Blood Perfect - An Excerpt
Dhôlmen peer out of the gloom towards the train as it passes like they've forgotten where they are and what they were supposed to be doing. The carriages, despite being made from blast-proof materials, have an air of dilapidation about them, a ramshackle-chic. Most of the passengers are tourists, following survey plans on their filos or listening to the information apps, the implanted with their thousand-cubit stare while others just gaze, boredly, out of the windows. One of the passengers, a brown-skinned woman with long, black, swept-back hair and quartz-blue eyes, formally dressed in a yellow Sinstrap, isn't looking out into the caves or poring over tech. She's looking into the faces of the people in her carriage, quite nervously, although no one seems to be paying her any mind. Perhaps they think she's a little simple in her fancy get-up, a Xelothene child.
Flick isn't here for the guided tour. She's looking for the eyes of a Gnostic in those faces, the same kind of blue as her own, the kind of blue that most people look away from. The carriage is slowing. The display above the window says Murgatroyd. End of the line.
She grabs her kitbag from beneath the seat and waits for the queue to recede. She studies each face as it passes. He's not in this carriage. There's no reason for him to even be on the train - Gnostics are mostly indigenous. But they would have had her followed in. Her instructions were to wait by the Gunjah concession opposite Lost Property. She doesn't know where this is and for a moment it unsettles her. She was raised in this city and now she doesn't even know where things are. Her instinct tells her to walk away.
Except the stakes are too high and messing with the Gnostics is never a wise move. She joins the back of the shuffling queue and shuffles out onto the platform, feeling a bit more confidant when she sees the huge King Toot icon flashing away over inside the body of the station. It looks like a pleasure-palace in there compared to the austerity of the caves. Murgatroyd has become the place to visit if your tastes stretch to diamond-themed Boomboom trips or chromium enemas.
There's a strange, complicated set of draughts on the platform. The way the air circulates is different from other underground railways. Here the gusts coming in off the fractal geometry of the caves have had time to heave and yaw and gather momentum as they slingshot out of the fluted galleries. The resultant sudden shifts of pressure and breathy curlicues have a sensual quality, as if the mountain itself is trying to seduce her. It toys with her hair and rummages through her dress. She lets it ease her away from the platform towards the station proper.
A more recent addition to Murgatroyd's main entrance chamber, the station concourse seems alien to Flick. It feels like, since she left it, the city has evolved. This new element in its structure is boxy, funky-coloured, well-lit; not at all in keeping with the city she knew. The drugs and sex trades have been paying their dues since they were legitimised. To get herself into the spirit of the place, she buys a wishbone from the King Toot kiosk, sparks it up and tries to look nonchalant until her contact arrives.
The resin vape sizzles her brain. What had felt like being awake now has an altogether different feel to it. Not sleep exactly, she knows this is not a dream, but something other, some kind of third way. It's certainly not worth standing up about. She moves away from the main flow of the walkways into a less hectic vestibule; a little bubble of peace where she can still see the kiosk and the Lost Property frontage, as well as out into the vast cavern beyond. She kicks her kitbag onto its side against a wall and places herself down onto it, takes in a deeper, more contemplative lungful of spliff.
She can feel her eyes sparkle. The Sinstrap, not designed for lounging about on railway station floors, is either tightening or coming undone, she can't quite tell which. It's a long time since she wore anything even remotely like it and she's beginning to have regrets, symbol of parley or no. As with all such items, the Sinstrap has a long and complicated history. Originally designed by a sect of Penitents, it's not known who came up with the architecture, but most concede it had to be a woman - one who felt guilty about her sexuality, who came to hate her body. The males of the sect, of course, were all over it; commissioned it without a second thought.
Flick glances down at her breasts which still appear to be properly contained. Over in the distance a freight train slides across the arched superstructure that rises from ground level and divides the cavern into its upper and lower sections. She used to work weekends in the second-level loading bays, handballing carcasses out of refrigerated carriages. Even with field-tech it was backbreaking work, but it toughened her up at least; some of those south-side boys could certainly play rough, especially when there was a Gnostic to pick on. She remembers one time a fight breaking out over who lifted the foreman's vent-diving medal. Made from chrome and low-grade diamond, it wasn't worth that much but it somehow became the perfect excuse for a lunchtime mêlée. Flick sided with the morning shift, whose forks driver she quite fancied. The two sides gathered by the tracks of the workers funicular, those coming off shift at the top and the afternoon shift at the bottom. They waited for the twelve-thirty to disembark, one carriage at each end, then each side charged to the halfway point and laid into whoever they met in the middle. It was bracing. Going downhill meant Flick had momentum on her side but that also meant giving up a certain amount of control. She flailed about like a rockhanger crab, kicking and punching at random and having a thoroughly good time. She wound up with a broken finger and missed the next day's shift but the boy whose nose she broke it on never looked the same again. In the end the medal stayed gone but once the fight was had nobody seemed to care.
'What the fuck?'
A man with quartz-blue eyes has lowered a hand to help her up.
'Felice. Where did you spring from?' She takes the hand. 'How did you know it was me?'
'You kidding?' the man gestures to her frock.
Flick grimaces as she gets to her feet. 'Fucking thing. My fadge feels as though it's been sliced through.'
The man laughs. 'Too much information.'
'Sorry. Mr. loJain?' She vaguely knows of the family. Mercenaries.
'Shem. This way.' He picks up her kitbag and starts walking. 'Glad you wore it though.'
'Worth a bit of chafing then?'
'Indeed. And thanks for the image.' Shem leads her through what was once the outer shell of the original station concourse but now forms a buttress between two interiors. The partition is made from bedrock, unlike the new extension, and once they pass through it, back into the basalt fabric of the mountain, a wave of nostalgia hits her. She is home.
'That's more like it,' she says, breathing the Murgatrojan air. It tastes of silt and tears. Stretching out along what has become a pleasurised zone, the once dowdy and functional clockwork-like fractals house 'hotel' portals now, instead of the dimly lit salaryman apartments she's used to and have been made over, but the original stone infrastructure remains and the warm atmosphere has kept its human pungency.
There are differences though, which Flick has mixed feelings about. Instead of offices and artisanal stalls, malls and restaurant chains twinkle and gabble; the old municipalities, the port and mining authorities' gloomy presences have been moved elsewhere, presumably, or dispensed with altogether, in favour of sales outlets for Boomboom, nipple-gel and all those other insidious, psychedelic accoutrements associated with the endlessly receding rabbit hole of pleasure and fantasy the city has become famous for.
'I hope you like what we've done to the place,' Shem says, cynically.
Flick tucks her wishbone carefully into one of the many folds and pleats of her outfit.
'Fancy a drink?' says Shem, veering off towards a bar she recognises from the old days.
'This for my benefit is it?' says Flick when they get to the frontage.
'I thought it would make you feel at home.'
'And let me know you've done your homework?'
Shem shrugs. The sign above the portal says Case's Joint. It is the oldest and least salubrious Djïnn bar in the whole station cavern, traditional hangout of dissidents, miners, pimps and any number of low-level, low-key, low-grade and morally dubious 'entrepreneurs'.
Inside, Flick orders two slugs with a squirt of rhyme. 'You?'
'Same,' says Shem. 'Thanks.'
Flick gives him a look. 'Sure?'
'Just don't tell.' He winks.
Flick smiles and turns back to the barman. 'Twice.'
'Two spa waters for the Gnostics, coming right up. Food?'
'Why d'you have to go and say that?'
'It's all in the training miss.' He smiles, disarmingly.
'Anything else you're trained for?'
'You'd be surprised,' says the barman.
'Really? I take some surprising.' At her age this is possibly making the strapping young lad cringe. She's enjoying it though.
Shem leans in, puts his ID on the counter. 'Two bowls of rice and peas. Three sauces in the middle.' He steps away, looking about the place.
Flick loiters. 'I'm ravenous,' she says.
'You're working,' says Shem.
'You are. Let's find a table.' He invites her to follow him.
Flick looks to the barman: 'Maybe next time, Smiler.'
'You know where to find me, Blue.'
They find a corner table, looking out onto the main drag. Flick loves the hustle and bustle. They sit looking out until their drinks arrive in tall glasses. It doesn't feel awkward.
'Food in ten,' says the girl.
Shem winks at her, follows her behind with his twinkling eyes.
'You're working,' says Flick.
'Call this work? I'd do it for free.'
'Charmer.' Flick can feel herself coming down off the wishbone. She takes a mouthful of Djïnn, which really is spa water. She sighs. 'This place used to be independent. It had integrity.'
'It still does, most of the time.' Shem pauses, takes a sip of water.
'You could at least have let me have a fucking drink.' Flick looks out of the portal at the hustle and bustle which now seems even more beautiful. There's something nostalgic about it; it makes her feel her age. 'Why now? I was out of the way. What's changed?'
'Call it Truth and Reconciliation,' says Shem.
Flick shakes her head, gives herself to whatever comes next. At least now it’s done.
'Food's here.' Shem's eyes twinkle at the waitress when she smiles. 'Best eat.'
That doesn't sound good. The waitress slowly places the rice and peas on the table between them, from Shem's side.
'No need to put your tits in his ear, love - he gets the message.' Flick spoons a mouthful. She actually is ravenous.