When Big Kadza slipped quietly into the bar, Mitchell knew something was up. The big man rarely drank, and was seen in bars even fewer times. He had a hunted look about him, like an insect trying to get out of the way of a falling sky.
"Whaddya have?" BIg Kadza asked as he settled into an empty stool next to Mitchell.
"Rum’s all we got round here."
"Gimmie a double."
"Whoa," Mitchell whistled. "Take it easy. What’s got your gullet on fire tonight?"
"You hear about them strikes?"
"Yeah, I heard." Indeed, the whole industry along the shore heard about them. Or at least, the potential of them. Like most other rumors, they simply faded away with enough time. "You mean Fenix isn’t looking to quell them?"
"Nah, too big for that." The bartender set a glass in front of Big Kadza, who downed its contents in a swift gulp. "It just cost me my old lady, who dinnt wanna hear nothing more about my worries."
"No shit?" Mitchell’s eyebrows raised at the news. Kadza and his mate were together fifteen years, always on the verge of marriage, but one obstacle or another crumbled their plans.
"No shit," Big Kadza echoed. "Seems people are more scared as ever since the scandal broke."
MItchell knew the one. Some poor shmo in the city contracted the shambles and had undergone numerous treatments without his knowledge. Now the people began questioning The Authority en masse.
"Didn’t The Collective bring those rumors down?" Mitchell fumbled for names. "Ellis & Macomb, Fenix and—"
"It don’t matter," said Big Kadza as he tapped the bartop for another round. "The Authority is openly threatening White-Ops treatment to silence the disssenters. If they do, our whole industry is fucked."
"Does this have anything to do with the skitters?"
A noticeable shiver passed through Mitchell. Even the name—the skitters—conjured thousands of arthropod legs (namely, spiders) treading upon skin. The trouble was, no one knew what the hell it was.
"And how are you sick with no symptoms, anyway?" blurted Big Kadza. "Isn’t that the whole point of being sick, to know what you’re sick with?"
The big man was right, but there was no point going down that road. It was an illness, and people were required by law to get themselves examined every week to make sure they hadn’t contracted the illness. Most people were fine, some didn’t return.
"You know what I think," Mitchell said, his words now slurred. "The whole thing’s a sham. The Authority is tightening the screws on us and it’s driving us crazy. They want us to go crazy, to fuck up in some way to better control us."
Big Kadza stiffened. “Is that what you really think?”
"Naturally." Mitchell ordered his last round and downed it as soon as it came. "The whole city is clamped in the grip of The Authority. Who are we to challenge it?"
"If you could do something about it, would you?"
Mitchell’s glassy eyes fixed on the big man and he nearly laughed at the man’s frightened face. It was a strange night for strange tales. Why not cross the threshold, since the door was open? He nodded gravely.
"Kadza," Mitchell said, his words tumbling wretchedly from his lips, "there might be a time when it all gets to be too much. And then, yes, I might do something about it. What it is, I couldn’t say now."
Mitchell patted Big Kadza on the shoulder, paid his tab and left the bar. On his walk home, he wondered if it wasn’t the alcohol that betrayed the truth buried in his secret heart. He’d only confided to his wife, Marta, how he felt, but on this strange night for strange tales, it was possible he’d had enough.
No sooner than he stepped through the door Marta came at him violently and struck him with clenched fists and growling like he’d never heard before.
"Why?" she sobbed angrily. "Why? Why? Why? Why did you have to open your big mouth!"
"What—?" Mitchell barely had time to contain the barrage of blows raining down upon him to think what Marta was saying. "What are you talking about? Open my mouth to who?"
"Who!" she cried. "Big Kadza, that’s who! He ran to your superiors about what you told him—what you confided to me—and they’ve run you out of the fishing district!"
It wasn’t what he said to Big Kadza that had Mitchell thinking, he knew all too well what he’d admitted, and it wasn’t the fact that the big man betrayed him. No, he was thinking about the rum that loosed his tongue. And then, he realized what it was: the skitters. The realization changed everything.
No one could tell they had the skitters, but when they suffered from that terminal inability to keep from telling the truth, they knew they had the affliction, and right quick.
"I hate you," Marta seethed through the sobs that still racked her body.
"I hate you, too," Mitchell replied, lowering himself to the ground. "And that’s why we love each other."
He pulled Marta close and opted not to say one more word.