I put the scattergun in a ratty gym bag and padded it out with four pairs of Star-dorks old socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you're just a beast, go civil and dignified; if they think you're intelligent and tame, go crude and bestial. I'm a very clever and technical 'coon. So I decided to get as crude as possible. These days, thought, you have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness. I'd had to turn both those twelve-gauge scattergun shells from brass stock, on the lathe, and then load them myself replacing the thorium fusion propellant into chemical mix; I'd had to dig up an old microfilm with instructions for hand- loading this type of cartridges; I'd had to rebuild the lever-action press to set chemical primers -all very tricky. But I knew they'd work. It wasn't even fission tech, which was the point –undetectable by sensors and the only good part about this old as time Terran based tech. Black shakes made me tremble. Bad for aim is bad in my line of biz, and there's no cure for it; I have maybe two years left but before I go I'll make sure I'm leaving this shitty world in wealth.
The meet was set for the Dome at 2300, but I rode the tube three stops past the closest platform and walked back. Immaculate procedure. I checked myself out in the chrome siding of a beverage kiosk, your basic ring-tailed sharp-fanged Raccoonoid with a ruff of stiff, dark hairs with a moderate crest shaved from the nape of the neck to up between ears. The girls at Under-the-Knife were big on Sonny Maio, and it was getting hard to keep them from adding the chic suggestion of even bigger Mohawk and multihued rings on my tail. It probably wouldn't fool Ralf the Face, but it might get me next to his table. The Dome is a single narrow space with a bar down one side and tables along the other, thick with pimps and handlers and an arcade alley of dealers. The Magnetic Dog Sisters were on the door that night, and I didn't relish trying to get out past them if things didn't work out. They were two meters tall and thin as greyhounds with spiky black feathered crowns. One was black and the other white, but aside from that they were as nearly identical as a Shi'ar clone vat could make them. They'd been lovers for years and were bad news in the tussle. I was never quite sure which one had originally been male.
Ralf was sitting at his usual table. Owing me a lot of money. I had hundreds of gigabytes stashed in my computers under an idiot proof basic information algorithm which's root number I had no access to. Ralf had left it there as my payment. He hadn't, however, come back for it. Only Ralf could retrieve the data, with a code phrased number of his own invention. I'm not cheap to hire to begin with, but my patience on shit like waiting for my pay is astronomically short. And Ralf had been very scarce.
Then I'd heard that Ralf the Face wanted to put out a contract on me. So I'd arranged to meet him in the Dome, but I'd arranged it as Eddie the Fence, clandestine importer, late of Riondo and TU-NHU.
The Dome stank of my kinda biz, danger and a metallic tang of nervous tension. Muscle-boys scattered through the crowd were flexing their best parts at one another and trying on this, cold grins, some of them so lost under superstructures of muscle graft that their outlines were barely recognizable as their base species. Pardon me. Pardon me, friends. Just Eddie here, Fast Eddie the Fence, with his professionally nondescript gym bag, and please ignore this shit, just wide enough to admit his right hand.
Ralf wasn't alone. Eighty kilos of tanned blond Spartax beef perched alertly in the chair next to his, martial arts written all over him. Fast Eddie was in the chair opposite him before the beef's hands were off the table. 'You reached the tenth arc?' I asked eagerly. He nodded, blue eyes running an automatic scanning pattern between my eyes and my hands. 'Me too,' I said. 'Got mine right here in the bag.' And I shoved my hand through the slit and thumbed the safety off. Click. 'Double barrelled with the hair-triggers wired together.'
'That's a scattergun', 'Ralf said, putting a plump restraining hand on his boy's taut blue nylon chest. 'Rocky has the 'shakes' and an antique firearm in his bag.'So much for Eddie the Fence.
I guess he'd always been Ralf Something or other, but he owed his acquired surname to a singular vanity. Built something like an overripe pear, he'd worn the once famous face of Christi'n Wh'te for twenty years – Christi'n Wh'te of the Atuan Reggae Band, Sonny Maio to his generation, and final champion of Spartax rock scene before King J'son stomped it for good. I'm a whiz at trivia.
Christi'n Wh'te: classic pop face with a singer's high definition muscles, chiselled cheekbones. Angelic in one light, handsomely depraved in another. But Ralf's eyes lived behind that face, and they were small and cold and black. 'Please,' he said, 'let's work this out like businessmen.' His voice was marked by a horrible prehensile sincerity, and the corners of his beautiful Christi'n Wh'te mouth were always wet. 'L'wis here,' nodding in the beef boy's direction, 'is a meathead.' L'wis took this impassively, looking like something built from a kit. 'You aren't a meathead, Rocky.'
'Sure I am, Ralf, a nice furry meathead chock-full of implants which you can hire to protect your dirty assets while you go off shopping for people to kill me. From my end of this bag, Ralf, it looks like you've got some explaining to do.'
'It's this last batch of product, Rocky.' He sighed deeply. 'In my role as broker - ' 'Fence,' I corrected.
'As broker, I am usually very careful as to whom I source.'
'You hire only those who are the best to steal from the rest. Got it.'
He sighed again. 'I try,' he said wearily, 'not to hire fools. This time, I'm afraid, I've done that.' Third sigh was the cue for L'wis to trigger the neural disruptor they'd taped under my side of the table. I put everything I had into curling the clawed index finger of my right hand, but I no longer seemed to be connected to it. I could feel the metal of the gun and the foam-padded tape I'd wrapped around the stubby grip, but my hands were cool wax, distant and inert. I was hoping L'wis was a true meathead, thick enough to go for the gym bag and snag my rigid trigger finger, but he wasn't.
'We've been very worried about you Rocket. Very worried. You see, that's Orion Syndicate property you have there. A fool took it from them, Rocket. A dead fool.'
It all made sense then, an ugly kind of sense, like bags of wet sand settling around my head. Killing wasn't Ralf's style. L'wis wasn't even Ralf's style. But he'd got himself stuck between the Sons of the Orion Arm and something that belonged to them - or, more likely, something of theirs that belonged to someone else. Ralf, of course, could use the code phrase to open the files in my digital vaults, and It'd spill their hot program without reciting a single disparaging tone. For a fence like Ralf, that would ordinarily have been enough. But not for the Syndicate. The Syndicate would know about Squids, for one thing, and they wouldn't want to worry about anyone lifting those dim and permanent traces of their program out of my vaults. I didn't know very much about Squids, but I'd heard stories, and I made it a point never to repeat them to my clients. No, the Syndicate wouldn't like that; it looked too much like evidence. They hadn't got where they were by leaving evidence around. Or alive.
L'wis was grinning. I think he was visualizing a point just behind my forehead and imagining how he could get there the hard way. 'Hey,' said a low voice, feminine, from somewhere behind my right shoulder, 'you cowboys sure aren't having too lively a time.' 'Pack it, bitch,' Lewis said, his tanned face very still. Ralf looked blank.
'Lighten up. You want to buy some good free base?' She pulled up a chair and quickly sat before either of them could stop her. She was barely inside my fixed field of vision, a muscular girl with mirrored glasses, her dark green tipped hair cut in rough shag. She wore black leather; open over a T- shirt slashed diagonally with stripes of red and black. 'Aren't you a damn weirdo.'
L'wis snorted his exasperation and tried to slap her out of the chair. Somehow he didn't quite connect, and her hand came up and a blade seemed to brush his wrist as it passed. Bright blood sprayed the table. He was clutching his wrist white-knuckle tight, blood trickling from between his fingers. But hadn't her hand been empty? He was going to need a tendon stapler. He stood up carefully, without bothering to push his chair back. The chair toppled backward, and he stepped out of my line of sight without a word.
'He better get a medic to look at that,' she said. 'That's a nasty cut.'
'You have no idea,' said Ralf, suddenly sounding very tired, 'the depths of shit you have just gotten yourself into.'
'No kidding? Mister. I get real excited by mysteries. Like why our friend here's so quiet. Frozen, like. Or what this thing here is for,' and she held up the little control unit that she'd somehow taken from L'wis. Ralf looked ill.
'You, ah, want maybe a quarter-million to give me that and take a walk?' A fat hand came up to stroke his pale, lean face nervously.
'What I want,' she said, snapping her fingers so that the unit spun and glittered, 'is work. A job. Your boy hurt his wrist. But a quarter will do for a retainer.'
Ralf let his breath out explosively and began to laugh, exposing teeth that hadn't been kept up to the Christi'n Wh'te standard. Then she turned the disruptor off.
'Two million units,' I said.
'My kind of 'coon,' she said, and laughed. 'What's in the bag?'
'Crude.' It might have been a compliment.
Ralf said nothing at all.
'Name's Gamora. You want to get out of here, boss? People are starting to stare.' She stood up. She was wearing leather trousers the colour of dried blood.
And I saw for the first times that at her cheeks, under the mirrored lenses, were surgical inlays, the silver rising smoothly from her high cheekbones. I saw my face twinned there.
'I'm Rocket,' I said. 'We're taking Mr face with us.'
He was outside, waiting. Looking like your standard tourist dude, in plastic zori shoes and a silly Hawaiian shirt printed with blowups of his firm's most popular product; a mild little guy, the kind most likely to wind up drunk on booze in a bar that puts out miniature flour crackers with some chic-of-the-month garnish. He looked like the kind who sings the corporate anthem and cries, who shakes hands endlessly with the bartender. And the pimps and the dealers would leave him alone, pegging him as innately conservative. Not up for much, and careful with his units when he was.
The way I figured it later, they must have amputated part of his left thumb, somewhere behind the first joint, replacing it with a prosthetic tip, and cored the stump, fitting it with a spool and socket moulded from one of the famous Odosedai diamond analogues. Then they'd carefully wound the spool with three meters of monomolecular filament. Gamora got into some kind of exchange with the Magnetic Dog Sisters, giving me a chance to usher Ralf through the door with the gym bag pressed lightly against the base of his spine. She seemed to know them. I heard the black one laugh.
I glanced up, out of some passive reflex or instinct, maybe because I've always been adapted to it, to the soaring arcs of dim light and the shadows of the geodesics above them. Maybe that saved me. Ralf kept walking, but I don't think he was trying to escape. I think he'd already given up. Probably he already had an idea of what we were up against. I looked back down in time to see him explode.
Playback on full recall would show Ralf stepping forward as the little tourist sidles out of nowhere, smiling. Just a suggestion of a bow as he lands and his left thumb falls of. It's a conjuring trick. The thumb hangs suspended. Mirrors? Wires? And Ralf stops, his back to us, dark crescents of sweat under the armpits of his pale summer suit. He knows. He must have known. And then the joke-shop thumb-tip, heavy as lead, arcs out in a lightning yo-yo trick, and the invisible thread connecting it to the killer's hand passes laterally through Ralf's skull, just above his eyebrows, whips up, and descends, slicing the pear-shaped torso diagonally from shoulder to rib cage. Cuts so fine that no blood flows until synapses misfire and the first tremors surrender the body to gravity.
Ralf tumbled apart in a pink cloud of fluids, the three mismatched section rolling forward on the tiled pavement. In total silence. I brought the gym bag up, and my hand convulsed. The recoil nearly breaks my wrist despite the cybernetically enhanced metacarpals and lateral bones.
It must have been raining; ribbons of water cascaded from a ruptured geodesic and spattered on the tile behind us. We crouched in the narrow gap between a surgical boutique and an antique shop. She'd just edged one mirrored eye around the corner to report a single Volks module security drone in front of the Dome, red lights flashing. They were sweeping Ralf up. Asking questions. I was covered in scorched white fluff. The tennis socks. The gym bag was a ragged plastic cuff around my wrist. 'I don't see how the hell I missed him.'
'Cause he's fast, so very fast.' She hugged her knees and rocked back and forth on her boot heels. 'His nervous system's majorly jacked up. He's got to be Shi'ar custom.' She grinned and gave a little squeal of delight. 'I'm gonna get that boy. Tonight. He's the best, number one, top dollar, state of the art.'
'What you're going to get for this boy's two million; is my ass out of here. Your new boyfriend back there was mostly likely grown in a vat in Chandillar City. He's an Orion Syndicate assassin.'
'Chandillar. Yeah. See, Gamora's been around, too.' And she showed me her hands, fingers slightly spread. Her fingers were slender, tapered, and very green against the polished burgundy nails. Ten blades whipped out on display, straight out from their hiding places beneath her clothing, each one a narrow, double-edged scalpel in pale blue steel.
I'd never spent much time in The downside of the Hub. Nobody there had anything to pay me to be loyal, and many of them would have paid regularly just to forget I'd been there. Generations of sharpshooters had clipped away at the neon until the maintenance crews gave up. Even at noon the arcs were soot-black against faintest pearl. Everything was for sale here.
Where do you go when the world's wealthiest criminal order is feeling for you with calm, distant fingers? Where do you hide from the Orion Syndicate, so powerful that it owns comsats and at least three star destroyers? The Orion syndicate is a true pan galactic, like Timely Inc. and Odosedai. Fifty years before I was born the Orion Syndicate had already absorbed the Triads of Mpazz, the Spartax Mafia, and even the Union Course at Skrullos.
Gamora had an answer: You hide at Knowhere's Shadetown, in the lowest circle, where any outside influence generates swift, concentric ripples of raw menace. You hide in Pit. Better yet, you hide above Pit, because the Pit's inverted, and the bottom of its bowl touches the sky, the sky that Shadetown never sees, sweating under its own filament of ancient alien resin, up where the Low Techs crouch in the dark like gargoyles, black-market cigarettes dangling from their lips. Rocket had an answer, too.
'So you're locked up good and tight, Rocky the-'coon? No way to get that program without the password?' She led me into the shadows that waited beyond the bright Spaceship landing platform. The Steel and stone walls were overlaid with graffiti, years of them twisting into a single meta-scrawl of rage and frustration.
'The stored data are fed in through a modified series of micro-augmented contra-locking processes.' Rocket reeled off a numb version of his standard sales pitch. 'Client's code is stored in a special chip; barring Squids, which we in the information war trade don't like to talk about, there's no way to recover your phrase. Can't drug it out, cut it out, or torture it. I don't know it, never did.'
'Squids? Crawly things with arms?' We emerged into a deserted street market. Shadowy figures watched us from across a makeshift square littered with fish heads and rotting fruit.
'Superconducting quantum interface detectors. Used them in the Kree-Xandar war to find cloakers and silent runners and suss out enemy cyber systems.'
'Yeah? Navy stuff? From the war? Squid'll read those files of yours?' She'd stopped walking, and I felt her eyes on me behind those twin mirror shades.
'Even the primitive models could measure a magnetic field a billionth the strength of geomagnetic force; it's like pulling a whisper out of cheering stadium.'
'They can do that already, with parabolic microphones and lasers and deep space tachyon scans.' She frowned.
'But your data's still secure.' Pride in profession. 'No government'll let their cops have Squids, not even the security heavies like the Xandarians. Too much chance of interdepartmental funnies; they're too likely to fuck you or your supers.'
'Navy stuff,' Rocket affirmed, and his grin gleamed in the shadows. 'Navy stuff. I got a friendly down here that was in the navy like me, name's Wally. I think you'd better meet him. He's a junkie, though. So we'll have to take him something.'
He was more than a walrus, but from another walrus's point of view he might have seemed like something less. I watched him swirling sluggishly in his galvanized tank. Water stopped over the side, wetting my shoes. He was surplus from the last war like me. A cyber-genetic uplift. Created, used up, abandoned and left to his own devices to fend off as well as he might when no longer needed.
He rose out of the water, showing us the metallic tusks at his mouth and the plates at his hide, a kind of visual pun, his grace at swim nearly lost under articulated armor, clumsy and prehistoric in execution. Twin deformities on either side of his skull had been engineered to house sensor units. Silver lesions gleamed on exposed sections of his gray-brown hide.
Rocket whistled. Wally thrashed his tail, and more water cascaded down the side of the tank.
'What is this place?' Gamora peered at vague shapes in the dark, rusting chain link and things under tarps. Above the tank hung a clumsy wooden framework, crossed and crisscrossed by rows of dusty Christmas lights.
'Funland. Zoo and carnival rides. "Talk with the War Whale." All that. Some whale Wally is...'
Wally reared again and fixed Gamora with a sad and ancient eye.
'How's he talk?' Suddenly she was anxious to go.
'That's the catch. Say "Hi," Wally.'
And all the bulbs lit simultaneously. They were flashing red, white, and blue.
'Good with symbols, you see. But the code we created is all we have anymore; he lost his speech long ago. In the navy they had him wired into an audiovisual display.' He drew the narrow package from a jacket pocket. 'Pure shit, Wally. Want it?' Rocket cooed. Wally froze in the water and started to sink. Gamora felt a strange panic, remembering that he wasn't a fish that he could drown. 'We want the key to Rocket's bank, Wally. We want it fast.'
The lights flickered, died. 'Go for it, Wally!'
Blue bulbs, cruciform. Darkness. 'Pure! It's clean. Come on, Wally.'
White sodium glare washed her features, stark monochrome, shadows cleaving from her cheekbones.
The arms of the red swastika were twisted in her silver glasses. 'Give it to him,' Rocket said. 'We've got it.'
Ralf the Face. No imagination. None what so ever.
Wally heaved half of his armored bulk over the edge of his tank, and I thought the metal would give way. Gamora stabbed him overhand with the automated syringe, driving the needle between two plates. Propellant hissed. Patterns of light exploded, sparking across the frame and then fading to black.
We left him drifting, rolling languorously in the dark water. Maybe he was dreaming of his war in the stars, of the cyber mines he'd swept, nosing gently into their circuitry with the Squid he'd used to pick Ralf's pathetic password from the chips buried in my computer.
'I can see them slipping up when he was demobbed, letting him out of the navy with that gear intact, but how does a cybernetic walrus get wired to smacker?'
'The war,' Rocket said. 'We all were. Navy did it. How else you get US working for you?'
I'm not sure this profile's as good business,' the space pirate said, angling for better money. 'Target specs on a comsat that isn't in the book -'
'Waste my time and you won't have a profile at all,' said Gamora, leaning across his scarred plastic desk to prod him with her forefinger.
'So maybe you want to buy your microwaves somewhere else?' he was a tough kid, behind his Mao-job. A Knowhere-man by birth, probably. Her hand blurred down the front of his jacket, completely severing a lapel without even rumpling the fabric.
'So we got a deal or not?'
'Deal,' he said starting at his ruined lapel with what he must have hoped was only polite interest. 'Deal.' While I checked the two records we'd bought she extracted the slip of paper I'd given her from the zippered wrist pocket of her jacket. She unfolded it and read silently, without moving her lips. She shrugged. 'This is it?'
'Shoot,' I said, punching the RECORD studs of the two desks simultaneously.
'Christi'n Wh'te,' she recited, 'and his Atuan Reggae Band.' Faithful Ralf, a fan to his dying day.
Translation from Galactic common to idiot-savant is always less abrupt than I expect it to be. The Space pirate's front was a failing travel agency in a pastel cube that boasted a desk, three chairs, and a faded poster of a Swyiss orbital spa. Pair of toy birds with blown-glass bodies and tin legs were sipping monotonously from a Styrofoam cup of water on the ledge beside Gamora's shoulder. As I phased out to translate, they accelerated gradually until their DayGlo-feathered crowns became solid arcs of color. The LEDs that told seconds on the plastic wall clock had become meaningless pulsing grids, and Gamora and the Mao-faced cutthroat grew hazy, their arms blurring occasionally in insect-quick ghosts of gesture. And then it all faded to cool gray static and an endless tone poem in the artificial Creole language the Orion syndicate preferred to use.
I sat and sang dead Ralf's stolen song in my mind for three hours.
The Knowhere mall runs forty kilometers from end to end, and raggedly overlaps with Fullerene dome roofing what was once a celestial's subcutaneous artery. If they turn off the arcs on a clean day. A gray approximation of sunlight filters through layers of acrylic, a view like the prison sketches of Giovanni Piranesi. The three southernmost kilometers roof the shady parts of Knowhere. Shadetown pays no taxes, no utilities. The neon arcs are dead, and the geodesics have been smoked black by decades of cooking fires. In the nearly total darkness of a Shadetown noon, who notices a few dozen mad children lost in the rafters?
We'd been climbing for two hours, up concrete stairs and steel ladders with perforated rungs, past abandoned gantries and dust-covered tools. We'd started in what looked like a disused maintenance yard, stacked with triangular roofing segments. Everything there had been covered with that same uniform layer of spray bomb graffiti: gang names, dates back to the turn of the century. The graffiti followed us up, gradually thinning until a single name was repeated at intervals. LOW TECH. In dripping black capitals.
'Who's LOW TECH?'
'Not us, boss.' she answered to her own question climbing a shivering aluminum ladder and vanished through a hole in a sheet of corrugated plastic. '"Low technique, low technology."' The plastic muffled her voice. I followed her up, nursing an aching wrist. 'LOW TECH's, they'd think that scattergun trick of mine was effete.'
An hour later Gamora dragged herself up through another hole; this one sawed crookedly in a sagging sheet of plywood, and met her first LOW TECH.
'S okay,' Rocket said, His hand brushing my shoulder. 'It's just Dog. Hey, Dog.'
In the narrow beam of her tapered flashlight, he regarded us with his one eye and slowly extruded a thick length of greyish tongue, licking at his huge canines. I wondered how they wrote off tooth-bud transplants from black-market surgeons as low technology. Immunosuppressive doesn't exactly grow on trees.
'Roc-c.' Dental augmentation impeded his speech. A string of saliva dangled from the twisted lower lip. 'Heard ya comin'. Long time.' The Krylorean might have been fifteen, but the fangs and the bright mosaic of scars combined with the gaping socket to present a mask of total bestiality. It had taken time and a certain kind of creativity to assemble that face, and his posture told-me he enjoyed living behind it. He wore a pair of decaying jeans, black with grime and shiny along the creases. His chest and feet were bare. He did something with his mouth that approximated a grin. 'Bein' followed, you.'
Far off, in Shadetown, a water vendor cried his trade.
'Strings jumping, Dog?' Gamora swung her flash to the side, and Rocket saw too the thin cords tied to eyebolts, cords that ran to the edge and vanished.
'Kill the fuckin' light!'
She snapped it off.
'How come the one who's followin' you's got no light?'
'Doesn't need it. That one's bad news, Dog. If your sentries give him a tumble; they'll come home in easy-to carry sections.'
'This friend, Roc-c?' He sounded uneasy. His feet shift nervously on the worn plywood.
'No. But his hers. And this one,' slapping at Gamora's shoulders, 'she's a friend. Got that?'
'Sure,' he said, without much enthusiasm, padding to the platform's edge, where the eyebolts were. He began to pluck out some kind of message on the taut cords.
Shadetown spread beneath them like a toy village for rats; tiny windows showed candlelight, with only a few harsh, bright squares lit by battery lanterns and carbide lamps. Rocket imagined the old men at their endless games of dominoes, under warm, fat drops of water that fell from wet wash hung out on poles between the plywood shanties. Then he tried to imagine the assassin climbing patiently up through the darkness in his zori shoes and only tourist shirt, bland and unhurried. How was he tracking them?
'Good,' said Gamora unfazed. 'He likely smells us up.'
'Smoke?' Dog dragged a crumpled pack from his pocket and prized out a flattened cigarette. I squinted at the trademark while he lit it for me with a kitchen match. Yiheyuan filters. Benthus Cigarette Factory.
Gamora decided that the Low techs were black marketers. Dog and Rocket went back to their argument, which seemed to revolve around Rocket's desire to use some particular piece of Low Tech real estate.
'I've done you a lot of favors, man. I want that floor. And I want the musik.'
'You're not Low Tech...'
This must have been going on for the better part of a twisted kilometer, Dog leading us along swaying catwalks and up rope ladders. The Low Techs leech their webs and huddling places to the city's fabric with thick gobs of epoxy and sleep above the abyss in mesh hammocks. Their country is so attenuated that in places it consists of little more than holds and feet, sawed into geodesic struts.
The Killing Floor, He called it. Scrambling after him, my heeled boots slipping on worm metal and damp plywood, I wondered how it could be any more lethal than the rest of the territory. At the same time I sensed that Dog's protests were ritual and that Rocket already expected to get whatever it was he wanted.
Somewhere beneath us, Wally would be circling at his tank, feeling the first twinges of junk sickness. The Hub security would be boring the Dome regulars with questions about Ralf. What did he do? Who was he with before he stepped outside? And the Orion syndicate would be settling its ghostly bulk over the Galactic data banks, probing for faint images of me reflected in numbered accounts, securities transactions, bills for utilities. We're an information economy. They teach you that in school if you're lucky and in the streets if unlucky. What they don't tell you is that it's impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information. Fragments that can be retrieved, amplified...
But by now the pirate would have shuttled our message into line for black box transmissions to the Syndicate comsat. A simple message: Call off the hounds or we wideband your shit for all. The program. Gamora had no idea what it contained. still don't. she only sing along, with zero comprehension. It was probably research data, the Orion syndicate being given to advanced forms of industrial espionage. A genteel business, stealing from Odosedai as a matter of course and politely holding their data for ransom, threatening to blunt the medical conglomerate's research edge by making the product public. But why couldn't any number play? Wouldn't they be happier with something to sell back to Odosedai, happier than they'd be with one dead Rocket and Gamora from Memory Lane?
Their program was on its way to an address in Spartax-space, to a place that held letters for clients and didn't ask questions once you'd paid a small retainer. Fourth-class surface flight mail. Rocket had erased most of the other copy and recorded our message in the resulting gap, leaving just enough of the program to identify it as the real thing.
Rocket's wrist hurt. He wanted to stop, to lie down, to sleep. I knew that if I'd lose my grip and fall knew that if the sharp looking black talons I was born with would lose their purchase and carry me down to Shadetown. But the assassin rose in my mind like a cheap religious hologram, glowing, and the enlarged image in his Hawaiian shirt looming like a reconnaissance shot of some doomed urban nucleus.
So Rocket followed Dog and Gamora through Low Tech heaven, jury-rigged and jerry-built from scraps that even Shadetown didn't want. The Killing Floor was eight meters on a side. A giant must have threaded steel cable back and forth through a junkyard and drawn it all taut. It creaked when it moved, and it moved constantly, swaying and bucking as the gathering Low Techs arranged themselves on the shelf of plywood surrounding it. The wood was silver with age, polished with long use and deeply etched with initials, threats, declarations of passion. This was suspended from a separate set of cables, which latched themselves in darkness beyond the raw white glare of the two ancient floodlights suspended above the Floor.
A Krylorean girl with teeth like Dog's hit the Floor on all fours. Her bare breasts were tattooed with indigo spirals. Then she was across the Floor, laughing, grappling with a boy who was drinking dark liquid from a half gallon flask. Low Tech fashion ran to scars and tattoos and teeth. The electricity they were tapping to light the Killing Floor seemed to be an exception to their overall aesthetic, made in the name of... ritual, sport, art? Gamora didn't know, but she could see that the Floor was something special. It had the look of having been assembled over generations.
I held the useless scattergun under my jacket. Its hardness and weight were comforting, even thought I had no more shells. And it came to me that I had no idea at all of who would win, or of what was supposed to happen if Gamora did lose. And that was the nature of my game, because I'd spent most of my life as a willfully blind mercenary to be told by other people about their wishes and knowledge and then applied; killing, capturing or maiming people and information spouting in synthetic and non-synthetic languages to give me pleas and reasons I'd never care to understand. A very greedy but technical raccoonoid. Sure.
And then I noticed just how quiet the Low Techs had become. He was there, at the edge of the light, taking in the Killing Floor and the gallery of silent Low Techs with a tourist's calm. And as our eyes met for the first time with mutual recognition, a memory clicked into place for me, of Paxis, and the long electric jet gliding through the rain to Nodregar; mobile greenhouses, Angular faces behind the glass, and a hundred flashing recording devices rising in blind phototropism, flowers of steel and crystal. Behind his eyes, as they found me, those same shutters whirring.
I looked for Gamora, but she was gone. The Low Techs parted to let him step up on to the bench. He bowed, smiling, and stepped smoothly out of his shoes, leaving them side by side, perfectly aligned, and then he stepped down on to the Killing Floor. He came for me, across that shifting trampoline of scrap, as easily as any tourist padding across synthetic pile in any featureless hotel.
Gamora hit the Floor, running.
The Floor screamed.
It was miked and amplified, with pickups riding the four fat coil springs at the corners and contact mikes taped at random to rusting machine fragments. Somewhere the Low Techs had an amp and a synthesizer, and now I made out of shapes of speakers overhead, above the cruel white floodlights.
A drumbeat began, electronic, like an amplified heart, steady as a metronome.
She'd removed her leather jacket and boots; her T-shirt was sleeveless, faint telltales of Cybernetic circuitry traced along her thin arms. Her blood red leather trousers gleamed under the floods. She began to dance.
She flexed her knees, Green feet tensed on a flattened gas tank, and the Killing Floor began to heave in response. The sound it made was like a world ending, like the wires that hold heaven snapping and coiling across the sky.
He rode with it, for a few heartbeats, and then he moved, judging the movement of the Floor perfectly, like a man stepping from one flat stone to another in an ornamental garden.
He pulled the tip from his thumb with the grace of a man at ease with social gesture and flung it at her. Under the floods, the filament was refracting thread of rainbow. She threw herself flat and rolled, jackknifing up as the molecule whipped past, steel knives snapping into the light in what must have been an automatic rictus of defense. The drum pulse quickened, and she bounced with it, her dark hair wild around the blank silver lenses, her mouth thin, green lips taut with concentration. The Killing Floor boomed and roared, and the Low techs were screaming their excitement.
He retracted the filament to a whirling meter-wide circle of ghostly polychrome and spun it in front of him, thumbless hand held lever with his sternum. A shield.
And Gamora seemed to let something go, something inside, and that was the real start of her mad-dog dance. She jumped, twisting, lunging sideways, landing with both feet on an alloy engine block wired directly to one of the coil springs. I cupped my hands over my ears and knelt in vertigo of sound, thinking Floor and benches were on their way down, down to Shadetown, and I saw us tearing through the shanties, the wet wash, exploding on the tiles like rotten fruit. But the cables held, and the Killing Floor rose and fell like a crazy metal sea. And Gamora danced on it.
And at the end, just before he made his final cast with the filament, I saw in his face, an expression that didn't seem to belong there. It wasn't fear and it wasn't anger. I think it was disbelief; stunned incomprehension mingled with pure aesthetic revulsion at what he was seeing, hearing - at what was happening to him. He retracted the whirling filament, the ghost disk shrinking to the size of a dinner plate as he whipped his arm above his head and brought it down, the thumb tip curving out for Gamora like a living thing.
The Floor carried her down, the molecule passing just above her head; the Floor whiplashed, lifting him into the path of the taut molecule. It should have passed harmlessly over his head and been withdrawn into its diamond hard socket. It took his hand off just behind the wrist. There was a gap in the Floor in front of him, and he went through it like a diver, with a strange deliberate grace, a defeated kamikaze on his way down to Shadetown. Partly, I think, he took that dive to buy himself a few seconds of the dignity of silence. She'd killed him with culture shock.
The Low Techs roared, but someone shut the amplifier off, and Gamora rode the Killing Floor into silence, hanging on now, and her face pale and blank, until the pitching slowed and there was only a faint pinging of tortured metal and the grating of rust on rust.
We searched the Floor for the severed hand, but we never found it. All we found was a graceful curve in one piece of rusted steel, where the molecule went through. Its edge was bright as new chrome.
We never learned whether the Orion Syndicate had accepted our terms, or even whether they got our message. As far as I know, their program is still waiting for Eddie the Fence on a shelf in the back room of a gift shop on the third level of Spartax Central-5. Probably they sold the files of original cure for 'shakes' back to Odosedai months ago. But maybe they did get the pirate's broadcast, because nobody's come looking for me yet and it's been nearly a year and the cure is in circulation. If they do come, they'll have a long climb up through the dark, past Dog's sentries, and I don't look much like Eddie these days. Not that it means much since there's no hiding for what I am.
I helped Gamora take care of her wounds, with a local anesthetic. And my hair has almost grown back.
I've decided to stay up here. When I looked out across the Killing Floor, before he came, I saw how hollow I was. And I knew I was sick of being a tool. So now I climb down and visit Wally, almost every night. We're partners now, Wally and I, and Gamora, too. Gamora handles our business in the Dome. Wally is still in Funland, but he has a bigger tank, with fresh seawater trucked in once a week. And he has his junk, when he needs it. He still talks to the kids with his frame of lights, but he talks to me on a new display unit in a shed that I rent there, a better unit than the one he used in the navy.
And we're all making good money, better money than I made before, because Wally's Squid can read the traces of anything that anyone ever scored by and through me, and he gives it to me on the display unit in languages I can Understand. So we're learning a lot about all my former clients. And one day I'll have a surgeon dig all the excess metal and silicon out of my body, and I'll live by my own rules and nobody else's, the way other people do. But not for a while.
In the meantime it's really okay up here, way up in the dark, smoking a Benthus filter tip and listening to the condensation that drips from the geodesics. Real quiet up here - unless a pair of Low Techs decide to dance on the Killing Floor.
It's educational, too. With Wally to help me figure more things out, I'm getting to be the most technical 'coon around. And there are no more black shakes not for him or for me.