently. What would that do to June?” Dee pleaded.
He shook his head and Dee felt strangely like she’d let him down. “Like I said, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’ll bet.” She didn’t know what else she could say.
His phone buzzed again and his attention diverted as he typed his responses. Dee didn’t doubt it was about the night’s plans.
“Look, I gotta go,” he said, backing away toward the door. “I’ll tell Aunt June I’ll stop by next week. You should come for dinner or something.”
“I… be safe,” she blurted. He nodded and left at a jog, the door banging closed behind him.
17th Street was a garden. The buildings here were covered in aquatic climbing vines and the walkways were trimmed with flowering plants accented by exterior lumination suggesting this place existed by design, not catastrophe. The sun had only just gone down when Dee started her rounds here. She found the doors painted a bright white or cheery pastel, and the residents enjoying the outdoor space on their fenced-in rooftops. Boat slips attached to the backs of residences were filled with modest vessels that seemed luxurious compared to the relatively stationary nature of the rest of the district.
Bobby was noticeably antsy where he waited in the boat, his head more on a swivel now and less on his phone. They’d passed many of the other cargo vessels headed back to the docks. Dee knew no one here personally, and made quick work of slipping mail through slots or leaving packages on doorsteps as she made her way up the block. She couldn’t stop herself from peering into the dark for signs of Jay when a foghorn announced the Amazon vessel being loaded in the docks. She hated when they did that. It meant everyone knew when a massive, expensive shipment was arriving and served as a warning to clear the canals of traffic so the damn thing could fit.
Dee’s heart pounded as the noise of air traffic picked up in the dark overhead. The buzzes were small and clipped and marked by blinking red light. Surveillance drones. But she remembered the helicopter and couldn’t stop herself imagining all the things it was intended for that were worse than watching.
“We need to roll,” Bobby called, watching the skies himself.
“Yeah, you’re not wrong,” Dee called back. She was scanning a label on a package she was leaving when the door opened and she nearly startled herself backward over the walkway railing.
“Oh sorry,” the man said with a professional sort of smile. He looked at the package on the ground and nudged it inside with his foot. “Is this it? I was expecting more.”
“If it’s Amazon, it’s on its way,” Dee said quickly and tried to move on.
“Do you always deliver mail this late? I thought I was going to have to confront someone when I opened—”
“Confront how?” Dee snapped. She knew what confront meant. It always meant the same thing when some people said it.
She must have made a face because the man seemed to think better of the conversation and backed into his home. “No worries. Have a good night.”
Dee finished the block but noticed her hands were shaking by the time she reached the end. She could see the future of this place, of that man and a confrontation with a boy like Jay or any of her other friends who lived here. The way it would end. The way it always did because nothing ever changed.
Bobby stared her down as she lowered herself back into the boat. He was concerned about her, about this night, but wouldn’t press leaving any more than he already had without her say-so.
“Let’s head back. Last street will have to get done tomorrow,” she said.
“Won’t hear me complaining. You want me to drive?”
“I got it,” she insisted and turned over the engine just as the drone of a helicopter began to grow louder. They watched as a spotlight started its dance over the rooftops and canals, looking for any sign of trouble. Bobby switched on the blue light that would indicate they were a federal vessel and not pirates or people with a general disdain for curfews. Dee steered them through the dark water at a clip bordering recklessness, trying to stay off the most direct route to the west side so as not to interfere with the Amazon ship’s path. It meant more side streets and more sharp, dark turns. Part of her hoped it also meant she could stumble upon Jay and his crew in time to block them.
And then it happened. 14th and Wax. Dee nearly sent the boat barreling into a matte-black behemoth emerging stealthily from an alleyway. She drilled into reverse long enough to neutralize her momentum and then shuddered into a drift at fifty feet.
“Dee, what are you doing?” Bobby hissed behind her. Dee didn’t answer, but turned their spotlight onto the black boat where a dozen masks and pairs of shining eyes had started appearing over the bow. She couldn’t make out which one was Jay.
“Jay, where are you?” She called loudly over the rush of blood in her ears, the violent drone of the helicopter terrifyingly close behind them. “Stop this! Go home, all of you.”
“You first, lady,” a boy’s voice replied.
“You don’t understand. This is not like the other nights. There are people… People have been authorized to kill you if you rob that ship. Jay, please.”
A low whistle went out over the boat and guns began to appear over the bow, brandished casually and slung over their slender shoulders.
“Ain’t the only ones with guns, Dee,” said Jay’s voice as he approached the front. It was low and serious, terrifying in its authority. If she couldn’t convince him alone, what chance did she have to convince him in front of his friends?
Dee heard the clicking off of the safety switch on Bobby’s gun behind her and spun.
“Bobby stand the fuck down! They’re kids!”
Bobby seethed and then reluctantly obeyed. “Dee, they’re going to shoot us or plow through us. You can’t save what don’t want to be saved,” he growled.
Over their shoulders, the helicopter was getting closer, clearing the way ahead of the ship. It would be upon them in a matter of minutes. Dee blew panicked breaths from burning cheeks and looked around them for another answer, but none presented itself.
“What...what can I say to make this stop?” she pleaded to the masked pirates. “It isn’t fair and I’m sorry. They should care more about you. They always should have. But dying here tonight doesn’t prove anything except… they don’t. There’s no message you can send that these people will hear if you’re sending it with their… bought bullshit in your hands. It’s a bad world. It never got to be as great as it could have been but there’s still so much I…”
Dee turned around with tears scorching her cheeks. People were standing on the walkways, illuminated in their open doors and looking on in fear.
“Look, you won’t even survive to pawn the crap, okay?” Bobby yelled. “Maybe you find another way out. Maybe you go back to piracy when you have a better plan. But don’t do this tonight. Not like this.”
“Go home to your families and figure something else out. It’s what we’ve always done. There’s always been another way,” Dee said, leaving the last word to the sea breeze and chopping blades of the helicopter.
The pirates seemed to confer with one another wordlessly for a while but Jay never turned his gaze from hers.
“Stand dow—” he finally grunted, but the blaring of a ship’s horn drowned him out. The Amazon ship had turned the corner at the top of the street, bathing them all in harsh, white light. The helicopter brought up the rear and zoomed ahead in a hover directly over Dee’s boat, spotlight shining on the pirate decks.
They’d barely had time to put down their weapons.
“Nononononono…” Dee stammered, waving her arms in a gesture of cease-fire. She heard Jay’s frantic shouts of “clear the deck!” behind her as she reached for the mic to her loudspeaker.
“You are in violation of—” The helicopter blared.
“There’s no trouble here! No trouble!” Dee screeched into her own microphone. “These are just kids. They’re clearing out right now. Stand down.”
“You are in violation of—”
“STAND DOWN!” Dee bellowed.
“—We will be forced to open fire…”
“Get out of there!” Bobby screamed. Dee could barely see for staring into the lights as long as she had. But the ship’s horn roared again as it continued its approach, threatening to crush their boat. Who knew if the kids had managed to abandon ship. Around her, outraged cries rang out from the neighbors bearing witness, and the helicopter was still threatening to open fire.
“You have ten seconds to comply,” the helicopter commanded.
Of all the ways to die at the edge of the world, Dee thought. Her mind reeled as she squinted toward the pirate ship to see the kids still scrambling. There was nowhere for them to go that wasn’t into the narrow strips of water or leaping onto nearby rooftops. Someone’s shirt was strung from an antenna as a makeshift white flag. She and Bobby exchanged desperate looks that said neither of them knew what to do, which way to flee, if they were even targets or if they’d be leaving the kids to their fate.
It was supposed to be a wave.
We were supposed to drown or freeze to death.
The chaos of the end was supposed to be different.
Why did nothing ever change?
L.D. Lewis is an editor, publisher, and Shirley Jackson Award-nominated writer of speculative fiction. She serves as a founding creator and Project Manager for the World Fantasy and Hugo Award-winning FIYAH Literary Magazine. She also serves as the founding Director of FIYAHCON, Researcher for the (also award-winning) LeVar Burton Reads podcast, and pays the bills as the Awards Manager for the Lambda Literary Foundation. She frequently bothers the publishing industry by authoring studies about the treatment and experiences of racially/ethnically marginalized authors in speculative literature. She is the author of A Ruin of Shadows (Dancing Star Press, 2018) and her published short fiction and poetry include appearances in FIYAH, PodCastle, Strange Horizons, Anathema: Spec from the Margins, Lightspeed, and Neon Hemlock, among others. She lives in Georgia, on perpetual deadline, with her coffee habit and an impressive LEGO build collection. Tweet her @ellethevillain.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the December 2022 issue, which also features work by P H Lee, Rati Mehrotra, Alex Irvine, Nadine Tomlinson, Rich Larson, Aimee Ogden, Stewart C. Baker, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition via the link below.
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