The climb was the epic thing, heroic and brave, and would have grown in the telling if there was anyone that could tell it, but there was no one except for Splayfingers, who never saw how it ended, and Macquarie himself, who did the climbing but would take the secret of how he managed it to his grave, along with all the other secrets that simmered in his brain. The only thing certain about the climb is that it began deep in the fetid darkness of the Rats’ Nest, and ended somewhere in the ventilation shafts under the old Crewman Quarter when Macquarie felt the first breath of clean air against his face, pushed out the last of the rusted grates with his bleeding fingers, and found himself back in the world again.
These are the things he thought:
Here we are again. Back in the world, and it’s been a long while. Long enough, I reckon. Didn’t count the hours down in the dark though. Couldn’t. Could hardly keep my head straight for the tick-tick footsteps of the Rats and the whispering in the walls, but back up here the air is clean and fresh and cool, and all that shit’s out of my head again. Can almost think straight even, and that’s been a while as well.
Nothing changes but perspective.
Fuck me, but it’s cold in the light. Must have gone native in the dark, gotten used to the humidity, hot breath and clammy touch, deep in the pit with the killers and the peds and the predators and all the things they bred between them. Light is cold, and it hurts my eyes.
Well, here we are again. Thought about this a lot down in the dark, half afraid it wouldn’t be here when I climbed up to find it. But here it is, and here I am, and the cold light makes me shiver. Feel it on my skin like a hand that strokes and strokes and makes me come alive.
Yeah. Want it all now. A feed, a fix and a fuck.
The world is bigger than he remembers, more crowded. Faces flash past him. He knocks shoulders with strangers in narrow thoroughfares. He feels overwhelmed, and it is the noise that makes him sick. There is too much noise at once. It vibrates in his gut and rises in his throat. People talking, shouting, laughing, screaming. Too many people.
It’s cold in the light, and loud as well, like I’ve been living underwater. Stepped free of it now, and the air has stripped my warmth away. Shake the water out of my ears and I can hear the raucous sounds like gulls cutting through the bruised sky.
Just a few minutes, just a few deep breaths, and you’ll find your way again.
He finds the hub where he remembers, but most of the faces have changed. Macquarie feels a flicker of doubt, but shakes it off. He is owed this. He promised himself this. Three years of enforced withdrawal might have kept him clean, but they couldn’t make him hate the habit. He has made the deal with himself, and he isn’t going back on it now. Make it out of the Rats’ Nest, and you can have whatever you want. He has earned it.
And he thought:
And music. I want music to feel like a human, music with life and height and need. Want to suffer the human condition. Feeling and needing, the piteous ache of it stretched and laid out over grey little lives.
I want to hear Callas again, to soar to the high places. 1 Carry me further into the light.
It’s too cold here. Need to find somewhere to hole up.
Wonder how long it’s been. Wonder if all the old places are still here, still secret, still safe. Wonder if they can even be found from here, when my head’s not together and my body shakes from wanting those three things, maybe just maybe four, and I don’t know how many years it’s been since I set my feet on these ways.
A lifetime ago I stood here last, and here we are again. HereIam. Got to get my head together. Just me now, and no one else and I really am alone this time, now he’s gone along with all the rest. I never thought he’d leave. Didn’t think he knew how. And I can’t follow where he’s set his feet on laborious ways.
Crossed swords against your name.
Maybe there’s some untouched place, hermetic, airless, where the names of the fallen are etched. A secret shrine in the heart of all decay, where just his name survives, and nobody sees it and nobody remembers it and nobody ever knew it at all.
Fuck him. Daniel Marsden fucked up. He deserved to die.
Here I am again.
Don’t know if I can find my way from here. Streets all look the same anyhow. Nothing changes except perspective, and here I am in the gutter wrapped in the stench of it. Used to watch it from above. Used to dream of it from below. Caught in it now.
Wonder what it looks like from the outside.
Used to hole up and dream the last time I was here, back when my head was clearer.
I dreamed that I was born a thousand years ago, and I found myself adrift in the night on the wide dark sea, and there was no wind and no clouds and no moon, and the sea was flat and smooth like black glass, the gleaming surface of an opal, and there were endless stars above and endless stars below, and I couldn’t tell which were real and which were reflections, and I drifted there, wrapped in stars.
Back when my head was clearer, filtering out the thoughts that shoot from all directions towards me and land like whip cracks in my skull. Crack. Crack. Crack. Make my eyes twitch every time.
Talk to yourself. Split yourself. Talk to yourself like you’re someone else. Use your own name in your own mind, like you hate yourself, like you mock yourself. Never ever say, I remember. Always say, Remember that, Macquarie?
“You know what we are, Davey?” Roberts said one time, when you were holed up snug, lying low with a bottle of vodka.
“What are we?” That was you. Remember that, Macquarie?
“Giant killers!” Roberts laughed. “We’re fucking giant killers!”
And you took a swig of vodka that warmed your guts, and you smiled. You thought: In a week I will be far away from here. In a week I will be clean. In a week I will be warm. In a week I will be a human being again. I will eat three meals a day. I will have money to spend. I will see her again, and in a week it will be the good days.
Remember that, Macquarie? Well, here we are again.
Good days. They came thick and fast at one time, but lately have trickled away into memories. The good days and the glory days. You owned the world at one time, when you were clever and fast and young. Not so much anymore. Can’t catch a break these days, you’re always coming from behind.
I drown all regrets.
Shake it off. Shake it off with shivering flesh and twitches. Keep it together.
A fix. Want a fix. You can have it. You are owed it. Make it happen.
And in the same places that he left him, Macquarie found Leshenko and a warm welcome, and made himself new glory days and found his place in the world again. And the hours bled into days and weeks and the need of it twisted into his guts and burrowed there like a parasite.
Funny how simple life can get, boiled away to bare bones, with nothing at all but just the clothes he’s standing in: his boots, his cargoes, his t-shirt and nothing much else besides. He’s richer than most of the junkies he meets in those clouded weeks. Not nothing but skin and bones. Not quite that filthy. Not yet that wretched. He’s handsomer too, and cleverer, so he doesn’t starve and he doesn’t dry out. 2
Funny how simple life is stripped away to its most basic bodily needs. Food, shelter, and Agex. Uncomplicated and liberating. A hand to mouth existence, day to day, minute to minute.
Everything else has fallen away. None of it meant anything anyway.
(He only feels this free on Agex. Coming down, he’s desolate.)
But then five weeks into the world again, maybe six, and Macquarie found himself in a moment of itching lucidity, and saw that he had his back against the wall.
He headed back towards the hub, towards Leshenko, and found him sitting at a booth in Railroad’s bar, drinking shots of whisky mixed with methylated spirits, and for a moment Macquarie remembered.
Before his death, Daniel Marsden had been hunting Leshenko. So had Macquarie, but for different reasons. The parallels are astonishing, Macquarie thought, and drowned out all regrets.
It was Macquarie who got closest, while Daniel Marsden skulked about in the shadows hoping no one knew he was there.
Macquarie bought Leshenko a shot of whisky, and then another one, until the pair of them were thrown out of Railroad’s by the hopped-up bruiser that passed as security in the place, and ended up on the old Observation Deck, drinking the last of the bottle and kicking the junkies who had crawled up the steps to see the stars.
Had Daniel Marsden been with them that whole time, listening as Macquarie outlined his plans to Leshenko?
Leshenko had been cautious at first. “I dunno, Davey, I dunno. The thing with weapons is that the lions are real watchful about them. Any fool could get though a checkpoint with a kilo of Agex, but if they’ve got any reason to even suspect weapons, they’ll turn you inside out on the spot.” He drew on a cigarette. “And then they’ll hand you over to the fuckin’ Journeymen.”
“I’m not asking you to get past any checkpoint,” Macquarie said, and smiled his quick smile. “I’m not a total idiot, mate. Look, there’s already a stockpile in the Quarter. I just want you to put me in touch with someone who might want to own it.”
Leshenko was silent.
Macquarie searched his own pockets for a cigarette, and then settled back to watch the stars.
“I dunno,” Leshenko said. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, kid, but how do I know what you’re worth without Roberts?”
“Try me and see,” Macquarie answered, and offered him up the last of the whisky.
And here was Macquarie again, wheeling and dealing as though he was still in the game. As though he still had leverage.
Leshenko played it like the man who wants to help, but is constrained. “I dunno, Macquarie, I wish there was something I could do, but…” He shrugged.
Macquarie rubbed his temples. It was getting so he couldn’t think straight. “What do you want? You know, anything, whatever,” he said.
Leshenko looked him up and down. “What have you got?”
“Try me and see,” Macquarie answered.
And he thought:
Feels so good. Got no words for that. Feels so good.
“Music, can you put some music on?”
And Leshenko answers, “Fuck off. This isn’t a fucking date.”
“Come on, just put some music on.” He wants to soar the whole way there.
“Shut up. No one wants to hear you talking.”
And he thought:
Doesn’t matter. Hear all the music you want soon. Can you feel it? Almost here. Can you feel it? Here it comes.
The first rush hits. Visual. Visceral. His flesh burns, and tears seep from under his flickering eyelids. He sees himself spread open in his mind’s eye like some grotesque page in Gray’s Anatomy, arrayed for observation with his skin peeled back, his body reduced to a circuitous mass of muscle, ligature, arteries, and a wet pumping heartbeat.
A miracle of science, of creation. A work of art.
He holds onto his heartbeat until the rush recedes, plateaus, and he can breathe again. The air tastes sweet and cold.
He can feel the stuff swimming in his bloodstream. His eyelids flicker and light stabs his vision like shards of glass before it all fades to black. He floats. His heartbeat is slow and loud, the only sound in the womblike world.
He can feel every molecule, alive and electric, buoyant on the greater sea.
He is alone.
He knows everything there is to know.
He can see the face of God.
He wants to hold onto it forever.
Never can though.
He comes down sometime later that night, 3and finds himself half naked in one of the shanties in the old Crewmen Quarter, sprawled on a filthy mattress. Through the narrow walls he can hear people screaming on one side, carousing on the other. His head aches. He is nauseous, and the only light is coming from a smoking lamp that stinks of kerosene. Covering his mouth, he rises shakily to his feet and hitches up his cargoes. His fingers fumble with the buttons, and while he looks around for his t-shirt he notices for the first time that he is not alone.
There is a girl lying on the floor. She is thin and ragged and pale, still twitching as she floats. Just another junkie like Macquarie: drug fucked and fucked, all anonymous and past caring.
Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter, he tells himself.
There is money lying on the floor. He takes it.
He is gone, back into the streets. It is dark, and cold, and Macquarie’s body aches. He’s glad he can’t remember, but he’s no fool. It will come back, and he will look at his sins and he will hate himself. He will hate himself even more the minute he steps back into Leshenko’s ownership, because he knows he will go back. Three years clean, though living in filth, but three years clean and the first thing he did was go back to the drug that fucked him over in the first place. It made no sense to have made the promise to himself (all other promises he can break, has broken, without regret), but the compulsion of the drug was always there, and after it left his blood it took up in his mind and grew strong there, and a day never passed that he didn’t think about it.
Once upon a time he looked down on it. Once upon a time he would never have understood it. When Roberts was alive. When shewas. Back when Macquarie was right-minded and right in his mind, and back when Daniel Marsden still drew breath and looked down from above at all Macquarie’s works. Back when Macquarie was a different person. Back when he dreamed of stars and patterns and meaning.
Davey had pondered the Music of the Spheres. Once, from the outer hub, he had seen a distant comet hanging in the heavens, and he imagined it was the Creator’s curling treble clef, at the start of a long and mournful adagio.
“Or maybe an allegro,” said Roberts, and laughed at his abstraction. “That means hurry up, Davey."
“I know what it means,” replied Davey, and scowled at the lonely view.
Roberts was an atheist. He saw the vastness of the universe and broke it down into atoms and subatomic particles. He saw the diversity of life, and denied a parochial God who invested Himself in one race on one planet thousands of years ago.
Davey hadn’t lost his wonder. 4 The more he saw, the more he sensed the music. In the swirling flux of the universe he saw the Hand of the first unmoved Mover who had set the planets in motion, and guided their intricate paths.
Davey thought he could be swept up in the swirling universe, but Roberts was his anchor in an unsettled existence. Sometimes they did it tough, but there was always something to eat if they were hungry, a place to shelter, just enough money, and a plan of action. Roberts was practical and forthright and he looked to those matters always; Davey was a dreamer who trailed along in his wake.
“We do the job, Davey,” Roberts once said. “Ours is not to reason why.”
“Not everyone does this,” said Davey, picking spots of mould from his bread.
“We get paid good money for this,” Roberts said. “Anyway, do you really want a desk job?”
Davey flicked a fat maggot away, and squashed it under his boot. “Daniel Marsden has a desk job.”
“Don’t say that name here,” Roberts said.
Davey tried to forget, but he couldn’t. Every day he thought of Daniel Marsden, and wondered what he was doing and how clean the air tasted up there.
He thought, in prickling need:
This wasn’t the plan. This never was the plan. The start of it only, just the start, just the reward for the climb, but it wasn’t meant to become the way of things. A reward, just for the briefest of moments, but this was not meant to be habitual. That first hit, you were owed that and no argument, and just maybe it fucked you up enough to take the second and the third while you weren’t thinking straight, until now you can’t count how many you’ve had since you came into the world again.
Hard work deserves its reward, and that was fairly agreed upon as the price of the climb, for the things you suffered and the places you’ve been. It’s for looking into the void and the void looking back—what’s that from?—but it wasn’t the end of the plan. Should be moving on. Remember that?
Macquarie leaned on a wall outside in the street while he got his head together, more or less. The night was cold. The world was colder than he’d remembered, and one thing the drug couldn’t take was the cold. It made it worse. It brought his bones right up to the surface of his skin, and the cold leached in and made them brittle.
Macquarie folded his arms across his chest and hunched forward.
The narrow street was empty.
Macquarie closed his eyes and imagined the world: a giant twisted hive of streets and stairs and ways beyond his comprehension, and swarming with life.
It made his skin crawl.
After a while he shook it all away.
“Need a place to crash,” he said to himself, just to hear it out aloud. “Need a place to crash.” He slid his hands into his pockets and headed towards the nearest steps that would take him out of the anonymous squats in their tortuous alleys and back to more decent habitation.
“Need a place to crash,” he said, and his voice wavered like it was caught on the wind. He stopped, and turned. “Need another hit first.”
He moved fast, to stop his thoughts from catching him. Knowing his mind, hating it, and needing the drug.
These are the things he thought:
You’re fucked now. Tasted freedom and filled your belly with it, and have a look at you.
I can be free however I want. This is how I want it. Why walk when I can drift in stars?
Don’t get me started on that. You and your bullshit, Macquarie. You used to be better than this. Remember that, Macquarie? You used to be better. Hell, not much better truth be told, but better anyhow than a fucked-up junkie. Just look at you now. Look what freedom’s brought you.
They had an understanding, Macquarie was sure of it. He knew enough about Daniel Marsden, enough about the type, to know exactly what the self-satisfied son of a bitch would say in any given situation. Macquarie held arguments in his head to test himself, but it was typical of Marsden that he won, and once he had he always did, until Macquarie couldn’t get him out of his head at all.
The shakes didn’t help, or the sweats, or his body’s screaming need until he wanted to crawl out of his own skin and leave his need-it-need-it-need-itmantra behind.
It’s not my fault, he told Marsden, knocking his knuckles against his temples to get his head together. I didn’t mean to be like this.
You live in the world of Not My Fault. You know that’s bullshit. You’re smarter than that. No one forced you to take that first hit. You’re a junkie because you fucked up, and you’ll stay a junkie because you’re a loser.
The rest occurred later, when he’d found a cheap place to spend a while.
“I don’t usually take cash,” said the man, and scrubbed his whiskers with his blunt fingers. “Don’t like anons. Slow week though, so as long as you don’t cause me any trouble I can fix you up.”
“Not looking for trouble,” Macquarie said. His whole body hurt.
The man hacked up a laugh. “It just finds you, right? Don’t tell me, kid, I don’t wanna know.” He took Macquarie’s money. “I need a name for my records, just the same.”
Macquarie looked at the flickering scanner on the counter.
The man followed his gaze and shook his head. “Damn thing’s breaking all the time. You just give me a name.”
The man slid a key across the counter. “Security check my records every Tuesday. You might wanna be gone by then. No room service, no guests allowed, and the heating’s broken. There’s extra blankets under the bed, and you have to let the water run a while before it gets hot. And, kid, whatever shit you’re on, don’t bring none of it back here.”
Macquarie nodded, and took the key.
Later, sitting in the shower watching the dirty grey water run down the drain, Macquarie’s thoughts drifted back to Marsden and their previous argument.
Maybe I’ll stay a junkie because I like it.
He said that behind Marsden’s back. Thought he wasn’t listening in, but he was always there. Some days closer than others, but always there, skulking, listening, snooping around in the back of Macquarie’s head.
You’re going to die in the gutter, said Marsden. And you fucking deserve it.
Don’t care, said Macquarie. Don’t care. Don’t care. Don’t care.
And he thought:
Shake it off. Shake it off. He can’t touch you. He’s a dead man.
Maybe I’m haunting you.
I don’t believe that crap. Dead is dead, and he’s long gone, nothing but a name carved on a piece of wall that nobody ever sees. Some secret remembrance held quiet if he’s lucky. Doubt he even has that. Doesn’t deserve it anyhow. Nobody remembers him except for me. The world is just the same as if he never existed.
You know that’s not true. I can see the world through your eyes now, Macquarie. You don’t like that, do you?
Don’t care. See what you like. Look at the world you made. Set your feet on my path, and ask yourself if it was worth it. Haunt me all you want. You’re less than the whispering in the walls.
I haven’t forgotten.
Don’t care what you’ve got to say. Don’t want to hear it. Too late now to make amends, and here we both are back in the world. Not pristine like you wanted, is it? These parts down here below are the lowest you ever got, but you can take it from me there’s lower, and darker, and there’s hell. Couldn’t look through my eyes in the Rats’ Nest, could you? Couldn’t bear it. Didn’t belong there, but neither did I, so fuck you. I know you’re nothing but the drug.
Here we are in the world again. Can’t shake it, you and I, on whatever paths we set our feet. All lead right back to now, to here. Should never have tried.
Macquarie lay on the bed, wearing the thin hostel towel, and wheeled with his thoughts.
In moments of unhappy clarity he understood that it was pathetic that he talked to himself, and worse still that he gave his self-loathing the name of that smug little bureaucrat he’d killed.
1 One fine day.
2 Daniel Marsden found him again, somewhere in the middle of it all, like he’d never left. Found him again, which was only to be expected, if only for the poetry in it. Ever since he climbed back into the world and got his first fix, Macquarie had began to believe in poetry again. He thought it gave his trips some sense of direction, more or less. Didn’t suppose that Frenchy, the old drunk in Railroad’s, saw the face of God when he got high. Macquarie was different. Had to believe that.
So he expected Daniel Marsden to front up one day to say his piece. It was only proper.
It was also to be expected that he turned up when Macquarie was particularly broke, sick and drug-fucked.
He came on like a disease, always had, when Macquarie’s defences were low.
3Awake. It washes over Macquarie like the tide, and leaves him struggling for breath, choking. It sweeps him up and dumps him, and stings like salt in his eyes. The quick cold shock of it makes him gasp.
Hands shaking now, fingers cold, and shards of ice in his ribs that stab his lungs with every breath. Guts twisted up. Another wave follows consciousness: nausea.
Lying on the mattress, he rolls over onto his side. He pulls his knees up.
His guts hurt. His throat tightens. He is going to be sick.
This is addiction. He missed it.
Needs another hit. He earned it.
4 Not yet. Not at that time. The shape of it was still there in the good days and the glory days, but it had already started to erode away unnoticed like tiny trickles of sand underneath foundation stones. Every day undermined it in some way. When he looked for it again, when he needed it, it would be so worn away that Davey wouldn’t know it.