Sollux Captor was a low-atmosphere cargo hauler full of stolen mining equipment the first time he died.
The missiles were stone age – frag payloads riding a combustion trail, thick and greasy in the sunlight, smart as a brick – so he hadn’t felt them coming in: hadn’t felt the screech on his mental chalkboard. It turned out the guy who’d stolen the mining equipment had pissed off another guy, who’d been planning to steal the same mining equipment, and that the other guy had decided the most appropriate way to register his displeasure was to rig up a SAM site and blow the whole cargo to fuck half a mile above the Sulphur Sea. Not that Sollux knew this at the time. At the time, he hadn’t known much of anything: just knives in his temples and the shrill red scream of alarms. Warning. Hull breach. Warning. Structural integrity compromised. Warning. Warning. War-
He hadn’t even had time to buzz out.
He’d woken to wide eyes and scared faces and a certain amount of hushed muttering. Words like vegetable and miracle had stood out of the hum. His EEG trace had been flat as mercury for twenty-two point two seconds. The clinic’s doctor would later explain to him carefully that he’d caught enough feedback to kill a mothership; that his skull should be so much pot-pourri, and his brain a cloud of superheated steam. Sollux had to reach up with a shaking hand to reassure himself that this wasn’t exactly the case. When he touched his head it felt like it should cave straight in. The doctor, visibly uncomfortable, had suggested that perhaps he should look in the mirror.
Sick with terror, he’d done so. It mostly looked okay. High, domed forehead, still convex rather than concave: check. Long face, sharp nose, unshaven jaw. Skin still grey, if maybe a few notches paler than usual. Horns: four, two big two small, candy-corn orange, check. Eyes: two, blank and without pupils, one a brilliant scarlet, the other a vivid electric blue. Check.
He’d turned slowly to look at the doctor.
“I wish I had an explanation,” the doctor had said, “but this wasn’t in any of my textbooks.” And a little shrug, like welp. What are you gonna do?
Before they kicked him out onto the street they’d given him a pair of dark glasses and a packet of pills and told him that oh, there was one more thing. His neural architecture, they’d said – speaking slowly, like he wouldn’t fucking know what it meant – had been irreversibly damaged. He could still walk and eat food and take a piss and all that root-level stuff, but the higher functions were a little fried. His psionics were gone; burnt out like so much filament. It was impressed upon him in strong terms that if he ever, on any account, under any circumstance, even thought about connecting to a cyberspace rig, the few remaining dregs of cerebral matter would squirt out of his ears and nose like grubsauce. It was further intimated that, since he’d pulled off some kind of one-in-ten-billion coup by living through a systems crash in the first place, it would be pretty Goddamn churlish to make a fuss about this minor glitch. Never mind, the doctor had joked, you’ll just have to get used to living like the rest of us!, and he’d laughed too loud and Sollux had for a few hazy seconds known exactly what the guy’s throat was going to feel like under his hands.
Instead he’d gone back to his apartment and lain down on the floor and cried.
* * *
He woke just past midnight from a dream of falling into the ocean. Took a shower for the sweating and a cigarette for the shakes and knew from experience there was nothing he could do about the headache. The shower hissed and sputtered and spilled pale brown water over cracked off-white ceramic tiles while the ceiling-fan stirred the lazy air with dull swimmer’s strokes. Past midnight and it was still too hot for comfort. He pulled on tatty black jeans and a crumpled white cotton shirt in between taking sips from a fat enamel mug of coffee. The coffee tasted of soap.
The street outside the hivestem was rain-swept and nearly empty. Three rustblood kids with hollow eyes watched him from on top of a wall, heads turning slowly as he passed, like cameras. The drizzle beaded on his cheap plastic coat and mottled his shades. He smelt gasoline, fried food, and petrichor. Argon floods on the tenement walls glistened off the puddles and the air. Even the trashcans seemed to sweat. He paused to light another cigarette, cupping his hand round the lighter-flame – two parts reflex to one part wishful thinking – and a clown cultist drifted up, bare arms like knotted rope and gaze beatifically vacant. He wore baggy pants and a string of charms across his chest: ringpulls and twists of coloured wool.
“Hear the good word, brother?” the cultist asked amiably, and spread his arms wide. His left hand was empty; his right was clutched round a three-litre bottle of Lemon & Lime Low Orbit Bombardment Faygo, claws making tiny dents in the plastic where they bit.
“Heard it,” said Sollux, “thanks,” and kept walking.
The argon for Tinkerbull’s jerked blue-white and hapless in the rain, fairy wings flicking on-off, up-down. He shouldered open the door and stepped quickly inside before it could snap back and hit him the way it did first time to everybody.
Tinkerbull’s was not a good bar, exactly. But it was better than the other bars. Tav Nitram was a friendly guy with a good memory for faces and no fewer than four firearms concealed beneath the counter at strategic intervals. One of them was a military-issue assault shotgun, which Tav was clearly never going to fire because it would have taken out most of the front wall of the building, but the slide racked with a dramatic ka-chunk, and it had a way of making hopped-up gangers turn suddenly docile when it materialised from its little cave. Tinkerbull’s had a floor in scuffed black-and-white chessboard tiles and an out-of-date jukebox, and its unstated policy was that you could kill yourself there any way you wanted, so long as you didn’t kill anyone else doing it. Sollux, who regarded himself as both subject and assessor in a dispassionate long-term experiment with suicide, liked this just fine.
He bought a tall green glass bottle of beer and a fresh pack of Diamonds and went and sat in the corner, facing the door. He dragged an arm carefully over the brushed chrome table-top to dislodge any grit or crumbs. He placed the beer in the far right corner of the table, within arm’s reach, and wiped his hand dry on his jeans. The Diamonds went in the far left corner, open, one cigarette protruding slightly. The square ceramic ashtray was already half-full of crumpled butts and ash: he pushed it to the far edge, and twitched it until it was precisely equidistant from both bottle and packet. In the very middle of the table he placed a wide strip of clear bubbled plastic with a tinfoil back. The strip was thirteen bubbles long and four bubbles wide and each bubble contained a small flat circular pill. Two rows of pills were scarlet; two were blue. They winked up at him in the electric light.
He straightened in his seat, breathing.
He took twelve breaths, deep, and as slow as he could make them. Then he picked up the strip of tinfoil and plastic and used his left thumb to push a red pill free from its bubble and onto the pad of his right index finger, from where he transferred it to the centre of his tongue. He held it there, in his mouth, for as long as it took him to peel every remaining shred of tinfoil from around the empty bubble with his right foreclaw. Then he reached out and took a long pull from the beer, careful to set the bottle back down exactly over the wet ring it left on the metal.
He extracted the jutting Diamond carefully from its packet, put it to his lips, and lit it. He kept the first lungful of smoke for a few seconds before letting it leak slowly from his nose and half-open mouth, curling like ectoplasm. Then he sat back against the flaking leather of the wall-bench and stared into space.
Ray was a little early today. He’d only been sitting for perhaps ten minutes when the door huffed open and she slipped inside. She wore a shirt for a band he’d never heard of and a long dark skirt with a ragged hem and slim silver chains looped from the waistband, and her hair was a mist of fine droplets; she’d taken the subway, stayed under cover.
She sat down opposite him.
“Hey, Sollux. How are you doing?”
“I’m okay,” he said, and she smiled. It was an old joke, and it hadn’t been funny the first time.
She craned forward a little to peer at his face. “You’re flying again.”
“I’m not flying,” he said irritably. “I’m not some fucking greenie hipster kid wants to dance the day away. It’s just ryth.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.” Her eyes were smudged with dark rings of galena, and her lips were just starting to crack.
“Ray, you know what the number one negative side-effect associated with ryth is? The one gets seventy to eighty percent of users? Bad dreams.” He flapped a hand. “You know? May as well tell me I run the risk of abnormal eye pigmentation. That ship has fucking sailed.”
He’d met Aradia Megido before the crash, in a coffee shack on the other side of Low City. She’d bought him a double espresso and told him she liked his jacket. He’d been wired and jittery from two days straight in the medium finishing up a job, hadn’t known what to do but say thanks and drink the espresso. When he’d met her again a week later she’d laughed and told him that had sealed the deal.
- I thought you’d try and press your luck.
- I didn’t have much luck to press.
And she’d smiled at him and said so how’s your luck looking now, Sollux? and he’d bought her a beer and they’d broken into a derelict stem and sat on the roof pointing out stars. In the day she’d lain half on top of him, the chipped crimson lacquer on her claws gleaming wetly in the arc-light as she drummed her fingers on his bare chest and he breathed in the faint spiced smell of her hair.
He ached for the medium. In the medium, you were nothing but numbers, and numbers have no memory. Only the flesh remembers.
She pushed the ashtray around on the table with two spread fingers, opened her mouth to speak, closed it again. Then she said, hesitantly, “You were being followed, you know. Earlier.”
He stared at her. “What?”
“On your way here. A woman.”
“I didn’t see anyone.”
“You weren’t watching. She followed you right from your front door.”
He blinked, took a last drag on the cigarette and crushed it out in the ashtray. “What kind of woman?”
“Tall. Very pretty. Long coat and shades. The way she moved, Sollux, she wasn’t some cutter. She scared me.”
He pushed through the slow rolling cloud of the ryth, thinking. He wasn’t square – owed ten cee here, five there maybe – but nothing big enough for wolves. A Lacerator? Tough to see what they’d want with him these days. Maybe some old case file had blown open and they’d started digging up bones. Maybe Ray was seeing shit that wasn’t there again.
“Where did she go after?”
“She didn’t.” Aradia looked up and met his eyes. A single thin wisp of smoke drifted from the Diamond he’d abandoned as a last coal flared and died. “She’s right outside.”
His mouth went dry. The ryth was falling away now, driven back by white lines of panic. He stretched elaborately, slung an arm along the back of the bench, and used the motion to let his head turn to the right like he was checking out the bar. The rain had grown more determined, and the shop-glass windows of Tinkerbull’s were a torrent of glinting code down a murky screen, but on the far side of the street he could just make out what might have been a tall blurred figure in a long coat.
He swore, and turned back to Aradia. He scooped up the bubble-strip and the cigarettes; left the beer where it was. “You finish that for me, ‘kay?” he said. “I better move. How are you for cash?” He groped in a jeans pocket and dug out a caegar bit.
“I don’t need money, Sollux. You should keep it.”
He slithered along the bench and stood up, sparing another quick look toward the street. The figure apparently hadn’t moved when he did. There must have been something in his stance, though, because Nitram put down the glass he was wiping and called, “Everything, uh, okay, man?”
“Fine, Tav,” he said loudly, “everything’s fine. You get my friend whatever she wants, I’ll settle up later.”
The barman nodded vague understanding. Then Aradia said, “Sollux, wait.”
He turned back. “What?”
She looked up at him, and the eyes behind the kohl were pale and sad. “I’m not sure you’re going to be seeing me much any more,” she said, “after this.”
“Don’t be fucking stupid. I’m going to see you every night, same as usual.”
“No.” She shook her head and chewed her bottom lip for a moment. “No, I don’t think you will.”
“Ray, just – “ He glanced at the windows again. “Just sit tight, okay? Drink a beer and don’t go anywhere. I have to go sort this shit out. I’ll be back in twenty minutes and you can tell me what’s up.”
She smiled, at that. “You’re sweet. You were always sweet. Go on. You need to move.”
Outside on the street, pulling his collar up against the gusts of spray, he turned and looked back through the window. She was sitting there alone at the table, cocooned in the warm glow of Tinkerbull’s; battered sneakers on the chair’s edge, knees hunched up to her chest and arms wrapped round them, watching him go. Water dribbled down the glass, tiny streams forking and merging like decisions, blurring her, smearing her outline into crystal pixels, and in the surface of each drop the pinpoint dance of argon wings: up-down, on-off.
Light and rain.
* * *
As he’d reached out to tug the door open he’d seen the figure again, still waiting. By the time the door shut, it had vanished. He looked left and right along the street, saw nothing but a couple of umbrellas hurrying past, a kid dashing from one dark doorway to another. The clown cultist from earlier was still meandering happily along, nursing his Faygo. His ponytail of hair, held back off his face by a fat pink elastic band, was now a sort of wet rope hanging down his back, and his skin was slick and shimmered in the lights. Jagged orange stripes rippled across the concrete.
“You up and changed your mind, son?” said the cultist hopefully as Sollux approached. “You ready to get your motherfucking miracles on?”
“Nah. My last miracle fucking sucked. Listen, you see a woman out here just now? Tall chick in a duster, maybe shades?”
“Shit yes, I saw her.” The cultist frowned. “All business, that lady. Shark in a small pond, you know? Bad vibes, son, bad motherfucking vibes.”
“Right. Where’d she go?”
The cultist assumed the kindly expression of one forced to explain something straightforward to a moron. “Man, she ain’t gone any place. She’s flat behind you. Down the street a way, call it thirty feet. You want I should give her a wave?”
Sollux froze; forced himself not to look round, not to stiffen. That made it pretty much official, then.
“No. No, we’re good, thanks.”
“That’s cool. Hey – ” As Sollux tried to step past, the cultist put a meaty hand on his arm and fixed him with a serious gaze. “I’m just sorry as shit to hear ‘bout your last miracle, brother.”
He searched the guy’s white-smeared face for any sign of humour, and found none. In this line of work, a bad miracle was like bones in your lunch; unavoidable, regrettable. “Yeah. You know if I can get a refund?”
The cultist shook his head sadly. “Don’t work like that. But hey – ” he brightened – “maybe the next one’ll turn out better, huh?”
“Sure hope so,” said Sollux, and walked on up the street, shoulders hunched. His brain had fought more or less clear of the ryth’s distortion, but the crash was still fogging his thoughts, and coupled with the heat and the beer and the broken sleep he was running distinctly sluggish. Without breaking step, he fished in his coat pocket for the strip; punched out a blue pill by feel, palmed it into his mouth and dry-swallowed. Then he upped the pace a little. It was natural he’d want to get out of the rain, right?
He walked another two blocks until the sparkle at the edges of his vision told him the cyanephedrine was kicking in. Consciousness unfolded around him like a sheet of paper. Focus dialled back up suddenly. He was no longer a drifter through a blurred world of rain and shadowed arches; he was a piece, and the city was a board. Doors and stairways and fire escapes glowed with significance. He realised the hand in his pocket had balled tight into a fist around the bubble-strip, and the edge was cutting into his palm. Cool, stealthy fingers of light reached down through his sleepy brain and plugged in at the base of his neck, neurons snapping awake like guilty sentries. A muscle jumped behind one eye.
He didn’t bother to check the woman in the coat was still behind him: he could feel her even stride a street’s length off, calm and focused. He fought down a smile. Shark in a small pond, huh? Sorry, sister. This isn’t some liquored-up desk jockey whose scent you’re on now, some tubby sack of beer and five-cee cards who jumps when a door slams. This is Sollux Captor. You’re in Low City. Look him up.
He turned a corner, ducked left into an alley, and ran.
Sollux had long, rangy legs and not much body fat. He wasn’t built for stamina, but over short distances he could clock a respectable speed for his caste. Five seconds to the end of the alley. Two to haul himself up onto a dented trashcan that teetered alarmingly but stayed upright; two more to grab the rungs of the rusted ladder and clamber up until his sneakers found a purchase. The blue star pulsing in his brain wiped out all irrelevances: the ladder’s edges were sharp and bright against a haze of grey. Six seconds to reach the top, crawl onto the roof on his belly and roll over to face the stars. Time elapsed: fifteen seconds.
He rolled onto his front again and inched carefully up to the roof’s edge, peered over into the dark alley below. A pale blotch of a face with black holes for eyes stared straight back up at him, impassive.
He shoved himself away, sneaker toes scrabbling at the poured concrete, and pushed himself upright so fast he skinned his palms. How the fuck? He didn’t wait to hear the inevitable creak of metal under new weight; just bolted straight across the roof, heart pounding. There was a gap between this building and the next, but the cyanephedrine’s roar told him he could make it and he hurled himself across without considering the alternative, hit the other side and stumbled but stayed on his feet, kept running. This roof had a fire escape door in a squat brick housing. Sollux shrugged the coat off his shoulders as he ran, let it slip till it flapped from just his right arm. As he reached the door he glanced back. No sign of a stalking silhouette. Was she still on the ladder? Maybe the trashcan had picked a really convenient moment to fall over and she was rolling in spilt garbage clutching a sprained ankle? He balled the coat round his fist and hit the glass pane in the top half of the door as hard as he could; there was a crunch as it burst. He reached through with his left arm and groped around until he found the bar. The ice-blue cubes crackled underfoot as he started down the stairs two at a time.
The staircase was mostly dark. He ignored the doors leading off onto landings and kept straight down towards street level, swerving headlong round each bend, some cocktail of ancient instinct and modern stimulant warning him not to get cut off from an exit. His ears strained for sounds above him. As he leapt down the last couple of steps, his foot caught on some protruding piece of junk and he sprawled painfully on damp linoleum, banging his elbows hard and knocking the breath from his lungs. Wheezing, he clawed himself half-upright and something hit him in the ribs. He yelped and fell over onto his back, hands flung up to ward off another blow.
“Attempting to escape was, on balance, unwise,” said a cool voice from the shadows of the hallway.
He looked. She really was tall: six feet easy. The leather coat was tastefully cut and hung down to the middle of her calves, which were sheathed in gleaming black boots. She had pale grey skin and short hair and one horn hooked into a sort of barb, and she wore black mirrored shades and a very slight smile. Her right hand gripped a telescopic three-section riot baton. Everything about her stance – loose, easy, professional – telegraphed stay the fuck down, smartass loud and clear.
The cyanephedrine nagged him for a fight. Sollux stamped on it. There wasn’t a boss in all Low City could afford muscle like this. He’d met leg-breakers and door-kickers and every sort of wolf in the sewer, and this was something else again. The real deal: street samurai. The cold slow awareness dawned that Ray had called it. He was going to die here, in a locked-up stem, and she’d probably take his cigarettes.
She raised the baton, pressed her free palm against the tip, and pushed the thing shut with two soft clicks.
“Mr Captor,” she said. “My name is Kanaya Maryam, and I have been instructed to approach you with an offer of employment.”