Authors: Mr Mike Berry
Into the Lanes proper. This was the dark heart of the city – the ever-burgeoning black market district, defiantly sprawled across the landscape like a dog turd on a lawn. The spyflies dared not enter here, and if they did then they were lured to their dooms by scrambler-baits. Seldom were the police seen in these parts either. Underworld businesses were either strong enough and wealthy enough to pay them off or so weak that they were eaten by their contemporaries. The authorities generally let nature take care of itself.
Leo passed under a wrought iron archway festooned with fairy lights. A woman with masses of dark curly hair and the lower body of a green snake was curled around the arch itself, the tip of her tail holding to a nearby streetlight, which washed her in a sinister yellow. She hissed at Leo as he passed below her and he was unsurprised to see that she had the forked tongue of a serpent. Underworld bodymods were often more extreme than their licensed counterparts.
Enterprising souls had erected trestle tables on the slimy flagstones here and from these gaudy stalls they sold all manner of items. Drugs and drug paraphernalia, electronic items, mostly either stolen or fake, bizarre foodstuffs, bio-modded pets, weapons legal and not. At one stall outside a smoky brothel a woman whose face appeared to be made of electrical components was tattooing an eight-pointed star onto the forehead of an immensely muscled man.
Capitalism at work,
And in a purer form than that practised by the honourable Smithson
Investment Advisory Services.
This is the beating heart of the beast, right here.
He felt like an invading germ.
He came to a corner where a makeshift stage had been made from pallets and old doors nailed together. A four-piece band was playing screaming funk metal from it. A motley crowd of revellers swelled the street here, bouncing to the music, drinks cans aloft, beer spilling over sweaty bodies as they banged their grizzled heads with whiplash-inducing ferocity. The lead singer was a red-headed girl who looked about sixteen years old. She punctuated a half-bar break in the music by spraying a mouthful of vodka over her listeners, convulsively rejoining with the bass as the beat returned, a thrashing visual representation of the sound itself.
One of the band was playing a hypnophone, jacked directly into his DNI. He swayed with his shaven, tattooed head back and his eyes rolling at the sky, body trembling as the wheedling, entrancing noise of the instrument merged with the guitar, drums and vocal. Occasionally he would reach down and minutely adjust some arcane setting on the panel of the hypnophone implanted in his bare chest. The echoes rattled back and forth between the walls of the looming shop fronts.
With no route around, Leo pushed his way through, being bounced and shoved quite violently if unintentionally. Only two blocks to the Jukeman’s pad from here. The Jukeman lived in a cellar apartment below a second hand tat-emporium. The colourful fumes of some of his more bizarre concoctions seeped up into the shop between the ill-fitting floorboards, and Leo could only guess what the old ladies who shopped there thought of
He attempted to sidestep an athletic-looking woman with grey skin scribed in fluorescent blue. She danced enthusiastically right into him, seemingly looking at her own feet and laid a hand on his wrist to steady herself. He noticed that she had the most remarkably long and sharp-looking nails – claws almost. She reeled back and briefly he looked into her eyes. They were the washed out blue of glacial ice. He felt himself unintentionally shrink from that freezing gaze. The music seemed to dissolve into the sub-audible – Leo could barely hear it over his own pulse.
‘Nice wings, man,’ she said, releasing his arm, and was gone into the maelstrom of bodies like a ghost.
Disorientated and a little unnerved, Leo continued towards the Jukeman’s place. At the end of the street he crossed over to the lighter side. Feeling singled out by his smart brown-on-black layered suit and brightly contrasting wings, he elected that it would actually be safer in the light than the shadows. Most people here were harmless to the passer-by. Better to be visible. Better to stay out of the shadows.
Just a precaution,
Leo told himself.
Nearly there now. And this
the last time.
Leaving the band behind him, Leo passed beneath a series of steel cables groaning between the rooftops, laden with slowly creaking cable cars like plump fruit on a vine. A couple coming the other way seemed to glance at him and then huddle closer, laughing between themselves. Leo felt a twinge of paranoia. He passed an old man whose artificial heart pumped in an unnecessarily baroque glass case inside his chest. Leo noticed with a shudder that the man was drooling down his chin, ceramic teeth grinding loosely together. A gyrocopter thudded overhead, searchlights slicing the night like knives.
He pulled his suit lapels tighter around his cheeks, hunching his wings closer to his body. He tried to draw on his Sativia but was appalled to notice that his fingers shook so violently that he couldn’t get it to his mouth. He threw it away. It had gone out anyway.
Man, I don’t feel good. Must be the juke jitters. Be okay soon. Take a left here. Oh what…
He was back in the square with the stage. How had this happened? The music, seemingly louder than ever, physically buffeted him to and fro as he stood in slack-faced confusion staring at the place he had just come from. He swayed gently. The world seemed to be pulsing in time with the bass – not just the lights, but reality itself, as if the data stream from his senses were just a series of electrons in microchips, disassociated not just from Leo himself but from everything else too. Reality was subjective, his point of view objective. Or was it the other way around? The dancing crowd had literally become a beast of one body and many legs, which thrashed and smashed madly beneath it, pounding at the slippery street. He lifted a hand to wipe his sweating face and the sound it made was like granite slabs dragged over concrete. Sparks glittered in the air of its wake.
Not good. How am I back here? I don’t feel right, this is not right. I feel as if I’ve been drugged. And not in a good way.
The woman! The woman with the grey face and blade-nails. Had she put something onto his skin? Squirted him with a narcosol spray? Leo looked around for her. The world dipped and dived as his head turned, possessed of its own pendulous momentum. It was a truly nauseating effect. He would sit down somewhere before he fell down. Panic gnawed at his nerves.
Oh man, what if I fall unconscious here? What is happening to me? I will have to sit somewhere…
Leo saw the mouth of an alley looming distortedly on his right and made for it on legs that felt full of a viscous, sloshing liquid. It occurred to him briefly to alert someone to his plight, maybe ask for help from one of the less malodorous-looking passers-by. Perhaps due to the paranoia washing through his jittering mind he rejected this idea at once.
Better not to call attention to my vulnerability. I’ll sit for a moment then I’ll be okay. Man, what did she do to me?
He was sure now that the woman had been responsible. The patch of skin on his wrist where she had touched him was stinging hotly and itching at the same time. As he sat in the relative peace of the alley, Leo looked at the arm where the woman had laid her hand.
It was crawling with flies. He convulsed, spinning wildly on the dark, slimy surface of the alley floor, flapping at his wrist with the other hand. The flies were gone. He huddled dumbly into a corner, drawing his knees up to his chest. His suit was slimed with the decay and dirt of the alleyway, his eyes were bulging whitely from his face. Little tremors ran through his beautiful, useless wings. The music swirled and stretched the air, making his head spin.
Someone was standing in the mouth of the alley, looking at him.
Leo heard a whimper escape his lips. The silhouette seemed to observe him intently.
‘Whistler got you pretty good, I reckon,’ said a cultured male voice conversationally.
Leo nodded, eager to please, terror now coursing through him. He had no idea who or what Whistler was. The buildings seemed to be poised above him now, ready to crash down like tidal waves and crush him. Enthusiastic voices came from the square outside the alley. The band was playing an encore.
The man took a step towards Leo and grey light splashed across his face. He was older than Leo – maybe fifty – with close-cropped dark hair and a large hook of a nose on a weathered-looking face. A scar that could easily have been rectified by any back-yard surgeon ran from the lobe of one ear to the corner of his mouth. His expression was set impassively. The stranger took a metallic cylinder, about twenty centimetres in length, from a fold of his clothing.
‘Nice wings,’ he said and took another step towards Leo.
Leo scrambled to his feet and ran. At least, he tried to run but his legs were not so much shaking now as actually in spasm. He bounced into a wall, cracking his head, and bursts of light obscured his vision. He rebounded, twisting and falling, and hands were on him. They sought eagerly for purchase on his clothing. For a fraction of a second he was actually grateful to whoever had stopped him from sprawling on the ground again, but the absurdity of this emotion became apparent when the grey-skinned face of the woman who had drugged him loomed through the haze above him. She was grinning. Her canines were sharpened to needle-points. Venom dripped from them. She didn’t bite him, though. Instead, the woman and an indiscernible number of other assailants crowded round him, pushing his head down and cuffing his hands behind him.
I’m gonna die here. In a public place, drugged to incapacity and unable even to cry for help.
Oddly, he felt only a dull acceptance of this fact now that it came down to it. The invading germ had been intercepted. These people were the immune system of the Undercity, intercepting foreign bodies and…
More hands on him now. His feet left the floor and he was turned and bundled along the littered street, away from the crowd, into darkness. He tried to scream but his chest quivered feebly and he couldn’t take a proper breath. Another shadowed figure joined this merry procession from beneath an overhanging door-lintel. Were there four of them? Five?
‘Wagon,’ said the woman’s voice from behind Leo’s right ear.
At the far end of the alley a matt black van suddenly appeared, immediately braking to a smooth stop on its suspensor cushion. A small dust cloud puffed up around it. The vehicle hung a foot off the ground, menacingly silent. A door opened in its side like an eye. Multicoloured telltales blinked and winked within. Leo caught a glimpse of something that looked like a stretcher with straps attached to it. He renewed his feeble struggling, but in vain. His captors made no further sound as they manhandled him towards the waiting vehicle.
The world was turning over. Sound and light were bleeding from it like paint running in rain. Dark figures moved about him. He thought he felt the cold of the street on his back as he was briefly dumped on the floor, then moving again. Slipping. Twisting. The man with the craggy face leaned over him. Leo could just make out the silver tube in one of the man’s hands. It moved towards him. The man smiled like a wolf. Darkness.
Debian entered the bar, ducking under the low concrete lintel. There was no bouncer. The air seemed to thrum warmly, enticing him into the dimness of the room. It was cosily if scruffily furnished with much real wood and tatty throws in pastel colours. The bar itself was a huge kidney-shaped swathe of mahogany. A virtual being stood behind it glowing faintly and polishing a glass in what seemed a slightly contrived and stereotypical manner. The hologram/forcefield barman registered Debian’s entrance and he nodded slightly, making eye contact.
This man, Jalan Frazer, was well known for his zero-tolerance approach to customer misbehaviour. His program ran off the neural simulation of the Sunken Chest’s original proprietor, now dead some ninety years.
Debian knew that Jalan’s nod told the flying knife poised in the shadows above the doorway to let the customer through. There were reasons why the Sunken Chest managed without a doorman.
Debian scanned the clientèle slowly. His DNI overlayed his vision with a heads-up display, picking out life forms and identifying them by intercepting their microwave net-checks and illegally reading their personal data. With a mental impulse he could search further into their details, using these initial data with a combination of brute force crackers and ingenious AI avatars. In the space of milliseconds Debian could usually find out anything about anybody. Unless they were meatheads of course – that strange breed of human who chose to opt out of the techno-revolution.
There were two people kissing enthusiastically in one of the smoky booths to his left – an unemployed man, Simon Caldera, thirty-two years, no children, and a woman, Kathra Jones, thirty years, one child with a slight heart condition, registered nurse. His avatars checked further into their details, finding no cause for concern. To the right there was a blues musician playing slide guitar through an effects rack as large as a fridge. This man, Sharky Dave, was well known in the Undercity, but the avatars checked him out anyway: Fifty-five years old, alcoholic, employed as a professional musician for twenty years. Two women aged in their fifties, talking closely through blue ribbons of reeferette smoke checked out also – a charity worker and a machine operator in a munitions factory, no criminal records, no other cause for concern.