"To and fro in seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams."
-The Masque of the Red Death
Needle-Boy Takes a Trip
The world was dead.
The story was, it all came crashing down one day. Nuclear war, zombie apocalypse, some kind of bubonic AIDS, or something else happened, and it was all gone. Chthulu came; death and madness followed.
No one knew how much of it was true. Everyone had their own theories. Some said that they were all the descendants of a medical experiment. Others said that their ancestors had escaped a tyrannical government. Still others reversed that, and said they were prisoners. No one could say for certain, because no one knew how long they’d been down in the Last Tomorrow, at the Party.
You didn’t keep years in the Party, only days. And really, only hours: the hours spent in the Arms, where your body blankly toiled while your mind dreamed lovely dreams, the hours spent in the Recovery Room, where the cutters tweaked your exhausted flesh. Those hours were downtime, numb and empty. The real time was Party Time, where you drank and drugged and sugged and fugged. That was Grotto Time. That was Life.
The world was dead, but it kept dancing.
They danced to the beat, relentlessly, helplessly, in a series of twitches and thrusts that required perspective to be beautiful. Muse had that perspective. She provided that shifting, ultra-binaural beat. That was her job. Because she worked the Grotto, Muse didn’t do downtime in the Arms, keeping the geotherms and the batteries and the vats going like a numb automaton. It was only Party and Recovery, Party and Recovery, over and over and over and over.
Muse looked at her bucket. She didn’t want to. She didn’t want to look at what she had just thrown up. Sometimes the cutters hosed your dosage, and you yawned in color. Muse couldn’t remember the last time an OD had been bad enough to send someone to the fields. The cutters were careful. Most of the time.
But this wasn’t that. Muse knew what it felt like when her grencrum dose was that gram too heavy. She had experienced a bad dose of popsidine. Everybody at the Grotto knew what it was like to be slightly off. This was not that. This was something else.
She was really sick.
And she still had another hundred at least before Recovery. She could call out, true, but then Hard Harry would take her slot bringing the beats to the Grotto, and She wouldn’t give the bastard the satisfaction. Fugging Hard Harry wasn’t hard at all. Mincing glubbing fart of a man, he was. Barely a broletarian, but for some reason muffas liked hearing his shit after Muse lit them up. She always figured it was the Pheco-Meth giving out, as the muffas went in for Grencrum to smooth the high. Shit got slurry after that, which made Hard Harry’s slurry-ass beats acceptable. But Muse didn’t like it.
Fug ‘em, thought Muse, and kicked up the bass. Make it hurt.
The crowd flailed as she spun, bumped and grinded and punched. They smacked together like an alligator’s jaws. They lept and swung. They bounced their voiced of the high granite ceiling of the Grotto. They called out to the inflexible darkness. They danced, and they made Muse forget about the rising tide of sick in her esophagus.
Switching the bass down and the treble up, only to double back and bring the bass back up twice as hard once they’d forgotten about it, was the kind of trick that Hard Harry would pull now. Muse hated those cheap theatrics. The music needed to be seamless; elements coming in and out of the flow unnoticed until they were right there, pounding your ear, and then forgotten when passed. That was the way to make the music never end. That was her job.
Muse got into her flow. She split her awareness between the the thousand elements running from her tune-drive through the Hendai-Subsonic to the Campbell-5 Wall Stacks with Cardolite subwoofers, and the actual faces in the crowd bending to her will. She knew all of them and none. They were the faces she partied with.
She picked out Needle-Boy, toked up on Pheco-Meth, lost in the groove. Needle-Boy was one of the few retro mainliners at the Grotto; most muffas preferred their doses in convenient oral shots. Less risk of infection. Needle-Boy gave zero fugs. “S’what the cutters are for, you drones!”, he’d say. Needle-Boy was True Party.
For some reason, watching Needle-Boy made Muse feel sick again. She fought the bile. She felt angry. She wanted to hurt Needle-Boy. She turned the sliders on the Hendai into the red.
She shouldn’t do this. This might actually taste the raw. This might actually cause embolisms and card-arrests. It was a delicate dance, keeping a crowd this toked from burying the needle. Missteps could be fatal.
Muse lost her nerve. She turned the sliders back down. Needle-Boy shook his head but otherwise kept pogoing.
I’ve lost it, Muse thought. I can’t feel the crowd no more. I’m spinning angry. What the fug is wrong with me?
From a shadowy pocket of the crowd the Sundry Man stepped and, with a shiv made out of a plastic spork, stabbed Needle-Boy in the eye. Onlookers decided this was funny, especially because Needle didn’t die. He screamed, and kept screaming, and his screams sounded like laughs and everybody else laughed and no one cared. Not even the Sundry Man. He galumphed out of sight and let Needle slip to the floor. Blood came down the shaft of the shiv and Needle watched it with his good eye as it dripped and pooled on the floor. Eventually the Goons came and fetched him. He was still giggling as they dragged him away.
He would live. No Elysian Fields for him.
Muse looked up to the blank dark ceiling of the cavern and tried to find the Eye. She had never seen the Eye, no one had. But everyone was certain that it was there, watching all. Darker spoke as though he had installed the Eye himself. She wondered if she would see Darker later, perhaps after Recovery. She hoped so, and hated herself for hoping so.
Shift the rhythm. Start to bring everyone down. Her shift was over in a few minutes anyway, A few more minutes and Muse could decide whether to see the cutter again or just go straight to Recovery, and ride a gritty sweet dose of Eulisom to 100% gold-plated magnificence for next shift. Coin flip, honestly.
"Fugged-up shit," said a voice behind her. She didn't need to turn around to see who it was, but the sight of Needle-Boy taking a shiv to the eye somehow made her want to anyway. She saw a fat muffa in shiny pants, ugly translucent glasses and unkempt mutton-chops, sucking on a popsidine lollipop. Hard Harry, he of the syrupy beats and earworm melodies.
The sight of him made her wretch. She made it into her bucket while Hard Harry laughed. "You goin' soft on us, Musey?"
"Fug you, Harry. I'd need to gut you and have Darker make me a fat suit of your skin to be as soft as you."
"Darker, my ass. You ain't seen him."
This wasn't utterly false. Darker didn't get seen much by the average broletarian. He always seemed to have just left the Grotto, and always expected back any minute. It was the style, it was the way, it was the moment. Some of the Savers said that Darker was getting old and couldn’t party anymore. But they didn’t say it very loud. Neither the Goon Squad nor True Partiers liked it.
But Muse had seen him more recent than some. More recent than Harry, anyway. But it wasn't worth the argument, so she just packed up her tune-drive and her Hendai as Harry plugged in his gear. She had fifty seconds of fuzz muzak to make the switch. It was old hat, but always tense. Failure to switch from one grinder to another meant silence, and silence meant Darker's wrath.
An old story, in the early days of the Last Tomorrow, told of two grinders who fugged up a switch. Darker had the Goon Squad throw them down to the Grotto floor and let the crowd work out their pheco tweaks by tearing them limb from limb. Nobody believed that story, but nobody wanted to test their beliefs. Given how Darker ran the Grotto and the Last Tomorrow, Muse always figured the story was true enough.
As she finished, Muse noticed how shiny and blue Harry's deck was. Harry had always used a grimy grey box of tinkered plastic and ugly nodules before. He named it Lucille, and he was always fixing it, swearing at it. Even though grinders could spend their bit$ on new pieces from Darker's gearboys, Harry had always blown his credit on threads and above-market doses of grencrum. Muse always thought she'd sooner see Harry without his monographed brass knuckles (which she'd never seen him once hit someone with) than without Lucille.
"What happened to Lucille?" she said, swallowing.
Harry smiled and sucked his lollipop. "Lucille went to the Fields."
She sneered. The Fields were for humans. Junk just recycled. "The Fields?"
"The fields of gearboys with hard-ons for vintage decks. One of them traded me for this beauty. I'm calling her Lucille's Daughter."
Of course you are, Muse thought. Harry was full of it. No gearboy would have used that bucket of wires for anything but an ashcan. But it was none of her business. She nodded and walked away.
Lurid electric blue neon light exploded behind her. She turned back, and saw the Grotto from ceiling to floor wrapped in deep, shimmering blue. Harry was churning his typical beatsplat, but the crowd was crazy into it. Their voices raised in a weird trippy ecstatic coo.
That's when she noticed that one of the LED readouts on Harry's shiny new deck was pulsing gold in time with the blue lights. Against her instincts she gasped. Harry's deck was controlling the lights as well as the sound. Her deck couldn't do that. She just let the lights run on a random pattern.
"No way did a gearboy trade you that for your old deck" she said.
Hard Harry spit out his empty lollipop stick onto the floor. It landed with a small glob of spit. Muse felt queasy again.
"You think you know everything, Muse. You think 'cause you're Darker's favorite that you can look down on the rest of us grinders. Enjoy it while you can."
"Whatever," said Muse, and turned again to walk out.
"Weird about Needle-Boy, huh?" said Harry.
Muse stopped again. Why was Harry acting like he knew something? Harry never gave off any impression of giving a fap about anything that happened to anyone. Hell, Muse couldn't remember the last time she heard anyone say "Hey, guess what Hard Harry said?" It did not happen.
"I guess," she said, wanting only to find a place to puke in private.
"It doesn't seem strange to you, Sundry Man going after him like that?" said Harry, turning to her with his eyebrows raised.
More fugging nonsense. Sundry Man's whole thing was that he went after anyone, in any way. He liked to vary his kills. Sometimes the knife, sometimes blunt, sometimes poison. He had no rules. He would do one kill in front of everybody on the dance floor, and then he would kill alone and leave their bodies outside the Arms for shipment to the Fields. Sometimes people would just disappear, and everyone just knew, without saying, that Sundry had done it. He had no loyalties, and no patterns. He was pure Grey Hat.
Muse said as much to Harry. "For fug's sake, that's why he's called The Sundry Man!"
"Yeah," said Harry, "and when was the last time you heard of Sundry Man just wounding someone?"
Muse scowled. It had to have happened. It had to have. But she couldn't think of a time. She turned a final time to leave.
"It's like everything's changing," said Harry as Muse walked out of the granite hole that walled the stage off in pure raw rock.
She made it five steps before she dropped to her knees and wretched.
Blood in the Arms of Morpheus
Muse staggered her way along the Last Call Causeway, amid the broken rocks and occasional bones. Her brain was screaming at her to sleep. With each step the saccharine synth ploddings and weird blue lights that was part of Hard Harry's new performance faded, leaving only a dull ringing in her ears and heaviness in her eyes. The granite between the Last Tomorrow and the old dead world didn't absorb sound well, but it did leave that noise feeling faraway and foreign, like it had happened to someone else.
Muse wondered again what things sounded like under the sky. She remembered the sky. She was only a little girl when the world died, when Darker gathered the Party into the Last Tommorrow deep underground, and closed the Last Gate, but she remembered sky. Sometimes it was blue and sometimes it was red and sometimes it was gray and wet, but she remembered it. And when she felt as badly as she did right now, those memories of a world under the sky instead of under the rock came to her.
It had been forever since she'd felt this bad leaving the Grotto. One time she'd let a junior cutter do her party dose, and she collapsed after a dim memory of dancing on the Grotto floor. It had taken her two full shifts to even regain consciousness, and another to feel ready enough to resume grinding. After that she only let Cutter John dose her.
She felt Recovery calling her. She'd be right and tight if she could just sleep. She could almost taste the lovely Eulisom, almost feel the thick dark fall into the void.
Red Death, she thought, out of nowhere. Red dripping kruvy death. Death covering all, and no one to put anyone in the Fields. Just a pile of bones, with red steamy sick death on top of it all.
Muse shook herself back to awareness, blinked to focus her eyes on the glittery gateway of rainbow light ahead. No. She was fine. She just needed her Eulisom and she'd sleep it off.
She stepped through the rainbow gateway and the purple-gray cavern of the Arms of Morpheus opened up to her.
Muse didn't have to go to the Arms, but she had to walk through it on the way to Recovery. There was no other way: that was how the cave slanted, with no turn-offs or tunnels of any real size. The cutters who worked in Recovery had a fantasy, occasionally elevated to rumor, that Darker would dig a separate tunnel from the Last Call Causeway direct to their space. Muse never heard about it anywhere else.
So Muse had to stagger in past the dreaming broletariat as they Worked. Each of these dreamed an own little dream, oblivious to anything else, guided in a mundane industrial task by the man'gers. Muse hated walking through here. Sometimes it gave her bad dreams.
To reach the high vats where the meat grew, the man'gers stacked people like rubbery folding chairs, each on the shoulders of another. This was also used to pull vegetables out of the greenhouses built on one of the upper ledges. They moved like sick centipedes and their limbs had the horrible, de-centered motion of marionettes.
Muse saw this and smelled the meat product in the vat and felt the clammy, oily steam on her skin and wanted to retch again.
"Hey, friend-of-friend!" came a voice along the man'ger monitors. Muse blinked and turned and tried not to look completely miserable as she focused on the direction of the voice. It was someone she knew. She didn't know who she knew that worked in the Arms, but she knew she knew that voice.
"Muse!" said the voice again, and this time Muse saw the face it came from. Holla Helen waved a hand in a leather fingerless glove at her. Her other hand was short a finger. Once Muse asked her how she lost the finger. Helen didn't speak to her for five shifts after that.
"Hola, Holla" said Muse, putting as much smile into her voice as she could muster. She'd forgotten that Helen had left her old gig as one of Darker's Goons to be a man'ger in the Arms. Changing jobs at the Last Tomorrow wasn't unheard of, but you needed Darker's okay for it, and Darker required a good reason. There were stories about people hassling Darker about job changes and Darker assigning them to the Fields. Muse never understood if that meant working at the Fields or just going there. She didn't ask.
"You just came off the Party, didn't you?" said Holla. "Did you see what happened to Needle-Boy?"
"He came through here on the way to Recovery. He was laughing while the cutters walked him down."
Muse remembered the deft motion of Sundry's shiv, Needle-Boy's scream that became a laugh. She felt the sick rise again.
"That's Needle-Boy," she said through clenched teeth.
"That was a new kind of laugh. And I've heard them all."
"I heard it was the Sundry Man."
Muse nodded. It hurt to think of speaking.
"Was it the Drones?"
Muse blinked at this. Needle just got stabbed. Who was jabbering about it?
"I heard it was the Drones."
"Drones?" came a voice from down the bank.
Shit, thought Muse. Here's where it goes sideways.
"Yeah, I said Drones," said Holla Helen. "Any Drone who objects to what everyone who ain't a Drone calls you is free as the wind to complain to my face about it."
There was a pause as a man stepped away from the bank to approach Helen. Muse sucked a breath in as she recognized Arch. Arch was a big player amid the Drones, or Savers as they preferred to be called. His clothes were always clean-pressed, and he had no fear. He was the hatchet man of the Council of Five who ran the Drones. Underneath his black shirt any number of noiseless weapons coiled for either ranged or intimate attacks.
Muse looked at Helen. Even she had to know the static that would arise from pissing off Arch. But Helen just narrowed her eyes.
"No objection to matters as petty as nomenclature, Helen the Erstwhile Goon. Wipers and other persons of low character may invent perfidious appellations for us until the Last Tomorrow caves in, for all that we should care..."
This was a lie. Muse had personally seen Arch shiv a young T-P for calling him a Drone. Little Skinny, his name was. Nice kid, most of the time. Arch had spilled his guts all over the floor, and Goons had cleaned it up while Hard Harry's beats lurched over the crowd. How long ago had that been. Muse couldn't remember. She kept her mouth shut.
"...But the contention that Savers should have hired the Man of Sundry to assassinate this...Needle-Boy, is a rank calumny."
"Talk straight, Arch" growled Holla Helen.
Muse watched others peel off their positions on the monitors. Some of them were Savers, and some True Party. They watched each other intently. The stacks of dreaming Workers stopped. Their limbs flopped down and they swayed gently, oblivious.
This was bad. By ancient agreement, feuding did not happen in the Arms or in Recovery. This was Safe Space.
"I only mean," purred Arch, pulling at the whisps of his mustache, "that if we should want him or anyone else dead, we would have the decency to shiv him ourselves. And he would be dead, not giggling his way to Recovery."
"Well, that's what I heard."
"Ah, yes. You heard things. May I remind you, then, that you are no longer one of Darker's myrmidons. Who stabs who in the Grotto is no longer your concern. And as a general rule, muffas rarely profit from investigating matters not of their concern."
Muse watched Helen's thick muscles tense, and then relax. Arch was right. She had no more business with it than Muse did. And Muse didn't give a fug. Helen looked away from Arch for the first time since the standoff began.
"Has to be," said Helen.
"Has to be," said Arch.
Helen turned and walked away. Arch stood his ground but made no move to attack. Muse felt the tension leak out of the room like a cut finger.
And then a long thick red dart appeared in Arch's chest. He sucked in a gruesome dying breath and then collapsed to the floor without a word.
Darts began to rain down from above, striking Saver and T-P, but mostly Savers. The T-P's took their cue and began drawing weapons.
Muse looked up, but only saw a dart coming right for her face. She felt a tug on her arm and found herself on the floor. Holla Helen was beside her.
"Stay here," she said. "You're a neutral. They won't hurt you."
"They're not supposed to do this here," Muse said.
"I know. I'll get the Goons. I still know a few." She got up and let a sap drop into her hand, then flipped a switch on it. A spark and a hum and she began swirling it into a lethal blue arc of cutting energy that could remove and cauterize a limb. She used it to carve through a Saver with his back to her. He screamed and fell into two neat halves with a spray of blood beside them.
Fug, thought Muse. Helen's a beast. She crawled to the wall amid screams and grunts and thocks of violence and curled up. When she looked back she saw Helen facing off against a pale, skinny muffa with dark glasses. She didn't recognize him at first. But then he bent his frame underneath Helen's whirling blue arc and she knew him like her own face. Kal, they called him in the True Party. Kal the Kleaver. Vicious and swift and invariably juiced to the eyeballs on thermotabs. Like a wire he curved under Helen's weapon and curved up again around her back. Muse yelled out for Helen to watch out but it made no difference. With one jab, he deactivated her arc-sap. He was ready with a spike to pierce her spine at the neck when a violet burst in the center of the room blew them both apart.
The monitors shorted. The lights died. Muse shut her eyes in the dark and held her hands to her ears to avoid the sounds of bodies plummeting to the floor as the dreaming workers fell over like towers of child's blocks. But it did no good. She could still feel the vibrations against the smooth floor. She retched but nothing came out of her.
Then the lights came back on. She could see Kal the Kleaver standing over her with a cruel grin and a grappler-gun in his hand.
"Tell Darker sorry for the mess," he said.
"I ain't seen Darker," Muse replied.
"Then I guess he don't get the message," said Kal. And he fired the grappler and launched himself at the ceiling towards some manner of passage that the True Party had carved from their lair in the Pit of Giggles to Arms of Morpheus without anyone knowing.
The floor of the Arms was slick with blood and quiet. Bodies of muffas who would never wake up lay on top of each other like piles of discarded junk under a gearboy's stall. No one cried out, not even when the cutters in their white speed-suits pulled them apart and checked for vitals. No one was alive enough to.
Holla Helen lay quiet a few meters off. A cutter had folded her arms over her chest. She still had a shiv in her left hand. She was for the Elysian Fields.
Muse wanted to cry and couldn't.