It was early evening when I hit the Mariner Strip, and up in the Lamina they were trying for rain. Some newly-written sub-routine, I guess, cut loose up there amidst the vast shifting gossamer layers, and oh look, just like magic – thin, cold, stop-start drizzle comes weeping down out of a paprika sky. Must have had some solid marketing muscle ahead of it too, because the streets were crowded for a mid-week night. When that rain kicked in, felt like the whole fucking city jammed up. Everywhere you looked – people stopping to crane their necks and gawk.
I spared the sky a sour glance of my own, didn’t stop. Shoulder on through the stalled knots of rubberneckers, keep the pace. Anyone looking to get wet behind this shit, they’d likely be waiting a while. Nothing falls fast around here, and this attempted downpour wasn’t going to break the rule. Mostly, it floated and blew around overhead, scornful of gravity, tinged in the evening light to a blood-red spray. Pretty to look at, sure. But some of us had places to be.
The Strip, then. Settlement-era; storm-scarred antique nanocrete; mirror-image five-storey facades. They’d run the build on either side of a broad channel they dug out between the exposed foundations. Sixty metres wide, that channel, and three kilometres long, bent just a little out of true to take advantage of existing fault-line geology in the valley floor. A long time ago, it housed hydroponic gardens and manicured recreational spaces for the original colonists, all roofed in under glass. Parks, velodromes, a couple of small amphitheatres and a sports field – even, so they tell me, a swimming pool or three.
Now the roof is gone, and so is the rest of it. Knocked down, torn out, cleared away. What they left in its place is a scuffed and littered sunken boulevard, tangled up with barrows and street stalls, all vying to shift cheapest product to the crowd. Get it while it’s hot, people – discounted coding spikes, semi-smart jewellery, fast food steaming from a myriad different woks and pans, street chemists pushing half a hundred different ways and means to get out of your head in a hurry. You could argue, I guess, that you’re still in a recreational space of sorts. But it’s a pretty gaunt and garish spirit of fun that stalks down the Strip these days, and if you ran into it, you wouldn’t want to meet its eye.
For those chasing that particular ghost, though, you reach bottom via long escalator tunnels hacked inelegantly right through the original structure – there’s one at the end of most of the cross streets where they back up to the stretch of settlement-era build, hemming it in on both sides with architecture altogether less hunkered and hermetic. You get on under big cowled openings in the nanocrete and the endless alloy belt-ride carries you down.
Or – if you’re a grasshopper or an ultratripper maybe – you ride the gargantuan cargo elevators at either end of the channel, each of whose two thousand square metre loading platforms still piston massively up and down, slow and smooth as the day they were put in. Got these tacky fake-historical loader stand-clears blaring out on looped track from bullhorn speakers along the safety railing. Rotating yellow warning cherries, the whole deal. So cool.
Either way, platforms or endlessly moving covered stairways, you’re left with much the same sensation – that of easing down slowly into the belly of something huge and probably hazardous to health.
Which was just fine by me.
I’d taken the escalator down from the end of Crane alley, which put me about a klick away from where I wanted to be – slow going with the weather geeks clogging up the flow. And as I came out under the exit cowl, lo and behold, there was some genuine street level rain to contend with too. It slapped my face wet as I moved through the crowds, dampened my collar. Put an unaccustomed beading of moisture on lips and brow and the backs of both my hands. Felt pretty good, but then so did everything else right then.
Three days awake and running hot.
Over my head, early lights were coming on behind long-redundant storm slits in the upper levels of the build, hinting at mysteries within. Club names and logos clung on the antique architecture like a plague of gigantic luminescent beetles and centipedes. And across the drizzling sky, the first of the ‘branegels spread almost invisible soap bubble wings. Silver flurries of preliminary static shivered down their surfaces, like coughing to clear your throat. The images shook out, the long night’s video pimping began.
Taut young bodies, cunningly lit, cavorting on night-time streets in a rain-storm the likes of which no-one around here would ever get within fifty million kilometres of seeing for real. Thin dark clothing drenched through, ripped and torn, a kind of favela chic thing, clinging to curves and declivities, moulded round nipples teased erect, framing cold cuts and slices of water-beaded flesh. Marketing copy bannered repeatedly across the pan-and-grab footage – Particle Slam Dunk – Get Wet, Why Don’t You! A Joint Coding Venture, brought to you by Particle Slam, in Capital Partnership with the Colony Initiative. Up on the gossamer screens, partnerships formed and broke up among the taut young things, as they all got up close and personal for the camera, and the drenched-wet dance went on.
Meantime, the rain – the real rain, back here in the real world – stuttered abruptly out.
Blew away to nothing, left a long pregnant pause, then started slowly again. Hard to know if the new code was working well or not; it could have been running that staggered feed as part of an energy saving protocol, could have been teasing for effect, or it could just have been buggy as fuck. Idiots stood around all along the Strip, squinting up into the sky, arguing it back and forth.
“Toldya they’d get it sorted. P Slam are solid, soak. Whole other kind of outfit than those Ninth Street guys. Feel that on your face?’
“Yeah, just barely. Feels like some crap standard seepage to me.”
“Oh, fuck off. Seepage wouldn’t even make it down here. Look there – puddles, it’s making already.”
I slipped past the debate, filing detail for later. Particle Slam – never heard of them. But I’m used to that kind of thing this end of the cycle. Eco-coding is a fast game, even back on Earth, and out here with all the brakes off and Gentle Commerce smiling down, it’s so fucking Darwinian you get tired just thinking about it. Out here, a code house can go from Next Big Thing to dinosaur bones in less time than it takes the shuttle to do the short season turnaround. Takeaway – when you’ve been dead to the world for the last four months, you can miss an awful lot.
But some things don’t ever change.
Every evening, the Strip flickers to languid life, like some faulty neon tube given a kick. It blinks and fizzles and settles down, gleaming slantwise and constant across the street grid of Bradbury’s old quarter like a cryptic grin, like a signal for eager moths. Saw it once from LMO – I was drifting in decanted, mission’s end on a mutinied belt freighter I’d sooner forget. Nothing better to do now but prowl the silenced decks and stare out the window as the world rolled by beneath. We chased the terminator in across Ophir and as night fell, I watched the Gash come up and round. Brooding rift valley walls, sunk thousands of metres deep in the Martian crust, colossal piles and drifts of tectonic rubble across the vast open floor between. Here and there, a dim, dotted crop of settlement lights, thickening and tangling together as they closed in on the bright blotch of Bradbury itself, further up the valley. And there, slapped right across the old city’s heart, was that big, bent three klick grin.
Welcome home, soak.
Elsewhere across town, corporate logos and COLIN promo panels sparkle the skyline with liquid crystal fire, doing their bit to hold back the encroaching alien dark. But there’s only so much brand loyalty and belonging you can buy against that darkness, and the forces inside you know it. Deep down where the hardwiring runs, the clock is running too – turning over its lurid numerals like the cards in an endless, losing hand. Just a matter of time before you wake up to that fact, and it’s vacuum cold on the nape of your neck when you do. And then, sooner or later, you’re going to spiral on in and batter yourself against the lure of the Strip, just like all the other moths.
Used to think I was different.
Didn’t we all.
Filament-thin whine past my ear, and the inevitable needling sting. I slapped distractedly at my neck – pointless irritation reflex, the code-fly was there and gone, as designed. Even in Earth standard gravity, the little fuckers are way faster than the flesh-and-blood mosquitos they get their basic chassis from; around here, tweaked for local conditions, they’re like little flecks of biting quicksilver in the wind. Touch, spike, payload delivered. Ouch.
Not that I’m bitching here. I mean, you live out here, you need to get bitten. Can’t afford anything else. All part of the rolling upgrade that is High Frontier Humanity.
Problem is, four months behind the hatch and you’ve missed so many upgrades, every c-fly on the block has you in its evil little post-organic sights. Three days back out, and you’re a human fucking pincushion. Your skin itches in a dozen different places from the delivery punctures. Fresh gas exchange turbos for your lungs; melanin re-up version 8.11.4; booster patches for the latest – and shakiest – osteopenia inhibitors; corneal armouring 9.1. So forth.
Some of this shit you’ve paid to have inflicted whenever the new mods come in, some of it COLIN gifts you with out of the goodness of its efficiency-oriented little heart. But it all has to be bettered and balanced and optimised for performance, and then bettered all over again, version by version, upgrade by upgrade, bite by bite. And that makes it a dependency you’ll never quit so long as you live anywhere other than Earth.
Not that I’m bitching.
Vallez Girlz was right where I’d left it four months back. Same tired old frontage, just past the escalator outflow point for Friedman boulevard; still flashing the same old looped enticement footage from five-metre display panels either side of the door. Same sleazy Fuktronica backbeat and subsonics from speakers hidden away. The screen on the right was still cratered and cracked from where they’d smashed my head against it in the fight, and something looked to be wrong with the feed – footage of the dancers within kept shredding to a confetti of airbrushed flesh and hair, laced through with bobbing, disembodied long-lashed eyes that floated like tears in zero G.
Or maybe it was supposed to look like that.
Moving too fast here, soak. Where’s the leak?
I forced my pace down to a rubbernecker’s amble. Went past slouched with hands in pockets, hood up against the intermittent rain. It gave me all the time I needed to scope out the front of the club. Loose crowd of hopefuls queuing to get in, milling about in the wash of Fuktronica sound. Two blunt guys on the door in time-honoured fashion, headgear the usual wraparound tinted shades thing. And the same old superannuated Port Authority scanner hanging spread-winged from the lintel like some prehistoric bat about to take flight. Skinflint Sal Quiroga, same as it ever was – he bought that scanner out of decommissioned stock nine years ago, and even then, they say he put the levers on someone in the Port Authority back office to get a chop on the price. Leverage, he told me once, is the whole key to this place. You don’t got leverage, you might as well go right back to Earth.
Hollow laugh. For most long-term residents of Bradbury, the only way you’ll ever get off this red rock paradise and back to Earth is via some pretty hefty leverage. Long Fall Lottery aside – Fifty Fabulous Homebound Winners Every Single Year! It Could Be You This Year! But you Gotta Play to Win! – it’s not like they’re giving the tickets away.
I gave it another fifty metres, in honour of those fabulous winners maybe, then I did an about-face and drifted back. Took down my hood as I went up the short run of steps to the door. No point trying to hide. When you work doors – been driven to it myself once or twice, over the years – nothing trips your internal alarms like a punter trying to shroud his features. Uh-uh, pal, no you don’t. Now you got me all woken up.
I didn’t want these guys waking up just yet, I needed to get in close. I kept my expression dialled down to Fuktronica-induced consumer lust, met the right-hand doorman’s eyes as he glanced my way. I didn’t know him – and my memory’s good for men who’ve handed me my arse in the past – so he couldn’t know me either. But these days that doesn’t count for much. Behind the tinted headgear glass, I saw his gaze defuse as he checked his list. Fucking face-recog tech, the bane of decent gate-crashers everywhere on the ecliptic.
I spotted the tightening that went through his frame as the software flagged me up. The loosening that followed as he digested the data.
I saw his lip curl.
“Dom?” Attention wandering off to the side, where his colleague was busy scoping some barely-clad curves that wanted entry. He touched his headgear at the ear, did something to the music, pulled the volume down. “Hoy, Dom. Remember that sad-case hib cunt you and Rico bounced a couple of months back?”
Dom glanced over at us, visibly irritated by the distraction.
“Hib? What fucking hib? You mean that guy….” Voice fading out as he saw me. A wide grin came and lit his face. “That guy.”
“Guess some people never learn, right?”
“I’m here to see Sal,” I said mildly.
“Yeah?” Dom flexed his right hand idly, looked it over like some power tool he was thinking of buying. “Well, he don’t want to see you. Didn’t want to see you last time round, either. Remember how that worked out?”
“He’ll see me this time.”
They swapped a glance – glitter of unkind mirth, back and forth, there and gone, wiped away. Dom’s companion sighed.
“Look, soak – it’s a quiet night, alright. Do us all a favour. Fuck off now before we have to do something structural to you.”
Found myself grinning. “Can’t do that, guys.”
Dom snorted. Reached for me-
I snagged the reaching hand at the wrist, fast. You’ve got to be fast – gravity at a shade under .4 Earth standard, you’re getting miserly returns on mass and momentum. Any impact you make is going to have to come from your speed. I snapped his little and ring fingers backward at the base, twisted them with savage force. He made a noise like rupturing, and I locked up the arm. Drove him to his knees on all the sudden shock and pain, kicked him in the belly as he bowed. Let go.
You’d not usually get past doormen on the Strip like this. They’re a hard-bitten lot, ex-Upland work gang enforcers mostly who can’t hack the thin air anymore, and can’t afford the newer turbo add-ons to make up the difference. So they slide back down into the valley and the stews of Bradbury instead, and here they find what muscle work they can. As a man who’s seen his own fair share of career slide, I don’t generally hold this against them. They do a job that has to be done, a job I’ve had to do myself occasionally, and they mostly do it pretty well.
But they were in my way.
And everything their software told them about me was wrong.
They didn’t stand a fucking chance.
The other guy went for his twitch-gun, there in the holster at the small of his back. Wrong move, too late – I was in too close, he was way too slow, and he should have known both those things. Probably suffering a bit of shock himself, this wasn’t supposed to be happening at all. I stepped in, blocked the draw before he could clear the gun, chopped him sharply in the throat. Tripped him as he staggered back, helped him on his way down with a hard palm heel to the chest. Even at a fifth Earth standard, that’ll do it. He hit the ground on his back, gagging and flapping.
I stooped and took the twitch-gun away from him.
Reversed it, shot him with it point blank.
Shot Dom at not much greater distance, as he lunged desperately at me from the floor.
Then I stepped delicately between their rigid, spasming bodies, under the batwing scanner, and through the door beyond.