Authors: Ian Whates
Something large loomed above him. He looked up to see a huge maw opening, mucus stretching between curved, pointed teeth the size of his arm, while a thick grey-black tongue flowed out as if to engulf him.
Hoffman suddenly realised that he hadn’t in fact been screaming before; that had just been him warming up.
was what real screaming sounded like. Terror blanked his mind, blotting out any hope of constructive thought. He became aware of warmth saturating the front of his trousers as his bladder vented, urine spreading to dampen the stomach and shirt that hung beneath.
A small part of his mind registered that he ought to be struggling, but his muscles had frozen and his limbs seemed leaden and unresponsive. This couldn’t be happening. The monstrosity that held him, this mass of tentacles and teeth, was like something out of a bad children’s space fantasy. It
Fantasy: that was it! The thought freed his paralysed mental processes. None of this was real, he realised. The First Solar Bank agent had invaded his private fantasy and so had obviously infiltrated the Pleasure Palace’s systems. This was still part of the game. Hoffman had only
to wake up. In truth he was still in thrall to Lexington Grove’s virtual dreams, newly woven to become nightmare.
That might be true, of course,
said a voice in his head, a voice he’d never heard before.
But it isn’t.
Hoffman found that he’d been lifted above that intimidating mouth and was now level with two huge, equally intimidating eyes. Great brown orbs with disks of darkest ebony at their centre. Somehow he knew beyond doubt that the voice in his head and these eyes were linked, that the same intelligence dwelt behind both.
You’re nothing, Maurice Hoffman,
the voice told him;
a speck of grit which has lodged in the wrong place and is interrupting the smooth flow of events. You’ve become an irritation
One that can no longer be tolerated.
I need Corbin Drake to be available for other things, important things, not wasting his time on petty irrelevances such as you. So this ends
!” Hoffman blabbered, his head pounding with the rush of blood, all thought that this might be anything other than wholly real banished.
Good, because precisely how this encounter ends is entirely up to you. Either I let go
… Hoffman cried out as the tentacle around his waist loosened and his body was left unsupported, abandoned to the unforgiving tug of gravity. He started to fall, only for the grip to tighten again in an instant, his plummet arrested before it had properly begun.
…in which case you will be dashed to the ground and perish: case closed. Or, you go straight from here and liquidate as many assets as necessary to repay the sum owed before the end of the working day: case closed. Your choice. I have no preference either way. But this matter
be resolved today. Oh, and if you leave here and have a change of heart, please don’t assume that distance will keep you safe from me, it won’t.
“I’ll pay!” he yelled. “Just put me down.
Slowly, mercifully, he felt himself lowered towards the ground. He risked one more glance at his impossible captor, seeing beyond the obvious features of mouth and eyes for the first time. In truth, there was little else
see. From Hoffman’s admittedly skewed perspective, the monster looked to be nothing more than a great puff of brown-green fur, like filaments of some gigantic moss, fronted by those oversized facial features and supported by a mass of writhing tentacles. Again he was fleetingly reminded of some child’s representation of what a monster ought to look like, yet surely no child’s vision could ever have evoked such abject terror.
Remember, I’m inside your head,
the voice said again as first Hoffman’s shoulders then his back and finally his bum and heels came to rest gently on the ground,
so don’t entertain the idea of a double cross.
The tentacle slithered off him, bringing blessed relief and the ability to breathe freely again. He was abruptly conscious of his face being covered in snot and spittle, which he hastily wiped away even as he scrabbled to stand up, while the urine-soaked areas of his trousers and shirt were cooling rapidly towards cold and uncomfortable dampness. Right then, he didn’t care; the presence of firm ground beneath his feet more than made up for his tarnished dignity. A quick glance at the roof informed him that the monstrosity had disappeared from view, which was something at least, though nowhere near enough to make him feel safe. He wasn’t sure he’d ever feel safe again.
A door slammed open and Drake charged out from the back of the Pleasure Palace. “Hoffman!” The man’s suit might still appear to be barely ruffled but his temper clearly had been.
“Thank the Gods!” Hoffman would never have believed he could be so pleased to see the banker, but he was. “Look, forget about taking me to your bank’s head office, that’ll just waste time. I’ll get the money, all of it, transferred across by close of business today.”
As Drake strode across to him, Hoffman noticed the man’s gaze shift just for an instant towards something behind him and to the left. He instinctively looked in the same direction and nearly jumped out of his skin. There, sitting atop an upturned wooden crate, was a ball of moss-green fur, small enough that he could have held it in his hands. No gaping mouth and no tentacles, but two beady eyes that watched him with chilling intensity. This could only be the monster’s smaller cousin, or perhaps even its offspring.
“Look, I’ll get you your money!” he repeated, and he was stumbling past the banker, almost running in his haste to get away from this cursed alley. Already he was calculating which assets could be liquidated, what would be most likely to bring the highest return in the shortest time. No matter the cost in terms of his long term wealth, there was no way that Maurice Hoffman the Third was going to miss this particular deadline.
Drake frowned as he watched the overweight businessman scamper away. He would have stopped the man but for Mudball’s reassurance.
Don’t worry, Drake
, said the familiar voice in his head,
you can trust him on this
What exactly did you do to him
? he thought back, in a form of communication that had become all too familiar in recent years, ever since he first encountered Mudball in a wrecked facility guarding a chamber of ghosts.
Hoffman was clearly terrified, and the additional horror that crossed the man’s face on seeing Mudball hadn’t escaped Drake either. Little did.
Me? Nothing. I did exactly what you told me to do. I waited to see if he appeared and, when he did, made sure he didn’t get away, delaying him until you arrived.
Drake kept a firm lid on his thoughts as he went across and collected the small bundle of fur, scooping him up. He was conscious of the warmth of that compact body in the palm of his hand as the creature hopped off and then into the special pocket that all Drake’s clothes now sported, just behind the left shoulder.
Sure you did. So why is he so terrified?
Beats me. Guess you must have had him rattled. You can be pretty formidable in the right mood, you know, certainly a lot more terrifying than a puffed-up little tat of fur like me.
Drake knew there was no point in pursuing this right now so he didn’t, content with filing the incident away for further reference. Some day he’d get an explanation for this and all the other little anomalies that seemed to occur around Mudball. Not today though; he would bide his time.
One thing he was increasingly certain of: there was a great deal more to his diminutive companion than met even
Buildings cut the skyline like a fistful of razors. Even the clouds scudding above the metropolis held a rosy pink glow – as if some artist had added the hint of colour as embellishment, a suggestion of blood summoned forth by steel, glass, and concrete edges where the buildings scraped the heavens. It was one of two things Pelquin loved most about New Sparta, that skyline; the other being the inordinate amount of wealth sloshing around the place.
New Sparta was the banking capital of human space. In Pelquin’s experience, bankers usually demanded blood before they would even consider parting with a fraction of the wealth they shepherded, so the sky’s ruddy hue struck him as wholly appropriate.
He’d even seen an Xter here once; the very first of that strangely unsettling alien race he’d ever set eyes upon. To date, Xters were the only other intelligent species mankind had encountered, but the two races rarely mingled, warily eying each other across the mutually agreed boundaries that arbitrarily defined their respective ‘space’ in an uneasy peace founded on tolerance rather than welcome. Pelquin had gained no more than a fleeting glimpse, straining to see over the heads of a crowd as security ushered the gangly figure through a hastily cleared lobby. But it was a moment he would never forget. The Xter looked insectlike, abhorrent both in form and in its darting, stuttering motion, but fascinating at the same time; alien in every sense.
Doubtless the Xter had come to New Sparta for the same reason everyone else did: money.
Pelquin continued to head for the river, as he had been for much of the morning, though circumspectly due to the nagging sense that he was being watched. Part of him almost wished he’d been pounced on by now – shaken down by pseudo-muggers, found to have nothing of interest on him and left to get on with things. No such luck, just the incessant prickling at the back of his neck, the conviction that
was following him. If they’d tagged him with a bug, he couldn’t find it. If they were using a revolving tail there must have been a lot of them and they had to be very good. The only time he thought he might have spotted someone – a woman, middle-aged and nondescript – she’d slipped away in apparent innocence seconds before his suspicions could crystallise into certainty and well before he could discount his own paranoia as culprit.
Of course, under the circumstances, paranoia was to be expected, welcomed even as a goad to caution. After all, when someone bigger and tougher than you and with a far longer reach openly declares their intent to thwart your ambitions and pummel you, it pays to be careful.
For all his determination to remain vigilant, Pelquin’s musings were almost his undoing. A streak of pink fur and fast-moving legs suddenly shot across his path, low to the ground, almost tripping him up.
“Binky!” a woman shrieked as Pelquin’s footfalls stuttered and he was forced to swerve and skip on one foot to avoid colliding with the creature or stepping on it. A genpet, genetically engineered to its owner’s dictates. The wretched things were all the rage on New Sparta at present. Pelquin hated them. He wasn’t religious in the slightest; he had no qualms about mankind’s tinkering with the genes of domestic animals on that score. He knew full well it was something that had been going on since the dark ages, long before the advent of spaceflight, but genpets struck him as a step too far. They were an affectation of the rich and foolish, a pointless abomination to titillate jaded palates and blatant testament to the fact that some folk had more money than taste. This one, with its narrow muzzle, flopped-over ears and long sausage-like body, had clearly been developed from canine stock, despite the pink fur and its three pairs of legs – front, middle and rear. Probably a bit of snake in there as well to judge by the sinuous way it moved.
The creature’s owner, a slender, leggy woman in pencil skirt whose platinum hair was tied back to display a wrinkle-free face flush with the tell-tale glow of a recent rejuve, tapped frantically at her wrist perminal, reeling in the invisible leash that was supposed to keep her pet in thrall.
Pelquin had been momentarily distracted by the incident. He nearly missed the flash of steel as the kid in scruffy blue top came towards him, hood up, head down; and if he’d reacted a fraction slower the blade would have found its mark and lodged somewhere in his belly. As it was, he came to his senses in the nick of time and was able to sway and jump, allowing the steel splinter to thrust forward and slice through the air where he’d been standing a split second before. He didn’t think, just reacted, grabbing hold of the assailant’s arm with both hands. He dug his thumb into the wrist tendons so that the kid had no choice but to drop the knife. Movement in the corner of his eye warned him that the attacker wasn’t alone. Still holding the arm, he swivelled, yanking the inept knifeman across and driving the kid’s torso into the advancing form of a thicker-set youth dressed in grey, hood again pulled up as token gesture to anonymity.
Somebody screamed – a woman – more a yelp of surprise than of fear. Something else barked excitedly – quite possibly the same genpet that had distracted him. The sounds reminded Pelquin that there were others here, that he’d been walking down a crowded thoroughfare when the attack came. He stepped back, dropping into a fighter’s crouch as the kids untangled themselves. A small knot of onlookers had stopped to watch. The attention evidently unnerved the two would-be muggers. The pair exchanged quick glances, as if seeking reassurance which neither was in a position to provide, before they turned and fled, the smaller one barrelling into an elderly man in a brown jacket who was too slow to react, nearly knocking him off his feet.
The cluster of people began to dissolve at once, clearly preferring not to get involved. All except for one man who stepped forward as if to help. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” Pelquin replied. He trusted this man about as much as he did the two muggers.
“If you hang around for a minute, security should be here and you can report those two hoodlums.”