Unal 14, 524
Katrina Morse shivered though the night was hot. She doubled over, retched, and heaved into the back alley rainwater. Oily water streamed down the face of the holocinema's back exit behind her. A waxy, rust-tinged poster hung from it, proclaiming Pan-Tech Studio's newest thriller, Red Lies. As she stared up at the poster, shivering, she had a brief epiphany: she truly hated the City. Aurum was not evil. Aurum was a gutter. Its air; its buildings; its people. It disgusted her.
Her insight evoked fresh nausea. She held back the dark strands of her hair. Her evening gown was a complete loss, but this was of no concern to her; she shut her eyes against the streams. Sweat mixed with greasy rain. She cried, but it was neither shame nor embarrassment drawing out the molten drops. She was puzzled. Nothing about Aurum had ever made sense to Katrina. She had grown up in its heart and remained a stranger to it, like a fish unaware of the properties of water. Ask her to model the fluid dynamics of a pneumatic calculator, and she could quickly produce the requisite differentials. Society, colleagues, friends, lovers, and even her own self were opaque mysteries. Social interactions were confusing ordeals. Tonight was another disappointing failure in her socialization experiments: a holoscope date.
She hated Holo-Realiscopic Cinema. Figures whirred around as though detached from reality. She felt drawn into the motions, until her mind lost its sense of direction. Flickering images pulsed with artificial brilliance like ghosts whirling in thick smoke. The dark cinema auditorium smelled of food and sex. Katrina was cursed by holokinetosis. She could barely keep her meals down while watching the opaque, three dimensional spectacles. Her Academy classmates watched the newest flicks every weekend. Her first screening had been a disaster. She groaned awkwardly during the spectacle of the film's opening aerobattle, then fled the cinema, trailing bits of her dinner.
Her social life had been an uphill fight. She struggled to maintain the appearance of an ordinary Aurite girl. Katrina knew that in Aurum sex was the prerogative of success. No, it was more than that: it was a requirement. To do otherwise was to invite suspicion: what was wrong with that girl? Was she - afraid? Insecure? Neurotic? Or was she simply - incompetent? Aurum demanded trade in flesh as readily as corporate currency. She grinned through it and felt no joy. She had learned to project her consciousness towards solving mechanical challenges as some rich-stock, half-naked, pimply Academy boy grunted on top of her.
Earlier that evening, while she was still in the Holo-Cinema, she imagined rotating, interlocked gears as a square-chinned boy named Menard Short began probing the front of her blouse with his cold fingers. His cheeks were always blotchy, but now the small patches of red threatened to overtake his face. The gears spun in her mind's eye, and between them she spotted the past. Menard had insisted on a date. Like Katrina, he was enrolled in Pan-Tech Academy's School of Engineering and planned to work at Pan-Tech, although his family and wealth promised that he would be working in management.
"Just dinner and a holo-flick," he had said as they walked to Material Mechanics. Katrina's mind raced. The hallway stretched to infinity as she instantly ran through a host of possible answers:
"Yes, of course, Menard. I'd like that very much."
"About three millimeters of thick, black hair is thrust outward from your left nostril, Menard. Therefore, I decline."
She settled on a half grunt. Menard took it for assent. He placed his meaty hand too low on her back, leaning in and smiling.
“Tell me, Menard,” Katrina had asked earlier as he drove her to the cinema, “the project for Dr. Fuller's class; what alloy are you using for your turbine blades?”
He stared back dumbly, then laughed. His degree was paid for by his father's investments. He did not answer. The rest of the ride was silent. Menard was taking Katrina to see Outlaw, a new sky-pirate flick. The picture was thinly veiled softcore pornography. Thirty-six minutes into the film, and Menard's hands and attention wandered. The cinema was dark, a semi-circle around a broad central projection pedestal upon which the Realiscope flick materialized larger-than-life. She could not see him well, but she felt and smelled him as he began his grope. The boy had never learned the difference between cologne and perfume. As Menard groped her thigh, Katrina gulped back an unpleasant taste. On the holostage, the sky pirate seduced an Aero-Captain’s wife in a scene worthy of a five-COH peep show; the wife’s dress fell to the floor, revealing the actress’ perfect, full bosom in three dimensions to an audience that grew instantly quiet. A disturbing noise like someone slapping themselves quietly pulsed from somewhere behind her. Menard was pinching Katrina's breasts hard now, and she yelped. She pushed away Menard’s hand and shoved his face back, straightening her bra.
“Don’t,” he protested. “Just enjoy it.”
Katrina pushed harder, but he grabbed her wrist.
“Stop it.” Katrina pulled back, but Menard had thrust his hand down the front of her dress again. She felt her stomach tighten and her throat constrict slightly. Noises became muffled and she tasted something peculiar and bilious in the back of her throat. She salivated and Menard bent in close with a deep, forceful kiss. She felt something uncontrollable, an inevitable twinge in her gut, and a sudden explosive force erupted with an awful retch directly into Menard‘s open mouth. Katrina believed that she vomited for an eternity; she afterwards remembered the event in such clear precision, yet slowed to an infinitesimal crawl that afforded her perfect recollection of every minute sensation. Menard’s eyes widened, the pupils dilating, his nostrils flaring. He tried to pull back, but it was too late. Incomprehension flashed across his face, as though the moment were an impossibility: surreal wonder, not truly disgust at first but sheer disbelief, as though the boy had disconnected for a moment from reality. Even then, however, there was terror, and he was drawing back as quickly as he could. For Katrina’s part, she had felt the onset of nausea and was prepared, but her eyes stayed locked with Menard’s. Now he was pleading with her, cursing. Time returned to its ordinary pace. Menard was choking, spitting up. The lights were coming on in the theater, and a fat, bald man beside Menard was laughing wildly.
“Did you see that? Did you see his face,” the man cackled, “his eyes popped almost right out!”. Menard was still in shock, spitting and coughing. He stood and ran from the theater, and the bald man looked at Katrina. “That’s a good one, sweetheart! Showed him what you thought of him! That’s the spirit of youth, don’t you know? Timed it just right, sweetheart-”
The man was cut off in mid-sentence and managed a gurgled moan. Katrina, still trembling from nausea, landed her closed fist against the man’s nose. Blood burst out, and the man teetered precariously before collapsing on a thin man beside him. Katrina looked in wonder at her knuckles; one had split. She heard the jeers and protests voiced around her like a distant swarm of flies choking the air. She had to breathe, so she pushed her way past the fat man with the bloody nose and towards a side exit. She wiped her mouth on the shoulder of her dress; there was still yellow and orange froth clinging to her chin and dripping from her nostrils. Her eyes burned.
The exit issued directly onto a dirty alley. Garbage piled high against the adjacent buildings. The night was a paradox: hot air and cold rain. The downpour was acidic enough that it stung her eyes and filled her nostrils with acrid tang. The cinema was in Middle Aurum, on O Street and 41st. Devil's Row, a joint Pan-Tech and Valkyrie Industry venture. Pleasures innocent and perverse mingled in a cacophony of light and sound. She held her arms tight around her own waist to settle her stomach. She did not dare to walk down O Street in a dress soaked in bile. There was a creak, and the door cracked open as one of her classmates shouted after her, but Katrina shut the door firmly. Her coat was still in the theater, abandoned on the back of a chair, and the silk dress she was wearing was splattered wet. Despite the weather, a parade or some other spectacle crawled down O Street at the end of the alley, so that Katrina caught glimpses of brightly lit steam-powered floats mounted by troops of showgirls, their milky tinged with sweat as they smiled broadly and waved in the night air. O Street was covered by the raised Electric Lightway Tunnel, built by Valkyrie Electronics. In place of the sky, a neon heaven encouraged cheering onlookers to purchase Valkyrie wrist radios, proclaiming, “Never be out of touch!” The float passed by, followed close by a marching band blaring a catchy inanity double time. The pounding rhythm thrummed in Katrina’s head and brought a new wave of nausea. She crouched in a corner and gagged, but nothing came up. She looked up, and saw the film poster for Red Lies. The heroine was depicted semi-reclined, her hair disheveled, her tight red gown barely covering her. Katrina slung forward and vomited.
“You don’t wear evenings terribly well.”
Katrina bolted upright and let out a short scream. A tall man stood several paces away from her, holding a pipe in his mouth and drawing morose puffs at long intervals. He was dressed in coat and tails. Clotted blood adorned his face below the nose and clung to his chin like sticky glaze. Torrential downpour extinguished his pipe's bowl long ago, but he clutched it between his lips, plucked it away with his left hand when he talked, then quickly returned it to its natural perch. His other hand was at his side, holding a silver revolver limply.
“Stay back, I don't want to hurt you,” Katrina barked. "But if you come closer..." Her voice was broken, faltering with the trembling of her nausea and the chilly rain, but it nevertheless conveyed real threat. She spotted a long, dirty piece of wood with rusted nail driven through it and snatched it. She held it up, ready to strike. There was only resolve in her eyes.
“Easy, easy,” he cooed. He took a step forward. Katrina was swift, though her body shook as she moved. In an instant she spotted a new weapon in the rubbish of the alley. Broken in half, the red brick tumbled quickly through the air, across the alley. It narrowly missed, and the blood-stained stranger smiled. “This isn't my night, is it?”
Katrina snatched a broken chair leg from the alley rubbish. Then she advanced, brandishing the bludgeon. As she neared the stranger, though, she was overcome again. She keeled over. Some of her dinner, it seemed, remained. When she looked up again, the man was directly in front of her. He had not lifted the pistol. It remained in his hand, pointed at the ground. He held it awkwardly. It was heavy because it was silver plated, as much costume as weapon. Filigree emblems lined the barrel, and on the handle an oval medallion was inset with the deep, molded relief of a hand clutching the world from below.
“Damn – listen, this isn't how this was planned. This alley's supposed to be empty,” he said. “Don't mind me.” His words slurred like hours of warm booze. “Really, I didn't know you were here. I don't want – I'm not going to hurt you. Oh, this? This! No, no, don't mind it. It's a gift. Someone very thoughtful. Knew just what I needed. Knew I needed – well, look at you. You look like you might need one, too?”
A grim smile crept across his face like a conspiracy. Something in his voice was peculiarly and pointedly inflected, even though drunk.
“Oh, well,” he said, suddenly unconcerned. They stood looking at each other in the rain for a moment, then he plucked the pipe from his mouth and dumped the soaked, cold ashes. Caked inside, they clung persistently. He shoved the pipe into his coat pocket. “I'm sorry to have disturbed you. You won't mind if I finish what I came here for?” He nodded, and Katrina noticed that not all the water running down his face was from the rain. Tears mingled with the blood still oozing from his nose. He placed the barrel of the revolver against his head. He took two quick breaths and pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened. The man's brows scrunched in confusion. He pulled the trigger again, and nothing happened. He laughed nervously. Swinging back the cylinder he spun it around, and each chamber held a bullet that glinted in the night. He closed the revolver again, pointed it back. He pulled the trigger again, and nothing happened. Katrina watched but never stopped clutching her weapon. She cocked her head to the side as the man struggled with the revolver. His laughter was derisive and loud as he swung it around, pulling the trigger in every possible direction.
“That's a Pan-Tech model 37,” Katrina noted. “It may be a luxury edition, but it is fundamentally the same gun. Single action.” The significant pause that followed this statement was pregnant with expectation. It ended in stillbirth as the man stared stupidly back at her. “Look here.” She dropped her club. She took the pistol away from the startled man. Wiping the dried ooze from his face, he sniffed as she took a single glance at the revolver. Katrina pulled back the hammer with a confident motion. “Single action means that pulling the trigger only releases the hammer. You have to pull back the hammer manually. Otherwise you can't kill yourself.” She handed the cocked gun back to him and promptly shook her head. Sudden warm breeze howled down the alley and swept out her wet hair. She straightened her dress. Drumming resounded from the streets as the rain subsided. Her eyes probed his.
"You don't have to do it, though," she said timidly, as though an afterthought.
“Thank you,” he said at last, gripping the pistol not by the handle but holding it sideways in the palm of his hand. Katrina looked at a loss. Finally she shrugged. He looked at her and his eyes suddenly twinkled. “You know me, don't you?” Vanity was not in his voice. He spoke with the sudden innocent curiosity of a child. “Granted, the cover headshot they have of me is twelve years old.” As Katrina shook her head, he rambled on. “Walter Hess,” he announced with instinctive bravado. Then he continued. “Publishers used to print ‘Walt’ because it took less time to set the typeface, but now I’m a hot enough seller they oblige me the ‘ER.’ You a reader? Probably heard of The Cracked Mirror? Well, that was me. And maybe Price? God, that was a bestseller! They printed ten runs in a month. It’s shit. It’s all shit. I sat there and churned out a dozen of those books and could probably churn out five dozen more.”
Katrina shrugged again and looked up and down the alley. Even she could sense what was coming. With watering eyes Walter Hess drew what remained of his person up into the figure of the outcast prophet. A lecture was coming. Hess started slow, then gradually became more agitated, all while holding the cocked pistol askew in his hand.
“It’s the same recycled plot and the same pretentious slop every bestselling writer in Aurum has shoveled out for the last three centuries. The heroic individual. The man who rises above his beginnings - or the woman, like in The Cracked Mirror. He overcomes meaninglessness. He overcomes the inanity of life and the masses of suffocating parasites around him. The painful but inevitable triumph of the will, the journey of self-discovery and evolution and growth and overcoming. The unreliable narrator who at last pierces through himself for just an instant and lets in enough light for the reader to see everything clearly, or at least think that he sees everything clearly - a deus ex machina for the mind, so at the end the writer knows his theme can be summed up in a sentence and the whole thing digested like velvet cake or sweeties. And the theme? It's the theme of this whole goddamned city, the theme of the victorious. It's cynicism towards everything but the basest of triumphs. We get to sweep the villains back into the Salt Slums. The Upper Aurite gets to see how they are where they are because of who they are, their own wit, their own superiority, their own conquest of the uninformed and stupid masses. The strong man wins because of his strength. Law is for the weak. The powerful take what they want, and the taking of it is the sign of their right to take it. There are no gods to pity the poor.
“Every novel I’ve ever written is just a variation on this same theme. It’s a simple narrative, and thus it’s a bestseller. The meat of the whole story, quite ubiquitous in everything popular (and everything popular is considered deep here), is that you will suffer, but if you are strong and clever and determined you will overcome suffering and achieve what is out-of-reach of the ordinary. You will get to hold the world aloft. You must win the right to be human, and when you are the winner; when you've grasped everything for yourself; when your thirst, talent, and ambition have made you the master of other men, you will know that the crown is yours.
“It’s comforting – so long as you're already comfortable in your cocktail dress and have five hundred thousand COH's in your accounts. It's a head trip for well-off financiers whose chief misery is the emptiness of their own success. It's even opium for the poor oppressed suckers at the bottom, telling them that they are just a lifetime of cutthroat effort away from being the ones doing the oppressing. It’s also complete bullshit, but it sells so it’s the only thing anyone wants to talk about. It’s the Aurum story, don’t you know? You are what you earn! You make your destiny, and all that shit. And if some saps get hurt or pushed out of the way - well, the weak get what they deserve, too. The suffering strengthens the strong, and that‘s their triumph – that’s their pride. They show off their scars, their stigmata, and expect us to come kissing their puckered asses like they are saints. The same suffering burns away the undeserving. The difference in life, we are meant to conclude, is that what separates the successful from the failures is inner strength. It’s candy for the successful.” Walter Hess broke into a peal of desperate laughter, clutching the pistol now in both hands. “And it keeps the failures in their place.” Tears were streaming down his cheeks.
Katrina watched as the man bent forward, weeping.
“I'm sorry to hear that.” Katrina's empty words tumbled out, and she opened the back door to the theater. “I hope your night gets better.”
“But, you see, I’ve just come to a realization. An epiphany that’s been stewing in my mind - fermenting, really. Maybe nearly vinegar. I am not writing consumables anymore. I am going to write Aurum. All of it. Every detail, no matter how bitter. I’m going to tell Aurum what I think of it. The humanity it has smashed. All the heroes it has crushed - or maybe how it crushed heroism altogether and replaced it with - with Doc Morgan’s Gastric Tonic. There is no reward for the suffering, and that’s the grim truth you have to set your teeth into hard; there is only the ever-yawning mouth of abyss. There is only meaninglessness and our incessant drive to ward it off, to carve out of it crevices where we can breathe for only an instant and remember what Aurum takes from us. All the wasted efforts, the books I could have written when I was instead writing garbage. All the lovers it has spurned and all the love it’s-”
He wept bitterly. He reached out and gave her the revolver again.
“Mister,” she croaked out. Her voice was quavering and she had to spit to get out another word, but Hess whirled away, his face flush and fresh, clear mucus just now gathering beneath his nostrils. “Your revolver.”
“I don’t need it,” Hess managed between sobs. “Not for a while, anyway.”
She held the revolver gingerly as Walter shuffled away into the blowing wind.
Binal 5, 534
Rain fell on Aurum and dissolved it. Centuries passed as the great towers leaped skyward in Uptown. Then the rain pitted the burnished metal and left corroded streaks. The city bled rust daily. In Lowtown, factory chimneys spouted sulfurous fumes and poisoned the sky. The rain stung the eyes. It smeared down the dull, sooty bricks of the apartments that towered ten stories over the narrow, blackened streets of Midtown. Dockside, the Lower Aurites would toil through the storms, their eyes bloodshot. In Midtown, Pan-Tech's grey-clad security forces sulked through the venomous downpour.
Free Market's low shops sheltered Midtown throngs from the storm. Outside, the vacant streets witnessed the weary routine of corporate guards and an occasional shopper scrambling for a cab. A scrawny, indistinct figure held his head down against the weather. He tucked himself discreetly into the recesses of a sandwich shop entryway as a pair of patrolmen walked by. They lumbered past him so closely he could have snatched one by the neck. They were oblivious. In his colorless clothes, his outline was lost in the steamy shadows. He was bleary city grey - except for his bright yellow boots. He looked like the city. He smelled like the city. As a garbage diver, he wore the city in scraps clinging to his soaked shirt and overalls.
R Avenue and 55th Street was square in Pan-Tech territory. These were the Brick Quarters, where Pan-Tech's army of low-level managers, technicians, shift supervisors, and specialists lived in second-class comfort. In Free Market, they spent their Pan-Tech paychecks in stores operated by or rented from Pan-Tech. A techno-diner offered its patrons the opportunity to use the newest in Electronic Arcade Machines or manipulate a Pan-Tech Mechanical Mini Orrey. The diner sat opposite an old pneumatic post building, a shirtwaist factory, and a Museum of Natural Marvels. Old steam-turbine autocars splashed gutter water. They belched acrid smoke as they passed. On two opposite corners of the intersection stood squat metal cylinders with hinged chutes that could swing out with a firm pull of a handle.
These garbage nodes and their derelict contents were the property of Pan-Tech. Security officers shot garbage divers on sight, more for sport than because divers posed any danger. Garbage divers, like other jobless drifters, were outside the protection of corporate policy and procedures. Then there were the hazards of the nodes themselves: disease, poison, and even acids. Many divers suffered lockjaw after enduring savage cuts in the fetid bellies of the nodes. A poorly timed dive could be cut short by the node's compaction cycle. The yellow-booted drifter was a scarred veteran of urban salvage. He lived from the scraps that trickled down from above. The security patrol turned the corner and wandered down an alleyway, and instantly the diver rushed across the sidewalk. He slid down the chute and into the node.
The drifter thrust his arms deep into the accumulated filth of Pan-Tech Garbage Node R87. Its humid depths stung his nose and tickled his throat. His dingy woolen flat cap kept the moist dripping of the node out of his eyes. Slime coated the walls of the node. His grey overalls were caked in mire, but their large pockets were already brimming with treasures from other nodes. Sludge obscured the bottom of the node. He could nearly see the submerged contents with his practiced hands. He found only ashen cigarette butts, food waste, and splintered bones. The bones might have been from a half-eaten rack of ribs. They also might have been the remnants of another garbage diver, crushed in one of the node's automated compaction cycles.
R86 was across R Street. A garbage diver's success was a matter of perseverance. A peek out the slot of the node revealed empty streets and a clear path to the next node. He slipped out of the node like a snake and dashed across the intersection. He was a grey smear in the rain. The bright yellow boots he wore were a prize trophy from a particularly rewarding dive. They splashed in the puddles as he dashed to the next Node. In a single movement he plunged both hands into the crevice of the node’s chute, swung it wide open, and dived inside. No one saw as his two legs flung up almost to the vertical position and the yellow-booted feet slid into the closing chute. A patrol passed by only moments later, pausing under the shadow of a bright Pan-Tech banner proclaiming in solid, majestic serif print: “Your Work is Your Worth!” They stared at the garbage node, then passed in disinterest.
The garbage diver listened to the soft patter of the drizzle as he plunged his hands repeatedly into the rubbish below him. His found a generous coil of copper wire. Then he found a designer doll, dressed like a little factory worker. The doll was surprisingly clean. Then he noted that a leg was missing. He nearly tossed it back into the pile, but he changed his mind and stuffed it into one of his countless pockets. He was resting his back against the interior of the node and sounding the edges of the node when his eye caught the shadow of something whisking by outside. He stood up in the node, opened the chute slightly, and peered onto the sidewalks and storefronts.
She was tall, slender, and clumsy. She jogged haphazardly. When he saw her face as she turned to look behind her he stopped breathing for a moment. Her eyes were lustrous green, but what made them beautiful was not their striking hue or almond shape, but their piercing resolve burning from behind her sorrow. Vibrant intelligence sparkling with dark purposes gathered in her luminous teardrops. Her eyes were drawn upwards towards something in the distance, looming over the horizon. Then she swept away quickly, her hands drawn into fists.
The drifter guessed what had drawn her gaze. Penetrating the banks of darkened clouds, the Pan-Tech Spire was a menacing spike in distant Uptown. He watched as she faded into the rain like dream melting in the dawn light. Then he noticed she had dropped something. In her haste, her black purse's strap had unfastened. The pouch plopped into a puddle half open. The diver looked at it and put his salvage into the large pockets of his overalls. He pushed open the chute, stuck out his head, squinted against the rain, and craned his neck around to look up and down the street. R Street was still empty, save for a rather self-satisfied-looking man with an ample waistline waddling down the opposite side. The fat man's grubby hand clutched the ornate handle of an outlandishly large umbrella. The diver slid out of the chute in a single practiced motion and hit the sidewalk running. He sprinted for the purse, swiping it as he passed by and sprinting until he was clear of the intersection.
He huddled under the broad, striped awning over a radio-television storefront. Pan-Tech News was broadcasting in three colors, the anchorwoman beaming as she spoke. Displays shielded him from the eyes of the customers inside, and he allowed himself a moment to admire the machine and its broadcast. Pan-Tech Security had discovered a bomb plot. Pan-Tech had safeguarded shareholder and consumer safety yet again, the broadcaster insisted. The diver did not have to finish watching to guess the remainder of the report. Pan-Tech officials would insist the bomber was an agent of some radical Old Regime terrorist cell, the desperate and vain resort of envious foreigners dedicated to parasitism and the undermining of free commerce. Pan-Tech had triumphed. President-CEO Whitmore would holding a press conference soon. Likely as not, the bomber – or someone assumed to be the bomber – was already dead.
The store's bell jingled as a young couple burst out, their faces dominated by thin smiles of transient ecstasy as they carted away a bulky purchase. The rain reduced to a mist. This signaled that his moment of repose was over; the diver walked briskly along the edge of the buildings, shoulder rubbing against the sooty brick as he hurried his pace. In Upper Aurum, teams of corporate employees spent each day polishing and cleaning buildings and windows in a constant battle against the soot, but in Midtown the cleaning coverage was uneven. In this neighborhood, the deplorable storefront grime was a perfect match to the drifter's garb. He stuffed his hands deep into his pockets, turned up his collar, and pulled down his cap. He transformed into an inconspicuous shadow.
Pedestrians reappeared even as the mist thinned to fog. The streets were suddenly busy with long, cylindrical autocars. Chauffeurs with broad rubber squeegees swept away the greasy streaks from their windows. A cab pulled by with a bearded, curious face inside. Adjusting thin spectacles, the thin passenger clothed in flat black gazed in wonder mixed with disapproval at the glorious sprawl. The garbage diver restrained a chuckle. Another aristocrat from the decadent and insolvent Old Regime had come to marvel at the prosperity of Aurum. These relics would stare out with impassivity, twitching their mustaches or arranging the curls of their powdered wigs, coolly peering down the lengths of their aquiline noses and telling their drivers to hurry on. This particular autocar was far more lavish than the ordinary streetcar. Emblazoned on its doors were a coat of arms and a seal of office, and a train of similar cars followed behind it. As the last car glided by the diver could not help but notice that one of its gilded hubcaps was conspicuously absent.
His pace was quickening by necessity. He had made it now as far as P Street, but this was still the Brick Quarters crawling with Pan-Tech guards. They were on the lookout for transients and ne'er do wells whose criminal mischief meant inventory shrinkage for local franchises. A pair of loud, vulgar voices alarmed the diver. Another patrol was walking down 56th. They were distracted, but the sidewalks here were still largely empty of their accustomed bystanders. Without a crowd to blend into, he had few options. He took his hands out of his pockets and straightened his collar and hat. He now took leisurely, haggard steps, stopping at occasional intervals to peruse store displays. Miming the demeanor of a Lower Aurite returning home from a grueling twelve hour night shift repairing steam tubes in the Underworks, he made himself look grim and haggard. Shifting his torso slightly towards the retail facades lining the street served to hide the loot stuffed into his pockets, although at the cost of giving him an unusual gait. The purse he had stolen was especially cumbersome, protruding like a deformity which he covered with folded arms. He took a glance backward, speeding forward when he noted that the security guards had paid him no attention and had turned towards Uptown along the opposite sidewalk.
A gaunt, managerial figure in black tie had turned around a corner and collided with the diver. The impact was mutually destructive. Howling, the manager dropped his briefcase with an attendant cascade of crisp paperwork as his arms waved about vainly. Only a careen against an advertisement pole stopped his fall. The drifter, on the other hand, was deflected rather than knocked back, and the purse and treasures which he had secreted into his shirt tumbled out onto the sidewalk. Cursing in a deep voice, the man's bony hands grabbed at besmirched documents.
“You bloody cur!” He quickly flung himself to an upright position, setting his eyes on the slim, worn drifter snatching the purse out of the street. Disgust leaped across the businessman's face. “We've got ourselves a garbage-sniffing thief! Better run, clumsy bastard.” His alarm aroused the attention of the security guards. They turned, pulled wooden truncheons from the straps on their belts, and unbuttoned the holsters which nestled their revolvers.
Fetching the purse and his salvage on the run, the drifter started towards Lowtown with a surprising sprint. He stuffed as much as he could back into his pockets. His tall frame made for long strides, and although the bulky boots he wore did not quite fit him he managed to quickly put distance between the guards and him. He pushed past well-dressed Aurites, knocking down another man as he turned around a corner. Pan-Tech, however, took pride in their mercenary guards, each of whom were trained in urban pursuit and intimately familiar with the layout of the city. With each dash down a side-street or quick rounding of a corner, He glanced back to find the guards now keeping pace and matching his every move. They were now in the South Market of Midtown, a swath between N and P streets where wealthy landlords sub-leased narrow shops to hundreds of small businesses. Nowhere in Aurum were blocks nearly as fragmented as in South Market, each one being subdivided into sometimes two or three dozen different owners. Blocks were littered with sundry constructions. Disorganized architectural hodgepodges abutted narrow alleyways. The major streets in the district were intersected by criss-crossing and narrow alleys or backstreet bazaars, and the drifter hoped to lose his pursuers by making a quick dash down one of these side-streets. He dashed for a covered alleyway between a pharmacy and a millinery store. Someone was running a shell game.
The drifter stepped into the circle of onlookers, his back turned to the sidewalk and street, but his presence caused immediate distress among the comparatively well-dressed and less repugnant marks of the game. Noses flared at the sudden whiff of waste and sweat. The lead con running the shell game, hands on the heavy metal cups which he used to hide the position of a red ball, cast a venomous look at the new arrival, but the winded garbage diver was more concerned that the Pan-Tech agents had noted his move. With their hands gripping their batons tightly they charged down the sidewalk at a rapid pace.
“Climb back to yer hole, cockroach,” the con said, nodding and signaling for his shills to bounce the drifter from the game. The fugitive diver leaped onto the table, his yellow-booted foot smashing one of the tin cans from the shell game. The other boot planted itself firmly on the con artist's shoulder, and the drifter ascended with all the ease and rapidity of a practiced sprint up a set of stairs. Tin cups and money flew as the table tipped beneath his powerful thrust. Goons grabbed vainly at the drifter's lithe form, but they either missed or found him too dexterous and slippery to obtain a solid hold. The lead con grunted as the diver used him as a springboard, collapsing him backwards. At the same instant, the Pan-Tech security men had reached the alleyway and found themselves blocked by the crowd, table, and con artists. The confusion lasted only for an instant, but as they looked down the alley they saw no trace of the man whom a moment before they had watched careen into it. Before them, the empty alleyway was home only to rats and abandoned posters.
One of these posters, tacked up beside the back door of a pharmacist's shop, was particularly old and tattered. Its ink had faded to pale hints of its former glory, but despite the decay the image of an Aurum skyline could be made out, the silhouettes of familiar buildings connected by thin lines. At the bottom in an italicized font the words “Finch's Pneumatic Courier for your parcels and packages” stood out against black. Finch's Courier Company no longer existed, having finally folded in 296 when Pan-Tech introduced its audio-visual-telegram, but the legacy of its pneumatic courier system had never been systematically dismantled. Many of the buildings in Aurum were connected by the network of tubes which Finch's once booming company had installed. Now, though, the tubes were derelict, stretching from building to building like thin spider legs. New buildings had no such tubes and some owners had taken the time to dismantle the sections of tube that attached to their building, but most of the older buildings in Midtown still had external tubes that snaked along the walls to the top stories and crisscrossed streets and alleyways.
Just such a tube crossed over the alleyway no more than ten feet in the air. The guards spent the next few minutes beneath it, overturning boxes and other large debris in the alley and checking doors before leaving angrily. The shell game and its cons had vanished in a puff of curses. The alley was left deserted. Above the pneumatic tube on the left side of the alley the brick building's second story windows featured generous exterior sills and recessed frames that provided a deep nook. Hidden in shadow, He sat quietly listening, his body curled into a tight ball with his head and arms tucked in and his legs drawn up until his nose stuck out from between his knees. When the alley had been quiet for a full minute he dared a furtive peek and smiled broadly at the vacancy below him. Beside his perch, the pneumatic tube turned straight up, climbing the entire height of the building. Hand over hand, the diver nimbly pulled himself up the length of the tube. Frequent practice spurred on by desperate necessity had taught him that the key to climbing a pneumatic tube up ten stories was to establish a rhythm and not look down. Nevertheless, he glanced down about halfway up and felt a shot of hot adrenaline fire inside him like a bullet. He trembled and sweated as he pulled himself up the rest of the pipe and swung over the top of the structure, where he sat panting for a minute. He had no smokes, but he had found unused chewing gum in R86. He dug it out of his voluminous pockets, unwrapped it from the shiny foil, placed it in his mouth, and chewed slowly.
Looking out over the city, Felix Geist felt like a prince of men. He turned his attention to the purse and its contents. For a Midtown girl, Felix thought to himself, this was an inexplicable collection.
The purse was old, black leather. Inside, he found a pair of precision calipers. A voltmeter. A book of one hundred Pan-Tech credit vouchers that let employees spend their paychecks months in advance - with nearly twenty of the vouchers missing. A card labeled K-17-18-D. A picture - a photograph, of all things - of a handsome man smiling and holding the hands of a little black-haired, green-eyed girl. A rolled up lithograph entitled "Erithrycite Properties at Standard Pressures."
At the bottom of the purse, he noticed a hidden pocket with something hard stuck inside. He pulled it out, his eyes widening. It was a data circuit, a pneumatic memory device used to store information. Secret corporate data was more valuable than gold wiring. Everything hung on the circuit's contents - if he could find a buyer, that is. He had no way of knowing what was on the circuit. It could be a grocery list. But, occasionally, divers got their hands on carelessly discarded or lost data circuits that contained information on sensitive projects, and the right buyer would pay hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of COH's. It was unlikely, but the scavenger’s pulse surged even as he slipped the circuit back into the pouch. He gathered together the purse’s contents, shoved them inside, and stuffed the purse back into his overalls. He kept the photograph in his hand.
The suns were coming out from behind the clouds; Helios, the brighter of the two, shone pure white, nearly washing out the color from the sky, while dim red Ra smoldered far lower to the horizon and subdued. Ra was all color and no heat. It would set soon, followed soon by Helios, and then night would provide the cover he’d need to slip back down the pneumatic tube and make his way to Lower Aurum, where security rarely trod and the workers spent their precious few hours sleeping in windowless cramped tenements. For now, he basked in the sunlight, enjoying the contrast of a hot Aurum midday and the cool of a brisk seabreeze. He turned the photograph around, noting its wrinkles and creases. On the back, barely visible, something had been written in pencil, but he could not make it out except for the phrase, “For my little Kat.” He folded the picture at last and replaced it in his pocket, tilted back his head, and bathed in the sunlight.
His repose was interrupted by a sudden burst of garish, brass-heavy music; loud, pounding notes of bombastic triumph announced the daily message from the Trade Council President, blasted city wide at noon across a series of loudspeakers perched on towers or the corners of buildings. The music was the Pan-Tech “March of Progress,” and the diver, along with the rest of the Street People, felt palpable cynicism at its over-optimistic overtures. The music faded. A second passed by, then a click echoed loudly. the President always recited his message live. His breath drew in. Felix pictured the man, sitting in an office in Pan-Tech Tower: CEO Cecil Whitmore, a man whose face was like cold forged steel.
“Good afternoon, Aurites. The rain ends, and we all know that the suns shine on Aurum again. I wanted to take a moment to remind ourselves why we live in Aurum. Why we left behind the corruption and decadence of the Old Regime. Why we prosper, when everywhere else there is decay. Why we have prevailed. Our success - your success, Aurum - is no secret. It lies in you and in me: greatness. Determination. Innovation. Ambition founded on talent and diligent creativity. You have made true the motto, ’Your work is your worth.’ You do not sink in the democracy of the mediocre. You have made yourself the true aristocracy: the poets. The artists. The architects of Aurum. You have built Aurum, and you own it. You do not have to share its glory with freeloaders, with the parasitic hangers-on who expect free rides. You build it. You buy it with the sweat of your brow and the fruit of your mind. You sell it only to those who have earned it. That is why Aurum produces more goods, exports more commodities, and why Aurites are the richest people in the world: you possess greatness, and through greatness you possess the world. Let the meek take care of the meek: you, Aurum, are strong, and you need no one to take care of you. Work hard, Aurites, and earn your world.”
Felix watched as wisps of steam rose lazily in the sunlight, vapor rising from a sea of rooftops and dissipating into a sky where clouds had broken apart and blue triumphed over the dismal gray. Below him, the street bustled. Steam cars whistled at each other in shrill calls as they careened through narrow, crowded streets. From the top of the apartment building, he could catch noise from the length of the city. To the North, Uptown rose with its offices and corporate headquarters rising like rows of shiny tombstones. Some of the buildings were being demolished in preparation for the Pan-Tech Gala of Progress. The event claimed to be the most exciting Gala thus far. He made a mental note to visit to the Upper Aurum garbage nodes on Trinal 15, the Gala's opening. The richest in Aurum would be rubbing elbows with the middle class as Pan-Tech showed off its newest contraptions. On the wind, which grew fresh as it blew from the sea and wiped the perpetual smells of Lower Aurum from his nose, he caught the sound of gunshots like distant firecrackers.
Closer noises disturbed Felix's reverie. A crescendo of voices pierced the background hum of the city. As Felix peeked over the side of the roof, he spotted a rowdy mob fifty or sixty strong marching with purpose up 55th Street. Pan Tech's March of Progress was still playing softly in distant speakers, but below the crowd squawked together like angry ravens.
"Give us back our homes," they shouted. Studying them, Felix noted they walked hesitantly, their necks craning around as they passed every side street and alleyway. Their path up 55th Street would take them straight to the foot of the Pan-Tech Spire, but Felix shook his head. The little mob would never make it. Already, Pan-Tech Security were appearing from every direction, as if summoned to the intersection by instinct. The crowd spotted the security. Its ranks wavered, though the chant continued.
"Give us back our homes!"
They were undoubtedly former residents of East Dockside. Two months earlier, Pan-Tech "restructured" the district. Old manufacturies were demolished. Inhabitants of the shanty-town – Pan-Tech employees – had been forcibly evicted, their buildings and apartments razed. From the ruins, a new Erithrycite plant arose in short order and served to power the new factories erected in Dockside. Naturally, there had been no compensation for the former residents, although Pan-Tech had graciously printed a black-and-white brochure inviting them to re-apply for their jobs in the new plants and factories.
Now, this handful of desperate Lowtown workers were surrounded by a security perimeter. They stopped in the middle of the street. Midtown was confusing and choked with consumers; many Lowtowners had never been this far north in the city. Traffic halted momentarily around them. Then one impatient driver rushed the mob, accelerating his torpedo-shaped autocar straight towards them. At the last second he slammed on his brakes. The workers, fear in their eyes, made way for the vehicle.
"Attention," came a tinny voice through a megaphone. Leaning against a street lamp, the squad captain looked peculiarly unimpressed and uninterested as he presented his pre-packaged ultimatum. "This is Pan-Tech property. Disperse immediately or you will be subject to corrective action."
Wavering, the crowd of workers nonetheless stayed in place. One of them, a scrawny, dirty man with a beard, took a step forward.
"We'll be damned if we're going back now," he said hoarsely, but his voice growled with the husky smolder of resentment. "Where are we going back to, anyhow?"
"Address all complaints to Pan-Tech Customer Fulfillment," the megaphone replied. "Now, please disperse immediately." The captain sounded distinctly bored, as though waiting for the encounter to drag on to its inevitable conclusion. "Be sensible. You know how this is going to end."
"You don't get it, do you? We don't have anything left! What are you going to do? Send us to Erithrycite mines? At least we'd have a roof over our heads. Look at me," the man said, pulling at his loose, tattered clothes. "This is all I have. What do you expect me to do?"
"I don't really care," the captain replied. "Now, last chance. Leave."
Shaking his head, the bearded man sat down squarely in the middle of the street. His comrades melted away from him as though possessed with an awful premonition.
“Please,” the man said, his commanding indignation melting into despair. “I've been a Pan-Tech man all my life. I've worked in the factory. I only buy Pan-Tech. I eat only at Pan-Tech establishments and franchises. Fifty-eight years, I've been loyal. I'm a good worker. I'm a good customer.”
The squad captain shrugged, putting down the megaphone. Flanked by two guards, he walked directly to the man, reached down with a gloved hand, and pulled him up by his long, greasy locks. In a quick motion, the captain raised a billy club and smacked him solidly across the face, sending him reeling for the pavement. Retching, the wounded man curled up. Blood streamed down with long, stringy mucus as he coughed. The guards took turns, first kicking him in the gut before landing strikes across his back. Ashen eyes downcast, the silent crowd evaporated down side streets, leaving only the man shivering in the street surrounded by Pan-Tech security. Felix slowly chewed his gum as the security guards picked up the broken body and hauled it away.
Street people ruled Lowtown after dusk. Felix had spent the afternoon cautiously making his way south down the length of the Peninsula. The city's geography was simple enough. Aurum was an ordinary rectangle of human suffering that jutted into the sea on the south coast of Cerra. Northward, in the affluent Uptown, the suffering was all angst; southward, it was pain and hunger. Brick Quarters gave way to South Market. South Market turned into the Factory District. As dusk fell, Felix reached the Salt Slums.
He crossed Avenue B. Closed street-level storefronts converted into low-priced housing trembled beneath the weight of shoddy tenement housing. Bicycles, rickshaws, and the evening crowd of workers flooded the streets; the night shift started in ten minutes. Architecture and people alike were all slanted, bowed; everything was on the verge of collapse. At the corner of B Street and 56th, however, a colossus stood erect over a square courtyard, his grim face pointed resolutely north. The cold giant was a monument beyond all comparison or proportion to the poverty of Lowtown. It was the Old Statue of the Baron, and even covered with bird shit and graffiti it seemed to repudiate the filth of the surrounding slums by sheer majesty.
Baron Auerbach was the Founding Savior of Aurum. Carved from a marble monolith carted from the mountains of Northern Cerra, the graven Baron's chiseled jaw jutted in fierce defiance. It was made in living memory of its prototype, five hundred years earlier. It was an age when the whole island was new and optimistic. One hand held aloft a builder's square. The other cradled a chunk of Erithrycite, the heart and foundation of Aurum
Cerra was an unremarkable island on the fringe of civilization until the Baron poured his wealth into it. His surveyors had found a new substance buried in the Erith Mountains in the island's inhospitable inlands. Green crystals no larger than a man's fist were mined from the mountains. Raw, they were curiosities, but when properly refined the Baron discovered their energy potential. A disk of refined Erithrycite that fit in the palm of his hand contained one hundred times the energy of the same volume of coal. He turned the mysterious crystalline substance into the fuel for a his new utopia. It became the de facto currency of Aurum, as corporations issued Certificates of Holding, each of which designated the bearer an owner of a disk. Around the statue's pedestal, Auerbach's words spiraled like a staircase to salvation. Most Lowtowners were illiterate, but Felix knew the engraving by heart.
No justice, except made by our hands. No order, except we fashion it. No reward, except we have strength to seize it. The Great create the World, and the weak shall live in it; and EACH SHALL HAVE THEIR DUE.
Aurum was the Baron's world, even five centuries after his death. He had envisioned a new world, built directly from the sea like a cosmos ex nihilo. The Baron's statue was pitted but solid, and in the clearing beneath his feet a bazaar offered Lower Aurites every low-grade pleasure at cutthroat pricing. At shift change, this market was bustling. Felix clutched his coat and its brimming treasures as he forced his way through.
He passed vendors haggling over their wares. Stalls were close together, tiny affairs and the crowds pressed from all sides. Felix knew how to keep his hands on all valuables and could spot a thief from across the market. Boisterous merchants shouted over the chaos. One in particular was relatively quiet, however: an old, hairless, one-eyed man with false teeth sat behind a long table covered in trinkets. He displayed cheap jewelry, gears, tools, nails, and, if the customer was well-known, a box of knives, brass knuckles, and a couple of revolvers which he would bring up from under a blanket. He sat whistling softly through his false teeth, then upon looking up smiled broadly as though to show them off. He watched customers peruse the table; he haggled with them quietly by holding up fingers and bearing his false teeth in a contrived smile. He held a cane with a solid sphere of metal on top. Whenever a customer reached for goods without paying, he brought the sphere down and crushed the offender's fingers.
“Felix, you rogue,” the one-eyed vendor broke his silence, “coming with pockets full just for me. Things have been getting a bit skinny, you know, what with all the casualties.”
“ 'Risk is proportional to reward,'" Felix quoted the Baron in reply as he began unloading his pockets, lining them up on an empty spot on the tabletop. "Tilt, I hope you know what supply and demand means." As the treasures were produced, Felix looked them over, holding it up with a judgmental squint. Most of his haul landed on Tilt’s table, but now and again Felix’s eyes would flash with insight and the item, like a large brass button, would go back into the pocket. Tilt whistled at each treasure. "Four suppliers down."
Suddenly the old man’s smile dropped. “Five now.”
Felix paused. “Who else? Who got it, Tilt?”
“Jack Morrow. Fetch was diving in nodes on N Street, said he jumped into one and found Jack mashed up inside. Only knew it was him ‘cause of that damned pipe he always took with him. Fetch brought the pipe back. Thought I’d find that slut Jack was always fucking and give it to her." Tilt noted skepticism creep down at the corners of Felix's frown. "Sentimentalist I'm not! It's just when you work with a man as long as I've worked with Jack- Felix, she's the closest thing he had to family."
“A whore?” Felix went back to lining up his treasures.
“That's life, Felix. And you’ve not got much room to judge,” Tilt noted. “I know where you go straight after every haul, and I know where you’re going tonight, like as not. What’s her name, though? What’s she called - Sugarhips or something?”
Felix's hands struck like like an eagle snatching a mouse. His fingers dug into Tilt's leathery neck. “I don’t bed whores.” Tilt's eyes rolled for a moment, then Felix let him go. The old man sputtered as he pulled a revolver. Felix shook his head, then finished unloading his haul. Tilt kept the pistol in hand, but as he finished his coughing spell he smiled broadly as though nothing had happened.
Tilt laughed as soon as he was able to breath freely again. The old man kept the revolver at ready, but Felix knew how far he could push Tilt and still remain on friendly terms. Tilt had added his own fair share of scars to Felix's ugly hide. “Damn, son," Tilt bellowed, "I forgot who I was talking to for a moment! Felix Geist, no-grade garbage node diver, sleeps in a filthy bathtub in the moldy basement of an abandoned warehouse, eats maggot-bread for supper, and drinks a bit of gin mixed with gutter water. But doesn’t touch whores. You're a shitty liar, Felix, and a bad memory to boot. You forget how many times your good friend Tilt used to run across you, stupid grin on your face, fucking some slimy bitch.” Tilt leered, his tongue hanging out, but Felix only stared down at the tabletop. “Well, if you don’t mind, Master Geist, I’ll ring up the total for this transaction. The goods? Let’s see: fifteen meters of bare copper wire, one COH; a strand of six beads from a fake pearl necklace, nothing. That’s reaching a bit, wouldn’t you say? Aha! Gilded connector terminals, good, that’s something better.” He examined each item and stated a price as though it were from a memorized list. The purse was worth five; but when Felix pointed out that the purse contained a data circuit, Tilt’s eyes grew wide.
"It’s probably nothing,” Tilt said nonchalantly, but his eyes betrayed the dreams of wealth the data circuit had ignited in his feverish brain. “How did you get your hands on this? Pickpocketing was never your game.”
"Some lady dropped it in Midtown," Felix responded. Tilt ducked down and pulled the data circuit out only enough to view it under the harsh, unregulated lighting of the bazaar; then he tucked it back in. A small seal was engraved on the steel frame of the circuit: a hand clutching the globe, the unmistakable emblem of Pan-Tech.
"No deal," Tilt exclaimed. He threw the purse back at Felix as though it were infectious.
"The Hell's the matter?" Tilt did nor respond. He was busy now shoving everything that Felix had put onto the table into a large sack. Reaching into his pockets, he threw a wad of COH's onto the table. Then the old man immediately began closing shop, shoving wares into a pair of trunks.
"Sixty for the whole lot," Tilt said quickly. "No haggling tonight."
"What's going on, Tilt? This is a data circuit."
"No, it's a fucking liability. I know you don't pay attention to the news, but a merchant like myself can't afford not to. I heard on the radio just this afternoon that Pan-Tech's hunting for a data circuit thief. Some engineer lady of theirs has run off with big-time secrets. She killed one of their big-time managers. Pan-Tech Security is performing a manhunt, and they've got live rounds." Tilt quietly leaned in, his face grave. "They've even sent a Piston Guard after her."
Felix stood quietly, clutching the purse and the data circuit inside. "If this is it," Felix said, "Tilt, this could be our break. How much would Valkyrie Corp or Gordon Electronics pay for a data circuit full of Pan-Tech secrets?"
"You can't spend COH's if you're dead, and you know the way Pan-Tech operates now. They don't tiptoe around. If they even thought the disk were somewhere in this neighborhood they'd firebomb the place just to keep that data circuit from getting loose." Tilt looked around the crowded bazaar. "And Felix, there's a bounty. Pretty big one. I guess that makes you a marked man, but lucky for you nobody knows it."
Felix stared at Tilt and at Tilt's pistol. "Except you," Felix noted. Tilt slowly nodded. "How much is the bounty?"
"Ten thousand for the girl. Another ten thousand for returning the circuit." Tilt's words turned the air thick and electric. Felix stayed perfectly still, his eyes fixed on Tilt. The old man's eyebrows sagged suddenly. "You know as well as I do they'd never pay a Lowtown fence a bounty. If I showed up, they'd like as not accuse me of the theft and blow my brains out on the spot or send me to their goddamned Erithrycite mines. Besides, you know me. The old man's a softy on the inside. But, Felix, there are plenty of 'respectable' bounty men around. That's not to mention Pan-Tech Security. Like as not you'll be seeing loads more of those Greys on patrol. Besides which, for all we know that's not even the one. All the same, if I were you, I'd dump that thing in a gutter and never look back."
A customer shoved abruptly from behind. Thug-like he towered even over Felix.
"Get going, now, you've had your chance," the man snarled. Felix snatched the roll of COH's from the table, mumbled at Tilt, then pushed his way through the market. He obscured the purse in the deep pockets of his overalls and made for the shadows.
Darkness was easy to find in Lowtown. The shanty-town quality of the tenement housing was matched by the shoddy, criss-crossed confusion of its backalleys and sidelanes. Felix slipped along them quietly, taking extra turns, doubling back, and retracing his path. From time to time he stopped breathless and listened for stirring. At last he chose a particularly black shadow, ducked down, and disappeared. Only a faint, metallic scratching could be heard as he fidgeted blindly, then at last he stood and rushed from the alleyway. He left the data circuit tucked deep in the intake of a derelict pneumatic tube, shoved up into the tube and out of sight. With the pneumatic tube's cover in place, the dubious treasure was protected for the moment.
42nd Street was not far. There he entered a three story apartment filled with miserable sounds. The door swung open, and the smell of excrement and open sores assaulted Felix. He fought back his gag reflex; from experience, he knew the urge to vomit would pass within a minute. Infants and children cried, some of them completely unattended as their mothers worked the streets or slaved the night hours away in a factory. Most of their fathers were unaware of their existence or had taken trouble to forget the fact. The hallways were cramped and meandered through the building without logic. Although the hallways were unlit, brownish light trickled dimly from the open doors of the tenement rooms, where kerosene lanterns hung or oil lamps belched wafting, foul smoke. Walls were universally grimy and black, though graffiti - mostly vulgar slurs - had been scrawled by wiping away the dirt. Felix tripped on something bulky low to the ground in the darkened hallway; he turned and looked more closely. A man was laying there, elderly, his hair long but thin and wispy white. Felix believed he was dead, but as he leaned in closer the figure coughed pathetically and rolled over.
Up a narrow stairwell, Felix found a room with nothing more than a mildewed curtain hung as a privacy screen rather than a door. He knocked on the doorframe before slipping inside. The room was windowless, eight feet by six feet. On one wall, three bunks were stacked on each other, with barely enough room between them for an exhasusted and malnourished body to find refuge.. A lantern smoked and filled the air with equal portions of light and grit, and the vapor stung Felix’ eyes.
In the lowest of the three bunks, someone very small was sleeping and snoring softly. Tucked under a torn blanket that failed to cover her tiny feet was a seven-year-old girl with long raven hair that was uncombed and tangled in knots. It was clear that, had she been healthy, her skin would have been dark olive, but sickness and long days spent bed ridden in the unwholesome air had taken its toll. She was pale, almost greenish-blue; her hands dirty and her fingernails long and untrimmed. A fresh white flower was sitting in an empty beer bottle that sat on the floor next to her bunk, its color splashing wildly out of the pile of dirty grey-brown clothing.
The girl coughed and opened her eyes: bright green orbs that looked like a forest when the sun lights it on a warm morning. The whites were shot through with red veins like crimson spider webs, and the eyes sat in dark, bruised pouches. She suffered from exposure to pure, unfiltered Erithrycite fumes during an incident in her infancy. Her mother had worked in the Refinery, and like many mothers she had nursed her newborn while on the job. The girl had developed an infection called Erithrytic Pulmonary Fibrosis, or "Green Lung." Its typical victims were Erithrycite miners and refinery workers. They were all impoverished Lowtowners, and no one had bothered researching a cure. All that could be done was to medicate unto death, if one could afford the medicine. The girl smiled sweetly.
“Uncle Felix,” she croaked hoarsely, “did you get me anything today?”
“I sure did, Angela,” he said as he knelt by her bedside. He pulled the small doll out of his pocket and put it into her hands. She hugged the doll and tucked it tightly under the blanket next to her. Then she coughed loudly, and a stream of blood came from her nose. Felix looked for a clean rag, but instead settled for the least dirty rag in the room and wiped up her nose.
"Where's you mother?" Felix looked around the room. Normally, though the room's walls were filthy, the clothing and settings were placed in a semi-reasonable order. The linens were normally folded neatly. Now the room was a pigpen.
"Mommy's out again," Angela said. Felix nodded knowingly. She looked at the doll Felix had given her. Rubbing the hollow joint where the leg once was, she turned her head toward Felix.
“What happened to his leg, Uncle Felix?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “It was like that when I found it. Probably the reason it was thrown away.”
Angela looked at the doll for a long time.
“I like him anyway,” she said at last. “If he wasn’t missing a leg, I probably wouldn’t be hugging him now. Right?”
“I think so,” Angela declared. She coughed again, and held the doll tight. “I need to give him a name, though, if he's going to be my baby. What’s a good name for a baby with a missing leg?”
“I don’t know,” Felix sighed. “I’m not very good at naming things.”
“Well, you need to think about it. I want to give my new baby a name, and I need you to figure out a good one for me.”
“You bet,” Felix smiled. Then Angela hacked up a bit of blood, and Felix had to wipe it off her chin and off the doll’s face.
“Momma said we’re almost out of my medicine,” she said when she had recovered. She looked at the doll and then held it close to her chest. “I’m scared. Frank - that’s the man who sleeps on the top bunk sometimes - he looks at me and tells Momma that I’m gonna die soon and if she wouldn’t mind if a friend of his takes my bunk. He’s a big man and he has scary teeth. I don’t like the way he looks at me. But he’s gone most of the time, so it’s not too bad.” Felix looked around, uncomfortable, but his hand took Angela’s and held it gently. “Is Frank right? I think he’s right. I’m going to die.”
Felix opened his mouth to say something, but then he leaned over and kissed Angela on the forehead as she began to sob quietly. She still looked at her doll.
“That means,” she said between tears, “that you’ll have to take care of my baby when I’m gone. So it’s a good thing you’re going to come up with the name.”
“Angela,” Felix said at last, “look at me. Look me in the eyes. I don’t know if Frank is right. Everyone dies. But I am going to do what I can to make you well. Listen, there’s a chance - a real chance - that I’m going to have a lot of COH's in a few days. Enough to get you to a real doctor and get you real treatment. Hope for that. And tell your doll that her mommy is going to be better again. Okay? You’ll have a clean bed, and maybe even an apartment with a window and fresh air and sunlight and no more of this dirty smoke. Look, there’s someone I have to visit tomorrow morning, then I’m going to go diving for big bucks so I can buy you something special - something very special. You like shaved ice, don’t you? Yes, I’ll bring you shaved ice. Any flavor you want. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure Frank is wrong.”
"Uncle Felix, shaved ice will just melt."
Felix blubbered his lips. "Outsmarted again."
Angela smiled, but she was still crying. Felix knelt by her bed for a long time, watching as she wept. The sobs diminished into sniffles at irregular intervals, and the girl’s eyes closed. Felix attempted to slink away, but though he rose quietly the girl stirred.
“You’d better stay here, Uncle Felix!”
Felix sighed and sat back on the floor, and at long last Angela lay still, her breathing soft but wheezing. There was a scuffle downstairs, voices raised and shouting curses as furniture was overturned and clenched fists pummeled flesh. The nights were hot, but intensely stifling in the windowless rooms. The night blood was boiling over in Lowtown; strikes were immanent and Pan-Tech had been laying off factory workers in droves. Everyone was soaked in angry sweat. Felix did not leave Angela until her mother came home. The woman was a living skeleton. She was twenty-eight but looked like forty-five, her youth consumed by Erithrycite refining and prostitution. A familiar glance between her and Felix spoke volumes. She said nothing to him as she collapsed onto her bunk beside her daughter. Felix put his hand on the exhausted woman's bony shoulder and remembered when she was plump and beautiful.
Felix would have gone straight home, but he was troubled. He took a walk down B Street and passed the alleyway where he had hidden the data circuit. For a minute he stood at the end on the deserted street. He could leave the circuit there overnight. There were other fences besides Tilt. Left inside the abandoned pneumatic tube, the circuit could not be pinned on him if found. Surely, no one would find the circuit hidden so far inside an obscure, abandoned pneumatic tube. Yet Felix was unhappy with the arrangement.
He startled. In the alleyway he spotted movement near the tube. Metal screeched. Something was opening the tube. Felix dashed, and a squat, child-like shadow darted away. Bare feet scampered, then there was silence. He dashed to the hiding spot. Felix reached the tube and thrust his hand inside. The circuit was gone.
Felix peered up and down the alley, but now there was no sign of the thief. There were numerous old tubes on the walls of these buildings; the thief could be on the rooftop now, but would they would have had to climb at incredible speed. Felix ran to the other end of the alleyway, where it terminated at C Street. A pair of figures shivered together despite the night's heat; they were on a Powder trip, in sweet delirium. Besides them, C Street was empty, the storefronts closed up with metal bars and roll-down security gates.
Curses. A child? Likely not; there were strange creatures in the world, and they stalked the night. Yet even an Erithrycite mutant needed a fence, and the disk might not have been anything. Felix knew most of the fences. Only a few would be bold enough to handle such hot merchandise. Even then, they would need proof and time to validate the circuit and confirm its contents. This was not a deal that could happen overnight. If the thief were planning to turn the disk over for the bounty, they were a fool. Pan-Tech would execute them on the spot. He could visit the local fences tomorrow for information. He would make no more progress tonight tailing a light-footed thief across Lower Aurum's labyrinthine alleyways.
His apartment was not far. It was not an apartment at all. An old shirtwaist factory on B Street had closed years before, and now it was a boarded-up hangout for thugs and prostitutes. Felix, however, had a key to the basement. Its metal door was proof against Lowtown criminals. Inside, he had hauled a collection of furniture, including a massive ceramic tub into which he had stuffed a mattress. The end result was quite good by Lowtown standards. He locked the door behind himself and sank into his bed. In the basement stillness he became suddenly aware of his own lingering stench. He would need a bath within the next few days, he decided.
A sharp pain in his side reminded him that his pockets still had a few choice treasures. There was a brass button, a thin flexible rod, and a spectacle frame. He removed them and placed them on a pile of similar junk nestled in a corner of the basement. There was little light; only a handful of tiny windows on the east end of the basement allowed the light of a large cigarette advertisement outside to filter in. The light was orange. By this ghostly light, Felix made out the outlines of his creations; a line of fixtures dominated most of the space in the basement. These figures were organic shapes curiously fashioned from metal scraps. One figure in the corner was curled up, its copper and tin-can hands covering a featureless face in a posture of grief. Another stood, its billiard ball eyes fixed on the heavens. There were a dozen figures, and one more was being fashioned; for now, it was nothing more than this pile of clock faces, steam pipe elbows, and boiler plates.
Felix climbed back in his bed. He stared at the ceiling, which dripped now and again. The floor squeaked at irregular intervals; these might have been unions meeting in secret or Glitz users meeting for a trip in a "safe" environment. The noise was muted, though, and tonight there were no drips. Only the rhythm of distant machinery with its incessant thumping dominated the night. He turned over, reached under the raised tub, and found a small tin can with an ill-fitting lid. The dull metal seemed to swallow rather than reflect the dim light. He slid off the lid with a familiar, casual motion of his right thumb. Inserting his left forefinger into the can, he removed a fine, sparkling powder. He looked at the Glimmer adhering to the skin, then quickly licked it off, savoring the bitter taste. He let the can fall where it might. He laid back in the tub.
At first, the room was still except for the hammering factories in the distance. Then the dark ceiling swirled. Colors leaked out from between each slat as they twisted into a spinning circle. Noises stretched to infinity and his heart leaped after them. His tub, the apartment, the building, and the ceiling all melted into that whirlpool. Prismatic glow bathed the world and reached out to him, touching his naked skin. His hair stood erect. Light embraced him, its seductive forms evoking somatic responses. In the midst of this chromatic arousal, he arched his back involuntarily. Fits like a seizure spasmed through his whole body, accompanied by ecstatic sighs and groans. His tongue hung out as the dazzling phantasms filled him with orgasmic tremors. The world seemed to explode, and he passed out.
Felix bolted awake. The air was strange and fresh. It was cooler now. The night was refreshing, though sweat was still clinging to him. The Glimmer left a rancid, bitter taste lingering on the back of his tongue. At least the breeze soothed the headache.
Then he realized there should be no breeze in the locked basement.
Felix leaped out of his bathtub bed and snatched the massive monkey wrench that he kept close by. In the darkness he spotted a trio of figures.
"Nice place, Felix," came a familiar, sarcastic voice. She was standing only a few meters away, but in the darkness Felix could only just make out her form. He could see she was pointing her pistol at him. "Truth be told, I thought you were dead."
"Sappho," Felix said. He dropped the wrench with a clang. "If Redding wants me dead, you should just take the shot and cut the bullshit."
"Redding doesn't want you dead. I might," Sappho said wistfully.
"What errand does he have you running tonight?"
"Redding wants to talk with you."
"I'm sure he does," Felix said as he sized up Sappho's two companions. They were large men, but they looked to be little more than thugs. Redding had a long payroll of desperate men he hired to beat his foes and be beaten in return. They would be no difficulty. Sappho, on the other hand, was a nearly impossible obstacle to escape. "Five years, Sappho. I'm expected to think he's had a change of heart?"
"Don't ask me," Sappho sighed. "Just turn around, put your hands behind your head. Redding only wants to talk."
Felix nodded and turned around. He listened as the brute on the right took three steps towards him. Felix felt the man's meaty grip squeeze his wrist painfully, then the pressure of cold metal. The cuffs snapped, ratcheted, and tightened around his wrists.
"There, that wasn't too bad," Sappho cooed. "Let's go."
Then, as Felix expected, the minion who had handcuffed him made a mistake. He turned his back on Felix and began to walk away.
It took Felix less than a second to pull his handcuffed wrists over his head, bringing his arms out front. He whipped his arms over the man's head and pulled the chain of the handcuffs tight across the thug's throat. Instantly, the man began flailing, but Felix pulled him back and blocked Sappho's line of sight.
"Shit," Sappho said with a sigh. The second thug made a rush. Dashing around Felix's left flank, he clearly intended a tackle. Felix dropped backwards, hauling the head and neck of his hostage down with him. The man let out a muffled gargle as he lost balance, falling backwards. Now the charging assailant's tackle landed solidly against his comrade. Felix took advantage of the confusion, releasing his chokehold. In an instant he arched backwards and kicked off, performing a backward flip. As his hands contacted the ground, he grasped hold of the wrench. Once the flip was executed, he was in firm posession of a weapon and had chosen his next move.
Sappho did not fire. If asked, she might have said that she did not have a clean shot. The truth was that she was amused.
Felix was swift and efficient, but not vicious. With a single swing across the forehead each he knocked the two henchmen senseless. Then he turned to face Sappho. She laughed as he wielded the wrench threateningly.
"See you in a while," she smiled. There was a mechanical click and a pneumatic hiss. Felix staggered and moaned, then in a matter of seconds he stumbled backwards into his own tub bed. For Felix Geist, the world became very dark.