They say the city never sleeps. That it breathes day and night, that it chews up the people who live in it until nothing remains but bones. That may be true, but it has a rhythm, a rise and a fall, a slumber and a waking. I like to rise early, before the dawn, before the city stirs from its somnolence, and climb to the top of our block, prop my feet against the crumbled remains of the balustrade and watch the day start. I watch the indentured walk to work, their heads down, drawn by their invisible chains to the manu-centres, to the cleanrooms, to the shit-farms. That wave passes, and then the rats come out. The rats that scratch and claw some kind of existence out of the cracks and the rubble. Me? I'm a kind of rat, but things are a little easier for me. Not much, but enough that I can start my day sitting on my butt and watching.
Today I saw someone who used to be a friend take her last walk.
Jeannie used to play with us, back when we had time and joy for play. We used to run in and out of the shells behind the main drag and we used to laugh. Today I watched her stagger out of what once was a basement, but is now an open hole in the ground, and stumble in the direction of the Market. I didn't need to be close to see the dried rivers down her cheeks, to see the grey in her hair, the cracks that run all over her skin. If it's not one thing that gets you in this world, it's another, and nectar had got her good.
I saw the weakness in her limbs, her washed-out colour and her lank hair, and that's when I knew it was her last walk. I've seen it before. Seen them go to the Market and sell the remains of their life for one more taste of nectar. I couldn't do it, but I can understand what drives them. When all of your choices are bad, how can you be blamed for making bad choices?
I watched her go, and then climbed down from my perch. I needed to wake Laura, and make sure that at least one of us brought home something to eat, something we could feed into the digester to provide heat and maybe a little light to prolong the day.
It's gotten harder and harder to wake her, this past year. I know that she's been looking out on our life and, where I see light shining through chinks in the wall, she sees only mortar and cinder-blocks. I send her to the Market, to sell the technos I make, to trade, to buy us food and any kind of scrap that I can work with. Some days she does well, but those days are scarce now. I don't know what she's considering. Maybe she'll sell herself to the dollytouts or the peepmongers. Maybe she'll front for a taker or a greaser. I'll fight it as long as I can. Give her reasons to go on. Give her what energy and spirit I have. She's my sister, and I don't have anything else worth holding.
I watched the tear-blurred morning, telling myself that it was the gas from the cleanrooms in my eyes. Yesterday, she made her choice.
I'd told her about Jeannie, that morning. Maybe it wasn't the right thing to do, but in this game it's often only after you've made a move that you find out it's wrong. The other person hides the pieces and can't tell you where they are. If I'm not sure, I go for truth and hope that virtue will save me. I bat .500, but I can live with myself. It seems fair enough trade. She just nodded, and I thought she'd taken it in her stride.
I sent her off with a line-leech, a techno that finds and sucks power without the owner noticing. And it only occasionally explodes. It should have bought enough food to last us for a week. She came back with nothing but a wild look in her eyes and a puncture mark on her arm that she didn't even try to hide.
I wanted to ask her “Why?” Not to know but to express my anger and frustration. It doesn't do any good. If she was feeling guilty, my anger would make her feel worse. If she was feeling rebellious, then my frustration would just add to the barrier between us. I let her go to bed with not much said and no meal eaten. She turned to me and whispered “Lizzie, I love you.” as she went.
I locked her in her room this morning.
Today I will make two technos. One of them I will take to the partsman and offer him a trade. I will make him a device to keep his tools clean and sharp, and his customers will not know to thank me. The other is for tomorrow. I shall make a flyer for the honeymen, that can float above the Market and keep watch for the armourguards. It will be a busy day, today. But tomorrow will be worse.
It took me longer to climb to my perch on the roof today. My balance was off, my movements heavy. Not much of a sacrifice. Laura spent all last night banging on the door of her room. The nectar hunger has taken her earlier than I thought, and it makes me hurry. I watch the indentured pass, and then the rats start to emerge. Today I will go down to the street and crawl with them to the Market. Today I will go to the honeymen with my beautiful dragonfly techno and bargain for a drug that I do not want.
The partsman did not want to trade. He wanted the techno, sure, but he was unwilling to pay the price. “Elizabeth of the machines,” he said. “You are young, and you have not gone to the Market and sold yourself. Why should I trade you?”
I gathered up the techno to take it away, knowing that I couldn’t. I watched the lust for it burn in his eyes. Two steps toward the door, and he blinked first.
After, I sat with my back to Laura’s door, and listened to her sobs. I wanted to ask her about the honeymen, about what it felt like to sip the nectar, but she wasn’t verbal. I checked the door was tight and tried to sleep.
The sun is going to break the clouds any moment. I look down the street toward the Market, its patchwork hump rising from behind the wreck walls that keep it in. Did I never think I would make this walk? Did I think I was better? I can’t remember.
This morning the sky weeps for my reputation. I let it. I let the water, vile and oily, plaster my hair to my head, drench my clothes, soak me. I will never be clean.
Nobody watched me walk to the Market, but everyone saw. Lizzie, who does not go to the Market. See her fallen like the rest. See her go to the honeymen just like her sister. I walked on my pride all the way to the Market, feeling their eyes on me, feeling their scorn prick my skin like the thorn would.
The honeymen do not sell their drug. You cannot buy it in a little pouch; you cannot take it home in a vial. They guard its secret jealously, because they could not stand competition. In their lair, their cloth-walled maze, they sit you down, they buzz around you, they mop your brow, they bring their thorn and they prick you with it. They strap you down while you scream and writhe, while you dance their honey dance. Then they let you go with smiles that know you are bound forever.
I walked back from the Market with my head down. I heard the laughter just as they had heard my nectar song. Cloth walls do not block sound well. They didn’t know that I had fooled the honeymen. They didn’t know that I had sung their song of my own choice. And I could not tell them that the nectar did not run through my veins, changing my brain, warping my neurons. That it pooled in a chamber deep inside the plastic and metal arm that the partsman had given me in exchange for my techno. In exchange for my techno and my born left arm.
Today I will strip the digester. We shall give up power, living only on what my line-leeches can suck from the mined-out power run beneath the block. I need the parts to make my nectar-still. To synth pure nectar that does not crack the skin, grey the hair, and sap the spirit. And when I have done that, I will make a thorn and give my sister the sip she needs.
Today the city seems brighter. The darkness has been pushed back a day, and I flex my mechanical hand as I perch above the street watching.
It took longer than I thought. Having only one hand that I can pinch and twist with any speed slowed my cannibalising of the digester. Hearing Laura’s sobs turn to moans slowed me more. I analysed the nectar, broke it down, took a scan and twisted it. My nectar does not take, it only gives. But I could not remove the addiction, no matter how much I spliced and shifted. It was woven through the structure of the nectar like a golden thread. So my nectar is still instantly addictive.
I took it to Laura, my makeshift thorn in my hand. She was curled in a ball in the middle of the floor, her hands bloody from scraping at the door. She did not stir as I came in, and I feared that I had taken too long, but she still breathed. I took her hand and swabbed her arm before pricking it with the thorn. I watched her wake, watched her pupils dilate. I held her in my arms while she sung her nectar joy to the block, while she writhed and danced. All that I had given for love was paid back in her ecstasy.
We gain a day. It doesn’t seem like much. Today, I will send Laura to the Market with a techno, and she will find me parts to repair the digester, and bring us food. She will come back to me, and not go to the honeymen because I can give her the pure nectar she needs, and not take anything from her.
Should I challenge them? Should I take my pure nectar to the market? I think not. I do not want to be a honeyman. That is not my choice, not my way. How long would it be before I cut my nectar, to make more for less? Before I sold my enemies to the maw of the city? I make technos, and Laura sells them in the Market. And that is enough, for today.
Tomorrow we shall claw and scratch our way again, finding light and joy where we can, and enduring the dark where we cannot. The city never sleeps, and it will eat us in the end. But not today and, I believe, not tomorrow. All of our choices are bad, but this time we did not make bad choices.